This story was published in “The Vincent Brothers Review” about a million years ago. They paid me sixteen dollars American for the privilege. I was about as grateful as can be expected. They sent me the proofs too — I never got around to sending them back. I couldn’t see the point. For one thing, they arrived two days after the deadline they’d set for their return. I guess my failure to return them convinced the editors they didn’t have my real address. They never sent me a free copy of the magazine, like they’d promised. Oh well. No hard feelings.
This interesting article was written by
Nikolaus Maack (former owner of this website)
The liquor store he’d chosen for today was called DTs and had a pink elephant neon sign floating above it. It was the middle of a cloudless summer afternoon, and there was a parade going on on the other side of town. Local farmers were riding horses and tractors down the middle of main street to celebrate some damn thing. James looked around at the dusty and deserted streets surrounding the store. There were a few quiet houses, a closed videostore and not much else. He nodded to himself. Everything was going to be fine.
“Wish me luck,” James said as he climbed out of the truck, a gun held loosely in his right hand.
“Break a leg,” Suzy said with a nervous smile.
James wanted to kiss her on her thin, bloodless lips, convince her everything would be OK, but there wasn’t time now.
He had to rob the liquor store and get them out of there before anyone got a good look at their truck and its deliberately obscured license plate. James had smeared the plate with vaseline and rubbed some dirt on it. He’d read about the technique in a spy novel.
Once he robbed the store they could get out of this backwater town and head off to a real city. They were crossing the country in a beige pickup truck that shook like an earthquake when they drove, like the truck was held together by faith and paper clips. Whenever they’d run low on cash, James would rob a store. He didn’t feel any guilt about it. The stores were all covered by insurance, so it wasn’t like a couple of hundred out of the cash register really hurt anybody. The system James used to support himself and Suzy worked well so far. No one had caught them and no one had gotten hurt.
Every time James was about to rob a store, he felt a rush of adrenalin that reminded him of when he fell off a garage roof when he was a kid. That was back in Canada, about a thousand miles away from where he was now. His dad was worried about snow piling up on the garage, thinking the whole thing would collapse under the weight. He ordered James to go up there and shovel the snow off. It was early in the morning, quiet, and James stood up there in the snow, feeling like he was above the entire world. Then he stepped on a patch of ice, and fell off the roof.
For a few moments he was flying through the air, soaring, then he hit the packed snow on the ground and the breath was knocked out of him. He lay there for a moment, deep in the white powdery snow, looking up at the blue sky. His heart stopped racing and he was overcome by a calm, peaceful feeling. He got to his feet, realized he wasn’t hurt and climbed back on to the garage.
Robbing a store was the same way. The thrill of flying through the air at high speed, grabbing the money, getting out. Then the impact of realizing you did it, that you actually stole money from someone. Then, slowly, a comfortable tranquility settles in. You’ve gotten away with it, you’re not hurt. The police won’t be breaking into your dirty motel room and dragging you off for some kind of justice.
DTs was empty except for an old man behind the cash, wearing a cowboy hat and a string tie. His sunburnt, wrinkled face looked like a carved pumpkin two weeks after Halloween. A golf tournament was playing on a small colour TV that sat on a table off to one side.
The old man turned down the volume on the TV. “What can I be helping you with today?” His voice was a dry rumble from too much booze and cigarettes. A friendly smile revealed square, yellow and brown teeth.
“What’s your name?” James asked casually.
“Yeah, what’s your name?”
“Carl Jenkins, at your service.” The old man gave a stiff little bow.
James pointed the gun into the man’s face. “We’re going to be doing a little business, Carl. All the money. In a paper bag. Now.”
The old man’s smile faded into a sad frown. “Aw, son. What you wanna go spoil my Saturday afternoon for?”
“Do it, Carl,” James growled.
Carl reached under the counter, and James took a quick step forward, pressing the gun barrel against the man’s frail chest.
“That better be a paper bag you’re reaching for, Carl. If anything other than a paper bag comes up, you’re dead.”
“I didn’t live to be this old taking risks, son.” Carl pulled his hands out from under the counter, holding a long paper bag. “My grand daughter’s getting married next weekend, I hope to be around to see it.”
“Skip the life story. Get me the money.” James stayed close to Carl, keeping the gun pointed at his chest. The old man wasn’t behaving like store keepers normally did when confronted with James. Usually they were terrified, shaking, their faces pale. Carl seemed confidant, not disturbed in the least.
“You want the coins from the register too?” Carl asked.
James barked a sarcastic laugh. “Just the bills, Carl.”
“There’s only eighteen dollars or so in here,” the old man said, filling up the paper bag with the few bills from the machine. “I hope that don’t upset you none. Been a slow day with the parade and all.”
James leaned across the counter and lifted up the change drawer of the cash register to reveal a stack of fifty and twenty dollar bills.
“Put that in the bag too,” he spat.
“Damn,” Carl said, sounding impressed. “Well, I tried. Can’t blame me for trying.”
“I guess not,” James sneered.
Carl put the paper bag full of money in the centre of the counter. “Anything else I can get you?”
James couldn’t help but laugh. “You small town folk sure are polite.”
“Well, ain’t no reason getting all upset about something like robbery.” Carl shrugged his shoulders. “Into a life some rain must fall, I guess.”
They were both silent for a few seconds. There was a sound way off in the distance. James could just make it out. It was getting louder. A police siren.
“Well what do you know,” Carl said philosophically. “And they say a cop’s never around when you need one.”
“You hit a silent alarm!” James yelled.
Carl nodded, his eyes half closed, a small grin on his face. “A little button, right under the register. You want to shoot the breeze some more while we wait for the police to pick you up? Or you wanna try making a run for it?”
James grabbed the bag of money and ran for the door.
“That’s what I thought,” Carl said behind him.
James ran outside, looking over to where Suzy was supposed to be waiting for him, across the street. The truck was gone. Where was she?
He heard a screech of tires and turned around in time to see his own beige truck heading straight for him. Suzy must have panicked when she heard the siren and decided to pick him up at the front door. She was slamming on the breaks, trying to stop, but she was going way too fast, and the truck was skidding towards him. Her pale face had a funny expression on it. Sad and frightened and… James quickly looked to his left and right, trying to decide if he should jump or… He was a deer in the headlights, frozen in place.
The truck slammed into him, sending him flying against the brick wall of the liquor store. His leg twisted under him with a crack and the back of his neck made a crunching sound when he hit the wall. He fell to the ground in agony, dazed. He closed his eyes, trying to fight the pain.
“Oh my God, oh my God,” Suzy’s voice was saying over and over, somewhere nearby.
“Get out of here,” James moaned. “Don’t let them… Don’t get caught. Just drive!”
He expected her to sob some desperate plea about not being able to leave him there, or that she loved him, or some other corny thing like that. She didn’t. He heard the car tires squeal as she quickly pulled away. The siren sound was close now. He heard another car pull up and opened his eyes.
“Go after the other one, Frank! I’ll watch this one!” Carl yelled at the police car. It was a white car with a gold coloured badge painted on its side. Carl was standing just outside the liquor store, a few feet away from James. The cop car drove away, spraying gravel into the air, its siren blasting. The sound slowly dimmed as the car headed down the road.
James watched from where he lay on the ground as Carl picked up the gun and the paper bag full of money. They’d flown out of James’ hands when the truck hit him. Carl held the gun, admiring it for a moment, then walked over to James, towering above him.
“Your own get-away car,” Carl said sadly, trying not to smile.
“Into every life a little rain,” James moaned. He tried to prop himself up against the wall, and fell back, letting out a gasp at the pain. Carl tucked the gun into his belt and helped James sit up, then went back to standing over him again.
“Sometimes things don’t work out,” Carl said. “Maybe they weren’t supposed to work out, teach you some kind of lesson. Gee, your leg’s broke pretty bad.”
James looked down at his left leg. The bone was sticking out of his skin, blood bubbling out. “Oh, Jesus.”
“No big deal,” Carl said. “Should be an ambulance here soon, to help you out. Another cop car too, I should imagine.”
Carl looked off into the distance, cocking his ear to listen for sirens. James listened too, but he couldn’t hear anything.
“Give me your wallet,” Carl said calmly.
“What?” James gasped.
“Give me your wallet,” Carl repeated.
“No,” James moaned. “What do you want my…”
Carl pulled the gun from his belt and pointed it at James’ forehead. “Give me your God damned wallet, son.”
“There’s no… bullets in the gun,” James laughed weakly.
Carl flicked open the chamber of the gun and looked inside. “So there isn’t. You’re one of them gentleman robbers then, aren’t you?”
James nodded his head slightly. “Don’t want… anybody to get hurt.” The pain was throbbing and dull, making his thoughts all fuzzy.
Carl put the gun down on the ground. “Is it in your back pocket?”
“Your wallet. Is it in your back pocket?”
James nodded. The old guy was just going to take it from him anyway. James could try to stall, until the police arrived, but he felt too weak and out of it to bother. May as well let Carl have the cash. James reached behind him, pulled his wallet out from his pocket, and handed it to over.
Carl flipped through it. “James Buford, huh?”
“Yeah.” James tried to stay still. Every time he moved pain shot through his whole body.
“You only have three dollars in here, James.”
“Sorry,” James gasped. “Been a slow day… ’cause of the parade.”
Carl smiled. “That’s funny.” He opened the paper bag, took two bills out of it. “These two fifty dollar bills got lost in all the confusion. It happens.” He put the two bills in James’ wallet and then handed the wallet back to him. “Here.”
James looked down at the wallet in his hands, then up into Carl’s face. “Why…?”
“Why not?” Carl said. “I’m old. I was young once. I did some stupid things then, I’m allowed to do stupid things now. Don’t think you’ll be doing much robbing of liquor stores the next little while anyway, what with your leg the way it is. Probably have a limp for a long time too. You’re going to be in for some tough times. I don’t want you to have any hard feelings over this.”
“You don’t have…”
“I know I don’t got to do this,” Carl said. “You’re just lucky you got me. Any other store owner’d blow your brains out right here and now, say you tried to fire at him with your gun.”
Two police cars and an ambulance pulled into the parking lot of the liquor store. James saw that Suzy wasn’t in the back seat of either of the cop cars.
“Put your wallet away,” Carl said. “If you’re lucky the cops won’t take those two fifties. And your lousy three bucks.”
“Thanks,” James managed to say. He felt tears of gratitude and confusion trickle down his face. He struggled to get the wallet into his back pocket. Carl helped him.
A cop got out of one of the cars.
“Carl, you OK?”
“I’m fine, Frank.”
“We didn’t catch the other one.”
“That’s too bad.”
“Did you get a good look at the guy driving?”
“Naw, I only saw this fellow right here. Other one stayed in the truck.”
“Don’t you worry. We’ll catch the bastard.”
“I’m not worried,” Carl said.
As the ambulance attendants loaded James on to a stretcher, the cop looked down at James’ weeping face.
“Look at that, the guy’s crying for Christ’s sakes. That’s God damned pathetic.”
“Yeah,” Carl said softly. “Pathetic.”