The girl with the sticky fingers doesn’t know she holds a rare artifact beneath her thumb. Please don’t think she’s stupid for that. Her mother doesn’t know either. Neither would you, were it your hand holding me (or your jeans pocket, or change purse, or the little compartment beside the steering wheel of your car that’s useful for little more than holding your drive-thru coffee change).
You’d never know my value by the look of me, Abraham’s tired visage stamped upon my face. Thirty-nine years since my minting––thirty-nine years of pockets and hands, cash drawers and gumball machines, piggy banks and couch cushions––all those places across all these years, no one has ever laid an eye on me and thought I was worth a cent more than a penny. My value has to do with the stuff they used to make me, this according to a chatty nickel I spent a few days with in an old woman’s coin purse.
“You’re a special one,” he told me. “1982 was the last year they made pennies mostly of copper. Most ‘82s are 95% copper, but you, my dear, are copper to the bone. A collector would give $20k and his left pinky in exchange for you!”
There’s not $20,000 worth of copper in me, of course. I just happen to be rare. For some reason, rarity matters to people, but not to the girl who carries me at the moment. Her name is Lía; she turns nine today. I learned this from her mother in the brief time we’ve been together. The thing about children is almost everything seems rare to them, because almost everything is rare. Kids like Lía are still young enough understand this. To her, I am no more or less special than the sunny day or the butterfly loop-de-looping among the flowers or the orange popsicle melting down her wrist, the purchase for which I was partial change.
Such is the life of a coin. Our situation changes quickly, just as it often does with you humans, though you rarely give deference to the fact. Just this morning I was broken loose from a bank roll with forty-nine of my siblings––all of them younger and shinier than myself––into a cash drawer at Smitty’s Pancake House. Ten minutes later I was in the hip pocket of an old man who received me in change for his senior discount coffee. The man was more shuffler than walker, and judging by the smell wafting from his slacks, I assume he was a widower. Most single men I’ve encountered are less than diligent when it comes to laundry, and they are far more likely than women to toss their pants into the wash without first emptying their pockets. Much as I enjoy a bath, I prefer to avoid clothes washers. Coins that go there often don’t make it back into the world. Thankfully, the old man drove from Smitty’s to an open market at Riverside Park and spent me on a single scoop vanilla cone.
This is what every coin wants, in case you’ve wondered. We want to be out in the world, mixing it up with other coins, pocketed and flipped and jostled and exchanged by you humans. Even a rare penny like me; I want to be used, not entombed beneath glass to be gazed upon by the occasional odd coin fanatic. I only want to fulfill my intended purpose. What I don’t enjoy is to be misused. I am not, for instance, to be considered a suitable screwdriver when a proper one is not available. I still bear the scar inflicted by a man who once used me to tighten down a radiator hose on his ‘86 Camaro. So excruciating was the experience, I was relieved when the savage discarded me into the gutter. As I settled in among the insects and bits of broken glass, I was only grateful I wasn’t that man’s unfortunate Camaro.
It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: I am not food. When I was a young penny, I endured the digestive tract of a toddler for the better part of a day and a night. I was plucked from a church collection plate by the stubby fingered youngster moments after hearing a sermon on Jonah and the big fish. You probably know where this is going. You may have heard the lyric, I think that God has a sick sense of humor, and based on this experience, I’m inclined to agree. The child (whom I came to know was called Stevie) must have taken me for a misshaped Goldfish cracker and popped me into his mouth. I think the swallowing part was an accident. What followed was many tortuous hours of peristalsis and bathing in enzymatic juices and squeezing through tight spaces with bits of rotting food and fecal matter, and all along I kept thinking, I’m Jonah! I’ve disobeyed God, and I’m being punished! I’m Jonah!
The “happy” ending to that ordeal (for Stevie, not so much for me) was that I was ultimately pooped out, and though I could have been tossed away with the diaper and the excrement, Stevie’s mother chose to keep me as a memento. I was scrubbed clean and displayed in the child’s baby book, where I resided for a dozen years or so, seeing the light of day only on rare occasions. Those were dark, dull years.
I held a fear of children for a long time thanks to that experience. Nowadays, kids are my favorites. Kids get me. They aren’t preoccupied with abstractions like politics or trade or cryptocurrency. (Yes, we coins are all too aware of Bitcoin and its iterations.) I know, I know; when you boil it down, U.S. currency is no less virtual than an image on a phone screen, but let’s not follow that philosophical rabbit trail just now.
Let us focus instead on what’s before us. A nine-year-old girl stands before a fountain, penny in hand. I know her thoughts; I can read them through her skin; she holds me the same way a person holds a cherished memory. I know her intent before her mother speaks it.
“Are you making a wish, Lía?”
The answer is yes. Lía is making a wish. She’s making several.
She wishes she’ll be gifted the Playmobil set she asked for. She wishes all her friends will come over for birthday cake later, and she wishes her older brother won’t embarrass her in front of everyone.
She wishes this will be the best birthday of her life.
She wishes for bigger things. She wishes her mom wouldn’t be so anxious and angry and that she wouldn’t have to work all the time. She wishes her dad wouldn’t drink so much. She wishes her parents would be nice to each other.
Eyes closed, chin upward. Arm held high.
“Are you going to throw it in?” her mother asks.
And I am airborne, a bearer of wishes, copper fairy dancing, pirouetting, catching and casting fragments of sunshine. Breaking the surface, I cling tightly to Lía’s wishes and hope I have the strength to make them true, especially her final wish, the one I pull from her thoughts before sinking to the bottom.
She wishes to be noticed, to be liked. She wishes those she calls friends would consider her a friend as well.
It’s the grandest wish of all, the wish of a billion wishers, and the trickiest to fulfill. You’d never make that wish upon Bitcoin. Birthday candles? Those magical wielders of temporary flame lack endurance to shoulder such a burden. Wish upon a star? The brightest light in the heavens is too lofty to focus long on one earthly wisher. It takes something smaller, more tangible, to carry such a wish.
I join my fellows on the fountain floor, one wish-holder among a multitude, each of us radiating a silent prayer. Mine is a simple one, for Lía––that she would know her wish has surely been granted. That she would find Home, right where she is. And she would realize she is good, good, very good.
My time here is indeterminate. After all, I am a simple product of your imagination, no more primal than the word used to describe me. One day you humans may choose a language that no longer requires the likes of me. My disposal will be done for the sake of convenience, justified by the aspiration to be “less wasteful”, for what could be less convenient and more wasteful than spending two cents to mint a penny worth only one? That is a question best left to the thinkers, the moralists and the politicians among you. In the meantime I will be here, cherishing your wishes, ensuring they are not lost in the noise of this hectic life you have conjured from your collective imagination, a life in which I have joined you long enough to be considered a waste.
Waste. There’s a trending word if there ever was one. Solid waste. Chemical waste. Government waste. Waste of energy, waste of humanity, waste of time. To that notion I can only say: in all my travels, I have come to know that nothing is ever truly
wasted in this world.