By: Jess Mercer
(© 2010 by the author)
The author retains all rights. No reproductions are allowed without the author's
consent. Comments are appreciated at...
Jack's finger fumbled in his jeans pocket under the bored gaze of the bus driver. He pulled out a token and dropped it into the slot, hearing the clunk of the mechanism as it digested the coin and registered the fare. The doors closed with a pneumatic sigh, the engine roared. Jack held to the back of a seat until his balance was sure, then he put his crutches forward and swung forward against the momentum of the bus' motion. He slipped into a vacant seat, laying his notebook on the seat beside him, and gazed out the grimy window at the street decorations.
The driver braked sharply to avoid a car cutting in ahead. Jack's notebook catapulted from the seat. As he bent to reach for the notebook, Jack's stomach rumbled hollowly. He dragged the notebook toward him, feeling the frayed edges in his hand, but it was the flash of light tan preceding the blue, which caught his eye. He picked up the manila envelope, his notebook, and sat back. He turned the envelope in his hand. It was devoid of any mark; the flap had been sealed at the point.
With trembling fingers, Jack broke the tenuous seal and looked inside. His breath caught momentarily, all twenties arranged neatly. He drew his thumb rapidly over the edge of the bills - five hundred dollars! For a moment he exulted in his good fortune. Here was lunch at school, a badly needed coat for his mother. He pressed his hand against his flat belly as it rumbled again. One small bowl of oatmeal and a cup of weak tea didn't last, and it would two more days before either he or his mother was paid.
He wet a finger on his tongue and moistened the glue of the envelope, sealing it, and slipped it into his pocket. What luck! It would pay off some of the hospital bills and let his mother have the vitamins the doctor at the free clinic had prescribed for her.
With a start, Jack realized where he was. He pulled the signal cord and made his cautious way to the door of the bus. He reached for the handrail as the bus braked. The envelope rustled, the sound bringing with it his mother's voice, "We may be poor, but we're honest." He pulled the envelope from his pocket and held it out to the driver. "I found this under my seat. You'd better turn it in."
"What is it?" The driver growled.
"Money. Somebody must have lost it."
"Not surprising. People leave most anything on a bus. You count it?"
"Yeah. Five hundred."
The driver opened the envelope and counted - five hundred as the boy had said. He pulled a pad from his briefcase. "Okay, give me your name and address so's I can make out the report for the dispatcher."
Jack provided the information and stepped off the bus with a carefree feeling.
At lunchtime, Jack broke into the cafeteria line at the cooler. He took a carton of milk and handed over his only quarter, then found a solitary corner where he did not have to look at the filled trays of the other students. He drank quickly and fled from the tantalizing odors, anguished at seeing untouched food dumped into the refuse bins.
He was betrayed in algebra class. His stomach rumbled loudly in the quietness. The class broke into laughter when the teacher turned from the board and commented, "If the cafeteria isn't feeding you adequately let me know and I'll complain to the principal."
Jack flushed and dropped his head to avoid the looks of those around him.
The sun had raised the temperature to a bearable level by the time Jack's classes were over. Lacking money for the bus, he closed the top button of his flannel shirt, rolled down the sleeves, and began the mile and a half trek to his job at a supermarket.
He slipped into the light blue jacket and threaded his way through the crowded aisles in response to a ringing bell on the checkout line. One of the checkers motioned to him. Propped on one crutch, Jack flipped open a bag deftly began to fill it as fast as the cashier could move the items over the scanner.
"You're late," she whispered.
"Sorry, Bets, I had to walk," Jack replied quietly. The line of customers at this one checkout left no time for idle chat, for Jack was the most popular bagger the market employed. Customers would wait patiently at whichever line where Jack was working because of the care he used in bagging their purchases. He was also unfailingly cheerful and courteous.
As Jack replaced his jacket at the end of his shift, the produce manager passed by. "Usual place, Jack," he said before going on into the store.
Jack paused to pick up a large bag near the trash bins. Some weeks before, the manager had found him going through a large box of produce slated for discard. He had finally gotten Jack to tell him why he was looking through produce past a saleable state. Since that time, he'd set aside anything still usable for Jack.
Jack crutched on into the darkness. He turned into the street where he lived as the city bus drew to a halt at the end of the block. He saw his mother step wearily to the pavement. He called to her and moved quickly to where she waited.
She lifted a lined cheek for his kiss. "Did you walk?"
Jack nodded. "I got some milk for lunch."
"I wish you didn't have to walk so far and you could have a full lunch at school. I know it's hard on you."
"That's okay, mom. Helps me keep slim. Besides, it isn't that cold in the afternoon. You're home a little early, aren't you?"
"Not much. The Bartons are going out for dinner."
"Guess what? For a few minutes this morning, we were rich." He related his experience as they walked along.
"What did you do with the money?" She interrupted.
"Gave it to the driver. I wanted to keep it, but it wouldn't of been right."
She laid her hand on his arm. "I'm proud of you, Jack. You're a good boy."
"We sure could of used it, though. I wish I could get a better job."
"Don't start that, please, Jack. I'm too tired. You've only got one more year of school, and you promised me you'd finish."
They climbed the stairs together. Jack steadied her when she stumbled from weariness. "You're so strong, son. I guess it comes from all these years of having to use crutches after you went down the steps on your tricycle. I've dreamed ever since of getting you a foot, but ..." She sighed heavily. "Guess I'd better see what I can scrap together for supper."
Jack picked through the vegetables in the bag he'd brought and made a small salad. Other veggies he set aside for soup, while his mother made a small casserole from two hot dogs and a can of beans. Two cups of tea from a single bag finished the scant meal. Hunger satisfied for the moment, he washed up the dishes and went to study while his mother mended a torn dress.
Jack was uneasy the next morning when during a class he was summonsed to the principal's office. The sight of a burley man talking with the principal left him silent until the principal looked up.
"Jack, did you find some money on a bus yesterday?"
"You might be interested to know that it belonged to an elderly lady who had cashed a bond and was taking the money to the bank," the large man broke in. "She's lucky an honest kid found it." His hand dipped into his pocket. He held a twenty toward Jack. "She sent this as a reward."
Jack stared at the man.
"Take it, son" he said not unkindly.
As Jack took the bill, the man spoke again. "You ride the bus every day, don't you?"
"If I have the money."
"This should really help you, then." Jack took the card. "It's a three month's pass. It's the company's way of saying 'thanks' for your honesty."
"This means a lot now that it's cold. Thank you, sir."
"It's a pleasure. Most of the time we only get complaints about kids. I'm glad to meet a really good one."
"You may return to class now, Jack." The principal said.
Jack arrived home before his mother. He waited until she dropped into a chair with a heavy sigh.
"Bad day, mom?"
"Lots of cleaning. The Bartons have company coming for the weekend, so I may
be late tomorrow."
Jack held out the twenty. "Here. I wish it were more."
"Where'd you get this?"
She smiled as he told her, then held the bill out to him. "Keep it. Get some Christmas for yourself."
"No, mom. This is for both of us. I started to get some things at the market, but it'll go further if you get food stamps with it."
"Please, Jack. There are so many things you need."
"Unh, unh. What you need is good food and we always run out before the end of the month, what with the bills and all. You know what the doctor said about you eating properly."
"Hey, man, you're weird," one of his classmates called the next morning.
"Yeah. How dumb can you be."
"What 'cha mean?" Jack asked.
"Turning in that money you found. I'd of split, man."
"The lady who lost it needed it."
"Finders, keepers," the boy replied.
All day the jibes of the students tormented Jack until he wondered if he had done the right thing, but he found compensation in the friendly smiles of his teachers. As he started to check in at the market, the manager called him to one side to comment favorably.
"How'd everybody find out?" Jack asked.
"Here." The manager held out the morning paper. A small article on page three gave more detail than Jack would have admitted. "I'm glad they mentioned the store, Jack. We're all proud of you."
"Thanks. Can I keep this to show mom?"
Many of the regular customers had kind words and offered unaccepted tips to Jack during the afternoon. Despite a heavy workload, he did not feel as tired when the store finally closed. His store jacket placed in his locker, Jack returned to the checkout line, offering to carry the purchases of a tall man talking to the manager.
The manager closed and locked the door behind them. Jack pushed the cart containing the man's purchases to his car, pausing to admire the sleek lines. When he closed the boot, the man was holding out a bill to him.
"Sorry, sir, we don't accept tips."
"Come on, the other boys do."
"Thank you, sir, but it's against store policy. Have a nice night."
Jack put his hands in his pockets against the cold and walked to the bus stop whistling.
On Saturday, Jack worked full day. His actions seemed as forgotten as the rest of the news of the previous day. When he dropped his timecard into the slot for his lunch hour, the manager came down from his office. "Jack, wait a minute."
"Don't come in this afternoon. You have to be at this address at one." He held out a card.
"I can't. I need the pay."
The manager smiled. "I think you'll be paid. Now go along and be sure to be on time."
Jack caught the bus, asking the driver for directions. Minutes later he transferred to another bus to sit wondering what the appointment could mean.
The driver leaned over in his seat. "Next stop, kid."
Jack stepped off the bus and looked up at the high-rise in astonishment, then walked to the door. The security guard just inside the door looked at his suspiciously, seeing the crutches, long hair, patched jeans, faded shirt. "Yeah?"
Jack held out the card. "I'm supposed to see him."
The guard glanced at the card and picked up the phone. He listened for a moment as his eyes raked Jack once more. Pointing a lift apart from the others, he said, "That one. Penthouse."
When Jack stepped out of the elevator, a door opened at one end of the small reception hall. He looked at the white-jacketed black man. "Are you Mr. Martin?"
"I'm the butler, sir. This way, please."
A couple of steps into the room and Jack stopped, his mouth open at the opulent decor. He would have gazed longer had not a voice broken into his wonder. "I'm glad you could come, Jack. Have a seat."
Jack turned. Rising from a chair by the fire was the tall man of the night before.
"Tim Martin, Jack."
Jack took his hand for a moment then sat on the edge of the indicated chair.
"Have you had lunch?"
"Ugh ... no, sir."
Martin smiled. "Good. Neither have I." He led Jack into the dining room and pointed to the chair opposite his.
Only when the butler bent to pour wine did Jack shake his head. "Could I have some milk?"
"Of course." A large glass appeared in the butler's hand.
Jack, perplexed by the expanse of silver, watched Martin while he picked up his knife and fork to begin cutting his steak.
While they waited for desert to be served, Jack's curiosity bubbled over. "Why'd you want to see me, sir?"
Martin flushed slightly. "I occasionally help people if I feel they have real need and are worth it. I think you've proven that on all counts."
"I was reluctant to let my store manager hire a handicapped young man, but watching you last evening proves you have no handicap. Second, you are the most popular employee in any of my markets, because of your concern for our customers. Next is your honesty. I read the account in the paper this morning and I also asked some questions. Would you object to a gift from a friend?"
"But I don't know you, sir."
"Not now, but I hope you will. I think I know you quite well."
"As I said a moment ago, I happen to own the supermarket where you work, Jack. You proved yourself to me last night when you refused the tip. Had you taken it, you wouldn't be here now."
"You mean I work for you?"
"Exactly. When we finish lunch, we're going out." As they finished their dessert, Martin turned to the hovering butler. "Have the Mercedes brought around in ten minutes."
Jack stared at the car standing under the canopy of the entrance when he and Martin left the building.
"Get in." Martin's voice broke into Jack's dreams. He slipped into the seat, letting his hand glide over the smooth leather. The engine purred as Martin eased into traffic.
"Where're we going?"
"A couple more blocks."
The parking attendant opened the doors deferentially. Jack stood next to the car until Martin called him and turned into the door of a leading department store. He responded to the greetings of several store personnel and paused to speak to a number of customers.
In the lift, Jack said, "You seem to know everybody."
Martin grinned. "I try to know all my employees and best customers by name. It's getting difficult since I've expanded my enterprises, though."
"You own this store, too?" Jack asked in amazement.
"Oh, a part of it. Come with me." He led Jack through the aisles into the men's clothing department.
Before he spoke, a young clerk appraised the jeans they both wore. "The budget department is on the basement level, sir."
An annoyed expression flashed across Martin's face. He raised a hand and snapped his fingers loudly.
The floor manager hurried over. "Mr. Martin is something wrong?"
"Take this man off the floor until he's properly trained."
"I'm sorry, Mr. Martin. He just started a couple of days ago to help with the holiday rush. His recommendations were quite satisfactory, so we put him on the floor."
"He doesn't meet our standards. Do it now, please."
"Yes, sir." The manager walked the offending clerk to an office.
Martin smiled at Jack who wondered what had upset the tall young man. "What did he do?"
Martin's smile faded. "He wasn't courteous and he judged us by what we are wearing rather than offer assistance." He looked sternly at Jack. "Don't make the same mistake. One of the richest men I ever knew always looked like a bum." The smile returned. "Now, what would you like for Christmas?"
"You're going to buy me something?"
"Whatever you want."
Jack thought for a moment. "If you get me anything, I want a warm coat for mom. She needs one bad. I guess that's about it."
Martin stared. "Nothing for yourself?"
Jack shook his head. "I'd rather have something for mom."
Martin nodded slowly. "I guessed right." His hand pushed Jack to a rack of stylish short heavy jackets, then on through the aisles, the floor manager following, noting what ever captured Jack's attention.
Having looked at more clothing than he'd ever known, Jack's insistence that he needed nothing but something for his mother broke Martin's suggestion that they look through the store further. As they started to women's clothing to look for a coat for his mother, Jack paused to admire a compact stereo. The manager's pen flew over the pad, Martin pulled Jack on.
With a coat chosen, Jack fingered the fine material of several dresses he knew his mother would like and wear. When Martin and Jack left the store, Martin noted the look of surprised disappointment that crossed Jack's face when the car was brought and not one package was to be seen.
"I'm sorry I can't take you home, Jack, but I have an appointment. Can you make it okay?"
"Oh, sure, Mr. Martin. Thanks for dinner and showing me the store."
"Any time. Come to see me again, Jack."
Jack crutched slowly to the bus stop. He had enjoyed the fine lunch and the warmth of Martin's kind words, but these did not alleviate the sick disappointment that filled him from not getting the warm coat for his mother's Christmas.
As Martin drove away, he chuckled at Jack's look of bitter disappointment, knowing that the store delivery van was being loaded at that moment, and that he would later call his personal doctor to begin the process of getting a foot for Jack.