If Grandpa was the one telling this story, he’d probably start with one of his mottoes, such as Home Is Where You Hang Your Hat. My best friend, Winky, would roll it out like Joe Viola’s evil changeup, a pitch that starts out a fastball, and—surprise!—drops low and slow. Mr. Mee and Mrs. B-B both would probably quote from some book: There is nothing so strong or safe in an emergency of life as the simple truth.—Charles Dickens. But I’m the one telling the story, and I say it began with the bologna.
The first time it happened, I was sitting on the couch sorting socks. I patted around the pillows and throws for a missing mate. No luck. I got up and shook out the House of Harmony Church Ladies’ Auxiliary Bicentennial Blanket, and out flew a package of bologna. The strange part was, instead of a stack of delicious lunch meat, the package was stuffed with money.
I beelined to the kitchen with my findings. Grandpa was peeling potatoes, the Maine state vegetable. “Why, Josie Bloom,” he said. Grandpa scratched his bald spot with the tip of the peeler. “What’d you do, rob a bank?”
“No.” I thought about it. “Did you?”
“No-oo-oo,” he said, very fishy, like he’d just yanked off the ski mask after pulling the heist.
While he tried to cram the money into his wallet, I asked him a few more questions.
“Did you get an odd job?” Like the time he turned Mrs. Bean’s old chipped bathtub into a shrine for the Virgin Mary. “Did you get money from a long-lost relative?” That sort of thing happens, but we don’t know of any relatives. “Do you think a burglar might break into the house and rob us?” Because why did he hide it? “You could put it under your mattress.” I’d heard people on TV talk about doing that.
Grandpa was not giving me any answers. He seemed out of sorts in a way that if I had that kind of money, I would not be. If I had that kind of money, I’d buy up the entire collection of Ripley’s Believe It or Not! books. I would probably still have a lot of cash left over, and with the rest I would take a trip to the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! museum in Orlando, Florida.
“Can I have three dollars?” I said.
Grandpa had managed to shove some of the cash in each of his pockets, and was peeling another potato into the sink, fast as lightning. “It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool,” Grandpa said, “than to speak and remove all doubt.”
These are words I know all too well. He used a woodworking tool to burn them forever onto a plaque. This was during craft-time at Pineland Senior and Assisted Living over in Topsham, where he used to live with Grandma Kaye until she died of old age, and before he came to live with me.
I’ll stop right there and point out that Grandpa came to live with me when my mom died, as he’s my only living relative and there was never any dad in the picture. By that I mean, there’s a family picture on the shelf in the den, and it’s just Mom and me. Whenever I would ask about my dad, she’d tell me he was dead, more or less. “He’s dead to me,” she’d say. “End of story.” Anyway, Mom “expired” of sudden cardiac arrest, which is a problem with the heart’s electrical system, and not anybody’s fault at all. Even the Hamburg Catch-up! reported how Josephine Violet Bloom, age nine, called 911 immediately. When we talked about it, back then, Grandpa took me by the shoulders and looked me in the eye and said, “Josie, there is nothing you could have done, and there is no way to place a call any faster than immediately.” But sometimes I wonder. These days, Grandpa would be more apt to snap a salute and say, “Pancakes!”
Anyhow, that plaque (plus other ones) was always trying to get my attention from its shelf in the den. But if you think about it, isn’t the fool the one who hides seventy-eight dollars in a package of bologna?
The second time it happened, I was taking out the garbage. I found a wad of rubber-banded bills between the liner and the can under the sink.
“I almost threw it out!” I mentioned.
Grandpa grabbed the bills from my hand and shot a suspicious look at me, the sink, and the garbage can. Then he stomped out of the kitchen.
“Now that money stinks like fish wrapping!” I said to his cardiganed back. “And it’s moist!”
“Lima beans!” Grandpa blurted from the den. It was sort of a new thing, a troubling thing, the blurting.
The third time it happened (rolled up in a toilet paper tube!), I didn’t tell Grandpa. I put the money in a Keds box under my bed in case I needed it, and soon enough I did.
It gets cold here in Hamburg, Maine. That January, it got wicked cold. There was frost inside the windowpanes. Even in my bed, under my covers, with a hot water bottle, it was cold. Turns out Grandpa had not paid the oil bill, and the tank was empty.
“I’ll take care of it,” said Grandpa. But he didn’t. And that’s when the water pipes froze—“I’m on it,” said Grandpa—and burst. “Don’t you worry about a thing,” said Grandpa, followed by no running water for two weeks.
I don’t remember why I opened up the desk Grandpa calls a secretary, but that’s where I found the envelopes. Most of them were stamped in red by somebody with a heavy hand and a bad temper: PAST DUE, or SECOND ATTEMPT, or FINAL NOTICE. I grouped all the envelopes by type and showed them to Grandpa.
“Schlitz!” he blurted. (The name of his favorite beer!)
So. That’s how when I started finding the money and Grandpa was blurting about beer quite regular, I had the good idea to take the money I kept finding here and there around the house and put it in the mail-in envelopes that came with the angry notices and which Grandpa was stuffing inside the secretary desk and then blurting about. After that the house was nice and warm, and the water kept on running in the taps. And all because of me! I did it! I felt glad and proud. Grandpa was happy, and he never seemed to notice when the money he hid went missing. I kept secret what I’d done with the money and he quit blurting about Schlitz.
Everything was fine till there came a bill too big to pay.