People who say ten thousand bucks isn’t life-changing money don’t know Diedre Morgan. In a time when pro ball players pay fifty to a hundred large for missing a practice or a media day, and celebs pay that much or more for a week of rehab, ten grand ain’t a Hell of a lot. But when you work two jobs not only for the money to support a drunken, shiftless, louse of a husband and a hypochondriac mother but also for the peace of mind that comes with getting out of the house, finding ten-thousand dollars in a sports coat is a life-changing maybe even a life-giving event.
After an all-night shift at the Piggly Wiggly, Diedre had settled into her second job at the Goodwill on the corner of Fifth and Broad, across from the liquor store where the rising sun had signaled a shift change between the creatures of the night and the early morning alchy-bums. A nice Piggly-Wiggly stock boy that Diedre believed wouldn’t charge her or rape her had driven her down to the corner of Fifth and Broad where she was an hour early for her job at the Goodwill. She had a key, and she didn’t care that she was working off the clock. She didn’t have to make much money at the Goodwill to appreciate not being home where the good will wasn’t.
Three trash bags over-full of musty clothes were thrown into a make-shift corral just outside the front door. Well, two of them were full. One of them didn’t have much at all. The bag looked like someone had just taken off the clothes they had on and wrapped them up in a used garbage bag.
Diedre had started unpacking the bags and had sorted through two, deciding what to keep and where to put what was to be kept. She checked the pockets of every item as was her custom because she’d heard that at a Goodwill Store somewhere, somebody had intentionally left a twenty in a pair of pants. When the Goodwill clerk tried to return the money—or maybe it was the Salvation Army—the owner said it was a trick; he wanted to find an honest person before he died. As a reward, he let the clerk keep the twenty from the pants and gave her a hundred more to boot.
So, after she clocked in, Diedre returned to her lofty goal of successfully sorting seven bags of clothes and what-have-you, along with discovering, God willing, a twenty or so that she could turn in for a huge reward, and maybe, for some gratitude.
But in that third bag of clothes, she didn’t find a twenty or even a hundred. She felt inside a tweed jacket and found what felt like, maybe, a wad of tissue. Instead, she pulled out a rubber band wrapped around a wad of treasury notes. When she worked it back and forth out of the inside pocket, she realized she had a hefty bundle of hundreds. There were a hundred hundreds, and no one was around. There were no cameras in the unpacking room.
Despite that Diedre knew right off that a hundred times a hundred equaled ten thousand, she wrote the figure out on a sheet of paper. Once her suspicions were confirmed, she tore the sheet into confetti, lest someone were to eye the sheet and form a theory. Then, she left the sorting room and walked through the musky sales room to the front door where she found the calculator under the cash register counter’s counter. The calculator would provide a third opinion. She typed the equation into the little device: one zero zero X one zero—
When Diedre looked up, she saw Linda entering through the front door. Diedre dropped the calculator.
“What are you doing back there?” Linda asked.
“What do you mean?” Diedre asked as she stood.
“What are you doing behind the cash register? We won’t have customers for an hour still, and I don’t think you’ve gotten the change drawer anyway, have you?”
“I was using the calculator?” Diedre explained, holding up the calculator with the empty spool.
“What for?” Linda asked.
Diedre knew she had to think of something quickly: “You know, personal stuff.”
“No. I don’t know what kind of personal stuff could be handled on a calculator.” Linda waited for a response, she didn’t wait patiently or long, even if in vain. Diedre offered no answer. “Did you bring in the bags?” Linda asked.
“Yes,” Diedre said too eagerly.
“And the other stuff?”
“There was just a riding toy and a chair.” Silence filled the room like all those zeros in $10, 000. “Yes,” she said. “Yes, I brought it all in.”
Diedre put her hands in her pockets to feel the lump of money that she had imagined putting in her pocket, but the money wasn’t there. She realized that she hadn’t put it in her pocket.
It hadn’t felt right to take the money, but being questioned by Linda reminded Diedre why it could feel right very quickly. Working two jobs, Diedre still earned only about twenty-thousand dollars per year, and she had to split that three ways. To earn that, she had to work with Linda and people like Linda, people who had no higher title than Diedre but who whispered “stupid” or something like it whenever they thought Diedre was out of the room. How far away from people like this could Diedre get with ten grand of her very own? She couldn’t live on it forever, but she could move away from Fifth and Broad, a veritable paradigm shift in the new laid plans of Diedre Morgan.
When Diedre looked up from those plans, she was alone. Linda had left the entrance room.
Diedre dashed from behind the counter and entered the main stock room. There were several aisles of two-by-four constructed shelves, and looking between a row of toasters and some old VCRs, Diedre could see Linda’s shirt headed toward the unpacking room.
In her rush to crunch the numbers, Diedre had forgotten exactly where she had set the money. As Diedre worked her way through the maze of shelves to stop Linda from finding the stash, Diedre’s right hand did something wholly unexpected: it picked up an exceptionally large knife that, if you believe the hype, could cut through a can and then slice a tomato as thin as a sheet of paper. And then, Diedre’s legs picked up speed; her head was along for the ride.
In the unpacking room, Linda stood with her back to Diedre, Linda’s right lung seeming to leave an impression on her back that Diedre believed taunted her as a target.
“Look at this mess!” Linda said just in time to save her lung.
If Linda was worried about a busted black bag of clothes, Diedre realized, then Linda had obviously not found the bundle of bills.
While Linda complained, Diedre noticed the tweed coat lying across the preparation table, its collar elevated on a stack of clothes, the arm folded over in an inviting way. The tweed coat looked like the lover Diedre deserved, and his inside pocket held ten thousand dollars. She’d trusted her new lover and had stuffed the money back in his pocket for safe keeping.
Diedre could feel the lump in his pocket.
“…and what are you doing with that?”
“I wanted to keep the coat. I wanted to buy it for….” For some reason, she couldn’t think of her husband’s name for a second. “…for my husband. For Jason,” she said. She held the coat up, and for verisimilitude, added, “I think it’s his size.”
"What are you talking about? The coat?” Linda said. “I mean the knife. What are you doing with that great big knife in your hand?”
Diedre really didn’t have an answer for this. “It’s not that big,” she said.
This time, Linda waited and wouldn’t leave without an answer.
“I was just going to cut the tag off this jacket when I bought it.”
“What tag?” Linda asked. “It just came in, and besides, we use stickers around here, anyway. This is Fifth and Broad, not Fifth Avenue.”
“Oh, yeah,” Diedre said. “Sometimes, though, the clothes, still have tags on them, and....”
Linda turned to walk out of the room, but she couldn’t help herself from saying under her breath, “Retar—“
But Linda was rudely interrupted by the sound of a large knife slamming into and stabbing a soft, unfinished, pinewood table. The knife stuck in the table just at the base of the coat’s sleeve. As it appeared, Diedre’s new lover had supported her by grabbing the knife and stabbing the table as a warning in Diedre’s defense.
Diedre made sure she could detect the lump of dollars in the coat’s breast pocket as she picked it up.
“Maybe you’re right,” Diedre said. “Maybe this knife ain’t nothing to do with no tags. Maybe, you know, some people been talking down to Diedre,” Diedre said as she put the coat on. “Maybe some people been calling her names. Maybe, I don’t know, some people ain’t gonna wanna do that no mo’. You know?” she said as she worked the knife out of the meaty table. “Maybe some people should either watch thei’ mouths or watch thei’ ass, you dig?”
If Diedre had just stood there holding the knife, Linda would have immediately called the police or the store manager or someone—anyone. But something about the phrase, “…you dig?” made Linda realize that Sister Diedre was damn serious, and maybe she should be.
“Hey, look, uh…. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean anything anyhow. Hey, look here,” Linda continued, “what is that, a five-dollar coat? I got it. I’ll pick it up for you. You earned it, and it looks better on you than it would on your sorry old man, anyway.”
Suddenly, Linda was hugging Diedre and/or her new coat, and Diedre’s right had had set the knife back on the table. Diedre offered her left arm around Linda’s shoulder, but her right arm, she held tight up against the breast pocket of her new coat.
Diedre discovered that day something life-changing that was only indirectly related to the money: Diedre discovered a love--a lasting love--that included respect but excluded trust.
Diedre’s shift ended when the Goodwill closed. She and Linda worked until 2:30 and started working toward clocking out at 3:00. Linda was serious about arbitrary numbers. If a pair of shoes that had collected dust on a shelf for three months cost three dollars, she could not accept two-fifty. Rules were rules; numbers were numbers; prices were prices. Clock-out time is 3:00 pm, meaning for some reason that the front door had to be locked behind the last leaving employee at 3:01. Diedre played along; in fact, she liked to play along. She clocked out quickly and hustled in her heels to the front door. Linda worked the key, and Diedre watched the watch.
“We made it,” Diedre announced. “Just barely.” It’s what she always said.
Linda offered Diedre a ride home. This was new, but Diedre declined all the same, mainly because she was in no hurry to get home. She didn’t want to walk, either.
Diedre had money, sure, but the bus wouldn’t make change for a hundred. She could call a cab, but she didn’t have a quarter for the pay phone. Ten thousand dollars in her pocket, and she didn’t have a dollar for the bus or a quarter for a call. She even thought about going over to the liquor store and using their phone. She could even go back into the Goodwill. She had a key. But there was something magic about the rounded number. Ten thousand: a number so large that it meant unlimited to the ancients. But now, it simply meant a round number that Diedre didn’t want to break. Besides, what if she changed her mind and decided to give the money back?
So, she walked down Broad Street back across the Bridge of Lions past the hospital and all the way home. This journey didn’t take terribly long, but it gave her time to think. She wasn’t thirty years old yet, but what time she’d spent on this planet, she’d spent in this town somewhere around the corner of Fifth and Broad. She knew the bus routes. She knew where and when to get a good deal on a loaf of bread. She got first pick at the Goodwill. She didn’t have a car or a need for one. She had some friends, and she knew who her real friends were: They were the ones who told her she deserved better than Jason.
As she turned the corner to the street where she lived, she realized that ten thousand dollars wasn’t infinite, and terms like “fresh start” were just empty phrases like “college fund” or “retirement benefits” or “urban renewal.”
However, it would be nice to get away from Jason’s friends, the ones he would let come up to the house.
Friends! Customers, more likely.
Before she opened the door, she heard more noise than usual. Shouting. Jason and the other men were standing in the living room. The three other guys wore suits—nice suits. Jason had been standing, facing them, but he turned toward Diedre and the opened door.
“Take a walk!” Jason told her.
Diedre looked past Jason and could see that the man in the middle was holding a pistol. He wore a dark purple suit, and his broad shoulders leveled off at the other men’s temples.
“Where’s Mama?” Diedre asked.
“I thought I told you to get your ass out,” Jason said.
“Hey,” the man with the gun said to get Jason’s attention. He did, and when Jason turned, the man swiped Jason’s temple with the pistol.
“That ain’t no way to talk to the lady. Tell the sister where her mama is.”
“She went down to see Miss Laney,” Jason said. Blood peeked between his fingers as he held the side of his head.
“See,” the man said, “that wasn’t so hard.” Then, he said to Diedre, “He’s sorry, Ma'am.” He looked at Jason, but Jason didn’t say anything until the man smacked the other side of his head with the gun.
“I ain’t got the money,” Jason said. “I told you who got it.”
“We’re gonna start by telling the lady how sorry we are for talking shit,” the man said. He raised his gun again.
Jason turned to Diedre: “I’m sorry, baby.” He said this through clenched teeth with a fiery violence, the kind he had at three in the morning when he’d run out of money at the corner of Fifth and Broad. Then, he would come home hating Diedre for being…. Mainly, for being.
“Well, then,” the armed man said, “let’s go.”
“You know where he is,” Jason protested, “and you know I can’t go down there anymore.”
“I know you better,” the man said. “Look, I ain’t no fool. I know he’s got it, but it makes it easier if you’re there. Besides, how do I know y’all ain’t in it together?”
“You know I wouldn’t do that to you. I get paid enough.”
“I ain’t never met anyone—any man—who gets enough of anything,” the man said.
Diedre knew who the main man was. He was Curtis LeVine. He wasn’t any hood or hustler; he owned the ‘hood, the hustlers, the hotels, and the liquor stores. He owned souls and politicians.
“I’m telling ya,” Jason started.
“You ain’t telling me nothing. I’m telling you we’re taking a ride, unless you think that what Conrad’s gonna do is worse than what I can do.”
Jason turned and started out the door. The man’s companions followed him. Before he left, Jason turned and winked at Diedre: “I’ll be back soon, baby.”
Everything bad that happened to Jason became Diedre’s fault. He’d stopped even making excuses for why this was true. He had enough self-control to stop hitting so she could at least earn the rent.
Diedre looked at the floor. She could take the money and go…somewhere…right?
“That’s a nice coat. I used to know somebody that had one just like that,” the man said.
“Thanks,” Diedre said.
“Coat looked just like that. Belonged to a friend of mine. Ain’t seen him in a couple of days. Funny thing is, the last time I saw him, I asked him and Jason to do me a favor—to pay a bill for me. Funny, huh?”
“I hope you find him...your friend,” Diedre said.
“Do you know who I am?”
“No,” Diedre said. “Yes, but no.”
The man laughed, said, “Sister, you’re all right. We’ll be right back,” he said, and he started for the door himself.
“It’s not my coat,” Diedre said. “I found it at the Goodwill. Where I work.”
“At the Goodwill?”
“At the corner of Fifth and Broad.”
“Now that’s...that’s just funny for many reasons,” LeVine said. “Many reasons. You oughta tell Jason that story when I bring Jason back.”
“And I found this in it.” She pulled out the wad of bills. “Is that what you’re looking for?”
LeVine counted the money, said, “Some of it.”
“That’s all that was in the coat,” she said, but she’d started taking it off so LeVine could inspect it.
“Hey, you keep the coat. It looks better on you anyway.” He peeled off ten bills. “And keep this too. You can do better,” he said, pointing his thumb in the direction of the car where the other men had taken Jason.
“I plan to,” Diedre said.
As the car pulled out of the driveway, Diedre sat on the couch. She smiled at her finder’s fee and wrapped the coat’s arms around her like a big hug.