The phone rang, echoing down the long hallway. I froze, listening. It stopped in the middle of the third ring, and a few seconds later I heard heavy footsteps coming my way. I sat up and swung my legs over the side of the bed, the springs and frame squeaking loudly. I stared at the scarred door. Feet scraped to a stop just outside it. Then there were three loud knocks, and a deep male voice demanded, “Are you Fred Hill?”
“Phone call for you!”
I leaped up and grabbed my shirt, slid back the locks and yanked open the door. The messenger was already disappearing around the corner as I stepped into the hall and carefully locked up. Breathing rapidly, I trotted down the corridor in my bare feet, mincing around shards of glass. As I turned the corner, in the dim light I could just see the pay phone on the wall, the receiver swinging by its steel cord.
I had been laid off by Boeing along with thousands of other employees. With that many people on the street, jobs were few and far between — and that winter Seattle would experience its worst snowfall in three decades.
Just before Christmas, after I’d been out of work for six months, I landed a seasonal job at the post office delivering mail to branch offices on the midnight shift. I liked the shift because there was no traffic and I worked alone, except for a crew that helped me load the truck, tossing bags and boxes with gleeful abandon.
Every night I walked the five miles to and from central distribution, holding my breath until my first paycheck arrived. Then I bought a 1957 Plymouth for ninety dollars. The tires were bare, but the flathead-six always started.
I moved to a flophouse in downtown Seattle to be closer to work. Nine dollars a week, payable in advance, cash only. A lumpy bed, sagging in the middle, old sheets provided but washed only once a week. A dresser with a mirror, a wooden chair, threadbare carpet, a steam radiator popping under the window.
In the pre-dawn hours of Christmas Eve, I fled my cramped room, walking from Fourth Avenue toward Pike Street Market. Reflections from a jittery, red neon sign on an all-night diner bounced off the glass canyon walls and the wet street. The sole patron of the diner turned to study me with bleary eyes. At the docks I watched fishermen ready their boats. Merchants were just opening their doors, turning on lights. The cast-iron figures in Pioneer Square peered at me as I waited for the time to pass.
Other men like me were on the street and in doorways. We glanced at each other suspiciously, careful not to get caught at it.
Turkey. Dressing. Gravy. Cranberry Sauce. So proclaimed the hand-lettered sign outside the Salvation Army kitchen. I stood in the street a long time, looking at the sign, trying to see through the window. I thought about the crackers and water in my room. Pride and weariness battled in my mind. How had it come to this? Just months ago I had been a well-paid, respected professional.
Practicality won. I am where I am, I thought, and opened the door and slipped inside. I quickly scanned the room through hooded eyes. One or two people looked my way. I headed for the service counter at the far end of the room, my eyes straight ahead.
But the men behind the counter did not judge. They served me with a welcome and a smile. The smell of the turkey and gravy was intoxicating. I breathed deeply.
There were three rows of tables lined tight on both sides with metal chairs. Almost every chair was filled, yet the room was eerily silent. The slight clatter of silverware, a low mumble, and an occasional clear word or two were all I heard. Everyone studiously ignored me. At first I thought it was aloofness, but I came to realize it was a rigid respect for boundaries, for privacy. The men sitting there looked just like me. None of us wanted to be there, but we were glad to be there. We were both embarrassed and defiant.
I sat next to a man who was about my age and dressed very much like me. We nodded a simple greeting.
The men in the room didn’t wolf down the food, though there was plenty to be had. We savored each bite, rolling it around our mouths, chewing thoroughly, swallowing slowly. We drank little of the water so as not to wash out the taste. We ate as much as we could with the fork, then sopped the rest with the buttered roll. Few of us went for seconds. It was as though accepting too much would be an insult, a kind of thievery.
The man next to me rose, nodded again, and carried his plate and utensils to the busing table. Then he slipped quietly out the door. Not long after, so did I, a toothpick waving ostentatiously between my lips.
I stood on the street with a full belly. Other men had left just before I did, but I didn’t see any of them. I wondered where they all went, and how they’d disappeared so quickly. We all seemed to be good at slipping away.
I slept late on Christmas morning — a long, sound, dreamless sleep. When I finally awoke, thoughts of family and decorations and gifts intruded, but I reflexively packed them away, deep into a corner of my mind. Instead I concentrated on getting a can open with my Swiss Army knife. It was a little like opening presents. I sliced the meat out of the can and spread it ceremoniously on the crackers I’d lined up in a straight row on the dresser. Then I spread French’s mustard over the meat. The bright yellow gave a tang to the bland dish and added a festive color.
I slept again. The day passed.
The card was just a form letter from the state, but I read it again and again, memorizing the date and time of the interview. I calculated and recalculated the speed and distance and lead time required to get there. On the appointed day, I brought in my dress clothes from the car and cleaned them up as best I could. I polished my shoes with toilet paper. I asked the desk clerk for some Scotch tape and used it to pick the lint off my jacket. I sprinkled water on the wrinkles behind the knees of my pants and smoothed them out over the back of my chair. I showered in the bathroom down the hall and trimmed my hair with a combination comb and razor from the five-and-dime. I triple-checked the tires and oil and gas in my car and left an hour early. I had already spun out once before on the snowy streets, so I was especially cautious on the forty miles of freeway.
The person who interviewed me was noncommittal about my chances, and I returned to my room late that afternoon feeling depressed. The gloom of the hall and the smell of stale air and cigarette smoke pushed away any small speck of hope. I reluctantly pulled off my good clothes, folding them carefully into my suitcase. I sat on the edge of the bed a long time.
I spent the next several days waiting for a phone call. I treated my room like a job, forcing myself to be there between eight and five, Monday through Friday. When five o’clock came, my hope faded and I went out to walk the streets.
A few days later, I stood barefoot and breathless in the dim hallway, staring at the black receiver hanging from its cord. I picked it up. “Hello?”
“Mr. Hill?” a crackling voice inquired.
“Mr. Hill, we’d like to offer you the statistician job.”
Somehow we must have held a coherent conversation, because I remembered to accept the job, and I was especially careful to write down the start date when I got back to my room.
Then I lay on the bed, shaking uncontrollably. My mind jittered like the sign outside, flitting among scenes from my six-month exile. I was suddenly overwhelmed by the urge to leave this place. I sat up on the bed and for one last time took in the shabbiness and dirt, the sounds and the smells and the damnable blinking light.
In five minutes I was hurrying down the hall, down the stairs. The men in the lobby stared at me, but I didn’t look back. I jumped into my car, sped down the highway, tail tucked under tight as though some prankster would reach out and yank me back. I urged the old flathead onward, to the south. I, who had welcomed the brotherhood of our common fate, now wanted only to get away.