- Box of Watches
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That Friday afternoon in AAA Guns and Jewels, Shaun’s life flashed before his eyes, just as they said it would when you faced death, though it wasn’t his death but his grandfather’s that made the events of Shaun’s twenty-two years begin to reoccur as soon as he heard the old man shout, “Go right ahead and shoot me, you little shit!” Shaun was in the back room on the phone with a woman who was calling from Feed the Children. “Most of the people who live on our planet are hungry—and most of those people are infants and children,” she was saying when Shaun heard A. J. shout these words, turned around, and froze because of what he saw in the yellow, dirty electric light of the front room: the emaciated customer wielding a Beretta .38, which had, as his grandfather knew even better than Shaun did, one of the most unreliable hair triggers of any firearm. The slightest shiver could set this cheap, overbought street weapon off. But this didn’t bother the old man in the least. He smiled right into the barrel, then laughed a large, openmouthed laugh, just like George C. Scott in Patton, one of A. J.’s favorite movies ever because the old man liked stories of contrary heroes who rose above history, who built rockets and shot themselves into space, who settled the American West, who killed Germans and bested Rommel, who did anything other than what A. J. had been doing for the last three years, which was to die slowly of old age and cancer, melanoma that had spread to his liver, his colon, and, finally and most painfully, to his bones, placing him not at all above history but deeply and painfully inside it.
They’d been robbed in the past—eight times, in fact—and their rule was always do what the guy with the gun says, no matter what because, of course, at the end of the day you wanted to live more than anything else. You wanted to get away with your life, as they always had, climbing the stairs after closing time to the small apartment above AAA Guns and Jewels where they had shared, since Shaun was a small boy, the same bedroom and kitchen, the same bathroom and black-and-white TV, the same record player playing the same records (because A. J. didn’t see any need to trade up for a flat screen or a CD player, dozens of which they had in the shop below them anyway). For years, they’d listened to Frank Sinatra, Harry Belafonte, Neil Diamond, the Duke and the Count. A. J. liked the big band music best. His eyes soft, he’d say, “Those were the days when people used to dance. You had to know how. You had to learn. You couldn’t make it up.” They prepared the same meals week in and week out—egg salad, BLTs, grilled cheese, club sandwiches, and, on Sundays, steak sandwiches with melted Havarti and martini olives [End Page 168] right out of the jar. And sometimes, when Shaun was still a boy, A. J. might make a Jell-O concoction—the same sort of thing that Madeline, Shaun’s mother, had often made—because his grandfather seemed to understand how terribly Shaun missed her after she had dropped him off at the age of six in front of A. J.’s shop, not even coming inside. The storefront’s two neon signs—“Money For Guns” and “Cash Fast”—flickered at Shaun’s back and the wind blew in Madeline’s dark hair as she shouted out the car window at him and his grandfather, “You’re going to stay with Granddad for a few days, all right?” And neither Shaun nor A. J. ever expected those few days to become sixteen years.
Now he was about to lose his grandfather as quickly as he’d lost his mother. He needed to act, to do something. But the woman...