The shots that killed John Fitzgerald Kennedy were fired at 12:30 pm Eastern Standard Time, November 22, 1963. Had no shots been fired, had no history been made, I could still tell you where I was at that moment, that hour, that day. There was only one place I could have been–in my store, behind the counter ringing up a ten cent sale, most likely a newspaper, most likely the Dziennik Zwiazkowy, most likely to an old man who brought his dime out of an embroidered coin purse carried with him from Europe.
Who brought the news through the door? Could have been a driver. Hostess Cupcake delivered about that hour. So did Butternut bread. Could have been a customer, the Pall Mall lady came in about then, two packs a day, she had to have them.
What is it with the Kennedys? I was asked that recently, as if I haven’t asked it of myself. In 1963 no one asked. There was only one Kennedy and he was dead. Less than six months later his face was on a coin.
A beautiful coin. I would describe it but I’m sure you’ve already seen one. Those 1964 JFKs, I actually gave them out in change. Customers who normally refused to take half dollar coins would smile when they saw JFK. That coin was going to a place where it would never see the bright light of commerce again.
My father often said, glumly, that no Catholic could ever be president of the United States. He and my mother took the secrecy of the voting booth seriously; they would never tell me how they voted, but it wasn’t all that difficult to guess. Al Smith had been denied the presidency because “They wouldn’t allow it.” Roosevelt was a magician because “he made the elephant disappear.” The Socialist Party was dead because “Roosevelt stole all their ideas.” Socialist was not a bad word for my father; his own deaf mute father had voted for Eugene Debs. There was even a Communist in the family, but only by marriage.
John Kennedy came too late for my father who, in his sixties, stiff, cadaverous and declining fast, always odd, often vacant, had long lost even the ability to fight with my mother. What did he make of his only son’s store? The single aisle, the concrete floor, the second hand showcases, the milk cooler, the magazine rack, the ice cream freezer? The back room, piled up with empty pop bottles and magazines waiting to be returned, the rusty sink, the coal burning stove, the darkened walls, the metal door, the barred windows? He saw it once. He made no comment.
12 hours a day, seven days a week, 364 days a year, customers who argued over sales tax, stood at the magazine rack for hours, camped out on the public phones, and insisted I entertain them when they had nothing better to do. Neighborhood kids who gathered up every empty pop bottle they could find, piled them on my concrete floor, and spent their pennies on candy, one piece at a time. For the first time in my life I had financial stability, but what a tough way to earn it. My cash drawer would be heavy with coins I had to sort and roll before I could call it a day, and still people brought in more. “Here, I know you need these,” they would say with malicious smiles, emptying their penny jars on my counter.
If I got out of this, I should have said, I would never, ever go into business again.
My father, being who he was, had tried it twice. First a filling station, no more than a hut with a single Phillips 66 gasoline pump. During the Great Depression? Located in the center of an alley? In fairness, I should point out that the alley connected to an empty lot and thus was not altogether invisible to traffic. The filling station was out of our lives so rapidly I have only one clear memory of it–sitting in that little hut reading an Argosy Magazine. There was a story in one issue about a man who enraged a witch doctor, and suddenly found himself changed into a dog, then a rat, then a mouse, and so on until he wound up as a fish, and was eaten by a larger fish.
Later there was a pool hall, and a ferocious fist fight I fought on his behalf, and, unrelated, a St. Bernard guard dog that sent him to the hospital. But what I have to do, rather than talk about these things, is get back to where I started. A silver half dollar.
Those who dream and butt their heads against normalcy very often find their ways to the gambling table. There was a tavern back in depression-era Blue Island whose owners and their descendants went on to be respectable citizens so we won’t talk about them. But it was a bit of a gamblers’ hangout. A bookie operated upstairs, and a card table seemed to be going at all hours in the barroom. My father had that gambler’s mentality. A game of poker, he believed, was more than a matter of luck. With skill and cunning and a few good cards, a clever man could do well, and maybe improve his lot in life.
Naturally, the sharks devoured him alive. My mother heard stories of how he would tear up his cards in a rage, and even bite them into pieces. Meanwhile, a family that already had little to eat had less. The fights over gambling set the tone for the rest of their lives together. Money became more important than life itself.
I saw my first fifty cent piece about then. One evening my mother sent me across the street to get my father. Women did that in those days, sent children to get dad out of the tavern. You must have heard of the song, “Father Dear Father/Come Home With Me Now.” Of course my father was not drinking. That was not his vice. He was at the table.
I entered the dark smoky bar from its door on Western Avenue. There were so many bars on Western in those days, you could walk down the street and smell the beer. When my eyes adjusted I looked around and saw a group of men at a large round table, among them my father in his gray fedora hat. Cards were being dealt. I advanced, but could not speak. One of the men threw a coin into the pot. My father’s turn was next. He stared at his cards, frowning, and finally reached into his pocket to extract a single half dollar coin, as large and bright as the moon itself, enough to buy supper today, tomorrow, and the next day for all I knew. He hesitated, yes, but then he threw it into the pot.
All that remains is the sight of that half dollar. I can never think of Kennedy, and not think of it, a silver half dollar, large and bright as the moon, and even more distant.
Paul Pekin work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune Magazine, Chicago Reader, South Dakota Review, The MacGuffin, and so on. He lives in Chicago, and writes.