Leave a Penny, Take a Penny (Short Story)

Note: Just a short story I wrote for class, so the style may be a bit different than my usual stuff. I think it could use some work but it’s worlds better than my first draft! Enjoy!

            On a quiet day at the small town grocery store Karen sits behind the checkout counter reading s celebrity gossip magazine and keeping an eye out for her overly strict manager. She’s not paying attention when an older man enters the store and begins roaming the isles slowly.

            After a few minutes he walks toward the counter and Karen glances up with a slight sigh. She looks him over briefly, noting his long gray hair, messy beard, and the deep creases in his face. He looks like he could be homeless and she stifles a groan. Just as she sets her magazine down the man calmly reaches into the small bowl labeled “Leave a Penny, Take a Penny”. He takes the six pennies that sit in the bowl and places them in his jean pocket without looking up at Karen.

            She stares blankly at the back of his long green coat until the door closes and he’s gone. It’s not until then that Karen even registers what has happened. She’s staring out the door in confusion when her coworker, Marty, comes up quietly behind her.

            “Go ahead and take your lunch break,” he says in his usual kind voice, but Karen is startled and jumps a few inches.

            “Oh sure,” she says once she catches her breath, Marty hadn’t even noticed. “I’ll be back in thirty.” She grabs her small black purse from under the register and walks to the time clock. “2:37, 2:37, 2:37”, she repeats the time trying to commit it to memory, she can’t afford to be late one more time. She chants to numbers quietly to herself and walks out the door, removing her name tag and stuffing it in her pocket.

            Karen glanced in the direction she had seen the man turn; she would normally go the other way, to the cluster of fast food restaurants just a few blocks away. But today something compels her to follow the old man. She’s not sure where he’s gone, or if she will be able to find him, but she’s curious enough to give it a try.

            Walking down the row of shops the cool November air stings at her lungs and she begins to wish she were sitting in her favorite coffee shop with a hot drink. But instead of turning back she just pulls the sleeves of her shirt down over her hands and presses them to her cold nose, continuing on down the road looking into every store window that she passes. She walks around a ladder sitting on the sidewalk and as she does so she spots the tail of the man’s long green coat disappear into a small antique shop a few doors down from where she stands. Without going in the store she watches as the man looks with a blank stare at a row of old mirrors and small bejeweled boxes. Finally he takes a deep breath and walks slowly to the counter; he pauses for just a second before grabbing the spare change lying there in an ashtray. The employee glances up from a display she’s organizing but doesn’t seem to notice the man dropping the coins into his pocket.

            “Have a nice day,” the employee says politely as the man leaves the store. He continues to walk down the sidewalk, not noticing Karen trailing several yards behind. As he walks he reaches into his pocket, pulling out a few handfuls of change, and counts what he has collected. Karen is unable to see exactly how much he has, but she can tell the grocery store and the antique shop had definitely not been the only stores he had walked into.

            The old man smiles and puts the change back into his pocket. He looks up and down the road, checking for traffic, then crosses the street and begins walking in the opposite direction, back toward the antique shop and grocery store.

            Karen is momentarily thrown by his sudden change in direction and turns quickly to stare at the man. At this moment a car honks loudly next to Karen and the man instinctively turns to the source of the noise. He glimpses Karen staring at him and she ducks down, suddenly nervous, and pretends to tie her shoe. Near her hand she spots a shiny penny and picks it up with a slight laugh.

            “Lucky penny,” she whispers sarcastically to herself as she stands, dropping the coin into the pocket with her name tag. She glances at her watch and realizes that she should be clocking back in from lunch in about two minutes. She remembers her manager warning her just the day before that if she is late one more time he is going to fire her.

            Groaning, Karen breathes in the cold air and jogs the few blocks back to the grocery store, almost knocking over woman and her baby in the process. Catching her breath, she slides her name tag through the time clock. It takes just a second for the machine to flash the time, but that’s long enough to make Karen nervous. The screen reads 3:07 and she sighs with relief and a smirk on her face, casting her eyes to her shoes. The glint of copper catches her eye and she sees her penny on the floor a few feet away; it must have fallen from her pocket when she took out her name tag. Karen is not a fan of pennies, but she is a fan of superstition.

            “Well, you got me back on time. I guess you really are a lucky penny,” she whispers to herself and stoops down to grab the penny.

            She drops it back into her pocket and silently takes her place behind the register as Marty walks off to organize a messy display of potato chips. Before she can even resume reading her magazine the bell on the front door chimes and Karen looks up to see the old man walking towards her.

            She is briefly washed over with panic, wondering why he is here. Did her see her following him? Is he here to rob the store?

            “I’ll have a pack of Marlboros, please,” he says sounding eager, but he can’t keep the slight hint of shame out of his voice.

            Karen stares at him for a second before what he has said sinks in and her face suddenly lights up with understanding. The man looks as confused as she had just a few seconds ago. Blushing, she turns to the back wall and grabs a pack of the cigarettes.

            “That’ll be four eighty-two,” Karen says quietly without making eye contact. The man immediately makes a small frustrated noise and sighs softly. His eyes look soft and kind against the hard creases of his face.

            “Could ya’ spare a penny?” he asks with desperation in his voice. “I’ve got four eighty-one, I must have done my math wrong.” He sounds truly sorry for the error and Karen can’t help but feel sorry for him.

            She takes the penny from her pocket and shows it to the man with a smile. He smiles wide while and hands her two dollar bills with an assortment of change.

            “That’s a lucky penny that is,” the man says with a chuckle.

            “It sure is.” She smiles back at him.

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