"-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.01 Transitional//EN"> Frigg | Fall/Winter 2023/24 | Diving for Pennies | James William Gardner
artwork for James Willliam Gardner's short story Diving for Pennies

Diving for Pennies
James Willliam Gardner

A lot of folks say that you bring things on yourself. I’m not sure. All I know is that things seemed to just happen to me, like I didn’t have any control. But, I’m not necessarily complaining. I can tolerate the way things are even though I wish that they’d been a lot different.

When you live like I do, you spend a lot of time with your memories. I suppose, when you get right down to it, everything is just a memory, even the future. My life is a solitary one, not all together lonely, but solitary. I can go all day and hardly speak to a living soul. I mean, I might say hello to the woman down at the liquor store or the guy at 7-Eleven, but that’s about it. There are a couple guys here at the hotel that I know well enough to speak to. I see them in the lobby sometimes, but I primarily live inside of my own head with my recollections.

I think about my childhood a lot. They are some of my happiest times, at least up until my momma died. I was 11 then. She and my grandmother died the same year just within a few months. Life changed after that. It was just me and Daddy, and after Momma died he started drinking right heavily. We never had much to say to each other. We’d watch television together at night until Daddy would pass out on the couch.

Momma was wonderful, though. I loved her so much. She had bright red hair and freckles. I can see her standing in the sunshine in her gingham dress hanging wash on the line. She used to press Daddy’s overalls. He was funny about it. He always liked a clean crease in his britches and a shine on his shoes. Momma was a wonderful baker, not so much pies, but cakes. She made the best cakes you ever tasted, coconut, chocolate marble, you name it, she made it. Sometimes she’d sell her cakes. People were always after her to bake them one.

Momma had cancer. It took her quick. Three months after she found out, she was gone. I remember me and Daddy sitting out on the porch after the funeral, both of us crying. Daddy never cried. That was the only time I ever saw it. I think that was the first time that I ever really felt alone. It was like Daddy was there, but he wasn’t. We got used to it though, I reckon.

I quit school in the 11th grade. I wanted a car of my own and a paycheck so I went to work at Winn-Dixie. Mister Nance, the manager, gave me a job working produce. I liked it right good. It was clean and pleasant work. It was there that I first met Tammy. Tammy Boggs was her name. She was a cashier there and I thought she was the prettiest thing I ever saw. To my surprise, she liked me too. Well, about four months after we started dating, we decided to get married. It was just a civil ceremony there at the courthouse. Daddy came drunk, like usual. We didn’t have a honeymoon. We both went straight to work at the store the next day.

Mister Nance was a wonderfully kind man, at least to me he was. He gave me a raise when I got married and after that he promoted me to assistant manager over in the meat department. I really enjoyed that. I was learning to be a butcher. Tammy and me had us a little place on Front Street, two bedrooms and even a separate garage. Things were going good, I thought, but not long after that I discovered that Tammy was running around with some clown named Travis behind my back. I couldn’t believe it. I thought I knew her. Well, I finally tracked them down over at the old Howard Johnson’s motel. I caught them coming out of the damn office, and I picked up a brick and hit the bastard in the head with it. I didn’t care if I killed him.

After that, I was convicted of assault and sentenced to five years out at the Jones County prison farm. I put a permanent dint in that guy’s head, but Tammy still ran off with him. They’re somewhere down in Georgia the last I heard and she’s got two girls.

Prison wasn’t that hard. I kept my nose clean and did what I was told. They put me in the kitchen and I got to be a pretty good cook. I like cooking anyway, and the time went by right quick. I was out on parole in four years on account of good behavior.

The first thing I did was go see Mister Nance about getting my old job back, but he said that he couldn’t, said that it was against company policy to hire ex-felons. He did give me 50 bucks out of his own pocket and wished me luck. I appreciated that. I found my daddy living with an old woman up in Saddletree. He didn’t even recognize me at first. I gave him half of the money that Mister Nance gave me, told him good-bye and walked out. I haven’t seen or heard from him since.

I finally landed a job driving a forklift in a warehouse up in Fayetteville at Connor Electric Supply. That lasted a couple years. I was drinking one night in a bar and met a guy named Dennis Philpot who owned an auto body shop and he offered me a job at two dollars more an hour so I took it. Body work was very satisfying. I got a big kick out of taking an old wreck and fixing it up like new. I got to be right good at it too, and Dennis and I got along real good. The problem with Dennis was that he drank all the time. He would come to work drunk and continue to drink all day. I started drinking heavy then too, but I couldn’t handle it the way he did.

After something like six years, he let me go. I don’t blame him. I was calling in all the time. The liquor got the best of me. It was after that happened that I began to drift around. I spent time up in Raleigh working in a warehouse there. I also did construction for a few years until I got hurt. I was in the hospital with my back, and after that I couldn’t do much lifting. I spent the next eight or ten years in Wilmington. I was a fry cook and I worked in a video store a while. By then, I was into drugs as well as alcohol, crack mostly. A lot of it in those years is just a blur. Eventually I found myself living on the street, panhandling and sleeping under a bridge.

It’s like anything else, if you do too much of a thing it’ll get the best of you. That’s how I ended up here in Durham. I’m on disability now. I’ve had this room at the Chesterfield for about three years. It isn’t much, but it is dry and warm in the winter. I was able to get off the cocaine and the drugs. There for a while I would do about anything to get high. I wound up in rehab in Wilmington two or three times. Now I just drink. In fact, that’s how I spend most of my time. I reckon you could call it an escape. When I’m drinking, things don’t seem as bad. I mean, I know they are, but when you’re drunk you don’t feel it. You can drift off to other, better times.

I like the night a lot better than the daytime. I usually sleep most of the day and stay up until nearly dawn. It’s easier to live with things at night, for me anyway. There are no scrutinizing, disapproving eyes in the dark. In fact, you can hardly see yourself. It’s like you just blend in and you’re not really there at all.

Suicide, yeah, I’ve thought a lot about it. I even came close a couple times, but I never could. Even in the darkest days, I guess I always had the will to live. It’s almost like a force outside of yourself, a compulsion, I reckon you’d call it. I live my life pretty much in a daze. I mean, I know what’s going on. I’m not out of my head or crazy or nothing like that. I just sort of shut out reality or rather I make my own. Maybe we all do that and life is very similar no matter who you are or what your circumstances happen to be. Who knows? After all, it’s like I said before, everything is really the past and we all live in our memories regardless of who we are. Hell, once it’s gone, it’s gone. It’s all just gone.

James William Gardner’s Comments

The short story, “Diving for Pennies,” is a first person narrative that examines the philosophy of pessimism, put forth by the 19th century German philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer. It has been said that Schopenhauer looked at human existence as a ”bad joke.” In the story, the teller recounts the major events of his life with an eye to determining how they led him to the place where he finds himself. It is a series of failures and poor decisions complicated by minimal opportunities. This, the storyteller has come to accept.

As the narrative progresses, we come to know the character of the storyteller. He is reconciled to the insignificance of his life and of the human experience generally. He is not particularly melancholy, although he freely discusses the times when he was overcome with depression and contemplating suicide. This he says he could never do, regardless of the hopelessness he felt. Through it all, he had the “will to life, the will to live,” and this alone, like Schopenhauer, was enough and inescapable.

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Frigg: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry | Issue 62 | Fall/Winter 2023/24