I worked for a foundation that gave away other people’s money to schools and hospitals and the arts and such. Sounds like meaningful work. When I was hired, I was given one account. A widow had left seven million dollars. We could give it to whomever we wanted. But: we could only pay it out in dimes. Her husband’s favorite president was FDR, favorite god was Mercury, favorite number was ten, and ugh.
We contacted our regular beneficiaries, who were alarmed when we showed up with jangling five-gallon buckets. Who the hell wants ten thousand dollars in dimes? It took hours for their employees to put them in paper rolls. (They needed to be loose change—another stipulation.)
Soon, no one I called would call back. My manager was insistent: get rid of those dimes. So I took out an ad in the paper (paid for in dimes, of course) that advertised free money, that recommended shovels and barrels. A dump truck poured them onto a vacant lot like the county does with sand in the winter. And some people came and shoveled until their cars’ back bumpers scraped the ground. Some came for the spectacle and only dropped one or two into their pockets as a souvenir. And some people brought their grandchildren—the pile of dimes is not a playground, I had to remind them. But most people drove by. And the pile got rained on. Then it baked in the sun. It smelled like an overheated lamp.
The banks stopped taking them, claiming they were wearing out their change-counting machines. The really perseverant drove to further and further towns until banks in our and two neighboring counties refused to accept dimes as legal currency. And what were our shopkeepers to do, when their goods were being bought by something you could get from a festering pile down the street? The town passed a law making it illegal to buy anything with dimes. Everyone knew it was unconstitutional. But what would I pay lawyers with? Dimes?
My manager, initially furious with my failure, grew sympathetic. She said she kept dreaming about nickels. I said she didn’t know the half of it. Together, we came up with a plan to which the city council readily agreed. We would dump the remaining $6,172,343.80 in a pond in a park, call it a fountain.
So we did. It turned the water a weird green and killed all the frogs. It flooded away the beach. It still smelled bad, silverware left in a swamp. But it was done.
Then the sightings started. Nothing ever confirmed, mind you. But a jangling like spurs. Or an apparition of a barber’s head. Or the priest feeling like his pockets were burning.
Some people said it was the widow’s revenge against the town for putting her dog in the pound a zillion years ago. Some people said it was because we didn’t give away all the money, and her spirit was restless. But we had the records. Every last dime was dropped in the pond.
No one knew how I kept one beside my pillow. How it glowed like amber. How it sung me to sleep.
The Agents for the Constellations
From the five-and-dime I bought a package of glow-in-the-dark stars. I thought I’d sew them to black suits for me and my daughter. Then we’d wear them and walk downtown, explaining we were agents for the constellations. All the big names. Orion. The Southern Cross. The Big Dipper. We represent mythologies for every nighttime need. Could we interest you in their mystic light?
My daughter doesn’t yet know the word flimflam. She’s never been called a charlatan.
Then we will walk back home, take off our suits, go to sleep. She will dream of her mother; I will try to dream about the sea for a change. In the morning, we will get a phone call from the stars: it seems everyone is talking about the agents for the constellations. We must be doing a very good job.
B.J. Best is the author of three books, most recently But Our Princess Is in Another Castle, a collection of prose poems inspired by video games. I got off the train at Ash Lake, a verse novella, is forthcoming from sunnyoutside. He lives in Wisconsin.