I walked down the street, enjoying the beautiful spring day despite the awkward glances from those I passed. I drew the clean, fresh air deeply into my lungs. I savored it as though it were the dessert of my last meal. Strolling along, outside the wrought iron fence which encased the public gardens, I peered in through the bars at the beautiful new blossoms. My eyes caressed every flower, absorbing every minute detail.
I watched children chasing each other and squealing with glee, young couples holding hands and radiating the joy of new love, and older couples sitting together quietly on the ornate benches and enjoying each others comfortable company. They were all soaking in the sights, sounds and smells just as I was.
I caught the eye of an elderly lady as she sat by the pond, tossing breadcrumbs to the ducks, which were now swarming up to her feet. We exchanged a smile. She saw past the purple welts surrounding my eyes and the jagged cut running from the top of my forehead to the bottom of my chin. She was just sharing a moment of beauty with a stranger, and I loved her for it.
I had no reason to smile. Most people probably wouldn’t have gotten out of bed that day. My nose resembled a prize-fighter’s. I had just traveled across the country with a man who introduced my face to the sharp corner of a door. I had no home, no job, and didn’t look like a person that anyone would want to hire. Yet there I was, trying to absorb all the wonder and goodness that Spring had to offer.
My right hand was in my pocket, fingering the change I had there. Three quarters, a dime and two pennies. Eighty seven cents was all I had left to my name. I had gotten a room, and paid the rent for the night. After that, all was unknown. I walked along, sharing smiles with the people who saw beyond the bruises, all the while feeling the eighty-seven cents in my pocket, silently counting it, over and over.
My mission that day was simple. I had to walk from one end of the city to the other to visit my five-year-old son. He was staying with his paternal grandmother. I had come back to Halifax to fight for custody. I felt I had to enjoy as much as I could along the way, because I really wasn’t sure how I could or would exist beyond the night. I kept my head high, a smile on my face and one hand on my eighty-seven cents.
I kept walking down the block to the corner, just as the light changed to red. I leaned over and pressed the pedestrian button. A man stepped alongside me, glanced at me and cringed.
Too bad there isn’t a place I can buy eighty-seven cent sunglasses, I thought, almost chuckling out loud. Keep moving forward, it’s a beautiful day. I’ll visit with my son and figure it out later.
The change shuffled through my fingertips. I jingled it, inadvertently drawing the attention of an old homeless man who came to stand behind me. He tapped my shoulder and I turned to face him.
“Excuse me, Miss, but do you have any spare change?” he asked in a voice that had smoked too many cigarettes. He peered at me through eyes that had seen too many difficulties with a face that had weathered too many storms. His clothes were in tatters; his one extended hand was dirty and calloused, cracked and dry. I looked at him for a long moment as I drank him in. He narrowed his eyes, and I felt he was seeing me the way I was seeing him. I felt like there was pity in his gaze.
Eighty seven cents is no good to me – but I bet he could make something of it, I thought. I pulled my hand out of my pocket and held it out, my eighty-seven cents clenched tightly within my fist. Then I dropped the coins into the weathered palm of his hand.
“Sorry… that’s all I have.”
His smile lit up his face and I returned it warmly, even though it made my lips feel like they would crack open again.
“Thank you, lady and God bless you,” he rumbled. The street light changed and it was my turn to cross. I smiled at him and nodded. In the few moments that passed between us, more people had gathered on the corner, waiting to cross. The light changed, and I started to move into the street with the crowd. I heard the old man call out to me, but I couldn’t quite make him out. When I looked back over my shoulder, he was lost in the crowd.
For a moment I wondered what he might have said. I continued forward, actually feeling lighter in my step. Cleaner. It was a long walk across the city, but full of happy, smiling people – as there usually is when the cold weather starts to fade away and the warmer weather begins to build.
I was within two blocks of my destination when a bright red convertible pulled up. The top was down and there were two men inside.
I spun to face them when I recognized the voice. It was an old friend from high school.
“Kenny? Long time no see!”
If he noticed my wounds, he didn’t show any indication.
“I thought that was you! This is my friend Dave.” He gestured toward the driver of the Mustang – a casually dressed man with soft curly hair that fell to his shoulders.
“Dave, this is my old friend, Michelle. Where are you headed?” Kenny said. “Do you need a lift?”
“Thank you, Kenny, but I’m almost there.” I pointed at the building I was headed to, smiling. I didn’t remember Kenny being this nice in high school, but it was that kind of day that just seemed to bring the best out in people.
“Hey, I heard you just got back to town. Are you looking for a job?”
I laughed and fought a well of tears. I reached forward, lightly touching Kenny’s hand. “I do. But who would hire me?”
He lifted his sunglasses, inspecting my face closely. He shot a look to his friend, who then nodded and shrugged lightly.
“I need someone to help me with my jewelry business. You can help with the stock for the first week or so.” It was the first time I heard Dave’s voice, and I think it was the sweetest sound I had ever heard.
“That would be really awesome.” A tear slid down my cheek. “Thank you so much.”
“Great! Hey, don’t thank me. You’re doing me a favor! How can I get a hold of you?”
I looked from Dave to Kenny, unsure how to answer that. Do they somehow know? “I, uh… I don’t have a phone.”
“Okay, no big deal,” Dave said. “I’ll just pick you up.”
“Well, I…” the parts of my face that were not battered, flushed crimson.
“Hey, I have a spare room in my house.” I felt a glimmer of hope as Dave continued. “I was just thinking yesterday I should rent it out. You know. Help with the mortgage. We can work it out with the wage.”
“Deal?” Dave reached his arm across Kenny to shake my hand.
“Deal.” I shook on it.
“Thank you! You’re a life-saver!” He passed me his card. “Give me a call when you’re ready. I’ll come get you.”
As I watched the car pull away, I started to laugh, even as the tears freely spilled down my cheeks. I had figured out what the homeless man had said to me earlier.
“That ain’t all you have.”
This is a piece I had posted last year, but took down to enter in a contest. I have worked on it a bit since, filling in a few blanks. This is a memoir piece, and took place in the spring of 1992.