09/30/2013 07:53 am ET Updated Nov 30, 2013

The Twenty-Dollar Bill

Between what should have been done and what he did not do, between what should have been said and what he did not say, between roads perchance travelled and the roads he took, there was the twenty-dollar bill. Its discovery came slow, over weeks, and looking back now -- he had only now, the interminable present, in which to rehash how the thing, when the thing, why the thing came into his life -- he saw that it was a workmanlike matter of convincing himself that, yes, this was happening to him.

A twenty-dollar bill began appearing in his wallet. It materialized by some rhyme beyond the natural world, unwished for, unprayed for, unrewarded as a consequence of anything. It appeared as if by magic, as if by fairy tale, as if by angel's fingers. The thing was like a stranger's face repeatedly encountered on the street, in stores, in transit, until he finally realized that the stranger was following him. The thing kept popping up. And not every day, not consecutively. When he disposed of one, another would not immediately take its place. Days, weeks, sometimes only hours passed. But no set interval, no pattern, no meaning.

True, after his first realization he thought, well, what was the problem? Flustered, yes, but it tickled him, and he chalked it up to absent-mindedness, an early symptom of aging, not quite wanting to look at the thing face on but slightly askew out of his eyes' corners like a suspected ghost. Other times and at the same time, he was gleeful, looking forward to it, like a gift at Christmas. He vacillated back and forth on the short road between these feelings, keeping one in sight of the other. Flustered, yes, but gleeful. This was all early on, a matter of weeks. Then he began trying to figure out the thing, to grab hold of its reason, to discover patterns, to know its motives. This lasted for years.

He consciously tracked how much currency he carried at any one time and purposely carried little so no mistake could be made. Three one-dollar bills were common. Once -- maybe it was the tipping point, the moment that made definite the thing had hold of him -- he settled into his easy chair for the evening, flicked on his reading lamp, put on his reading glasses, and before taking up his book (a biography of Andrew Jackson, as it turned out: already at this point exploring any avenue for clues, thinking that maybe in the life of the face that was haunting him he could discern some truth if truth were to be discerned), he pulled the wallet from his hip pocket and examined the insides one more time. Yes, three dollar bills, nothing else. He put the wallet back, started reading. During the course of the evening his son came into the room and asked for money for something, to go somewhere. But he didn't listen, not really: he was in the throes of the thing that now possessed him. "I only have three ones," he remembered saying, can hear it even now like an echo in an empty room, in the now of the limitless present. He tugged at his wallet and brought it out and opened it to show he was telling the truth, to show the actual thing as way of proof because he was at that point becoming unsure of what was the truth and what was not and believed deception or trickery always just below any statement and motive, no less his own. He made to tip his open wallet to his son to show, to prove, when he caught sight of a twenty-dollar bill there with the three ones. He pulled it back and closed it quickly. He wouldn't give it away, he couldn't, because by that time he knew that the thing was meant for him and for him only, its possession, its disposition, its viewing, its rumor, its existence, its curse. The twenty-dollar bill could not be shared. "Sorry."

He could have told people. He was on the edge of doing it many times, on the cusp of raging, regurgitating all the episodes of the twenty-dollar bill all at once to anyone, not a calm "oh, by the way" but an eruption, a sudden evacuation of the whole strangeness. He believed he might have done this once at a bar during his drinking days. Twice? But how could he know now what he did then? He could have told his wife. Listen... dear... something strange is happening to me... supernatural... a twenty-dollar bill keeps appearing in my wallet... no, just one... no, never more than one.. He could have spoken with her about it, spoken honestly, something from the heart because once when they were young they had talked to each other in such unadorned clear ways, ways of trust. Again, it was on his lips. Listen... dear... tell me I'm not going mad... He didn't. Silence seemed easier. Silence more insulating.

How could he harness the power of this magical thing? Could he save each twenty-dollar bill? He took it from his wallet and placed it in an envelope and placed the envelope in the back of his middle desk drawer. He left it there for days, but no new bill appeared. He spent that bill, and when the next one appeared, tried putting it aside again, this time for a month, then two. No new bill appeared. He spent that. A few day later a new twenty-dollar bill materialized in his wallet. Could it be the same bill was finding its way back into his wallet? He wrote down the serial number. He wrote his initials in the corner. He spent it. Two days later a new bill appeared, different numbers, no initials. He tried again, then again, making intricate drawings on the bill, blackening Andrew Jackson's eyes, tearing off a corner. Always a different bill. Fine. It was never the same bill. He could possess no more than one bill at a time. He tried changing it into different denominations and saving the change. No new bills appeared until he spent all of the changed bills. He tried depositing them into his bank account. No new bills appeared until he withdrew the twenty dollars and spent it. No manner of laundering, however byzantine, could force the thing's hand.

For a while, frazzled, paranoid, he simply burnt each bill as it appeared. But to no effect. They either appeared again soon or did not appear again, his expectations either were or were not realized, what he thought or intuited had no effect. He bought lottery tickets exclusively with the bills. He won nothing. This went on for years, interspersed with other experiments, all to learn the reasons behind the phenomenon. Meanwhile, he grew more silent, more insulated, more suspicious. His family grew and left. His wife grew and left.

He despaired of the absence of any apparent tendency, this lack of pattern, reason. He sought religion and prayed for guidance, dropping each new twenty-dollar bill into the collection plate. But they did not come any more rapidly or any less frequently. To beggars at off-ramps he relieved himself of the twenty-dollar bill. To Salvation Army kettles at Christmas. Folded them neatly into Humane Society displays near cash registers. But the rhyme of the bill did not reveal itself, a pattern did not emerge. His life went on, the thing appearing when it appeared or not appearing, no design clear. When he most needed the twenty-dollar bill, it was not there. The few times he forgot about the twenty-dollar bill, there it was. But he refused to concede to the thing.

Perhaps the bill came from the devil's coffers, and so he spent it exclusively on that which he was brought up to think of as sin. He spent the thing in bars, building and perfecting a drinking habit, always checking his wallet several times a session for a new bill. Occasionally, a new one would appear near the end of the night, but not often. Hardly ever, in fact. The frequency or infrequency did not change. Most nights drinking, in order to continue the forward momentum of the alcohol, he had to dip into his own earnings, more times than not putting it on his credit card. Once he spent the bill on oral sex from a prostitute in an alley behind the bar. Another time he spent it on a very small quantity of drugs from a fellow at the far end of the bar whom he had been eyeing for nights, getting up the nerve to foray into new sin with the twenty-dollar bill. Yet the frequency or the infrequency of the bill did not alter. Nothing changed. All was change.

Sometime in middle age, worn down by the twenty-dollar bill, he made a special pilgrimage to the bridge in town that stretched high over the rolling river that found its freedom east to a Great Lake. From his wallet, he removed his driver's license, his health card, his credit cards, the punch card from the local sub shop since he was one punch away from a free sub. He kept no snapshots in the wallet anymore. Then he shut it, readying to throw it as far as he could, before stopping one more time and opening it to check. No bill. Empty. He let loose, like a great disc hurler from Ancient Greece, a gesture of sublime grace and freedom, and the wallet glided out in a hopeful arc before disappearing into the water below. That evening after work, buying a pre-made dinner at the grocery, he bought a new wallet, as consciously different a wallet from the other as he could find, black and shiny and of the three-fold design (he had been strictly a bi-folder all his life). He ate his pre-made dinner by the light of the reading lamp (chicken marsala, bland) and watched television with the sound off (he had by this time exhausted every work on Andrew Jackson in print), then went to bed, thinking his life anew, the old cast away into the waters. And as he was putting his wallet on his dresser, he paused. There inside, a fresh twenty-dollar bill.

He lives with the thing that is the reappearing twenty-dollar bill now, merely lives with it, simply grouping it with the other money in his worn black three-fold wallet or by itself. He buys groceries with it without a blink, pays bills with it, inserts it in Christmas cards, buys tickets to a ballgame with it as if it is any other currency. Of course he still checks when he opens his wallet, maybe not by the hour and with just that purpose, but he checks. It is habit, nothing more, gesture ground into him like the years. He is done trying to figure the thing out, but he admits he still checks. He likes to know. He like to know when he carries it. He likes to know if it still haunts him, if it still graces him. He likes to know if he still lives and breathes the sweet air.