Duncan Ros, author of The Deep Red Knockout, has previously published short fiction in Juked, Shotgun Honey, Fleas on the Dog, and The Dark City Crime & Mystery Magazine.
Joe Grundy was a failure. Not in the grandiose sense of having tried for something great and failed, but rather in the sense of never having succeeded at the small things—the little things that add up over a lifetime and give it a sense of meaning and purpose, like droplets of hope that over time leave the glass half-full. Divorced, no kids, middle-aged and gray, out of shape, and out of work. Over-drinking and under-thinking and late-night television into daytime reruns can only do so much. Usually too much of the wrong thing.
Today he was feeling particularly dismal. He’d applied to several jobs and hadn’t heard back. Jobs that would have been ideal for someone twenty years younger, a fresh-faced kid just out of high school, or someone in their early twenties who still gets carded when ordering a glass of beer with dinner.
Joe Grundy was a failure. Not in the grandiose sense of having tried for something great and failed, but rather in the sense of never having succeeded at the small things…
And true, Joe had something of a nest egg. But only something of one, a piece of one. It was a small sum of cash he kept in a lockbox, invisible to debtors or the ex-wife, or anyone else who might want it. Maybe enough to cover next month’s expenses with a little luck and while living on a shoestring—which he was already. The destitute loneliness, entrapped in four cheap walls he couldn’t afford, made him feel all the more beat.
It made him remember some advice his late grandmother had once told him when he was much younger, on the Sundays when he’d come to visit her and they’d play bridge in the nursing home rec room. She’d noticed he looked a little depressed after a break-up with a high school sweetheart and had said something like: “Sometimes if you’re feeling down, best thing to do is get gussied-up. Make out like you’ve got yourself a date and are going out on the town. You’ll feel better.” The words, half-faded from his memory, hung in his head as he stared at his stubbled and generally unkempt reflection in the bathroom mirror. Maybe she was right. That’s what he needed to do.
He had no shaving cream left to lather his face, and so used an old pale bar of soap. But when he started to shave, the rusty blade was dull to the point of tearing out his facial hair rather than cutting it. After a few painful plucks, he hit the head-release and flung the old razor into the wastebasket next to the sink. It was his last one.
There was a ten-dollar bill in his wallet on the nightstand next to the unmade bed, and a bodega on Third and Mason—just around the corner. It was run by a friendly Korean family that knew him by name. His drinking habit made him a regular. He dressed, put on his coat and worn loafers, and set out.
As he walked, he ruminated. He’d had a spark at one time, and he knew it. Some real get-up-and-go of the old school American boot-strap variety, where the rewards of hard work seemed tangible and material—a car, a house, a family, even wealth. No family in his case, though, even though he and his ex-wife had tried for children to the bitter end.
His spark had lit a fire that burned somewhere once. A flame that was seen by no one, or the wrong one, or at the wrong place, or at the wrong time. He’d worked his way up from the bottom at the first job he’d ever had—at a machine shop that manufactured screws. Founded by his immediate boss, Gundry went from Shop Helper to Machinist to Shift Lead to Assistant Supervisor, all in fifteen years. But it had all gone to hell in the housing crash of 2008 when the company went belly-up.
He lost everything. Almost thirteen years later and he still hadn’t recovered. The loss of the job meant the loss of a wife, a foreclosed home, and thousands of dollars in debt and alimony that he wouldn’t be able to pay back in two or three lifetimes of hourly work. All his spark had done was light a fuse he couldn’t put out, and that led to the explosion that had made the mess that was his life.
Something pulled him out of his reverie. He looked up. It hadn’t occurred to him that he’d been staring listlessly at his feet, at the ground moving beneath him, and not paying any attention to his surroundings.
It wasn’t uncommon for there to be panhandlers on this block of town—some of which had cardboard signs, or else loitered in fragmented clusters on the pavement, or strummed at rough-looking pawnshop guitars with broken strings. That was the usual scene. That was this scene.
What snapped Joe out of his self-sympathetic yarn was the person standing directly in front of him and blocking his path. It was a girl. In her early twenties at the most, and dressed in several dark and decaying layers. Her scent hit him instantaneously—a mix of cheap tobacco, marijuana, and a musty, earthy body odor.
“Care to hear a song for a little change?”
No, he thought. But he didn’t feel like coming off like a jerk. A part of him felt sorry for the girl and felt sorry for all of them, even though he was not that different from them. Or at least a part of him wanted to feel sorry for the girl, but maybe this too was a selfish act. Maybe he just didn’t want the mental burden of saying no.
“Sure,” he said.
Still standing in front of him and without moving aside, she began a rendition of George Strait’s “Ocean Front Property.” Joe knew the song and had heard it many times on the shop floor radio, which had been perpetually tuned in to the country music station.
He’d heard it other times too. But he was surprised that this girl, as young as she was and looking the way she did, knew the song and had chosen it over every other song she could have sung at that moment. It felt like a bad joke with no punchline—her dilated pupils like laser-beam ink-spots, gazing right through him as she displayed some stoned-out animatronic performance.
When she got through the first chorus—and her singing wasn’t half-bad, he thought—he said a quick “thanks,” and walked around her, forgetting to give her the change she’d been singing for.
As Joe entered the bodega, he wondered how he’d fare as a street-side panhandler. Probably not very. If he was that charming or easy on the eyes, he would have tried it sooner, or else landed a decent job by now.
The Koreans, Jiho and Minji Kim weren’t behind the counter today like they usually were. Joe had made a concerted effort to learn and remember their names even though he was generally terrible with names. They’d made an effort to remember his, and had also learned to speak decent English, which he understood was difficult for a non-native speaker. Committing their names to memory felt like the least he could do.
As Joe entered the bodega, he wondered how he’d fare as a street-side panhandler.
Instead of them behind the register, there was a teenage girl with bleached blond hair and blue contact lenses. He assumed it was their daughter, but had no way to be sure.
“Excuse me,” said Joe to the girl. “Do you know where I could find the razors?” He figured it was better to ask rather than rummage around the store looking for something they might not have—his frequent purchases had been limited to alcohol and snack items that were in plain view.
The girl, who was on her phone, looked up at him. The blue contact lenses had a strange para-human effect, and he wasn’t sure he liked it.
“Umm,” said the girl looking around. “I think they’re back there in the corner, with the toothpaste and stuff.” She pointed with a lackadaisical finger to the far end of the store.
“Alright. Thanks.” He made a mental note to tell the owners, the next time he saw them, about putting small commonly stolen items like razor blades and other toiletries out of the direct view of the cashier. Unless they had a camera or mirror in that corner, but he didn’t see one. He knew he was no expert in shoplifting trends and store layout, but he had worked a short time as a security guard and knew the basics. Of course, he hadn’t kept that job for long. It was one of those little things he’d picked up without realizing it—a product of living a little longer and working more jobs in a few years than most work in a lifetime.
Joe had always liked the Kims. He wasn’t even sure why, with his late-night booze runs and series of overlapping benders. Maybe he just needed something to like.
The girl was playing music, probably from her phone, over the BlueTooth speaker next to the register. Joe didn’t know any of Taylor Swift’s songs, but he imagined that if he did, it would sound like what was coming out of that speaker. Maybe the girl was trying to look like Taylor Swift too, bleaching her hair and cloaking her retinas. What’s wrong with being what you are, he thought.
The only razors they had in that small corner of the store were colored pink and meant to be used on women’s legs. But in his experience, sometimes women’s razors offered a closer and cleaner shave than the men’s. On the package, there was a photo of a long-legged woman in a bathing suit taken from the waist down, and she was crossing her legs slightly at the calf. The price tag said six-ninety-nine. With the ten in his wallet, he’d still be able to afford a forty-ounce bottle of Old English malt liquor and get a nice buzz going later that night before he went to bed. At this point, sober nights were generally sleepless nights.
He grabbed the razors, then turned to the beer cooler and grabbed what he was looking for. A wave of guilt hit him like a rabbit punch to the gut, completely unexpected, and he put the bottle back. Maybe he’d do his good deed for the day and give the girl who’d sung him the George Strait song a dollar or two. Throw in some Waylon or Patsy and maybe he could make it three.
As the cooler door shut, he heard someone come into the store by way of the classic dinging-door mechanism. He looked up and saw a man standing in front of the register, facing the girl. Joe couldn’t see the man’s face, and he figured that the girl couldn’t either. He had a pair of black pantyhose tied around his head and knotted at the back. What the man had said first, Joe didn’t hear, but he could guess what it was. In his right hand was a black pistol.
The girl—and it pained Joe to watch, to see her so visibly shaken—was almost completely paralyzed with what was probably some of the worst fear she’d ever felt in her relatively short life.
Joe watched the whole thing a few degrees removed from himself and what he was seeing—as if he was watching a feature-length movie through two eyes that weren’t completely his own. He felt truly bad for the girl and bad about the situation. How was it that he, this middle-aged juicer, could get several decades into life with only small problems? And yes they were problems and they were painful to endure, accumulating weight over time, snowballing, but it didn’t quite measure up to getting a gun shoved in your face at your parent’s store when you’re still just a kid.
A strange flash of feeling hit him, a hidden strength he didn’t know he had, a thing that he couldn’t find a name for or put his finger on.
The masked man reached over the register and hit the big button that popped it open, and began stuffing cash into the pockets of his black jeans.
“Hey,” said Joe. His voice sounded a mile away from himself, emanating out of some guttural chasm in his would-be corpse.
The man, startled, turned, and faced the voice. He pointed the gun at Joe. “What’s the matter with you, old man? You’re crazy. You looking to die? Get on the ground.”
“No,” he said. He couldn’t believe he was saying no. “Leave the girl alone, and get the hell out of here.” His legs were shaking in his slacks. Maybe he was looking to die. Maybe he had too much pride or common sense for outright suicide and this was the next best thing. Or maybe he was finally doing something to make a difference and to justify his years of lukewarm suffering. All of the rage he felt with himself and at the world seemed to funnel into the here-and-now, into this situation, into what was happening in front of him.
The next thing he knew, in an act of what could have been courage but was more likely misdirected panic, Joe ran full-speed toward the gunman, making a desperate attempt to tackle him. The performance would’ve made a Steelers defensive lineman twitch. Then everything went deep red.
It was a vivid dream, full of intricate details and storylines that are forgotten the instant they come into focus. In this one, Joe was standing in a long line of people, and it seemed to stretch on forever on some Pythagorean shape-scape. Smooth jazz radiated from the metaphysical fabric before everything went dark and deathly quiet. Then he woke up.
Jiho and Minji Kim were sitting next to each other at his bedside. Minji’s face was wet with tears and Jiho was comforting her.
“Don’t cry,” Joe tried to say, but his jaw wouldn’t complete the words fully, and it hurt to try. It was a small hospital room. The Kim’s were very close, and he could see something in their eyes that he’d never seen before—a sort of familiarity he’d never appreciated, and the small details and imperfections, the uniqueness of their faces. There were no cops around or doctors. Just them.
“You helped our daughter with that man,” said Jiho. “We are very grateful.” Joe could almost see a tear in Mr. Kim’s eye. It made him feel all the more dizzy and uncomfortable. He felt bad that they felt like they owed him anything. That he needed some sort of special attention.
“I can’t afford a hospital room,” Joe tried to say, sitting up. He felt the welts on his chest where the BBs had hit. It had just been a punk kid, probably from the neighborhood, bluffing his way through a stick-up. But the kid must’ve landed some pretty good punches, or else got him with the butt of the gun on his jaw and knocked him out.
The Kims acted startled as he tried to get up.
“I don’t have insurance. I can’t afford this room.” His bare feet hit the cold hospital floor as he tried to find his balance, dragging the hospital equipment with him, peeling it off. “Get out of my way,” he said, pushing past them. When he got to the doorway he remembered something and turned. “Don’t put the expensive small stuff in the back where the cashier can’t see it. People will steal it. Keep it behind the counter. Or get cameras.” Then he stumbled out the door, headed for the nearest exit. It was time to leave town. He’d been in the same spot for too long.
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