Loss Prevention

Brett Stuckel

Things had gone bad, and toilet paper was out of the budget. Luckily, Griff's place was a quick walk from Walmart. At any hour he could crash in, deliver a clenched hello to the greeter, and, a few steps later, void himself in a corporate environment. No men's room door, just a labyrinthine entryway; no paper towels, just weapons-grade blowers; and best of all, no questions. 

 

It worked until he—let's just say he miscalculated. After the incident, Griff decided he should keep some paper at his place, if only for emergencies. On his next visit, he studied the double-barreled dispenser of one-ply beside the seat. Locked. The keyhole was a squiggle slot, mean but not impregnable. He pressed a stick of gum against it for an imprint and then went home, found his leather gloves and pliers, and got to work. 

 

He returned to the Walmart bathroom with a key fashioned from a sheet of aluminum. It slotted right in the lock, and, alacazam, the dispenser's translucent housing yawned open. He pulled an untouched roll off the second peg—and what a roll, the size of a wheel of parmesan—and shoved it in his backpack. He left the other roll for future visits and clicked the dispenser shut. The stall door swung open, and he found himself face-to-face with the Loss Prevention Officer.

 

"Open the bag."

 

Griff considered outrunning this mashed potato of a man, but he was surely on seven different cameras, maybe thirteen when you count the secret lenses behind the urinals' sensors. He dropped the bag and put up his hands, not in surrender, but with false naiveté. A customer can use as many wipes as they want, right?

 

The LPO snarled and pointed to the corner. "Stand there."

 

Griff backed himself against the changing table's cartoon koala. The officer dropped to a knee, unzipped the pack, and pulled out the tissue. He put it on the ground sideways, contaminating it from core to edge, and fished around in the bag with a pen light until he found the key. "Thought so."

 

"I'm in here twice a day," Griff said. "It's a public bathroom. I'm with the public—this saves you cleaning costs—saves water—that's for my bike lock—I'll leave and never come back." 

 

The LPO pocketed the key, shoved the roll in the backpack, and took him by the wrist. "Let's go."

 

As they walked to the back of the store, Griff tried to remember the penalty for shoplifting. He knew he'd seen it on a plaque above the sinks, or maybe beside the hand dryer. A fine? Up to 30 days in jail? Seriously? He did remember one phrase: Prosecute to the fullest extent of the law. 

 

The officer pushed him into a room and dropped the pack. Table, chair, postcard-sized window. "Wait here." He shut the door. 

 

Griff didn't bother testing the doorknob. He paced, climbed the chair, and poked the drop ceiling. He cracked the little tilt window and saw kids running in a swarm, playing pickup soccer on the field outside. He felt a homesick swoon for childhood. No bills, no need to penny-pinch, no hygiene trade-offs. 

 

He'd seen the kids before and knew them as the store's excuse for a daycare. Everyone running, shouting, maximizing their options. They seemed unpredictable enough. Maybe he could get them to create a diversion, pull a fire alarm, something. 

 

Remorse arrived. Why did he try it? Why did he even need tissue at home? Industrial one-ply at that, designed to punish anyone unlucky enough to use it. He took the roll out of his pack and wheeled it back and forth on the table. He wished he could fast rope out of there like a Green Beret, zip down and away with a reverse-Rapunzel maneuver. 

 

Actually, that might work.

 

He unrolled a length of toilet paper and fed it out the window, a white strand fluttering in the wind. He peeked through the slat, spotted the kids, and aimed his voice. "New game!" 

 

They stared. Someone toe-kicked the ball at him, and he yelled again. "Pull!" 

 

The message clicked with a pair of identical twins; they ran over and pulled, hand over hand, tearing the tissue. He unfurled it further and more kids joined. He held the roll on a spindle of two fingers, and the kids were off, running, retreating to grab again whenever the tissue tore. It played out across the field in wondrous ribbons. Then, with a kiss of defeated adhesive, it was gone. Griff stomped the cardboard spool flat and dropped it out.

 

The metal door banged open and the Loss Prevention Officer entered, followed by a state trooper. Griff stood frozen beneath the window. "He wanted to steal this," the LPO said, picking up the backpack, now just a canvas shell.

 

"Steal what?" the trooper said.

 

The LPO dropped to look under the table, crouch-scrambled through the room, frisked Griff, and yes, even shined his pen light into the drop ceiling. "Where is it?" he said, his voice all gastric acid. "The goddamn asswipes."

 

This time, Griff remembered the lawyer videos he'd seen online and said nothing.

 

The state trooper crossed the room and peeked out the window. On the field, shrieking kids fled from three mummies. "If that stuff blows in the road, I'm writing the store a ticket for littering. Better get someone out there." The LPO started for the window, but the trooper closed and locked it. "Don't waste my time again." He clipped his cuffs back on his belt and hustled out.

 

With the door hanging open, Griff followed, headed for the McDonald's bathroom across the street.

Brett Stuckel's fiction has appeared in Electric Literature's Okey-PankySpry Literary JournalGravel, and elsewhere. He lives in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.