Glen was eager to get home and watch the basketball game. On his way he stopped into a corner market and got a six pack from the cooler. He went up to the front counter.
“That’ll be ten sixty.”
Glen pulled a ten and a one dollar bill from his wallet and handed them to the cashier. “So how come my beer is never on sale?”
“Beats me,” the cashier said as he placed the bills in the cash register. He then picked a quarter, a dime, and a nickel and gave the change to Glen. “Need a bag?”
The cashier attempted to lower the six pack into a paper sack without crumpling it. Glen thought of the game he was missing and wished the cashier would move a little faster.
“Don’t want to attract any moochers,” Glen said to fill the silence.
“I hear ya.” The cashier finally got the six pack in the bag and pushed it toward Glen. “Those bums scare away customers.”
“Well they haven’t scared me away,” Glen assured as he pocketed the change.
Glen left the corner market with the six pack under one arm. He began to walk home as the sun was going down then noticed a rumpled figure sitting on a sidewalk bench. His clothes were worn and faded. A weatherbeaten ball cap obscured his eyes. His arm was draped across the back of the bench.
“Hey man, can you help me out?” the man asked Glen as he approached.
Glen stopped. “Sorry. Gotta get home and watch the game.” He began to leave.
“Everybody’s in a hurry,” the man said glumly.
Glen hesitated. “Because people have things to do.”
“Well, like watching the Warriors game, which has already started.”
“And that’s more important than helping out your fellow man? Not very Christian.”
“Not a church goer.” Glen tried to leave again.
“I meant in a charitable way.”
Glen stopped. “It’s not that I don’t want to help, it’s just that…” He struggled to find the words.
“It’s just that you’re afraid I’m going to waste it on booze or something,” the man grumbled. “Yeah, I know.”
Glen felt a little relieved. “But you see my point, right?”
The man sat up and looked at Glen. “What does it matter once you give it away?” he questioned, his voice a little gravelly. “Once it’s out of your hands, it’s no longer yours. What if your boss didn’t pay you because he doesn’t like where you’re going to spend your money?”
Glen was caught off guard by the novel idea. “But that isn’t charity.”
“Sure it is. They let you work at their business to make them money, and they toss you a few bucks to keep you coming back. We’re all panhandlers,” the man pointed out with a shrug of shared resignation.
Glen was provoked. “I earn my paycheck.”
“Someone else signs it,” the man reminded him.
Glen sensed his beliefs being challenged. He tried to figure out a response. “So be it, but at least it’s stable and keeps a roof over my head. Out here you have to depend upon the kindness of strangers.”
“How well do you know your bosses?” the man asked.
Glen searched his memory. “Well, can’t say I’ve seen any of them outside of work, but…”
“Yeah, that’s right,” the man interrupted. “They make money off of you and then want nothing else to do with you. I know how it goes.”
Glen looked upon the man. He appeared settled despite his circumstances. Glen then looked around at the open, unconfined space of the man’s surroundings. “But this isn’t exactly work,” he said sceptically.
“Of course it is. Survival takes work, kid.”
“But survival and work are two different things.”
“Are they? Work doesn’t necessarily mean a job,” the man said. “And I already did my time in the rat race.”
“Yeah, work’s a drag. But at least when you’re working you have money and you’re a part of society.”
“I am a part of society, and what I do serves a purpose.”
Glen was further confused. “How so?”
“People like you keep working so you don’t up becoming people like me.” The man appeared satisfied with his explanation.
Glen decided it was time to go. He tried to leave, but was drawn back to the man. “All right. So maybe I’m not being paid what I’m worth because I work for greedy robber barons, but you know what? I don’t mind working for a living. That’s what makes the world go round, it’s how demand gets supplied, and I like being part of that world.” Glen felt more engaged.
“And it allows you to buy your own poison, right?” the man queried as he pointed to the paper bag in Glen’s arm. “Looks about six pack size to me.”
Glen resisted the feeling of commonality. He looked down at the paper bag. “Guess you got me there, but I earned this six pack.”
“And you should be able to do what with your paycheck, right?”
“Okay,” Glen relented, “you made your point. But there could be another reason for not giving. I could be tapped out.”
“Well why didn’t you say so?” the man said grandly. “I got the same problem.”
“Yeah. You know how rents are around here.” Glen felt another wave of relief.
“See? I’m affected by high rents and I don’t even pay rent.”
“We’re all suffering.”
“Yeah, we’re in the exact same boat,” the man said dubiously.
“Yes, yes we are.” Glen missed the man’s intent and felt a personal insight. “We’re all just doing what we can to get through life.”
“Yep. Say, why don’t you come out here and join me see how the other side gets through life? You can be your own boss. No middle management cocksucker telling you what to do out here.”
“And plenty of office space,” Glen joked.
“A lot more than your cubicle, office boy.”
“Hey, I work on the sales floor, down in the action with all the customers. No cubicle cage for me. That’s for those, um, middle management types you were just talking about.” Glen was further intrigued, and had forgotten the game he was missing.
“But are you really living?” the man asked seriously.
“Of course, I live plenty! Just last week I got invited to a party, and it was epic. Six, maybe seven people showed up. We wanted to play Mexicali, but nobody could find any dice.”
“Your life is predictable.”
“Routine is not a bad thing,” Glen asserted. “Keeps me out of trouble.”
“Now see here,” Glen began. “I don’t need to do anything edgy or overly adventurous, and I don’t like pushing my luck just in case it runs out. All I want to do is make a living, and that’s challenging enough.”
The man looked at Glen with scrutiny. “And you’re fine with that?”
Glen considered his answer. “I am. My own little, domesticated American dream.”
“That steady paycheck, right?”
“Yep, as long as I’m not getting free rent or free groceries. I got to work for what little I have, and that’s what I believe in.”
“Okay, you made your point.” The man folded his arms. “Now go home to your palace.”
Glen looked toward home. “Yep, a tiny apartment with thrift store furniture, thin walls, and a smoke alarm that goes off every time I make toast. Real luxury!”
“Wanna trade places?”
“I don’t know, rent is kinda high. You’d probably have to get a regular job.”
“I told you I used to work,” the man said defensively.
“What’d you do?”
“Lots a things,” the man reminisced. “My last job was hot tar roofing. Grueling, sweaty work. That’ll wear a man down. I was even married for a spell.”
“That also wears a man down,” Glen joked.
“Damn right. Now I got a place out in the woods near the river. May not be much, but it’s mine,” the man said with the strength of someone who has survived rock bottom.
“It’s your patch of land. Every man needs that.” He seems mostly normal, Glen thought to himself, how did he end up here? “Well, I should probably get going. You probably have things to do anyhow.”
“Yeah, later tonight I’m having drinks with the mayor.”
“See? I knew you were important!”
“Don’t you have a game to watch?”
“Yeah, that’s right.” Glen inched away. “And for once the Warriors are the number one seed. All it took was a change in ownership.”
“The right kind of crooks took charge.”
Glen chuckled and finally set himself to leave, then reached into his pocket and pulled out his change and some other coins. He placed them into the man’s calloused hand. “Not much, but…”
“Thanks all the same.”
* * * * * * * *
Glen made it home and opened up a beer. He put the rest of the six pack into the refrigerator, and pulled out half of a deli sandwich that he bought the day before. He settled in front of the television and turned it on with the remote. He could hear one neighbor watching a true crime show, and another listening to a college radio station. He changed the channel to the sports station. He’d missed the first half of the game but didn’t mind.
©2015 Robert Kirkendall