With thanks to my beta readers, inkling and peregrin anna. Your comments were a tremendous help.
Disclaimer: Early Edition, the characters and situations belong to Tristar Pictures and to CBS Productions. I may have taken some liberties with the characters, but no copyright infringement is intended.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Richer Than Midas
Chuck had beaten him to it again. When Gary came out of the shower Monday morning, he found Chuck sprawled out, feet up on the couch. Chuck was browsing Tuesday's financial section.
"Gimme that!" Gary stomped over and yanked the paper out of his hands.
Chuck made no attempt to stop Gary from grabbing the paper. He just sat up and looked at his friend. "Jeez, Gar, you could be richer than Midas. Better yet, *I* could be richer than Midas. And all *you* ever do is ..."
"Well, money isn't everything, Chuck." Gary shot back.
Gary stopped short, remembering. He and Chuck had had this conversation before, not in the past months, since he stared getting the paper, but years ago....
Gary noticed the scrawny little kid the first day they started seventh grade. The kid was short for twelve, looking more as if he belonged in fifth grade than in seventh. He wore faded jeans and a frayed sweater, when everyone else boasted new back-to-school outfits. Gary soon learned the kid's name: Charles Fishman. The kid liked to be called Chuck, though. No one except for teachers ever called him Charles.
Clothes weren't the only strange thing about the kid Chuck. He forgot his lunch too often for someone who could remember the right books for every class. They were new to junior high, not yet used changing classes and keeping a schedule. Gary brought his English book to the geography room or his science notes to math class. But not Chuck. Chuck always got it right. He shared his math book twice that first week, saving Gary from detention. Of ourse, Gary was grateful. But he did wonder how a kid like that could sometimes be so careless.
After a few days, he noticed that the other Fishman kids -- there were four others --"forgot" their lunches with the same frequency as their seventh grade brother. Gary started packing an extra sandwich every day. "My mom always puts in more than I can finish," he explained. Chuck seemed to believe him.
Then, one day during noon break, the band teacher asked Gary to bring him a music stand from Practice Room C. As he passed the door, he spotted Chuck and Chuck's ninth grade sister in Practice Room A. They had sneaked off to share Gary's sandwich in what they thought was the privacy of an unused room.
"C'mon, Chuckie, lemme have another bite." There was an urgency in the girl's voice that Gary had never heard before from someone talking about a sandwich.
But Chuck was hungry, too, and he hesitated.
"I'll tell Mom!" his sister threatened. "I'll tell Mom you told the Hobson boy how poor we are. What if he blabs to ... "
"I didn't tell him!"
"Well, he knows, doesn't he, Chuckie? Why else does he bring you sandwiches all the time?"
Gary felt his face flush with embarrassment. He shouldn't be listening to this conversation. He got the music stand from the other room and slipped away before they realized he was there. Chuck continued to accept his sandwiches and neither one of them said anything. But after that, Gary always wondered if Chuck knew.
As he and Chuck got to be good friends, Gary learned more about the Fishman family's financial troubles. The father's failed business ventures with their ensuing debts had led to him being hospitalized for depression. The mother was trying to brave the job market as an unskilled middle-aged woman.
Chuck's high school brother plodded his way through the evening shift at the burger hangout. His sister stayed out babysitting much too late for a fourteen-year-old on school nights. It left her tired and grouchy the next day and her school grades suffered. Chuck shared a paper route with Gary and did odd jobs on weekends when people would hire him. But Chuck was undersized and his opportunities were rare. Most of the money they had went to cover debts. The little that was left never stretched far enough to feed the large family. As often as not, the older children agreed to go without so that the two younger boys, in fourth grade and second grade, would not have to go to bed hungry.
The first few times Gary asked to stop by after school, Chuck hedged. Later, Gary guessed the hedging came from shame. Chuck was ashamed of the tiny, cluttered house that some people called a shack. He was ashamed of the sagging furniture, the mold spots and the old, rusting bathtub. The Fishmans could never tell when their neighbors might come knocking on the door with a new scheme to have the the house condemned by the board of health. They claimed the place was an eyesore that lowered the value of their own homes and they were trying to have it torn down. There was always the fear that next time the neighbors would bring the police, or worse, the child welfare department to take away the younger ones. And there was always a nagging doubt that it might be better for the little boys if, after all, they *were* taken.
But Gary pretended not to notice any of that. Eventually, he became a welcome visitor. More often, though, he brought Chuck to his own house after school. He knew his mom would invite Chuck to stay for supper and he knew his dad and Chuck enjoyed joking together. That was about all he could do to help that Chuck would accept.
It took the tough set less than two weeks from the beginning of the school year to zero in on Chuck for their target. One morning, Gary came running into the school yard later than usual. He found them surrounding Chuck in a menacing circle.
"Hey, Fishbein, you starting a trend with the holes in your sweater or did you put them in specially to match the ones in your sneakers?"
"It's Fishman!" Chuck's eyes were flashing with anger. "And you have bigger holes in your brain!"
Chuck's jibe silenced them for the moment. Gary elbowed through the circle to join Chuck and the two of them walked into homeroom together.
But the next morning the tough kids started in again. "What's the matter, the old man can't afford to buy you clothes?"
"'Course he can," the first tormentor's friend took up the jeer. "All his kind are filthy rich. He's just too stingy to part with his precious money. Isn't that right, Fishbein?"
"It's Fishman!" This time it was Gary's angry voice shouting the correction.
The attackers didn't seem anxious to take on two at once, especially since Chuck's friend was taller than Chuck and had a larger build. The principal glanced over and they took it as an excuse to slink away.
Chuck looked at Gary and managed a weak grin. "I'll show them," he said through gritted teeth. "When I grow up I'm gonna be richer than Midas. Just let them come crawling to me for a loan. I'll show them what it is to be rich and stingy! I'll have more money than..."
"Well, money isn't everything, Chuck," Gary wanted to tell him. But he bit back the words. He couldn't say that to someone whose family went without lunch.
"How do -- how do you plan to do that?" he asked instead.
"I'll play the stock market," said Chuck defiantly, "maybe I'll even be a broker, someday."
Gary nodded. "It wouldn't surprise me."
Gary looked, now, at the man in the new cashmere sweater and the latest ankle boots. But he saw again a thin, tattered twelve-year-old.
"Hey," Gary asked him, "you remember how we got to be friends?"
"Yeah." Chuck screwed up his face as if trying to remember more clearly. "There was this big, goofy-faced kid in seventh grade who kept forgetting his math book. The shlub needed old Chuck to watch out for him." Chuck grinned at Gary.
"Guess he did," Gary agreed and was silent for a moment. "Hey," he said again, "I'm sorry I was rough on you about the paper."
"I just don't get it, Gar," Chuck complained, taking advantage of Gary's sudden good humor, "I don't get why you never let me..."
"Now, don't start again," Gary warned him.
But the usual forcefulness was missing from Gary's words and Chuck pretended not to hear. "... Why you never let me have a chance to beat the odds," he finished.
"Well, Chuck," Gary said to his friend, "you -- you already did beat them, buddy."
I got the idea for this after watching a documentary about poverty. At the time I had seen about 8-10 first season episodes and there were no indications of what Chuck's family's financial conditions were like when he was growing up. I decided to have them living in desperate poverty. Now I tend to think that Chuck's family was middle class or even well off. But the idea for this story just wouldn't go away.
Email the author: email@example.com