Nadine wouldn’t have even noticed the giant leaf, yellow with brown spots like a gracefully aging banana, if her three-year-old son hadn’t recently become obsessed with the leaves on the ground during the walk home from her mother’s apartment when she picked him up in the evening. Yesterday he had spent ten minutes comparing shapes and relative sizes of yellow triangular ginkgo leaves and mastering the pronunciation of “gingko”. She wasn’t sure what type of tree this huge leaf had come from, but she picked it up, planning to tuck it between the pages of the English workbook in her backpack to protect it. Seeing what lay underneath, she gasped. There was a one-hundred-dollar bill, uncreased and perfect enough to look fake except for the detailed hologram reflecting the low October afternoon sun.
Instinctively, she looked around to see if anyone was walking a poodle or driving their Range Rover nearby. The neighborhood was still and quiet, as usual. Her employer was a reserved man of indeterminate race who she hadn’t seen since the first time she came over to clean his elegant, minimalist house a year ago. He paid her through Venmo and in general didn’t seem like the type to deal in cash despite likely being in his early 50s; furthermore he would leave through the garage door to get in the car and not be walking around on the street with his wallet dribbling bills. Did it belong to a neighbor? Someone taking out a business card while talking on the phone with a friend? She could imagine one of the homebound, expensive spandex-clad women she occasionally walked past on her way down to the bus stop doing this, but she had no way of knowing for sure. And who cared? Surely only a person who didn’t need the money would be so careless with it. She picked it up without further hesitation.
When Nadine opened her wallet, she found the twenty-dollar bill one of her other clients had left under a post-it with her name, an extra tip for cleaning their garden shed Saturday. She tucked the one-hundred-dollar bill next to it and continued walking down the hill, completely forgetting about the leaf. Eighty dollars was all that was left on the past due electric bill she had accumulated over the summer running the portable air conditioner, and she was eager to pay it off. The shame of having to call the electric company and set up the payment plan still coated her like an oily sludge if she thought about it, yet another indignity inflicted on her when Marcelo left them for a waitress at the diner where he was a cook (she refused to say “chef” no matter how many times he referred to himself that way). Paying that eighty-dollar balance now would allow her to put some of next week’s pay towards winter boots for her son, and maybe the scarf she had seen at Target for her mother.
Turning right on the next block, Nadine recognized the landscaping truck nearly blocking the narrow street and remembered how shocked she had been last Tuesday. On her walk up the hill, she had seen the young, white foreman tear the sandwich from his lunch cooler in half and give the other half to one of the Mexican men working with him. The foreman had even dumped the coffee from his thermos on the street, poured half of his Pepsi into the empty container, and given the half full plastic bottle to the man. Nadine had hustled past, not wanting to seem like she was staring or attract any of the men’s attention but had smiled to herself at the act of kindness. Walking past the truck now, she heard the foreman’s broken Spanish blending with the fluent chatter of the other men walking down the windy driveway. Impulsively, she pulled her wallet from her jacket pocket, opened it and withdrew the twenty-dollar bill, and tucked it under the windshield wiper of the truck before hustling to the bus stop. Never as religious as her mother, she had nonetheless internalized the Christian principle of giving in pure spirit, not for recognition.
Coated with a fall confetti of leaf debris, Wilbur reached the end of the driveway and helped load the heavy equipment into the bed of the pickup truck. He offered to drive Oscar and Antonio to the metro stop, knowing that Alfredo and Manuel lived in the opposite direction, but was answered with a chorus of “No, no, muchas gracias, pero no.”
Alfredo’s maroon Camry roared to life behind the truck as the others piled in, filthy and exhausted. He gave a friendly goodbye honk, really more of a toot from that car, and zoomed off down the hill. After giving a final yank on the mower’s anchor strap in the truck bed, Wilbur unlocked the doors and climbed into the truck cab. If it had been thirty minutes later and a little bit darker he might have lost it on the highway, but its papery flutter caught his eye when he started the car. Unbuckling his seat belt, he climbed back out and plucked the twenty-dollar bill from under the windshield. Inexplicably he looked up at the sky, as if the clouds would spell an explanation for the clearly deliberately placed cash.
Flush with a general warmth from the discovery, he considered stopping for a beer but then thought about his uncle waiting for him at home with dinner, and remembered he needed to review the spreadsheet for the last month. He had taken over the day-to-day operations of the landscaping business after his uncle’s stroke instead of letting him hire a stranger to manage it. The way Wilbur figured, it was a way to show gratitude to the one family member who seemed to understand him while simultaneously pissing off his overbearing father, who could not understand why this was a more enticing post-college business experience than the internship he had secured with his hedge fund. Not having to sit at a desk in a suit staring a computer all day and getting to spend more time with his uncle was a true win-win, and he surely didn’t need an extra $20. He tucked it under his coffee mug and pulled away from the curb.
The next morning in the cool dawn, Wilbur was craving apple pie, and decided to stop at his favorite diner on the way to the jobsite. Donuts or bagels would have made more sense logistically, but he liked the idea of bringing a slice of pie for each of the men to eat with their lunches. While contemplating if he should stick to apple alone or mix in a slice or two of cherry, the twenty-dollar bill in the cupholder caught his eye and he shoved it in his jeans pocket.
The sleigh bell on the handle jangled as he walked in and the bitter aroma of coffee his him like a ton of bricks. The quiet, skittish waitress he had seen a few times before was the only one there at seven in the morning, and she shuffled over to the hostess stand.
“Table for one?” she asked, voice barely above a whisper.
“No miss, not today, I actually just need to pick up some pie to go,” he replied.
Her face fell before she could catch herself, no tip from this guy then. “Sure, no problem.”
They walked over to the counter together. A cherry pie was in the display case, but he didn’t see any apple pies. “Do you have any apple pie slices?” he asked, annoyed with himself for how badly he wanted it now that he saw it might not be available.
“Um, maybe? How many slices? I can check in the back for you,” she said.
“Two cherry and three apple if you have them,” he asked, smiling hopefully.
While she was in the back, he heard raised voices and a man cursing in Spanish, some of the only words he could recognize. Awkwardly turning towards the front window, he pulled his wallet out of his pocket and the twenty-dollar bill fell to the tiled floor. He picked it up, keeping it in his hand. A few minutes later the waitress returned with pile of small boxes, which she placed in a paper bag before ringing them up.
“These are going to be fresher, that one shouldn’t have been out last night,” she whispered conspiratorially.
Wilbur smiled, “Thank you so much.”
“Two cherry and three apple slices will be twenty-four dollars, and I threw some forks in for you just in case.” He passed his credit card to her and waited while she ran the card and printed the receipt for him to sign. After scribbling his name, he slid the twenty-dollar bill back to her with the signed receipt with a nod of thanks. Her eyes bulged but she didn’t protest, confirming his choice.
As the man walked out with his pie, jingling the sleigh bell again, Katrine could not believe her good fortune. She had set a goal of three hundred dollars in cash and swore to herself that the day she had it she would buy the bus ticket to her sister’s, and that twenty dollars had brought her to three hundred and twelve. It had been difficult to separate out money for herself with Manuel keeping track of everything she made in tips. Before her car had broken down their schedules weren’t perfectly aligned, but for the last month she had depended on him for transportation and as the cook he knew exactly how busy the restaurant was and what she should have made. The few regulars who overstayed their welcome but also over tipped on coffee and the people too drunk to count were her primary benefactors. For the first time in two months, the rest of the shift flew by, and she didn’t spend the slow periods mentally berating herself for allowing Manuel to charm his way into taking over her life. During the lunch rush when she was constantly in and out of the kitchen, the abuse he muttered rolled off her back. He would wake up the next morning in an empty bed, and she would finally be free of his control, and all of the men in the city who had come before him. If only she could tell the pie man what he had done for her.