UNITED STATES—The fingers of the bearded guy in the driver’s seat fondled the gold chain. Mary Reno’s heart clenched. She stood, knees trembling in the gutter. Mary blurted out, “The chain means a lot to me. My dog found that.”

The guy’s nervous hands and eyes kept probing the gold chain. He let out a sigh.

“And I lost my dog,” Mary said. “I lose everything. I lose track of what I’ve lost.”

No reaction. Horrible things will happen, and you will be bigger for it. These words came from a preacher, who once stood between Mary and a free lunch. It was three years ago or yesterday. Mary wasn’t sure.

Snatches of conversation encircled her. The people who spoke them vanished and left a gap. Their faces turned to smoke and rescinded to the breeze. She wasn’t sure if the preacher at the food bank was a figment or a true pronouncement lobbed from a family of tourists meandering down the sidewalk.

The tourists wore white, and their faces were lobster-pink in the noonday sun. Mom was wrapped in scarf, a floppy hat, her nose made white by zinc oxide. She was afraid of the sun. The kids were perfect angels who couldn’t wait to get out from under Mom and Dad’s wing and antagonize their own shenanigans while Mom and Dad smoked and drank in the hotel room.

The guy in the Range Rover was inspecting the gold chain too closely. He actually appeared to be sniffing it. Then he turned to Mary and gazed levelly with hard eyes.

“It has black and green specks;” he declared. “It is not gold.”

The warm yellow chain fell back into her grimy palm. Its delicately sculpted whorls kissed her palm. Mary swooned in gratitude. She was intensely glad to hold this link between her and her departed dog. It was a miracle. Mary was not used to winning. She knew the chain was gold. A pawnbroker had told her so. He invited her to come back whenever she was ready to sell at thirty cents to the dollar.

“You still must give us something, according to our country’s tradition,” the driver reminded her. Mary was slapped into the present.

As soon as the chain was back around her neck, Mary felt a pending execution. A crisp fifty-dollar bill felt like nettles in its secret hiding place. She impulsively took it out to look at it and see if it was still there.

She knew that she shouldn’t acknowledge that money. Fifty dollars was a gift from heaven. Yet, Mary’s life seemed destined to be purloined by petty catastrophes. Before she could help it, the green paper turned into a butterfly and flew into the open car window. It landed on the bearded driver’s lap.

The Range Rover lurched away from the dusty curb. The bearded driver bestowed on Mary a remarkably earnest thank you for the money.

“Always happy to help out,” she said. This bright and humble expression didn’t often escape her colorless lips. Most often Mary was being helped by people who thought they were doing good for her. In truth, she was giving them a warm feeling by accepting what they offered. It could be a half-eaten pastrami sandwich. It could be a fuzzy blanket.

The thick dense gold ring lay heavily on Mary’s palm. It was unusual for somebody to unload gold like that. As a ploy to earn a few dollars it seemed quite cumbersome. But the friends who looked had greedily and gladly accepted the money.

Only someone in the market for food and drugs could be so happy. But Mary knew fifty dollars wouldn’t get you far.

She had lost a fortune. In return, she held the golden circle in her palm. It felt nice when she put it on her finger.

To be continued…

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Hollywood humorist Grady grew up in the heart of Steinbeck Country on the Central California coast. More Bombeck than Steinbeck, Grady Miller has been compared to T.C. Boyle, Joel Stein, and Voltaire. He briefly attended Columbia University in New York and came to Los Angeles to study filmmaking, but discovered literature instead, in T.C. Boyle’s fiction writing workshop at USC. In addition to A Very Grady Christmas, he has written the humorous diet book, Lighten Up Now: The Grady Diet and the popular humor collection, Late Bloomer (both on Amazon) and its follow-up, Later Bloomer: Tales from Darkest Hollywood. (https://amzn.to/3bGBLB8) His humor column, Miller Time, appears weekly in The Canyon News (www.canyon-news.com)