Loose Change

By Joseph Scott Kierland

When my Mom yelled, "Get over to Grandma's house!" it meant five things. I had to take the crosstown bus over to Manhattan. My little brother wasn't allowed to go with me. I couldn't take any of my friends, and most important of all, I wasn't allowed to tell anyone where I was going…especially my father.

Actually, my Grandmother didn't live in a house at all. She had one of those apartments, called a railroad flat, where the rooms were all off a long hall that made it feel like you were on a train going nowhere. The floors were glossy linoleum and you could sink so far into the stuffed furniture that you needed help to get out.

On these special trips my grandmother waited at the front window until she saw me get off the bus, then she's duck back inside to cut a big piece of apple pie for me. I'd run the half block, take the stairs two at a time, listening for the low murmur of men's voices in the hallway, then I'd slow down to catch my breath so they wouldn't notice how anxious I was to get to that apple pie.

The men were always there at these times. Smokers stood out in the hall, while the rest lined the walls and rubbed my head as I went by. Their gentle brogues greeting me with, "Good to see you, lady," or "You're looking grand, boyo, growing fine." I can still smell the tobacco and whiskey clinging to their clothes like Dublin perfume. Some of them had fingers and arms missing, one was blind, another had no leg, but they always had warm greetings for an excited little boy trying to get his piece of apple pie.

My grandmother would always be waiting at the end of the line to lead me past the large wooden crates stacked in the middle of the living room with DANGER and HANDLE WITH CARE stamped on them in bright red ink. Some were wrapped in blankets, making them look like curled up bodies sleeping in the corners.

Into the kitchen we'd go where that big piece of pie would be sitting on the table next to the sweating bowl of cold whipped cream. I'd eat my fill while grandma got down the roll of green ribbon she had hidden on the shelf over the stove. I'd watch her carefully cut strips of it into odd shapes and pin them inside my shirt pocket where no one could see them.

"You know what to do, Jack…where to go…who to see," she'd say. I'd just nod at her with my mouth full of warm pie and whipped cream. "It's the same as last time and the time before that. It's only himself you're to see," she'd instruct in her lilting brogue. "If he's not there…you come straight back here to me."

I never did have to go back to grandma's house because he was always there in that dark apartment over in Eastchester. All alone. A giant of a man with a crutch and a missing foot. A man that never said, "Please" or "Thank you." "Give me your shirt, son," was all he'd say. When I gave him my shirt he'd point to the little blue bowl of hard candy on the table. "Take a sucker, I won't be long," he'd say. Then he'd take my shirt and leave me in that musty room with its gloomy shadows. Like a movie endlessly playing itself out.

But on that day, after I'd given the one-footed giant my shirt, I heard someone crying in the next room. At first, it sounded like an animal, but then the sobs grew louder and clearer, melting into a low litany that seemed to flow through the door. When I finally got enough courage up to peek in I could see the one-footed man on his knees, his whole body heaving and wrenching with sobs. The crutch leaned against his rumpled bed and I could hear the rhythm of his voice, frail and distant, "Mary, Mother of God, pray for us who have recourse to thee." There was barely any light in the room but I could see where he had carefully placed the pieces of green ribbon on to the bright patches of a quilt thrown across the bed.

"Sir?" I whispered. "Have I done something wrong?"

When he finally saw me standing in the doorway he grabbed his crutch off the bed and rose up like a mountain, staring wild-eyed at me, eyes wet with tears, swaying back and forth on that crutch like a madman.

"Has something happened, sir?" I squeaked.

"Yes," he nodded, regaining his balance and handing me back my shirt.

Then he looked back at the pieces of green ribbon that he'd placed on the quilt. "MY boy…my only son is gone. But we'll fight on," he said before that hard edge came back into his voice again. "Don't get involved in these troubles, son," he said. "They belong to us."

"What troubles, sir?" I asked.

"They're ours and we'll suffer them alone."

"I understand, sir," I said, without having the slightest idea of what he was talking about.

"You best be running home now, lad."

I remember getting back on the bus and opening the button on my shirt to find the handful of loose change where the pieces of green ribbon had been. It wasn't until many years later that my Mother told me about the strange men, that lined the walls at Grandma's house, and the dangerous things they had done. When I asked her about the one-footed man over in Eastchester she just shrugged and said nothing.

It took a long time before I understood why my grandmother had bribed me with pieces of warm apple pie and whipped cream, and him with his handful of loose change. But in those apple pie days it was easy to make a little boy happy or make a one-footed giant cry.