They pointed and oohed-and-ahhhed at the rabbits in the cage and the man asked about the two, four-pound catfish that were still in the kiddie wading pool. The man asked “How many washers for the fish?”
Steve drew a blank. “Washers” was not a word for money that he was familiar with.
“You will have to explain.” Steve said. “I am still sorting things out as a storekeeper.
The man reached into his pocket and pulled out a hankerchief tied into a bundle. Carefully untying the bundle, he showed Steve four, 1/2”, galvanized washers.
“Money” the man said. “This is a day’s pay for an adult.” he added holding up one of the washers.
“I don’t accept that here.” Steve said.
The man’s face fell. He explained, “This is the anniversary of the day I proposed to my wife. I wanted to buy something special for her.”
“What will a washer buy at La-Loyd’s store?” Steve wanted to know.
The man’s face hardened. “A pound of corn” he said. “And the lazy bastard grinds it cobs and all.”
Steve imagined that nobody working for Blastic lacked for fiber in their diets.
“A day’s work buys a pound of corn?” Steve asked, just to be sure. “That is not enough to keep an adult alive.”
“You are telling me.” the man said. “We have been picking berries and doing what we can.” he said. "But there just aren't very many calories in a bucket of berries."
Adults on the east side of M-99 were earning the equivalent of a pound of corn a workday, basically starvation wages. Adults on the west side of M-99 expected to make the equivalent of 56 pounds of corn in a workday and negotiated their pay from there.
Steve did not see how either was be sustainable but fixing that injustice was way above his paygrade.
Steve made a quick decision.
“Today only, I will let you buy one of those fish for one washer and a pound of mixed corn/wheat flour for another washer. The deal is for today and today only.” Steve said. “You are not to tell anybody about this deal because I cannot offer it to anybody else.”
“And if you pick berries, and they are ripe and of good quality I am willing to trade you ground grain pound-for-pound, straight-up.” Steve said. “Maybe more. It depends on how well they sell. That applies to everybody on your side of M-99 because I have people who want to can and dry them.
"What if we want oil?" the man's wife asked.
"We have a ratio. Right now a pound of grain trades for two ounces of oil. That might change tomorrow or next week."
The couple left the store holding hands. The man carried the fish and the woman carried the small bag of flour.
Steve was left flipping one of the washer, pondering what he was going to do with them.
When the supply wagon came around later that afternoon, Steve had a short, private chat with the driver.
“I need five pounds of washers that look exactly like this.” Steve said. “I need to keep it quiet because I don’t want to look like an idiot if I cannot sell them.”
Di understood perfectly. Everybody was trying new things. A few things worked and most did not. If Steve thought he might be able to sell washers then she would talk to Kelly and see if he could scrounge some up.
The bag of washers showed up on the next delivery and Steve weighed his options.
He guessed that customers from Blastic’s farm would cross over to the west side of M-99 so they would be less visible to La-Loyd when they walked past it. Likely they would return by the same route.
If somebody were walking to his store, they might be looking at the ground and if they found a washer worth a man’s daily wage, then likely they would look for more washers every time they passed that spot.
He wanted to ease into it slowly enough that La-Loyd wouldn’t notice a sudden up-tick in the amount of corn going out the door each day. Based on the fact that the man had horded four washers, Steve felt safe leaving that many in the gravel on the shoulder of the road a good quarter mile from his store before first light. He would start with four and slowly increase the number up from there.
Steve felt pretty good. Berries-for-grain was good business and it would put more calories on their plates. Arranging events so Blastic's slaves found a few extra washers appealed to Steve's sense of justice. With any kind of luck, Blastic would not balance the books and it would be a long time before he figured out somebody was corrupting his currency.
He was not worried about the customers missing the washers. Nothing hones a person’s senses more than hunger.