One of them called Del to their table.
So Del took his tray, placed it at their table and sat. He sat as far away from Mike as he could.
It was the day of the Thanksgiving meal at the hospital. It wasn’t free but it was cheap enough – pressed turkey, fake mashed potatoes, stuffing, green beans, etc.
Everybody, including Del, was feeling festive and extra-cheerful so he accepted their invite.
“To what do we owe this honor?” Mike asked.
Mike can be an asshole, but a sweet asshole. He can dish it out but take it with a wry smile too, which is why most people like him.
“It’s not good for people be alone for the holidays,” Carly said. “You can join us once a year, right?”
“Sure,” Del said.
Carly asked, “So what’s new with you, Del?”
Del felt the pressure of temporary assimilation. He always feels it. That’s why he usually eats by himself. There – socially – put on the spot – he felt like the quiet kid at the back of the class who finally has to stand up to answer a question.
Maybe it wasn’t the same but it felt like a real test of whether he sits quietly in the back of the class in social stupidity or not – whether he sits back there in a dumb and dopey silence or sits in silence because he’s just a quiet kid.
“Nothing much,” Del said. “Except for that guy in CP. You know, that weirdo bald guy who’s always frigidity.”
Not a bad strategy, Del thought. He always imagined the group shit-talking everybody else. He needs to think that. He needs to think they shit-talk for shit-talk’s sake rather than coming to some consensus, though others, about their own ability to judge people – maybe even themselves – rightly or wrongly.
Del looked around the cafeteria to point out the CP asshole but he couldn’t find him.
“What about him?” Mike asked. “What’s so bad?”
Mike’s query confirmed it. Just a gaggle of shit-talking, gossipy assholes, Del thought.
“Well, every day I drop my spare pennies in the change basket at the register – that jerk – I watch him all the time – taking change out but never putting any back in. Even on the days when he gets change he never gives a single penny back. He did it again, just now. It really burns me up inside.”
Del looked around the table for confirmation of his sense of justice but the table mostly look at him dumbly or not at all.
“Some day I’m gonna call him out on it. Right there in front of the cashier and anybody else who’s in line.”
“You’re a hero,” Mike said. “But is it really worth all that commotion over a few cents?”
“Forget about it, Del. Enjoy your turkey,” Carly said. “It’s good.”
Before Del could say it would be better free, Mike interrupted.
“So you’re stalking the guy? To condemn his pocket change habits?”
“It’s not stalking,” Del said. “And I don’t contribute to the coin basket so freeloaders like him can take without every giving.”
“You’re giving Bill Gates a run for his money in the generosity department,” Mike said.
Mike took a bit of green beans, the followed up.
“Didn’t you say once that you got a whole bucket at home filled with your pocket change? That when you run it through the machine it usually comes out to a few hundred bucks?”
“Yeah,” Del said.
Del hates Mike. He ignored his antagonist by pretending interest in the placard on their table. The placard details the hospital’s Christmas food drive for the needy.
For the rest of their meal, the group passed around stilted conversations and awkward silence to fill their hour. Except for Mike. He ate heartily with a silent smirk.
Del remembered a few years ago how Christine was talking to him about the food drive and Del got the idea of offering her twenty bucks to include him in the food drive too.
“How about I give you twenty and you just pick up some extra stuff?” he asked. He figured it wasn’t even asking for anything for himself since the overall thing about the food drive was for the downtrodden.
He was prepared to suggest it might be a good idea to purchase the store brand s- not the premium brands – with his twenty, at least. That way the needy could get more for Del’s money.
But before he could suggest it, Christine said, “No. I won’t be doing that.”
Del was hurt. He thought it was a shitty thing – Christine denying his contribution to the less fortunate. It was for Christmas, after all. He wondered where Christine’s Christmas spirit had gone. So from then on, he knew that Christine was a hypocrite, not only about Christmas but who knows what else.
Even more, not only was her denial of his twenty dollar gift to the needy a shitty thing, it was a shitty thing to deny him the gift of doing for him what he didn’t want to do. He reasoned that’s what Christmas ought to be about. – doing for people in need and, in has case, at least – doing for people in want. He reasoned that it was all about doing favors full-circle. That is the true nature of the season for giving.
Because he dreaded the holiday crowd at the grocery store, Del didn’t want to spend a single, unnecessary minute bobbing and weaving among the holiday crowd. He hated the congestion. And he didn’t like the idea of lugging extra sacks filled with heavy cans – sacks filled with cans for the needy – out to his car, into the house, back out to the car and lug them across the parking lot and into the hospital. All that labor when Christine should want to do it, if she was really as holiday minded as she pretended.
He’d told a few people about Christine’s bitchiness and stinginess but nobody seemed to care. He told them about Christine because he wanted to make sure they knew how much he’d really wanted to contribute.
Mike saw Del looking at the placard.
“You bringing something in for the food drive?” Mike asked.
“Maybe,” Del said – knowing he wouldn’t.
In the past it had occurred to Del to maybe drop an envelope with his twenty bucks into the food drive box. But he feared some asshole like the CP weirdo might steal it, so that was a definite no-go. Then he got to wondering – what if he went to the grocery and bought canned yams and green beans and boxes of cheap stuffing, who exactly was going to receive it? And would they really even want or need it? Maybe somebody else would give them stuffing and not everybody likes yams. Then, what would they do with all of Del’s stuff? Eat it later when it meant for just Christmas? Or just give it away themselves? What if some poor person in some shitty apartment gave Del’s stuff to a neighbor since they didn’t want or need it themselves?
It soothed Del’s soul to image that scenario – his stuff going to the person in greatest need. But then he realized there was no glory for himself within their neighborly exchange, so he decided that was no good either. It would be the middleman who got all the glory and that was no good. He realized there were too many variables at play so he decided fuck-it on the food drive altogether.
The next day Del sat by himself. Things were back to normal. Except that Del added a nickle to the pennies he normally dropped in the spare change basket. It gave him a taste of satisfaction. He dropped his 8 cents with the hope that the cashier would notice and maybe nod or wink at his generosity. But she didn’t. She was too buying ringing up the next guy.
Del sat by himself and across the room heard the group from yesterday laughing and chatting at their table. It was the usual cast of characters, the same as yesterday, including that asshole Mike who always tried to make him look like a fool.
Del took a bite of his sandwich. He heard some coins tinkle into the change dump. He looked over and saw that weirdo son-of-a-bitch from CP standing in line. He imagined that guy taking his eight cents. He imagined his eight cents going toward that asshole’s sack of potato chips. He imagined confronting that guy and it erupting into a scene. He imagined stating his case, in front of the whole cafeteria, of the other guy’s thievery. He imagined pushing and shoving and shouting. He imagined challenging the thief to a fight in the parking lot and kicking that guy’s ass. He imagined himself the hero receiving subtle but succulent nods or smiles or winks from the cashier girl every day after that who understood his victory and how it wasn’t only his victory but a victory for the whole cafeteria. Hell, in some ways, a victory for all mankind.
And with that daydream , Del’s anger settled and he felt better than he had in days.