CNF: Wooden Nickel

by Steve Cushman


For two years, almost three decades ago now, my father owned a bar on 19th Avenue in St. Petersburg, Florida. It was nothing special, even its name The Corner Tavern was generic. I only visited him at the bar four or five times because after my parents’ divorce I was living with my mother, two hours away in Orlando. Each time I visited, I was amazed at how gracefully he moved around the place, pulling a draft or shooting pool, tossing darts, talking to patrons, his customers.

He seemed to possess a calm at the bar that I never saw when my father was at home, where he was like a man who fidgeted because he didn’t know what to do with his hands. A year after the bar closed, he died of a heart attack while playing golf.

On Tuesdays, he gave out wooden nickels good for 1 free drink (a draft) on Thursdays between 5-7 only. A couple months ago, I found one of these nickels in a sock drawer in my home a thousand miles away from that bar, that life, all those years ago.

The nickel is brown and round, about the size of a silver dollar, but made of what looks like thick balsa wood. On the front is a stamped buffalo with the words Wooden Nickel along the top and United States of America at the bottom, the words riding the round curve of the nickel. On the back, in the center, a frosted mug atop a simple message: 1 free drink. Like the front, this side has lettering that follows the curve of the coin—The Corner Tavern on the top and a phone number below.

I don’t know how this wooden nickel has survived almost thirty years. It’s as if I stole it away that last time I visited, sealed it in a plastic bag, knowing it would be a souvenir some day. Knowing it would somehow transcend, to me at least, the promise of a free drink at a corner bar.

Sometimes, after my wife and son are asleep, I’ll pull it out and feel the rough wooden edges, lift it to my nose as if I can still smell that bar, though of course I can’t. I keep it because it feels good to hold something he might have held, and because it keeps my hands busy on those nights when I don’t know what to do with them. I keep it because it helps me remember it took him forty-five years to find this bar, his home, and gives me hope, that it might not be too late for me after all.


Steve Cushman earned an MFA from UNC-Greensboro and has published three novels. His first poetry collection, How Birds Fly, is the winner of the 2018 Lena Shull Book Award. Cushman lives with his family in Greensboro, North Carolina.


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What surprising, fascinating stuff can you tell us about the origin, drafting, and/or final version of “Wooden Nickel”?

Well, I don’t know fascinating it is, but I’ve been teaching a class for a while where I use a prompt–write about a special object-for years. After using this prompt a dozen times, I thought what’s a special item to me and the first thing that popped into my mind was this wooden nickel. I thought I knew where I had it stored, but it wasn’t there. This sent me on the proverbial wild goose hunt through the house looking for the wooden nickel. I did finally locate it in my sock drawer, in a small box, where I keep other non-monetary treasures. I did take it out a time or two after a night of drinking and ask myself those questions posed in the essay. Drafting of the essay came quickly, one of those gifts from the Writing Gods, I suppose. I’d say the third draft is what I sent out into the world, which is like a first draft to a writer like me who usually goes through 40-50 drafts of a piece. But the essay felt like a gift, even if I never published it, though I’m sure delighted it will make its way into the world via Matter Press.


Check out the write-up of the journal in The Writer.

Matter Press recently released titles from Meg Boscov, Abby Frucht, Robert McBrearty, Tori Bond, Kathy Fish, and Christopher Allen. Click here.

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