“Thank you,” Mary Brown said with a polite and sing-song cheerfulness, accepting the bill from the hand of old Mrs. Dowding. As her fingers touched in the price numbers, Mary sang and hummed softly to herself, “thank you, thank you, hmm—hmm—hmm, thank you, hmm—hmm.” Mary liked putting money into the till rather more than taking it out, being after all a business owner, but she delighted in the smaller niceties of everyday human interaction, including the ritual of the money exchange involved in purchases, enjoying the process almost as much as the end. She adored polite refinement in all its social nuances, and did not suffer rudeness gladly, nor hold it beneath her contempt, but kept it squarely in her sights as she fixed an offender with a stare every bit as withering as any Queen Elizabeth more famously directed at unfortunates guilty of incautious comment or impropriety.
“Here you are, dear,” Mary said, handing Mrs. Dowding her change. Mary had always taken a small pride in her ability to quickly and correctly figure the amount a customer had coming in change, and although she could have punched in the bill’s denomination and let the electronic register calculate the difference for her, she didn’t use that function, thank you, feeling it an unnecessary intrusion by a machine into an area handled well enough by people. She of course respected efficiency, having a business to run, but she missed the old cash registers, missed their size and all the sounds they made as sales were rung up and the till opened and closed. Now they were small, smart, and quiet. Sneaky, almost. If her refusal to use the change function was a bit of stubbornness in defense of her nostalgia, she felt, too, that if one couldn’t be trusted to make correct change, honestly or otherwise, one shouldn’t be running a cash register anyway.
“Thank you, Mary” Mrs. Dowding said sweetly as she took the change.
“You’re welcome, Ida. Goodbye,” Mary answered, beaming her pleasure at the transaction. Another sale, thank you and you’re welcome, civil, courteous, and complete. Mary had a genuine fondness for Mrs. Dowding, who had been patronizing Mary’s family—owned drug store since she was a young woman and Mary was a schoolgirl helping out her parents at the store. Now both were widows, and Ida Dowding still loyally brought her business to Brown’s Pharmacy, despite the new and cheaper chain drug store that had opened in the area. Ida remembered how the Browns had served the community through good times and bad, and she wouldn’t take her business elsewhere to save a few dollars with corporate strangers. She was a real dear.
Mary was contemplating these sentiments and watching Mrs. Dowding make her way to the door when she became aware of the man moving into her line of sight. Now where did he come from? When she realized he was wearing a ski mask, it startled her.
“Open it,” he said, nodding at the cash register.
Mary only stared, momentarily fixed in her surprise. Robbery? She was being robbed! She had trained for this moment — don’t resist robbers, no money is worth the risk of harm, let the police handle it, insurance will cover any loss — but Mary was also human, and humans tend to get angry when someone startles them. How does one train for that? And as anger flashed through her in response to the start he had given her, a scathing indignation arose at the thought of this cheap hood with a mask on sneaking into her store and giving her orders, demanding her hard—earned money without so much as a please.
“Open it,” he repeated, a harder edge to the demand.
Mary stood eyeing him with contemptuous defiance, not moving.
“Open that register!” he ordered her fiercely, his tone and manner now distinctly menacing.
It was then that Mary got an inkling, the first tickle, of danger. She became aware, too, that he seemed to be keeping his right hand near the waistband of his hooded sweatshirt, as though he might have a weapon under there, and the tickle became a fright. But it was the look in his eyes that caused the moment to occur, that moment when a robbery either takes a bad turn or stays a simple robbery. She saw the grim determination in that look to do what he had to for the money, that he would not leave without it. And it was in that fragile, tenuous moment that the danger she was in realized fully in Mary Brown’s consciousness. My God, what am I doing? She thought. Eternity opened and closed with a heartbeat. She opened the register.
“Grab all the bills together and hand them to me,” the robber told her.
Mary complied, staring handcuffs and prison cells at him.
“Lift the till,” he told her.
“There’s nothing under it,” she said.
“Lift it anyway.”
She did, but then couldn’t resist asking sarcastically, “Do you want the
“No,” he said, answering her sarcasm, “but give me that watch,”
A queer look passed across Mary’s face as she stopped for a moment, but she took the watch off her wrist, staring the gallows at him as she handed it over. It had been a gift from her husband on their twenty—fifth wedding anniversary.
Then the robber was gone as suddenly as he had appeared.
“Okay, Ms. Brown, you’ve told us he was wearing a mask,” one of the detectives was saying, “but you’re not sure about the eye color, maybe blue. We have his height and weight and the clothes he was wearing. Now, did you notice any distinguishing characteristics, anything that stood out about him?”
“He was very rude,” Mary replied.
“No, I mean s-“
“He didn’t say please or thank you and he took the gold watch my husband gave me. He was a very rude robber.”
The detective started to say that robbery was pretty rude all by itself, but instead gave his partner a raised—eyebrow look. The look was not lost on Mary, but at the moment it didn’t matter. A feeling of personal loss at the watch being taken was settling on her, displacing the sense of relief she had felt when the police arrived. She was becoming disconsolate.
“Ms. Brown, I mean something like a scar you might have noticed, a tattoo, a limp when he walked, an accent when he spoke . . . Anything like that?”
“No, nothing like that,” Mary answered flatly.
“Well, we’re pretty sure this guy’s responsible for a string of robberies in the area,” the other detective said, reaching inside his jacket. “Guaranteed he’s a drug addict. But we’ll catch him. Here,” he said, handing Mary a business card, “if you think of anything that might help us, you can reach me or my partner at that number. Or if you just want to talk. We’re here if you need us.” The last was said in a gentler tone.
“Thank you,” Mary said, looking at the card distractedly.
“We’re sorry about your watch, ma’am.”
“Yes, thank you. Do you think he’ll still have it when you catch him?”
“That depends on when we catch him. But I’d say probably not. Chances are he already got rid of it for drugs. But you never know. Sometimes we do recover personal items like that. Maybe he’ll tell us where he got rid of it. We’ll have to see.”
“I hope you lock him up for a long time,” Mary said with a bitterness she didn’t normally own.
It was just after dark the very next night when the robber came back, ski mask and all. And while he had a definite knack for seeming to materialize out of nowhere, no doubt honed in the practice of his trade, Mary saw him a fraction sooner this time. Before she could react, though, he was at the counter.
“Here, lady,” he said, holding out what appeared to be Mary’s watch in his hand. “I’m sorry I took it from you. It’s lucky I saw about it on the news. Here.”
Mary wasn’t at all sure if what was happening was real. How could he be back? She felt a couple of steps removed from reality: up was sideways, logic’s functions distorted. Disbelieving more than believing, fearing some cruel ruse, she reached hesitantly to take the watch, half-snatching it from his hand once her fingers closed on it. She took a couple of quick steps backward, as if he might change his mind.
“Thank you,” she said her voice strange and trailing off thinly as she realized, too late, what she was saying.
Their eyes met for a moment, and Mary saw that his were green.
“Sorry, lady,” he said with an almost gentle regret. “It’s the drugs.” Then he was gone.
Mary quickly checked the watch, still not really believing what had just happened. She looked first for the inscription from her husband, there it was, then checked the face, the band, the style, and all were as they should be. It even felt right in her hand. She had her watch back!
Noticing that her hands trembled, she sat down to collect herself and took a deep breath.
“Well I never,” she said softly, shaking her head. If the robbery had been a rude shock, it had at least fit reality, brutal though it was. But this . . .
“And I thanked him!” she exclaimed in amazed self reproach. She had thanked him for giving her own watch back to her! She didn’t know whether to be furious or to laugh piteously at herself, at the ingrained habit of politeness that had prompted such a thoughtless and disagreeable response from her. Now why had she done that? It was a small, inconsequential thing in the larger scheme of what had happened, but still, it would not sit right with her. There was something about it, about the whole experience, that she could sense happening just under the surface of conscious realization, a confluence of emotional currents forming an intuitive, subliminal logic that teased, almost sensually, her higher awareness with its tantalizing closeness, yet that eluded, for the moment, her apprehension.
“Well, I’m only human,” she finally sighed, her acknowledgement of the mysteries of being human a forgiving dismissal of her compulsion.
But the something would not be dismissed, troubling her not only with an insistence engendered by its proximity to her awareness, but with an anxiety that seemed to be growing in want of resolution; a resolution which, she felt, was looming.
She had been looking at her watch as she sat there, a jumble of thoughts and feelings, and now suddenly saw the robber again, saw his eyes. There had been a look of real regret in them; and something else, something larger, like . . . weariness? Yes, weariness. She was struck now, too, by the bizarre and utterly incongruous aspect of the robber, standing there with his mask on, giving back something he had taken from her by force and apologizing for it. Now why had he done that?
“Sorry, lady,” she heard him saying. “It’s the drugs.”
“Thank you,” she heard herself saying.
Her throat tightened and tears began to well as the emotional realization of what had happened rose, broke, and washed over her.
“I’m sorry,” she said very softly as she wept. “I’m so sorry, you poor man. Thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you.”