By Erika Jahneke
I waited in the back of the bookstore as the expectant noises of an intelligent crowd rose and fell around me. Being in front of a hometown crowd reading from a new book with my name, Natalie Strauss, on the cover was everything I’d ever wanted. Still, I needed to do the deep breathing we practiced in my crime victims’ support group. Although technically I suppose I was more of an accessory.
Since the offense that placed me there happened nearly three years ago, I had gotten past it and had started making gritty jokes in my blog and taking frightened newcomers under my wing. I was a successful survivor. A relapse wasn’t part of my plan.
Even if a freak-out distracted me from the uncomfortable fact that surviving a collectibles heist gave me exciting things to write about for the first time ever, it was the last thing I wanted for my new, glossy, almost-successful life. If I had to start doing mental work again, between wins, I guessed I would, but I didn’t want to get caught up in it as some of the women in my support group had done, barely making tentative and sparrow-like steps back into real life after three, five, even ten years.
I felt especially sorry for that woman, to be honest. “Crime victims” was her third support group, after “overeaters” and “smart women who keep falling in love with asses.” Thinking of her as my worst nightmare kept me from listening very much.
Maybe that’s because she was a real victim, a tart voice in my head that might have been my conscience prodded me. wanted to protest, because even though I had, in fact, gone into my father’s store with larceny in my heart, shit, as the rappers said, had definitely gotten real. OK, but you didn’t know that … you were just being greedy, the voice continued. I closed my eyes tighter, and began to breathe as though I were about to give birth. The voice finally quieted.
“For this moment, I forgive myself,” I mumbled under my breath, closing my eyes and trying to block out the expectant-yet-defensive murmurs of Southwestern book lovers. I felt calmer, almost like I’d achieved the level of peace and enlightenment I’d struggled for, until I felt a tap on the shoulder and heard a faint jingling.
”Everything okay?” Mona, the bookstore owner, dressed like a hippie, complete with little bells on her skirt, cursed like a Teamster. It was rumored that she helped shut down the ROTC building at Columbia when she was at school there. She seemed tough enough, but at times it could be hard to reconcile that version of her with the grey-haired version that went around urging hydration on everyone.
“Yes. Sure. Fine.” I said, trying to recapture some of the top-of-the-world feeling I had when I first came in. It was gone, popped like a child’s soap bubble, but at least Mona distracted me before the anxiety sweat reached my palms.
“You sure?” Mona asked, proffering a plastic water bottle. ”Just because it’s winter, doesn’t mean you don’t need to replenish.”
She waited while I took a sip, a tiny one, so all my overly-expensive lipstick didn’t smear off on the bottle. I tried to look satisfied, as if in tribute to the bad-ass hippie chick she used to be.
“I know we should have the reusable ones. Maybe with the store’s logo on them … that’d be a gas, wouldn’t it?”
“Yeah, that would be absolutely … argon,” I replied, and tried to laugh.
I was sure I’d seen him again, the bandit who robbed me, the person I thought about more than the love of my life that I still hadn’t met.
The bandit had sort of gotten me off the hook there too, considering that when the robbery happened, I was right at the end of the time when it was cool to be finding myself, but as a victim of violent crime, however, not only could I float as much as I wanted, but I got points for bravery I didn’t deserve. Not only that, but I found the community of other survivors from the moment I published about my experience. I didn’t deserve that, either, but I appreciated it just the same.
I had been about to commit a crime of my own when we met, but over years and many retellings, I’d let that soften into the usual guilt of a tormented yet comparatively helpless witness who watched a co-worker transcend her usual indifference to risk her life for mine.
In the crowd, back in the present, I started as a rangy figure in a dark jacket looked at me with more recognition than would be inspired by my purposely enigmatic book-jacket photo. In fact, I had purposely taken that photo so that just one dramatically made-up eye showed. I told myself it was some kind of meditation on being open and still hiding things, but the truth was, I had been on the lam the whole time. I told myself, as I told my father years before, that criminals don’t read, I had only bought myself limited safety and anonymity hanging out with hipsters and Poindexters, but it seemed as though that bit of luck had run out. I took a question or two about keeping a journal and gave some praise to my uncharacteristically peppy agent Allison, and pretended it didn’t hurt that her name galvanized the wannabes in the audience more than my well-considered words. Mostly, I tried to avoid the familiar figure in the back.
My breath came faster, and the typescript I clutched in my palm to read from wrinkled and puckered from pressure and contact from my sweaty palms. I dried them on my grey skirt, not bothering to wonder if it was too short as I’d done every day since I’d bought it. At least I felt far from the sloppy depressive in the black jeans the bandit held tied up in the back of the store. I took some pride in that.
I got through the reading, and even managed to get some of the response I hoped for, including the requisite healing laughter at the end, without being entirely sure of what I said. It was surprising how quickly something changed from “dream” to “ routine,” which seemed like an insight I had to get down, incredibly enough. I was fishing in my purse for a pen when I felt hot breath on my neck. “I thought that was you.” The bandit said. “I think you know why I’m here, too.”
“I’m sorry?” I said, pen aloft over somebody’s book. I was overacting, overplaying the wide eyes and furrowed brow of someone possibly accosted by a guy she knows as an online handle and source of pithy 140-character sayings. “I’m sure I don’t, but it’s always great to meet a reader.” I felt myself relax when my fake, overly-wide smile didn’t slip.
“We should have coffee,” he said, and it wasn’t a suggestion. Despite envisioning myself upsetting a cup of mocha latte over his lap, somewhere deep down, I knew an old debt had come due. Still, I was almost young, with professionally highlighted hair and a halfway decent rack. I should have one last shot at playing innocent in me, and to that end, I said “Gee, I’d really love to, but I’m reading in Tucson in the morning … have to get an early start if I have any chance of avoiding highway hypnosis.” That last bit got a few titters from other women in line. Everyone knew how drab and featureless the drive between Phoenix and Tucson was, with its brown absence of scenery and the hiss of white noise between radio stations. My guest was still the only man in line – I suppose it was true that men didn’t buy books, at least not my kind of memoir, though I kept a hopeful eye peeled for ex-law enforcement or Special Forces, some kind of Sam Elliot type who could sound like an authority when he said “This guy bothering you, ma’am?” but he never arrived. The bandit didn’t buy my story, but he was conscious enough of his audience to make everything come out in a throaty growl.
“Come on, you’re not scared of old Banning, are you? Although I suppose I could say that Sam Spade sent me.” He paused, and tried to be my friend. “There’s a coffee bar right here … it’ll only take a second.”
“Well, when you put it that way,” I said, and tried to laugh like the carefree girl I had never been.
Even waiting in line to get our coffees, I pondered making an escape through the ladies room window as I had done in the antique store years before, but back then I’d had a diversion and pants to keep me from putting on a show like a tween starlet from 2002, although, unlike them, I was wearing underwear. Part of my brain cried out Run, you idiot, but it seemed like it had been stuck that way for three years, much like an overactive car alarm, detecting vibrations only it could feel.
I was now a published professional, not just some victim trying to hide that she pilfered something valuable from her father’s stockroom. I remained determined to act like it, determined to be all right, although in my short skirt and ankle boots I didn’t exactly fade into the background, but I took comfort in normalcy. It was the only answer I could give for why I waited in line to buy a felon’s coffee. Though if he was pissed off at me, I could only assure him there was no stash of stolen cash. In a final irony, I’d still profited more from being in the room with the first edition than I ever did from taking it, but I knew better than to say that to my “friend,” Banning Mathers.
He hadn’t been the only one tracking movements after the fact, but my therapist had made me promise to stop recently, saying it kept me fixated on the crime. Consequently, I hadn’t realized he’d be out already, although if I scoured my memory, there was a faint imprint of a whispering woman claiming to be a victim’s advocate gabbling details of some hearing as fast as humanly possible into my voice mail after I’d moved into my new house. I’d pushed my face forward and erased the message, determined to erase the after-effects in my mind as easily. Of course, it hadn’t worked.
There were other men with sharp features, keen dark eyes, twangy accents, or some combination of the three. The sight of each one of them made my heart beat faster as I relived my encounter with Mathers, and the gun in his belt. I stopped getting bottled water because the delivery man resembled the Gentleman Bandit, down to the way he would tip his hat to me, although on closer inspection the water man was taller and blond. I actually called the corporate office to apologize for screeching when he left my two gallons, but to avoid telling the entire staff at Sparkling Water my real sad story, I invented a neurological disorder, some quieter cousin of Tourette’s, to explain my outburst. As time went by, the things I had to forgive myself for had piled up and I began to wonder if I was actually a bad person.
Now, the actual bandit was sitting across from me on the ridiculously ornate coffee-bar chair, as I fiddled with stirrers and creamer like a little girl having a pretend tea party.
“So,” I said, not looking him in the eyes, trying to behave as if he were a stranger in the grocery store or a waiting room, or anywhere else that I wouldn’t have dreams about. “How you been?”
“You know,” he said. “Prison.”
TO BE CONCLUDED SATURDAY
Erika Jahneke’s stories have appeared in Breath and Shadow, both volumes of the Tales of The House Band music-themed anthology, and Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.