“For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.”—1 Timothy 6:10
Elsie Rigsby sat in the dimly lit backroom of Rigsby Transport Company, reconciling the books. The company’s income had more than doubled in the past six months, and most of the new accounts were paying in cash. Though they were finally getting ahead, her husband Arnie insisted they put every nickel back in the business.
So, why did Arnie always have a roll of bills in his pocket? When it came to her needs, and those of their son Harry, Arnie insisted they maintain a “moratorium on unnecessary spending.” He gave her just enough money to pay household expenses and buy groceries, and not a penny more.
“It’s just a set of building blocks, Arnie,” she had argued. “Harry needs to play. That’s how children learn.”
“He’s got the whole outdoors. I’m not bustin’ my tail so you can buy him toys! Take ’em back.”
“Then let it be his birthday present.”
“The kid’s gonna be two. He doesn’t even know what a birthday is.”
Elsie sat quietly for a moment, her finger winding the curls covering her ear. “I bought a dress for Arleta and Ned’s wedding. It was on sale,” she quickly added.
Arnie glared at her, his eyebrows forming a bushy line. “A store-bought dress? You’ve got a sewing machine.”
“But I’m running out of time. I’ve been working hard. I thought maybe just this once—”
“Well, you thought wrong! If you want something new, make it. The dress goes back…”
Elsie put down her pencil, and rubbed the tightness in her neck. She had known better than to argue with him. But why should she have to do without while Arnie wasted money on his smelly cigars, his stash of moonshine, and his backroom slot machines?
Elsie looked down at the bookkeeping ledger and the stacks of money she had just counted. She slipped a hundred-dollar bill into her pocket.
Suddenly, she heard angry voices on the other side of the door. Elsie took the bill out of her pocket, her heart racing, and put it back on the stack. She sat quietly and listened to Arnie hollering at one of the drivers. She strained to hear what he was saying, and then wished she hadn’t. What are you thinking, Arnie? You’re going to end up in prison!
Elsie sat dumbfounded, her mind processing the implications of her husband’s business dealings. Finally, she put the ledger in her desk drawer and locked it, then put the money and a deposit slip in a zippered bag. She hurried out the back door, furious that Arnie would be so reckless with her future and Harry’s.
She crossed the street and started walking briskly toward the bank when she spotted an empty bench in Mulberry Park. She cut through the spongy grass, her eyes brimming with tears, and sat on the wrought-iron bench under a towering shade tree. She blinked to clear her eyes and noticed a young couple strolling hand-in-hand, a small boy walking next to them waving a toy airplane and giggling with delight.
A stab of jealousy pierced her heart. Her son’s father was not only stingy and mean, but also dishonest! What else hadn’t Arnie told her? Or did she even want to know?
Elsie let out a sigh of helplessness and sat for a long time, her eyes on the little boy with the toy plane. She knew Arnie would deny everything if she confronted him. But did she dare confide in anyone else—even Pastor Roe? If the cops found out what Arnie was really hauling in those trucks, he’d go to jail, leaving her to raise Harry by herself. The thought of scraping even harder the rest of her life was more than she could bear.
Elsie clutched the zippered pouch containing the day’s bank deposit. She rose to her feet, suddenly feeling bold and in control.
Two can play this game, Arnie. Ruin your life if you want to, but Harry and I are not going to pay for it!
Stupid door! Sally Cox pushed the front door with her shoulder, then pushed harder and nearly fell in when it gave way. She stepped inside, hit with the fishy odor of last night’s Tuna Helper, and dreading the thought of another weekend alone.
It was hard to accept that Sam had divorced her and moved in with some chick fifteen years younger than he, leaving Sally with this rundown house and all the headaches that went with it. Sam had salved his guilt by giving her everything. Was she supposed to be grateful? Even a paid-for house required upkeep. And she could barely afford the utilities and taxes, and had neither money nor energy to get it ready to sell.
She flopped on the couch and kicked off her shoes, careful not to let the ripped upholstery snag her pantyhose. She lay staring at the cracks around the light fixture in the ceiling, when her orange tabby cat jumped up and lay on her chest, its eyes peering directly into hers, its paw padding her cheek.
“Well, Kiwi. It’s just us girls.” Sally stroked the cat’s fur and wondered if Sam had any conscience left. He certainly had no shame.
With the help of Botox and expensive makeup, his saucy little cash cow looked young enough to be his daughter. She had come with a nice divorce settlement—also two teenagers and enough emotional baggage to sink the Titanic. Sam would eventually be miserable. At least, she hoped so.
The phone rang. Sally put Kiwi on the floor, then got up and walked to the kitchen.
“Mom, it’s me,” Leslie Saunders said. “You sound tired.”
“I just got home. I’ll be fine after I’m off my feet for a while.”
“You still working double shifts?”
“No, I’m back to forty hours since they hired enough staff.”
“Good” Leslie said. “Alan and I don’t want you putting too much pressure on yourself. Why don’t you take the weekend to rest?”
“Actually, I’d rather stay busy. I’m going to start back to church this Sunday. I’ll be fine.”
“Are you sure?”
“Absolutely,” Sally said, trying to believe it.
“Promise you’ll call if you get lonesome?”
“Promise. Now stop worrying, and go pay attention to that sweet husband of yours.”
Leslie sniffled. “I’m really sorry Daddy left. I hate being so far away.”
Sally defiantly blinked the stinging from her eyes and stuffed her emotions in the few moments of awkward silence.
“I love you, Mom.”
“Love you, too. Talk to you soon.”
Sally went to the kitchen table and put her head down. How could Sam have walked away from their thirty years of marriage as if she meant nothing?
It had taken Sally months to pull herself together and go looking for a job, but she soon realized how few job opportunities existed for a fifty-four-year-old woman with no current job skills. Though working at a nursing home was not the job she’d hoped for, the training had only taken eight weeks.
Sally went into the living room and spotted the pair of baby shoes that Sam had set on a bookshelf after Leslie outgrew them. They’d been there so long that Sally rarely noticed anymore. She picked up the tiny shoes and set them in her palm, noting the white polish caked in the cracked leather. Sam had kept them polished—almost every night. He’d been a good father. Not a bad husband, either, except for the fling he’d had with some secretary at work. That was twenty-five years ago, and Sally thought he had gotten it out of his system.
She went to the coffee table and picked up the TV remote.
Kiwi paced on the back of the couch, and meowed repeatedly.
“Hey, you. We agreed to stick together on this. Rule number one: No whining.”
Monday morning at 7:03, Sally turned her faded blue Subaru into the employee parking lot of Walnut Hills Nursing Center and pulled next to Karen Morgan’s sassy Kia Sportage. She got out of the car, the January wind whipping her hair, and hurried toward the employee entrance, clutching her purse, her lunch, and a sack of jellybeans.
The charge nurse looked up when Sally walked in the door. “Cutting it a little close, are we?” Wanda Bradford said.
Sally smoothed her hair with her fingers, then put her lunch in the refrigerator. “I’m only three minutes late. I had to stop at Quick Mart.”
“Well, I suggest you wipe the Monday morning expression off your face and start making your rounds.”
Have a nice day, Wanda. Feel free to irritate somebody else.
Sally put her purse in her locker and a handful of jellybeans in her pocket, then headed down the hall toward the east wing, struggling to conjure up the incentive to get her through the next eight hours. She hoped whoever had finished out the last shift had already gotten some of the patients dressed.
She walked into Room 201, pleased to find Rufus Tatum already dressed and sitting in his wheelchair.
Sally looked down at his bare feet. “You kicked your slippers off again. Let me put them on you.”
Rufus shook his head.
“You can’t go barefoot. You’ll catch a cold.”
He looked at her with the defiance of a two-year-old, then scrunched his toes.
Sally squatted and looked him in the eye. “Honestly, Rufus. Am I going to have to bribe you again?”
An impish smile stretched his mahogany cheeks.
“All right.” Sally reached in her pocket and pulled out a half dozen jellybeans. “How about it?”
As if by magic, Rufus relaxed his toes.
Sally put the candy in his sweater pocket and quickly got the fur-lined slippers on his feet. She winked at his roommate. “I’ll be back in a minute, Charles.”
She wheeled Rufus down to the lounge and set him in front of the TV, then went back and got Charles and parked him next to Rufus. “You two check out the news. I’ll be back to take you to breakfast.”
Sally hurried down the hall and turned into Room 202.
Elsie Rigsby was sitting in her wheelchair, her frail hand pulling a handled comb through her fine, white hair.
“Good morning, sweetie. You look lovely.”
Elsie handed the comb to Sally. “Give this to Fay.”
Sally glanced at the empty bed on the other side of the room and wondered if Elsie remembered Fay was in the hospital.
“Harry’s coming today,” Elsie said.
Sally opened the closet and took a flowered housedress off the hanger. “Harry comes on Sundays, sweetie. This is Monday.”
“Johnny’s coming today,” Elsie said insistently.
Sure he is. You’ve been saying that since I started working here. Sally helped Elsie slip out of her nightgown and into the dress, then put on her anklets and sequined slippers. “Okay, you’re good to go.”
Sally rolled Elsie out to the hallway and spotted Wilda Cunningham inching her wheelchair down the corridor. She positioned Elsie’s wheelchair behind Wilda’s.
“Sweetie, follow Wilda to the dining room.” Sally chuckled to herself, knowing she would finish her rounds before they made it to the end of the corridor.
Sally scurried in and out of rooms until all her patients were ready to start the day, then positioned them at the assigned tables in the dining room. She was marking her duty roster when she noticed a nice-looking man pull up a chair and sit next to Elsie. She recognized his face from the picture on Elsie’s nightstand, but his hair was long and wavy now and pulled back in a ponytail.
Karen Morgan came over and stood next to Sally. “I wonder what moved Johnny boy to grace her with his presence after all these months?”
“I doubt she realizes how long it’s been. Will you look at him, pouring on the charm? He looks thrilled to see his grandmother.”
Karen snickered. “Probably wants something.”
“Why so cynical? Don’t you like him?”
“I don’t trust him.”
Sally peered out across the dining room. “He seems nice. And it’s the first time I’ve seen everyone at the table laughing.”
“Yeah, Jonathan’s a charmer, all right.” Karen rested her hand on Sally’s shoulder. “But Elsie’ll get depressed when he promises to come back and then doesn’t. She’s not my patient anymore, but I still feel protective of her.”
“The way she’s been lately, she may not even remember he was here.”
Karen lifted her eyebrows. “Better yet. Listen, I need to change a few beds. Take a good look at number one grandson. I doubt you’ll see him again for a long time.”
Sally leaned against the wall, her arms folded, and watched the man who had the attention of everyone at Elsie’s table. Jonathan Rigsby looked to be about forty, give or take. She didn’t see a wedding ring.
“Don’t you have things to do while your patients are having breakfast?”
Sally looked into Wanda’s scolding eyes. “I was enjoying the sound of laughter. Elsie’s grandson’s a real hit.”
Wanda turned toward the table and wrinkled her nose. “Wonder why he let his hair get long? Makes him look like a hippie.”
“Doesn’t seem to bother her. She’s eating up the attention. They all are.”
“And you’re eating up the clock when you should be changing beds.”
Sally didn’t move for several seconds, despite the scowl on Wanda’s face. Finally, Sally unfolded her arms and started down the hall toward her patients’ rooms.
After the sermon yesterday, Sally was finally able to admit that her resentment toward Sam was affecting her attitude—even on the job. What was she supposed to do about it: Forgive him for tossing her aside and moving in with some young thing, then saddling her with a financial burden she was ill-equipped to handle? Forgiving him wouldn’t change the fact that Sally had to work with a rude old sourpuss just to survive, while Sam lived comfortably on his girlfriend’s divorce settlement.
She let out a loud sigh. And Wanda’s indifference to her circumstances just heaped on more resentment.
* * *
Jonathan Rigsby pushed his grandmother’s wheelchair into her room, then closed the door and sat on the side of the bed facing her.
“I can’t get over how great you look, Grandma.”
“You’re sweet to say that, Johnny.”
“Didn’t you see the way the men looked at you? Ninety years old, and you’re still getting double takes.” He patted her cheek playfully, and she smiled. “So, tell me about your visit with Dad yesterday.”
Elsie’s face went blank, her eyes clouded with confusion.
“Your son Harry, Grandma. He brought you the daisies in that vase.”
She looked over at the nightstand. “Aren’t they lovely? Harry stayed and had chicken pot pie.”
“Ah, you do remember.” Jonathan studied his grandmother. “Uh, Dad said he talked to you about getting your affairs in order.”
Elsie turned her head and caught his gaze. “I did no such thing.”
Jonathan wiped the perspiration from his forehead. “It’s really hot in here. Do you mind if I turn the heat down?”
“Go ahead, dear. Hand me the afghan so I won’t get chilled.”
Jonathan draped the afghan over her legs, then turned the thermostat from eighty to seventy-five.
“Arnie lied to you,” Elsie said. “I never talked to him about getting my affairs in order.”
“Grandma, you talked to your son Harry. Your husband Arnie’s been dead for two years.”
“Arnie never gave me a cent more than I needed. Harry knows that.”
Jonathan stood next to the window, his thumbs hung on his jeans pockets. Was she more aware than she was letting on?
She had money, all right. The trick was getting her to tell him where it was while she could still remember, and before his father got it out of her—or Medicaid found out and made her pay for the nursing home.
Jonathan sat again on the side of the bed, his hands clasped between his knees. He hated what he was about to do. He hoped his grandmother wouldn’t remember, but even if she did, who would take her seriously?