Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Stray (1990)

Mainstream Fiction
3,268 words
Copyright © Eric Lanke, 1990. All rights reserved.

+ + + + + + + + +

Rick had already had a few. It was Friday night and as soon as he had gotten home from work he had started in on the beer. Not enough to get really hammered on, mind you, just a few to get the ball rolling. He stopped after three or four to fix himself a quick dinner of Hamburger Helper. The food sobered him up a little, and after his dinner had settled, he started in on the beer again. He was drinking them slowly because he was running out and he knew that he would have to drive into town to get some more. He didn’t want to be too messed up to drive, so he just sat around the house watching the tube and drinking his beers, trying to work up enough energy to get up, find his coat and car keys, go out to the garage, get in the car, start it, and drive the fifteen miles into town to get some more beer.

So this is how Rick found himself driving the ‘64 Pontiac his father had left him into town, concentrating hard on keeping the green car in its lane. He didn’t think he would have any problems. He was drunk, he knew that because Stan was talking to him, and Stan only talked to him when he got drunk. But Rick didn’t think he was so drunk that he would have any problems getting to the liquor store. And he was right, because the problems didn’t start until after he arrived.

—are we going to get it on tonight ricky—

You bet we are, Stan. Fucking A right we’re going to get it on. As soon as we get home, I’ll go out back and set the traps. But first things first. First I have to be cool and get more beer. If we really want to get it on we are going to need more beer. There are some things that just can’t be done sober.

—i like the beer ricky it makes me feel like there’s nothing we can’t do i like it a lot—

I know you do, Stan. I like it, too.

Rick pulled into the parking lot of Vinnie’s Liquor. It was dark out and the fluorescent parking lights hummed as they lit up the work the snowplows had done to uncover the black asphalt and yellow lines. The lot was empty. Vinnie’s was about to close.

—hope we ain’t too late ricky what are we going to do if we can’t get any more beer that would blow all our plans—

We’re not too late, Stan. We’ve got a couple of minutes. Don’t worry about it.

Rick hopped out of the car, skipped through the slush, and yanked open the glass door to the liquor store.

We made it, Stan. They’re still open.

Vinnie’s was a narrow building with three or four aisles of shelves that ran left and right as Rick entered the store. At the head of the rows, a fat man sat behind a counter on which was set an ancient cash register. Racks of cigarettes hung above the fat man’s head.

Looks like Vinnie has been running over to the fried chicken place across the street, Stan. Last time I saw something that big a bunch of faggots from Greenpeace were trying to push it back into the water.

—the beer ricky don’t forget the beer you got to get really drunk if we are going to go out in the back field and get it on—

“Can I help you?” the fat man who might have been Vinnie wheezed. “I was just about to close up.”

“I just need a case of Leinenkugel’s.” Rick said.

“We got some cold ones in the back. Go grab one.”

Rick nodded and started for the back of the store. His wet shoes squeaked on the dull white tiles of the floor, but the area back by the coolers was carpeted. The back wall of the store was lined with glass-doored coolers stocked with imported and domestic canned beer. In the middle of the wall was a doorway with a sign above it that read ‘Cold Cases,’ and listed brand names and prices. Rick went in. A short hallway took him to a large metal cooler door. He pulled it open and was hit with a blast of cold air.

—look at all the cases ricky they’re piled all the way up to the frigging ceiling you could get lost in here we could get it on every night for a year and not put a dent in this supply—

I believe you’re right, Stan. It certainly is a lot of beer. But where’s the Leinenkugel’s?

Rick carefully walked among the stacks of beer cases and finally found his brand in the far corner of the cooler.

—how many do you think there’ll be tonight ricky how many are you going to have to shoot tonight—

I don’t know, Stan. The traps usually catch quite a few.

—i know ricky but you know what i was thinking remember that time when dad was still alive and a stray dog got caught in one of the traps remember that—

Yes, Stan. I remember that.

—do you think we’ll ever trap another stray i kind of liked it when dad finally shot that stray it was a lot bigger than the gophers we usually caught why didn’t you shoot it ricky—

Did you hear something, Stan?

—no ricky i didn’t hear anything let’s go—

Just a minute, Stan. I think there might be something going down here.

Rick went back to the cooler door without his case of beer and now he could clearly hear what he’d only thought he’d heard before. It was a man’s voice, coming from the front of the store. “Come on you fat bastard,” the voice was saying. “Gimme all the money or I’ll blow your fucking head off!”

—a robbery ricky just like on t.v. something is going down all right what are you going to do—
Rick slowly moved out of the cooler, left the metal door open, and began to creep up the back hallway.

Well, I’ll tell you what, Stan. I know I’m not drunk enough to get it on out in the back field, but you’re here with me, so let’s see if I’m drunk enough to get it on a little right here.

—here you’re going to get it on here ricky what are you going to do—

I’m not exactly sure, Stan. But shut up for a minute. I’ve got to concentrate.

Rick slowly moved out of the dark hall and into the bright lights of the liquor store. A black man was up by the register with a gun pointed at the fat man who might have been Vinnie. The gun was a revolver of some kind, but Rick couldn’t see which. The black man was still shouting for the money, while the fat man who might have been Vinnie took cash out of the drawer and hurriedly put it into a paper sack.

Rick made his way down one of the aisles. As he passed the shelves of liquor, he carefully picked up a bottle of Southern Comfort so as not to clink it against one of its neighbors. He slowly turned it around and held onto its neck, hefting it like a club.

—southern comfort ricky that’s what dad always drank before going out to check the traps remember he gave you a shot of it before you shot your first gopher you must’ve been fifteen or sixteen ricky you thought it tasted horrible but you choked it down anyway remember that ricky—

Yes, Stan. I remember that.

—smooth he called it smooth ricky he said it was smoother than shit he would drink an awful lot of it before going out to check the traps i guess he needed booze to get it on too—

Come on, Stan, buzz off. I’ve got to concentrate.

—okay ricky but those were good times when dad was still alive weren’t they—

Yes, Stan. They really were.

Neither the black man nor the fat man who might have been Vinnie had seen him yet. Rick slowly made his way toward the front of the store with the Southern Comfort bottle held up above his right shoulder. He was walking on his tiptoes, cautiously closing the distance between them. He was trying to breathe silently. He took a step off the carpeted area and onto the dull white tiles.


—oh shit ricky oh shit oh shit there it goes that’s the end of it you just bought the farm—

The black man turned, and as his body moved, time stretched out in Rick’s mind, seconds becoming hours, the black man’s body ever so slowly pivoting to bring his gun to bear on Rick.

Rick, for all the time he seemed to have, was frozen in the terror of the moment and could not will his body to do anything but remain still. But his body seemed to act of its own accord, and he received the vague sensation of his arm slowly descending in a sluggish arc and his fingers delicately releasing the bottle of Southern Comfort.

The black man continued to turn and now his eyes slowly ballooned at the sight of the liquor bottle turning end over end, as it carved a collision course out of the thick air. He instinctively cringed at the sight of the approaching projectile, but his gun arm was still extended before him and the bottle hit the muzzle of the firearm with painstaking ease. In the slow-motion universe that Rick found himself in, the bottle exploded into visible fragments of glass, some of which tore into the flesh of the black man’s hand and some of which spiraled harmlessly off into the air. Nearly all of the liquor, in an amorphous elongated blob, splashed against the black man’s chest and began to soak into the fabric of the coat he was wearing, darkening the garment’s color. Already ducking in an attempt to avoid the inevitable collision, the black man lost his balance and floated to the floor like a feather, his pistol sliding out of his grasp and across the floor.

—the gun ricky get the gun get the gun—

Rick, still a prisoner in his own body, rode along as he started in the direction of the fallen weapon and dove to the floor with the grace of a ballerina on the moon. His fingers slowly closed around the gun and his arms hugged it to his chest. Rick’s body began to lumber to its feet, painfully slowly, Rick certain that the black man would jump him at any dilated moment. But he was unmolested, and in the seeming years it took this action to unfold, Rick regained his feet and pointed the gun at the black man who remained on the floor.

The world resumed its normal pace.

“Holy shit!” the fat man who might have been Vinnie exclaimed. “Holy shit, buddy, you got him. Holy shit!”

Rick was surprised to find himself out of breath and in control of his body once again.

—you sure did do it ricky you really got him this is what i call getting it on ricky you got the gun and you got the nigger trapped—

Yeah. But now what, Stan?

—what are you talking about ricky now we get it on just like dad taught us to do shoot him shoot that nigger dead—

The fat man who might have been Vinnie was dialing the phone. “Holy fucking shit, you got him. I’m going to give you a reward, buddy. Saved me about eight hundred bucks, you did. Christ, you can have two cases of beer.”

The black man on the floor slowly began to rise out of the puddle of Southern Comfort. He worked his way into a squatting position.

“Just keep your ass on the floor,” Rick told him, waving the gun in the black man’s direction.

What do you mean, Stan? I can’t shoot a person.

—this is perfect ricky you got him trapped my god you get to kill someone and write it off as self defense what a set-up go ahead what are you waiting for shoot him—

The fat man who might have been Vinnie was on the phone. “Yeah. Send someone over right now. I mean now. A customer has disarmed the bastard and is holding him at gunpoint. Right now! Vinnie’s Liquor. Thirteen-oh-six State.”

The black man was getting to his feet. “You ain’t gonna shoot me.”

Rick squeezed the trigger and sent a round over the black man’s head. The report was loud and hurt Rick’s ears. The black man sat down quickly.

“Don’t bet on it,” Rick said.

—way to go ricky scare him a little first that’s how dad would’ve done it hell you’ve got six rounds why don’t you shoot him in the leg first—

Stan, I can’t shoot anyone.

—why not ricky the stray was just like the gophers just a little bigger dad said the nigger’s just a little bigger than the stray that’s what dad would say come on ricky you’ve got to shoot him you’ve got him trapped do it ricky let’s get it on—

The fat man who might have been Vinnie was hanging up the phone. “My first time, you know, this is the first time I’ve been held up. Scared the shit out of me, this black boy did, waving that gun in my face. I completely forgot about you in the back there, buddy.”

The black man was holding his bloody hand, sitting in the puddle of Southern Comfort.

I can’t shoot him now, Stan. The cops are on the way and Vinnie or whoever he is is watching us. It’d be murder now.

—the fat guy’ll go along with your story of self defense ricky the nigger tried to hold him up remember do you think fatso gives a shit what happens to him ricky if he had the gun tubby would probably shoot the nigger himself so go ahead ricky shoot that nigger dead—

The fat man who might have been Vinnie was still talking. “Try and rob me, eh? You are going to jail, boy. Cops said they’d be here in five minutes to cuff your black ass.”

The black man seemed to ignore the fat man who might have been Vinnie. He kept his big eyes fixed on Rick’s face. It was wet with sweat. The black man’s face was wet with Southern Comfort.

I ain’t never shot a person, Stan. I don’t think Dad would have liked it.

—we ain’t never got it on this much before ricky and dad never trapped a nigger before did he so shoot him just put the gun at the base of the skull and pull the trigger just like dad showed you ricky shoot him shoot him shoot him—

The black man was slowly getting up again. “I still don’t believe you are going to shoot me. I don’t think you’ve got the guts. You’ve got scared eyes. Think I’ll just get up and walk right on out of here.”

The fat man who might have been Vinnie looked worried.

Rick pulled the hammer of the pistol back with his thumb. “Just sit down, pal.”

—christ ricky he’s asking for it shoot him in the leg shoot him in the foot just shoot him—

Rick’s arm slowly brought the gun to bear on the black man’s left calf.

I don’t know if I can do it, Stan.

“I don’t believe you’ve got the nerve to shoot an unarmed man,” the black man said.

—do it ricky do it do it do it—

The gun went off. It surprised even Rick. He didn’t realize he had pulled the trigger. The bullet hit the floor next to the black man’s left foot and ricocheted into a display of Absolut Vodka. Several bottles smashed in a downpour of glass and liquor.

I can’t do it, Stan. I’m sorry. I just ain’t drunk enough to get it on that much.

The fat man who might have been Vinnie was the only one who actually screamed at the gunshot. The black man jumped at the sound, but when he discovered he wasn’t hit, he straightened his back and fixed his eyes on Rick again.

“Sit the fuck down!” Rick shouted.

—he’s right ricky you ain’t got the guts to shoot him what the hell is wrong with you he’s just another stray he’s just a little bit bigger that’s all blow his head off like dad used to do it’s quick and it puts them out of their misery—

The fat man who might have been Vinnie was crouched down behind the counter, his eyes peering out over the edge.

The black man let a smile spread across his face. “I knew you couldn’t shoot me. You had your chance, chickenshit, but now your time is up.”

Rick could hear sirens in the distance.

—come on ricky don’t let him talk to you like that for christ’s sake show him who’s the boss show him you don’t let no stray talk to you like that—

Rick pulled the hammer back again. “The cops are on the way. Just sit down and wait.”

Please, Stan. Make him do it. Make him sit down. I can’t shoot him. I can’t.

The black man laughed. “Your voice sounds a little weak. Your act is slipping, chickenshit. But that’s okay because you don’t need the act anymore. I know something you don’t. It’s my gun. There were only two bullets in it.

The fat man who might have been Vinnie moaned from under the counter. The sirens were getting louder.

Rick kept the gun leveled at the black man’s chest.

The black man suddenly jumped Rick, and Rick pulled the trigger uselessly four times before they tumbled to the floor. The odor of Southern Comfort slammed its way up Rick’s nostrils and into his brain —smooth ricky smooth as shit— and it paralyzed him for a moment. The black man wrestled the gun out of Rick’s limp grasp and ran out of the liquor store. The sirens seemed to be screaming in Rick’s ears.

I’m sorry, Stan. I couldn’t do it. I’m sorry.

—going to get it on a little right here eh ricky that’s what you said get it on a little right here—

I’m sorry, Stan.

—just like the time with the stray ricky dad gave you the gun and told you what to do but you couldn’t do it could you ricky you just stood there with the gun on the base of the stray’s skull and the stray was whimpering with its leg half tore off in the trap but you just couldn’t do it then either—

I’m sorry, Stan. Christ, I’m sorry.

—i know ricky you were sorry then too dad didn’t know how much you cried that night but i do ricky i was there ricky i heard you whimpering worse than the stray—

Yes, you did, Stan.

The fat man who might have been Vinnie stood up from behind the counter. “Nice going buddy. I just may charge you for all the bottles you broke.”

Rick stayed sprawled out on the floor and closed his eyes. He heard the tires of several police cars screech into the parking lot. He didn’t feel much like getting it on anymore.

+ + + THE END + + +

No comments:

Post a Comment