Straight Dollars or Loose Change by LaToya Watkins


I been sitting here, waiting for them to lead you in. Fifteen minutes feel like fifty. I distract myself by counting the number of water stains on the ceiling. Then I figure how many women in the room. How many men? Children? The brother and sister that were carrying on during the bus ride up here are now begging their momma for money. Banging on the glass of the vending machine again and again. They stop when one of the guards finally stomps over and motions for them to sit. Stay. Some folks are pacing now. Others holding up the wall. We all waiting. Waiting for the sound of locks to spring open. 

        I study the women in the room with fresh make-up and fresh dollars. I have neither. There was no time to stop at Phillips 66 this morning, not after Mr. Bodee took sick. So I wait for you with two crumpled bills in one pocket and a folded up piece of paper in the other. The sea of orange jumpsuits will soon roll in like some rip tide.  I stare at the big metal door you will walk through, and hope I can find the words this time before they are swept away. My eyes go back to the vending machine, to the rows of salted chips in C6 and the rows of Reese’s in B4. You always had a thing for peanut butter. That’s about the one thing that hasn’t changed in all this.   

       There is no line at the candy machine when the men file in. They are all serious until they scan the room and see their families. Then their faces light up. Finally, I see you. You are being led in my direction by a guard who looks like he’s still in high school, his face dotted with pus pimples.  

       You start talking fast before you sit down.  We got two and a half hours.

       ”Hey, sis,” you say as you start drumming on the table between us. “How you been?”

       I study you long and hard. This visit has to last. You are only thirty, and already balding at the top. Your eyes are like hard rust on an old penny. Before all this, they were brown.  

       “How’s Grandma? you say. “She still giving you a hard time?”

       Grandma has never been here to see you. Not once in the eleven years you been in Lamesa. Neither has Momma for that matter. I open my mouth, but the words are swept away. I want to tell you that Grandma put a lock on the refrigerator door last week. She was always like some sentry on watch when it came to food. At three hundred pounds she can stand to miss a meal or two. The thought of a padlocked ice box makes me bust out laughing, especially since I know she hid the key in the bottom of her shoe. She should have put a lock on Uncle Elroy’s door. Kept him away from you. I think about Elroy now and my stomach knots up.

       “She fine, Calvin,” I say. “I know how to stay out her way.”

       You nod. Smile. Look away. Your eyes dart around the room. A long line has formed at the vending machine. One by one they feed fresh dollars and loose change into the slot. You shift in your seat before turning back to me.

       “How are things out there, G? What’s going on?”

       You are the only one who calls me G. On his good days, Mr. Bodee calls me Gem. Short for Gemini. He tells me that I’m a jewel. I start to tell you about Mr. Bodee ending up in the hospital and my being up all night waiting for his family to come in from Dallas. I have only known Mr. Bodee for about a year, but already he feel like family.

       “Remember the man I work for?” I say. “Had to rush him to the ER late last night.”

       Calvin laughs out loud. “What you do to that old man, G?”

       I want to tell you that I button his shirt and cook his potatoes, and that we read together. But the words leave me again. Before I know it, someone else catches your eye.  You follow a tall skinny gal walking towards the long wall for a telephone visit.  She is carrying her bra in her hand and all the men are staring at her. Women too. Her breasts look like they'll bring her to the floor.  I have nothing to speak of, so I can get by with a boy’s tee-shirt most of the time. 

        “Look at her,” you say.  

       I saw her pacing before, but I look again.  She sits down in front of bullet proof glass and picks up the receiver. The man opposite her touches the scratched glass and she follows suit. It is as close to a contact visit as they will get.  

       Their raised hands remind me of Momma, waving at me. I saw her from the bus this morning. First time in years. I don’t know whether I should share the news everybody been whispering about since Uncle Elroy and your trial became the gossip of the day. Momma’s not your favorite subject. But then I decide to just come out and say it. 

       “I saw Momma from the bus on my up,” I say. 

       You look back without a word. 

       I don’t tell you the rest. That it was at least one hundred and ten degrees in the shade and she had on a purple turtle-neck sweater and denim shorts. I was embarrassed for her at first. Then Mr. Bodee’s words came into my head and I tried to remember who Momma was before the track marks and before the state took us. All I can come up with is how she smelled like Blue Magic pomade whenever she hugged me. Mr. Bodee says that’s a start. He was a sixth grade teacher for thirty-seven years before he started forgetting stuff, like how to button his shirt and find his way home. But he still knows a lot. 

       Your penny eyes grow harder. Still, you say nothing. I take advantage of the silence and say one last thing.

       “She waved at me. She knew who I was and waved at me.”

       You are disgusted. You roll your penny eyes. “Yeah,” you say. “She call you out by name?”
You don’t wait for me to answer. You shift in your seat and breathe in deep. I bite my lip and wish I could call the words back. But it’s too late. We sit stone faced. 

       We are saved by the children laughing at the next table, reading with their father. It is the sister and brother from before. I wonder if they are teaching their father how to read the way Mr. Bodee is teaching me.  Me and Mr. B. use picture books too. The little girl is doing the reading. She helps me find the words to tell you.

       “Calvin, I can’t come Saturdays no more,” I say fast. “At least for awhile.”

       “Why? You sick or something?”

       “No. Not sick.” I pull the folded up paper from my pocket and push it towards you.

       “What’s this?”

       “I’m starting classes at community college. Saturdays. My free day.”

       You look at the paper. Then you stare at me with your hard penny eyes as if you are trying to place my face. I am your only family. 

       “Good for you, G,” is all you say before you look away from me. There is another long line at the vending machine. 

       “You bring change with you?”

       I shake my head. I think about Archie, the white guy who opens up Phillips 66 on Saturday mornings. He was probably waiting at the register with my ninety-nine cents bean burrito and five crisp dollar bills, the way he does every Saturday. But I missed him this morning. 

       I stretch out my leg and stuff my hands deep into the pocket of my second hand jeans. I fish around until I find the dollar I’ve been searching for and pull the crumpled thing out. You look down at the dollar and frown. 

       “Awh, Gemini. What I tell you about them raggedy dollars? You know that machine be tripping. You better hope it works or you owe me two next week.”

       It’s as if you didn’t hear one word I said about college. I try to remind you, but you cut me off. 

       “Yeah, whatever. Just remember for next time. Straight dollars or loose change. And get some money together to put on my books for commissary.”

       “Sure, next week,” I say as I nod my head. Then I get up and make my way to the end of the line. I can feel you stare hard at me, like Mr. Boddie do sometimes. I look your way and see you drop your pennies to the floor like so much loose change.


Contributor Notes

I spent my first seven years of life in the Texas Panhandle region. I grew up around people who had no voices outside of our community. Looking back on those voiceless shadowy figures—human beings who contributed tremendously to the shaping of my life, I realize that black Americans in small West Texas cities and towns still, to some extent, remain voiceless. Their lives and struggles and secrets and pains remain shut out from the rest of the world. Instead of hearing about black men and women and girls and boys with hopes and dreams and human hearts, we learn about cowboys and college towns and forget that common folk are among them.

For the voiceless, I wanted to write a common story that was in many ways uncommon. A few years ago, I found Gemini in the eyes of a girl visiting someone she loved in a West Texas prison. She was listening to him talk, but not really. She was there, but not really. She was there because she had to be; her rusty penny eyes told me that. I knew she belonged in this story. I imagined everything about the woman I saw visiting the prison that day. I wanted to know her. I had to create her story when I realized I’d never know her name.

LaToya Watkins has degrees in literary and aesthetic studies from the University of Texas at Dallas, where she is currently a doctoral student. She has taught first-year English in Texas and spent two years working as an editor for a scholastic publishing company in Dallas. Her stories have appeared in Specter and TWINS magazines. She is also the author of two novels.