|The Story Plant|
13 May 2014
My thoughts on Pressed Pennies
“Find a penny, pick it up and all that day you’ll have good luck"
“Find a penny, pick it up and all that day you’ll have good luck"
Two old friends, with a special connection, meet again after years of heartbreak. Both are filled with trepidation at the start of an exciting new love affair, which in a way feels so right, and yet, even as ripples of anxiety threaten their new found dreams, they can only hope that their special connection this second time around will survive whatever life throws at them.
Pressed Pennies is written with the author’s usual fine attention to the minutiae of life and the believable characters with all their imperfections and hang ups make this book an absolute joy to read. What I loved about the novel, and I read it over the space of a couple of afternoons, was the way the author was able to narrate the story from a realistic female perspective without ever compromising his leading male viewpoint. In my opinion, very few male authors manage to achieve this, with the exception of Nicholas Sparks.
This is now the third Steven Manchester book I have read and this one is, by far, my favourite, it is warm hearted without being overly sentimental, and utterly engaging without the saccharine sweetness which can very easily become cloying.
It’s a perfect read for a quiet afternoon, with a cup of hot tea and a classic radio station playing quietly in the background.
Pressed Pennies excerpt
A mix of playful conversation and alcohol set the night’s happy mood. Rick was tipping his third beer at the season’s final bash when he looked up and saw her. He nearly choked on his drink. She was his age, pretty with an athletic build. She had gorgeous wavy chestnut hair with beautiful dark eyes that matched. She had a mysterious confidence about her and a smile that men would die for. Rick swore she had an aura from her head to her feet. At that moment, he thought, I have to meet her. His mind filled with questions that needed answers: Who does she know at the party? Who can I get her background from? Who can introduce us? As his mind raced, Carol walked over with the beauty. And as they got closer, it hit him. “Oh, my God!” he said.
“Rick, this is…” the friendly hostess began to introduce with a smile.
“Abby!” Rick interrupted. “I can’t believe it.” It was her. It was Abby Gerwitz, his childhood sweetheart. He searched her eyes and a thousand memories—happy childhood pictures—flooded his mind. And then he recalled the pain he’d felt on the day they were forced to say goodbye.
After an unforgettable summer, Abby and the neighborhood gang received the terrible tidings. Rick—then known as Richard—gathered the gang in his backyard. He felt ready to cry. “I’ve got some bad news, guys,” he said.
“Oh, God,” Tracy blurted.
“Yeah?” asked Vinny.
“What’s is it?” Grant asked.
Richard looked at Abby. She was frozen.
“My dad was promoted to lieutenant, and he has to transfer to another prison across the state.” There was a long, painful pause. “We’re going to have to move away…next week.”
It was a lie. They were moving, sure enough, but Richard’s dad hadn’t been promoted. The hospital bills from his mom’s car accident—where a drunk driver had stolen away her life—had finally broken them. It was a matter of money or more precisely the lack of it. Richard silently vowed that he’d never be put in the same position—ever. No matter what I have to do, he swore to himself.
While the rest of his friends hung their heads and complained, Abby burst out crying and ran for her house.
As Rick recalled, it was well past midnight when he finally surrendered to the tossing and turning. Rolling out of bed, he maneuvered past several moving boxes, stepped up to the window and pulled back the curtain. Wilbur Avenue was deserted and silent. From left to right—as if he was branding the picture into his mind forever—he carefully scanned every detail of the place he could no longer call home. Although one good memory after another played out before him, a sharp pain pricked his heart. No one was watching, so he allowed the tears to flow. Once he’d arrived at the farthest reaches of his vantage point, he forced his swollen eyes to work their way back and absorb more of his past. “Why do we have to leave?” he muttered. “Why?” Before long, his shoulders rocked back and forth to the rhythm of his quiet sobs.
The very next morning, gray clouds hovered over Wilbur Avenue. Richard’s dad and grandma made their goodbyes quick and waited in the overstuffed station wagon for Richard.
Richard had never said goodbye before. The pain was alien. It hurt something awful to face Abby. Overwhelmed with emotion, it took him a while to speak. It was the hardest thing he had ever had to do.
“Well, I guess…” Richard muttered, and choked on the words. Not knowing what else to do, he pulled the curled brim of his ball cap down further over his eyes.
Through sniffles, Abby finally said, “You can come back and visit, right?”
“Sure.” Richard was fighting to be strong and dared not speak more than a word.
Abby lifted the brim of his hat. “Goodbye, Richard,” she whimpered.
Richard placed his hand on her shoulder and shook his head. “No Abby…I’ll be seein’ ya,” he whispered, and with one surge of courage kissed her on the lips.
While Abby’s eyes went wide, he pulled his baseball cap back over his eyes, jumped into the family station wagon and never looked back. One cruel moment later, the Giles family drove away.
Though Richard and Abby promised to keep in touch, frequent phones calls and detailed letters gradually became an occasional event until adolescence rearranged priorities and their communication ceased altogether.
Back in the present, Abby gasped. “Richard? Is it really you?”
Rick grinned. “It’s Rick now,” he said.
Her smile turned mischievous. “Okay, Richard.”
He stood to meet her embrace and squeezed her tight. “My God, it’s been so long. How have you been?”
She pulled away to peer into his eyes and, without a word, returned to their embrace.
While they hugged over the unexpected reunion, Carol was clearly pleased with herself—as if she’d known there was history between them. “Abby just moved into the neighborhood, Rick…three houses down from us. It appears that you two have a lot in common, so I’ll leave you to it.” Carol smiled widely before strutting away.
“So you’re living on Freedom Avenue now…near these crazy people?” Rick asked. He couldn’t believe it, but his palms were actually sweaty. He looked into her sparkling eyes and experienced arrhythmia for the first time in his life.
“I am,” Abby said before looking down at his left hand and then back into his eyes. “You’re not married?” she asked, blushing slightly over the impulsive question.
“Happily divorced,” he answered.
“Then you must have a creep for an ex-husband too?” she teased. Her tone was gentle and there was a soft light playing around her eyes.
“I do,” Rick said. “His name’s Rose.”
Abby chuckled and took the seat beside her old friend. Her laugh was absolutely contagious.
For a few moments, neither spoke a word. And then Abby’s face blushed again when Rick caught her staring. She looked away. Rick was thrilled over the obvious chemistry between them.
Rick cracked open a fresh beer and offered it to her. His hands were almost trembling. No one has ever had this effect on me, he thought. No one. He was legitimately nervous.
She shook her head. “Thanks, but I don’t like beer,” she said, and then stared straight into his soul. “So you did the divorce thing too, huh?”
He shrugged. “I did. Seems like the ‘in thing’ these days.”
“Any kids?” she asked, shifting from one hip to the other.
Rick’s eyes lit up. “Zachary…the love of my life. He just turned two.” He took a swig of beer. “I’m thinking about getting him a bigger bowl.”
Abby’s eyebrow rose in confusion.
“Zachary’s my gold fish,” Rick explained, chuckling.
Even through the laughter, Abby kept staring. At one point, she slid closer to him.
Her presence felt so comfortable and familiar to Rick. “And you… any kids?” he asked.
“Paige,” Abby answered, with the same twinkle in her eyes. “She’ll be nine next week…just old enough to be brokenhearted.”
Rick nodded. “Boy problems?”
“No. Daddy problems.” She shook her head, the twinkle gone. “Her father hasn’t made a whole lot of time for her lately,” she explained.
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.” As a light drizzle began to fall, Rick leaned into Abby’s face. She smelled as good as she looked.
Abby nodded, but quickly changed the subject. “So how long have you known Carol?” she asked.
“Too long,” Rick answered with a smirk. “Actually, I met Danny in college and met Carol after their first date. He was my business colleague for a while. He and Carol have been together for almost three years now. She’s great. She loves Danny’s two boys like they’re her own.”
“Investments. Stocks, bonds… really, really important stuff like that,” he added, sarcastically.
“You two still together?” she asked.
“Nope. Danny and I have broken up. I recently discovered that I liked sunshine a little more than fluorescent light.” He thought for a moment. “I just started doing some consulting work, and I write a little now.”
“You do? That’s great!” Abby said. She smiled like an angel. “I’d love to see some of your writing.”
Rick’s skin tingled over the suggestion.
Beneath a wet sky, the rest of the night was spent getting caught up. For Rick, it felt like old times—even though he had no idea who Abby was as an adult.
They reminisced first about Rick’s grandma and father. “So how are they?” Abby asked. “I always loved them, you know.”
He smiled. “Dad lives in New Hampshire now, working with delinquent kids.”
She smiled, her head cocked. “Did he ever remarry?”
“No. He’s never stopped loving my mom enough to pursue another woman. I guess in his own way he still grieves her death.”
Abby’s mouth twisted slightly, forming itself into a frown; she was clearly touched by the undying love the man had for his wife.
“I think Grandma’s right,” Rick added. “When my dad passes, I’m betting that he and my ma will spend eternity making up for lost time.”
Abby nearly cooed at the sweet sentiment. “I’ll never forget his dog, Roy,” she said.
Rick took a sip of beer and chuckled. “Believe it or not, he actually has Roy’s grandson now—Ray.”
She shook her head and laughed. “Roy and now Ray. What was the dog’s name in between?”
Abby was sent into a state of hysterics.
Rick shrugged and laughed along with her.
“And Grandma?” she asked, regaining her composure.
Rick nodded. “Still spry and spunky…just a really cool person. You know her motto: ‘The body doesn’t wear out, it rusts.’ She’s still listening to her music and raising holy hell.”
Abby smiled at the familiar phrase.
“And she got married,” Rick said.
“Yep. His name is Bill Stryker and they’re perfect for each other.” He took another swig of beer. “She still makes me sit for dinner every Sunday.” Rick then asked about Abby’s parents.
There was a sad pause. “My mom passed away,” Abby said, “from a lack of purpose, I’d say. And I haven’t spoken to my father for a few years now.” She tried to shake off the pain. “We no longer share a relationship… just some really bad memories. I imagine he’s still committing suicide the long way.”
“Yup, still doing laps in his bottle.”
Rick put his beer on the table and quickly changed the subject.
“Have you heard from any of the old Wilbur Avenue gang?”
Abby’s smile returned. “From what I hear, Vinny became an attorney and is living with his wife in Vermont.” She thought for a moment. “I don’t know how anyone could stand to live with him.”
“Tracy became a psychologist and moved to Utah.”
“Married?” Rick asked.
“A-sexual, I think.”
They both laughed. Rick couldn’t stop staring at her great smile and adorable dimples.
“Actually, I heard she lives with her lesbian lover and goes by the new name Cheyenne.”
“You’re kidding me, right?”
Abby shook her head.
“Good for her,” Rick said.
“But I haven’t heard anything about Grant,” Abby added.
Rick leaned forward. “You’re not going to believe this, but the first day I walked into college…there was Grant talking to some pretty, unsuspecting freshman.”
Abby shook her head.
“I still see him every Tuesday night,” Rick said. “We shoot a little pool and a whole lot of bull.”
She was shocked. “How is he?”
“The same…emotionally amputated; socially challenged.”
As the laughter continued, she asked, “Do you remember the last time your dad brought us all to Lincoln Park? Believe it or not, I still think about that sometimes.”
“Are you kidding?” Rick said. “I could live a hundred lifetimes and never forget that day!” And without his permission, his mind immediately raced back to the smack of screen doors and the echoes of foolish, barefooted children running toward the future.
As a going away gift to Richard and his friends, Jim Giles announced, “I’m treating you all to Lincoln Park.” It was a local amusement park that was famous for its epic Easter egg hunts and The Comet—the largest and most feared roller coaster on the East Coast. The park also had the reputation of hosting some lifelong memories from early spring until late fall.
Jim Giles pulled the station wagon into the front of the park and shut off the ignition. From sheer excitement, the back doors flew open and Richard, Abby, Grant, Tracy and Vinny piled out like a trained circus act. They waited. Jim Giles never opened his door.
Richard ran around to his father’s window. “Aren’t you comin’, Dad?” he asked, still resentful over their upcoming move.
Jim handed his son some money and winked. “This is your day,” he said, and then looked at Abby beside Richard. “Stay together, all right?”
They both nodded. “Absolutely,” said Richard. “I’ll be seein’ ya.”
“We will,” Abby promised.
Richard’s father smiled. “Meet me back here at six,” he said, and drove away from the curb.
The gang watched as the wood-paneled wagon disappeared into traffic. They looked at each other and smiled. They’d been set loose for one last hoorah. This entire day was going to be their last great adventure together. Past the roller-skating rink and bowling alley out front, they sprinted toward the ticket gate.
Murals of smiling clowns holding balloons and lollipops beckoned them inside. A hand stamp cost five dollars and fifty cents and allowed them to ride all the rides for the day. Once paid, the land of thrill seekers, big crowds and long lines opened up to them. “That’s expensive,” Richard blurted, while Grant discreetly talked Tracy into paying his fare.
Three steps in and a slew of stimuli nudged them into a frenzy of squeals and high-fives. Flashing lights, carnival sounds and joyous screams filled the park. From popcorn to vomit, the smells were overwhelming. A world of vivid colors—dark reds and yellows and blues—covered everything. One look around, and it was clear that romance could blossom here, as well. Richard glanced over at Abby to find her staring at him. Smiling to himself, he turned, waved his friends toward him and ran for the rides. “Come on!”
Everyone took chase.
The gang worked its way through the park. Hidden speakers spouting the moans and wails of ghouls and mutants soon had them standing before The Monster Ride. “Looks like Old Lady MacDonald’s place,” Richard said and everyone agreed. Those who dared to ride were greeted by gaudy, lurking statues of hideous creatures with horns, sharp teeth and insane eyes. Of course, to the older, more discerning eye, the giant plaster of Paris knick-knacks were no less than absurd.
Richard led his friends toward the unknown. Tracy wouldn’t hear of it. “Come on, Scaredy-Cat,” Grant taunted. It didn’t matter. No matter how much teasing they heaped on, Grant and Vinny were forced to share a car. Abby had already jumped in with Richard.
From the moment the car hit the double doors and entered pitch darkness, Abby shut her eyes and never opened them. While hideous mannequins waited in the shadows, the car took jerky turns on a squeaky track. “Eeeek,” Abby squealed, while Richard did his best not to laugh. Through all the screaming, the smells of the midway wafted in, while several rays of sunlight streamed through the cracks in the old, wooden boards. Though these reminded everyone that his or her plight was surreal and only temporary, it still didn’t matter in the belly of the beast. At one point, Abby placed her trembling body against Richard’s.
He’d never felt such warmth. His whole body tingled and he instinctively tightened his grip. It was almost a hug. A swarm of butterflies fluttered in his guts, but even in the blackness he couldn’t bring himself to kiss her. He just couldn’t do it.
As the car came crashing through another set of double doors and back into reality, Richard and Abby released each other. Through squinted eyes, they exchanged a grin. The crush was their little secret.
Once Rick returned to their conversation, he looked hard into Abby’s eyes and his Adam’s apple took forever to travel south. “Those were definitely the days,” he said.
She nodded. “Find a penny, pick it up and all that day you’ll have good luck.”
“As long as it’s heads up,” he added, with a grin.
Between the conversation and shared laughter, the entire night seemed to last all of three seconds.
© Steven Manchester