The following is NOT fiction. It happened while I was paying my electric bill.
There's a certain kind of feeling in the lungs, in the guts, when the air crystalizes at freezing. Not quite snow. Not yet. But the fact of snow without precipitation. The body knows. It just knows. And the darkness comes at 5:00 PM.
I drove down to the Consumer's Energy building on Hoyt between Laketon Ave. and Hackley St., named after the lumber baron who refused to abandon the once-lumber town after the trees were gone. The Consumer's Energy is in a blighted region of the city with boarded up homes on the way, and official papers with city ordinance numbers duct taped to the doors. Across the street a crumbling home with one such sign and somebody's earthly possessions behind cracked glass, stacked to the ceiling in the mud room.
I had to make an urgent payment to the electric company, hence the in-person visit. Right to the source. Long story. We were about 5 months behind on electric payments and I'd been calling the company telling them that if they could pretty please just delay the shut-off for another week, I'd pay them...at least the amount to push the shut-off date further into the future. Twice I assured them, and twice they delayed payment.
At the zeroth hour I pulled up at the building and was preceded by a woman who had driven a rusted, crumbling beater that shuddered to a stop. I walked into the door behind her, cash in hand..............and waited in line. My children bounced on the chairs near the door.
Two women sat behind bullet-proof acrylic windows taking money and talking to customers. But only one, it seemed, was moving the line.
The other was occupied with a long term conversation with a young woman with a baby who appeared to be in her pajamas and a sweater. Good natured. Laughing.
"Well...so...." said the woman "...You know how it is. I mean....they just sit there in a pile, right? I don't know where they go. I probably lost it...."
Nodding, unspeaking, the woman behind the two inch thick bullet proof plexiglass...
The young patron kept speaking "....I mean....I GUESS the payment plan is good. But that's...that's.....I guesss that's what again? How much is it?"
"Fifty dollars...." The women behind the plexi prompted
"Yeah....fifty. Dollars. I mean. And if we miss that today than what again? Fifty you said?"
"Yes, fifty. It was the payment plan we arranged."
"Oh! That was the...okay...boy, how could it be so much?" a long pause "I guess....so what again happens if we don't have the...the what?"
"Fifty dollars. Well...we....that's when the account needs to be discontinued."
"Okay. So....I see....yes....well...I mean, we....I mean...I....I hadn't seen the bill itself. So........." a pause and nothing....
"Oh I'm just trying to picture where we put that agreement. I'm just trying to...you know, see it. I can't see it. I....there's.....you know how it is...you get the mail and it just ends up in a pile..."
The woman with the baby on her hip looked studiously at the floor during the whole conversation, ignoring the long line. Talking. Talking in a low voice. Quietly. But in a silent, silent room of people waiting in line.
She just talked.
As though every second she talked was another second the power stayed on. As though somehow in the circular conversation the situation would somehow maybe resolve itself.
I stood in line. I felt momentarily irritated that one woman was taking up 50% of the capacity of this line. But that quickly faded and I felt a bit of shame and resolved to pretend as though the other teller behind the plexiglass wasn't even available to me. That just the one was, and I'd just have to wait.
Slowly. Slowly. The line crawled. My children became more animated and impatient. The woman at the other window with the child on her hip kept talking...and in her manner just from seeing and not from hearing one might thing she was talking to a long lost friend. Small laughs and a smile on her face as she talked and gestured.
Then...finally the women in front of me went up. The woman who drove the rusted beater that shuttered to a stop before she went inside. I heard the women at the front of the line...
"Can I just have a bill sent to my house again?"
"Yes, Ma'am" said the teller "....is that all?"
The woman in front of me handed the teller a check..."This is for her..." and she pointed at the young mother in the other line with the baby on her hip....
Then she left. She made a bee line to her beater and drove off. The two tellers behind the counter looked at one another in confusion. Then said to the other woman "Well...I guess Merry Christmas." The woman with the baby on her hip just looked at the floor and said "I....I don't think she pointed at me. I don't know who that is."
"Well, she paid your electric bill..." said the unoccupied teller blandly.... "Next! She looked up at me."
All the people in line, who had been staring blankly and silently burst out with a chuckle..."Merry Christmas, Mama...." said an older woman near the back of the line.