“As honest as a glass eye.” My father said this about a certain politician when I was a kid. I’m pretty sure he’d say it today, too. He had strong opinions about everything, especially politics.
Each week, he sat at our oilcloth-covered kitchen table with a shoebox in which he kept the bills. And every week, I watched while he worked through that box, examining every piece of paper, every envelope, deciding which to pay, which he could ignore, which needed something on account. I was fascinated by the way he plucked out the bills, studied his penciled notes on them, and considered his options. There was no way he’d ever be able to pay all of them, or even keep all of the creditors happy, but he did his best to keep the bastards quiet.
Five days a week, before I was out of bed, he drove away in his old Plymouth coupe, on his way to work. Boring, filthy work. Work that battered his body, scarred his hands, and left him exhausted. Work that he’d done for decades, in one city or another. Work that could drive a guy nuts. Maybe, I sometimes thought, it was driving him nuts. Sometimes, from my narrow bed, I heard him racing the engine, the way he always did, before he roared down the street and around the corner.
Sometimes, as I lay there, I wondered: what if one day he didn’t go to his job? What if this morning he decided that he’d had enough of that shoebox of bills? What if he was tired of his boss’s demands and lousy working conditions? What if he didn’t want to pay for food and clothes and rent for two ungrateful brats, any more?
We were the only family in our neighborhood who didn’t have a television. Christmas, the year I turned 12, my Mom and sister and I desperately wanted a TV, but a television set didn’t fit in that shoebox. A new television that I admired in a store window downtown cost $371. Fifteen bucks fed the four of us for a week. This was before credit cards, but most folks bought their TVs on time. Dad refused to get into debt more than he was.
“Why should I pay two weeks salary,” he demanded, “so you can watch some idiot named Red Buttons dance a jig and make stupid noises?”
Dwight Eisenhower was president, then, and his Secretary of Defense, Charles Wilson, the former CEO of General Motors, had stated, “What’s good for General Motors is good for the country.” Except that maybe it wasn’t. Corporations were making out like bandits during those years, but people like my Dad were still having a tough time. We never owned a house, never had a new car, never could be sure that the shoebox of bills wouldn’t explode in my father’s scarred face.
Is it surprising that this year, during this election campaign, I remembered my father’s shoebox? Even back in the nineteen-fifties, the Eisenhower administration and the rich guys and big businesses behind them talked about “trickle down” economics. When my Dad heard them, he said it just sounded like the rich Fat Cats peeing over the rest of us.
Even as a kid, I didn’t think that rich people were necessarily better at running things just because they were rich. The odds were, anyway, that they didn’t make all that money by themselves. And they sure as heck didn’t make it starting out where my Dad was. I bet not one of ‘em ever had a shoebox of bills that he agonized over once a week.
It was clear to me that we weren’t going to get a television set that year, and I didn’t expect a bike, which was the only other thing I wanted, so Christmas didn’t mean a heck of a lot to me. Christmas Eve, I got up to go to the toilet and caught my father in his thermal underwear crouching by the little Christmas tree, putting together a prefab stamped-tin doll house, its Sears box beside him.
“Going to the bathroom,” I said.
“Well go ahead, then get back to bed before you wake your sister.”
I was glad she was getting a doll house, but it made me feel even worse. That doll house wasn’t nearly as expensive as either a bike or a TV.
But the next morning, a red bike stood in front of the Christmas tree, beside the doll house. Closer inspection revealed that the bike was secondhand, a coat of scarlet paint not quite covering its original blue paint, but that didn’t matter to me.
“You know what success is?” asked my Dad at breakfast. “Giving your family what they want.”
He always did the best he could – and sometimes worked wonders with that shoebox. Maybe he couldn’t pull a tiger out of it, but from time to time he managed a rabbit or two.
I wish, now, I could tell my father how much I’ve come to admire his magic with his battered shoebox of bills. This also is a time when we need elected officials who understand what working people have to cope with every day.
-- Bruce Douglas Reeves, author of DELPHINE, winner of the Clay Reynolds Novella Prize, Texas Review Press. Available from University Press Books-Berkeley (800-676-8722), Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Texas A & M Consortium.