“Ma’am, will that be paper or plastic?”
“Oh, I brought my own bags.” The woman rummaged in her oversized purse and pulled out two smaller bags and handed them to Reginald.
“I like to see that,” Reginald said. “Very frugal.” He opened each and readied himself to intercept the scanned goods as they arrived. As his hands brushed over the material of the bags, his fingers began to tingle. The soft, dense fibers lightly impregnated with a plastoid material; the over-stitched, heavy duty carrying handles; the dark red hue slowly fading into a delicate sunset orange. This was no ordinary bag, like the cheap kind his own store sold; these bags were special. He looked for a tag. No label, nothing. Intriguing.
“Hey Glen, make sure to give her the five cent discount for using her own bags,” Reginald said.
“Got it, Reg,” the cashier said as he whisked the products through the scanner with a seasoned grace. “Thanks.”
The first product came down the conveyor: a small tub of pesto, the expensive kind. Such exquisite tastes, in bags and in spreads. He put it off to the side, noticing there were heavier items to put in first. He wasn’t afraid of overloading the bags, not these. He snapped on by the handles and felt the tension build and dissolve through the bag. There was something wrong, though, something—
Two cartons of almond milk came down the conveyor and he whisked them into a bag. Then he noticed it again, a thread near the carrying handles. A parcel from the deli came next. He picked it up and squeezed it slightly. Must be fish. The thread stuck out, only slightly near the top. He reached slowly towards it. Three different cleaning bottles, each for its own surface, came in succession and he put them in the bag without the fish. His finger and thumb caressed the thread, felt the sheen of plastic. Not too thick like the bags from China; tactfully done.
The cashier struggled to remember how to charge a gift card. Reginald wanted to help but had no formal training in the subject. Once, he was caught on the keyboard trying to price check and his manager chastised him. The gift card with its attractive paper backing came down, followed by a twenty-ounce bottle of iced tea. “You want this in the bag, ma’am?” Reginald asked the lady.
“No, thank you,” she responded. “I’ll take it with me.”
Reginald took one carton of almond milk out and put it in the other bag to even the weight and put the gift card in with it. His eyes flashed back to the thread, then to the lady. She was running her debit card. No time to lose. He shuffled the bag a bit, and in a flash tugged on the thread with just the right amount of force. The thread came loose, unraveled all the way to the side. An unseemly scar ran where the thread once weaved perfectly through its proper place.
He inhaled deeply. He rested his hands on the top of the bags and felt a shiver oscillate through him. The unmistakable sound of the printer interrupted him, and the lady turned with the white receipt in hand. She smiled at Reginald.
“Ma’am, looks like you have a thread loose on that one bag,” he said, pointing at it.
She looked closely at it, adjusting her bifocals. “Oh dear, these cheap things…”
“Shouldn’t be much trouble,” he said. “Just a quick snip and it shouldn’t bother you anymore.”
“Hmm.” She picked up her bags and the milk caused them to sag. They would hold up. They weren’t cheap. Cheap bags? The lady doesn’t even know what she has. Doesn’t deserve them. Reginald shook his head as she walked to the exit.
“Reg, it's almost six,” a middle aged woman with a red clip-on tie said. “Why do I always have to kick you out of here at the end of your shift?”
“What can I say Carol,” Reginald said. “This old fart's institutionalized!”
“I'm putting you on parole until Thursday at 11 AM.” Carol gave a wink and walked away. Reginald noticed that the sticker on her name-tag had peeled another millimeter.
“Welp Glen, guess I gotta go,” Reginald said to the cashier. “Make sure the next bagger gets a rag and wipes down this place. I'd do it but you know Carol's gonna run me out of here.”
“Yep Reg. You take it easy.”
It was Summer and the Northern elevation meant a few extra hours of daylight. Reginald walked slowly down the sidewalk, plodding as he does, looking up at the trees waving back and forth in the light breeze. He remarked silently how clear the sky was, and how even the sidewalk. Everything was in place because of the tireless effort of his fellow citizens.
Even the outside of his apartment looked tidier than usual. Maybe it was last week's rain, or the coat of varnish his landlady had put on a few months back. Either way, it matched the unblemished nature of it all. Inside, he found his dust bin and scraped off the top of his bookshelf and the mantle, moving each picture so they wouldn't leave unsightly outlines. The dust bin was almost full to the top. Tonight he would empty it.
He adjusted his plants so they wouldn’t bunch up and dabbed at a little pool of water forming in their saucers. The magazines said not to water them so much, but he just couldn't help it. After a quick meal of baloney, mustard, lettuce, and rye bread, he brewed some instant tea and sat down with the book he had been reading for the last few months. It was about space, or so he thought; anyway, it had been a few decades since he read it last and he didn't remember it at all. He sipped his tea. The magazines said not to drink tea so close to bed time, but like the plants, he just couldn't help it.
At a decent hour, he pulled up his blankets and found the pillow for his knees, the one that kept losing itself every night. Before he lied down he checked on the dust bin. Still there. Tomorrow he would wake up bright and early and empty it. It would be a good day.
At four a.m. he woke up naturally, and before doing anything else—even brushing his teeth and shaving—he threw on the pair of jeans that he had set next to the bookshelf and found his shirt after some trouble. He had to hurry.
The dust bin was still there. He lifted the plastic top and checked to see if it really was full. It still had a half-inch or so to go, but it would do. Next time he would find more things to dust.
Outside, he saw stars that he could only see at times like these. Some day he promised to memorize the constellations. Dust bin in hand, he walked quickly and quietly to the common room with the laundry machines. It was always unlocked, something he always said just wasn't right considering people's clothes being in there, but now he favored it. The door opened smoothly, each hinge oiled as they should be. The lights turned on automatically, meaning he had to hurry lest some busy-body come bursting in wondering why someone’s up so early. He surveyed the area.
Washers, sink counter, coffee table, coffee machine, change machine, all immaculate. He popped the top off his dust bin and sprinkled some onto the coffee table. Not too much, there has to be enough to spare. He moved to the washer and applied a small layer to each. Then to the coffee machine. Here he didn't sprinkle as much. He knew how much he hated dusty coffee. He sprinkled some into the bowl of the change machine and watched as it pooled in the bottom. Once everything was covered he did another round, moving some of it with his hands to make an even coating. The dust bin was nearly empty but he didn't want to risk something being uneven, so he dumped the rest in the trash can. When he opened the lid the layer he put on before fell to the floor and he chided himself for not putting that layer on last. He checked the clock on the wall. 4:18. Perfect timing.
After a breakfast of bran cereal, a short shower and a nap, he headed back to the common room at exactly seven a.m. His land-lady was there with a feather duster in hand.
“Mornin' Christie,” Reginald said.
“Mornin' Reggie,” Christie responded.
“How's the landlording business?” Reginald asked. “Everyone paying on time?”
“Everyone but you, Reggie.” Christie said, smiling.
“This place is full of deadbeats.”
Reginald walked to the coffee machine and opened up a tin of coffee crystals, brushing off a little dust. He could hear the swish of the duster moving over the table and he snuck a peek over his shoulder at Christie's rotund form bent over.
“I tell you, Reggie,” Christie said as she stood up and put her hands on her hips.
“This place gets dustier every other day.”
“Hmm? What's that?”
“I said it gets dustier every day.”
Reginald filled up the coffee pot with lukewarm water and dumped it into the machine. He turned around and mimicked Christie's pose. He looked around scrupulously. “You know what? It's these dryers getting old, kicking up lint that's been in there since before synthetics.”
“Maybe you're right,” Christie said with a wave of her duster. “I just can't afford new ones with the rent you deadbeats pay me.”
Reginald tottered over to her and put his hand on her shoulder. “You can raise my rent if you want. I know you work for it.”
“I'd only raise your rent because I know you've got a mattress full of cash in that place,” Christie said. The coffee machine started trickling.
“It's all tied up in T-bonds, sorry!”
“Oh Reggie, you're such a kidder.”
He chuckled as he turned to the coffee machine. Christie went back to dusting. Once the machine stopped leaking he poured some into a mug with a faded image of a crow and the words “Tombstone, Arizona, 1995. Send More Tourists. The last batch was delicious!” printed on it.
“I'll see you later, Christie,” he said as he headed for the door.
“You too, Reggie. Don't get buried in dust on me.”
“Not a chance. Not a chance.”
Another beautiful, sunny day, only a couple clouds. These were the good ones though, the ones that allowed for a little shade but still lent an air of joy. He liked not being in the sun all of the time. He swore he could see his skin wrinkle up a little more after only a few minutes in the sun. That didn't matter though. Why did he care if he was getting wrinkly now? His youth was long over; the memories of his once taut skin would last him until death. As long as those moles didn't start showing up like the doctor warned him about—the ones that aren't symmetric.
Reginald always passed by this oak tree heading to work every day. It had been growing there since he was a kid oh so many years ago. This time, a car was parked underneath. Smart thing, with the heat like this, any car not under a shade would be quite toasty inside. He ran his hands over the oak tree. Those darned overzealous gardeners had trimmed it recently—for no good reason, of course—and one of the stumps was leaking sap.
It was sticky on his fingers. Little tendrils thinned and snapped as he slowly opened his hand. He looked down on the car. He gathered a little more on his fingers. His head swiveled to see down the sidewalk. With a deft movement he smeared the sap on the roof of the car.
“Hey, what are you doing?” he heard from across the street.
Reginald's heart jumped. His head snapped up and his droopy eyes snapped open as he looked in the direction of the voice. A man in a suit—not the finest quality like those back in the day—walked towards him with a briefcase in one hand and a coffee in the other.
“Hmm? Me?” Reginald responded as his heartbeat receded.
“Yeah,” the man said over the car. “Did you touch the roof of my car?”
“Oh, hmm, maybe,” stalled Reginald. “Caught up in the nostalgia I suppose.”
“What's that?” the man asked.
“Reminds me of car I had a while back. Reliable one. Had to sell it to pay the bills.”
“This is a 2003. It's not that old.” The man still looked suspicious.
“Well, you know us old folks. We have the strangest attachments. Anyway, sorry if you don't want me touching.”
“Whatever,” the man said. “It’s okay.” He opened the driver side door and tossed the briefcase onto the passenger seat. Reginald stood there shuffling his feet.
“Everything all right, sir?” the man asked. He looked at Reginald, and then to the roof of the car. “Oh my God! There's tree sap on the roof!”
Reginald's heart quickened again. He wanted to walk away, but the thrill of possibly getting caught-
“I just had this washed! This stuff never comes off.”
“Reminds me of this one time my Uncle got a dollop on his old station wagon. Darned thing held up pretty well under sandpaper. I bet he must have went through-”
“Sorry, mister,” the man interrupted, “but I have to get going.” He dropped into his seat and without delay started the car and drove off. Reginald stood and watched. Only after the car drove around a bend did he register the man's facial features: prominent cheekbones; light brown eyes; hair still holding the bounce of youth. It wasn't just getting caught, but getting caught by him.
All throughout his shift his heart was light. The adrenalin of getting caught refused to lessen. His mind refused to forget the eyes of the man. In the midst of bagging he would gaze off to the ceiling, thinking about how the tree sap felt on his fingers—he had to wash it off of course, couldn’t have it smearing on the customers’ items—and how it glided off his fingers onto the cool metal roof. He would give anything to be caught by him again.
Reginald’s coworkers noticed his mood, how he was moving slightly slower than usual. It might be his age, they thought. But Reg was a good worker, never slowed down for anything. It might be he won the lotto. But then he would quit. But Reg loves this place, has been working here for so long. He seemed happy, though, and as long as he kept bagging, who cares. When his shift was over, he tossed his apron and started to walk to the exit without a word.
“You leaving without saying goodbye, Reg?” Glen asked.
“Oh!” Reginald stopped and turned around. “I can’t believe I forgot. You know I’ve been a little dreamy today.” He chuckled.
“I’ll say,” Glen said.
“Anyway, I’ll see you tomorrow, same time.” Reginald walked away, smiling and chuckling to himself.
As he walked by the oak tree again he looked around to see why the man had parked here. Sure, his suit wasn’t so nice, but he could still work at the bank yonder. He certainly wouldn’t be staying in the student apartments on this side of the street. Had he ever seen the car before? Tomorrow he would take the same route and pray the car and its lovely owner would return.
The next day, Reginald walked to work a little earlier, fingering something special in his pocket. He ran his finger over the coarseness, not too fine; it was the only kind he could find in his small toolbox. There was the car in the distance, right under the same oak tree. He was half an hour early—would the owner walk out on time? He bet he was punctual, smart-looking man like that.
The tree sap was still on the roof, untouched. He sighed a little. He wanted to do it again, but he knew he couldn’t repeat the magic. Instead, he took the thing out from his pocket and unfolded it. A small piece of sandpaper, slightly used from who knows when. He inspected the tires. All of them were relatively new. The front right tire seemed the least worn, probably means the owner takes too many left turns, doesn’t know about the right turn trick.
He bent down and lightly rubbed the sandpaper over the tire treads as a test run. He could feel the resistance. He pressed harder now, moving it back and forth from one side to the other. The scraping sound was quiet but pleasant. After a few strokes he checked the paper. A light black dust was impregnated in the paper. He blew on it once and avoided the cloud it sent up. He looked at the rear tire and memorized the tread. The front tire wasn’t down to that level just yet. A few more scrapes and he was done.
He stood up, waved the sandpaper to get rid of the rest of the dust, then kicked around at the small pile at the base of the tire. The tread looked just like the rest of the tires. Sure, the bottom of the tire would be less worn, but he certainly couldn’t do anything about that. He checked his watch. Seven minutes until the day anniversary of their first meeting. He walked back the way he came and loitered around the door of a convenience store, watching intently at the other side of the street for a man dressed in a suit.
There he comes—Reginald could recognize the briefcase he had in his hand. He started to walk back towards the car, staring at the ground in order to appear casual. He timed it perfectly such that they both met at the car.
“Morning!” Reginald said, perhaps a little too enthusiastically. “Long time no see!”
The man looked at him quizzically. “Morning,” the man said cautiously.
“Oh, you probably don't remember me. You had the tree sap on your car.”
“Oh, yeah, from yesterday or the day before. Something like that.” The man slowly unlocked his car and opened the door.
Reginald's heart quickened again, a bit less than their last meeting, but enough to keep him interested. “Yesterday, yes. I, uh, brought you something.” He fumbled in his pocket for the piece of sandpaper. Before he handed it over he checked quickly for specs of rubber.
The man accepted it with an even more quizzical look. He unfolded it slowly, moving it back and forth between his fingers. “Is it, sandpaper?”
“Yes!” Reginald's head bobbed in excitement. “For the tree sap.”
The man looked on the roof at the small patch of yellowy luminance on his tan paint job. He looked back at the sandpaper. “You know, I might not need this.”
“Of course, you'll have to be careful so you don't scrape a little paint away, but with a steady hand—I certainly can't help you here, heh heh—you could wear it down a little.”
“Right, I still don't think I need it. It isn't that bad.” He handed the sandpaper over the roof.
“No no, please. Hold on to it, maybe you'll change your mind. I found it in some old toolbox and I certainly won't use it again.”
The man shrugged and sighed, then threw the sandpaper in the car. “Thanks, I guess. I have to get going now.”
“Wait!” Reginald said in a panic. “What's your name?”
The man was halfway into the car already but stood back up, hand still on the door. “Jeffrey.”
“Jeffrey? Reginald. Everyone calls me Reg or Reggie.” Reginald hand jutted out and the man had to accommodate. “I figure if we keep passing each other every day we might as well get acquainted.”
“Sure, but I'm late now. Sorry to keep cutting out on you.” The door shut and the car rolled away just as it had their last meeting.
Jeff. Jeffrey. A pleasant sounding name for such a pleasant person. Reginald looked down and noticed a residual black dust. Then he thought to keep the sandpaper just in case the unsanded part were to be facing up one day. Too late. The sandpaper was probably in better hands, anyway.
The door to Reginald's apartment opened slowly and he walked in. He looked around his domain. He didn't know what to do. His book was getting harder to read. Some of the science stuff they did was hard to follow. Could he really have understood it a few decades ago? The plants were watered; there wasn't much dust—that was getting boring, too. He only wanted tomorrow morning to come.
There was a light knock on his door. He opened it slowly, peeking at first, and saw Christie smiling at him.
“Christie!” Reginald said, swinging the door open. “Come in, please!”
“Hello, Reggie.” she said. Her hands were balled up together against her chest.
“Did I forget to pay the rent again?” Reginald said wryly.
“No, Reggie. No.” She looked around his apartment. “My, this place is so tidy. How do you keep it so nice while the rest of this complex is falling apart?”
“I only have only one person to clean up after, whereas you have a small city.”
She smiled. They shared an awkward silence. “So,” Reginald said finally. “What can I do you for?”
“Oh! It was nothing really, just a silly question...” Christie paused again and looked down at the carpet. “I was just—just noticed that, well, you don't have a wedding ring, or—you're never with anyone—”
Reginald's brow furled. She went on. “And I thought, instead of us only seeing each other in the common room, maybe—maybe we could get coffee somewhere else. Oh—”
He wanted to chuckle. Reginald wasn't exactly unattractive. Other women had shown interest in him, and a few times in his youth he went on dates. Every time, though, he just wasn't interested. It had been years since a woman tried to court him. He never thought his landlady, the woman he had been on cordial terms with for as long as he lived there, would ever bother with one of her tenants.
Did he like her? Should he bother? He felt a tingle, something deep inside. He looked for it, conjured up an image. It was—a car, a suit, a fear. A pair of eyes: unwrinkled, bothered. He felt nothing for this landlady, middle-aged and yet still too young for him.
“Well, Christie,” he started to say.
“No, no, I've made a mistake,” Christie interrupted. She grasped her hands tighter in front her chest and began to turn around, but stopped and turned the other way.
“Now hold on a sec,” Reginald said as he grasped her shoulder mid-turn.
“You're, uh, uh, a great landlady, and—really friendly. And—”
“You don't have to apologize, Reggie.” Her shoulder moved from under his hand. He opened his mouth to speak but the door slowly shut before anything came out.
Tomorrow would be the day.
He woke up restless, hours before work and nothing to do in the meantime. He tried dusting but couldn't force himself to open the dust bin. The book was worthless; the cereal eaten too fast.
He gathered his stuff together and decided to go for a walk. Before he realized where he was going he wound up next to the car, parked right under the old oak tree. His hand shook as he looked at his watch. A few hours early.
He decided to walk around the block once; maybe that would take up a good chunk of time. His first loop was quick, mostly spent staring at the concrete. The second loop just as short. Had the minute hand only moved that much? He decided to go slower, take in the sights more. There was some sort of fruit-bearing tree. Not the kind you eat, he thought, considering no one ever picked them. He picked a couple of small, unripe pieces and dropped them on the sidewalk and stepped around them. Don’t want to track juice everywhere. A half-empty bottle of water lay upright in the middle on the curb. He kicked it into the middle of the street. A stop sign had a bolt loose near the bottom. He screwed off the nut and pocketed it.
All boring, little things. No one to show them off to. Why’d he wake up so early? Damned old body—used to sleep a lot more when he was young.
He sat at a bench and watched the clouds. He wished he could stretch his hand up and swish them away. Everyone would have to take out their fancy sunglasses. Time went on and more clouds moved in. It might rain, wash all the dust and juices away. The sap would still be on the roof, he was sure of that. The rain ain’t all that bad. Paint dulls, trees sag, rivers get clogged and wear away their banks.
As the time grew closer, he found himself looking at his watch more often. Seems like only the second hand was ticking. But, after so many walks around the block, he readied himself the same place as last time and watched closely for Jeffrey to come. The last time he checked his watch he noticed his hands shaking more than usual. Damn body’s breaking down.
Somehow Jeffrey got to the car without Reginald seeing. The door to the car was open and Jeffrey was sliding in. A panic set into Reginald and he started trotting towards the car.
“Hey—hey there! Jeffrey!” Reginald shouted, his hand waving in the air. Jeffrey looked for the voice.
“Jeffrey! Whew. Glad I caught you,” Reginald said, out of breath. Jeffrey put on his signature cautious look.
“Are you, uh, going or coming from work? It’s Reg, if you remember.”
“Yeah,” Jeffrey said. “I remember. I, uh, just got off of work. But—“
“So early! You work the graveyard shift?”
“Yes, and I’m very tired.”
“I’ll bet. Anyway, uh, I was wondering, we only see each other under this old oak tree, but—well, I was wondering if maybe we could get a cup of coffee somewhere else.”
Jeffrey suppressed a sigh. “Alright, but only for a half hour.”
“There’s one up the street!” Reginald said.
“Guess I tried to get other jobs, but never had the willpower. Never wanted to move up either. I guess I was content with bagging. I got simple needs.” Reginald put his wrinkled lips on the rim of a short paper cup and tried again to sip the hot tea.
“Hmm,” Jeffrey murmured as he eyed the abandoned daily paper. Would it be rude to flip through it now?
“So, you work at the bank?” Reginald asked.
“Yeah, for the moment. Installing new software on their computers. Can’t do it during the day so I have to work at night.”
“And they make you wear a suit for that?” The water cooled enough to let
Reginald take a loud sip. Jeffrey cringed.
“Banks are weird places.”
“Once you’re done you’ll move on to something else?”
“Yeah, my company ships me around to other places. Luckily, within driving distance or else I’d quit.”
“I’ve been walking to work every day for decades, seems like. Used to own a car but had to sell it, just like I told you at our first meeting.” Reginald’s heart jumped after remembering. “Minimum wage just don’t cut it like it did in my time.”
Both men looked down at the table. Jeffrey discreetly looked at his watch. Reginald’s hands grasped his cup as tightly as it could handle, trying to disguise his shaking hands. The thought that the man who caught him in the act was sitting across from him right now—goodness!
“I—I have something to tell you.” Reginald said. Ripples danced in his cup. “The tree sap. That was me. I did it.”
“You did what?” Jeffrey asked, leaning closer to Reginald.
“I wiped the tree sap on your car. On purpose. I’m so sorry…” Reginald’s head fell, partially from relief and disgrace.
“Did it get on your hands?”
“No, I did it willingly. You know how I said I have simple needs? Well, sometimes I—I do things.”
“Like wipe tree sap on other people’s cars?” Jeffrey said acerbically.
“Not just that, but other things, too. I have a demon.”
Jeffrey leaned back in the plastic chair and his expression changed to full-grimace. “What am I even supposed to say to this? You wipe tree sap on my car and then invite me to coffee?”
“Not just that, but, I used that sand paper to wear the treads down on your tire.”
It was out now. The last word escape Reginald’s throat like a bullet.
“It was only a little! Just a little bit on the front right tire, I swear!”
“Why would you do that at all? Are you insane?”
“No, please, don’t call me that. I told you, I have simple needs.”
“You need to wear down my treads on the car I paid for.”
“No, no. When you caught me wiping the sap, I was transfixed. No one had ever caught me in the act of my—doings, and, I don’t know, I wanted to do it again. Please, don’t think this old codger is weird.”
“It’s way too late for that!”
Reginald walked in not knowing how he was going to confess, or what was going to happen. He had only hoped that Jeffrey would find it an old man’s quirk and forget about it. Maybe they would spend more time together, and he could confess more doings--but the look of Jeffrey’s face right now; it was over, over!
His breathing grew heavier. With each outgoing breath, a slight groan came with it. Jeffrey stared for a moment longer.
“You know what?” Jeffrey said. “Just, never talk to me again, okay? I don’t care about the tire, as long as you leave me alone, okay?”
“Sure, sure…” Reginald stood up and walked out of the door, head low. He had staked so much on this moment, and now it was over, the worst possible outcome. He still had to work, but not under these circumstances, not until he did this one thing.
The coffee shop was perched at the crest of the hill, and down the hill, down the uneven, tree root-ridden sidewalk was Jeffrey’s car. He just needed to do one thing. He looked around. Jeffrey hadn’t left the coffee shop--maybe to give the old man some space so they didn’t run into each other. Reginald got down on one knee and felt under the car. It was parked far enough from the curb that he could squeeze his body underneath to do his thing.
His old joints protested as he lay on the curb and scooted underneath the car. All he needed was one arm underneath and a good view. There it was: a lone tube. He grasped the tube—what was it for? Don’t matter—and tugged it once, twice. It wouldn’t budge. Darn mechanics always tightened things too much. He yanked it again and felt a strong resistance. He grew impatient. If Jeffrey saw him underneath the car wouldn’t be like getting caught the first time. This was different.
The car started to wobble from the yanking. Surely if someone walked by they wouldn’t care about some old man underneath a car. He felt a budge, and one good yank pulled the tube loose. A thin trickle of some fluid leaked out and stopped. It would have fallen out eventually. It was okay.
Standing up, he brushed his grey button up shirt and noticed a few splotches of something. No matter, the apron would cover them up. Time to work.
Reginald stumbled up to the cash register, his apron strings flapping with abandon.
“You're late, Reg.” Glen muttered without looking up. A younger, unfamiliar baggage clerk was idly placing goods into a bag, completely disregarding weight distribution. “Guess that proves you're human.”
“Yeah, yeah, sorry about that Glen.” Reginald fumbled to coordinate his hands behind his back. The young bag boy silently moved to register seven and Reginald succeeded in tying his strings at the same moment he realized the apron was on backwards. No time to change it; a stack of frozen dinners came down and the customer was demanded paper. His practiced whip opened the bag perfectly, but his hands guided the stack at a shallow angle and tore the bag down its center, toppling the dinners over.
“Dag nabbit,” muttered Reginald. He balled the failed sack and tossed it at the small trash can near Glen's feet. The can was full, and the momentum put on by his frenzied throw sent the bag skittering into the next register lane. “Should be recycled anyway,” he said louder.
A new bag, and a smoother placement sent the customer on his way. Reginald looked down at his apron and quickly undid the knot. He should have looked up beforehand, as another customer put down two bulk-sized packages of paper towels. With apron once again flapping, he mentally estimated if the over-sized plastic bags would be best.
As he pulled two out from the little cubby hole below him the customer spoke. “Don't worry about a bag. I got it.” Reginald looked up and nodded, over-sized bags in hand. He shoved them behind the regular plastic bags, hoping he would have a chance to use them again so he wouldn't have to deal with them later on.
Reginald succeeded in turning his apron around, but then something came down the conveyor belt. He saw it out of the corner of his eye. They were red, stalwart, familiar. He looked up at the customer. She was fiddling with her bifocals and reaching into her oversized bag for payment. It was her. It was—the bag. He looked at the bag quickly. Yes, the same plastoid material, same thickness, same fading color. But, was it there? He turned it around and saw it clear as day, that same darn thread still hanging from the side, uncut and uncared for by its irresponsible owner. Such negligence! He felt the thread between his fingers. Was it so long ago that he first pulled on it, felt the shiver as it gave way? Was he the same person now after having been rejected by the only one capable of understanding him?
The thread taunted him. It fluttered in a rogue breeze. He couldn't pull it now; it had no meaning to him anymore. But, it had to be pulled! It would be pulled! If not by him, then who? His hand gripped around the thread. Something had to the done.
“Ma'am? Ma'am?” Reginald said.
“Hmm?” the woman responded, looking up from the debit machine.
“Remember that thread I told you about? The loose one?” He held the bag up for emphasis.
“Oh yeah, that cheap thing.”
“No ma'am, they are not.” Reginald said, struggling to control the anger in his voice. “These bags are not cheap, you're just lazy!”
Glen and the woman simultaneously looked at him. “Excuse me?” she asked.
“This is what happens when you don't take care of your bag.” He twisted the thread around his finger and secured it in a fist. With the sternest face imaginable, he pulled on the thread with a force unmatched by his previous secret effort. The thread popped loose from the side and unwound towards the other, popping loose from that side, and continuing down until his arm was fully extended and no more force was possible. He let go of the thread and it fell to the counter, still attached to the now horribly scarred bag. A ribbon of discolor shone as the subterranean and undyed fabric was exposed.
Reginald held their confused gaze, and in an instant broke and bagged what little items had come down the conveyor belt, in the same bag he had just torn asunder.
The woman dropped her debit card into her purse and marched towards Reginald. She grabbed onto the of carrying handles and tugged it away from Reginald, just as he was lowering a can of sweet corn. Reginald reacted by grabbing the other carrying handle and tugging it just as hard as she had. Their gaze met again, their eyes narrowed and brows furled.
“Give it to me, you brute!” she yelled.
Reginald tugged on it once more, but a disquieting sound filled his ears. He could not hear the familiar bleeps of scanned items. He did not hear the sounds of receipted being printed and torn. There were no more cordial hellos and goodbyes. He looked around, first at Glen, then to register seven. The young bag boy, impressionable and naïve, looked at Reginald as a doe looks at her fallen mother. He let go of the handle. It had held up well, even with that little flaw.
The woman dumped the contents of the bag and stuffed it into her purse. “I will never, ever, shop here again! You hear me?” With one final defiant turn of the head, she walked proudly to the exit.
As she breached the sliding glass doors, another entered, this one’s gait less proud but animistic, angled forward. Before there was time to recover from the first altercation, another began. “Did you do something to my car, Reginald?”
A spike shot through Reginald’s heart. He knew before looking who it was. He knew what color suit the person was wearing, what many-splendored experiences they could have had. “Well, Reg? Did you do one of your things to my car?”
Reginald turned to look at him, but could not raise his eyes. “No…” he said.
“Then why did my car suddenly lose steering on the road? It was just a freak occurrence?”
“No… no…” Reginald said shaking his head. “I—I have to go.” The apron strings fluttered as he rushed towards the back of the store. The customers he raced past had no notion of the crisis in the front of the store. They only saw a disheveled old man with a trailing apron walk briskly by. He encountered two shopping carts blocking the aisle. He couldn’t risk disturbing any of the customers or the products on the shelf—he had once had to clean up after a toddler devastated the cereal aisle; cereal boxes everywhere—so he turned around and briskly walked back. The confusion up front had yet to diminish as Reginald reappeared and quickly turned down the next aisle.
The way was clear. The white strips of plastic separating the customer world and the employee world swayed lightly from the air conditioning. He plunged through them and took an immediate left into the break room. Thank goodness, no one there. He looked at the wall covered with posters. There was one for the annual fall get-together. Next to it, one explaining the rights of minimum wage. Carol, his sweet manager, had hung one of her child’s drawings of where mommy worked. All of them were held up with bits of tape, staples, thumbtacks; only time stood between them and utter neglect, as their physical bonds atrophied and failed and they fluttered to the ground.
He started with a poster reminding employees to wash their hands. Just a little tear in the bottom right corner. Then he moved to the leadership guidelines. He pulled out a thumbtack, then pulled out another. The last remaining thumbtack couldn’t hold the weight of the thick paper and it gave way. He watched as it gracefully defied gravity, skimming just above the floor before settling face up. All of these signs, soon they will all share the same fate. Why wait? Why not now? Why rely only on the forces of thermodynamics to slowly destroy the planet?
He grabbed the top of the child’s drawing and tore it off completely, then one advertising health insurance for full-time employees, then another, then another. His hands moved in a blur, his youth was returning to him. He had never felt so much energy, so much power in his old hands. The falling posters danced a dance of death and rot. He was free!
The sound of the plastic strips was muffled by loud tearing sounds. Glen stopped at the threshold and saw the growing pile of posters. “What are you doing, Reg?” he asked.