Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Good Money

The men from my father’s shop come over to play cards, big men with small names and tattooed forearms. Eagles etched in blue ink that match the dye from the shop where they work, the dye that works its way through the skin of fingers smudged machinist blue, a blue I can never find in my box of crayons, a blue not crepe-papered on the walls of George Street Elementary School.

They come on Saturday afternoons, hauling cases of beer, bushels of clams, thick meat my father cooks on the fireplace he made out of cinder blocks and an old grate he found one Saturday at the dump. Six or seven steaks at a time, plus hot dogs for us kids. Smoke fills the front yard where my sisters and I play, away from the back yard, but edging the game toward the side yard to watch the men from our father’s shop drink beer and play cards.

You’re it, fingers point, dare. You go.

My older sisters wait by the fading rhododendrons while I creep under the picnic table, trying to find change. I tuck my plump body between steel-toed work boots, avoiding still-burning cigarette butts. I pocket a few dirty dimes and nickels, along with the prospect of more to come as the day turns to night and the men are still here and my mother says, God damn it, the men are still here.

We make like we are playing hide and seek, but we only hide in one place and nobody ever seeks out the person crouched under the picnic table looking for the money drinking men drop.

Stay in the front yard like I told you. Our mother’s housecoat is always pressed, and on Saturdays she gets her hair set.

Pair of tens. Ace high. God damn it. Someone pays the pot and the pot grows. Someone says, I got hands like feet, and the men laugh because they all know what that is like, and then someone who is not laughing loses another hand. We watch and will the men to slide more coins over the red-stained slats of wood, to have more of the beer that makes them sing too loud, talk too loud, bet too high, so they don’t notice change fall to the ground.

We have watched all this before, heard our mother curse, our father beg, the men sing, bet, drink, lose. Watched coins slide and fall through slats. Coins smudged blue from inky hands jingling them in pockets. Some money you just have to pretend you don’t need, our father will say when he loses again. Coins dirty with machine shop grease. Don’t matter, he tells my mother on Friday, payday, when she scolds him for going to the bank in work clothes. The money’s good.

You kids get your supper and come right back in the front yard.

We grab hot dogs and stuff them into rolls, eat. We could sing along with the men if our mother would let us, and sometimes she does, until the men grab too fast and sing too loud. Then we wait for the quiet of the men gone home.

Always get the kids riled up, can’t put them to bed at a decent hour. She is on the phone. Get out and dry off girls. I tell him why our house, and you always losing.

We rinse each other’s hair and towel ourselves dry, counting imaginary coins in our head, more than we saw, more than we ever see.

The sheets are cool. From the open window we can hear the men, the songs, the jingle of dirty coins in piles getting bigger.

We are four to a bed and we kick ourselves into a comfortable jangle of knobby knees and bicker about coins we will find, coins we never find. Hours later, when our father begins to snore and our mother has stopped yelling, we climb out of bed and sneak out back. My older sisters never find much because they look for shiny silver, but I know what to look for; I find change smudged dark blue.



... an earlier version of this story originally appeared in The Rockhurst Review