Pile of gold coins

Mama’s Gift

Oscar is not the type of person that goes on adventures. He has lived in a tiny apartment above a cafe for thirty years since leaving home at 19. He has never been married, never owned a pet and only buys clothes out of necessity. His wardrobe consists of 4 colours – blue, brown, black and grey. He refuses to go to the barber insisting on using his clippers at home with the number 3 comb to cut his hair once a month. For 365 days a year, Oscar eats oats for breakfast. He even has a schedule for TV, leisure, errands, and bedtime every day.

This is how Oscar likes it. He knows exactly how his day will go and he doesn’t like surprises.

Leading up to his first day of school at the age of 6, Oscar was overwhelmed and suffered a severe anxiety attack. His father, a stern man who didn’t have sympathy for such things, beat him for it. His sweet mother understood there was something different about her youngest son. He was never a naughty child, he just needed routine, and now he was expected to abruptly leave his mama’s side and had no idea how to prepare for it.

As Mama was tucking him into bed the last night of normal life as he knew it, she gave him a coin. It was old and dull, but also familiar. It was the same coin she rolled between her fingers when his father was yelling. She told Oscar it was a lucky coin, and if he was feeling scared he should hold it tight, promising him that the coin would tell him what to do. 

At first, the coin didn’t help at all. His mother would hold his hand walking him into the classroom every morning, all the way to his small desk. She would wait at the back until the teacher called the students to attention and that is when Oscar would squeeze his coin the hardest, fighting back the tears. His teacher would smile, talk softly, and read the class stories but she would often call on Oscar to answer questions. When he remained silent, some kids would tease or laugh at him. He was scared of them. They would speak too loudly and approach at such a speed he thought they would hurt him. They would constantly touch him, shoving or poking, and invade his personal space, crowding him. They would even take toys and crayons out of his hand. All the while Oscar would squeeze the coin wishing the school day to end. 

Weeks went by before he realised that he no longer held the coin in a death grip. He kept his left hand in his pocket and rolled the coin between his fingers, exactly how he had seen his mother do, but the lucky coin was working. Mama left him at the classroom door now and he found his seat himself. He developed an unspoken language with the teacher, nodding in a certain way that let her know he knew the answer or to come to his desk so he could speak to her quietly. The other kids learned to slow down when they came near him, to be more gentle and although he still didn’t play with them, he would sit close by and watch. 

Each school year would start with fear, but Oscar held onto his coin and the nerves would pass. Some years new students came to the school, but this being a small town, it was more likely for students to leave and do high school in the city. When the time came for graduation, Oscar’s mother cheered the loudest of all the parents. 

That was his last summer at home. His father, ever disappointed, demanded that Oscar should fend for himself. Paralysed by fear, no amount of clutching the coin could calm him. Mama pleaded for extra time but with each day that followed his father would yell and threaten to throw him out on the street. Under pressure, Mama and Oscar went to all the shops in the village but no one would hire him.

Just as autumn was creeping in, a helping hand arrived in the form of his favourite teacher, Mrs O’Leary. She had always taken great care in understanding Oscar and explaining things to him in detail so he would know what to expect. She offered to take him into the city to look for work. She had a cousin that worked as a manager in a fancy hotel and he would know where they should start. 

Mrs O’Leary prepared Oscar for the journey by confirming the exact time she would come by the next day to collect him at his front door. He was ready early and patiently waited on the porch for her. They walked to the train station together with Mrs O’Leary having him focus on counting the square paving blocks that lined the sidewalk. Before entering Monroe Station, she explained to Oscar what would happen next. 

First, they would stop at a ticket booth and buy passage on the number 2 train. With their tickets, they would go through the turnstile to the platform. Then they would stand behind the yellow line and wait for the train. When the train arrived it was best to allow all the other passengers to get on before they find seats where they could see out the window. When she was sure that Oscar was comfortable with their plan, Mrs O’Leary guided him into the station.

Oscar held tightly to his coin, hand staying in his left pocket, focusing intently on his teacher. As soon as the train started moving, he felt nervous again watching the village main road whiz by. Mrs O’Leary suggested he count how many white houses he could see while she explained what would happen next.

The train would stop for them at the Forester Station and they would get off only when there was no more movement in their carriage. They would take the stairs up to the city and come out in front of a bookstore that had a wooden sign of a lion. They would then turn left and walk 5 blocks, then right for 3 more blocks. On the opposite corner, they would find the Madison Hotel where her cousin, Mr Hanson, worked.

When the train stopped, they did exactly as his teacher said they would, with Oscar holding onto his coin. Walking along the busy city street, Mrs O’Leary suggested that he take note of each shop window they pass and remember them to find his way back to the bookstore. 

At the hotel, Mr Hanson was a friendly gentleman that didn’t try to shake Oscar’s hand. He smiled kindly and spoke to his cousin, allowing Oscar to settle his nerves and get comfortable in the huge lobby. 

All around him, people were so busy that Oscar soon forgot his teacher. Young men in navy blue uniforms carried suitcases or pushed a fancy gold trolley. Women in black and white uniforms hurried past carrying trays. Oscar was particularly interested in the revolving door, amazed at how each person went in one side and out the other. Mrs O’Leary had cleverly avoided this and led him in through a back entrance. He found himself in a seating area with people occupying some of the royal blue chairs and couches. He came to the end of the lobby outside a dimly lit room filled with tables and chairs and he guessed it to be the restaurant. 

Oscar got a fright when several people came charging out of a door that he hadn’t noticed, it blended perfectly into the wood paneled wall behind him. Clutching his coin for dear life, he lost his bearings and backed into another room. For a moment he thought he was surrounded by many tall people, but after convincing himself to open his eyes again, he was relieved to find rows and rows of coats hanging on rails. 

It gave him the sense of being with people but feeling completely safe. Calmly he walked further into the room and came to a window in the wall that looked out to the lobby. Then he remembered his teacher just as she saw him. Mr Hanson looked taken aback at first but laughing he came closer and told Oscar that this window was where guests to the hotel, usually for the spa and restaurant, would check their coats in. The attendant would issue a pair of numbered tickets, putting one of them into the coat’s left pocket and handing the other ticket to the guest. Later the guest would come back to retrieve their coat by exchanging their ticket for it. 

Oscar decided right then it was the best job in the world. Mrs O’Leary and her cousin made arrangements for him to return the following week to test out the job. The two travelers left the hotel through the back, and on the way home, Oscar listened intently to Mrs O’Leary’s instructions on how he would get to the hotel on his own. It would be a Friday and he would need to buy a ticket for the number 4 train leaving at 2 pm to arrive at 2:25 pm, then walk the same route to be on time for his shift starting at 3 pm. He could use the back entrance and go straight to the coat check room and Mr Hanson would let him know when to take his breaks. At end of shift he would leave the hotel to catch the number 11 train home leaving at exactly half past midnight. 

The next week Oscar took the train like Mrs O’Leary instructed, paying attention to the paving blocks from his apartment to the station, and all the shopfronts from the bookstore to the hotel. He did the job so well that Mr Hanson offered him a full-time position. Mama was excited to hear the news, and to Oscar’s surprise, his father arranged an apartment for him above the corner cafe. Every week from Wednesday through Sunday for the past 29 years, 11 months and 3 weeks he has been the coat check attendant at the Madison Hotel and he’s never missed a day of work.

Today started like any other day. He gets up, makes the bed, and sits in his favourite chair with a cup of tea reading 5 pages of his book. He waters the 3 plants on the kitchen windowsill and put his oats on to cook. He stands by the stove, watching the clock on the wall and every 2 minutes he stirs, just like Mama taught him. After breakfast he takes a shower, and gets ready for work. He pulls on his pants and instinctively rests his hand over the left pocket at the top of his thigh to say good morning to his lucky coin.

But it’s not there. Stifling a scream he shoves his hand into the pocket only to find a hole where the coin must have fallen out. Oscar tries to remain calm by squeezing his hands into fists and pacing back and forth. Retracing his steps mentally, he remembers he had arrived home as usual just after 1 am. He still had his coin when he got off the train recalling how he had given it one last squeeze on the platform because it scares him to walk into the dark night. Once he was outside he kept his hands ready for a fight as Mr Hanson taught him. Safely inside his apartment, he changed into his pyjamas hanging his pants by the belt loop on the hook in the bathroom because he wears each pair of pants twice before it goes into the wash. When he gets home, he doesn’t need his coin as much, so he leaves it in the left pocket.

For a moment his panic increased, wishing he could phone Mama to tell him what to do. Then with a heavy heart, he recalled how long it had been, 5 years, and 3 months since he last was able to talk to her and in that moment he missed her the most.

Oscar’s routine makes it impossible for him to miss work but he also needs to find his lucky coin. He crawls on his hands and knees through his apartment, checking every square inch. Coming up empty-handed, he takes one stair at a time bent over at the waist, but still no coin. Outside the cafe he continues to walk in this way, inspecting exactly where he walked the night before. No coin at the laundromat or the butcher, and all the while Oscar subconsciously counts the blocks. Passing the grocer, with his face about a foot away from the ground, a flashing light catches his eye. He knows he should stay on the exact route that he walked, but the light flashes again, and he is drawn to it. 

Raising up halfway, he spots a pile of junk next to the dumpster. He sees it’s not so much a light but the sun refracting off a broken mirror. His reflection is distorted in the many pieces that are desperately holding onto their position in the frame. Fascinated by it he crouches down and, for a moment he forgets about his coin and the mission at hand. The old antiques shopkeeper, Mrs Jones, calls hello to Oscar, informing him to take anything he likes before the garbage collectors come. She doesn’t wait for Oscar to reply, knowing not to fuss with him. 

Oscar taps a piece of mirror that makes him look like Quasimodo, and it makes a strange sound. Instinctively he puts his hand on his thigh to feel for his coin and remembers it isn’t there. In frustration, he taps his reflection again. Suddenly it shatters further, and the backboard crumbles into a million pieces. Oscar is surprised to find a pile of gold coins at his feet. He excitedly scoops up as many as he can fit into the right pocket of his pants and fills both his jacket pockets. He then unzips his lunch bag and fills that too. Finally, he picks up just one more coin, the most aged and dull of the lot and holds it tight in his left hand, thanking his Mama for making sure he never runs out of coins again.

Oscar’s perfect attendance record remains in tact to this day.

This story was written as part of my YOU ChooseDay series. Every week I use the DIYMFA prompt randomiser to select two sets of prompts, then I share the options on my Instagram stories for votes on what I will be writing about that week. On Wednesday I write the first draft using the winning prompts, with editing on Thursday. I publish here on Friday and share with my IG followers. This process helps spark my creativity – forced to write a story about random topics, different point of view or genre, and within a deadline – and I try to achieve a minimum of 2000 words. As always, your feedback is welcome!

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