445 Center Street, I think, used to be a Title Loans Office or Pawn Shop, or something. The neon sign is gone, though, and it looks vacant.
I walk to the swinging glass door in front. It’s locked. I knock.
A guy walks up, confident, scary. He’s little, maybe five years older than I am. He’s wearing a black wife beater and has way more tattoos than me: judging by them, I think he’s a big Insane Clown Posse fan.
He unlocks the door, opens it, says: “You the guy?”
“I think so.”
Earlier today, at J & J’s Convenience Store, I get caught shoplifting by this scraggy, frail-looking clerk with a smoker’s voice whose nametag says Fran. I walk to the counter, plop down some chips and an energy drink in front of her. I’ve got a Maxim and a Guns & Ammo in my coat, a Big Hunk bar and a Mickey’s tallboy in my pants. “How’s it goin’?” I say.
“Why don’t you just go ahead and open your coat?” she says.
“What do you mean?”
“Kid, do I look fuckin’ stupid?”
So I open my coat, but not all the way, hoping the magazines won’t poke out. (Sometimes it works.) But they do.
“Look,” I say, putting them on the counter, “I’m really sorry. I can totally pay for these.” I’m thinking, if she calls the cops I’m fifteen-hundred bucks out—might even have to do six months: I’m eighteen now.
“Beer and candy too, kid. Let’s go.”
I fish them out.
“You old enough to buy that beer?”
“Yes . . .”
“So, you gotta call the cops, I guess.”
“You wouldn’t like that, would you, kid? . . . Huh?”
“Well,” she says, kind of imitating me, “it’s store policy.”
“Yeah . . .”
But she stops and looks around the store, at the coffee urns, the soda aisle, the promotional stack of Miller Lite cases. She waits awhile before she says: “Hmmmmmmmm.”
I never went back to school after I was expelled for a year because I started this fire. I was selling kitchen knives after that. That sucked: the only people who spend a grand on knives are these old ladies whose minds, you can tell, are going. So now I bus tables at this restaurant. It’s gross, all the sloppy, uneaten shit I have to pick up. I get free food, but the pay sucks. My friend Anthony washes dishes there, got me the job. He said it’d be a little easy money. That’s bullshit. A little easy money, I’m thinking, is the cut I get this night, back at the old Title Loans place, or Pawn Shop, or whatever, and the opportunity to pull another job. I’m thinking, I’m never bussing a fucking table again.
The guy in the black wife beater takes me to the back of the building. It’s sparse. A few filing cabinets, a couple empty desks. The room smells like burnt plastic and Fran and another guy are hovered over a desk, tweaking on meth. Fran stands up. “Oh, this is the guy,” she says, pointing at me, “the driver.”
The man she’s sitting with stands too. He’s big, like a football coach. I’d never fuck with him. He says, shaking the gold chain around his wrist, “Listen, man, all I ever wanted to do was sell loans at high interest rates. And Jay . . . he ain’t good with his finances and he’s got a real fucking pair o’ balls on him, to report me—a like-minded businessman—to the authorities. So I’m just taking what’s mine, man. Time to fucking collect, right?”
Fran says to me: “Jay’s my boss. Owner of J & J’s. Real asshole.”
The man says: “What kind of car you drive?”
“Good.” He laughs. “Good. Whaddaya say, man?”
Back at the convenience store, after Fran makes me put all the shit back, I return to the counter. She’s writing something on a purple sticky note. It says 445 CENTER ST.
“You show up at this address, tonight, ’round 9—9:30, I won’t call the cops.”
“What’s gonna happen?”
“You got a car?”
“Drive. You gotta drive.”
“If you ain’t gonna drive then I’ll call the cops right now, kid.”
A guy in a blue jumpsuit comes in.
Fran says: “Go on. Get outta here.”
So I’m the driver.
“Nice work, Fran,” the man says, looking around the interior of my car. He lights a cigarette and cracks the window as we pull into the parking lot. Through my rearview, I see the little guy with the tattoos putting on a ski mask and some aviator shades.
“All right, man. Park up front. We’re gonna wait here while he runs in. Be cool, okay?” I feel a gun dig into my side. “This is just in case you try anything.”
“When he comes back, you drive. You like Nascar?”
“Me too. I fucking love Nascar. Drive like that, okay.”
He turns around, says to the little guy. “Make us proud, son.”
He raises his gun. Then he bursts out and into the store.
“Yep,” Fran says, smoking, from the backseat. “Charlie’s the perfect clerk to get robbed. Kid’ll do anything you tell him.”
“Picked a good night for it, too,” the man says, looking around the parking lot. “No sign of any jackass do-gooders.”
“That’s good,” I say.
“Hey, turn on some music, would ya?”
“Sure.” I turn on the radio.
I press the SCAN button until I hear some Alan Jackson, or Toby Keith, or something.
“Turn it up, would ya?”
I do, and, looking out the window, his gun still pressed to my side, I see an old, clean-shaven, shirt-tucked-in fuddy duddy walk by with his cell phone out. “Hey-a,” I say. “There’s a guy.”
“Don’t worry about it, kid. I can blackmail the shit out of Jay for the rest of his life. We’re in the clear, in the fucking clear. We won’t get caught. Just be cool.”
“Okay,” I say, and look through the store window as the guy with the tattoos shoves his magnum in this little, red-haired, pimply dude’s face who looks terrified, scrambling to dump a heap of cash into a black trash bag. The guy in the ski mask then snatches the bag from the clerk and runs out of the store with the money. He jumps in the back of my Corolla and the man digs his gun into my side again and says, “All right, man. Nascar.”
I’m supposed to be to work at 4:30 on Saturday, but I won’t show up, I’m thinking. Because I have a new job now, a new boss, a new way to make a little easy money. I’m deciding three nights ago was my last day on the job bussing. Great, I’m thinking. The toilet overflowed; I had to clean it. This old guy who comes in all the time passed out and pissed himself in a booth; I had to clean it. But there’s no such thing as a little easy money, I’m learning, because today I hear this voice mail on my cell. It says: “This is the Cascade County Police Department, calling to confirm you’re the registered owner of a pale blue Toyota Corolla, license number: 18 449. Call us back at this number at your earliest convenience. We’ll be in touch.”