“Do you know what that does to your footprint?”
I was standing at the checkout counter fishing through my wallet while the stone faced Korean shop-keep waited in what was either benevolent patience or quiet contempt, when a slight framed woman with large breasts in a black tank-top unabashedly flaunting an inordinate amount of cleavage, asked about my footprint.
“My what?” There was a pack of unfiltered Camel cigarettes and a Phat Asses magazine on the counter in front of me.
“Your carbon footprint,” she said. “Do you know what that purchase does to your carbon footprint?”
I hadn’t noticed her standing behind me when I’d asked for the magazine and was suddenly embarrassed. For a moment I considered trying to fake it. I could point at the magazine, look up at the shop-keep with a befuddled expression on my face and say, “What’s this? I asked for a copy of Better Homes and Gardens,” then turn back to the girl and shrug my shoulders, effecting an air of innocence, but I didn’t have the energy and I was pretty sure my unblinking friend behind the counter wouldn’t play along anyway, so I gave her my best, Yah I’m buying porn at a Quick Mart on a Wednesday afternoon. What about it? look, and coughed up the ten bucks.
“The paper to make that skin mag. The energy used at the studio when they shoot that filth. The gas consumed transporting it to the Quick Mart. It all adds up you know,” She continued with a haughty glower.
“And what about you?” I said. It was a weak response, but I was half awake, hung over, and distracted by her breasts. Under the circumstances, it was the best I could manage. “You’re going to buy something right? How big is your carbon foot print?”
With deft and fluid grace, she stepped back, reached down and lifted the front of her tank top, exposing a soft white stomach adorned with a lovely blue butterfly tattoo.
“I didn’t come here to buy something,” she said, smiling brightly.
“What did you come here to do?” I managed.
Pulling her shirt to the side, she exposed the butt of a handgun tucked into the waistband of her low-rise jeans.
“Petty Larceny,” she said, her bright smile becoming a lunatic’s grin as she pulled the gun from her pants and pointed it at the shop-keep. “Grand Larceny if I’m lucky.”
Observing the gun, the perpetually narrow eyed proprietor’s eyes narrowed further still. He turned to me with a searching expression I interpreted to mean, Hey man, what the fuck is this? But I, of course, had no more idea than he.
“If it’s all the same to you,” the gun-toting environmentalist said politely, “I’ll be liberating the cash register of its contents. Being the proprietor of this fine establishment, you may be inclined to object. That is, of course, your exclusive privilege and right. My response, however, would be to blow your fucking brains all over the scratch tickets hanging behind your head.”
Outside, things continued on as though all was right with the world. Through the glass, I watched pedestrian after pedestrian walk past the Quick Mart without sparing so much as a glance. Any or all of them could have pushed through the double doors and walked in. No one did.
Without expression and without diverting his gaze from the flint gray gun barrel, the shop-keep opened the register. Ignoring the girl’s petition to “hurry the fuck up,” he moved slowly and deliberately, like clockwork, like a surgeon, neither quaking nor trembling, he removed the cash from the register and placed it in a plastic shopping bag. His face was resigned and emotionless save a hint of tempered furry just behind his eyes.
When the bag was full, the unlikely bandit snatched it from the countertop.
“Let’s go,” she said, pointing the gun at my forehead. “You’re driving getaway.”
“What? No fucking way!”
Now it was my turn to give the shop-keep a, what the fuck is this? look, but he, of course, had no more idea than I.
“You can take your magazine,” she said, “but you’ll have to leave the cigarettes. Addiction is a form of mental slavery.”
With few other options and curious to see where this was all headed, I picked up my copy of Phat Asses and exited the Quick Mart. She pressed the barrel of the gun into my side, roughly at level with my left kidney while we strolled arm in arm along the bright and sunny sidewalk.
“Isn’t this nice?” she said. “I love this time of year.”
“It’s lovely,” I said.
“Which do you like better?” She asked. “Spring or Fall?”
I stared at her in silence.
“It’s a simple fucking question,” she said, “Spring or Fall?”
“Fall,” I said. “I like to watch the leaves change.”
“Me too!” She said.
In truth, I was beginning to enjoy myself. It had been an awfully long time since I’d walked anywhere with a beautiful woman. It had been awhile since I’d walked anywhere with any woman.
We stopped beside a powder blue Cadillac. She opened the passenger door and pushed me inside. “Slide over hot stuff,” she said, “you’re driving.”
When I was behind the wheel she angled into the passenger seat beside me. Once again I found myself noticing the way her breasts stretched her tank top.
“Head to the SunTrust bank on Congress and Folsom.” She said.
“I don’t have any keys.” I muttered.
“Well you’re not going to find them in my shirt,” she said. “Look under the steering wheel. See those wires hanging out? Just touch the two ends together.”
“This is stolen,” I muttered.
“Wow, you’re as sharp as bowling ball. Now get going!” She jammed the gun into my side again.
When we were cruising along West 3rd she slipped the pistol back into her pants. “Don’t get any ideas,” she said, “I’m faster than you on my slowest day.”
I wasn’t planning anything. I was enjoying myself.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“I’m Nora, your guardian angel,” she said.
“Your guardian fucking angel. Are you always this slow?”
Nora picked up my copy of Phat Asses. She shook out the centerfold and held it up. A curvaceous bronze skinned Brazilian woman named Lolli Pop was resplendent on a sandy beach.
“Wow,” she whistled, “give me ten minutes with her and she’ll never want a man again.”
I felt myself stiffen in my jeans.
“Park it curbside about a half block past the SunTrust,” Nora said.
I did as I was told.
The bank was moderately busy for a Wednesday afternoon, traffic was light, the sun was shining and I was sitting in a stolen car with an armed woman who thought she was angel.
“So,” I asked, “does that mean you’re supposed to protect me or something?”
“I’m supposed to show you a good time,” she said, “and you’re supposed to chose life or some such shit. Anyway, if you don’t kill yourself, I get my wings.”
“I wasn’t going to kill myself,” I said
“Yeah you were,” she said.
“Besides, that’s the plot from a movie. It’s a Wonderful Life.”
“That’s right,” she said, “it’s a miserable life.”
“A wonderful life.”
Nora hopped out of the caddy. When she reached the curb she paused, looked back over her shoulder and winked.
Of course, I could have left. I could have opened the door and walked away, but I didn’t. Instead, I watched her walk into the SunTrust bank with her purse on her shoulder and a gun in her pants.
It didn’t take long, a few minutes, five at the most, before she came running out with a sack full of money. Before I knew it, she was jumping into the passenger seat Bonnie Parker style and I was peeling rubber. We abandoned the caddy in a cinema parking lot and stole a beat to shit faux wood panel station wagon. Nora had the door slim-jimmed and the steering column hot boxed in a New York minute.
“Robbing banks and boosting hoopties makes my awfully thirsty,” Nora said after sliding across the front seat to the wagon’s passenger side, “let’s get some shakes.”
I piloted the wagon to a Shake Shack and pulled into the drive thru. We paid for our chocolate shakes with a hundred dollar bill plucked from the open bag of cash at Nora’s feet and told the dumbfounded cashier to keep the change.
When we were cruising along Main Street Nora told me to pull over. I didn’t ask why, I didn’t question, I just pulled over like a good chauffeur and waited to see what she did next. When she got out of the car with her chocolate milkshake in hand, I followed suite.
“See that guy over there?” she said, pointing to a young Arnold Schwarzenegger protégé ambling along the sidewalk in a sleeveless tee shirt.
“The big goon with the round head?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said.
“What about him?”
“You’re going to fight him.”
“Fight him? Why would I want to do that?”
“Because, it’ll be fun.”
“Are you kidding me? He’s three times my size. He’ll break me in half.”
Without another word, she threw her Shake at the big guy’s head.
Wild eyed, the Sasquatch whirled around. As he did so, Nora stepped away from me and shouted, “What the fuck did you do that for?”
I was stunned. The monster’s eyes locked onto mine.
Like a bull, he charged. I held up my hands and crouched. The next thing I knew, I was on my back looking up at the bright blue sky. Depth charges of nauseating pain exploded deep inside my midsection. Not content with having knocked me flat on my back with a single punch, the Neanderthal was shoeing me in the gut. All at once, my head, already aching, was split open by a deafening sound. I looked up and saw Nora blasting an air horn right in the big bastard’s ear. He clasped his hands over his ears and winced. Without wasting a moment, she pulled a can of mace from her purse and gave him a face full. Coughing, retching, swearing and spitting, the monster turned away.
Nora helped me to my feet and we stumbled back to the wagon.
“I’d better drive,” she said.
Once inside I inspected my face in the mirror. I had a nasty gash across my left cheekbone and the skin around my eye was red and puffy.
“By tomorrow, it’ll be black and blue and swollen shut,” Nora said.
As she drove away, the tow of us laughed like hyenas. It hurt like hell, but I just couldn’t stop.
“See,” she said, “I told you it would be fun.”
Nora flipped the wagon’s radio on and spun the ancient knob through varying degrees of static before landing on an oldies station. We rode along in serene taciturnity while Cleveland Duncan crooned, Earth Angel. I hadn’t even realized where we were headed until I saw the old bell tower standing tall above the treetops.
“I loved the sound of that bell when I was a little girl,” she said, “The sound was so clear, so clean. I used to think it sounded like someone was ringing God’s doorbell.”
“Was anyone home?” I asked.
“I’m not sure.”
Nora stopped the car near the entrance to Graham Park. You could look out over the entire town from there.
“Once,” I said, “Two years ago, I went to the hardware store and bought some rope. I walked all the way to the bell tower in the pouring rain. I was going to climb to the top and hang myself but I chickened out.”
“I know,” she said.
She reached across the seat and held my hand while the sunset bled rust orange across the eastern sky.
After the sunset faded into dusk, Nora drove me home. Naturally, I’d hoped that she would spend the night but she didn’t.
“An angel doesn’t make love,” she said, “an angel is love.”
“That’s from Barbarella,” I told her.
She handed me the bag of cash and said she’d meet in the morning for coffee. Since I didn’t know how to say no to her, I agreed.
She kissed me goodnight.
The next morning I turned on the television. A woman had been killed overnight in a shootout with police. A reporter was interviewing the victim’s sister. The interviewee, who looked almost exactly like Nora, explained that her sister had suffered for years with schizophrenia.
“She stopped taking her meds and left home,” she said, sobbing. “We haven’t seen her for months. We’ve been worried sick.”
I turned off the television. I didn’t need to see the rest.
Nora didn’t come for coffee.
I walked to the hardware store and made a purchase. Afterwards, I walked all the way to the bell tower. It took me over an hour and a half but I didn’t mind. The ache felt good in my legs. I climbed the winding stone staircase to the top. For a while, I just stood there, looking out over the town.
Hefting the 25-pound mallet over my head should have been easy but I felt the burn run through my shoulders. God, I thought, I’m out of shape.
I watched the hammer strike the bell but did not hear the sound right away. There was a pause while the sleeping bell gathered itself, stretched and yawned. Finally, after shaking the dust from her pores, she sang. The sound was clear and clean and beautiful. The sound filled the air and the tower stone and shook the fillings in my teeth.
I looked out past the wide blue sky and waited for an answer.
S.C. Hayden’s fiction has been published in journals, magazines and anthologies, podcasted, shouted from rooftops and scrawled on bathroom walls across the English-speaking world. Authorities have recently placed him in Savannah GA, but you can find him at www.schayden.com