This story follows a day in the life of a penny-- and all the thoughts, feelings, and observations of an sentient yet inanimate object over the course of 24 hours. I originally wrote it for a creative writing class at BYU in 2010. I then submitted it to creative competition for Annual BYU's Hunger Banquet. The theme of the competition was "Celebrating Human Dignity." The story won, and was published on the Students for International Development Blog. I've since made revisions to the original story, which can be found in the version below.
It all began with a crack and shattering-- beams of pale blue light and the clinking avalanche of silver and brown. A soft breath fell down on the scene after the dust had settled.
The innards of the piggy bank splayed out beside the pink fragments. The head of a woman with dark eyes hovered in the space above the scene, framed in by the shadows of a dark room. She walked her fingers through the coins, counting. One penny--1989, Denver-- watched the scene in silence. A great droplet splashed on the surface beside the penny—a tear. When the woman had finished grouping the coins into a small piles, she reached into her pocket, pulled out a telephone, and licked her lips.
“David,” she whispered, bringing it to her mouth, “I- I don’t know if we got enough.”
“I’ve been lookin’ everywhere for spare change. It’s been a few hours… No… I can’t ask Maria again, I think she knows we can’t pay her back. I'm already usin' her phone for the second time today.”
She stepped away and turned, paused. The fabric of her old shirt brushed against the top of the dresser.
“Lucy’s gonna be hungry when she wakes up… I can’t take her to the shelter again, I won't. There’s creeps down there,” Her voice broke before she could catch it. She calmed, took a few breaths. “I know, I know. Every little thing is gonna be all right. You always say that, but we in a bad spot right now, Dave.” She sighed, and stood again by the pile of pennies. After a few moments, she responded quietly “You really think so? God, I hope and pray. You pray for a sale on baby formula. Heaven help us both.” The phone snapped shut.
The woman put the device back in her pocket, left the room and came back to wipe the heap of coins off the table into a bag she held beyond its edge. It was dark, but the 1989 penny quivered as it felt the heat from the woman's fingers. A child cried. Maybe it was the woman’s stomach that grumbled as she tried to calm the crying baby. Clinking up against the other coins in the plastic bag, the penny began to process what he had seen. His consciousness, as small as it was, began to take shape again, wake up. The penny started remembering.
It had gone out into the world on a bright day in the springtime. It had been preceded by thousands just like it-- and would be followed by thousands more, this it knew well. But like a soldier fighting in battle, the penny intrinsically knew of its meaning and its purpose. It had been stamped with the image of a most honest president, printed upon with words of faith, in the nation of the brave, the free, and the proud-- a product of an advanced and civilized society. “I carry the value of precisely one cent-- no more, no less. I was called into being to show this value." The penny had simply come into being already understanding the definiteness of these things-- they preceded and informed whatever conscious thought the penny would develop.
In the spirit of deliberation, the penny allowed himself to be taken from the mint and go out into circulation. He willed himself to shine brightly, proudly performing his task for the waiting world.
That day, the penny could never forget. But of the rest of his short little life, all he remembered was a blur of wallets, hands, ATMs, and sidewalks-- handled by the hands of the large and the small, the filthy and the clean... consumers, cashiers, children. The first day was a beautiful memory preserved because it had come before the neverending event of circulation which carried the penny headlong through an imperfect world. Too many days, hands, and faces to count. Every set of fingers rubbed away some of the penny’s copper luster. It grew dirty and scuffed. Then, by chance, the penny had fallen into the allowance of a little girl with thick curly hair and missing teeth. Smiling, she had dropped him from her hands straight into the dark slot of the piggy bank.
But now! The penny again knew light and shadow, sound and stillness-- and surged at the prospect of being used, of again being awoken to fulfill its destiny and purpose. Of course the same girl awoke him-- it was she that had smashed the piggy bank... though she was not so much a girl anymore. She had all of her teeth now, but she did not smile. Some emotion the penny couldn’t pinpoint shone in her eyes (was it hope?), and it bolstered the penny up again, helped him remember his calling. Along with the rest of the coinage, the woman pushed the penny from the table and into a plastic bag beyond its edge.
She took the bag of coins and her baby to the bus stop and boarded first bus that came. The bus pulled out of park and coasted through narrow streets as the morning sun rose in grey urban haze. Everyone on the bus did their best, it seemed, to pretend that the other passengers were not there. They kept to themselves, their newspapers, phones, and earplugs. No one wished to meet the eyes of other passengers. The woman eyed the silver watch of a tall, well-dressed man standing beside her, but said nothing.
The bus stop let the woman and child off near a drugstore at the base of a tall building. Horns honked and steam rose up from grates on the street. The neon of the “open” sign quivered erratically. Pacing, the woman entered the building and reached the back of the store, where she knew they stocked baby formula. She read the yellow tag dangling in front of the product she wanted and froze. The penny watched through the plastic as she brought a hand to her head and rubbed her temples. The hungry child, now completely awake, had begun to wail.
The piercing cry caught the attention of an older woman down the aisle who had been comparing aspirin labels. She took in the younger woman’s oversized, torn clothing, messy ponytail, and the frantic way in which she scanned product prices while trying to hush the child.
The older woman walked over to the younger woman. “Could you use this?” she asked quietly, holding out a twenty dollar bill.
The young woman shifted the baby, and looked down, hesitant to accept the offering. “I- I can’t repay you,” she admitted in a murmur, ashamed to meet the older woman’s eyes for more than a few moments at a time.
The older woman smiled. “It’s all right. Really. Just make sure that girl gets what she needs.” And she left with the painkillers.
If the young woman had been holding her breath, she now let it go in a rush, and focused on her breathing so she would not burst into tears. The baby and bags were getting heavy, and the baby was wailing, and so the young woman made her way to the front of the store. She put the twenty-dollar bill on the counter and walked out of the store with formula, diapers, wipes, and chewing gum. She still carried the bag of change at her side-- it peeked out from under her jacket.
She meandered through the streets of her city in the shadows of tall and indifferent towers full of people who knew nothing about her or her problems.
Against the wall of one building, a man crouched, burbling something beneath his breath and peddling a mug. The young woman didn’t need to read his propped cardboard sign to know what he wanted, and part of her despised him for it. She passed him, because she had heard about how giving cash to the poor kept them on the streets. But she'd had enough of hunger and desperation, and she, a poor mother with a crying baby, needed help more than he did. Still, she understood grime and filth, and something unspeakable stopped her then. She turned around.
Her arms were heavy and her fingers tired from carrying the bags, the baby, and the loose change, but she juggled it all and opened the ends of the Ziploc bag. She stopped in front of the man and poured about a third of the bag into his chipped mug. The 1989 penny was among the coins the fell.
“It’s all I can spare,” the man heard the woman say as she walked away.
The homeless man nodded and murmured a short, mechanical thanks.
After a while, the sun inched into the homeless man’s corner. He had peddled for long enough and was getting hot. “Not a bad day so far,” the homeless man said, fingering the coins. He shuffled his body, and carrying the mug in the crook of his elbow, hobbled away. A few minutes later, he entered a nearby convenience store.
There, the man’s nose caught the scent of hoagies, fresh with onions and pickles. He loved pickles. Across the store was the beer cave. His eyes rested there for a moment. He knew just one swig would clear his throat of the sandy, sick feeling that had been agitating him for a few days. He could escape again. A whole sandwich and bottle were nearly the same price-- he knew that well enough. His stomach churned audibly. He thought of pickles, and made the decision.
The homeless man placed the sandwich on the front counter and dumped out his mug of coins beside it, flattening the wrinkles from a few dollars as well.
The cashier, a young woman with dark red lipstick and a silver stud beneath her lip, sighed affectedly as she began to count the change. She counted the change out loud, and slowly, visibly annoyed at being required to count the change. The man waited for her to finish, without noticing her agitation.
“Your change is three cents,” she grumbled, dropping three pennies into his open hand. The man gestured a sincere thanks, smiled at her with his mouth shut, and put the three pennies into small holder they kept on the counter for spare change. He took the sandwich and his mug and left the store. When the doors had shut behind him, the cashier spoke. “I hate when they pay in pennies. Do they think we don’t have anything better to do besides count their change? That’s what banks are for.”
Another head, female, with glasses and stringy black hair, poked up from behind the counter. “At least he didn’t buy a beer this time.”
“You’re too optimistic, Janet. He’ll bring the Bud up next time. It’s disgusting. People never change.”
“At least you’re not him, Suzy," Janet said. She paused, then spoke again, "I hate handling change, though. I watched a special on it once—coins carry more germs than toilet seats.”
“I don’t doubt it. Who knows where they’ve been? That guy’s hands could be the least of our troubles. Pennies just feel gross, you know?” Sue said, scooping the pile of them into her palms and expertly dispatching them to the cash drawer.
A young man who had been hovering near the back of the store brought an energy drink up to the counter. “Hey there,” he said with an endearing grin. His dark hair was slicked back and he wore a crisp, collared shirt. He pulled a credit card from his pocket and handed it to Sue. Without looking at him, she took it and slid it through a machine.
“You know,” he said, leaning forward slightly, “They’ve thought about getting rid of the penny completely. Costs more to produce than it’s actually worth. There’s irony for you.”
Suzy raised an eyebrow, and sardonically queried: “Who’s ‘they?’”
The young man pulled back. “You know. The Federal Government-- US Treasury. We just talked about it the other day in my economics class. I mean, what can you really do with a penny, anyway? It can’t buy anything anymore on its own. And the absurd amounts that we give back in change… there have been talks that say we should just do away with them completely and round to the nearest nickel. Make cash transactions more efficient.”
“That’s interesting,” Janet said, joining Suzy. Suzy couldn’t tell whether her coworker was being facetious or flirtatious. The young man smiled. His front teeth were just slightly uneven.
“Besides, everyone uses plastic these days anyway,” he said, tapping his silver card on the counter before putting it back in his wallet. “It’s more efficient. I'm sure you ladies must like it more?”
A short bell rang twice. “Drive-up,” Suzy said to Janet. Janet paused for a few moments, offering the man an awkward smile before heading to answer the drive-up window at the back of the store. Suzy handed the man his receipt with a curt nod. “Have a nice day.”
The man raised an eyebrow. “You too,” he said. And left.
“He ain’t comin’ back again,” Suzy proudly announced to Janet as she passed.
“Oh Sue, really? He was cute!” Janet grumbled, “And smart! It’s not like we just have guys like that waltzing in here all the time. A guy like that could solve all my problems.”
“Janet, please. Guys like that are dangerous. They go to school thinkin’ they can change the world, and when they find out that’s impossible, they just get selfish and try and find a way to get out of this mess of a city, so they don’t have to see any of it anymore. So they don’t have to see us. People think they’re all good until it gets too hard for them to really see anymore. And besides, he’s still a guy. They’re all the same kind of horny when you get down to it. He’d sweet talk you then leave you standing on a corner in the rain with nothing but a bedsheet. I just did us both a favor.”
Janet rolled her eyes. “One day, something’s gonna prove you wrong and you are gonna eat your words. Will you grab me that pack of Camel Lights? Menthol.” Suzy reached behind her to open the cabinet and pull out the pack. They didn't always see eye to eye, Suzy and Janet, but when the store was busy, they were as efficient as a pair of scissor blades. They had worked together for over two years.
“Extra Polar Ice, Diet Dr. Pepper medium with a lemon wedge, Grape Gatorade.”
“I'll get the gum and cigarettes,” Suzy said.
“Thanks.” Janet walked back to the window and opened it. “Can I see your i.d., ma’am?”
At the same time, Suzy returned to the window with the drinks and handed them deftly to Janet. The woman was forty-something with a fake tan and bleach-blonde hair. She smiled as she handed her driver's license to Janet.
“She’s as old as sin, you didn’t need to card her,” Suzy said to Janet when the window shut.
Janet smiled smugly, excited to sound wise and strategic. “Well, first of all, it’s the law. And second of all,” she slid the card through the machine “you should always ask women for their i.d. Gives them an ego boost, which makes it more likely they’ll give you a tip.”
“Has that ever happened?” Sue asked pointedly.
“No,” Janet said, “But it might, someday. It’s kind of weird though, she wants to pay for the drinks and gum on the card but the cigs with cash. And doesn’t want the receipt for the cigs.”
Suzy smiled knowingly-- she had the upper hand again. “Yep. It’s like I said, Janet, people never change.” Janet ran the cash transaction, and took the 1989 penny from the coin dish with the other change to the window because they were out of pennies. She smiled at the woman courteously. “And here are these,” she said, watching the rich blonde woman take the box of cigarettes and quickly shove it between under thin legs. “And your change. I think that’s everything. Have a nice day!” She shut the window.
The woman put the 1989 penny with he rest of the change into a receptacle between the seats. She handed the pack of gum to her passenger, a teenage girl with white earbuds sprouting from beneath her short blonde hair. The girl took the gum, opened it, and returned to staring out the passenger window. The woman checked her eye make-up in the rearview before pulling out of the drive-through. She sipped lightly on her soda and tried to make herself comfortable with the package of cigarettes pressing between her legs. She couldn’t find a satisfactory radio station and so contented herself with listening to how silent the car was. The smooth ride and effortless driving was just one of the amenities her husband had paid for to please her. So she smiled. Her fingers tapped at the steering wheel.
“What’s this show you’re seeing, Meg?” she asked the girl. The girl did not respond, so the woman touched her leg and repeated the question. The girl removed one earbud.
“Summer in London,” the girl said.
“What’s it rated?”
“PG. Geez mom. Don’t worry. I’m seeing it with Annie. It’ll be done by 5:30. I don’t know why you’re freaking out, you’re the one who wanted me to get some friends.”
“Honey, I am not freaking out.”
“Whatever. Just don’t come into the mall with me. It’s so embarrassing when you do stuff like that. Annie’s going to meet me inside and if she invited anybody else I don’t want them to see you.”
The mother sighed, and maybe prayed that everything would pass peacefully. Soon she would be alone with her smokes.
At the mall, the Lexus pulled up alongside the curb. Meg got out of the car immediately.
“Hold on, honey! The movie doesn’t start for another fifteen minutes,” the mother called said. Meg stopped and turned impatiently. “Just call me when you’re done, ok? Oh, and take some change just in case you get lost or need to call home or want some popcorn… I don’t know. It’s never a bad idea.”
She gathered the penny with the rest of the change in the compartment and handed it to her daughter, who took it without a word and shoved it in the front pockets of her tight pants.
“Is that all?” Meg whined.
“Yes,” the mother sighed, as her teenage daughter whipped herself around and strode towards the mall.
Before she pulled away, the woman who had secretly bought cigarettes rolled down the window to shout “I love you!” Meg half-way turned and tossed her hand lazily in the air.
Inside the mall, a group of teenagers, dressed in black, stood waiting near the food court. They jeered at Meg when she approached. The shortest among them, a girl with heavy black makeup and a pixie haircut stepped forward.
“Do you always have to be late? We were almost going to go in without you. You better hurry up and buy your ticket, cause we’re not waiting for you anymore.”
“I’m so sorry, Tia. It’s my mom… she forced me to go to the gas station with her after school… she’s such a freak,” Meg said, trying to mimic Tia’s apathetic, sophisticated drawl. She was afraid her quivering lip would give the act away.
“Whatev, you’re here now, it’s good” Tia said, rolling her eyes. “Let’s go, guys.”
The group followed her. Meg didn’t want to get ahead of them, but needed to buy her ticket before they went inside the theaters.
She was breathing anxiously when she reached the ticket counter, and emptied her pockets on the counter. “One for Sawtooth-9.”
“That’ll be six dollars and sixteen cents.”
Meg slid all the money she had to the teller without counting it out.
The teller took her money and sent her a ticket. She left in such haste, however, that she forgot to collect her change, and left it all, including the 1989 penny, in the exchange tray. After a few minutes, the teller (wearing a mustache he hoped would compensate for the masculinity his stature had denied him) walked around to the front of the box office. He counted about five dollars left by the trembling girl. The penny, in this collection of currency, watched as the uniformed man above him looked right, then left, and then pocketed the amount. If she came back, the cashier thought, he would give it to her. No use in taking cash to the lost and found.
He worked the rest of his shift. The girl had not come back and it was now 7:00 PM. He wouldn’t trouble his conscience about it. After changing out of his uniform, the man exited the theatres, unlocked his bicycle, and started to ride toward the city.
The penny, jostling around inside the man's backpack, grew tired of being awake. It wished to not see or hear any longer. Too much about humanity at was troubling. The penny could not reconcile the ideals it had been imprinted with to the reality of the world it experienced. It had been imprinted by men, and for men, but without the knowledge of how to interpret men.
Surely, existence had to be easier when it was uncoupled from awareness.
But the man who he belonged to now had stopped, and pulled his change from his pockets, including the penny. The city air touched the penny, and the penny again heard the roar of a million horns and wheels and voices. But this did not look so much like the city; they were in a park with trees and dirt paths. The young man was standing near a cart of flowers: tulips, daffodils, daisies.
“This will do, I think,” the short theatre worker said, selecting a bouquet of six short-stemmed yellow roses.
“Ten dollars, twelve cents,” the vendor said. “You proposing or what?”
“Not exactly. More like I’m sorry.”
“Hm. Good for you,” said the vendor handing over the flower with his hand out to take the change.
The young sorted through his change while holding the flowers. The bouquet was large and awkward, and the hand that held it slipped, brushing the 1989 penny, near his pinky, off his palm and onto the ground. It landed almost noiselessly.
“Whoops. Ok. That should do it,” the short man said, handing the vendor the rest of the balance.
The penny, from the ground, plainly saw the theatre worker with the flowers stare down at the pavement. For a moment, seeing the copper glint, the worker hesitated. He knew he had dropped a penny. The 1989 penny expected to be reclaimed, picked back up. But this didn’t happen, and the man walked away, leaving the penny abandoned near the flower cart.
Surely someone will notice me and claim me, the penny thought. But no one noticed the little penny. and after a while, the vendor also gathered his goods and left. The penny was still. And time passed. It grew dark.
Dogs barked, lovers walked by arm in arm, and horse-drawn carriages pulled shadows over the copper coin. They were all oblivious to presence of the penny there on the cobblestones. For the first time upon waking, the penny realized that though his enthusiasm had been restored when the piggy bank had shattered, his shine had not. And, blended in with the dull cobblestone, he felt old and weatherworn.
And the penny realized it was just as the man in the gas station had said: no one really cared about pennies anymore. He would only move when the humans thought he was worth something, at least enough to bend down for. It occurred to the penny then that his worth, which he had assumed to be clear and unalienable when he’d left the mint, was in reality next to nothing. And that would be especially true if these heavy footfalls and paws and wheels pounded him, beyond recognition, into the ground below.
In the sky above, light from the strongest stars intermittently broke through the clouds, fog, and pollution. Those stars were lucky, thought the penny. They were not subject to the tossing and turning of economies-- and they would never become obsolete. They only had to exist for themselves. To always carry an everlasting twinkle… untouchable diamonds in the sky with a light that could not be put out--now that would be a destiny to dream of!
The shadow of a man fell upon the penny, blocking the stars. The man had dark skin and his clothing looked worn. He was talking into a phone.
“…No, baby. I think I did a good job--yes, I said hard-working and responsible. I think they liked me well enough… they said, ‘yes, Mr. Phillips, we’ll call to tell you by tomorrow.’ I think I’ll be their pick. That’s good news, isn’t it, baby?” He paused, staring at the ground. “And would ya look at that?”
The man bent down, chuckling, and pinched up the 1989 penny. “It’s a sign, Annie. Find a penny, pick it up--yes, it was face up. You hate superstitions, but I think you find a penny, it’ll always be a good thing.” He was silent for a few moments, and when he spoke again, his voice was hushed, “I think I’m gonna get this job.”
With the penny between his thumb and forefinger, he strolled a ways toward a fountain. “Yeah, you get her to sleep. Give her a kiss for me. I’ll be home soon.” He hung up.
On the opposite side of the fountain, a man with white hair rested his hand on the shoulder of a young girl with pigtails and a dripping ice cream cone in her hand. She leaned her knees into the wall of the fountain and peeked over the edge into the flickering water.
“They’re people’s wishes,” the old man said. “Anybody can make a wish. When you make a wish and throw a coin into the fountain, the universe will try to make your wish will come true. Careful now, don’t fall in.”
The man leaned forward with the penny in his hand, listening. The girl was now reaching her free hand down into the water.
“Oh no, Olivia, you can’t take the pennies from in the fountain!” said her grandfather, “They’re very special. If you take one out, the person who threw it won’t get their wish. That’s a dreadful thing to do-- to not let someone have their wish because you want their money.”
“Then how do I wish, Grandpa?!” the girl exclaimed, turning.
“Here,” the old man said, handing her a coin from his pocket. The girl looked at the glinting piece, held it to her lips to make a wish, and then hurled it into the fountain. After watching it hit the bottom, the girl licked her ice cream cone and smiled. “I think my wish is going to come true,” she said to her grandfather. The older man smiled tenderly down at the girl, and hand in hand, the two strolled away, chatting merrily.
The man with the 1989 penny slowly walked around to the side of the fountain where the grandfather and his granddaughter had just been standing. He gazed into the fountain. Then he lifted the penny up to his eyes, turning it over and inspecting it closely.
“You’re dirty,” said the man to the 1989 penny. “Ah hell, so am I,” he said, and the man lifted the small copper coin close to his lips. “Good luck to us both, then. I wish that I might raise my daughter to be happy so we can come here someday and she can make wishes like… the money don’t matter.” He softly grinned, put the penny on his thumbnail. And flicked.
The penny sailed through the air, spinning in a kaleidoscope of sounds and colors till it hit the water and sunk to the bottom.
The man was gone now, so were the stars. Then, the penny only knew coolness and motion of the water, and dancing splinters of blue light performing above him. The constant motion was beautiful, as was the soft and low choral hum of the other coins.
Perhaps this was what it felt like to be a star, thought the penny. Bound in endless light.
Maybe, thought the penny, the stars were just wishing wells far, far away that reflected their light back down to earth, so the people had a reason to look up and speak their dreams.
Maybe, hoped the penny, the fountain water would wash away some of the dirtiness he had collected through all of those exchanges. Was some of it already breaking down?
But it didn’t really matter to the penny anymore. What mattered to the penny now was that it was responsible for holding onto a wish-- just one wish that described the deepest desires of one man’s heart.
It had never occurred to the penny that it could ever do something more than stand for 1/100 of a dollar, but here it was, with hundreds of other pennies, guarding a wish. The wish, it knew, was worth infinitely more than a fraction of a dollar, even though it wasn't what it had been made to do. The penny didn't know if it was really worthy of being chosen to keep the wish safe, and he didn't know how he could ensure it came true.
But what he did know was this: though he had been handled by thousands, it was only the man at the fountain had really taken time to see the 1989 penny for all that he was, dirt and all. And in that same moment, the penny had seen straight into the tired but hopeful eyes of the man-- eyes which to the penny, curiously resembled his own color and shape. In the man’s eyes, the penny had caught a glimpse of a depth, beauty, and reality that it had missed since being awake. Surely, thought the penny, deep down, the soul of this man was richer and vaster than any city, nation, or economy.
He would not be the same old penny that he was before, not after seeing a reality greater than justice, bravery, or freedom.
Of course, the park maintenance men would eventually clean out the pool, and put the penny back into circulation, where he would function as a penny again.
But the penny had looked into the man’s eyes, and he had seen a soul. And seeing a soul, the penny thought, was probably better than being a star.