She’d had it for weeks before she found the money.
On this day, Gracie L, fifty-seven years old, mother of three ungrateful kids, and grandmother to two children she had never seen, realized she was alone in the cardboard shanty she shared with Marie. Privacy was a rare luxury.
Her mind immediately went to what she called “Her Collectibles”. Whenever she found anything of value, she would hide it in amongst her stuff in the rusty, squeaky shopping cart she had named Willie (after that whiny nightclub performer in Temple of Doom). People might take what they could if they got the chance. Best to keep it all hidden.
She stood, stepped a little closer to the cart, reached in, rummaged around, and pulled out that notebook she had found – just sitting on a bench!
It was black, hardcover, with one of those elastic things for holding your place. Very elegant. Well, it was a bit grubby now with Gracie’s life all over it, but the inside? The pages were white, clean, and neatly lined. It was her nicest Collectible yet.
Gracie shifted to the marked page. It was full of a neat script that was long, thin, and ethereal as if an elf had arisen from legend and was writing their thoughts on the page. Gracie pulled the elastic and then flipped through and, suddenly, an envelope fell out of the notebook. Gracie peeked inside. And she almost fell over.
There were one-thousand-dollar notes in the envelope. Gracie looked around and then lifted the money out and fanned it to count. There were twenty one-thousand-dollar notes in the envelope all pretty and pink, with the face of Queen Elizabeth calmly staring on one side and a breeding pair of some kind of bird on the back. Gracie couldn’t believe her eyes. Her hands shook as she turned the stack of money over and over.
She heard a cough from outside the shanty and it shook her reverie. Marie, that poor soul who lived with Gracie in their little hovel, was real sick. The cough was dry and sounded painful but Marie refused go to the hospital just a short block away. Marie didn’t trust doctors – but not going can kill.
Gracie didn’t want to turn out like Marie. She slid the money back in the envelope, lifted her shirt and shoved it deep into her underwear. She knew how she smelled. No one would be looking down there too soon. She would take the money to the bank.
She reached into the hidden pocket in her coat and pulled out her ID – both pieces held the face of a woman she barely remembered. A woman whose husband left her for a thirty-something marketing genius; a woman who was downsized out of a job. A woman who walked into the wall of everyone’s mommy issues as she tried to restart her career in midlife. A woman who lost everything one after the other.
Finding this money was her first good luck in years. She felt galvanized, suddenly full of purpose. She could open a bank account. She could have a bank card and find a place to live. She could clean up, buy some clothes. She could get a job. She didn’t care if she worked at fucking McDonalds. She could GET A JOB. She could have things again. She could go to the doctor. She could go to the movies. All she had to do was go to the bank and deposit the money.
Gracie paused. Oh, yeah. That’d go just great.
What would they think, those middle-class bank employees she used to be like? What would they see? What would they do?
They would see a homeless woman in bedraggled clothes with stringy, dirty hair who hadn’t washed in months. She looked over at Willie with new eyes or, rather, her old eyes. They would see a shopping cart full of junk and garbage – things she had literally fought to keep but, really, there was nothing of value in that cart. She stared down at the detritus of her life, at the garbage she hauled around.
They would think she had stolen the notebook. They would take the money, maybe throw her in jail. Hell, they wouldn’t even let her get that far probably. They probably wouldn’t even let her in the bank.
Gracie sighed, moaned. She sat down and flipped randomly through the notebook. She let the pages go and the book flopped open to the front page. On that page were the words “In case of loss”. And there, again, in that almost mystical script was a name and an address: Lisa Wong. 33 Bay, 1620.
She knew the building. Wait. Wait, wait, wait. Maybe she could return the notebook and the money. Maybe there would be a reward. Maybe it would be enough to get her out of Toronto to somewhere cheaper to live. McDonalds is everywhere right? But in small-town nowhere, your fourteen an hour went a lot farther.
There were a lot of ‘maybes’ around returning the notebook. Could she get to this Lisa? Would Lisa even reward her? She couldn’t take the cart and she’d have to leave the shanty behind. She might lose them both.
But she knew that this kind of chance would never come again and she knew she had to try. She stuffed her greasy hair up in her grubby cap, tried to wipe dirt from her face, shoved the notebook in the waistband of her pants under her coat. She stepped outside and nodded to Marie. Marie looked at her, quizzically.
“I’m goin’, Marie.”
“You leavin' the cart?”
“It’s yours, Marie.” Marie gasped and looked so happy. She gleefully disappeared into the shanty to go through her new belongings. And there would be someone in Gracie’s place before nightfall.
Gracie walked Bay Street amongst the commuters remembering that she was, once, one of those people. She felt shy. She knew she was dirty and smelly. But she kept her head high. She knew where she was going.
She saw the Security Guard well before he saw her, standing out front of 33 Bay in his fine grey uniform, long coat, and cap. He was barring the way to the castle, like Peter at the pearly gates. She knew he would judge her as she approached the building. She knew that the first split second of interaction with the security guard would make or break her whole future. She came up to the front of the building but stayed a few feet away and off the carpet.
She felt so anxious. The building, with its fine granite exterior, was intimidating. That damn security guard with his pristine uniform. She could see the golden light from the lobby, a lobby with marble floors and shiny metal fixtures, was glowing like a warm hearth in the middle of winter. But it looked so out of reach.
And then she realized that she'd managed that walk without being accosted or mocked even once. People were usually mean like that – and sometimes other homeless people tried to take things from her cart. But this Gracie? This new Gracie who was walking with purpose? This hopeful Gracie who had somewhere to go? People just left her alone. It felt good to walk freely. Maybe that shopping cart had been a bullseye all along and she just didn’t know it.
So she stood up tall, head erect, pretending a confidence she certainly did not feel but she knew if she played the victim, he would tell her to get lost. That’s how people worked. That’s how people treated the weak. She nodded at him like she might have when she was a nice, middle-class lady.
“Excuse me,” she said. Dammit, her voice was so gravely. “I’ve found a notebook lost by Lisa Wong in Apartment 1620 and I would like to return it.”
The Security Guard looked at her, assessing, but, surprisingly, he was respectful enough. “You can leave it with me, granny,” he said, holding out his hand. Gracie flinched at the granny remark, but he was smiling.
“I don’t think she would want that. I will wait over here.”
She dug deep to find her voice again, that unwavering confidence. She saw the nametag on his coat. “Gregory. She will thank you. Trust me. Just make the call, Gregory.” Then she took a few steps away from him, turning her back as her former self might have. The act is a dismissal. It stopped argument. She waited, holding her breath. A few moments later, she heard him talking.
“Ms. Wong,” said the Guard. Gracie almost cried with relief. “Good afternoon, it’s Greg, at the front door. Yes, hi. Right. Yes, ma’am. Look, there’s a woman here who says she has your notebook. Oh…oh, yes ma’am, yes. No, I don’t…yes. Outside. Yes, ma’am. I’ll ask her to wait.”
Honestly, Gracie could barely breathe as she waited for Lisa Wong to come downstairs. What would Lisa do? Gracie carefully retrieved money with her back to Gregory and the street, then held it, and the notebook, close to her chest while she waited for Lisa.
Lisa Wong, a woman in her forties, impeccably dressed and composed, stony-faced with an almost haughty air, finally appeared after an eternity. They exchanged pleasantries, with Gracie declining to shake because her hands were dirty at which Lisa paused and looked at Gracie a little differently. Gracie gave Lisa back the notebook and the money with her heart in her mouth. The world stood frozen for a moment.
Lisa received the items, her face unreadable. Gracie found herself holding her breath as Lisa checked that all the money was there and then slowly put the envelope between the pages of the notebook.
Lisa looked at Gracie in silence for a few moments, clearly deciding what to do. Gracie stood tall but she was flooded with fear and anxiety.
And then? Lisa smiles. She insists Gracie come up for a shower and some food. While Gracie is in the shower, Lisa casually compiles clothes, a suitcase, some toiletries, and a purse for Gracie – and a little black notebook of Gracie’s own. “So you can write your future, Gracie.” The pizza arrives.
They chat while they eat and Lisa prompts Gracie to share her story. At the end of the meal, Lisa takes the dishes to the kitchen and Gracie stands, ready to leave. She puts on her new coat and shoes and catches herself in Lisa’s elegant, full-length hall mirror. Even with the long hair, Gracie looks like herself. A little worse for wear but herself. She smiles. She’ll find a way. She calls out a thank you and reaches for the door handle.
“Where’re ya goin?”
Gracie turns back to see Lisa looking honestly confused. “You have to stay here for a few nights, Gracie. I can help you. Let’s fix all this.”
Stay? Lisa shows Gracie to a small but beautiful spare room. Gracie sits at a little desk with a view of downtown Toronto, opens her notebook, and starts to describe what she imagines for her new life. And has a good cry.
Three weeks later, like a dream, Gracie’s words lift off the page and walk in the real world. She’s living in a small, bright, clean apartment in downtown St. Catharines. She works full-time at a Sal’s, a local restaurant where Sal, the owner, was at first very wary of her but is now putting her in charge of the morning rush. She meets both her grandchildren the same day she gets in touch with her family. Maybe these kids aren’t so ungrateful after all.
Gracie L carries her little black notebook with her everywhere. When she has a spare moment, she writes of her thankfulness and she composes her future. She will need a new notebook, soon.