It wasn’t a penny, actually. It was a nickel. But she’d called it a penny. That I’ll never forget.
We’d been walking home from school which at the time for me was Edison Elementary in San Francisco’s Mission District. Our mascot was the “Lightbulb.” I was in the fourth grade, having just transferred from Alvarado where I’d spent second and third grade. At age nine, I’d just gotten tired of the commute. Starting when I was seven, someone would walk me to the bus stop across the street from the library where I would take Muni by myself for a nickel each way, all in the name of education. There was no gifted program at Edison like there had been at Alvarado, but I’d convinced my mom that if she let me transfer back to my local school, I would learn just as much there. I didn’t. What I remember was a wrinkly-faced teacher with bright pink lipstick and yellow teeth having us spend 26 entire days making an alphabet book that was supposed to be for the younger kids at the school. I remember that and a light blue windbreaker I wore every day–it had a lightbulb on the front and made me feel official.
Back to the penny which was really a nickel. I can’t tell you what season it was, but just that it wasn’t raining. I was walking with a fifth grader who often wore knickerbockers. She’d been new that year. I guess since I was kind of new having just returned after a two year stint at a school a bus-ride away, we became friends fast. Oh, it was a fourth/fifth combo class. I was a four, and she was a five.
Strange thing though, is that I can’t remember her first name, but I remember her last name. It was McElravy. She pronounced it Mac-ul-ravy, but my mind would always think Mick-el-ru-vee. To this day, I’ve never met anyone with either name.
From what I do remember, McElravy lived with her mom and her aunt. She’d had a first grade cousin at the school, a red-headed girl named Kay. I don’t know if her name was Kay or if it was just K, short for something, because I never saw her name written.
Kids in 1982 didn’t get bored the way kids do these days. We’d find a stick or a rock or use just about anything to keep ourselves occupied. That day, in 1982, it was a nickel McElravy fished out of her knickerbocker pocket. At some point the nickel fell to the ground. We all scurried to go after it, and the idea for the game was born. McElravy, Kay and I took turns throwing the nickel ahead of us and raced to see who would get it first. Being the old fogeys that we were compared to Kay, eventually McElravy and I got tired of playing and would just throw the coin for Kay. She’d bring it back to us each time, eager for us to throw it again.
During this sidewalk game, we’d talk, I’m pretty sure, about boys. That was the year I had my first crush. His initials were B.S. I would eventually go to my junior and senior prom with B.S. and eventually it would all turn to B.S. Hindsight. I do remember that McElravy liked Henry, and he liked her back. They’d even kissed already. Strange, but his first name I remember. It seemed like a man name to me, and not a fifth grader name, which is probably why it stuck. It’s kind of a stupid thought, as I think about it now, though, because every boy name becomes a man name. Unless there is a tragedy, I guess. Henry and McElravy would even French kiss before the end of fifth grade, and often, which probably made him seem more like a man. I wouldn’t french kiss B.S. until after watching War of the Roses on our first real date when I was 16 and he was 17.
So we’re back to playing fetch with Kay, and it’s hot. Maybe it was during the time of what they used to call Indian Summer. Do they still call it that now? My high school mascot was the Indian, but protesters I never saw made it so that my senior year it was nothing. That made it difficult at cheerleading competitions. Then they became the Cardinals the year I left. Cardinal Summer? My mom would always call the climate of that time of year, “earthquake weather.” 1989 would prove her theory correct, so maybe she was on to something. Or maybe she didn’t start calling it earthquake weather until after that earthquake. Hmm, I’m going to have to call her tomorrow. I do remember that seismic October day being pretty muggy. It’d been like the City had a fever that wouldn’t break. Then it did. I was alone that day, living with my dad by then in the Richmond district because he lived closer to my high school than my mom did. Again with the commute. Again in the name of education. I would spend twenty-two minutes on one bus that moved parallel to the beach instead of an hour on two buses. Most days it was too foggy to see the waves, though. And I probably had a Walkman on and didn’t pay attention to the coastal view, anyway, listening to Phil Collins or Madonna or Lionel. Probably Lionel and thinking about B.S.
So we’re back in 1982, and the nickel clinks on a hill on Guerrero. It’s actually just past Hill Street, so it’s an intersection of hills on Hill. It’s a pretty dangerous intersection, come to think of it. A few years later, I would become a nighttime passenger in a car driven by Carlos Gutierrez who would eventually be my first boyfriend when I was 12 and he was 13. First boyfriends’ full names you never forget. I can’t remember if I was a passenger in that car before or after we became a couple. I do remember him turning right on Hill and Guerrero, though, and a loud honk blared at us in his friend or cousin’s car. There was screeching and fear, but no impact. Neither of us said a word. He had just taken me around the block for a ride, but it wouldn’t be until I was 22 or so that I would get in a car with him again. That time it would be as old friends catching up, with me behind the wheel, listening to his stories of his toddler daughter Stephanie. Or maybe the girlfriend was named Stephanie. I’m pretty sure both mother and daughter names started with an S. And so did mine. Maybe he had a thing for females with curvy esses.
So the nickel that McElravy threw clinked, but then it rolled. It rolled into the hilly, four-lane street with the concrete island on the hot, earthquake weathered day. It’d been a beige Rabbit, not a convertible I’m certain, that drove down the hill that day, the day Kay was hit by a car. The driver stopped, but I can’t tell you if it was a man or a woman, or if it was a man and a woman. But Kay in her red shorts and short-sleeved furry pink sweater set was moaning some way away and was lying in the street, and eventually someone came out and covered her pink and red clothes with a blanket even though it was hot.
The ambulance was called.
I don’t remember us calling it 9-1-1 back then, but I do remember the scene in War of the Roses where the live-in-nanny can’t remember the number to 9-1-1 when the Roses almost kill each other. Or is it when they finally kill each other?
The ambulance arrived. McElravy was scared but not crying, and I was supporting her the way any fourth grader would comfort a fifth grader. I stayed with her until the grown-ups showed up.
I don’t remember how long the rescue of Kay took, or how long it took for her mom and her aunt to get there. But I do know there was a bit of time when McElravy left me to talk to the two adult sisters in a three person huddle.
I stayed. I stayed on Guerrero there to support McElravy on that hill on that hot day in 1982.
Then this: Kay’s mom came over to me and said, “Little girl.” She pointed a rigid finger at me forcefully, what my adult memory knows was her way of restraining herself from striking me. I think “girl” had also been used as a euphemism that day. She continued, “Your penny almost killed my Kay.”
I was speechless. I would eventually learn the word for that moment was flabbergasted. First, I’d wanted to tell her it was a nickel and not a penny. Then I wanted her to know that it was McElravy who’d thrown the nickel, the nickel she got from her own pocket. But McElravy wouldn’t even look at me, what I now know was her feeling a new brand of shame for making me her scapegoat. She was covering her tracks because maybe the pointy finger wouldn’t be restrained on her. Maybe the pointy finger would have become a fist or the holder of a leather belt. And she also knew I wouldn’t tell on her. Because I was a four, and she was a five, and I hadn’t even kissed a boy.
McElravy would speak to me the following morning to let me know she was no longer allowed to hang out with me. I’d been banned. And when Kay’d return to school with a cast on her entire arm or her entire leg a couple days later, I wouldn’t even be asked to sign it. I hadn’t wanted to, anyway. I was so angry in my light blue windbreaker with the lightbulb on it.
At the end of the school year, I saw McElravy graduate from Edison. In knickerbockers. I saw her from my seat in the orchestra below the stage, where we’d played a screechy version of the Star Wars Theme and “Ode to Joy” on school-issued violins.
McElravy saw me minutes after the morning ceremony ended that June day, with her mother and aunt nearby, and she gestured some sort of friendly goodbye. Maybe she’d even said goodbye. I can’t remember. I do remember, though, that I would never see her again.
About the Author: Sylvia J. Martinez has been published in the S.F. Examiner, Tattoo Highway, Art From Art (Modernist Press), and Cipactli, among others. She is currently finishing up an MFA in Creative Writing at San Francisco State University where she is working on her first collection of stories. She grew up in San Francisco and now lives in the East Bay with her husband, two children, and dog.
Artwork: Lynae Cook