Jack is the guy who walks around with the two-headed quarter. At
times, for example if he's waiting in line, you might see him tossing
it up in the air, just a few inches, and catching it in his palm. "My
dad gave it to me," he'll tell you if you ask, and then turn it end to
end to show you the double heads. Been carrying that quarter for
years, most of his life, really. He doesn't think of himself as a
superstitious man, but to him this coin is something special.
It's a keepsake for a
man who doesn't care for keepsakes. He makes sure that he's careful
to keep an eye on it when he's paying out in change, but he never keeps the quarter in a separate pocket. That would never occur to him, and somehow, it
wouldn't be right. He enjoys seeing it with his common things.
Tuesday night with a
heavy November snow, back in 1997, one too many Budweiser's under his
belt, he flips the quarter to a crippled bum taking up space on the
corner of H and 9th. Guy looks like a caricature of
hopelessness, prosthetic leg unattached and standing upright on the
canvas groundcover. Sweatshirt, t-shirt, army jacket, all rags. So
many on the streets, now that the asylums have been poured into
the city. Alcohol has momentarily filled Jack with empathy, at least
two bits worth.
Jack is halfway to the
metro before he senses that his quarter is gone, and he walks the five
blocks back in something like panic, sobering quickly on the way. Only
the fellow ain't there anymore.
Jack is eleven, and
sitting in his grandparent's parlor, the large black and white
television just a few feet away from his white socked feet.
Occasionally an adult will walk up and stand behind him, pausing to
watch the action for a moment. Heads shake sadly. A lot of things are
The president is dead,
for one thing, and the images on the screen are more real than the
death of his own Papaw. Papaw was in a closed mahogany box, laid out
in a church up the street - at least that's what they had told the
child, and there was no reason for him to express doubt. They would be
going up to see Papaw in the early afternoon.
But the box would never
be opened. The mortician had only been able to do so much with the
remains of Papaw's face, and the lid would stay forever shut.
Jack's dad stops by the
sofa with a sticky bun and a Lucky Strike. He sits the sweet on the
side table and gives a nod to his son. Disappointing boy in a lot of
ways, so shy and quiet. His own father is dead, but Jack hadn't seen
him cry, and he knew that he never would. Jack doesn't understand, but
it is a lesson he is sure he needs to learn. Jack is quite sure that
when he grows up he will never cry again, no matter what happens to
him. Tears flow too easily now. It will take him far too many years to
accomplish this goal, but eventually it will be mastered.
There is a table piled
high with food in the kitchen. He could smell ham, fresh from the
oven. He can visualize the cloves, and the criss-cross cuts.
Still, Jack has no desire to leave his seat. He is safe from being a
"Want to flip for the
roll?," his dad asks, pulling out a silver coin. His dad's name was
Jack as well, but everyone except for family called him Jojo, but on
like today, he was known as Big Jack.
Little Jack, as always,
"Heads it is," his
father says, taking a large bite out of the bun. "Best two out of
three?" And heads and bite and heads and bite.
"Here you go son," he
laughs, giving Jack a closer look at the coin. His face was alien, all
red and blotched. And smiling, but a fake and frightening smile. "In
life, you've always got to hedge your bets." Big Jack returns to the
kitchen, leaving his cigarette to burn itself out.
Papaw and Kennedy,
struck dead on the same day, both with a bullet in the brain. It makes
you wonder. There is a grid, a connection. Kennedy was shot by a
stranger, and all the kids at school were called to the auditorium. That was the big difference. Papaw pulled the trigger on himself, and
Jack was called into the kitchen.
No one mentioned suicide
directly to Little Jack, but adults were careless, and talk was all
around him. It didn't take him long to piece events together.
The deaths were unrelated, of course, but they were the same fabric to
him. Jack knew that what Papaw had done was very wrong. He thought
that it might be a sin, but he could not remember for sure. It seemed
to him a mystery, an impossible event. How could... He could not
formulate the thought.
Little Jack pocketed the
quarter and turned his attention back to the screen. The police were
escorting Lee Harvey Oswald, a man with three first names, the man who
had shot the president. Jack suddenly felt very angry with this man,
and wished that he could hurt him badly. Kennedy and Papaw had merged
into one man.
Thirty-four years later,
it all came flooding back. The quarter. At the moment, he is decidedly
superstitious, and this seems like a frighteningly bad sign. Jack
breaks a sweat, and his heart beats furiously. Quarter that his Dad
gave to him. 1963. Papaw. The year Kennedy was shot. He stands there
looking at the spot where the bum was sitting. The snow has not yet
covered it. There are footprints everywhere, leading in every
direction. The cripple's cardboard sign has been tossed into the
slush. 'Vietnam Veteran - Please Help. God bless you.'
'He stole my luck,' Jack
thinks, and then he shouts. 'He stole my luck.' Such an irrational
thought, but it rang like a phone.