There’s this old knock knock joke I heard as a kid that I really love.
It goes something like this:
“There’s a boy.”
“There’s a boy, who?”
“There’s a boy who’s on a playground. He sees his classmates going down the slide, but he’s too scared to do it himself so instead he goes over to the jungle gym. On his way, he finds a penny and picks it up. He says to himself, “find a penny, pick it up, all day you’ll have good luck.” Later that day, the boy is struck by a car and killed instantly.
The boy comes back as a girl. The girl is on a playground one day and she drops her glasses. The school bully — this fucking asshole of a kid named Shawn — steps on her glasses, breaking them. This makes the girl cry. Another girl sees this, and punches Shawn in the mouth. The two girls become best friends for the rest of elementary school and into high school. They take all their classes together, are inseparable, and even get invited to junior prom by a pair of brothers with funny hair. The girls both wear dresses of red, their favorite color, to the dance. Towards the end of the night, the girls are in the bathroom talking about whether they are going to let the boys kiss them or not. In the middle of making a point, the girl with the glasses — who now wears contacts — sees a penny on the floor. She picks it up and says “find a penny, pick it up, all day you’ll have good luck!”. The other girl laughs. Later that night, the girl who once wore glasses has a seizure and dies in her sleep. She never let the boy kiss her.
The girl comes back as a boy. The boy is on the playground one day and finds a baby bird who has fallen out of its nest. He runs and gets a teacher, who helps the boy rescue the bird. This experience affects the boy deeply, giving him a love of animals and nature that eventually leads him into becoming a park ranger in the small town of Eugene, Oregon. The boy, now a man, lives a simple life: He has a small one bedroom apartment on the outskirts of town where he lives with his laptop and his dog. There is a small coffee shop that he always stops at on the way into work. He doesn’t like coffee at all — he’s allergic to it, actually — but this one time he was late to work and had to skip breakfast (which in and of itself is ridiculous because the Head Ranger doesn’t even get in until 11am and would never know or care if the man was an hour late), and he happened to stop at this particular coffee shop to grab a snack. That’s when he first met Meg, the girl with the funny hair who owns “Meg’s One Stop Coffee Shop”. The effect is immediate and life changing: He is smitten. Every single day for the next two years the man makes it a point to go in and get a half caf double caramel frappuccino (with extra whip), because it is the drink that takes the longest to make — and therefore affords him the most time to talk to the girl. Seeing her is the highlight of his day, and each day as he leaves her shop and drives to work where he secretly dumps his coffee out he dreams of the house they would have and the kids they would raise and the life they would build and one day after years of this same routine he finally makes a promise to himself that he will either ask her out the following day or never go into her shop again. He never gets the chance, however — because she asks him out first. For coffee.
As he sits across from Meg in a different coffee shop (run by her friend Jules who first inspired her to get into the coffee business), the man is beaming. Sure, it may have taken him an hour and a half to pick out the shirt that he’s currently wearing because he was so nervous about trying to impress this woman, and sure, he doesn’t notice that his shirt is buttoned one button off — but when Meg compliments his shirt and then laughs and points out his button mistake, he’s glad he picked this shirt and glad he messed it up because it makes her slide in next to him in the booth and as he watches her unbutton and rebutton his buttons he notices the way her delicate fingers dance over his chest and he notices the way she brushes her hair from her eyes and he notices the way she smells like lavender and honey and he thinks remember this moment and when she looks up at him and smiles with her face close to his he thinks kiss her kiss her kiss her now do it now do it now do it now but he doesn’t. Instead he says “I’m allergic to coffee”.
She looks at him, mouth open, and laughs. He laughs too, and by the time the bill comes she has asked him out to dinner and he has already told her about the fact that he only orders that ridiculous drink every day so he can talk to her more and it turns out she makes it extra slow on purpose for the same reason and he finds out she’s one episode ahead of him in Game of Thrones and he keeps cartoonishly putting his hands over his ears to block out her fake spoilers which makes her giggle uncontrollably and as they stand up to leave he goes in his pocket to pull out cash to leave a tip, a huge tip, the biggest tip of his life because this has gone better than he ever could’ve hoped for a bunch of change falls out and in one cool Jason Bournesque motion he scoops it all up from the floor and shows her one of the pennies and says “find a penny, pick it up, all day you’ll have good luck!” and she punches him in the arm and he pretends it hurts and she laughs and he follows her out to her car and a week later he dies in a forest fire.
The man comes back as a boy. Every day at recess the boy likes to go to the edge of the playground where there is a part of the chain link fence that surrounds the entire property of the school where part of an old maple tree has grown through the fence. The boy is usually very anxious and nervous about things — most days he is too nervous to finish much of his lunch, even — but when he runs his hand back and forth over the part of the trunk that has swallowed the fence he feels relaxed and calm. As he gets older, the boy will completely forget all about the tree and the fence and the playground until weirdly one night he is lying in his double bed with his girlfriend in their shoebox sized apartment in the East Village and he is running his hand back and forth over her naked hip and it reminds him of the tree. She is crying, sobbing actually, saying something about wanting to see other people and how she’s so sorry, she really is, she loves him, she really does, she doesn’t want to hurt him, that’s the last thing she wants, but she just can’t go on like this, living a lie, lying to herself, to her parents and all her friends, telling everyone this is going somewhere when the both of them know that it’s not going anywhere — and as she is saying all of these things (some of them true and some of them not but all of them sounding like she is trying to convince herself) he says nothing and instead stares up at the ceiling feeling her naked hip and thinking of that tree and how it grew right over that fence like it was nothing. Did the fence know what was happening, year after year, as the tree grew ever so slowly, tightening around those metal links until it was trapped inside that wooden prison? Did the fence feel its doom approaching? There is a certain comfort in knowing that there is nothing you can do, he thinks. A solace in Fate. A peace in never having a chance. A quiet. A relief.
His girlfriend is quiet now, which makes him think that he should say something. He wants to tell her about all of this: about how we are the fence and Life is the tree; slowly closing in around us, pressing in from all sides, day after day, year after year. How if we’re not careful Life will take us over and freeze us in our tracks. How maybe that’s not necessarily bad. Why struggle? Why fight? Why not let the river of life carry you to where you belong? But he doesn’t say those things. Instead, he just says “Okay” which seems to be the right thing to say, because now she is getting up and putting her clothes on. He knows she’s been sleeping with her co-worker for the last four months, but he’s not even upset; it feels fine, he supposes, being carried along on this river. Feeling the wooden prison pull in around you.
Wrestling with putting on one of her shoes, she finds something on the floor and holds it out to him in the colorless twilight of what used to be their bedroom. “Find a penny, pick it up, all day you’ll have good luck!” she says, her white grin cutting through the gray of the room like a shark. She seems so proud of herself. He just nods. She slides the penny into her pocket and tells him she’s going to spend the night at her friend Clara’s, that it’s probably best they don’t see each other for awhile, that she’ll come over tomorrow while he’s at work and pick up some of her stuff until she can rent a UHaul to come get it all, that he can keep all the groceries she bought. He knows she’s lying and wonders why she bothers. He walks her to their front door — now just his front door, he supposes — and opens it for her, the light from the hallway making a white slash across her face that splits her mouth open into a smile with too many teeth. He looks away. She hugs him and he hugs her back, hard, probably a mistake, and feels her pull away before he does. As she goes to say goodbye, she remembers something and pulls the penny out of her pocket: “give that penny to a friend, and your luck will never end” she says, and it is almost a whisper, almost a spell of some sort, and then as if to seal this arcane pact she presses the warm copper into his hand and kisses him on the lips and flees down the stairs and it is months later when he is riding the express train back to his empty apartment sad as fuck and drunk as hell and he is staring at the warm copper penny in the fleshy palm of his hand and thinking about his ex and the tree and the fence and a crazy person boards the train and in one quick motion stabs the man and grabs his wallet and as his life bleeds out onto the floor of the Q train and the river carries him along to his next stop the man closes his eyes and sighs with relief.
The man comes back as a girl.
The girl likes this one boy in her third grade class. This boy has funny looking hair and sometimes makes the girl laugh and sometimes pinches her on the arm but his pinches never hurt and she thinks he does it just so she’ll pay attention to him. The girl knows that the boy likes her; one day on the playground one of the bigger kids named Justin tries to pull her shirt off behind a tree and the boy with the funny hair sees it and pushes Justin down and kicks gravel at him until Justin runs away. She secretly likes the boy with the hair, but the boy’s father is a teacher and gets a job in another state so they move away.
The girl grows up into a woman. She has boyfriends that come and go. She has a girlfriend for awhile. Her boss falls in love with her, and they have an illicit affair that leads to him getting a divorce and her leaving for a different firm. They stay lovers — but only lovers, due mostly to the fact her former boss is incredibly boring and any conversations they have outside the bedroom make the woman long for a strong noose and a high beam.
Her new firm does a lot of business overseas and as a result she spends one week a month in Japan, which helps slow the inevitable — but when he shows up unexpectedly at her hotel on one of her business trips and proposes to her two days later in a public garden under a cherry blossom tree, she manages to hide her horror behind surprise. Looking down at this man on one knee, this man who says he loves her, who is telling her all the ways that she is beautiful and perfect and how happy she makes him, it all feels like a bad dream. She wishes she could wake up. She wishes that someone would pinch her.
It is six months later when she is standing in line at the taxi stand after yet another 30 hour trip back from the Land Of The Rising Sun and someone bumps her back with their bag and says sorry and she turns and this man is cute and is looking at her funny and asks her where she’s from and she says Japan and he says no I mean originally you look familiar and she realizes that it is the boy with the funny hair. He is handsome and charming and they are suddenly talking about all this deep shit like life closing in and doom and fate and how when someone flies to Japan and asks you to marry them in a public garden under a cherry blossom tree you shouldn’t say ‘maybe’ because they might get really upset and start crying on the spot and you might have to help them up to their feet and get them a ticket to fly home the next day and all sorts of other things she’s never talked about with anyone else and this is so WEIRD and then they are suddenly at the front of the line and she wants to keep this conversation going I mean this can’t be a coincidence and she’s about to ask him his phone number and he points down and there’s a bright shiny new penny right there on the ground and she picks it up and he says what’s that saying that everybody says and she says “find a penny, pick it up, all day you’ll have good luck!”
He laughs and people are all looking at the two of them with death in their eyes as they hold up the line with their motherfucking flirting and the cab driver is motioning for her to put her bags in the trunk but she doesn’t want to leave, doesn’t want this scene to end, and a part of her deep inside feels a tree slowly growing over a fence and she gives the driver her bag anyway and she hears herself say to the man with the funny hair it was really great running into you and he says yeah, maybe we can get a coffee or one of those ridiculous caramel frappuccino things sometime and she laughs loudly and asks how he knew she loved those so much and this feels wrong what if she never sees him again but then she is getting in the cab for some stupid reason and the driver shuts the door and the sound of a rushing river is loud in her ears and the car starts to pull away and as she looks at the man waving to her from the curb she thinks no this will not happen I will not let myself be carried away like this and — ‘WAIT! STOP THE CAB.’
Shocked, the driver stops — just as a bus careens past them, honking loudly, almost smashing into the side of their cab and killing them both.
Unfazed from his brush with certain death, the cab driver doesn’t miss a beat and screams all sorts of obscenities and jumps out of the cab and runs into the middle of the street and makes a gesture that looks like he wants to fuck the bus in the ass.
The woman watches this for a moment, then opens her door and yells to the man with the funny hair.
‘Hey! You headed into the city? Wanna share a ride?!’
He smiles and grabs his bag, jogging over to slide in beside her. As they pull away, she shakes her head. ‘I can’t believe we ran into each other again. What are the chances?’. The man with the funny hair laughs and gives her a little pinch on the leg.
‘You know what they say. A bad penny always turns up.’”
Man. I love that joke.