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To the Penny

by Ron Van Sweringen

The young woman placed a five-dollar bill on the deli counter in anticipation of the coffee with triple cream and a bagel that she had just ordered.

It was a Chicago morning in February, icy and snowing. She was cold, rocking back and forth on each foot and rubbing her hands together.

The door behind her opened as a customer exited, and suddenly a blast of cold wind hurled itself against her. She pulled her collar closer around her neck, shivering as she looked down at the counter for her five-dollar bill. To her shock it was gone. “Damn,” she mumbled, looking down at her feet.

“Where...?’ she was starting to say, when she saw the bill coming to rest on the floor about ten feet away. A woman’s hand reached down and quickly picked the bill up. Without turning to see where it had come from, the woman stuffed it into her pocketbook.

The girl was dumbfounded, unable to believe what she had just seen. Her annoyance turned to anger as she approached the woman.

“Excuse me,” she blurted out, “but the five dollar bill you just picked up was mine. The wind blew it off of the counter.”

The woman was sixtyish, a black scarf on her head and an annoyed look on her wrinkled face. “Prove it,” she snapped, continuing to eat her breakfast.

“What do you mean, prove it?” the girl stammered, at a loss for what to say next.

“That bill could belong to anybody,” the woman replied. “I could even use it to pay for my breakfast, if there was such a bill. Do you have a witness?”

“I’m the witness,” the girl shot back, her voice loud enough that people turned to look at her.

“You don’t count,” was the reply, “anymore than I do when they put me out of the shelter every morning, rain or shine.”

“What’s the problem here?” A balding young man wearing a white apron approached with his hands on his hips. “I’m the manager.”

“The problem is, this woman picked up my five-dollar bill and stuffed it in her pocketbook,” the girl explained, pointing at the woman.

“I don’t know what she’s talking about,” the woman replied, “I’m just an old lady trying to eat my breakfast in peace.”

“Wait a minute,” the girl shouted, shaking her head.

“No, you wait a minute,” the young man interrupted, “you are causing a disturbance in my place of business and unless you stop, you will have to leave.”

“Never mind,” the girl sighed, returning to the deli counter where her coffee and bagel were waiting. She took another five-dollar bill out of her coat pocket and handed it to the young man.

When he returned with her change, the young man leaned closer and lowered his voice. “That’s Crazy Mildred over there. She lives in a homeless shelter. She comes in for breakfast every now and then; never can pay her bill.” Then he smiled and winked at her with the bluest eyes she had ever seen. Later, when she counted her change, there were five one-dollar bills in her hand.

On the way out of the deli, the girl hesitated at the woman’s table. “Thanks,” she smiled, “It was worth every penny.”

Copyright © 2009 by Ron Van Sweringen

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