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Shame Wallet

         Only eight people showed up for Stephen K. Belm’s book-signing. Cliff was embarrassed for Mr. Belm, but also, what did Mr. Belm expect? His “novel” had been initially released in long, poorly punctuated chunks on his blog until it was finished, then he’d self-published it with zero edits and a horrendous cover he designed on his antiquated home computer. Cliff gathered that Mr. Belm had changed the novel’s title for the book version. It was now called A Perfect, Gentle Man. Cliff didn’t know what it had been called before. The summary on the back of the book said the story was about “happiness and sadness in equal measure” and described the main character as “someone with half a mind to make a real difference.” Concrete details were hard to come by. Cliff was almost tempted to read it.

Derek, the owner of Big Basement Books, had agreed to let Mr. Belm do a book-signing in the store because he thought it was his obligation to support Multioak-area authors. Cliff had anticipated a grim scene, and had thus hoped he would not be scheduled to work during the signing, but Big Basement Books only had two employees other than Derek, and Derek never stayed at the store later than 4 p.m. In the end, both Cliff and Jacey, the other employee, told Derek they preferred not to work during Mr. Belm’s book-signing and it came down to a literal coin flip, which Cliff lost by choosing “heads” at the last instant because the saying “tails always fails” popped into his head from somewhere. When had he last heard someone say that? 15 years ago? Later, Jacey had told him that the actual saying was “tails never fails” and Cliff had felt like an idiot. Had he been misinformed in his childhood? Or had he misremembered? Either way, it was determined that he would be the sole representative of Big Basement Books on hand to preside over Stephen K. Belm’s book-signing.

                So in some ways, it was a relief that only eight people showed up for Stephen K. Belm’s book-signing. Big Basement Books was less big than perhaps the name suggested, but it could easily accommodate eight autograph seekers. It wasn’t difficult for Cliff to organize them into a line, and they all seemed to get along all right, probably because they already knew each other as Mr. Belm’s family and close friends. Still, Mr. Belm had anticipated a much bigger crowd, and Cliff could see that he was hurt by the turnout. He’d brought 200 copies of his book with him and had been nervous that he’d underestimated demand. He did his best to put on a celebratory attitude once it was clear that eight was going to be the number, but Cliff flinched every time he caught sight of Mr. Belm gazing at the door as if asking the entire town of Multioak, “Why don’t you care about the greatest accomplishment of my life?”

                After Mr. Belm signed all eight of the books, he decided he had enough time for a Q&A. His fans stood around him in a small semi-circle and took turns raising their hands and asking him inane questions about his process. Cliff tried to absorb himself in other tasks behind the counter so he wouldn’t die. While Mr. Belm was still deep inside his answer to the question, “Do you think food inspires you?” a hefty, mildly-bearded man in tight jeans and a billowy button-up slipped away from the group and approached Cliff. The mild beard appeared to be an attempt to conceal some pock marks on the man’s cheeks. His glasses looked to be an unfair burden on the delicate bridge of his nose. If he was older than Cliff, it wasn’t by much. Maybe 24? 23?

                “Do you need something?” asked Cliff.

                “My name is Jonah Pespin,” said the man.

                “Hi, Jonah,” said Cliff.

                “I’d like some answers,” said Jonah.

                Cliff chuckled. “There’s a whole presentation designed to give you exactly that going on right over-”

                “It really isn’t funny,” said Jonah. “It really isn’t.”

                “I’m sorry,” said Cliff. He was usually good at identifying complainers the moment he saw them. This one had sneaked up on him, though. “What’s your question?”

                “Why didn’t this store do more to promote Stephen’s event?” asked Jonah.

                “We put posters up,” said Cliff, pointing at the door where one of the posters had been taped to the inside of the glass. He pointed down at another poster taped to the front of the counter at thigh level.

                “I know you put posters up,” said Jonah. “I asked why you didn’t do more to promote Stephen’s event?”

                “We’re not a big store,” said Cliff. “We don’t make much money. We don’t have a lot of resources. And it really isn’t my decision. This is more of an issue to take up with Derek. I had no say in how much we promoted this event.”

                “Excuses,” said Jonah. “Those are excuses. You’re a representative of this store, the only representative who’s here, and this store promised my friend Stephen that it would promote his event.”

                “We did,” said Cliff, using his patient voice. “We promoted it.”

                “You promoted it poorly,” said Jonah. “Is that what you mean when you promise to promote something? There’s no implied promise of quality?”

                “I don’t know what you want me to tell you,” said Cliff. “I’ve given you the only answers that I’ve got. Whether or not you want to accept them is up to you.”

                “All right,” said Jonah, his eyes searching Cliff’s face. “If that’s how it is.”

                Maybe it was something about the tone of Jonah’s voice, maybe it was something about his facial expression or posture, maybe it was the sound of Mr. Belm admitting to a fondness for semicolons to his fans, maybe it was how pitiful the chuckles of his fans sounded in response to this admission, but Cliff’s hostility toward Jonah evaporated in a blink, in a flash. That hostility was replaced in full by embarrassment. Not embarrassment for Mr. Belm or his fans, nor embarrassment caused by Cliff’s association with Mr. Belm’s event, but embarrassment at his own behavior, his callousness, his contempt, his poor customer service, even the store’s poor promotion of Mr. Belm’s book-signing. Was it Cliff’s responsibility? Not specifically, no, but he had known it wasn’t being promoted well, hadn’t he? Yes. And had he said anything about it, had he used his influence with Derek to see if the store could do more for Mr. Belm, had he taken it upon himself to talk up the event to customers while he was ringing them up? No, he hadn’t. Not even close.

                “You’re right,” said Cliff. “You’re right. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry for how I’ve treated you and I’m sorry for how Big Basement Books has treated Mr. Belm.”

                “It’s OK,” said Jonah, a gracious smile appearing on his face. “It’s not a life-or-death thing.”

                Cliff was surprised at how relieved he felt to hear Jonah say this. He still felt awful, but he was grateful that Jonah was being so understanding. In Cliff’s experience, it was rare to find someone so quick to forgive. Of course, it was also rare for Cliff to apologize this sincerely, especially to a stranger.

                “I’m sure you’ll do better next time,” said Jonah. “You’ll learn from this and be better for it. You and the store.”

                “I will,” said Cliff. “We will.” It felt like a solemn promise the way he said it. It felt like a vow.

                Eventually, none of Mr. Belm’s fans had any more questions, Mr. Belm thanked them for coming, and they trickled out as he packed up his many remaining copies of his book. Cliff helped Mr. Belm carry the boxes containing his unwanted novel up the outside stairs to the parking lot where only three cars remained. The evening air felt like it was trying to be gentle with Mr. Belm. The half-moon looked precarious in the sky, teetering on its edge.

                “Well, not as many people as I’d hoped,” said Mr. Belm. “But those who came were enthusiastic. So I’d call it a success.”

                “Yeah, I’d say so,” said Cliff. “But I’d just like to say that I’m sorry we didn’t do more to promote the event. I want you to know that Big Basement Books takes a lot of the blame for the low turnout.”

                “Ah, well, I’m sure you did your best,” said Mr. Belm. “That’s all I ask.”

                “We didn’t do our best,” said Cliff. “We could have done more. Much more. And for that, I’m sorry. Be sure to let me know if there’s anything we can do to make it up to you. I don’t have much authority, so all I can promise is that I’ll talk to Derek about whatever it is and try to use my influence, but I will do that much, at least.”

                “What do you think about setting up a display for my book near the register?” asked Mr. Belm.

                “I’ll talk to Derek about that,” said Cliff. “I’ll do whatever I can to make it happen.”

                Mr. Belm summoned a sad smile. “Thank you for your help,” he said.

                “I should have done more,” said Cliff, shaking Mr. Belm’s hand.

                Big Basement Books was open for another hour, but Cliff didn’t anticipate much more activity. As long as there wasn’t some kind of surprise rush on literature at 8 p.m. on a Wednesday night in Multioak, Cliff figured he’d be able to spend the rest of his shift texting with his girlfriend, Kammy, and half-watching a movie on the store computer. Cliff didn’t know anyone was still in the store until he was back inside and behind the counter, browsing Viewersnet’s selection of comedies. He was startled when he saw movement on the periphery of his vision, looked up, and saw Jonah emerging from the Science Fiction section with a book in his hand.

                “Oh, sorry,” said Cliff. “I didn’t know you were still here.” The sight of Jonah stabbed at Cliff’s conscience again, reminding him of his earlier behavior, but he was happy to have another chance to prove he wasn’t a bad person.

                “Sorry for what?” asked Jonah.

                “For not knowing you were here,” said Cliff.

                Jonah smiled and set the book down on the counter. “Is not knowing I’m here against company policy or something?”

                Cliff laughed. “No, I guess not. You’re buying this?”

                “Yeah,” said Jonah. “I read the first two in the trilogy, so I might as well finish it off.”

                “You don’t sound too enthusiastic about it,” said Cliff. He picked up the book and examined the cover. “Oh, Mark Willingness. I’ve read his later stuff. Is the trilogy really not that good?”

                “Well, maybe book three saves it,” said Jonah. “I guess I’ll find out.”

                Cliff scanned the book and helped Jonah navigate the store’s obtuse credit card reader. It really seemed as if this interaction was going to reach its conclusion without either man mentioning their earlier conflict. And that thought made Cliff realize that even though he had already apologized once, he should apologize again, that he needed to apologize again. He even wanted to apologize again. And not just apologize, but take full responsibility for the conflict. Jonah’s response to his first apology had made Cliff feel better, but now he felt deeply ashamed again, and he needed to do something to alleviate that tension. As he handed Jonah the receipt, Cliff said, “Hey, about earlier, I’m sorry again for being so, like…”

                “Oh,” said Jonah. “It’s not a big deal. You already apologized. It’s over and done with now. It’s in the past.”

                Jonah’s response to this second apology, which felt even more gracious than the first one, prompted one more apology from Cliff. “I know what you said to me was just out of loyalty to your friend. I should have recognized that. I should have been more patient with you. Like, like, even if I was angry, I should have been more accommodating and more willing to help and more willing to admit I was wrong. So, again, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

                “Thanks for saying that,” said Jonah. “It isn’t necessary, but I appreciate it anyway. That makes it even nicer. I can tell you’re a good person.”

                “Well, I try,” said Cliff. He was relieved to feel that the feeling of relief was back. What a relief that relieved feeling was! Maybe it would stick this time. If nothing else, he was thrilled to hear that Jonah didn’t hold anything against him. “And let me know how the book is. If it’s good, maybe I’ll get the first one.”

                “Have a good night,” said Jonah. He held up the Mark Willingness book and said, “I’ll definitely tell you how it goes. No spoilers or anything, but I can let you know If it’s worth the time investment, at least.” He turned and exited Big Basement Books. Cliff watched through the glass front door as Jonah disappeared from the top down as he climbed the stairs, thumping up to ground level.

                As Cliff started his closing duties for the night so he could leave right at 9 p.m., he still felt the weight of everything that had happened, but he also felt that he was better for it, that he had gained character, grown. The evening had done him good. A positive experience had arisen from the negative circumstances.

                “Why are you so affectionate all of a sudden?” asked Kammy via text message.

                “I don’t know,” texted Cliff. He didn’t want to explain. “Just enjoy it.”

                “I guess,” Kammy texted back. It was a perplexing response that dampened Cliff’s mood only slightly.


                Just over a week later, Jonah came back to Big Basement Books during Cliff’s shift and told him the third book in Mark Willingness’s sci-fi trilogy did not save the trilogy. In fact, it was the worst of the trilogy and made the trilogy worse. Then Cliff and Jonah chatted about more books and all kinds of other stuff for an hour and a half, interrupted only by other customers who occasionally needed Cliff’s help. Cliff was tempted to apologize to Jonah again, but decided against it. He decided that showing he could be a better person than he had been last time was the best apology he could make. By the end of the conversation, it was clear that Cliff and Jonah were friends. They exchanged phone numbers, agreed to hang out again soon, and then accidentally talked for another 15 minutes.

                “I’m glad you have a new friend,” said Kammy that night when Cliff told her about Jonah. He didn’t mention how they’d originally met.

                “What do you mean?” asked Cliff. Her tone struck him as strange.

                “I mean I’m glad you have a new friend,” said Kammy. The change in her tone from the first time she’d said it was noticeable and almost certainly intentional.


The fourth time they hung out, Cliff and Jonah went to a bar called Cranky’s to have drinks and play air hockey. Cliff had no doubt that he was a better athlete than Jonah, but Jonah was much better at air hockey. He proved it over and over.

                “My ego needs a respite,” said Cliff. “Let’s have another drink.”

                The men slid into opposite sides of a booth with their bottles of beer. Cliff was on his third. He wasn’t sure how many Jonah had already had, but it was a lot more than three. The tabletop was sprinkled with crumbs and scratched with neither-good-nor-bad messages like “make money” and “this is my second time.”

                “For the record,” said Jonah. “I know Stephen’s book is terrible. I mean, you probably know I know that, but I just want to make sure it’s clear.”

                Cliff grinned. “I mean, I figured.”

                “But it’s interesting,” said Jonah. “The book, I mean. If you knew him and you read the book, you’d see that it could only be the product of his mind. I’d rather read a dozen books like that than another one like those Mark Willingness trilogy books.”

                “I get that,” said Cliff.

                “It’s not even ironic enjoyment,” said Jonah. “Stephen has truly fascinating thoughts, a unique perspective. Just, you know, rendered terribly. He just needs to work on expressing himself, both in writing and in person. We actually met because we had a little run-in at the post office. He apologized and we became friends. Very similar to how I met you, now that I think about it.”

                “I still feel bad about it,” said Cliff. “Sorry.”

                “I wasn’t bringing it up to make you feel guilty,” said Jonah. “I was just talking about Stephen’s book.”

                “I know, I know,” said Cliff.

                “Think about this,” said Jonah. “We’re friends because we have so much in common, right? Similar tastes, similar senses of humor, similar political views. But would we have found out about all those similarities between us if we hadn’t met how we did? Would we be sitting here together right now if it had played out differently somehow? Like, if I hadn’t approached you about the lack of promotion, and you hadn’t reacted how you did, and then you hadn’t apologized for how you acted? Would we be friends?”

                “Maybe not,” said Cliff. “But it still bugs me that we got off to a bad start. I’d just prefer to not have it hanging over everything.”

                Jonah shrugged. “Well, that’s how we learn, right? That’s how we grow.”

                “So you’re saying my repeated humiliations at the air hockey table are going to improve my character?” asked Cliff.

                “Yes,” said Jonah. “That’s what I’m saying.”

                And then Cliff won the next two games in a row. Halfway through the first game, it became clear that Jonah’s drinks were catching up to him and significantly impairing his coordination. The second game wasn’t even close. After Cliff scored the final point to bring the game to a merciful end, Jonah screamed and hurled his striker across the table. Cliff’s flinch saved him from taking the striker in the neck. Instead, it glanced off of his shoulder and knocked a glass out of a passing woman’s hand. The glass shattered on the floor and the beverage splashed across Cliff’s shoes. At the other end of the air hockey table, Jonah glared at Cliff, red-faced and glassy-eyed, unconcerned about the collateral damage resulting from his tantrum, oblivious to the disapproving looks of the other Cranky’s patrons.

                “Are you serious?” asked Cliff. “Jonah, are you serious? It’s a game, Jonah!”

                Jonah said nothing. The expression on his face did not change. But the entire atmosphere of the room changed. The scowls on the other people’s faces softened. They began to look guilty, chastened, and they turned away, intent on minding their own business. Cliff had only a moment to notice this change in the others before he felt it taking hold in himself. His anger and outrage at Jonah’s childish response to losing two games of air hockey were replaced with sympathy. Because air hockey was clearly Jonah’s thing. Furthermore, air hockey was clearly not Cliff’s thing. And how would Cliff feel if someone who was bad at whatever his thing was beat him twice in a row at his thing? Especially if those losses were just ‘cause he was drunk and had nothing to do with actual skill or anything like that? He wouldn’t like it. He would hate it. He would probably lash out, maybe even worse than Jonah had. Was it fair for Cliff to judge Jonah for his outburst? No, it wasn’t. It was at least as bad as the outburst itself, if not worse. In fact, Cliff’s judgement was worse than the outburst itself. That was certain. So Jonah had thrown his striker at Cliff. That was just a momentary loss of control that was actually pretty justified considering the circumstances. But judging Jonah, looking down on him, acting like what he had done was this ridiculous, horrible, monstrous display? Now that was bad. Cliff was so embarrassed. He had just been talking to Jonah about how bad he still felt about how he’d behaved the night they’d first met, and here he was acting in the same way again, but this time was even worse because Jonah wasn’t just some customer now, he was Cliff’s friend. And he deserved better.

                “Jonah,” said Cliff. “I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry. I want to apologize.”

                “It’s OK,” said Jonah. “It’s not a big deal.” The anger and pain in his eyes finally began to dissipate. Cliff could tell his apology was doing a lot of good, even if Jonah wasn’t admitting it outright.

                “I feel awful, though,” said Cliff. “About the way I responded to you. The tone of my voice.”

                “It’s really fine,” said Jonah, finally bestowing a smile upon Cliff. “Let’s play once more before we go.”

                Cliff felt faint with relief. But he had to wonder what was wrong with him. Why did spending time with Jonah bring out his worst side? Why couldn’t he just be better? He had to learn from this mistake. He had to. He never wanted to feel this way again.

                Cliff felt like he could have easily won the final air hockey game against Jonah, but no, he was learning, he knew better now, so he played poorly on purpose and lost by a wide margin.

                “I knew your win was a fluke,” said Jonah. “I knew it. One win doesn’t mean anything. Just a fluke.”

                Cliff didn’t point out that he had won twice. He didn’t want to have to apologize again.


                As Cliff and Jonah walked back to Jonah’s apartment from Cranky’s, Jonah started to get mushy. “You’re such a good friend, Cliff.” He was wobbly on his feet and he kept bumping into Cliff as he stumbled along next to him. “You’re such a good friend. You’re such a good friend.”

                “No, I’m not,” said Cliff, still tender about his behavior at the bar, which had also brought back much of the shame from the book-signing.

                “You are,” said Jonah. “Everyone messes up sometimes, but the important thing is that you feel bad about it. That means you’re a good person. That means you’re a good friend.

                They were only a block from Jonah’s front door when a man and two teenage boys who had been leaning against a wall and talking took notice of them. “There,” said the man. “Those two are perfect. They’re drunk, they already look scared, and even if they don’t have cash, they’ll have phones. Show me what I taught you.”

                “Come on,” said Cliff. “Don’t rob us. Just let us go home.”

                The man laughed as the teenage boys moved to block the sidewalk. “Talk to them, not me. They’re the ones robbing you. I’m just observing.”

                “Yeah,” said the taller of the two boys. “Don’t look at him. Look at us.” He was dressed much like the man. His t-shirt was tucked into his jeans and the brim of his baseball cap had three ugly creases in it from reckless bending. The shorter boy, though dressed like a more conventional teen, had already developed a body style similar to the man’s: arms that looked powerful and a midsection that looked soft.

                “What do you want?” asked Cliff.

                “Anything of value,” said the shorter boy. “Give us your wallets, phones, watches, whatever.”

                “Good,” said the man leaning against the wall. “Exactly right. Don’t leave any room for loopholes. People love to hold onto some of their valuables when they’re getting robbed. That ‘whatever’ might sound like filler, but it’s not. It’s important. It covers everything they might have.”

                “What if we don’t give you anything?” asked Cliff. He glanced at Jonah, who did not seem to have caught up to what was going on. He looked like someone who was focusing on focusing, or perhaps even focusing on focusing on focusing.

                “We’ll beat you severely,” said the taller boy. “We’ll punch you, knock you down, and kick you while you’re on the ground. We’ll kick you in the ribs, stomach, head, groin, we don’t care. There could be permanent damage. Kicks to the head have been known to kill, in some cases.”

                “Nice job,” said the man. “Always make it clear that you’re a total psycho, that you might do terrible things even if they aren’t rational, even if they might increase your chances of getting caught or make your punishment worse. If you seem rational, people will try to talk their way out of a robbery, or they’ll try to call your bluff.”

                Jonah leaned close to Cliff’s ear and asked, without whispering, “Are we getting robbed?”

                “Yes,” said Cliff, resisting the urge to lean away from his friend’s gross, drunk mouth. “They’re trying to rob us.”

                “I wondered,” said Jonah. “I thought they might be.”

                “Don’t be discouraged,” said the man to the teenagers. “That man is very drunk, so it isn’t your fault that he didn’t know he was being robbed until now. Sometimes the very things that make for a good target can make that same target annoying. But think about this: how well will he be able to fight you? How well will he be able to run away? How well will– ” The man stopped speaking mid-sentence. He looked at Cliff and Jonah, then at the teenage boys, then at his own hands. “What are we doing?” he asked. “What am I doing? Teaching these young boys to rob people? What is wrong with me?” He sank down against the wall until he was seated on the sidewalk with his feet stretched in front of him, and he wept into his hands.

The teenage boys, too, were overcome with remorse. “We’re so sorry,” said the shorter boy. “We’re so, so, so sorry.”

“We are,” said the taller boy. “We’re so, so, so, so sorry.” He pulled a five-dollar bill and a ten-dollar bill out of his back pocket. “Here,” he said. “Take this. Please. I don’t know how else to make it up to you. This is my own money. I didn’t steal it, but I want you to have it. I’m so sorry.”

Cliff was too stunned to speak, but Jonah said, “It’s OK, it’s fine, it’s not a big deal, really” as he took the money from the boy and tucked it into his shirt pocket.

The man and both boys were still calling apologies at Cliff and Jonah as they continued down the street and around the corner.

What just happened?” asked Cliff. “What was that?”

“Wallet,” said Jonah, who did not seem to have been sobered up by the attempted robbery. “Shame wallet.”

“What does that mean?” asked Cliff. “What are you talking about?”

“My shame wallet,” said Jonah. “I never leave home without it.” He laughed as if this were a clever way to express a fairly basic idea.

Cliff decided it wasn’t worth discussing while Jonah was in this state. He wondered how much of the evening Jonah would remember in the morning. If he didn’t remember the robbery attempt, maybe he wouldn’t remember Cliff’s behavior at the bar either, which would be nice.

After maneuvering Jonah into his building and up the stairs to his apartment, Cliff guided him to the couch where Jonah sprawled out on his back and closed his eyes. Cliff sat down in a recliner opposite Jonah and tried to calm himself down with a breathing exercise that he invented on the spot. Surely the specifics of the breathing exercise didn’t really matter. He still felt shaky from the encounter with the man and the teenagers. He hadn’t felt that scared in the moment, but in retrospect, the whole event became more disturbing, including the ending. Cliff was glad to not get beaten, but what had happened to those robbers? Where did those dramatic, simultaneous changes of heart come from?

“I never leave home without it,” said Jonah without opening his eyes. “Shame wallet wins again.” He pulled a plain, black wallet out of the back pocket of his jeans and slapped it on the coffee table. “Shame wallet always wins.”

“Are you OK?” asked Cliff. “I think you need to go to bed, Jonah.”

“I’m fine,” said Jonah. “I’m drunk, but I’m totally fine thanks to shame wallet.”

“If you’re fine, then why are you talking about your wallet?” asked Cliff.

“Shame wallet?” said Jonah. “Why am I talking about shame wallet? Because it saved our lives, Cliff! You should be bowing down to kiss shame wallet’s feet!” Then he laughed, presumably at the idea of a wallet with feet and Cliff bowing down to kiss those feet.

“Why are you calling your wallet ‘shame wallet?’” asked Cliff. “Is that a brand name? How did your wallet save our lives?”

“I can’t tell you about it,” said Jonah. “You’ll get upset. You won’t understand that shame wallet is good for you, like eating healthy food. You know about healthy food, right?” He smiled to himself, eyes still closed, squeezing a couch pillow to his chest like a stuffed animal.

“Your wallet is like healthy food?” asked Cliff.

“No,” said Jonah. “Shame is like healthy food. Shame wallet is like your mom after she reads a blog about junk food. A blog with graphs where the junk food is represented by a red bar and the health food is represented by a blue bar.”

“I can’t follow what you’re talking about,” said Cliff. “You’re too drunk to explain.”

“No, I’m not,” said Jonah. “I can explain very easily. It’s very simple. Shame wallet makes people feel the shame they should be feeling and would be feeling if they hadn’t conditioned themselves not to feel it.”

“Your wallet does that,” said Cliff. “That’s what you’re saying?”

“Well, shame wallet’s just a tool for helping people feel shame,” said Jonah. “I make the decisions. I have to decide when and where to use it. Without my moral instincts, it’d just be a wallet!” He laughed and fumbled on the coffee table until he felt the wallet, picked it up, and dumped his remaining cash and various cards on his face.

Cliff was not inclined to believe Jonah. What he was saying sounded ridiculous, and also, he was drunk. Or rather, Cliff wouldn’t have been inclined to believe Jonah if he hadn’t just watched three people intent on robbing him become abruptly apologetic, penitent, and yes, ashamed. And what about the incident at Cranky’s? Cliff himself had gone from justifiable anger at Jonah’s outburst to shame at his own response to that outburst in the matter of two or three seconds, and so had everyone else in the bar. And what about Cliff’s first meeting with Jonah? Cliff hadn’t felt remotely guilty about being rude to Jonah until suddenly he did, until suddenly he was apologizing over and over, trying to make friends with Jonah, desperate to convince Jonah he wasn’t a bad person? How did that make sense? The more Cliff thought about it, the more Jonah’s claims about the shame wallet fit with what he’d observed. He felt resentment rising inside of him, resentment with chunks of bitterness floating in it, filling him from the feet up like one of those diagrams illustrating the fact that the human body is 60% water.

“So you think it’s up to you to decide who should feel shame?” asked Cliff, concealing his disgust as best he could.

“Well, shame wallet is mine,” said Jonah. “So it’s my responsibility.”

“And you’re never tempted to abuse that power?” asked Cliff.

“Can’t abuse it,” said Jonah. “Shame wallet doesn’t make people feel shame they shouldn’t feel. It only makes people feel the shame they should feel.”

“What makes you so sure?”

Jonah shifted onto his side, still hugging the pillow, facing Cliff with his eyes still closed. He sighed, performing his contentment. “I’ve never seen it make someone feel ashamed who shouldn’t have felt ashamed, Cliff. Never.”

“Have you ever tried to see if you could use it to make someone feel ashamed who had no cause to be ashamed?” asked Cliff. “Just to see if it could?”

“No, I haven’t,” said Jonah. “But I don’t need to. Where would the shame come from in the case of someone with no cause to be ashamed? Shame wallet can’t just create shame out of nothing, Cliff, that’s absurd! It’s a wallet! All it does is allow the person to feel the shame that their shameful actions have already generated, the shame that they’d be feeling without shame wallet’s help if they hadn’t spent years training themselves not to feel shame.”

“But this is an incredible power,” said Cliff. “Think of all the good you could accomplish with it.”

“Oh, I accomplish lots of good with it,” said Jonah. “Lots of good. People have been much nicer to me since I got shame wallet. Do you think I’d be able to live in a place this nice for what I’m paying if shame wallet hadn’t made my landlord ashamed of what he wanted to charge me?”

“I don’t just mean nicer to you,” said Cliff. “I mean, you could make the world a better place. You could make dictators ashamed of their harsh treatment of their people, you could make serial killers confess, you could make bigots ashamed of their bigotry, you could make corrupt businessmen ashamed of their corruption. You could solve so many problems.”

Jonah said nothing. His eyes were still closed, but now his jaw had gone slack. He was asleep.

The original plan had been for Cliff to sleep on the couch, but now the couch wasn’t available. Cliff felt weird about taking Jonah’s bed, especially since he had decided he was no longer friends with Jonah. It looked like his options were to either sleep sitting up in the chair, or to give the hardwood floor a shot. Or else he could stay awake a while longer until he felt sober enough to drive home. What time was it anyway?

Cliff pulled his phone out of his pocket and saw that it was almost 2:30 a.m. He also saw that he had missed multiple calls and texts from Kammy since just before 11 p.m. A quick scroll through the missed texts revealed her rising level of agitation. The last few were composed entirely of capital letters. Rather than read the whole saga, Cliff thought it best to talk to her right away. The most recent text was from only 20 minutes before, so he figured there was a chance she was still awake. Cliff stepped out onto the back deck and called Kammy.

“Where have you been?”

“I’m hanging out with Jonah tonight,” said Cliff. “I’m at his place. I accidentally set my phone to ‘silent’ instead of ‘vibrate’ so I didn’t notice any of your calls or texts until right now.”

“So you didn’t look at your phone at any point in the last three and a half hours?” said Kammy. “That’s what you’re saying?”

“I really didn’t,” said Cliff. “What’s wrong? What’s going on?”

“You have to come over here right away,” said Kammy. “My parents fell down the stairs.”

“Both of them?”

“Yes, both of them!”

“The same stairs?”

“Yes, the same stairs! I explained it all in the texts and a voicemail!”

“And you need me to help take them to the emergency room?” guessed Cliff.

“No,” said Kammy. “I already took them to the emergency room by myself. Now they’re home. I need you to come over to my place now to talk with me about how you weren’t available when I needed you.”

“I’ll be right over,” said Cliff. He did not think it would help matters to mention that he was probably very near the legal limit in terms of his blood alcohol content. He would just need to drive carefully, to concentrate on being a good driver. On his way out Jonah’s front door, he paused to look at his sleeping, manipulative ex-friend on the couch. The most galling thing was that Cliff could still feel the shame about being dismissive of Jonah at the book store, about judging him at Cranky’s. It was still inside of him, it still nagged at him. Did that mean Jonah was right? That the shame was real, that Cliff should have felt it without the influence of the shame wallet? Was the shame wallet just a means of overriding a person’s selfish rationalizations? Because not answering the phone or responding to Kammy’s texts had been an honest mistake. Cliff understood that she was upset about whatever had happened to her parents on whatever stairs it had happened on, but it wasn’t fair for her to take it out on him. Cliff walked around the couch, picked up the empty shame wallet from where it had fallen on the floor, and left Jonah’s apartment.


“I’m so sorry,” said Kammy. “I’m so, so, so sorry. I feel terrible.” She was crying, hugging Cliff, pleading for his forgiveness.

Cliff was shocked at how easy it had been. He hadn’t even had to touch the shame wallet. It was hidden away in the inside pocket of his jacket. Cliff had walked in the door to find Kammy furious and ready for a fight. Worse, he could tell that the source of her fury was disappointment, sadness, fright. The look on Kammy’s face had filled Cliff with shame he did not want to feel. She was making him feel bad. She wasn’t considering how her actions were affecting him. Without having received specific instructions on how to use the shame wallet, and not knowing what else to do, Cliff had simply focused his thoughts on the shame wallet and envisioned it performing its special task on Kammy. It worked, but not in the way Cliff had anticipated. Instantly, Cliff had felt a weight lift from his shoulders. He imagined it suspended in the air between him and Kammy for a moment. Then it settled on Kammy. He saw it in the collapse of her anger, replaced by shame, her face crumbling, her posture crumbling, her spirit crumbling. Jonah had lied to Cliff, and maybe to himself as well. Or maybe he had wrongly interpreted the workings of the shame wallet to favor himself. Or maybe he just wasn’t as perceptive as Cliff. Jonah was right that the shame wallet didn’t create the shame, but he was wrong about the source. The shame didn’t originate in the target, it originated in the shame wallet bearer, in the wielder of the shame wallet, and then the shame wallet took the shame of its bearer and forced it onto the target.

“It’s OK,” said Cliff now as he hugged Kammy back. “It’s fine, I promise. Don’t worry about it.” He didn’t know what else to say. A fresh tide of shame was welling inside of him, more potent than before. Was this the shame wallet’s doing, somehow? Or was this just a natural dose of shame that one might feel after sneakily and deliberately unloading one’s shame onto one’s undeserving loved one? He couldn’t be sure. “I need to go, Kammy. I’m exhausted. We can talk about this more tomorrow.”

“You forgive me, though?” asked Kammy.

“I do,” said Cliff. “I promise.”

“You promise?”

“I promise.”

On the drive home, Cliff felt sick. He thought about how similar Kammy and the teenage boys had sounded when they apologized, their repeated use of the word “so” to express the extent of their sorriness. Had Cliff sounded like that too when he apologized to Jonah? The shame inside of him felt like acid eating away at his organs, turning his insides into hissing slop. This thought gave him the hiccups and he imagined that his breath smelled like poison. What was the point of using the shame wallet if it just resulted in this? How had Jonah managed to use it for so long? Or did Jonah not feel this? Or did he not feel this way anymore? Had repeated use softened the impact? Had he conditioned himself not to feel the shame he was passing on to others through the shame wallet? Is that what allowed him to believe that the shame was originating in the people he afflicted rather than himself?

Cliff did not drive straight home. Instead, he drove to Lake Wellwash, walked down to the sea-walled bank through an empty lake home’s yard, filled the shame wallet with small rocks, folded it closed, and hurled it out into the dark water. Cliff’s shame was trapped inside of him, its escape plan already sinking into lake-bottom muck. He drove home and slept poorly.


Cliff awoke the next morning to someone pounding on the door of his rented house. He got out of bed, pulled on the same jeans he’d worn the night before, and answered the door shirtless.

“Where is it?” asked Jonah. “Where’s my shame wallet?” He was wearing the same clothes Cliff had last seen him in too.

“You used it on me,” said Cliff. “We weren’t real friends. You used it on me and I bet you used it on Mr. Belm and all your other friends too.”

“Where is it?” asked Jonah. “I know you have it.” He pushed past Cliff into the house and went straight for the couch cushions, for some reason, looking under each one.

“It’s gone,” said Cliff. “I got rid of it. You were wrong about how it works, Jonah. The shame comes from you. Shame wallet shifts all of your shame onto other people. Innocent people.”

“They aren’t innocent!” shouted Jonah. “No one is! Everyone feels shame and they should! If no one felt shame, everyone would act only in their own self-interest! No one would apologize for hurting your feelings, no one would apologize for ignoring you, no one would apologize for misleading you, no one would apologize for refusing to take you to the dermatologist for your acne when you were a teenager! Shame is good, it’s a force for positive change in the world!”

“Then let people improve because of their own shame!” shouted Cliff. “Don’t offload yours onto them!”

“People hate feeling shame,” said Jonah. “They work and work and work to numb themselves to it. If I leave people to their own devices, shame will be an unused resource, completely wasted. If people won’t feel it, then it may as well not exist.”

“But what about your shame?” asked Cliff.

                “I don’t have anything to be ashamed of,” said Jonah. “Give me my shame wallet.”

                “I told you it’s gone,” said Cliff.

                “I know it isn’t gone,” said Jonah. “You’ve got it on you right now. I can feel you using it on me. I can feel you trying to make me feel all the shame you should be feeling for stealing from me.”

                “I thought you said the shame comes from inside the target,” said Cliff. “That the shame wallet only makes them feel their own shame.”

                “I didn’t say the shame comes from inside the target,” said Jonah. “I said shame wallet makes them feel the shame they should be feeling. All shameful incidents, events, actions, and so on must generate a certain amount of shame as determined by how shameful they are. Yes, sometimes my mind mistakenly believes that I should feel shame for something, but when I examine the situation rationally, I realize that my mind is merely making up the shame deficit created by the other person’s lack of shame. Therefore, whenever I use shame wallet, I make a conscious decision to transfer the shame that I am feeling but should not be feeling to the person who is not feeling the shame but should be feeling it. That’s why my moral instincts are so important! You don’t have my moral instincts. You are misusing shame wallet at this very moment to transfer your shame which you should be feeling into me, who should not be feeling any shame, because I am in the right!” Jonah punctuated this final declaration with a punch to the side of Cliff’s head.

Cliff staggered backward and fell to the floor. He could feel his TV remote under his hip. He groaned and tried to roll off of it, accidentally turning on the TV in the process. He heard a commercial for a drug. Relatively few side effects. Testimonials. The drug works. Doctors confirm. Then he felt Jonah rolling him onto his stomach, digging his wallet out of his jeans.

“I knew you had it,” said Jonah.

“That’s not your shame wallet,” mumbled Cliff. “That’s mine. Regular wallet. Not even the same color.”

“You disguised it,” said Jonah. “You changed its shape and color to trick me. But you couldn’t trick me. I felt you using it on me.” He emptied Cliff’s wallet, tossed the contents on the couch stripped of its cushions, and left.

Cliff stayed on the floor and waited for his head to clear. When it did, he would go to work on all the shame that had accumulated inside of him over the last few weeks. Justifying, reasoning, rationalizing, intellectualizing, making allowances, whatever it took. He would apply all of his mental faculties to the problem, and then he would be better, or at least feel better. And wouldn’t it be better to feel better? Cliff thought so.

Discussion Questions

  • When using the power of reason to reduce your shame, do you find that you prefer justification, rationalization, or something else? Explain your answer.

  • Name someone with worse moral instincts than you. Name someone with better moral instincts than you. Name someone with moral instincts identical to yours. Name someone tired of being asked to name people based on various criteria related to their perceived moral instincts (this is an opportunity for you to make a joke, such as writing your own name or “me”).

  • How many times does someone have to say the word “so” in front of the word “sorry” in order for you to believe they’re sincere?

  • How would you interpret this story differently if it were a shame bracelet or a shame contact lens or a shame Bluetooth headset instead of a shame wallet?

  • How often do you think tails ACTUALLY fails?

  • Do you have any real-life techniques for spreading your shame around to your loved ones so that it’s easier for you to bear? Share those here!