You begin with tongue twisters. “Rubber baby buggy bumpers,” you say five times, then smile at the students. “Your turn.” They are assembled around you in a circle on the rug. You are not the classroom teacher, but a Speech Arts specialist who inhabits different classrooms throughout the day. The students watch your mouth, the contortion of your lips, or maybe they’re noticing your freshly-whitened teeth. Nine-year-olds do notice these things. “Red leather yellow leather,” you say three times, then as they join in, you lead them in a slow crescendo, like a war chant. You tell them that good speech is a kind of game, and when someone asks who wins the game, you ignore your first response and say, “We all do.”
When they become bored of babies and leather, you refocus them with a song. “Row row row your boat,” you sing, with bounce and emphasis, modeling proper mouth formation. You’ve always loved the steady, anchoring effect of this one, not because the boat sinks, as you always imagine it does, but because of the sway of the melody.
When their attention flags, you unpack the items in an old duffel bag you carry with you to each classroom: a frying pan, an old boot, a pouch of fossilized shark teeth. The school is stressing the merging of disciplines and has been insisting that you and the Fluid Movements instructor collaborate on activities, that you design fun and unexpected exercises for the students, props encouraged.
You set the frying pan in the center of the circle. Immediately you notice their confusion, their nine-year old intrigue, easily hooked by strange, shiny things. You have their attention, so you act quickly. You take the jar of pennies from your purse, shake it like a Singapore Sling, your favorite. They listen to the wealth rattle in the jar, their eyes wide.
You pass the jar around the circle. Say, “Take ten coins,” and you pretend not to notice when some take more, their grubby fingers grappling the coins like candy, like pirate treasure. They are not used to handling money.
You contemplate the coins. Your life was entwined with them. The games you’d play with your ex-husband. The races to find the 1932 penny or the 1918 silver-coated Lincoln Cent. How you’d sort them, together, into cohorts on the kitchen table, categorizing them based on age and sheen. How you’d stack them in precipitous towers that swayed, then fell.
It is not your coin collection, but you have not exactly stolen it either. You are putting the collection to good use. You imagine he’ll want it back at some point, but you could argue that finders really are keepers, so the rules of ownership have changed. It was one of several passions he abandoned, near the end. Forgot or abandoned, does it matter which? He forgot the Lincoln Portrait penny from 1909, your first present to him. He forgot the 1952 penny, the one with grime encrusted on the surface in the shape of the HorseHead Nebula, the one you gave him for your third anniversary, when he had joked, “This is a stellar one!” And how could he forget the first official penny in existence, the 1787 Fugio Cent?
When he’d left the collection, you’d moved it into the garage, put it behind your mother’s black and white photography albums, as if photos of dead relatives would guard you. You considered the sale values. It was not a pittance, but you are not the kind of woman who is assuaged by fast cash.
Now, you walk around the circle and inspect your nine-year old coin collectors. You hand out thumb-sized scrolls of paper, secret messages, to each. You are the commander of this invading army, this fidgeting assemblage.
“Your target,” you say, staring down at the frying pan. You say something about the marriage of motion and words, the importance of body awareness when speaking. You say, “The sixth sick sheik’s sixth sick sheep,” and flick a penny in a perfect underhanded arc into the frying pan. “Words and motion together,” you say.
They are shy, but one by one they read in stumbling voices the words on their folded papers. A red-headed boy launches his penny to the swishing sounds of “three Swedish witches.” The penny sails like a comet and misses the pan, rolls under a desk. You listen as they laugh at “Silly Sally” and her “seven silly sheep” that “shilly-shallied south.”
You hear, “One black bug bled blue blood” as a penny hits the blackboard. You watch them grow bold. It is no longer about hitting the frying pan, but by how much they can miss. You watch as this rule is tested, their eyes flicking to you warily to see what you’ll do. You do nothing.
You think of that final fight. All the words flung at each other that could not be retrieved. The small truthful darts that hit their marks, hard and fatal. You think of all the words said before that day, all the way back to the first day you met him, when you’d thought this was the man you’d always love. You hadn’t been wrong.
You force yourself to stop thinking. The Fugio penny hits the top of the radiator. Two thousand dollars, rolling toward a heat vent. A storm of pennies is released, flying in all directions as they chant about how sheep shouldn’t sleep in a shack and the sieve-full of unsifted thistles. You can hardly make out the syllables amid the pelting pennies. The 1925 Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle Coin, the one he’d loved more than the others, that he’d lost once until you found it for him, zings into a corner barricaded by an unused table.
At the door, Gregor Babstock, the Fluid Movements instructor, waves, gesturing to be let in. You say his name five times in your head every time you see him, not just because of the way his eyes linger over you when he thinks you’re not looking, or the slight crush on him you will eventually admit you have, but because it’s one of the best tongue twisters you’ve found. You smile, wave back, and try to relax. You have locked the door. Gregor knocks hard, frowns, and walks off. Now, you face the shelling copper and storm of enunciated syllables. You imagine the 1923 Wheat Penny and the Fugio lost forever in the radiator vents. You close your eyes and savor each sound.