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I stopped on the sidewalk and laughed as I turned to him with a forced smile. He grinned back through long, yellow, jumbled teeth, his salt-and-pepper beard stubble many days overgrown. He always wore the same grungy Phillies baseball cap to hide the greasy hair that I suspect he cleaned twice a month at best. For most Americans, after the culturally normative habit of showers seven days a week had almost universally down-graded to just three days a week, there quickly came a revival of the decades-dormant custom of wearing hats in public to cover less than perfect hair. Hat sales soared, and America witnessed a radical change to the uniforms of various professions. Nurses returned to wearing hair nets and pinned-on caps all day long, as did restaurant servers and some delivery people. Sales of body cleansers slumped while sales of cologne and perfume tripled. Meanwhile, Mr. Frazetti’s lack of hygiene was downright epic judging by the strength of his stench. He didn’t even try to cover it with cologne. I surmised early on in my dealings with him that he wasn’t simply being frugal in his failure to bathe, just flat out lazy.
“Sorry, Mr. Frazetti,” I shook my head, holding my nose from the inside, “not for 900 bucks. Like I said: only 300 o’ those coins were ever struck. They’re valuable.”
“Oh, come on, Pete!” he chided. “Those kinda’ coins, they’re not worth one penny more‘n their weight in gold. Only way to get the value out of ‘em is to melt ‘em down.”
He was referring to the last of my seven challenge coins. I’d already sold him the other six, but the seventh represented the final holdout in my desperate quest for cash. I shrugged and gave him my reply with the same sloppy urban grammar I’d employed my entire life: “If’a can’t get a decent price, wanna’ give it t’ my son one day.”
“I offered a decent price! But you think sentimental value translates to real value. But that’s not how it works with coins, ‘specially when you’re talkin’ ‘bout ones that weren’t real currency. Don’t matter if it was just 300. Only way the value of the sentiment can exceed the value of the gold’s if somebody famous was in your Army unit with you, like maybe somebody who became a rock star or somethin’. Did you have any congressmen or movie stars or Nobel Laureates in your squad with you in the Gulf War?”
Challenge coins enjoyed a long tradition in the United States armed forces. They were always custom designed to include not only the unit’s name but even its personality. So my team, called the Desert Rat Squad, had a great big grinning rat emblazoned on ours. The CO’s task of handing them out to team members was the military equivalent of gold stars from the teacher. They were not an officially endorsed aspect of American military procedure, but were unofficially encouraged as an excellent morale booster and an aid to team bonding. Beyond that they were ultimately a very expensive novelty --so expensive only individuals with lots of disposable cash could make them possible. Commissioned on a private basis with a stateside mint by more affluent members of a given squad, one minting of just a few hundred coins could easily cost thousands of dollars. The price only went up from there if their composition included real gold. Challenge coins didn’t have to be made with gold but they did need to have a little class. Most challenge coins from other units were merely plated with silver. But Captain Warren, a man who always had a mild whiff of money about him, forked over the extra to have ours made of 10 karat solid white gold. He was an awesome CO. And my teammates and I once speculated in full seriousness whether he might become president. After Jason was born, MK forbade me to tell him about my Army days, my former captain, and the seven tales behind each coin. But telling him one day was deeply important to me. And that was the official reason I gave Mr. Frazetti for my holding onto the last coin. The unofficial reason was I didn’t want to ever have to get stuck buying another war vet a drink.
“Nah,” I smiled, shaking my head and breathing through my mouth. “No congressmen. No movie stars. Just a buncha’ Army goons and one very cool commanding officer.”
“Then my offer stands,” He said. “Nine-hundred dollars. You better take it now while the price of gold is still high.”
“I’ll let ya’ know,” I laughed, then continued walking.
*** *** *** ***
A long time passed. During that time, as I shivered on the floor with that damned bag still on my head, I heard someone fiddling with their cell phone. I also heard the occasional snicker. Once I even heard a whisper of “Look at this,” which was answered with an affirming chuckle from a second man in the room. The cell phone fiddling continued.
The icy hard floor started making my legs and my ass numb. And then I started wondering about the time. It was Monday night so I was due at the shop tomorrow. How long before anyone missed me? How long before anyone called the police and reported me missing? Had anyone on the street or in a nearby window seen the men snatch me away? If so, would they even report it? And who the fuck were these assholes? Was I even the correct target of their black-bag specialty services?
*** *** *** ***
I arrived outside Hal’s right at eight and peered through the glass. Amid the mob of patrons I saw a variety of hats on both men and women. Hatless folks (like me) were a clear minority. But then I spied the backside of a dark brown hat that was soft and floppy looking. A small swirl of coral-colored velvet shape into a flower graced one side. Its wearer sat alone in a booth, clicking a Blackberry. I hovered, waiting for her to turn so I could view her face. As I waited I carefully slid my sunglasses off making sure never to avert my eyes from the hat and its wearer.
At last the waitress came to pour a glass of water, and the velvet hat pivoted to greet the water-pourer. I only caught Mystery Lady’s profile and only for a few moments, but that one glimpse was all I needed. She was far more than merely pretty --she was real. A slow smile of awe came to my face.
So many women from the ranks of American wealth in that era had disfigured themselves with a soulless enslavement to nip and tuck lies. That rampant epidemic of self-mutilation included bottled blonde hair, cantaloupe-sized breast implants, and liposuctioned states of skeletal emaciation. Deluded shadows of former womanhood, warped and ruined.
But not Mystery Lady.
Her dark hair shined, and although very short it still boasted a thick vibrance, just begging for a set of kind fingers to slide up the delicate nape of her neck into those generous handfuls of soft humanity. Her skin had a rich olive tone. And as I watched her talk to the waitress, the quiet grace of her gestures and head noddings evoked the same classiness so evident in her voice earlier. In those few moments I even witnessed her stand up briefly to remove a brown velvet jacket that matched the hat. And instead of a pair of silicon cantaloupes beneath her dark knit turtleneck, she sported a refreshing set of … reality.
A sweet, humming euphoria rose in my chest. And as long as I didn’t disengage the trance-like fixation of my eyes from the hat-wearer, my bliss would remain intact. I lingered in my gaze, nursing my buzz, deciding how to enter, imagining my triumphal and god-like arrival at her table would prompt a rapturous smile of ecstasy from her. But then I saw her reach forth her left hand to rest it upon the now-filled water glass. That’s when I caught the unmistakable glisten of a diamond ring.
My aspirations of godhood quickly deflated, and the humming euphoria gave way to a slow melancholy like the final wisps of an abandoned cigarette right as it burns itself out.
I sighed. Then I summoned all my professionalism, and with a cool casualness I entered the stuffy diner. Bracing myself against this new mix of colognes and perfumes now magnified by the added heat, I headed for her table, detached and aloof.
-------------------End of Chapter 2-b--------------------