When Robbie first saw Lionel enter the store he didn’t think much of him. He barely looked up from counting the till at the Lotto machine. Just another neighborhood guy, black, forties, dressed well enough. If he wasn’t so stoned he might’ve paid closer attention and put the cash in the drawer and closed it sooner. But when the bell announced Lionel’s entrance to the seedy little mini-mart, he only glanced up briefly before focusing back on counting and straightening the bills. Ghassan was there closer to the door at the register sipping his coffee and reading the paper in the light of the grey Syracuse afternoon.
He’d started his shift the same as always, in the cooler with Hector, smoking a joint and doing a couple lines. Now he was counting the till for the Lotto machine. Later he’d probably deliver a few kegs to some college kids since it was Friday. At that moment his task was counting all that cash. The bills were all facing different directions, some were folded. He liked counting and straightening the bills. It was meditative and soothing. Kept his mind off the news that Susan was pregnant. Jesus Christ.
He had a stack of tens in his hands when he noticed Lionel again. He’d come to the end of the counter, then suddenly walked right around it, where a customer had no business, right up next to him. The guy leaned up against the counter, fairly close to Robbie. A bit too close. A toothpick hung from his cocky grin.
Robbie put the cash back in the drawer, but before he could completely close it, Lionel spoke up.
“That’s a lot of cash you got there.”
“How much you figure?”
What the fuck. Who is this guy? This is all he fucking needs right now. He began to look over to Ghassan, but before he could, Lionel stepped right in against him and jabbed him in the back with what felt for all the world like a gun.
“Don’t look at him.” The man was close enough to whisper. He smelled of cigarettes and Brut cologne. “I axed you how much money is in that drawer.”
Robbie let out a belabored sigh, “I haven’t finished counting it yet.” Son of a bitch. He’d never had a gun pointed at him before. He kept his eyes down. This guy’s holding him up. Does Ghassan even see what’s happening?
“Open that drawer and give it all to me. And don’t look at your man over there or I will shoot you.” Lionel emphasized that with a jab in the back. “Just open the drawer and give me the cash.”
Robbie let out another heavy sigh and opened the drawer. His heart thumped and his vision narrowed. He suddenly remembered when he was sixteen and was racing his car down a dirt road with his girlfriend next to him and it all started to slide out of control. There was a big oak tree coming at him and he knew he was going to hit it. As that tree came at him this strange sense of peace filled him. Maybe it was adrenaline. He remembered hearing and feeling the thump of his heart high in his chest as he saw what was happening, as he was drawn into exactly what he knew was about to happen, and simply witnessed it, being pulled into that oak tree’s massive, solid trunk. There was something almost satisfying about the impact. The finality. This felt like that.
He slowly gathered the cash from each slot in the drawer and shifted his eyes left toward this guy. The guy’s left hand was on the counter, his right hand with the gun in his back, their bodies just touching. When he had the cash out of the drawer, he held it up in his left hand and offered it, and glanced over toward Ghassan reflexively. Ghassan must see what’s happening.
“Don’t fucking look at him or I will fucking kill you.” Lionel took the cash with his left hand and jabbed him in the back again. His voice was calm. “Under the tray. Give me the bills under the tray. Do it or I’ll fucking kill you. Do it.”
Fuck this guy. If he’s going to do something he has to do it while this guy’s close. What the fuck is Ghassan doing?
Lionel leaned in closer and slowly whispered, “Do you think I’m fucking joking? Lift the fucking tray and give me the fucking money under it or I will fucking shoot you. And don’t look over to your man over there again. Just give me the fucking cash.”
This is it, when he’s nice and close and a touch off balance, the smug fucking bitch, he thought. With a quick spin to his left Robbie grabbed Lionel’s gun hand at the wrist, stepped his right foot behind both of Lionel’s legs, and took the guy’s throat with his right hand. He squeezed the windpipe shut, driving the guy back and down into the shelving behind the counter knocking a shelf and a number of pegs loose, spilling mainly condoms on the floor. He squeezed the man’s throat and twisted. Cash scattered as Lionel tried feebly to reach his throat and save himself but momentum was not on his side. His eyes bulged and he managed some gurgling noises as he fell backward.
“You fucking bitch!” Robbie yelled at Lionel, destroying the man’s windpipe as he drove his head back and down into the shelving and then the floor, thumping it repeatedly until the gurgling stopped and this guy’s dead gaze stared up past the fluorescent lights above. “You stupid fucking bitch. Fuck you!”
Once he realized the man was finished and dead he stopped, stepped back and bumped into Ghassan right behind him. Lionel lay dead, sprawled on the floor. Cash and condom packages scattered about. He felt Ghassan’s hand on his shoulder.
“Son of a bitch, Robbie.”
Robbie was panting through his open mouth, his hands held out open in front of him. He was tall and lanky, with long brown hair loosely held in a ponytail. He wore a multicolor tye dyed t-shirt with “Grateful Dead” emblazoned across the chest under a faded brown western-cut leather jacket, blue jeans, and old brown cowboy boots. He stood there, frozen with his large veiny hands out in front of him, dazed, rigid. “What the fuck?” He turned to Ghassan, whose hand rested on his shoulder, then back to the body sprawled awkwardly on the floor.
Ghassan stepped over the body and rounded the counter, walking toward the store entrance. Ghassan was Lebanese. He had thick dark hair and eyebrows full of expression above deep-set, dark eyes, a tan complexion, sharp and chiseled facial features worthy of a movie actor. He wore a colorfully printed polyester sweater and pleated brown slacks above small pointed leather shoes. He perpetually looked like he hadn’t slept in days, and his movements were always slow and deliberate. Despite his lethargic appearance he was quick-witted and thoughtful. He fished a set of keys from his pocket and locked the doors, then turned and walked back the way he had gone, stepped over the body, and continued back to the cash register where he picked up the small cup of thick coffee he had been drinking and calmly finished it while staring at the body laying awkwardly on the floor. He looked up at Robbie. Ghassan took a few steps toward Robbie and quickly reached up with one hand and took Robbie’s face firmly and held it tightly, purposefully looking into Robbie’s bloodshot, green eyes.
“You’re high.” He let go of Robbie’s face and crossed his arms in front of his chest, he sighed and shook his head. “This is unfortunate, Robbie.”
Robbie threw his hands up in the air. “What the fuck man?”
“Lionel,” Ghassan said. He pronounced it LY-nell, his Lebanese accent was thick. “The clown. The fucking clown,” he said, shaking his head.
Robbie rubbed his eyes and shook his arms and hands loose. He looked down at his wrist, he was bleeding a bit where this guy must have scratched him trying to save himself.
“You know this guy?” Robbie asked. They both stood there in silence a moment.
“Mmm-hmm. Unfortunately. Get Hector.” He rubbed his chin and looked at the body.
Robbie shook his head, still in disbelief at what had just happened. He looked at Ghassan, who motioned with his head toward the cooler. Robbie walked back to the beer cooler, opened it and said, “Hey Hector, come up front,” then took a Molson Canadian from the shelf, opened it and took a long pull as he walked back to the front of the store.
“So, why is this guy you know robbing us?”
Ghassan raised his eyebrows and looked up at Robbie and shook his head, “He wasn’t robbing us.” Ghassan shook his head as he looked at the body. “This is an unfortunate mistake is all.”
Robbie took another long pull from the beer, nearly finishing it. “A mistake,” he repeated, and rolled his head to loosen up his neck. “Uh, I’m pretty sure he was robbing us. Didn’t you see what was going on?”
Ghassan stared at Robbie a moment. “I see everything over here, my friend.” He let out a blast of air like a small lament. “I can’t have fucking mistakes like this.”
Hector arrived, he wore jeans and a blue and gold tracksuit jacket in the colors of the Mexican soccer team el Tigres. He was a solidly built man, with a large block of a head above very wide shoulders, with dark short cropped hair and beard. He gave the appearance of being almost square, as he was very broad while not so tall, only about five-foot-eight. Robbie had many times described his hands as like catcher’s mitts. His eyes were small and red. He had only just gotten stoned and done a couple lines with Robbie a few minutes earlier. Hector came to the end of the counter where Robbie and Ghassan stood. When he saw the body his eyes widened and his eyebrows arched.
“Hector,” Ghassan said, “take Lionel to the cooler please.”
“Lionel?” Hector repeated.
Ghassan nodded to the body on the floor and frowned. “Take him please.”
Hector looked back and forth between Ghassan and Robbie, then wiped his nose and pushed his sleeves up. He took Lionel by the legs and dragged him back to the cooler. Some of the condoms and cash fell off the body. Robbie stooped down to gather up the cash from the floor and took in the mess of condoms and items that had fallen in the struggle, the shelves that had come loose. Then he noticed something missing. He quickly scanned the area, his head on a swivel. He stood and spun around, searching.
“Where’s his fucking gun?” Robbie asked aloud.
Robbie’s mouth hung open and he looked at Ghassan completely puzzled.
“Probably would shoot himself if he had a gun,” Ghassan replied. Then he sighed and walked back to the long-handled pot of thick coffee that sat on the hotplate behind the register and poured himself another cup.
“What are we doing here?” Robbie asked. “What is going on?” He raised his voice, “Ghassan, who the fuck is this Lionel?”
Just then an old black man tried the doors to the store, and found them locked. He peered in with his face up to the glass, just a dark silhouette against the afternoon light. He saw Ghassan and Robbie and shook the doors. “Hey!” he yelled, and put his hands up over his eyes looking in. He shook the door again.
Ghassan stepped over to Robbie, very close and in a low voice said, “This is not your fault, Robbie. Is unfortunate, but is not your fault. You protected yourself. I appreciate that. Lionel was fucking with you, the idiot. Maybe if you weren’t fucking high…”
“What the fuck does that mean?” Robbie asked
“Hey man, open up!” yelled the old man through the doors.
“This fucking clown,” said Ghassan, “Been many years. But I know him. Unexpected, him being here, this,” Ghassan waved his arm around toward where the incident had taken place behind the lotto machine, and he chuckled, “this is all very unexpected.”
“Hey, Ghassan! Hey, open up man!” the old man outside continued to shake the doors and yell.
“What the hell should I do?” Robbie asked, running his hands through his long hair and pulling it into a ponytail.
“I got to play my numbers,” yelled the old man through the doors.
“Fuck. Do nothing. Don’t worry,” Ghassan put his hand on Robbie’s shoulder. “Always good to protect yourself.” He raised his eyebrows and shook his head. “This didn’t happen. Say nothing, do nothing.” He turns and looks out at the old man who waves a small notebook back at him. “You’ll be okay, Robbie.”
“Okay, I guess.” Robbie said.
“Good,” he patted Robbie’s shoulder and walked to the door, pulled out his keys and unlocked it, and opened it for the old man, who shuffled into the store. He had a black knit winter hat on top of his head, high and lopsided, and wore a bulky dark winter coat, work pants and boots which all seemed oversized to his frame.
“I thought maybe you were closed!” the old man said. “I said I thought you were closed, but shit, you shouldn’t be closed. What in hell’s going on? Some of us got to play our numbers! Ha!” He headed straight to the lotto machine, shuffling and bent over crooked, chuckling and mumbling to himself. He set his little notebook down on the counter and took a pair of reading glasses out of his coat pocket and set them down low on the end of his stub of a nose. He looked over the tops of the glasses at the mess on the ground, the overturned shelves, the cash Robbie was just now picking up, and the condoms scattered around. “Some kind of mess you got here,” he said.
Ghassan was now behind the register sipping his coffee, he folded his newspaper and watched Robbie with the customer. Robbie was sorting out the cash and putting it all away, looking visibly frustrated and stressed.
“What’d you have, an earthquake in here boy? Ha. Boy, you all right?” the old man asked.
“I’m just trying to get ready for you, man.”
“All right, all right. That’s just some mess there.” He looked to his notebook and flipped a couple pages before finding what he needed. “All right, I got some winners here today boy. Came to me in a dream, this first set.”
“Robbie,” Ghassan said and stepped over to him and the old man, “Robbie, why don’t you take a break, get some air. I’ll help our friend with the lotto.”
“Oh no, no, no!” the old man vigorously shook his head and slapped the counter. “Ghassan, man, we’ve already started here. This is my man! You can’t let me start with my man then take him away! We’ve started this thing!”
Ghassan smiled. Robbie nodded. “Okay, okay, Mr. Lotto,” Ghassan said. You can keep Robbie.”
“Okay now, that’s right. Yes sir.” He looked back through his reading glasses at the little notebook. “Okay, the three way now, boy. Pay attention. I dreamt about these numbers in this set. This is my day, I’m telling you.”
Robbie listened and punched in three-digit numbers as the old man read them off his list. Another customer came in. Robbie did his job, but paid no attention. He again noticed the scratches on the back of his wrist and he felt the sensation of the man Ghassan called Lionel grabbing at him, trying to stop Robbie from choking him. He couldn’t understand what happened. Who this Lionel was or why he had tried holding him up. It made no sense.