143 Cents

I wore sadness that day, not the kind of sadness I thought I understood, either. I knew she’d leave, but I didn’t understand what leaving really meant. Like going to light a cigarette and realizing after years of the habit, I don’t smoke anymore.

Right as she walked away from me I reached for my breast pocket to find my pack and found nothing within. Just a pen and a handful of loose change that jingled around, not where it should be. Just like her.

I’d always loved that habit, secretly. When she found loose change around the restaurant she would pluck it from its sullen loneliness and slip it into her shoe. She came to me hundreds of times if not more to shake her foot and guess how much she collected that day.

“Thirty-seven cents!” She exclaimed on our first work day.

“What?”

“I think there are thirty-seven cents in my shoe. What do you think?”

“I don’t know. Forty-two?”

She slipped her sneaker off and looked inside to count.

“Damn, thirty-nine. You win, you were closer.”

That wasn’t our first meeting, she was at orientation laughing and giggling with the rest of us as our boss made joke after joke. He stressed the importance that we were to be a team on shift.

I came from a team that fell to pieces the spring before. A family at another restaurant that I thought I would never replace, and I was right. I didn’t. I felt magic at that place, back home. It was my first month in Iowa and I just happened to find a place that might replace what I missed. Maxxi Furlong’s. The place opened a month after I arrived and I secured a job by the grace of the forces that be. I couldn’t even fuel up my van on my first day. That’s where I found her. Sitting at the crowded tables surrounded by the other’s I’d get to know along the way. Funny how sometimes, you just find things.

We began our working relationship shortly after.

I fell for a girl in the restaurant after I started, but a few months later she plucked my heart out of my chest and smashed it into the ground. I watched it compress beneath her shoes and pop on the hardwood flooring. The next day the morning crew left a note telling me to leave my messes outside of the restaurant.

When I was young my mother always told me about this empathy I had, a way to feel emotions I didn’t truly feel. I took what others gave me. I developed that feeling through music and through art. Through cooking food. When I learned how to pour drinks and could legally, I became a bartender. I picked up a habit early on, I would fill a tumbler with alcohol with closed eyes and if the liquor met the mark without spilling the customer owed me thirty-one cents. I don’t know why I picked thirty-one, I just did. Maybe three dimes and a penny was the right amount of change to keep on hand.

It’s funny to me that I didn’t carry that practice into my second restaurant job. Five years I played that game, but it was silly. I wanted to be something different after moving, to mature and grow up a bit. I didn’t have time for silly things, but she did.

One day she helped me clean up this stain on our floor left by another bartender, I didn’t realize what was happening until she bumped into me, standing in the bar mopping while I took inventory. She was years younger than me and shouldn’t have been there, but had this kind of knowledge and joy that I couldn’t grasp, I so desperately wanted to.

“You know that one of the servers is stealing your tips right?”

This old wooden tip jar sat on the bar with a tacky sign taped to the front about tipping our “local artist.” Something my boss put up when he found out I won an award with one of my albums.

“What are you talking about?”

“The tip jar, she’s taking money out before you and she’s keeping it.”

The soles of her shoes jingled as she stepped from side to side, scrubbing the mark with joyful passion. She cleaned it up and we both went about our business, catching glances at one another for the rest of the day.

After that, every day when she would come in she would check the tip jar for me. If she found any money inside of it she would run up and give it to me.

“Just, you know, to be sure you get it.” She had a quaint smile that spread across her face when she did something kind. She smiled often.

We quickly became close friends. Our shifts always matched. She would check the tip jar and say hello. Drop money off to me if she found some and then ask me about my day. I replied the same way each time.

“Better than yesterday. Something good happened today.”

She cocked her head like she never knew what to say next.

“What do you mean?

“Something good is bound to happen, right?”

She nodded her head and bit her lip as if nerves got the better of her, but I don’t think she was nervous. Not anymore. I think she wanted to say something to me that she didn’t know how to say. The words were trapped inside her throat more often than not. Her youth never felt the burn of embarrassment like I had, or like any of us at Maxxi’s. It took no time before she became a favorite among the other servers. She worked hard and dedicated to her tasks. She was punctual and fun, she would carry their weight when they were being lazy and she rarely asked questions. This led to her getting walked on sometimes. Those who’d been in the industry and witnessed all of their own kindness scrubbed from their insides by the demands of the public. A common theme among most gigs, if you didn’t know. Bearing everyone else’s needs wears on a person. They took the stress out by ordering her around. Better than their spouses or their kids, I suppose. She was forced into all kinds of cleaning and side work that wasn’t her job, but she accepted it with that same quaint smile on her face. Ever understanding of others, willing to do whatever they needed.

Driving her like a slave dog eventually pushed me too far. I couldn’t actually do anything about it, but when I got after one of them, word spread, and they stopped. Of course, they might have been afraid of my close relationship with our boss. A skinny guy, nice on the surface but rumors spread about his history at another part of the chain. Furlong’s restaurants see a ton of reviews and even more rumors. Gossip travels from one store to the next, our boss used to be known for firing employees on impulse. I think they feared that potential power in me.

Of course, I never wanted anyone fired, and my poppa always taught me that if I’m incapable of doing the work, I shouldn’t do it. Truthfully, I only wanted a friend or two. Eventually, my relationship with our boss evolved and he started telling me personal things about the staff. One girl was pregnant and would be leaving before she showed, her baby daddy running a slum lord mansion. She and her family took off to Maine. Another server’s grandmother pass away. When the news broke it surprised all of us. Her grandmother was a regular, she just stopped showing up for work one day. Another was gay and terrified to tell her friends and family, we were the first ones she came out to. We threw her a party to celebrate her small victory in us. After the party ended, I was alone with my boss cleaning dishes and plates and shutting the restaurant down. My friend had just left, forty-eight cents in her shoe. I guessed eighteen, she guessed ninety.

“How’s she doing?”

He asked me.

“She’s good. Good as ever.”

He nodded and smiled at me.

“Make sure you take her out to eat, or something.”

“Why would I do that?”

He left before he answered me. He liked to do that. Leaving me without answers to simple questions. I considered taking her out to dinner after she got back from her vacation, maybe she needed a friend for more than work. I never thought of it that way.

A few days passed, and she came back to work. She told the whole restaurant that she went to Cancun for the week. When I talked to her she smiled wide and told me all about her time in the Caribbean.

“Which is it?”

“What?”

“Cancun or the Caribbean?”

“Ireland. I went to Ireland.” She winked.

She didn’t speak to me much that day, avoiding me, likely embarrassed that I caught her in a lie. I didn’t mind. Her business despite our friendship. I didn’t care to pry.

The days continued like clockwork. She checked the tip jar, she collected change, she talked to me about gossip and we became close friends. When I walked into work and found her name on the schedule my day brightened. A regular came in one day and joked that we spent all of our time together, joked that we acted like a couple. We both laughed, friends, sure, but that was all.

Still, she started calling me her work husband. Ironic that she was only 18 and already joking about it. Jokes are jokes, though. Sometimes we really need jokes.

She missed a shift one day and sent me a message, asking me to pick up her paycheck and drop it off at her house. She was sick and couldn’t come in but needed to pay her car insurance the following Monday. I obliged and drove to her house where she invited me to watch television with her. We split a pint of ice cream and she shook her foot, feebly.

“Fifteen cents.” She shivered through a hoarse throat.

“Twenty-six.” She slipped her shoe off.

“Thirteen.” She laid her head on my shoulder and closed her eyes.

“I win.”

I laid with her until the television automatically powered down and realized the sun peeked through the blinds. She stirred from her sleep briefly. A torrent of coughs razed her lungs and she rolled over on the couch. I slipped her shoes off and covered her with a blanket before leaving. I considered the sickness I may have caught but it didn’t bother me. I had decent insurance by then, besides, I had been sick before, I could be sick again. The time we spent was worth it.

The following weeks she began showing up less and less, calling in from her sickness.

I collected all of the change I found on her days off in a glass jar I kept in our bar, the other servers laughed at me but it became a tradition between us.

She came in one day to tell us she was headed to college the following month, her last day thirty days away. We worked together that night and before she left I handed her the jar of coins.

“One hundred forty-seven.” I winked.

She looked up at me and smiled wide.

“Thirty-one.” She winked back.

That night she went home and I did too, to sleep soundly. The next days were more of the same.

“How was your day?”

“Better than yesterday. Something good will happen today.”

“I sure hope so.”

Her eyes fell to the floor as she spoke. I didn’t ask. If she wanted to talk to me, she would talk to me.

After the shift, she took a phone call from her sister that pulled her out of the restaurant. She ended up hitching a ride home with her and forgot her backpack. I slipped it in a shelf within my bar and her letter from the college slid out of the pocket. Though I knew better, I peeked inside and saw that she had been denied.

It’s funny how sometimes you find things.

The weekend came and we hadn’t spoken. She seemed to be over her cough and was out preparing for her move, judging by social media. I smiled and laughed at her pictures and videos. She and her family wandered around and tested beds at a mattress store, tested desks in Ikea and so on.

By the time Monday rolled back around her name was on the schedule again. Her leave date the coming Friday. I ordered a going away present for her and waited on it to arrive.

She stepped into the restaurant a half an hour before her shift crying her eyes out and on the phone. She came to me and asked to talk to the boss. As I walked her to the back she was rubbing her wrists and trying to stop crying. She entered the office and didn’t leave for an hour or more. When she did the crew gathered around and asked her what was going on, she said that she needed to leave the next day. None of us understood and we all asked questions, she just told us.

“I’m in big trouble.”

I noticed when she showed up she leaned on the counter, shaking. I offered food she didn’t want, she just looked at me with a quivering frown and let tears slide down her eyes. She reached out to hug me. I wrapped my arms around her, trying my best to be comforting. When I did she pulled away.

“No. No, I can’t. I’m sorry.”

I didn’t understand, but I let her walk away. Her tears fell uncontrollably. She dropped off her uniform to our boss and turned around to leave. I called out to her.

“I’m going to miss you. I love you a lot.”

She paused, halfway through the restaurant.

“I’m going to miss you too. I loved you too, a lot.”

She didn’t turn around and continued walking out, her gasps echoing through the building.

As the shift continued, I plucked a checkbook from a table and a bit of change fell onto the floor. I bent down to pick it up and call for her to put it inside of her shoe and remembered that she was no longer there. She went home. Later, a man at my bar threw a dollar into my tip barrel and I checked to retrieve my tip. Inside I found a handful of crumpled bills piled on top of each other. She hadn’t given me the money from the jar because she left in tears hours before.

Obviously, these weren’t real realizations. I watched her leave. I saw her walk out and heard her crying. It didn’t hit me until then that she really left, leaving to college or wherever she actually went. I was her friend, sure, but I didn’t understand that I truly loved her until she was on her way to wherever she would be next.

A few days later, I couldn’t break the habit of collecting change for her and grabbing tips out of the jar. I decided to send her the change with her goodbye present. I popped into the back office and asked my boss what her new address would be if he knew, and he looked up from his desk.

“Please shut the door.”

I obeyed and took a seat, his tone serious.

“You don’t know?”

“No.”

“You were her best friend here, she wouldn’t stop talking to me about you and she didn’t tell you?”

I shook my head.

“Here.”

He handed me a note he scrawled on, with an address. It was the address of the local mortuary.

I couldn’t stay at work that day. I left and didn’t come back. I showed up, the first one to the funeral. At her casket, I stared in silence for a long time.

Her mother approached me and gave me a hug from the side.

“She told us about you, a great deal. She really loved you.”

I didn’t answer.

“She wanted you to have this.”

Her father handed me a letter which I ripped open and read aloud.

“Thank you for being such a good friend to me. I know, I didn’t go to Cancun or to the Caribbean or even to Ireland. I wished to see all of those places, but my parents didn’t think I was healthy enough. I’ve been sick for years, it was under control until a while ago. When I was bedridden, and you came to visit me, that’s the best I’ve felt since my flare up. I loved you a lot. I know I never said it. I know I couldn’t finish saying goodbye. What I was about to do would taint your memory of that moment, I’m sorry. After a reasonable time, please find yourself a new work wife. Don’t get hung up on me. I’ll be watching over you till then. I hope that you have a good day tomorrow. Something good will happen, I promise.”

I felt her playful sarcasm through the text and a faint smile broke through my pain. Beneath her signature, she left a small note.

“Hey, thirty-one cents!”

I reached into my pocket and pulled out a handful of change from the collection I planned to send her. I counted it quietly and slipped it into her shoe, thinking of everything I found in my time with her.

“Now you have one hundred and forty-three.”

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