Dennis put his helmet on and entered the damp hallway. The wallpaper, installed before the building converted to Section 8, sagged from the walls. Dennis adjusted the camera mounted atop his helmet to face his good side, the one without the lazy eye. His steps stuck to the floor and created a rhythm like brushes scraping a snare drum. “Hey, folks, here we are. Another morning of frugal living at its best,” he said. A neighbor, her hair in curlers and sporting a billowing muumuu, cracked her door.
“How did you afford that?” said the neighbor, over the din of the two nosy lap dogs inside her apartment.
“I used my check.” Dennis maintained his stride.
“Well, don’t come asking for cigarettes later this month.” She dropped a soggy trash bag into the hallway and closed the door.
“Ignore the welfare queen, my friends.” Dennis reached the end of the hallway. He hit the down arrow and whistled aggressively as the elevator jumped to his floor.
The mall’s parking lot sat like a picked-over discount bin. Dennis coasted into the lot and pushed his bike, a rusty ten speed, up to a bike rack in front of the building. A patrolling security guard in an SUV came to a rolling stop. She almost said something, then drove away.
“Who can afford to be a smoker at ten bucks a pack?” said Dennis, resuming his narration. “Here in the frugal zone, we have our own ways.” He walked around a concrete barrier to the smoker’s niche and fished through an ashtray. Dennis pulled out a frayed cigarette, its filter smeared with greasy pink lipstick. “These wage slaves are too busy with the rat race to enjoy the fruits of their labor!” Dennis took a few drags and went inside through the food court entrance.
The mall resembled an amusement park in winter. Yawning cashiers tapped at their phones behind pristine laminate counters. Dennis nodded to a pack of rigid-armed mall walkers. They dropped their heads and turned a corner around a row of vinyl-seated benches. Dennis approached the pizza place. The workers huddled there broke their conversation and scrambled back into the kitchen. A new employee, the odd one out, stood behind the cash register. Her tiny black eyes darted around a food court like a mouse running between cracks in the wall in the middle of the night. “Check this out,” said Dennis, winking. “A cup for water, please.”
The girl squinted and played with the hard, spiky hair peeking through her visor. “I’m not on camera, am I?”
Dennis shifted his gaze from the girl. “She’s new to the frugal life, folks. Forgive her. She’ll learn.” A manager stifled the crew’s laughter in the kitchen then hefted his awkward bulk up to the cash registers.
“Sorry, we can’t give away the cups anymore,” said the manager. “It’s a corporate thing. They moved the pop machine to face the food court, and they’re worried about losses.”
“But… but I got a water cup yesterday. The guys who work at night always give me one.”
“I’ll talk to them.”
Dennis stormed away. “Fear not. Old Dennis is full of solutions.” He dug through a trash can and retrieved a large plastic cup. “To think, this corporate behemoth sacrifices a person’s access to water for the sake of making a buck.” Dennis joined the line at the burger joint.
“Can I help you?” said the greasy employee.
“Would you refill my pop?” Dennis set the cup on the counter.
“Is this from today?”
Dennis affected his dopiest face. “You were on break.”
“Fine. Grab the lid, please.” The cashier wiped a streak of dried ketchup off the cup, filled it halfway, and pushed it back at Dennis.
“A little more ice?” said Dennis.
A hunched-over, balding man stood in front of Panda Wok. He held a tray of orange chicken pieces impaled on toothpicks. Dennis smiled and motioned toward the camera, inviting viewers to join him. He reached to grab a sample.
“Hey, not so fast. You have to buy something today.”
“What does your manager say about this?”
“I don’t care. Go ahead, tell the one person who cares less than I do. I work hard, for shit pay, to hand these out to potential paying customers. I don’t get to eat the samples. They make me pay half price just to take the leftovers.”
Dennis turned around. “Let’s go back to my place,” he said to the camera, “and I’ll show you my latest Salvation Army scores.”
Dennis exited the mall and snooped around for another cigarette. He found a butt, still smoldering, rolling under a car. He smoked it while leaning up against the tall plate windows next to the front doors. The security guard rolled up, and this time stopped. “No smoking within fifteen feet of the entrance, Dennis,” she said. “You should know this.”
Dennis moped toward the bike rack. He froze. His bike was gone. Dennis ruffled through his outturned pockets. He threw his helmet to the ground. The camera helmet, parked on the sidewalk, picked up part of the tableau. Dennis, with frantic energy, accosted each passerby he encountered. “I’m not a bum.” Shuffled footsteps. “I need two bucks.” Nothing. “Please, I need to get home.” A bite. “Bless you. It’s for the bus, I swear. I don’t even drink. Bless you, ma’am.”
Inside the bus shelter, Dennis donned the helmet. The bus arrived, and the driver swung the door open. Dennis slid two dollars into the machine and took a seat near the side doors in the middle of the bus.
“It’s a tough life, the frugal life. But it could be tougher. At least I have you, my faithful viewers.” Dennis stopped the recording and closed his eyes.