Dave Larson watched his son and daughter, Tim and Jessie, join the crowd of other high schoolers as they made their way up the steps to the entrance of Long Lake High School. Tim was a senior this year, Jessie two years younger, in tenth grade. He had a deep love and affection for them both. Tim, tall and lanky, was a wearer of glasses and a science geek; a dedicated student. Jessie, short and muscular, was an up and coming second line center on the girls hockey team; a natural athlete. They were both great kids and he grinned as he beeped his horn goodbye. They each waved over their shoulders without looking back and then disappeared through the front door of the 1970’s brick building. Dave smiled and gave them a wave in return, although he knew they couldn’t see him. He was a polite man and it felt like the right thing to do. Then he checked the clock on the dash panel of his six year old Ford Fiesta. It was 7:49 am.
He put his left hand up to shield his eyes from the October sun, low on the horizon, just peeking over the trees. He thought about putting his old sunglasses on, but remembered that the arm had fallen off yesterday rendering them useless. He made a mental note to get a new pair sometime soon.
An image of his wife Karen popped into his mind. She was the same age as him, fifty-one, and had short, blond hair, mostly gone to gray. She was five-two, stout, with the strong arms of her Swedish ancestors. She’d left early in the morning for her job in Wayzata, just seven miles away, where she was a dental technician and was needed for 7:30 am root channel with Dr. England. She’d kissed him on the cheek goodbye while he and the kids were still having breakfast: cheerios for him, toast for Tim and some kind of granola for Jessie. His wife’s image made him feel good inside. They’d been married for twenty-nine years. They had a solid marriage, Dave thought. He was happy with her. She was happy with him(he was pretty sure.) In fact, he had a good life: a good job, good home, good family. Just then a school bus roared by on the left, inches from his window. Other parents dropping off their kids beeped their horns goodbye. A bunch of students late for the beginning of class ran down the sidewalk on his right. Karen’s image faded and then was gone.
Dave sighed and checked the clock again. 7:53 am. It was a normal a day for him, as normal as normal could be; just like every other Wednesday in the last, what? Month? Year? Decade? He didn’t know. Truth be told, they were all starting to run together.
He shifted his rear end in the seat. Why was he wasting time sitting in front of his son and daughter’s high school mulling over his life? He should get a move on. He should leave the school grounds and take the service road out to the street that lead to the county road where the stoplight was. Then he should take a left and point himself east. He should drive the nineteen point seven miles into downtown Minneapolis to his job at Heartland Controls, the company he’d worked at for the last twenty-six years. He’d recently been promoted to product supervisor in the solid state division, a mid-level management position, and he needed to show his immediate boss he was worthy of the job. He was fifty-one years old for Pete’s sake, and he should quit procrastinating. He had a meeting with his design team at 10 am and lots of emails to catch up on. He had a presentation to prepare for on Friday to update his boss, Charlie Langston, on a new energy saving set-back thermostat his team was working on. He had responsibilities and he should just get to it.
Dave sighed again and put his car in gear. He checked over his shoulder to make sure it was safe, put his turn signal light on, pulled away from the curb and drove away from the high school. At the corner, he signaled again and took a right onto the service road and began the drive that would him a few blocks out to the stoplight at the county road. Once there he’d turn left, drive a few miles and hook up with the highway that would take him into Minneapolis and he would go to work. Just like every other day.
He watched the speedometer as he drove along the service road and kept it to a steady twenty-eight miles per hour in the thirty mile per hour zone. To the left the sun was inching higher above the trees. The sky was pure blue and cloudless, the temperature in the low fifties. It looked like it was going to be a gorgeous fall day. Dave settled into his seat and sighed again. Too bad he had to go to work.
On the way to the county road he decided turn on the radio and listen to some music. His preferred choice was channel 89.9 FM, a station dedicated to playing the best classical music in the upper Midwest. Given how he was feeling at the moment, something like a little Chopin would be a nice shot in the arm, something to quell his melancholy mood.
Somehow, though, when he punched the ON button, the call letters for the area’s mega-huge, classic rock station came up and Bam! Just like that, the little car was suddenly filled with the thumping, pounding, rhythmic beat of drums and bass guitar. BOOM, DADA, BOOM, DADA, BOOM…Dave flinched. He was used to the quiet serenity of a Mozart piano concertos or the melodic orchestration of a Beethoven symphony. Not this. Not the wild, relentless beat of rowdy, unruly, rock and roll. No sir, not on your life. The noise actually made him feel queasy and he could feel perspiration forming on his forehead. He had been a classical music fan for over twenty years. He liked the soft sounds of the strings, woodwinds and orchestra. He like the peaceful, mellow, feeling it gave him. Mozart or Chopin or Beethoven, even Sibelius, it was all good. The music soothed and relaxed him, sometimes even making him a little sleepy, like a narcotic. Not like the noise now emanating from the Fords tiny speakers, filling the car with that hard, driving, rock and roll. It was grating it. It was dissonant. In fact, it was kind of irritating.
He was reaching to quickly change channels when something stopped him. There was something about the song now playing that was familiar, something he thought he recognized. Dave liked challenges. He liked quizzes. He liked to try to figure things out, so he paused and listened. The song…what was the name of it again? He let the melody line run through his brain some more, trying to recall where he’d heard it before. A little test, he told himself. A little test to check how good his memory was. He thought about it for a few seconds before the answer finally came to him. Dave grinned and gave himself an imaginary grade of an A. It was a song from back when he was younger. Back when he was in what? High school? Junior high school? College? He fiddled with the volume, turning it down a little, and listened more carefully. Surprisingly, he found the more he listened, he more he realized that he kind of liked the song. He liked the way the drummer pounded the drums so they echoed deep and resonant, like a distance thunderstorm rumbling. He like the way the bass line ran up and down underneath the melody, making him want to tap his fingers along with the beat. Together, the drums and bass sounded kind of…what? Pleasing? No. Well, sort of but not quite. He thought some more. Primitive? Yeah, that’s what it was like, primitive; like the native sounds (he imaged) from the jungle way back when in prehistoric times. Sexy, even, the more he thought about it. (And then immediately felt guilty for thinking, for him, such an unconventional thought.) But the fact of the matter was this: The more he listened, the more he found he was liking what he was hearing.
Then he suddenly felt guilty again. Maybe he was liking it just a little bit more than he should have. He was a classical music fan, after all, not a rock and roller. That’s enough, he thought to himself. No more thinking like that.
He was just about to switch to his classical station when he the singer started in. It was then he recognized the that the name of the song was Molly Hatchet’s famous ‘Flirtin With Disaster’. Suddenly images came came flooding back to him; a tidal wave of memories, most of which were pleasant. It was a song from 1979, back when he was thirteen and in junior high school in Minneapolis. He was a science geek back then (just like his son now.) He and his friends had built a rocket in his parents basement just for fun; for the challenge of it. In school, he liked math. He liked science. He liked knowing that he could combine the two disciplines and make something tangible, in this case a thirty-one inch tall rocket that he hoped would work. It did. He and his friends shot it off out in the country west of Minneapolis and it had traveled nearly half a mile straight up before exploding. How cool was that?
By now Dave had driven to the highway and was stopped at the signal waiting for the light to change. He didn’t switch the station. Instead he kept listening to the song, thinking back to when he and his friends had built that rocket. Those were good times back then, great times, even. He smiled reliving the memory. The music seemed to touch something deep inside him, something that had been dormant for a long, long, time. He remembered how he and Eddie and Ron and Steve used to listen to rock and roll down in his parent’s basement when they’d talk about science stuff and math stuff. Even girls. Right now, the song brought all of that back to him; he found himself liking the driving force of the music and the power of the guitars. He liked the way the guy sang, with his deep voice, scarred (Dave was sure) by bourbon whiskey and non-filtered cigarettes. He liked the memories the song rekindled. He liked that the song made him smile, made him happy.
Right then and there, while waiting at the stoplight and listening to ‘Flirtin’ With Disaster,’ Dave suddenly made a snap decision. Instead of turning left and heading east through Long Lake and getting on the crowded highway that would take him to work in Minneapolis, he flipped the turn signal the other way and waited. When the light changed, he turned right, to the west. He started driving away from town, away from his job, away from his kids, away from his wife and away from his home. As he drove, he turned up the volume and the classic rock music of Molly Hatchet filled the inside of the little Fiesta. ‘I’m travelin’ down the road, I’m flirtin’ with disaster’. That’s what Dave was going to do. He was going to take a break from his life. He was going to travel down the road. He didn’t want to flirt with disaster, necessarily, he just wanted to take a chance and see what there was to see.
At least for today.
In his whole life, Dave was never one to consider himself as a rock and roll outlaw. Or even a rebel, for that matter. In high school in a well to do suburb of Minneapolis he was an A minus B plus student whose greatest claim to fame was third place for a perpetual motion machine he built for his senior year science project. The only girl he ever dated was Karen, who eventually agreed to marry him after they had both graduated from college when the guy she was engaged to ‘dumped her’ as she put it, for a former City of Lakes beauty pageant queen. Dave readily agreed.
They found jobs they both liked. They moved to Long Lake and bought a nice little bungalow and so Karen could be close to her parents. They had Tim and Jessie. Life was the way it was supposed to be – quiet, stable and predictable.
But now…now this. Now this sudden desire to break the mold that formed his uneventful life. To step out and do something completely unexpected. Something different. Was he nervous? Yes. Yes, he was. But he forced his nervousness aside and concentrated on the here and now. Somehow this morning he had been struck by a sudden and unexpected need to let himself know he wasn’t stuck in a rut and trapped in the confines of the life he’d chosen to live. He needed to do something different than what he’d been doing every day of his life for he didn’t know how long.
As he drove, Dave had a talk with himself. He asked, ‘I’m a responsible man, aren’t I?’ The answer: ‘Yes. Yes, I am. Just ask Karen. She’d say that I’m as responsible as the day is long, and then some.’ Next, he asked, ‘People can count on me to be stable and reliable, right?’ The answer: ‘Yes. Just ask…Well, just ask anyone. Stable could easily be my middle name (not Norman’).
So there. He deserved to do this. Even though it was unexpected behavior on his part, maybe he deserved to break out and do something out of the ordinary. Something completely unexpected. Something no one expected him to do.
Dave checked the rearview mirror. He was near the western outskirts of Long Lake and excitement was replacing his nervousness. He was really doing this. He was really heading away from his job and his home. The question came to him: Why? Why was he doing this? Well, to be honest, he didn’t know. All he knew was that this morning, this beautiful October fall morning, something had grabbed at his very soul and taken over, compelling him to do the unexpected. Was it the music that had fueled the change? Maybe. Probably. And if it had, the fact of the matter was that he had listened and he’d given in. He needed to know he could be more than just a reliable husband, father and employee. He needed to do what the song suggested. He needed hit the road and be free.
As Dave headed west, ‘Travelin’ Man’ by the Allman Brothers came on. Dave turned up the volume so the music was pounding through the speakers. He felt a surge of adrenaline roar through his veins. He’d never done anything remotely spontaneous like this before in his whole life. Ever. He was nervous, but excited. He sped up and made it through the last stoplight in town just as the light changed from to yellow for caution to red for stop. Caution? thought Dave. Not today. Stop? No way. Today I’m my own man. Nervous as he was, he liked the feeling.
He accelerated and made himself not look in the rear view mirror. Ahead lay corn rows and soybean fields. Farm houses and pasture land dotted here and there with wood lots. Wide open spaces. The open road. He could drive all the way to Montana if he wanted. For now, though, he’d go to Delano. He checked the clock. It read 8:16 am. The little town was only fifteen miles and maybe a twenty minute drive away. He could make it easy. He’d better. His bladder was full and aching and he suddenly had the pressing need to find a gas station and make a pit stop. He wanted to hurry. He wanted to put the gas pedal to the floor and break the speed limit if he had to and there as fast as possible, but he held himself back, conscious of maintaining the fifty-five mile per hour speed limit. After all, he didn’t need a ticket. He’d never had one in his life and he certainly didn’t need one now. He’d get there eventually. Hopefully, in time.
He fiddled with the volume on the radio, getting it set just right and hummed along to ‘Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap.’ The song helped take his mind off his need to get to a gas station, but just barely. He checked the time again. 8:19 am. He pushed the accelerator down just a little bit more.
Clive Culpepper had been working at the Delano Quik-Stop for three and a half years, the last four months of which he’d been manager on the 6 am to 2 pm shift. It was 8:35 am that Wednesday morning, and he was behind the counter, watching the steady stream of traffic on highway 12 – most of it late commuters heading to work forty miles east in the twin cities. He was, as the saying went, ‘Looking but not really seeing.’ Instead, he was worried. His wife, Carrie, was expecting their first child any day now and she’d told him at 5:30 am that morning on his way out the door that she wasn’t feeling the best.
In fact, her very words were, “I feel like shit, man. Like someone put a huge watermelon inside me and then crammed me in a barrel and dropped me down an empty grain elevator.”
That didn’t sound good. Immediately concerned, Clive hurried to her side and said, problem solver he always tried to be, “You know I’d stay if I could, but I’ve got to get the station open. Can Susie come over and be with you?”
“That bitch couldn’t be bothered to help me even if I paid her,” Carrie had spat out.”She’s hanging with Kimo and that crew of jerks, and all she can think about is getting stoned and getting laid.” She paused and took a big swallow out of the glass of milk she was drinking, “So, no, Clive, I won’t be calling my dear little sister. The lazy little skank.”
Okay, then, message received, Clive thought to himself and hurried to change the subject, “Well, you just rest then, honey. I’ve got to get to work, but I’ll keep my phone handy. Call if you need me. Okay?”
Carrie was sitting at the cluttered card table they used for eating, paying bills, folding laundry and nearly every other task that required a flat surface. She looked out the window of the narrow, single wide that they could just barely afford payments on and said, “I’ll do that, Mr. Manager Man. Just make sure I can reach you.” She turned and offered him the faintest of smiles. Her blond hair was an oily, stringy mess, in need of a wash. Her blue eyes were bloodshot from lack of sleep, and the extra fifty-five pounds she’d put on in addition to the baby she was carrying were bursting out of her faded pink sweat pants. “I count on you, you know.”
God, how much he adored her. She was the love of his life. He knelt down to be close to her and put his arm around her, “No problem, babe,” Clive smiled at her, “I’ve got your back. You know that. Always.” He rubbed her shoulder affectionately, then kissed the side of her face, holding his breath and trying not to breathe the oily fumes emanating from not only her head, but the rest of her body.
“You’d better,” Carrie told him, squeezing his hand before taking another gulp of milk. Then she and let loose a long, loose, belch. “You know I count on you.” She gave him another thin smile and released his hand before going back to looking outside.
Clive stood up and went to the kitchen counter. He grabbed his lunch bucket and checked his appearance in the mirror on the side of the corner cupboard. He was just under six feet with a thin, wiry, build. He had short, neatly combed brown hair and a wisp of a mustache (that Carrie liked.) He had brooding, dark brown eyes under thick eyebrows that gave him the look of a poet or a clergyman, neither of which he’d cop to. (He’d rather be considered a mechanic – he loved working on cars.) He had a tattoo of a heart with a capital C in the middle on his left bicep.(For Carrie, of course.) For work he always wore a uniform of neatly pressed gray pants and a crisp, gray, long sleeve shirt with the sleeves rolled down and buttoned, with his name in red stitched above the left breast pocket. He made sure his black work boots were always clean and polished. If he wore a hat, it’d be his blue baseball hat with FORD in red letters proudly displayed on the crown. In short, he subscribed to the adage: If you look good, you’ll be good. And that’s what he wanted: To do good work and have a good family. He was nearly there. He was twenty-six, Carrie was twenty-four. They’d been happily married for three years. All he wanted from of his life was right here in their modular home set on the outskirts of Delano in the Riverside Estates trailer park only a fifty yards from the Crow River. Having their first child would make their life just that much better; perfect, even. He couldn’t wait.
Clive turned and said good-bye to Carrie. She waved half-heartedly back at him and his heart suddenly went out to her. He hurried across the old linoleum floor, knelt down and gave her another hug goodbye and held her tight. Hopefully the delivery will go okay, is what he was thinking. He knew his wife was a strong women, but this was their first child. Who knew what could happen? Then he wiped that thought out of his mind. The delivery would go just fine. He was sure it would. Carrie was strong. They trusted their doctor. Clive would be there to do all he could to help. You just had to have a little faith.
After allowing herself to be held for a moment, Carrie playfully pushed him away and said, “Better get to work, Manager Man. Just keep your phone handy, okay?”
“Right. You know I will, sweetheart.” He paused, holding her until she gently pushed him away, again.
“Time to hit the road, Clive.”
“Got it. I’m on my way.”
Clive went to the front door, turned and smiled and gave Carrie the ‘thumbs up’ sign, which she returned with a non-committal wave and the tiniest of burps. Then he pushed through the rusted screen door and out to the postage sized yard where his truck was parked. He noticed that the cottonwood sapling he’d planted earlier that summer seemed to be struggling a bit and looked a little wilted. He went to the outside faucet, filled a bucket, came back and watered the base of the tiny tree, saying, “Come on there, little fella’, you can make it.” Then he returned the bucket to the side of the trailer, stood for a moment and looked around. The horizon to the east was turning pink. The last stars were fading away in the clear dawn sky. His child was going to be born anytime soon. He grinned. It was going to be a great day.
From home he’d driven his twenty-two year old Ford 150 the three point four miles to work, unlocked the front door and gone inside. The first thing he did, after turning on all the lights, was to turn on the music his boss let him play through the overhead speakers. Classic rock, of course. ‘Not too loud, Clive,’ he’d been told, so he kept the volume reasonable. The first song that had come on was ‘Pink Houses’ and he’d hummed along on his way outside to the islands, where he’d taken readings on the pumps and turned them on. Then he’d gone back inside and got going with his day: stocking shelves, taking inventory, waiting on customers as they started trickling in and dealing with a hundred other things that always came up.
At 7:00 am Johnny Bremer (The Pot Smoker, as Clive referred to him to Carrie) showed up for his shift. At least he’s on time, Clive thought to himself. A high school dropout, Johnny had worked for him for a few months and all in all wasn’t a bad employee, if you ignored his pot smoking habit that is (which Clive had trouble doing.) The important thing was that they worked well together as a team. This morning he’d put Johnny to work cleaning out the restrooms and sweeping the floor while he’d manned the cash register and taken care of customers. The morning had been busy and had moved along with nothing out of the ordinary happening.
Now here he was, behind the counter, the morning nearly rush slowing down, thinking about what it was going to be like to be a father. He was scared but also looking forward to being a dad. Big time. He pictured himself coming home from work after the baby was born and holding and playing with the new little one, even learning how to change dirty diapers. He imagined watching the child grown and teaching him or her how to play catch and change the spark plugs on the truck. He pictured going on family vacations to Yellowstone and spending long lazy Christmas mornings around a decorated Christmas tree opening presents. So many things he’d do and share with his child that his dad never did with him because he hadn’t been there. No, his father had left home just after Clive had been born never to be heard from again. Well, Clive certainly wasn’t going to go down that road. Not ever. Not on your life.
He shook his head to rid himself of the image of his long departed father. He figured that if he was scared, it was in a good way and that made him feel a little better, a little less nervous. He and Carrie had decided not to be told the sex of their child and, instead, wait to find out until the baby was delivered. Would they have a little girl or little boy? It didn’t matter. As long as he or she was healthy, that was the main thing. And doctor Sanderson had reassured them all along that the little baby was ‘Still fit as a fiddle’ as she had told them the during their visit last week. So…all was good.
Clive was idly thinking of possible boy names (Clint, Jeremy, Rocky) when a movement outside caught his eye. A car was quickly pulling in off the highway. It was a gray Ford Fiesta. He watched it race past the islands and speed up to the front of the station before slamming on its breaks. Slow down, buddy, Clive thought to himself, along with, Man, what a friggin’ boring car. His attention was diverted, though, when all a sudden his phone beeped. He checked the display. It was a text from Carrie and it was urgent. ‘Come now!!’
Lightning fast, he texted her back, ‘I’m on my way,’ and jumped into action.
He pressed a buzzer under the counter. It rang the bell out back where he knew Johnny was probably having his morning toke instead of emptying the trash like Clive had told him to do. God, why had he hired the kid? He was a good enough guy, but certainly not the most motivated person in the world. (At least he was better than that Kimo guy Carrie had mentioned this morning. Now there was a bad news dude with a capital B.)
Clive looked toward the door at the back of the store leading out to the trash bins. He was starting to get mad. Where the hell was that kid? He needed to get going and get to Carrie and get her to the hospital. Just then the front door opened and the guy from the Fiesta hurried in and up to the counter.
“I need to use the restroom,” the guy said, “Really bad.”
“Over there,” Clive pointed to the far corner of the station.
The guy hurried off and Clive shook his head. He looked like a pudgy, burned out businessman. Jesus, fella’, plan ahead a little why don’t ya’? Then he forgot about him.
Clive checked his pockets to make sure he had his wallet, phone and truck keys. He did. He needed to get to Carrie. Come on, Johnny, hurry up and get your ass in here.
He looked toward the back door, again, willing the young employee to come through it. Nothing. He nervously shuffled his feet. He didn’t want to leave the counter unattended. He looked outside to the front. Maybe Johnny was out at the islands filling the window wash containers, showing a little initiative for a change. The station had three islands of pumps, two pumps per island, two nozzles per pump, so they could serve twelve vehicles if they needed to, but rarely were they all in use. Maybe Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends. Maybe the Fourth of July. Not now, in the middle of the morning, in the mid of the week in the middle of October. Right now the only vehicle out there was one rusted out pickup that had just driven in and what looked like an old farmer who gotten out, set the pump and was now scratching himself, watching the meter turn around and around. But there was no Johnny, that was for sure. Where was that kid?
Clive swore silently and took a chance. He hurried around the counter, passing the eating area by the front window on the way. Jeff Nelson and Stubby Jorgenson, two retired farmers, were sitting at one of the four tables drinking maybe their fifth cup of morning coffee and bull shitting about god only knew what like they did every day. Except today. Today was different. Today was Wednesday so it was Checkers Day. They had their old, beat up board out and were busily engaged in their game; had been for over an hour. They didn’t even look up when Clive jogged past. Old Mrs. Shauffhausen was there, too, occupying one of the other tables, this one in the sunshine. She was eating a sugar donut and drinking a can of coke. She was working on a crossword puzzle like she did every day. A lonely old widow, Clive knew his station was one of maybe five stops she made during the course of her day. Her next stop would be the Super America a half mile west. Kind of sad, is what Clive thought on most days, but not today. They were regulars and he knew them not only by name, but could tell you how many kids and grand children Jeff had (five kids, fourteen grandchildren), when Stubby lost the thumb and index finger on his left hand (combine accident, summer of 1997), and when Mrs. Shauffhausen had lost her husband (cancer, spring of 2015). But he was focused on other things, mainly getting home to Carrie and getting her to the hospital. He needed to find Johnny and find him fast.
He made it to the back of the store in record time and was just about to yank open the back door (employees only) when Johnny came sauntering in, trailing a cloud of marijuana smoke. He was tall and skinny and dressed in blue jeans and a clean red flannel shirt. His hair was brown, freshly washed and medium length. In spite of his stoner attitude, he was a nice enough kid, a high school dropout that Clive had a bit of affection for. It was one of those things…Johnny was family, his mom’s brother’s kid. Johnny was his cousin.
“Jesus Christ, man, what the hell are you doing?” Clive yelled at him, “Get your ass in here. You’ve gotta’ watch the till. Carrie’s having the baby. I’m on my way to take her to the hospital. ” Clive dragged Johnny through the store and plopped him down on a stool behind the counter. He pointed back to the eating area, “You’ve got Jeff and Stubby and old Lady Shauffhausen over there, and there’s a guy in the bathroom. You should be okay. You have any problems, text me. Okay?” Clive grabbed Johnny be the shoulders so they were looking eye to eye, “Hey, you hear me? Text me if you need me. Got it?”
“Sure, sure, man. Relax,” Johnny said, trying to take in what Clive was ranting about. But it was hard. That Rocky Mountain Green his older brother had brought home from his trip out west this past summer was wicked strong. He maybe ‘Got’ half of what his cousin was talking about. If that.
“Just don’t screw up,” Clive said taking a final look around the store, verifying that everything looked in good shape. “I’ll text you when I know more about Carrie.” Then he had a thought, “I’ll see if I can get a hold of Marilyn to come in and help.”
Marilyn Digbee was a retired widow who worked eight hours a week to supplement her social security. She was a good, stable employee. Problem was, she couldn’t see very well due to glaucoma and had a tendency to talk to the customers way too much (in Clive’s opinion), but that was all right. Any port in the storm, is what he was thinking as he hurried out the front door to his truck. He started up the old Ford and sped off. Later that day, he remembered…shit, he never did get a hold of Marilyn.
Johnny watched Clive leave, quickly forgetting what little he remembered of what his cousin and boss had told him to do. Instead, he gazed out the window and watched the old farmer with the pickup scratch himself and pump his gas. Then he idly picked up a small bag of Cool Ranch Doritos and carefully opened it. The clock read 8:45 am. He worked until one. He yawned. Man, it was going to be a long day. He put a chip in his mouth and chewed, his mind settling into a hazy fog of nothingness. A minute later he took out another chip and ate that one, too.
Dave had run from the counter to the far corner of the store, saying a quick ”Thank god,” when he saw the men’s room was unoccupied. He’d pushed through the door and hurried inside, not even bothering to lock it. He’d barely made it in time, but he did (Whew!)
When he was finished he washed his hands, dried them on a paper towel and felt himself finally starting to calm down. He took a deep breath, let it out, and took a moment to look at himself in the mirror. He was wearing his standard clothes for work, white shirt and tan khaki slacks. No tie. He was five-nine and clean shaven and not all that bad looking even though his hair was thinning and his cheeks were a little jowly from the extra weight he’d been putting on for the last ten years or so. Lately, Karen had been on him to begin to exercise, but he was hoping to eventually get her to understand that working out was simply not in his genetic makeup. She should know by now, after twenty-six years of marriage, that he was not much of a doer in the physical exertion department. For instance, he’d much rather read that run. Let him curl up with the latest issue of ‘Scientific American’ and he was one happy, albeit slightly overweight, guy. The quiet, contemplative life was more his style. So he was used to how he looked with his rather plain and non-descript appearance, and he accepted that he’d never be what others considered, ‘In shape.’ Such was the lot in Dave’s life and he was just fine with that. Why run and get worn out when you could just saunter along, take your time, and enjoy your surroundings? That summed up his philosophy perfectly.
So, disregarding his appearance, the main thing today was this: He felt good. Great, even. Not nervous at all. Well, not too much, anyway, considering he’d never done anything like this before, just acted spontaneously and taken a day off from work. All of his life he’d done what he was supposed to do. Which was fine. That’s what you did when you were a husband and a father, right? You accepted your responsibilities and did what was expected of you. That’s the way it was supposed to be, and, honestly, he had no argument with that. No complaints. He enjoyed being a husband to Karen and a father to Tim and Jessie. He even enjoyed his job. He liked the challenge of coming up with innovative solutions to help make homes more energy efficient. He even liked the people he worked with.
But now this. Introspective by nature, Dave was at a loss to explain why he’d done what he’d done, but he’d done it. And here he was. He was in a Quik-Stop in the small town of Delano, Minnesota, and he had the whole day ahead of him. In the background he could hear another tune from back when he was in high school, “Goody-Two Shoes,” by…What was that guy’s name again? Oh, yeah, Adam Ant. Interesting name and a catchy little song if Dave had to be honest. He smiled an inner smile and gave himself another A in his imaginary classic rock quiz. The guys in the store must be listening to the same radio station he’d had on in the car. An omen, maybe. If it was, perhaps it was a good one. He’d cast his lot into doing something different today so he might as well enjoy it.
Dave splashed some water on his face and dried off. Refreshed, he stepped through the restroom door and took a look around. The station was good sized. There were refrigerated units full of milk, eggs, pop, beer and bottled water along the wall on either side of him. There were three or four isles that ran the length of the store stocked with stuff for sale: everything from bread and candy, to paper towels laundry detergent, even motor oil, flashlights and windshield washer fluid. Tons of stuff, really, everything one could possible need in an emergency or otherwise. There was a warming rack with hot dogs and brats on it and a display of bakery goods. There was a big coffee machine with six different kinds of coffee available (plus hot chocolate) and, next to the coffee machine, there was a pop dispenser that had one’s choice of mountain dew, diet mountain dew, coke, diet coke, Fanta and Dr. Pepper. In the front of the store there was a small seating area to the left of the check out area which had a counter that seemed to take up most of the remaining space along the front of the store. The front door was to the right of the checkout counter.
Dave walked up and down the aisles, looking for nothing in particular, just browsing. A man controlled by schedules his entire life, it was dawning on him that he had no particular place to go and was no particular hurry to get there. In fact, he was free, just like that singer on the radio driving into Delano earlier had sung about, ‘Free as a bird.’ That was him, the new Dave. It was a good feeling, one he was starting to get used to.
He paused at a display of sunglasses near the coffee machine and looked them over. His old ones were wrecked. Plus, they were boring. Dave thought to himself, You know what? I should get myself a new pair. Maybe something a little more dangerous looking than the conservative style I usually wear.
After trying on a few, and checking out how he looked in the smudged mirror on the rack, he finally selected a pair of black wraparounds with tinted, dark blue lenses. These look great, he thought to himself, primping just ever so slightly in the little mirror. I wonder if these are the kind that singer from Molly Hatchet wears?
On his way to pay for his new shades (as he thought of them), Dave noticed some people in a seating area on the other side of the counter. Two guys were drinking coffee and playing checkers, and a lady was sitting in the sun eating something and working on a crossword puzzle. There were two empty tables. Suddenly he realized he was kind of hungry and maybe could use a little snack himself; maybe even something to drink. He turned back to the store and took his time looking around before finally settling for a medium cup of hot chocolate and a maple frosted long-john.
I’ve never done anything like this in my life, is what Dave thought to himself as he stepped up to the counter with his purchases. He wasn’t feeling guilty anymore about taking off from his job. He was starting to adjust to doing something different today and he was getting in the swing of things. In fact, he was starting to fun.
He paid for his items and decided to do something else he’d never done before. Instead of going out to his car, sitting in the front seat by himself and drinking his hot chocolate and eating his long-john, he stayed in the station. Why not? The place seemed clean enough; the guy behind the counter seemed competent, if only a little spacey, and the other people at the tables seemed harmless enough. Plus he was enjoying the music they were playing, now ‘Highway To Hell,’ by ACDC.
So he stayed. On his way to the seating area he picked up a free local paper, The Crow River Gazette, so he’d have something to look at. He picked out a table, sat down, made himself comfortable, set down his new sunglasses, opened the paper and started looking through it. The tables were close together and he could easily watch the two old guys playing checkers and the old lady with her crossword, but he did his best to ignore them. Instead he turned to his paper and started reading the lead story, an article about a young farming couple who were growing organic asparagus.
He was savoring his hot chocolate and long-john and enjoying the story about the asparagus growing couple when the front door opened. He looked up and immediately thought, Oh, oh, this could be trouble. Two tough looking guys and one rough looking girl had just walked in. The two guys were tall and skinny and looked to be around thirty. One of them had long black hair he’d pulled back in a pony-tail. He wore ripped jeans, scuffed black boots and a dirty white tee-shirt and had lean, hard arms, rippled with muscles and covered with tattoos. He had the air and attitude of the leader of the group. The other guy had a scraggly beard, shaved head with a coiled snake tattooed on his neck. He wore black jeans, a faded black tee-shirt and brand new black tennis shoes. His eyes were furtive and never settled on anything. He coughed a lot. The girl looked to be no more than sixteen. She had short, dirty blond hair, a pierced eyebrow and wore tight blue jeans and a stained, red, tee-shirt that had the symbol of a marijuana leaf on it. On her feet were pink flip-flops.
To Dave they looked dangerous, like maybe there were druggies. Or criminals. Or both. Although he’d only seen people like them on television, in his mind, they were the kind of people you had to watch out for. They certainly looked like they needed to be avoided, which, unfortunately, was something that was going to be hard to do, given the confines of the station.
Dave turned the page of his newspaper and tried to make himself inconspicuous. The three newcomers made him nervous and a little frightened. In fact, they were killing the warm, devil may care attitude he’d unconsciously adopted. He took a bite from his long-john and chewed it methodically but had trouble swallowing. His mouth suddenly felt like cotton. He pulled his sunglasses closer and turned back to the newspaper (which right now he was really only pretending to read) and kept a cautious eye on the guy with the black hair, the leader. He took a sip from his hot chocolate, but it didn’t help. His mouth stayed dry. In the background, Def Leppard came on through the speakers and Dave recognized the song as an old favorite, ‘Hysteria.’ In his spinning mind, the song title seemed to be more than appropriate.
The guy behind the counter greeted the three with a non-committal, “Hey, Kimo. Hey, Lenny. Hey, Susie.”
Dave held up his paper and carefully peeked out from behind. (Was he hiding behind it? Yeah, he guessed, maybe he was.) He watched as the three of them said nothing in return to the counter guy’s greeting. Instead, they sauntered past him like they owned the place and started looking around, touching stuff, drifting here and there like ghosts. Dave felt a rush of adrenaline when the three of them took their time passing near to where he and the others sat, but nothing happened. They walked past, not giving him or anyone else a glance. Whew. He breathed a sigh of relief and watched out of the corner of his eye as they walked further into the station, taking their time going through up and down the aisles, trailing their menacing attitude like the left over smell of fried onions.
Dave was definitely on edge. He could think of lots better ways to kill time other than perusing the Quik-Stop’s inventory of pancake mix, junk food and bungee cords. He wished the three of them would just finish their business, exit the station and leave him in peace so he could return to pleasantly drinking his hot chocolate, eating his long-john and reading the local newspaper. He glanced at them again. They were still just aimlessly walking around, doing nothing. It didn’t look like they were going to be leaving anytime soon. Dave went back to pretending to read his paper, keeping a watchful eye on them, just to be on the safe side.
A minute later an old guy in a dirty baseball cap and filthy jean jacket came in bringing with him a whiff of cow manure. He stepped up to the counter, paid for his gas and took a quick glance around. He eye-balled the three tough characters, shook his head and left. When the door closed, the three of them all worked their way back to the counter. The leader with the long hair and ponytail spoke in a deep, languid voice, “Hey, there, Johnny. What’s goin’ on?” Dave made a note of the counter guy’s name, Johnny.
“Not much, Kimo,” Johnny said. If he was flustered, he didn’t show it. He smiled and was friendly, “What can I do for you all?”
“Give me a can of that Copenhagen Straight,” Kimo said and turned, “You two want anything?”
The guy named Lenny said, “How about a pack of smokes, if you’re buyin’? Marlboro reds.”
Kimo indicated the row of cigarettes above Johnny, “You heard the man.”
Johnny pulled down a pack along with a tin of Copenhagen and set them on the counter. “Anything else?”
Kimo took the girl by the arm and pulled her up next to him. Susie? Was that her name? Dave tried to remember from Johnny’s greeting earlier. Yeah, that was it. Susie. She appeared to resist but Kimo out-weighed her by at least fifty pounds. He positioned her next to him and held her close, “What about you, sweetheart? Smokes? Candy? What?”
“How about a lottery ticket?” she said, “Powerball.”
Kimo grinned and motioned to Johnny, “You heard her.”
“They’re two bucks each,” Susie said, “Give me five,” she turned to Kimo, “If you’re buyin’ that is.” She seemed unafraid of the tall man with the ponytail. Way more unafraid than Dave, anyway.
Kimo reached in his pocket, took out a roll of bills, peeled off a twenty and slapped it hard on the counter. “Give us ten.” He rolled up the money and put it back in his jeans.
“Want to pick em’ yourself? Or let the machine?” Johnny asked.
“What’s the date today?” Susie asked, “The sixteenth or something?”
“Yep,” Johnny said, “October sixteenth, twenty-seventeen.”
“My sister’s having a baby today, I think. So let’s go with…” and she gave Johnny the numbers she wanted for one ticket. “Let the machine pick the rest.”
Johnny printed out the tickets and gave them to her. Then Kimo decided he was hungry so he bought three hotdogs from the warming rack along with a big basket of corn chips and hot, cheese sauce. He also bought himself a super sized coke, a large Mountain Dew for Lenny and a small diet coke for Susie. He paid for everything from his roll of bills and they all took their purchases to the last empty table in the setting area, not five feet from Dave. Lenny said he was going outside to smoke so Kimo and Susie sat down by themselves. Kimo pushed the basket of chips toward her and started in on his hot dog. They didn’t say a word to each other. Susie took a chip, dipped it in the cheese sauce and ate it. Then she took a paper napkin and wiped her fingers. Kimo ate one hot dog and started in on another.
Dave watched out of the corner of his eye. There was a ominous presence emanating from them that was palpable, especially that Kimo. The guy made him nervous and uncomfortable; not to mention more than a little frightened. He was conscious of himself perspiring, the sweat starting to run from his arm pits down his sides. Not a good feeling at all.
From where he was sitting Dave could easily see out the front window. The day was sunny and bright. What was he doing hanging around in this gas station? Among other things, he certainly didn’t fit in with the crowd here. He was wearing his standard white shirt and kakis, the clothes he normally wore for work. (Thank god he had taken his pocket protector out earlier and left it in the car.) He looked totally out of place compared to the locals. The guys playing checkers were wearing old jeans, faded plaid shirts, work boots and seed caps. One of them sucked constantly on a worn out toothpick. The old lady was wearing an old dress, a cardigan sweater, tennis shoes and a black stocking hat even though the temperature outside was probably in the low sixties by now. On the chair next to her was a huge canvas oversized purse filled with what looked like her all of her earthly possessions. Like a bag lady.
He didn’t belong with all these people. He should just get up and leave. Yeah, that’s what he should do. If he was smart, that is. Just get up, walk out the front door and go. But, then again, he didn’t want to draw attention to himself. That’s the last thing he needed. What to do? Could he just turn invisible? That’s what he really wanted. To just fade away into the background and then show up magically at work. Or back home. That would be even better; to be back home, waiting for Karen to come in from work and the kids to come home from school. He could be getting dinner preparations underway. Or cutting the grass. Or fixing that leaky gutter. Anything. Anything would be better than this.
Geez, he should never have stopped. That damn bladder…
Dave looked past where Kimo and Susie were sitting. The two old guys were still engaged in their checker game, but every now and then they glanced over at Kimo and Susie. Even the old lady had taken a break from working on her crossword and was surreptitiously keeping an eye on them. Dave had a thought: Maybe Kimo had some sort of reputation in town, like he was a hoodlum or something. A small time criminal. A drug dealer. Someone not only dangerous with a reputation to boot. Geez…
In the end, for all his pondering, Dave decided that maybe the safest thing to do was to do nothing so that’s what he did. He stayed put, but staying put wasn’t easy. He tried to go back to the newspaper and the asparagus growing young farmers but couldn’t get himself to focus on what the article was talking about. He took a bit out of his long-john but it had lost all of its flavor. He sipped his hot chocolate but it was now cold. God, what had he gotten himself into?
That Lenny character came back and sat down with Kimo and Susie and started in on the chips and cheese sauce. In Dave’s mind, he looked even rougher than Kimo, what with his shaved head and tattooed snake on his neck. In the background, REO Speedwagon started up with ‘Roll With The Changes.’ In the past Dave had really liked that song. Now, though, it was different. Now, he was worried and couldn’t get his mind off of the situation he’d found himself in. In fact, he was so nervous and undone, he barely noticed the music at all.
For his part, Johnny was having a pretty good morning. He had a nice buzz going from the Rocky Mountain Green he’d smoked out back earlier. He felt mellow but in control. There had been a steady flow of cars and trucks at the pumps. At this time of day, most of the station’s customers worked in the cities so it was stop in, pump your gas and get moving. A quick stop, just like the name of the station implied, and Johnny laughed to himself every time he thought about it.
On any given day, the only customers who stopped in for gasoline and actually took the time to come inside the station, were those that wanted to pay with cash (rare) or buy something to drink and get something to munch on. He sold a lot of large coffees and donuts, bags of Doritos and other kinds of chips, too. Those customers usually paid quickly and were on their way. Everyone used a credit card these days so Johnny didn’t even have to make change. Easy, schmeezy.
In addition to the commuters, though, this time of year a lot of customers were guys with their small, independent lawn service companies who were out doing yard work and cleanup: AJ’s Yard Service, West Metro Cleanup, Steve and Joe’s whatever. They’d pull in with their pickups pulling trailers loaded with lawnmowers, leaf blowers, rakes and huge tarps for collecting leaves. They’d come inside and buy coffee and pop and chips and donuts and hostess cupcakes and all other kinds of easy to take with them snacks. Johnny like the yard cleanup guys. They were always friendly and would sometime shoot the breeze with him for a few minutes, taking a break in their day, giving Johnny a break in his.
Around 10:00 am or so, the rush usually slowed down considerably and that’s what was happening today. The only customers in the store were those two old famers Jeff Nelson and Stubby Jorgenson with their checker board, and crazy old Mrs. Shauffhausen with her crossword puzzle. Johnny wasn’t worried about them; they were regulars and could easily spend the entire morning doing whatever it was that they did. They were harmless. Kimo and Lenny and Susie were fine, too; a little messed up with drugs maybe, but, hell, he liked his little toke now and then so who was he to judge? Right now they were just quietly talking amongst themselves and hanging out. They weren’t a problem. It was that business man guy sitting in the eating area with the others that he was suspicious of. The guy with the newspaper. He looked strange. He wore those weird businessman slacks and a white shirt. He was short and pudgy and nearly bald. He looked like he should be on the road selling insurance somewhere, not sitting in a gas station reading a boring local paper, killing time with his hot chocolate, which must be ice cold by now. Johnny glanced at him again, remembering that, yeah, that’s right, he bought a long-john, too. It looks like it’s only half eaten. What’s the deal with that guy, anyway? He’s not from around here, that’s for sure.
Johnny glanced at him again and decided, Ah, what the heck. Live and let live. The businessman guy seemed harmless enough and probably was. To each their own. Johnny shook his head and went back to looking out the window, watching the traffic out on the highway, wondering what was it with some people that they could just wile away the time of day like that businessman was doing, sitting in a small town gas station all morning, doing nothing. Crazy world, that’s what it was. For sure.
Johnny waited on a few more customers who came inside to pay for gas and a few other things. One person also bought a newspaper and milk and another one took advantage of the 3 for $5 Reese’s Peanut Buttercups on special. Then things at the pumps calmed down again and all was quiet.
Around 10:30 am Johnny was munching on his Cool Ranch chips when he noticed a kid about eighteen (Johnny’s age) turn off the highway and speed into the station on a red Kawasaki Crotch Rocket. He watched as the rider by-passed the pumps and zipped up to the front door. He parked his bike, got off, and, instead of coming inside, just stood next to it looking around. What’s this guy want? Johnny wondered to himself. Then he had a thought: Ah, he’s probably wondering if he’s got enough loose change to buy a can of pop or a candy bar of something. It always amazed him how many people actually stopped in and then realized they didn’t have any money and used a credit card to by a cup of coffee and a sweet roll. Maybe this guy was like one of them. Then he realized he should quit staring out the window, eating chips and daydreaming. He should get busy and do something. There was a list of jobs that needed doing that Clive had left next to the cash register. Johnny checked it. Oh, yeah, right at the top of the list was written, ‘Cigarettes.’ That’s right, the cigarettes. He needed to restock them. He set down his chips and got busy.
He had just opened a carton of Marlboro Golds and was putting them up in the overhead cigarette case when the front door opened. Johnny stopped stocking the cigarettes and glanced over his shoulder. The kid on the motorcycle had just come inside and was reaching into the pocket of his jacket as he did so. Johnny didn’t recognize the guy, had never seen him before in his life. He was wearing a dark blue baseball cap pulled on backwards and was medium height and weight. He had a round, moon shaped face and looked younger than Johnny had first estimated, more like he was barely in high school. He had pimples on his face and black jeans, an old blue jean jacket buttoned to his neck and wore neon green Adidas trainers.
Johnny set down the carton to get ready to make eye contact and call out a greeting, but the kid didn’t even look at him. Not at first. Johnny watched as the kid took a quick glance around the store. He seemed to take note of the people in the eating area. He waited a beat and then stepped up to the counter. Johnny was starting to smile and say, “Hi,” when he stopped and said to himself, Shit, this is going to be trouble. Big time.
The kid had just pulled out a gun, a pistol, actually, and had it pointed right at him. Johnny knew fire arms, had grown up with them his whole life, and this one was a .22, of that had no doubt. A small caliber, maybe, but it could still do damage. It could still kill someone. Johnny instinctively moved the carton aside and raised his hands. Damn, this wasn’t good. He figured the kid was going to rob him. A quick image of Clive ran through his brain. Clive would be pissed that this was happening to his store and that wouldn’t be good. Johnny liked Clive a lot. Even though he was Johnny’s boss, he was a fair man. Not to mention his cousin. The last thing Johnny wanted to do was to piss him off and let the station be robbed on his shift. But he had no choice in the matter. That’s exactly what was happening.
“Hands where I can see them,” the kid commanded Johnny, pointing the pistol at his chest and moving it back and forth as if to make the point perfectly clear that he was in charge.
Johnny got it. He put his hands up higher. The bore of the gun looked ten times bigger than it was, but that didn’t matter. He’d do whatever the guy wanted. The last thing he wanted was to get shot and maybe killed over some gas station money. Besides, he remembered once that Clive had told him what to do in just such a situation. He’d said, “Just give them what they want, man. Don’t argue. Do what they say. And, for god’s sake, don’t try to be a hero.”
Well, no problem on that account, Johnny was now thinking. No chance of him either being, or ever becoming, a hero. Besides, he suddenly had the shakes and was doing all he could to keep his teeth from chattering out of his skull.
“Give me all the cash in the till,” the kid ordered. In spite of his young age, his voice was deep and gruff. Hard sounding. Johnny had a quick image run through his brain of some old gangster movie like ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ and them robbing a bank out in the middle of the boondocks somewhere in Kansas. Then he shook the image from his mind, punched open the till and started to take the bills from the tray in the cash drawer. He grabbed a nearby plastic bag like they gave out all the time and put the money in it. The bag had the station’s logo on it and a smiley face. Johnny’s hand was shaking so badly he could barely get the money in. And he wasn’t smiling. Not at all.
While Johnny emptied the till, the kid turned quickly to the tables and told everyone, “Hands up so I can see them. Don’t move. No one. One move and I’ll shoot.”
Dave took one look at the gun and his heart went into overdrive. He thought for sure he was going to pee his pants. Or have a heart attack. Or both. But he did neither. Thankfully, he was able to get control of himself. In fact it all happened so fast, he wasn’t ever entirely sure of the sequence of events, but one thing he was sure of. He did not pee in his pants. Or have a heart attack.
What he did remember was this:
After the gunman told everyone in the eating area to put their hands up, he turned back to Johnny, watching carefully as the money was taken out of the till.
“Just put it the bag, man. Quick,” he barked out.
Johnny did what the kid wanted him to do and hurried.
When the kid was satisfied Johnny was doing as he was told, he turned and kept an eye on Jeff and Stubby and Kimo and Lenny and Susie and Mrs. Shauffhasen and Dave. Then he turned back to Johnny and watched him for a moment before turning back to where Dave and the others sat. He watched them for a moment before turning back to Johnny, nervously shuffling his feet, watching and waving the gun back and forth between Johnny behind the counter and all the people in the seating area and back again. Over and over. The more he did it, the more nerve wracking it became. What if the gun went off? What if someone was shot? Or worse, what if someone was killed?
While all of this was going on, Dave tried to control his breathing. His heart was racing. He tried to will himself to be calm, like he’d heard you were supposed to do in these kinds of situations, but it was hard. Impossible, really. A million scenarios were flashing through his brain, none of them good. What if the guy went nuts all of a sudden? What if he started shooting? What if he took a hostage? What if that hostage was Dave? Oh, god..
He looked outside. Where were more customers when you really needed them? But the gas pumps were empty. No one was around. He could see out to the highway where there was only sporadic traffic. No cars were pulling in. They were all alone. No one was going to save them.
It occurred to Dave right then and there that he might die. This young kid with the gun might freak out and shoot him the chest and he’d end up bleeding to death on the floor of Quik-Stop gas station on this bright, sunny day in the middle of October in a sleepy, little town fifteen miles from the safety of his home and the warm, loving arms of his wife and kids. Oh, god, no, please don’t let that happen. He didn’t want to die. He wasn’t ready for this.
Dave risked a chance and glanced at the gunmen. Oh, shit. It dawned on him that the guy was just a kid and he wasn’t even wearing a mask. Jesus, that wasn’t good, was it? The kid could be identified. Everyone in the station could easily see him, probably remember him and pick him out of a line up, right? Damn, this wasn’t good. The gunman would probably kill them all just so there weren’t any witnesses. Oh, god…
Dave glanced at the farmers. They had their hands in the air, doing as they were told, their faces expressionless (except for the guy with the toothpick. He was really working that little piece of wood, worrying it to death.) The old lady was clearly frightened and looked like she might break down at any moment, but she was trying to be strong. She was conscientiously obeying the gunman’s command and keeping her hands up high where he could see them. They were shaking. Kimo and Lenny had their hands up, but not very high. It was almost as if they were taunting the kid and his gun, like, Come on, I dare you to shoot. Susie’s hands were up, too. Dave could see by her expression that she was scared, and she was definitely following the gunman’s instructions.
When Johnny had the till emptied, he handed the bag of money to the kid, who grabbed it, took one look inside and shook his head, “Not good enough, man. There’s got to be more around here somewhere. Where is it? I want more than this.” He waved his gun some more to make his point.
Dave could see Johnny become visibly frightened, but he admired the young man for keeping his voice calm, “This is all the money we keep in the station. If we need more, we go to the bank,” he motioned behind him, outside somewhere down the street, “Honest.”
Dave believed him. Even in his terrified state, he had to admit that keeping very little cash on hand in the station was a wise policy.
“Shit,” the gunman said, and slammed his fist on the counter, starting to get mad.
In the background, Dave was suddenly conscious of the song playing through the speakers, ‘Bad To The Bone.’ He shuddered as he listened, imaging what horror could possibly happen next.
Johnny ducked, thinking that the robber was going to shoot him for not having any more cash on hand. Dave flinched as well and immediately felt sorry for the young gas station employee. It was Johnny who would feel the wrath of the gunman first if he lost control. He’d be shot, that much was clearly evident, and could even be killed. The gunman seemed more than a little un-hinged. God, what a horrible situation to be in. If Dave was the one behind the counter what would he do? He had no idea, but he was drawn into the drama unfolding at the front of the store. The more he watched, the more he had to admit that Johnny was handling the situation incredibly well. In fact, much better than Dave ever could have if the roles were reversed. That was for sure.
Dave glanced at the other hostages (which is how he was now thinking of the situation as; a hostage situation.) They were all nervously following what was transpiring at the counter. The two farmers and the old lady and Susie were all holding their hands up high in the air, obeying the gunman’s orders. Lenny was still were trying to look bored with the proceedings, but Dave could tell he was nervous, too. The guy’s hands were shaking. Kimo, for his part, just stared at the gunman, giving away nothing, his face non-committal. More than anything, though, he looked mad that this was happening. It occurred to Dave that both Kimo and Lenny had probably done the same thing themselves more than a few times in their careers as petty drug dealers (which is what Dave was pretty sure they were); robbed some poor, unsuspecting slob or slobs. Dave made it a point to keep his hands held high where the kid could see them. The last thing he wanted to do was make him angry or draw attention to himself.
“No more money, eh, buddy? Well, that’s just too bad for you.” The kid angrily waved his gun, motioned to Johnny, “Get over with the others.”
Johnny hurried from behind the counter to the nearest table and sat down. It was the table where Dave was sitting. Johnny glanced at him as he took his seat and nodded a greeting. Dave didn’t know what else to do, so he nodded back. Unexpectedly, just that quick bit of human contact made him feel a little better. A little less nervous. A little less frightened. Only marginally, maybe, but even a little bit better was better than nothing at all. He’d take it.
The gunman barked an order, “Listen up! Everyone, empty your pockets. All of you. Money on the table. Phones, too. Everything.”
With the gunman so close, Dave could smell the guy; rank sweat, mixed with cigarette smoke. Maybe some booze.
Jesus, please get me out of this alive, was what Dave was thinking as he did as he was told and put his cell phone, car keys and wallet on the table next to his sunglasses and newspaper. Johnny pulled out his own wallet, a set of keys, some loose change, a Swiss army knife and some rolling papers, and set them all next to Dave’s stuff. Around the room everyone else was doing the same thing, putting everything they had with them on their table for the gunman to steal.
Dave chanced a glance at Kimo. He’d set out a fat wallet stuffed with bills (Dave could see them sticking out), a couple of phones, a crumpled pack of cigarettes, some pieces of paper (maybe receipts from somewhere?) and his new can of Copenhagen. He noticed he didn’t put out the wad of bills he’d used earlier. Dave thought at the time that it was one of two things: either incredibly brave, or incredibly stupid.
Why he could remember all of this, Dave had no idea, but he did. In fact, it was when he was looking at Kimo’s stuff that what happened next, happened. And that’s what he would never forget.
Dave was imagining that once the kid collected all their possessions, he’d herd them into a back room somewhere. He’d blindfold them, tie them up, make them sit on the cold floor in the dark and hopefully just leave them. Not the best situation, for sure, but that was okay. He could live with it. A least they’d be alive.
But there was also a far more sobering possibility. There was the very real possibility that the gunman would decide to wipe away all chance of him being remembered by the hostages and do the unthinkable. He’d take his gun just shoot. Shoot them all dead. And that would be it. Dave’s life would be over. No more happily ever after with Karen. No more being a father to his kids and watching them grow to adulthood. No more job. No more future. No more anything. Dave Larson would be nothing more than a name on a tombstone in Long Lake’s cemetery, something to be visited by his family every Sunday at first, but then less and less, tapering to every now and then as time went on. If that much.
He felt himself start to panic, and his heart begin to race as adrenaline starting flooding his system. He didn’t want to die. Not now.
Then, suddenly, the back door of the station burst opened and in came a clean cut young man in his middle twenties grinning and waving a box of cigars who called out, “Hey, Johnny, good news! I’m the father of a new baby girl!!” The guy thin and fit looking and wearing a clean, pressed, uniform of gray slacks and gray shirt with a name stitched on it that Dave couldn’t make out. There was a take charge kind of air about him. To Dave’s eyes, he looked like he knew what he was doing and could easily take control of any situation. Given the kid waving the gun around, Dave sure hoped he could, anyway.
Turned out he was mostly right.
Dave watched as the young man with the cigars looked to the cash register area, and, seeing no one there, ran into the station frantically looked around, his eyes finally coming to rest in the eating area. It took only a moment for him to take it all in: all of them, Dave, Kimo, Lenny, Susie, the two checker players, the old lady and Johnny, sitting stone cold silent at their tables with their hands in the air, held captive by the kid with the gun.
The cigar box guy immediately took a step toward them and yelled, “Hey, what the hell…?”
Johnny yelled, “Look out Clive, he’s got a gun.”
The gunman walked slowly toward the young man, motioning with his pistol as he told him, “Hey, buddy. You there with the cigars. Over here.”
At that moment, one other thing happened: With the gunman distracted, Kimo leaped out of his chair and tackled the kid as he walked by. They both fell to the ground, fighting for possession of the gun.
Dave watched, stunned, as they grappled with each other on the floor for what seemed like eternity (but, really, was only a few seconds), and while they did, Johnny jumped in to help. In the heat of the battle, Dave’s first thought was to duck, so he did. Then he saw the old lady doing the same thing, the fear in her eyes unmistaken. Suddenly, something unexpected came over him. Something primal, almost. He realized that he needed to protect her. It was the right thing to do. So he did it. He overcame his fear and ran from his chair and shielded Mrs. Shauffhausen while the two checker playing farmers stood up and were getting ready to assist in whatever way they could.
Clive ran toward Kimo and Johnny to help, but he wasn’t needed. In quick order, Kimo was able to subdue the kid and dislodge the pistol while Johnny held him to the floor. It was all over in less than thirty seconds. With the kid disarmed, Kimo took the pistol and smacked him over the head with it once just for good measure. Then he set the gun on the table next to Susie who cautiously moved away from it. When Clive realized Kimo and Johnny had the situation in hand and they didn’t need him, he took out his phone and called the cops. Then he called his wife.
“I kid you not,” Dave later told the policeman in charge, “It was amazing.”
They were sitting in the eating area an hour later being interviewed by a cop from the Delano Police Station who’d introduced himself as, “Sergeant Becker. I’ll be taking your statements.”
The manager, Clive, had called the cops within a minute after Kimo (with Johnny’s help) had taken down the gunman. Three squads had shown up within five minutes, sirens blaring. It had been quite chaotic for a while, with the cops trying to establish just what exactly had happened, Clive trying to figure out who was who in the store, and the rest of the hostages trying to come to grips with the fact that they weren’t going to get killed, but would, in fact, live to not only see another day, but to tell the tale as well. All things considered, it was a very hectic next hour or so.
The cops had everyone make themselves comfortable in the snack area as Sergeant Becker commandeered one of the tables to conduct his interviews. Dave ended up sitting with Jeff and Stubby and Mrs. Shauffhausen. Maybe it was because everyone was jazzed up from the hostage crisis and the adrenaline was really flowing, because everyone was quite talkative and they were all in really good moods. In fact, they’d all had quite a nice conversation amongst themselves. Dave found out that Jeff and Stubby had been friends all their lives and had each made quite a bit of money from the sale of their respective farms in the early 2000’s.They lived near each other in town and vacationed together with their wives in Lake Havasu City, Arizona, every winter. Mrs. Shauffhausen had taught second grade at the local grade school for over thirty years before retiring in 1998. She was, as she told Dave, ‘Still getting over the loss of poor Howard,’ her husband of nearly fifty-one years who had died from cancer in 2015. And all three of them had been interested to hear about the work Dave did in, as they called it, The Cities.
“I can’t believe you invent thermostats,” is what Stubby had said at one point.
“Well, I don’t really invent them,” Dave tried to clarify, “I just help design them.”
“What’s the difference?” Jeff had asked.
He finally realized, after a trying to explain for a while, that no one really carried about the nuances of thermostat design (like Dave did), so he was happy to play along and just have a nice conversation instead. All in all, it was fun getting to know each of them.
After calling the station’s owner (who lived in New Jersey), Clive spent most of the time on the phone with his wife, which Dave, being a family man himself, admired him for.
While he was occupied with family matters, Clive put Johnny in charge of ‘The Customers’ as he called all of them, and Dave was amazed at how conscientious the young employee had been. He’d brought everyone (even the cops) donuts and long-johns and coffee and pop and, because everyone was suddenly thirsty and ravenous, they’d all dug in with gusto that was a sight to behold. In short, He tried to make things as comfortable as he could for the former hostages and he did a pretty good job of it, too, if Dave did say so himself. Johnny only excused himself once or twice to go out back for a few minutes, but he always came right back.
Once Dave realized he wasn’t going to die in a flurry of bullets fired by a crazed gunman, he relaxed considerably. In fact, truth be told, he sort of started to feel pretty good about himself. Even though he wasn’t really a hero like Kimo (and Johnny), at least he’d held his ground and hadn’t tried to run away. That counted for something. And he’d done something else: He’d done what he felt was expected of him and that was to try and protect an innocent bystander, in this case Mrs. Shauffhausen, not even once stopping to consider that he himself was an innocent bystander as well.
Everyone felt the same way about Dave’s action.
Clive called what he did, “Heroic, man. What you did was flat out heroic.”
The farmers both shook his hand and Stubby said, “You did a good thing there, young fella.”
Johnny added, “Nice job, there, Mr. Businessman.”
Even Kimo took a moment and told him, “It’s never a bad thing to watch out for old ladies.” He then paused for a moment, thinking, before adding, “Or kids, either, for that matter, man. Kids are also good to protect.”
Dave just grinned and felt sheepish, but, truth be told, it felt good to be acknowledged in a positive way by the group.
Waiting to be interviewed they’d all sat around talking, rehashing the event, occasionally standing up and walking around to burn off nervous energy. In retrospect, as far as Dave was concerned, talking to everyone (mainly Jeff and Stubby and Mrs. Shauffhausen) was not only fun but interesting. They weren’t the type of people he normally associated with, but he enjoyed getting to know them, nevertheless.
He even talked to Kimo and Susie. (Not so much Lenny, he was pretty quiet.) But Kimo was a talker, that was for sure. Dave figured he was wound up from jumping the gunman and saving the day, but whatever the case, it turned out he was an all right guy, even if he did look and act like a drug dealer (which Dave still assumed he still was, saving the day or not.) It turned out that Kimo not only worked in a body shop in Maple Plain, the next town to the west, but he also played rhythm guitar and sang back-up in a cover band called ‘Ramblin’ Men,’ a five piece group that specialized in music from the ’80’s. Ironic; that was the term that came to Dave’s mind when he found out about Kimo’s cover band, given it was classis rock music that had lit the fire that got Dave on the road to Delano in the first place. Anyway, he had a pretty good time talking to Kimo. Drug dealer or not, he wasn’t a bad guy.
Susie was nice, nicer than she looked, anyway, which was a little sleazy when Dave thought about it, especially compared to his daughter, Jessie. One thing she was though, and that was quiet. She tended to listen more than anything, especially around people she didn’t know, which was most of them. She did, however, spend a lot of time talking to Clive.
“She’s Clive’s sister in law,” Kimo told him at one point, biting into a hot dog, which by Dave’s estimation was at least his fourth of the day. Clive had finally told everyone they could eat whatever they wanted, and Kimo apparently had a thing for the stations hotdogs. After he told Dave about Susie being related to Clive by marriage, Kimo was quiet for a moment, chewing contemplatively, before adding, “I guess she’s an aunt now to Clive and Carrie’s kid.” Kimo smiled before asking, “I wonder how’s she’ going to like that gig?”
Dave had no idea what Kimo was talking about, but responded with the first thing that came into his mind, a non-committal, “Really,” a comment which made no sense to him, but was a term he’d picked up in the last hour or so from overhearing conversations among the younger people.
But Kimo seemed to take some meaning from it because he turned to Dave, nodding sagely, and told him, “Yeah, really.”
When Sergeant Becker got around to talking to Dave, the conversation didn’t last too long.
“I just want to follow up on what you told me earlier.” He and Dave were situated at the interview table, both sipping cups of coffee supplied by Johnny, “You say you’re from Long Lake?”
“Yes,” Dave said, pointing out the window, “Just east of here fifteen miles or so.”
The sergeant nodded and made a note in his notebook. “Yeah, I know where it is.” Then he asked, “So what were you doing out here in this neck of the woods?”
The way he asked it made Dave wonder if there was maybe more to the policeman’s question than met the eye. Then he had a sudden start. Wait a minute. Was there? Was he guilty of anything? Dave paused for a moment and thought about the sergeant’s question, picturing his wife Karen, his kids Tim and Jessie, and his job in the cities. He was just a regular guy who’d kept his nose clean his entire life. He’d never had so much as a parking ticket. So, no, he had absolutely nothing to hide. He wasn’t guilty of anything. Not unless you counted skipping work and hitting the road and listening to classic rock music a crime. And Dave was pretty sure it wasn’t.
“It was a nice day. I was just out for a drive, officer,” is what Dave finally said, politely, “Nothing more.” Why should he have to explain himself?
“And you stopped in here because…?”
Oh. Well, there was that.
Dave shifted in his chair, averted his eyes and said in a voice so low it was almost a whisper, “I had to use the restroom.”
“What’s that? I didn’t quite hear you,” Sergeant Becker asked, leaning forward. He was a big man, at least six-two. He had a muscular build, short hair, a trim moustache and had an air of confidence that made you respect him. And pay attention to him. Dave felt himself start to perspire.
Kimo, who had been listening in at the next table, leaned over and said, his voice louder than necessary in Dave’s estimation, “You heard the man, officer. He had to pee. He had to take a wicked whizz. He had to…”
Sergeant Becker held up a hand to shut Kimo up. “I got it.”
Dave felt himself flush as he looked at the policeman before stating clearly, “I had to go to the bathroom.”
The policeman nodded again, smiled, made a note and then closed his notebook. “Okay, then. I think that’ll do it.”
And that was that.
By the time the police were wrapping up their investigation it was nearly 2:30 in the afternoon. Crime scene tape had been removed and the station was open for business. Clive had been relieved by Jack Franklin, the manager from 2:30 pm to 10:30 pm shift, who was talking to Ben Stiles who was relieving Johnny. The police were ready to leave and there was nothing more required of any of the former hostages. “Thank you all for your time,” Sergeant Becker told everyone on his way out the door, “You’re all free to go.”
But no one was in a hurry to leave. It was like they were all bonded by the ordeal they gone through. They’d all survived. They shared something that never had happened to any of them before and (hopefully) would never happen again.
Dave chatted some more with Jeff and Stubby and Mrs. Shauffhausen, while Kimo and Lenny and Susie talked with Clive and Johnny. Finally Clive checked his watch and said, “Holy shit, I’ve got to split.” He needed to get back to Carrie at the hospital, but before he left he took out his phone and showed everyone photos of his new daughter, who he said was going be called Shane. He took down everyone’s phone number to text them. “I’m going to invite you all out to our place in a month or so. Carrie and I are going to have a big party to celebrate the birth of our new daughter,” he told them. Everyone told him they’d be there. Even Dave (just to be polite, he told himself, but then again, you never knew.) Then Clive shook everyone’s hand and left.
Dave felt he should get going, too. It was about 2:45 pm. He said his good-byes to everyone: Mrs. Shauffhausen, Jeff and Stubby and Johnny, Kimo and Lenny and Susie, and made his way to the front door. Before he left, though, he turned, looked back into the station and thought, What an amazing experience I’ve just had. Something Sergeant Becker said came back to him. “You know, Mr. Larson, you’re lucky you weren’t killed, don’t you? That guy with the gun could have easily lost control and started shooting. He could have killed everyone. It could have been a real tragedy.” Then the sergeant had paused to let his words sink in (as if he needed to), before adding, “Thank god it had a relatively happy ending.”
Dave heard later that the motorcycle kid was a speed freak who could, indeed, easily have lost control and shot everyone, just like Sergeant Becker had suggested. To this day Dave still shutters when he thinks about it.
For now, though, on this sunny afternoon in Delano, Dave had one primary thought: Thank god it was a happy ending. And it did have a happy ending, but the bigger question was this: When he got home, would he tell his story to Karen and the kids or not? Would he tell them about the gunman and the hostage situation and how Kimo and Johnny saved the day? Would he tell them about Clive and his baby daughter? Would he tell them about the farmers, Jeff and Stubby, and would he tell them about Mrs. Shauffhausen? Would he tell them about the small role he played in the happy ending? Good questions. Very good questions. He wasn’t sure what he was going to do. What he was sure of, though, was that he had a lot to think about.
Throughout the aftermath of the robbery, for the rest of that morning and into the afternoon, a couple of news crews from the cities had appeared and set up camp in the parking lot of the Delano Quik-Stop. They’d gotten their cameras rolling and interviewed everyone. Dave was pretty sure the events that played out today in the little town would be on the evening news in the cities. Maybe. Sergeant Becker told him there was a fifty-fifty chance. Apparently there was something to do with the governor going on at the capital in St. Paul that might be the lead story. At any rate, Dave and Karen didn’t watch the evening news all that much because they were usually busy with the kids or getting dinner ready or attending to some other pressing family matter. In fact, there was a very good chance Karen might not see the story. But if it did make the news, some of their friends might see it. In fact, the more he thought about it, the more Dave was sure that eventually someone would see his face on the television and wonder, at some point, what in the world was Dave Larson doing out there in Delano on a Wednesday morning?
So in the end, he wasn’t sure what he was going to do. But he did know this: He felt energized by the entire experience. And he felt good, really good; more alive than he’d felt in a long time.
Dave said a final, silent good-bye and stepped outside. The day felt clean and fresh. There was a faint aroma of burning leaves in the air. He took a minute to take a deep breath before slowly letting it out. He turned his face into the bright October sunlight and let the sun’s bright rays warm his face. He felt in some small way like he was a changed man. It felt good to be alive. He’d skipped a day of work, went to a small town and got involved in a robbery and hostage situation (not to mention a potential shootout) and survived. He’d met and talked with people he never would have considered talking to before and found out they were all nice, decent folks (even Kimo.) Heck, he’d even been invited to Clive’s for a party. In short, he’d never had a day like he’d just had in his entire life. Not even close. He knew he’d always remember the experience. It had been unforgettable.
He checked his watch. It was 2:52 pm. He got in his little Fiesta, started it up, put it in gear and headed out to the highway. He didn’t have to think twice about where he was going. He took a right and headed east to Long Lake. He was going home. He’d be back at work tomorrow, that much was for certain. He’d be back with his family, too, in a little while, right where he belonged. He couldn’t wait. He also made a snap decision: I’ll think I’ll tell my family my story, is what he decided. What have I got to lose?
But today wasn’t over with yet. Dave slipped on his new sunglasses and turned on the radio. Instead of classical music, he kept it tuned to the classic rock station. No more stings and symphonies and concertos and sonatas for him. At least not for a while. For now, he’d stick with drums and bass and electric guitars.
As he accelerated away from Delano, he rolled down the window and let the wind blow through what little hair he had on his head. He was in a great mood. The next song that came on was by Queen. He recognized ‘We Are The Champions.’ He turned up the volume and started singing along and as he tapped his fingers lightly on the steering wheel. After the first verse, he started singing louder and kept the car pointed down the highway toward home, more than happy to let the music carry him there. More than happy to make the most of this unexpected day and to rock out, while he still had the chance, just a little while longer.