Authors: Mary Ellis
Tags: #Religious, #Amish, #Christmas stories, #Fiction, #Religion, #Holidays, #Christian Fiction, #Christmas & Advent, #Christian, #General
“I have the number of the inn already programmed into it. All you do is hit this green button twice to make the home phone ring. If you get my voice mail, leave your name and I’ll call you right back.”
Sarah briefly studied the cell phone before tucking it into her purse. After another hug, she hopped out of the van and walked into the bus station, feeling more exuberant than at any point in her nineteen years of life.
al Beachy rubbed a clear patch on his steamy window and stared out at the bleak street scene below. All the pristine white snow had turned to dirty gray slush that sprayed the sidewalk with each passing vehicle. Walkers had to be careful because the sidewalks ran close to the sloppy streets. He, however, had no place to go. Even though he’d spent the last week at the union hall, his one job opportunity had fizzled out.
Work would soon begin on a new library wing, but the contractor who had been awarded the carpentry bid hadn’t hired Cal. His prospects looked grim until the spring, when more construction projects would start. His friend Pete Taylor had faithfully dropped him off every morning at the hall until his new job had started. Then Cal rode public transportation downtown, but today he chose to save the Rapid Transit fare.
Cal was concentrating so intently on a fender bender that caught his attention that he didn’t hear the knock until the pounding grew insistent. When he pulled open the door, in marched Pete carrying a large box and grocery sack. “Man, you need to get your hearing checked. I’ve been standing out there for five minutes.”
“Sorry, I was watching the excitement on the street. Did you cause the accident and slip clean away?” teased Cal.
Pete grinned. “Nah, it was two chicks talking on their cell phones. Need I say more?” He shrugged off his jacket and threw it on the couch. “I brought a double pepperoni, extra cheese so we can celebrate. And I bought both Coke and beer—what’s your drinking pleasure?” He pulled two six-packs from the bag and held them aloft.
“Give me a Coke. Beer makes me say stupid things.” Cal pulled a can loose and popped the top. “What exactly are we celebrating?”
Pete opened a Coke too and took a long swallow. “You finally joining the world of the employed, of course.” He wiped his mouth on his sleeve.
“Then you might want to take back the pizza. I didn’t get the job.”
Pete looked flabbergasted. “You’re kidding. I talked to the construction manager myself. I worked for him a while ago on several projects. Because I’d already signed elsewhere, he asked me for recommendations. Your name topped my short list.”
Cal helped himself to a slice of pizza. Though undeserving of celebration, he hadn’t eaten since yesterday. “Yeah, I went to the interview with the guy, but he said the library branch was out in Mentor. I asked him where that was.” Cal devoured the slice before continuing the story. “He explained and then asked if getting to the job site might pose a problem.” He looked up at Pete who stared back, flummoxed.
“And? What did you say?”
“I said right now I didn’t own a car, but that I planned to pick up a used one. I would take the Rapid Transit until then.”
Pete stared at Cal for a moment and then drained the contents of the can. After a manly belch, he sat down at the table across from his friend. “Is that when the interview came screeching to a halt?”
“Pretty much,” said Cal, eyeing the pizza. The first slice barely scratched the surface of his hunger.
Pete pushed the box closer. “Go ahead, eat. That’s why I bought it.” He leaned his head back against the wall, deep in thought. “First of all, the Rapid doesn’t run along the lake to Mentor. It takes an inland, eastern route. Secondly, you should
admit you don’t have transportation to a job site. You should have said, ‘I’ll have no problem getting to work’ and left it at that. Then you would have had several days to buy or borrow a car, or arrange some way to get there.”
“That’s what I’d planned to do, but I didn’t want to lie and say I had a car when I didn’t.”
Pete shook his head vigorously. “No, but instead you sounded unreliable. You still don’t get it, Cal.
, as you used to call them, throw out a line of bull to get what they want in this world. Once your foot is in the door, then you can scramble around to make it happen.”
“Sounds like lying to me.”
“It’s more like telling a future truth.”
Cal sighed wearily and finished his pizza, although the second slice didn’t taste half as good as the first. “I get what you mean. I’ll keep that in mind the next time around.”
Pete didn’t hide his skepticism regarding the likelihood of a next time. “You want another?” he asked, opening a second Coke. “If not, I’ll stick these in the fridge.” After Cal shook his head, Pete sauntered into the kitchen with the two six packs. “P.U.,” he called. “Did something crawl in here and die?” He walked back holding his nose.
Cal tossed down his pizza crust. “What are you talking about?”
“You didn’t go squirrel hunting in the park and stash the bodies in your refrigerator, did you? Because this ain’t Fredericksburg. Discharging firearms within city limits is strictly illegal.”
Cal smirked until he noticed Pete’s earnest face. “No, I didn’t shoot anything. I have no idea what smells funny, but there are no dead animals in my kitchen. And I didn’t bring any guns when I moved here.”
Pete relaxed back in his chair. “Whew, that’s a relief. You might want to check out what’s past its prime, but wait until after I leave.” He pulled a large piece from the box.
“Thanks for the pizza, by the way,” said Cal, recalling his manners.
“No problem. Remember when we were roommates? We ate pizza five times a week. Four men sharing an apartment, and not one of us could cook. Why couldn’t one guy have been a Wolfgang Puck wannabe?” He folded his pizza slice in half before taking a bite.
Cal figured Mr. Puck must be a famous chef and smiled as bittersweet memories of his first year in Cleveland came back. How he’d loved that loft apartment with its twelve-foot ceilings, three bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a view of Lake Erie. The four roommates had rotated months as to who slept on the couch and who had their own room, but even the couch had been comfortable. A man could fall asleep hearing foghorns from passing ships and the mournful whistle of trains as they slowed to cross the bridges into downtown. The apartment had been close to everything—stores, restaurants, clubs, parks, and sport stadiums. He’d earned good money back then, and he had treated pals to football and baseball games. At first he’d been shocked by the price of a hot dog during those events—twice the cost of an entire package at the grocery store. But in time he became accustomed to overpricing. He called it the excitement factor—the more fun you had, the more you had to pay for food and drinks.
He and his three English friends had gotten along well. Everyone pitched in to keep the place fairly tidy. On Sunday afternoons they would sit in front of the big screen hooting, hollering, and throwing foam footballs at the TV. Then Pete moved in with his girlfriend, and they had set a spring wedding date. Keeping up with a third of the rent and utilities was beyond his reach when Cal was laid off, so he’d moved into this third-floor walkup sight unseen…and he had hated the cramped, dismal rooms ever since.
Pete reached for more pizza. “We had some good times, old buddy.”
“Yeah, we did,” agreed Cal. “How are the weddin’ plans coming along?”
Pete laughed. “Growing in leaps and bounds. At last count Michelle has invited eight bridesmaids and changed the ceremony from our neighborhood church to the huge cathedral downtown. But as long as she’s happy, I don’t mind.”
Cal felt a stab of jealousy but tamped it down quickly. He had holed up like an urban hermit instead of trying to meet women. “You’re a lucky man,” he said, finishing his Coke.
“That I am. Things will turn around for you too. I hear rumblings in the industry that companies might start hiring after the first of the year to be ready for spring ground breaking. Have your resume in hand, prepared to interview. Your chance will come, and then you can move out of this place.” Pete stood abruptly. “I gotta take off. Michelle is cooking steaks tonight, and she doesn’t like to keep them warm. The rest of the pizza is yours.”
With that, Pete picked up his coat and hurried out the door, leaving Cal alone once again. Strong odors of garlic and onion seeped through the walls from the apartment next door. Folks sure cooked some odd food in this neighborhood
He padded into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator door to assess what had offended Pete’s senses. Nothing smelled out of the ordinary as he ruffled through old take-out containers, discovering a container of Chinese he’d forgotten about. He popped the lid to evaluate the remnants. Although it appeared different from the original condition, it didn’t seem disgusting. He hadn’t a clue how long food could safely be kept. Growing up in a family of six guaranteed no leftovers went uneaten. His mother scraped anything not consumed by lunchtime the next day into the slop bucket on the porch. Their sow promptly polished off the bucket’s contents without complaint.
Cal ate a hearty forkful of the egg fu yong and then another. After all, he’d been raised to believe wasting food was sinful. By his fourth forkful, a dull ache began in his gut and then spread upward into his chest. Cal barely reached the bathroom before the spoiled takeout, spicy pizza, and carbonated soda made a hasty reappearance. Filled with shame and revulsion, he scrubbed his mouth with his toothbrush and then began systematically cleaning out his fridge of suspicious meals. Out went partial cans of Coke, green-tinged bread, hard-as-rock dinner rolls, and a bag of shriveled apples he’d bought at the outdoor market. He tossed the eggs and milk into the garbage bag without bothering to sniff, his stomach still churning from the previous onslaught. Then he scrubbed out the appliance’s interior with bleach water.
be surprised to see me on my hands and knees, cleaning?
Another thought struck him.
Wouldn’t she be ashamed at how low I’ve sunk into despair?
Being out of work and broke were states many men found themselves in at some point in life, but behaving woefully was another matter. Cal let days go by without bothering to shave, shower, or to put on clean clothes. A person without a job should have plenty of time to take care of himself and sweep the floor and dust his apartment.
He rose to his feet, tied the garbage bag shut, and headed down the steps to the alley. After ridding his home of rotten food, he vowed to pull himself together. He had sunk just about as low as a man could go. Considering the food he’d last consumed, he would have to look up to see bottom.
Pete had said things in the construction industry might turn around in the spring. Cal sure hoped that was true, because gazing in the mirror was becoming harder to do. Before climbing the stairs to his apartment, he remembered to check his mailbox in the front hallway. He unlocked the metal cubicle and pulled out flyers and a few bills. When one official-looking letter caught his eye, he lowered himself to the dusty steps to open the envelope. He was among the minority collecting unemployment benefits without access to a computer. The bureau mailed out his biweekly checks promptly; however, other communications were often delayed by processing. Cal scanned the sheet, hoping for an extension of benefits or an increase in the amount. Neither was forthcoming.
Just when he thought life couldn’t get any worse, the devil stepped in to illustrate how foolishly he had been thinking. His benefits, barely adequate to pay rent and keep the utilities connected, were about to run out. He had exhausted his share of the pie designed to bridge the gap between his former job and the next.
He should have looked harder for work.
He should have shown up at the union hall regularly.
Because as grim as his housing situation was, it sure beat living in a cardboard box under the Memorial Shoreway Bridge.