Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture,” Opus 49, opened a beautiful sunrise in the east as I pulled into the gas station for my daily cup of coffee and bagel. I tried every gas station in North St. Louis and this was the only place that makes my coffee the way I want it. Before the start of school, I delighted myself with hazelnut cream with a dark roasted bean. Today, I want something that will energize me, I thought. I heard the crunch of pebbles between the ridges of my Stacy Adams shoes as I opened the door and greeted the station attendant.
“Good morning to you. It looks to be another splendid day.”
“Well, good morning to you, too, sir,” she said.
“Punctuality is the habit that breeds success. The early bird gets the worm.” I laughed while she leaned against the counter with a curious expression on her face.
“Do I know you from somewhere?”
“You ask me that every time I come in here,” I said.
“I know, I know, but your face rings a bell.”
While walking to the breakfast aisle next to the cashier, I lowered the brim of my hat to rest on my glasses. The aroma of fresh hazelnut dissolved as the smell of bleach and cleanser she used to clean the station prior to my arrival rose from the floor. She must have just finished mopping. I pressed the dispenser handle and watched the paper cup fill to the edge, moments from spilling.
I took a sip and burned myself.
“Ouch. Underestimated the temperature. I forgot to convert to Fahrenheit before I started drinking. Don’t you hate it when that happens?” I said, attempting more banter.
Today, she smiled. Maybe she felt sorry for me. I liked her curly red hair and how it bounced off her shoulders—longer than it had been in the days she’d lined up third from the back to go outside. I sealed the rim of the cup with the plastic lid, reached for a piece of wax paper, and instinctively took an oatmeal-raisin bagel. Reconsidering, I set it back in the row of pastries and grabbed a poppy seed bagel. No, that’s not it either. I examined the Long John, glazed doughnut, jelly-filled doughnut, coffee cake, and a Boston crème pie that was hard as a hockey puck. After a few minutes evaluating the case, I determined I didn’t want any of them. Dammit, too many to choose from. Perhaps a sandwich? Sounds delicious, but I don’t have enough money. Oatmeal-raisin won the contest as I hurried over to the register so the attendant could ring my items, remembering to grab a newspaper from the stand to my right.
“Sir, are you okay? Got a little frustrated there picking a doughnut, I see.”
She laughed, but I didn’t see anything funny.
“Allergies bothering you today? Your eyes are bloodshot.”
She tried again to rattle me, but I remained focused, waiting for my total.
“Alrighty then, let’s see... the usual. I should have this memorized by now.” The attendant smiled again, almost embarrassed.
“Take your time.” I sipped my caffeinated delight, now the perfect temperature, while she tapped on the computer’s touch screen to total my items for this day, and the other forty-three consecutive days I had begun my mornings there.
“Bagel, coffee, and newspaper is...”
“Three dollars and twenty-three cents,” I finished her sentence. “Just like yesterday.” I smiled again and gave her a five-dollar bill. I predicted today would be a productive one.
“Oh, by the way, I’ll need that back in all nickels, please. The staff at school came up with a clever idea of having the kids collect nickels for St. Louis Children’s Hospital for cancer research.”
She stood there bewildered by the request. Her blank expression resembled a computer when the screen freezes. She had the same look of confusion she did when she sat in room C-11, row two, seat seven from the left. Her hair had grown well past her shoulders. I waited patiently while she stared at the touch screen, then at me, then the screen again, hoping I would change my mind. No! Today I change your mind.
I repeated, “All nickels would be great.”
“Give me just a second here... let me think,” she said.
“Is something wrong?” I asked, tapping my hand on the counter, waiting for my thirty-five nickels and two pennies.
“Give me a second so I can get this right.” She reached for a calculator, and I sternly interrupted her move with my voice.
“Excuse me. You can’t tell me the amount of change?”
“Yes, it’s $1.77. I’m just having a rough time with the ol’ brain. It’s early.”
I stepped closer, concluding she got that number from the big bold letters on the computer screen. She had given me a one-dollar bill, three quarters, and two pennies for the past forty-three days. It’s a shame she hadn’t listened to me seventeen years ago when I calculated the amount of my bagel and coffee in a question I asked her in math class. She didn’t have an answer then, just like she doesn’t now. I warned her it would cost her later if she didn’t understand math. Just like yesterday’s news, they forget as soon as the bell rings. My patience had grown restless.
“Anna, I must leave. I showed you this.”
“We barely have enough nickels.”
“I don’t think you know.” Distance equals one meter.
“I’m sorry. Give me a minute here.”
“Anna, they’re just nickels. Count by fives.”
She counted them out while I used the minute she requested to survey the store for cameras. Two. One above the register, and the second in the northeast corner. I checked outside for early birds pumping gas. As usual, no one was disciplined enough to get up at 4:45 a.m. Their inability to set their alarms would cost Anna her life in nickels. I calculated the angle of penetration between the 2.5 inches of her unzipped jacket. Fifteen degrees with a slight tilt accounting for her two feet of elevation at the counter. I had given her enough time for redemption and she chose not to utilize the opportunity.
“Anna Madsen, class of 1993, first grade at Happy Canyon Elementary School, you can’t tell me how many nickels are in $1.77?”
“Wait a minute, how’d you know my name?”
I pulled out my gun and she shrieked, dropping whatever change she had accumulated to the floor. The sound of the crashing coins irritated my ears as I counted fifteen five-cent pieces dancing across the linoleum. I waited for the rolling coins to be silent, then continued.
“I ask the questions here; you fucking understand me?”
“Sir, sir... please don’t kill me. What do you want?”
She put her hands up as if I wanted to rob her. What an insult. This wasn’t a robbery, this was a test, and I wanted my answer.
“Didn’t I say I ask the questions? Now answer me. You've got one try to get it right. Think. How many nickels are there in $1.77?”
She started crying. I stepped closer. Distance equals a half meter.
“I—I—I don’t know.”
I shot her in the abdomen and kept firing while I began an oration on money matters. The nuances of my lecture became muffled as the bullet tore through her shirt like a hot comb on tangled hair. Her eyes rolled back when bullet three hit her, causing her to keel over from the force of the shots. I reached across the counter for her right jacket sleeve, steadying her with my left hand, and pulled her into the fire until my gun emptied. I punched my arm forward in anger with each shot that pierced her stomach. Thank god for suppressors.
“I told you seventeen years ago there were twenty nickels in a dollar. How dare you insult me? Your math is important. Didn’t I tell you that? Answer me, goddammit.”
By this time, I had let go and she slumped forward over the counter. Such a waste of a brain. I couldn’t bear that her life ended in confusion so I lifted her head up by her hair and whispered, “The correct change is thirty-five nickels and two pennies. Good day!”
I dropped her head and grabbed my cup, wiping the blood-saturated base. I stepped back and admired my masterpiece. I am ridding the world of stupidity one clip at a time. I checked my watch. No time to clean up unless I was willing to risk running late for school. I wasn’t. I reached for my cellphone and pushed two, which speed-dialed the tailor.
“Good morning. How are you this fine day?” I asked.
“Watson? Do you know what time it is?”
“I made a mess and I wish to place an order.”
“This early in the morning?”
“Yes, I have a few stains on my new shirt. I am aware of the inconvenience but the sooner you can stitch me up a replacement, the better,” I said.
“Watson, I require a 24-hour notice. Hold on, let me get a pen. What is your neck size?” I heard him cough a few times in the background. Time has caught up to us both. Unbidden, the thought came that I’d known him for a long time, and I still don’t know his name.
“Oh, I’d guess five feet, three inches. Somewhere between one hundred and thirty, and one hundred and forty pounds,” I replied, giving Anna an impassive once-over.
“Citi-Gas on Kingshighway and Holly Hills.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed the headlights of a car pulling in. The brewer signaled that fresh coffee was ready. I refilled, expecting the customer to walk in so I could inform the tailor I needed two shirts.
“None so far. A green minivan just pulled up right now.”
The customer driving the minivan slid his card into the credit machine and pulled back.
“Cancel the chest size, he’s paying at the pump.”
“Okay, okay, good. Cut the lights after they leave. Lock the front entrance and hang the closed sign on the door. Unlock the back door.”
“Next, what is your shirt length?”
“I am running late for work,” I replied.
“Lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on mine. You’re probably rubbing your birthmark. I swear you will rub the skin off that thing. Shirt length, please.”
I took a deep breath, absorbing the truth in his words. My finger had traced the scratch on my head a few times already. I saw him in my mind, swinging his glasses around by the arm of his frames while the other hand ran through his receding hairline. The tailor’s calm, gritty voice raised my blood pressure as I scanned the scene I created.
“The floor, counter, cash register, and a few drops splattered on snack items sitting next to the register,” I responded as the driver in the van pulled away. I walked to the door to get a look at my former student’s vehicle. The bell clanged like lunchtime as I flipped the ”open for business” sign and let it slam back against the glass door.
I looked up again to confirm the store’s cameras.
“Two, one in the northeast corner and one above the register.”
“Toyota Prius, license plate number, 7UFL453.”
“Type of fit?”
“As soon as possible. Damn it, I grabbed her head in anger.”
“Okay, the butcher will be extra as you know. He hasn’t had breakfast in a long time. I’ll be there to pick up in ten to fifteen minutes. Throw the circuit breaker and cut power to the building. I will call you with the total so you can wire me the funds.”
“Thanks for helping me on short notice.”
He exhaled over the phone.
“Next time give me a day’s notice. Preferably two.” He paused a moment, then continued, “We need to chat when you are free. Something important has come up.”
“We don’t chat. We have nothing to chat about. Stitch my shirts, please.” I cut him off and hung up.
I whistled “Capriccio Italien Op. 45,” another masterpiece by Tchaikovsky on my way back to the car, saddened by Anna’s refusal to learn. Her disinterest had spoiled my appetite—not to mention that she fell on my bagel. I went home and changed clothes, ready for a fresh start.