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Give a Penny
There is absolutely nothing significant about the girl drifting down the aisles of the gas station at which I work. She has the bouncy blonde pony tail that all girls seem to wear nowadays, the slightly curly strands bouncing with every step that she takes. She has shallow brown eyes, the kind that are all warm but don’t seem to have any real personality behind them, and there is a scattering of freckles on her sun kissed skin. She wears the oversized hoodie of her high school volleyball team and a pair of ripped up, thigh-tight jeans, her sandals slapping against her heels.
Even her choice of objects to buy is rather uninteresting - a plastic bottle of Coke and a Butterfinger, the plastic wrapper wrinkling in her manicured hands. She approaches slowly and places her items on the counter, opening her purse as I ring up the sale.
“Two seventy-three.” I say, watching her fish a few wrinkled bills out of her billfold.
She smiles with white, even teeth as I begin to count out her change. “Is it bad, having the night shift?” she asks.
I shrug. “It pays better than it does during the day, I guess.”
“That can’t hurt anything.” She giggles flirtatiously, like she does this all the time with the boys at her school. I catch a glance of the name embroidered over her heart – Casey.
I hand her the coins and she examines them – mostly pennies because the cash register is all out of dimes and only has a few nickels left and I’m too lazy to go to the back room and find one of the rolls that the manager stashes for us in his desk. With another smile she dumps the lot of them into the small plastic container labeled “Give a penny, take a penny” with a taped-down Post-it note.
I blink, my eyebrows arching. Casey laughs again, flicking her bangs out of her face as she grabs her awaiting sugar rush. “You never know when someone will need a penny or two,” she says before she turns and marches out of the building, probably off to do bigger and better things.
Shaking my head, I close the cash register and wonder about the sanity of my generation, stooping over so I can prop my elbow on the counter. It’s going to be a long night.
The first person to come in after Casey is a truck driver – you can tell by the way his hands are covered in calluses and stained by the road. He is skinny and unshaven, looking like he has been driving for much to long without stopping. He makes a beeline for the restrooms and is in there for a while. Absently, I time him – five minutes and twenty-three seconds.
He must have been on the road for a really, really long time.
When he comes back out, his nose is twitching in the air. He examines the wide selection of chips, sweets, and other bags filled with food before inching his way to the front counter, where he eyes the small glass oven containing day-old pizza that has been reheated way to many times. Technically, we shouldn’t be allowed to sell it, but as long as we throw a discount on it no one asks too many questions.
“I’d like two slices of that supreme, if I can.” he says, nodding at the oven with a watering mouth.
I punch in the key numbers for it and open the door, plucking the two out and onto a small cardboard plate. “A buck three,” I say, grabbing a few napkins as he searches his pockets. Eventually, he finds a dirtied dollar bill, but bites his lip when that is all he manages to unearth.
I don’t think when I reach out and snatch three pennies from the small tray, dropping them onto the counter and gesturing for him to hand over his slip of paper. He smiles gratefully as we make the exchange, taking a huge bite and vanishing out into the darkness.
In a slightly Podunk town that’s close to a lot of other big cities, you don’t usually get a lot of customers during the night hours. So I’m not surprised when I don’t get another person until around midnight. It’s a young woman, probably in her twenties, with a baby on her hip that is screaming his little red head off. Probably teething or has a diaper rash. Regardless, she marches to the drink stand, snatching the small container of drip coffee that is actually cold to the touch and pouring herself a Styrofoam cup full.
I feel bad and call, “I can make some fresh, if you want.”
She shakes her head and takes a couple of deep sips, her eyes wincing as the child’s screams crescendo. His tiny fists beat the air as she approaches, dropping the cup in front of me.
“Take it,” I say, shaking my head. “It’s stone cold and ancient. I’m not going to charge you for it.”
She frowns. “I don’t feel comfortable with just taking it.”
“You’re not stealing – I’m giving it to you. Here,” I rang up the coffee and reached into my pocket, paying for it but finding myself a few cents short. I reach for the give-a-penny-take-a-penny container and take some coins.
She opens her mouth to protest but her child cuts her off. “Just drive safely, all right?” I manage over the din.
She shoots me a look that is so thankful that I can’t help but smile as she takes her drink and walks out, the bell above her head ringing cheerfully.
I glance down as the night wears on, examining the plastic container beside the register. Little blonde Casey had dropped all of her change into it just a few hours before, and already two people have utilized what she had provided. How many more will come in and need it before the night is over?
The answer to my question is five. Five more people slip inside of the gas station and take the pennies that she had offered. One a man about to start his graveyard shift, buying a package of cigarettes and just one cent short thanks to the taxes. Two a pair of college boys, buying alcohol after the bars shut down. One a sickly looking man with greasy hair snatching up an energy drink. And the last – a teenage guy, texting rapidly on his phone while one of his hands offered to buy enough chips and candy bars to keep him in stock for a week.
So many people benefitted from the kindness of a stranger and they will never know it. In a burst of generosity, she has in some way enriched seven lives. Did she know? Had she been certain that she would help so many?
How had I ever thought of her as insignificant and plain? As just another girl in a gas station? She has done so much by doing so little… it makes my mind turn.
The morning light creeps through the windows and makes the buzzing fluorescent lights seem dim. I am tired, exhausted actually, so much so that I don’t notice when my replacement walks in the door.
“Hey Logan,” Chad says, dropping the box in his hands onto the counter. “You look beat, man.”
“I’ve been here since eight last night.”
He winces theatrically before ripping open the tape that holds the flaps on the boxes down. “So it’s too much to ask for to help me set up the day’s baked goods before you leave?”
The restaurant in town bakes cookies and slices of cake for us to sell, granted that they get a part of the prophet. This works well for all of us, seeing as the employees get to eat everything that doesn’t sell.
“Sorry man, but I’m whooped. Can you clock me out?”
He sighs. “Yeah, sure. No problem.”
I jump over the counter and land on the other side with a solid sound, turning to be on my way. As I start to pass, however, I pause, glancing down at the now empty container for coins.
I reach into my pocket and fish out all of my loose change, picking out every penny and placing them in the same spot Casey had. Chad stares at me for a long time as I make my way to the door. I can’t help it – as I edge out of the door, I say, “You never know when someone will need a penny or two.”