Her pretty young fingers twisted a strand of colorful Christmas lights around a nail-head on the fireplace mantle covered thick with old paint. She merrily hummed a vintage carol.
“Where did you get the lights, my dear?” asked the young man shuffling bills at the kitchen table.
“I didn’t buy them, darling, if that’s what you’re asking,” she answered while stringing the lights in and around the candlesticks upon the mantle. “I found them laying on top of the trash bin downstairs. There were two strands. Alone, neither worked. I mixed and matched the bulbs and fuses until I got this one string to work.”
He smiled at her and said, “You’re a wonder, my dear. Here I thought the only festive lighting we’d be able to enjoy this year would be the glow of neon from the Chinese restaurant downstairs reflected here in our window.”
“How do things look?” she asked.
“Those lights look almost as brilliant as you.”
“I mean the bills, darling, not the lights. You’ve been sitting there at the table hovering over them like Bob Cratchit for more than an hour. I know we’re close. I was just wondering, if we’ve made it?”
The young man lay down the papers he held in his hand and stood up. He picked a coin off the table, walked across the uneven floorboards toward her and extended to her an old tarnished penny. She took it from him. “A penny?” she questioned.
“Yes, my dear. One penny.” He smiled and continued, “All our bills are paid. All of them. Not just for the month, but, after more than a year of frugal skimping, our entire debt is finally, at long last, gone. The penny you hold in your hand represents our liquid wealth in its entirety. Can you believe it? What are the odds? Just one penny in the black. It represents the first tiny step toward a more abundant future together.”
“This penny is ours?” she smiled. “All ours?”
“All ours, my dear.”
She held him and laughed, “We could probably quadruple our net worth by digging through the cushions on that old hand-me-down sofa.”
“Where do you think I got this penny from?” he winked and kissed her. “I wish it were more. You know how much I would love to be able to take you out on the town tonight, for Christmas Eve – to give you that ring you’ve been so very patient about.”
“Darling,” she said, “you don’t need a ring for me to say yes to that question.”
“I know, but I want it to be…well, maybe for Valentines Day.”
“Well, we can still go out on the town,” she smiled and kissed him. “I’ll get our scarves.”
“I told you, all we have is that penny. How can we possibly have a night out on the town with only a penny to our names?”
“Have you ever been on a penny walk?” she asked.
“No. What’s a penny walk?”
“I learned about it in a story my mother use to read me and my brother when we were little. You walk through town and every time you get to a cross-street you flip the penny to see which direction you turn. Heads, you turn right. Tails, you turn left. The penny decides the journey. It could be a fun adventure. How about it, darling?”
He grabbed her in his arms, kissed her neck and whispered into her ear, “I can think of fun adventures we might have right here in our little apartment that would keep us a lot warmer.”
“There will be plenty of time for that later tonight,” she laughed with a blush, pushing him away. “The sun has only just set and the city must be abuzz with Christmas Eve. Please, darling, lets go out for a penny walk.”
He took his scarf from her with a smile and tossed it around his neck.
“Hurray!!!” she clapped her mittened hands.
On the street below, the glowing neon of the restaurant sign gave witness to a slow but steadily falling snow. It did not yet lay deep, but was enough to crunch under the young couple’s boots as they stepped to the sidewalk.
“Here, darling, you control the penny,” she extended the coin. “It would be too difficult to flip in mittens.”
He flipped the penny into the cold air. Heads. They held hands and walked to the right. At the edge of their block, a long, high entryless stone side of a cathedral blocked their way forward. To the left, crooked dumpsters sat in an alley around a grate belching subterranean steam; to the right, the distant glow of the market street. The young woman crossed the fingers inside her mittens. Heads! Thank goodness. Toward the light at the center of town they went. Two more flips of the coin and the couple was brought face to face with the soaring red front doors of the cathedral. The doors were open wide and manned by a cheery man in a white robe who declared: “Come inside one and all. All are welcome!” The couple smiled to each other and joined the other passersby on the street who chose to climb the stairs to find shelter within.
Inside the cathedral, it smelled of books, candles and the old timbers that vaulted the gothic roof high above them. They took a seat on a red velvet-cushioned pew and listened in a reverent hush as a children’s choir sang to a pipe organ being played by some out-of-sight master. The young man held his arm tight around his love as she placed her head on his shoulder. The acoustics of the music bounced sublimely through the hall and vibrated the young lovers to their core.
When the performance ended they rose to exit the main doors, but were steered instead to a hallway leading to an annex that smelled of cinnamon and coffee.
“We are not members of the church,” said the young man to a friendly woman extending them paper cups filled with steaming hot apple cider.”
“It’s Christmas Eve. All are welcome tonight.”
They gave a heartfelt thanks and accepted the offering. Too hot to drink, they took the cider out a side door and onto the street. “I think when the time comes, we might get married there,” said the young woman. He nodded in agreement and flipped the penny. To the Left this time.
The cider had cooled in time for them to enjoy it in a walk along the extravagant front windows of the city’s most prestigious department store. Each window was decorated according to distinct Christmas traditions from around the world. A Norwegian display showed people enjoying a hot sauna. In the Finnish window, a Yule log was being placed on the fire while children ate hot rice pudding. A stealthy Sinterklaas slipped sweat treats into the wooden shoes of boys and girls of the Netherlands’ window. A representation of a Kiwi Christmas, showed New Zealanders having summer seafood beach cookouts. In a Swedish window, stood Santa Lucia, a beautiful angelic blond saint. The young man proclaimed his own love to be far more beautiful.
At the end of the department store windows, the sirens of a fire truck grew loud. Around the corner came upon them, a vintage fire truck escorted by a police motorcade. Atop the red truck sat a red jolly Santa waving and tossing treats to the crowds on the streets below. The young man reached into the night sky and caught one. It was two oatmeal cookies in a clear plastic bag closed at the top with a shiny gold twist tie. A label across the front read: “Merry Christmas from Town and Country Home & Fire Mutual Insurance Co.”
“Someday, when we have a home,” said the young man, “We shall have to insure it through this company.”
“Yes. And when I buy a wedding dress, I want it to be from this department store.”
He flipped the penny and to the right they went. A few flips later and the penny took them to the city’s indoor marketplace filled with gift shops and an abundance of food stalls loaded with delicacies both raw and prepared. A model train display of their city anchored the middle of the old converted warehouse. Tiny faces of children pressed its glass to see miniature trolleys zipping around in little circles. Last minute shoppers bustled about with arms filled with packages, their wallets quickly approaching the same emptiness as the young couple’s.
As the couple strolled the isles, food-stall employees tempted them with samples of their delicious preparations stuck to the end of toothpicks. They happily sampled Vietnamese style chicken, Turkish kabob, Polish perogies and more. The samplings went far toward settling their grumbling bellies.
An old train station clock above the entrance chimed 8 O’clock and the crowd began to thin. It was shortly thereafter that a young man with a giant fleur-de-lis on his tee-shirt called them over to his food stall and asked, “Would you like to have some gumbo and jambalaya?”
“It smells delicious,” said the young man, “And I certainly do love Cajun-Creole, but I’m sorry, we haven’t any money.”
“I’m not talking about paying,” said the man. “You see, normally we save what’s left at the end of the night for the next day, but tomorrow is Christmas, and we are closed all day. The food won’t be fresh by the day after tomorrow, so the owner has us throw out what’s left tonight into the garbage can. I’d much rather give it to someone rather than toss it.”
“Don’t you want to take it for yourself?” asked the young woman.
“I already packed myself more than enough for me and mine. I couldn’t possibly carry any more home with me.”
“If that is the case,” said the young man, “We’d be happy to take some leftovers off your hands.”
The man loaded them up with a feast the likes the young couple had not eaten in some time. They thanked him and wished him a very Merry Christmas, indeed!
It seemed as if their penny was leading them back to their little apartment but, a couple of blocks early, it turned them down a street with smaller stores specializing in antiques, jewelry and old collectables. Most of the shops had already closed, but, toward the end of the block, one shopkeeper remained. He diligently swept the sidewalk in front of his store free from snow. The short round man smiled as the young couple stopped to look in his display window. It was filled with old figurines, pocket watches, coins and jewelry. In the middle of it all sat a vintage solitaire diamond ring, as simple as it was graceful.
“Oh, darling! How beautiful is that ring? When the time comes, try and find me one that looks just like this one.”
The shopkeeper stopped his sweeping, and said, “They don’t make ’em like that anymore. They say the time to buy is when you see it, ’cause you’ll never find one when your looking for it. That ring is four-thousand dollars, but because it’s Christmas Eve – and you look like a nice young couple – I’ll sell it to you for only thirty-five hundred.”
“Thank you for the generous offer,” said the young man, “But we couldn’t afford it if it were one dollar.”
The shopkeeper shrugged his shoulders and went back to sweeping away the snow.
“I need to get away from this beautiful ring,” the young lady sighed, “Let’s flip the penny and get out of here.” She took the penny from the young man and flipped it into the air. When it hit her mittened hand it bounced and fell to the sidewalk. The coin might have dropped silently into the snow had the shopkeeper not swept it away. Instead, it rolled on its side toward the curb and the drain of a gutter. The couple’s hearts sank as they both darted after it. It was mere inches from disappearing forever when the bottom of the shopkeeper’s boot brought it to a stop. He reached down, picked it up and extended it back to them with a smile. But, just as the young man was about to take it, the old shopkeeper pulled it back and looked at it with an excited astonishment. He took his glasses from his pocket and examined it closer. “This is a wheat penny!” he exclaimed.
“Yes, it is,” said the young man. “So?”
“But – this is a nineteen-twenty-two wheat penny with no ‘D’, and,” he flipped it over, “it has a very strong backside.”
“So, what does that mean?” asked the young woman.
“That means its very rare and worth a small fortune! In fact,” the round shopkeeper removed his glasses with a smile, “I’ll trade it right now for that diamond ring you’ve been admiring.”
The young man took the penny in his hand to examine it. He turned to his love and exclaimed, “My dear, isn’t that incredibly wonderful news! Is there no shortage of wonders this penny can perform?”
It took a moment to notice, but he was surprised that the look on the young woman’s face did not match the excitement of his own. She looked at the ring in the window, then the penny in his hand and finally down to the sidewalk. A tear fell from her eye. He took her gently by the shoulders and said, “A penny for your thoughts, my dear.”
She looked up at him and a glistening smile came to her eyes. “A penny for my thoughts? I accept your deal, darling” she said, and she took the penny from his hand. “This little penny has given me a night I will never forget. It took us to a world class music performance and gave us drinks to warm our hands and lips. It gave us a taste of Christmas around the world both figuratively and literally. It gave us treats and sweats. It’s sending us home with a feast to fill our bellies. Tonight has been the most wonderful night of my life. I don’t think I would trade this little penny for anything in the world. To me, it is priceless.”
“I…I…I knew you were sentimental, my dear,” the young man began, “but I had no idea. I thought I loved you before as much as any man could love a woman, but now, somehow, I love you even more.” He had been fiddling with something in his pocket as she spoke, and now he pulled out his hand. He fell to his knee and extended to her a ring he’d fashioned out of the shiny golden wire twist-tie from the cookie bag the Santa on the firetruck had tossed to him. “My dear, will you marry me?”
She fell to the ground to meet him. “Yes! Of Course, I’ll marry you, my darling!” She covered his cheeks in kisses.
“Wires and pennies instead of gold and diamonds?” the shopkeeper mumbled to himself. “What’s today’s youth coming to?”
They thanked the man for his offer and wished him a very Merry Christmas. The young man flipped the penny and it led the young couple, hand in hand, directly to their truly abundant home.
Merry Christmas, To One & All !!!!