Miss Martin, the secretary, spoke - her words crisp, detached – directed, as were her eyes, at the ceiling:
“Gentlemen, make sure to fill out your application forms fully and correctly. When your number is called, step up to Mr. Callaway’s desk for your interview.”
Scanning his form again, Jonah Wells prayed his answers were suitable - neither too reserved nor too presumptuous. He considered the poster on the wall behind Mr. Callaway’s desk: “We need willing, bold, confident men.” Willing, yes. Bold? He could be. Confident? Questionable. Confidence was eroding with each, ‘Sorry, we can’t use you’.
The waiting men fidgeted, trying to ward off the cold and apprehension. Jonah glanced at them and shuddered. He wondered how long they had been jobless. Eyes downcast, they dared not look at each other for fear of seeing their own desperate reflections. He sensed their thoughts – How can I provide for my family without work? What will become of us?
Outside the winter wind whistled a bleak, derisive dirge. The depression, no respecter of persons or status, had swept across the country – the accompanying drought sucking up every drop of hope. Fifty-some men had huddled in the cold for this chance at one job. Only twelve made it inside and Jonah, the twelfth, felt fortunate.
Jonah licked his fingers to smooth his unruly hair. His fingers slid down to his cheek. He yearned to recapture the warmth again of Lizzie’s kiss bestowed as he left her and the children that morning. Feeling only cold, clammy stubble, he clenched the hand into a fist, fighting to keep the shame stinging his eyes from spilling out. As if God saw his need, his thoughts turned instead to Lizzie’s gentle words whispered with the kiss -Tend to today. Trust God for tomorrow. His light dispels the darkness. All our days are in His hands. His eyes brimmed again, this time with small wings of hope fluttering in his heart.
“Number nine!” Miss Martin’s voice pierced the heavy pall hanging over the uneasy men. Number Nine shuffled to the desk in leather shoes coated with thick wax designed to camouflage their cracked wear. His nervous smile, meant to mask his anxiety in like manner, failed as utterly as the polish to disguise the overriding reality. He passed the only semblance of warmth in the room – a lone potbelly stove; it hissed and spit as if to mock them all.
Mr. Callaway peered across his desk at Number Nine. Jonah strained to hear what he was saying, but couldn’t make it out over the sputtering coals. They ebbed to a soft orange glow; then, quickly became cold, leaden ashes. Jonah wondered if his prospects would soon be like them.
“Miss Martin! Where is that wretched errand boy? I sent for him an hour ago to take the hoppers down for more coal.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Callaway, I’ll check on it right away.”
“Excuse me, sir,” Jonah spoke up. “If you’ll tell me where the bin is, I’ll get the coal.”
Mr. Callaway gave Jonah a long look. “Whatever suits you. Tell him where to go, Miss Martin.”
Jonah placed his papers on her desk, picked up the hoppers and scurried to the basement bin three stories down. He opened the door and his heart sank. The bin was empty – only a few odd pieces lay on the floor. He fell to his knees in resignation. But a scraping sound caught his attention and a light beam from the opening chute door fell upon him. A voice called from outside – “Stand clear – coal comin’ down!”
Before he could rise, chunks of coal rumbled down the chute, kicking up a cloud of dust. He jumped clear of the clods, but the black powder coated him in sooty grime. Quickly, he loaded the buckets and lugged them up to the office.
Miss Martin opened the door and gasped. “Whatever happened to you?”
“Coal delivery – kicked up a storm.”
Then, Jonah noticed everyone else was gone. “Where’s Mr. Callaway - and the others?”
“He made his choice and left.”
“But, he didn’t interview me!” Jonah choked.
“He didn’t need to,” Miss Martin smiled. “He looked over your papers and left you this note.”
Jonah’s hands smudged the paper as he opened it, but the words were all light to him: “Congratulations, Mr. Wells. You saw a need and rose to fulfill it. In these times, we need bold men of vision. The job is yours.”
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