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Friday, October 05, 2007

Dinner Alone

Category: Issue 8, Short Story Winners

I was stealing things from work, small things—nothing really—packs of gum, pens, lighters, and one night a Weekly World News.  I was stealing because it was something to do and that was what I needed.  Sneaking what I stole back into the store was something else to do and it made me feel better, so I did that too.
The newspaper was a mistake.  The headline caught my eye: World’s Smallest Mermaid Speaks.  I held the paper under my arm and walked out of the store.  I read the article in my car in the store parking lot.  A guy in Montana found her in a tin of sardines.  He was keeping her in a fish bowl while he fought the legal battle to make her his wife.  There were pictures of the mermaid in a bowl with a castle and little rocks at the bottom.
I never used the other things I stole.  I took them home and put them on my dresser with my keys and wallet.  Bags of M&M’s, melted Snickers, packs of Trident.  They’d sit there until I got ready for work and shoved them back in my pockets.  They brought me no joy, no anxiety.  They were nothing, like everything else in my apartment.
When I read the World News I felt like I was using something.  Sitting in my truck, I felt like a criminal.  After I snuck the paper into the store I stuck to stealing small things I wouldn’t use.

The night Macaulay Culkin came through my lane, I was sneaking batteries back into the store.  I had four packages—triple A’s—in my pockets.  They were heavy and bounced against my leg as I made my way towards my register.  I was on eight and Connie was on nine, the express lane.
“Hey, you,” she said.
“Hey,” I said.
She was seventeen and chubby.  She twirled batons but was embarrassed by it.  She had told me on a slow night when instead of ringing up customers she decided we should open up to each other.  First she told me about the batons and then I realized I had nothing to tell her.  I said that on most days I saw myself working in the store for the rest of my life.  She frowned and looked more upset than I felt.
I got to register eight and put on my apron.  I entered my four digit code and turned on the lane indicator.
“What’d you do last night?” Connie asked.
There were no customers and Wendy, the manager, was off somewhere in the store.  I stuck my hands in my pockets and held the batteries.
“I worked late,” I said.
“Oh,” she said.
“What’d you do?”
“It was a school night, I had studying to do.”
“That’s cool,” I said. 
I meant it.  For a moment I wanted something to study.  I missed the panic of it.  I missed the feeling that I was working for something.  I’d been done with high school and studying for five years and when I was there I hated it all.
“If you close every night when do you get to party?” Connie asked.
I sighed and looked around for customers.  A mother with two small children and a cart full of macaroni and milk went to Derek on lane two.  There were no other shoppers.
In Connie’s mind I was living the life.  I was old enough to buy alcohol and old enough to have my own place.  In Connie’s mind my only problem was finding the time for all the partying I was responsible for.
I never told Connie I didn’t drink.  I never told her that I couldn’t because I spent too much time alone and knew people were always saying that was what alcoholics did.  I didn’t tell her I had no one to drink with.  The way she frowned when I said I never saw myself leaving the store was awful.  I didn’t want to make her frown again.
“I get by,” I said.  I could hear Derek’s register beep as he rang up the mother’s groceries.
“Yeah, I guess you have to pay for all of that fun somehow.”
Connie’s hair was frizzy and brown.  She pulled it back tightly so that it was flat and straight on her scalp and then exploded into a pony tail behind her.  I liked it because it showed off her face and Connie had a lot of face to show.  Her thick round cheeks and the curve of her forehead all shone in the store’s artificial lighting and made me happy. 
Three teenage boys came through my line.  Two were dressed in ties, proving that any article of clothing could look sloppy with the right attitude.  Each carried a twenty-four pack of toilet paper.  They smirked as I rang up each pack and gave them a total.  The boy without a tie handed me a twenty.  He had long, unwashed hair, and sunglasses.
“What in the world are you doing with those?” Connie asked.
“Wiping a whole lot of asses,” said the one in sunglasses.  The group burst into laughter.  For a moment I wanted to shove the change down the kid’s throat.  I wanted to break his teeth and make him bleed.  Then I saw Connie laughing and realized I was the only one left out.  It made me feel better.
“Thanks,” I said, handing the kid his change.  “And have a great night.”
“Yeah, you too,” he said, as each boy grabbed a package.  They left the store laughing.
“People are crazy,” Connie said.

Wendy sent Connie for a lunch break and I put my hands in my pockets.  I still had the batteries and they seemed to weigh more as the night went on.  Every time I leaned forward to hand a customer change, the counter pushed the packages into my thighs.
“I’m going to go get something to eat,” Connie said.  “You want anything?”
“No,” I said.  I’d been ringing up food for three hours and hunger was the furthest thing from my mind and stomach.
“All right, I’ll see you in a bit.”
“Have a nice break.”
Connie left and I looked towards Derek on lane two.  He noticed me and shrugged.  There were no customers and he looked confused.  Wendy had wandered back off into the store.
I turned the indicator off on my register and walked to the small display of batteries.  I took the packages from my pockets and placed them neatly on their hooks.  A package of D batteries had fallen to the ground.  I put it back in its place.  I was done with the batteries.  As always it was too easy and I ended up disappointed. 
I thought about going down to Derek but had nothing to say.  Instead I made my way to my register thinking of what I’d steal that night.
I turned on my indicator and waited for a customer.

He looked around before coming to my line.  He stood at the end of the freezer aisle and scanned the front of the store.  Derek was asking for an ID from a big guy looking to buy cigarettes, Connie was gone, and I was trying to decide what to steal.
Macaulay Culkin was buying a frozen dinner, Salisbury steak with a green and orange mix of pea and carrot-flavored balls.  There was no one in my line and he put the dinner on the conveyer.  Connie had been on her half hour break for thirty four minutes.
The dinner surprised me, although not as much as Macaulay’s beard—if it even counted as one.  There was a sparse scattering of rough copper patches of hair across his face.  I tried to think of the last time I’d seen him.  How old had he been?  How old had I been?
“Will this be all?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said.  “That’s it.”
The register beeped as I scanned the dinner.  Macaulay drummed on the counter.  I wondered why he was here, so far away from anything and everything.
“I liked that movie with you and Ted Danson.”
“What?” he asked, looking up from his drumming hands.  “Oh no, I’m not him.”
“Oh, sorry.”
“Don’t worry about it.  I get that all the time.”
The register said $6.77.  He looked at the screen and stopped drumming. 
“It’s going to be $6.77,” I said.
“The sign said it was only $4.99.” 
He looked around but there was no one in the store for him to see.  Derek’s customer had left with his cigarettes.  Derek stood at his register looking vacant.
“That’s only for preferred customers.  Are you a preferred customer?”
“I don’t know.”
“Do you have a card?”
“No, I’ve never been in this store.”
“Then you aren’t a preferred customer and your total is $6.77.”
He reached into the pocket of his jeans and for the first time I noticed what he was wearing.  His jeans were dark and frayed and he wore a dark blue sweatshirt—the zip-up kind—with a hood and a big pocket.  He pulled out a cheap Velcro wallet and a wadded bill.  He spread the bill out on the counter.  It was a damp looking five.
“All I have is a five,” he said.
“It’s $6.77.”
“Is there any way for me to get the preferred price?”
“Sure.  I just need your name and address.”
“Never mind.”
Connie was back at her register.  She chewed on something as she tied her apron.  She smiled at me and looked at my customer.  She stopped chewing, her eyes wide.  I shook my head.  Her eyes got wider.  I shook my head again.
“I’ll pay with this,” he said, handing me a credit card.
The card had the image of a beach sunset on it.  There was a seagull and a Visa logo.  The name Macaulay Culkin was raised in the plastic.  The card expired in two months.  The signature on the back was worn out.
“Don’t make a big deal about it,” he said.
“I need to see ID with this,” I said.
“What?”
I looked towards Connie’s register but she was gaping at Macaulay.  She hadn’t seen me shake my head and didn’t need me to tell her I’d been wrong.  She knew who he was.  She’d forgotten to turn on her lane indicator.
“The signature on the back is worn out,” I said, flipping the card so that Macaulay could see the space where his signature was supposed to be.  “I need to check your ID.”
“But you knew who I was when I came in.  You liked Getting Even With Dad.”
“Was that the Ted Danson movie?”
“Yeah.”
“You guys had matching mullets.”
“We just had long hair, not mullets.”
His hair was short now, and parted on the side.  Despite the mess of facial hair and bad clothing he still had the hair of a child star.
“I still need to see your identification.”
“You’re a shit head.”
“And you told me you weren’t him.  Now you’re paying with his credit card.”
He fumbled with his wallet before ripping the Velcro open.  His driver’s license was in a clear plastic sleeve, the plastic stuck to the license’s faded surface.  He struggled to get it out before shoving the wallet in my face.
“You know, you don’t go to my movies looking for me to give you a hard time,” he said.
It was a New York driver’s license; the date of birth said August 26, 1980.  The idea that I was only two years younger than the kid from The Good Son threw me.
“I don’t go to your movies,” I said.
I swiped the credit card.  As the register processed the card I handed the Visa to Macaulay.  The register hummed, Macaulay glared.
“If you could just sign here,” I said, handing him a copy of the receipt.
He pulled the chain that connected the pen to my counter.  He scratched to make sure there was ink and then signed slowly and carefully.  He wrote like a child who’d just picked out the way he’d sign his name for the rest of his life.  I took the receipt and slipped it in my drawer, unable to resist wondering if it was worth anything.
“Have a good one,” I said, sticking his dinner in a plastic bag.
“Fuck you,” he said and grabbed the bag from my hand.
Connie stared as he made his way out the door.  I looked around and tried to decide what I would steal for the night.
“It was him, wasn’t it?” Connie asked.
“I guess.”
Looking around the store I saw only things I’d stolen before.  I’d taken every pack of gum, every candy bar, every small item that I could think of.
“I thought he wasn’t allowed in grocery stores anymore.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I read it somewhere.  He was drunk and tried to free all of these lobsters from a grocery store.  He’s not allowed to do groceries as part of his probation.”
“I think that was Edward Furlong.”
“Who?”
“The kid from Terminator 2.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah I read about it in one of the magazines on a slow night.”
“Every night’s a slow night,” she said.
“I guess so.”

I stood in the center of the freezer section.  The doors were fogged, making it almost impossible for me to find what I was looking for.  My shift was almost over; I’d wandered away from Connie and my register.  I said I was going to put something back but had nothing in my hands.  The freezers hummed.
I found it in a case full of other T.V. dinners.  Salisbury steak with peas and carrots.  The sign said $4.99 with a preferred card.  I opened the freezer door to the hum and the cold.  I reached in and grabbed the dinner.  It was heavy and hard in its box.
As I stashed the dinner under my shirt I wondered why he wanted Salisbury steak.  Why hadn’t he gotten lasagna or stuffed peppers?  Why wasn’t he just having a frozen pizza?  The dinner was cold against my skin.  I headed to the front of the store to clock out.  It was time to go home.

There weren’t many cars in the parking lot.  Mine looked dead and alone, parked six spots away from the store as was required of all employees.  Connie’s car was parked closer.  I looked at the reflection of the street light on her hood.  It reminded me of Connie’s big forehead.  I could hear her footsteps behind me.
“So what now?” Connie asked.
I stopped walking.  I was clutching my stomach to hold onto the cold dinner beneath my shirt.  I was overwhelmed by the feeling of being caught.
“I’m going home,” I said, without turning around.
“Yeah, I guess that’s what I’m doing too,” she said.
I thought of saying good night but didn’t.  I began again towards my car, leaving Connie, her car, and their reflections behind.
“Wait,” she said.
I turned awkwardly, my arms still crossed tightly.  Connie had walked past her car.  She was steps behind me, her uniform shirt untucked.  I’d never seen Connie outside of work.  I wondered how she dressed on a normal day.  I wondered what she thought I wore outside of the store.
“I was thinking,” she said, “if you ever wanted to party some time.”
“What?”
“I know you’re always partying.  I meant with me, you know?  If you wanted to get drinks some night.”
“You’re seventeen.”
She stopped just in front of me, looking confused.
“But you’re old enough,” she said.  “You could buy for two, couldn’t you?”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“What did you mean?”
“I’m not sure,” I said.  “I’ve had a long day.  I need to go home.”
“Yeah, a long day.”
Connie opened her mouth and put her hands lightly on her cheeks.  She looked sad and alone.  I wanted desperately to do something.  I stood and held the stolen dinner.
“Can I have a hug?” she asked.
“What?”
Connie stepped towards me and circled her arms around me.  My arms were pinned inside her embrace.  As she pressed against me the dinner dug into my stomach.  The cold was everything.
“Thanks,” she said.
“Thank you.”
She pulled back and I saw her big, smiling face.
“You looked like you needed that,” she said.
“Maybe.”
“Have a good night,” she said, taking her keys from her purse.  I watched her step into the streetlight and open her door.
I pulled the dinner from beneath my shirt.  With the cold gone, I could feel the lingering warmth of Connie’s hug.  I heard her car start as I stared at the box in my hands.  In the picture the steak was covered in dark sauce, the peas and carrots made sense in their roundness.
Standing alone in the parking lot I realized I was going to eat the dinner.  Eat it or throw it away—I ended up doing a combination of the two, picking at the Salibury steak and throwing out the vegetables.  Either way, I knew the dinner wouldn’t make it back into the store.  And for that moment it was enough.  In that moment I was okay because the dinner would never go back, even if I had to.

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