by John Baum
I’m in line to buy my wife a dress when this guy comes in. It’s raining out, but he’s wearing large black sunglasses, and he doesn’t take them off as he walks around the store. This bothers me. Or maybe it’s his look that bothers me: skinny jeans, blue blazer, shiny loafers, naked ankles, coolly chaotic beard—a moneyed hipster vibe, fitting for this part of Atlanta where rundown and boarded up are precursors to cool and expensive . Aside from him, I’m the only other guy in the place.
The shop is new and small and smells like flowers. A handful of customers drift around the tables of blouses and scarves folded in feathery pyramids, the breathy dresses hanging from angled racks along the walls. No one else pays attention to the guy in sunglasses until he pulls the shades down over the glass door and show window.
“Sir?” a saleswoman says.
He pulls a gun from beneath his untucked shirt, and I freeze. We all do.
“All the money in the register,” he says. “No yelling, no heroes, just your valuables, and I’m gone.”
Hands go up. I’m holding a black-and-white number, loose and billowy in an elegant way. When my wife saw this dress a few weeks back, she’d said, “You don’t walk downstairs in a dress like this. You descend .” My plan was to buy this and leave it in our apartment with a note to say I was sorry. And now, I sense Karma’s boomerang coming in hot.
“Oh, God,” a woman to my left says. “Please.”
“Shut up,” he says. And then to me, “Drop the dress, dude.”
It flutters to the floor, and my hands go up. While I’m aching to get out of this alive, an unbelieving sliver of my brain is glad it’s happening. I’m amazed. There’s fear, of course, but disbelief, too. I want to take notes. This isn’t just research; this is experience. I can totally use this.
He holds the gun steadily. His hands aren’t shaking. Sweat isn’t trickling from his sideburns. Instead of angry fragments, he speaks in calm, complete sentences as he directs the saleswoman to put all the money from the register into one of the pink store bags. He looks bored.
Although I’m on track to becoming some kind of manager at the movie theater where I work, my real passion is screenplays. No bites yet, but I’m close, and in the one I’m working on right now, I’ve been hammering away at the two holdup scenes—both in gas stations—and they’ve gone from airless to over-inflated and back again. Sometimes it’s a physical effort to fight off the suspicion that the whole project is lifeless, and I shadowbox my way around the den in our apartment at four in the morning, marked up pages scattered on the card table in the corner where I work.
A mirror covers the back wall of the store, and the guy keeps an eye on our reflections as the woman empties the register. I’ve always imagined the person emptying the register in a panic, grabbing the money by the fistful, crumpled bills falling to the floor, hands shaking, coins spilling out and rolling across dirty linoleum. Not this woman. Her precise bit of work reminds me of someone setting a table for some super fancy party. I mentally dog-ear pages twenty-three and forty-seven in the screenplay, moments where crying cashiers make messes of their tills.
He turns his head slightly, and the beard, I realize, is fake. The elastic band holding it in place divots a crease in the hairline above his ears. This little detail opens some kind of a door for me that I can’t close, and the world of my screenplay enfolds me. I have questions. I want to ask him where he got the pistol. Did he file off the serial number? Maybe it came like that? It looks worn, a black-market gun. The dress shoes seem an odd choice, but they also speak to his confidence: he won’t have to run, probably has an accomplice waiting in a car down the street. The criminal never wins the footrace anyway, not in real life.
Calm as a flight attendant, he asks the woman for a second bag. She hands it over, and he turns to us and says, “Phones, wallets, watches, rings, whatever you got.”
As each person drops their valuables in the pink bag, he looks them up and down, deciding, I imagine, who best to grab in a behind-the-neck, gun-at-the-temple, defense move for when the cops bust in, a human shield kind of thing.
When he gets to me, he points the gun at my face. I can’t move.
“Okay, Mark, put your shit in the bag,” he says. I still can’t move. He knows my name. He lowers the gun from my face to my chest and tells me to stop whistling.
“You know me?”
“Sure,” he says. “You work at the North Atlanta Cinema and Taphouse. And you’re still whistling.”
“Sometimes I can’t stop,” I say.
“This should not be one of those times.” His candy cane breath surprises me.
“But how do you know me?”
“Idiot,” he says, “you’re wearing a name tag.” Using the gun barrel, he taps the plastic, gold-colored tag pinned to my vest.
I try to hold my breath. When I get nervous I have a habit of breathing only through my nose, and when I really get keyed up, my nostrils whistle, only I don’t realize I’m doing it because whatever’s making me nervous commands my attention.
Recently, though, the whistling has begun happening in my sleep, keeping Wendy awake. She wants me to get help for it because she’s going in to work on fumes. She works for CNN, writing those quotes and headlines that scroll across the bottom of the screen during broadcasts, a job she enjoys and one we need for her to keep.
When she asks what kind of dreams I’m having that make me so anxious, I offer a vague version of the one where she walks several steps ahead of me, clutching something to her chest like she’s stolen it. I try to get her to slow down, but I can only whisper garbled French, which is weird because I don’t speak French. I don’t mention the fact that I think she’s stolen something because in the dream I sense it’s a baby; I just tell her I can’t seem to get her to slow down.
Now the gun is inches from my nose, and I brace myself for the painful shitstorm that comes with getting shot in the face. Beneath the drumroll of rain on the roof, a sound grows. Sirens. The whole room stops breathing. Surprisingly, sirens don’t help this type of crisis—they just make you wonder who will die first. You want the sirens to stop because this situation is happening on a spinning plate balanced on the tip of a sword. Sirens upset the balance. They grow louder. The sirens are outside and then passing, shrinking, and bending behind the distance, speeding off somewhere else to help other people.
A surge of rain pummels the roof. Lightning, thunder, a buzz and electric crackle outside, like someone down the street is plugging a giant guitar into a giant amplifier. The lights go out. The helpless feeling from my wife-steals-baby dream cements me in place. This stranger will kill me, and no one knows I’m here. Who’ll explain this to Wendy when I’m gone? What will she really think?
“I am here,” I say, “because my wife pointed out this dress a while back, and I came to buy it for her. It’s a surprise.”
The woman to my left tells me to shut up, only I can’t stop.
“You don’t understand. It was a shotgun wedding, but then everything got worse.”
Through clenched teeth, the woman again: “Shut up .”
When I try to explain more, my words come out all pinched and nasally. He’s plugged my left nostril with the gun barrel.
“Everything in the bag,” he says. His eyes are clear. He’s no tweaker, no meth head. Just a really calm guy who knows what he wants and how to get it.
When I take my phone from my pocket, it rings, an elfin cascading of bells, the stupid factory setting I haven’t changed. Instinctually, I look at it.
“My wife,” I say.
“Hand it over.” The ringing stops. He drops the phone in the bag, backs towards the door, tucks the gun into the waistband of his jeans, and buttons the blazer’s top button.
“If I see anyone walk out of this place in the next—”
My ringing phone cuts him off. The woman next to me sucks in a wisp of air.
Standing with his back to the door, the guy takes the gun back out. He turns and parts a section of blinds with the barrel.
“She outside?” he says. “Your wife?”
“No one knows I’m here. I promise. It’s a surprise. The dress, I mean. I don’t know why she’s calling. She’s at—”
He’s walking right at me.
“If you do not shut the fuck up,” he says, “I will blow you away.”
Despite the fear, the dark room, the glacial tick of time, my interior world brightens. Those are my words, my lines.
“Wait,” I say. “Can you repeat that?”
He says it again, the line Wendy hated from my screenplay, and he says it perfectly, cutting out the bit about crying the first tear. I could not have imagined it any better. He bites each syllable, chucks the consonants at me. This is what men with guns say in these situations. It’s a cliché because it’s true. Clichés reveal truth. Everyone wants to avoid the plague. The guy tells me to stop smiling.
A few nights back, I asked Wendy to read through one of the holdup scenes with me, something she usually did without complaint or critique, but halfway through she stopped and said she had a problem with the line, ‘If you do not shut the fuck up I will blow you away and not cry the first tear.’
“ Not cry the first tear ?” she said, her head cocked. “Mark. Seriously? This guy’s going to be all stressed. You said he’s a tweaker, right? He’s hopped up on something, hollering and shaking, probably. I imagine him sweating, shaking, teetering on the edge.”
“Try it anyway,” I said, suddenly defensive. “And it has to be yelled. That’s why it’s in italics.”
“You expect this guy to say, ‘And not cry the first tear’?”
“Fine,” I said. “Just try ‘If you do not shut the fuck up, I will blow you away.’ Can you at least yell that?”
“And he’s not using contractions?” She seemed to be having fun with this, and, I knew she was right, but I couldn’t let it go.
“Yell,” I said.
She dropped the page and said, “None of this is worth yelling.”
I should’ve agreed with her or at least conceded the fact that maybe the line was melodramatic, but instead, I told her she had no idea what she was talking about. That, yes, she was the one who’d finished college, but what did she know about writing a screenplay? She hadn’t read half of it, so what did she know about this guy? We went back and forth until I retreated to our balcony and sat in one of the two white plastic chairs, propping my feet on the other. I watched headlights and taillights until the apartment went dark behind me.
Two days later, I’m buying a dress, an advance apology to soften the thud of our collapsing marriage.
The elfin bells cascade again, and then one of the women behind me starts talking over them, hysteria tightening her voice as she explains that her husband’s a lawyer, and she’s listened enough to know that if anyone dies here, the cops and the feds will be all over this, but if he walks out now, chances are much better he’ll get away with it.
If Wendy keeps calling, he will shoot me, and I will die, and then he will shoot someone else, probably the lawyer’s wife, and I think of Mr. Easton in high school who explained that Curley demanded the privilege of shooting Lennie in the stomach because a gut shot was the most painful way to die. “He wanted Lennie to suffer,” Mr. Easton explained, and I can hear him and think I don’t want to be Lennie, but this woman is still talking, and all I want is for her to shut up, shut up, shut up because she says something about felony murder and the word murder mixed in with the actual gun in the room makes me itchy, and then my memory swerves to the time I was on a MARTA train and a woman got on with a crying child, maybe five, but the woman kept saying, “Keep it up, you just keep it up, and there won’t be no television tonight, neither,” and they both tuned up, louder and louder, and I got off at the next stop, even though it wasn’t mine, knowing I could never take that little girl in my arms and let her watch as much television as she wanted, and if I did try to help her, she would scream for her mother.
Some nights, Wendy and I hold each other so tight it feels safe to talk about another baby, one that would live.
When the phone starts in again, the guy’s gun-holding hand collapses at his side, almost comically, an ‘I give up’ kind of gesture. He takes my phone out of the bag and drops it at my feet. The dinkley-dink music fills the darkened room. The vibrating phone sketches a trembling semicircle between us on the shiny wood flooring. I will die because Wendy needs me, only now it’s not Wendy’s name on the phone but a familiar number with a California area code, as in Los Angeles, as in the land of sunshine and agents, and I need to pick up because it is one of the dozen agents I’ve queried like a nutjob over the last few weeks, following up my emailed queries with calls.
I say, “Can I just—”
“Shut up,” he says.
He shoots twice, and the sound is enormous and sharp, and the phone jumps from the floor, clatters, and settles, the jigsaw-puzzled screen with two ragged eyeholes staring up at us and looking startled as electronic chirps eke their way out from inside the phone. A brassy chemical smell fills the space between us, and although I’ve never smelled that before, I think, of course it smells like that, and the phone jumps again from the third shot. It is silent.
“Sorry,” he says and then raises the gun a few inches and shoots me. Howling, I crumple to the floor, explosive heat rocketing up and down my left leg. Behind me in the darkness there is screaming. The pain is fierce and scorching. The clean, wet smell of the world pours in as he slips out into the storm.
The ambulance rumbles down potholed side streets, and the EMT sits on a metal bench to my left, strapped in by a school-bus yellow seatbelt. Everything back here is strapped in, including me, tight in a gurney, my left pant leg slit up the middle, a thin green elastic band tied tight above my knee, and a thick cuff of gauze and bandages where the bullet shattered my shin.
“How we doing now?” the EMT asks me again, checking my blood pressure and temperature for a third time, and then asks more questions. How am I feeling? Any other pain? What day is it? I answer quickly and beg for drugs because, holy shit, it hurts.
“Good news is, you’re stable. Bad news is, we can’t give you anything stronger than water unless authorized by the hospital, and they won’t authorize anything because you’re stable. You’ll be fine. If you’re going to get shot in the leg, the shin’s the place.”
It doesn’t feel that way, but he goes on to talk about the weather. Apparently, the rain that came through was way worse than just rain. A thin but violent line of storms had raged through the city toppling trees and power poles across town, while me and some strangers were getting robbed by the calmest criminal on the planet.
“Parts of the city are wrecked,” he says, “but most of it stayed on the north side.”
The north side, with its tidy suburbs, had a frayed edge, too, and that’s where we lived in our little place by the highway beyond the strip malls, banks, parks, car dealerships, and other, nicer apartment complexes. But it’s a Monday, and Wendy is downtown in her cubicle at CNN, typing up tidbits about the before, during, and after of the storm, hoping her clipped headlines scroll across the screen beneath footage of dazed and sniffling survivors standing among the wreckage—houses sliced in half by trees, cars crushed, telephone poles angled over roadways strewn with branches as big as the telephone poles.
Over the noise of the radio, the EMT behind the wheel says something about a weekend camping trip. He doesn’t seem concerned. Maybe I’ll be okay, but out the back window a stop light blinks red, dangling from a wire, and the pavement-gray sky looks apocalyptic.
A team at the hospital meets the ambulance, and they roll me back to a room, lift me from the gurney to a bed. The EMT talks to the doctor on call while one nurse is tapping at my left arm for the I.V. and a second one rolls a machine to the bedside that looks like a mix between a photocopier and an industrial floor-waxer. She tells me it’s a portable x-ray machine as everyone talks about me like I’m not there, lobbing to one another the details of my injury: gunshot wound, lower-left extremity, no exit wound, and despite the elevated blood pressure, vitals are fine, going to need some blood and an orthopedic surgeon. During all the talking, a third nurse puts my foot into a thick cloth loop hanging from a metal bar over the bed, and she cranks a lever on the side, lifting my foot into the air.
Finally, the doctor asks how I feel, tells me they’re going to give me something to calm me down, and then they’ll take care of the bullet.
I wake up alone in a small hospital room, the world dark beyond the windows. I have cottonmouth, and I need to pee. At first, I feel nothing where before there had been fire, and this scares me, but when I reach down for it, my leg is still there—at least the top part. I have to wiggle my toes and see the bedsheet moving to assure myself that they didn’t lop it off while I was out.
Voices in the hallway, a knock at the door, and two cops walk in. I try to sit up, but my head feels all swirly.
“Mr. Nolan,” the taller, skinnier of the two, says, “because we didn’t get a chance to talk with you earlier, we’d like to ask you some questions about the incident, while it’s still fresh.”
The other cop is huge, a boulder with arms and legs, and when I ask if they caught the guy, he tells tell me what they know, that the storm worked to his advantage. No witnesses, no cameras, no leads.
“We were hoping,” he says, “that you might be able to add to his description.”
Other than his height, I can’t add much. No scars or tattoos, nothing but the details of his fake beard, clothing, and peppermint breath.
“Like breath mints?”
“Candy canes,” I say.
He writes something down, and the other cop asks if I was resisting.
“Resisting?” I say.
“Not doing what he asked. Fighting back.”
The other cop stops writing and says, “Just tell us what happened from the moment he walked in to when he left.”
When I get to the part about how he looked outside because my phone kept ringing and he was worried someone was waiting for me, the skinny cop asks who it was that kept calling me.
“My wife,” I say.
“Is she here?” The skinny officer writes something down, and the boulder looks at the clock over the door.
“Not yet.” Boulder gives me a look that tightens my stomach, and I say, “I don’t know her number,” which must sound odd because he writes something down and looks at his partner.
Wendy is a contact in my murdered phone. Nobody knows numbers these days. The cops don’t move, and I don’t know what else to say.
“I guess I figured she’d be here when I woke up.”
They ask me what she does, where she might be, and I tell them about her job.
In the quiet space after the cops leave and before a nurse comes in, I come to the conclusion that there may not be any experience lonelier than waking up in a hospital room alone.
The North Atlanta Cinema and Taphouse is one of those movie theaters that serves beer, wine, and entrees. Ours even includes gluten-free pizza, veggie burgers, and a full-service bar in the lobby by the normal theater concessions. Some nights, if she didn’t have much going on, Wendy would come in and sit at the bar to hang out during the slow times.
About four months into our relationship, I saw her taking the steps two at a time up to the ticket window. I smiled and waved, only she wasn’t smiling, and she didn’t wave back. When she got close enough, she leaned to the metal vent and she spoke, her voice crackling at me, small and tin-coated in fear. “I’m pregnant,” she said.
I have never anticipated fatherhood in the nostalgic sense, as in “I can’t wait to be a dad, play catch, carry a kid around on my shoulders.” I was never against it—I just never considered it a part of my story, especially when my story didn’t include much parenting, at least in the traditional sense.
Diagnosed with cancer not long after I was born, my mother died when I was nearly too young to remember her. According to the aunt who raised me, her death sent my father into a mental nose-dive, which ended with his mysterious death a few years later from a gunshot wound in the back room of a pawn shop in New Orleans.
Wendy’s story wasn’t much different and, in many ways, more impressive. Absent dad, single mom with a tattered string of boyfriends, and a big blowout when Wendy confronted her mother with the awful realization that one of the boyfriends tried something funny with her one night. When her mother called her a liar, Wendy left and never went back.
And now this.
We sat in her car. She cried. I tried not to. There was no way she wasn’t going to have it, so the next step was to shine a light on the next step: what was best for the baby. It took us days to get our heads around that sentence, an effort that included several fights, protracted silence, reconciliation, exhaustion, and, threaded through it all, fear.
Up until then, I was fine with not making much money, at least not yet. But now, a baby. I was petrified, but bumping up against that fear was a sense of serious responsibility. As we talked and fought and cried and settled in with the discomfort, a mix of pride and muted elation buzzed through me. Maybe it was some kind of a biological contact high, as if my slacker paternal instincts whiffed the hormonal party raging in my girlfriend’s womb and wanted in. I was going to be a dad.
We hadn’t been together long enough to discuss marriage, much less parenthood. We didn’t know what we were doing or what we wanted. There we were, both in our early twenties, wavering in the heat-haze of a future making us sweat, until marriage seemed like the best option.
We married at the courthouse and moved into a cheap month-to-month north of town, with a balcony overlooking I-400. The apartment had the generic transience of a hotel room. If the walls could talk, they might have said, “Don’t worry, you won’t be here forever.” We bought secondhand furniture, cooked cheap meals, went to work, and commented on how the steady white noise of the interstate traffic resembled ocean waves. A nice enough beginning, trembling though it was, with the quickly approaching thunder of parenthood.
And then one night there was Wendy’s pain—sharp, insistent, ominous—and the two-a.m. rush to the hospital where a nurse wheel-chaired her through double doors while I filled out paperwork, feeling useless and hollow.
And then, later, the doctor who said, “I’m sorry. This doesn’t mean you can’t have children, just not now. Understand that when something like this happens, it’s the body telling you everything’s not ready. As tough as it sounds, it’s for the best. Trust your biology.”
A chaplain came in after the doctor. She looked younger than Wendy. She gave us cards for local support groups. She asked if we would like to pray with her.
As we tried to adjust to simply existing in the following days, words between us came out soft and careful, but the hairpin turn of this experience had thrown us into a tailspin, and instead of getting thrown clear of the wreckage, we were pinned, waiting for everything else to blow up.
One night we were sitting on our balcony watching the log-jammed river of traffic on 400. Two tow-trucks worked to clear a wreck as a cop funneled three lanes of traffic into one. This was not the ocean. This was traffic. Grinding gears, airbrakes, horns, exhaust, real life.
Wendy said she’d talked to a lawyer about an annulment.
“This isn’t working?” I said after a while.
“I just wanted to know what an annulment is.”
A truck horn blared; smaller horns answered. The cop whistled a series of short blasts.
“So, what is it?”
“It doesn’t have the stain of divorce. It wipes everything away, like the marriage never happened.”
We were quiet for a while. Directed by the cop, the three lanes of snarled traffic inched into a single lane.
“A relationship mob hit,” I said.
“This was easier when we didn’t have a choice,” she said. “We knew we had to get married. That was that. Now, everything’s a little fuzzy. Isn’t it?”
“Like we’ve been given an out?”
Wendy falls into the room like she’s been fighting gale force winds out in the hallway, face flushed, eyes wide and crazy. I am propped up in bed, having dipped in and out of sleep since the cops left.
“Mark?” she says.
Right off, it’s weird. I remember the chaplain who prayed for us. Maybe she could help us wade through this moment that feels delicate and treacherous. I pull the blanket from my leg cocooned in fresh bandages. I parrot the EMT, tell her that if I were going to get shot in the leg, I did it right.
“You’re going to be okay, though, right?”
“I might limp.” She doesn’t move.
“Where were you?” she says but doesn’t wait for an answer. “I called your cell after the storms came through, and at first it rang and rang,” she says, “before going to voicemail. I waited and tried again, only then it didn’t ring at all. Not once. Straight to voicemail, like you’d just turned off the phone. Because of the weather, I couldn’t get through to the theater. I thought you were gone.” Her face is pale. “I thought that was it, but then the cops called and said you’d been shot, and I thought you were dead, but they told me you were here.” She hasn’t moved far from the doorway. I should assure her we will last, but I haven’t even told her why I got shot.
“I was buying you a dress,” I say. “The one from that store down by Inman Park.”
I want to tell her she was right about the cry the first tear line, but wrong about how someone in a holdup would be all nervous and shaky; and I want to tell her about the agent calling before the guy shot my phone, but it seems a better idea to tell her I meant the dress as a parting gift, if only to see what kind of reality that truth might create.
People deal with much worse. I got shot. I’m okay. We’re okay. We’ve made it this far. She walks into the room, lets the door close behind her. I take her hand, wondering how long we can manage.
John Baum’s work has appeared in The Massachusetts Review, The Blue Mesa Review, The MacGuffin, and elsewhere. He has been awarded fellowships at The Hambidge Center in north Georgia and the Rockvale Writers’ Colony in Tennessee. He lives, teaches, and writes in Atlanta. Feel free to drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.