Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Public Welfare

Can't recall if I posted this story here before or not.  Either way, it's in the anthology Eclectic Brew, which I encourage you to order since proceeds support an emergency food pantry in Manassas.

Word of warning: this story contains street language.

Public Welfare
by Katherine Gotthardt
original copyright 11/26/2008

They don't call it "welfare" anymore. It's the "Department of Transitional Services." But that doesn't make it better. The benches are still hard and worn, the smoothed wood glaring through the remains of honey colored stain. The floors are still tiled in 1960 charcoal grey with white swirls. The walls are still ivory, smeared by the dirty fingers of a million children, and the lighting is still fluorescent, flickering in the windowless waiting room. And me. I am still there after three hours of waiting. A monument to the system. Still jobless. They keep telling me I will find something. But there is nothing out there for me.

How I came to be there is a long story, which I will only give a synopsis of. At eighteen, I divorced my husband, handed over my eight month old girl to him and took off to start over, earn my fortune. I worked for Macy's. I was a cashier. Every day, banging figures into the register while these pretty women in $90.00 shoes frowned at my polyester dress and press-on nails. I just couldn't take it anymore. All those beautiful clothes that I could never buy even with my discount.

I didn't know they had such good store security. I thought a few dresses, a pair of nylons, I would be satisfied. I didn't think about how I would actually wear the stuff and have to answer where I'd bought it from.

A year later, I stood in front of the judge, the words "ten thousand dollars" screaming at me. I didn't have to do time. I did community service--for free. For two years. But I still had to pay off the debt. I still owe on it. I don't even have most of the clothes any more. They made me give back the stuff that had tags on it. So I did. But I still have criminal record.

There was this one dress I could not stand to give back, I love it so much. I remember this day at the welfare office because I was wearing this dress. It makes me feel special to wear it. It's navy blue with a sailor's collar and has a smart looking red bow in front. The skirt is pleated and long and it's made out of some material that can only be dry-cleaned. I never have for dry-cleaning, so I have had to hand-wash it a few times. It has shrunk a little, but it's still okay.

I wore the dress with some off-white pantyhose and cheap patent leather shoes I'd gotten at the Salvation Army thrift store. I can't believe some of the good stuff they have there. The shoes were almost new. I washed them out with Ajax scrub in case they had fungus in them. They still shine even now. I was careful not to scrub the patent off.

My pantyhose had a little run in the ankle that day and I didn't have any clear nail polish so I used a drop of red from a drying up bottle. But I was afraid it would show so on top of that, I put a little school glue just to make it white and reinforce the job I had already done. I looked nice. Respectable. I like to look respectable when I go there. I don't like the employees to think they are handing out charity to a freeloader.

I sat on the bench waiting for them to call my number. I sat very still and straight with good posture, thinking. There is a man that comes in every time I am there. He is about my age but his clothes are dated and he stoops. His hair is long and greasy and looks like it should be blond. He looks at least ten years older than I do but he's not that old. He slings this ripped army bag around his shoulders and slumps in. His shirt always catches in the strap and his hair, the few parts that aren't greasy, looks wild from the static the bag gives off. I always think when I see him, "Thank God I don't look like that."

Some things always happen the same way when you come to this place so I thought I would see him again that day. It's so much the same sometimes I start to lose track of what day it is and how long I've been going there because it's like my history repeating itself. It's not a good history really.

I pressed my back against the wood and stared at the clock. It's one of those white faced clocks with a black plastic frame, the kind you see in schools. I find if I focus on something, I don't look like I really belong there. I know because I practiced this in the room I rent. I look more removed, like I am thinking some very important thoughts. If you think that much, you must not be a client. You must be a lawyer or a case worker waiting for an interview or something. But you definitely don't belong there.

I play the clock game a lot. Of course, it doesn't work on people like the real case workers and the attendants and the man I always see there. They see me every month. So obviously I am a client. But more of the others are complete strangers or they have bad memories or they don't care or they just aren't very smart. So I know it works on them.

Gloria, the lady behind the window, has a face like a sunflower--round, gritty and yellow. Her curly dyed hair reminds me of the petals. But she is not sunny at all. She doesn't smile and I think she has said "please" only once since I've been coming which has been something like three years now. My time is almost up. They'll boot me out of the system and then I don't know what I will do. No one will hire me. I have a record.

The person Gloria said "please" to wasn't me. It was some mailman or delivery guy. He didn't come in that day, though, so there was no "please" to be heard out of her mouth. That day, Gloria wore a white, shiny shirt printed with huge teal and gold and red diamonds. Very ugly. But she never has to worry about style. She doesn't have to impress anyone. I don't think she is married and I doubt she has a man. Who would want to go out with Gloria?

So there was Gloria behind her glass, the little slot cut out at the bottom so she wouldn't get breathed on by the rest of us and could pass papers to us like we were prisoners and she wasn't. The greasy haired man did come in around one o'clock. I still sat waiting for my number and for the hundredth time, just for something to do, tried to catch his name when he checked in. That's the weird thing. All this time and I still never his name. He kind of mumbles and every time, Gloria has to say, "You have to speak up sir," in a voice that would make most people want to whisper instead of doing what she says. She's just that kind of person.

Greasy Hair finished his business and sat down, right next to me in fact, the first time it ever happened. Usually, he sits across the room. I crossed my legs and looked at the clock harder. If I had something to read, something smart looking like a leather bound novel or legal textbook, I would have taken it out to make myself seem more unapproachable. Instead, I had to sit there and cringe because this guy kept looking at me. I hoped he didn't want to start a conversation because I wasn't up to it. Not with him anyway.

More people walked in and it started to sound like a class of tenth graders in there. A line to the counter formed and I watched through the corner of my eye as people settled with Gloria, got a number, and found a place to sit. When there were no more benches, people started sitting on the floor or leaning against the wall. "Dios mio, fucking line," a Latino woman said and not quietly.

"Yeah," said a white guy in overalls too short for him. He wasn't wearing socks with his sneakers. "Sucks today, don't it?"

"Sucks every day," a petite black lady said and gave a deep chuckle that made me wonder where in her little body that voice came from.

The good thing about this place is that all kinds of people come in here. The thing we have in common is we're all poor. But I don't really want that in common with them so that's a bad thing.

A couple of kids about five years old sat in the middle of the floor. "Let's see how long we can hold our breaths," the chubby, pale faced kid said.

"Okay," said the other kid, yellow faced and thin looking. Their cheeks puffed out and both faces began to turn red. It looked better than their original colors.

Once in awhile, a bleach blond head would poke its way out the hollow wooden door at the side and call the next number. They were on 35. I looked at my ticket. 49. And I'd already been there three hours. I think they try to get you to leave like this, making you wait so long.

I'd started that annoying habit I have of picking at my fake nails when the front door opened and in walked a man in a sleek tan suit. I guess he was about forty. He was tall and thin and looked like he spent a lot of time dressing. He had blond hair, probably the same color the guy next to me would have if he ever washed it. He carried a black leather bag bigger than a briefcase but smaller than a suitcase. He went to the center of the room and just stood there for a minute. He cleared his throat.

"Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen," he said. It was more than just loud because the room hushed like he had started to strip.

"I'm here to offer you some exceptional values today," he announced. "And I think you should take advantage of it because these are limited items at wholesale prices. What I have here," and he dug into his bag, "is a hi-fi portable music system that will make you feel like you are in the theater."

Everyone just stared at him silently like zombie high school students. He didn't seem to notice or if he did, he didn't care because he just went on, opening a box.

"This model," he said, carefully pulling out a plain black plastic square looking thing, "is good for traveling and walking. It can be plugged into any stereo system, earphones or speakers and has phenomenal sound no matter where you use it. Allow me to demonstrate."

He walked towards a wall with a painted-over outlet. He leaned over and plugged the thing in. Because everyone was now looking at this guy, I could afford to look at him too.  For a second, I wondered where he got the things anyway.

Gloria finally noticed but by that time, the sounds of ocean waves struck the room. It was kind of nice. He held the stereo thing in his open palm, raising his hand above his head so we could all see where this amazing sound was coming from. A group of people actually got up for a closer look. They were in awe like he was holding up a statue of a god or something.

"SIR!" Gloria bellowed, practically sticking her head under the glass slot that kept the workers separated from people like us. "What are you DOING?"

Now people didn't know if they should stare at Gloria or the salesman. I stared at the clock again so I could disappear into my aura of self importance. I watched from the corner of my eye again and listened.

The man ignored her, lowering his hand, messing with the knobs and dials on the sound system. He hummed the classical tune that played behind the ocean waves. The group grew and some leaned in for a closer look. Gloria leaped from her chair and rounded a corner behind her glass. When she reappeared, it was with a security guard.

The guard was old and had completely white hair, droopy eyes and nose hairs. He hurried as quickly as he could to the side office door that led to the waiting room. "Excuse me, sir," he called in a shaky voice, much quieter than Gloria's.

"Sir," he made his way through the spectators and closer to the huckster. "SIR!" he said louder this time.

The salesman finally turned. "Hello," he said. "Can I interest you in this sound system? I sell at wholesale prices and even offer a guarantee."

"This is a state agency, sir," the guard said rather firmly. "There's no soliciting here."

The ocean waves crashed. The violins sang. The security guard reached over to the salesman's hand and turned off the mini stereo.

"Oh," said the man. It was quiet in there now. He honestly looked sad. I kind of felt bad for him. "Well, I'm sorry then. I don't suppose you know anyone else who might be interested?"

"No, sir, I do not," said the guard. "Now please leave."

I wondered if the guy was going to give the guard any trouble, but he didn't.

The group of spectators returned to and wall space and floor. The salesman smiled bravely at the crowd, making eye contact with anyone he could. He waved. "Thank you, everyone!" he said. "Have a nice day!"

The glass front door shut.

"Dumb ass," the greasy haired man next to me murmured. "Goddamn stupid prick."

I didn't say anything, just stared at the clock.

Finally, they called my number.
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