Curtis took a discretely proud peek at his reflection in the tinted window of a lime green Mercedes. His muscled torso was accentuated by the snug fit of his brand new policeman's uniform. He struck an imposing figure as he patrolled streets that he had grown to manhood roaming. Surely no one would be foolish enough to break the law on his vigilant watch. But if criminal activity were to take place, he was well prepared for the task of maintaining order and safety for the citizens under his protection.
Despite enduring criticism upon announcement of his decision to become one of the city's finest, Curtis was positive that he had been born to do this. The way to combat the many legitimate accusations of brutality and racial profiling by the police force was not to cry out in impotent anger, but to become an active part of the solution.
He took off his hat for a moment and rubbed a hand over his cleanly shaved, chocolate brown skull. His friends asserted that brown and blue did not, and could not mix. Curtis looked forward to proving them wrong. More so, he was anxious to prove his worth and advance rapidly through the ranks. Once he made detective he would marry Denise, buy a house out in the suburbs, and get started on the family he had planned on being the head of for as far back as he could remember.
"Looks like I'm going to have a quiet first day on the job," said Curtis to his partner Steve.
"Don't get ahead of yourself rookie," advised Officer Steven Coley. "The sun is just beginning to set. Darkness gives people foolish ideas."
"Well, we'll be there to give those fools second thoughts, won't we?"
Instead of answering the question, Steve chuckled, his belly shaking under a uniform that seemed about to burst at the seams.
"Quite the eager beaver, aren't you? Believe it or not, I was once as primed to charge forth and do good as you are now."
"So what happened?" Curtis asked, examining the gray that had begun to invade his partner's curly blonde sideburns. "Have you seen too much to care anymore? Have you grown jaded?"
"Nope," replied Steve. "I've just grown up."
Mr. Kim seemed like a good man and had sold him the store at a fair price, now that he was ready to retire and move back to Korea. Leonard wished him well. Still, he felt that justice had been served by the passing of this store from the Korean man's hands into his own. In order for money to replenish and revitalize this neighborhood it needed to circulate throughout the black community, not flow out into the hands of outsiders. Leonard had been born and raised less than twenty blocks from the establishment he came to acquire. But although the distance traveled was physically short, several decades of strenuously worked muscles and judicious application of his studies were needed to complete the journey.
Leonard had big plans. He would not be content merely to make a good living supplying his neighbors with bare necessities. Little by little he would expand the inventory until his store stood out from nearby competitors. People would walk a few extra blocks to obtain what he alone could offer them. He intended to give the store an Afrocentric flavor, to make it a source not only of personal, but also of neighborhood pride.
He may have been starting small, but felt confident customer loyalty would eventually enable him to branch out into other areas of interest. Leonard was determined to become not only a successful businessman, but also a leader, a pillar of his community. He had always believed that most limitations were self-imposed, that all goals were attainable through hard work and commitment to a vision. No less than the world had been imagined for himself, and this store was to be just the first chunk of it.
A young man in his early twenties or late teens walked through the door. He was greeted with a nod and slight grin that Leonard could not suppress. Although numerous people had been in and out to make purchases throughout the day, the feeling of euphoric unreality had not quite evaporated yet. Leonard had only been more proud on one other occasion, the birth of his son. Julian was now assured of a mighty inheritance, an empire that would be built one happy customer at a time.
He noticed a poster of Malcolm X in contemplation on the wall and took this to be a sign of support for his cause. After all, Malcolm had made the words "by any means necessary" a legendary battle cry. Marshall had no shortage of necessity. As for means, this was it, his lone option. His mother required her medication, and those who supplied it required to be paid. This meant that Marshall needed money, plenty of it, quick. There was not enough time to earn it honestly, so he had set out in search of someplace and someone to take it from. His feet led him to this grocery store, and instinct made him stop and decide this was as good a place and time as any.
Marshall felt his nervousness slowly giving way to resolution that was spiced with anger. It was unfair that he was forced to stoop so low. He had never stolen from anyone before, never hurt anybody. This wasn't the type of person he had ever intended to be. He was an honor roll student, known and even teased for his clean cut lifestyle. Living otherwise had not really been an alternative. His mother raised him from day one to always do right. She had done this on her own, having long ago been abandoned by Marshall's father, and no one could have done a better job. Marshall did not want to let his mother down. But this wish was crushed under the weight of his desire to ease her suffering.
He grabbed a bag of something that he didn't bother to take notice of and headed towards the grocer. The longer he hesitated, the greater the chance that his nerve would be lost. Marshall experienced one last quiver of doubt when he realized that his crime would be against one of his own. He could have sworn a Korean man ran this store. But it was too late for such a thing to be consequential. An unstoppable surge of momentum was pushing Marshall towards his destiny.
Officer Coley suspected that the remark was a dig at his increasingly prominent beer gut. Then again, he may have become oversensitive to the issue since Erma had gone on an exercise kick and started harassing him about his physical condition.
"You going on the patch, rookie?"
"Nah," answered Curtis. "Cold turkey. Once I make a decision, I stick to it. I don't need any outside help."
"Whatever you say. I'll wait out here."
"You want me to get you anything?"
"No, I'm fine."
Curtis headed towards the grocery store, crossing at the crosswalk after looking both ways for traffic like any law abiding citizen should. He recalled with amusement Denise's remark that he had developed a new stride, a cop walk, as he walked around their apartment in his new uniform, his polished badge gleaming, the weapon in his holster and nightstick by his side granting him officially licensed power. As a six foot three African American male with a chiseled frame that may as well have been armor, Curtis was used to being considered intimidating. But in his new wardrobe, in his new professional capacity, with his new "cop walk", a layer of respect had been applied to the apprehension he naturally evoked. And Curtis was reveling in it.
The approaching customer had tightly braided hair, like Latrell Spreewell of the New York Knicks. Now that he was on the short track to affluence, Leonard was considering whether to loosen his purse strings for the opportunity to become a season ticket holder. It would be a well-deserved reward for a life-time of industriousness.
"Will that be all, young man?"
"What?" Not wishing to confuse, Marshall removed the gun in his waistband and pointed its barrel towards the grocer. From this point on he was certain that his intentions would be perfectly clear, questions unnecessary.
"I see," said the man behind the counter in a voice that taunted with its calmness. Although Marshall was the one calling the shots, the one in possession of the deadly weapon, he had never been more frightened in his life.
"Take it easy, son. I'll give you whatever you want. Just take a deep breath and gather yourself. There's no reason for anybody to get hurt."
Marshal looked down and saw what the grocer had seen, that his hand was shaking uncontrollably, not a good sign when one of its fingers was on a trigger. He felt a trickle of sweat sliding down his temple, even though it was comfortably cool in the grocery store. This show of fear shamed him. He half expected the grocer to laugh at his amateurish behavior. If he did, it would be his final act, for Marshall would not tolerate being ridiculed. He had entered this store with the intention of committing a neat and efficient armed robbery that would solve all of his problems. Now he just wanted this terrifying ordeal to be over with, one way or another.
"May I ask you something?" asked Leonard as he gathered together the bills in his cash register. "I don't wish to offend, but don't you want to do something meaningful with your life? Don't you want to contribute to society instead of leeching off of it? Because the truth is, all you're doing is digging a hole with bad choices to bury yourself in. Is that what you want?"
"I just want some medicine for my mom," Marshall said, desperate to resume command of a situation that seemed to have a mind of its own, to accomplish the goal he had set for himself, to stem the blinding tears that the grocer's questions had unleashed, and to convey to this man that he was not a bad person, appearances to the contrary, that his trembling hand had been forced by events beyond his control. "I can't afford to worry about that other stuff right now. I can't afford nothing but that medicine, and with the money in your register, I can get it. I didn't dig this hole. I was born in it. Now I'm trying to climb out, cause my mom can't survive in a hole much longer. Do you understand?"
"Yes, I think I do."
A boy was hunched over the counter, his braided head cradled in his arms, shaking and sniffling in a manner that suggested he was crying. One of his hands was clenching a large wad of cash, which in of itself was suspicious. On the opposite side of the counter, the store's proprietor was reaching behind his back, putting an object into his pants pocket, out of sight. Perhaps a wallet. Perhaps not.
"Everything okay in here?" Curtis asked.
"Put your money away, son," the merchant said. "Our transaction is concluded. We've both gotten through the day. We can both start over tomorrow."
Curtis lowered his empty gun hand back to a relaxed position, placated by the voice of the grocer who simultaneously answered the police officer's question and reassured the young man who was leaving the store with a look of wonderment in his eyes.
"Everything is just fine."