In Omaha, my brother and I get into his old Cutlass. A pickle jar filled with coins jangles between our seats. He’d been amassing the coins all year, emptying his pockets each night. “I don’t like carrying loose change in my jeans,” he explains.
I look at the sparse scenery of Nebraska, flat dry fields punctuated by strip malls. There’s a Target, an Applebee’s, a Shari’s, an I-Hop. I’ve been bracing myself for the weekend of bad food that’s about to come, consuming only fruit and water during the airplane ride over, trying not to let my old cravings return. It’s tough. For dinner last night, we went to Pizza Hut, where the Super Supreme, loaded with sausage and cheese, coated our fingers in oil. Strangely, I woke up feeling hungry that morning.
We turn into the parking lot of the bank. I stay in the car as he goes inside with his jar of coins. I notice that the odometer says 60,000 miles, but I know my brother had gotten the car used, at 95,000 miles. I turn the dial on the radio, trying to find something other than country music or ads for big screen TVs.
A few minutes later, Tom comes out of the bank with a big smile on his face. “Guess how much I got?” he asks.
I shrug. “Ten? Twenty?”
I feel my eyebrows go up. I didn’t think there had been that much in the jar.
“I told you there was a lot in here,” he says. “It adds up.”
“It sure does,” I say, trying to match his cheerful tone.
That forty-seven dollars is all my brother has. His disability check won’t come for six more days. I think of books that are back at my house—Europe on a Shoestring, Australia from $50 a Day, Japan: A Budget Travel Guide—my vacation bibles, their pages softened like tissue. How can my brother's life and mine be so vastly different? We came from the same womb. Yet, here we are, inhabiting opposite sides of the world, the haves and the have-nots.
Forty-seven dollars for six days. That’s $7.83 per day. Can anyone live on so little? It’s possible, I think, if my brother’s refrigerator were already full, if he cooked all his meals, if he didn’t go to the bar, didn’t refuel his car. It’s just possible.
But that night, despite my protests, my brother takes me to Ruby Tuesday’s and buys me a burger and fries. I want to pay, but he’s my big brother, and it doesn’t matter that he’s poor, sick, and doesn't have health insurance. He’s my big brother, and he wants to treat me. He insists I get dessert.