Albert thinks about it first, before he pulls the gun out from his waistband. Ms. Mills, his anger management counselor, says, “Think, Albert, before you do.” So, in that second between deciding this is the perfect moment to rob this liquor store and actually taking the action that will set the decision in motion, Albert ponders consequences. Of course he dismisses them all because he has happened upon the perfect moment, that whatever you want to call it, the stars above Orange County in Southern California are properly aligned, his karma is shining bright, the I-Ching reads “It Is Time To Move Forward,” it doesn’t matter, the opportunity presents itself and Albert knows he’d be a fool not to take it.
Albert, his chin jutted out jackal-like, says, “Clean out the cash register,” but his voice betrays him—all reedy, almost adolescent.
The woman he speaks to is Asian and tiny and wizened, and wears a black jacket. This is what Albert sees and what he doesn’t know is that this woman, Supa (Soo-paah), lived, for almost three years, from the age of twenty-one to twenty four, in a dark tunnel, some of it twenty feet below ground, some of it with sections Albert would have a hard time wiggling through. In other words, she’s a tough cookie. Supa is other things too: a mother to ten, a grandmother to twenty-eight, a wife to one. In front of her she sees another white boy/man holding a gun in his hand trying to take from her. She has seen these gun-boys dead, she has no doubt killed a few of them, she has brought one back from the edge and then, after years she finally let herself think she would live the rest of her life free from the burden of white boys with guns.
She still hopes this can be true and so she says, “We are friends now.”
Albert shakes his gun at her—is betrayed by a hateful out-of-body moment in which he sees himself as he is, waving a gun at a tiny old woman—and says, “I want the money.”
She says, “I work hard,” and the years bent over in rice paddies do not come into this accounting, nor do the thousands of barrels of water she’s carried in her life, nor the miles she’s walked behind a plow, nor the fields she has cleared, none of that, but she does count yesterday and the twenty cases of beer she loaded into the cooler, the thirty loaves of bread she arranged on the shelf, the dusting of the Ding Dongs and the glass bottles of hard alcohol.
Albert takes a threatening step forward and feels his underpants riding up his crack, and thinks fuck me, as he pulls at the ass of his jeans while at the same time keeping his fierce face intact, keeping his pecs tensed against his tight white tee shirt.
He feels like a dolt. He should have tried to think harder, thirty seconds ago, per Ms. Mills instruction. His self-doubt plateaus. Inside his head he screams at himself: jerk, toad, weenie. Ms. Mills talks a lot about impulse control and she told Albert that he seeks short-term gain without acknowledging the probability of long-term loss, the latter of which looms right this moment. She also told him he’d best get some impulse control because next time, this time, well, Albert is right up there playing with the big boys, he’s in the three strikes and you’re out zone.
Seconds ago Albert, bold, controlled, stood, feet planted, his being infused with magical speed and breath, hearing and vision; like Superman himself, Albert felt he too could leap tall buildings in a single bound, like Superman himself, Albert could see through objects, could see the hundreds of dollars locked in the register. Now all he can see is Ms. Mills’ soft face, all he can hear is her careful words, all he wants is to kneel down and beg for forgiveness.
Supa fears the cash drawer’s chump-change (one crisp ten dollar bill, one five dollar bill, thirteen one dollar bills and some nickels and dimes) won’t quell the nervous gun-boy. The sixty fifty dollar bills nestled in her silk sling would certainly send him on his way.
But these aren’t for the taking. Just yesterday she walked her most recent packet of squirreled away American money to the bank and turned it in for the crisp fifties, and thus Supa finally met her goal, fulfilled her destiny: to be wealthy, to be one who holds on to money. Her palm tells this fate, for her palm, read by her mother who was a master reader of palms, promises gold in life, and the dip in the middle of her plump palm promises that she will hold on to that wealth.
“You cannot toy with God,” Supa says.
“God?” Until today a gun always made Albert feel like a god. At the beach one day his father told him a gun makes a man all-powerful. He said (they were swimming, bobbing in the waves), “No one can screw with you when you have the gun.” Albert points this gun at the register and says, “Don’t dick around.”
Supa looks through him with her tiny black eyes and silence bangs in his ears. He flicks the gun in the direction of register again.
Supa will gamble and find out if these few dollars will make the white gun-boy leave her liquor store peacefully. Her husband, dead six years, buried only five miles away, would be proud at how brave Supa is, strong in her resolution to calculate, and then to take measured moves. She is willing to play along with any sort of soldier, even this one with no uniform, no machine gun or helmet, but still a scared boy, walking into a foreign jungle, gun shaking, fear jumping out of his eyes.
She remembers a lesson she learned from a young captain back home whose eyes sparked in battle, so before she presses the buttons that will open the old register she catches the blue eyes with her dark ones and then warns him that the machine is going to make noises.
Even with this said the jangle sounds loud, the chatter forcing its way between them, the prospect, of money, though, pushes Albert’s spirit back high. His Superman ears hear the clop of the keepers as Supa pulls the bills out from under them—stacks of tens and twenties—and then his Superman eyes register the sorry pile she proffers. He sees the fan of one dollar bills, that they dominate. He tastes sour spit in the back of his throat. The dull sound of nothing slams him. He pulls at the ass of his jeans again, feels the denim in his fingers.
Fluttering moth-like imaginings rustle through his head—Ms. Mills smelling like his grandmother smelled, lavender and roses and dust, him, back in the ocean with his father but instead of talking about guns, father tells son how sweet a properly teased nipple can be.
Albert wishes he were anywhere else in the universe than where he is.
Maybe, he thinks, his trigger finger itching, in his next life he will have impulse control.
Supa thinks maybe she has, for the sixth time in her life, escaped death’s claw.

About the Author

Mona Houghton

Mona Houghton has published stories in Carolina Quarterly, Crosscurrents, Bluff City, West Branch, Oracle, Livingston Press’ Tarts 2, Harpur Palate, and Corridors. She has won the John Gardner Memorial Prize for Fiction for her story “A Brother, Some Sex, and an Optic Nerve,” and first place in the Inconundrum Press “Melville Novella” contest. Mona taught writing at California State University Northridge and is currently working on her second book.