get the courtesy of checking out first, but cars were unloading in the
parking lot, people already pumping gas, others walking in.
“Sorry,” I said, and pushed my stuff onto the counter.
The clerk wasn’t happy with this choice. He was a tall, skinny man
with a fully gray ponytail. He was known for watching kids like a hawk,
proclaiming often, “Two students at a time,” as it was printed on the
glass. We called him “Ponytail.”
“Ladies first,” he said to me, scolding. He handed back my items. Then,
as if to dismiss my childish decision, he said, “Anything else, ma’am?”
“Yes,” she said. “The lottery.”
People spilled into the store as the woman enunciated numbers
slowly. “Seven. Eight. Eight. Four. Five straight. The rest boxed.”
The bell on the door rang, and a girl from my school walked in with
her mother. I saw her recognize me. I turned back to the counter. The
little old woman had shimmied away, and in her place was Ponytail,
“Wake up,” he said. “Got a line behind you, Hoss.”
I put the milk and eggs on the counter. He rang them up. I handed
him the bill. He stared at it a moment, then he held it above his head,
high in the air, and examined it against the light in front of everyone. He
shouted into the back room, to a guy reading papers and making marks
in a log, “Jim? We give cash back for food stamps?”
“Yeah, Bob,” the guy said without looking. But I suspect Bob knew.
He was teaching me a lesson. My body was so stiff, I could hardly collect
the change. After that, when I needed something from the store, I didn’t
pay for it; I stole it.
Though she’d never admit it, my mom was a thief, too. She wasn’t as blunt
or reckless as we were, but she could scheme. Number one on her list of
schemes was returning: taking things back after using them halfway.
She was the returning queen—a pair of shoes, a half-melted candle.
She always had an explanation: it didn’t fit, or it smelled like shit. She
even took lipstick back and claimed she was allergic. Then, when there
was nothing left to take back, she bought dollar items with twenty-dollar
food stamps and pocketed the cash.
She was brilliant at making small money last, which I didn’t think
about then—how we’d be out of food, eating diced tomatoes and garlic
bread, and she’d be buying lipsticks and George Michael cassettes. She
had to know that my brothers and I were stealing. We’d bring home