IN THE BOWELS of the welfare office, behind a locked door marked Employees Only a narrow hallway with cracked linoleum flooring led to a row of diminutive offices filled with gunmetal gray file cabinets and old wooden desks. In the last of these cubicles, Cyprian LeFluer ran a napkin across his lips. The day had him harried, nerves in tatters, so he ate his lunch while standing up. An oyster po-boy. Punch in, punch out. Five days a week. And never a moments rest when the vultures are circling. The welfare office, what a place to work. He gobbled down the last bite and took a swig of water as his speaker phone buzzed: a plethora of clients still waiting to be seen in the lobby. The jobless kept themselves busy in this Asshole of the Earth. No wonder they seldom found time to work. Between visits to the doctor and the police station, making groceries, courtroom appearances and the welfare office they scarcely had time to think. If they did find a little time on their hands, they hopped under the sheets for a little recreational venery. And to hell with prophylaxis. Cherry Gypsum wanted to speak to him for a moment. Urgent, she says. Cyprian dreaded encounters with this bitter woman. Life dealt her a shitty hand...what had he to do with it? Ah, the words which spewed from her mouth: endless, coarse, guttural. Death would be a favorable turn were you to take her words at face value. But as you get older and death nears, life becomes more precious and you hold onto it no matter how miserable it's been to you thus far. Cyprian belched and walked toward the door. There's no reasoning with those whose minds don't function in a rational manner.
He brought her into one of the little rooms just off the lobby and motioned her to sit down. A buzzing fluorescent tube light cast an eerie glow onto the peeling lime-green cinder block walls. As always, he took the chair nearest the door perchance he had to bolt. Oftentimes they looked about ready to stab him with the pencils stubs he gave them. Mrs. Cherry Gypsum refused to take a seat, said her bad hip bothered her. She stood there and began with it:
“He all big down there, Mister LeFluer.” She wore flip-flop sandals which exposed crusty heels and yellowed toenails. Her hair was up in curlers beneath a clear plastic cap and she wore a shocking pink housecoat. A few renegade hairs sprouted from her upper lip; her mouth she scrunched into a continual scowl.
“All big? What do you mean by that?”
“He swoll up like a baseball. His testicles. Them doctors, they don't know what's wrong but I tell you one thing: Albert cain't do no kinda work. He too swoll up.”
“How big?” Cyprian inquired.
“Big. Swoll up. He cain't do nothin' but lay in the bed. Moanin' and groanin' is all he do.”
Cyprian knew Albert as a lazy son-of-a-gun, albeit justified. At his age, no one would find much comfort in menial labor. He had already been wrung through the system: one shitty low wage job after another. Yet we've all got to eat, it's a biological fact. One simply plays the cards dealt until the bitter end. Old Albert suffered one malady on top of the next. In truth he had a weakness and a propensity for port wine. And a gambling habit which kept him up late nights. As a youth he worked on the boats where the wind carved his flesh and the sun baked his brain. As a result he resembled a dried-up septuagenarian by the age of fifty. Nevertheless, he was a likable fellow, full of piss and vinegar. He still had spunk and enjoyed getting his kicks in. Always a smile and a good tale to spin. And what a raucous laugh! From the very core of his soul, from the gut. Laughter as only the poor know it. Cyprian pitied him his termagant wife.
“All my meat done gone bad with this storm, Mister LeFluer. I just stocked the freezer full of steaks and gizzards and now they rancid as can be. And they 'bout the cut the lights out for good, Albert ain't paid the bill. I don't know what we gonna do.”
“Fill out these papers for starters.”
Her eyes got big in mock surprise. “All these? I hope it ain't gonna take too long. I got to git home to watch my stories...” And she began checking off the boxes: no, no, none, n/a, nothing, no...”Albert cain't do no kinda work,” she added defensively.
“Did Albert get a statement from his doctor?”
“Huh?” She pretended not to hear but then went on, “No, we ain't got no statement...But I'll tell you he swoll up big. And now he say somethin' wrong with his taste buds. He cain't taste no food. No matter what I feed him, he say he cain't taste it. Them doctors don't know what's up. Bringin' Albert to 'em just waste his medical card.”
Cyprian sighed. The entire family was stricken with acute lazybones. Two corpulent ill-mannered daughters and their common-law husbands plus a plethora of grandchildren all living under one small roof. None of them ever lifted a finger more than need be. On the books, understand. Except old Albert, ironically. Once in a moon he would put on his shrimp boots and pick up scrap metal from around the Pogie fish plant. He cashed this in for a fresh supply of port wine and a few bucks to the wife to shut her trap. One son-in-law did receive disability payments from the State on account of a gimp left leg, the result of a barroom brawl over careless love. It ended tragically with a single bullet. All the family's hope were pinned on Boo Williams, Pearlie's husband, who sat around strumming an acoustic guitar all day in fantastic idleness. Years prior he worked off-shore on the rigs and got himself stranded on a sandy barrier island for a couple days in the midst of a tropical rainstorm. Lawsuit pending. Work in the Gulf and on the river was fraught with peril. A rusty trawl boat sat on cinder blocks in the front yard. To use it would negate the prospective settlement. The shady lawyer eked them along on a stipend which lowered the potential return on the lawsuit. And to top it all off, Pearlie found herself with another bun in the oven. The family couldn't afford another mouth to feed but the strictures of their belief system prohibited abortion. The duality did not phase them: religion played a role of convenience.
An idea germinated in Cyprian's crop. “Mrs. Gypsum, I saw Albert just last Thursday before the storm picking up scrap metal on the side of the road near the Pogie plant. I blew the horn and he waved...”
“Huh? Oh, he felt a little better and wanted to git out to stretch his legs. He don't like being cooped up all the time, you know. Them grandkids drive him batty...the way they scream and holler. They work on his last nerve.” Her lips moved mechanically, as if she were chewing the cud.
“That income must be reported.”
“O help me Jesus!” And she looked skyward.