Layers of wax had been built up on the floors trapping an old yellowish stain to the white speckled floors. The fluorescent lighting did not grant a clean image to the shoppers who were pushing the end of the store’s operating hours. The neighborhood had gone from thriving new community to the current state of just trying to get by housing. This was Clemmons’ neighborhood. He had not lived here in the decades where it was a growing community. He did watch as windows had iron bars added and eventually plywood replaced the glass. Good people still lived here and he wanted to be counted as one of them.
The store was a chain franchise that did not get the same respect or care as it sister stores only a few miles away. Clemmons was still shopping here. The store had been his first job. It had provided jobs for young men and women who wanted to avoid the corrupt side of the law. He was not funding the whole process but if a police man shopped there, maybe others would feel safe shopping here as well. The more customers meant more employees. More employees meant fewer kids with time to get in trouble. It also created a work ethic where things were earned and not taken.
Clemmons had promised the wife to get a few groceries on the way home. He actually needed the break from the horrors of the murders. Hometown comforts were more than just a smell or a blanket to Clemmons. Memories of the store when the floors were less grungy would always bring the thought of more joyous times. The veteran sergeant knew there were bad times as well, but he chose not to remember them. He liked the utopian, happy memories of the first job he ever held. There was always knowledge of good and evil but stacking the shelves here they seemed just blanket comments.
A can of green beans was out of place on the shelf. It immediately drew Clemmons’ attention. He knew his ability to dissect a crime scene was probably sparked by out of place cans when he stocked the shelves. Pride in a job well done was learned by an order of like vegetables lined evenly. Many people would never know the simple pride in the easy task. The job was a good entry into the workforce. He knew it would not be a permanent thing. It gave him a pay check and a purpose. Clemmons felt he had a larger purpose now being a police officer. It was in this store that he first felt the feeling of having that purpose. Very few times has he ever had that strong of a feeling toward any other event.
The clientele was somewhat new. Clemmons had recognized fewer and fewer loyal patrons and neighbors. He felt it was good for the store to add new faces and their dollars. The older residents and familiar faces were a mixed welcome sight. Part of the off duty police officer regretted that the familiarity of a few faces were a result of his current work. He did not want to consider them already tainted or corrupt, though it was difficult when he knew some were repeat offenders.
Clemmons knew mistakes in judgment were part of life. It was how people grew and became better for it. The repeating of an illegal action was not a mistake; at that point it was making an informed decision. Clemmons recognized several in the store as those who made the wrong decisions a career. He was glad he was smart enough to learn how to function without relying on an excuse that allowed him to justify criminal acts to his own conscious. There was a soft spot in his heart for first time mistakes. He knew the fine line of living a righteous life and living that of a career of wrong, was sometimes the effect of the consequence. Someone who stole but was never caught did not see the wrong. In contrast, someone who was caught but ended up serving a long punishment might become hardened with hatred to the laws that over-punished them.
Clemmons had witnessed a good kid who wanted a chance to have something beyond his means pay too heavy a price. The kid would be caught and placed in with harder criminals. He would see a popularity based on the crime committed. The search for more standing with his new peers would lead to the downward spirals of his morals until it cost him his life or soul. The path that would begin with a stolen snack cake in front of an unseen security camera had been played over and over again. Now, it was happening in front of the off duty officer.
Clemmons felt an obligation to his sworn duty to immediately arrest the young kid. He was not known to Clemmons, which did not make him less deserving of some mercy. The chance to make a difference had driven him to the uniform. The difference to protect his community, like this store from theft, also sometimes to protect those from making stupid but permanent life choices. Embarrassing or stopping the kid would not lead to him always making the right decision. It sometimes leads to a situation where no lesson was learned. Since no lesson was learned, the next time the desire outweighed common sense the same crime would take place.
The veteran police officer watched the kid intently. He was in plain clothes but it was a well known fact that Clemmons was the local cop. The presence of him in the kid’s point of view would hopefully, inspire the potential thief not to break the law. The burly man approached the teenager slowly. He was not going to arrest him. The crime did not take place until the kid left the store with the property unpaid. Maybe Clemmons would be able to impart some wisdom without the kid having to go through the pain of learning it.
“You know when I was your age I used to work in this place.” The entrance into the conversation was disguised as a stroll down memory lane. He figured teens were used to semi-known neighbors talking to them in an attempt to grow the bond of the community. “Sorry, I am not trying to interrupt your shopping.” Clemmons stressed the last word, hoping to give the kid insight that he knew exactly what was going on. He knew exactly what was under his coat. “I had this addiction to snack cakes.” He said with a playful smile as the teen grew stoic. “The only way it could be appeased was either working for the money or stealing. I figured the life of earning a paycheck and an employee discount made the choice a lot clearer than prison.”
The young man looked down away from the eyes that inspired a moment of self judgment. He just wanted something and this was the only means he had to acquire it. He did not want to admit to the crime he was committing. The older man in front of him now did not know what hardships he was facing. Guilt battled want as Clemmons stood close to the young man. Clemmons knew the struggle. He had no idea why the battle in some was not as fierce as in others. The old cop and the boy had that in common. They witnessed those around them taking without consequence. The young man was in the middle of the struggle. He remained quiet. Snack cakes were really something trivial. It was more that he wanted something and felt he had means to get it. “What are you some kind of grocery cop?” The young man could not understand why the gentleman had taken an interest.
Words did not leave Clemmons mouth from his thoughts. He wanted to give this kid a stern lecture, and possibly, show him the consequence of his actions before it was too late. He was trying to impart wisdom on the young ears. The wisdom was met with disdain and angst. Apathy was the reason the cells and prisons were over-stuffed with the area youth. Apathy to the law, apathy against teaching morals and apathy against someone else were the true reason for many crimes. “What if I was? Would my words carry more meaning?”
“Yeah, because you could send me to jail,” the look of arrogance he felt, deserving, the cake dropped to pure worry.
“So, if I am not, you would take what wasn’t yours?” Clemmons wanted the kid to see where the path was leading him. One way or another, the kid was not leaving with the snack cake. What Clemmons really wanted, was to teach the kid never to leave with the items he did not purchase. The lesson was not learned until it applied to times when the young man was not being watched.
“If you aren’t, I would tell you to mind your own business.” The young man snapped off quickly. He did not have time to be bothered by this interruption. He had friends to meet. If the man was a cop, he would have revealed it long before in the conversation, along with a trip to a police cruiser.
“Maybe, I am telling you this because I know if I reach in your pocket and pull out the snack, you are going to jail.” Clemmons tone changed from one of wisdom to one of forced sternness. “Jail is not the place where your momma will want to pick you up.”
The young man’s voice grew from tough kid to knowing exactly why this talk was taking place. “So, you are a cop.”
“Right now, I am a concerned citizen. Right now, I am worried that if you do this then all of us take another step toward a place where we can’t return.” Clemmons felt adding dramatic flash to his words might be able to penetrate the tough wall the kid was building. “Right now, I don’t want to be the cop that takes you away. Right now, I want to be a voice of reason that you hear every time the situation arises. If you don’t see it like this, then I am afraid I must be the cop, either now or when I fail to be the voice.”
Clemmons smiled as the young man placed the snack cake back on the shelf. The frosting was smashed and the cake itself was more crumbs than anything. Clemmons picked it up and took the kid to the register. The young man felt a bit of shame as he had to be forced into making this decision. He was not sure exactly why he took the step in placing it in his pocket. He was aware that the cop would have arrested him if he had carried out his plans. The two men walked down the aisle.
Clemmons did not do the speech for an audience or anything more than to get through to the kid. He passed a familiar woman that he could not remember from where. He thought for a moment that she must have witnessed the whole event. It troubled him that he could not place her, especially with her using the quill pen to go over her list. The pen itself struck him as an oddity. Clemmons was troubled that her name was not familiar even as he looked upon her face. The turmoil of forgetfulness withdrew from his mind as he passed her.
“Look, I am telling you this as a warning. Do not always look for a reward when you make the right choice. Today, I am getting you this for two reasons. One, there is no way the store could sell this product after you crushed it.” Clemmons allowed his stern face to flash a smile. “Two, it will be an earned reward.”
“Earned how? I am not being one of your informants!” The young teen knew how things like this ended up. He wanted no part of it.
Clemmons looked down at him and smiled. “Do you really think any criminal organization would want a thief that destroyed his prize in acquiring it?” The veteran police officer did not want to sound too harsh but he knew what the streets truly held. “I just want you to fill out an application. A job here would allow you to earn this snack cake. It will also make sure you learn what a good day’s work can bring. It will teach you the right side of pride.”