Ben didn’t survive the layoffs. Despite always meeting his quota and getting an above average yearly review, they’d lost too many clients in March and couldn’t afford to keep him. He got three weeks of severance and a promise that they’d write him a good recommendation letter.
A lot of good that would do.
So Ben went to Seven Junction. It wasn’t the first time that he’d spent his free time in the Junction—he’d been unemployed before and had nothing else to do but spend time there. He found refuge there now.
He was 56 years old and no one was going to hire someone who was 56 in this economy. It had been a miracle that he’d gotten the job in the first place. It was the background checks that sabotaged him. Sure, it was against the law to pull medical records in a background check, but companies had a way of knowing. They always knew. Maybe that was why he was laid off now.
Seven Junction needed more grass by the hotel, so Ben worked on the grass. Grass was calming, keeping it neat and tidy, standing up straight and uniform. Meticulous work. He imagined people looking at it and complimenting it and saying, “I’ve never seen grass so perfectly even.” It went all around the hotel, except for the front where the asphalt needed to go. The asphalt intimidated him.
Of course, it was perfectly legal for companies to pull his credit report, and he was sure that didn’t look good in a background check. Pulling a credit check on an unemployed person always seemed like a vicious cycle: an unemployed person can’t pay their bills, so of course they can’t have good credit—and that will prevent them from getting a job. And round and round it went. Down a spiral.
Seven Junction had a sheriff in an old Ford that was white and black with a light on the roof. The sheriff kept his eyes on Main Street. It was a junction, after all—a convergence of seven routes. And where there were strangers coming together, they would likely get into fights. There was a hobo who hung out by the switching yard, always staying out of the way of the diesel locomotives, but too close for comfort at the speed they came through, Ben thought. That hobo ought to move.
Ben couldn’t even afford his medicine now, four months into the pandemic. Four months in Seven Junction and no more medicine. But his doctor sent him bills like clockwork. That was one thing there was never a shortage of—bills. He had rationed the meds for as long as he could, taking his usual three pills at first, then two as the pandemic went on, and now he was down to one a day.
He kept his mind busy on the grass. He had to use his credit cards to pay for more, and they were close to maxed out. Sure, Ben might have used the credit cards to pay for medicine, but grass was something that would stay. There was a certainty in grass. Planting something forever.
There was a young woman on the sidewalk in front of the café, and sometimes he would fantasize about talking to her. She was pretty, in her capri pants and checkered top. She had a little dog with her. They were always there, and he wondered what he would say to her.
She wouldn’t have anything to do with him, of course. A 56-year-old unemployed bald man.
Didn’t she know who he was? How important he was? With one wave of his hand he could—
He would never. He wouldn’t hurt her. He wouldn’t hurt anyone in Seven Junction.
There had been a time when he talked to women every day. There was the nice woman in accounting who complimented his tie, and the woman in HR who always cooked her Lean Cuisine in the breakroom microwave right at the stroke of noon. He made it a point to be in there at noon, getting a snack from the cupboard, just so he could talk to her. Her name was Julie. She was nice.
Julie still had her job, as far as he knew. You can’t lay people off if you don’t have staff in HR.
It was in the fifth month of the pandemic that the sheriff talked to him. It was quiet, and Ben was minding his own business, and the sheriff called out his name. He told him he better wise up and keep to the grass—and maybe he should do something about those trees behind the train station.
So Ben did something about the trees behind the train station. He spent the next week on the trees, making sure that they were as beautifully groomed as—well—as the young woman in front of the café.
He wondered what her name was. Surely the dog had a name, too. But she’d never talked to him. It was just that sheriff. And after he was done with the trees, the sheriff had more for him to do. Fix the bridge by the pond.
This was trickier and would require more time. He’d need wood, and he didn’t have wood, so he’d have to put it on the credit card. The sheriff should be paying for it if he wants it so much.
But he would never say that to the sheriff.
There were no more pills now. Not for weeks. He didn’t need them anyway. They made him sleepy when he took them, but he wasn’t sleepy now. He was awake all the time. He worked on the bridge day and night: boards in place, a coat of paint. No, two coats. He took pride as he stenciled on the words ‘Seven Junction.’
Ben hadn’t asked the sheriff if he should put the words on the bridge, but he liked the look of them. He liked the look of Seven Junction.
Ben didn’t check the mail anymore. There was no point. It was so repetitive. And all the knocking.
He was getting thin.
At six months he talked to the young woman at the café. Nothing much, just hello. You’re looking nice today. She smiled and her dog barked.
Ben could live in Seven Junction. In fact, he decided that he would live there. Early retirement. If he couldn’t find a job, there was plenty to do in Seven Junction.
He didn’t even get the throbbing in his head anymore. Not when he relaxed by the pond, under the bridge. He took the young woman from the café there once. Then moved her permanently. Affixed her with super glue. They would always be together as the trains rolled past on the bridge he’d made from balsa and styrene.
The knocking upstairs continued, but Ben no longer heard it. No longer cared. He was at the pond with Julie—she told him her name was Julie, and he thought he’d heard that name somewhere before.
He was content. And the trains went round and round.