by G.D. Watry
The strip mall’s parking lot is slow for a Saturday. A platinum blondie with a pregnancy bulge loads groceries into the trunk of an El Camino, the blue paint glittering in the sunlight. A cripple with a white-out beard sloshes around on a Rascal scooter, zigzagging to the liquor store. A lanky clerk corrals the stray shopping carts peppered about the parking lot.
Not the keenest observers.
Keeping a nonchalant, level gaze, like Pops taught me, I tug at the Ford Explorer’s handle. And, of course, the fucking door doesn’t budge.
Through the car’s opaque window, I see the purse sitting on the passenger seat, its zipper maw open and inviting.
Greed beckons another try, but I hesitate. What if I set off the alarm?
“Cut your losses, Sy,” Pops would’ve said. “Move on.”
Since morning, I’ve roved the lot, stalking between the dented jalopies like a covetous scavenger. Today’s haul is light. The rusted Volvo I found unlocked didn’t yield much, just spare change in a sticky cup holder, $1.43 to be exact.
“When the lot runs dry, switch it up, and don’t you dare come home empty-handed.” That’s what Pops taught me.
He started bringing me on these so-called “outings” when my toddler gait was steady. Said a child was an ace in the hole against unsuspecting chumps. When a car door was ajar, he’d pinch my cheeks until my eyes welled with tears and nudge me towards the mark.
Faced with a blubbering, distressed tyke, people—good people—often forget things. Like locking their car doors, for instance. Usually they’re preoccupied trying to help the “poor babe” locate their missing father.
“You make things smooth as pie, Sy” Pops would say, chortling as we drove home. And I’d smile, content with making him happy.
Now, Pops is a malformed shadow of his yesteryear self, a wheelchair-bound raisin wheezing oxygen from a tank that runs tubes up his crinkled nose. The hands that used to frighten me as a child are now arthritic talons. He never leaves our trailer. Not anymore.
Sun rays pelt my bare shoulders as I grab my bike from the scorched grass. A teasing breeze cuts the otherwise humid air.
A clanking junker screeches into the lot, tailpipe spitting a black plume. The car rumbles into a handicap spot. No appropriate blue tag hangs from its rearview.
A bald man hastily exits the vehicle. His buggy eyes fidget in their sunken sockets. For a moment, he stares down the highway.
Then the driver’s side door groans shut, and the man’s off, limping towards the strip mall’s hardware store. He wipes his hands furiously with a red handkerchief and tosses it in the trash.
I drop my bike and slink over to the car.
While monitoring the store’s entrance, I try the handle. The door opens, and I duck inside.
Immediately, I’m assaulted by a rank stench, some noxious mixture of sweat, body odor, and…pennies? I shove my nose in my shirt and flip open the center console. Inside, I find a manila envelope brimming with crisp dollar bills, too many to count.
Envelope in pocket, I’m ready to leave. And that’s when I see them. The keys. They dangle from the ignition, swaying side-to-side like an open invitation.
Fuck the bike.
Miles down the road, I notice the cop car following me.
Suddenly, the flowing breeze I enjoyed feels claustrophobic. The white noise from the busted radio is somehow thick and choking. I press down on the gas pedal, and the car picks up speed.
The cop keeps pace.
At the next red light, he’s close enough that our bumpers nearly kiss.
An anchor plunges my stomach into my pelvis. Blood pulses against my temples.
I pop open the glove compartment, praying for some phantom piece of information that can make this car appear mine.
A pocket revolver thuds to the floor, the barrel pointed accusingly in my direction.
The copper scent returns, strong and tangy. Earlier, it had disappeared in the breeze.
For the first time, I glance over my shoulder at the back seat. My passenger is a large lump wrapped in a red-splotched bed sheet.
I know what’s beneath, but I look anyway.
She had blue eyes, and violet nails, like my Mom used to wear.
Another Crown Victoria pulls up beside me. The cop eyes me from behind blacked-out aviators, a hand mic to his lips. His words are silent.
A shudder passes through my body. I feel like I’m standing on a cliff edge, staring down at the craggy rocks below.
I lean down, scooping the revolver from the floor.
What am I doing?
In my peripheries, I see the red and blue lightbar flick on. The siren bellows.
Holding the revolver in my lap, I cock and re-cock the hammer.
Even I wouldn’t believe my story.
The traffic light turns green.