The door chimed and Carl watched a gunman walk in and turn the OPEN sign to CLOSED. He moved towards the countertop, wielding his .38, and said, “I wanna know what you live for.”
That sent Carl’s heart off to the races. What kind of thing was that to ask? He’d been held up many times before, and the gunman would always come in and say something like, “Open the register, buster,” or, “If you don’t do what I say, I’ll blow you away.” But not once — never in the thirty-something years standing behind this counter — had anyone ever come in and asked him what his reason for living was.
Carl watched the gunman glance down at his nameplate.
“Listen, Carl,” he said. “You better start answering the question before it’s too late.”
After all these years, Carl said to himself, you still don’t have a gun. What the hell’s the matter with you? The truth was, even if he did have a gun, he’d never be able to bring himself to pull the trigger. Besides, playing around with guns was never his idea of a good time — never mind having to point and shoot.
But that didn’t matter. Now he was the one facing the barrel of a gun.
His heart continued to race around the track as he scrambled for something to say. It wasn’t a response you rehearsed. You just lived your life, and if you were lucky, you woke up without thinking about it.
Carl listened to the music playing overhead: a fast, bebop tune with Dizzy and Bird going back and forth at a remarkable speed.
That was his answer.
“Jazz,” Carl said. “I live for jazz.”
The gunman was dumbfounded. He adjusted himself, put his elbow on the countertop, and moved the revolver away from Carl’s face, towards an assortment of cigarettes and lottery tickets.
“Let me get this straight,” he said. “I send you into the black and the only thing you gonna miss is jazz? What kinda shit is that?”
“Get the fuck outta here, it’s the truth. What about your family — you got a wife, a kid at home?”
“No I don’t,” Carl said, looking in the gunman’s eye, showing him he wasn’t afraid to die.
“Look at you, Mr. Tough Guy. What makes you think I won’t pull the trigger, blow your ass away?”
“Who’s to say you won’t?”
“Man, you could be as good as dead, wouldn’t even know it.”
Carl surprised himself when he said, “Well, what’s stopping you?”
“Don’t push me, motherfucker.”
It was late on a Thursday, normally a busy time for the store, people excited, the weekend around the corner.
“Look,” Carl said, “if there’s anything else, I’ve got business to attend to.”
“I’m still waiting for the answer to my question.”
“I already gave you one.”
“Jazz ain’t no answer to a question like that. I’m looking for something with meaning, something worth living for.”
The music overhead changed to a slow, mellow tune — Miles Davis blowing trumpet, from a smoky, dimly lit bar.
“I don’t know what to tell you,” Carl said. “It means something to me.”
“That ain’t gonna work.”
“I don’t understand? What’s it to you what I live for?”
“Hey, I’m the one asking the questions here, pal.”
“I figured, you get one, then I get one, too.”
“You figured wrong.”
“This isn’t my first dance. See, usually the guy with the gun comes in, points it in my face, asks me to hand over a bunch of money. Only problem for you is, I don’t got a bunch of money.”
“This isn’t a robbery.”
“What is it then?”
“Just talking is all.”
“If we’re just talking, how ’bout you point that gun somewhere else.”
“You gonna answer the question or not?”
“I already gave you my answer.”
“And I told you, that’s not the answer I’m looking for.”
“It’s not up to me to find a reason for you to live. That’s not the way it works.”
The gunman leaned over the counter, pressed his weapon against Carl’s cheek, and said, “How’s that feel?”
Not good, but Carl did his best to remain calm. On the outside he was cool, but on the inside, it couldn’t be any different. He didn’t want to die. Not now, he didn’t. Not ever.
“Look,” the gunman said, “I’m not expecting an answer ’cause the question I’m askin doesn’t have one.”
“I don’t know that that’s true.”
“You listenin to me, man? There ain’t no answer to that question.”
“Okay. So, what now?”
“I’ll tell you what now.”
Oh, no. This was it, Carl thought. He closed his eyes, and braced himself to die.
He felt the steel of the gun come off his face.
When he opened his eyes, Carl saw the gunman turn around his gun, pull the trigger, and put a bullet through the back of his throat.
He fell to the ground, and a pool of red formed around his body, while the sound of gunfire bounced around the room until it was absorbed by the smooth, mellow sound of a jazzman’s horn.
Brett Kaplan lives and writes in South Florida. He received his MFA from Florida International University where he recently completed his thesis, a collection of short stories entitled, “Existential Bebop.” His work appears in Adelaide, Subtle Fiction and The Scarlett Leaf Review.