Donation Jar

Wayne Caldwell

     
   

            Like my grandmother said, “You never know what a day will bring.” That’s the gospel truth. This morning I woke at five, a good half hour before normal, head full of naughtiness even though I’d been to church last night. If I’d of had a darling companion, I’d of poked up his coals, but that side of the bed stays cold and empty these days.
            But it was warm under the covers and I came in and out of a dream about love almost as good as the real thing. I had the warm fuzzies until feet touched floor. I didn’t realize what was wrong until I stepped into the shower. Water started lukewarm, turned tepid, then, while I frantically shampooed and rinsed, ran cold as whiz. My nipples could have chiseled steel.
            I’m convinced there are gods who monitor checking accounts, and, when a body’s least prepared, they say “ta-da,” and present you with a dead fuel pump, dry oil tank, hard-up kinfolks.
            Me? Slap out of propane. The trailer felt like a penguin preserve. No hot breakfast. A hair dryer barely knocked off the chill.
            As I dressed my three-year-old, Robbie, I figured to call the gas people from work. I know their receptionist, so maybe they’d send a truck, although they’d get no money until the first of the month. I don’t use plastic any more. I shell out a hundred dollars a month against those old credit card bills, they might be paid off when I’m seventy. You’d think since I work in a bank, I’d know better. But I haven’t always dealt in high finance.
            See, I’m a hairdresser, an Aries, perfect for the work. I like people, I can put up with all manner of perfumes and powders, and love gossip. Only trouble, when the economy tanks, one-girl shops take a beating. Suddenly permanents last longer. Cuts become fewer. Color is not so important.
            I was hanging on by my fingernails last winter, when, in the same month, two women—I hesitate to use certain words, but “bitches” works—asked me for special cuts, seventy-five dollars a pop. Then they demanded refunds, said I’d ruined their hair. I offered to restyle them, do their next cut free, but nothing doing. I soon had to find a real job.
            At least I didn’t lose the trailer. It’s rusty, a single-wide with windows you seal with plastic and duct tape in winter, and leave open, screenless, in summer. But rent’s reasonable, and there isn’t meanness in the park, not like public housing. Oh, every now and then some man’ll return, three in the morning, four sheets to the wind, and there’ll be a yell-fest before he passes out. There was that time Mr. Whitsun shot his trailer full of holes. Other than that, it’s quiet.
            I was lucky to get on at the bank. My cousin Star, a teller, called to say wouldn’t it be nice if I’d apply for the new opening. I interviewed well—not much makeup or smell-good, and I didn’t say “like” like I do when I’m, like, nervous. My mauve dress, just shy of revealing, impressed that vice president.
            They started me at the branch on the bypass. Lord, I remember when we didn’t have a bypass. It was built, twenty-some years ago, when I was a mere girl. Soon after, most everything left downtown—the grocery, the hardware, the one good restaurant—a meat-and-three joint you could afford. Daddy said it wasn’t natural, it was just a matter of time before “them dad-jim idjits” would come back.
            Daddy’d never been right after being hit by lightning. Every day he’d park on a bench in front of the courthouse, where he waved at everybody and they smiled back. Even after the businesses left, he had company because county employees still worked downtown. But when the grocery that moved to the bypass up and built a brand-new shiny store on the other side of the road, the county offices migrated from the courthouse into that old new grocery building.
            So downtown boasted a whole redbrick courthouse, empty but for the sheriff and a receptionist whose sole duty was to tell folks straying in to record a deed or pay a water bill how to get to the bypass. Daddy sat, lonesome, most days, the lawmen staying busy busting meth and marijuana. One evening Daddy took to his bed and forgot to wake up. No more “loafering” on Main Street.
            A shame he didn’t live to see he was right. The restaurant? Dried up after it moved. Now there’s a new one downtown, kind of hippie-fied—they serve roasted goat, a mess I wouldn’t eat on general principles—but weekends they have live music, so folks dance downtown again. The True Value? Gone, but a woman from “off” reopened the Main Street hardware. She’s got assets, if you know what I mean, so coots practically live there, especially in winter. They love to sit around the coal heater and watch her run up and down the ladder in tight jeans when she stocks shelves. Daddy would have been in the thick of them.
            The bank transferred me downtown three months ago, but left Star on the bypass. It was fun working with her, but, truth to tell, I don’t have many cousins I’d spend much time with. They know too much.
            Of course, around here, everybody does. One afternoon a woman waltzed in, looked me over, then shuffled through her pocketbook for a bankbook and tissue, talking a mile a minute. “Lands sakes, Rita,” she said, “are you working here now? Child, I remember you and the preacher’s boy—what was his name? Oh, yes, Milgrom Stone, y’all couldn’t have been more than four, caught in the cloakroom playing doctor, naked as a pair of picked jaybirds.” The jowly man in the Agrico cap and denim jacket, meeting with my manager about a loan, grinned like he hadn’t had such fun in months.
            We have three teller stations, but never use the middle one. The manager’s always getting on me and Lori—the head teller, whose legs go all the way up—for cluttering it. My cage is pretty bare—on one wall a photo of Robbie holding a stuffed elephant—on the other a spritzer of hand sanitizer and a little tray of candy. Behind us hangs a big painting like you buy at a starving artist show, mostly lazy black and orange swirls with a bunch of blood red slapped in the center. Some stoned guy probably thought he was painting the sun.
            This morning Lori had that look on her face like she’d been laid last night. By now, I know better than to ask. As we readied our stations, we made very small talk. So small, all I remember is her yipper dog escaped last night, took an hour to find. Me, I wouldn’t have bothered, but I’m a cat person.
            I only have one pussycat now, a gelding, you might say, named Boots. I’ve had as many as six—people hear I’m a softy for cats, and suddenly I have a million strays. But Boots is enough. He’s as fat as a pot-bellied pig, everybody in the trailer park feeds him.
            Yesterday somebody stole the donation jar from the newsstand down the street. Hard times breed that brand of meanness. It was there to raise money to fix dogs and cats. The jar at our teller line is for a little girl bad sick with cancer. Always trouble somewhere.
            We don’t really have typical days, except the first three of the month, which Lori and I call “Alzheimer’s Days.” We get lots of folks who “draw”—not that they’re artistic, that’s just how they refer to Social Security. (Q: “How’s Wilma getting along?” A: “Good, now that she draws.”) They totter into the bank because not ten people in this county trust direct deposit. They aren’t about to let the government route their check to Lord knows where.
            This afternoon, old Mr. Washburn came in to cash a check. When I asked him how he was doing, as usual, he told me to count his money extra careful, like I wouldn’t—we don’t go home until our cash drawers check up.
            Anyway, he’s this Elmer Fudd guy with weird ear hair, so focusing on his cash helps me not to laugh. While I was counting, the bell above the doorframe tinkled—and I glanced briefly at a woman the size and shape of Mrs. Lois Jackson. My third-grade teacher’s sister, she visits several times a month to check her savings, which have been dwindling lately. She’s at least sixty, but wore a set of gray college sweats. She sidled up to the stand where we keep a pen on a leash, blank deposit slips, and brochures telling exactly how little interest you get on your money, then ducked into the restroom.
            After Mr. Washburn left, I was bent over rummaging for a nail file in my pocketbook. When I raised up, kind of like a groundhog, Mrs. Jackson pointed a pistol at me and thrust a note written in block letters on the back of a church bulletin into my cage. I was to put cash in the bypass grocery bag she then handed me.
            I looked into the frantic green eyes of a woman with choppy gray hair (I suspect she cuts it herself)  from under a blue wool toboggan. She’d tied a red bandanna across her face, skewing her glasses enough to make me itch to straighten them. Except for that pistol.
            It was no peashooter. A revolver shiny enough to attract a crow. Loaded, not cocked. “Like, is that you, Mrs. Jackson?” I asked, taking the bag, my knee nudging the silent alarm button.
            “Do what I say,” she snapped, trembling hand pointing the weapon vaguely at my right shoulder. I scooped ones out first, like they teach us, then started on fives. “Hurry up, rot it all,” she whispered, knocking over the cancer girl’s jar.
            During a robbery you feel you’re in some slow-motion movie. You’re conscious only of yourself, that gun, and the money. I couldn’t say what Lori or my manager did while I laid fives and tens in the bag. I was working on twenties when, muttering, Mrs. Jackson snatched it away and headed out. I wondered why she’d worn short leather heels with a sweatsuit. Best I remember she’s a Gemini, which explains a lot.
            Our goofball postman, George, is a mouthy, good-natured guy who always wears shorts and a pith helmet no matter the weather. He had his hand on the door as Mrs. Jackson left. “Après vous, Madame Jackson,” he said, just like he was in downtown Paris, France. When he saw the pistol butt in her waistband and that bag clutched like a football he jumped and yelled “Holy S----!”
            “Out of my way, son,” she growled, and headed outside.
            The getaway car was one of those Buicks with trim that creates an oval from taillight to taillight. Old folks drive them so slowly you’d think they’re bad to turn over. She’d left it, running, half in one parking place and half in another, one door down from the bank, one door shy of the sheriff, who stood beside her car.
            “Going somewhere, Ida Mae?” he asked. Buck Thompson doesn’t remind you of Andy Taylor or Cooter. He wears suits, and acts like he doesn’t know how good-looking he is, even for a man of sixty. Tall, not a bit of fat. Not a hair out of place. A Capricorn, or I’d flirt with him.
            Mrs. Jackson’s face looked like one of those TV weather maps in fast motion. First she looked at him like somebody had suddenly unplugged her autopilot. Then like she had expected to get away with stealing in broad daylight from a bank three doors from his office. Like she was offended anyone would try to stop her. Then mad as hops. She went for that pistol but the hammer caught on the elastic of her pants. We were lucky not to witness a “wardrobe malfunction,” or, worse, she could have shot herself.
            Buck grabbed her gun hand and gently said “Ida Mae, don’t give me no trouble, now.”
            I once thought “burst into tears” was a silly exaggeration. But now I see. When she finished fighting Buck she surrendered a lake of dammed-up tears.
            See, her husband had been killed a while back riding a motorcycle on that stretch they call Tail of the Dragon. She had never cried in public. She had stood in the receiving line no differently than she’d have queued at the grocery, and had held her head straight at the funeral, not even dabbing her eyes with a handkerchief. People said it wasn’t natural. But this afternoon she shed that silly bandanna and hat, and used that silver Buick for a wailing wall.
            By then we had a crowd. Buck handed pistol and money to a deputy. The receptionist stood, arms akimbo, unapproving. Curiously, George said nothing. When Lori put her arm around my shoulder I realized I’d been shivering like I was still in this morning’s shower. Our manager hung around the bank door in case someone dared finish the heist. Except for a carload of Ohio tourists who stopped for directions to the bypass, there wasn’t a dry eye anywhere.
            Procedure probably demanded Buck cuff Mrs. Jackson and read her her rights then and there, but he simply put his arm around her. She stopped sobbing, blew her nose, and leaned into him like they fit together. He led her gently to jail.
            It was almost like in the Bible, when they caught that woman committing adultery. But only almost. Buck couldn’t say “Go, and sin no more.” He had to charge her at least with armed robbery,  maybe possession of an unregistered firearm, illegal parking, I don’t know what all.
            Later this afternoon Buck came by to take statements, still scratching his head. “She was in the class ahead of me in high school. Sweet gal. Been knowing her nearly fifty years. As smooth a dancer as I ever stepped on the floor with.”
            Said she didn’t know how else to pay her gambling debts. “Her what?” we croaked in unison. It’s a stretch to imagine her playing such games. I don’t know if it’s the casino on the reservation, or the internet, or what. After the sheriff left, Lori said there’s poker machines in the back room of the bypass convenience store. “Does he know about them?” I asked. “Of course he does,” she said. Wonder what that deal is.
            It took forever and two years to check up—I kept being off sixty-three dollars and nine cents—two transpositions. I fixed the dollars pretty quickly, but it’s harder to find nine cents than a couple of thousand. We finally left about six-thirty. I was pleased when Robbie’s grandmom said he’d been a good boy.
            I’m thankful for bunches. I wasn’t shot. It might only be canned spaghetti, but there’s food on the table. They brought propane. And Citibank, or whatever they call it this week, doesn’t threaten to break my kneecaps if I don’t pay my card balances in full.
            Tomorrow I’ll take Mrs. Jackson a cupcake. Wish I knew what else to do. Her family’s been around long enough to have a couple of roads, a holler, and a creek branch named for them—seems like all she’d of had to do was ask for help, and she wouldn’t be in this trouble. I bet she’s too proud to.
            I’ve got it! I’ll just ask, myself. I’ll make a label: Ida Mae’s Gambling Debts and Legal Fund. No, Ida Mae’s Legal Fund, folks are fussy about what they donate to. Slap it on a quart jar, set it on the teller line. See how many folks will join us. Even those places on the bypass.
            Somebody’ll stage a benefit square dance at the fire department. A yard sale at the courthouse. A bake sale at the school. We’ll get this woman straightened out.
            Meanwhile, I’m going to have a drink before bed, if I can remember where I squirreled that bottle. There’s drunks in my family, so I almost poured it down the sink after Robbie’s dad left. But, like my grandmother said, you never know when a little medicine will come in handy. That’s the gospel truth, too.

     
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Wayne Caldwell is a native of Buncombe County, North Carolina. He was educated at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Appalachian State University, and Duke University. He is the author of the novels Cataloochee (2007) and Requiem by Fire (2010), both published by Random House. Requiem by Fire won the 2010 Thomas Wolfe Memorial Literary Award from the Western North Carolina Historical Association. He will receive the James Still Award for writing about the Appalachian South from the Fellowship of Southern Writers in 2013. He lives in Candler, North Carolina, with his wife Mary. In his spare time he works up firewood.