The Mugger’s Philosophy
Fiction by Luke Maguire Armstrong
It came when the weathermen predicted it would not. Mittens sobbed from forgotten closets. Inestimable sparks of too-bright light discoed across the Hudson, controlled, they claimed, by quantum laws. Seventy-seven degrees was all it took for a woman as frail as intercultural love to wheel her body out of her above-the-city abode to the winking world below, where dedicated dog walkers and runners passed monkey-bar yelps from fenced-in playgrounds. Jersey, with less of a reason than ever for a visit, waited obliviously across the river, and a tower that represented history more than freedom was in the last spring, when it would still have a sky to reach for. Seventy-seven spring degrees — the temperature that compelled Ron to walk again with that gun, his search for alternatives cursed and traded for last fall’s M.O.
Ron did not know why he chose the second man. The slouching shoulders that would drive a teacher mad were likely suspects. It could have been the way the man put his hands in his pockets like it did not matter if he ever removed them. Ron was as helpless before these queries as a man peering at his lover behind bed sheets, wondering, Why she? Why her?
Why this reverence for understanding, and did others in this line of work ask themselves these things? Was Ron a philosopher among thieves, or were thieves philosophers among men? Was the Pizza Hut lunch buffet as good as he remembered it? Were the dire predictions challenging the longevity of bananas founded? What about GMOs?
Was he not fluent in the whispering of body language? Did the man’s face maybe have something to do with all this? The man was ugly enough for Ron to think so, without feeling blamable. The guy wore glasses. Hipster glasses. This ugly man, walking so dispossessed, turning uninspiringly onto Jane Street, moving slowly, a target for the laziest of lions.
Ron removed his pistol cinematically from his pants to inside his wrinkled blazer and clutched it to his heart. He hoped, despite the man’s ugliness, that he at least germinated his personality to the point that women occasionally considered maybe sleeping with him. When the lights went out, what was the difference? Only the naïve and young thought sex with the lights on was risk-free.
The hipster meandered down a quiet side street. Ron stayed a few steps behind him, until no one else was in sight. Stick ’em up, said a silly voice in Ron’s head. Your money or your life, said a voice from a 50s western. You gonna die, son, said the cruel voice of Johnny Cash. But this was business, and Ron knew better than to mix it with pleasure. His lines were cliché, but he loved them like a public pronouncer of proverbs.
“Wallet and phone, son; you’re being robbed.”
There are ways to be eaten by a lion without losing your dignity. It is possible to embarrass adversity with apathy. You can lose every battle and still drag out a win in the war, like removing an unwilling kid from a McDonald’s play land. There is a proper way to enjoy lousy wine, and there is certainly a way to face a mugger pointing a gun at your back without him losing all respect for you.
One way to lose that respect is to shriek, “Ahhhhh,” and to bend down on your knees and beg for mercy.
Ron put the gun in his jacket’s breast pocket and leaned over to lend the kneeling man a hand. “Get yourself together. If I wanted to shoot you, do you think I would have walked up to you and made a request that only a living person could be expected to comply with?”
The man thought the question was rhetorical and continued to cower. “Anything, I’ll do anything. There is no reason to shoot me.”
Ron wondered if the hipster would be willing to change his name to Bruno and move to Russia to be a toughie in an underground gambling circuit, but suspected not. “Is this your first time?”
“First time what?”
“Having sex with a goat.”
The man’s trembling-trembling hands managed to find his wallet and phone, and he extended them religiously to Ron, bracing himself for whatever wrath he imagined.
Ron took the wallet, removed a Visa card, and read, “Stanley James Horner. You look like a Stanley James Horner. Come on, get off the ground!” Ron removed forty-six dollars from the wallet and put the cash in his back pocket. “Now, first thing you are going to want to do is go home, get online, find the number to your bank, and cancel your credit and debit cards. Otherwise, I’m going to get a bunch of blenders from the nearest appliance store and make milkshakes the rest of my days.” He handed the wallet back to Stanley, who steadied himself. Ron pointed to the shaking man’s leather shoulder bag. “And your … whatever you call your bag. My gut instinct is to call it a purse, then a man bag, and after that a murse, but I realize that all three of these might be offensive to you. There is nothing wrong with a man using a bag like that, so stick up for yourself.”
Stanley hesitated. “There’s nothing in here. Just books and papers.”
An old woman, walking two poodle-ish dogs, appeared from around the corner.
“Act normal, or I’ll shoot you,” Ron said with dogmatic certainty.
The woman had the face of a prune and walked with the expediency of parting for an ill-conceived war. How many seasons remained for her, and might her dogs last longer? She treated each step like it was something worth starting a cult about.
“We could be here all day,” Ron said, more to himself than to Stanley.
In an amount of time it takes to build up the nerve to ask the hottest girl in school to the prom, she drew close enough for the dogs to sniff the cuff of Ron’s pants.
“It’s okay,” said her cigarette-smoking voice. “They’re so friendly. Just love people.”
“I’m allergic to dogs,” Ron said.
“Oh, so am I. These are hypoallergenic dogs.”
“There’s no such thing,” said Ron. He turned to Stanley: “You ever heard of such a thing? A hypoallergenic dog?”
The woman broke in first, “It’s because of science. Science made my dogs just the way they are.” She concentrated on bending over and gave each dog a pat.
She’s too gleeful not to be on some sort of mood-altering medication, Ron thought. The eternal question lay before him, To mug or not to mug? He generally did not mug the elderly and had a rule against women, but there seemed to be little else he could do to put an end to this conversation. He could kick her dogs, and maybe she would rush away in a huff. Ron patted the first dog with his shoe. These dogs had been spared the hardships of life, and that brought some joy to Ron.
“You seem like nice young men,” she said.
“Do we?” Ron asked. “What if I told you that I had a gun in my pocket and was in the process of robbing this man when you came up?”
The woman laughed and rested a hand on Ron’s shoulder. “I’m far too sexually active not to still know never to believe what a man says.”
Ron counted the negatives and realized she had only used two, when Stanley said, “Viagra’s a wonderful thing.”
“Well, holy shit,” said Ron. “You have a personality.”
The woman breathed in the sky and the trees. Her dogs panted eagerly and made gentle tugs at their leashes. “Well, boys, it’s a wonderful day. So enjoy it.”
“What, she’s not going to give us a quarter so we can buy ourselves some candy?” Ron said to Stanley, as he waved with a shooing motion for as long as it took for her to disappear. “Now, back to you, Stan-the-Man — ”
“Aren’t you a little white to be robbing me?”
“That’s a horrible thing to say. Very racist. I may be a criminal, but you’re the racist. Anyway, this here’s a hold-up,” he savored the words, their cliché eclipsed by relevancy. “Give me your bag, and you can go on your way. First best day of the year, you wouldn’t me to ruin the whole thing for you.”
“There’s nothing in here. Just books and papers.”
“Since when have books and paper been nothing?”
“There is nothing of value in here. If you want, we can go to the ATM, and I can take you out $100. I have a daily limit.”
“$100 is your daily limit? That’s horseshit.”
“Bullshit.” Ron adjusted his Coors Light belt buckle. “Stanley, when you mug someone, you can do it any way you want. I’m calling the shots here, and if you think about the risks involved with me escorting you to an ATM where they have cameras, you can probably guess why, to me, it sounds as risk-free as shitting on my OCD Aunt Marjorie’s coffee table.”
Stanley trembled, and Ron thought about an idea for a book. A short book, more likely a novella. It would center on a painter who experienced the world through the opposite means of perception as the rest of us. While most people see the whole, and then break it down into particulars composing it, the painter — and she would be a knockout broad who laughed at the moon, made kissy faces at the sun, and guffawed at the notion of monogamy, drank straight shots of tequila and painting supplies — would perceive the world oppositely. She would see the particulars and then the whole.
This woman’s life would be lived at the individual level of an object’s parts. The men she slept with — and they were many of every creed and nationality and shoe size — she would experience them not as an entire entity, but as an amalgamation of abstract concepts sharing mutual roles composing the man. Her life after last call would be filled with unreasonable hours spent smoking cigarettes in thrilled bedrooms.
But how would her perceptual differences come out in her art? How would someone seeing the world that way paint? A further problem, how to portray art with text? Perhaps he should collaborate with a visual artist who could work out the details of artistic portrayal.
Ron decided the story would never come together, as Stanley took out a binding of a few hundred pages from his backpack and held his bag toward Ron.
“What’s that?” Ron signaled the papers being spared his pilfering.
“Nothing is nothing.”
“It’s just a stupid thing I’ve been writing.”
“Well, let me see it.”
“Why would you want to see it?”
“I’m interested in more than just mugging people, you know.” Ron grabbed it from Stanley and read the cover aloud, “Occasions of Solitude by S. J. Horner. Why don’t you want to use your first name?”
“I just — Is this really necessary, that we have this conversation?”
“So you wrote this?”
“Why are you so worried, then, if I have it? You’re afraid I will publish it in my name or something?”
“It’s my only copy,” Stanley replied.
“It’s not backed up on your computer?”
“I wrote it on a typewriter.”
“Why the fuck did you do that?”
“I like the feel of it.”
“You mean you like the feel of being a writer.”
“I just think that — ”
Ron turned to a random passage of the manuscript, “‘… What connects a bus ride through dark Middle America interstates, the star’s pimples picked by the moon, that rattles the past like cans tied to my tying the knot with the vehicle of the present. …’ It’s not bad, but getting through it is like navigating the cafeteria code in junior high. And it’s really reaching at being good. Plus, your title makes you sound like you’re the type of guy who carves all that dark poetry shit on bathroom stall walls, when all anyone should be carving on those walls are ejaculating dicks and postscript predicates questioning the sexuality of everyone who thought they should immortalize their names in the same place life discards what it no longer needs.” He flipped to another section, “‘… The star-kissed waves lapped upon the shore, commanding Howard’s attention, as he skipped stones over the moonlit-and-led waters of that night. …’ Jesus, is it all like this?”
“It’s a draft.”
“Will you write about this?” Ron asked. “About getting mugged?”
“Fiction or nonfiction?”
“See. Why the hell? You have a perfectly good story. You have the woman with the dogs. Guy mugs you, and he asked you about your book, and he even reads it to you, and you are going to make that fiction?”
“Maybe I’ll make it a woman who gets mugged,” Stanley said, “because then there’s always the fear of …”
“Rape. You can say it. It’s not a nice word, but it’s not off-limits when you’re talking about it. That’s why I don’t mug women. No, thank you. Can’t deal with them thinking that that’s what I’m after.”
“Why did you choose me?”
“What if you wrote a story about a woman mugger robbing a man?”
“What do you mean I’m an easy target?”
A woman with grocery bags passed them, and neither party paid attention to the other.
“Look, I came for your money, not to offend you,” Ron said, “but you’ve seen yourself in the mirror. You’re skin and bones, pale. And you have this face that belongs in a circus performed for circus performers — ”
“It’s been winter all year.”
“The fact is I chose you, and who knows why. I’m the guy with the gun — you’re the guy who obviously didn’t have a gun. I’ve been trying not to do this. I am a writer, too, and I need to make rent, so you do what you have to, right?”
They stood facing each other. The heat of 5 p.m. was done acting like it owed the world something, and the air recoiled. Ron removed the wallet again, took out the driver’s license, and squinted at the address. “I’ll keep this, I’ll read it, and I’ll mail it back to you with the license later this week. This your current address?”
“That’s not happening. Just give it back to me. You’re obviously not going to shoot me. You already would have done so.”
“That’s my line, and this is my gun. Recall our power balance? Jesus. What was it like disciplining you as a child?”
A car drove unhurriedly by, and both men turned to regard it for different reasons. Ron noticed the drop in temperature and felt resentful, muttering the words, “Unclothing the atmosphere.” The same day that had encouraged the world to be apart of it was now chasing its participants away with dropping degrees from a windy cloud cover.
Ron tried to grasp the thinking that occurs between thoughts like classroom whispers during a test. Why this hipster in front of him? And there must be a word that is not compassion to describe the sensation that, on a farm in Indiana, a man — whose hands carried shovels and pushed wheelbarrows and made omelets and his bed, and now clutched a gun to his heart, with another man’s wallet and bag and phone — was feeling.
When George Mallory was asked why he climbed a mountain that seemed hell bent on killing him, he said, “Because it was there.” Here was a man who saw other people, knew of their phones and wallets and sometimes laptops, and that was why this other man was here hostage to a gun. Behave, they had told him so many times, such a long time ago. This was behavior, too. Why not pull the trigger of a gun? It was there. Ron revered that deeper mind more than the one that left nothing to the imagination.
Stanley sensed the change in Ron and fell silent, realizing that words could do nothing but be themselves.
“Where the hell did our spring day go?” Ron heard the cruel voice ask. “Huh? Where the hell did it go, S. J. Horner?”
Stanley did not know the answer any more than Ron knew the answer as to why Ron removed the gun, pointed it at Stanley’s chest, and pulled the trigger.
Stanley fell to the ground. Ron threw the wallet at Stanley’s seizing torso, and then did something that surprised even him. He threw half of the manuscript in his hands in the air so that it rained down like leaves, and then, he sprinted back toward Jane Street.
It was not the BB that knocked Stanley to the ground, but some command from some part of him he was not fully acquainted with. Later that evening, he would spend hours on Google noting the differences between BB pistols and actual handguns, and he would be glad to learn that some looked basically identical.
In the time it took for a frenzy to free itself from a dead certainty, Ron had already turned the corner to join a motherless horde of the city, where no one would need to know whose backpack was worn by whom and what subway reading material haunted whom and why.
‘“Wait,” she said, suddenly infatuated with the forgotten possibility of uncompromised contentment. Wasn’t loneliness rooting for everyone else in the world? The depths at which we come to understand that it’s okay to lose your balance, necessary to slip, this tortured compassion felt for everyone, a necessary sadness wanting to fix every frown that gave him the strength to make a decision that, even then, he knew would never be taken off of scrutiny’s table.’
Ron looked up and stared so long at the woman in front of him that she crossed her legs and turned away. It was not bad, but he could not tell if it were good. He re-read the passage several times. He hoped it was good. If it were good, then the whole experience would compel Stanley to make it better. If it were not good, then it was no worse than having forty-six dollars in his back pocket that Ron did not have on the train ride in.
Luke Maguire Armstrong was a baby, who became a boy, who became a man. Once, he fought a bear and almost died. Haters later claimed it was “only a raccoon” and that he was “acting like a little girl.” Between 2008 and 2012, Luke directed the educational development NGO Nuestros Ahijados in Guatemala. This work was featured on ABC News’ 20/20 with Christiane Amanpour and in The Huffington Post. He is the author of How We Are Human and iPoems for the Dolphins to Click Home About.
Originally published on Go Read Your Lunch on 7/18/13.