GRIPPED

 

By Lisa Johnson

 

She gripped his hand as they tiptoed past the door to the little room off the kitchen. The clatter of dishes sounded through the communal kitchen door, though it was almost midnight. Cora rushed into her little bedroom pulling Andy in after her. The other tenants occupied the upstairs; the landlord, an older woman, occupied the front part of the house. She told Cora a year ago when she rented the room that she did not want the tenants entertaining overnight guests. Nor did she want locks on doors. Every night before Cora went to bed she maneuvered a straight backed chair under the door knob. It was not the best neighborhood in San Francisco but the rent was reasonable and Cora always carried a can of pepper spray.

Cora closed the door softly. She tried to suppress her anxiety and excitement. She and Andy had been dating for several months, shared two classes in theater arts. In addition to their part time jobs, they both volunteered as ushers at live theater productions, to view what they could not otherwise afford. This was their first time to be together alone in a room. Andy, city born and raised, still lived with his parents. Cora, at twenty one, a year older than Andy, came from a farming community around Salinas. In her senior year of high school, Cora won 2nd place in a national contest for her one act play, “Scene In A Strawberry Field”. She was writing another play, a comedy/drama, in which she had used Andy and herself, slightly disguised, as characters.  Andy had offered to read it, give his input. 

Cora turned on the wobbly lamp, balanced on a stack of storage boxes she used as a nightstand. The dim light revealed an area crammed with furniture: a single bed, neatly made in anticipation of Andy’s visit, a scarred chest of drawers holding Cora’s small screen television, and a bulky faux leather recliner.. Cora had discovered the chair on the curb with a “Free” sign on it. She’d pulled and pushed it down the sidewalk for over a block and struggled to get it through her door. She’d disinfected it, draped a lovely yellow and brown Afghan her granny had knitted over the back to cover the tears. On a stark white wall behind the bed, she’d taped a poster of professional actors from a movie production of “Romeo and Juliet”.  Glancing at the poster, Cora felt frumpy in her worn jeans. She swiped at loose strands of thick brown hair she’d gathered into a messy pony tail. Taking Andy’s heavy coat and her puffy black ski jacket, she heaped them over the old straight- backed chair near the door. She was proud of her jacket, purchased like new from Salvation Army.

Andy claimed the recliner and Cora sat on the edge of the bed. She reached under the bed, timidly presented a folder holding her play. She asked, in a loud whisper, if he’d like something to eat or drink. She had a small stock of supplies in the communal kitchen: herbal tea, coffee, cheese spread and crackers, cookies. He said he wasn’t hungry, didn’t care for herbal tea and it was too late for caffeine. He asked if she had anything stronger. Cora was slightly taken aback. She’d seen him drink beer but she had not thought to stock any. She suffered a pang of remorse. What kind of hostess was she? What kind of seductress?

“What do you like?” Andy said he liked bourbon with 7up. But wine was fine. Even as Andy spoke, Cora was putting on her jacket. She said there was a small neighborhood store only three blocks away. She’d be back in a jiffy. When Andy started to rise, saying he would go with her, Cora rushed to silence him, concerned that they might be heard or caught leaving and re-entering.  No need to worry, she said, she was used to the neighborhood, used to walking almost everywhere since public transportation was not always available.  She felt in one pocket of her jacket for her last twenty dollar bill and her ID; in the other pocket for her slim canister of Mace. She brushed her lips over his, pressing him back into the recliner. “Please, I’m a fast walker. I’ll be back before you finish reading.”  Suddenly self-conscious, she added, “If you get too bored, you can watch TV,” With that Cora dashed out the door, past the now quiet kitchen and out into the night before Andy could make his way across the cluttered room.   

A cold fog sagged over the somber neighborhood. Cora walked briskly, her eyes and ears alert to signs of danger. A car slowed as it approached her, its head lights on full beam. Cora picked up her pace, prepared to spray Mace if the driver stopped. Three blocks later, Cora reached the small store. The jangle of the little bell above the door cheered her. The clerk, a swarthy middle aged man in a turban smiled tiredly with his hello. 

The store’s two narrow aisles held shelves of alcohol, sodas and snack foods. One other customer, a man in an expensive looking suit with a neatly trimmed beard, glanced up and then back to his selections. Cora took the other aisle, stymied by the prices. After quickly mulling it over, she shrugged, picked a pint of bourbon, a bottle of 7up, a bag of Fritos and headed for the check-out. The other customer stood ahead of her, paying for a top quality vodka and lottery tickets. He didn’t strike Cora as a person needing lottery tickets. Why was he even in this neighborhood? Possibly passing through, stopped to purchase libations on his way to higher ground? Cora studied him out the side of her eye, trying to be discreet. The man was what romance novels describe as tall, dark and handsome, a leading man type, no bit parts for him. Despite Cora’s loyalty to sandy haired Andy, she felt the tug of attraction.

As the clerk handed the man his change, the little bell above the door jangled. All three looked toward the door. A slim figure clad in black, black jeans, loose black shirt, clunky black boots, black ski mask approached them. Only eyes and mouth were exposed, eerily. Hands in dark latex gloves trembled, the right pointing a gun. With his left, he reached into a shirt pocket. He plunked a paper down on the counter, shoved it before the clerk, then before the well dressed man. Both scanned it. The well dressed man passed over his wallet. The robber stuffed the wallet into the bag with the man’s vodka and lottery tickets and pulled the bag closer.

The robber pounded the counter with his free hand, staring at the clerk. More aggressively, he pushed the paper in front of the clerk. The clerk glanced passively at the paper as if in a daze. He looked up and said, “No.” For a long moment, the robber appeared confused, like he’d wandered into the wrong public restroom; then flustered, as if he didn’t know what to do next. As if to gather his wits, the robber turned his eyes, hazel and blood shot, at Cora. Cora froze. She sensed the misery behind the stare, the discomfort of the wool mask, hot and scratchy.  Aiming now at Cora, he motioned for her to comply. She withdrew the twenty from her pocket, laid it on the counter. The robber grabbed it but motioned again, up and down at her with his gun. That’s all I have, she said. But the robber kept motioning at her chest.

“He wants the jacket,” the well dressed man said. Baffled, Cora stared at the man. “Your jacket,” he repeated. “He wants it.” The robber nodded yes, apparently pleased he’d been understood. Cora removed her ski jacket but palmed the can of Mace against her thigh. With her other hand, she pushed the jacket down the counter. The robber grabbed the jacket and her twenty, piled both next to the bag with the vodka and the wallet. He returned his attention to the clerk, impatiently waving and shoving the paper in the clerk’s face. The clerk repeated, “No.” Again, the robber just stared through his miserable mask holes. Then he lifted the gun, touched it to the clerk’s head, his frustration as obvious now as a fart in the air.

“Give him what he wants,” the well dressed man pleaded. “Please.”

“This store is my sole support for my family,” the clerk said.

“What will your family have if they don’t have you?”

“I hate these punks with their attitudes, taking advantage of hard working people.”

“I know, I know. But now is not the time to take a stand on principles.” He and the clerk spoke calmly, as if in a friendly, private conversation. That seemed to antagonize the robber. He shoved the clerk away from the cash register into a corner behind the counter. He struggled to open the register, punching keys, prying at it. Failing, he lifted his blood shot eyes directly into Cora’s. For a fleeting moment, Cora felt pity for this pathetic display. Then, in the calculated move she’d been waiting for, she raised the Mace and sprayed into the eye holes.

From that point, things moved swiftly, smoothly, almost as if choreographed, everyone playing their parts. The robber shrieked, the only sound from his mouth since he’d entered the store. The gun dropped and he clawed at his burning eyes. The clerk rushed forward, seized the gun, pointing it at the robber. The well dressed man grabbed a bottle of club soda, opened it and sprayed soda into the robber’s burning eyes. Cora backed away, feeling suddenly and ridiculously ashamed. The robber coiled, whimpering into a fetal position on the floor and stripped off the mask. All three stared as before their eyes a waifish young woman, Cora’s age or younger, was revealed.

The police arrived, doing their police investigative business, probing, taking statements. All of it took three times as long as the robbery itself. Then, at last, they took the young woman away, her pale fragile wrists looking redundant in handcuffs. What might have been amusing, if not so sad, was that the gun contained no ammunition.

Outside the liquor store, the darkness of night still lingered, the fog still hovered. Cora wondered fleetingly if Andy had fallen asleep or if he had given up and left. Why had he not come searching for her? A car slowed behind her, easing along beside her. Cora’s hand automatically went for the pepper spray. She heard an automatic car window opening and a man called out, “Hello?” She glanced up. It was the well dressed man from the store, driving a sleek dark Mercedes sedan. He stopped, opened the passenger door. “Get in,” he called. Unsure of his request, Cora hesitated. Was he simply offering her a lift home or if he was inviting her to breakfast or a for an early morning drink? The man gave no indication of his intentions just, “Get in.”  Common sense warned her to ignore the man, to keep moving. Hadn’t she had enough excitement for one night? But that original spark of attraction to him reignited. The hint of something mysterious and alluring stirred deep within her. When the man repeated, “Get in,” Cora got in.   

 


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