Norman stood beside his wife’s corpse at the morgue. She definitely gained weight since the last time he saw her at the hospital. He was satisfied. The embalmer did a fine job. He approved her body for the funeral and discretely rushed to the nearest restroom. In the stall, he breathed heavily and weeped pathetically. He smashed his face with water from the sink and dried it hastily before punching the mirror five times, cracking it in several places and slitting his knuckles. His dad mustache and fat glasses quivered with an insatiable hatred for himself. He got more paper towels and wiped his bloody knuckles as he quietly made his way out of the morgue. The only thing you could hear throughout the morgue’s halls was the bubbly blowing of a nose followed by a wet sniffle. It was disgusting. Norman nearly gagged before he pushed his way out the front door.
He pulled up on his driveway and sat in his parked car. It was a diarrhea green Saturn and always farted a few times before turning off. He sat in his car for about an hour, staring at the dinged garage door in front of him. It was almost dinner, so he figured he should probably feed his 10-year old son, Kyle. Norman went straight to the kitchen and started making some mac n’ cheese from Costco. There was nothing else in the cupboards or fridge — they had spent weeks at the hospital with his wife. After about 30 minutes of making mac n’ cheese (he burnt it three times), Norman realized that there’s been no sign of Kyle the whole time. He finished making two plates and dragged himself upstairs. All the lights were off. All he could hear was that horrid bubbly snot and wet sniffle through the darkness. Kyle’s door was ajar. He pushed it open and there was Kyle, on the floor, curled up in tears. Norman sighed and flipped on the lights. Kyle didn’t move. Just kept crying.
Kyle looked up at Norman with puffy red eyes, his long hair covering them mostly. He nodded and started to push himself off the ground, making that horrible sniffling noise again.
Norman and Kyle sat down to eat. It was awfully quiet in the house. Norman hated being alone with Kyle. They slurped on their mac n’ cheese in silence, the only conversation consisting of satisfied nods for the food’s taste, even though it was kind of powdery. Some cheese powder frosted the edges of Norman’s mustache, which Kyle shyly pointed out by gesturing at it with his hands. Norman quickly wiped at his mustache, clearly embarrassed. The only thing he wore on his mustache with pride was vaseline when he went snorkeling. But beyond that, his mustache made him look like a fool. The fact that it was in front of Kyle made it worse. Kyle laughed a little, which made Norman scarf down his mac n’ cheese and frantically scrape his plate at the sink before going upstairs to his room.
Norman woke up the next morning to a light slap on his face. Kyle was dressed in his Star Wars t-shirt and jeans, ready for school. He was chomping obnoxiously on a tangerine. Norman told him to stop chewing loudly, get out of his room, and wait in the car. He put on a wrinkled dress shirt and a stained jacket. He didn’t even bother to shave his stubble. On the way to school, they drove in silence. Kyle looked over at Norman periodically, which annoyed him so he plugged in his phone and told Kyle to play whatever he wanted. Star Wars soundtrack. It was horrid. Norman dropped Kyle off without saying anything and drove two hours to work. He cried almost the whole way there. His knuckles still stung from the day before. Before getting off the freeway, he saw the beaches from his car. He smiled lightly.
At work, he was an insurance agent. There was no other time Norman was more friendly and happy than when he spoke to customers on the phone. He put up the friendliest man in the world for an average of two minutes per phone call and immediately resumed to the glums of his mustache afterwards. In the middle of his shift, his boss called him over to his office. He was laid off for being chronically absent during his wife’s cancer and staying behind on daily phone call quotas. Norman accepted it pretty blankly. His mustache remained a firm frown until he went to Costco and tried to check out with a week’s worth of groceries. It turned into a round, light gasp.
“Sorry sir, but your card isn’t working.”
Norman fumbled around his wallet for another credit card, but he only had that one. His wife had all the cards.
“Hm, my wife has the other cards. She’s still back there. Just let me go get her.” Norman took his membership card (executive member) and made his way to the cheese and frozen foods section. There was no food at home and Kyle was getting off school in an hour. It was rush hour at Costco, which meant free samples. He weaved in and out of the refrigerated foods section with a cart filled with fake groceries. He took three slices of cheese from the tray, politely chuckling “just a few for my kids,” and kept his face down. He did this for the ham, 1-inch slice of bread, nutella, burritos, and deli meat. He did everything he could to hide his face from the employees, but after the fifth trip or so, he could sense that they eyed him suspiciously. For that day, he got about 10 slices of cheese, 6 frozen burritos, 12 nutella-crackers, and 5 pieces of deli ham. It was enough for a dinner.
Kyle loved the burritos and nutella, which made Norman a little happy, but he didn’t show it. They didn’t speak during dinner, even though Kyle kept looking up at Norman through his long hair. Norman hated the idea of conversation with him. His wife always did that while he could go snorkeling and watch TV for hours after work. It was always that way since they got married. The only reason his wife stuck around was for Kyle, because the kid didn’t have a clue as to who his real father was. But Norman knew. And so did his wife. Though she never admitted it. It was Kenny Lowes from their college class — they fooled around while she was engaged with Norman and got pregnant with his child. Norman made the emotionally comfortable decision to stay with her. But he never saw Kyle as his own and resented him for what he resembled. Kenny Lowes never stayed in touch with Norman’s wife, but he still lived in their town.
Kyle stood outside Norman’s bedroom door and lightly knocked.
“Mommy watched Tom & Jerry with me on Thursday nights. It’s about to start.”
Norman turned around in his chair. He was watching a nature documentary and actually enjoying it. But he felt bad for Kyle.
“Come here and watch this with me. It’s like Tom & Jerry but in real life.”
Kyle made his way around Norman’s chair and stood in front of him, waiting to be invited to sit on his lap. But Norman pointed at the floor and nodded at the TV to watch. A lion bit into a Zebra’s head, exposing bloody red flesh and bones.
“This is so cool!” Kyle stood up and looked at Norman excitedly. Norman didn’t really know what to do or say. Kyle made his hands into claws and lightly scratched at Norman’s thighs and chest, roaring like a little lion. Norman took it awkwardly and laughed a bit. He told Kyle to sit back down and watch. The kid was full of energy now.
“Norm, I’m hungry.” Kyle rubbed his aching stomach.
“It’s too late to eat. Let’s get you to bed.” Norman stood up and took Kyle by the hand, leading him out of his room. There was no food in the house. He had his Costco membership, which gave him entry to the stores, even though he didn’t have a dime to his name. His wife didn’t leave anything of value to him — all of it went to her little sister across the country. But, he’s been a Costco member for over ten years now. He can live off of free samples until he gets a new job. Plus, there’s Kyle to feed. So he got a backpack, a few hats, and a few jackets and headed to Costco in the afternoon while Kyle was at school.
He would do about four rounds through the free samples in one outfit (hat and jacket), then changed outfits and did another four rounds, and so on. By the end, he got about a hundred samples total. It only took a solid hour, and it was enough to feed both him and Kyle for lunch and dinner. They ate in comfort that day: ham, cheese, and spinach-artichoke dip. The next day, he rounded up his outfits and went to Costco to do it again. But when he tried to cut in line for the gouda cheese samples, a customer snapped at him and pulled him back.
“You need to wait your turn!” A fat, old, white man with a jean jacket. Norman glared at the old man and yanked his hands off. The old man smelt like a fart. He resumed to reaching for the free samples but the old man grabbed him by his shoulders and threw him on the ground, sending his half-open backpack across the aisle and spilling all of the free samples he had gathered so far on the floor. The line of customers saw it all happen and watched Norman closely as he got up. The old man yelled for security. Norman was an outlaw in the customers’ eyes. Even the sample lady judged him. He scraped together his free samples and stuffed them into his backpack before disappearing into the cereals and granola aisle. He changed jackets and hats and discreetly walked out of the store. Security walked right past him, completely unaware.
That night, Norman and Kyle ate four samples of pizza bagels and three samples of a breakfast burrito. They stayed hungry for the rest of the night, but they talked more than ever before. Star Wars, Tom & Jerry, and lions were the subject matters. Kyle was the happiest he’s been since his mother passed away. Norman let himself laugh a little more and held Kyle for the first time when they fell asleep on the couch after binge-watching Tom & Jerry. He almost teared up when he carried Kyle to his bedroom. His mustache stayed in a smiling arch for the whole night even though his stomach churned with emptiness.
Norman continued his routine at Costco for a few weeks, until one busy weekend he saw Kenny Lowes and his son browsing the sporting goods section. When a mother and her child passed in front of Kenny and his son, he scoffed at them for getting in his way. His son looked up from his iPhone and stuck out his tongue at the mother. Kenny was a nasty man, with his haughty Sperry’s and Bluetooth headset. Even his son seemed gross — with his iPhone, crocs, and hoverboard. Norman hated Kenny for obvious reasons, but he didn’t think he still cared about him enough to stop what he was doing and watch him. Norman thought about confronting him, but he didn’t want to risk getting kicked out if things got out of hand. Last time he and Kenny spoke (during college), Kenny sucker-punched him for calling him a yuppy manwhore. Norman continued on his usual Costco route and did his sample run. But Kenny wasn’t gone. Apparently Kenny spent some time in the refrigerated foods section and noticed for long enough that Norman was changing outfits and getting free samples. Kenny didn’t say anything the first time, but the second, he was sure that Norman changed and saw that he was getting disproportionately large amounts of food from the sample stations. This is what the Costco security told Norman, anyways. He was in a tucked away room somewhere in the back with the management sitting across a table from him. The only thing he could think of was how he was going to get food for Kyle. He didn’t really have anything to argue for, since he was caught pretty blatantly (his backpack was already filled with samples), so he just waited for whatever was going to happen. They revoked his membership and banned him from the store. Kenny was nowhere in sight. But it wasn’t over for Norman. He needed to feed Kyle. So he got creative. He made an official-looking sign with some supplies he had in his garage that said “$20 all day parking” and put it on one of the neighborhood curbs that lined the beaches. He put on a polo and sewed on a nature patch that made him look official. People bought it. When they asked why they had to pay now, he explained that the city was carrying out this measure to increase funds for public schooling programs, or that the residents were demanding compensation for their overcrowded neighborhood streets. This worked for about three busy weekends until an officer asked for official identification. He ran away from the officer and waited several hours in a bush somewhere before he went back to his car.
Throughout Norman’s parking scheme, he was getting closer to Kyle. They watched Tom & Jerry every Thursday night, no matter what was on their schedules. Norman got better at making meals and got passed mac n’ cheese. They talked about more than just Tom & Jerry and lions — Kyle was a very bright student and could not stop talking about the animal kingdom. For the first time in his life, Norman felt proud. It was such an odd feeling that when Kyle was in the middle of discussing the societal relations among hyenas, he blurted out “I love you.” Kyle stopped what he was saying and stared at his dad, completely surprised. Then, he ran into Norman’s arms and hugged him. When Norman was tucking Kyle into bed, Kyle told him about a boy who had started picking on him at school. It was the boy with a hoverboard and an iPhone. Apparently, this kid was making fun of Kyle for having a dad who stole samples from Costco. Norman was more ashamed of having his son find that out about him than he was angry. He was terrified of the possibility of Kyle looking at him differently because of this. In his mind, Norman was a hero. Now he could just be a conman. Norman assured him that the boy is completely wrong about anything he says about Kyle.
“I don’t think you stole samples from Costco, daddy.”
Norman thanked him for trusting him and tucked him in quickly before going back to his bedroom and crying worriedly in his bathroom. Norman looked at the fat glasses and dad mustache in the mirror and felt a sense of understanding. He knew that his intentions were nothing but the best, and he had no other option. The samples were free, anyways. But he was wrong for scamming people on parking. Norman was set on becoming the father Kyle deserves.
When Norman dropped Kyle off at school, he got out of the car with him and asked him to point out where this jerk kid was on the school yard. The boy with the crocs, iPhone, and hoverboard was with Kenny by the school entrance. A bunch of kids were around him gawking at his hoverboard. Norman held Kyle’s hand firmly as he marched up to Kenny and his son. The crowd of kids parted and they were standing toe to toe.
“Norm! Good to see you. You sure you’re not late for work? They’re waiting for you at Costco!” Kenny’s sense of humor was unspeakably terrible. Even Kyle thought so when he looked up at Norman and shook his head embarrassingly. But the kids around them bought it. They laughed way too hard, probably to gain the approval of Kenny’s son.
“You tell your son to stop picking on Kyle.”
“He’s not picking on him! He’s only telling the truth. You’re a lousy thief who’s too cheap to buy his own groceries! I mean, Jesus, what’re you feeding your poor boy!”
One of the kids stepped forward and looked at Norman accusingly, “Yeah, my mom told me that he was stealing samples at Costco and beat a man once!”
The kids all gasped, and so did Kyle. Kyle let go of Norman’s hand and inched away from him, heartbroken.
“Son, it’s not what you think. I was only doing what was best for us-”
“No. You don’t get to talk yourself out of this, Norm. My son never did anything wrong. Maybe Kyle can learn a thing or two from me, instead. After all, he is my son, isn’t he?”
Kyle shot a look at Kenny. Kenny cracked a devilish smile and beckoned for him to come over.
“Me and your mom had you before she married Norman here. I’m your real father, in case you didn’t know.”
Norman was speechless. And so was Kyle. Norman kept his eyes on Kyle, waiting for his next move. He was powerless at this point. Kyle was free to think anything now. Suddenly, Kenny swooped in and grabbed Kyle by the ear, yanking him away from Norman. Immediately, Norman threw a fist at Kenny’s face and knocked him square in the jaw, sending him and his Bluetooth headset to the ground. The kids erupted in celebration and chanted for a fight. Kenny’s son charged at Kyle, but he made like a lion and dodged him, then mounted him from behind and scratched at his face. Norman’s knuckles were already bloody again, but he couldn’t stop looking at Kyle claw away at that jerk’s face. He was proud again. Then, WHAM! Kenny socked him in the face and all went black.
Norman woke up on an ambulance stretcher outside the school. He was handcuffed. Kenny was nowhere in sight. Kyle sat next to him.
“He beat your ass, dad!”
“Hey. Don’t use that language.”
“Sorry. That’s what all my friends are saying. But they all think you’re super cool. Everyone was too afraid to stand up to Brad until you punched his dad in the face!”
“Kenny’s son’s name is Brad? Such a douchy name.”
Kyle gasped at Norman’s profanity.
“Hey. Don’t use that language.” Kyle teased.
“I’m sorry about what I did. It was wrong of me to lie to you.”
“It’s okay. I know you love me. And that’s why you did it.”
Norman felt right. There was nowhere else in the world he wanted to be right then. His mustache may have been a little bloody, but his heart was pumping more fervently than when he first met his wife. He was hopelessly in a fatherly love for his son. His son.
“Let me make it up to you, son.”
“Are we gonna go see lions?!”
“Yes, sea lions.”
“Whoaaaaa!” Kyle hopped out of the ambulance and jumped up and down in excitement.
After Norman got out of jail, he took Kyle to Costco, ate as many samples as possible together, and bought snorkeling gear for him. Kyle talked to his dad more than ever before, and Norman laughed with his son. When they went snorkeling at the local beach, Kyle said that the sea lion’s whiskers looked like Norman’s mustache. That made Norman’s mustache smile. And Norman felt like a father.