“Crime 101” by Meg Tuite’s Exquisite Quartet

This is the latest in Meg Tuite’s Exquisite Quartet. To go to the column page, please click here.

One slice of the world was magnetic, charismatic and resigned itself to nothing. It stood like a boulder on the hot, pressurized seat of duress. It had dove-white hair in two, fat matching pigtails on either side of a smirk-endowed radiant face. Its name was Gina McPatrick.

This electric portion of my confined existence bellowed out to me from street corners, the schoolyard, across telephone lines and city blocks to get the hell out my flustered, parallel universe of biting nails, winning spelling bees and generally kissing ass in my house and school and shake it up. Do something dangerous. Set it askew. Break through the imprisoned cell of my fear and fly with the falcons instead of burrowing with the mice.

I tremored in the presence of Gina, but whether I was ready for the challenge of blasting through my chains or not was beside the point. I couldn’t said no. I was the despondent creature that Gina-birds-of-prey spotted with their radar vision and stuck their talons in. One day, when I was eight years old, my life of crime began.

“So, whatcha doin’ in there, anyway?” Gina asked, shouting through the bathroom door, popping her raspberry gum. “I’ve been, like, waiting for hours.”

“You’ve been waiting five minutes,” I replied.

“Did you put it on?” We had her mother’s bright red lipstick. Gina said we would wear it down to the 7-Eleven and see if that cute boy, Johnson, near the front would flirt with us. Mom’s neighbor, Cherize, said red lipstick was whorish. I had the lipstick out, twisted up and fully available like an obscene wax thing. I had just brought it to my lips when Gina barged in. “Do it already!” she said. She was nine. She pulled my long brown braid.

“Why do we need this?” I asked, afraid of the lipstick, already imagining which people might see me walking past.

“Because we want him to kiss us,” Gina said. “Duh. And let us steal.”

“And this does it?”

“Of course.” Gina slid right up near me, her raspberry gum breath close and moist on my ear. “My mom says they can’t resist this stuff. Today, we’ll steal our own lipstick. Watch me put it on.”

I did. Her lips stuck out mad tomato, fat ole stop-sign of a red gash. “Oh,” I said.

We looked like two miniature traffic lights as we made our way up to the 7-Eleven convenience store. It was only a few blocks away, but I kept my head down while Gina blathered on. When we got there Gina pulled me around to the side of the building and threw me up against the wall.

Gina’s bloody, swollen lips got up close to my face and she hissed, “I’ll distract Johnson behind the counter. You get us that lipstick, some ice cream bars and whatever else you can grab. Or else!” She gave me a shove.

“Look,” I said desperately, “we can’t go in there together.”

“Why not,” Gina demanded, her eyes narrowing with suspicion.

“That’s the whole point of you distracting him, isn’t it? He’s not supposed to notice me. So you go first, distract him, and I’ll just slip in and…”

“Oh, no you don’t!” Gina’s claws were in my arm again. “If I go in first, you’ll just run home to mommy like a scaredy-cat!” She pushed me toward the door.

My heart was ricocheting around inside me as she opened the door and the bell above tinkled. I took a deep breath and began slipping down the far aisle toward the back of the store while Gina sashayed over to the counter. I did have some experience being invisible. Small for my age, at eight, and ordinary looking, at best, no one ever seemed to notice me. If I’d come into the store with money to buy the lipstick, I’d probably have to wait, like forever, at the counter before Johnson even looked up.

I could do this! Maybe. But where was I going to put the stuff? Anything I shoved down my shirt or my pants would just fall through and I wasn’t about to put ice cream bars in my underpants. If I was going to go to jail for the rest of my life, I wasn’t going to do it with ice cream bars melting in my panties. Even the jacket I was wearing had only one useful pocket. I never used that other pocket because there was a hole in it and everything I put in there ended up shifting into the lining. That’s it!

I quickly grabbed a tube of bright red lipstick. Then I slipped in a tube of “Petal Pink” that I actually kind of liked. And a matching pearly nail polish. Then a tube of cuticle cream, a pack of emery boards, some cotton puffs and a pump dispenser of sparkly hand cream. Everything disappeared as quickly as I put it in. I glanced at the big spy mirror in the corner. I was too short to show up in it, but I could see Johnson. He was sitting on a stool, his back to me, reading a magazine, just like when we came in. Moving silently up the aisle I snagged a make-up case, a disposable camera, six pairs of sheer trouser socks in assorted colors packaged in golf ball sized plastic pellets, a sports watch, some dangly earrings, and a matching necklace and bracelet made out of candy. I glanced up at the mirror again. Johnson hadn’t moved. But wait, where was Gina?

I couldn’t see Gina, but her influence hung all around me in my bulked out jacket and pounding heart. I was now her fat little falcon chick. The heaviness of my coat gave me the right to soar away from my mouse burrow. Never had I felt such freedom. From above I peered down upon those goody-two-shoes that followed the rules – the mice of the world.

I snatched a pack of shoestrings from the shelf and stuffed it into my jacket.  I could hardly wait to show my spoils to Gina, but where was Gina? When I looked up in the mirror I only so Johnson still reading his magazine. I held my breath and listened for her loud, it’s-all-about-me voice. I moved through each aisle and searched. Nothing.

As I got to the front of one aisle I looked up into the mirror behind the counter and spied Gina crouching at the corner of the counter, peeking around the hot dog warmer, staring at Johnson. I crept up to her catching a whiff of her raspberry scent.

I pointed to my jacket, overstuffed to the point of tightness, and put a finger to my lips.  She sat in silence, chewing on one of her dove-white pigtails, ignoring my bravado.  Her face was blank, held no trace of the usual persnickety smirk. This was the nine-year-old that wanted to smack kisses on Johnson, a boy older than my brother, at least fifteen-years-old?  She looked like a scared, tiny mouse. I followed her gaze to Johnson, sitting on a stool behind the cash register, his back toward us, the open magazine gripped in both hands. “What’s he looking at?” I whispered into Gina’s ear. She didn’t seem to hear or notice me. I got closer to Johnson. He wasn’t focused on the magazine itself. There was a paper lying on the page of the magazine.

I moved forward in a crouch, my coat weighing me down like some sort of falcon harness. The Slurpee machine grinded away, masking the slight rubbing sound of my jacket sleeves against side panels. I stopped and craned my neck, over his shoulder. Inside the magazine rested a single 8×11 photograph of a woman with long dove-white hair. Her naked body lay sprawled on a green velour couch. Her legs were long, thin, and cracked open, allowing full access to her privates. Scrawled in seemingly red lipstick were the words JENNIFER  McPATRICK. Gina’s mom.

“Gross out!” I  screamed, disgusted. I needed to get away. Did mothers really do that? Did my mom? This world of crime was making me sick. Gina, startled out of her trance, jumped up to grab me and missed. Instead, my coat snagged on the beef jerky rack hanging low from the edge of the counter.  I was slammed to a sudden halt. I tugged and pulled but couldn’t get lose. Gina just stood there watching me, waiting for me to take the fall.

Johnson hurried around the counter and caught me before I could free myself.  He tried to turn me around to face him. He set his jaw and worked his weight backwards.  With a loud r-i-p-p-p, my jacket tore away from the jerky rack. I went sprawling. So did my entire stash I’d accumulated, while the pack of emery boards twirled through the air and landed on the photo of Gina’s mom, now on the floor next to the magazine.

Johnson dragged me to my feet and forced my body to face him.  He held my shoulders tight in his hands and yelled. “What the hell are you kids up to?”

The throbbing in my heart swelled up into my ears and deafened me, made me numb to everything.  I screamed, “Let me go, you sicko.” Johnson loosened his grip. I yanked away from him and ran stumbling and sliding over the loot gutted from my jacket littering the linoleum floor and out the plate glass front door. I heard Gina yelling my name.

My long brown braid whipped from side to side along my back as I ran. Winning spelling bees was a good thing. With the back of my hand, I wiped the lipstick from my lips along with tears and sweat from my eyes. The lipstick smeared red all over my forehead, my cheeks and my palms. The photo of Gina’s mom sprawled out before my eyes like a bad nightmare over and over. I couldn’t wait to get home and into my room to sit at my desk, open my books and work quietly on my homework.


This month’s contributors to Exquisite Quartet are: 

Heather Fowler, who received her M.A. in English and Creative Writing from Hollins University. She has taught composition, literature, and writing-related courses at UCSD, California State University at Stanislaus, and Modesto Junior College. Her work has been published online and in print in the US, England, Australia, and India, and appeared in such venues as Night TrainPANK,JMWWShort Story America and others, as well as having been nominated for both the storySouthMillion Writers Award and Sundress Publications Best of the Net. Her debut story collection SUSPENDED HEART was released by Aqueous  Books in December of 2010. A portion of her author’s proceeds will be donated to a local battered women’s charity in San Diego, CA.

Sally Reno, a writer, producer and newscaster for Pacifica-KGNU Radio in Denver-Boulder and the CFO of Shining Mountains Press. She has published flash fiction in print and online journals including Fast ForwardFlash PartyEmanon and Indigo. Her flash, “Mickey, Mickey, You’re So Fine” was selected by New Yorker fiction editor, James Wood, as a winner of National Public Radio’s 3-Minute Fiction Contest. A founding member of The Tucson Writers’ Project, she is currently a member of the writers’ group Write Trash Writes Again!

Ron D’Alena, who was born in San Francisco, earned an MBA at the University of San Francisco, and now lives in Southern Oregon with his wife and son.  His work has appeared and is forthcoming in numerous journals and magazines, most recently: Crannog MagazineSlipstreamUnderground VoicesLowestoft ChroniclesThe Stray BranchBlue Crow MagazineCriminal Class Review andEDGE.  He is a two-time Glimmer Train Finalist and nominee for the 2012 Pushcart Prize for fiction. See Ron read on YouTube.

Meg Tuite, whose writing has appeared in numerous journals including Berkeley Fiction Review, 34th Parallel, One, the Journal, Monkeybicycle and Boston Literary Magazine. She is the fiction editor of The Santa Fe Literary Review and Connotation Press. Her novel “Domestic Apparition” (2011) will soon be available through San Francisco Bay Press. Her blog:  http://megtuite.wordpress.com

More of Meg Tuite’s Exquisite Quartet at Used Furniture.

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