Jack Dunne walked into the dimly lit tavern feeling like everyone in the world had taken a turn beating him with a bat. His back was so tense that it actually hurt to move. He had a pounding headache that had lasted for the past week and it was only getting worse. Aspirin and Tylenol hadn't even put a dent in it.
Unable to see in the dark room he hit his knee on a chair while walking over to the bar. Now his knee was throbbing with each step. It was just one more thing in a long line of bad things that had happened over the past few months. Months? Bad things had been happening for years. At least the pain in his knee took his mind off the pain in his back as he now hobbled over to the bar.
The pain wasn't just physical. His spirit had taken a beating as well. So far, life hadn't worked out for him like he had imagined when he had left home as a younger man. The dreams of youth included a new car every year, a big house, a pretty wife, and a couple of kids that were stars in school. He had a house, but it wasn't a big house and he doubted it would be his for very much longer. Considering the way his life was going, he figured that he'd have to settle for a used car every five years, public housing, an ugly wife, and kids who dropped out of school their senior year.
At the moment, he felt that the last nail had been driven into his coffin. Five blocks from home, his ten year old truck had given out on him. It probably wasn't down for good, but it would cost a couple hundred dollars to fix. The problem was that it was a couple hundred dollars that he didn't have. He had no idea how he would make it to work tomorrow; that is if he had to work tomorrow. In these trying economic times, having a job to go to was not assured.
Jack limped over to the bartender and asked, "Can I use your phone?"
The bartender looked at him as if he was from another planet and asked, "What's the matter? Don't you have a cell phone?"
"My truck broke down, my cell service has been canceled, and I have three dollars," Jack answered. He had searched for a payphone but hadn't been able to find one. He had never noticed when they had disappeared from the American landscape.
The bartender shrugged his shoulders and pointed to a phone on the counter. He said, "Make sure it is a local call."
"Sure," Jack replied. Staring at the phone, he wondered who he could call. Unable to identify someone, he asked, "Could I have a glass of water?"
"I guess," the bartender answered looking at the young man's blue jeans, work boots, and tee- shirt with a slight degree of disdain. They usually had a slightly higher class of clientele. He pulled down a glass and filled it with some ice and water. He set it on the counter and asked, "Aren't you going to make the call?"
"I'm trying to think of someone who would help me push it the five blocks to my home," Jack answered picking up the glass of water. He took a sip wishing it was something stronger.
"Call a tow truck," the bartender said.
Jack sat down on one of the tall bar chairs next to the phone. It took the pressure off his throbbing knee. Irritated, he said, "I've only got three dollars."
"You can't do much with three bucks. Beers are three fifty," the bartender said returning to work straightening up the bar.
Jack rubbed his forehead wishing he could get rid of his monster headache. He was about to ask if the bartender had an aspirin, but one look at the man made him realize that it would be a wasted effort. He stared at his glass wondering what would go wrong next.
A woman interrupted his thoughts when she said, "You look like I feel."
Warily, Jack looked over at the woman wondering if she would be the source of his next disaster. She was sitting a couple of chairs down from him and nursing a glass of white wine. She was attractive in a tired sort of way, but her beauty was muted by the haggard weary look of someone who had been dealt too many bad hands in a row. He estimated she was in her early thirties. He said, "Life saw that I was down so it hauled off and kicked me ... repeatedly. I'm waiting for the next blow."
"You and me both," the woman said. She took a sip of her wine and stared off into space. After a minute a tear started to trickle down her cheek.
Although he really wanted to revel in his misery for a moment, Jack wasn't really the type to sulk and he could never resist helping someone in trouble. He asked, "What's the matter?"
"My life sucks. I had such dreams when I was young," the woman said in a weary voice.
"You and me both," Jack said. He installed carpet for a living, but with the downturn in new construction, the lousy real estate market, and high gasoline prices it seemed to him that no one was buying carpet. He made good money when working, but he'd had two small installation jobs the whole week.
The woman said, "I'm late on my rent. I'll probably get kicked out by the end of the month."
"The only bill I managed to pay this month was my mortgage," Jack said shaking his head. He had followed everyone's advice and bought the biggest house he could afford. Even though it was just a three bedroom wood house that needed lots of work, he couldn't afford it now. The property taxes had doubled, the cost of electricity had shot up, and his paycheck had decreased. His house was worth less than he owed on it.
"At least you have a roof over your head," she said.
Jack snorted and said, "A roof yes, but no electricity and no gas. I'm cooking my meals over the barbecue pit using scrap wood from the job sites where I work."
"Sounds like we're riding in the same boat," she said in a depressed tone of voice. She took a sip of her wine wishing that it had been a bigger glass.
Jack looked over at her for a minute and said, "Yeah, I guess so. It seems to me that it is a pretty damned big boat with lots of people in it."
"Tell me about it. I don't know anyone who is having an easy time of it," the woman said.
Jack took a drink of his water. He wondered what had gone wrong with the world. He sighed and said, "I've got to figure out what to do about my truck. It is sitting by the side of the road with steam coming out from under the hood. I know it is the water pump."
"Sell it and buy a cheaper one," she said. She knew it was bad advice even as it came out of her mouth. People told her to do the same thing each time her car broke and she couldn't afford to do it. There was no reason to think he could afford to do it either.
"I'd get a hundred dollars for it in its current shape. Of course, by the time I find a buyer for it I'm sure that the city will have towed it off," Jack said.
The woman drank down the rest of her wine and said, "I'll steer if you'll push."
"That's real nice of you, but you don't have to do that," Jack said. He looked at his glass and saw that there was only a sip left in it. He drank it down wishing once again that it was something stronger.
The woman looked at her empty wine glass. She didn't want to go home. She was positive that there was an eviction notice taped to the door of her apartment and she didn't want to face it. Shrugging her shoulders, she said, "I don't have anything better to do."
"My name is Jack Dunne."
"Nice to meet you, Abby Dickerson," Jack said rising from his chair. At least his knee had stopped hurting.
Abby tossed a dollar on the counter, rose from her chair, and said, "Let's get out of here."
Together they left the bar with Jack holding the door open for her. He led her to his truck. The steam had stopped pouring out from under the hood, but there was a huge puddle of anti- freeze under the truck. Shaking his head, he said, "This is the hunk of junk."
Abby pointed to a little beige car and said, "I hate to say this, but it looks nice compared to my '88 Nova."
Jack looked at the car taking in the rust, dents, dings, and torn up bumper. He would have suggested towing his truck behind hers, but he didn't think it would survive the effort. He would have suggested pushing it with her car, but he figured that would kill her car just as well. Not looking forward to pushing his truck five blocks to his house, he opened the door and said, "It'll be hard to steer."
"Where are we going?" Abby asked.
"Three blocks down, a block to the right, and then a block to the left," Jack answered.
Abby climbed in the truck and looked around. She was surprised to find that the cab was fairly neat despite the fact that the truck bed was filled with odds and ends. She pressed the brake. She went to turn the wheel and it locked on her. She said, "I'm going to need the keys."
"Oh, right," Jack said digging into his pocket for the keys. He pulled out his key chain with an old leather bob on it. At one time there had been a Celtic cross painted on it, but the paint had worn off years ago. He handed them over to her.
She slipped the key into the ignition and turned it to release the wheel. She rolled down the window after closing the door. Leaning her head out, she said, "I'm ready when you are."
Jack went around to the back of the truck and leaned into it. It started to roll forward when Abby released the brake. It took about twenty yards to reach an even speed that minimized the effort of pushing. The first block wasn't too bad, but by the end of the second block Jack was wondering if he was going to make it. Halfway through the third block, Jack's strength gave out. He staggered to a stop and the truck rolled a dozen feet before coming to a halt.
He dropped to the ground beside the road breathing heavy. Abby put the truck into park and turned off the key. She got out of the car and walked over to where he was lying on the grass that had turned brown over the course of a hot dry summer. Looking down at him, she said, "I didn't think you'd make it this far."
"Neither did I," Jack said. Shaking his head to clear it, he said, "We're halfway there. Give me a minute to get my strength back."
Abby looked up the road and said, "You don't have to get it all of the way home tonight. I imagine that once you get it off the main street that it will be safe to leave it there for a day or two."
"You're probably right," Jack said confident that he wouldn't be that lucky. He really wanted to get the truck to his house thinking that he might have something around there to take to a pawn shop to get enough money to fix the thing himself. He wondered if they'd take a broken blender. He looked over at the truck wondering how much it was going to cost to fix it. He wouldn't know until he had a chance to see just how bad things were with his engine.
Abby lowered the tailgate and took a seat. She was wearing a dress that came below her knees and wasn't prepared to sit down on the ground. Looking over at Jack who was stretched out on the grass, she asked, "Do you know how to fix it?"
"I think I can manage it. With these modern engines, it isn't always straightforward," Jack said fearing that there would be some electronic sensor that would have to be replaced. That would probably require a computer to reset the check engine light. His father had always complained about having to take his car to the shop to get the simple things done on it. He was always talking about the days before cars became controlled by computers. Jack was coming to agree with his father.
Abby said, "You're lucky. I have to take my car to a garage. It seems like it costs five hundred dollars every time I take it in. Each time I get that old thing fixed I can't help but hope that it will run for six months or so. It never does. Two months later, I'm back spending another five hundred on it. It would probably be cheaper to get a new car, but I can't afford to do that."
"It always comes down to money," Jack said sitting up with a groan. A muscle in his back went into a spasm bringing a grimace of pain to his face. He arched his back and felt the muscle slowly relax.
"Money that I never seem to have," Abby said with a sigh. She was tired of watching every penny. The wine she had drank that night had been more than she could afford and it sat sour in her stomach. She had justified the purchase thinking that she deserved a treat once in a while.
"Yeah," Jack said. "I used to make pretty good money as a carpet layer. I was working six days a week and making $15 an hour. Now I'm lucky if I can get three full days of work a week."
"I made real good money as a massage therapist. I usually had six clients a day at $20 per client and tips. The spa I was working at closed and suddenly I was out of work. Got a job at another spa for $15 a client and tips, but it went out of business a month later. Our customers were having a hard time paying for a massage when the price of gasoline went up," Abby said.
Jack looked over at her and asked, "You were a massage therapist?"
Abby answered, "Yeah. I wanted to help people feel better, but I couldn't afford to go to college to be a nurse so I went to massage school. I graduated a certified massage therapist. Fat lot of good it did me."
"You sound a little angry," Jack said.
"I was sold a real bill of goods. Do you know how many times I've been asked for a happy ending?" Abby asked with disgust evident in her voice.
"Probably a lot," Jack said. He was pretty sure if he spent money to get a massage that he'd ask for a happy ending.
She sighed and said, "Now I wipe the asses on old folks in a nursing home. I spend so much time cleaning the cocks of dirty old men that I'm thinking about going to place where they give happy endings. The tips run about $40 and I'd get $10 for the massage. You don't even have to let them fondle you. I'd make about $1250 a week doing that."
"You'd get arrested," Jack said.
"Knowing my luck, you're right," Abby said. She snorted and said, "The law thinks that wanking a cock is more demeaning than wiping the shit off an old man or woman. Hell, I've had them piss on me while I was cleaning them up. Assholes."
"The old folks can't help it," Jack said trying to excuse the actions of the elderly.
"I wasn't calling the elderly assholes. I was taking about the assholes that would arrest me for finishing a massage with a happy ending," Abby said. If she could get five customers a week in her apartment, she'd make an extra two thousand a month. That would pay a lot of her bills, particularly if Uncle Sam never learned of it.
Jack frowned and asked, "Are you really considering it?"
"Yes and no. I had a regular customer who told me outright that when money gets tight like it is that people demand a little more for their money. I guess I can understand his position. He used to go to one of those Asian massage parlors for a little action after going to the spa to feel good. Last time I saw him he told me that he does one or the other," Abby said. She shook her head and said, "He was a good tipper. He probably would have tipped me the hundred dollars that he would pay for the rub and tug at the Asian place if I had given him the happy ending."
"Sorry," Jack said not quite knowing what he felt sorry about. He'd never thought about prostitution or the women that went into that business.
She looked at him thinking he probably considered her nothing but a slut by now. She said, "At least I have options. What about you?"
"I don't know. I can probably fill in some time with a job that pays a little less," Jack said. He was thinking that he might be able to mow some lawns over the weekend for a little extra cash. He had done that almost the entire summer to buy food and gasoline.
"A life of crime for me and homelessness for you," Abby said wiping her eyes. Angry at herself for crying, she stood up and said, "Let's get this truck moving."
Jack rose with a groan. He hadn't recovered from the first push and wasn't looking forward to the second. He hoped to make it to the end of the street and around the corner before having to rest. He closed the tailgate and said, "I'm ready when you are."
"Give me a minute," Abby said making her way to the front of the truck. Jack waited until Abby called out, "Any time now."
He dug in and pushed on the back of the truck. It was hard getting it to start rolling, but he managed. The corner was slowly approaching and he shouted out, "We need to turn at the next street."
She shouted back, "Okay."
They managed to navigate the corner. The truck was hard to steer with the power steering gone and the low speed. Abby had to use lots of muscle to turn the steering wheel, but it was still a pretty wide turn. They were lucky that a car hadn't been there.
Two teenage boys were throwing a ball in the front yard of one of the houses. They noticed Jack pushing the car and came over to help. Without saying a word, they got behind the truck and started pushing. Jack, who was about to give up, continued to push the truck in the slim hope the boys would stick with it until the truck made it to the driveway of his home. He shouted, "We turn left at the next street."
"Okay," Abby said noticing that the speed of the truck had picked up considerably. Checking in the mirror, she noticed that there were now three heads behind the pickup truck. She smiled thinking that they had probably joined in to help the poor woman steering the truck rather than the guy pushing it. She worked the wheel around and made the left turn with a little greater ease than the previous turn.
Jack was really puffing by this time. About three quarters of the way up the street, he let go of the rear. Bent over at the waist with his hands on his knees, he struggled to catch his breath. He said, "That's enough for now, boys."
The two boys stopped pushing and stood beside him. Abby saw that the speed of the truck was decreasing. She maneuvered it to the curb and let it roll to a stop. Abby put the transmission into park and turned the key. She got out and said, "Thanks. I don't know what I would have done without your help."
"That's all right, ma'am," one of the boys said politely.
"Many hands make light work," the other boy said straightening up a little.
Abby smiled at them and said, "You were lifesavers."
Jack looked at the two boys and then at Abby. He realized why they had probably joined in to help. He said, "Thanks. I didn't think I was going to make it there for a minute."
"No problem, mister," the one boy said still looking over at Abby.
The other boy said, "Always glad to help a lady."
The boys walked off satisfied with their act of chivalry. Jack watched them go with a smile. When they turned the corner, he looked at Abby and said, "Some folks think that chivalry is dead."
"It might be mortally wounded, but it isn't dead yet," Abby said with a sad smile. She looked over at Jack thinking that in many ways women had it easier than men. If she had been stuck by the side of the road with steam coming out from under the hood of her car, she would have had a dozen men stopping to help her.
Pointing to his house, Jack said, "I can offer you a glass of warm soda."
"Warm soda?" she asked looking over at the house. It was an older home that needed a bit of work, but it looked like it was well maintained. The grass was mowed.
"My electricity is out," Jack said.
Abby looked over at him and said, "I forgot about that. Warm soda sounds fine to me."
He said, "We can sit on the front porch."
"Sounds good to me," she said following him up the drive to his house. She didn't exactly want to go into the house of a stranger.
Gesturing to one of the folding chairs on the front porch, he said, "Have a seat. I'll be back out in a minute."
"Take your time," Abby said.
While Jack was in the house, Abby looked around the neighborhood. It was an older neighborhood filled with an aging population. Only one house had a couple of kid's toys visible from where she sat. All in all, it was pretty quiet in stark contrast to the apartment complex where she lived.
Jack came out a minute later and handed her a glass with soda. He said, "Here you go. I wish I could offer you more."
"That's alright. I understand," Abby said taking the glass from him. If he was at her house she would only be able to offer him a glass of orange juice.
Jack took a seat with a sigh wondering how much longer he'd be able to keep the house. He looked around the neighborhood and said, "This is my castle. What do you think?"
"It looks nice and quiet," she said.
"Most of the neighbors are retired. About the only action around here is the occasional ambulance," Jack said shrugging his shoulders.
Abby laughed and said, "We don't get many ambulances where I live. Usually it is a police car that shows up over some domestic dispute. It seems that there are a lot more of those lately."
Jack took a sip of his soda thinking that there weren't many things worse than warm soda. An awkward silence descended upon the pair. He said, "I'll walk you back to your car when you're ready to go."
"Thanks," Abby said.
Jack said, "Thank you. I don't know what I would have done if you hadn't offered to help."
"It was nothing. All I had to do was steer the truck. You had to push it," Abby said. She was silent for a moment while the beginning of an idea slowly formed in her mind. She said, "You know; that kid was right."
"About what?" Jack asked.
"Many hands make light work," Abby answered.
Jack still wasn't following her line of thought and asked, "What do you mean?"
Abby didn't answer right away. She was still trying to put all of the pieces of an idea together. After an uncomfortable silence, she said, "Everyone that I know is having money problems."
"Same here," Jack said.
"I just realized that we are all facing our problems alone. Things might go a little better if we were helping each other rather than going at it alone," Abby said.
"What are you suggesting?" Jack asked.
Looking over at Jack, Abby said, "I'm not suggesting anything. I was just thinking that it was kind of stupid for me and all of my friends to be struggling to get by when we could be helping each other. I think that we could all be living a little better."
"I considered renting out a room, but I was worried about the kind of person that might move in," Jack said. He realized now that he should have done that. If he had, maybe he wouldn't be faced with losing the house. He shrugged his shoulders and said, "I guess it is a little late for that. Who would want to rent a room in a house without electricity?"
Abby shook her head and said, "I'm not talking about renting out a room. I'm talking about people pooling their resources to make life a little easier for everyone."
"I guess I've never thought about that, but I don't think I could do it. I'm kind of used to my independence," Jack said. He wasn't sure that he trusted anyone enough to share what he had with them.
Abby took a sip of her drink. She said, "I know what you mean."
Jack was silent for a minute thinking about what she had said. Finally, he said, "I guess you're thinking of that phrase ... oh what was it ... Divided we fall, united we stand."
"I think it was — United we stand, divided we fall," Abby said although she didn't feel very sure about that. Regardless of the proper wording, it captured the essence of the idea that was floating around in her head.
"That's right," Jack said.
Abby said, "Well, it is just an idea and only half-baked at that."
"It is not a bad idea. Most of my friends are married. I doubt they'd want a single guy hanging around their wife," Jack said.
"That's true," Abby said in agreement. She looked around and realized that it was starting to get dark. She said, "I'm going to have to go soon."
"It is getting late," Jack said agreeably. He rose from his chair and said, "I'll walk you to your car."
"Thanks," Abby said. She trudged up the street wondering if she was just another loser in the game of life. She was headed towards a life of prostitution or being homeless. She didn't see too many choices ahead of her. She looked over at Jack and thought that his only future involved being homeless.