“Shut up!!” he screamed, “I swear I’ll blow your goddamn heads off!”
He was trembling. Martha noticed his wild eyes with two black lines drawn underneath, just like baseball players on sunny days. Tears and sweat had cut thin gray streams through them. His hair was jet black and hung down over his face, long and stringy. From his right earlobe hung a string of beads. He wore a denim jacket and a black t-shirt. His jeans were filthy, with huge holes in them, one of which exposed most of his right thigh. He smelled very much like a dog who had been left outside in the rain. Martha felt another thought on its way.
“Is it money you want?”
Henry cut his eyes abruptly towards her. “Why not just give him the key to the safe deposit box?!” he thought.
“That’s right, grandma!” he yelled, “I want your money, all of it.”
“I wish I could help you, but we don’t keep much money around the house.” Her voice was calm and clear.
“That’s right son.” Henry had finally found his voice and it was booming. “See, we’re senior citizens. Don’t have much need for cash. Now, we’ve got money in the checking account and plenty in savings down at the bank, but cash? No, just don’t have a need for it.”
The boy slumped back against the door and began to cry weakly, slowly lowering the gun until it hung quietly at his side.
“My name is Martha and this is my husband Henry.” Martha managed a relaxed smile. “What’s your name?”
The boy stopped crying and looked at Martha through his filthy hair as if seeing her for the first time. He lifted the gun and pointed it at her, then waved it at Henry. “You two bastards may not have any money, but I’ve got this, so shut the hell up, so I can think!”
“Such language,” Martha thought, “What perfectly repulsive language!” She began to think about his parents, trying to imagine what kind of people would allow their son to roam the streets looking and talking like this. She was suddenly overcome with compassion. The power of this strange emotion overcame her fear. She spoke with surprising energy and confidence.
“Well, if you won’t give me your name, I’ll just make one up. I’ll call you John. Are you hungry John?”
“What?” Henry asked.
“You look like you could use some supper. When was the last time you had anything to eat?”
John looked at Henry, then back at Martha, confused and terrified in equal measure, saying nothing.
Martha sprang from her rocker and confidently turned her back on them both, starting for the kitchen. “Why don’t we all go in the kitchen and I’ll throw something together. It’s easier to think on a full stomach.”
John screamed, “Wait!” He raised the gun again, pointing it at Henry. “You first, old man! Don’t try anything stupid or…”
“You’ll blow my goddamn head off, I’m guessing.” Henry was beyond fear and had lapsed into irritation.
They walked into the kitchen and sat down at the table. John’s face began to relax a bit but his knuckles were still white around the handle of his shiny black gun. Martha was busy going through the refrigerator.
“I hope you like chicken because it looks like that’s all we have. How about I make you a chicken sandwich and heat up some soup?”
John was silent, staring at them both, a thousand thoughts raging through is head.
“So John,” Henry broke the awkward silence. “What do you do? I mean besides breaking and entering?”
“Nothing.” He spoke. “I don’t do anything. This is the first time I’ve ever done this.”
“Well, I suggest that you make this your last time. There’s no future in a life of crime. Besides, you’re not exactly cut out to be a criminal.”
“Well, for starters, I’ve never met anyone who would be easier to identify in a police lineup.”
Martha placed a steaming bowl of chicken soup on the table in front of John. Beside it she placed a chicken sandwich on a paper towel. She then poured lemonade into a blue plastic cup. “Help yourself.”
John instructed Martha to sit across the table with her husband where he could keep an eye on them both. He wanted their hands on the table where he could see them. Then he laid the gun a few inches away from his right hand and picked up the sandwich in one clean motion. He took a ravenous bite and swallowed it almost without chewing.
“No manners either,” thought Martha. “What kind of parents must this boy have?”
He plowed through the soup with equally ill-mannered haste, sloshing noodles and broth over the rim of the bowl. Hot chicken soup ran down his chin and formed a small pool on the table.
“I take it that the food suits you?” Henry asked loudly.
“It’s alright, if you like chicken,” John answered without looking up.
“They tell me that they serve chicken soup three days a week down at the penitentiary.”
John finally lifted his eyes from the bowl and narrowed them at Henry. He gulped down the last of the lemonade and wiped his chin on the dirty sleeve of his jacket.
“There’s lemon meringue pie,” Martha offered, feeling uncomfortable with the silence. She walked over to the refrigerator and cut a large piece of pie and placed it on a paper plate in front of him. “Do your parents know where you are John?”
“I doubt it,” he answered with his mouth full. “They think I’m in college.
“They think I’m studying to be a big shot at school.”
“But I suppose you found out that you didn’t need to go to college to become a big shot, right?” Henry boomed. “All you needed to do was to grow out your hair, buy some pants with holes in them and rob old people of their life savings.”
John reached for his gun and pointed it between Henry’s eyes. “You’re just like my old man. You think you’ve got all the answers don’t you? What’s your answer to this gun pointed at your head Pops? You got an answer for this?”
“John! Please don’t!” Martha pleaded. She reached out suddenly and clutched his left hand firmly with both of hers. He jumped, startled and afraid and pointed the gun at Martha.
“Talk to me John. I’ll try to understand. I’ll listen for as long as it takes. You don’t want to hurt us. I know you don’t. Will you talk to me? Please talk to me.”
John softened his grip on the gun and once again began to cry. Martha squeezed his hand and touched his shoulder gently like she had done so many times when her two sons were young and angry. She pulled her chair closer to him and they began to talk, Henry keeping a sharp eye on the gun and wondering if his wife’s Good Samaritan instinct was finally going to get them killed.
They talked softly about his parents who didn’t even know that their son had dropped out of school months ago. They had separated two weeks after he went away for his freshman year. He hadn’t talked to either of them in months. They had probably been counting the days, cutting little lines in a wall someplace every morning, waiting for him to leave. He hated them. He hated everyone now. Nobody wanted him.
Martha told him that he was wrong to think that way, that God loved him and had a plan for his life. He told her that he didn’t believe in God. There didn’t seem to be much evidence for his existence. Martha offered herself as proof. “How could I have possibly had the courage to turn my back on you in there a minute ago if it weren’t for God?” She never let his hand go. He looked straight into her eyes and the room fell silent.
Suddenly, Martha got up from the table, walked into the bedroom and returned with an El Producto cigar box. Henry’s eyes widened and his face went pale. “Martha, have you lost your mind?”
“Henry,” she answered firmly, “Remember the other night when you said that we needed a gun to keep around the house? Well, this young man has one and I think we ought to buy it from him”
Henry never took his eyes off of John while answering, “Yes, I remember using those exact words.”
John looked at Martha in disbelief, mouth ajar, waiting for an explanation.
“Look John, you need money. We need a gun. Let’s make a deal. How much did you pay for this gun?”
“I stole it.”
Henry came to life. “You hear that Martha? He says he stole it. Imagine that. I mean, what are the odds?”
Martha ignored her increasingly confrontational husband. “Well, supposing that you had bought it, how much would it have cost?”
“I don’t know. Two, three hundred dollars?”
“Henry? You think 300 is a fair price?”
“By all means, Martha. We have absolutely no reason to doubt the boy’s word.”
“Then it’s a deal!” Martha opened the box lid and pulled out a huge wad of twenty dollar bills as Henry buried his face in his hands. John watched her count out fifteen twenties and lay them on the table.
“I thought you said you didn’t have any cash in the house.”
“I didn’t…for a thief. But for a friend, I can always find some extra money.”
She extended her hand to John, waiting for him to hand over the gun. She was calm and confident. Henry watched it all happening as if in slow motion. He loved his wife with all of his heart, but it was this sort of thing that had always driven him crazy, her undying faith in the goodness of her fellow man. All he wanted to do was rush this punk and beat him to within an inch of his miserable life and if this all had happened twenty years ago he already would have. Instead he prayed under his breath that God would deliver them from her naiveté. This wasn’t Les Miserable.
John reached across the table and swept up the twenties and stuffed them in his jacket pocket, still holding firmly to the gun. Martha held her breath and hoped that nobody could hear her heart beating. Then he rose from the table, looked at them both and slowly placed the gun in Martha’s hand.
‘Thanks for the meal,” John finally spoke. “I feel much better.”
“I’m glad you liked it.” Martha suddenly felt exhausted.
“I better be going now.”
“Where will you go?”
“I’ve got a place, an apartment. It’s ok.”
“Well, if you ever need anything, I guess you know where we live.”
Henry began to seethe. Was this punk about to get away with it?
The three of them walked down a short hallway into the living room. John crushing bits of glass under his feet as he made his way to the front door. He looked down at the glass as if noticing it for the first time.
“I’m really sorry about the lamp. Was it very old?”
“Been in the family for three generations,” Henry thundered. “It was an antique, an irreplaceable original.”
Martha looked across the room at John and smiled. “Just like you, John.”
Henry waited for a minute, then said, “I couldn’t possibly take less than three hundred dollars for it.”John opened the door. He reached into his pocket and placed the crumpled wad of twenties on the Ben Franklin desk, then disappeared into the night, shutting the door gently behind him.