A CRUEL LEGACY
by Ben A. Vanguarde
I pulled the car into the parking lot and phoned him. "I'm here."
"Okay, I'll come out. And thanks."
The men seated on the peeling painted veranda looked at me suspiciously as I stood with a bag of fast food and slid the cell phone back into my pants pocket. In this neighborhood my dress shirt, tie, and late model car suggested I was either an attorney or parole officer. I feigned to look at my wristwatch. Looking busy. Finally, he came from around the corner of the house, a haggard look, and worse than before.
"Oh, thanks for coming." He shook my hand with an obligated smile. "Come around back, if you've got a few minutes." I followed this gaunt man wearing thrift store clothes. Although my brother was two years younger than me, his sun worn, emaciated look made him appear ten years older than me.
We sat on flimsy halfway house chairs as he opened the chicken dinner with a smile. "Thanks. I've been so hungry."
"You're welcome. What happened to you last week? I called and the message box was full."
"Oh? Yes. Since my license was suspended, Rick and Tom haven't paid me. I can't pull any more permits. My food stamps expired and haven't renewed yet." He took some bites of the chicken and biscuits.
"So you couldn't answer the phone or clear your messages?"
"I was in the hospital for a couple of days. Anxiety." He laughed lightly. "Food Anxiety. They kept me for three days. Do you know that you can order all the food you want? The bed was clean and there was new soap in the shower." A wry grin came to his face as he took another bite. "They told me what time I would be checking out so I ordered breakfast three times and stuffed all the food inside my clothes. That's why I haven't bothered you before. I've been taking care of myself."
"Yes, you have," I answered. "So how are you gonna pay the fines to get your license back?"
"Well, I'm advertising for new contractors that need my general contractor's license to work. I'll make a deal for them to pay the fines and I'll give them a discount on my monthly fee for six months. And, I've decided to raise my fee from $600 per month to $900 each. Mom always told me this general contractor license is golden. She said it would take care of me."
"It has taken care of you, sometimes, but you need a side job. Two guys paying you $600 each wasn't bad. But, they're not paying you now. You can't afford that. Look what's happened to you. My weekend security job pays $800 per month and the checks are automatic."
He kicked his foot in the dirt. "Security work is beneath me. I've been a licensed general contractor for 36 years. I worked hard for this license and I'm proud to have it. Anyway, I'm not like you. I just can't work for any jerk."
"Sorry, I just don't want to see you like this." I reached into my pocket and handed him $25.00 that I had set aside after getting the call.
"Thanks. Promise I won't drink it this time." He finished his supper. "Now, I can fax out the paperwork to restore my license. D'ya know, the all day bus pass just went up to $4.00?"
"Four seems a lot but keeping a car is much more expensive, as you know." I resisted giving him more.
"Yeah. I regret losing that car. I had the gas but not the scratch for tag renewal. The towing company killed that deal."
"Maybe you'll get another car this year," I lied. He looked at me dubiously. "How many days sober?"
"Nineteen. I slipped. I know I slipped. But it happens, sometimes."
"Just do your best. One day at a time. I've gotta go," I said, standing to leave.
He rose and offered his hand. "Thanks. I really mean it."
"Look, I'm going to pay you back. All of it. I'll be rich someday. Fabulously rich after this economy turns around. I'm my own man and not a wage slave." He hesitated then stared at me. "Oops, I didn't mean you. You got a good job. Two good jobs. I just meant I can't work for another man."
"I know. Gotta get home. Bye."
As I drove away I switched on talk radio with a clip interviewing a 99 percenter protester. With disgust, I immediately switched it off. I had just witnessed their logical end.
Easing onto the highway I remembered last time I told my wife that I stopped to help my brother. Her reaction was swift and certain. "Don't you give that lazy bastard anything until he gets off his ass and gets a job, like everyone else."
Along that highway another conversation from decades ago replayed in my mind. "You have to kick him out; else, when you're gone, he'll be my problem," I said. My parents were indignant, called me cruel, callous, and heartless. He lived with them until they both died.
I pondered the cruel legacy of a life wasted in dependency. In the future he would call again.
I'd answer again.
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