Living for Once

Note: This was an exercise in writing an action sequence. Previous readers have told me that I did fine as far as the action was concerned, but they did not like the third-person omniscient point of view (POV). Until I had heard back from them, I didn’t realize there was a bias against this POV. Some great novels like Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter use this POV (I am not claiming my little exercise should be considered in the same ranks as those–it’s dorky). It seemed the natural way to tell a story  that was more action-oriented than character-oriented. Readers wanted me to adopt a limited third-person POV or use the first-person POV. Do you have strong feelings one way or another about the omniscient POV? Which POV would you choose for the story below? Which character would become your focal point?


Winifred, an old woman dressed in polyester pants, a tatty cardigan and large framed glasses, did most of her shopping at the convenience store near her apartment. She stood in the chips aisle, frustrated, because she could not make up her mind between Cool Ranch or Spicy Nacho Doritos. She reached toward one then the other, and then put both hands on her hips when the impossibility of the decision hit her. She stared down the bags of chips, hoping to impress upon them that she was in charge here and no ridiculous bags of salt, fat and cornmeal were going to get the better of her. When she was positive she had the chips cowed, Wini heard a commotion at the opposite end of the store and made the fatal mistake of breaking eye contact with the evil snack food.

nachos

Barreling around the corner came a tall middle-aged black woman, swinging a plastic basket full of diet cola and paper towels, and humming something–possibly the Batman song or the Jaws theme. She stopped in her tracks when she encountered a case of decision paralysis before her. “Ma’am, is there something I can help you with?”

“First of all, don’t ‘ma’am’ me. ‘Ma’am’ was my mother. I’m just Wini. Second of all, if you were me, which chips would you pick? Cool Ranch or Spicy Nacho?” She furrowed her brow. “On the one hand, the ranch ones are bland and boring; on the other hand, the spicy ones contribute far too much to my pharmacist’s lavish lifestyle, since I have to follow them with a Prilosec chaser.”

“YOLO,” proclaimed the woman and handed Winifred the bag of spicy nacho chips. When Wini looked at her blankly, she said, “You only live once, Y.O.L.O.”

“Thank you–”

“Josephine, or Jo, as my friends call me.”

“Thank you, Jo. You’re absolutely right. YOLO!”

Jo grinned at her, grabbed a bag of salt and vinegar chips, and the two proceeded to the register. While they waited in line, a pair of men burst through the front doors, wearing ski masks and wielding handguns.

“This is a hold up. You move, you die.”

Neither Wini nor Jo hesitated. Wini clapped her hands on either side of the Spicy Nacho bag, creating a tremendous “bang” as it exploded, sending chips everywhere. In perfect synchronicity, Jo dropped her basket, shook a soda bottle and unscrewed its cap. Gouts of sticky black liquid spurted into the robbers’ faces.

The clerk, a sallow-faced youth with stringy hair, dove behind the counter and dialed 9-1-1. Hands shaking and heart-racing, he decided this dead-end job was not worth taking on gunmen. He hoped everyone in the store would forget he existed.

A pudgy man near the register shouted at Wini and Jo, “What are you doing? You’re going to get us all killed!” He tried to squeeze himself behind a display of sunglasses, but only managed to knock the whole thing over, scattering reflective lenses into the cola puddle forming in the middle of the floor.

The two robbers staggered under the unexpected assault. Wini and Jo grinned at each other and bellowed, “YOLO!”

As quickly as the moment of elation washed over them, it began to dissipate. They both stared wide-eyed at the guns in the men’s hands and listened to the curses spewing forth from their mouths.

As if to validate the pudgy man’s prediction, one of the guns went off. A bullet zinged through the store and buried itself in one of the cold cases along the back wall. The glass door shattered and a few cans of Lucky Lager sprang a leak.

His partner shouted at the two women, “See, see what you’ve done! Next time, that bullet’s gonna head straight for you, not for some cheap-ass beer.”

Jo turned to look at the little old woman, who, only moments before, had been struggling to pick out a bag of chips.  She would do whatever it took to protect her new friend.

Wini looked up at Jo, who despite her imposing size looked particularly vulnerable. What could one little old lady do to get them out of this dangerous situation? Today she was going to find out.

Jo said to the robber closest to her, “Oh my God, I’m so sorry!” She bent over and grabbed the package of paper towels at her feet and ripped into it. “Here, let me clean you up a little.” With one giant stride, she was practically on top of him, dabbing at his balaclava-ed face and chest with a wad of towels.

Wini addressed the other robber, whose hands were still noticeably trembling. “What is that? A 9mm or a 45? That’s a pretty impressive gun. Do you practice at the range? I’ve always wanted to learn how to shoot.” Gradually, as the warm and calm sound of her voice washed over him, his hands began to steady.

“Um, no ma’am, it’s a 32. It’s a lot smaller and easier to handle than a 9mm or 45.”

“Oh, it looks impressive though. Please, don’t call me ma’am. That’s what we always called my mother and I sure hope I’m not as uptight as she was.”

“Grandma,” the other robber growled, “stop talking. And you,” he glared at Jo, pushing her back with the barrel of his weapon pressed into her chest, “stand still and shut the hell up.”

“Oh, I’m no grandma. I never married. No children.”

“For Christ’s sake, do as he says,” squealed the pudgy man, cowering against the wall abutting the register.

“Okay, people. Here’s how it’s gonna be. If you don’t want to die, give me your money! I’m not bullshitting!” He took a step forward, waving his pistol, and gestured for his accomplice to start collecting loot.

Wini handed her purse to the man, saying, “I hope this helps.” When he reached to take it from her, she suddenly grabbed his hand and gave it a squeeze. “There’s not much in here, I’m afraid. My social security checks barely cover my rent.”

He paused and looked into her eyes, momentarily caught up by the kindly look she gave him and the earnest tone of her voice.

She whispered, “There’s a better way, you know.”

“Get on with it!” shouted the leader.

His accomplice broke eye contact with Wini and walked over to Jo, taking her large, studded satchel. He staggered slightly as she let go of it, and then moved on to the pudgy man in the background.

The leader pointed his weapon at Jo. “You, get back there and clear out the register.”

Before moving, she looked over at Wini, who gave her a reassuring nod and smile. She marched around the counter, nearly tripping on the cashier who had gone fetal on the floor. Due to the chips and soda assault, the robbers had forgotten all about him.

Noticing her stumble, the leader said, “What’s going on?”

“Oh nothing. There’s a lot of cola on the floor back her. Man, that shit went everywhere.” She winked at the cashier, who pointed to his cell phone, still connected to the 9-1-1 operator. She gave him a tiny nod and then examined the register.

“Hurry up, you dumb bitch! Put everything that’s in the register into a bag and hand it to my friend.”

“Hey, hey, calm down. I’m trying. I haven’t used a register before.”

“Figures. You’re one of those welfare leeches, aren’t you? Never held down a real job.”

“What? Oh hell no. I earn a good paycheck from a law firm downtown. And even if I was on welfare, at least I’m not waving around guns in this Shell station on 115th,” her voice swelled momentarily, “threatening little old ladies and making Charlie Brown over there wet his pants. Real good citizen you are!”

“Just shut up and get the money.” His voice was low and tight with anger.

“All right, all right.” Jo pushed several buttons at random. The cash drawer slid open with a ding. She grabbed a plastic bag from the stash nearby and started shoving bills into it.

With one eye on Jo, the leader directed his partner to grab a 12-pack of beer. The timid one scuttled to the back of the store. In his haste, he slipped in the Lucky Lager and went down hard. Wini’s light purse went flying. Jo’s satchel thunked to the ground. “What the fuck, man! What the fuck,” shouted the leader.

“I’m sorry,” he whimpered. “I think I twisted my ankle.”

“I don’t care if you broke your goddamn leg. Get up! Get moving!”

Wini walked towards the young man sprawled out on the floor.

“Where you going, grandma?”

“I’m going to help your friend up,” answered Wini.

While the leader was distracted, Jo recognized her opportunity to end this thing and protect her new friend–and yes, even Charlie Brown and the cashier at her feet. She moved around the counter and charged. With little grace, but all of the momentum her sturdy six-foot tall frame could provide, she tackled the robber as he continued to bark out orders. He went down in the puddle of pop, chips and sunglasses, and was flattened under Jo’s unyielding body. His head bounced off the floor and his eyes glazed over.

Wini picked up Jo’s heavy bag and looked menacingly at the young man struggling to his feet. Seeing that Jo had the other man under control, she told him, “I don’t want to do it, but if you don’t hand over that gun and sit back down, I’m going to clobber you with this bag.”

He gave her the weapon, grip first, and sat back down in the Lucky Lager. His shoulders drooped and he muttered, “Sorry, sorry. I didn’t want to, but Jason said it would be easy. We wouldn’t hurt no one.”

Wini said, “Any time you wave a gun at people, you risk hurting someone, young man. You could have killed someone when this stupid thing went off.”

Jo shouted, “Wini, you okay back there?”

“Yeah, I’m just fine,” Wini answered. “My young friend and I have reached an understanding.”

“Okay, good. I think his buddy has a concussion. He’s still breathing, but out of it.”

At this, the cashier peeked over the counter top. “Hey dude,” Jo said, “can you tell the 9-1-1 operator that we need an ambulance?” Eyes wide, he nodded and slumped back down behind the counter.

“You two are freaking nuts,” the pudgy man said. “Do you even realize how badly this could have gone?”

Jo looked up at him and asked, “What’s your name?”

“Eric.”

“Look, Eric, I have a better understanding of exactly how wrong this could have gone than you could ever hope to. You might have noticed, had you not been too busy trying to blend into the wall, that I stood between you and the gun. I looked long and hard down that barrel. I saw my own death. I saw Wini getting hurt, or you or the cashier.”

Eric interrupted, “And that didn’t stop you?” He wiped his sweaty brow with the back of his arm.

Jo said, “No, because I felt the weight of all the guilt that would come crashing down on me if any of that happened. I did my best to prevent it, and here we are, with things relatively under control.”

Eric huffed, “Everything, and I mean everything, you did was a mistake.”

Jo said, “Maybe so, but dammit, we’re all okay right now, and so I’m going to ask you real nicely to shut up and start counting your blessings. I’ve reached my limit for being bossed around and berated for one day.”

Wini called up from the back of the store, “How about them apples, son!”

Jo grinned back at her.

A pair of police officers rushed into the store, followed by paramedics. The two robbers were cuffed, their rights were read and their pupils were inspected. The others were questioned. Eric whined to the officers, who patiently heard him out. Wini and Jo gave their statements and were warned that should they ever be involved in a robbery again, to just cooperate with the criminals. It was safer.

Duly chastened, the two women stood outside the convenience store, pondering what to do next. “God, I could use a drink,” groaned Wini.

“Yeah, me too,” said Jo. Without further discussion, they walked down the street to the closest bar. Jo checked her stride to keep pace with Wini, who shuffled a tad faster to keep up with her long-legged friend.

Once inside the bar, they sat down at a table and ordered drinks, a Jim Beam and soda for Wini, and a gin and tonic for Jo. “Ordinarily, I’d order a beer,” said Wini, “but the smell of that Lucky Lager ruined my taste for it today.”

Jo laughed and said, “I hear ya, sister.”

When the waitress came back with their drinks, Jo said, “My friend and I would like to share a plate of nachos. Make ’em spicy.” Wini grinned and held up her glass. Jo picked up hers and clinked it against her friend’s.

“YOLO,” they said, and drank deeply.

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