I’ve ported over a piece of old short fiction, “To A Good Home“, from the old Blogspot site.
I referred to it in 2003, so it’s only you Johnny-come-latelys, John, who might have missed it.
Okay, so I got nothing this weekend. Here, have a short story. This particular piece piggybacked on a piece I wrote while in high school, not that anyone knew it. "Shepherd: At College" represents the second Jim Shepherd story, which chronicles the adventures of a young man who grew up reading too many hard-boiled detective adventures. This story represents one of my
many publication credits, as it appeared in the Spring 1994 Marquette Journal. Lest you forget because this is the Internet, friends, the following piece is copyright 1992 Brian J. Noggle, and it should not appear on your Web sites without my permission until, as Disney rules are in effect, 2999 AD.
Dark rolled down outside the blinds of the little coffee house I was sitting in. I was trying to stare wistfully into my drink, which was difficult because it was a flattening Cherry Coke served in a paper cup with a strange dichromatic ocean picture that became clear only after you stared at it a while. Maybe it really wasn’t an ocean scene. Maybe that’s only what I saw after staring at it a long time. I was swaying in time with the bluesy jazzy poppy music they piped in to the joint, swaying and looking wistfully into a paper cup of soda. It was not one of my better days. Then she walked in.
Her heels clicked to a stop on the fake brick floor just inside the door. She shimmered. She glistened. The room coalesced and kaleidoscoped. She did other things in the light that made my eyes hurt. And I had only been drinking Cherry Coke. She swirled a glance over the accumulated misfits and might have lingered on me for a minute. I wish. I straightened up and shoved my hat back. A macho enough gesture, but the hat was kind of tight and moving it back hurt a bit, so she would have no idea how macho it really was. I ran my fingers along my hairline and pulled my hat down. It hurt.
What would Spenser do? He’d go over and say, “Want to see me do a one-armed push-up?” and she would giggle and he would snap off ten. Spenser was a wuss. I could do one-armed push-ups two at a time. I decided against the gesture. She’d just think it was macho posturing or something. Besides, ten is an awfully high number and she might get bored in the middle of my macho posturing.
As it were, I just tipped my chair back against the pseudo-brick wall and leaned my head back. The brim of my hat hit the wall and the hat slid painfully down over my eyes. Mike Hammer never had this problem. I coolly chicked the front legs of my chair back down and shoved my hat back. Her back was to me as she paid for some coffee concoction with a crisp fiver. Good.
She looked over the room and looked at the empty table next to me. It was the only one in the place. Our eyes met and I felt the electricity. She looked around again, probably to make sure that everyone was watching as she swanked deliberately over to the table. It was hard for her to decide whether to sit across the table so she could see me or on the side nearest me, and she settled on sitting with her back to me, acting coy and indifferent but handy when I wanted to strike up a conversation.
She was doing a good job on the cool thing. She didn’t even turn half way and look out at the room so she watch me out of the corner of the eye. She was good at this game, but I was better.
“Excuse me, do you know what time it is?” I asked her.
She didn’t even glance at the little Seiko on her wrist. “No.” she said.
Hard to get, I thought. I knew the thing. The harder I chase her, the more I’ll like it when she gave in. And she could check out just how much I liked her in just how hard I chased her. An ego thing. I was one step ahead of her.
“Shepherd’s the name,” I said as she spread a New Yorker on the table in front of her. “Jim Shepherd,” I said after a dramatic pause, a pause made more dramatic when she hadn’t said anything. Or even looked at me.
“Good for you,” she said.
“And you are?”
A big jockish looking guy came over to her table. “Hi, Sharon,” he said. “How ya doing?”
“Great,” she said.
Great, I thought.
“I’m headed over to Duffy’s. Want to come along?” Jock Boy said. Sure, if he didn’t have those muscles and all that where would he be?
“Thank God,” she said, closing her New Yorker slipping it into her bag. She turned and they walked out. She started talking as they were out of earshot. I watched them leave, and I have to say I enjoyed it.
Sharon. I liked the name Sharon. I liked Sharon. At least it wouldn’t be one of those lingering, clinging things. She and Jocko turned the corner and were gone. But not forgotten. I wondered if she were a freshperson. That would give me four years. Plenty of time. It was going to be a good four years. Oh, those blue eyes, I thought and I would have sighed except I’m a tough guy.
I looked at my soda. It was almost empty. I could use another pretty soon, but the tap was so far away. A little red bird was flying across the sky on the cup, and it wasn’t getting anywhere. Tough luck. I was sympathizing with that bird when she walked in.
She seemed to seep into the room like a fog. A mist of perfume, hair that rolled from her head like a dark warmth, and a presence that crept before her and lingered after she left. She glanced over the room and her big brown eyes flowed over me like molasses. They might have syrupped on me for a moment, but it might have been just me. She looked at the table next to me, the only empty one in the joint, and she cascaded over. I took a healthy slug of my Cherry Coke. What would Philip Marlowe do? I wondered.
I’m still cleaning out my inventory of old short stories; this one, too, dates from college, and it, too, is copyright 1992.
Grey like a battleship. Grey like a piece of granite. Grey like an elephant’s tough hide, and usually in my case almost as wrinkled. That’s what my uniform looks like. Actually it’s a blue-grey, a blue grey like nothing else but a postal carrier’s uniform. So it was.
I liked the job, carrying letters. I felt like the bearer of tidings from far away places, like an unstoppable force. Through rain, sleet, and snow I walked my route, delivering letters and stuff, mostly bills and junk mail, but sometimes letters and cards. Nothing could stop me. I was like that great battleship, ploughing through the waves, carrying the letters no matter what. Rain and snow slowed me down a little bit. Dogs sometimes, too, but I was behind the grey uniform and the little can of mace, so I was safe.
I like the neighborhood I carry in. It’s a nice almost suburban neighborhood up in 53225, townhouses and duplexes with a couple regular houses. A nice quiet corner of the city, but I guess no corner of the city is all that quiet all the time.
The winter parka was warm on me as I walked along. I think it was November, one of the first cold days of the year. The sun had shined a little, but the clouds were rolling in. The winter parka was a bluer grey than the summer shirt, but it was warmer and thicker. I was carrying my bag over my right shoulder and I liked the tug. Sometimes I loaded it extra heavy, because I figured that I was keeping in shape walking all the time, I might as well get big shoulders, but my shoulders never did get that big, and it would have only been the right shoulder anyway, so it was just as good.
I was whistling something stupid like I normally do when it’s the beginning of winter and just getting cold enough to make my cheeks red and just cold enough for the parka. I got to my favorite corner of the neighborhood, up on 100th Street, right behind the park, Little Menomonie, I mean. It’s a nice neighborhood. There’s apartment buildings, but they’re good enough people.
I was walking along, whistling something stupid, something by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, I think. I was counting the mail and sorting it by house, counting it to see who got the most mail and what they got. It’s not like I was keeping tabs or anything, I was just looking mostly at the covers of the magazines that I came across. Tom Filbin, one of the people on my route, always got the best magazines. He got Discover and Smithsonian all the time, and Smithsonian always has the neatest covers. I like Us and People sometimes, when they have really pretty movie stars on them, but Cyrus Stevens came later in the route, and it was too late in the month to be getting a magazine anyway.
I was walking along, counting and sorting mail, and thinking about the houses coming up. The walk down the street was on the side with all the apartments, the evens, and the walk back was on the side with the townhouses, the odd side. I had already finished the apartments, and I crossed the street down by where it dead-ends. It doesn’t actually dead-end, but the street ends and another comes in by the corner, so it’s not like a dead end at all.
I was thinking about the houses coming up, which I sometimes do, but generally I only think about the people I know. Some people on a mail route like to meet me at the door, like they lived waiting for me. It was my letters and stuff, I know, but sometimes they were friendly and said hi to me and stuff, and we’d talk for a second about the weather, usually as I was walking up their sidewalk or onto their porch. Sometimes I’d get to know them a little better and I’d stop to talk to them for a minute or two when I get ahead of my schedule. One lady on 107th gave me a Christmas card last year, her face crinkling up when she smiled. She invited me in for coffee one day, like I sometimes hear they do in the rural areas, and it was an old house and an old woman, so she probably did the same thing twenty years ago when this area was still fields and a little river. I thanked her, but I was late, so I told her some other time maybe, and I kept going.
I was thinking about one house that was coming up, mainly because there was a pretty lady that lived there, and I liked to talk to the young ladies as much as anyone else. Maybe more. Bikorsky once told me about a pretty lady meeting him at a door on his route in a thin flannel nightgown. I don’t believe a word of anything Bikorsky tells me, besides, I just like to see them smile and say hi. This particularly lady was not home, but I generally only see her on Saturdays anyway. It was a Wednesday, I think, and I was silly to think she’d meet me at the door anyway.
I walked on, still whistling “I Heard It Through The Grapevine”, probably because the second to last house on the block had a vine growing up the side of it. I don’t think it was a grapevine, but in the summer it made the house look distinguished and old. Like something that would be growing on Harvard or Yale or something. Vines just made me think of Harvard and Yale.
I dropped the mail in the boxes on the third to last house, no magazines or packages, so they fit right in nicely and I could be on my way like a grey ghost, unseen and spreading the first Christmas cheer. Like the ghost of Christmas Present. I could see the browning leaves on the side of the next house, and I was whistling “I Heard It Through The Grapevine”.
I was sorting through the mail, whistling, and I counted out three envelopes and a big bulk rate card for the left side and only the bulk rate card for the right. I walked up the driveway, carefully. I’m always careful and I don’t walk across the lawns like some carriers do, they sometimes save time by cutting across the grass so they can get to their trucks and have a cigarette or warm up. I don’t smoke, like I said I’m trying to stay in shape, and the extra walking was good for my heart.
I was walking up the driveway, thinking about the house a bit I suppose. I hadn’t seen any of the occupants very much, not with a Christmas card, a cup of coffee, or a flannel nightgown. I had seen the lady on the right once, a young lady about twenty-five. She didn’t smile and only seemed to open the door when I was there by accident. She wasn’t very pretty, but she didn’t smile, and I like to see the young ladies smile. I said hi and handed her her mail, and she said thank you, and I smiled and turned around and continued with my route. That had been in the summer, and I was wearing my lighter summer shirt, crisp and clean like the air.
I was walking up to the mailboxes, kind of looking at the ivy leaves and thinking they should be cut in the winter or something, but if they were, they’d have to grow back all in the spring. I filled the left side first, because the driveway is on the left and the walk comes up from the driveway, and I never cross the lawn.
I was crossing the porch and looking at the ivy and thinking it should be trimmed. It kind of blended with the brick, though, so it didn’t look all that bad, but up close I could see the dead leaves better, and I wondered if it would look better if they were all pulled off, the dead leaves I mean. They surrounded the front window and made it look like Yale in the summer.
I was putting the mail in the mailbox, the one card, and looking at the ivy around the window. The curtains were half open, pink curtains, like the last part of a sunrise. Yale doesn’t have pink curtains, I don’t think, but the right side of this townhouse wasn’t Yale, and I wasn’t whistling any more. I had gotten to the part of the song I forgot, so I stopped whistling entirely. The air was stilling chilling my cheeks, but I wasn’t whistling.
I was closing the mailbox, looking at the window, and thinking about Yale and pink curtains when he hit her.
They had been in the living room, mostly hidden behind the pink curtains and the vine-covered brick wall when I came up, and now he was yelling at her, but I really didn’t hear it until I saw him hit her.
It was a slap, not a punch or anything, but it knocked her down.
I could hear him yelling at her still, or more, like a maniac. She didn’t try to get up, but he bent over and grabbed her by the shoulders and picked her up. He wasn’t that much bigger than she was, but big enough, probably not as big as he thought he was. He started shaking her, and her head bounced back and forth, her brown hair bouncing over her blue covered shoulders, over his white knuckles. He shouted something right in her crying face and threw her back onto the couch, behind the curtain.
I could have knocked on the door and demanded to know what was going on. I had my mace, what could he have done to me with a faceful of mace?
I could have knocked on the door and acted like I had a package for them. I did have a little box in my bag for someone around the corner. I could have asked for him to sign for it but then acted like I realized the box wasn’t for him. He might have gotten mad at me then and yelled at me and forgotten about her or something.
I could have gone back to my truck and radioed for the dispatch to call the police and maybe kept an eye on them to make sure he didn’t really hurt her until the police came. Or something.
I closed the mailbox softly so that they wouldn’t hear, and I turned around and continued with my route like a battle-scarred battleship limping through a storm and toward drydock. Like a grey fog rolling through the neighborhood, unimposing and unnoticed. Like an old man in a parka too big for him.
I’m recycling more college material here. Heck if I know what made me write this story, but I did. It’s entitled “Not Between Friends”, and it, too, is copyright 1992 Brian J. Noggle.
Shelly and I had been friends for two and a half years, which was only two and a half years, but a lot of our lives to that point. We’re still friends, as far as I know, but subtle doubts and darknesses have crept into what our friendship was.
Shelly is a lesbian, which was the third thing I knew about her. The first thing I knew was that she was drop dead beautiful, at least to me at that time. Blonde hair clipped short, almost scalped. Long slender arms reached for mailbox 2B, and long trim legs carried up the stairs to apartment 2B, one floor above mine. The second thing I knew about her was her apartment number, and my first conclusion was that I would have to stop by sometime soon.
I did stop by the next morning, to borrow some sugar. I was new in the apartment building, so I thought it would be a good excuse to go around introducing myself, and I figured that asking to borrow a cup of sugar would be trite enough so that she would see through it and know I had an ulterior motive. So I rapped on her door at eight-oh-nine on that September morning.
“Hi, can I borrow a cup of sugar?” I asked when she opened the door, dressed in an oversized shirt and bunny slippers.
“A cup of sugar?” she asked. She was three quarters of the way made up. Her eyes were highlighted expertly, and I felt like I might wilt under their inquisitive gaze.
“Yeah, I know it sounds corny, but I just moved in downstairs, and when I stocked my apartment, I remembered the coffee, but I forgot the sugar. I just moved in downstairs. 1B. My name is Andrew Saroll, but people still call me Andy.”
“Nobody downstairs had any?” she asked, cocking her head to the side. Well, so much for the cover story.
“There was nobody downstairs I really wanted to introduce myself to,” I said.
“And you wanted to introduce yourself to me?” she asked.
“Why?” Point blank. No way to dodge a point blank question.
“I saw you getting your mail, and I said to myself, now there is the kind of woman you can settle down with in a small rural home and raise prize-winning samoyeds with. Or at least ask to a dinner in the most expensive restaurant I can afford. How about it? You free tonight, or tomorrow, or any time in October?”
She looked amused. Not a good sign. “I’d love a free dinner, but I’d hate to wreck your samoyed dreams. I wouldn’t be interested in settling down with you.”
“Oh,” I said.
“It’s nothing with you,” she said with a strange smile. “I’m a lesbian.” Another point-blank.
“Oh,” I said, “What a relief.”
“Most guys say ‘waste’.”
“Well, I am trying to project a mature viewpoint here. True beauty is never wasted.”
“So you’re a mature flatterer. I can handle that. So when is this free meal?”
I set it up for the following evening, and I did treat her to the most expensive restaurant I could afford, which happened to be one of those sit-down fast-food joints where the soup of the day is made several weeks in advance.
I did manage to get her name, Shelly Stevens, and her profession, telemarketer. She was just out of college, which put her one up on me, and she was very frank, which put her a second up on me. We got to be pretty good friends, which is an understatement, because she was the only friend I had in the building, and one of the few I had in the city I chose to make my collegiate home.
I met her before my sophomore year, back when I was young and cocky. It’s now the middle of the summer before my senior year, and I guess I’m still young, and maybe a little cockier now than I had been. During the two years before I left for my internship here in New York, like I said, we got to be pretty close.
It was Shelly who took me out to the bars when I turned twenty-one. We hit a few of the neighborhood bars, which were pretty jumping. We both managed to find our apartments, but if we hadn’t cooperated on finding our building, I don’t think either of us would have made it.
Some people might ask me how I became that good of friends with a lesbian, as if it were something strange or unholy, which I suppose it is to a lot of people. When you go back and try to find the reason you become friends with anybody, you can’t really trace it to a specific. I guess it was because we met, and we clicked. She told me that I was too long-term up front, that when I introduced myself to women with dreams of forever that I intimidated them. And such stuff.
There was no one better to go bar-hopping with. After my twenty-first birthday, I started hitting all the bars, in some hope of finding Miss Right or perfecting my game of 301. We would sit on our stools, backs to the bar, checking out the women. It was awkward at first to go in with a woman and look at others, but one time I watched some brunette out of the corner of my eye, and after she passed, I turned back toward Shelly a bit self-consciously. She nodded and said the brunette was pretty good, and I quickly got over my self-consciousness, after four or five such incidents.
She must have been glad to have me along, too. Being with a guy kept the other guys off of her, mostly. There were a few times I had to tell guys, mostly bigger than me, to screw, and every time except one they did. The one time he didn’t, well, it was painful for both of us, and he didn’t get Shelly anyway. She told me later that I shouldn’t have, but I told her I had to. I couldn’t have her be the more macho of the two of us. She laughed deeply.
She was my best friend for those two years, and I spent a lot of time crashed on her couch listening to her alternative bent of music and to her complaining of rude people she talked with at work. I’m probably idealizing those times now, and it wasn’t all that often that I did see her, only a couple of times a week, which for best friends is a bit low I would guess. I don’t know if she even considered me her best friend.
Then this letter came, the first one I have gotten from her since I started my internship. It came yesterday, two weeks before I leave to return to school. She didn’t put a return address on it, but I recognized her handwriting on the envelope when I got it out of the mailbox, and it was the first thing I opened when I got back to my cubicle of an apartment. It was the only thing I opened, I should add. I don’t get much mail.
“Dear Andy,” her blue ink said on the lavender stationery, “How are you? I am great! I did it! I am pregnant!” Which was good news, but not a surprise to me. I knew she had it in mind, which is probably why I hadn’t gotten a letter from her during my internship.
It was a rare warm day in March, and we were sitting on the front porch of our apartment building, watching the people go by on the street, like we had done many times before. Tika, Shelly’s companion and roommate for the last few months, was visiting her mother in Green Bay, and it was just Shelly and I, like in the old days. We were talking about the city, and the future. I had only a year left in college, and Shelly had only a few years left in her twenties. I was scared, but she wasn’t. Just wistful. I had paused after wondering what I would do with an English major and a Spanish minor and was taking time to watch a little red Fiero with a redhead slither down the street.
“I want to have kids,” she said, looking up into the tree in the yard.
“You always liked challenges,” I said.
“I’m serious,” she said slowly.
“Okay,” I said, switching gears. “You and Tika going to bring it up? Or just you?”
“Tika and I,” she said. “We haven’t talked much about it. I just mentioned it might be nice, and she agreed.”
“It’s a lot of responsibility.”
“What, do you think I’m not up to it? Or do you think I’m not capable because of my sexuality?”
“Whoa,” I said. “It’s Andrew Saroll you’re talking to. You can keep the indignity practice for someone who thinks it’s wrong. It’s just a lot of responsibility, a kid, that’s all I said.”
“Sorry,” she said. “It is.”
“If you’re ready for it, go for it.” We sat in silence for a few minutes.
“Would you be the father?” she asked, strength back in her voice. Beating around the bush didn’t suit her.
“You want me to ….?” I asked. My first and second instinctive responses popped quickly. They were, I am ashamed to admit, an unveiled instinctive “All right! Yowza!” and then a quick “With Shelly?” sort of distaste because she was a friend or a lesbian, and then my first cognitive response was a sort of regret for both of them.
She looked a bit repulsed herself, but covered it quickly with her scientific disinterest. “No, I just wondered if you’d donate the semen for artificial insemination. I figured I’d rather have a kid something like you than like a total stranger. Keep it among friends, you know.”
I was quiet for a long time. Shelly waited for a response for some time before she got up from the railing around the porch. “Think about it a while,” she said before heading in.
I did think about it for a while. For about nine hours that night, until I was finally able to tumble into a dark and dreamless sleep. I thought about how much it probably meant to her to have me do this. She asked a friend, and she must have thought about it a lot. It wasn’t her norm to take so long to throw out an off-the-cuff question. She wanted me to be the father of her child.
I thought about being a father at twenty-two, and not really being a father at twenty-two. I wouldn’t have a hand in raising my child, and it might not even know I was its father. It would have Tika and Shelly, two mommies. I’d never thought much about gay marriage and gay couples raising children before then, so I didn’t have any handy rhetoric to fall back on. Not that it would have helped in a personal situation.
I’d hate to say no to Shelly. She’d think I didn’t trust her with my spawn or something, which was not entirely true, but I knew I couldn’t explain it away. As much as I didn’t want to do it to Shelly, I didn’t want to do it to the kid, either.
It’s traditional, I know, not wanting to banish a kid to life without a father. A real father. One that lives with them and is used by the mother as a real threat. Particularly if the kid was a boy, he’d need a role model, and as much as I like Shelly and tolerate Tika, neither one of them would teach him how to defend himself against the big fourth grader who would call his mothers dykes. And the fifth grader, and the sixth grader, and so on. I thought of my own childhood without a father, and I couldn’t be a party to putting a kid through the same hell. It wouldn’t even be that simple of a hell for the kid. My kid.
So, in the depths of the night, I decided that my mature and open new-consciousness was just a sham, and that I would not help my best friend with one of her greatest dreams. I worried about the consequence for a while before I drifted to sleep.
I don’t know if I consciously avoided her or not, but she seemed to guess my answer before it was spoken. She came down to my apartment three nights later. “Have you thought about it, Andy?” she asked, even though the expression on my face must have screamed that I had.
“I can’t, Shelly,” I said simply.
“Why?” she asked with a voice more level than I deserved.
“I just can’t” I said. There was no way to tell her without hurting her feelings. There was no way I was going to avoid hurting her feelings, but I hoped this way somehow hurt her less.
“And you’re not going to tell me why?” she asked.
I shook my head.
“Okay,” she said, and we made some small talk for a while, and then she left. It wasn’t like old times, it was something different. Like someone flipped a switch, and the biggest thing that got me was that it was me.
Our friendship faltered after that. I told my land lady I wouldn’t be returning to her building. I left for New York City and the glamour of a magazine internship, but I left her my address out of a courtesy, I guess. I did not expect her to write, and there her letter sits, on the table next to my bed. My room is neat, because in two weeks I will head back to the city, to a different apartment, and to new friendships. I wonder if all will be forgiven, and I wonder if she knew who the father is. And I wonder why it matters so much to me.
I wrote the following story 13 years ago, when I was young and in college. Forgive me my youthful exuberance, but since it’s Christmas, I thought I’d post it since it contains a heartwarming message we can all share:
Die Hard MDCXCII: Die Really, Really, REALLY Hard
Copyright 1990 Brian J. Noggle, you hosers
The Christmas Muzak was driving Ryan crazy. There are only so many times you can hear “Good King Wenceslas” before you want to strangle any available customer. And that limit had been passed twice over in the seven hours that Ryan had been on duty.
The snow was not drifting lazily down as it would on an ideal Christmas Eve. It was blizzarding, if there is any such verb. Two feet had fallen in an hour, setting a record that will probably stand until the earth passes through a major galactic dust cloud, or Brian Noggle gets a book published, whichever happens first. Ryan shivered just looking at the two rows of carts inside the store, hoping the supply would not diminish to the point when he would have to go out in THAT.
An eskimo came through the electric doors. White snow clung to his parka up to his shoulders. Gloves lowered the hood, removed two woolen hats, a Sphericky’s cap, and a set of earmuffs. It wasn’t actually an eskimo, Ryan discovered, but “Plaid” Jackson, a delivery man. He must have the last load of cranberries for the season, thought Ryan. But who was going to come in at ten o’clock on a night like this to buy cranberries?
“Is the snow deep and crisp and even?” Ryan asked of the trucker.
“Huh?” replied Plaid. He paused to mull over the question and then the answer. Ryan looked at the clock hung high on the wall over the Deli department. He was supposed to get off at eleven, and the question had eight words in it. Plaid wouldn’t have an answer by then. And ‘even’ had two syllables. Drat, thought Ryan.
“Hey, Ryan, could you get the trash out of here?” asked Ed, the store’s night manager. ‘Here’ referred to the small elevated office. It was surrounded by a four foot high wall topped by a foot and a half of bulletproof glass. Once again Ryan paused to consider the necessity of the glass, as any stick-up man over four foot tall could point the gun over the glass and kill anyone in the office anyway. Never question, he reminded himself.
“Yeah,” Ryan responded, demonstrating the eloquence he had picked up at his year at the local Jesuit-run university’s oratorical classes.
He entered the ultra-secure sanctuary of management and looked at the pile of garbage. It had not been emptied all day and looked like a horn of plenty of cigarette cartons and losing lottery tickets. He sighed and began to redistribute the trash into trash bags.
Ed noticed Plaid and walked over to him. “Do you have a load for us?” he asked, slowly, of the driver. The piped-in Muzak started on the forty-second rendition of “The Wassail Song”.
Ryan looked around furtively. Ed was outside the office proper, and the only other person in it was a checker currently bent over a calculator. She was obviously performing some function above the brain capacity of a utility clerk. The Muzak control panel was right above him. He grinned and hit a button. The Muzak stopped abruptly, replaced by the clicking of the calculator’s printer, as reproduced by the store’s intercom.
Ryan lifted the three bags of refuse and exited the office. Ed was waiting expectantly by Plaid. “Fill the milk shelves while you’re back there,” Ed called. Karen stood alone in her checkout lane and watched the cart. Ryan through the garbage in a cart and started wheeling it toward the back door. Plaid said, “Yeah.” Ryan wondered if he had gone to the same college.
Far off in the back, the door to the back room by the dairy department squeaked. Ed stepped into the office, leaving the door open behind him. Plaid went back to his truck parked behind the store. Outside the front windows, a van attempted to squeal to a stop, but slid past the windows and out of sight. A few seconds later, the van reappeared, traveling in reverse, and halted. Twelve armed terrorists leaped from the back of the truck and entered the store. The last one to enter shut off the electric eyes for the doors. The leader pushed into the office.
“What do you want?” asked Ed.
“The code for the safe,” said the terrorist, brandishing a big automatic pistol. To Ed it appeared to be a VERY big automatic pistol, but it really was just a big automatic pistol.
“Who else is here?” asked another terrorist, speaking to Karen. Eleven automatic rifles caused her a bit of fright and she was unable to answer.
The checker in the office looked up from her calculator only to faint when confronted with the appearance of the evil-doers. She subsequently hit the floor with a thud.
Ten automatic rifles unpointed themselves at Karen and fanned out to search the store.
“I don’t have the code. I’m just the night manager,” said Ed calmly. He had dealt with ten-year-olds shoplifting candy bars. Be calm, yet firm, and intimidating. How different could this be? he wondered.
“Give it to me or I will have to shoot you,” threatened the bad guy. He cocked the big automatic pistol.
Maybe a little different, thought Ed. Calm, yet firm. “I guess you’ll have to shoot me,” said Ed.
“Ok,” said the gunman, and the gun barked.
Too firm, thought Ed. Or so he started to, but the thought was never completed because his brains most uncooly splattered against the cigarette racks on the wall.
“How about some music?” asked the leader, and he turned the switch on the nearby control panel from intercom to Muzak. Then he started humming “Jingle Bell Rock”.
Ryan was standing with a crate hook in one hand and his jaw open. The whole exchange was coming through loud and clear over the intercom. He was now watching through the window in the dairy door. The office and therefore the entire scene was being played out at the other end of aisle eight from where he stood.
“Ok,” said the unfamiliar voice, and Ed’s pretty much headless corpse staggered backwards.
“Great. I’m going to have to clean that up,” muttered Ryan. His musings were interrupted by the appearance of a machine gun bearing hoodlum in the same window. Ryan quickly stepped behind a convenient corner. The gunman walked past, and Ryan extended the hook before the advancing feet and pulled. The gunman fell backwards. “Mama mia!” he exclaimed as his head crunched on the concrete floor.
“Good. No mess,” said Ryan. He picked up the bad guy’s weapon and Official GI Joe Walkie-Talkie.
“Did you hear something over there?” whispered a voice on the radio.
“Luigi? Luigi?” asked a frantic voice.
“Did you see where he was going?” asked another.
“Over by the dairy section,” said another voice. How many was that? wondered Ryan.
“The safe is protected by three super-duper locks,” said the geekiest looking terrorist. “There is one combination lock, one laser intensified multiple pin steel lock, and the code key. Unless we break them all, we can’t get it open,” he continued. He set up a U.S. Army Special Piercing Laser for Military Use Only, available at any surplus store or local K-Mart for $19.95, and its red beam began to work on the safe.
One of the terrorists kicked the dairy door, and then he kicked it again. On the third kick, the door opened with a squeak, and three automatics pointed into the dairy back room. Leaning against a pile of trash against the back door was Luigi. A sign saying “SALE! Nyuck nyuck nyuck, now I have a gun,” was taped to his chest. The first man to reach him, and fortunately not the brightest, read the fine print on the sign — “Look behind you!” Being a crack commando sort of guy, this terrorist crouched, spun, and fired, mortally wounding his two companions.
“Gosh, sorry,” he said to the cadavers. “He’s a tricky one, eh?”
A large Italian-looking terrorist tried to pick up a cash register and dash it to the floor in rage, but found the object too heavy to lift. He grunted and set his gun on the floor. Then, with both hands, he tried to heave the register. He grunted and strained until a sweat broke out on his forehead. He strained some more, took off his jacket, and strained even more. After ten minutes, he gave up and settled for knocking a candy rack over, spilling candy bars and bubble gum to the floor with passion.
“Mario’s pretty hacked off,” said one terrorist.
“The guy in back killed his brother,” replied another.
“I want this guy dead,” said the lead terrorist into his walkie-talkie. “How’s it going?” he asked of the geeky terrorist.
“The combination lock is gone, and I’m working on the laser lock, but without the code key….”
“Find the key,” growled the leader.
The checker in the office gained consciousness, saw Ed, and fainted again.
“Hello Mr. Rogue Good Guy. Do you think of yourself as some big screen star of an action flick? Chuck Norris? Sylvester Stallone?” asked the voice of the guy who killed Ed over the walkie-talkie.
“I was always partial to Leslie Nielson and ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic,” replied Ryan. He lie on the crawlspace above the meat counter. It was crisscrossed with two-by-fours, and a foot’s worth of decorative ledge kept him hidden from view.
“You can’t win. There are too many of us,” said the leader.
Ryan tried to think of a defiant, witty, sarcastic, and/or cynical wisecrack, but none was forthcoming. “Oh, yeah?” was all he managed.
Ryan thought of his options. The snowfall had by now made exit impossible. He hadn’t been able to put out the trash a half hour ago, so by now the snow must be six feet deep. No cops. No help. Just him and ten terrorists. I’d better get overtime for this, he thought.
He cautiously peered over the edge. No terrorists were in sight. He lowered himself down and ran in a crouch for the grocery room, located twenty feet ahead of him in the back of the store. There came a shout as he crossed the wide Produce Department aisle. An echoing sound of gunfire reached his ears as the bullets zipped by. He threw himself through the swinging double doors. Red splattered on his blue vest.
He looked at the red and staggered. He even felt shock coming on until he realized that it was only the remnants of some deceased tomatoes. Relieved by this discovery, he climbed atop the boxes of paper bags and lie down on the large produce cooler.
Three terrorists burst through the double doors. They spread out and searched for him. One climbed a flight of stairs to the employees’ lounge. The other two played hide and seek among the pallets of merchandise. “Peek-a-boo!” said one, leaping from behind a pallet of paper towels. His partner barely restrained himself from perforating the former. They concluded their search, shrugged, and moved toward the produce cooler. Ryan slid back from the edge and hoped he was invisible.
A burst of gunfire came from the lounge. A few seconds later Ryan watched the third of the trio descend the stairs clutching a can of Coke.
“Dang soda machine wouldn’t take dimes,” he explained. Ryan nodded to himself, agreeing with the actions of the terrorist. The heavy door to the produce cooler whooshed open. After a few moments, the double doors on the other side of the cooler opened. Ryan turned and watched on of the terrorists go through a side door into the Deli Department and the other two go out the door leading to the produce aisle.
Ryan wiped a nonexistent bead of sweat from his forehead.
“I can’t find the code key anywhere,” said the geek. The office was now in disarray. Cigarette cartons, books of computer printouts, and other assorted papers littered the floor and almost buried the checker. She opened her eyes, saw the mess, gasped, and fainted.
“Search her,” said the leader, pointing at the checker on the floor.
“What are you guys looking for anyway?” asked Karen, apparently discovering her vocal cords.
“In this safe is a stack of stamp books and over one hundred thousand bonus stamps. With that haul, we would have enough full books to get quite a few Musicfest tickets,” said the leader, laughing heartily.
“You guys aren’t terrorists. You’re just thieves,” Karen said.
“We never said we were terrorists. It was the writer of this story that first implied we were terrorists,” corrected the leader.
A lone THIEF exited the produce cooler below Ryan. As soon as the door closed, Ryan pulled a rope that he had found atop the produce cooler, and a hastily devised trap sprang shut. A stack of the paper bags fell on the bad guy. Ryan slowly climbed down and examined the newly dead body. There was a backpack with a Packers logo on it under a box of bags. Ryan opened it and discovered a few bricks of C-4. He smiled. “It’s about time,” he said with a mischievous and somewhat maniacal grin. He looked around, gathered his rope, and said, “Let’s get busy….”
Big Jim, the store’s power fork, roared out of the double doors of the grocery back room. Its handles was lashed into the “Forward, Full Speed” setting. Two bad guys in the back row of the store looked in surprise. A machine gun was also lashed on board at a level of about three feet above the ground. As the machine plowed forward, the gun fired a continuous stream of bullets toward the front of the store. One of the thieves fired a few bullets at the fork as he and his companion began to run toward the dairy. A scream issued from Aisle One as a bad guy received a helping of bullets. Blood mixed with catsup on the floor, creating a gooey mess that Ryan would probably have to clean up.
The two thieves trotting ahead of machine passed Aisle Eight and turned the corner of the frozen aisle. The machine hit the corner where the dairy cases meet the frozen cases, and the plastic used the occurrence as an excuse to explode. Two horribly mangled corpses flew threw the air and knocked over a Kool-Aid display in the center of the frozen aisle. Torrents of milk, orange juice, and egg spilled onto the floor. Big Jim was now Hundred Thousand Little Jims.
It didn’t take long for three gun-toting crooks to figure out where the power fork had emerged from. They charged through the door with little regard for the possibility that there might be a utility clerk with an automatic rifle waiting for them. There wasn’t, though, because Ryan had planned on the presence of brains in the criminals.
What the hoodlums did find was three cases of banana peels on the floor. They danced a cartoonish jig as they tried to keep their balance. They failed and fell to their backs. A snickering Ryan, after leaning against the produce cooler door and enjoying the show, ended their shame with a barrage of lead.
Ryan then entered the produce cooler and emerged in the produce room. A vicious kick launched his gun into the air. It clattered onto the crawlspace he had so recently occupied. The source was a big mad Italian dude. Mario. He appeared a VERY big, VERY mad Italian dude to Ryan.
“You killed Luigi,” Mario said.
“Er…sorry,” said Ryan with a sheepish smile. He figured the apology had been rejected when Mario hit him with a right hook to the jaw. This was followed by a flurry of blows that made Ryan’s face numb and his head swim. Another kick and Ryan found himself knocked into the produce cooler. He backed to the opposite door and grabbed whatever weapon was handy. The weapon happened to be a case of eggs.
Mario let out a yell and entered the room with a flying kick. Show off, thought Ryan. The first Sphericky Grade A Jumbo caught Mario above the right eye, and the following eggs hit him in the chest and stomach. Mario raised his hands to defend himself from the barrage as he moved closer to Ryan. The U/C gave up his futile attack and turned to open the door, but was stopped by a massive chop to the back of the neck.
Mario stood him up and spun him around. “Now you will pay in full,” Mario said with a horrible smirk. He raised his right fist and Ryan felt the crosshairs on the bridge of his nose.
At that moment, over the speakers, began a familiar sequence of musical notes. The Muzak had faded into the background with this new repeated hard stimulus to Ryan’s face, but there is only so much a man can take before his hidden resources kick in. Only so much can a man take before the hatred, rage, and pain set him off for good. And the ninety-seventh repetition of “Good King Wenceslas” was too much for Ryan.
Ryan’s eyes grew red and his fingers curled. They found the neck of his adversary. “No, no more,” said Ryan. He forced his muscular opponent to the floor and kneeled on his chest. “NO MORE!”
he screamed, and he beat Mario’s head against the floor with a passion. Mario soon grew slack and the back of his head had the consistency of a bruised McIntosh apple, but Ryan did not cease until the song was over. When it finished, he stood up, straightened his blood-stained vest, and searched for his gun. He found it and checked the clip. One bullet left.
“Where is the flamin’ code key?” asked the leader. The gunfire from the back had ceased a long time ago, and none of his men had reappeared. He had never lost his composure before, but he was close now.
“I don’t know!” shouted the geek. He was sweating. He too knew the score, and it was something like Rogue Dude With the Gun 10, Them 0.
“Yeah, Ryan!” shouted Karen. “He’s whipping up on you guys.”
The leader stepped out of the office and grabbed her arm. “You know him?” he asked fiercely.
“Sure. He’s a U/C here.”
At that moment a rifle and blond head of hair appeared from behind the register at Lane 8. “Freeze!” shouted Ryan, aiming the rifle at the leader.
The leader pulled Karen between Ryan and himself. The automatic appeared in his hand, and to Karen it looked like a VERY big automatic. “Lay down your weapon and come here,” said the leader, “or she dies.”
Drat, thought Ryan. The cute checker I’d most like to impress with my brave heroics. “The big Italian dude’s dead. So are the rest,” said Ryan, lying his rifle at the start of the conveyor belt of the checkout counter.
“And you must die,” said the leader, shoving Karen away and aiming with both hands at Ryan. Ryan stomped his foot on the pedal that activated the belt and snatched the automatic rifle. He pulled and held the trigger, and shell after shell pounded into the body of the former leader. After a few seconds he released the trigger.
That’s odd, he thought, removing the clip. One bullet remained. That’s right, he thought, the hero never runs out of bullets.
The geeky bad guy watched the body of his boss slump to the floor in the same manner as Ryan had an hour and a half ago. Newly promoted to leadership of the band of hoods composed of himself, his first decision was simple: retreat. He opened the door to the Manager’s office and passed through it to emerge in the frozen aisle. Ryan’s shot crashed through a door in the frozen case and killed a container of Cool Whip.
“The dairy back door!” shouted Ryan, and he took off in a trot down aisle eight. The last thief spun the corner and headed into the dairy back room. The next shot from Ryan, fired on the run, splooched into a bowl of ricotta cheese.
Displaying athleticism uncommon to the ordinary laser-operating nerd, the crook vaulted over three corpses, a pile of trash, and hit the Emergency Door Unlock bar. The alarm began to whine as he pushed into a seven foot wall of snow and into the night.
Ryan arrived at the back door. He could not see far into the tunnel dug by the guy, but he fired blindly into it. He heard the roar of a diesel engine, and a mountain of snow moved. There was a crashing sound and then a grating sound. This grating continued for a few seconds, then there was a lingering scream quite befitting a geeky criminal, and then silence.
Ryan pulled a nearby stepladder into the snow and climbed it. As he poked his head out of the snow, he saw Plaid’s truck had plowed into the dumpster and shoved it ahead a few feet. He also traced the the collapsed roof of the crook’s tunnel and noted that it ended at the dumpster. As long as they don’t move the dumpster, I won’t have to clean that one up, he thought.
The driver’s side door of the truck opened. “Yeah,” said Plaid. “Deep and crisp and even. Ha. Say are you gonna pull this load or what?”
“Where is the code key?” Karen asked Ryan as he appeared at the front of the store, bleeding, torn, and fatigued. He hoped she was impressed.
“You know Ed. He probably locked it in the safe,” Ryan explained. He dropped the gun to the floor.
“You look pretty messed up,” Karen said. “Let me see if we can find some Band-Aids.” She stepped into the office, and Ryan followed, secretly happy. To him he felt secretly VERY happy. He ignored Ed’s corpse.
The checker on the floor came around again, and this time she managed to stay conscious. “Ryan, get a broom and a mop and clean my office,” she murmured weakly.
Ryan sighed wearily. “And some 409 for the cigarette rack, right?”