He was careful not to speed. He had a lot of ground to cover and not a lot of time to do it in but waiting for a cop to write out a ticket would definitely cause him to miss his appointment. He could not miss this appointment. He had one chance, one very small window of opportunity. He could not be late.
The drive was only twenty minutes and his appointment was still just shy of an hour out. But he had two stops to make on the way that could easily eat up the extra forty minutes. He looked at the clock in the dash. Thirty-seven minutes. His original plan gave him plenty of time to prepare. But circumstances change. Plans change.
The house was on top of a hill at the end of a long dirt driveway. Certain the driveway was uninhabited by over-zealous ticket writing cops he mashed the accelerator allowing the rear tires to slide as he took the soft dirt curves going up the hill. He knew this was silly, no more than a few seconds would be saved by speeding only in the driveway but it at least made him feel like he wasn’t wasting time.
He threw the truck in park before it was even close to a complete stop causing the body of the truck to lurch forward over the now stationary tires. Just seconds later he was shedding the clothes covered in the evidences of his days work and fumbling through the closet for something more appropriate. Something casual but not too informal. Something inconspicuous but not too ordinary. Inconspicuous. He laughed at the thought of the word.
Two minutes later he was out the door again. Wearing nice jeans, deck shoes, an un-tucked polo shirt and wool jacket he wouldn’t exactly match the standard attire of his destination – most would likely be wearing dress shirts and slacks or at least khaki pants – but he wouldn’t be underdressed enough to draw attention to himself. Besides, he was comfortable and there’s something to be said for that.
As he rounded the corner of the house into the driveway, the truck sat waiting for him, door open, engine still running, Alabama serendipitously singing “I’m in a hurry to get things done” on the radio. That last part wasn’t exactly true but entering the truck to the sound of a GEICO commercial just didn’t seem to fit.
Precious seconds were made up once again as the truck sped back down the driveway to resume the speed limit once back on the main road. One more stop. This time the clock read 3:56. Thirty-four minutes.
As luck would have it there was an open spot just a few spaces away from the doors. He whipped in and quickly hopped out of the truck. This time he turned off the engine but left the keys in the ignition. He would only be a minute and he wasn’t the least bit worried about someone driving off with the truck. This was Oxford after all, not Memphis.
The layout of the greeting cards was definitely not conducive to quick searching but he still managed to make pretty quick work of it. He found the card and its corresponding envelope and headed towards the registers. Apparently everybody thought this would be a good time to check out.
“You’ve got to be kidding me.” The words came out loud, though he had intended them to remain in his head. “I’m never going to get out of here.” These words he was able to keep contained.
Just as despair was beginning to set in, he noticed the Self Checkout lines were all empty.
“Perfect.” This word too was audible although considerably more under his breath than his previous statement. Still he couldn’t help but point out to himself that he was basically talking to himself. Himself then retorted with the fact that by pointing that out to himself he was again talking to himself.
He scanned the card, put it in the bag and pushed the PAY NOW button on the touch screen. As a payment method he chose CASH, using his debit card would leave evidence of his plans. Was he over thinking this? He feed the twenty dollar bill into the slot half expecting the machine to spit it back out because of some small crease on the corner much like every Coke machine he had ever tried to give his business to. He never understood that. “I’m trying to give you my money,” he would tell the machine. “Why won’t you take it?” It can’t be good business to turn down people’s money just because it has a few wrinkles. The machine did not spit his twenty back at him. It also did not spit his change back at him. That can’t be good business either. The screen now read, “Please see cashier for your change.” So much for self checkout.
“Just a minute,” the cashier responded when the impatient man forwarded the machine’s message to her. “I need to get a manager.”
Seconds were turning into minutes. Minutes seemed to be turning into hours. After the third time she paged a manager another person in a blue vest finally started walking their way. Meandering, strolling, not quite at a walk speed. She obviously had no idea how pertinent his not being late was.
She fumbled with her keys and punched in some secret code on the keyboard (it was 69734 she didn’t bother hiding her keystrokes). When the drawer opened her hands just rested on top of it. She didn’t reach for the change. She just stood there staring at the drawer. Everything inside him wanted to shove her out of the way so he could count out the change himself. He didn’t have time for this.
“It looks like all I have are ones,” she finally said with a sheepish smile. “I’ll have to go take some to another register to get you a ten and a five.”
“Ones are fine, ma’am,” his tone was short and he added ma’am to the end hoping it would add some politeness to what he knew wasn’t.
“It’s no trouble…”
“Ones are fine,” this time he said it with a forced smile and not quite as short of a tone. Realizing he had cut her off he added “Thank you” to make up for the offense.
She slowly, painfully slow, counted out seventeen ones then started trying to figure the change. She held onto the ones as she fumbled with the change trying to use the pinky and ring finger of the hand that was holding the ones to slide each coin from its compartment. He again fought the urge to help. Briefly he contemplated explaining his rush but figured that the explanation would only distract her from her obviously daunting task and therefore decided that keeping quiet would likely lead to the quickest recovery of his change.
His toe began to tap. He was using every bit of his will power keeping his hand from hijacking the change recovery effort and therefore had no will power available to keep his toe from tapping. She didn’t notice. It took all of her attention to meticulously remove each coin from its compartment using only the pinky and ring finger of her un-free hand and therefore had no attention available to notice his tapping toe.
Finally the change recovery challenge was complete and she turned to hand it over to the toe tapping man. He imagined her trying to recount the change one bill at a time, one coin at a time as she laid each of them in his hand. He wasn’t sure if his will power was strong enough to endure that. She didn’t. The entire wad was handed to him with a satisfied smile. He took the change and quickly headed for the door.
Unsure if he really wanted to know at this point, he glanced at the clock on the dash as he backed the truck out of the parking spot. 4:16. Fourteen minutes. Not as bad as he had thought but possibly cutting it close. His destination was no more than a mile up the road but traffic at this time of day was unpredictable and so was parking.
He made it up University quick enough but was stopped by the red light at the top of the hill. Using every second wisely, he removed a pen from his coat pocket and wrote a note inside the card. No sooner had he finished his note, the light turned green. The two cars in front of him continued across the intersection but he turned right heading toward the Square.
The Oxford Square consists of four things: banks, bars, law offices and really expensive places to shop. In the middle of the Square an old fashioned court house sits surrounded by a wrought iron fence, walking path and a few park benches. All the buildings around the Square are two stories with balconies on the second story. The stone and brick buildings, many with columns out front, have a high class look but still remain small town, country, inviting. In front of each of the building are an inadequate amount of parking spaces. Even if you found an open spot, the likelihood of it being on the same side of the Square as your destination was rare. Because of this, the employees that worked the many banks, bars, law offices and really expensive places to shop on the Square generally parked behind their respective banks, bars, law offices and really expensive places to shop.
Half way around the Square he spotted his destination. Southbank sat on one of the corners of the Square and he noticed a back alley that ran behind the bank and its neighboring shops adjoining University on the opposite side of the Square from where he had entered. He turned into the alley and slowed the truck to a crawl scanning through the cars parked by the back doors of each building as he went looking for her car.
He found it nosed up to a small open staircase with no more than six steps leading to the back door of the bank. The back of the bank did not protrude into the alley as much as the two buildings beside it forming a small alcove that the bank employees used as a parking lot. There was another small car parked next to hers. Both cars were blocked in by SUV’s, presumably driven by fellow employees. The back of the SUV’s lined up near perfectly with the corner of the neighboring building. Metal emergency exit stairs with a dumpster tucked underneath sat to the right of the SUV parked behind her car. The building across the alley had a loading dock height concrete porch with wrought iron railing. The porch faced parallel to the alley toward a larger open parking area.
The truck slipped into the only available parking spot in the lot. There was no view of the door from this spot but it was the only spot available so it would have to do. This time he removed the keys and slipped them into his pocket as he walked towards her car.
There was only one window on the back of the bank. It appeared to be the bank’s break room. It was less than ten minutes to closing time; nobody would be on break right now. With the card resting on top of the driver’s side windshield wiper he quickly walked across the alley to the loading dock porch. There was no one else around that he could see but he still felt as if a million eyes were watching him. He stood as casually as possible against the tall concrete porch watching the bank door to his left out of the corner of his eye. A large metal beam at the corner of the porch blocked the upper half of his body from view from the bank. The concrete porch blocked the lower half.
He pulled his cell phone from his pocket to see what time it was. Seven minutes to closing time. As he put the phone back into his pocket a truck pulled down the alley and turned into the lot right in front of him. It stopped abruptly just past him. The brake lights extinguished but the truck didn’t move. It was in park. It was nowhere close to being in a parking spot. In fact where it was parked was blocking at least three other vehicles from being able to back out of their spots. The driver remained in the truck. Unsure if the driver had seen him, he now felt uneasy standing this close to the vehicle. He didn’t want the driver to suddenly see him and wonder what he was doing standing so close to his vehicle…or wonder what he was doing watching the back door to a bank. He realized he was being paranoid. There was no reason for the driver to suspect anything. Still the more he tried to act like he wasn’t up to something the more he felt he looked like he was up to something.
The driver finally exited his truck leaving the engine running and walked over to a car parked just behind the truck. It became apparent that the driver was just changing vehicles. As he approached the back of his truck he noticed the man leaning against the concrete porch. Now it seemed the paranoia had shifted. The man appeared to be wrestling with the same thought that this at first unseen stranger might think he was up to something even though he obviously was not. This realization made the man who was up to something smile. The other man pulled a car out of a parking spot, replaced it with the truck and then drove off in the car leaving the alley and its small parking area empty once again.
The next five minutes crawled agonizingly by. He began to wish he hadn’t rushed so much to get here. But then again he couldn’t risk being late. The sun was beginning its afternoon decent and the air was becoming noticeably cooler. Any minute now.
Suddenly out of silence came chaos. The back door to the bank as well as the back door to a neighboring building opened and a handful of employees spilled out into the alley. She was out of the door before he was able to react but she didn’t notice him. Her gaze was fixed on the envelope on her windshield. The diversion had worked.
He crossed from the concrete porch over to the small lot and walked behind the first row of cars until he came to the metal emergency exit stairs. The SUV behind her car was already pulling out paying no attention to him. A self thought overworked employee worried about nothing but getting away from work. He moved quickly but quietly under the stairs, around the dumpster and behind the car where the SUV was just parked. She had just sat down in the car and not yet closed the door her focus still on the unexpected card that she was now reading. She reached out for the door to shut it, her eyes still focused on the card. But as she pulled it shut his hand grabbed it and yanked it open out of hers his head quickly filling the space next to hers. She jumped back with alarm and a squeal that brought obvious joy to his face.
“Hey baby.” He said with an obnoxious smile.
“You scared the mess out of me,” she scorned swatting at him playfully. “You’re lucky I didn’t punch you in the face.”
He just smiled even bigger.
“Happy anniversary, baby,” he said through his smile. “Come on. Let’s go get some dinner.”