Little Old Lady

Susan’s note: Kennon Cooke and my Mom are great friends – golfing buddies in summer, luncheon companions during the winter. Besides being a wonderful friend, Kennon is a skilled photographer and travel writer. When she told me recently that she has a binder full of unpublished short stories, I couldn’t resist asking her to share one or two on AWR. When she agreed, I was thrilled.

The beautifully written story below is simple, yet insightful and moving – a gentle reminder of the way the elderly in particular suffer from financial constraints. Although Kennon wrote it some time ago, this story is especially relevant during the troubled times in which we now find ourselves. 

Little Old Lady

by Kennon Cooke

Ida Wallace stood at the bank counter watching the teller count out the money.  It was the same young woman who had waited on her the previous week, and Ida liked her ready smile and pleasant manner. 

'Just a slip of a girl', mused Ida, 'They're getting younger every year.  My goodness, I do hope they know what they're doing.'

She thought of dear old Mr. Henderson who had been manager of the bank for so very many years.  He was dead and gone now; gone, along with the gleaming mahogany furniture, Axminster carpets, and gracious hanging light fixtures, globes of creamy cut glass that sparkled dimly.

"Thank you, dear,"  Ida said, as the bills were handed to her.  She counted them once more and put the two crispy Fives in the wallet.  Next she folded the two Tens lengthwise and put them away carefully.

"Hmmp," said a man's voice behind her. Ida looked around and saw four people waiting. 'Oh, bother!' she thought, 'Why should the bank always be so busy!'  She picked up the Twenties and her wallet and pushed her purse off to one side, farther along the counter.   

"I'm sorry," she said to the impatient young man as he wordlessly stepped up to the counter next to her and spoke to the teller.  'He didn't even say "Thank you,"' Ida thought to herself.  'People are always in such a hurry nowadays.  And what has happened to courtesy and good manners?'
She sighed as she went on organizing the cash, folding each of the Twenties in half lengthwise and then in half again, and tucking them down into the wallet.

'Now,' she thought to herself as she looked at the money, 'That's Thirty Dollars for groceries this week, Twenty for next week, Ten for the paper and incidentals, and Ten for Henrietta's birthday gift.'    It was all very clear in her mind.  'Henrietta would like a pair of new gloves,' she thought.  'With all the sales on I'll go to town tomorrow and shop for them.'

She noted that the bills were exactly positioned in the wallet as she closed it.  The two Fives were largest, stretched out full‑size.  Tens, folded in half lengthwise, were only half the width of Twos, and the Twenties, folded twice, occupied only the left corner of the bill compartment.  Ida felt it wasn't enough to depend on a bill's colour to be certain of its amount.  As long as she stuck to this plan of folding each denomination in a different pattern she would know what she had, even when pressured or even, she often told herself, with her eyes closed.

'It pays to be careful,' she thought, 'The way everyone rushes everything these days.  And why, oh why, did they stop making Ones and Twos!  The new coins are too bulky and heavy!'   She closed her wallet, snapped the catch, placed it in her black plastic handbag, and put on her gloves.

A seam in the thumb was coming unstitched. 'I could do with a new pair of gloves myself.'  She pinched the narrow gap closed, where her thumb showed, wishing that mending the hole were as easy as that.  'The trouble is, it's so hard to push a needle through tough fabric and even harder to see to make fine stitches.'  The line of stitching was discernable only as a blur, and she blinked twice, then put her hand up to her face.  Yes, she had on her glasses, and even so the details weren't sharp. 'Maybe I need new glasses!'  With an exasperated sigh she started toward the door of the bank.  

Cold air struck Ida Wallace like a blow as she stepped outside.  'Shouldn't be this cold,' she thought, pulling her thin coat closer, trying to shut out the chill.  She walked carefully along the sidewalk, watching for irregularities in its surface, placing her feet carefully to avoid any large cracks which might cause her to stumble and fall. 

At the corner a frigid blast swirled between the buildings, making her draw in her shoulders and hunch up against its force.  Her navy blue velour hat, which was fixed on with a hat pin, was buffeted by the wind, and she held it down, fearful that it might be blown off her head.   

The traffic light changed to green and two youngsters darted from the knot of pedestrians on the curb and ran across the street.  Ida stepped down tentatively and began to cross.  People quickly passed her.  She hurried, puffing gently and tried not to limp on her bad leg. The light turned yellow when she was only two‑thirds of the way across.  She looked at the cars, the panting, roaring steel monsters, ready to leap across her path, and doubled her pace.

"Uumph!" she said, as she stepped up on the curb, winded and aching, just ahead of the cars surging around the corner, practically on her heels.

Ida looked through the plate glass window of the supermarket and saw that it was full of people.  For a moment she hesitated, thinking that maybe she should come back another time.  Then she thought of the effort involved and decided that she should go on in and get it over with.  She pushed on the heavy glass door and it yielded slowly to her puny strength.   

"Here, let me," said a man behind her, giving the door an easy shove open. 

"Oh, thank you," she said, turning her head as far as she could toward him and smiling gratefully.  He didn't see her smile; just hurried around her and into the store. 

Nesting shopping carts snaked out in a long neat line just inside a turnstile. Ida pulled at one, ineffectually.   'Why won't these come apart more easily?' she wondered.  She put her purse in the basket and struggled unsuccessfully to separate one from the mass.

A white‑coated store employee bustled past.  "Excuse me," she said, "Could you please get these apart?" 
"Sure," the boy smiled.  He gave a sharp tug with one hand, pulling a cart free.  "There you are."  
"Thank you."  Ida looked at his young face, thinking, 'He surely can't be over seventeen.'

Meat was first on the list.  It cost the most.  Pork chops were all six to a package, so she moved on to beef.  'No beef special for nearly a month,' she thought as she selected a container of ground beef.  'I'll divide it into portions and freeze them separately.  Liver looks good.  No, not calves' liver, too expensive.  Pork tastes just as nice if I soak it first in milk....Tabby can have the milk.'   

She thought of Tabby, her cherished pet and companion, which she could ill afford to feed.  Defiantly she added liver to her collection.

She made her way slowly up and down the aisles, looking for the best buys, and sizes that would be economic yet not too large and heavy to carry.  Twice she retraced her steps because items had been moved to new locations.  Even a young lad stocking the shelves didn't know where toothpaste had been repositioned.  Ida contemplated the fact that this was just one more of those tiny things, those deliberate changes in a far too modern world, which made her so tired.

As she approached the check-out counter she counted the things in her cart, 'Thirteen, fourteen, fifteen....too many for the "twelve items or less"‑‑fast check out.'  

She got in line behind a young woman whose cart was piled high with groceries.  A baby sitting in the child's seat even had loaves of bread stacked in his lap.  He was eating an apple.  Drool and bits of peel cascaded from his chin down his jacket.

A toddler, hardly a year older, was standing on tiptoe between his mother and the basket, reaching toward candy bars on display shelves.  "Candy!" he said, pointing and looking at the candy. Quickly and deftly the mother unloaded the cart, seemingly oblivious of the two children. 

"Candy!" said the toddler again, closing chubby fingers around the edge of a yellow‑wrapped chocolate bar and pulling it onto the floor.

"No, Scott, not today,"  said the mother, giving him a quick glance.  He bent over, picked up the candy and put it toward his mouth.  The mother scooped it out of his hand and replaced it on the shelf, "I said, NO!"  She caught his arm and whisked him ahead of her, out of reach of candy.  "Be a good boy. Momma won't be long," she said, ignoring his tear-filled eyes.
When the cashier got to Ida's small group of groceries Ida watched carefully, trying to keep tabs on the amounts entered in the cash register.  It all happened so quickly Ida couldn't always follow what she was being charged for things, and she liked to know the amounts at the store, in case a mistake were made or she bought too much and needed to leave out something.

"That will be Thirty‑five forty‑two," said the cashier, ringing up the last item.

"Oh, dear," said Ida, shaking her head in disbelief.  "And it's only one bag full." 

She opened her purse, extracted a Twenty, a Ten, and a Five and gave them to the girl, noting with satisfaction how efficiently she had organized the bills.  

The cashier unfolded the Ten and the Twenty and looked at the Five. "It's Thirty‑five and Forty‑two Cents," she repeated, holding out the bills.  

"Oh, yes," said Ida, putting out her hand to touch the bills, almost in farewell. "I owe you Forty‑Two Cents." 

She reached into her wallet to draw out another Five, then changed her mind.  'I have enough change in my coin purse,' she thought to herself.  'It will be good to get rid of the weight.'    She fumbled with the snap on the coin section.  Things were beginning to hurry, to move faster and faster as they sometimes seemed to do when she got flustered.  It was a struggle just to keep up.

"Oh, dear, I'm sorry to be so slow."  She placed two Nickels, two Dimes, and two Pennies in the cashier's outstretched hand.  Then she poked around in the purse among buttons and her apartment key and found two more Pennies.

"You're short Eight Cents," said the cashier, holding the money in her open palm.   

"Eight Cents," repeated Ida,  "I don't seem to have eight Cents.  I'll have to use a bill." 

The cashier handed her back the change and Ida quickly dropped the coins in their compartment and snapped it shut.  Then she drew a stiff new Five‑Dollar bill out of its section.  One of its bent corners was hooked under the twice‑folded Twenty, and as she pulled out the Five the Twenty dollar bill flipped upward behind it and over the edge of the wallet.

The small folded rectangle bounced against the side of Ida's open purse, hit her coat and fell to the floor.  Ida didn't see it, nor did the cashier, for she was looking at her watch and thinking that it was time for her break.

Ida took her change, opened the coin purse hurriedly, thrust it in, snapped the coin purse shut, nestled the wallet in the handbag, closed it, picked up the single bag of groceries and left, stepping on the Twenty lying at her feet. 

It was ten minutes later when a young woman noticed the folded square of green paper and recognized it as money.  She picked it up, put it in her pocket and asked the cashier, "Has anyone lost any money?" 


"I found some money.  Do you know if any was lost here?"  

"I just came on," said the cashier.  "Ask at the information counter."

When the young woman got home she fished the Twenty out of her pocket and dropped it on the kitchen table.  "Look what I found on the floor at the checkout counter of the grocery store, Honey."

"A Twenty," said her husband.

"It was all folded up in a little square and right up against the counter."  She refolded the fill and held it up.  "Like this.  I left my name and phone number at the information desk.  If anyone calls it will be easy to check out because it was folded."

"Dumb thing to do, fold it up like that," said the man.

The woman picked up the bill and looked at it, as if willing it to tell her something.  Then she smoothed it out and tacked it on a notice board next to the telephone.

Ida eased the grocery bag onto the kitchen counter and heaved a sigh of relief.  "That's done for another week!" she said aloud.  She pulled her gloves off carefully, so as not to tear the loose seam further.  Then she took off her coat, hung it up, placed the gloves on the shelf directly above the coat, took off her hat and put it on top of the gloves. 

The living room clock chimed the half hour.  'Four thirty already!' she thought, as she began unpacking groceries.  The grocery bill was in the top of her purse and she rooted around in the bottom of the purse for a pencil.   Each item on the counter was checked off on the bill.  "Print is too small and not dark enough.  And how am I to know what things are taxable? It's the tax that makes it too high.  A body has to live.

"First you work yourself to death to retire and enjoy life, and then the pension isn't even enough to stay alive!" she spouted aloud. "All this inflation.  I think the Government does it on purpose.  It isn't fair!"  She banged the pencil down on the counter in disgust.  "I know I paid Ten Cents less for eggs three weeks ago!" A sleek orange, black and white cat appeared in the doorway, holding his tail high.  "Meeeu," the cat said, stretching and looking up at Ida. 

"Hello, Tabby," Ida smiled.  "I bought some lovely liver and you'll have the milk it's soaked in for dinner.  Would you like that?"

The cat looked at the meat package in her hand, then leaned against the door frame as if to scratch his back.

"Just let me finish putting these away, and I'll fix a nice cup of tea and you can sit on my lap."  Ida smiled again and felt warm and comfortable.  She half filled the kettle, put it on the stove, and turned on the gas. "Not long, Tabby."   

She opened her wallet to put take out bills for the paper boy and continued talking aloud.

"One, two, three...Where are the other two?  Oh, yes, the groceries were more than thirty."

She saw the Ten and smiled as she thought about nice new gloves for her sister, Henrietta.  

Automatically she looked in the corner of the wallet, expecting the reassurance of the tightly folded Twenty, which represented next week's groceries, but there was nothing.

"Oh, me," she said, stopping stock still.  She furrowed her brow and pushed her glasses further up on her nose.  Then she took out the ten and unfolded it, and next removed the Twos and examined them.   

She opened the coin compartment and dumped out all the change, took cards from their compartment and shook out the empty wallet. The blood surged into her face as she hurriedly turned the handbag upside down and shook it vigorously, spilling out pencils, handkerchief, glass case, and library cards. She stirred through the items, looked in the glasses case and sighed.  Then she examined the floor, to see if anything had fallen off the counter.

"Oh, dear, where did it go?" Ida asked herself, turning over the bills lying on the counter.  "I know I had it.  I'm sure I put it in my wallet at the bank.  Well, maybe it is possible I put it in my coat pocket."

Sometimes she did that with money in case her purse was snatched.  

She hurried to the closet by the front door and drew out the coat.  Her fingers trembled as she delved into the pockets, hoping to find the Twenty dollar bill.  One pocket held two crumpled handkerchiefs and the other pocket was empty. Ida hung the coat back up and closed the closet door slowly, then went back to the kitchen and re-examined every item that had come out of her purse.  Somewhere, somehow, she had lost the Twenty; the Twenty that was meant to be next week's grocery money.

Gradually the implications of the loss crept into her mind.  Ten dollars for this week's incidentals  would have to go for food.  She could use the Ten dollars earmarked for Henrietta's birthday gift for next week's food, but then Henrietta would get no gift.  Could she possibly bear to tell Henrietta what had happened, not give her a gift, and risk the humiliation of being offered money?

Blindly she gathered up the bits and pieces lying on the counter and dumped them in the handbag, mindless of their usual neat arrangement.  She felt cold, so cold.

"Tabby," she said, picking up the cat, hugging it to her body for warmth.  "Oh, Tabby."   

She sank down on a kitchen chair and rocked to and fro, staring at nothing, her lined face sagging with age and hopelessness.  The kettle on the stove hissed and whistled loudly. The water was boiling.

© Kennon Cooke, 2008