Five Stars

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D. James Judge

“Put all the honey in the bag and no one gets hurt?”
Mrs. Ames squinted at the note one more time and placed it back on the counter. “That’s an odd request,” she said. She rested her silver-chained reading glasses on her blouse and frowned. “I can honestly say I’ve never met someone quite so serious about their honey.”
“Not honey, lady” he said, brandishing the unloaded gun. “Put the money in the bag.”
“Come now, no need for that.” She waved her hand and flashed an impish smile. “I’m just giving you a hard time. This is already a robbery. Let’s not make it worse by being uncivil.”
“Sorry,” he said, feeling a little confused. “I guess. Just, you know—”
“Put the money in the bag?” she said with a wink. “Now?”
“Yeah.” Then, meekly: “Thanks.”
“Of course.” she said. “Do be careful with that thing, though.”
He lowered the empty revolver. She might have a point. He was trying to be intimidating, not irresponsible.
He glanced briefly at the scrap of paper he’d torn from the back of his Volkswagen’s user manual, paused, and threw up his free hand in exasperation.
“OK. I see what you mean. The little curly at the beginning there does make it look like an ‘h.’” He crumpled the note and pocketed it. “I was driving at the time,” he explained.
“I was just ribbing you a bit. But . . . you know,” she said absently while collecting bills, “you probably didn’t need to bother with a note.”
He looked around. The small, old-fashioned store—part-floral, part-general—was empty save for the two of them. The permanent, barrel-chested musk of aged oak mixed with the nimble, perfumed brushstrokes of ephemeral flora. Canned goods, oil filters, potato chips and fishing lures; bacon, nails, birdseed and toilet paper. Charleston Chews swathed in thin coats of lazy dust.
And not a soul to overhear the goings on.
“You’re supposed to use a note,” he said, a bit defensively.
“Oh? I didn’t realize. Here you go.” She placed a thin stack of bills on the counter. “I don’t think you’ll be needing this,” she added, sliding the folded paper bag toward him.
He fanned out the bills. “You’re kidding. Fifteen, seventeen . . . twenty-two dollars?”
“I have a few dollars in change here, if you’d like.” She gestured at the open drawer. “Some people don’t like carrying that much change, but it spends the same, doesn’t it? I always carry extra change, in case I—”
“Quiet for a minute, please.” He thumped his palm against his forehead, empty gun pointed at the ceiling. “I need to think.” He scratched at his midsection, then chest. This wasn’t going the way he imagined.
“What have you got there?” she asked. “A rash?”
“What? Oh.” He stopped scratching. “Poison Ivy.”
“No! That’s too bad. I hate that stuff, don’t you?” She shook her head. “My husband used to find his way into it all the time. Here, I’ve got just the thing for it.”
“No, wait—” But she was already making her way down the long wooden counter. He was forced to watch and wait as she nudged open the knee-high swinging gate and shuffled to a tall shelf nearby. She selected a small white bottle with a pink label and made her way back.
“Here, this will dry those blisters up.” It was calamine lotion, just like his mother used to give him. She smiled gently. “Just try not to scratch. It only makes it worse.”
He sighed and leaned into the counter, resting the revolver against the coarsely grained oak, itching something terrible and determined not to show it again. “OK. How much for the lotion?”
“What do you mean?” she asked. “Just consider it part of the ‘take.’ Isn’t that what they call it?”
“No. I mean, yes they do. I think. But I’ll pay for the lotion.”
“But why—”
“I don’t accept charity,” he clarified.
“I’m sorry, but I don’t understand.”
He sighed: “You’re offering me something I need at no charge, right? That’s textbook charity, isn’t it?” To underscore his point, he pocketed the cash from the register, retrieved his wallet, and placed his Wells Fargo Visa card on the counter.
“This is a separate transaction entirely.”
“Oh, honestly—”
“Just ring it up,” he said, trying to sound menacing. Then, as an afterthought, he gestured at the countertop cooler behind her. “And maybe a Coke. Please.” Back to menacing: “And don’t forget to charge me for the bottle deposit.”
After signing the credit card slip, he fished the anemic stack of bills of out his pocket and slid it across the counter.
“I feel bad,” he explained. “You probably need that for giving change.”
“Bless your heart,” she said. “Next time, try later in the day.”
He pocketed the lotion and opened the Coke. “Listen. How did I do?” he asked, feeling sheepish. “I mean . . . if you had to rate your experience. Like, you know, out of five stars or whatever.”
“Well, to be honest, I’ve never been robbed before.” She chuckled. “But I would give you five stars for manners.”
“Thanks.” He removed the stifling bandana from his face and sipped from the tall glass bottle. “I’d give you five, too.”
“Well then, it appears we’ve both exceeded expectations. Just don’t forget to use that calamine!”
“I won’t. Thanks again.”
On his way out, he pushed the heavy wooden door halfway open and paused, calling back to the counter. “You’re not going to call the cops, are you?”
She looked around and shrugged. “For what?”
“Right. Have a good one, then.”
“You too!”


D. James Judge’s fiction has appeared in numerous literary journals, including Litro, The Boiler Journal, and Lunch Ticket. He lives in the Midwest with his wife and son.

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