small town life and the recession
|The River People
By Hans Lillegard
Patrick Mulhaney turned the corner, walking past the mission to the drop-in center. Like many of the river folk on the flood plain beneath the steep hills and Victorian mansions, he had lost work with the aching recession. The small hall seemed in a shambles of persons, bikers in the corner playing poker, another group of tough looking men opposite them playing spades, searching out inspiration in the cards without work. There was a group of young punks who mooched off the college students and the odd German Catholics in the hills above the river, punks bent forward in avid gesturing hands. He pawed at a small victim donut in a box on a stainless steel coffee cart and poured a equally small cup of the thick black liquid from a spigot bottomed coffee pot standing also on the cart. He made his way to the group playing spades greeting them with nods and calling them by mostly Irish names. There were curt waves and muttered greetings as he sat down at that particular picnic bench, the only sparse furnishings of the room. He hated the surrounds, and wished only for the work that would take his mind off the condition he lived in. His intellectual nature was a disguise and though he had been to a four-year university eighty miles from the small town and was buried in debt which made him depressed and owly, he had the strong faith of the working poor and threw that faith ahead of himself. Being jobless had challenged that faith, but every morning he took the simple steps of hope. He knew that if he believed the results would come, job or not. Sully, who sat at the table spoke,
“Going to the library today?”
“I’m thinking of it,” Patrick said. Mick spoke,
“It has got to be better than the temp agency, I was there yesterday and just sat for four hours. There was nothing at all.” Mick and the others looked at Patrick cautiously.
He again turned a corner and started the hungry six blocks to the library. He crossed streets with blood red stop signs that guided most of the small town traffic. His legs stretched and tightened encouraging the short walk. He turned another corner and crossing the street found himself in front of the tall glass windows of the public library. He pushed open a glass door and pulled open an ancient wooden door equally centered with glass. He found a table across from a woman a couple of years his junior with died black hair and brilliant green eyes. She grinned up at him excitedly,
“Guess what?” Patricks eyes narrowed in a smile and an inquisitive look crossed his face. She pushed a cloth garment across the wooden table to Patrick, which had a name tag printed ‘Lisa’ beneath the laminate.
“I got a job at Food Mart!” Lisa looked down at the table, smiling humbly. “I know the work will only put a small dent in our debt, but”
“It is a start,” Patrick said, smiling weakly.
“Well, I have to start at noon, so I had better be going.” She leaned over the table and kissed Patrick. As she left his head slumped a little and he stared at the grains in the old table. Why couldn’t he get a job? Why did poverty hurt? He felt sad and then he felt angry. At first he felt guilty. He was a product of his environment and except for the colleges in the hills above the river, he had been brought up in a climate of sexism. Lisa participated in it by roping herself in when she realized his pride was at stake, and Patrick in turn showed a unexpressive and stony face. Still, there was something there and he couldn’t put a finger on it. A feeling came over him that had nothing to do with Lisa or his male ego. He had been poor most of his life, and college at time had seemed the big break. He still had the equipment of faith that he had learned when younger and he could tell that he was peeling back a layer of it. With the change he felt that his hope for better was just a part of him. He stood and shuffled to the newspaper stand that contained the small town’s daily paper and then returned to the reading table. He searched the small rectangular boxes, and for several moments was lost in a reverie as time slowed and then stopped. It was amazing how a small piece of information carried value. There were people behind the small print letters, each letter spelled micro-universes of personhood and the smallest pinpoints of love. That was the nature of other folks, just as it was his own. The spell broke and he pulled a small spiral bound from the pocket of his flak jacket and started to take down names and numbers. There was one that called to him, ‘Hawk’s Window and Doors.’ He marked in the name after ‘Human Resources’ and then printed the address.
He pulled and pushed on the library doors alternately, and following it around the corner started toward the small devout plan of an industrial district on the edge of town. He slowed and then stopped at a corner for a moment that began to stretch longer and longer. Why the sudden confusion? Why the blind spot at the end of the second path? Then he realized that Lisa’s work place was just down the street. He was uncertain of why he should change direction and faith alone, blind faith the best kind, turned his footsteps. He crossed a street, watching for the traffic of that small avenue to discover that cars rolled minute in the distance, their passengers small patches of shade. The town opened around him, the five story buildings falling back so that he seemed I tiny speck of the face of the earth. At first he was intimidated, and then he realized the permanence of his situation, and then became comfortable with it. He was right-sized. He looked to see a street sign and then a smaller one another block away and could see the corner of a parking lot that stood in front of the grocery store where Lisa worked. He realized during the travel that he felt like he had a bad tooth with a temper to match. Where did the feeling come from? Since he had turned toward the store, the feeling had started to recede and was replaced by a certain nervous feeling that he couldn’t explain. It was ambivalence as the anger moved him forward and the bare fear slowed and rearranged him. He stopped and stood, looking at the sign before large windows of the supermarket, ‘Food Mart.’ He started toward the store, making his way between cars that also stood to block his progress. He walked through the superior maze of aisles and finally came to the deli counter. He crossed his arms on the counter top and waited for Lisa to turn and recognize him. When she did turn she was surprised and a little shocked that he wasn’t busier than her looking for work. Patrick smiled at Lisa and spoke.
“I’m proud of you.” The fear he had felt before disappeared. Liberated. Lisa blushed and smiled at the floor.
“Thank You.” An ugly supervisor passed turning an eye on Lisa.
“Er, is there anything I can help you with today sir?” She said.
“Nope, he said, just hunting for bargains.” He gave her a discreet wave under the counter and turned toward the exit of the grocery store.
He made his way toward the city park which stood as the town square. He found a picnic bench and sat on the table. He wondered at the anger he had felt earlier. Jobless. He looked across the street at the post office that towered over him and was limestone, the softest of rock that if it were to tip over like some larger ancient memorial, would smash him like a bug. He wondered at his morose thoughts. Didn’t even the smallest creatures interweave to create life? His bones were weary, and he had to push himself off the complacent bench. He knew he had to fight for a job. He took the simple steps that were work themselves and again threw his faith ahead of himself.
Once he found the industrial district, he followed the risky streets, as he had mapped them in his head. He finally stood before a discouraging corrugated aluminum hanger like building with a hand painted sign above that said ‘Hawk’s Window and Door.’ He rummaged through his jacket until he found the director of hiring, a word again that awed him so that he would pronounce her name right. He stepped inside the glass double doors to see the counter behind which a receptionist typed rapidly,
“Hi, I’m looking for Nancy Kastenbaum?” He said in a meek voice. The secretary didn’t look up from her work.
“Just a moment and I will take you to her.” Patrick wondered about the name. Kastenbaum was German, and the German Catholics living in the town had learned to keep to themselves. It only certified his prediction of rejection. The receptionist rose, indicating for him to follow her. She turned left at an office door,
“Nancy, this is,” she said expecting an answer from him.
“Patrick, Patrick Mulcahey” The woman turned her eyeglasses up to look at him.
“Have a seat, she said,” looking him over once again. “I’m guessing you are Irish?”
“I certainly am, ma’am.”
“So, she said, what sort of work experience do you have?” Patrick looked at the floor, clearing his throat uncomfortably.
“Well, I worked at Deere before they closed down. I also worked at the packing plant loading trucks, but then after that I left for university.” Nancy’s eyes sharpened,
“Where did you go to school?”
“The University of Iowa.”
“I bet you have some loans to pay off.” She said in a deadbeat voice that bordered on sympathy.
“ You look fairly strong,” she said, “do you think you can do lifting and assembly line work?”
“I sure can. In fact, with the money I owe, you can count on a pretty reliable employee.” Patrick wasn’t in the habit of selling himself, but he felt an odd connection with this woman from the moment she mentioned his debt.
“Well,” she said, moving a pile of files from the desktop calendar beneath. “We could start you on Friday.” Patrick’s eyes lit for a moment and then hooded again.
“That would be great,” he said in the gravelly voice of a worker. Nancy smiled, recognizing the voice. She stood, and then Patrick stood also, and leaning over the desk, they shook hands. Patrick slipped out the door and slinked down the street.
He quietly made his way back to the drop in. He wove through the town and past the cathedral to the poorer district that boxed in the mission. His thoughts were still on Kastenbaum, a name he had first held in awe, a feeling that had turned. Shock. He stopped at a congratulatory ATM to pull ten dollars, from his meager account and then broke it into ones at a convenience store. He knew faith was more than worldly success but it again reaffirmed his efforts, just as grace touched it in the difficult times. There was an internal calculus that he worked with. He had been lucky with the job, but it would be a long time before the loans were paid off. His ears seemed opened and he could hear birds singing, his eyes were opened and he could the wide river in the distance, so that it was small. He realized then that is was the small things that deepened his beliefs. He opened the old door to the drop in center. He sat down next to Sully and asked if he could get in on the card game. Patrick was good at cards, but he knew how to lose without evidence also. As the game of spades went on, he slowly dished out the ten dollars, lightening his friends’ day. without giving away his own luck. Most of the men at the table lived with their parents, and many had given up the idea of work altogether. A few had ventured out into a world of public housing and food stamps and assistance programs. Patrick bowed out when the money was gone, and made his way back to the house.
He heard birds along the route again and they touched him. Love. Patrick knew he must be the least of others if he expected to help. He turned a corner and started to climb a low and nearly servile hill. At first he hid the news as he had from the time he had become employed, afraid that in might be stolen or wrenched from him. Lisa became suspicious.
“What is it, Patrick?”
“Oh, nothing.” Lisa’s eyes became dangerous.
“What,” she paused a minute to give the word emphasis, “is it?”
“I got a job!” He almost shouted and as he stood Lisa shoved back her chair and ran around the table to hug him. He hugged Lisa, his faith replaced with gratitude. He knew that gratitude sometimes must be handled with smallness and with humility.