by Yash Seyedbagheri
The credit card machine beeps, a harsh siren song.
The flame-haired cashier, attired in blue and white smock, asks if I have another card. Her words are little too precise and knowing. She stares, her blue eyes weary.
I do have other cards. But I know what the response will be, like the other seven cards, each one drained over the past month. Fixing my broken Toyota Corolla. Paying for damages to a jukebox at Bavo’s Bar after Chuck Addison made crude comments about my older sister Nan. Paying overdue phone bills.
Now all I want is the luxury of some Michelinas TV dinners. Stroganoff. Some microwaveable pretzels. A six-pack of Fat Tire. And more Diet Pepsi. I just want a minimal dinner, less-than-healthy, the kind every indebted American consumes. A small, gluttonous, thing.
I just want to accept smallness and not dream of champagne and caviar. I’ve dreamt of those things. Dreaming feels like falling really hard on the ice and hobbling afterwards.
Still I run another card, swipe it hard. DECLINED.
I try again. Joke about not swiping hard enough. DECLINED.
I think of the fridge in my apartment, almost naked. Its occupants are a lone, white onion and sardines. There’s also that half-full or half-empty bottle of Diet Pepsi, whose label I ripped off after having to pay overdue rent. I’ve always tried to stock up enough to last two weeks. It never lasts. I always need late-night snacks, middle-of-the night snacks, just because I can. Because no one can take that.
DECLINED. The machine beeps. I’ve heard that beep so many times, week after week, month after month. Still, I come back, like an idiot. As if Santa Claus might wipe my debts away en route to the register. Or some financial wizard.
‘Damn you,’ I growl.
I give the machine a punch, my fist dull. Pathetic. I didn’t angle it right, the way I did with the jukebox at Bavo’s or with the others I’ve fought.
Not a dent.
It stares, a hunk of black square. People stare. A mother shifts, murmurs something to two children. Perhaps she’s telling them I’m a freak, a loser. A man without a good job, a good life. Perhaps she’s telling them not to be like me. A young man in a baseball cap arches an eyebrow, returns to the sanctum of his cell phone. A little girl laughs.
I almost want to smile and curse her out simultaneously.
The cashier waits for something. Perhaps for me to beg. Perhaps for me to make up a story. I’m sure she’s heard stories of runaway parents and spouses, fires, and debts. She contains them all in her cynical smirk. Probably plays them back night after night. I can’t blame her, given her particular job. We all need some sort of entertainment.
“That’s all right,” I say. “I’m declining this transaction anyway. Not good for my health.”
I walk out, hungry, but with a certain gait in my step. I pick up the pace. Cock my head with the coldness of an aristocrat. Try not to look at the full carts full of family dinners. There’s something about declining people, a dark power. Even if the cycle of checkouts and laughter keeps on going, even if my visit has no effect at all. I at least haven’t begged, even if I tried to punch a credit card machine. At least nothing’s broken.
Even if I did curse a machine.
DECLINED. One good thing.
I shout that word out into the swath of dusk, the deep pink and purple spread across the hills. Butter-colored lights are coming on from houses, spread out, like some sort of set. The world is large, but it’s a good kind of large for this one moment. I keep on going, shouting that word up long and winding streets, the store becoming smaller and smaller.
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