Sally and Marla were in the kitchen, inventorying the humble elements they had assembled for what Sally was calling a “real feast.” For the second or third time she reminded herself that they could have created a more suitable menu if only her brother had waited a week to offer his impulsive dinner invitation....after her next visit to the food bank.
That, along with the Social Security check that was scheduled to be deposited in her checking account on Wednesday, would have assured a better selection of menu possibilities. Instead, as was usually the case at the end of a Food Bank-Social Security cycle, the pantry was bare, the food stamps were nearly gone, and the checking account was bouncing along near zero.
Yet, even if the timing of their ‘feast’ left something to be desired, they must carry on with what they had, which at that moment was not much. Besides, as Lane had repeatedly reminded her, Robert lived in a tent. For him slim pickings were a way of life. Like the rest of them he was used to dining on the cheap.
Then from the front sofa, where he sat watching the local newscast, Lane’s attention was drawn to the hallway. There Sally’s surprising discovery had her laughing out loud. Standing in front of the narrow shelves that served as her pantry, she was holding up a single can of black olives for him and Marla to see.
“Look what I found,” she called. “It was way in the back of the shelf. I had no idea it was even there.”
“That’s the capper for sure.” Marla was laughing with her. “Just think, we’ll have mac and cheese, hot dogs with mustard, and now olives. Along with a donut for dessert. If that doesn’t add up to a feast, I don’t know what would. That ought to impress Robert.”
“He will be impressed. I’m sure of it.”
“I know I’m impressed,” Marla nodded. “Just think....two gourmet dinners in little more than a week. What is the world coming to?”
As before the dining table was pulled to the middle of the living room and the four of them had settled in for their meal. A few minutes later, having sampled his portion of the macaroni and cheese, Lane set his fork aside and broke their silence with his culinary critique.
“Man, I don’t know how you rate.” He was grinning across the table at Robert. “You can be sure there aren’t any olives and hot dogs when it’s just Sally and me. As for the donuts, if she has any they won’t be wasted on me. On a good day I’ll get a rock-hard bagel. For some reason the food bank seems to specialize in those.
“And check out these ladies....all decked out in slacks and blouses. When it’s just me, dinner is a jeans and sweatshirt affair.”
“Well, he is company, isn’t he?” Was Sally actually blushing as she offered her soft-spoken defense? “Marla and I decided that was a good excuse for another party.”
Lane paused to confirm his earlier observation. Behind his sister’s embarrassed nod in Robert’s direction he noted the teasing twinkle in her eye. When had he last seen that? Whenever it was, it had been absent for far too long. And this time there was no doubt about it....she was blushing like a school girl.
“Besides,” Sally continued. “You said he’s a plumber. When I told Marla about that we were both wishing we’d have met him a year ago, before we paid big bucks to have our broken water pipes repaired.”
Hearing the others talking about him finally prompted Robert to step up and speak for himself. “I used to be a plumber," he said. "Back in the good old days, when there was enough work to go around. But when the housing market tanked it took a lot of jobs with it, including mine.
"That happened to a lot of guys, especially the more ‘mature’ folks like me, the ones who knew all the tricks of the trade, but didn’t get around quite as fast as the young kids. When you hear about guys being left out in the cold, I’m exhibit number one.”
“I think that describes how Marla and I felt last winter," Sally nodded. "When the pipes under our trailers froze, then broke.”
She paused to top off Robert's coffee. “About then we were definitely ‘out in the cold.’ We had no water. And at the same time we were using a lot of propane just to keep these flimsy trailers warm.”
Leaning back, Robert laced his hands behind his head, giving notice that he was not about to be outdone by Sally’s ‘out in the cold’ episode. “I’ll tell you what. Try spending that same weather in a tent....where there’s no propane to warm you up.... and you’re huddled under every blanket you have, wearing most every piece of clothing you own.
“That works most of the time. But there are some nights, the worst ones, when you have to give up and head for the fire barrels under the bridge. Most of us would rather go to the shelter, where it’s warmer, even if you have to bed down on the floor. But on nights like that they’re bound to be full. So it’s usually easier to just stay home. When that happens we’re really out in the cold.”
“I suppose so,” Sally answered, sensing that their new friend was not one with whom to play ‘poor me.’ “Anyway, if it gets that bad this winter you ought to come up here. If the pipes freeze we’ll be out of water. But we’ll be warm. And there’s always a couch to sleep on.”
Robert stood and squeezed past the sofa to the front window, replaying Sally’s unexpected invitation. What was she saying? To be sure it was a contingent offer, subject to an unlikely set of conditions. Then, without bothering to answer he returned to more practical considerations.
“At least the next time those pipes freeze up,” he said. “You won’t have to invest in one of those expensive plumbers to fix them. You’ll have Lane right here on hand to deal with it.”
“Are you kidding me?” Lane grumbled as he pushed his chair away from the table. “Sally knows what a lousy handyman I am. I don’t fix things. I only make them worse. That’s why I’ve spent my life selling stuff, not repairing it. Sounds to me like she’ll have to call the Penthouse to get a real plumber on the job.”
“Lane. Will you stop that?” Sally’s scolding scowl was more embarrassed than angry. “How can you suggest something like that....something he doesn’t even do anymore?”
“Hey. That’s okay,” Robert replied. “It’s not that I don’t know what to do or how to do it. But it takes a bunch of tools to repair those kind of breaks. I had to sell all that stuff quite a while ago. All I have left is a pair of pliers. You can’t do much plumbing with just those.”
The table had been cleared, the dishes were in the sink. Sally, Marla, and Robert were on the couch, sinking deep into the sagging springs. While they visited, across the room in the arm chair, Lane was momentarily lost in his own thoughts, oblivious to their small talk.
It took a minute for Sally to notice her brother’s silent withdrawal and another few seconds to ask, “Is something wrong, Lane? All of a sudden you’re awfully quiet.”
Lane’s response was a few seconds in arriving, long enough for him to answer with a question of his own. “How long has it been, Sis....since you’ve been back to Keltran Street? To the big house and the old neighborhood?”
“Oh my. It’s been a while. I don’t have much reason to go out that way anymore. Why do you ask?”
“I walked out there this morning. After I left the Employment Office I walked over to The Hill, then down to Keltran. Saw all the old places, at least the ones that are still there. It was kind of fun, in a strange sort of way.”
There was no need for more detail. Besides, Marla and Robert had no idea what he was talking about. There was, however, one bit of his morning’s travel he could not dismiss so easily.
“Do you remember that big ole hillside behind the paper mill,” he asked. “The one that runs down to the tracks just short of the trestle?”
“Yeah. I remember that.” By then Sally was rolling her eyes for Marla’s benefit, with no idea where her brother was going with his unexpected question. “What about it?”
“I walked by there on my way back to town. I was really surprised to see that they’ve built houses all along the top of the hill. Townhouses I guess you’d call them. Anyway, they’re pretty nice places from the looks of them.”
“And, at least half of them are empty. Maybe more than that. Maureen told me that a bunch of them are in foreclosure. Apparently there was a scandal of some kind. About people being sold homes they couldn’t afford, then having them foreclosed.”
“I remember hearing something about that,” Sally nodded. ”But that was months ago. What’s that got to do with now?”
“Don’t you see?” Lane paused to survey their wondering glances. Clearly, they were not picking up on what was so obvious to him. “It’s about empty houses and homeless people. That’s what it is. I just can’t understand it. It’s so wrong. Those places are meant to be lived in.”
“Of course they are,” Marla agreed, stepping into Lane’s puzzling monologue for the first time. “But when people can’t afford to buy them or pay for the ones they bought, they end up empty. It happens every day, all over the place. In fact, I know exactly how that feels.”
“I know you do.” Lane nodded, momentarily sidetracked by remembered bits of Marla’s tale of losing her own home in the wake of her husband’s desertion.
“But that doesn’t make it right,” he continued, unwilling to retreat from his original line of reasoning. “Why the hell are people living in tents, when perfectly good homes are sitting empty? How could that happen in this day and age? It makes no sense. That’s just as bad as having no jobs when so many people are looking for work.”
In the face of her brother’s impassioned complaint Sally turned to Robert, trying to gauge his reaction. After all, he was one of the unfortunates Lane was talking about....the jobless ones, spending the winter in tents along the Bluffs.
Yet it seemed to her that Robert was listening to Lane’s harangue with a surprisingly calm detachment. Why wasn’t he picking up in his friend’s crusading rant?
A moment later, when Robert finally joined the conversation, she would be in for yet another surprise.
“You know, Lane,” he said. “You shouldn’t take that stuff so damn personally. It’s not like the whole world is out to get us. No one’s going out of their way to knock us down. These things just come along from time to time. When they do a fellow has to deal with them. You can’t get bogged down on how everything is unfair.”
Lane was squirming, wondering at his friend’s quiet disclaimer in the face of such obvious injustice. “That sounds a lot like ‘giving up’ to me,” he said. “Like you’re surrendering. There are folks sleeping out there in tents. Hell, you’re one of them.
“Here you are, coughing and sniffling, trying to beat that cold that won’t go away. And at the same time, a few blocks up the hill a dozen perfectly good houses are sitting empty. I’ll bet you could put a hundred guys in them....where they’d be warm, cozy, and dry. Instead, they’re sitting empty. Damn it, that’s just not right.”
His tight lipped glare was locked on Robert. “We shouldn’t have to put up with that kind of crap. We wouldn’t have done that when we were young bucks, would we? Hell no we wouldn’t have. We’d have raised a stink for sure.”
“So you don’t like it,” Sally interjected, hoping to calm things down a notch or two. “I hear you. But what can you do about it?”
She waited for his reply. Hearing none, she made her point. “There’s not a thing you can do. Is there? Taking matters into your own hands would only make it worse, and get you in big trouble. Robert’s right. What we can do is get by with what we have and take care of each other.”
“Get by? Damn it, that’s exactly what I mean.... that’s giving up. The weather folks are talking about another hard winter. We need more than ‘getting by.’ There ought to be a way to get those homeless guys and all those empty houses together.”
Sally was rolling her eyes again, though her laugh was not particularly humorous. “You’ll have to excuse my brother, the dreamer,” she said. “That’s what our mom used to call him....my little dreamer.”
“There’s nothing wrong with dreaming,” Robert observed. “But at the same time you have to be realistic. What you’re talking about is a dream that can’t possibly come true. At least not the way you’re hoping for.
"There’s a whole system out there that works real hard, and spends a lot of money to keep things the way they are. You’ve got banks, and investors, and governments....all the way from the top to the bottom....standing in your way, looking out for themselves.
“Just think about it. There’s the City, the County, the State. They’ve all got their rules. It’s their job to see that things don’t change too much. There are lots of important people, the ones with big money, doing everything they can to see that when there is some kind of change, it’s what they consider the ‘right kind’ of change.”
Had Robert managed to calm the waters a bit? For a moment Lane seemed to be in retreat, back in his own thoughts. Yet, when he finally spoke up there was no ‘giving up’ in his words. If anything, he was looking to attack from a different direction.
“You remember that gal I nearly bumped into this morning?” he asked, addressing Robert. “When I saw you at the Job Market. She’d dropped a letter coming out of the fitness center. I picked it up and gave it to her. The address said she was General Counsel to the City Council.
"Do you suppose she’s part of that system you’re talking about? The ones who make the rules? And if she is, would she know how to go about changing them?”
Robert was on his feet again, back at the front window, ready to move them beyond Lane’s dour crusade. “She might be part of the system,” he nodded. “And if she is, she knows better than anyone that the likes of you and me aren’t about to change it.
“You have to get real, Lane. Bad stuff happens.... here and everywhere else. If you’re lucky you have a sweet sister to lend a hand when you need it, to help you get along. If you’re not that fortunate, you’re left to build your own penthouse and carry on....and be especially thankful when nice folks invite you over for a tasty meal and good company.
“And then, if you’re really lucky, they’ll break out the cards for that pinochle game you were talking about earlier.”