When the salvage yard hauled off my car, they gave me fifty dollars. I shouldn't feel sad. I'm not poor anymore, and it was a fifteen year old car that I drove for eight years. I always said I wouldn't get rid of the car until the engine blew up, and it finally did.
I bought a new car before they took the old one away, a shiny sporty status car, one of those new models that come out before the next calendar year, so I guess I was fancy. But I didn't feel very fancy looking out the window of my house, watching the eighty-year-old husband and wife owners of the salvage yard chain-pull my vehicle onto their truck. The car looked like a puppy as they drove it off.
When I sold my wedding ring to the pawn shop, they gave me three dollars. That wasn't fun either. I didn't want the three dollars to go toward a combo meal for lunch that day, so I decided to go to an antique store and look for some small unique gift for myself, something for exactly three dollars that I could set on my desk, to look at and remember. Not to remember my wife or my marriage, just remember something, my life then, something. I bought a rusty harmonica that tasted like my childhood swing set.
I don't really like having plenty of money, which is what I have now. My parents were always sort of poor, and when I got out on my own, I was always sort of poor too. I remember staring at four dollars worth of change and wondering if I should buy more soup or rent a movie. I usually rented the movie because not eating didn't bother me much. "Fuck not eating," my wife said to me once, and that was the first time I realized how little we ate. We skipped breakfast and had soup for lunch and Taco Bell for dinner on most days. Before she married me, she had been a model. Bulimic, but she didn't vomit much when I was with her. She was still pretty when she married me, but she wasn't good enough to be a model anymore, so she was more broke than I was. She wasn't very good at saving money. She used to pull out pictures of her in her red sports cars, of her partying at her weird expensive model house, all kinds of young male celebrities drunkenly grabbing at her perfect body.
She liked money, but was going through some sort of spiritual awakening when she met me and thought I would be perfect for her. She convinced herself she loved me and we married and moved into the dim apartment I was already living in. "Fuck not eating." I didn't really think about it. I was alive after all, and I didn't feel unhealthy. On paycheck days, she took my hand and we went to the grocery store before we spent anything on bills. I squinted at the bright overhead lights, froze and shivered at the frozen section, got sick to my stomach at all the slabs and slabs of meat. I typically let her shop and just stood in front of the security monitor, staring at myself, watching the automatic doors open and close behind me.
I take vitamins now, just in case I'm still not healthy enough. I take prenatal tablets, big orange things that make me choke every single time. They smell bad. I also take Flintstones and something for iron. I eat Tums for the calcium. I drink Carnation Instant Breakfast once or twice a day. I drink three or four glasses of milk a day and eat an apple and an orange and a banana. I eat salad, and I have toast every morning, and orange juice. I drink wine. I eat just enough steak, and chicken, and fish. I keep bottled water with me at all times.
I like being able to send money to my parents. I didn't ask them about it, just started sending a percentage of my paycheck each time. We never talk about it. I'm embarrassed by money, which I guess I got from them. One morning when my parents were at church with me and my brother and sister, the pastor started talking down to the church about how we never gave enough money in the offering. Us kids threw in our nickels or whatever change we had in our pockets. That afternoon at home, Dad came into our bedroom crying, saying how he thought we were great kids for giving all the money we had. Mom was upset. "We give them our tithes," she said. "We give them ten percent of everything we make, before taxes. They shouldn't expect anything more than that."
I also like being able to watch movies whenever I want. I started this thing last year where I went through my Leonard Maltin movie guide alphabetically and started watching everything that sounded even remotely worth watching. I usually watched two movies a day. If I couldn't find the movie at Blockbuster, I'd order it. I didn't really like movies, though, and still don't like movies. I like maybe fifteen movies out of all the ones I've ever seen, and I can't really explain myself.
My wife wanted to be my friend again after she found out I had money. She had eventually jumped the poor ship to live with a guy who could cook and had dental insurance. I was even more poor when she left because she had made a game plan. She had started getting credit cards in my name and ran them all up in about three weeks. I didn't mind having bad credit. I didn't even hate her, but I did miss her, or at least the things that she would say, even if they were forced or insincere. She told me I was smart and creative and good-looking and sexy. She liked how I looked sleeping in the morning. She said I was smart because I was good in the history category of Trivial Pursuit, even if I never could guess the others.
My shiny new car is a "chick magnet," I guess. I like to drive it at night near all the singles hangouts, just to watch how the women flock to it. Sometimes to be stupid, I throw money out the window or drop a pile in the laps of the women who slide into the front seat with me. They always laugh. The curious looks don't last for more than one second. I can say anything I want. "I totally refuse to masturbate," I tell them. "I am so totally above that."
Every now and then I see a pretty young girl who melts me in some way, makes me wish I weren't driving around like a jerk. She makes me want to park my car and run back to her as fast as I can, and I want to look at her longingly until she talks to me or asks me to come inside and dance and make it all better.
Like my wife's boyfriend, I have dental insurance. I have health insurance and life insurance and car insurance and house insurance and who doesn't? I had four cavities when I finally went to the dentist after years of not having insurance or money. I brushed my teeth every day and I flossed my teeth every day, just like I took a bath every day and slept eight hours a day. I was never a slob. But they found four cavities, and one of them was in a tooth that had to come out completely. My tooth had been aching and I sat through thirty minutes worth of pain every ten hours or so, that was the schedule. But eventually half of that tooth just rotted out, just fell out into my hand one day, and it stopped hurting after that. They pulled that tooth out when I finally went to the dentist because it was half gone anyway.
When I got home, with gauze in my mouth collecting the blood, I cried. I just kept picturing the scene, me breathing in the strawberry gas and feeling stupid and wondering why people do drugs, and the dentist hovering over me saying, "You sure you want me to pull it?" I mumbled and drooled, "What . . . other . . . do you have another . . . option?" He said, "Nah." He was kind of cruel. So was the nurse when she walked in moments later, while I was getting completely gassed and going numb from the two needle shots which hurt in spite of the gas, when she walked in saying, "You have three more cavities." She told me then? She could have waited until after I was conscious, until the first problem had been solved. Eventually the dentist was over me, with his big arms and strong hands, one of them holding my head at the jaw and the other violently pulling my molar. It took only a few seconds.
I felt stupid crying, but I cried. My tooth was gone. It didn't hurt having it pulled. I didn't get the prescription filled for pain. It never hurt. But I cried. I regretted. It wasn't a baby tooth, wasn't a passage into manhood. I wouldn't get any trivial amount of money for it, not fifty bucks or three dollars, or the quarter my parents would give me from the Tooth Fairy. I could give my parents all that money back now, with interest, sacks of money for every tooth they've ever had in their heads, but now it's just embarrassing. All of this is embarrassing.
The day after they took my car, I picked up my rusty harmonica and put it in my pocket and drove the six hour drive to see my parents. I wanted to spend the fifty dollars from the car in my hometown, didn't want to give it to the cable company for my dozen or so HBOs. Their house looked the same, which was comforting and sad. I guess I could take them out to eat, to get a balanced meal, even though I hated myself for not knowing what else to do. I stepped out of the car and looked across the street at a teenage girl teaching her little brother to ride a bicycle. She had on a small T-shirt that said "Heartbreaker." I remember her, because I wondered if she were this magic creature, like the Tooth Fairy, going around breaking all our hearts.
When I had my wisdom teeth out as a teenager, my mother stayed home with me and replaced the tea bags in my mouth while I recovered from the anesthetic. The doctor gave me the shot in the arm, I was under in a few seconds, and when I woke I was in my bed being taken care of by Mother, worried over by Father, waking and sleeping, dreaming of nothing at all. It was one of the most pleasant experiences of my life.
About the author:
Rusty W. Spell is an English teacher at The University of Texas Pan American. He is also the leader of the famous music group The Mnemonic Devices, editor of the magazine We Like Media.com, and subject of the informative Rusty Spell.com. He hopes, soon, to make documentaries.