By Toby Tucker Hecht
It was after supper on a spring evening that my older brother, Sammy, a troublemaker of the first order, told me a secret about a silver half dollar coin. He pulled me into the bedroom we shared, closed the door, shoved me onto my bed, and asked me if I knew Mr. Brennan from the variety store on 207th street.
“Of course,” I said. Everyone knew Mr. Brennan. He was a gruff guy who could knock you over with one swat of his meaty forearms. He distrusted almost everyone, especially us boys, and his motto “You break it, you buy it” hung in several places in the store. “What about him?”
Sammy smiled with his roguish grin, and said he was going to tell me something but if I breathed a word to anyone, he would rat on me to Mr. Brennan and then who knows what would happen.
I sat on my bed waiting for Sammy to tell me, but he was slow getting to the point of the secret. It was his way to always start from a long backstory, a running start as it were—this time about Mr. Brennan coming here at eighteen from Ireland with the equivalent of seven dollars hidden in his underwear after having been roughed up and robbed of his belongings on the boat to the US. This was a story I (and everyone else) knew. It was no good telling Sammy to spill it out already. He’d just slow down. But it turns out that this particular story was important because it established this man’s suspicious nature which had not diminished, but in fact had grown over the years.
The way in which the variety store was laid out, it was easy for someone, usually a kid, to sneak something into his pocket, like a whistle, or a marble, and trot out the front door. It had been happening more frequently lately and even the mirrors Mr. Brennan installed to catch the thieves while he stood behind the checkout counter did little to stop the merchandise from developing wings.
Sammy stopped talking and came closer. Usually when he did that I stepped back since it usually meant a bop on the head or knocking off my glasses. But he said in a low voice, “Mr. Brennan rigged up a half dollar coin so that if you try to steal it, it gives you the shock of your life.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“A bolt of electricity, dummy,” he said. “The coin is wired so you get zapped, like in an electric chair.”
“You mean killed? For fifty cents? That seems like a pretty harsh punishment to me.”
“Nah. Not that bad, but maybe burnt a little.”
“Why is this a secret?” I asked.
“God, you are a moron! If everyone knew, no one would touch it. It would be worthless. Geez Tommy, smarten up.”
“So big shot, how do you know?”
“I overheard Dad talking with Mom. I’m pretty sure Dad hooked up the shocker for Mr. Brennan.”
Our father was an electrician. I wondered if he could lose his license if someone found out. I was always a worrier, but now I had something significant to fear—our dad being out of work. Sammy seemed to think the whole thing was hilarious and began to figure out ways to visit the variety store and observe people trying to snatch the coin. But he knew that Mr. Brennan would throw him out; he and his clique of ill-behaved friends were banned from most of the stores on 207th street.
“It’s gotta be you, Tommy,” Sammy said.
“Huh? What’s gotta be me?”
“Mr. Brennan would never throw out a nerdy Momma’s boy like you. You could be the spy and then tell us all about it.”
“No way!” I said.
Sammy grabbed my arm and twisted it. I moaned and said I’d tell Mom on him.
“Just try it,” he said. “Then you’ll know what real pain is.”
The next day, as I walked to school, I thought about the way Sammy treated me. He thought I was weak, a goody two shoes who never crayoned outside the lines. Out of our parents’ earshot, he called me a sissy, a crybaby, and a jellyfish. But I knew it was to get me to do his bidding. I wondered if what Sammy said was true—that no real harm would come to anyone who touched the coin—I could get someone to do it and report back to Sammy and his friends. They might deal me a bit more respect.
I had received my week’s allowance that morning and had a plan. In the lunchroom at noon, I saw Solly Birnbaum and sat down next to him. Solly was a pasty-faced, skinny kid who was really smart, but had something wrong with him so he couldn’t take gym like the rest of us. He had fewer friends than I did.
“Hey, I hear that the variety store got a new shipment of Pez dispensers” I said. “Wanna check it out after school?
Solly said his mother didn’t like him hanging around 207th street and wanted him to come home and do his homework.
“Aw, c’mon, Solly. Just for a few minutes. I got my allowance, but I’d like your advice on what to buy. Please.”
“Okay, but just for a few minutes.”
When the school bell rang, we hurried over to the variety store and looked for the Pez display.
“That’s neat,” Solly said, pointing to one in the image of a spaceman. “Get that and let’s go.”
“Hold on, there must be more in the back.”
I walked over to Mr. Brennan standing behind the counter and asked if he had the newest Pez dispenser in the shape of a bulldog.
“Never heard of that one,” Mr. Brennan said.
“Are you sure? I got my allowance and came over here to buy that one. I showed him my money. Could you check?”
Mr. Brennan leaned down and it sounded like he flipped a light switch, but no light came on. Then he said, “You boys stand right here, you hear me? Don’t move. I’ll be right back.”
Right next to the cash register, on the counter, sat a shiny fifty cent piece. I’d half suspected that Sammy had been lying, which he did most of the time, but now I believed him. The shock of your life, he’d said. I saw Solly eyeing the coin. I wondered if the temptation was great enough for him to do it. I stepped away from him and called to Mr. Brennan to see if he had found the thing I wanted and if not, to encourage him to look further.
All of a sudden, I heard a shriek and a moan, followed by the thud of Solly’s body onto the floor.
Mr. Brennan rushed to the front of the store, howling to me, “What did you do?”
“What did I do? Nothing!”
We tried to get Solly to open his eyes, but he appeared to have fainted. Mr. Brennan called an ambulance and within a few minutes they arrived and carted Solly off. I found out later that Solly’s medical issue had to do with his heart and that somehow his cardiac rhythm was disrupted.
But then, I stayed behind talking to Mr. Brennan, as though I knew nothing about the coin.
“What do you think happened?” I asked him.
“No idea, but I have a feeling you do know,” he said.
When I got home, I told Sammy the story. He laughed, slapping his thigh, and said he made it all up and there was no electric shock and that the coin wasn’t real; it was a copy of an early Benjamin Franklin half dollar that was for sale for fifty cents. Would I never stop being an imbecile?
Then he looked at me with squinty eyes and said, “If you know what’s good for you, you won’t breathe any of this to a living soul.”
A day later I heard that Solly died on the way to the hospital. For the rest of my life, I wondered who the real murderer was—Mr. Brennan, Sammy, my father, or me.
* * *
Toby Tucker Hecht is a writer and scientist who lives and works in Bethesda, Maryland. At least thirty of her stories have been published either in print or in online literary journals. A native New Yorker with a rather traditional life, she writes fiction to explore more exciting lives than her own. She is now working on a collection of short stories, and a series of linked short stories.