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Budget Blues

In this short story Margaret Peterson takes us into the lives of two people struggling to make ends meet that find the perfect solution.

Elaine rushed in. She had succeeded. She grabbed the phone and made one of the few ornaments she owned, quiver on the telephone stand. She took off her glasses and twirled them.

The salary was not going to be that good and her parents might worry about her ability to pay them back, but she was determined to manage her finances.

“I got the job!” Her mother’s and father’s response of delight sang across the line. They had been supportive, helped her find the basement suite and put up both the damage deposit and the first month’s rent. They had assisted her in her move and paid the cost of it.

“It’s been a long two weeks without work but worth the wait. Mr. Harrison, my new boss, seems okay and although the company is large, I’m sure I’ll meet some friendly people in it.” Her fingers curled around a piece of her long brunette hair that hung by the receiver.

“You’ll do just fine, Honey. We wish you the best and we love you.”

Elaine searched through her meager wardrobe to find a suitable outfit for her first day’s work. She choose a gray skirt and pale turquoise blouse that fit her slender frame and put on small silver hoop earrings, a gift from her parents last year for her twentieth birthday.

She arrived at the office complex to see a young man about her age pace back and forth. She smiled.”You look like I feel.”

“Do you work here?’

‘It’s my first day. I’m a bit nervous.”

“Me, too. I’m here for an interview.’

“I had one a couple of days ago. I’d been to several others but it was still nerve wracking.” She sighed. “It’s hard to find work if you don’t have experience.”

“My problem is the opposite. I’ve had too many jobs and nobody wants to take a chance on me.” His hazel eyes darkened and his jaw tightened.

She held out her hand. “I’m Elaine.”

“I’m Clay.” His hand was warm and strong in hers.

“Best wishes, Clay. I hope your interview goes as well as mine did.” A loud whistle muffled his reply and a group of men poured from the adjoining building. The office door opened and an attractive woman invited them to enter. Elaine was escorted to an inner door and she gave Clay a parting wave. He attempted to smile but his tenseness erased it.

“Mr. Harrison would like to go over your duties, Elaine. If you want any help, ask me. I’m Terri, one of his other assistants.”

“Thanks, Terri.”

The boss explained a confusion of terms, lists and other information to Elaine as she learned part of the packing firm’s operation. At noon he invited her to join him, Terri and two secretaries for a lunch of soup and sandwiches. The conversation was all business and she realized how impressive the company was. She had joined a successful enterprise and that would mean a profitable future salary. She could pay off the large loan to her parents faster than she had anticipated.

At coffee break Terri told her a new employee had been hired. “He’s the kind of experienced man Mr. Harrison likes, even if his previous work record appeared to show several short term positions.” She grinned. “And he’s very handsome.”

The next day Elaine went to find Clay to congratulate him. They passed each other occasionally after that or entered the coffee room simultaneously. At those times Elaine’s day was brightened by Clay’s engaging smile.

When the foreman of the shipping area made his report about Clay to Mr. Harrison two weeks later, Elaine learned that he was a diligent worker. He was the last to leave at a shift’s end, took late orders to fill, swept the floor and disposed of broken cases before going home.

Her interest in Clay overcame her and she took his resume from the filing cabinet. What was the reason for his many jobs if he was such a good worker? There appeared to be many layoffs in his employment history but that was all. Yet why was he always the one to be let go?

The day the conveyor belt broke Clay stayed late to help repair it. He was called to Mr. Harrison’s office to report on the results. Elaine was clearing her desk from the day’s work when he entered. “Hi, Clay, nice to see you again.”

He nodded. “Where’s Mr. Harrison?”

“He’ll be out in a minute.” Clay straightened his shirt and drummed his fingers on the back of a chair. “Hey, relax.” She smiled at him. “Mr. Harrison will be pleased with what you’ve done to help with the conveyor belt.” She stepped from behind her desk. “All the things I’ve heard about you are good. In fact you’re such a hard worker I don’t understand why anyone could lay you off.”

He stared at her. “How do you know about that?”

Elaine’s hand went to her mouth. “I… I read your resume.” At his scowl she said, “I do work for Mr. Harrison so I have access to his files.”

He narrowed his eyes and his mouth became a thin line. She took a deep breath. She was as sensitive about her finances as he obviously was about his work record. She felt she owed him something to make up for her prying. “I have my problems, too.” She explained her concerns over money.

His face cleared and he stepped closer to her. “I don’t remember your name. I guess there were too many people to meet when I started.”

“It’s Elaine Conway and if I knew how to con my way I wouldn’t be in debt.” He chuckled. “On my budget I can buy coffee after work. Does your wage allow that?”

“Sure,” he said.

“See, I don’t know everything.” They laughed together.

Mr. Harrison came in and Clay told him about the conveyor belt. Then he said to Elaine, “Let’s get that coffee before they hike up the prices for the dinner crowd and neither of us can afford it.”

The next afternoon at closing time Clay stopped by to share the day’s events with Elaine and this became a routine. Coffee times evolved into dinner dates that extended to evenings of movies, Monopoly, dances or drives. These brought Elaine’s grocery bill down and by the end of the second month she thought that her secretarial upgrading fees could be paid off. Christmas was approaching and if she shopped with care she could begin to repay her parents’ loan.

Her financial worries had lost first claim on her attention, though. Clay had that.

She had been searching out gifts and came home to find a notice of rent increase under her door. “Just when I was getting ahead.” She crumpled it up and threw it against the flowered wallpaper.

“Let’s find you another place to live,” Clay said when he heard the disturbing news. They scanned the paper regularly and followed frequent leads to no avail. Nothing decent at a cheaper rent was available. Financial problems loomed larger as Christmas neared and Elaine despaired of finding appropriate, yet inexpensive gifts for her family and Clay.

Terri hinted at Mr. Harrison’s generosity with Christmas bonuses but Elaine was not convinced she would be a recipient of one since she had been with the firm less than six months. She did hope for a raise as she had acquired knowledge and experience in that time and was now of more value to Mr. Harrison as a dependable and conscientious employee.

Clay found a quicker solution. Over coffee and donuts at a deli near the office he suggested she put her meager savings into a stock a friend of his was selling. “It’s a fast way to make a bundle. Jerry’s made five grand in the market in one week.”

The stock market was unfamiliar to Elaine. Her parents had never invested in it, nor had her friends. “Do you think it’s a good idea? I mean, is it safe? I’ve heard of people losing a lot of money in stocks, Clay.”

“Yeah, how about those who’ve made big bucks like Jerry? He knows guys who have done that and he’s doing it now, too. He’s got this little company started and he’s out to make a fortune for himself and for anybody who buys stocks in it.”

Elaine chewed her lip. “How well do you know this Jerry?”

“We went to high school together and I bumped into him the other day. Here, I’ve got his business card with a phone number on it.”

Elaine extended her hand two inches. Clay reached across the table, grabbed her hand and pushed the card into it. “C’mon, it’s a great chance to get your debts paid off. In fact, it’s your only hope.” He squeezed her hand. “I want to see your happy smile again instead of that dejected look you’ve had lately on your pretty face.”

At home Elaine put the card beside the phone and did not look at it again. But Clay kept insisting she call Jerry. When she did, Jerry took an aggressive approach with her. “It’s the way to make easy money. I’ve done it before and I’m going to do it again. You’re foolish to miss out. Meet me tomorrow at my office. The address is on my card.” He hung up before she could ask any questions.

There was no elevator in the decrepit building and Elaine climbed worn steps to get to Jerry’s office. She kept folding and unfolding the check. What if she lost the money? But what if she could not make enough to pay off her debt any other way?

Jerry handed her a pen from the littered desk when she walked in and asked her to sign a paper. She gulped. Her hand shook as she wrote her name. He took her money without comment and the deal was done.
Christmas provided a brief holiday from work and she went home, taking along a few gifts. Next year she hoped to have money to buy lavish ones.

She had received a token bonus from the company but there had been no mention of a raise. With her savings in the market she had not made any payments to her parents nor had she been able to pay off the secretarial training. She told Clay she was coming down with a severe case of the ‘budget blues’.

He tried to cheer her up with a new idea. Why not look for a higher paying job? With her acquired expertise he was sure she could find one. The thought of leaving a good job seemed absurd. She teased Clay about wanting her out of the office so he could date Terri. “Don’t kid around. I’m serious, Elaine. Find yourself another job.”

“That’s ridiculous. I’ve just settled into this one.”

The following day he brought the city’s daily newspaper to work. He opened it to the ‘help wanted’ section and handed it to her. She glanced at it and then the opposite page caught her attention. “Let’s see how my stock is doing.” She ran her fingers down the column and stopped with a gasp. “It’s dropped to almost nothing.”

“Lemme see.” Clay bent over the page. “You’re right. That’s terrible. I’m calling Jerry.” He searched through the papers in his wallet, found the business card and snatched up the phone from the desk. There was no reply after several rings and he banged down the receiver. Elaine frowned and he patted her shoulder. “I’ll see what’s up.” He gave her a crooked grin and headed for the stock room muttering as he went.

All her money gone? How could that be? Should she have trusted Jerry? More importantly, should she have trusted Clay’s judgment of him? Clay’s past work record loomed in her mind. Had she let his present work record negate his past? Did she believe in Clay or not?

The portly form of Mr. Harrison appeared at the door and Elaine put her tumbling thoughts on hold and attempted to concentrate on her morning duties. At coffee break they returned to plague her. “Terri, what do you think of Clay?”

“He looks like movie star.”

“No, I mean, his character. What about that? Would you trust him?” Elaine took a sip of her hot chocolate. Her glasses steamed up with the heat from her mug.

Terri wrinkled her brow. “You would be the one to know the answer to that.” Elaine wondered if she would.

“The new shrink wrap is selling fast.” Terri said to change the subject. She took a sip of her coffee. “There’ll be lots to do in the office.”

“Does Mr. Harrison give regular raises to his employees?” She licked the sweetness of the whipped cream from the top of the hot chocolate.

“No, when he thinks you’re doing a good job he just raises your salary.” Terri blew back a stray wisp from her face with a puff of air. “Haven’t you gotten one yet?”

“Uh uh.”

“It should be coming because I know he likes you and your work.”

Terri was right. The next paycheck was larger, but not enough to offset the loss of all her savings. There was no hope to recoup from the stock loss. To Clay’s chagrin, he learned that Jerry had left town. Clay was remorseful and offered to give Elaine some money to make up for the unfortunate investment. She refused but it showed her he had believed Jerry’s stock scheme would be her solution.

By late spring there seemed no end to her debt problems and Elaine considered finding a second, part time job. Over dinner at a seafood restaurant she told Clay her plan. He suggested a better paying position was the answer. “I tried to tell you this earlier. It’s your only hope.”

She was tempted to say she had heard that phrase from him before, but she refrained. “I don’t know. I like working for Mr. Harrison and Terri said the raises keep coming.”

“Maybe so, but they’re sure slow about giving them. You can find something better. Trust me.”

There it was again. Could she trust him? “I’m not sure if it’s a good idea or not.”

“Whad’ya mean it’s not a good idea?”

“I didn’t say that. I said I’m not sure if it is or not.”

“Yeah. I heard that. What you mean is you doubt my judgment. Isn’t that it? Just because I thought Jerry was okay and he wasn’t.”

“No, it’s not that.” She rubbed her perspiring palms together and tried to think of a way to divert the conversation from this touchy area. She was not quick enough.

“Then why not get another job?”

“Maybe it’s not the answer for me.”

“You really don’t think I’m making any sense do you?”

“Wait a minute, it’s not about you. I don’t want to lose my good job. What if I can’t find another?”

“Of course you can.”Don’t be like that. There’s always jobs around if you look for them.”

“If you think it’s so easy then why were you so nervous about your interview when I met you?” It was out of her mouth before she realized what she had said.

Clay gave her a long look. His past failures seemed to rise up like barriers between them. He stood up from the table. “I think we’d better be going,” he said in a low voice. He reached for the bill and went to the cashier’s desk. Elaine trailed behind.

Her apprehension grew each time her mind replayed her careless remark. They drove in silence to her suite. He reached over to open the door for her. “Good night, Elaine.” It had the sound of ‘good-bye.’

They had never quarreled before. Elaine’s eyes flooded with tears as she stepped from the car. “Clay, forgive me.”

“I’ll see you at work tomorrow.” He closed the door and drove off.

Elaine endured a long night. Her debt worries had never brought the anguish this conflict with Clay had. Why had she been so thoughtless? What about her hesitation to take Clay’s advice? Did it come from the stock incident? No, behind it lay the resume she had read. How she regretted her inquisitiveness. Yet, one had to know about someone before falling in love with that person.

Yes, she was in love with Clay. She should have let him tell her about his past himself. Hearing his reasons would have given her more confidence in him. It was something they had never discussed. What an oversight. With renewed hope this might solve the issue she fell into an exhausted sleep.

When she arrived at work Clay was waiting for her with a bouquet of pink roses. They both said, “I’m sorry,” as they held each other tightly.

“What’s this?” Mr. Harrison opened the door. “For me?” He eyed the roses with a grin.

Elaine returned his grin. “For me.” She took the bouquet from Clay and kissed his cheek.

Dinner that evening was a celebration of the renewed relationship between the two of them. Elaine told Clay her concerns about his past. His explanations brought her comfort and the trust she longed to have. Clay kissed her at her door and said, “I’ve thought of a new way for you to save money.”

Elaine’s body stiffened and then she relaxed. Clay’s suggestions were worthwhile. They came from a caring heart. She could trust him implicitly. “Umm?” She smiled up at him. “What is it?”

“Everyone says that two can live more cheaply than one,” he said, “so will you marry me?”

Clay had come up with a brilliant idea this time. Elaine did not have to think before she answered him, “Yes, I will.”

Short Story


“Retirement has brought me the freedom to enjoy times with my grandchildren.
Another pleasure has been to write stories with the anticipation they might be accepted!”

Margaret Peterson

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