I ask Larry if he’s still watching over the poor folk every time I see him, and every time he says yes. He says yes and then offers me one of those nods that are accompanied by pursed lips. You know, the kind of expression that means it’s tough to look but you have to anyway. Someone’s got to watch over them, Larry says, and it might as well be him. Especially since he was poor once.
He’ll tell me he still watches over them from the same place, right across the river from the big building where they like to gather. Not a pretty sight—Larry will tell me that too, and always—but one worth watching nonetheless, if only for the education the sight provides. “There but for the grace of God,” he’ll say, and then he’ll nod and purse his lips again.
He says there have been times in the past when he’s taken the bridge across the river and gone to see them. Or tried. The poor folk will sometimes entertain Larry’s presence for a while. He was after all one of them once, and the poor folk are mannerly on the outside even if they are lost inward. They’ll say hello and how-you-doing and come-on-in. Larry will hello them back and say he’s fine, just fine. But he never goes in the big building. He’s been in there too many times in his life, he’ll tell me, and he’s seen all there is to be seen. I guess that’s true enough, but sometimes I think Larry’s afraid he’ll catch the poor again, like it’s some sort of communicable disease spread by contact.
Better than driving across the bridge to say hello is to stay on the other side of the river and watch. That’s what he tells me. It’s sort of a warning, though it’s one I don’t need. To be honest, I don’t have much of a desire to be around the poor folk. I like it where I am, right here with Larry and the rich people. Maybe I’m afraid I’ll catch poor, too. Maybe deep down I think they’ll sneeze on me.
Larry says he has God to thank for being rich now, and when he says this he won’t nod and purse his lips. He’s much more apt to pat the rust spot on his old truck—a ’95 Ford from down at the local car lot, which was a steal at $5,000—or take off his greasy cap as a sign of respect for invoking the Almighty. Yesir, Larry will say, God stripped away all of his poor and made him rich. I guess that’s nothing new in a time when a lot of people think God’s sole purpose in the universe is to shower down hundred dollar bills on everyone who’s washed in the blood of the Lamb.
Sometimes I’ll ask him if the people who gather at the big building across the river are all poor. Surely there are a few rich ones mixed in. He’ll tell me yes, there are a few rich ones, but they’re rare. Once he said I’d just as soon go in the big building looking for a unicorn as I would a rich person. I laughed at that. I think it was the way he’d said it—“Yooney-corn.”
Still, curiosity kicked in. I had to find out for myself.
I drove up to the big building one town over, careful to park across the river as Larry suggested. Lines of cars filled the parking lot—from my vantage point, I saw seven Mercedes, half a dozen BMWs, and three Jaguars. I watched patrons adorned in fancy dresses and pressed suits go in for dinner, watched the golf and tennis players come out.
Larry’s poor folk.
He was once one of them (it was the Mercedes and the golf for Larry, the fancy dress for his wife, and the tennis for his kids). They were at the country club five days a week and sometimes six, depending on how busy they all were. He’ll say he swore he was rich. But then came the recession followed by the job loss, and suddenly the Mercedes was gone (replaced by the truck, a steal at five grand) and so was the country club.
That’s when God showed Larry that what he thought was riches was really poverty. That’s when Larry found that wealth is better measured in love and family and simple things.
Larry says he never knew how poor he was because all that money got in the way. Now he says he’s the richest man in the county.
I think he might be right.