Paying a Debt with Change

I keep a ragtag collection of small containers full of Bicentennial quarters, Kennedy half-dollars, and Eisenhower dollars. I used to come across Kennedy Bicentennials every now and again, but that hasn’t happened in twenty years.

I do it because they are rarities, but not because they are worth anything in particular. I do it because finding a coin you didn’t expect in a handful of change is still a small joy these days when I use so very little cash in the first place anymore. A joy like hearing a favorite song on the terrestrial radio stations we don’t listen to anymore. Stuff from an analog world the digital generations never experienced, recognize only in photographs and videos of a time and days replaced — like my own generation looking back at the world before Hiroshima, a non-nuclear age with no Doomsday Clock.

Mostly, though, I’ve done it to repay a debt. When I was thirteen, during the summer before starting high school, I slowly emptied a tin full of change I’d found in my stepfather’s closet. There were two actually, the smaller an old Nestle Quik can, the larger meant for a gift bottle of Killepitsch, brought home after a visit to his German oma and opa. Both full of pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters, with far fewer pennies, nickels, and dimes than quarters, but mostly containing Bicentennials, the bigger Kennedys, and the even bigger Ikes.

I’d discovered the cans sometime the year before, and after several months began to pick out the regular quarters, then the Bicentennials. When they ran out I moved on to the Kennedys and the Ikes, taking almost always four dollars, what it cost at the local 7–11 to buy two music magazines, or if it was hot or no new issues had arrived, a Super Big Gulp or mega Slurpee and a bag of Cheetos to drink and eat while I reread the mags I already had.

My slow theft of my stepfather’s coins was ultimately a minor atrocity compared to some others I committed against my family as I struggled to mature into adulthood. But it stayed with me longer than nearly all the rest, teenage sins against my mother and father that caused great sound and fury then, but which I can’t even recall anymore, exactly like that goddamn falling tree in the forest.

While I was in the army and all through college and grad school and on into my professional career and my meeting and loving and marrying and being with my wife and now through the first nine months of our son’s life, I’ve looked for and picked out the coins I stole all those years ago, setting them aside, my thirty pieces of Judas silver. On two separate Christmases I’ve gathered my booty, my pieces of eight, packed the coins in a small box, wrapped it, and presented it to my stepdad, him neither time knowing how to respond, the gesture important to no one but me.

There’s just something about it I’ve never been able to shake. Something about the young man my stepfather had been, saving those coins for who knows how long or to what end. Years later, falling in love, happily and uncomplainingly taking on the thankless task of raising three kids not his own, the oldest only eleven years younger than him, one day discovering all those coins gone, taken by that oldest son, at about the same age he’d been when he started collecting them in the first place.

It’s the melancholy of looking at a very old photo, the people in it long dead. But a photo can tell any number of stories, and so can an old habit. I still collect those coins and whatever other coins catch my eye. But I do it now because a Bicentennial quarter reminds me of summer 1985 and being thirteen going on fourteen and sitting in my basement listening to my mom’s records and reading music magazines and keeping cool with a nasty-and-terrible-for-you Big Gulp full of something like battery acid and ice.

And I do it because when I was 6 or 7 my godfather gave me for my birthday a great big ceramic bank full of coins he’d started saving when I was born. When we broke it open it was full of dimes and wheat pennies, including Mercury dimes and silver Roosevelt dimes and steel WWII-era pennies. I spent weeks going through those coins and tallying various totals based on design, denomination, metal, date ranges, places minted — if there was a way to categorize that mass of coins, I did it.

So now I pick through change for my son, putting it aside so that one day he’ll know the joy of digging through piles of coins like someone who just found buried treasure, touching these shining bits of our shared past, making his own meaning out of the jumbled numbers and figures and faces and dates. And so this habit born of transgression becomes something else entirely, and instead of a child of Adam hunched over his original sin, I can once again be that kid bent over his coins, except now with my son. Regardless of what might come later.

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