MONTGOMERY—A barbecue joint. An old place with faded walls and perfect Boston butts. A TV above the counter shows footage of helicopter-crash wreckage. The headline reads “Kobe Bryant Dies in Helicopter Crash.”
The young woman behind the bar turns the volume up. It’s a sleepy Sunday afternoon, there are no customers in the restaurant but me and my wife.
The news reporter says, “…NBA legend was killed this morning in a helicopter crash that claimed the lives of the passengers aboard including Bryant’s thirteen-year-old daughter…”
“Oh no,” says the girl behind the counter, covering her mouth.
The cook and a dishwasher have come out of the kitchen to watch. Everyone is silent.
The TV reporter goes on, “Kobe Bryant was forty-one years old…”
When I pay my tab the cashier remarks, “He was so young.”
“Too young,” the cook says.
“Way too young,” adds the dishwasher.
This is what all people say when a young man dies. It’s a ritual of sorts. My father also passed away when he was forty-one. People said this millions of times. Always in this exact way.
Anyway, the cashier hands me my change and I know it sounds silly, but the first thing I usually do is inspect the pennies in my pocket change.
“What’re you doin’?” she asks.
“Looking for pennies.”
She looks at me funny.
The penny thing is kind of a weird story. Maybe too weird for your taste. I wouldn’t hold it against you if you stopped reading right here.
But ever since boyhood I’ve had a knack for finding special pennies. Don’t misunderstand me, I never find any real money in the form of dollar bills, blank checks, or winning scratch-off tickets. Just pennies. And each time I find one, I always check the penny’s date.
I come from a long line of superstitious people who believe that a found-penny’s date means something. Namely, it means that a departed loved one whose birth year matches the penny is sending you a sign. You might think this is bizarre, and I would tend to agree with you.
Except that I’ve found too many pennies at too many appropriate moments.
A few years ago, for instance, when one of my friends died, I was out of town making a speech in Birmingham. He died suddenly, and I never got to say goodbye. When I received the news I was sick about it.
The next night, my wife and I were at a restaurant with friends. I found myself staring at the ground a lot. Right before our appetizers arrived I noticed something beneath my feet. A coppery glare.
I picked up a penny and held it to the light. It was the same year that once welcomed a rowdy friend into the world. A boy who once set fire to a brush pile that soon turned into a half-acre inferno requiring the expertise of the fire department and a qualified priest.
Niagara Falls. Right there in the restaurant.
Another time I found a penny on top of a mountain. I was 14,115 feet above sea level to be exact, standing atop Pikes Peak.
I was not bred for high-altitude. I live in the swamplands of Florida. My house is literally a few feet below sea level. We have frogs on our toilet seats. But there I was, on a mountain visiting the scattered ashes of my father for the first time in twenty-some years.
I stood on a ledge overlooking Colorado, some of Arizona, and bits of Kansas. And I remembered my old man. He was forty-one, handsome, smart, athletic. He was young. Too young.
Later in the mountain gift shop I bought a few T-shirts and coffee mugs. When the cashier placed my items into the baggie she pointed to the floor and said, “I think you dropped something.”
The floor was covered in a gray slurry of mud and snow. In the center of a lone bootprint was a penny. I didn’t even have to look at the date. I just knew. It was the birthdate of a long deceased forty-one-year-old man.
“Is that yours?” she said.
“Yes,” I said. “It is.”
I don’t know why I’m telling you this. You probably don’t believe in magic. But the thing is, I do. And it takes a lot of effort to make myself believe, it doesn’t come naturally to me like it does for children. I wish it did. I guess I only do it because I don’t want to stop missing certain people. Not yet.
I leave the barbecue joint. I’m carrying my to-go food in a Styrofoam box. Before I step into my vehicle, I see something in the gravel. It’s a metallic glare from beneath the driver’s side door.
I pick it up. I inspect it, but no luck. It’s only a nickel, and the year on the coin doesn’t ring any bells. I wish it would have been a magic penny because that would have made this story a hundred times better. But it’s just an ordinary scuffed-up coin. And I’m just an ordinary fool.
When I crawl into my front seat I see the cook and the dishwasher standing on the sidewalk, smoking cigarettes.
“He was so young,” says the old cook.
“Way too young.”
I’ve never known anyone who wasn’t.