Have I told you about when I had the world’s most valuable coin collection? I only had it for a few months, but it was nice to have.
It all started when I got my first half-dollar from my barber. It was the first time that I was old enough to go to get my hair cut by myself. Mom gave me seven dollars, but haircuts at Blake’s Barber Shop only cost six fifty at the time. Blake kept plenty of half dollar coins on hand to make change without having to deal with a bunch of quarters. He finished cutting my hair—it was the first time that I was able to choose my own haircut, as well, so I got a spike—and I dug into my pocket for the seven wadded bills Mom had given me. Blake unfolded them slowly and counted them out loud as I watched patiently. He smiled.
“You’re not trying to rip me off,” he said. “I never know if I can trust a kid with spiked hair, you know.” I grinned as he pulled out a stack of folded bills from his pocket and put the seven ones in with it. He reached into his other pocket and produced the half dollar. He held it in front of me between the tip of his index finger and thumb, and I marveled at its beauty. I extended my arm and watched as he carefully placed it in my open palm. I pulled my hand back in close to my face and inspected the intricacies of the rare and valuable treasure. I turned and began to walk out.
“Hey,” Blake yelled. I turned and looked, worried that he might try to change his mind about trusting me with the piece of metal that I still clutched tightly in my sweaty palm. “You almost forgot your gum,” he said, lobbing the Dubble Bubble in a great arc across the room. I snatched it with my free hand and yelled thanks as I walked out the door. I made my way quickly and eagerly down the street to the post office. Hewerdine’s Coin and Jewelry was upstairs at the post office, right next to Geerken’s Card Shop. I’d come to the card shop with my older brother once, and while he examined baseball and basketball cards, I wandered through Hewerdine’s, inspecting the pocket watches and rare coins through thick glass of the display cases. Mr. Hewerdine recognized me from Sunday Mass and humored me as I asked questions until my brother had finished his business in the card shop. I couldn’t think of a better person to show my new treasure than Mr. Hewerdine.
“Well that’s a half-dollar,” he said, inspecting the coin I’d handed him after waiting patiently for him to finish talking with some man about a watchband. “I’d say it’s worth about fifty cents.” My heart dropped. That’s all? I felt cheated. He hadn’t even consulted any of big coin books. How could he be so sure? I thanked him and walked home slowly, imagining ways that I could expand my coin collection. Can you call it a collection if you only have one?
A couple of years passed and I managed to build a small collection of my own. Mom and Dad were supportive of my new hobby and bought me books and coins for birthdays, Christmas, and whenever I could convince them that it’d been too long since the last gift. After those three years, my collection was probably worth a little over fifty dollars, if that; and the books I had on coin collecting were probably worth over forty.
In the course of those years, I’d begun hanging out with my next-door neighbor, Matt. We were in the same grade and recognized each other during recess one day, so I began going to his house to play Nintendo. Sometimes we’d look through his brother’s dirty magazines, each of us saying “Ewwww” and “Gross!” as we slowly turned the pages. Matt told me one day that his brother snuck out of the house at night sometimes.
“We should try it sometime!” he said. “We could see what it’s like when everyone’s sleeping.” I had to admit, it did sound intriguing. I remained resistant for a few weeks before finally caving in and agreeing to meet him at a certain time of the night.
I waited in bed and watched the numbers change slowly on the digital alarm clock. One o’clock finally came and I crept out of bed. Just as Matt had suggested, I dressed in black sweatpants and a black sweatshirt before sneaking down the back stairs. Matt was already waiting for me when I walked out the gate in the chain-link fence in the back yard.
“Follow me,” he said, as though he had some plan of where we should be going. We wandered down the alley, staying in the far edges of people’s yards, occasionally hiding behind trees or fences if we thought we heard something. I would’ve believed that he knew where we were going, but we actually circled one or two blocks a couple of times. Navigating a small Illinois town can be difficult at one in the morning, particularly when you’re ten years old and traveling only through back yards. We passed by the mansion. Paxton had one mansion, but it was split into two levels. The retired priest, Father Mahoney, lived upstairs and the Baier family lived downstairs. They weren’t Catholic, which didn’t seem right to me at the time. I assumed that they were renting from Father Mahoney. They didn’t need to rent; they owned the funeral home and the ambulance service and a furniture store. As we passed their back yard, I noticed that the gate was open. I said something to Matt, but he shushed me and continued down the alley to some unknown destination. As I followed ten or twelve paces behind him, I couldn’t stop thinking about the Baier house. Just about any time that I’d gone and visited Mr. Hewerdine, he would drop a reference to some rare coin or other that Mr. Baier had. He must have a huge collection, I thought. And here I could get into his yard if I wanted to. Matt eventually led us back home. I watched as he walked through his yard and slowly opened his back door. As soon as he was in, I waved good-night and watched him close the door. I turned around and bolted back toward the Baier home.
I entered their back yard through the open gate and walked up to the house. I peeked through the basement windows and tried to see what sort of setup they had. It was too dark inside, so I wandered up onto their deck. The pool was covered and I looked at the wine cooler bottles that sat by lawn chairs. They must’ve had people over to visit that night. I went to peek through the sliding glass door. The living room was huge! They ran a furniture store, so of course they only had the nicest couches and chairs. They didn’t sell home entertainment at the furniture store, but they still had a huge TV and speakers everywhere. What a place. What if…I put my hand on the handle of the sliding glass door and pulled ever so gently. It opened! I couldn’t believe it; my heart was racing. I walked in slowly, leaving the door open in case I had to make a quick escape, and made my way up and down the hallways. I peaked around the corner of any room with an open door, carefully checking to see if anyone was sleeping. I didn’t dare open any doors. I just wanted to see the coin collection, if I could, but I had no idea where someone would keep something like that, and all I found were bookshelves, paintings, and expensive-looking dishes. I found some stairs into the basement and decided to check that out. There was another big-screen TV down there and three or four couches in a semicircle around it. Surely no one was sleeping down here, so I could check behind the closed doors. The first that I ventured to open was a closet door in the corner of the room. It was a large closet, and I walked in to find boxes lining the walls. Built-in shelves lined one of the walls, and on the bottom shelf I saw a box labeled “coins.” Would someone really do this? I lifted the lid from the box and peeked inside. I couldn’t believe it. It was the collection I’d heard so much about. I closed the lid and slid the box slowly off the shelf. It was heavy, but I could lift it. I didn’t stop to think; I began walking, awkwardly lugging this big box out of the closet and up the stairs. I walked out the still-open sliding glass door and made my way down the alleys. I’m sure it would’ve been a sight to see, a four-foot tall boy carrying a box three-feet wide down the alley. I set the box down on the ground behind a tree in each yard and sat down to rest for a moment, looking around to make sure the coast was clear before moving on. When I reached my gate, I set the box down again, opened the gate, and picked up the box before walking into the yard. I walked the box over to our little tin shed and set it on the ground again. The door to the shed squeaked as I opened it. I found a spot behind a couple of other boxes and hid my new collection there. I snuck back into my bedroom exhausted and glanced at the alarm clock—4:10 am—before finally going to sleep.
In the following weeks, I kept an eye on the newspaper. There was a blurb a few days later about the Baier’s dog, a purebred sheltie that had gone missing on the night I took the coins, but no mention of the coin collection missing. I hadn’t even seen a dog when I was in their house. I moved the collection into my bedroom closet one afternoon and took it out often to look through all of the coins. There were a lot of really old ones. A bunch of them were gold. I knew it was a good collection, but now that I had it, I couldn’t really do anything with it. And the Baiers didn’t even seem to notice that it was missing. Until a few months later.
An article in the paper mentioned a break-in at the Baier home. The problem was, they didn’t know when it happened. The insurance company had problems with the whole thing because there were no signs of an actual break-in and the only thing missing was the collection. The Baiers would have a difficult time proving that it was actually missing. The newspaper said that the collection was among the most valuable in the world. I couldn’t believe it. And I couldn’t do anything with it. Until a few months later. An ad ran in the paper.
“Have coins? Send us a letter.” A California address was listed. I imagined that it might be a solicitation for this collection. What could it hurt to send a letter? So I wrote a letter, saying that I had a few coins that I might be interested in selling. I received a response a week later. The letter said specifically that he strongly suspected that I might have taken the collection, because I was the only one to respond to the ad. Don’t be worried, it said. That was all. I sent another letter, asking how much he might be willing to pay for my “few” coins. A week later, another letter. Five thousand dollars. What would I do with all of that money? I looked through the coin collection and took out a handful of my favorites. I wrote another letter. How will we exchange? A week later, meet me at the 102, August 21, 4pm. Whoever this was, he’d done his homework. The 102 was a restaurant downtown. I was there that day, with the box. A man walked in, looking around suspiciously. He sat down at a table by himself, placing a manila envelope on the table. It was him. He glanced at me briefly, but mostly was watching the door. I picked up my box and walked over to his table. I placed the box on the table, picked up the envelope, and walked out.