S&R Fiction

S & R Fiction – Human Error by Matt Dye

Ellen pulls the sweater tight around her, feels the strength of the wind begging her to let go, embrace the brisk cold of this November night.  Three twenty in the morning and she knows this is not where she should be.  She should be wrapped up in a blanket next to Steven, sharing body heat, love.  Any chance of that is still hours away, home two towns over, down I-70, and looking at the blacktop of the McDonald’s parking lot, it feels like forever.

“We don’t shit where we eat.”  That’s what Steven had told her when they had started three months ago.  He had heard it in some mobster movie, the title lost to dead memory cells.  He told her this, and his plan, armed robbery, and how they were going to make it safely, do everything right.  “This is only temporary,” he’d told her.

Behind her, Steven sat in the blue Civic, waiting for the McDonald’s door to open, at which point he’d drive forward, headlights off, and idle the engine until she came back out, like he had so many times, their routine almost clockwork.

She believed that this is just how life goes sometimes for some people.  She and Steven had done nothing wrong to gain their place.  They weren’t hooked on drugs, except for the occasional joint that might pass through their living room.  They weren’t any more alcoholic than the next person.  They didn’t gamble, didn’t have half a dozen kids running around.  They’d even quit smoking.  They were simply unlucky, that’s all Ellen could figure, that some people had to be, a simple flip of the coin.  Life didn’t need a reason.

And she’d never really thought that before, that they were unlucky.  She’d always seen herself and Steven as blessed, something special.  When she was a little girl, she’d envision a big wedding, outdoors, with swans, and ice sculptures, and all her friends.  And when she thought of that day, she always thought of a man, so that when she met Steven, she knew he was the one.  But now, each day she wondered, what good were childhood dreams when you didn’t have anything to make them a reality.

“We’ve got love,” Steven told her those nights they were able to be wrapped in a blanket.  She smiled at this, let him know she agreed, felt something, but more and more she wondered what it was that she was feeling. It wasn’t necessarily bad, just not what it was before, and slowly she began to wonder if any of it was enough.

Their apartment was one room and a bathroom.  There was no kitchen, and the only furniture they had was a futon that they kept in the middle of the room and slept on at night.  The rest were scraps they’d found lying on curbs of those more fortunate than themselves.  A big rig tire, still smelling of places they’d never see, with a piece of plywood nailed to the top served as a coffee table.  Milk crates functioned as end tables, as well as a magazine holder for the bathroom.

At night, after Steven fell asleep, Ellen watched the ceiling fan wobble, one of its four blades missing.  She waited for the night it would fall, but it never did, and when she’d wake up in the morning Steven would already be gone to find employment or the change of whoever might take pity on a washed up college graduate.

Of course, this was before Steven’s brilliant idea.

*          *          *          *          *

Ellen takes two steps forward, stands in the middle of the bleach white of the overhead parking lot light of the McDonalds.  The wind worms its way through her toes, and she wonders for the third time tonight why she wore open-toed heels.  She hated having to wear heels at all, but it was part of the ruse, and they gave her three indiscernible inches.  The wig, dark red, was the farthest thing from her own blonde.  Everything was chosen and modified each time to the point of perfection.  The gun, a .22, was the right size to induce fear and still fit accessibly in her purse.  Less conspicuous.  Less to remember.  Just a beautiful face.  That was the goal.

She grabs at the purse again, tucked up under her left armpit.  She can feel the outline of the .22, and she runs the fingers of her right hand back and forth as she gathers herself.  She closes her eyes in an effort to clear her mind, then they open, ready, ever so ready.  She knocks three times hard on the glass door with a plastic sapphire ring on her left middle finger, now holding the purse at her side in her right hand.  She allows it to get caught up in the flowing of her black skirt as another blast of wind sweeps across the night.  She waits for signs of life, not wanting to knock again.  She wonders if they know, suspect.  In a dark corner of the parking lot behind her, Steven sits in her ’96 Honda Civic, engine idling.  She feels his dark blue eyes on her.

*          *          *          *          *

She met Steven nearly four years ago, her third year at LSU, at Lauren Parker’s party at the end of finals week.  It was cold that night as well, early December.  Few partygoers were willing to venture out to the back porch except for the mandatory nicotine fix, until someone started a mini-bonfire in the yard.

Steven played the guitar, and she couldn’t help but be drawn to that.  She was very aware of herself that night, not getting too close, not asking too many questions, not being a groupie.  She hated those girls, the ones that just begged for attention.  They were the ones that wore the make-up, did up their hair, smiled too much.  Yet here she was.  He had had this effect on her, and she didn’t want to say it was because of the guitar, but lately she found herself wondering if that wasn’t the thing, if she hadn’t been fooled by the way his fingers moved in the firelight, the way his voice sounded, a slight rasp.  Otherwise, there was nothing really remarkable about Steven.  Yes, he was handsome, she would never deny that.  He was bigger when they first met, more in shape than he is now, but she has lost weight too, and all of it seems for the better.  He had blonde hair that he kept in a somewhat shaggy look.  His blue eyes were fairly normal, unless he was looking right at you.  That was what Ellen found so bewitching about him, the way his eyes seemed to hold conversations that you could never have in words.

As the night wore on he put away his guitar, and all the other girls wandered off to get more drinks or talk to other boys.  Ellen stayed.  She didn’t say anything.  She watched the way the shadows of the fire worked across his cheekbones, cutting sharp angles across his eyebrows and ears.  She imagined him a Picasso, then she imagined him naked, and when this thought didn’t bother her, she decided that she needed another drink.  But she didn’t want to leave, fearful that as soon as she walked away some other girl would be on his arm.  She realized she didn’t even know his name.

“Hello,” she said, standing up from the shadows and moving towards him.  The way he looked at her said that he didn’t want to talk, to go away, and she thought about running like she did after her first kiss with Ben Carpenter in third grade recess.

“Hello,” he said, but he didn’t look at her.  She felt a little more comfortable at that, that it wasn’t her, that he was just as weird, or drunk.

“I liked your music,” she said.  When he didn’t say anything to that, she started to fidget a little.  She just wanted to hear him speak again.  “I just, I wanted to know your name,” she said.

“Why?” he asked.  “Because I can play the guitar?”

“No,” she said.  “I think you’re beautiful.”  She stopped at that, wondered if she really did need another drink.  But now he was looking at her differently, as if for the first time.  She felt her cheeks going red, her whole body flush, and she couldn’t help grinning uneasily ear to ear.  She even thought of doing a little curtsy for him, then pulled herself back to reality, and she saw that he was smiling too, and his eyes.

The rest of the party, he stayed close to her, told her about how he wanted to move out east, to New York or Boston or somewhere, and be in the middle of it all, where it snowed, and he captured her mind with images of things that neither of them had seen, but that he could put so perfectly that it was almost like he was drawing the image in the sky.  He walked her to her car after the party, his guitar slung across his back, and she pretended that they were filming a music video.  He kissed her, and she let go into him.  She trusted him.  No one had kissed her like that before.  That night, alone in her bed, she imagined her and Steven’s wedding as she drifted off.

They were never anything that anyone would mistake as special.  Ellen loved to paint, but had gone to school as an education major.  Steven was a year ahead of her, and was graduating with a business management degree.  They were happy, moved in together, talked about marriage, but first Ellen would have to finish school, and Steven said he wanted a better job before they tied the knot, but the job market was tricky right now.

After a couple months, Steven got hired on by Ruby Tuesday, but that meant they would have to move to Tennessee.  Her girlfriends started circulating rumors that Steven had been seen ring shopping.  Days before she graduated she went driving, looked at mothers and their children at the park.  Steven wouldn’t want children yet, would he?  He might, she thought, and then she’d smile because she loved him.

After her graduation, they moved up to Maryville, Tennessee, where Steven was to do regional management.  It was hard saying goodbye to all her friends, her family.   Her parents weren’t comfortable with it, especially since Steven hadn’t proposed yet, but she was excited to move, to be out on their own.  They found a fairly inexpensive apartment, she decorated and made dinner, and for the first six months, they were happy.

Love shouldn’t be tied up in money, really, but reality doesn’t fool anybody.

Food poisoning at a Mississippi Ruby Tuesdays caused a backlash across the entire company, four stores closed, and a bunch of entry level jobs were let go.  Steven’s was one of them.  Ellen held him as he cried the night he told her.

“It’s going to be okay,” she said.  “I’m with you.  I love you.”

Ellen got a job at a local daycare to help out with bills while Steven tried to find another job.  Each day, she would leave at seven-thirty in the morning to be at the daycare by eight.  She took the little Honda that had somehow survived four years of college, and was still puttering on.  When she got back at four forty-five, Steven would already be home, looking disheveled, dress shirt and tie tossed on the recliner in the corner.

He said, “We’re going to have to move?”

“What?”

“We can’t afford this place anymore.”

“You’ll get a job,” she said.  “Don’t worry, someone will hire you.”

“I’m sorry.  You shouldn’t have to be with a loser like me.  No one will hire me.  After the Ruby Tuesdays, they all act like it’s my fault.”

“You’ll find something,” she said.

As they ran out of money, she started to sell everything they had.  DVDs, CDs, books, dishes, her dresses, shoes, pants.  Then the big things went, the television, the stereo, the bed.

Her parents, she couldn’t call her parents.  They would tell her to leave Steven, that this wasn’t her problem, that she should get on with her life.  She knew all this, thought all this, but she had helped.  When she thought about her parents seeing where they moved to, she was certain they would disown her.

And then one night, sleeping on the futon, she wondered if she really loved him.

*          *          *          *          *

A burly black man in his dark red McDonald’s polo and black slacks saunters from around the corner toward the door.  She pays attention to how he looks at her, making sure that he sees her knees shaking, that she’s doing little hops in her heels.  She wants to convince him before he ever gets to the door, before he ever asks her his first question.  She wonders if he’ll open the door first or yell through the glass.  She pegs him for a yeller by the way he carries himself, young and cocky.

She doesn’t mind either way.  They all let her in.

*          *          *          *          *

The first time she felt real hunger was three months after they moved into the one room rat hole.  It was a Saturday, and when she woke up, Steven was already gone, having finally gotten a cashier position at Rite-Aid.  The mini-fridge was empty, the closet had nothing.  Steven had eaten the last can of tuna the night before.  She didn’t get paid for another week, and Steven had just started his job last Friday.  They had no money.

She went through the clothes on the floor, searching for loose change in pockets, a forgotten five, anything.  She checked under the futon, in bathroom drawers, but all she found was eighteen cents.  She pulled on a pair of jeans and her cleanest t-shirt, a worn out pair of Keds, and she started walking towards the Gas Station & Grill off of Broadside, about a mile away.  Along the way, she watched the cracks for loose quarters, but only stumbled upon a nickel by the time she arrived at her destination.  Twenty-three cents, she couldn’t even buy a piece of cheap candy.  The smell of hamburgers and fried chicken wafted out to her, and she felt her stomach fold up into itself.

The last time she remembered eating was two days before, the dregs of peanut butter and final slice of bread.  She made it last, taking little bites, and she finished it sometime the previous morning.  She could see from the sidewalk the chef flipping patties of meat.  She wanted that, was ready to beg, but she didn’t know how.  Before Steven lost his job, a place like this, everyone would have been asking her for money, even if they didn’t need it.  Now she felt out of place for a completely different reason.  A Range Rover pulled up to the gas pump, and Ellen watched as a large black man got out.

She wanted to talk to him, tell him how she wasn’t homeless, that her and Steven had just fallen on hard times, that she even had a college degree.  She wanted to tell him that she didn’t know what she was doing now with her life, that no one had ever really prepared her to be alone, and that all she wanted to do was to run home to her parents, but she couldn’t start over.

No, no, she’d seen that happen, a babbling woman, telling the world her problems.  She never gave those money.  You couldn’t believe those.  You have to just ask, that’s all.  She steadied herself, watched as the big man went to screwing on his gas cap.

“Excuse me,” she said.  She tried to smile, to look innocent.  He gave her a look that she couldn’t make out behind his sunglasses.  “Could I trouble you for some change?”

“Get on off, crackhead,” he said back.  Something in her trembled, and she looked back and forth, then up, then right back into the unblinking sunglasses.  She looked for her reflection in his glasses.  She needed proof, to see how far she’d fallen.  She went to his driver’s side mirror.  “What are you doing?  Hey bitch, get the fuck away from my car.”  And she felt his large hands grab her as if from a dream.  “Damn crackhead,” and then she was shoved back toward the sidewalk.  But she had seen it, not any physical deformity, but a look of unmistakable desperation.  It scared her, and the thing in her that trembled now shook as if to break.  She had held on so long, believed that her and Steven’s situation would get better, but now all that reality started flooding her vision.  She wasn’t going to cry in front of this man.  She wanted to curse him, to tell him that all she was was hungry, and all she wanted was a little help, but instead she ran.

Behind the Gas Station & Grill she finally let loose, but the tears didn’t really come.  Instead it was just an awful pain that seemed to scratch her face.  She wanted to pass out, to faint, to die if for just a second.  She found herself looking into the trashcan beside the back door, looking at what looked like half a sandwich, and she dug down in, pulled it out.  She smelled it once, then looked to see if anyone was watching, but she couldn’t take a bite.  She thought about being called a crackhead, and she was ready to throw the sandwich back in the trashcan, but now she couldn’t, now it would be wasteful, that this was food, that really there was nothing wrong with it, and she wasn’t a crackhead, just hungry, and this was just how life went sometimes.  When she went had finished the last of the sandwich, she found herself diving in the dumpster for more, coming up with food to take home to Steven.

*          *          *          *          *

The McDonald’s employee yells at her through the glass door, “We closed.  Drive-thru’s open.”

“I know,” she shouts back.  “But I really need to pee.”  She dances a little more for emphasis.  She watches his face for any recognition, but there doesn’t seem to be.

“So, what you want me to do about it?”

“Can’t you just let me use the restroom real quick?”

“Don’t think so.  There’s a gas station about three miles down the road.  Go use theirs.”  She hates when they’re stubborn, but she’s thankful they’re all men.  She lays on the charm, but not too thick.  The first couple times, she’d found the employees get touchy feely if she came on too strong.

“C’mon, honey, please.  You don’t really want me to use one of those icky gas station toilets, would you?”

“Damn, white girl, I don’t care what you do.  There’s a lot of crazies out there.”

“I’m not crazy.  I just have to pee.”

That first night that she’d come with garbage for food, Steven had yelled at her.

“We’re not fucking homeless,” he said.  She woke up a little at that, remembered her old way of life, remembered college, carefree, and she hated him.

She screamed, “I was hungry.  I’m still hungry.  Aren’t you fucking hungry, or have you been eating food out there without me, while I’m sitting here trying to figure out what the hell has become of our life.”

She looked at the food, another three halves of assorted sandwiches, a half eaten slice of pepperoni pizza, an order of onion rings, and a half bag of Lays potato chips, scattered across the makeshift coffee table.  She wanted to destroy it all, but she couldn’t, it was already food to her, and if Steven couldn’t see it then he could starve, but she wouldn’t.

“Aren’t you hungry?” she said again.  Steven looked at her, and when their eyes met, she couldn’t understand what he was saying.  They were both silent for a good minute.  She watched as his hand trembled over the food, and she felt what he felt for the second time that day.

“I’m sorry,” he said.  She watched as he bent down and took the slice of pizza, watched him take a bite, then another. “I’m sorry.  I’m sorry.  Oh God, baby, we’re not doing this, we’re not.  I love you too much to do this.”  But he was as hungry as she was, and inside she felt the same shame he did, felt it again, but this time it didn’t hurt as bad.  All her anger at him was gone and all she wanted to do was for him to take her in his arms and tell her it was alright, that they would be alright, that they always were.

*          *          *          *          *

The McDonald’s employee smirks at her.  She finds his name tag, which says James on it.  The name makes her smile.

“C’mon James, I’m not crazy.”

“Shit.  All white girls out after two a.m. are crazy.”

“Well, maybe I’m the right kind of crazy,” she says, and playfully tosses back the red hair of the wig.  It works, and she watches as his firm fingers turn the lock, the loud click-clack, then the slight change of pressure as the door releases its tight grip from the frame.  She smiles at him, pleased at the power she holds so delicately.

“Alright, alright.  Just be quick,” he says, pulling the door open.

*          *          *          *          *

Three months ago, after pulling a double shift at Rite Aid for extra cash, Steven came home with the plan.

“You want to what?” she said, sitting up the bed.  Steven was pacing the floor, excited.

“It’ll be easy, think about it.  I had all afternoon to think about it.  Rite Aid’s always dead.  Look, late night on a Friday, Saturday, fast food places pull in how much money?  We find one just off the interstate, cover up your license plate, and we rob the place.”

“That’s ridiculous.  I don’t care how hungry we are.”

“Come on, honey.  We need this.  We can’t keep living here.  This isn’t any place for us.  I mean, do you want to raise a family here?”  The word family caused a chill to run through her spine.  She hadn’t thought about it in so long, not even marriage, the way things had been, but all the sudden, an excitement was inside her again, the way she felt when they first moved to Tennessee.  Steven was still talking.  “We need money now, otherwise we’ll be stuck here forever.  We only have to do this a couple times, get back on our feet the right way.”

“That’s insane,” she said, but already the idea was moving through her mind, and she took up the piece of paper on which Steven had jotted his plan, and she began to insert improvements.  “We’re not robbing a fast food joint.”

“Why not?  Thugs with half the brains that we have do it successfully all the time.  I know we could get away with it.  And we aren’t out to hurt anyone.  I worked at a Wendy’s in high school, and the store policy at these places is to just give up the money.”  And he crawled into her, his eyes smiling brighter than she’d seen since the first days.  “Babe, we can do this.”

“No.”  But she was already agreeing, the pain of hunger in her stomach, or was it excitement, sold her.

After they made love, bodies still entwined on the futon, Steven laid out the whole plan to her.  He had apparently been giving this a lot of thought and had found a Burger King already.  Tomorrow, he said he would go there and get the floor layout.

“But,” she said, “how do we do it?  Just go in there and say, give us all your money?”

“Basically, yeah.”

“Basically?”

“Well, I figure that you would be the one to do it, and I’d drive the getaway car.”

“Ha ha,” she said and hit him with a pillow.  But then she saw he wasn’t laughing, and his eyes were serious.  “No fucking way.  This is your idea.  I’m driving the getaway car.  It’s my car.”

“Look, babe, it has to be you.  We’ll go late at night, after they’ve locked the lobby, like at three or four, and you go knock on the door and tell the guy who comes to the door that you just need to use the bathroom.  Then, when he lets you in, after he gets back behind the counter, you pull the gun.”

“Gun?  What gun?  We don’t have a gun.”

“We’ll get one.”

“We’ll get one?  This is crazy.  I’m not doing this.”

“It has to be you.  If I go, there’s a chance the guy might not let me in to use the bathroom.  I mean, who’s going to say no to a beautiful girl?”

“I know one guy,” she said, and playfully hit him in the shoulder.

“Funny.  But seriously, they’ll let you in.  They’ll never suspect some small white girl is there to rob them.  Not to mention, this Burger King I chose, all the kids are middle class white kids whose parents probably made them get a job to develop character.  They aren’t going to mess with you.  You get them to put the money in a bag, and then you’re gone.  It’ll be fine.  I promise.  I mean, who says no to a beautiful girl?”  And then he kissed her forehead, but she was staring at the ceiling fan again, watching it wobble.  She loved him, she told herself over and over again, and everything would be okay.  In her mind, she could picture it, not the robbery, but the afterwards, the nice house they’d finally be able to afford, but the other part of her wanted to run, knew that this was too much.

The next day they took the little money Steven had made and drove out to the thrift store and bought a black wig.  They only had twenty dollars left, not enough for any sort of gun, so they went to Walmart and bought the most realistic water pistol they could find.

Then Steven drove them to the Burger King and inside showed Ellen where the cameras were and how to keep her head so that they wouldn’t be able to get her face.  She was happy to see that Steven was right about the staff.  The kid at the register couldn’t look more than fifteen, pimples dotting his cheekbones in a straight line down to the corner of his lip.  Behind him a six foot tall beanpole of a boy seemed to be confounded by the fry machine.  She looked at Steven beside her, and a feeling of superiority began to creep into her stomach, and she could imagine doing it, taking money from these stupid people.  She could see herself, pointing the water pistol at each of them, and they’d all be begging her for their lives, and she would let them live because all she wanted was the money.  And then Steven would get a promotion at Rite Aid,  and maybe they’d be able to afford a second car, or at least a new car, and she could maybe go back to school and get a certified teaching degree.  Steven pointed to her left and told her that would be the door she’d knock at, that she’d stand here, ask for the money.  She could see it all.

Back at their hovel, Steven suggested Ellen try to nap before the night, but she couldn’t sleep.  She lay in bed for half an hour, then she was up, playing solitaire on the makeshift coffee table with nearly a full deck of cards.  Steven sat up, awake as well.

“Can’t sleep?” he asked.

“Nope,” she said.

“You’re excited?”

She didn’t say anything.

“I thought you didn’t want to do this.”

“I don’t,” she said, and then. “Just this once.”

“Or twice.”

She glared at him.  “Once.”

“It depends, baby.  There has to be enough.”

What’s enough, she wanted to ask, but didn’t.  There wasn’t an answer for that, there never was.  That was just something you took on faith, the feeling that you had enough, and right now it was apparent that they didn’t.  Still, she wanted to know what enough was because she needed something to hold onto.  But Steven didn’t say anything else, and she went back to her game, mentally inserting the missing ten of diamonds and jack of hearts.

Ellen’s memory of that first night was much the same as the night she lost her virginity.  She knocked on the door, the boy, stockier, but just as innocent as the day shift, let her in.  The rest is a blur.  She remembers walking too far toward the bathroom, then backing up.  She was shaking, but the boy paid no attention to her, just went back behind the counter, and then she pulled the gun.

“I want you to put all the money into a bag,” she said, she remembered that much.  The boy stumbled back into the back counter, then the money was in a bag, and she was laughing, telling him how sweet he was, and then he was wiping his face, saying ‘sonofabitch’ and crawling over the counter, and she was out the door, into the car, and Steven sped away, the stocky boy and another crew member behind them, shouting, and the whole time Ellen couldn’t stop laughing.

“Oh shit,” Steven said.  “What the fuck?  Are you okay?  Are you hurt?  Why are you laughing?”

“I shot him,” she said, and then they were both laughing.

*          *          *          *          *

Their first take was right under five hundred dollars, which Steven told her was not enough.  They’d have to do it again, next weekend maybe.  They watched the news and the papers.  Their robbery was buried deep on page thirty six.  It felt safe enough to try it again the next weekend.  Different city though, Steven insisted.  And this time, Ellen protested less.  What she didn’t tell Steven, what she felt that first time, was control.

After the third robbery two weeks later, six hundred and seventy-three dollars, they bought the .22.  They paid the rent and bought food with the rest.  It still wasn’t enough, but it was close, Steven told her.  They were still buried in the news, but they’d jumped a few pages, now on twenty three.  Ellen didn’t know if this worried her or excited her.  She didn’t know how to gauge how she was feeling at all.  Steven was showing her how to hold the .22.

“Shouldn’t we go to a gun range or something?” she asked him.

“What for?” he’d said.

They took three weeks off, then went and hit a McDonald’s in Crossville, pulling in eight hundred and two dollars.  Having paid all the essentials, the money was pure profit for the month.

“Just a couple more and we’ll be set,” he said.

That next weekend they hit a McDonald’s and a Burger King in the same night, raking in just under fourteen hundred.

“Is that enough?” she asked.

*          *          *          *          *

“Damn white girl, but don’t you have a fine ass,” James says, walking behind her.  Usually they go in front, don’t pay any attention to her, but with all the attention on her lately, she’s certain that’s the reason he’s walking her to the bathroom.  Or maybe he is just checking out her ass.

“Thank you,” she says, stopping her walk.  Her heel finds one of the tile grooves, and she wobbles a little.  She steadies herself, then tilts her head backwards to look at James.  She flips her skirt to give him a little show.  These are the things she sees the other girls do to get attention.  This is not her, and perhaps that’s why it’s so easy to just let go of herself, or is she finally taking control.  Either way, as much as she doesn’t want to do this, she can’t help but get caught up in the role.

“Damn, maybe you are the right kind of crazy,” James says, finally walking past her, slapping her ass, hard, and for a second, she forgets who she is entirely.

She drops the purse.

*          *          *          *          *

The papers started calling her The Black Widow shortly after the double duty night.  She had been expecting it, waiting for it, and now slowly some cop or reporter or someone had pieced it together, that this was serial robbery.

“Do you see this?” she said, showing Steven the paper, a surveillance shot of her on page one of the local news section.  “They even gave me a stupid nickname.”

“Did they mention me?”  She swatted him with the paper.

“Don’t be an ass.  This is serious.  We’re front page news.”

“Bonnie and Clyde.”

“No.  No no no.  That is not what I signed up for.  Look, we’ve got enough money, we’re done.  Done.”

Steven took the paper from her, saying, “Oh, calm down.  Look, see, you did like we said.  They’ve got a shot of your wig, your skirt, and the gun.  That’s it.  What’d they call you?  The Black Widow.  That’s awesome.  She’s a super spy.”

“What?”

“In the comics, she’s a Russian super spy, I think.”

“My picture is splattered on top of page one, and you’re making jokes?”

“Calm down.  This isn’t so bad.  The reporter even used the word baffled to describe the police investigation.  I told you, we’re smart enough to do this right.”

“This?  We’re not doing this anymore.”  Ellen tried to maintain her anger, thinking of her friends from college, back home in Baton Rouge, what lives they must be having.  Certainly they had children by now, or at least a nice house, a lawn of their own.  A backyard, with a fence, to tan without the intrusion of neighbors.  Certainly lady luck had shined on them.  But then she looked at the picture again, the caption, “Black Widow”, and she couldn’t help but feel the excitement.  She had a name now, and she liked it.  She felt reborn, a part of her, rebelling outward, wanting to go deeper still.  Certainly their crime was the pettiest form.  Certainly there was a whole underworld that she’d seen on television.

“Nothing wrong with being famous, little miss super spy,” he said, rubbing her shoulder with his free hand.

“Wrong kind of famous,” she said.  She looked at him, propped up on one elbow on the futon.  He wasn’t the same either, and she paid careful attention the way he leaned his body into her.

“I think her real name was Natasha, in the comics,” Steven was saying as he tossed the paper on the coffee table.  “You’d make a sexy Natasha.”

“Oh, but I thought I was Bonnie,” she said.

“Just as well, Ms. Bonnie.”  And then he moved to kiss her, but stopped.  She saw it, the uncertainty in his eyes, and she imagined a violin playing somewhere, and how she would have him feed her grapes when this was all through.  Her hands felt powerful, ad with them, she pulled his face to meet hers.

“Listen, Clyde,” she said.  “We’re not doing this anymore.”

“Okay, honey.”

“You said we were smarter than the thugs.  Even the thugs would stop when they’re front page news.”

“I know.”

And then she crawled cat-like onto the futon, ready to take the shell of a man in front of her.

*          *          *          *          *

But last week, Steven got fired.  His drawer had come up thirty dollars short for the third time in six months, and though he denied it, Ellen was certain that he had taken the money himself.  The next day, when she came home, Steven was asleep on the futon, naked, and she wanted to destroy him.  To take the gun from her purse, which they kept in the closet with the rest of the Widow attire, and put holes all in his chest.

She was still glaring at him when he woke up.  She glared right through his smile.  She asked, “Did you not even try to get a job?”

“Well,” he said.  “I thought we could maybe do one more McDonalds.  You know, to help out in the meantime,” he said.

“I still have my job,” she said.  “We can’t make do until then.”

“I don’t want to do this either,” he said.

“It’s been over a month,” he said.

“They’ve probably forgotten all about us by now,” he said.

“This is the last time, I promise,” he said.

“Do you really think I’m that stupid?”  But she knew she would do it.  And this time when she looked at Steven, all she saw was that pleading in his eyes, and something else, a weakness that cut her, and again she hated him, but more she hated herself.  She hated that she wanted to do this, had secretly been craving it, and she wondered if tonight would really be the last night.

She looked at Steven, and she wanted something stronger standing next to her, thought that’s what she had found all those nights ago, when he drew the Great Wall of China and the pyramids of Egypt in the sky with words.  She looked at Steven, and she didn’t see him going any of those places.  She wondered about herself.

She said, “Just tell me everything’s going to be alright.

*          *          *          *          *

She watches, frozen, as the purse tumbles end over end.  She sees the .22 peek out, then it’s on the floor, and the purse next to it.  James has turned around, still smiling at the thoughts in his head, then he looks at her face, sees her, Ellen, the Widow gone, and looks at the gun.

She doesn’t catch the expletive, only the right hand as it pounds into her left ear and temple, knocking her to the tile.  Her right heel breaks, and the wig has moved so it partially blocks her right eye.  She hears James yelling, “It’s a mother-fucking robbery.  Marcus, Vince, get your stoned asses up front.”  She sees him look back at the gun.  “Were you going to shoot me, white girl?”  And he puts a foot hard into her stomach.

“I’m sorry,” she says.  “I’m sorry.”  But it barely comes out, and all she can do is sob.  She feels weak, and she doesn’t know how to make the pain in her head and stomach stop.

“Yo, someone call nine-one-one,” James says.  Then, out of the corner of her eye, she sees Steven as he lunges onto James, sending them both to the floor near the drink fountain.

“Asshole,” Steven is yelling as he swings at James.  “Fucking asshole.”  But he only gets one punch in before James clocks him hard in the jaw.

“So, you’re the bitch’s boyfriend,” James is saying as he straddles Steven’s chest, sending the next punch.  Ellen pulls herself up, listens as James’s fist hits Steven again.  The gun, she thinks, and crawls towards it, she can reach it, she knows.  She sees Steven push up against James before getting a left square in the forehead.  Then she has the gun, feels the metal between her fingers, and the fear disappears, replaced by a feeling of absence, and the shot fires.

The last moment Ellen recognized herself was a month or so before Steven’s idea, when she was still begging for change and searching trash cans for edibles.  At the Gas Station & Grill, a Lexus pulled up to the gas pump.  The driver exited the car, started the gas, and then went to the station for the restroom and to pay.  Ellen would have gone on to someone else, but she noticed the passenger sitting calmly with the window down, seeming to enjoy the day.  She figured he was worth a shot.

“Excuse me, sir,” she said.

“Yes, what is it?”

“You couldn’t happen to spare some change, could you?”

“Change?”

“Yes.  Just a little.”

“Change,” he said again.  Then he poked his large head out the window, looking her up and down.  “Tell you what,” he said.  “Get in the car.  The back door is unlocked.  Get in the car, come with me and my friend, and we’ll change your whole life.  I’ve got money, lots of money, yet I don’t know any pretty girls like you.  You want change, I’m offering you change.”

She looked at him.  He was round, smug, and arrogant.  Yet he was well-dressed and seemed happy, and she was certain that he meant what he said.

“You want change,” he said.  “Get in.”

“No thanks,” she finally said and turned to walk away from him.

“I don’t understand girls like you,” he called after her.  “Let me guess, you’re going back to your white trash boyfriend.  Why?  Because he knows how to screw you right?  You don’t know what you’re missing out on.”  It was the malice in his voice that made her turn around one last time, but his window was already up, the driver back in the car, and then they were gone, but his offer still ringing in her ears.  She saw herself, for just a second, as she once was back in college, sunning by the pool, but instead of Steven beside her, she saw the large man, and they were both smiling.

The sound of the gun still rings in her ears.  “Bonnie, put the gun down,” Steven is saying.  A steady stream of Coca-cola products fills the air.  Ellen looks at the gun in front of her, then at both James and Steven ten feet from her, both with hands raised.  Steven begins to inch toward her.  She keeps the gun trained on James.  “Easy, baby, easy,” Steven is saying as he tries to take the gun from her.

“No,” she says.  “Don’t fucking touch me.  It’s my gun.”  And she whips her hand away, causing Steven to back up.  She plants her left hand on the floor, and gets up slowly.   “We’re leaving,” she says to James and the two other employees that have appeared behind the counter.  They all nod.  “C’mon,” she says, taking Steven by the elbow and pulling him to his feet.  She takes an extra second to stare at where the bullet shattered the plastic protecting the soft drinks, just above James’s head.

“C’mon,” she says, taking his hand, pulling him toward the door, pulling him back toward a life that she had been struggling so hard to make work, a life she no longer recognized.  She thinks how as a little girl, she just knew that Prince Charming was going to show up, that she would live happily ever after, and it hadn’t occurred to her that that world wasn’t reality, at least not hers.  She wonders when that reality faded, when her worldview had changed to accept this.  She thinks that life is just a flip of the coin, that you make your decision and you live with it.  She looks into Steven’s eyes, already puffing up, and if you ask her why she took him with her when she ran, she won’t answer, because the truth is it no longer has anything to do with love.

1 reply »

  1. It seems to me that there are a lot of “Ellens” in this world. I’m torn on her view. Sometimes I admire people who make a decision and stick it out…no matter the consequences. I wish I were that noble, so to speak. That seems like a person you could trust. But then I get to thinking about it…and that same thing…starts to seem weak. Like…have the guts to get out of something terrible, and make yourself happy. You only have this one life. Why spend it making yourself miserable? Ellen seems weak. Sure, she could go out and rob a fast food joint…because Steven told her to. But yet, she wanted to do it…she wasn’t really being forced. Yes, she liked the power of it…because it was the only control she had. Or so she thought. But in reality, she had all the power in the world. She could have left him. Easily. And it’s not as if she would be any worse off. I dislike her. I think she deserves unhappiness. If they had a child, maybe I could see sticking around awhile longer…maybe they could turn things around…maybe. But would even that be noble? The Right Thing? Perhaps not. Perhaps a decent life, with basic needs being met, and a happy mother is worth more than a father’s presence? I would have left. I have left many. Have I found bliss? Does anyone ever? Is anyone ever truly happy in their place in life? Some people say they are. And some people keep repeating to themselves that they are happy with their decisions…as if to convince themselves. Maybe I’ll go on, making decision after decision and not living with any of them that I don’t want to. But as time passes, will this get old? Will I someday yearn for someone, anyone, a Steven, because no one is there at all?