Thursday, September 22, 2011

Lifestyles of the Broke and Jobless

I went to check my bank account yesterday. I hesitated as I punched in the numbers that would bring my balance to the screen. With one hand slightly covering my eyes, and the other hovering near the 'cancel' button, I fearfully looked at the screen. 

I hate it when my bank account screams in agony like that.

Sighing, I got back into my car and casually laid my head on the steering wheel.

"Momma," my 4 year old called from the backseat, "why you laying your head down? Is you tired?"

"Yes, baby." I replied without picking up my head. "I'm very tired."

"What are you tired from?" My Red Head asked from behind me in the her booster seat.k And just in case I didn't hear her the first time, she repeated herself.

"I'm tired of being broke," I informed her. "I'm not sure how I'm going to navigate life without a job."

"Navigate," she said. "Are you going somewhere?"

Sighing, I said never mind. I put the car into drive and headed home.

Visions of my negative balance danced in my head as I manuevered the car into my neighborhood. As the kids giggled back and forth, I tallied up the monthly bills.

I'm good. But, even I can't make a negative balance pay the bills each month.

See, I got fired almost two weeks ago. After a year of employment, the powers-that-be decided I was no longer a good "fit". I know (and so do they) the real reason I got let go. There's really no reason to recount them here. What's done is done. I have more important things to worry about at the moment. Like how to pay my house payment. Or how to keep the lights one.

Or, most importantly, how to keep my cable least during football season.

So, today I went to the Department of Social Services. I sat at the desk of my caseworker as she looked over my paperwork and quietly judged me. I leaned forward to see what she was typing into that desktop computer of her's. I answered "yes ma'm" and "no ma'm" to her repetitive questions.

No, I do not get help from family, friends, outside agencies, federal government, aliens, the old lady down the street, my crush from years ago, my crush from weeks ago, my neighbor, or anyone else. Yes, I have two kids. Are they illegal? Why? Will that help me get assistance? Because if so, then, why yes...they are illegal. I bought them off the black market yesterday.

She didn't think that was funny.

Yes, english is my primary language. But, if it helps me get emergency foodstamps, then we primarily speak Swahelii. No? It won't? Oh, well, just put us down for bad english then.

No, we are not of hispanic origin. No, we are not hispanic period. We are Native American. Lumbee to be precise.

What? What do you mean you can't help me keep my lights on? What does me being Indian have anything to do with South River receiving their money in time and; thus, allowing me to keep my tv tuned into football on Sundays and Mondays?

You are restricted from helping Natives? Are you serious? I thought all that ended when we intergrated into the school system. It's the 21st century, for-crying-out-loud. I thought we had put aside this petty business of racisim and banded together to hate the angry muslims.

Still no smile from the caseworker. This broad is a hard nut to crack.

She directed me to my tribe for "Emergency Energy Assistance". "They can help you." She informed me.

Um, ok.

So, I called the tribe and explained my situation. I gave my best heart-felt plea. I made my situation as dour as I possibly could. Yes, I lost my job. I was not merely fired, but I was escorted out by a group of neo-nazis wearing camoflouge and carrying high powered rifles. My kids are starving, I told them. The 4 year old hasn't ate in days. My Red Head is so emanciated, that her beautiful hair is falling out. Flys are buzzing around the kids.

No lie.

"I'm sorry," the lady on the phone said. "We can't help you."


"We don't have any funds right now. We are supposed to get them in sometime in October. But, I am not sure."

"So, you mean to tell me you can't help me? At all? No other agency will touch me because I belong to you, and you can't help me? Really? Seriously?"

I lost my temper. I'm not proud.

After repeated apologies from the lady on the other end, I hung up the phone. Disgrunted, dejected, disheartened, and pissed off, I made my way back home.

I might as well enjoy the lights and air conditioning while I still have it.

As I sit and marinate on my predicament, I know I am not the first single mother in the history of America to be out of work and struggling. Hell, these days, millions of people are bypassing the mailbox because they just can't bare to look at another past due bill. Thousands of people, here in this very city, line up at the unemployment office everyday hoping against hope for something. Anything. Used to be if you lost one job, another one was literally right around the corner. These days McDonald's isn't even hiring.

And don't get me started on unemployment. It is a mere fraction of what a worker was actually getting paid. Personally, it is going to take three weeks of checks to equal what I owe in a house payment. Whatever is left will have to be given to the utility people.

It all sucks monkey butt.

All of this makes me want to hop into my car and pay a visit to my congressman. Imagine the scene, if you will:

Knock. Knock. Knock.

"Hello, Congressman...... My name is Wes. I know you don't give a rat's ass about me, but I care greatly about you. See, I have recently fell on hard times, and being you-technically-work for me, I want to know what you are going to do about it.

I have paid into the North Carolina tax base for several years. Now, that I need a little help, I am being told I can't get any. Why? Where are my taxes going to? I know it's not the roads. Have you driven down my neck of the woods lately? No? Well, I promise once you are do, you will need a new front end allignment. I'm aware that very little money is going into the school system. Ya'll seem to want to always cut that first before anything else. Trust me, I have experienced this first hand. My kid, special needs mind you, didn't get into pre-k because of budgetary cuts. But, thanks to my trusty softball bat, a little kid couldn't make it and he was granted a spot.

What? Don't judge me.

So, where's the money going? It's not healthcare. I was informed today that on unemployment, I make too much for medicaid. Really? Your people are telling me that as an unemployed worker, I don't get any medical benefits at all. Why? Can you tell me that?

And I know it's not going to retirement for the state employees. Ya'll seem to want to rob them blind left and right. Trust me, I know that too. Plus, their health insurance sucks as well.

So, Mr. Big-Ole-Congressman, where is my money going? Where are all the taxes that I have paid gone to? that your Rolls? Dang, that's a nice ride."

Questions answered.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Old Man and the Soldier

"You've got a lot to learn," the old man told me as he kicked off his muddy boots. We were sitting on the front porch of my momma's house. Me, a disgusted twenty year old boy with a newly issued army haircut. And, him, an eighty year old man, bald, sporting a gray beard that fell mid chest. I had arrived yesterday, fresh from the desert, to attend my momma's funeral. He had stopped by afterwards to pay his respects. I had known the old man all my life. He lived a short piece down the road.

"Yep," he continuing on. Stuffing tobacco in the left pocket of his mouth, he chuckled at a thought that occurred to him. "When I was your age, I was in the tobacco fields. You wanna talk about hard that right there will make or break a man."

"I'm doing hard work," I informed him defensively. "I'm out there defending my country. Your country."

"Yep. Yep. You are. I didn't mean to imply you weren't"

We sat in silence for a bit. Each man held captive by his own thoughts. Inside, I could hear the quiet chatter of the friends and family that had come to mourn with my dad and me. I'm an only child. When I decided to enter the military, straight out of high school, my dad had supported me whole heartily. Momma, not so much. The papers and news shows were filled nightly with the names of the dead soldiers coming home to be buried. Her biggest fear was to outlive me. To see my name in print. She told me she couldn't bare it. Little did we both know, that I would be the one saying goodbye to her in a brown casket.

"You're momma loved you, boy." The old man said. I nodded. I knew that. I always knew that. "She bragged about you from the moment you signed them papers. She was so proud of you for joining the fight. For getting out of this town and trying to live. She was scared for you. But, she was proud of you."

"I know that. Momma told me."

"Why you so angry then?" He asked me.

I didn't answer. Four days ago, my momma had gone grocery shopping. A routine she carried out weekly. Like any day, she made my dad breakfast. Saw him off to work. She made a grocery list, and as she did every week before this one, she double checked to make sure she had included daddy's favorite snacks. He loved ice cream. Did she include his vanilla wafers also? Of course she did. After 30 years of marriage, shopping for your spouse is like shopping for yourself.

The ride to the store was uneventful. Like every grocery day, she slowed down in front of Mrs. Cleary's house to honk and wave as the grandmother of four watered her azalea bushes. She paused at the corner of Elm to make sure no kids would run out in front of her. A ball always got loose from the playground there. A driver had to be careful of excited little ones running into the street to retrieve it.

She chatted up our neighbors at the Piggly Wiggly. She inquired as to the health of the unborn baby of the cashier. Missy is due to pop any day. She's hoping to work up until the day she goes into labor. We're all waiting to see when that will be.

So, momma completed her grocery shopping. Heading home, I am sure she was already planning on what to make daddy for dinner.

It was on the corner of Breaker St and Walnut Ave that her day turned tragic. Wyatt Renert is my age. We graduated school together. Unlike me, but like most of my other classmates, Wyatt wasn't sure what he wanted to do after school. He opted out of the military and college. Instead, he busied himself down at the garage. On the weekends he hung out with friends at the local bar. Not a bad fellow really. Never got into too much trouble. An occasional fight in high school landed him in the principle's office. But, other than that, he was an ok guy.

Until he killed my mother.

Momma was going the speed limit. Wyatt was not. It was a four way stop. The sheriff says momma came to a complete stop before continuing on her way. There were no skid marks from Wyatt's tires. He t-boned her car on the driver's side.  Snapping her neck and killing her instantly.

Wyatt walked away unharmed. 

No one knows why he was speeding. He can't even tell you for sure. But, Wyatt will never be the same. The town talks about how is he a crushed man. Broken over killing a woman that he's known all his life, Wyatt doesn't care if he ends up in jail for forever. He just wants to take back that horrible moment. 

But, I care. I see red when I walk down the road. My forehead pulsates with anger. Rage has replaced the blood in my veins. I want more than justice for my momma. I want revenge. I want Wyatt's head under my boot. 

And the old man asks me why I'm so angry.

"You know," the old man says as he spits out a wade of tobacco, "they killed his son."

"What are you talking about?"

"They killed his son. Jesus was hung up on a cross."

"Sir," I say calmly, "I don't mean any disrespect, but I don't need to hear any religion right now. That's not gonna help me. Don't sit there and tell me everything happens for a reason. That makes no sense."

"What's on your mind, boy?"

I sighed. The breeze had picked up and the day was a beautiful one. The birds chirped noisely in the background. Occasionally, you could see a kid run in the front yard as they made their way to the back. It was the kind of day my momma lived for. Family and friends gathered around. The smell of food in the air. Laughter carried on the wind, drifting down to those that were silent, causing a smile to play on their lips as well. But, momma wasn't here to enjoy all this. Momma was six feet under. Momma died without knowing what it was like to kiss the top of her grand baby's head. She would never see me say "I do". I'd never have the opportunity to introduce her to the love of my life simply because I had not met her yet. Mamma's life taken by a kid my age. A decent kid who was just nothing more than careless at the wrong time. On the wrong day.

"I didn't just go into the service because I didn't know what else to do." I told the attentive old man. "I went in because it was something I had to do. Momma always told me to follow that little voice that spoke to me in my heart. So, I did. And, up to this point, I was glad I did. We'll always need people to defend our country. People who can set aside politics. Who can look past protesters and see the bigger picture."

"What's the bigger picture?"

"That, no matter what people think, our country is not invincible. Even in the 21st century, we can be invaded and destroyed. That's why I joined. Because I don't want the people that I love, the ones that I grew up with, to go to work one day and have someone nose dive a plan into their building. I don't want my future wife to board a plane, only to have some extremist hijack it and send it to hell. I want to do everything in my power to prevent that from happening again."

"That's noble idea, son."

"What I am having a hard time with, is putting my life on the line for all the others. For the Wyatts out there who decide to pay no heed to the safety of others. Why am I putting myself in danger for the druggies and the murderers? They don't deserve my sacrifice. Wyatt doesn't deserve my sacrifice. If he had just looked where he was going. If he had obeyed the speed limit, even a little bit, momma would still be here today. I would be overseas, defending my country, and being honored to do it. But, no. It didn't work out that way. Wyatt killed momma. And for the first time since I enlisted two years ago, I am questioning why I did it. That's what's going through my mind."

The tears finally fell. I was able to hold them back at the service. When my commander came and said "Son, there's been an accident", I didn't cry. I was focused on getting home. Now I was on my porch. My momma's porch, in her chair, thinking about her. Tears, hot with anger and sorrow, fell down my cheeks. I let them fall.

"Jesus knew He was going to die. God sent Him here knowing that. We didn't deserve it. But, it was Jesus's duty. It was God's plan for Him. Just like it's God's plan for you to serve a country. Yeah, you got your bad ones out there. You got the ones strung out on drugs. Hell, that Eli has been on crack for the better part of ten years now. Marcy robbed the liquor store for her boyfriend and ended up doing 10 to 20 for shooting the cashier. And then you have Wyatt. That poor boy decided to speed home one day. No thought to it. Nothing behind it. He's not mean. He just made a terrible choice. But, God called you to fight and defend him; along with the preacher of the baptist church. God spoke to you and said to lay your life on the line for the lady about to give birth and is working two jobs to support her husband as he finishes school. Son, she's no different than the Wyatts and the Marcys of this country. Just like my sin of chewing tobacco is no different than the sin of adultery. We are all the same in God's eyes. Jesus died for you, a good boy, just like He died for the man on death row. No sin is greater than the other. No countryman is less than any other."

I looked at this old man, with his weathered face, and his tobacco stained overalls. I looked at his hands. Hands that were dried and cracked from years on the farm. I looked at him and saw him first the time. I saw what he really was. And I thanked God for him.

A week later I packed my bags and headed back to the desert.

Monday, September 5, 2011

The Kiss: A Dismemberment Story

Simply put it was the kiss that did it for me. He leaned in just slightly. Enough to make it clear his intention; but not too much to overstep any boundaries. He kissed me gently at first. Almost hesitantly. It was nice. At first.

But, the hesitation gave way to an urgency that I didn't expect. As his lips pressed harder against mine, I fought against his strong embrace. His arms had gathered me up when I wasn't paying attention. While I was focused on his breath, hot against my mouth, he had placed his hands around my waist and held tightly onto me. A little too tight.

I tried to shove him away. I tried to move my head. Shaking it back and forth as if to say, "No. No I don't like this. Your breath is too hot. Your taste is stale."  But, he continued to hold on. Unrelenting in his kiss.

His hands never explored any other part of my body. They seemed content on staying put around my waist. He never let up. His hunger lacked passion. His grasp more an exercise in control than in intimacy.

I began to panic. Then the panic gave way to anger. The anger fueled my attempts to break free. I reached for anything I could get a hold of. It was easy to find a weapon. After all, we were standing in a tool shed.

My dad's tool shed.

I grabbed hold of a hammer. Without giving much thought to the the consequences of my actions, I hit him in the back of the neck as hard as I could. Once. He let go. Twice. He stood erect, dazed. He looked at me, questioning my actions, with glassy eyes. He stumbled. Fell. On his way down to the dusty cement floor, he hit his head on the steel work bench that sat behind us.

The neck makes an ugly sound as it cracks.

I didn't drop the hammer at first. I just stood over his body, contemplating my next move. I knew he was dead. A person's neck is not meant to turn in that direction. I crouched low enough to the ground to get a good look at him. His eyes were open, forever caught in the endless question of why. I laid the hammer, my murder weapon, down beside him.

"Now, what do I do with you," I asked him. His corpse lacked a reply.
Slowly, I grabbed him by the arms and began the arduous task of dragging him out of the shed. I knew, without much thought or plan, where I was taking him.

The lake was no more than a hundred paces from the tool shed. In the summer time, it was home to a host of snakes, snapping turtles, and other assortment of carnivorous creatures. As children, we were not allowed anywhere near its banks. Fishing was not permitted. Swimming was out of the question. The lake was simply a mirage. An illusion of tranquility and summer enjoyment. My dad liked to tell me there were at least a thousand different ways to die in there.

It was the perfect spot to dispose of the body.

I was only able to drag him a quarter of the way before I had to sit and rest. The sun was beginning to say goodbye on this eventful day, when I sensed the first rumblings of an animal off in the distance. I didn't want to be discovered by any of the animals that lived out that way after sunset. Managing his heavy body was proving to be more difficult than I had anticipated. Killing had been easy. But, with his dead weight, I was not making much headway. Reluctantly, I decided on an ulterior, yet messier, method of concealing my crime. I went back into the tool shed and fetched the axe that my dad used to chop wood with in the winter time. My plan was to cut off the limbs and throw them in the lake. With the extra weight taken off, I reasoned I should be able to maneuver his torso with better ease.

At least that was the plan.

Our bodies are made to stay intact; to carry us through life with the protection that we need to sustain it. After we die, our bodies refuse to give up the fight. Our hearts, even though they cease to pump, still receive electrical impulses from the brain signalling some form of movement. Our bones, once given the duty to hold us upright and to protect our more fragile organs, refuse to break even after we have exhaled our last breath. These are the moments, that as living creatures, we don't realize. The corpse, however, looking at me with his neck twisted at that unnatural angle, was all too aware.

I approached him stealthily with the axe in my hand. I held it over my head, ready to swing at the slightest movement. I knew he was dead. Yet, something in me didn't trust death to keep him down. I circled his carcass a few times, nudging him with the axe handle here and there, half way expecting a reaction. When none was displayed, I prepared myself for the dismemberment.

I had originally drug him to the spot on his belly. His head laid at such an angle, that if he were on his back, his face would be in the dirt. So, I kept him on his stomach and spread his arms and legs out. He resembled a twisted angel. He looked halfway up at the sky, still kept one eye on me; while the other watched the ground.

I decided to start with his arms, rather than his legs. I had no reason behind this action. It just seemed like a good place to begin.

With the axe raised over my head, I stood poised to bring it down as hard as I could. Taking deep breaths, I swung with all my might.

And completely missed.

Undaunted, I attempted the act a second time. On this go around, I caught the arm where it joins to the shoulder. I felt the axe ripped through the muscle and tissue as it meant resistance at the bone. Again, I lifted the axe over my head and swung down. The cracking sound let me know that I was at least somewhat successful.

The fourth time was undoubtedly the charm. The cracking of the bones and cartilage gave way to the axe sweeping clean through to the ground. Careful not to get too much blood on me, I picked the limb up by the elbow and carried it to the banks of the pond. Once there, I threw it as far as I could into the placid waters. I returned to the body to repeat the process three more times.

By the time I had thrown the last limb into the lake, the sun had set. Working by the light of the moon, I made my way back to the torso. Even in the night, I could see blood splattered everywhere. I imagined what I must look like in my jean shorts and t-shirt. I could smell his blood mixed with my sweat all over me. Wiping the beads of perspiration from my forehead, I grabbed him by what remained of his clothes, and proceeded to drag him the rest of the way to the lake.

A person's body weighs considerably less when it's missing appendages.

With each tug of his body, I became increasingly distressed. I was furious with this man. How dare he touch me in such a manner. How dare he presume to believe that I would want his pungent breath anywhere near me. True, I had originally looked forward to the kiss. Yet, it became immediately clear that he had no idea as to what he was doing.

Cursing under my breath, I took a moment to rest my weary muscles. I was so close to the lake that I could see the ripples that various animals created as they made their way into the water. I imagined them smelling the blood and looking for its source. I knew I needed to get out of there quickly.

Fueled by my fear of the unknown creatures lurking beyond the tree line and with a renewed sense of energy brought on by the sudden burst of anger, I picked up the bloody torso and began to drag him to the shore once more. I thought ugly thoughts about the man that I had flirted with no more than a few hours prior. Remembering the dryness of his mouth and stale taste of his tongue, gave me the extra nudge to finally get what remained of his body to the water's edge.

At that point, I was at a complete loss of what to do. I was nowhere near strong enough to throw him out into the water. With relatively few options, the only logical choice was to weigh him down with whatever rocks I could find. I pushed the body as far into the water as I could and hoped that whatever was wondering around in the trees, unseen by me, would finish what I had started.

The hundred feet back to the tool shed took an eternity to walk. I tried to clear my head of all the unpleasant business that had preoccupied me for most of the evening. There was no use in trying to clean up any blood spilled on the cement floor of the shed. It was too dark to see anything. I made my way back to my room and prayed that my parents were already asleep. I did not feel that I had the strength for any explanations.

Besides, I needed to get to bed. The next day was a school day.