Two dollar bills lie on an empty table in the coffee shop. It’s a corner table, away from the world, a space no one seems to notice. I’ve sat there many a day, hoping they wouldn’t ask me to buy something.
I make sure no one’s looking. Pick up the bills. I run fingers through crispness. Pretend to peel them, relishing the crinkle of ownership and small power.
I could get a McChicken. A vending machine Coke.
Warmth rises in my mind, a sizzling symphony. A respite from onions and crackers and the last vestiges of Vienna sausages. Some small ritual beyond late nights with Netflix, which I really should cancel.
But somewhere, I imagine someone fumbling for the bills, ravaging pants pockets, rampaging through car seats. He tries to mentally trace his steps, cannot envision defeat. He can’t think about deadlines and needs, even as they rise to his mind.
Maybe he’s already had to make rent. Pay maxed out cards. Lost a teaching job, weighed with abstractions like budget cuts. Downsizing.
His name is Jerry. I don’t know why. I just imagine a Jerry sitting here, a durable, but undistinguished name. Jerry is someone who threw everything into his work, investing heart. Desperation.
And just maybe he wanted someone to say one good thing about his teaching abilities, his passion for Russian history. His bringing the dead to life in full costume.
Of course, the odds he taught Russian history are ridiculously low. And these bills are ridiculously crisp. Maybe he just left them behind, because he was in a hurry, a man always chasing money. A realtor, a lawyer, someone who could leave two dollars behind.
I could walk away with these bills.
Besides no one said a word in the department. They just bandied about words like cuts and downsizing. No promises of a future. No platitudes. No goodbye, even. No words about the hours spent putting together syllabi and trying to bring old Russia alive. Just a release into the world. So long, farewell to a man once dressed like Tsar Nicholas, constrained to a small apartment.
And my name actually is Nicholas. It means victory.
I hold the bills to me, feeling the crinkle over my stained Polo shirt. What crispness, what soothing beauty. But is that relevant? Everyone touches fresh bills at some point, anyway. I touched one once before this. Was it two weeks ago? No, perhaps a month.
Of course, maybe Jerry worked at McDonald’s, or as a server, serving up necessity and receiving entitlement and arrogance in return.
Besides the bills hold a weight, a record of my presence. I have touched and held these bills. Someone’s livelihood. I have entertained notions of food and drink. George Washington stares, precise eyes bearing into me. Here’s a man who could have been king but turned it down.
I cannot tell a lie, Mr. President. I wanted to be a king.
I still could. No one’s looking.
Another picture hovers in my consciousness. Jerry is coaxing friends into buying him a drink. He is repelling them one by one, talking about the what-ifs of life. The things that never were. He is left watching people, trying to take pieces of luxury, absorbing starched smiles, minivans, easy movement. But you can’t eat images forever. At some point, you have to pursue certainty. Make decisions, make something that resembles a good judgment.
You hope that it’s the right judgment. But the inevitability is, you don’t know right away. You act and you wait for the results.
Some solid facts: A McChicken is incredibly thin anyway. You try to hold onto each bite, and down it goes, faster than you can say I’m loving it. Cokes aren’t voluminous enough, plus they’re lousy for your health, fleeting caffeinated euphoria leaving you in the lurch. Plus, there’s a sorrow to sitting in a booth at McDonald’s at 10 pm, anyway, something that labels you.
Opening my hand, I release the bills. I whisper goodbye, good luck, good fortune, paper sliding, everything fluttering to the surface with grace.