This story is by Marsha McCroden and was part of our 2018 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Gerald took his watery soup to the nearest table, remembering how he got here. An accountant with a reputation for understanding the ever-changing tax code, he was able to ride that reputation into public office. He’d been a State Representative, then gone to Congress and eventually to the White House.
But he’d had one flaw – gambling. Those weekends in Las Vegas had left him vulnerable to lobbyists and big donors. Then that investigation brought everything crashing down and he had to resign. His wife stayed with him. “For the sake of the child.” she said.
How could he make things better? Looking around, he realized that most of the people at the shelter probably had nowhere to go at night. Many of them were looking for jobs, but they needed a permanent address and a shelter was not a permanent address. He could help – his dad had been a contractor who taught h is son how to build houses.
He asked one of the ladies who t o contact about helping. She told him she was just a volunteer, that he was asking the wrong person,. However, she did mention that the kitchen was run by the Sisters of Mercy, so maybe – ask the nuns. He made notes – where to go, who to see – on a paper napkin.
Thanking the woman, he left.
Ah, purpose! Something to do for other people. For the first time in days he smiled. Really smiled. He’d g o to the nunnery and ask who to speak to about home building for the homeless. He was sue Mother Superior would love the idea.
First, though, he needed better clothes. She might see a bum, but she probably wouldn’t listen to him about building houses. He turned into the nearest thrift store.
At the nunnery, he outlined the idea to Mother Superior. Answered every question she asked about building homes, how much they would cost, how long it would take to build them. Did he have a work crew ready, how did he plan to furnish the houses. Did he have funding? He said he planned to get funding from the city. “So you don’t have funding. Contractors usually have funding in place before outlining a project.” Mother Superior shuffled some papers on her desk. Well, he thought if she isn’t interested in ‘Homes for the Homeless’ I’ll see what Mayor Hill has to say.
At City Hall he was acutely aware of the dismal figure he still cut. He asked the Mayor’s secretary to announce Gerald Foster. She eyed his clothes, sighed and picked up the telephone. ‘He’ll be right out” she said, before turning back to her typewriter.
Once in the office, Mayor Hill asked “What can I do for you, Gerald?” Again Gerald outlined “Homes for the Homeless” and
asked the Mayor for city funding. “You know all funding requests have to go through City Council for approval. I can’t do this own my own.”
Gerald was so sure it would be approved he put a Help Wanted ad in the Telegram for contractors, masons, carpenters. He’d have his work crew ready.
The next two weeks went by in a hurry. Most of his time was spent interviewing potential work crew applicants. One morning there was a message from Mayor Hill on his machine, letting him know that funding for ‘Houses for the Homeless ‘ had been approved. Eventually.
Gerald called Mayor Hill. “I’m glad to see the funding was approved, but what was the holdup?” Mayor Hill signed. “There were some demonstrations. Some people will demonstrate against anything.”
Mayor Hill continued “TI told the Council about ‘Homes for the Homeless, and emphases it would help people. It would help them find jobs, since they’d have a stable, permanent address. With a job, they could pay taxes. Money would flow back into circulation. And with elections coming up, they could campaign on helping people. Everybody would win.”
Gerald ginned. “Appealing to the lowest common denominator, are we?” Mayor Hill pretended not to hear. “Funding has been approved up to 5 million.”
Gerald frowned. “That isn’t much. I’ve got salaries to pay, materials and windows to buy. Furnishings. People are getting these homes for free.”
Mayor Hill replied “Up to five million. They want to see results before you submit any additional funding requests.”
Gerald knew police were rounding up the homeless, stashing them in holding cells for the night and letting them go in the morning. It was a kind gesture but all it did was give the homeless person a rap sheet, and an employer likely wouldn’t take a chance on someone with an active rap sheet. He’d go to bat for them.
Gerald would talk to the police in each precinct and find out where they found the Homeless. He could use that information to prepare a construction grid.
When he had the information, he checked the grid for a s starting point. There was one area in an outer suburb – it had so many abandoned houses that murder could be committed in them with impunity. He’d find out if any of those houses truly belonged to people; if not, they had to come down.
One unpleasant surprise; while he had funding from the city, this request had to go through the suburb’s city council. He couldn’t just raze buildings; it had to be approved first.
He told his workers to take other jobs until he called with the go-aheads. His crew didn’t want to abandon him. He assured them they weren’t abandoning him, but they had to make some money while he waited to hear from the council. No idea how long that would take.
And then some of his work crew had balked at the idea of working in that suburb. It had a bad reputation. Some said they’d rather stay unemployed; they didn’t want to die.
Gerald argued, finally giving in. They didn’t want to work, they didn’t have to. While ‘Homes for the Homeless’ needed a full crew, he wouldn’t make the men work if they really didn’t want to. “Okay. I won’t make you work. It’s your decision.”
When he finally got approval from council, he called his crew. All of them. And they all showed up the next day.
The Cat operator razed the homes, picking up the garbage in a bucket attached to the Cat. Wood, asbestos and steel had to be removed before cement could be poured. Once the cement had hardened, rebuilding could take place. Any shrubs that could be saved could be replanted with the new houses. He even brought the project in under budget. The Council was impressed with the results and approved his next project.
‘Homes for the Homeless’ was just the beginning. Sen. Allen helped him get started. He was in demand again and his presence was requested at galas, fundraisers – but what he really loved was building.
He built homes the world over. Different villages, different countries. Plaques, honors and the keys to various cities came his way. Eventually he built a building to house his company. He’d created jobs, helped people find jobs, and employed people the world over.
Years later, he stood outside the building and smiled. People from his past would have recognized that smile.
Proudly he thought “My tower. My company. My building. I’ve rehabilitated myself.” No one had helped him. No one. “Really?” asked a voice behind him. “You did it all yourself? There was no help along the way?”
Slowly he turned. It was like looking in a mirror. “Allow me. My name is Lucifer. You said there was no help?”
“Yes, there was help.” Gerald said. “And when a job was done I gave them extra pay as thanks.”
“But you never said the magic words. They were simply ‘Thank you. I couldn’t have done it without you.’ and then given them the extra.”
“But they knew.” Gerald insisted. “They knew.” “True” Lucifer conceded. “But they would have liked to have it acknowledged. Just think — you were President, then resigned in disgrace and rehabilitated yourself by doing good works. That’s pretty impressive.”
He continued “But there’s one problem, and that’s why I’m here. If there’s the slightest shadow on your soul, you belong to me. There’s more than a slight shadow – in fact, it’s getting darker as we speak. It’s Pride – something I know a lot about.”
“Pride?” stuttered Gerald. “I haven’t done anything prideful.” Lucifer shook his head. “Oh yes you have. Including just now – ‘I did this all by myself. Nobody helped.’
“What about the lady at the soup kitchen? She told you who to talk to. Mother Superior? Her indifference gave you a reason to go to City Hall. Mayor Hill? The City Councils? Your contacts from Washington, from the State House?” Grudgingly Gerald admitted there had been help.
“People will sing your praises. Your wife and son will mourn the good husband and father.” It took a minute for the words to penetrate. “Mourn?” Gerald asked. “I’m dead?” Turning around, he saw a crumpled body on the sidewalk.
“Heart attack” Lucifer said, taking his arm. “Come. You’re about to see a lot of friends.”