This is about, as they call it, “the ancient sport of what-would-you-do-if-you-had-a-million dollars?” (I personally like to play the variant where you have a trillion dollars, as this quickly gets into manipulating country-scale policy, but I digress.)

Midge and Annabel, the lifelong players of the game, have developed various rules. You can only spend the money on yourself. The game must be treated seriously; you are not allowed, as a former friend suggested, to hire gunmen to shoot people you don’t like. Indeed, they have been playing so long that the first thing either of them would buy with the million dollars –a mink coat – is said, “mechanically, as if she were giving the memorized answer to an expected question.”

One day they’re out and they see in a jewellery shop window a beautiful pearl necklace with an emerald at its centre. They both claim it for their game, but can’t agree on a price to allot it; one thousand, even ten thousand dollars? (This was written in 1941.) So they go in and inquire about the price, and the clerk tells them: two hundred and fifty thousand dollars.

They leave the shop, a little stunned, and they walk for a bit before the story ends with Midge asking if someone, “…leaves you ten million dollars. Now what would be the first thing you’d do?”

I find this charming. What could have been a shaggy dog build-up to a punch-line becomes, thanks to the character detail before it, something that comments on the realization of value.

The Standard of Living by Dorothy Parker

Availability: print only (unless you subscribe to the New Yorker)

Word count: 1,800

First published: The New Yorker, September 20th 1941

Where to find it: 50 Great Short Stories, edited by Milton Crane, 1983, Bantam Classics

The Portable Dorothy Parker, collection, 2006, Penguin Classics

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