QUARTERS

Upon the northern wall of my childhood bedroom hangs a wealthy, wooden board with decaying tape; the coins, now more loosely adhered to its varnished face, are noticeably tarnished. 

 

At the insistence of my teacher mother, I’d begun learning my states earlier than most my age, and by the second grade I’m certain I could accurately recite their fifty names alphabetically, though I’d have been hard pressed to locate them on a map were they anything but adjacent to my Oregon home. Standing tip-toe, necessarily, on the back ledge of the tub in my parents’ bathroom I could see the blue hills of Southwestern Washington; I knew also that an unbearably long drive northeast delivered me Idaho; the states to the south and southeast were foreign and exotic in their mystery, but I’d memorized their names because of this.

 

It was that same second-grade year, 2002 — or sometime around then — that my father returned from one of his business travels with a gift unlike our usual souvenirs: a tetra-fold cardboard booklet bound in dark-green pleather; and inside— neatly tucked into a shallow circular depression — was a glimmering quarter. Machined script in small font below the coin’s place read “California” and this corresponded, dad explained, with the raised lettering on the coin, itself. 

 

In 1999 — when I was only five, perhaps pushing six — the US Treasury minted its first run of commemorative state quarters; Delaware circulated first, then Pennsylvania followed by New Jersey, and the year’s end saw two more designs released to the public: a peach in shining relief paid homage to Georgia’s primary produce and the Charter Oak — a lumbering and pock-marked (now toppled) tree revered for its role in concealing from British authority, within one of those very marks, Connecticut’s Royal Charter of 1662 — occupied nearly the entire tail-side face of that state’s coin. From this year onward, the Mint released limited runs of additional state quarters, eventually finishing the series in 2009. 

 

But it was in 2002 that my father seeded my collection, and it was then — consequently — that I developed an affinity for displaying money I could never spend. Over the next number of years I caught up; I enthusiastically pilfered the pockets of jackets worn by closet hangers, I toppled jars of coins and dug through and between automobile floor mats in hope of finding a novel design; 25 cents that — to me — would forever be worth nothing and valued beyond compare. Sometime following my father’s gift, within a number of years, my grandfather constructed for my birthday a wooden map of the United States and — using a drill press and a specialized bit — carved into each state a shallow depression only infinitesimally larger than the quarters he’d designed them to display. 

 

I enthusiastically spent some December day transferring my coins from my green booklet to this wooden board, and my father helped me hang it upon the northern wall of my bedroom; it hung from a wire and I remember marveling at the way he balanced it precisely without any guide. My collection of nearly three unusable dollars served — to all who entered — as a palace tapestry would in older times; I was a wealthy king, just not in means. Growing up I’ve come to expect perfection and I’ve been disappointed — in myself, others and the products of our efforts — on multiple, perhaps uncountable occasion; but — at this time — when I was an eight-year-old boy sitting on the edge of my bed, admiring my account, I thought of perfection far less frequently. It’s possible that my understanding of perfection is, today, entirely unrecognizable to the kid who loved the quarters.

 

It wasn’t the quarters that I really loved, though; it was the people who gave them their forum. Though my mother would now speak against the following, my father was a gentle man who cared deeply for our family; my grandfather was the man who taught him to love such. Upon his return from each trip, my father would present my brother and I each a new quarter and a keychain from the place he’d spent his week (the keychains are another collection entirely); I’d sprint to my room, pull over and stand upon my small desk chair and place — sometimes after consulting  an atlas — my new quarter into its new lodging. The trick was to push it flush into the opening; the tightness of the wooden space was unforgiving and a wayward edge could render the coin irretrievably lodged askew; many of them still are; I didn’t care too much at the time. 

 

From the place where I’d admire, from that spot on the edge of my bed, the whole board looked pretty damn good regardless of any coins’ placement. At times I’d sit and stare for multiple minutes without moving; I remember the way the southern sun — a winter gift — would shine off the coins’ faces and I recall vividly how the board would seem to strobe as one walked past it. The sun shone infrequently here and only for short periods on the earliest days of the year and witnessing its potency — even in reflection, as we often do — was a welcome gift. I remember the way it warmed the room; I remember the way it seized its fleeting, cloudless stage to dribble light onto that hanging treasure; and I remember the way it reflected off that first, toppling coin that fell through the dusty beam like a dying star; the way it pulsed; the way it strobed; it was variable; it was some standard candle.

 

The sun — by now behind the clouds — left the room a bit darker than before as I pulled my desk chair over the the floor beneath the board; in one hand I held a roll of tape and I used the other to steady myself against the wall. Through my mind raced thoughts of perfection, of some aesthetic pristine, and I acted in the name of preservation at wonder’s expense; the board must look as it did before the fall. Behind the toppled coin I placed a thin fold of painter’s tape; this would certainly hold it in place. I pressed it hard into its lodging and at this motion another fell, thudding quietly to the floor and rolling to the soft shadow beneath the desk chair upon which I stood; I found the second and did the same. And for the next number of years, this is how I dealt with the imperfection; and — knowing intimately the jury-rigged adhesion — I gradually stopped looking admiringly at the board upon the wall. 

 

It is now 15 years later and I am home on a break before travel. As I lay in bed last night I heard a patter and noticed a missing coin; with squinting eyes I inspected from afar but eventually needed a closer look. Oregon — it seemed — had fallen; the tape which valiantly held for a decade plus was no longer tacky and crumbled at my test. This was not a perfect board and I noticed this as I folded a new piece of painter’s adhesive; at least it was not by my standards. I replaced the coin in its lodging carefully, ensuring in the dim light that the raised lettering on its face was aligned appropriately and all the edges sat flush within their wooden housing. And so, still, upon the northern wall of my childhood bedroom hangs a wooden board with decaying tape; the coins are noticeably tarnished. 

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