From A Second Chicken Soup for the Woman's Soul

Lucky Pennies

The cream of enjoyment in this life is always impromptu. The chance walk; the unexpected visit; the unpremeditated journey; the unsought conversation or acquaintance.

Fanny Fern

I grew up across the street from Mr. Kirby. He was a tall, thin, seventy-ish man who lived alone and apparently had no family and no visitors, except for the Meals-on-Wheels guy twice a week. During the summers, I would see Mr. Kirby taking his morning walk around the neighborhood. I would run to catch up with him so we could talk. He was the only adult I knew who talked to me as if I was a person, and not just some silly eightor nine-year-old girl. Once, he told me he didn’t have any grandchildren, and asked me if I’d like to be his surrogate granddaughter. After I received a complete definition of the word “surrogate,” I gladly accepted.

We would walk and talk for what seemed hours, almost every day. He told me about his wife (his high school sweetheart) who had died several years before. He told me stories about the war, though I was never sure which one. He did magic tricks like pulling a quarter out of my ear. I used to check my ears for more change when I got home. On Saturday afternoons, Mr. Kirby would walk with me to the convenience store around the corner and let me pick out a dollar’s worth of candy or gum or ice cream or whatever I wanted. I always tried to get it as close as I could to a dollar without going over. One day, I managed to gather up ninety-seven cents worth of bubble gum. As we walked away from the store, Mr. Kirby tossed the three pennies in change over his shoulder. I heard them clink on the hot asphalt parking lot.

“Mr. Kirby, why did you throw those pennies away?” I asked.

“To give someone a lucky day,” he said.

“Oh, I know: ‘See a penny, pick it up, and all the day you’ll have good luck’—right?”

“You know,” he said, “those who find lucky pennies need them the most because they are always looking down. Sometimes I’ll take the shiniest penny I can find and drop it on the road in front of my house, just so I can watch it bring luck to someone’s day.”

“My mom says it’s bad luck to be superstitious, Mr. Kirby.” I admonished him with a serious tone and pretended to know what I was saying. He let out a roar of laughter and even slapped his knee. We had to stop walking for a moment so he could catch his breath. I stood there, holding my bag of gum, staring at him and trying to figure out what was so darn funny. I don’t think he ever explained it.

As we began to walk again, he said, “You see, if you spend more time looking up and straight ahead, you don’t need luck because you have confidence; you have optimism.” He defined confidence and optimism and told me that I had both, and warned me never to lose them. I was too young then to know how hard it would be to hold onto those things; I was too young then to take much to heart. All I knew was that I had confidence, optimism, a brand-new bag full of bubble gum and a neighbor who regularly tossed pennies.

As the years went by, my life became busy, and I only had time to wave at Mr. Kirby as he sat on his front-porch swing. Sometimes I felt a twinge of what I identified later as guilt that I was running off here and there, while my surrogate grandfather, my former walking and talking partner, could only sit and wave good-bye. Usually, though, I didn’t give much thought to Mr. Kirby or our friendship. I was preoccupied with school activities, friends, football games and football players. I know now that I did feel a sense of comfort in the very back of my mind knowing he was still there, always there, across the street, anytime I needed him.

After I went off to college, my friendship with Mr. Kirby became a vague memory. I was a defiant, independent young woman. I needed no one. I was cool. I feigned an air of confidence. I eschewed optimism. Optimism was for the cheerleaders and the Prozac crowd. My attitude attracted similar negative-minded people. We were wild and free. College classes were mere annoyances to endure between parties. I found several lucky pennies over those years. But no luck ever seemed to come my way.

Every year when I’d go home for Christmas, my mother would beg me to go visit Mr. Kirby. “He still talks about you and asks how you’re doing. He would just love to see you,” she’d say. I never made the time to cross the street. I think I was ashamed at whom I hadn’t become, at what I wasn’t. I never admitted that to myself then, but in my heart, I knew I was a better person than I had made myself out to be. Eventually, the superficial friendships faded. I never missed them.

After graduation, I went home for some job interviews.

To my surprise, there was old Mr. Kirby sitting in his porch swing. He waved at me. “That you?” he yelled.

“Yes, Mr. Kirby, it’s me,” I responded, as I crossed the street and headed for his walkway.

“My, my, didn’t you grow up to be a beautiful woman!

And smart, too. I hear you just graduated from college!

How ‘bout we walk down to the corner store for a dollar’s worth of candy?” He winked and slapped his knee. His false teeth sparkled the most genuine smile I’d seen in years. “Lordy, girl, you have the world at your doorstep. I always knew you’d be a success. Imagine that, a granddaughter of mine so smart and successful!” He laughed the same hearty laugh of almost fifteen years before.

We sat in that swing and talked for hours. It was as if he hadn’t aged at all. In fact, he seemed younger. And not nearly as tall. I had grown up in spite of myself. Just as I was feeling so grown up, I heard my mother calling me as she had when I was little. “Are you still over there? It’s time for dinner.” I gave Mr. Kirby a long hug and then held his hands tightly in mine. I didn’t realize until that moment how important he was to whom I had become, and to whom I would be.

As I left the next morning for my first job interview, I’d like to say I found a shiny lucky penny, but I missed it. I was looking up.

Jill Williford Mitchell

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