Vonn Carp held a potato peeler and contemplated its possibilities as an instrument of suicide. “What am I doing here?,” he moaned aloud. Nobody was there to hear him, which was the only consolation to his despair. The green neon of the “Dollarapalooza” sign was giving him a headache. It was five minutes until closing time by the clock on the wall — close enough, he figured. Not that those five minutes mattered so much, but it was a small matter of great principle to him. That’s what his executive privileges had been reduced to: five lousy stolen minutes a day. In his experience, administrative dishonesty had never come with smaller rewards. Five fucking minutes, the measure of his ambition.
There was a tentative knock on the office door. Even when he was told to “come in,” Huck knew better and just opened the door a crack, peeking through. “Uh, boss… There’s a woman who insists on speaking to the manager. She is….” (whispering) “kind of nuts.”
Huck was a likeable enough kid, which was probably why Vonn was pre-disposed to dislike him (that, and because he was a philosophy major, which Vonn had warned him repeatedly would get him nowhere in the real world). For the pathologically polite Huck to suggest that somebody was “kind of nuts” meant to Vonn that she had to be a mouth-breathing lunatic. “Tell her to come back when the old man is here.”
“She refuses to leave until she speaks to somebody in authority.”
As much as Vonn hated confrontation, he kind of liked being thought of as a person in authority. “Oh, okay.” Complaints irritated him. He figured: what is there to complain about, in a dollar store. Expectations were supposed to be low. He’d already heard enough complaints in his prior life, some with actual merit about things that really mattered, that he could muster no sympathy for idiots who groused about trifles like squeaky wheels on shopping carts, or candy bars that were stale, or why was the cheese whiz so runny, or that service was slow and the lines at the cash register were too long… Their petty protests gave him license to be rude.
A pale woman wearing a plaid blouse over polyester stretch pants grimaced and drummed her fingers impatiently on the counter. In front of her were spread four serrated steak knives, each of which had detached handles. “Are you the manager?,” she demanded.
She sniffed and tsk-ed in disapproval. “Do you see these knives?”
“I am a dissatisfied customer.” She made a snorting noise. “Look at them.”
“What’s your point?”
“The point is that I bought these knives from your store, and they broke. When I pushed on them to cut, the handles snapped off. They ruined my dinner party. They all broke. I want my money back.”
Vonn itched his armpits incredulously. He’d misjudged her, for in fact she seemed to be less of a lunatic and more of a bitch. Either way, he was utterly unconcerned about her indignation. “Sorry. All sales are final.”
She exhaled egg breath. “You’re telling me that you refuse to stand by your merchandise. What kind of a store is this?”
“It’s a dollar store in a low-rent, working-class neighborhood in Columbus, Ohio, that’s what. Did you want more?”
Her eyes filled with blood. “I demand satisfaction!!”
Now, Vonn was becoming really annoyed. “Mamm,” he started (he always used that word, “mamm,” in a supremely disrespectful tone). “You pay one dollar. You take what you get. All sales are final.”
“I want to see that policy. Where is it written?”
Vonn ripped a slip of paper from a spiral notebook in a drawer beneath the counter and wrote on it, in thick marking pen, “ALL SALES ARE FINAL.” He slapped it on the counter. “Now are you satisfied?”
The woman twisted her brow with affront. “You are rude and unkind. I will never ever under any circumstances shop here again.” She grabbed her broken knives, and for a second Vonn flinched, thinking that she might lunge at him and maybe do some harm, even with those defective blades, but instead she departed “harummph”-ing. The last thing that she said was “You haven’t heard the last of this.”
Vonn, then, pleased with himself, rolled up his sleeves and began humming Smoke on the Water. Duh Duh Duh, Dunh Dunh Dunh Duhn…
Huck, who’d watched the entire exchange, gathered his wits and asked: “Are you sure that was the best way to handle her?”
“Probably not. But I don’t care.” And Vonn ceased humming and broke out in song, pounding his chest:
Smoking, on the Waaah-ter,
There’s fire in the sky!
Huck shook his head, distressed at the sight of a middle aged man with a greasy pony tail, circular hippie glasses, and a too small t-shirt barely covering a perfect, basketball-shaped gut, prancing while he played air guitar. ‘What a loser,’ Huck thought.
While Vonn had been negotiating with the egg-breathed, finger-drumming woman, the warning bell above the door tinkled to mark their entrance of new customers. ‘More trouble,’ Vonn thought to himself. This particular trouble took the form of a gangly pair of high-school age kids, perhaps not unlike some of the redneck youth he’d gown up with: hicks, rebels, sons of white trash, adorned with adolescent mullets, aspirational facial hair, and tattoos bearing nefarious images on their arms. Vonn expected the worst from them; after all, what could high school kids possibly want from a dollar store, except trouble? Further, Vonn recognized these two from earlier that evening, when, on his way back from his break at the Zig Zag Club, he’d seen them tumble out of the passenger side of a latter day Chevy Impala, which then spun away into the alley, abandoning them next to a light pole in the strip mall parking lot. They had nowhere to go, nothing to do, and apparently time to kill. Since he didn’t want to deal with them, Vonn turned to Huck, whom he supposed would be better able to convince them to leave. Trying to sound sincere, Vonn proffered: “Tell you what, Huck old boy… I’ll give you a break tonight. I’ll take out the trash.”
This was a task that Vonn almost always delegated to Huck, who wasn’t so naïve as to believe that Vonn was doing it to be gracious. “Okay. Thanks,” he conceded.
Vonn took a box of garbage bags straight off a shelf in the store and removed one. He emptied the garbage cans in the office and behind the counter into the bag and tied its handles, slinging it over his shoulder like Santa’s big bag. As soon as he was out of the store, he felt a wash of relief. The harvest moon looked grayish and gritty, with its brightness diluted and its features softened by the layered Ohio haze. He kept his eyes focused skyward as he walked around to the dumpster behind Dollarapalooza. He would have heaved the garbage bag into the open dumpster without even looking, except he heard, dimly at first, but gaining in urgency, muffled sounds that contained elements of dogs panting, children squealing, and wild beasts grunting. Distracted, he looked for the source of these sounds, and he noticed, in the far corner of the lot, the same Chevy Impala that he’d seen earlier, now parked where no car any business being. Cast against the streetlights on Cleveland Avenue, he could see two shapes in the front seat: shifting, twisting, convulsing in patterns of copulation. Heads bobbing. Arms groping. Torsos chugging toward ecstasy. Vonn felt tension in his knuckles, his jaws grinding, and a spear of indignation rose into his throat. He swung the bag of trash over his head and heaved it in the direction of the car. It tore open when it hit the windshield – litter exploded over the hood and onto the asphalt. “Get OUT of HERE!!,” he shouted maniacally.
The shadows separated as if suddenly jolted by electroshock. The male body rolled in the direction of the steering wheel, while the female shape flipped over the seat into the back and stayed down. Vonn advanced in thundering footsteps, breathing like a diesel; he could’ve run and caught them, but he didn’t really want to, just for them to be scared that he might. The driver started the car and peeled out in a hail of gravel and a blue shriek of burning rubber. He drove across the grass, over the curb, directly onto Innis Road, left onto Cleveland Avenue, and was gone. Vonn didn’t bother to check the license number. He felt satisfied, swiping his hands together as if dusting them off after a job well done.
The dinner bell above the door tinkled when Vonn went back inside. Huck, who’d taken advantage of Vonn’s absence to check his notes from class that day, slammed shut his book, picked up a broom, and pretended to have been sweeping. The only remaining customers at this hour, now past closing time, were those same two hillbilly kids. They were huddled in the toy aisle, cackling like a couple of perverted hyenas. Checking the fisheye mirror, Vonn could see why. One of them – an atrophied, sunken-eyed, rotten-toothed, red-haired kid with a crooked nose, and who wore trousers that hung far below his drawers – was playing an obscene puppet game with a soldier action figure and a Raggedy Ann doll. He punctuated the performance with sound effects: “Ohmahgawd, Ohmahgawd, deeper, deeper, GI Joe….”
“Hey!” Vonn grabbed a three pack of deodorant soap bars from off the rack and threw it down the aisle at the two of them. It hit the puppeteer smack upside the head, and sent him tumbling onto his rear end. The other kid fled instantly, dashing out the door so fast that he knocked the tinkle bell off its perch. The remaining punk, the puppeteer, tried to get up, but in his stumbling effort to center himself, he knocked over several shelves, so that toys spilled onto the floor. Vonn locked onto his eyes — they were yellowish and swollen with panic – and stood above him. Unaccustomed to such a feeling of physical power, Vonn felt emboldened to abuse it. He cocked his arm, clenched his fist, and felt a healthy urge to do violence… Oh, to have a hammer!
And then he felt Huck’s hand upon his shoulder, steadying him. The punk seized that opportunity to follow his cowardly friend out the door. Huck followed and locked the door behind him. Turning to Vonn, he asked: “Are you okay?”
Vonn cringed in fervent disgust. “Damn punks. Look what they did.”
“I’ll stay late to help you clean up.”
“No!” Vonn objected. He reality-checked himself, screwing his fists into his eyeballs. “You shouldn’t have to stay. I’ll clean everything. It’s okay. Just go home.”
“Are you sure?”
“Okay, then.” Huck wiped his brow, glad to be leaving. Vonn wiped his brow, too, glad that Huck was leaving and that he could be left alone.
Vonn closed the door after Huck left, but waited until he was out of sight before locking it. He turned off the lights in the store, making sure to flip the sign around from “open” to “closed.” He sat down on the steps that descended into the basement stockroom. The darkness felt palpable, nearly impenetrable, with just random, fleeting slices of light from the streets sifting through the window wells. The bountiful moon outside couldn’t reach him in his shelter. The darkness’s depth was comforting; its musty scent, refreshing. He could control his thoughts more completely in the darkness. He tried, consciously, to empty his soul into the darkness, so he could imagine that he was someplace else, where memories were now less real than dreams.
Vonn slept in the stock room that night, on the cot that he kept down there, just for such occasions. The squalor of the stock room was preferable to that of his own efficiency apartment, with the difference being that he was just passing through the former, but the latter was a resident degradation of his own making. He couldn’t stand to see that address – a number ending in a half – attached to his name on the mailbox. He despised the neighborhood, just off High Street north of Hudson, a blue-collar enclave of mostly duplexes with no yards, diseased trees, garbage cans in the alleys, cinder blocks where porch steps used to be, and where Vonn had to consider himself lucky if he could find a place to park on the street anywhere within two blocks of his little home-sweet-shithole. Since most of his possessions larger than a suitcase were still in storage down in Boca Raton, to where he planned to return – just as soon as the divorce was final and the callous bitch’s bloodsucking lawyer got off his back – he made not even the least effort to make the apartment habitable, the better to harden his resolve that he’d get the hell out of Columbus, once and for all this time, just as soon as he was able to restore his circumstances to the level of comfort and prosperity to which he’d become accustomed.
It wasn’t entirely avoidance that motivated him to sleepover in Dollarapalooza. Vonn had discovered that he slept better in the stock room of the dollar store; its corners were square, its walls concrete, its windows eye level to the ground, and its boxed contents were all placed on square palates, where he’d put them. With the lights off, he felt safe from any further misfortunes that might be hounding him. However, when he did sleepover, he felt the need to be furtive, as if he was doing something wrong, or at least something that he’d have a hard time explaining; so in order for nobody to know, he was required to get up before the store opened and leave behind no trace.
On that particular morning, though, dreaming of sand mansions on South Beach, he overslept and, grabbing his blankets and his clothing like a paramour fleeing the dawn, snuck out the back door just minutes before the 8:00 am hour. Driving away from the scene, with no particular destination, he had just begun to feel like the coast was clear when he raised his gaze above the dashboard and saw his old man’s car, heading straight toward him in the opposite lane. Their convergence seemed to take place in slow motion, the effect intensified by Vonn’s helplessness to avoid it. In the moment that they finally passed, Milt lifted his brows and dropped his jaw, an expression of bewilderment, and in passing he opened his palms at the 10:00 and 2:00 positions on the steering wheel in a gesture that seemed to ask, “what in the…?”
Vonn’s chin sunk between his shoulders. Immediately, he began manufacturing a plausible lie should the old man ask him what he was doing out and about, near the store, so early in the morning. The only story that he could think of that would be both credible, and also dissuade further discussion involved “confessing” to a lie that was easier to explain than the truth. Here’s how it’d go down:
“Son, why were you in the neighborhood around Dollarapalooza so early this morning?”
“Dad, if you must know, after work last night, I met a woman at the Zig Zag Club and we went back to her place…”
“That’s all that I care to hear about the matter, son… It’s just a darn good thing that your mother wasn’t with me in the car this morning.”
Vonn lip-synched, mocking the words that he imagined his father would say. Now that the day was already off to a bad start, he told himself that if something else could go wrong, it would, and that excused him — hell, it almost compelled him — to start drinking early. After all, it wasn’t like he was going to get a sudden, urgent call with news requiring his immediate attention. He hadn’t given any of his former associates forwarding information on his whereabouts, nor had they asked. Being outcast in this manner was what he used to fear most of all, not so long ago, when he measured his success by his connectedness, whom to him and he to whom, in a mutually exploitative form of symbiosis. Today, there were no great triumphs for which to take credit, no urgent tasks to be delegated, no problems for which a scapegoat must be found, and it was too late, even, for desperate, last ditch denials. His disgrace was complete; he might as well embrace the vanity of self-loathing. So, on that morn, feeling tight in the jaw and raw in the crotch, Vonn decided that he’d spend the day malingering around the Northern Lights shopping center: drinking, loitering, slumming, and generally debasing himself. He felt like he’d earned the right to wallow. Destitution, like arrogance, seeks ever-expanding frontiers.
Parked in front of an empty building which had once been a bowling alley, Vonn rubbed his dry eyes to make tears. His mouth tasted like dirt. He would feel better, he thought, if only he could sneeze, so he went off to sniff a dumpster, to see if he could find a stench rancid enough to trigger an overdue catharsis.
Milt Carp had opened Dollarapalooza after retiring with twenty five years of service delivering milk and dairy products for the Borden Milt Company. He didn’t do it because he needed supplemental income. He did it despite his wife’s protestations (“Why don’t you just do what all of the other men do – drink, play golf, go to girlie clubs; for God’s sake, enjoy being retired.”) And why oh why, everybody wanted to know, did he want to open a freakin’ dollar store, of all things. It was a somewhat old fashioned idea, he admitted, kind of like a cross between Pa Kettle’s general store and the five and ten cents shops of his youth, where folks could stock up on useful merchandise at an honest price, with no markup, no middleman, and no bickering. Not even delivering milk was as quintessentially honest as the moral principle behind Dollarapalooza: I have something that you’ll pay me a dollar for; you give me a dollar and I’ll give you that thing; we are both happy and the world is at peace.
Milt had argued with Vonn: “I don’t care if you think it is microeconomics or macroeconomics or voodoo economics, but nothing in business makes any sense unless you believe in the principle that one dollar will buy one dollar’s worth of goods.”
“You don’t actually believe that, do you?”
“Work with me and you’ll see what I mean.”
As a general rule of protocol, Milt and Vonn avoided working together. It was ostensibly a chain-of-command decision, so as to ensure that one of them would always be there; but at the level of a tacit understanding, they kept a respectful distance from each other in the workplace because they both knew that they rubbed against each other in unpleasant ways. However, Milt and Vonn sometimes found it necessary to “confabulate” (as Milt liked to say) during the “changing of the guard” from the day shift to the night shift, between 4:00 and 5:00 pm, for a full hour (unless Vonn was late, which he usually tried to be). That hour was purportedly set aside for them to “strategicize” (again, Milt’s word). Discussion topics consisted of such vital affairs as whether or not to continue accepting personal checks, what merchandise to include in the rotating seasonal displays, whether to seek alternative suppliers of generic toiletries, and other urgent and niggling decisions essential to running an efficient and competitive dollar emporium.
On that afternoon, Vonn arrived, late, around 4:45. He had a bad feeling. First, Huck, who was sitting behind the cash register, reading a thick textbook, did not greet him with the customary “Yo.” Second, when he did look up from studying, he informed Vonn that his father wanted to see him in the office. Third, and most ominously, Vonn noticed that there was a new, laser printed and embossed sign above the counter that read: “Customer Satisfaction Guaranteed.”
Milt was pouring water into a vase of plastic flowers when Vonn knocked on the office door. “Sit down, please, son.” Vonn had the feeling that he would prefer to stand, but he obeyed, sitting on top of the radiator next to the window.
Milt began, “I had a pretty grumpy customer here today.”
Because Vonn categorized most customers as at the very least, “grumpy,” he was at a loss. “Can you please elaborate?”
“This woman complained about some broken steak knives.”
“The Bitch!,” Vonn shouted.
“Shut Up!,” Milt retaliated. Outrage was foreign to Milt, but there was flash of temper in his features at that moment, a visible throbbing in his temples. “As I’ve tried to tell you, The Customer Is Always Right.”
“Not this one. She was a lunatic bitch.”
Milt stuck his finger onto his forehead and made a screwing motion. “What part of always do you not understand?”
“What part don’t you understand – lunatic or bitch?”
Milt continued to scowl. “Nuh uh,” he disagreed.
“Dad, she wanted a fucking refund for a couple of shitty steak knives. What was I supposed to do?”
“Give her a refund, of course. Or let her choose some other merchandise of equal value.”
Vonn resisted the urge to slap some sense upside his father’s head. “What did she expect, for a dollar? A lifetime fucking warranty?”
Milt was firm: “Our business is to meet customers’ expectations. So, we will refund or exchange defective merchandise as a matter of store policy, from now on.
“Then we will go out of fucking business. Dad, in the event that you have failed to notice, most of what we sell is what I’d politely call… junk. The hand cream is greasy. The bristles fall out of the toothbrushes. The potato chips are like cardboard. I doubt even if dogs would eat the dog food. This ain’t a moral issue. This is just business.”
Milt pinched his eyes. “It is too about morals. People won’t respect a dollar unless it gives them a dollar’s worth of satisfaction. I’ve already given the refund instructions to the staff.” He blew his nose. “So, got it?”
When he’d agreed to work at Dollarapalooza, Vonn did so out of desperation, though he’d qualified it as “helping out.” Now, he knew what shit really tasted like. “Whatever you say,” he lamented. “Have it your way.”
“I don’t like winning from you, son.”
“And I don’t like losing to you, Dad.”
Milt thus surmised that: “Then it’s a good thing we ain’t playing poker.”
Saturday night, the lights were out in a black 2010 Cadillac Seville parked behind the loading dock of the abandoned shoe factory at the corners of Cleveland Avenue and Innis Road. The three stooges (as they were called, never to their faces) – Billy, Sammy, and Bo – were sitting in the car, passing a joint, with the windows down and the heater blowing at max. Each in turn would vacuum inhale, hold the toxic smoke in their lungs as long as possible, then exhale in a near-death gasp outside of the window. The radio was playing Anthrax, while the boys howled along:
Your lies can’t make me what I am
Your lies that left me scarred
Oh so fucking hard
Burning me inside, bleeding me dry
Sammy, whose father’s car this was, sat in the driver’s seat, with Billy, smoking a cigarette in between tokes on the joint, in shotgun, and Bo alone in the back, sticking his neck between the seats so as to feel like he was almost with them in the front. Between the front seats was a nearly empty bottle of Seagram’s, which Sammy had stolen from his father’s liquor cabinet.
“Fuckin’ motherfucker,” Sammy croaked as he exhaled through his nose. “This is fuckin’ good shit. How’d you get it, Bo?”
“I don’t know. I just paid for it. Billy copped the dope.”
“Yeah, naturally. Where’d this shit come from, Billy?”
Billy paused for effect. “From Rufus.”
“No fuckin’ shit!,” Sammy barked. “You deal with Rufus?”
“No. Rufus deals with me.”
To be seventeen years of age in Columbus, Ohio was, almost by definition, to have no place to go. For several generations, the construction sites, parking lots, unlit alleys, and dead end streets in and around Columbus had provided sanctuary for high school youth intent on consuming controlled substances or consummating relationships but with nowhere to go where they could do so. Getting wasted in dark, lonely places where it was supposed that cops would never think of looking was standard Saturday night fare for guys who didn’t have dates. By doing so, Sammy, Billy, and Bo were carrying on a tradition about which they knew nothing, except for what they’d overheard of their fathers’ old war stories about what they’d done “back in the days.” Even the borrowing (that is, temporary theft) of one’s father’s car was part of the customary ritual.
“What the fuck are we gonna do tonight?,” Sammy wondered as he attached a roach clip to the joint.
“I don’t know about you two clowns, but I’m gonna get me some pussy,” Billy said with self-assurance.
Bo hooted: “Oh yeah. That sounds bitchin’.”
“Shit, jackoff, you fuckin’ couldn’t get pussy from your own fuckin’ sister,” Sammy countered.
“Oh yeah. You couldn’t get none from your dog.”
“Suck my dick.”
“Why? You a faggot?”
Sammy glowered at Bo, prepared to defend his manhood with fisticuffs, if necessary, but as expected, Bo backed off. “Hey, just messin’ with you, dude.”
Billy was losing patience with their shenanigans. “Cut it out or you’ll both be jackin’ off tonight,” he threatened. “We need a plan. Let’s cruise by DeSales High. There’s a dance there tonight. We can pick up some Catholic chicks. They’ll blow ya, if ya get them wasted first. Bo – how much more pot d’ya got?”
“Dude, that was the last joint that we just smoked.”
Sammy howled, “Motherfucker. You’re holdin’ out on us.”
Bo retorted, “Eat me. You never bring any weed.”
“Fucker. You fuckin’ want t’ be startin’ somethin’?”
“And you bogart-ed that last joint, suckhole.”
“Let’s take this outside, right now.”
Billy slapped the dashboard. “Shut up! You two sound like Cheech and fuckin’ Chong. Let’s get serious now.” He inspected the bottle of Seagram’s. “There’s not enough booze left to get a chick skanky. Whose got money?”
Sammy: “All I got is five bucks and my old man’s credit card.”
“Hmmm,” Billy tried to imagine how the credit card might be useful. “Does the liquor store take credit cards?”
“No fuckin’ way! Dude, that’s only for gas, and the old man will know if I use if it for somethin’ else.”
“Then have you got any money, Bobo?”
Bo hated to be called that, but Billy could and did. “I got fired from Dunkin’ Donuts last week, remember? I spent my whole last paycheck on the weed that we just smoked.”
“Fuckin’ dickhead,” Sammy commented. “What’d you think they’d do if they caught you smokin’ in the john? Give you the employee of the month award?”
“Kiss my ass.”
“I’ll fuckin’ bend you ‘round backwards so you can kiss your own fuckin’ ass.”
Billy made a slicing gesture. “Shut the fuck up, you two! We gotta get some money. Hey, Sambo, does your old man hide any cash in the car?” He opened the glove box. Laying on top of a bundle papers in the glove box was a Smith & Wesson Chief Special pistol. Billy whistled as if flirting with a sexy woman.
“Don’t even think about it, dude. That’s my old man’s. Leave it alone,” Sammy protested.
Billy wrapped his palm and fingers around the handle, slipped his index finger around the trigger, aiming it straight ahead.
“I mean it, dude. Put it fuckin’ down, please,” Sammy continued to plea.
Billy popped out the revolver; the chambers were all empty. “Does the old man have any ammo?,” he asked Sammy.
“Uh huh, no fuckin’ way. He keeps the bullets separate, and he takes them out of the car when he isn’t using it. So, fuckin’ put it away, okay alright?”
But Billy had already proceeded to formulate a plan. Fortune had seemingly provided the means by which to procure what was necessary. He twirled the weapon around his finger, gunslinger-like. “Too bad,” he said. “It’d be better to be armed. But, I think this will work well enough.”
“Dude, what’re you talkin’ about? You’re fuckin’ freakin’ me out. Work for what?”
Billy was visualizing the whole scenario. “We’re goin’ to hold up that dollar store across the street.”
Sammy squalled, “No fuckin’ way!”
Bo grimaced in panic, “You’re kiddin’, right dude. Tell me you’re kiddin’.”
“I’m serious. I’ve thought about this before. I know that place. Son-of-a-bitch that runs it is a major asshole. He deserves it. Once, I was parked out back of that store, and was right in the middle of fucking Mindy Wolpert, just about ready to pop my nut, when he comes out yelling at us and throwing shit at my car. I peeled outta there fast, but I figured right away that I’d get even with that fucker. Now, we can kill two birds with one stone. Here’s how it’ll go down…”
Sammy folded his hands in appeal, “You ain’t fuckin’ thinkin’ straight, man. We can’t…”
Bo added, “Sammy and me can’t even go near there. That asshole has seen us before. He threw us out once. He’s psycho…”
“Don’t worry, pussies. I’ll do the dirty work. I wanna do it. We’ll wait until the last minute before 9:00. That’s when the store closes. I’ll run in just when the asshole goes to lock the door. I’ll put the gun right in his face. There’s another guy who works there, so I’ll force him to empty the cash register or else I’ll threaten to blow the asshole’s brains across the counter. I’ll make them gimme their wallets, watches, jewelry, anything else. They’ll be completely freaked. Then, I’ll get the fuck outta there. All you two assholes gotta do is have the car running and wait around the corner so we can make our getaway.” Billy raised his right hand in front of him. “Are you with me?”
“Aaaah, fuckin’ shit.”
“Dude, maybe instead…”
To back out now was out of the question, though. Honor bade that they do no less than aid in larceny. Sammy wiped sweat off his palm and fist-bashed with Billy. Both of them looked at Bo, who took his hand out of his pocket, and the three of them made a fist-to-wrist cross, sealing them in a covenant of crime. “Sweet,” Billy said. “Let’s roll.”
Reconnoitering the scene, the boys drove slowly, lights still out, to the entrance of the shoe factory lot and parked behind a blank billboard. They kept lookout, watching the store and keeping count of who went in and out. “What if there are some customers still in there?,” Bo asked, thinking that perhaps he’d identified an unforeseen flaw in the plan. “So what if there are,” Billy sneered. Meanwhile, Sammy practiced the role in his mind – just like in The Fast and the Furious, he’d whip the old man’s Seville around the corner as soon as Billy fled from the building, peeling into the Dollarapalooza parking lot, spraying gravel, right up to the door, where he’d slow down just enough for Billy to jump in, then burn rubber across the street, backtrack through the Northern Lights shopping center and disappear into the projects and apartment complexes on the other side. It’d all be over in five minutes, and from then on for the rest of his life, he’d be a genuine getaway driver. Billy, meanwhile, was eerily calm, amusing himself by spinning the empty pistol chambers, pointing the gun barrel at his own forehead, pulling the trigger and saying “Bang, I’m dead,” then laughing.
At ten minutes before nine o’clock, they set the plan in motion. Billy kissed the gun, “for luck,” stuffed it under his belt, and got out of the car. Clinging to the shadows, he followed the perimeter of the lot, crossed the street at the railroad bed, approaching the dollar store from the fence line of the apartment complex behind it; he waited, under a sickly sycamore tree, for his signal.
Bo, meanwhile, watched the dollar store from a knothole in the billboard. His instructions were to signal as soon as the asshole dollar store man made a move from behind the checkout counter toward the front door. So far, they’d been lucky; no customers had entered the store in several minutes, and it looked like the only people inside were the two employees. Bo was surprised at how clearly he could see everything unfolding. The silhouette of the dollar store man was visible in the store window; he was leaning back on a stool, hands behind his head, as if napping, and the other guy was behind the cash register, reading. When the dollar store man stretched and stood up, moving toward the door, Bo pumped his arm up and down, and Sammy honked the car’s horn three times in rapid succession, sending the “It’s on” signal.
Billy pulled a stocking cap down over forehead, masked his nose and mouth with a bandana, and ran, leading with his shoulders so he could hit the door with a full head of steam. Rounding the corner, into the stark light, he saw the dollar store man standing in the entrance and reaching into his pocket for his keys. “GEEER-OOONNN-IMMOOOO,” Billy hollered.
Vonn had been watching Huck read for the last half hour. There had been no customers in the store, apart from the occasional oddball passing through to purchase chewing gum or a box of ramen noodles, so by reading Huck wasn’t overtly neglecting his job as cashier; but even so, it troubled Vonn, who felt like he was encouraging the boy to have unrealistic expectations. He queried: “What’re you reading?”
Huck didn’t feel like speaking, so in answer he lifted the book to show Vonn its cover. Das Kapital by Karl Marx.
Vonn whistled. “Lord have mercy! A communist!”
“A student,” Huck corrected him.
“Why study that nonsense? Marxism is long dead.”
Huck was irritated by having to interrupt his reading long enough to answer: “It makes sense to me. Maybe it’s time for a comeback.”
Vonn, too, had read Marx in college. “Read carefully the parts on dialectical materialism,” was his advice.
Their ruminations were shattered by an abrupt scream — “GEEER-OOONNN-IMMOOOO!” – from a panting, bug-eyed, masked intruder. Vonn absorbed the full impact of the front door being bashed in. Glass shattered into his face. He staggered backwards, into a rack of batteries, tripping over them. Huck came running, but stopped in his tracks when he saw what was happening. In a violent gesture, the intruder brandished his weapon, grabbed Vonn’s pony tail under the back of his skull, and drilled the gun’s barrel into the exact center of his forehead between his eyes. Vonn looked down the barrel, at the intruder’s quivering trigger finger, and he felt a spasm of terror splitting him in half from his coccyx to his brain stem, like the jolt of a lethal electrocution. The terrified dilation of his pupils felt like a brain screaming.
The intruder snarled, in a voice from he summoned from a slasher movie that he’d once seen: “Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t kill you right now, if you can.”
But Vonn, choking on fear of death, was seized by a spasm of terror that immobilized his ability to think, much less to summon the eloquence necessary to plea for his life. He could only cower, simpering, reduced to begging; he whined “please…. Oh, please…” thereby presenting himself as too pathetic to warrant the bother of killing.
“Hey, that’s just sick, dude,” his assailant scoffed. Pointing at Huck, he shouted: “You. Give me the money!,” and twisted the gun’s barrel deeper into Vonn’s forehead, “or I’ll waste this useless asshole.”
“Pleeeeeaaaaaazzze,” Vonn moaned. His voice trailed on the last “zzzzzz,” like humming, until the air in his windpipe encountered something wet and viscous, rising from deeper within him. It formed a clog in the back of his throat and grew there; he hissed and wheezed. Then Vonn began to dry heave, and the intruder stepped back and redirected his gun toward Huck. “Hurry! I ain’t got all day.” But Huck had paused, transfixed by watching the contortions that seized Vonn while he clutched and doubled over in a convulsion that seemed to tear at him from the inside out.
“Ooooohooowoooh,” Vonn squealed in splenetic agony.
Forgetting entirely about being robbed, Huck started around the counter — to do what, he wasn’t sure, perhaps the Heimlich maneuver. “I’m here,” Huck called out to his boss.
At this point, the intruder, becoming impatient with being disobeyed, kicked Vonn so squarely in the chin that his teeth scraped. “Get back,” he warned Huck. Moisture was beginning to puddle on the outside of the mask. “And for cryin’ out loud, just give me the money.”
“Sure, sure, okay.” Huck dumped the entire till into a basket. Pushing it across the counter to him, he said, “Take it and get out of here.”
At the instant the intruder reached for the basket, Vonn began to disembowel. The pressures of his guts wound too tight and the buildup of pulsing fluids under his skin erupted from every orifice on his body in a terror reflex that amounted to a catharsis by evisceration. Vonn sneezed a mushroom cloud of bright red blood and a lumpy miasma of hot mucus. With a grunting seizure, he projectile vomited green phlegm, syrupy bile and brownish bilyrubin. Next, when his bladder burst, neon yellow piss drenched his pants and pooled around him, the leading edge of the flow reaching the intruder’s feet in a matter of seconds. Finally, he defecated into his pants a full load of twice digested feces that squished between his legs when he clenched his thighs, releasing a stench so dense and pungent it burned like acid in the intruder’s nostrils. It was as if every orifice of Vonn’s body had dredged up its waste, expelling every last vile secret in hopes of gaining mercy, or pity, or disgust – whichever was most likely to save his wretched life.
“Yowza!,” the intruder howled. Fouled with bits and pieces of Vonn’s effluent, the intruder’s face melted with uncontrollable revulsion; the mask deflated when the air collapsed in his cheeks, and his Adam’s apple sank, twitching. If he hadn’t intended to shoot Vonn before, now he felt, almost, like it would’ve been self-defense. His first reflex was to run, and he took off toward the door, skidding, then as an afterthought returned to grab the basket of money on the way out. Once he was outside, though, he pivoted, braked with his heels, and took in one last look at the foul, fetid, slimy morass of Vonn’s bowels and viscera. He wondered if Vonn died, would he be guilty of murder. “That dude’s got problems,” he commented aloud, as if to vindicate himself, then dashed into the getaway vehicle.
In the aftermath, the lights flickered on and off in Dollarapalooza. The only sounds were the gurgling and puckering of Vonn’s biological refuse as it settled, and the sound of him snotting his nose. Cautious, Huck stepped as close to Vonn as he could without defiling his shoes. From the racks in the adjacent aisle, he took down a window washer squeegee and, using it as an extension of his arms, tapped Vonn on the shoulder. “Hey, uh, are you okay?”
Lifting himself into a kneeling position, Vonn groped his face. He took slow, shallow breaths, fearful of triggering another seizure. Worse, though, than the attempted homicide he’d just survived was the abject shame that was now revealed. Groveling in his own feculent sewage, he knew that he’d finally, truly run out of lies; he couldn’t even think of one to save his own life. His breath was a mixture of weeping, wheezing, and an ironic, self-mocking chuckle.
“I’m going to call for help,” Huck finally decided.
“No!,” Vonn shouted through his hands. He raised his torso above bent knees, beseeching Huck with void eyes. “Never, ever tell anybody about this!”
“We just got robbed. I can’t keep that secret.”
Vonn grabbed the squeegee. “Then let’s clean up first. Get me a bucket, a sponge.” He slipped out of his shoes and stepped outside of the pool. “This didn’t happen, okay? Nobody needs to know about it. My father doesn’t need to know. You got that?”
Sammy squealed the Seville’s tires as he peeled away from the scene of the crime. Cheering their clean getaway, Sammy and Bo were chortling with glee, fist pumping and back slapping. Billy, though, speaking not a word, rolled down the window and stuck his head outside, flexing his nostrils to catch the maximum draft. When Sammy reached for the basket of loot, Billy recoiled, protecting it. It wasn’t for a couple blocks before the other two boys began to notice something amiss, and it was Bo who mentioned first that: “Something stinks like shit.”
Still facing outward, Billy commanded: “Take me home.”
“What? Why? We’re going after pussy, remember?”
Billy patted himself, checking that his seams were all holding. Turning, he presented himself to his partners in crime. His neck, his shirt, and his forearms were besmirched with the splatter patterns and impact residue of his victim’s blotched soul. “Nuh uh. Not no more.”
Sammy gasped, “What happened?”
Bo bit his lip, “Did’ja kill him?”
“Of course, you yahoo, he didn’t kill him. The gun wasn’t loaded.”
“He coulda still beat him to death. Is that what ya did, Billy?”
Billy had not let go of the gun since leaving the dollar store. He pointed it at his reflection in the rear view mirror. “That dude back there literally spewed his guts outta every hole in his body. Shit and piss and snot and blood and green stuff.”
“So is he dead?”
Billy pulled the trigger. Nothing happened, which led him to wonder what would’ve happened if he’d pulled the trigger, back in the dollar store. “Naw, I don’t think he’s dead enough yet. But, just the same, I don’t know how you go about cleaning up a mess like that one.”