Hokey was troubled.
He watched as he stood in line at the old, red-painted country store in the Vermont valley he called home. The store had been there as long as he could remember and it had not changed much. It still carried a big, motley variety of necessities (duct tape, bread, milk, stove pipe) and a few items that one maybe did not need but wanted to make life a little more pleasant. When he could barely look over the top of the curling linoleum on the counter, it was a stick of licorice-flavored Black Jack gum or a paper of candy dots costing a precious penny that would give him a little joy on the weekly trip to the store.
Now there was a shallow dish on the counter by the computerized cash register that urged folks to "leave a penny" or "take a penny." He was so very old school and couldn't quite wrap his grizzled, aged head around the fact that a penny had so little value that people would toss them willy-nilly into a dish for others to take. Yet almost every customer in the line tossed a penny -- or two or three -- into the little dish with no more thought than they would give to throwing away a gum wrapper or a used Kleenex.
Hokey grew up in an era where a penny was important. Hokey grew up with a Papa who told him to: "Watch the pennies and the dollars will take care of themselves." He took this advice to his childhood heart and had saved almost every coppery coin he could since he was six years old, only spending one or two on a Saturday trip to the store. Hokey did not get an allowance like kids today, for he was expected to help with chores simply because he was part of the family ... every member meant more work so every member had to share in that work. What pennies he gathered came from selling eggs or helping old Mrs. Cooper weed her garden. He was a willing worker and he wanted those pennies because he wanted them to turn into dollars. Dollars! What a magical word and what power he would have when he had dollars!
And here he was, 86 years old, bent by time and gravity, still living in the old creaky house with the hollyhocks by door, same as it had been all his life. He couldn't understand much about the modern era and had long ago given up trying, just as the young ‘uns had given up trying to understand his unusual moniker. He didn't bother to tell them that "Hokey" was short for Horatio, just as his pal Corny's name was short for Cornelius. They didn't know how to use a scythe and he didn't know how to use a cell phone. He didn't think either of them cared.
But all generations surely understood money, didn't they? Didn't everyone know you had to save for what you wanted or for a rainy day? Hokey's dollars had not brought him magic or power but evaporated like drops of water on a hot stove lid in a series of rainy days comprised of sick kids and broken down tractors. He had spent the pennies that had turned into dollars to pay for what he felt was important. And what he had felt was important was the kids, some biological and some orphans taken in and given a home out of the kindness of his heart and their enormous need to be somewhere where the rules were known and stable. Hokey was not a particularly proud man but he was pretty sure that his penny/dollars had been well spent on the kids, now decent adults. And to take care of them he had to keep his income coming in and repair the tractors and plows and presses that kept his hardscrabble farm producing cider and hay and whatever else he could glean from his land and labor.
Now he watched with more amazement than amusement as the shallow plastic dish by the computerized cash register overflowed with coppery coins so disdained that they were in jeopardy of being discontinued altogether.
Hokey waited patiently as the line at the old country store was moving along slowly, the clerk checking IDs for underage beer drinkers and trying to answer the questions of the tourists that visited his valley during the summer months. Just in front of him, a classy young blonde lady bent and picked up a penny that had fallen, unheeded, on the worn floorboards. But instead of tossing it in the dish, she held it in the palm of her hand. She looked at it almost reverently as a tiny smile quirked at edges of her glossed and pretty mouth.
After a moment, she put it in her pocket.
Hokey was curious and asked, to pass the time, why she didn't just toss it in the dish.
"Oh, it's a bit of a long story" she replied. "My Daddy told me to save pennies and after he passed away and when I find a penny it reminds me of him. It seems like he is still talking to me, telling me to take care of people and pennies."
Hokey immediately liked this unknown departed Daddy and felt a spark of kindred spirit with his attractive offspring.
And Hokey guessed he was right to feel this empathy. For a startlingly attractive little girl, coppery, nappy curls creating a cumulus cloud above her café au lait complexion scampered rounded the corner of the counter and hugged the knees of his waiting companion.
"This is Penny" she said. "She needed me and I needed her ... we saved each other. I'll never throw away a penny, ever."
Now it was Hokey's turn with the clerk and he did not have the words or time to continue this unexpected conversation. He really didn't need to. He understood perfectly despite the age gap.
He went out to his battered pickup truck with a smile and a renewed faith that pennies were still important. And perhaps there were some in the modern generation that shared, if not the knowledge of how to use a scythe, the value of the little coppery coins in all their manifestations.
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