The Way Mirrors Work

The Ledger

A Flash Fiction by Leigh Allison Wilson
(from wigleaf, January 2015)

I took to burying my allowance in our back yard. This was the summer of 1974, when there wasn’t enough money in the state of Tennessee to go around. Just to show you, my dad started taking a bag lunch to work instead of dropping by the Pig and Chick. My bank was a metal chocolate box stashed behind a stump in the back yard, three inches down and covered with leaves.

A nickel here, a nickel there—it didn’t add up to much. I kept a red pencil nub and some paper in there. I’d dig up the box, add a nickel, count the money, and then record the number on paper, worrying the bit of pencil between my teeth. I had no idea what I was saving for, didn’t want anything, but it seemed imperative that the money accumulate.

So I moved into stealing. My dad, okay, he looked like a ghost those days, took on a second job, and I put his wallet off limits. My mother was easy pickings, endless loose change at the bottom of her purse. Dad adored her, even gave her a J C Penney easy chair though he was eating pbj’s morning, noon and night. I let her keep the pennies except later I thought fuck it, and took those, too.

In church it turned out nobody guarded the collection after the deacons dumped it in the choir room. So I’d visit the bathroom, then grab a fistful on the way back to the pew where my family sat. That money was so sticky I’d wash it before it went into the bank box.

At the public pool mothers put their purses in a perfect line on a ledge of concrete, as if orderliness could protect them. Bang-bang down the row I could net three dollars in change just slouching by out of sight. One day, trolling for coins at the bottom of the wading pool, I yanked up a drowning toddler like a turnip. The mother, glad and guilty, wanted to give me some money, but I’d already taken all the change from her purse. She borrowed a dollar from the lifeguard.

My bank box filled up. I had to dig a deeper hole and put another candy box in there. And another. By the end of the summer I had two hundred dollars.

The day before school started my dad said, “Buddy, I’d like to speak to you man to man.” I said okay, since what else could I say? He looked terrible. I mean bad. Even his hair had no color any more.

I’ll save you the suspense. He started telling me about the house payment, and the car payment, and the cost of groceries going up week after week, and what it would take to get my oldest sister the band uniform, which was what she had her heart set on. He gave me the list in a drone as toneless as a cash register. It was killing him, this list of money going out. He got out a notebook to lay it all out for me.

Soon he had a whole page filled with figures, fingers scrabbling to get it all down. And then I saw the red pencil. It was nothing but a nub and had tooth marks on it, just like mine. It was blunt from tracing all those numbers, just like mine. I put my head in close to see better: it was mine. That’s what this was about. He’d found my bank.

“I’m sorry about this, Buddy,” he said, “but there’s no other way to make this work.” He took the pencil nub and wrote, I owe Buddy Bodell 200 dollars that I stole on September 4, 1974. His face was a white fist of ignominy, and it was a mirror of my own—except I had barely begun my entry into the terrible balance sheet of duty and dereliction that this world can be.

That was that. I stopped stealing. I took a job at the Pig and Chick and brought home leftover BBQ on Wednesday nights. I quit taking an allowance, burned the IOU. Every once in a while I had a swig of beer from my dad’s bottle.

From then on I used pens and not pencils, and I never buried another thing until the day he died.

2 thoughts on “The Way Mirrors Work

  1. Liked it. good transitions and change of directions. I was swept in immediately and liked the ending. Even learned a new word – had to look up the meaning of ignominy. Enjoyed.

    • Thanks–I had to look up the spelling of ignominy myself, but heard somebody use it while I was writing the story!

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