The Four Dollar Difference

What a difference four dollars makes.  Not even five.  A measly four.

A deep huff of wind dances my jacket flaps behind me, and I zip in haste.  I forget more things after dark, I notice, than during pleasant walking hours.   With practice, the late-night street life turns near-invisible.  Outstretched hands and shanty placards for petty wares fade in the palimpsest of downtown life like forgotten layers of paint.

The guard at the entrance to the market, nodding half at the late hour, half at the open door, opens his sore eyes a mite wider at my state, the tuxedo shirt and collar stealing attention from the pink-and-blue windbreaker.  His eyes dart as fast as laziness allows above my head to the display of store hours, glancing down at the unmopped tile before stealing a glance at his wrist watch.

Tersely he plods to the electric doors, reaching high above to switch them off, and a light flickers before fading, telling all the store was now closed.  A scattered few scan their wares and trundle to the exit, the clerks with their Lane Closed signs holding tight the grin of relief.

I’m quick through the store, more for self-preservation than anything.  In fifteen minutes when a taxicab cuts from freeway to side street, slowing then stopping at a well-lit corner, when a fare is paid and a driver is generously tipped, when stilettos clack onto sidewalk and a last stolen look into the door’s reflection affords the final bounce of cupped hair, not only should I be there, polished, poised, free from beads of sweat, I should be there with more than my heart in my hands.

I slide two tiles past the wine rack before catching, the bottom of my shoes with the friction of a whisper on earrings.   My arm fires like an automaton clasping the Cabernet, the momentum pirouetting me towards the cashier.

I dip my hand into my pocket the way you would a fish bowl, knowing as the taut fabric touches my fingers my wallet rests on the chair beside the door.  I glanced at the security guard, hands at the ready to toggle our freedom.  He’s not paying attention, I remind myself, he’s only thinking of leaving.

I see the guard, the now-locked door, the permission required to flee, and admonish myself for thinking for a split heartbeat that security cameras can be fooled and single wine bottles won’t be missed.  I rest the bottle on the conveyor belt, shrugging silently to the clerk as I shuffle to the door.

It’s only now that I see what the guard saw on that stretch of unmopped tile; nothing.  With an eye to my own wristwatch, I’m out of options, and the door toggles open.

Again, the wind catches my jacket like a sail.  I have to turn against it, reaching back for the zipper.

And I feel it.  Three bills.  Four quarters.  Hidden inside.  I glance ahead to the corner, a man folding his humble sign for the night, and wave.

“You brought flowers,” she says, wine bottle clutched in her hand behind my back.

One response to “The Four Dollar Difference

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