Little Jack



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 going on.

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 nuisance.

"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 critical days like today, he was known as Big Jack.

Little Jack, as always, chooses tails.

"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.

2004, Mark Hoback