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Kraig Pickel

My old man used to tell me about personal tests. If you don’t test yourself, you’ll never know what you are capable of. He used to say things like that. He used to give me all of my most memorable lessons after his late nights out at the bar, talking to me between long pauses, and deliberate speech. When his eyes closed the whole way and his head fell back off its swivel, I would stay up for a while to make sure he didn’t get sick and then pull the crocheted blanket off the back of the couch and cover him up. Mom never came out of her room when the old man was like that, I think maybe she was afraid of him drunk. But drunk was the only time he acted like a parent to me. The sober old man was the real monster.

 

The day I graduated high school, I enlisted in the Marines. I’m not sure if it was to make my old man proud or to show him up. He was a Navy man that never made it real far up the ranks. It was common for those old Vietnam-era sailors to have a record of getting busted at Captain’s Mast for drugs and alcohol, but not the military of my day. I got a DUI at the end of my first enlistment, and that was the end of my Marine Corps career. I wasn’t going to be allowed to re-enlist, so I didn’t even try. I just moved back to Pennsylvania and melted right back into my old world, easy as can be.    

 

I really did find my comfort at the local watering holes, like the Hill Top Inn, away from my dusty apartment. On a tall stool, forearms resting against a polished wood molding, I felt at home, like I belonged. The Hill Top is a long corridor with a bar top that runs from the entrance to the back wall where a single door opens up to a closet-sized head. It’s one of those unisex bathrooms, a once-white porcelain toilet, and a sink bolted to the opposite wall. The door doesn’t lock, so I always put my boot against the doorframe. It’s so small in there that if someone opens the door you get knocked in the shoulder and piss all over the floor. There’s no mirror above the sink, just some screw holes in the plaster wall where one may have been mounted long ago.

 

The Inn is dark inside and a loose haze perpetually hangs like a storm cloud across the ceiling, remnants from a commercial smoke eater that quit working years ago. It’s got a jukebox filled with hard rock songs from mid-nineties bands that no one follows anymore. Inside the bar, every vertical surface is covered with stickers and signs, customer napkin art, and autographed dollar bills. The only thing clean and clear on the walls is a long mirror behind the bar, behind the tiered liquor shelf, a reflective surface where you can watch yourself sink lower throughout the evening and melt across the bar top.

 

I like the name, too. Reminds me of my military past without having to run down the list of, “What unit were you with? Where were you stationed?” Hill was the name of the nastiest drill instructor that ever walked the parade deck of Parris Island. He was my worst nightmare, an evil, foul-mouthed SOB, but I get it now. If I didn’t get tested like I did in boot camp, I may not have fared as well in my later years in the Corps. He taught me discipline and attention to detail. After my initial training, I thought it would be all runnin’ and gunnin’, but the paperwork was all the action I got. I was good at the administrative stuff, but it was boring and not what I signed up for. 

 

Most evenings there’s no one at the Hill Top, but when there is, it’s usually a local guy who comes in for one or two, not to socialize. But one night I was at the bar drinking dollar PBR’s and there’s this monster of a man two stools down from me. He’s got a high and tight haircut, but I know he’s not military. You don’t see much active military in Western PA. There are lots of retirees, but the not active duty, unless it’s Army or National Guard—those clowns are everywhere. He had a high and tight, wearing a collared shirt and khakis, built like a strip club bouncer. I was thinking if he’s not military, he must be a cop.

 

I believe I could have been a cop. My old man used to say, “You gotta believe in yourself, Brian. Gotta earn your own keep. No one’s gonna hand you shit in this life.” The inspirational quotes always came out when he was most hammered; otherwise, he was cracking the whip across my ass. My old man had the hardest hands of anyone I ever knew. It was from all those years of working on diesel engines—hot, tempered steel, cast iron blocks, and aluminum-handled tools. He would make the shape of a revolver two fingers for a barrel and a hammered thumb. When he was angry he just pointed it in my direction, but if he were really pissed he’d jab me in a bony place with the barrel of his hand pistol. In the forehead, it would make my eyes cross, water and blur, but in the center of my chest, it would feel like my sternum snapped like a cracker and would leave a round, purple bruise. 

 

The monster that was sitting next to me had those big bone-cracking hands like my old man, just slightly softer looking. I wasn’t eye-fucking the guy or anything, but he was a real giant. When I was in my first couple of years in the Corps, I pounded down the protein supplements and creatine powders trying to put on muscle. It mostly made me shit three times a day, and I never could get bigger than 170 pounds. One of the local gym rats used to like to say hi and ask me to spot him when he was pushing something over 300 pounds. I think he just wanted the acknowledgment that he was a freak of nature when it came to his strength. That guy used to tell me I needed to ‘juice’ if I wanted to get big. But I was always afraid of popping positive on a urinalysis. We had to pee in a cup after every federal holiday when I was active duty, so I’m glad I never heeded his advice. I bet he’s all fat and pimple-scarred now.

 

Thinking about those gym days got me reminiscing, so I was all grinning to myself when I made eye contact with the big guy at the bar. I didn’t want the guy to think I was some kind of queer, so I straightened my face and lowered my voice to make some quick, small talk. I picked up my glass and said, “Some days they can’t serve these up fast enough.”

He nods and swirls his ice. “You got that right.”

“Military?” I know the answer is no.

“No, law enforcement.”

Cop. People like to choose their titles. Cops say, “law enforcement” and lawyers say, “attorney.” I tell people I was in logistics. It sounds much more interesting than supply clerk. As I moved up the ranks in the Marine Corps, before I got busted, I became a supply chief. That title didn’t help much either. People want to know about the sexy jobs in the military—infantry, pilots, that sort of thing. No one gives a shit about the guys who fix the broken toys or hand out boots and bullets.

“State or local?” I asked.

“County. You?” He was talking pretty slow and pronouncing his words real carefully. He must have been drinking there for a while.

“Marine Corps. Active for four years.”

“Semper Fi.”

I raised my drink again in acknowledgment. There’s something easy about having a bar top conversation. No reason to shake hands because your hands have a glass or a bottle to handle. No need to go through introductions, not between us guys anyway. We all know there’s no reason get to know each other. Most of us were there to forget. No one goes to a bar like the Hill Top to pick up women.

I looked into the bar back mirror. “Been an ugly week. With the storms and all.”

“Yeah.”

“I guess you see ugly shit every day.”

He pauses. “Some more than others.”

“I heard about that shooting at the jewelry store. You on that call?” I’m not sure why I was pressing him. I guess I just wanted to hear a story that didn’t end well.

 

When people on the outside learned I was in Iraq, they’d ask me if I was in combat. Some would ask if I ever returned fire or shot at someone. Others get right to the point, the real question on their mind, and say, “Have you ever killed anyone?” People want the drama, I guess. They want the action, the blood, and guts, the violence. They want a first-hand account of the ultimate primal experience. They want to fantasize themselves in a position they could never be in, and here I am doing the same thing.

“Yep.” The cop took a long drink from his glass. “I was the one doing the shooting. Fucking people don’t listen, then people get hurt.”

It sounded a little too canned, like a line from an action movie. I couldn’t tell if he was telling the truth or just messing with me, the way people do in bars. We didn’t say anything else. I changed my mind about wanting to hear the rest of the story because I’d already read about it in the paper. Some sixty-year-old lady got shot and killed in a shoplifting incident. The paper made the police response sound like a complete cluster fuck. I wish I could’ve been there to see the mess, a fly on the wall. The news or even someone’s first-hand account is just their version of the events. But there are always more sides to every story. You have to experience it yourself if you really want to see and hear and feel all the details. When I tried to imagine the scene, sometimes I would be the big cop and other times I’d be the old lady in the line of fire.

*

By the time I hit puberty there’d been too many nights of the old man on the couch mumbling wisdom and guidance to me, so my mother threw him out and served him divorce papers. He never paid my mother a cent in child support, so he ended up in prison on a deadbeat Dad sentence, not exactly the most respectable way to end up doing time. I can only imagine what kind of stories he dreamt up to maintain some kind of prison cred. 

 

I guess that’s why I was so into crime stories, television shows and movies, real action crimes with car chases and gunfights, not some courtroom dramas or white-collar crap. I read a few of the crime novels, but the books couldn’t deliver the action to my ears. I loved the sounds of boot soles slapping the concrete in a chase scene, the loose cymbal crash of a body against a chain link fence, gunfire, it was all so tense and electric. The hair on my forearms would pop to attention and my mother would scream at me from the other room to turn the TV down.

 

In my own apartment, I listened in on police bands. I grew a little tired of the bad dialogue and repetitive story lines of the crime drama television shows from my youth. There are some websites that let you hear a specific frequency, but I wanted to listen in on the police and firemen from the surrounding counties, too.

           

My grandfather used to have this scanner on his kitchen counter. I remember the long, single row of bulbs and the light bouncing back and forth until a transmission was received. The lateral movement of the light would freeze and Grandpa would set his coffee mug down and listen.

 

One time Grandpa was at the kitchen counter, drinking coffee and eavesdropping on the accidents, fires, and crimes going on all around town when a static and garbled voice came through the speaker. “All units, we have a 10-80 east of Robinwood on route 64.”

     

“What’s a 10-80, Grandpa?” I asked.

           

He ignored me and leaned a little closer to the speaker holes on top of the scanner. When I asked again, he hopped off his stool and grabbed me by the upper arm. His iron grip felt like was going to pull my shoulder socket apart like a chicken wing, but I knew better than to move or complain.

           

“You’re too much like that babbling old man of yours. I don’t know what my daughter ever saw in that screw-up,” Grandpa told me. “If you’re gonna spend time in my house, you’ll mind my rules and keep your mouth shut when I’m listening.” Grandpa let me go and sat back down. He turned off the scanner and faced me like adults always did when they were about to dole out their wisdom. “You’ve got that bad blood in you, boy. So if you let yourself get into drugs or gangs, get lazy or just sit around like the world owes you something, you’ll end up just like you father, a drunk and a jailbird.” He pointed at his scanner, “I’m not some TV zombie-like boys are today. I know what’s going on around me. I pay attention.” 

           

My Grandpa's scanner was the size of a clock radio, but starting making them in handhelds. I had a digital scanner, a Uniden BCD436HP. The radio traffic comes through real clear and eventually I learned some of the ten codes (10-4 “affirmative,” 10-20 “location,” and such) I could usually figure out what was going on.

           

As I passed through the channels, I started to understand what gripped my grandfather’s attention so completely. I used to think it was entertainment or maybe a morbid curiosity. But then I realized that once you take some time and really listen, you can’t ignore it. There’s a crisis and you're involved. You can’t just turn it off. A vehicle pursuit (10-80), a bank alarm (10-90), a crime in progress (10-31) —Grandpa had to listen to hear how the action played out, but I felt like I needed just a little something more, maybe to just get closer.

*

The corner of Alpine and Second Street was always busy during the days. I never drove out there in the later hours. It’s one of those corners with a gas station accessible to traffic going any direction. Sometimes I would see the unleaded price a couple cents cheaper on the other side of the street. I wondered how many people did the U-turn to save a buck. People were always pretty cheap around here. Cheap gas, cheap beer, cheap liquor—that’s what you can get at the Alpine Fuel Stop. There’s an automatic car wash bay, too. It’s been out of order for longer than I can remember, but I didn’t wash my car anyway. No point in washing a car that has more rust than paint. The big shaggy rollers and high-pressure jets of the automatic car wash would probably knock-off body parts.

The defunct car wash provided a good parking spot. I had a whole routine. I would go into the Fuel Stop to see who was working the register and get a read on how attentive they seemed. It was no wonder this place got jacked on a regular basis. Some of the employees look like they'd been partying earlier in the evening or coming down from an all day binge. Most of them didn’t even look at up at me when I was at the register. The store did have some security though: corner mirrors, a couple cameras, and even one of those strips on the door to tell the clerk the height of the man who just ran off with the till.

 

It seemed like a bad idea for a criminal to rob a gas station on a well-lit corner like this one. Before I started coming on-scene, I heard about two robberies at this corner in the past month. I guess the fast cash and points of E&J were just too much to resist. After buying a drink and maybe some chips or nuts, I moved my car out behind the car wash bay. The snacks helped me stick around longer, but once I started dozing, I drove home. I had the digital scanner in the seat next to me, squawking away about police and fire calls all around town. Most of the calls were domestic disputes and weren't going to leave my post for an argument between some unhappily married couples. I was waiting for something bigger, more important, and more intense.

For a week, I hung around each night for an hour or two at the most. In the second week, I spent an entire night parked beside that car wash bay. My mind played out hundreds of possible scenarios of armed robberies. The cops show up in seconds, the cops take too long, I watch the gunfight from the parking lot, I go in, the clerk gets shot, I get shot, I disarm the robbers, the clerk guns down the robbers, the cops gun everyone down, there’s one strung-out junkie trying to grab some cash, it’s a whole gang of kids doing some kind of initiation. The imaginary possibilities are endless, but so far, every evening was the same. There was nothing from my handheld scanner but calls for minor nonsense or silence. So I just sat and waited and listened.

*

Before my old man went to jail, we’d go over to Grandpa’s place. He didn’t drink when we were there, so the old man was usually in a mean mood when we visited. There was something about that sour attitude that allowed him and Grandpa to bond. When they weren’t bickering about local politics or the NFL playoffs, they would gang up on me to vent their frustration about society. Our last Thanksgiving together as a family, Grandpa was twisting the rabbit ears on the TV, trying to get the snow on the screen to clear. “Grandpa, when are you going to just get a new TV,” I said.

 

“There ain’t nothing wrong with that TV, boy,” Grandpa said. “And if there was, I would fix it, not just toss it out. That’s the trouble today; no one wants to do anything. They just open up their wallet and buy a replacement or pay someone else to fix their problems.”

“Gets worse all the time.” My old man chimed in.

“You kids and your technology, computers that do everything for you. You don’t even know what’s going on inside those machines.”

“That shit’s gonna take over the world and you won’t even see it coming.” My old man said.

“Damn right, ‘cause we’re making a nation of wimps. Lazy men who raise lazier kids.” Grandpa was pointing a two-fingered pistol hand at me. “No one’s gotta do any real work anymore. They just stare at screens. It’s all virtual reality and video games. Ain’t that right, boy.”

“No,” I said, through a partially closed throat.

“The hell you know anyway, boy? You don’t know shit, ‘cause you ain’t been nowhere. You ain’t done nothing. You or your worthless father here.”

I kept my mouth shut because I was barely a teenage boy. Dad didn’t defend himself.

*

After two full weeks of no action, I heard the call. It was 2230 and nothing was going down at the Alpine Fuel Stop, but the police band announced an armed robbery at the Shell station just two miles down the road. I fired up my Cavalier and shot out of the parking area so fast I almost clipped the corner of the car wash bay. I wasn’t going to miss this one. I should’ve known a robbery was more likely at the Shell station. It’s just off the interstate, so they can get in and out fast and down the highway before the police are able to respond. That’s what I was missing; I wasn’t thinking like a criminal.

 

I could see the lights from the cruisers before I pulled into the station. The police officers stood by their cars, talking on radios. An ambulance pulled in right after me. I parked my car by the pumps, but before I could get out an officer approached my passenger window. I reached over to lower the window and fumbled with my seatbelt to give me the last six inches I needed to stretch for the window winder.

 

The cop leaned into my view and said, “I’m going to ask you to pull out of the station, sir. This is a crime scene.”

I recognized him: the monster cop from the Hill Top. I thought about saying, “Hey, I know you,” but that would have been ridiculous.

 

“Sir, I’m going to have to ask you to…”

 

“What’s going on, officer? Did this place get robbed?” I was reading the lines from a cue card in my head.

The cop turned his head, just a little. Maybe he recognized me or maybe he just picked up on the fact that I’m not much of an actor. His eyes did a quick search: back seat, front seat, floorboards, me. The handheld was right there in the passenger seat, but he didn’t ask about it.

 

“There was an attempted robbery,” he said. “The store clerk was armed, too.”

“What happened?” I leaned toward the passenger window; I must have sounded too excited. “Was anyone hurt?”

 

The cop stood and stepped back from my vehicle. He waved his hand and repeated his command for me to move along. I drove home.

 

I lied awake for hours that night and thought about how that clerk must have felt, sitting behind a counter watching the clock tick away the hours of his shift, earning a minimum wage, and then getting the most pants-shitting scare of his life by having some desperate junky point a gun in his face. I wondered if he was really afraid or just pissed off that some criminal threatened his life for fifty bucks in small bills from the cash register of a gas station he probably hated. I imagined myself behind that register raising the pistol to the robber’s face. We stand there in a standoff, barrels pointed at each other, six inches apart. I supposed that I could be on the other end of that situation, committing the crime instead of trying to stop it. Either way, I wondered what I would do.

*

I didn’t visit my old man while he was doing his time, but I did see him after he was out, living in a crappy downtown apartment—some beat up two-room tenement that had been split up into even smaller pieces. I was visiting the hometown, on annual leave right after I got the DUI that was going to end my military career. I was an adult and on my own, so he didn’t owe any more child support. He did his time so figured that I owed him some respect.

 

I leaned against the stovetop counter and my old man was sitting on the corner of his twin mattress, staring at the floor. There really wasn’t anywhere else to sit but the john. “Been awhile, haven’t heard too much from you, Pop.”

“Yeah, I didn’t do too much socializing on the inside. Minding your own business is a wise strategy.” He glanced up at me. “Something you never really had a knack for.”

“You trying to say something?”

“I’m saying you should stay out of prison.”

“I’m in the Marines, Pop. I make an honest living.”

“Your mother told me you’ve been getting in some trouble drinking.”

“So much for minding your own business.”

“Son, you always had a dangerous curiosity. Your crime shows, you and your Grandpa with that damn scanner, normal kids just look nudie mags and computer porn.”

“I got in trouble for drinking, nothing else. You should know a little something about having a few too many.”

My old man stood up. “I told you I don’t how many times, you gotta own up. A man takes some responsibility for himself and doesn’t blame the world for his fuck-ups.”

I shook my head and turned toward the door, it was a mistake to try to reconnect. He said my name twice as I stepped out the door. From the hallway, I heard, “You ain’t gonna listen to no one anyhow, why should I even waste my breath.”   

*

I pull into the Alpine Fuel Stop the next night, but instead of the Uniden BCD436HP handheld digital scanner on my passenger seat, I have a Ruger SP101, .357 magnum. I step out of the car, tuck the pistol into the leather belt around my jeans, and zipper my gray hoodie just enough to conceal the gun. My legs shake a little, so I flex my knees and roll my shoulders, take a deep breath, and mutter encouragement to a side of myself that’s making me want to hesitate.

 

The approach to the front entrance is a long walk at a slow pace where I try to calm my breathing and work out a natural gait. The barrel of my pistol is pushing into my groin just hard enough to remind me what part of my anatomy will be wounded if I have a negligent discharge. Sweat is already soaking through my short-sleeve T-shirt and making the armpits of my hoodie damp. I can smell myself, a nervous dank musk, stronger than gym sweat. I put my hand around the cold, round aluminum of the Fuel Stop door handle. It’s a little sticky right where the heel of my palm touches it. I know that this is my last second to back out. I have a chance, one final moment to let the door handle go and walk away, drive home, go to bed, forget about all this. The clerk inside can already see me out here, under the exterior fluorescent lighting and the glow of beer advertisements and lotto jackpot numbers.

 

Isn’t that the way this always goes? Men and their tall tales and big talk. They spend a lifetime telling you how the world is and how they would run it, but once it’s time to act they turn tail and run, making up some excuse for being a coward. The big cop, my old Marine Corps buddies—they can take on the criminals and the battles and the wars, but I know that I’m not going to walk away from my mission.

 

The chime sounds like an announcement when I open the door, two notes, high then low. The low note wobbles and trails off as if the electronic bell was out of tune or the battery were dying.          

 

The store clerk looked at me with the focus of a veteran, silent, his calm hands under the counter. I realize at that moment, when I look into his cold, prepared eyes, I had completely misjudged the store clerks in this place, or at least this one. He may have been watching me watching him all these weeks. If I could see the storefront from where I parked by the old car wash, why wouldn't he have noticed me sitting there with my engine off staring out through my windshield, night after night? 

 

The clerk doesn’t speak to me. He doesn’t ask how I am or if he can help me. He’s a Hispanic man, probably in his mid-fifties, at least twenty years senior to me. He has short, grey-peppered hair, heavily receded, and a fat mustache that extends past the downturned corners of his mouth. I slowly unzip my hoodie, letting him move first. I try to watch his eyes, but I can’t keep myself from admiring his gigantic forehead. It’s absurd. It makes his ears look tiny and his eyes too low on his head. When the zipper separates, the clerk can see the handgrip in my waistband and he responds.

 

He raises his arms with a practiced speed, two hands wrapped around the grip of a semi-automatic pistol, probably a nine-millimeter. He holds a sharpshooter stance, elbows locked, shoulders squared to the target, straight wrist, second joint of the index finger wrapped around the trigger. I raise my pistol, too. I’m not as fast as him, but I came close to matching his draw. I hold my pistol with one hand and look down the length of my sights, letting my eyes focus in on the black hole of the clerk’s barrel, then to his unblinking eyes, then back to the barrel.

 

The hour that passes in my mind is probably only twenty seconds. In fact, in the moment, I swear the hum of drink machines and coolers cuts off, like a power failure that only leaves the lights on. I can’t hear the clerk if he’s even saying anything and all that is in front of me is a dark tunnel with no end.

Kraig Pickel is a retired United States Marine and has an MFA in Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. His work has been featured on the “Mondays are Murder” web series by Akashic Books, Overwatch Press, and Duke City Dimestories. He currently resides in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

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