Tommy Dean ~ Cotton Candy

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 The man, dressed in a soiled Carhartt jack­et, wear­ing out-of-date wire rimmed glass­es, kept telling the boy no, his voice a warn­ing the boy didn’t want to hear.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.