"Five Past"

Mrs. Gail’s fingers tap the counter as a man counts out pennies, one by one. He sounds out each number, pausing between every coin, and slides the copper circlet across to Mrs. Gail.

“One hundred twenty-two… one hundred twenty-three…”

Mrs. Gail breathes heavily. Her ankles ache and heartburn from her morning coffee is already bubbling back up. Worst of all, her patience is fraying and it’s only five past opening.

“One hundred thirty-four…”

“You know, we have a machine that counts coins,” she says. She’s not even pretending to smile.

The man counting pennies gawks at her, almost confused. “Don’t trust machines,” he says, looking over the brim of his immense rectangle-cut glasses. “Don’t mind countin neither.”

Mrs. Gail rolls her eyes, but the man isn’t paying her any mind. He’s one of those old fellas with too much time on their hands. He’s wearing a big red hat that’s perched on top like an ornament. His eyes, magnified through the thick lenses braced on a big broken nose, trail the pennies across the counter. He’s the kind that’s first in line at the barber shop. Gets there fifteen minutes before the doors even open, stands outside by the entrance to guard his claim in line, but doesn’t have a thing on his calendar. He knows it. Mrs. Gail knows it. The world knows it. But they play along.

“Found these in a jar at the back of my shop,” he says. “Ain’t sure if there’s any wheat pennies in here.”

Mrs. Gail is two years shy of retirement. She mastered patience a long time ago but decided the virtue wasn’t worth it. Time was short and you couldn’t buy more than what the good Lord gave you. This man was wasting some of that precious time, all for some wheat pennies.

“What do you want those for?”

The man pauses, again, and lifts his bug eyes to meet hers.

“Supposed to be worth some money.”

“Probably not worth more than a nickel or two each.”

“More than I got,” he says and goes back to counting.

Mrs. Gail is a God-fearing woman, but Lord have mercy, this man is testing her patience. The door swings open as another customer glides through the door. This one’s the overachieving type. Mrs. Gail’s seen it all before. She’s in workout clothes stretching over her lean thighs and has platinum blonde locks fastened into a ponytail by a purple cloth. Mrs. Gail can see it now, that ponytail whipping in the wind as the overachiever drives a long black SUV hauling all her kids and their friends around to soccer and ballet practice. Mrs. Gail can tell just by looking at her, she’s the kind that squeezes the life out of every single second. Not a drop to spare.

“Sir, we have another customer, so you’ll need to do your counting over there.” She points to a sitting area with a few arm chairs and a low-stooped coffee table. “I’m going to use the machine to count it anyway, so I don’t need to watch you do it.”

“Shouldn’t trust machines. Ain’t nobody watching.”

She smiles through clenched teeth, but he doesn’t. He collects his pennies, muttering as he goes about the state of the world. Mrs. Gail doesn’t listen to a word. She knows everything she needs to. She knows he sits at home and complains about Obama, about fluoride in the water, and pitches a fit anytime a cashier shorts him a dime. Let him count his pennies for all I care, just don’t waste my time.

The overachiever steps up to the plate and asks to make a withdrawal. Mrs. Gail smiles, but it’s not because she’s impressed by the lady’s pearly whites or glowing tan. She loves guessing a person’s worth. Looks them over, top to bottom, takes a peek at their soul, and ties it down to cold hard numbers. She thinks this one is well-to-do. How else could you explain the workout clothes at 9:00 on a Monday morning? Not a gray hair on her head. Good figure, so she’s eating healthy. That isn’t cheap. Husband is probably hard at work pushing paper somewhere, some lawyer or banker, with a big ego and a needle dick.

Mrs. Gail takes the lady’s debit card, looks it over, taps a few buttons on the computer screen she manages to work just enough to get by, and all the world lies bare to her in etched black digits.

She knows all the secrets in the world. Ask her. What’s in Fort Knox? How about Area Fifty-One? Ask her and she’ll tell you. In a small Arkansas town, people like Gail Hannah have all the power in the world. Gossip has wings, and no gossip is better than a man’s worth chiseled in numbers. Can’t argue with numbers. Can’t hide those digits under fancy cars or expensive rags. Mrs. Gail sees it all in those numbers, all that naked truth just dangling in the open like somebody dropped a towel in the locker room. She smiles as she scans the screen, almost wicked.

The door swings open and Kiahya walks in late, like always. Her hair is frazzled, her shirt’s untucked, and she looks every bit the mess that her life is. She’s not even trying to fool anybody today, just hanging on for dear life, hoping to ride out the turbulence. Mrs. Gail purses her lips, annoyed. Not caring isn’t something she can accept. Mrs. Gail has self-respect. Carries it in spades and keeps extra in her purse, just in case. She calls it “dignity,” just like her mother taught her.

“If you don’t res