Nickels and Dimes was first published in Gravel, in the March of 2019 issue.
Donald had a total of three shopping carts. The whole affair moved like a caterpillar. Donald would push the front cart ten feet forward, run back for the second, push it forward, and then run back again for the third. In this way he moved slowly and surely through the long green space of the park towards the bench where Douglas sat. The cart wheels rattled on the sidewalk seams. Every jostle eliciting the tinny sound of clinking aluminum. The three carts were filled to overflowing. Black and white garbage bags stuffed full of cans. In the basket, hanging from the sides, and piled high on top. Strange postmodernist mushrooms of waste, held together by plastic, tape, string, and rotting bungee cords. Every now and again a rogue can would manage to escape from the confines of one of the bags, dropping to the ground, a sudden flash of bright color in a world beginning to fade to grays and browns. Donald would quickly scoop it up and shove it back into the collection.
It took close to twenty minutes from the time Douglas first saw him for Donald to get close. Douglas didn’t mind. It was a nice distraction from watching Lane across the way thirty feet or so, sitting on his own bench beneath the big oak tree, covering himself with a tarp so nobody could see him injecting himself. Lane had needs that weren’t all that fun to watch. It was starting to get cold out. Not as cold as it was going to be later in the year, but there was definitely starting to be a chill. Douglas didn’t like thinking about it. Donald and his antics were a welcome distraction.
The first two carts pulled up alongside. Donald mumbled to himself as he moved, his eyes darting from cart to cart, trying to keep them all in sight at once. Donald was always mumbling to himself, a never ending leaking of air. He crinkled with every step, a light rustling from the newspaper shoved into his greasy windbreaker and pants. A brown knit cap with a hole in it was pulled low over his ears. Douglas cleared his throat and gave a holler.
“What the hell you doing?”
Donald’s head shot forward like a dog that heard its name. His whole body tensed.
“My fucking cans.”
Douglas let out a laugh that fell into a hacking cough. Donald watched, ready for anything. Douglas recovered and laughed again.
“I don’t want none of your cans you damn loon. Haven’t seen you in awhile. Where you been?”
Donald didn’t answer. He stood warily, his head jerking between Douglas on the bench and the rearmost shopping cart still ten feet behind. Douglas snorted and spit before asking his question again.
“I said where you been?”
Donald jogged back to get his third cart, throwing a hasty answer over his shoulder.
“I can see that.”
Donald pushed the third cart up with its mates then faced Douglas. He was sweating despite the cold. He kept one hand back on the plastic of the bags, assuring himself that the whole collection wouldn’t just disappear. They stayed that way for a bit until Donald accepted that it was his turn to speak.
“What are you doing?”
“Same as always, just sitting on this bench, waiting for the mission to reopen.”
Donald nodded. The mission always kicked everyone out during the day. It was only a place to stay at night. Douglas snorted and spit again.
“Haven’t see you there in awhile.”
“Obviously. You must have a couple thousand cans there.”
Donald’s posture got defensive again.
“They’re my fucking cans.”
“Relax. They’re your cans. I ain’t no thief.”
Donald relaxed again, at least slightly. He still fidgeted, but Donald always fidgeted. Douglas lifted a paper sack from between his feet and gestured with it towards Donald.
“You want a drink?”
Donald bit his lip. A hand shot up and scratched fiercely at his head along the side of his knit cap.
“Mission don’t like it when you get all slobbery.”
He was right. The mission didn’t like it when you got totally wrecked. Such people were more liable to cause trouble. Sometimes if you were too wrecked they wouldn’t let you in.
“It’s just a forty. Plus I’m only sipping.”
Donald looked back at his carts and then craned his neck to get a better look around the park.
“Who’s that under the tarp?”
“What he doing?”
“His usual junk. Same as always.”
“Fucking government rainbows.”
Not everything Donald said made a lot of sense, it was easier just to go along with it. Douglas gestured with the paper sack at the empty portion of his bench.
“Take a load off. Be nice to have someone to talk to for a bit.”
“Just for awhile. C’mon, take a bit of a break with me.”
Donald craned his neck all around again before steering his eyes back to the bottle.
Douglas waited patiently while Donald used bungee cords to tie the three carts together. When he finally sat down, Douglas unscrewed the cap on the bottle in the bag and passed it over. Donald took it and eyed it carefully.
“What kind you got?”
Donald took a sip and passed it back. Douglas wiped the rim with his hand and took a drink himself. A little dribbled down into his whiskers.
“So what’s all the cans for?”
“They’re my fucking cans.”
“I know. You ought to turn them in, be easier than hauling them around everywhere.”
“Can’t turn them in yet.”
Douglas took another drink from the bottle and tried to pass it back to Donald, but Donald shook his head. Douglas shrugged and sipped again before replacing the cap and putting the bottle back between his feet.
“Why the hell not?”
“Don’t you read the paper?”
Donald was smiling. Douglas hated it when Donald smiled. He had some pretty ganked up teeth.
“No professor. I haven’t been reading the paper.”
Donald unzipped his windbreaker slightly and rooted around amongst the wadded newspapers in his jacket. Finally finding what he wanted he yanked it out, smoothed it on his knee, and passed it over.
“They’re doubling the deposit next week.”
Douglas looked at the newspaper page. It was the Sunday comics. He studied it intently for a moment, reading Beetle Bailey then Blondie, before handing it back.
Donald wadded back up the newspaper and put it back in his jacket.
Douglas sat back and stared at the three carts. Donald picked his nose and flicked something into the grass.
“I’m going to buy a nice coat. Something thick and waterproof. I ain’t going to freeze this winter.”
Douglas needed a little time to think. He reached down between his legs and picked back up the paper bag covered bottle. He unscrewed the lid and took a good healthy pull to get the synapses firing. A forty of Colt 45 cost $1.89, or thirty-eight cans. In a week it would only be nineteen. It was hard to think. Donald kept yammering on.
“Then I’m going to buy a nice pair of gloves, and maybe a new hat, then maybe some new boots. Definitely some wool socks. Some nice wool socks. Warm. Then…..”
Douglas cut in with a wave of his hand.
“It don’t make no sense. Who the hell going to be throwing away all those dimes?”
“What do you mean who’s going to be throwing away all those dimes? Same damn people that’s been throwing away all the damn nickels.”
Douglas took another drink from his bottle. The gears were turning now. He just needed to keep them lubricated.
“I just can’t see as many people throwing out dimes as throwing out nickels.”
Donald was frowning now. He was trying to sort it out, but was out of his element. Douglas powered forward to drive his point home.
“Look, do you find more cans east of 82nd or west of 82nd?”
“West of 82nd.”
“And why is that?”
“Because the people east have less money.”
“Exactly, those nickels are more valuable to them. So more of them keep their cans.”
“So what happens when they’re dimes instead of nickels? More people are going to be keeping their cans if they’re worth dimes.”
Douglas took another drink. Donald’s face was scrunched up in concentration.
“Not all the people are going to start keeping their cans.”
“Never said they would.”
“Do you think twice as many are going to be keeping their cans?”
Douglas paused. He had to think about that one. One drink didn’t do the trick, nor did two. It turned out to be a three drink question.
“I don’t know. Probably not.”
“Well there you go, still better off.”
Donald went back to mumbling about all of the things he was going to buy once the deposit jumped up. Douglas went back to wetting his whistle, his brain whirling furiously in his head. The big old oak tree across the way creaked as it swayed in the breeze, its skeletal branches clawing at the gray wisps of clouds lumbering their way across the blue sky. Two joggers ran by with a dog in a coat, swerving deep into the grass to avoid Donald’s shopping carts on the sidewalk. The dog stopped and let out a bark at the two men on the bench, but its masters pulled it back around. Douglas made a face at it as they jogged away.
“I don’t know. If you get a fancy coat ain’t someone just going to beat your ass for it?”
Donald was smiling again with his ganky smile.
“No man, you don’t get it, we’ll all have nice coats. We’re all going to be getting dimes.”
Douglas drank again. The bottle was getting close to empty. Everyone having more money. What could be wrong with that. Hell, if a forty only cost nineteen cans he wouldn’t have to spend so much time scrounging to get another one. There’d be more time for sitting around, or if he kept working just as much, more money in his pocket. A nice new coat. That didn’t sound too bad. It would be a hell of a lot better than the two sweatshirts he was currently wearing. Something nicer than the crap that got donated to the mission.
“I don’t know. It doesn’t make much sense.”
“No, just think about it. Not only do we get coats. We get tents and sleeping bags. Be nice to have a warm tent and sleeping bag. We could tell those assholes at the mission to shove it up their asses. No more jerks coming around with their bibles. No more people telling us what to do and when to do it. I’m talking financial freedom man. Middle finger to the man. Everyone man. Fucking everyone.”
Donald was really on a tear now. Something was nibbling at the back of Douglas’ mind. It all sounded nice. It all sounded too good to be true.
“It just doesn’t make sense.”
Donald looked annoyed.
“How does it not make any damn sense?”
“Won’t more people move here if we’re all making dimes when they’re making nickels?”
Douglas tipped back the bottle and swallowed the last dregs in the bottom. Across the way Lane and the tarp hiding him rolled off the bench and onto the ground. Lane lay there, not moving except for the occasional erratic shallow breath. Donald didn’t seem to notice. Douglas laid the empty bottle in its bag in between them on the bench.
“Just think about the inflation.”
Photo courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons user M.O. Stevens