There are perks associated with being a divisional manager at Covington Foods. One of these perks is that I have the stereotypical “corner office”.
My office is located on the sixth floor of the Covington Foods headquarters building. Two walls of the office are comprised mostly of windows. This affords me a view of the southernmost sector of downtown Cincinnati and the Ohio River. Within sight of my office is also a historic suspension bridge that was built during the American Civil War.
I entered my office last Tuesday a little after ten o’clock in the morning. I had already had two meetings that day, and my mind was awhirl with my usual plateful of deadlines and crises.
It was a gorgeous late October morning, sunny and clear. In general, no one moves to Cincinnati for the weather. The city is characterized by wet, snowy winters, long, rainy springs, and humid summers.
But oh, the autumns. Autumn is the one time of the year when you feel fortunate to be a resident of southern Ohio.
When I walked into my office, I immediately noticed a shiny, metallic object in the middle of my desk blotter. It was glinting in the sun.
I could see that it was a coin. A quarter, in all likelihood.
There is nothing inherently unusual about a quarter, of course (though there would turn out to be much unusual about this one). I knew, however, that it had not been there when I’d left for my a.m. meetings. And very few people have access to my private office.
I sat down at my desk and picked up the coin.
It was indeed a quarter, issued by the U.S. Mint. But this was an unusual twenty-five cent piece—by the standards of 2018, at least.
The quarter in my hand was a Bicentennial quarter. On the heads side of the coin, beneath the usual bust of George Washington, were two dates: 1776 and 1976. On the obverse—tails—side there was an engraving of a Continental Army drummer. Above him was the Torch of Liberty enclosed in a ring of thirteen stars. And beneath that, the Latin inscription, E PLURIBUS UNUM.
Why had someone put a Bicentennial quarter on my desk? The coin was inextricably associated with 1976.
And as I’ve said, I’m the only one left alive who fully remembers the events of that summer.
“Are you familiar with Bicentennial quarters?” I asked Dr. Beckman.
“Somewhat,” Dr. Beckman said. “I was born in the early nineteen-eighties. There weren’t many of them around by then.”
“No, there weren’t,” I said. “The U.S. Mint actually produced and circulated one-point-six billion of them. A huge quantity for American coinage in the late middle of the twentieth century. The coins were issued to commemorate the American Bicentennial.
“Anyone who is old enough to remember nineteen seventy-six will certainly remember the Bicentennial celebrations. America had just emerged from Vietnam and Watergate. But the economy was horrible in the nineteen seventies. That was the era of stagflation and never-ending energy crises.
“The Bicentennial celebrations became a forced display of national unity and optimism, even though many people weren’t feeling much of either. Both the government and the media made a big deal of the so-called ‘Spirit of Seventy-Six.’ Bicentennial memorabilia was everywhere. Most of all, those Bicentennial quarters.”
“So where did they all go?” Dr. Beckman asked.
“Most of them disappeared into private collections. Everyone was certain that Bicentennial quarters were going to be valuable someday. But do you know how much the average Bicentennial quarter is worth nowadays?”
“No,” Dr. Beckman admitted. “Coin collecting isn’t exactly an…avocation of mine.”
“Bicentennial quarters are worth twenty-five cents today,” I said, “unless you have an uncirculated proof, or a rare variation.
“But they are still hoarded. Someday, in perhaps forty years, when all the generations that were alive in nineteen seventy-six die off, there will be a flood of Bicentennial coins released into general circulation, I predict. But for now, they’re rare, even though they aren’t particularly valuable.”
“Very interesting,” Dr. Beckman said. “But surely you aren’t suffering from acute anxiety because you found an unexplained, rare-but-not-particularly-valuable quarter on your desk at Covington Foods.”
“Oh,” I corrected him. “The presence of the quarter was explained.”
“I see,” Dr. Beckman said with a little frown. “Do go on, Steve.”
A familiar feminine voice piped up behind me.
“Oh, Mr. Wagner. You found it.”
I swiveled around in my chair and saw Madison Greene. Madison is my student co-op, a marketing major at the University of Cincinnati. She’s been assigned to me since August. Madison is a very bright and diligent young woman. She’s made a real contribution to our new product marketing campaigns.
Madison has also turned the heads of more than a few males in the office. She’s a pretty brunette who wears glasses. I’ve noticed that the other male co-op students and young male salaried employees take every opportunity to talk to her. But Madison Greene is all business, at least when she’s in the office. On more than one occasion, I have seen her dismiss the would-be twentysomething suitor with a frosty look or tone of voice.
And even with me, she’s excessively formal. She calls me “Mr. Wagner”. I’ve invited her to call me “Steve” several times. We don’t insist on formal modes of address at Covington Foods.
Madison will call me Steve for a day or two, then it’s back to “Mr. Wagner”. I’ve given up. Mr. Wagner it is, then.
Madison was holding a manila file folder in her hand. I remembered then that she had promised to drop by my office late in the morning to show me some ad proposals for Ocean Brite Soap, a new product that Covington Foods will launch next year.
But first there was the matter of the observation she had just made.
“Found what, Madison?”
“Well, I mean…that quarter, of course. It’s a Bicentennial quarter.”
“I know. You put it on my desk, Madison?”
I was taken aback. This prim-and-proper young woman, who wouldn’t even address me by my first name, had found cause to enter my office when I wasn’t present, and place a Bicentennial quarter on my desk. Was that what she was saying?
This was an unusual occurrence. I wasn’t angry—not by any means—but it probably seemed to Madison that I was.
“I–I found the quarter in my change this morning,” she said, “from the coffee kiosk in the first-floor lobby.”
“And why did you think that I would want it?”
Madison had no way of knowing what I was truly thinking. So, of course, she continued to perceive my reaction as annoyance.
“I–I don’t know. I guess I figured that you might want it as a memento.”
“Yes, well–you were alive when it was minted, right? Oh–I didn’t mean–“
“Madison,” I interrupted. “It’s okay. I’m just wondering why you put the quarter on my desk. I’ve never given you any indication that I’m into coin collecting.”
“I don’t know,” Madison said, flustered. “The truth is—and this will sound silly—but it was like a little voice just told me, Give this to Mr. Wagner.”
I don’t know if I flinched, but I probably did. Madison wasn’t the sort of person whose actions were ruled by “little voices”. And where, exactly, had that little voice come from?
Madison Greene would have absolutely no idea of the significance of the year 1976. What that year meant to me.
“Oh!” Madison was visibly shaken now. “I feel like such an idiot. I don’t know why I did that!”
I raised my hands in what I intended to be a calming gesture. “Madison. Madison. It’s all right. I appreciate the thought. But in case you haven’t already guessed, Covington Foods pays me a pretty fair wage for the work I do here. I don’t want to become known as the manager who takes money from his student co-ops.” I held out the quarter to her. “Please, Madison. Take the quarter back. But thank you, once again, for the thought.”
I suppose that I made things worse for her by returning the quarter. But I didn’t want to have it in my possession. Even then, before everything else happened.
Madison reached out, and took the quarter from my hand. She dropped it into the right pocket of the skirt of her gray business suit.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
I figured that the best thing for me to do now would be to change the subject.
“Nothing to be sorry about, Madison. Anyway, let’s move on to the next item. I believe you brought some ad mockups for Ocean Brite Soap…”
Together we went over the ad mockups. Neither one of us mentioned the quarter again.
But there was a palpable air of discomfort in the room between us. Inadvertently, my overreaction to the quarter had caused Madison to feel ashamed.
Now, I knew, she would never address me as Steve. I would be Mr. Wagner for the remainder of her time at Covington Foods.
“A somewhat unusual interaction with a subordinate,” Dr. Beckman said, when I’d finished. “But I still don’t see how any of this is the cause of your anxiety.”
“That’s not all,” I said. “I’m not finished yet.”
“You keep mentioning the year nineteen seventy-six. What exactly is it about that year?”
I wasn’t yet ready to directly answer Dr. Beckman’s question–and I didn’t know if I ever would be. But I did have something more to tell him about that day at the office. And it was a lot more disturbing than an unexpected quarter, and an awkward conversation.
The unusual was about to become horrific.