Saturday, April 13, 2019

Change in My Pocket

At fifty-five, my pockets are weighted like casino cups in the days of nickel-slots.  Did not see that coming.

When I was little, all the men I knew carried change in their pockets.  A man met another man, they'd shake hands, say hello, ask after family, and then stand there, hands in their pockets.  On the street or in the yard, church on Sunday or at an auction, they'd stand, while their wives talked.  They'd watch the kids play, or the dogs, admire a passing car.  They'd smoke, most of them.  Spit.  Might tell a joke.  To my child's notice they would all, sooner or later, shake the change in their pockets.  (Maybe it was a child's eye-level thing.) My father did this, all his life.  As a small child, I did not like that sound when my father made it.  Children are greedy.  I was anyway.  Those coins I could hear but not see, that was money I did not have, money exactly as I understood it at the time: quarters, dimes, nickels, pennies, -- maybe even a Kennedy half-dollar -- and I was not spending what I did not have.  It was maddening to my six year old self, hearing those coins rattle. The treasure should have been mine. There were Pixy Stix and Donald Duck comics somewhere in the world calling my name.

One did not ask men for money at that age, at that time.  Mothers, and grandmothers particularly you could ask. If they had it to give, women gave kids money.  Money came from change-purses that all had the same overlapping clasp, or from a twisted handkerchief that was conjured from some mysterious, powdery corner 'round about a lady's shoulder.  Grandmothers were easy.  Mothers, in public, could be embarrassed or worn down.  But fathers, my father?  Do not ask, in public.  In private, yes, but not before witnesses.

"What for?" or "Just what is it you think you need?" or "Anybody'd think we didn't feed you."

(Lord.  Make Mum ask him.)

The irony was that the men all seemed to me much richer than their wives.  What a weight of money men had in their pockets then! If Scrooge McDuck had had pants, and those pants had had pockets, the sound could not have been more tormenting.

Now it's my jeans, my pockets, my coin, my jangle.

When I was a young fairy, I did not carry change, or a wallet, as my jeans were intentionally tight. Don't ruin "the line," baby. Put the money in my shoe, or an inside pocket of a bomber-jacket -- never anywhere that would distract or detract from what were, all-too-briefly, the clean lines and tight curves of my late teens and early twenties. And come summer? Honey, my cut-offs were sliced so high the pockets had to go altogether. Yeah, boy. Couldn't tell me nothin'. I looked good.

Now I'm fatter at fifty-five than my father was at eighty, and older frankly than I once thought I'd ever live to be. My pockets are full of pennies and keys and general whatnot. How did that happen? I put my hands in my pockets now when it ain't even cold. When I'm " back home", I find myself again in the company of men with too little to say, myself included.  I rattle the change in my pockets.  Irritates me when I do this.  Some six year old version of myself wakes up within me and wants to spend that money on... something. Do they still make Abba Zaba? How much is a root beer barrel? I like that there's money in my billfold now, when there is.  I like the lump of that wallet against my ass when I pull up a chair. Even if it's more punch-cards than Platinum Visas, I like a little weight in that wallet. I've arrived.  But there's no comfort in the coins in my pocket, strangely, only the untapped potential for things I don't need and ought not to have. That hasn't changed, the things I shouldn't want, only grown worse now all my adult-teeth are all in and the money's my own.

In my house we put the loose change in a bowl until it overflows and then, when we remember, that money gets turned into groceries, real ones, not candy -- mostly.

My father put quarters in a water jug.  My mother did too.  The one time it was full, if I'm remembering right, they took a vacation.  Went to listen to country and western music somewhere I think.  It took a long time to fill that big jug.  My parents never got to travel as far or as often as they'd have liked.

Money means something different to people that were born to people without enough of it.  When I was growing up, we never seemed to do without. I learned later that my parents had done, that they did do, for us. (First time I ever met a man who'd never had to worry about money I remember my shock when he didn't put so much as a dollar in a red kettle as we passed as Santa on the street. How did one not do that?  Now I have my reasons, but then I did not understand. "There is always more misery in the lower classes than there is humanity in the higher." -- as Victor Hugo wrote that lesson out.)

Now my father's died, my mother's still finding coins among his things.  Dad had so many things, we've only discovered since he died: new socks he never wore, and coats enough to fill the donation corner at the food bank, broken watches and brass tie-clips he hadn't used in thirty years for the ties he never wore.  Ties by the dozen, come to that. And coins.  My mother found some more and mixed them with the rest before my brother picked them out.  Not quarters it seems but silver dollars.  Might be worth something. Dollar apiece anyway.

When someone dies, there are just so many other things they leave behind besides us.

Boxes and boxes.

I wonder what future generations will make of our boxes of old photographs?  What will they find at the back of closets, behind the shoes and under the hooks for old belts?  In a digital age, will there still be photo-albums somewhere?  Mine are already sticky with age; the "self-adhering" pages meant to save us the trouble of paste now self-adhered into inseparable blocks of yellow plastic.  My father's pictures, along with his mother's and his mother-in-law's, his aunts' and others', we found heaped in boxes and albums with wooden covers and black, paper pages.  There were bunches of tiny flip-books and little square "albums" in yellow cardboard covers that came from the drugstores that developed the film. I didn't know half the people in those pictures. My older brother knows who most of those people were because he's studied the matter.  Now he may be the only one who remembers.

We forget the woman third from the left.  We forget the name of the dog, and where they were when the pictures were taken, who gave us that birthday gift, what became of that hat.

I like particularly the pictures of my father, as a boy, with horses.  He seems happiest in those pictures.  His father blacksmithed, among other things to feed his family in the Depression.  There were always horses and ponies then, besides the coon-dogs and beagles and strays.  Who remembers them now?  My brother knows the names of the horses, anyway, some of the dogs, too. But then my brother's conversation with our father went on longer and ran deeper than mine. Antagonists when we were young, they became friends. My father and I? We learned to like each other well enough. Loved each other dearly, always, but we were never friends, not like that.

There's a moment in the development of a photograph, a moment described somewhere in Sebold's Austerlitz as "the moment when the shadows of reality, so to speak, emerge out of nothing on the exposed paper..."  I remember witnessing that moment in a friend's darkroom.  That was a thrilling thing to see; life rising through the black.  (Hate to think the day may come when no one will see that happen.)  In a humbler example, I remember shaking Polaroids until the pictures came out of the pea-soup green; a Christmas tree seen first by the lights, a face, a dog, my mother, me.  Thrilling and usually a little disappointing. We none of us were much at photography.

I saw the obverse of that magic in those picture boxes; Polaroids faded to a weird and uniform green, photographs gone gray with age, even tintypes scratched and faded to ghosts.  Sobering to think how brief the life of physical memories may be.

The evidence of our past is in us, but that's not the best way to get at it, is it? The older we get, or maybe the busier we are, the more we require clues: a song, biscuit dough under our fingernails, the way hay smells in old bales, jewelry in a box.

I'm sure there must be science somewhere to explain this. (Isn't smell supposed to the surest way to remember? Taste? Clever Monsieur Proust.)

I jingle the coins in my pocket and remember the men I knew as a child.

But then, I didn't know them very well.

The men I knew then didn't play cards. Not that I remember. (Not that I do now, but I have, badly.) My father didn't drink, but he certainly knew men who did. Didn't smoke either, but most of them seemed to then. They all worked. They raced dogs. They lent things and borrowed them; tools and machines and labor. They stood still more than we seem to now.

Thinking about that, the sound of that.

Might be a fair, or a parade, or the end of something, like music or church. Not friends so much together as just men. (Women did this too but that was different then, more to do with a sense of occasion and work, since women did everything that made nearly anything happen that did, from meals to God and politics, though weirdly men seemed to imagine themselves very much in charge. Community, event, family, women made all that.) One man would be stood there and then another and another until they were men, of no particular purpose, watching, talking or not, looking at nothing in particular but not much at each other. Weather. The day. The price of gasoline. Then not a damned thing. They'd rattle their keys, jingle the change in their pockets, take off a hat and wipe the sweat from their heads with a handkerchief. (They blew their noses without, by the way, a trick I never mastered.) Someone might clear his throat, but not as a prelude to speech, spit. (Funny how the habit of that seems to survive in males today who never inhaled coal-smoke or asbestos, or took a pinch of snuff in their lives. Why do they still spit so much?)

They would none of them appreciate having that scene described as a meditation But I think now it might as well have been. Prayer was for funerals, preachers, and foxholes. The men I knew then didn't practice. They'd bow their heads, but only when told to. No. The change in their pockets was as close as they came, most of them, to telling beads. To praise a day they would stand still and look at it.

They didn't carry guns, by the way, not then, unless to trade them, or hunt, or to march in a parade. No one in their right mind ever brought a pistol to a picnic or carried a riffle into the grocery store. That kind of masculine and political insecurity is new, obscene, and no more American than public nudity or Molotov cocktails.

But then I never knew what most of those men thought when they were stood there. Fundamentally those men were a mystery to me as a child and would probably be still if any of them still stood. Who knows what dark and dire things they might have believed in? May be why I prefer to remember their silence.

There's an obvious lesson in that silence too, one I still need to learn.

My silence is maybe not so good as theirs, not so full, or knowing, or angry, or empty. Not better than theirs, surely, but different in kind. Mine is more indoors than out, lamp-lit rather than gloaming. Mine tends to be over books and alone. I like it fine, mostly.

Now and again I do find myself standing, in company and out, with my hands in my pockets. Spring can be cold in Seattle. Change in my pocket I did not remember or anticipate, but there it is.

Wish I'd learned how to spit.

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