My $10 Comes Around Again

Polonius would have been scandalized, but Jim Henry has been borrowing the same $10 from me for nine years.

Jim, a grandfather with a grown granddaughter, shares a house just outside of town with his octogenarian mother and her husband. Ten years ago, Jim was forced to retire from the nursery in nearby Chesterville where he planted and tended acres of shrubbery and trees. When they let him go, it was a blow. It could have been a crushing one, but Jim is determined, regardless of obstacles, to enjoy life.

He's not too proud to ask for help when he needs it, but works hard to return the favor.

I didn't know this when he came to the back door the first time and asked to borrow $10. I didn't hear the reason he gave for needing the money since I was busy trying to figure where this proposed transaction might lead. I didn't believe it was really a loan; I thought it was a thinly disguised request for a donation. If there was a contribution to be made, I wanted to make it through the impersonal medium of the Salvation Army. I wanted distance. But Jim wanted connection.

To stretch his government assistance, Jim does odd jobs around town. His list of jobs is a long, elastic one, expanding or contracting according to season, imagination, and need. He brings Suzanne, the assistant postmistress, breakfast or lunch from Dixie Jo's diner. He delivers mail and makes bank deposits for neighbors, digs holes for Mrs. LeCates, and clears brush alongside the town's part-time maintenance man.

He supplements the odd jobs with a series of small personal loans. That first request for $10 roped me unknowingly into Jim's extensive loan department, a network of people from whom he borrows. He keeps his records in his head, an impressive feat of memory at which I marvel. Yet in nine years, he has neither forgotten a loan nor insisted that he has paid me back when he still owes me $10. Although he is the one who sets the repayment time, he sometimes phones to ask that I extend his self-imposed deadline, a gesture that, while unnecessary, keeps things businesslike.

I don't know what he borrows from others, but he always asks me for a tenner, though the reason he gives for needing it - and he gives a detailed reason each time - is always different. But it is always $10 that he needs.

To help repay the loan, he does odd jobs for me. My children often work with him, keeping him company.

One year, the garden completely outgrew me and I gave up in despair, so I hired Jim to yank out the thicket that engulfed what had begun as the melon and tomato patch. In the fall, he goes to the sawmill with my husband, Gary, to load chunks of scrap oak and poplar for the woodstove. When they return, Gary backs the truck up to the office. I bring Jim homemade soup and bread, a little sustenance spiced with conversation. He catches me up on town news. I give him some bread to take home.

When he has eaten and chatted, he methodically empties the truck bed, pitching the irregular blocks against the outside chimney, building our winter heating supply. I give him a check for what he has earned - minus the $10 loan. The next day, he comes to borrow $10.

If I have not been able to find a way for him to repay me in service, he has the bank write me a check from his account. The next time we pass on foot, I thank him for the repayment. Within days, he borrows it back.

THE $10 makes a real difference to him, but there is more than money in it. Jim is gregarious. He likes the conversation that is part of simple human commerce. The loans are not only a way to maintain his independence on his own terms, they are also a tie to the community, his way of knitting himself into the fabric of other lives. He brings me castoff azaleas from a garden shop where he sometimes works, a means of sharing both his blessings and his connections. I share damson jam, fresh peaches, and relish with him, and I gave him my late father's heavy overcoat one bitter winter.

Our relationship, at first unwonted, has taught me things. I now see chores as opportunities to help Jim help me, thereby maintaining the reciprocal relationship needed for mutual respect.

If not for the sawbuck that has been passing back and forth between us all these years, Jim and I might not be tethered together at all. Even in a small town, people can pass like ships in the night, almost unaware of one another's existence. Polonius, who warned his son to be neither a borrower nor a lender, was worried that Laertes would become prey to the unscrupulous, losing both loan and friend. But Polonius didn't realize that sometimes a loan isn't just money. Sometimes it's a means of connecting. It doesn't take a lot to link one person to another. Sometimes all it takes is $10.

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