I was supposed to have called Matt's work number and extension. He was testing his voice-over-internet phone to see if the pop-up box would appear on the computer screen as it should when he received an incoming call, the one I was supposed to have made.
"Matt," I spoke slowly, hoping to dilute his impatience, " I am not trying to aggravate you. You know, in the past couple of weeks, I have stopped to get gas, gone into the station to pay, come out, and driven away. A few miles later, I happen to look at the dashboard and notice I didn't pump any gas. I don't know how to explain that."
Matt pretended not to hear. He is not a man without sympathy, but it was not helping him to know I was a numbskull away from work, too. I had explained nothing. I was making him crazy, and he just wanted it to stop. I left his office without another word.
Working for Matt had been a joy up to a few weeks ago.
With the new year, several doors in my corridor of life slammed shut. Whether a result of winter's usual contraction and abbreviation, life reduced to the merest symbols of itself, or whether I and billions of other people on the planet, by whichever ancient design one may choose, are really facing the Apocalypse on personal and macrocosmic levels, I was left with a sense of foreboding of further damage to the delicate tendrils I was pushing out toward a possible spring. I am not sure now it will come, this year or any other.
There were hints of news that no one would like back in November, but I was keeping my chin up with Christmas ahead. We pretend during the Christmas season, which is unique in the way it stops time. We are all again in a wonderland of hope and promise that abides right up to the 25th, and then we are glad it is over and not sure what all the fuss was about as we continue to find pine needles, tinsel, and ornament hooks all over the house for weeks after. One day, almost suddenly, we realize the gloom and emptiness of January has entered the heart.
As I learned exactly the day after Christmas, my favorite web site where I communed with others who were, or had been, homeless, and what had been a consolation in weary evenings alone, was destroyed by a progress of incautious behavior and unseemly events in the lives of the moderator and his girlfriend. She was discovered by twists and turns to be the paramour in a drama that led her to Scotland and the very doorstep of the mother of his new child. Her personal tragedy, while it did not bring an empire down, meant we were all thrown from the hearth to the outer darkness once again, our stories of how homelessness happened to us and our attempt to communicate it, broken and scattered. Thankfully, a few friendships engendered by the web site had been preserved through private email. Otherwise, nothing was left.
Then my carburated truck, so unhappy in the rain as it sputters and chokes its way to a start as if it were drowning, gave out near the end of last week's deluge. It was towed to the middle-eastern garage and given a new battery. Raised from the dead once again, the truck wheezed and backfired to a complete stop on the freeway ramp a few days later. It was out of gas. The following day, it would not start at all when I returned to the parking garage laden with bags of grocery. Towed again, my poor truck would not be returned to me for an entire week. I had broken the gear box in the steering column, and every junk yard in the area had to be scoured for parts.
Obviously, part of the problem with the truck, besides its age, is me. The gas gauge is inaccurate, and I know I take a risk each time I allow it to fall below a quarter of a tank. I take my frustrations out on the truck regularly, too, by slamming it in and out of Park, hence, the most recent expensive repair. The other slice of the problem is just bad luck. Otherwise, how does one account for the tow-truck driver putting the key in the ignition and pulling it out with the entire starter cylinder attached? I wonder why the wheels, out of shame, do not just fall off and roll away.
The cost of the repair rocketed my running tab with the garage to a thousand dollars; and after a week in a hotel room, eating out every day, and taxi rides to work, I was in trouble again with Bank of America, a representative of which said I was fortunate to have received only four service fees for my overdrawn account as her bank had so generously decided not to charge anyone beyond that number. Of course, all those fees meant that my next automatically-deposited payroll check would be gone --- eaten up by bank rapine --- and that I would incur still more fees attempting to live on too little money. There was no end to the plunder in sight.
All the while, there were moments when the truck's repair seemed unlikely. They had found a steering column, but for a standard shift. Another search produced the proper one for an automatic transmission, but pieces had been broken off in the process of removing it from the wrecking yard. That part, for fear another one could not be located, was held back for repair. A close call. Real close.
I had not thought much about what I would do if the truck were ever discovered to be beyond repair. I have not afforded myself the luxury of such thinking, as being without both my vehicle and current home, as it were, would seem quite outside my capacity to cope. And it nearly was. I was distracted by thoughts of what I would do and where I would go, whether I could continue working if I had to bus, first, to all manner of social service agency to find a place to live. I have tried with difficulty to imagine living in a shelter and working a normal week. Typically, I would be downtown where most shelters are located and have to take both buses and trains and make as many as three changes one way to get to work and back.
Try as I might to amuse myself with television at the hotel, the vision of absolute final ruin never left me. It could be the end this time. I tried to pray, but that eluded me as I could not concentrate well enough to do it. I only slept part of the night, awoke with headaches, and had episodes of nausea throughout the day at work. I was in a sleepwalker's trance by the end of the week when Matt enlisted my help in his office.
In the week before the rainstorm, a woman who had become a friend at work left the company, followed by a young women whom I liked very much who quit in protest, and a manager who was fired for stealing credit card numbers. Being at work now was lonely and uncertain, and there were nasty rumors in the air. But I was bearing up; I had to. Holding a job gave me a paycheck and something to do besides dwell on the grief-stricken past. Fortunately, I doubt I could lose my job short of applying an Uzi to the place since I would have to trump the gangstas, ghetto girls, and welfare moms with their wide array of work habits so poor and glaring you would walk away convinced your dog could be Employee of the Month.
To be honest, though, things have cleaned up quite a bit from the time I first began employment with Matt, and I should admit I wanted this job knowing I would not be vexed by a strict dress code or stymied by an expectation of sociality with people of my own age and experience. After all, I was getting dressed in the morning without the aid of a mirror and doing make-up with a small mirror but not enough light. I could wear torn and ill-fitting clothes. I could wear the same thing every day. I could miss a hair washing. To wit, I could be poor among the poor, and no one would care what my truck looked like.
The best thing about January 2010 was it ended.