Katy looked around her ugly gray cubical, and the walls started to grow taller, then they turned to brick. She closed her eyes; the twelve-hour work days, caring for her dying father, and being dumped by her fiance made her edgy and tired, or like a machine. Four people worked with her in the advertising department of a city newspaper, and companies paying for the operation by buying ad space dwindled more daily. Her staff was laid off permanently, and Katy had to tell them.
She had to look into their shocked sad eyes and listen to the common reactions:' What did I do wrong?' 'Why me? Then a list of kids they had to support. This tore her heart out every time, but she could do nothing except be the bearer of tragic news. Katy looked across the room and watched a coworker from the editorial department place his personal items into a cardboard box. It was Joe; he was in his fifties and just received a pin for twenty years of service a month before.
She closed her eyes and felt like weeping. But when she opened them, the walls of her cube looked different and began to grow taller, reaching the awful jittery fluorescent lights! Her hands shook, and she closed her eyes again, but this time when she opened them, the ugly gray of the walls was a red brick! Ivy began growing and quickly covered them, the floor, and slowly twined up the legs of her desk!.
"Hello?! Diane? Vanna?" Katy felt her chest tighten; it became harder and harder to breathe. Am I dying? Why here in this horrible brick prison? All four sides were covered and seemed to begin getting closer. "HELP?! Anybody?
The walls looked blurry. All four sides of her cube became fading bricks, but she couldn't see through. No door. "Someone help me; I can't get out! Please HELP ME!" She panted and tried harder to breathe.
A hand reached through the bricks as a familiar voice said, "Katy? What's wrong? It's Vanna; take some breaths; it's okay, sweety, we're here.
"I can't move!"
"Katy, yes, you can; you're having a panic attack. Here, take my hand, please, Katy. Stop screaming. Here, sip some water."
Katy took the water bottle from the disembodied hand, and it was already opened, and she threw it onto the floor. "No, no, no, no! Dial 911, please, and get this fucking wall down!"
She backed into her chair and fell into it. A hard lump formed in her throat, and crying came unbidden, and the more she tried to stop, the more tears came. She squeezed her eyes shut and felt arms surround her shoulders which made her jump, and when she opened them again, everything was back in order. She felt a wave of relief and sucked in a deep breath. Someone handed her their paper lunch bag and told her to breathe into it, and she did and smelled garlic. She pulled it away and started to wretch. Diane rushed forward with a wastebasket and up came her Cheerios, blueberries, almond milk, and coffee.
Katy's vision cleared, and her coworker, Diane, from the next cube over, and Vanna, her friend, crouched beside her. Diane took the waste basket from Katy. "It's okay; I used to be a nurse's aide; this stuff doesn't bother me," and carried it away. Amy handed her a fresh water bottle and pressed a cool, damp wad of paper towels on Katy's forehead. Several deep breaths and the water helped. Her racing heart slowed, her breath and she felt like she'd die of embarrassment.
Kate looked at the foot-high pile of files and said, "No." With shaky legs, Katy stood, grabbed her purse, held her head high, and walked to the elevator. The doors opened, and she stepped inside, not looking at the room filled with people staring at her. Katy abandoned her winter coat, scarf, boots, Baby Yoda pencil holder, and I Heart New York coffee mug.
Her body shook with cold, but her exit was worth it. She got into a cab and gave her address. "Are you okay, lady?" The taxi driver looked at her with concern. A rosary dangled from his rearview, and a small Virgin Mary was affixed to the dashboard. She smelled coconuts. "You need more clothes on in this weather."
"I'm all right. Really." Katy always walked the three blocks to and from work, but not today.
When they were a block from her building, slow and heavy traffic was another thing she hated. "Driver! Stop, please!"
He pulled to the curb and watched as Kate quickly picked her way, in high heels, through the slush and stop[ed near a street person. Blankets covered him as he stood in a door-well holding his little dog named Sir. "Hey, G-Man! Do you want to take that Taxi to the shelter? You'll freeze to death out here!"
"Nawh, Miss Katy, I'm all right. Shelters scare me; I have to leave my cart outside. No, no shelter. I have to sleep holding my shoes in there, or they'd be gone too!"
Katy passed G-Man almost daily on her way to and from work for months. One sunny warm October afternoon, a kid purposely ran into her, knocking her down, and grabbed her purse. She always wore one with a long strap over her shoulder and across her body. The kid tried to wrestle it from her, but she held on, thinking he'd just leave and try an easier target, but he didn't. He pulled out a hunting knife, and she screamed. He cut the cheap plastic strap, yanked the purse from under her, and ran. She watched him weave through the crowded sidewalk and disappear. She screamed, "You little bastard!"
A crowd formed a little way ahead. She heard people laughing and applauding. This was the day she met G-Man. He'd tripped the purse snatcher and sat on top of the young man! Several people must have dialed 911 as she heard sirens approach. G-Man handed the purse to her and said, "This little nubbin' ain't goin' noplace today but jail!
The crowd laughed, then put their phones away and left.
Katy was still upset but so grateful for this man's help. She hugged him, trying to ignore his powerful stench. She offered all her cash, thirty dollars, but he wouldn't take it.
"I ain't taking money for helping. I just did what anyone would do. No." He laughed, "That little monster baby went down hard! No money, I'm homeless, but I ain't gonna let some punk rob people. It gives this city a bad name!"
Kate stifled a laugh from the irony. "Well, thank you so much."
He stood to let the police officers lift the kid up and led him to the squad car, saying, "You need to fill out some paperwork tomorrow if you want to press charges."
She heard her hero mumble, "Please, lord, no."
"No, I have my purse, and I'm not hurt."
"Okay, but we're keeping him in a cell for assault overnight, just in case you change your mind."
She looked at the boy; he couldn't be older than thirteen! She hoped this might be his first fumbled attempt at mugging, and he'd get help.
"Thank you again! What's your name?"
"Everybody calls me G-man on the street, so that's who I am now."
"I'm Katy.' She laughed, "That was quite a move you had there, tripping him like that. I'm Katy." She offered her hand, and he shook it.
She regretted the times she had walked past him, before this incident. Now she always smiled, and G-man bowed or waved in response. She started buying two coffees and a dozen donuts, set the box on top of his cart, well away from Sir, and handed G-man the coffee, two creams, and three sugars. She made sure Sir always had enough food.
Snow began to fall, and the wind gusts buffeted the cab. She remembered how much she hated the ice, snow, the long winter, and dark, short days. The cab driver opened the window and yelled, "The meter's running!"
That night her phone rang all evening; she finally gave in and texted, "I'm fine. Going to bed early."
The following day she thought about what a long, miserable, thankless job she'd slaved over for ten years. But she loved her 'work family, which made it fun. Now work piled higher and higher, and she'd never catch up after her staff was let go and the one small pay raise in all that time.
She thought of her boss's mantra, "Business is slow, Katy; you know how it is. They might pick you or me tomorrow, so we've got to take it on the chin for the old LLC."
She texted Diane, telling her she wasn't returning and could do whatever anyone wanted with her stuff. Her pay went directly into her bank account.
Katy checked her IRA and was amazed at how much money filled her IRA and how much she could borrow from it. She'd put in an extra hundred dollars monthly and used her vacation time caring for her Dad.
When. Katy was back in her apartment, and G-Man was still in her thoughts. Then she saw him huddled on the ground across the street. She raised the old wood window that hadn't seen new paint for decades. "HEY! G-Man up here!!" Sir's ears perked up, and G=man waved.
Katy yelled, "Come over to my door. Press buzzer 33; I'm on the third floor!"
She watched him hurry across the road as he pushed his cart through the slushy snow, and people honked their horns even though the traffic wasn't moving. He left the cart behind the garbage dumpster next to Katy's building. G-Man, with Sir, swaddled inside his coat and pressed the buzzer.
He must have run up the stairs because he knocked on her door fast and breathlessly," What's wrong, Miss Katy? Are you all right?"
"Oh yes, sorry, I'm okay." She pointed to her faded blue sofa, "Have a seat."
"Oh, now, Miss, I'll get it all smelly and dirty."
Katy pulled off the plastic tablecloth and covered part of the sofa, "Please, sit!"
Sir barked, and they laughed as G-man sank down and groaned, "Oh, this feels wonderful. So what's up? You nearly gave me a heart attack!"
"I didn't mean to scare you. So, I want you and Sir to live here. I'm leaving town for a while, and you can be my apartment sitter!"
"I don't know . . .
"You told me you worked in a factory and then as a mechanic in the war, right?"
"Yes. It was a long ten years, but I had my wife to care for back then."
"How old are you?"
"Because if you're over sixty-two, you're eligible for Social Security benefits. And I bet you have some money in a retirement fund or IRA at the company you worked for."
"I probably do, But I need an address to get all that, and I was too broken up when I came back. I just didn't care."
"Well, now that's all in the past. We're both going to change for both of us."
Katy dumped a can of chicken vegetable soup into a bowl and set it and a bowl of water on the floor for Sir. Then handed G=man a granola bar. She ordered two large pizzas and sat beside him, "You can sleep in my Dad's room, and he was much bigger than you, so his clothes will fit you. There's a U of M sweatsuit in Christmas paper; open it; Dad would want you to have it."
"What will the building manager say?."
"Dad owned this apartment and left it to me. I just have to pay the taxes and some of the utilities."
"Yeah, it's been shitty. I broke up with my fiance; well, he dumped me, then I moved in with Dad. We hoped he'd get better, but then his heart gave out. Now, get your treasures from the cart; you live here now!"
"Someone had already stolen his clothes and spare pair of shoes. His dirty, tattered manilla envelope lay on the ground; he must have scared them away, and the thieves dropped it. He entered the apartment and held up a tattered envelope containing his birth certificate, discharge papers, and some aging photos."
Katy held Sir in her lap, feeling happy and free. She listened as G=Man sang, "Spirit In the Sky!" as he joyfully splashed in the tub, and Sir joined in singing, making Katy laugh.
G-Man stepped out of the bathroom and looked like a different man! Her Dad's sweatsuit hung loosely on his emaciated frame, but maybe food would fill it out more. "G-man!! Wow, you clean up really well!" His freshly shaven face smiled, and he turned around for her inspection; his matted hair was pulled into a ponytail. "I'll cut this rat's nest off tomorrow. Man, that felt good! Feels good! Thank you. Are you sure you want me to stay here?"
"Yep."Oh, help yourself to the stuff in the fridge. I'm going to Portugal and don't want the food to spoil. And this, she opened a kitchen cupboard filled with packets of Ramen Noodles, cans of soup, and beans. My Dad hoarded food after 9/11, so he'd have it if things got worse. I shopped for him, but he insisted I rotate this stuff, so I'm sure it's still within the sell-by dates. Besides, why does million-year-old pink salt need an expiration date?"
"I can't believe this, Miss Katy. You've been so kind to me. I still have that Dopp kit you gave me last Christmas, the one with the comb and all. I haven't had a chance to use it much, but now I can. Thank you so much!" He stood and gave her an official military salute."
"Were you in the Army?"
"HELL no! I was in the Marines! Served in the Gulf War and other places. Then I came back here, and my wife moved to Vegas, and my old dog died. His eyes teared up, and he wiped them away with the back of his hand. Miss Katy, I shouldn't dump my crap on you."
"It's okay, really. You should have seen me at work yesterday. What a flustercluck.”
"So what are you going to do now?"
"I'm not sure, but my roommate from college lives in Portugal, and the rent there is a quarter of what I pay here, and she loves it. She invited me to visit, but I never thought I'd have the money or time."
"That sounds wonderful! I'm so grateful to you for all this, and if you want to move back, I should be on my feet and have a job now that I don't look and smell so scary. Just so you're happy, Miss Katy."
"I'll be happy. Life is too short to be another brick in the wall."