It was an average night at the dead mall: the elderly were pocketing ceramic bird figurines while children were buying things with handfuls of pennies. Unknown brand names lined the shelves. The blank cassette tapes, hair scrunchies, and Virgin Mary nightlights were selling briskly. I answered customer inquiries such as “How much is this?” and “Is this a dollar?” and “How much would two of these cost?”
This was southern New Hampshire, the early 1990s. I worked at All For a Dollar, one of the more popular dead mall destinations. I pushed buttons on a cash register, I stocked shelves, I vacuumed. It was a low-pressure work environment, and I was one of the better employees. My minimal investment of effort somehow made me an outstanding worker in the eyes of my superiors, and I was promoted to Assistant Manager (I wanted a name tag that said ASS MAN but I was told that this was not going to happen). For a 20-year-old cartoonist looking to avoid responsibility and get a paycheck, this job provided a lovely place to sit.
I was slouched behind the front counter, drawing a comic and listening to the mall’s Tape Loop Of Hits play over and over again. The Tape Loop Of Hits emanated from a speaker somewhere above the bootleg “Co-ed Naked” t-shirt kiosk outside my store’s entrance. You could gauge the length of your shift by how many times you’d heard the instrumental version of The Cranberries’ 1993 hit “Linger.”
An angry-looking mom led her crying little boy into the store by his wrist. They’d been in the store just a few minutes before and I sensed my night was about to get annoying.
She strode up to my register. “What do you have to say?” she demanded.
I froze. Had she witnessed me and my part-timer cutting open glow sticks and splattering the toxic stuff on the ceiling (“It looks like stars!”)? Had she seen me taking Ramen Noodles off the front end cap for my lunch? Could she see I was drawing a comic about annoying All For a Dollar customers? I panicked. The boy looked up at his mother and made a blubbering noise. Ahh, she was talking to him. Good good good.
“I’m sorry,” he sobbed at the floor. I smiled my vacuous retail worker smile, because I didn’t understand or care about what was going on.
“What did you do?” the mother asked in a deeply serious tone.
He held a small toy truck out to me with his free hand. “I took it,” he said to me, bursting into fresh tears.
I held my empty smile. I still didn’t really care. The store bled merchandise every day. Shoplifting was built into the business plan. I looked at the boy and said “Oh yeah?” and then I looked at his mother with my blank, dumb smile. She didn’t smile back.
“And what do you say?” she said to me. To me! What did I do? I was baffled. I looked down at the wet-faced child and reality hit me like a ton of Virgin Mary nightlights: This kid was afraid of me. This wretched woman had recruited me in the effort to discipline her beastly snot-factory. Without my consent, she had appointed me to represent AUTHORITY. I had been shanghaied. My carefree days of youthful irresponsibility came crashing to a halt. With just a few words, she had transformed me into the one thing I most despised: I had become THE MAN.
I held out my hand and accepted the toy that probably had a wholesale price of twelve cents. I dropped my retail smile and spoke to the boy in as serious a voice as I could muster. I said the only thing I could think of. I said, “Stealing is bad.” He cried even more. Gross booger bubble.
“We’re very sorry,” the mother said to me. “…aren’t we?” she scowled at her son. He made a gurgling mucus-y sound of anguish and she led him out of the store. I stood at the counter, dumbfounded, contemplating my new role in the world, the Mantle of Responsibility weighing heavily upon my shoulders. A man approached me from the back of the store. His hand held a spatula; his eyes held a question.
“It’s a dollar,” I said.
★ Originally published in Meat For Tea, with a reading featured on the MFT podcast
★ This story is included in my best-of comic collection Everything You Didn’t Ask For
★ Read more Short Fiction & Other Stories