It wasn’t that I normally walked to the store that late at night, but I couldn’t sleep and I was having one of those insane cereal cravings. I get them a lot so I’m usually good about keeping milk in the house but Jeff, that’s my son, went and put the empty carton back in the fridge. You know how teens are and how was I to know that the carton staring me back in the face as I made my shopping list that morning belonged in the trash, like I’ve told him a thousand times, and not on the top shelf between the pickles and the cheese deceiving me with the false promise that at the obscene hour when I wanted it, it would deliver me a god-damn bowl of cereal?
I didn’t have to go to the corner store. There is an all-night grocery close by but it’s a little more than walking distance and lately I’ve been on this kick about driving less, doing my part for the environment and all, and Lord knows my thighs need the exercise. So I decided to walk and yes, they charge you twice what the milk is worth at the corner store but with the price of gas these days, well, same difference.
I should have been in and out of the store in less than a minute. That’s how I shop. Enter. Zone-in. Retrieve. Pay. Exit. But as I got to the counter I realized I’d forgotten my purse and had to pick through the spare change in my pockets, and it turned out I had more lint than coins, so I had to put the half gallon back and got the quart instead.
I was handing over the last nickel to the clerk when the man with the gun came running in and I couldn’t believe it because I’ve never been that close to a man with a gun before and he touched me, I remember that clearly, well not that he touched me, rather that his hands touched my right arm as he pushed me aside… no not a shove, it was just a push, and even though he pushed me, when I caught my bearings again I found that I was the only other person, besides him, still standing.
The middle-aged Korean clerk was on the floor huddled against the bottom of the cigarette stand behind the counter, his hands over his head and sobbing, and the other late-night shoppers (an elderly man, two teen-agers and a lady in a suit) had starfished themselves against the dirty beach of the floor.
The man with the gun seemed as unnerved by my lone uprightness as I was and I could see it in his mismatched eyes when he turned his masked face toward me… yes, mismatched eyes screaming through the holes of a balaclava. Like what the heck lady???
You know you can never say how you’ll react in those types of situations. Me? I just stared back my vision divided between the one blue and one brown eye… one blue…one brown... I’d seen that before, not that I could remember where but as I stood there my mind riffled through a plethora of memories—snapshots filed haphazardly under miscellaneous.
One blue…one brown… it was that day I had a flat tire on the interstate five… no six years ago and I’d been all dressed up to make a big presentation to potential clients—clients my boss had reminded me no less than seven times that month that we needed if he was going to be able to keep everyone (meaning me) on staff, and there I was running late out of my Ativan anxiety medication, my sick and puking son probably in the school nurses’ room because I couldn’t find childcare... and then my tire blew… as in exploded. Not just a small leak. Exploded… and I had to extract myself from four lanes of traffic to pull over safely onto the shoulder.
My husband had died two years before and I’d spent those past two years having to learn to take care of a lot of things on my own— emptying mouse traps, cleaning gutters, and changing flats included, but this flat had the worst possible timing. I mean the rain was pouring and I was dressed in an expensive white blouse and even more expensive pale pink skirt, but the tire wasn’t going to change itself so I got out and popped the trunk and was just reaching in for the spare when a man in a blue Volkswagen pulled up behind me. Like you expect a guy in a Volkswagen to know how to change a tire.
“No. Let me get that. Please? I wouldn’t want you to get dirty,” he’d said, as he pushed me gently aside. As he said it I noticed his mismatched eyes. One was deep cobalt blue. The other was a rusty brown.
It all happened so quickly, really he’d had me back on the road in minutes and even as I sifted through the memories in my mind, the only one not face down on the corner store floor, I couldn’t remember a single detail about the man beyond his strange mismatched eyes.
What was his name…? I was sure he’d given it to me. Or had he…? Because I have to tell you I am horrible with names, so bad in fact that I actually once ordered a DVD off a late night infomercial because it promised to help me be more successful in the business world just by teaching me the tricks of Moniker Memory, but Moniker Memory, all eight dvds, were at home sitting on the kitchen counter where they’d been collecting dust in their cardboard wrapping for the past nine years.
I don’t know how much time passed, maybe ten minutes, maybe ten years— it sure felt like I’d been staring at the man with the gun for a long time but who knows? All I know is that it took an eternity for a single bead of sweat run down the length of his eyelid and drip from his left lash, because time always gets like that, all slowed down like you’re in another dimension inside a black hole or a wormhole or something.
He was scared. Hell I was scared, and the whole store was scared, and I don’t know why but I reached for a pack of candy. I think I was after gum but I just grabbed the first thing and really reaching for anything at all could have been enough to startle the guy and get me shot or something. But I took the pack in my hand and read the label that said Candy Crayons which is just the new pc marketing-ploy cheesy-ass name for them because I went through a lot of these when I was a kid, seriously how many times had I ridden around the neighborhood on a banana seat bike with one of these little sticks dangling from my lips? A cigarette. Not a crayon. The rest of the pack rolled up in my t-shirt sleeve like I was one bad ass eleven year old easy rider.
“Remember these?” I said holding them up to the man with the gun. “Wanna smoke?” I wasn’t sure what I was doing. I’d probably lost my mind. But if I was crazy I was owning it. “It’s OK. These ones won’t stunt your growth.”
The gun shook in his outstretched hands, and I could tell my behavior was definitely alarming him by the twitch that jerked his shoulders as he turned back to the Korean clerk. “Get off your butt and give me the cash,” he told him.
I opened the pack and shoved one in my mouth but when I exhaled no fine mist of candy powder came out where the red tip should have been. I mean really that was the best part but it probably saves the candy company a fortune in production though I wasn’t going to let a missing effect or two stop me. So I puffed it anyway trying not to look like some hipster vaping millennial ’cause that’s what society produces when it gives kids sugar crayons instead of real god damn candy smokes. And the guy with the gun? I figured him to be at least my age so I asked him, “Ever play cops and robbers? I always played the robber. You too I bet.”
He stared hard at me with his mismatched eyes and I wasn’t sure if he wanted to hit me or laugh. “Cop. Now shut up!”
“So what happened?”
He lifted his forearm like he was going to pistol whip me, but I stood my ground. “Shut up lady! Just shut up!” he said refocusing his aim across the counter at the clerk. “You. I thought I told you give me the money in the till.”
The middle-aged Korean man didn’t look capable of unfurling himself from a quivering ball on the floor and really who could blame him, but he rose slowly anyway.
“You changed a flat for me once,” I said as matter-of-factly as I could manage, letting out a deep James Dean exhale.
“Lady, shut up. Just shut up. I need to think.”
I drew from my sweet faux cigarette. “So what happened? How does the guy who stopped to change a stranger’s flat or played the cop as a kid end up in a store with a gun?”
The clerk had managed to make it unsteadily to his feet but his flustered jelly fingers produced no result as he banged on the till keys over and over again.
“Lady,” said the man with the gun stepping so close his black wool nose nearly touched mine, “what the hell is wrong with you? I have a gun.” He waved it around too just to make sure I saw.
I cocked my head to the side and drew a deep McQueen inhalation.
“You’re nuts lady. Flat tires and candy smokes? What the hell is your deal?”
“Come on. All the cool kids are doing it.” Yeah, I was Queen McQueen all royal and cool.
I don’t remember the thwack. Just the ting that echoed as I stepped back to let the silenced man fall to the floor.
A muscular Asian kid stepped forward, an aluminum bat now limp at his side. The kid had a pencil behind one ear. He wore a name tag with the moniker Chul-Moo stamped into it.
Blood flooded the floor through the back of the black balaclava.
The school of starfish became erect again and crowded curiously.
I reached for my cell phone to dial 9-1-1 but it was at home in my purse. My god-damn purse. If I’d remembered my purse, or driven to the all-night grocery store instead, or if my son could unplug from his iPod and plug back into the world long enough to throw an empty carton out, or if I’d just remembered the gunman’s name, Jake, which I only remembered after the twitching mismatched eyes were locked into a dull ceiling stare…
I gritted my teeth like Eastwood and threw the stub of my spent candy butt in the slowly creeping pool of a dead man’s blood, reached over the counter and grabbed a pack of Marlboros and book of matches, stuffed a bottle of bourbon in my pocket and stepped back out into the night.