The Coin Collector

by: James Santore

A father’s coin hobby, a son’s remembrance of the past, and a connection that slipped by all too fast…

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It had been two days since Donny arrived at the tall, lean row house. The first thing he and his brother did was remove the suit from the closet, which very much needed cleaning. Next, they chose a tie. Out of two dozen, they selected one that was navy blue with red circlets small as pinpricks scattered throughout.

“This’ll go along good with his suit,” Robert whispered to himself, gathering up the clothes.

On an afternoon swamped with sunshine, Donny was back in his father’s bedroom. The service had concluded and Donny’s shoes were off, his only wish was to take a nap on his father’s inviting bed. He likened sleeping to bliss, to a dance with “sweet oblivion.”

Donny Fulton was thirty-one years old, unmarried, untethered, and living two hours away in Trenton. He was hoping to drive back sometime after rush hour. His brother and sister-in-law were staying in Donny and Robert’s old room, and Donny was overcome with a restless feeling.

Instead of sleeping, Donny walked to his father’s closet. The door was slightly ajar and that bothered Donny because, out of habit, he never slept with a door open. He was sure this one had been closed tight after he and Robert removed one of his father’s suits and ties. And he was also certain he hadn’t opened the door since. Just looking at all those silent, hanging reminders of his father gave Donny the creeps.

Donny stood motionless and sighed heavily, taking in the scene. Button down shirts, mostly short sleeved, hung neatly and ties dangled limply like dead flowers on a door-mounted rack. A row of slacks hung above three pairs of black, inexpensive dress shoes on the floor.

He looked at the shelf above and saw an empty red duffel bag, a few hardcover detective novels, and a black leather, weather-beaten briefcase. Reflexively, Donny reached for the case’s handle and pulled. It started to drop, and he quickly placed his left hand underneath the briefcase for extra support. It was heavy, maybe twenty pounds, and it lurched downward faster than Donny expected.

Donny brought the briefcase over to the bed and laid it down. He loosened his tie and slid the brass buttons that flanked the handle, popping open the briefcase. There was a noise – like a ping – and the lid jumped open, standing at attention with military precision.

The inside of the case was lined in blue and white houndstooth, and was overloaded with coins and envelopes stuffed with two-dollar bills. There were silver dollars, gold dollars, half dollars, and a dozen blemished coin folders with ceremonious titles such as “Washington Head Quarter Collection 1932 to 1945 – Number One.”

Donny picked up a clear, quart-sized baggie filled with coins – mostly silver dollars – and emptied them out on the bed. He came across one that was larger, though less bulky than the others. It read: “Niagara Falls – still America’s Honeymoon Capital! 1971.” On it, there was a profile of a Native American male, bursting with stately headdress and beefy, pouting lips. On the opposite side was the raised image of the falls, pearly water cascading downward merging with mist.

“When the hell did he ever collect these?” Donny said aloud.

He stared at the novelty coin, twisting it through his fingers, rubbing it, remembering the day his father – tough, sober, impenetrable – opened his life up to Donny outside their Queen Street home.

“Donny, get up.”

Donny had grown with names like Maytag, Zenith, Samsung, and Whirlpool, as his father, never able to lift a television or set a VCR, made his living selling appliances in the days when you could make a living at it. He started at a suburban Woolco, then moved to Woolworth. And for two years, when Donny was nine and Robert thirteen, he took a position as an assistant buyer for the Woolworth Corporation. But the promotion came with a caveat: the job was in New York City. The pay wasn’t much, but the job included an elevated title and an office in a grandiose skyscraper. But instead of moving, his father, not wanting to disrupt the life he had built in Philadelphia, commuted two hours to and from work everyday.

Once he brought Donny to work with him. His father had done this with each of his son’s. Once.

“If you’re sitting at the front of the bus, train, whatever, and a lady walks on, you give up your seat. Now get up.”

“Why?” Donny asked. He was ten and he and Robert were in awe of and terrified by their father.

“Because that’s what you do.”

After two hours on the train, with scarcely a word spoken, they reached Grand Central Station. Slicing through the reverberations of human discord, Donny’s father swept his son onto the vibrant, teeming streets of New York City.

“Stay close. If you get lost I’ll never find you.” Donny’s father shouted, stepping to the curb and raising his hand sharply. A yellow taxi seemed to materialize at the snap of his father’s fingers. Eventually, despite a ride filled with starts and stops and swerves and acceleration, they reached the imposing Woolworth Building, and Donny was completely amazed by his father’s imperious command of what was obviously his city.

“Take off your hat.”

“Why, Dad?”

“Because you’re in a building.”

They rode up to one of the few floors in the Woolworth Building used by Woolworth employees.

One of the things that stuck with Donny, as he lay on his father’s lumpy, lopsided bed – four-posted, the brass tarnished and dull – was a conversation he had with his father over some hot dogs from a street vendor. They were sitting in his father’s small, nondescript, wood-laminate office on the twentieth floor.

“Dad?”

“What?”

“Why are you so tough?”

“What? Tough where? Who’s tough?”

“You know, with me and Robbie? Why are you so tough on us?”

“You don’t know what tough is. And besides, life isn’t…too many people think it should be easy. ‘I don’t like my job’ or ‘I don’t like school,’ they whine. And that’s their problem. Work is work. School is school.”

The old man stared into his son’s eyes as he spoke. Finished with his lunch, his hands lay flat on the desk. He didn’t give an inch. Whenever he was standing and speaking to his boys he seemed to lean forward a little. That was his father, no retreat. All advance.

“And you know, Donny, I’ve never laid a hand on you or Robert, even when you deserved it. But you need to know how to carry yourself like a man. If I don’t teach you, who will?”

“I don’t know.”

“It’s just…you’ll understand when you’re a father.” He smiled, and it seemed forced.

Later, they’d visited the Empire State Building, and Donny’s dad had bought him a snow globe with a tiny version of the skyscraper inside. Donny twirled it in his hands, over and over, for the rest of the day.

Donny had fallen asleep on the train ride home. When he awoke, his head was resting on his father’s arm. He lifted his chin and looked up. Donny’s father was sitting up tall, his own chin raised, staring at the seat ahead of him.

Back at the house later that evening, Donny tiptoed into his father’s room. He hadn’t gone in there much since his mother had left. When Donny was fifteen or sixteen, he had learned from Robert that his mother’s leaving had began as a one-time fling that had escalated into remarriage and a move to Tampa, Florida. The kicker was the guy Donny’s mother left with had two sons himself.

Their father never remarried, and as far as Donny and Robert knew, did not date, nor had any interest in doing so. The boys certainly never broached the subject.

Inside his father’s room was a small lamp with coral base and white pleated shade. Nothing had been changed since the divorce. The carpet was still pink. Lying on the bed crosswise, tie loosened, and with a black leather briefcase opened before him, his father rested on an elbow. Donny couldn’t see what he was holding, but there was an unburdened look about him as he stared in the direction of the window, rubbing a large coin between his thumb and forefinger.

“Dad, why didn’t you bring your briefcase to work today?”

The old man continued staring out the window. “This one’s mine, Donny. Not work’s. Did you enjoy yourself today, son?”

“Yes.”

“Good boy. It’s time for bed. You have school tomorrow.”

Donny stuffed the coins from the briefcase in the baggie, sealed it, and set the baggie in the briefcase, and snapped it shut. He carried both it and his packed suitcase down the narrow stairs. He put on his shoes and walked out the front door. Soon, he was in his car and roaring up I-95 North.

Life is like a movie, Donnie thought as the miles fell away, and when you look back it’s always in slow motion. As a teen he began to drift from his second generation Italian American heritage. He thought he’d move to New York City and try to make something of his music, but he couldn’t hang on to it. He had started in Brooklyn, playing in a small but well-liked local band. Then he abruptly moved to Elizabeth, New Jersey because of the rent. He then followed a girl to Trenton. They broke up, and he just sort of stayed. He’d rarely been home to see his father over the last dozen years. There was no animosity, he just never really thought about it. Always wrapped up in Donny. And the bitch of it was, he hadn’t really been doing anything.

Donny checked his long, tired, and pockmarked face in the rearview mirror, his mind drifting, until he was brought back by the honk of a horn. It was dusk, and Donny drove in silence as car and truck lights flashed by him; white disappearing to the south, red up ahead. He wiped at his nose, and as he did the lights became bleary and fuzzy.

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