by Brooke Griffith

Albert Davis Fiction Award
Third Place

Jethro is eager to stomp out the vibrations between his bare feet and his bike pedals. He’d never liked the incessant tickling. His mother, once a debutant queen, would tell him to wear his shoes, but there was something about the red dirt between his toes that made him defiant.
He tosses his bike against the curb and pauses. His blood runs quicker when he looks up at the dingy, hand-painted sign that reads Dirt Cheap. His hand instinctively clutches his pocket. Who will be working the counter today? The change jingles close to his thigh. His body tenses as the bell tolls overhead when he walks inside.
“Uh-uh. Row, you gonna have to get on out here if you ain’t got money, boy.” It’s Miss Tia. He’d only stolen something once when he was eight, but Miss Tia had a way of making you think about your morals. His fingers twitch next to his pocket. His gaze meets the dirty floor.
Dirt Cheap has it all. Dented boxes of name brand cereal, milk with the wrong date printed on the jug, smashed candy bars. Discounted prices on everything chain stores can’t sell. Jethro has always loved the place.
He glances up at prices. He walks past the first three aisles and makes his way to the worst of the beaten-up groceries. In line for checkout, he absentmindedly hugs the tattered box of mac and cheese to his chest. Two frail old ladies in long dresses with powdered-on white faces stand in front of him. His heart rate starts up again. The box in his grasp is wet.
“That’s $10.20 altogether, hear?” Tia is watching him. She seems not to see the women in front of her. She holds out her hand for payment. The first lady in the long dress slaps her money on the counter. There’s no music playing like at bigger stores, so the sound echoes. Tia hands the change back and Jethro watches the woman. She pulls back abruptly.
“We will not be coming back here! Janelle, did you see?” The second lady calls out as the pair hobble away.
Jethro places his box on the counter. “You okay, Miss Tia?” He pretends to count his money.
“Oh, they’ll be back. This is the cheapest prices for the next three parishes and they as broke as you or me.” Her eyes are a brilliant deep brown. They shine as she speaks. “It’s ninety cents, baby. You got it?”
“Yes’m.” He walks around the counter to hand her the money. Their skin touches and they smile.
“Tell your Ma you can come fish with Isaiah after school tomorrow. I’ll fry up and send home whatever you catch.”
He waves, and the bell dings again as he exits the store. Jethro is eager to get back to his red dirt road. He takes a deep breath, preparing for the tickle of the pedals against his bare feet.