Pennies and Nails

The side of the road is either lucky or malign, depending on your perspective. A runner could turn a profit from picking up the spare change scattered along her regular routes, but there are priorities when it comes to gathering luck and money. Some coins merit a full stop, others are noted and passed over on the fly. Not forgotten, though; the runner is not a wasteful person. On an bad day she might reach back to tally that week’s uncollected treasure so as to divine the amount of  deferred luck she could reap at some point in the future.

The ubiquitous, battered pennies tumble unloved and unmissed out of shallow pockets, not even meriting a look back when a driver exits the car and walks away. Scored copper surfaces reveal the cheap aluminum souls of the newer ones that skulk in the dirt, ashamed of their damaged deception. Older pennies are immediately identifiable by their more somber hue and deportment, bearing the nicks and scratches of their neglect like veterans. They deflect the sun’s rays with a dignity earned from  years of circulation and memories of value; of riding in sweaty palms that arrived at the corner store one cent short of that Tootsie Roll.

Sometimes the memories we choose to keep hurt more than the ones we pretend to let go. The kept ones shine from the dirty gutters of our minds with a dishonest brightness earned at the expense of their darker siblings; the family vacation filled with sunshine rippling on the peaceful water of the lake; the couple giddy with laughter as they leave the lawyer’s office where they closed on their first house; the face of the brand-new daughter asleep at your swollen breast. The other ones, the discarded ones, deepen until they are too saturated to fade but too heavy to pick up: the summer where the tears could have filled the lake, the ghostly image on the ultrasound screen forever pulsing in that moment between everything being possible and nothing at all being real.

Nickels glint resentfully amongst the pebbles and sand of the roadside. You can still round down to us, they huff as you slow down to scoop them up. I bet she wished she’d turned back for me when she found out that latte was $3.95, they grumble as they settle in between your sweaty palm and your iPod. Dimes and quarters, on the other hand, are not only few and far between but also harder to spot. Neither resentful nor desperate, their silence provides camouflage against the grey asphalt but sharp eyes can see them rejoice at hiding in plain sight. Confidence in their own value makes them smug: somebody wants them for his dime jar, somebody else had to dart into the Chinese take-out place to break a dollar, cursing under her breath because she could have sworn she had a quarter for the meter.

How much sweetness will it take to prevent the bitterness from taking root? How much will it take to fill that putrifying wound and what will it cost? Sometimes you think you can afford to live this double life; laughing carefree on the sunlit water where last summer you malingered with first-trimester nausea. That’s the price I have to pay, you thought then, your roiling stomach pulling you permanently off-balance, coating your tongue with a bad taste you couldn’t spit out and the heaviness in your head lulling you bedward. That night you felt her while lying in bed, though: oh, it was all worth it all over again. The open windows let in air chilled with moonlight, alive with crickets and those faint flutters of the quickening were haunted by the incomprehensible ululations of the loons. Now the moon’s glare is the worthless, tinny echo of that peaceful happiness, contaminated.

A quarter, a dime: these merit a full-stop retrieval when I run across one. It makes them feel better that although they’re yielding their valuable freedom I’m the one who has to bow, trying to scoop up the coin like Atalanta after the golden apple with only a minor genuflection breaking my stride. My shining fairies, the ones I have, these are what keep me moving one foot in front of the other. I reach for the glimmering reflections of them in my mind and they make it worth my while to keep going because I can’t afford to stumble like a normal person wrapped in elastic skin that can absorb one more break, that still has room for scars. If I can’t pick it up without stumbling anymore well then I just let it lie. Leave it lying.

Lying on the table before the neonatal specialist came in was the last time I can honestly say I was of sound mind and body. Everything after that has been permanently scarred by dyscalculia. How many weeks are you? how many digits on that last finger wait a minute let me see that again hang on a minute I’ll be right back with the doctor how many brutal syllables in hypoplastic left-heart syndrome what’s that mean? the heart should have four chambers but she only has two oh. oh no no oh no we need to do amnio now yes now how many chromosomes oh no no no

Unlike the change, the nails have no value unless they’re being used. They scoff at their stamped and polished distant cousins with a warrior’s disdain even as they rust, warped and useless by the curb. The slender, newer ones are less bitter, having known no other life in between the box at Home Depot and the gutter. Cars scare them and like all cowards, they aim small, saving their malignancy for bike tires or a thin-soled flip-flop. Cast-off warriors are dangerous, though. Remember when you ran by that ancient rusty one as big as a dagger? Maybe if you if you hadn’t seen it in time you could have really been messed up. Maybe if you hadn’t swerved you could have gone down hard and come back up with tetanus. But maybe you went around it, twisted away at the last minute and yet you didn’t manage to pass it over. Maybe it got you after all but you haven’t put your foot down so the pain has yet to hit.

3 Responses to Pennies and Nails

  1. Shannon says:

    Honest and Beautiful.

  2. helena says:

    Thank you both, sorry it took so long to get around to responding; it was actually a relief to let this post go, as it were, so was a little tough getting back to it.
    And Zumwalt, thanks for the “Like,” I just found your site and am enjoying your poetry: “No Drought About It” is especially resonant today here on the East Coast.

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