It was a slow evening, even for a Tuesday. I packed up my guitar early, slinging it over my shoulder as I rummaged through the tip jar for the price of a hotdog. I was ten cents short, but Joe let me slide for it. He filled a napkin with some scraps for Bonnie, and we headed over to our bench to watch the moon rise over the river.
Someone was already sitting there, hunched shoulders and an air of dejection. Bonnie trotted over to him, her ears pricked up, tail awagging as he patted her muzzle.
“Sorry, I don’t have any spare change,” he told me flatly.
“I feel that, brother. I ain’t lookin’ for a handout, just a share of the view.”
He shifted over, and I joined him, noticing the perfect tailoring of his navy suit, the carefully manicured fingernails and fancy Rolex. Clearly a man of means, yet he looked sort of hollow, like that feeling you get in your gut when you haven’t eaten in a day or two. He watched as Bonnie settled herself at my feet, looking up expectantly. I put her napkin on the floor and she set right to eating, picking each piece as delicately as though it were filet mignon and not dried up hamburger meat scraped from the griddle.
“You seem kinda bummed out, if you don’t mind my sayin’ so,” I broke my hotdog in half and offered the bigger half to him.
“Thanks, but I’m not hungry.”
I shrugged, taking a bite myself, the tangy relish making my mouth water. “Suit yourself. Joe’s hotdogs are the best around, though. You’re missin’ a treat.”
We sat in companionable silence, while I finished my supper. I wiped my mouth on a napkin and tossed the paper tray into the trashcan beside me. Bonnie licked the grease from my fingers and spun around in a circle, before settling back down in a puddle of golden fur to nap.
“I’m a good listener,” I said gently. “If’n there’s somethin’ on your mind, might be good to put it into words. That’s what my shrink used to say, anyways.”
He sighed. “I wouldn’t know where to start. “This time last year I thought I had everything I could ever wish for. A beautiful wife, my career was taking off. I was headed in the right direction, you know?”
“Then I won the lottery, and it’s all been downhill since then.”
He pulled a duffel bag out from under the bench, grabbed the zip and yanked it open.
The bag was bursting with hundred-dollar bills, all rolled tightly with elastic bands. More money than I’d ever seen in my whole life.
“That’s a whole lotta greenbacks.” I looked around us, checking the shadows to make sure we were alone. “This ain’t the kinda area you wanna be carryin’ that kind of cash around.”
He smiled wryly. “That’s why I came here. Figured sooner or later someone would take it off my hands.”
“You don’t want it?” I was confused. “What’s wrong with it?”
“Maybe nothing. I don’t know,” he replied. “I thought when my numbers came up that my whole life would be a fairytale – one of the jet setters, you know? Tropical vacations, fancy cars, a big house on the right side of town for once. Thought it would take away all my worries, set my family up for life.” He closed the bag and tossed it back onto the ground. “Boy was I wrong.” He took a silver cigarette case out of his jacket pocket, like some old time movie star on the black and white screen. He offered me one.
“Thanks, but I quit.”
“Me too, me too.” Hi lit up, taking a long drag that sent the tip blazing red. “Guess that’s another promise I’m going back on tonight.”
“There’s always tomorrow, man.”
He shook his head. “I’m done on tomorrows and talk of brighter futures. I’ve made my peace with it.”
I was growing concerned. The dude sounded suicidal, and I wondered if I ought to run back to Joes, ask him to call someone.
“Don’t talk like that,” I told him. “We all got to go through dark times. It’s what makes the better days seem so good.”
“But what if all the better days are behind you? What if you wasted them all without even knowing it?”
I thought about it. “How can you be so sure, though? Ain’t none of us can see the future. For all you know, your luck could change tomorrow. Be a shame to miss it, don’t you think?”
He offered a pinched and cynical smile. “You hold on to that way of thinking, then. I hope it works out for you. But me, I’m out. As soon as I find someone to take this load off my shoulders, I’m gone.”
I could tell he meant it. Was even cheerful about the prospect – what had happened to him that made oblivion seem like the best option?
“Well, seems like you puttin’ me in a tricky predicament, man. I can’t just leave you here now, that ain’t gonna sit right with my conscience. How’s about you tell me how things got to this point?”
Bonnie twitched in her sleep, as though sensing something bad in the air. He looked at her, and then at his hands, in his lap.
“Fine. It’s not a long story. Like I said – I won the lottery, a year ago today. Won big - $62 million after taxes. Not too shabby, huh?”
“I threw a party to share the news with my family and friends. I planned it so well. Bought Mom and Dad a house, right next door to my little sister and her kids. Real pretty neighborhood, tennis courts, a community pool – nice location, safe. Sent them away on a vacation, the whole family, off to Disney, while I set it all up. They didn’t know about the winnings – thought I’d just got a big promotion. Assumed I was too busy working to join them.”
“That’s nice of you. Not everyone would share like that.”
“I’m not the type to keep that kind of thing for myself – I wanted to share it with everyone I loved.” His eyes were watery, and his voice was thick with emotion. “I booked limos from the airport straight to the community centre, hired caterers, balloon arches, the works. All my friends were there, and we waited for the limos to arrive. I was like a kid on Christmas morning, handing out gift bags with $10k in cash to all my friends and cousins. Like some kind of crazy Santa Claus. When they didn’t show up, I figured their flight was delayed.”
He wiped a tear on the back of his hand, and Bonnie woke up, looking concerned. She lay her velvety nose in his lap, licking gently at the salt on his fingers.
“Flight 183?” I asked, remembering the newspaper headlines from the year before.
“Flight 183. All souls lost. You read about that kind of thing, but you never think it’ll happen to you and yours. I’d give it all, all $62 million, if I could take it back.”
“It wasn’t your fault, though. Wasn’t nobody’s fault.”
“They wouldn’t have been on that plane if I didn’t buy them the tickets. I just wanted those kids to have a treat, you know? They’d had it rough, their Dad was no good, flaked out on them when Caitlyn was knocked up with the youngest. Never had any money for theme parks and vacations.” He took out his cell phone, showed me a photo. A friendly-looking couple in their 70’s, arms around each other, flanked by a pretty brunette woman and three cute kids. Everyone grinning in front of the pink castle.
“Looks like they had the time of their lives,” I could hear the false cheer in my voice.
“Yeah, yeah I guess so.” He put the phone away. “My whole family, dead and gone in an instant. And the money to blame. They never got to step foot inside their beautiful new homes – instead of buying bunkbeds and emptying the aisles in ToysRUS, I got to pick out coffins and floral wreaths. Do you know how small a child’s coffin is?” He took another deep puff on his cigarette, flicking the ash on the ground.
“I’m sorry, man. That’s awful, ain’t nobody deserve that kinda luck.”
“Yeah. And I still had my friends and wife, right? They’d be there for me. That’s what I thought.” He reached down to stroke Bonnie’s ears, seemed to take some comfort in the loving way she gazed up at him.
“My friends all changed, faster than a red light when there’s a cop behind you. The small taste of money I’d given was not enough. It only whet their appetites. I’d go over to their homes for barbeques or dinner parties, only to find it was a set-up. Sob story after sob story, from everyone I ever knew, even people I didn’t. Someone’s mom has cancer, another’s dog needs surgery… kids summer camps, new cars… it was endless. I never said no, but each time it broke my heart a little more. That they didn’t care about me, only what I could buy them.”
“I’m sure that ain’t true, man. They were your friends before the lottery when you weren’t rich.”
“But it all changed, don’t you see? The way they looked at me changed. It was in their eyes, a constant hunger, a jealousy. Never mind I’d lost so much – they all envied me just the same. I could see it in every one of their faces – the same question. What’s so special about him?”
Across the park I could see Joe closing up shop for the night. A slight breeze rippled over the river, sending shards of moonlight scattering across its surface.
“What about your wife?” I asked.
“What about her? I turned my full attention to her. Lavish gifts – diamond bracelets, Pomeranian puppies, designer shoes and bags… I just wanted her to be happy, for my money to do some good at least. And for a while, it worked. She was like a kid in a candy store, buying everything she wanted. My credit card bill each month was astronomical. I didn’t care.”
In the distance a fire engine siren wailed as it sped down the freeway. I shivered, despite the warmth of the evening.
“Everything. Nothing. I don’t know. At some point, it was like there was nothing left of us, like all the things we loved about each other became lost in a sea of useless possessions. She was a shopaholic, filled whole rooms with clothes and make-up. By the time I noticed it was too late to stop her. She even got storage units just so she could keep on collecting. I understood why – she grew up piss poor, never had much of anything. It was like she was trying to buy a happier childhood, better memories. Only it just made her worse.”
“Couldn’t she see a shrink?” I asked.
“She did, for all the use it did us. They diagnosed a hoarding disorder. But it was more than that. Her temper became unbearable. If I so much as tried to toss an old pizza box she flipped out. I hired cleaners, she fired them. Nobody was allowed to touch her stuff. Eventually I just moved out, left her to it. I don’t think she even noticed I was gone. At least, not as much as she noticed the money stopping.”
He nudged the bag with his foot. “There’s a little over $1 mil in there. All that’s left of my winnings. Over $60 million spent in less than a year, must be some sort of a record, right?” He laughed bitterly.
“A million’s still a whole lot, from where I’m sittin’. You could start over, take it and rebuild a new life for yourself. Don’t have to end tonight.”
“I considered it. I was a successful man once, and I liked my job. Should never have quit it, really, but it seemed silly to keep working when I was so wealthy.”
“So go back, ask your boss for a fresh start!”
He looked me up and down. “What would you do, right now, if I gave you this bag? If this million dollars was yours, no strings attached?”
I leaned back, imagining all the ways I could use it. Get out of the hostel, buy a condo, maybe go to college or something. A fresh start, no more busking for quarters on street corners. Bonnie could get proper dog food, no more scraps of hot dogs. All the tennis balls she could dream of.
“You’re thinking about it, aren’t you? Thinking you’d have done a better job with it than I did.”
“I guess so. It’s mighty temptin’ – almost scary, the way just the thought of that wealth makes me feel.”
He stood up. “Well, it’s yours, if you want it. All of it. I don’t need money anymore. Not where I’m headed.”
“Wait!” I grabbed his arm, Bonnie jumping up and putting her paws on his shoulders.
“Why should I?” He asked. “It’s not my burden anymore. It’s yours.”
“Then give me this, man. Come with me, see what I do with it. Aren’t you curious, even a little bit?”
He didn’t look curious, only tired. But he let me lead him across the park, past the basketball courts and down towards the municipal buildings. He seemed confused. Bonnie nudged him gently to keep him moving.
We reached the city pound. The sound of dogs barking in the kennels out back had always broken my heart. Bonnie faltered too, perhaps remembering her own fear and sadness, before I rescued her. It was a hopeless place, a place where dreams came to die. A place where day after day the kind volunteers worked tirelessly to undo some of the cruelty of mankind.
I dropped the heavy bag on the doorstep, where it landed with a solid thud. I rang the doorbell, three short buzzes, three long. We waited.
“Hello, Bonnie!” Darryl was on duty tonight. He knelt down, and Bonnie leapt up to cover his face in sloppy kisses. “Are you hungry? I can go find you something…”
“She’s fine, Darryl. We both are.”
“Then what can I do for you?” He glanced at the man beside me, brow furrowing as he tried to figure out why I was with such a well-dressed companion.
“This gentleman’s been goin’ through a tough time. He’s had a mighty big burden on his shoulders for too long, and I said we could help him with it.” I unzipped the bag at my feet.
Darryl gasped. “What the heck…? Did you rob a bank?”
“No, nothin’ like that. The money’s legit. He wants to donate it, don’t you?” I turned to the man, who was openly crying now, his knees buckling as he slumped by the side of the building. Bonnie curled up beside him, resting her big old head on his knee.
“Yes…” he sobbed. “Yes, I think that I do.”
“You see, man, this money ain’t cursed. You just had bad luck, is all. And Bonnie here, she had bad luck too. All these dogs ‘n’ cats, they all got a big dose of the unluckies. But now, you’re givin’ them a fresh chance. A new life. They’ll get new families, forever homes. Your money can do some real good. And you can go back to bein’ who you was always meant to be.” I patted him on the shoulder.
Darryl took the bag, shaking his head in confusion. “This is unorthodox… we’ll need to know where it came from, there’s legal stuff to sort out with a gift this big.”
“You see? You can’t die now, or they can’t accept your donation. You gotta stick about a bit longer, see it through. Think you can do that, man? Think you can see it through?”
He nodded, and I whistled for Bonnie. She gave him a last lick and trotted over to walk beside me.
“But why didn’t you take the money for yourself?” He asked as I shuffled back towards my bench by the river. “Wouldn’t it have made your life better?”
“I’ve got Bonnie, and I’ve got my old guitar. Reckon that’s more than enough for me.”