“Small Change” is told alternately through the voice of a female narrator and the voice of the main character, Rutchen. Rutchen relates what happened to her in a Swiss jail and tells about the troubled relationship she had with her father, who is dead at the time she tells her tale. The story is not told in straight time sequence but as a jumble of events and impressions.
“Small Change” opens in an Israeli neighborhood with the narrator recalling what she saw and heard, and what the neighbors saw and heard, when Rutchen returned home after traveling. Based on these stories, the narrator learns that Rutchen’s father has sold his ‘ ‘magnificent” stamp collection, and the money it brought is surely enough to buy “land, houses, shops, diamonds.” But it appears that Rutchen has taken some of the money and traveled with it; now she has returned home, looking ill.
The narrator reports—as do the neighbors, including Mrs. Klein, Mrs. Borak, and Mr. ‘ ‘Everything Cheap”—that, when Rutchen entered her parents’ home, her father, Mr. Shlezi, began to yell and moan, “with a growl coming out of his belly.” After a time, the lights in the house went out, and they could hear Gerda, Shlezi’s wife, emit a scream and say something about small change. Accounts differ among the neighbors, but the narrator swears that she heard ‘ ‘a kind of dry crackle spilling into the darkness.”
Rutchen picks up the story as she and the narrator are sitting in a park. Rutchen tells the narrator a bit about that night, primarily about how frighteningly her father behaved and what he said about “small change.” She and the narrator are sitting on a park bench near Rutchen’s house, after Shlezi’s funeral. Rutchen says that his collecting “small change” drove her mad. Shlezi also had a very valuable stamp collection, with different types of stamps, including those with pictures of birds of prey as well as “the biggest collection of antiSemitic stamps.”
The narrator remembers that Shlezi worked as a bus driver and always had the early morning shift. This was one of the reasons he was so careful about always having “small change ready every evening” for the next day.
The narrator also remembers when Shlezi stopped driving the bus and that, after he sold his stamp collection, there were small stacks of coins wrapped in tracing paper and tin foil all over the house. Rutchen notes that he kept track of the number of coins he wrapped and that he could tell the number in each stack by feel. No one was allowed near him when he counted the coins.
The coins gave Rutchen an idea. She had heard that the Israeli lira, a currency not used anymore and therefore worthless, would produce two francs ”in small change” when inserted into a Zurich vending machine that made change. So, she found the lira her father had wrapped up and took them to Switzerland.
For a while, the scheme worked. While at a store, Rutchen ‘ ‘inserted lira into the slot and pressed, and instead of faded old lira her palm was full of small change again, pretty shining Swiss money, really pretty.” But suddenly two women walked up to Rutchen and shoved her into a room where a man was sitting behind a desk. Rutchen is telling this to the narrator, who notices that her voice is becoming increasingly erratic.
As Rutchen continues the story, the man behind the desk asks Rutchen where she is from. She answers ‘ ‘Israel,” and he says that he knew that and that the people they pick up for this crime are always from Israel. Rutchen is terrified and begins to hallucinate during the questioning. The man opens her purse, turns it over, and the Swiss francs fall out. Rutchen begins to shake, and she remembers that her father’s hands shake because he has Parkinson’s disease. The man asks Rutchen why she has all of these coins, and she tells him because her father collects coins and that he always says, ”a man needs small change.”
Rutchen, the man who interrogated her, and the two women who picked her up then wait for someone named Herr Zutter, who appears to be a lawyer. Rutchen is put into a police car with Herr Zutter, and they drive to “a big house.” She is put into a room; Herr Zutter tells her to get undressed, takes her bag, and leaves. Rutchen waits in the room alone and experiences a hallucination of her father.
A policewoman comes in and tells Rutchen to get dressed but to remove her watch and jewelry. She is put into another car and taken to the magistrate. Herr Zutter is there, and she asks him what she should do. He tells her to sign a confession because “here in Switzerland you have nothing to fear. When someone confesses and repents we let them go.” This increases Rutchen’s fear even more.
The magistrate is in a hurry because his wife does not like for him to be late. Rutchen says ‘ ‘yes” to everything he asks her, believing that she will be freed and back in her hotel soon. The next thing Rutchen knows, she is having her fingerprints taken and being shoved down a hall by the police. She is confused and terrified when she realizes that this building is a prison and that they are locking her in a cell.
Inside the cell, Rutchen loses control. She beats on the door until her hands are bloody and then begins screaming and hitting her head against the door.
Rutchen starts the story again. She remarks that ‘ ‘a huge colorful fresco of names and writing and huge swollen penises were drawn on all the walls” with blood, coffee, soup, and other liquids. Rutchen begins to hallucinate about monsters in the wall, and finally she vomits. She remembers stories she has read about Israelis rotting in jails all over the world, mostly for taking and selling drugs. But she is in jail for making “small change.”
Rutchen searches for something to write with and finally settles on using her own menstrual blood. On the cell wall she writes, “And I was left naked and bare and for these things I weep.” She says to the narrator that she is “not right in the head” and then asks her if “you think I’m crazy.” She adds that she wants to ‘ ‘run raving in the streets like the Golem.” Rutchen becomes increasing hysterical and angry as she speaks about men who rape women.
The narrator and Rutchen are still in the park, where it becomes increasingly apparent that Rutchen has lost her mind. Rutchen tells the narrator about Pudding, the cat left to Gerda in Gerda’s mother’s will. Shlezi hated the cat. The neighborhood has a variety of stories about how the cat died, but in all of them Shlezi kills the cat in some very horrible and purposeful way to punish it for jumping on his stamp collection.
The narrator understands that the prison authorities let Rutchen out of jail on the day she had a flight scheduled for Israel, as they didn’t want to ‘ ‘waste a plane ticket on her.” The narrator remembers that Rutchen set a fire in her family’s house, trying to burn her father’s small change while Gerda and Shlezi were in Mr. “Everything Cheap’s” apartment playing cards. When they returned, Shlezi was so upset by this sight that he died. The funeral was held, attended by a few neighbors and former bus-driving colleagues.
After Shlezi dies, the currency changes again, and Gerda must haul all of the “small change” to the bank to exchange it for the new currency. Rutchen’s face, according to the narrator, now “bore an extraordinary resemblance to her father’s face.”
Thomas E. Barden – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 14, Yehudit Hendel, Published by Gale Cengage Learning.