For Lack of Three Dollars

by Dawn Allison

Every time the door opened, a belch of icy air would rush in. I sat behind the counter, looking at the multicolored lotto tickets beneath the glass, the neatly stacked cases of pop at the end of the aisle, the headlights outside the window, moving slow and careful on the snowy road. Anything but the checkout girl. She was fat and shitty, and I hated her with all the passion my twelve year old brain could muster. She was one of those miserable people who wants everybody to be miserable right along with her. She had dull eyes, a malicious mouth, and a round basketball head. Her fake lacquered nails clicked on the keys of the register whenever a customer came in. After the look from the man in the hat with the fur lined ear flaps, I didn’t look at the customers anymore.

They all said Merry Christmas after paying and before leaving, ringing the bell on the door as they went. I stared down at my hands for awhile, because I could feel the checkout girl glaring at me in the lull between customers. We were waiting for the police to arrive. Or, she was waiting for the police to arrive; I was waiting for the whole rotten ordeal to be over. I was wearing a kid’s coat, I realized. It was puffy and colorful, printed with iridescent flowers that gave me a headache. Or maybe it was the thought of how I was ever going to live this down that gave me the headache. That night it didn’t seem like I ever would. An unopened box of tampons sat on the counter in front of me, my own scarlet letter. I wouldn’t have hated the cashier so much if she hadn’t been a woman.

I was able to convince myself that it couldn’t possibly get any worse. The police took their sweet time in showing up, and as the minutes stretched forever and ever, I had plenty of time to calm myself down. I was proud of myself, obviously not for what I’d done or the circumstance I put myself in, but because I wasn’t sitting on that high stool bawling like an idiot. I wanted to, no mistake about it, but I didn’t, not then. I still had my mom to face. Surely she would want to know why I didn’t just use one of her gigantic pads. I couldn’t tell her that the damn things were so long I could probably wrap one clear around my waist. I couldn’t tell her that sitting on one of those monstrosities felt like sitting on a stack of phone books. And she would have probably laughed at me if I told her I was 99% percent certain that anybody who looked would notice the bulge. I remembered Jackie from school, with her white jeans, and how they laughed at her for the red splotch in the back after sixth period. I imagined that they would notice and tease me relentlessly for wearing something that definitely resembled a diaper in form. Mom would disregard all of that, and I would still be wrong.

Mom and Jon, my stepfather, were at a Christmas party for adults only. It didn’t start until eight, so they left us to fend for ourselves warning us that we best be in bed before they got back if we wanted any sort of Christmas in the morning. I, for one, would not be. While I sat on the stool I thought of my brothers and sister, and what fun they were having back home. They’d been peeking at presents when I left to walk down to the gas station at the end of the road. I would have stayed and peeked along with them if it hadn’t been for the sadistic cry of puberty. I was in that awkward phase between woman and child. I would have preferred to be just a child. Especially while I sat on the hot seat waiting for forever to end.

It couldn’t get any worse, though. At least there was that. Except the bell on the door rang again. I dared a glance up. I immediately wished that I hadn’t. I knew him. He sat in front of me on the bus. I’d seen the back of his shaved head a hundred times, though I’d actually talked to him only a few times because he was a high school kid, and I was just a seventh grader. His name was Bo. He was bulky, a football player. He saw me behind the counter, my prize and my shame right in front of me. It took him a minute, but he recognized me. I tried to convince myself that he didn’t, that over Christmas break he would forget what he saw at BP that night. Which was bull, a futile exercise. Kids don’t forget that kind of thing. It’d be too humanitarian, too easy. I saw the cop car pull into the parking lot while he checked out. A bottle of Mountain Dew and some beef jerky, he handed her a ten and the she gave him his change.

“Merry Christmas,” he said to the cashier. For all my wishing, she wasn’t a bit more dead than she had been when she made me empty my pockets, and not finding anything there, my sleeves. Jackpot. The bell on the door rang. A woman police officer hurried in. Bo tipped his hat in my direction and slipped out. The woman looked from the box of tampons, to me, to the cashier. Clearly she was embarrassed enough for us all, though I thought I already had that pretty much covered.

“This the one?” She asked. The cashier with the cow face nodded with a grin. She had lipstick on her teeth, and I even hated that. The officer turned to me. “I’m going to have to take you in, file a report. Then I’ll call your parents and have them pick you up.” She gestured for me to follow her. I hopped off the stool, glared at the cashier, then followed the officer outside.

Next to the cruiser she asked me for my parents’ names and a phone number where she could reach them. I couldn’t hold it back anymore. I told her they were out, then gave her the phone number for our house through sobs, knowing she wouldn’t get anybody other than maybe my older brother. Suddenly I saw the whole thing play out. She would tell Eric what happened, and Eric would spread the word. Everybody would know, and life as I knew it would be over if it wasn’t already.

She opened the passenger side door of the cruiser. The front, not the back, which surprised me. I knew where criminals were supposed to go. I figured she’d have me behind the Plexiglas window separating the back from the front for sure. She told me to sit tight for a minute while she took the cashier’s statement. She went back in. I watched from the car window. Snow fell softly, and a glance at the dashboard confirmed that it was Christmas now.

Inside I could see the two women talking. The officer took notes. She had a long braid and a pretty face, unlike the cow of a cashier who was all makeup and misery. The officer shook her head a lot. Then I saw her open her wallet and take out a five. The cow scanned the box of tampons, the officer handed her the money. She had the beast put the box into a discreet brown paper bag, then she carried them out to the cruiser. She got in beside me.

“I don’t suppose you would have taken these if you didn’t need them.” She handed me the bag after she pulled out of the parking lot.

She drove slow. The snow fell, reflecting the red and green of the stoplights. It was late and the roads were mostly empty. We rode in silence for a while because I couldn’t think of anything to say. When we got to the station, it was nearly empty. I sat in a plastic chair holding my paper bag and waiting for the hammer to fall. I don’t recall whether or not I said thank you to that officer, but I’m pretty sure I said Merry Christmas. Everybody does, that time of the year, whether or not they think about it first.

2 Responses to “For Lack of Three Dollars”

  1. Mercedes says:

    This is a fantastic essay.

  2. Cindy Oster says:

    Very, very well written. Simple and genuine. I want to know if her parents found out that she had stolen the “goods” – and if so – what happened.

    Time to write a book……….

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