We Drink Because We’re Poets has their third weekly Wednesday Writing Prompt. Go there and go through the comments to get to links to others’ responses to the prompt. What it means for me is that I have my third short story in as many weeks. Here it is, but before you get there. There really is a Northville, NY, and, yes, they still have a five and dime. I’ll share the actual prompt at the end of the story.
Northville Five & Dime
I suppose it was just like any other day. Monday through Saturday, except for Wednesdays, when Old Man Mooney gave me the day off. Yeah, Wednesdays and Sundays, when the Northville Five & Dime was closed because it was God’s day. No two-day weekends for me. Not that I minded. Having Wednesdays gave me a chance to head north and ski on slopes unsullied by weekend warriors, both young and old. Or, in the summer, to walk down Second to the lake, sit on the rocky shore and write in my notebook while the quiet enveloped me. If I was there on a Saturday, there would be kids splashing and dogs barking and moms yelling.
I was standing behind the cash register just having finished mopping the entry way. The linoleum reflected the ceiling lights and the cleaner overpowered the scent of stale candy that ebbed and flowed through the day. Mooney was in the back. In the office, where more often than not, he slept through the early afternoon hours when our only customers were the retirees puttering down the aisles in their scooters and a mom or two stocking up on Otter Pops for the weekend. It was Thursday after all. And it was supposed to be a scorcher. As in, 90 and 90. If you don’t know what that means, you never lived on the East Coast. And, if you do, you know that made for a miserable spring day.
I was leafing through last week’s US magazine, reading about a Kardashian and a kleptomaniac diva when the bell down the street rang out and I put the magazine aside. I wiped the counter down one last time and waited. Teenagers and pre-teens alike would be coming through the door any minute as they did every day except Saturday. Grabbing candy and cans of soda pop. Leafing through the magazines, the girls giggling at the pictures and putting their hair up like they saw the stars do it. The boys always loitered in the back, laughing at the tacky t-shirts and pants that passed for Five & Dime style. All the while, their quiet mumbling providing a bass foundation to the hubbub the kids brought into the place.
Every day it seemed one of them would walk off with something. A bag of M & Ms slid into a pocket. A bottle of water tucked into a purse. Lipstick palmed. A cheap paperback tucked brazenly under an arm. I saw it every time and when I told them to stop, they ran. These kids knew who I was and I knew who they were. I may have been a few years older, but we knew. Susan and Emily and Carlos and Josh and Stan and Ashley and … well, even in a little itty bitty place like Northville, there were enough of them. They knew one other thing. As long as they didn’t get caught, and I mean caught as in stopped, they were good to go.
They knew I wouldn’t tell Mooney. Or their parents. Or the cops. Cops. Right. Northville’s cop. Mooney’s brother, Matt Mooney, who spent five days a week, Wednesday through Sunday, patrolling the streets in his shiny Crown Victoria. Monday and Tuesday, the lawless streets of Northville were dependent on the good graces of the county Sheriff. The only time Officer Mooney got to run his siren or flash his light was when a kid asked him.
Which is why they ran. And came back the next day. We had an unspoken deal. Keep it small. Keep it quiet. I’d make a show of an effort. And they wouldn’t make me look bad.
Then one day, there was a new kid. Who didn’t run.
* * *
Every year it was the same. When I got up, the old man was sleeping off the night before. Even with the door closed, when I walked by my parents’ bedroom, I could smell it. The dank, cloying odor of alcohol oozing out of his pores mixed with the stench of his sweat-soaked sheets. I have no idea how my mother slept in the same bed as him.
Speaking of my dear old mother, she was at the kitchen table, cigarette in hand, smoke stretching a few inches above before disappearing into the secondhand smoke that left me with a permanent cough and runny nose. I guess I could thank her for that.
When I walked to the refrigerator to grab an apple, she spoke. “Happy Birthday, kiddo,” she spoke in a voice that sounded like a handful of gravel rattled around in the depths of her throat. “Hope it’s a good one.”
“Thanks,” I replied, not turning to her. I kept my head in the fridge, trying to let the cold soothe my anger. I was sixteen years old, left to my own devices for a happy birthday, just as I had as long as I could remember. Those words, if prior years were any indication, would be the extent of my parents’ acknowledgement of blessing I brought to their lives. Mom would head to work shortly after I left for school and be off her feet by the time I got home.
And Pops? Yeah, he’d get out of bed soon enough. That is, soon enough to get to the bar over in Gloversville by 4:00. His greatest disappointment when they moved to Northville shortly after the first of the year was the lack of a drinking establishment. That he had to drive his car five miles to drink and watch a game on TV, instead of being able to walk down to the corner was his greatest disappointment. Mine was that he had yet to spin his car or hit a tree on his way home each night. Mine was that my sweet mother had yet to cough up a lung and choke to death on it.
It was my birthday. Yippee-fuckin’-ki-yay!
School was a bust. Being the new kid, as another year wound towards its inevitable close, meant nobody knew the first thing about me. I got no birthday wishes there. No high fives because it was my day. No cute girl smiling shyly and blushing while she whispered, “Happy Birthday, Pete.” Nope, none of that. Just another day in Boringville, New York.
After school, I followed a group of kids into the five and dime. I had a dollar in my pocket. If nobody else was going to do it, the least I could do was buy myself a candy bar and sing happy birthday to myself. I grabbed a Snickers and made my way to the back where a handful of boys were standing around. “Hey,” I nodded to them.
One of them, I think his name was Baxter, said “hey” back. The others nodded or shuffled about. I moved along. And, that’s when I saw it.
* * *
What caught my attention was the price tag. Sticking out of the neck of the Yankees t-shirt he was wearing. The kid had to notice it rubbing against his skin. How could he not? Damn. “Hey, you,” I stated feebly. “Stop,” I tried. Here’s where he was supposed to glance at me in the shock of getting caught before dashing through the doors.
Problem is he didn’t. And, that’s not the only rule he broke. Stealing a t-shirt definitely went beyond the unbroken rules. A candy bar, yes. A bottle of soda pop, yes. A magazine, maybe. But, a t-shirt? We’re talking about a $5 item minimum. Some of them hit $10 or $12. I couldn’t just let that go.
“What? Me?” he said.
“Yeah. You. Come here,” I sighed. And, he did. What a fool.
There was a kid standing at the counter trying to pay for a couple of candy bars. He musta slathered himself in half a bottle of Axe deodorant because I couldn’t smell the linoleum anymore. Or the cleaner or even the stale licorice in the tub next to the register. All I could smell was him. “Move it,” I ordered him.
The thief stood in front of me. “Wh-wh-wh-at?”
“The shirt. You were going to walk out without paying for it. Pay for it or I gotta call the cops.”
“What do you mean?”
“Come on. The price tag is still on it, you idiot.” He reached to his neck then and felt the tag there. He blushed a deep red, almost matching the licorice in its tub.
“Damn,” he muttered. He started taking the t-shirt off. “Here.”
“Too late. Pay or I call Officer Mooney.”
That’s when his eyes began to tear up. “I don’t have any money to pay for it. All I have is a dollar.” He kept tugging at the shirt, getting an elbow caught in the sleeve. “My parents will kill me. Please.”
“Can’t do it. Store policy.” Which it was.
He stopped tugging and stood there, one arm stuck, the neck of the shirt pulled over his head and now he peered at me through the hold of the shirt’s neck. Behind him, the other kids had gathered. They whispered to themselves and watched. They were doing their best not to laugh at his predicament for which I was silently grateful. The kid was embarrassed enough.
His shoulders slumped. “Fine.”
That’s when it hit me. “Put the shirt on for a moment and stand over there.” I pointed to a corner, where he obediently went. “The rest of you, are you gonna stand there forever, or do you want to buy something.” That pushed them to action. Within a few minutes I checked them all out and the store was empty, but for me and the new kid, and Mr. Mooney asleep in his office.
I walked over to him and stood in front of him. “I’ll make you a deal.”
“Okay,” he replied breathlessly.
“Easy. You haven’t heard it yet.” I looked at him, trying my best to gauge the quality of his character. A hard thing to do when you’re looking at a thief. “Why’d you steal it?”
* * *
What could I say? I chose the truth. “It’s my birthday. I … I … I’ve always liked the Yankees.”
“Why not ask for a shirt from your parents?” she asked.
“Aah.” She took a step back then. “Keep the shirt. It’s on me.” I was about to respond to her offer when she shushed me with a finger held up. “Only if you do me a favor.”
“Anything.” And I would have to keep my parents from finding out. I’d be her slave if I had to be.
“Take my sister to the end of year dance.”
“You go to Northville High, right?”
“You ever see the girl in the wheelchair?”
I thought about it and was about to tell her I hadn’t when I remembered a moment at lunch the week before. Sitting alone at one of the tables in the cafeteria was a girl in a wheelchair. Other students milled about, sitting at tables with friends, chatting and laughing. She sat alone, her shoulders hunched while she ate. She looked furtively at the activity going on around her but didn’t try to join in. The other kids seemed oblivious to her.
“Yeah. I’ve seen her once or twice. She your sister?”
“Yes. And, if you don’t want me to call the cops, if you want to keep that shirt, take her to the dance two Saturdays from now.” She took a step back towards me now and brought her face close to mine. “Her name is Sophie. She has cerebral palsy. She was born with it. But she’s a really, really great kid. Take her to the dance and be nice to her.”
It didn’t take long for me to consider my options. If she called the cops and they contacted my parents, my dad would try to throw me against a wall or two. I could hope he’d be too drunk to try or that I was finally big enough to stand up to him. My mom would wail and scream and bemoan that they had raised a good-for-nothing, snot-nosed, spoiled little brat who would surely end up in the penitentiary.
The alternative didn’t look so bad. Considering the absolute dearth of friends I had made since arriving in Northville, maybe a girl in a wheelchair wasn’t a bad idea.
“Deal,” I said, holding my hand out to her.
She smiled then. A huge smile that looked about to split her face. She shoved my hand to the side and gave me a hug. “Ask her tomorrow and I want to hear from her tomorrow night that you were a gentleman about it.”
So, what was the prompt: A character is caught shoplifting. The shop owner won’t call the police in exchange for a personal favor.
Now, of course, my first thought, being the gutter-dweller that I am was that this could lead to, well, Fifty Shades of Shoplifting? I wanted something that wasn’t so obvious.
<Edited to add> I generally write and edit as I do so. Very rarely do I change my short stories in any significant way after the first draft is complete. It is what it is as the words came into my head and made it on to the computer screen and then were saved into a document. I’m curious what other writers do. Multiple drafts. Lots of editing. Or one and done.