Tommy liked to stargaze through the plastic checkerboard holes of a shopping cart during the long, quiet middle hours of his late-night shift at the Ralph’s grocery store. He’d shove his upper body beneath the basket, resting on the bottom shelf of the cart so he could look up at the night sky from that vantage point, a beige cage, sticky with the smell of old milk and onions, between him and eternity.
Next to him, I’d sit in the basket of another cart like I was three years old again, knees up to my chest, counting stars to stave off madness, like a sailor might if they were adrift on a dark and still ocean, except that our sea was asphalt, heat still rising from the late afternoon sun, puddles of oil twinkling with light thicker than salt water.
“I don’t remember getting up there,” Tommy was saying. It was the Monday night graveyard shift at the twenty-four-hour store on Baker Street, and the lot was empty. “But I suppose I did it. How else would it happen?”
About thirty minutes earlier, Tommy had gotten a call from his cousin Merle, a deputy in the sheriff’s department. The cops had found a Ralph’s grocery cart on the top of Jurupa hills, with an empty handle of Wild Turkey whiskey, three French fry containers, Tommy’s wallet, and a Slurpee cup filled to the brim with blood that was definitely not Tommy’s. In the dark of the hills, it was hard to tell blood from melted shaved ice, so one of the deputies had stuck their pinkie finger into the liquid and touched it to his tongue. He’d puked the iron taste out of himself for a good ten minutes after.
The cops were on their way to the store now to pick Tommy up—and Merle just wanted to give him a heads up.
“Nice of Merle,” Tommy said. “I like to know when shit’s comin’ at me.”
“Don’t you remember a thing?” I asked. A shooting star streaked across the sky. I pointed at it, but Tommy didn’t acknowledge. Most of the time, I don’t think he could see the shooting ones through the basket. Maybe that was part of the appeal.
“I remember buying Wild Turkey, but not that much of it. I remember getting a call from Katie. Waking up this morning with dirt all over my shoes. But that’s about it.”
“What good is old blood?” I asked. “You weren’t going to drink it, were you?” I felt a little sick imagining the taste, like the metal bits of the shopping carts that I licked every once in a while just to see if I’d get infected with something.
“I don’t remember any of it, so how should I know?” Tommy didn’t move, but I could tell his eyes were darting this way and that, like he did when someone bought a weird fruit at checkout, searching and searching through the register, looking for the name of the thing, looking for the price of it.
Katie had been found in her bathtub earlier in the day, her wrists slit, her lips cold, blood pooled around her in the tub. We’d all gotten a text from her sister. Katie and Tommy had been going out since high school, though they’d broken up three or so days before, after a fight at the Circle K.
“I understand stealing the cart, how that’s a crime,” Tommy said. “And the trespassing. Public drunkenness. Sure. Okay. But is it a crime to steal blood? When someone’s not using it anymore? She slit her own wrists, I mean.”
“I guess.” I imagined Tommy drinking the Wild Turkey and dipping his finger into Katie, just for a taste, just to chase the whiskey down, just to feel warm.
I gripped the edge of the cart, feeling suddenly trapped. Tommy painfully far away from me.
“But what’d you need it for, anyway? I mean, really.”
“You wouldn’t get it. You just wouldn’t get it.” And Tommy stared at the sky, his eyes darting back and forth from star to star, counting and counting and counting, until the headlights of a police car swept across the asphalt ocean under the black sky, and the engines killed themselves with a puff of exhaust.