Fathom Mag
Short Story

He’s all right, this Doug.

A story

Published on:
June 14, 2017
Read time:
7 min.
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This shoe store is definitely old, about as old as they come. Hell, it’s a freestanding shoe store. How many of those do you see anymore? The air is tinged with mustiness and the faint smell of disinfectant. Here and there on the floor are wads of tissue paper, what they shove into the toes of the shoes so they don’t collapse from sitting in their boxes forever.

The place’s name, O’Malley’s Footwear, is painted on the big front window, the green paint all chipped now. Inside the store, of course, it looks backwards. raewtooF s’yellaM’O. Late afternoon sunlight is streaming through it and I sit, kicking around my shadow in my stocking feet, waiting for the shoe salesman to bring me back a few pairs to try on. These all-black leather lace-up work shoes. Because I got a job, you know. As a fry cook. And it has been a while since I’ve had a job. As jobs and diets go, I start Monday.

He hands me the first shoe as if it were a pistol, heel facing me, the tongue cocked toward the toe, ready for my foot to load the thing.

When the man swoops out from behind the drawn curtain that blocks the shoe showcase a from the actual inventory, a place I imagine contains infinite shelves of unlimited height, where shoe salesmen have to ride power jacks that lift them up through the clouds, he’s balancing four black and gray boxes in long-fingered hands. He sets them down on the bench beside me and says, “Most of what we carry has the non-slip sole.”


He hands me the first shoe as if it were a pistol, heel facing me, the tongue cocked toward the toe, ready for my foot to load the thing. I study this fellow. On his face is a thin, gray mustache. I feel sure he started this job on a Monday. He wears a skinny tie, a white button-down, and a nametag that says, “Doug.” He is tall and old so when he stands, he stoops. But he moves quickly. He gets down on a knee in front of me, elbows out to his sides for balance. 

I decide to test the waters with Doug, to see if this dude is friendly or what. I don’t have a lot of those either, friends. I’m friendly. It’s just that all my old friends either cleared out of town while I was in the joint, or they’re still in the joint themselves. That makes me a lone ranger.

“They’re for my new job,” I say.

“Oh, congratulations,” he says, without a lot of enthusiasm.

“Cooking,” I say.

He presses on the toe of the shoe with his thumb. I feel six years old.

“Down at the diner on Central, you know it?” I say.

“I know of it.”

“You ought to come by. You like omelets?”

“Sure I do.”

“We specialize in those.”

“How do they feel?” Doug stands.

“Got a Denver omelet they wrote an article about in the paper. Listen to me saying, ‘we,’ right? I haven’t even started yet. I’m loyal, what can I say?”

Doug doesn’t say anything.

“Good, they feel good,” I say.

“You want to walk around the store?”

Now, I plod around for a couple minutes, glancing at my feet in the mirror, stretching up on my tip-toes, sometimes jamming my heel down hard to see if the shoes slip. They don’t. Doug’s eyes follow me my entire stroll, like I’m a snake he thinks is going to bite him.

“You been here long?” I’ve walked my way to the work boots, mostly Timberlands, what all the guys in the joint love to wear. They like to pretend they don’t give a fuck, but they give a fuck about Timberlands. Each pair costs a mint. Love to own some myself. Someday.

“About a year,” he says, “How do they feel now?”

“The shoes fit just right. You always wanted to work in a shoe store?” 

Doug kind of laughs, but doesn’t say anything. I walk back over to the bench, sit, and slip out of the shoes.

“I’ll take them,” I say.

“All righty.” Doug’s mustache lifts in a little smile at the bristly tips.

Hurry it up, pal? I decide to take a little bit of a chance.

Over at the counter, I’m counting out bills, slapping them down on the glass, while Doug finishes stuffing the shoes in the shoebox and tucking the laces in. He gives me the total with tax, I slide him a few of the bills, he punches a few buttons on the register, hands me my change, tears off the receipt, sticks it in the bag with my new shoes and then tells me, “I’ve always wanted to work as a neurobiologist.”

“Well, what the hell are you doing here?” The words just pop out of my mouth. 

“I ask myself that question a lot. I guess the answer is that the university made some funding cuts to my department. They were sort of sudden.”

“You’re telling me you actually used to be a—” I start.

“A neurobiologist.”


We look at each other.

“Well, what did you—I mean, did you specialize in something—”

“Dopaminergic pathways. The mesolimbic pathway, to be precise.”

“What the fuck is that?”

Doug laughs. He’s all right, this Doug.

“Well, I’ll be off to my little fry cook job, Doug.” I’m giving him a hard time because now I figure he can handle it. He’s a good sport. “Off to sling some hash while you sling brain waves or whatever the fuck, rope-a-dope meso-whatever.”

He laughs more and says, “Have a nice afternoon,” and I say, “The same to you,” but right then the front door to the place busts open, pow! and we both jump. It’s a guy in a black ski mask and a long green coat, like the kind you find at the Army–Navy store. He’s got a gun, some kind of little revolver. This guy hollers, “Get the fuck on the floor motherfuckers, okay? Get down and don’t give me any shit, okay? Just get on the floor!”

I drop. The bag with my shoes drops too, with a thunk on the old carpet. The way I land, my head is turned so I’m looking away from the counter, but I assume Doug has dropped down to the floor behind it. 

“Get that register open.” It’s like a whinny, this robber’s voice. Like a horse’s whinny. I don’t hear Doug say anything but after a couple of seconds, I hear the rattle of the register buttons and then the bing of the drawer opening.

“Hurry it up, pal.”

Hurry it up, pal? I decide to take a little bit of a chance. 

Slowly, I lift my head and turn it so it faces the other direction, the direction where all the action is. I find that I’m looking right at the heels of this guy’s shoes. Deck shoes. Or boat shoes, or whatever you call them. And in nice shape too. A smooth, light brown leather with white soles that are still mostly white. I look up the back of his legs, up the back of that coat, and the back of the ski mask.

This guy is no armed robber. I’ve spent some time around armed robbers. This guy would not last two seconds in the company of actual armed robbers. So, I go ahead and take another little chance.

Since this guy is preoccupied with Doug at the register and since he’s really not a robber, I get to a crouch, so silently behind him, and then ease myself up, up, up all the way up. He has no idea. I’m staring over his shoulder now, literally, like I was his parrot, staring right at Doug, who has just finished filling a shoebox with all the cash. Doug looks up, accidentally makes eye contact with me (my eyes flip open to “panic wide” for a half second) but then he shifts his glance, real cool about it, back to the robber.

Tough as I’m trying to be with the gun pointed right at that asshole’s eye, a giggle bubbles up my throat and bursts out of my nose.

The robber is reaching for the box from Doug, the other hand clutching the revolver, which I can see quivering either from nerves or because he’s holding it way too tight. Or both. The instant the shabby box contacts this guy’s open palm, I make a quick side-step around him and take the little gun out of his hand. One quick, easy motion. No mess. Just like that. I point the gun at his head. For a handful of seconds, we’re all as quiet as can be. I mean there is absolutely no sound. Not even breathing. Like we’re all dumbfounded. I guess we are. But then Doug breaks up our silence. He says, “Well, it looks like the shoe is on the other foot now.” 

Tough as I’m trying to be with the gun pointed right at that asshole’s eye, a giggle bubbles up my throat and bursts out of my nose. A raking snort of a laugh. 

“Doug, what the fuck? Neurobiologist, hell, you got a future in comedy.”

Doug’s thin hair is sticking up in kinked silver arcs. He’s leaning on the counter, and I see him let a huge lungful of air go. I look at the robber, who is quaking in his own shoes. I say, “A shoe joke in a shoe store. Get it, motherfucker? That’s called irony.”

“I’m calling 911,” Doug says. 

“Wait.” This, from the robber. 

“Motherfucker, shut the fuck up,” I say, but he keeps going. He tears off the ski mask, and there, underneath, is this gaunt-faced kid. No scars. Kind of a baby face. Got to be at least ten years younger than me.

“What the fuck, do you even shave?” I say.

“Let me go. Keep the gun,” he says.

“We’ll keep the gun. But, let you go?”

“I have a little daughter. I got fired, like, a year ago. I am down to my last dime. My last penny, actually. I couldn’t think of anything else. Please. Let me go.” 

“So you thought you’d rob a damn shoe store?” I holler. 

“I know, it’s stupid.”

Then there’s this Mexican stand-off of glances between the three of us. I look at Doug, who is looking at the kid who is looking at me and our eyes shift over each other’s faces like wind blowing sand around in the desert. Finally, Doug says, “All right. I will call 911 in exactly one minute.” He looks at the clock on the wall. “Starting now.”

Without a word, the kid turns tail and blasts out of O’Malley’s Footwear like a puke green bolt of lightning. His skinny body slams against the front door and he runs, that army coat flying out behind him like a cape. We watch him turn a corner and disappear. 

“Take this. I’m on parole. They’ll send me back.” I hold the gun out to Doug. 

“Just set it there.”

It makes a little clank as I put it on the counter.

“Looks like a starter’s pistol,” Doug says.

I squint at it. Doug begins putting the money from the shoebox back in the cash drawer. I watch him handle it, those long, knobby fingers whisking through the bills, lining them up in his hands before putting them in the slots in the drawer. He finishes fast, then leans on the counter again.

“It’s too bad he couldn’t have aimed it up in the air and started a brand new life for himself.” Doug is still looking out the window after the kid. Maybe he expects the kid to come running back down the sidewalk, bust in again, ask for the gun back, and hold us up all over.

“It’s been about a minute,” I say and Doug says, “I wonder what he’ll do now.”

Paul Luikart
Paul Luikart’s work has appeared in numerous literary journals, magazines, and websites. His first collection of short stories, called Animal Heart, was released by Hyperborea Publishing in May 2016. His MFA is from Seattle Pacific University. In addition, he has studied fiction writing at Miami University, the University of Chicago, and the Collegeville Institute at St. John’s University in Minnesota. He lives with his wife and daughters in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Cover image by Alexander Andrews.

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