The Last Lucky Penny
by Ken Krimstein
So I’m at the shop, in the middle of the garage, at the tail end of a hot-ass day when the phone rings.
“Dylan’s playing the Garden tonight. We got to go.” It’s Mikey.
“Mikey, where’ve you been? Where’d you go? Your mom didn’t know. Nobody knew.”
“What’s up is that Dylan’s playing the Garden, to-fricken’ night.”
“Mikey, you disappeared, and now, here you are?”
“You heard his new album yet? Or are you still just totally losing it out there with all that broken glass?”
That was Mikey. He always gave a shit about stuff everybody else stopped giving a shit about years ago. We all kept getting older and he just kept staying the same way.
“Mikey, what’d you do with the Benz? I know it was a piece of shit and everything, but it was still worth, I don’t know, five hundred or something.”
“Hey, man, when was the last time we saw him?”
“We never saw him.”
“Come on glassman, think hard – Bangladesh. The fucking concert for Bangladesh.”
And he’s right.
“Call Jeanie,” he orders, like he used to do and he hangs up. He knows that I’m nailed, that I, unlike him, have got to ask. And I know I’ve got to go with him, not so much for Dylan as for Mikey. As for me.
I’m standing there, thinking what the hell I’m going to say to her, her hating Mikey’s guts and all, and I’m thinking I could lie, but then, I know my only chance of getting through to her is telling her the God’s truth, and just in the middle of all my contemplations some doof comes in driving a black Volvo wagon, I’m guessing ’94, ’95, before they changed the taillights.
Garden variety, I think. Right rear smashed in, shards of crystal all over the baby seat. I get a couple of the kids to vacuum. I tell Volvo it’s going to be two hundred bucks and twenty minutes. Now Paco’s cutting the glass and Hernando’s taking apart the door and I walk into the lounge. Three mismatched chairs, stuffing vomiting out of them, last year’s cheesecake calendars, butts from days ago, a busted Coke machine and that damn payphone we still haven’t gotten rid of, because nobody uses it. Volvo, sweating a map of the Hawaiian islands through his black linen suit, follows me in.
“What do you think?”
“No problem, twenty minutes like I said.”
“Thanks, thanks a lot,” he says a little too over sincere for me. “This never happened to me before. I mean, right up there on Riverside Drive. We just moved into this new apartment and everything. I knew we should have garaged it.”
“Un-huh,” I say. Sure, he’s got his problems. But to me, he’s just another one of those sorry suckers that keeps me and Jeanie and the kids in the pool club in Yonkers every summer. I squeak back in my chair and hit the phone.
First thing I hear is Ezra screaming. Then I hear she’s smoking. “Me,” I say.
“Ezra, you stop that right now or I’ll…”
Ezra’s always with the crying. I mean, three months old, three months screaming. Doctor Pulaski says he’s OK, maybe reflux or something, but I don’t know. Francine, she cried a little, but I’d pat her bottom, you know, with a little umph, and boom, she’d quiet right down. This guy, all pudgy and purple with my black curls before I went bald, little Ezra Greenberg, I think he’s got anger or something, angry at being alive. Jeanie must have shoved in the pacifier because I can get a word in edgewise. “Listen, Jeanie, you’re not going to believe it, Mikey just called.”
“Ezra, you put that jelly on mommy’s glasses one more time and, uh-crap!”
“So Jeanie, it’s like this, Mikey just called. From out of nowhere’s. He’s got tickets to Dylan tonight.”
“I bet you pooped. You did, you little…Mikey? What’s that deadbeat want? Steal another Benz? Let mommy smell you. You did poop!”
“Dylan. Christ, I thought he was dead.”
“The Benz was a piece of junk anyway, Jean, I told you. And Mikey didn’t totally steal that it, we did lend it to him till the deal came through.”
“Jesus that stinks to high hell. And anyway, who really gives a shit about Dylan any more anyway?”
She’s not half wrong. I mean, all I really listen to anymore is Imus and Barney. What a combination.
“So?” I say.
“Oh, that is goo. Sticky. Icky.”
“What about the bills, we were supposed to go through them tonight?”
“What about your smoking. You remember what the doctor said.”
“You hear doodly. Shit, I can’t believe I’m out of wipes. Ezra’s shit a jar of peanut butter and I’m draggin him to the sink and…”
“So it’s OK? I mean, it’s Mikey. And Dylan.”
“What am I going to say? I got to go now, my Mom’s just coming in.” And she hangs up.
Those damn Volvo’s and their Swedish electronic security systems. I’m watching to see if Paco can get the splay-back pliers to twist around the quick release hub and spring the bypass on the trip-lock without fucking up the auto-heat sensors in the side panels. You got to know how to do that these days, not like when me and dad were fixing windows on Fleetwoods back in Bay Ridge. I get down on one knee, curl my nails under the lip of the window and there it is, the by-pass latch.
“They bury this shit,” I say.
“I feel it too, but not budge,” says Paco.
I’m sliding my finger up, up, and there’s the pin. I jimmy it back and – thwack – it pops. Grinning, I reflect that maybe it’s the Greenberg family double-jointed fingers that have made us such a force in the auto-glass industry for three generation.
“You fuckin’ Tejada,” I say to Paco and slap him on the back and he’s laughing and I look up from where he’s slotting in the new glass over the pinions and there’s Mikey, hovering like a cloud. He’s not saying anything. If you look you can see his bones through his skin. His hair is the yellow of my Uncle Joe’s teeth, poking out at weird angles. He’s got a huge bandage over his chin where he must have cut himself. And then he just starts coughing, bad coughs.
“Come on man,” he finally says, “we got to get going. You got a spare token?”
“They don’t use tokens anymore.”
“Dylan waits for no man.”
And Volvo’s hovering again. “Hold on, Mikey,” and I walk into the lounge practically clasping Mr. Riverside by the arm. I hear Paco vacuuming up the last bits of shattered glass on the baby seat, just like I taught him, three times over. “See, like I said, you’ll be home in time for dinner,” I say. He puts the two hundred in my hands and an extra 5 each for Mig and Paco. “Thanks, really.”
“Close up Mig,” I say. “Lemme just go wash up my hands,” I say to Mikey, who’s poking around the glass bin and I go into the fly buzzing bathroom, and under the blaring lighlook at the grime under my nails. I think about how my dad could never get the grime off his nails either. But I also think about how he never changed any diapers, like I do. And how his nails never flipped through any books on how to be a good dad or how to fuck your wife so she’ll love you more or any of that. He just taught me about vacuuming three times, buying bulk glass from the Russians in Sheepshead Bay and running a cash business. And I owe him for that. I walk out. Mikey and I head to the 2/3, and there’s a spring in my step I haven’t felt in years, since way before Mikey even went away, since maybe high school.
Mikey lights up his joint. “Dylan, man,” he says, passing it to me.
“No,” I say, “it doesn’t do anything to me anymore. I try, I’ve smoked, I’ve drank, nothing. I don’t know what it is, but I can’t get fucked up anymore, no matter what. Maybe it’s being a dad and all. How am I supposed to tell Katie and Ezra not to when I am. I may be a lot of things but a hypocrite is not one of them.”
Mikey looks at me like he barely understands what I’m saying and he says, “Hey, not to indulge would be more of a crime. I think that case could even stand up in a court of law.” His head is wrapped in a moving cloud with each exhale My nose is tingling. The sun is starting to go down, but it’s not getting any cooler. But he’s back, we’re together, heading to see Dylan. We’re waiting on the elevated platform, “remember when Blood on the Tracks came out,” he says.
“I went into the city, Colony, got the single.”
“Yeah, we put it on the old Realistic turntable and let it replay and replay and replay.”
And there, on the puke green platform, there’s a penny, a shiny penny, brand new, looks like it fell off a mint truck or something. I bend over to pick it up but the train’s screaming into the platform and Mikey pulls me on. Now he’s singing about how he ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more. It’s cold in there, they got the air conditioning working on the train’s at least. I look out the window and I see that bright penny go away. I listen and smile.
We get to the Garden and Mikey starts darting from one throng to another yelling “anyone selling? Any tickets? Tickets? Whose got ‘em?”
“Mikey, what happened to the Benz?”
“Anyone fucking selling!” he yells out.
“Yo,” a round guy in a Rangers jacket appears from nowhere.
“You selling?” Mikey yells.
“A hundred bucks.”
“Hey, don’t fuck with me man. Not tonight.”
“Easy Mikey, easy,” I say.
“Seventy five – they’re good,” bowling ball says. He flashes them, they are good, first balcony.
“Then give ‘em over,” Mikey says, peeling three fifties.
“What’d you get for that Benz?” I ask him, but he’s just kissing the tickets. He looks at me, with his stubby teeth and his big, black glasses, and his broken nose, and I remember how he got that broken nose. We join the river of people inside and we’re headed up the escalators, floor by floor, up to our seats, Mikey grinning.
It was Christmas Eve, shittiest night of the year. We all just graduated high school, we were still bumming around Malverne. So, you know, we were sitting at the Chinese with the other guys, with Egg and Ernie and me and Mikey, eating egg rolls and looking for Santa. Well, it started raining ice, and I said, let’s go, and we were in my dad’s old Vista Cruiser wagon, about a mile long, and we drove out, heading out past the farms, out on the tracks. And that was where we saw them, the lights blinking in the sky. And in the snow, a million frozen fireflies. Car was sliding all over. I was pumping the brakes. We fishtailed right up to the fence, and we looked up, straight up, and there was the radio tower, as high as the sky, and now big, quarter-sized flakes of snow was licking our faces like puppies. It was like a monument on Venus, we were right up against it, and we were, all three of us just looking up and letting the beating red lights tap into our brains. We climbed on the roof of the wagon and stretched our necks, craning up to see where the towers vanished, and they didn’t. They disappeared. Now, we all knew that nobody’s ever driven this close to them before and that chain link was just sitting there saying come on in. Beep, bing, bom, bom. The lights were flashing, Come on in. And it was quiet out, so quiet. And then I remembered that my dad kept these enormous clippers in the back of the car, gigantic things with big black rubber handles and red steel blades, and next thing I knew, we were through the fence, walking up to one of the cables attached to a concrete anchor that was holding that tower up. We knew it got a top. It couldn’t go forever. So it took the four of use together but we snipped one of cables, just like that. Snip. The thing whipped out with such force it would have snapped one of us in half if it had hit us. The giant tower, croaking out its TV and radio, kind of kinked over to one side. The steel didn’t scream, it wailed, like Duane Allman’s first lick on Whipping Post. Then the tower buckled in the middle, a bend at the waist. Then, screaming away, the damn thing actually started to swirl, a hula dance of groaning steel. Now she wiggled the other way, and that mother really started to rock and roll, swaying then whipping this way and that. Another cable snapped. Then another. Something popped off the ground, not a cable, a rock, bolt, something, right into Mikey’s face, blood gushing from his nose, but he was so high, and laughing so hard, he didn’t even stop. He just mushed up his scarf, the plaid one he always used to wear, and held it to his face. And the lights were popping on and off and then the dark giant crumbled, steel still screaming, bolts shooting like bullets. Our asses were firmly in that Vista Cruiser, complete with clippers, and w hauled up the dirt road into blinding snow, hoping that we were headed toward the Northern State Parkway and the radio was on and I was driving and spinning the dial like crazy, and we were yelling, “what’d we sink? What’d we put out?” And we heard this Barry Manilow shit and it was fuzz and fuzz and then, timed perfectly to an enormous crash from outside our open windows, the tune just crapped out completely and became static, pure beautiful static, and now we were laughing our asses off and we were screaming into the snow that was blowing into the car, “We Killed Mandy, We killed Mandy, We Killlllleeed Mannnnndy!!!”
It’s dark inside the stadium, there’s even a breeze. The stage is black. I follow Mikey. He’s holding two beers and he’s got the tickets in his mouth. He knows just where he’s going. And we keep weaving and bobbing to our seats and I’m counting between Egg and Steve and Kevin and Mikey and me, five broken marriages between us, one to a lesbian, seven kids and something like 23 jobs. The lights keep getting darker and every now and then there’s the explosion of a drumbeat or a guitar chord. And there he is, up on the stage, a tiny man in a pink cowboy suit with pointy cowboy boots, a big black guitar strapped over his front. It looks like someone’s glued a clump of Brillo pads to the top of his head. I can see the grooves in his skin. A furious dancer is dervishing around the crowd, jumping over people. Rasta locks whipping like ropes of ecstasy.
And then the music starts and the voice starts and it’s a whine, a whimper, a bellow. Words are popping out too. I look down the aisle and there’s Volvo, walking with two cokes and a large popcorn, a teenage kid at his side, like they’re at the Knicks game or something. I try to catch his eye but he’s just talking to his son, on and on and on. Mikey’s head is nodding. Guitars are chiming. The air is thick with music.
There’s that song, they start ripping through the song, the song me and Mikey fixed up my old Realistic ® 45 to play over and over. The song’s pulling me in its tide. I’m down on the bayou, fishing, nasty smelling catfish and crawfish flopping on the bottom of a rusty boat. Huge, strangely shaped strippers rouging their cheeks. And then, I’m walking through the great north woods, I’m an older man lecturing his younger self and I’m the younger self shouting back, and I’m back in that topless bar, the waitress, the cigarette smoke making my eyes water – or am I crying – I’m crying, stumbling down Montague Street, down seven steps, away from AA, and all the people in the crowd are looking at me, dreadlocks, and Volvo, and the bald patch on top of Dr. Pulaski’s head, and Jeanie, and the screaming kids, and dad, scrubbing his nails, and there’s a shining penny on the floor and Mikey’s pointing to it, the penny’s sparkling like nothing I’ve ever seen and I bend down to pick it up, but it’s not there any more, and my fingers are searching for it, under seats, in the aisle. I’m feeling and searching because I could have sworn that penny was there. It really was. It was shining right up at me in the spotlight so clear.
Ken Krimstein has published cartoons in The New Yorker, Punch, The National Lampoon, and The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. His writing has appeared in The New York Observer and on pindeldyboz.com, McSweeneys.net, themorningnews.org, yankeepotroast.org, web del sol, and he has read as part of the Trumpet Fiction Series at KGB bar in New York City.