Prompt from Kellie Elmore’s Free Write Friday:

I stumbled across the amazing photography of Tom Clark, whose website is filled with emotional images. I said I was going to choose one for the prompt this week, but they are all so moving that it made the decision absolutely impossible. Instead, I decided to give you the link and allow you to pick the one that speaks most to you.


Four dollars.

If he scrapes together just four dollars, he can go to the store. But four dollars might as well be a million, even so, when you’re counting penny by penny. Lately, life feels like a swim in rough sea, wave after giant wave crashing over him again and again and again, no chance to catch his breath, no chance to get his bearing in the wet, mucky sand. He thrashes to find ground where he can stand, his mouth on fire and his belly bloated from swallowing gulp after gulp after gulp of saltwater. It just never ends. He’s trapped in an unseen current, and he’s surrounded by fellow castaways, no one left to throw a life preserver.

One dollar. Three to go.

Getting old is unfair, especially when mated with poverty. There’d been a time when he’d have spent four dollars on a meal at the diner, an extra dollar for the tip if the service was good. Now he gathers coins daily–panhandling on the street corner, plucking from the take-a-penny-leave-a-penny jar at the 7-11, poaching from the fountain in the park. He counts his minutes and hours and days, his every aching moment, by pennies. And they just don’t add up to much.

Two dollars. Two to go.

It hurts his hands to count each coin, so she helps him. He likes to watch her hands, smooth and straight, not gnarled like his, like branches of a crab apple tree. Her fingers move swiftly,  like dolphins jettisoning over the surface of a choppy sea, while his move as rough as rusty scissors, screaming the whole way.

Three dollars. One to go.

He suspects she gets lonely in her shack, and that’s why she visits him. She’s much younger than he is, but age doesn’t count for much here. They’re all near the end of their time. This shanty town ages you quickly, especially if you bear it alone. Sometimes, she just sits and holds his hand, and he wonders if this touch recharges her, warms her, cleanses her of the black-and-white grime of her existence, reminds her that she, too, is human and should glow not fade. The warmth of her hands eases the pains in his own, as if she were a medicated balm, soothing away the ache.

Three dollars, fifty cents. Almost there.

He imagines this as a long-distance race–counting penny by penny, like mile after mile, the end so far it seems to creep away toward the horizon. With each mile, sweat drips into the eyes, legs cry out “no more, no more,” the hot sun saps energy with rays so beautiful and so dangerous. He runs, penny by penny. But he still can’t see the finish.

Three dollars, eighty-three cents. Seventeen cents to go.

But he’s reached the bottom of the jar.

He won’t make it today. It’s back to the street for more panhandling, more petty theft.

Penny by stinking penny.

Seventeen cents.  If he scrapes together just seventeen cents he can go to the Wal-Mart and get his arthritis medicine. Seventeen cents for sweet relief.

Might as well be a million dollars, even so.

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25 thoughts on “A FREE WRITE FRIDAY STORY: Four Dollars

  1. So sad the thought that just seventeen cents could keep him for getting the relief he needs. I could just imagine the hands of each being held, and the comfort their hands gave each other. Very touching!

    • I chose seventeen cents, because that’s how much I found in the bottom of my purse today. I take so much for granted. These photographs really made me think. Thank you for reading and commenting!

  2. It’s been a rough year so far for us, so I wrote some of this from a depth of myself I didn’t realize I had. But I have seventeen cents, so I won’t complain.

  3. Absolutely stunning writing, your descriptions are full of colour and I was carried through the phases of this cleverly written free write – was this totally free>? (Bows in awe) I can’t find the words, let’s just say it speaks as loudly as Matt Black’s photos and touched me as deeply as the journey through the photographs.

  4. Heart wrenching story you found in this photograph. I can see how it spoke to you, and you interpreted it well. Nice write.

  5. Wonderful, thoughtful prose. The counting down…I do that in my poorer times. Not cents, mind you, much larger amounts, but it is still something I think to which those of us who are not wealthy can relate: a budget, and saving for something we need.

    • I feel like it’s all I’ve been doing lately, counting and waiting. I came close to feeling sorry for myself, until I saw these pictures. They provided some much needed perspective. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  6. Emlee — I am sitting here in tears after reading your post. Like Heidi said, we are all just a breathe away from being any one of these people. Having just retired, I am about to be on a real fixed income for the first time since I was a starving grad student. Every time I think about buying something, I question myself about really needing that particular thing or should the money be saved for something of necessity. We never know how good things are in life until they are gone … not just money, but the other things in life that are important.

    • Oh Sharyl, thank you for your heartfelt comment. We are all but a breath away, but we are breathing. There is some solace in that. And we have each other if we just look. Thank you so much for sharing. To think that something I wrote affected someone is very humbling.

  7. Believe it or not, it wasn’t too long ago that I was digging through my purse, my dresser drawers and everywhere else I could think of to find change so I could buy something for dinner. In an instant our lives can be changed and it is so sad that more of us do not realize that. We take so much for granted.

    Thank you for a powerful read. xox

    *Do me a favor? Please stop by and read today’s post. Bestselling author, Beth Albright is visiting us! Say hello and make her feel welcome! http://wp.me/p12FRZ-2PR

    • These photographs put a lot of my own struggle into perspective. Thank you so much for bringing them to us all. My best writing in weeks has come from your prompts and then by letting my spirit write while telling my brain to take a break. Thank you again for what you give to writers everywhere.

      • You have made my day with this comment. Thank YOU for participating and letting me know it has been helpful for you. I also agree that what I have read from you, your replies to the prompts, have been amazing. Great work. Keep writing!

  8. There, but for the grace of God. A reminder of what we take for granted, of those we see struggling to survive. We look the other way, feeling sorry yet uncertain. We pray this will never be us while knowing, deep in our hearts, how suddenly life can take a drastic turn for the worst.

    Beautifully written. Thank you!

  9. Wow, very eloquently said. We have so much to be thankful for each and everyday. Thank you for the reminder and a beautiful story in telling it.

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