On a blisteringly cold February morning, well before the sun rose, fifty or so yards from the 24-hour diner where derelict men were perched on stools and planted in booths, Danveeldee saw money everywhere. It was like a dream, like paradise, though it was neither; it was Chicago and it was 1950 and he was twenty-five years old and heading for work. The ground was frozen and repulsive.
Heart pounding, eyes darting like spooked squirrels, he ripped off his gloves and stuffed the bills into his pockets, sleeves, pants, and underwear. Fistfuls of tens, twenties, fifties, and hundreds. Rapture surged through his veins. But a voice told him to Go, Go, Go! and he went, leaving a fortune behind him.
In the bakery, he entered the minuscule toilet, locked the door, kneeled over the seat, shooed away the flies, and counted the money three times.
The number—ten thousand, exactly ten thousand—was incredible, was so round and intoxicating that he said it out loud. A whisper at first, but then louder, louder, the volume giving him confidence, the confidence giving him volume. He incanted the number, conjured it, wanted it to live, and it did; it danced before his eyes and he hugged it, caressed it, loved it, felt like running out into the streets and shouting about it, flying to the top of every skyscraper and screaming about it, but he read the papers, listened to the radios, watched the movies, bullshitted with the bakers. He thought: Mafia, drugs, gangs, government. This money wasn’t clean; shouting and screaming would not do. So he wrapped the money in some baker’s paper, shoved it beneath a pile of dirty laundry in his locker, and kept his mouth shut.
He kept his mouth shut for two days and couldn’t keep it shut any longer. Back then you could buy four new cars with that kind of money. You could buy a new house and a new car. How could he possibly keep his mouth shut?
He told his mother and father first. Then he told his three brothers and two sisters. Then Wilma, his girlfriend. Then his aunts and uncles and grandparents and cousins. But not his coworkers or friends. Certainly no strangers. Why not?
He didn’t trust them.
None of the people he did trust, however, believed him, not until he started buying them gifts. Big ones. One gift led to another, like influenza. Never had he had such purchasing power! He spent next to nothing on himself—not a car, certainly not a house—and the money disappeared in less than a month. But over the next forty years of gainful employment, Danveeldee kept his head down. Whenever he was out in the world, he kept it down, down, down.
“If it can happen once,” his mother used to say, “it can happen again.”
Of course it can.
So he scanned, searched, and hoped, finding coins, mainly pennies—lots of pennies—but nothing more substantial until twenty-five years post-windfall when he spied a twenty-dollar bill teetering on a gutter’s grate.
With what boyish alacrity the fifty-year-old man dove for it! Saved the bill from the foul abyss, ripping the skin off his elbows and knees in the process.
When he stuffed it into his pocket, crumpled and caressed it against his thigh, the pain was obliterated by memory, that distant rush that felt like God’s hand, like His grace and light, and that was all he and his floundering vigilance needed.
After he retired, he spent less and less time outdoors. The 1990s came and went, the disgusting streets cleaned up a bit, then a lot. People used less cash. The fateful year 2000 was ushered in without a glitch, and then the even more fateful year 2001 changed the world, but not Danveeldee’s world.
What changed his world the most during this decade was his decreasing ability to use his legs. Soon they became so painful and useless that he could do little more than sit in his easy chair with a pair of Bushnell high-definition binoculars and survey the concrete from above. Thus trapped, he realized that even if he saw the money, he wouldn’t be able to stuff it into his pockets, sleeves, pants, or underwear, so he quit and felt the hot shame of the quitter poking and piercing him, nagging and tormenting him until, in existential despair, he inched up.
Despite the guilt and sensation of standing naked in the center of Wrigley Field, he continued to inch up.
Shoes, calves, and legs. Waists, chests, and arms. Shoulders, necks, and chins. Faces. He started to watch the people. The faces. And then the weather. (Why not? He remembered that morning and what it had felt like outside.) And then the people again. The faces. And the way the day came and went. The way the night did likewise. And the people. The faces. And the sun and the moon and the sky and the people. The faces. And he began to wonder what he had missed, how his life would have been different if on that cold, dark, clear and crisp winter’s morning he had been watching the stars and faces instead.
When he got to thinking and feeling like this about the stars and the faces he knew he was being an ungrateful, amnesic, sentimental old fart. So he’d swivel from the window to the wall-sized television screen, crack open another cold beer from the mini-fridge in the living room, flip through channel after channel while taking a sly pleasure from the adult diapers that allowed him to drink like a parched Russian and never move, never even smell that something was amiss. Oh modernity! Oh America and the American dream! Oh economic superpower! Oh GDP! Oh Wall Street! Oh Growth and Progress! Oh God, oh God, oh God!
The nights were long, so long. The masturbation so unsatisfactory and addictive. But then, one day, suddenly and without warning, Danveeldee died.
It wasn’t until weeks later when the stench of his rotting body overpowered the other stenches in his apartment building that the firemen broke down the door. The obituary writer, not knowing what else to say (but having been given the little green notebook where Danveeldee recorded every penny found—every date and location and time of day), called him a loyal citizen, a lover of bread, a patriot who had done his duty, done it quietly, unselfishly, a man who had served his country and its ideals in an exemplary fashion, a—why beat about the bush?—hero, an American hero, one who should be admired, loved, and celebrated as such. George Washington. Abraham Lincoln. Danveeldee. One for the ages.