This story is by Rasheed Akinfolarin and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
“I think you’ve had enough—it’s already late,” Kevin tells me, swinging the damp towel he’s been wiping the counter with over his shoulder. I take another sip of my drink, my hand on the neck of the bottle. Kevin tries to take it from me, but I pull it closer to my chest.
“She’ll be here. She said she’ll be back,” I mutter to myself as Kevin continues to clean up around me. I put a hundred-dollar bill on the counter and watch as he slips it into his pocket. Up until now, money has always solved my problems. This time, though, it’s made things worse, and I don’t think things will get any better.
“Jerry . . . you can’t keep doing this to yourself,” Kevin says, coming back to the bar after putting up all the chairs in the restaurant. He pours me a glass of water, but I push it away. It slides close to the edge of the counter but stops just in time.
“Hope. She said she’d be right back. Why hasn’t she come back?” I grab the bottle and move to one of the uncleaned tables. Nursing my drink in the shadows of the dimly lit bar, I watch as Kevin’s fiancée, Faith, enters from the adjoining room, balancing a tray filled with plates on her hand. Placing the tray on the counter, she starts talking to Kevin. They try to whisper, but in the empty room, their voices travel.
“We can’t just leave him here,” she says as Kevin hands her the hundred-dollar bill. “I mean, I do need a new purse and some shoes, but – no he has to go,” she says, handing back the bill.
“We need the money, though,” Kevin contends. “If it weren’t for his nightly donations, we’d have had to close our doors weeks ago.” He places my money in the cashbox and puts it in the safe behind the shelf half filled with bottles. “He’ll be fine. He’s just grieving. Go call him a cab,” he says, handing Faith the phone.
“That is not grief,” she responds. “Grief is knocking back one shot and still being able to go home to take care of your son.” She looks over in my direction.
“My son,” I whisper to myself. “It’s for the best,” I recall his grandparents telling me. They did not want their grandchild growing up with a silver spoon in his mouth. They felt it best that he goes and live with them on the west side of town. No child should be surrounded by so much wealth at such a young age.
“Living only with you, it will hinder his growth. He’ll never learn to do things on his own,” Mrs. Harris, my mother-in-law, told me as she and her husband got in the car and drove away with Daniel.
Kevin and Faith continue to argue while I listen on. “Well, maybe if a certain sister of yours—” he starts to say before she cuts him off.
“Kevin, just because we’re engaged doesn’t mean you get to talk that way about her,” she says, pulling her hair into a ponytail and taking the towel off his shoulder. “She still cares. They’re high school sweethearts, after all. Been together since they were fifteen, and they’ve been through a lot since then.”
Despite her stern look, he continues. “Twenty years, a son, and a ticket out of the slums he found her in.” Kevin grabs the broom from behind the refrigerator and starts sweeping. “She’s trying to prove she can make it on her own. Why else would she go back to being a legal consultant?” Moving across the floor, he says, ‘Hope’s attempt at proving she doesn’t rely on his money is ruining this family.” Faith pushes a pile of plastic cups onto the floor, clearly annoyed by her soon-to-be husband. “I don’t care how many bills he gives us; this ends tonight.” She starts to dial a number on the phone, mumbling about Hope wanting to get out of the house more.
“Faith, unless you’re calling a cab, you better hang up that phone,” Kevin says without looking up from the trash he sweeps to the opposite end of the room.
“He’s only going to get worse. She needs to know, she has nothing to prove anymore,” Faith declares. “Come on, Hope, where are you?” she mutters to herself, holding the phone between her ear and shoulder while she dumps cups of beer into the sink. “I don’t want his money if it means that’s what’s going to happen to him,” she says out loud, pointing at me. “Not if it’s going to tear our families apart.”
Kevin walks back over to the counter and sits on the stool. “She missed our engagement party. Why would she show now?” he scoffs.
“It wasn’t her fault. She tried to make it,” Faith retorts, watching as he grabs a handful of pretzels and tosses it into his mouth.
“She’s the reason Daniel’s staying with your parents. They saw what his money did to their daughter, and they didn’t want the same thing to happen to Daniel,” Kevin continues as he fills his mouth again with pretzels.
Ignoring her fiancé, Faith greets her sister on the phone; her expression quickly changes from concern to frustration. “Hope, it’s Jerry . . . he needs you. I know, but—” Hope cuts her off, and she listens to what Hope has to say, waiting to respond. “You need to come back. He’ll understand . . . then you tell them it was never about the money!” Kevin chuckles under his breath as he listens. Faith moves into the back room to continue her conversation with Hope.
Rising from my seat, I stagger over to the jukebox. The quietness of the bar makes me question if I ever really knew Hope at all. I begin dancing around as Israel Kamakawiwo ‘ole’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” starts to play. Babbling over the lyrics, I mumble to myself, “This is our song. Do you remember? It’s ours.” It’s clear that the alcohol has finally taken over. “Right there, that’s the spot. I got down on my knee over there,” I say, pointing to the center of the open mic stage.
I fall back, out of Kevin’s sight, resting against the wall; I can hear the guests partying away in the other room. I watch Faith return, grabbing a pretzel from Kevin’s hand as she whistles along to the song. She looks around. “Jerry, where are you?” she says, turning off the music. Kevin gets up and starts looking around too. “Did you let him go?” she asks Kevin.
“No, but I’m sure he’ll be back. He’s got nowhere else to go.” The two of them continue to quarrel. I sneak out the back door, where I can hear the rumbling of a car’s engine. Its horn sends three long beeps into the night. I hear the scraping of the tires as the wheels turn against the pavement and come to a halt. A car door opens, and footsteps crunch over the dirt-covered snow. The bell over the front door of the restaurant jingles as I sit on the back stoop and open my wallet. I can hear Hope calling out but I cannot bring myself to answer. There is one hundred-dollar bill left, crinkled up and yearning to be used. I look up to see a familiar sight. A disheveled teen, combing through the Dumpster. He limps over in his torn jacket and muddy boots.
“Spare a dollar?” he asks, holding out his hand.
“I was you once, a long time ago,” I say, still holding my wallet open. “I watched as the world passed me by, people walking by me in pity, yelling at me to get a job.” The haggard teen begins to lower his hand, stepping back. “I have one bill left,” I tell him. “If I give it to you, I need you to promise me something.” He nods. “Promise me that people will love you for the good you do not for how much you give to them.” He steps closer, his eyes looking down at my wallet again. “Always remember these days, when you only had the clothes on your back.”
The Harris’s were right, money can change you, blind you from the important things in life. I hand him the money from my wallet. He grabs it and hugs me, thanking me repeatedly. I don’t ask him what he’ll do with the bill; I just wish him the best and tell him, “I hope you never forget this: As long as you carry hope with you, you’ll succeed. Have faith for the wealthy are still poor when there’s no one to share it with.” I turn and walk away. Reaching for the flask in my pocket, I take one long sip as I remember a time when money wasn’t so important.