Just a Little Change
© Copyright 2019 by Edward Hamilton
(c) 2019 freeart.com
Soon after I started driving home, my day started catching up with me. The cool wind whipping through my hair, caressing my face. The large seat held my body comfortably. My eyes started to get heavy. I turned up my favorite heavy metal CD and forced myself to sing along. My body just couldn’t fight the forces of nature. My eyes started falling shut again. I slapped myself a couple times across the face and decided to find an exit ramp. The freeway I was on was dotted all over with little gas station and fast food exits. It didn’t take long before an exit came up with a gas station. The big SUV slowed and hit the off ramp and shortly I was pulling into a gas station. The gas station was not very busy but I pulled in next to a pump anyway just to save steps. The distance between the vehicle and the gas station door, I used to stretch as much of my body as I could. The woman behind the register must have thought I was on a ‘long haul’ the way I was stretching. Truth is, I’m just not a freeway person. When it comes to long drives, I am useless. If I am the passenger…I’ll be asleep in no time. If I’m the driver…I’ll be cramping up and uncomfortable quickly. I noticed as I stretched my body that the cement looked wet. There was the smell of fresh rain in the air. I pulled open the door and immediately was kissed by air conditioned cool. The frigid air whipped past me and left a smell of a refrigerator in its wake.
“Hello” a female voice said as soon as I got in the door. I looked toward the voice and saw a pretty little country girl behind the register. She looked bored the way she sat on the stool and her elbows resting on the counter holding her head up.
“Howdy. Did it rain here?” I asked.
“Bout an hour ago. Only lasted 10 minutes” she reported.
“I must have beat it coming through the first time.” I was on my way to the register with the biggest energy drink they had in my flavor. I got to the counter and set the can down. She was looking out the window.
“Looks like its clearing up now.” She was noting that the sun was now out of the clouds. I looked out the window and it indeed looked sunnier than when I walked in.
“Welcome to Ohio”, I started, “If you don’t like the weather..”
“Just wait twenty minutes” she finished the saying. We both laughed. She rang up my purchase and I paid. I walked toward the door and we said our goodbyes. In seconds my Expedition was roaring back down the freeway.
Before the sandman could get his hands on me again, I cracked open the big can of energy drink and took a long pull. It immediately felt like the cool beverage was re-energizing me. I took another long drink. The stereo was still loud so I reached for the volume. The volume reduced to where I normally listen to it and all was good for the hour drive ahead of me. I sat back and cruised on down the road. Then my phone started screaming its factory song from the cubby hole I keep it in. I looked at the caller ID as the phone kept playing its electric song. It was an old friend of mine from Indiana. I went hands free with the phone.
“Hello, my sweet, How is your day?” I asked in my best deep, manly voice.
“Grrrr. The market is killing me.” She started fuming. She was a real estate agent in Indy, and apparently, everyone is wanting to buy property. The problem was the property was high. This caused everyone to be picky and not easy to negotiate with. She was calling to unload some steam. That was kinda our thing. One would call the other when the day was going bad. The other would calm them down and cheer them up. She was on a good rant. Someone really got under her skin today. I looked ahead and saw I was entering one of the bigger cities on this stretch of freeway. The traffic started slowing down and backing up on each other. ‘Stop lights were doing their job today.’ I thought. I got an opening to start getting my friend down from Alpha Red to Omega Orange. I started my usual nice, sweet, empathetic chatting.
That’s when it happened. I was coming out of the slow traffic and entering the faster traffic heading out of the city, when a bum holds out a sign for me to see. The sign was not flashy. It was merely a brown piece of cardboard, barely bigger than a sheet of paper. The words ‘Just a Little Change’ was wrote on it. The words were broken into three lines. ‘Just’ on the first line. ‘a little’ on the second line and ‘Change’ on the third. The words were a half inch thick, wrote in black marker. The first thing I noticed about the sign was the letters were perfect. I could have never written a more perfect letter unless I used a stencil. Then the words hit me. ‘Just a little change’. Why did he word it like that? Why not, ‘I need your change’ or ‘I’m hungry please help’. This city was bigger than the one I’m from. Was he one of those religious sign holders or a political guy? I’ve never seen one.
“That’s weird” I reflexively said in her mid-sentence. She immediately stopped what she was saying and replied.
“A guy was holding a sign on the side of the road.” I began.
“Yea. A bum with a sign. Weird.” She was now laughing. When her laughing started to trickle down, I continued.
“No dummy. It was the sign that was weird.” I didn’t wait for her to ask what it said. “It said, ‘Just a little change’.
“Did you give him change?” she asked.
“No. I’m not sure it was money he was after.” I heard myself and felt “off”.
“He was a bum. He wanted change.” Her tone was changing.
“What?” I asked in a innocent tone.
“What What?” she returned.
“What’s with the motherly tone?” I asked.
“You know what the tone is for. Your letting this get your dander up and your going to do something that is going to cause something bad to happen to you.” She laid it out plain.
“No I’m not.” I started. “But wasn’t the wording so weird?”
“Ugh.” I could hear her frustration already. “Okay. Ill give you that the wording was somewhat cryptic but there is nothing there. Just weird wording on a sign by a bum.”
“Maybe I should swing back and take another look or ask him why he worded it like that.” I was now thinking out loud.
“OH….MY….GOD!!!” the phone exploded in my ear. “You never listen. This is going to be just like the rainbow in the lady’s backyard…” I interrupted.
“She overreacted” I started, “I was very nice and..” it was her turn to interrupt me.
“The friggin cops were called!” she squealed.
“She didn’t have to react like that.” I said flatly.
“Please promise me you won’t go back.” She asked in a sweet voice.
“Please?” she sounded tortured.
“I promise I won’t do anything stupid.” I said.
“Oh my God…” she was now talking to herself on the other end of the line. I heard bits about ‘no matter how hard she tries’ and ‘give her strength’. Apparently, someone never listens to a damn word she says, and the mumbling went on.
“I..m… goi..ng…(me making crackling noises)…tunnel.” Then I hung up. Finally, back to figuring out the sign. Seconds later my phone chirped. I pulled up the text message.
Theres no tunnels on 31.(Donkey emoji)
I knew she was laughing at my apparent hang up. We did this kind of thing to each other all the time. The conversation left my head as I started trying to spy an exit to get back to heading south. I needed to put this to bed in my mind or I would always regret not knowing. I didn’t see an exit, but I did see an emergency turn around on the median. Signs glared at me screaming “Do not enter” and “NO U-Turn”. My SUV barely slowed as it hit the dirt and came back onto the southbound side of the freeway. The engine roared, as gas hit the carburetor, and soon I was back up to the normal speed limit. I kept an eye on my rear view but saw no flashing lights. I got away scot free. I was excited to get to the bottom of this sign. I felt like a kid the night before Christmas. I wondered what kind of man I would be dealing with. He had to be sharp, intellectual. That sign was too well worded and too perfectly wrote for an ordinary bum.
The time passed quickly. It didn’t seem like 20 minutes had passed before I started hitting the city traffic again. I spied ahead of me like a hungry hawk looking for dinner. Where was he? I closed within blocks of the place I seen him. I smiled as I made out the old man. The main street was too busy to park on, so I turned down the street that made the intersection that he stood on. I parked a couple hundred feet down the street. I exited my vehicle, not breaking stride, as I pointed the fob over my shoulder and engaged the locks. I marched with purpose down the street. I kept him in my sight like a terminator stalking his victim. I closed within speaking distance of him. I stopped.
“Excuse me” I said in the politest tone I could muster.
The old man spun around. His right hand held a small piece of wood. It may have been the first 18 inches of a baseball bat handle. He never held it up or was threatening but when I saw it …. I noted it. He looked confused.
“Huh..Yea”. His voice was gruff and deep like I imagine a sea captain’s would be. He looked closer at me. “What.”
I looked the old man over. I was disappointed. Now that I was close, I could see his clothes were dirty and wrinkled. His eyes looked sickly. The whites of his eyes were more yellow than white. The two orbs looked like a road map of red vessels. His face was deeply wrinkled and grimy. His silver beard was streaked with brown. I was hoping it was chocolate. His teeth were broken busted and black. I felt bad. I think I was hoping for a holy man or wise man and here I found a down on his luck old man. I still smiled and kept a polite tone.
“Why did you word your sign that way?” I asked.
“Are you the frigging sign police?” he spat. He was beginning to feel threatened. He stepped back a step from me. I was disappointed with his answer. I wanted something better from the man that came up with ‘Just a little change’.
“Let’s cut the crap. I ask a question. You give me an answer. I give you a dollar.” I said like I was settling a million-dollar deal. I was in control. I wanted him to know there was no negotiations. I was calling the shots and making the rules. He shook his head in a positive nod. I pulled a dollar out of my pocket. I only had three, but I was positive it wasn’t going to take three questions to get my answers. I held the dollar up between us with my first two fingers.
“Why did you word your sign that way?” I asked.
“First thing that came to my mind.” He said. His fingers darted out and snatched the dollar. His hands were fast. He was like a hummingbird on crack. A smile started to crease his face. I started feeling weird. I couldn’t place the feeling but it felt like my control was weakened. I drew another dollar from my pocket and held it the same way. Our eyes met past the dollar. What was happening? I shook it off.
“By “change” you meant coins. Right?” I slowly asked. I watched the expression on his face.
“Whatever will help me the most”. I heard a ‘Thunk’ and the dollar was gone. His smile got bigger. His eyes became more focused. I was beginning to feel like a mouse in a corner looking at a big black cat. The feline’s focused eyes and big smile stalking toward me. Why was the tide turning? I was getting my answers. He was getting his dollars. It was nothing more than a transaction. Why was I feeling intimidated? Time to make him see his mistake. I took my time getting the last dollar from my pocket. I took the time to think.
“Why did you ask for a “little change” why not just ask for change and take a chance to get it all?” I waited with a quizzical look on my face. The dollar waved in the wind.
“You can’t ask a person for change. You’ll never get it. Take change a little at a time and in no time, you will have all the change.” He watched my face. I tried not to let how impressed I was with his answer show. Then his hand darted out again. This time, I curled my fingers and dollar, behind my hand. His fingers connected with the back of my hand. He glared at me. His anger was definite. Seconds went by. I held out the dollar for him to take. He took it.
“Aight.” I said. “Good enough. Thanks”. I turned and started walking away. It wasn’t the answer I wanted but it was still an interesting story.
“Why?” his gruff voice barked from behind me. I turned to face him. “Why did you want to know about my sign?”
“I’m a writer. The sign was weird. I’m going to write a story about this experience.” I replied.
“So, you have all you need?” he asked smiling again like a cat. The mouse in my head was screaming to run. Get away before the cat gets him. I played it cool.
“But..” he said. His low gruff tone letting the ‘T’ drag. He was baiting me. I knew he was.
“But?” I never turned to face him. I listened over my shoulder. I didn’t want to see his feline smile.
“But what not a lot of people remember is…..” he paused for dramatic effect. “there are two sides to every sign.”
There it was. The cats paw fell. I was a mushed little mouse being totally controlled by this cat. I knew his smile was bigger than ever. I turned to face him. I was going to have to try to bluff how much I didn’t care about the other side of the sign. I held my hand out indicating his sign and shrugged my shoulders.
“What makes you think I give a damn about the other side of that sign?” Reflecting back, maybe I shouldn’t have gave him this opening.
“Because the back, explains the front” he was cocky and arrogant. I wanted so much to just walk away. A man walked by and said ‘HI’. We both ignored him. The cat was focused on not letting his prey go and the mouse was looking for an escape.
“Bullshit” I smiled like I knew the answer to every question in the world. He shrugged his shoulders and turned his back to me. He started pointing at the sign to ongoing traffic, as if I fell off the face of the earth. The problem with bluffing is, if the other person knows they have won. The more you bluff, the more it sounds like you’re asking for mercy.
“Fine.” I growled. I wanted him to know he was close to pissing me off. “Let me see the back.”
He turned to face me with a surprised expression. “Oh. Are you talking to me?” I was considering punching the old man and taking the damn sign.
“Can I see the other side of the sign?” I was at a new low. Might as well bottom out totally. “PLEASE”.
“Twenty dollars and I’ll give you the sign” he looked serious as cancer. I measured my options. He knew he had me. If I bluffed, he would call. If I tried to negotiate, he may raise his price. I decided to stop playing the game. I reached into my wallet and produced a twenty. The cat’s smile was back. He looked at the money. He looked at me. He feigned thinking. I already decided if he asked for more money, I was going to push him into the traffic and take the sign.
“Deal.” Instead of snatching the money. He held out his hand. I walked over and put the twenty in his hand. He handed me the sign.
“If you screwed me..” I turned the sign over and looked at it. I smiled big. I’m glad it was worth it. I looked up at the old man. He winked, shot me with a finger gun, and walked away without saying a word. I pinned the cardboard to the telephone pole on the corner. I looked at the new message for the world to see.
enough.” I returned to my vehicle and went home.