Fiction: Neil Makes Spaghetti

Neil sat in the straight backed kitchen chair staring at the table in front of him. His left arm was curled over the back of the chair and his right arm rested on top of the table. He held a book of matches and idly tapped it on the Formica. He wondered if he should smoke a cigarette now or wait until 5 o'clock. It wasn't always easy trying to follow a budget but what else could he do?

The pension envelope lay in front of him. It wasn't important to madly open it up because it was going to be exactly like the previous envelop and the one before that. Trying to get by on $915.43 per month sometimes proved to be difficult, especially since his monthly rent was $650. Oh he was getting by but that meant being frugal more often than not. It wasn't like he was going out every night to live the high life at some fancy restaurant. Actually when he thought about it, when was the last time he ate at a restaurant? Oh yeah, eight months ago Derek from down the hall treated him to a meal at an inexpensive diner. Apparently one of Derek's kids had slipped him a hundred bucks for his birthday and he thought to share his windfall with one of his friends.

Neil looked around him. The apartment was nothing to write home about. The building was old but maintained in a half-decent manner even though it was government subsidized housing. When he thought about it, he did have to consider himself lucky. There was a waiting list for housing and he had no idea of why his name ended up at the top of the list. Apparently there were a number of people in need of some form of assistance.

Neil sighed. He realised he had sighed aloud and if anybody else had been there, they could have heard it throughout the apartment. He thought this wasn't the best way to finish his life. The golden years were certainly anything but golden. He had done his best over the years in a string of odd jobs but he had never made a lot of money. It was a discovery he didn't make until his mid-thirties that not having an education wasn't paying off for him. In fact, he hadn't even completed high school and in his thirties he began to truly see the effect of education on the work he could find. Without qualifications, he wasn't suited for anything higher up the ladder so he had to accept more menial jobs.

What was anybody supposed to do? Neil sighed again. He tried to follow the American dream by having a house and a car but slowly over the years his debt had grown and grown. Finally he had to declare bankruptcy and while that did offer a way out from under the crushing debt he had accumulated, it didn't leave him with many options. At his age, he could no longer find any work. Yes, he was just too old for manual labour. Fortunately he could apply to the government for assistance and he knew he was lucky to get it. However, even with the pension and the housing, he was just barely scrapping by.

He had read in the newspaper of people earning hundreds of thousands of dollars per year and here he was making less than eleven thousand. Of course, after taking off his rent, he had just a little more than three thousand for food, miscellaneous things like clothes and his medications. No wonder he tried to take it easy with the cigarettes. That evil was really an unaffordable pleasure. Considering his doctor had told him he had signs of emphysema, he shouldn't be smoking at all but after fifty years of it, it wasn't exactly a picnic trying to give up the weed.

Turning to the table, Neil bent his head over and supported it with one hand. He felt a little blue. This seemed like an ignominious part of his life but what else was he supposed to do? Somehow it seemed as if life has always been slightly outside of his control. Yes he worked. Yes he tried to do well. But no matter what, he always kept falling behind. It was like life cost a hundred bucks but he only ever earned ninety dollars. Now if it wasn't for the government, he'd be living in the streets. Thank God for welfare and food stamps. The system did provide.

Reaching over to grab the cigarettes, Neil opened the pack and took one out. He looked at the time. It was ten to five. Oh what the hell. He flipped open the matchbook, pulled out a match and scrapped it across the friction strip. He put the filter in his mouth and lit the end of the cigarette. He took a puff then blew the match out. Neil reached across the table and pulled the ashtray to him then dropped the spent match in it. He leaned back in the chair and took another puff. He held the cigarette between two fingers of his left hand then pulled it out of his mouth. He paused then slowly exhaled. The smoke drifted over the table. Ah, the simple pleasures. Of course he had to think of the simple pleasures for what else was available to him?

Neil crossed his legs putting his ankle on his knee and covered it with his free hand. As he took another puff on his cigarette he looked down at the cuff of his pants. It was frayed. He tugged a bit at the hanging threads thinking he could use a pair of scissors to cut them off. Right now he couldn't afford to buy another pair but a little trimming could keep these old pants looking half-decent. It had been some time since he had purchased new clothes. Most of his wardrobe was second-hand. He bought what he could afford.

Neil's gaze fell on the other kitchen chair. Fortunately the place came furnished so he didn't have to contend with finding things but what was here left a little to be desired. The kitchen table and its two chairs looked like they were decades old, something out of an old movie. And even when they were brand new they couldn't have been all that great. Now the second chair had a tear in its plastic back and Neil couldn't afford to fix it or replace it so he had to fall back on that old standard: contend with it. Yep, that was life: fix it, replace it, or contend with it. His option usually was number three.

Neil took another drag on his cigarette then in the midst of exhaling started to cough. He brought up his one hand to his mouth and kept coughing over and over again. He had trouble catching his breath. Finally the spasms lessened and he stopped. He sat there breathing deeply trying to get some air. Without realising it, he was staring at the table top. Finally he felt a little better then shook his head slightly and looked up. Instinctively he brought the cigarette up to his mouth and took a drag. This time he managed to puff without any ill effects. He slowly exhaled the smoke over the table then glanced at the clock on the stove. It was time for dinner as if the rumbling in his stomach wasn't enough of a notice.

What to have? Not that there was much of a choice. Neil tended to buy what he ate. It wasn't as if he bought to stock up on things. He usually walked down to the little grocery store a few blocks away several times a week buying whatever he needed for two or three days. Of course some things like milk didn't last forever and since he lived alone, he tended to buy smaller containers of everything to avoid having to toss stuff out.

Standing up, Neil walked to one of the cupboards over the sink and opened it. He had one can of spaghetti sauce. He picked up an open package of spaghetti noodles and looked at it. It seemed like there would be enough for one more meal. Neil generally ate pasta twice a week if not three times. It was one of if not the cheapest food. Spaghetti though seemed like a treat after eating macaroni and cheese God only knows how many times. Even with ketchup it sometimes got boring. Then again when you're hungry you tend to get less picky.

Neil started to line everything up on the counter: sauce, noodles, a pot to boil water, and a plate and utensils. Suddenly he remembered to check the freezer and yes, he still had three meatballs left over wrapped in a plastic baggie. Derek had been nice enough to give him a dozen meatballs the other week to add to his spaghetti so Neil had judiciously doled them out three at a time so his last three meals of spaghetti had been spruced up slightly with a touch of beef. Tonight's meal would also have that little extra. Mmm, things were looking up.

Neil took three paces from the tiny kitchen area to the living room and flipped on the television set. It was an old one but fortunately it still worked. He changed the channel until he got one of the talk shows and turned up the sound so he could hear it from the kitchen. He went back to filling the pot with water then setting it on the stove to boil. Glancing at the clock, he thought to walk down to the recycling after dinner and see if he could get a copy of today's newspaper. Some of the tenants regularly put their daily paper out and if he was lucky, he could spend part of the evening reading today's news. There wasn't much in his entertainment budget so besides the TV, he was stuck with the newspaper and the occasional paperback book left in the front foyer of the building. Some of his neighbours would read a book then leave it out for somebody else to read; it was sort of a community book exchange. Obviously being government assisted living, everybody was at the same economic level so there were times people shared what little they had to make things a little bit easier for everyone.

Fiddling around with the burners, Neil tended to the boiling water as he heated another pot with the spaghetti sauce. He put in the meatballs then used a tablespoon to stir the mixture periodically. The clock on the stove showed 5:20pm. If he got this finished and served up on a plate, he could sit in the living room and watch something at 5:30pm while he ate. Derek might come over later on and maybe the two of them would play some cards. Occasionally they played Scrabble but Neil wasn't all that good at it so he preferred cards.

This was another day in a long line of similar days. Not much changed; everything pretty much stayed the same. Neil was getting by. He was getting by thanks to the social safety net. Not everybody ended up in the best of circumstances. Neil had done his best but he guessed that wasn't good enough. Thank goodness for the generosity of others. Some people did live on the street and that prospect seemed quite frightening. In fact it was a prospect that didn't seem all that unrealistic. Not everybody makes it. Even those who work hard like he did can still fail.

Neil served up his spaghetti. He spooned out the sauce onto the noodles then added the three meatballs. He picked up his plate along with a fork and a tablespoon and moved into the living room. He didn't have a lot but he had to be grateful for what little he had.

Click HERE to read more from William Belle
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