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Warning: If you happen to belong to my Sun Writing Group, do not continue on to the writing below as this will be offered as my contribution to our group this coming Tuesday. Naturally I prefer that you not read it in advance...To all you others, some words of explanation.
First of all, I usually write a poem in response to our writing prompts, meaning the one or two words we choose to stimulate an essay or story or poem -- in one page, no more -- that each of us composes for the next month's meeting. May's prompt was "money" and I struggled with it for weeks, failing to find anything I could write a poem about. Finally, finding the following quote, I gave up and wrote prose: "There is no money in poetry and no poetry in money." Now, this is not strictly true. For one thing, Joyce Carol Oates, a prodigiously prolific writer, wrote a whole book of poems called "Women Whose Lives are Food, Men Whose Lives are Money." But I cannot/could not get through those poems and so never did reach the title poem to know if it was good or bad...Some other poets have written poems about money or with money mentioned. I know. I myself have written such a poem.
It was a frying pan summer.
I was playing croquet by myself,
missing the wickets on purpose,
rummaging my pockets for dime-sized diversions.
It was a summer of solitaire.
I laid the cards out like soldiers.
I was in command.
Then you came out
with a mallet and a stolen voice
that seemed to rise disembodied
from the gorge of your black throat
and you challenged me to a game.
You ate me with your mosquito demands
though I, I didn’t want to play with anyone!
I hid my trembling in my sleeves
refusing to shake your hand.
I thought: this is how the Black Death was
transmitted, palm to palm, hand to hand,
a contagion like money.
You smiled the glassy grimace
practiced for boys all summer in front of a mirror.
If I looked you in the eye I would die.
I knew then all the sharp vowels of fear.
It was late in the afternoon
and I was frightened
when our shadows merged.
But just because this poem uses the word "money" doesn't mean it is about money...and I think it misses the spirit of the assignment. Besides, it is twenty years old and not a new poem, not one written for the occasion by any means. And so, I wrote prose, as I said. The following incident did happen, and as Josephine said, laughing, "Exactly like you wrote it!" Well, maybe, maybe not. But I wrote it as memory recounted it to me, and that was the best I could do.
“Gas is $3.99 a gallon at the Mobil station!” Josephine exclaims first thing on Friday morning when I slide into her car at 11:30. She has picked me up on her way to a cleaning job. She’ll drop me off first at the Hospital for Special Care so I can visit my friend Joe, who has Lou Gehrig’s disease and is on a ventilator.
“Now, at DP’s in Rocky Hill it was only $3.91 but as soon as I crossed the town line it went up two cents. And at your station” – why the guilt or innocence of the town line Mobil has fallen upon me I cannot guess – “it is six cents higher than anywhere else!” She is shouting now but she always shouts so I am used to it. Still, I’m sorry, I can’t help myself and I point out that with a ten gallon tank this comes to all of 60¢ per fill-up. When that costs $40, isn’t 60¢ rather trifling? She falls silent, digesting this.
Still, I can see her point. Pump prices are jumping five cents almost every day, so that 60¢ adds to the 60¢ before it until a fill-up has risen ten dollars since last summer. No one can say precisely why. Is it merely supply and demand? Is it speculation? Or something more sinister? Suddenly Jo changes gears.
“So how’s my pal Joey?” I share the fact that he is now barely able to communicate except by a head nod or eye blink indicating yes or no. Joe pays her to drive me back and forth to the hospital. This is only fair as it takes a good twenty-dollar hour out of her working day and costs her in gas and wear and tear on her car. But in truth, Josephine would get me there by crook or hook, somehow, even if she were not paid. Money simply makes it easier for her, and therefore for me.
On the way home, the gas tank is nearing empty. Josephine has not found a gas station with prices low enough to suit her. She had been certain that in a working class town like New Britain gas would cost less than in highly taxed Wethersfield. But no, to our amazement, we see $4.01 everywhere and in some places $4.05. Josephine shrieks in disgust, “Those gougers!”
“Jo, we’ve got to stop somewhere. The gauge reads empty. Stop at the next place, no matter what the price. I’ll pay the difference between DP’s and here.”
“No way.” She is determined never to take my money, certain I can’t afford to spend a penny on anyone but myself. I’ve pointed out to her that even the impoverished widow wants to share her mite. She doesn’t listen. Nevertheless, we do stop at the next Citgo, gas $3.99, and she fills up to the tune of $43.20, somehow her ten gallon tank sucking down more than it can hold.