After chatting with @DreamOfFire today, she joked I could 'write a cool concept out of "paper bag" and "toothpick" like some sort of writer McGyver'.
I don't know about cool, but here is that story for your reading pleasure!
Jackie Benson had lived in his current neighborhood for less than a month but already knew the figure of Mr. D'Angelo, holding a crumpled paper sack, walking with deliberate steps the quiet street at four in the morning. Jackie also knew where the elderly man was heading.
For over 50 yrs Mr. D'Angelo was the sole proprietor of The Good News, a small corner newsstand. Each morning, without fail, the man could be found sitting on his stool, waiting for his customers. Though the newsstand had gone from a flimsy corrugated construct to a more solid concrete and steel bunker and Mr. D had gone in the opposite direction, both could be found and it was impossible to imagine one without the other.
The idea that a newsstand could thrive in such a quiet little neighborhood seemed impossible, but Mr. D lived frugally and had built up regulars, some who walked several blocks to purchase their morning paper and sundries from the kind-eyed man who always had a smile and a moment to talk.
Jackie had seen the older man every morning as Mr. D walked towards his newsstand to start setting up for a new day. Due to insomnia and a general depression over his current circumstances, Jackie had felt some comfort seeing Mr. D. It gave him some belief that things didn't always need to be a fight for survival. It also told him he had survived yet one more night.
Despite seeing the older man and purchasing a paper each day, Jackie had only exchanged the barest of pleasantries. He had heard other clients speaking with familiarity and Mr. D asking after family or circumstances. The older man seemed to know and remember everything about his customers. No one who came to his newsstand ever seemed to begrudge others their conversations. No one seemed rushed or frustrated at waiting in line for their turn with the vendor.
If there was one odd thing about Mr. D's shop, it was the brown paper bag. The older man carried it back and forth with him to his newsstand. At first, Jackie thought it must have been the older man's lunch, but after visiting the stand a few times, he noticed something odd.
Some customers would come up looking, not for a paper, but for the newsman himself. There would be an exchange and Mr. D would reach under his counter and bring up a crumpled brown bag. The customer would gratefully reach in and pull something out. Jackie could never see what the items were, but anyone who performed this ritual walked away smiling.
Jackie had always been too afraid to ask about the bag. Part of him wondered if it could be drug related, but no money ever exchanged hands and everyone who visited the stand for the bag seemed to perform the ritual openly.
That morning, seeing the man walk down the road yet again, Jackie decided to get his paper early. The newsstand didn't officially open until five but everyone knew Mr. D would not turn away a customer should he be in his stand.
Jackie dressed and brushed his hair, even though no part of him felt there was any point. In the last month he had come out of a long term relationship, lost his job then his apartment. He knew he was incredibly lucky his cousin allowed him to live rent-free in the small place he was in now while he looked for a new job, but going through the motions sometimes felt like too much.
Down the three flights of stair and out into the quiet street, Jackie made his way to the newsstand. As he walked, he tried to tell himself that today would be the day he would find that lead in the classifieds. He knew all jobs were more or less posted online, but he had been surprised to see that many still used the paper. Buying a paper at least gave him a chance to get out of the house without feeling guilty, though he often wondered how long he'd be able to afford even this minor luxury.
The warm glow from the newsstand gave Jackie a bit of hope though he couldn't have explained why.
Mr. D stood from the side of the stand where he was stooping to pick up papers. He repositioned the papers under one arm to wave.
"You'll get the first one," Mr. D said with a genuine smile. "What brings you out so early, Jackie?"
Jackie was so shocked that the older man knew his name that he stopped walking and stared.
Mr. D chuckled.
"Not much secret around here," Mr. D continued. "Don't forget I know Marilynn. She told me you'd be coming to stay after the troubles you've had."
Mr. D's voice became sympathetic and Jackie mentally cursed his chatty cousin for telling his private business to strangers.
"How are you?" Mr. D's voice broke Jackie's thoughts. Again Jackie was surprised by the older man. Mr. D wasn't patronizing, but genuinely interested.
Jackie took a deep breath. "I could be better," he admitted, "but as soon as I find a job, I think things will get better."
Mr. D nodded in sympathy. "The job market's not what it used to be. I won't say it was ever perfect, but it all does seem worse now."
Jackie nodded and looked at his shoes. Mr. D was the first person who didn't try to tell him that if he just kept looking and tried harder, something would come. Jackie didn't know if he could even explain how grateful that made him.
"Do you know what you could use?" Mr. D's voice took on a much more cheerful note. "You could use some good news."
Mr. D took his paper bundle into the still closed newsstand. Jackie waited, confused, until the older man lifted the gate to allow the stand to be fully opened. The older man sat at his bench before bending down and pulling up a familiar brown object.
"I've seen people take things from it." Jackie nodded towards the bag. "What's in there?"
"It's good news." Mr. D smiled. "It's all I keep in there."
Seeing the younger man's puzzled look, Mr. D pushed the bag closer to the edge of the counter. Jackie tried to peer inside but the gloom of the day didn't reach to the bottom.
"Yeah, but what's in there really?" Jackie asked again.
Mr. D shrugged and looked to the right, waving at Mrs. Emeria as she and her terrier went for their early morning walk.
"It's different for different people," Mr. D turned his gaze back towards Jackie. "Good news comes in many forms even I don't know."
Jackie frowned at Mr. D then back down at the bag.
"Try it," Mr. D nodded encouragingly. "See what good news you have waiting for you."
Shaking his head, Jackie started to back away. He thought the entire thing was probably a con, some psychological trick where he would pull out a coupon for a free candy or soda with his next newsstand purchase. Despite the kindness of the man, Jackie was sure there was nothing in there for him.
Mr. D shrugged and reached for the bag to put it away. Before he could, Jackie darted forward and thrust his hand in.
To his surprise, his hands did not come upon a pile of coupons, but on one thin piece of paper, no bigger than a fortune cookie slip. Grasping the object, Jackie sucked in breath when a sharp wooden point stabbed his finger.
Pulling it out, he saw the object was a paper wrapped toothpick.
Jackie eyed Mr. D with more than a little confusion.
"This is my good news?" Though he didn't mean to, the words came out in a scoff. "How is a toothpick good news?"
Mr D shrugged. "I can only say what I said before. Good news comes in many forms.
Jackie pocketed the toothpick and nodded glumly before turning away.
"Wait!" Mr. D called. "Don't forget your paper!"
Jackie reached for it and went to offer the change but Mr. D waved it away.
"On me today," the older man said. "the least I can do to help you get back on your feet."
Jackie gave a smile, but even he knew it was half-hearted. He turned from the news seller and continued back in the early morning gloom to the small apartment.
Once upstairs, Jackie found his cousin Marilynn sipping a cup of coffee at the table. She nodded but didn't speak. Jackie knew Marilynn wasn't a morning person and not a great conversationalist at the best of times.
Jackie made his own cup of coffee and sat down to look at the classifieds. As he made his way down the list, his minimal hope became smaller.
"Everything here wants you to already have so much experience!" Jackie threw the paper down in disgust. He sighed. "I'm going to have to move back home with mom if this keeps going."
Marilynn gave a sympathetic grimace but said nothing. He knew he was welcome to stay with her as long as he needed, but he also knew the small apartment would eventually cause friction between the pair.
Jackie washed out his mug and went to his room. Sitting on the edge of the bed, he tried to work out what he would do that day. He couldn't take sitting in the apartment searching job boards nor did he have the heart to call in at staffing office to see if they had any leads on a temp position for him.
He found he was still sitting on bed, lost in thought, when he heard Marilynn go out the door. Jackie sighed and stood up. He grabbed his bag that was still packed with his laptop and his resumes. He felt he had to get out of the small room.
The streets were starting to wake as he found himself on the sidewalk again. People were starting out to jobs or classes. They had purpose, making Jackie feel even more at a loose end.
He walked several blocks until he reached the nearest coffee shop. Inside the lines were already forming with those ready to get their caffeine injection before heading to offices. Jackie skipped the lines and went to sit at his usual table. He'd been a regular at the shop since moving in with Marilynn. He felt it a better place to work than the kitchen table.
Jackie fired up his laptop and began going through the usual job boards and companies, hoping this time he would find a place hiring. By his calculation, Jackie had already put in 90 applications since losing his job a month ago.
Jackie sighed and put his head down. Thinking about where it all went wrong tired him to his soul. The worst part of the whole thing was that Jackie had done nothing wrong.
He had been happy for four years. Jackie would have even said nothing could have been better. He had a great job at a company he loved. It was one he knew he could move up in. He met his boyfriend, Darren, in the accounts department and it had been an immediate spark.
For four years, Jackie felt invincible and had every hope the future would only bring better things. Then, it all fell apart. He came home one night a bit later than usual and Darren was sitting at the kitchen table. Jackie knew it wasn't going to be good.
And it hadn't been. Darren had received a job offer, one 3,000 miles away from their shared apartment and he had to make the decision quickly. Jackie was floored. He didn't know Darren had even been looking for a new position, let alone one in another country.
The two talked long into the night. Jackie knew he could never stand in the way of Darren's opportunity nor could he just pack up and leave. In the end, they decided to part ways. There were tears and promises each knew they wouldn't keep.
It was less than a week before Darren was packed and on his plane. The speed in which it took him to chuck off his old life make Jackie realize this was something Darren had been planning for some time. Jackie had not been a part of Darren's future as he had imagined.
It was only a few days after that when the company decided to restructure. Jackie's department was dissolved and he was given a pink slip and two weeks pay. Without a steady job or a second income, Jackie knew he couldn't keep the apartment.
He told himself that it was a chance to start over, but it felt more like he'd lost everything. Those members of his family that still kept in touch offered sympathy but only Marilynn had offered real help. He had only assumed it would be a few weeks before a new job would reveal itself, but the weeks were dragging heavy on him.
Now, looking at yet more jobs that wanted more experience than he had or were offering less than a living wage. He applied to all of them.
Jackie was in the middle of filling out his work history for an application that had already asked for his resume when he heard the curse from his left.
He turned to see a man pushing on the side of his laptop. The man let out another curse as whatever he was doing still didn't give him the desired outcome.
Jackie watched for a second longer before finally deciding to help.
"Are you okay?" The man jumped at Jackie's voice and gave a fierce scowl.
Jackie put his hands up to show he wasn't a threat.
"I just wanted to see if I could help." Jackie said, turning back to his laptop.
The man sighed and looked down. He put a hand on his head.
"I'm sorry, man," he said. "it's been a long day and it's not even 9 am."
Jackie nodded and turned back towards the man.
"What's wrong with your computer?" Jackie asked.
The man sighed again.
"I know I should be a genius at tech, but I'm not," the man confessed. "I'm good with people, believe it or not." He laughed at himself. "Technology? I swear it hates me."
"I'm pretty good with tech," Jackie said. "If you can tell me what's wrong, maybe I can help."
"It's the cd," he said. "It's stuck in there and I need to get it out so I can put in another one. I have to interview someone in an hour and I'm nowhere near ready."
The man turned to look completely at Jackie. With his face turned full at Jackie's, he could see the man had one brown pupil and one that was milky white. Jackie tilted his head to study the contrast.
"Most people look away." The man grinned at Jackie's gaze. "I'm Eddie. Eddie Clintock."
Jackie returned the grin. "Jackie Benson."
The two shook hands then Jackie moved to Eddie's table.
"About your cd drive," Jackie motioned towards the laptop and Eddie pushed it towards him.
Without thinking, Jackie put his hand in his pocket and pulled out the wrapped toothpick he had pulled out of Mr. D'Angelo's bag of good news. In one quick press, the cd drive whirred and popped out.
"You are my hero!" Eddie smiled and pulled the laptop towards himself again.
Before the laptop was completely out of his view, Jackie caught a glimpse at what was on the screen.
"Clintock?" Jackie hadn't meant to say the name out loud, but the logo on the desktop had startled him.
Eddie looked embarrassed.
"Yeah, I'm part of those Clintocks," Eddie admitted. "And you've just heard a Clintock admit he's hopeless with technology."
Jackie knew that the Clintock firm was synonymous with technology, specifically IT support and consulting. Some of the biggest companies Jackie could name contracted the Clintock firm to ensure their company data stayed in the company.
"I handle a lot of the PR and hiring," Eddie continued. "If it has to do with people, I do it. It saves many of my introverted family members from dealing with anything other than data systems."
Jackie nodded but felt himself a bit tongue-tied. Eddie sensed the sudden change between them.
"So, what brings you here?" Eddie asked awkwardly. "Writer? Interview? Study group?"
Jackie cracked a smile but shook his head.
"Applying for jobs," he admitted. With a little chagrin, he added. "I applied to your company 3 weeks ago, but I guess I didn't meet your needs at the time."
Eddie frowned then pulled his computer towards him.
"Jackie Benson?" Eddie pulled up a program and started typing. He began scanning something Jackie couldn't see. After a few moments of silence, Eddie nodded and started typing. Jackie was beginning to wonder if he should go back to his own table.
"So, Mr. Benson," Eddie looked up from the laptop, his demeanor all business, "tell me a bit about yourself."
For the next fifty minutes Jackie found himself in one of the most laid back interviews he'd ever experienced. Eddie was warm and friendly. Jackie could see why he hadn't lied when he had described himself as a people person.
"This all looks good," Eddie said when he had written his last note. "Of course, I can't promise anything, but, if I have my say, you'll probably be hearing some good news from us in about a week."
Jackie couldn't believe what he had heard.
"Are you serious?" Jackie laughed. "Weren't you meeting someone else here to interview them?"
Eddie waved a hand. "They're applying for a completely different position, so there's no conflict there."
As if hearing a cue, a well dressed woman came into the coffee shop, looked around then beelined towards Eddie and Jackie's table.
"I better let you go," Jackie said as he stood. "It...it was nice meeting you."
Eddie stood and reached out to shake Jackie's hand. "I have to admit it was a pleasure on my part, too."
The two shared a smile before letting go of each other's hands.
"Don't forget your toothpick!" Eddie said as Jackie was walking way.
Smiling, Jackie shook his head.
"I'm done with it," he said. "Keep it. You never know when it might come in handy."
My lofty dreams of being a famous & brilliant writer were literally smacked out of my head. Now I plan to fill the void with copious amounts of subpar writing!