NOTES ON READING FROM THE AUTHOR
I’ll admit this started as an imitation piece. I remember reading Robert Coover’s story, “Going for a Beer” in The New Yorker. I’ve always been attracted to short pieces that span a large amount of time, focusing on a single character and making their life seem brief and fleeting. I’m also a fan of devices, which is where the keychain comes in. I planned to use it the way those hokey weather vanes are used: if rock is wet, it’s raining, etc. Throughout the main character’s life, the penny keychain reflects his emotion state, no matter the circumstance. It’s this objective correlative that seems to move the story forward. Originally, this story was only three pages long. I revisited it and cut several things, added several more things, and ended with one of my favorite stories.
WHERE’S YOUR FAVORITE AND/OR STRANGEST PLACE TO WRITE?
The strangest place I wrote for any significant amount of time was definitely the fraternity house. I wrote my first short story as a junior in college, locked in my shared bedroom with the lights off, Radiohead blasting through my headphones. I had told my roommate I needed the room, had locked the door, and had entered into sensory deprivation as best as could be done in a southern fraternity house the size of your average Home Depot. Who knows what they thought I was doing in there, sober and alone, but in the next two years I had a portfolio that got me into the MFA program at Eastern Washington University.
Monticello Penny Keychain
A PENNY AND TWO QUARTERS, you chose Monticello. Turned the crank and watched as the silver cogs spun, interlocked, and finally the penny dropped into the tray at the bottom of the machine. The mansion’s front dome, its pediment and columns, now set in copper-plated zinc. A paper-thin souvenir.
In the back seat of your parents’ Plymouth, you rubbed your thumb across the surface of the penny, flattened warm like a smooth stone in the sun. At home you kept it in your pocket, found it sliding out when you sat on couches and car seats.
After losing the penny at a baseball game and searching both dugouts, combing every inch of grass and infield clay until you found it under first base, you went to your dad’s garage and drilled a 3/32” hole into it. A keychain for some time in the future, when you’d have your own car.
You listened for mufflers screaming outside the school’s windows. You rode your bike and imagined pistons pumping instead of your legs, 8-track tapes that the neighbors would hear coming down the street. A fast car with a stereo, that’s what you wanted.
AND BOY, did you get it. That ’67 Pontiac was one bitchin’ car. V8, come-get-some red, you cracked that whip all over Two Trees until everybody in town knew it was you behind the wheel. You’d crawl down the main drag at night, calling in songs to the radio station in Forrest City so you and your buddies could drink beers, holler at the Sonic girls on their roller skates. Maybe you’d drive along the dam at the lake and spit oozing globs of tobacco off the edge, even though you never saw it land.
Suddenly, getting somewhere seemed like a problem outdated, like navigating by the constellations or putting too much lye in the soap. Of course you could go places. Every driveway in the country was connected now.
And, of course, the car wasn’t just a means of going places; it was a place. A destination for yourself and your buddies, a girl if you could find one. A car was a moveable room with a jukebox and chairs, a bed. You’d worked two jobs your senior year to buy the Pontiac, ignored homework and spun the keychain from Monticello around your index finger, willing the jangle of hot rod keys into existence.
YOU TOTALLED THE CAR two years out of high school on Highway 64, headed to a field party in Wittsburg. When you didn’t show up, none of your friends seemed to notice. They were occupied roasting whole hogs in a smoker made from the front end of a school bus. The only people looking for you were the people who had pulled over on the highway, scrambling down the bluff to your overturned hot rod. People you didn’t know.
Some folks in town said the wreck changed you. Your face washarder to read behind the scars. You grew bitter, condescending, and seemed to hate yourself almost as much as you hated others. Two Trees had always been a town that fostered hostility, but mostly just the benign grumpiness of rice farmers and truck drivers. A lazy, unguided contempt. But not you.
After the wreck, you boiled from the inside like a catfish pond in a feeding frenzy. You ached to go faster, farther, away from not just this town, but any town. You needed something to leave behind.
Once you paid off the hospital bills and saved money by living with your parents for what you swore would be the last time, you bought a Ford station wagon. A safe car, 100,000 miles and only one owner. You drove it to work at the chicken plant, fishing trips on the Little Red, the Monticello keychain swinging from the ignition like a metronome counting off girlfriends, shitty apartments, and smoky bars full of young people with no idea what life owed them yet.
You got married. What else to do? It wasn’t what you’d imagined before the wreck. Not that you had imagined much. After two promotions and as many kids, you traded the station wagon for a new Mazda coupe, a quick little whip that reminded you of that old Pontiac. You slid the penny onto the keyring and started the engine, surprised at how soft and clean it sounded.
Your wife said it looked better in the driveway, but you hated the way it made you feel: washed up, impotent. A car like that was supposed to bring new life, invigorate the rebel inside, but instead it stared at you from the driveway, reminding you of what you used to be.
And at what point exactly did the copper on your penny go green? How long had it been staining your thumbs and the insides of your pockets? You kept the Mazda only three years and traded it for a Chevy pickup, something more practical. There were the kids, after all.
You heard somewhere that Thomas Jefferson published a version of the Bible with all the miracles taken out, portraying Christ not as the son of God, but as a man of earth, a teacher of morals. That sounded about right, you thought, that things became more true, more applicable once the miracles were gone.
You told yourself you’d still have that Pontiac if it weren’t for the wreck, though you knew that wasn’t true. You wondered why no other car made you feel the way it had, and realized too late that you’d become old and bitter too soon. As a kid you’d been angry, but so had everyone else. Raging with hedonism, because all you and your buddies had wanted was a cool car to impress the girls. But then, decades after you stopped looking at any woman but one, those things seemed so easy to come by. A car? By the time you died, you’d owned six. You never counted women.
Then, one day, the penny you touched every day split in half. The penny your mother had given you, along with two quarters, to drop in the machine that would press it into one of four designs, the first decision you can remember making. You chose Monticello. You saw the mansion embossed in copper and somehow knew you’d be making more decisions than you could imagine. But you also knew there was something life could give you, if you just knew how to ask for it.