There were three of them, the robbers, each dressed in a black overcoat, black high-top sneakers, and thin black wraparound sunglasses. They burst into the store bellowing obscenities, kicking over floor displays and knocking down shelves. In their hands were heavy nickel-plated pistols, barrels flashing blue and red and yellow under the neon window displays.
Oscar Kaufman, who was in the cooler taking inventory, lurched back from the tall glass doors when he saw the men enter. In his clumsy retreat, he banged his head on a metal rack and sent two bottles of imported vodka toppling to the floor.
The gunmen wheeled when they heard the shattering glass, leveling their pistols at the terrified clerk, warning him into the open. Oscar, who had no intention of being murdered over a merchant’s till of petty cash, obeyed their commands, and with head down and hands in the air, shuffled out of the back room where he stood before them, trembling.
One of the gunmen hazed Oscar to the cashier’s station at the front of the store where he was made to huddle beside his trembling co-workers, Harry Rickerts and Danny Adams, both of whom were the color of ash. Danny, the night manager, was pleading with the robbers to take whatever they wanted. Take it, please, and leave.
“The cash is in the register!” he cried, nodding his head in the direction of the till. “Whatever you want, just take it for God’s sake! Take it and go!”
The biggest of the gunman—a tall, scowling figure with a ferocious uprush of brindled hair—clarified the purpose of the intrusion by lumbering up to Danny and cracking him in the jaw with his gloved fist.
“Shut the fuck up, motherfucker! We only just getting started here! Get the fuck in that back room! All of you! Before I bust a cap in your ass!”
The big gunman gestured to the nearest of his accomplices, an emaciated, snake-like figure with mottled skin and a bleached soul patch that cleaved to the underside of his ring-pierced lip. The accomplice looked at the three clerks and made a hatchet motion with his pistol, pointing to the utility closet where the brooms and mop buckets were stored.
Danny Adams obeyed without delay, hurrying to the back room at a trot. But Harry Rickerts, the willowy old clerk who had taught Oscar everything there was to know about the liquor store business—except, as luck would have it, how to survive an armed robbery—stood there, quaking, staring hopelessly at the snake-faced robber.
“Come on, Harry,” Oscar said gently, taking the old man by the sleeve and urging him along. “Don’t make trouble. Do what the man says.”
Oscar had marked time in this fleabag liquor store for five and a half years, dealing with every cootie and cockroach the streets gave life to. But in his worst dreams—in his most hideous, sweat-soaked nightmares—he had never imagined coming face to face with a horror like this—meth-heads with automatic pistols.
“You’re not a heartless man,” Oscar’s brother, Win, said to him at dinner a week ago. “So why all this rancor? Why all this vitriol for people you don’t even know?”
The subject had, as it frequently did when Oscar and Win got together for one of their brotherly evenings out, worked its way round to shop talk. Win, who served as a court advocate for the indigent, and whose definitions of justice and victimhood were so quixotic and deluded they put no reasonable limits on who, or what, he was willing to forgive, could not for the life of him begin to understand his younger brother’s disdain—no, hatred—of the poor and homeless.
“Homeless?” Oscar had scoffed when Win used the word. “Homeless people are survivors of hurricanes, Win. They’re orphaned children. Honest farmers who live in tornado alley, struck down by God’s senseless tragedies. The people you deal with—the people I deal with—(he paused, smiling bitterly) are bums. Bums, vagrants, sociopaths, winos, and addicts. Victims, yes. But only of their own free will.”
The three clerks cowered in the half-dark of the broom closet. Harry Rickerts was all but comatose, and Danny Adams, whose lip had been broken open by the blow from the big man’s gloved fist, moaned as a trickle of blood ran crookedly down his jaw. Oscar looked at them, then down at his own vodka-soaked trousers, and closed his eyes.
Before long the third gunman appeared in the doorway of the closet. He was a short, squat, barrel-chested thug with a mop of long black dreds—a creature from some twisted, fever-fed horror show—and he raised his heavy pistol, waving it before their eyes.
“Get your hands on your faces! Hands on your motherfucking faces! Now!”
The three men did as they were told, pressing their hands to their cheeks, hurriedly and without comment. As they stood there quaking in the shadows of the tomblike closet, the dreadlocked gunman went at them, one by one, binding their hands to their heads with heavy strips of duct tape.
Win stopped Oscar after he’d made this bold declaration, raising a gentle hand and following it with a nod of the head. (This was the way their father had always intervened whenever the two of them, as boys, had argued at the dinner table.)
“Oscar, please. Don’t you think you’re being a bit unfair? You’re singling out and condemning an entire segment of the population for something they played no part in.”
Ever since the day Oscar lost his wife, Karen, in the accident, Win had taken up the role of father figure. A way, Oscar thought, of trying to be helpful. Of trying to salve a wound they both knew would never heal.
“I know why you’re angry,” Win went on. “And it’s understandable. But what you’re saying, it’s wrong-headed.”
“Because what happened to Karen was an accident. A freak occurrence brought on by the regrettable mix of poor judgment and excessive alcohol. Not because of some wild conspiracy orchestrated by bums.”
“She was killed by a drunk driver in a stolen car, Win.”
Win paused, a frown clouding his face. “Would it have felt any better if it had been some pissed-up socialite? A blue-haired old bitty driving home from a cocktail party in her BMW?”
Oscar weighed the question, carefully, because he wanted to be fair with his answer. When he looked up, his eyes swam with sincerity. “Yes, Win,” he said. “It would have felt better.”
Win gave with a long, exhausted sigh and brought his napkin to his mouth. “For God’s sake, Oscar, we’re talking about lost souls, here. People who’ve never lifted a finger to harm you. They’re the spat upon. The uneducated. Society’s outcasts. What do you want from them? Blood?”
Oscar stared at his brother. In the brief silence that fell between them, he closed his eyes and opened them again. Win was a man of culture and decorum. A bright, decent, educated soul whose boundless compassion, while admirable, had turned him into a first-rate fool.
“No,” he said, at last. “I don’t want blood. I want Karen.”
The dreadlocked gunman finished his task and tossed aside the roll of thick gray tape. He stood back and admired his handiwork. An evil grin came to his face revealing a grill of gleaming, gold dental work, and he pulled his pistol from the waistband of his pants and leaned in close to Harry Rickerts’ half-mummified head. He tapped the barrel lightly against the old man’s skull and sneered. “How you like that? Huh, bitch?”
Win ordered a glass of port for dessert. Oscar, a glass of ice wine. The drinks infused their debate with the jaunty spirit of a sporting event.
“Brother,” Win said, “you’ve lived too long in a dark corner of the world, and it’s taught you to see humanity in its purest, meanest, and most unredemptive light. But I refuse to capitulate. I don’t hold with that notion, and I never will. I say, ‘What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason!’”
The waiter came round to fill their glasses.
Oscar held the words that had gathered in his throat until the tall, apron-wearing young man had poured and gone away. Leaning into the table, he responded with a footnote of his own. “Man delights me not—nor woman, neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so.”
His brother all but burst with pleasure. Grinning, he raised his glass. “Bravo, Oscar. A witty match! Maybe you haven’t lost your way after all!”
Oscar dusted the compliment aside. “Fuck the feigned civility, Win. I’m trying to make a point here. Who cares if we can wax poetic with one another? Big deal. The Bard’s dead, my friend, and the barbarians are at the gates. They’ve taken over the planet, and there aren’t enough bullets to win it back again.” He glanced either way, lowering his voice, then pressed his hands flat to the table. So flat that his auburn goatee nearly brushed the rim of his dessert plate.
“You say I look at the homeless as if they aren’t there. As if they’re transparent, or not even human. But I say they treat us with the same indifference, brother. I say they look right through us, and what they see is nothing but the fence value of our cut glass crystal.”
“What? You think I’m wrong?”
“I think you need to lighten up.”
“Lighten up? I’m already too easy on them. These people you’re so willing to defend would slit your throat for a bottle of fortified wine. Leave you bleeding in a back alley while they walk away with your watch to their ear. They’re a cancer, Win—”
“Then, why don’t you quit that filthy place if you hate them so much? Why do insist on staying there? It’s killing you.”
Oscar leaned back. “Why?” All trace of humor had exited his face. He finished his wine, and fixed Win with a cold stare. “Because I need the job, that’s why.”
Danny Adams was the first to be executed. The tape-bound manager was dragged from the closet by his red hair, shoved bluntly against the cinderblock wall, and without the smallest ceremony, shot in the face with a single round from the gunman’s gleaming pistol.
Next came Harry Rickerts, who only a few hours earlier had been gabbing away about a fly-fishing trip he was going to take with his grandson, Teddy. Harry sputtered through the duct tape, begging the gunman not to kill him, but his pleas ceased in the brittle pop of gunfire and the ping of a single spent shell that danced across the tile floor and came to rest at Oscar’s feet.
Finally, it was Oscar’s turn. Oscar, who, if he had only taken his brother’s advice and quit this shitbag job in this miserable dump of a liquor store, might have lived out his life a happy man. A man like Win, who could forgive anyone for anything. Even the death of the woman he loved beyond words.
The gunman grabbed his shirt and dragged him out of the closet, slamming him against the slick, blood-spattered wall. This time, there was no blasphemous smile. No mindless taunt or flash of expensive dental work. There was only the gun, and behind it, the crazed face of a madman.
I need the job.
Had he been lying when he’d said this? Of course not. He was twenty-nine, and perpetually broke. But even so, he’d omitted the real reason he’d needed it, and that reason could be summed up a single word. A name. Sarah. The pretty young wino-ho who used to make daily appearances in the store, buying up booze and cigarettes with the loose change she’d pocketed servicing a depraved clientele of filthy, half-witted drunks.
Danny and Harry used to poke crude jibes at Oscar whenever he allowed his gaze to linger too long upon the girl. But what they didn’t know—what he’d never told anyone, not even his brother, Win—was that Sarah was the look-alike twin of his dead wife, Karen, and that he’d stayed on in this ugly, soul-numbing, loser-of-a-job, because he’d fallen in love with a ghost.
The pistol barrel was inches from Oscar’s face. So close it forced everything else into a blur—a kind of jellied plasticity that stretched the edges of time and slowed his fluttering pulse to a deep, low knell. He breathed in. Out. His eyes were fixed upon the hypnotic groove of the bore’s rifling, which spiraled into infinite darkness. He poured his soul into that cold, black gaping hole, and as he did the sounds of the robbery grew faint in his ears, eclipsed by the surreal murmurings of a distant memory, the recollection of a scratchy, coffee-house ballad.
Stack-o-Lee shot Billy,
Shot him four, five times…
He shot down that po boy
Just to see him die…
Karen was only twenty-four when they met at the blues festival in Telluride that summer in Colorado, and it now seemed a lifetime gone. He married and buried her in the same month, twenty-two days apart. How could such a thing happen?
You got to lose your money,
Learn to lose…
The snap of the firing pin startled him, plunging him back into the moment, and he flinched sharply—disproportionately it seemed, given the gentleness of the percussion—then opened his eyes, inexplicably alive. The befuddled gunman lowered the malfunctioning weapon, and in what could have been a comic pantomime, lowered his sunglasses and turned the barrel to his eye, peering into its depths as if to know which of the pistol’s mechanisms had betrayed him.
The Night Owl liquor store remained wrapped in yellow police tape for a month after the robbery, its front door chained and locked. Its windows boarded over with raw sheets of plywood. Then, after another month, it reopened under a new name, and on the morning of its shabby resurrection, Sarah the wino-ho came weaving through the door, flashing her treacherous, wild-eyed smile.
The last time Oscar had seen the girl she was being ferried, naked and unconscious, down the alley by a group of eager porters, and the memory of that cheerless night had clung to his mind like an illness.
“I took you for dead,” he said, as she sidled up to the counter with her bottle of vodka.
She ran her eyes over his face, and smiled. “I thought the same of you.”
She poured a mound of loose change tinkling on the glass counter, then tottered back and swayed lightly on the balls of her feet, staring at him as if he were made of tinsel and colored lights.
“How are you?” he asked.
“Good,” she said. “Real good.”
He looked down and began sorting through the coins. Counting them aloud as sounds from the world outside—car horns, barking dogs, the doleful cry of a distant freight train—sifted through the window bars.
He swept the mountain of change into the till, the coins clattering into the wooden tray, then turned his eyes back on the girl and pointed to the bottle of vodka. “Need a sack?”
She shook her head.
He pushed the jug toward her, and she took it by the neck, tucking it in the crook of her arm.
She smiled, curiously. “How come you’re still here, anyway?”
It wasn’t the first time since the night of the holdup that someone had posed such a question to Oscar. Or inquired, pleasantly, as to why his life had been spared while the other men had been slain in cold blood. But this was the only time he’d found himself in want of an honest answer. His usual reply (delivered sangfroid, punctuated with a self-deprecating grin) was that the gunmen had run out of bullets. Which was true. But there was more to it than that. More to it than the sirens coming along at precisely the right moment, frightening the assassins off and saving him from the same fate that had befallen Harry and Danny. There were other things. Things he couldn’t explain. Things no living being could ever understand, even if it were possible to put them into words.
# # #
Robert McGuill’s stories have appeared in Narrative, American Fiction, the Saturday Evening Post, Southwest Review and other publications. I’ve been nominated for the Pushcart Prize four times, and my stories have been shortlisted for honors by Glimmer Train, The New Guard, Sequestrum Art & Literature, The Tucson Festival of Books, and The St. Lawrence Press. http://robert-mcguill.com
Photo: Dirk Dreyer www.dreyerpictures.com