It happened the very next day after I'd given two bucks to one of those bellringers, you know, the ones from the Salvation Army. I usually don't like to give them money, because I'm not into the whole religion thing, and I'm kind of freaked out by the whole idea of a salvation army, you know, with all the fire and blood and stuff coming from church people, but I always like it when someone slips a thousand-dollar bill or a rare gold coin or a diamond ring into one of those red pots. Not that I expected to be hailed as this anonymous hero because I gave them my change from the Orange Julius, but that's how I remember it, because the package came right after the bellringer.
There was no question it was meant for me. The label used my first name, which I haven't gone by in twenty years, and it even had "1B" as the apartment instead of just "1". It showed up six days before Christmas, and the return address was a post office box in Nebraska. Inside the package was ten thousand dollars in five-dollar bills.
I started counting it because I'd never seen that much money before in once place. Even when I worked at Fry's, we never had more than a thousand bucks in our cash drawers at any given time. They were all brand-new bills, with that crisp sticky feel to them, that way of sticking together that only happens when they haven't been worn smooth by people handling them over and over again. They even had a funny sort of color to them, which I later figured out was just because they were so new and untouched, but you can't blame me at the time for thinking it was counterfeit.
"It's ten thousand dollars. I counted it."
"How do you know it's fake? What are you, some kind of counterfeiting expert all of the sudden?"
"Why would anyone send you ten thousand dollars? Why would anyone send you anything?"
There was no good answer I could come up with for that one, I had to admit. Lacking any clue as to why someone would send me so much money, I was stuck trying to figure out who had sent it. It came from somebody named Nick. That's what the return address said: 'NICK. P.O. BOX 13221, BROKEN BOW, NE 68822'. It was written in this weird kind of marker, and it was a real scrawl, like the person who wrote it was a little kid or was using their off hand to write. There were also little cut-outs taped around it, like Santas and Christmas trees from what looked like greeting cards from the '70s. It upset me to look at the thing. It looked like something the Zodiac Killer would send you. I mentioned this to Amy and she just asked me why I know so much about serial killers. Like I was the bad guy for knowing something about it.
I only knew one guy named Nick, so I called him up.
"Did you send me ten thousand dollars?"
"What?""Did you send me a package with ten thousand dollars in it?""Dude, I wouldn't send you a package with ten dollars in it, even if I had ten dollars."
The whole serial-killer handwriting got me to thinking that it was probably some hot money that somebody stole, and they just wanted to unload it because they knew they couldn't get away with spending it. I didn't want to tell Amy that, though, because she was being really unpleasant about the whole thing, so I told her I thought the Nick was St. Nick, like in Santa Claus. She told me not to be absurd. I said I thought it was because I gave the last of my cash to the bellringer the week before, and that I was being rewarded for my good behavior. When I told her that, she gave me this horrible look, I can't even describe it because I'd never seen it before. She said something like, right, of course, because you gave two lousy dollars to the Salvation Army, Santa Claus came to life and sent you ten thousand dollars. I broke up with her soon after that. I told her it was because of the money, but ten grand wasn't that big a deal to her, and I hadn't even spent any of it myself. I was scared to.
"Hey, did we go to school with anyone named Nick?"
"Wasn't that kid whose mouth didn't synch up with what he was saying named Nick?"
"I thought his name was Charlie."
"Oh. Maybe you're right. Anyway, you were always kind of mean to him."
Before I knew it, it was April, and I hadn't spent a penny of the money, even though I was hardly in a position to turn my nose up at any amount of cash. I was petrified with indecision. If it was a reward for my good deeds, or even just the misguided gesture of some kind soul, it would be an insult not to spend it. But if it was dirty money, if it had something to do with a crime, I would be hunted down like a lame animal the first time I bought a cup of coffee. The money still looked new, even after four months, because all I'd ever done was count it once. But it had to be marked. It had to. But then, when I would be late on a bill, or I was out of cash until payday and didn't have enough to buy lunch, I would think: do they even mark five-dollar bills? Isn't that just something they do with twenties? And I'm not at fault for spending it, am I? I just accepted a gift. What could the limits be of my responsibility to find out where it came from? And then I'd catch a glimpse of those creepy serial-killer cutouts, and I'd be convinced that somebody had to have died for that money. It was ruining me, the whole thing, absolutely ruining me.
"Let's say you spend it on a hot dog. The guy at the cart, by the time he turns it into the bank and they pick up the marking, he's not going to remember who he got it from."
"Yeah, but that only goes so far, you know?"
"No. What do you mean."
"I'm not going to buy ten thousand dollars worth of hot dogs, man."
Finally in late September I spent some of the money. I spent $850, in cash (I was still terrified of converting it into a money order or a check), on a private detective to find out something about that post office box. He got back to me in October and told me it belonged to a local youth pastor named Rod who used it to exchange pamphlets and educational materials with other churches. He didn't know anyone named Nick and he certainly hadn't sent me any money. The detective said the guy could have just made up that number and mailed it from anyplace in the zip code. It seemed to me like I had just thrown away close to a grand to have this guy tell me he couldn't find out anything, but the last thing I wanted to do at that point was to antagonize anyone resembling a law enforcement agent.I couldn't take it anymore. Having spent the money and not gone to jail, I suppose I should have felt justified, even confident, but all I felt was nauseous and confused. By early December I couldn't even look at the envelope any more. I crammed it in a small spot in the closet, but as it happens, that was the same place I keep my Christmas tree stand, so when I pulled that out, the envelop pops oven and all those slick bills spilled out on the floor. I gathered them together, and put them in a media mailer. When I had sealed it up with strapping tape, I called the detective back and asked him if he could find someone else for me. He said he could, so I put him to work finding out about the guy in grade school whose mouth movements hadn't coordinated with what he was saying. It turned out his name was Charlie after all, and not Nick, and that he was now working as a career development advisor in a high school in a suburb of Denver. I mailed all the money that was left, a good eight thousand dollars, to him, and signed it 'KERRY, P.O. BOX 14539, SCOTTSDALE, AZ 85252'. I felt too self-conscious to use a fake name, but I did put a couple of stickers on it to make it look festive, Santas and reindeer and things like that. I just made up the box number. That was the last I heard of the money, but I saved on of the five-dollar bills to give to a bellringer that Christmas. I picked a really cute one and eventually we started dating.
"Did you ever find out what was with that ten thousand dollars you got from Santa Claus a few years ago?"
"It wasn't from Santa. It was probably just from some crazy."
"Well, whatever. You ought to send him a card, since you have his address. Even if he's turned into a youth pastor."
"It seems like the least I could do."
Every Christmas since I have given more money to the bellringers, but never another work from Nick. Once again I need to buy presents and I could really use that ten grand again. Maybe it was just a one-time thing. Maybe it didn't really have anything to do with giving the bellringer my change from Orange Julius at all. Or maybe I'm just trying to hard. Whoever Nick was, he's nobody's fool.
About the author:
Leonard Pierce lives and writes in Chicago, IL. His work has appeared in the palaces and slums of the literary world and have a permanent home at his website, http://www.ludickid.com. He doesn't believe in God, but he believes in Christmas.