The pawnshop .45 felt vaguely familiar in my hand, but the Shop & Go on State Road 92 was nothing like the Navy firing range. The gun shook as I stepped in and yelled, “Everybody down on their fucking stomachs.”
My buddy, Larry, held his shotgun on a middle-aged gal behind the counter. She cried, “Don’t shoot. Don’t shoot.” She had a smoker’s growl, a crustaceous mole on her chin that resembled a mushroom, and legs like mayonnaise jars. She wore a blue skirt and a white blouse which made her look more like a librarian than a convenience store clerk. With her arms held up, her skirt rose up to reveal more thigh than I cared to see. “I won’t give you no trouble,” she said. “I’m the only one here. And your faces are covered. I can’t tell nobody what I ain’t seen.”
The barrel of Larry’s shotgun was a foot from her stomach. No matter how bad I wanted to call him off, and let the old woman lower her arms, I had to act like a convincing bad guy.
Larry was dressed like me in black pants and shirt, but I had a green ski mask over my face. It was a cheap knit and the wool scratched my nose. Larry wore a plastic Rambo mask his son, Larry Junior, had worn that past Halloween. He looked like an idiot with the rubber band squeezing into the back of his hair. “You said a mask. You didn’t say what kind,” Larry had said outside the Shop & Go. “Maybe,” he hiccupped, “we should hold off on this till I get a proper mask.”
“No, Goddamnit,” I’d said, pushing him toward the door. “This will work just fine.”
Larry had been hiccupping when me and LucyAnn picked him up earlier that morning. Every diaphragm spasm chirped out of him from the backseat like a street rod catching second gear. Now, each one shook the barrel of his shotgun to point up at the woman’s face and then back to her stomach. He was my closest friend through school, but he would be the last one to ever win a Nobel Prize. When we were ten, he’d discovered the joy of killing flies with cans of hair spray and lighters. He exterminated everything that moved with flames and fireballs, and he set his mother’s white couch on fire in the process. To cover the black scorches, he grabbed a can of white wall paint from the garage. During sophomore year, he got his dick stuck in the return of the community pool, which got him banned for life.
With him covering the woman, I stationed myself behind the door, gripping the pistol.
The Shop & Go was a one-stop-shop for the locals forty miles outside of town. They didn’t take bottle refunds anymore, and they didn’t take coupons. The place was lined with coolers filled with dairy products, juices, sodas, and beer. An ice machine sat in one corner opposite the deli counter that served up sandwiches as well as hot breakfasts to be enjoyed at any of the half-dozen tables in the center of the place. There were two payphones in the hallway near the bathrooms and a television mounted over the sandwich counter. Outside there were propane tanks ready to be rented, and a solitary gas pump beneath a corrugated aluminum canopy that looked like a giant armadillo shell.
Larry hollered across to me, “I can’t believe you told her about this.” He was referring to my wife, LucyAnn, and a conversation we’d started when we’d gotten out of the car.
“Secrets are dynamite in love’s foundation,” I said in as conversational a tone as I could muster. “They don’t explode right way, but the fear is always there and when detonation does happen, both people get buried in the rubble.”
Larry chirped again with a hiccup and I watched his gun barrel rise and fall. “It still seems a little fucked up,” he said.
“Besides,” I said, “we needed a driver. Shit. What do you care? Nothing’s coming out of your end.” My lips chapped from the abrasion of the wool ski mask.
“I guess I’m just surprised you’re sticking with her, and all.”
“There are no divorcers in Heaven,” I said.
Larry looked at me, cartoon eyes in Rambo’s face. “God don’t forgive you for divorce?”
“No,” I said. “He doesn’t forgive that.” This was something I believed down to my core. “I intend to keep a promise made in church on our wedding day.
“But robbery is okay?” he said, picking up the gun oil.
“Robbing an ATM has nothing to do with God.”
I’d been sleeping most nights with the window open because I was broke and unwilling to kite another check to the electric company. The shitbox duplex was poorly insulated and Spring in south Florida can be hot as July anywhere else, but there I was, living like the trailer folk in unincorporated Hillsborough County. There was no breeze last Sunday night so the aluminum blinds didn’t clunk into the window frame. If the window had been closed and the air conditioner had been on, I wouldn’t have heard the sound of someone outside clearing their throat. I raised my head and looked over at my wife. A yellow beam from the corner streetlight sliced through a gap in the blinds and onto the bed directly between me and LucyAnn. Her dark hair fanned the unused part of her pillow as if she’d been filming a shampoo commercial, and she was still REM-deep. Her slumbering face was so peaceful for once that I wanted to curl up around her. The red numbers on the clock offered ten minutes before the alarm was set to go off so there was time to wake her for, at least, a tugger. Instead, I dropped my head back to enjoy the residue of sleep before I had to get up. Then I heard another noise. I couldn’t tell what it was, but it sounded like metal hitting concrete.
I sat up and jammed my hand into the blinds and spread them to see a fat guy in the glow of the streetlight, on his hands and knees, in front of LucyAnn’s Prelude.
“Hey!” I yelled around the paste in my mouth. “Get out of there!”
The guy didn’t bother to look up, and instead shot me the finger. He then pointed with it, over his head, toward a tow truck he had backed up to the car.
I threw the sheets off and jumped up, naked.
LucyAnn rustled and propped herself on an elbow. She was not a morning person. I could usually get up, shower, dress, and leave without disturbing her sleep at all. “What’s going on?” she said in a throaty whisper, sleep heavy in her voice.
I found a towel on the floor and wrapped it around my waist. It was still damp from LucyAnn’s shower the evening before, but it covered me almost to mid-thigh. “It’s okay, honey,” I said. “Stay in bed. I’ll be right back.”
The cement felt like wet glass beneath my bare feet as I ducked out of the house and stormed toward the driveway as if I had a clue as to what I was going to say.
“Look, buddy,” the tow truck driver said, catching me off guard. “It’s nothing personal. Just doing my job.” He faced the car, not stopping his work as if he were defusing a bomb.
I had an uncle who was a tow truck driver. My father’s older brother. I never got to ride along with him, but the one time we met, he gave me a toy tow truck. It was blue-black with real flashing lights. For two years I ruined the knees of all my pants playing with that thing. This guy didn’t have his flashers on, but his rig’s paint was the same color as my toy.
“Come on, man,” I said, holding the top of the towel in place while speaking to the man’s back. It looked like a dog house wrapped in a fumigation tent. “I’ll send them a check today. God’s honest. Just give me a break, okay?”
“Wish I could,” he said. His wrench clanged against the undercarriage. “Nice car. Tow bar will scratch the bumper for sure.”
I looked at the Prelude. Tinted glass. Chrome rims. Louvers on the back window. Five-inch spoiler off the trunk lid. We’d gotten it off the show room floor only six months ago.
Parked alongside was my rusted Mustang. It was ten years old and dripped enough oil to make a stain the size and color of an eggplant on the driveway. I’d been sliding a turkey pan underneath to prevent the stain from getting worse. It was that or spend the time and money changing the valve cover gaskets to stop the leak.
“I’ll give you fifty bucks if you let me off the hook here,” I said to the tow truck driver.
He hocked a loogie as he pushed himself away from the car. Once fully upright, he spat a wad the size of a sugar cube into the grass. Then he looked at me and smiled with teeth like clam shells. He sucked at them as if hairs were caught there. “I couldn’t do it for fifty thousand,” he said, double checking the tautness of the apparatus connecting the Prelude to his tow truck.
“What are you doing to my car?” LucyAnn yelled from her knees on the bed where she’d yanked up the blinds. Her bare breasts in full view. They were brand new and they suited her. Grapefruit-sized and high on her petite frame. I maxed out both credit cards on them – Visa for the left one, MasterCard for the right. “Close the blinds,” I hollered. “I’ll take care of this.”
“What the fuck is going on out there?” Her shoulders shrugged, made her boobs bounce.
“Close the blinds,” I said, leaning my head for emphasis.
The tow truck driver stood and openly faced the window.
“Either cover yourself, honey,” I said, “or close the fucking blinds.”
Only after she lowered the blinds did the tow truck driver turn to face me. I stood a head and a half taller and looked down at his forehead. It shone like a honey glazed ham. “Fifty bucks and a free titty show,” I said. “You can’t ask for more than that.”
He shook his head. “Can’t help you. But thanks for the show. She’s all right.”
I read the patch on the guy’s left pocket and asked, “You married, Randy?”
“Shit no,” Randy said. He looked up at me and wiped the adjustable end of the wrench on the front of his gray coveralls. His meaty face gelled into a happier sort of mask.
“You’re really not going to budge a fucking inch, are you? You thick-headed motherfucker,” I said.
Randy shook his head until I got handfuls of his shirt collar and lifted. I had the slack in him about pulled out when he said, “Trouble with the cops is the last thing you need.”
I let go and he fell back a few steps then pulled a red rag from his back pocket and swabbed off his fleshy pate. “Make your payments within ten days, you can pick up the car from our impound lot on Baker Avenue.” He then climbed up into his idling truck and rolled off with the Prelude following behind.
The early morning air settled wet on my exposed shoulders and I could only imagine how many of my neighbors were watching. The only way this could have been more emasculating was if LucyAnn had actually run off with the guy, piggyback.
On the television above the sandwich counter, the Sherriff’s funeral was being shown in progress. People lined the sidewalk trying to get into the Grace United Methodist church.
All the cops would be busy for hours with the service and burial. We would be done and gone by the time they finished.
“What time is it,” I asked.
“Three,” Larry hiccupped and then said, “O nine.”
“Damn it, with those hiccups. Hold your breath or something.”
“I tried that.”
“Try it again.”
“A packet of sugar under the tongue is the only thing that works,” the woman said.
“Please don’t talk,” I yelled. “Keep her quiet, Larry. Okay?”
Larry didn’t speak.
“Larry,” I said. “What the fuck, Larry?”
He let out a giant exhalation and said, “What? I was holding my breath.”
Then, through the reflection off the beer cooler, I watched the Brinks truck pull up. My view was obstructed in the cooler’s glass because of shadows outside. I didn’t see the driver get out, but I heard the door slam with a metallic thud.
The hair on my arms stood straight as the teeth on a comb. I pulled back the hammer on the pistol and placed it in the driver’s temple as he entered. “Don’t even think about moving.”
The guy breathed in hitches, but didn’t move. I recognized him immediately. There was a compression then, in my head, as if the walls were squeezing in on me. “What are you doing here?” I said.
“Just here to reload the machine,” he said, shrugging to show the canvas bags he carried. “I don’t want no trouble.”
“Hansen?” the driver said, looking into the eye holes of my ski mask. “Is that you?”
We were close enough that I smelled the Wrigley’s gum on his breath.
“Face the wall or I’ll shoot you,” I barked.
The driver didn’t look away. Instead, he dropped the bags by his feet and then stood on his toes and looked closer. “Jarrett Hansen. That is you!”
“Hi Chris,” I said, pushing him face-first into the wall.
Chris was a big guy. I had five or six inches on him, but he always loved the weight room. Even back in high school. Now, the sleeves of his uniform were tight and just long enough that the Brinks patch fit there.
“Didn’t you go in the Army or something?”
“When did you get out?”
“Great,” Chris said as he spun a quarter turn and drew his pistol with a cop grip, aimed at my chest. “I wouldn’t want to shoot a serviceman.”
“Fuck,” I yelled. “Just hold on.” I aimed my gun back at him. “Where the fuck is Clarence?” My voice came out even, but I was combusting in my chest.
Chris widened his stance and squatted a little, holding his aim at my chest. “Up at the funeral,” he said without moving. “He served in the war with the sheriff.”
I held my aim in that girth between belt and badge. It was like drawing on a bear. “Now, just hand over those sacks of cash and we remain friends.”
“You know I can’t do that, Jarrett. I ain’t just handing over this money.”
“Cut the dramatic shit and just give me the money. It ain’t yours…”
“You either shoot me and take it or put your fucking gun down and let’s get a beer.”
This is when I felt depth charges in my ribs. I punched myself in the head with my free hand -- to keep me calm. “If I wanted a beer, I’d take one.”
“Go ahead, ‘cause you ain’t getting this money.”
“You’re looking at it the wrong way, Chris. I’m just keeping what’s mine.”
The Sherriff’s funeral continued on the television. Sheriff Montoya’s working life played on the screen. He’d worked his way from traffic cop to detective where he single-handedly busted two of the biggest cocaine dealers in South West Florida history.
The woman behind the counter barked, “Quit this shit and get right with the Lord.”
“Save your breath,” Larry told her. “We got no religion.”
“Everyone has the Lord in him,” the woman said, holding up her chicken wing arms with her back to the rack of cigarettes. “Especially that one over there,” she said, indicating me.
“Never mind all that,” Chris said. “See the way my AV is parked?”
“My armored vehicle.”
I held my gun in position and peeked through the plate glass window. “That’s a van.”
“Fine. My armored van. You see it in the middle of the lot? It attracts attention that way.”
“Ain’t no one coming this way, not with that funeral going on.”
“The procession will be driving to Cyprus Eden Lawns. Right past here.”
“You quit fucking around, we’ll all be long gone by then.”
Inside the house after the car got towed, I’d made it as far as the living room. LucyAnn waited for me by the rack of TV trays near the hall. The cigarette between her fingers rested on her thigh and smoke trailed toward the black patch of hair she kept trimmed to fit inside her bikini bottoms. “I can’t believe you let him take my car,” she said.
I turned my focus to the picture of Michael Jordan hanging beside the hall’s entrance. It was the shot of him flying as he went up for a dunk. Her father gave it to me for Christmas knowing full well that I hate the fucking game. I counted to ten, inhaling quietly on the odd numbers and exhaling on the evens. “It wasn’t like I had a choice,” I said, tugging on the towel.
“You worthless sonofabitch,” she said.
“Now, come on, Luce,” I said, sitting on the armrest of the couch. “You know what Max Shlotzky says: ‘Love and Hate are magnets. Which do you want to attract?’”
She hit her cigarette, dropping ash onto the wood floor. After she blew smoke toward the ceiling, her stare leveled at me. “I’m sick of all your talk about that book.” Her eyes were the color of acid washed denim. “Unless Max Shlotzky is going to give me money to shop, he can kiss my ass, too.”
The towel stretched like a drum head across my legs and I bounced a fist there once and then thought better of showing anger. “Come on. He’s right,” I said. “Just because we’re disagreeing doesn’t mean we have to be disagreeable.”
In the beginning, we were oxygen and acetylene: any wayward spark could ignite a torch that cut into the night with energetic fighting and fucking – destroying each other the best ways we could. During the past year, however, we were rarely together long enough at any given time to get past the fighting.
“I swear to God, I’ll leave you,” she said now. “I’ll find a man can support me.”
My mouth went sour. My hands stretched open and I wiped my palms on the towel. The friction with the terrycloth heated my hands and that warmth calmed me. The same trick worked on jeans, too. At times I wished I could ignite a fire that way. “Now, darling,” I said, looking up at her. “Remember we’re supposed to fight fair.”
“Fuck you and your bullshit books. How many payments are you behind?”
“On the car?” I said. “Three.”
“Three? How could you let that happen? Goddamn it.”
I got to my feet awkward as a foal because of the towel wrapping my legs, and said, “I’ll get it back, honey.”
“Fuck, you better.” LucyAnn said. “I’m supposed to meet Cheryl at Chili’s at noon.”
“Can she pick you up?”
“I wouldn’t ask her to. It’s out of her way.”
“You can have my car today,” I said. “Just drop me off at the marina and pick me up this evening. I’ll drop you off back here on my way to the night job.” I paused to re-fasten the towel, but held it open a moment to show her I was naked too.
“I’m not your damn chauffeur,” she said, turning toward the bedroom.
With blood coursing behind my eyes, I swallowed the aggression collecting in my throat and said, “It’ll just be for today. Maybe tomorrow, but I’ll get your car back.”
“Your stereo uses those clunky damn 8-tracks. I don’t have no 8-tracks no more and I can’t listen to your Skynyrd Hatchet or what ever it is. Besides, it’s a stick shift.”
I said, “You used to drive my stick.”
“Fuck that. Fine. I’m not doing anything today then,” she leaned against the door frame, folding her arms across her naked breasts. “Happy now?” she said. “I’m going back to bed.” She tossed her hair as she turned and called back, “Set up the TV in here before you go. And bring me a soda from the fridge. And my cigarettes, too. They’re on the dinette.”
I grabbed a cushion off the couch, headlocked it and punched it, then checked to make sure she didn’t see me do it. Showing anger meant showing weakness, according to Dr. Shlotzky. I’d been working on that since I’d served time for beating down that last random pissant in Mitchell’s Tavern for being a wiseass about my height.
I dressed and locked the bathroom door behind me and removed a purple felt bag from a fake can of Comet I kept under the sink. The bag was from a bottle of Crown we’d bought and drunk in better times. I held the bag, seemingly empty except for the three little stones, and then stuffed it into my pocket, careful to tuck in the gold tassels, before leaving the bathroom.
The TV was heavy as a church and strained my back to tote in. We had cable in both rooms but just the one TV. I set up LucyAnn with the TV and remote, arranged her pack of cigarettes, a lighter, beanbag ashtray, can of orange soda, and even a bag of Doritos, because she liked to snack when she watched her stories. She’d done this before. Lay there for two, three days, as if she had the flu. On the way out, I kissed her forehead and said, “I’ll get the car back.”
The air in the Shop & Go turned warm and humid and I pulled up my ski mask. The temperature difference caused me to shiver. I cleared my throat, but it didn’t solve the tickle there. After a few moments of silence, one of the payphones rang. We stood squared off on each other. When it stopped I told Chris, “I’ve got to get something to drink.”
“Could go for a beer myself.”
We crab-walked to the cooler, keeping our guns trained on one another. I opened the door. He pulled two cans of Coors from their plastic rings.
“You want a cold one, Larry?” I said.
“Larry,” Chris said, his face screwed up like a question mark. “Larry Harper?”
Larry still had the hiccups. Every eleven seconds, his diaphragm spasmed. “Hey Chris,” he chirped from behind his Rambo mask. He had his shotgun aimed at the woman again, with both hands as if to squeeze his hiccups out of it. He said, “I ain’t doing so great, Jar.”
“I know, Larry,” I said from across the aisle. “Hang in there. We won’t be much longer. Ain’t that right, Chris?”
“Quit anytime you want,” Chris said. “Give me the guns and you can walk out clean.”
Larry said, “These hic—” and then a shot rang out behind me and I turned immediately. Blood squirted from the woman’s abdomen like a yard sprinkler It was then I noticed a name tag that read, “Martha.”
“What the fuck did you do that for, Larry?” I stood, holding my gun trained on Chris, with my head turned. Larry said, “It was an acci—”
I thought another hiccup had paused his word, but just then, his mask caved in like a sinkhole in Pasco County sand. It was only then that the report of a second gunshot registered. I turned back to Chris and adjusted my aim with the pawnshop .45. Larry collapsed then, like a tent with the post yanked out at the end of summer camp. His head thudded on the terrazzo floor like a frozen turkey and landed perpendicular to Martha.
I cop-gripped my gun, aimed it right at Chris’s chest, but didn’t fire.
Chris aimed his pistol at me, but instead of regret or anguish on his face, that bastard was actually smiling. “The world is even now. I suppose”
“You didn’t have to kill him.”
“Give me your gun so the same doesn’t happen to you.”
On my lunch break the day LucyAnn’s car got repoed, I drove to the pawnshop on Nebraska Avenue. It was a storefront on an industrial stretch of road with an upholstery supply shop operating a couple empty lots away and a burned-out service station with boarded-up windows about a quarter mile past that. The pawnshop’s roof supported a sign in gold and black paint that was supposed to read, “Cash for Gold” but someone had blacked out the L in “Gold.”
A cowbell jangled above the door as I ducked my head and entered. Both sides of the doorway were crowded with boom boxes and VCRs, and beyond, the place looked like a holding pen for all the shit confiscated from a neighborhood’s worth of garages.
Past the electronics, two motorcycles yawed on kickstands along with a cluster of bicycles and a stack of cast-iron free weights near a rusty weight bench with torn naugahyde. The place stank only of motor oil and rubber.
The lone pawnbroker standing behind the counter had a face like a crocodile and smoke billowed from a cigar wedged in his reptilian maw. He wore a plaid shirt with the sleeves rolled up and a ballcap with a Pabst Blue Ribbon patch on the front. He puffed the cigar as he eyed me through the smoke encircling his head. “What’re you selling, Stretch?”
I said, “How do you know I’m selling?” I took a step forward, checking the cement floor so as not to trip on anything.
The pawnbroker puffed out another cloud of smoke and then licked the soggy end of his cigar. “You don’t look the type to have a whole lot of spending money on you, is all.”
“Look,” I said. “If you’re going to be a prick, I’ll take my business down the street.”
“Suit yourself, Too-Tall. But you won’t find anyone who’ll pay more than me.”
Behind me, the air horn of a tractor trailer wailed as it passed the pawn shop.
“Well, come on then, Too-Tall,” the pawnbroker said. “I don’t have all day.”
At the counter, I said, “I want to sell this watch.” I unclasped the leather band and set it on the glass top. “And this necklace,” I said, pulling a gold rope chain from around my neck.
The pawnbroker nestled his cigar in an oversized ashtray and took up the watch. He looked at the face and then flipped it over, studied the back for a moment. He worked the leather as if to test the flexibility and then brought it up to his nose. He grunted once as he placed the watch back on the counter and took up the necklace I had bought for myself in Istanbul.
“Good weight,” the pawnbroker said, running the links through his calloused fingers.
Behind him sat a stool and a television playing Wheel of Fortune.
“Turkish, if I ain’t mistaken,” the pawnbroker said of my gold chain.
I looked into the case beneath the counter where jewelry from other cash-starved suckers sat abandoned. There were diamond rings and pearls, onyx cufflinks and tie clasps. I’d once owned a silver tie clasp, once. It had borne a chevron and went with my winter uniform.
Near the register on the counter sat a sandwich in a plastic bag. I knew it had oil on it, and pickled peppers. My stomach rustled in its emptiness. I was down to one meal a day now and my plate of beans and rice was still hours away.
“Seventy-five bucks,” the pawnbroker said.
It wasn’t enough to get even the tires out of repo. “Is that it?” I said.
“What else you got, Stretch?”
Of all the tired things I’d been called, I hated ‘Stretch’ the most. I wanted to reach across the counter and punch the guy in the head, but that was bad business. I looked down at my shoes and shoved my hands into my pockets. After a moment, I looked up. The pawnbroker was facing the game show on the television behind him where a heavyset woman was buying a La-Z-boy and six toasters. “I’ve got these,” I said, holding the purple bag with Crown Royal written in gold letters. I loosened the draw string and gently spilled three diamonds into the pawnbroker’s hand.
“Let me get my loupe,” the pawnbroker said, reaching down without taking his eyes off me. He came up with his device and a felt pad where he arranged the diamonds. “They’re quality,” he said holding up the last one to the light with his magnifier. “But they’re small.”
“They’re the prettiest things I ever got for my money,” I said. “They’re almost perfect.”
“Where’d you get them?”
“You know, Gaza? Jesus?”
“Don’t get cute. You get cute, you can fuck off.”
“I went there a few years back,” I said. “In the Navy.”
The pawnbroker smiled with the cigar in his teeth and then rolled up his sleeve farther to reveal an anchor tattoo. “Me too. 1960s. Crazy times.”
I pushed up my sleeve to show the ‘U.S.N.’ tattooed on my shoulder.
The pawnbroker said, “You’re kind of tall for the canoe club, ain’t you, son?”
“Took constant abuse aboard ship.”
“Are all your people so tall?”
I didn’t have a lie in me. “I didn’t know how tall I’d get the last time I saw my father.”
“I shouldn’t have brought it up,” the pawnbroker said. “I see a ring on your hand.”
I looked at the simple gold band on my finger and then rubbed it with my thumb like I do. “I’d sooner sell my eyes than this ring.”
“Don’t get excited. I ain’t asking for it,” he said, his hands up in surrender. “I’m just wondering if your Mrs. would miss these stones.”
“She doesn’t know I have them. I was going to surprise her with earrings and a necklace on our third anniversary. We got married on March 30 th, 1983. It’s a “3” thing.”
“But you need money now.”
I tucked my hands into my pockets and said, “Save the judgment. I work two jobs already. Reganomics just hasn’t trickled my way yet. You know?”
“I hear you,” he said.
“Where’s the justice when the job I trained four years to do doesn’t pay shit on the outside, where there are no more discounts on groceries or clothes like there were on base? No sea pay or hazard duty pay? Plus, visits to doctors and dentists all come out of my pocket if I don’t write big checks to pay for insurance. After a full day, I go to a night job cleaning lawyer’s toilets, dumping their shit cans, and vacuuming their floors and it’s still not enough.”
“Your wife work?”
“I’d sell a kidney so she wouldn’t have to work.”
The pawnbroker slapped his palm on the counter and said, “Well you’re in luck, Stretch. I’m running a special for former squids.” He waved his hand over my stuff and said, “For the watch, necklace and stones, I’ll give you an extra ten percent.” He pulled a wad of cash from his front pocket. It was thick as his sandwich. He licked his thumb and began peeling off one hundred dollar bills. “Two. Three. Four. And an extra one for the Navy hero.”
“Five hundred dollars?” I needed eight to get LucyAnn’s car back, and I was a month behind on rent. “I need more,” I said.
“I’m still short.”
The pawnbroker walked toward the register. His feet scuffed the few steps as if he were wearing house slippers. He unwrapped the sandwich releasing the smell of oil and garlic. My stomach rumbled and my mouth moistened. As the guy took a bite, he said, “That’s as lame a pun as I’ve ever heard, but maybe you can get on one of these game shows.”
“I need money, not a recliner or any fucking toasters,” I said, looking at the television. “What else you got to sell?” the pawnbroker said, and then took another bite.
“That’s about it.”
“You got a boat?” A morsel of bread shot from his lips as he spoke the B.
“A car in your garage that you’re always working on?”
“Just the one I drive.”
The guy chewed twice more, swallowed, and said, “Fishing gear?”
“Tennis rackets, baseball mitts, anything like that?”
“I used to surf, back in San Diego.”
“You got a board to sell?”
“Nope. No board.”
“For fuck sake, son. What do you do in your spare time?”
“I got a library card.”
“If that don’t beat the bear out of the tree. I’ve never seen a tall fellow read before.”
“Many of us have learned how.”
“I just mean, books. Really?”
“It’s not heavy literature. Self-help stuff mostly. There’s this one, ‘Two people, One Marriage’ that I’ve read three times now,” I said, holding up three fingers.
The pawnbroker pushed the remainder of the sandwich into his mouth. On the television behind the counter, a news report interrupted the game show that had been playing.
“Hold on, Stretch,” the pawnbroker said over the intro of a breaking news alert about Sheriff Montoya having been shot. “It looks like your luck is about to change.”
An earnest reporter with a black toupee and blue sport coat was broadcasting live from the studio. “Details are not all in, but as far as we know, Sheriff Montoya has been killed in the line of duty by a lone gunman he’d arrested ten years ago. Both men are reported as fatalities. We go now to our reporter in the field, Chip Mayhew, for more.”
“Boy, howdy,” the pawnbroker said, shutting off the television. “That’s gonna be a huge opportunity for somebody to make some easy money.”
The Shop & Go was quiet as a monastery until Chris and I heard shale in the parking lot crunch beneath tires. The reflection of the cooler door was at an unhelpful angle.
“Why don’t you go see who that is,” Chris said. “It might be the first cops setting the funeral route. Saw my AV.”
Just then, the door opened with a porch-door squeak. No one appeared for a moment, but then I saw a familiar face emerge from the shadow by the door. “Oh, good God,” I said, straining to keep my urine. “It’s you.”
The pawnbroker walked into the Shop & Go like he owned the place. Chris aimed his pistol at each of us in rapid succession. Me. Him. Me. Him.
The pawnbroker wore a canary yellow shirt, and shorts showing leathery legs snaked with varicose veins. He had a modified assault rifle tucked beneath his arm. “The whole city is a ghost town today,” he said, grabbing his cigar from his mouth. “I wanted to check up on you.”
“Who the fuck are you,” Chris said, pointing his gun at the pawnbroker and then at me.
“Who the fuck’s this?” the pawnbroker said, looking at Chris. “I thought he was supposed to be small and old.” He then ducked beneath the line of gun barrels and walked to the sandwich counter. “Jesus,” he said looking over. “What the fuck?”
“Little guy killed the woman,” Chris said. “So I killed the little guy.”
“You Charles Bronson?”
“Maybe,” Chris said, intensifying his posture and reaffirming his hold on his gun.
Just then, a shot rang out, louder and more percussive than the previous two, and Chris crumpled to the floor. Once down, he covered his stomach with his hand as consciousness drained from him.
“Now you’re guilty of murder,” the pawnbroker said to me.
“That’s fucking bullshit. You shot him.”
“This is your gun,” the pawnbroker said. “It’s registered to you. I got the invoice.”
I pointed my gun at the pawnbroker. “No, goddamn it. Freeze!”
“Freeze?” the pawnbroker said laughing in my face. “Are you out of your mind?”
“I’ll do it,” I said, stepping closer.
“Don’t go getting your balls in an uproar, Stretch. You’d be firing blanks.”
I looked at the gun as if it were a turd. “You sent me in here with blanks?”
“Technically, they’re duds,” he said, squeezing a Baby Ruth from the wrapper into his mouth. “I knew you wouldn’t have the stones to shoot anyway,” he said as he chewed.
“Take the money,” I said, dropping the worthless gun to thud on the tile and pointed toward the bags near Chris’ boots. “You don’t have to kill me for it.”
“I don’t want that, dumbass. That’s kindling. What I’m doing is setting a blaze, of sorts.”
“What the fuck are you talking about?”
“You dumb fucking squid. I’m thwarting a crime.” He waved his gun around then back to me. “Apprehending the perpetrator. During the sheriff’s funeral of all days. I’ll be a hero. An honored man. I’ll be able to run a respectable business in town. I could run for city council.”
Just then a shot rang out. The pawnbroker’s mouth twisted and his back arched. I turned and saw Chris on his side, his gun in his bloodstained hand. He fired again, this time hitting the pawnbroker in the ear. The pawnbroker covered it with his hand and ducked behind a shelf.
I lunged forward, staying low, hitting head and shoulder into the plate glass window. As my torso cleared, shattered glass rained down around me on the ground. My calf muscle burned as I rolled on the sidewalk. Heat radiated in my leg and as I pushed myself up, it quivered under my weight. I hopped on my good leg, and then lurched off toward my car hidden in the woods.
As I cleared the store’s property, I heard another shot. When I turned, the pawnbroker limped out of the store. I faced him and walked backward. He took aim with the stock of his modified rifle jammed into his shoulder. Blood dripped onto his ugly yellow shirt and his ear was halved, but he kept coming after me like a zombie in a drive-in movie. He advanced on me this way until he stumbled off the storefront curb. As I turned to run, a shot went high as he fell face-first into a purple and blue puddle of oil in the concrete parking lot.
My pain as the bullet hit was so intense that I sank to my knees. The searing high up in my left shoulder blade felt like an arrow piercing through to my neck. My leg was weak beneath me and suddenly breathing was difficult. Thin rivers of blood trailed down my back and from my leg like lava. I forced myself over, looked back. The pawnbroker lay motionless.
The air was still except for the susurrus of pine needles and as my injured leg dragged behind me. The road scraped beneath my feet as I hobbled away. Any comfort I found in the asphalt under each step was challenged by potholes and crumbling tar at the shoulder. I walked slowly so as not to trip on such hazards. There were drop offs and no guardrail.
I was suddenly so cold that the fluid in my nose hardened and the backs of my hands burned like they were on fire. My arms were exposed and I couldn’t stop shivering. My nipples felt like glass just before it shatters.
In the distance, LucyAnn was waiting in the car. Black smoke trailed out from the idling muffler in the glow of the brake lights. It was too light out to require headlights, but I never thought to tell her to not rest her foot on the brake.
I tried to hide my pain as I pulled open the door, but then fell forward. Despite the sun breaking low through the trees, darkness overtook me as if someone had slipped a hood over my head. I hadn’t seen it coming, but at once, I was in complete blackness.
“Oh my God.” LucyAnn said. “Where’s the money?”
“I didn’t get it. He shot me.”
“Are you okay? Where’s Larry? I need him to help me.”
“That worthless motherfucker.”
She wrestled my body into the car. I was all but incapable of breathing, let alone moving a limb with any semblance of force.
Cradling my head in her lap, she said, “I’ll take you to the hospital.”
“No,” I said, straightening my legs, feeling my heels scrape at the vinyl seat. “Leave me.”
“But I love you.”
Dryness in my throat made me cough, once, then twice which brought a gush of fluid that tasted like pennies. “I’ll be dead in a matter of minutes. I’ll be glad to be done with you.”
“You don’t mean that.”
“I could have stayed in. I could have lived better.”
“You’re delirious,” she said.
If I had stayed in, made the Navy a career, I might have enough money saved up to buy a boat at retirement, run tourists out to fish on weekends to make a little extra money. I might be a docent at the zoo or teach classes at a vocational school – boating safety, first-aid, CPR, anything to keep myself busy and surrounded by people. If I had stayed in I would get a military funeral. A folded flag. Free grave. But LucyAnn couldn’t tolerate the separations of deployment.
She turned the key now. The grinding sound of metal on metal was further proof that she’d done as she was told and kept the engine idling. “God damn it,” she said. “I hate your fucking car.” She threw the lever into first gear and stepped on the gas, popped the clutch and slung gravel into the night. The back of the car fishtailed, but found purchase as she hit second gear and swerved toward the main road.
My parents had fought hard and loud when I was a kid. If my bedtime was eight o’clock, they’d be yelling at each other and periodically throwing things by eleven. At first, I slept through the fights, but as I got older, the cursing, or a plate breaking on the kitchen floor, would wake me. I learned more curse words by the time I was nine than most kids learned through high school. When my parents split, they were drinking themselves to sleep earlier than my bedtime. They finalized the divorce on my twelfth birthday and I never got another birthday cake.
LucyAnn raced down around the wetlands, back to the Shop & Go. She stopped for a moment in the parking lot before getting out of the car.
Somehow, she braved the maze of shattered glass and bodies and debris. She even took the time to fix Martha’s skirt – pulling it down to a more discreet level. She then stepped to the money bags. They were heavy enough that they fell to the ground when she tried to lift them. Her arms were unable to stop the momentum, her hands were unable to let go. She tugged on them, and then dragged them out the door, ass first.
Mere feet from the car, she clearly heard the wail of a siren in the distance. She stopped, looked up, and saw a line of police cars longer than a parade heading down Pillow Hill.
The two canvas bags of money landed on the floor board in the back seat and she got in. She double started it again, but I was flush with freedom and comfort. I was drifting off, free.
She slammed it in reverse and then strained the transmission to hit first gear slinging gravel through the busted store window. After a moment, my head landed in LucyAnn’s lap. She struggled with the stick shift and banged me in the jaw. She cried then, and apologized, and wiped hair out of my face while casting glances back toward the sacks of money. “Hang on, baby. We’re almost there,” she said.
Springsteen’s “Glory Days” played on the radio, low enough to seem like it was coming from another car. I reached out and dragged one of the money bags toward me. I was bleeding, dehydrated, and exhausted, and the effort left me breathless. I unzipped the satchel with a tug that pinched the bullet wound with pain as sharp as a pick hammer. I flipped through a stack of twenties, then looked to LucyAnn and told her, “Cry at my funeral and then lead a happy life.”
LucyAnn drove on as the sirens howled alongside and behind our car. An AC vent blew into the open gunshot hole on my leg and soothed the pain in my chest and back. I couldn’t tell if we were escaping or if we were part of the mournful funeral procession. I grew calm with the thought of us being camouflaged amongst the squad cars. My breathing slowed. For the first time in as long as I could remember, I felt safe, comfortable.
I could keep my eyes opened for no more than a few seconds at a time. When they closed, I’d force them open, but they were staying closed longer every time. The world seemed darker when my eyes were open.
With my eyes closed, I found myself in a world of soft edges and no shadows. It was quiet there. I imagined I could see people drifting through this shadowless landscape, the shapes of strangers. Diamonds rained down around them in slow motion, like confetti, and I was afraid the rain would make them bleed; but in this world all the edges were blunted.
A guy even taller than me loomed into view. Diamonds flecked his hair and he wore Levi’s and a concert t-shirt with words on it printed in a language I couldn’t read. His mouth moved, but I couldn’t understand what he was saying. I thought he might be welcoming me. I thought he might be inviting me to go somewhere with him. I hoped that was what he was doing.
“I can’t,” I said. “My leg is hamburger and I can’t breathe.” But it wasn’t the case. My leg didn’t hurt, and my breath came easily.
I had one of the canvas bags in my hand. I held it up. Offered it to the guy in the indecipherable shirt. “Do you want this?” I asked. He shook his head, grinning crookedly, but not unkindly. A bag of money in a world where it rained diamonds. I had to laugh a bit myself.
And then LucyAnn slapped the back of my seat, and my eyes opened. I snapped back into the world of shadows and sharp edges, where my leg throbbed and pulsed and my breath came in gasps. LucyAnn was shrieking at me in paragraphs, gesturing wildly as she drove. I wanted to go back to the place of no shadows, but when I closed my eyes, that place was gone.
I held up one of the bags to LucyAnn. “Do you want this?” I asked her, just as I had asked the guy in the shirt and with diamonds stuck in his hair. I figured I would keep on asking until I found somebody who wanted what I had to offer. She went on screaming, her mouth moving like mad, but it was impossible to make out, through the noise and flashing lights and the sirens that surrounded us, that swallowed us up, whether her answer was yes or no.