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The Coin Jar


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 threatened.

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 face in."

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."

"No way."

"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 school.

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?