by Rachel Pollock
Like always on work nights at 9:05pm, I was sitting on the john playing iPod Solitaire and pretending to have trouble in the bowel, when I heard Sugaree quaver over the PA: “Two-twelve on line three.”
Hell’s afire. Two-twelve meant somebody was robbing the registers, right that minute.
Nobody’d ever called a two-twelve, not in the whole eight years I been clerking at the Knoxville Sew-Fisticated. I stared at the rusty hinge of the stall door, scabby-looking against the Pepto-colored paint, and stuffed the little gadget into the pocket of my smock.
Come on, old girl, I told myself. Pick something and do it before choice ain’t an option.
Damn Sugaree. If she hadna swapped shifts with Trashy Trish so that pole-climbing pickle-sniffer could pit-lizard up at the dirt track, I wouldna felt obliged to do nothing at all. Why couldn’t it have been Trish and McMinn out there, like every other Saturday night? I’da just snuck out the loading dock, phoned 911 while I lit out the parking lot and nobody’d thought the worse of me. My baby girl, Shug, though, I’d stand by her in time of trouble. Apparently, I thought, as I heaved myself up off the toilet lid, I’d walk face-first into fan-shit for her, too.
I thumbed my cell—three rings til someone picked up.
“911, what’s your emergency?” Young man’s voice, flitty.
“Got a robbery in progress at the Sew-Fisticated on Papermill Drive,” I said, deploying some reality-TV lingo and keeping my voice low in case anybody was coming to round me up. “They’s three clerks in here, maybe a customer or two, Lord knows how many robbers. I’m in the back, ain’t gone up to count yet, but I’m fixing to.”
“Ma’am,” said the operator, a tad panicky, “don’t you try being a hero. Just sit tight. We’ve got units on the way, they’ll be there in twenty minutes or less.”
“Twenty minutes.” I wasn’t criticizing, just cogitating out loud, but the operator fella took some umbrage.
“Best we can do right now, ma’am, please just stay where you are.”
I was surprised; he sounded more pants-antsy than me. Didn’t you have to do freak-out training to answer 911? But maybe I was being uncharitable. Prolly just a kid trying to get the bills paid, like Sugaree. Poor guy. Had to be a hard job.
“Don’t you worry, young fella,” I told him. “I gotta go up there, my girl’s up there,” and it lit on me like a moth, an idea. “I’m putting my phone in my pocket now, so you hang on the line, okay?”
I didn’t hear if he replied or not, because I did exactly that, stuck it in my smock pocket right up next to my iPod. Then I started the timer on my watch so I could mark how long it took them cops to show. I sucked in a breath and walked out the stall, out the restroom, and through the swinging-doors onto the sales floor.
What kind of crazy first-class idiot robs the Sew-Fisticated? I thought as I walked toward the front of the store. Christmas or no, in the whole past eight years, we done a four-figure day maybe twice, thrice tops. Any fool could see robbing us wasn’t barely worth your time, which made me double-scared.
It had been a regular night of holiday retail, doors locked at 9pm but anybody left allowed to browse, regardless that I wanted to get home to Bo-Ray—that’s my old man—and never-you-mind Shug’s three little boys missing their mama on late shifts. No sir, no quick close-ups during holidays, not on McMinister’s watch.
McMinn’s the one made up all those prissy harebrained codes in the first place—the 200 number stood for particular events you might not want to spell out over the PA, and the line number told which general area of the store. “Two-ten on line one,” meant somebody’d been sick on the floor near the cutting tables; “two-twenty on line five,” meant there was a suspected shoplifter in the notions section. Hell, I was proud of Shug for remembering a two-twelve, much less being brave enough to call it. Someone come in with a gun in their jacket when I was on register, I’d probably give them the cash drawer with nary a peep let.
“Sugaree?” I called out, so everybody’d know I was coming. “You alright up there?”
“There’s…” Lord, she was gulping back sobs. “Man wants to talk to a manager.”
I was almost to the front now, I could see the top of Shug’s head, her hair all sprouting up in its little red curls.
“A manager? Won’t be me you need, where’s McMinn?”
“She’s…” Shug choked on a little wail. Lord, Lord. Had he gone and killed McMinister, over a sad little till of fabric store cash? Lord God forgive me for every time I wished her dead, I never meant a single one.
Three more steps and there was the robber-man, looking for all the world like a cartoon stickup fella. He even had these dark sheer black-lady pantyhose on his head, which of course looked flat stupid. I let out a little giggle in spite of myself.
“What’s funny, bitch?” He turned the gun on me, held it parallel to the ground like they do in rap videos; I could see from his fingers he was a white guy.
Should’ve worn gloves, Jesse James, I thought.
“Sorry, sir,” I apologized in my best humble store clerk voice. “I laugh when I’m nervous, it’s an awful habit.”
“That old bag sassed me, and you can see what happened to her.”
I saw McMinn then, laying next to a roundel display, half the bolts fallen out of it, scattered all about her in a pile. Blood from a busted lip was smeared like jam across the drop-biscuit of her face, but her popover bosom rose with shallow breaths. Not dead, thank every blessed star.
I laughed again, caught myself. “Apologize again, sir, but I been wanting to punch that woman in the snoot so long myself, I oughta shake your hand.”
His features smushed up pretty good behind them dark pantyhose, but I still saw him crack a smile at that. He wiped it off double-quick though and fidgeted, stepping from foot to foot like he had to pee bad. I wondered if Jesse James was new to this robbing thing, or if maybe he was one of them meth tweakers.
He shook the gun up in my face. “This ain’t enough money!” he barked.
“Don’t we know it,” I said. “Seems like we can’t do good business here, even at the holidays as you can see. Somebody prolly gonna get canned in the New Year.” Sugaree snuffled and wiped her tears on the sleeve of her Santa sweater. “I’m getting her a tissue,” I explained, slowly reaching for the packet of Kleenex I kept in the pocket of my smock.
“Fuck tissues!” Jesse yelled and waggled the gun again. “They’s got to be a safe in this store, I got to have me more money than this! You give it over or I’m gonna shoot somebody!” He swung the gun back toward Sugaree, who yelped and dropped into a keening ball, clasping her freckled hands over her head in a tornado drill. That was the break in the dam right there.
“Just a goddamn minute, mister,” I said, the cuss flowing on out like creek water, borne up by hard rocks of anger. Jesse cringed at my tone, like a boy used to getting beat on. I knew that cringe, but I locked up my heart.
“I’m sorry we don’t got more money in the registers, and you done knocked out the only gal who’d know about a safe. That ain’t my problem, or Shug’s problem, and you sure don’t need to go shooting anybody over it. You best take what you got and get. Security comes round about 9:30 every night, make sure we get locked up okay.”
Clock on the wall said 9:14, but I made a show of looking at my watch anyway—eight minutes since I’d called for help.
Who knows why you say the things you do in a crisis, but it damn near broke my heart what come out my mouth next: “Only thing worth money one man could carry off is the quilts.”
Well, not technically, I guess, but I made them sure as I’m standing here. Whenever we get a new collection of calicoes in—a new “fabric story,” McMinister calls it—I take home fat quarters and run up a lap quilt. We hang it from the ceiling over top whatever roundel the bolts are displayed on.
“We’ll get their creative juices flowing!” McMinn always chirps out.
I couldn’t give a half-turd about juicifying the dried-up old biddies that shop here; I just like piecing quilts in free fabrics. We pin a little price tag on them—[$200]—and if anybody buys one, I get half the money for my trouble, which is a pretty fair shake.
Jesse’s arm must’ve been getting tired holding the gun out, because he let it drop back crooked at his side, gripping it upright now like Dick Tracy. He stopped doing his pee-dance, but now he was bouncing on his heels and clenching his free fist over and over like milking an air-cow. Yeah, I knew what fooling with meth looked like, and he was a perfect picture.
“Can’t pawn a quilt.”
“Prolly not,” I scrambled, “but you can eBay one. Specially those in the novelty fabrics, like the Christmas Elvis, or the Betty Boop. That’s my second Betty Boop—gal over at Shug’s church eBayed my first one for charity, got $600 for it. You could-.”
“Shut up!” Jesse yelled and thrust the gun out stiff-armed again. “Gimme your wallet!”—he gestured toward the crumpled fetal wad of Sugaree—“Hers, too, and the old bag’s. And cell phones!”
Oh holy Lord.
“Now!” Jesse screamed, and Shug scrabbled around under the register. Her shaking speckled hand appeared, dumped her wallet and cell and McMinn’s entire handbag on the countertop.
I took a deep breath and stuck my hand in my pocket; it closed around my iPod.
“Sir,” I said, taking it out slowly. “My pocketbook is in my locker, so I’d have to go back and get it. Prolly ain’t worth the time, I only got a couple dollars, but you can take my new iPod.” I held out my open hand and it lay there in my palm like a shiny new pack of gum.
He snatched it up, and that’s when he saw my tattoo, the one on my forearm, the falling star.
Customers ask about it and I always point to my nametag—“Welcome to Sew-Fisticated! My name is STARLENE.” Usually makes them smile. If it don’t, I know they’re a chap-ass so I make sure to cut their yardage with an extra eighth, which usually does the trick. Even a chap-ass likes free stuff.
Mama named me Starlene, so she says, because it’s a name you can go places with. First time she told me that, I was little enough I believed it. She named my sisters Sheba-Letha and Diamelle, and back then I thought we had the names of queens and rare jewels and the wives of pagan gods.
Now though, I know she was pulling legs and fingers. Nobody going nowhere with a name like Starlene. She named me that to keep me exactly where I am. Where’s a body gonna go as a Starlene, or a Diamelle, or a Sheba-Letha? Whorehouse, or a trailer park, that’s about it.
Diamelle, she always said as kids she’d grow up to be a film star, but last I heard from her she’d hitched as far as Memphis, and that’s close as she’ll ever get to Hollywood, mark my words. Called me up, six months ago now. First said she’d been singing in bars and such, doing real good, but that lie slipped quick. I could tell from her voice, she’d been messing with drugs and they was messing back. Lord amighty, did she sound gone-bad. She gave me an address though, and I true did send her fifty dollars, but I also told her it’s the first and last time. Poor old Diamelle. Never made any sense to me, dream too big.
Sheba-Letha, she turned out a top of us three gals. High school, she got tangled up with this black fella, Percy Carter, got herself pregnant and we thought he’d be a fading speck in the distance, but no sir. He sure did marry her, joined the Army, and that’s ten years ago. She and Percy, they been all over this world together, two more babies come along and he put her through nursing school, even. Percy’s a good man. Course he’s over in Iraq now, and I got to force myself to open the paper in the mornings. Third tour, and I think of him every day, and Sheba, and their three. Sheba, she goes by “Shelby” now. Shelby’s a name that’ll raise you up to a life you can brag on. “Mrs. Shelby Carter, R.N.,” that’s how she signs Christmas cards. Sounds real respectable.
I might not be as good-off as Sheba—Shelby, I mean—but I’m a piece better than Diamelle, bless her…though the way folks treat you clerking in the store, you might contest that. In eight years I worked myself up to three dollars above minimum, turned down management promotions twice. I never want to be doing that type stuff—bookkeeping and schedules and firing folk. No sir, that’s somebody’s bag, but it sure ain’t mine. I got a Foretravel fully paid off, and my checks are just enough for hookup fees and lot rental, with a hair extra to put food on my table and whatnot. I get fabric free or nearly, so I got everything I want in-hand. I reckon I’m doing good as anybody’d expect.
Sure didn’t feel like I was doing anything but god-awful though, standing there with my heart beating Indian drums, handing over my iPod to some speed freak with a firearm. Three months layaway, an early Christmas present to myself, but I didn’t want it bad enough to die for.
“Where’d you get that tattoo?” Jesse said, stuffing the iPod absently into a pocket of his barn coat. He started up with the pee-dancing again.
I turned my wrist a little—thirteen minutes gone on the watch timer—and I traced the star with my finger. “Little place out on Greeneville Highway, coupla bikers run it. I picked it off the wall.”
Jesse heaved his butt up onto the counter, grabbed Shug’s wallet and cell. He splayed his legs out all bad-mannerly as he pawed through McMinn’s pocketbook. “You always have something to wish on, that falling star?”
“No sir,” I said. The question made me uncomfortable. “I reckon a star’s just another speck of light til it falls. Then it’s gone. We’re all of us like stars, little specks among a million billion others and why should anybody notice any other one? But some fall. I got it so I’d remember them that fall.”
Jesse peered at me then from inside his panty-mask and stopped drumming his feet. He took a real long look, the kind that normally make you say, “Take a picture, buddy, it lasts longer.”
“Come over here,” Jesse said, tossing McMinn’s pocketbook off to one side and patting his thigh up close to where his business was. “Lemme take a closer look.”
I didn’t know if I should be scared or not and I sure didn’t know where to rest my gaze. I couldn’t look him in his eyes no more, not with those stupid pantyhose on his face and his hand so near to his crotch, so I stared at his shoes. They was real old leather Reeboks, the high-top kind with the Velcro straps. Couldn’t have been cheap new, but they was so beat to hell he’d fixed the toecaps a couple times over with some grubby duct tape. Mama always said you know a man by looking at his shoes. Bo-Ray’d never wear them shoes, nor Percy Carter.
One thing I always been ever-thankful for, I never been much to look at. Looking pretty’d just be a world of hurt. It ain’t like dogs run the other way when they catch an eyeful of me coming, I just got features nobody’d dub aught but plain: narrow eyes the shade of dirty snow, hair no particular color of brown. I crack a big wide smile, but I’m missing a side tooth so I don’t go grinning around much. Bo-Ray said he’d pay to get it fixed if it meant I’d smile more. He knows computers, he makes decent money. I hate to take anything from anybody, though.
Best thing going for me, I always been what the magazines call fat. Every man looked twice at me got as far as hips and titties and thought, “She’ll do.” Which suits me fine. I got a few uses for a man in my life: I hate tinkering on my old car, I sure can’t climb a ladder, and I like a little pole-catting now and again. But what with Jesse all splay-legged on the counter, one hand on a gun and the other awful damn near to where his pecker ought to be, me so flustered I could barely tear my eyes off his shoddy shoe-leather, I sure did wish for a scrawny-bone body to go with my dishwater face.
I smiled though, real wide so Jesse’d see my tooth-gap, and walked over to him, holding up that star tattoo like a shield. He grabbed my wrist and pulled me up close inside the corral of his thighs.
Please, dear sweet Jesus, please don’t let him look at the watch, I prayed, even though I never talk directly to Jesus in normal life with no guns present.
“My brother had this exact same tattoo,” Jesse said. “Got it when he joined the Army. Prolly picked it off the wall at the same place.”
I could smell the breath coming out his nostrils through the stocking, and it made me want to gag. I didn’t, though.
“He was a star. My brother. My steering star. But he fell.”
Jesse put his forefinger at the end of the star’s trail, let out a falling-bomb whistle as he followed the lines down my forearm. Then he was quiet, still, me tucked up against him unmoving, like I cared about his loss.
“You better get going, sweetpea,” I said, not unkindly. “Security guard show up any minute now, and you wanna be gone by then.”
“I wanna be gone by then,” he agreed, sliding off the counter so we were right up close facing, like we were about to dance at the prom. He set the gun right there on the countertop and sure enough wrapped his arms around me.
“You coming with me,” he said. “You be my steering star.”
I drew back, shaking my head, and tried to wiggle free of his grip. “No…” but he pulled me even closer and I did gag when he shoved his groin right up against me, right up against that cell phone in my smock pocket. He must’ve ground a button, because it let out a little beep.
He stopped and let go my arms.
“You lied to me, bitch!” Jesse bellowed and socked me in the jaw. I staggered back. It true did hurt, but he was going to have to crack me a lot harder than that if he planned to do me like he done McMinn.
He whirled, grabbed air.
Sugaree stood at the register, that gun in both trembling hands with one finger on the trigger. Her eyeliner had run tear-tracks so she looked like Alice Cooper, if Alice Cooper were a little freckled slip of a corkscrew-redhead in a Santa Claus sweater.
Her hands were shaky but her voice held steady as Gibraltar: “You get on outta here, motherfucker, or I’m gonna blow your guts out the back door.”
Jesse hollered something wordless and lunged, Shug fired, and a flower opened its petals in the back of his barn coat like on a nature program. Shug and I screamed out an octave as he fell. She flung the pistol away stiff-fingered like something clingy-nasty and reeled against the register. I scrambled over to Jesse, squirming around in his own blood and making these horrible sucking sounds.
I thought maybe he couldn’t breathe trussed up in the black-lady pantyhose, so real gentle I pulled the stockings off his head. Poor old Jesse James. His eyes was slush-pale like mine, but all sunk in his skull and his cheeks so hollow like pictures of Holocaust Jews. His lips curled back with the pain and I saw he had a tooth gone, one back from mine on the same side. A little bit of bloody drool ran down his chin.
I may not be Mrs. Shelby Carter, R.N., but I true enough knew that meant he was bad off damaged.
He said something then, lowlike; it sounded like, “Diamelle.”
I panicked. “What’d you say?”
I leaned down close and he said it again: “I fell.”
Through the glass storefront I saw cop cars and ambulances pull in, maybe too late to do any good.
Jesse clutched at my arm where the star stood out against the pale fishbelly of my skin. “Don’t you forget how brightly I fell.”
His eyes went dull and unfocused and I stood up. McMinn let out a moan and stirred around, but it was Sugaree concerned me. She’d gone outright hysterical.
“Did I kill him? Oh God, Starlene!”
I lit round the counter and folded her up in my arms.
“No, Shug, maybe not. EMTs will take him, he might be okay.”
“I’ll go to jail, what’ll happen to my babies?” She was hyperventilating. I handed her one of the little paper sacks we put threads and notions into.
“Breathe in here, sweetpea.”
I took the phone out my pocket. Twenty-two minutes and counting on the line to 911. Praise Jesus for that flitty operator, hanging on the line like he done.
“You get all that, young man?” I asked.
“Yes ma’am,” he said. “You tell that young lady everything’s going to be alright.”
The break in his voice done broke me. I started bawling and the tears all just whirled out. “You tell her yourself,” I handed the phone to Sugaree.
Shug stayed on the phone to that operator man for a long while. He even made her laugh a couple times, bless him. I watched the EMTs wheel Jesse James out to an ambulance—they said he might make it if he was lucky. He didn’t seem like the lucky type.
The policemen took our information and explained what-all hoops we were going to have to jump through before we could get on home. This one nice-looking officer passed me my iPod.
“Bet you glad to have that back,” he said. His smile was kind. “I reckon that fella meant to fence it.”
“I reckon.” I looked at it. “How much you figure he’da got for it?”
The nice-looking cop shrugged. “Maybe seventy-five bucks?”
I cogitated on that. “You think that buys gas to Memphis and back?”
The cop looked at me cockeyed and let out a little pssh. “Might could. You got a need to go there?”
I nodded. “Yes sir, I do.” I touched the picture on my arm. “Try to catch a falling star.”
“I hear that’s hard to do.” He humored me, like he thought I was in shock. I prolly was.
I smiled at him, my wide smile Bo-Ray likes so much, and devil take the gap in the side.
Rachel E. Pollock is a professor of Costume for Dramatic Art at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Her creative writing has appeared in the Harvard Summer Review, Southern Arts Journal, and Main Channel Voices, as well as the anthologies Voices of Multiple Sclerosis, Confessions: Fact or Fiction? and Knoxville Bound. She is currently pursuing an MFA in creative writing through the University of New Orleans’ low-residency program.