Back around 1968, the late, great country-and-western artist Tom T. Hall wrote and recorded a song called “The Ballad of Forty Dollars.” It was his first Top 10 hit, riding up the charts all the way to No. 4 in the nation.
In the song, the narrator and his buddies, Fred and Joe, are hired to dig a grave, which takes them seven hours and a case of beer to accomplish. They watch the funeral from afar, the narrator mentioning he wouldn’t mind being closer but he doesn’t own a suit and all that preacher talk of hellfire tends to spook him. He comments on the comings and goings of the mourners until the end.
“Well, here I am and there they go / And I guess that you might call it my bad luck,” Tom sings at the conclusion. “I hope he rests in peace / But the trouble is the fellow owes me 40 bucks.”
The following is “The Ballad of Forty Dollars, Part 2,” with apologies to Tom T.
Instead of digging a grave, I was at the nearest discount variety store to pick up a pair of sunglasses, since the left lens fell out of the pair of sunglasses I had picked up a month earlier at the same discount variety store. I am hard on sunglasses and rarely pay more than $1.25 for a pair, figuring I would rather lose or destroy cheap ones than expensive ones.
Leaving the store sufficiently stocked on eyewear that may or may not offer adequate UV protection, I stepped off the sidewalk into an empty parking space in front of the store, looked down and spotted a wad of cash.
I scooped it up and quickly counted it. It was $40.
Now, $40 certainly won’t buy what it did back when Tom T.’s narrator was digging graves and drinking beer, but it is still enough that if it fell out of my pocket, I would miss it.
A woman had gotten out of a car adjacent to the empty space where I stood and entered the store just a few seconds before I found the cash. Maybe it was hers.
I re-entered the store and stopped her in the aisle.
“Excuse me, ma’am,” I said. “I found this money in the parking lot. Did you drop it on your way in?”
She seemed aghast, like I was trying to hand her a dead weasel.
“No! That money is not mine. It is not mine.”
I didn’t want to harass every shopper in this particular discount variety store with offers of free cash, so I decided to see the clerk. I was not going to give her the money, fearing it would just go to the coffers of a multibillion-dollar corporation that continued to sell me defective sunglasses.
“I found this money in the parking lot,” I told her. “If someone comes back to the store and says they lost some cash, here is my phone number. They can give me a call and I will return it.”
I imagined there would be a tearful, joyous scene in which I starred as the hero.
“Sir, that $40 was the final payment on my kidney transplant. You truly are a lifesaver. Thank you so much for returning it.”
And the board of directors of the discount variety store would catch wind of my selfless act and give me free sunglasses for life.
No one ever called.
Still, I didn’t feel it was right to keep the $40. I passed it along to someone who I figured could use $40 more than I could at that time.
But if I am ever tasked with digging a grave like Tom T.’s narrator, I know who I am going to call.
“Hey, you remember that $40 I gave you back in 2021? Yeah, I need a favor. And you might want to pick up a case of beer.”
Scott Hollifield is editor and general manager of The McDowell News in Marion and a humor columnist. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.