"You know, I always thought I'd be more."
"More? Like what?"
"I don't know. Like, I thought that one day, I'd do something important. Like terrorists or bank robbers or something would come in, and I'd be the one to save the hostages."
“So you wanted to be the Die Hard guy. John McLain.”
“No. I just wanted to be something more. A hero.”
“I think we all had childhood dreams like that.”
“No, I mean, I still have it. I feel like there’s more in store for me.”
“Okay, I don’t want to be hurtful here, but that’s dumb. I mean, that’s just like, really stupid. You’re thirty-five years old, you smoke, you’re fat, and you can’t lift more than a jug of milk without throwing out your back. You’re a good guy, Bobby, but you’re no hero.”
“Sometimes I really hate talking to you.”
“I see why you would. Now be quiet—I think they’re coming back.”
I crouched down a little lower and tried not to pee my pants. Dave was kind of a jerk sometimes, but he had a point about me not being a hero. I didn’t have the body for it, I didn’t have the training for it, and I sure didn’t have the bravery for it.
We were hiding behind a giant toilet paper display, which isn’t the most dignified place to hide, but it was handy, and when a bunch of guys wearing black masks rush into the grocery store and start waving guns around, you generally hide where it’s handy. Not a lesson I ever thought I’d have to learn, but there you have it.
The display had a giant cardboard cut-out of a cartoon bear standing beside a giant cardboard tree. The bear looked like he had just walked out from behind the tree, and he was holding a roll of toilet paper. He looked very pleased with himself.
Behind the cut-outs, there was a pyramid of stacked toilet paper. What you might not know is that those displays, those giant creations of toilet paper or soda or beer or crackers, they aren’t really made up of the product. You build this monument to consumerism, you don’t want the consumers messing it up. You don’t want the thing to tumble.
So instead of building it out of cans or boxes or bottles, you build it out of the plastic shelving units that the corporations send in the promotional advertising kit. You build a rough shape, and then you stack the product on top, three or four deep. You make it to where people can pick up the product, but if they crash into it with their cart, you aren’t all day stacking it back up.
It’s much easier to assign a kid to walk by every hour or so and refill the display.
And if you don’t have a kid to do it, you can substitute a 35-year old, overweight smoker.
My name’s Bobby. I’m a good guy, apparently, but I’m no hero.
What I am is a stock boy, which is a weird profession when you’re 35 years old, and have a college degree. I used to be an ad man, and although I wasn’t the best, I was pretty stinkin’ good. Good enough that I had my own office with a couple people working under me. Good enough that I figured it a pretty safe bet to get married when I was 23. Good enough that at 26, I felt it was smart to have a couple of kids. Good enough that I felt comfortable enough buying a house when I was 29.
Good enough that at 30, I felt I was safe from the recession. At 31. At 32.
When I was 33, the company I worked for tanked. They did it without fanfare and without warning. One day, it’s business as usual, the next, we’re all fired. Tough break, but a break doesn’t mean it’s broken, right?
We had a savings. My wife worked at a daycare. I had time to find another job.
Only I didn’t, not really. The daycare center closed four months later, leaving my wife unemployed, as well.
One thing you don’t want to be when you have a nine year old and a six year old is unemployed. I used that first year to look for high-end jobs, stuff that I thought I deserved. The second year, I dropped my standards. I did freelance graphic design whenever I could get work, but it was a tough row to hoe—after all, I wasn’t the only one to find myself in this position.
Thousands of people were in the same position, and we were all lunging for the same jobs.
Long story short: I woke up one morning and realized that we needed money. We were over-extended, financially. The savings had dwindled to a fretfully small amount, and the only prospects I had were weak ones. Car note, house mortgage, health insurance, electricity, utilities, all that. I needed a source of income.
So I applied at my neighborhood grocery store as a night stocker. I figured I could work at night and then use my waking hours during the day to hunt for something better.
You make sacrifices, you know? I didn’t feel good about myself as I pulled on my itchy, logo-emblazoned Polo shirt each evening, but I knew that my kids would have a roof over their heads, that they’d have food to eat.
You do what you have to do.
You report to work and you take orders from a 20-year-old high-school dropout who has worked here since he was sixteen. You ignore the rage that rises within you every time he acts smarter than you, every time he tells you how things work “in the real world.”
You suck it up, and you tell yourself that it’s only temporary. You tell yourself that things will get better.
And then a bunch of guys run in wearing ski masks, carrying guns, and you find yourself hiding in a toilet paper display. That’s about the time you realize that when you told yourself that it would get better, you were either lying or clueless.
“What are these guys doing?” Dave whispered to me after the robbers had passed by.
“I think that’s fairly obvious,” I told him. “The guns, the yelling, the ordering Helen to give them drugs from behind the pharmacy counter? Not…not making any sense to you?”
“I know they’re robbers. But why didn’t they leave? You come in, you loot the drawers, you take off. That’s how you rob a grocery store.”
“Did you read that on Wikipedia?”
“eHow, actually.” We both snickered for a few seconds before the reality of the situation set in again. “I can’t believe I’m making jokes at a time like this. People might die. I’m a terrible person.”
“Did I ever tell you about my first girlfriend?” I asked him.
“That girl you kissed in sixth grade who threw up in your mouth?”
“No, my first real girlfriend.”
“The one with the Skittles thing?”
“Yeah, you told me about her.”
“Did I tell you about how she laughed when she was sad?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“She did. She had nightmares about going to funerals. Because she always laughed at funerals. She laughed the hardest at the saddest parts.”
“Geez, that’s awful.”
“It really is. Funerals are bad enough, right? You just lost a loved one, you’re sad, you’re contemplating the fragility of life, whatever. And on top of that, you know that you’re going to laugh at the funeral and look like a total maniac. You can’t not go, either, because then people think you just didn’t like the deceased.”
“So…you just told me this because, what? You didn’t think I had enough to worry about at the moment, what with the robbers and us hiding in a pile of toilet paper?”
I glanced over at him, wondering what kind of rotten person I was, to be telling him a story like that at a time like this. “Oddly enough, I was trying to cheer you up, I think.”
“Nice job. Be honest—this is because I called you a fat non-hero, isn’t it?”
“No, I actually had a point. Oh! I remember now—you made a joke, and then you were feeling bad about it. I just wanted to point out that sometimes, when we’re placed in an emotionally tense situation, our reactions are atypical. So I don’t judge us for making jokes. I guess that was my point.”
“Yeah, I know. Anyway. Back to the original question. If you’re asking why haven’t they left yet, I think that might answer your question.” I pointed to the coolers at the end of the aisle, where I could see the reflection of the flashing red and blue lights. “Cops showed up. I bet this was supposed to be a quick thing until then.”
“This is ridiculous. Did they not realize that we’re two blocks from the police station?”
“Apparently not. From what I’ve seen, they don’t really come off as the most with-it crew.” So far, I had seen four guys, and judging by their body types and the way they talked, I figured they were all in their early twenties.
“Who robs grocery stores, anyway?” Dave asked. “I didn’t even know it was a thing.”
“Recession hits everyone, I guess.”
“I can’t die here, man. I can’t.”
“In a toilet paper display? With a fat non-hero? You’re too good to die with me?”
I was hoping to make him laugh again, but when I saw the tear slide from his eye, I realized I better quit joking about dying. The dude had three daughters and a wife. I had a family of my own.
I reached over to reassuringly rest my hand on his shoulder and tell him it would be all right. Instead, I knocked over a column of toilet paper with my elbow, causing it to hit the cardboard bear cutout. In turn, the cardboard cutout tipped over onto the wine aisle. From there, it was like some nightmare version of dominoes.
The bottles smashed into each other and onto the floor, the noise of their destruction echoing through the store.
The display we were hiding behind fell over, leaving us totally exposed. I barely even noticed, so entranced was I with the toppling bottles. Dave reached up slowly and brushed my reassuring hand from his shoulder.
At the opposite end of the aisle, a bottle of wine tipped from the shelf and hit an old woman square on the head. I was too horrified to laugh properly, but a part of my mind was a little irked that I hadn’t pulled out my phone and started video recording.
“You just killed us.”
“Maybe they won’t notice,” I said, not because I believed it even a little bit, but because the alternative—that these robbers were going to be shooting me in the head in a matter of seconds—was too awful to consider.
Dave pointed down to where the old woman had fallen. All four of the robbers had gathered around her.
“I think they noticed,” he said. And then he started crying. “I don’t wanna die, Bobby. I don’t. I love my wife, my daughters. I love life, man. I don’t wanna die.”
A million better ideas went through my head, but none of them mattered. “You aren’t gonna die, man. Go hide behind the Coors Light.”
I pulled out my price gun and hurried down the aisle. My shoes squeaked with every step, but all four of the robbers were too distracted to notice.
I jammed the gun against the closest guy’s back. “Don’t move, you. Everyone else, drop your guns now, or I kill him!”
“Hey, hey, hey!” one of the robbers cried. “Take it easy, dude.”
“Screw that. Drop your guns or this guy dies. Hey!” I yelled at the guy I was pretending to threaten, “I said don’t move!”
“If you need to shoot me, you go ahead and shoot me, but this woman is having a heart attack, and if I don’t do CPR, she’s a goner for sure.”
“Um. Okay, you can move. But nobody else. Anyone else moves, I kill this guy.”
“You’d kill the guy doing CPR?” another robber asked.
“What? Well…shut up.”
“You don’t what?” I asked the guy in front of me, jamming the price gun against his back a little, to show I meant business.
“I don’t remember how to do CPR!”
“Joe, you better not let that woman die! What would Grammy think?”
“Don’t use my real name, man!” Joe screamed at the other robber. “I’m trying, man, I just don’t remember.”
“I can do CPR,” Dave said from behind me. I spun around and jammed the price gun into his stomach. Not because I thought he was a threat, and not because I thought the price gun could do anything even if he was a threat. Mostly, it was because I was startled.
“Don’t shoot,” he said, smirking.
“Ain’t even a real gun,” one of the robbers said, and I knew I was screwed.
But then the guy I had been holding hostage, Joe, turned to me. “Listen, man, we don’t…we don’t wanna hurt nobody. Just. Let’s save this old lady, okay?”
“You didn’t wanna hurt anyone, why’d you bring guns?”
He tossed his gun onto the ground and it shattered. “Plastic, man. Water pistols. We just needed medicine for our Grammy.”
“Very touching,” Dave said. “Could you get outta the way? This woman’s dying.”
All of us moved away, and Dave knelt down. He began pushing on her chest. He bent down and mouth-to-mouthed her. He jerked back and made a face. “Uhk. She tastes like rotten tuna and cat pee. Someone else come blow.”
“You,” I said, shoving the price gun into Joe’s back. “Help him.”
“Man, that ain’t even a real gun..”
“Do it anyway.”
One of the other robbers flinched. “Real names, man!”
“Whatever, man. Don’t make me touch the old lady. You know I got a fear.”
The robber named Mark shook his head in disgust and knelt beside Dave. “What you need me to do, man?”
“When I say blow, just hold her nostrils shut and blow into her mouth.”
We watched as the middle-aged shelf stocker and the under-aged robber resuscitated the old woman. Me and the three robbers. All of us gunless, all of us clueless. What a stupid situation.
“Why did you do this?” I asked Joe. “What’s wrong with you kids?”
“Our Grammy needs her medicine, man. She couldn’t afford it this month.” He held out an orange-amber bottle at me, as if it was some sort of proof.
“Yeah, right. You see that on the Lifetime channel?’
He turned and looked at me, and I saw shame and I saw fear, and I saw determination. And I saw honesty. I know that sounds cheesy, but I knew right then.
“She raised us,” he said. “And contrary to present evidence, she raised us right. This is a last resort. And now we’re screwed.”
“She’s good,” Mark said from beside the old lady. “Halitosis like a mad bastard, but she’ll live.”
“We, on the other hand,” said one of the un-named robbers, “Will probably be dead before the sun rises.”
Four kids, armed with water pistols. Stealing medicine for their Grammy because they couldn’t afford to buy it. Really? What kind of nonsense was this? I grabbed the bottle from Joe and tossed it to Dave. “Can they use this to get high?”
Dave wasn’t a pharmacist, but years of dealing with in-laws and children had filled him with drug knowledge.
“This is for arthritis. Won’t do anything to get you high.”
“We didn’t know what else to do,” Joe said.
Just kids, trying to fix a problem that was way out of their league. The old lady was breathing regularly, but still out of it.
I looked at Dave, and he looked at me, and he said, “Whatever you have brewing, it’ll never work.”
“I bet you ten bucks it will.”
He took off his glasses, rubbed his eyes, and replaced his glasses. They were a bit foggy because of all his sweating. “You’re on.”
We tell the story just about every Sunday. We tell about how we went to the back office and took out the security tapes and gave the boys old janitor uniforms. About how we pointed the cops out the back door, telling them we couldn’t identify the robbers. About how we got away with it.
We all know it, but it doesn’t matter. Each week, we gather around the table, so many people that it seems like it should be a holiday. And we eat and we laugh, and we tell the story about how we all came together.
Me and my family, Dave and his family, Emma and her family. Emma is Grammy, and her family is the group of robbers. Joe, Mark, Dave, and Chuck. Four grandkids who were willing to go to jail to help their grandmother. Little idiots, they did it all wrong.
They didn’t know, though. Didn’t know that there was paperwork they could fill out, channels they could go through. They were at the end, you know?
They didn’t understand about hope.
None of us did, I don’t think. Not really.
The future waits around every corner, salvation is everywhere. Sometimes, you just have to abuse an old woman to find it.