They rode down into the Colorado River valley well after midnight. Beneath them, the neverending highway. Above, the vault of the earth in its vast curvature of silence. On the outskirts of town they pulled into the side drive of a Motel 6 and parked behind a dumpster. Slept there with the top down, a barred owl calling who-who, who-who from the treeline in the dark. A fingernail moon dangling among the stars. Toward morning they lay dewdamped in the chill. Then awakened at sunrise, the two of them, one no good and the other merely bad, to eat the breakfast special at IHOP. So began another day without aim or purpose. A day as any before, with no thought of thereafter. In this way they passed a week in Austin, during which time they became restless…
Eddie didn’t intend to shoot the guy. Didn’t mean to rob him either. What happened was—
They were sliding south down Lamar after rib sandwiches and beer at T-Bones Bar-B-Q House. Going no place particular on a lazy day in May. Laid back under a babyblue sky, the sun floating in it like a warm dab of butter. Cruising the street past used car lots flying plastic banners, the whole foods market, record stores, saloons. Moving through bright southern light and summer heat, vehicle exhaust rising acrid off asphalt, the hypnotic afternoon postpotative haze.
Eddie and Ray Bob, jazzing in low gear. Radio on soft, Lyle Lovett.
They rolled on southward through the commercial verge, crossed the Colorado bridge above a shimmering turquoise river. Upstream high greentreed banks flanking the course and a solitary racing shell sculling the windskipped surface, a waterborne centipede. Downstream, bridges over First Street and Congress and the snaggletoothed profile of the glassy city center.
Austin, state capital, university town. Former counterculture magnet and slacker haven now balling the jack on a fulltilt bender. Sucking wind under the onslaught of money, a stripmall gangbang straddling the Balcones Fault. The mellow chilled-out days mere mythic history. Silicon Gulch now, hightech hysteria and the California influx, a city overrun by cyberokies on the rebound two generations after the dustbowled western plunge, returning flush, pockets stuffed with plundered gelt.
Come back to take Austin mainstream. And succeeding. Beyond a few longhaired relics holed up in canyoned university enclaves, the only surviving outlaw instincts careen through a juicy music scene in the rambunctious downtown club district. Rebellious tattooed youth there possessed of mutinous ideas and unencumbered time. Elsewhere, jackleg politicians seeking cool capitol cuties and dot.com commandos stroking bearphobic bull lust. Free market lechery for profit, unleashed.
To this scene come Eddie and Ray Bob, outsiders from the rural frontier, from the unseen and forgotten bumfuck outskirts of the urban media landscape. Rubbernecking the city, seeing what it’s about, not much impressed. Just more folks humping the dollar. Two men alien among distant kindred, young and unemployed and broke, trawling boredom after a late greasy lunch. Scoping the street past fastfood joints and pawnshops in a boosted Eldorado convertible.
When Ray Bob says, Gimmee a smoke, hoss.
Eddie fished the packet from his T-shirt pocket, crushed it, tossed it over the side. Said, I’m out, pull into this 7-Eleven.
Ray Bob wheeled the Caddy ragtop into the empty lot, parked nose up to double glass doors plastered with signs advertising RC Colas by the twelvepack. He shoved the gearshift into park, let the motor idle.
Listen, he said, don’t buy those fuckin straights. Get some filters.
Eddie on the sidewalk put a boot on the bumper, rolled a Zippo lighter across the back of one hand. Man, you know I smoke straights. You want filters gimmee some money.
Eddie shrugged. All I got’s four dollars, I’m buying straights.
Yeah? Well up yours sideways, asshole.
In your momma’s mouth.
Already tried it.
I ain’t surprised, Ray Bob said. How was it? His face serious.
Yours was better, said Eddie. No teeth.
Try her pussy next time.
Them talking that way because they were running buddies.
Copper cowbells jangled on the door when Eddie went inside. Kaleidoscopic view: consumer soixante-neuf. Anything you wanted in there, racked up tight to please the eye and move fast. He paused, shaking his head. Then stood at the counter between the lotto ticket stand and a display of Lone Star keychains saying, Gimmee a packa Camel straights.
The clerk, a plump young man with burnished bronze skin and a black mustache, either Indian or Pakistani, laid the pack on the counter and rang it up. Four dollars and one cent, he said.
Eddie glanced at the register readout. I got four dollars here, pardner. Where’s the spare penny bucket?
The man pointed to an empty plastic ash tray. All out.
Hey, no problem, I’ll catcha next time.
The clerk put a hand on the pack of Camels, pulled it back to his side. Saying, It’s four dollars and one cent.
Eddie looked at him. You gonna hold up this deal over a penny?
The young man adjusted the collar of his red 7-Eleven shirt, gazing somewhere over Eddie’s left shoulder, as though preoccupied. As if he didn’t care. Saying, That is what it costs.
Eddie frowned, not believing it. Flipping the top of the Zippo open and shut in one hand. Snap, snap. Man, you jerkin my chain.
I am jerking nothing.
Hell you ain’t. What kind of fuckin country you come from?
A good country. The clerk meeting his eyes then for a moment before turning to put the pack back on the shelf. He faced the counter again, splayed both dark brown hands flat on the surface. Fingernails ivory as bone. Hair black as creosote, features resolutely braced. Maybe defiant. Very fine country, he said. Where we pay for what we get.
Hot flash. A spasm sideslipped over Eddie’s shoulders, crawled up his neck, hit his jaw. He eyeballed the guy. You giving me the redass, pardner. Listen to me. This is America. Gimmee them cigarettes.
Four dollars and one cent.
I ain’t believin this.
Only the guy didn’t budge. Not one word, just standing there like a chocolate Deputy Doright. A corner of his mouth lifting slightly, either a smirk or a twitch.
Eddie said, Goddammit to hell.
That’s when he hoisted a leg and reached into his boot. Pulled out a .22 revolver, an old Colt Police Positive with a four-inch barrel, looked like a toy. Pointed it at the guy. Arm straight out, finger on the trigger. Saying, Gimmee them fuckin cigarettes.
Robbery, the man squawked. He stared at the gun, dark eyes blinking, teethed his upper lip, jaw thrust forward. I call the police. Get your license plate.
So Eddie pulled the trigger. A sharp crack, the barrel kicking up. The bullet caught the clerk square in the forehead. His head snapped back, a small black hole in the bronze curvature. He stood there with his hands on the counter a moment, eyes crossed, then slid down onto the floor out of sight.
Eddie leaned over the counter and looked down. The guy lay on his side on the thick rubber floormat, head across one arm as if taking a nap. You dumbshit, said Eddie, look what you did. He reached over the open space and took a pack of Camels off the shelf, left the four dollars on the counter. Slipped the gun down his boot and went outside, cowbells clanging behind. He got into the Caddy.
The fuck you do? said Ray Bob. Shoot somebody?
Cocksucker wouldn’t give me the cigarettes.
Cause I didn’t have a penny.
Ray Bob grunted. Don’t fuck with a man and his smokes.
Man oh man, Eddie said, I thought they trained them camel jockeys. You fuckin believe it?
I believe it. Where’s the money?
Left it on the counter.
Not that money, asshole. Ray Bob drumming the steering wheel with the heels of both hands. The register money.
It’s in the register, where you think? Eddie tamped the pack of Camels on the back of one wrist, tore open the cellophane with his teeth. His hands were shaking. Went in for cigarettes, he said, I got cigarettes.
Goddamn straights, too. Ray Bob wagged his head. Man, I told you filters. Shit, gotta do everything myself. He opened his door with the Caddy still idling in park and legged it inside griping. He returned a minute later carrying a plastic sack bulging with dollar bills and rolls of coins and loose change, a carton of Marlboros tucked into an armpit. He sat behind the steering wheel counting the money.
Eddie exhaled a thin stream of smoke, snapped the Zippo open and shut. Don’t you reckon we oughta be headin out?
Just a second.
Count that shit later, man, it ain’t goin nowhere.
Neither is that A-rab in there. He dead.
Reckon he is. I plugged him in the head.
Ray Bob snorted. That’ll sure do it. He tucked the plastic bag under the seat, put the car in reverse and hit the brake. He peered through the windshield at the storefront. Saying, Dammit to hell, shoulda got some beer.
I ain’t thirsty, Eddie said. Let’s git.
They rolled on down South Lamar in the slow lane with the sky spread softly overhead, transparent and cloudless, a pale blue altitude without end and the sun suspended in it. The radio on low with Dwight Yoakam singing about love come and gone. They didn’t listen and they didn’t talk. They were moving and that was enough. Going anywhere and everywhere, going nowhere in particular. The motor of the Caddy purring beneath the hood.
Down near the Brodie Oaks shopping center Eddie said, Man, ain’t this some weather?
Ray Bob nodded. It is that, hoss. Gimmee a smoke. Open up that carton.
Eddie tore out the end of the cardboard carton and handed Ray Bob a hardpack of Marlboros. His hands were still trembling. How much in the sack? he asked.
Ray Bob shrugged. Didn’t finish counting, you was in such a rush. Not much. Musta just made a deposit. He pulled the cellophane off the cigarettes and leaned sideways for the wind to whip it back past his shoulder. Forty fifty bucks, maybe less.
Shit, said Eddie. For that you make me an accessory to robbery?
Wasn’t robbery. You can’t rob a dead man.
Hell you can’t.
Bullshit, said Eddie. They got a law for everything.
(Note: The full text of the novel Robbers is available in a special digital e-book edition from the online booksellers Amazon and Barnes & Noble.)