Found a Penny
It glinted at the edge of the street, where wet leaves and trash collected next to the curb. He paused and glanced down, then raised his eyes rapidly to see if anyone else was around. He looked at the gutter once more, tilted his head so he could catch the shine. “Copper, ” he said. Must be a new penny, he thought. He bent to retrieve the thing, but then he suddenly straightened. He shoved his fists into his jacket pockets. Old warnings in a child’s voice played in his head. If you pick up a penny by the tail, you will try and you will fail. If you grab a penny by the head, you will have good luck instead. He laughed once, but didn’t find anything funny. “Stupid, stupid, stupid,” he said. “It’s just a fucking penny. Keep walking. You promised Melinda you’d be home by nine.”
But he didn’t move. He stared at the streetlight a few feet to his right–an old Victorian gas-lamp converted to electric that buzzed and flickered. Most of the streetlights in his neighborhood seemed comforting, like sentinels of clarity guarding his evening walks. But this one was always cold and distant, sitting in judgement of the humans it had to watch in the circle of the world it illuminated after dark. He glanced at the debris in the gutter again. “Definitely a penny,” he muttered.
He extended his neck, hands still in his pockets, and tried to see it more clearly. “I can’t tell, is it heads or tails?” He dropped to his knees and leaned over, squinting as he studied the gleaming circle partially covered in muck. “Shit, I still can’t tell.” Get up, keep walking, go home. He dropped to all fours, then lowered himself to his elbows; his face was a foot from the gutter. He could hear water trickling–runoff from the recent rain–maybe echoing from a nearby storm drain. He could smell gasoline, and something sharp and foul, like rotten food, or excrement, or urine…. He studied the small metal circle as closely as he could without losing his balance. He rocked back and rose to knees, wiped his face with one sleeve. “I still can’t see which side is up.”
He stood, arms dangling at his sides. “It’s just a damn penny. What the hell is the matter with you?” But I have a 50-50 chance of good luck, he answered himself. He knew Melinda would be buzzing his phone shortly if he didn’t arrive home on time. She’d call his sponsor, Marcus, and Marcus would not be happy. And if Marcus wasn’t happy, his parole officer wouldn’t be happy. He was allowed limited freedom only as a matter of trust.
“Look, you have two choices. Either pick up the fucking penny or walk away,” he said. His breath misted in front of his mouth. He shivered a little. He kicked at an imaginary stone with one shoe, jogged in place as if he were trying to keep warm. “Okay,” he said, taking a deep breath, “here goes.” He lowered to one knee and reached, used his fingers to feel for the coin. He caught it by the rim and carefully raised it, keeping it flat. He stumbled to his feet, feeling a surge of excitement. He rubbed the surface with his thumb. His phone was jingling and vibrating in his pants pocket. “Just a minute, Mel, just a minute,” he said as he brought the penny close and focused.