By: Fred Miller
Part I: The Promised Land
It was her supervisor at the hospital who had asked during an appraisal interview – did Angela enjoy bookkeeping? Well, why didn’t she consider an accounting degree from the local state university, then get her CPA? The idea had never occurred to her. No one in her family had attended college, and few of her peers had even considered college. Why not? Part-time, of course, she needed to work.
After two semesters of night classes, she realized she could handle the workload, and a new vision emerged in her mind. She liked the course work and had become a superb student. Knowing that her academic efforts in evening classes would produce no degree in less than seven or eight years, she asked if she could shift her work schedule to an eight-hour day beginning at 2 P.M. Jessica would be allowed to stay in the hospital employees childcare center through two shifts – being dropped off a 7:30 in the morning and picked up at 11 in the evening – Angela would check on her from 2 P.M. on. Hospital administers agreed. Angela could continue her current job and expect to advance her career when she graduated. With a government loan for tuition, Angela Gibson became a full-time student, bookkeeper, and mom.
Three and a half years later, she graduated from the university with a degree in accounting. In the meantime, hospitals had transitioned into profit centers, and layoffs occurred daily. Though still low on the seniority list in the bookkeeping department, Angela was confident of a long-term career with the hospital; after all, they’d supported her cause, hadn’t they? Businesses, however, had found that hiring temporaries eliminated a host of costs, such as benefits packages associated with permanent employees.
A month after graduation, Angela found herself with ninety days’ pay and a pink slip. Unemployed. A large student loan loomed over her, and Jessica was weeks away from starting the first grade.
The college recruiting season had ended in the spring, but she’d not interviewed with the big eight accounting firms because she’d been confident of a future at the hospital. After many calls and several interviews with local businesses, it seemed no one was interested in a thirty-seven-year-old, divorced mother of one. It was rare for any employer here to hire a female in a professional position, let alone an older graduate. No one, it seemed, considered her academic achievement or her experience worthy of pursuit; no one, that is, except a late-middle-aged protestant minister.
“So, Ms. Gibson, what do you know about mission work and ministering to the poor?” His demeanor disarming, his wrinkled, soft smile warm and inviting, there was something in his face, perhaps in his eyes, she thought, that left her with a feeling of immediate trust. He waited, his elbow on the desk between them, his hand on his forehead, and his thumb against his graying temple.
“Nothing, I guess, unless you count my current state of poverty,” she said, then wondered if that were the right thing to say.
“Well, you do seem to care about people, and you certainly appear to be a loving mother as well,” he said.
“That’s true, sir, but how would you know that?”
“Oh, I make routine visits to the hospital to see members of my congregation who’re patients there. Your name and current status came to me from some of the hospital staff associated with our church. “You’re well thought of at that facility, Ms. Gibson,” he said.
“Well,” she said, “not enough to maintain my employment, but I never heard any complaints about my work.” Her hands began an animated dance across her lap.
“Your work record is solid, I’ve checked that, and I see you graduated with a 3.9 in accounting while holding down a full-time job, not to mention raising a child. That’s pretty impressive,” he said.
“Thank you, sir. I tried.”
“And succeeded, too, I see.”
Where is this going? Is he just being a nice guy? She bent forward as the minister glanced through her resume again.
“When could you start, Ms. Gibson?”
Startled, she sat up straight. “Right away, sir.
“Do you think you could handle poor street people, some of them dirty, some unpredictable?” His eyes were sparkling like those of a leprechaun. He’s well suited for the pastorate, he could put almost anyone at ease.
“Well?” he asked.
“Oh… I’d like to try…I mean, I could learn. Well…what I mean—”
“I understand, Ms. Gibson,” he said as he interrupted her flushed attempt to respond.
“Meet me down at the mission early Monday morning if that is agreeable with you.” His brows rose in anticipation of her answer.
“That’d be fine, sir. Do I…uh, I mean, is this just to see the mission or do I have the job?” she asked.
“You’ll do,” he said, nodding.
“Thank you, sir,” she said and stood, shaking his hand. She turned, hoping to exit before he could change his mind. Then, as she reached for the door, a grave thought hit her with a chill. She turned in a pirouette, “What does the job pay, sir, if I may ask?”
“Minimum wage to start, Ms. Gibson. This is a mission for the poor,” he said with knitted brow. She swallowed hard and forced a tiny smile: she needed a job, any job, and she wasn’t about to back down now.
“What’s happ’nin’, momma!”
“Mmm, vanilla stuff!”
Angela had heard catcalls when she’d been a waitress, but never from the poor on the street, never from ragtag leaners against brick walls of a homeless mission. She marched past them avoiding eye contact and found the grungy off-white front door of the Holy Gospel Light Mission standing ajar.
A pungent odor assaulted her as she pulled on the heavy door and stepped through the trash and dust-balls on the plank floor. Behind a greasy plate-glass partition, a man with stylish cornrows sat hunched over the comic section of the newspaper, one hand buried in a sack of cookies.
“Ahem.” No response, no movement. “Excuse me, sir.”
“What,” he said, his eyes fixed on the newspaper.
“I’m Angela Gibson and I’m here to see Reverend Hutcheson.”
“Ain’t here right now.”
“Is there somewhere I can wait for him?”
“Day center,” he pointed to a door on his left and buzzed her in.
She felt the vibration when she grabbed the doorknob and coughed as she entered a dim, musty room filled with long cafeteria-style tables. Several men sat slumped in chairs, heads thrown back, eyes closed, and mouths agape; others lay prone across tabletops, arms dangling; legs splayed. The scene reminded her of a forced labor camp of inmates lost in sheer exhaustion.
Wrinkled clothes against one wall lay in a heap like dead bodies, leftovers from yesterday’s donations, she guessed. She noticed the personal belongings of the ad hoc chorus of snorers in grocery sacks on the floor between their legs.
Angela wondered where she might sit without immersing herself in the grime and filth that surrounded her. A few scuffed metal chairs were scattered around the room, but she concluded that standing near the door suited her for the moment.
Looking around, she spied a small wooden pulpit against one wall with a black and white sketch of a religious savior tacked to the wall above it. She tiptoed across the room to read the caption beneath the drawing. “How can you worship a homeless man on Sunday and ignore one on Monday?”
Intermingled with the stench of perspiration and grime, she detected an aroma of bacon. Through a small window in the door, she could see hot water sprayers creating a cloud of rising steam that clung to the glass and blurred the images in the kitchen.
“Good morning, Ms. Gibson,” said Reverend Hutcheson, startling her.
“Good morning, sir,” she said with relief.
“Well,” he said, “let’s see if I can give you a proper tour.” She nodded as they started to walk together. “I suppose you met Jeff at the front desk.” She nodded again, not wishing to point out the welcome she’d encountered there.
“Let’s start with the kitchen…I’ll introduce you to Henry and Artie.”
“Ms. Angela Gibson, this is Artie Noble and Henry Burke,” he said, his arm stretched out toward the two men. “Gentlemen, this is Ms. Angela Gibson, our new director.” In yellowed tees and food-stained aprons, both men stopped the sprayers swinging over the soiled breakfast dishes and stared in silence, their eyes listless. A rumble from the institutional dishwasher behind them filled the void in the room.
“Won’t you please greet our new director, gentlemen?” the Reverend asked.
“’Lo,” slid off two tongues. The two seemed paralyzed as if confronting a ghost.
“Pleased to meet you, gentlemen. I look forward to working with you.” They nodded; their eyes transfixed on this tiny woman.
“Now,” the Reverend said, “let’s view the dorms.” His voice seemed to betray a disappointment in his staff as he led her down a dim hallway lit by a single dust-laden light bulb. At the end of the hall, he turned a doorknob and opened a creaking door to reveal a dark room. And as her eyes adjusted to the light, she could see double-stacked metal bunk beds filled with sleeping men. Reverend Hutcheson quickly pulled the door shut and turned with a sad smile.
“Many of our clients who sleep here work at night. They pay a dollar a day on a temporary basis, that is, after we’ve provided them with three days free,” he said. “Our hope is that they’ll be on their feet after a month or so and able to afford a room in a local boarding house, though this isn’t always possible.”
“Now, if you’ll follow me to the second floor, I’ll show you your office. Perhaps then we can look at some of the bedroom apartments we offer to women with children until other agencies can provide them more suitable accommodations. Also, a few rooms are reserved for those furloughed from the state hospital.”
They walked back down the hall, turned and started up a rickety wooden staircase with no handrails and well-worn treads with dark spaces where risers should have been. Above she could see a lone light bulb hanging from a frayed wire.
At the top of the stairs, Pastor Hutcheson opened the door to a dingy room with walls that had flaked and peeled in an odd design of cinnamon and ochre splotches mixed with green and dirty white, an odd conglomeration that resembled a cheap Jackson Pollock knockoff. The mud-brown linoleum was cracked with pockets of wood where chair and desk legs had worn through the tile. The thick dusty air seeped into her nostrils and clung to her throat. She sneezed.
Sunlight behind a paper-shaded window cast a warm hue over the scarred desk that was covered with a welter of papers and manila folders. A goose-necked lamp on one edge bowed in reverence to an ancient rotary telephone. On the wall, she could see a naughty pinup girl on an outdated auto parts calendar hung askew.
Crestfallen, she leaned against the doorjamb as the Reverend spoke in tones she’d heard from other chaplains at the hospital. “This…this is only temporary, Ms. Gibson. We’re on the cusp of a renovation to follow an upcoming capital campaign; these quarters will improve immensely, I assure you. Once construction begins, you’ll be provided with brighter, more cheerful quarters in a nearby church, all to start before the end of the year, we believe.”
The sooner the better. No air conditioning and no fans anywhere, I wonder how these people survive summers here. My god, what am I thinking, I’ve got to work here. As she looked around, she felt hot tears welling. I will not cry, she told herself, I promised to take this job and if this is what I need to wade through, so be it. She coughed to clear her throat. It’s so damn filthy around here, a stench of rotting eggs might be an improvement.
“Ms. Gibson…Angela, are you all right?”
“I’m fine, sir, just fine. When do I start?” she asked with an unintended sigh. She peered around the room, then stepped in front of the Reverend in hopes he’d not notice her wet eyes.
“Well, you may start immediately if you wish. Let’s see, you’ve met Jeff, Henry, and Artie; the evening crew will arrive later this afternoon. Skeeter and Tullie work from 4 PM until midnight signing people in for the night and keeping order in general, and sometimes volunteers from various churches drop in to help serve the evening meal. I’ll return around 7 PM to lead the gospel music and to preach, but you’re not required to stay after 6 PM…unless you just wish to observe the chapel service.”
“I’ll be here,” she said, determined to survive her initial day at the mission. If this feeling is as close to retching as I’ll get, I want it all out now. She shook her head and turned toward the Reverend who had his hand out. She gripped it firmly as he placed his other hand over hers as men of the church are wont to do.
“Welcome aboard,” he said, the wrinkles in his smile reaching into his salt-and-pepper temples.
“Thank you, sir.” A vestige of a smile disappeared in another coughing spell as dust rushed into her throat.
“Well, I’m off to the hospital to make calls…you have my business card, Angela. Please call if you need anything…anything at all.”
She was alone. He’d forgotten to show her the apartments, but she’d seen all her heart and soul could take for the moment. She slumped into a straight-back chair, her eyes hooded in disappointment, and gazed over the mounds of dust-laden files on the desk. Out of nowhere, an immense cockroach appeared atop the stacks of yellowed paper and faced her. Brandishing his antennae in the stale air he stood his ground against this alien who’d invaded his chosen home, his promised land.
As she stared at the insect, a tear hesitated for a moment on her cheek, then raced to her jaw and dropped into the detritus below.