Sunday, July 4, 2021

GOING POOR - Chapter 16

    Though it was not part of the plan it seemed like the right thing to do considering the circumstances. Besides, he owed sister Sally all that and more.

    So there he was, pulling the squeaky red wagon through the morning cold, while doing his best to avoid an unwelcome verbal skirmish. 

                           Chapter 16

Tuesday morning. Lane was up and out of bed before Sally. With little more than a quick glance out the kitchen window, surveying the frost-covered shrubs that hugged the warehouse building behind the trailer, he was planning his morning’s schedule. Why would he want to brave the freezing cold for what was sure to be a futile trek to the Job Market? More to the point, it seemed like a good morning to be staying inside.

With a cup of coffee and a slice of toast he retreated to the living room sofa, watching a news report about what the reporters were calling “Occupy Portland.” 

Apparently a new crop of citizens, most of them young and rebellious, were getting upset about what Lane and his contemporaries had been grumbling about for years. As an aggrieved, out-of-work senior, perched on a near-to-the-bottom rung of the ninety-nine percent, he found it easy to understand the crowd’s anger with a system that seemed not to be working for them.

Then, as he listened to a young woman’s rambling rant against the hated ‘them’....the uncaring one percent, Sally made her retching presence heard from the kitchen, a matter of ten feet from where Lane sat.

“Hey, Sis,” he said, doing a double take at the sight of her hunched over the sink. “What’s that about? Are you sick or what?”

Pushing himself off the sofa, he stepped to the narrow counter that separated the two rooms. When Sally half-turned to look up at him it took only a quick glance to read her distress.

“I feel awful,” she mumbled softly. “I’ve been up most of the night.”

“Is it the flu or what?” Perhaps some brotherly sympathy would help. “If you feel as bad as you look, you ought to go back to bed.”

“I can’t,” she answered, straightening up as she pulled her robe tighter around her. “I have to clean up this place, then get ready to go to the food bank with Marla. The second Tuesday is our morning for that. But we won’t be leaving until nine-thirty or so. I’m sure I'll feel better by then.” 

Moving around the counter to Sally’s side, Lane draped an arm over her shoulder. “All the way to the food bank, eh?," he asked. "That’s what, eight or ten blocks each way? In this cold? 

"With how many pit stops along the way.... assuming you can’t make it that far without puking again? With that kind of crud you never know when it’ll hit you. Truth is, Sis, I don’t think you’re up to a hike like that?”

“I have to. You want to keep eating, don’t you? When you’re making do with food stamps and a puny little Social Security check, the food bank is a big part of what gets us through the month.”

“Sally, it’s colder than hell out there. It’s a long walk, and you have no idea when or how often you’ll get sick again. Besides, you’ll only make yourself worse. Why don’t you just wait ‘til you’re up to it? Maybe tomorrow or the day after.”

The hour was early. After a nearly-sleepless night spent dealing with a balky stomach, Sally was in no mood for a prolonged debate. 

“Will you get serious,” she demanded. “There’s not much to eat around here. Our little party the other night just about cleaned us out. We can’t wait another week. Neither can Marla. We have to go today.”

“I said tomorrow, not next week. You’ll probably feel better by then. We certainly have enough to last another day.”

Her brother had no idea, she was telling herself. What was the use of trying to explain. Except, she did want him to understand the facts of their new life together. 

“Lane, there’s a different crew working at the food bank every day," she began. “Except for the supervisors they’re all volunteers, or folks working off their community-service sentences. 

"Marla and I know the Tuesday team. They know us, and they take good care of us. They let us choose some of our own stuff, so we can end up with what we like. We’ve tried the Wednesday crew a couple times. It’s like we’re strangers to them. We get their left overs, the stuff no one else wants. We really need to go today”

“So the two of you will take off together, in the freezing cold. All the way there and back....packing your boxes of food on the return trip. Right? And hoping you don’t get sick along the way.” 

By then Lane was shaking his head in doubtful disbelief. “Sally. You’ll never make it. Not the way you’re moping around this morning. You’ll just end up making yourself sicker.”

“Of course I’ll make it. I do it every month. Now quit your fussing. I’ve got to get dressed.” 

She was a step or two down the hallway when she suddenly turned to hurry back to the sink. A minute later she straightened up to offer her grumbling complaint. “Damn it. Why today, of all days? I’m not really that sick. But I’m sure as heck not well.”

This time Lane had his sister by her shoulders, ready with a question of his own. “Look, if I went with Marla, would they give me your food box? You say the folks there know you. Would they do that?”

A moment later Sally's dejected frown had morphed into a more natural grin....a bit sad, but very real. “You’d do that? You said it's really cold....too cold to go to the Job Market. But you’d go to the food bank with Marla?”

“I said it’s too cold to be working outside all day, even if someone was crazy enough to hire me. But a half hour walk, and packing a box of food home? I could do that.”

“And you’re sure you’re up to a quiet walk with Marla? Just the two of you?” Sally’s thin smile had turned as mischievous as her tenuous condition would allow. “Maybe that’s not such a bad idea. It might even help you two get on the same page ....instead of growling at each other all the time.”

“We don’t ‘growl.’ Most of the time we don’t even talk to one another.”

“I suppose you’ve got a point,” she agreed. “But in a way that’s a shame. She’s really a nice lady. You’d know that if you spent a little time with her.”

“How would that help anything. She doesn’t like guys. She doesn’t like me. I’m thinking that a quiet walk, without a lot of conversation, would probably work best. Anyway, I could lend a hand. I’m pretty sure she’d appreciate having someone carry her food box part of the way.”

“Don’t be silly. No one has to carry a box." Sally was half-laughing at the thought of it. "Remember what I told you? Marla has her little red wagon, the kind we had when we were kids. It’s just right for hauling food boxes. 

"Of course, you’d have to expect a few people honking at you when they drive by. Like I said before, some folks think it’s pretty funny, a pair of old ladies like us pulling our little red wagon along behind us.”


An hour later Lane and Marla were standing on the curb waiting for the traffic light to turn green. By then, just ten minutes into their Food Bank trek, he was rubbing his hands together....seeking a warmth that Sally’s thin, ill-fitting gloves did not provide, and making a mental note to look for a better pair on his next thrift-shop visit.

Meanwhile, Marla was quietly reflecting on the unexpected fact that she was standing there with him. Beyond that, she was a bit surprised at where her thoughts were taking her. Unsolicited compliments....especially ones aimed at a man, a near stranger at that, were not a normal part of her conversational style. There was, however, an undeniable truth she needed to acknowledge.

“It was a good thing you did” she said as they waited. “Coming back to Tanner. It’s done wonders for Sally. She’s so much more relaxed, not having to deal with everything alone. It’s made a big difference.

“It’s hard, you know,” Marla continued. “Being on your own, trying to get by on next-to-nothing. That’s especially true out here on the Bluff, where things can get a little scary sometimes. 

"There are always guys wandering around the place. They come up from the camps along the river, kind of on the prowl. You never know what they’re up to. It’s not an ideal place for a woman to be living alone.”

As they started across the street Lane’s first impulse was to ask Marla how she felt about living alone. Instead, he returned to her observation of Sally's situation. 

“I’m glad it’s working out for her," he said. "But it’s easy to see that I’m the one who’s come out ahead. I’ve got a warm place to stay, and I’m eating better than I have in a long time. There are lots of guys out there who’d say I was living high on the hog. I just wish that .......”

“What do you wish?,” she interrupted.

“I wish I was paying more of my way. That’s all. It’s not right, sponging off her like I am.”

“Would you do the same for her, if things were turned around?”

“Of course I would. But that doesn’t make it any better.”

They walked on side by side. Though Lane had overcome the initial embarrassment of pulling the battered and squeaky wagon behind him, as he had warned his sister maintaining a dialog with Marla was a tricky thing....a matter of finding safe, non-incendiary topics, taking care not to ignite her well-advertised conversational fuse. 

For her part, Marla seemed willing to concentrate on the business at hand. “Have you ever been to a food bank?” she asked.

“Of course not.” He was prepared to explain that for most of his adult life he had not considered himself the kind who went looking for handouts, seeking something for nothing. Then, as happened so often of late, he reminded himself it was not the time or the place to be offering his outspoken judgments.

“I talked to the food-bank people in Medford once,” he explained, returning to her question. “They told me I’d need a permanent address to qualify. By the time I was in the market for that kind of help I was crashing wherever I could. So I was shut out of their services. Never did get signed up. So this is my first time.”

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