University of Minnesota
minnesota writing project
center for writing

Minnesota Writing Project.Center for Writing's home page.

Justin Bonnett

Justin Bonnett reading© 2007

Salvation in a Soda Can

“Excuse me, Mam, my name is Justin Bonnett and I’m a volunteer with the Institute for International Cooperation and Development.”         

“No thanks.”

I turn and step in front of a balding man wearing a suit that looks a few donuts too small. 

“Excu . . .” A palm and a grunt tell me he doesn’t have the time.

“Excuse me—”

“Excuse me—”

“Excuse me—”

Three hours.  Three billion “excuse me”s.  Three shame-stained dollars.

Only one hundred and twenty two more.  Shit. 

In a few weeks I’m going to Zimbabwe with seven others to work with orphans and homeless children coming from government detention centers.  If we raise forty thousand dollars we’re going to Zimbabwe, anyway.  That’s what this binder and well-rehearsed plea for money is all about.  Thirty days to go. 

One hundred and twenty five dollars a day shouldn’t be this hard.

But, I’m generally a pretty bad fundraiser.  As I have done often the last ten days, I’m standing here hesitating.  Making eye contact is not the problem.  I’m pretty friendly and I have a nice smile.  Following a smile and eye contact with an open hand and a plea for money is my problem. 

Why?  I’m going to buy books, not drugs.

I’m making eye contact with and smiling at everyone. 

Fear?  Am I trying to gather courage like the kid about to give a speech in class. 

I was never that kid, though.  I was never scared.   

Embarrassment?  Am I trying to spill my shame. 

I shouldn’t need to spill my shame.  Orphans.  I’ll be working with orphans. 

People pass.  A lot of people pass.  Two hundred and seventy four in one minute. 

Washington DC is not Anoka. 

A few eye my binder nervously.  They’d be grateful to know that I rarely gather or spill or whatever I need to do to approach anyone.

I step from the passing people and stand.

I watch.

There’s a baby boomer with a beard and ponytail down the street. 

He’ll get it.  Working with orphans, building a school, helping others.  This laid-back, tie-died and barefoot on the weekend, VW bus driving, Grateful Dead-listening guy will get it. 
He walks in my direction. I zero in on him and prepare my speech. 

Twenty feet, ten feet, five feet.  I step in front of him.  “Excuse me, sir.  My name is Ju . . .”

“Go screw yourself, kid,” he sprays through noticeably yellow teeth. 

Damn Zen-fed, hippie jerk.

Screw him

Tense.  I need a break.

Screw him.

Tense.  Tense?  I don’t get tense.  And I don’t have a problem getting people to talk to me.  These assholes have no idea.  They think I’m some loser with nothing better to do.
They should see my resume. 

Honor Society president, high school student-athlete of the year, homecoming king. 
College, paid for by that resume, waits for me in Minnesota.  Then why am I standing on the street begging for goddamn money?

I head back to the small park that I passed this morning for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a few minutes under a tree.

I sit and think.  I won’t be home for a year.  I won’t see my friends for a year.  For a year I will miss out on everything.  Miss out on everything and be treated like dog shit. 

Relax.  It’ll be worth it. 

When this is all over, I’ll get to leave the country for the first time.  I’ll get to learn another language, meet new people, eat new food, all the things I’ve always wanted to do.  I just need to get through this fundraising. 

I need to read people better.  There are people out there who will be interested in what
I’m doing, respect me for it.


Thirty days.  Thirty more days. 

I can’t do it.

Under a tree not too far from where I sit wrestles a father with his two little kids.  Remnants of a picnic lunch lay about a blanket.  Content, a woman watches.  

I relax. 

For two weeks I’ve been mostly ignored or mistreated.  It’s nice to see love, even if it’s not directed at me.  People aren’t so bad.  You just have to catch them at the right time.
“Okay, Dad’s gotta run guys,” I hear Mom say.  Her voice is calm and loving, the voice of a woman who marries a kind man. 

The kids climb from Dad’s chest and give him a hug. 

Mom picks up the blanket.  “We’ll see you at dinner,” she says and kisses Dad. The three race to a minivan parked next to the street.                                           

People aren’t so bad, I think again.  You just have to catch them at the right time. 

I stand up from the grass and brush myself off.  The man straightens his tie and puts his suit jacket back on before grabbing a brief case and walking in my direction. 

He’s a kind man.  He loves his family.  He knows he’s fortunate and that his children are fortunate that he’s in their lives.  Watching his children sleep, he prays that he will be there to see them through everything.  His children are at the center of all his hopes and fears.

In Zimbabwe there is a school for orphans and homeless children.  

I step onto the path.

“Excuse me sir, my name is Justin Bon . . .”

He slows down! 

“Justin?” he asks.

“Yes, sir.  I’m a volunteer for . . .”

“Justin,” he interrupts and resumes a fast pace.

“Yes, sir.” 

Dad looks straight ahead.  “Get a fucking job,” he says over his shoulder.

Standing, staring.


The hell with Zimbabwe. 


Too late for first semester.  I will get a fucking job.  Start school again in the spring.  What a waste.

I look at nobody.  Fuck em all. 

My stomach hurts.  I gave up everything.  

What a waste. 


Day becomes night.  Nobody is wearing a suit.

I walk.

“You lost, Punkin?” The voice, behind me, is scratchy but sweet.  I think of insulation, that pink fiberglass stuff, dipped in honey.

I stop, turn.  I’m in front of a pawn shop.  Its dingy wall supports a haggard woman. She steps from the shadow where a gloomily lit Checks Cashed Fast sign, the only source of light around, weakly illuminates her sunken face and stringy hair.  A dirty sweatshirt envelopes her frail body. 

Great.  I’m being accosted by a crack whore.  “No, Just walking.”

“Funny place to walk.  You know where ya’r College Boy?” she asks.

“Not really.”

“Ya know where ya goin?”
“Not really.”

“You know what time it is?”

I look at my watch.  “A bit after two.”

“Two n da A.M. and you don know where you goin. Well, where ya been to be not knowin where ya goin at dis time da nigh?  In dis neighborhood?”

The neon of the check cashing sign drones.  It’s an appropriate response. 

“Sit down, Punkin.  You look tired.” 

I sit on the curb.  Why not?  She’s not ninety pounds.  She can’t hurt me.

“Jaclyn.”  She bends and extends me her hand, a five-pronged extension of a skeletal arm wrapped in needle-scarred skin. 

We shake.

I think of cellophane.  

Jaclyn retracts her hand and sticks it in her pocket. 

She pulls out a ragged dollar bill.  “Soda?”