Richard M. Bolling
I don’t tell stories for a living, but you have to do something while you’re flat out of a job. I can think of one story right off the bat, immediately, that is, that happened at Shipley’s. It’s a small restaurant on West Gray and Dunlavy down in Montrose. Everyday at Shipley’s, the poet would arrive, punc-tu-al at nine, clump up to the counter, and sit on one of the pedestals they call stools, and then talk to anyone who sat up there. Anyone was usually Lizzie. But this isn’t a story about the poet. It’s a story about a robbery at Shipley’s, and at the end, the poet shoots the young kid who robs the register. That’s later on, of course, but I wanted to tell you this now so you would not be surprised. I have a phobia about surprises now. Since I was let go. They said, Gable, we don’t need you anymore That is, we don’t need your services anymore You’re a fine technician though Fine Good worker We’ll refer you Don’t bother cleaning out your desk Yes sir Fine worker. I heard that three times. From Mims then Stokes then Rowland, the big boss. Three fine workers. Yes sir.
Now Shipley’s. At Shipley’s Tuesday. I’ve told you that it’s a little restaurant and that it has a bar, formica-topped, and pedestal stools. It also has a jukebox, cigarette machine, tables (formica-topped) not in rows, booths by the front window, waitresses, minorities sweating in the kitchen, sweating on their backs. You can see them through the opening where they put those steaming greasy orders. The poet comes in at nine. Now, the morning of the robbery, the waitress with the penciled eyebrows took his order. I don’t know her name, I don’t know any of their names, actually, but pencil eyebrows has a crooked, sneering way of turning her lips, always painted red, and she looks hard as a boiled egg in her white uniform. She’s a tough eggshell with powder on her face and leering eyes. The poet, though, has his boulder-size boots tucked under the counter and, knowing the menu by heart, he never takes his eyes away from her as he orders. He even thinks while looking into her face. He told me he receives terrific enjoyment from that. That morning, his leather pouch was slung under his flat shoulders and I remember how heavy it looked as he clunked it down there. I had always thought it was his purse. Not his holster.
I’m sitting there alone. Not very usual because someone usually sits with me. The stricken, the drunken, the early risers, the bohemians, the punks, the degenerates, the underhanded, the lazy; in short, the clientele, like to hear me talk. And it was exactly that way in Alabama. They all like to hear me. I can understand that well enough. Back in ’Bama, as we say, men still sit and converse in front of rural stores and their country houses, just like on television. Believe me. And there’s not a grain of truth to their stories. We call it fiction. And that’s exactly what this is. Fiction. I’ve never heard of Shipley’s being robbed. At any rate, on that day, I had been sitting there anywhere from one to two hours, reading all that good news in the Chronicle, the Post, USA Today, the Herald, and a stack of papers two feet high. Sitting with my arm on them like on a windowsill and sipping coffee out of one of those mugs you inspect to see if its clean. I sat and read the top paper around my elbow.
We were the only customers that day at nine. Everyone else left before eight o’clock because it was Tuesday, Easter Tuesday I call it now. Two of us on Easter Tuesday. I’m living on unemployment, and the poet’s working at night as a watchman. After a while, this black man (I singled myself out in ’Bama using that term) named Lizzie shuffles in wearing his elastic suspenders, polyester plaid pants, and his Lone Star hat, greasy as hell. Lizzie’s a very likable short man, but he whines like a kid when he talks—a Southern whine, an Aunt Jemima whine—and he calls pencil eyebrows by some nickname—it’s different every day—then slides onto the stool and sets down a large grocery bag. The poet wipes the coffee from his mustache and shakes Lizzie’s hand than wipes his pants. Pencil eyebrows gets irritated with Lizzie because of his voice, whining like out of a playschool. She plops the pale green note pad in front of him and stares full at him until he orders, moving her crooked lips. But Lizzie wants to sell the watermelon he has in the bag. She’s getting hot. Do you want some breakfast or not? she says. I don’t know Miss Ma’am he says Don’t you want some of this good watermelon? he says. No she says. Now do you want to order? He adds Can’t get ’em whole for two dollars like this. They’re fine fine watermelon. Are you going to order or not? she says. Yes’m. But you know I shouldn’t really be selling watermelon Because I’m black you see. You know black people and watermelon. What do you want? she says. Coffee? He says That’s fine Miss Ma’am. Now do you want to order? she says. That’s fine Miss Ma’am he says. Well? she says. I just wanted to tell you he says That I promise I won’t bring up the watermelon again Even though it is the sweetest one I’ve ever seen. What do you want? she says. She writes it down on her green note pad—two donuts and coffee—shaking her head. When she leaves, Lizzie continues about the watermelon, then she knits her eyebrows together and points at him and says Don’t talk to me about those again. Do you hear me? And Lizzie didn’t talk to her about those again.
Two punkers had come in close behind Lizzie, and while Lizzie talked, they sat behind the cigarette machine beside the door. I can’t see them on the other side of the machine, and I don’t want to lean away from my two foot stack of papers. Actually, they rolled in, with black skates on their feet. The thin one is a young male with a shaved head except for one-inch of hair just above the back of his neck. One-inch and blonde. The female is older, much older, thirty or thirty-five, unnatural black hair, zig-zag cut, a black sleeveless shirt, and white angular pants. Strange and beautiful though. I lean away from my papers, mug in hand, attempting to see her, and she’s facing me as I lean out of balance from the booth. I lean back. She was looking at me and half-smiling, as if I had done something silly, in a masculine way. Like a silly male comment or gesture, interpreted as so cute. I get the same look when I introduce myself to women, I say I’m Clark Gable and they say No, Not Clark Gable and I say It is Clark Gable and they say Are you telling me the truth? and I say Yes and they say You don’t look like Clark Gable. Very bright statement.
I cannot understand why I must look like Clark Gable. Now that would be a long shot. I caught hell at the office for it. Everyone said Well You don’t look like him. Maybe if I had been born earlier they would want him to look like me. I hear Gable collected unemployment too. He deposited it in a savings and his chauffeur drove him home. I wonder, I just wonder what they would say at Shipley’s if I sat here in my work pants and T-shirt, like everyday, and ate and then called my limo to take me home to River Oaks. And then what if I left a bad tip? Well, that would be just like the rich. They give us apartments to build or skyscrapers to construct or they order us to find oil, telling us we need all of that to keep the world running and in good order. While they sue the fuck out of each other for millions or they settle for twenty million and make their business pacts on patios. And after that they die or kill themselves. Then here we are. Stuck with their world that we helped them create. That’s like a bad tip. The poet told me he wrote about that.
The rich dream dreams like the Poet
But His eyes are towards the sun.
Which is why I remember this day as Easter Tuesday because my eyes keep coming back to it.
Now the big waitress rose and approached the punkers’ booth. I do not use the word big trivially for this woman. Over six-and-a-half feet tall with black hair and a face that would turn you to stone, a compressed face, a smushed face at best. She wore Nikes on her feet so she never looked like she walked heavily, instead she seemed cushioned on every step. When I think of her, I think of her as stepping over the tables, the longest strides, the elastic in her pants exposed and rolling with her walk, and her blouse hanging over her belly. There was nothing kind about her. But nothing mean either. An expressionless face of enormous power that took your order and knew you were aghast at her size. And the punkers were no different. They were quiet when she laid the menus on the table asking Coffee? to which they nodded their heads. Then ordered. At that same moment. And as I sat there holding my mug up for my waitress, a squat kind woman with lavender-tinted hair protected by a hairnet, with my arm on my two-foot stack of papers I watched the big waitress move and roll at the hips and shrug when she wished to shrug and talk when she wished to talk, her voice like a hillbilly’s. Taking orders and making no bones about it.
I remember that the punkers, of course, noticed the lack of music in the place. The female punker stood and rolled over to the jukebox in front of me. Then pencil eyebrows says that they can’t wear skates in the restaurant. At that the punker does not look at pencil eyebrows, as if she did not hear, then proceeds calmly to untie her skates, dropping them beside the jukebox. She doesn’t look at me. She doesn’t look at anyone. I’m reading the Herald on the top of the stack and I hear the coins drop into the machine, then I see her pressing buttons, her mouth open, her head bobbing a little like she is listening to music. Then she picks up her skates and walks lightly to the booth, walking in front of the two boys that come into Shipley’s. I suppose it depends on what you call boys, but these have no trace of hair on their white faces. One boy has dark hair, fleshed out and tall for his age, and I see from the back of his belt that his name is Henry. They sit at the center table. Both wearing jeans. Henry has his back to me. The other one is thin with a black T-shirt, no writing on it, straight and thin pale blonde hair to the neck all around. He is thin everywhere, every feature, his arms, his legs, even his chest.
I must have been absorbed in my two foot stack of papers or looking at the punk couple too much or thinking about how I didn’t give a damn about anyone because when you’re unemployed you think like that. I must have been in some state where I didn’t really see those two. For what they really were. Robbery candidates. Henry and the thin boy. I remember looking at Lizzie eat his donuts, looking back at my paper. Mindless I suppose. The poet told me later that he didn’t miss that they were up to something, that combined fearful and strutting walk, acting too ordinary. At the time he was scratching his mustache and staring over at them and I would see the poet’s face, and Henry’s belt, then my paper. Doesn’t really matter if I realized what they were or not. I would have stayed there anyway. If they would have come in with swords dangling by their sides and daggers in their hands I would have stayed. The days were passing that slowly. They acted much older than their age, except once, when the big waitress handed them their menus. They surveyed her from top to bottom, bottom to top, like they were looking at a mountain, “We have to climb that?” and their jaws nearly fell our of their sockets. Spoke like kids when they ordered. Ordered the same meal, Breakfast Special.
Well, after the waitress returns to the bar, Lizzie turns to them, the tips of his boots touching the floor at the pedestal and he makes an inquiry. He whines Do you boys want some of the sweetest watermelon that you ever tasted? Henry shakes his head. The thin one faces Lizzie saying No man no. Lizzie says Now you look like two strong boys like I used to be at your age about five years ago. Lizzie winks at the poet then continues And it’s gonna get real hot today. Man it’s hot already. So maybe it might be good while you’re out playing or gettin some, if you know what I mean to have some watermelon just sitting so sweet in your mouth. Well a commercial direct from New York couldn’t have done better than that. The thin one’s packing a pistol around his ankle, but he’s the one who can’t resist. He asks to see it. So Lizzie unbags it carefully, cradling it in his long black hands like his first born, and he displays a medium-sized watermelon twice as big as his head. The thin one feels it with his fingers, Lizzie’s holding it out to him, and the thin one says Is it hard? Lizzie turns to the poet and says Now tell me Have I ever sold one that wasn’t hard? That wasn’t the best one you ever tasted? Hard as a rock on the outside and juicy sweet inside? The poet smiles at Lizzie to keep him going then Lizzie turns to them and says Feel it man Feel it Hard as hell Hard as anything you’ll get with a woman. They laugh at that. I can see Henry’s shoulders shaking with laughter. But they don’t want any. Lizzie tries some more lines. Still don’t want any. He grunts and thumps it back in the bag.
After that they just stayed quiet. The female punker had loaded up the jukebox until next June with quarters, and the boys ate quickly, obviously listening to the jukebox, leaning towards each other over the table. The female punker walked lightly up to the jukebox again, though it was far from finished, and she leaned over it, sticking her butt behind Henry. They watched her for some moments. I was looking at them. They watched her lean and strain all the angles on her white pants, then they watched her walk lightly back to her booth. But at that moment, right when her pants were straining the greatest and their eyes were round as saucers, I got mad. Flaming mad. Mad at everything. Mad as a dog. Absolutely furious that she exploited herself. That’s how I viewed it. Exploitation. Leaning a little more than she had to. Now I believe in God, but I’m not a saint. Not now. Used to be, but not now. Not since I started to work for a living. What I’m saying is, I usually don’t get mad at men following women’s asses like they have a penis in their heads instead of a brain. I usually don’t mind that. But I was furious that she exploited herself. And I was almost consumed when I thought of them looking at this older body with those new pubic bodies of theirs. And from there it was a journey into exploitation itself. I was thinking about the rich again. Breaking it down. Then thinking about myself. This was nothing new, you understand, I knew that I was exploiting myself the day I started to work in this town. But madder than hell. That’s what I was. I could have cussed out anyone. Could have cussed out my old boss for hiring me. I should have been a saint. Should have been “Living off faith for seven years” as this one nun said who didn’t make a dime. But like I said, this was nothing new. hardly. But I had reached the apogee of my anger, the apex, the hilt. I held myself totally responsible. And everyone else too. Everyone I ever saw. From the punker with the one-inch hair down his neck, to pencil eyebrows, to the minorities smashing spatulas on the grill, to the writers who wrote the news that day in that two foot stack under my arm. Just furious. And when that kid finally robbed Shipley’s, I was on fire. Let me tell you how it happened.
You know how time can pass from slow to fast because your mind wanders. That’s what happened. The thin one walked to the register to pay the check. I was working on my fifth cup of coffee, still mad, still irritated at everybody and nobody, at everything and nothing, still mad like that, and I was leaning on my two-foot stack of papers completely absorbed, though, with the design of a particular napkin lying on my table. Some song played on the jukebox. Well I may not have known that he had the gun out and was robbing the register until I heard him quietly talk to the waitress. She must have thought he was joking. I think he was even trying to rob the register, with pencil eyebrow’s help, with no one knowing. But when he talked to her everyone knew, and I think, I believe everyone knew at the same time. And that’s what caused him to fire. My waitress, the kind one with the hairnet, had backed up right into the hot coffee maker, and when she jumped away from it he fired. He was really scared. You could tell that. Because when the gun went off, it went off twice, that’s how twitchy his fingers were, he missed her by a good ten feet. But he hit the big waitress. At first I thought she just fell from dodging the bullets, but we found out later that she was hit. Badly.
Well, she fell behind the counter and, let me tell you, unless you’ve actually heard a gun go off inside, you won’t really understand. But right when he fired everyone ducked. No one was down on the floor. But I bent over the table and Lizzie was under the counter and I could hear the punk girl scream once. Everyone ducked. Even the kitchen help ducked. Except for the poet. I suppose that makes sense because he’s the hero of the story, in a way. The poet remained sitting, crouched slightly though, but his head was high, and I remember his coffee cup still being in his hands, setting it down slowly afterwards. And after these shots, he never took his eye away from the kid. He watched his face the entire time, even when the kid told him to turn around Turn around! all he did was shake his head slowly and stare at him, studying him, not with those repelling eyes that manipulative people use but with those quiet observing eyes that only the poet has. Now the thin one waved the gun at pencil eyebrows behind the register. Her lips curled at him. That’s when I realized I didn’t see Henry. I never thought to look outside, where he was, in the car and warming it up. Instead, I just knew that Henry disappeared. But the thin one was scared. And I think the poet made it worse for him. Because while pencil eyebrows scowled and emptied the register and while the big waitress lay on the floor, silent as a bear and no one helping her, while all that happened, the poet just watched. And the robber even screamed again at him, threatened him with the gun. But he realized that the gun was as effective as a spoon right then.
And I suppose he might have just taken the money and left for his death at the door, with nothing in between, if it had not been for two incidents. One which nearly cost me my life. The first incident was someone let a fart go. No one knows, still, which one of the punkers fired it. The poet contends it was the girl because he actually heard her barely say Excuse me. But Lizzie knows it was the boy with the one-inch hair because the fart was so loud. It was loud too. But that can happen under stress, when the body doesn’t have control Well no one laughed about it but the kid. He chuckled, like someone let one out in the classroom, or had farted in a church. But right afterward, he was scared again and he didn’t grin again until he turned around and stuffed some of the money in his pocket. Then he grinned like it was very funny, like it was very funny that he had us all by the balls, which he did. That’s when the second incident occurred. I heaved my mug straight into the floor and smashed it as hard as I could, mad as hell again. Mad at his grin. Even the poet turned around at that. I stood up. I had a forcefield around me. For about two seconds I was invincible. Surprised he didn’t fire at me, but I was up and screaming at him. I told him that he was a son of a bitch, a young juvenile son of a bitch for shooting a gun around like that. I told him What the fuck are we supposed to do? Watch you rob the shit out of this place? And I kept saying You mother fuckers You mother fuckers You come in here and do whatever the fuck you want to Well one day somebody will slit your throat for doing whatever the fuck you want to. I told him he was a criminal and a degenerate and a goddamn pussy watcher and a fucking atheist. Well he became even more scared than I was, standing there. He started looking around like there would be some sort of uprising. Henry sounded the horn outside. And he started backing out of the place. Like each one of us had guns. All I could see was his back as he backed up to the door. Everyone watched him, and after that speech it looked like everyone was ready to pounce on him, to lunge after him, like he was in an Asian jungle. He was paranoid. I would have been too because it did seem like everything was leaning on him. The car horn sounded outside again. Twice this time. He had some money that he held against his chest and, when he figured he was far enough to run for the car he turned around and literally ran into the door, smashing his face against it because it wouldn’t swing easily. He had judged the distance wrong. Well, while he pushed the door open with his shoulder and his face, the poet stood up in one motion sliding the pistol from his sack like a holster and, raising then lowering it in an arc, he shot. With a roar louder than any gun I’ve ever heard, inside or out.
The story is that there were two dead and none wounded. Oh I know everyone will remember that day, Easter Tuesday, if they were there. If you can call that a wound. I didn’t see the poet for three weeks after that. Pencil eyebrows said they took him to jail, but in the Post, it said that no charges were pressed. I don’t suppose it was self-defense, but I don’t suppose it was malicious either. The strangest thing was that when I saw him after that three weeks, he came down and sat with me, and we talked until about mid-afternoon. That’s breakfast and dinner. He said that he wouldn’t have shot the kid if I hadn’t stood up and incited him, so to speak. He even said that he quit his job after the robbery. About a week after. Told me about his last night on the job, but that’s another story. Anyway, he said he was ready to starve after I made that speech. I suppose I can understand that. When you’re unemployed you only give a damn about the essentials, and after a while, you stay sick all the time because you don’t eat right. I don’t know though. Sometimes I wish I would never open my mouth again.
This story originally appeared in Dialog magazine and is reprinted in The Best of Dialog.