The poem “Pennies From Heaven” gets all the attention, and few know there was a story that preceded it. Here’s the story:
Pennies From Heaven
Charles L. Mashburn
Randy swung his legs over the edge of the bed and stared out the window as he rubbed the sleep from his eyes. The mist floated through the trees and seemed to linger and twine among the evergreens before moving on into the darkness of the forest behind the old, two story house. Intermittent footsteps and the clattering of kitchen utensils from the room beneath him told him his mom was busy preparing breakfast “Probably starting a pot of black-eyed peas too,” he thought. He made a face and said, “Yuck.” He hated black-eyed peas, but he always ate some anyway.
Grandpa said it was tradition.
At the thought of his grandpa, Randy’s head snapped back to the window. Droplets of moisture from the mist streamed down the glass, distorting the trees and giving the forest a mystical, magical appearance. Randy’s mouth hung open as he watched a tendril of smoke drift across the trees from the right “Grandpa!” he whispered excitedly. His blue eyes danced as he jumped up and searched frantically for his jeans. As he pulled them on, his mind raced. The misty fog was moving across the backyard from the west. Grandpa’s cottage was to the east and slightly behind the main house. The smoke had definitely come from the east. Grandpa was there for sure!
Randy tugged a faded green Seahawk sweatshirt over his head, then grabbed an equally faded and well worn cap from his dresser and placed it on his head. (Backwards, of course. No one wore their cap with the bill in front anymore). “Except Grandpa,” he thought to himself. He quickly twisted the cap around so that the faded, but still visible, Seahawk emblem was in the front It felt kind of weird. “But who cares,” he thought as he walked toward the door. None of his friends would see him this morning. He glanced in the mirror that hung on his door, and grinned as he stared at the faded Seahawk emblems on his sweatshirt and cap. He could already hear his grandpa groan. “Ohhhh, Randy,” he would say. “You’re breaking your old grandpa’s heart.” Grandpa was a Dallas Cowboys fan. Secretly Randy was too, and Grandpa knew that, but still it was fun to play this little game each time Grandpa came to visit.
Opening the door slowly, Randy peeked out into the hallway. The TV was on downstairs in the living room; he could hear the thumping of a bass drum and the tinny sound of horns. “Rose Bowl parade,” he thought as he slipped into the hall and moved silently toward the stairs. The smell of bacon frying danced around his nose as he descended the stairs, causing his stomach to growl noisily. “All right,” he thought “Grandpa loves bacon.” At the bottom of the stairs, he stopped and listened to the sounds of the New Year’s morning. His mom busy in the kitchen, the parade on the TV, and the rustle of the newspaper as his dad turned a page and flipped it like he always did before starting to read again. Randy heard the rustle of the paper and then the telltale snap as his dad flipped the newsprint and pulled it closer as he continued to read. Randy slipped quickly across the opening to the living room, and just as quickly turned the doorknob and opened the door. He was out and had the door shut before the cold moist air had a chance to slip by him and into the house. Or so his seven year old mind would have him believe.
Randal Royal lowered his paper and looked in the direction of the front door. He could not see the door from where he sat in the worn old recliner, but he knew it had just opened and shut. A cold blast of moisture laden air had danced a silent waltz around him before moving on to explore the warm and cozy comers of the old farmhouse. He shook his head slowly from side to side as he snapped the paper back into place and continued reading the sports page. He should probably get up and go after Randy, but then…. maybe not He knew the boy would be back soon, and chances were that he would be none the worse for wear. Still, he wondered sometimes if it was a healthy thing for the boy to continue like this.
He sighed heavily then returned his attention to the article he’d been reading. A smirk of a
smile formed at the comers of his mouth as he read about the latest unsavory escapade of one of the members of the Dallas Cowboys. He snorted in disgust “America’s team,” he spat, as he turned the page. “My big old rear end.” He glanced over toward the couch, half expecting to see his dad, Steven Royal, looking back at him with those hurt-filled blue eyes. Of course, there was no one on the couch. Funny how his dad could make him feel guilty and not even be there. He smiled again as he laid the paper in his lap and turned his attention to the television. The warmth from the old wood stove in the comer coupled with the morning smells from the kitchen caressed him and a comfortable drowsiness coddled him as he settled deeper into the chair and closed his eyes. He could hear his wife Debra singing softly in the kitchen as he drifted in and out of a peaceful morning nap.
Randy stood on the front porch for a few seconds watching the fog drift by. His excitement suddenly overwhelmed him, and tossing caution to the wind, he ran to the porch steps, reaching them in three quick, thumping strides, and leapt to the sidewalk. He hit with a slap, grinning broadly, and took off toward the cottage that sat nestled in the trees behind and to the side of the big house where he lived with his parents. As he rounded the comer of the house, he lost traction in the wet grass and suddenly found himself sitting in the fog, facing the tiny cottage. As the dew soaked through his jeans and invisible cold needles seemed to poke at his rear end, he lowered his head. The grin was gone, a sad frown in its place as he rolled to his knees, and wiped his hands on the front of his pants. He stood and as he walked slowly toward the gravel road in front of the house, he stared down at the dew covered grass. Behind him the cottage was dark and cold. No smoke came from the old chimney.
When he reached the road, Randy turned and looked back at the cottage. “Darn it,” he whispered. He blushed slightly, shooting a sideways glance at the main house. “Shouldn’t curse,” he thought, silently scolding himself. He looked back toward bis grandpa’s place, then turned and started off down the road. The sound of gravel crunching beneath his sneakers took him away to another, happier time.
He had walked this road with his grandpa for as long as he could remember. Grandpa had
bought the house for them about four years ago, right after his first book had been published. Then he had built the small cottage out back for himself. “Don’t want to be a burden,” he always said. “Just want to be near my kids.” Moisture welled in Randy’s eyes as he pictured the warm smile of his grandpa. He could swear he could feel the man’s hand resting on his shoulder now, as he walked down the gravel road. He thought too, he could hear the sound of larger footsteps mingling with his as his sneakers crunched the gravel. He missed his grandpa something fierce.
As he passed another house on the same side of the road as his house, Randy thought for a second about turning his hat around to the more acceptable backward position. He quickly dismissed the thought as he remembered that Jimbo Nelson, his best friend, and his family were gone for the holidays. “They’ll probably be back sometime this weekend,” he thought as he continued down the narrow road. He rounded a slight bend, and in the distance he could see the road to town. It was only a few miles into Eatonville, but what with the trees and the scattered layout of the homes along the road, it seemed as though they lived deep in the wilderness. Randy looked down at the road and kicked aimlessly at rock then stopped dead in his tracks. A car whirred by on the blacktop road in the distance, but Randy hardly heard it. As he bent to pick up the penny, he heard a small voice in his mind. It was his voice when he was little—four years old, if he remembered right.
“How many pennies are there, Grandpa?”
His grandpa smiled; a smile that could set the world right and make the sun seem warmer on a crisp fall day. “Why, there’s more than you could ever count,” he said.
Randy looked down at the penny he held in his hand. It was dull and scratched, the face upon it, a famous president he thought, seemed sad somehow. “How did it get here, Grandpa?” he asked. His blue eyes sparkled as he waited to hear the familiar story again.
“Well, you know,” Grandpa said, “I’m not real sure.” He held his hand out, and Randy took hold of it as they continued to walk down the road. Randy loved it when grandpa came to the mountain to write; they got to walk down the road almost every day. “But if I had to say,” Grandpa continued, I’d say someone from heaven tossed it down here to let you know they was thinkin’ about you.”
Randy looked up at his grandpa, eyes wide and sparkling. “Who do you think tossed me this penny, Grandpa?” He opened his hand and showed the tarnished coin to the smiling old man at his side.
Grandpa chuckled; the laughter seemed to wrap itself around Randy like an old down comforter on a cold winter night. “Randy, Randy, Randy,” Grandpa said, as he moved his head slowly side-to-side. He smiled down at his wide-eyed grandson as he continued. “I bet you know
who tossed that penny. You’re just trying to fool your old grandpa.”
Randy smiled sheepishly, then looked down at the penny in his hand. When he looked up,
the smile had grown bigger and his eyes sparkled like moonlit snow as he asked in a hushed tone, “Grandma?”
“You reckon?” Grandpa asked.
His grandpa’s smile was broad, but Randy thought he could see a hint of moisture in grandpa’ss eyes. “I reckon,” Randy answered as he looked away from his grandpa and stared off down the road. His young heart ached as he thought of his grandma. She had gone to heaven right after his fourth birthday, just a few months ago, and Randy still wasn’t sure why God had thought he needed Grandma more than he did. He missed her a lot. And what about Grandpa? Did God need Grandma more than Grandpa did? He knew how sad his grandpa had been since Grandma had gone away, and he knew how lonely Grandpa was too. It was all too confusing for
his four year old brain. His Grandpa had seemed to read his mind. He did that a lot.
“Yep,” Grandpa said, as they started walking again. “I believe that all found pennies come from heaven. God gives them to his angels, you see, and when an angel, in this case your grandma, looks down here and sees you’re missing her, she tosses one of her pennies down so you’ll know she’s thinking about you.” As he finished talking, the crunch of gravel stopped too, and the day went still. Randy looked up at his grandpa, then followed his gaze to the side of the road.
Randy’s mouth dropped open. Another penny, this one shiny and new, gleamed at them from the dew-moistened ground beside the gravel road. It seemed to strain toward them in the sunlight and beg to be picked up. The old man and the boy turned and stared at one another. The boy’s eyes were wide and filled with wonder. The man looked as though he’d been struck dumb. As one, their eyes went back to the penny, and they stood there for what seemed like an eternity, staring at the gleaming coin. Randy finally broken the silence with a small, sure voice.
“That one’s yours, Grandpa.”
Randy drifted back to the present then turned and started back toward home. He dropped
the penny he’d found into his pocket and a smile lit his face as he quickened his steps. He was practically skipping when he reached the steps that led up into the big house. The smell of bacon and eggs had found its way to the porch, and he thought for a second he could hear the bacon sizzling from within the big house. He looked over toward the east, squinting as the sun peaked through the clouds and trees. Its bright rays touched his face, warming his cheeks and sending chills of pure happiness racing through him. He smiled broadly, closing his eyes and turning to face the heavenly rays. He spread his arms wide as if he were trying to let the warm, golden beams touch every part of him and let his mind drift again to a time when he had asked another question of his grandpa.
“How come the sun feels so good on my face, Grandpa?”
“Well, you know, I’m not real sure” Grandpa said. “But, if I had to say, I’d say it was a kiss from one of God’s angels…. tellin’ you they loved you.”
“You reckon?” Randy asked, grinning at his grandpa.
Grandpa, smiling—he was always smiling—looked down and said with a curt nod of his
head, “I reckon.”
The sun ducked behind a cloud as quickly as it had come out, and Randy opened his eyes.
He turned as he heard the door open, and just stood there grinning at his dad. His dad grinned back at him from the doorway. “Breakfast is ready, Champ,” he said.
“Okay,” Randy said happily He skipped up the steps and past his father.
“Where you been?” his dad asked as he closed the door.
“Went for a walk,” Randy replied, in a matter of fact tone, as he reached into his pocket and retrieved the penny he had found. He walked to the far side of the living room and stood before a plastic water bottle that sat in a comer of the room. It was a large, five gallon bottle that Randy’s grandpa had used to put his spare change in. There had been several hundred dollars—mostly pennies—in it when grandpa had passed on. They had cashed in the coins and deposited them in a college fund for Randy (As if they would need it. Grandpa had left them a small fortune). Randy had insisted they keep the jug, explaining he would need a place to put all the pennies he would find.
“I see,” his dad said, watching as Randy touched a tarnished penny to each cheek, then dropped it into the water bottle.
Randal watched his small son as he skipped merrily into the kitchen, then he looked back to the jar of pennies. It was nearly half full. “Where in the world does he get all of those pennies?” Randal wondered aloud as he turned to go into the kitchen for breakfast
A strange sensation touched him, stopping him in his tracks.
It was pleasantly warm in the house, yet suddenly his cheeks felt as if they were on fire. A memory from long ago flashed in his mind, and he heard his own voice, from when he was a child. His eyes went wide, and he wheeled around to stare at the bottle of pennies, as the tiny voice—his voice—rang in his mind.
“How many pennies are there, Daddy?”