Michael C. Keith

Lead

He had but one eye, and the popular prejudice
runs in favour of two.

—Charles Dickens

 

Craig Porter held two copper pennies and one that was pitch-black in his palm. He and one of his best friends, Daryl Miller, had just emerged from Jeff's Super Mart after purchasing a Dr. Pepper and Skybar. They planned to share the bounty.

"You got a nigga' penny," observed Daryl.

"My mom says never to use that word," Craig protested, placing the change in his dungarees' pocket.

His rebuke only prompted Daryl to repeat the epithet several more times.

"Shut up! What if Henry heard you?"

"He ain't here."

"But what if he was?"

Henry was a dark-skinned dwarf in the same grade as he and Daryl and maybe the funniest kid Craig had ever known. He liked him not only for his humor but also for his courage in the face of his severely stunted body. Henry's younger brother, Kyle, two grades behind him, was actually taller than Henry, but he still treated him with all the respect an older brother deserves.

"They used the copper from pennies in the war to make bullets. Lead wasn't worth nothing," said Daryl, officiously.

Craig's father had been collecting the war era coins in a huge glass jar for as long as he could remember. It was his theory that they would be worth many times their numeric value in the future. For many of Craig's friends back in the mid-1950s, black pennies represented something undesirable—even bogus. When kids got them, they tried to get rid of them as fast as they could. Sometimes they playfully chucked the undesirable coins at each other as if they were contaminated by some dreaded bacteria or even cursed by an unnamed evil spirit.

"If they stay in your pocket long, your legs start to turn the same color. Pretty soon you look like a nigga' penny," Daryl had warned on a previous occasion.

Then as now Craig had tried to impress upon Daryl that he was saying something bad, but it was all too obvious his friend had not taken his comments to heart. If he says that word one more time, I'll punch him or something, thought Craig.

As the twelve-year-old boys headed toward the ball field, they ran into two more friends.

"You guys want to pitch some pennies?" inquired one of them.

Maybe you can get rid of the nigga' penny, Daryl whispered to Craig, who jabbed him in the arm.

Each boy had several pennies, so once an appropriate place was found—a nearby warehouse wall—the game was on.

Several pennies were pitched, with Daryl ending up the big winner as usual. Craig had resisted using the war penny knowing it would cause a stir among his fellow players, but when he ran out of copper coins, he tossed the 1943 Lincoln head. As soon as the penny rolled against the brick backstop, the protests began.

When Craig stooped to collect his winnings, he was told that his pitch did not count.

"Why not? It was the closest to the wall, wasn't it?"

"'Cause jigaboo pennies ain't no good," said Johnny Windham.

The tallest kid among them, Windham lived on the street parallel to Craig's, and he had the irritating habit of constantly popping his knuckles.

"Hey, don't say that word!" blurted Craig, to which Windham thumbed his nose.

In retaliation, Craig announced that he was going to use only the war penny from then on and with it he would wipe them all out. His challenge was met with snickers, but true to his word, several tosses later his pocket contained every one of the group's cents.

"That's a lucky nig...er, lead penny," said Daryl.

"That ain't no lead penny," came a familiar voice from behind them.

It was then that Craig noticed Henry standing in a doorway just a few feet away. He figured he had been standing there for a while.

"What do you mean it ain't no lead penny? All nig...I mean black pennies are made out of lead."

Henry emerged from the shadows and joined the group. His expression was one of anger and defiance.

"You guys think you know what something is, but you really don't."

"What do you mean? We're stupid or something? Everyone knows them black pennies are lead," said Daryl.

"Just like a lot of things you see, they ain't what you think they are," replied Henry, giving the boys a hard look.

"So what are them coon coins if they ain't lead?" asked Windham, snapping his joints in Henry's face.

Henry remained silent for a moment and then shook his head in apparent disgust.

"They're made of zinc, not lead, and they're coated with steel for protection...kind of like I am. You should know what something is before you call it names."

Henry turned and walked away with Craig close behind him.

—Michael C. Keith

© Michael C. Keith. All rights reserved. The contents of this page may not be copied or reprinted, either physically or electronically, without permission from the author. For more information, contact Michael C. Keith.