Ryan’s left pocket was all bulge and jingle as he walked through the doors. He was dressed in his best cargo pants and v-neck because he wanted to mimic the other shoppers, disappear in the swarm of normal people who were doing normal people things like buying groceries for their families. His savior was to the right, in front of the registers.
The sedentary, generous machine was hungry for metal. He eased out the plastic bag, fed the tray in small doses. He was a mixture of softness and speed, dying to get out of there but also aware that more coin sound meant more stares gouging his neck from the people on line behind him. The ones who used credit and debit cards. The ones who would not understand why a man might have a jingle in his step.
Ryan didn’t do any kind of pre-count, he knew by the heft of the bag it was a solid haul. He loved the jolt of surprise when the grand total was revealed on the screen. A quick fist-pump was his response when he saw the tally: $17.00 plus a few stray pennies; a lottery jackpot for the lost. When he took the ticket to the customer service desk, he debated whether to snatch the microphone or telephone or whatever they use and tell every responsible, organic-addicted person in the place to go fuck themselves. And their Toyotas. And homes guarded by trimmed shrubbery and red mulch. PTA conferences. Soccer tournaments. Ice cream waffle cones at the packed Arctic Swirl. All of it, all of them, from their boat shoes to their designer bifocals. Instead, he just cashed out and headed to his car without making eye contact with anyone.
The beater wobbled across the parking lot; the temporary donut on the front was now a permanent donut on the front. He landed at a red light.
Ryan had a choice, left or right. That time he stole ribeyes from this same grocery by shoving them down his pants, he chose wrong. He sold the meat to a drunk iron worker at The Alibi and went about doing what he always does.
Staring at the store in the rearview mirror, he knew what those normal people would do. He hated them because it was easier than becoming them. He hated them because they would make the proper turn. Part of him wanted to run back in there and beg them for guidance. He wished he could borrow one of their brains to help him pick the route home.
He could take the money and buy his daughter a gift, a random one, a belated birthday present out of the blue. He thought Olivia would love that. He knew he would love that. The dollar store sold toys, he could fill a bag with them, drop them off today, maybe even get to see her again and pretend they were close. They could have a water gun battle and laugh at his corny jokes and share a banana nut muffin and go for a stroll in a park bursting with sunshine and birdsong. Visions of her skyrocket smile carved up his insides. If self-pity was currency, he would be the wealthiest drifter in Jefferson County.
He always veered left. It was in his DNA, this impulse to steer into oncoming traffic. His entire life was a left turn. But it didn’t to have to be that way, people change. They learn and evolve and make amends and transform themselves into a respectable, semi-normal person like his brother Greg, who went from a halfway house to night school to paralegal to beloved son. Or maybe some can and he can’t for reasons that are unknown and invisible to the middle-class eye. His heart sought light but his mind thrived in the dark. Hell, he thought, this is my curse, my anchor with a rusted chain and busted winch.
Chris Milam lives in the bucolic wasteland that is Hamilton, Ohio. His stories have appeared in (b)OINK, The Airgonaut, Jellyfish Review, WhiskeyPaper, and elsewhere