“Some people say life’s too short kid, I say it’s taking too goddamned long.” The old man spoke over the noisy dinner as he took a long drag from his cigarette. His name was Allen. I only knew his first name, no more, no less. That was one of the first rules he established. We were to remain business partners while at the same time, staying complete strangers. He told me it was better for us both, just in case somebody was left behind, there would be no need to worry about the other one saying, “too much.”
“You can’t tell em’ what you don’t know, kid,” he’d say in his robust voice. He’d repeat this to me at least three or four times whenever we’d met, mainly because I would opt to break the rules and expose too much of myself to him. I like to think he was just looking out for me, but in reality, he probably just didn’t care to hear any more about my problems. I don’t think Allen could look out for anyone other than his own interests.
“You get two options in life, kid,” he tapped the ashes from his cigarette into his glass of water. “Can you guess what they are?”
I thought for a moment about the question, but I got sidetracked. His question made me think of Anna. Two choices, right and wrong. Anna and I seemed to always choose the wrong options. She is the reason I was here across from this man, at my wit’s end, about to do the unthinkable… again. Allen looked at me, coldly as if he was trying to peer into my thoughts. I swear he could read my mind. Allen knew things; I wouldn’t even have to say what was on my mind half the time. He could read me like a book.
When I had met Allen, I worked at an upscale café where fancy big-wigged executive types would spend a small fortune for a cup of coffee we deemed with an exotic name and mixed with steamed milk. I worked there for a few months trying to make ends meet, Anna and I had a baby on the way, and we needed every penny we could muster. That was just one of many of our wrong choices. We were still kids, kids all alone with only each other to have as guidance. We definitely weren’t ready for parenthood. That’s when opportunity knocked with an offer I couldn’t refuse. I still try to justify my actions, I tell myself there were no other choices, and it was either accept or return home to my pregnant girlfriend with nothing. That night I shook Allen’s hand, and a partnership was born.
“Got a light kid?” the old man asked as he approached me during my lunch break. I was sitting alone in the back alley after taking out the afternoon’s trash, collecting my thoughts.
“Uh-no, sorry. I am going to have to ask you to leave sir, behind the store is for employees only, it’s off-limits.” I replied. He stared back at me with an awkward smirk. “Off-limits? You gotta be kiddin’ me, right? What? Somebody gonna steal your trash?” “No… Sorry, I’m serious. Of course, managers don’t want patrons back here, call them paranoid if you want, but rules are rules.”
“Rules are meant to be broken, kid, tell ya what, let me have one smoke back here with ya, and then I’ll be gone.”
I acknowledged and handed him a pack of our customary café matches. My instincts told me to say no, but something intrigued me. I figured, if anything, it would be nice to have someone to talk to, even if he was a stranger.
“You gonna join me?” the old man asked me as he struck the match and lit up his cigarette.
“No, I don’t smoke.”
“I see,” the old man said. “May I have a seat next to you?”
“Be my guest.”
“You looked troubled, kid, preoccupied… wanna talk about it? Nobody makes for a better listener than an old fellow like myself, ya know?”
“I looked troubled, huh? Is it that obvious?” I asked. “Pregnant girlfriend, crappy apartment, a shitty job, and so it goes. Nothing you haven’t heard before, I’m sure.”
“Hmm, I see.” The old man rubbed his salt-and-peppered chin. He made me nervous with the way his eyes read my face. As if he was looking for something, I thought maybe I reminded him of his own son. “A job’s a job, though, right? There’s lots of fellas out there that ain’t got nothin’ kid. So be happy with what you do have.”
“It’s barely a job, were almost always short on rent, and with the baby coming along... I don’t even wanna think about when the baby comes along.”
“The names Allen.” He reached out to shake.
“Nolan,” I replied to his friendly gesture.
“Nolan, I’m a businessman,” he said, breaking the tone from casual banter to business-oriented, “...and I would like to offer you a proposal.”
“A proposal?” I asked. “What do you mean?”
“How long did you say you worked here?”
And that was that. We discussed the ins and outs of the café; I knew things that would make Allen’s business a lot easier. I’m talking about manager shifts, camera locations, how the safe operated in a ten-minute time delay.
I was desperate, and Allen was a smooth talker. He had the gift. He went on later to tell me he knew from the moment he laid eyes on me. I was an easy target. People like him can small a sale; he knew I was at my wit’s end, desperate for a change in my life. He explained how I wasn’t in it for myself, to squander the money on old debts or gambling. Those people are trouble to partner with. They’ll turn on you as quick as possible to earn double the profit. He knew where my heart was. He knew I was in it for bettering my family. A family man who puts his life on the line is the perfect sale. Trustworthy and good-hearted, he said, which I find ironic. No good-hearted man does what we do. He promised in three months, I would have more than enough cash saved up to move out of the parent’s basement and into a safer neighborhood for my unborn child. He assured me no one would be hurt. With my knowledge, it would be quick and simple. And it was.
“Well? What do you think the two choices are, kid?” Allen asked again. He put out his cigarette into the glass of water. “You’re spacing out on me. What’s wrong with you?”
“I don’t know, Old Man.” That was his name during business meetings; I was “kid” and “kid” alone. He was Old Man, nothing more, nothing less.
“You don’t seem to be paying attention to me, boy. You got your mind elsewhere? Is there something more important goin’ on? Straighten up. We’re working here; you got a job to do; now I asked you a question. Two choices in life, what are they? It’s not a complex mathematical equation; we’re not talking E=mc squared shit. I need you to get with the fuckin’ program.” The old man yelled under his breath, stern enough to put me in place but not draw any attention from the other patrons.
“Jesus, old man… sorry, your little question didn’t seem that important. “
“Not important? You normally would die to tell me about your goddamned feelings and deepest thoughts. Here, I actually ask you a serious question, and you ignore the opportunity to pour out your heart? I normally have to tell you to shut the hell up. I’m seriously afraid one of these times, you’re going to crawl into a fetal position and start sucking your thumb while you whine about how your mother abandoned you or how your father never shared his feelings. Jesus, kid, you’re a damned nut job today. What’s with you?” The old man’s faced squinted as he dropped his cigarette into his glass of water. “Did you break a rule, kid, so help me if you broke a fucking rule…”
“I didn’t break no rule, old man. Relax.”
“You told your girlfriend, didn’t you!” The old man’s face turned red with anger.
“Hell no! She thinks I’m doing the door-to-door sales job out of town. Relax, I wouldn’t involve her in this. “
“Something’s not right kid, I can tell it in your eyes. You nervous? It’s okay to be nervous. This is different from the first time. You don’t have the inside edge. Things can get messy when you don’t have the home-field advantage.“
“Messy?” A young waitress approached the table. Allen went dead silent. He didn’t even make eye contact.
“How’s everything, folks?” She asked. The waitress had a friendly smile. It reminded me of Anna’s. They could’ve been sisters, or perhaps cousins twice removed.
“Just fine, thank you, “I replied with an uncontrollable smile; her eyes looked like Anna’s also, mysteriously dark brown.
“Would you like your coffee freshened?” She asked.
“No, thanks.” I nodded. “I’m okay for now.”
“And how about you, sir?” She held out the coffee pot toward Allen’s cup. However, he didn’t respond. He sat there looking out the window as the winter snow fell onto the parking lot outside. “Sir?” She asked again.
“Hey, Old Man, the waitress is asking you a question.” He did not respond to me with words, only a heavy grunt. The lady’s friendly smile quickly turned to disgust.
“What’s wrong with him?” she asked.
“I’m sorry, miss, he’s not very sociable and obviously just plain rude.“ She walked away with a frown on her face.
“What’s the matter with you, Old Man? You getting hard of hearing or what?”
“It’s called selective hearing kid, maybe you should wise up to it.” He looked at me with disgust. “You smiled at her. What are you thinking? We’re here scoping the place out, and you smile at her? Smiling creates attention. We don’t want any attention now, do we?”
“Calm down, it was just a smile. She reminded me of Anna,” I should have just bit my own tongue. His face went white, his nose flared up.
“Jesus H. Christ, kid! You know the rules, only speak to each other, don’t make eye contact, and for Christ’s sake, never smile! What if she remembers that smile, all it takes is one god damned smile for her to be able to make a mental note of what you look like, kid. I swear it’s like I’m working with an amateur.” His voice grew irritated; it was like I could hear him stirring with anger.
“ I am an amateur. I don’t do this for a living,” I replied
“Well, you do now, don’t you, now get with the program.”
“Look, Old Man, she was just a nice waitress. That’s it, so I smiled at her. It’s not a big deal. Maybe we wouldn’t stand out if you didn’t sit there like a jackass being rude to everyone around you.”
“That’s where you’re wrong kid, if you hadn’t said anything, she would have just walked away, no harm, no worry, but when you sit there and flirt with her, you draw loads of unnecessary attention, you dumb fuck.”
“Whatever,” I replied.
“What’s gonna happen if things get messy, and you gotta point a gun in her face, kid? What if you gotta get rough?”
The question shocked me. Messy? Rough? These were concepts that, up until this point, I had not come to terms with. The moment he said them, they echoed through my brain. This wasn’t happening; it couldn’t be happening. I felt like I was trapped in a nightmare. “What? Why would things get messy? You promised everything would be quick and easy?”
“Yeah, for the first time, when I had you as the insider. We’re hitting this one blind kid. Things can get messy real fast this time. This time…” Allen lowered his head and whispered faintly, “You use a gun…”
“What?” I was shocked. I had never owned a gun in my life, let alone shot one.
“Are you that ignorant kid? You think we can rob a place without posing any kind of threat? Of course, we need guns.”
“The plan was to break in when everyone left. That was the plan, no guns, no threats.”
“You know as well as I do. You saw the safe; it’s a ten-minute delay just like yours, only this time we have no means of finding the code. So we gotta force it out of the manager.”
“-But nothing kid, listen... ima go the pisser, and when I get back, I’m handing you your piece under the table, so take this time to comes to terms with whatever shit you’re dealing with and get ready to make some money. Shape up, kid; cause there is no turning back. You mess up tonight, and we could both die. You hear me? You want that kid of yours growing up without a father? You need this money more than I do. So, keep levelheaded. It’s almost closing time. We go live in fifteen minutes.”
We go on in fifteen minutes, that phrase etched itself into my brain. I was not ready for this. There was no way in hell I could go on with it. Robbing an empty store was one thing, but robbing at gunpoint was going too far. If I was quick, I could make a run for it before he came back. The door was only a dozen feet away from me. I watched a couple rise from their seat and walk out. The chime went off as they exited, the friendly waitress wished them happy holidays. I envisioned myself walking out the door, and the waitress wishing me a Merry Christmas. I’d catch a cab back home. All I wanted was to be back in Anna’s lovely arms. I stood up but felt myself sink quickly back down in the chair instantly. There was no way I was going to let myself walk away from this. We needed the money too much. My unborn child needed this money… I knew I would do whatever it would take. It was better for me to stay. This way I could make sure nobody would get hurt…” We’d leave with the cash, and nobody would even have a scratch to show for it.
“Where were you going, Kid? Stepping out on me?” The old man asked. He must have witnessed my temporary second-guessing.
“No-I uh, thought I saw a police car outside.”
“Really? False alarm, aye? Ha, stepping out on me, you need this cash more than I do, kid. Don’t worry, I trust ya. Don’t give me any reason not to though, that wouldn’t be pretty.”
“What? No…, of course not. I just needed some time to come to terms. I didn’t realize how things were going down tonight.”
“I know, Kid, I kept it from you. I knew you would chicken out. They all do the first time. I tell you what, though, the minute it’s over with, and we leave with the cash, and everyone is safe. You’ll be okay with it. Promise. You’ll go home, fuck that pregnant girl of yours, and it will be the best fuck you’ve ever had. That’s another promise.”
“So, things will be okay? No one’s getting hurt?” I ignored his crude comments.
“Long as they don’t try any fancy shit, then they will be fine. When people see a gun, they become putty. You can mold ’em into anything you want. They’ll dance naked around this diner if you ask ‘em nice enough. Now…” The old man adjusted himself into his seat quietly. “Under the table, here’s your piece. Just stay cool and level-headed, but make sure they know you mean business. If they sense hesitation, they may start thinking heroic-like. Heroes are always bad for our business. You got that kid?”
“Yeah… right.” I reached down and felt the cold metal barrel of the handgun. My hand shook as I felt its weight within my palms. Was I really doing this?
“It’s nothing fancy, but it works. Now we got ten minutes, here’s the plan…”
It was simple. We left a fake wallet lying out on the counter and waited ten minutes until the old man knocked on their locked front door. By this time, every patron had left, and the closing manager and waitress were busy cleaning the store. That left two people to deal with, one for each. The old man knocked on the door. I hid from their point of view.
“Excuse me, miss! I seemed to have misplaced my wallet. Did you by chance happen to find one?” The lady frowned and gestured for him to hold on.
“See, I told you, boy, he muttered under his breath. “She recognized me with that snobby look on her face.”
“Shhh! Quiet, she’s coming back.”
“Here you go, you’re lucky we didn’t toss it.” She spoke through the door as she unlocked it. She pushed the door open a few inches and stuck out the wallet. However, she was met with the barrel of the old man’s pistol pointed right at her mid-section.
“Keep quiet, lady, do what you’re told, and everything will be fine,” he whispered. He motioned with his head for me to get the door. Quickly, I grabbed it. We slowly made our way back into the empty diner.
“Where’s the manager?” The old many spoke softly. The waitress couldn’t speak in words. Her eyes swelled with tears, she motioned towards the back room. “Good, you’re doing just fine. Keep listening, soon you’ll be home nice and warm, okay?” The old man asked, trying to restrain the girl from losing complete control. “Now ima leave you here with my partner. He likes you, thinks you’re pretty. So he will take good care of you, just keep your mouth shut and don’t do nuttin’ stupid. You do that, and he blows a hole through your head, got it?” She nodded, trying to keep her tears choked back.
“You got her, kid?”
“Y-Yeah, what do you want me to do?”
“Sit her down in the back and make sure she’s quiet. I’ll get the manager.”
This was my job. The old man was going to do all the dirty work. I was to sit out there and keep the waitress calm. It was ironic. How could I keep a girl calm who had a gun pointed at her head when the man holding the gun was just as messed up and definitely not calm.
”P-p-please… Mister. Please…”
“Quiet now, just don’t talk. You’re going to be okay. Just sit there and think of your family.”
Minutes went by, my nerves were shot. I couldn’t understand what was taking so long, I knew it was a ten-minute delay safe, but I hadn’t heard a peep from the backroom since the old man had gone back there. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I guess the silence was a good thing because when I finally did hear something, it sent shivers down my spine.
“Jesus Christ!” The old man’s robust voice echoed throughout the empty diner. It followed with a rush of commotion. They were obviously brawling in the back room. I jumped quickly to my feet, no longer pointing the gun toward the waitress. My legs began to shake, I grabbed onto the table for support. I heard her behind me, but for some reason, it felt like I was moving in slow motion. I turned to see her make a run for it. I yelled for her to stop. I pointed the gun at her head. She froze mid-step, only a couple of feet from the front door crying feverishly.
My hand shook involuntarily. I tried to keep my aim on her, but our eyes met. Her dark brown eyes...I saw my girlfriend staring back at me with the fear of death in her eyes. I choked. The old man would have been furious with me. I let down my guard, and she saw it in my eyes. She slowly backed up towards the door, never taking her eyes off mine. She slowly slid it open. I couldn’t stop her. She ran free.
“Hey Old Man, what’s going on? Hurry up, we lost the girl!” I yelled, slowly making my way towards the back room. I heard another loud metallic slam, this time, I saw him. The old man stumbled out from the back, holding his head. Blood poured out from the top of his skull.
“Get out, kid…” He muttered. He dropped his gun on the floor.
“Jesus Man! What happened?” I ran to his side, pulling off my shirt to wrap it around his head. “My God, are you okay?”
I heard a slight noise behind me. I saw the manager. A small, fragile twenty-something man, his face bright-red and stained with tears. His eyeglasses dangled half off his face. He looked at the gun in my hand.
“D-don’t move, or I’ll bash you too, man!” He yelled, in his right hand was a hammer covered in blood.
“Get out… now,” the old man spoke as I tried to lift him up.
“Not without you,” I said. The manager slowly made his way to the nearby phone.
“Stop!” I yelled, pointing my gun square at his head. “All I want to do is get out of here with my friend, no money, no one getting hurt. So, you just stand still…” I reached down again, but the old man was of no help, he was hardly moving now. “I SAID STAND STILL!” But the manager paid me no mind; he still slowly made his way to the phone. He was daring me, just like the waitress had. Calling my bluff...
“Please, I’m just going to get him up and leave, just fucking stop moving!” I begged, feeling the adrenaline rush give into panic. The manager’s hand touched the receiver, he slowly picked it up.
“I swear if you dial that phone...” I threatened. He did not respond. He hugged the phone to his shoulder and reached for the numbers.
“Damnit, man! I just wanna get out!” Anger grew inside of me. I was some completely different person, filled with rage and panic. I walked towards the manager with a fury swelling. With all my might, I squeezed the trigger. The kid fell to his knees. He covered his face with his arms. But nothing happened.
Click… click, click-click. I pulled four times, but nothing happened. I looked towards the Old Man, barely sitting up in a pile of his blood.
“T-they weren’t loaded kid... n-no one.... w-was supposed to g-get hurt, remember...”
I looked back over to the manager, who was dialing the authorities. I stood there in awe. I realized I had just attempted to kill a man. His face was wet with tears, his hand shook uncontrollably as he tried to dial the old rotary phone. He would be lying in a pool of death if the gun had been loaded. He would have had his life ended by me. He stared almost blankly into my eyes, and I came to realize. The truth hit me like a ton of bricks. If it wasn’t for the old man, he would be dead now. I thought the old man was the monster. Giving me the gun, telling me to get ready for anything, but in the end, it was I who had pulled the trigger. He was the one who made sure everyone would be safe.
“I-I’m sorry, kid.. you were never supposed… t-to pull the trigger.” He looked at me, pointed towards the door, and yelled, “G-Go now…”
I didn’t have any words to say. In fact, I think the old man wanted it that way. He stayed behind, and I darted out of the door, never looking back. I don’t know what happened to the old man, but he kept his promise. He didn’t say anything to the police, nothing ever came back to me. Don’t know if this was because he kept his promise and never mentioned me, or if he never made it out of that diner alive.
I sit here now, rocking my child to sleep in my run-down apartment. I can’t help but think about how sweet it is to be here with my family, how lucky I was. But, every time I close my eyes, I’m haunted by the old man’s bloody face. It’s worse when I sleep. I hear that noise, that damned repetitive noise. The sound that sets me apart from the civilized world. That noise that stained my memory, an eternity of punishment. It’s there to act as a reminder so that every time I grow comfortable with myself, it’s there to knock me back down. Because of this noise, I will never be able to forget the night I almost murdered a man...
That god forsaking noise… Click… click, click-click.