Jack holds between his fingers the crumpled remains of Grandpa’s October social security payment, minus the rent, the gas, the phone, and the Epsom salts he had to buy the other night after Grandpa fell.
A little less than five dollars.
Jack plods down the aisle, twisting and crunching the crumpled bills as if hoping they might reproduce in his hand. The harsh fluorescents burn his eyes. Tinny Christmas music rains down with them, no less an assault on his senses. Not only are its jingles and hollow sentiments coming too early in the year, it’s achieving the opposite of its presumed goal of putting him in a festive mood.
The cheapest milk is a dollar fifty. Jack grabs the half-gallon and tucks it under his arm. That’s a big morning fit from Grandpa averted.
In the bread aisle he find buns. He thinks they still have some ketchup in the fridge. A picture of a burger begins to form, and the more he thinks about it the hungrier he gets. In the freezer section he spots some frozen patties. They’re two forty-nine. He pulls them out and walks toward the registers.
He glances at the round sticker on the buns. On sale for two dollars. That’s $3.50 with the milk. Over five with the patties. He’s going to be at least a dollar short.
He stops walking and looks at the ceiling, not sure if he’s beseeching a power on high to somehow grant him an extra dollar, or cursing it. Standing still for a moment, he decides he’s cursing the music and lights that drill into his mind and mock his circumstance.
He almost convinced himself that it would all come together, that the paperclips wouldn’t snap. He smelled the charred meat as he scraped it off the hotplate, heard the fat sizzling, tasted the succulent first bite.
He doesn’t know whether to laugh, cry, or scream.
He makes up his mind quickly. He’ll do none of the above. He’ll do what he has to do to make it all happen.
He’s done it before.
And he’s getting the good stuff, too, something fresh.
He lobs the patties back in the freezer and walks to the meat counter. A packet of fresh beef on a little styrofoam platter wrapped in cellophane beckons. Four fifty-nine for a pound. This package, not the tasteless stack of frozen patties, is the more deserving centerpiece of his vision. It’ll be tastier, juicier, but perhaps most important of all, it’ll fit down the back of his pants.
He walks down the baking aisle and makes a show of looking at sprinkles, shredded coconut and chocolate chips, backing up enough to seem to get a good look at the options, all simply to appear to be scratching his back absentmindedly.
He even picks up a bag of brown sugar and inspects it to really sell the effect.
That’s all it takes. This is the grocery store, after all, not nearly as dicey as the electronics store. When he got away with his backup drive, his tactic for getting through the card reader was ingenious. The trick is the way you talk to the cashier.
Here, they have no security to speak of. He considers it safe to assume they practically don’t even care. They throw away enough spoiled or expired food every hour that Jack would have to steal a pickup truck full every night just to come close to the same amount.
There might be some minimum wage rent-a-cop half asleep watching the feed from one or two cameras in some dirty break room in back. Jack imagines how bored that guy is, chewing his gum, monitoring this miserable, fluorescent-lit perdition for eight hours straight before slogging home to watch Fox News and fall asleep on the couch in his boxers.
Jack tells himself that even if that guy saw something, would he want to get up from his chair and run after somebody like Jack? The guy hasn’t sprinted in ten years. He’d probably have a heart attack if he ran 50 feet.
But Jack plays the game they make him play. He’s not proud of it. If life could just be a little less of an uphill battle for him, if it could just cut him a little break once in a while, he wouldn’t have to do this. He’s never been caught, at least since that first time, and he’s confident he never will be again. Because he’s smart about it. He’ll be back taking that first savory bite of his burger before Grandpa has time to turn over in his bed.
His mind spins the other scenario. Maybe they’ve beefed up security at this location. Maybe it’s some kind of pilot program. Maybe the supervisor is back there, or a new guy, somebody young and eager, somebody in training. That’s when they’d come after him.
If they confronted him in the aisle it wouldn’t be a problem. He’d hold the meat out like he planned to pay for it all along. There’s nothing they could say. If they cornered him at the exit—and that would be the best place to get him—he’d make a run for it. There’s no way they could catch him. He’d hop through yards in the dark and disappear into the night. They wouldn’t know what hit them. And he wouldn’t be worth the bother either.
Or maybe today is the day his luck runs out. Maybe this time there are more security guards on the shift. Maybe they brought the local cops in for some kind of training. They’re cracking down and they want to make an example out of somebody. They keep a close eye on Jack. They play back the footage of him in the baking aisle. They zoom into his back-scratch and point. “Watch how he misdirects. You see that? We got him.” They watch him stand in the checkout line like nothing’s going on, and lie in wait. They let him think he got away with it, and then they pounce on him when he gets to the parking lot. That would be the smart way to do it. Get him after the theft has officially happened. When he tries to run, they call in the police chopper and put a spotlight on him. There’s nowhere he can run. They take him to the police station. Maybe arrest him. He’s sent to Juvy for sure. The unraveling begins.
He wrinkles his brow and mutters to himself, “Come on. Bring out the choppers? Get real, Jack.”
He walks confidently down the aisle toward the cashiers at the front of the store.
He’s the only one at the register. The cashier is about his age with dyed dark hair and Emo makeup. He smiles at her and makes brief eye contact as if to relate to the fact that she has to spend several hours a day under these lights. He sets the milk and buns on the conveyor.
He takes stock of the cameras by the registers as he leans against the counter. There’s one directly above them, one just above the exit, and one at the end of the closest aisle, none of which, he’s sure, can see any kind of bulge around his lower back.
They go through the customary script: “Did you find every thing you need?” “I sure did,” “do you need a bag?” etc. But the real conversation is going on with his body. He flicks his long bangs to one side while he goes through his wallet to communicate slight desperation. A simple ploy, to be sure, but subtle enough to encourage a mild camaraderie, should she get suspicious, or play this by the book later when it really counts. She maintains a slight, wry smile, but his read on her is that she doesn’t want to break the fourth wall and make conversation. She’s not in the mood. That’s for the best as far as Jack’s concerned.
He feels bad, like he’s lying to her, but he believes she doesn’t care any more about this place losing a couple of bucks than he does.
She offers one last smile, hands over his bag and receipt, and thanks him.
Now the final threshold: the door tag reader. They didn’t used to have one in this store. There’s only two ways this can go. Fifty-fifty chance this is his last night a free man.
He walks determinedly through and it beeps.
He slows and looks around, confused. Emo girl doesn’t even glance back at him. The annoying thing probably goes off all the time. This isn’t the electronics store, after all.
He walks on through.
The cool night air of the parking lot in his face, Jack’s thoughts move to the real challenge of the evening: fully cooking his burger without the hotplate blowing another fuse.