My Mom always told me never marry the first guy you fall in love with. But I loved Paul so damn much it hurt. And he loved me right back. He didn’t show it like those guys in movies do, with flowers and romantic songs and poems and stuff like that. But once for my birthday he stole a brand new GTO and let me drive around in it all night before we dumped it in the parking lot behind Wal-Mart. If that ain’t love…Well, it’s the closest I’ve ever been.
Now that Paul is doing a twelve-year stretch up at Tehachapi, I’ve had some time to think about things. I still love him. Leastwise, I think I do. But it’s not the same. Mama says I should file the papers and get divorced. Said it would be easy, seeing as how’s he’s gone away for so long. But I don’t know. It doesn’t seem right. I know we didn’t get married in a church or nothing, but even still, when we made those vows, I meant them.
I try to visit Paul at least once every few weeks, although he kinda scares me when we talk. He’s always talking about these plans he’s got to escape. I don’t think anybody’s ever escaped from Tehachapi. I ain’t never heard of it, anyway. But Paul always did have big plans. He even looked up on the internet how to make a gun out of a potato. (I didn’t know they have the internet in prison. You’d think that going to prison at least meant you didn’t have to do the internet no more.)
Paul tried to talk me into sneaking the parts to his potato gun in on my next visit. I laughed when he told me where to hide them. Sometimes when my new boyfriend Andre and I do it, it hurts. Ain’t no room for no potato anywhere near there. But Paul didn’t get mad or nothing when I laughed. He just started working on a new plan. Maybe he really does love me.
So last Friday night at work, this old friend of Paul’s came to see me. I work the seven-to-two shift at Trout’s, a country bar in Oildale. Been working there pretty much ever since I finished high school. By the end of the night my feet are killing me and I stink like Coors Light, but the tips are good, especially when they got a good band playing.
I kinda remembered this friend of Paul’s from before. His name’s Delfino. (That’s his last name. He’s a white guy.) Him and Paul used to hang out before he went away. But Paul had a lot of friends and I didn’t like any of them much. They were too grabby and mostly they drank too much.
Delfino came up to me around ten while I was waiting for Tommy the bartender to fill my order. He swatted me on the ass, just like all those jerks do, but he had a nice smile, so I didn’t mind too much. It was kinda slow right then because the band was between sets. Monty Byron was playing with his new group and they were real good. Somebody said they were going to get a record deal or something, but people always say that. I don’t really know that much about music, but they sounded hot to me. Kinda like Dwight Yoakam, only not so twangy.
After Delfino slapped me, I gave him that hard glare I first learned back when I was fourteen, but since he looked familiar, and had that cute smile, I let up on it a little.
“Tina, right?” He smiled that smile again, so I decided to answer him.
“Yeah. Whatcha want?”
“I’m a friend of Paul’s. He told me to come talk to you.”
As soon as he said Paul’s name, I remembered who he was. He wasn’t as bad as some of the guys my husband used to hang out with. Not like that Barry or whatever his name was. That guy was a real freak. But I knew Delfino had been in trouble before. All of Paul’s friends had been in trouble before. Two of them were up in Tehachapi right now, keeping him company.
“Talk about what?” I asked.
“Something fun. I promise.” He smiled again, but it didn’t work on me that time.
“Look, I gotta get back to work.” To make my point clear, I turned to Tommy, who had just finished filling my tray with the drink orders.
“Can we talk after?”
“I don’t know. I work ‘til two and I’m pretty beat already.”
“Come on. I’ll buy you coffee.”
I didn’t really feel like it, but he did have a nice smile. “Okay, we’ll see.”
I spent the rest of my shift running around like my feet were on fire, which they practically were by the end of the night. All I wanted was to go home and take a shower and eat a half a bottle of aspirin. But Delfino was still sitting there, still giving me that shitty grin.
Tommy announced last call and I asked him if I could leave a few minutes early. Usually I stayed around a little to help him clean up, but he was cool about it and told me to take off. Delfino was right there waiting at the door and he walked me out to my car.
He offered to take me to Milt’s and buy me a cup of coffee and a piece of pie. The pie there tastes like shit, but I was too tired to argue. I didn’t let him drive me, though. I knew better than that. So I drove my own truck and tried not to fall asleep at the wheel.
I popped a tape in the player, hoping the music would keep me awake. It was Merle Haggard’s Greatest Hits, the last cassette I owned. My truck was a ten-year-old Mazda with over a hundred thousand miles on it, but it still ran pretty good. Didn’t have a CD player, though, which sucked. I’d gone into the record store a year or so back to see if I could buy some new tapes – my old boyfriend (this was after Paul went away) had stole all my other ones – but the geek behind the counter just laughed at me. He said they don’t make cassettes no more. Anyway, all’s I got left is Merle, but that’s okay, ‘cause I love his music.
There were about a dozen people at Milt’s, even though it was the middle of the night. I guess being right by the highway gets them business, mostly from people who don’t know the food sucks. Delfino asked for a table over in the corner by itself and they let us sit there, even though the old woman at the register gave us a dirty look.
Deflino made a big show of pulling out my chair to let me sit down first. But the way he did, smirking like he was Mr. Cool or something, just made him seem like an asshole. I acted like I didn’t even notice, and buried my face in the menu.
He reached across the table and pushed my menu down. “We already know what we’re getting, right? Pie and coffee.”
I shrugged like “whatever” and put the menu down. Delfino gave me that smile of his again, but it was starting to lose whatever charm it’d had. I was really starting to regret agreeing to talk with him. I was tired and just wanted to go home and go to bed.
After the waitress filled our cups and set down a couple slices of dried-up pecan pie, I decided to get right to the point. “Delfino, you’re a nice guy and all, and I know you’re a friend of Paul’s. But it’s two-thirty in the morning and I’m tireder than shit. What do you want, anyway?”
Delfino laughed real hard and even slapped his hand on the table, like he was in the audience at Hee-Haw or something. “Paul was right about you,” he said. “You do have a pair of balls on ya.”
“That ain’t exactly a compliment, you asshole.”
He laughed again. “Okay, Tina, seeing as how you’re being real direct with me, I’m gonna be real direct with you. I’m planning a job and I want you to come in on it.”
I grabbed my purse and started to stand up. If that jerk-off thought I was going to have anything to do with one of his lame-ass schemes, he was even stupider than he looked. I’d helped out Paul because I loved him. And look where it landed him. I sure as hell wasn’t going to help out one of his loser friends.
Before I could get away from the table, though, Deflino reached out and grabbed me by the forearm. He gave my arm a good squeeze, not enough to hurt, but more than enough to get my attention. It was then that I saw the veins sticking out on his forearms, and the layers of muscle running up his biceps. He looked like just another redneck tweaker on the outside, but underneath he was strong.
What really scared me, though, was the look in his eyes. The Junior Samples act was gone and he wasn’t kidding around no more. I’d had guys stare at me like that before, mostly late nights when I was working at the bar, and I didn’t like it. I decided that I’d better play along or else something bad was going to happen.
I sat back down and picked up my cup of coffee. I took a sip and tried real hard to make sure my hands didn’t shake. I think I pulled it off.
Finally, I said, “Okay. Let’s hear this plan.”
Just like that, Delfino’s smile returned. I could see how he worked it, all grins and charm and bullshit. But I’d caught more than a glimpse of what was really underneath it, so I wasn’t fooled anymore. The next time the real him came out, I’d be ready for it.
Delfino explained the plan, and it was just the kind of thing I expected from a friend of Paul’s. If you’d lined up all of those guys together, between the bunch of ‘em they never could have come up with anything fancier than you’d see on an episode of Cops. That’s why Paul and two of his best friends were living in Tehachapi instead of Bakersfield.
Still, I listened to what Delfino had to say. And I had to admit, it wasn’t as stupid as I would have guessed. His idea was to hold up the Alta Vista Drugstore over on Bernard. One night a month they were open late – apparently it was part of how they gave back to the community or something like that. They stayed open so you could fill your prescription up until midnight.
But most folks wouldn’t be needing to get their eye drops refilled or a box of Kotex at midnight. So the way Delfino figured it, the place would be empty. Just the pharmacist and maybe one clerk. He said they didn’t even have a security guard. The place was full of OxyContin, Vicodin, Valium, Ambien…All kinds of drugs that could easily be sold on the street for a few bucks a pill. It would be easy pickins for a couple guys with guns – or maybe one guy and one girl.
Paul always said that a woman made the perfect stick-up man. Even clerks in places like 7-11 who were used to being robbed were surprised when a woman stuck a gun in their face. That made them easier to order around, and it also made ‘em less likely to do something stupid – like go for a gun of their own. They might shoot some black guy with his Raiders hat turned around backwards, but a cute blonde girl who only weighed 100 pounds with her boots on was a different matter.
We never really got much chance to test that theory, Paul and I. We only went on one job together before he got arrested – and I was so scared I literally peed my pants. Just a little, but damned if I didn’t have to throw away my underwear afterwards.
But I won’t lie, it was one helluva rush, too. Like being on the world’s scariest rollercoaster, only knowing that you weren’t wearing a seatbelt. But it wasn’t a feeling I was looking to repeat. I may not live a very glamorous life, hauling around trays full of longnecks and shots of Jim Beam all night – but at least I don’t piss my pants neither.
When he came to the end of his plan, Delfino just looked at me, hopeful-like. The asshole inside was gone now and he looked more like a high school kid asking a girl out on a date. It was almost kinda cute – except I found him so creepy.
I told him I’d think about it, even though I didn’t mean it. That seemed to satisfy him, so he changed the subject and started talking about the new truck he was going to buy, just as soon as he got the money from all these big scores he was gonna pull. I tuned him out and concentrated on trying to eat the shriveled up piece of pie, but it was gross so I finally pushed it aside. I let out a big yawn then and Delfino actually took the hint and paid the check.
Outside in the parking lot, he walked me over to my truck, but he wasn’t being nice. He just wanted to warn me not to tell anyone about his top-secret stick-up plan. I promised him I wouldn’t and said again that I’d think it over real careful. Then I got in my truck and drove home.
I probably wouldn’t have given the whole thing another thought – the conversation felt more like something I’d watched on TV than something that really happened to me – except Paul called me the next night, right when I was getting ready to go to work. He usually called on Saturday night. When he could get time on the phone, anyway. According to him, the Mexican gang tended to use up most of the phone time arranging drug deals through their girlfriends back home in L.A. They spoke in this elaborate code that most of them couldn’t remember very well, so it took them a long time to actually get anything done. That night, though, Paul got through.
The first words out of his mouth after hello were, “So, did you talk to Delfino?”
“That jerk? Why did you tell him to come talk to me anyway? You know I don’t like guys like that.”
“And you know he’s a friend of mine.”
“So that means I should stick up a drugstore with him?”
“Jesus Christ, Tina, watch what you say! They can monitor this line, you know.”
“Okay, I’m sorry. Shit. But that guy really creeped me out.”
“Naw, Delfino’s cool. He just likes to play the tough guy.”
“Good luck with that.”
Paul laughed. “Anyway, it’d mean a lot to me if you’d help him out.”
“That’s easy for you to say when I’m the one out here with my ass on the line.”
That pissed him off. “You think I like being locked up in this fucking place? You think this is fun? ‘Cause let me tell you, it ain’t. It sucks harder than you can imagine.”
“Honey, I know that. I didn’t mean it like that.” I tried to calm him down. “You know I’d do anything for you. It’s just, you know…”
I heard him take a deep breath. “I know, baby. But we need to do this. Okay?”
I sighed. Despite all the shit, the lies and the cheating and him going away for all those years, he was still my husband. And no matter what else, that meant something. “Okay, honey.”
Delfino came by the next day to talk about his plan some more. Paul must have told him my address, ‘cause I sure didn’t give it to him. I didn’t much like the idea of him knowing where I lived, but there was nothing I could do about it now. Paul wanted me to trust him and do the job, so that’s what I was going to do.
Delfino had found out that the drugstore’s next time to stay open late was coming up in less than a week. A Thursday night, which he said made it even better. Nobody would be out shopping on Thursday night at eleven o’clock. We’d have the place to ourselves. Just a gun in the face of the pharmacist, another gun on the clerk, and we’d be out of there in five minutes, our pockets stuffed full of pills.
I had to admit, the plan sounded okay. I had no idea what pills were worth, but Delfino claimed he knew a guy who’d take them all off our hands for top dollar. I wasn’t sure he was telling the truth – I kinda thought maybe he just wanted the pills for himself – but I figured if nothing else, I could take the money from the register and get away with a couple hundred bucks. If I was going to get roped into this, I could at least come out ahead.
Two days before we were supposed to pull the job, Delfino showed up at my apartment with a little .38 he’d got from somewhere. He suggested we go over to 5 Dogs to do some practice shooting, but I just rolled my eyes at him. I’d gone hunting with my Dad on every opening day of pheasant season from the time I was five until I grew breasts. I reckoned I was a better shot than Delfino. Besides we weren’t planning on shooting nobody anyway. I made sure about that last point, and he swore it was true.
That Thursday night, Delfino picked me up just after ten. I had on a plain back hooded sweatshirt, blue jeans and a Copenhagen baseball hat pulled down low on my head. I also wore my good pair of tennis shoes, just in case I had to run away. I was sure as hell hoping I didn’t have to run nowhere, but figured I’d better be prepared just in case. Like a jackass, Delfino was wearing a pair of beat-up old Tony Lama’s that he couldn’t run away from my Grandma in. I didn’t tell him that, though. I figured it’d just make him mad.
I did say something, though, when he wanted us to wear pantyhose over our faces. I laughed and told him what Paul always said: they’d never remember what you looked like anyway. They were so scared when you stuck that gun in their face, they couldn’t remember if you were black, white or cross-eyed.
Delfino said what about the security cameras and I told him what Paul used to tell me about that: those cameras were so old and shitty in most places you couldn’t tell nothing from ‘em anyway. Sure, it was taking a risk, but if you wanted to be safe, you’d stay home and watch wrestling. He didn’t have an answer for that, and I think he was embarrassed about Paul knowing more than him. So he just shut up and started driving around.
We cruised down Columbus over to River Boulevard and then down to Bernard, heading towards Union Avenue. We were making a big square, just looking over the neighborhood to make sure everything was okay. When we drove past the drugstore, there was only one car parked out front and the rest of the street looked dark and quiet. It didn’t make any sense, them not having more security in such a lonesome neighborhood. But some folks are real trusting, I guess.
On our second trip around the square, I could see that Delfino was starting to get a little jumpy – he probably smoked some crank before he picked me up; he had that look about him – so I tried talking to him to calm him down.
“Where’d you get the car?” I asked.
“Borrowed it from one of my neighbors.”
“Is it gonna be a problem if someone spots it?”
“Shouldn’t be. I switched the plates with a pair I picked up over at Valley Plaza last weekend.” That actually sounded pretty smart, so I was impressed. Maybe Delfino wasn’t a complete waste of space after all. “Besides,” he said, flashing me that same old shitty grin again, “they ain’t even gonna be looking, right?”
I had to agree, since I was the one who said it in the first place. It’s not like I knew what the hell I was talking about, though. Everything I knew about sticking places up I’d learned from Paul…and he was sitting right that moment in a cement room with a metal toilet that didn’t even have a seat. But I didn’t figure there was any point in bringing that up at the moment.
Finally, on our third trip around, Delfino said it was time to do it. We pulled up at the curb one block down from the drugstore and waited. There was an old Chevy parked on the street, directly under the Alta Vista Drugs sign. The car hadn’t been there the last time we drove by, so we figured it was a customer. Sure enough, an old man came out about thirty seconds later, a brown paper bag in his hand. I don’t know if they sold liquor there or not, but that’s sure what it looked like. Thinking about it made me want a drink real bad. But I put that thought away ‘cause Delfino had the car moving again.
We parked in the same spot that the old man had just left, only twenty feet or so from the front entrance to the store.
Delfino reached down under his seat and pulled out the pistol he had wrapped in an old t-shirt. I did the same with my gun. The metal was cool in my hand at first, but almost immediately it started to feel warm, like it was alive or something. It was kinda spooky and I made myself look away. Delfino was staring at me. The grin was completely gone from his face and that other look was back, the one I saw when he grabbed my arm at Milt’s.
“You ready to do this?” he asked.
I nodded. I was afraid that if I tried to talk it would come out all wrong. I nodded again.
“Okay. Let’s go.”
Delfino got out of the car, leaving the engine running, and walked right up to the entrance to the store. I followed behind him, the gun held close down at my side. When he saw I was next to him, he opened the door and walked inside.
The little bell on the door tinkled as we walked into the store. I’d been there a couple times before, so I was familiar with the layout. There was a checkout stand on our left – it was being staffed by one blue-haired old lady with thick glasses flipping through a copy of the Enquirer – and the pharmacy counter was all the way in the back on our right. I assumed that’s where the pharmacist was, although I couldn’t see him at the moment on account of all the shelves of crap that were in the way.
Delfino nodded at the old lady and said, “Cover her,” and started for the back of the store. I was already moving, bringing the pistol up as I walked. For a moment, the blue hair didn’t even bother looking up from her magazine, but when she finally did her eyes grew wide and she took a step back.
I walked up real close to the counter and stuck the gun across it, pointing it at the old lady’s face. I didn’t know how good she could see through those glasses, and I didn’t want her to miss the gun. “Don’t do nothing stupid and everybody’s gonna be okay. Got it?”
From the look on her face, I hoped she’d remembered to wear her Depends that day, ‘cause she was gonna need ‘em. I felt pretty damn close to it myself. That old rollercoaster was heading up to the top, and I was holding on tight with both hands.
“It ain’t your money in the drawer, right?” I said. The old lady nodded. “And they got insurance.” She shrugged. “They do. Trust me. So there ain’t no point in screwing around. Just open up the register, put the money in a bag and hand it to me. Minimum wage ain’t worth dying for.”
She didn’t move none too fast and her hands were shaking like a wet dog, but she did what I told her to. It didn’t look like there was much cash in the drawer – a couple hundred bucks at most – but I didn’t really care. I wasn’t even sure I was going to tell Delfino about it. Wasn’t really none of his business, anyway.
When the old lady handed the bag of cash to me, I stuffed it down my jeans in the front and pulled my sweatshirt over it. “Now just take a step back and stand there. You don’t gotta do nothing else.”
She did what I said, and I risked a glance towards the pharmacy counter. I could hear some noise coming from back there, but I couldn’t tell what was going on. I hoped that Delfino was just about done. It felt like we’d been in there for hours already and it was time to get the hell out.
I looked back at the old lady, but she was just standing there, hardly even breathing. I couldn’t help but feel a little sorry for her. I hoped that I wouldn’t still be working some bullshit job when I was that old. Of course, Trout’s didn’t exactly have a retirement plan. But I was sure something better would come along. Anything had to be better than ending up like this.
Right about the time I was starting to eye the exit and think about making a run for it, Delfino came hurrying over from the back of the store. He had two large plastic bags in one hand and the pistol in the other. “Let’s go,” he shouted.
I was closer to the door than him, so I was the first one out into the street. I ran over to the car, yanked open the door and jumped into the passenger side. Delfino was running hard behind me, those beat-up Tony Lama’s clomping on the sidewalk like one of those Budweiser horses.
If he’d worn tennis shoes, I bet he’d have made it. But he had to wear those stupid cowboy boots, and that cost him. Just as Delfino was rounding the back of the car and heading for the driver’s side, that blue-haired old lady came bursting out the door to the drugstore with a pistol in her hands.
Just a minute before I’d been concerned for her, but now I was the one who needed the Depends. She didn’t look like she knew what she was doing, but shooting a pistol ain’t like flying an airplane. She pointed it in our direction and started pulling the trigger and the gun did the rest.
I’m not sure what exactly she was shooting at, whether it was the car or Delfino or maybe just the scary things she saw in her head. But it was Delfino she hit, catching him square in the leg, right up under his ass. He cried out when the bullet him, but he was moving fast enough that he made it to the door anyway and dove into the front seat behind the wheel.
“Let’s get the fuck out of here!” I said, which was the obvious thing to do, but I was scared out of mind so I said it anyway. The rollercoaster was about to jump off the tracks and I wanted to get off now.
Delfino stomped on the gas and we took off down the street. My ears were ringing, so I couldn’t tell if the old lady was still shooting or not. But if she was, at least she didn’t hit us.
We headed down a couple blocks and made a quick right turn. Nobody was following us that I could see. Delfino started moaning then, a real pitiful sound like a dog makes when it hears fireworks on the Fourth of July, only worse ‘cause it was coming from a grown man and he was sitting on the seat next to me. That sound got up under my fingernails and crawled up and down my spine and made me squirm like I was sitting in church.
“You okay?” I asked him, even though I knew he wasn’t. There wasn’t no way in hell a man could make a sound like that and be okay.
“I think…” he said. “I think…” Then he turned his head to the left and puked. He hadn’t put the window down, so the puke bounced back and hit him in the face and got all over him. Some of it even splattered over on me and got in my hair. The smell filled the car and stung my nostrils. But at least he hadn’t turned and done it on me. Maybe I had him figured wrong after all.
“I don’t feel so good,” he said.
No shit, I thought. That old bitch blew a hole in your ass! But what I said was, “It’s okay, Del. You’re gonna be fine. We just gotta get you somewhere safe.”
Where that might be, I had no idea. But I figured it was better to keep moving than anything else.
“I gotta go to the hospital. I’m hurt bad. I think I’m going into…whatchacallit.” He was fading off there at the end and didn’t try to think of the word.
I wasn’t sure if he was dying or what. The shot didn’t seem like it was that bad, and he was still driving the car as good as he ever did. But we didn’t have many options. We were only a three-minute drive from Memorial Hospital, but I knew that gunshot wounds meant cops and statements, and it wouldn’t take them very long to connect the hole in Delfino’s leg to the robbery at the drugstore a half-mile away.
Besides, it’s not like I owed him anything. Did I ask to get involved in this mess? Did I want to be part of his lame-ass robbery? Did I tell him to wear those stupid fucking cowboy boots? He’d got us into this mess and it was up to him to get himself out of it. I was done with him.
“Del, honey. Turn right at the next street. I’ve got an idea on how to fix this.”
Delfino nodded and slowed as we approached the intersection. He even turned on his blinker before heading down the dark side street. The road we’d turned on was deserted, a junkyard with a thick chain across the driveway on one side and a vacant lot full of weeds on the other.
“Pull over right here,” I said.
Delfino’s only reply was a faint grunt, but he turned the wheel and we coasted to a stop. He looked at me and I was embarrassed to see that there were tears in his eyes. The ladies’ man with the shitty grin was gone, and so was the tough guy with the biceps. All that was left was a little boy crying ‘cause he got shot in the ass.
“Get out and walk around to this side,” I told him. “I’m gonna drive us someplace safe.”
“I don’t know…if I can walk.” His voice was a little stronger than I’d expected. Maybe he wasn’t bleeding so bad after all.
“You can do it, Del. Trust me, honey. Just walk around and let me drive and we can get out of here to someplace safe.”
He nodded then and pushed the door open with his shoulder. He stumbled a little climbing out, and I could see that the back of his jeans was covered with a dark, wet stain.
I thought maybe it would still work out okay if he’d just keep walking. The way he was bleeding, he probably didn’t have long to live anyway. But I knew I couldn’t take that chance. You can’t ever trust guys like Del. That was another thing my Mom always said, and it was time I started listening to her.
He started to walk away when I called to him. “Del, honey?” He turned back to look into the car. I pulled the trigger on the .38 and put a nice, round hole right in the center of his forehead. The shot made a little noise, but not much, and Delfino’s body made no sound at all when it hit the ground.