He had become a monster within six months, nothing like the man she married. Mercifully, he was outside now and Bernice Ruben allowed herself the illusion that she was living a happy life. As she munched on potato chips and tried to follow her favorite Soap Opera, her mind flashed to her husband. Lonnie the monster would return soon and he would likely be in yet another bad mood, scaring his poor wife half to death.
She heard his keys harassing the front door locks and she quickly folded up the potato chips and left them on the coffee table. Lonnie Ruben burst threw the door and let it slam hard behind him. He stomped to the bathroom and slammed the door. Her hands shaking, Bernice slowly rose from the couch and walked to the kitchen to make him some lunch. He was likely to be hungry after a day like this. He always was.
“I can’t believe it!” Lonnie exclaimed as he emerged shirtless from the bathroom. “You know what he said? ‘I’ll put in a good word!’ What the heck is that!”
“Six months Bernice!” Lonnie exclaimed, holding up six fingers. “Six! I want a job!”
“They NEVER call back! NEVER!”
“SIX MONTHS! SIX!”
Bernice touched her forehead and wiped the sweat, accepting the hard truth that she was afraid of her own husband. Six months ago, when Lonnie was laid off from his job at the local factory, he was confident that he’d have a new job in a month or two because of his experience. Six months later, he learned the hard way that his experience meant nothing and his age was a hindrance in a slumbering economy. No one wanted to hire someone for top dollar when they could get a kid for cheap. There were factory jobs hiring for management positions, but they suddenly required a college degree, which Lonnie Ruben did not have.
Six months ago, Lonnie was also an avid church attendee and a born-again Christian. Somewhere along the line, as the frustration piled on more and more and God didn’t seem to have an answer to his prayer, church attendance was as important to him as the temperature on the moon. And after being told “we’ll call you” 15 times in six months, Lonnie began to wonder where God even was. What kind of God would let someone serve Him for 20 years only to leave him out to dry when things got rough? What kind of God did he believe in? What kind of God was so unfair?
Lonnie walked back toward the living room and fell to the loveseat. They had a two-bedroom house -- Lonnie Jr., their only son, had moved out -- and they were still paying for the house. Even when they were both working they struggled to make the mortgage payments. Now two incomes became one as Bernice, a fifth grade English teacher, was suddenly the sole breadwinner.
In the middle of the couch and loveseat rested the marble coffee table. And on that coffee table was Bernice’s Bible. Next to the Bible was another mountain of bills. Unemployment insurance wasn’t even covering half of them. And that infuriated Lonnie even more. How were these bills going to be paid?
Lonnie sighed and mumbled an expletive. Bernice flinched slightly, but didn’t say anything as she continued to make his turkey and American cheese. Her husband used to pray when he was disappointed. Now he cusses. She knew it would get worse.
“Lonnie do you want anything to eat?”
“Do I freaking look hungry? Stop asking stupid questions!”
Bernice nodded. His outbursts grew more and more vicious and Bernice wondered if he was going to hit her like he used to in the bad old days before they decided to let God in their marriage.
If he was upset now, he was really going to be upset once he heard Bernice’s news. She closed her eyes and prayed for the best way to tell him but prayer felt so redundant that her heart wasn’t in it anymore.
Between the mortgage payments, the car note and the credit card bills that they were still paying for after 20 years, money was scarce. Throw in the food and the utilities and money was virtually non-existent. Bernice sometimes had the urge to rip her husband’s head off and demand that he find a job doing something – anything. But when she seen how much he was looking she knew that deep down inside, her frustration was no match for his.
“WHAT!” Bernice heard her husband yell from the living room. “Bernice! What the heck is this?!” Lonnie burst into the kitchen holding an envelope and waving it around. “What is this?”
“I’ve been meaning to…”
“Meaning to?” he asked, stomping farther in the kitchen. “When were you going to tell me the lights were going off? When I wake up in the dark?”
Bernice gasped. “I’m sorry but…”
“When are they going off stupid?”
Bernice jumped and tried to speak, but her voice was trapped in her throat.
“WHEN!?” Lonnie screamed at her. He was screaming right in front of her face now, looking the same way he used to look in the bad old days just before that right arm cocked back for a good one across her face.
“Tomorrow morning!” she cried, thinking, Please don’t hit me!
Lonnie shook his head. “Great,” he said, backing away in defeat. “Just freaking great. Fantastic. This is the thanks I get for busting my butt for years! This is the thanks I get for being a faithful husband. THIS IS WHAT I GET FOR BEING A FREAKING CHRISTIAN!”
“Baby,” Bernice said, “I could get an extension. If I could pay half I could…”
“I don’t want an extension!” Lonnie screamed, balling up his fist. “I WANT A JOB!”
And then he threw his fist through one of the kitchen cabinets, missing Bernice by mere inches. Bernice screamed and then, unable to move and with her mouth agape, she watched in horror as her once benevolent husband went back in time and proceeded on a tirade throughout the house.
“I NEED A JOB!” Lonnie exclaimed as he stomped back to the living room and flipped the couch atop the coffee table. “I’M SICK OF THIS!”
Bernice collapsed to the floor. “This can’t start again,” she prayed. “Oh God not again.”
“Six months,” Lonnie lamented. “All I hear is ‘We’ll call you.’ After all that praying for our son and after all that witnessing on the job… I don’t deserve this! After all that church going and believing and telling others what God can do, why doesn’t He help us? ‘Don’t worry! God is able’ I always said. What crap!”
Bernice said nothing.
“We have NOTHING!” Lonnie screamed again. He grabbed the Bible off the floor and looked at it as if it was road kill. “NOTHING!” Lonnie threw the Bible against the wall and it slid to the floor. Bernice gasped again and only exhaled when Lonnie the monster stormed out the house.
At the train station of their small town, one mile from the Ruben house, Lonnie found a seat outside on a bench. No one was there and Lonnie was grateful because he didn’t want to exchange pleasantries with anyone. He plopped down in exhaustion. He had walked the entire way from his house to the station cursing God and his misfortune. After all he did in Jesus’ name he thought he deserved better. He was a good husband. He was a good father. He was a good Christian.
So why was he six months unemployed?
As Lonnie put his face in his hands and sighed, he felt someone sit next to him. He opened his eyes. There was a black man no older than 30, Lonnie figured, sitting on the bench with his arms folded and his legs outstretched, as if he had not a care in the world. Yet he wore battered clothes and his shoes had holes in the soles that were filled in with pieces of cardboard. His hair was woefully unkempt and his beard was matted. The pungent smell of garbage resonated off of him. Lonnie stared at him, hoping he could scare him away, but the man just sat there and stared straight blankly ahead.
“I don’t have any money pal,” Lonnie said.
“That’s okay,” the man replied, “I don’t either.”
Lonnie grinned. Of all the places to find humor, he never expected a joke from a homeless man. He dug in his pocket and fished out a five-dollar bill.
“Thank you,” the man said. “But you should keep this. Times are hard.”
Lonnie looked at the homeless man curiously. “You mean, you don’t want it?”
“I’m fine. I’ll sleep here tonight and I’m not hungry anyway.”
“Yeah right,” said Lonnie, putting the money back in his pocket.
Then the man took a long hard look at Lonnie, checking him up and down. He bent down and looked underneath the bench Lonnie was sitting on.
“What are you looking for?” Lonnie demanded.
“Where’s your bags?” the man asked.
“Ain’t got none.”
“I just came out here to think by myself man.”
“Oh,” was the reply. “You’d be surprised how many people do that. Especially since the factory closed down over there.”
“Yeah,” said Lonnie. “I know.”
“You used to work there too?”
“For how long?”
Lonnie glared at him, but the man didn’t flinch. Finally he said, “It’s been six months without a paycheck.”
“How’s your wife taking it?”
“How did you know I was married?”
The homeless man pointed to Lonnie’s wedding band and smiled a toothless smile.
“Oh,” Lonnie said. “Well she took it hard, but she’s been great. She stuck by me throughout the whole thing. No one else has.” He looked up in the sky, thinking he was hurting God when he said that. Lonnie shook his head. “My son doesn’t know and I can’t ask him for help.”
Lonnie shrugged. “I guess I just want… I want to provide for my home. And I can’t believe that I can’t do it anymore.” And then Lonnie looked at the attentive homeless man and said, “Look I’m sorry pal. I can’t believe I’m talking your ear off with my problems.”
“No, no it’s quite all right.”
Lonnie’s eyes perched up. The man was more articulate than Lonnie assumed he’d be. Lonnie guessed something must have happened to him to get him homeless.
“You sure you don’t want $5?”
The man looked at the tracks and said, “You do know that there’s no train coming tonight?”
Said Lonnie, “I said I came here to think.”
“You should go home and hug your wife.”
“Say what man?”
“Tell her how thankful you are.”
“Maybe you’re deaf or something,” Lonnie said. “I have no job! I can’t pay my bills! What is there to be thankful for?”
“You do have a roof over your head. And you have a good woman.”
Lonnie glared at the man again. Finally he said, “Yeah, I do.”
“Go home and tell her that.”
“Look, you just don’t understand…”
“Oh I understand,” he said. “You’re probably wondering about something trivial, like if your lights are going off or something.”
“How did you…”
“Do you know what I’m eating tonight?”
Lonnie shook his head. The man pointed to the nearest garbage can.
“Maybe someone left a half eaten sandwich,” the homeless man said. “And maybe I could eat it without vomiting. Maybe, since there’s no train tonight, the police won’t shoo me away and I could sleep out here tonight and not die from pneumonia. Maybe I could get to the hospital in the morning and a nice nurse would give me some free medicine before death comes. And you, well, you get to worry about your lights going off.”
“What are you talking about man?” Lonnie asked. “Death’s coming? You sick?”
“Go home,” the homeless man replied. “Hug your wife.”
Lonnie took out the $5 and gave it to the man, who took it this time.
“So what the heck is your story?” Lonnie inquired.
The man took a long look at Lonnie and said, “My wife had AIDS when I married her and we didn’t know it. Now I got it. Wasn’t able to keep a job. My family abandoned me. Ended up being homeless. I watched my wife die and the only consolation I have is that soon I’ll be dead too.
“She had an IV drug problem. Then she told my family that I gave AIDS to her.” He looked at Lonnie, whose mouth was wide open in horror. “Hug your wife,” he said. “Live your life. It’s like water vapor -- here today, gone tomorrow.”
“How… do you go on?” Lonnie whispered because he couldn’t speak anymore.
“I believe in Jesus Christ,” the man said. “I believe that I’ll be with Him when I die because I allowed Him to cleanse me of all my sins. I’m ready to die now. I’m ready to leave this life and be with Him.”
Then he looked at Lonnie and said, “Do you know Jesus?”
I did, Lonnie thought. Then the man stretched, stood up and walked to the garbage bin.
Bernice was sitting on her loveseat, reading the Bible, trying to find an answer for her monster of a husband. Her heart was pounding in anticipation of Round Two, wondering if the bad old days were indeed back. She covered her face with Vaseline, so Lonnie’s punches would slide off her face instead of sticking there – just in case.
Sweating, she heard his keys harassing the locks. She cringed. Lonnie opened the door, dropped his keys on the floor, walked past the overturned couch and held out his hand for his wife. With tears in his eyes, he watched Bernice tentatively stand up and hug him.
“I’m sorry,” he cried with his arms wrapped around her. “I’m so sorry.”
“I got that extension,” she replied.
“God I love you so much.”
“I love you too,” she replied, hugging him tightly. “I love you with all my heart.”
They parted and she looked at her husband’s face.
“Lonnie what happened?” Bernice asked.
“Just let me hug you,” he sobbed.
Looking over his wife’s shoulder, he noticed the Bible was still on the floor. It was spread open to the Book of Proverbs. His eyes locked in Proverbs 15:16: Better is a little with the fear of the Lord, than great treasure with trouble.
“It’s well,” Bernice thought. “It’s well.”