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Not much ever happens in those little out of the way stores. Except when it does.
There’s a filling station just south of Durham, North Carolina, that raised a ruckus a while back because the owner refused to take down a Confederate flag he’d hoisted above the building. Imagine how folks from miles around flocked to see what would happen when the National Guard came out to tell him to take it down. How for years and years after, old timers would bend your ear with the details of the Klan, the protests. The cheers and jeers.
Not since that day way-back-when had anyone paid any mind to Gerry Tompkins’ place or what he said or did. The old-timers still hung out around there, but for the most part, people got their gas and goods a little closer into town. Tobacco dried up around there long ago and there wasn’t much travel on those roads any longer. Just folks lost on their way out of town. Neighbors that came day after day for years and years until one day they didn’t. Until one day they were gone.
But when those two came into Huck’s Country Express and robbed Gerry Tompkins blind, they got folks started. Breathed new life into them, you could say. Now they had something to talk about again. Something besides how hot it was this year or what Duke or North Carolina did during the off-season or what may or may not be the reason why so-and-so’s barbecue don’t taste like it used to.
You had to go no further than Tompkins himself to hear how dramatic things were or weren’t. For more than a year after, folks would get held up in line while trying to buy eggs or Lotto tickets or what have you while he told one guy or another the same damn story he’d been telling since it happened. How the kid acted suspicious when he first walked in. How he wasn’t much to think about, but something seemed odd about him, all the same. How Tompkins had looked away, went back to stocking cigarettes.
“I mean, he wasn’t black or nothing,” Tompkins would say for years, as if the surprise were still fresh. “Here he come, looking at this or that, picking stuff up and setting it down. He’s looking in this corner and along the doors and every which way, when finally he gets him a bottle of coke and tries to pay me with a fifty dollar bill.”
“That’s how they scope you out,” Grit Beecher would often add. Grit, on that day and many, many afterward, would sit in one of the lunch booths and read a paper, smoke on a cigar, and jaw with damn near anyone who gave him a minute or two. Grit and Huck’s Country Express went hand-in-hand. “They give you a big bill so they can see what’s in the register. That’s what the kid did. I saw him peek over the counter and look in the register while Gerry made change and I thought something was a little fishy.”
“But like I said, he wasn’t black,” Tompkins would always explain.
There weren’t many places like his left. Most of them got bought up by developers or fellas in cahoots with big oil companies. Used to be, there was a Jimmy’s Mini-Mart, a Ronny’s Highway Shop and even a Ronny’s Too on the other side of town. But soon the sign saying “Jimmy’s” got smaller and smaller until one day it was gone, replaced by a bulky neon “Exxon” or “Mobil.”
Tompkins usually offered that as a reason why he didn’t have drop safes or video cameras. Actually, he did have a video camera. It just didn’t record anything. He quit buying tapes for it years ago and when it went on the fritz, he never bothered to replace it. Don’t ask him why, but he fixed damn near everything in that gas station when it broke. Never bothered one minute with the video camera.
So the kid takes his change, then goes and stands by the door a bit. He looks out the window and nobody can ever agree if it was a little wave or a big wave or what, but most everybody believes it was a signal. Then he stops at the magazine rack and picks out one of those Hollywood magazines and starts reading.
Another thing most folks never agree on is what the man looked like that came in next. Tompkins said he had salt-and-pepper hair, put him at about five-ten. Grit said he was taller, had brown hair. Sandy Hightower, who’d been in the back aisle choosing between potato chips, agreed that he had brown hair, but for some reason gave him a beard, which didn’t anyone else bother to do. Hell, they couldn’t even agree on what kind of gun the man pulled or whether it came out of his pocket or the front or back waistband of his pants.
But they all agreed there was a gun. And they all agreed the man put it in Tompkins’ face and shouted “Give me all the money.” He saw the others and moved the gun to each of their faces. Then back to Tompkins. He said didn’t need nobody to be a hero. He said nobody has to get hurt.
Didn’t any of them think about the kid at that moment, but he stayed over by the magazine rack. He flipped through the pages. Grit always thought it plenty strange when the boy called over to Tompkins and asked him if this was the most recent issue of the Hollywood magazine they had. Said it was at least a month old and has he got the new one in yet.
“I told him I didn’t and he didn’t say no more about it,” Tompkins would always say. “He set the issue back on the magazine rack where he got it then turned his attention to the stack of newspapers down at his feet.”
The man with the gun, on the other hand, was all business. He motioned with the barrel, steered Tompkins to hurry, slow down, take it easy. Pointed it toward a carton of filtered cigarettes and told him to throw those in with the cash too. Tompkins did what he was told. He hunched his shoulders as he rifled through the drawer, unable to get the money out of the till and into the sack fast enough.
What happened next, everybody agrees on.
“In comes Officer Sherrill,” as Sandy Hightower would tell it. “And it ain’t just him, but this is a day that he’s hosting one of the Explorer Scouts. The ride-along program brought kids up from the high school and taught them what it was like to work as a policeman. That particular Sunday, Mr. Sherrill had the Kessler boy with him.”
The Kessler boy was Jimmy Kessler, a sophomore who had no shot of ever working with a police department, on account of his weight. Jimmy Kessler never met a candy bar he didn’t like and when he walked into the Huck’s Country Express that Sunday afternoon, his Explorer uniform stretched at the buttons. In fact, Grit Beecher seemed to remember him with a Snickers in his mouth.
“First thing I heard was the bell I keep over the door,” Tompkins would say. “It rang just like it had any other time somebody walked in. So I looked up at the door, just like I would any other time. And first thing I thought was, I’m so glad the police have come. I thought that for about a split second, then didn’t think it no more.”
“I remember Sherry saying something about how hot it was and then it all got started,” Grit would say. “I remember wanting to jump up and down and tell him to look out, the guy’s got a gun, but things happened too damn fast. Before you know it, they was shooting.”
One of the bullets hit the door frame. They dug out the bullet later, but Tompkins never had the frame fixed. He’ll take anyone and everyone over to the door and point it out. Show them where the first bullet went.
“Missed Sherrill’s head by yay-much,” he would always say, holding his hands about a foot apart. “Sherry had just as much time to get a good look at him before that man squeezed off a shot. Didn’t even have time to get his gun. He grabbed the fat kid he brung with him and dove into the whatnot aisle.”
The “whatnot aisle” was the aisle closest to the door. This is where Gerry Tompkins kept automotive supplies and other things he’d found folks needed over the years. Sometimes folks needed cat food. He kept it in the whatnot aisle. Maybe you needed to grab a toy on your way to visit with a youngster. Those were also kept in the whatnot aisle.
“If it ain’t food or drink, more than likely it ends up in the whatnot aisle,” Tompkins often said.
The whatnot aisle is where Officer Sherrill and fat little Jimmy Kessler landed, Sherrill shielding the kid with his body while trying to fetch out his own sidearm. Tompkins went down behind the counter, Grit and Sandy Hightower hit the floor. But that didn’t mean they couldn’t see everything that unfolded.
“Gerry had one of those bent mirrors up in the corner,” Grit said, “so that he could catch kids trying to take shit off the candy aisle. You can see the whole store off those mirrors and the fella with the gun, he’s right in front of me and Sandy Hightower, but Sherry, he’s a few rows back. I look up at the mirror and you can see him crawl on his belly toward the end of the aisle, gun in hand. He was looking to get a shot at that fella with the gun.”
“I liked to shit my britches,” Tompkins would say. “I ain’t afraid to say it. I’ve had a colored boy in a time or two who talked rough but ain’t never been gunfire in the store. The fella already shot once, and I saw him inching down the aisle, I saw Sherry inching down the aisle… Like I said, ain’t nobody ever fired a gun in my shop, and it looked like there was about to be somebody killed there. And if the fella got the drop on Sherry, more than likely he’d have to kill us all so there wouldn’t be no witnesses.”
This has always been a great spot to pause for dramatic effect. If Grit told the story in a bar somewhere, he found it advisable to suddenly empty his beer, knowing folks would buy him another so he would stick about and tell what happens next. Tompkins would take the opportunity to ring up another customer or two, let folks get antsy. Sandy Hightower, on the other hand, never had a problem launching into it.
“That kid… We’d all forgotten about that kid,” was how she’d tell it. Sandy Hightower talked with her hands a lot. Right here, she’d get a workout. “That kid, he must have been watching the whole thing on the shoplifter’s mirror and maybe he was worried that Officer Sherrill would shoot his buddy. Anyway, the kid isn’t going to take it. He’s up and running and next thing you know, he’s got a gun in the back of Sherrill’s neck.”
Tompkins always shakes his head. He’ll walk around the counter and take folks by the arm to the whatnot aisle and point to a spot on the shelf that’s empty. He’ll wait until you look at the spot before saying, “This is where I used to keep them. I don’t keep them there no more. Not since that day. No sir.”
Them are the plastic toy cap guns he’d sold on the whatnot aisle since the Eighties, back when toy guns were more socially acceptable. Back in the old days, toy guns looked like real guns. But a few black kids got shot by well-intentioned policemen and, come to find out, the gun was fake the whole time, just some toy. People—mostly Northerners—picketed and petitioned and all of a sudden, fake guns needed to look more fake. The company that made the gun Tompkins sold on his whatnot aisle compromised by sticking a red tip at the end of the barrel. Problem solved.
“But that little red tip don’t do nothing for you when it’s buried in the back of your neck, I don’t reckon.” Grit slapped his palms against each other, like dusting chalk off erasers. “That kid, he jams that gun into Sherry’s head and tells him he’ll blow it off if he so much as moves another inch.”
“Don’t Sherry or the fat boy he brung—don’t nobody—move another inch.”
About this time, if you’re hearing about it at Huck’s, Tompkins will take you around the end of the whatnot aisle and show you just where Officer Sherrill lay. He’ll point up along the row of ice-cold coolers and draw his finger up alongside where you both stand.
“Around comes the older fella,” Tompkins will say. “He ain’t none too pleased with Sherry at this point. I reckon he’d have put a couple rounds in both him and that little fat fella if it weren’t for the kid standing there with the little cap gun, saying don’t worry, I got it under control.”
Sandy Hightower will shake her head and furrow her brow. “He didn’t have to kick him. Officer Sherrill was just doing his job.”
“He kicked him once, good in the ribs,” Grit tells it. “Fella wore size eleven Ariat boots and he put the tip of one right into Sherry’s side, then told him to get up. Told us all to get up.”
Officer Sherrill has never liked to talk about it. Rarely will he. However, there are occasions—usually regarding alcohol—where his side of the story is readily available.
“The suspect ordered myself and the other patrons of the store to line up by the cooler door,” Sherrill said one night at a wedding reception. His cousin Bob had just got married to a little girl from Greensboro and he felt a bit festive. There wasn’t a single person in attendance who hadn’t heard the story at least a dozen times already, but none of them had ever heard it from Sherrill.
That night, he said: “The older suspect had already relieved me of my sidearm, or else I probably would have opened fire the second he told us to line up. They called Gerry around from behind the counter and told him to join up with us, asked him if the beer cooler could be locked from the outside. At this point, I felt the most important thing was to keep everyone calm, since we were outgunned.”
Someone made a joke about the kid’s cap gun and Sherrill stopped talking. A few beers later, he had to be restrained and taken home after he fired three rounds into the wedding cake. Folks figured it best not to talk to Sherrill about it after that.
The kid is the one who thought to remember to ask after their phones. While the older man held the gun on them, he came around with one of the station’s go-bags and had each person drop in their phone. He pulled out Sandy Hightower’s phone and thumbed around at the screen, asked Tompkins if they had wi-fi. Tompkins told him no, he didn’t have wi-fi and then the older man got a bit fussy.
“He told the kid to quit jacking with the phone and the kid answers he was just checking the news.” Tompkins shook his head. “They put that sack of phones over on the counter, well out of our reach and shoved us on inside the beer cooler.”
“This is getting to be old hat for us,” the kid told the older man.
Grit will tell you they were all in that cooler, freezing off their asses for the better part of an hour. Finally, in walked a couple black kids and, once they heard everybody hooting and hollering inside the cooler, they let them out.
“It’s the first time I seen ole Gerry happy to have colored kids in his store,” Grit said. “Let me tell you.”
Around about this time, most folks will ask Gerry Tompkins has he bothered to fix up that old camera system yet. He’s got two answers, depending on how well he knows you. If he don’t know you well, he’ll laugh and say hell yes, he’s fixed the camera. What do you think he is, stupid?
But if he does… if he knows you pretty well, he’ll look first this way and then the other, then lean in real close and tell you, “Hell no. There’s just something not right about me sitting under a camera all day. I don’t care what year it is.” Then he’ll take you by the hand and lead you all the way to the back of the store, then open up the cooler and point his finger inside. Follow his finger and he’ll show you the brand new coat rack hanging on the wall above the twelve-packs. He’s got four fur-lined coats hanging off it.
“But that don’t mean I didn’t learn nothing.”
Eryk Pruitt is a screenwriter, author and filmmaker living in Durham, NC with his wife Lana and cat Busey. His short film FOODIE won several awards at film festivals across the US. His fiction appears in The Avalon Literary Review, Pulp Modern, Speculative Edge and Pantheon Magazine, to name a few. In 2013, he was a finalist for Best Short Fiction in Short Story America. His first novel Dirtbags is available now. A full list of credits can be found at erykpruitt.com.