New short fiction by Mike Snelle.
Driving down Roseberry Avenue with the top down in his pristine white 1984 Mercedes SLK, Born to be Wild blasting out the window, the world pauses to admire Ray Lytle. Who is that guy? Look at his car. I want to be him. I want to be his girl. A man in a wife beater is quite literally beating his beautiful Mexican wife on the corner of Goswell Road. Ray pulls over, and the guy is like, ‘What motherfucker? Mind your business.’
‘I’m not a motherfucker, you’re a motherfucker,’ Ray replies coolly. Wait. Scratch that. ‘This is my business,’ he says.
As he get out of the car he sizes the guy up; 6’3, 6’4, around his weight, the tell-tale tattoos of an ex-con. Ray can see him thinking – Who is this fat fuck? Big mistake. He swings. Ray does the classic Mike Tyson. Duck, one step left, two vicious body blows followed by a crushing left hook to the head. BAM BAM. BAM. He hits the pavement. The hot Mexican wife throws her arms around Ray, tells him she’s not really the guy’s wife, and that actually she’s single, and has no kids, although she might want them in future, if she finds the right man. Someone strong, but kind. Mostly kind. Actually he doesn’t even have to be strong. Or have a vintage classic car with a soft top. But he has to like Springsteen. Ray winks and says, ‘I think you might just have found him.’
The car behind him beeps aggressively to inform him that the traffic lights have changed and he’s abruptly awoken from his daydream. He’s tempted to get out and Mike Tyson the driver, but he doesn’t. Who is he even kidding? Ray couldn’t Mike Tyson anyone. He’s only been in one fistfight back in secondary school, and even that wasn’t really a fight. Just him getting punched in the face repeatedly by Jake Dwight as a bunch of his cronies stood around shouting ‘Squeal piggy squeal.’ It’s surprisingly hard to squeal whilst you’re simultaneously getting punched in the face and crying.
Dave used to call him a fat useless fuck when he was angry, which was when he was drunk, and since he was drunk most evenings, he called him a fat useless fuck a lot. Except at weekends. Mum didn’t work at weekends. Then he’d just call him Fatty. Mum would tell him to stop, and he’d reply, ‘I’m only joshing with the boy. He doesn’t mind. Do you Fatty?’ Ray would reply ‘no’ in a voice that meant ‘yes’.
Then Dave got lung cancer and started calling him ‘son’ or ‘my boy’.
Today is the first day of the rest of Ray’s life. That’s what the voice on the CD said. Visualize the man you want to become. Feel yourself becoming that person, becoming all you can be. Unleash the true you, the you you’ve always dreamed of being. Harness your true potential. It would have been easier if the voice had an English accent. Mancunian maybe. Even Liverpudlian would have been ok, or Scottish. But it was American. The kind of American voice owned by someone with blindingly white teeth and luxurious hair. There was no point in visualizing being someone like that. That was just stupid.
One of the benefits of being employed at the second biggest supermarket in the North West region excluding Manchester, is staff parking privileges. Ray pulls into the space next to Dora as she’s getting out of her car. ‘Morning Ray,’ she says, and gives him that cherubic smile.
Don’t blush don’t blush don’t blush. Fuck.
‘Morning Dora, lovely day.’
‘Isn’t it just. Too nice to be working.’
He tries to think of a witty reply. Then any reply. ‘Yes,’ he says as she walks away. Idiot. Stupid fat useless fucking idiot.
Dora is pretty much the best thing about work. She’s on special offers. All day she hands out cheese on sticks, or little pieces of dark chocolate, and all day she wears that big beautiful smile. She never says a bad word about anyone, which is nice, but also makes it difficult to know if she likes him in particular, or just likes him the same way she likes everyone. There was that time she’d winked at him when he was getting a telling off from the assistant manager Steve, for being late back from his break. A conspiratorial wink that said Steve, what a ballbreaker, except she probably wouldn’t have used the phrase ball breaker. She had winked though, hadn’t she? Unless she’d had something in her eye. Anyway, that was months ago. He’s been trying to earn another wink ever since. Another wink would confirm that the first wink was real.
Ray takes off his coat, hangs it on the back of the door, and sits down. For the next eight hours he will be the eye in the sky – the one man who can see pretty much the whole shop. Eight monitors, switching between thirty two cameras every twelve seconds. There’s Dora now, on aisle three, talking to Malcolm. She’s laughing. What’s she laughing at? Malcolm’s not funny. Ray knows this because he used to be a security guard, and had to spend all day listening to Malcolm make crude comments about female shoppers. Didn’t matter if they were married, or with their kids. Didn’t even matter if they were pregnant. Sometimes Malcolm said he wanted to do stuff to girls that didn’t seem old enough to have stuff done to them.
‘Bet you’d love to have a go on that. Look at her ass. Like two greased watermelons in a sack.’ Malcolm was wrong though, Ray didn’t want to have a go on anyone. He wanted to go for romantic dinners, and take long walks on the beach, and feed the ducks in the park. Stupid unfunny Malcolm.
‘Eye in the sky to security one. Over.’
Malcolm looks at his radio and ignores it. They both laugh again. Are they laughing at him? Not Dora, surely.
‘Eye in the sky to Malcolm. Come in Malcolm. Over.’
‘Potential shoplifter on aisle seven. Over.’
No response. Dora is fiddling with her hairnet. Is that flirting? Hard to tell for certain but it looks a lot like flirting.
‘I can confirm that. Confirmed shoplifter on aisle seven. Immediate action required. Two packets of Honey Nut Loops hidden under his jacket. Over.’
That’s it Malcolm, you shrug your shoulders and fuck off to aisle seven away from Dora.
‘What’s he look like?’
‘Male, approximately 5’10, baseball cap. Over.’
‘Mate, there’s no one here with a baseball cap.’
That’s right Malcolm. You just got played by the Raymeister.
‘False alarm. Stand down security one. I repeat, stand down. Over.’
‘Fuck’s sake Ray.’
‘You don’t need to keep saying ‘’over’’. We’re not in the army.’
‘Return to the exit security one. Assume ready position. Over.’
‘Fuck off. Over and out.’
Insubordination. If he told Steve, Malcolm would almost certainly get a verbal warning, maybe even a written one. The promotion hadn’t come with the respect he’d been hoping. He’d been moved up following the incident with the pram, which was an honest mistake that even Steve had said anyone could have made. Anyway, this job suits him better. Mum always said he was observant. ‘Some people are too busy joining in to notice anything,’ she’d told him one day when he was feeling left out, ‘and others stand at the side lines and see the whole picture. The world needs people like you Ray, to tell the rest of us what’s going on.’ Good old Mum. She’d always known how to make him feel better. Except when it came to Dave. When it came to Dave she’d refused to see what was happening, even when it was happening right in front of her.
He’d tried to sort of adopt him at the end, Dave had. It was weird. Those last few months he became a different person. It’s like he stopped being angry all of a sudden. He wasn’t scary anymore. He was just some bloke who was kind of sad because he was dying. He told Ray he was scared, not just now because of the cancer, but all his life. ‘Don’t be afraid of life son,’ he’d said, ‘because if you try to protect yourself from the worst of it, you’ll miss out on all the best parts too.’
Maybe he meant don’t be afraid of stuff like Dora. What was the worst that could happen? She could say no. She could say no and tell Malcom, and the two of them would laugh at the fact a loser like him thought he had a chance. That would be pretty bad, come to think of it. But would it be worse than missing out on the chance she’d say yes? If he got cancer which would he regret more, asking her, or not asking her?
Two men are acting strangely on aisle nine. Ray assumes the Suspiciously Watchful look he’s been practising in the bathroom mirror. It’s a new one. Withering Scorn is an old favourite, as is Not Bothered by Hurtful Comments. Casually Flirtatious has proven harder to master, and he still sometimes confuses it with Sinister Grin. He’d have made a great actor. The kind who wouldn’t break character even when the camera stopped shooting. He’d once got the role of Puck in the school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Somehow being in character all his shyness had slipped away. He wasn’t just acting the role of someone else, he actually felt like a different person. It’s as if the world had opened up to him and suddenly everything was possible. Then Dave had come home and seen him in costume. ‘Fuck me, Tinkerbell’s let herself go.’ The worst was that Mum had laughed too.
Eye in the sky to security one. Over.
Two suspects, male, potentially in the process of concealing alcohol on Aisle Nine. Over.
Almost definitely. Over.
Everyone’s potentially a shoplifter Ray. That’s why we’ve got cameras, so you can tell me which of the potential shoplifters are actual shoplifters.
One of the men has his back to the camera, hiding the other from view. It’s impossible to be certain. Fuck. Malcolm has no idea of the pressure this job entails. The level of responsibility is through the roof.
Affirmative. I’m certain. They’re heading your way. Over.
You’d better be fucking right this time.
Ray closes his eyes.
Fat useless fuck. Funny how clear his voice is after all these years. Fucked it right up, haven’t you? It’s not brain surgery – looking at some monitors and then telling someone else when there’s a thief. Why aren’t you on the shop floor anyway? Do you really think it’s because you’ve been promoted? Any idiot can see they’re just putting you out of harm’s way. Malcolm’s the real hero. It’s no wonder Dora fancies him. He’s twice the man you are. Fuck you Dave. You’re not even real anymore. I was there when they cremated you. You’re pathetic Fatty. I cried for fuck’s sake. I had to sit down during the service because I nearly fainted. Attention seeker. It’s no wonder your own father didn’t want you. You’re an embarrassment. A mistake. A born loser.
When he looks again Malcolm is chasing the two men out of the shop, a broken bottle on the floor behind them. It takes Ray a second to realize what it means. The relief is painful. He hasn’t fucked up. He’s not made a mistake. Tears sting his eyes.
‘Want one?’ Dora says, offering him a cigarette when he goes on his break. ‘I’ve given up,’ he lies. He wants to tell her about spotting the shoplifters, explain that it’s as much about body language as anything else. ‘How’s your day?’ she asks.
‘Pretty good,’ he replies, ‘pretty damn good actually. Yours?’
‘Hmmm, it’s ok.’ She exhales a cloud of smoke. Is now a good time to tell her? Will she think he’s showing off? The truth couldn’t be showing off, could it? If he doesn’t tell her then Malcolm probably will. He’ll make himself out to be the hero. Classic Malcolm. ‘Actually it’s not ok Ray,’ she says, ‘I shouldn’t even really be in work. I should be at home with Barry. We need the money though. It’s been tight since he stopped working. He had critical illness cover but the bastards refused…’ Hang on there. Slow down a second. We? Barry? Critical illness? What in the name of fuck is she talking about? ‘…since the chemo. I know it’s hard for him, and I feel bad for even thinking it, never mind saying it aloud, but he can be so cruel. It’s like he doesn’t understand that I’m suffering too. Sometimes Ray, God forgive me, I will it to be over.’ When he looks at her she falls silent and looks away, as if her own words have frightened her.
This is a lot to compute. Dora has a husband. And he’s dying. Is it wrong if Ray wills him to die too? Just a bit? It is wrong, isn’t it, to wish someone dies so you can date and possibly marry their widow? What if he doesn’t will Barry to die, but he just dies anyway, coincidently? And what if Ray is a friend Dora can lean on when she needs it, during her bereavement? A shoulder to cry on. A good listener. And what if, when crying on that shoulder and being listened to, she realises that Ray is a good man, and she has feelings for him that extend beyond the boundaries of friendship?
‘I better go in.’ she says, fiddling with her hairnet, ‘I’m on a half day. I’m sorry for burdening you with all my shit. You’ve probably got enough of your own. It’s just, well, I find you easy to talk to, Ray. You’ve got a good heart.’
A good heart. That was nice. He did have a good heart. Mum had said he was kindness itself, and that one day he’d find a lovely woman who recognised that. ‘Women are not bothered by outward appearance Ray, it’s what’s inside that counts.’ At the time he’d thought she was just trying to comfort him. But maybe she was right. All he had to do was wait until Barry died, and then make himself her rock. Malcolm wouldn’t do that. Couldn’t do it. He probably doesn’t even know anyone who’s died of cancer.
Back at his desk Ray looks at his reflection in the monitor and practises Earnest Concern, then Sad at the Passing of a Friend’s Spouse. Dora is back on the shop floor, handing out olives. You’d never know, just from looking, that she’s suffering. She’s brave. Brave beautiful Dora. Does he love her? Hard to say, he’s never been in love before. He kissed Anita Shaw once, back in secondary school. She had red hair which erupted from her head like flames. The next day, when Jake Dwight had teased her about it, she’d denied it ever happened. Ray had locked himself in a toilet cubicle and cried. He didn’t blame her. If he’d have kissed himself he’d probably have denied it too.
It’s strange, to think of all the painful secrets that are hidden from view. That’s the thing about people – it’s impossible to tell what’s going on beneath the surface. The day before Dave had died he’d held Ray’s hand and said he was sorry. ‘I’ve been a dickhead.’ he said, ‘You’re a good lad, you know that don’t you?’
Dora is packing up her station. He wishes he’d found some words to comfort her. He isn’t good at it though. There are so many words to choose from that more often than not he ends up saying nothing at all. Tomorrow, he’ll tell her about Dave, so she’ll know that he understands. Maybe, for now at least, he’ll forget about dating her, and just try to be a good friend. She deserves that. It must be hard, going home to Barry every day. Exhausting. There must be something he can do for her, to let her know that he cares. Flowers maybe? Or chocolates. Everyone likes chocolates. She could share them with Barry. He’d probably puke them up though. Wine was good. Mum had drunk lots of it when Dave was ill. She was never mean though, even when she slurred. She never called him a….What’s she doing now? Shopping? Without a basket? Putting cans of soup straight into her handbag? Is that fine? It probably is. She just can’t be bothered to walk to the exit and get a basket. Probably she wants to avoid having to talk to Malcolm.
Coffee. An avocado. Two limes. Sausages. Sanitary towels. On the alcohol aisle now. Red or white? Neither. A bottle of gin and some tonic. It’s a wonder she can fit it all in. He feels like a voyeur. Not the pervy hiding in the bushes kind. More like a spy, or an undercover agent. If she happens to be within his field of surveillance that’s hardly his fault. It’s kind of interesting, to know what she likes. Might prove useful.
She on the move again, headed for the checkout. Goodbye Dora. Lovely Dora. I’ll see you tomorrow. I hope Barry is in better spirits when you get home.
What is she doing? Walking past the checkout. Without paying. Where is she going?
She can’t be.
Ray has a vision of Dora in handcuffs. At Barry’s death bed in handcuffs. At his funeral. He needs to stop her. Or does he? It’s his job to prevent shoplifters. He should radio Malcolm, call it in. Would he even believe him? But he can’t call it in. It would be wrong, wouldn’t it, to report a friend who he is quite possibly in love with? One caring for a dying husband at that. This is a moral clusterfuck.
She must know that he can see her, that he’s been watching her on the monitors. It’s his job after all. Maybe she wants to get caught. Unlikely. Maybe she wants him to see her stealing, but not stop her, as a kind of a test of their friendship. She was short of money, she’d said that. Was that it? Was she asking him to understand? To forgive her? He could do that. Leave Dora. I won’t tell. Your secret’s safe with me.
She’s almost at the exit. He will talk to her about it tomorrow. Tell her there must be another way. He still has some money left over from the sale of Mum’s house. He could lend it to her. Wait…has she…she’s forgotten about the security tag on the gin. Fuck. The alarm. Malcolm. She’ll lose her job. To lose a husband and a job. It was too much. He had to stop her, but how? What could he do? It was too late. Was it? He has to do something.
Opening door. Walking briskly though bakery. Into the shop. Running now. Thighs chaffing. Down aisle four, past DVDs. Grabbing fistful. Past fruit. Dora in sight. Talking to Malcolm. Saying goodbye. Wait. Don’t leave. Not yet. I forgive you. Faster Fatty, faster. Out of breath. Sweating. Almost there. Fat useless fuck. Malcolm standing in the entrance, looking confused. Dora staring. Few more steps. Not going to make it. Loser. Must make it. Going to make it. In the entrance now. Flowers. Bags of fertilizer. Alarm sounding. Shoppers gaping. Out of breath. Feel like puking. Waving DVDs in air.
‘I’m stealing. Look at me stealing,’ he shouts.
For a moment that stretches out longer than it can possibly be, nothing happens. The whole world is staring at him. Then Dora walks towards him. I did this for you. She knows. She must do. She gives him a sad smile. He flashes Compassionate Forgiveness in reply. ‘Thank you,’ she mouths silently. Or maybe ‘Fuck you.’ Hard to tell for certain. Go home Dora. I’ve got this. Go home to your dying husband and eat soup. Drink gin and tonics. Have an avocado.
On the floor now. Face crushed against cold linoleum. Knee painfully pushing into his back. The rugby tackle was unnecessary. ’You’ve really done it this time you moron,’ Malcolm whispers. Ray doesn’t care.
Here’s Steve now.
Just words Steve. They don’t mean a thing. Ray’s a hero. A real life hero. For the first time in his life he doesn’t want to be anyone else.