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Pea Soup for the Cynic's Soul

The Coffee Shop

Charles McCullough was a crusty middle-aged man who ran a small coffee shop. He worked hard to get it and worked hard to keep it. It only drew a modest profit, but it was enough to earn him a living, and that's all he wanted. He enjoyed his self-sufficiency.

One day, a young teenaged boy walked into his coffee shop and asked for work. He had no openings, he told the boy. He never had any openings. He ran the shop all on his own. He opened in the morning, cooked and served during the day, closed it up at night, and did the dishes and counted the day's take before he went home.

But the boy's timing had been impeccable. Just that morning, Mr. McCullough was thinking about how much work it was running the place all by himself and how nice it would be to share the labor.

"I'll tell you what," Mr. McCullough called to the boy, just turning to leave. "I'll take you on for a week. If I like you, I'll keep you on. If not, you'll have to look elsewhere for work."

"Thank you, sir!" the boy exclaimed.

"Don't thank me yet. And shouldn't I know your name?"

"Gary Hawkins, sir," he replied enthusiastically and extended his hand.

"The kitchen's in the back," Mr. McCullough directed. "The dishes are in the sink."

In the week to follow, Gary not only met Mr. McCullough's expectations but exceeded them. Mr. McCullough hired Gary and paid him a generous salary.

Three weeks later, Mr. McCullough overheard an exchange at the cash register.

"That'll be $2.75, please," Gary was telling Old Scott Birch, an unkempt old man who was a regular customer at the coffee shop.

Old Scott fumbled around in his pockets, looked blankly, then sighed sorrowfully. "I'm sorry, Gary," he said, his voice a slow, smooth drawl. "I...I seem to have left my wallet at home. I'm very sorry."

"It's ok, Mr. Birch," Gary said. "I'll put it in for you today, and you can pay me tomorrow." Gary slipped his hand into his pocket, pulled out his wad and some loose change, and put $2.75 into the cash drawer.

"Thank you, Gary," Old Scott said, genuinely touched. "Thank you very much."

When Old Scott had left the shop, Mr. McCullough approached Gary. "Are you crazy? What'd you do that for?"

Gary looked surprised but tried not to show it. "Mr. Birch is a regular customer. I'm sure he's good for it."

"He's a bum," Mr. McCullough retorted. "You just can't trust people in this world. You can only trust yourself. Trust other people, and they'll let you down every time. I'm afraid you'll never see that $2.75 again."

"I think you're wrong," Gary said. "Sometimes all people need to be trustworthy is to be trusted."

Mr. McCullough shrugged. "Suit yourself."

*        *        *        *

That evening, when Gary was done closing up for the night, he bid Mr. McCullough goodbye, stepped out the back way, mounted his bike, and headed home. He lived with his parents in a ramshackle house just outside of town. His parents were poor; it was all they could afford. His father had been crippled in an accident, and his mother had a weak heart. They relied on him, as much as it pained them to do so, to bring home a paycheck every week.

On this particular evening, Gary stopped on the front steps at the sound of voices from within.

"I'm sorry, Mr. and Mrs. Hawkins. The rent is late enough already. It pains me to do so, but if you can't pay the $800 in back rent tonight, I will have to serve you with an eviction notice."

Gary started. He scarcely heard his parents' pleas for more time. His mind was reeling at the thought of him and his family becoming homeless. What would they do?

"...wait until Gary gets back from work?" his father was saying. Gary snapped to attention at the sound of his name.

"Ok," the landlord agreed. "I'll wait for Gary."

Gary quietly sat on the steps and wondered what he would do.

*        *        *        *

Mr. McCullough flipped off the lights and was just closing and locking the front door when Gary came charging down the street on his bicycle.

"Mr. McCullough! Mr. McCullough!" he shouted, huffing and puffing.

"What's wrong?" Mr. McCullough asked, concerned. "Take it easy. Catch your breath. That's it. What's on your mind?"

"I overheard my parents talking with my landlord just as I got home. Our landlord says he'll evict us unless we have $800 in back rent tonight. They're waiting for me to get home, but I don't have that much money."

"I'm sorry, Gary," Mr. McCullough said, lacking anything better to say. He had heard about Gary's parents before, and it pained him to know that they had to rely on their son for income.

"Mr. McCullough," Gary said. "I was wondering if you could give me an advance on my salary. I'll work twice as hard and twice as long until it's paid off, I promise. Please?"

Mr. McCullough frowned. "You want me to loan you $800?"

"$650," Gary corrected. "I have $150 saved."

Mr. McCullough frowned again and sighed. "Oh, Gary, I'd love to help you. I really would. But you remember what I told you about trust--"

"Gary?" a voice sounded. Gary and Mr. McCullough turned and peered into the twilight. Old Scott Birch shambled into view. "I was hoping to catch you before you left. Gary, I want to thank you so very much for trusting me. Here's your $2.75, just as I promised." Old Scott Birch stuffed the money into Gary's hand and patted him gratefully on the back.

"Thank you, Mr. Birch," Gary said. "See you tomorrow."

Old Scott Birch turned and sauntered away. Mr. McCullough watched him leave, then looked at Gary. "Come in, Gary. I think you've taught me a valuable lesson."

Mr. McCullough opened the door to the shop, fumbled for the lights, and made his way back to the safe.

"Thank you, Mr. McCullough! You don't know what this means to me."

Mr. McCullough opened the safe and counted out $650. He stood and counted it again. Gary reached in his pocket for his wallet. A look of alarm crossed his face.

"Hey!" Gary exclaimed. "He stole my wallet!"

Gary bolted out the door, raced after Old Scott as fast as he could go, and vanished into the night. Mr. McCullough breathed a sigh of relief, marveled at the mistake he had almost made, and put the money back into the safe.