Bethany Jones 2004






They were going to the coin shop because everyone says that the way to build a relationship is to build common interests. And when they were through at the shop, they would go pick up a tennis racket so he could play tennis with her tomorrow afternoon. Because compromise was another key to successful relationships. She wasn’t sure this was a compromise; tennis was actually fun. But they’d been dating for three months and yesterday they talked for the first time about their future together. She liked the idea of him in her future and since coin collecting was important to him, she said she’d like to more about coins.

     Hilary had never been in a coin shop before. There was only one in their Southern California town and it was buried amongst other small shops in the old downtown district. It had bars on the window “because of the merchandise,” Mike said. He held the door open, so she walked in first. It took a few seconds for her eyes to adjust to the dim light. The little bell on the door jangled as the door closed behind Mike. A chubby man wearing a colorful knit vest poked his head out of a back room and grinned cheerfully when he saw them.

     “Hi. How’re you two?” he asked.

     “Hey, Gene,” Mike said. “This is my girlfriend, Hilary.” He put his arm across Hilary’s shoulders and guided her towards the counter.

     “Nice to meet you, Hilary.” The man smiled and stepped up to the counter to shake Hilary’s hand. “Your boyfriend’s one of my best customers.”

     Hilary smiled and told the man she was pleased to meet him. “Gene’s the owner,” Mike told her.

Hilary nodded and looked around. The shop was dark because the barred windows in the front and the light from the backroom were the only sources of light. But then the owner switched on the lights to illuminate the coins under the glass counter. With the lights on, the place looked like a jewelry store, only with coins. The counter took up the wall to the left of the front door; the catalogs, current price lists, and coin holders were on the wall to the right of the door.

     The owner watched Hilary look around. He nodded at Mike, “Go ahead, show her around.” 

Mike gave Hilary the grand tour: for reference, the latest edition of the Guide Book of U.S. Coins.  Acid-free archival holders for paper money. The current commemorative coin selection. Then he got down to business—he wanted to assess the value of a particular ten-cent piece. Gene answered a few of his questions and then referred him to one of the guidebooks. “Feel free to explore, Hil,” Mike said as he began to flip through the book. 

Since the options for exploration were limited, Hilary stepped over to check out the coins displayed under the counter.  While she was standing there, a tall older woman walked into the store. She paused after the door closed behind her to remove the sunglasses that clipped to the front of her bifocals. She wore elastic waist blue jeans, a denim top, and gleaming white walking shoes. Her dyed brown hair was permed into a bubble around her heavily-lined face. She smiled at Hilary and said hello before she rang the bell on the counter. 

The owner poked his head out of the back room and his face lit up when he recognized the woman. “Mrs. Patterson,” he said while making his way out front.

Hilary pretended to look at some coins under the counter. She glanced at the older woman as she began to talk with the owner.

“How’ve you been?” he asked.

She answered, “Pretty good, I guess.” She paused and then laughed a little. “Compared to this time last year, things are really good.”

“Well, I know how that is . . . Any family coming to town for the holidays?”

“Carol and her kids are going to be here. So that’ll be fun.” She plunked her large purse down on the counter and began to fish around in it.

“What do you have for me today?” He took a seat on the stool behind the counter.

“Teeth,” the woman said with a laugh while she pulled a sandwich bag out of her purse. She untied the twisties holding it closed and extracted four gold teeth. The teeth were pretty big and looked like molars. They must have been crowns. The man put his glasses on to look at them.

“How much for this one?” she asked.  She pushed one of the teeth towards him.

He weighed it.  “It’s fourteen karat,” he said.  “So about forty dollars.”

“And this one?”

“Looks like they’re all about the same,” he said.  He

picked up the others and weighed them.  “It would be between one-fifty and one-sixty for all four of them.”

She nodded in response. “Can I get a check today?” she asked.  She was twisting the now-empty plastic bag in her right hand.

     “Sure can. It’ll be just a few minutes if you don’t mind waiting.”

     “That’s fine. I’m in no hurry.”

     The man went to the backroom to get out some paperwork.  He left the four gold teeth on the counter. Hilary looked up from the coins she was pretending to look at and turned around to see if Mike noticed the sale at the counter.  He was hunched over a book, his eyes following his finger as he moved it down each page.

Hilary turned back around and took a step closer to the older woman. The woman turned to her and smiled. She said, “You probably never thought old teeth could be valuable, did you?”

“No, I hadn’t thought of it quite like that before.”

“Neither had I until I was in here last time and noticed an older man selling them.”  She leaned one elbow on the counter and looked down.  “I was selling a few coins my husband and I bought years ago.”

“Are you and your husband coin collectors?”

“We were . . . more him than me. He passed away a year ago last week.” She looked down at the teeth on the counter. “This is a hard time of year for me.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Hilary mumbled. She stared at the gold teeth.

The woman looked at Hilary for a second. “Well, you know what they say. Time heals everything. Not really true, but things do get easier.” She paused, and Hilary looked up at her. “I was sixteen when we got married. So this is my first time on my own.” The corners of her eyes crinkled up as she smiled. “I can’t complain, though. He was a wonderful husband to me and we had fifty-two good years together. I never even pumped my own gas while he was alive.” She laughed and her eyes disappeared into her wrinkles. 

 Hilary laughed a little. “Wow, that’s unusual,” she said and stared down at the woman’s white shoes. Then Gene came out from the back room, and the two of them worked out the details and drew up the check and receipt.

“Anything else for today?” he asked after he handed her the check.

“This is it,” the woman said. She slung her purse over her right shoulder.

“Glad you brought these in. Do you more good as cash than as teeth. Come back anytime, Mrs. Patterson . . . and happy holidays.”

“Merry Christmas to you, Gene.” Mrs. Patterson took her money order, smiled at the owner, smiled at Hilary, and walked out the door. Hilary blushed; she hadn’t realized till then that she had watched the whole transaction with blatant curiosity.

     The owner watched the woman leave the store. When the bell at the door stopped jangling, he turned his attention to Hilary. “Did you want to look at anything in particular?” he asked.  He looked up from the paperwork he was finishing.

     “Umm, no. Just browsing.” Hilary pointed to the other side of the store. “My boyfriend’s still looking at that guide.”

     The man didn’t say anything for a few seconds. He was busy sliding the gold teeth into a small brown envelope. The he looked up and said, “You know, he’s got an impressive collection.”

     “Yeah. He does.” 

“Are you into collecting?”

Hilary was sure he was only trying to be polite; she obviously didn’t know what to do with herself in a coin shop. “No,” she said. “We’re just trying to find out more about each other’s hobbies.”

“Well, if you have any questions, I’d be happy to answer them.”

     Hilary took him up on the offer. “Do people come in here often to sell teeth?”

     “Every once in a while,” he said.  “It does seem a little odd.  I mean, this used to chew up food.”  He let a tooth fall out of the envelope into his hand.  He held it out for her to look at.

     She shuddered.  “Whose do you think they were?  Do you think they were her husband’s?”

     “Whoever’s they were, they don’t need ‘em anymore.” He stared down at the teeth in his hand. “You know,” he said, “All the mortuaries extract these from the corpses and return them to the family. The mortician handed me five when my wife died.” He chuckled. “I didn’t know she had that much gold in her mouth.”

“So the owner of that tooth probably is her dead husband?” Hilary asked.

     “Probably.” He put the tooth back in the envelope and picked up a pencil. “Anyway, now she’s got a little extra cash for the holidays.” He labeled the envelope with the weight and karat. “Nice trade-off. I don’t think Grandpa would mind a bit if his old teeth bought presents for the grandkids.”

“Works out well, I guess,” Hilary said. “So, does she come in here very often?” Hilary glanced at the door.

The owner didn’t answer right away but then he said, “Jack, her husband, used to come in a lot. That was before he got sick. Then he just stopped coming and I saw his obit in the paper. A few weeks after that she came in with some coins to sell me.”

“Does she need the money or something?” Hilary leaned both arms on the counter.

Naw, not really. I’m pretty sure Jack left her taken care of.” The owner pulled up a stool and sat down behind the counter. “She told me none of her kids are into coins, so she thought she might as well get the money out of the collection instead of saving it in some drawer.” He paused and then went on. “The first time she sold something she told me it wasn’t that she wanted to get rid of Jack’s stuff—it was just that she was over the collection phase of life, she said. She told me that she still loved Jack himself and didn’t wanna get all worked up over stuff connected with him. She told me,‘I wanna remember Jack, not his stuff.’ That’s what she said.”

The man finished his story and looked intently at Hilary—she felt like she should say something in response but she hesitated; just then the phone rang, and the man went to the back room to answer it, so Hilary wandered over to Mike.

“Hey, Hil, look at this,” he said. He was pointing at something in a catalog, but his finger was in the way, so she couldn’t see what it was.

“Cool. How much?”

“Only thirty-nine-ninety-five. What do you think?”

“Sounds like a good deal.”

“It’s a piece of economic history. Let me show you what the Standard World Catalog says about it.”

For the next half-hour Mike debated his need for a commemorative Euro coin set. He ended up deciding against buying anything. Hilary told him she fully endorsed his decision.



Mike opened the car door for her when they left the store. Hilary was caught off-guard so she bumped into him. They laughed. When he got in the other side, he asked how she liked the coin shop. “It wasn’t what I expected. It really made me think,” she told him.

“That’s what I like about collecting,” he said. “It’s such a unique hobby. Makes you think about history, politics, economics.” He buckled his seat belt.

Hilary asked him if he noticed the older woman selling four gold teeth.

     “Is that what she was selling? I didn’t hear.”

     “Yeah, four gold teeth. And she said her husband died a year ago. The owner told me morticians extract gold teeth and give ‘em back to the family. They must have been her dead husband’s.”

     Kinda weird.” Mike put the car in reverse and backed it out of the parking space. “Yeah, I heard her saying something about her husband.”

     “She said they were married for fifty-two years. And she was only sixteen when they got married. This is her first time on her own, she said. Her husband never even let her pump her own gas. She said he was into coin collecting. And now she’s coming in there with his old teeth.”

     “Gold is gold, I guess.” Mike turned the radio on and flipped through the stations. “Where do you think we should go to buy a tennis racket?”

     She looked at him. There was a long pause. “Sports Central,” she said.

     Neither of them said anything for a few minutes.

     “So tell me more about what the coin shop made you think.” He turned to look at her. But she didn’t say anything.

A different song came on the radio, and she turned up the volume. “I forget exactly what I was thinking.” She turned her head to look out the window. “Never mind, I guess.”



For a couple of days after that, Hilary found herself telling a lot of friends about Mike and their “future together” talk, and how they went to the coin shop and she saw the old woman selling old teeth. “But I couldn’t explain it to Mike,” she’d tell her friends. “I wanted to say to him, ‘Maybe it means something, Mike. Maybe it means something that you can be married for fifty-two years and then be okay selling your husband’s teeth. Maybe it means something that you can be on your own for the first time when you’re old.’ But I didn’t say any of that,” she’d tell them. “We just went to Sports Central and Mike bought a racket because that’s part of the plan too—Mike’s gonna see if he likes tennis. But I keep thinking about the woman who never even pumped her own gas.”

When she got to this part of the story, Hilary would trail off. And she didn’t say it but she wondered if the gold teeth were the kind of thing that people who talk about compromise and shared interests could explain. At least, she decided, she shouldn’t forget about it because maybe later she would understand what it meant.