Heat shimmered above the asphalt. Oaks lined the street, offering shade but not much relief. It was high summer in the small town nestled between horse ranches and rolling hills a few miles from the central California coast.
Peter enjoyed the blazing sun on his back and neck. But his dog was beginning to struggle, so he tied the leash to a table outside the coffee shop, went inside for a cup of water, brought it out and held it under the shade of the table. The hound lapped at it eagerly. He petted the animal and then walked over to the small market next door.
The elderly clerk smiled at him as he entered. “Hot enough for you?” he asked, pretending to fan himself. The store was cool from air conditioning.
“I don’t mind.” Peter pulled a few items from the shelves, grabbed a bottle of water for his dog, and brought them to the front counter.
The clerk rang them up. “Going to the town meeting tonight?”
“I may drop in for a while.”
The clerk leaned his forearms on the counter and looked at Peter, eyes narrowing. “I hear,” he stage-whispered, “That they might have reckoned who the town’s big benefactor is.” He nodded to himself. “Yup.”
“Really?” Peter raised an eyebrow.
“Yup,” the clerk said again. “There’s rumors flyin’ that somebody figured it all out…” he leaned closer “…and they’ll reveal it tonight.”
Peter pursed his lips. “I wonder if that’s wise. After all, if the donor wants to remain anonymous, wouldn’t revealing their identity tick them off?”
“I dunno. But it’s sure to be an interesting meeting.”
“I guess we’ll find out.”
The clerk smiled. “See you then.”
Peter nodded and took his packages outside, where he gave more water to his dog. Peter stood there awhile, gazing around at the town center — the quaint, tidy stores lining the street, potted flowers perched partway up the light poles, the sky an impossible azure — and finally he untied the dog’s leash and they walked back up the street toward home.
Home was a small, pea-green Craftsman bungalow, a hundred years old if it was a day, at the end of a short cul-de-sac on the edge of town. Peter had lived there about four years. He donated to the town’s charities — a few hundred here, a few hundred there — but otherwise kept to himself, vague about his life and work. “I have a few private clients,” was all he’d say. People speculated that he consulted with big companies. Or maybe he was a spy. But he was cordial with the neighbors, who often noticed him outside tending his front garden, and soon everyone stopped wondering and gave him his privacy.
The evening was balmy and the town hall felt overly warm, what with all the bodies crowded into the space, sitting on folding chairs, overwhelming the ventilation system. A few people fanned themselves. The meeting came to order. Town business was conducted in the droning formalism of a thousand towns just like it. A number of citizens rose to speak, while a few elderly ones nodded off in their seats.
Donald, the librarian, stood up. The room tensed visibly. This was the moment most of them had come for. Donald — bespectacled, paunchy, hair withdrawing — was regarded as an eccentric, if bright, student of society, and around him had spread the rumor that the identity of the town’s great benefactor would be revealed at this very meeting.
Donald strode to the microphone. He cleared his throat. “As many of you know, I’ve been looking into the mystery of the very generous person who has been donating copiously to our town these past few years.” He smiled. “And I believe we are close to knowing just who this wonderful person is.”
He glanced at a notebook and flipped a couple of sheets. “But first, I want to address a few quick questions to one of our own, someone who may be able to shed light on this charming but frustrating mystery.” He pointed to the rear of the hall. “Peter, may I trouble you for some information?”
Peter appeared startled, as if out of a reverie. “I’m sorry. Me?”
“Yes. May I inquire as to what you may know of the identity of our town’s recent benefactor?”
Peter looked confused. “Uh, what makes you think I know anything about it?”
“Well, the donations began shortly after you arrived in town. They’ve been ongoing ever since.” Donald peered at his notes. “Two million for the volunteer fire department. Another million for the high school and town libraries. Several hundred thousand for street beautification.”
He abandoned the microphone and walked down the aisle toward the rear seats. “Pete, if you know anything about those donations — indeed, if you are the donor — we would love to know. We want to thank someone! And—” he stopped at the end of the aisle across from Peter “—we think it’s you.”
The crowd murmured and whispered. A few clapped in applause.
Peter looked pained. “I’m concerned that you might have the wrong guy.” He shrugged. “I mean, I’m flattered and all, but I donated maybe a thousand dollars last year. There must be a record of it somewhere.”
Donald smiled. He seemed ready to burst with enthusiasm. “Yes, you did. But add the fact that your house has the most sophisticated security system around, plus all the secrecy surrounding your work, and—”
“Hey, dial it down!” someone shouted. “He’s not on trial.”
“Yes, yes. Of course,” Donald stammered. “I, I apologize. But—“ he raised his hands toward Peter, as if in supplication “—many of us need to know! At least tell us the truth! If you’re not the donor, tell us that.” He stared anxiously at Peter.
Peter stared back, almost angry. Then he looked at the floor. When he looked up again, his face was calm. “All right. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that I might know something about the donations. If I did, and the donor or donors wished to remain anonymous, I would be in breech of my promise, were I to reveal their identity. Wouldn’t I?”
Caught between victory and defeat, Donald nodded reluctantly. “Yes, I suppose that’s right. But can’t you tell us at least a little something about the donor? A hint?”
Peter sighed. “All right.” He gathered himself. “It was anticipated that this line of questioning might arise. In that event, I’m allowed to divulge one thing. The donor or donors wish to remain anonymous, and if their identity is revealed, the donations will come to an end.”
The crowd buzzed.
“So you can see that it would be foolish to force disclosure of that information.” He paused. The crowd sat silently. “I can imagine how frustrating it must feel to be unable to thank a person or persons who have done so much to benefit our town. But the donor or donors value privacy, and if you persist in your search for them, you’ll chase them away. No more contributions.”
Donald nodded, chastened. He struggled with himself, then turned and walked back to his seat. The meeting broke up shortly after.
It wasn’t until two months later that the issue arose again. Peter had called the library to ask about the status of a book transfer. Donald had informed him that the volume had arrived and was ready for checkout. Peter had thanked him and promised to drop by just before closing to pick it up.
As he neared the library, he noticed a boy seated on the front steps reading a comic book. The boy looked up, saw Peter, jumped up, and ran into the library. Peter could hear the boy yell, “He’s here!” He stopped in his tracks, eyes narrowing. He looked around the street, then continued to walk toward the library doors.
As he entered, he was met with the flash of camera lights and a throng of townspeople cheering and applauding. For a moment, Peter appeared ready to turn and flee, but hands grabbed his arms and ushered him to the front desk, where Donald, beaming, presided over a large frosted cake.
“Welcome, donor!” Donald cried. Again the packed crowd cheered and applauded. “We wanted to thank you for all you’ve done for us.”
Peter shook his head. “But I told you, I can’t discuss it—”
“It’s okay! We figured it out. Actually–” the librarian smirked “–I figured it out online. I did a very tedious search and learned that you lived in another small town where a lot of money got donated. And another before that. I figure, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck—”
“He’s a duck!” yelled someone. The group laughed.
Donald held up a hand. “Not a real duck, of course. But anyway … thank you!”
People in the crowd echoed, “Thank you! Thank you!”
Peter said, “As I’ve repeated over and over, I can’t characterize the donor or donors in any way. But I’ll make sure they are aware of your sentiments.”
Donald gestured. “At least have some cake.”
Peter looked at the big pastry. “Okay. Sure.” Ceremoniously, Donald sliced off a large corner, set it on a plastic plate, added a fork, and handed it to Peter.
He looked at it for a moment, then raised it up. “Here’s to the donor or donors, whoever they may be.”
Shouts rang out: “Hear, hear!” and “Yeah!” and “The donor!”
More slices of cake were handed out. People chatted brightly in groups, and some came up to shake Peter’s hand. A few looked hard into his eyes. Some asked, “Are you really the donor?” Each time he insisted he couldn’t comment one way or another.
An hour later most of the celebrants had left. Peter turned to go. Donald, licking icing from his fingers, suddenly cried, “Wait! You forgot your book.” Peter nodded and walked back to the counter. Again Donald was ceremonious, handing the book to Peter with a flourish.
Peter walked toward the door. Donald called out, “Again, thank you!” Peter turned and looked at him, expressionless. He walked through the door into the night.
A week later, Peter moved out of his house. A for-sale sign went up on the lawn. The townsfolk never saw him again.
The donations ceased.
A year passed. One day Donald walked into the small market next to the coffee shop to buy a few groceries. The clerk watched him. The librarian brought his packages to the counter. The clerk rang them up. Slowly, carefully, the clerk said, “I wonder whatever happened to the guy you decided was the big donor. He’s been gone for months. Any chance you happen to know where he went?”
Donald shook his head. “I tried to find him. I really did. But I think he covered his tracks. I feel stupid.”
“What, ‘cause you lost his trail?”
“No. Because I chased him off. Me and my big impatient need to know the answer. Now every time there’s a budget problem, people scowl at me. I feel like I ruined the town.”
The clerk reached out and patted the librarian on the shoulder. “Don’t take it so personal. You tried to thank him. You meant well.”
Donald shook his head. “No. I killed the Golden Goose.”