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May 23, 2019 Fiction

Welfare, an excerpt 

Steve Anwyll

Welfare, an excerpt  photo

I get a call from Greaseback. He tells me I should come over. I look around. I've been lying in bed staring at a television since I woke up. I tell him I'm not that busy. I'll be over in about 20 minutes.

Since we moved the four of us don’t hang out as much. I don’t know what happened. But there's not a good feeling in their place. Not like there used to be in that hellhole three story walk up. Over there they were my saviors. The big brothers I never had.

But now Greaseback's not around as much. And Mitch is getting a little too cool for me. Now that he lives downtown he tattoos more people. Doesn't collect welfare anymore. Gives me attitude when I go over. Like he's never been where I am.

When I knock on the door I hear Greaseback yell. I can't make out what he says but I take a chance. Open the door and walk in. He's at the far end of the place. Sitting on a couch in front of one of his large open windows. He's hunched over a coffee table rolling a joint.

I walk over. Sit on the couch opposite him. He leans back while licking the glue. Smiles. Showing crooked teeth. His eyes light up. We lock hands and he calls me brother. I laugh. It’s good to see him.

He lights the joint. Tells me he just got a real job. One that pays well. I ask him what it is and he says he's going to be laying asphalt. So he'll be out there in the hot sun. Baking. Inhale the noxious stink of the stuff. And I think he's luckiest guy in the world.

I tell him I thought they only hired ex-cons to do that kind of thing. We laugh. But as he passes the joint to me he gets serious. Tells me that it's funny I said something. Because the only thing wrong with the job is the people he has to work with.

'It’s a thousand times worse than working with criminals,' he tells me while I inhale, 'they're a bunch of fucking Portuguese.' There's nothing I can do but choke on the smoke as I spit it out. I've never met a Portuguese person in my life. I let the subject drop.

But I'll never stop wondering what Greaseback has against the Portuguese.

Instead I pass him the joint. Give him my congratulations. Certain that this is why he invited me over. He wanted to do a little celebrating. And I'm the only one who's around at 11:30 in the morning.

But I'm wrong. Because he tells me that since he has that job. He doesn't need his other job. The one working for a man with a shitty van. A man who pays cash and doesn’t ask questions.

I can't believe it. It's a piece of the dream coming true. My chance to fuck welfare for once. Just like Greaseback and Mitch and that dirty Mennonite with his endless supply of Indian cigarettes. Now it's my chance to live high on the hog.

And I don’t know if it's just me getting stoned or if I'm so excited about the prospect of me coming home with cash in my pocket, a dozen beers in one hand, a bag of food in the other, just like Greaseback used to in the old building, but I feel like I'm going to explode.

'So I take it you want his number then?' Greaseback asks while laughing. All I can do is nod. My eyes more open than they’ve ever been in my life. I can already taste the hot meals I'm going to buy.

I grab the number from him. Stand up. Tell I'm going to go home and call him right away. Greaseback laughs. Tells me that I should wait a little while. Because I might come across a little frantic. And he's right. This weed really got on top of me.

When I get home I go right back up to my room. Lay down in bed. This is the perfect job for me. Greaseback's worked for him forever. He only ever needs someone about three days a week. And the jobs are always different.

It takes about a half hour. But I begin to calm down. Feel like I can handle a conversation on a phone. And by the time a woman on the other line answers I feel like I have it in the bag.

I ask for Trevor. The woman yells his name. Tells him to get his ass down here and answer the phone. I hear the phone being placed down somewhere. There's more muffled yelling. Some scratching as the receiver gets picked up.

A man voice asks me who he's speaking with. I tell him my name and that I got his number from Greaseback. He knows exactly who I am. Says Greaseback speaks highly of me. Asks if I can work tomorrow.

I say sure. But I was hoping for a day or so to ease into the idea. Then he asks if I have work boots. And when I tell him no he says I don’t need them anyway. He says to meet him at a storage unit place on the other side of town. Hangs up without saying good-bye.

I put the phone down. Almost in shock. Unable to believe that I'm going to go to work in the morning.

.......

At a quarter to seven I'm standing out front of the storage unit place. There's a chain coffee shop next door. A gas station. Van after van pulls in. I watch each one as it make its way into the drive through. Then out again from the other side.

None of them stop for me.

I keep this up for a half hour. And I'm beginning to feel like an idiot. The gas station employee starts eyeing me suspiciously. I keep catching him staring. Watching me pace. Adding to the anxiety.

Has this fucker stood me up? I start to think. What is this some kind of fucking joke? Him and Greaseback laughing at me. But I can't see him doing that. And I can't walk away. Because I need the money. I want it. I've already promised myself so many things.

And when I've been standing there an hour a rusting blue van pulls up. The window rolls down. And behind the steering wheel is a scrawny man. He has long dark hair and a mustache. He looks me up and down. Spits on the ground. Asks if I'm Stan.

'Unh, yeah.'

'Well get the fuck in then.'

I walk around the front of the van. I'm scared. I don’t like his tone. How he told me to get the fuck in the van. What the hell has Greaseback gotten me into now? Who is this psycho? I think as I open the passenger side door and get in.

He drives towards the drive-thru. Tells me that he waited at another storage place. One even farther from my house. He says that he needs me to meet him there in the future. I tell him I can’t that it's too far away. I'll never get there.

I can tell that he doesn't like it. But there's nothing he can do. So he gives in. Says that this one will be fine. He asks me what I want from the coffee shop. I tell him I'm fine. I don’t have any money. He says don’t worry about it. 'When you work for me I buy the coffee.'

I tell him I'll take a large. He gets the same for himself. And a dozen doughnuts. Tells me to dig in. They’re so fresh they melt in my mouth. I didn't eat anything this morning. And it's hard for me not to wolf back the whole box.

As we dive away I ask what we're going to do today. He tells me that some old bag needs some hedges ripped up. Says that she’s redoing her yard and wants the things gone. He asks if I've ever ripped up a hedge. I tell him no.

'Ah, don’t worry. It's a piece of cake.’ He goes on into great detail. Tells me everything I need to know about ripping up hedges. I only half listen. Just enough to nod at the right time.

I eat doughnuts. Look out the window. Watch the town go by.

When we get there he has me unload the truck. Shovels. A couple of axes. He smokes a cigarette. Walks around the hedges. Looks them over. Crouches down. Gets both of his hands down into the dirt.

I finish bringing the things over. Light one of my own smokes. Stand there behind him a moment. Wondering what he's doing. How he's gauging things.

Then I ask what he thinks.

'We'll be out of here in four hours.'

He sounds confident. I believe him. But then we start digging. The roots of these fuckers are strong. We have to hack at them. Trevor has me dig down. Then he takes a machete that he had under the front seat of his van.

The job seems impossible. But Trevor never gives up faith that things are going to go much smoother any second. I don’t feel so good about it. I don’t have gloves like he does. My hands are covered in blisters. The blood makes it tough to grip the shovel.

I'm sweating like a pig. It’s not even noon yet. Jesus Christ. Theres's not a chance I'm going to make it to the end of the day. I want to cry. I want to throw down the shovel. I want to walk away.

But I can't. I'm in a different city. No way home. I'm stuck here. So I just keep going. Eventually he throws down his shovel. His machete. Tells me he's going to go get some lunch. Asks what I want.

‘Anything,' is the only thing I can say.

He tells me to keep working while he's gone. But the second he's out of sight I sit down and light a smoke. My hands look terrible. They're covered in dirt. The skin is ripped. They burn.

I pick up the shovel. Try digging. It hurts like hell. But I have nothing to lose. I need the money. I hack like a maniac. I rip out two feet of hedges by the time Trevor gets back with a bag of burgers. Fries. Some large cokes. Tells me to stop.

The sweat is pouring off me. I'm soaked. I sit down on the ground with him. He passes me a coke. A thing of fries. A couple of cheeseburgers. I have to stop myself from eating the wrapper. I'm starving. I gulp down the coke. Shove fries in my mouth. Almost bite my fingers.

Trevor laughs. Says he never saw any one eat like that before. That he's scared. Like I'm some wild animal. I laugh. Tell him to watch out. And he better hope I'm full. Or I'm going to gnaw off his arm.

I finish. Feel better. Lay on the grass. Smoke. Take the ice from my soda. Dump it on my hands. At first I want to cry. But the coolness helps. I close my eyes. I hear Trevor get up. Walk over to the truck. Rustle around. He comes back. Something lands on my chest. I open my eyes. A pair of leather gloves.

'C'mon, let’s get this shit done.'

The gloves help. We finish a lot faster than I thought we would. I pack up the truck. Trevor sits in the front seat. Door open. His foot resting through the window. Smoking.

He's at peace with everything. His life doesn’t seem all that bad.

We leave. Stop at a corner store. He sends me in for a couple of cokes. On the way back home we have the windows open. A breeze comes in. Cigarettes and a coke. I can get used to this.

I ask Trevor about his life. If he has kids. If that was his wife on the phone. He tells me that no. That wasn't his wife. But she might as well be. They’ve

been together forever. And they don’t have kids. Neither of them wants the responsibility.

Shit. That's not a bad life. Now all I need is my own van. A good woman who's too selfish to have kids. Then I'm set. It looks like a better way to make money than being in some factory. At least I get to be outside all day.

And sitting there. Driving home. I take a look at Trevor. Because he looks like the kind of person my parents told me to avoid. To not become anything like. But this man has some freedom. He goes as he pleases. And I wonder why people like my folks are so afraid of men like Trevor.

He breaks my silence. Asks if I'd like to work tomorrow as well. He doesn’t have as much to do. But it'd really help him out if I could power wash the grease out of a local burger joint’s drive thru.

I tell him sure. That I'm on welfare. That im always free and could always use the money. He laughs. Tells me that he thinks we're going to get along jut fine. I'm relieved. I’m going to be eating like a king soon.

He asks if I want to get dropped off at home. I take him up on the offer. When we pull up out front he hands me four rumpled greasy twenties. He tells me to have a good night. To not get too drunk. And that he'll see me t seven.

I stand on the curb. Holy shit, I think. Eighty bucks. I can't believe it. That's more than I'd spent on food all last month. I don't know what I'm going to do. I think of all the food I can eat. All the booze I can drink.

I go upstairs. Shower. Put on clean clothes. Comb my hair. Go right back out. Walk down the street. Smile. Feel good. It's the first time in a while. I go into the first convenience store. Say hi to the clerk. Buy a pack of cigarettes.

After that I go to the liquor store. Get a six-pack. Go down to the park. Sit at a picnic table. Drink the beer. Smoke some smokes. I think about what I'd had to do to get the smokes. The booze. I look at my hands. They've been beaten.

They stung like hell when I washed up. Even the condensation from the bottle hurts them. I tell myself that I wouldn’t want to do this everyday. Like Trevor. He's a fool. I'm the one who has it made. I can work a couple of days. Get some cash. Then fuck off.

I'm not stuck there. I can still have my days filled with walking. Reading.

When the beer's finished I walk home. Stop for a piece of pizza. Eat it. Feel sick. My body isn't used to all this. Beer. Smokes. Hot food. It's too decadent. I do my best to get around the side of the building before I puke. But my best isn’t very good.

I go home. Crawl into bed. Fall asleep in all my clothes. Sweaty.

The next day is a breeze. It only takes me a couple of hours. I try and drag it out. But it's impossibe. I chat with some of the girls working.

They lean out the drive-through window. They're young. Cute. Covered in the film of grease all people who work in fast food are covered in. But I don't care. They think I have a job. They think I'm something.

I don't tell them otherwise.

I only get twenty bucks that day. Trevor tells me to call him next week. He'll have some more work for me. But I never see him again. Or even hear his voice. I lose him number. Greaseback is never around. And then the phone gets cut off. I'm back to where I started.

Wishing I was as well off as that god damn

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