he word “juxtapose” I learned when the dollar was still strong. Around that time — 1965 — my world hinged on geckos.
“The wall, “I said, “is juxtaposed with geckos. So is the ceiling.”
No, he admonished gently. Try again.
“Geckos on a wall, juxtaposed against climbing vines, curious. “
Better, he said, but not quite.
“The juxtaposition of the geckos and palmetto leaves on the wall made for a curious sight.”
Think of the Latin juxta, near.
The dollar traded at 625 to the lire. The digit rarely changed in those copycat summers. Regulation ruled. The British Pound — he called it Sterling; I never asked why— went for $2.2. We lived like cool rooks, a man and a boy. Whole years passed this way.
But 1973, while in Holland, war in Israel uprooted the doldrums and shook us by the shoulders: the oil embargo; the collapse of Bretton Woods. Currencies got to mischief. “Floating boat, sinking dollar,” quipped the Amsterdam tour-guide. We bought less.
Just a big case of nerves, he said, and taught me a new word, “recidivism.” Relapse was the clue.
I considered the vowel-perfect syllables. “The recidivist geckos walked across the street, “ I said.
Geckos don’t cross streets, he said. To relapse you must first lapse. Try using “incidence.” Think of the incidence of recidivism. The criminal who relapses. The addict, redeemed, but available to wanton regression.
By the time I learned “insouciance” and “autumnal” I’d forgotten recidivism. “Nocturne” followed. Twilight ran our sentences.
When I got to “Ragnarok” and “umber,” the dollar rallied. “Vatic, voluptuous, vertiginous” all followed. In Italy, 580 lire presaged 650 — an auspicious start to a 40-year zigzag.
“Speculative,” he said. Then, “destabilize,” “denominate,” “anomaly.” Even “Laissez-faire“.
Look at France. Five francs to the dollar! Imagine that! He recalled a decade, the 1950s, when the number was three. Those, he said, were old francs, big bills that required triple folding. Now, speculation caused destabilization, which with the introduction of laissez-faire trading might outlive anomaly. Instability was its own currency. So many words at once.
Then came “pellucid,” my favorite, a puckering the lips mistook for sound.
“The pellucid gull in the stormy sky,” I said.
Poetic, he replied, but by then he was too sick to object. “Look at my skin, filmy and shriveled. It’s pellucid, the color of cartilage.”
The dollar paid for his treatment because I couldn’t find a bank to accept an under-aged signature. Doctors wondered about the teenager and the old man, two vagabonds with leather wallets. How old was the boy? The one with the dark glasses?
The Carthaginians, he told me, set up camp where Tunis is now. Short of silver and gold, the coinage of the time, they sealed leather pouches and called it money. Break the seal and the pouch was void. It was insurance, a bond. The Byzantines introduced iron tokens as surrogates for gold.
By the time specialists asserted unreasonable cheer — “disingenuous” was the word — the dollar had again turned downward.
Silver certificates got their comeuppance; no more redeemable paper. In their place came Federal Reserve Notes. Surrogates. Articles of faith. Leather pouches with seals. He called it a retreat from accountability. I hid my final silver certificates in tin boxes, where they remain like parchment in amber.
“Bilious,” “insipid” — these were two of the final words. Nixon loaned himself to the former, Agnew to the latter. The Middle East, he insisted, was a crevice without a bridge.
The dollar settled on the word cremation, which is what he wanted. No burial. No laissez-faire.
I juxtaposed my terror against his lucidity and we laughed off the rest — or tried. One oven is worth the next, he said. The truest article of faith is trust. Can I trust you? He could.
We got giddy to thwart the antiseptics.
Tell me about the bylaws in British Honduras, he asked.
In British Honduras, I responded, they demand coinage in the form of pellucid geckos. Insouciant recidivists wander the streets carrying lapsed pouches full of silver. Umber nocturnes make the population dream so much they end up sleeping and sleeping.
But it was the sleep he took to heart.
The dollar never recovered.