When Vernon woke on that early June morning he felt like a smoked pack of cigarettes. There were starlings chirping in their alien language and scratching their invasive little feet inside his bathroom fan vent, there was a dog somewhere nearby barking its goddamn head off. There was a meeting he was in danger of being late for, at the Dominion grocery store by the lake. There was a long walk to get there and a short supply of gumption.
Sometimes Vernon just had to swing his feet to the floor and sit up. That’d get him started, and once the momentum began he could roll his way into the day. Sometimes even sitting up in the bed took more than he had in him. He was fully awake—it wasn’t that. But the meeting he had to drag himself to, a meeting at which he knew he was about to be blackmailed—that was what kept his back pinned to the sweaty mattress.
Innocent until proven guilty. Right? They would have to supply the proof, and he doubted they could. Still, this was a giant company about to put its boot down on him. Calling their bluff would be ill advised. Acting hasty had already caused him enough grief; now was the time to be smart. Case the place first. Check the parking lot for cop cars or ghost cars. Don’t walk into a set snare like a dumb hare. And avoid talking. Say nothing unnecessary. Don’t let them trip you up, Vern. Play it smart, you friggin dummy.
Finally, he sat up, planted the feet on the floor, slouched the shoulders, exhaled, and stared through the wall. Monday goddamn morning. Not a good day to go getting arrested.
It was spite that caused him so much trouble. Vernon used spite to justify all kinds of skullfuckery. He had spitefully poured a bottle of Pepsi into the gas tank of Mr. Newman’s car in grade ten after he’d been caught cheating on a math exam—not that he needed to cheat, he generally found math less than challenging, but he’d been too lazy to study and had written formulas on the backside of his calculator in pencil, so they only showed up in certain light. And Mr. Newman could have looked the other way. Vernon was a good student, otherwise. But no, next thing he’s down at the office, sitting beside the school secretary, waiting for his mother to pick him up. Suspended. Permanent record. Summer school. Bunch of horseshit. So yes, he’d poured Pepsi into the gas tank of Mr. Newman’s Hyundai Elantra. They couldn’t prove it. Innocent until proven, right? But his mother knew he’d done it, and when time came for Vernon to get his learner’s permit she shook her head and told him if he wanted to drive her car, if he wanted to learn—a privilege, she called it—he could apologize to Chester Newman, and find a way to make it up to him. So Vernon never did learn to drive.
It was spite, too, the time Vernon’s classmates had disseminated stickers that said RIP Rob 1992-2011 with a basketball wearing angel wings after one of their classmates—Rob—had been killed in a car crash on the southern shore highway, and Vernon had been caught scratching and peeling the stickers off people’s lockers while he was supposed to be using the bathroom. Rob had once made Vernon the butt of a joke—had spat a somewhat cutting remark as Vernon was dropped off in front of the school by his mother in her Pontiac Sunfire. There had been a box of leaflets on the front passenger seat, so Vernon had ridden in the back. The remark wasn’t even clever, but for the next two years he’d on and off been referred to as “Backseat Vern.” There had been a half-effort to match his classmates’ grief when Rob passed. But soon the fervour with which some of them mourned began to grind at Vernon, and there were these stickers, staring him in the face, taunting him. Spite was one of the few comforts Vernon had found at that point in his life. Of course, he was caught at that too, and his popularity plummeted even further. And his persecution complex grew even larger. “Christ on a cross!” his mother was prone to exclaiming when Vernon disappointed her in some meaningless way, and at times it really felt like she was referring to him. On the corner of his big toenail was a small crack that hitched the material of his sock when he pulled it on and the sensation of tearing cotton against broken nail sent a shiver of displeasure through Vernon’s already rattled body. June in St. John’s, definitely not even approaching warm enough yet to be walking around sockless, but warm enough to begin resenting the fucking things. Vernon brushed his teeth and stared at the mirror just long enough to avoid hating himself further—though truth be told, when Vernon reached a certain level of self-loathing—not too much but certainly not too little—he could harness that feeling into a spiteful rejuvenation, an actionable sense of determinism. He put a fingertip of pomade into his hair to fight the inevitable wind and he slunk to the kitchen for the quotidian oatmeal. Not a stain of stolen maple syrup left though, so he swallowed it unsweetened; a theme he was acclimatizing to.
Outside, there was garbage strewn all over the front lawn and the sidewalk. Missus upstairs, he knew, was in no shape to be cleaning it all up. She’d suffered some kind of medical trauma—Vernon did not ask for specifics, he’d only seen the ambulance and, following that, the pronounced limp and painful gait the woman now moved with. Back inside he went, pulled an old Dominion bag from beneath the sink, and began trash collecting. There were black bags up and down the sidewalk. Next door lay the culprit—or victim perhaps would be more accurate: a bag that’d proved too tantalizing to the gulls who frequented that particular section of Quidi Vidi Road and had torn it open so they could gorge themselves. The wind had done the rest. This detour did provide a reminder for Vernon to set out his own garbage. Again, June is not warm enough for next-day rot to provide its own olfactory reminder, but warm enough that if you missed garbage day, you’d get that smell before the following one.
Vernon was almost struck by a careening Volvo while crossing the street outside of Belbin’s. The driver’s admonishment was undercut somewhat by something fascinating on her phone. Two uniformed guards stood smoking cigs outside of Her Majesty’s Penitentiary. By the boathouse several keen rowers were congratulating themselves on their healthy lifestyles as they tied up their shells. The Dominion parking lot was, as far as he could see, clear of cops. To be certain, Vernon also checked the underground parkade, where someone had dropped a bunch of bananas that had since been run over and turned to a pulpy, fly-ridden mess. The stealing had begun as a spiteful response to the most recent labour strike. At first, Vernon had been annoyed that he had to walk farther to buy food—or buy it at Belbin’s, which he couldn’t afford. But after a few casual conversations with the folks on the picket lines, including Paul, with whom Vernon had gone to high school, the annoyance turned to outrage. It wasn’t long before Vernon was telling anyone who’d listen about bread price fixing, and the billionaire at the top, squeezing every penny from folks running his empire of grocery stores. Modern day super villains were a great source for generating spite. Eventually, the strike ended. There were concessions, though none that seemed very satisfying to Vernon, even as an outsider. It didn’t feel like they’d won anything. But back to work they went. And when Vernon returned there to shop, it was to the self-serve checkouts he went every time. It was far too easy to run two items over the scanner at the same time, depositing both in his cloth bag. The person tasked with watching the self-serve checkouts seemed unlikely to care if people stole. Right? And Vernon developed a taste for cheese that wasn’t cheddar, steaks, boneless chicken breasts, and even avocados; all of which he could not afford. He’d felt a bit of Robin Hood coursing through his blood, and the theft had gone on now for well over eighteen months. The strike had mostly faded from public memory, but the spite remained. It was a useful tool for justification. He figured stealing from the Weston family was like recycling: really, the least he could do.
Inside, a tall, rail-thin security guard had eyes like he’d just swam in a highly chlorinated pool. He did not work for the Westons, but for a security firm called O’Byrne’s who contract their workers out, to protect the wealth of others. I’d be high too, Vernon thought, if I had his job. Though it was possible the young man just suffered from hay fever.
“Hey,” Vernon said, approaching the guard, “you ever think about the way our brains kinda crop our noses out of our vision?”
“Like, I can see my nose, if I focus there, but I never see it, ya know?”
The guard went cross-eyed as Vernon stepped onto the escalator.
In the produce section, several uniformed employees had formed a semi-circle around a man in a suit who stabbed the palm of his left hand with his right index finger over and over again. Vernon looked to the ceiling to avoid being seen watching them, where instead he noticed all the pipes and lights and ductwork hanging above everything, and, toward the back, by the dairy section, relics from a time when the building had been a stadium. Memorial Stadium, where as a child Vernon had gone to watch professional hockey games and had his first taste of being a part of something bigger. The thrill of stomping your feet and clapping your hands in unison with six-thousand other people to the tune of We Will Rock You. Had Vernon felt that connected to so many other people since? He didn’t care for sports anymore, but there was something to be said about the solidarity that comes with fandom. You were never really alone when you swam with the school.
In the pet food aisle was a young man wearing a back brace filling the shelves with cans of dog food. The wooden pallet the cans sat on blocked half of the aisle and as Vernon was about to skirt around it the young man looked up and it was Paul—from high school.
“Oh. Paul. How’re ya now?”
Paul stood from his crouched position and his hand went to the small of his back, a wince clouded his face.
“You hear about Tommy?” Paul said.
“Remember Tommy Hann? Gave the nun a meltdown in grade six when he stuck his gum on his communion wafer and waved it over his head?”
“Oh, Tommy Hann. How could I forget.”
“Sister Eileen, I think.”
“Right you are, it was Sister Dorothy,” Paul said.
“Anyway, see Tommy on the news last night?”
“I did not.”
“Robbed a friggin ATM with a stolen backhoe.”
Paul laughed. “The very same.”
“What’s become of him that he’s so desperate I wonder.”
“The keys for those things are all universal.”
“The what now?”
“Backhoes. Dozers. Whatever.”
“Half the time b’ys leaves the key in em.”
“Begging to be stolen,” Paul said.
“Is that one of the sins?”
“No, wait, commandments. Is stealing one?”
“It is of course. Poor Tommy’s not getting through those pearly gates, wha?”
“Doubt there’s many gates that’d stop Tommy.”
Paul laughed again. “No,” he said, “you’re right— not our Tommy.” He regarded the unshelved cans at his feet. “Anyway, good to see you, Vern.”
“Yeah, take it easy.”
Vernon was halfway up the aisle when he turned back around.
“Hey, Paul, I’m supposed to be meeting a Gina Thwaites. You know her?”
“You’re meeting Gina? What’d you do?
“Does she have an office I should go to or something?”
Paul once again stood painfully from his crouched position.
“Come on, I’ll take you to her,” he said.
Vernon followed Paul, suddenly aware of Steve Miller Band’s Take the Money and Run playing over hidden speakers. A song which always reminded him, for some reason, of riding in the backseat of a car in summer. Another uniformed employee approached Paul with a grave look on her face. She wore a flour-covered apron and a hairnet. She said, “Something going down, Paul. Buddy in the suit is on the warpath.” She checked over her shoulder, then lowered her voice. “Talks of layoffs for full-timers. Don’t let him catch you slacking.”
“Go ’way, Helen, b’y, I don’t slack.”
She giggled at him. “No, me neither,” she said, and went on her way.
They went through two heavy saloon doors into a large, poorly-lit back storeroom area, past huge piles of discarded food and a mountain of broken-down cardboard boxes. The bare concrete floor was sticky and the room was a busy airport for flies. Pest control devices lined the walls and the drone of a compressor drowned out Vernon’s thoughts. Paul stopped and knocked on a closed door. Someone said “Yes,” inside, Paul opened the door and a uniformed employee who was slouching in a chair near the door, rose and exited, slinking past Vernon while removing their nametag.
“Gina, Vernon here said he had a meeting with you.”
“Yes. Thank you, Peter.”
Paul winked at Vernon and left.
Gina was chewing a fingernail, her brows knotted, and her eyes cast onto the bare desk’s surface. Vernon stood in the doorway and waited.
“Come in and sit down,” she said. “Close the door.”
The seat was still warm.
Now Vernon waits for the shoe to drop. For the cops to show up. For pending charges. Though he’s unsure if they ever will.
It’s July now. Hot and sticky. The basement windows are always open, but they don’t have screens, so the apartment has become a colosseum for wasps and mosquitoes and nippers and houseflies the size of small mice. Vernon is itchy and sweaty all the time. He has shaved his head in an attempt to keep cool but there is no noticeable difference. The garbage can in the kitchen stinks and the woman who lives upstairs can be heard moaning in the nights. These are not good moans. They’re the moans of a person in the throes of something horrific. The sounds of suffering, and they now form part of the soundtrack of Vernon’s life. The moans and the buzz of flies and he dread every time a car slows and stops outside on Quidi Vidi road. Is this it? Have they come to arrest him finally? No. Just a delivery driver. Again.
Vernon has stopped shopping at Dominion. He goes to Belbin’s each week and buys rice and potatoes and a bit of mince meat and he tries to make the most of his meagre grocery budget, but anyone can plainly see he’s lost weight. He looks a bit gaunt. He sees people cross the road to avoid him. Skinny little skid with a shaved head and darting, suspicious eyes. He’s not doing drugs, but he might as well be, the way he’s perceived.
On a Thursday morning as Vernon is putting out the stinking trash a car slows and stops. His chest tightens and he turns to head back inside when a voice calls, “Hey, Backseat Vern!” There is a RIP Rob 1992-2011 sticker on the car’s window—the angel-winged basketball is mostly faded. There is a sense of inevitability in the air. Vernon draws a deep breath.
Gina Thwaites had given him an ultimatum. First, she’d shown him surveillance footage of him stealing at the self-checkout, adding up the items he’d stolen as the montage went on. Then she slid the list across the desk. It was three pages long. He thought that was it. He was done for. He’d walked past Her Majesty’s Pen just that morning and he figured soon he’d be jailed there. The two guards he’d seen smoking out front— he’d get to know them. Maybe one was a prick and one was best kind. He imagined beatings he’d receive, protection he’d have to somehow buy. He imagined the unimaginable. That’s when Gina said she had a job for him. She could make his problem disappear. Quid Pro Quo. She had a problem he could help her solve. The company wanted to cut its full-time staff. Part-timers didn’t qualify for benefits, and they were much easier to divide. But she needed cause. She needed to build cases against the full-timers. If she could get them on her camera being negligent, like, maybe they are standing right next to a young man who is blatantly stealing at the self-serve checkout, then she had grounds to fire them. And if they filed a grievance with their union, well, she had it all on tape. This is what Gina proposed to Vernon. She wanted him to keep stealing. “We can help each other,” she said.
The driver of the car sporting the winged basketball sticker is Paul. “How’d it go with Gina?” he says.
“Don’t call me that,” Vernon says.
Paul laughs. “Sorry, bro. Listen, jump in.”
“Tell me about what Gina said.”
“What, a month ago?”
The ultimatum was not the thing. Was not the reason for Vernon’s amplified reclusivity. He was expecting blackmail. What he wasn’t expecting was Gina Thwaites. The way she held a look of contempt on her face. The dragonly hideaway at the back of the grocery store where she horded her power over employees who had not so long ago been given “hero pay,” and not long after that been forced onto the picket line. Vernon likened the word smug and the name Smaug, and realized Gina Thwaites was the personification of a wider-spread infectious disease called greed. She was Weston’s lacky, and the thought of he, Vernon, becoming her underling roused his spite to a justifiably actionable level—Vernon knew he could embrace this spite while discarding its usual partner: shame. Fuck Gina Thwaites and fuck all the Westons. Vernon would rather grow thin and twitchy than live off their scraps, trading his dignity for their leavings.
“She offer you a deal or something?”
“Everyone there knows Gina’s only purpose is to union bust. There’s been three full-timers fired this month because they didn’t catch people ganking groceries at the self-checkouts. Then I remembered you coming in for a meeting.”
“How’d you find me?”
“Luck. Just happened to drive by. But listen. What’d she say?”
A year later, Vernon will harbour regrets. Not for the role he will play in what turns out to be a futile attempt to undermine Gina Thwaites and the fucking Westons. No one could know the length of that Weston reach—no one in Vernon’s position anyway. Cops, MPs, security, city councillors, and dozens of part-time grocery clerks, all entrenched, knowingly or not, in a system shaped like a pyramid. Vernon and Paul and everyone they will secretly coordinate with, they stand no chance. But that will not be the regrettable part. At least there will be a whiff of pride available to them—they’ll stand for something, in the end. Even if they get knocked down. The regrettable part will be the separation. The paranoia that will keep Vernon indoors. That will never go away, even when he co-conspires, even when he knows they are doing the right thing; still the fear of being found will linger. Still Vernon will feel alone. Solidarity is fleeting. A luckier man could liken it to love. But Vernon will find only cold comfort in the moments when he feels a part of something bigger, something more than himself and his hang-ups and his spite. The brief moments of togetherness will only serve as contrast, making the lonely, nervous hours and days and weeks that follow into the reality of his mind. But the regrettable part will be how his fear will prevent him from answering the knock. He will cower—the image of himself, shrivelled, hiding, will intrude, constantly, and the shame of his inaction will be so sticky that he’ll be unable to even conjure up some spite.
The woman upstairs. She will need Vernon’s help and he will be too afraid to answer the goddamn door. His disconnection, the chasm that’ll grow between Vernon and his community, between his self-image and reality, where his usefulness will vanish into an abyss of delusion, all of this will prevent him from helping her. He had wanted to fight Goliath, but will end up fighting only himself. And for what? Some avocados and some chicken? For Paul? It’s not as if Vernon had stolen a backhoe and ripped off an ATM. He was stealing food from the wealthiest family in the country.
Christ on a cross.