Theft

Cash

 

I watched a man rob himself once.

It was as weird as it sounds. During lunch rush I manned the register, taking orders and giving change. At one point I rang a twenty as a ten, and the customer pointed it out to me. He was polite about it, and I thanked him for it. It was my error at that point.

The mistake was noticed because I recited his change as $6.41. He pointed out that he’d given me a twenty. He was right, and I also noticed that I read the total as his change. I corrected myself, and he acknowledged he’d just thought about it too. I’d goofed, but it was an honest mistake and we both knew it. We’d worked through it and it was done.

At least…I thought it was. The guy leaned over the counter and stared directly into the cash drawer. This made me nervous, but customers do weird things all the time, everywhere, so I just let it go, and kept an eye out in case he tried to reach inside.

“Now you’re giving me too much,” he stated. I wasn’t. I had a five tucked between my pinkie and ring finger. It had been put with the tens and I was holding it separately until I gave the man his change.

“No sir, I got it. $13.59 is your change…”

“That’s $18.59.” He enunciated like school was in session. Polite in a condescending way. I kept my tone even and simply said: “Yes sir, it is. Your change is $13.59.”

I tucked the five in its proper compartment, handed him his change, and watched as confusion scrunched his face. “Wait, that’s not right either. You said my change was $6.41.”

“Sir…”

“No, listen, I saw the change on your screen…”

“That was the total, actually. The total was $6.41. And from twenty the change…”

“That was the change.” He wasn’t rude, but he was insistent. There wasn’t any stopping him now. He wouldn’t hear me. He counted out six dollars and thrust it at me. He then, carefully, counted forty-one cents, and dropped it directly into the drawer.

“I mean, it’s no big deal,” he reassured me. “Mistakes happen. It’s alright.”

Now, I admit, I could have pressed the issue. I could have made another, clearer attempt at explaining the problem.

But my temper was threatening to flare. When people who are in the wrong condescend to me, I instantly write them off as less than whatever I’d considered them before. You can assume me wrong. That’s no problem. I often am wrong. I was wrong not thirty seconds before. But do not assume I remain wrong.

I watched this guy walk downstairs to meet his law professor and fellow grad students. He was self-confident in a way that seemed to make him believe in everything he did, mistakes included. He was content and overcharged for a sandwich by double.

I sat the mistaken change aside and worked through the orders. I wondered how much more the man would lose to himself. Who could he call if he finally caught his hands in his own wallet?

I delivered his order, and then ignored him. I put the extra change in a paper bag and taped it closed. In marker I wrote: “TIPS FOR WHOEVER WANTS THEM.” I left the bag on the counter.

The money was still there when I clocked out. Maybe, in small streams of pennies and dimes, it’ll find its way home to its absent master. Or maybe its current will slip between his fingers, and spill upon thirstier folk.

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Bridge Over Troubled Youth

old bridge 2

I never met my great-grandmother, but from what I hear, she was a decent, hard-working woman. In photos of her she’s small and stooped from a lifetime of hard farm labor. They say she was a loving woman and had a beautiful voice, the kind made for singing and laughing. Everyone who speaks about her does so with love.

She was a patient woman, from what I hear, and in the few instances she let herself become annoyed she usually let it pass with a quiet “shit” of derision, and then she was right as rain. She was of a generation where people farmed because that was the only way they would have food. She raised nine children between two husbands. Large families were the best way to staff a farm in those days, but none of my great-aunts and great-uncles doubted her love for them. My grandmother would get tears in her eyes whenever she got nostalgic for her mother.

For extra money, she would watch children from across the county, and she was considered to be a woman who naturally commanded the respect of the youth. Kids adored her, and often cried when they had to go home.

There was one boy, though, who could not endear himself to anyone. He enjoyed throwing himself on the ground and bawling when he didn’t get his way. Great-Grandma wasn’t opposed to a switch, but it was only ever a method of last resort, and even then she didn’t believe in switching the children of others. The child was not predisposed to any real form of reasoning, and would break things unless he immediately got exactly what he wanted.

My great-grandmother needed the extra money watching the boy would bring her, but could not afford to have him break things she couldn’t replace. So one cool day in November, while the other children helped out in the fields, Great-Grandma put on her apron, slipped something inside the pocket, and told the little boy to walk with her. Unusually agreeable, the little boy took her hand and began to walk.

About a mile from the farmhouse she and her late husband built themselves, there was a wooden bridge crossing a rocky stream. It’s long gone, the bridge made into an overpass, the stream diverted through a metal pipe, but the willows that hung across it still stand. The way I heard the story, on the morning when my great-grandmother arrived at the bridge, the little boy in tow, it was foggy and threatening to rain. This could be dramatic flair on the part of my relatives, but I choose to trust them anyway.

She and the little boy were halfway across the bridge when my great-grandmother stopped. Holding his hand to keep him close, she asked him if he knew where they were.

“Yeah,” the little boy said, in a time when most children didn’t dare to forget the “ma’am” at the end, “we’re at the bridge that goes to my house.”

“This bridge goes to a lot of people’s houses,” my great-grandmother told him. “Do you know what’s special about this bridge?”

The little boy said “This bridge ain’t special.”

At that my great-grandmother reached into her apron, and pulled out the biggest carving knife she owned. Holding it tight, she pointed it at the boards beneath their feet and told the little boy:

“Every man I ever killed, I killed on this bridge.”

The little boy froze up, and Great-Grandma let him stand there a minute before asking him:

“Will you be good for Missus L now?”

The boy gave a little nod, the whites of his eyes flashing, and Great-Grandma tucked the knife back into her apron.

“Saints be praised,” she said. “Let’s us get on home now.”

She took the little boy back, fed him milk and cornbread, and from what I was told, she never had a problem with him again.

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Hello, October

Willow in Alabama

The choir of crickets and tree frogs is so loud I would have to raise my voice if I wanted to say anything. There’s no one here to speak to though, except the coyotes resting in the field. I turn a lever, and the work light by the barn dims and goes out. Stars twinkle around the black mass of the clouds.

I smoke a cigarette and enjoy the cooling air. Summers in South Alabama have a nasty habit of overstaying their welcome. Out here we’re close enough to the Gulf so that we get all of the humidity, but far enough away so that we get none of the breeze. It’s great country for gardens and mosquitoes. You can’t pick between one or the other, however.

But tonight the air is cooling fast, despite the obstinate, burning sun before. The only light I see comes from a pumpkin I carved an hour ago. I cut it and a dozen others from the patch out back, and couldn’t help myself from carving at least one. Tomorrow I’ll load up my cousin’s truck and drive them to the stand his dad sets up shop in. It’s never been anything more than a way to pass the time, but rituals must be kept.

Peanuts boil over in one of the old smoke shacks. No one’s left to tend the garden, but enough still grow on their own that we can supply my uncle with a good month’s supply. Those are always big sellers, those and the pie pumpkins he grows himself. Most people in this part of the country do their shopping in their yards.

I don’t really belong out here. I don’t fit in, though I don’t feel ostracized. My family is all over the county, and they love me, but it’s obvious to everyone that I was never going to live here one day. It’s enough that my family has roots here, where generations of dirt poor people labored so their kids would have just a little more than they did. Half the churches in town are headed by uncles and cousins of mine. Two miles behind the house is an old whiskey still my uncle, the Good Reverend Johnny, operated to supplement his services’ meager collection plates.

The light from the pumpkin shines a skull’s face upon the blueberry patch out front. The coyotes stir and begin to howl. Somewhere past the trees, other coyotes answer.

A tin bucket of green apples sits by my feet. There are about five more inside. I hate green apples but I pick them anyway. I’ll give them away to various aunts, who’ll make tons of pie and cobbler, and make sure I get a head start on packing on my winter weight.

I hear squealing grunts, and wild pigs make their way into the field where the coyotes are. The coyotes, to their credit, know better than to truck with wild pigs, and they hop to their feet and trot away. The pigs snuffle around the apple tree, gnawing the ones I tossed away from worms or spots. I think they have piglets with them, but I can’t be sure.

In the corner of the living room there are two tin washtubs overflowing with pecans. The tree is still shedding them, actually, and they crack against the roof like small hammers when they fall. Occasionally one will hit the house’s propane tank, and the empty steel will ring like a bell. Owls hoot whenever this happens.

The pecans will disappear faster than the apples. There will be the occasional pie, but mostly they will be eaten on chilly porches, while old folks with dirt under their nails watch the fading afternoon.

The fire from the smoke shack wafts through the night. In a few weeks some hogs from a farm in the next county will be brought over, butchered, and roasted. I’ll dig a pit for the bones, but there will be very little that will have to be thrown out. The feet will be pickled, and the horror that is chitluns will be prepared by somebody, for sure. The carcasses will be pried open and smoked for the better part of a day and night. The meat will be served freely at various church gatherings, and come November the process will start again for Thanksgiving. At that time, though, my cousins will charge by the pound. We always sell the heads to old people across the county, who I guess use them for headcheese. I’ve never really bothered to ask. We’re too far north for any of the Voodoo that leaks out of Mobile.

My cigarette burns out, and I decide I don’t want another. I drop the butt in the Mason jar I use for an ashtray. I sip tea from a glass that my great-grandmother bought, though back when she bought it, it contained baking soda. No one bought anything in those days thinking they would only use it once. The house is a little over a century old. The jars holding peppers in the cupboard are even older than the shelves they sit upon.

The tree frogs sing in harmony with the crickets. The pigs are long gone. My hands smell of the oil I used to clean the outside of the peanut kettle. The empty gas tank rings as a pecan strikes it. An owl hoots in the cool darkness of the trees.

Hello, October.

Hello.

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Fade

IMG_1268

 

There’s an alley in Macon, about two blocks from where I work, where you can see the word “EVERYBODY” scrawled in faded paint along the side of an old, red brick building. I have no idea what it used to advertise, though I imagine it wouldn’t be very hard to find out.

There are old advertisements like that all over downtown. Macon’s not a big place, but it’s an old one, and it’s always had a substantial population. I think you can almost measure spikes in growth by the number of painted ads you find along the sides of buildings. Right now Macon is at the cusp of a minor boom, and murals praising it as a hub for history and music are slathered all over. In a few decades, the paint and prints will fade into sun-bleached ghosts. People will photograph those old hustles, and imagine the atmosphere the ads tried to promote. The product will be long out of date when it finally sells.

 

old advert

 

I’m reminded of the “EVERYBODY” ad when someone who is shockingly rude to me is inexplicably gracious just a few moments later, a look of anxiety telling me they fear being written off by anyone, even inconsequential twentysomethings they don’t know. I think of the ad when exes leave voice mails I’ll never return. I think of it when I text friends in Nashville, and we pretend there’s a possibility we’ll hang out again one day.

 

kessler

 

In nearby Rose Hill, there are graves so old the lettering has been nearly ground away by rain. There are whole tombs you can only reach if you climb down embankments and weave your way through brush. They are built of brick, and they are faded pink by time. In the stillness of those alcoves of kudzu and camellias, where whispers are nearly shouts, it is impossible to believe that moving hands ever laid the mortar that holds those vaults together. I think of the ad even then.

 

tomb in alcove

 

The ad pops up in my mind when I hug my parents after a visit. When my cat is asleep in my lap. When I see reports of terrorism on the news, and when I throw out homophobic pamphlets I find littering the post office.

 

get on out

 

The ad says more than the capitalist who commissioned it ever meant to say. It’s an accidental message, one that could only emerge when the old message washed away in the sun. Even that adds to the telling.

 

Dren's Museum

 

It’s neither melancholic nor optimistic. It simply is. The meaning transcends mood.

 

Everybody Fades Away

 

Everybody fades away.

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Every Generation’s Teenagers Sucked

carrie

 

There’s a sixteen year old kid who lives a block away from me, and I hate him like he killed my mother. He’s had the cops called on him half a dozen times, because he seems to love nothing more than street racing an hour before school. And if you’re even vaguely familiar with the nonsensically early hours American school kids have to be up for school, then you can imagine how much the neighborhood loves waking to the sound of screeching tires an hour before the buses roll around.

He also has a high-end subwoofer that he’s proud of, because he’s sixteen and teenagers don’t have a very crystallized sense of accomplishment. Also he once randomly called me a cunt when I drove past his house. I don’t really know him and he doesn’t know me. I think he was trying to impress the other negligible teenagers in his driveway. All three ran inside as soon as I hit the brakes, which is lucky for me because I’m kind of a skinny fella.

It’s important to remember that kids like that are usually hated with equal measure by other kids their own age. Too often adults act like dickheads and paint every kid with the “they’re all bratty little cocks” brush, and then they start feeling like they need to push back against what they see as an acne-prone sea of jerks. Bullies are always the worst when they’re the same age as your parents, and all you want to do is get to class in peace.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve rolled my eyes as someone from my parents’ generation has opined that “we never acted that way when we were that age!”

Kids, listen up: YES. THEY. DID. Your parents were absolute, shit-headed idiots when they were teenagers. The protestation is the clue, you see. The guilty always protest the loudest.

There is no single asshole generation, nor is there ever a single St. Generation. Teenagers in the fifties may have behaved like good boys and girls, but they were also probably virulent racists and sexists. The kid a block away from my house is doomed to a life of trying to be high-school cool even into his thirties. He enjoys driving through people’s yards and laughs when cops cite his dad for it. The fifteen year old girl next door already takes college courses for a high-ranking university, and donates her time to an animal shelter on the weekends. Sometimes she randomly cuts my grass for free.

I would say every generation has its bad apples, but while that’s true, it’s not entirely fair to say without context. Every generation has its jerks, yes, but every generation also has a heart. And courage. And the will to make things right.

But still, fuck that kid down the block. God I hate that little shit.

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Morning

dark

 

It’s just after five and cloudy out. The wind never died down overnight. The few leaves that have already fallen hold fast to the tufts of cheat grass in the yard. One has snagged in the laces of my sneakers. I have one hand in my pocket, and the other wrapped around a mug almost too hot to hold. Coffee belches steam into the breeze.

In half an hour I’ll open the coffee stand and make lattes until noon, but right now I’m enjoying the chill around my ears. I’m in the all black outfit I usually favor, which my coworkers tease me for. They tell me I look too much like a waiter, but having waited tables before I don’t see how that’s supposed to make me embarrassed. Besides, when you spend half your day around staining, used espresso grounds, you learn to dress for the occasion.

My phone chirps and I look at the screen. “We’re landing now. See you tomorrow night?” I work late tomorrow and early the day after.

“Totally,” I text back.

I sip my coffee. I see people at work start to gulp it when it cools, but coffee only works when you drink it slowly. Gulp it, and you’ll be out like a bad light. Drugs almost have personalities of their own. I take another sip. My heart beats heavy, but I don’t think the caffeine has hit me yet.

When I left we hugged for a good five minutes. We’d hold each other, kiss intermittently. We just stood still in the kitchen, the only sound our breathing and the hum of the refrigerator. I’d stayed for two days to help her unpack. My car, filled to bursting, sat in the driveway. When we text I avoid the temptation to ask if she’s been seeing anyone lately.

The only other person up and out is the neighbor two doors down. He’s a contractor and he works early. He kisses his wife and climbs in his truck. The thing seems to scream compared to the hum of the crickets, but the diesel engine fades away, and the wife stays outside, also sipping coffee. It’s the cool thing you do.

She waves at me and I wave back. She’s in a huge tee shirt and baggy flannel pants. She pets her dog while he sniffs around for a place to shit.

When I moved away, I left behind the boxers of mine she liked to sleep in. The last time she flew in from Louisville she slept at my place, in the boxers and an undershirt I’d forgotten about, a ratty thing with holes and paint stains.

The neighbor and her dog go back inside, and I’m alone. I catch myself wishing I’d bought smokes the other day, then remind myself that thoughts like that are exactly why I didn’t pick a pack up. I’m halfway through my coffee. My cat is in the window, dividing his attention between watching me and swatting at the moths on my side of the glass.

Sunlight is starting to shine through, in gauzy patches through the clouds. The even gray of the past two days won’t break today. I’m glad. Work feels smoother, when the colors outside mute the customers’ moods.

Before I came outside I’d checked my email. “While your scores are impressive, we are unable at this time to offer you a placement among our graduate student body. Please do not be discouraged by this. We encourage all interested applicants to…”

Seeing her again won’t make everything better, but it shouldn’t. It isn’t my place to objectify her into an emotional McGuffin. Needing her was what made me so intolerable, I think. There is no sentence, no period of proving my worth. I don’t play the childish game of believing we’ll get back together. I’m just here, as she is there, and I’m satisfied with that.

Seeing her won’t make everything better, but it’ll be good enough.

Another text message. “Yay! I’m excited! I’ve missed you!”

I tell her I’ve missed her too. I finish my coffee. Before going inside for my nametag, I stand for a minute and stare at my phone. I used to think we made each other whole, but that’s how every addict talks. She’s flying in from an assignment in San Diego, and she tells me she has a ton of stories. I won’t have anything to share, from my sleepy patch of the southeast, but that’s okay. A child seeks to match. An adult seeks to grow.

I stand there alone, as she flies in alone. Separate, we are both greater and less than the sum of our parts.

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Rustle

tomb

 

When I get off work I walk down the street for a coffee. The sky is overcast, silver with clumps of smoky grey, like ore. The wind is picking up when I reach my car. It’s the second day of autumn and the temperature has dropped accordingly. I drive out of downtown with my window down, and listen to Dire Straights as I wade through red lights.

I park beside the main gate of the local cemetery and walk in. The ring of trees around the area muffles a lot of the city noise, so that the murmur that remains simply recedes into subconscious white noise the deeper you go. A power digger sits unmanned by a fresh grave. I climb a hill leading to a massive willow tree. The wind spikes, and my face tickles as leaves brush my cheek. I have to remind myself that those probably aren’t whispers I’m hearing under here.

Deeper into the cemetery, I pass two girls taking photos of the stones. They look too young to be in college, and I do my best to look non-threatening, the lone man stalking the dead. I sip my coffee, fiddle with my phone, and keep moving.

The cemetery is huge, and rolls across hills until it cuts off against a set of train tracks. At the tracks I go left, until I find a space outfitted with tombs the size of most houses. There’s one here I favor, when I need to think alone. It looks like a small concrete cottage, and there are stone chairs nearby surrounding a table. Generations ago, family members of the deceased would dine here during picnics. In the American South, cemeteries were once regarded like public parks.

Globalization, however, has made this open space as creepy as any other spot where human bodies are put to rot, and I sit alone. A stream burbles by a little ways off, and a heavy oak shades me from the swirling clouds. It’s practically nightfall where I sit, though sundown isn’t for another five hours.

The leaves sound like whispers again. The wind is so anxious even the grass is wavering. An ice cream wrapper flits past, then snags in the crack of a tombstone set to the earth two centuries ago. The treetops are thrown side to side. I hear thunder.

In the trunk of my car sits a test prep book, still stiff in its plastic wrapping. Underneath it is a voucher for half the cost of the fee normally charged when you take the GRE. There are lukewarm letters of reference and research work that smacks of community college.

I silently repeat to myself how much more I have than most, but my heart is beginning to race and my hands shake. I put the coffee down and light a cigarette, failing for several moments until I force myself to focus on the orange flame. I draw the smoke in a practiced breath, and when the ash is halfway down the butt I shake a thick white pill from a prescription bottle. I down it with coffee. Between that and the nicotine, I won’t confuse the wind for whispers, at least until morning.

The anxiety attack is waning. The wind is only wind. A cold sting lights upon my neck. I look to the train tracks, and watch the long brush wave to the rushing clouds.

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