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Nickel and Dime

Published: May 27, 2016

A snowball smacked Izzy Mahler on the side of his head while he was turned toward Grundy’s Store, yearning for the assorted candies and fine bubble gums within — luxuries beyond his reach because at age 6 he was too young to carry money.

“Hey!” he cried, releasing Mary Lou’s mittened hand as Barton Bigelow and three sub-bullies surrounded them on the icy sidewalk. Each of the bullies was almost a head taller than Izzy.

“Hey, kid!” Barton said, though Izzy was certain Barton knew his name. “Who said you could use this sidewalk?”

This is terrible, thought Izzy, and Mary Lou did not help things by starting to whimper. She walked with Izzy twice a day, never to school, only home from school, at lunchtime and again at the end of the day.

Izzy had been born without an ounce of combat or contention in him. All he could do in this crisis was blubber tearfully: “But — but, we always walk home this way!”

“Well,” said Barton Bigelow, “this is our sidewalk, see? And you owe us rent.”

Rent? Izzy was speechless.

“How much cash do you have, kid?” Barton asked.

“Cash? I don’t have cash,” whined Izzy, while tears flowed down Mary Lou’s soft, round cheeks.

“You better get some,” said the bully. “Look, we’ll let you go for now. But next time you see us, you’d better have a dime for us, or we’ll beat you up.”

Barton Bigelow and his buddies relaxed their stances just a bit. Izzy pulled Mary Lou by the hand, and the four bullies laughed as he tugged her away.

“Remember, kid. A dime, next time!” said Bigelow.

***

When Izzy got home, he removed his hat, muffler, mittens, galoshes, and snowsuit, leaving them on a chair by the kitchen door.

His tall, blond mother made a soft-boiled egg, diced it on a piece of toast, and placed it and a glass of milk in front of him. She watched and hovered for a few moments, then sat down beside him, drinking coffee and smoking a cigarette while she read Ladies’ Home Journal and listened to Ma Perkins, a soap opera that drifted through the doorway from the wood-bodied Philco radio in the living room.

A confident male voice announced that women across the country were getting washes so wonderfully clean and white they could hardly believe it, with deep-cleaning Oxydol!

Then the announcer turned things over to Ma and Shuffle and the folks at the Perkins Lumberyard, who worried that Cousins Eddie and Sylvester were about to swindle Evey and Willie out of their life savings.

Izzy marveled that his mother could follow all this drama effortlessly while simultaneously reading her magazine — but her powers amazed him daily. For his part, it was all he could do to worry about the bullies who wanted to extort from him money that he did not even have yet.

“Mom,” he said, “can I have a dime?”

She raised her head from the Ladies’ Home Journal, and a faraway look came over her. Izzy toyed with his egg and toast, knowing that it would take her a few moments to get back from wherever she had gone. She knit her brows while Willie told Evey that he had given Cousin Sylvester the $2,000 to purchase the stock — whatever that means, thought Izzy.

Mom frowned. Then, abruptly, she turned to Izzy.

“What did you say, honey?”

“I said, ‘Can I have a dime?’” He looked up at her and held his breath.

The corners of her eyes crinkled, as they always did when she found something hilarious.

“Oh, that’s rare, Izzy!” she said. “Of course not. Whatever would you need a dime for?”

He opened his eyes wide, took a deep breath, and let her have it: “Because these kids are going to beat me up if I don’t give them a dime!”

His mother’s face veered abruptly from fair and sunny to impending thunderstorm. This gave Izzy hope, for she was not a woman to be taken lightly.

“Which kids are going to beat you up?” she asked.

“Barton Bigelow and his friends,” he said.

“Bullies,” she declared, “that’s what they are! Stand up to them, Izzy. Just tell them you’re not giving them any money.” She nodded her head righteously. Having solved that problem, she returned to her magazine, while Izzy’s heart sank.

However, just when he was about to head back to school, opportunity suddenly struck. His mother had left the kitchen to retune the radio for Stella Dallas, but her purse sat open on the counter. Quick as a wink, Izzy snatched a dime from the little red coin purse inside. By the time Mom returned, Izzy was sitting on the chair, snowsuited and pulling on his boots.

“Have a good afternoon,” she said. “Study hard.”

***

The dime in his pocket filled Izzy with new-minted confidence as he trod the path from his house to Horace Greeley Elementary School. He imagined the bullies swooping down on him soon, meaning to fill his heart with dread.

“Ha!” he would say. “Here’s your dime.” The magical little coin would change hands and Barton Bigelow would be vanquished. This vision, however, failed to materialize. Barton and his band of bullies were nowhere to be seen. Izzy stood in the middle of the sidewalk and craned his neck in both directions.

“Whatcha lookin’ for, Izzy?”

It was Roger Pagelkopf, Izzy’s neighbor. Roger was 11 and in sixth grade, and he carried books. He wore bright red earmuffs that matched the tip of his unshielded nose.

“Looking for?” echoed Izzy. “Oh, nothing in particular.”

Roger gave him a strange look and dashed on toward school.

As Izzy passed Grundy’s store again, he felt the tug of the glorious candy case. Since he had a few minutes to spare, he went in. He could, at least, take a look.

“Hello, Izzy,” said Mr. Grundy, an old man with sparse gray hair and suspenders. “What brings you in today?”

“I just want to look at the candy, Mr. Grundy,” replied Izzy.

“Here it is, be my guest,” said the grocer.

The case held many kinds of what was known as “penny candy,” even though some cost more than a penny. Transparent suckers in assorted bright colors, their heads wrapped in cellophane; large pink bubble-gum cigars and little boxes of candy cigarettes that mimicked the look of Camels, Luckies, or Chesterfields; paper-twisted taffy, plain and salt-water; sticks, twists, and loops of black and red licorice.

Then he suddenly saw It. More importantly, It saw him and whispered, “Take me home, Izzy.” It was a small pistol, a tiny revolver made of black and white licorice, so cunningly crafted as to resemble the real thing in all but size and hardness.

Izzy knew the little gun couldn’t really shoot. But just imagine if it could, what fun it would be to show it to Barton Bigelow, muzzle first, next time they met.

“How much is that little gun, Mr. Grundy?” asked Izzy. The dime taken from his mother’s purse was starting to burn a hole in his pocket.

“That little beauty will cost you five cents,” said the old man.

Five cents! That’s less than a dime, thought Izzy. He started to unzip his snowsuit, to fetch the dime from his pants pocket. But suddenly, he remembered Barton Bigelow. The fact that the bullies had not yet appeared did not mean they never would. And when they did, a real dime would make a far better weapon than a candy pistol. He sighed and zipped up again.

“I guess not, Mr. Grundy,” he said.

“Say hello to your mother and father for me,” called the grocer as Izzy left the store.

***

That afternoon, just after Izzy and Mary Lou passed the store on their way home from school, Barton and his pals jumped out from beyond the store’s far wall and stood around them again. Again Mary Lou cried, but this time, Izzy was prepared.

“Hey, kid, where’s that dime?” demanded Barton, grabbing him by the shoulders and shaking vigorously.

“I have it right here!” said Izzy, flailing frantically to unzip his snowsuit, as Barton continued to shake him.

“Wait a minute, Barton, it’s right here!” Izzy reached for his pants pocket, but Barton’s hands were already there, digging in, trying to empty the pocket of everything.

“Hey!” boomed a voice behind them. “What are youse doin’?”

It was Roger Pagelkopf, loping toward where they stood on the walk.

“Roger!” cried Izzy, with some relief.

“Iz, what are you doin’?” asked Roger.

“Paying rent,” Izzy explained.

“Rent!” Roger’s brow darkened. He glared at Barton and his friends.

“Come here, youse,” he said, and he led the four bullies away, into the vacant lot next to the store. The four followed warily, for Roger stood taller than any of them and also had a deeper voice.

Izzy and Mary Lou watched as Roger spoke earnestly to the bullies. He bent down to look Barton square in the eye.

“Listen,” he said. “Izzy is my friend. Youse lay off of him, see?”

They glanced around darkly and muttered.

“Leave him be,” Roger insisted, “or I’ll come after youse. Understand?”

Silence.

“Do ya?” he persisted.

The four grudgingly nodded their heads, none daring to look Roger in the eye.

“Get outta here, then,” he said. They ran off.

“It’s okay, Izzy,” said Roger. “They won’t bother you no more.” He trotted off towards home as Izzy and Mary Lou resumed their trek.

As if by a miracle, Izzy had been saved from the bullies — and he still had his mother’s dime. This unexpected windfall posed a problem: If he bought the little licorice gun, there would be money left over, which he could quietly return to his mother’s purse. But if Mary Lou were with him, friendship and courtesy would compel him to share the bounty, and probably the whole dime would be spent.

He stopped.

“I forgot something,” Izzy said. “I have to go back.”

“Go back? Where?”

“School,” Izzy quickly replied. “I forgot something at school. You go on, Barton and the boys won’t bother you any more.”

Mary Lou frowned at him, then pouted. But finally, she trudged away, down the sidewalk toward home. Half a block onward, she turned and looked back, only to see Izzy standing there watching her. Again he waved her onward, with greater urgency. When she was far down the path, Izzy doubled back to Grundy’s Store.

***

“Back again?” said Mr. Grundy. “Twice in one day.”

“Yes, I know,” said Izzy. “I’ve been thinking about that little gun. I want it.”

Mr. Grundy reached into the candy case, lifted out the darling little revolver, placed it in a small paper bag, and handed it across the counter.

“That’ll be five cents,” he said.

Once again, Izzy unzipped his snowsuit, but as he reached into his pocket and his fingers touched the thin, solitary piece of silver there, an image flashed across his mind: An image of himself stealthily returning the coin to his mother’s purse — and in that brief glimpse of the future, it was unmistakably the whole dime that Izzy would return.

Of course, he thought. That would be the perfect way to do it. If he gave back the whole dime, then it would be, to all intents and purposes, totally unstolen. But then, the sweet little licorice gun …

The solution came to Izzy in another flash — a brilliant inspiration, really. He withdrew his hand from his pocket, leaving the dime safely in place. He looked up at Mr. Grundy’s expectant face.

“Charge it,” he said.

The grocer raised his bushy gray eyebrows.

“Charge it?”

“Charge it,” Izzy said again.

“Okay, Izzy,” sighed Mr. Grundy. “Just for you — we’ll charge it.”

Izzy beamed.

“Thanks, Mr. Grundy,” he said. As he left the store, he was peeking in the top of the paper bag at his precious little candy pistol.

***

Later that afternoon, Izzy played in the kitchen with the little licorice gun. It was still intact, because he didn’t actually like licorice, as something to eat. Rather, having a little gun made of licorice charmed him. He was using it to shoot imagined enemies when his mother came into the room to start supper.

“What’s that?” she asked, towering above him.

Izzy explained that it was a little licorice gun he had gotten at Grundy’s Store.

“Mr. Grundy just gave it to you?”

“No,” said Izzy, in a matter-of-fact voice. “I charged it.”

She stood there, arms akimbo, and stared at him, tilting her head first to left and then to right, and Izzy began to get the first inkling that something might be amiss.

“Mr. Grundy let you charge it?”

“Sure, Mom,” he said. “Why not? You and Daddy always tell him to charge things.”

“Groceries, Izzy,” she said. “Not just things. Certainly not candy.”

It was deflating to learn that the ability to incur credit did not automatically make Izzy a grown-up in his mother’s eyes.

“Izzy,” she said, “do you know what it means to charge something?”

Here, thought Izzy, was his chance to shine, to redeem himself.

“Sure, Mom,” he said brightly. “It means you don’t have to pay. It’s free.”

His mother made a moue of disgust, exhaling roughly.

“You don’t understand at all, do you?” she said, instantly puncturing his self-regard. “It’s not free. You still have to pay; you just pay later, instead of right away.”

This was a whole new concept, and Izzy’s head swam. His struggle to grasp what she was saying must have been written on his face, because his mother made an extra effort, reducing the idea to practical terms for him.

“How much did that cost?” she asked.

“A nickel. Well, not a real nickel, ’cause I charged it.”

“Right,” she said. “And why did you charge it?”

“Because I didn’t want to pay a nickel.”

“But now, don’t you see? Daddy or I will have to go see Mr. Grundy and pay him a nickel — a real nickel — because you charged a nickel.”

They would have to pay a nickel for the nickel he charged. This was news to Izzy, and it electrified him.

“Do you see, now, how that works?”

Yes, indeed he did. Maybe he could make amends.

“I haven’t eaten it yet, Mommy,” he said with diffidence. “Not even a little bite. Maybe we could take it back.”

“No,” she replied. “You’ve played with it already.”

Now, aghast at his error and vaguely resentful that his All-Knowing Parents had not explained all this to him before now, Izzy made an all-out assault on the mountain of his mother’s disapproval.

“I only charged it so I wouldn’t have to use the dime,” he said. And the very moment the word left his mouth, he wished he could have it back.

“Dime?” asked his mother. “What dime?” She glared accusation at him from on high.

Izzy’s eyes darted to her purse, which still sat open on the counter.

Her eyes followed his eyes.

“Izzy Mahler! Did you steal a dime from my purse?” Her indignation was righteous, his offense vile.

“I was going to put it back!” he wailed. He dug furiously in his pocket. “Here! Look, here it is. You can put it back in your purse.” And he offered up the dime.

His mother accepted the dime from his hand, but instead of putting it back in her purse, she held it right in front of his eyes.

“You stole this dime,” she said. “Didn’t you?”

“Did I?” he said, squirming, looking for a loophole.

“Don’t talk back to me, young man,” said his mother. “I don’t recall giving you permission to take a dime.”

“But they were going to beat me up!” he cried, wounded by the unfairness of it all.

She paused to frown, as if trying to figure something out.

“So, how is it you still have the dime?” she asked. “If you stole it to give to those bullies, why didn’t you give it to them?”

Izzy’s back was against the wall. He didn’t know how he could possibly explain the whole, tangled mess to this implacable woman bearing down on him, in a way she would understand, accept, and forgive.

“Well,” he began, his eyes nervously scanning his mother’s face. “I —”

He didn’t get any farther, for her frown suddenly cleared up, as when a wind blows a thundercloud away and the sunshine reappears.

“Izzy!” she said, and the very pronouncement of his name seemed a wondrous celebration. “You did it! You changed your mind about the dime, and you stood up to those bullies and held your ground!”

Blessed, out of the blue, with a golden moment of creative misunderstanding, Izzy did his best to work with what he had been given. No need, at this point, he reasoned, to mention Roger’s well-timed intervention. He could see how that fact would only add to his mother’s confusion.

“Anyway,” he said smoothly, “since I still had the dime, I thought I’d buy this little gun. But then I thought, if I just said, ‘Charge it,’ it would be free — and I could put your dime back —”

“And I’d never be the wiser,” his mother said knowingly.

Never be the wiser? What does that mean? wondered Izzy.

“Is that okay, Mom? If you’d never be the wiser?”

Instead of answering him, she admonished.

“Don’t ever steal money again, you understand?”

“Yes,” he vowed. “I’ll never do it again.”

“And from now on, don’t charge anything at the store. That’s only for your father and me, who know how to do it.”

He nodded seriously.

Waving the dime once more before his face for good measure, she slowly, ostentatiously returned it to her purse. Then she looked upon him and smiled.

“But I’m glad you stood up to those bullies,” she said.

Yes, Izzy thought. And you’ll never be the wiser.

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