When we say, “Bet your bottom dollar,” we mean we’re sure of a thing, so much so that we’d risk losing all we had. But I have never been that financially fragile, so strapped I’m clutching the last coins in my pocket and wondering where my next meal might come from. Even when I’ve lost a bet, my risk was marginal. But if I were living a life of such desperation, would I take such a gamble? Have I ever been that sure of anything?
Here are the things I’m sure of:
My grandfather believed money made the best gift, and from every holiday and birthday card a crisp and bemused Franklin stared out from an envelope. My grandfather was a teenager during the Depression and showed a willingness to work a strange array of jobs throughout his life, a vocational wanderlust he came by naturally. He dispensed condoms to sailors during the buildup to war. He worked at a state mental hospital keeping the inmates from “buggering one another,” as he once described it to my brother. He was a Fuller Brush man, a county clerk who billed so many delinquent Republicans for their back taxes one of them tried to shoot him with a pistol. He was a meter reader chased by dogs, a groundskeeper at the cemetery. He was a medic in the army who brought home gruesome snapshots and a variety of coins he’d taken off the German dead. When he retired he drew several pensions, small and steady.
My mother, his daughter, thinks giving cash is gauche, but all her gifts come from a bargain bin. She has raised a family when money was tight, bought our clothes at rummage sales, taken hand-me-downs, worked magic with leftovers and vegetables we grew ourselves. Her gifts may be cheap, but I know what they cost her. She worked as a bank teller, babysat for extra money, listed items for sale on a local a.m. swap meet.
I earned an M.A. in creative writing and people asked how I planned to make a living. I got lucky with a job, fell into a staff position at a local library, but gave that up to go back to school. It’s true I made more mowing lawns one summer than I ever did with my writing. I still equate the smell of fresh-mown lawns with money.
I spend my extra cash on books, CDs, and movies, and have a romance with dining out. My mother-in-law looks at the shelves of novels and stacks of music and sees nothing but a dollar wasted. Her house is full of tchotchkes we are trying to get her to part with as age and infirmity make such clutter a trip hazard. We pull the drawers from dressers and lay them at her feet seeing what she can get rid of, but she sees such separation as throwing away money. “They’re tablecloths, placemats, and napkins,” she says to her daughter. “We know what they are, Mom, but what do you want to do with them.” She tells us what they are again, as if we don’t understand their value. There is a sadness in this narrowing that has the weight of grief.
My wife sees the hours worked behind every product purchased. She wants to spend her paychecks on travel to Italy, India, the ruins of Machu Pichu. Fancy meals are something we can make at home. A book is a thing to read, not necessarily to own. I worry sometimes our stuff will come between us like a wall.
I think of waste as the things our cat broke, items lost in a move or stolen from a car, the crappy book I thumbed through for a week underwhelmed by the way it wrapped things up, or the glib periodical chock full of weight loss miracles that I bought to kill an airport hour. I see waste as money spent without pleasure—the necessity of a greasy meal, the cold potatoes, the cash laid out for shoe laces, fingernail clippers, or to fix a leaky gutter.
My parents have hit an age where I can’t buy them anything. Their interests have distilled down to nothing. They no longer travel. They never read and rarely see a movie because they remember when a ticket cost less than fifty cents. They didn’t even know their truck had a CD player in the dash. I bought them a Sam Cooke CD and a year later it slipped from beneath an atlas, still sealed in plastic.
My father is a shitty tipper. He’ll fight you for the check, make a show of being the family provider, and I have learned to acquiesce and volunteer the tip so the waitress has something to live on. Whatever gratuity he figures in his head, I double. He thinks the restaurants and not the patrons should pay their servers, and it angers him that the restaurant owners pass this cost along to us.
My parents are frugal and love the lunch buffets with the heaping portions of bland food. My wife can’t stand to go there because she doesn’t like to gorge herself, and being a vegetarian, often struggles to find enough to eat to make the price worth paying. If we drag my parents to a Mexican place my mother always settles on the chimichanga. She reminds me of my brother when he was little, ordering a hot dog everywhere we went.
Mom and dad like these little holes in the wall— not the dives with loads of flavor, but the places where biscuits taste like table napkins and the rest of the plate is a mess of gristle and gravy. They prefer a full plate of bland food over anything exotic. My dad will joke with the waitresses, make small talk, and the young women don’t seem to care that he won’t tip because in that way he’s like all of their other regulars. Maybe one old farmer out of ten will leave them a fiver beneath their coffee mug, so they make just enough money not to leave but not enough to call it a living.
When I dine out, I want food that takes trouble to prepare or cook. I want curry and butterflied shrimp breaded with panko. I want artichoke fritters drizzled with lemon butter. Chocolate lava should flow freely and get washed down with a tawny port. My father takes the place of my little brother, will ask for the hotdog off the children’s menu, and turn churlish when my mother tells him to order something proper.
He banged away inside a factory for forty years. His paychecks were soiled and metallic. Every dollar damaged his lungs. He toughed it out and wanted me to follow. I spent one long summer in that hell hole. The pot rooms roiled with carbon haze and bauxite ore. Step too near a crucible of molten aluminum and your sweat would give you steam burns. Off work, all I did was sleep. I got mono and tore a muscle in my shoulder. What I earned had a tangible cost paid purely by my body.
I found no value in the work. Dim men with pot bellies and racist jokes. The Kevlar sleeves. The way your neck stained gray. They laughed when I brought a book. They cut corners to shave an hour’s labor and played cards in the break room when their quotas were met. I grew to loathe the union almost as much as management. I understand the dream my father chased: his swimming pool and his sofa bed. His Vegas vacation and the CB radio. But men he worked with died all the time–electrocutions, sudden falls, drunk driving, cancer.
Back then I felt my parents owed me. In the drawer where my father kept his wallet I also found a handkerchief, a Mack Bolin novel, an address book, a wrist watch. When I was a teenager and overspent my allowance on record albums, tacos, and shirts my mother insisted on ironing, I’d creep into his room and slip ones and fives from his wallet.
I spent a stolen ten on Kelly Leahy one evening. We bought ice cream in waffle cones and watched the barges slip down the Ohio. She licked the ice cream as it ran toward her elbow. She had a laugh that crushed me like a boot. You had to earn it, but when it came it was sudden and lusty. We went out only once before she went off to college. We spoke in hushed voices about our futures. They seemed so fat and full of promise that thickest part of summer. Across the river the scrub willows were restless in the breeze. I could see the smoke rising from the stacks of my father’s factory. My pockets were almost empty.
Sometimes at night when I’m too lazy to put my shoes on, I take the garbage to the curb barefoot. The neighbors’ dogs churn behind their fences. A breeze like the one that graced that evening with Kelly will set the heart-shaped redbud leaves to dancing. I like to think the boy I was would be satisfied with the life I’ve copped from those empty pockets. But he is lost in Kelly’s breathing, in the stir of trees beyond the river, in the eddies that curl in a barge’s wake. He would rue my self-imposed limits on drink, my curfews and cleaned-up language, the way words fail like fading light. He’d wonder when the moon would rise and where the river was sweeping the fallen trees, and he’d marvel at the drifting shine of the things that slipped past. My father at home deeply asleep, my mother worrying when I’d come home. My wife somewhere out in the world, nose in a book, a Prince cassette playing low enough her parents couldn’t quite hear it. Even then, deep in my bones, a shivering awareness of the currency in living.