We Left Pete Under a Tree Contemplating Complete Freedom for a Week

Pete’s cell phone rang.  It was the police.  His boss had been arrested for embezzlement.  Could they come over to get some background facts from him?  No, the firm was not going to reopen.  There was no money to even cover the final paychecks.

Pete got to his feet, wiping his forehead.  So much for his week off.  He’d be spending it reworking his resume and contacting his network of business contacts.  Better head inside to get ready for the detectives to arrive.  He realized he was sweating.  But he’d land on his feet; he could do this.  Everybody had a bit of bad luck.  It was just such a shock.

Just as he closed the patio doors behind him, his wife’s best friend threw open the front door.  “I’m so sorry, Peter!  Is there anything I can do?”

Wow, news travels fast, he thought.  “No, Marnie.  I’m okay.  I’ll just have to find another job.  I’m sure I’m not the first.”

Marnie jerked her head forward, her eyebrows drawn way down.  “Job?  No.  I mean about the accident.”  Her hand flew to her mouth, and she burst into tears.  “You didn’t know.  Of course you don’t know.  They called me by mistake.  Because my last name is Peters.  They thought they were calling you, your number …to tell you…they’re…gone, Peter.  A car accident, in the mountains, nothing left.  They’re all gone.”

Just then the police arrived, knocked, and entered–both detectives and traffic police, ready to share the news of the embezzlement, the accident, and oh, there was more.  Peter’s boss had not only been an embezzler, but also a hacker.  He’d cleaned out Peter’s bank and investment accounts, borrowed on Peter’s life insurance plan, and run up an amazing amount of credit card debt in Peter’s name.  Peter was wiped out.

Night came, and Peter stopped answering the phone.  He sat in the dark.  I can’t even pay for the funerals, he thought.  Or food.  His eyes felt hot, and he realized he was running a fever.  Not that he cared.  What was a fever when he’d lost all his family?  But over the course of the next hours, his joints began to ache with a pain that seemed to be coming from deep inside him.  A neighbor found him delirious in the front yard the next day and rushed him to the hospital.  It took three tries to find a hospital that would take him since Peter’s health insurance had been cancelled, and his credit had been trashed by his hacker boss.  He was a charity case now.

When he recovered, he had nowhere to go.  No one wanted to help since his problems were so deep, they frightened his old friends away, almost as if Peter’s misfortune might rub off on them.  He took to sleeping on the beach, thankful that it was still summer.  Thieves stole his shoes, his belt, his watch.  He had nothing.  He ate food people threw away in the trash cans at the beach—pieces of hot dogs, the kernels in the bottom of boxes of popcorn, shreds of potato chips left in the bag, apple cores.  By day he sat in the shade of the cement walkway, watching Lake Michigan roll in and families play in the sand.  How had things gone so wrong, so quickly?  It was more than he could take in.

*     *     *     *     *

And, of course, it wasn’t his fault.  It was mine.  Third person omniscient gives me such ultimate power that I had to see if I could trash the perfect life I’d given Peter.  It was so easy; it only took nine paragraphs. Now Peter is homeless, lost, sick, and alone.  But it still doesn’t feel quite right.  I’m treating him as a pawn, a modern day Job, someone who has to go through whatever I pick for him.  That’s a writing tactic I typically advise against.  I haven’t given him a chance to develop a personality or even have much in the way of emotion.  That’s not really fair to him.

Ah the burdens of omnipotence.  You’d think with absolute power, we writers could do whatever we want, but apparently not.  We are playing with human beings who have free will, and once we admit that, things get very, very complicated for us omniscient folks.

So now I have to admit that he can do more than merely ride out the misery of those nine paragraphs.  He can act.  Maybe I should give him a paper clip, a plastic bag, a spoon, a candy wrapper, and a piece of gravel.  Or maybe you have a better idea.

19 responses to “We Left Pete Under a Tree Contemplating Complete Freedom for a Week

  1. I felt bad for him in a detached way.

    Isn’t there a shelter or church he could go to? That might help him back on his feet.

    Maybe give him a laptop and a hacking 101 book.

    Did he never check his credit card statements? I wouldn’t think his boss could do all that in one day.

    • Now you need to write his story, Lanyn. What did he do? Give him a laptop if you think he needs one. You’re the writer!

  2. When he recovered, he had nowhere to go. No one wanted to help since his problems were so deep, they frightened his old friends away, almost as if Peter’s misfortune might rub off on them. He took to sleeping on the beach, thankful that it was still summer. Thieves stole his shoes, his belt, his watch. He had nothing. He ate food people threw away in the trash cans at the beach—pieces of hot dogs, the kernels in the bottom of boxes of popcorn, shreds of potato chips left in the bag, apple cores. By day he sat in the shade of the cement walkway, watching Lake Michigan roll in and families play in the sand. How had things gone so wrong, so quickly? It was more than he could take in.

    (Okay, y’all. Here’s my “better” idea).

    Peter woke up in stages. His muscles were knots, but he didn’t know it. He couldn’t feel pain, yet. He only knew darkness, simple, black nothingness. He was in terror mode. Peter’s arms and clenched fists were steel bands criss-crossing his torso, attempting to keep him from falling apart. His forehead and knees touched, completing his fetal position. Only the moon witnessed his shrunken form curled up under the red maple tree.

    Pete’s mind groped. What was going on? What had hit him? He wondered if he was dead. Pain seeped in like the pricks of a billion pins stabbing his body. His head felt swollen and heavy. He regained consciousness to the point where he felt the grip he had on himself. What the hell, he thought. Gradually, he eased his hold. His body opened up.

    In a rush, he remembered what had hit him. His life had turned on him. It had bulldozed him down and then bulldozed him down again and then again. He had no family, no home, no job, no money, no nothing.

    Peter didn’t want to open his eyes. He was afraid of returning to the hell his life had become. The last he remembered was that he was hiding out under a concrete roadway.

    He looked up; he didn’t see concrete. He saw branches and leaves in the moonlight. He peered through the dark and saw a house. But, no house was near where he’d been hanging out under the walkway. Pete scowled. A yard light shone on a wooden deck. He had built a deck like that. A few deep breaths and a few minutes later, his mind cleared. He realized where he was and shuddered.

    He’d been to hell and back without going anywhere. He’s fallen asleep in his own back yard while the sun went down. Everything he’d dreamed was now fading and reality was reshaping him methodically like puzzle pieces coming together. He got to his knees and felt the grass. His muscles had relaxed to the point where now he was trembling all over. He sat and tried to calm himself. Ten minutes later, he struggled to his feet and stretched his cramped limbs until he could stand up straight. His mind was still going back and forth between his dream and reality.

    Peter stepped up onto his deck. He had to sit down again. Thoughts fought for a stronghold in his mind. Little by little, he realized that his family hadn’t been in an accident. His boss hadn’t been arrested and he still had a job. He wasn’t a charity case. His life was exactly as it had been when he woke up that morning. Oh my God, he mumbled to himself. His head hung down and he slowly shook it back and forth. Why had he dreamed such horrific dreams? What did it all mean and what was the purpose?

    At midnight, he went in the house and walked from room to room. Everything looked different. Every single thing he looked at seemed like a gift put there just for this moment. He realized as awful and real as his dream/nightmare had been, it had awakened him. He had a week to himself but he didn’t want it anymore. In half an hour, he was packed and driving to join his family. His only problem was how to get there fast enough without getting a speeding ticket.

    “Damn, life is good!” Peter hollered, bouncing on the car seat. He grinned for at least five miles.

  3. Ah, as always, Shaddy, you are forever feisty! I will ever admire people who get served XYZ and decide to rearrange things to their own liking. ZXY perhaps? And why not. If we can’t do it here, on the page, we’ll never be able to arrange our lives the way we want, as best we can plot it. You have not lost your touch.

    • You’ve made me float. Ouch, the ceiling is hard.

      If you only knew how many times I rewrote that first paragraph. I bet I spent about an hour on it alone. I do that a lot when I’m getting started. In the process, I don’t know if I’m improving my work or not. Eventually, I tire myself out and continue on. I wrote some last night and finished up this afternoon.

      It’s beautiful to be able to come back here and find you haven’t changed a bit.

      Thank you, Ann.

  4. One minute, on top of the world. The next, penniless, jobless, and homeless. And don’t forget about the wife and kids—gone forever.

    From a management position to living under a bridge. From dinner parties to eating at Bean’s Café, the free food place for homeless losers, inebriates, and psychotics. Peter tried to go at least once a day, but most of the time he just didn’t see the point in it, or in anything for that matter.

    He was ashamed that Marie and the kids didn’t have a proper burial because he had no money. The church auxiliary had taken up a collection to pay for cremation and held a simple service one Sunday after the morning service. Peter had accepted the sympathy of many, but after that? Well, he just dropped out of living.

    Most days he spent his time under the freeway bridge down by the lake, lost in grief and despair, incapable of seeing any way out of his depression, until after a couple weeks, he quit trying. When it rained, and the even the ground under the bridge was wet, he’d pull a large trash bag over himself, stick his head and arms through carefully placed holes, and go to Bean’s.

    He could linger there a couple hours, at least until the staff closed up to clean in preparation for the next meal. Most of the clientele stood around the outside, visiting with friends, passing on info about the latest illegal camping place the city had raided and what place they hadn’t yet discovered. Peter didn’t care if they found his cardboard under the bridge. He’d go get more somewhere, or go without. Didn’t matter.

    Today Peter was in his garbage bag raincoat and noticed that the new soup kitchen next to Bean’s was open for the first time. He wandered over and got in line for soup and a sandwich. The server handed him a Styrofoam cup of beef barley soup with a chunk of flatbread stuck on a plastic spoon and another server asked, “Tuna or Peanut Butter sandwich.” Peter shook his head. He didn’t have much of an appetite.

    A few days later, as he was pouring himself a cup of coffee at the soup kitchen, he overheard a man telling the cook, “You have to do something, Henry. We can’t be losing food like this. Most of it is donated, and if the donors find out we had to throw it out because it spoiled, that would be the end of the donations. Think of something.”

    Colored labels, Peter thought, but said nothing.

    A sign on the wall said showers and laundry service were available on the premises, and Peter decided to check that out. A hot shower would sure beat a spit bath in the cold lake water, Peter thought, and soon found out it certainly did. An hour later, Peter was clad in only his garbage bag while his clothes were in the dryer. He didn’t even want to figure out how long he’d been wearing the same clothes, but he knew it was at least a month.

    Peter was surprised at how good he felt when he left the soup kitchen in his clean clothes. He decided that instead of going back to his hole under the bridge, he’d stop by the town library and see if anything piqued his interest.

    The next day, Peter was in line for his cup of soup and a sandwich when the cook walked past.

    “Colored labels,” mumbled Peter.

    “”What? You talking to me?” asked the cook.

    “Colored labels.”

    The cook looked at Peter, wondering if the man was high or deranged.

    “For the food,” said Peter. “Colored labels for what day it comes in.”

    It was a light bulb moment for the cook and Peter watched as the man’s brightened. “Yeah, yeah. Never thought of that. Thanks, man. What’s your name?”

    “Peter.”

    “Okay, Peter. Thanks for the suggestion. Yeah, that’ll work.”

    After that, Peter almost decided to stop going to the soup kitchen because that cook was waiting for him, encouraging Peter to talk, letting him know who was hiring, and all kinds of stuff that Peter shied away from. But, he didn’t. He kept going, every day, seven days a week.

    One day the cook was waiting with the man Peter had overheard telling the cook he had to figure out how to stop wasting food.

    “Peter, Peter. Hey, this is Adam. He’s the temporary director here. I thought he should get to thank you.”

    “Good to meet you, Peter. I’m curious. How did you come up with that idea of colored labels?”

    “Not my idea. Been in the industry a long time,” said Peter.

    “In the industry? How’d you know that?”

    Pulling teeth was kid’s play compared to what Adam went through trying to get Peter to talk about his past, but two weeks later, Peter was the acting director of the soup kitchen. It came with a small room in the back of the building, all his meals, and a small stipend. He had to prove himself to Adam first, and now he was in the second week of his probationary period. Two more weeks, the board’s approval, and a large raise would come.

    Somewhere along the way, a hot shower and clean clothes had resurrected life in a dead man.

  5. After living, make that existing, on the streets for three days, a kindred soul told me about the Outreach Mission at Third and Elm. There he told me I could find “three hots and a cot” as he put it if I passed their screening.

    I arrived at ten in the morning, too late for breakfast, too early for lunch. I was greeted by a smiling face who handed me a clipboard and a form to complete.

    “You know how to write and read,” he inquired.

    “Yea, I can write and read.”

    I filled in the blanks with a shaky hand and turned it in. I was sent to an office which had a sign, INTAKE, on the door. A counselor listened to my tale of woe, gave me a cup to pee in, and told me to come back at five. If I passed the piss test I could have a cot for the night. If I passed a psych exam the next day, I could stay for a month. He sent me to the dining hall which already had a line forming out the door.

    I reached the stack of cafeteria trays, picked one up, and moved down the chow line. I was given a fold-over baloney sandwich, a paper cup of soup, and a similar cup of juice. I looked up to offer a smile and thanks to the last server.

    “Bearfarte… I mean Remara. What are you doing here?

    “Guess I could ask you the same thing,” she said in reply with no smile.

    The last time we had met we were dining, but not together, at Luby’s on Christmas Eve.

    “Hey. Get a move on up there. Were hungry too,” came from somewhere at the back of the line.

    I offered Remara a humble smile, as close as I could come to an apology at that point, and made my way to the farthest empty seat I could find. I glanced up once to see her shaking her head, disgust obvious in her look and heart.

    I had nowhere to go so I decided to sit there until I was thrown out. I nursed my juice pretending it was a screwdriver, heavy with vodka, wanting to ask for seconds, but unable to approach Remara and ask.

    I tried counting the concrete blocks in the wall next to me. Tried figuring the combined square footage of all the dining tables. Tried being invisible. The last one didn’t work too well.

    A little after two o’clock I caught the movement of Remara coming my way. She held a paper cup in each hand, and as she neared the table I prepared to duck. She stuck out her right hand with a cup of juice and said, “You look like you could use another.”

    “Thanks.”

    She sat down across from me.

    “You first. You look like crap. What happened.? She still didn’t smile.

    I told her. My lost job, my pending bankruptcy, my loss of my wife and her two damn poodles in a car wreck. My current situation.

    I was glad to see that my sorrows could finally bring a smile to her face.

    It was now my turn. “What are you doing serving food here? I asked.

    “Community service,” she replied. “After the food fight at Luby’s the cops came and arrested me for disturbing the peace. I spent the night in the can. I went to court in a week, was fined a couple hundred dollars and ordered to serve six months community service here serving food to the homeless.

    I didn’t know if I should smile, let alone comment.

    Remara looked at me with a sternness I had not seen since the third grade, then burst out in a belly laugh that turned every head in the dining room to her.

    “That was one hell of a Christmas Eve party, wasn’t it” she blurted out, more of a statement than a question.

    “The look on your pinch-assed wife’s face when the peas and taters hit her in the head instead of you. And you actually laughed at her. Oh, shit, was she pissed. I still laugh about it.”

    My grin turned into a chuckle as I shared her memory of the day.

    Remara continued, “And when she stormed out you went running after her like some whipped boy, ‘Honey, wait for me.’ I saw her jump in the Beemer and peel out of the lot, leaving you standing there. Alone, with your proverbial thing in your hand.”

    “Yea, things went downhill after that. She wanted to know how I knew you. I told her we had dated once. That didn’t sit well.”

    Remara changed the subject.

    “You going to get a cot here for a while?”

    “Looks like it.” I replied.

    “Bullshit. Any pansy-ass that would marry a woman with poodles deserves a break. I’ve finished my shift here. Want to come back to my place for a while? Shower? Fresh clothes?”

    I tried to say yes, but all I could do is nod my reply.

    We took the bus to her apartment building, the elevator to her floor, and entered her apartment. The faint odor of cat piss was evident. Remara pointed to the dinette set in the kitchenette.

    “Have a seat. I’ll fix us some coffee. Or you prefer tea?”

    “Coffee would be great.”

    I looked at the room, shabby by my prior standards, but a palace to my eyes given my current situation. Most of the furniture was second-hand store items, except for the kitchen chairs, a suede fabric recliner, and a plaid fabric stuffed couch which were obviously new.

    “Nice place,” I muttered feeling like an ass the moment the words crossed my lips. “I mean, this is really cozy here, ya know. Comfortable.”

    “Thanks,” she replied. “Used to be my sister, Sabrina’s place. She let me take over the rent on it.”

    “Can I ask you a question?”

    “Sure.”

    “What’s with all the paintings of chairs on the walls?”

    ……
    I offer my apology if I have offended any poodle lovers here!

    • galelikethewind

      Thanks Jeff. Like visiting a couple of old friends and getting caught up on what has been happening in their lives. (I hope that writers never have to worry about being Politically Correct about Poodles, though!)

    • Jeff, years ago there was a photo on he front page of Alaskan newspapers. A bald eagle had swooped down and snatched a poodle after a couple stopped their RV for a break and let the dog out. The photo showed the man hiding behind the back of the RV and doing a Tiger Wood’s fist pump, as in “YES!” Frigid RV travel after that, huh?

    • Well, Snopes can call it legend or whatever. I saw the photo, or at least I think I did. Now you’ve got me second guessing myself. Such is life with a vivid and active imagination enhanced with swiss-cheese memory banks. That story was filled with a lot of detail though. Anyway, it’s a funny story and was in the newspapers up here. Also, eagles can and do swoop down and grab salmon out of the water, and a struggling 6 to 10 lb. salmon is hard to hold onto.

      • Such is life with a vivid and active imagination enhanced with swiss-cheese memory banks…

        I may have to borrow that one sometime. If I can remember to.

    • I love it when old characters pop up in new writing. I’d forgotten about Remara, but she makes a good foil for poor Peter. Having fun yet?

  6. Those were the best spontaneous review responses I’ve seen in a long time. I agree. Who knew?

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