By Jack Keillor
When I’m feeling the most forgiving of myself, when I’m trying to find a reason to keep on, I try to tell myself that I just let it all slip away from me. When I’m feeling less than forgiving, I tell myself that everyone I’ve loved and inevitably lost were just thanks to some cosmic joke against me, or at worst a heaping helping of bad luck, but I know it isn’t the truth, either. The truth is that I pushed them away. I did everything in my power, consciously or not, to hurt myself through them. Hurt them a good deal doing it, too. I know that, but at the same time, I don’t know it at all. It’s like I know it, but I refuse to believe it. Like I can see myself through a third party’s perspective and diagnose the problem, but I’m also the guy saying, “Fuck that noise.” What do you do when you know the solution but you’re the problem? What recourse do you have?
That’s what was on my mind back in ’97, following a Domino’s cashier to the bank at the end of a shift to make sure nothing funny happened along the way.
At the end of the night the cashier would get all of the cash and checks made that day and I’d escort them to the bank to avoid a robbery, as was known to happen in the area. Before that night, it’d all gone down without a hitch, every time. Usually the site of a police vehicle was enough to detour most thieves, but not that night in January. One of those nights where it’s so damn cold you wonder if you’ll see the other side of it, or even if you want to. When it’s been just long enough past Christmas where the snow isn’t so cute anymore. It’s just a sheet of death across the surface of everything, or at least that’s how I saw it that night. The night Debra left me.
She had every reason to. I’d grown distant, cold. It wasn’t anything she did, if anything the problem was that she was too good to me. I was young then, didn’t know who I was yet. Hell, I don’t know who I am now, but back then it was worse. More uncertain, more dangerous. I wanted the world or I wanted to die and I didn’t have time for anything in between. Just starting out on the force, in a little pissant town in northern Minnesota, she was the best thing I had going for me. Which meant I was damn sure I’d do my best to ruin it.
When it came to the actual moment of the relationship’s demise, the fight lasted about eight minutes. She rattled off a list of complaints, I couldn’t disagree and I certainly wasn’t going to give her what she wanted, the lie that I would be a better person, so she left. Of course she left. God bless her for leaving. One of us had to and it sure as hell wasn’t going to be me. I wasn’t strong enough. Still ain’t.
That night I loaded up on not one but two orders of cheesy bread. You can say a lot about the Domino’s menu, and I have, especially back then before they made their pizza edible, but the one thing they always got right was the cheesy bread. It was warm, it was gooey and if it wasn’t really cheese, well, they fooled me. Beginner’s tip; you throw down an extra $.69 and you get yourself another cup of that marinara sauce. Believe me, it’s worth it. You’ll be glad you have it when you don’t find yourself at the end with two long sticks and nowhere to dip.
Not that I had to pay. We had a deal worked out. I’d follow the kid to the bank at the end of the shift and they’d toss me all the c-bread I could handle. I wasn’t on the clock at the station, making me technically a citizen on the job, so I could take the kick back with no moral qualms. Kind of funny the things I worried about back then, the moral implications of taking some free cheesy bread. By the end of the decade I’d be so deep in moral ambiguities that gray was the only color I knew. A very dark, dark gray.
That day I was escorting little Joey Stensel, a 17-year-old kid that just couldn’t catch a break. He was always fumbling around the kitchen, messing up orders and getting screamed at by every other employee there. He’d burst into tears at least twice a shift. It was adorable. Sometimes after we got to bank I’d take him out for ice cream or even one time bought him a beer. I knew I shouldn’t have, being as the kid was underage and I was a cop and all, but I could tell that it really meant a lot to him. At least I thought it did.
On our way to the bank that night a beat up station wagon with miss-matched doors got between me and Joey. I didn’t think much of it, that sort of thing happened all the time, but when he not only hit the breaks but slammed the thing in reverse on the middle of the highway, it was pretty obvious that I’d made a pretty substantial mistake. A mistake that probably should have cost me my life.
When the station wagon slammed into me, I thought I was already dead. Everything went static and I felt my seatbelt go slack and a giant piece of the car cut into my right hip and sliced the belt clean off of me. I flew through the window and saw pavement coming at me faster than I thought was even possible and then it all went black. When I woke up and looked down I saw my own guts lying across the asphalt. Fortunately everything still looked like it connected to the stuff it was supposed to be connected to, so I scooped them back into myself the best I could with one hand and drew my gun with the other. I came up to the driver’s side of the station wagon just in time to see the driver still moving, but not fast enough to see he was moving for a gun.
He hit me in my open gut, putting bullet clean through what I would find out later was my appendix. I went where the bullet wanted me to go but I took aim with my revolver and managed to put a bullet through his brain before he could do anymore damage. I could hear the ambulance coming but I figured this was it for me. I crawled over to Joey’s car, which was pulled over to the side of the road and found that he was gone. I thought at first that maybe he had just gotten scared and run for it, but then I noticed the bag we were taking to the bank. While it was still there, the cash had been taken out. Only checks left. The kind of checks a 17-year-old kid that just robbed a Domino’s by having his buddy slam into an armed cop wouldn’t be able to cash. The little shit set me up.
I blacked out shortly after and woke up three days later with no one beside my bed. No surprise there. I got up, collected my things and slipped out of the hospital in the middle of the night and went to Joey’s house.
For awhile I watched him through the window. Watched him playing his new Playstation, smoking weed, hanging out with some kids that it made sense that he would hang out with. I waited for the friends to leave, waited for his parents to go to sleep, then I snuck in through the back door, slipping a credit card into the door jam.
When he saw me standing in his doorway he immediately burst into tears, begging for forgiveness but most importantly his life. I didn’t care. When he saw the size of the knife I had with me he stopped crying and started bargaining. Tried to bribe me with pizza rolls and “the good shit” but I wasn’t hearing it. I had my hand around his mouth before he could start screaming and the knife in his belly before he even realized what was happening. I shoved a sock into his mouth and watched from his beanbag chair as he tried to get what I took out of him back in. I told him that since I was a fair man, that I’d leave him the way he left me. Broken, abandoned, and doing his best to keep his guts from touching the floor.
When I got back to my car I realized that I just couldn’t do it. I walked back into his room, used his phone to call an ambulance and just when he thought he was safe I put a bullet between his eyes. Fuck fair.
I snuck back into my hospital bed before anyone even noticed I was gone.
I knew that night that I wasn’t a good person because a good person wouldn’t open the stomach of a 17-year-old then shoot him in the face. I knew that. For the next few years I would lean into the person I was that night, but he wasn’t me either. He was just another extreme. Another version of me that I used to hide behind so I didn’t have to think about who I really was.
That night, the cheesy bread wasn’t worth the cost. Nothing was worth that cost. That’s not the cheesy bread’s fault, though, and I won’t for a second let that affect this review in any way.