It was late and I was hungry after a 14-hour flight back to flyover country from the west coast. It was close to 2am, though, so all the restaurants were closed and the only option was a cold sandwich or rotisserie horror from one of the gas stations. I wouldn’t have bothered, but it was a further 90-minute drive from the airport to home. The joys of working at a relatively rural magnet school, I suppose: you can afford to go to conferences but pay a price in fatigue.

I pulled into the least seedy-looking station, one of the Gas n’ Guzzle chain. The clerk didn’t acknowledge me, being behind bulletproof glass and with a bleeping iPhone besides. The cold sandwiches all looked like they had been manufactured during the Truman administration, but there were some appetizing-looking hot pockets and pizza slices under the klieg lights. I grabbed a hot pocket that was in an easy-eat cardboard sleeve (figuring that the calories would mostly be burned off by the stress of late-night driving) and a bag of chips; I still had half a Diet Coke in the car, so there was no need for a drink (the Coke had been purchased at the extortionate airport price of $4, so I was determined to see it to the last drop.

The clerk, looking bored, rang up the purchases on my debit card without a word. I signed the receipt she thrust at me and was about to leave when she thumped down a big paper fountain drink cup.

“What’s that?” I said.

“For your drink.” All this time, the clerk hadn’t looked up from her iPhone, doing everything else by rote.

“I didn’t order a drink.”

“It’s part of the combo meal, ma’am.” Still not looking up, the clerk tapped a sign.

I looked at the receipt and did a little quick mental arithmetic–I am a math/science teacher after all. The combo meal was a good deal if you got a loaded hot dog or pizza slice, but for the hot pocket–half the price–and potato chips–50 cent offbranders–the extra cost same to nearly five dollars. “I didn’t order a combo meal,” I said, feeling the sting of another sugarwater ripoff.

“Yes you did.”

“No, I didn’t!” I cried. “How could I have ordered the combo meal? You and I didn’t say a single word until a second ago!”

“You asked for the combo meal and I gave it to you.” Eyes still riveted on the iPhone.

“No I didn’t. I have a drink in the car and I don’t need another.” I thrust my debit card at the clerk. “Take it off.”

Those iPhone-engrossed eyes, still downward cast. “Sorry, ma’am. I can’t do refunds without a manager.”

“Get a manager, then. I’ll wait.”

“No manager here after 2am. They don’t come in until 7.”

I could feel a vein in my forehead beginning to throb. “Just give me the difference in cash from the register,” I said.

“Can’t open the register unless you make a purchase, and if I take money out the total will be wrong and I’ll get written up.”

I squeezed my potato chips so hard that the bag popped and hissed out all the air. “What am I supposed to do then?”

The clerk–who had not made eye contact with me and appeared dead-set on never doing so–tapped the paper cup she’d set out. “Get a fountain drink.”

That was it. I hate to be the customer from hell, but sometimes one has no other option. I snatched the cup, filled it with Coke, and dug in my purse. There was no need for a lid or straw.

I returned to the counter, with the clerk iPhoning safe and smug behind the glass, with only a small depression just big enough for a paper cup underneath for unwanted combo drinks and the exchange of money. Crinkling the cup into a rough pitcher, I poured the contents into that trough.

“Hey…!” The clerk was trying to make eye contact with me now, wasn’t she? But I wasn’t done. I produced the mints that I always keep in my purse–half a roll of Mentos–and tossed them into the newly-formed soda moat. I left before the sputtering soda pop explosion had fully engulfed the counter in a sticky mess.

And that, children, is why science and math teachers are not to be trifled with.

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