A Canadian Nickel
by Michelle Reale
The clock on the wall stands as a silent witness to how they can amuse themselves with nothing for so long. She glances outside, up the dark street. Her father will be making his way home by his wits. We’ve played this out, she says, affecting boredom to her new friends. Whatever, they say almost in unison, and rise from the floor, shaking out pins and needles. He stumbles in, steadying himself with a shaky hand, a lit cigarette in the other, the long length of ash glowing like a promise. He mutters, young shit, and the girls pretend to be kinder than they really are.
The pockets of his thin pants bulge with coins. Bringing home the bacon, he sings, and the girls look at one another and cross their arms instinctively over their breasts. When they leave, she can still hear their voices on the street for a while. One moment it sounds like they are moving away and another it sounds like they are coming back.
Her mother is at the kitchen door now, the stink of her smoldering cigarette and the strong coffee she set to percolate on the stove swirled in the humid air around them. She exchanges no words with her husband, but holds a hand out to steady him. Sometimes they pay him. Usually they goad him with one whiskey after another.
Her mother counts the change, cigarette jutting between clenched teeth, making piles of dimes, quarters. She snorts at a Canadian nickel, squints from the smoke. Taking a long last drag, she slaps her thick thighs and heads to bed, leaving the piles of change on the table. She winks at her daughter and chuckles.
Her father has his big head in his hands, humming a strange tune. The daughter gets up to pour him a big mug of black coffee from the pot that is now silent and settling on the stove. She plays her part. He’ll be out cold before she can set it down beside him. She plops in the chair opposite him and watches a fly trapped in the ceiling light. She lights a cigarette from her mother’s pack. The smoke makes a swirling canopy over their heads. The stacked coins make fragile towers. She knocks them over one by one. Her father twitches in his sleep, the fruits of his labor scattered all around him. She blows on his coffee, takes a sip and puts her cigarette out on his head. He doesn’t feel a thing.
Stories should inspire, entertain and ask questions. I try to write stories that don't have easy answers. Have you thought about the story further than the last line? If so, maybe I've done what I set out to do: let the story live beyond the page. When I wrote "Canadian Nickel", I'd been thinking about how each life is a miniature work of art—and each of us , for the most part, can make decisions about how we might live. The mother has strange coping mechanisms. Why does the father drink as he does? The daughter , eventually will plod through, but one imagines she will take the circuitous route towards a life that might transcend the one her parents found. Might. But maybe not. She seems callous doesn't she, putting her cigarette out on her father's head? What kind of hurt and frustration would lead her to do such a thing? This story had many titles, one of them was "There Goes the Fear Again". Fear can cause someone to do crazy things. The editor suggested Canadian Nickel. I liked it. I thought of someone who'd been driving all night long in the dark and bitter cold. They stop at a convenience store wanting to buy a cup of of coffee. Maybe that coffee is a dollar. You think you have enough. You've got 95 cents and a Canadian nickel. Ah, that damn Canadian nickel. The tipping point. Despair.
Michelle Reale is an academic librarian on faculty at Arcadia University in the suburbs of Philadelphia. Her work has been published in Eyeshot, elimae, Word Riot, Pank, Rumble, Dogzplot, JMWW, Blood Orange Review and others. Her fiction chapbook "Natural Habitat" will be published by Burning River in the spring of 2010.