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.
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.