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Charles Rafferty

Charles Rafferty

Charles Rafferty has received grants from the NEA and the Connecticut Commission on Culture & Tourism. New poems appear in The New Yorker, and are forthcoming in The Southern Review. New stories appear in Sonora Review and Staccato. Currently, he directs the M.F.A program at Albertus Magnus College.

My Grandfather's Silver

When I was seven, my grandfather stubbed his cigar out in the upright ashtray he kept his hand on like a cane. He took a long sip from his afternoon highball, staring into my eyes until I felt like I should speak.

"I want to show you something," he said, cutting me off.

I followed him down the narrow cellar steps. When we got to the bottom, he pulled the chain to a light I could never reach and took me over to a hole in the cinderblocks that led under the back bedroom. From this crawlspace, he pulled first a dust-covered tarp, and then a metal strongbox. I could tell by the way he braced the chair against the wall and cursed that it was the heaviest thing he'd picked up in years.

He put his finger to his mouth and spoke to me in a whisper. "When I'm dead, this box is yours. I want you to remember that. After the funeral, you come down here and you get this box."

Then he added, importantly: "Don't let anyone know you have it." He pointed his thumb at the ceiling, where here and there the boards creaked with the weight of my mother and sisters.

He took a key from his pocket and popped the lock. Inside, it was full of the coins he'd been hoarding since when he first heard silver was getting phased out. The box held roll after roll of Mercury dimes and Franklin half-dollars. He even had a roll of wartime nickels—when they put in a little silver to make up for the nickel they needed for tanks and bullets.

We spent the next half-hour going through them. He showed me what was oldest and what was best. He showed me the pure, copperless look of the ridges when they were stacked into little towers. Afterward, my fingers smelled like metal.

"How come you're giving it to me?"

"You're the only collector in the family," he said. "I've seen your stash." He was referring to the bag of wheat pennies and the three buffalo nickels worn so smooth you could only tell it was an Indian for sure by the direction of the profile. "Everyone else'll just cash this in. Silver is paying big money. Too much temptation for the rest of them." He put the key in my hand and told me to take care of it.

He still had a cigar going in the upright when he died three days later, and because his gift and my promise were still ringing in my ears, I went down to the basement when everyone was drunk and grieving, and somehow hauled that box upstairs and out the side door, where I hid it under the back seat of my mother's station wagon. It ended up at the bottom of my bureau drawer, covered with the sweaters I never wore. That's where it stayed for the next twelve years.

Now, for the second time this week, I'm pulling it out and opening a roll in search of a coppery edge. There aren't any of course. They're all Liberty quarters. And I am drunk and out of a job, and wanting a cigarette. In a moment, I'll take six of the quarters to the tavern across the street where they have a machine, and I can just imagine the cigarette man when he sees the silver quarters in the little stacks on his kitchen table. Maybe he puts it together—somebody's coin collection balanced against the wish for smoke. More likely it's just his lucky day, because he's got a bit of a collection himself, which he'd always wanted to give to his grandkid—the sensible one. The one who knows how to save.

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