by Seth Gordon
When Cassie Levine was nine years old, her family lived in the center of Boston, Lyndon B. Johnson was President, and Cassie learned that her mother was a criminal.
The two of them sat in a parked car on Blue Hill Avenue, outside Ethel Glick’s grocery store. While Cassie ate an ice-cream sandwich, her mother smoked a cigarette. The sandwich, the cigarettes, and three bags of groceries had come from Mrs. Glick’s store. When the ice cream sandwich was half gone, Cassie asked, “Why did you change Dad’s money at Mrs. Glick’s? Why not go to the bank?”
Cassie’s mother had passed Mrs. Glick a twenty-dollar bill; the older woman had tucked the bill under the counter and handed back a stack of coupons; then, her mother had used some of those coupons to pay Mrs. Glick. Each twenty-coupon note showed a picture of Margaret Mitchell, holding a copy of Gone With the Wind. Cassie’s little brother called coupons “cootie money,” because only women and girls could use them.
“The exchange rate at the banks is twenty-seven coupons for a dollar,” Cassie’s mother said, “and Mrs. Glick is paying thirty-one.”
“Why don’t the banks pay thirty-one?”
“The government won’t let them.”
“Does the government let Mrs. Glick?”
Cassie’s mother drew on her cigarette and exhaled out the half-open window into the drizzle. Cassie licked vanilla ice cream all around the edge of her sandwich, feeling smug and virtuous and full of sugar. “You’re doing something il-le-gal,” she said, stretching out the last word.
“Don’t tell your father about this.”
Cassie raised her eyebrows. Her mother’s expression was solemn. Through the blur of rain over the windshield, Cassie could see the delicatessen on the opposite corner; the G&G sign was suspended over the sidewalk, round and vertical like a ketchup bottle. Some nights, Cassie’s father would take the family out to dinner there.
“He’s an idealist, and I love him for that, but… he doesn’t understand how much things cost.”
“Is it really illegal, changing money at Mrs. Glick’s? Could you get arrested for it?”
Her mother shook her head. “It’s like jaywalking, honey. It doesn’t hurt anyone, and the police have better things to do than go after it.”