Nick stares at pennies glimmering in the fountain by City Hall. Watches the shadows and sun mingle with water, a turquoise dream.
They seem to beckon him, these neat metal circles with Lincoln’s face. People throw them in all the time, trying to fulfill wishes, so his sister Nan says. She says they wish for stupidity but Nick can’t blame them, even if wishing seems like a waste.
He reaches in, slowly picks up a small handful of pennies, feels their weight. People hate pennies, but they add up to so many things.
He could buy a Coke and a smile for Nancy. No better, a McChicken, fries, and a Coke. He could get gas for Mom’s old Corolla.
He could just take the pennies. Walk away. Of course, he doesn’t have a bag to carry them in. He’s never thought of actually taking them before. It seems childish, a prank, and he’s thirteen. But the landlord, Mr. Edgar’s demanding something, anything from Mom. Mom spends hours on the phone promising new jobs, screaming credentials into a receiver. She goes to bed sobbing while Nick and Nan huddle together and talk about what coldness feels like and the stupidity of happiness.
A man who smells like onions and beer brushes past Nick. He’s got a ratty mustache and owl-like hazel eyes. Nick thinks he’s in his early thirties. The man wears stained navy-blue sweatpants and a maroon Big Lebowski T-shirt with John Goodman’s scowling face on it. He dives halfway into the fountain, grabbing pennies without a single thought, as if this is an impulse that’s become a part of him.
The man keeps grabbing, lunging, pennies slipping. Words rise into the swath of sky, fists flying in between lunging for pennies. Motherfucker, asshole, capitalistic cockroach, travesty.
Nick moves a few feet away, still holding the pennies.
Mom always tells Nick there’s three kinds of poor. Emotionally poor, financially poor, and then there’s thieves, poor in character and rich in desperation.
Nick knows too well what this man is.
Thieves. What a shameful world. Nick wonders what the shape of the man’s past life was. Wonders how desperation unfurls. Did he lose a job, keep looking, and just give up one day? Is he just taking because he can, because the world takes? Is there a specific point when you become mean and you just throw away the old self?
Nick watches the man growl and roar. A part of him wants to stop the man. Join him in his quest for pennies. Maybe they could share.
But that’s stupid. This is a man who needs. He is not a sharer. He is capable of danger.
Of course, Nick could try to fight him. But this man’s twice his size.
Nick feels the pennies in his hand. He sifts through them, listening to their clink. It’s a hollow sound, yet it seems so rich.
He imagines himself standing here next week, next month, next year. Imagines being caught, not by the police, but by people in minivans, the kind who wear neat smiles and organization. The kinds who keep jobs and whom the world rewards. He imagines Mom crying and their apartment shrinking, even imagines them selling their one plastic coffee table. He wonders if the man has his own family, a family hoping that he’s found a good job, made a good choice. Will they greet this man tonight with disappointment? Or will they be so desperate they’ll grab the pennies without thought?
Nick thinks of the warmth of a burger, something more voluminous than Ramens. But it’s so easy to take one long bite and savor that moment, hold onto it. Then you’d take another bite, and another. Before long the beauty’s consumed by your stomach and that feeling’s lost.
He moves closer to the fountain, where the man still dips, lunges, grabs, loses and curses, his words cracking with the hint of tears. The man does not look up at Nick.
Mom wouldn’t take the pennies. She always says there’s someone worse off. Says that they at least have the chance to move up. He thinks of Mom’s disappointment after fights at school, pursed lips and a lack of words. A coldness that rushes through a room. He thinks of her smile, something so crumpled these days, but something beautiful still. And he thinks of Nan with her poverty jokes and dirty jokes and the way she calls him Nicky, something sharp, yet so tender.
He looks into the shimmering water, the spaces before him. Nick tries to not think of Mom and Nan coming here, lunging for pennies with such impulse. He wonders what they dream about, what things they hunt for in their mind. The dreams they don’t tell him. He tries not to think about the pennies, slicing through their small, mysterious dreams with his foolishness.
He tries not to think of the people who threw these pennies and wished for things and whose wishes he holds now.
Nick lets each penny slip, one by one. The pennies strike with cold decision, landing in their natural. The man rushes to scoop the pennies up, half-submerged in water and shadows. He slips, surrendering wholly to the swath of shimmering water and shadow, a splash resounding, echoing while Nick walks the longest path back.