The Coin Jar
By MARTHA ROSS
I was thinking about Harold wondering whether Harold and I were falling in
love (and whether having sex with him tomorrow night would answer that
question) when Ted's cry cut through my daydream.
Ted, who was eight, was upstairs. Conrad, his 13-year-old brother, must be
tormenting him again. I dropped my copy of Nietzsche's "Also sprach
Zarathustra" on the kitchen table. I was supposed to be studying it for an
exam tomorrow, but wasn't getting much done with all my thinking about
Harold. Now this. I ran up the back stairs. At the top, I almost tripped
over the two golden retrievers, Luke and Leia. Leia barked, and I pushed
past her and Luke into Conrad's room.
There were the brothers: Ted down on the carpet; Conrad straddling his back
and holding his right arm twisted behind his shoulder blades. The little
boy's head bobbed up and down like a seal.
I was a college student and their live-in baby-sitter. I didn't think I was
a good baby-sitter because I didn't care that Conrad was torturing his
little brother. Except, of course, for the disruption it caused my
daydreaming. My inclination was to let them fight this one out. Ted was
stubborn and could stick up for himself. Besides, Conrad had no intention
of breaking his little brother's arm. This was all for show. I started to
walk away but remembered that Carol, their mother, would be mad if she
found out about the fight and that I had done nothing to stop it. So I did
something, not that it was much. I leaned in the door frame and asked,
"What"s going on? What's going on?"
The boys ignored me. Ted kicked his small legs behind him, trying to punch
his Nike-covered feet into Conrad's butt. Both boys' freckled faces were
red. Leia barked and Luke, his dog tag clanking against his neck, bounded
over to nudge his nose into what he perceived to be playful
roughhousing. Conrad and Ted ignored him, too.
"You little fag, where's my money," Conrad growled, pushing Ted's arm
further up his shoulder blades.
"I didn't take your stupid money!" Ted shouted.
"You lie! I'll break your stupid arm if you don't quit lying," Conrad
Leia barked again. The money. What money? Just then, I glanced at Conrad's
bed. I saw the empty one-gallon glass jar tipped on its side and the stacks
of recently counted, dimes and nickels spread out on the blanket. That
money. The money Conrad banked in the jar he kept on his dresser. He must
have come home from school this afternoon, counted his coins and found out
he was a little short.
Ted cried out to me, "Make him stop." His face scrunched up and tears
formed in his eyelashes.
OK, I better do something. "Luke, come here," I commanded. The dog obeyed
and I pushed him and Leia out the door. I took a deep breath and asked
Conrad, firmly, but politely, to release his little brother.
"Make him give my money back," Conrad bellowed. He had a new voice, a young
man"s voice. His boy's voice had cracked and disappeared over the summer.
"First let him go," I said. Conrad made no move to release Ted's arm.
Time to beg. "Please, Conrad," I pleaded. No dice.
I regretted what I had to say next. I didn't like resorting to this kind of
threat unless it was absolutely necessary, but I had no choice. "Conrad, if
you don't let go, I'll call your dad right now."
Conrad looked up at me with a triumphant gleam in his face. "You can't call
my dad. He's in Europe."
He was right. Of course he was right. Rick, who moved out of the house over
the summer, was in Europe on business. What next? Think quick. I did.
"OK, I'll call your mom. She'll be in her office. And she'll call your dad
when he gets back from Europe and tell him how you were trying to break
your brother's arm."
I waited. A couple of tense seconds later, Conrad let go of Ted's arm and
stood up. Ted rolled onto his back and grabbed his twisted arm with his
other hand. "Owwwwwwwww," he moaned.
I bent down. "Are you OK?" I asked.
"No, he broke it!" Ted spat at his brother, rolling back and forth onthe
carpet. "The creep broke my arm."
"It's not broken, Ted," I said impatiently. I didn't want to be here. I
wanted to be somewhere else, alone and thinking about Harold and sex and
tomorrow night. I tugged at Ted to sit up. I squeezed his arm to show
there were no breaks.
"Don't touch it!" Ted screamed. "It hurts. That creep hurt my arm, and I'm
telling! I didn't take his stupid money."
"Shut up, you fag!" Conrad yelled. "If you don't shut up, I'll kick your
Conrad started to move toward Ted.
I stood up to block his way. "Both of you stop it."
Conrad was almost as tall as I was. He must have grown four inches in the
past year. He was developing a lean, muscular build like his father. I saw
him glance at my chest, two mounds under the oversized sweater I often
wore. He quickly looked away, embarrassed, and stepped back.
"Ted, go downstairs," I said.
Ted stomped out of the room. "Creep!"
"Fuck you, asshole!"
I turned to Conrad. "Are you sure some money is missing? How do you know?"
"I counted it," he said. He went to sit on his bed and started to push
coins back into the
jar. "How do you know how much you had?"
"I keep track." He tilted his head toward a small, spiral-bound notebook.
Columns of numbers in pencil covered the top sheet of paper.
"Maybe you miscounted it this afternoon."
"How about if we recount it right now?"
"No thanks." He screwed the lid back on the jar, picked it up and walked
it back to his dresser.
He was dismissing me. Fine. Be that way. I walked out of his room, closed
the door and heard the click as Conrad pressed the lock on the doorknob. I
hoped he wouldn't bring up the missing money with Carol when she got home,
but of course he would. Maybe she could also ask him how he knew the money
was missing and convince him he had miscounted.
I slowly descended the back stairs, expecting to find Ted throwing one of
his fits, armed with a butter knife. I had disarmed him two weeks ago
after his latest blow-up with Conrad. He had run to the kitchen, grabbed a
butter knife, backed himself against the dishwasher and repeated in a
steady, possessed voice: "I'm going to make that creep pay. I'm going to
make that creep pay."
But as I entered the kitchen, I found, to my amazement and relief, Ted
standing on a chair, sliding a plate of Doritos sprinkled with cheddar
cheese into the microwave.
He asked in a cheerful squeaky voice, "I'm making nachos. Want some?" He
sucked his thumb as the microwave whirred and melted the cheese.
Ding. He pulled the plate out, hopped off the chair without spilling a chip
and carried the plate over to the table. He walked pigeon-toed, a habit
that made him the object of teasing from his brother and the kids at
He sat down and flicked on the remote to the counter TV. He found his
favorite cartoon, "He-Man: Master of the Universe." His fat little fingers
shoved a chip dripping with cheese into his mouth. He went on auto-pilot,
shoving chip after greasy chip into his mouth while giving his attention
completely to the adventures of his cartoon super-hero.
I joined him at the table and picked up my Nietzsche. I tried to read a
paragraph, but couldn"t concentrate. He-Man's vow to vanquish his enemies
filled my head.
I gazed out the window overlooking the back yard. Orange and yellow leaves
trembled on branches and shimmered in the late afternoon autumn sun. I
loved fall. It always meant new beginnings to me. New school year, new
friends, new guys to have crushes on. Tomorrow night would bring the most
important new beginning of all: Harold was coming over.
Tomorrow night. Conrad was spending the night at Jimmy Connelly's. And
Carol was going out with a "friend," meaning she wouldn't be home until the
next morning. I was staying home to baby-sit Ted and Harold was coming up
on the bus. I'd wear the Chanel No. 5 I got for my 18th birthday and the
new underpants I had splurged on at Marshall Fields. After I got Ted to
bed, I'd lead Harold down to the basement family room, next to my bedroom,
and serve us Scotch from Rick's bar. We'd watch a video.
Something romantic and sexy. Early Mel Gibson perhaps.
The house was calm. Conrad had locked himself in his room, probably not to
emerge until his mother came home. And I had assured myself life would
definitely get better in the next 48 hours. Luke and Leia bounded into the
kitchen from upstairs, their claws clicking on the kitchen tile. Ted pulled
his attention from the TV long enough to call them to the table to offer
each a Dorito. What a sweet kid he could be sometimes, especially when
he's zoned out in front of the TV. I helped myself to several cheese-laden
chips from his plate, not at all concerned about the fat content. I picked
up my Nietzsche again and tried to read, this time with determined
concentration and carnal anticipation. Only one thought troubled me: what
if Conrad found out I took the money?