Monday, March 7, 2011

Five Hundred Dollar Bill

Bill Higley has been my good friend for twenty-five years and four months. He plays the zither and is my only friend with red hair, so you'll never see us at the beach together on a sunny day; he declares his fair complexion is not beach-worthy. He says funny stuff like that all the time. For the entire twenty-five years, Bill has owed me five hundred dollars. It's not always the same five hundred dollars. Sometimes he pays it back only to borrow another five hundred again at a later date. Over the years, we've both become comfortable with the five hundred dollar mark. Sometimes, he'll borrow a small sum and return later to borrow more in order to equal five hundred. Like last year, he borrowed two hundred and seventy-three dollars to purchase an unusual Celtic zither, then showed up at my door a week later to ask for two hundred and twenty-seven dollars to buy an authentic zitherist parade costume, which brought the total to the familiar five hundred.

Bill enjoys promising his repayments by a specified holiday. For instance, while taking the cash and stuffing it in his pocket, he'll proclaim that it'll be returned by Halloween, Easter, Squirrel Appreciation Day, or some other holiday that sounds vaguely cooked-up. He knows lots of back-up holidays when he fails to make good by the initial one. I've become accustomed to the five hundred dollar hole in my wallet, and really don't think too much about it. When he shows up with the repayment, it almost seems like a gift, and I go on a little celebratory spending spree. Last January 23rd, on National Pie Day (which was a back-up repayment holiday for Christmas), I splurged on an embroidered and tastefully framed set of lyrics to "Hang on Sloopy," crafted by the trend-setting Peggy Wamsley, whose needlepoint pillows were once featured on an episode of "Three's Company."

I was under the impression that Bill had an exclusive borrowing arrangement with me until a list of names popped out of his glove compartment while I was rummaging around for a piece of hippy candy. Each name had one or more dollar signs after it, and my name, followed by a single dollar sign, was among them. After giving the matter some thought, it appeared each dollar sign indicated five hundred dollars, and Bill is running a friend-based Ponzi scheme but manages to occasionally make good on his chummy debts. The accidental disclosure was disheartening, and in addition to feeling betrayed, I began to feel sorry for the poor guys who had two and three dollar signs after their names.

This revelation is very puzzling; the zither is a friendly instrument, and for a zitherist to act in such a nefarious manner, surely some sort of folkloric tradition must have been breached. From all accounts, Bernie Madoff doesn't play the zither, but I'm guessing if he did, his client's money would still be safe in paper bags under his bed. The thing is, I enjoy Bill's company; our relationship has become symbiotic, like the oxpecker and the rhino, though it's not entirely clear who's the bird and who's the beast. Perhaps, twenty-five years ago, I unknowingly purchased a friend, and when amortized over the years, it comes out to just twenty dollars per year, which is not a bad deal, considering Bill's often lighthearted outlook and uplifting jokes, not to mention his riveting zither playing. I have trouble saying "no" to a friend, so I'm reluctantly calling it a waggish arrangement and will continue with the friendship loan cycle and Bill's quirky repayment dates. It's the least a rhino could do for his nit-picking friend, the oxpecker oxpecker for his sturdy perch, the rhino.