About Hundred-Dollar Bills
by Deb Thompson

(This story was inspired by events told to me by an ancestor)

Story is not suitable for little kids--but then, neither is abuse.

"Good-for-nothing little bastards. What good are you? Sleep and eat--eat and sleep. I come home and find you laying around here and no work done night after night. I oughta ship the lot of you off to a damned orphanage--good-for-nothing, lazy, worthless, monkey-faced, bloodsucking, scrawny little bastards."
And so it went when he would come home. We were mostly afraid when he came in drunk before midnight. If it got to be later than that Byler would bring him home from the tavern and stretch him out on our old brown sofa to sleep it off. But if he came in early he was still awake, and mean. He was a big Irish dockworker, six-foot-two and over two-hundred-twenty pounds, so if he swung at a grown man's head and scored a hit, the guy might go down and never get up again. Skinny little kids like us didn't stand a snowball's chance, so we had to move fast and try to stay out of his reach.
If we had gone to bed he'd go to Shawn and Danny's room first, then to mine, turning all the lights on and waking the three of us up with a good cussing. And he'd throw anything that wasn't nailed down. I ducked a big, green glass ash tray one night, and it hit my little brother hard right on the nose. Danny curled up and bled like he was dying. He cried and screamed, and I begged him to stop making noise for fear we would all get even worse done to us. I knew his poor little nose was probably broken, but I couldn't do anything except sneak some ice to him and hold him while he cried himself to sleep.
I figured someday the man everybody called Big Jack would kill us, if we didn't find the guts and means to kill him first.
And then one night my big brother Shawn brought Malia home. She was this dark-haired girl, maybe ninety pounds, no older than seventeen. She was beautiful--part Polynesian and part Puerto Rican, with big eyes and a happy smile that reminded me of the one I thought I still remembered from our mother's face.
She let me play with her lipstick and asked me how old I was. I told her I was twelve, and she said that my brothers would have to beat the boys off soon, because I was going to be a looker. She knew how to cook, and she had brought groceries with her. She made supper for us that night, with Shawn cuddling her waist from behind the whole time she cut up onions and carrots at the counter. When she went to use the bathroom Shawn asked Danny and me if we liked her. Danny said she was nice, and I told Shawn I thought she was the sweetest girl he had ever gone out with.
He looked out the front window, and then pulled the curtains closed and told us he was going to marry Malia, and that Danny and I would come and live with them.
"I'm going to be eighteen in four months," he said. "It'll be legal then, and Malia has an uncle who will help us fix it so we can take care of you both."
"But what will we do for money?" I asked him, just as Malia came back into the front room.
Shawn showed us a worn envelope he had been carrying around. When he opened it up, it was stuffed full of paper money.
"Wow!" Danny was all excited, even if he wasn't old enough to have any idea how much money it really was. I saw some hundred-dollar bills in there.
"Where did you get this?" I wanted to know. "You didn't steal it. You better not have done that."
Shawn shook his head and tapped his chest with the envelope.
"It's our money. He drinks up our check every month. I get this away from him when I can, when he's passed out. We have a right. It was our money to begin with."
I was really scared, because I figured if Big Jack found out we had all that money, he would want it back, and he would beat us to get it. And once he got it, he would beat us some more, maybe until we stopped breathing.
When the front door squeaked open, and he barged in, none of us was ready. It was an hour earlier than he ever came home from the tavern. Danny moved first. He stuffed his little body into a squat just behind the far end of the sofa. I went toward the kitchen as if I was going to finish washing dishes. Shawn and Malia were stuck, especially Malia, since she didn't live there, and didn't know the best places to hide. So they just stood there and looked up into Big Jack's booze-tanked eyes . Shawn tried to step in front of Malia, but she grabbed his hand and stood right next to him, real close, like their shoulders and arms were stuck together.
Shawn still had the open envelope full of money behind his back, in the hand that wasn't holding Malia's. I thought maybe I could sneak over there and get it before Big Jack spotted it, so I made a slow move back into the front room. But he was ready. He took about three steps and yanked my hair so hard I bent sideways and went down on one knee.
"Leave her alone."
It was Malia who said it.
It took him a second to realize somebody had dared to challenge him, and when he let up on the hold he had on my hair, I pulled away and made a dash for the envelope full of money. I ran behind Shawn and grabbed at it, but I didn't get a good enough grip, and it fell on the floor. We all stood there for a couple of seconds, looking at our old worn-out carpet all covered with paper money. Mostly we stared at those hundred-dollar bills.
Big Jack could be as drunk as the night was long, and be slurring his words all over the place, but when it came to cussing he could turn every word on a dime. This night was no different, but then other things happened too, so I guess it was different after all.
I remember him grabbing up some of the money and chaining together every cuss word we had ever heard him use. He would throw in a new word every time he reached for another ten or twenty. We all just stood there--until he got to the hundreds. The hundreds meant big money to us, and gave us hope that we could really get out of this place, and get away from Big Jack. When he got to the hundred-dollar bills, something in all of us just snapped. We were on him like alley cats on a fat rat.
Nobody ever did believe him when they took him off to jail, and he tried to tell them we had all that money of his--not the cops, not the child welfare people, not the neighbor lady who called the cops that night when she heard him yelling for help. Funny--nobody had ever called all those years when we yelled for help, but I guess that doesn't matter now. Now we all live in a little place they call the guest house, in back of Malia's uncle's place. She and Shawn got married in the back yard there, with gold and white balloons and red roses, and lots of big silver trays full of tiny little sandwiches. I heard some of the people at the wedding reception whispering and saying it would never last, because they were just kids, and that Shawn was from a bad family. Some of them said Malia's uncle was stupid to pay for all this stuff, when they'd be divorced in six months.
Shawn wanted to go to work full-time, but Malia's uncle talked him into finishing high school, and told him he would send him to college and help him be a lawyer, which is what Malia's uncle is. I hear people say bad things about lawyers, but I know what I know, and Uncle Richard is a good lawyer and a good man.
We've never seen Big Jack again. We heard rumors he got out of jail and went down to the Gulf Coast and worked on shrimp boats. I wouldn't touch anything I thought he caught. Once I found out he worked at catching shrimp, you couldn't pay me to touch one, much less eat one--not even if I was starving--not even for a hundred-dollar bill.

Copyright© 2001 Deb Thompson
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