By Kathy Stevenson
They’re everywhere, those lucky pennies. A penny on the ground, shaken loose from a pocket or a purse. The person either didn’t notice, or didn’t want to bother, or had the common sense not to pick it back up off the filthy pavement.
I spotted one just now, glinting brightly on the dull linoleum floor of the English department building. I did not pick it up. My husband Jim used to pick up every errant coin. He had a sixth sense for seeing them, as did I after decades of being married to him. I often spotted coins that I felt sure he would notice, but I purposefully would not draw attention to them. It gave me a small satisfaction to walk by these discarded coins without alerting him. Part of it was his upbringing—a hardscrabble childhood where every penny counted and was accounted for. But part of it was also just his nature. He simply couldn’t not pick up the coins. And ultimately, that’s what killed him.
We were riding our bikes to Egg Harbor for breakfast one gorgeous fall morning. A Saturday, so there was very little traffic. Saturday mornings are a quiet time in our sleepy little college town. We rationalized that if we rode our bikes to breakfast, we could have the Swedish pancakes without as much guilt as we normally would have. We also planned to bicycle down to the lake after. It felt like it might be one of the last good mornings of fall. You could sense a north wind pressing in, bringing dismal thoughts of dull gray skies and sleet and ice. I also sensed, with a cold pit in my stomach, that Jim might choose our rare morning together to confess to his affair with a colleague in his department. I had known about it for a month now, had stumbled across their careless e-mails, but was waiting for the right moment myself. I hadn’t been quite sure what to do with this knowledge.
We had just come off the bike path and were crossing Western Avenue when we both spotted it at the same time. A penny, right in the middle of the road. I knew even before I knew, what would happen. And I said something like, “You’re not really going to…” But before I could even finish my sentence, Jim had jumped off his bike, as much as a man in his early sixties—a man who needed to lose a good twenty pounds—could be said to jump.
I kept pedaling because of the rise in the road, and the fact that the stop light was green, and I wanted to get across to the restaurant parking lot. So I didn’t see what happened next. What I heard, however, was one of those things that will most likely replay in my head for the rest of my life and wonder if I could have done something. The sound of the car rounding the corner too fast and then the thudding sound of solid weight hitting solid weight. The screech of metal—car on bike. “Take it back,” I remember thinking. “Take it all back.”
But there was no do-over, as my students often like to ask for when a grade isn’t what they expected. For a long moment, I was frozen on my bike, looking over my shoulder, thinking, “maybe if I don’t ever move, it won’t have happened.” It was a totally irrational thought, but I must have been in shock. I also thought, “I have a helmet on and he doesn’t.” This thought did not give me the satisfaction you might think.