by Terry Hargrove
Last week, I was in our town’s largest grocery store when my son asked if I would buy him a toy.
“I don’t have any money for toys today,” I said.
“Why not?” he asked.
“Because I’m not lucky,” I said. “Besides, you have enough toys to start you own Kmart. Why do you need another toy?”
“I need another toy so I won’t scream,” he said. “If I scream, you won’t like it. Mommy doesn‘t.”
“I don’t understand. Do you want toys or ice cream? Joey, I don’t have money to just throw away. I‘ve never had money to throw away. Well, once I did, and it involves ice cream. You did just say ice cream, right?”
He didn’t say ice cream, but he did start screaming, so I told him the tale of the free money and the drunk guy.
It was July of 1965. I had just turned 10, and was wasting time with three other guys at the park across the street from my house. In July, the majority of our days were spent trying to find a cool place or praying for a breeze. Even the library had lost its allure, since its air conditioner had broken.
So we wilted under the great oak tree and waited. The great thing about boredom in a small town is if you sit and are patient, eventually something will happen. It might take a few weeks, but the same Nature that hates a vacuum also has more than a mild dislike for dullness.
We heard the car before we saw it. It careened down College Street, then was on two wheels as it turned left onto Fourth Avenue. It crashed into the ditch and rock wall that was the southern border of the park, and the driver stumbled out. But he wasn’t hurt. He was drunk, and, perhaps in his joy at escaping injury, he reached into his pockets and began throwing dollar bills into the air. This went on for about 45 seconds. Then the police car arrived, grabbed the drunk guy, threw him into the back seat of a patrol car, and slammed the door shut.
“Sir?” asked Ray to the arresting officer. “What about his money? He threw it all over the place.
“William Dean?” screamed the officer toward the back seat. “Why’d you throw all this money away? Did you steal it?”
“I don’t want it anymore,” mumbled William Dean. “Let them boys keep it. But beware, boys, it’s the root, I say. The root!”
But he didn’t tell us what money was the root of, and we pretended we didn’t already know. Later a tow truck came and hoisted away the remains of his Buick, and we were left to ponder our immediate future, one that had just moments before seemed so dull and commonplace, but was now rich with potential.
“I have four of his dollars,” said Ray.
“I’ve got three,” said his brother Johnny.
“We are, indeed, strangely blessed,” added the Comic Book Kid. He always talked like that. “Behold, I have six ones and a five! Methinks there is a Famous Monsters of Film Land in my future.”
“I only got two,” I said. “And I feel bad about it. He was drunk, and it’s the drunk guy’s money. What if he gets out and comes back looking for it?”
This was indeed a quandary, and when we needed clear insight into the mysteries of morality, we knew where to turn.
“Kid? What should we do?”
“Alas,” he said. “They are as sick that suffer with too much as them that starve with nothing.”
When we needed clear insight into the mysteries of morality that we could understand and agree with, we turned away from the Comic Book Kid, and toward Ray Miles.
“Well, I think we got to spend it,” he said. “If I get home with four dollars in my pocket, my old man will assume I stole it, and I’ll get the switch or the belt or both. So we have to spend it. Every penny.”
It was decided. We split the money into four equal portions of five dollars each, and headed to Herb’s Bi-Rite. Money had never simply fallen into our hands before, and in order to show proper gratitude to the universe, we were going to feast. We bought sodas, candy bars, each of us got his own quart of Purity Chocolate Milk, and we topped it off with four half-gallons of ice cream, the real stuff, none of that ice milk nonsense. Throw in a gallon of Hershey’s Chocolate Syrup, and we were in for one unforgettable gastro-adventure.
“What are you young fellas doing?” asked Bobby Purvis, the clerk who worked for Mr. Herb. The Dad knew Bobby Purvis as a man with an uncommon streak of good luck that made him banned from every decent poker game in the county. But today, we were the lucky ones.
“Just buying some snacks,” said Ray, who handed over his five ones.
Bobby looked at the five crisp bills carefully. When he saw that all four of us had an equal amount of cash, his eyes lit up as if he was getting a commission. He loaded us down with stuff we didn’t need, like canned biscuits and link sausages. He gave the Comic Book Kid five free issues of DC comics, and at the end reminded us to take a handful of the little wooden spoons that normally went to kids who purchased half-pints of sherbet. He even threw in a rolling shopping cart for free. We left Herb’s with six large paper bags loaded down with more food than we could eat in a week. But by then, it was 2:00, so we didn’t have a week. We had two hours.
Of course, we weren’t very smart. It was still viciously hot, and the ice cream began to melt right away. We fought the forces of thermodynamics by doubling our efforts and eating faster. That was a mistake, and the lukewarm chocolate milk didn’t help. Candy bars sizzled away in the sunlight, and brown milk curdled in the humidity. It was an adventure, all right, and it ended the way such adventures always end, with four well deserved purges. It was three whole days before I could stomach chocolate milk again.
When William Dean got out of jail, he came to the park looking for his money, although he didn’t remember where he lost it.
“I’ll never drink again,” he lamented, and he meant it.
“How much did you lose?” asked Jeffrey, who was not present when William’s drunken escapade ended in charity.
“Well, on the surface it was just $20. But they were very rare gold certificates. One of them was worth $500. I asked every store owner in town if they’d seen ‘em, but nobody has.”
William Dean wasn’t very smart either. He should not have asked every store owner, but every store clerk. The day after our feast, Bobby Purvis left town and was never seen again. The last we heard, he was throwing dice in Tupelo, and winning every toss. He always was a lucky bastard.
I couldn’t finish the story. Joey’s screams were just too loud. But they stopped when he saw a five dollar bill flutter across the parking lot and land in his lap. He scooped it up and we went back inside and bought a pack of Hot Wheels. He’s always been lucky that way. It’s the third time this year that paper money has just floated to him. I think I’m supposed to warn him about something, but what else does he have? He doesn’t like chocolate milk or ice cream.
Categories: scholars and rogues