Five-Finger Discount ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
(Published in Superstition Review.)
Dot loved her binoculars. Through them she looked at anything and everything. She looked at the sky and the clouds, the moon and the stars. If she saw a bird in flight, she followed it until it flew out of sight. She looked at herself in the mirror and at her feet as she walked; at her sister as she ate tuna fish from the can and as she put on lipstick; at squirrels as they played underneath the trees and the tom cat as he walked slowly from the shed to the house and back again; her mother as she slept in the bed and as she stirred soup on the stove; Toots as he cracked walnuts or pushed a wheelbarrow full of fertilizer from one side of the yard to the other; cars on the road, coming toward her with startling clarity; the dog as it scratched its fleas; trains going by on the tracks behind the house.
A few days after acquiring the binoculars (she stole them from a parked car at the fairgrounds), Dot was lying on her stomach in the back yard watching a pair of identical starlings drinking from the dog’s water pan. They sat on the edge of the pan about six inches apart and took turns drinking. When they weren’t drinking, they were looking around to make sure they were safe. They didn’t know it yet, but the gray striped cat known as Dutch was stalking them from behind the trunk of a tree about fifteen feet away. He was crouched down, his back legs quivering, ready to pounce when the time was right. Just then, and far too noisily, somebody came up behind Dot from the house. The starlings flew off and the cat jumped into the bushes. Dot didn’t have to turn around to know it was her sister Lennie.
“Don’t you ever get tired of looking through those spy glasses?” Lennie asked.
“No,” Dot said. “Look what you did.”
“I want you to go to town with me,” Lennie said. “Put your jacket on.” She dropped the jacket over Dot’s shoulder.
“I don’t want to go to town,” Dot said. “I’m busy.”
“Come on. Get up off the ground. Toots is giving us a ride.”
“Oh, all right. Do you have any money?”
“A little,” Lennie said.
“Will you buy me a goldfish?”
“What do you want with a goldfish?”
“For a pet. What else?”
“The cats will eat it. You know cats.”
“I don’t care. I want one anyway.”
“What’s the use of spending money on a goldfish if it’s going to end up in a cat’s stomach?”
“Come on!” Toots yelled from the porch. “I haven’t got all day!”
Dot stood up and put the binoculars on their string around her neck. She slipped into her jacket and she and Lennie went and got into the truck. Dot, since she was the youngest, sat next to Toots and Lennie sat next to the window. Toots started the engine and headed out for the highway into town.
“I think I’ll fix my hair in a French roll,” Lennie said. “What do you think?”
“It doesn’t matter to me,” Dot said. She was watching oncoming cars through the binoculars.
“I want to get some new panties and some lipstick and some emery boards and some conditioner for my hair,” Lennie said.
“I want to get a goldfish,” Dot said. “I think I’ll get two. A boy and a girl.”
“You two are never satisfied, are you?” Toots said. “Always wanting things you can’t have.”
“Who says I can’t have them?” Lennie asked.
Toots let Dot and Lennie out at the intersection where the bank and the used car lot were. “You’ll have to walk back home,” he said, “or hitch a ride with somebody, because I’m not going to be back until tonight.”
“Where’s he going?” Dot asked Lennie as he drove away.
Lennie shrugged and opened her purse and took out some cigarettes. She took one out of the pack for herself and one for Dot. They lit up and headed down the street to where the good stores were.
They went first to the cut-rate department store known as Dunlap’s. They threw their cigarettes into the gutter in front of the store and went inside and found their way to the ladies’ department on the second floor. A fat saleslady with a round face and little pinched-up eyes went over to them as soon as she saw them and asked if they needed any help. Lennie looked at the woman and shook her head and walked on.
She found a round table full of ladies’ underpants and picked up a pair of pink ones and a pair of yellow ones and handed them to Dot. Dot slipped them inside her jacket and they walked on to the swimsuits.
Lennie picked up a brightly colored two-piece swimsuit. She held the two pieces of the swimsuit up against her body to see how it was going to look on her. “How do I look?” she asked.
Dot stood back a few feet and looked at Lennie through the binoculars. “You look like you should be arrested,” she said.
Lennie put the swimsuit back and they walked on to a table of ladies’ rubber swim caps; there were many laid out on the table in a lot of different colors and styles. Lennie picked up a yellow one with green scallops that looked like flowers. She looked at it inside and out and then set it back down and looked at Dot and nodded her head. Dot went over to it and picked it up and hid it inside her jacket along with the underpants.
They were headed toward the stairs to go back down to the first floor, when the same saleslady as before came out of nowhere and held her hand out to stop them. Her face was hard and sour. She leaned over toward Dot to keep anybody else from hearing. “Did I just see you put something inside your jacket?” she asked.
“No,” Dot said, shaking her head emphatically.
“Well, I’m pretty sure you did, but I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt this time. I just want to warn you, though, if I ever see you in this store stealing things or trying to steal things, I will call the law. Do you understand me? Shoplifting is a very serious crime.”
Lennie smiled coolly at the woman and took Dot’s hand protectively and the two of them started down the stairs.
“I’ll be keeping my eye out for you!” the woman said. “I wasn’t born yesterday!”
“Imagine that,” Lennie said when they were outside the store.
“What does ‘born yesterday’ mean?” Dot asked.
“It’s just something grownups say to make them think they’re smarter than you are,” Lennie said.
“I didn’t like her. She scared me.”
“I didn’t like her either.”
“Do you think she’ll tell on us?”
“I don’t know how she could. She doesn’t know who we are.”
They went down the street to the variety store and went inside. Lennie went to the cosmetics counter and Dot to the back part of the store where they kept the pet supplies. She found the goldfish tank and stood in front of it looking at the myriads of goldfish swimming around inside. Some were black, some white, some gold, and others were combinations of spotted and speckled colors. Some were no more than three-quarters of an inch long, while others seemed very big in comparison. A few of them had long tails that seemed to drag them down as they swam. Dot watched with fascination.
A high school girl named Freda Stamm worked in the pet department. She was a big girl with a fuzzy head of hair growing down almost to her eyebrows, causing her to have the nickname “werewolf.” When she saw Dot looking at the fish, she went over to her and asked if she could be of assistance.
“I’d like two goldfish,” Dot said. “A boy and a girl.”
“Do you know which two, or just any two?” Freda asked. She picked up a little net with a long handle on it and started to stick it into the tank.
“Oh, I guess I’m just looking today,” Dot said. “I’m with my sister and I don’t have any money.”
“Well, you’ll have to come back when you have some money, then, won’t you?” Freda said.
“If I buy a boy and a girl, will they have babies?”
“Under the right conditions they would. We’ve got a little book that tells all about them.”
“How much is the book?”
“It’s included in the price of the fish.”
Lennie came up behind Dot and tapped her on the shoulder. “I knew right where you’d be,” she said. “Looking at those silly old goldfish.”
“Did you ever see anything so beautiful?”
“Well, yes, I believe I have.”
“I want one that’s all different colors.”
Lennie handed Dot some things she had picked up, a comb and a little package of emery boards and a bottle of nail polish and a pack of gum. Dot took them and hid them inside her jacket.
“While we’re here, don’t you want to get anything for yourself?” Lennie asked.
“No,” Dot said. “The fish is all I want.”
They left the variety store and when they were outside again on the sidewalk, Dot took the swim cap out of her jacket and tugged it onto her head. “How do I look?” she asked, pushing her hair up inside.
“You look like a crazy person,” Lennie said.
“How about if you give me this?” Dot asked. She stopped to admire her reflection in a window, turning her head from side to side.
“I’m not giving it to you, but I’ll let you wear it sometime.”
“Oh, what do you need a swimming cap for?”
“Well, I guess I need it about as much as you do!”
They headed down the street in the direction of the drug store. Lennie, when she saw a boy she recognized from high school coming toward her on the sidewalk, hurried to get a cigarette out of her purse. She wanted the boy to see her smoking and think she was sophisticated. She got the cigarette lit and gave him a breezy little smile just in time before he passed by, but he didn’t even look at her.
When they went inside the drugstore, a woman in a tight skirt up on a ladder behind the counter turned and looked at them. Lennie saw right away that the woman had her hair arranged in a French roll. She tugged Dot’s arm to get her attention.
“That’s how I want my hair to look,” Lennie said. “Isn’t it stunning?”
“Oh, what’s so hot about that?” Dot said. She was bored already. She went over to look at the magazines.
Lennie went to the cosmetics counter and began looking at the display of lipsticks. She picked up a tube and took the cap off to get a better look. The woman got down off the ladder and stood behind the counter in front of Lennie.
“What color would you recommend for my complexion?” Lennie asked her.
“Something dark,” the woman said. She looked much worse up close than she had from a distance. She had pockmarks on her face and an ugly misshapen nose like a prizefighter. She reached over and plucked a tube off the display and handed it to Lennie. It was something called flaming orange. “Go ahead and try it if you want,” she said.
Lennie tilted the oval mirror on the counter so she could get a better look at herself. She coated her lips with the flaming orange and blotted them on a piece of tissue the woman gave her.
“How does it look?” she asked.
“Oh, I think it’s just the appropriate shade for your coloring,” the woman said.
“It makes you look like a clown,” Dot said. She had come up behind Lennie carrying a couple of comic books she wanted to buy.
“Oh, who asked you?” Lennie said. “I’m sure you don’t know the first thing about it.”
“Would you like to try a different color?” the woman asked.
“No, I’ll take this one,” Lennie said.
“Will that be all today?”
“I want these,” Dot said. She laid the comic books on the counter. One was Submariner and the other was The Invincible Iron Man.
“Oh, all right,” Lennie said. “I want a pack of Pall-Malls, too.”
“I thought you smoked Luckys,” Dot said.
“Well, today I’m smoking Pall-Malls.”
Lennie paid for the things out of the scant stash of money in her purse, and she and Dot went back out to the glaring sunshine of the street.
“I bet you could have got that lipstick without paying for it,” Dot said.
“With that woman looking at me the whole time?”
“You could have pretended to have a fit and when the woman went to get a doctor you could have slipped the lipstick inside your underwear.”
“Don’t you think that’s a lot of trouble to go to for a tube of lipstick?”
“Well, it depends on how much you want it, I guess.”
They walked around aimlessly for a while, looking at window displays, until they found themselves in front of the Blue Note Café, where they could smell hamburgers cooking.
“I’m hungry,” Dot said. “Can we get something to eat?”
“Why not?” Lennie said. “You only live once.”
“What does that mean?”
They went inside and sat at a booth near the front. A waitress in a pink uniform brought them each a glass of water and waited for them to say what they wanted so she could write it down.
“I want a hamburger,” Dot said, looking at the waitress through the binoculars, “a Coke and a hot-fudge sundae for dessert.”
The waitress wrote that down and turned to Lennie.
“I just want a grilled cheese sandwich,” Lennie said. “I’m watching my figure.”
“You can get me an ashtray, honey, if you don’t mind.”
The waitress went to a nearby table and picked up an ashtray and set it down in front of Lennie.
“I know you,” Lennie said to the waitress.
“Don’t you go to Calvin High?”
“I used to. I graduated.”
“I used to see you every day at school.”
“Funny,” the waitress said, “I don’t think I’ve ever noticed you before.”
“Do you think they’d hire me here? As a waitress?”
“Well, I don’t know. You could talk to the manager about it. I think they only want girls with experience, though.”
“I’ve got lots of experience,” Lennie said.
After the waitress went away to place their order with the cook, Lennie said, “That snooty bitch! We used to be good friends in school, and now she pretends to not even know who I am.”
“Maybe she doesn’t recognize you with that orange lipstick,” Dot said. “And why did you tell her you have experience? You know that’s a lie.”
“Well, I do have experience, but I didn’t say what kind of experience. You haven’t learned yet how you can bend the truth a little without ever telling a lie. You’ll learn that as you get older.”
“Lurlene is right,” Dot said. “You are a bad influence on me.”
“Well, we do what we must,” Lennie said, checking her reflection in the window and lighting a cigarette.
After they finished their lunch and the waitress brought the check, Lennie discovered she didn’t have enough money to pay since buying the things in the drugstore.
“Don’t worry,” Dot said. “We’ll just make a run for it.”
The lunch rush was over, and most of the people who were in the café earlier had left. There were just four or five old ladies sitting at a table toward the back, drinking coffee and gossiping. Only one waitress was behind the counter, and the cashier had stepped out back for a moment to have a cigarette. When a clatter of dishes erupted from the kitchen, obviously signaling an accident of some kind, the waitress disappeared through the swinging doors in the back.
“Now!” Dot said.
She bent over from the waist, as though that would make her less noticeable, and made for the door, with Lennie right behind her. When they were outside, they ran down to the next block and turned the corner, in case somebody from the café was coming after them.
“I think we just had a free lunch,” Dot said with a laugh.
“I hope that waitress has to pay for it herself,” Lennie said. “That would just about serve her right for pretending she didn’t know me.”
They went down to the end of the street to where the dance hall and casino used to be before they burned down. They turned the corner and there, up ahead at the next intersection, they saw where a crowd of people had gathered.
An old man in a blue sedan had swerved to avoid hitting a small boy on a bicycle and ran his car up on the sidewalk and smashed into a light pole. The old man was waving his arms and berating the boy while a policeman tried to calm him down. The boy stood behind the policeman and smirked at the old man, ready to run if need be.
Lennie didn’t want to go too near the crowd but Dot wanted to go see what was going on. She left Lennie standing underneath an awning while she pushed her way forward to get a good look. Bored with the whole scene, Lennie took a cigarette out of her purse and was lighting it when she felt a tap on the shoulder. She turned and saw Newton Milbank looking at her with his strange orange eyes.
“Hello, sweetness!” Newton said.
“Newton, what are you doing here?” Lennie asked, genuinely surprised to see him.
She knew Newton from high school. She never liked him very much. He wasn’t very good-looking and he always had a funny smell. His ears stuck out and he was from one of the notoriously poor families in town with at least a dozen brothers and sisters. He looked better to her now, though, somehow. His complexion had cleared up and his hair looked clean. She didn’t mind flirting with him a little bit. She looked up at him and blew smoke in his face. She hoped he would notice the orange lipstick.
“I just met with my parole officer,” Newton said.
“Oh, my goodness!” Lennie said. “Are you some kind of a big-time hoodlum? Do I need to be afraid?”
“You would never need to be afraid of me,” Newton said. “I was always hoping to meet up with you again, ever since high school. I’ve thought about calling you up.”
“Well, why didn’t you just do it, then? I’m in the book.”
“Would you like to go someplace and have a drink with me?”
“Do you mean right now?”
“What better time?”
“I’ve got my little sister with me and we were just about to go home.”
“We can drop her someplace and go on from there. Wait a minute. There’s somebody I want you to meet.”
He walked a few feet away and came back pulling a dark-haired young man by the arm. “Lennie,” he said, “this is my friend, Stegg Lucy. Stegg, this is Lennie Miggles. I’ve known her since high school.”
“Hello,” Stegg said, looking past Lennie’s shoulder.
“How do you do?” Lennie said.
As Stegg shook Lennie’s hand, a kind of electrical charge went through her, from the top off her head to the tip of her toes. She was immediately taken with him, from his sullen eyes and his pouty mouth to the black stubble on his face.
“Lennie has her sister with her,” Newton said to Stegg. “I was just telling her we could swing by and take the sister home and then go on to the party from there.”
“The sister can come, too, if she wants,” Stegg said.
“I’m afraid she’s still quite a child,” Lennie said, happy to have a reason to speak directly to Stegg.
“Oh,” Stegg said, turning away with disinterest.
“You didn’t say anything about a party,” Lennie said.
“Well, we hadn’t definitely decided on going,” Newton said. “We didn’t want to go unless we had dates.”
“Ask her if she’s got a friend,” Stegg said to Newton.
The incident involving the old man and the boy on the bicycle was coming to a conclusion and the crowd beginning to disperse. Dot saw where Lennie was standing talking to Newton and went over to her.
“That was great!” she said. “I thought that old man was going to kill that kid.”
“I want you to meet some friends of mine,” Lennie said to Dot, “Newton and Stegg.”
“Hi there!” Newton said.
“I’m ready to go home now,” Dot said, ignoring Newton.
“She is kind of young,” Stegg said speculatively. “Why does she wear that thing on her head?”
Lennie laughed a little too loud. “Oh, you know kids,” she said. “She always likes to do that which is odd and unexpected.”
“I like it,” Dot said. “I’m going to sleep with it on tonight. Tomorrow I’m going to stick my head under water with it on and see if it keeps my hair dry.”
“She’s just at that age, you know,” Lennie said.
“When are we going home?” Dot asked.
“Well, there’s been a change of plan,” Lennie said. “You’re going home, but I’m not.”
“What do you mean? Where are you going?”
“I’m going to a party with these two gentlemen.”
“What kind of a party?”
“A social gathering of friends. Isn’t that what a party is?”
“Lurlene won’t like it.”
“Oh, she won’t mind,” Lennie said. “She’s always saying she wished I would get out of the house more often.”
“Who’s Lurlene?” Newton asked.
“She’s our mother,” Dot said, looking down at the ground.
“Well, what are we waiting for?” Stegg said. “Let’s get this show on the road.”
Newton’s car was parked a couple of blocks away. As they were walking toward it, Dot pulled on Lennie’s arm.
“I don’t want to go with them,” she said.
“You can walk home, then,” Lennie said. “You know the way. You’re not a baby.”
“I don’t want you to go with them, either.”
“Well, now, isn’t that just too bad?”
When they came to Newton’s car, Lennie, Stegg and Newton piled into the front seat while Dot got into the back. Newton started the car with a roar and a satisfied grin and they were off.
“Just where is this party?” Lennie asked.
“It’s at a friend’s house,” Newton said. “You don’t know him. We’ll introduce you.”
“Will there be lots of people there?”
“I think it will be kind of intimate,” Stegg said.
“Now, wait a minute,” Lennie said. “Who will be there besides you two and this friend?”
“There’ll be other people there,” Newton said. “Don’t worry about it.”
“Will there be other girls there besides me?” Lennie asked with a laugh.
“Well, of course there will be,” Newton said. “What do you think I am?”
“I don’t think you should go,” Dot said from the back seat. “You’ve got things to do at home.”
“What things?” Lennie asked.
“You’re supposed to wash your hair tonight.”
“I can do that anytime, silly.”
Lennie gave Newton directions, and in just a few minutes he came to her house and pulled up at the front gate. He put the car in gear and revved the engine and he and Stegg laughed for some unknown reason.
“I’ll be home after while,” Lennie said to Dot to let her know she was supposed to get out.
“What do you want me to tell Lurlene?”
“Tell her whatever you want,” Lennie said. “Tell her not to wait up.”
Newton and Stegg laughed again.
“Something about this just doesn’t seem right,” Dot said as she got out of the car and closed the door, but Lennie didn’t hear her because Newton was saying something funny about the shock absorbers on his car.
For the moment Dot had forgotten about the binoculars but, when she remembered them on the string around her neck, she raised them and watched Newton’s car as it receded into the distance. She saw the three heads, Lennie’s head between Newton’s and Stegg’s. She saw Stegg put his arm around Lennie and Lennie turn toward him. Then she saw Stegg and Lennie kissing on the lips, just as plain as day, exactly as it was done in the movies.
“They were just waiting for me to get out of the car so they could do that,” Dot said to Dutch, who went to meet her when he saw her getting out of Newton’s car.
When she went into the house, Lurlene was making a pitcher of martinis.
“Where’s Toots?” she asked, a glass in one hand and the pitcher in the other.
“I don’t know,” Dot said. “He doesn’t tell me anything.”
“Don’t ask me.”
She went into her bedroom as fast as she could and closed the door before Lurlene had a chance to ask any more questions. She knew the next question was going to be about the swim cap and she didn’t want to have to explain.
She kicked off her shoes and lay down on the bed and looked up at the ceiling and took a few deep breaths. She was feeling tired after her afternoon in town and it felt good to be at home, in her own room, by herself at last.
She heard Lurlene singing to herself in the other room. She closed her eyes and imagined Lurlene sitting down on the couch with her drink and putting her feet up and lighting a cigarette. After a couple of minutes, she opened her eyes and picked up her new comic book, The Invincible Iron Man, and opened it. She turned to page one and began reading from the beginning. By suppertime she would have read nearly the whole thing. She was not going to be able to resist it.
Copyright © 2011 by Allen Kopp