Gavin, a middle school history teacher, stood in line at the supermarket, ducking his head, trying to go unnoticed. Though he only had a few items, he hated the self-check machines, afraid he’d make a mistake or the price wouldn’t ring up right. Some of the employees were his former students: conversations like scripts from bad commercials he couldn’t suffer through again. So he waited in the express lane, the opening like a World War I trench, flanked by aging candy bars and other impulse-buy items, which had become surprisingly hi-tech in recent years. Cell phone chargers, wireless speakers, and ear buds colored like cotton candy. All this technology, and the older lady in front of him was paying with a check. Her fingers fumbled through the writing process. The check-out girl, a forty-something with crimson hair, distractedly spun the carousel of plastic bags awaiting their journey to a landfill.
Gavin, the sweat ebbing from his hairline and drying on his face, was jittery from his workout and the edge of adrenaline fizzling underneath his skin. He reminded himself to chill. A phrase he employed against the rage of ADHD that filled his classroom.
The older lady’s check was approved and Gavin inched his cart up, jockeying for more space, as the line behind him filled with a young boy and a gentleman surely too old to be the father, but too young to be the grandparent. Family demographics were so strange these days that Gavin often felt lost in the world, unsure of who belonged together.
The boy was whining, his voice growing more desperate—louder—as he picked up each package of candy. The man, dressed in a soiled Carhartt jacket, wearing out-of-date wire rimmed glasses, kept telling the boy no, his voice a warning the boy didn’t want to hear.
As Gavin reached for his membership card, the woman greeted him with a sigh, swiped the card across the scanner, then handed it back without saying hello. Gavin avoided saying any more than he had to, afraid to give the woman a chance to launch into her worries of the day. People, Gavin had noticed, were becoming more prone to over-sharing.
His steaks, a baking potato, sadly wrapped in plastic for quick cooking in the microwave, a bunch of bananas, and a six pack of toilet paper went through the scanner without comment.
“You never get me anything,” the boy in line behind him said, his body jerking like a wind sock, wiggling closer to Gavin.
The father growled. Fierce and foreboding. He pulled the kid away from the rack, Paydays raining from the boy’s hands, clattering to the ground at Gavin’s feet. The boy stomped, kicking one bar under the rack, another knocking against Gavin’s shoe. Gavin reached down to pick up the Payday, meeting the boy’s gaze: eyes of rage and tired with frustration, a twinkle of manipulation that harbors itself deep inside certain children’s souls, bubbling up, silently begging for help.
It was clearly one of those classic don’t-get-involved moments. One you’d tell your wife about, laughing at how badly another parent handled the situation. I mean he actually growled, Gavin would have said, his wife swatting his arm, chortling, her voice ringing like a cracked bell, until tears emerged. If they were still together—but these conversations were no longer in his life. Hadn’t been for years. His own children no longer begged him for candy or much of anything now that they had their own families to worry about.
His last item on the belt (a box of Cheez-Its) he’d eat while drinking a few beers tonight as the sun set, and he’d finally given up pretending he’d cook the steaks that each week continued to move smoothly from the check-out person’s hands into each waiting plastic bag.
The woman pointed to the Payday in Gavin’s hand, asking him, “Want that too?”
The boy was quiet, arms crossed. His father’s large hands pressed over the boy’s shoulders. We put so much weight on them—kids—with our words, hands too, forcing them to drag a loaded sled into adulthood.
“Might as well,” Gavin said, handing over the candy. A final beep and then the woman was reading off his total. Gavin put his debit card into the reader and pushed the little green button.
Tommy Dean is the author of a flash fiction chapbook entitled Special Like the People on TV from Redbird Chapbooks. A graduate of the Queens University of Charlotte MFA program, he has been previously published in the Watershed Review, TINGE Magazine, Wilderness House Literary Review, Split Lip Magazine, Boston Literary Magazine, and Spartan. Find him @TommyDeanWriter on Twitter.