by Lou Gaglia
In my twenties I played chess and even took a few lessons from a grandmaster in Queens. He was a very nice man, and his wife and daughter were equally nice, and he was patient with me. I learned that controlling the center of the board was important, but I wasn’t very good at it. Lately I’ve tried to play against my new chess program, but it has my number. Just when I think I’ve got control of the middle, the program attacks me on the wings and I’m done. Sometimes the losses shake me up so much that I only take shallow breaths and my head swims.
Melinda and the kids don’t see my chess blunders. They are asleep when I play during breakfast. But it doesn’t matter much because they witness plenty of my other real-life mistakes.
Recently I couldn’t pop my healthy chocolate drink powder from the scooper into the mug no matter how hard I flicked my wrist. Melinda and Dan and Emily watched me fail and fail again, then hold the scooper over the garbage pail to test it. When the powder dropped into the pail, the kids stared and Melinda rolled her eyes.
I use a small plastic cup for my dinner wine now because I knocked over four or five glasses last year by reaching for one thing while thinking of two other things and flashing back to something else.
My theory—that I just have too much on my mind all at once sometimes—is pretty solid, I think, but Melinda says it isn’t solid. She says I’m a classic scatterbrain, and after the chocolate powder incident she reminded me of my oil-changing adventure at the dealership.
I went to the car dealership last week. We had a coupon that said “21.95” for an oil change. It was about time for my old Elantra, and I wanted them to check the brakes. Dan went with me since we had to pick up his best friend on the way back.
At ten years old I didn’t have a particular best friend, but my father had taken me places, too. I watched him deal with people. He always seemed to be on top of things and he never got rattled. Once I went with him to return a new TV that he didn’t like, and we came back with a better one. I didn’t see any money change hands, so I guessed that he had those salespeople shaking in their dress shoes. He was the same way dealing with people at his job. He trained race horses, and he took me along with him sometimes. He seemed to know what to say to the hot walker and to the groom and to the owners whenever they came around, and he had a way with words with the horses when they got skittish. My ten-year-old self told itself that my dad was pretty sharp, that he could size people up and stay a move ahead of them.
Now with Dan at my side at the dealership, I talked to the man at the counter.
“Just an oil change,” I said. “And could you look at the brakes? I had to add fluid yesterday.”
Dan watched the exchange, and I imagined him thinking, my dad is sharp. Cool as a cucumber.
“Do you charge to check it?” I asked as I handed over the keys.
Sharp, Dan confirmed to himself, maybe.
The waiting room looked comfortable, but the TV blared the stupid news. I felt a rush in my arms, and my shoulders rose, and I couldn’t help but breathe shallowly. I wanted to reach for the remote on the table, but a man across from me and an old woman two seats away stared at the screen. Another man near the coffee machine watched too. There was a story about a gas truck that ran into a tanker and blew up. They showed the huge flames on screen.
“Wow,” the commentator said.
“Lucky no one was hurt,” the old woman said, and my mouth fell open a little.
After a while I leaned over and said to Dan, “I hate the news.”
He was playing some video game on his Kindle. “I’m not even listening,” he said.
I frowned at the unopened Carl Jung book I’d brought along in case the oil change took forever, then headed for the coffee machine. It needed a quarter, so I stood there for a while wondering how to get one.
Behind the cashier’s window, three women sat on swivel chairs in a little room, and the oldest of them rose with a sigh and helped me make change.
“Coffee machine,” I explained, but she didn’t answer. She just handed me the quarters. The other two seemed much friendlier, so on my trip back to the coffee machine, I marveled at my talent for noticing the levels of niceness or snootiness in people. “Snooty, nice—simple,” I said aloud.
The man watching the news near the machine instructed me on how to use it. I realized what to do as soon as he told me where to put the quarter but pretended to follow his directions anyway. He seemed to enjoy teaching me.
A newswoman was going on about what the public was going to think if egg futures went up or something. As I poured milk into my coffee I wanted to make conversation by saying, “How the hell would they know?” but the coffee machine helper stepped away to peer at the latest news flash of the gas truck explosion.
“Wow,” said the newswoman.
Back with Dan, I could only flip through the Jung book. The news bugged me, and I daydreamed of the mechanic coming out to tell me that I needed a new engine or something. When he finally appeared to fill me in on my brake situation, Dan stopped playing his game to listen.
“Your brakes are okay, but keep an eye on them,” the mechanic said and hurried off.
“I’ll bet he didn’t even check them,” I muttered to Dan.
I paid at the window. The older woman took my cash—thirty-one dollars and forty-seven cents. I thought about mentioning that I was returning two of the quarters she’d changed for me earlier, but she seemed pissed, maybe because I hadn’t used a credit card and it bugged her to count money.
Dan and I waited outside, and I tried to take a long deep breath of the cool air and calm myself down over the old woman—pissed off just because I’d asked her to make change. Across the parking lot, a garage door closed on our car.
“What are they doing, Dad?” Dan asked.
“How do they wash it?”
“I don’t know. By hand or machine. I’ve never seen them do it, but it comes out wet, I know that.”
I remembered them washing the same car when it was new, ten years earlier. I’d bought the car there just before we moved upstate from the New York City. My father came with me, and we walked away from the salesman three different times before getting the deal we wanted. Actually, it was my father who walked away each time. I followed him. And it was my father who struck the car deal. I signed the papers. Dan was just a newborn then, and Emily was only two.
Dan became alarmed for a minute, convinced that it was already eleven and we were late picking up his friend. His Kindle had warned him of a time change or something.
“No, no,” I said. “I have a clock inside my head. It’s only ten.” To prove it I led him back inside where we split up and circled the lobby, looking into each salesmen’s office. Dan found a clock while I brooded over a display jeep.
“It’s ten o’clock, Dad,” he said.
“I know. Look at this jeep. Twenty-three thousand bucks. It only has room for four people, but they say it seats five. Big rip-off.” Dan turned away to look at other cars, but I remained to sneer at the MSRP sticker.
Just a year before, we’d finally bought a second car, and at the paper-signing stage I blew up when the salesman mentioned in passing that the interest had to be a half-percent higher because, with 12 miles on it, the car was technically used. He’d discovered the oversight at the last moment and forgotten to mention it, and he was so very sorry.
“I don’t like that!” I roared. “I don’t like that at all!”
I stormed out, cursing in the parking lot that I wanted my down payment back. I was too mad to go back inside, so Melinda, who’d rushed out to see what possessed me, went back inside to tell the salesman we were going home, where we had a long lunch before returning. I sat on one of their comfortable chairs, scowling out the window and growling low that I wanted my damn money back. Then the dealer came by to tell me that his boss would make an exception, just this once, and allow the lower interest.
“You mean the interest we agreed on yesterday?” I said.
Dan wasn’t with me for that conversation, but I wondered if my father, who died of a heart attack three months after our car-shopping trip, would have been proud of me.
You played them perfectly. Very good move, I imagined him saying. Don’t let them cheat you.
Now I tried to calm myself by smirking over the four-seat jeep the dealers were pretending was a five-seater.
“Room for a poodle in the middle, maybe,” I muttered.
When our wet car backed its way out of the garage, Dan and I waited at the cashier’s window until the mechanic delivered the key. I paid and exchanged cheerful goodbyes with the women in the little room, although the older one didn’t say anything.
It wasn’t until we were at the new bagel joint’s drive-through window that I remembered that the oil-change coupon was still in my pocket and I’d blown the big discount.
“2.38, please,” the bagel girl said, and I gave her a twenty and she came back with change and closed the window. I was still thinking about the coupon while I stared at my change—a ten, a five, and some coins.
“That’s four…Dan, didn’t she say 2.38?”
“I dunno. Let’s go. It’s almost eleven.”
I waited, but she didn’t return to the window, and finally Dan said, “It was probably two dollars for each bagel, Dad.” I agreed and pulled out and headed back for the dealership. Dan reminded me of the time, but I growled at him, and in the dealership’s parking lot, I studied the receipt. My bagel had been $1.04, and Dan’s was $1.20. Plus the tax.
“She cheated you, Dad,” Dan said.
“No, she made a mistake.”
“So she’s stupid.”
“No.” I looked at him. “Just a mistake. I’ll take nice and stupid over smart and mean any day.”
“Maybe she was mean.”
“No, no. I can tell. She was okay.”
Inside the dealership again, the news blared, and a different set of people gaped at the fiery tanker blast.
“Wow,” the newscaster said.
The older woman was not happy about my presentation of the forgotten coupon. She hesitated, then stared at it.
“Well, we’d have to go back into the system.”
The women behind her seemed amused by this complication.
“I can’t believe I forgot,” I said.
“All right, but I’ll have to go into—they’ll have to write up everything all over again.”
“Okay,” I said while she pressed keys on her computer and frowned at the screen.
“You know,” I went on, “I had it in my head to give you the coupon when I paid, but I totally forgot.”
“Well, actually, you’re supposed to give it to them before they even work on your car.”
“Oh. I didn’t know that.”
“There’s a sign right on the wall behind the service desk.”
“Well.” I glanced at the women behind her. “I’m a big reader, but I don’t read signs on walls much.”
The women’s eyes laughed. The older woman’s eyes didn’t laugh. She headed for the next room so the service guys could print out the new paperwork.
When she returned she gave me my change. I was going to mention that maybe I was getting back the same quarters she’d given to me for coffee an hour earlier, but she didn’t seem in the mood so I let it slide. I looked at my receipt.
“Only six dollars off?”
“Well, there’s the tax,” she said glumly.
“Hardly seems worth it,” I wondered aloud to Dan, and the woman sighed audibly.
As we reached the lobby, the newscaster said, “A tanker explosion ripped―” and I snapped, “Shut the hell up,” a little too loudly, on our way out the door.
On the way home after we picked up Dan’s friend, I tried my breathing exercise—four seconds of inhaling, eight seconds of exhaling—to somehow calm myself, but I couldn’t get the sour look of the cashier woman out of my mind, or her reluctance to help, or the news flashes about the blown-up taken, or the old half-percent interest hike trick the dealer had tried on me. At home I threw away the bagel receipt and swore the boys to secrecy, imagining Melinda scolding me over being ripped off by a bagel girl. Later, though, I was brave enough to show Melinda the oil-change receipt.
“It’s weird, we only got six dollars off,” I said. “It was supposed to be $21.95 off, like the coupon said.”
Melinda rolled her eyes. “It was $21.95 for the oil change, total. Not $21.95 off.”
“Oh. What a cheap coupon then.”
She didn’t say anything.
At dinner I had a small cup of wine and didn’t spill it, and Dan laughed over my answer to the woman about the sign on the wall, which relaxed me at last.
“That was a good one, Dad,” he said, and I imagined my own Dad maybe liking that one too. Cool as a cucumber, son. You didn’t let that grumpy cashier rip you off. And you were right about the bagel girl too.
The next morning while everyone slept upstairs, I celebrated with an emphatic fist-pump and a whispered “yes” after I finally beat my new chess program, which prevented my demotion to monkey level.
Category: Fiction, Short Story, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing