Customer Recognition
by James Reed
(from Whetstone)

was wheeling the big yellow windshield wiper display rack into the bay when the first raindrops spotted the concrete.  He looked happy.  The weather had held all day, he was whistling, and work was almost done, but his life was due for a change.  Unscheduled change, and nothing either of us planned, but I was pulling in to the pumps.  I needed gas, and I needed money.

Criminals are not what my mother had in mind for offspring, but she also expected to stay married, and she still believes her status is unchanged.  My father’s dead or in prison or as rich as a dog, I do not know, but home he is not, not where his earliest marriage certificate stands framed on my mother’s bureau with a doily hanging over the edge.  I used to argue that it was pointless, the man was gone, she might as well consider herself free.  She said, “I made those vows.  It’s up to me to keep them.”  It took me years to realize that she meant it.  This wasn’t her excuse or her reason to stay buried in her sad little bookkeeping job, away from the world and men and money that might actually add up.  It wasn’t cowardice.  It was the central fact that could not be changed.  She had promised not just him or God, but herself.

It’s on account of her generally good example that I try to be polite when I’m brandishing a gun.  It makes people nervous to begin with, and she didn’t raise us to be lugs.  Lord knows I’m the only one who comes close.  My sister’s a farmer’s wife who does physical therapy part-time, mostly in winter, so her nursing degree’s not completely wasted.  My brothers are doing fine, too, one selling insurance in some dink town and raising his kids, and the other’s a doctor.  He started as a chemist testing ice cream for purity and developed some fancy, lower-tolerance computer model before that stuff was common, then sold it to the company and made enough for med school.  I think he should have stayed in research.  A brain like that could have done wonders just on its extra thoughts, but no one argues when a guy pulls down a hundred eighty thou without breaking a sweat.  He’s divorced and has a daughter, but it’s a real divorce on paper, and he sends his checks every month.  It’s probably handled automatically through his bank, but give the guy credit.  I certainly do, and I’m the family’s black sheep, next to our father, but no one dares mention him, and I gave up.  Yeah, Mom sacrificed all her life.  She did, but no one wants to point out why.  No one wants to hurt her feelings.  She gets stiff and defensive and trots out God’s wisdom, so I let it drop.  I’m not an idiot.  At least I call once in a while.

She can’t figure out why I never got married.  The one girl I brought home was my best friend’s wife.  This was years ago.  Mom’s always asking, “Whatever happened to that nice girl, the one that came to the picnics?”

That nice girl had more than me on the line.  It’s amazing she didn’t get AIDS, or something simpler, like syphilis or pregnant.  Forethought wasn’t her strong suit.  I heard she had an abortion.  Don’t quote me on it.  That was a couple years later.  We weren’t together then.  When we were, though, she was also sleeping with actors and black guys and some dirtbag calling himself Charlemagne.  A bunch of other guys, too, but he got her great drugs.  I think that’s why I put up with it, that and the fact that she was still married.  I could hardly complain that she slept with somebody else, now could I?

They were separated, but nothing was final.  They were waiting for their court date, and we were living at her place, or I was.  She tended to stay out.  I felt kind of kept.  I had the run of this apartment, with furniture I recognized that used to belong to him.  We’d smoked dope and drunk beer on that couch.  We’d watched that portable TV.  Channel 6 never did come in right.  I walked around her apartment, so much better lit than theirs, on a third floor now instead of a walk-in basement, and the place felt like a museum or a model home suddenly abandoned, like those ships at sea found floating empty, with meals and silverware and open Bibles and not a soul on board, and that was me, not a soul.  I was the noise among the stuff.  I was the reason it was here, and he was there, except he didn’t know it.

One night I woke up to clatter in the living room, and voices.  I was too messed up to move, but I didn’t imagine what I heard.  I listened to every groan.  I recognized them, and I knew that giggle.  I knew where you had to put your finger.  I lay there just thinking, you fucking whore, and then it got worse.  The other voice turned familiar.  I didn’t have to hear words.  I knew the sound of it.  We’d talked for hours that turned into years, since early college, when he was hip-deep in electronics and I was undecided.  Some things never change, I guess, but I was surprised she’d gone out trolling and somehow caught him.  Maybe she wanted to prove she could do it.  She and I never discussed it because remember, I was officially asleep, but he and I did.  I had to hear about it.  The damn, dumb fool still thought we were friends.

I was his lone confidant, the one who kept him afloat.  He told me all his miseries and heartaches, and he was suffering, no doubt.  He didn’t know what was wrong.  She’d left him like she’d just given up, lost interest, got bored.  The game wasn’t fun.  He wasn’t fun.  She couldn’t see hanging ornaments on the tree in thirty years, or two, or three months, but she hauled him home that night, with me in that bedroom, and made him do it on the couch.

“It was the same old stuff,” he told me, me grimacing the whole time.  It looked like sympathy.  “She thought she was living out my fantasies.  Like if we did it just right we could stay together.  It just felt tired.”

That’s when he knew it was over.  I was a lot slower.

I thought I was the next in line, but she wasn’t going to anyone, not in particular.  I don’t even know where she is.  Last I heard from her was a phone call, probably one of her road trips.  Toward the end she took little vacations.  She drove to Fargo once just to drive to Fargo.  That’s empty country.  There’s nothing up there.  I asked where she’d been, I hadn’t seen her.  She said, “North Dakota.”  Two days later she added, “Fargo.”  Nothing more than that.  Then one night I picked up the phone, and she was incoherent.  I mean totally.  Gone.  Not with us.  I was no great shakes, but I didn’t think road signs were talking to me.  I didn’t see little bugs.  But I had started drinking.  I definitely had started drinking.

I made a spectacle of myself at family picnics.  My brothers’ kids got bigger, and I was their drunk Uncle Andy.  My mother kept asking about Lynette.  “She’d have kept you in line,” she’d say when I opened another beer or fell horribly in a volleyball game with the kids.

“Just the moral influence for me, Ma.”  I’d brush myself off, or gather the food I’d scattered, and say, “I’d have been a saint.”

I worked in one place for twelve years before they canned me, and I wasn’t really fired.  It was a layoff, and it didn’t do them any good.  They still went under.  I was one of the lucky ones.  I got severance pay and a little time off.  Never felt better in my life.

Except in your thirties, if all you’ve done is factory work, even clean room factory work, and they throw you out like chum for the sharks, it can be an adjustment.  The vacation mentality sucks you in.  You become dependent on naps, and pretty soon you’re like Lynette.  You look at your future, and you just can’t see it.  Applying for jobs doesn’t make much difference.  All the work looks the same because you’ve never done any of it, and who really cares?  The only thing that halfway appealed to me was grinding lenses, and that was just an afternoon’s fancy.  I was killing time in a mall, wondering how come these people had time to shop, because I sure didn’t when I was working, and I knew they had jobs because they had money.  They had sacks of stuff, and I didn’t include old people, teenagers, or housewives in my count.  These were people who should have been working walking around and spending money.  Some of it was legit.  It wasn’t leisure shopping.  Take people buying glasses.  The prices are outrageous, but that’s not their fault.  They’re being gouged.  They need the product just to cope.  Like poor Ralph.  His glasses are unattractive because he makes squat at that garage.  It’s not genius work, but come on, the guy needs to see.  It’s really bad luck if you can’t afford a regular ailment.  If you’ve got a job and can’t afford it, you know something’s wrong.

I wandered into the store and stood at the wall of frames, tried some on, and looked at myself in the mirror.  Maybe I was hoping to look smarter.  I was 36.  I’ll be 38 in August.  My mom had me in the hottest month of the year.  So what was I, some Thanksgiving afterthought?

“Of course I wanted you,” my mother says.  We wanted you, on purpose.  What a terrible thing to say.”

He wanted us until we showed up, and then he left, but that’s what she tells all of us, that and, “You’re an angel on loan to earth.”

But I’m 38 almost.  I’m an asshole.  I’m a polite asshole, but I take people’s money, and actually, I just take money from them.  It’s not really theirs.  They’re taking care of it for a while.  You can’t blame them if somebody walks in with a gun and takes it.  Not once have I heard of an honest citizen losing his job because he was held up, and not once have I ever asked for a wallet or purse.  People’ve got enough problems.  They aren’t insured for this, and businesses are.  They don’t care.  It’s a nuisance, but it doesn’t happen every day.  If it does, they’ve got more problems than I’m going to cause.  I’m a part-timer.  It’s still got a thrill to it, but regular people don’t need the aggravation.  They hand their money over to a con man, that’s a different story.  They deserve what they get, or what they lose, to put it bluntly, but they don’t need some guy taking it because they’re afraid of his gun.  They work hard.  They’ve got families.

I have one brother who sells insurance.  It’s a racket, but it actually helps out.  Some people need it.  My sister eases pain when she’s not growing corn or milo or ditchweed. My other brother makes gobs of money, and I don’t even know what he does.  I never once thought to ask about his practice.  He could be proctology’s king for all I know.

But all three of them set up good lives in their twenties, and they’re doing fine.  Me, I was unemployed.  So it wasn’t my fault, but so what?  It was a stupid job when I had it.  It just paid well.  What else had I done?

Fucked my best friend’s wife.  Fucked him up.  Fucked her up.  All I got out of it was orgasms.

Hell, I could have done that myself.

That’s what I was thinking, staring in the mirror, wearing glasses I didn’t need.  They didn’t make me look any brighter, either.  My life history said I wasn’t too smart, and wearing frames without lenses just seemed to prove it.  A sales associate, some geek with a mustache he might as well pluck, asked if he could assist me.  I smiled real nice and said no, not yet, but I’d let him know.  He blinked and said thank you, like he liked rejection, and over his red-jacketed shoulder I saw the lab, a glassed-in room filled with single-operator machines.  Some looked like conveyors with troughs, but most were pieces of clean equipment you leaned into like this was your whole life.  All your attention was right there, focused.  You sank your eyes against padded cups and worked in micro-land with incremental turns of a knob.  Or maybe it was computerized.  I don’t know, because about the time this started looking good and I thought maybe I should fill out an app, I realized everybody in that productive glass box was younger than me, and I mean younger.  Ten years, fifteen, people I don’t want to talk to in a bar.  Half of them were probably still thinking about last week’s game or talking about their majors.  They looked like the kind of people who start their conversations, “I’m the kind of person who....”  No thanks.  I don’t need to hear kids tell me all about themselves, and that’s the whole point, they were kids.  That meant the wages were bad.  People my age don’t work for nothing.  They can’t afford it.  Lucky me, I can.  But I won’t.

Let’s be real.  I’m not a Gentleman Bandit.  This isn’t Robin Hood.  I’m the sole beneficiary of some high-risk work with an up and down rate of return.  I’m not systematic enough to live high off the hog.  Part of this is laziness, part’s logic.  Cop shows and movies, which in many ways are accurate, stress that partners are stupid or squeal or just can’t be trusted.  Simple incompetence can't be dismissed.  Obviously ambition’s not a major part of my make-up, so I’m not about to organize some hugely profitable machine.  That makes it a one-man show, and I’m not going to park my nice new station wagon outside a business for a week and be conspicuous as hell while I stopwatch the rate of customers and draw maps of the interior on graph paper.  This is a law of averages game.  If you don’t do anything stupid, once you get used to it things mostly look the same.  You walk in, transact some business, and leave.

We can break this down.  Entering the scene is the event upon which all else depends.  I have to feel it as something completely ordinary even though it’s absolutely alien to everyone else.  Is this job feasible?  That’s question number one.  It should be second nature.  Experience lets you check off the layout and camera and crowd control aspects.  You have entered a moment as defined and fascinating as a look through anybody’s window.  There’s this little box of activity, and suddenly you’re in it.  You’re the X-element, but you know it.  You don’t have to be any different than the situation.  You can buy a candy bar and leave, sum total business.  No one’s got a gun to your head.  But if it’s ordinary, things look safe, people are normal, proceed.  Some people will be marginal, so you make that call early, but some people won’t show it till the gun.  That’s okay.  It’s human nature.  There’s a bandwidth you can expect.  Don’t hold it against them.  This is probably something they haven’t encountered.  New stuff is scary.

A burst of intimidation can help.  I never recommend discharging a weapon, especially indoors.  There’s too much danger of ricochets, and remember, you’re leaving a piece of evidence.  That bullet will lodge someplace.  The cops will find it.  They’re not stupid.  But if somebody’s real hysterical, like they’re spooked or they’re filling up with hero juice, you can use it.  You can turn it off or turn it up.  You won’t know until you do it, but extra noise won’t hurt you.  Mostly it will unnerve them.

Shoot something that will break.  Obviously anything will break if you shoot it, but something big and noisy is best, something filled with liquid.  If you can stand there after the noise that makes people jump, I don’t care who they are, stand there with water dripping or pop running down the shelves or maybe orangeade still bubbling in the shards of a glass container, if you stand there and carry on your conversation with the clerk, everyone else is going to freeze.  It’s just too weird.  Plus there’s this.  They all want to clean up the mess, especially if it’s going drip, splat, splat, but they don’t dare.  You just might make another mess.  The next liquid they hear might be their own.  It might shoot and arc and puddle on the floor.  And if someone’s wailing after this, that’s fine, that’s the noise in the background.  They’re the audience, you’re the show, you don’t hear it.  You collect the cash, and you leave.  When you walk out, the picture behind you is the same as it was.  You’re not there anymore.

Take it upon yourself to vanish.

I have a good credit rating because I pay my bills on time.  It’s that easy.  Some people can’t figure the basics.  They think the money machines work for them.  They mope around, drink, do drugs.  That’s stuff you’ve got to grow out of, or manage.  Moping around’s the hardest because the cure’s so simple.  Get up and do something, even if it’s pointless.  Make sure you shave in the morning.  Go buy a paper.  You let the lethargy take over, and you’ll start believing in fate.  Then who do you blame?  You don’t get anything done.

Drinking helps you mope, of course.  I know.  I was a champion.  Pitchers and pitchers went down.  I had my pre-beer beer in the afternoons, which moved earlier in the day, until I was popping one open well before lunch.  My point of pride was that at least I’d eat breakfast.

My mother, of all people, broke me of that.

Broke me of pride, I guess, and broke me of drinking.  Or maybe I mean she introduced pride, or something.  She made me ashamed.

“Pull yourself together,” she told me.  “You act like a man who’s just been divorced.”

“Good one, Ma, coming from you.”

And she slapped me.

It was the first full-grown insult I’d ever handed her and the first full-grown response I’d ever received.  Suddenly both of us saw the adult in the other.  We saw real people, capable of pain.  Not just of hurting, but inflicting, and neither one of us, anymore, was in the mood to suffer.

I quit drinking.  It was an embarrassment to her, a son who couldn’t walk a straight line half an hour after lunch.  She didn’t know why alcohol took me over, but she was thrilled that I let it go.  As long as I seemed like a solid citizen she could look me in the eye.  She didn’t know about behavior that was easier to hide, and when unemployment hit, she was impressed I handled it so well.  She didn’t know about the steely thrill of cheating guilt.

People in their thirties don’t drop off the tax rolls.  You can’t start living on off-the-record income.  It looks too suspicious.  Some computer screen will glow.  Some accountant’s eyes will narrow.  The trick is always to look like normal life.  Sure, it’s boring, but it pays the bills with a minimum of trouble.  You want excitement?  Rob a bank.

But that’s not a good idea.  Leave that to the pros, who rarely touch them.  Be a doofus like that and every TV set in town’ll run your mug shot.  The bills are marked, they’ll spray gunk on you, and the cops are usually quick.  For a shot of adrenaline, it’s not worth the effort.  Little stores, though, some bars, even movie theaters, there’s nothing like it.  You walk in, take their cash, you get away with it.  That’s half the fun.  It’s like adultery.  Do you really do it for the sex?  Do you need the money?

Only at first.

Then it’s acquisition.  It’s sheer joy.  You can do it forever.  You grab all you want.

I’ve been making pizzas.  It’s a Joe Blow job.  I’m a Joe Blow.  I do the day shift, the occasional night, and make real good sauce.  I introduced anise to the recipe and sales picked up.  Our noon rush starts at 11:00 and sometimes goes till 2:00 or 2:30.  My boss thinks I’m God’s gift.  Business is great and he can trust me.  He’s free to leave, go bet on the dogs.  That doesn’t start till 4:00 or 5:00, so I know he’s having some drinks, but he’s out of our hair, so who cares?  He’s nice enough, but no one wants their boss hanging around.  His name’s Morrie.  He’s one of those bandy-legged old Jewish guys with a straw hat that never leaves his head.  They’ll bury him in it.  His pants and jacket are powder blue, and he walks real slow.  He drives a big white Caddy with JO JO on the plates.  Jo Jo’s the original owner, dead some thirty years, but his name’s still on the sign.  “Customer recognition,” says Morrie.  I think he writes his plates off as advertising.  They’ll never catch him.  He’s too small-time.

Jo Jo’s picture’s by the counter, next to the occupancy and health certificates you have to post in a conspicuous place.  He was handsome even in his older years, and he spent a fortune on his clothes.  Even in a 40-year-old photo, you can tell his suit was expensive.  There’s nothing wrong with his restaurant now, but you get the feeling he ran a higher class of place.  He looks pretty Old World.  I’d guess that same picture’s hanging down at the Sons of Italy Hall.

One afternoon I was working in back and heard some guy come in demanding to see Jo Jo.  His name was probably LaRon or Tyree, so I had a good idea he and the original Jo Jo wouldn’t have been pals.  He and Morrie, definitely not.  Francine behind the register wasn’t fond of him, either.  He had a 9-mm he waved around like some people gesture with a cigarette.  I don’t think he was cranked, I think he was nervous.  He looked new at the job.  In fact, he got caught half a block away.  It didn’t occur to him to put the gun in his pocket.  He was tromping around with it in one hand and our zipper bag from the bank in the other.  Some cops hit pay dirt driving down the street.

“Hey, Fred, get a load of this.”

Whaddya think, Barney?  Should we bust him?”

“I’m wit’ choo, Fred.”


Francine was cool, calm, collected, no problem.  She told him Jo Jo was dead and Morrie was out.  Would he like to make an appointment?

This wasn’t in the script in his head.  He stared.  She’s got this broad, flat face, kind of luminously white except for the red vein scrapings on her nose.  Her hair is stacked up and could be any color.  That day it was orange.  He looked at her, and I stayed quiet behind the Hobart, peeking around it for witness purposes later and, also, to assess the competition, but staying quiet and out of easy sight.

I’ve got no more interest in getting shot than anybody else.

Personally, I’d never run into a Francine before, either.  Make an appointment?  What kind of crap was that?  He was flummoxed.  He just had her put the money in the bag.  He didn’t even bring his own.  She probably blinked twice in the three minutes he was there.

Why anise?  I saw it in a cookbook and it stuck.  That’s why I applied at Jo Jo’s.  I saw the sign, “COOK WANTED,” and remembered I knew a recipe.  I’d seen it at a mall, same situation as the eyeglasses, doing something with my day.  I thumbed through sale books.  Two months later I’m employed.

It helps.  You need the routine.

I’ll admit it now, though.  I don’t keep up with the papers.  I read the funnies every day, glance at the headlines, sometimes look at the fillers.  I couldn’t care less about sports.  I like bus plungings.  They get two or three lines, depending on how much space it takes to spell the name of the country.  It’s usually some postage stamp place with more people per city block than I’ll meet in my entire life.  The headlines tend to be “46 Die” because a bus plunged off a cliff or a winding mountain road.  Sometimes I wonder if the death toll includes chickens and goats, but the only detail you ever get is if it’s a soccer team or a pack of schoolchildren.  Then I figure no livestock.  I see five or six bus plungings a year, which must translate worldwide into 15 or 20 at least.  The paper’s not going to carry them all.

Most news you don’t need to follow every day.  It’s soap opera or so far outside your control it doesn’t matter.  Nasty trials or insane, demented crime, that’s something else, but you don’t need to track it day-by-day because it is the topic of conversation.  If you don’t know about the kid who zaps his mom with a stun gun and then stabs her to death while she’s crying, “I hate you, I hate you,” or about the farmer who shoots two lawyers before one of them runs him down with a Buick because there’s a dispute over stable fees, don’t worry, you will.  Somebody will mention it, and they’ll love telling it to you.  They won’t believe you haven’t heard.  It’s like their own personal gossip, and then you can find the story while they look on.  They’ll tell you all their favorite quotes and the really weird part, the part they love.  “Here’s the kicker,” they say, and you stand there shaking your heads.

I used to read about my little robberies but broke the habit early.  The money was one thing, and the guilty, smug joy was another, but fame junkies never make it.  My hands would shake on days I expected a squib.  That’s unprofessional.  It makes you a menace to yourself.  You can’t be a criminal if you want to hear how you did.

Francine kept the week’s papers at one end of the bar.  She knew I was slow and might not see Tuesday’s paper till Friday, but this wasn’t a favor for me.  She rolled them into fireplace logs which she sold at a Saturday morning flea market.  Obviously she picked up papers elsewhere.  Even if all of us brought one in every day, a week’s worth at Jo Jo’s wouldn’t keep her stocked past 8:00 or 9:00 in the morning.  She sets up at 7:00.  She’s Booth 56, and her earnings got her out to Vegas twice a year until Deadwood opened, which is just as nice, she says, and don’t believe what you hear about Sturgis.

“Some of them boys are a little wild, but it’s a party.  Some of them girls, too, but they’re as nice and American as you can be.  I met a mayor up there, kind of looked like a frog except with fish lips.  He had a $14,000 Harley.”

Francine’s hair that day was yellow running to green.  Something must have slipped in the mix.  She asked me did I want these papers before she stacked them.  I said sure.  Morrie was gone.  No one’d ordered a pizza in an hour.  It was an awfully hot day.

The first page I looked at was business news three days old.  Normally I don’t even see it.  Stocks and futures and funds are columns of tiny print to me.  The stories are dry, but this one took up more than an inch.  It was in a box and ran across three columns.  I just started reading it.  Some guy’d invented some process, some digital enhancement device, and we got the rundown on his kitchen table struggles with components purchased and modified, his homebrew software, all because he thought it should be done and didn’t know it couldn’t.  He was like a local Wozniak, and then I read the name.  I saw it was him.

Married, two kids, and now he was richer than snot.  God damn him, he’d done it.  Lynette always hated the circuit boards and little tools.  She said he was a robot, and these were his internal organs.  I have to admit, they took a lot of his time, but she was wrong.  They didn’t mean he didn’t love her.  He just hadn’t learned love isn’t automatic.

“I’m here,” he said.  “I stay here.  I don’t even know why.  That isn’t proof?”

That was how he was stupid back then.  My route was to ruin his life.  It wasn’t singlehanded, but I hated him for letting me.

Never do anything you’ll be ashamed of, that’s my advice.

He should have hit me.  He should have yelled.  I was sleeping with his wife, and maybe she was right.  Maybe he didn’t have a normal heart.  All programs executed as launched, that’s what he figured.  You get married, you stay married.  No one strays.  His little zeros and ones followed a straight path, and I had to be the one to tell him no, not always.  It’s not just a glitch.  Some things really fail.  It was my midnight confession that broke the news.  You damn, dumb fool.  Why couldn’t you have the decency to see it?

I wasn’t raised to be a bachelor or a 37-year-old lowlife, but there I was, working a dead afternoon at Jo Jo’s, with Morrie off getting snockered and Francine planted motionless except for one slow, even flap of the newspaper every two minutes when she finished a page.  She smacked her lips and sighed, raised her eyebrows, and then it was hands in her lap again as she started down the columns.  The air-conditioner was a steady hiss, and in the paper my old best friend was getting the royal treatment he actually deserved.

They listed his address.  I jotted it down, and on the way home I bought a postcard.  A restaurant up the street had a big plastic cow on its roof.  It was sort of a shrine, or that’s what we used to joke.  It survived a tornado maybe fifteen years ago when the surrounding three blocks were rubble.  The owners got famous cooking free lunches for the clean-up crews.  Jo Jo’s was spared, too, Francine says, but Morrie just shut down for vacation.  The hub of activity was that plastic cow the size of a tank.  We used to drive by when it was lighted at night and imagine flocks of pilgrims come for its blessing.  They’d climb an aluminum ladder left by the workers and prostrate themselves at the plastic udders for the holy drops appearing there like the Virgin’s tears.  The lame would walk.  The blind would see.  Moo.

The postcard was a cheesy nighttime shot with the aging plastic now glowing kind of orange.  I wrote a nice, congratulatory note.  We hadn’t talked in years.  We tried, but he was too normal.  I called him one night, drunk on champagne Lynette had opened to celebrate their divorce but didn’t touch after she and I clinked glasses.  She went out instead, and I wasn’t invited.  I sat there by myself and knocked off half the bottle before I called him about 12:10.  It was his first full day divorced, he might as well know.  We drank plenty, but he took the news like he’d known all along, and that wasn’t true.  I knew that, but he never raised his voice, never complained, never asked, What the hell were you doing?  I’d see him and he’d look like always, except he’d look right through me.  He’d see me, but I didn’t matter.  He was stuck with the world as it was.  I was part of it.  We talked, we made our tired jokes, and then one day we hadn’t seen each other in a month, and then it was a year, and there was no sense breaking the streak.

I didn’t have a stamp.  I didn’t even know the postage, so I carried it around for a long time.  I put it in my pocket every day.  It stuck up like handkerchiefs used to in suits.  I never thought of it except morning and night or when somebody came up and grabbed it.  Morrie, for instance, always had to have a look.

“Hey, what’s this?” he’d say.  “Who’s this guy?”  He’d flip it over and actually read it, but Morrie’s got no manners.  Pretty soon you don’t even notice.  He read my postcard every day, at least once, often twice, and he’d say, “Who is this guy?”

“You don’t know him,” I’d say.

“I’m gettin’ to.  It’s the same damn message.  I’d tired of looking at it.”

“Give it here then and I’ll mail it.”

“I bet you don’t.  I bet I see it tomorrow.”

“I’m not a betting man, Morrie.”

“It’s a good thing.  You’d lose your shirt.  Tuck yours in, too.  You think I wanta see the crack of  your ass?”

That’s my callipygian cleft, I told him.  Got a doctor and a nurse in the family, you pick up a few things, but he was right.  I’d have lost the bet.  That postcard stayed in my pocket like I was afraid to lose it.  It got beat up and spattered and unpresentable.  Kitchen work is like a whirlwind without any force.  It’s all debris.  It jumps on you, and your clothes stink, but it’s okay.  I’d go back now in a second.  I could stand some dishwasher steam, and those cans of tomato sauce as big around as hubcaps are kind of comforting if you look at them right.  But they’re a prime example, too.  They’ll spit at you.  That vacuum-pack can blows hard once you break the seal.  I got a big splot of the stuff on my shirt, right on my pocket, and sopped the corner of my card.  I wiped it off, but it turned soft and mushy.  And it’s true, too, my handwriting was looking pretty old.  Not faded, like Civil War diaries, but kind of static.  The words shrank.  They looked flat on the page.  They weren’t fresh enough to mean much, so I guess I knew I wouldn’t really send it.  Congratulations, I wrote, Looks like I didn’t mess up your life for good.  Not for lack of effort, ha-ha.  I tried, but I didn’t want to face him, not even in the mail.  But a charm can lose its magic, right?  A piece of the true Cross is still a chunk of wood.  Which doesn’t mean dispose of it, and it might mean nobody else better try.  That thing stayed in my pocket until Ralph snatched it.  Or was it Merle?  I guess it was Merle.  But Ralph’s a smart guy.  He should have stopped him.

Let me state the obvious.  Guys who work outside appreciate cooperative weather.  Construction and road crews aren’t all I mean.  The cart kids at grocery stores, they’re in and out.  It’s hard.  Same thing with gas stations or the ear muff guys at airports with the lighted batons.  Better money, but it’s still not for me.  If I’d liked Boy Scouts, I’d have joined the Army.  This in-the-field stuff is 100 percent discomfort.  That’s why I like my car.  It’s a late model wagon, still on warranty.  Repairs are free.  If I have to leave town, I pull over and sleep in back.  I don’t have to camp just to stretch out.

Ralph, I could tell as the first drop splattered on my windshield, was in a good mood.  He’s a funny-looking guy.  He’s got glasses and Dagwood hair, except it’s greasy, like he tried not to let it stick out, and his face bones make you think of a squared-off funnel.  The wide end’s attached to his head, and then you get these irregular flat surfaces that narrow toward his mouth and chop off at his lips.  You don’t see him working in an office.  He’s too goofy-looking.  People would treat him bad.  Nice guy, though.  Big grin, too, which was slitting his face open as he looked at the sky.  It hadn’t rained yet, not till now, when he’s closing, and it’s looked like it all day.  As I’m pulling in, the big sign blinks off.

Perfect.  Company’s not likely.  This is a tiny station on the edge of a town on one of those backwoods highways people take for the scenery or they’re locals and know their way around.  No mom and dad’ll come barging in.  I usually vote against gas stations, but I’d been with my mother the whole weekend.  It was her anniversary, and I spent more on dinner than I expected.  She was wallowing in misery about her abandonment, about 35 years without a word, and I didn’t help by saying, “Thirty-five years is half a life.  You should get on with yours.”  I’d lost patience.  She was blaming herself for my misery, too.

“You’re making pizzas, Andy.  You’re smarter than that.  If you’re making pizzas, at least run the business.  Make the money off it.  You’re going to need the money.  You’re getting older.”

I held my tongue.  I didn’t mention I didn’t have kids and didn’t need that much money, because she was right, I did need the money, and I didn’t mention the no kids or else I’d remind her I had no wife.  She was thinking it anyway.  She was also holding her tongue.

And I am getting older.  I really failed strategic planning.

So that was the weekend.  I was on my way home.  The needle’s down to E, I’ve got three hours to go and two bucks in my pocket.  And a gun I tuck in my belt, flat on my stomach, under my shirt.

I parked at the side pump so they couldn’t see the plates, got out and waved to Ralph, put my palm out, and pointed at the sky.  “You still open?”

He whistled back the first line of Singin’ in the Rain and said, “You’re just under the wire.”  He patted the yellow display box and said, “You need wipers?”

I shook my head and filled the tank.  The rain was making noise now, a tap like aluminum pie plates.  It wouldn’t be long.  If I timed it right, I could get in there, take the money, and leave in the initial downpour.  They couldn’t possibly see my plates.  I’d drive toward the interstate, make them think I took that, and still drive the two-lanes all the way home.  I felt the gas wobble through the pipe, and then the nozzle clicked.  I squeezed in an extra six cents and hustled in to the register.

This heavy-set guy with puffball sideburns stood behind the counter.  He was a mess, but his shirt was immaculate.  Industrial blue, creased sleeves, and the red name “George” above a pocket holding one pencil, one tire gauge, and a screwdriver, but you’d have to scrape the sludge off his hands.  On the counter was an open candy bar he broke squares off of with the one clean spot on his thumb.  In one went.  He said, “We’re closed.”

He was filthy.  He was like my brothers’ kids, dirt from head to toe.  So he works in a garage, okay, but he’s smacking his lips the whole time, and I could see the chocolate churning on his tongue.  It turned my stomach.  I couldn’t stand the guy.

“No, you’re not,” I said.  “You’re not closed.”

“The sign’s off.”  He pointed a grease-caked hand.

“Don’t fuck with me, George.”

“My name’s Merle.”

I looked at his chest.  “Your shirt says ‘George’.”

“He’s dead.”

You planning to join him?”

“He’s the only guy whose shirt fit.  They’re property of the station.  We’re closed.  My name is Merle.”

Oxygen thief, I thought.  Dumb as a post.

A clap of thunder rattled all the shelves.  The rain dropped down in earnest.

“Let me tell you something, Merle.  I’ve already pumped the gas.  That’s item number one.”

The door from the bays swung open.  There was Ralph, hair soaked and glasses spotted.  Some other Broadway song whistled out of his funnel-lipped mouth.

“Is your name Ralph?” I said.

“Of course,” he replied, running a finger over his name.

“We’re closed, Ralph.”  Merle snapped off a square of chocolate.  “He already pumped his gas.”

“Then take his money.”

“No, you don’t get it.  I’m taking your money.”  I hauled out the gun and aimed it right at Merle’s nose.

“You can’t do that,” he said.  The chocolate flipped off his thumb into his mouth.

“I’ve got the gun.  I can do whatever I want.”

“No, what he means, mister,” said Ralph, “is the money’s in the safe.  We can’t get to it.”  He was looking at me steady.  He needed me to believe it.

“Why didn’t you tell me that while I was pumping the gas?  How were you going to make my change?”

He reached in his pocket for some bills and coins he almost dropped.  “I’ve got a little bit here.  I figured you’d pay with a twenty.”

It made so damn much sense I couldn’t stand it.  He was closing.  He’d bill this purchase tomorrow.  Of course.

Merle was staring at me like I had a name tag, too.  Ralph whistled something out of Guys and Dolls, that tune with the chorus, “Can do!”  He said, “Tell you what, we can give you the gas and call it even.  And you can have this.  It’s all I’ve got.”  He showed me his handful of money.  “Okay?  Please?”

“Piece of chocolate?” said Merle.  He lifted his thumb in my direction.  The square on it looked like a little graduation cap minus the tassel.  Plus he still was staring at my chest.  The rain drummed around us.  It was hot and humid.  I wanted to kill him.

I never felt that way in my life.  I mean I really wanted to kill him.  It was right there.  I was aimed and ready.  My finger hooked around that trigger.  A centimeter’s pressure, that’s all I needed.  I could feel it.

I didn’t have the strength.  I was rock hard from finger to gut, like it was one solid piece.  It just stayed there, apart from me, like all my muscles were detached.  I couldn’t pull my finger.  I couldn’t even lower my arm.

That’s all that saved his life as he offered me that chocolate.  I just couldn’t move.

Ralph said, “This isn’t the time, Merle.  Why don’t you eat it yourself?”

Merle looked like he’d been told he couldn’t have supper.  Like something he’d done all his life was suddenly wrong.

“It’s all yours, Merle,” Ralph said gently.  “Go ahead,” and he nodded.

Merle stuck his thumb forward again, like I might lean down and lip the chocolate off it.  I just stared.  It was like the gun didn’t exist.  He didn’t even see it.

He looked all right.  He wasn’t Mongoloid.  He looked normal.

“Okay,” he said and goobered it right down, staring at my chest.

I looked at Ralph.  He was watching Merle.  They weren’t father and son, they were too close in age, but they weren’t two guys who happened to have the same job, either, or they weren’t anymore.  They could live here forever.  Maybe not.  One might die or move.  They might split up, but they weren’t capable of doing any harm.  Merle couldn’t hurt anyone.  Ralph, I think, could, but he’d have to have a reason, something more than opportunity, more than a side-effect because he was having fun, because he liked getting away with it.  That didn’t make him noble, but it doesn’t say much for me.

This all happened in seconds.

“You ever eat there?” said Merle.  “I ate there once.”

His greasy black hand crossed toward my chest, and I stepped back, but Ralph jumped forward.  From dead standing still he was airborne.

Merle’s voice said, “They got a cow on their roof.  Can I see that card?  They got real good food.  I ate there once.”

I felt Merle’s hand, but it was Ralph I watched.  His head was fat and slow in wide open space.  He sailed toward me.  He kept coming.  I smacked him hard with my gun hand, and he dropped.

“Ralph!” Merle said.  He had the postcard clamped in his hand.  “What did you do to Ralph?”

Ralph didn’t twitch.  He didn’t even moan.  His glasses were gone, and a black gash of blood opened on the side of his head.  It turned bright red on the floor.

I got down on my knees.  Ralph’s cheek already was a softball, and I’d never seen those colors in skin.  They were internal colors, blacks and purples and reds you’d expect if you opened a corpse.  Colors only medics should see.

Merle said, “He needs an ambulance.  I’m calling an ambulance.”

I pulled off my shirt and pressed it to Ralph’s head.  He didn’t even flinch.  He was breathing, though.  I could feel it lift across my skin.  Merle hung up the phone, and I told him, “Get me some towels.  Open the door and get me some towels.  Go to the restroom and get me some towels,” and I stayed there, on the floor, waiting to hear in the crashing rain the rising wail of sirens.