The Great & Curious Holiday Penny Pincher
The first time Penny was pinched, she was on the men’s floor in a crowded department store mere days before Christmas. Dozens, if not hundreds, of shoppers were buzzing by her, heading to the registers or some clothing rack. She was looking for a particular type of tie for her boyfriend, Morris. It didn’t need to be a specific brand, pattern, or color; Penny was in fact searching for a tie of a specific length and width to suit her boyfriend’s occasionally obsessive-compulsive tendencies. He preferred his ties to stop precisely at the middle of his belt buckle when tied in a Windsor knot and insisted that the widest part of the tie be no wider than 2 3/4 inches.
Penny debated taking a measuring tape with her while Christmas shopping, but instead settled on the comfort of a 90-day return policy, though the gift receipt only afforded an exchange or store credit. Having settled on a sporty, name-brand, blue striped tie, Penny was prepared to venture down to the perfume section, wanting something for her mother, Trish. The scent selection required nearly the same precision as the tie. Though her mother appreciated a wide variety of fragrances, her step-father didn’t share such an appreciation. Penny’s mother’s only prerequisite for accepting perfume gifts was the promise that “they won’t make Zac gag.” Penny never quite realized that her predilection for dating picky men may have been inherited.
Before approaching the escalator, Penny stopped at a counter selling large, wooden nutcrackers; each one was meticulously sculpted and painted. The man behind the counter invited her to try one out, pointing to the bowl of walnuts on the counter. Having not eaten since lunch, Penny welcomed the opportunity to get something in her stomach. She placed a walnut in the mouth of one of the nutcrackers and pushed down on the lever on the figurine’s back, causing the walnut’s shell to shatter. While picking out the pieces of nuts, Penny thanked the man and moved on.
Finding the department store to be unusually warm, Penny decided to remove her scarf and navy pea coat. She’d already put away her gloves and wool cap upon entering the store, but eventually found the temperature within the department store increasingly uncomfortable. Immediately after removing her right arm from the coat’s sleeve, Penny felt it—the sudden and sharp sensation of a pinch. It could not have been an accident; it was no accidental bumping into a stranger. Someone must have deliberately latched onto a sliver of Penny’s left leg, just inches below her butt, and squeezed with the intent of inflicting pain.
Penny howled in pain and dropped her boyfriend’s tie as she attempted to rub away the stinging aftereffects of the pinch. Her eyes darted around the store, hoping to catch the offender looking back at her. She had no such luck. Shoppers scurried in different directions, all seemingly involved with their own shopping. Not a single one of them came off as a drive-by pincher. Penny thought of approaching a security guard and informing him or her about the incident, but concluded that that would accomplish little more than giving the rest of the security guards something to laugh about later that night. Even if the pincher was somehow caught on a store video camera, there was no telling if the person was still in the store; the pincher could have gotten into a car and been a mile or two away by now. With a sigh, Penny told herself to forget it and resumed her shopping.
Perhaps Penny would have forgotten about this pinching incident, had it not occurred again a short time later, after she exited the cab in front of her upper Upper East Side apartment building. Had it not been for the presence of a doorman, the building certainly would have qualified as “East Harlem,” though Penny hardly paid attention to such labels. She paid the cab driver a 35% tip, not in thanks for braving the icy roads and rush hour traffic, but because it was the default lowest tip amount offered on the touchscreen. The cab driver thanked her and offered to retrieve her shopping bags from the car’s trunk, but Penny insisted she could do it herself.
Just as Penny bent over to pull her bags from the trunk, she felt a pinch’s piercing sting, this time on her left arm, in that sensitive inner area on the outer limits of her armpit. Startled, Penny jumped, hitting her head against the top of the trunk. The accompanying thud and Penny’s own squeal of profanity prompted the cab driver to stick his head out the window and ask if everything was all right.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” Penny said, while simultaneously—and rather awkwardly—rubbing both her head and arm, an action seemingly more easily accomplished than rubbing one’s head and belly at the same time. Unlike the pinching in the department store, this one did not occur in the company of many people. Penny peered around, seeing no one except for the doorman standing in her building’s doorway. In the light layer of snow on the sidewalks, Penny saw no footprints. It was as though she was pinched by the wind, however improbable that was. She removed her bags and closed the trunk, allowing the cab driver to drive away.
“Good evening,” the doorman said, holding the door open for Penny as she approached.
“You didn’t happen to see anyone, did you, Raymond?” Penny asked him.
“Brandon,” he replied.
“I’m sorry, what?”
“My name is Brandon, ma’am. And, no, I didn’t see anyone,” he said.
“My apologies, Brandon. I don’t know why I thought it was Raymond. It must be that sort of night,” Penny said. “Pardon me.”
Taking all the bags in her left hand, Penny freed her right hand to press the elevator’s up button. She then spun around, expecting to catch someone immediately behind her, but the lobby was empty, other than Brandon, who stood by the door, watching the cars pass by.
Upon entering her apartment, Penny began to regret her decision to live alone for the first time in her life. Ever since she moved to New York City four years ago, she insisted on never having a roommate. Even when Morris suggested they had reached the point in their relationship when they could move in together, Penny refused. She enjoyed having a space to call her own. She was never afraid of being alone. But that began to change. The hissing of her radiator seemed louder, angrier; the creaks in her floor made more haunting. Tossing the shopping bags on the couch, Penny grabbed her telephone and dialed Morris’s number. Counting the rings, she prayed he’d pick up. When he didn’t, Penny left a message saying she’d be waiting outside his place for him to come home.
Hurrying outside, past Brandon the doorman, Penny stepped into the street to hail another cab. She caught one rather quickly and directed him toward Morris’s apartment, which was located fifteen blocks south. Already racked with anxiety, Penny screamed as she felt another pinch and leapt up in her seat, hitting her head on the cab’s ceiling. Unlike the previous two times, this instance was not a lone pinching. After the first one, she felt another, and another, and another. The painful sensation bounced from spot to spot across her body in rapid succession, like popcorn popping.
Penny squirmed about and shouted, “Dear God! Stop!” Agitated by her commotion, the cab driver slammed on the brakes and asked her to get out immediately. She was still 10 blocks from Morris’s apartment. In between yelps of pain, Penny tried to pay the cab driver, but he insisted she leave.
She stumbled, nearly falling over, as she exited the taxi. Hysterical, Penny ran down the street, sobbing as the pinching continued. To her, it felt as though a thousand invisible, disembodied hands were crawling around underneath her clothing, squeezing every inch of flesh they could get their fingers on. These small-scale attacks on her body persisted as she ran, like she was trapped in a nightmare that refused to end.
Penny appeared deranged to passersby, who watched her—red-faced and crying—as she seemed to run from a non-existent assailant. No one wanted to come to her aid. The spirit of the holidays did not make anyone want to stop Penny from running and ask if they could help. Instead, they stepped aside so she could run past them. Surely, each person who witnessed Penny’s flight would return home to recount the story to their loved ones, describing the sight of a frantic and crazed loon of a woman, leaving out, of course, their own lack of compassion toward the afflicted. Perhaps some would even check the following day’s paper to learn if what they saw had made the news.
She made it to Morris’s apartment building and rushed up into an open elevator, ignoring shouts to “hold on” from the doorman, who happened to be named Raymond. Penny smashed her hand against all the buttons in the elevator, unable to focus on finding the correct floor number. After a seemingly endless amount of time, the elevator opened on the 27th floor. Penny went left down the corridor, once again forgetting that Morris’s apartment was to the right. Turning herself around, she scrambled to apartment 27E and fished through her bag for her keys. Penny struggled while trying to unlock the door, with the rest of the keys on the ring clanging violently as her hand shook uncontrollably.
Finally succeeding in entering the apartment, Penny cried out for her absentee boyfriend. Her knees began to buckle and Penny collapsed to the ground. The persistent pinching pain—like lying on a bed of mouse traps—overwhelmed her, and soon she passed out. Not long after, Morris returned home to an open door and his girlfriend unconscious with a flushed and tear-stained face. He froze, unable to comprehend the situation. He was awakened from this debilitating shock by Raymond the doorman, who had been going floor by floor, looking for Penny ever since her abrupt and unannounced entry into the building.
Morris took Penny in his arms, swaying her gently and checking to see if she was breathing while Raymond called 911. Fortunately for all those involved, paramedics arrived quickly; the abundance of medical facilities on the Upper East Side greatly reduced response time on most days. A pair of EMTs joined Morris and Raymond in the apartment, asking for space as they examined Penny. One rolled up her sleeve to check her pulse and was surprised to see her skin was inflamed and swollen. Examining her stomach revealed more of the same; her skin color was not unlike a cooked lobster. Not wanting to waste any more time, the EMTs whisked Penny away to the hospital.
Penny woke up in the hospital a few hours later. Her vision was blurred at first, but soon she made out the sight of Morris, shaken and worried, sitting in a chair in the corner of the room. Seeing her regain consciousness, Morris urged her to be still and stepped outside to notify a nurse. Returning to her side, he told her everything would be okay. He took hold of her hand; the irritation of her skin had already begun to subside. It was still red and swollen, but Penny felt no pain as Morris softly ran his fingers over her palm. Moments later, the doctor who treated her joined them. In a joking, though vaguely inappropriate manner, he said, “You gave us all quite a scare, Penny.” Still drowsy, Penny simply nodded her head.
“Fortunately, we were able to get your medical history from your physician,” the doctor continued. “I know he said it before, but I’m going to say it again. It’s absolutely essential that you mind your walnut allergy.”
Randall is an I&C contributor and is most recently the author of The Mini Book of Mini Darts: The Book, the Boards, the Darts, and 43 Games
You can find more info on Randall and his other killer works HERE