Struggling actor Henry witnesses a murder while working as a cashier in a New York gas station; by Harry Laufman.
I raise my hands above my head.
"Don't do that!" He sounds like a school teacher. "Everyone will think it's a robbery. For Christ's sake, they can see us through the windows." His head gestures toward the gas pumps, one hand rests on the pistol butt.
My hands drop like rocks. "Sure, you bet. Anything you want." That's the training I got from the manager on how to handle robbers. I've worked hard on that line, agreeing but not vulnerable.
"Now," he says, "look at me, laugh, and clap your hands like something's really funny. Now, point at me and say real loud 'Gotcha, Jimmy.'"
I do what he says. Acting, something I know. He laughs hard doing a slow motion punch toward my jaw with his left hand.
"Gimme a Chick-O-Stick," he glances at the display rack. I hand one over.
"Good, very good. And now we talk."
"OK," I say slowly wondering where this is going. I'm trying to find the right character, the one who will stay alive. I hate it when life goes off script. This guy is so relaxed, so confident. He's either a professional or... or what?
"Next, I'm going to look around your little store here. I'm just a customer, understand. Don't look at me. Not even once. Or I'll shoot you in the head. Got it?"
"Sure, absolutely, you're the boss," I say with surprising calm. I've been robbed before, but that was a jumpy kid - I'm guessing meth - so I was scared, very scared, that he'd take exception to something I said or how I looked, and put a bullet in my chest. This guy is different, so relaxed... I trust him with the deal we'd made. And then it hits me. He's going to waste someone who's coming to the store. And I'm a witness. I know his face. Shit! I'm dead. There's no place to hide. No silent alarm.
I take a deep breath, relish the feel of my lungs filling. Sam Johnson was right, "When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully." Time gets weird for me too. I look at the big round wall clock above the door. The second hand is ticking past the 3 and just passes the edge of the Budweiser bottle on the face of the clock. The little bell on the door shakes. A man walks in casually. I suppress a reflex to take a glance at my other customer. I stay on script. My acting craft comes in handy again.
The man walking in the door has on a baggy brown overcoat. The top of his head lines up perfectly with the six foot mark on the height chart beside the door. Ironic that I'm supposed to notice this when a perp is running out the door, not when he's walking in to his execution. The coroner will measure our heights later.
Looking past the guy, my heart jumps. A city police car is pulling up to the gas pumps nearest the door. Please Mr Cop, come in for a donut, a coffee, anything. The cop gets out, stretches; his back still toward me. He swipes a credit card. I look at the clock. The second hand is at nine. The cop looks up at the sky like he's checking the weather and turns his head. I recognize him! His name is Winston, a regular. Whenever I see him, my head voice says Churchill. He always buys a bag of Skittles.
I fuss with the time sheets beside the register. Maybe I won't be killed after all. Just caught in the middle of a gunfight. I glance around the floor behind the counter for a place to dive.
Overcoat-man walks to my counter. I glance at his face, and then down at his chest. I'm the shy-boy cashier.
"Pack of Camels, filter," he says, pointing over my shoulder to the cigarette case.
"You got it." I turn, pull a pack from the case, turn back, and toss the pack on the glass counter. "There ya go. That'll be four-seventy."
Overcoat man snaps a five twice between his hands, trades it with the cigarette pack on the counter, and says, "Call it an even trade." He bites the red cellophane tab in his teeth and pulls the pack open. "Where's the head?"
"Far corner, in the back," I point with my left hand wondering how Jimmy will take this. I have a peripheral glimpse of him over on the right, near the front window.
"Thanks," says overcoat-man, and starts toward the bathroom.
My mind is racing.
The door jingles. It's Winston. He gives me a little nod as he turns down the candy aisle. He'll be face to face with Jimmy across the candy rack. I figure that to alert him now would get him shot, and then me. Now Jimmy walks toward the door. With one hand on the door handle, he points a right hand finger pistol at me, flicks his thumb, and says, "Thanks," and after a beat, "see ya later." He's out the door and gone, around behind the station.
Winston is deciding on Skittles. He always pretends he's carefully deciding which candy and then grabs a large bag of Skittles. Overcoat-man comes out of the bathroom. Winston picks up his Skittles. Winston is in front of me fishing for cash, while overcoat-man walks behind him and turns to the door. He pushes the door open with his left hand, and half turns toward me when a dark blue car pulls up right in front of him and stops. The driver's window is down. Jimmy takes careful aim with the long muzzled revolver steadied on his left arm, and fires three times. The first shot hits overcoat-man in the far side of his head and exits high on my side taking a chunk of skull and brain with it. The next two bullets are shots to the chest. Overcoat-man twists around and falls. Tires screech and Jimmy is out of sight around the station. I have to say, Winston is cool. He has his gun drawn and is out the door around the corner damn quick for a fifty-something cop. And I'm pretty cool, too. I dial 911 just as Winston disappears around the side of the station.
Afterwards, things go on auto-pilot, a well rehearsed police routine. Down to the station for my statement. Sergeant Garcia shows me a photo of Jimmy and asks "Is this the man who shot your customer?" Sure enough, it's him. Garcia thanks me and says not to worry.
"The shooter is wanted for lots more, and Officer Winston identified him too." A pause and Garcia looks at me with a practiced reassurance, "He's a pro. You can sleep easy. He's probably on his way to Detroit right now."
"Who got shot?" I have to ask. "Who was that guy in brown?"
"We can't talk about that right now," Wilcox says. He picks up his papers from the interview room table. "You're free to go. Check in with the desk Sergeant. He'll assign a uniform to drive you home. Take a couple days off until the gas station is cleaned up. Relax, take it easy. Call it a little vacation. This doesn't happen to people every day. A couple days and you'll be fine."
I can't believe I live like this - the poverty, the indignity, the constant self-doubt. But there is a sort of fraternity. We need a word for the familiarity that grows between young actors and artists trying to survive in New York City. Starving artists is the cliché, but that misses the friendships and the help we give each other in spite of the undertow of competition. Community? Fellowship? Sounds like a church group.
Dad helped with college, until I quit. Told him I was going to take my acting career to New York. He's in that "let-the-boy-find-out-about-real-life" phase of parenting. They usually hit that at fifty years old but Dad was a late bloomer. He's sixty. We're not angry with each other, just disinterested. Dad owns a couple of little restaurants. I tried a little of that routine the summer after high school. The problem with restaurants is that they have customers. Customers who are always right. That's not for me. So I know two things; I'm not waiting tables, and I'll never work for my dad. Period. We had that conversation. Dad gave me his most profound, caring, fatherly wisdom... "Suit yourself," he said with a shrug. He's the same way with Mom, always backs down. When I was little, it was Mom who called out a bully's father. Dad said he didn't want to get involved, but I could see he was scared. Mom's excuse was, "Your father doesn't like confrontations. He's a little shy around strangers. He's, well, he's just not made for that sort of thing." But now, it's cool that he's so hands off. Except for the no money part.
We starving actors seem to bind together in boy-girl pairs. It eliminates one layer of competition. I don't see Sandy at every audition I go to like I would if she was a he. Sandy and I share the tiniest efficiency imaginable. When we're both home the bathroom is the only place you can be and not see your roommate. And get this, we have bunk beds. Wait, I guess when we're both in bed we can't see each either. Curious form of privacy. Curious form of intimacy. We sleep together but can't see each other. Sandy posted a roommate-wanted sign with eight tear-offs of a phone number on a cork board at Lawson Dance School on 17th. I tore off the last one. There's got to be deep meaning in that. We talked over coffee at Jane's Dairy Bar and decided we could tolerate each other. She's a dancer. Wants to do ballet but will temporize. Isn't desperate enough for the "Gentlemen's Clubs"... yet.
I knock on our apartment door and fiddle noisily with my keys while I sing out, "Honey, I'm home." A courtesy to Sandy just in case she's with company. I'm back two hours early. We both use the "Honey, I'm home" gag. A couple of our dates have taken exception to our playful provocation of panic. Maybe it's a good relationship test.
"And you believe the cop?" Sandy asks incredulously after I tell her the story. "He won't be back because he's a pro? That's not the conclusion that I come to. I'm scared that I even know you, let alone live with you. You're a witness to some kind of contract killing. Hell, it's first names, Henry and Jimmy. You're almost friends with the killer."
"Jesus Christ, Sandy, help me out here with a little support and optimism."
"That's what I am doing. Not the optimism part, but the reality check about this professional killer just moving on to the next job when there's an eyewitness to him offing his latest target. That still sound OK to you?"
"Damn," I shake my head. "Maybe you're right. But what can I do? Not like I have the bucks to go hide out in Padua Italy... and London is so dreary this time of year."
"For starters, quitting the gas station gig would be smart. And quit the comedy, this is serious." says Sandy.
"You're right." I pause. "I can hang at Ben's for a few days." Ben is another artist type. At the moment he's a mime in front of the Metropolitan. The mime in front of the Metropolitan.
"You could call your dad," Sandy offers. I laugh.
"Can you spell Caspar Milquetoast?" There's no reaction. "Look, Dad runs two restaurants. I think he fired someone, once, maybe. He's a wimp. He'll tell me to come home. I won't run. The big city isn't going to beat me."
"It's not the city, dip-shit, it's a professional assassin you can identify."
Sandy and I never decompress. I call Ben. Crashing at his place for a couple days is cool. I grab my Mets ball cap and split for Ben's. On the subway I constantly think someone is watching me. I ride one stop past Ben's and walk back to check I’m not being followed. Sandy gets an "A" for her scare-the-bejesus-out-of-Henry project. Ten minutes later I'm watching NCIS while Ben is microwaving Ramen noodles. Ben is non-committal on whether I'm safe or not. I'm exhausted but there's no way I can sleep so Ben gives me fifty milligrams of Trazodone. I'm convinced it's not working and wake up nine hours later. Time, a night's sleep, makes life a little less scary, and I reconsider hiding out at Ben's.
"A good sleep and you're looking pretty calm," Ben offers. "Stay another two, three days, and really settle down. Like the cop said, a little vay-cay. You'll be cool. Maybe look for another job. This is just a bump in the road."
Ben is no therapist, but he's saying the right things. I am calmer. And a break from life sounds good.
"Done," I say, pointing a finger gun at him, and catching myself. Shit, there's a habit I've got to break if I ever want peace of mind. Shit, and now I've embedded it two layers deep in my brain. Ben sees my little mental double-take.
"I get it, Dude. Just be yourself."
"OK, I'm outta here. Gonna pop by my place and pick up some clothes and stuff. See ya in about an hour."
"Later," says Ben.
Back in the subway I have a little laugh at my over-reaction. The trip home is only ten minutes when I don't take the avoid-the-professional-killer evasive action. I turn the corner and see fire engines in front of our place. The fire is out, but the smoke smell is biting and the windows to our place are just rectangular holes in the brick wall with scorch marks stretching up three floors. There's an ambulance and a stretcher is being wheeled up to the back, but no one is in any hurry. There's a black body bag on the stretcher. I run up to the police tape and tell a uniform that I live there. I'm swept into the routine of another police investigation. Until Ben comes in and tells the cops where I was, it's obvious that I am suspect number one. Even then it's a little iffy. I'm released with a ride home like before but I've got no where to go.
Sandy is dead. Shot in the head. Then the room got doused with gasoline and lit. First I figure it's to hide the cause of death, but then I realize that Jimmy knows he missed me and wants to take away as much of my support system as he can. No clothes, no books, nothing left but what I took to Ben's... my ball cap and cell phone. I direct the cop car to Battery Park. My idea is to take a ride on the Staten Island Ferry and do some thinking, but I want to check for any followers first. I don't like the idea of a tap on the head and falling unconscious into the Upper Bay.
I sit on a bench beside the Korean Vets Memorial. I call Ben and tell him to forget he ever knew me. Then I call my dad. My story is a pretty short tell. Dad asks where I am.
"Sitting in Battery Park."
The pause is so long I wonder if he's fainted or something. I know the connection’s live, I can hear a TV. After 30 seconds I say, "Dad?" real soft.
"Be at the Waldorf in thirty minutes," he says. "There'll be a room reserved for André Constantine. That's you. No ID required. There'll be a message with a phone number. Call it. Say you just checked in. Someone you know will come to your room. He'll keep you safe. Do what he says. You got all that?"
"Ahh, OK Dad," I'm the one pausing to think now, "I got it." Before I can add "Thanks" the connection is gone.
For the second time this week my mind is beautifully concentrated. The city noises separate. A horn, a jack hammer, two teen boys arguing, birds, a garbage can crashing to the sidewalk, a plane, a kid sliding his bike in gravel. I smell the city, a dozens aromas at once, and I know each one. Then I see Sandy's face. I feel the fear, the terror she felt before she died. I'm crying. I gag two or three times, brace myself over a litter can ready to throw up. A older woman carrying groceries is checking me out when I catch her eye. She looks away. I breathe deep, straighten up, alive, and start walking. I can get the Lexington Express at Bowling Green.
The desk man at the Waldorf says, "We've been expecting you Mr Constantine," when I say the name. He hands me a key card and says, "One-two-two-one. The elevators are on your left. And here's a message for you." He hands me a big manila envelope, sealed.
I have my index finger gun raised to point at him but I freeze and say, "Thank you. Thank you very much."
I check the envelope in the elevator, there's a wad of worn bills in a doubled rubber band. A card on top says 917-622-6771. A Bronx number. Or a cell phone. I call from the room and just say, "I'm at the Waldorf." A man coughs and says, "Good. See ya." Click.
Room 1221 is a small suite. I only say small because I've seen ridiculous Las Vegas whale-suites on TV. 1221 has three rooms and a kitchen. I startle when there's a knock on the door. I phoned about three minutes ago. I walk tentatively to the peephole. My mind warns me of the possible bullet or ice pick in the eye.
I recognize Oliver from Dad's restaurant. He's been around as long I can remember. Just a guy in the background. I thought he was co-owner. A muscular guy but not big enough for the pros.
"Now that you made it here," Oliver says, glancing around the room, "just relax. We've got things covered. This won't take more than a day or two."
"What do you mean, Oliver?" My speech stumbles. "OK if I call you Oliver?"
"Whatever, Oliver's good." He's checking the rooms out closely. "That other thing, I can't say. Go watch TV." He goes to all the windows and pulls the thick drapes closed. It's so dark we have to click on some lights.
We watch twenty minutes of Casablanca before I say, "I'm hungry, how about you?"
"Sure. Almost forgot," he flips me an American Express card. "Call room service, anything you want. And get me a beer and a Reuben sandwich."
I have a cheeseburger, fries, and a Coke.
Over our meal Oliver shakes his head and laughs. "We've got twenty grand on a credit card and we eat like shit-shovelers."
"We'll do better tomorrow," I offer.
I don't see the end of Casablanca. I'm laying on the sofa and the next thing I know I'm awake with the room phone ringing. Bright daylight leaks around the drapes.
Oliver picks up with, "Yeh." He listens, looks at me, listens. "OK, got it." He hangs up.
I start to speak. Oliver stops me with a raised hand.
"First we have breakfast," he says. "Doctor's orders."
After our eggs, sausage and bacon, with morning TV, Oliver says, "That phone call. It's over. From here, you go to your friend Ben's place. He knows everything's OK now. The paper in the envelope is yours. Get back on your feet, find another place. Keep trying to be an actor."
"What's over?" I ask.
"That thing you were in."
"Jimmy. He's gone."
"I don't get it."
Oliver rolls his eyes, "Think about it, kid." Oliver sees the reaction in my face. "Yeah, you got it now."
I'm staring at our lunch plates.
"Now," says Oliver, "You wait for your dad to call you."