Wayne McCray

Pitching Pennies

It happened on a Sunday. Mandazi and Bazin assured their mama, Zola Mae, that nothing bad would happen. Not between now and her going to the grocery store. Of course she didn’t believe what they said, that there wasn’t anything for them to do. That was a lie. She knew that and them. They always got into something. She disciplined them so often it wasn’t funny.

Regardless of all those spankings, they would still act up in public, as if they hadn’t been home trained. To punish them in front of people would give the wrong impression. So for their sake and hers, she kept her hands to herself. Today though, she had something else in mind. They would stay home. Although they often helped when there was a lot of shopping to do, the extra seat space was needed. And quite honestly, she was looking forward to getting out for a few hours and far from all their foolishness.

To show that they weren’t always bad, they both kindly escorted their mother out of the house, down the porch, and to the car. The morning sun brightened her mustard yellow sundress and matching canvas shoes. Bazin carried her purse of the same color, but like a suitcase, and not across the shoulder, while Mandazi ran ahead to hold open the driver’s side door. Zola Mae finally slid into the driver’s seat and got situated, realizing such conduct — albeit performative — was still sweet. Yet all the while aware they had ulterior motives, but what wouldn’t be known until much later.

“Y’all are doing too much,” she told them. “So enough already. I’m going, okay. Are y’all going somewhere or just up to something?”

“No ma’am,” Bazin replied.

“Uh huh,” Mandazi responded. “Not me mama.”

“Then stop trying to rush me, alright.” Zola Mae said. “Try not to burn down the house, okay.”

She cranked up the car, kissed the cross hung around her neck, and slowly backed out of the driveway.

“Mama? Mama! How long will you be gone?” Mandazi asked.

“Not long,” said Zola Mae.

“But long enough to start a fire,” joked Bazin.

“Don’t play,” she replied, stamping on the brake. “And don’t hurt anybody, alright. I’ll be back shortly and stay in the front yard. I mean it. That means don’t go anywhere. Got it?”

“Yes ma’am,” both responded.

Bazin and Mandazi stood there looking on, watching her watching them, until she slowly drove off into the distance.

“I think she’s gone,” hinted Bazin.

“Let’s wait a few,” Mandazi replied.

“You’re right,” spoke Bazin. “Mama is sneaky, you know? She double backs a lot.”

And with that both boys posted themselves on the front porch and waited. Ten minutes later…

“She’s not coming back,” Mandazi said. “I’m ready, so come on.”

“Don’t you get tired of losing?” Bazin recalled, “I mean, like damn. You suck!” 

“Fuck you! So, are you playing or what?” replied Mandazi, already walking to the sidewalk. “Or, are you like Superman with a yellow “S” on his back?”

“Say what!” Bazin shouted. “I’m not scared. Never that.”

Bazin soon met Mandazi on a stretch of sidewalk in front of the house. Not long ago, it was all broken up and uneven. Grass and weeds called Screaming Pussy sprouting through it. Now it had been repaved. Its only blemish were their dated initials drawn into it. Zola Mae disliked how the front of her house looked. It was a damn eyesore and tripping hazard, an ugliness brought about by a dying oak tree that spread its roots far and wide, to the point it pushed up the concrete sidewalk and driveway. So she finally paid for it to be cut down and uprooted wherever possible so her property could be restored to a functional, safe, and flat surface.

Her sons saw something else altogether. To them, it was ideal for pitching pennies. Something they preferred over board and card games because it required actual skill. Pitching pennies was simple, fair, and harder to cheat at to win. The movie The Cincinnati Kid revealed its upside. They just made sure they didn’t do it around Mama, knowing that Zola Mae had a low opinion of gambling in all its forms. So Bazin and Mandazi made sure that they played it only while going to school, at school, and coming from school. Never around the house, but not anymore.

This fascination for gambling was likely picked up from their grandmother. Zola Mae’s mother, Gladys, who did it out of boredom. What she didn’t know was that Gladys had been clandestinely taking her sons to the racetrack. And while there, they established a knack for picking winning horses, including a trifecta once. The two also followed football. So Grandma would play numbers they suggested numbers, placing bets on football squares at the local pool hall. Every other Saturday, she would shoot craps with the men in the backroom of the bowling alley whenever they went there to bowl. At the end of it all, Gladys shared her winnings with her grandsons.

Now as far as pitching pennies went, Bazin was up. He consistently won his little brother’s money. For Mandazi, losing was for the birds. So he began practicing. Pitching pennies as often as possible behind his brother’s back. Done mostly when his Mama sent him out alone on errands. While going to the corner store and back, he would toss pennies so often for so long she nearly quit sending him. But in that time, he found a technique that produced results. He changed his stance. Instead of standing, he got down on one knee, leaned forward and slowly extended his arm, flicking the coin with a slight spin, so it wouldn’t roll, but skip on contact, or land flat altogether.

Now confident, it was put up or shut up time. Mandazi reached into his pocket to pull out three shiny pennies for identity purposes. Bazin did likewise. They checked out each other’s coins to make sure none of the coins shared the same dates or felt funny. Bazin had two 1971s and a 1973. Mandazi had all 1980s and felt good that today was going to be a good day. As usual, Bazin began talking shit. Suggesting that his little brother should simply hand over his money and not play at all.

“How about this week’s allowance?” Bazin requested. “That should do it.”

“Fuck you,” replied Mandazi.

“You wish!” Bazin said.

“You’re not my type,” said Mandazi. “I don’t do ugly.”

This word ritual went on and on until finally Mandazi shut him up by taking his position and tossing a penny, which met the ground, and landing near the line. Soon pennies began flying. Back and forth they went until Mandazi found his rhythm, winning two of the three tosses repeatedly, costing Bazin fifty-cents. On many occasions it was a dollar and fifty cents. Time passed, probably an hour or two. Bazin twice went inside the house to get more money to continue playing. Hoping his abrupt departures would upset his brother’s flow, but it didn’t. Soon his money became his little brother’s. Frustrated, Bazin told Mandazi it was nothing but dumb luck. That’s all it was.

Mandazi laughed. Bazin stood there, mad that his brother had finally got him. To lose so much all at once wasn’t sitting well with him. As soon as Mandazi began doing his money dance, Bazin tackled him. Both boys were wrestling on the front yard, exchanging blows and gaining leverage, when that mizzle-colored Lincoln Continental drove up. It was Mama, shaking her head, looking on, but glad to find the house standing and they were where they’re supposed to be.

“Now what?” Zola Mae thought.

She let down the window and called out: “Hey? Hey you two. Stop it. Get over here and help me get this stuff out of the car and into the house.”

Neither son complied. So she repeated herself, but only louder, and still nothing. Fed up, she flung open her car door, leapt out, and strode irritably across the lawn. After forcibly separating them, she applied two swift pops upside their heads.

“I know you two heard me calling?” Zola Mae said.

“No ma’am. I didn’t.” Mandazi said.

“Me neither,” replied his brother, them both huffing and puffing; rubbing their heads.

“This is getting old, you know that right? Time to grow up,” Zola Mae told them. “So humor me, I’m listening! What is it about this time?”

Bazin spoke first. And in doing so, he told on himself. That they were pitching pennies, then blamed his brother, saying it was his idea. Zola Mae slapped him. “So what’s your story?” looking directly at Mandazi, who chose to remain quiet and shake his head out of fear of receiving the same open hand.

“And then you two had the audacity to do it in front of my house,” said Zola Mae. “Lord have mercy. Give it here! Hand it over!”

Bazin and Mandazi dug into their pockets and put so much money in her hands it required both. Between the two of them, it tallied almost a hundred dollars, which shocked her, since she only gave them a bi-weekly allowance of ten dollars apiece. After finding out where all the extra money came from, she frowned, then folded and tucked it into her bra. As for the coins, she didn’t bother counting them. Instead, she returned to the car, grabbed her purse, and threw them there. “Now come see,” she beckoned. “Hold out your hands.” She then doled out one cent apiece. “This is for your next bet,” she said. “Since you two like pitching pennies so much, I have a solution for that. But for now, do like I asked and be useful and take my groceries into the house.”

Mandazi stared at his palm. Bazin already pocketed his. Zola Mae just glared and stood over them, switching back and forth from hands on hips to folded arms. They kept quiet, doing what they were told to do, carrying bag after bag of groceries to the kitchen until the car trunk and seats were emptied. Now finished, Zola Mae again beckoned them.

“So you two like gambling, huh?” Zola Mae said. “Come on.”

She walked over to the sidewalk, took off her shoes, and then used them both as kneeling pads to protect her knees from getting dirty and bruised. Her sons followed, standing nearby, afraid of what she was doing and why.

“Listen up! If your pennies land on the line or it’s the closest: house arrest for one month; no more allowance; no company; and my mother…I will deal with her later.” She said: “Now if mine land on the line or I’m closer than the both of you, it will be all of what I said and the belt.”

“Mama? You’re playing, right?” Mandazi said, nervously.

“No.” She replied. “No, I’m not.”

“What if I don’t play?” Bazin asked.

“Straight belt for three days as soon as we finish,” she replied. “After today, I better not catch or find out either of you have been gambling. Got it? Got it!”

They both nodded.

“Either way,” she continued. “This is going to hurt me more than it’s going to hurt you. So make your choice. What are we doing here?”

Soon three pennies went flying.

Wayne McCray was born in East St. Louis, Illinois, in 1965, and grew up in Chicago until 1984. He attended Southern University A and M College in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He currently lives in Itta Bena, Mississippi, enjoying country life. His writings have appeared in Afro Literary Magazine, The Bookends Review, Chitro Magazine, The Ocotillo Review, Ogma Magazine, Pigeon Review, The Rush Magazine, and Wingless Dreamer.