He went to the thrift store for secrets. Not to buy clothes—he rarely looked at the pieces themselves because he was too busy watching for people who might be watching him—but to graze his hands along fabrics until he felt folds that might be pockets. He poked around in the hopes of touching upon a forgotten note or a letter. Some sort of story surrendered by its protagonist when they outgrew or lost interest in their waxed-cotton workshirt. Second-hand stories were easier to appropriate than second-hand coats. Just change a detail or two and it becomes a nice new accessory. A coat might require a tailor, a story demanded nothing more than a touch of editorial flair.
That was the theory, at least. After five excursions it was becoming clear that people do not leave their life story in the pockets of pants they are parting with. The best he had found was a note from a guy named Ted reminding himself that he was meeting someone named Ashleigh at a ferry stop at 10:35pm. Hopefully Ted had not missed the beginning of what might be a burgeoning clandestine relationship. Alternatively, that meeting had been part of a criminal engagement gone bad, Ted was now at the bottom of the river, and Ted’s jacket found its way to the store because his daughter had donated all his clothes because the artifacts of his forfeited life were too tough to bear. That would at least explain why the note was still there; although Ted’s daughter probably would not have given away the last remnants of her father without checking the pockets first. Other than Ted’s note he found little more than grocery receipts and the occasional empty wrapper.
An antique store would possibly have been more promising. A forgotten armoire was likely to be a much better place from which to discover a lost manuscript or a collection of letters debating how to understand the human condition in a world unmoored from all certainty. He could have used either to become a much more interesting person. Maybe even published them and taken credit as the explorer/editor who brought the lost text to the public eye. Unfortunately he did not know of any nearby antique stores. It probably would have been more difficult to carry out his search anyway. It is much harder to discreetly scour old and valuable furniture for secret compartments than to rifle through a coat rack in a popular thrift store.
He only went two more times to that store. At the end of his seventh unsuccessful trip the cashier called out as he was leaving, “see you again soon!”
That’s what he got for his indiscretion. He had been limiting his trips to the store to no more than twice per week. It was enough to allow for decent turnover in what could be found on the racks and, he had thought, enough space between his appearances that nobody would notice his repeated presence. He even tried to change the days of the week in order to keep his trips asynchronous from anyone else who might make regular visits to the store and pick up on the others regulars with whom they overlap. His mistake was keeping constant the time of day. He ought to have figured that some of their staff members would work the same hours each day. Not enough thought had been given to the staff. He had avoided looking too closely at anyone working there—to not forfeit his own anonymity by intruding upon theirs. His glances had been swift and spurious, checking for onlookers but trying to avoid attracting them. That was a silly way of thinking. Of course they were going to look at him; he had chosen that time of day because the store would not be too crowded. What better way for the staff to idle away the hours than to observe the oddballs who came by at off-peak hours? If he had been a little more cautious he might have begun to recognize the familiar faces recognizing him, and altered his plans accordingly. But that opportunity had passed; the cashier who expected him back had potentially already mentioned him to the rest of the staff. Soon enough they were bound to confront him for spending so much time in the shop without buying anything.
Or the person at the register was just friendly. Perhaps they were new, had never seen him before, and made nothing of his lurking the racks. It might have just been a welcome chance to flex their vocal chords and establish rapport with the customers in the hopes that they would come back. Not a veiled threat hoping to chase him away for good. He could not take that chance. Each time he went back he risked walking into an ambush, while there was little cost to abandoning the site. He had turned up nothing yet. It might be time to seek out a new store anyway.
I’m not sure he had made a single purchase or drop off. Nor how many times exactly he had come to the store in the past few weeks. Six, maybe seven. I had to try to go back and retroactively log the first few appearances since he didn’t stand out until he had popped up enough to stick out as a regular. My hours are pretty dead, but enough people come by that there’s no way I’d remember every face. He was, at first at least, especially forgettable since he never came by the register. In and out, each time in a different outfit unified only by their lack of outstanding features. He’s either the least fashion conscious person to ever come to a thrift store for fun as opposed to financial necessity or he’s intentionally trying to blend into the walls. And I mean that literally—the various shades of faded earth tones he always wore matched our olive walls perfectly.
It’s possible I was making too much out of him. He could have bought a few items while I was reorganizing a shelf or something. And some people just do not like to stand out when they dress. It would explain his reluctance to buy anything. I am certain that each of the past three times he was here he took off without a word or a purchase. I was watching as soon as he came in. It was the first time in over a week so I was ready to say that it had all been a figment cooked up by my brain to add an element of mystery to an otherwise boring five hours. Then he arrived, smothered by a shapeless maroon hoodie, to silently stalk the aisles for twenty minutes before hustling out the door as fast as he could without making a scene. Like everything else about him, what I imputed about his gait could have just been overwrought editorializing. Quickly but not too quickly is just a sliver of a step up from normal speed and so could easily be indicative of absolutely nothing.
But I was excited. So little happened at the store between 9 and 2, save for the occasional lunch rush as we got closer to the end of the week. Finally something new was happening. Not that he did anything during his infrequent appearances, just lurked, rustled some articles of clothing, and then took off again. But that was part of the appeal. Sure, I should probably tell someone. I don’t think he’s stealing anything since he spends most of his time pursuing our louder offerings. I mean, if he manages to stuff a pair of patchwork jeans and a twenty-year old leather jacket under his shirt and walk out of the store without my noticing despite watching him the whole time, then he deserves to keep them. And we’re not the kind of place you case for weeks just to hold up the cashier. There’s a camera right above the counter and rarely much of any cash on hand. Most people use cards anyway.
There are tons of other explanations for his behavior other than shoplifting. I would know; I’ve been spending the time when he does not come by conjuring up numerous narratives to explain him. My most fun conjecture is that he’s a big-name fashion designer looking around for inspiration. It would explain why he tries to blend in so hard; otherwise he might bump into someone, myself included, who could possibly recognize him. Or he’s just some guy who likes clothes but is too indecisive to purchase anything. That does not explain why he always wears such drab outfits if he is someone with an interest in more ostentatious dress. I guess that could be the tragedy of it. He aspires to be the kind of person who wears multi-colored pants or t-shirts from bands that very well might never have existed on a more than conceptual level, but is so wracked by his indecision that he cannot bring himself to commit to that personage because he is too unsure on how it would look on him so he is going to keep seeking out the right piece on which he can base his new identity. Hell, maybe it runs deeper, and he’s looking for artifacts from the previous owners that he could incorporate into his inchoate personality.
“See you again soon!” I called out to him as he was leaving last time he was here. Perhaps a risky move—depending on how concerned with discretion he is that might be the last time I see him. His pace did appear to quicken when he heard my voice, almost reaching the visible register of faster than average ambulation. But I couldn’t help myself. I need to know what he’s doing. He has become the most interesting aspect of my job and it’s too tantalizing to wait forever for him to reveal which of my hypotheses hews closest to the truth, or if there is something else he’s up to that I ‘ve never thought of. Regardless, I already find myself thinking about him all the time when he is not here, wondering what my anonymous window shopper does with the remainder of his life. So if I did overshoot and that is the last I see of him, at least he has given me some interesting stories to keep on passing the time.
David Patrick Gallagher was born in New York City, went to college in Minnesota, and then returned to New York with no intention to ever leave again. He has been published in The First Line, and is currently an MA student in political theory at the CUNY Graduate Center.
© 2021, David Patrick Gallagher