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Three Thousand Dollars
By David Lipsky
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1989 David Lipsky
All rights reserved.
Three Thousand Dollars
My mother doesn't know that I owe my father three thousand dollars. What happened was this: My father sent me three thousand dollars to pay my college tuition. That was the deal he and my mom had made. We'd apply for financial aid without him, to get a lower tuition, and then he'd send me a check, and then I'd put the check in my bank account and write one of my own checks out to the school. This made sense, not because my father is rich but because he makes a lot more money than my mother does—she's a teacher—and if we could get a better deal using her income instead of his, there was no reason not to. Only, when the money came, instead of giving it to the school, I spent it. I don't even know what I spent it on—books and things, movies. The school never called me in about it. They just kept sending these bills to my mother, saying we were delinquent in our payments. That's how my father found out. My mother kept sending him the bills, he kept looking on them for the money he'd sent me, and I kept telling him that the school's computer was making an error and that I'd drop by the office one day after class and clear it up.
So when I came home to New York for the summer my mother was frantic, because the school had called her and she couldn't understand how we could owe them so much money. I explained to her, somehow, that what we owed them was a different three thousand dollars—that during the winter the school had cut our financial aid in half. My mother called my father to ask him to send us the extra money, and he said that he wanted to talk to me.
I waited till the next day, so I could call him at his office. My stepmother's in finance, and she gets crazy whenever money comes up—her nightmare, I think, is of a river of money flowing from my father to me without veering through her—so I thought it would be better to talk to him when she wasn't around. My father has his own advertising agency now in California—Paul Weller Associates. I've seen him at his job when I've visited him out there, and he's pretty good. His company does all the ads for a big western supermarket chain, and mostly what he does is supervise on these huge sets while camera crews stand around filming fruit. It's a really big deal. The fruit has to look just right. My father stands there in a coat and tie, and he and a bunch of other guys keep bending over and making sure that the fruit is okay—shiny-looking. There are all these other people standing around with water vapor and gloss. One word from my father and a thousand spray cans go off.
When he gets on the phone, I am almost too nervous to talk to him, though his voice is slow and far off, surrounded by static. I ask him to please send more money. He says he won't. I ask why, and he says because it would be the wrong thing to do. He doesn't say anything for a moment, and then I tell him that I agree with him, that I think he is right not to send the money. He doesn't say anything to acknowledge this, and there is a long pause during which I feel the distance between us growing.
Just before he gets off the phone, he says, "What I'm really curious about, Richard, is what your mother thinks of all this," and this wakes me up, because he doesn't seem to realize that I haven't told her yet. I was afraid to. Before I came home, I thought of about twenty different ways of telling her, but once she was right there in front of me it just seemed too unbearable. What I'm afraid of now is that my father will find this out, and then he will tell her himself. "I mean," he says, "if I were her, I probably couldn't bear having you in the house. What is she planning to do? Isn't the school calling you up? I can't imagine she has the money to pay them. Isn't she angry at you, Rich?"
I say, "She's pretty angry."
"I hope so," my father says. "I hope she's making you feel terrible. When I talked to her on the phone yesterday—and we only talked for a couple of seconds—she seemed mostly concerned with getting me to give you this money, but I hope that deep down she's really upset about this. Tell her it's no great tragedy if you don't go back to school in the fall. You can get a job in the city, and I'll be happy to pay your tuition again next year. I'm sorry, but it just doesn't feel right for me to keep supporting you while you keep acting the way you've been acting, which to me seems morally deficient."
My mother is tall, with light hair and gray, watery eyes. She is a jogger. She has been jogging for six years, and as she's gotten older her body has gotten younger-looking. Her face has gotten older, though. There are lines around her lips and in the corners of her eyes, as if she has taken one of those statues without arms or a head and put her own head on top of it. She teaches art at a grammar school a few blocks up from our house, and the walls of our apartment are covered with her drawings. That's the way she teaches. She stands over these kids, while she has them drawing a still life or a portrait or something, and if they're having trouble she sits down next to them to show them what to do, and usually she ends up liking her own work so much that she brings it home with her. We have all these candlesticks and clay flowerpots that she made during class. She used to teach in Greenwich, Connecticut, which is where we lived before she and my dad got divorced, which was right before I started high school. Every summer, she and a bunch of other teachers rent a house together in Wellfleet; she will be leaving New York to go up there in six days, so I only have to keep her from finding out until then.
When I get off the phone, she is in the living room reading the newspaper. She gives me a ready-for-the-worst look and asks, "What did he say?"
I explain to her that I will not be going back to college in September. Instead, I will be staying in the apartment and working until I have paid the school the rest of the money.
My mother gets angry. She stands up and folds the paper together and stuffs it into the trash. "Not in this apartment," she says.
"Why not?" I ask. "It's big enough."
"A boy your age should be in college. Your friends are in college. Your father went to college. I'd better call him back." She walks to the phone, which sits on the windowsill.
"Why?" I ask quickly. "He said he wasn't going to do it."
"Well, of course, that's what he'd say to you. He knows you're afraid of him." She sees I'm going to protest this. "Who could blame you? Who wouldn't be afraid of a man who won't even support his own son's education?"
"He said he doesn't have the money."
"And you believe him?" she asks. "With two Volvos and three bedrooms and cable TV? Let him sell one of his cars if he has to. Let him stop watching HBO. Where are his priorities?"
"I'm not his responsibility."
"Oh, no. You're just his son, that's all; I forgot. Why are you protecting him?"
I look up, and my mother's eyes widen a little—part of her question—and it feels as if she's seeing something in my face, so I realize I'd better get out of the room. "I'm not protecting him," I say. "It's just that you always want everything to be somebody's fault. It's the school's fault. It's nobody's fault. It's no great tragedy if I don't go back to school in the fall; you're the only person who thinks so. Why can't you just accept things, like everyone else?" I walk into my bedroom, shutting the door behind me. I lie on my bed and look up at the ceiling, where the summer bugs have already formed a sooty layer inside the bottom of my light fixture. My ears are hot.
Our apartment is small. There are only the two bedrooms, the living room, the bathroom, and the kitchen, and so if you want to be alone it's pretty impossible. My mother comes in after a few minutes. She has calmed down. She walks over to the air conditioner and turns it on, then waves her hand in front of the vents to make sure that cold air is coming out. I sit up and frown at her.
She sits down next to me and puts her arm around my shoulders. "I'm sorry you're so upset," she says. As she talks, she rubs the back of my neck. "But I just think that there are a lot of things we can do before you have to go out and look for a full-time job. There are relatives we can call. There are loans we can take out. There are a lot of avenues open to us."
"I know it must be pretty hard on you, having a father like this." She gives me time to speak, then says, "I mean, a man who won't even pay for his son's school."
"It's not that," I say. "It's not even that I'm that upset. It's just that I don't want us to be beholden to him anymore. I don't even like him very much."
My mom laughs. "What's to like?" she says.
I laugh with her. "It's just that he's so creepy."
"You don't have to tell me. I was married to him."
"Why did you marry him?" I ask.
"He was different when I met him."
"How different could he be?"
My mother laughs, shaking her head. Her eyes blank a little, remembering. She was twenty when she met my father—a year older than I am now. I imagine her in a green flannel skirt and high blue knee socks. "I don't know," she says, looking past me. "Not very." We laugh together again. "I don't know. I wanted to get away from my parents, I guess."
"Who could blame you?" I say, but I can tell from a shift in her face that I have pushed too far. Her father died two years back.
"What do you mean?" she asks, turning back to me.
"I don't know," I say. "I mean, you were young."
She nods, as if this fact, remembering it, comes as something of a surprise to her. She blinks. "I was young," she says.
I get a job working at a B. Dalton bookstore. The manager has to fill out some forms, and when he asks me how long I will be working—for the whole year or just for the summer—I say, "Just for the summer," without thinking, and by the time I realize, he has already written it down and it doesn't seem worth the trouble of making him go back and change it. Still, I go through the rest of the day with the feeling that I've done something wrong. It's the store on Fifth Avenue, and it's not a bad place to work. I am sent to the main floor, to the middle register, where old women come in pairs and shuffle through the Romance section. I eat lunch in a little park a block from the store, where a man-made waterfall keeps tumbling down over itself and secretaries drink diet soda. There is a cool breeze, because of the water. It is the second week of the summer, and on returning from lunch I am told I will have Wednesday off, because it is the Fourth of July.
Riding the bus home, I begin thinking that maybe my mother called my father anyway. It's terrible. The bus keeps stopping, and people keep piling in, and meanwhile I am imagining their conversation going on. If I could make the bus go faster, maybe I could get home in time to stop them. I try to make mental contact with the bus driver by concentrating. I think, Skip the next stop; but he, out of loyalty to the other passengers or simple psychic deafness, doesn't, and instead the bus keeps stopping and people keep getting off and on. Walking into our building, I get the feeling everyone knows. Even the people on the elevator scowl. Maybe if I had told my mother myself, I could have softened it somehow. What would upset her now is not only the money—although the money would be a big part of it—but also that I tried to put something over on her. I am almost afraid to open our door. "Hello," I call, stepping inside.
As it turns out, my mother isn't home. There is a note on the table. She has gone shopping. I look at the note for a while, to see if I can figure anything out from it. For example, it is a short note. Would she usually write a longer one? It isn't signed "Love" or anything—just "Mom," in the scratchy way she draws her pictures.
I hang my jacket in the closet and then turn on my mom's answering machine. There is one hang-up, and then a message from my father. It makes my whole body go cold. His voice sounds farther away than when we talked the last time. "Richard?" he says. His voice is slow. "This is your father. I just wanted to call to see how things were going. I had an interesting discussion with your mother this afternoon, and we can talk about it later, if you'd like. Call back if you get a chance." Then there is the clatter of his phone being hung up, followed by a little electronic squawk as the connection is broken, which the machine has recorded. I play it again, but there is no way of telling just what he and Mom talked about. I walk into the bathroom and splash cold water on my face and look in the mirror. Then I try reading my mom's note again, but all I can really make it say is that she has gone to the supermarket.
My mother comes home, carrying two big bags of groceries. She pushes the door open with her shoulder. "Can you give me a hand?" she says.
I stand up and take the bags from her and carry them into the kitchen. They are heavy even for me. I hold them close to my chest, where the edges brush against my nose, giving me their heavy, dusty smell. My mom stands in the dining area. She rests one hand on the table. She is wearing running shorts and a T-shirt that on the front says "Perrier" and on the back has the name and date of a race she ran. "Any messages?" she asks me.
I look at her, but I can't tell anything from her face, either. She looks angry, but that could just be because it was hot outside, or because there was too long a line at the supermarket. "I didn't look," I answer. "Don't you even say hello anymore?"
"Hello," she says. She picks up her note and holds it so I can see. "You could throw this away, you know," she says. "Or are you saving it for any particular reason?"
"No, you can throw it away."
"That's nice. How about you throw it away?"
"I'm unloading the groceries right now."
She puts the note back down on the table and then walks into the living room. I unload the rest of the groceries. There is a box of spaghetti, Tropicana orange juice, brown rice, pita bread, a few plain Dannon yogurts. I put everything away and then I fold up the bags and stuff them into the broom closet, where we save them for garbage.
In the living room I hear my mother turn on the machine. There is the hang-up, and then my father's message begins again. "Richard?" he says. "This is your father." I walk into the living room. Mom is standing over the machine, one hand on the buttons. "Oh, God," she says, in a bored way, when she hears his voice, and she shuts it off. Then she turns around and looks at me. I am standing near the wall. "Why do you have that funny look on your face, Richard?" she asks.
I shrug. "How was your day?" I say.
"Bad." She steps over her chair and sits down on the sofa. From the way she arranges herself, I can tell she is upset. She keeps her arms folded across her stomach, and there is something compressed and angry about her face. The way her lips are pressed together—and also something around her eyes. "You want to make me some tea?"
"What happened?" I ask.
"Nothing happened. I ran. I went shopping. I spoke to your father."
I pull a chair over from the table and sit down across from her. I count to five and then ask, "What did he say?"
She shakes her head and laughs through her nose. "Oh, God. He was awful, Richard. Just awful. Right when he got on the phone, he started asking if you'd found a job, and then when I asked him if he was planning to pay the rest of your tuition he laughed and said of course not. He said it was time for you to learn to take care of yourself. He said it was going to be good for you. I couldn't talk to him. Really, Richard, he was awful. I mean it. Just awful."
"I told you not to call him."
"Well, then, I was stupid, Richard."
"Are you going to call him again?"
"How do I know if I'm going to call him again? Not if he keeps acting that way on the phone to me. But I can't pay the school myself." Her lips go back to being tight, and she pulls her arms closer together, so that each hand curls under the opposite elbow.
It occurs to me that what's pressing down on her face is the money we owe the school. "Did the school call again?" I guess.
She nods. "Yesterday."
"Don't call him," I say.
"Thanks, Richard. You want to get me some tea?"
"How about 'please'?"
"How about throwing that note away? Or are you planning to leave it there till Christmas?"
Excerpted from Three Thousand Dollars by David Lipsky. Copyright © 1989 David Lipsky. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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