Penny couldn't believe her eyes.
She counted the stack of bills a second time, then a third and fourth. It was always the same amount: fifty one hundred dollar bills.
Last night, she felt a hand ruffle the pocket of her tattered coat while she slept. The motion woke her. She knew it was a hand because, well, when you're on the streets and no one wants to touch you, you know human touch. She'd felt a gentle, sliding motion near her hip. She wasn't alarmed because the hand wasn't trying to molest her.
It was a giving hand, a hand filled with purpose and perhaps love for her because of her station in life.
She opened her eyes a few moments later, and tried to see who it might have been, but the stranger was gone.
Penny didn't solicit handouts like some of the other homeless. She had chosen to live on the streets. Life had dealt her too many blows.
She had never told her fellow street friends that her name was really Amanda Storm. She would not divulge that she was a former elementary teacher who once had a husband and children.
Amanda swallowed. Her children.
When her first child was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer at age six and the school systems insurance company wouldn't pay for the treatment, that was the first blow. She and her husband had another child to fill their grief, but in the baby's third month of life, he developed a brain infection and died instantly.
She had barely recovered from that heinous turn of fortune when one of her students found his father's gun, brought it to school, and shot another student in her class. Both kids had been to her house. She'd helped them, tutored them. Later, she'd been called to testify. She couldn't help the murderous child as much as she tried, yet she couldn't let go of the feeling that she'd failed to help.
Her husband John had stood by her. He had tried to reach out to her, but she first withdrew from him, then her students. Finally, dazed by grief, she spent the night near the ocean. On the beach, there was no job, no deaths, and no worry about hurting a man who cared way too much about her. Foraging for food, shelter and even never having to worry about clothing felt marvelous. It was the way she would live.
That was five years ago. She hadn't seen John since.
She sighed, and put the envelope of money in a paper bag, along with her prized possessions: a book of Langston Hughes poetry, her wedding ring, and a 1914 wheat penny she'd found as a child.
She knew that passers by saw her as just another unfortunate black woman littering the beauty of mankind with her blatant surrender to degradation.
They didn't understand that she was free. Penny had no cart. She was a whistling minstrel. She traveled the streets, adventure in hand. She did wash her clothes and she did bathe, but she wanted nothing else out of life.
She'd chosen a new name in keeping with who she was. She was a color of a penny. She was still very valuable, like her prized penny. And when she felt sad, she whistled.
"Penny Whistle, somebody is trying to help you." She smiled. Now she was supposed to clean herself up, find a real place to live, get a job, and all that.
But Penny couldn't. She could not re-enter the world that had burned her so terribly.
She was finally and truly happy. She launched a plan instantly, and started to walk.
It was a few miles to her destination. She had plenty of money, more than enough bus fare--and not just the gift from last night--but she chose to walk. She was tired of the looks other people gave her when she got on the bus.
She arrived just after nine a.m. It was a chilly spring morning. She smiled again as she turned the corner.
The abandoned alley was covered with broken glass and paper. She found the family nestled between three brick buildings. The mother sat in a station wagon with two small children. The father was probably out trying to find them some breakfast. Penny walked right up to them with a large, giving smile.
"I want to return the favor," she said.
The mother gathered her children closer, openly scared. There were some places better than others to be homeless, and this was one of the worst.
She extended the envelope toward the mother.
The mother didn't move. Penny stepped forward and pried the mother's hand free. One child shrieked.
"It's okay kids. Really," Penny said, and shoved the envelope in her hand. Then she turned away.
The mother's huge brown eyes were fixed on Penny. A small child asked, "What is it, Mommy?"
She heard the mother shriek, "Mark! Honey!"
The sounds of her elated cries echoed in the brick canyon as she called for her husband.
Penny whistled "Happy Days Are Here Again" as she moved on to nowhere.