Gerald wiped his sweaty forehead and took a long pull at his water bottle. Glancing at his watch he groaned. Ten minutes to six, and they still had half of the big truck full of furniture to unload. Pulling out his cellphone, he shot out a quick text to his wife to go ahead to his brother's house...he would meet her there when he finished the job. And to please wish Dad a happy birthday for him...Gerald hoped he would still be awake when he arrived at Blake's, but at seventy five he would likely have dozed off. Gerald didn't think that they would finish before eleven, with just the two of them on this job. Randy was a good worker, but two men on a four man job was pushing both of them to the breaking point. However, the promise of a one way ticket to the unemployment line gave them the extra push they would need. Mr. Everly was a hard, abusive, cheap boss, but jobs were few and far between these days because of the New Depression, and neither man wanted to jeopardize their position.
At ten thirty, both men had reached their limit. Exhausted, they sank down on the back platform of the truck. They still had a massive dining suite to unload and carry into the mansion, but Gerald was so tired the mere thought of picking up one of the extra sandwiches that Randy's wife had sent along was too much. Randy was staring at his blankly.
"Man, I'm hungry, but I'm just too tired to chew." Gerald nodded, head buzzing with exhaustion. He didn't even think he could drive the truck safely, much less carry that giant sideboard up two flights of stairs to the main dining room. He wanted to cry, but he knew Randy would kid him...
A sniffle made him raise his eyes, startled. Randy was rubbing his eyes like a tired child, tears streaming down his face. The big man's voice broke.
" I just don't know what I'm going to tell Martha. She was so excited about my getting this job... especially with the baby coming in October. She wanted to get some new stuff for the baby... you know, a crib and some new clothes... girl's clothes. Little bitty dresses...Stuff that wasn't all hand me downs, like we had to for the boys. Maybe save up enough so we could move out of my sister's place, give the kids their own room. Have a room for ourselves, too. It sucks. I mean, Mary and Issac have been great, but it's so crowded, especially with Mom having moved in too. Ten people in a two bedroom apartment is too many...And now, I'm going to lose this job, so we're right back to where we started. I just don't know how to tell her..."
Gerald reached out and squeezed his friend's shoulder. His own situation wasn't much better, except that he and Julie didn't have any small kids. But Max, their oldest had moved back home in February after the restaurant he managed closed down, and Kevin had decided to take a couple of years off before starting junior college to try to earn the money to pay for at least one year outright, rather than take a student loan. After losing three jobs this year when the businesses either cut staff back or failed entirely, Kevin had sunk into a depression and stayed mainly in his bedroom. Gerald was worried about him, but the free mental health clinic had closed due to budget cuts and Kevin had no insurance. Gerald had hoped getting this job would mean freeing up the resources for his son to be able to get some help, but Everly was constantly shorting his employees pay, or docking "fees and penalties" from their pay....so much for "uniforms", so much for allegedly damaging a client's piece of furniture. One week, Gerald had earned five hundred dollars and only took home one hundred and fifty. This was working six or seven days a week.
Gerald blinked back tears of his own. Randy was right. They had been given an impossible task, and now they would both be fired for something that wasn't their fault.
A crackling of underbrush snapped his head around and he peered at the nearby underbrush. The last thing they needed was a skunk stinking up the rich folk's fine furniture... and the money for it coming out of their meager checks. He sniffed, but there was no odor of musk, just the fresh green scent of growing things. He looked down at his dinner, appetite gone, and tossed it toward the bushes. Randy made a questioning face, and Gerald shrugged.
"I heard some animal in the bushes...I ain't gonna eat it, so Squirrel Nutkin and his buddies might as well." Randy laughed and shook his head.
"Man, you've lost what little mind you had left. So, what are we gonna do? I can't lift anything else tonight, and I ain't right to drive. You?"
Gerald nodded. "The same. I say we catch forty winks in the cab, and maybe we can get the rest of the job done in the morning. You lock up the house on the last trip?"
Randy nodded, yawning.
They closed the doors of the truck and climbed into the cab of the truck, tilting the seats back for a few hours of sleep after calling their wives.
Gerald was awakened by a sharp rapping on the glass. Peeling open his eyes he was greeted by Everly scowling and shouting something. It was broad daylight, and the clock on the dashboard read eight thirty. Gerald groaned and slowly eased himself out of the seat. Randy was also awake and dismounted from the cab, walking around to confront their boss, who was working himself up to one of his famous temper tantrums.
"How did you two bastards do it! Who helped you? Nobody was supposed to get this job done in one day... nobody! Nobody was ever going to get that bonus! It was mine! "
The two friends looked at each other, mystified, and followed their ranting boss around the truck and into the house.
Gerald gasped. Not only was every piece of furniture unloaded and in place, but the house was spotless! All packing materials were neatly piled in the industrial dumpster outside, floors and furniture gleamed, freshly dusted, swept and polished. The lady of the house, Mrs. DuLac, was wandering around, exclaiming over the job that had been done, and Mr. DuLac was watching Everly's fit with great interest.
Everly finally stormed out, and DuLac strolled over to the workmen. Shaking his head, he simply handed them each a business card. "Anthony DuLac, Attorney. Labor and Workplace Law."
"Call me," he said, and left to join his wife.
Randy and Gerald left the house and crossed the driveway to the truck, when they saw a short man in a brown sweater and corduroys leaning on the low garden wall. He was laughing behind his hand, tears streaming down his face.
"Oh, you boys have given us the time of our lives! We elves haven't had such fun since we left the old country!"
"What do you mean, mister?" Randy asked.
The little man looked around for listeners.
"Can you boys keep a secret?"
Mystified, the two men looked at each other and nodded. The little brown man drew himself up to his full height - such as it was - and began.
"Once upon a time, a long time ago in a country far away, there lived a man who made shoes. He owed his landlord back rent, but it was due the next day. He had several orders to fill, which would have given him the money he needed, but he was too tired to do the job in the time he had. He was desperate. According to the ancient custom, he left an offering of food to the spirits of the land, and asked for assistance in his task. The next morning, the shoes were all made. All of the orders were filled, and he received the pay he needed to pay his landlord. The end."
Nonplussed, Randy and Gerald looked at the man, then at each other. Randy spoke.
"Umm, yeah. "The Elves and the Shoemaker". It's a fairy tale. What does that have to do with us? I mean, we're grateful for the help and all, but...this is suburban Texas, not Ireland or Germany. You mean to tell us that Gerald feeding a meatloaf sandwich to an animal rustling around under the hedge....?" His voice trailed off, but the little brown man nodded, lighting his corncob pipe. "Yep," he answered through a cloud of smoke. He looked up at the two men and grinned.
"Most fun we've had in years, me and the rest of the troop. Nobody thinks to ask us for help anymore. You didn't either, really, but hearing about your problem and seeing how hard you tried, despite your boss being abusive, we decided to do the work "pro bono", as DuLac would say. The food was delicious, but payment was not necessary. Welp, I've got to go. See you boys around." And he nodded, winked and disappeared in a puff of vanilla scented tobacco smoke.
Not a word was spoken by either man as they walked back to the truck, climbed in and fastened their seatbelts.
Gerald started the rig and drove it down the long drive to the street. He noticed the sign on the wall at the end of the wide lawn, separating it from the sidewalk. It read "Under the Hill", and Gerald remembered reading somewhere that that was what they used to call where the fairies and elves lived, back in olden days. The men drove in silence back to Everly's Moving and Storage, to find that they had both been terminated and had not received the promised bonus, not their full pay. Pages of "deductions" had eaten up most of their checks. Oddly, Gerald didn't feel as horrible as he thought he would. He and Randy would call DuLac tomorrow and begin the legal process to get their back wages repaid... and then some. Randy agreed, and they set a time later that afternoon to get together and make the call to set up their first meeting with the labor lawyer.
Gerald walked back to his battered Toyota Yaris and sat for a moment, mulling over what had happened. He shook his head. "Can you keep a secret?," the odd little man had asked. Who would believe it if he did tell them? He strapped himself in and started the engine. The radio came on. He rarely listened to the radio, and he reached to shut it off. When he recognized the song that was playing, he burst out laughing and left it on, feeling happier than he had for some time.
The song was "Do You Believe In Magic?"