The Coin Box, a story by Harvey Sutlive.
For Kay and Eleanor
Grandmother woke me. "I'm going Neena," she said. She plays golf three times a week.
"OK have fun," I said. It was ten in the morning I was a little embarrassed, because I was still in bed.
"I'll take your car," said Grandmother. She kissed me on the forehead and patted my cheek before she left. I went back to sleep.
I don't play very much golf, but I do know the bartenders at the course clubhouse one of them called a couple of hours later something had happened. Then I heard from the police.
It was fitting somehow said so many people that Grandmother died on the golf course. She was a great golfer. When she was younger she won over twenty tournaments.
She stepped in front of a golf cart and was knocked down. The police said the guys in the cart were driving too fast a couple of insurance salesmen it wasn't even noon and these guys were already drinking beer.
For all practical purposes she was dead two seconds after the cart hit her. We were told that later. An ambulance came anyway and took her to the hospital.
I was lying there in bed after the police called. The phone rang again it was Grandmother's brother Benjamin.
"Neena your grandmother's been injured," he said. I could tell he was worried. "She's at the hospital. I want you to come get us soon as you can." Benjamin and my two great-aunts, Janie and May, live in town on Lazaretta Street.
"How bad is she hurt Benjamin?" I wanted to see how much he knew.
"They wouldn't say on the telephone but I assume it's bad. You come on. We'll talk on the way to the hospital."
"You take a taxi Benjamin and I'll meet you over there," I said. We're a close family etc. etc. but I really didn't feel like dealing with Benjamin.
"You better get over here right this minute Neena," he said in a choked up voice. He couldn't decide if he should beg or threaten.
I thought about it. "All right," I finally said. "Tell May to get Janie ready."
"She's already doing that."
"OK then I'll see you."
I went out in the garage there was Grandmother's car I realized she took my car to the golf course. She told me that she kissed me good bye before she left.
I don't like driving Grandmother's car. Something could happen, then I would be responsible. It's a big old Lincoln Continental with black leather seats and suicide doors. Grandmother's name, engraved on a gold plate, is attached to the dash by the glove compartment. She carries a pistol in the glove compartment a square little white-handled .25 caliber automatic.
I was looking at the car. And I remembered something Grandmother mentioned just a day or two earlier... I stood there a second...
The complete thought wouldn't come forward though. It's supposed to be bothersome that happens, but I like it.
I cranked up her car and drove it out of the garage. It was hot already I set the air conditioner on full blast.
Grandmother's parents built the Lazaretta Street house in the 1920's. Grandmother came first, then May and Benjamin, then Jane the baby the four of them grew up there. Grandmother moved out as soon as she got married.
May Benjamin and Jane never married. They never moved anywhere. May was an office manager at a real estate agency for thirty years, Benjamin worked at a paper supply company, and Jane was a CPA until she had her breakdown. They're all retired now. They just live over there on Lazaretta Street, together, in that bubble.
Benjamin has had eye trouble the past two years. He goes to a doctor regularly.
"Did he say what's wrong Benjamin?" I ask him after every visit. Benjamin can barely see to play cards anymore, and he doesn't drive.
"He didn't mention anything specific Neena," he says.
"Why don't you ask him?"
"I don't want to upset him."
"Do you want Grandmother to talk to him?"
"No I don't think so."
He's afraid they'll say he needs an operation. Probably they've already told him that.
May stopped driving years ago. She has fainting spells. And Janie never learned because, she says, there are too many crazy people on the road. I wish the doctor would do something for Benjamin.
I should mention that I... grew up living with Grandmother. Then I got married, too young, while I was in college. Which didn't work out, at all. After that I moved back in with Grandmother.
I left my last job around the same time Benjamin's eye trouble started. Grandmother said I could be available to take them to the bank and the doctor and the grocery store once a week.
I got to Lazaretta Street and went inside the house and collected the whole crowd. Usually Janie doesn't go out, but on this day May insisted. May's blood circulation is not robust, but in her own undemanding way she's a very good household manager.
The Lazaretta Street house is like the other houses in that neighborhood big and boxy and rundown, with big rooty trees in the back yard. The neighborhood, surprisingly, has been improving lately. Young couples desperate to find something affordable are moving in and making improvements.
Janie sits inside on the sofa all day and reads historical novels. On weekends she watches golf tournaments. She follows the PGA the way many people watch soap operas. She squeezes a couple of rubber balls while she's looking at golf. That's supposed to build bone mass in her hands.
Jane loves it in the house. She won't even go sit on the front porch. Once, two or three years ago, it was such a pretty day, and I said "Come on the porch with me Janie. It's nice outside."
"Oh I know that Neena," she said. She laughed a little. Squish squish went the
"Well come on then."
"A yellow jacket might sting me," she said.
"That's right," chimed in Benjamin. "Janie's allergic to yellow jackets."
I don't think she's ever been stung by a yellow jacket. Somebody told her
she might be allergic, and she believed it. Benjamin and May started believing it too. They're all used to the idea.
It was hot in the hospital parking lot and cloudy and humid and it seemed it might rain any minute. May was dizzy from the car ride over she almost fell we had to stop halfway across the parking lot and prop her against a light pole while her head cleared.
It took forever to find Grandmother's room. The hospital is three floors high and made of concrete everything looks the same we kept looking and getting lost and riding in elevators.
Eventually we found out that Grandmother was still in the emergency room section, downstairs, in the back, and a man took us down there and showed us the correct hallway.
We were in the room with Grandmother when she actually died. May and Benjamin and Jane were standing around her bed. They were bending over and looking at her. I was sitting in a chair reading a magazine.
The whole side of Grandmother's face was bruised and bandaged and her neck was strapped in a brace. She was breathing fast but not very deeply. Our room had a glass wall. They had decided Grandmother was too badly injured to move her to a space on a regular floor. The hallway outside was busy. A nurse was in the room with us. A doctor and several other nurses popped in and out and made sure we knew Grandmother was going to die.
She was barely breathing. It's so clean supposedly in hospitals but the air always smell like chemicals Grandmother made a sound and threw her right arm off the bed a few inches that scared us the nurse said she wasn't supposed to be able to do that then she died.
Benjamin just stared. His face was frozen. May and Janie looked at each other. They were on opposite sides of the bed with Grandmother's body between them.
"Trudie told me I could have the coin box," said Jane in a squeaky quavery voice. Trudie is what they always call Grandmother.
The coin box is this old tin fruitcake pan full of silver dollars. Grandmother saved them 'til the end of the sixties when solid silver coins went out of circulation. After that, they just sat on a shelf in her closet. I guess she had a couple of hundred silver dollars in that old pan. She wasn't interested in coins in general.
May looked down at Jane. She's at least a foot taller than Jane. I don't know if what Jane said about the coin box even registered the muscles on May's face had blanked out from sadness.
"Trudie didn't tell you anything about coin boxes," said Benjamin irritably.
"Did she really say that Janie?" asked May gently. Right away Benjamin started hassling Jane for imagining things.
"You know Grandmother did say something to Janie," I said. "I heard it." I threw that out softly and apologetically, as if I didn't want to intrude.
"Oh," said May. Janie looked hopeful.
I was glad I could help Janie out. It didn't occur to Benjamin to disbelieve me. Nobody ever lied about Grandmother, or went against her.
When I was in high school for example, Grandmother had people over for dinner one night. May cooked a great meal, and Benjamin and I were in her kitchen afterwards washing dishes. Benjamin dropped a glass. It broke on the kitchen floor. He stood there like he was paralyzed.
"What was that Benjamin?" called Grandmother from the living room.
"Oh nothing Trudie," said Benjamin. "Neena just dropped an old glass. It's all right we'll clean it up." He ducked his head and wouldn't exactly look at me. I got a broom and a dustpan. We didn't have to talk about it.
Grandmother might easily have said something to Janie about the coin box. Or maybe Janie was lying. Probably she dreamed or imagined it. I'm pretty sure that's what actually happened.
Once or twice Grandmother told me she'd like to melt her dollars down someday and make a silver frame for the mirror over her dresser. She thought that would be luxurious. She has a big mirror over her dresser.
We were at a shoe store once. They had a poster behind the counter that advertised the memento thing where you get your kid's shoe dipped in bronze, then you hang it up somewhere. Evidently that tradition was making a come-back. She asked the clerks if they could melt silver into the shape of a mirror frame they said they didn't think so. Grandmother has lots of mirrors but her favorite is the big one over her dresser.
The emergency room people took her away. We stayed for twenty more minutes to sign papers. One of the doctors came in and introduced himself. He checked his clipboard.
"We've putting Massive Head Trauma, Two Fractured Cervical Vertebrae on the death certificate," he said. He was a decent-looking black-haired man, short, with his eyes too close together. He gave me a sympathetic look. Janie and Benjamin and May were in the hallway waiting until I signed the papers. That thing from earlier, standing by Grandmother's car something I almost remembered about her was in the back of my head again.
"What does Step in Front of a Golf Cart mean to you," I asked him. He blinked and raised his eyebrows like he didn't want to talk about that.
"I'm ready to sign the death certificate," he assured me.
I signed whatever it was he put in front of me, several papers, and after that they told us we could leave.
"I want to get the coin box," said Janie as soon as we were in the parking lot.
"It's not going anywhere Jane," I said. "I'll bring it over tonight or tomorrow morning."
"I'd rather have it now Neena," she said.
We were in Grandmother's car, not my car, so that made me less in charge somehow. "All right," I said.
It's absolutely out of the way to go to Grandmother's on the way to Lazaretta Street. Her house is out on the south side. Her place used to be in the country actually. But that area has built up. Her road had to be four-laned eventually because of traffic.
Luckily the land across the road is taken up with a government ag experiment station. It's all barns and pasture over there. As traffic got worse over the years Grandmother planted more and more dogwoods and shrubbery in front of her house so now, from inside, if you do see that busy band of traffic, it's through leaves and branches, which minimizes the effect, and beyond that it's all pasture and cows.
We drove out to Grandmother's. We parked the car. I went inside to find the coin box. The air was still and sticky and the sky was dirty white and pressing down on us. May needed to move around to boost her circulation, so she came inside with me. I told her I skipped breakfast earlier she fixed me a sandwich.
There was a big ugly roach on the counter by the sink in Grandmother's kitchen.
"Oh you better kill that Neena," said May. She was making the sandwich. It's considered a real social faux pax in our town if visitors see roaches in your house. This is a low coastal area and roaches are everywhere. "You better get the bug man out here," she said.
I whisked the roach off the counter and into the sink. I turned on the water and chopped it with a spoon handle until it flushed down the drain hole. May was making my sandwich. We've got so many roaches in this humid low climate. At night in the summertime downtown, when you walk under the streetlights, the sidewalks are covered with roaches.
I went back to Grandmother's room and looked in her closet and found the coin box. She sent me to that closet I couldn't help remembering this for half a second, then I smothered the memory when I was in first grade. I got the coin box off that same closet shelf Grandmother told me to take as many silver dollars out of the box as I could hold in one hand. I think I got seven or eight.
I remember her smiling face... she was smiling at me and encouraging me... she was biting one of her fingernails Grandmother always bit her fingernails down to the quick. She was an active athletic person. She put her fingers in her mouth and shredded on her fingernails with her teeth to get something more to chew on.
Anyway she told me to save the dollars I got. I didn't of course I cashed them in.
I slipped the coin box off the shelf and closed the closet door. I stepped across the room carefully to Grandmother's dresser and stood in front of her mirror. I found a pair of scissors and flipped over the coin box and scratched JANE into the tin bottom with the scissor points. I rubbed tarnish and rust over the scratched letters with my fingers. I took the coin box to the kitchen.
May was ready she carried my sandwich, and I carried the coin box, and we walked back out to the car.
Janie was sitting in the back seat of the car. She reached out with her hands to receive the coin box and she tucked it under her arm. She started crying. She didn't even open it. She sat there and cried. May gave me my sandwich and we headed back into town.
Being inside Grandmother's room and seeing her stuff made me actually understand on some level that I'd just watched her die in the hospital. I could barely eat my sandwich.
We were almost to Lazaretta Street and Benjamin reached up from the back seat and tapped me on the shoulder. "Neena I was wondering if you have time to take us by the grocery store," he said in a bossy voice.
"No Benjamin I don't have time," I said.
Benjamin never bought anything May did all the shopping. Going to the grocery store was his idea of having a good time.
"I wish you'd be quiet for a minute Benjamin," said May. From her tone of voice I could tell she needed something I drove a couple more blocks. The sky was getting darker. Thunder was rumbling.
"OK we can swing by the grocery store if you want to," I told Benjamin.
"I don't want to go to the grocery store," said Jane. "I want to go home."
"We'll just slip by Janie," I said. "May needs something."
"Uh-uh Neena," said Benjamin. "I asked you not May. May doesn't need anything."
"All right. Anyway we'll go."
"I believe you just realized YOU want to go. Why don't you just say it instead of trying to hog credit?"
"I'm not trying to hog credit Benjamin," I said.
"She probably wants to get beer," said Benjamin grimly. "Do you need beer Neena? Is your stockpile depleted? Neena gets anxious if her beer stockpile gets depleted." Ever since high school Benjamin has been hassling me about drinking.
"You shut up or I'll run this car into a tree and you're not wearing a seatbelt Benjamin," I said.
That shocked everybody, since we were in Grandmother's car. They all looked straight at the gold plate by the glove compartment with Grandmother's name on it.
"Or I'll take the pistol out of the glove compartment and shoot all three of you," I said.
That memory thing from earlier finally slid in. It was Grandmother, complaining about... golf carts. At the course. How noisy they were. How fast people drove them.
"I've got on MY seatbelt Neena," said Janie.
"That's because you're a good person Janie," I said.
"Truth will out Neena," said Benjamin. "And we both know it."
"If I want some beer Benjamin I'll get some. You don't have anything to do with that."
Benjamin and I play cards all the time I know how spastic his nervous system is. He loves to complain. He loves to chew on people's ankles. Sure enough, he continued from the back seat to annoy me. By the time we got to the grocery store I was furious.
The sky was really black, and it started to rain while we were walking in the store. First I went to the pharmacy department and sat down on a little stool they have over there and took my blood pressure. I'm only twenty nine but I have high blood pressure already it's genetic.
My pressure wasn't bad considering how angry I was. I walked up and down the little short aisles of medicine by the pharmacy window and practiced a breathing exercise.
A wonderful counselor gave me this special breathing exercise a few years ago and I'm so glad I know it. It relaxes me so much. But I did too many repetitions, and my stomach stopped digesting food. May's sandwich, that I'd just eaten, laid there in my stomach and quivered I could practically feel its outline.
I branched out to the other larger aisles of the supermarket, away from the medicine section. I maintained a brisk walk. I found May in the canned goods aisle.
She'd been to the meat department and picked out a ham as big as her grocery cart. She was pushing her cart and looking at cans. She was leaning over the cart to balance herself. Jane was following exactly behind May and crying and carrying the coin box under her arm.
I patted Jane. May had a new box of Kleenex in the grocery cart I handed Jane a wad of tissue so she could blow her nose. I left them temporarily to go collect Benjamin. He was at the magazine section puzzling over gardening magazines with his bad eyes. He's too cheap to subscribe to anything.
"Let me see that box Janie," said Benjamin after we were all gathered at the check out line.
"Don't you take that box away from Janie," said May.
"I just want to look, May," said Benjamin. "I don't give a damn about a bunch of dirty old coins."
Janie handed him the box. "God it's heavy," he said. "Look at this rusty old thing. Janie you'd better get a coin album and organize these coins and get rid of this dirty box."
"That's what I'd do too Janie," said May. "After you get everything straight in the album we'll put it in the safety deposit." They have a huge safety deposit box full of junk at the bank.
"I like it like it is," said Jane.
"You'd better make a coin album," said Benjamin. He was turning the box over in his hands. The light hit the box just right and he noticed Jane's name scratched in the bottom.
"LOOK," he said. "Look May Trudie put Jane's name on the bottom. Look at that." He clenched the coin box in his hands, and stared at it, and all of a sudden he burst out crying. May looked at the box, and looked at Benjamin, and she started crying too.
There wasn't a price sticker on the ham. The cashier was able to weigh it accurately on her produce scales, but she had to call the meat department to get a price. Eventually a lady in a bloody apron from the meat department showed up with a sticker, so then we had the correct price.
The people behind us in line hated waiting they had those set looks on their faces. The meat department lady got the ham price straight with the cashier and we finished checking out.
May gave the huge ham to Benjamin to carry. It was for Grandmother's funeral for afterwards when people come over to the house I didn't make the connection at the time.
Jane had the coin box under her arm. I had the Kleenex, plus a twelve pack of beer and some doughnuts for later which I picked up for myself. We walked out into the parking lot, into the sun the rain had just stopped.
Steam was coming off the hot asphalt pavement. We were in steam up to our knees. Everything seemed blurry.
"I don't see the car," said Janie.
"It's here," said Benjamin. "It's right over here," he said confidently. He hoisted the ham up in his arms and pointed in the wrong direction.
May was looking wobbly. I took her by the elbow and started walking.
"Come on the car is right here," I said. Grandmother's huge black car was less than twenty feet away from us. "Let's go," I said desperately. "It's not a problem. Come on."
"It's not a problem," all three of them chorused fearfully, desperately too.
Together we lurched in a mass through the steam towards Grandmother's car. We hurried. We put our heads down and walked fast though the car was just sitting there, shining with rain water, waiting, as if nothing had ever happened.
Harvey Sutlive's stories have appeared in the last three issues of Offcourse. He has also been published in the Richmond Review and Prism International. He lives and works near Athens, GA.
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