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Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Errant Thoughts Story, Part 9

"Oooooh! I may never move again." Dave groaned.

"What's wrong with you?" Danny prodded his friend's prone body with his foot.

"New program at work. Helping all the church members plant gardens and digging up the church yard too. They rented a tiller and I'm the one who gets to run it for everyone who asked." He held his hands up. "It feels like my hands are still vibrating and I have to do it again tomorrow."

"But that's brilliant. After paying the rent, food is our biggest expense. Imagine if we had space to grow some for ourselves." Danny threw himself into the beanbag chair. "I never thought I would say this, but I am so sick of pizza."

"Could you bring some home instead of eating there? I'd kill for leftover pizza."

"I could try. It might work out on the nights I close and I'm the last to go."

"Which is about every night lately."

"Yeah, I knew the boss's in-laws would be flakes. They only show up half the time and usually have an excuse to leave early. So, are you ever going to tell me about your big idea?"

"Only if it works out; it's a long shot. You want to hear about the next project they've thought up at the church?"

"Sure. It's cool that they do real stuff instead of just throw money at problems."

"As soon as the gardens are started, Hank and I will be building little chicken coops. Every house can have six hens so they ordered hundreds of chicks. People will just pay for the materials used and Hank will order feed in bulk so it's cheaper for everyone.

"Hank says in the old days it was the churches that ran the charities and took care of the poor, not welfare and food stamps. Oh, they gave me a chance to pick something out of the clothes drive. I thought we could share these." He pulled a bag out of his backpack and threw it over.

"Socks! This is great, but you should have got something for yourself. You're the one working hard."

"Tell me about it!" He rolled over with a grin, "I'm getting a raise. 25 cents more an hour. Hank even called me 'good value'."

There was a knock on the door and Susan stuck her head in, "If you guys are ready to celebrate?"

They followed her out to the kitchen. "No-bake cookies! We haven't had these in ages."

"Well, they use a lot of sugar, but this way we can celebrate without heating up the apartment with the oven."

Dave grinned as he reached for a cookie, "I'm not complaining. I need the calories today. Actually, I asked if I could have food instead of the extra money and they told me not to worry, they'd make sure I got produce from the gardens since I'll be helping the elderly with their growing this summer. One little old lady offered to plant zucchini just for me; I don't know why that was so funny."

Susan chuckled, "Because zucchini is the gift that keeps giving and giving. I'll look up recipes to use it in next time I go to the library so I'm prepared."

Danny noticed a pensive look cross his mom's face, "What is it? What are you thinking about?"

"Oh, I was just remembering the zucchini bread your grandma made and wondered how they were doing. They don't bother with email much and now that we don't phone...it just feels like my focus has gotten very narrow and I only see what's happening to us directly." She shook her head briskly, "Never mind that. Here's to Dave and his raise! Hooray! Have another cookie."

Errant Thoughts Story, Part 8

"Drat!" said Susan as her bra strap tore. Grumbling, she dug around on the dresser until she found a safety pin. Dressed, she sat on the bed with her eyes closed and concentrated on her breathing; every little crisis had her in tears lately. When she was certain her emotions were under control, she headed down to meet Mrs. Perkins; this was the morning they walked to the library together.  Susan had expected that tensions would ease with the warmer weather, but it seemed to be having the opposite effect. Even though they were obviously just carrying books, they had learned to be careful. Rarely did they make the trip without being accosted by someone; usually a beggar, but sometimes worse.

As they walked, Susan spoke of her thoughts, "Have you noticed the different reactions when we tell someone we don't have any money? Like that older man who just said 'bless you' and walked off. I bet that young woman up ahead doesn't respond politely."

Mrs. Perkins eyed the person under discussion and coughed discretely, "I won't take that wager. We've met this one before."

Susan sighed. They were in for a few unpleasant minutes of foul language at high volume.

After passing out of range, they exchanged glances. "You know, it's not just her; there's a lot more anger in general and it seems to be growing faster."

Meanwhile, Dave was working under Hank's direction. Today he was on a ladder scraping the peeling paint off a window frame. Hank liked to keep an eye on the teenager, but he kept being pulled away to deal with people looking for help from the church. Dave watched as another family approached. He couldn't hear what was said, but there was something strange about the children; they just stood listlessly behind their parents. When Hank returned, Dave climbed down, "Those kids, they weren't acting right."

Hank rubbed his rough hands over his eyes, "They were hungry. Past the stage where they whine and cry."

"Starving? You mean kids are starving here?" Dave couldn't believe his ears. This wasn't some third-world country.

"No, no. Not yet at least. Listen, kid, this is just the beginning; the people who were already living borderline and running out of money each month were asking for help last year. Now we start seeing the families who had a cushion between themselves and poverty; that's when it gets bad."

"What more can be done?"

Hank's head tilted to one side, "Know anything about gardening?"

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Unfinished Projects

When I take an interest in something, I tend to go all out. So, when I began knitting, I stocked up at all the yarn sales and bought all sorts and sized of needles. Seven years ago I lost interest and it's been gathering dust since. Now that I have time, but no money, I thought I'd dig out those unfinished projects (I've found six so far!). The first thing I need to do is refresh my memory on how to knit...so where is the knitting book? No idea! I found the crocheting book - yay - but that's not where I wanted to start. I did find two books on knitting socks; which is something I never tried. I'll try again to find the knitting basics book, then I'll look online.

First, it's time to bundle up, take water to the chickens and collect the eggs. Of course, every trip outside includes stopping off at the wood shed for another load.

Editing to add: still looking for the book, but at least the search got me to dust my bedroom - very long overdue.



Thursday, January 11, 2018

Errant Thoughts Story, Part 7

Dave sat down at the dinner table, "I got a job. Mom's old church runs this charity to feed senior citizens. They used to drop off a box of food once a week, but to save costs they want to reuse the cardboard boxes, so I ride along and help put the food away. The other days I'll be doing whatever they need help with. It doesn't pay much and I have to bring my own lunch." He watched Susan, hoping for a positive reaction.

She smiled at him, "That's good news. Thank you." She finished slicing the bread and placed it next to the pot of soup before sitting down. Fortunately, flour was still relatively cheap so they always had bread. The soup was mostly beans with a few carrots; meat never made the menu anymore, not on their budget. "Is it in walking distance?"

"Yes, I can get there in about forty minutes. Hank, the old guy who does all the maintenance, is kind of crabby, but he needs help. Oh, I almost forgot!" Dave jumped up and got a bag from near the door. "This was leftover fruit from packing the food boxes. The workers get to take home the perishable extras."

"Listen to you talking 'perishable'," Danny laughed.

"Hey! I did work at a grocery store. I know stuff." Dave pretended to take offense.

Later that evening, the boys sat in their room and talked. "You know, it was weird being at Gran's house, but it was so different that it didn't seem quite real. Here, well, it's even weirder because I've spent so many nights on the bottom bunk that it feels like home. And it's like someone robbed you of all your electronics. I don't know how to say it, but it feels more real."

Danny sank a bit lower in the bean bag chair and thought about it. "Yeah, I guess so. It happened so gradually that I didn't really notice, then sometimes it hits me. It got bad when you moved away; it's easier having someone to talk to. I don't want to dump on Mom, you know?" He sat up to emphasize his point, "We have to make things as easy for her as we can. There isn't anyone else who will help her."

"You know I will."

Two days later, Danny came home early when they let school out at noon to celebrate the end of the school year. Stopping to pick up the mail on the way, he stared at the envelope addressed to his mom. 'Eugene Dickson' was the name on the return address. He knew the name of his grandfather and wondered why he was writing to them. Shoving the rest of the mail into his backpack, he ripped the envelope open and read the letter. "What the hell? Bastard! How dare he!" Furious, Danny tore the letter to shreds and left them on the ground.

That night he told Dave about the letter. Dave sat up so fast he hit his head on the top bunk. "Wait a minute, he said that about his own grandson? What kind of freak is he?"

"Mom must be desperate to ask him for help," Danny said glumly.

"But he really said he didn't care if you starved?" Dave shook his head. "I don't get it. As much as I hate my cousin, I don't want him to die and you've never done anything to hurt your grandfather."

"Well, that's why I tore up the letter. Better Mom thinks he ignored her than to read that crap." Danny threw a pillow when Dave didn't respond, "Hey! Are you listening to me?"

Dave turned slowly, "I've got an idea."

Monday, January 8, 2018

Errant Thoughts Story, Part 6

Susan stared bleakly at the letter in her shaking hands. This was the final straw; she hadn't been accepted into the nursing program. The form letter suggested she try again next year. "Ha! And will you want me after I've been homeless for a year?"

There was a catch in her chest and suddenly she was wheezing and gasping for air. On some level she knew it was a panic attack, but that didn't mean she had any control over it. Tears were streaming down her face, her lungs burned and she clutched the wall by the time the attack passed. Sinking to the floor, she whispered, "I don't know what to do."

She sat and thought about the stories Dave had told them. There were entire families hitchhiking, trying to find someplace they could afford to live and work. Even more disturbing were the children that had been abandoned at truck stops by parents who couldn't feed them. At least those that were taken by the state had a chance for shelter and food, but Susan couldn't imagine the despair those parents must have felt to drive away from their own children, not knowing what would happen to them.

With her thoughts spinning around in fruitless circles, she gave up on finding any answers on her own and made her way to the Perkins' apartment. Mrs. Perkins gave her tea and a friendly ear. Finally, when Susan ran out of things to say, her hostess spoke, "You never talk about Danny's father."

"Oh. Well, it all happened so long ago, I don't think about Ryan much. When Danny was little, my husband killed himself. He wasn't a bad man; he just couldn't cope. We lived in California and one day he walked into the ocean. Danny doesn't remember him."

"What about his family? His parents?"

"I haven't seen or heard from them in fifteen years. They blamed me for his death." Susan sat lost in long ago, sad memories. "Do you recall a movie where the parents blamed a teacher for their son's suicide? Because, of course, it couldn't have had anything to do with them. That's what it was like with Ryan's family."

Mrs. Perkins nodded, "So, if you have no relationship with them, you have nothing to lose by asking them for help."

"What? They would never help me."

"But maybe they would help their grandson."

"I don't even know if they still live in the same town or if I have their address anymore."

"Swallow your pride. Write them a letter. It can't make things worse."

Susan went back to her apartment and began searching. She dug through the files of bills and receipts. Then she pulled out the photo albums and scrap books; these slowed her down as she flitted backwards through Danny's childhood. Finally, she dug out the boxes from the back of the closet; the ones that held her high school diploma and letters from long forgotten friends. There she found a birthday card to her husband from his parents with the return address still attached. Armed with the address, she sat down at the table and began to write.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Errant Thoughts Story, Part 5

Danny leaned back in his chair and stared at the ceiling while he thought about his best friend's dilemma. Times like these were when he missed talking directly instead of through email. They would be able to bounce ideas off each other; even just venting out loud sometimes helped. 

Dave's family had moved in with his grandmother and, at first, it had worked out fairly well. Now, though, two more families had joined them. His sister had to share a bedroom with four other girls while he slept in the living room with his six male cousins. This meant they couldn't get to sleep until all the adults turned in for the night, but with none of them having to get up for work, they tended to stay up late into the night.

Bad as this situation was, a more pressing problem had arisen; Dave suspected one of his uncles was dealing. If caught selling from the house, his grandmother's house could be seized and they would all be homeless.

Danny thought about how Dave's parents would likely react, but was unsure if Dave's dad would stand up to his older brother. Leaning forward, he typed his reply: Tell your mom. 

That evening Danny told his mom about the email. Susan chuckled, "Wise choice. That woman is like a force of nature for what she believes is right. Anything else happen today?"

"Career Day." Danny drew a deep breath, "Listen, Mom, I've been thinking. I know you want me to go to college and it wasn't something I was really interested in, but since Uncle Bill was going to pay for it I was willing to try. Now, though, that's all changed."

"I know. He had to use his savings for medical bills. You understand why I wanted you to go, don't you?"

"Sure. It was so I'd have more options than you did. I get it, but there's something I really want to do instead." Looking her straight in the eye, he continued, "I want to join the Navy."

"Oh! Oh, but..." Susan's brain stopped communicating with her mouth and she ran down.

He waited while she absorbed the information, knowing this was an emotional moment for her. While he had no doubt that she wouldn't try to stop him from making this choice, he really wanted her to be happy about it.

"Why the Navy? I mean, could we live any farther from an ocean?" She raised her hands expressively.

He leaned forward to explain and she watched as his eyes lit up and his face came alive in a way she had never seen before. 'This is it,' she thought to herself. 'This is his passion. What kind of mother would I be if I held him back?'


Spring came and the school year was winding down. With a week left, Danny approached his boss at the pizza place to ask about more hours. 

His boss shook his head, "I'm sorry. You're a good worker and reliable, but I've got family that need the work and they figure I owe them."

Danny narrowed his eyes, then nodded, "I'll make a deal with you; you can call me anytime to fill in when one of them lets you down. But, I want to be bumped up to the shift lead pay-scale."

"No, no. I can't do that unless you were running the shifts."

"Really? Then why is Marv getting it? He's never been lead. In fact, he has yet to do a full shift without screwing up orders."

"I have no control over that. Corporate hired him as shift lead and they won't let me fire him."

"Fine. Cut his hours, send him home whenever he messes up, tell him he's on his final warning. You know he costs more then he contributes."

"I still can't have a sixteen-year-old as shift lead."

"Good thing I'm seventeen now," Danny replied with a smile.

His boss threw his arms up in defeat, "Okay! I'll get you the pay bump. But you better be serious about always being on call. I'm going to make you work for it." Honestly, any other employee he would have let walk, but Danny not only did good work himself, but he somehow influenced his co-workers to do better when he was there. Except for the millstone that was Marv, of course.

When Danny finished cleaning up that evening and was locking the door behind him, he felt a presence standing too close. Whirling around, he put his fists up. "Hey, man! Chill, I'm just looking for any leftovers." The voice had a grating whine.

"The leftovers went home with the workers who have kids at home. There were some burnt breadsticks that ended up in the dumpster at the back, but nothing else gets wasted these days." Danny kept a wary eye on the stranger who muttered as he headed for the alley. 

As he turned to the bike rack, a quiet voice behind him said, "Danny."

Spinning around again, Danny gasped, "Oh my god, Dave? Is it really you?"


Danny pushed his bike while he and Dave walked to the apartment building. It was a dark night with only every third streetlamp lit (another cost saving effort by the city). Dave didn't seem in any hurry to talk, so Danny had to ask, "What happened? Are you okay?"

"No. Yes. I don't know! It's all such a mess." He kicked the curb angrily and turned away. Danny stopped and waited. Finally, shaking his head, Dave came back and resumed talking. "There was this girl, Clarice. She really liked me and we were hanging out a lot. I was showing her how to lift weights and we liked the same games. It was great until my cousin decided I should pay for Mom getting after his dad about the drugs. He started a rumor that I'm a pedo and I like little boys. Clarice won't even look at me anymore and I got beat up twice in the last week."

Pausing to take a ragged breath, he continued in a low voice, "I couldn't take being in the same house with him laughing at me. I punched him once and he pulled a knife on me. I didn't even dare sleep with him there and now that school is finished he's always around. If I had stayed, one of us would have ended up in the hospital."

"What about your parents? Do they know where you are?"

"Yeah, I told them where I was going." He looked embarrassed, "I told them you were expecting me. I just couldn't take one more day of it."

Suddenly, Dave's stomach growled loudly. Danny exclaimed, "Dude! You're going to wake people up with that."

"I haven't had anything to eat for two days."

"Wait a minute; how did you get here?"

"I hitchhiked."

"No way your parents agreed to that!"

"No, I told them I was riding with a friend from school who was heading through here."

Danny frowned as they kept walking; it wasn't like his friend at all to lie like that. He had a feeling a lot more had happened that Dave hadn't told him yet.


----------------

"Okay, boys, it's time to talk budget," Susan handed papers across the table to each of the young men. "Let me make it clear that I have no problems with Dave staying here. I'm happy to have him, but we will need to do some adjusting financially. 

"Look at the budget sheet and you'll see that what I get from unemployment barely covers the rent and electricity. That's only happening because we cut our electric usage to the bare minimum. It's going to seem extreme to you, Dave, but we don't have a choice. Don't turn a light on unless you have to, only open the fridge long enough to get what you need and underwear and socks get hand-washed, other clothes wait until we can smell them.

"Any money I make from odd jobs plus what Danny brings home has to buy everything else: food, soap, toilet paper, shoes...you get the idea. You probably remember we sold everything of value before you moved away. It's gotten so bad now that the pawn shops are stuffed full of electronics and jewelry. Some of them have stopped taking game systems and televisions. Questions?"

Dave looked horrified, "You can't afford to feed me. I shouldn't have come."

"It's not impossible. I get $97 a month in food stamps and I'll check if you can be counted as part of our family. I do need you to try to get a summer job as soon as possible. Danny still has one week of school so if you can get out there before the local schools are out for the summer, you might have a better chance."

"I stocked shelves at the grocery store last summer; I'll try there today. Then I can talk to the guys Dad worked with and Mom's old church, someone might have ideas."

"Good idea. Please remember to lock the apartment all the time; I had to give up renter's insurance. We may not have much, but I'd hate to lose the food there is." As she started putting away the paperwork, Susan glanced up, "Oh, and tonight I'd appreciate if you could tell us more about your journey and what things are like between the cities."

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Errant Thoughts Story, Part 4

"Did you hear, Mom?" Danny burst into the apartment with his usual banging and clatter. "There have been fights between the professional panhandlers, you know, the ones who hang out at the entrance to parking lots, and the new poor people begging for food."

"No, I haven't heard about that," Susan looked up from the baby blanket she was crocheting for Mrs. Perkins' newest great-grandchild. Her neighbor had to stop needle-work due to arthritis, but was happy to pay Susan for the work. "I guess it's a side-benefit to walking everywhere that we miss seeing things like that."

"Apparently, at the new Walmart one of them pulled a knife out and was threatening the others. The cops had to come and sort it out." He dropped onto the couch with his legs stretched out.

"I imagine the store management don't like it. Anything that makes customers avoid coming will hurt them." Her gaze fell on his ankles which were all too visible below his jeans. "Danny, you've been growing again. New jeans..."

"Actually, what I really need are shoes or I'll have to cut the toes out," he tried to make a joke of it, but wished he could erase the worry lines on her face. "I have an idea about the jeans; since they still fit around the waist, could you take one pair and sew pieces of the legs to the others? I know it will look a bit odd, but I never cared about what I wear."

"I can, but maybe the secondhand store will have something."

"But, Mom, it will still cost money and this way won't cost anything. I'll go see if they have any shoes, okay?"

"Okay, but if there aren't take the bus to Walmart and buy new. It's bad for your feet to be squished up."

Susan switched from yellow to green yarn and considered the future for the new baby. She had been spending more time at the Perkins' apartment when she couldn't find odd jobs and the discussions had naturally turned to the economy. They were afraid lives would get much worse and stay that way for years before slowly recovering. One of the things they regretted was selling the family home when their children had moved away; now they would be unable to help provide shelter as they feared would be needed.


Honestly, Susan missed her childhood home also. Then she thought about living there with her adult sisters and shuddered; maybe this one went in the blessings column. While she pondered this her phone rang. 


"Hello, Susan? This is Penny from the Food Pantry. I have you down as a volunteer for tomorrow morning, but we're completely out of food so I'm shutting us down until we get more donations."

Susan set the phone down distractedly. When she had started volunteering there, the Pantry had been very well stocked with food. To go from that to empty in a few weeks was worrying news.


The next morning she headed to the library to see what she could learn about what had caused the food emergency. It took hours of digging; searching town council minutes, county news and police reports but she figured out possible answers. While the nation was reporting 8% unemployment, her state was 12% and her county was a staggering 15%. Eyes narrowed, she wondered what the real national unemployment would be if someone tallied up all the counties instead of accepting what was released to the public.


Meanwhile, all crime was up but domestic violence topped the list by jumping 30% compared to the same time last year. Suicides and attempts had risen by 60%. "How much worse will this get?" she whispered sadly to herself.


---------------------------------

Danny spotted the police car as he rode his bike through the apartment complex's parking lot and stopped to watch. A woman in uniform was squared off against a family in front of the next building. They were shouting at her but she didn't react until the man poked her. Suddenly her baton was out and the man staggered back wheezing and clutching his belly. The rest of the family rushed to him and the noise level notched up.

"Whoa, she's hot!" Danny grinned to himself. He watched for a few minutes more as the family began hauling belongings out of the apartment and the officer returned to her car.

Inside his own apartment he found a note from his mom that she was babysitting and wouldn't be home until late. He looked around glumly; there just wasn't anything interesting to do. The options were down to homework or going somewhere else. About the only place that didn't cost anything was the library and he had already been in the school library once today. His eyes landed on the shoes he had kicked off. Danny was a lifter at heart, but since the only ones in his size at the secondhand store were running shoes it seemed wrong not to try them out properly. Quickly changing into sweats, he jogged down the stairs and headed out, making sure he went past the cop's car on his way.


It was a few days later when Susan got the call to go clean the now empty apartment where Danny had seen the eviction happening. Unlocking the door, she stepped inside and froze, eyes wide and hand instinctively covering her nose. The room had been trashed.

Backing out, she called the landlord, "Hello, this is Susan. I'm at the vacant apartment; I think you need to see this right away. Well, what I can see from the door: a broken chair leg stuck in the wall and more holes the same size, spray paint on the ceiling and windows and it looks like a bunch of trash bags from a dumpster were emptied out all over the carpet. It smells like rotten food and diapers. Yes, I'll wait for you."

She closed the door to shut away the odors and leaned against the opposite wall, determined not to go back in there without a promise of at least a free month's rent.


-----------------------------

"It's the last time he will delay getting the locks changed, that's for sure." Susan sipped her tea and smiled ruefully at the Perkins couple. "I still don't understand why they did it though. They hadn't paid rent in four months; did they expect to continue to live there for free? I wouldn't be surprised about not cleaning up after themselves, but to vandalize the place? You don't want to know what they did to the bathroom and all the appliances were demolished."

Mrs. Perkins exchanged a knowing look with her husband, "It's one of those quirks of human nature. I was a teacher for thirty years and the way people react and interact can be astonishing. Some people just are civilized, solid all the way through. Others wear a veneer of civilization, shiny and beautiful but the slightest pressure will cause it to crack and fall away. Then there are those who don't even try."

"To be fair," Mr. Perkins interjected. "Most people fall somewhere in between the extremes. Tell her about that one, the girl who looked you up at her class reunion."

"Oh. Oh dear. Poor Menolly." Mrs. Perkins looked flustered. "I was a young teacher and didn't recognize the warning signs at the time she was in my class. So much trouble; acting up in school, partying and drugs, running wild. All the more shocking because she was the minister's daughter. And the truth was he was abusing her at home. All the time he was a monster pretending to be a good man."

"What happened to her?" Susan asked.

"I didn't learn any of this until her 20th class reunion. She wouldn't come back to town until after he died of a heart attack. She runs a program helping runaways get off the street and safe. She took great satisfaction from putting her inheritance into her program and hiring a therapist for the kids."

Mr. Perkins' mind was wandering to the next topic already and he interjected, "Did you hear about the robbery?" Without waiting for an answer, he continued, "That big grocery store that does the deliveries, the driver got beaten up and the truck was completely emptied. No money, it was all for the food."

His wife tsked and shook her head, "What is the world coming to? Right after that was on the news they showed the mayor giving a speech on how things are looking up and what a great place this is to live."

"I'm not sure there are any great places left," Susan said sadly.

"Don't you believe it, dear. Things are changing, but we can still be happy where we are."