$4.32 by Chris Poole
Gian’s father died on the job, so the security firm sent Gian a thousand-dollar check in the mail. Two months and twenty-nine days later, he deposited the check and then bought a milkshake for four dollars and thirty-two cents. It was strawberry, but it tasted like vanilla. The girl at the counter was a strawberry blonde, a speedy talker but patient.
“We’ve got a special on the mint chocolate chip yogurt half-frap. You can bump it up to a full for an extra seventy-five cents.”
“I’m not sure,” he said. “It’s a big purchase for me.” He saw a substantial looking kid pass by with a cup of soft-pink goo, so he pointed, stuttered, and promptly charged the shake to his newly revived checking account. The choice won a smile out of the girl, the sort of smile Gian would like to see fully unfold, but she spoke through it and over his shoulder to the next customer. He sidled out of the way and took a seat by the window.
The night before, he’d run through the numbers. He crunched them in his head, but didn’t have the nerve to put them to paper. His grandparents had halved their regular checks two months back. His mother sent her last Kroger gift card the month before that. Now there were only scribbled notes, “I’m sorry.” “I’m sorry.” “Can you hold off another month?” He always said he could. His father worked for a living, yet he did not. Fresh out of school and he hadn’t found a place yet. He cut back and waited and made do with pound bags of rice and cancelled contracts. He never had anyone to call anyway, never needed Netflix to get by. Even with windfalls growing sparse, Gian sat on the check as long as he could. He ran through the numbers. He crinkled and bent the crisp slip so that the phrase VOID WITHIN 90 DAYS folded in on itself before it reappeared again.
One thousand bucks covered the remainder of his father’s life, which could be as much a high estimate as a low one, depending on the random pratfalls that threaten us each day. The strawberry shake was less than one percent of that value. It was sweet and larger than his bicep. He wasn’t going to finish it. After three more vacuuming sips, he let it melt, and the condensation clung to his palm like sweat. He watched people pass by his window—young couples with strollers, squalls of teenagers, a fish waddling erect on its tailfin.
A gloomy kid peered out of the fish’s toothless grin, and slung around his neck was a sandwich board: Fish Tacos at ANDY’S Every Friday! Just 99₵! He caught Gian’s eye as he passed and stopped only long enough to slap a flyer on the window, a coupon for buy-three-get-one sliders. It stuck to the glass for several minutes after the fishboy had passed, until a café employee passed by sweeping trash out into the street. He peeled the coupon away, looked it over, and then pocketed it.
Gian left the table, dumped his slush in the recycling bin, and wandered out into the sticky-hot afternoon. He knew he needed groceries, and he was trying to recall the last time he’d had an ice cream sandwich. He was trying to recall his father and how he himself might have been, how he might be now, if he’d stayed in touch with the man. He was waiting for the emptying of his father, the accounting for today and all the days to come, but the absence felt no bigger than it had ever been. He was just facing it now and hadn’t the numbers or words to shape it.
Near the door, he kicked through a pile of cans and balled-up flyers. The sweeper poked his head around the corner. “I’ll have it out of the way in a second,” he said, and then, “Do you have any smokes?”
Gian had only ever thought of smoking as an expensive habit, but he said, “I wish.”
The sweeper sighed. “Break time’s coming, and the search begins. Do you want one?”
Health did not always pay out in years, Gian decided. He might as well live out his own final check. He followed the sweeper around the building to a little alcove behind a bright green dumpster. A squat kid in a barista’s apron sat on a stoop by the café’s back door. He held an open package of Dixie cups and dipped one in a mop bucket full of a glimmering concoction a shade greener than the dumpster.
“Are you still trying to quit?” the sweeper asked the kid, who nodded.
“We smuggled some rum into the mint yogurt mix.”
The sweeper ignored the offered cup. He rapped on the door until it knocked him back, and the cashier girl poked her head out.
“Smokes,” whined the sweeper, but the girl shook her head with a devilish grin. In one smooth motion, she ducked back inside and flung out, Gian measured, about five inches of baguette. The sweeper caught it.
“Floor bread!” she said, and when the sweeper did not respond, she called out in a squeal, “Bread of Death! Contain! Contain!” Then she slipped inside with a final slam. In answer, the sweeper bit off as much of the loaf as he could fit in his mouth, and he dropped the rest like a hot potato into his companion’s open palms. Before Gian could figure out the game, the loaf, shortened by another mouthful, was flying at him.
The security firm had sent the check to his mother, along with a statement that this was not insurance but a one-time “note of compensation” for the family. The letter had been forwarded unopened to Gian. He knew he couldn’t rely on gifts much longer, but all the same, he crammed the bread in his face and bit it down to a lesser stub.
Chris Poole is from Harrison, Tennessee and currently studies fiction at Emerson College’s MFA program. He has had work published by Waccamaw, Fwriction: Review, and Flavorwire.