Fiction by Matthew Fiander
The mask’s thick cloth deadens the bell’s clanging as I walk through the Speedy Mart door. REGGIE is behind the counter, a tag on his chest announcing, as always, his name in block letters. He is startled but quietly, just a faint lifting of a brow like What’s this? He isn’t worried yet, doesn’t know it’s me under the mask. As I yell Hands! I taste the moisture from my breath on the mask. It is musty, comforting. I might not want to steal, even from Reggie, the smug son of a bitch, but here I am. Rent is due on my family’s apartment, and yes I say family even though it’s just me and Mom. But maybe rent due is misleading. More like two weeks late, delinquent according to the note our landlord slid under the door. I’m 18, done with school, and the few landscaping gigs Brent hooks me up with aren’t putting any meat on the bone. So here I am, alone. The gun, Brent’s, is no company. It’s cold in my hand and my hand is at the end of my arm and my arm is raised and my hand is pointing the gun at Reggie. I’m alone in the empty buzzing yellow-light store, the hollow metal of the gun dead and weightless, Reggie’s look, more the absence of a look, slicing through this broken man in front of him, through my mask and shaking hand. Another way Reggie thinks he’s special but isn’t: he’s not the only one cutting pieces off me. The world’s been hacking chunks away for a long stretch.
The bank, for one, ’cause that’s what it does. I remember being twelve, sitting in a bank lobby while Mom met with the manager in a glass-walled office. This is when we lost the house. I sat on the carpet and played with this toy I was too old for. I pushed snaking rows of colored blocks across green or red or blue wires. It’s was a way to ignore the basket of lollipops the tellers wouldn’t offer to me, to forget the clean smell — no, antiseptic, that’s the word — the antiseptic smell of that place. Then I heard a yell that rattled the glass in the manager’s office door and my mother walked out, grabbed my arm, and pulled me up and out of the bank. Acceleration, she said. Then Lis Pendens, Lis Goddamn Pendens again and again under her breath as we crossed the parking lot. In the car, before she started the engine she said, Lewis, you got to learn the words, you got that? Any words you can. Don’t let anyone sneak up on you with some word you don’t know. You got me? I said I did. I can still smell the burnt oil interior of mom’s car, woven like another fabric over my face.
Even before that, Dad had a knack for slicing off quick little bits, just here and there so you didn’t notice he’d done it till you were half bleeding out. The last cut, the biggest, Sarasota. Told us he was going there for work. Better opportunity, he said. No, didn’t say. Scribbled on a cocktail napkin, that ragged piece of processed pulp he left on the kitchen counter. The letters edged with drink, the words like me and Mom were the work, like we were the worse opportunity. Sarasota like a hissing laugh in our face.
Dad handed Reggie the blade once, even if he didn’t know it. Dad gave me these gold coins on my 11th birthday. Four of them, bigger than quarters, with an Indian girl on front. I kept them for five years before I brought them to Reggie’s store, because we needed milk and those coins were all I have. You kidding me? he said when I set the coins on the counter. Didn’t know these were still in circulation. Not sure I can take ’em. People crowded behind me in line, and I didn’t want some big deal, which was why I spoke to the low-set shelves of gum fronting Reggie’s counter, What do you got against Pocahontas? because that’s what people do when things get tense, they make jokes. Reggie stone-cold stared at me and said, Sacajawea, kid. That’s Sacajawea. Then he looked over his glasses to some tall guy in line and shrugged like, don’t kids know anything? He gave me the milk but made me wait till he rang up the other customers. To see if he could make the change, he said.
Reggie could cut all on his own, though. Surgical, when he wanted. Like a few weeks back when I came in, happy Brent hit me up with a day of work. I snagged a Pepsi and mini-donuts, Brent grabbed a Mountain Dew and Skoal. At the counter, Brent did his usual thing he does when we stop for snacks where he says Rock-Paper-Scissors for it, and we both know he will let me win, that he’ll pay. Brent is a good dude like that. So Brent pulled his Rock-paper-scissors move and before I could throw paper because Brent always pulls rock, Reggie clears his throat and says, Rochambeau. Brent squints at him. The hell is that? Reggie rolls his eyes. The game you are about to play is Rochambeau. Children call it Rock-Paper-Scissors.
Then, Reggie leaned over his counter. “Here,” he said to me, “let me help you out.”
He took hold my laid-flat, paper hand and turned it over so it was palm up.
“There you go,” he said. “That’s how you take a handout.”
I watched the smile crack open and spread across his face, his teeth revealing themselves one by one, like the mouth of a shark, then their spit-slick shine more like a bugs eye, which is really a thousand eyes – compound is the term – all staring down the same old pile of dogshit.
Brent threw his money down, said let’s go, shrugged it off. But I didn’t, not any of it.
Maybe I should be for what I’m about to do, for stealing from Reggie, but hacked-up me can’t shake how high and mighty this dude is, especially for a convenience store manager and where did his vocabulary ever get him anyway? I yell Hands! one more time and Higher! and then Open the register! Reggie doesn’t blink when he says, Well which is it? He must see it then, the look I shoot him like can’t I just catch a break? Can someone in this spinning fucking world not break my balls? As much as the mask hides he must see my eyes go soft, lost. He doesn’t know my name, so he can’t say Lewis so instead he says You, and that word carves out some silence around it. My arm wavers a little as we both stand there. Reggie’s arms are half raised, all non-chalant, hip kind of cocked to one side. He frowns at the gun in my hand like it’s a promise I won’t keep. The sight of him, the stance, the smug geography of his creased face, it is all so infuriatingly, to-the-bone, fucking REGGIE. I want to tell him he’s not so special, that I stood there for twenty minutes in the bank entrance, the glassed-off space with the cash machine in it. Gun tucked in my pants, mask squeezed in my fist, I watched the people snake through roped-off lines, smelled that antiseptic smell, until I talked myself out of it. A soft target, that’s what I needed. That’ what Reggie is to me. And maybe this is more than rent, maybe someone else needs to lose a chunk or two. Rochambeau, I say to myself, squeezing the gun in my hand. Rock beats scissors.
Except then I see his right hand, a movement so slight, nearly hidden. He’s scratching at the chapped bridge between thumb and index finger, the nail working the skin over in a nervous tick. The brightly colored display of lollipops on the countertop reminds me of blocks on a wire and I think maybe Reggie will give me one. Maybe we can just talk. I can tell him the gun has no bullets and Dad worked and then didn’t work and then bailed for Sarasota and the hospital cut Mom’s cafeteria shifts in half and he can tell me he can drop his all-encompassing Reggieness and say he understands it can be hard out there. We can mention the new downtown lofts in the old tobacco buildings, populated with doctors who won’t look Mom in the eye when she serves them breakfast, who won’t darken Reggie’s door because they got their own ground-floor shops and restaurants, who don’t have lawns to landscape, who can’t spread the money around a bit. I can shake my head and Reggie can shake his and we can pass words back and forth and be still for a minute on this impossible, revolving rock. The world, I mean.
But then Reggie scowls and says, “Take off that stupid ski mask, you piece of trash” and I think of the army-navy store I bought this thing at, the few dollars I spent on it — an investment, I told myself — and the exotic bold-lettered word on the mask’s tag and I crack a smile Reggie can’t see. I taste my own breath in the mask’s fibers again as I raise the gun. I see his arms falling, the scratching tick passed, his hands going under the counter, notice the long handle of something he is pulling off a hook down there. I say the word before I swing the butt of the gun at Reggie’s all-knowing face. “Balaclava,” I tell him. “It’s a balaclava.” I swing again and feel bones break, watch his glasses fall. Those gleaming teeth break like any teeth break. Blood runs from a gash in his gin-blossomed cheek. Flashes of fear and pain glint in his eyes, but they also drift downward, to his hands and what they hold, to a barrel nearly clear of the counter, about to be aimed.
I can’t help that now. I bring my gun’s heavy metal down on Reggie again and again. He’s leaning back for the shotgun to clear the counter’s lip and I’m leaning forward swinging one, two, three more times. His grip wavers but hasn’t broken yet and I’m not sure I care. I taste the sweet, exotic word on the fabric across my mouth. I hiss it at Reggie — Balaclava — as he leans away and I fold forward over the counter and the guns and blood and broken bone bring us to an understanding.
2 responses to “Balaclava”
That was a good read, Matthew!
Lovely, propulsive, memory set up by the “cutting pieces” metaphor and woven into the suspended robbery moment. Thank you.