The bedroom was barren save some power tools, drywall sheets, and a step stool waiting for the work to begin again. I was home for Easter and my parents were renovating the basement and the basement room I’d called mine when I lived at home. The Cave I called it: in the basement and away from windows it was pitch-black and quiet and cool at night, and I could sleep there much longer than usual if I didn’t set an alarm. That cool and cozy silence induced a sopor my circadian rhythm couldn’t resist.
I was last here over Christmas and everything then was as it had been since high school, it seemed. But now everything was gone. Like the bookshelves. Their books sat in boxes waiting to be sorted, but the shelves had moved on. This disconcerted me most. When perusing my books I rarely considered their keeper, yet where would we be without them? Shelves in any place are prosthetic architecture. Vigilant, sturdy, selfless. Necessary, at times comforting if we regard them at all, but essentially invisible. Now they really were.
Last year I had a dream about this. I dreamt I entered my room to pack things to bring with me on a journey. The floor then turned into dirt and my belongings emerged from the soil as if they were vegetables for the harvest. A week after that dream, I had another one wherein I returned to the room and it was completely empty, along with the rest of the basement and the crawl space where my parents stored the accumulation of our years.
When I had those dreams I’d recently gotten engaged and started a new job. The future, nebulous as always, loomed large. But I’d now arrived in that future, and it looked like a half-dozen boxes of books and bric-a-brac, the props of my distant past, waiting for their sentence.
The sorting began in earnest. “Participant” trophies from youth soccer: toss. A ‘90s-era Brewers pennant: keep. Leftover CDs from my garage band: crawl space. My set of commemorative U.S. state quarters: consider. My grandma, twelve years gone now, got one of these green rigid cardboard display folios for each of my sisters and me. It opened to a vibrant map of the United States, color-coded according to which year each state’s quarter would enter circulation between 1999 and 2008. You’d pop out a quarter-shaped disk and replace it with that state’s shiny new coin as it was released. The United States Mint dropped one every ten weeks, five each year, in the same order the states ratified the Constitution. In 1999 when we first wedged in Delaware’s Caesar Rodney on horseback, Hawaii seemed so far away, and it was. But steadily we accumulated quarters and made our way through history.
The zeal of collecting faded over the years, but the joy of discovery did not. I’d weed through every quarter I could find, eager to see the newest design and see if I could beg, borrow, or steal a new state for the board. They generally fell into two categories. The scenic designs, which featured a key event, figure, or place from the state’s history, were usually better. Like Oregon’s Crater Lake and New Jersey’s Crossing of the Delaware: simple, iconic, and striking. The other kinds I call “greatest hits”; they cobbled together the disparate things you associate with the state into a confused, “floating heads”-style mashup. The pelican-trumpet-Louisiana-Purchase mishmash of Louisiana and cow-cheese-corn combo of my dear alma mater Wisconsin indicate obvious state pride, but they’re too on the nose to be extraordinary.
Whatever the states put forward, the series as a whole hit the jackpot. Bolstered by its “spokesfrog” Kermit the Frog, who did commercials promoting the series, the quarters generated $4.1 billion in revenue and nearly $3 billion in seigniorage (the profit from the difference between the face value of coins and their production costs) to help finance the national debt. Add to that another $136 million in earnings and seigniorage from “numismatic products” like, say, green rigid cardboard display folios. All that to say, they made a lot of these mass-produced tchotchkes, and made a lot from them, so mine wasn’t worth much on the market. But it meant something to me personally.
I pillaged it for laundry fare.
“Grandma would be laughing right now,” Dad said as I plucked the shimmering specie from their snug states. She would be. Do this nice thing for your grandson, a forward-thinking gift that will require of him patience, diligence, and an appreciation of history, then watch from beyond the grave as he pops them out one by one so he can feed them four at a time into a dingy basement washer and dryer. In my defense, she’d seen worse. As the single mother of two unruly sons, she had lots of experience dealing with her boys doing stupid, impulsive shit.
Should I have kept them? They will get me six full loads of laundry with fifty cents to spare, and then I’ll be back to zero. I could have tucked the folio away and forgotten about it for years, unearthing it occasionally to admire the completeness of the enterprise and ponder its market value. But I remembered: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth,” Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount. “But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Sometimes it’s hard to decide how literal we’re meant to take Jesus’s aphorisms, but this one made sense on many levels. I like shiny things. And money’s nice to have if you can get it. But I’m not about an altar to mammon, however well-intentioned.
So I continued sorting. My dreams of room excavation felt more like prophecies as I weeded through the musty relics, plucking out the valuables like I did the quarters and packing them for another migration. A few things I didn’t have space for but didn’t want to throw away I sent to the crawl space, but everything else I either tossed, donated, or brought to my new place, which I’ll share with my soon-to-be wife. We’ve got stuff scattered around our apartment needing a shelf, drawer, or closet to call home.
One artifact that has made the journey is the glass Carlo Rossi wine jug I’ve been sporadically filling with spare change since Grandpa Cy, LaVonne’s husband, cut a slot in the cap, fastened a personalized leather tag to it, and gave it to me who knows how long ago. (My sisters got their own too: such always seemed the way of things.) It’s about half-full right now: the accumulation of the dozens of times over the years when I’ve both had spare change on me and remembered to deposit it. LaVonne and Cy’s humble Madison duplex apartment hosted an unfathomable number of wine jugs and liquor bottles through the years; the ones we got were probably whatever were handy when Cy got decidedly visionary and repurposed some for his grandkids.
A bit ironic, right? I rather flippantly disabused the state quarters of their hallowed status, despite the possibility they could grow in value as a complete set—all the while adding at a slow drip to the unassuming wine jug’s interest-free account. Maybe that’s why I’ve kept it around. The jug doesn’t demand attention. It isn’t frozen in time or tender. It’s never complete; it contains multitudes. The jug abides. And boy, the years it has seen. While the quarters languished in the darkness of my former room’s closet, the jug sat in the corner between a bookshelf and the out-of-service brick fireplace and bore witness to my adolescence and early adulthood. Given the glacial rate of my deposits, it’ll witness still more.
My older sister, who had a longer and much deeper relationship with Cy, she said she’ll never spend the money she’s put into her jug because she put it in there while Cy was still around. Me? I’ll spend it. If it takes another twenty years to fill up the other half, I’ll be pushing fifty with a few kids and more stories to tell, God willing. Memories make us rich, not money. So I’ll fill the jug as high as I can, and on that day I’ll upend it into a bag, bring it to a bank, and watch the sum of my decades-long depositing transform into a slim stack of leathery bills. Then maybe I’ll get some ice cream, or put it towards a trip, or give it to the first person who asks for some spare change.
And then I’ll start it over. My wife, my kids, we’ll drop whatever remains in our pockets and purses into the clear glass chamber and hear the sharp ping of possibility every time we do. Those first few coins to hit the bottom will be there for the long haul. Imagine what they will see.