Luigi Manco had made three laps of the store. Checking his pulse each time. And each time passing the heart monitor. To see if it was vacant. It was not. The same little man, Melvin Philips, sat there. His arm in the embrace of the monitor. There were a pile of small papers, print outs from the monitor, piling up in his lap.
Melvin Philips was an odd sort of fellow. He had been born on February 29 and only counted his age by the number of birthdays that had passed. He was almost 50 before he stepped into a bar. With false identification. Never got his driver’s license. Hadn’t dated because he thought all the women he met were too old for him. Did a lot of research on cougars. Mean cats. Eat you alive. Melvin’s whole life was built on this peculiar decision about his birthday. Odd that no one set him straight.
Luigi stopped in front of the heart monitor. He wanted to set Melvin straight.
“When do you think you’ll be finished?” Luigi asked. Better to start off polite. You can leave the brass knuckles until all else fails.
Melvin looked up proudly. “I was here first.” Melvin felt a little like the first men on the moon. He remembered Neil Armstrong stepping off the space ship onto the moon. And making his famous speech. Melvin thought the speech was superfluous. Didn’t even sit back in an easy chair and have a cigar. Melvin felt that if you were someplace first, it was yours. Why hadn’t they named the moon after Armstrong? They could have called it, Neil.
Luigi nodded humbly. Better to start your voice nice and low. Quiet. You can always blow your enemy away when all else fails.
“I know that, sir. I wasn’t trying to rush you.”
“Of course you were,” Melvin responded. A small smile slithered across Melvin’s tiny lips. They’d once been larger. But he had sliced them half off when he had attempted to shave a moustache. He didn’t want to look old for his age.
Luigi looked at the little man. Was he a midget? Or just short? Luigi himself was no giant but could have passed off as one next to Melvin.
“No, sir,” Luigi responded remembering his classes at the heart rehabilitation centre where they were taught to let things go. Go with the flow, nurse Henderson preached. So Luigi practiced to relax, not to get bent out of shape over every little thing in life. Smell the roses, nurse Henderson proclaimed. My that woman like to proclaim.
“I was not trying to rush you, sir. It’s just that I have to get back to my restaurant and I thought it might be a good idea to see how the old ticker was doing. You see, I had a heart attack last fall and I’m trying to keep a handle on it.”
The monitor began to squeeze on the little man’s arm. Melvin winced. It looked like the machine might crush Melvin’s limb.
“That is very wise,” Melvin said. Tears welled up in his eyes. “Did you have open heart surgery?”
Luigi shook his head. “I had an angio-plasty. They put this stint in my valve.”
Melvin looked confused. “What’s a stint?”
Luigi explained the intricacies of his heart attack and his rehabilitation. As he did the monitor released Melvin’s arm. Melvin smiled a sigh. A moment later the machine released its finding. A small piece of paper slipped out and fell into Melvin’s lap.
“So how does it look?” Luigi asked.
Melvin picked up the piece of paper.
“Same as last time.”
“Well, there you go,” Luigi said.
The little man hit the button on the machine. Once again the monitor squeezed Melvin’s arm. Once again Melvin winced.
Luigi’s face grew red.
“Why did you do that?” His voice had begun to climb that ladder. That ladder toward anger. Light headedness. Pain in his shoulder. Difficulty in breathing.
“Do what?” Melvin asked, his face in obvious pain. He was losing feeling in his fingers.
“Push that button.” Luigi’s face was turning red. “You knew it was my turn.”
“No, it wasn’t.”
“Yes, it was.”
“I was here first.”
“But you were finished.”
Melvin looked at Luigi. The smile had left his face. Melvin’s arm was beginning to swell.
“I don’t think so.” The grip of the machine was beginning to subside. Melvin sighed.
Luigi stared at the little man. He considered going for his throat. Relax, a little voice in his head kept whispering. Another voice in Luigi’s head responded. Don’t tell me to fucking relax!
“You’re not really sure why you’re here, are you?” Luigi asked.
“Do you have high blood pressure?” Luigi asked.
The little man shook his head.
“Do you have any history of heart disease in your family?”
Once again the little man shook his head.
“Do you have any heart problems?”
“No,” the little man confessed. “I’m too young.”
“Then why are you using this heart monitor?” Luigi asked, the veins in his face ready to explode.
Melvin looked down at the ground. He was thinking. Then he looked up at Luigi.
“Because,” he said, “it’s free.”