This was his least favorite part of the meal, but he had to drink the remaining milk or Rhonda would not be pleased. “Waste not, want not,” was her motto, and she made sure Ernie ate everything he was given.
He grasped the bowl by the sides and brought the edge to his gaping mouth, pouring as quickly and carefully as he could. He swallowed, barely, and set the bowl on the table with a clatter as he shook his head back and forth violently.
Rhonda chuckled at the sight. She knew he hated the taste of milk, but she couldn’t afford to have him wasting any, not with as many financial problems as St. Ives was having. She was already stretching it just to buy him his favorite cereal every week. But really, how could she deny him?
She couldn’t put her finger on the quality about Ernie that made him so endearing. Perhaps it was his quiet, unassuming eyes, always hidden behind those thick glasses. Or it could be the fact that he danced – if you could call his carefree movements that – his way everywhere, and didn’t care at all what others thought of him. Most likely, it was just his mind. He was a child trapped inside a man’s body, destined never to understand the complexities of the world. He perceived things so innocently – and struggled with even the simplest task that involved remembering something – but he had such tenacity that it was hard not to admire him. It was sad, in a way, that he’d never mature past his current mental capacity, but Rhonda was careful never to pity any of the many down-on-their-luck people she knew at St. Ives. She didn’t believe in pity – she believed in helping people.
Rhonda thought back to 20 years ago, when she first came to St. Ives looking to help those less fortunate than herself. She’d always had a heart for the homeless, and St. Ives needed someone skilled in the culinary arts to help out in the kitchen. It seemed to be a perfect fit, and for a long time it was. That was a long time ago, when she was an attractive, idealistic whippersnapper of a child who wanted to save the world. Much had changed since then – now she was just struggling to keep food on the table for all the residents, and every day seemed to drag on longer than the next. Her chance to make a true difference was gone, and her options were dwindling even more quickly.
Thankfully, though, there were people like Ernie that appreciated the work she did. Even if he didn’t say it, she knew he’d be lost without her and the rest of the staff at St. Ives. And truth be told, they’d be lost without him and the other residents as well. Their lives were inexplicably intertwined, and Rhonda knew she could never leave St. Ives voluntarily, no matter how hard it got or how pointless it all seemed sometimes.
The scraping of Ernie’s chair brought her back to the present.
“Ernie,” she said. “We need to talk ‘bout last night.” He’d hoped he could escape without receiving the lecture, but he knew better.
Rhonda pulled out the chair across from Ernie and sat down heavily. Her dark round face, framed by her bunned graying hair, was taut as she looked hard at Ernie, but her eyes shone a compassionate gleam. He looked down at the floor, avoiding her eyes.
“Ernie, why didn’t you come back las’ night?” The questions was simple enough. Ernie thought hard, trying to remember exactly why he hadn’t made it back, but his mind drew a blank. “I don’t know,” he finally muttered.
“Wal, you know da rules… You know I want ya ta be back before 8. You shouldn’t be runnin’ ‘round late at night by yerself. Besides, you have a nice warm bed here. Why you wanna sleep anywhere else?”
“I slept with Ike… he was warm,” Ernie replied, moving his head back and forth methodically, still staring at the floor.
“Wal, jus’ be sure you make it back in tonight. You know I was worried ‘bout you. I’m just glad you’re all right.” She stood up and patted him on the back.
“Go on. I guess you’ll be going back up to the corner today?”
“Well, come back later on. I’m baking cookies, and you might not get any if you’re not careful.” Ernie nodded again and stood up quickly as Rhonda began busying herself around the kitchen again.
“Bye Rhonda,” Ernie mumbled as he walked out of the kitchen. Rhonda smiled again. One could never stay angry at Ernie for very long. She knew he didn’t mean to stay out, and that he was sorry. He was safe, that was all that really mattered.
As soon as he left the kitchen, Ernie grasped the headphones and put them over his ears. With a familiar flick of his index finger, he started the music again, and jived his way on back towards 34 th and Broadway.
Chapter 2: Ned
Beep. Eggs, they’d have to wait for a minute. Beep. Ahh, milk, that could go with the orange juice –- better double-bag it just in case. Beep. Chips. Nothing special there. Beep. Beep. Beep. Load the bags in the cart and…
“Would you like some help getting that out to your car, Mrs. Jensen?”
“Oh no, dear, I’ll be fine. Thank you for your help. You have a nice day.”
“You too, Mrs Jensen.” Looking towards the back of the store, he was Ned was pleased to see an empty register line. He ran his hand through his graying hair and began to twirl his mustache. Finally a short break. His line had been non-stop for the entire morning, and despite his affinity for hard work, Ned needed a break. He nodded at Maria, turned off his cashier light, and walked towards the men’s’ room.
After relieving himself, he lowered himself slowly on the small bench in the lavatory. His knee was acting up again today. He’d need to take a few more Aspirin if he was going to make it through the rest of the day.
The door to the restroom blew open with a whoosh and in stepped Bob McCrane.
“Hey, Ned. Taking a break?” His smile was far too plastic to be genuine. Bob was about 25 years old, and most of the cashiers resented him, Ned included. Ned was nearly twice his age, and probably twice as intelligent, but Bob was the boss. He knew how to kiss corporate ass like no one Ned had ever met, and he was rewarded for it. He was always smiling, always trying to joke with everyone, always oblivious to the fact that no one liked him.
Ned smiled wryly back. “Yes, it’s been a busy day.”
“Indeed it has. Everybody needs a break eventually, that’s the truth, mmm- hmm. Back when I was working for…”
Ned took the cue and tuned out the rest of the inane story. All of Bob’s stories were the same. They all eventually ended with Bob saving the day somehow with his ingenuity, his charisma, and his I-just-won-an-Oscar smile. Ned didn’t need to hear another one of Bob’s supposedly inspirational stories in order to do his job better. And no story could improve his knee’s condition – certainly not one of Bob’s.
He already took his job very seriously. In fact, he took everything in his life seriously, but the job was especially important. Before immigrating to the US , Ned had been a well-trained, well-respected mechanical engineer. He was a wizard with mechanical structures, talented at design, and had a decent job designing small engines for lawn mowers, cement mixers, and the like.
It was a decent life, but there were dangers too. He and Lavina just didn’t have the kind of freedom that they truly wanted, and they wanted their children to have the best possible opportunities available to them. Life in the US seemed the best way to provide all of that, so they emigrated.
Things didn’t work out as they had planned, though. Lavina had become pregnant early on in their new life in America , and their finances were already strained from the journey itself. The pregnancy was long and difficult, and hospital bills continued to pile on. Ned had been holding out for a job related to his field of expertise, but at every interview they turned him away, citing “lack of reliable experience.” It seemed his years in Europe were not verifiable by the American companies, and despite his excellent overseas references, most companies were not willing to give him a chance.
He tried everything he knew to become more desirable to the American employers. He immersed himself in American culture, became familiar with American mechanic style and design, and created a portfolio of impressive ideas to present at interviews. He even changed his name to Ned, since employers seems to have such a hard time pronouncing his real one.
Again and again, however, he was turned away. With mounting bills and a new baby at home, Ned did the only he could – he took a manual labor job helping out at a construction site. Most of his co-workers were either in high school or immigrants like him. It wasn’t glamorous, but it helped pay the bills.
Ned worked incredibly hard, but he hadn’t lasted long. The knee injury from his childhood made it nearly impossible to carry heavy loads for long distances, a major job requirement, and he spent each evening with an ice pack on his swelling joint. Lavina finally convinced him to try and find another job, one that would require less physical strain. And with yet another baby on the way, Ned knew he’d have to find something.
When Ned spoke to Jon, his supervisor, about leaving, Jon had asked his wife, who worked as a manager at the local Dominick’s to hire him. It was a dock in pay, and certainly not the step upwards that Ned was hoping to make, but he was grateful for the much needed opportunity.
That was several years ago. Jon’s wife no longer worked at this particular store, and most of the other people he’d worked with in the past had long since moved on, but Ned had kept his job and continued to support his growing family.
It was far from the dream he and Lavina had had when they came to America , but Ned worked hard and earned himself quite a reputation amongst those customers who frequented Dominick’s Store # 4534. His grocery bagging skills had grown so legendary that new trainees were required to work with him a minimum of 10 hours before they could start bagging items themselves, just so they could learn the ropes.
Ned was ruthlessly committed to efficiency. He could scan, bag, and load a customer’s groceries into their cart faster than most customers could get their credit card out of their purse, all while holding a pleasant conversation. He never forgot a customer, he remembered everyone’s children or family and asked after them, and was always ready with a joke or short anecdote to lighten someone’s mood. Not to mention his uncanny ability to fit more items in a plastic bag than one would think possible. He knew exactly when items required a double or even triple bag, always took extra care not to break eggs or crush bread, and ensured all scented items were kept separate from food items, to protect his customers from soapy tasting bread, meat and cheese.
Ned did not go entirely unnoticed for his dedication and knack for the job. He’d been employee of the month countless times, and many customers flocked specifically to his line at the front of the store, just so they could tell him how their new baby girl was doing, or hear his latest joke, or ask for prayer for an ailing relative. Many women in the local area brought cakes, cookies, and other food stuffs for Ned and his family; yes, Ned was not unnoticed for his hard work.
But Ned was growing old. He could feel it in his bones every morning, and he could especially feel it as he sat down idly listening to Bob ramble on about nothing in the men’s room.
“So how about that, huh?” Bob beamed as his story drew to a close.
“That’s pretty incredible, Bob,” Ned answered idly. He had no idea what Bob had been talking about, but all the stories were the same, and the appropriate responses sounded nearly as rehearsed as the stories themselves by now. Of course it was all lost on Bob. He was completely infatuated with no one but himself, and Ned’s lack of interest didn’t faze him in the least.
“Yeah, it’s a great story… Well, I’d better get going. Lots to get done, mmm-hmmm. Don’t dally too long, Ned. The candy around your line seems to be a little out of whack.” Bob flashed another prize-winning smile as he dried his hands and stepped back out of the men’s room with a whoosh.
Ned stood up slowly and gingerly put some weight on his knee. He hoped the Aspirin would kick in soon. It was going to be a long day.