The Perception of Wealth
"If you want to feel wealthy, count the things you have that money can’t buy"
Every morning the traffic on her route to work was awful. It was a slow, torturous crawl through the suburbs while under the constant torment of nagging car horns. To Adeline, it felt like a great trek through the wilderness each day to find food for her family. Day after day, the other mammals left their homes, herded together, and trod towards the concrete jungle where they could gather the resources they needed to feed their families. She used to laugh at the idea of being stuck in that routine. Working a nine-to-three job at the supermarket was not at all what she had in mind for her career. She wanted to study nursing when she was younger. Instead, she ended up giving birth to a beautiful, although unplanned, baby boy. Now, she spends her days working at a supermarket in the city so they can get by.
She’d always preferred night shifts because they were mostly spent restocking shelves and there were no arrogant customers to bother her. Unfortunately, her husband had recently lost his job. They had to sell their second car to keep the bills at bay, and because she needed the other car to get to work, she had to swap to day shifts so she could drop her son off at kindergarten each day. A compromise she had to make, but it bothered her every morning. She hated traffic. The logistics and inefficiency of it infuriated her. Yet one thing sparked her rage more than anything else. Almost every morning on her drive to work, an obnoxiously expensive looking BMW blocked the road. There was never any room to overtake for a few more miles so she had to trail behind it each morning until she turned off to the school. What’s worse is that it would happen right as she turned onto the road where the traffic dispersed. On the days where she wasn’t stuck behind it, her drive was almost ten minutes faster. It doesn’t sound like much, but ten minutes would mean the difference between an early arrival at work and a threatening glare from the manager as she walked in.
As she continued her daily journey to work, she caught herself thinking, “Why didn’t I just go to University? Why couldn’t I have a successful career and a husband that’s good with money?”
She immediately scalded herself for letting her mind wander like that. She was grateful for the life she had, but she longed for something more luxurious. The ‘what ifs’ were eating away at her patience more and more every day. Suddenly, a little voice from the backseat exclaimed,
“Don’t forget to turn, Mummy!”
Adeline was whipped out of her daydream instantly.
“Shit! Sorry!” she exclaimed as she slapped on the indicator and turned sharply onto the next street. Realising what she had said, she quickly corrected her language while trying to calm herself,
“Don’t say that word though. That was a bad word. Mummy was just being naughty.”
Desmond chuckled from the back seat.
“It’s ok, I don’t mind. Daddy says naughty words all the time," he said.
“Oh really? I might have to have a word with him when I get home…what did he say?”
“Well, sometimes he says things like ‘what the f-”
“Never mind!” Adeline interrupted after realising what she’d done. “He can tell me later when I ask him.”
“We’re almost there,” Adeline noted as she briskly changed the subject. “Have you got your backpack ready?”
Adeline smothered a laugh as she smiled in the front seat. The kid was funny. She adored him - how could she not? She had to give up her early career aspirations to take care of him, but now that she’d done it, she knew she wouldn’t have it any other way. After dropping Desmond off at his kindergarten, she continued her trek through the rigid metropolitan terrain, past the graveyard and towards the enveloping walls of the supermarket which imprison her each day until three o’clock.
Everyday was a repetition of that last. Over and over again. Adeline grew more and more impatient as time went on. It had been almost 3 months now since her husband lost his job. He was going through a hard time, and she loved him dearly, but she resented the burden he was putting on her. She wanted a career that would change people’s lives, not a career where she had to explain which aisle the tinned tomatoes could be found in. Her work felt trivial, as if it were a job almost anyone could do, and judging by her payslips, it was.
One morning, Desmond woke up with a cold. After delivering a large dose of sympathy, she left him in the capable hands of her husband and left for work. Perhaps it was the fact that she didn’t have Desmond in the car to calm her, or because the weight of her family’s financial status was getting to be too much, but she felt even more on edge than usual. As the traffic slowly strolled by, she neared the turn off to the street which bypassed the traffic. The pace was slower than usual, so she was anxious to make up for lost time after she escaped the main road. Her left foot bounced in anticipation as she drew closer to the exit. She held her breath as she turned onto the street, and then her heart dropped. There it was - the BMW. Its gleaming fresh paint taunted her as she approached.
“Damn it! Not today… why today?” she muttered furiously. The painfully slow journey dragged on until she eventually had the chance to overtake her nemesis. She stomped angrily on the accelerator, but as she began to overtake, the BMW suddenly turned in front of her. She slammed on the breaks to avoid a collision and beeped her horn in rage. The car gracefully slid by and turned off onto a side street. Adeline’s heart was racing.
“They could’ve killed me!” she thought bitterly. Without a second thought, she turned off onto the side road and began to pursue the BMW. She found it, not far down the street, mocking her from its poorly parked position on the side of the road. She pulled into an empty space beside the car and jumped out in a hurry. Marching over to the BMW, she realised it was empty. As she looked around, she noticed a frail figure disappearing through the gates at the edge of the carpark. Determined to give the reckless driver a piece of her mind, she hurried past the car and followed the figure. It wasn’t until she’d burst through the gates that she realised where she was. It was the graveyard.
Although feeling less at ease, she continued her pursuit of the figure which had stopped in front of one of the headstones. Still seething with anger and marching forward, Adeline called out to the figure.
“Hey! What do you think you’re doing? You could’ve killed me back there!” she yelled.
The figure turned around and faced her. It was an old man, wearing a brown leather jacket and long dark dress pants. He had an expression of pure sorrow on his face.
“Oh, I apologise, madam. I meant no harm by it. Sometimes I can be a bit, uh, absent minded,” he said apologetically. Still not satisfied, Adeline continued her rant.
“What if I’d had my husband or son with me? What if you’d caused me to crash!?”
“I-I really am sorry. I’m not the most experienced of drivers you see. My wife she… well she used to drive me everywhere because I never quite had the knack for it. But unfortunately, she… passed not too long ago.” He gestured solemnly towards the headstone and the freshly placed flowers which lay next to it. Adeline stopped. A wave of guilt washed over her. She was still shaken from the incident but knew anger wasn’t going to solve it.
“Oh… well, maybe you should get someone else to drive you? I get stuck behind your car almost every day on my way to work,” Adeline said sternly. “I’m probably going to be late now because of this, and I need this job. I NEED the money! Some of us aren’t wealthy like you. I certainly can’t afford luxuries like that,” she said bitterly, gesturing towards the old man’s car by the side of the road.
The old man paused for a moment, then pulled a little black book from his coat and held it fondly.
“That car is not a luxury. Nor am I a wealthy man," he said sadly. "I spent my entire life working away at a job I hated to buy things I didn’t need. I worked so much that I forgot what I was working for. Sure, I did well for myself, I- I made a lot of money, but I missed out on so many memories with my wife in the process… She knew it too, but I suppose she was too kind to tell me, or maybe she did and I just didn’t listen. That’s why she started writing journals for me. When she found out she didn’t have long left - after the diagnosis... she wrote to me even more - every day actually, while I worked and worked and worked… I suppose she knew that it wouldn’t be until she was gone that I’d realise just what I’d missed. Now this little black book, and the others she wrote, are the most valuable things I own. I read the journal entries that she wrote to me every morning here where she rests.”
Adeline was moved by his story and couldn’t help but soften her mood.
“I’m so sorry for your loss. I just…” Adeline trailed off and was lost for words for a moment then continued. “I just worry that I won’t have enough for my family sometimes. That’s not your fault, I know, but I suppose it makes me angry to see some people doing so well – financially I mean, when I’m…not.”
“If you want to feel wealthy, count the things you have that money can’t buy,” the old man whispered solemnly as he clutched the small book even tighter. His gaze shifted for a moment as if suddenly divinely inspired. He pulled another book from his jacket and with a pen from his pocket, began to scribble something down.
“Of course, I am no fool,” he said. “I understand the inequality in our economy, and I’m well aware of where I sit on THAT hierarchy. I know life’s unfair sometimes…”
“I don’t understand… what–”
“Here,” the old man said as he ripped a page from the book and passed it to Adeline. Taking it in her hands, she realised it was a cheque for $20,000.
“Oh. I-I can’t take this!” Adeline exclaimed.
“Please, it’s not much. I just want you to enjoy the things you have in your life while you can. Don’t spend it on lavish and meaningless items. Spend it on your bills, and then use the rest for experiences. Spend it on time with your family! That’s what this money is for. I want you to live like my wife did – appreciate and remember your life. Don’t work it away and focus on what you don’t have like I did. Do you understand? What will you buy with it?” he asked.
Adeline looked up at his old faded face and into his kind and desperate eyes. She thought for a moment about her life, about how much she loved her son, the moments she did share with her family every evening after work, and all the things she took for granted. Adeline nodded, smiled at the old man and whispered, “Yes, I understand. I’ll buy a little black book.”