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A Copy for Mrs. K



           Saturdays used to be quiet at the copy shop—but that’s all changed now. Ever since Mrs. K started coming by, every Saturday has become the same strange, portentous ritual.

           I pull myself out of bed around seven, eat some toast and slug some coffee, and still have plenty of time to walk over and open the store by nine. It’s April now, so the mornings are still a bit cool. When I hit the road, the streets and trees are all damp from the fog that rolls in every night. The sun just barely peeks through low in the sky and makes slanted shadow versions of everything.

           When I get to the shop keys-in-hand, I realize the door is ajar.

           “Hello?” I say. “Anyone in here?”

           A loud crash comes from the back of the store like someone has just dropped some pots and pans.

           “Jesus Christ, Ronnie, you scared the crap out of me!” says a voice from behind a counter. I walk closer and there is Jeb standing over a metal ladder that has just fallen over and there is a mess of supplies all over the floor.

           “Sorry, Jeb” I say. “What the hell are you doing here, though? It’s Saturday.”

           Jeb picks up the ladder, repositions it, and ascends it with some light bulbs clutched under his arm. “Yeah I know it’s Saturday, but didn’t you hear? All of the lights back here haven’t been working and they asked if I would come in early and try and figure it out. Is it nine already?”

           I nod. I look around the store: It is a small copy shop with copy machines lined up single file along a wall with large windows. Next to the machines are long counters with supplies like tape and staplers scattered across them. The rest of the store is a mix of various shelves loaded with papers and cards and other junk people love to buy. Jeb is working on the light fixtures over the area with post office boxes that customers rent out. I sneak by his ladder and hand him light bulbs as he tinkers around up there.

           “Hey Jeb,” I say to the legs that hang out of the ceiling. “What are you copying?”

           The copy machine farthest in the corner is buzzing and spitting out long sheets of paper with something green printed all over them.

           “Oh! Just my latest idea.” says a voice from inside of the ceiling. “Hand me those wire cutters down there, will ya?”

           I send up the wire cutters. “You’re going to pay for this idea, right?” I say.

           Jeb laughs and looks down at me from the hole in ceiling grinning a big toothy grin. “It’ll pay for itself—don’t you worry.”

          Worried, I don’t bother asking any other questions. If I’m lucky, I’ll make it out of here without Jeb burning down the place.

          There usually aren’t many customers making copies early on a Saturday, so I often just put on some music and watch people through the big windows as they ride their bikes or whatever. Today, I get bored of that quickly and start to straighten up the store to pass the time. I bring out the vacuum and suck up the stray staples and circles of paper that have been punched out onto the floor, and then I open up new reams of blank paper and load them into the copy machines. Lastly, I top off each machine with black, chalky toner that dusts my hands and stamps copies of my fingerprints across the counters.

           I finish my duties at about a quarter to eleven and sit down next to the cash register. It still looks cold outside and there still haven’t been any customers. As if Jeb knew what I was thinking, he chimes in, “you think she’ll come by again today?”

           I swivel around in my chair to look over at him. I know perfectly well who he is talking about, but I pretend like I don’t for whatever reason. 

           “Who’s coming by? What are you talking about?” I say.

           “That lady,” Jeb says. “Mrs. K, right? You’re always saying that she comes in here every Saturday morning. Do you think she’s coming again today?”

           I take a pen from off of the counter and start to toss it into the air over my head. “Yep. You could set your watch by her,” I say.

           Jeb has finished working on the lights over the back counter and is now resting with his arms crossed underneath freshly humming light bulbs. He looks excited.

           “And every time she brings the same stuff?” Jeb says.

           “Every time,” I say.

           I throw my pen too high and it lands somewhere across the store. Too lazy to go find it, I grab another pen from a jar next to the register and start tossing it into the air.

           At just about eleven on the nose, a little old lady hurries down the sidewalk towards the store. Short silver hair frames her square face. Her pale skin is wrinkled and spotted and I can see her mouth moving—she must be talking to herself. She shuffles quickly down the path, hunched over and shoulders pushed forward. She’s wearing a big red coat that almost swallows her, a purse that dangles from her elbow, and she clutches an oversized black folder that is barely holding onto all of the papers that are stuffed inside of it. Her tiny spotted ankles poke out from the bottom of her coat and slip into dirty brown slippers that she pushes along like ice skates. As she nears the door to the shop, I can start to hear her mumblings.

           “What a crazy old bag!” Jeb says.

           I watch her yank the door open using all of her weight. The bells that hang off the door clang together announcing her entrance. Once through the entryway, she hobbles to a table next to a copy machine and drops her things onto it.

           “Oh my, this morning!” She exclaims. “There’s so much I am need! This thing, that thing, and then, there’s this!” 

           She pulls out a small comb from her purse and holds it in the air like she’s holding a sword. “I tell you, I know it is, not enough time in our hours and not.”

             Even though Jeb is behind me, I swear I can see him grinning ear-to-ear as he watches Mrs. K.

           “Barbaro!” she exclaims.

           “More Barbaro?” I reply.

           She opens her large black portfolio and torn-out magazine pages and newspaper clippings with images of a horse ride currents of air to the floor.

           “It’s always more Barbaro,” I mumble to myself—feeling more annoyed than anything else. 

           I grab a copy key from off of the register and walk it over to activate Mrs. K’s copy machine. When I plug the key into the machine, the ticker on the front winds back to zero and the machine lights up with life.

           “Tax season!” Mrs. K shouts at me. “And ya’ know what that is and see?”

           “What is it?” I say.

           “Time to get all of your records in a duck, in a row, it is! And then the derby and Barbaro on the racing track and, and, oh I just am love Barbaro! I’ve seen all of him races!”

           She’s glowing with excitement. She dances, hums a frantic tune, and gathers up loose pages of horse pictures into various stacks. She hands me a stack and I automatically turn to prep the machine. Not surprised, I realize that they are the same pages that I copy every week.

           From across the store, Jeb mouths: “who’s Barbaro?” He’s really enjoying this whole thing. Annoyed, I don’t answer him.

           “How many of this one?” I say, holding up the first page of the stack. It’s a magazine page with a picture of dark brown horse mid-stride rounding the bend of a racetrack. Above the horse, a headline reads: “He did it!”

           “Six!” Mrs. K barks.

           “Six commin’ right up,” I say.

           With the magazine page face down on the glass of the copy machine, I hit the green start button. Gears spin, wheels turn, and the tube underneath the plate of glass fluoresces bright green and zips across the width of the magazine page six times. On the side of the machine, out pop six black-and-white copies of the horse and they all fall neatly into a stack.

           “And this?” I say, holding up the next one. It’s an obituary for Barbaro. Columns of text frame a speckled picture of the horse walking in an open field. 

           Mrs. K hardly even looks up before she says: “two!”

           I hit the green button. Two speckled Barbaros pop out the side.

           The next few clippings are small, so I position them in a way to copy them all together onto a single page.

           “How many of––”

           “What’s your name? I know I know your name before, hmmm?”  

           I’m surprised; Mrs. K stands so close to me that I am nervous. Her pupils are tiny black dots, her irises are speckled blue and gray and looked fogged over, and the whites of her bulging eyes are blotchy and yellow. The rims of her eyelids are violently red and deep fissures in her waxy skin swirl around her eye sockets. 

           I finally spit it out: “I’m Ronnie.”

           Mrs. K looks at me plainly, “Ah—Lonnie.”

           “What? No, Ronnie,” I tell her. “Ronnie.”

           She looks upset. “That’s what I said! Ronry.”

           I realize that I can’t be bothered and try to get back to the copies, but Mrs. K pulls a pencil from out of her purse and shoves it over to me.

           “Write it out, your name, write it out an I’ll get it time this right. I always get it right. I am, see?”

           “Write it out, Ronry!” Jeb says from the back of the store smiling.

           Annoyed, I take her pencil and write my name on a scrap of paper. “See? ‘Ronnie’,” I say. 

           Mrs. K looks intently my name spelled out on the paper. After a moment, her expression warms and she exclaims, “Ah! Rik Rock!”

           “Forget it,” I mumble.

           “Rik Nock, help me and the copies, all of them to be copied and then there’s this is that. All of them, copied.”

           With a perfunctory smack of the green button, I start some more copies and the ticker on the copy key keeps on winding up.

           This goes on for almost an hour and then the bell on the front door rings and two more customers enter the store. The first to enter is a young man in a black leather jacket. I greet him, he greets me. He walks over to a shelf and starts sifting through some pens and other office supplies. I’ve seen him before—and every time he’s always doing the same thing. He’ll spend forever looking at pens and writing letters over in corner of the store. Who knows what he’s writing on and on about.

           The second customer is a thin woman dressed in a grey suit. She wears thin metal glasses that rest above her sharp cheeks and nose. She clutches a manila folder tightly in her hands as she crosses the store. She walks right past me in a purposeful pace back towards where Jeb is standing and starts filling out shipping forms. Jeb straightens his posture and finally wipes off that smirk that he’s had on his face all morning.

           Mrs. K isn’t distracted at all by the new customers, and rattles off a few more orders for me at the copier.

           “This one, this here. Do five,” she says pointing at a stack.

           “Mrs. K, we’ve done these ones, see?” I say, flipping to the identical pages in her pile of copies. “I think we’re done here for today.”

           She looks at the duplicates incredulously. She grabs the stack of copies and carelessly shoves them into her large black folder. She quickly sifts through some of her clippings and pulls out another page about Barbaro. “All alright, alright, one more and that’s one’s the last finished,” she says.

           She hands the page over to me—we’ve already copied this one, too. Annoyed, I copy it again.

           When I pull the copy key, the machine falls back asleep.

           “233 copies,” I say. About the usual.

           Mrs. K grabs her things and shuffles over to the register knocking a stapler and ruler off of a table in the process. I see both the man in the leather jacket and the woman with thin metal glasses turn and watch the whole mess go on. I don’t bother trying to explain.

           At the back of the store, the woman with thin metal glasses waves her documents around in the air and says to Jeb, “these must be in New York by nine a.m. Monday. Okay? Nine a.m. or they’re worthless, got it?”  

           Jeb punches some keys on a computer and whistles a tune of surprise. “I can do Monday, but it ain’t gonna’ be cheap. It’s Saturday, and all.”

           The women slides her documents into a shipping envelope and seals it. She fishes out a pen and oversized checkbook from her jacket pocket and says, “I’m in a hurry. How much?”

           “How much?!” Mrs. K barks at me. She’s rifling through her little purse that clangs with loose change with one eye on me.

           I turn back to Mrs. K and apologize for drifting off. I look down at the copy key that’s in my hand and read the counter: 233. I realize what this means and a great wave of pity moves through me. She’s here every week. 233 copies of a horse to add to 233 other copies of a horse stacked in some corner of her little home. Piles and piles of some dead horse that, at some time, trotted and lived but now is just dead and is just black dots on some white page. I can just see the piles of this horse strewn about some living room, some table, some kitchen—each stack marking a week of Mrs. K’s delirium like the rings in the trunk of a tree. Her apartment just waiting to be cut down, cut open, and then counted so that everybody can learn how long she carried on her ritual. It’s depressing.

           The register flashes her total: $34.45. I hit a key and it vanishes.

           “Mrs. K, these are on the house today.”

           Flattered, her face lights up and untwists from its usual square shape.

           “Oh! No no no, let me and I’ll, you’ll see I’ll the money! So nice, but I am, see.”

           “I insist.” I say.

           “Oh, my, no no no!” she says, pointing at the copy key.

           “You’re one of our best customers, Mrs. K. Please.”

           She’s blushing a little, but puts her hands up in protest and points to the register.

           At that moment, the woman with thin metal glasses comes rushing up to us with her giant check ready to pay. I watch her peer at Mrs. K and then at the pages and pages of horse ankles that peek out from the bottom of Mrs. K’s black folder.

           With Mrs. K still insisting to pay, I hit a few more buttons and the register flashes a new total. I say out loud in a tone of fake concession, “Okay then, since you insisted, you’re total comes to $2.16 today. Will that be cash or card, Mrs. K?”

           Mrs. K takes her hand and rakes it through her tiny purse. She clutches something and pulls it out clasped tightly in her fist. Her bony fingers are draped with thin, wrinkled skin that is pitched up over swellings at each of her knuckles. She loosens her grasp and in it I see a crumpled-up rectangular piece of paper covered in bright green ink. The border of the paper is blank, but just within it is an ornate maze of lines that frame block type printed in shades of green and gray. There’s a circular seal stamped on a one side of the paper that overlays tall, seriffed ones and zeros that are exaggerated by their narrow stroke. Below the seal there is a green line of code comprised of numbers and letters, and above it there is thick, tightly-kerned text that runs together into a single unreadable shape. In the center of the paper is an oval frame that looks like a halo around a head of hair capping an expressionless face. The design is immediately familiar, but the paper is so clumsily bent sitting in Mrs. K’s palm that it is hopelessly a forgery.

           “Oh. This will and pay it, hmm?” she says.

           The counterfeit bill hangs there stiffly for a moment. 

           I look up and scan Mrs. K’s expression for any indication that this is some kind of a joke. I look, but there’s nothing there and I realize that she is completely unaware of the prop in her hand. But then, where did it come from?

           Suddenly, it dawns on me and I can’t help but laugh at myself. So that’s what Jeb was printing. When did he slip it into her bag? How many other hundreds did he print off? Even with Jeb at the back of the store, I swear I can see his toothy grin—what a comedian.

           Embarrassed, I quickly take the fake bill, open the register, and slide it into the cash drawer to hide it. A receipt inches out and I tear it free.

           “Alright, Mrs. K, thanks a lot. You have all of your copies?”

           She stares blankly at the receipt in her hand not budging. “And my change?” she says without a stammer.

           “Your change?” I say.

           “My change. My ninety-seven and dollars, see?”

           “But Mrs. K, you never––”

           “I gave you and hundred?”

           “But the hundred––”

           “You gave him a wad of paper, lady!” the woman with thin metal glasses cuts in. “Look, can you just ring me up real fast? I don’t have time for this.”

           “Now wait and someone, I want my money isn’t see?!” Mrs. K shouts. “My ninety-and-sev seven dollars!”

           They woman with thin metal glasses steps back from Mrs. K and looks at me with her sharp expression.

           “Mrs. K, the bill you gave me was a fake. It’s not real money, it’s just regular paper that was printed to look like money. But that’s okay, just take your copies, I’m not charging you this time anyway. I really don’t––”

           “SOMEBODY HELP ME! I’M AM IT ROBBED!” she screams at the top of her lungs, frantically looking for someone to intervene.

           “Oh, Jesus Christ!” the women with thin metal glasses mutters, “just put her bill on my tab, I’ll pay for it, and let her go. She doesn’t get it.”

           Jeb comes up to us holding back a smirk, “Now look here, Mrs. K, we’re not just giving you ninety bucks for nothing––”

           “Jeb, you’ve done enough.”

           “I already money and paid! I want my change back!” Mrs. K shouts.

           “Fine!” I shout.

           Fed up, I grab the crumpled, fake bill and shove it back over to Mrs. K on the counter. The stupid thing just sits there frozen.

           “Mrs. K, just take it all. Your money’s no good here. Thanks, and I’ll see you next week.”

           Mrs. K is silent and looks contemptuously at the fake bill. She clenches her jaw and I can see her temples flex underneath her wiry grey hair. She looks up with a venomous expression at each of the pairs of eyes that watch her and none of us say a word. I’m so angry with her though I don’t even care.

           But then, somewhere in her scowl flashes the faintest admission of humiliation and sadness and it is just perceivable enough, and so potent, that it wrenches my gut the instant I see it. It’s not fair, is it? How long has she been subjected to this? The cruelty of her fleeting lucidity washes over me and it makes me sick. Slowly, I see Mrs. K’s anger waver and tears fill and overflow from the wells of her grey eyes.

           “You people are thieves,” she says to me clearly. “All thieves.”

           Mrs. K grabs her things, walks out of the store, and marches out of site down the sidewalk. The fake bill remains crooked on the counter.

           The store is quiet for a moment.

           “She’s a piece of work,” says the lady with thin metal glasses.

           Jeb walks up and scoops the fake bill into his hand examining it closely. “Sorry about that,” he says. “I had to do it.”

           Still looking at the spot where Mrs. K vanished as she walked away, I don’t say anything.

           Jeb reaches over the counter and pats me on the shoulder. “You okay, man?” he says.

           I nod.

           “You’ll see her next Saturday, right? She won’t even remember.”

           “Right,” I say.

           I ring up the lady with thin metal glasses and send her on her way. The man in the leather jacket soon approaches the register with his half-used pens and some overstuffed envelope. He mumbles something about “the old lady” and “the situation” and then leaves out of the door and the bells clang. 

           I decide to leave work early and let Jeb man the store for the rest of the day. Outside, there are people everywhere enjoying their Saturday now that the fog has cleared and it’s finally warming up. As I’m walking, I see a little girl pick up a piece of paper that’s been left on a bench. In the middle of the page is a familiar, speckled picture of Barbaro mid-trot.

           “Mommy, it’s a horse!” the little girl says as she tugs at her mother standing next to her.

           “Yes, it’s a horsy,” the mother replies.

           The little girl flaps the image of Barbaro through the air just high enough for me to see. For a moment, it looks like he’s racing, resolute, and alive.  ■

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