- Chromie Thief
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We’d only just moved to our new house on SummitStreet when Dad moved out. He left his toolbox inthe basement—some faded Craftsman box filledwith wrenches and crowbars. My brothers and [End Page 137]
I scrambled to claim it for ourselves, but my older brother, Chris, took it over, staking ownership by decorating it with the stickers he’d gotten from the vending machine at the movie theater: Freak. Big Attitude. And, of course, the way he often did with my younger brother, Jonny, and me, proclaiming proudly, “This is mine; don’t fucking touch it.”
We scrambled for control over other territory, too: the corner of the bedroom, the coal cellar with a lock, the blow-in-insulation-covered wasteland that was our attic. But the Summit Street house was the first place we’d lived where we had both an attic and a basement. There was diplomacy in the sheer size of the place. We had enough space to ourselves to find our own stuff, our own places to demand that people stay away from. And one day, just before my eighth birthday, I found something in the attic to claim for myself: a half-filled collector’s book of Lincoln cents. It was pale blue with crumbling cardboard corners. Inside, there were already coins blinking from the pages, ranging between 1941 and 1976.
“We can sell them,” I told my mom. She was big on making money. She wrote poetry and songs and was always talking about getting discovered and making millions and what she’d do with all that money. I appealed to that.
At the hobby shop on Lincoln Way, she pushed my treasure across the counter. “We found them,” she told the owner, this slinky-looking old man with tiny glasses. “Buried in the attic of our house.” She kept saying “we,” though it was I who had found the coins, which was frustrating. I wanted to speak up, explain to the owner that—of course—I would be the one receiving any payment. But before I could, he slid the book back.
“You got about a buck’s worth, kid. Want the money or the book?”
I chose the book.
On the way home, Mom walked slowly behind, as if more disappointed than I was. I kept fast-walking ahead and having to wait at the corners for her to catch up. Even disappointed, I still felt the excitement of filling the thing, adding to its value, stuffing a coin per year in every precut slot. It was—along with my lucky, quarter-machine rabbit’s foot, my tin-toy Rusty Wallace car, and a yellow marble I’d found by the Monongahela—one of only a few items I kept in a shoebox by my bed. A box of worthless treasure that I was determined to make valuable, despite Mom’s moping. [End Page 138]
Though later, as we got used to Dad’s absence, there was a certain lightheartedness about her. She didn’t have a driver’s license or a car; she just liked to walk. She walked all over our neighborhood, across Faucet and Lincoln Way. On sunny days, she’d come home with big overflowing Rite Aid bags weighed down to her knees. Because she, too, loved her things: her lipsticks and perfumes; her blow-dryers and sandy face soaps; her on-sale Point Break VHS and Richard Marx cassettes. She’d play music in the dining room, singing along with Marx and belting “Should’ve Known Better” and “Don’t Mean Nothing” so loud you could hear her from the front porch.
At night, she made spaghetti and we ate it for days, until the microwave couldn’t warm it without transforming the noodles into slushy piles of sauce and water. On special occasions, she made us sloppy joes, ham barbeque, macaroni and cheese. She bought groceries from the Schwan’s man—a guy who drove around the neighborhood in a military-looking truck, selling frozen food from side compartments. He’d stop by once...