all, in this case, it probably indicated failure.

“I read something interesting,” Ms. Stuart said, marching up to the counter and dropping the coinpurse before him, where it gently clinked. “Did you know, there was a scientific study that showed lottery winners aren’t happy?”

“I did not know that,” Mr. Grinde said. “Though I confess, now that I consider the issue, the fact does not shock me. They say you can’t buy happiness, you know.”

“Then what, exactly, am I doing here?”

“I never said you could buy happiness. I suggested that I could give you something that might help you attain happiness, depending on how you define the word.” He picked up the bag and put it away. “And I suppose you’re here to make an exchange.”

“I guess I am. I want to try again, anyway. Something other than,” she shuddered, “Money.”

“Tell me what went wrong. Only by understanding this failure can we hope to succeed with your next acquisition.”

“It was like this,” she said.

* * *

She took Mr. Grinde’s advice. Found a reputable coin dealer after poring over reviews on the internet. Nearly gave him a heart attack when she showed the sharp-nosed old man what she had, saying in a tentative voice that she’d looked it up on the internet and it seemed pretty valuable but that couldn’t be right, could it? It had to be some kind of novelty item, right?

To his credit the man didn’t try to cheat her—she’d been testing him to see if he would, after all—but examined the coin, called in his business partner, and soon verified its authenticity. They arranged an auction, and when all was said and done, she had a check in hand for almost five million dollars, promptly hiring an accountant who paid a godawful percentage of it to the US government. The remainder was still more money than she’d ever expected to see in one place in her life, and she walked out of her now very friendly bank with a checkbook and a rectangle of plastic embossed with her name and an account number that would allow her to access dizzying quantities of money.

She threw a party, inviting all her friends over, and the trouble started there: they were mostly other waitresses from her restaurant or nearby bars, and though they tried to make jokes, calling her Mrs. Moneybutt, asking her if she was going to buy a gold-plated toilet, and so on, there was a thread of awkwardness, like they didn’t know how to treat her anymore: like they could sense the rich are different. It was like they were all afraid she was afraid they were going to ask her to borrow money. It also became apparent they expected her to quit her job at the restaurant, and that made sense, didn’t it? Why would she continue to be a waitress when she was filthy rich? She considered buying the restaurant just to keep those people in her life, but then she’d be their boss, and that wouldn’t work, either, would it?

After the party broke up, earlier than she’d expected, with many nervous affirmations that everyone should keep in touch, she sat in her empty living room and watched TV, same as a thousand other nights alone.

The next day she started trying to fill the hole in her life by buying things. She soon had everything she’d ever wanted over the years, but that wasn’t much. Some books, nice shoes, a better bed, a new car. She went shopping for houses but they were all too big and full of echoes. Men became more interested in her than ever before, but it was, she suspected, only because word had gotten out about her windfall, and even the men who might have genuinely liked her were subject to her distrust, so she didn’t date much. Her friends drifted away, and her offers to pay off their student loans and credit card bills and so on only drove most of them away faster, and those who accepted were strange around her, nervous, uncomfortable, and soon they were gone, too. She considered going to college now that she could afford it, she was only a few years older than most freshmen, but why bother with a degree when she’d never need a career? She just couldn’t muster the enthusiasm.

Soon she started drinking a lot, and at one of the clubs she forced herself to visit on weekends, buying vastly expensive bottles of champagne, a friend-for-the-night introduced her to cocaine, and she spent a great deal of money on that, and moved on to other substances as the whim and opportunity took her. She made new friends, but she didn’t like many of them much except when she was high.

She ran out of money—drugs were an infinitely capacious expense—but the bag gave her more coins: a copper penny from 1943, a Confederate half-dollar from 1861, a double eagle gold coin from 1933. They were sold, and her bank accounts swelled sufficiently that she bought a private jet, though she mostly just sat in it on the runway, enjoying the luxurious leather seats as she sipped Scotch and snorted lines but unsure where on Earth she should go. She bought a mansion and filled it with staff, including silly women who were technically personal assistants but were really her paid friends, and they always laughed at her jokes, even when she didn’t make any. She started looking for men to keep her company, and discovered there were many gifted and talented and handsome gentlemen who were happy to make her happy, however temporarily, in exchange for little gifts and tokens of affection, like three-thousand-dollar suits and sports cars.

Every dollar she spent made her more miserable. She ran faster and faster just to stay in one place. She finally sat up one morning in bed, next to a tennis instructor whose name she’d forgotten but whose taste still lingered in her mouth, and looked at the latest paired bottles of whiskey and pills on her bedside table. She picked both up, poured their contents into her toilet—not gold-plated, she’d never gone that far—took a car, and drove to the bank, where she withdrew a number of cashier’s checks that amounted to her total net value after all outstanding bills were paid. She hand-delivered the checks to various charities she’d hurriedly researched on her smart phone, and then drove down the freeway until she found someone looking miserable and dejected next to a broken-down car held together with primer and prayer. After handing him her keys and signing over the car’s title, she hitchhiked back to her old apartment, which she’d purchased in a fit of nostalgia, and which now constituted her only remaining possession.

* * *

“I started living clean, and simply, and that was kind of satisfying, but it didn’t make me happy. So I got another job waitressing, and when I’d saved enough for the airfare, I came here.”

Quite a story, he thought, especially the parts about the sex and drugs, which she’d been rather matter-of- fact about. Looking at her now, he thought she was a bit prettier than he’d realized at first—you’d think months of sybaritic excess would have made her look haggard, or puffy, or over-used, but if it ever had, her subsequent, more spartan months had restored her; even cleansed her.

“I’m sorry the purse didn’t work out. We’ll have to find something better for you this time. Perhaps we can delve a little deeper into your desires… Tell me, what was the last thing that made you really happy? Before you got the purse, I mean?”

She chewed her lower lip thoughtfully. “The man who first gave me your address, who told me to come pick out a present—sorry, a gift—as a reward for saving his life? He was eating at the restaurant where I worked, and he started choking. He wasn’t even at one of my tables, you know, but I was passing by, and I dropped the tray I was holding and put my arms around him from behind and did the Heimlich maneuver, and he coughed up the bit of bread he’d been choking on, and he told me I saved his life, and…” She shrugged. “I thought, ‘I did, didn’t I?’ That made me feel good. And giving away all my money to charity there, at the end, it was the same feeling, like I was making others happy, and that happiness somehow reflected back on me, too.”

“Ah. Helping others is a classic path to happiness. In fact, some say all altruism is inherently selfish, since doing good makes you feel good. We’re back to Aristotle again—’happiness is an act of the soul that expresses virtue.’ Come with me.” Mr. Grinde came around the counter and led her to a corner of the shop crammed with rolling garment racks, pushing several aside—they held cloaks of downy feathers, antique ivory wedding dresses, a leather jacket that appeared to have been rescued from a fiery car wreck, and other things. He found the rack he wanted—drat, the item he was after happened to be hanging next to a certain dress from Ancient Greece made of poisoned cloth, which had once killed a princess, and even wrapped in a plastic bag its lethality worried him. He picked up an olive branch from a nearby table, pushed the poison dress aside, and took down a flimsy red cape made of some cheap fabric that might have been satin but wasn’t. The cape was held closed on the hanger with a simple pair of strings at the throat, and tangled in the strings was a red domino mask that tied in back with ribbons. “Here you are. This should make you very helpful.”

She took the cape and mask, frowning. “What’s this supposed to be?”

“Try it on. If it doesn’t suit you, we’ll try something else.” He guided her toward a full-length mirror—polished brass, not glass, but highly reflective anyway.

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