by Eileen Bordy
“Run down to Omar’s and get me some cinnamon.” Jeremy’s mother handed him an empty jar and a ten-dollar bill. “I’d go, but your sister is asleep.”
“I have homework,” Jeremy lied.
“I’m making these snicker doodles for you.”
Jeremy’s mother used to be an anesthesiologist. She still was, she’d correct him, but was taking a break to raise him and his baby sister.
Jeremy looked at the ten-dollar bill. The idea that he could pocket the change his mother never asked for convinced him to go.
He cleared the front steps in a single leap. Last year, when he was nine, he’d been too afraid to try. Last year, his mother didn’t allow him to walk to the store alone.
Omar’s store was in an old bungalow that looked as if it had been painted with leftovers from other buildings. When Jeremy crossed the threshold, a buzzer went off that sounded like a blast from a ray gun. Even though Jeremy knew it was coming, it always made him jump.
The store was the same size as Jeremy’s bedroom. Only half of the fluorescent fixtures were lit, the aisles too narrow for a grocery cart. There were a few vegetables, half-frozen iceberg lettuces and pale tomatoes, but mostly the store sold food that wouldn’t spoil: soda, cans of soup, beer, and ice cream. There was a big freezer labeled Ice Cream Novelties.
Jeremy didn’t know the owner’s real name. His parents called him Omar after an actor they said he looked like. Jeremy called him Store Man.
Although his face looked the same age as Jeremy’s parents, Store Man seemed older. He moved slowly, which made him seem tired. He was polite but not overly so. Jeremy always said hello, made eye contact, and smiled the way his father had taught him. Jeremy found these behaviors worked in his favor with adults, especially older ones who smiled back at him as if he were a small miracle, willing to offer him cookies or buy what he was selling.
Store Man always asked if Jeremy needed help finding something, but Jeremy always declined. It was no different today and Jeremy walked up and down the aisles looking for cinnamon. The empty jar in his pocket was the size of a hot dog. A jar of cinnamon could be stashed anywhere. How long did he want to spend here? Jeremy gave up. “I need cinnamon.”
Jeremy hated that Store Man didn’t tell him where to look. He came around the counter, brushing past Jeremy, and walked to an aisle Jeremy had been down twice. Like pulling a rabbit from a hat, he grabbed a jar of cinnamon, and handed it to Jeremy with a tired sigh. Jeremy thought Store Man liked showing off like this, that maybe he deliberately hid smaller items behind bags of chips and sacks of flour so that Jeremy would have to ask for help.
Back at the counter, Store Man rang up Jeremy’s purchase. “Three dollars and seventy-six cents,” he said.
Jeremy handed him the ten-dollar bill. Store Man held it over the till, looked up to the total again, and grabbed a penny from a dish on the counter that said, Need a penny?
“I don’t need that; it’s more than enough,” Jeremy said, pointing to the ten.
“If I take a penny, I can give you a quarter.”
Jeremy had no idea what Store Man was talking about. “No,” he said.
“Okay.” Store Man filled Jeremy’s hand with change as he counted backwards to ten. Jeremy shoved the money in his pocket and turned to leave. The door buzzer was zapping him when Store Man called after him.
“Wait! Your cinnamon.” He held up the jar.
Jeremy jogged back to the counter and grabbed the jar, too embarrassed to look up.
Back home, Jeremy set the cinnamon on the kitchen island.
“I was beginning to think you got lost,” his mother said. She was rolling balls of cookie dough between her palms.
He sat on a stool. “It was hard to find.”
“Why didn’t you ask Omar for help? That’s his job.”
“Omar’s a prick.” Jeremy had recently learned this word from his friend Henry, who was two years older than him. His mother stopped mid-roll.
“What did you say?”
“He’s just a stupid Store Man.”
“He’s an immigrant shopkeeper trying to better himself.” His mother opened the jar of cinnamon and dumped some into a bowl of sugar, mixing them, the spoon clinking against the side of the bowl.
“It’s not my fault he left his country.” Jeremy took a dough ball and rolled it the cinnamon and sugar then popped it in his mouth.
“Jeremy!” He thought she was going to yell at him about Store Man. “Those have raw eggs. You could get sick.” She slapped his hand but let him eat it anyway. “That poor man works all the time.” She motioned with a full cookie sheet as she headed for the oven behind Jeremy.
His mother was right that Store Man worked a lot. He was behind that counter every day, wearing the same brown sweater. He worked more than Jeremy’s father. “He probably has a big family he’s taking care of.”
Jeremy imagined Store Man going home to a tiny house full of kids and relatives.
“If he sold better vegetables, I’d do more of my shopping there to help him out.” She wrinkled her forehead. “You’re polite to Omar when you go there, aren’t you?”
Jeremy rolled his eyes. “I’m not plebian.” His friend Henry had called him this last week. He had to look it up when he got home.
Henry lived down the block. Jeremy suspected he was friends with him, a younger kid, because they went to different schools, and nobody would find out. Jeremy went to a Catholic school across town—Not because he was Catholic but because of the test scores. Henry went to the same school as Sergey Brin’s kids. They met at the birthday party of another friend who went to the French American school.
Henry’s father was an attorney, and his mother wrote books about parenting, so Henry had an au pair from Germany, Juliana. Henry and Jeremy called her Strudel. Strudel would be Henry’s last au pair. He’d be in high school in the fall, and thirteen was too old for a nanny. It was in his mother’s last book.
The next afternoon, Jeremy was at Henry’s house. Henry had invited him over without telling him that he’d lost electronics privileges for the day for calling his older sister a cunt. They were sitting in the family room, wondering what they could do that didn’t involve electricity. Jeremy still had change from the cinnamon and offered to buy Henry an ice cream.
“How much do you have?”
“About seven bucks.” Jeremy felt his pocket to be sure the money was still there.
“That isn’t very much,” Henry said.
Jeremy felt ashamed. His family was rich but not as rich as Henry’s.
Henry stood. “If I want something else, I’ll swipe it.” He walked out the front door and Jeremy followed.
“You can’t steal from Store Man,” Jeremy said. Their neighborhood didn’t have sidewalks, maybe to discourage pedestrians and skateboards, and they were shuffling through a gravel shoulder.
“Who’s Store Man?” The way Henry asked made Jeremy wish he hadn’t said anything.
“The guy behind the counter,” Jeremy said, kicking a large stone into the road.
“You mean Sam,” Henry said.
“How do you know his name?”
“I asked him, you loser.” Henry found a nickel in the gravel, picked it up, and threw it at a stop sign, missing. The nickel bounced into the road. “Do you want to distract him while I take care of business?”
“But he has a big family to support,” Jeremy said, “and people he sends money to.”
“Who the hell are you talking about?” Henry asked. Jeremy was impressed with how easily Henry could swear. Henry stopped and faced Jeremy. “Dark hair, brown-sweater Sam doesn’t have any kids. He lives alone in a condo in Burlingame. He used to be a biology teacher. His ex-wife is an accountant in Sunnyvale.”
Jeremy bent over to tighten his shoelace so that Henry wouldn’t see the blush of embarrassment on his face. Henry could be lying, but he knew Store Man’s name, where he lived, what he used to do.
“Since you’re so sensitive, would you rather I talk to him while you steal the candy?” Henry asked.
“No,” Jeremy stood. “I’ll do the distracting.”
“Don’t say anything stupid,” Henry said. “Ask him about his condo, or his car, but not his ex-wife. Never ask a guy about his ex-wife.”
The boys walked into the store and the buzzer blared twice in quick succession like a machine gun.
“Hey Sam,” Henry called.
Both boys made eye contact with Store Man. Henry shoved Jeremy toward the front counter and walked toward the candy counter.
“Need help finding something?” Store Man asked.
“No,” Henry called over his shoulder. Jeremy noticed that Store Man had a plate of rice with broccoli, red peppers, and squares of orange squash on the counter in front of him. Jeremy imagined his wife had made it last night, before remembering there was no wife. Store Man’s lunch was probably a Lean Cuisine, the same thing his mother ate.
Jeremy peered into the Ice Cream Novelties next to the counter. The glass top was frosty and he couldn’t identify specific brands, just shapes and colors. Jeremy looked over at Store Man and saw him staring at a mirror that allowed him to see every part of the store. He needed to talk. “Henry said you were a biology teacher.”
Store Man glanced at Jeremy, then back at the mirror. “I was.”
“For what grade?”
Store Man kept his focus on the mirror. Jeremy needed to ask better questions. “Biology is great, so interesting. Why’d you quit?”
“I don’t like kids.”
Jeremy was shocked. No adult had ever said something like that to him. “Are you joking?”
Store Man finally turned his head toward Jeremy. “Have you ever been a teacher?”
“No,” Jeremy stammered. He grabbed a Drumstick out of the freezer. He didn’t like them, but he didn’t want to dig around. He wished Henry would finish and join him at the counter. “Being a teacher must be better than doing this?”
“Not all kids are as polite as you.”
Jeremy was pleased with the compliment, then remembered what he and Henry were doing, and his cheeks burned. He turned back to the freezer, pretending to rethink his choice. Where was Henry, anyway? He heard Store Man shift his weight. Was he looking in the mirror again? Jeremy needed to keep talking. “Isn’t the money better as a teacher?”
“Where do you go to school?” Store Man asked, and Jeremy told him. Store Man told him where he used to teach. It was the high school Jeremy’s parents wanted him to attend. “Money isn’t everything,” Store Man said, winking. “Maybe you can’t understand.”
Jeremy felt he was being insulted. “I can,” he objected, without considering what Store Man had said. Money wasn’t everything, but it was something. Without it, he and Henry had been forced to steal candy. Henry, finally, walked up and put a can of Dr. Pepper on the counter.
Jeremy pulled his money out. He tried not to stare at Henry’s pockets, which he was sure must be bulging with contraband candy.
Store Man rang up Jeremy’s ice cream and Henry’s soda and Jeremy reached into his pocket, grabbed his money, and held his hand out. He wanted dump the bills and coins onto the counter and run out of the store, but he stood still while Store Man picked a couple of ones and coins out of his hand, counting as he did it. He had a bandage on his pointer finger.
The buzzer went off, startling Jeremy. Henry had left. Store Man closed his register. “Thanks,” he said, but Jeremy didn’t move. “Is there something else?” he asked.
“My name’s Jeremy,” Jeremy said.
“I’m Sam,” Store Man said.
“My friend and I—” Jeremy began.
“I know. Your friend has a Hershey bar in his front pocket,” Sam said.
Jeremy’s mouth dropped open, and he held his open hand with his money toward Sam, who punched the register, picked out a dollar, and dropped a penny into Jeremy’s hand.
“Was that it? Just one bar?”
Sam nodded, and Jeremy shoved his change into his pocket, but still didn’t leave. He didn’t understand why, if Sam knew, he didn’t say something.
“Do you need anything else?” Sam asked.
Jeremy gestured toward the door Henry just walked out of. “It was his idea. I didn’t want to do it.”
“But you knew what he was doing,” Sam said.
“I didn’t steal. I’m not like him.”
“In some ways you aren’t. In other ways, you are,” Sam said. “Do you understand?”
“Are you going to call the police?”
“You paid. No crime,” Sam said. “See you next time.”
Henry was waiting for him behind a large redwood tree. “Did you get busted? What happened?”
“What’d you steal?” Jeremy asked.
“Nothing. Didn’t see anything I wanted,” Henry said, taking a sip from his soda.
Jeremy thought about calling him out, but Henry would talk around it, find some way of making it all seem okay. He was a good lawyer, like his dad.
Henry turned and started walking home. “What kind of loser quits teaching to be a storekeeper? He probably molested a kid.” He picked up a stick and whacked at a bush, knocking blossoms to the ground. “I’m going to be an investment banker.”
Jeremy was thinking about what Sam had said, that he was like Henry in some ways. He wished he’d asked Sam what ways. They were obviously both boys, lived in the same neighborhood. What was different was that Henry had taken the time to learn Sam’s name, he hadn’t made up a bunch of stories about Same’s life, but then he’d stolen from him. Was Henry the better person? Was Jeremy?
“What about you?” Henry asked, tossing the branch over a hedge. “What do you want to be?”
“I’m ten,” Jeremy said.
“A goal without a plan is just a wish.”
“I know I don’t want to be a thief.”
Henry stopped walking. “But you’re an accomplice. That’s like a thief who’s a pussy.”
“Fuck you, Henry.”
Henry laughed and put his arm around Jeremy. “Big man.”
Jeremy thought if he were a big man, he’d shrug Henry’s arm off, he would have told Henry he didn’t want to steal, he would have asked Sam about his life, he would have known his real name. He wouldn’t be trying not to cry. He turned from Henry and ran.
“Where are you going?” Henry called after him.
“I don’t know. I don’t know.”
Eileen Bordy has been published in The Chicago Tribune; The San Francisco Chronicle; Brain, Child; Oxford Magazine; Green Hills Literary Lantern; Full Grown People; The Meadow; Monarch Review and Umbrella Factory. She has attended the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference and the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference. Eileen graduated from California State University, worked in advertising and marketing copywriting, and is now retired.
Image: Mike Petrucci/Unsplash