Short Story: “Quarter”

2010 Pix 155

I wrote the following short story in October, 2002, while I was wasting away in a ghetto apartment in Burlington, Vermont. I found the story by accident this morning while going through some retrieved files from an old laptop. The story was instantly recognizable, and I thoroughly enjoyed rereading it. I have trouble revising and submitting such old works to literary journals, because they feel like they were written by a previous incarnation, and therefore (in a sense) another person. But I love finding old drafts, because of their archival significance, just as I love the posthumous “found stories” of favorite writers.

2.

Greg Tremble is storming briskly down the sidewalk, swinging his briefcase and glancing at the digital clock on his cell phone, knowing full well how late he is, and pissed that he missed the last train downtown by about fifteen seconds. Greg Tremble drags one of his feet, trying to scrape a wad of dog shit off his patent leather shoe that he bought for $129.99 at Dolce & Gabbana, and if he could only walk faster, maybe hail a taxi, he could get to his meeting on time. In mid-stride he lifts the hem of his beige trench coat and sniffs at his armpit, scowling to discover that he forgot to apply cologne this morning, and when he passes an office window, Greg Tremble notices the acute bend in his tie, and he shakes his head, eyes trained on the gum-stained pavement. He should have learned how to tie a tie by now, at age 37, already married with a baby on the way. He should not depend on his pregnant wife, who was sick this morning and is still waiting for her Human Resources rep to update her on her maternity leave status – this poor woman who once wanted to be a concert pianist and now is carrying an unexpected child should be the last person on earth to tie Greg Tremble’s tie in the morning.

And now Greg Tremble himself must contribute to a presentation to Mr. Whitley and Mr. Benson, a presentation that was already pushed back because there was a mix-up in the schedule, and that secretary on the fifteenth floor, Anne Moreau (or was it Anna?) was fired, which was too bad, because she always took the time to say hi to Greg Tremble. Now there is a newer, more organized secretary named Jim, an ex-marine, who ignores Greg Tremble altogether but always steps to attention when Mr. Whitley walks by (he has never met Mr. Benson, who takes the stairwell from the parking garage, but he would probably pay the same military homage). So now Greg Tremble is trying to reach the crosswalk, about thirty paces away, as the Walk sign vanishes and the little red hand begins to flash. He still has a few seconds, because he cannot get held up, waiting for the angrily honking cars to flush through the intersection. He must hurry. He must get to the meeting on time. He must—

Suddenly Greg Tremble feels a shock in his head, a rush of pain that starts a few inches above his eyes and shivers through his face. In a flashing instant, Greg Tremble can sense the top of his skull collapse, and a projectile slide through his brain and burst out his jaw. His head is knocked downward, and blood sprays across his crooked tie and smelly shirt. His eyes roll back, and Greg thinks of his wife and the baby he knows he will never see. The presentation is meaningless to him now. And as he quavers and crumples to the ground, his skull smacking hard against the concrete, squirting a small geyser of dark blood across someone else’s shoe, Greg is grateful for this small thing: That he thought of his wife first, and not about anything else at all.

1.

Bobby is holding up the line, again. Everyone is rolling their eyes, and Frank smiles meanly. Bobby leans down to tie his shoes, but he can’t go down all the way, because his backpack is too heavy.

“Come on, move it, Bobby!” Frank yells. “You’re so slow.”

Mrs. Dunkel raises her finger to her lips, but she doesn’t say anything. Bobby thinks she looks tired and old right now. The girls say that Mrs. Dunkel is going to re, re, what’s it called? Anyway, she’s leaving the school, and Bobby knows that when grownups get gray hair, they get slower. He can relate.

It’s very cold up here, and windy. Bobby is a little scared to look over the edge—he’s fat, and he knows it, and fat people fall faster, don’t they? He’s happy that there’s a chain-link fence standing on top of the ledge, and he knows that it’s silly to be scared, since he’d have to climb over that fence. (Bobby can’t even climb trees; the other kids always dare him to, but he tried to climb early one morning in the park next to his apartment building, and he just can’t do it).

Bobby takes a deep breath, which stings his chest since the air is so cold. He walks in the single-file line with the other kids, and tries not to notice when Ren and Jeremy start pushing each other.

“Dumbass!”

“Faggot!”

Mrs. Dunkel doesn’t say anything. Instead she merges with the other grown-ups, floating towards the edge. Bobby has never been this high up in his life, and he feels like he’s flying, even though he can’t yet see the city below. He wants to join Mrs. Dunkel and hold her hand. He sees that she has a sad expression, and Bobby wants to make it better. Tell Mrs. Dunkel that she’s his favorite teacher, because she always sits down with him and tells him, Bobby, kids may call you stupid, but it’s not true. You’re really very bright.

Bobby feels a tug at his backpack, and Frank whispers in his ear: “So, you gonna do it?”

“I don’t know.”

“Yeah, you’re going to. You promised.”

Bobby didn’t promise, but he knows that Frank will call him a queer, and that would be bad. Bobby takes baby steps across the roof of the building, and he digs into his pocket, grazing the folded permission slip that he had to forge because his dad was too tired to sign it.

“Do I have to give you one?” Frank says.

No. I have one.”

Bobby moves away from Frank, who joins his Real Friends somewhere near the mysterious restaurant (imagine, people eating at the top of a building! And the restaurant turns around slowly, like a very slow carousel ride. Does his dad ever eat there?).

Now Bobby is inching through the crowd of grownups, who all seem to wear black leather coats. Bobby wonders what it would be like to wear one, all warm and shiny, like an oily blanket, all day long. He takes a whiff of strange, sweet scents, a mix of perfumes and cologne, and he feels woozy.

He looks down:

The buildings are so small, the streets so straight and long. He can see all the way downtown, to where those two famous buildings used to be. Bobby can see the flashing lights of the big stores that he visits around Christmastime, and the park that maybe he visited once when Ralphie was still alive to catch Frisbees. It’s really not scary at all. Even the tree was scarier than this. Bobby thinks, It doesn’t even look real.

“Come on, Bobby! Do it!”

Bobby clutches the chain-link fence with one hand and digs further into his pocket. He knows he shouldn’t do this—Mrs. Dunkel told him not to—but nobody’s watching except Frank, and Bobby’s whole reputation depends on this. He feels a stick of gum, his house key, a string that sticks to the fabric of his pocket, and then—

He takes out the quarter. He holds it up and looks down. Bobby expects to hear music, like in the movies, but he just hears wind whistling across the cold marble. He stalls by adjusting his backpack and rubbing his nose.

Bobby throws the quarter. It vanishes over the edge. He wants to hear it clang, but now Bobby realizes how far it is to the ground. So, so far. The height is frightening, and he wonders where it will land. He turns around to see Frank smiling, and Bobby knows he shouldn’t have broken the rules, but a part of him feels good. He lost a quarter, but that’s okay. He can always find another one.

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