The notebook is small, the ink and cover both faded from what must have originally been a licorice color. The whole thing is speckled with dust and the spine is completely wonky, bent to a near-ninety-degree angle except where it’s belted shut with a dingy old shoelace. I shouldn’t have picked it up; there are real books in the yard sale, books that aren’t tucked, half-smashed, into a cardboard box with a mouse-chewed hole in the corner. But I’m curious. Who bothered to keep such a junky collection of scraps, and why?
I throw the thing on top of a pile of books I’ve found. The eighty cents it will cost will wash out in the money I’ll make selling the old textbooks and classics online, anyway. I pay for my loot and load the books into the trunk of my beat-up ’93 Pontiac. I stop, snag the notebook, and tuck it into my coat pocket with my COVID mask.
On my drive home, I get stopped at this intersection that always seems to have seen an accident. This morning is no exception. Annoyed, but with nowhere to be, I throw the car in park and pull the little black book from my pocket, hoping it’s interesting. I work at the knot in the shoelace for a minute with my fingernails—teeth would have been disgusting—before realizing it’s just loose enough to slide the whole thing off.
And I kid you not, twelve hundred-dollar bills kerflumph into my lap.
I choke on my own spit. My mind races as I cough; what in the world? That’s a grand. Where— why—do I have to return it? How—
No, I don’t have to return it, I reason as I finish my coughing. Nervously, subconsciously, I glance at the cops in the intersection ahead. They aren’t even aware that I exist. Besides, I paid for the notebook, I argue. It’s not my fault that the yardsale chick didn’t know about the money.
Feeling slightly more comfortable now, I cautiously open the notebook. Three more hundred-dollar bills fall out.
I flip the notebook, turning the spine toward the steering wheel. Peeking out between coffee-stained and water-bent pages are more bills. One per page. I do a quick calculation in my head. Not believing, I pull out my phone. My fingers tremble as I open the calculator app.
“That’s twenty thousand dollars,” I say aloud, my tone absolutely stupefied. It’s an incomprehensible amount of money to me. Thoughts tumble through my head: riding in an airplane to Europe. Paying my back rent. Do I have to pay taxes on this? My Amazon app, and the list of things I keep saved for “someday.” A full shopping cart at Walmart.
Flustered, unsure what else to do, I open the book again. I glance at the intersection—not quite clear yet—and then back down at the book.
“June 9, 1983
Today I am a dad. I’m a dad! Louis is so small, so perfect, so… what do you say about a baby? It’s all been said before. But this is my baby. My son. He has tiny toes and he eats until Marie says it hurts (and then some.) I keep looking forward to playing catch and eating burgers together, and then I stare down at the blanket-bundle in my arms and I have to dash tears from my eyes because he’s here, he’s real, and he is mine. Ours. Marie’s and mine. My boy. My son.”
“Hey!” I glance up, the words of the book and the words of the cop waving me forward blending in my brain because twenty thousand dollars is still swirling around in my head too. I put the Pontiac in drive, pull forward slowly, my left hand trying to cover the fortune in my lap as the car rolls on, just in case the officer decides to look through the window.
I race home. I stuff the bills in my pocket when I get there, worrying about neighbors staring me down. I try to walk normally, but I feel shifty. Nervous. The book is in my pocket again, too, feeding my curiosity. I race through my crappy apartment, then dump the money onto my bed, double- and triple-checking that I’ve gotten every bit out of my pockets.
Then I turn the book, pinching the spine, and wag the pages back and forth.
A rain of wealth descends on the quilt Mom made for me. Mom. Mom could use a hundred bucks, I think. I suppress the generous impulse. This money is mine now, and I could also very definitely use a hundred bucks. Mom will be okay.
I’m tired, suddenly. I climb into the unmade bed, careful not to spill the bills onto the floor where they could vanish under the bed or the laundry pile, and I read again.
“July 4, 1983
Louis’ first Independence Day. He doesn’t seem to care, except when the neighbors set off fireworks last night and woke him up. I’m not sure if the baby or Marie was more upset, though Louis definitely screamed more. I haven’t told Marie, but I decided this journal is for when he graduates high school. I put a hundred dollars in the back page. It’s more than we can afford, but this is our son. And I can always take the money back out, I guess. Anyway, Marie is calling me. Just wanted to say: I love you, son. I’m already proud of you, and you’re just a little lump that lays on the floor.”
Something in my heart pricks at me. I don’t think my father ever said he was proud of me, even when I was—what was it? I glance back at the page. A little lump. I smile halfway at that, the way I do when I see a cute puppy on Tumblr.
“December 25, 1983
It’s been a little while since I wrote for you, son. Work has been… insane is the word, really. You’re rolling now, and almost sitting up. Your grandma says you have a round bottom, which makes your mother laugh. I saved another hundred for you, tucked it in the back with the other one. I’m sorry you’re not getting much this Christmas, but we’re doing our best, and as your mom points out, you don’t care much. Not this year, anyway.
January 1, 1984
Happy New Year, Louis!
You’re almost seven months old. Hard to believe. You’re almost ready to sit on your own, and even better—your mom is getting past the baby blues. It’s nice to be getting my wife back again. Don’t feel bad, son, but you’ve been hard for her. I always said I wanted two kids, a boy and a girl, but I think we’re done. I hope you’re okay with being an only child.
If I could convince you to sleep, now, that would be something. There is something nice, though, about cuddling you up in the rocking chair at night. Your mom gets you most of the time—boy, do you eat a lot!—but after you’re done eating around 2am, I take you from her and I rock you. Sometimes I sing. I doubt you’ll remember that about me, because I don’t want to sing where you can hear me when you get old enough to know anything about music, but for now—you seem to like Dad’s rusty old voice. At least, it sometimes gets you to sleep. Who knows? Maybe you’re knocking yourself out so you don’t have to listen anymore. I wouldn’t blame you.”
My phone rings, and I jump haphazardly, searching around for it with one hand while I try to put the book down gently with the other. The page I was reading is barely hanging on, and I don’t want to destroy the thing.
“Tim? It’s Grandma.” Part of me knew that—caller ID. But telling Grandma I know it’s her won’t keep her from identifying herself on the phone or signing her texts.
“Hi,” I respond, unsure what Grandma wants.
“Were you going to come change my lightbulbs today?”
Crap. I was. Mom has been haranguing me to help Grandma for a week, guilting me with the idea of a little old lady living alone, in quarantine, in the dark. Stupid COVID—normally, Grandma’s neighbors changed the lightbulbs and did other little upkeep things, but I guess she’s been insisting to Mom that I need to do it now—as if a pizza delivery guy has less germs on him than her work-from-home neighbor. Whatever.
“Sorry, Grandma.” I find my keys in my pocket. “I’ll be over in half an hour.”
“I’ll be over in half an hour!” I all but shout into the phone. Then I hang up before she can babble at me and keep me from actually getting in the car. I look at the money on my bed. My room is private, but Greg, my roommate, is nosy. I go to the kitchen and, after hunting around in the pantry for a minute, come up with an almost empty bread bag. I hurry back to my room, eating the heel of the bread, and stuff the money in the bag, then tie it shut.
Do I bring it or hide it? I consider for a minute. Where is it less likely to be stolen? Greg doesn’t usually root through my drawers or anything. Finally I throw the bag in my pocket, the book sliding into its now-usual place.
I climb into my car. Grandma’s house is ten minutes away—I have a few yet, but I’m already in the car.
I pull out the notebook. Suddenly, it hits me—the money was still inside. What happened to little Louis? How did the yard sale lady end up with the notebook, and the twenty grand?
I check the inside front cover, and there it is: an address. Finch Drive isn’t even that far away. Maybe twenty minutes—I verify with my GPS. Eighteen minutes.
I don’t even know what I’m hoping. It’s been, what, almost forty years since Louis was born? I don’t even know what happened to the author. I open the notebook again, this time to the last page with writing.
“February 18, 1999
I’m sorry, son. I’m sorry I’m going to miss so much. Your high school graduation. Your college graduation. Your wedding, your children. I was excited. I was already excited to meet my grandbabies.
And I know you won’t really remember who I was. I mean, we have a lot of great memories together. Lots of catch and burgers. But we’ll never have an adult-to-adult relationship, and I’m really, really sad about that.
In a selfish way, I hope you’re sad too. I hope you miss me. Is that terrible? I always had my dad around, and I can’t imagine life without him. But I guess the best I can do is leave you with some wisdom. Wish I had some.
Be a good person, Louis. You’re a good kid. Take care of your mom. Heck, take care of my mom, if you’re willing. Be smart. Be hardworking. But most of all, be kind.
I love you, kid.
P.S. Cancer is the pits.”
I stare at the last few words. “Cancer is the pits.”
I can’t do it. I can’t leave Louis hanging. I turn the car on, follow the GPS to Finch Drive. Knock on the door.
A lady answers. She’s maybe 60-something.
“Are you Marie? I’m sorry—I totally even forgot my mask.”
“Yes, I’m Marie.”
She’s puzzled, I can see it in the top half of her face, which is the only view I have. Funny, I thought somehow that she would’ve been blonde like my mom.
“I found this,” I say, holding out the journal. “It belongs to Louis. Your husband wrote it.”
Tears well up in the corners of her eyes as she looks at the book, and one splatters out onto the beat-up cover. One more spot of water damage.
“I—how—I don’t—” she says.
“And, um,” I’m not sure how to explain, so I pull the bread bag out of my pocket. She looks at it, and her watery eyes go wide.
“This was in the pages. It’s for you. Or for Louis. I dunno. Is he okay? Louis?”
She nods mutely, her shaking hand moving up to clutch the little black notebook. She doesn’t even look at the money, just stares at the notebook. I realize I never replaced the shoelace; it’s somewhere in my room, I guess.
“Louis!” She calls, and a man a decade older than me pops out a second later. His hair is dark and messy, like Harry Potter’s.
“You okay, Mom?” He asks. She nods her head, apparently unable to say anything. He squints at me, like he’s trying to decide if I made his mom cry because I’m a threat.
“Your dad wrote that for you,” I say, waving a hand at the notebook Marie has now clutched tightly to her chest. “And he left this.”
“My—” Louis stops talking as he realizes that the bread bag is full of money. A bread bag full of dough, I realize silently, and I try not to laugh at the stupid pun. “My dad?”
“I found the book at a yard sale. With the money inside. I read some of it—sorry.”
“It must have been in the stuff I donated,” Marie says with a sniffle. She wipes her eyes with her thumb. “This young man—” She pauses, looking expectantly at me.
“Tim,” I supply.
“Tim. You brought Dennis home to us,” she says.
“Dennis?” I blink a few times before I get it.
“My dad,” Louis says, and I nod idiotically. I could’ve figured that out.
“It didn’t even occur to me that the guy had a first name—I’d just thought of him as “Louis’ dad.” I mutter.
“He’d have liked that,” Marie says, and her cheeks move under her mask. She’s smiling.
“Well, thanks,” I say, and hold the bread bag out again.
“Thanks? Thank you,” Louis says. He stares at the bag. “Can I give you some of that? A finder’s fee or something? Goodness knows times are hard for people.”
I swallow, and it comes down harder than I mean it to.
“Nah,” I say, and I fake a smile. Doing the right thing is hard.
“But—” Louis’ eyes find the Pontiac.
“I got this,” I say. “I’m alright. Besides, your dad saved all that for you.”
Louis nods, takes the bag, and then puts his arm around his mom.
“Thank you, Tim. Really. I wish you’d known my dad.”
“He loved you,” I say. “Read the book. You’ll see.”
Louis’ eyes widen.
“I know he did,” he answers. I smile for real at that. Louis was lucky. I nod a few times, feeling awkward, then turn and walk down their porch steps. The door doesn’t close; they watch me walk away.
Maybe I’m lucky too, I realize as I get back in the car. I’ve got Mom. I’ve got Grand—
I pick up my phone. I’m fifteen minutes late for lightbulb duty. I hit my recent calls, and, not looking at Marie and Louis, start the car while the phone rings.
“Tim? Are you alright?” Grandma’s voice is strained; she’s worried.”
“I’m fine. It’s a long story.”
“You can tell me about it. Maybe…” she pauses, and I put the car in drive. “Maybe over lunch?”
“Sounds great, Grandma,” I say. “I’ll be there in ten.”