Destructive Acts on a Budget


The charge: Prohibited Destructive Acts of Graffiti.

The court date and time: August 21, 8:30 a.m.

The fine: One-hundred-twenty-seven dollars

And fifty cents.

The summons peeked from the edge of the shirt pocket like a fugitive hiding in the bushes. I plucked it from the pocket and read the three paragraphs of boilerplate finger-waggling that the local government had mailed weeks earlier. They’d addressed the letter to Dear and the salutation included both Thank you and Sincerely, words that possess a connotation antithetical to the letter's objective. Twice I read what lay between the greeting and the send-off, trying to square the crime with the fine: one-hundred-thirty dollars, and for what? For a bathroom stall sonnet Shakespeare’d above the community two-ply? For Roses are red, violets are blue, for a good time, trust Cthulhu?

The fine seemed excessive, and I was happy to know I wouldn’t have to pay it: neither the letter nor the fine was mine, nor, at that point, was the shirt from which I’d pulled the summons. I had visited a local consignment shop on my lunch break in search of something to wear for the rest of my workday. The pale gray chambray that I’d dumped a cup of coffee on that morning lay in a dark-roasted heap in the corner of the dressing room. The secondhand long-sleeve oxford that I’d hurriedly excavated from the clearance rack hung above it. The shirt fell well into the business casual parameters of my workplace and featured prominently one of my favorite colors: the most royal of purples. I choose the shirt for these reasons and also because I knew it would fit well enough. I was in a rush, the seconds ticking off my lunch break at increasing speed, and didn’t have time for a fitting montage. I only ventured into the dressing room to put the shirt on.

So I did. With each button that I slipped through a tiny slit that some Sri Lankan seamstress had snipped in four-inch increments up the border of the oxford, I was claiming ownership:

Button 1: of the shirt’s style, aged a few fashion cycles.

Button 2: of the small stain—bleach, not coffee—trapped inside the collar.

Button 3: of the sleeves that cuffed a quarter inch short of my wrists.

Button 4: of the charge to wash in warm before tumble drying on low.

Button 5: of the detergent that the shirt had been ghosted in months earlier and the laundry list of body sprays and deodorants and colognes its polyester and cotton fibers had absorbed throughout various fittings.

And Button 6: of the letter and its five creases, the three that were made by the consigner intersecting the two that were rutted into the 8.5x11 by the government official who’d originally squeezed it into the envelope. The words and numbers captive inside those creases—each of them like bars on a prison cell—were now mine, even if the Prohibited Destructive Acts of Graffiti were not. I had not committed that crime and my rap sheet, officially, is blank. Missing from it are all of my hand-slap transgressions, all the minutia of a miscreant whose rebelliousness has only ever extended into the tsk-tsk rather than the time-served. I am hardly innocent. I’ve just never been caught by those who possess much more than a strict and subjective moral authority.

I finished buttoning the oxford and tucked it into my khakis, picked my coffee-stained button-up off the floor, and went to the checkout, knowing I could probably walk out of the store without paying if I so choose. But I didn’t, of course.

I ripped off the tag and handed it to the cashier and asked her how much consigners profit from each sale. “I’m thinking of bringing some clothes in,” I lied, wanting to know how much the consigner would receive from my purchase.

“Sixty-forty,” she said. “We get sixty percent, the seller gets forty.”

“Seems fair,” I lied, again. I then moved to take the letter from the pocket, but stopped myself, realizing that giving the letter to the cashier would only subject the consigner to further embarrassment. I had the option of sparing him from the humiliation of having another person read about his destructive acts. Surely the cashier would have read the letter: primal curiosity dictates such a response. I worked as a journalist for seven years, churning out millions of syllables for tens of thousands of readers across the Midwest. While those readers paid anywhere from fifty cents to two dollars for the newspapers, a finite percentage shilled out coin for the news and sports on which I reported—the majority wanted to read two things: the police reports and the obituaries. There is something about the human condition that motivates us to seek out the miseries of those who are doggy-paddling, or maybe even drowning, in troubled waters. We need to know there are others skinning their knees on rock bottom, sucking on paper cuts sliced into their dirty fingers from subpoenas, from warrants, from death certificates. From the Last Will and Testament of Moral Superiority. It lets us know that someone, maybe someone next door, has it worse.

It’s why I read the letter three times before leaving the changing room, even though I was rapidly burning through my lunch break. It’s also why I didn’t want the cashier to see the letter—I wanted to keep the consigner’s embarrassment to myself.

“Your total today is $7.49,” the cashier said.

I swiped my debit card and took two dollars and fifteen cents of burden off the consigner’s shoulders. It was the least I could do.

Matt Muilenburg teaches at the University of Dubuque. His prose has been featured in Southern Humanities Review, Storm Cellar, Superstition Review, 3Elements Review, South85 Journal, and others. Matt holds an MFA from Wichita State University and lives in Iowa near the Field of Dreams movie site.