My first mugging was, strangely, not the first time I’d had a gun put to my head. See, I had always assumed I would never make it to the age of twenty-five. Now that I’m long past it, I realize I had missed my last chance only two weeks before that particular milestone.
I had stepped outside for a smoke and was sitting on the curb by the back door, leaning my back against the boss’s new truck. This kid—around twenty, give or take—came up and asked me for a cigarette.
“Sorry,” I said, “I had to bum this one myself.”
“Well, can I steal a puff?”
“Sure,” I told him, and handed it to him.
He bent over and looked in the back window of the restaurant while he took a drag—I figured to see who I had bummed it from, when I heard a voice behind me:
“GIVE US ALL YOUR MONEY!!!”
I looked over my shoulder and there was this guy with a gun to my head. He was heavier set. He had a hoodie up and a bandana over his face.
Crip colors, if that still means anything today.
He had come up around the boss’s truck while the other distracted me.
I turned and maybe I said “No.” Or maybe my face said “This can’t be happening,” because the skinny guy grinned.
He nodded and said, “Yep.”
Now—if they had been smart—they would have just clocked me upside the head in the first place. But, as it was, I got mad. Not mad with them even, just pissed off at people in general…and how they never seem to plan things well.
I started talking.
“What the hell’s wrong with you? Don’t you know what today is? It’s the fifth. Don’t you people pay rent? I had $650 in my hand earlier today. I ain’t got shit now.”
The little punk didn’t take that too well. I thought it better not to turn around and look at the gun anymore.
“Empty out your pockets.”
I stuck my hands in both pockets. In my right pocket I could feel the cigarette pack with the three cigarettes I had just lied about to them. Under it, I could feel the fifteen dollars I had forgotten I had. Fortunately, while my right hand was thinking about this, my left had started pulling out various key rings.
“No man, get out your wallet.”
I had to smile at that. Skinny smiled too when I showed them both that nothing was in it. He had these big old buckteeth…
The guy behind me said, “Man, this dude don’t have no money.”
I said, “Man, this dude don’t have no socks.”
I held up my pants cuffs and showed them my bare ankles.
“Shit. Maybe we’ll take the shoes.”
“You want them? They cost me $12.”
By then, Skinny was starting to laugh. The entire thing had become surreal. We were in the parking lot of a small business strip. This had already taken several minutes and nobody had come by yet.
“You ain’t got nothing?”
“What do you want? I’m wearing an apron. I’m sitting behind a pizza place. I don’t have cash to buy cigarettes. I’m hoping to make enough in tips to eat tomorrow. What are you doing hitting somebody on the fifth anyway? You should do it on the fourth. Or welfare check day. Or something, I don’t know…”
I pointed at the sign hanging over his shoulder. He was quiet for a minute.
“Gimme your license.”
“You want my ID or my Elvis ID?”
I had a fake Elvis ID that I used as a distraction if somebody was underage at the bars. It normally was enough that no one else got carded. I figured it had more value than my real one. Besides, we had gotten to that point in our relationship.
“Your real ID, fool.”
I gave it to him.
“Matthew Burkett…” He read the address equally slowly.
“Alright, Matthew…I’m keeping this.”
My mouth started running again.
“Wait a minute. I need that. You don’t. My car’s hot, man. Everything’s out of date and out of state. If I get pulled over without it, I’m going to jail.”
Skinny had started walking away, but stopped and turned.
“You got a car?”
“Yeah, man. Like I told you, it’s hot.”
Skinny gave me my license back and started looking around the parking lot.
“What color is it?”
“White…” I looked at him. “No, you’re not taking my car.”
Skinny did the nod-and-grin thing again.
I started rattling off my fingers.
“Thanksgiving is coming up. Christmas is coming up. I gotta see the fam…besides, it’s got no gas and everything on it is expired. You wouldn’t make it three blocks.”
The fella behind me started to laugh.
“I like this guy,” he said. “I think we should let him go.”
I was making friends with the muggers.
Skinny reached behind me and took the gun.
“Nah, the problem is he don’t think this is real.”
I told him, “I don’t care if it’s real. That doesn’t change the fact that I’m broke and y’all are dumb. I mean really, on the fifth and all…”
Skinny stamped his foot and turned his head as he smiled.
“Man, I just wanted to take it for a spin around the block…”
“Well, lemme see your license again.”
I dug it back out and handed it to him.
He read my address out again, real slow. It was a street four blocks away, but he mispronounced it terribly.
“Alright, Matthew,” he drawled my name out. “Now I know where you live. I got a good memory for shit like that. I know where you work and I know where you live. So don’t be calling the cops when you walk in the door.”
“Look, man, as far as I see, y’all ain’t done nothing to me and I ain’t got shit against y’all.”
Weird, but I meant it at the time.
They started walking away.
“Hey! I need my license back.”
“Oh, I’m keeping that.”
“What? Come on, man! This ain’t Fight Club…those things cost $35. I don’t have $35 for you, I sure as hell don’t have it for the DMV.”
Skinny hesitated, then gave it back to me.
“Man, you know we was just kidding about all this…here, you want your cigarette back?”
I looked at it. It was burning down by the filter.
“Nah, man. Keep it.”
“Alright. Remember, I know where you live.”
“Fine. Bring some beer. Good luck.”
I picked up my checkbook from where it had fallen out of my back pocket and went inside. I don’t know if I outconned them, outwitted them, or outconfused them. I was truly hesitant to call the police.
My boss did anyway.
When you’ve gone through intense situations, even with strangers, you create this connection, like you kinda know them in this certain way.
I don’t think they would have hit anyone else that evening. I would like to think they were as confused as I was…
But still…I kept my money, my smokes, and my car. The only thing they got from me was that one cigarette and I chalk that up to Smoker’s Karma. When somebody asks you for a cigarette, you should give them one.
I know the first thing I wanted after the cops left was to go have a cigarette.
I went out front that time.
About the author:
From Louisiana, m. h. burkett has been in denial the 16 years he has lived elsewhere. He has lived in Virginia for “a house and two kids” worth of time.
His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Reed Magazine, Stirring, Forge, The Penmen Review, and Buffalo Art Voice.