The Penny

Short Fiction for Guests of the WordFeeder
Monday, November 30, 2009

“Danny!” Ed grabbed the arm of his friend, yanking him back onto the curb just as a taxi in a hurry cut the corner way too close. “What don’t you understand about ‘Don’t Walk’?”

“The blonde in front of me went for it?”

“I don’t think she’s your type.”

“Yeah, what type is that?” He wasn’t really paying attention, his eyes still following the girl down the sidewalk across the street until she disappeared into a forest of pedestrians.

“The kind that dates unemployed men.”

“You worry too much. We haven’t been laid off yet.”

“If Jack doesn’t replace the accounts he’s lost, none of us is safe. ..Let’s go,” the light changed and they both started walking to the opposite corner, just a block from the mid-sized ad agency and print shop where they worked. “He’ll start with the newest people, the ones it’ll be easiest for him to replace when the economy… Excuse me,” Ed interrupted himself to apologize to the faceless shoulder he’d bumped wedging his way between the people coming in the other direction.

“I get it, but there’s nothing we can do about it.” Danny was a fatalist, intellectual-speak for “lazy.”

Ed was just the reverse. Whatever happened, it was his fault. He was the one who passed on college – He couldn’t afford to go full-time anyway. – in favor of getting a job as close to being in advertising that he could find. Jack, the owner, was letting him help manage some of their accounts, production stuff, mostly print, some radio and the one TV commercial for which he selected the locations, arrange for the permits, that kind of stuff. More than a gopher, but nowhere near his potential. It was a beginning, and he got to use their supplies and computers to prepare storyboards for prospective clients, local businesses he’d been pitching more or less without Jack knowing.

The bigger the street, the wider the sidewalks and the more people the two of them had to weave between and pass to up the pace and get back before someone realized they’d been gone longer than expected. It was too warm for the jackets they were wearing, the sun having surprised everyone after the cold morning rain had moved out earlier than any of the local weather reporters had expected.

Here and there, an inch or so of unsteady mist was hovering over the pavement where the sun was the strongest. “Wait up.” Ed was the first to see it, the sun’s reflection off the freshly minted face of Lincoln having caught his eye, and stopped to pick it up.

“Are you kidding?” Danny came back a step or two. “..They don’t make enough hand gel for me to pick up anything from this sidewalk.” But Ed wasn’t listening, choosing instead to marvel at how perfect – except for small red, heart-shaped smudge on Lincoln’s face that he couldn’t rub off with his thumb – and dry it was despite the foot traffic and rain. Standing back up, he flipped the coin high – It was an Ed tradition whenever he found one. – and then, precisely at the right moment, reached out to snatch out of the air, feeling it hit the palm of his hand.

“Got it!” but when he opened his hand, it was gone. “What?” Turning his hand over didn’t make any sense, but he did it anyway.

“What’s wrong?”

“I don’t know.” Ed really didn’t, and began looking around at the pavement, thinking it couldn’t have rolled far. “I don’t know. I must have missed it.”

“Com’on.” It wasn’t like Danny to be impatient, but he was hoping to be in the right place at the right time when this one particular girl who worked in accounting was going out to lunch.

Reluctantly, taking one last look around even while he began to walk away, they were off. Ed, too, wanted to get back. There was no one special in his life, not really, since about a year after he graduated from high school. The relationship he had senior year was never really going to amount to anything and then, we he moved to the city, they just stopped calling and e-mailing each other. It happened quickly, no scars, no regrets, no memories worth keeping. A few dates here and there since then, most of them with girls that seemed more interested in him than he was in them.

One girl he’d dated had become a friend, sort of, the two of them getting together now and then when one or the other needed company and someone he or she could trust. Not too bad, all things considered, when true love wasn’t an option. And no, they never promised they eventually marry each other if neither didn’t have a better offer first. It wasn’t like that.

Lately, it was all he could do to make up for the rookie mistakes he kept making at work. Hard to believe, but finding that coin had been the highlight of his week. Losing it immediately was more like it. He’d have to make his own luck.

A few minutes later they were running up the two flights to their offices, above the hardware store on the ground floor, and the law office above that. Their agency had the top two floors, and the roof where Ed would go to escape and think about stuff when being alone was what he needed.

“Hey, Ed.” Mary was the receptionist, a single mother in her mid-30s who would bring in her little kid, Bart, every once and a while when his grandmother couldn’t take care of him. Bart had become a sort of the company mascot, doing chores he could handle and just hanging out with the staff. They all took care of him, and Bart felt like he was doing something important, carrying a stapler or roll of colored tape from one office to another. Ed would talk to him, put him in one of the conference room chairs and practice making campaign presentations. Bart was one of his biggest fans. “Jack,” she announced, stopping from whatever she was typing to make sure Ed was paying attention, “wants to see you right away.”

“Sure,” he said tentatively, “I’ll just stop by my..”

“Now, Ed. He said, ‘as soon as he..”

“Mr. Mecklen.” It was Jack, coming around the divider that was behind Mary’s desk, the wall on which the agency logo was hanging above where she was sitting, “follow me, please.”

Ed did, and they were down the hall and in Jack’s office only a few seconds later. Jack walked and did everything in a hurry.

“Sit down,” Jack pointed quickly to the chair in front of his desk. “Where have you been this morning?”

“Well, Danny and I delivered two mailers and some proof sheets.” No reaction from Jack who had sat down and was staring right at him, forearms on his desk, his hands interlocked, every other finger. “…and then we stopped at the ‘Bagel Bakery,’ you know, the warehouse on 4th where they make,” his voice slowed to a standstill, “…bagels …to make a presentation.”

“I know. Mr. Gold called with a question. Quite the chat, so I’m told. According to Mary, Mr. Gold said your presentation was brilliant. Apparently you talked him out of fielding gourmet lunch trucks in favor of Saturday and Sunday morning residential deliveries of fresh, hot bagels – actually made on the trucks? Is that right?” Jack was going to do all the talking. “He says you actually went to the trouble to learn how the make them, and that you convinced him he’d sell substantially more bagels at lower costs than trying to make a limited number of sandwiches on a truck too small, with too little power to make the fresh bagels.”

“…Something like that,” Ed responded, hesitantly, not sure how much trouble he was in.

“And that he’s engaging us make an initial investment of $25,000 and change for campaign fliers and art for the first truck, personnel, bags and other supplies? Am I getting this right, Mr. Mecklen? …Mr. Mecklen?”

“Pretty much.”

“Okay, here’s the deal. You don’t ever, every contact a prospective client without my prior approval, let alone talk price until I’m sure you know what you’re doing. Notwithstanding whatever advice you got or get from our staff,…” And then he stopped. “Judging from the expression on your face, I gather this advice I’m giving you comes a tad too late?”

“ Well, there are a couple of…”

“Stop. I want detailed write ups on my desk by noon on Friday for me to read over the weekend. In the meantime, postpone any meetings or presentations. I want no client contact until we talk Monday morning. For now, you’re in campaign development and sales, working directly for me. No staff, no nothing, not a dollar of company resources until I approve it. You have any administrative or procedural questions, you come to me. Got it?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Fine. ..Good work, other than scaring the crap out of me, which is something you only get to do once. Understand?”

Ed just sat there.

“Why are you still here?”

“Are you letting me run the campaign for the Gold’s?”

“As long as you don’t blow it. Now get out of here and go see Jenny,” the agency’s Administrator.

Ed got up and headed for the door, stopping with his hand on the door knob. “Why would I do that? Why do I need to see Jenny?”

“Because you’re being promoted, Mr. Mecklen, and she’ll give you the details.”

“Right. Of course. Uhhh,” Ed was thinking of something smart to say, but decided to keep it simple. “Thank you,” and he left, forgetting to hold onto the door which tended to slam shut, “Bang!” rattling the old glass, unless you stopped it. The sound startled him, his shoulders and neck shuttering as he walked slowly back to the lobby, his mind blank.

“Hey, Mary,” he announced himself, looking up at the staff board to see that Jenny was out to lunch, his words sounding slow, almost trancelike, “I’m running down to the diner. You want something?”

“No thanks.”

Ed nodded that he understood, and took the stairs more slowly than usual, wrapping the knuckles of his right hand on the round metal railing. The stairs were open to the column that rose from the basement to the top of their building. The sound of people, just a few, coming and going on the concrete and metal stairs snapped him back. “Crap,” he just remembered he was out of cash. Stopping mid-way down the flight between the second and first floor, Ed checked his wallet, rubbing the two ones that were in there between his thumb and forefinger as if there might be a third. “So much for lunch.”

“Hey, Ed! …Perfect timing.” It was April, one of their graphics design people who had done him favors more than he could remember. One of the most pleasant people you’ll ever meet. “Remember those sandwiches you picked up for us last week…” Actually, he’d forgotten all about it. “..and left on my desk when I was in the ladies room? For some reason, saying that made her giggle while she fumbled for her wallet without taking her bag off her shoulder. “Here you go, $12.63,” and then she looked up and smiled. “Thanks!”

“Hey, you’re welcome.”

April touched him on the arm and quick stepped up the stairs behind him.

“Great,” Ed said to himself, stuffing the ten and two more ones in his wallet, and throwing the change in his pocket on top of his keys. Picking up his pace, he began to smile, mostly around his eyes, as his thoughts turned to which sandwich he would eat while he made notes on the folded sheet of paper he always kept in his left back pocket – the perfect accessory for the person eating alone which is mostly what he did lately. A folded piece of paper, or maybe a Time magazine or Popular Science, these were the essentials if you wanted to scope out other people in the restaurant without attracting too much attention. Today, he’d make a list of what to do next, over the next couple of days.

Out the front doors of their building, to the right, down to the corner, right again, two blocks later to the diner on the corner. The bell over the door, still there after all these years, got the older woman’s attention from her station behind the cash register. “Hey, Mrs. Lupino, how’s everything.”

“Fine. Take a seat,” she advised him and everybody who came through the door, including the mailman and her son who owned the place, barely looking up, and then she went back to work doing bad needle point between ringing up her customers. With glasses that thick, Ed was sure it was only a matter of time before she died stabbing herself putting receipts on the spindle where she kept them.

No stool at the counter. Today he deserved his own booth. Mr. Lupino who worked the grill was short on wait staff, and shouted over to ask, “What d’you want, Ed?”

The menus were between the salt and pepper shaker and ketchup and Tabasco sauce, but he didn’t need one. “Turkey club on rye, some fries and a lemonade.”

No answer, but Mr. Lupino was already in action, laying two pieces of thick sliced bacon on the grill next to the columns of small, onion covered patties for the sliders his customers ordered by the bag. “Pie?” he shouted back. His wife, the other Mrs. Lupino, made them herself. The cherry and double crust apple were spectacular – and her Boston Cream Pie, which is really a cake was… was indescribable, “the Jennifer Connelly of desserts,” as Ed once observed to himself, stopping by for a piece to go on his way home one evening when he’d been working late. There was a bus stop near the diner and, if he was careful, and he was, it would still be perfect when he made it to his studio apartment.

“Maybe,” Ed shouted back at him. “..I’ll let you know.” Hearing his orders over the din of customers talking and noise coming from the kitchen was a skill Mr. Lupino had acquired over the years since he converted the old car lot that had preceded him. Only occasionally would he even look at the slips the waitresses would attach to the wheel in the opening to the kitchen, just above where they’d pick up their orders. And if he hired you, and you couldn’t live with the rush, you didn’t last long.

Some Hispanic kid who worked the kitchen, a dirty towel rolled into his belt for an apron, brought the thick china plate with his sandwich, a small plastic basket of fries, a check, and some silverware rolled up in napkin. Ed got out and unfolded his piece of paper, and started making detailed notes about ideas he wanted to make sure he didn’t forget.

Twenty minutes later, Ed had pushed his plate out the way and was finishing up his list that had spilled over to the back of his paper, nibbling on the few fries he had left. Thinking he’d pass on the pie, and anxious to get back to the office, Ed slid left on the bench seat and began to stand up, reaching into his pocket to see how much change he had to leave for a tip, thinking maybe a dollar and a couple of quarters. It was over-tipping, but the kid looked like he needed more than Ed. …Two quarters, a dime and.. and three pennies, one of them a shiny new coin with a familiar red, heart-shaped something stuck to the side of Lincoln’s face.

“What the..”

“Sorry, buddy.” The large man who’d bumped into him was apologetic enough, but all Ed cared about was watching, in slow adrenalin motion, his change hit the tile floor.

Sure the quarters were important, but he it was the rolling copper that caught his attention, weaving its way precariously between the feet of people walking between the stools and row of booths along the windows. Ed was after it – “Excuse me. ..Sorry.” — until it took an abrupt left turn and rolled under the counter toward the kitchen.

Whipping around the end of the counter, not bothering to look up, Ed came this close to colliding with a new girl, just coming out of the kitchen, a plate in each hand, and a third on the crook of an elbow. “Whoa!” she stopped short, barely holding on to the lunches she was rushing to deliver.

Except for the name tags, “Lupino’s” waitresses didn’t wear uniforms. Too expensive. Most where locals, usually young and ordinary looking, worked there to make money between stages of their lives, preludes to careers that never happened. Whatever her story, there was something different about her face. “Maybe,” Ed thought, “she was just too new at this to be taking it in stride. Too fresh to find it tedious.

“Hey,” she greeted Ed, eyes unusually wide open. Mr. Lupio’s rule was that he had to have the longest hair of any of his employees, and he was practically bald – which explains why her already short, curly brown hair was pulled back into a pathetically inadequate ponytail with barely anything except a few wisps coming out the back of the rubber band trying its best to hold it all together.

“Hey,” was all Ed could manage.

“Here, gimme those.” One of the other waitresses, seeing the chemistry and wishing she could have some of that, volunteered to help out. “What table?”

“In the corner,” the new girl answered without looking away except to handoff the plates

“Sorry, I, uh, dropped some change and..”

“Did you need something?”

“Look at her eyes,” he told himself. “Those lips.. No, keep looking at her eyes,” Ed was trying not to be flustered.” “…Any fresh pie left?”

“Mrs. Lupino put out a cherry just a few minutes ago. …I could bring you a slice.”

“Hey!” Mr. Lupino seldom required more than a word or two to make its point.

“What booth?” she said quickly.

“I don’t know. The one with me sitting there,” he smiled back at her.

“Go. I’ll get it for you,” and Ed hustled off, catching a “give me a break” smirk and roll of the eyes from Mr. Lupino.

Standing there for a second, …

“Wait, wait,” Ed was back, excited as if he might not ever see her again, but then hesitated. “..You’ve got to be kidding,” he said thinking out loud, extending his hand to just barely touch her name tag. “Your name is… ?”

Looking down at her t-shirt, Ed’s hand still touching her name even while he raised his head slowly to face her, she wondered why he was asking. “Actually, it’s ‘Penelope’,” each syllable seeming to have a life of its own, “but my friends call me ‘Penny’.”

“Great. I’ll, uh, …” and, gesturing with his head toward the booths, he left again, this time before Mr. Lupino noticed.

Lifting up her right foot, Penelope looked down to see the rolling coin she had stepped on before running into Ed. Bending over, she picked it up, marveling at how shinny it was, and rubbing the red, heart shaped mark on Lincoln’s face that didn’t come off. “Who knows,” she wondered softly, flipping the coin in the air, watching it flicker in the sunlight coming through the diner windows, “maybe he’s the one.” Reaching out, she snatched it on the way down, feeling it cool against the palm of her hand, but then… “What?” …it was gone. Staring at her open hand for a second, she turned quickly, bending her knees to look under the counter and at the floor around her.

“Hey!” Mr. Lupino had his hands full, but gestured with his head toward the booths and the short line of customers looking for places to sit.

————————-

On the sidewalk at a busy corner a few blocks away, while Ed works late until he can meet Penelope after her shift, there amongst the grime and occasional piece of litter, an unusually shinny coin, a red heart-shaped mark on the face of a beloved President, lays waiting to be picked up by whoever has the daring and need to see it.

-wf

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