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The Shame Threshold
written by: Rando Mithlo
His eyes were deceiving.
Although he held up items to inspect them closely, it seems as though he has one lecherous eye on her. Renée just knew he was following her through the aisles. This is at least the third time he appeared within a cart’s length from her. She first noticed him hover when she bent down to look on the lower shelf in the housewares section. He was a middle-aged loser who had a round gut and a flat ass to go along with a Charles Bronson mustache that spread across his lip. She thought other than him being a disgusting perv, he was probably harmless. She tucked a dangling lock of her graying brown hair behind an ear, trying to mind her own business. She thought of herself as the most awesome deal finder in greater Detroit. The “Find For Keeps” thrift store was one of her main stops because of the decent product turnover. Today it’s more like “Fine For Creeps” with this guy here, but she had only entered the place 15 minutes ago and wasn’t about to be run out by Mr. Creepo. Thank goodness she had found a deal on an unused canister of pepper spray last week, should a bad situation arise. She thought it was probably still good despite it being past the use-by date. She moved her cart to the electronics section and was surprised to see a Cordless Personal Massager device, as it was advertised, that looked to be from the 1970s. She looked around as if she’d spot the employee that was naïve enough to not know what they put on the shelf. It was in an unassuming box with simple graphics of a smiling housewife in a frilly dress. She was disgusted wondering what weirdo would buy a used vibrator; however, the salesperson in her could envision flipping the thing on an Internet auction for twice its cost. Renée knew first hand that the shame threshold of anonymous online purchases was pretty low. She placed the item in her cart. She saw peripheral movement to her right and snuck a peek. It was that creep again. This time, he stood beside her inspecting an Easy Bake oven that he had a zero percent chance of buying. He had a hand in his grimy jean pocket playing with jingling coins, and probably something else. Two younger men approached to check out an old school turntable on the shelf below her. They chatted loudly and that appeared to shoo off the creep as he disappeared into the clothing racks. She wondered why people had the need to do what he does. They come to hang out looking to infringe upon her space when she wishes only to shop. So many times she’s come here and somebody wants to start an awkward conversation about things she has no interest in whatsoever. She remembered a couple of weeks back that some senior woman that reeked of an old-fashioned flowery perfume, chose to bend her ear about how high the prices had become at all the local resale shops. That woman just started talking to her for no reason; Renée surely didn’t make eye contact with her, but nodded along anyway trying not to seem rude. That encounter about ruined her day, so she resolved not to accommodate such interactions by excusing herself when someone gets that itch to narrate their life story. It’s bad enough that she can’t get used to that funky odor that permeates these places. The thousands of clothes, dishes, and stuffed toys from undoubtedly filthy homes were enough to make her vomit if she over thought the situation. Luckily, clean persons like herself dump their undesirable junk there as well. She knew her spare bedroom was cluttered from all the things she resells, but none the less, her home is very cleanly kept. Her son did tell her this past week that the ‘thrift’ smell was wafting throughout the house. She didn’t smell it, but thought better about leaving that bedroom door open.
She checked her smartphone for online prices on a vintage cassette Walkman that she found buried in a basket of patch cords. She was shocked when she saw one like it sold for $110.00 on an Internet marketplace. Working condition was a must, so she fished two AA batteries out of her purse and pressed them into the battery compartment. The little prongs inside turned in sync with an audible machine hum...It worked. She smiled, putting the device in her cart. While browsing further, she saw some coats on the rack that she didn’t see yesterday. She snagged a couple of the nicer faux leather ones and flopped them down over the Walkman and vibrator. Renée then got a feeling of being watched. She looked around for the creep and spotted him over where she found the Walkman. He directed a sinister gaze her way, their eyes locked for a moment. Renée felt a terrible unease and concluded she had better just leave and come back tomorrow. It would be getting dark soon and she didn’t want to be in this neighborhood at night anyway. When the creep diverted his eyes, Renée pushed her cart around the shoe racks out of the creep’s sight. She poked her face in a gap between some old hikers and a pair of smelly suede sandals, trying to get a glimpse of the creep. His head was on a swivel looking for her as he strolled by the sports equipment. She gagged from the shoe odor and whispered, “Ew!” She saw the creep walk behind the shelf near the books realizing this was a good time to get to the check-out. Behind the counter, a young woman with beads in her hair greeted her.
“Hi...do you have your Good Finds card?”
Renée replied “Uh… Just skip the discount today.”
The young woman nodded while ringing up the purchase. Renée looked to the back of the store and the creep had again spotted her, making a gimpy stride toward her. By now she was really freaked out. She said, “I don’t need a receipt, thanks,” She swooped up the items before the girl could bag them, and walked swiftly through the automatic doors. She trotted through the plowed snow layer on the parking lot to her SUV parked adjacent to the building’s dumpster. She always liked to have a peek in it to see what valuable items they deep-six, but today it seemed like a mistake being out of sight the surveillance cameras out front. She opened the truck door and flung the items she bought into the passenger seat. She scurried in, slamming and locking the door as quickly as she could, jamming the key into the ignition. With a turn of the key the engine came alive. She now felt safe and started to breathe easier. She scanned the lot around her looking for that creep, but only saw the plowed mounds of snow and the handful of junkie cars of other customers. As Renée sat there gazing into the rearview mirror, she let out a little giggle. “Wow,” she thought, “Am I really that paranoid?” She let out a breathy sigh. She took her purse off her shoulder and dug around for her smartphone. It wasn’t in there. Her heart raced, wondering if it was dropped in the rush to escape the sketchy situation. She opened her breath-fogged window to see if it was visible anywhere on the plowed lot but saw nothing. She shot her hand down between the door and the seat to feel around. The phone isn’t there, either. She started to panic a bit, looking to the passenger seat. “Where is it,” she said angrily pushing the coats aside. “Ma’am!” She heard in a scratchy male voice. She froze, smelling his stale tobacco breath. It was the creep. Only one thing came to mind. Without turning around her left hand felt for the window button on the door. “Ma’am!” He said louder poking her back with his grimy perverted fingers. She pushed the window close button and the mechanism rapidly sent the window up. He said “Hey!” She turned just in time to see the creep’s neck get trapped in the glass. He pulled down at the glass with his left hand, yanking his head to no avail. His choked voice made loud grunts. She screeched fumbling for the gear shift. The man’s face turned beet red, his head bobbing mere inches from hers. She leaned back in the seat out of the way. She put the SUV in gear and lurched forward in a jerk. She stopped, thinking she couldn’t go dragging this freak across the lot. She thought about trying to climb out the passenger door, but then his head stopped moving and the creep now looked to be passed out. Renée pushed the button to release the window but it was jammed. Drool ran out of his mouth spilling onto her hand. All she could think of was that he might have AIDS. She smacked the window with her fist a few times and then it worked. The window scrolled down and she pushed at the creep’s head. He crumpled to the ground like a sack of laundry. She immediately put the window up ready to get the hell out of there. When she looked down at him, two disturbing things came to light: Her smartphone was in his open hand, and no breath clouds were coming from his open mouth... he appeared to be dead. Renée panicked thinking of how in the world he got her phone. She then realized she must have sat it down on the shelf in the store when testing the Walkman. “Oh, God!” She said. “Was he a Good Samaritan trying to return my phone...am I going to jail for this shit?” Her mind raced, concluding that a jury might be sympathetic to the creep, assuming he was only trying to help her. She answered her own question, “No freaking way !” She shook nervously as she scanned the lot to see if anyone might’ve seen the incident. Except for the blur of speeding cars on the freeway a couple of blocks away, she saw no one. She spotted her leather gloves and put them on. She popped out of the truck and stood over the creep’s body, pushing his cheek with her boot toe. His wide eyes reflected the pink twilight like glass beads and his mouth stayed roundly agape. “What a scary face you had,” she stated. ”Well...whatever drugs you were on would've killed you if I hadn’t!” She grabbed him by his pant legs and pulled. His jeans partially came down. “Ugh, why do you gotta have a flat ass!” she grumbled. She then dragged him by his work boots around to the back side of the dumpster. She grabbed her long-handled ice scraper from her truck to use as a makeshift shovel and broke off chunks of packed snow to cover the creep from a nearby snow pile. She wished she had the strength to just put him in the dumpster, but this will have to do. She moved enough snow to bury his upper body. “I guess you’re a snowman now,” she said, slowly nodding her head. She climbed into her truck and slowly drove out through the alleyway to avoid the store lot surveillance cameras. At home, Renée sat drinking a glass of pineapple and rum while replaying the incident in her head. She wanted to kick herself for losing her phone in the first place. She kept hoping that creep would be discovered and announced on the local news so she could return to Find For Keeps like nothing ever happened. Renée’s son, Leo entered the front door, his mother was delighted to see him “Hi sweetie, how was work?”
“Oh, same crap, different day.”
She frowned “Oh I’m sorry, is it your boss again?”
“Yeah, today she gave me a verbal warning, and called me lazy because I said it was someone else’s job to clean the break room,” Leo said, scratching his beard. She squinted, “I would’ve smacked her face. You should just tell her off, you can always find a new job.” Leo laughed at his mother’s remark, “You always make it better, Ma,” he replied, kissing her on her forehead.
“Have a seat, sweetie. I need to tell you something important.” He shot her a curious look.
“Well not quite.” She filled him in on what had occurred earlier.
“I was sure that creep was going to assault me...it was an accident, kind of, maybe a grey area legally,” she lamented, wrinkling her face into a wince.
Leo stood in disbelief but wasn’t all that shocked to hear this news. He knew all too well of her cornered animal mentality. She had years earlier defended him from his abusive stepfather by shoving the drunken bastard out of a second-story window at the old house. His stepfather rolled off the roof and landed into the aboveground pool, and that jerk was so inebriated he couldn’t lift himself out of it. He ended up drowning. The law believed it was just an unfortunate accident, and that problem went away. In the months afterward his mother had become very thrifty, often saying how determined she was to support the two of them without any more losers coming into their lives... he thought that was great. Great except that like many other things she does, she is obsessive about it. He remembered early on that he had to wear some terribly outdated clothes she found at yard sales, some of which made him get picked on by the rich kids at school. She meant well...and it was better than another step-parent.
“So now what?” Leo asked her.
“If I stop going to that store, they will suspect me. That dumb discount card tracks me every time I’m in there... so, I’m gonna keep going and act normally as possible, besides, I can’t miss the Sunday half-off sale.”
“Ma, really?” He said, rolling his eyes. Now he wasn’t entirely sure she was telling the truth. “How did you know he was dead?”
“He looked just like your uncle Bob when I went to his funeral, the same waxy looking face, so I’m pretty sure he’s a goner,” she said confidently, looking through pictures on her smart phone.
“Here, I took this picture,” she flipped her phone around to show the creep buried in the snow with his legs exposed.
“Ma, delete that!” Leo said incredulously.
“I was gonna, I just wanted to show it to you...and maybe to Jen.”
“Just delete it, Ma...besides, Aunt Jen’s daughter is married to a cop!”
“Oh goodness, that’s right,” Renée recalled, looking up at the ceiling as if her memory had floated up there.
“I hope the lawyer bill is paid up to date, geez,” Leo said, seeing visual proof. “Okay, so let’s just see what happens with the body first. I have no idea what to do that won’t land you in the pen! So, I’ll call the attorney in the morning and get some advice.”
“It was self-defense as I see, I just possibly mistook his motive if anything,” she groused. “...and besides, I wasn’t trying to kill him.”
“Ma, you hid the body. That’s probably the worst part,” Leo stated.
“Yeah but no one saw me do it,” she mentioned, biting the nail on her right middle finger. “You know what...I’m not gonna let it bug me tonight, I’m gonna go to bed and get some sleep.”
Leo nodded, “We might as well,” he agreed thoroughly confounded.
Renée slept better than she thought she would but saw no reason to worry too much. Her other inadvertent kill was deemed an accident and this one really was an accident. Besides, could it really be that a drugged-up creep stalking her would want anything other than to put his filthy, calloused mitts all over her? She shook her head. She slipped out of her nightgown and dressed quietly, pushing her feet into a pair of yellow jogging shoes. She stealthily exited the front door. She wasn’t in the mood to discuss a plan of action with Leo, in fact, she just wanted to do what makes her happy...to go shopping. Renée arrived at the Find For Keeps store thirty minutes before it opened. She parked across the lot from the dumpster this time. As she waited, she felt a morbid urge to look at the dead creep. She then walked around the opposite side of the building to avoid being seen by the cameras on the storefront. She came within a few yards from the creep’s remains and gasped. Three crows were pecking at his exposed face as blood-speckled snow surrounded the group. They pulled grisly strips of flesh into their black beaks and chomped merrily, rendering him an eyeless, gory mess. She dry-heaved at the sight, noting the resemblance to the jelly-filled donut she ate on the way there. As disgusting as it was, she couldn’t help watching the feeding birds.
“Ain’t that the damnedest thing,” she whispered.
Renée wavered between shooing the birds and repacking the snow over the creep’s head or letting his body be found. Overwhelming nausea made her choose the latter. She retraced her route back to her SUV and waited for the store to open. Other cars began to arrive. Employees soon gathered at the door as a rotund, balding manager unlocked the sliding doors. While she waited the few minutes until the store opened, Renée looked at her smartphone browsing through pics her sister Jen had posted on her social media app. One photo in particular stood out to her, a picture of her and Jen as children with their estranged father. She felt hollowed when noticing a slight resemblance to the creep getting his face pecked apart across the lot. That made her feel something inside that she hadn’t in a very long time: compassion. Her brown eyes filled with a glaze of tears that she was able to thwart before any actually fell.
The store opened and Renée walked in like nothing was amiss. Ten minutes in, she spotted an incredible find, in fact, her best ever. She knew that double G symbol as if it were the golden arches. It meant a small fortune on a black handbag if it wasn’t counterfeit. After inspecting it, she believed it to be a genuine Gucci and it looked barely used. Then she found the original price tag in a zippered pocket that revealed the cost at $2,500. She was shocked at the astronomical odds that such a thing could even be found in a thrift store, particularly one in the poorest section of the city. She nervously scanned the store, seeing the usual folks browsing as normal, but something wasn’t right. “This feels bad,” she mumbled, shaking her head. It has always seemed that if she stumbled into some good fortune it was probably because something bad was about to happen. Since she started noticing this pattern, it has been the case every subsequent time that she’s won decent amounts of cash on instant lottery tickets. Those winnings would coincide with things such as the furnace breaking down, or the SUV needing a new water pump, always without fail. Her sister calls that a blessing that Renée should appreciate, ‘God saving your ass,’ as she put it.
“...but something bad already happened,” she said under her breath, wondering if this could be some kind of cosmic reversal. A smile crept over her face. She admired the feel of the leather. Keeping it for her own use was a sweet thought, however, that was soon eclipsed by the profit capability for such an item. Gazing long at it, she wondered something that she hadn’t before. What in all these fortuitous finds could she even enjoy if everything filters down to a price? Maybe it has been the fleeting thrill of the sale, but of all her great finds, she doesn’t have any of them to show. Sure, the process has afforded her rent and a savings, yet it’s enabled some disconnect inside with others. Always searching and wishing others to let her be. Her self-preservation has been a long, lonesome highway with pieces of her integrity shaking loose like bits of a rusty vehicle along the way.
She thought she might start bawling right there in front of everyone. Renée instead straightened her back and walked with the handbag to the checkout counter. The same young woman with beads in her hair from yesterday, greeted her cheerfully “Hello.”
“What’s your name, honey?” Renée asked.
“Simone,” she smiled warmly, “Nice purse...Is this all for today?”
Renée nodded as Simone plucked buttons on the cash register.
“That'll be $11.88 with tax,” she said.
Renée paid her and took the receipt. She leaned in toward Simone, saying, “Check this out,” showing her the original price tag.
The young woman’s eyes grew, “Oh my God, that’s amazing!”
Renée handed her the receipt, “You’re always so nice, Simone. You enjoy this.”
Renée swiftly turned and walked out of the sliding doors, hearing Simone call out, “Thank you so much!” That felt so surreal to Renée, but it definitely felt like a step in the right direction.
She walked out into the cold parking lot and saw a group of cops by the creep’s body and a man taking pictures. Her face went pale. She took breaths in short bursts. He’s been discovered. How long will it take for her to be connected to this and get dragged off to the pen? She couldn’t bear the thought of prison.
“Ma!” Renée heard from the group. Leo came over to her.
“Ma, you were right. He was a creep. He had quite the rap sheet and a rape kit in his jacket pockets. You losing your phone was his opportunity. You gotta watch that.”
“I will,” Renee agreed relieved. She hugged her son. “How did you know I was here?”
“Really, Ma? I know you!”
A burly cop with a well-trimmed mustache, walked over to them, munching on a raspberry jelly donut.
“You’re one lucky woman, ma’am, you’re lucky it wasn’t you in that snow bank. Your son explained what happened, you must’ve been terrified,” he stated and Renée nervously nodded.
The officer chuckled, “Whew...you and them birds left that guy looking like this,” pointing at her with the jelly donut. Renée’s eyes widened, she turned away from the two, retching into a plowed snow pile.
The cop smirked at a Leo, “Exactly!”