HATTIESBURG, MISSISSIPPI — She had four gold teeth, black jeans, freckles, and a sweet voice. Motherly, I thought, but I don’t know if Rose had children or not.
“I’m supposed to be at work,” she said. “But they can wait.”
She perched, legs crossed at the knees, on the hood of her sea green Cadillac in the hard-packed dirt of the front yard of a house off Charles Street where we meet. It’s her boyfriend Romerio’s house, she said, but hopefully not for too much longer. She had plans.
Nearby stood Romerio, who even when he stood up straight slouched, wearing a black T-shirt with a middle-finger salute silk-screened on it. He looked younger than me but coughed like my grandfather: as if his mouth were full of broken wood chips. He stood near the Cadillac with two other guys, Carlton and Jerome, watching. Romerio and Rose kept breaking up and then getting back together again, Romerio said, watching her for a response of some sort as he told me about their romance.
Rose sat unmoving on the car, mulling him over. Maybe you’re a troublemaker, I told him. He shrugged. Maybe so.
Rose began her story: On Monday she and her mother Rosy found an envelope taped to the bottom of a dresser drawer in a retirement community in Columbia, Mississippi. Rose opened it.
“I looked at it and then I looked at it again.” She stared up into the pecan tree’s limbs, remembering the moment. “And then I looked again.”
Wouldn’t that be the proper response of anyone who’d found a million dollars — no, a million-dollar bill? One single bill worth a million.
Rose took the bill in its envelope to a bank in Columbia that she said verified the money was real, even though there was only sixty percent of the bill left. Moths or silverfish or rats had eaten the bill in its envelope — who knew how long it had been taped under that dresser drawer? Who knew who put the bill down there? One thing for sure, the United States Treasury didn’t print them any longer.
“They used to make them,” Carlton said. “Don’t you remember it from history class? Million-dollar bills. Only printed a few.”
Rose drove back to Hattiesburg, light-headed, and took the bill to another bank. A teller told Rose she had two choices: to mail it to the Federal Reserve’s offices in New Orleans or drive the two hours down U.S. 59 herself.
Collectors, Romerio said. Collectors will pay top dollar for it. “We can get more with a collector. See, all you get with that bill is a million dollars. But a collector, he’ll pay more.”
There was more good news. While the dresser belonged to Rosy, the store where it was purchased years and years ago was out of business now. Romerio had covered all the bases.
Rose listened to him patiently, like a mother with a child. “A million is fine with me.”
“Hey, Mr. Newspaper Man,” Romerio said, addressing me. “What would you do?”
“Me, I’d be in New Orleans right now. I’d be six inches high off the ground.”
“High?” Romerio said, somber. “Don’t write high. We’re not high. That looks bad to write high.”
“Can I see it?” I said to Rose.
“Sure,” Rose said. She pulled back her collar and reached into her shirt — it’s called the bosom bank my mom told me later — and removed an envelope from her bra. She cupped it in her hand momentarily and then lay it on the hood of the car so she could pull its flap away. Careful, careful. Piece by piece, she removed the one-million-dollar bill inside.
“See,” Rose said. “Cotton paper. It’s getting wet. I’ve got to find someplace else to keep it.”
I photograph it. First the front, with the Statue of Liberty, then the back.
“It’s got Mount Rushmore on the back,” Carlton said. “Don’t you remember that from the history books?”
I want to touch it and, by equal measure, I don’t want to even be near it. It’s the same response I have when young mothers want to hand me their children. It’s a task better left for the experts, for people other than me, that is.
Rose slept in her bra with the envelope snugly in place, though she really didn’t sleep much. And she couldn’t eat all day long. Nerves. And even though she was late for work, her head was someplace else. She had a one-million-dollar bill. She planned to tithe part of the money before she bought anything for herself. First, she wanted to buy a house and a car for herself. Then a house and a car for her mother, Rosy. Then she’d donate some to the city Fire Department.
“Write this up good,” Romerio said. “We’ll buy you and your girlfriend dinner.” I tell him I’m a widower. “Well then, we’ll go to a titty bar then.” She didn’t even have the money yet, and Romerio was already spending it.
Driving back to the newspaper, I was happy for Rose. She seemed deserving of good luck. Sweet. A lifetime of Romerios sponging off her. But I was thinking in a bigger way, too, how things work out unexpectedly good, a confluence of the right place and the right time and the right person. Rose had me thinking that maybe the big twists in life aren’t always just in disastrous instants of misfortune like car wrecks, floods, meteors falling from the sky.
At the newspaper, I called the bank in Columbia to talk to a teller whom I think will be more than happy to tell me about Rose and how excited they are? Instead, the teller forwarded me to the bank’s president who won’t talk about it. He won’t confirm if there’s even been a million-dollar bill or not. No comment.
So then I called the bank in Hattiesburg where Rose said she took the bill, but no one’s heard of Rose or the million-dollar bill there. Come on, a million-dollar bill? Didn’t they read the history books?
So I called Rose’s number at home but it had been disconnected. I called Carlton’s cell phone to try to get a hold of Rose, so she could clear the whole thing up. He said Rose had to go to work. She worked at a nursing home in Hattiesburg as a nurse’s assistant. And no, he didn’t know the number. Carlton wanted to get rid of me, I could tell. Could I speak to Rosy then? I was told she didn’t want to give interviews. I was pesky, peppering him with too many questions, but I was buzzed, excited for Rose. So I looked up the nursing home’s phone number and called.
May I speak to Rose?
“Why? Who wants to know?”
I was with the newspaper, I explained. I was on a deadline.
“Well,” the nurse said, “if you’re from the paper I’m sure it’s nothing that can’t wait ’til tomorrow.”
Her voice, equal parts nasty and Southern belle graciousness, made me recall all the nurses I’d known in my life: the scowling half-wits and sadists dolling out shots and grimaces and lousy food. I hated them, mostly. Please God, let me die in the gutter without ever talking to another nurse again.
Shaken, I called Carlton back. No answer. I called again. Still nothing.
I needed answers. I needed truth. I needed Rose. Then I called the Treasury. They could take care of this. They could solve everything. I was patched through to a public affairs officer in D.C.
I needed to know about a million-dollar bill that a local woman found while cleaning out —
“Let me stop you right there,” the spokesperson said. “The United States government has never printed a one-million-dollar bill. We get these calls all the time.”
Never printed them and never will. The largest denomination of bill the government has ever printed is a ten-thousand-dollar bill, sorry. But I still had the photo I took that morning and the bill’s treasury numbers – or what’s left of them.
I read them off to her. She gave me a breathy laugh.
“Someone dummied up a one-dollar bill,” the Treasury woman said. It was either a forgery or a gag bill that someone saved, either because they thought it was real or because someone hoped others would come along one day, years later, and “discover” it. Like finding a Picasso in a garage sale or a Renoir in the attic.
I hung up. The money was a joke. A Maltese Falcon. I couldn’t call Rose. I couldn’t get Carlton. I didn’t know how to find Romerio and didn’t know if I really wanted to.
For a time I sat at my desk thinking about what my afternoon held: I had to write a story about a building, its location, square footage, ground-breaking ceremonies. The kind of story that always made the newspaper for sure, even though people just skimmed right over it. It was about something real.
Somewhere right then Rose was working in a musty hallway reeking of ammonia while she sweat on her fortune, scared of ruining her money but excited. Plans ran through her head like a hundred electric trains.
It was better if I didn’t find Rose. In the absence of a fortune, let her have dreams.