Alison tells her there has to be a mistake and to try again.
The cashier swipes the bank card with a fast razor-like flick through the machine. By Alison’s calculations, there should be at least fifty dollars still left in her and Jay’s chequing account. But the machine flashes the same message: Insuff. Funds.
A cloud of steam rises from the hot grill behind the counter.
Alison rummages at the bottom of her purse and finds change. Before she’s even finished counting, “I’ll just have the small veggie rice bowl then,” she says in an imperious voice to mask her embarrassment. “And the tea.”
The cashier tosses Alison’s shrimp teriyaki dinner on a back counter and shouts something in Chinese that makes all the line cooks stare. The new order is rung up; Alison is still twenty-three cents short. The man behind her groans and places a quarter on the counter. Alison manages an awkward “thank you” while the cashier smiles and bobs appreciatively.
She is hurrying through the underground mall anxious to get back to the office so she can call Jay and blast him for being a selfish prick when she spots turban guy at the check-out of Laird Pharmacy. Alison isn’t accustomed to seeing him inside. Usually, he’s propped up like a cardboard cut-out against the pole at the corner outside her building, holding a torn paper cup, a purple sweater wrapped about his head. He doesn’t always get change though. Sometimes, people bring him food. One day, a woman in a black coat and hat brought him the gospel, which she read in quick, feverish sentences with no punctuation.
Alison prefers to give at the office—a small, tidy sum that she can claim on her taxes. Turban guy is anything but tidy. He is chaos; he frightens Alison. How does someone fall this far? she wonders. Was it the result of one fatal step? Or a chain of countless stumbles?
He bolts from the pharmacy clutching two chocolate bars in his grimy fist. The homogeneous crowd parts in gentle ripples. When Alison sees him again at the corner, he’s stuffing the candy into his mouth, chewing quickly, guarding the rest of it as though he’s afraid someone might snatch it. His cheeks bulge as his teeth become lodged in toffee and nougat. Briefly, her hunger wanes as she regards the Styrofoam container in her hand.
Standing a few feet from him at the light, Alison notices something yellow fluttering at her feet. A chocolate bar wrapper is stuck to her shoe. She frowns and kicks to get it off. With her heel, she tries scraping at it and loses her balance. The container goes flying; the cup topples too, drowning the pavement in hot green tea. Alison can feel people staring, their eyes skinning her with pity. She dashes for the light.
Reaching over, he claims the cup rolling beside him. Before he’s shaken the last of the liquid from it, the first coin drops.