Outside Coleman’s Café, Kurtzweld Karstinicz hitches up his pants and checks the pistol in the back of his waistband. His Stroh’s t-shirt creeps up under his dirty brown cardigan, stained with bongwater and raspberry filling. His moustache hasn't quite grown in, and his brow furrows under dishwater bangs. He snorts, then spits, then coughs, then scratches his ass. The building stands alone, abutting a gravel parking lot, empty except Kurtzweld’s 1982 Honda Civic. It’s a wooden building that has been standing on the outskirts of Tarradiddle County for the last half century. Every year the cracks between the panels grow and the corners of aluminum signs advertising Dr. Pepper and Sunbeam bend a little. He pushes into the door, then pulls it open and steps into the gas station café.

Inside Coleman’s, the light hits the floor running. Kurtzweld surveys the place, which is divided into two halves. On the left is the convenience store. Four rows rise shoulder high, perpendicular to a short counter that supports cigarette displays, barrels of beef sticks, an old cash register, and a fair portion of the younger Coleman’s belly. On the right a counter stretches the length of the building. There are no tables or booths in the café, just a coffee counter serviced by haggard stools. Coleman, the senior, is at the far end of the counter working a crossword puzzle from a book and drinking coffee.

Kurtzweld takes the stool furthest from the old man. The younger Coleman nods at him and squeezes out from behind the till, dragging his bum leg across the wooden floorboards. He rounds the counter and pulls a cup from the rack below.

-- Coffee?

Kurtzweld nods and mumbles an affirmation. He pulls a napkin from the dispenser.

-- Gotta pen?

Coleman takes a ball point from his shirt pocket.

-- Give it back. It’s my only one.

He fills Kurtzweld’s cup, then goes to the end of the counter to fill his father’s cup. The senior looks up and jabs his pencil into his ear, skewering a log of wax.

Kurtzweld bites his lip and puts pen to napkin. He scrawls.

-- Whatcha writin there son?

The senior leans toward Kurtzweld, craning his neck to see.

-- Dat a love letter? Member dat, son. Usta write love letters to yer momma on the napkins sometime.

-- Yep. I member.

Coleman, the younger, hobbles down in front of Kurtzweld, who lowers his eyes and shields the note from view. Coleman's lips part. He hitches up one cheek, then the other, showing his uneven teeth.

-- Whatcha got there, son? Nothin wrong with writin a little love letter. Mebbe we could help ya out there.

Kurtzweld twitches his head horizontal.

-- No thanks. I think I got it.

The younger raises an eyebrow and looks up toward his father.

-- Thinks he's got it, pa.

-- Trouble with these kids nowadays. Think they know it all. Probly don't know the first thing bout love letters, leavin all kinda things out.

-- You oughta listen to him, son. Taught me how to write a winner.

-- Whatcha need to do is put in somethin bout her lips.

-- They're red. Like a rose.

-- And somethin bout her eyes.

-- They gotta be sparkling. And bottomless. And blue. Are they blue?

-- And her hair.

-- It's blonde, right?

The Coleman's turn to Kurtzweld expectantly.

-- I think I got it.

He pushes the folded note across the counter. Coleman picks it up and holds out his palm.

-- Pen?

-- Oh, yeah. Thanks.

Kurtzweld hands him the pen, which is carefully returned to Coleman’s bulging chest pocket. He studies the note at arm's length. His lips move as he reads, and when he finishes he looks at Kurtzweld, then at his father. He clears his throat and looks Kurtzweld over.

-- Pa?

-- Zit a good un, son? We got us a poet in the place?

-- Says here he wants to rob us.

The old man is surprised. His eyes widen, pushing rows of flesh up into his forehead. A long grin oozes across his face, and finally he spits out a cackle.

-- The boy there wants to rob us?

-- Says, "This is a robbery. Put all yer money inna bag and hand it over."

-- Well what the hell kinda note is that?

Kurtzweld looks away as the senior moves to the stool next to him. Coleman leans over the counter and holds it out for his father to examine.

-- If you could just give me the money

-- Now why should we give you anything? That cup uh coffee gonna cost you 52 cents.

Kurtzweld rubs his hand on the back of his neck and sighs. He reaches into his shirt pocket, brings out a pack of cigarettes and pushes one into his lips. Coleman, the younger, pulls a match across the counter and lights the smoke for him.

-- I gotta gun, y’know.

The old man pulls the gun from Kurtzweld’s waistband and waves it in his face.

-- Course you gotta gun, son. I can see halfway down the crack uh yer ass there, an I could see when ya walked in ya hadda gun.

Kurtzweld grabs for the pistol, but is intercepted by the younger Coleman. The old man points at him with the gun, squinting.

-- I know you. Yer Trimbull’s boy, ain’tcha?

Kurtzweld gives a shallow nod and looks down into his coffee. Coleman tops off the mug from the caraffe of decaf while Coleman, the elder, shakes his head in disbelief.

-- Crazy world, huh pa? Mayor can’t even raise up a decent robber.

-- Could I just have the money?

The senior chuckles and wiggles his mug for a refill.

-- Son, you member that last time we got robbed?

-- Shore do.

-- That boy come in here with a pair uh girly panties on his head.

-- Them were hose, pa.

-- Hose, panties. Ain’t no different far as I see. Anyway, that’s how come we couldn’t recognize him. His face was all smooshed up in them things.

-- You should try that next time.

-- And that boy were good, too. He weren’t no beginner. He had his note all writ out fore he come in.

-- He noted that he had a gun. That’s important, y’know? You gotta let the clerk know where he stands in the situation.

-- Yessir. He noted he had a gun, and that it was loaded. He were polite, too. Said thank you in his note and everything.

-- Yep.

-- So did you give him the money?

-- Naw. He didn’t really have no gun, right pa?

-- Nope. He hadda water pistol shoved in his coat pocket.

-- Ain’t there a book you could get on the subject?

-- Hell, I’d think it’d be hard to grow up nowadays without knowin how to rob a store. What’s wrong with you, boy?

Kurtzweld shakes his head. He begins to sob, and a teardrop falls into his coffee making a greasy rainbow swirl in the mug.

-- I dunno, sir.

Coleman, the younger, hands him another napkin.

-- Aw, it’s alright. You just need to study up a little. There’s always tomorrow, y’know?

-- That’s right, son. You just gotta watch some of those films. Who’s a good person to watch?

-- Hell, pa. There’s about a million films about robbers and crooks.

-- So you just study up and try again sometime later on, see? Everything’s gonna be alright.

The old man pats Kurtzweld on the back. Kurtzweld wipes the tears from his eyes and smiles.

-- Yeah. I spose so.

-- That’s the spirit, boy. Now you go on. Come see us when yer all ready.

Kurtzweld pushes himself up from the stool.

-- Thanks.

He turns to leave the store, then pauses.

-- Y’think I could have my gun back?

Coleman hands the pistol to him. Kurtzweld replaces it into his waistband.

-- Thanks again.

Kurtzweld leaves the café-cum-convenience store. The door bangs goodbye after him.

-- Think he’ll be alright, pa?

-- Sure, son, sure. Just takes a little tenderness is all. Everbody needs a little tenderness.




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