I’ve earned a pocketful of quarters.
“I’m a rich man now,” I tell anyone who will listen. Sometimes I shake my pockets so they can hear the tell-tale clinking of silver pieces.
“Get yourself a popsicle and a coke,” the landlady tells me.
“A real haircut,” my brother laughs in my face.
“Go to the zoo,” a man yells from across the street.
On a hot summer day, I am tracing the curb with a scuffed trainer, fiddling with my pocketful of quarters. They make my pants sag a little, but I suppose all rich men must bear the burden of their wealth.
“Timothy!” A voice whoops from behind me. I turn. It’s my good friend Joey.
“Timothy, I’ve heard that you’re a real big deal now! A rich man!” Joey exclaims. He’s already out of breath, but it’s understandable because he is a heavier boy. Perspiration darkens the pits of his shirt, and his moony face is blindingly reflective.
“I guess so,” I say as nonchalantly as I can. I shake my pocket so we both can hear the quarters rattle.
“Well the general store is selling popcorn for a couple cents,” Joey is puffing hot air trying to keep up.
“What’s it to me?” I taunt. I must admit that I’m being rather snarky, but this new character is intoxicating.
“Hey,” Joey exclaims indignantly, “A real rich man would know how to treat his friends once in a while. You know, have a little fun. You can’t just go around telling everyone you’re rich. You have to show them.”
Joey was always smarter than me, and this time was no exception.
“Alright, you got me this time.”
We stride up to the store with newfound flourish. Ms. Jones, the cashier, rolls her eyes but manages to tip a nod. Our trip has caused a buzz at the little corner due to Joey’s heavy breathing and the symphonic masterpiece of coins. I slide two bags of popcorn onto the checkout and eye some vanilla wafers hanging behind Ms. Jones. Generally, I wouldn’t have had the nerve to browse by myself. Especially not the wafers. They had just come in from the city.
“A couple of those too,” I wave my finger, adopting my best blasé attitude. Joey starts and looks admiringly at me. Popcorn is one thing, but wafers? I really am affirming my status.
“Yes, sir.” Ms. Jones isn’t even bothering to control her laughter. I can see every single scraggly tooth in her mouth.
Joey doesn’t waste any time with the popcorn and has the brilliant, all that’s left is grease and a little bit that fell on the ground. He gropes into one paper bag, comes up with the last dusty piece and pops it in his mouth.
“Nothing left Tim-oh-thee,” Joey croons in a sing-song voice.
“We’ll get some movie tickets and then buy another jumbo tub of cheesy popcorn,” I declare, puffing out my chest. Joey looks up at me rapturously.
While credits roll, I am wiping away tears of laughter from my eyes. Joey is wheezing from the effort and claps me on the back. Our hands are sticky of spilt coke and our shirts stained with wafer crumbs and oil spots. And then it is silent. I peer around and see that we are last ones left. Only the faint whistling suggests that the custodian is sweeping up the littered cups. I look back up at the black ceiling. The darkness and soft velour of the seats swallow me whole.
I wake to a sharp smack on my shoulder. A pair of beady eyes glare down at me, and someone is spitting on my neck. I have a headache and feel a bloated burp forming in my throat.
“You boys sat through another movie without paying,” Beady-eyes hisses. He looks like he is going to throttle me.
“We were asleep!” Joey exclaims, now fully awake.
“We didn’t even watch the darn thing,” I protest. My temples are throbbing. Beady-Eyes curls his lip and leans in close enough so I can get a good whiff of salty popcorn and fruit punch. He probably mooches off the theater for free goods, I think contemptuously.
“Listen here,” he snarls like a dog, practically foaming. “I can either call the police, or you can pay right now.” The police? We didn’t break the law, did we? Cold fear seizes me and I nod. Joey contributes a few incomprehensible mewls.
“Alright, how much?” I ask, grimacing. I pat my pocket of quarters. It’s full, but noticeably less so than it was at the start of our adventures.
The three of us sit hunched in the theater darkness, counting my pretty silver pieces. In one sweep, Beady-Eyes collects a whole handful.
“That’s it, and get out,” He snaps. I look down, and feel around with my fingers until I find the last standing quarter. Joey is breathing loudly again, hovering over my shoulder. My eyesight is blurred and I feel hot, too hot.
“Shut up, Joey,” I mutter and hurl the coin into the midnight theater.
My mother is sitting on our porch step and her fingers are a couple inches from her mouth, like she’s smoking an invisible cigarette. She once told me that she had little habits when she was younger, but I’d never seen those postures in the flesh. Somehow I know she isn’t waiting up for me.
“Hello,” I say and bend down so I can see her the darkness. Her eyes, lips and face are all drawn in tightly. She looks small and severe in the summery haze.
“Hello, Timothy,” she sighs. Her lips purse and her eyes are gone, squeezed behind little waves of skin.
“Wanna split an ice cream cone?” My voice sounds thin. I hop up next to her, waiting for a laugh, a chuckle, maybe even a small exasperated smile. She’d scold, At this hour? You’re insane and grounded!
“We don’t have ice cream today,” She says quietly.
“What about a popsicle?” I ask. I swipe at my brow and fiddle with my clothes. The night is pressing in on me, making my shirt stick to my skin.
“We don’t have popsicles,” She mumbles, resting her head in her hands.
“How about some chips?” I nudge her a little. To my alarm, she almost falls over.
“There isn’t anything,” she responds, sharper than before. I flinch and my shoulders give in. She murmurs softer this time, “There isn’t anything.”
There is this terrible silence, and air is unbearably stifling. I grapple for something to say, to fill this awful standstill, but my tongue is floundering.
“That’s okay,” I finally manage. My stomach clenches and my head is spinning. Why had I gone with Joey? Why had I spent all my quarters on wafers and popcorn? Why had I gone to the movie theater? Why hadn’t I run home first? I’ve squandered it all. My quarters are gone.
“I-I’m sorry,” I whisper under my breath.
“This is anything but your fault sweetheart,” My mother sighs again, its heaviness drowning me. “It’s just a little bump that grown-ups sometimes have to face. And its a grown-up’s job to fix this.”
She looks at me for the first time and blinks. Her eyes are clear obsidian pools.
“You’re just a child.”