Rodney sighed. Again. Every year he swore he’d start early, and every year forces arrayed against him to derail his plans. Double shifts at the library ate up his time. Semester-end assignments demanded more research. Friends invited him to endless “must-attend” holiday gatherings. Each year, as the last weeks of the calendar wound down, he ended up stuck in this same glacial procession from the interstate to the mall, inhaling the scent of the cardboard pine tree hanging from the rearview mirror mingled with the sweet pungency of antifreeze. He looked at his watch and sighed. Again. The radio (with one blown speaker) hacked forth a bass-heavy string of novelty holiday songs. He really hoped someone would get him a CD player this year, but he knew that was unlikely. It would be more sweaters, or a gift certificate to a housewares store. Meanwhile Mother and Sis would try valiantly to mask their disappointment in the presents he had bought them, while Dad laughed at whatever gag gift he got. “Who am I kidding?” he said to himself. It was his own damned fault if he didn’t organize his time better. He knew he should find out what opera CDs his mother wanted, or which porcelain figurines Sis needed for her collection. It would probably help to write out the wish list his mother consistently asked for. “You’re so tough to buy for,” she always said. Next year, he repeated. Next year. It would have been too easy for Rodney to draw some profound parallel between the concentric parking areas that ringed the mall and the circles of Dante’s hell. In lot J7 a pod of slow moving SUVs orbited the same four rows of occupied spaces as if searching for their secret burial ground. In lot K3 there was a minor fender bender that everyone had slowed down to look at. Eventually he found a space at the tree line. He got out of the car. Sleet soaked into his hair. Cold air numbed his face. A passing sports car sent a tsunami of slush onto his legs as he began the long walk. There are entire sub-species of life forms, Rodney thought, that only exist in early winter. They must sleep away the warm months in some unnatural anti-hibernation, then emerge in the deepest cold to congregate and shuffle en masse towards the mall like pilgrims to a temple. This migration of humanity, sluicing themselves between cars and around each other, was a slow moving affair. The cavernous innards of the mall resonated with Muzak and chatter. There were children everywhere, loose children, lines of them chasing each other around like dragons in a Chinese parade. Gaudy decorations screamed from every storefront, achieving a fascinating magnitude of hideousness he didn’t think possible. Looking at them was like watching a sudden geyser of raw sewage: it was offensive but, damn, you don’t see that often, now do you? He worked his way through the crowd, passing window after window looking for ideas. Every few stores he stepped inside and glanced around, hoping by chance some perfect gift (affordable on a library assistant’s salary) would leap out at him. All he saw were things he wanted: A Twilight Zone DVD boxed set; the companion book to the PBS series on ancient cultures; a gilded replica of an eighteenth century map of the world. He sighed. Again. Stepping out of one store he was confronted by a smartly dressed woman holding a clipboard. “Excuse me, sir. May I take a moment of your time?” He almost scowled at her, “Do I look like I have moments to spare? Do you think I would be here, in a mall, when shoppers are at their most frantic, if I was just overloaded with surplus moments to hand out?” The woman curled her nose and walked away to pounce on some other victim. He mentally chastised himself for the outburst. She was just doing her job, which was, no doubt, even less interesting than his. He circumnavigated the line of shoppers waiting for complimentary gift wrapping and resisted the seductive, Pavlovian rumble of his stomach as he passed the food court. He was about the get past a large group watching a trio of animatronic snowmen singing when the PA barked out those dreaded words “Attention holiday shoppers.” Cheery announcements followed: The Toy Barn had just gotten in a new shipment of something-or-other; local radio personalities were giving away door prizes on the lower level; children could get their photos taken on the mezzanine. The crowd responded by surging in all directions at once. Rodney tried to extract himself from the flow but was caught up in its suddenness. With an irritated series of twists and sideways steps he finally freed himself from the pack. He put his hands on his knees and caught his breath. “Man, I hate this,” he thought, inhaling deeply and listening to his heart calm. That was when he realized he was smelling something out of place, and hearing something as well. He looked up. Before him was a shop. The arched entrance was covered with a thin patterned curtain though which he could make out faint shapes. The sign above said, in calligraphic black letters, Coins of the Realm. He pulled back the curtain. Ambient chimes fill the air inside, which smelled faintly of cinnamon. There were glass display cases along the walls, upon which sat dozens of lit candelabras. At the darkened end of the store was a counter. Shelves were visible beyond that. For the first time all day, Rodney smiled. The nearest case held rows of coins laid on black velvet. He did not recognize any of them. A small magnifying glass hung on a cord from the corner of the case. He picked it up and examined the largest of the coins. It was old. On its face was engraved the image of a fabulous city. Stamped along the chipped edge were characters from a strange alphabet.
“Can I help you find something?” came a voice from the shadows.
At the back of the shop a man leaned forward into the light. A pudgy bronze face appeared, eyes hidden behind small round sunglasses. He grinned, revealing a mouthful of bad teeth, save for one made of gold. Atop his short cropped hair sat a scarlet fez. He stepped out from behind the counter, standing close to six feet tall and almost as wide. He pulled a pocket watch from his white cotton suit and began winding it as he walked. “I have Napoleonic francs, Ducats, Mohars, Athenian Tetradrachm, Bunsei era Kobans.” “What is this?” asked Rodney, pointing at the case. “Ah,” he said, “Atlantean silver. A fine specimen.” “What do mean ‘Atlantean?’” “Atlantis. Island country. Near Portugal. Lovely coins. Did you know all their denominations were prime numbers?” “You sell Atlantean currency?” Rodney asked, not bothering to hide the doubt from his voice. “Atlantean. Lemurian. I have some exchange notes from Shangri-La in the back if you’d like to see them.” Rodney stared at him blankly. “Perhaps something in forbidden tender?” the fat man said, pointing to the next case “The coinage of secret societies? I have Cabalistic sovereigns, Masonic ingots, Illuminati sterling pieces, Templar farthings, Gnostic tokens, Teutonic scrits.” The strange shapes and colors of the objects caught Rodney’s eye. The markings certainly looked legitimate. “What kind of coin shop is this?” he asked. “Follow me,” the man whispered. He picked up a candelabra and made his way back behind the counter. There he reached down and carefully pulled up a glass box. Inside it were more coins, each sealed in a small plastic square. Rodney bent to look as the man pointed to each one. “This is money issued in darkness, used as down payments on damnation. Mind your soul when handling them. Here’s a penny that Virginia Poe once offered to her husband Edgar for his thoughts. She died within five years of giving it to him. Under certain light you can see the shape of a raven worn onto its face. Next to that is a scratched up doubloon that someone gave to Robert Johnson one night when he lost his guitar pick. It grows warm if carried through an intersection. This is the counterfeit gold piece Caligula tried to pass off on Charon. His soul was bound, weighted, and thrown into the Styx for his arrogance.” “And how, exactly, did you come to be in possession of all these?” “Usually I am just in the right place at the right time. I am a Cryptonumismatist. One of the last scholars of fiscal mythology and pecuniary legend. I have traveled to ancient vaults and spelunked distant, exotic treasure caves to rescue these fine items from obscurity. Collectors of every stripe have traded with me. In this box I have gold pieces minted by leprechauns; iron coins bearing the face of Gilgamesh; crystal bullion from Xanadu.” “And you decided to set up shop in this mall? I thought these kind of places only existed down dark alleys or in old, creepy neighborhoods.” “As I said,” the fat man smiled, his gold tooth gleaming, “the right place at the right time.” Rodney stepped back. “I know how this story goes. You give me some magic coin that goes awry, then I come back here and find out this store was never here.” “I’m glad you mentioned that,” the fat man said excitedly as he pulled up another box, “this contains currency that never existed, at least in this world. See this? A promissory note issued by the U.S. Confederacy in the 1980’s. Jefferson Davis’ picture one side, the Richmond White House on the other. And these? Moneystones commemorating one hundred years of the Jamaican Empire. Pocket change that slipped through the cracks between realities.” Rodney was looking at the items but had stopped listening to the man. This would be a great endeavor, he thought, to roam the world seeking out lost objects. Going after history with his hands and teeth, instead of filing away books about it. Even if this guy was crazy, putting together a collection like this took commitment and devotion. It must have been a calling. It must have been exciting. It must have been fun. “Who am I kidding?” he said to himself. He was a library assistant trying to get a degree. Where would he find the time to pursue a lofty vocation like this? “Would you like to buy anything?” The fat man’s voice broke his reverie. “Um…no, I’m shopping for my family. None of them collect coins, I’m afraid.” “I have other things for sale,” said the fat man, rummaging through his shelves. Rodney looked at his watch. So much of the day was gone and he still hadn’t accomplished anything. “Over here I have a number of household items touched by King Midas. On the wall there are Sasquatch pelts bartered by the shaman of the Pacific Northwest.” “Do you have any coins here that would buy me more time?” The fat man turned and looked at him. “Ah, the eternal search. One of many in your life, I wager.” “What?” “If only we had the time to decide which way to go, to carry out unending quest for direction, to seek a beacon in the fog. If time is money then, inversely, money must be time. In my life I have learned that one needs to save both.” The fat man tossed something to Rodney. It was a brass disk about the size a quarter, almost black with patina. The edges were rough and its features impossible to make out. It was much heavier than it looked. “A Traveler’s Medallion,” the man said, “forged by Hermes, who was also the God of Currency. It was carried by Odysseus, Marco Polo, Coronado, Vespucci, Drake, and Neil Armstrong. It will get you where you need to go.” Rodney looked at him. “How much is it?” “Consider it a gift.” “What does that-” “Sorry, young man, time to close up shop.” “But-” The fat man was ushering him towards the curtain, blowing out the candelabras as he went. The chimes seemed to fade away. The scent of cinnamon evaporated. In an instant Rodney was through the curtain and back out into the mall. Looking down at the disk in his hand he shook his head. He purposely walked a good ten paces before looking back at the shop. It was gone, of course. Just a blank stretch of wall. “Rodney,” he said to himself, “you’re losing it.” He’d walked for about another thirty seconds before realizing something: the crowd seemed to have thinned. He looked around. No, they hadn’t. There was just as many people scurrying about, but they were simply, inexplicably, not in his way. He didn’t need to side-step anyone. Nobody jostled him. No squealing children intersected his trajectory. Clustered knots of shoppers dissolved as he approached. Ahead he discerned a distinct path curving through the crowd. He followed it. It led him to a seasonal shop peddling unique gifts and odd memorabilia. Within five minutes he had found the Complete Encyclopedia of Opera, a set of small brushes for cleaning fine porcelain, and a selection of ties with cartoon characters on them. As he exited the shop he found himself at the doors where he had entered the mall. Outside the sleet had stopped and sunlight began piercing the clouds. Rodney looked across the expanse of parking lot and spotted his car immediately. It just seemed to stand out from the others. There was a direct route to it visible between the parked vehicles and traffic islands. As he crossed the distance he kept saying to himself “the right place at the right time...”
At the car he pulled the keys from his pocket and caught the glint of something out of the corner of his eye. He looked down. A shiny coin lay wedged under the front tire. He reached down and pried it out.
It was a half dollar. It bore the face of Richard Nixon. Rodney sighed, for what felt like the first time.