My father always told me to keep a twenty-dollar bill in my wallet at all times. “You never know when you’ll need it,” he’d say. That Jackson was not to be touched under any circumstances, save for an emergency. Being down to my last quarter didn’t even qualify, according to him. “You got a quarter, you got enough for a packet of ramen noodles. Save the Jackson for a real emergency. It might just save your life someday.”
Several times during my childhood he showed me the neatly folded bill he kept in his black leather bi-fold, in an inside pocket behind the family photos. “Remember, Mikey, it’s only for emergencies,” he’d say in that low, serious voice he reserved for those life-lesson occasions, like teaching me and Henry how to outsmart a finicky bass hiding in the weeds or how to squeeze the trigger on a hunting rifle with a whitetail dead to center in the sights. Sometimes he used that voice when punishing us. He knew that yelling wouldn’t do any good. But sitting us down, forcing eye contact, and expressing his disappointment in measured, steady words barely above a whisper … that got our attention.
When I was thirteen my father broke his own rule. Our mother’s funeral was over and the last of the guests had finally left our house, either satisfied that we three would be okay or simply at a loss for any further words. When it was certain that the only thing lingering in the house was the smell of a dozen casseroles left on our counter, I went in search of Dad to ask if I could finally change out of my dress clothes. I found him sitting on his and Mom’s bed, his suit jacket strewn next to him and his tie unknotted. Though no tears were apparent, his ashen skin and pained expression told me in a glance that he was broken beyond repair. In his hands was a crumpled twenty-dollar bill. When he saw me standing in the doorway, he held it up toward me.
“Take this,” he said, handing me the note. “I don’t need it anymore.” Then he eased himself further down on the bed and curled up on his side. I took my cue and retreated to my own bedroom, clenching the twenty that was still warm from my father’s grasp. With shaking hands, I carefully uncrumpled the bill and pressed it out on my desk as best I could. Then I folded it in half one way, followed by another fold the other way. I drew out my own wallet and slid the tightly folded bill into a deep, dark, and safe compartment. I visualized the approval on my father’s face. It’s an image I tried to maintain even after he shot himself later that night.
Nearly twenty-five years went by before I ever seriously thought of that twenty-dollar bill. I say seriously because, of course, I had to change wallets several times over the years. It’s silly, I know, but on each of those occasions, I still got a little thrill at “discovering” the twenty dollars I had previously put out of my mind. One time about a decade ago, I made a small modification to the bill before putting it back in place in the soft confines of its new leather home. The words of my father rang in my head as I folded it first one way, then the other. It might just save your life someday. I’ve never unfolded the bill since then. There hasn’t been a situation that’s required it. I make a good living, I always plan ahead, and I double check the odds before taking action. These attributes have served me well in my modest existence.
But then, this night happened.
It was Henry’s fault. If he hadn’t been so insistent on seeing the gun, the night would likely have ended differently. I suppose I was partly to blame. I had been lax in keeping it concealed when I met Henry at O’Gara’s Pub for a drink after work. It was the anniversary of our mother’s death, and as we raised a toast to her memory, my jacket fell open and Henry spotted it right away, tucked there in my waistband.
“Mikey! What the—?”
“Shh!” I leaned close to him. “We don’t need everyone knowing our business.”
“But what do you need a gun for?”
“Protection. The city’s gone crazy lately. You know that.”
Henry looked unconvinced, his brow remaining wrinkled.
“Look,” I said, inches from his face. “We’re all we got. You and me. We got each other and that’s it. If anything would happen to me, well, just think about it. You’d be all alone. So this,” I discreetly patted my side, “is my way of keeping anything from happening to me. It’s to keep us out of trouble, not in. You get it?”