April 12, 2023

Coin (excerpt)

Chapter 1

Donna’s work day had not gone well.

“It was the hair spray,” she told Reggie as she tumbled Tasty Chicken Bits from an oven pan onto a plate. “I only used a little, enough to give her hair some bounce. She had a pretty face. Thin, but that’s okay. Fuller hair would give her face a rounder appearance.”

Reggie wasn’t listening—or rather, he’d listened just enough to start a spiel about hair products on sale at Kmart. He wasn’t mentioning hair products for Donna’s benefit, wasn’t pointing out a brand she might want to try at work. He was telling Donna so she would know about his day. Reggie believed that every aspect of his day, from the cornflakes he ate to the jacket he bought, from his recent squabble with his boss to his Kmart shopping trip, should be of great interest to his girlfriend.

Donna let Reggie’s monologue trickle over her and stared unhappily at the Tasty Chicken Bits.

What are you doing?” the girl had shouted. “I didn’t ask you to put that stuff on my hair! Don’t you know it’s killing the ozone layer? Don’t you care?” These questions were followed by a discourse on the perils of “CFCs” that sounded like an indignant sixth grader reciting a Stranger Danger pamphlet.

Theresa ran over while Donna gazed bewildered at the vehement face, her hand clasped loosely around the hovering spray can. She didn’t have a chance to say that she knew about the ozone layer, she read the news, but this was her job, and did the girl want her hair to be flat?

“I guess you should have asked,” Theresa said under her breath.

Theresa was the owner of The Beauty Cut. She tried to give the girl a free coupon “for next time.”

“I won’t be back,” she said, almost pleasantly. Donna thought maybe she made a fuss to avoid paying or tipping, but she paid and she tipped.

“Because I know how hard it must be for you to find work,” she said. “But I believe in using only environmentally friendly products.”

“College kids,” Theresa quipped after the girl left and laughed.

Another customer added, “They lose their minds until they’re forty.”

Donna ducked out of the conversation and swept up the girl’s hair ends. She didn’t mind that the young college student believed in the environment. People believed in anything and everything. Donna listened to women who believed in aliens and women who claimed they’d met celebrities in grocery stores, and women who swore they knew a surefire way to lose ten pounds in two days.

Donna never minded what they said. She liked the smooth, effortless chatter while she clipped and cut and washed.

Why such anger? At her? She wouldn’t have sprayed the girl’s hair if she’d known how she felt. Her job was to do what the customer wanted. Imagine if a woman asked for a perm and Donna bobbed her hair instead.

She checked the hairspray can later when Theresa and Lily, the other regular employee at the salon, were busy. They would laugh at Donna caring so much what a pushy college student thought.

The list of ingredients included “Butane” and “Isobutane” and the entire thing was “EXTREMELY FLAMMABLE,” which sounded far more dangerous than a depleted ozone layer.

As her brother Sammy liked to point out, humans were good at adapting to all kinds of environments. Sammy believed human beings could live on Mars. Donna knew that people adjusted to conditions everyday despite wars and floods and disease.

A person on fire couldn’t adapt to anything.

“And then,” Reggie said, reaching over Donna’s shoulder for a Tasty Bit, “I went out to the parking lot and my car had a scratch. Can you believe that? People are so careless with shopping carts.”

“Reggie,” Donna’s other brother Chester maintained, “is the only twenty-six-year-old I know who takes Abe Simpson as a role model.”

“Only Reggie is less interesting,” Sammy muttered.

Chester and Sammy weren’t being entirely fair. Reggie wasn’t senile, for one thing. He had a good job as a manager at Spencer’s in the Maine Mall. Chester thought Spencer’s was hilarious. Sammy thought it was trash. Donna didn’t much like it and preferred shopping at Hallmark. She didn’t see the point of suggestive gag gifts, like playing cards with people’s privates printed on them. She was grateful Reggie didn’t think highly of the store’s raunchier products, though he would tell Donna in detail how much everything cost and when and why it was going to be marked up or down.

Even Sammy seemed to think that revealed something about Reggie.

“Sammy and I think you could do better,” Chester said when he picked her up from The Beauty Cut to drive her to her WordPerfect class. “You’ve dated him since high school, Donna. Give the guy the heave-ho.”

Donna didn’t know if she agreed that she could do better. “Doing better” was the sort of thing that Lily’s friends were always telling Lily about the guys she dated. Wasn’t it best to find someone and accept that person, flaws and all? Wasn’t it best to deal with what life offered?

She didn’t want to argue with Chester about Reggie, so she told him about the customer with the fear of hairspray.

Chester laughed. “What do you want to bet she and her friends hang out in air-conditioned hippie stores? All those chlorofluorocarbons!”

Donna immediately felt less silly. Chester was like that. He was kind and calm. He was the one who picked her up for her evening class even though Reggie had a car. Reggie thought that computer classes were a waste of time. He once held forth for nearly an hour—at least Donna thought it was an hour (she wasn’t paying close attention)—about the need for Donna to focus on learning dictation so she could become a paralegal.

Sammy insisted that Donna take a WordPerfect course instead, and Sammy knew more about technology than Reggie.

Donna hadn’t wanted to go to school, sacrificing two nights a week and her clothes money, except she had a vague idea that she was entering a more unsettled time of life and things were getting ahead of her. She knew Theresa wanted to open another salon someday, and she would ask Donna to manage it. As The Beauty Cut’s owner, Theresa had a cell phone, the only person Donna knew who had one. Someday soon, Theresa wanted to get a computer for the salon.

Donna finally agreed to let Sammy register her for a Continuing Studies course at Southern Maine Technical College, despite it being a historical location.

“A computer course will expand your skill set,” Sammy said. “In case Theresa decides to start a hang-gliding business or move to Hong Kong or something.”

“Theresa is very dependable,” Donna told him.

Still, Sammy had a point. After all, Chester worked the late shift at Portland International Airport as a cargo handler. He was aiming to become a ramp crew chief and had earned all the relevant machine certifications. Sammy was aiming for a degree in museum studies. He attended the Maine College of Art Extension Program at Westbrook College and already had an unpaid internship at the Portland Museum of Art. “Scut work,” he called it but a job at a museum was classier than anything Donna or her friends had ever done.

In fact, Sammy had his entire life planned out. After he got his degree, he was going to move out of their parents’ house, go to Boston, and get another degree. Donna couldn’t understand such certainty—wasn’t it better to take each day as it came? How did Sammy know what might happen to him next?

The girl today at the parlor was like Sammy in a way, so sure of her right to be offended by the universe. Except Sammy was a libertarian, scornful of “it’s my religion, and I’ll cry if I want to” environmentalists. He believed in computers, space travel, and Microsoft.

Chester, the middle child, had no convictions at all. He focused on his car, his girlfriend, food, and football. He also had a penchant for quirky British television shows on PBS. From a hyper-evolved cat on a derelict mining spacecraft to the high-strung manager of a seaside hotel on the English Riviera to the crazily eccentric sales staff at a London department store—Chester recited his favorite lines from memory, occasionally with a passable British accent.

Que sera sera guy,” Sammy called Chester.

In sum, Chester preferred the present to the past. That didn’t mean he didn’t appreciate history. Driving Donna to Southern Maine Technical College in South Portland, he said, “See anyone today?”

Chester didn’t mean the present-day pedestrians strolling along Broadway’s sidewalks, walking their dogs or carrying baskets and gear for an outing at Willard Beach. He meant the living dioramas only Donna could see, the historical persons climbing onto a nineteenth-century trolley at Ferry Village or ambling into an old-fashioned grocery store, which looked both old-fashioned and fresh and new to Donna’s eyes.

“Oh, the usual,” Donna said.

Donna was what her mother called a “sensitive.” Even Sammy—who poured scorn on the supernatural and paranormal abilities like ESP—admitted that Donna could discern the “aura” of a place. “Aura” was Sammy’s concession to Donna’s ability to hear and see people long dead as well as fragments of their original surroundings, to literally feel their time period with her physical senses.

As far as Donna was concerned, her ability was an unfortunate quirk to be worked around—like being short meant she needed step stools to reach things on high shelves—not a quality to be embraced and enhanced.

“I see workers going back and forth from the 1940s shipyards,” she admitted, which was true and made Chester happy.

World War II was one of Chester’s historical interests, especially anything to do with the Battle of the Atlantic. When Donna was preparing to attend SMTC, he told her all about that part of South Portland so she would know what to expect (and avoid).

“That whole area near the college was devoted to the shipyards, including the stretch near Bug Light—you know, the breakwater lighthouse. Some groups are planning to reactivate it before the Millennium. In the 1940s, the land was covered with warehouses. The shipyards bussed people in from Redbank and Portland. SMTC was still a fort with barracks.”

Donna knew that for herself now. The building she met in Tuesday and Thursday nights, Preble Hall, had been one of those barracks. Donna occasionally sensed young men from the 1940s and earlier from the Civil War. Now and again, she spotted them around the campus. Inside Preble Hall, she heard faint echoes of their jokes and teasing and “rough housing.” She enjoyed it. It allowed her to ignore the sad nights of uncertainty, homesickness, and worry that also pervaded the barracks. A young man had been hung for desertion on the campus during the Civil War. Donna resisted the anxiety and sick terror that accompanied that event, the voices that whispered, That could have been me.

Donna might have no choice but to see history. She was an expert at ignoring it.

Chapter 2

Whenever Donna encountered a historical venue or landmark, she focused on contemporary things. Of course, every place was technically “historical.” But some locations attracted more history than others.

Despite Preble Hall’s historical-looking brick facade, the building was filled with the slightly damp linoleum tiles and fluorescent lighting common to all institutional places. Donna gave the light switches a nod; she found modernism, however bland, a relief.

She entered the classroom, which faced the ocean. The students faced the chalkboard. Large, hulking computer monitors lined the inside wall. At this time of day, soft afternoon light filled the square space.

Early-arriving students lounged in the back row nearest the open windows (the building either had no air conditioning or air conditioning that hardly worked). Donna smiled at them—they seemed friendly enough—and sat in the front row to the side. She shifted in her chair, which was hard and a little uncomfortable, and unhinged the curved desk arm, which she secretly rather liked even if it reminded her of desks in elementary school. It made her feel official, a real student.

She settled her textbook on the desk and turned to the chapter on function keys. Sammy read everything at top speed while Chester read magazines carelessly, transferring his gaze from the page to the television to the page. Donna preferred audio cassettes, such as Jane Seymour reading Linda Carrey’s latest, Heart’s Agony.

Most textbooks, unfortunately, were not available on audio cassette or even CDs.

Donna slid a finger down the page and murmured, “Press Alt-F3 to reveal codes—”

“Good evening, Donna.”

Donna looked up with a smile at Mrs. Gregerson, an older, well-coifed woman with a classy and well-to-do aura. She reminded Donna of Blanche on Golden Girls, only Mrs. Gregerson was more soft-spoken and modest. She wore upscale pant suits accompanied by light pastel scarves and non-flashy gold jewelry.

Some of the other students knew her. The Portland Museum of Art was paying its staff members to take this course and Mrs. Gregerson was on the Board of Trustees. She volunteered part-time in the museum’s offices. The other students, all women in their thirties and forties, were actual employees, and Donna knew they considered Mrs. Gregerson a little la-di-da. They weren’t openly rude, despite whispering together. Donna didn’t think Mrs. Gregerson could ever be rude.

Mrs. Gregerson said politely, “How was work today?”

“I had three haircuts and a perm,” Donna said. She didn’t mention the angry hairspray girl.

“I’ll need a haircut soon,” Mrs. Gregerson said, patting her smooth Princess Di cut (from Princess Di in the 1980s, but it looked good on her).

Donna didn’t recommend The Beauty Cut. She assumed that Mrs. Gregerson went to a place like Crystalline’s, where the beauticians looked like their customers and said things like, “Darling, just a tweak and you’ll look bootiful.” Chester and Sammy laughed about Crystalline’s, but Donna wouldn’t mind seeing ladies like Mrs. Gregerson everyday: soft and genteel and poised.

“How are you?” Donna said, using a formula that worked for her and Mrs. Gregerson.

To Donna’s surprise, Mrs. Gregerson’s brow creased. Usually, she said, “Fine,” and then asked an equally unobtrusive question about Donna’s day or interests.

Instead she said, “My sons—you mentioned you have brothers?”


“You get along?”

“Yes. We’re lucky,” Donna said since she knew people who didn’t get along with their siblings at all.

“Do your sons get along?” Donna said.

“With each other,” Mrs. Gregerson said.

That made Donna uncomfortable. Sometimes her customers told her private things about their lives. Mrs. Norris was always telling Donna about her latest fight with her husband. Mrs. Jacobs liked to detail the trials of menopause for Donna’s future benefit. Mrs. Gregerson didn’t strike Donna as that candid. She would regret telling someone like Donna—whom she only knew from class—about a family argument.

Mrs. Gregerson seemed to agree because she tightened her lips.

“My youngest lives with my oldest,” she said abruptly. “He’s young. He’ll be fourteen soon.”

That surprised Donna. Her youngest must have been born when Mrs. Gregerson was near forty. Teenagers usually lived with their mothers, divorced or widowed like Mrs. Gregerson. Donna knew from another classmate that Mrs. Gregerson’s husband died a year ago.

“Paul—my oldest, the lawyer—lives in a good school district.”

And Mrs. Gregerson didn’t? Most Greater Portland schools had first-rate reputations.

“I worry about him. All of them. Even if they think I don’t.”

“My mother worries about us,” Donna said reassuringly.

That wasn’t strictly true. Donna and Sammy and Chester’s mother mostly worried about their father. He was a service manager for a manufacturing company and traveled up and down the East Coast on a regular basis. Their mother liked to go with him and assumed her children could take care of themselves.

“Benign neglect,” Chester called it and liked to tell the story of when he and his friends were fooling around in a vacant lot and accidentally burst open a can of red paint. “I was COVERED,” Chester proclaimed. “I went home and said, ‘Look, Ma.’ It could have been blood. She didn’t even waste a second, just told me to go wash up.”

Donna knew that Chester, and Sammy sometimes, thought their mother was too detached. But Donna thought it was sweet when their mother flew off at a moment’s notice to see their dad at his current location.

“Yes,” Mrs. Gregerson mused. “My youngest, David, is so active. Lots and lots of energy. Typical teenage boy. It’s good that he has initiative. It will help him get on in life. But it’s best for him to live with his brother—”

Her voice petered out. Donna thought Mrs. Gregerson expected her to agree. Donna couldn’t. She didn’t know the situation, so how could she judge it?

Finally, Donna said, “Teenage boys are a handful. My brother Chester was always up to something.” Like blowing up paint cans. “My brother Sammy got secretive when he turned fourteen, quieter than usual. We could barely get him out of his room. He’s better now.”

Mrs. Gregerson nodded absently. She seemed less distressed so Donna continued, “I think teenage boys have probably always been the same.”

She was thinking of the young men who had occupied Fort Preble’s barracks over the years. Granted, they called each other nicknames like “good egg” and “pal” rather than “dude” and “dawg” the way young men did now, but the sentiments were the same. She didn’t tell Mrs. Gregerson what her senses told her about the past. People like Theresa and Lily didn’t care that Donna was a “sensitive.” Theresa checked her horoscope daily for a laugh and Lily paid phone psychics for advice. People like Mrs. Gregerson seemed less willing to believe in supernatural things.

Donna didn’t need to come up with more to say since the teacher arrived, full of bustling good cheer about how to draft letters in WordPerfect. “So, class,” he bellowed, “how many of you know how to use spellcheck?”

Donna figured she and Mrs. Gregerson would go back to talking about shopping and the weather and subjects that Donna considered important to the smoothness of conversation. Mrs. Gregerson seemed to agree. When class broke up at eight o’clock, she didn’t mention her sons again.

Instead, she made one of her usual non-pushy comments about hoping Donna’s work went well the next day and how she, Mrs. Gregerson, must come by some time for a haircut. Mrs. Gregerson regularly said, “I must come by some time for a haircut.”

She never would. Donna didn’t mind. She knew Mrs. Gregerson was trying to be kind.

In the car, Donna told Chester—and Sammy who’d come along so they could see a movie together—about the barracks. They laughed and agreed that teenage boys had always been teenage boys.

Sammy said, “Some historians think the medieval world was such a mess because it was run by people between the ages of sixteen and twenty-five. Edward IV was leading armies when he was eighteen.”

Chester protested that politicians didn’t need to be young to be stupid.

Donna hated talking about politics, so she mentioned Mrs. Gregerson and how she didn’t think that Mrs. Gregerson was the type of person to believe in “auras.”

“Rich people believe in paranormal phenomenon,” Sammy said. “They simply dress it up more. Instead of saying, ‘I go to fortune tellers,’ they say, ‘I consult my spiritual advisor.’ ”

“Maybe she wants future stock tips,” Chester said.

“I wouldn’t help people do that if I could, Chester. People spend too much time worrying about the future.”

“Speaking of which—what do you prefer, Donna? Nine Months, Clueless, or Waterworld?”

Donna wanted to see Nine Months, starring Hugh Grant. But her brothers protested, so they ended up seeing Clueless, which even Donna thought was kind of silly. But sweet.

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