Embarrassment. Sheer, unequivocal and painful embarrassment. He remembers when he was 6 or 7, his mom, drenched from head-to-toe in evidence that she just rolled out of bed–bathrobe, slippers, and curlers protruding from every inch of her body, trudged into the school cafeteria to deliver his sack lunch. Looking back on that now, as a 36-year-old failure, that was nothing.
The first time he had to beg, it wasn’t so bad. He wasn’t even aware at the time that he was begging. His wife had spent three painstaking evenings that week cutting out coupons–save 20 cents on a pork roast, buy one box of diapers and get a dollar off the second, 15 percent off a loaf of bread with a purchase of some bagels. When she came home from the store, he expected her to be triumphant as she delivered the precise amount of money she had saved the family. Instead, she slammed open the door, bags of only essentials hung from her hands, wrists, and forearms. When she heaved the pile onto the countertop, he noticed she was crying.
“What’s going on, babe?”
“One of my coupons didn’t go through,” he could tell she was still holding back tears despite the ten minute drive home she had to collect herself. “It would have saved us a whole dollar on milk.”
“Maybe the milk you got didn’t match the coupon.”
Before he was even finished talking, she had the receipt and the coupon out in front of him. “Look! This is the milk I got and here is the coupon,” she sniffed. “It totally should have taken off the dollar.”
“Okay, you’re right,” he was backpedaling, painfully aware of his wife’s temper, which had become increasingly shorter in the past few weeks. “But really, honey, is it that big of deal?”
As soon as this question fell out of his mouth, he regretted it. He knew what she would say next and it was the last thing he wanted to hear, “Yes. It is a big deal. We need that dollar.”
She had ground beef frying in the skillet fifteen minutes later when he left the house, one kid hanging on his leg begging to go along while the other screamed below her feet, disgusted the food was getting more of her attention.
He arrived at the store at ten minutes past six, the peak shopping time. The parking lot was as full of cars as his mind was of worries, and it took him four minutes to find a spot. He peeled himself off the seat and walked slowly, with his head down, into the store. He was not looking forward to this. Perhaps, he could just walk the parking lot until he found a dollar, fallen listlessly from someone’s careless hands, stuck under a car tire, forgotten. His wife would never know the difference.
“Hey! Jeremy! How’re you, man?”
The greeting came from behind him and he thought briefly about walking faster. He didn’t recognize the voice, so it wouldn’t be that big of deal if he offended the guy. He couldn’t stop his people-pleasing self from turning around, however, and pasting a weak, yet convincing, smile to his face.
“Hey, Paul. I’ve been fine. How ‘bout yourself?”
“Man, I didn’t have a chance to tell you before, but I’m so sorry you lost your job. Karen and I were really sweating the layoffs, but I squeaked by, just barely. It was a tough month for everybody, though. Are you guys doing ok?”
This was his chance. He could pour his heart out to this guy he barely knew, a colleague, an old colleague that is. He could tell him that he has not been able to find a job for 8 months and he’s got four young kids depending on him. He could tell him his wife is substitute teaching whenever she can, but he can sense her disappointment, even when she is turned away from him, and he feels like she is always turned away from him these days. He could tell him he bought a new house almost a year ago to this day, and they are going to lose it. The foreclosure notices are rolling in faster than his Camaro, sold months ago to a guy that was his friend before he became broke, rolled down the highway. More importantly, he could tell him that he is at the grocery store to get a dollar they owed him, one dollar–he used to throw away dollars like they were gum wrappers.
Instead, he widened his smile and lied, “Yeah. It was pretty rough there for awhile, but we are doing fine…getting back up on our feet.”
“That’s great, man. I’m glad to hear it. Take care.”
As he watched Paul walk away, he fought the urge to throw his 1989 Pontiac keys at him. Stupid idiot doesn’t even know how lucky he is, of course, neither did he one year ago.
He stood in the customer service line for what seemed like an eternity, the coupon in one hand, receipt in the other. He reviewed the coupon many times as he inched closer to the counter. Man, this would be even more embarrassing if he had the coupon wrong.
“How can I help you, sir?”
He fought the urge to run, “Yeah. Hi. Um…my wife was in here earlier this evening and this coupon didn’t go through. I have the receipt. I think you guys owe us a dollar.”
“A dollar?” The clerk asked him with her head bowed as she reviewed the coupon. It was the tone of her voice that made him flinch. The she laughed, “I suppose your wife is crazy thrifty and made you drive all the way back down here saying, ‘It’s the principle of the thing!’ All the while you are probably thinking that it costs more than a dollar to drive to the store, huh?”
As he walked away from her with his hard fought dollar in hand, it struck him as both funny and demeaning how absolutely incorrect her assumption of his situation was. He was somewhat thankful that he didn’t appear poor to the untrained eye. He was pretty sure she would not joke with him like that if he looked poor.
All of that happened 18 months ago, and he’d give anything to have a dollar. Now, he knew the corner of State Street and Interstate Avenue was busiest from 7:30 to 9 in the morning while Expressway and 3rd Street saw a lot of action once school let out around 3. He has let his beard and hair grow long so the Pauls of his old life will not recognize him when they pull over with their sad eyes and their handful of change. Although, he doesn’t remember the last time he made eye contact with anyone. He has grown accustomed to staring at the cracks in the sidewalk and his ability to cry seems to have dried up with the love his wife used to have for him.
Embarrassment. That is the worst part of it. He knows what people think about him. He used to think the same thing about the bum on the corner. The only problem is, he is not a bum. He’s a father, a husband, a man. At least, he used to be all of these things, but perhaps even these drifted away with his last dollar.