Social Services

NJ Campbell


The social services offices were in the old clinic on the south side of town next to Ron’s Guns and Pawn. The woman at the desk had a big build and a soft face.

The man she was helping explained how he was living in a machine shed in back of someone else’s house, and that he didn’t know if he had a mailing address. She asked him if she could mail the information he was requesting to the people who lived in the house in front of him, and he said he didn’t know if she could.

            I felt bad for the guy. He had thin, black hair and a clean-shaven face.

He was trying.

I was trying.

We were both trying.

            I was up next. I gave her my forms and she started to stamp them ‘Jack County Human Services.’

            “You forgot to fill out this side,” she said.

            I nodded. I was tired from walking all day to apply at grocery stores and auto shops.

            She held the page out in front of me. I took the page, filled it out and signed my name and the date at the bottom.

            “Are you working?” she asked.

            “No.” I said, shaking my head.

            “Yeah,” she said, looking at her desk.  “It’s hard.”

            I looked at her desk.

 “We’ll be in touch,” she said.

“Ok,” I said. “Thanks.”

            I thought of my mother and how she always had food stamps and how she cried all the time. Now I was going to have food stamps, and I wondered if I would cry all the time.

            “It’s hard being young,” she said as I opened the door.

            “Yeah,” I said.

            I walked to the gas station on North Second Street with the peeling white paint and walked to the counter. There was a sign that said, ‘Ask About Our Gas Charge Card And Get A Free Cup of Coffee.’

            “I’d like to ask about your Gas Charge Card.” I said.

             The man behind the counter half-grinned without looking up from his clipboard.

            “Everyday,” he said and handed me an application. “When you’ve finished your application, sir, you can grab your complimentary cup of coffee over there at our coffee bar.”  He pointed to the coffee machine and the cups beside it.

            I filled out the application and handed it back to him. I got a cup of black coffee in an unmarked styrofoam cup and went back to the counter.

            “Did you ask your boss if he needs anyone to mop floors?”

            The man’s smile faded, and he pushed his clipboard aside. He took his glasses off but continued to stare at the counter.

            “I’m sorry,” he said. “I asked my boss, but he told me that even if you’re the nicest guy, the company has a no hire policy.”

            I twisted the cup in my hands and nodded.

“Thanks for the coffee.”

            I walked back home and watched the cars pass, mostly broken-down sedans and police patrols. I counted the homes for sale, two out of every three, and watched the different grays of the clouds pile in front of each other. I found her reading the paper when I came in through the back door.

            “How’d it go?” She said.  

            “Not great.” I said.

            She frowned, but then she looked up and smiled. “The baby kicked today.”

            I smiled at her smile and sat in the chair beside her and put my hand on her stomach. The house was starting to get cold in the early evening, but her stomach was warm.

            “It was just a few times,” she said. “I was doing laundry, and I thought it was just my stomach, but then it kicked again.” I rubbed her belly and watched her smile.

            “Oh,” she said, “and there’s a letter from your dad.”

            I opened the envelope and pulled out the note. Seven hundred dollars fell on the table.


I know you’re trying, and it’s not a good situation. The money is for you and her and the baby. I don’t want anything back. I’ll send more when I have it.

            I folded the letter and bit my lip so I wouldn’t cry. I pushed the piece of paper into my pocket.

            “What’d it say?”

            I couldn’t look at her, so I looked at the money on the table. The edges of the bills were torn and they looked large on the empty table.

            “It’s a loan till we get on our feet. He said he knows I’m good for it.”

            She smiled.

            “You are,” she said. “We’ll get there.”

            I smiled at her. Her eyes were bright, but her face looked tired.

            “I’ll be back late again, so please don’t wait up."

            I left the house and started with the restaurants on our side of town and moved south. The buildings became older and less well kept the further I went.

            Most of the responses were the same.


            “Not hiring.”

            “Try Social Services.”

            “I’ll give you some fries if you don’t come back.”

            I finished the fries and tried a few more back doors till I came to the burger place off of Rotterdam that had the word ‘Burgers’ painted in red letters on its cinderblock exterior. The back door was open, so I stepped inside without knocking.

            A large, tall man with a shaved head turned towards me. His face was sweaty.

            “I was wondering if you needed some help.” I said.

            “Yeah.” He looked me up and down. “The dishwasher didn’t show. You dished before?”


            “You an ex-con?”

            “Yes.” I said and waited while he looked me over again. The burgers on the grill sizzled and he stared at me while I stood in the doorway.

            “OK,” he said. “It’s $20 bucks for the night, and I’ll give you a meal.”

            “OK.” I said.

            I took the apron from on top of the dishwasher and began pushing dishes and silverware through the rust colored machine. It made grinding noises like an old clutch, and I ate some food off of the half eaten plates between its loads. I began to sweat in the dish pit’s heat. Steam obscured the rest of the kitchen from view.

            When I got to the pots and pans, I started thinking about the fights I had as a kid. I remembered the tall kid I knocked out for second place when I was fifteen and the blood that dripped from his eyebrow; and the big guy who didn’t look middle weight and limped around the ring when he moved right. I  beat him on points for first place when I was sixteen. I remembered the high from feeling punch drunk, and the night passed quickly in the smell of soap and the feel of warm water and the memories of who I was as a kid. The clock on the wall read three a.m. when I finished the last pot. My hands were sore and my clothes were soaked, but it didn’t matter. I took the money and food out the back door and stopped to look at the moon. The clouds were gone, and the cold made its shine seem brighter. I was happy. I had made some money, and I could bring them home some food.


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NJ Campbell lives and writes in the rural Midwest. He packs boxes as a shipping clerk for a living and writes in his spare time. His work has appeared in The New School's Eleven and a Half Journal, Twisted South Magazine and Drunk Monkeys Literary Magazine among others. He blogs descriptions of images from his daily life at