I Remember The Pennies

Mica Scotti Kole

May 26, 2018

We’re excited to share the winners of our We Shall Arrive Soon writing contest with you. Our judge, Erin Bow, has selected the first, second and third place winners. In second place, here is “I Remember the Pennies” by Mica Scotti Kole.

# # #

As I lean backward over the edge of the skyscraper, the thing I remember most are the pennies. When you’re homeless, dirty looks are the least of it. You never fought in Afghanistan, you have no bum leg; your signs—built of bulk-cheddar cardboard—might as well be inventions for all people believe them. Even the mercy can hurt, the Happy Meal with a toy; that hunk of plastic screams at you: we all know cash would just go to booze.

But the pennies are what sticks the most, and I think it’s the sensation of falling that takes me to them again, the gut moment where I’m trusting the rappel line to save me as gravity calls up from nineteen stories below. As my feet press into the thick moss on the upper ledge of the GreenWall, I think of the people that flicked pennies at me, and my harness clicks into place on the rope.

I reach for my clip with gloved hands and descend the face of the building, wading through thick lumps of clinging squash and zucchini engineered to form knots.

“Ho there, Mister Roebuck!” calls a powdered-sugar voice. “My punkins ain’t lookin’ too hot!”

I turn to Ms. Linton’s balcony, two floors below me to one side, where the old woman leans out past her turnips. I think of the pies she will make for me in autumn. All GreenWall residents get to keep the produce from their balconies; everything else goes into distribution.

I tip my logo ballcap and tell her a lie: “I’ll add another nutrient cake to your line.” If I gave those pumpkins any more food, they’d be a Halloween joke on the pavement.

Ms. Linton turns away from me and says, “See, Ken? Them street boys are just the sweetest.”

“Yeah, ma,” says a man’s voice, and I see him at her tea table, half-hidden behind a mad swath of beans. The frail woman joins him, kinky hair flying loose; I can tell a mother and son when I see it. He’s middle-aged, like me, and I know him.

Holy hell. I remember the pennies.

I remember all of them, across all five years of my vagrancy, after the cancer took my kid and the divorce took my house and the rye whisky took everything else. One was a teenage girl in a group of her friends, and one was the GreenWall recruiter making a point.

The third one, the first one, was the man I’m looking at now—in a big ruffled suit, and his shoulders slouching, and his gaze lost inside a cup of black tea.

I forget about the blasted tomato worms, who’ve learned to defy gravity. I forget about the bug sprays and weeding. I forget about all the other things GreenWall taught me when they plucked me off the streets and traded housing for work. Keeping my eyes off the Lintons, I rappel down a plot, hooking myself into the slide rail to shove closer.

I used to know how to look forlorn and tired, and now I know how to look busy. Hovering above them, I pop headphones into my ears—company-issue last Christmas, the sound set to Off. I fiddle with a cabbage in the tea-sipping silence.

Then Ken says, “I lost my job, ma.”

My mind reels and I imagine his mother’s face bright with shock, the wide eyes crinkling as she pats her son’s hand.

“Oh, Kenny,” she says. “You knew it was coming. No one needs the stocks anymore.”

I guess that he nods. I guess he looks miserable. He says, “Yeah ma, I know.”

And I know the sound of him, but not from the pennies. Which is why I know what he’s going to say when he tells her: “Tris left. She took the kids.”

His mother replies, but I miss it, my pulse in my ears. Ken’s deep voice is what breaks through.

“And they turned the house into a beefeeder, ma.” The words quiver. “I can’t hardly breathe.”

She gasps. “They didn’t account for your allergies?”

“I didn’t fill out the survey,” he says. “I didn’t have time.”

And now he’s got all the time in the world.

I stare into the retaining soil, the moss and wire screen; I follow the snaking droplets inside the tubing. I make hand motions like I’m pulling dandelions, stuffing them in my greensack as I wait.

“Ma,” says Ken after a silence where he’s crying, not out loud but somewhere else. “Ma, when can you make that pie again? The kids love it.” His voice breaks. “Can you teach me?”

And I slide away, set my feet into the lift, activate it with the buttons on my hip. It’s muscle memory; I used to do this at the factory; I used to have a family too. I ascend the face of the building, squash buds whipping past.

Twenty minutes later, she says, “Mister Roebuck, back so soon? Would you like a cup of tea?”

I tell her to call me by my first name, and it’s the first time I’ve introduced myself that way since I slept inside my first cardboard box.

“I’ve got something for you,” I tell Ms. Linton, reaching into the greensack that pulls down on me, a weight like all the pennies. Ken is on the phone in the corner of the balcony. I hear him saying, “Just one weekend. Please.”

“Oh my!” she cries as I hand the pumpkin to her, and Ken stops speaking in the middle of his sentence.

“They’re on another cycle on the far side of the building,” I tell her. “I think the sun’s a bit better there.”

Ms. Linton eyes me; she knows I’ve been listening. But old women know about listening.

“Do—do I know you from somewhere?” says Ken.

I tip my hat like a chimney sweep. “I don’t think so.”

We both came from the same place, is all.

# # #

Erin Bow’s notes
“I Remember The Pennies” offers new take on an old science fiction theme: that the progress of technology will leave humanity with, as Jack Williamson wrote way back in 1947, “With Folded Hands.” But this is not a question we’ve got an answer to, and this story is fresh and sensory, and offers a surprising answer to who ends up on top.

About the author
Mica is a freelance developmental editor who compiles and promotes free online events and contests for authors. You can often find her sampling craft beer, fostering kittens, watching anime, or taking on more art and home improvement projects than is probably healthy. She is also the founder of the annual #Write4Life charity event for authors. Her motto is “Keep moving forward.” This is her first published story.

About Erin Bow
Erin Bow is a physicist turned poet turned author of young adult novels that will make you cry on the bus. She lives in Kitchener, Ontario.