A Little Black Book Story
The notebook’s small and faded. The little thing is speckled with dust and the spine is bent to a near-ninety-degree angle except where it’s belted shut with a shoelace. I shouldn’t care; there are real books in the yard sale, books that aren’t falling apart. But I’m curious. Why bother to keep basically scraps?
I throw the thing on top of my pile of books. The eighty cents will come from the money I’ll make selling the others online. I pay for my loot and load it into the trunk of my ’93 Pontiac. I stop, snag the notebook, and tuck it into my coat with my COVID mask.
On my drive home, I get stopped at this intersection that’s seen an accident. Annoyed, but with nowhere to be, I throw the car in park and pull the little black book out. I try the knot in the shoelace with my fingernails before realizing it’s just loose enough to slide off.
Twelve hundred-dollar bills kerflumph into my lap.
I choke. My mind spins as I cough; what in the world? That’s a grand. Where—do I have to return it? How—
No, I don’t have to return it, I reason as I finish spluttering. Nervously, subconsciously, I glance at the cops in the intersection. They aren’t even aware that I exist. Besides, I paid for the notebook. It’s not my fault that that girl didn’t know.
Feeling slightly better, I open the notebook. Three more hundred-dollar bills fall out.
I flip the notebook around. Peeking out between stained pages are more bills. One per page. I do a quick calculation in my head.
“That’s twenty thousand dollars,” I say aloud, stupefied. That’s insane. Thoughts tumble through my head: riding in an airplane to Europe. Paying my overdue rent. Do I have to pay taxes on this? Amazon, and the things I saved there for “someday.” A full cart at Walmart.
Unsure what else to do, I start to read.
“June 9, 1983
Today I am a dad. I’m a dad! Louis is so small, so perfect, so… what do you say about a baby? It’s all been said before. But this is my baby. My son. He has tiny toes and he eats until it hurts Marie (and then some.) I’m looking forward to playing catch and eating burgers together, and then I stare down at the blanket-bundle and tears fill my eyes because he’s here, he’s real, and he is mine. Ours. Marie’s and mine. My boy. My son.”
“Hey!” I glance up, the words of the book and the words of the cop waving me forward blending in my brain because twenty thousand dollars is still swirling around up there too. I put the Pontiac in drive, my left hand trying to cover the fortune in my lap just in case the officer looks through the window.
I race home. I stuff the bills in my pocket, worrying about neighbors. I try to walk normally, but I feel shifty. Nervous. I run through my crappy apartment, then dump the money onto my bed, triple-checking that I’ve gotten every bit out of my pockets.
Then I flip the book, pinching the spine, and wag the pages.
A rain of cash descends to the quilt Mom made for me. Mom. Mom could use a hundred bucks. I suppress the generosity. This money is mine now, and I definitely need it. Mom will be okay.
I’m tired. I climb into the unmade bed, careful not to knock the bills onto the floor where they could vanish under the bed or the laundry, and I read again.
“July 4, 1983
Louis’ first Independence Day. He doesn’t care, except when the neighbors set off fireworks that woke him. I’m not sure if the baby or Marie was more upset, but Louis screamed more. I decided this journal is for when he graduates high school; I put a hundred dollars in the back. It’s more than we can afford, but this is our son. And I can always take the money back out, I guess. I just wanted to say: I love you, son. I’m already proud of you, and you’re just a little lump on the floor.”
Something in me twitches. I don’t think my father ever said he was proud of me, even when I was—what was it? I glance back at the page. A little lump.
“December 25, 1983
It’s been a little while since I wrote for you, son. Work has been… insane. You’re rolling now. I saved another hundred for you, tucked it in the back with the other one. I’m sorry you’re not getting much this Christmas, but we’re doing our best, and as your mom points out, you don’t care. Not this year.
January 1, 1984
Happy New Year, Louis!
You’re almost seven months old. Hard to believe. You’re nearly ready to sit on your own, and even better—your mom is getting past the baby blues. It’s nice to get my wife back. Don’t feel bad, son, but it’s been hard. I always said I wanted two kids, but now I hope you’re okay with being an only child.
If I could convince you to sleep, that would be something—though it’s nice to cuddle you in the rocking chair at night. Your mom gets you most of the time—boy, you eat a lot!—but after you’re done, I take you and we rock. Sometimes I sing. You won’t remember me singing, because I don’t do it where adults can hear, but for now, you seem to like Dad’s rusty voice. Who knows? Maybe you’re knocking yourself out so you don’t have to listen anymore. I‘d understand.”
My phone rings, and I jump, searching around for it with one hand.
“Tim? It’s Grandma.” I know. But telling Grandma that won’t keep her from identifying herself on the phone or signing her texts.
“Hi,” I respond, unsure what Grandma wants.
“Are you going to come change my lightbulbs today?”
Crap. I was. Mom has been haranguing me to help Grandma, guilting me with the idea of an old lady living alone, in quarantine, in the dark. Stupid COVID—normally, Grandma’s neighbors change the lightbulbs and stuff, but she’s been insisting to Mom that I need to do it now. As if a pizza delivery guy has less germs than her work-from-home neighbor. Whatever.
“Sorry, Grandma.” I find my keys. “I’ll be over in half an hour.”
“I’ll be over in half an hour!” I all but shout into the phone. Then I hang up before she can babble at me. I look at the money; my room is private, but my roommate is nosy. I go to the kitchen and, after hunting in the cupboard, come up with an almost-empty bread bag. I hurry back to my room, eating the last slice, and stuff the money inside.
Bring it or hide it? I consider for a minute. Finally I throw the bag and the notebook into my pocket.
I climb into my car. Grandma’s house is ten minutes away and I have twenty—oops. I pull out the notebook. Suddenly, it hits me—the money was still inside. What happened to Louis? How did the yard sale lady end up with the notebook, and the twenty grand?
I check the inside front cover, find an address. Finch Drive isn’t even that far away--I verify with my GPS.
I don’t even know what I’m hoping. It’s been, what, almost forty years since Louis was born? I open the notebook again, this time to the last page.
“February 18, 1999
I’m sorry, son. I’m sorry I’m going to miss so much. Your high school graduation. Your college graduation. Your wedding, your children. I was excited. I think you were too.
And you won’t really remember who I was. I mean, we have a lot of great memories together. Lots of catch and burgers. But we’ll never have an adult-to-adult relationship, and I’m really, really sad about that.
In a selfish way, I hope you’re sad too. I hope you miss me. Is that terrible? Anyway, I guess the best I can do is leave you with some advice.
Be a good person, Louis. You’re a good kid. Take care of your mom. Heck, take care of my mom. Be smart. Be hardworking. But most of all, be kind.
I love you, kid.
P.S. Cancer is the pits.”
I stare at the last few words. “Cancer is the pits.”
I can’t do it. I can’t leave Louis hanging. I turn the car on, head to Finch Drive. Knock.
A lady answers. She’s 60-something.
“Are you Marie? I’m sorry—I totally forgot my mask.”
“Yes, I’m Marie.”
She’s puzzled, I can see it in the top half of her face, the only part showing. Funny, I thought somehow that she‘d be blonde, like Mom.
“I found this,” I say, holding out the journal. “It belongs to Louis. From his dad.”
She gasps as she looks down, and a tear splatters onto the cover. One more spot among dozens.
“And, um,” I’m not sure how to explain, so I pull the bread bag out. “This was in the pages. It’s for you. Or, for Louis.
“Is he okay? Louis?”
She nods mutely, her shaking hand moving up to take the little black notebook. She doesn’t even look at the money, just stares at the book. I realize I never replaced the shoelace.
“He’s actually here.” She turns. “Louis!” A guy pops out a second later. His hair is dark and messy, like Harry Potter’s.
“You okay, Mom?” He asks. She nods. He squints at me, like he’s trying to decide if I made his mom cry on purpose.
“Your dad wrote that for you,” I say, waving a hand at the notebook Marie clutches. “And he left this.”
“My—” Louis stops talking as he realizes that the bread bag is full of money. A bread bag full of dough, I realize silently, trying not to laugh. “My dad?”
“I found the book at a yard sale. With the money inside. I read some of it—sorry.”
“It must have been in what I donated,” Marie says with a sniffle. “This young man—” She pauses, looking at me.
“Tim,” I supply.
“Tim. You brought Dennis home to us.”
“Dennis?” I blink a few times.
“My dad,” Louis says, and I nod idiotically.
“I didn’t consider his first name—I just thought of him as “Louis’ dad.” I mutter.
“He’d have liked that.” Marie smiles under her mask.
“Well, thanks,” I say, and hold the bread bag out again.
“’Thanks’?” Louis asks. “Thank you,” He stares at the bag. “Can I give you some of that? A finder’s fee? Times are tough.”
I swallow, and it comes down hard.
“Nah,” I say, and I fake a smile.
“But—” Louis’ eyes find the Pontiac.
“I got this,” I say. “I’m alright. Besides, your dad saved that for you.”
Louis nods, takes the bag, and puts his arm around his mom.
“Thank you, Tim. Really. I wish you’d known my dad.”
“He loved you,” I say. “Read the book. You’ll see.”
“I know he did,” he answers. I smile for real; Louis was lucky. I nod, uncomfortable, then turn and walk down their porch steps. I don’t hear the door close.
Maybe I’m lucky too, I realize as I get back in the car. I’ve got Mom. I’ve got Grand—
I pull out my phone. I’m fifteen minutes late for lightbulb duty. I hit my recent calls and start the car while the phone rings.
“Tim? Are you alright?” Grandma’s voice is strained; she’s worried.
“I’m fine. It’s a long story.”
“You can tell me about it. Maybe…” she pauses. “Maybe over lunch?”
“Sounds great, Grandma,” I say. “I’ll be there in ten.”
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