An old black man with a bulldog of a face slowly approaches the stand where I sell racing programs and forms at the Aksarben horse racing track, site of my first real job. I am 15. He puts down a dollar without saying a thing. I know it's for the program because programs are 75 cents and forms are $1.50. I give him a program and slide a quarter across the stand. He lowers his eyes to the quarter, as if it is something unexpected. He takes it between his immense thumb and forefinger. And then he lifts it and slides it into his ear. He nods at me, tucks the program under his arm and slowly heads for the track to watch the horses gathering for the next race.
This image returns to me often, at odd times, for no apparent reason. Is it stored in a place in my brain that receives a lot of traffic, where a neuron firing close by, jolts the memory alive? Is it that the unexpected conclusion to a rather ordinary event presented at that particularly informative time in my life was so striking it continues to reverberate? There must be others in this vast world who store quarters in their ears, though I have met only one. Why tonight, does reading the first line of the last story in Joyce Carol Oates' collection The Assignation revive this nearly three decades old image? "There was a man, no longer young, though not yet old, who, traveling alone in northern Europe, began to feel that his soul was being drained slowly, almost secretly from him, drop by drop."