The Pizza Palace off US-50 closes in 15 minutes, and Ollie Norton swings the mop back and forth across the tiles even though he has already cleaned the entire restaurant twice. His phone, which lies by the register on the counter, has not buzzed once. Amy told him she was pregnant two days ago, and now he is certain he will never leave Nevada. He sees himself in the window, a slight nineteen-year-old with long dark hair and black eyes (he is Indian on his fathers side), and wonders how he will look in the next five years as the father of a young child. How will he look in ten years? Twenty? However the future Ollie Norton looks, he will see him in the same window, always, moving the mop back and forth.
He checks the phone to make sure its not offafter the fight, Amy had asked him if he would help raise the baby, and he had said he wasnt sure. He cannot say No, but nor can he raise a child, so he looks for the message that will let him go: something along the lines of, I understand if you cant help or Ill do this on my own, or even, Fuck you Ollie. But the only news his phone has for him is the time, which tells him Pizza Palace will be closing in a little under thirteen minutes. The digital clock does not tick, but if it did, he would hear it ticking him away, from nineteen to thirty.
He puts the phone away a little too hard, and the water from his hand makes it slip off the counter and fall onto the floor. He curses and, as he bends over to pick it up, a draft wafts in from what can only be a door opening and closing.
Well be closing in ten minutes, Ollie says. He frowns when he sees a hairline crack on the phones surface.
Im starved. The customer is a thirtyish man with a double chin and a red goatee that is a stark contrast with his clean-shaven head. He wears a leather jacket, despite the fact the month is August, and his grease-covered jeans have tears at the knees. Ollie notices the yellow snow boots more than anything else: they are shiny, almost luminescent.
Well be open tomorrow at eleven, Ollie tells him.
I wont be here tomorrow, the customer tells him. His voice is soft and apologetic. I havent eaten all day.
Im sorry, Ollie says. But I would have to pull out the dough and get everything started again. If you were here twenty minutes ago, I might help you. But things are winding down, and I got to go home.
The customer nods sympathetically. You have somewhere you need to be?
Ollie sighs. Its a long story, and Im sorry. But I cant do this right now.
Girl problems, right? the customer asks. His green eyes pull Ollie in with their sympathy: the man sees right through him, but Ollie doesnt mind.
Some stuffs not working out, Ollie says, nodding. Im sorry Im taking it out on you, but a lot is happening to me and I want to go home.
Is she pregnant? the customer asks. Ollie feels as though he has been slapped. The customerwhose frown shows the awareness that he has struck a nervequickly apologizes. I didnt mean to hit close to home.
Ollie has the sneaking suspicion he has heard a lie, but he waves his hand in a show of forgiveness. Its all right. I appreciate the concern, though.
You look like you need someone to talk to, the customer says. I have a kid myself. Saw him not to long ago with my ex. Family can be ugly business.
I think Ill be okay.
The customer nods and sits down in a chair. Its never as bad as you think it is. He wipes his mouth. I know youre about to close, but can I have a drink?
Ollie relents and hands him a cup. On the house, he tells him, pointing him to the soda fountain.
The customer lifts the cup in a sign of appreciation. He shuffles over to the fountain and asks Ollie what drink is best.
Dr. Pepper, says Ollie, but were out.
Ollie shrugs. Mountain Dew. Pepsi. Take your pick.
As the customer fills his cup with ice, Ollie takes the mop and the cleaning bucket back to the supply closet. He checks his phone and sees a text from Amy: I love you and I cant do this without you. I want you in my life and I dont want my child to be without a father. Please, Ollie. Call me when you get this.
Ollies chest aches with a heaviness he has only thought could exist in poetry. Can he make this work? Maybe he can talk to Amy about leaving Nevada with him? His head swoons with possibilitiesmaybe he wont die at Pizza Palace after all. He decides to call Amy as soon as he closes the restaurant. Eight minutes remain.
He locks the supply closet and sees the customer waiting at the counter.
I cant get anything else for you, dude, Ollie says as he walks over to the front. I can send you some breadsticks, and maybe you can heat those up a little.
The customer says nothing as he sips Pepsi through a straw. A guna glock with cartoon stickers on the handlerests on the counter.
Ollie remembers employee orientation: they had discussed what to do in the event of a robbery. Keep your cool. Dont be stupid. Cooperate. He tries to speak, but he cant. He points to the register with a shaky finger.
If you like, the customer says. His green eyes have swollen purple bags: he looks sick.
Ollie almost cant open the register because he has trouble undoing the lock. It finally springs open, and he scrambles to take out all the bills: twenties, tens, fives, ones, and all the large bills under the lip of the register. There are no bags under the counter, so he puts all the money in a pizza box on the counter.
The customer makes no move to take the money. Instead, he picks up the soda cup and tells Ollie to refill it. Dump out the ice and put some new cubes in.
I got you money, Ollie says. The guys at orientation told him never to argue with a gunman, but he cant help himselfhes supposed to be closing up the store and telling Amy they can work things out. Move out of Nevada. Raise the baby together.
I never asked for it, the customer says. But Im glad it makes you feel better. He places his gun in his jacket. Ollie sees the point of the weapon in the right pocket. Go ahead and get more Pepsi. I need to sit down. The customer makes no move to take the money on the counter. He just leans on the chair and winces as he eases himself into the seat.
Ollie fills the cup with ice, but the sound of falling cubes does not seem real; nothing does. Hes still holding the phone, and he squeezes it, as though touching it would take him to Amys apartment, away from here.
Put the phone away, the customer says. I think thats enough soda, dont you?
The Pepsi is flowing over the top and over his hand. Distant nerves inform him his hand is cold and wet, but the sensation is like pain in a dream. Maybe hell wake up, and Amy wont be pregnant. Better yet, maybe he wont be employed at Pizza Palace. He goes through the motions: snaps on the lid, punches the straw through the hole, and carries the drink over to his killer. He must be in a dreamthe colors are too bright, and he feels as though he is watching himself as his mind floats somewhere nearby. But the pounding of his heart dispels this wishful thinking.
Sit down, the customer says softly. Ollie wants to run out the door, but his body no longer belongs to him. He sits down, and the chairs wooden legs make an awkward squeak as they grate against the floor.
The customer holds the cup with both hands and sips through the straw thoughtfully. He looks as though he is holding the soda for warmth, like anyone would a cup of coffee or a bowl of soup. I cant feel anything in my hands, he says. Well, thats not true. I can feel a little, but its like what happens when one of your limbs falls asleep. He taps his head. Four months. Maybe a year. Thats what the doctor told me. The mass is pushing on my brain in funny ways, and Im a dead man in that time frame.
If you need money for the operation
It doesnt matter. You could give me a million dollars, and Id still be a dead man. No operation in the world can do squat. He sips through the straw with his eyes closed. Ollie knows he has another opportunity to defend himself, to run away, to do anything. But he cant move.
What do you want? Ollie asks. His mouth is dry and his voice is small.
The customer pulls the gun out of his pocket and places it on the table. Ollie thinks of reaching across the table and seizing the weapon before the stranger can even react. But he may just end up with a bullet in his eye. The uncertainty freezes him in place, and he can only listen as the dying man tells him what he wants.
Ive been better on some days, and worse on others, the customer says. But Ive never been evil. I never hurt another person, you see. Although plenty of pets went disappearing in my neighborhood. The fun I used to have would make you sick. He smiles. But never a person. I was afraid of hell, you see? My belief in consequences saved me. He sips from the Pepsi Ollie gave him. But I still miss something. Something everybody else has. I can fake a lot of stuff, you know? I got the sympathy part down pretty well: you just got to get someones pity, and then you pretend to have your own. And then when you look them in the eye and make them feel like the most important person in the room, theyre all yours. He held up his left hand and revealed the golden band on the third finger. That skillset made me a married man and a father. I got three kids, and my wife has left me three times. Do you know how we stay together? He grins. Pity.
Is that . . . His tongue is a dead weight lolling about his mouth. You want my pity?
You havent been listening to anything I said, the customer tells him. Pity wont save my life, will it? I have no use for your pity. I want your life.
Ollie hears the words, but does not understand them. He wonders if he heard the customer correctly. The words have an unreality his nineteen years are too small to contain: I want your life.
I never killed anyone before, the customer says. I tried to volunteer for the Marines so Id get that experience in some legitimate way. You know what the recruiter tells me? The customer laughs, but the laughter is without joy. He says Im physically unfit. Ive got a history of asthma and I smoke. If I had quit the habit, I might have gone. But I loved smoking too much, and so I passed on the chance to shoot people. He tightens his grip on the gun. Nothing like making up for lost time.
Ollie forces himself to speak. He cant be calm, but he can focus; he has no choice. If you shoot me, the cops will come. Theyll either shoot you or theyll lock you up, and youll die in a cell.
I thought about that, the customer says. If you had heard what I saidor listenedyou would know my fear of consequences was the only thing saving me. He coughs into his arm. Do you believe in Hell?
Ollie knows he has to run or wrestle the gun away from him or do something. But even though his body coils for motion, he sits still. He has missed another moment, when the customers head was turned. He will take the next.
My mother told me I was damned when I was young, the customer says. She said I had a chance if I changed. The Lord would reward me. Well, this is some reward. So you know what I think? I think one of these two things is true: either God sees I havent truly changed, and hell set me afire anyway, or, and I think this is more likely, he doesnt care. And here I am, dying of cancer, and I havent killed someone yet. He cocks the gun. Ollie waits for a moment of opportunity. I want to know what thats like.
The phone buzzes in his pocket and Ollie jumps.
What? the customer demands.
My phones ringing.
The customer laughs. The mechanical guffaws are jarring. Go ahead and pick it up. He waves the gun.
Ollie obeys the customer and fishes the phone out of his pocket: Amy is calling and five minutes remain until closing. The picture he has for when she calls is of her pigging-backing on him in the water of Lake Tahoe. A friend caught of snapshot of them as they froze, although the picture doesnt allow him to believe the lake was cold: the sun was caressing the water and they were smiling. He answers the phone.
Oliver, dont hang up.
Im not going to, he says desperately.
Did you get my text?
Yeah. The customer is quietly chuckling as he takes another sip of his Pepsi.
What . . . What will you do? Are we She breaths heavily into the phone. Is she sighing, or crying?
Amy, he says, Im having a tough time right now.
Do you want me to let you go?
No, he says too quickly and too loudly. I dont want you to hang up. He looks at the gun with cartoon stickers. Elmer Fudd is shooting Daffy Duck in the face while Bugs Bunny looks clever. Is there a clever person in this situation?
What do want to do?
What Ollie wants is irrelevant: even if he could know what he wanted, he probably wont live long enough to get it.
Amy sighs, but this time, Ollie is certain she is crying. Do you want me to take care of this?
What do you mean?
I dont want to lose you Ollie, she replies. Her voice is thick with the holding back of tears. I`ll take care of it. We dont even have to tell anyone I was pregnant.
Ollie remembers wondering if he would ever have this conversation, but he did not think he would have it while a gun was pointed at him. The most important decision of his life has to be made, and he cant think straight. He has to keep her on the phone.
Do you have a name? he asks.
A name for the baby, he says. Do you have one?
For a girl or a boy?
Both, he says, not knowing which to choose.
Are you going to help me raise it?
Ollie doesnt think he is likely to help anyone ever again. If I can, he says, I want to be there for the baby.
Amy no longer holds back the sobs, but she sounds relieved. No, shes overjoyed.
You dont know how happy that makes me, she says. Are you going to be happy?
The question is absurd; hell be happy if he lives to close the Pizza Palace. He tries to think of how to tell her to call the cops without alarming the customer. He scrambles to find a solution, but he must be showing his intentions on his face, because the customer has raised the gun and placed the barrel two inches from his face.
Amy, tell me a name.
She tells him one girl name, and then a boys: Evelyn, for Amys mother, and Oliver, for the babys father.
What do you think? she asks.
They both sound great, he tells her.
You dont sound happy, she says. Is everything all right?
I dont understand. Are you unhappy with me?
Ollie, what the hell is going on?
The customer plucks the phone out of Ollies hand before he can respond. Four minutes are left.
I dont know what you were saying, the customer says, but I have a feeling it wasnt anything nice about me.
Jesus. Ollies heart is racing, but the drum beat is filling his entire being, and sweat is streaming down his burning cheeks despite the fact the AC pumps cool air throughout the building. This is really happening.
Is there something you want to say? the customer asks. His green eyes look like emerald balls of glass.
Ollie desperately looks for the moment, but it is gone. Was it even there? The customers gun presses tightly against his head.
Give me a ten second head start.
The gun draws back. The customers smile is a well-made mask, a gesture practiced over and over again during the course of his almost-human life. Ill give you three. One . . .
Ollie pushes off his feet. He cant move fast enough, but everything seems so slow. He reaches for the door, for Amy, for their unborn child. He knows he cant die at the Pizza Palace. He decides that when he sees Amy again, hell tell her theyre moving out of Nevada. In fact, theyll get married, and hell get another job. Maybe put her through school. Who knows? They might have another kid.
He charges out the door and feels an unusual August breeze. A shot rings out.