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by | Feb 14, 2023 | Fiction, Issue Thirty-One

By two in the afternoon, we’d stolen four t-shirts, three baseball caps, and twelve packs of Spearmint gum, all while making friends with the cashiers—flirting if they were girls, talking sports if they were guys—and leaving each place with our pockets stuffed and the cashiers smiling like we’d only gone in to say hi. Normally Markus took the shirts, me the baseball caps, Jimmy T the gum or Cokes or little ham sandwiches you’d see in convenience store refrigerators. Two of us would stand up front to distract the cashiers and the other would ask if he could use the bathroom while grabbing stuff on his way out. Then we’d sell the shirts and caps to kids at school, signing each tag with our initials, MHJ, in dark black ink and cursive. It became a sort of club, a gang, walking through the halls with our stolen goods: Markus, Jimmy T, and me at the head of it all; everyone else, our congregation.

By 2:15, Jimmy T got hungry, so we headed north to a 7-Eleven. We followed him inside, and he smiled at the cashier.

“Mind if I use your bathroom?”

The cashier was thin and balding and wore a dark red vest with a name tag that said “Oscar.” He must have been in his mid to late twenties, and Jimmy followed the Restroom signs to the far back corner. Markus and I stayed up front, the two of us wearing shirts we’d ripped off the same 7-Eleven months ago: him, in a light blue Jordan jersey; me, in a black and white penny with a Nike swoosh at the center of my chest.

“Nice store,” said Markus.

“Can I help you?”

Markus shrugged and briefly looked at the cigarettes behind Oscar’s head.

“How about some Pall Malls?”

“I’d need some ID.”

Markus smiled, almost flirtatiously.

“You like sports, Oscar?”

Oscar looked him up and down like he was trying to place his name.

“Do I know you?”

“I doubt it.”

“How about you?”

I shrugged and looked away. A camera hung by the entrance and one in the back above the drinks. Markus tapped his fingers on the counter.

“What’s taking your friend so long?” asked Oscar.

“We were drinking last night.”

“Drinking?”

“You know, a couple six packs.”

“Of apple juice?”

“Bud Light,” said Markus. “From my old man’s fridge.”

Oscar looked beyond us to the bathrooms. He didn’t care about our stories. Not like Cindy, the girl at The Sal who handed Markus her number as he tucked a shirt down the back of his pants. Or Levi, the retired Air Force Colonel at Kangaroo Express, who explained, after I mentioned the Phillies, how his daughter always liked the Mets.

“I’ll call the cops,” said Oscar. “If he’s not out of there soon.”

Markus put his hands in the air, like they were already here.

“How about I just check on him?”

“I’d like that.”

Markus disappeared and Oscar leaned in toward me, signaling with his finger to listen.

“You guys think you’re smart, don’t you?”

I kept my mouth sewn shut. Oscar leaned in closer.

“I know who that is. Dallas’s little brother.”

“None of us got brothers,” I lied.

“Sure you do. That one’s Markus. The other one’s Jimmy T. I know what they’re doing.”

A part of me felt like bolting. Oscar leaned in closer and loosened his shoulders, as if to show how calm he could be, how cool.

“How much you think they’re gonna steal?” he asked.

“They’re just pissing.”

“I’m serious. Like, ten bucks of stuff?”

“I told you, they’re not stealing.”

“Cut the shit,” said Oscar.

So I shrugged.

“All right, how about this?” He pushed himself away from the counter and looked me up and down. “Either I call the cops or you can pay me ahead of time.”

“Pay you?”

“For what they steal.”

“I don’t carry cash.”

“Either you pay me or I bust them. All of you.”

I turned back toward the bathrooms.

“Nuh-uh,” he said. “You go there and I’m calling.” He placed his hand on the telephone. “Dallas told me you’d come here eventually.”

“Well, Dallas is a no good bastard.”

“So you do know him.”

Of course I knew him. Dallas Sweeney. A twenty-eight-year-old man who still lived with his parents—the kind of a guy who either peaked in high school or not at all.

“Pay me or I’m calling.”

I had enough to give him. Our shirts all sold for ten, every time in cash.

“So what’s it gonna be?” he asked.

For a moment I almost pitied him. The way he seemed so sure, so proud he’d figured it out. The light snuck through his hair. His lips were chapped, his teeth were chipped. He ran a hand along his vest. A part of me felt like giving in.

But I leaned in closer and said, “You know what, Oscar? Call ’em.”

A moment later, Markus and Jimmy T stepped out of the bathroom. Oscar grinned, while hanging up the phone.

“Cops are coming.”

The next day, someone asked what it was like to get busted. We didn’t say much. Eventually, rumor spread that we’d spent the night in jail. Our shirts then sold for double. No one knew when we’d get busted next—and if we did, would we go away for good?

Somehow word got out that Jimmy T’s uncles were policemen. And that every time we strolled through a Kangaroo Express or 7-Eleven, they were the ones on duty. People stopped buying our shirts. Then Dallas swung by the high school selling packs of Pall Malls for less than market price. One day Jimmy mentioned it to his uncles and they took Dallas out in handcuffs, even turned the sirens on. Someone wrote, “Save Mr. Pall Mall,” on a bathroom stall. After that, Markus told everyone they were brothers. We held our heads high, then drowned.

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