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A Little Voice, A Big Decision
“Dress properly, if you want a job here!” the manager said gruffly, as he slammed the door in John’s face. Not too surprised, John stepped wearily off the stoop of the office building into the frigid February air. It was his third, and most rude, rejection that day. It was also the fourth straight day that he hadn’t gone to school, but that was the least of his problems.
“I need a job because I need money,” John said aloud as he trotted home angrily. “I need clothes to get a job. I need transportation to get a job. I need money to get clothes and transportation.” He threw up his hands in disgust and shouted, “I need a job because I need money!” The elderly woman who was walking toward him on the sidewalk gingerly stepped off of the curb and crossed the street, obviously concerned that John wasn’t quite sane.
“Great, now I’m scaring old ladies,” he grumbled. He continued on toward home. “If you could only get your motorcycle working” a little voice from inside advised. He was used to the little voice. He was alone a lot, and at some point, maybe when he was 5 or 6, he had started hearing what he now thought of as the “little voice.” It was weird, at first, but eventually, he began to feel it was the only friend he had. If he had a problem, he could think his thoughts, and out of nowhere, the voice would answer him. He never minded, because usually the little voice was helpful. It was no longer weird to him, but he would never have told anyone about it. The voice was actually comforting at times.
‘You’re right’ he muttered. If he got the bike working, at least he would have one problem solved. Exasperated, he realized he needed money to get the parts. Fixing it wouldn’t be a problem; John was confident of that. Although he never had any training, he was a wiz at fixing things. Always had been. It just came naturally. Getting the parts was the problem.
As he reached his block, he noticed the Service Electric truck pulling away from the curb. Even his shoulders seemed to sigh as he leaned wearily against the rusting mail box. He’d seen the boxy silver truck driving away often enough to know that their electric had been shut off, again. Entering the darkened foyer, he wondered if his mom had come home. She had split a few weeks ago; she did that sometimes. She’d come home, for a short time, then she’d leave again. She wasn’t ever like a real mom, so John barely missed her now, not like when he was young and would cry for her until his dad told him to “shut up and get over it.”
“Mom?” he called doubtfully. Silence. Whatever, he hadn’t really expected her to be there. He didn’t even care, he told himself. Better off without her.
Luckily, there was still enough daylight left to find his way into the dimly lit kitchen. He realized he hadn’t even eaten that day as he opened the cabinet door. A lonely can of black beans stared back at him. His stomach grumbled in protest as he slammed the cabinet door in frustration. Just then, he turned to see his father stumbling into the kitchen. Even the dim light couldn’t disguise his tired, blood-shot eyes, his dark, greasy hair, and his faded, torn work pants.
Immediately, the story-telling began. John closed his eyes and slumped into the rickety chair. ‘Blah blah blah.’ He couldn’t, wouldn’t, listen to fairy tales. Not this time. How his dad had “spent all day looking for a job” or how “a friend of a friend of a friend was going to give him a cushy job”… ‘blah blah blah. Lies, all lies. Why not just the truth, old man? That you were sucking ’em down at the bar at 45th and Walnut. That you probably got kicked out when your tab got too high or the elderly barkeep got tired of your long-winded stories.’ But John said none of that as he carefully stepped past his father, getting a pungent whiff of cheap whiskey.
As he lay in bed, John’s mind returned to his motorcycle. He thought back to the day his dad brought it home. He’d pushed it in through the front door and bellowed merrily “Happy birthday son! You’re legal now, and with a little elbow grease, I know you can get this beauty runnin‘.” The truth was, it was long past John’s birthday, and having seen better days, the bike wasn’t exactly beautiful, but nonetheless, John couldn’t believe it. He didn’t ask how. He didn’t want to hear some lie about how “an old friend owed me some money.” He just stared in amazement. He got to work on it the very next day. Even got it running. Of course, in those days, his father worked most days and was even able to give John a few dollars here and there for the parts.
As the chill deepened, John pulled the covers tighter. But that was then, and this is now. The motorcycle hadn’t worked in almost as many months as his dad. Without transportation, it was unlikely he could get a job. John shivered and said to himself, “I have to get it running, even if I have to steal the parts.” The hunger and cold were no match for his fatigue, and John drifted off to sleep, a plan partially formulated in his mind.
Over the next few days, instead of heading off to look for a job, John found himself slyly pocketing motorcycle parts as he wandered the aisles of Jerry’s Bike Shop. Making every effort to look casual, he strolled from aisle to aisle as if he had not a care in the world. God help him if he got caught! The owner, a gray-haired, kind looking older man, seemed to focus his steely eyes on John, as if he knew John was up to no good. Did he know John really was up to no good? No, if he did, he certainly would have called the police or at least ordered John to empty his pockets. He merely asked John if he needed any help, even managing to sound friendly, despite that John never spent a dime in the shop.
If John wasn’t so focused on getting caught, he would have loved to ask the man about the Kawasaki ZX he was working on. Instead, he made a beeline for the door, escaping Jerry’s– was he Jerry, as in Jerry’s Bike Shop? – steely eyes. Probably not, he decided, and swiftly exited the shop. After the continuous process of visiting the store and pocketing the parts, John finally had all the parts he needed. The little voice tried to talk to him once or twice as he was taking the parts, but this time, John ignored it and thought to himself that maybe the little voice didn’t always know what it was talking about.
As John entered the front door, he immediately realized that maybe luck was on his side. His dad must have gotten money, only God knew from where, and the electric was on, giving John the light he needed to work on the bike. It only took him two more days, but he got the motorcycle running, finally. Just as the little Honda sputtered to life on the second day, his dad came home. “I knew you could do it boy!” he hollered. “I’m impressed! I knew that hard work of yours would pay off! You’re just like your old man. When times get tough, you find a way to work it out!” With that, he walked out the door, telling John, “Well, I’m gonna meet a few of the boys for a drink, so I’ll see you later son.”
John was speechless at the insult. Just like HIM? Yeah, right. He didn’t even know where John had gotten the parts. Didn’t know and didn’t care. Just like him?! Yeah, right. John began to feel dizzy at the thought. Was he just like his dad? After all, was stealing the parts any better than lying like his dad constantly did, and who knows what else his dad did when he went out to look for “work” every day? His dad should probably be in jail, no way was he just like him.
“You should probably be in jail,” whispered the little voice. “You stole those parts, and hadn‘t a bit of remorse. You are no better than him.”
“I am better than him. I am NOT like him!” John cried out, but of course, no one was there to hear him. “I did what I had to do, so shut up!“ John felt nauseous. He hadn’t eaten, so he went to the kitchen, telling himself he’d feel better when he had a bite to eat. He grabbed the bread and peanut butter the old man had left on the table the day before and quickly made himself a sandwich. His hands shook. He finished it quickly, not feeling any better.
He slapped his hand on the table, surprised at himself. What should he do? “Take the parts back,” whispered the little voice. No way! If he didn’t get a job, he would end up starving. He couldn’t rely on his dad, that’s for sure. “If you don’t, you’ll be just like him,” nagged the voice. After much disgust with himself and the voice, John decided that he was just going to ignore the voice and go to bed and, hopefully, think of some way to get himself out of this mess.
John knew he had to do something, but what? If he gave the parts back, he would most likely go to jail, but if he didn’t, he would be just like his dad. He DID NOT want to be like his dad, and he realized that he must give the parts back, because he’d rather be in jail than be like him. John continued thinking. He wanted to make the right decision. Finally, he decided he was not only going to give the parts back but offer the entire bike, in the hope the owner might not call the police on him.
It really broke his heart to think about losing his bike, but the next morning, John got up, dressed and left the house. On the way to the shop, John rode his bike by some school kids and noticed how carefree and happy they seemed, just walking along carrying their books. ‘Probably not ever going to be me again,’ he thought unhappily. Either I’ll be carted off to jail or starve to death. Just then he thought, ‘but at least with dignity.’ John laughed aloud, amused about the idea of dying with dignity… after all, if he was dead, what did he care how he died? Would people stand alongside his coffin, crying quietly into their hankies, murmuring, “… but at least he died with dignity.” Maybe they could even write it on his headstone. John laughed again, as if a tremendous burden was lifted. No matter what, he was gonna be dignified, and he chuckled.
As he entered Jerry’s Bike Shop, John’s mood became more serious. He walked in, pushing the bike, and soon came face to face with the shop owner. “Can I help you?” the man inquired pleasantly.
John felt like time stood still. He could feel the sweat accumulating on his forehead. “Umm..” he stammered, “I’ve been in here before.”
“Yes, I know. I’ve seen you once or twice,” the shopkeeper replied, with focused eyes. “My name is Jerry. Do you need some work done on your bike?”
His name really was Jerry. The thought of it distracted John for a moment. “Umm… no, um, you see, I just fixed the bike, so it runs just fine.” John forgot himself for a moment, taking pride in his workmanship. The little voice reminded John that this was no time for pride, and John quickly recovered and continued on. “She runs well, so she’s actually a good little bike. You might even be able to sell her and make some money.”
“Oh, well, I am not really interested in buying a bike from you, son. I have a full shop right now… Shouldn’t you be in school?” Jerry questioned in a very kind voice, making John feel even worse.
It was getting difficult to get to his point. “Well, you see, sir, I haven’t been going to school lately, because I’ve been spending my time working on this bike. Now she’s all fixed up, but…” John didn’t know how to continue.
“So you fixed the bike all on your own? How did you learn to do that?” Jerry seemed impressed, but that couldn’t be right, could it?
John was really miserable now. He began to deviate from his plan, which is exactly what he DID NOT want to do. “Well, sir, it just seems to come naturally to me. I’ve always been good with fixing things. But you see…. I’m not here about that. I….” John’s voice began to break, “took the parts from your shop, sir. But it’s just not right, and I wish I hadn’t. And if you want, you can have the bike and everything. I’m just hoping you would consider not calling the police.”
“What?!” Jerry exclaimed. “You took the parts? From my shop? Well, I’ll be damned,” he said, and amazingly, Jerry chuckled.
John was thunderstruck. “Sir…?”
“You mean to tell me that you stole those parts right out from under my nose? I got to give it to ya’ son, I’m shocked. Do you know what I used to do before I opened this shop?”
“No sir. Um… what, sir?” John stammered.
“I was a police officer. One of the best, if I might say so myself. When I retired, I opened this shop and shoplifters were the least of my worries. But I guess I was wrong.” Jerry stopped, rubbed his chin, all the while looking John up and down, making John really uncomfortable. “So, you came here to make a deal, huh?”
“Yes, sir. I shouldn’t have taken those parts, and I won’t ever do it again. You can have my bike. It’s not even really mine anymore. It has so many of your parts…”. John’s courage began to wane, but he continued on, “I’m really sorry about taking these parts, and if you sell this bike, you can get all your money back and more.” John looked up, directly into Jerry’s eyes. They really didn’t look so steely anymore. Steely… John laughed a little. He thought to himself, ‘I’m stealy… hey that’s funny…Stay focused!’ Jerry was actually looking at John – ‘Could it be?’ – sympathetically.
“Sorry, but I can’t take you up on your offer,” Jerry said and continued on, “I could make you a different offer, though.”
“A different offer? Anything!” John practically yelled.
“Well, I could really use a talented repair guy here, and it seems like you might be pretty talented.” Jerry looked amused and added, “But you don’t meet all of the requirements.”
“I don’t?” John was getting confused. He had just brought all of the stolen parts back to this guy and he was offering him a JOB? Luck was on his side today. “What would I have to do?”
“Well, son, you would need to be in school. I can’t have you here, instead of school. School is number one. But you could work here after school, if you were interested in a job, that is,” the old man said, grinning.
“Of course! Of course, I’m interested! But don’t you want your parts back?” John asked, incredulous.
“No, but you can pay me back. I assume you’ll need a way to get to work and that you are never going to steal from me or anyone else again, is that right?” Jerry demanded.
“Of course, sir!”
John followed Jerry to the counter, and Jerry gave John a job application, which John completed right then and there. After some discussion, they agreed that John would start working the next day, right after school. They also agreed that John would pay Jerry half of each paycheck until the parts were paid in full. John left with a wave to Jerry, while pushing the bike out of the shop.
John hopped on and quickly started up his bike. It had been an amazing day. He couldn’t quite believe his luck. He had gone into the shop half expecting to leave in handcuffs, but instead, he had a job, doing what he loved to do. He sped along the streets, deliriously happy, enjoying the crisp air. He had a job. He was gonna have money! He had transportation. He had done it, and all on his own. Just then, a little voice interrupted his thoughts, “Good job, John, good job!” and this time he didn’t ignore it. “Thanks, little buddy, thanks a lot.”