The Ballad of Forty Dollars

By Tom Hazuka

Mickey Dykstra is an addict, not a murderer. The plan was never for old lady Duerson to die, or even to get hurt. She was supposed to be at the Senior Center food pantry collecting the weekly free groceries she could easily afford to buy herself. The last thing Mickey expected was for her to come home so early. No, not true—the last thing he expected was for a sweet, stupid grandma to not only have a .38, or whatever the hell it was, but to pull it from a kitchen drawer like it was a cheese grater and try to go Dirty Harry on his ass. If her reflexes weren’t ossified by fifty years of Pall Malls and Southern Comfort the slug might have torn through his throat instead of hers. But a pop of adrenaline at the sight of that gat flashed out his fist like some badass ninja’s. She shot herself and crumpled to the scabby linoleum, blood spurting from her carotid artery like some snuff money shot.

She lies in a heap beneath a grinning Garfield clock that’s four minutes fast.

Mickey was an undersized linebacker in college, and the hit he put on Julius Robertson (who played a season for the Colts till a crackback block turned his knee into linguine) was the highlight of his career. Stopped him at the goal line on fourth down to preserve a win. Mickey jogged off the field with an ice pick of pain in his spine, made more vicious when his teammates mobbed him. Vicodin helped a little, Percocet maybe a touch more, but Mickey never played another down, lost his scholarship and didn’t graduate. Two years ground past and the pain remained, like a houseguest from hell who moves from the ratty couch to your bed, drooling on your pillow.

So a simple robbery has bled into a simple murder, and so far Mickey isn’t a nickel richer. He’s not even sure where to look for money. Where do old bats stash the shekels when they cash their Social Security checks? They don’t trust banks, right? It would be just his luck that this one did. He sees a ceramic cookie jar with a handle that can’t be true, but somehow is: a grinning man in blackface with huge lips wearing a tight, too-short tuxedo, cradling a huge watermelon in his arms. What’s in her back yard, a noose? Mickey checks in the jar for loot but finds only stale Fig Newtons. He eats two, and feels like a competent criminal as he wipes his prints off the handle with the Iron Maiden T-shirt he got at Goodwill for a buck.

Mickey congratulates himself for being smart and doing this job a few hours before the sickness will start. But suddenly he’s shaking and sweating, heart burping against his breastbone as if he needs the stuff now. He stares at the crumpled crone on the floor. What he has done is beginning to register; this isn’t some surreal video game he can reset.

He pukes the Fig Newtons on his Chuck Taylors.

Rinsing his mouth at the old-fashioned white sink with rust stains around the drain, he wonders if anyone heard the shot. How did he not think of that till now? His blood freezes as a siren blares up the street—oh Jesus, no Jesus—then Dopplers into the distance. Just an ambulance, fuckface, get it together. What’s done is done so just get on with it.

He’s almost out of the kitchen before he backtracks and wipes his prints off the tap. He rips four paper towels from the old lady’s roll to sop up the puddle of vomit and clean his sneakers, then stuffs the wadded towels in his pocket so not to leave any DNA in the trash. He’s seen the TV shows.

The wood paneled hall smells like an attic. Crooked, framed photographs line the walls. Creeping by, Mickey stifles an urge to straighten them. A few are in color, but most are from ancient times when the world was black and white. In the last photo before the bedroom, Mrs. Duerson looks about Mickey’s age. She’s sitting on a blanket at the beach, wearing a one-piece swimsuit and cat’s eye glasses, sticking out her surprisingly stacked chest and trying to smile like a movie star.

Mickey tries to swallow but can’t.

He wonders what his life would be like if he hadn’t made that great play on Robertson, if he’d tripped or gotten blocked to the turf instead of being a hero for one afternoon. Instead of a monkey on his back, would he have a college degree? A good job instead of working nights behind the counter at Gas ‘N’ Go, alert to every sketchy character who bumbles in at four A.M., wondering if this will be the one who pulls a gun and robs him, or worse?
Somewhere he has a newspaper clipping celebrating his game-saving tackle, with a few humble quotes from him.

Why oh fucking why did that old bitch have a fucking pistol?

Searching through drawers he remembers the joke Kathy told him a few months ago, shortly before she dumped him.

“Why don’t Mexicans like blow jobs?” she’d asked out of nowhere in the McDonald’s drive-thru line.

“I couldn’t tell you.” This was surely going to be a dig at his friend Marisol, who Kathy accused Mickey of fucking every time her back was turned. Unfortunately, her jealousy was unfounded.

“Because they don’t like any kind of job.”

Mickey laughed, sort of. With a thought like a paper cut he realized he didn’t like Kathy much.

“For sure you’re not Mexican,” he said. “You love blow jobs.” She punched him in the arm way harder than she had to.

There’s not one penny in the dresser, just scrapbooks and yellowed old lady clothes.

Mickey has to piss like Secretariat. The bathroom has a powder blue toilet with three cigarette butts floating in dark yellow urine. He lifts the seat, and with a grateful sigh adds his long, hefty stream to the vile mixture. He thinks about leaving it that way, but decides to wrap toilet paper around his fingers and flush.

Mickey would never carry a gun. He hates guns. Why oh fucking why did goddamn Mrs. Duerson have a fucking pistol? It’s her goddamn fault. Nothing would have happened—

If you hadn’t broken into her house.

Nothing would have—

If you hadn’t been a hero.


Mickey notices a wooden headboard behind her bed. He slides the door and finds a Bible with a worn leather cover, a box of CVS facial tissues and half a dozen prescription bottles. Hope rises at the sight of the meds, but a quick check shows no drug he’s interested in. He picks up the Bible, which might be an antique and worth something. A green piece of paper pokes out like a bookmark, zero clearly visible. Heart hopping, he flips to the page.

It’s a twenty-dollar bill. Actually it’s a pair of twenties atop each other, one as crisp and clean as a new beginning, the other wrinkled and stained like it spent a month in a carnie’s underwear. He stuffs them in his pocket. Before closing the book he scans the page where the bills were. If this was a movie he knows he’d read some line that would change his life.

His eyes fall on Ecclesiastes, chapter 11: Do good and give to them that need—God will bring all men to judgment.

Are you shitting me? Really? OK, so what. Probably every page in that damn book has some ironic line in it. Anyway, who’s the one in need? That would be me.

He drops the Bible on her pillow. He figured on scoring a couple hundred bucks or more, but forty dollars isn’t the worst thing that could have happened. Forty dollars will make life bearable for a day, maybe two.

The lady was old. Time wasn’t on her side. Her fault for having that gun. Stupid, stupid, fucking stupid.

Mickey recalls meeting Kathy for lunch at Denny’s, when she slid into the booth wearing a tight I’M WITH STUPID T-shirt.

“Trying to tell me something?” he asked.

“What? Oh, this. I’m only wearing it because it’s pink and matches my nails. Don’t you know anything about women?”

“I guess not.”

“Stick with mama Kathy and she’ll teach you everything.”

“I just might,” he said. Then the day after Easter she told him they should take a break to see other people, which of course she was already doing—in particular, doing his best friend Joey Porter.

It was Joey who inadvertently put Mrs. Duerson in Mickey’s mind as a source of income. Last summer they were smoking weed in Joey’s Mustang and talking about high school. Mrs. Duerson’s son was an assistant principal, a fat, balding prick named Richard who the kids of course all called Dick. Joey coughed out the dregs of a monster hit and smacked the steering wheel.

“Dick Duerson’s the perfect name for that cocksucker. I bet his mama likes to do her son. No way he gets laid otherwise.”

“Incest is best,” Mickey said.

Watching a Cheech and Chong movie in his parents’ basement last Sunday, Mickey thought of that night in Joey’s car: that stupid pun, that son who’s a son of a bitch and his mother who must keep cash in her house, and goes to the Senior Center every Tuesday to scam her free food handouts like some welfare queen she’d scorn.

Which is why he’s here now.

Goddamn, his back hurts. So, he realizes, does his heart. The idea of passing poor dead stupid Mrs. Duerson on the floor is too much to take, so he decides to go out a back window. Before he does, though, he pulls the wad of paper towels from his pocket and covers his fingers to straighten that photo of her at the beach. She was young once, she really was, with a pretty smile and even prettier tits. Maybe she was even a cheerleader.

Crawling out the window Mickey knows he might get caught, might go to jail for a crazy long time. And he knows that the rest of his life will be a fight to remember a laughing girl in black and white, instead of a ragdoll corpse in living color.

FavoriteLoadingSave This Story
Tom Hazuka

Tom Hazuka / About Author

> More posts by Tom Hazuka