Lemme tell you what happened to me at work yesterday.  The kids and teachers had all gone home for the day, and I was busy sweeping the school halls like I always do in the evenings.  I put my little portable radio in the hall and got to grooving with the rhythm.  I like the old classic tunes like Frank and Smokie, you know.  Anyway, I pushed the broom the length of the hallway, and all of a sudden, someone’s banging on the front door.  No one’s supposed to be at the school that late, so I figured I’d just ignore it and get on with my own business.  But the banging started up again, all that racket thundering in the hallway, and I heard a muffled voice outside call, “Hey, hey!”  A kid’s voice.  I looked at the door and saw the top of a blonde head bobbing in the window.  Same shade as my daughter Lynn’s hair.  I felt sorry for the kid, so I let him in.

“School’s closed, ya know,” I said.

“I know, mister, but I have to get inside!”

He blew past me, but I grabbed him by the back of his shirt.  “Hey, you can’t just run around in here, kid.  Don’t you have to get on home?”

“Please, I forgot something.  I have to get it.”

I didn’t want to mess around with the kid and end up staying lateI wanted to get back to my work.  “It’ll be here tomorrow.”

“No, you don’t understand.”  He slapped his leg.  “I dropped it, and I have to find it.”  He clutched his pants pocket.

“Well, whatever it is, I’ll keep an eye out for it.”

“Please, mister.”

Looked like he was near about to cry.  “Aww, come on, kid.”  I sighed and patted his arm.  “Alright, let’s go find it then.”

He looked a little happier and turned, ready to bolt off down the hall.

“Hey, slow down.  What’s your name anyway, kid?”

“Billy Parker.”

“I’m Mr. Griggs.  But folks just call me Joe.”

“Thanks for letting me in, Mr. Joe.”

“Sure.  What we looking for anyway?”

Billy told me that he had lost a penny.  “I think it fell out of my pocket during reading circle.”

A stinking penny.  No one ever went broke over a penny.  I was trying not to laugh, and Billy said, “You don’t understand, it’s a special penny.”

I didn’t know any pennies that were ever special.  “Alright, kid, let’s go fetch it for ya.”  We walked through the halls and up the stairs to the second floor.  Billy shuffled his feet a bit, and the sound echoed in the empty hallway.  He ran up to the door of Room 214, and I unhooked my key ring from my belt.

“Are those the keys to all the doors in the school?”

“Yep, every one.”  I fished through the ring for the right key.

“Cool.  They must really trust you.”

I had never really thought of it that way before.

Mrs. Wallace’s third grade classroom remained just as she had left it in the afternoonI hadn’t gotten around to cleaning the upstairs rooms yet.  A few stray books cluttered the shelf, and red whiteboard markers littered the floor.  The UV light glowed in the turtle’s tankMr. Gum I think they named him.

Billy ran over to the carpeted area in the far end of the classroom.  “It’s here!”  Sitting pretty on the gray carpet was his shiny copper penny.  He picked it up, studied its face, and held it up between his thumb and forefinger for me to see.

I nodded, happy that he found what he was looking for.  “What’s so special about that penny anyway, kid?”

“My grandpa gave it to me.”

I thought about all the gifts I had ever sent to my grandson way out in California.  Ben.  I always tried to make them extra special like that limited edition truck that came out a couple years ago, but maybe kids these days just want pennies.  I don’t know, maybe my daughter Lynn never even gave him the presents.  She hasn’t spoken to me in more than ten years, thinks I’m not the greatest father in the world.  I know I messed up after her mother died, but the G. A. meetings got me back on track.  And I’ve had the job here at Carson Elementary for almost four years now.  But Lynn, you know, she’s a bull, that one.  Always has been.  She just sent a postcard letting me know when she had the baby.  She wrote, “Just thought you should know about Ben.”  I gave her a buzz, but she didn’t answer.  Tried a couple of times, but hey, if that’s how she wants it, then I’m not going to push.  Would like to see him though.  Ben.

Billy still held that penny tight.  I said, “Alright, you’ve got it back so we better get outta here.”

Billy stuffed the penny deep into his pocket.  He followed me out of the classroom, and I locked up.  “It’s getting pretty dark outside, how you getting home, kid?”

“I’ll walk I guess.”

“Can’t somebody come pick you up?”

Billy walked slowly and looked down at his feet.  “My dad’s at work, and the sitter doesn’t know I snuck out.  She’s always on the phone with her boyfriend or something.”  He paused.  “My grandpa used to come get me, but he died last summer.”

“I’m sorry, kid.  What about your mom?”

Billy looked up at me and just shook his head.  I put my hand on his shoulder as we walked down the stairs.  I saw him quickly wipe a tear off his cheek.

“Hey, little buddy, why don’t we just sit down a minute.”

Billy and I sat on the steps, and he tried to hold himself together the best he could.  All the while he kept his hand in his pocket holding that penny I suspect.

“So when did your grandfather give you that penny anyway?”

Billy’s eyes brightened up.  “At Coney Island one day.  We saw it sitting there on the boardwalk.”  He took the penny out of his pocket and turned it around in his hand.  “I got hungry, and we were waiting in line for hot dogs at Nathan’s.”  In his hand, he set the penny face-up.  “It was just like that, heads up, right in front of us.”  Billy said his grandfather picked up the penny and rubbed the dirt off on his pants leg, held it up in the sun.  “My grandpa told me to keep this penny because it’s surely lucky.”  Billy smiled.  “Wanna see it?”

“Sure, kid.”  I held out my hand, and he dropped the penny in the middle of my palm.  It was warm from having been in Billy’s hand.  I leaned in to have a closer look.  Just a regular ole penny, Abe Lincoln in profile, In God We Trust.  A 1961 penny.  1961.  I rolled that penny around in my hand and thought back to that year.

I remember me and my grandfather.  Used to go around to his house all the time.  Go fishing and toss a ball around.  Stuff like that.  I remember sitting around the old transistor radio at his place waiting to hear if Mickey was going to top the Babe’s homerun record.  It was hot like crazy in the sitting room with me, Grandpop, and his friends all huddled around waiting.  They’d pass around bottles of beer I wasn’t allowed to even sneeze at.  But every now and then, when Grandpop got himself another cigarette, I’d sneak a little sip.  No one really paid attention to me; everyone listened to Mickey rack ‘em up.  And then the radio got all quiet and for a moment everything just . . . stopped.  And when we heard that cheering, we knew it.  We were, like, living a part of history.  Fifty-four homeruns.  Grandpop threw up his hands, and beer came shooting out of the bottle all over my head.  And he was laughing and trying to dry me off with the end of his shirt.  And I was laughing too.  Aww, man.  And then we did it all over again when Mickey’s record got topped by Maris later in the season. . . .  There was nothing like it1961.

“Whatcha thinking about Mr. Joe?”

I held that penny tight.  “Nothing much, kid.  Just some early days.”

He looked at my hand, so I gave him back the penny.  “Thanks for sharing.  You’re lucky your grandpa gave that to you.”

Billy smiled at me.  “Do you have any grandchildren, Mr. Joe?”

I thought about Ben.  “Yeah, a grandson, but I don’t see him much.”

“Why not?”

I shrugged.  “They live real far away.”

“Did you ever go visit?”

“No, but I wanted to.”

Billy turned the penny around in his hand, the copper glinting.  I had to give it another try.


author bio:

photo by Camille Bonds

Christine Taylor, a multiracial English teacher and librarian, resides in her hometown Plainfield, New Jersey.  She serves as a reader and contributing editor at OPEN:  Journal of Arts & Letters.  Her work appears in Modern Haiku, apt, Glass:  A Journal of Poetry, The Rumpus, Eclectica, and The Paterson Literary Review among others.  She can be found at www.christinetayloronline.com.