Spare Change

Written for the Last Author Standing contest (original fiction division, round 1, challenge 1), October 2010.

George sighed as he left the office — it hadn’t been a good day. Then again, it seemed like few days were any more. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been genuinely happy. But today had been worse than usual.

It had started off with Irene being unaccountably moody — she’d been that way a lot lately, probably due to what had once been discreetly referred to as “the change of life”, but now seemed to be considered a perfectly suitable topic for television talk shows. It seemed like they barely spoke any more, except when she wanted to nag him about something. The kids had been surly and uncommunicative at breakfast — Shelley seemed to consider sending text messages to her friends more important than responding to her parents or getting ready for school, and Jason could never be persuaded to take the earplugs of his MP3 player out and talk to anyone any more. Neither of them seemed to have any interest any more in anything that wasn’t electronic.

Traffic had been dreadful, and when he finally got to the building, his passcard wouldn’t work — a scratch on the magnetic strip, apparently. Why couldn’t people just use keys any more? Then there had been all kinds of computer problems, which had meant wasted time on hold waiting for tech support, and these days all the support people seemed to be located somewhere overseas and barely spoke English. He had to skip the regular Friday lunch outing with his co-workers, because they wanted to go to a fast-food place where everything was deep-fried, and he was under strict doctor’s orders to stay away from fried food until his blood pressure and cholesterol improved. And the day had just continued on in the same vein from there.

He took a deep breath, hoping some fresh air would make him feel better, but it just tasted like smog. It would probably be better once he made it out to the suburbs, but that would take a while — he never drove to work any more, as traffic and parking downtown had become more trouble than they were worth, so instead he’d have to slog his way through the train station and probably be stuck standing up the whole way home on an overcrowded commuter train. Sighing again, he paused in front of a bar he used to like to stop into on the way home — though of course, he wasn’t supposed to drink any more either. But maybe just one wouldn’t hurt...

“Excuse me, sir, can you spare some change?” The voice interrupted his musings and brought his attention back to the here and now. He felt a twinge of guilt for wallowing in self-pity when obviously there were people who were worse off — his problems probably wouldn’t seem very serious to someone who was on the street begging for a living, and he reflexively reached into his pocket and came up with a handful of coins, which he offered to the man who sat cross-legged at the base of a nearby lamp post.

“Oh, I didn’t mean money,” the man laughed, as if it were an amusing but not altogether surprising misunderstanding. “I meant change.”

Baffled, George looked from the coins in his hand to the man, and back again. “I’m sorry, I don’t think I understand.”

“Change,” said the man. “It happens to everyone, and everything, in some form or other. Times change, people change — children grow up, adults grow old, history and technology move on, whether we want them to or not. Sometimes people welcome change, sometimes they’ll do anything to find it, and sometimes they have more of it than they want, and wouldn’t mind getting rid of some. You look, if you don’t mind my saying so, like you might be in the latter category.”

George looked at the man more closely, resisting the impulse to back away slowly. He didn’t look crazy, but then again, what did crazy look like these days? This fellow could have been a weathered 30, a well-preserved 50, or anywhere in between, and at least looked a bit cleaner and better-dressed than the average homeless person. Still, you never knew... One of the changes he wouldn’t mind getting rid of, he thought ironically, was the way they kept turning the mentally ill out on the street to “reintegrate them into the community”. Still, the idea was intriguing enough that he couldn’t help humouring the man, for the moment at least.

“So... Supposing I did want to give you some change, in that sense of the word — how exactly would that work? It’s not exactly something you can just pull out of your pocket and hand to someone...”

The stranger smiled affably. “Not exactly, no, but it’s almost as easy. All you have to do is take my hand, and think about the change you’d like to give up.”

“And you — what, magically remove it from my life?” George couldn’t quite suppress a chuckle at that.

“Something like that,” the man answered, apparently unoffended by his amusement. “Though really, receiving change is the easy part. It’s giving it—making change happen for someone else—that requires a bit of effort and concentration. You’ll need to think <i>hard</i> about what you want to give up—really put some passion into it. If you do that, it’ll work—trust me!”

George still didn’t believe for a moment that this sort of thing was possible, but really, what was the harm in it? Even if all he was doing was humouring some crazy homeless man, maybe it would make him feel a bit better.

On impulse, he took the man’s extended hand, and let himself think about all the unwelcome changes life had brought him — technologies he didn’t understand, a marriage grown cold, sweet and loving children turned bitter and resentful teenagers, his own aging body, and so much more. Once he let himself think about it all at once, being passionate about it wasn’t hard at all. With all his heart he wished to be able to turn back the clock. He was aware of sudden tears running down his face, then an odd tingle in his hand, almost like a static shock, and then—

— then what? What was he doing standing on this street corner? He had a vague feeling he’d been waiting for something, but he couldn’t recall what. Maybe he’d been intending to meet the gang from the office at the bar? But there was no one else around... and anyway, he didn’t have time. He’d promised the kids he’d take them out to the game tonight, and they’d been so excited. And then afterwards, once they were in bed, he and Irene could share a bottle of wine and some quality time... Whistling a tune and jingling his office keys in his pocket, he headed for his car.

 

Meanwhile, inside the bar, a woman stared into her beer, trying to keep from crying. Yet another job she’d thought would be different had turned out to be a dead end, her boyfriend’s promises that this time he’d turn over a new leaf had proven false yet again, and no matter how many times she promised herself that she’d stop trying to drink her troubles away when life got stressful, as it always did, here she was doing it again. No matter how much she tried to turn her life around, it seemed like nothing ever really changed.

“Cheer up,” she heard a voice beside her say. “Nothing lasts forever—things will change.”

“You think?” she replied bitterly, glancing up at the stranger at the bar.

“I’m sure of it,” he replied, patting her shoulder. An odd tingle went through the spot he’d touched, almost like a static shock. “Trust me.”

Story prompt: "Change".

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