Friday, April 25, 2014

The Government Worker by Ed Nichols

A down-on-her-luck mother appeals to an uncaring government worker for aid; by Ed Nichols

"There are a few things you need to know before we start," the obese woman behind the metal desk said to Sarah.

“Yes, ma’am,” Sarah answered in her most polite voice.

“I work for the U.S. Government, and everything we say is open to public knowledge, and

scrutiny. Whatever you tell me must be the absolute truth. Do you understand?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

The woman motioned to a chair beside the desk. As Sarah sat down, she couldn’t help but stare at the folds and rolls of fat, hanging from the woman’s chin and neck and arms. Her breasts were enormous and they lay softly on the desk when she leaned forward. Sarah looked into the face of the huge woman and watched her eating a Snickers candy bar. As she ate the candy with her right hand, her left hand sifted slowly through a stack of papers.

Sarah Smith had dreaded coming back to the Children’s Aid Department. But she didn’t have much choice. Her boys had to eat. And they had to have new shoes and a new coat before it turned cold. The unemployment checks had stopped two weeks ago. She had turned all the possibilities over in her mind, and figured surely she’d be getting some kind of work soon. If nothing else, Sarah Smith knew she wasn’t too good to take in laundry and do ironing. They’d make it, somehow. She’d try to be strong, like her mama had been. And, especially strong, and optimistic, around Tom and Jake.

Tom was fourteen going on thirty. When the mill closed six months ago and Sarah lost her job, Tom had immediately announced to his mother that he would quit school and get a job and look after her and Jake. It didn’t take him but about one minute to realize he’d said the wrong thing.

Jake was Sarah’s baby. He was ten. Bright and cheerful, and he loved books. He had started reading at age three. And he always carried a book around with him, like some kids carry a toy or a ball. Sarah just knew Jake would grow up to be somebody. He’d get a college education and make her proud.

She figured that this was probably her lowest time. It had been bad when her husband, Earl, up and disappeared two years ago. She didn’t particularly miss Earl - although she would never let on to the boys that she didn’t - but, he had made good money working at Wilson’s Concrete. Then, last year, when her mama died, Sarah had a hard time. But all during that, she had kept a good job at the mill. She knew she could overcome a lot of emotional things. But financial situations really got to her. She only had three hundred dollars from what her mama left her. After that, she had nothing. Nothing but debts. The mortgage on her trailer was one hundred and twenty-five dollars a month. Plus utilities and groceries and gas for the pickup. She could feel something tightening in her chest each morning as she reviewed her situation. It was particularly bad when she was alone. That’s when she got down the worst. With the boys around, she always remained upbeat and tried to keep a happy face.

When she arrived at the Children’s Aid Department this morning, Sarah had picked up a number at the counter, and then took a seat in the crowded waiting room. The air in the room was stale and stuffy, and had the pungent odor of wet diapers. During the first few minutes, Sarah thought she might go outside and wait, but gradually she adjusted. Looking around, she had counted twelve women and twenty children. The room was not much larger than the living room in her trailer. Some of the kids, and their mothers too, looked pitiful to Sarah. Ragged clothes, and poor hygiene. A couple of the mothers looked like kids themselves - barely sixteen years old, Sarah figured.

Every so often, a short, pock-faced man would come to the counter from the inside office and call out the next number. It was a long time before Sarah’s number was called. Nearly three hours. During this time she read through a couple of year-old People magazines. Then she dozed, as best she could with all the noise in the room.

When her number was finally called, Sarah almost didn’t hear the pock-faced man. She felt drugged. Following him to the back of the office, she stumbled and nearly fell. He had deposited her in front of the big woman sitting at her metallic green desk.

The woman finally finished her Snickers candy bar. She picked up a pen and a yellow, official-looking government form. Very bluntly, she asked, “Name?”

Sarah answered. The fat woman continued, in a staccato monotone, asking Sarah routine questions until the front side of the form was completed.

The woman turned the form over and leaned back in her chair. “What makes you think you’n get aid?” she asked Sarah.

Sarah crossed her hands in her lap. “Well,” she tried to answer politely, “I did once before when -”

“When was that?” the fat woman interrupted, picking up her pen. “How come?”

“Two years ago next month, I believe,” Sarah answered. “The mill shut down for a month.”

The fat woman made a note on the form, and then looked to Sarah. She seemed to be staring at Sarah’s head. As if there was something like a bad pimple, or a boil, sticking out of Sarah’s forehead. She refused to look at Sarah’s eyes. Suddenly, the woman reached into her top desk drawer and extracted another candy bar. It was a Babe Ruth. Sarah couldn’t remember the last time she’d eaten a Babe Ruth. The woman tore the paper off the candy and took a large bite.

Sarah asked, “Do you think -”

The fat woman raised her hand and pointed the candy bar at Sarah. “I’ll ask the questions,” she mumbled. Just then, a large droplet of saliva slid slowly out the corner of the woman’s mouth. Sarah watched as the dark-colored spit dropped onto the woman’s breast. Sarah felt her stomach turn over. She watched the fat woman studying the candy bar, completely unaware of the spit soaking into her dress.

“You look healthy to me,” the woman mumbled to Sarah.

“I -”

The woman swallowed hard. “You just need to get out and get another job,” she

instructed. “We - the government, that is - are very strict now-a-days as to who gets aid.” She stared at Sarah’s head again. “You see?”

Sarah leaned forward in her chair and raised her voice slightly. “Yes, I do. The labor department is trying to help me find another one. And I’m out looking, too.”

The woman’s huge lips formed a cheerless smile. “’At’s good. Maybe you’ll get something.” She took another bite of candy and chewed slowly, as if she were contemplating Sarah’s future. Or perhaps trying to figure out where her next candy bar was coming from.

For a moment, Sarah wondered if the woman might be choking. I wish she would choke,

Sarah thought, smiling to herself. As that thought left her, she suddenly felt pity for the woman. Just like she had felt for Earl, when he got drunk that last time, and fell down and cracked his ankle. Then, a few days later when she watched him limp down the road toward town, never realizing - although she should have known - that he was gone for good.

The fat woman finally opened her mouth to speak again. As she did, Sarah could see pieces of peanuts and dark-colored saliva swirling around the woman’s tongue and teeth. The woman leaned back in her chair and said, “You come back in two weeks. If’n you ain’t got no job by then, we’ll see what we can do.”

“But -”

“No buts!” the woman said as she hit the yellow government form with a big rubber stamp. “This says review in two weeks. You’re dismissed.”

“I was hoping -”

“Two weeks!” the woman said again, pushing back from her desk. “Now I got to go on break. The bathroom, if’n you know what I mean.” She got up and turned away quickly. Out of the corner of her eye, Sarah saw another droplet of spit hit the woman’s desk. It just missed the yellow form.

Sarah stood and watched the woman bolt toward a hallway at the rear of the office. Her huge legs were pumping, and from the rear the woman reminded Sarah of a pregnant cow. She

suddenly remembered when one of her daddy’s cows had got stuck in the creek years ago. Sarah had stood on the creek bank as the poor creature pumped its legs in vain trying to get out of the mud. Sarah turned and glanced around the office. She thought about trying to talk to someone else, maybe the fat woman’s boss. But, she couldn’t tell who was in charge. Nobody looked, or acted, like they were the manager.

She walked out to her pickup. Sitting behind the steering wheel, she rubbed her eyes. She felt like she had just had a bad dream. Then she remembered something her mama used to say, “It takes all kinds, to make the world go ‘round. Some are good, some are bad, and some you just got to take with a grain of salt. They’re the ones that’s just sort’a floating around. Just taking up space on God’s earth that could be better used by somebody else.”

Later that night, with Tom and Jake asleep, Sarah Smith made a cup of hot chocolate and went outside to look at the stars. On clear fall nights like this, she would sometimes wonder what she’d be doing if she’d gone on to college. Instead of dropping out of high school and marrying Earl. Gone on to be somebody. Maybe somebody who studies the stars and planets, like an astronomer. Sarah knew she had once had the intelligence. She had always made A’s. In every subject. If only her parents... If only Earl...

Sarah looked up to the stars. She began to relax. The tension of the day left her. Finally, it dawned on her that somewhere there would be a job for her. Somehow we’ll get through this bad time. She knew it to be true. She felt it in her bones, as her mama used to say. The stars seemed to wink at Sarah. She smiled, knowing from her heart that she and her boys weren’t just taking up space.

4 comments:

  1. Almost non-fiction, as there are too many Sarahs out there right now. I kept trying to grasp whether the author was using the obese woman as a symbol of an uncaring bloated bureaucracy, or just an uncaring overweight government worker. Either way, a sad story on the state of things out there - particularly for single mothers without nuclear biomedical rocket science degrees. Well done.

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  2. a sadly convincing story, it always seems to be the women who keep going against the odds. also a commentary on modern America?

    As Jim said, Well done

    Michael McCarthy

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  3. Thanks for your comments. It is nice to hear from others who have read one of my stories.
    Ed

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  4. Great story. The depiction of the fat woman is like something out of a Coens' movie. So deadpan and great and depressing at the same time. Just the right tone.

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