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a coin collection

My boyfriend, Carl, is different when he comes home from his full year of lockup. We vacation at his parents' summer camp on Lake Vespalia just like we said we would, but he's quiet and barely touches me.
   
“Sweetie, you know I didn't do it, right?” he asks every night while rolling a hand through my piano-black hair, telling me I'm his favorite girl just before falling asleep next to me. These reminders conjure images of a pack of screaming squad cars – snowy blurs flashing red and blue along the dimmed cityscape – chasing Carl's old Pontiac at eighty miles-per-hour before he accordions it against a traffic divider.  Tonguelike flames lick contorted metal. Hubcaps roll and clatter on the pavement like giant chrome nickels. The cops could let him burn, but they pull him from the wreckage and get him for possession, resisting arrest, speeding, reckless endangerment, obstruction of an investigation, and assault on an officer. I don't know how police matters work, but Carl insists he didn't do it, never indicating to me which it he means. 
   
He doesn't know that I don't care. Whatever he did, I still visited him every saturday, baked giant cookies from a two-dollar box and delivered them as happily as Little Red, and have never questioned anything he's told me. We smoke dope together in the reeds by the lake, crouching on our heels, little tails of smoke drifting upward as fireflies skitter through like sparks popping in a fireplace. 
   
Carl can't stand fire anymore. He says it makes him flash back to the crash, so the days of roasting marshmallows and mashing them between grahams and melted chocolate are over. I imagine what it's like to burn alive over and over again.
   
Our fourth night at camp, I masturbate while trying not to wake Carl.  We're sleeping on the same mattress, a twin-size, and the entire surface quakes with every rhythmic bump. But there's nothing else I can do.  He doesn't touch me when we're awake. He falls asleep before me and wakes up late. Masturbation has become my secret ritual. If he caught me, I'd have to talk about it. He wouldn't understand. I lay on my side when I do it, and as I finish, I hear roman candles exploding in the black sky over the lake. It's the sixth of July. I have to laugh to myself.
   

Breakfast is lonely. I wake up at noon, pour two bowls of Cheerios and set a half-empty carton of almond milk in the center of the camp's little round table. I fiddle with the newest set of United States Mint coins, a gift my parents give me every year to sate my thirst for collecting. I'm so bored and hungry waiting for Carl to wake up that I crack open the plastic casing around the coins and handle them like they always tell you not to. I set the half-dollar under my index finger and flick it with my middle, sending JFK's shining face into a spiral. I catch him in my palm when he topples over the edge. The dead presidents have become like a little family during my time collecting coins, and JFK in particular fills some kind of sexual void in my brain. I don't think of him as the actual commander-in-chief so much as a fantasy guy I made up, a taut man-specimen to replace my scrawny, sweet little Carl over the past year. I've promised myself I won't make my men share me, but the coins are all I have when Carl sleeps. I want him back. I want a smile, a kiss, a night between the sheets, a day of waterskiing on the lake. Any attempt to move on from his accident. But he sleeps. I tip the milk carton over my bowl until the Cheerios are swimming. I promise my Presidents I'll take them out to sea someday.
           
   
I make my first attempt at reigniting Carl's passion. I simultaneously tell myself that if I have to pleasure myself for another three evenings straight, I will leave him (which seems counterproductive in that if I leave him, I'll still have no one to pleasure me, but my self-applied ultimatum provides me with drive). When he finally wakes up, he dumps the remainder of the milk into his bowl. I wait until his mouth is full, then I say, “We should go canoeing.” 
   
“What would be the point of that?” he asks. He's being honest.
   
I have several options now: It'll be fun; It'll give us a chance to bond; even It'll yank you out of this slump and maybe you'll pay me five minutes of attention
   
“It'll be fun,” I answer, fitting the half-dollar back into its plastic cover and then into the velvet case.     

   
Carl is never happy. He has never been happy. I blame it on his brush with crime, his near-burned experience, his year of jail time. But even before he was nearly set ablaze in the twisted remains of his own Pontiac, he was never happy. My humor annoys him. He reacts to my suggestions as you might react to deer flies beating around your ears.  He doesn't make love to me, and even when he used to, when I'd give into his roleplay fantasies and let him slap me around, he was never happy. 
   
But maybe it's a phase he's going through. I reiterate this to myself as I light a Camel and lumber through the front door for a post-breakfast smoke. Carl is my little mess.

   
It rains all day. Carl doesn't want to get wet. We don't get cable in the camp, so Carl stands on a chair and messes with the rabbit ears until the local news is half-visible. We watch various anchors with ashen faces drone on about politics and the Teacher of the Week. There are a few murder stories, a missing kid, and something about a woman being caught with a white tiger in her apartment, which flickers in and out as the TV static worsens. No sunlight, no canoeing. I walk down to the musty basement and pull a few boardgames from the cedar closet. Carl beats me at Topple, Jenga, and Mancala, but doesn't seem at all proud; he defeats me as simply as if he were taking care of errands. His victories turn me on. This is where we would've made love before – aggressive love where he finishes with a hand around my throat. But he just laughs through his nose and says, “It's like you're not even trying.” Mancala is the closest thing we've had to intimacy since he got out of jail.
   
I carry the stack of games into the basement and pile them back into the cedar closet. I hadn't noticed before, but there is a dead mouse lying in the corner. I wonder how long he's been there, what killed him, whether he nibbled at some poison or simply lived out his time. I want to have a little funeral, but the rain will spoil it, so I leave him where he lies.
   
When I reemerge from the basement, Carl is coiled up in bed, pretending to sleep so he won't have to talk to me. I take a set of Mint coins, last year's set, from the nightstand and stack them atop each other, pretending we're playing Jenga again. Of course, I lose.

   
I bury the mouse before Carl wakes up. I build a little mound behind the camp and stack purple nightshade over the soil. I wish I had coins small enough to place over the mouse's eyes like the Greeks used to do for their Heroes. For good measure, I slip an old George from its plastic and shove it under the dirt alongside the rodent corpse. 
   
I empty standing water from the rain-glazed canoe and set it upright. The sky is a pale blue. It will not rain today.
   
Carl wanders out of the house, sparking up a cigarette and squinting his eyes as if to ask what I'm doing. He doesn't say a word.
   
“You missed the funeral,” I say. “But I got our vessel ready.”
   
He looks skeptically at the silver canoe, releasing a ring of smoke as he lowers the Camel from his lips. 
   
“Canoeing? Really?”
   
“Yeah,” I say, more indignantly than I mean to. “It's an adventure, Carl.”
   
Carl is shirtless, wearing torn denim jeans and a fishbone necklace I made for him when we were in high school. He looks like some sort of native, an indigenous Vespalia man with smoke coming out of his head.
   
“Life is long,” he says, pinching the cigarette between his lips again. “We can go tomorrow. Let's just relax.” I wonder what Carl considers relaxing if not silently canoeing over calm water while his girlfriend does most of the arm-work.
   
He looks at the hot tip of the cig and I know what he's thinking. He's burning all over again. He doesn't want to go in the canoe because he can't stand the feeling of metal against his skin, the feeling of being shut in the pyre of his own vehicle like a rodent pinned under the iron bar. 
   
He walks inside. I follow.
   
“Carl.”
   
“I said we can go tomorrow. Why does everything have to be right now?”
   
“It's not that.  Do you want to be with me?”
   
He stops, turns around, and looks me in the eyes for perhaps the first time since Vespalia's shore rolled into view and we parked on his parents' dirt driveway. “I don't – well – of course I do.” He cups his hands around my narrow shoulders. “How about this.” He lowers his voice to a near-whisper. His gaze is watery and anemic. “You go get the canoe ready. I'll put my swimming trunks on.”
   
This is the only way I can get Carl to do anything: introduce something he wants to talk about even less than what I really want him to do.
  
I make to follow him into the bedroom and jump him as soon as he gets his shorts off, but I know what will happen. I'll kiss his neck, rub my fingers over his chest, and it won't go further than that. I'll be lucky if I get a short breath out of him. Nothing I can do will provide any sort of shock. And now that he's agreed to canoe with me, the last thing I need is an argument.

      
We glide across the glassy water. I am ecstatic to be outdoors. I have my green camo backpack slung over my shoulder and a blue bucket between my legs, which I've decided to bring along in case we find a raspberry bush. We don't find one. I've brought some coins along for luck: the half-dollars, quarters and nickels from every Mint set of the last twenty years. I line them along the floor of the canoe, just like I promised my Presidents, face up, like a brilliant coating of doubloons. As I plunk each coin down, the canoe gives a hollow thud, which I take as a thank you for keeping my word. Maybe I've really done it for Carl, to let him know he's the one man I'll never let out of his velvet case. 
   
“It's not your fault,” I say as Carl begins to tire from the paddling. He is gaunt. He chain-smokes. He doesn't eat right. His skin is pulled so tautly around his ribs that the band of flesh molds around his bones as his lungs expand. “The accident,” I say. “You panicked. It's not your fault.” 
   
The accident was his fault. He had weed in the car and he sped from the police squad the same way a windup car zips away when you set it loose on a glossy tablecloth. He never pulled over, never surrendered, never worried about the lives that might end should his front bumper hop a curb. But I sided with him. No one else knows Carl how I know him: the way he still cries over the deaths of his pets; his excitement at showing me his old home videos and his childhood bedroom at his parents' house; how he aches for the support of his family; the way he slides a strand of my hair behind my ear when I'm sad, as though ensuring my happiness is second nature for him. I know he'll be back. This is a phase. This new Carl won't linger until I'm dead enough to have coins placed over my own eyes. A chill washes through me. I set my oar aside and fold my arms for warmth. I feel exposed. Childlike.             
   
He looks at the floor of the canoe, at my coins, at the upturned faces of the dead, so he won't have to look at me. He stutters, but catches his breath. “I didn't want to hurt anyone.” 
   
I can't stand this. He is fighting back tears. He hasn't shown a lick of emotion since he got out. Why can't he cry in front of me?
   
In the softest voice I can muster, I say, “I know.” As I say it, I realize that Carl and I will not last. We'll stay a couple because neither can bear to see the other sad, but our respective pain will be too much for the other. He'll never make love to me again, never fill me with his passion. Maybe a slick dude in tight jeans who looks like JFK will cozy up next to me at a bar and I won't be able to say no.
   
No. I won't stand for it. I touch Carl's chin and nudge his face upward so that we're at eye level. I push my lips against his, and he inhales heavily. He doesn't pull away. Neither do I. 
   
I cup my hand over his and guide him to my thigh. It is the first time in a year anyone else's hand has been on my bare leg. A shock goes through me. Heat rushes to my stomach.
   
As Carl shifts his weight against me, I want to remind him that we're in a canoe, but I'm afraid that if I remove my lips from his, he'll call it off, tell me this is wrong, tell me he can't. Or maybe he'll disappear altogether.
   
So we tip. We slip below the surface of the water, still in each others' arms. Carl pulls away, but I remain, watching him swim as if flying in slow motion towards the roof of the black lake. My coins topple overboard, spilling from the canoe like glittering minerals. I keep my eyes open underwater and extend my arms. I'm not trying to catch them, not really. I briefly imagine that my Mint half-dollars, nickels, and quarters are some kind of tribute tossed over my dying body as they slowly descend like a curtain of speckles. In the darkness of the lake, they could be falling stars.    
   
It's only a moment before Carl dives down to collect me. I can still feel the passion we started in the boat; it's stronger than the cold shock of the water. Carl powers through the falling stars, his hair matted and swirling, bubbles percolating from his mouth. He reaches for my hand. For some reason, I make a wish.





richard hartshorn lives in rural southeastern New York. He was the recipient of the 2011 Richard Bausch short story prize, and his work has appeared in Hawaii Women's Journal, The Dirty Napkin, Numero Cinq, and other publications.



©2012
photo credit: Sandra Neumann