Brenda Beal, “Worth a feel,” she’d said a thousand times since Jack had dumped her and two kids, without a car, without a washing machine, without a refrigerator that worked, without all the money from her bank account, owing two months’ rent and the electricity and heating bills including the A/C bill (but he took the A/C because it was new and worked better than he did on his best day): all of this too soon revealed in their marriage. Little Jackie was her reminder of the night in the back seat of Jack’s father’s car, at the lake, under the moon, in a soft breeze the Atlantic sent in over Nahant and Lynn beaches. And Jenny carried the memory of a three-week hiatus after Jackie was born.
She worked two and three jobs a week, paid half for child care, the rest to barely live on, to eke out the future, as her mother used to say. Then, one of the sitters fell down the stairs at the subway and was suing the transit company, and another got pregnant, which found Brenda with her arms wide open for help, having to quit two jobs, sneak around on the third at odd hours, the kids back in the apartment alone for a few hours, giving her constant headaches.
That’s when Curly from the oil company, making a delivery, said to her, “You know how beautiful you are, Brenda. I could write this bill off on my own if I could come by sometime and see you, when the kids are asleep, of course.”
She fed him first (spaghetti with a great sauce was her specialty), gave him a few glasses of wine, said to herself, “What the hell,” and took him to bed. Curly was a nice guy and when he was fired a season and a half later, she did him favors for a few weeks, but then he got a new job, had to move, got a new girl who was cold, she figured, and was gone, like he had evaporated.
The meter reader for the electric company was too old, the mailman too young, and the building super too afraid of his wife to make an overture. She took a late-night job as waitress at a club that stayed open beyond legal hours, and made lots of tips allowing a few quick feels by stupid louts who could not speak their own mind in the presence of a sexy lady. It made her wonder what they were like at home. “No sexy lady there,” she was apt to say.
The club was shut down after a police raid, and one cop let her go out the back door when she slipped her phone number and address into his hand. She saw him a dozen times in a dozen weeks, always on a Friday evening. He paid her rent for the three months. She liked him, but he was almost getting re-acquainted with his separated wife and kids all the time, and finally did. He never rang her bell again and she never made a line-up at the police station.
A friend owned a beauty shop and had her do some work, and she worked as a night watchman at a few places, when she could get someone to keep an eye on the kids at the apartment, all these late jobs with proper paperwork, for she had the idea of collecting unemployment benefits sometime down the line. But she had always sworn that she’d never take that route.
Some things held her back, though she was insistent that paperwork, all paperwork, had to be completed, authorized and reported.
Then, when the kids got sick, one and then the other, inquick succession as though they had been drinking from the same cup, using the same spoon, things really fell apart.
It all crumbled in on her, and she found herself, one sad day, standing in line at the State Employment Security Office. The fellow at the counter at the head of her line was an overgrown giant of a man, soft in his voice, polite to the near extreme, and an Irish redness in his cheeks. Brenda noticed that he treated one and all with a certain amount of regard and respect. She heard some obvious regulars call him “Jimmy Boy,” which did not bother him at all, for his smile was always there.
His voice was warm and pleasant, as he sat behind the counter with her paperwork in his hands. “You still at the same address, Brenda?”
“Yes, I am.”
“Looking for work? Ready for work?”
“Anyplace and every place I can. With two kids it’s tough, but I’m not a quitter.”
He smiled a wide smile in return. It made her feel warm. “I don’t have anything listed here that’s applicable to you. You keep looking and we’ll give you what’s coming to you based on your records. That sound okay with you?”
His smile was authentic.
She gave him the biggest smile she could. She felt it to be as wide as the horizon at Nahant Beach on a grand morning, Europe pushing the Atlantic all the way.
He nodded and they finished the application. She was 12 weeks on unemployment. She thought she was in heaven.
An alarm sounded when she received a notice in the mail that her benefits would soon be running out. Before she knew it, she was Jim’s line at the office. “You only have a few weeks left, Brenda. You keep looking for work and I’llbe able to grant you some extension of benefits, if they fit the case.” She swore, later on, that Jimmy winked at her.
Two weeks later he granted her another two-week extension, And again a few weeks later.
“You still at the same address,” he said?
“You still looking for work?”
He stamped her paperwork for two more weeks. She could have kissed him.
The next time, the threat of discontinued benefits as alive as ever, Jim’s boss was standing behind him, arms folded, scowling, a motionless little black mustache sitting on his upper lip like a black marker had been snapped across his face. He looked like that bum Hitler, smoky and unreal, but threatening her all the way, like he’d send her off to some stupid prison or concentration camp. She tried to pull up the word “gulag,” but couldn’t do it. It seemed too far away; too implausible. “Hell,” she muttered, “that war’s already more than 50 years away.
“You still at the same address?” Jim said.
The boss turned away when she stared at him, like she had found the classroom stoolie right there in the back row all the time.
“You ready for work?” Jim said.
“Yes,” she said and unbuttoned the lone button on her thin black raincoat.
She was stark naked, all the way up and all the way down, beautiful all over and whispered, “Do you like spaghetti with the best ever sauce?”
And he whispered in turn, “With red wine?”
“Yes,” she whispered, “a good dago red.”
“Your benefits are extended two more weeks, Mrs. Beal,” Jim said, and the stamp came down on the lone document in front of him with the full authority of the whole Commonwealth.
Jimmy smiled the horizon smile, the red Irish smile.
Brenda Beal, in anticipation, squeezed her legs as tightly as she could.
She affirmed all over again, “There’s nothing like it, Jimbo.”