Different People Do Different Things
As promised, an early fiction work.
DIFFERENT PEOPLE DO DIFFERENT THINGS
Michael didn’t start out to do any of it, but who would, unless they faced the same circumstances and even then maybe most people wouldn’t react like he had, he guessed. But sitting in a holding cell surrounded by the dregs of society he sure felt funny. That sort of funny you feel when you say a word around a group of people and when they all laugh you discover that you have been saying it wrong for years, and you go around for the rest of the day feeling, well, funny.
It started easy enough, just a lazy afternoon sitting around the house when he broke a shoelace and one thing led to another and he headed to a Kmart to get a few things that had been floating around on that mental list we all keep in our head, and usually forget when faced with the chance to mark a few off. So out he headed, driving distractedly until he reached the parking lot and cruised around looking for a space. Must be prime time for cheap shoppers, seeing as how the lot was crowded. He corrected himself, since he was there as well. He sighted a slot an aisle over and maneuvered the car toward it and was about to nose in when a beat to hell station wagon cut him off and took the spot. A woman in rollers sneered at him from the passenger side window and he could see two kids in the back seat, climbing over the inside of the car, and he knew right off that neither one of them had ever felt a seatbelt or ever shut up in a car, and that it was just a matter of time and bad luck (or bad driving on the parents’ part) before one of them was on life-support because of a steering wheel thru the brain pan or a sheet of glass across the face left them scarred for life. He had a kid, older than that, in college now, and when he was younger he had always put the seatbelt on him, no matter how far they were going, and after awhile it became second nature for Brian. Those were the things you did, without thinking, to keep the ones around you safe. The concept of not wanting your kids to survive was as alien to him as advanced calculus, and he always fought back the impulse to approach somebody like that, mainly from fear that they would punch his lights out, which most likely the pair in the station wagon would.
The driver had gotten out of the car and was absorbed in fixing his hair with a comb he had pulled from his shirt pocket. Michael tried to remember the last time he had seen anyone carry a comb. Long time. The man was squat, and dressed as if just off of work, with a shirt that had his name sewn on the pocket, and he wore heavy greasy boots that made him look slightly like Lurch on TV.
He found another spot further along and parked. He ran down the list in his head, and started toward the store. It was a sunny day, but it was one of those days that looks good until you go outside and discover it’s actually in the low 40’s and so you move a little quicker from place to place, and you enjoy the sun and sky from a car window, if that. The store was as he had guessed, jammed with groups of people moving aimlessly around. He headed off down an aisle realizing as he did that he had no idea where to find shoelaces. Looking for a clerk was a wasted effort, since the only time they appear is when you have no need for them at all, and are looking at something like a swimsuit calendar or a pair of Speedo trunks and you end up embarrassed and leaving the store, without buying a thing. His thought processes clicked in enough to guide him to the shoe department, a logical choice to look for laces, he imagined. He passed the family from the parking lot, at least the mother of the group, and he heard the rest, sounding like a pack of cornered, snarling animals. The older girl was whining about a Sega game and the father was giving her what-for in a cold, cutting tone that made Michael cringe.
” Buy me this, take me there, let me have some money. Damn, is there gonna be a day when you ain’t asking for something?” The man barked and the girl, who was about fifteen, began wailing in a thin, rising voice. The younger one added his mantra of “Mama, Mama” until the sound of the mother’s “Shut UP!” silenced them both, at least long enough for Michael to get to the shoe section. He hated confrontation, and when he overheard it his stomach would ache and his insides would feel funny and he would have to get away or he would be sick. Instead of looking at shoelaces he got distracted by a rack of basketball shoes for teenagers. Had he worn something similar when he was younger? The shoes looked grotesque, huge and white like a pair of corrective devices, and he recalled that when he was a teenager he had worn Chuck Taylors just like everyone else. Looking down at his feet he realized he still did.
“Mama, I just want to look at ’em! I ain’t gonna buy nothin’. Please?” He turned and saw the girl from the station wagon, 15 years old and all ready laden with enough makeup to service a fifty year old hooker. She had on tight bluejeans and a pair of red plastic shoes. He stared at her, wondering just who in their right mind would think that a girl that age should leave the house dressed like that. She looked and talked like trash. Her mother evidently didn’t care to voice an opinion about where her daughter went, if she was even in the area. The girl came up the aisle Michael was on from the other end. She stood looking at a pair of black boots. They seemed just like the ones her father was wearing, but of course if you told her that she would roll her eyes and squeal. She appeared taken with them, trying them on and walking around in front of a mirror, admiring the way they looked. Made her look like she’s been drafted, Michael thought, but it wasn’t his kid or his money so he just moved along, forgetting entirely to find shoelaces.
Walking up and down the lanes he would wander in and out of a section, something catching his eye from across the way only to lose its appeal when he got to it. He could tell after awhile that this was turning into one of those “black hole” trips where you spend an hour and end up buying a tube of toothpaste and a book, and then get mad that you wasted the day. He decided to cut it short and leave, maybe go to Ron’s house and watch a game. The shoelaces could wait. He didn’t think he could face the girl again.
As luck would have it he spotted her again anyway, on his way out. She was at a counter covered in cheap earrings and bracelets. Out of the corner of his eye he watched her pick up a pair of loop earrings and bend down to the counter, to see how they looked in a little mirror on a stand. He kept watching. The girl was all alone, her parents off somewhere, and no employees (of course) were to be seen. He sighted the exit and headed for it, wondering if the Hawks game had started yet. He looked back at the girl. He didn’t know why, and sitting in the jail cell he knew that if he hadn’t all the rest just wouldn’t have happened.
When he looked back she was still all alone at the counter, about ten feet away from him. Her head was bobbing around like one of those dogs in the back of a low rider car, and she looked nervous. Something told him this was no good. When she could see that no one was around she took the pair of earrings off the counter and stuck them quickly in a pocket of her jeans, a difficult maneuver considering how tight the pants seemed to be. All at once Michael felt both saddened and angry.
Where in the hell were her parents? Thinking about it as he watched her walk away, he knew that however this turned out it would be bad for her. If she got caught, she would be sat down in a small room in the bowels of the store for hours, denying that she had parents with her, in a hope to escape the beating that would follow. Finally she would fess up, probably after watching the store dick call the cops, and she would have to sign a paper stating what happened and promise never to enter the store again. When she got home her father would take off his belt and take a long time to abuse and shame the girl, an attempt to make up for a lifetime of neglect.
Worse than that, really, was the chance she wouldn’t get caught. She would walk out of the store and get into the station wagon feeling all smug. After a few days of hiding the earrings from her mother she would wear them and feel all superior because she had gotten away with something, had gotten something for free when she had no other means to get what she wanted. No matter how it shook out, the girl was screwed. Michael wanted to shrug it off and leave, but something in his head said no, and he wondered what he could do.
He wanted to stop this, this whatever, before it was concluded by other forces. He didn’t know why, a hope maybe that if something like this had happened to his kid someone would have tried to help. He hoped that Brian had never stolen anything, but if he had he had never gotten caught and seemed these days like a reasonable and intelligent person, so maybe Michael had done all right by him. He walked behind the girl for a few rows, watching her hand dart to the pocket, anxious to make sure her plunder hadn’t fallen out. She stopped to look at a stand of CD’s. Michael edged beside her and leaning down, he spoke into the side of her head.
“Just between you and me, why don’t you walk back to the counter and just put them back. Trust me, you’ll be glad you did.”
The girl jerked her head around and looked up at him. In the half a second before she spoke he watched her face go from panic to punk, and he could hear the sneer in her voice when she spoke.
“Man, I don’t know what you’re talking about. Why don’t you move along before I call my mom.” She talked pretty tough but he could see a vein pumping on the side of her neck and she kept looking down at her pocket like she expected a tag to appear reading “Thief”.
He knew she wouldn’t call her mom, even if she hadn’t just stolen something, and this made him sad as well. He thought kids wouldn’t hesitate to run to a parent when they got hassled, but he guessed in some cases it wouldn’t do any good. From what he had seen of the family they couldn’t really be called a safe haven from anything, and he guessed a lot of people lived like this. Different people do different things, he had learned, and he just tried to overlook them, not get involved. But here he was, right in the middle of it, and he didn’t seem to be getting anywhere.
“You know somebody saw you. Look up.” She did, and he continued. “See all those black plastic domes in the ceiling? Know what’s in them? ” She didn’t respond, so he went on. “They have security cameras in them, and right now some fat old boy is watching you on a monitor, wanting for you to go near an exit so he can call his other fat friend who works the floor and have him arrest you as you walk out the door. That’ll be fun, won’t it? Think your dad might have a few words to say about it, when you get home? Think you are gonna like walking around school with a black eye, knowing that it’s your fault this time?” He waited, and finally she spoke.
“If they saw me, why don’t they come and get me now, smart guy, unless you’re the fat guy on the floor.” She was so snotty that he just about walked off and left her to fate. But he didn’t.
” Until you walk out of the store it is only intent to steal, not theft by taking. It is a lot harder to prove and isn’t worth the time. Now why don’t we walk back there and you just drop them on the counter. I’ll even cover you, okay?” She half-way looked like she was considering it, but in the end she snorted and walked away. When he caught up to her and took her arm she snapped at him.
“Listen, I don’t know what you are talking about, and if you don’t get away from me I’ll tell my mother that some perv is trying to make me right here in the store. She ain’t the kind of woman you want stirred up, trust me.” She kept walking, and Michael was dumbfounded. He never would have talked to an adult like that when he was a kid. He would have been smart enough, when cornered like that, to take the good odds and book. He watched her walk away, and she stopped and looked back, then turned down an aisle and disappeared.
He wanted to walk out of the store and forget it, but couldn’t. He wanted to watch her walk back to the counter and put the earrings back, but he knew she wouldn’t. He waited around the front of the store until he saw them go thru the checkout line and leave. He followed behind them, and as they reached the door the girl turned and looked at him and glared. He smiled, and she shot him a bird. Don’t that beat all, he thought, as he looked out at the parking lot and saw the puddles of rain on the ground, oil spills causing a prism of light in the wet. He walked thru the doors and glanced skyward, feeling the mist of the rain on his face. He just wanted to leave, go home and take a nap.
The family, as he was calling them now in his head, had bunched at the edge of the overhang and looked out at the sky, the parking lot, and the cars as if waiting for a reprieve. Finally the woman spoke, dragging on a cigarette and brushing the grabbing hands of the small child away from her leg. The kid couldn’t have been more than two, and was dressed like one of those kids you saw on a TV newscast of the aftermath of a fire at a trailer park, all runny nosed and shoeless, with a t-shirt that rode up over the navel with either shorts or a diaper on. This one at least had on sweatpants, with a hole in the knee, but no shoes or socks. It was only about 45 degrees out and with the rain it had caused Michael to pull his jacket tighter around him, so he could imagine how the kid felt.
This worried him more than the girl had, because this kid was so little, all legs and unwashed hair, and would turn out most likely to be just the same sort of mess he had grown up with, breeding and forgetting until he got too old to go on. The mother and father were carrying on a rather animated discussion about weather the man should go and get the car. He said no, she was just lazy, and she countered by pointing at her hair, with the big purple plastic rollers and squawking about ruining the curl.
Finally the man shoved off the curb and crammed his hands in his pockets and marched to the car, muttering under his breath about fat women and short walks. He should know.
Michael started out across the parking lot, trying to avoid both the lakes of water that had formed in the potholes of the concrete and the man in the Lurch boots. He made it to the car without suffering either, and waited for the car to warm up and the heater to kick in before leaving. As he sat he saw the family still grouped under the face of the store, the mother and daughter arguing about something. The girl still had her hand near the pocket of her jeans, and he imagined the metal inside must be burning a hole in the denim.
The more he looked at the pair he felt there was something wrong. It came to him and jerked his head up. It shouldn’t be a pair. Where was the kid? Maybe he couldn’t see him because of the cars in the way. But when he moved his car forward and down the lane toward them he could see the whole front of the store and the kid just wasn’t around. He pulled to a stop near a soda machine, about fifteen feet away from them, and watched as the dented station wagon pulled up. For a moment no one moved, and then the father honked the horn and both the girl and her mother moved toward the car, opening the doors and crawling in. The brake lights went off and the car moved out into the parking lot, cutting off another car and moving toward the lane to the exit. Maybe the kid went with the father, but he knew different. He looked around and finally saw the child standing in front of the doors, watching an older boy ride a painted horse, transfixed.
For a moment he didn’t know what to do, and then he put the car in park and got out. As he walked toward the child he kept looking to the front of the lot, expecting to see the station wagon turn and come back to the store. It never did, and was just sitting in a turn lane, waiting to go out onto the road. He picked up the child in his arms, feeling the cold from exposed skin as he walked back to his car. The child kept looking up at him and grinning, like this was a big adventure. Maybe it was. Michael unlocked the passenger door and set the kid in, and put the seat belt on and took off his coat and draped it over the boy, who was reaching for the radio knobs. Michael stood there in the rain and was struck by a sharp memory, one of his son doing the same thing, and by the time he got around to the front of the car he knew what he had to do. He put the car into drive and moved up to the end of the lot, two cars behind the station wagon. He looked through the glass of the car ahead of him, into the back of the wagon, looking for some sign that they had realized their loss, but none came. The right blinker pulsed on the station wagon and they moved ahead when the light changed. He turned left.
He had gone about two blocks down the road before he looked over at the child. He had found the door-lock button and was giggling as he made the post jump up and down. Now what to do, Michael wondered. He had made no firm plans once he picked up the boy, and he didn’t know if he could drive home. He felt he should drive far away, or maybe to a police station and turn the kid in, but he knew that would cause problems for everybody. He drove on, about another three blocks, when he noticed the blue lights in the rearview. He glanced over at the kid and back at the lights. The cop was motioning for him to pull over, and he did. He reached over and tickled the boys stomach, and the child collapsed into a gale of laughter, and Michael felt that no matter what happened, he had done some good.
One cop was at the window, another at the passenger side. Michael rolled down the window, feeling the mist coat his face until the cop moved closer and blocked it all.
“Sir, is that your child?” The cop was young, and kept one hand at his waist, near his gun. Michael wondered why. Was he dangerous?
“Why don’t you let the other officer have the child, and we can have a chat, okay?” He seemed nice enough, but they are trained to act that way. It wasn’t their natural behavior, he understood, and he knew that if he moved just a bit too fast his nose would hit the steering wheel and he would wake up in the back of a squad car, his hands locked together, watching a tow truck take his car away.
“No sir, it isn’t. I saw the parents drive off, and I (just wanted to save him) was trying to catch up to his family.” He spoke looking straight ahead, and concentrated on the traffic light blinking red in front of him.
“Well the funny thing is they went right and you went left. We were in the parking lot, eating lunch, about three rows over from you both. We just waited to see what you were going to do once those folks in the station wagon pulled away. Thought you might have been trying to save us some work. Could you unlock the other door, sir?” Michael did, wanting to ask the cop why, if he saw the parents leave the child, didn’t he come over right then and do something, but he figured he wasn’t due any questions at the moment, and then the other cop reached in and took the child, wrapping Michael’s jacket tighter around him.
The next few hours passed in a daze, and the only thing he remembered was asking a cop if the family was going to press charges.
“In a case like this, it doesn’t matter. Snatching a kid is a felony, even if the parents don’t report it, although I’ve never heard of that happening, you know. Either way this is a pretty serious thing. I think you should get a lawyer.”
As Michael sat in the holding cell he decided the cop was right. He wondered, as he read off their license plate number in his head, if he knew of one who was good at defending murderers.
(c)1997 James Mann