"Five Past"

May 1, 2019

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 respect yourself, ain’t nobody gonna respect you,” her Mother always told her. She’d wag her long fingers with the pink nail polish and scold her about being a lady and holding her head high. She’d made a point and it had sunk in, taking root somewhere down deep. She could still hear it all these years later. Even better, she lived by it.

     Self-respect was something lost on these younger generations. She knew that the first time she saw someone walking in Wal-Mart wearing pajamas. Pajamas. Can you imagine? It wasn’t important whether you had life figured out. What mattered was that you made it look like you had it under control. Her Mother had taught her that and she’d held it close at heart.

     “Good morning,” Mrs. Gail says as Kiahya takes her post at the counter. She finishes counting her till right there in the open and slides it into her drawer with the soft crash of a hundred metal coins scraping together all at once.

     “Good morning,” Kiahya replies. Her fingers cascade across the keyboard, rousing the screen to life.

     Mrs. Gail looks like the sweet old ladies at church that fix sweet potato pies for potluck and pass out strawberry candies when the parents aren’t watching. She dresses nice, everything starched and pressed just so so. Her hair is always done up and her makeup fixed just right.

     “Do you think we could swap lunch hours?” Khaiya asks, looking at the ground. “Little Anthone’s school called, said he’s running a fever. Gotta take him to the doctor.”

     The color drains from Mrs. Gail’s cheeks, but she’s wearing enough foundation to cover the cascade of colors. Mrs. Gail always leaves for lunch at 11:30. She likes to beat the traffic, likes to have things in order, and today she had plans to pick up cookies for the office. Mrs. Gail always picks up cookies for the office on Mondays at 11:30, since the dawn of time. The first thing Noah saw when he got off the Ark was Mrs. Gail offering a tray of cookies. Not the cheap kind either. She always got the kind that were soft and chewy. Khaiya has no idea what she’s asking, but Mrs. Gail’s a good Christian woman so she stands there, purses her lips, and says “I suppose.” Just you wait, she thinks. When they realize you got between them and cookies, just you wait. Mrs. Gail finishes counting out the overachiever’s cash and waves with a smile as the ponytail swings away.

     “Thank you, Mrs. Gail,” Khaiya says. “I really owe you.”

     Oh, how many times has she heard that?

     “No problem at all,” she lies. “Mr. Bernstein is back, counting pennies again.”

     “Oh mercy,” Khaiya says. “Something wrong with that one. A screw’s gone loose, or something.”

     The pestering old man is hunched over a coffee table in the main lobby, tracing out pennies, searching for copper wheat. It looks like he’s coming up empty handed so far. Mrs. Gail finds a sinister sense of satisfaction in his failing efforts. Let him count, she thinks. Count all the pennies for all I care. Every now and then, he’ll take a handful of the pennies he’s counted and drop them in the dusty mason jar he carries them in. They clash and clang as they fall.

     Khaiya plays with her cellphone under the counter, flicking through one of those applications. She’s probably looking at pictures of babies and puppies. It’s like crack for these kids, Mrs. Gail thinks, as she starts wiping down the counter. Idle hands are the devil’s workshop. She glances sideways at Khaiya. She dusts behind her monitor and even uses a q-tip to clean out the ball socket of her mouse. Khaiya’s workstation is a total mess, of course. There are construction paper animals taped all around the screen, hand lotions stacked up on the side, and all sorts of odds and ends piled up in a heap. Mrs. Gail tries not to look. Tries to pretend none of it exists. She can feel the itch though.

     Mr. Bernstein finally finishes counting, without a single wheat penny to show for his sweat. Mrs. Gail runs his coins through the counting machine, pouring the heaping pile of copper into a small tray. She smiles wickedly as she does so. The machine gobbles them up, crashing and clanking. The figures match up, just like she knew they would. Mr. Bernstein concedes as much, with some hesitation. He collects a total of $4.53 for his trouble and goes on his merry way. Good riddance, Mrs. Gail sings as the door closes behind him. The rest of the morning follows, minute after minute, as Mrs. Gail occupies herself with customers, cleaning, and Khaiya’s flicking.

     “I’m gonna go ahead and slip out,” Khaiya says as she shuts down her monitor and slings her purse over a shoulder. “Thanks again!” She doesn’t wait for Mrs. Gail to respond. The lobby door swings shut and Mrs. Gail stands alone in the quiet. She sighs so everybody can hear it, but there’s no one to care.

     Mrs. Gail’s lunch hour flies by and she still hasn’t set foot out of the building. It’s already five past 12:30, and Khaiya hasn’t surfaced. Mrs. Gail’s eyes could cut stone right about now and she plans to let Khaiya have an earful as soon as she gets back. She cracks her knuckles like she’s ready to throw down, but counts out a fresh stack of dollar bills instead. The lunch hour is always the busiest and Mrs. Gail’s shouldering the whole thing.

     “Keeping busy,” a young man in a suit and tie says standing at the counter with a bright smile.

     “I’m busier than a plate spinner at a circus show,” she says, as she licks her fingers to unstick the dollar bills.

     The two laugh as Mrs. Gail takes a quick glance at his worth blazing bright across her computer screen. She’s not surprised to see another man with a wardrobe outweighing his budget. A dozen others follow and the minutes melt away.

     Mr. Bernstein is back, absolutely convinced the machine shorted him exactly six pennies. He’d swear it on a Bible if you asked. “I demand to speak to the manager,” he says, his glasses rattling on his nose. Mrs. Gail can feel the indignation of his righteous fury flashing out at her. He doesn’t care in the slightest about the half-dozen people waiting in line behind him. He didn’t care that Mrs. Gail still hasn’t been to lunch or that she hasn’t got her cookies yet. Mrs. Gail taps the counter, but she isn’t having it.

     “Mr. Bernstein, I’ve worked at this bank for forty years and during our time using those coin counters they’ve never made a mistake. Not once.”

     “How would you know?” he says. “You count em all yourself?”

     Mrs. Gail’s pearl earrings jingle on her stretched lobes as her head twitches.

“Mr. Bernstein…”

     “I demand to speak with the manager. I’ll not be a victim.” He slams a fist down on the counter.

     “Here!” She throws a handful pennies from her drawer at him. They clank off the counter and scatter in every direction imaginable. One even pegs Mr. Bernstein in the forehead and a few rain down on the customers in line behind him. “Take them!”

     Mrs. Gail has never been short in her drawer for the forty years she’s worked at Malvern National Bank. Not once. But this man, this soul-sickening pestilence, was testing her patience. Even Christ stumbled under the weight of his own cross, she tells herself as she straightens out her blouse, thanking the stars she hasn’t let a cussword slip, yet. Mr. Bernstein doesn’t collect the coins, he just stands there with his arms folded around the mason jar he’d used to carry his pennies.

     “I want them back,” he says. “I want all of my pennies back!”

     “Mr. Bernstein, go on, get out of here,” Khaiya is wagging a fist at him, Anthone on her hip and clutching for dear life. “Go on! Get!”

     Mrs. Gail can’t believe what she’s seeing. An employee berating one of the bank’s treasured customers? Remembering it’s only Dale Bernstein, she decides to let it happen.

     “You heard me,” Khaiya says, thick with her drawling. “Get!”

     “Well, I’ve never…” he says.

     “Get, before I call the law! Don’t carry yourself back in here unless you bring some manners with you!”

     Mr. Bernstein flees and Mrs. Gail breathes a sigh of relief.

     “A screw’s gone loose in that one,” Khaiya says.

     “Thanks,” Mrs. Gail says. “It’s been a long day already.”

     “No problem. I’m sorry I was gone so long. The line at the doctor’s office was crazy.”

     “It’s okay,” Mrs. Gail says as she smiles at Anthone.

     Anthone sniffles under the counter, but Mrs. Gail doesn’t care. She’s collecting her things for a well-deserved lunch break and braces herself for sunshine and cookies.

     “Ma’am,” a low voice hums behind her. Mrs. Gail turns, readying herself to direct the bright-eyed customer to Khaiya but she stops, open-mouthed.

     A steel barrel tucked under a purple cloth glares. It traces its way up Mrs. Gail’s midsection and settles on her face. Mrs. Gail fumbles for words, but comes up with nothing but grunts. Her eyes linger on the pistol, break free, and trail slowly up to a woman’s face. The overachiever stands before her, the blonde ponytail hangs loose now.

     “Open the drawer.”

     “Uh… I…”

     “Open. The. Drawer.” She extends the pistol and presses it sharply into Mrs. Gail’s sagging breasts. She points it right at the heart, which thuds faster and faster, almost like it’s rising to meet the steel.

     She blames Khaiya. She blames Mr. Bernstein with his stupid pennies. She’s shaking and can’t reason. She’s electrified. Paralyzed. The gun presses harder into her left breast. She waits for it to cut her open, to kill her then and there. She didn’t even get those cookies.

     “Open the fucking DRAWER.”

     Frozen. Khaiya is looking now, but she’s not helping. She’s screaming. She falls to the ground and claws her way to Anthone under the counter. He starts sobbing, because his mom’s sobbing and nobody has a clue what’s happening except for Mrs. Gail, but Mrs. Gail’s frozen and can’t make sense out of anything.

     “Bitch.”

     “…I…”

     “OPEN THE DRAWER!” The overachiever slams a fist down on the table and Mrs. Gail feels warmth trickle down her legs. She can feel her chest tightening, can feel sharp pains. Can feel those lungs stretched too tight.

     Can’t breathe. Can’t breathe. Can’t breathe.

     The overachiever’s yelling, but Mrs. Gail can’t understand a word. The room is going foggy, like she’s taken off her glasses, but she hasn’t. They’re still there. She can feel herself tumbling, falling, as she slams into the floor with a flop. Khaiya screams. Anthone sobs. The world spins.

     There’s a loud crash and a million pieces of metal scrape together all at once, like glass shattering. A gunshot whistles through the air and Mrs. Gail lies there spinning.

     Everything fades to gray.

     When Mrs. Gail wakes, she feels the wetness between her legs. She feels the ache in her head. She sees Mr. Bernstein collecting pennies on the ground, his mason jar shattered beyond repair. The overachiever’s head is bleeding but she’s unconscious and on the ground. Blood cakes her pretty blonde hair, leaving a mess of strawberry tangles. Khaiya kneels next to Mrs. Gail, fanning her anxiously with a credit card brochure like she’s trying to whip up a hurricane. Anthone’s still sobbing.

     “What… What happened?” Mrs. Gail manages, her breathing strained.

     “Mr. Bernstein smacked her over the head with them pennies,” Khaiya says.    “Knocked her out cold.”

Mike Sutton calls the rolling hills of Northwest Arkansas home, where he practices law and writes in his free time. Prior to entering the legal profession, Mike served in the U.S. Air Force as a military police officer and attended Ouachita Baptist University, where he studied History and English Literature. You can find Mike writing in one of Fayetteville’s local coffee shops or on the water, fishing pole in hand.

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