And that’s no exaggeration. Bullets flew that night. Things like that go bad all the time.
It could have been me.
* * *
Seems like every night it’s something else.
A loaf of bread. A gallon of milk. Something sweet. Cookies, probably. Chips Ahoy.
Not that I really mind. Gets me away from the craziness of the apartment complex. And I enjoy the walk. It’s been cooler than usual for late summer in Houston.
Everybody’s out. Either in the courtyard or on their balconies. They’re always out. Kids running everywhere.
Marvin and Shirley are sitting in their lawn chairs, their feet up on the railing. I say hello and make my way to the steps at the other end of the balcony. One of the twins sticks her head through the railing and watches, smiling. Randy climbs over the rail and slides down the pole, then runs off across the courtyard. Music is blaring from one of the apartments. The Beatles, I think. I never cared much about music. But everybody’s crazy about the Beatles.
The 7-11’s just down the street. Another couple of blocks away is the freeway. I can hear the whine of tires on pavement. It’s a busy neighborhood, but there’s never been much trouble. At least not in the two years we’ve been here. I like Houston. A lot different than the hills of West Virginia where I’m from, and where my family longs to return. But I like it here.
I leave the apartment complex and walk down the sidewalk, the green and red sign of the store just ahead. A kid on a motorcycle flies by. He pops a wheelie. Impudent snob. A man approaches. He stops in front of me and I brace myself, not sure what’s about to happen.
“Hey,” I say. I don’t know this guy. I don’t know why he calls me buddy. We’ve never met.
“Got any spare change?”
Spare change? Like change I don’t need? Change I was just going to throw away when I got home?
He’s acting kind of squirrely. I reach into my pocket and give him what I had in spare change. Fifty some-odd cents.
Brother? Not hardly. He heads on down the sidewalk. I figure I’ll see him at the 7-11 in a few minutes buying beer.
There are a few cars in the parking lot. Everybody needs something. Everybody’s got to be somewhere. At least that’s Duane’s line.
Duane lives down on the ground level of the apartments. Always has a story to tell. Like the time he was fooling around with another guy’s wife and the guy comes home unexpectedly. Duane hides in the closet, but eventually the husband finds him, opens the closet door, and there’s Duane.
“What are you doing in the closet?”
“Everybody’s got to be somewhere.”
And then Duane laughs. Laughs hard. The story is made up, just for the punch line. That’s Duane.
I pull open the door to the 7-11 and go inside. I turn right, heading for the cooler where the milk is.
And then I see Duane. Lying on the floor. Flat out on his stomach. Like he’s sighting something. And he’s smoking a cigarette.
I’m just about to ask him what he’s doing when someone yells.
“Get down on the floor!”
I turn and look and see this guy. He’s scruffy, week-old beard, long, stringy hair, eyes on fire.
He has a gun. He points it at me.
You think I would have complied with his request, being the rational engineer that I am. You think I would have immediately understood the situation, processed all of the information available, and joined Duane on the floor.
For some reason my brain goes into lockdown.
“I said get on the floor!”
He glares at me.
Ok. Yeah. On the floor.
I didn’t actually say that. But we make eye contact. Duane is still smoking his cigarette.
I still don’t know what’s going on.
“Open the safe!” Same guy, yelling at the clerk.
Now I get it. It’s a robbery. A hold-up, as they used to say in the old black-and-white tv shows. He could have just said that. It would have saved a lot of confusion.
This is a hold-up!
They should make that a rule. Put it in the Handbook of Convenience Store Robbery: Best Practices for Hold-ups.
I hear the clerk answer. “I can’t open the safe.”
Hmmm. Not good.
Then a ruckus. I can’t see what’s going on.
Then three shots.
Bang! Bang! Bang!
You have no idea how loud a gun can be until you hear one fired inside a 7-11.
My ears are ringing. And now I realize how bad this could be. I picture the clerk bleeding on the floor.
Duane and I are next.
Shot in the back, execution style, the article in the Houston Post would read.
The cigarette falls from Duane’s mouth. It’s lying on the floor, smoke trailing up in a soft swirl. Duane’s scared. I can see it.
Did he just shoot someone else?
I hear something mechanical. Ka-chunk, ka-chunk, ka-chunk.
For a robber, he sure uses polite expletives.
Then I see feet and legs running to the front of the store. The robber, I’m guessing. He bursts through the door, runs across the parking lot, and disappears down the street.
All is quiet. So quiet.
I look back at Duane. He’s completely pale.
“Is everybody ok?”
It’s the clerk. I raise my head and look around. I look up at the counter.
“He’s gone,” the clerk says.
By the time I get to my feet the clerk is on the phone calling the police. Duane’s nowhere to be seen, his cigarette still smoking on the floor. Everybody’s got to be somewhere. Duane’s somewhere is somewhere else, apparently. Can’t say that I blame him.
The clerk’s off the phone now.
“He was trying to get in the floor safe.”
He points to a small, square steel plate on the floor. I can see dings where the bullets hit.
“Wow.” Not much of a comment, but it’s all I had.
“I thought he was going to shoot me,” he says.
“I thought we were all goners.”
He reaches under the counter and produces one of those curved bottles of liquor that fit nicely in the inside pocket of a jacket. He takes a long swig.
“Want a shot?”
“I don’t drink.” I have to admit, I was kind of wishing I did, right about then.
“Cops are on their way.”
The front door opens. A guy walks up to the counter. Asks for a pack of Marlboros. The clerk pulls the pack from the rack.
“37 cents,” he tells him.
The guy pays and leaves the store.
Ok. Back to normal.
Loaf of bread. Gallon of milk. Almost forgot the cookies. Chips Ahoy.
* * *
I could have been shot dead.
I told the story when I got back to the apartments. Told it to Marvin and Shirley. Told it to my family. But I walked in carrying cookies and milk. How bad could it have been?
Fifty years ago, this happened. Fifty years. Where has the time gone?
I can tell the story for fun, now. Play it up for the laughs. Duane on the floor. Me not getting it at first.
My hearing’s bad; my memory’s worse.
But I still remember. I still hear those shots. I was never so glad to get back to the craziness of the apartments.
story copyright 2018, joseph e bird
photo copyright 2018, joseph e bird
cigarette courtesy of downtown jeanne brown
Note: The story you have just read is a fictionalized account of a true event. While living in Houston, my father was witness to the 7-11 robbery. And Duane (not his real name) was really lying on the floor smoking a cigarette. Shots were fired. No one was injured.