I noticed the fear first.
And his hand sliding up his thigh.
For a split second, it scared me. For a split second, I was in Cop-Mode, needing to protect myself.
Welcome to Atchison, Kansas.
A convenience store where my traveling companion and I stopped. The kind of place that has become comfortable ritual on my road trips and book tours: gas, piss, munchie, repeat…gas, piss, munchie, repeat.
She went to the bathroom and I pumped gas before heading in. The single bathroom, in this little convenience store deep in the hometown of Amelia Earhart, was in the back, the place usually reserved for Employees Only.
But before you went through that door and into an open area with storage and the bathroom, you passed the soda machines. They were set perpendicular to the back wall, forming a T with the soda machines near the bottom and the bathroom at the far left side of the top.
So I go back there, turned left, saw that the single bathroom was occupado, looked right and saw only storage, and turned back toward the soda machines to wait, or stroll about and find the requisite munchie.
And suddenly there he was. Belly, gimme cap, and giant cooler that he’d just filled from the ice machine…
…and metal phallus on his hip.
Staring at me, his face anxious and sweaty, his left hand – on his cooler – shaking.
“Can I help you?”
Before an answer even came to me, I saw his right hand, sliding up his thigh to his holstered .380.
I was stunned. I’ve been a cop for a lotta years and I’ve never had anyone pull a gun on me. I’ve never had anyone even legitimately threaten me with a gun (as opposed to drunkenly saying they were going to shoot me…fuck, that happens constantly…whatevs).
This was the first time in my life that had happened and I grew up in Texas! Guns galore. Guns required. Guns issued at birth!
His eyes were huge, depthless, black holes of terror. His lips were pinched tight, barely open enough to get the question out. Sweat danced on his forehead as though he’d just run a marathon.
He was scared to death, certain I was less than a breath from causing chaos right in front of him.
What the hell kind of world view did this guy have? What kind of paranoia raged within him and told him that a broken down, older, bald, white guy who just needed to piss was going to unleash a Revelatory hell?
I knew his fear, I’ve been there. When the guy who’d smoked up a pile of PCP attacked me and we fought for 12 1/2 minutes over my gun, I felt that fear. When I faced off with seven drunk bikers in a local bar and my back up was more than 20 miles away, I felt that fear.
But that was all acute fear, borne specifically of those extreme moments.
This guy’s fear felt chronic, something he lived with everyday, something that forced him to stalk the streets of his 10,000-person town strapped, certain he would come face to face with his greatest fear, whatever that fear happened to be at that moment.
That day, in that convenience store, it was me, and he was dead certain I was there to kill him.
So he was going to handle the problem first.
Sitting here, on a Saturday morning, writing about all this, something else comes to mind. I’ve been threatened by bangers, too. White boys who thought they were Aryan Brotherhood, Hispanic boys who believed they were tough enough for MS13, black boys who had C-R-I-P tattooed on their knuckles.
Physically, those threats were always loud-mouthed yelling, blazing eyes, squared up bodies, moving toward me, fists up ready to war.
This guy was the exact opposite. Dead silent other than the single question, shoulders slumped, eyes meek, shrinking away from me, turning away rather than squaring up.
But there was as bi-polarity to him, as well. He was terrified but he was also wearing a metal penis-extender that gave him a balls-out, rock-hard courage. He had already decided he was going to unsheath that monster and let me see it, let me feel it and taste it.
He had decided, scared or not, that he would cower no more. A lifetime of being scared was over. Call him Bernie Goetz writ modern, standing next to a soda machine rather than on a New York subway. He would take care of the problem before it happened, rather than waiting until after there actually was a problem.
Goetz was a reactionary pussy. This guy was a pro-active handler.
There was no threat in that store, not from me or my traveling companion. There was exactly nothing about the situation that should have caused such soul-shattering fear.
Instead of getting mouthy, which is my usual fall-back, I raised my hands, palms out, and said, “Just gotta piss.”
His face flamed red and he immediately turned back to the soda machine, trying to cram more ice into his cooler. I left quickly and waited for my companion outside.
His embarrassment came from, I assume, the fact that he’d suddenly realized he was being a scared little fucktard, seeing death and destruction everywhere…including near a soda machine.
But here’s the thing. There was a moment when I wanted to reach for my weapon, too. I wanted to grab my OC spray or my baton, or even my gun, and make sure I was protected.
Are he and I so different? Each of us wanted to go for a gun when we got scared.
I sigh as I sit here, still angry that this scared-to-death guy scared me badly enough that I wanted to become him. Not forever, just long enough to make sure I was the one who left the store on my own two feet.
Had I been armed, I have no idea what would have happened. Thinking about it keeps me awake at night, sweating cold bullets.
Fuck that guy and what he’s put in my head.