Steward Stories: "My Hundred-Dollar Bill," by Marla Cantrell

The hundred-dollar bill in my pocket felt like a surprise every time my fingers grazed it. I’d been given the money as an early birthday gift, and there were a hundred ways I could have spent it. But none of the ideas I had brought me much joy.

I don’t have a ton of cash. I drive a car that’s nearly a decade old. I sometimes look at my bills and feel my heart racing. A wise decision might have been to sock the money away.

But as I walked the aisles of Shoppers Value Foods in Alma, Arkansas, a town of less than 6,000, I knew what I was going to do. The Little Free Pantry of Alma sat a few yards away, on the other side of the highway beside Workman’s convenience store and smoke shop. If I took the cash in my pocket, I could fill the pantry to the brim.

Many of the items at Shoppers sell for eighty-eight cents. At the register they add another ten percent, making each box of scalloped potatoes or spaghetti sauce or cereal cost about a dollar. Since I’m lousy at math, this calculation worked wonders for me.

As I maneuvered the aisles, adding box after box, package after package, I felt as if I held another secret since it was my birthday and no one in the store knew it but me. At that time of morning most of the shoppers carried the few items they wanted in their hands. My cart was ostentatious, overflowing. My cart was the happiest thing in town.

Checkout could have put a damper on everything. The clerk was having a bad day—it was a Monday after all. But then she called for help to bag my purchases, and a guy showed up with a smile that lit the room.

At my car, he lugged bag after bag. I asked him if he liked his job, and he told me a story about how the company lets you off, no questions asked, if, say, your mom is sick and needs you pronto. He was beaming.

“It’s my birthday,” I said. “I’m heading to the Little Free Pantry next. I’m going to fill that sucker up.”

He laughed. “Good for you!” he said. “And happy birthday.”

I may have slipped him a ten-dollar bill that I had left over from my shopping spree. (My math skills aren’t stellar, as I said before, so I didn’t quite hit my hundred-dollar mark.) I say I “may” have tipped this amount because the store is fairly new in town so I didn’t know its policy on such things. Anyway, when he tried to refuse, I said, “Look, it’s my birthday. I get to do whatever I want.”

Driving to the pantry felt a lot like Christmas did when I was a kid. That anticipation. That joy of knowing something grand was about to happen. When I pulled into the Workman’s parking lot, I saw the pantry. There was one can of black beans. One can.

I worked quickly, filling the shelves. I’d splurged on some Jif peanut butter, added some bread that was as soft as a pillow, and I’d even gotten some personal hygiene and over-the-counter medications. As the three shelves filled, I imagined someone hungry showing up, how their eyes might well, how they might think for a minute that good things were just around the corner.

Poverty is a gigantic problem in the part of Arkansas where I live. Two out of every eleven people face food insecurity every day. Stocking those shelves, I prayed for them all.

As I drove away, I thought about the Bible verse that says it’s better to give than to receive. All my life, I’ve thought that meant that giving feels like a parade inside your heart. But I realized it could mean something else. It is better to give because you’re in a position to give. You might have a ten-year-old car and a mortgage that frightens you some nights, but you always have food on the table. Your pantry is only empty when you clear it out to clean it.

The rest of my birthday was a dream. Gifts, calls, texts, a Facebook page littered with good wishes. Lunch with a friend I’ve known since childhood. Dinner with my husband who held my hand. But none of it was as good as seeing food on those waiting shelves, anticipating what relief might happen because I had a hundred-dollar bill in my pocket that needed to go out into the world and do this one amazing thing.