I feel weird telling this story. It’s the kind of story only your mother is allowed to tell. If you tell it, it’s braggy. "Listen to what I did! I’m a really good person." But I’ll tell it anyway. Because I am a really good person. Because I’ve also been a really shitty person, and I’m probably not done with that yet. Because what happens at the end is more telling than what happens at the braggy part. Because I don’t believe in karma, luck, fate or any of the other things that keep a lot of people safe in this world. Because sometimes it’s nice to believe for a day.
My dad gave each of us a one hundred dollar bill for Christmas. His usual gift, and always appreciated. I never carry much cash, at most a few crumpled ones and a handful of change, so for a few days I walk around feeling like someone who might could buy an unused dog.
The Saturday after Christmas I take my daughter to a peak-time movie and we treat ourselves to unsmuggled popcorn and drinks. After that I have a ten and a five that my daughter wheedles for gas, and a fifty dollar bill.
The next morning, Sunday, I head to the grocery store. I detour for a Diet Coke at the McDonald’s drive thru. When I go to pay, I realize the only cash I have is the fifty dollar bill. The cashier cannot break it. I’m left to rummage through my purse and my car to come up with $1.86. The cars behind me inch forward menacingly as I snake my hands into the seat cracks and under the floormats. One asshole even honks. He needs his McMuffin now! All the while I’m apologizing to the cashier for clogging up the system. "I never have a fifty dollar bill! Never!" Why am I apologizing? For giving money to the cashier? It’s part of my charm. Part of my shame.
Necessarily caffeinated, I reach the grocery, where the nearly empty store means I can shop at leisure and slurp my Diet Coke while I plan the week’s menu. In the produce department, I’m contemplating poblanos and bells, when a teenage boy shuffles by. His shoulders hunched like a penitent, his eyes on the ground.
A store employee, stacking apples, calls to him. "You find it yet?"
"No, Ma’am" he replies heavily.
"Well, we’re all looking. Everyone in the store knows," she assures him. He shuffles on.
Curious, I ask her, "What’s the story?"
"His mom sent him to the store with a fifty dollar bill to buy groceries. He dropped it somewhere in here. I feel bad for him. We’re all on the lookout."
You can see where this story is going. The unusual, even burdensome, fifty in my purse. The boy who has lost his fifty. When I encounter him a few aisles over, I ask, "Have you found it?"
"No. And I’ve looked everywhere. It’s not here." He’s about sixteen, braces, wearing a sweatshirt declaring him a trumpet player in the local high school band.
I reach into my purse, grab the fifty and push it into his hands. "Take this. Buy your groceries."
He can’t believe it. I can’t believe it. We hug awkwardly. It is finished. I’ve said goodbye to my fifty, convinced myself it was good riddance.
As I shop the freezer case, two stock boys are talking. "Some kid lost a fifty. Sucks, eh? We’re supposed to be looking for it."
Just then, the teen rounds the corner with a huge smile on his face. "I found it!" he says. He reaches into his pocket and hands me my fifty. "Thank you." He hugs me again. It’s not awkward this time.
"That’s great," I say. "I just didn’t want you to go home with nothing."
The two stock boys watch the scene unfold. One says to me, "I think you’re going to have a good day." My eyes well up. The teen’s eyes well up. The stock boys sniffle. Mrs. Paul weeps openly.
Later that day, I head off to put in my volunteer hours at the shelter adoption center. I’m early so I stop at a nearby Goodwill to browse. A few minutes in, I realize this will be an epic haul. An armload of adorable dresses, labels I cannot afford. A pricey jacket from my daughter’s favorite store, tag still attached. A pair of vintage red suede heels that fit so perfectly my feet throw a tantrum when I take them off. "We have to pay for them!" I scold. "You can’t go around wearing shoes you haven’t paid for!"
The new shelter where I volunteer is no-kill, pleasant, and my shift goes by quickly. On the way home, I stop by my favorite taco restaurant for dinner. The waitress knows my name, and my order. She delivers it to my table and says, "I brought you some extra guacamole. It’s really good today."
At my table, I read the paper. A luxury, since we’ve canceled our subscription. I spread it out the full length of the tabletop, unchecked by my husband’s coffee cup or a stack of bath towels waiting to be shelved. Another luxury.
I get up to leave and I hear someone call my name. "Bell!?" I squint across the darkened restaurant. It is a dear boy – a man now – from high school. I haven’t seen him in twenty five years. We embrace with true affection. The last time I ran into a long lost classmate, it was at CVS. I was coming off a three day NyQuil bender, carrying pink-eye remedy, a box of the really big tampons and a National Enquirer. This time, I am disease free and wearing lip gloss. We chat happily for an hour.
At home, I show my daughter the Goodwill booty. We hold an impromptu fashion show and I model my vintage red suede heels. Her envy is Shakespearean and she plots to make them her own. (She will not succeed.)
That night, I sleep. All night.
This week, still feeling all up with people, I forswear the boots I’ve been courting on Zappos, and instead send the money to Haiti. I write to them (the boots): "I’m sorry we cannot be together, but I have a more noble cause to pursue. The funds I had gathered to send for your transport have been diverted. Please know that I long for you, and hope that one day, my darlings, foot will meet boot. Until then...."
All day, I wait for the windfall of good fortune that will reward my sacrifice. Instead, I spill a 24 oz drink into the floorboard of my car when I get cut off in traffic by a teenage girl who yells "Stupid bitch!" as she passes. I’m thinking that sounds about right.