Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

Now That Was Stupid

 

 

Was he going too slow? Driving like grandma?

The car behind him passed him on the right and got in front of him just in time to brake for the stop sign.

Ok. You’re ahead of me. By a whopping twenty five feet. Satisfied?

The intersection was clear. The large SUV waited. For what? It was in a hurry before. No other cars at the four-way stop. Go ahead. Move.

George waited. Waited. When he was about to tap his horn the car ahead of him made a left turn. He saw the driver, a small woman in the huge auto, tap the screen of her phone as she drove. He honked his horn. She did not bother to look up. George continued his drive through the sundrenched streets lined with modern homes, all boringly similar with their vibrantly green, weed-free lawns, and their parked, gleaming cars. He lived in Arcadia Acres, a subdivision of once splendid houses that now looked boringly similar. It had been his wife’s idea to move there. He would have preferred a farm house. Alexis Drive. House builders named residential streets after their daughters. He had been told this. A twelve-year old girl gets immortality on a street sign. If he could build a subdivision he would do it differently. Name a street Bullshit Boulevard. Asshole Avenue. Creep Court. He could see it. You’re at the furniture store arranging for the delivery of a mattress and box springs. And sir, what’s the address? Thirty one oh six Asshole Avenue. Come again? Thirty one oh six Asshole Avenue. And the salesman thinking: Yeah, that sounds right. A jerk like you would live on Asshole Avenue.

Slut Street.

Were there any sluts in Arcadia Acres? Probably one or two. Or some bored forty-year old housewife who wanted to be one. Step forward men. Lay me down. Men? Men? Anyone?

George smiled at that as he pulled into the driveway and parked his pickup truck. He grabbed his coffee cup out of the center console. Time to go to the den and read the news on the computer before the coffee got lukewarm. His routine.

Retirement sucked.

He recalled his silver-haired, shuffling father telling him if this is retirement you can have it. Back then George thought it was funny. Dad had died at seventy-five. Completely demented. Would he die at that age too? Mmmm. Six years to go. Seventy two months. There, that sounded better. Bigger number than six.

George glanced at the answering machine. No blinking red light. Good. Sometimes Julia called from work to give instructions on what to make for lunch. Like he couldn’t figure out how to make a meal himself? She could be so controlling. And he had endured years of it 

He sat down in front of the hypnotic, time-consuming monitor. First up a shot of a movie star and his wife. DALE AND ABBY ARE THEY HEADED FOR DIVORCE?

Who cared? Is this news?

Mr. Movie Star wore a tight shirt. The man certainly had pecs and shoulders. George had vowed to pump iron and go on runs when he retired. The barbell and the dumb bells were on the floor in a corner of the garage. In a year he had gone on maybe twenty walks. Half a dozen short runs.

He would have worked out more but Julia’s car had that trouble and he had those bouts of sinus headaches that just wacked him out. And it had taken two months to remodel the basement. But those were excuses.

Life was full of buts. He didn’t want to become a weak, flabby old guy. He did not want to look like the shufflers he saw at the mall. But (that word again) he was becoming exactly that. He was slowly turning lazy. Lazy.

At work. When he had a job, a career. He hadn’t been lazy then. He was one of the hardest workers. And everybody knew it. Steve was another hard worker. That guy worked like a mule. Everybody else, not so much. Steve was dead now. His obituary was in the paper three months ago.  

George frowned. He would go for a walk after he finished the coffee. Two miles. Which would be to Fox Lane and back.  

He looked more closely at the image of the movie star’s wife. Her face tried to hide the dissatisfaction she felt. The beautiful, perfect face smiled. Yet, the smile did not totally convince. Her body was so thin. The taut skin revealed the jawbone, cheekbones. Clavicles.

Julia put on weight every year. Just as she was supposed to. According to Mother Nature. Screw Mother Nature.

George scrolled down. Majority of adult Americans cannot name both senators of their state. Flooding in Arizona. Bear mauls tourist in Yellowstone. Go, bear!

Best states to retire in. Like he could afford to move. And if he did move to North Carolina, then what? The wrinkles in his face would disappear? Bullshit 

He frowned and went on Facebook. More of the same. Aunt Clara posting cute pictures of Fidel, her cat. What she thought was cute. God.

He checked the local weather forecast. Current temperature sixty six. High for the day low nineties. If he was going to walk he should do it in the a.m.

George swallowed the last sip of his coffee, powered down the computer, and stood up. Did he need to take a piss? No. Good. He pissed too much anyway.

Seven houses to the corner, turn right on Nancy Drive, walk on. Only one barking dog. Walk on.

Walk on. Past house after house. He did not know any of these people. Not a one. Back when he was growing up he knew all of his neighbors. Sammy Cundiff, the Woodridges, Buddy Marlin, and the crazy lady who lived alone and had a dozen cats---what was her name? What was it? She had died when he was a senior in high school.

Orchard Drive. Why didn’t they call it Ordinary Street? Where was the orchard? There was no orchard. Just a fishing boat on a trailer in the driveway he had just passed.

A teenager, no he looked too old to be a teenager, walked out of the side entry door of the garage carrying a plump black garbage bag. He saw George and stopped abruptly. Like he was embarrassed at taking out the garbage. George nodded hello. The teenager-man’s eyes blinked. He was tense about something. He seemed ready to drop the heavy bag 

George walked on.

Heidi! The crazy cat lady was Heidi. She wore her hair all messed up to one side. She sang in the church choir. She sang terrible.

Somewhere behind him a dog barked. About four houses back. The dog wouldn’t give up. The barks were rapid and loud.

George didn’t like pets. Cats, dogs, gerbils---they all stank up a house. His sister in Maryland had two cats. My God, the house smelled like a humongous litter box. Enough to make your eyes water. Sarah didn’t notice. She would actually pick up one of the fur balls and kiss its face. The best part of visiting his sister was the drive home.

The interstate---relaxing. The quiet countryside.  

He turned left on Brittany Court. Across the street a woman in tights ran in the opposite direction. A black wire ran up to her chin, separated into two wires, each going to a speaker in an ear. Her pony tail bounced as she sped away. George walked faster. He was going too slow. God, that woman had all kinds of energy. 

He would do barbell curls after his walk. Five sets. Then tomorrow, ten sets  of pushups. Hell yeah. He would do it! Establish some goals. That’s what he needed. Goals.

He did things back then. He actually made lists of things to do on a legal pad and checked them off, one by one, when he got them done. The regional director saw one of his lists one time during an inspection. He did not say anything, but George could tell he was impressed—or amused. One of the other guys could not even do invoices (and he got paid more!). Some of the guys were lazy shits. One of them, Bob, was the worst kind of thief. He would steal from his own mother. Management did nothing about it. He told them, but Tom did nothing. Ron hid in the warehouse in the afternoons to take naps. And they promoted him!

No, he didn’t miss those guys. Mike took credit in company meetings for work he had done. And he did nothing but sit there and clench his jaw.

Who did he miss? Anyone? The women, mainly. Well, some of them. Some were nice. The others, well, it was can you fix this for me? My car needs a jump. Can you put air in my tires? Will you come over and work on my house? My husband doesn’t know how to do anything. My mother lives with us and her hips are bad. She needs surgery but she won’t hear of it. Simply will not listen. Anyway, we think one of those handicapped toilets will make it easier for her. And could you put on the wall one of those bars you grab to help pull yourself up? A safety grab bar. That’s right, a safety grab bar. Can you do that for her?

Of course, he got paid absolutely nothing for that job.

Everybody steals. Even women. Especially women. He would like to meet Christy in the mall someday just so he could go up to her and slap her. A fantasy of his. He had others.

But it was over now. Everything was over. All he had to do was sit and coast into decline. What would go first? The knees? His heart? His mind?

Time to go back. Brittany Court. Orchard Drive. Why were there blue lights flashing? A cop car was parked in front of the house with the boat. The blue lights pulsed. George thought Damn, what’s the emergency? Somebody have a heart attack? No. They would send an ambulance instead. A police officer walked from behind the house. He had a huge belly, a thick neck. George’s first thought was could the cop actually chase someone and catch him?

The policeman noticed him and waved at him. The wave meant: come here.

George stopped. The policeman approached him with a speed that surprised George. 

“You. You. You live around here?”

“Yes. On Alexis Drive.”

“You a walker?”

George did not understand at first. What was a walker? Something from a tv horror show? The cop’s eyes were quite unfriendly.

“Did you see anything?”

“Oh, yeah. I’m a walker. I mean, not everyday,” said George 

“Did you see anything?” 

“See?” 

“There was a break-in. The alarm company notified us. We didn’t get here in time.”

“Break-in?”

“Did you happen to see anything?”

The teenager. The man. Wearing a black tee-shirt. Black pants. With the garbage bag. The filled garbage bag. The way he stopped when he saw somebody on the sidewalk. The uh, what are you doing here? look.

“Anyone?”

He had. He had seen someone. And it didn’t occur to him to think the guy-- the thief! -- was suspicious. Did not belong in the neighborhood.

He was an idiot. A real dumbass. He could not give the cop a good description of the guy. Could not tell him what direction he went.

“Did you?” 

George recalled the barking dogs. Hell. Even the dogs were smarter than he was.

The cop stared at him and waited for an answer.  

“No. I didn’t see anything.”

Liar. He was lying to the cop. Why did he just do that? Was his face red? He wanted to walk away.

“If you hear anything would you call the station? Appreciate it.”

“Sure.” His voice sounded so weak. 

The policeman turned and walked back to the house. George could go away. He could leave. He stared at the house. A small sign in the front window. White with blue letters. Protected by ADT Alarms Systems. Didn’t the thief see the sign? Did he see it and just disregard it? Was he that careless? That arrogant? Or desperate? He just went in and removed things. Things of value. Things that belonged to someone.

He could have stopped it. He could have run up to the creep, knocked him down, grabbed the bag, taken it, kicked the guy in the nuts, knocked on a neighbor’s door, called the police, stopped the entire thing in its tracks. No, he hadn’t done shit. Let the guy steal. Let him get away.

He could go back and tell the policeman the truth. That he had seen someone. The cop wouldn’t believe him. Not now.

God, he was becoming a dimwitted, feeble old man.

George started down the block. He wanted to walk fast. He wanted to run. He wanted to see the guy with the garbage bag again. That wasn’t going to happen.

When he got to the house he went straight to the garage, turned on the lights, and almost ran to the barbell. He did not bother to change plates. He didn’t care what was on the bar. He picked up the barbell and did curls. The movement came easily. He did not strain; the weight was not heavy. Barbell up to his chest, hold, slowly lower. Repeat. Repeat.

He was breathing faster and the barbell was getting heavier.

Work to failure. Work to failure.

The reps came slower. Slower. He stopped, bent his back parallel to the floor, and dropped the barbell. It landed with a clang and rolled away. Suddenly the garage was in darkness. The bulb in the overhead fixture had been getting weaker. Now it had decided to burn out completely. George stood motionless, wanting to laugh. No, he did not want to laugh.

It was time for another set. George bent down and stretched his hands out.

Where was the barbell? He found it. He gripped the bar harder than necessary and did another set to failure.

 

*  *  *

Later, after skipping lunch, he went to the back deck with a book. He wanted to read so he could forget the morning. Forget his incompetence. It would have been better if he had not gone for a walk. Still, the end result would have been exactly the same. Someone’s house burglarized. He should have done something to stop it. He should have done something.

He opened the book. Within ten minutes he was asleep. And later, dreaming. He was in a strange world where mouths and voices talked but were not heard. Just understood. He was so old. Older than he realized. He had lived a long time. He had done many things. Many things. He had forgotten most of them. He had forgotten the many days of sunshine. The days of gray gloom. The holidays. The lonely weekend nights when he believed he would always be the only alien hermit on earth disguised as a normal human being.  

Who were the voices? What were they saying? Who did they belong to? No one? Everyone?

At Steven’s wake. Who was there? Who did he see? Calvin. Jacob. Yeah, them. They said the company wasn’t the same. It had changed. For the worse. New owners. What could you expect? They were cutting expenses. Pinching every penny.

Maintenance department was on a budget. It was ridiculous. Jacob had to justify every expense. A one-pound box of drywall screws. Now, what do you need this for? Just ridiculous. No more raises. The Christmas bonus---that was in the past. People were leaving in droves. Glenda, gone. So were Ian, Betty, Julie, Hank. And when someone left you had to do their work too. Got that?

Two years, one month to retirement, said Calvin. If I can hold out.

Why did that news depress George? He did not work there anymore. He was retired. Retirement meant you moved on. You did other things. You weren’t supposed to be stuck in the past. But, those names, just the mention of those names, Ian, Hank, Julie, brought back their faces, the sound of their voices, their laughs. The jokes he told them. The pranks.

Just think: he would never see them again. Or talk to them again. The only person he ever talked to was Julia, his wife. And they didn’t have to talk. He could just look at her face and know what she was thinking. They had been married that long. When she came home from work she had stories about what went on. Some of it was gossip. Some of it was repetitive. You know, the same gripes. Still, when she told her tales she seemed more interesting and more connected to everything than he was. The way she moved her arms when she talked she could have been directing an airplane to a gate at the airport.

George picked up his book and read the first paragraph again. The sentences made a little more sense the second time, but he really didn’t care what the book was about.

A bird chirped somewhere in the back yard. He looked and found it on a tree branch. Why was it singing? What was it happy about? Did it know 

He had it. He would write his memoir. It would probably never be published. That’s fine. He could hold it in his hands when he was in the coffin. Ha! He wouldn’t write it solemn. No. Make it sarcastic. Ha!

George went to the den, got paper and pen from the desk, then decided that the kitchen table would be a better place to write. More light.

He sat at the table for twenty minutes. He had written two words. MY MEMOIR.

George caught himself pushing and twirling the end of the pen in his right ear canal. He threw the pen on the table. Damn, that was a nasty habit. Why did he do that?

What was he going to write? That he started out being born? Everybody  started out being born. He wasn’t going to write it ordinary.

He waited. He could hear, faintly, very faintly, the backyard bird singing. That little thing had no trouble telling the world about itself.

Perhaps he was too old to tell his story, to remember it all, to write it down correctly. Completely. To capture all the emotions he had carried with him. Throughout his life. The regretful memories that just wouldn’t, wouldn’t go away.

It was useless anyhow. Who cared? Who gave a shit about him? There were times he didn’t care about himself.

He had screwed up his life. On occasion. Not every day. Just on occasion. George was aware. Now. Not back then when he made those self-punishing decisions that cost him money and a more normal life. One decision after another after another. Whatever. You live your life one day at a time. That’s right. You live your life daily. So you don’t notice. YOU DON’T NOTICE.

To hell with it.

Just as George got up from the table the phone rang. He picked up and said hello 

“Hello! Did you know you can instantly lower your interest rate on your credit cards? For a limited time you can take advantage of this amazing offer. Don’t delay. 

Her voice was urgent. Not friendly, but still feminine. He listened to the sales call instead of hanging up. The oddest thing was that he wanted the impossible, or the unlikely: to talk to her. Really talk to her. Have a conversation. Talk about anything, everything. The weather, the Fourth of July, do you like dogs? I’m allergic to cats.

It was because the house was too silent.

“Press one to talk to a live operator.”

George pressed one. “Hallo, good sir! And how are you today?”

What nation was this guy from? He could not tell.

“Not well. My cancer is now in stage five.”

“Good for you, sir.”

Did you not understand?

“Your name, sir?”

“Sylvester Polyester. 

“Very good, Mr. Polyester. And how many credit cards do you currently possess?”

“Thirty seven.”

“Very good. And what is the interest rate you are paying?”

“Minus seven per cent.”

“Sir, today and today only you can switch to a lower rate.”

George had enough of this guy. It was time to do his animal sounds. “AHHH

UHH KOOGIE GAGGAH SHHUUR SHHURR JASHEE JASHEE PIZZA! 

He hung up. He could also be from a foreign country. The nation of nonsense.

George walked into the kitchen. He had to do something. He was upset. He could sense it invading him. He opened the refrigerator door and looked inside. 

Nothing. He didn't  want---anything. Why was he upset? Over a sales call? That wasn’t it. What was?

He continued to hold the door open. If Julia were home she would say shut the door. And he would reluctantly close the door.

The crisper drawers were dirty. He would clean them.

He put a clean bath towel on the countertop. Removed the twin, clear bins and emptied them: Wilted celery stalks, the bag of baby carrots, the shrink-wrapped cauliflower, and from bin number two the partial package of hot dogs, the packs of cheese, the sliced turkey, the sliced ham, loose spinach leaves, two onions, one clove of garlic, and what appeared to be a long strand of human hair. George washed and rinsed the bins. Put them upside down on the towel to dry.

When done he felt better, but not much better. It was obvious what was happening. He had been reduced to house cleaning. Pathetic. 

He had when he was twenty two, or was it twenty three, climbed into an attic with a fire extinguisher to put out a fire. Man, it had been hot as hell up there. He had never experienced such heat and smoke. Did not know it could be that bad. He had to spray for the longest time to get everything out. The air was so bad it hurt to breathe. His eyes smarted from the stinging air. But he got it done. He put out the fire. The way the boss looked at him. Chris would never say Hey, good work, George. You saved the warehouse. You’re a hero. Still, the way Chris looked at him when he came down. You could tell he was grateful, relieved. If the place had burned, top management would have fired his ass. No, he could never say thank you. It was one of the women who brought him a bottle of water. He coughed for two minutes. His clothes held the stench so bad he threw them in the garbage when he got home. As they say, back in the day. Back in the day. Of course, everyone had by now forgotten about that exciting afternoon. That near disaster. A could-have-been catastrophe.

It should have been a catastrophe. He should have let the place burn down. The very next year he was passed over for promotion again. The third time. They gave the buyer position to Scott. George remembered how surprised and defeated he had felt. The sympathetic looks that Fred had given him. No, wrong, it was Dave. Fred was the one who actually said to him that wasn’t right, what Rick did to you. How long do you have to work here before they give you any respect? George had thought no one else was aware. No. People were aware. They noticed. They knew.

Scott. That motherfucker couldn’t even spell. His memos---a tenth grader could have written them! And they made him a buyer. He hadn’t told Julia about this. She would have given him a look that was half pity and half anger. He had received enough of those. One time he had overheard Julia saying to her sister George doesn’t have much ambition. Della had replied that her husband didn’t have it, either.

It is so easy to get to the top. To be a captain of industry. To own a mansion, a beach house, a yacht. Just ask any woman!

He should do something. He was supposed to do something. What was it?

Weeding? Cutting the grass? No, it didn’t need it. The mud room needed painting. It was looking dingy, but Julia hadn’t mentioned it. Or had she?

George went to the mud room to inspect. He would have to move the washer, dryer, disconnect the hoses, vent pipe, no problem, remove the shelving. Everything pretty straightforward, easy. A few nail holes to patch. What color did she like? Slate gray? Or was it platinum gray? Slate gray? 

Time to go the hardware store.

He came back and was unloading the gallon of paint, the stir sticks, the can opener, the tube of spackling, the putty knife, the roller cover, the one-and-half inch paint brush (polyester bristles, tapered ends) when Julia pulled in the driveway. He stopped to wait for her. She opened the car door, got out, stood, but did not approach.

“What are you doing? What did you buy?” Her skeptical look was not friendly.

“Paint for the mud room.”

“It doesn’t need painting.”

“Yes, it does.”

She shifted the strap of her purse that was over her shoulder. “What color did you pick out?”

“Slate gray.”

“I hate that color.”

“I thought you like gray,” he said.

 “I never liked gray. Where did you get that idea?” 

“You said it one time.”

“I never said that.” Her mouth grimaced. Was he a fool? Or a hopeless fool? “I prefer blue or a pale green. Take it back.”

“I can’t. They had to mix it. There’s no return.”

“Mmmm. See if they can change it to blue.”

“They can’t do that.”

“Sure, they can. They can do almost anything.”

“No. No. They can’t. I’ll have to buy another gallon. I should have brought the color samples home first.”

“Did you call the furnace man?”

That was it. She wanted the air conditioner serviced before the summer got really hot.

 “I forgot.”

“You forgot?” 

They stared at each other. Yes, I forgot. Ok? I forgot.

“Do I have to write it down for you?” she asked.

George turned and put the gallon of paint and the plastic bag that contained the paint supplies on the floor of his truck, the passenger side.

“I’ll do it tomorrow,” he said to the interior of the truck.

She was already inside the house.

Five minutes later Julia was in her favorite chair, the remote in her right hand, a plate on her lap. On the plate chips and one half of a ham sandwich. The other half was in her mouth, or a large part of it was. Her face studied the flickering tv screen.

A chorus of voices from the tv laughed. George knew what program it was. He went into the kitchen and searched the refrigerator.

“How was your day?” asked Julia from the other room.

“Ok,” he said. Every day was ok. Just ok. One ok day after another. Ok. Ok. Ok.

He would have some yogurt. “A house on Orchard was burglarized this morning.”

“How do you know?”

“I saw the cop car.”

“Maybe it was something else. A domestic dispute.”

Of course. He couldn’t possibly know anything.

George walked into the den with his cup. “The policeman told me. He asked if I saw anything.”

She looked at him. “Did you?”

Did he? No. Yes. No, he did not witness the actual breaking in. Yes, he had seen the suspicious kid in black with a garbage bag.

 “I did. It was a gang of girl scouts. About thirty of them. They were hyped up on Samoas. Two of them overdosed. Right on the front lawn.”

“Funny.”

George walked away and sat at the kitchen table. He needed to have something to read; he regretted not buying a newspaper that morning. He could be doing the crossword puzzle. Some days the puzzles were too difficult, though.

“George, your show is on.” 

Every episode featured an ambitious couple who had foolishly purchased a dilapidated house. They were going to fix it up and sell it for a tidy profit. Yes, they were! Only, the foundation was bad. There were termites. The wiring was substandard, insufficient, and violated code. So just before bankruptcy was filed, the couple was rescued by the professional crew, miracles were performed in just a few days, and everyone was happy at the end. The real world it wasn’t. Still. Entertaining.  

*  *  * 

He woke too early. Four ten a.m. Damn. There was no way he was going to go back to sleep. He closed his eyes again and listened to Julia’s light snores. 

What to do. What to do. He should buy some sleeping pills. No. Screw that. He took enough pills.

Get up. Get up. And do what? Read? Nothing to read. Go for a walk? No. Someone would see him, think he was a prowler, pull out their gun because, after all, a morning walker was such a deadly threat, and self-righteously pull the trigger. Goodbye George!

He would write a page on the memoir thing. And say what? He was an ordinary dumbass? He was a superhero? He was secretly brilliant, a regular Einstein. Only no one knew.  

George grunted, sat up, put feet on the floor, and walked through the dark house. His extended hands felt for the furniture. He knew where everything was. 

He sat at the desk. The light from the desk lamp stabbed.

George died yesterday.

 He crossed that out.

George died today. An ordinary extraordinary man. He now has the body of a twenty-five year-old and is humping women in Paradise. They are standing in line to wait for his delicious penetration. 

What bullshit. Girls in high school despised him. The past starts in the past and snowballs into the future. 

George left behind him an amazing fortune. Amazingly he had accumulated the fortune of six point four million in secret. His heirs are in shock. And planning immediate purchases of magnificent cars, beach houses, and luxurious cruises.

After they go to the bank. First, bury the sneaky bastard.  

George dropped the pen on the paper. He hadn’t made shit. If anything people had cheated him throughout his life. It started in high school. Loaning Joe twenty five dollars. Of course, he never got paid back. The women who had asked for money at work. The bitches never repaid. Never. Did they laugh at him behind his back? Did they tell their lazy boyfriends how easy it was to take from gentle George? Probably. Nobody had any integrity. Nobody.

 When the human race perished it would be a good thing.

 He had to pee.

After he urinated George dressed in the dark, moved his hand across the dresser to feel for his wallet and keys. He was going for coffee. He had to get out of the house. 

*  *  * 

The gas station looked empty. No cars at the pumps. Just two old sedans parked at the side of the building where the twin dumpsters sat in the dark. Staff, thought George. They don’t get paid shit so they have to drive wrecks.

He walked into a place of bright light, aisles of chips, candy, cookies, cokes, magazines, newspapers, pills, motor oils. A country-western song complained overhead. George glanced at the clerk standing behind the counter, a skinny, young man bored and weary.  

George went to the corner that had the coffee and cappuccino dispensers. He picked a large cup and filled it three-quarters full with breakfast blend and then topped it off with french vanilla cappuccino. Just to sweeten it up a little. No sugar needed. He watched his fingers press the plastic lid down tight. God. His fingers looked old.

The song stopped. The building was quiet, somber. He paused in front of the newspaper rack to glance at the headlines. THREE DEAD SEVEN WOUNDED IN MALL SHOOTING.

Oh, boy. Another one.

George walked toward the counter and nodded at the clerk. Before he could step forward to put the cup down a gray blur of a man jumped in front of him.  

Easy, asshole.

The guy was short. A gray hoodie covered his head and torso. He jerked his right hand out of a side pocket. It came out quick! The rigid arm and hand held a gun. The shiny thing was about three feet from the clerk’s face. 

“YOUR MONEY!”

The clerk blinked his eyes. The demanding voice was loud and a little nervous.

The clerk opened his mouth.

“I SAID YOUR MONEY! NOW!! 

The robber was an arm’s length away. George could reach forward and touch his shoulder if he wanted to. If he wanted to. He didn’t. What did he want to do? Nothing. Would the guy kill the clerk? Would he have to see that? Witness it? The head jerking, the body collapsing. The blood.

George knew he should walk away. Go to the rest room. Hide until it’s over. Then come out. Tell the cops what he saw. Not much, sir. That’s what Julia would want him to do.

The world is full of thieves. And you can do nothing about it.

The clerk opened his cash register drawer and took out the twenties, the tens, the fives, and the ones. As quickly as he put a wad of cash on the counter the guy in the hoodie grabbed it and stuffed it in his pants pocket.  

George looked down at his coffee cup. His fingers began to pry off the plastic lid.

“THE MONEY UNDERNEATH! NOW!”

The man in the gray hoodie waved his weapon. A song spread from the ceiling speakers. The words were My momma left this earth and so will I. Someday. Someday.

The entry door opened. Whoever it was immediately backed away. George’s left hand held the plastic lid. He did not want to drop it to the floor. He knew what he was going to do. He knew. The clerk pulled up the cash drawer and handed over two one-hundred dollar bills. The nervous man snatched them and turned.

He and George were close enough to dance together. George saw the man’s unshaven chin, the open mouth, some crooked teeth, the fear, the desperation in the dark eyes. George’s right hand moved. He watched his coffee soar upward and splash on the unshaven face, the open eyes, the nose. He heard the scream, then the gasp. He heard the gun shot. Loud. Too loud. Did he hear the bullet striking the rear wall? Could he? Did he hear the man’s screamed profanities?

The way George remembered it initially: the thief backed up to the counter, his empty hand wiping away the hot, insulting liquid, the gun hand moving back-and-forth like it was saying no, no, then firing again. A burn penetrating George’s right shoulder.

Everything was a surprise. Him throwing the coffee, the gunshots, the burn in his shoulder. And his foot kicking the groin as the man approached, the private agony seizing the man’s body as he crumpled over, George kicking the hooded head, the solid thump, the eyes closing, the body relaxing and falling to the floor. Then the unreal unfolded. Taking the man’s weapon. The clerk calling 911. The anxious wait as the clerk pointed the gun at the waking, snarling thief while George stood and held his injured shoulder. The blue lights. The policeman entering and shouting at the clerk to PUT IT DOWN! The ambulance arriving. Being placed on the gurney. The cop and the EMT both telling him he was a hero. He was a hero. Yeah, man, what you did was something! Except that Julia would tell him: Now, that was stupid. It’s not necessary to be a hero. You know that, George.

Except.

Except no. What really happened after the bullet struck his shoulder George backed away two or three steps, (he would never know: two or three?) and clutched his shoulder while the gray-hooded figure pointed the gun at him. Carelessly. Another loud report. Something exploded in his chest. Right in the middle. His legs, his legs. George fell on the recently mopped floor of the gas station. His legs. Not moving. It was hard to breathe. Why was it hard to breathe? The ceiling tiles were very white. So white. The pain eased up some. His eyes blinked and then darkness came.

And that is how everything stopped.





Paul Bowman, a retired maintenance man, writes plays and fictions.  His one-act plays have been produced in Long Island, Connecticut, NYC, Louisville, KY, Normal, Illinois, Los Angeles, San Diego, and Houston.  Two more productions are slated in July.  His stories, primarily flash and short-shorts, have been published (print or on-line) in The Storyteller, The Chiron Review, CC&D, Literary Juice, Conceit, Trajectory, Downstate, and Southern Fried Karma.  Another piece of flash is forthcoming in The Listening Eye.  A stage monologue has been published by Monologue Bank.  Paul writes in his basement office.  When stuck he utters weird, otherworldly moans and groans which cause the spooked spiders to retreat to their safe, dark spaces.