Costs of Living

Read a Short Story | Costs of Living

a short story by Krista McGruder

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About the Author

WRITER | Krista McGruder

Krista McGruder is a fiction writer who lives and works in New York City. After migrating from the Ozarks, she began to review novels for She has since published Beulah Land (Toby Press, 2003), a book of 13 linked stories.


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Each night when the married man left and closed the door she counted off six minutes. Two minutes, she estimated, was enough time for him to descend the three flights from her apartment to street level. Two minutes gave him enough time to walk, often unsteadily, one hundred feet to the street corner. Two final minutes allowed for the car driver to hold the door open, adjust the air or heat, depending on the season, and drive away. Six minutes was enough time for him to melt into the comfortable folds of his own life.

She worked while she counted the six minutes. She pulled on shorts and a shirt, or jeans and a sweater, depending on the season, and forced her brown hair into a small clip at the nape of her neck. These preparations lasted two minutes. She spent two minutes to extinguish the candles in her apartment and to strip the sheets from the bed. After she stuffed the bedding into the hamper, she counted the money he left in an envelope, marked the sum of the bills in her accounting ledger and noted the form of deposit, which was always cash. She counted the bills twice to be sure, made her notations and stuffed a single bill in her pocket. She slipped the remaining cash in her fireproof lockbox and that was the end of the last two minutes.

She usually counted her six minutes after midnight when Christopher Sparring, the married man, left her to what he believed was an immediate and peaceful sleep. She often regretted the six minutes that she was forced to wait, six minutes behind his trajectory into the night, but she did not want him to know that she followed him into the city streets.

The first time Christopher left behind an envelope of cash labeled, “To Melanie- for the rent and your martinis,” she discovered how difficult it was to spend one hundred dollars after midnight, even in the city that supposedly didn’t sleep. Melanie’s experience was the opposite. She knew the city not only slept, it snored, loudly and rudely, until the buzz of business traffic hummed down the avenues at dawn. The night watchmen in expensive buildings sat with their heads slumped across their chests and snored. Cats slept curled around themselves in the windows of the bakeries and snored, leaving mice to enjoy the comfort of the dark. The all-night diner waiters, with eyelids that she guessed must feel like her own, leaned against Formica countertops, cradled their faces in their hands, and snored.

After a year of six-minute intervals, she knew what to expect from the creatures she startled from sleep. The doormen, the cats, the souls who staffed the graveyard shifts, they all woke grudgingly, cleared their eyes, nodded at her and then resumed their dreams. She knew what she looked like to them: a round-faced, slightly built, lone female. But mostly, she looked unthreatening, even in the uncertain fluorescent street lamps that wavered around their subjects. Melanie was accustomed to these glances, their assessment of her as a woman walking with a purpose, a woman hurrying perhaps to an all-night drugstore to buy cough syrup for a sick child or aspirin for a feverish husband. She knew these were the reasons they imagined for her midnight haste.

Melanie did not have a husband or a baby and no use, generally, for all-night establishments except during her walks. She had made a habit of going to the diner, first, to break the bill into smaller change as she ordered coffee for herself and anyone else at the counter, then continuing to the all-night discount retailer, or the around-the-clock book and video store. Melanie visited the places where she could fritter away one hundred dollars for items that were neither necessary nor useful. But a few months passed and her task became easier, thoughtless really, because word got around to students in the area that free coffee and sometimes food was available, at the corner diner on Tuesdays like tick-tock clockwork. When their numbers reached a critical mass, she made the diner her only stop. The students congregated, legs dangling from the cracked vinyl bar stools, watching George the counterman pour the cheap and correspondingly bad brew into their endlessly assuming coffee mugs. Melanie was happy when the crowd turned out and paid for it all.

George had physical ownership of six feet and a bald scalp, a broad chest, a round beer gut and two skinny legs. George looked like a pumpkin on stilts and the first time Melanie saw him, George had hoisted his stomach over the counter like a dying helium balloon floating in mid-air. As she would learn, George was a practical man who used his stomach as a pillow for his bulky forearms and as a soundproofing technique. George shut out patrons’ requests as he slumped, sleeping across his own hard white sheet.

Melanie Kiln’s affair with Christopher had persisted for twelve months. The only remarkable aspects of their relationship was that he was married, and she was single; he was rich, and she had been poor. Twelve months of sleeping with him had not made her rich, only less poor, and despite what her ledger noted, she did not believe that her life had been made much different. That twelve months had certainly not made Christopher any less married.

For a woman who occupied her daytime hours as an accounting assistant, Melanie had few habits, outside of tracking the events in her life that involved Christopher Sparring, that would qualify her for a job that required “attention to detail.” The desk in her cubicle at corporate headquarters in midtown for a health insurance provider was pronounced a “complete disaster” by co-workers. The supervisor of her group, a tired man who always wore bad ties and too much cologne, disliked Melanie’s inability to submit her reports on clean paper, instead of blueberry muffin smudged sheets. The old man with whom she deposited her dirty laundry always mouthed a toothless, but well-intended “Why you do-dat?” when he examined the coffee stains on virtually every item of clothing that she owned. Melanie was not careful with anything except her actions with regard to Christopher. It was as if those fading moments of his presence imbued her with a desire to be meticulous, perhaps to lend an air of dignity to his departure. She knew that she kept her job, despite her disordered presentation, because she did not make mistakes. She guessed that Christopher kept her on because as cautious as he was, he liked to bet on a dark horse. It made him feel good to win, even if he had to fix the race.

Christopher was careful with everything. He was careful when he walked along Broadway because he disliked being jostled by tourists, and he was careful when he called Melanie to use his mobile phone so that his secretary could not see the numbers he called from his office. Melanie had never seen him host any of his famous block barbecue parties but she speculated as to how careful he was at those events.

“How do you want that burger? Well, medium or rare?” He would always ask before he put the raw patty on the grill.

“How about medium-rare?” And the forty-something Italian woman with a baby girl that played with his youngest, would smile at him and run her tongue over her top lip to catch the sweat that inevitably dripped in the humidity of a July afternoon.

“You got it.”

Christopher would apply his spatula to the circular burger patty that his wife had pressed into a ball and think about coaxing his Italian neighbor behind his house, through his basement door, and pushing her five-foot body against his downstairs refrigerator. He would think about bending her over the bar next to the refrigerator and sliding a piece of ice along the curvature of her spine, then against her lip and then between her legs. He would wonder how she might react when he pointed to his stomach and when he pointed to his neck. Would she kiss lick his navel and then kiss his ears? Or would she back away and murmur that her husband, Christopher’s fourth on the golf course, might walk inside and find them?

“Burger’s all done and be careful-it’s hot.”

Christopher would offer his neighbor a plate with his medium-rare creation and point to the table with the condiments. “You can get everything you need there, Isabel.”

“Oh, Chris, you know you can’t put out everything that I need.”

And he would watch her little hips switch away and wish that he could arrive late at the course the next morning, at least an hour after his scheduled tee-time. It was one of few times when he could be certain that her husband would not be home. But then he would attend to the next burger on the grill and grin, happy that she called him “Chris.” He usually used the shortened form of his name with his best male friends and his female lovers.

Melanie would only address him as “Christopher,” and never shortened his name in her head. She thought about him during the nights she took her walks, to pay respect to the sensibilities of emotional decorum. It was not fair to him or his generosity not to think about him after he left, particularly when it was his money she was spending. So she thought about him, conscientiously, like a woman who decides to concentrate on God on Easter morning but still anticipates the after-church Sunday brunch mimosas.

“George, coffee?” Melanie directed the request, hesitantly, because this Tuesday the industrial stainless steel coffee make that usually hulked behind his counter had been removed. “Your coffeemaker broken?”

“Not really, we just sent the machine out for cleaning. It’ll be back in the morning.” George motioned his hand high over the counter, as if to draw her gaze to the space above where the young heads full of hair and piercings usually sat exerting bad posture in wait for her arrival.

“They’ve all left. Told ’em the coffee gig wasn’t on for tonight, would have to wait until week. Figured they could’ve at least stayed to say hello.”

“What do you mean, George?” Melanie knew exactly what he meant, that he felt sorry for her, that he thought she would be disappointed because some college kids had already split. She was angry with George, angry at his pity and his embarrassment. She wanted him to make himself clear, to tell her without obstruction that he felt sorry for her. She wanted to hear him say it.

“Oh, Melanie, you know, it’s just that no good deed goes unpunished, that kind of thing.” George moved away from her, to the far end of the counter and rubbed with his rag at a spot that Melanie could not see.

“They would’ve stayed if the coffee machine hadn’t been broken.”

“It’s fine, anyway, I still need some change.

“Sure, had it waiting for you anyway.” And he rested his arms on the counter with the rag cast to the side and turned his head forty-five degrees to look at her along the length of the counter. “Can I ask you something?”

“Sure, I was waiting for you to say something anyway.” Melanie turned her head, forty-five degrees, until her eyes centered on the object that her ears heard and waited for him to do it, to inform her that those students were not her friends, that they found her likable and amusing, but they only showed up because of the free coffee and the food. She waited for him to pronounce her pathetic with his kindest of intentions. She waited for him to tell her everything that she already knew.

George blinked a few times and then, sighed and folded his arms over his immense belly, as if he was about to enter into sleep but Melanie thought he was doing his best imitation of nonchalant. “Melanie, what? What? What do you do anyway?”

Her forehead relaxed and she habitually reached for her coffee before she realized that there was no coffee in front of her. “I assist in accounting for what it costs people to live after some accident, or a traumatic event. It’s really not that exciting, but it’s steady. Insurance companies always need people like me.” She reached again, her hand could not abandon its habit, and she grabbed a handle of air. “But I’m not sure that I want to do it forever, you know.”

George seemed relieved, as if he was expecting her answer to include words like “drug-runner, slumlord, or crack-house prostitute.” Melanie watched him and smiled. George had really wondered about her, had thought she might be dangerous to society at large. He shook his shoulders as a large dog might shake water off its coat and yawned. “That’s great, young girl like you, bright future; change is under the register drawer for you.”

Melanie exchanged her hundred for five bills from a thick cream envelope that had probably been embossed in the 1970’s. The lettering was loopy, in a text type that one might see on the cover of a dime-store romance novel, but it spelled out “George W. Carson, Musician’s Agent.” She wanted to ask George if that had been his former career, but when she turned her head, he was sleeping. His nose and lips let out a snoring wheeze that Melanie suspected would growl with full force before she made it home. She held the swinging door so that it would close gently and turned the street corner toward her apartment.

She cheated that night and dropped the twenties into a cup that belonged to a homeless man. Melanie didn’t like to give the money away, she wanted to spend it on something tangible. Anyone could give money away, it was so thoughtless and easy. But she was more than just tired. Melanie had that after-liquor exhaustion that weighed on her eyelids and demolished her willpower. So she broke her rule. Then she concentrated on Christopher, saying a silent prayer of “god bless this-and-that,” as she had been taught as a child, until she curled around herself on her sheet-less bed and began to snore.

“What do you do, exactly, for the insurance company?” Christopher poked delicately at the appetizer that had appeared in front of his torso like magic. At least, Melanie had not seen a human hand put the small plates in front of each of them. “Are you in the statistics department that produces the actuarial tables? That would be interesting.”

Melanie was annoyed and gratified by his predictability. It was their monthly dinner date, and she was only surprised this topic had waited so long in the queue. They had done the cursory background inquiries on the first one, the “what did you always want to be when you grew up” game on the second one and so on. But Christopher, with his hair that swung endearingly across his forehead, was attentive and polite and wanted to know. She swallowed a large mouthful of Burgundy and forged into her appetizer.

“No, that’s liability management. I don’t do predictions, ‘projections,’ the insurance guys call it.” She chewed on an artichoke from her pile of greens and mouthed a “Yummy.” She continued and watched her glass of wine, as if it might move. She really wanted to catch the guy that kept filling it up. “My job is to tally the expenses of people with a health policy that actually use it. Old people, sick people, sometimes kids. I add up what they spend. Then, I forward the list to benefits to send them checks for whatever part of that total, if any, is covered in their policies.” Melanie reached her hand for the glass again and saw that it had been refreshed as if by magic. “Did you see the waiter guy fill our glasses? I was watching, and I didn’t see a thing. I want the right to refuse more wine, not have it dumped in my glass.”

She laughed and saw he was pleased with her joke. The smile on Christopher’s face was earnest, Melanie believed, because he was earnest.

“I’m so glad you like it! I picked this restaurant out three months ago to make sure we got the best seats in the house. I thought it was appropriate to have French tonight, since it’s almost our anniversary!”


“One year since we met!” Christopher lowered the heavy sterling flatware with the restaurant’s initials engraved into the handles, carefully to this plate. “You know, ann-i-ver-sary,” he pronounced the word slowly as if she was dim-witted or a child.

“You don’t remember last October, meeting me at the wine bar? I ordered you a carafe of Bordeaux and you couldn’t resist me?” He was bright and shiny with the wine, the woman across from him, and the story which he considered utterly romantic. “And then we started talking about France and how much we both love to drink and then I got your number and the rest is, well, the rest is a whole year of fun!” He raised his glass.

“You forgot the part where I asked you why you were cheating on your wife.”

Melanie tried to rest her flatware piece on her plate, to mirror him in his toast, but it landed with a ca-thunk on the floor that sent the head waiter running to offer her another engraved sterling fork. She accepted the new utensil with a “thanks very much” and speared another artichoke from the thin china plate. Christopher lowered his glass to the table without disturbing the wine that had already been decanted.

“And you also forgot the part where I asked you why you didn’t allocate the time that you directed toward chasing various skirts to your wife.” She swallowed heavily, this time, and felt the wave of alcohol seeping into her synapses, or whatever it was in her brain that intersected with the alcohol. “But, I’m glad that you ignored my advice, and now, we’re partners in crime, and I’m your number-one girlfriend.

The thick brown hair that swung across his forehead seemed to extend a bit lower toward his brown eyelashes. Christopher’s forehead wrinkled, either in disappointment or concern. Not annoyance, Melanie knew, because Christopher Sparring did not become annoyed with his girlfriends. She continued eating and talking at the same time, “For a mistress-benefactor relationship, I think we’ve made a real go of it. Come on, if I was married to a man like you, I’d be thrilled that someone like me was around to take care of my husband, to keep him out of my hair, out of my house. And then there would be the guilt factor that he would carry around.” She swallowed the last artichoke and this time, was not surprised this time to see that her wine glass was perfectly three-quarters full. “If I was the wife, I’d know that whatever it costs him to keep her, I’d be getting all that and at least ten times more. If I was the wife, I’d figure that the most he could hide from me would be about ten percent of our cash.” Melanie drained the glass and looked straight at him this time as if she was reciting a list of complaints to a judge. “If I was the wife, I’d think the money we gave to the mistress was the toll to keep civility in the house. Just one more cost of living.”

Christopher’s forehead wrinkled again. This time she pegged it as “concern.” “Melanie, you know, I’ve had other girlfriends, and that I love women! But you’re twenty-nine, you’re beautiful, I’ve told you that you are special to me.”

Christopher paused, because the waiter materialized at his side with the larger plates for the main course. He waited, a discreet time, until the waiter had presented their dishes and explained what they were about to eat. “Look, I’m not a choirboy but I think you’re lumping me with the other married man you told me you dated, and maybe we’re alike in some ways, but we’re not the same. It’s unfair of you to compare the two of us. I’ve never lied to you.”

Christopher finished speaking on a downward and quiet inflection, as if he had finished one of his famous closing summations.

“Okay, Christopher, I’m sorry. I think I’m just tired this week.” She was truthful about being tired: she had not slept well since the previous Tuesday night, when the coffee machine and the college kids had been missing, when she had broken her rule. The wine that she drank, only because he expected it of her, was not helping. She hated alcohol, had for a few years now. It drained her strength and she never touched the stuff when she wasn’t with Christopher.

“I know, and it’s hard for you, being in this position. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, I’m sure, but, I don’t want to hurt anyone and I try very hard not to do that. No one needs to get hurt.”

Melanie nodded her head in agreement. It was their one-year anniversary this week, and he had met her in the wine bar, and he had bought her some red wine, and he had become convinced that she liked to drink, and that she liked him, but — she knew better than to end the thought she had started. She finished her dinner and half a bottle of wine and engaged in polite conversation with the man seated across from her.

Shortly after midnight, when Christopher left to walk to the car that waited for him, Melanie shed her standard dinner date attire. She pulled on jeans and a sweater, the season being October. As the small black wad of a dress arched toward the hamper, she heard the building’s foyer door open and close slowly, Christopher being concerned not to wake her neighbors. He was on the street. The sheets on her bed came off and followed her dress into the hamper. She would retrieve them tomorrow from the laundry, and they would smell of lemon fabric softener instead of the heavy European cologne Christopher sprayed under his collar. She counted the bills and opened her frayed accounting book. She looked through her streetside window, the only one in her apartment, and did not see him. He had found the car. While she marked the bills in her accounting book, she heard a car bell ring. The driver was opening the door, and Christopher was going home.

Her ledger reconciled with the cash in her lockbox, four thousand dollars, including tonight’s deposit. Each month she had allocated half the deposit to rent and a thousand dollars to maintenance, including items like fresh flowers, good-smelling candles, new dresses and shoes. The remainder of his deposit, after she subtracted other living expenses, she allocated to savings. Melanie knew that she should have more to show from Christopher, but it had cost her quite a bit to conduct this affair.

She was drunk, really drunk this time, and when she made her notations, she decided to withdraw the money, not a single bill, but all of the money that she had in her lockbox. This money was a promise to herself that she was profiting, hoarding a secret from her parents, from her friends, even from the occasional boyfriend-interests that had careened in and out of her life during the past year. Nothing mattered, right then, except that she needed to celebrate, as Christopher said, their “ann-i-ver-sary,” so that she could reflect on the remarkable coincidence that had caused her to meet Esquire Sparring, sitting at the same bar where she had met Ryan, where she had been struck dumb with love, or lust or something that was still kicking her heart five years later. That wine bar where she had returned carrying hope that the universe would offer up a messy and improbable meeting. That wine bar where Ryan had spilled his wine, where he had confessed he forgot his wallet at home and would have to run a tab. That wine bar where he had brushed his hand against her black-stockinged leg and where he had laughed when she told him she had graduated from state college and was paying off loans and sharing a studio with two girlfriends. That wine bar where he had kissed her, after ushering her into the bathroom, and had raised her skirt and kissed her inner thigh and where he had been sloppy, leaving wine-coated kisses and spit on her stomach. That wine bar where he offered her his business card and told her to call him. That wine bar where she first tasted a martini and where they returned, to sample mixers and fruit-infused vodkas and kiss each other with purple tongues. That wine bar that she had passed one night to see Ryan caressing a woman’s leg and offering her a silver necklace to match the cufflinks he wore on his suit. That wine bar where the bartender told her, gently, that Mr. and Mrs. Taylor were celebrating their fifth wedding anniversary with a vintage grand crux, a champagne that Ryan had often ordered for Melanie. That wine bar where she had cried, unnoticed by either of the Taylors, then stumbled out of, past swarming cars and trucks to lie on a park bench until a police officer told her she could not sleep there. Melanie had trudged home that night, passing that empty wine bar where the manager totaled the night’s receipts, counting cash in one pile and credit card slips in the other.

She believed that this night, in her haze of the crushed grape and the recollection the wine bar might be open, that he would be there, that life would offer her this one ironic crumb. She added her hoard of cash from the lockbox to the contents of that night’s envelope, extinguished the expensive perfumed candles that Christopher requested, and closed the door behind her. Her legs would not cooperate, and she fell down the last three stairs and became aware, somehow, through the pounding in her head, that the next morning she would have a long scraping bruise on her derriere. She let the door bang loudly and walked five blocks past the coffee shop where George was leaning across the hard white counter he used as a bed. She saw the students seated with their backpacks and their guitars, some whispering. Maybe some of the whisperers were lovers or maybe they were polite and didn’t want to wake George. Melanie felt fermented and angry in the leftover taste of vodka martinis and foreign grapes because George was posing as a counterman, a man of honest ambition, when there was evidence to the contrary he once had another career.

Melanie halted her march, pulled a bill from her back pocket, opened the door and slid the money under the register. Her hand waved a brief salute to the familiar faces but she did not wake George. George, the phony counterman, or the musician’s agent, would wake when he was ready to serve the kids, some of whom had already begun to pour themselves coffee and eat the pastries. The diner patrons looked like a fluorescent family, all strangely lit at odd hours of the night and full of the familiarity that allows a guest to brew a pot of coffee in the hostess’s kitchen. She resumed her march and thought about what she would buy when she stopped again.

But the wine bar was closed, its chairs stacked on the small bistro-style tables. On the other side of the square clear windows, the manager counted his revenue for the evening and the busboy mopped the floor. She was too late and the alcoholic buzz was wearing away, fizzling into the static that caused her eyes to sag. The wine bar where she had met Christopher, the nice man with his cheerful fantasies, was different in the early hours of the morning. It looked sedate and content and misleading compared to its peak evening hours when couples crouched in dark corners to sample the bar’s specialties. Unfair that a place, a static and immobile building, should put up such appearances. There was no one to drink the champagne she had wanted to buy, no one to eat the caviar she had wanted to order. There wasn’t even a bum on the corner, no dirty hands outstretched, no grasping efforts at reality to fulfill. The only person on the block was an old woman who tried to power her wheelchair with a slowness that Melanie had never seen in real-time, only in the painful creeping of digitized video. The battery must have broken, because the woman’s tiny and crooked hands grabbed the top of each wheel and shoved them downward, to move the entire chair forward. The woman was not strong enough to overcome the friction of the sidewalk and her efforts burned off into nothing. Melanie crossed the street quickly, without hesitation to look for traffic, and asked, “Can I help you Ma’am?”

She stood, and the woman sat, and Melanie knew that this woman was old, the type of old that made everyone feel guilt for being younger. The woman had white papers in her lap, the kind that had been photocopied from an original. On the underexposed original there must have been a picture of a white cat, curled in a patch of light against the woman’s dark floor because the black and white reproduction showed a white cat-shaped blob against a black background. The lettering on the poster was loopy and large, an old-fashioned and practiced text that told the reader, “My Cat is Lost-Reward Offered.”

“I’ve lost something, I’ve lost something, and it can’t be helped.” The woman’s head fell across her chest, but she was not sleeping, she was awake and attempting to move the chair again. Melanie turned her own head, perhaps for help, or perhaps because she didn’t like to look at this white-haired old woman. She saw the wine bar in her peripheral vision and the diner in the distance, with George and his white balloon-belly suspended over his counter. Her nearsighted vision registered a sheet of paper with a white cat-like blob, hanging on a lamppost. The sign was crooked and low, and she was irritated by it; no pedestrians would see the sign at that level and that old woman wouldn’t get anyone to think about her lost cat.

It made no sense until, she realized with a turn in her stomach that made her wonder if she would vomit, it made no sense until you were an old woman with a reach too low to post signs at a proper level.

“Can I help you home, Ma’am?” Melanie did not wait, she grabbed the two prongs that extended from the back of the chair and pushed the woman toward the corner. She knew then that the wheelchair had always been manual. There were no battery components built into the chair.

“Am I going the right way?”

“No, no, leave me alone, leave me alone.”

Melanie watched the lady’s hands grab again at the wheels that acted as a rudder to guide the chair. She shifted her body and Melanie wondered if the lady was going to fling her body onto the concrete sidewalk.

“I’m sorry Ma’am. I thought I could help you home, hang signs, whatever. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean any harm.”

The reflexive apologies came so easily, even in the aftermath of alcohol and memories in which she should not have indulged. Melanie put her hands on her forehead, trying to think, think. Then she realized what was wrong. She hadn’t said a prayer for Christopher, to thank God for that man’s generosity. Lack of gratitude was hurting her, already-causing her butt and her back to stiffen from her fall. Now, her lack of gratitude was carrying over into this lady’s missing cat, causing an old woman to cry.

“Ma’am, I want to give you something, okay? I want to give you something and you can buy a new wheelchair, you know, with a battery and you won’t have to push anymore. I can give you my name and my number, you can call me, and I’ll help you. We’ll put up posters and we’ll find your cat. We will.”

The woman’s head slung low in a rubbery position that only old people with unresponsive muscles can maintain. Several photocopied cat papers had fallen from woman’s lap and were floating, each sheet had caught its own breeze and swirled across the sidewalk. Melanie removed the envelope from her blue jeans and tucked it into the right pocket of the windbreaker the woman was wearing. She became aware that several people were watching them now. The manager of the wine bar, the busboy and a few pedestrians had stopped to stare at both of them. These onlookers probably thought she had mugged the old lady, and that thought made Melanie so much more tired. She had to get home; she needed to rest.

“Leave me alone! I’ve lost it and it can’t be undone, it can’t be undone.” The woman recovered her posture and raised her head to look straight at Melanie. “I don’t need some stranger to help me.”

The old lady clutched the cat papers between her knees, grunted a huge sound in the pitch of a wail and applied pressure to move her wheels a single revolution, then another, and then another. Melanie watched the back of the woman’s head and saw that behind her, the bills had become dislodged from the envelope and were floating. The old woman was scattering Christopher’s money, reversing the year of tallies and the summaries of care. The white sheets of cat pictures mixed with the smaller pieces of nominally more valuable paper and circled each other in a funnel outside the wine bar, dancing over the top of the gutter. Melanie did not notice if anyone ran to tell the old woman she was losing her money or if the manager or the busboy came sprinting outside to rescue the bills from the sewer.

Melanie was looking ahead as she walked the sidewalk with two stiffening legs. She was waking the cats and waking the doormen and thinking that tonight, she had the appearance of someone to be reckoned with.

“Costs of Living” Copyright ©2000 by Krista McGruder.
All Rights Reserved.

No part of this story may be used or reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without the written permission of the author except in the case of brief quotations for the purposes of critical reviews or articles. Educators who wish to print or photocopy in part or whole this story for classroom use, or publishers who wish to include this story in an anthology should send inquiries by email to the author.