A Penny for Your Thoughts

"Miss, Miss, Miss."

I didn't hear him at first. I was standing in line at the local coffee bean, where I planned to write for a few hours. I had entered the creative realm of dreamy abstraction. I felt vague, unfettered. I could have floated away with my thoughts. I always was a shameless escapist. But the little voice was persistent.

"Excuse me?" it said. I started like I'd been caught doing something shameful. Writers have a secret fear that others will notice their quiet self-overindulgence and give them a deserved slap on the wrist. "Excuse me?"

"What?" I looked around for the apparently disembodied voice. When I'm working, I normally consider hearing voices to be a good thing, because articulate characters are easier to negotiate with than elusive ones. This, however, was a full-blown hallucination. I was halfway through vowing to switch to decaf and get more sleep when I looked down.

A little boy was standing next to me, trying to reach up to my eye level with his upturned face. "You dropped this," he said in a sweet soprano voice. There was the glint of a coin in the palm of his hand. He couldn't have been older than five or six, although I can never tell usually. All children look much the same to me—Breakable, Handle With Care. I'm not good with children. Hell, I'm not good with people my own age. "People never know what to make of you," my friend told me once. "It intimidates them." I forget that children—and my own peers—don't detect sarcasm, don't know certain words, don't understand some things. But it's more than that. I'm a little afraid of children. Their innocence terrifies me. I don't want to be the one to break it to them. Half-child, half-adult, I am still a mediator between the two worlds. I worry that I will slip—that something in my tone or my manner will betray the great secret that serves as the border between the lands—the profundity of why we are born through dirty orifices for cynical reasons. Careful, they still see magic and fairy tales in the regimented suburban streets. Careful, they will believe what you tell them.

This boy had the eyes that can only belong to children—so big in his little face. I remembered learning once that our eyes are the same size for all of our lives. We grow into our eyes. His had the liquid amber sheen of new pennies, untarnished yet. A lock of his dark hair kept falling across his face, and he kept brushing it away, undefeated yet.

I glanced over at his mother, a young and harried-looking woman, balancing a baby sister on her hip and nursing a latte. She wore thick bangs, and her long eyelashes beat against them wearily, like trapped butterflies. There were dark circles beneath her eyes, which were unlike her son's, black with green flecks. She was distracted with the baby, who wailed obstinately.

I don't know what possessed me. I am not thoughtful by anyone's definition of the word, particularly not when I am paying homage to the selfishness gods that reign over the creative process. And under no circumstances am I child-friendly. But I bent down to the little boy's level and smiled. He beamed back with no hesitation, nothing hiding beneath the imperfect, one-of-a-kind little teeth that he would lose someday to make room for a standard set of orthodonture.

"Tell you what," I said quietly. Were it not for my cheerful tone, the volume of my voice would have implied that I was confiding an unsavory secret. "Since you were so honest and told me I dropped that money, you can keep it."

It was small change—a nickel, a dime, perhaps a quarter—but the little boy's face lit up like Christmas morning. I felt a surge of love for children. They are so pure of disenchantment. Every piece of small change is a small wonder, like a shooting star, that they have never seen before and that may never come again.

As the boy walked away, dragging his mother by the hand, I felt strange jealousy at his luminance. It's simply one of those things that you grow out of. Nowadays, people can get glosser and shiner under the knives and wands of cosmetics, but no one ever gets younger. They are only old pennies soaked in their own bitter vinegar.

"Let him have his justice now," I thought, watching them fade into the apathetic crowd. For now, let him have his honesty and his reward. For once, he should both return a dime and get a dime richer. He is young. Let the world make sense for him for now. He does not know that later, not only will he not earn a cent for honesty, but they will rob him for all he's worth. There is nothing more vulnerable than sincerity. They will beat it out of him until there is not an honest man left in the world. That is why we must settle for honest boys. He shouldn't have to learn that now—or ever for that matter. He will eventually, as all do, but I will not be the one to teach him.

I carried my coffee to a high, wobbly table. When I took a sip, what was a seductive Styrofoam warmth on my hands burned my throat on the way down like swallowed words. I was going to write. I was going to sit down right here, in the middle of this coffee shop, and write about violence, death, destruction, and good things happening to bad people, a public display for all the voyeurs. On my dusty laptop screen, I watched the reflections of all the weary people blurred beneath the mechanical ticking of the cursor. Over the pulsating music, over the people screaming to communicate and all the endless traffic screaming past, I heard only one quiet echo.

"Miss, miss, miss."