An Honest Day’s Work
An Honest Day’s Work
Copyright © 2017 Brent Jones
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise (except for brief passages for the purposes of review) without the prior permission of the author.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Visit the author’s website at AuthorBrentJones.com.
Edited by Sarah Burton
Edited by Belle of the Books Editing
Cover design by Humble Nations
Also by the Author
About the Author
· 1 ·
The morning rush was drawing to a close, and next in line was Mrs. Henson. She’d been coming in for a fresh loaf of walnut-raisin bread every Monday for as long as I could remember. And that’s a long time, mind you. I’d opened Dough Re Mi almost thirty years ago.
Mrs. Henson was a petite woman, a bit on the frail side, close to eighty, and always dressed in rich silks and bright colors. She was always cheerful and warm, too, even though she’d lost her husband a few years back. Half the town had shown up for his funeral.
There were times I thought about shutting this place down and retiring, spending my days more like Mrs. Henson—gossiping about town, attending church socials, and playing bridge on Tuesdays at the rec hall. It was true that my hair got a bit thinner each passing year, and my stomach got a bit rounder, but there was something satisfying about an honest day’s work.
Mrs. Henson took her loaf of walnut-raisin bread and smiled, showing off her false teeth. There were customers in line behind her, but that never stopped her from making idle chitchat. Not that anyone ever seemed to mind. Most people in Wakefield had nowhere to be.
“Smells lovely in here, Jim. Just wonderful.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Henson.”
“How ya been, anyway? Everything been good with you an’ Deb an’ the kids?”
She asked me that same question every week and my answer never changed. The kids were grown and gone, but that’s just the kind of town Wakefield was. Everybody knew everybody, and if you ever dared to have overnight guests, old Mae Boyd would be sure to write about it in the local gossip column.
“Oh, I’m just fine,” I answered. “We’re all good, in fact. Living the dream. And how’ve you been?”
“Just fine, dear.” She raised a bony finger and pointed to the wooden chairs and tables near the windows—antiquated relics, for the most part—where she and her husband once sat. “Not many folks sittin’ in here this morning, are there?”
In truth, it had been about ten years since I first built the addition on to Dough Re Mi. I thought some of my regulars might enjoy having a place to sit, kind of like a cafe. But people in Wakefield aren’t quick to embrace change. Most of them were just as happy to keep taking their coffee and baked goods to go.
Mrs. Henson, still looking at the tables and chairs, gave her head a soft shake. It was tough to tell what she was thinking, but after a moment she said, “This town ain’t what it used to be, you know.”
That was a sentiment I’d heard dozens of times over the years. And it seemed to me that whenever people talked about times changing, they never meant it in a good way.
“I guess we grow accustomed to how things were, Mrs. Henson.”
The sound of my voice drew her focus back in my direction. She blinked and glanced over her narrow, hunched shoulder and noticed the line behind her for the first time. “Best be on my way, Jim.” She lifted her bread a few inches in mock salute. “You take care now.”
I served a few more of my regulars before reaching the last man in line. I’d never seen this man before. His face was caked in dirt. He was short and shriveled and wore rags—what looked almost like potato sacks—torn and stained brown. A piece of rope held up his pants, the cuffs of which were in tatters, drooping over gnarled feet visible through holes in his sneakers. I tried to keep my expression even—on account of wanting to be polite and all—but I knew the surprise had shown on my face.
I nodded at the man, forced myself to smile, and asked, “What can I get for you?”
He had a nervous demeanor about him, like he knew he stuck out. His hands trembled—his whole gaunt frame shook, actually—and he fidgeted with his torn rags. His fingers were yellow, just like the few teeth he had left and the streaks in his greasy, silver hair—nicotine stains, I assumed, or it could have been God knows what else. His gray eyes were dark and dull, the gateway to all that remained of a broken man.
He smacked his parched lips for a second. “Could—could I use the bathroom?”
A voice spoke up behind the man—a voice I knew very well—a man about my age who had just come through the door. His name was Todd, and he embodied the picture that comes to mind when you think of a laborer born and raised in small town America.
“Bathroom’s for customers,” said Todd. “Gotta buy something first. Ain’t that right, Jimmy?”
Todd had this way of talking that made people dislike him right off the bat. He sort of sneered at you when he spoke, his thin lips curled in a sarcastic grin no matter he had to say. His eyes were always squinted, like he was staring straight up at the sun. He was missing a few front teeth, too, which made him sound like he had a mouth full of marbles.
I looked at Todd, but didn’t bother to acknowledge what he had said. I turned my attention back to the man in rags. “It’s unlocked,” I said. “Go right ahead.”
The man in rags spoke in a hoarse whisper. “Thank you.” He shuffled toward the bathroom, hobbling almost, the way a man might move if he has one leg just a bit shorter than the other.
Todd stepped up to the counter. “You start letting bums like that use the shitter and they’ll be lined up ’round the block.”
I tried to meet Todd’s gaze but his eyes were shielded beneath a mesh trucker hat, so I turned around and readied his usual order—a cinnamon roll and a cup of coffee. He made a point to come in at the end of the morning rush so he could shoot the breeze with me for a few minutes. He never had steady work to get to. He was always between jobs—roofing, trucking, landscaping—but he was a good customer, even if he was a hard man to like at times. I slid Todd his order and took his cash, already counted out to the penny.
“I mean it,” he said. “You’re invitin’ trouble in here.”
I closed the register and leaned forward on the counter. “What should I have told him, Todd? To go do his business in the bushes out back or something?”
He shrugged. “Beats me. But . . .” He gave his nose a pinch. “But for Christ’s sake, couldn’t you smell him?”
I had, and the odor was something awful. The man had been homeless for some time, I was sure of it. “I did.”
“So how come you didn’t just throw him out on his ass? You’ve got your regulars to think of.” He gestured to the empty tables and chairs, but I knew he was really talking about himself. “Don’t wanna upset your regulars, do you?” He took a sip of his coffee and waited for me to say something, but I held my tongue.
I had started wiping down the counter when the man in rags exited the bathroom. He hobbled toward me, and somehow his stench was even more pungent than before. Kind of a sour smell, like his clothes were soaked in urine. “Thank you,” he said.
“Ain’t you gonna order something?” asked Todd.
The man shook his head. “No, sir, I’m terribly sorry. Don’t got no money, I’m afraid.” He bowed his head to Todd in apology, which I thought was strange. He didn’t owe Todd a thing.
“What’s your name?” asked Todd.
“And where you from, Bob?”
“Here and there . . . nowhere to call home, though.”
Todd looked at me. “Told you.”
“Bob,” I said, “are you hungry?”
Bob stood no taller than five-three, five-four maybe, and looked starved half to death. His skin was dark and leathery, creased and full of deep wrinkles, proof he had no shelter from the elements. He raised his head a little—never looking directly at me—and said, “Yes, sir.”
“Want something to eat?”
“Ah, I was just sayin’ that I don’t got no—”
I silenced him with a wave of my hand. “It’s on the house today.”
I cut two thick slices of crumb cake and put them on a plate next to an oatmeal cookie, and poured him a fresh cup of hot coffee, all the while feeling Todd’s eyes burning a hole through the side of my head.
Bob looked at the meal I presented him with pronounced gratitude. He grinned—a mostly toothless grin—as if he had just received some kind of Heavenly bounty. “Thank you, sir.” He scooped up the plate and the mug with haste and shuffled to a table at the far end of the bakery.
Todd, in all of his infinite wisdom, leaned in close. “You gotta be fuckin’ shitting me.” He had skinny arms covered in tattoos—a skull and crossbones, the Harley-Davidson logo—whatever he thought might make him look as tough as he talked. “Now you’re givin’ bums free food? Didn’t take you for no fuckin’ socialist, Jimmy.”
“Give it a rest.”
Todd slurped on his coffee, took a bite of his cinnamon roll. “Bet you voted for that socialist governor from Arkansas, too.”
“This is my place of business, Todd. I can give away a free meal if I want to.”
“How long you been in business, Jimmy boy?”
“Thirty years or so. You know that.”
“And how long I been comin’ here?”
I ran fingers through my sparse, white hair and released a deep breath. “Well, about since the day I opened, I think.”
He nodded. “An’ how many times you given me somethin’ free to eat?”
“Is that what this is about?” I shifted my weight to one foot and put my hands on my sides. “You want me to give you something free?”
Todd was about to take another sip of his coffee but set it down. “No, that ain’t it. I don’t want nothin’ free, Jimmy. I earn my keep. I do an honest day’s work and pay my way like a real man does. What I don’t like seeing is my friends actin’ like a bunch of fags and commies.” He glanced over at Bob, who was savoring his meal, enjoying it in the smallest of bites, paying us no mind at all. “I’m telling you, Jimmy. Mark my words. He’ll be back here every damn day now beggin’ for scraps. You watch an’ see.” He took another long slurp of his coffee before adding, “What’s that Jesus said?”
“Give a man a fish and you feed ’im for a day . . .”
“. . . but teach a man to fish and you feed him for life.” I tapped my fingers on the counter. “Not sure Jesus said that one, though.”
“Sure he did.” Todd slid his empty mug and plate across the counter in my direction. “Somewhere toward the back, I think, in them red letters. And if Jesus said it, it’s good enough for me.”
“Jesus also said ‘blessed are the poor.’ ”
“Ha!” Todd tilted his head back as he laughed, his voice a shrill squawk, and he slapped the counter in amusement. “Jesus never said no such thing. Sounds like somethin’ a goddamn pussy would say.”
“If you say so.”
“Anyways, I gotta get going.”
“Long day of work ahead?”
Todd wiped his mouth on his hand. “Yeah, somethin’ like that. You take care of yourself now, Jimmy boy.” He gave Bob one last stare before leaving.
Aside from Achy Breaky Heart on the radio—they’d been playing that darn song every fifteen minutes—the place was quiet, and with the morning rush over, I had time to clean up. I wiped down tables and peeked over at Bob. He was still working on his crumb cake and made no effort to look up or speak to me. He mashed the food between his gums, chewing with the few teeth he still had. I worked around him before returning behind the counter, getting to work on washing dishes.
Minutes had passed and his voice startled me. “Yes, Bob?”
Bob stood at the counter with a plate that looked like it’d been licked clean. There wasn’t so much as a crumb on it. “How can I ever repay you?”
Bob, looking everywhere but directly at me, added, “You was so kind to me this morning. Lettin’ me use your bathroom an’ all. Givin’ me something to eat.” He licked his cracked lips and trembled a little. “I w-was thinkin’ maybe there was somethin’ I could do for you to make us even.”
“That’s real kind of you, Bob. Real kind. Thank you, but—”
“I insist.” Bob still spoke in a hoarse whisper, but he somehow sounded more sure of himself now. He repeated, louder this time, “I insist.”
I leaned forward on the counter. “Can I ask you something, Bob?”
“How’d, ah . . . how’d this happen to you? How’d . . .” I just couldn’t find the words without sounding like I was judging him. It was none of my business in the first place. But I had never seen homeless folks around Wakefield before. You see that kind of thing down in the big city, but not up here. And part of me couldn’t help but wonder if Todd had been right. Did I help this man today, or did I just make his problem worse?
“I’m a vet.”
He nodded. “Never got used to the way things was when I came home. Kept waitin’ for life to go back to normal but it never did. The dreams, ah . . . nightmares, to tell you the truth. They never stopped, sir. Haven’t slept right in decades.” He rubbed his filthy hands together. “I—I can still see their faces, sir . . . children’s faces, most o’ them . . .” He stared at the floor and said nothing else.
“Bob . . .”
He didn’t look up, but asked, “How can I repay you?”
I really didn’t need anything from this man. I was happy just to do a good deed. My little bakery more than provided for me and Deb, after all. The kids at one time, too. But he kept insisting, and I decided giving him a task might be good for him. Maybe he just wanted to do a good deed today, too.
I reached beneath the counter and pulled out a stack of flyers—simple advertisements for Dough Re Mi printed on marigold paper, each about four by six inches, and each branded with the image of a two-slice toaster. “Want to deliver these?”
“Sure.” Bob snatched up the whole pile—about fifty or a hundred in all—and nodded, still careful to avoid making eye contact with me. “Where to?”
“Doesn’t really matter. Mailboxes would do the trick. Pick a street and deliver one to each home. You could pin up a few around town square, too, or put some under windshield wipers at the supermarket. It’s up to you, Bob. Just hand out as many as you can.”
· 2 ·
“You gotta be fuckin’ shitting me.” Todd’s face turned red—redder than the tufts of graying ginger sticking out from under his trucker hat, what little hair he had left. “Might as well’ve thrown all them flyers right in the trash can. You think that old bum is actually gonna hand ’em out?”
It was the next day, and true to form, Todd lingered after the morning rush had passed through. Only this time there was no small talk. Todd had important things on his mind.
“No harm in giving a man a chance,” I said. “You said yourself a man ought to pay his way.”
“Yeah, but him? Why not just turn this place into a soup kitchen right now?” Todd, incensed, chomped loudly on his cinnamon roll, and his words came out a jumbled hiss.
“He was hungry, Todd. I gave the man something to eat. What’s the harm?”
“It’s a bunch of bullshit, if you ask me. We oughtta get rid of handouts altogether. That goes for the feds, too. Let a man eat what he kills, if ya catch my drift.”
“You know, I think that’s just what I did. I gave the man an honest day’s work to do.”
Todd stepped behind the counter—he had always been forward like that—and took a flyer off the top of the pile. He studied it for a second. “It’s a special on muffins. Why the hell’s there a toaster on it?”
“Good question.” I shrugged. “Printer didn’t have many options. It was either that, or—”
I was interrupted by the front door opening. Bob walked in looking—and smelling—no better or worse than the day before. He was dressed in the same torn rags, the same piece of rope weaved through the loops of his pants. He hesitated at the sight of Todd before hobbling up to the counter.
“Good morning, Bob,” I said. “Need to use the bathroom again?”
“Oh, no, sir. Thank you. But I was wonderin’ if I might get somethin’ more to eat.”
I didn’t even have to look. I could feel Todd glaring at me. I could almost hear his thoughts, too.[_ See, Jimmy? What did I tell you? Now you’ll never get rid of ’im._] But what Todd thought was none of my concern at that moment. “Sure, Bob. What’ll you have?”
“Same as yesterday’s fine, sir, if it’s all the same to you. And could I get ’nother stack o’ flyers?”
“Handed them all out yesterday, did you?”
“Yes, sir. I did. And—”
“Bullshit.” Todd slammed his mug on the counter, coffee spilling over its edges. “I’ll bet this ol’ bum tossed the whole damn stack right in the trash. Didn’t you?”
Bob trembled a little and fidgeted with his rags. He sounded less sure of himself all of a sudden. “No, sir, I did n-no s-such thing. I handed ’em out. All of ’em. I swear.”
Todd leaned closer to Bob and lowered his voice. “Now who the fuck would take a flyer for a nice bakery like this from a dirty ol’ bum like you?”
“That’s enough.” I pointed at Bob. “This man is a Vietnam vet, Todd. Did you know that? Show a little respect. He’s doing his best.”
“His best? His—”
“Get out, Todd.” I motioned to the door. “I don’t need you in here upsetting my . . . customer.”
“Your . . .” Todd couldn’t bring himself to say it. He just kind of stood there and squinted at me. “Your customer.” It didn’t come out sounding like a question but more of an accusation. “No, Jimmy, you’re wrong on that. I am your customer and have been for years. An’ I’m not some freeloader like Bob here.”
I opened the register. “Happy to give you back your money, Todd. No problem.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“I don’t want no damn money back. I pay my own way, thank you very much. But I’ll tell ya what.”
“How ’bout you gimme a stack of them flyers, too? I’ll go hand ’em out, and tomorrow you can give me somethin’ free. How ’bout that?”
“This man—” I hated speaking about Bob as if he wasn’t standing right there, “—needs the help, Todd. You don’t. That’s the difference.”
“Fair’s fair, Jimmy boy. If that’s the way you wanna run your business, feedin’ every stray that comes scratching at the door, then I say we should all get the same treatment.” He finished what was left of his coffee in two big gulps. “Now gimme summa those goddamn flyers.”
I gave in and handed over a stack. “All yours, Todd. Have at it.”
Todd glared first at Bob, then at me. “I’ll see you tomorrow. Both of you, I bet.”
· 3 ·
I was pretty sure Bob didn’t have friends in town, so I sat with him while he ate. He chose the same spot as the day before. He didn’t speak much, mind you, so I decided to ask him about the war.
He just shook his head. “No.”
He stopped chewing, his mouth full of crumb cake, and looked out the window. “Just ain’t got nothin’ to say about it, that’s all.”
“All right. I won’t push.”
Still he remained motionless, fixated on the road outside and allowing several seconds to pass, each one counted by the monotonous tick-tock of a wall clock mounted near the front door. He set down the crumb cake between his fingers at last, cleared his throat, and said, “It’s not honest business.”
“What’s not? The war?”
“Yes, sir.” He licked his cracked lips and took a shallow sip of coffee. “The war, but people, too. They try an’ make us out like we was heroes.”
“You’re a hero as far as I’m concerned, Bob. You served your country and all. You ought to be proud of that.”
He shook his head a little harder this time. “Nothin’ heroic about killing, sir. Nothin’ heroic at all.”
He fidgeted with his rags before adding, “When you’re in it, you do what y’have to do to stay alive. That’s the simple truth of it, sir. It’s kill or be killed, an’ you learn right quick to trust nothin’ you hear or see.”
I nodded, even though I had no way of understanding what he meant.
“But you keep doin’ it for long ’nough and you sorta forget why you was doin’ it in the first place. You’re killin’ just ’cause you got used to killin’. Because someone else told ya it was what you was s’posed to do.” He raised his mug but set it down again without drinking from it. “Nothin’ honest ’bout that.”
“Truth is,” he continued, “a man does anything for long enough and he starts forgettin’ how to be honest ’bout doin’ it.”
Bob didn’t speak again for several minutes, instead focusing on the difficult task of chewing his breakfast. It was unpleasant to listen to—let alone taking in his body odor, sitting this close to him—but underneath it all I saw a man. A man not so different from me, or from Todd, for that matter.
He finished his coffee and, as if reading my thoughts, pointed to the counter where Todd had stood that morning. “Think I upset your friend there somethin’ awful.”
I shook my head. “He’s no friend of mine.”
“Todd? He’s . . .”
“We grew up together,” I said. “Never been close, even though he comes in here almost every day.”
“He’s a good customer?”
“Define good.” I chuckled, but it seemed Bob didn’t find the remark amusing. He sat stone-faced, awaiting my response. “Yeah, Todd’s all right, I guess. Just a bit, uh, conservative, let’s just say.”
“Politics can be enough to drive two men apart.”
“He thinks I’m askin’ for handouts, that’s all. Freebies.”
“You served your country, Bob. The way I see it, you shouldn’t need a handout in the first place.”
Tick-tock. Tick-tock. Tick-tock.
He finished his crumb cake and inspected his grimy fingers, hoping to find leftover crumbs. “Always tough to see things from the other side, I s’pose, ’til you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.”
“You know, you don’t have to hand out more flyers, Bob. I was happy to give you something to eat, and I enjoy your company, to tell you the truth.”
He stood up. “You’re very kind, sir. Thank you.”
“Please, call me Jim. Jim Cooke. And it’s easy for me to be kind—life’s been good to me. I’ve done well for myself.” I showed off my modest bakery with a wave of my arm. “Got a comfortable home, too. A loving wife. She teaches piano, you know. Helped me come up with the name Dough Re Mi, in fact.” A moment passed before I added, “And I never had to go to war.”
“You’re lucky, sir—uh, Jim.”
“I guess I am. I thank God every day.”
“But if it’s all the same to you, sir, I’d still like to do my part.”
· 4 ·
It was nearing three o’clock when I carried a bag of trash out back and stopped dead in my tracks, because that’s where I found them. All of them. A pristine stack of marigold discarded atop piles of garbage.
Todd had been right. He had been right all along. And I wasn’t sure which emotion I felt strongest—anger, disappointment, or embarrassment.
· 5 ·
The morning rush was over, and Todd gloated at the edge of the counter. “I told you,” he said. “You give a guy like that an inch and he’ll take a mile.” He stuffed another bite of free cinnamon roll in his mouth. “Gotta be tough on these sons of bitches, Jimmy. You should know that.”
“I know now.” I slouched over the counter and cupped my head in my hands. “I know now . . .”
And that’s when he entered. Bob, looking every bit as pitiful as the days before. He walked in with his head held low, his worn out sneakers flapping on the tiled floor.
“Look what the cat dragged in,” said Todd.
“Hold it right there, Bob.”
Bob looked up—not right at me, but in my general direction. “Jim, sir?”
“You’ve got some nerve coming back here after what you did.”
Todd chimed in. “You tell ’im, Jimmy.”
I revealed the flyers I’d pulled from the trash the day before. I dropped them on the counter in a neat stack and stared at the man in rags. “I can tolerate a lot, Bob. I’m a church-going man, and I believe in giving people chances. Feeding a man if he’s hungry. But I won’t tolerate liars in my place of business.”
Bob rubbed his eyes with fingers coated in filth, leaving black smudges around his eyes. He shook his head, flakes of white raining down from his scalp. “I’m no liar, sir. No, sir. Not me.”
“You insisted, Bob. Insisted. That’s the part I don’t get. I was happy to help you and feed you and send you on your way. You owed me nothing at all in return, but you told me you wanted to hand out these flyers. And do you know where I found them?”
Bob, gaunt as his frame already was, somehow shrunk down further. He peeked at Todd out of the corner of his eye and tugged at his rags. “Where, sir?”
“I found them in the trash out back. The whole stack I gave to you.”
Todd smirked, like he was thinking, [_How stupid could you be, Bob? _]But Bob said nothing in his defense. He just kind of stood in one spot and took his licks in silence, sheepish, again glancing in Todd’s direction.
“You need to go, Bob.”
“Yes, sir.” He turned around and trudged to the door.
“I’d better not see you ’round here again,” added Todd as the door closed.
“Thought he was different.” I shrugged as I said it, chastising myself for exercising such poor judgment.
“Ah, don’t be so gullible, Jimmy boy. That’s how they—”
He was interrupted by the door swinging back open and I had to do a double-take. It was old Mrs. Henson.
“Oh, Mrs. Henson, I wasn’t expecting to see you again so soon. What a nice surprise.” I glanced over my shoulder and added, “I don’t have a loaf of walnut-raisin bread ready for you, but if you can hang on a—”
“It’s all right, Jim, I ain’t here for that.” She extended her wrinkled hand, in it a piece of marigold paper. “Got one of these put in my mailbox yesterday. Says here I can get a free muffin with a cup o’ coffee. Is ’at true?”
“Yes, ma’am.” I took the sheet of marigold from her and set it on the counter next to the clean stack. Hers was creased and crinkled—on account of being stuffed in her purse, I assumed. “What kind of muffin would you like? Bran? Carrot?”
“Bran would be just fine, dear. Thank you.”
She paid me and said, “Nice of you to offer a little incentive like this.”
“I’m glad you liked it. I try to take care of my customers.”
“You’ve always been good like that, Jim. A good, honest man. But can I give you some free advice real quick?” She grabbed the crinkled flyer off the counter. “Presentation’s everything. You oughtta know that. See the edges right there? How they’re all worn and shabby? Kinda looks cheap, if you don’t mind me sayin’ so.”
I did mind, but I tried not to let it show. I peered over at Todd, wondering why he didn’t take more care when delivering the advertisements, but he kept quiet. “Right, Mrs. Henson. Thanks.”
“And the paper’s kinda dirty, too. See right here?”
I examined her flyer up close, and she was right—it was filthy, smudged with black, a dirty fingerprint visible just beneath the two-slice toaster . . .
“I’d best be off now,” she said. “You take care, Jim. Give my best to Deb and the kids.” The smile disappeared from her face as she looked in Todd’s direction. “Todd.”
He gave her a shallow nod. “Mrs. Henson.”
She left, and I crumpled the paper in my hand. “Todd . . .”
“What?” He donned his best look of surprise, cheeks stuffed with his last bite of cinnamon roll.
I picked up the clean stack of flyers and tossed them in his direction. “These were your flyers, Todd!” Sheets of marigold fluttered to the floor all around his feet.
He took a step back. “So what if they were?”
“I called a man a liar. A good man.”
“A good man? A bum that comes ’round asking favors, begging . . . that’s what you call a good man?”
“He’s no liar. You are!”
“Hey, Jimmy boy, now you just hold on a sec right there. Who’re you calling a liar?”
I stepped out from behind the counter and stuck a finger in his face. “You, Todd. You! You’re the liar. You begged me for a handout and then you tossed your end of the bargain right in the trash. And where I’d be sure to find them, too!”
“Lookie here, Jimmy boy. I been a good customer of yours for thirty years. Thirty years, and—”
“Not anymore! I don’t want to see you around here again, Todd. We’re through.”
“I did you a favor, Jimmy. You were too weak to man up and do the right thing. A goddamn disgrace, if you ask me. Actin’ like some kinda—”
“What’s ’at now?”
“No. You were too weak. Too weak to show compassion, Todd. Kindness. That’s the difference. And you didn’t do me any favors. You took these—” I picked up two or three flyers off the floor, “—and threw them away because you’re nothing but a lazy coward.”
“You better watch who you’re calling—”
“Get out of my sight, Todd. I don’t ever want to see you in here again.”
I watched Todd take his leave. I expected to see him walk out with his tail between his legs, but he held his head high, puffed out his chest with pride. He felt no shame. As far as he was concerned, he had taught me a valuable lesson, and I was supposed to be grateful.
But I had to ask myself, what was it that made Bob, a veteran who served his country, so easy to mistrust? And what was it that made Todd, a man quick to judge everyone he met, so easy to believe?
A man can get used to almost anything, I reasoned, including lies, mistrust, and above all else, fear of the unknown. All my life I had professed faith in an all-loving, all-knowing God, but it turned out I couldn’t spot the devil right in front of me.
Minutes passed, and I knew I had to go find Bob. I had to apologize. He didn’t deserve what I had said, but my feet were somehow planted to the floor. I stood there, frozen, staring out the front door at the empty street, questioning the sense of it all. I was alone in my little bakery, surrounded by piles of marigold, haunted by the perpetual tick-tock of the wall clock.
I had to go find Bob. I had to apologize to him.
I just had to. But I couldn’t. I didn’t deserve his forgiveness. I didn’t deserve . . .
Bob had said something to me the day before, and at first I couldn’t recall what it was. Then I heard it in his voice, as though he was standing right next to me. “A man does anything for long enough and he starts forgettin’ how to be honest ’bout doin’ it.”
My feet moved at last, slow and cumbersome. I shuffled to the door, little by little. But instead of reaching for the knob, I locked the deadbolt, and flipped around the &open& sign to read &closed& instead. I flicked the lights off and untied the apron I’d worn for more than three decades, letting it drop to the floor.
Tick-tock. Tick-tock. Tick-tock.
“Bob,” I whispered. “Bob, I’m sorry . . . I’m so sorry, Bob.” I brushed a tear from my cheek. “All I ever wanted was to do an honest day’s work.”
Also by the Author
Fender: A Novel
The Fifteenth of June
An Honest Day’s Work
The Matchbook: A Short Story
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About the Author
From bad checks to bathroom graffiti, Brent Jones has always been drawn to writing. He won a national creative writing competition at the age of fourteen, although he can’t recall what the story was about. Seventeen years later, he gave up his freelance career as a social media manager to pursue creative writing full-time. Fender and The Fifteenth of June are his first two novels.
Jones writes from his home in Fort Erie, Canada. He’s happily married, a bearded cyclist, a mediocre guitarist, (sometimes) vegetarian, and the proud owner of two dogs with a God complex. Subscribe to his newsletter or follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram for updates.
Why is the right thing to do seldom the easy thing? And are we, as people, as compassionate as we’d like to believe? Jim Cooke, a baker, lends a helping hand to a homeless Vietnam veteran passing through the small town of Wakefield. But he soon discovers his good deed will test both his faith and compassion. This short story, from the author of 'Fender' and 'The Fifteenth of June', explores the influence of popular opinion on morality, and the human tendency to fear what is unknown.