Wavering Copper Dreams – The Penny

Willy sat on the edge of the fountain, feet dangling in the cool water. The laughter and splashing of the other children washed over him like the oppressive heat that blanketed the city, immersive and pervasive.

He looked around. The park seemed washed out, faded and the breeze brought no relief from the heat. Desultory joggers slogged through their daily paces watched by wilted picnickers. A couple of policemen walked their bicycles on the bike path. They probably would not run the kids out of the fountain unless there was a lot of horse play going on or the kids splashed the tourists or took the coins. Taking the coins was a real no-no. The last time someone got caught they had been banned from the fountain for three weeks. That message was clear. The other kids had seen the police too and had quieted down. It was too hot to lose access to the fountain. They should be o.k. today unless one of the cops wanted to hassle them. But the fountain was in the sun and the bike path in the shade. Willy snickered, not today. Dark blue was too hot in the open. The police would stick to the shadows where there was at least the illusion of cooler temperatures.

Willy turned back. There was an old man on the bench. Where had he come from? And he was blind. Willy could have guessed that from the red tipped white cane leaning on the scarred bench next to the man. But it was the face that gave it away. He was smiling. But it was a blind man’s smile, a little to big or a little too long. Like a Ray Charles or a Stevie Wonder smile. The smile was there, but without the real time visual feedback, the tiny visual clues reflected from the surroundings, the ability to gauge it in a mirror against a thousand other smiles it could not be a real smile. It had something artificial in it. There was more of grimace than mirth in it as if it were a placeholder for true emotion. Willy could not have put it in those words, but he recognized it and it reinforced the message the cane had delivered: blind.

Willy looked away and wiped sweat from his forehead and then dipped his hand in the fountain. Whew! It was too hot to even attempt to smile. A tourist tossed a coin in the fountain and Willy stole another glance at the old man. This time he was really smiling. Then Willy giggled. Why shouldn’t he look or why should he feel guilty about looking? After all the guy couldn’t see him! But the guy turned his head. If he was sighted he would have been looking right at Willy! And then the head moved to face the latest splash from a coin.

He must have just heard me giggle Willy thought and he turned again to watch the old man. He still smiled. The smile waxed with each plink of a penny a tourist tossed in the fountain and then slowly waned until the next one fell. And it was not a grimace or a put on. As Willy watched he came to realize that there was true joy behind it. It was an expression of how the man felt. The sounds of the coins hitting the water made him happy.

But the sounds were not loud and the bench was ten or twelve feet from the fountain. Willy watched for a while. Every time a tourist threw a coin and it hit the water the man’s smile got bigger even when Willy couldn’t hear anything. The man must have great hearing.

Juan had brought a small plastic yellow ball and an errant throw brought it within Willy’s reach. He splashed his feet and hopped up heading around the edge of the pool, the ball caught up with the unthinking inerrancy innate to an eleven year old boy regarding throwable objects. A brief furor of keep away ensued until three boys landed in a heap in the water. Everyone laughed and the game moved on and Willy moved back to the other side of the fountain.

The old man was still there, still listening. Willy felt his pocket. He had three pennies. He fished one out. It was bright and shinny, the copper reflected the burning sun. He wished for ice cream and flicked it. Arcing through the air it landed in a bowl held in the mouth of a fish, but Willy was not watching the coin. He had already turned to watch the old man.

Bam! Like a sledgehammer hitting a gong. With the incandescence of a burning sun the old man’s smile exploded. Willy frowned and impossibly the man’s smile seemed to wax even hotter in response. Certainly he had not seen Willy’s frown. He was not even looking in Willy’s direction What was going on? Could the old man really see? Willy shuffle walked around the edge of the fountain kicking up water. The cool drops wet his skin and cooled his already sweat and water soaked shirt and shorts. He turned around and shuffle walked back. He splashed water at the improbable central sculpture. The fishes, merpeople, and other cavorting creatures had no answers to the anomaly sitting on the bench. Willy wanted answers, but all they spat were sparkling, frothy streams of water.

Willy hopped up on the edge of the fountain and then plopped down on his butt. The denim of his shorts made a wet splotching noise. He drummed the heels of his tennis shoes against the concrete for a moment and then before he could decide against it stood and walked to the bench. He sat with only a light wet squish on the end opposite the old man. The man turned his smile on Willy for just two heartbeats and then faced the fountain again.

Willy worked up his courage. The city went silent. The squeals of the other children, the splash of the water, the sound of traffic all faded. “What do you see?”, he asked intently.

The old man turned his silent eyes on Willy. “See?”

Like the blind man’s smile Willy could not explain cause and effect. But he understood falling meant a skinned knee, a found dollar meant a soda from Ahmed’s, a cardboard box meant a fort. “You must see something. You smile every time a penny lands in the water. But nothing I can see is different.”

“Are you sure?”

Willy reached into his pocket. This penny was older, its surface tarnished and its edges nicked. He wished for a popsicle, no a BOX of popsicles and tossed it underhanded into the fountain. Nothing changed. “Its just a penny. It lands in the water and it’s gone.” But the old man’s face was lit up from inside like a search light. Willy’s brow furrowed in confusion.

“To me it is not a penny. It is a wish. It is a dream. Every one that is tossed into the fountain has a story, a life. And they speak to me.”

“What do they say?”

The old man laughed, a laugh low and expansive and full of richness and delight. “Why everything. You just have to listen and see.”

Willy nodded, not truly understanding. He sat for a few minutes silently, one leg swinging, the toe making scritch sounds each time it made contact with the gritty concrete. He stood and walked back to the fountain, hopped up on the edge. The old man just sat on the bench. And smiled.

Willy reached into his pocket one more time. The last penny was neither shiny nor tarnished. It was not nicked up either. It was pretty normal as pennies go. Willy closed his eyes. He wished. He wished for a giant frozen Coke Slurpee, one of the big 44 oz ones that gave you a headache if you even began to finish it before it all melted. He opened his eyes and flicked the penny toward the dolphin’s tail.

He did not look at the old man. He knew what he would see. He watched the penny. It arched up, scintillating in the sunlight and Willy tried to listen to it. It spun and flashed in his eye and he saw an ice cream truck surrounded by delighted children, he tasted ice cold lemonade under the shade of a spreading oak, he heard the whisper of a baby’s breath on its mother’s cheek, he felt the flush of a lover’s first kiss, he smelled the scent of a light rain on new mown grass. And then the penny hit the water with a plink and sank past starfish and sand dollars. The world slammed back down around Willy as the penny came to rest on the bottom, a wavering copper dream.

Willy turned and shared a smile with the old man on the bench.


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