The Relentless Wisdom of the Indomitable Ms. Day

The Relentless Wisdom of the Indomitable Ms.Day suggests that there are better alternatives to the crass pursuit of material success that is a poor substitute for the spiritual peace that truly satisfies. The blessings of simplicity are often re-discovered only when that which we believed had great value is taken away. That God would send heavenly assistance to aid us in our struggles to grasp the divine has great credence in Catholicity, a somewhat Capraesque theme supported by many saintly biographies. This story touches on the universal bond all Christians share with others of good will, as charity (God is Love) is the ultimate proof of one’s connection to the divine.

The American Dream has become my personal nightmare, Jason reflected, as he endured the indignity of standing in the long, slow moving line.  His carefully prepared documents were in order.  At this rate, he calculated it would be another hour before he could present them to the agent in the distant cubicle at the head of the line. 
Jason was impeccably dressed in his best ‘power blue’ suit, his immaculate shirt neatly pressed, his shoes buffed to high gloss.  As he glanced about at the casual attire of most of the other job seekers he assured himself that the gravity of his presence alone would give him an edge over the other poor souls awaiting their interviews.
“First time here, eh?”  Jason turned.  A man approximately his age wearing a dirty baseball cap and sporting yesterday’s five o’clock shadow was appraising him.
“Why yes“, Jason replied.  And with a confidant wink, “and hopefully my last.  I take it this is not your first visit to the unemployment office?”
“Hmph…get used to it pal.  I’m here every Monday morning bright and early for going on six months now.  Helluva way to keep food on the table.”
Jason was intrigued.  Beneath the careless inattention to professional decorum, he sensed he was speaking to someone of consequence.  “What line of work are you in?”
“You mean WAS IN, “he laughed.  The man extended a hand.  “Jim Barber, former VP of Marketing for Paradigm Structural.  And you?”
“Jason Lockhart,  former Finance Director, International Alloy.  Pleasure to make your acquaintance, Jim.”  Jason returned the unexpectedly firm handshake.  He was familiar with Paradigm.  It was one of the many blue chip companies fleeing to friendlier financial shores in the recent economic downturn.
“Let me guess”, offered Jim Barber, “MBA, six figures, stock options with a generous year-end bonus, vacation home with boat on the beach and private school for the kids.   Company moves offshore to stay competitive in the global market.  Poof.  And Chinese wasn’t even an elective on your Ivy League campus. Am I close?”
Something cold and tight clawed the pit of Jason’s stomach. 
“Yeah, that’s pretty good, Jim.  It was actually my own projected business analysis that catalyzed the move.  I apparently overvalued my own worth in the company’s talent pool.  I never imagined it would come to this.”
“You mean standing in the unemployment line?  To quote an ex-president - for whom I did not vote by the way - ‘I feel your pain’.  I take it your severance pay is finally exhausted?”
“Yes…not only that, but every networking chip and favor I could call in.  It’s bleaker out there than I thought.  I have three children.  It’s been a tough adjustment.”
Jim Barber offered a kind, but condescending smile, one earned as a veteran of the new economic order.  “Oh, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!  Good luck to you, friend.  You’re about to find out what you’re really made of.”
Jason chewed on that last comment awhile.  One of his recurring insecurities, one which he labored to conceal, was that he was not made of very substantial stuff.
        When his turn finally came, Jason was ushered into a cramped cubicle consisting of a weathered filing cabinet and a tired-looking woman behind a cluttered desk.  The tarnished nameplate in front of her read ‘Liz Butler, Employment Counselor’. She smiled weakly and motioned for him to sit with one hand, the other extended to take his application folder.  It was an automatic gesture.  Her demeanor betrayed no emotion. 
        “My name is Jason Lockhart.  I appreciate your time, Ms. Butler.”
        Liz Butler nodded, adjusted her reading glasses and began perusing the documents.  She was probably the age his mother would be if she were still alive.  He noticed the dried and caking makeup that, instead of masking the network of crevices in her aging skin, only accented them.  He was always grateful when his own mother, after a long and exhausting day at work, would apply the cold cream, remove the mask, and for the remainder of the evening again become his mother.       
        After several moments Ms. Butler removed her glasses and massaged the bridge of her nose with her thumbs while composing herself.   When she finally opened her eyes to face Jason, she wore a tired but sympathetic smile.
        “Mr. Lockhart, as I am sure you are aware, opportunities for someone as qualified as yourself are extremely rare in the present environment.  Unless you are willing to re-locate or re-invent yourself, I believe the employment picture is pretty grim.”
        Jason tilted his head slightly but looked directly in her eyes.
        “It would be difficult for me to move my family at this time.  My children are young and my wife is very close to her parents, who live nearby.  What are my options if I choose to remain where I am?”
Ms. Butler exhaled deeply, leaned back in her chair and appeared to be seeking inspiration from somewhere in the far corner of the ceiling.
        “You would probably qualify for Unemployment Compensation for up to six months, assuming you can provide weekly verification that you are actively seeking new employment.  That’s what most of the people in the lines are doing, submitting proof that they attended at least one job interview in the past week.“  She paused, and looked directly at Jason.  “The compensation check amounts to around two-hundred-and-fifty dollars per week.  You should probably consider applying for food stamps.”
        Jason’s blank stare did not register the shock that gripped him.  That was less money than he would normally earn by lunchtime on Monday.  Things were more serious than he had imagined.  He swallowed deeply and then offered his own weak smile.
        “I see, Ms. Butler.  I guess I had better start filing those applications and redoubling my efforts.”
        Liz Butler handed him several blank forms.  “As soon as the applications are processed and your situation is assessed, you can pick up your first check.  It usually takes about 3 weeks for the processing.  Can you manage until then?”
        The part of Jason that wanted to simply walk into traffic lied to the woman.  “I’m sure I can manage until then.”
        Once outside, Jason loosened his tie and widened his collar.  It was a warm and humid day.  By now, his shirt was beginning to  sour and he craved a cold shower.  In the parking lot he reflexively reached for his keys to activate the door locks and tensed when his hands only produced a large metal key ring, not the leather bound activator that would chirp to help him find the Lexus.  He exhaled deeply and resigned himself to locate the ancient Taurus that Dawn had persuaded him to trade down to in order to eliminate yet another monthly payment. 
Ever creative and resourceful, his wife had taken the initiative to scale down their lifestyle in anticipation of the worst.  It was clear now that her foresight was correct – her pragmatic optimism trumped his delusion that better times were just around the corner. 
His well charted route to success had hit an iceberg.  This is not the way it was supposed to be.  He had determined long ago that a sound business plan diligently pursued guaranteed that a disciplined person could control one’s fortunes.  As he eased himself into the sticky faux-leather seat he suppressed the feeling of helplessness that haunted the dark corners of his mind.  He was used to being in charge, the captain of his own destiny; the uncertainty of his future challenged the fragile façade of stoicism he had so carefully cultivated all these years.  For the first time since his fifteenth birthday, Jason did not know what to do.
        In such a frame of mind some men would seek comfort in the bottom of a gin glass, or in the arms of a scented woman.  Jason, however, sought solace in the emotional pillars upon which the tenuous fabric of his manhood was stretched – small memories that infrequently surfaced of times when he was safe and warm and unafraid.
        So, when the decaying edifice that was St. Paul’s Catholic Church came into view, now dwarfed by abandoned warehouses and boarded-up storefronts, he was irresistibly drawn to park on the empty curbside in front of its still formidable oak doors.  Jason closed his eyes to recall a familiar image stored in the back drawers of his memory.  The litter strewn sidewalks dissolved away, the street was again bright and clean.  He strained his eyes to look up at the impressive steeple, its green copper-plated cross etched against a clear blue sky.  Gaily dressed families were smiling as they walked up the granite stairs to enter the open vestibule.  He was holding his mother’s hand and took great strides to negotiate each of the massive stone steps…..

…..once inside Jason surrendered to the womb-like stillness that encompassed him.  A faint but warm amber light diffused through the stained glass windows.  He breathed in the smell of aged and polished oak pews lightly accented with the scent of beeswax candles.  An elderly Mexican woman was kneeling before a bank of flickering votive lamps at the foot of a large replica of the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. 
        He sought out the pew in the rear of the church nearest the exit door – the one his mother always chose so that they could leave quickly during the closing hymn.  Jason always had the impression that they were sneaking out, as if to avoid conversation with any neighbors or acquaintances that might be in attendance. He gazed at the distant tabernacle, where he was told Jesus resided.  In his child’s mind he wondered how Jesus could live in such a small place.  Perhaps he was like a genie in a bottle.   In the quiet of the moment Jason entertained testing this theory – going up to the tabernacle and rubbing its door.  The presence of the praying woman deterred him.
        It had been a long time since Jason had prayed.  For awhile, after his father had left, his mother would faithfully kneel with him at his bedside to lead him in prayer.  Sometimes he would see her fighting back tears and so the evening ritual, intimate and special for him, was also tinged with sadness.  As his mother’s work load increased it was more and more difficult for her to rouse herself each Sunday morning.  Gradually the sporadic mass attendance stopped entirely, as did her presence at bedtime prayers.   “Mama’s real tired tonight, baby.  Remember to say your prayers.  Remember to pray for me.”   And after awhile, even the reminders ceased. 
        Sitting alone in the pew, Jason realized he did not remember how to pray.  He struggled to recall the prayer his mother had taught him to say after all his spontaneous petitions and thanksgivings were exhausted.

Angel of God, my guardian dear
To whom God’s love commits me here
Ever this day be at my side
To light and guard and rule and guide.  Amen.

Embarrassed, Jason realized he did not really believe in angels anymore.  Perhaps he did not really believe in God.  He struggled to believe in himself.  It was time indeed to find out what he ‘was really made of’.
Although he had relegated angels to childish mythology, Jason still wrestled with demons of the past.  As he drove home he contemplated how easily his affluent lifestyle had exorcised so many of those faceless fears….and how its sudden evaporation brought them roaring back to haunt this new reality.
Jason remembered vividly the first time he came home after school to an empty house.  The first words out of his mouth upon entering were instinctively “Mom, I’m home!”  But his announcement echoed back to him, cold and empty.  There was a note on a plate of cookies simply stating ‘I love you.  See you at dinner.’
When he was old enough to understand the economics of single motherhood he vowed that if he ever had children, they would never come home to an empty house.  He would earn enough money to insure that a mother would be there to greet them after school.   His darkest fear was that someday, like his father, he would leave.  He never knew why his father had abandoned them, but for the first time in his life he tasted the desperation that could make a grown man want to run away.
Perhaps because of his mother, Jason was always attracted to strong and confident women who were comfortable with their femininity.  He sought their approval and respect, for in their company he found shelter from his doubts concerning his own fuzzy concept of masculinity.
His wife Dawn epitomized the best of this womanly ideal.  Accomplished, resourceful, ever optimistic, she valued him as provider, companion, and friend.  She was a model spouse and mother.  The impending dissipation of their material wealth, rather than distance them emotionally, seemed to draw them closer.  She embraced the challenge of ‘making ends meet’ and did so with enthusiasm and grace.  A gifted economist, she had postponed professorial ambitions to fulfill the more demanding, yet – in her eyes – important duties of motherhood.  To re-organize their budget and assets was a formidable task which she approached with zeal and creativity.  He only hoped his latest revelation about their future prospects would not dim that energy.
Jason was equally concerned with how he would fare in the eyes of his father-in-law.  Dawn’s father, although a pleasant enough man, had always intimidated him.  Jason had long ago mastered those external elements of conventional masculinity that he was sure Dawn’s father scrutinized: the firm handshake, speaking directly while looking one straight in the eye, displaying discipline and responsibility, being thoughtful and polite and training his children to be the same.  Exuding confidence and control. Yet, he could never dismiss the nagging doubt that his father-in-law believed no man could care for his daughter as well as he had.  Until very recently Jason believed he would somehow, over the years, win the day on that one.
As he pulled the Taurus into the narrow driveway of the modest three bedroom rancher Dawn had wrangled down to its true market value, he instinctively reached for the non-existent garage door opener.  He grimaced, realizing he would need to get used to stopping the car and manually opening the creaky door of the cramped single car garage.
His mind, always consumed with attention to detail, inventoried his new domain on the walk to the house.  The driveway had numerous cracks from which unsightly weeds defiantly sprouted.  The weathered clapboard siding was peeling badly in several places, and a green moss stained the sections most sheltered from the sun.  From the little piles of twigs and leaves surrounding the shrubbery he surmised that Dawn had begun the task of manicuring the foliage into some semblance of respectability.  Don’t knock yourself out, Honey he thought as he surveyed the neighboring houses.  This street had seen its best days decades ago.   Most of its residents were old and retired, and while the houses were far from decaying, they would certainly never be featured in the Homes Section of the Sunday paper.   
Jason hadn’t engaged in yard care since high school, when he assumed those responsibilities to ease his mother’s load.  For many years professional gardeners performed those duties while he was at work so he never appreciated the effort expended to maintain his former home’s showcase standards.  He had noticed an old manual rotary mower in the garage – a relic no doubt abandoned by some previous owner.  Other than in old black-and-white movies, he had never seen one in actual operation.  He would examine it more carefully on Saturday.  Perhaps he could resurrect it and put it to good use, as the spotty lawn was tiny.  Since his ritual rounds at the club and gym had become casualties in his personal War on Poverty, this would become a cheap source of regular exercise. 
An elderly couple was standing on the sidewalk, smiling broadly as Jason checked the rusty mailbox for bills.  A leashed Yorkshire terrier was yapping at his ankles, its tail swishing like a metronome on steroids.
“Love what you’re doin’ with the place.  It’s nice to have some young folks and children back in the neighborhood.  Hope it’s a trend.  It’s been years since the ice cream truck has even bothered to come down these streets.”
Jason feigned pleasant introductions and the couple resumed their walk.  He was forced to examine his new domicile through different eyes.  This house, this neighborhood was not unlike the one in which he had grown up.  By those standards, from which he thought he had escaped forever, it would be considered a ‘nice home’.  To his elderly neighbors, it obviously had significant value.  When he compared it to the gated community he had been forced to leave, this revelation provided little comfort.
As he braced himself to report the day’s events to Dawn he recalled a passage from Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, the epic novel that recounted the trials of Okies forced from their land by the ravages of Depression era dust storms.  On the morning after nature’s destructive wrath, families assembled on their porches to assess the damage.  Women, standing behind their husbands, prepared for their men’s reaction to the hopelessness of the situation.  Children, lurking behind mothers’ skirts, nervously awaited the women’s reaction to the state of the men’s resolve.  Steinbeck poignantly described the relief that enveloped the dependents when the men determined they would not crack.  Now standing on his own porch, Jason desperately wanted to be strong, to provide that emotional relief for Dawn and the children. 
“Honey, I’m home!” Jason announced.  A pleasant aroma of fresh bread and sizzling meatloaf wafted to greet him, followed quickly by Dawn and the children with warm hugs and kisses.
“Dawn, whatever you’re preparing for dinner smells great!”
She beamed with pride.  “It’s amazing what you can do with a handful of coupons, a pound of hamburger and a good cookbook.  I’m glad we kept that wedding gift from your mom.”
It had been months since they had eaten out.  Until recently his mother’s wedding gift – How to Prepare 150 Budget Meals in Under an Hour – had been untouched.  Its plebian fare was a far cry from the ethnic delights they had routinely sampled in the city’s finest boutique eateries, but Jason had found them unexpectedly appealing none the less. 
Her antennae acutely attuned, Dawn read past Jason’s valiant attempts to disguise disappointment.  “Dinner’s just about ready, Hon.  Wash up and sit down.  We can talk about your day after the kids are down.”
After dinner Jason sat in his tiny living room waiting for Dawn to finish the bedtime story ritual with the children.  In better days he would spend this time perusing the business pages of the evening newspaper, another discarded luxury he had taken for granted.  In Dawn’s bare bones budget, all subscriptions had been cancelled.
He stared at the large plasma screen which took up nearly half of the room’s available real-estate.  Its blank surface stared back at him in derision – cable hookup was out of the question and the 4 available local channels, with their unsteady reception, made their viewing all the more bittersweet.  The crisp and lifelike images it was designed to display were now only available on the occasional DVD that Dawn would get on free loan from the library.  Keeping the lavish home theater system was Jason’s last symbolic anchor to a former life.  He vowed that someday, somehow, he could once again house his family in a home worthy of such an appliance.
Dawn’s reaction to the events of the day were predictably philosophic.
“Jason, let’s look at our circumstances as an adventure.  Millions of people survive and raise families on reduced incomes – in fact, they probably don’t even consider them reduced.  It’s just the way things are - the way things have always been.”
“But Dawn, those folks haven’t had what we’ve had.  There’s nothing to miss if life has always been….”  Jason struggled for the word he remembered from an English Lit elective…”minimalist.”  He shook his head sadly.
“Hon, look at me.”  She took her husband’s head in her hands, forcing him to see the intensity in her conviction.  “It’s going to be alright.  The kids are having a blast at the school.  They’re meeting children from all kinds of different backgrounds and ethnicities.  This is new and exciting for them and it will stretch their minds, give them dimension they would never have experienced at the Academy.  Why, I’ve decided to even join the PTA, get to know some of the other parents, make a difference.”
Jason nodded and smiled weakly.  He embraced his wife tightly and held her for a long time.
The next morning Jason rose early, showered, shaved, and dressed in his business best.  He determined to at least appear successful and professional for as long as he could.  After breakfast he would walk to the library (Dawn’s suggestion – good for the heart and even better for the budget – gas prices were on the rise again).  He wanted to arrive as soon as the building opened and before someone else had a chance to grab the morning paper.
It promised to be a bright and sunny day.  Jason relished the coolness of the morning for he anticipated the return trip to be muggy and disappointing. He would peruse the want ads, check the ‘head-hunter’ sites on the internet, and post as many on-line resumes as possible on the library computers. 
He resolved to wait until Friday before filing the application for food stamps.  He feared that public assistance would mark the first of many unpleasant concessions from which he could not retreat.
        As he stepped onto the sidewalk, a stunning woman with steel grey eyes approached him.
       “Jason Lockhart, I presume.  My name is Agnes Day.  I understand you are going through a difficult transition.  I’ve been assigned to assist you.”

It was hard to assess Ms. Day’s age.  She could be anywhere from forty to sixty years of age.  Her demeanor suggested vast experience and vitality.  She was tall and very fit looking.  Her shortly coiffed hair was almost entirely white, and backdropped by morning sun, gave the impression of a fuzzy halo.  She had a kindly and warm smile.  Her handshake was firm, but not gripping like a man’s.  He liked her immediately.
“I’m glad to make your acquaintance, Ms. Day.  I must confess, I did not expect such personal attention.  I’m quite impressed.  It hasn’t even been 24 hours since I submitted my request for assistance!”
“Ah,” she rejoined, “but the effectiveness of our assistance is only commensurate with your willingness to cooperate.”
“I can assure you, Ms. Day.  I want more than anything to be employed.  I’ll do whatever is necessary to reach that end.”
Agnes paused, taking in the modest vista of his front lawn, lighting up as if she were an art student, seeing an original Rembrandt for the very first time.
“My, what a lovely home.  And what a pleasant neighborhood.  I imagine these trees have been on this earth longer than you, Jason.  What comforting shade they must provide on a day that promises to be as warm as this one!    May I join you in your walk?”
“Why, certainly.  I was just on my way to the library…to research employment opportunities and submit resumes.”
For the second time in as many days, Jason was forced to adjust his perception.  It was true, the majestic oaks lining his street were indeed awesome to behold.  It occurred to him that this neighborhood was most likely carved from a forest and the artful eye of some long-deceased developer had preserved these random native sentinels, once the shelter of woodland creatures, to grace the more civilized invaders.  They stood in stark juxtaposition to the carefully spaced plantings of young Bradford Pears that dotted the boundaries of his former residence.
Agnes projected an aura of easy intimacy, which Jason found unusually refreshing.  He dispensed with the usual ice-breaking small talk, feeling at liberty to talk freely.
“So, Ms. Day…”
Agnes dismissed him with a wave of her hand.  “Please, Jason, you can call me Agnes.  I find I can serve you much more effectively if we dispense with formality.”
“OK, then…Agnes…have you experienced much success in helping someone in my position?”
She looked at him with a twinkle in her eye.  “I wouldn’t be surprised if we secured a position for you this very day.  You know, Jason, you are a very talented and gifted individual.”
Jason was taken aback and at the same time very relieved by the infectious optimism of his new acquaintance.
“Really?  I was under the impression that the employment market was very bleak at the moment, with no promise in sight for a very long time.”
The glance she shot back at him could, from any other person, be perceived as condescending.  But to the contrary, Jason experienced it as veiled invitation to professional intimacy.
“Oh, Jason, trust me.  There are untold opportunities all around, for those who have the eyes to see and the courage to embrace them.  I sense you possess very perceptive vision.  Do you have the courage to match?”
Jason was not accustomed to this sort of blunt honesty, especially when spoken with such seeming authority.  Wide-eyed, he could only respond.  “I certainly hope so, Agnes.  But I guess we’ll find out.”
They came to an intersection that defined the demarcation where the residential area ended and the business district began.  Jason’s inclination was to navigate a longer route through the residential areas to reach the library.  Though it would add ten minutes to the journey, it was devoid of the noise and clutter of the busy city streets.  Also, Jason was wary of pedestrian travel as the business district, like so much of the changing city, recoiled with the desperation of its denizens.  He was not sure it was entirely safe.
Sensing Jason’s reticence, Agnes hooked her arm in his and led him into a break in traffic.  “I know a shortcut, Jason.”
As soon as they landed upon the opposing sidewalk, in front of a seedy looking convenience store/gas station, Agnes exclaimed brightly “Oh look Jason, how providential!  We must investigate.”
The object of her attention was a hand scrawled ‘Help Wanted’ sign taped below a dirty and faded picture of sweating beer bottles whose long necks protruded from a tub of ice.
Alarmed, Jason froze in his tracks.  “Agnes, you have got to be kidding?  Look at this place!  Why would I want to inquire here?”
Agnes melted him with a conspiratorial wink.  “Eyes to see.  Courage to embrace.  Let me do the talking.”
All of Jason’s senses were assaulted upon entering the store.  The air was ripe with the semi-rancid smell of hot grease, no doubt emanating from the sizzling grill behind the counter upon which some mysterious delicacy was being fried.  Unfamiliar music with even more unfamiliar rhythms wailed with high pitched intensity from a radio behind the counter. Every available space competed for attention to tempt the impulse of the prospective customer, and Jason was immediately struck by the brash incongruity of the display cards of smoked jerky next to the packaged rows of condoms.  The floor was filthy and in many places the chipped tiles exposed worn wooden underflooring that groaned with each footstep.
Behind the counter was a ruddy looking fellow with rolled up sleeves and a bushy moustache that reminded Jason of the pictures of Joe Stalin that graced his high school text books.  His soiled white shirt had an oval stitched on the front pocket that had Rahim embroidered in red script. He was carefully scrutinizing the odd couple – this well-dressed businessman and his older companion.
Agnes approached him with an exuberant greeting in a language Jason could only assume was of Mid-Eastern origin.  Rahim studied the woman curiously, as she spoke rapidly and confidently, several times turning her head and gesturing toward Jason.
Rahim acknowledged these references with squinting appraisal, loud guttural utterances and forceful hand gestures.  Agnes rebutted with equally commanding fire.  Jason felt as if he were witnessing a bargaining session in some medieval bazaar, and that he was the hanging chicken or strip of fly-invested beef over which the negotiations were being waged.  After several minutes, Rahim put up his hands and seared his gaze in Jason’s direction.
“I be watching you.  You steal from Rahim, you will curse mother’s womb.  I watch you.”
Bewildered, Jason stood silent and open-mouthed as Agnes, beaming with victory hooked her arm in his again and led him out of the store.
“Agnes, what just happened in there?”
Agnes, her arm still linked in his, continued walking.
“Why, Jason, you are now employed!  Granted, it took some doing to convince Mr. Zayadi what a bargain you are, and certainly worth so much more than the compensation he was willing to offer.”
“…And what was he willing to offer?”
Agnes lowered her eyes, and to a slight degree, the timbre of her voice.  “Two-hundred and fifty dollars per week.”
Jason’s face flushed.  He struggled to control his anger.  “Agnes…you HAVE GOT TO BE KIDDING!”
Agnes flashed him another of her conspiratorial smiles.  “Of course I explained to him that number was simply out of the question.  That would be less than you could get for doing nothing, with unemployment compensation.  We wrangled back and forth and we were finally able to agree on three-hundred and sixty.  Quite a bit more than the compensation check, don’t you think?”
Jason’s mind was still reeling.  There were so many disturbing and conflicting emotions roiling in him that he didn’t know where to begin.  He composed himself and assumed the role of dispassionate arbitrator.
“Agnes, you are aware that my expertise lies in accounting and budgeting – usually in terms of multinational business contracting.  Of what possible interest would someone with my experience be to Mr. Zayadi?”
Agnes allowed her steel gray eyes to bore past Jason’s pretensions.  “Jason, let’s not be coy.  You think this opportunity is beneath you, don’t you?  Like yourself, I am very attuned to detail and possess a formidable memory.  Correct me if I’m wrong, but did you not say to me twenty minutes ago ‘I can assure you, Ms. Day.  I want more than anything to be employed.  I’ll do whatever is necessary to reach that end.’?
This naked honesty hit Jason like a splash of cold water.  Shocking, unexpected, but strangely exhilerating.  He recalled the exhortation of Jim Barber …You’re about to find out what you’re really made of. 
“Touché, Agnes.  You don’t pull any punches.  But why do you think I should take this job?  I can’t imagine explaining to my wife that I’ll be working in a run-down convenience store.”
Agnes squeezed his hand.  “Jason, all honest work has dignity and meaning…if the worker executes responsibility with the same.  Do you know what a blessing it is to find employment so quickly?  Imagine the alternative.  Sitting in that library, poring over intangible possibilities, facing daily disappointment for weeks, even months on end.  If you like, we can still go to the library.  Perhaps you could commiserate with some of the beaten down souls there who are still going through the motions of looking for employment.  I think you would find it a very depressing place to be.”
Jason was thoughtful, studying the cracks in the sidewalk moving below him.  “I suppose you’re right, Agnes.  It will be nice to do something, to earn even a little.  I really dreaded the thought of applying for Food Stamps.  I only wish I could share your enthusiasm.”
Agnes lit up again, fanning the embers of hope so long dormant in Jason’s outlook.  “As to your wife, Jason,  I saw determination in those trimmed bushes and that well-swept porch.  I suspect she is made of firmer stuff than you imagine.  I would be surprised if she was not thrilled by this turn of events.”
“And of course,” Jason offered wistfully, “this could prove to be a merely transitional phase.  Certainly the economy will improve before too long and better opportunities will materialize.  If we can tighten our belts a bit more, this will enable us to do a ‘holding pattern’.”
“Perhaps,” mused Agnes.  “But right now, we need to find you some appropriate work attire.  Those fancy Italian threads just won’t cut it in Mr. Zayadi’s world.  Have you ever shopped the Salvation Army Store?”
Jason abandoned any further revulsion to his predicament – or opportunity – as Agnes was more apt to describe this new phase in his life.  He knew he was venturing into the seamy underbelly of life from which he had so desperately insulated himself.  He began to appreciate Dawn’s understanding that scores of people survived adequately on an income such as he would soon be earning.  He braced himself for the adjustments that would be required, clinging to the conviction that it was only a temporary, maybe even ‘character building’ situation.
Jason never had visited a Salvation Army Store.  The thought of purchasing, let alone wearing, cast-off clothing from total strangers was an unwelcome exercise in humility.  He could not discern any logic in the store’s cramped and overstuffed layout.  Obviously an enterprise such as this was not managed on the impulse principle that dominated the researched and proven display patterns of successful retail outlets.  No, when one came into this store, it was with a purpose – to meet a need at the lowest possible price.  Agnes immediately negotiated a path to the men’s clothing section.
“I would suggest you get at least six of these blue denim work shirts and 3 pairs of khaki pants.  You will also need some durable shoes with thick rubber soles.  You will be standing on hard flooring for 10 to 12 hours a day.”
Another splash of cold water hit Jason in the face.  “Whoa there, Agnes.  Ten to twelve hours a day?  What exactly have you signed me up for?”
She looked him in the eye, smiling proudly.  “Oh, Jason, you are going to be Mr. Zayadi’s right hand man.  I believe in time you will become indispensable to him.  Actually, you will be doing a bit of everything.  But that will all become apparent soon enough.  You do know you start tomorrow.  At 5:00 A.M.”
“Agnes, you’re killing me!  Five o’clock in the morning!  Do you have any other surprises you haven’t told me about?”
“Only pleasant ones, my dear boy.  I explained to Rahim that you are a devoted family man and will need to be home for dinner every night.  So I figured you would do better to start early and end early.  If all goes well, you should be able to quit by 4:00 every day.  I even negotiated for Sundays off.”
“So thoughtful of you, Agnes.  What about Saturdays?”
“You only work till noon.  Pretty good, eh?”  She was sparkling with mirth.  Having taken the plunge, Jason just shook his head.  At least it couldn’t get any worse.  Or so he thought.
To Jason’s amazement, his entire new ‘wardrobe’, neatly packed in a brown paper sack, had cost him only nine dollars.  So this is how they do it, he reasoned.  The least expensive shirt hanging in his closet cost five times that amount.  Agnes was off to the side, in a conspiratorial conversation with an elderly woman whom he perceived was responsible for the store.  He noticed nods in his direction, which, based on his most recent experience of Agnes and her intercession on his behalf, made him nervous.
“Let me guess, Agnes.  You are signing me up for their Army Band.  Something for me to do on my day off?  If I have a choice, I want to play the big drum.”
Agnes jabbed him playfully.  “Even better, Jason.  Because you are new customer, who will no doubt be returning to do more business, I have persuaded the manager to give you a little ‘welcome wagon’ package.  Something for the family.”
The manager returned carrying a large sack filled with used board games.  Jason recognized some of the classic titles from his own childhood and it sparked warm and whimsical memories.  He was not sure his children, accustomed to the frenetic interactive fare spawned by the digital age, would be able to relate to such primitive recreation.  I guess I will find out, he thought.
Agnes escorted Jason on the walk back home.  He was buoyed up by her consistent optimism and appreciation for the most mundane of things seldom observed by most people – a spray of fresh flowers in a shop window, a parking lot devoid of litter which indicated an admirable level of pride and attention from its caretaker – things which Jason would have overlooked.  This quality in Agnes was infectious and Jason felt the gloom of anxiety with which he began his day melt away like a distant fog.  As he approached his street he confirmed her earlier prediction.
“You were right Agnes, I mean about the trees.  It’s remarkable how much cooler it is because of the shade they provide.  I hope you are as right about your projections for my employment.”
Agnes narrowed her eyes and betrayed a knowing smile.  “Patience, my friend.  All in good time.  The shade you are enjoying was beyond the lifespan of the person who planted these trees, if indeed they were planted by human hands at all.  We only planted a seed today.  The success of the planting will depend on how well you cultivate the garden.”
As he turned into the short sidewalk leading to his door he asked “Will I see you again, Agnes?”
She nodded.  “I’ll check in on you tomorrow.  Get some rest tonight – you will have a very challenging day tomorrow.”
“I hope I didn’t generate a lot of paperwork for you today” he added.
Agnes simply waved a hand.  “Don’t worry about paperwork.  I’m more of a ‘hands-on’ person!”
Agnes had also been right about Dawn’s reaction to his new ‘opportunity’. 
“Jason, this is great!  I was really struggling with working a budget based on that unemployment figure you cited.  This gives us a bit more flexibility and you start immediately!  Also, how nice that you can walk to work.  I can reduce the amount I was going to allot for transportation.”
When he unloaded the board games on the kitchen table he was surprised by the children’s reaction.
“Oh boy!” squealed Missy, the five-year-old.  “Chutes and Ladders!  I learned how to play that at kindergarten today.  Can we play after dinner, Daddy?”
“Sure, Princess, if Mom doesn’t mind.  But you’ll have to teach me – it’s been a long time since I played that game.”
Trevor and Sarah, aged ten and seven respectively, were examining the other boxes.  Clue, Monopoly, a set of dominoes and a combination Checkers and Chess Set.
“Dad, I’ve always wanted to play real chess, I mean play against a human, not a computer.  Do you know how to play?”  Trevor looked at him imploringly.
“I’m a little rusty, but yeah, I think I can give you run for the money.  The real pro is your mom, however, with all that math and logic background.  We can set up a regular family tournament.”
It had never occurred to Jason that self-entertainment, interactive game-playing would prove to be such a novelty.  But then, this had turned out to be a day of multiple surprises. 
In bed that night Jason confessed to his wife “Dawn, I’m a little scared about all of this.  I mean, I’m going to be working in a Convenience Store at something not much better than minimum wage.  And for a man whose English is spotty at best and who appears to have a congenital distrust of me.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad to have a job, but this is way off my radar.”
Dawn snuggled into him and laid her head against his shoulder.  “Hon, I have the greatest confidence that you, of all people, will be able to win over Mr. Zayadi.  Jason, I believe in you.”
That thought lingered in Jason’s mind as he gradually succumbed to sleep.  It must be nice, he told himself, to have someone to believe in.
The alarm sounded at 4:00 AM and Jason rose with nervous anticipation.  He shaved and donned his new ‘uniform’.  There was a virile comfort in the cotton work shirt, its coarseness softened by previous wear.  The shoes were also very comfortable, having also been well broken in.  The thick soles provided a firm, but cushioned feel.  He shaved and stared at the blue collar worker in the mirror who was wearing his face.
OK, big guy, let’s find out what you’re really made of.
Stars were still visible as Jason began his walk, and in the eastern sky he could make out Venus, twinkling brightly.  The city was slow in waking, and Jason felt a strange kinship with the scant traffic carrying those laborers who would kick start business for the later risers.
He arrived ten minutes early at the parking lot of Zayadi’s Quik Stop, wanting to make a good first impression on his irascible new employer.  He surveyed the parking lot and the frontage of his new business home.  The parking lot was pocked with holes that needed repairing and the walls and windows could use a thorough cleaning and re-painting.  Much of the display advertising, provided by vendors, was sun-faded and haphazardly placed, most likely invisible to any regular customers and certainly a blunt assault on the eyes of newcomers.  If and when time permitted, he would need to find a diplomatic way of pointing these deficiencies out to Mr. Zayadi and pursue a means of correcting them.
An immaculately detailed black Lincoln Continental pulled into the lot and turned out its lights.  Into the halo of the streetlight overhead stepped Mr. Zayadi, scrutinizing his new employee with a twisted half-smile.  He didn’t believe I would show up, Jason realized.  Mr. Zayadi produced a large ring of keys which he shook loudly.
“If you not quit today, I give you keys for tomorrow.”  Zayadi then selected a key and opened the rear door of the building.  So today boot camp begins, thought Jason.  The gauntlet was thrown down.  If I pass the test, I keep the job.  This Zayadi must be quite a judge of character, if he can appraise my trustworthiness in one day.  Rahim Zayadi had just earned the grudging respect of Jason Lockhart, and Jason was determined to return the favor.
The rear door opened up to what Jason surmised was the loading area for deliveries.  There was a moldy, wet mop smell and assorted cleaning supplies were haphazardly stacked on sagging shelves or atop dirty boxes. 
“You know to mop?” demanded Mr. Zayadi.
“Oh, I’m the king of moppers,” quipped Jason merrily.  “I worked my way through college keeping the dorm kitchens cleaner than a surgeon’s table.  Mr. Zayadi, I’m your man.”
Zayadi appraised him sourly.  “No jokes.  Just work.  After I show you what to do, you mop floor.”
Jason produced a small notebook and pen from his shirt pocket.  For the next twenty minutes he wrote down the many setup tasks that must be performed before the store could open.  Turning on lights, checking coolers, facing off the stock on shelves so that they appeared to be full.  With every step, Jason felt his shoes resist the stickiness that seemed to be everywhere.  He made a mental note to arrive earlier tomorrow so that he could completely strip and wax these floors. 
“If you not quit after first week, I show you how to run register – handle money.”  Mr. Zayadi burned his gaze into this strange American.  Jason sensed that Mr. Zayadi was experienced in disappointment and had little trust in his fellow man.  He could not imagine how Agnes had wheedled his consent in even allowing Jason this trial opportunity.  He met the stare and nodded.
By noon, Jason was exhausted.  He had checked in numerous vendors, rotated and stacked cases of beer and soft drinks (in and out of the extreme temperature changes between the baking asphalt of the parking lot and the near  freezing chill of the coolers).  He had taken out trash, cleaned up the rest room after a stopped up toilet had overflowed, and dutifully obeyed the constant barrage of barking commands from his erstwhile employer.  The grating music from Rahim’s radio and the pungent smell of frying food had given him a throbbing headache.
The Slurpee machine had just run out of mix and Jason was savoring the relative peace and quiet afforded him as he was finally alone, performing the mundane sanitation procedures that were a prerequisite to refilling the drink dispenser.  He was daydreaming about his walk home, and how eagerly he looked forward to that idle stroll through the shaded sidewalks of his street.
His reverie was interrupted by the little bell that signaled the entry of yet another customer.  Jason braced himself for whatever new orders this might elicit from Rahim.  His heart lightened, which surprised him, when from the corner of his eye he noticed that it was Agnes who had just entered the store.  She approached him briskly, beaming with her characteristic joy and optimism.
“And how are you faring this first day, my good friend?” she inquired.  “Just three hours to go and you’re still standing!”
“Welcome to the fifth circle of hell,” Jason intoned in jest.  “Those three hours cannot pass soon enough.”
“Oh,” replied Agnes with a knowing smile, “you have obviously never had a real vision of hell – this is a cake walk, my son!  How is it going for you?”
Jason surprised himself at his response.  “It’s going OK, Agnes.  Mr. Zayadi and I are working things out.  It will take some time – there is a learning curve of course, but I’m a quick study.  The pace and physicality of the job are a bit different than I’m used to, but I believe I will make it.  I take comfort in knowing it is probably only temporary…until something more suitable comes along.”
Jason could not discern the meaning of the subtle nod his hope had elicited.
“Jason, simply exceed his expectations.  You can …’Rock his world’ – I think that’s the expression the young people use.  I’ll check in from time to time.”  She gave him an enigmatic smile and turned away.  She engaged Rahim for several minutes, prattling in that incomprehensible dialect that so unnerved Jason.  Mr. Zayadi did little gesticulation this time and never once raised his voice or shot disapproving looks in his direction.  Jason took this as a good sign.
        Although exhausted, Jason had trouble sleeping that night.  He was mentally mopping the perpetually filthy floor of the convenience store.  He glanced at the alarm clock.  It was not yet midnight and he did not relish four more hours of fitful tossing and turning.  He quietly rose, dressed, and jotted a simple explanatory note to Dawn before slinking out the front door.
        When he arrived, Jason reveled in the fact that he would have three-and-a-half hours of uninterrupted leisure to thoroughly strip and wax the floor.  As the first bucket of steaming hot water was filling, he started the coffee pot and dialed up a classical music station from Zayadi’s battered boom box.  He recalled fondly the satisfaction he felt the very first time, as a college freshman, he had nursed brilliance out of the sticky floors of the dorm kitchen.
        Jason was humming in accompaniment to the lilting flutes in Grieg’s Morning when the astonished Mr. Zayadi took in the transformation that had occurred during the night.  The gleaming floors reflected in the spotlessly clean glass of the cooler doors.  The grill area had been scoured and sanitized and Jason was removing yellowed tape residue from a display case below the cash register.  Rahim arched a brow as his eyes rolled in survey of the brightened surroundings.  Jason was smiling peacefully.
        “Good morning, Mr. Zayadi.  And what a beautiful morning it is, indeed!”
        Zayadi nodded nervously.  He went to the radio and changed the station to the grating sounds of what sounded to Jason like a wailing mourner.
        “Music to stir blood.  You like?”
        Jason could only laugh.  “Sure, why not.  My blood was too serenely calm for so early in the morning.  But you can relax, Mr. Zayadi.  Everything is ready for business.  I just made a pot of fresh coffee.  Thick and strong, the way you like it.”

        The pleasant reaction on the part of the customers to the store’s fresh appearance did not go unnoticed by Mr. Zayadi.  People would invariably look at Jason with a knowing nod of approval at the improvement.  This too did not go unnoticed by Mr. Zayadi.
        Jason fell into an easy rhythm with his new life.  Rising early and working hard proved a great tonic for a restful sleep.  Jason was surprised at the energy with which he was able to greet each day.  He found that he actually looked forward to the challenge of each new morning and how to make the store more pleasant and efficient.  Although he was not (yet) privy to the financial health of the operation, he could not help but believe the increased traffic did not result in a richer bottom line for Mr. Zayadi. 
        After two weeks, Lenny, one of the snack vendors confided in him.  “Lockhart, from just my inventory on this rack I’m guessing Zayadi’s experienced at least a thirty percent increase in sales since you’ve come on board.  You’re doing a great job, kid!”
        Lenny was a former ad agent, another skilled professional forced to reinvent his career.  His astute appraisal meant a lot to Jason.
        The evenings at home were becoming a veritable delight.  After their simple fare was completed and the dishes done, the entire family would gather around to play games.  Jason marveled at the contrast this new form of entertainment posed against the ‘old days’ of mute TV viewing.  Laughter, anecdotes, mini-adventures were shared with relish – Jason was discovering a richness and depth in his children’s lives about which he had hitherto been unaware.  The school year came to an end and the longer evenings found them retreating to the front porch to escape the close and ‘un-conditioned’ air of their modest home.  A comfortable ritual soon developed as they took in the cooler night air.  Invariably older couples, also escaping the heat, would amble up and join in conversation.  For some reason (possibly Dawn’s excellent parmesan popcorn and home-made brownies) their porch became a magnet for a regular group of neighbors who would thrill the children with true life stories and adventures from their colorful lives.  Angus McPherson, a retired seaman, would teach rope tricks and little Missy was being tutored in the fine art of crocheting by his ever patient and grandmotherly wife.  The bittersweet ending of each evening, prompted by Angus’ lecture on the relative position of various constellations (which he would prompt each child in turn to identify), was lightened with the assurance that there would be another informal gathering like this the following evening.
        “Jason,” Dawn observed one evening as they were putting up the folding chairs as the last of their evening guests had departed, “I just realized how many wonderful new friends we now have.  You know, we lived in our last home for over five years and I think I could count the number of conversations we had with our next door neighbors on one hand!”
        Over the months Zayadi’s Quik Stop had slowly transformed from a just another run-down ghetto eyesore to an urban gem.  The steadily increasing sales, which Jason was able to correlate to the improved cleanliness and order, convinced the owner to allow for the repaving of the parking lot, re-tiled floors, new signs and a fresh coat of paint on the exterior.  The mid-east cuisine offered by Zayadi’s grill was supplemented by more popular Western fare including corn-dogs, subs, and pizza by the slice.  Based on the demographics of the clientele, Jason redialed the radio to play Country Music until noon (when the truckers were predominant) and then switched over to the local hip-hop station to accommodate the younger African American customers who dominated the latter part of the sales day. 
The visceral distrust Zahadi held toward most of his customers was especially intense for his African American clientele.  Jason noticed that even this defect in his employer’s personality was showing gradual signs of improvement. 
        Perhaps the perception of this new acceptance is what prompted one of their daily regulars, Cyrus Barlow to accompany his twelve year old son in tendering a solicitation for donations to purchase soccer uniforms.  Jason watched with amusement as the young fellow nervously recited his practiced appeal.  To his dismay, Rahim gruffly interrupted the boy’s speech as soon as he had discerned the intent.
        “This business, no charity.”  Zayadi shook his head in apparent disgust and turned his back on the young supplicant.  Embarrassed for his son, Cyrus politely thanked Rahim for his time and turned to shepherd his son out.
        Jason immediately grabbed the large broom with which he swept the parking lot during lulls in business and apprehended the departing customers.
        “Cyrus,” Jason implored, “Please come back tomorrow.  Let me talk to Mr. Zayadi.  He is still new to this country and there’s a lot he does not understand about doing business here.  I think if I can explain it to him he would be delighted to make a donation to the team.”
        Cyrus simply looked at him and shrugged.  “Jason, I appreciate the effort…I was hoping I was wrong, but in this case it appears that some things never change.”  The patient but pained look Cyrus returned bored deep into Jason’s heart.  “Trust me, friend, we’re used to this sort of thing.  It’s been worse.  Take care, man.”
        Shortly after, Agnes made one of her irregular ‘check up’ visits.  Jason confided in her concerning his recent dilemma. 
        “In your observation of your employer, Jason, what would you say most motivates him?”
        Jason smiled wryly but answered immediately.  “Profit.  The accumulation of wealth.  He is a simple but focused man.”
        Agnes returned an equally wry smile.  “Then appeal to this part of his nature, Jason.  You can remind him that even the Prophet – whom he reveres – once said Every good act is charity. A man's true wealth hereafter is the good that he does in this world to his fellows.  Demonstrate to him that charity begets wealth and you will win him over!”
        “But, Agnes….how can I possibly do that?”
        Agnes simply patted his hand.  “You’re a clever man.  You’ll figure something out.”
        Jason had trouble sleeping that night.  Numerous strategies percolated in his mind as he wrestled with how he could persuade Rahim to willingly separate himself from his money in the name of charity.  He fell into a fitful sleep and the solution came to him in a dream.  In that surreal dimension of the subconscious Agnes was describing to Mr. Zayadi how he could attract new customers, raise his esteem in the community, and be able to write off every dollar it cost to do so as a charitable donation.  Of course, in the mist of his slumber Agnes was communicating in Rahim’s native tongue so Jason had to jot down notes from the subtitles that appeared magically in the cartoon balloons hovering above Agnes’ head.  He awoke, startled at the vividness of the revelation.  He slipped out of bed and padded into the kitchen where he sat at the dining room table and jotted down real notes lest the brilliance of the arguments dissolved with the coming dawn.
        The next day, during the mid morning lull in customer traffic, Jason approached his employer, amiably proffering a cup of fresh coffee as was their custom during this rare break in activity.
        “Mr. Zayadi”, Jason began, “How has business been lately?”
        Zayadi inhaled the steaming coffee, looking at Jason with suspect caution.  “Business good, good.  Why ask?”
        “Well,“ Jason intoned, “I’ve been thinking.  I believe we could substantially increase sales if we attracted new customers…people who have never shopped here before.”
        “Sure, sure,” nodded Zayadi.  “How you do, Mr. Smart College Man?”
        Taking his cues from Agnes’ presentation in his dream, Jason reminded him of the request for donations from the Barlow boy the previous day.  He smiled past Zayadi’s sour look and detailed a plan whereby he could more than satisfy the request, boost sales, and earn a sizable tax deduction to boot.  Jason proposed that instead of giving a set amount, say fifteen or twenty dollars, he allow the lad to ‘earn’ as much money as he wanted by encouraging patronage of the store.  Zayadi sipped his coffee thoughtfully, never taking his eyes from Jason.
        “What I propose, Mr. Zayadi, is that you allow the boy to collect sales receipts from customers.  He brings them to us, we total them up and write him a check for one percent of the sum.  So, for every hundred dollars of sales he ‘gathers’, his soccer team earns one dollar.  Why I imagine he would convince every relative, neighbor, and team parent to buy their gas and other items here, so he could get their receipts.  What do you think?”
        Zayadi was doing some quick mental math.  “What if he collects ten thousand dollars?  That’s one hundred dollar!  Too much!  Don’t like, Jason!”
        Jason had prepared for this line of resistance.  “Mr. Zayadi, our average gas and impulse sale per customer is about ten dollars…I ran the numbers.  Ten thousand dollars would represent a THOUSAND customers…many of whom would be new.  You can’t buy advertising and good will that cheap!  And remember, it is tax deductible.”  Jason’s appeal to the wisdom of the Prophet was the clincher.
        Zayadi considered this.  Before Jason had come along, his haphazard bookkeeping did not consider tax benefits.  This was part of the argument Jason had used to persuade him to finance capital improvements.  Zayadi had to admit, every time Jason convinced him to spend money- ‘invest in the business’ – the payback was substantial.  If this crazy idea worked (and Zayadi had grudging respect for the judgment of his employee), the local Arab business community would consider him a genius.
        Zayadi nodded through slitted eyes.  “We try, Jason.  We try with ‘football boy’.”
        Jason took no small pleasure in explaining the plan to Cyrus later that day.  The incredulous father was visibly moved, his eyes moistening.  “Jason, you da man!  How in the world did you convince that desert cracker to agree to this?”
        “He’s not so bad, Cyrus.  You’ll see.  I think this promotion will do more for him than it will for the boys.”
        Within days the increase in traffic was astounding.  Smiling new faces, often accompanied by young boys pushing their parents to buy even more, was a sight unfamiliar to Rahim Zayadi.  He shrugged nonchalantly at the numerous and heartfelt appreciation lavished on him by so many new customers.
        Lenny, the snack vendor, pulled Jason aside.  “What’s going on here, man.  I can’t keep this rack full anymore.  This has become my best stop.  I’m going to have to add another day of service.”
        Agnes, who had just stopped in to visit with Jason overheard this exchange.  When they were alone, she congratulated Jason.  “I think you have made Mr. Zayadi a believer, Jason.  And look at the ripple effect his beneficence is having.  You should be proud.”
        “It’s simply remarkable, Agnes.  And I have you to thank, you know.”
        Agnes simply tapped him on the cheek as she departed.  “In your dreams, Jason.  In your dreams.”

        In less than six weeks, Zayadi’s Quik Stop had provided the funds to suit the entire soccer team.  Little Martin Barlow walked in beaming to show off the crisp new uniform.  He turned so that Rahim could see the bright red scripting on his shirt back Zayadi’s Quik Stop.  The slightest suggestion of a smile played at the corner of Zayadi’s mustache.  “Nice.  Nice shirt.  I tell you.  Come on Saturday during busy time.  Wear shirt and stand by door and ask for receipts.  You get lots more that way.”
        Cyrus was incredulous.  “Why thank you so much, Mr. Zayadi.  I’ll make sure the boys are real polite and don’t make a nuisance out there.  That’s awful kind of you, Sir!”
        Zayadi dismissed him with a wave of his hand.  “Business.  Good business, that’s all.”
        As the soccer season began, Zayadi queried Cyrus on the team’s progress.
        “Oh, they’re having a great time, Mr. Zayadi.  They haven’t scored yet…the boys are a little green and still learning the game, but that’s alright, they’re off the streets, getting good exercise, and learning teamwork.”
        “But no win.”  Zayadi shook his head.
        The next day two young boys came into the store and greeted Zayadi in his native tongue.  They were carrying a soccer ball.  Zayadi instructed them to sit down behind the counter and then turned to Jason.  “My nephews.  Bring Slurpees, please.  They join football team, no?”
        When Cyrus came in that afternoon, Zayadi eagerly introduced his nephews and commanded them to demonstrate their skills.  The boys adroitly passed the ball back and forth to one another, from knee to knee.  The ball never once touched the floor.  Cyrus was impressed.
        “Mr. Zayadi!  Your nephews have some considerable skills here.  I would be delighted to have them join our team.  I think there is a lot they could teach us.” 
Zayadi nodded.  “And to win!” 
“I’m on my way to practice right now, if they would like to join us.”
Zayadi motioned to the boys to follow.  “Speak English…teach to win!”
And teach they did.  The Zayadi Quik Stop team did not lose any more games.  They proudly presented their first place trophy to their patron, which he in turn displayed on a shelf above the cash register.  A team photo, with Zayadi standing behind the kneeling team later accompanied the display.

On her next visit, Agnes congratulated Rahim on his trophy, quoting the Prophet in perfect Arabic, to Zayadi’s delight and amazement.  She then approached Jason, who was busy stocking shelves, whistling a quiet tune.  He was so preoccupied, he didn’t notice her.
“You appear to be glowing, young man.”
Startled, Jason looked up.  “Agnes, you surprised me.  What brings you here?”
“Do I need an excuse, Jason.  You know, this store has become more than just a store.  It’s rather pleasant to just be in here.”
“It’s funny you say that, Agnes.  A lot of our clientele express that same sentiment.  I guess it’s good for business, eh?”
“That too!” quipped Agnes.  “What was that tune you were whistling.  It sounds familiar.”
Jason blushed.  “I can’t get it out of my head.  I’m not a fan of Country Music, but this was a request that someone called in on the radio this morning.  The refrain really speaks to me.  It goes like this
 We've got a roof over our head
And the kids have all been fed
And the woman I love most
Lies close beside me in our bed
Lord, give me the eyes to see
Exactly what it's worth
And I will be the richest man on earth

Agnes nodded knowingly.  “Paul Overstreet.  He writes inspired lyrics.  Is this song about you?”
        Jason projected a boyish and bemused demeanor.  “Yes, Agnes.  I believe it is.  But there is one line that sort of haunts me.   He says I haven’t been as thankful as I know I ought to be….I should be more than satisfied with all you’ve given me.   I never thought I would say this, but I’m very grateful for how things have turned out.  Of course, I am most thankful for your intercession and encouragement … but ….”
        “But you suspect the gratitude might be more properly directed to a ‘higher power’?”  Agnes completed.
“Yeah”, Jason smiled, “something like that.”
“Well, my boy, such opportunities have a way of making themselves apparent.”
Jason pondered this for a moment.  “Agnes, you are one mysterious lady!”
Agnes simply flashed him her Mona Lisa smile and gave him a gentle tap on the cheek.  “The plot thickens, Jason.  We’ll talk again.”   She shared a few words with Mr. Zayadi and was gone.
Jason was sweeping the parking lot when Cyrus Barlow approached.  After their familiar hand bump and greeting, Cyrus got serious.
“Man, I been watchin’ you for quite some time now.  You go to church?”
Jason was suddenly dumbfounded.  He struggled for composure.  “Well…Cyrus….it’s been a long time, but no…I don’t attend church.  Why do you ask?”
Cyrus shook his head, stretching a grin.  “Jason, a good man like you, he needs to be talkin’ to God.  I was thinkin’.  We have a missionary speaking at church on Wednesday evening.  You and the family….I’d like you to come hear him, as my guests.  What do you say, man?”
Jason was absorbing the offer.  Cyrus was extending an intimacy that greatly honored him.  Without hesitation he responded.  “Cyrus, that sounds real nice.  Wednesday is open.  I’m sure Dawn and the children would be delighted.  Where is your church?”
Cyrus was beaming, actually pleasantly surprised by Jason’s eager acceptance of the invitation.  “We’re the old Catholic church downtown….St. Paul’s….you know where it’s at?”
Jason raised an eyebrow.  “Why yes, I know where it’s at.  My mother used to take me there as a boy.”
“That’s great, Jason.  Then it will be like a homecoming for you.  Wednesday then, seven o’clock.  I’ll be lookin’ for you.”
As Jason explained the Wednesday invitation to Dawn, she blushed demurely.
“Jason, I feel a little embarrassed….we haven’t been in a church since your mother’s funeral…and before that…our wedding day.  How do we explain this to the kids?”
It was true, Jason realized.  Formal religion or even a deferential nod in its direction had never been part of their family life.  Not that they were antagonistic toward the practice of religion – but active spirituality just did not figure into their lives.  They were largely self-reliant, and until they encountered the new economic realities, quite confident in their own abilities to govern their universe.   He recalled the cryptic reply from Agnes when he shared with her the sentiments Overstreet’s song had kindled in him.  If this were some supernatural nudge, Jason was inclined to yield.
“How about explaining this as yet another ‘adventure’ in our new lifestyle”, Jason offered.  “I recall a number of times they have asked innocent questions about God.  Our answers were pretty unsubstantial.  I think this exposure might lead to some interesting conversation.”
Dawn brightened at this.  “Jason, they’re such bright kids, and I love the way our evenings have been so wonderful with all the time we have had to grow as a family.  I must confess, this is a dimension I have been somewhat hungry to explore myself.  I think it will be good!”
When they arrived at St. Paul’s on Wednesday evening, Jason was surprised by a number of things.  He had not expected to see so many people streaming into the church.  He was delighted that he recognized many of the attendees as regular customers, many of whom he knew by name.  The children as well were enthusiastically greeted by many of their schoolmates.  The friendly recognition encouraged the warm, homey feeling that seemed to be embracing the entire family.  And finally, he was impressed by the diversity of the congregation.  Faces of various hues and ethnicities were a far cry from the homogenous gatherings he recalled as a child.  Standing on tiptoe, Cyrus spotted him and eagerly waved the family over to one of the forward facing pews.
Cyrus was beaming as he proudly introduced his wife and children to the Lockharts.   Jason registered shock.  Cyrus was wearing a Roman collar.
“Cyrus,” he blurted out.  “You never told me you were a priest!”
Cyrus bellowed with glee.  “Man, you have been away too long.  I’m not a priest…just an ordained deacon.  We need to get together and catch you up on some things.”
“Cyrus, should we be sitting this close…we’re only visitors.  Surely these seats should be reserved for some of the regulars.”
Cyrus dismissed the objection.  “Hey, Bro, you are my guests.  This is one of the perks you get from knowing a bona-fide newly ordained Diocesan Deacon.  Those three years of study gotta have some perks!”
The lively choir had the congregation on their feet with joyous clapping and singing such as Jason had never heard before.  With seamless grace the singers gradually segued the congregation toward solemn reverence as the time came for the speaker to begin.  The children, Jason noticed, were spellbound, constantly glancing around, soaking in this new experience.  There is something wonderful in the air Jason realized.  It was hard for him to believe this was the same place he had visited on that anxious day so many months before.
A distinguished looking gentleman in a long black robe came forward and introduced himself as Father Damian O’Connell.  In a lilting diction that was both clear and captivating, he began to describe his work at a struggling mission in the slums of Haiti.  Jason was mesmerized by his accounts of the miraculous things that ‘God’ was doing among these poorest of peoples.  The anecdotal stories he told of his ministry should have evoked pity and revulsion but the saintly priest communicated only hope and an unintelligible joy.  By the end of his presentation, he had engendered a family bond between the assembled listeners and his far away flock.  There was not a dry eye in the congregation.  Jason was more aware than ever of the bounty he had so taken for granted.  He truly was among the ‘Richest Men on Earth’!
As Father O’Connell sat down to warm and subdued applause, Cyrus approached the lectern.  He announced that a freewill offering would be taken up to support the Haitian mission which St. Paul’s parish was hoping to adopt as a sister community.
When the basket passed by him, Jason was painfully aware of his financial limitations.  In the ‘old days’ it was nothing to rip off a large check to some anonymous charity, the figure often sporting a comma.  The five dollar bill he dropped in the basket represented real sacrifice for him as their very tight budget did not have a category for charitable contributions.  (He suspected that Dawn, from the expression on her face, would work her spreadsheet magic to correct that).
As they were leaving the sanctuary, Cyrus draped an arm around Jason and Dawn.  “I’m so glad y’all could come tonight.  Don’t be strangers, now, y’hear!”
Little Missy spoke for them all when she blurted out, “Oh Daddy!  Can we please come back?  This was wonderful!”
“Sure, Princess,” he replied.  “We’ll start this Sunday. “
The ride home was subdued as each member of the family mused on the afterglow of the evening’s experience.
“Dad,” enquired Trevor, “is two thousand dollars a lot of money?”
Now there’s a relative question, thought Jason!
“Well son, it is a lot of money for us right now.  Why do you ask?”
“Father O’Connell said that for two thousand dollars they could build a whole library for the children, so they could read inside, with real chairs and desks.”   Trevor then paused with innocent deliberation.  “Dad, could we give Father O’Connell two thousand dollars?”
Jason exhaled laudably. “Whew….Trevor.  That would take some kind of minor miracle under the present circumstances.”
“Daddy”, Missy interjected, “Father O’Connell talked a lot about miracles.  What’s a ‘miracle’?” 
Jason and Dawn exchanged bemused glances and waded into the unfamiliar waters of beginner theology.  “Missy, honey,” Dawn explained, “ a miracle is when God does something unexpected and nearly impossible…simply because someone asks Him to do it.”
Missy pondered on that for a moment and then exclaimed victoriously.  “OK, then I am going to ask God to give us two thousand dollars…so we can build a library for Father O’Connell!”

Jason was unusually distracted at work the next day as he processed the prior evening’s events.  He had just finished filling the Slurpee dispenser, and was startled when he turned and nearly fell on top of Agnes, who had obviously been standing behind him for several seconds.
“Jason,” she intoned confidentially, “you certainly seem lost in thought.”
“Hello, Agnes…yes…I guess I am.  My daughter Missy prayed for a miracle last night and I am afraid of what will happen when she is disappointed.”
“Disappointed? How could the child be disappointed?   Ah, Jason, you don’t believe in miracles, do you?”
Jason blushed.  “Agnes.  I don’t know.  Theoretically, I guess miracles are possible.” He shook his head and held up his hands.  “I just don’t know.”
Agnes bowed her head and closed her eyes for a moment.  When she re-opened them a mischievous look brightened her face.  “Jason, don’t you think this ‘miracle’ is between Missy and God?  What concern is it of yours?”
Jason squinted at her grimly.  “Agnes, this is new territory…for me AND the children.  How does this miracle stuff work.  I mean, in the real world?”
Agnes guffawed with gusto.  “The real world?  Jason, the real world is held together by ‘miracles’!”
Jason struggled.  He recalled his temptation to rub the tabernacle on that fateful visit to St. Paul’s so long ago. 
“OK, maybe.  But Agnes, is God like a genie or something….you say the right words and POOF…stuff happens.  Last night I heard about all kinds of remarkable things ‘happening’.  How does it work?”
  Agnes narrowed her gaze and gripped Jason’s eyes.  “Think of it as a network, Jason, like…sound waves generated by a radio transmitter.  All around us, sound waves are everywhere.  But unless you have a properly tuned receiver, they are imperceptible.  Messages go out, they get picked up, they get response.  Miracles happen when souls are tuned in to the network.  I would say Missy is tuned in, and transmitting.  Some people would call that prayer.  Oftentimes the miracle ‘happens’ when someone else receives the ‘signal’ and then responds.  It’s a beautiful thing!”
A wry smile played on Jason’s face.  “So Agnes, you are equating this whole invisible spiritual reality to something like Zayadi’s boom box?”
Agnes simply grinned back.  “Isn’t that how Overstreet got to you…through Zayadi’s boom box?”  She tapped him on the cheek and departed.
As Jason’s gaze followed Agnes out of the store he could not help but notice a vaguely familiar figure step out of a shiny new BMW convertible in the parking lot.  Derek Johnson did a double take as he entered the store.
“Jason?  Jason Lockhart?  Man, I hardly recognized you in that bowling shirt!  You work in this dump?”
Jason flushed with embarrassment for the loud brashness of his old business acquaintance.  Derek Johnson was a high-powered salesman, but his social graces were a poor match for his business acumen.  He was clad in a very expensive tailored suit and sported a healthy tan.  He looked fit and confident.
“I only stopped here ‘cause I feared the Beemer might run out of gas.  The last place I wanted to get stranded was in this part of town!  I never expected to see you here, Lockhart!”
The other customers eyed the rude and graceless newcomer suspiciously.
“It’s been a long time, Derek.  It appears you have bounced back in style.”
Derek returned a smug grimace that only a man convinced of his own superiority would dare display in such a setting.  “Jason, I was never down for the count.  Took awhile, but I’m back in the saddle, making more now than ever.  Buddy, you’re breakin’ my heart. we gotta get you out of here!”
Johnson produced a business card from his wallet and pressed it into Jason’s hand.  “Get me your resume.  We’ll do lunch.  My new firm could use a good number cruncher like you.” He winked condescendingly.  “I can make it happen, dude.”
Derek paid for his gas and sauntered out.  The brief spectacle did not go unnoticed by Rahim, who appeared to be uncharacteristically unnerved.   Jason’s demeanor bore a pained look.  The lifeline he had so desperately hoped for had been extended.  For a fleeting moment he envisioned himself returning his family to a life of ease and comfort.
At the first lull in business, Mr. Zayadi motioned for Jason to come to the counter.
“Jason, I thinking.  You work hard, work good.  Time for raise, no?”
Jason, still processing the sudden turn of fortune and possibilities, was expressionless.  Unable to discern this mute reaction, Zayadi continued.  “Four hundred dollars a week, starting today.  And Saturdays, Jason.  You get Saturdays off, no?  Is good?  More time with family.   You like?“
Jason could only shake his head noncommittally.  “That’s very generous of you Mr. Zayadi.  I will need to think about it.”
On his walk home, Jason took a detour to the library.  Zayadi’s offer amounted to a tad over two thousand dollars in extra income.  Is this a miracle, mused Jason, as he considered that Derek would view that sum as an accounting error on a monthly expense report.  He logged on to the public computer and navigated to Craig’s List, the site where one could advertise items for sale at no charge.  On the way out, as he passed a waste basket, his clenched fist released the crumpled business card of Derek Johnson.

Jason was remarkably nonchalant as Dawn greeted him at the door that evening.
“Hon, you’re a little late.  Everything OK at the store?”
“Couldn’t be better.  I had to do some business at the library.”
“Jason, I just got a strange call.  Someone said they will be here in an hour to pick up our home theater system.  Do you know anything about this?”
Jason embraced her tenderly.  “I think it’s probably just a little miracle.”
Pastor Horace Trombley whistled as he appraised the lavish theater system with all of its expensive accessories.
“Whew!  Mr. Lockhart.  This system is nicer than you described.  It looks brand new.  This will be perfect for our hall.  Are you sure two thousand is all you want for it?  I would hate to take advantage of you, especially as this is for the Lord’s work.”
Pastor Trombley had explained to Jason that his downtown rescue mission would be using the system to provide wholesome entertainment and training seminars for the homeless and destitute families they were assisting.
“Two thousand is the perfect amount,” Jason assured him.  “I’m just glad it will be put to good use.”
Horace Trombley fought back tears.  “Sir, you might not realize this, but you are an answered prayer.  This system is worth five times what you are asking.   I can guarantee you it will be bless many souls.”
Jason put his arms around the family as they watched five burly men negotiate the many components out of their little home and into the waiting van outside.  After the final handshake and the exchange of twenty one-hundred-dollar bills, Trevor took in the new spaciousness afforded their living room.
“Wow, Dad, this is great!  We can re-arrange everything and have lots of room in here now.  It was really cramped with that thing…and we hardly ever used it.  This feels like home now.”
Missy was beside herself with joy.  “Oh, Daddy…it’s like Father O’Connell said…God answered my prayer!  This is our first miracle!”
Jason embraced his daughter tenderly.  “I’m not so sure, Princess.  I think maybe it’s just the first miracle we are aware of.  You know, the whole world is held together by miracles, or so I’m told.” 
He handed her the large wad of bills.  “Missy, I want you to give this to Deacon Cyrus on Sunday.  And I want you to tell him all about your miracle.”

Jason was not expecting the bear hug with which Rahim Zayadi met his acceptance of the new working arrangements.  He was buoyed the entire day by an eerie sense of peace and gratitude that cried for expression.
Zayadi graciously consented to allow Jason to leave an hour early that afternoon, to conduct some urgent business.   He needed to visit the Unemployment Office before it closed.
After much insistence, Jason was ushered into the office of Mr. Donald Dunn,  the agency supervisor.
“Mr. Dunn, this may seem unusual, but I would like to bring to your attention the remarkable service of one of your field agents.  I think some sort of accommodation is in order, and I would gladly submit the appropriate documentation necessary, based on my personal experience.”
Dunn looked at him curiously.  “Field agent?  Mr. Lockhart, we have no ‘field agents’.  What you see here is our entire staff.  Whatever are you talking about?”
Jason expounded in great detail on the attention and encouragement proffered by Agnes over the many months of his transition.  When prompted for the name of this mysterious agent, Dunn did a double-take.
“Did you say Agnus Dei?” he replied.  “Is this some kind of joke?  I was an altar boy years ago.  That is latin for Lamb of God!”
Jason corrected the misunderstanding.  He spelled it out for Dunn.  A-G-N-E-S   D-A-Y.
Dunn simply chuckled.  “I don’t care how you spell her name.  We have no one like that working for us.  I have no idea where she came from, but I can assure you, she has no connection with this office.  But I must confess, Mr. Lockhart, she sounds like a real angel!”