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May 29, 2023

Blaze of Glory

By Ralph Bland

Luke Woods has never done anything like this before. The truth is he's never even thought anything like this until maybe a week ago, when he'd finally got the backpay the store had owed him for more than a month and the amount hadn't been nearly as much as he'd expected it to be, money which got promptly sucked up by the books he had to buy for the first quarter at the community college he'd enrolled in after a year of being out of high school. That took it all, and paying out tuition for the three courses he was taking knocked a big chunk out of his paycheck too, so he knew he'd have to scrounge a while with the tips he made just to keep from having to borrow from anybody again. He was already nearly fifty bucks in the hole to three guys already. He didn't want it to get any worse or he'd never get back to Square One.

Still, he doesn't know how he is going to have gas in his truck for the next week, much less be able to eat. He could ask his folks for money, but he doesn't want to hear it from them again.

He'd expected a lot more from the backpay check, otherwise he wouldn't have spent the rest of the money he'd been saving on buying the pistol off of Lee Gaines. It wasn't exactly that he needed to have a gun for himself so much, but it was more that when Lee showed the pistol to him Luke instantly knew it was something he had to own. He'd held it in his hand -- it was an old Glock 17, Lee said -- and in his palm with his fingers wrapped around the handle he saw the slim black barrel, and it felt like the most comfortable piece of metal in the world. Holding it made him feel older than nineteen. Not only older, but more mature. Holding it in his hand, he wasn't a nervous, skinny kid who bagged groceries and begged for more hours all the time, a stupid kid who had to be careful not to offend or get on the nerves of his bosses, because he knew if he lost this job there was a good chance he wouldn't be able to find another, because the truth was he wasn't qualified to work anywhere else. It was everything he could do to keep this job as a measly clerk, and the idea of having to go out and look for another one scared him to death.

Not that bagging groceries at Morrison's Food King was the best-paying gig in the world. He'd started off at minimum wage a year ago, and after a month they'd given him a ten-cent raise, acting the whole time like it was fucking killing them to do such a thing and he ought to be grateful as hell and get down on his goddamn knees and worship them because he was making an extra three dollars a week -- depending on how many more hours he could volunteer for and squeeze out additionally in seven days' time. When the minimum wage went up, the company delayed putting it into effect for as long as they could, and then when he'd finally received his check it wasn't what he thought it would be. He truly believed they'd screwed him out of a few dollars some way or another, but there wasn't any way he could prove it.

He feels better now, though, just having his new pistol in his possession, even if he is broker than Joe's Turkey for buying it. Lee had even thrown in a box of shells for free, and for a couple of days now Luke has driven out to a secluded woodsy area and practiced shooting the Glock. It was scary at first and wasn't like any of the toy guns and pistols he'd grown up with imagining to shoot. No, that had all been make-believe activity, all the action going on in his head. The Glock is nothing like that. The damn Glock is real.

In the back of his mind he knows he could get in a lot of trouble being in possession of an illegal firearm. He knows the gun has to be stolen from somewhere; there was no way Lee could have come across something like it legally, because there was no way he could have had money enough to buy it, so it had to have been stolen. Luke could go to jail for receiving stolen property if he gets caught with it, so he knows he has to be careful.

After a few sessions of practicing out in the woods it begins to dawn on him that he is getting pretty damn good with his aim with the Glock. He starts thinking that pistol-wielding and marksmanship might be talents he's not beforehand known he possessed.

He originally told himself it would be better to leave the gun at home hidden in his closet in a shoebox, but it hadn't taken long for him to reconsider and start carrying it around in the truck, first in the glove compartment and then beneath the driver's seat. He reasons that the pistol isn't really doing him any good hidden away at home, since it seems like all he was doing was sneaking it in and sneaking it out all the time, and what good was it doing him at home when the time might come when he'd need it at school or at work, or just out in the world where one day it might come in handy.

Saturday night was prom night for a lot of kids who worked at the store, and they all had to be off so they could go. The number of employees left available to work was pretty slim, and it is Luke and one other guy left of the baggers and stockers who get scheduled to work the afternoon and night shift. There are just enough employees to go around to get through the day and make it until closing time at nine o'clock, but between keeping the milk and eggs full and the aisles swept and bagging all the orders on the front end there isn't any time left to slip off to the back and smoke a cigarette or talk to his buddies in the meat department. There isn't even time to go up and say anything to Lisa Redding in the Customer Service office, no time to talk to her through the open window like he usually does on the nights she works, because somebody is always yelling "Package Ready!", and he has to run over and grab the cart and go out and load somebody's damn car.

He works for a long while with no let-up, and for a time it looks like he isn't even going to be allowed a break or the thirty-minute meal period he is supposed to get, mostly because the guy who was supposed to work with him this afternoon and night has called out sick for his shift, which left Luke alone to have to do everything. He is already pissed off about the small amount of his backpay check, so this added business of having to work his ass off for his measly hourly pay while the rest of the world is dancing around at a prom doesn't sit too well in his head.

He is starting to seethe, a little more at a time. Hell, it isn't fair. His paycheck isn't fair, him being here alone isn't fair, his whole life isn't the least bit fair and never has been, and he is getting sick and tired of it.

Bobby Eden, who is usually back in the Produce Department, does come and relieve him so he can go on a break. It isn't like Bobby has come up to the front end and done this out of the goodness of his heart because he felt sorry for Luke being by himself, because that isn't true. Bobby has been called up front by Mr. Kenton. Mr. Kenton is one of the managers. If it had been left up to Bobby Eden, Luke would have worked by himself until they locked the doors at closing time.

He makes his way back to the Deli so he can eat something fast. There are pre-cooked hamburgers wrapped up in paper so they can be nuked in the microwave, so he grabs one along with some chips and a Pepsi from the cooler and sits down by himself to wolf it all down in fifteen minutes. He can't be late getting back because Mr. Kenton or somebody will start calling for him over the loudspeaker. It really pisses him off when they do that.

By the time nine o'clock comes around he is anxious to leave, if for no other reason than to be able to sit down for a while driving home, if, in fact, he decides to go home for the night or if he thinks he can score some illegal beer at one of the quick marts along Shelton Road, or if even -- and this is a fifty-fifty proposition -- his truck will actually start and he won't have to go back inside the store and find somebody to boost him off. He doesn't want to do that because he's already snuck out before Mr. Kenton can make him stay over getting the store spot-mopped and all the carts inside and everything ready to go in the morning. Once, when the truck wouldn't start, Lisa Redding had given him a ride home in her Subaru. He'd sat on his side in the front seat and tried to keep from looking at her too much, but he couldn't help sneaking glances at her and looking her over and thinking about how he'd like to get his hands on her. There didn't seem to be much of a chance in that ever happening, though. For one thing, Lisa was five years older than him and divorced, and he'd seen the procession of guys coming into the store to see her and talk to her, all of them older than him with money and nice cars. None of them were like him and had to work for minimum wage and drive an old pickup truck that only ran half the time.

It pisses him off royally sometimes, the way things are.

He'd started to go by and say goodbye to Lisa, but Mr. Kenton was there with her and she was busy with her paperwork and probably didn't have time to talk to him anyway. This had happened before, and it always bugged the hell out of him. He felt so unimportant, like he was standing in line trying to get her attention. Every time he comes away fuming, knowing she never really acts that way toward those guys who come in the store to see her with their jobs and their cars. She is all smiles and twinkly eyes then. He bets if he had money and wore nice clothes and drove a fucking Corvette she'd have time to talk to him too.

The truck starts up okay, so he is able to take off and go down the road and decide what he is going to do with himself the rest of the night. It is just nine-fifteen, so he for sure doesn't feel like going home. If he did, he could be alone in his room after he got there, but the chances were good his mother will still be up and he'll have to talk to her a while just to keep the fucking peace. He can do without that right now. All she ever wants to tell him is how she hopes he gets his education and does something with his life, like she thinks he is going to become some bigtime surgeon or goddamn congressman or something. He doesn't have the heart to tell her how working at the grocery store is about as far as he is going to make it in his life. He doesn't want to explain how the cards are all stacked against him and he can see crystal-clear the way it is always going to be, and how no matter what in the hell he does he will never be able to get around it. The world had him right where they wanted him.

It isn't so much he is thirsty and absolutely has to go into the Minute Mart and buy beer to ride around and drink and do some meditating with, but it is more of a strange sort of impulse that comes over him when he rounds the corner and sees the lights and the gas pumps and the store with the promise of all kinds of things inside it. Driving up and parking in the open slot by the door, it is like an answer and a solution to all his troubles and worries is all at once being presented to him. It is personal, this revelation, and all-encompassing and a knowledge that this moment of peace-bringing illumination is deemed strictly for him and no one else, for there are no cars parked around him and no one is pumping gas at the outside bays.

He doesn't know why he's suddenly fishing around beneath the seat so he can feel the Glock in his hand. The cool confidence of the metal pulsates through his fingers and warms his palm with its resolute strength. Reaching for the pistol and having it in his grasp supersedes everything this day had wrought so far, the dull, uninspired morning, the hectic afternoon and night of his work shift, the gnawing restless anger that had continued to grow with each hour of bagging and loading groceries and being ordered to do this and then that amid furtive glances at Lisa Redding through the plexiglass windows of the partitioned customer service office, that area separated from his realm of movement by a matter of feet but as distant as the land of never, and it is as if something inside him had begun as a whisper and evolved into a shout and now with the pistol in his hand has at last provided him with an answer to everything. It is as fast as a heartbeat and quick as a flash of lightning; he has not even had time to turn off the ignition key before it comes to him in his head. It shines brightly in his mind and makes sense and he knows like he's never known before that this is the way for him to go.

He turns off the ignition and sits a minute in the truck looking into the store's plate-glass windows. The black dude who is almost always on duty is by the front register thumbing through a magazine on the counter, looking like he is about to drop off to sleep any minute. Luke doesn't think there is anybody working with him, since any other time he's ever gone in the place to buy anything he's not seen but one person working each time. Maybe there is somebody else in the backroom some of those times doing something, but he doubts it.

He looks at the gun in his hand. He thinks about work and all he'd gone through during his shift, all the hard work and getting yelled at, everybody all the time acting like he hadn't done enough to earn his pay, and driving this lousy truck of his and not being able to have anything else because he doesn't have and never will have money enough for a better set of wheels, and having to hand over what he had to pay for books and tuition because his parents don't have money either, pay it out so he can go to school and in the end still never be anything more than a goddamn bagboy, and how he'll be bagging forever while he watches Lisa Redding leave the store and knowing all the time she'll be going out with guys driving shiny cars and working better jobs and always having money to burn. He thinks of how his life is going to always be this way, all because of money. Everyone has it, but not him. He doesn't have money to make things better and the way everything is fixed he knows he never will.

He opens the truck door and gets out to go inside. He leaves the keys in the ignition. He thinks he knows why but he doesn't want to think about it. He doesn't want to think too much about anything right this minute. Thinking just makes everything worse.

He pushes through the glass door and he's inside. There are three lanes to walk down, one with all kinds of snacks and candy and chips, two more with paper goods and household cleaners and motor oil and shit like that. There's a magazine rack and a cooler against the back and side walls, beer and soft drinks and milk and ice cream. He glances up at the front counter and the guy is still reading his magazine, not watching him at all.

It's like I'm fucking invisible, he thinks.

There's some kind of old-school Motown he can hear playing from somewhere. He can't decide if it's the Temptations or the Four Tops, because it's like ancient history shit his grandma would have liked back when she was alive. Maybe it's not that old, maybe it's what his mom and dad liked once, but it's still old and from back before he was born. He sneaks another look at the guy at the cash register who looks about the same age as his dad. Maybe what's playing is some station the dude is listening to on a radio. Maybe the music isn't being piped in from a satellite at all. He doesn't know why he's thinking about it so much because it sure as hell isn't that important.

He heads for where the beer is and stands there looking at stacks of Bud Light and Budweiser, like he's having to make a decision on what he wants to drink tonight. He doesn't know if the guy up front is looking at him or not, but he does know there's nobody else in the store right this second, so it seems like it's now or never. He needs to either shit or get off the commode.

He grabs a six-pack and makes his way toward the front. The man is so engrossed in his magazine he doesn't even look up until Luke sets the beer on the counter.

"I need to see some I.D.," the man says, finally able to take his eyes from his magazine.

"You can see this instead," Luke says. He pulls out the Glock and levels it at the man's chest. "This is my identification, asshole. It's all I need for you to give me everything inside that goddamn register."

"There ain't that much here," the man says. He's got a name badge on that says Walter. "I just made a drop. Ain't no way for me to get at it. I don't have a key."

"I don't know if I believe that shit or not. I don't think I do. I think you're fucking lying to me."

"Think what you want, but I'm telling you straight. I got no way to open the box. You can walk around here and see for yourself."

"I ain't coming back there. You probably got a gun or something hidden back there. You're probably just fucking dying to shoot me."

"I ain't got no gun."

He stretches out his arms and opens his hands so Luke can see his palms. "See, nothing on me. I couldn't shoot you even if I wanted to."

This is starting to become a lengthy conversation, and Luke feels the pistol beginning to quiver some in his hand. He's got to get this over with.

"Give me what's in the register. Give me your billfold too."

From his peripheral vision, Luke can sense a car pulling into one of the gasoline bays outside. He allows himself a quick glance out the window and sees he is wrong. There are two cars out there now.

"Put everything in one of them bags."

He points to a plastic bag rack and watches the clerk drop the bills from the till into a bag. It doesn't look like much, not even a fistful. The man holds his hands up and then reaches behind his back and drops his wallet in with the cash. He doesn't act like it's killing him to part with it, so there's probably not much in it either. Altogether Luke can tell it's not much of a haul.

He takes a look out the window and the two drivers are out of their cars pumping gas. He takes maybe three steps toward the door with the bag of money in his hand when he sees that the woman pumping gas has a uniform on with a badge. She's a cop. The car is a SUV and not a squad car, so maybe her shift has just ended or she's on her way in, but whatever the case, there she is thirty yards away, and if he comes out the door she's going to see him. He steps back and looks at the guy behind the counter, who hasn't moved a muscle. "You stay where you are," Luke tells him. "We're going to both of us stay right here until these people out there leave. I ain't messing with no goddamn woman cop tonight."

"Do whatever you want. Just stop waving that damn gun around. You don't watch it you're going to get somebody hurt. It ain't worth it. Hell, the way you're acting I'll be goddamn surprised if you don't end up shooting yourself."

"Shut the fuck up. I mean it."

Luke stands inside the door and tries to get hidden behind a potato chip display until the coast is clear. The first man finishes up and replaces the nozzle and gets in his car and drives off, but the lady cop has to stop and wipe off her windshield and throw away some trash from inside the car. It looks like she's about to leave when she opens the car door again and gets out and starts walking toward the building.

"Keep your mouth shut if you know what's good for you," Luke says. He sounds like he's on TV or something.

"I ain't saying a word," Walter says.

The lady cop walks in and an electronic chime sounds when she comes through the door. She walks to the counter with a plastic card in her hand. Luke, from behind the potato chip display, looks at the pistol holstered at her side. It is a big gun. It is bigger than what he has in his hand, which has seemed larger than life to him up until right now.

He can hear his heart beating above the Motown drums playing from somewhere, the speakers in the ceiling, a radio behind the counter, he doesn't know. He wonders if he should head out the door right now while the lady cop is up at the counter, but he can't trust the goddamn clerk not to say anything long enough for him to get away.

He doesn't even want the damn money anymore. It's not like it's nearly enough for all this trouble. It's not going to change anything. It's not enough for anything.

"I need a pack of Newports," he hears the cop say.

All at once Luke can't stand to be hiding behind the potato chips any longer. He can't stand hearing this music another second, Marvin Gaye or Smokie Robinson or whoever the black guy singing is, because it reminds him of how he is just this white dude with a pistol in his hand, an illegal gun, he knows, stolen from somebody, and the music in his ears reminds him that the clerk at the register is a black man and the lady cop is black and all his life he'd thought he was the one who was better than both of them because he was white and that meant he had to be the good guy and was deserving of everything, more money and a girlfriend and a new car, but now here he is robbing a store because he doesn't have money for the car or the girlfriend and he never will have it either. Here he is and there they are and he knows it is all his fault he is an asshole but he can't see how there is anything else he can do.

He waits to see if Walter the clerk is going to say something to the cop so she'll know what's happening, but he can't stay frozen and hidden behind the chips display any longer, and so he makes a break for the door and the sidewalk and the truck. He pushes the door and it catches and he realizes he has to pull it toward him and it keeps him inside a split second longer, long enough for the lady cop to turn around and see him and for Walter to say he was being robbed and that's the guy, and then as he gets the door open and goes through he hears Walter say, "Be careful. He's got a gun."

Luke tries to run but it's like there's a tether attached to him and he can't get far enough down the walk to the truck fast enough. It's also like he can't go in a straight line and keeps veering right and left he's in such of a hurry, banging up against the side of the building and bouncing off and almost falling off the walk to the asphalt lot. He tries to keep his balance and the cash in the bag starts sliding out and he loses his grip on the handle and it all comes out and it's gone and down on the walk scattered up and down and all over.

He can't stop and pick it up. He hasn't got time. He has to leave it and get to his truck and get away.

He hears the lady cop yelling for him to stop.

He wonders what he ought to do.

He turns around as if to ask a question of the lady cop, or maybe of Walter trailing behind her, or of any of the passing cars on Shelton Road or anyone beneath the stars on this Saturday night of proms and dancing and memories and photographs, and there is no answer for him because he does not even know how to ask about what there is he needs to know.

"Hold it right there!"

He hears the woman speak to him and sees she has her pistol pointed at him, and he thinks how it is even bigger now than it appeared when it was in her holster.

"Put the gun down!" she says. "Do it now!"

All at once Luke is finding it puzzling and finding it almost funny too how the lady cop has her huge department-issued pistol in her hand aimed at him, simply because, he supposes, he has taken some money, and he wants to tell her how she doesn't have to worry about the money being gone anymore because there it is right there on the sidewalk in front of her and all she has to do is pick it up and give it back to the clerk. He doesn't have it anymore. And so he laughs and raises his arm to point to the money there on the walk and looks at his hand trying to direct her attention to it there between them and sees the gun he is holding and wonders how he's forgotten he is holding it, forgotten the pistol is there in his hand because he does not need it anymore because the money is gone and that part of it is over. He's sorry now he'd shelled out his backpay to buy it, and he's sorry his whole Saturday has been ruined because all the assholes had to go to the prom and he's sorry Lisa Redding was always going to date other guys than him because he wasn't in her league because he didn't have money like those other guys did, he didn't have anything, and he's sorry when the lady cop's gun goes off and he hears the explosion and falls out onto the lot and is on his back and can't move for shit anymore, and he's sorry too that he doesn't have time now to explain any of what he's thinking while he is going away somewhere, sorry as hell there's no time now to tell anybody anything.

Article © Ralph Bland. All rights reserved.
Published on 2022-07-11
3 Reader Comments
12:25:17 PM
Thanks for showing the sadness inside a complex scene.
11:40:19 AM
Excellent pacing, excellent attention to detail.

It seems all too real, which is a compliment to your writing and a sad commentary on our culture.
10:43:55 AM
Wow, great writing! Luke's thoughts seem all too real with a moral theme/nod to poor thought out choices and awareness of not knowing what another human is dealing with. A good thought provoking piece for adolescent reading.
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