Friday, July 16, 2004

The $100 Crisis -- by Elliot Bougis

As a boy, my best friend was a large mole.  It wasn’t that humans were hard to come by.  The mole, for all of his foibles, was very pleasant company.  Although he had no name, besides when I called him “mole,” he did have a sleek, amber-colored coat of fur.  We talked occasionally.  When we did, I would ask him questions and he would answer tersely, or not at all.  Most of the time, he would amble around my room, gently scratching and sniffing my assorted junk.  Then he would disappear suddenly and return weeks later, presumably from scratching and sniffing gently in the neighborhood. 

Early one Saturday morning, the mole woke me up by tickling me in the ribs with his long slender claws.  The usual odors of old kitty litter, dusty books and plants crept into my nose.  My mom and I (and the mole) lived in a dilapidated apartment building on Herschel Street, a block west of the St. John’s River in Jacksonville, Florida.  I called our home “the pink place,” for our home was just that: a pink place.  Pink stucco walls masked peeling paint and creaking, splintery staircases.  This pink place was home to as many memories and lessons for me as it was to roaches and fleas. 

I rolled away from the mole’s claws out of my lumpy, spring-sharp mattress.  The mole scurried away without so much as a hello.  (Moles.)  I staggered barefoot into the kitchen.  I stood in my underwear looking at the floor: cigarette burns and stains stared back at me.  Still groggy, I debated eating, sleeping again, or making mischief.  I noticed my mom was still asleep in the living room.  Mischief was winning.  Finding nothing in the refrigerator to eat, and feeling my energy rise, mischief won.

I tiptoed into our living room where my mom slept, floorboards creaking with my every step.  Slowly, oh, so slowly, I crawled onto her sagging couch-bed.  I crouched in a dumb holding position, frowning severely at my mom’s brutal snores.  Her snores hurt my ears and always drove the mole away. 

To business, I thought.  The business for the day?  Ransacking my mom’s purse.  I was a secret agent, doubling as a dutiful son.  This was a stealth job.  Loot the purse.  I donned my imaginary leather gloves and went to work.  As I weeded through the more boring “mom-stuff” – a mirror, lipstick, a checkbook – I grew restless.  I was snooping for something good, something mysterious.  Nothing.  Nothing.  Wait, something. 

What’s this? I mused.  I withdrew my gloved hand and held it high over my head.  Operation Loot the Purse successful!  I, and I alone, had found a one hundred dollar bill!  What a find!  (Now I was an archaeologist.)  At that moment on that dusty couch-bed, in my hand, and mine alone, I held ultimate power.  (Okay, so I was an archaeologist king.)  New toys, new clothes – new power.

I heard the mole shuffling behind a bookshelf.  Just then, a meddling memory dressed as a squire stomped into my royal court from the kitchen.  The squire reminded me that my mom had told me how important this money was and that I shouldn’t do anything with it.  The squire turned on his heel and bounded away. 

Glumly conceding the importance of this money – which I later learned was the grand fruition of a month’s worth of desperate odd-jobbing and maddening frugality on my mom’s part – I surveyed my options.  As a king, I could not abdicate so easily.  I couldn’t spend the money.  I wouldn’t dare harm it. 

So I hid it.

I scooped the other mom-stuff back into the purse.  With a stealthy grin on my face, I crammed the precious scrap under a couch cushion.  And I waited.  At the foot of the bed, in a fetal position, barely containing sly giggles, for twenty minutes, I waited. 

Finally, my mom awoke to a day I was making sure would be “fun.”  She blinked slowly and looked around silently.  She slumped back to sleep.  My jester’s grin vanished.  (Moms.)  To hurry the game, I bluntly asked, “Mom, do you have your one hundred dollars, for groceries?” 
“Sem ona henh!” my mom groaned.  She shot up like a catapult.  My mom met the morning … in her own way. 

“Mom, can we go shopping today with your money?”

“Yes … sure, okay.  It’s in my purse.”  She was brightening every second.  “And today we’ll go shopping for food, and soap, and flea killer for your room.  We can even go to the mall!”
“Can I see your one hundred dollars?” I wheedled.  (Who needs subtlety?  Not I, for I was the innocent son again.)

“Um, okay.  Hand me my purse.  Oh, never mind, here it is,” she said.

My mom grabbed her purse, unzipped it, unsnapped the change pocket, dipped her hand in with a flourish – but found no bills.  She exhaled sharply.  Her hand plunged into the desolate purse again, skittering left and right and all around. 

“Where is it?” she whimpered.  “It was here ….” 

I grinned and licked my chops.  Now I was a wolf. 

“I don’t know,” I chimed. 

“Where is it?  Where is that money?  Please, where?” she said, a sob punching her throat. 

“Mom, you lost the money!  I wanted to see the hundred dollar bill, though.”  The mole darted into the kitchen.

In a surge, my mom clamped both my shoulders and cried, “Where is the one hundred dollars, Elliot?”  Her eyes pierced me, her voice froze me, her hands crushed me.  I broke down.  “Here, here it is,” I wept, pulling the bill out from the couch and handing it to her.  The wolf in me was skinned.  My mom’s hands fell.  She lay crumpled like the hundred dollar bill in her palm.

I scurried behind the mole to my room.  My mom’s deep sobs smothered my own shallow crying.  My mom wept for some time that day.  She wept because I had deceived her.  She wept because our Saturday was ruined.  She wept because a month of her life was forever caged in a piece of dirty paper and cotton fiber.  My mom wept because her son now saw his mom’s life to be as thin and frail as a one hundred dollar bill crumpled under a couch cushion.

We didn’t go to the mall that Saturday.  I didn’t even watch cartoons that Saturday.  I sat and thought, that Saturday.  I was thief in jail.

At some point, the mole hopped onto my back, as I lay prone in bed.  He sniffed my hair a few times. 

“Why was the one hundred dollar bill so important?”  I asked him. 

“You are poor,” he snorted.


“Because you are,” the mole reported, glibly.  “You sleep in a dirty bed in a bad neighborhood, shop with welfare money, shower with dish soap.  And just because.”  He nudged my neck and sniffed my hair again.

“Why is my mom crying?”

“Because you hid her one hundred dollar bill.”


“You hid her one hundred dollar bill.  You hid her power.  You hid her hope.”

One Saturday morning, I hid my mom’s hope.

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