Cans of Quarters

When I was a teenager, my mother’s boyfriend used to keep quarters in old coffee cans sealed with duct tape.

“I don’t trust banks,” he’d say when I asked him about the Folger’s cans.

“How much do you think you have?” I asked one day.

“Each can probably has two hundred dollars in it, so times that by thirty. There’s more in my room, too. Don’t be gettin’ any ideas, girly. I know how many cans I got. Where’s your mom? Tell her I’m going out,” he replies, dousing his hand with Brut aftershave and slapping his wrinkled and beard-stubbled face. Most of it lands on the collar of his grey work shirt, staining the collar. It looks like blood as it soaks in, darkening the fabric.

Six thousand dollars is lined up in rows under my mom’s floral dresses, neatly pressed and carefully hung jeans, and her white nursing uniforms, starched stiff and a shade of brilliant white. I walk into Dennis’s room after I hear his ancient Ford pick-up truck roar to life and the sound of gravel ricochets off the side of the house as he peels out of the driveway. He and my mom don’t sleep together because Dennis snores and has that thing where he stops breathing in the middle of the night and my mom got tired of having to either shove him to stop snoring or wake him up to make him breathe again. I wish he’d die in his sleep sometimes. Just stop breathing and never wake up again. I don’t like Dennis much, but my mom isn’t interested in why. She likes him for some reason.

I tiptoe into his room, still cautious he’s around, even though I heard him leave, and open his closet door; more cans. I do a quick count and come up with twenty-six. A little quick math in my head means he has just over five thousand dollars in his closet, and all together, we have $11,000 in quarters in our house, just sitting in rusted coffee cans.

I take a step back and sit on the edge of his bed, my mind trying to grasp the amount. I start thinking there has to be more cans. There has to; a guy like Dennis probably has them squirreled away all over the house and garage and his work shed out back.

I’m furious at him for letting this money just sit here when I think about all the things it could be used for. My mom takes the bus to and from work each morning, a trip that’s about an hour each way. If she had her own car and could drive, it’d take her about 20 minutes and she could come and go as she pleases instead of having to beg Dennis to borrow his truck when he’s home if she needs to run to the grocery store or something. We have old hand-me-down furniture that is from my dead grandparents and the fabric is faded and torn and stained. Our water heater is probably as old as I am, and if you want a hot shower, you better be quick, since the hot water runs out after three minutes. My Converse sneakers are duct taped at the toes because I’ve worn them so much, the top ripped from the bottom. Instead of being able to get new ones, Dennis just wrapped them up. Good as new, he said after he threw the shoes at me.

I am angry, and have to get out of his room before I smash everything in it. I go into the kitchen and pour myself a glass of milk and grab a few cheap store brand chocolate cookies that are supposed to be Oreos, but aren’t. I plan on where to look for more cans. Garage. Shed. Basement. The creepy root cellar that’s attached to the side of the house and that I hate going into when Mom asks me to get some jars of tomatoes and green beans she put up last summer. Whenever my friend from a few houses down, Gracie, comes over, we try to spook each other out by going down there. It works every time and after a few minutes, we come racing up the stairs, trying to knock each other back down into the dank and mildewed cellar.

I finish my snack and start my adventure. I check the basement first. My weight creaks the old wooden stairs with each step and I pull the string for the single light bulb at the bottom. The string brushes my hair as I walk by and I swat it away. I look in the obvious places first, behind the stairs, window wells, under the old porcelain sink next to the washing machine, and come up empty. There’s an old shower in the basement that hasn’t been used in years, and I pull the cracked plastic curtain aside. There are ten cans on the bottom. Two thousand more dollars. Next to the shower is a storage room and I go inside. Lining the bottom of the closet, under the shelves that house boxes of my old toys and various other junk, are more cans. I quickly count and come up with nineteen. Almost four thousand dollars. In our house alone, we have $17,000. To my kid brain, that’s a lot of money.

I run up the stairs from the basement, yanking the string to the light as I do, and it breaks off in my hand and the bulb rocks back and forth violently. I slam the door and burst outside, nearly falling down the back steps. I grab the rickety railing to steady myself and run to the garage. With some difficulty, I lift the garage door up and the first thing I see on the back wall above Dennis’s work bench are shelves of coffee cans. I walk up to the shelves and heave myself up on the bench to get a closer view of the cans. Some have tops off and have screws and bolts and stuff, but some are wrapped shut in the silver tape. I count those and come up with ten. Quick investigation of the rest of the garage and I spot more cans under Dennis’s bench, but those are all empty, waiting to be filled, so I leave, bringing the heavy garage door with a loud bang and go out back to the garden shed.

A quick moment of panic overcomes me as I see it’s padlocked shut, but I noticed a set of tiny keys hanging from a nail near the garage door when I was in there, so I go back to the garage to get them. I hold my breath as I try the first key. Nothing. I try the second, and the clasp pops open and I take if off the lock. There’s no light in here, so I open the door and let the sunlight fill the shed. Rakes, hoes, shovels, and garden hoses hang on the walls. Our broken lawnmower sits in the corner, covered in cobwebs. Empty buckets line the floor and I look inside each one. A mouse had nibbled through the plastic of one and I see an abandoned nest at the bottom and I shiver. I hate mice. The other buckets have dead bugs at the bottom. I see the wheelbarrow with the broken handle in the other corner, and it’s covered with a dusty blue tarp. I lift the cover and find six cans.

I close the door and lock it, and return the keys to their spot on the nail in the garage. I go back to the house to wash my hands because they’ve gotten filthy rooting around the garage and shed, and to find a small notebook and a pencil so I can keep track of how much money I’ve found so far.

My hands smell of lavender after I wash and I bring them up to my nose to inhale deeply. I find a small spiral notepad Mom uses for her grocery lists and a pencil in a drawer by the fridge, which I open up and grab a grape soda pop. I sit at the table again and take three long gulps from the can of pop and let out a loud belch. I crunch the numbers on the pad. Thirty cans in Mom’s room, twenty-six in Dennis’s, ten in the shower, nineteen in the storage closet, ten in the garage, and six in the shed…that’s $20,200. I recheck my math twice and come up with the same number both times. I drop the pencil and it rolls off the table to the floor, but I don’t care. I’m too busy staring at the number I’ve scratched on the paper. Twenty thousand dollars…and I still have the root cellar to explore yet. I’m a weird combination of really excited and really mad. We can use this money and this selfish bastard isn’t doing anything with it. I wonder if my mother is aware of how much money is in these cans.

I finish my pop, belch loudly again, and toss the can in the trash can and go outside to the root cellar. I really hate this thing and am nervous to go down in it, but I vaguely remember seeing coffee cans down there the last time Gracie and I dared each other to go inside. I take a deep breath and turn the knob to open the door. I’m hit in the face with the smell of wet dirt and try not to think of all the spiders and other creepy-crawlies waiting to jump on me, and I slowly take the steps down. A cobweb brushes my left cheek and I swat at my face to get it off, the web sticking to my hand. I brush it off on my jeans and shiver. I grab the old flashlight that’s resting on the shelf at the end of the stairs and click it on, the bean of light dim. It probably needs new batteries. The dust particles in the air get stuck in the light as I move it around and it reminds me of the light sabers from my favorite movie, Star Wars. Gracie and I went to see it at the dollar theatre a few weeks ago. She has a crush on Luke Skywalker, but Han Solo is my favorite.

Jars of vegetables line the shelves. There’s so many that the wood sags in the middle due to the weight. I pass the flashlight around the small cellar and spot what I’m looking for: coffee cans. Lots of them. I can’t believe I didn’t realize how many there are down here. The shelves that are on the wall next to the house are full of them and I feel my heart race as I count. Fifty cans. Holy cow. Ten thousand dollars sharing room with pickled beets (gross) and the corn I helped Mom shuck and cut off the cobs last summer. I have to sit down, so I plop myself on the dirt floor.

I’m lost in thought and don’t hear Dennis come home until I hear his heavy footsteps come down the cellar stairs.

“What the fuck are you doing down here?” he yells.

I turn my head quickly behind me and the light of day shining behind him as he comes down the steps makes his silhouette terrifying. I scramble to get up off the ground, but he’s on top of me in a hurry and grabs the back of my shirt to lift me the rest of the way up off the ground. My feet aren’t touching the dirt and I suddenly realize I’m in very deep trouble. I start coughing as my shirt collar chokes me and he tosses my against the shelves on the north wall. Some jars fall to the ground and shatter, spilling the contents.

“Answer me, goddamn it! What the fuck do you think you’re doing down here?” He shoves me against the shelf again, forcing me back. I can feel the wood pressing into my shoulder blades and I’m overwhelmed by the pain. I try to move away from him, but my foot squishes into the spilled vegetables and I can’t get my footing. He forces himself into me. I didn’t realize how strong he is until then. He’s crushing me. I’m somehow still holding on to the flashlight and I try to beat him with it, but he takes it out of my hand without much effort.

“You stupid brat! You’re going to pay for that!” He elbows me in the jaw and the pain from my shoulders goes away and explodes in my face. A flash of light appears in my vision and I see stars, just like in the cartoons. My eyes well up with tears and I start sobbing.

“Please stop hurting me!” I manage to choke out. “Please, Dennis, I didn’t do anything wrong!” I gasp for air.

“The fuck you didn’t! You shouldn’t be down here! You tryin’ to steal my money, you dumb little bitch? Is that it? Fuck you!” he screams into my face. I feel spittle on my nose and cheeks mixing in with my tears. I can also smell alcohol on his breath and the sick sweetness of it makes me want to throw up. My stomach lurches and I gag. Dennis brings up a meaty forearm and presses it into my throat and I gasp for air. “Stupid little cunt,” he spits again, shoving his arm harder against me. Eventually, I pass out and slump to the ground. Dennis kicks my head as I lay on the ground, breaking my nose. He spits on me, and his phlegm lands on my bruised cheek and mixes with the blood running from my face.

He leaves me in the cellar, but returns with an ax from the garage. I saw it hanging there earlier. Dennis, drunk and full of rage, starts haphazardly hacking into my unconscious body. He chops away at me, piece by piece, the sweat from his forehead falling on my pieces. He leans the ax against the railing of the steps and stumbles up them once again. He returns a few minutes later with the metal trash can we put leaves and grass clippings in and starts putting my body inside, my parts thumping against the side and bottom.

Dennis then tries to lift the garbage can upstairs to do whatever with me, but it’s too heavy and the cellar floor is a sloppy mess of dirt and mud and he slips and falls and his head comes down against the blade of the ax he set next to the stairs and it lodges into the back of his head, killing him in an instant. Our blood mixes together on the floor.

My mom won’t discover what happened for another few hours or so until she returns from her job at the hospital. Both her only child and boyfriend dead in the bottom of the cellar, her child in the bottom of a garbage can, and her boyfriend impaled on the very weapon he did it with.

At least with Dennis gone now, she can use the money in the coffee cans to buy herself nice things, just like I wanted.

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