Drama / A tollbooth/ A flashlight / 822w
In the box, I had:
-a silver half-dollar
-a buffalo nickel
-a gold Sacajawea dollar
-a dime with a misprint of Roosevelt’s profile, the lips etched crookedly
-a zinc penny
It all started with my wish for the half-dollar. It was an intense wish, the kind of wish you have as a kid that you just can’t let go of. I wanted a silver half-dollar because I had never seen one, and to me, that was an unbelievable concept. Something I’d never seen? It must be rare. Priceless. Unfathomable. I wonder if I would have thought the same about the uncountable other things I’d never seen, like cattails, or boutonnieres, or any person from Sweden.
I spent a lot of time then scouring the ground, convinced I’d stumble across a half-dollar one day. Someone must have told my grandfather about this obsession of mine, because he gifted me the box of coins that next Christmas.
It was a little disappointing at first, I’ll admit. Half the thrill of the silver half-dollar was the notion of finding one in the parking lot or the schoolyard or my own driveway. I was happy, all the same.
But it turned out that what began with the half-dollar ended with the zinc penny. It baffled me at first. Who ever heard of a silver-colored penny? My grandfather explained that they ran out of copper once, during the war, and so they used zinc-coated steel for a year. It wasn’t as shiny as copper or as lustrous as silver, but a penny in zinc just wasn’t supposed to be. Every time I looked at it there in my palm, it struck my sense of reason like a bell, setting it to ringing. Impossible, but there it was.
I spent the zinc penny on my toll last night, getting onto some tiny two-lane highway the county taxed for no reason. I think I thought it was a dime. I think I didn’t think. It lived in my glove compartment as a “good luck” token, the last unlost of the box, and I’d forgotten about it after a long long time. I just threw a handful of coins into the mouth of the collector until the lever lifted, and I drove on. Yeah, I wasn’t thinking. Haven’t really been thinking much these past couple decades, either.
Calls to the turnpike customer support line were pointless. I pleaded with a desperation that came from nowhere I recognized. I think my ex might have fallen in love with me again, watching me get emotional on the phone, frantically googling solutions for stories like mine, where idiots toss keepsakes into the bureaucratic abyss, swallowed forever.
Why did the penny suddenly matter so much?
I knew it was still there, in that change box. A person, a human being, had collected it, put it into some safe or something inside the booth. So I went back out to see if I could talk to that person, with a regular copper penny to offer in exchange.
It just felt good to do something.
I parked a few yards out and walked up with the flashlight from my trunk. There’s a man in the tollbooth, wedged into the corner with a tiny TV set and a steaming coffee. He must have seen the beam from my hand as I approached, because he was already looking at me when I appeared his window out of the dead of night. There was no on else around.
“What the hell are you doing out here?”
I made my case. It wasn’t legal tender anymore. Unrecognized material. I did the research. Can I pay the rest of my toll?
I sounded insane, frankly.
He must have been bored, though, because he got the cache of the day’s pennies, in a steel cylinder, and set it down with a sharp chrnk sound in front of me.
At night, with a halogen flashlight that stabbed at my retinas, I pushed my hand into the surface of the pennies as hard as I could. They shifted only reluctantly. The bloody metallic smell of copper rose like the aromas of cooking and it was all so bizarre, almost out-of-body. I was supposed to be back at Em’s, doing a final walkthrough, handing over the key, but instead I’d come in the night to make demands of strangers over things that didn’t matter. “The grand scheme of things” was always her phrase.
It looked like the zinc penny was lost. Maybe the collection had been emptied once already that day, sifted into the penny truck, taken to the penny vault. Every time I dug deeper, the coins poured in over my hand again, up to my wrist. Could I spill them on the ground, could I point the light at each one, could I –
But then, there it was. A flash of the impossible.
This one needs eventual revision, badly. I’m exhausted, but I wanted to write something. It had been a while.
I did have a zinc penny. My grandpa gave it to me. And now, I don’t know where it is. I wish I’d been better about valuing things like that.
I’m not sure yet what the narrator’s major motivator is. I think he’s pretty lost, and has a lot of regret about a lot of things. I’ve found that regret can come out as an obsessive desire to fix smaller things that suddenly don’t seem so small anymore.