The bell above the café door jangled with each customer that entered. And with each dingle of the bell, Susan looked up, wondering where James could be, and what was keeping him so long. She had all the time in the world for lunch, but she knew he didn’t.
Finally, as a stream of customers came through the door, she spotted him among the crowd. Standing, she motioned him over to her table by the front window. Outside, the traffic moved back and forth along the city’s busy streets, as the pedestrians pinballed around each other on the sidewalk.
Inside, James snaked his way through the café tables, his ubiquitous backpack hanging on one shoulder. Occasionally it would rap someone’s head or shoulder, James would apologize profusely, and the injured party would usually wave him off.
“Okay, what’s the big emergency,” he asked as he slid onto the stool across from her.
“There’s no emergency, I just wanted to meet you for lunch.”
“What do you mean, ‘no emergency’? You must have called my cell a dozen times in the last two hours.
“I only called you 6 times.”
Susan and James felt comfortable ragging each other because they’d grown up together. College sent them in different directions ten years ago, but now they both called New York home. After Susan arrived in the city just two months ago, she and James began meeting for lunch about once a week, trying to catch up on the missing years.
“Okay, then, what’s the ‘non-emergency,’” he corrected through rolled eyes.
“Well, you know that I love your column, right?” she asked, perhaps a little too ardently.
“Okaayy…” he answered, doing a lousy job of hiding the skepticism in his voice.
“Even though I haven’t seen one thing about my studio in it,” she offered through pouting lips.
“You know,” he offered with a slight smile, “my three-year-old niece can pull that off better than you can.”
James knew what was coming next, and it happened all the time. He wrote a column for the daily paper on the people and places of the city, and everyone he ran into suggested one idea or another they’d like to see in print.
Susan’s passion was painting, and she spent most of her time in a small studio across town that did a decent business, but she longed for the big time: a fancy gallery with fancy clients drinking fancy champagne in fancy glasses as they strolled among her pieces.
“Is this going where I think it’s going? You want me to write about your studio?”
“No, no,” she answered, waving her hand to dismiss the notion. “I want to suggest a story about me, but not the studio. Now, I know this sounds weird, but I brought proof just in case.” She reached below her chair and hoisted a nylon gym bag to the table. It landed with a loud thunk! and a bit of a jingle.
“What in the world?” James asked.
“This is approximately four hundred pennies. Now, they may seem like ordinary pennies, but if you look closely…”
She opened the bag and scooped out a dozen or more, “you’ll see that there are only two dates – 1994 and 1996.”
“Okaaayyyyy…” he said.
“My father died in ’94, remember? And mom died two years later.”
James did remember. During their junior year in high school, Susan’s father was driving home from the grocery store when a car ran a stop sign and plowed into his truck, killing him instantly. Over the next couple of months, James spent every evening at her house, just hanging out and being there for her if she needed it.
Then, two years later, while they were away at college, Susan called him to say that her mother had finally succumbed to the cancer that had plagued her for so many years. James flew home to the funeral and spent several days helping Susan deal with the grueling task of getting everything in order.
After he returned to school, both he and Susan got caught up in their schoolwork, and they spoke less often. Even letters, which at one time were exchanged weekly, stopped coming. He suspected it was due, in large part, to her grief. But on the day he got that first phone call from her, telling him she was in New York and wanting to meet with him, he was flooded with the excitement and memories of those years before. Now, things were back as if they’d never left.
“Okay, but what about the pennies?”
“Hang with me, I’m getting there. Ever since my mom died, every single penny I’ve had – whether it was change from a dollar, or one I found on the ground – has been one of these two dates.”
“Wait a minute,” he started.
“I know what you’re thinking, but it’s true. At first I thought it was kinda neat, like ‘pennies from heaven,’ or something. My mom and dad were sending me little reminders of themselves. But every penny I came across was from the year they died. And this bag is only part of my collection.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“Nope. But here’s where it gets even more interesting. Remember I told you my little sister died three years ago? Well, guess what I have back at my apartment? Another bag of pennies, and each and every one is from 2003. Each and every penny I find goes into one of those two sacks.”
Finished with her story, she leaned back in the chair and let out a deep breath. James just stared at the bag of pennies while turning a few of them over in his hand.
“So what do you think?”
“I think it’s incredible,” he answered. “And you mean to tell me that you’ve never found or received a penny that wasn’t from either of those dates?”
James sat in silence as he mentally began the column in his head.
“Okay, first,” he said, glancing at his watch, “I have to get back to the office. But when I do, I’m going to start writing this, and I’m going to want to bring a photographer over to your place to get pictures. Will that be okay?”
“Absolutely, just tell me when.”
He grabbed his backpack off the floor and slung it on his shoulder. He leaned over and gave her a quick kiss on the cheek.
“I’ll call you in a little bit, okay?” he said, as he turned toward the door.
“Wait, I’ll walk with you after all. I have stuff to do at the studio.”
As they walked back through the crowd of diners, he turned to her.
“Susan, this isn’t a joke, right? You’re not pulling my leg?”
She shook her head and smiled. “It’s one of the most amazing things that’s happened to me.”
The bell over the door jangled as they walked out.
They continued talking as they strolled down the street.
“You know,” Susan said, “I hadn’t told anyone about this because I thought they wouldn’t believe me, or they’d think I was trivializing my family’s deaths. But I knew that if anyone would believe me, it’d be you.”
As they approached a street corner, James said, “Okay, here’s my exit. You go on, and when I have someone lined up to come by and take pictures, I’ll give you a call, okay?”
They gave each other a brief hug, and he turned and started down the sidewalk toward his office.
When Susan turned to cross the street, she saw a newspaper machine. As she had done so many times over the past few years, she checked the coin return slot. Even though there shouldn’t be any – the label on the front clearly stated “No Pennies” – she often found one sitting inside. Once again, she saw the shiny glint of a copper coin.
So which one will this be, she thought to herself.
She flipped the coin over and twisted her face into a puzzled look.
“Now wait a minute,” she said aloud, as she looked at the date. “This can’t possibly be right.”
The date on the coin was from the current year. For years, every penny had been from one of the years a family member had died. Now, after all this time, the pennies from heaven had stopped.
Or had they? Maybe this was supposed to be for someone else? But who did she know that had died this year? She searched her mind, but couldn’t come up with a single person.
She turned and continued on her way. As she crossed the street, lost in thought, folks in the crosswalk dodged her zigzag path.
Maybe they never were pennies from heaven, she thought. Maybe I did find other pennies, but I discarded them without thinking. Perhaps in my own little way of dealing with their deaths, I just wanted them to mean something, to have some connection to my family.
Suddenly, she realized there was only one person that even came close to being family. Was this penny a harbinger of James’ death?
She heard the urgent, impatient truck horn sounding. It came from the direction James had walked when they parted, so she turned and searched the crowd for him. She
ran back across the street, a horrifying vision of James slowly dying alone playing over and over in her mind.
She was halfway across the street when she looked up to see the truck’s grill just a few feet away from her. The horn was still blaring in those precious few seconds before impact, as the light inside her turned off. Susan realized at that moment just who the new penny was meant for.