A fictional Memorial Day short story: "Just a Penny" by Ray H Gray

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noboundaries

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Roseville, CA, a suburb of Sacramento
My father was a Navy veteran who served as an enlisted yeoman on aircraft carriers during the Korean War. His Navy service had a huge impact on me as a kid, eventually guiding me toward an officer's commission and into the cockpit of single-seat Navy jets. Dad passed away a few days before Memorial Day, 2018.

When he passed, I was in the middle of the four-year process of writing my debut novel, an erotic thriller entitled Entangled Passions. He always asked about my progress on the book. It published this past February on Amazon, but he never saw it completed.

I took time away from the project at his death and coped the best I knew how by writing a short story for Memorial Day. Until this posting, there have only been five other people who have read earlier versions. Below is the final version that has only been read by me...until now. It is a family genre safe for SMF, and was started well before the Covid pandemic.

Enjoy Memorial Day with your family, and remember those who have served in the armed forces who are no longer with us. Many have sacrificed everything, but all have sacrificed something for our freedoms, tolerance, and love of country.

Just a Penny

by

Ray H Gray

© May 25, 2020



“One day at a time.” Eleanor used both hands to lightly touch her hairspray-stiff white hair. She inhaled, picked up her purse, and opened the front door.

The century-old courthouse clock, three blocks away, chimed an 8 AM greeting. Its melodic tones echoed across the dew-soaked Ohio Saturday.

Residents of the small town stretched themselves awake or enjoyed breakfast on the first morning of a three-day holiday; one filled with errands, picnics, and the high-pitched laughter of children splashing at the public pool. It was Memorial Day weekend.

The wooden porch of Eleanor’s vintage bungalow home creaked with her first step, feeling its age as much as she did. Fresh spring air enveloped her like a blanket, the warm sensation a welcome change from her tearfully lonely seclusion. Today was her first venture outside the house in weeks. The home had been a comfort, so many memories, but their weight became a burden.

At the top of the porch’s granite steps, she closed her eyes and tilted her face toward the rising sun. Its warmth helped dissipate her loneliness into the gentle morning breeze as she inhaled the sweet fragrance of the blossoms on her neighbor’s magnolia tree. The refreshing sensations signaled the start of her new solo adventure into the world.

Eleanor ran her hands down the fabric of her favorite spring dress, an aqua print with large white roses. Memories of happier times in the dress helped lift her darkness, but smiles still struggled to bloom on her face. Half her soul had been ripped away when her husband died six weeks earlier.

She missed how his spirit seasoned each sunrise with loving cuddles, teasing jokes, and quiet moments when no words were necessary. The permanence of his absence was unbearable, the void a cruel counterbalance to five decades of his loving presence.

A movement disrupted her quiet thoughts. An elderly gentleman, bent by age, struggled to walk on the cement sidewalk cracked and buckled by the roots of the fragrant tree. Arms spread wide for balance, he made agonizing progress and teetered on the edge of impending disaster.

“Sir! Hold on! Let me give you a hand.” She carefully descended her stone steps and scooted across the yard.

The age-shrunken man’s well-worn denim coveralls were clean, his white shirt crisply pressed. The spit-shine on his shoes revealed a past habit that continued to the present day. Eleanor knew everyone close to her age in the small town but didn’t recognize this man.

He reached out and took the steady hand she offered. “Thank you, ma’am.”

An instant later he stumbled in her direction as the uneven sidewalk cast him off stride. Eleanor caught him, preventing his fall. The skin of the old man’s arm and back felt loose to her fingers, barely a hint of muscles covered his old bones.

Breathless, he regained his equilibrium. “I am so sorry.”

“No, no, it’s fine. Here, let me help you sit down so you can rest.” Eleanor guided him to one of the stone benches by the fountain her husband built in their front yard. Shafts of sunlight darted under the broad magnolia leaves and sparkled on the fountain’s pool of still water. The comfortable morning was a perfect expression of her husband’s intended design.

The old fellow ran his hands over the textured stone and smiled at her. “How magnificent.”

Eleanor sensed a spirit filled with an uncluttered joy behind his bright, friendly eyes. “I’m Eleanor.” She offered her hand.

“How nice to meet you, Eleanor. I’m Pops.”

His grip was so light she could barely feel it. She leaned closer and rested a hand on his shoulder. “Pops, where are you coming from?”

He lifted a frail hand and pointed. “Oh, just down the street.”

“And where are you going?”

“Oh, no place in particular.” His broad smile turned ornery. “I tell my friends I have to sneak away for short walks so rigor mortis doesn’t set in.” He chuckled at his own joke. “What about you?”

“Me?” Eleanor looked in both directions of the street, raising her eyebrows. “Huh. Like you, I don’t know. I just needed to get out of the house.”

“So early on a Saturday? Why’s that, dear?”

Eleanor inhaled deeply, unsure if she could share her reason with a stranger and maintain her composure. Her mantra one day at a time echoed in her thoughts until it released her voice.

“My husband died on April 10th. We’d been married fifty years.” As her voice cracked, another deep breath settled her emotions. “I’ve been cooped up in the house, missing him so much. Today I decided it was time to begin again…one day at a time.”

“Oh, dear.” Pops looked at her, his smile turned sad but his eyes remained strong and supportive. “I’m so sorry to hear of your loss. Fifty years, that’s pretty rare these days. He must have been a good man.”

“Thank you, he was. Retired military, a Navy Captain. He loved his country more than anyone I’ve ever known. He was honorable, fair, and firm, yet could be soft and tender, even unguarded.” She leaned closer to Pops and whispered. “I’ll tell you a secret. He always cried whenever a singer captured the beauty and passion of the National Anthem.”

Pops nodded. “That says a lot about a person.”

“We always visited the National Cemetery each Memorial Day, and again in November for Veterans Day. He’d walk quietly and remember the souls of his brothers and sisters lost in service and to time. He never missed a visit. It meant so much to him.” Her voice hitched, but another deep breath helped maintain her composure. “He’s buried there now. I’ll visit him Monday, his first Memorial Day as a resident.”

A gentle breeze rippled the water of the fountain’s pool, causing the morning sunshine to dance with the tiny waves. “Well, it’s a beautiful day to start your new adventure like you said— one day at a time.” Pops patted her hand. “And you, dear, how are you doing?”

Eleanor’s voice quavered with her thoughts. “It’s hard. I miss him so much.” She pulled a tissue from her purse. “I learned to endure lots of challenges alone while he was away serving our country, but life without him, I’m not sure that’s a challenge I want to get used to.”

“I understand.” He patted her hand again. “There’s a lot of painful truth in your words, but strong character, too, dear” He nodded, closing his eyes.

The silence chiseled his words into her memories.

“Eleanor, do you mind if I ask what you do?”

“Oh, me?” Eleanor’s smile shifted her focus as she dabbed her eyes. “I was a registered nurse for more than forty years. I’m retired now, but volunteer at the local VA hospital.” She shared her life as a mother and grandmother, plus her involvement with the church and community.

Pops smiled as she spoke, often closing his eyes as he listened.

“What about you, Pops?” She tucked her chin and animated the tone of her voice as she leaned into his shoulder.” I’ll bet you’ve had an interesting life.”

“No, no.” He chuckled. “Nothing special. I like listening to people’s stories. Yours were beautiful.”

They reflected together on the moments, watching sparrows drink from the fountain and wash in the shallow water—their tiny animal spirits unafraid of the two quiet adults.

“Pops, let me call my son to help you. He’s the town’s sheriff. He or one of his deputies could give you a ride.”

“Oh…no, please, that isn’t necessary. I do have one request, though.”

Eleanor perked up at the opportunity to help the kind man. “Sure. Anything.”

“I’m embarrassed to ask, but do you have a penny you could spare?”

“Really, a penny?”

“Yes, ma’am. Just a penny. It would mean a lot to me.”

Eleanor reached into her change purse and handed Pops a penny. She tried to give him a five-dollar bill, but he held up a hand.

“Please, no. Just a penny. I love pennies and what they mean.” He pointed to the bill. “Buy yourself something with that five dollars to help you smile today on your new journey. I’ll remember your stories with this penny.” His eyes twinkled in the sunlight as he held up her coin.

“Are you going to be okay if I go on my walk?” Eleanor was hesitant to leave him alone.

“Don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine. Thank you for your stories. I really enjoyed them.” The old man closed his eyes and held the penny between his fingers as if hearing her stories again.

“Okay, Pops, please sit here as long as you need to. It was nice meeting you. I hope to see you again.”

“It was nice meeting you too, Eleanor. I’m sure our paths will cross.” He leaned closer, whispering, “It’s a small town, after all.”

“It is,” Eleanor beamed a big smile. She stood and decided to walk around the block. After a couple of steps, she heard a clinking sound behind her. When she turned around, she saw Pops looking at her penny in a small jelly jar. He closed his eyes and put the jar back in his coveralls.

Eleanor’s walk grew lighter with each step from having spent less than a half-hour with a genuinely unique character. Pops was gone when she returned twenty minutes later, but he left a lasting impression she carried in a grin throughout the day.

 
~~~~~​

At six that evening, Eleanor’s son, Sheriff Todd, dropped by with a pan of homemade lasagna his wife had baked. Todd looked so much like his tall and fit father it was spooky, and it became more apparent as each year ticked by. It was also obvious his mother’s spirit had changed. She smiled! He listened intently as she described her encounter with Pops.

The sheriff asked details about Pops’ appearance and behavior, naturally concerned for the old man’s safety and his intentions. No complaints had been filed, but he was not aware of an elderly relative visiting in the small town. That unknown concerned him.

After the visit with his mother, Sheriff Todd looked for the hunched figure of Pops on his drive home. He didn’t see him so he decided to look again the next day and inquire if anyone else had met Pops.

Early Sunday morning, he made a quick patrol of the town. No Pops. He stopped at Marble’s Diner for his regular breakfast, arriving right at 7 AM.

The diner, family-owned since the 1950s, never changed except for a fresh coat of paint every few years. The mouth-watering aroma of salty bacon and fresh-baked biscuits filled the air when he stepped out of his cruiser. Through the window he saw the backs of his usual crew of breakfast buddies sitting in a line at the counter, each in their familiar spot.

A chorus of “Morning, Sheriff” greeted him as soon he walked through the door to take his corner seat at the counter. He caught the usual ribbing about all the organized crime in town; squirrels stealing seed from bird feeders, raccoons dumping trash cans, and gangs of cats fighting in the middle of the night. Sheriff Todd didn’t respond with his usual lighthearted promises to arrest the furry culprits.

“What’s up, Sheriff?” Dave occupied the stool next to the sheriff. “Did something actually happen last night?” Dave ran the local food bank and assistance kitchen. He was a man with his finger on the pulse of needs in the community.

“No, nothing like that. My mother told me about a stranger in town, an elderly gentleman who asked questions about her life, wanting a penny when she finished talking.”

“You mean Pops!” The sheriff’s friends all started talking about the old man.

Sheriff Todd’s mouth fell open. How could he be the last to know?

“Pops came into the assistance kitchen a week or so ago.” Dave nodded before taking a sip of Marble’s strong coffee. “He didn’t want anything to eat or drink. He just wanted to talk. We had plenty of volunteers so I sat with him. He wanted to know about my mission with the food bank and the community. When I finished, he excused himself but asked for a penny so he could remember our talk. He wouldn’t take anything more. When I gave it to him, you would have thought it was a solid gold nugget. I’ve never seen a penny make anyone so happy.”

Mike, the local judge, had a similar tale. As did Calamity, the Gothic teenage waitress. Page, a journalist and friend the sheriff had known since grade school, spoke next.

“I met him while covering the town’s first gay marriage two weeks ago. Pops was sitting on the brick parapet next to the church steps. I thought he might be having a tough time and tried to give him some money. He just smiled, said ‘No, thank you,’ and asked what I was doing.

“I shared the significance of the wedding with him, then stories from my life. Pops must have been a journalist because I shared information with him I never tell anyone.

“When the wedding party emerged, I said I had to go. He asked if I had a penny so he could remember me. I had several but he only wanted one.

“The photographer and I covered the wedding party leaving the church. When I turned to see if Pops would be free for an interview, he was gone and I haven’t seen him since. He seemed like such an interesting character.”

Marble overheard their conversation while walking toward the group with a fresh pot of coffee.

“You’re talking about Pops, aren’t you?” She smiled and refilled several cups. “What a wonderful old man. I saw him about a month ago. We talked about the diner, my son killed in Iraq, even my Mom misspelling my name as Marble instead of Marbel.

The sheriff became perplexed the more his friends shared.

“Sheriff, what’s on your mind?” Marble squinted at Sheriff Todd. “You’re not going to go all legal on that sweet old man, are you?”

“I don’t know.” He held up his cup for her. “No one knows who he is or where he’s staying.”

“Sheriff, watch this.” Marble turned to the twenty or so patrons and shouted. “Anyone in here who has met Pops, raise your hand.” Every single person stuck their hand in the air.

Several people came to the sheriff’s seat as his breakfast arrived. They told him about the kind old man who liked to listen to their stories, only asking for a penny when they finished. He always put their penny in an empty jelly jar then went on his way.

The sheriff didn’t know what to make of the old man but was determined to get to the bottom of Pop’s intentions. He ate in silence among his friends as each talked about Pops and the memories they shared with him. He heard stories from them he’d never heard before.

The sheriff paid for his breakfast. When Marble brought his change, he checked the coins for anything unique. He noticed one of the pennies had a wreath on the tails side, a trait he recognized as an extremely old coin. When he turned it over, he saw it was a 1901 Indian Head penny in great condition. He handed the coin back to Marble.

“That penny’s worth five to ten dollars, possibly more. You should keep it.”

“No, Sheriff, you’re the coin collector.” She handed it back to him. “I get the sense it was meant for you. I wouldn’t know what to do with it.”

He knew better than to argue with Marble and put the old penny in his wallet, amazed the coin was still in circulation. The sheriff said goodbye to his friends and left.

He had not driven far when he saw an old man sitting on a sidewalk bench talking to an African American couple pushing a baby stroller. The couple seemed pleased to talk to the old fellow. Sure enough, when it was obvious the conversation was over, the woman opened her purse and handed the old man a coin. The couple walked on, arms wrapped around each other, heads tilted together. The man looked at the coin in his hand, closed his eyes, and smiled. After a few minutes, he pulled a small jelly jar out of his coveralls and dropped the coin in it.

The sheriff drove over to him and opened the cruiser’s window. “Are you Pops?”

“Yes, sir, I am.”

Sheriff Todd parked his cruiser, got out, and stood next to the small man. “I hear you’re talking to people all over town, inquiring about their lives.”

“That’s true, Sheriff. I love hearing people’s stories. I know their lives feel common and familiar, but their stories are special to me.”

“Why are they special? What are you going to do with their stories?” The sheriff paid close attention, knowing one slip of the tongue would reveal illicit intent.

“I’m just going to remember them.” Pops grinned, then his eyebrows pinched as he pointed at the sheriff. “I learned long ago that one moment in a person’s life can help guide them for many years. People share moments they love, so their stories are a little reminder to them about what’s important in their lives.”

Sheriff Todd pursed his lips. “Okay, that makes sense, but why the penny?” The sheriff knew the penny could be the tip of the iceberg of a bigger scam.

“Oh, it’s silly, I guess. Having something they touched helps me remember what they said and what the story meant to them.”

“What, like a psychic?”

Pops laughed and shook his head. “No, Sheriff, I’m just an old man with nothing to do except listen to people’s stories. It helps me pass the time.”

The sheriff looked at the old man, unsure how to proceed.

“Sheriff, tell me something about yourself. Something I can remember about you?”

“Are you always so direct with your requests?” The sheriff placed his hands on his duty belt and stared at the old man.

“Sometimes, but you seem like a kind man under all your sheriff-ness.”

The sheriff scanned Pops from head to toe before stepping forward and reaching for his wallet. He retrieved the Indian Head penny he’d received at Marble’s diner. He held it between his thumb and forefinger, still amazed at its shiny condition.

“I collect special coins I find in pocket change. It’s a habit my dad taught me when I was a kid, and now it’s a tribute to a man I loved. My dad lived through the depression, then served in the Navy during World War II and Korea. He always collected special coins that had meaning to him, even coins he found overseas. He passed away a couple months ago.”

The constant smile left Pops’ face. “Sheriff, Eleanor is your mother, isn’t she?”

“Yes. She’s the one who told me about you. And this morning I learned you’ve talked to just about everyone in town.”

“I was sorry to hear of your dad’s passing, but thank you for sharing one story of your father and how you remember him.” His smile returned. “Eleanor said he was special, and now I have a story about him from both of you.”

The sheriff watched the old man, and in his heart, he knew Pops was no threat to anyone. He leaned over and handed the old penny to Pops. “I think you and my Dad have a lot in common. That’s just an old coin, but it has a little value. I think it will mean more to you than it will to me.”

Pops smile beamed as he looked at the coin. “This is the most special coin I have ever received. Thank you, Sheriff.” Pops pulled an empty jelly jar out of his coveralls and dropped the coin into it, the copper clinking on the glass.

“Pops, where are you staying?”

“With friends.” Pops closed his eyes and took a slow, deep breath, holding the jar in his hands. “Sheriff, I hope you don’t mind but I’m just going to sit here and enjoy the sunshine and remember your story…oh, and Eleanor’s, too.”

The sheriff wanted to know who Pop’s friends were, but decided to leave the nice gentleman alone. “Take all the time you need, Pops.” The sheriff got in his cruiser and drove to the station to ask his staff to keep an eye out for Pops to make sure he stayed safe.

The rest of that day, deputies reported back to Sheriff Todd about Pops, including stories they told the kind man. Once again, the sheriff heard stories of their lives he’d never heard before. It gave him a deeper understanding of those he worked with every day.
 
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~~~~~​

On Monday morning, Sheriff Todd drove his mother to the sprawling National Cemetery, each quietly reflecting upon memories of the man who meant so much to them. Although it takes approximately two months for an engraved headstone to be added to a recent burial, both Todd and his mother were hoping it had arrived by Memorial Day.

The grass was perfectly manicured, each plot adorned with a small American flag. Todd walked with his arm around his mother. Eleanor struggled to hold back tears for the man who gave her love a warm home and special meaning for fifty years.

The white marble headstone had arrived and was placed with military precision near the end of a long line of identical markers. Black letters described the details of rank, service branch, and service in World War II and Korea. The inscription on the stone read “Husband, Father, Loved His Country.”

Standing over his grave, the sheriff and his mother talked to the spirit of the man. They told him how much he meant to them and how much he would be missed. The air was heavy with their emotions, but the sunshine helped dissipate their sadness into the blue morning sky. Time stood guard over them and provided the quiet moments for happy memories to resurrect the man in their hearts.

Forty-five minutes later, the sheriff reached in his pocket and placed an old silver quarter he’d found in change on top of his father’s headstone. Placing a coin on a headstone in a military cemetery is a tradition to indicate the person was honored with a visit from someone who paid their respects and shared their thoughts with the deceased. There were several coins from previous visitors on his dad’s marker, including a 1901 Indian Head penny. Sheriff Todd smiled, knowing Pops had somehow stopped by for a visit.

“I’m ready if you are.” Eleanor tugged on her son’s arm. “Let’s go.”

Todd and his mother strolled together toward her car and looked at the headstones of the new friends who would keep the man they loved company for eternity.

“Wait.” Eleanor let go of Todd’s arm and scurried over to an older headstone. She leaned down, fell to her knees, and touched something. She looked back at her son with a huge smile.

Todd couldn’t see what got his mother so excited, so he walked over and knelt next to her.

The grave was the final resting place of a US Army Chaplain who served in World War I. Born in 1875, he died in 1968 at the age of ninety-three. His name was Frank Azariah. Todd recognized the meaning of the last name as Helped by God.

On top of the marble headstone was a small glass jelly jar overflowing with pennies. Below his name was one word— “Pops.”
 
I recently signed up for a paid editing service by Grammarly that corrects grammar, spelling, etc. I've been using it to make small improvements to the stories I've written, including "A Penny Story," shown above. The service also provides a plagiarism check by reviewing billions of websites in less than a minute. I uploaded the story, made some minor changes, and when I pressed the plagiarism check, the story came back "100% plagiarised" from the "Smoking Meat Forum."

I'm glad the check works, and I need to have a stern talk with myself about plagiarizing my own stories! I hope my writer alter-ego doesn't mind.
 
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