The Word: Count
Deborah counted the money in her wallet again. Twenty, forty, sixty, eighty, a hundred, twenty, a ten, two fives, a couple of ones… she could have sworn she had two hundred dollars in that wallet. At least forty dollars missing–at least.
Oh, she couldn’t be sure. To be fair, she hadn’t really counted it. And people on vacation often spent more than they thought they had.
But after a lifetime of handling money, she always had a fair sense of how much cash she’d tucked into her green wallet.
Her mind went to Beth, Jill’s daughter, who had come home last night, bleary eyed, when she and Jill were ready for bed. Over the last week, Deborah had become accustomed to Beth’s catlike appearances and disappearances, her dramatic pose, red lips and fingernails, the black dyed hair, the nose ring, the vintage dresses and strange shoes. A little star in the household, sightings always a privilege, a conversation even moreso. Beth the artist, a photographer, wrapped in her own legend.
But there was something about Beth, the practiced winningness of the smile, the way her eyes slid across your face, like she knew something about you you didn’t know yourself, like your shirt was buttoned crooked or you had chocolate on your face.
Last night, they’d chatted in the kitchen, Jill and Deborah in the nook, Beth leaning against the counter drinking a beer–two years underage, but Jill never said boo to that girl–and talking about a band that was trying to get to hire her as a tour photographer. It sounded like a poor excuse for a job, traveling with a no-name band as their official paparazzo. But Deborah was flattened after the day sightseeing, then dinner and wine with Jill at one of those impossibly good San Francisco restaurants down an alley which only San Franciscans seemed to know about… maybe too much wine.
She swore there was two hundred left in that wallet.
At breakfast, Deborah studied her old roommate in the quiet light, the beautiful light of a San Francisco morning. Jill looked old, her crow’s feet ground into the once-smooth face, her curls turned wiry as chestnut locks gave way to gray. Beth had been such a handful, ever since she was tiny. A girl who could smile and chat gaily with you, and yet you were never sure if she turned around and said the most cutting things when you’d left the room. Not like Deborah’s daughter Norma, a sunny day of a girl, now a senior year at Holyoke.
How could she tell Jill about this? One more line on that dear face. But the thought that Beth assumed she was that stupid, that blind, infuriated her. Jill might deny any flaw in her pretty, difficult daughter, it was understandable, she had raised that child alone after Toby had left them, she had done her best–she ‘d been threadbare with the work and responsibility. But it wasn’t good for the girl to look down at everyone as if they were going to be as blind as her mother.
She knew she should just keep her purse in her room. And fifty dollars, what was that? Jill was putting her up for free.. Though it put an uneasy distance between her and her oldest friend–like knowing someone’s husband was cheating and not telling her.
The next day, Deborah took money out of the ATM. It was just that some restaurants, these small ones, often didn’t take credit cards, after all. And the vintage shops. She bought some shoes. She bought three bottles of red wine. She took Jill out to dinner.
Before bed, standing in the wood-rich hall of the Russian Hill house, she counted her cash. Two hundred and sixteen dollars, twenties tens and fives. So easy if someone were tempted, to pull a few twenties from the stack.
Just then, the key turned in the lock. Quickly, Deborah stuffed the money back in the wallet and crammed it into her purse. Beth stumbled in the front door, her ridiculous shoes, her enormous bag. She was crying. She tried to smile when she saw Deborah, but she wasn’t able to. She pressed her slender fingers with their red tips to the furrows between her eyebrows. “Anything I can do?” Deborah said quietly.
Beth shook her head.
And suddenly, she didn’t want to know if Beth had stolen the forty bucks. Who was she, Joe Friday? She didn’t know what it would have been like to be Beth, to be raised by Jill, a neurotic at best, to know your father was living in Hawaii and wouldn’t pay a cent of child support. To have refused to go to college and have a mother who allowed that. She saw how thin was the brave front Beth presented to the world, how fragile. “Hey, if you ever need to get away, come out to St. Louis.”
She was surprised to find Beth’s arms wrapping themselves around her. “We miss you,” she whispered. “You should move back.”
She held the girl, her shoulders sparrow-thin, so unlike Norma, the life so close to the surface, like a bird you held in your cupped hands, its little bones, its tremulous life.
Part of a weekly series of short short stories based on a writing exercise, The Word. “Inspired by a simple word, chosen at random, write a two-page double-spaced story, using the Word at least once.”
Next week’s word is: ROW