Become a Fan
By Sara K. Penrod
Thursday, May 09, 2002
Alicia spots the penny a hundred feet away, at the corner of Scott Avenue and 22nd Street, the late afternoon sunlight glinting off the copper. The businesspeople don’t notice a lone penny, and the vagrants who live off found pennies and beer-bottle deposits don’t hang around this part of Atlanta. So Alicia is the only one who will pick it up.
She thrusts her hand into her pocket. There are four pennies there already: one from the McDonald’s three blocks east, two that she found within ten feet of each other in the parking lot of a Mexican restaurant, and one she fished out of the fountain in Ward Park when the Metro Police officer took a bathroom break. Today had been a lucky day so far, and this was number five.
She rubs the pennies between her thumb and middle finger. The coins are warm from her body heat, and the friction of Lincoln’s face scratching against his memorial heats them more.
Alicia stops; the penny lies tails-up at the toe of her foam flip-flops. She remembers grade-school stories that pennies found tails-up are bad luck, but she doesn’t consider herself much of one for superstition. She crouches to pick up the penny.
A man in a dark suit knocks her forward as her fingers close around the penny. She falls forward, her forehead hitting the sidewalk.
The man helps her up. “I’m so sorry. Are you all right?”
Alicia blinks several times, trying to clear her head. “Yes. I’m fine.” She opens her fist to make sure she still has the penny. It lays in the palm of her hand, a burning hot orb. “I had to get the penny.” She extends her palm so the man can see.
“Are you sure you’re all right? Your head is bleeding.”
Alicia touches her head; there is blood on her fingertips.
The man hands her his hankie, which she takes without thinking. She presses it against her forehead.
“Maybe I should take you to the hospital. You might have a concussion or something.”
The sky is beginning to darken to a rich blue. Pigeons flock from one skyscraper to the next, searching for a place to roost for the night.
Alicia shakes her head, then winces. “No. I’m fine, really.”
“Do you have a way to get home? You really shouldn’t be driving after a knock in the head like that.”
“I don’t have a car anyway,” Alicia says. “I’ll call my roommate. She’ll come get me.”
The man frowns. “Look, why don’t you let me drive you home. Where do you live?”
“You’re not gonna chop me up and shove me in your trunk or anything like that, are you?”
“No.” He pulls his billfold from his back pocket and shows her his driver’s license. “See, there’s my I.D. I have no interest in hurting you. I just want to make sure you get home safe.”
She reads the name off his license. “James Monroe. Like the president?”
“Like the president.” He returns the billfold to his pocket.
“I’m Alicia,” she says. “I live in the dorms at Georgia Tech.”
“My car’s in the deck across the street,” Monroe says. He raises his head, pointing his chin at the tall parking deck. “Do you want me to drive down and pick you up?”
She clenches her fist around the penny. “I’m perfectly capable of walking.”
“All right,” says James Monroe.
His car is a silver Acura parked on level 2-B. There are no pennies on the ground around it. Monroe unlocks the car, and they both get in. Alicia wears her seat belt; Monroe does not. They don’t talk in the car, and Monroe doesn’t turn on any music. Alicia holds his handkerchief to her forehead with one hand and turns the penny over and over on her knee with the other. She runs her finger along its rim, feeling the roughness from being ground against concrete by many businessmen’s loafers.
“Is this where I turn?” Monroe asks. He is stopped at a red light.
“Yeah, a left. Then right at the stop sign, and it’s the third building on the left.”
He pulls a quick left when the light turns green, but his turn after the stop sign is smoother. He brakes in front of her dorm. “Didn’t kill you,” he says.
Alicia unbuckles her seatbelt and doesn’t smile. “No, you didn’t. Thanks for the lift.” She opens the door and climbs out of the car, only partially realizing the dark.
“You ought to see a doctor about your head.”
She shrugs. “I’m okay.” She shuts the door, and Monroe drives off.
Her roommate, Becky, is waiting for her when she gets home. “Where the hell have you been? I’ve been searching for you for hours. I called the police.”
“I had to find the pennies.” She thrusts her hand into her pocket, pulls out the coins. “See? Lucky day. Five pennies.” She walks across the room and drops them into the nearly-full ten-gallon bucket beside her bed. She buries her hands in the cool metal disks, then raises her hands like a prophet. Pennies fall through her fingers like metallic rainfall.
“What did you do to your head, Alicia?” Becky sounds like she is about to cry.
“Fell down.” Alicia presses her fingers to her nose. She can smell the copper on her skin. “Guy brought me home. Even gave me his hankie. I’m okay.”
“You let some guy you don’t even know bring you home? Alicia, you could’ve gotten killed. You could’ve ended up in a dumpster like those other girls. What’s wrong with you?”
“It’s okay. He’s okay. See, he showed me his license. Then I knew he wouldn’t hurt me. James Monroe. Like the president.”
Becky jerks her fingers through her dark hair. “What good is his name and driver’s license going to do you if you’re dead, huh? What’s wrong with you?”
“I’m okay. Monroe, he’s okay too. Like the president.”
“Alicia, come on. We’re going to the hospital. You need help.” She grabs Alicia’s wrist.
Alicia jerks away. “No. I have to count them. Tonight I have to count the pennies. Make sure they’re all there.” She sits down by the bucket wraps her legs around it. She scoops out a handful of pennies and drops them on the floor.
Becky pulls Alicia up by her arm. “Come on. Get in the car. I’m taking you to the hospital. If you’re going to go crazy, you’re not going to do it here.”
“No!” Alicia pitches a handful of pennies at Becky’s face. They hit her eyes, and Becky lets go, holding her hands against her eyes.
Alicia kneels again in front of the penny bucket. “Have to count them.” She stacks them in piles of ten. When Becky tries once more to grab her, Alicia punches her in the face. Becky staggers backward until she is leaning against the wall. She bends her knees and lowers herself to the floor.
In the morning, Becky wakes up in a sitting position, back against the wall. She stands up, rubbing her stiff neck. Alicia is asleep, her cheek resting on the edge of the bucket. Piles of pennies surround her.
Becky flips through the phone book until she finds the number for the Psychiatric Crisis Hotline. She steps out into the dorm hallway and dials the number on her cell phone. It rings, and Becky looks at her watch. 9:34. She is supposed to be in her advanced biochemistry class.
“Hello, this is the Psychiatric Crisis Hotline. How may I help you?”
“My name is Becky, but it’s not me I’m calling about. It’s my friend, my roommate. I think she’s gone…you know, crazy.”
“Okay, Becky, why don’t you tell me what’s going on with your friend,” the woman on the other end says.
“This is going to sound really weird.”
“Go ahead; it can’t be much stranger than some of the things I’ve heard,” the woman says.
“Alicia is obsessed with pennies.”
“The coin or the store?”
“The coin. She doesn’t do anything anymore that doesn’t have to do with pennies. She doesn’t even go to classes anymore. She wanders around downtown, searching for pennies.”
“How old is Alicia?”
“Nineteen. But she wasn’t always like this. We’ve been roommates for a year, so I know. She’s very smart. I guess she just…lost it. The stress or whatever.”
“She was gone all day, looking for her pennies. She came back last night with her head all bloody. Said she fell, and some guy with the same name as some president brought her home. Alicia knows she could get killed like that. She never would have done that before. Then I tried to take her to the hospital, and she attacked me. First she threw pennies at me—I know that seems insignificant, but they hurt, and she meant for it to. Then she hit me in the face.” Becky touches her swollen cheekbone.
“How long has this been going on?”
“Two, maybe three months,” Becky says. “But she’s never gotten violent before. Alicia’s really a sweet person. I guess it’s just the stress and stuff.”
“What’s Alicia doing now?”
“She asleep right now. Half-buried in pennies.”
“Okay, what you need to do is call the police. I know Alicia is your friend, but you can’t let your friend put you or herself in danger.”
“The police? Uh-uh. I can’t do that.”
“Becky, you can’t put yourself in danger for your friend. The best way for you to help Alicia is to get her help. Since she’s not going to let you help her, you’ve got to do what will help her without putting either of you in any more danger.”
“I’m not going to call the cops on Alicia. I’m sorry.” Becky hangs up the phone.
Alicia wakes up with her head in the penny bucket. A penny has been pressed against her temple all night, leaving an imprint of the Lincoln Memorial on the skin. Becky is not in the room, but Alicia can hear her voice outside the door. She sounds angry. Alicia stands up, walks to the bathroom. she empties her bladder, then stares for several moments at her reflection in the streaky mirror. Her hair is oily, and her gray T-shirt is stained with ketchup and grape juice. Her forehead is scabbed over, ringed in a gray-blue bruise.
Her vision blurs. she blinks, realizing for the first time that her head hurts, a low, dull ache. She takes a bottle of generic Tylenol out of the cabinet and shakes two out into her hand. She turns on the sinks and swallows the pills with tap water.
The door opens, and Becky comes back in. “Alicia? You awake?” She sees Alicia in the bathroom and comes over to the door. “Oh, God, your head looks awful. You need to see a doctor.”
“Come on. I’ll give you a ride.”
“No. I’m okay.”
“Alicia, it looks bad. It can’t do any harm just to have a doctor look at it, can it.”
“No.” Alicia picks up the Tylenol bottle, throws it at Becky. It catches her in the jaw, and she backs away. But this time Alicia isn’t satisfied; she throws everything in her reach—hairbrushes, a hairdryer, a glass cup. The glass misses Becky, shatters against the T.V. screen.
In tears, Becky crouches behind the bed and calls 911. “My friend’s going crazy. She’s throwing things at me and trying to hurt me. I need help.”
The operator asks her name and address, tells her she should leave the house.
“My name is Rebekah Norris. I’m in the Trent Girls’ Dormitory at University of Georgia, room 233.” She ducks out of the room as Alicia throws a glass paperweight.
“Rebekah, we’re dispatching a police unit to your dorm. Are either of you hurt?”
“Alicia hit her head last night. I think she might have a concussion.”
“I’ll dispatch an ambulance too. I need you to stay on the line until they get there, okay?”
“Yeah,” Becky says.
Alicia knows Becky is calling the police. Once she leaves the dorm room, Alicia sinks to the floor. Her pennies touch her skin, cooler and smoother than any human touch. She picks one up, a slightly bronzed penny minted in 1994. She runs her finger over Lincoln’s profile, flips it over to see the larger-than-life statue of him between the columns. She rubs it against her cheek, then slides it up to her nose. The smell of its tarnish is slightly different than that of the copper, and she knows both scents by heart.
Alicia lets the penny drop into her palm and examines it once more with her sensitive fingertip. Then she places it on her tongue. The copper tastes just as she always thought it was, a sharp, almost salty tastes that overpowers the bitter taste that is always in her mouth. She feels every scratch and crevice with her tongue.
She pushes it further back in her mouth with her tongue. Then her throat tightens, and the penny slides down her esophagus.
Site: Volta: A Literary E-Zine
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|Reviewed by jo
|Great idea, great writing. Some of the dialogue between Alicia and Becky could have been improved.|