Merits Crime Short Fiction By J. David Harper

Merits: Crime Short Fiction By J. David Harper

J. David Harper, author of Merits, is a Los Angeles based writer of theatre and film. He has won awards for his plays and screenplays, and has performed in theaters from Los Angeles to New York.

*****

Tony was only pissed because they stopped carrying the brand of cigarettes he liked. Merit Kings in the gold pack. His store stopped carrying them around the time of the lawsuit, and he refused to go to any other store to get them.

“Why the hell should I have to make two trips,” he used to say. “Government interference is what it is.” Then he’d light up a Newport Smooth Select, a brand he hated and smoked out of spite. I never thought the lawsuit had anything to do with the store not selling them anymore, but Tony had it in his head that the United States Government had filed the suit just to spite him.

“Bunch of communists,” he always said. “Of course the paper is flammable. It’s a friggin’ cigarette.”

Tony thought the US Government had struck a secret deal with the pinkoes and that’s how the Berlin wall came down. “You lose more freedoms every day you live,” he told anyone who would listen. “Just like my friggin’ Merits.”

People mostly let him rant. He was old, and he had served in the war. I should clarify. He served in the second world war. He was a turret gunner in a B17 bomber and flew 24 missions over Germany. That was a lot. A lot more than I ever heard anyone else flying. They wanted him to come back stateside and train new recruits, but he decided to stay and fight the good fight. That’s when he got shot down and was captured by the Nazis. According to Tony, they lined them all up and asked what each of them did. All the other guys from his plane were carted off to god knew where. When he told them he was the turret gunner, the Nazi officer said, “For you, the drinks are on me!”

People mostly let him rant. He was old, and he had served in the war. I should clarify. He served in the second world war.

He was still a prisoner, but he was treated with respect. Being a turret gunner took balls and everyone knew it. A guy like that, you treat him right even if he is the enemy.

It was like that in prison, too, he said. A few years after the war, when Tony was struggling, he got the bright idea to start robbing banks to pay the bills. This was back in the day when you had to walk in the place with a gun and make demands eye to eye. There was no hacking into mainframes and changing ones to zeroes or zeroes to ones or whatever they do now. Back then you had to have balls to rob a bank, and Tony had grown quite a set of balls as a turret gunner. So when they finally caught up with him and sent him to prison, it was the same as being captured by the krauts. He was still a prisoner, but the other prisoners treated him with respect.

He was still a tough guy when they stopped carrying his Merits, but a tough guy at ninety-six is still ninety-six, so his tough-guy cred came more from his age than from any threat he posed. Most of us let him rant because he was our elder. Neighborhood kids called him “Good Time Tony” and threw rocks at his house. One night he came out with a shotgun and chased them down the street. A parent called the cops. His shotgun was confiscated while he ranted about the second amendment, illegal search and seizure, and the descent of America into a police state. Hell, he fought to keep America free, and now the government was invading his home and seizing his property. What more proof did he need?

For a couple weeks there was talk of lawyers and lawsuits and suing the vigor out of the communist regime who stole elections by manipulating the electoral college. But nothing ever came of it, he never got the shotgun back, and he found new evidence of government interference when the closest convenience store stopped carrying Merit Kings in the gold pack.

I had the bright idea that maybe I could be a good neighbor and pick up some gold pack Merit Kings for him while I was out. Nice guy that I am, I spent over four hours driving around town looking for a store that sold them. Most of them just told me straight out they didn’t carry them, a couple said they had never even heard of them, and one guy gave me five minutes of hope. He asked me a lot of questions I couldn’t answer, partly because he had a thick Pakistani accent and partly because I didn’t really know anything about Merit Kings in the gold pack. Then he went to the storeroom and came out with a case of Parliament Lights. So much for being neighborly.

I mentioned this to Tony, and he just waved his hand to shoo me away.

“They’re full of shit,” he said. “They have them. You just gotta know how to ask.”

That didn’t sound right to me, but like I said Tony was old and he was in the war so I just let him rant.

“What you don’t understand, kid,” he said, “Is this. Every store this side of Chicago has been carrying Merit Kings since before the war. They just don’t want you to know about it because of the deal they made with the communists.”

It would go on like this for a while, I knew. But I had opened the flood gate, so the least I could do was sit there and watch the river flow. Then Tony stopped and went in the other room. I could hear him opening drawers and boxes and cursing under his breath. When he came back out he was dressed to the nines.

“Jeez, Tony,” I said. “You getting married or something?”

He straightened his black bowtie in the mirror and buttoned his jacket.

“You wanna get those Merits or not?” he said and walked out the door.

I followed him outside and almost lost my balance when he tossed me his keys. He grinned when he saw me flail backwards trying to keep my feet, then went around to the passenger side of his car and got in. I was still standing on his porch and he gestured with both hands up in a shrug. I sighed and got in behind the wheel.

“You know where to get them?” I asked.

“Get them? You can get them anywhere. You gotta know how to ask. That’s what I told you, kid. Pay attention next time.”

I started the car and he told me to head down Windfern to Little York Road and turn right. When we got to Gessner he directed me into the parking lot of a large gas station and convenience store. It was one of those chains that was mostly franchises. He told me to wait in the car.

“Keep it running” was the last thing he said before he closed the door.

He came running back out about ten seconds after I heard the shots. He jumped in the car and just said, “Go.”

“What the hell did you – ”

“Just go, dumbass!”

I turned on Little York and tried to figure out what to do. When I got to Windfern I went straight instead of turning left, and Tony barked at me.

“Where the hell are you going?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Somewhere we can lie low until I figure this thing out!”

“Figure what out? I got my Merits, now drive me home!”

“You just robbed that store!” I said.

“I didn’t take any money,” he glared back at me. “I just got my cigs. The hell are you crying about?”

“Tony, I heard shots! What did you do?”

“It’s a starter pistol, alright? It’s shoots blanks. Now take me home and quit whining like a little girl who lost her doll.”

I kept driving while I thought it through. Tony was unstable. Everybody knew that. But I don’t think anybody knew he was capable of this. And a starter pistol? I ran track in high school. I knew what a starter pistol sounded like. And I grew up hunting and shooting with my dad. Whatever Tony was packing sounded more like something you’d hear popping off rounds at Greg’s Indoor Range than something you’d hear to start a race.

The easiest thing to do would be to get him home, make some excuse, then get back to my place and call the cops. Technically, I hadn’t done anything wrong. Well, I fled the scene of a crime, but the guy with the gun was in charge. I was under duress, officer. I was in fear for my life.

We got back to Tony’s place and he reached in the glove compartment to retrieve the remote for his garage. He clicked it once and the door started up.

“In there.”

This could go a few ways. One of them was just like I said. Hey Tony, thanks for the good times but I got a conference call with a client and I need to get home. Then there were several options of decreasing preference, ending in one where Tony shot me, hacked me to pieces with a chainsaw, and scattered the pieces in several shallow graves around the neighborhood.

I stopped the car and Tony had the garage door going down before I could turn off the engine. I turned the keys, pulled them from the steering column, and handed them to him. He took them without saying anything and slid them in the left front pocket of his slacks. He pulled the sun visor down and straightened his bowtie in the mirror. We sat in silence for a minute.

“So, listen” I said. “I should get going.”

“What’s the rush? You late for prom?”

He wasn’t looking at me, just staring straight ahead.

“No,” I said. “I just … you know. I have stuff I need to get done today.”

“Like call the cops?” Now he was looking straight at me.

I froze for a second, not sure how to respond. I forced out a little chuckle. It didn’t sound sincere, even to me, but I hoped it was enough to convince Tony. “No, man. I just, you know … It’s Saturday, I need to mow the lawn, get some groceries, stuff like that.”

“Yeah,” he said, still looking right at me. “You gonna do that before or after you call the cops?”

“I’m not gonna call the cops!” I held my hands up, palms facing Tony. “That doesn’t make sense. I was the driver. I’m an accessory.”

“Accessory to what? What exactly are you gonna tell them?”

“I don’t know, Tony!” I was starting to shake now. “An accessory to whatever you did back there. And I’m not going to tell them anything.”

“What do you think I did?” It was less of a question and more of a demand. It was like he wanted to make sure I knew … what? That he had robbed a store at gunpoint? Or maybe killed someone? Was he about to confess to something I’d rather not know about?

“Hey,” he yelled, pulling me out of my confusion. “I asked you a question, dickhead! What do you think I did back there?”

“Ok, look – ”

“No, you look. This is the problem with America. You candy-ass little turd farmers don’t know how to grow a set of balls. Somebody hits this country, they’re gonna walk right in, right through, and right over it. You know why? Because none of you millennial tulips has the balls to stand up. You can’t even man up enough to tell me you’re gonna call the cops!”

“Tony look – ”

Before I could finish and before I knew what had happened, the barrel of Tony’s gun was between my eyes. It wasn’t a starter pistol. It was a subcompact semi-auto, a Glock. Maybe a nine, maybe a forty. Either way it was bad news.

“Get out.”

I held my hands up and out, like hey man we’re all friends here. I reached around with my left hand and opened the driver door. I backed out of the car, at the same time Tony was backing out on the other side. The gun never lost its aim, and I never took my eyes off of it.

Tony closed his door and leveled the gun right at me with both hands. In his small garage, wedged between the wall and his car, there was no way I was getting out.

“Tony, listen – I promise you man. I promise!” I was really shaking now. “No cops, ok? Just let me go and I’ll — ”

At first I thought he was coughing. Then it got bigger and I realized he was laughing. The laughs got bigger, he started to wheeze, then he did cough a few times, but the laughs just kept coming.

“Oh man,” he said through laughs and wheezes and coughs. “You almost shit yourself! I’m just messing with you, asshat!”

In an instant, the gun was gone. I didn’t see where it went, I just saw his hand drop below the top of the car and come back up to cover his mouth for a few more coughs. I was still shaking and realized my breathing had been very shallow. I took a few deep breaths to steady myself and get some oxygen flowing. I gripped the top of the car a few times to release some of the tension, but my body wouldn’t relax. I kept deep breathing, but my heart kept racing. I needed to get out of that garage.

“Yeah,” I finally said. “That was real funny, Tony. You really got me. So listen, I really need to – ”

In an instant, the gun was gone. I didn’t see where it went, I just saw his hand drop below the top of the car and come back up to cover his mouth for a few more coughs.

“Yeah, yeah,” he cut me off. “Go ahead, piss off.” He waved me off with his right hand while his left hand reached inside his jacket and retrieved the stolen cigarettes. “I’m gonna smoke now anyway.”

The cigarettes weren’t Merit, they were Marlboro. I decided not to say anything. I decided instead to take Tony’s advice and piss off. I didn’t know if I was going to call the police, but either way I figured the safest place was somewhere other than Tony’s garage. Tony lit up one of the Marlboros and took a long, deep drag. He exhaled across the top of the car and right into my face. I must have winced, because he laughed before taking another drag.

Tony started blowing smoke rings and I started for the back door of his garage. Just as I reached for the knob we heard the sirens.

“Took ’em long enough,” Tony said, exhaling a cloud of gray smoke. “Let’s go see what they’ve got.”

A side door next to a rusty water heater led into Tony’s laundry room, and from there to the rest of the house. He went around the front of the car, brushed by me, and headed inside. There was no way I was going to sneak past the cops by going around back. Besides, they were probably sending officers around to that side, anyway. After a few seconds, I followed Tony inside.

I came through the laundry room and through the kitchen, past a hot plate and a sink half full of dishes. The floors were old linoleum, faded and slightly yellowed. I came around the kitchen doorway and the floors creaked as I walked into the living room where Tony was peeking through the windows from behind the curtains.

“Damn,” he said. He sounded excited. “They got three of ’em out there!”

“How did they find you so fast?”

“Driver’s license. I left it on the counter at the store.”

I squeezed my eyes closed, trying to wrap my mind around what he had just said. He left his ID at the scene of the crime. Not just a calling card, his driver’s license.

“The hell did you do that for?”

He dropped the curtains back in place so they covered the window completely. His head snapped around and he leveled his gaze right at me. “What’s the point of knocking over a gas station if nobody knows about it?”

“It would be in the news, Tony,” I was yelling now. “People would know!”

“Sure, he said.” He blotted his depleted cigarette out into an ashtray on the small wooden table next to his rickety, taped up easy chair. “But they wouldn’t know who did it, would they? They wouldn’t know it was me.”

“That’s what this is about? It’s about notoriety? You dragged me into this shitstorm so you could make a name for yourself?”

In two steps he was in front of me, and a fist clocked me across the jaw. I fell back, knocking over a table and a lamp, and ended up on my ass.

“You don’t have to worry about you, you stupid jack handle,” he was glaring down at me. “But me, I gotta do something or else I go out with a whimper. That ain’t me.” He went to his coffee table and picked up a legal pad and a pen. Outside police were pounding on the door and yelling things I was barely conscious of. Between being recruited as a getaway driver and getting punched in the face I wasn’t exactly focused. Tony wrote something large on the legal pad, pulled the curtains back, and held the paper up to the window. He watched outside for a minute, then closed the curtains, dropped the pad back on his coffee table, and sat in his chair. His phone, and old rotary dial landline model, rang next to him. He sighed and picked it up.

“Yeah, this is Tony … Yeah, listen, I got somebody in here with me. He’s a neighbor. Good guy. He didn’t have nothing to do with any of this, you understand? I got home, he saw me pull in, he stopped by to say hello. Clear? Yeah … Yeah … I will. Just give me a few minutes … HEY JUST GIVE ME A FEW MINIUTES, OK?”

He slammed the phone down and glared over at me. “You think I don’t know what people say? You think I don’t know what the kids around here call me? Good Time Tony? Hell. You know what they called me in prison?”

“Half step,” I said, rubbing my jaw. “You told me that once.”

“You know why they called me that?”

I shook my head. He looked down at me like I was the kid who disappointed the teacher.

“Because,” he said, leaning forward in the chair, “Anybody screws with me, they can take about a half a step before they get their ass kicked. I had respect. In the war. In prison. I was a man. What am I now?”

“You’re still a man, Tony,” I protested.

“Says who? A skinny little pansy who let a ninety-six year old man knock him on his ass? You’re a girl. Any guy who can walk straight and drink whiskey is a man to you. See, now the whole city is going to know who I am. I’m going to be respected again. And this time no one will take it away from me.”

“Tony, no one is trying to – ”

“Shut your little girl mouth.” He got up, picked up the legal pad, and pressed it against the window again. He sat back down and waited. The phone rang.

“Yeah. He’s coming out. Alone. Be gentle with him, he’s just a neighbor who didn’t have anything to do with anything, ok? Yeah. Here he comes.” He hung up the phone and motioned with his head for me to go. I stood and walked to the door.

“Hey Tony,” I said. “Maybe we can – ”

“Hands up kid. And go slow.”

He reached into his pocket and pulled out another cigarette. He lit it, no longer looking at me, and sat back in his chair with his eyes closed. He took a long drag and let the smoke out with a satisfied sigh. I nodded and opened the door.

#

A few years ago I decided to stretch my legs in the early afternoon sun. We had several days of rain, and things were finally clearing up and drying out. I told my boss, a gregarious guy with gray hair and a perpetually crooked tie, I’d be back in a few.

“Gonna grab some coffee,” I said.

The coffee shop was nestled into a small corner of an office warehouse. Open 5am to 4pm, mostly catering to the people who worked in the neighborhood business district. Office workers like me, factory workers, and delivery drivers. The barista was a kid, maybe 20, probably paying her way through college. She took my order and while she was brewing up my double shot americano I made small talk about the recent rain, how we had needed it, and how muggy it was going to be now that the sun was back in the fight. She was polite, but I could tell something was off.

It wasn’t until I got back to the office that I realized what had happened. My boss, Johnny, asked me if it was muggy outside. I said it was, he said it was likely to get worse, and then it hit me. This is stuff old people talk about.

I wasn’t old, and at forty-three I don’t think I’m old now. But to that barista, I may as well have been using a walker and dragging an oxygen tank.

When I reflected on her polite but standoffish response to my weather-worldly wisdom, I realized something else. She thought I was hitting on her. To her, my innocent attempt at friendly small talk was a creepy old guy making an impotent play for a hot young girl.

I had aged out of small talk with people under thirty.

The more I thought about things over the next few weeks, the worse it got. That receding hairline I had been ignoring started to get louder. That shoulder pain I always had after getting three days into the hundred pushup challenge. News stories about social media celebrities. Not only did I have no idea who they were, I had no idea you could be a social media celebrity. Then I realized I always went to bed at 9pm.

I wasn’t old. I’m not old. But I’ve aged out of the world I once lived in. The world has continued to move forward, and somewhere along the way I got off the ride. I’m sitting at a station somewhere east of Dodge while the train has moved on west, going fast so the sinking sun will never sink on it. For me, the sun is kissing the horizon. For Tony, the day he knocked over that gas station for a pack of cigarettes and a little notoriety, it was already twenty past midnight.

I think I understand why Tony did what he did. I don’t think it was necessary, but I think I understand.

We all age out. One day you’re playing hopscotch and the next you’re laughing at the little kids jumping through the squares. One day you’re living through the drama of high school, the next you can’t relate to kids these days. One day you’re calling your crazy old neighbor Good Time Tony, the next thing you know you’re driving around for four hours trying to do something nice for him.

Tony had probably lived through more of those moments than anyone. At ninety-six you see a lot of things change, and most of them leave you behind. He was determined that wouldn’t happen again. So when he came out of the house, gun blazing, he went down in a hail of bullets that guaranteed his final act would live on after him and nothing would ever diminish him again.

He wasn’t even aiming at the cops. He was shooting into the ground in front of their cars. He didn’t want to kill anybody. He just wanted people to know who he was. Tony the turret gunner. Tony the bank robber. Half-Step. The guy who robbed a gas station and left his ID there just because he was proud of it. He didn’t need to be liked, but he had to have respect.

The other day one of the neighborhood kids was riding by on his bike while I was out raking leaves into a modest pile. The kid stopped at my driveway and nodded up at me.

“Hey Mister,” he said.

“Yeah kid. What’s up? You wanna do this for ten bucks?”

He gave me a look like I offered him a turd sandwich. “Nah, man. I was just wondering. You knew that guy, right? That guy the cops took down?”

I leaned against the rake and looked over at the house that used to be Tony’s. A young couple had moved in and was remodeling. The wife was maybe six months pregnant, but was working right along her husband on weekends and every evening after work.

“Yeah,” I said. “I knew him. He was a decent guy in a lot of ways.”

The kid looked over at the house, then back at me. “Was he crazy?”

“What do you think?”

He looked back at the house again. “Yeah,” he said, looking back at me. “He had to be to leave his ID man. But still, he had balls.”

“Yeah he did,” I smiled. “And don’t you forget it.”

*****

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