She’s tending the tree now. The leaves, in her mind, green and crisp, smelling of fresh ink and fossilized hopes and the kind of money that you only see in movies: bricks, bags and piles. She’s watered this tree for six, seven, eight months. Days ticking and clicking by like a inventory of forgotten and broken aspirations, projects left by the wayside: mortgage, gone, gone going away; car note? Car gone: noted. Hospital bills piling up beside a fireplace gone cold two winters ago. Still, even now, there is the promise of the tree. The money tree.
She grew it from a cold gray penny she found outside the Salvation Army thrift shop on West and Maine. Planted it deep with her cracked, yellowed fingers, pushing it deeper and deeper into the moist earth. It sprouted earlier this summer – probably her last summer, she mused – and then the sapling went crooked and west, growing curlicued and fragrant and wild with the market itself. It stiffened with shock with the crash, but fed on the blood and fear of bankermen and stock options sharks it resumed its wild growth, and now, under the August sun of an old woman’s last summer, it’s sprouting.
Mara, the men say when they call, maybe its time. Maybe you do bankruptcy. Even they know it in their hot Eastern call centers: she is bled, finished and done. Nothing more than her last drip drops of life that they can take from her. Even now if they reached out and rummaged, flipping through the dusty folders and shelves on her dead husband’s chiffarobe, they wouldn’t find anything worth while. No. The last penny she had was planted outside by the remains of her adult children’s long-abandoned swing set. And now she tends it with the kind of patience and care that only the desperate, last-hope set can provide.
The limbs stretch out over the yard, a canopy of green leaves, snapping and rustling in what passes for a breeze in this caudal summer. She smiles a dry smile, her dentures shifting first from one side of her mouth to the other. The ones and fives are on the lowest branches. The tens and twenties a little higher up. The fifties and hundreds are the closest to heaven. Like the man on TV said, my god ain’t broke. Maybe it is time to harvest this.
Her hip cracks and grumbles as she shuffles one curled foot after another to the storage shed. The green siding collapsed, vines twisting merrily through the remnants of old latticework and frame: once a sanctuary of order and calm and verdant grace now near-fallen to the power of wild nature. She pulls on the twisted, water-warped door and with a creek it opens to her, a last submission. The ladder, there in the corner. Don’t stop now. Take it.
Leaning it against the firm trunk of the tree, she places one slippered, aching foot on the first rung: steady. Sturdier than anything has been over the past years. Steady as time. Steady as decay. Steady. She climbs further, with one hand bowling her faded apron in front of her as a make-shift basket. She smiles when she sees a nest of mockingbirds resting in a bough of twenties and fifty dollar bills. She won’t disturb them. Just a little further still.
Now she is at the crown of the tree, feeling its gentle sway against her side. She left the ladder a little while ago, its length insufficient to span a climb of this height. She raises her face to the still-warm sun, fading now in the west, silently thankful for its beauty as she carefully picks fresh bills from the tree’s generous branches.
Her descent is without incident, her apron with crisp bills of high and worthy denominations. She stops for a moment to rest in the shade of the beautiful tree, content that she is now – only now – seeing the end of her troubles. As she lowers her aching body to the ground, she makes a pillow for herself of leaves.
Matt Staggs is a writer and literary publicist living and working in Mississippi. Follow him on Twitter at @mattstaggs.