Jack Holt rolled out of bed and threw on a pair of gray work pants, a short-sleeved sports shirt he left untucked and unbuttoned over a white T-shirt. The clock on the stove said ten to eleven. He found his phone, speed-dialed the number for work, and held, looking through his kitchen cabinets and fridge. No food. Jeannie from the front picked up. At least it was Jeannie. No, she told him, he wasn’t working today, either shift. Sorry, he could not speak to Mr. Palmer. He absolutely could not speak to Mr. Duncan. No, she didn’t know if he was fired or not. They would contact him.

Jack slid the phone into his shirt pocket and grabbed his wallet and keys from amongst the clutter of beer bottles and pizza boxes on the kitchen table. He found his sunglasses under the table and put them on. He pulled his Benchmade automatic from a Styrofoam take-out container on the floor, folded it, snapped it back open in a switchblade blur, then refolded it and clipped it into his pants pocket. He stepped into his steel-toe work shoes, no socks, cinched up the laces, tied them tight. The last thing he grabbed, from the hook by the door, was his Hollywood, U.S.A.-made panama hat.

Jack walked to the supermarket, pressing the panama hat down on his head, a self-prescribed panacea for a boyish face, ears that stuck out a bit too much, and a mop of black hair that refused to be tame. At the corner of the building, a panhandler complimented him on his hat—it do say class, sir—as prelude to a request for change. Jack slid his thumb into his pocket and down the machined aluminum of his knife handle as he skirted the panhandler, glancing peripherally and twitching his face no.

Outside the store, Jack yanked a cart from a short stack in a corral, then paused at the entrance to remove his sunglasses and tuck them into the open neck of his shirt. He pushed the cart into the store, and, as his eyes adjusted from California sunshine to supermarket fluorescent lighting, began making his way through the aisles, tossing groceries in the cart: cold cuts and bread, milk and cereal, macaroni and cheese, soda, beer. Picking up the beer reminded him of how bad he had to piss, so agitated over that shit at work he hadn’t even thought to go before leaving the apartment. At the back of the store, he stopped and looked around.

Bernie Schatten commanded the back aisle, stocking tubs of cottage cheese into the refrigerated case. After decades on the job, he had it down—slice, price, and make it look nice. Well, barcodes and scanners had obsoleted his pricing gun, and he missed it, but times changed. Times did, people didn’t. A tall, older man with a thick gray mustache and a large belly protruding from between paisley suspenders, he saw Jack Holt coming from aisles away.

Jack looked lost. Nice hat, compadre, nice hat, Bernie addressed him. Help you locate something? Jack looked around. Restroom? He had been to that store a hundred times but had never used the can there. Bernie pointed: all the way to the end of this aisle, through the double doors, second right, he said, Can’t miss it. Jack pushed his cart. Got a token? Bernie said to Jack’s shoulder, already knowing the answer. Jack stopped. He turned. He sort of scrunched his face down and to the side and peered up at the man from under the brim of his hat. Token? No, he did not have a token. Did he need one? Unless you want to pay a quarter you do, Bernie said, Or—ta-da!—you can use this one right here. He produced, as if from thin air, as if from behind the ear of a child, a smooth, bronze slug. He held it up between thumb and forefinger for Jack to see, swiveling it ever-so-slightly in the fluorescent light. Thanks, Jack said, and took the slug. You need it back after? he asked. If you can wrestle it out of the machine, I’d love to have it back, Bernie said, his big belly heaving with a chuckle. Tell you what, he said, Try taping a string to it and yanking it out after the door to the john opens, like I saw in a movie once with a pay phone—this guy kept making call after call with the same quarter—but local calls are fifty cents nowadays, so you’d have to be real quick, like this: ka-ching, ka-ching. The man made an up-and-down jerking motion with his hand. Jack adjusted his hat, nodded okay thanks buddy, and pushed the cart towards the back corner of the store as the man laughed, going ka-ching, ka-ching, and twirled back to his tubs of cottage cheese.

After his piss, Jack realized how hungry he was. His head hurt from drinking too much the night before, and he knew eating would help. He made his way for the coffee kiosk at the front of the store, near which three plastic chairs were arranged around a small table. There were additional plastic chairs set up along a short counter facing a large window with a view of the parking lot. A man leaned back in one of the plastic chairs, one elbow on the counter, looking at his phone.

Sitting at the table, Jack grabbed the loaf of bread and the package of deli ham from his cart and made himself a sandwich. No mustard. No nothing. He ate the sandwich one-handed, his left, fingering the pocket clip of his knife with his right, studying the scuffs on his steel-toe shoes, trying to ignore the feeling that the man at the counter was watching him eat. Then he popped open a can of Coke and slurped from it. Warm and foamy, it burned his throat. Jack had eaten half the sandwich when he heard a stern excuse me over his shoulder. He ignored it until he heard a second, louder excuse me and looked back and up, under the brim of his hat and into the face of the store manager.

Bob Wilson had seen every food-stealing trick in the book in his almost forty years in the grocery business, from the sly shoplifting of everything from bone-in hams to bottles of Merlot to the brazen carting of hundreds of dollars worth of unpaid-for merchandise to the parking lot. Free snacking on grapes and hard candy was commonplace, the open bag of chips, box of cookies in the cart a little less so, and once he had even seen a woman slip a kosher dill pickle spear from jar to mouth then stash the jar in the ice cream freezer—and she hadn’t even been showing. People actually thought if they finished the beef jerky before they got to the register, they somehow were not obligated to pay for it. Wrong. Coconut soy meal-replacement bar into the ladies room? Nice try. Empty Fresca can behind the Kibbles ’n Bits? I saw that.

He’d been watching a certain panama hat wend its way through his store, had, to his annoyance, seen that pants-suspended blowhard Bernie Schatten hand it a token for the head, and now he was telling it you cannot consume unpaid-for merchandise. Jack half-shut one eye and looked up, nodding, Yeah okay, buddy, I got it. You cannot eat food you have not yet paid for, Bob Wilson said, as if, despite the nodding, Jack hadn’t understood. You will pay for this merchandise, he said with firm finality. Jack shifted the sandwich to his right hand, away from the store manager, then he twisted his face and cocked his head and frowned, nodding again, Yeah okay, buddy, okay, as Bob Wilson walked away. Jack went to take a bite of the sandwich. It made it just halfway to his mouth.

This your bag? This your bag? Jack looked up. He pulled the brim of his hat down towards his eyes and slowly shook his head no. This is not your bag? Because this is my place. I am sitting here from before, you know? My stuff is here. Jack hadn’t noticed the man get up and leave the counter, hadn’t noticed anyone place a bag there. What did he care? He looked up again and held his hands, half-eaten sandwich included, palms up, as if to say, hey, buddy, how the hell should I know? I’m just trying to eat a fucking sandwich here. Whose bag is this? the man said loudly, standing up. Whose bag is this? A woman poking a long, green straw into the whipped-cream-filled dome atop a large plastic cup said, it’s mine, and retrieved the bag. Because this is my place, the man said.

The woman gone, the man turned to Jack and said, you know, this is my place, I am sitting here. You can’t just put your bag in my place. Jack looked up and the men stared at each other for what grew to a span of uncomfortable seconds. The longer the man held Jack’s gaze, the more Jack thought about the knife clipped into his pants pocket, how fast he could have it in the man’s face, blade deployed. Like that. Like less than that. Like fucking nothing. Then what? Shut him the fuck up. He very slowly shifted the remains of his sandwich to his left hand and his right hand towards his pocket. Then he said, in as cheerful a voice as he could muster, I hear you, man. You can’t just go and put your shit in someone else’s place, but people do it all the time, in parking lots, the bus, the supermarket, at work—whatever, anywhere, all the time people try to pull that shit. Yeah, yeah, the man said, and buried his face in his phone. Jack looked past him through the window and watched the woman with the whipped-cream-topped drink press a folded bill into the hat-complimenting panhandler’s palm.

Jack finished his sandwich and called his buddy Larry from work. I don’t know if I’m fired or not, Jack told him. Probably I’m fired. It was that shithead, piece of shit fucking—yeah, him. He said I threatened him and that I had a knife. Whatever, then the cops got called in and it turned into this big thing. No, I hid the automatic and clipped this piece of chink shit I had in my locker to my pocket. Sorry, okay? Made in China, I know, who cares? Yeah, legal carry. I don’t know, half the place has a knife. Jeannie said they’ll contact me. No, work. Why, what happened with you? You’re shitting me. How do you get away with it? I’m serious, man, how the fuck do you get away with that shit? No, no, Larry, I didn’t mean anything by it, just that I envy you, I’m jealous. Yeah, so that’s cool. I swear, man, I swear this life is a lot easier for some people than for others.

Jack hung up with Larry, Nice chatting with you, man, and brought his groceries to the 15 Items or Less checkout lane. When the girl working the register asked him if he had his member’s card, he considered for just a second telling her, no, I don’t have my fucking member’s card, before pouting his lips to the side and shaking his head no. When she asked him if he wanted to sign up for one and told him how easy it was, he again shook his head no. He liked the girl. Her light brown skin and her freckles. Her dark red lips and soft voice. She smiled at him and said she liked his hat, then she pulled a member’s card from under the register and scanned it for him. See? she said. You just saved a dollar eighty-seven. She told him his total. He looked at her name tag—Fernanda, it said, How may I help you?—and dug in his pants pocket, past the machined aluminum of his knife handle for some money. He thought of asking her, if I just saved a dollar eighty-seven, why do I need to sign up for a card? He thought of that asshole in the suspenders and that other asshole busting his balls over eating in the store. He handed Fernanda a twenty-dollar bill, then he put his thumb in his pocket, stroked the knife handle. Fuck it, he thought. He pulled the knife out, just far enough for the clip to clear the lip of the pocket, then he dropped it in deep, put the change Fernanda handed him on top. Jack took off his hat, brushed his hair to the side, and asked her where he could get a job application.