Pennies From Heaven – My story from Chicken Soup for the Soul’s new book, Miracles and More

 

0001

I was at a yard sale looking through a box of old books when I saw a 1936 yearbook from Glendale High School in California. The name “Ben” was written at the upper right corner of the first page. The yearbook was full of the usual notes from classmates and also some newspaper clippings about Ben’s academic and athletic achievements. I looked around for the owner of the house and found him carrying more boxes out of the garage with the help of his two young sons.

I asked him, “Are you selling this?”

“Yeah,” he replied. “I’ll take three bucks for it.”

I asked if he knew who Ben was. He said he was his grandfather.

I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to get rid of such a precious family memento, especially for such a paltry amount of money, so I asked if he was sure he wanted to sell it. He said yes again with a slightly impatient tone as he began talking with another customer.

Though he obviously had no interest in it, I still wanted to encourage him to keep it, if not for himself, for his children, but then thought maybe he had his reasons for letting the yearbook go. Family emotions are complicated. I felt sorry for his sons who would never get to look at this window into their grandfather’s life, and almost didn’t buy it for that reason until I heard him tell someone, “Anything that doesn’t sell is going to the thrift shop.”

I handed him the three dollars, got into my car, and set the yearbook on the seat beside me. I wanted to find someplace quiet and explore every page immediately, but I had to hurry home because I was repainting the interior of my house that day. My wife had taken our two daughters to her father’s house to get them away from the paint fumes. I worked all day but the job took longer than I expected so I called my wife and asked her to stay overnight there so the paint would be dry before she and the girls returned.

I worked through the night and looked at the yearbook during breaks. I learned that Ben, the yearbook’s owner, was no average Joe. He was the Student Body President and Yell Leader, as well as a track and football star. Leadership also ran in the family because his younger brother succeeded him as president, which was a first for the high school at the time and probably hasn’t been repeated since. They were both exemplary students, full of boundless energy and ambition.

The first thing that impressed me as I flipped through the pages was how well-dressed and groomed everyone was. The next was the penmanship and eloquence of the comments. I had to keep reminding myself that they were written by teenagers. The language was charming and full of terms of endearment unique to the 1930’s like “good egg” and “swell fellow.” By all accounts, Ben was both.

But I couldn’t help feeling sad as I looked at the photos of Ben and his classmates, their young faces so full of high expectations for their futures, because I knew their lives had been lived and they were all either gone or very, very old. It was a lot like the “Carpe Diem” scene from the movie Dead Poet’s Society. Looking at photos of young people from another time has always stirred unsettling emotions in me and made me meditate on my own mortality.

Before I returned to my work, I found a playlist on YouTube of hit songs from 1936 and said, “Here’s some music from when you were young, Ben. I hope you enjoy it.”

As I worked, Bing Crosby crooned Pennies from Heaven, Billie Holliday sang Summertime, and dozens of other enchanting tunes from the brightest lights of that era such as Benny Goodman, Guy Lombardo, and Tommy Dorsey transported me to the year when Ben was a high school senior on top of the world and destined for great things. As Fred Astaire sang The Way You Look Tonight, I imagined Ben slow dancing with his girlfriend across the floor of my living room. The fact that my house was built in 1939 and hasn’t been changed much in the years since only added to the ethereal effect.

With such wonderful melodies playing, work was easier and time passed quickly. When I finished, it was four o’clock in the morning. The music ended and the house was quiet. I sat down, returned to the yearbook, found Ben’s photo and said, “Thanks for keeping me company, Ben. I wish I could have known you.” Using the vernacular of the era, I added, “You seemed like a swell fellow.”

A few seconds later, there was a knock at the door, but not just any knock – it was a knock with the “shave and a haircut – two bits” cadence very common to the era Ben lived in – five knocks, a pause, then two more. I was startled because of the late hour but figured my wife had come home early with the girls for some reason. I was sitting close to the door so I rushed over and opened it. There was nobody on the porch. Thinking it might have been kids pulling a prank, I went outside and scanned the front yard. No one. I walked to the middle of the street, looked both ways and listened closely. It was as still and quiet as one would expect in the hours before dawn. None of my closest neighbors have children so there was no chance some kid quickly ducked into a nearby house.

Completely bewildered, I went back inside and sat down with the old yearbook again. A few moments later, it dawned on me with a chill that the knock on the door was Ben’s answer, his way of thanking me for playing the music of his youth, and for turning the pages of his yearbook so he could see the faces of his old friends again.

The curtain between this world and the next is thick, but every now and then, if we’re respectful and receptive enough, and if all the conditions are perfect, I believe we can be given a “penny from heaven” – a greeting from someone on the other side who is determined enough to reach us somehow. I was certain in that moment that Ben had been there, and that his happy, musical knock at my door was his way of saying, “Thanks, pal. You’re a swell fellow, too.”

– Mark Rickerby

(There are 100 other stories in this book about modern-day miracles and unexplainable events, available now in stores, online, or directly from me. 

chicken-soup-for-the-soul-miracles-and-more-9781611599756_hr

Alive (short story)

Nighthawks by Edward Hopper 1942

She had never been unfaithful to Edward before, but there was something special about Jack that made her feel alive again. 

It started simply and unexpectedly. She was shopping downtown and he used some corny pick-up line on her. A classic beauty, she was accustomed to such attention from men and usually dismissed it, but she couldn’t resist him. It was as if they had known each other forever. They arranged to meet at a diner in Jack’s neighborhood, a notoriously rough area that Edward avoided. They would come to call it their “rendezvous point,” speaking in code as if they were government agents on a secret mission. She had told Jack that she was married, but not that her husband was Edward Magnuson, one of the richest men in the state.

She met Edward while working at a department store. He was almost three times her age so she never thought of him romantically, but he fell in love with her and convinced her to see him socially. She enjoyed his intellect and old-fashioned charm. Because she had always been poor, she also enjoyed the high-society world he introduced her to. However, she quickly learned that no amount of material wealth could soothe an empty heart. His mansion had become a prison for her; the proverbial golden cage.

Ten long years of marriage passed before Jack arrived. He was a mechanic; dirt poor compared to Edward, but adventurous and untamed, impulsive and passionate, everything Edward wasn’t. They would meet at the diner, spend hours riding through the countryside on his motorcycle, and make love on the beach, in fields of high grass, or wherever the impulse took them. She found the freedom she was so hungry for on Jack’s motorcycle and in his arms. In both ways, he pushed the limits.

It had been two years since they met. Edward worked incessantly so he never had a clue until one evening when he came home looking uncharacteristically sullen. He sat in the study, drinking his usual scotch and water, staring at the fireplace. Finally, he called her in and asked her to sit down. With its high ceiling, dark cherry wood paneling, and big game trophies staring from the walls, the room had always intimidated her. He assessed her coldly with a look she had never seen before.

“Abigail, I’ve been made aware of something very . . . troubling.”
“Really?” she asked, her heart racing.
“A friend from the club told me he saw you with someone, and that you were kissing him.”
“That’s ridiculous,” she replied, too quickly.
“There’s no point in denying it. He made sure it was you.”
A terrible moment passed. He watched sternly as tears welled in her eyes.
“I’m willing to forgive you,” he said, “but only if you end it with him, tonight.”
She sat quietly, trapped.
“Well?” he demanded.
She heard herself say, “I can’t. I love him.”
He sighed and said, “Pack your things and get out.”

He stood up and walked away as if a meeting had just adjourned. He didn’t become so wealthy by being overly emotional. She telephoned Jack in tears.

“It’s me,” she said. “He knows.”
“Don’t worry, doll. Meet me at the rendezvous point. You can move in with me. It’ll be terrific. You’ll see.”
It would be hard adjusting to his small apartment, but she was no stranger to a humble life. She packed quickly and drove to the diner. A heavy rain started to fall. It was almost closing time so the diner was empty.
“Jack should have been here by now,” she thought.

She sat at their usual table and ordered a cup of coffee from Joe, the owner. Half an hour passed. He was usually early, anxious to see her. She was growing more worried by the minute. Another fifteen minutes later, she heard sirens speeding by on the road, not unusual on a rainy night, but then realized with a start why Jack might be late. She ran to her car and drove toward the lights. When she reached the accident scene, she rolled down her window to talk to a policeman who was directing traffic.
“What happened, officer?” she asked.
“Hit ‘n run. Move along, please, ma’am.”

Her heart pounding with dread, she passed a body covered with a white, blood-soaked sheet and, nearby, a crushed motorcycle she recognized as Jack’s. She felt the impulse to vomit. She knew immediately that Edward was behind this accident somehow. She should have known he wouldn’t take this rejection lying down.

Later that night, not knowing where else to go, she returned to their table at the diner, desperate to feel close to Jack somehow. At dawn, Joe entered, turned the sign on the door to the side that read “open,” and walked into the kitchen. Two city workers followed after him. Of all the empty tables, they sat down at hers. She looked at them incredulously.
“Excuse me. This is my table,” she said.
“Did you hear about that accident last night?” one man asked the other.
“Yeah. Poor slob,” he replied.
Aggravated, she said, “Are you both deaf?”
Growing angrier at being ignored, she stood up. Joe came to the table.
“Joe! Thank God,” she said. “Would you please ask these men . . .”
“What can I bring ya, fellas?” Joe asked.
“What?” she yelled, “What’s wrong with all of you?”
“Any apple turnovers today?”
“Yep! Heatin’ ‘em up right now.”
She yelled even louder, “You’re all crazy!” 
Again, none of them looked her way. With a series of jolts, she began to remember the events of the night before . . . seeing the accident, Jack’s crumpled body under the white sheet, driving into the mountains through lashing rain, struggling to see through her tears; the cliff’s edge, beckoning; the feeling of floating on the wind as the car plummeted; and finally, nothing. Blackness. Oblivion.

She screamed in horror as the men continued talking, then fell back into her chair and wept uncontrollably. 

Eighty years have passed, but she sits there still, waiting. Waiting for Jack to come back and make her feel alive again.

 

– Mark Rickerby

Art credit – Edward Hopper, Nighthawks, 1942