Gertrude Goes Down to Her Locker
Gertrude, or Gertie to friends, went downstairs to her apartment building’s dimly lit storeroom. She had decided to dig out some old cookie cutters from the kitchen supplies she kept stored in her walk-in locker. Janie was coming over tomorrow with the grandkids and Gertie thought it might be a nice idea to make sugar cookies as a family activity. She smiled to herself, thinking how much she enjoyed having the three children over but appreciating that at the end of each visit, they all went home. That amount of activity in her apartment all the time would be exhausting. Gertie had done her time; it was best to stick with visits of limited durations.
She dug out her ring of keys and selected the right one for the storeroom. Turning the key in the knob, she opened the door into the darkness and reached around to flick on the wall switch to light up the room. People say you have to be careful, being a woman and alone, but after five years in the complex Gertie felt as though she knew everyone and had never heard of any problems. She felt safe coming down to her locker even late in the evening.
Gertie stepped into the room and shut to the door. She spied a metallic object on the floor off to the side. She bent over to pick it up, and turned it around in her hand, wondering what it was. It was rectangular and not heavy for its size. She held it so she could look at the one end. Gertie remembered seeing such an object on a few of those police shows on television. In fact, she had seen this type in a movie. It was the bullet clip for a gun. She could see the first two bullets and wondered how many were in a clip.
Why would such an item be on the floor of the storage room? Gertie looked around. There was nothing else on the floor beside her. She looked down the length of the rectangular room. Walk-in lockers stood to the left and right with a narrow corridor running down the middle. “Hello?” said Gertie. “Anybody here?” Of course, there wasn't anybody here. Who would be down here in the dark?
Gertie put the bullet clip in her pocket and continued down to her locker at the far end of the room. She went through her keys, found the right one, and unlocked the padlock. Swinging the door open, she went into her locker and looked at each of the boxes she had stored on a shelving unit set up against the one side. She had been smart enough to label each box with its contents and found one with the word cooking printed in block letters with magic marker. Fortunately, she had also arranged the various things she’d stored into a number of boxes so each individual box didn't weigh too much. Gertie pulled the box off the shelf and put it on the floor.
Gertie knelt down and pulled up the four flaps of the cardboard box. She took things out of the box one at a time and set them aside until she picked up a plastic bag of cookie cutters. She smiled then put the rest of the contents back in the box, folded down the flaps, and put it back on the shelf.
A noise came from the far end of the room. Gertie looked up. She heard voices. Somebody else was coming into the storage room. The voices were indistinct, but she thought she heard two, a man and a woman. The door to the storage room slammed shut.
“Gee-sus H Krist, woman. Can't you remember where anything is? Why the fuck didn't you leave this in the apartment? Why put it in the locker?” said the man. Gertie could hear their steps coming part-way down the room. They stopped. “Give me the fucking keys, goddamn it!” There was a familiar tinkling of a ring of keys followed by fumbling with a padlock and then the squealing of unoiled hinges.
The woman said, “I think it's on the bottom shelf.”
“Think? You think?” said the man. Judging from the tone of his voice, there was no doubt he was not at all happy with the situation. “Crap, I'm gunna have to go through this complete fuckin' mess.” Gertie peeked around the door of her locker to look down the corridor at the couple. “Jesus, you are really goddamn stupid, woman.” The man got down on his knees and crawled into the locker. His feet stuck into the corridor.
The voice was muffled, but Gertie could still hear him. “Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!” The noise of boxes being moved around broke the silence. There were other noises punctuated with “Shit!” and there was a loud crash. After a moment of silence the man started in again. “You stupid bitch. The box containing the statue from Florida fell off the shelf onto the cement. Fuck! It's broken!”
Gertie stared down the corridor, intrigued by the scene playing out in front of her. “I'm sorry,” said the woman. She backed away. Was she trying to distance herself from the man’s wrath? The woman turned and walked back to the storage room door. The man continued whatever he was doing while swearing. Gertie watched as the woman stopped beside the door. She was fiddling with something but Gertie couldn't see what.
The woman finished and walked back to the locker where the man was. She stood at the door. She lifted her hand. Gertie's eyes widened. The woman was holding a gun. Gertie watched as the woman squeezed the trigger. Nothing happened. The woman squeezed again. Nothing. She held the gun sideways and looked at it. She pointed it again and squeezed a third time but nothing happened.
All this time, the man continued in the locker making the sounds of somebody pushing things around and opening boxes while cursing from time to time. The woman now held the gun up in the light, looking at it as if to see what the trouble could be. She looked at the barrel, looked at the trigger, and then turned it over. Her eyes widened and she looked around the floor. Seeing nothing, she walked back to the storage room door and fiddled with whatever she had done before.
Gertie picked up her bag of cookie cutters, exited her locker, and closed the door. She put the padlock back in place and clicked it shut. The woman was walking back from the door to where the man was when she looked up and saw Gertie. Her head shook in surprise and she held the gun behind her out of sight.
Gertie walked down the corridor toward the couple. She could now hear everything the man said. “You dumb bitch. I'm gunna kill you for fucking this up. I've never seen anybody so fuckin' stupid before in my entire life. You are such a retard.” The woman stared at Gertie with wide eyes. As Gertie approached, the woman moved to give her room to walk by. The light from the overhead bulb shone onto the woman's face. Gertie looked. The woman had a black eye. Gertie stopped and stared at the woman. Not only did she have a black eye, she had a cut on her lip and there appeared to be bruising.
The woman realized Gertie had noticed her face. She lowered her gaze to the floor. Gertie continued to study the woman then looked into the locker at the man down on all fours rummaging around in the darkness. “Fuck, you cunt. How the hell am I supposed to find anything in this shithole? What a fuckin' mess. You're gunna pay for this. You hear?”
Gertie looked back at the woman, who had looked back up. The two of them stared at one another saying nothing. After a few seconds, Gertie reached into her pocket and held out the bullet clip to the woman.
The woman didn't move. She looked down at the bullet clip. She looked back up at Gertie. The woman didn't move; she didn't take it. “You're gunna pay for this, you bitch,” said the man.
Gertie held the bullet clip up a little higher as a second offer and half-smiled at the woman. The woman hesitantly put out her hand. Gertie dropped the clip into the woman's hand. She turned briefly to look at the back of the man as he continued to curse, then stepped over his feet and continued down the corridor.
As Gertie approached the door, she noticed an air vent. The grill had been removed and was lying on the floor. She figured that was the woman’s secret cache. Gertie opened the door of the storage room and stepped out. She heard the man say, “You fuckin' dumb cunt.” Gertie pulled the door shut, and it clicked into place. She hesitated at the door before turning to walk to the elevators. She pressed the up button and waited for an elevator to arrive. A little bell rang and one of the doors opened. Gertie was about to step in when she heard a muffled bang. So, that's what a real gunshot sounds like.
The elevator door started to close so Gertie stuck her arm up and it opened back up. Gertie stepped into the elevator and pushed the button for her floor. The door slid shut as she held up the bag of cookie cutters to look them over. She imagined the grandkids would have a great time making cookies with her.
Gertie had boiled the kettle and made herself a cup of chamomile tea. Sometimes she felt a little peckish later in the evening and a biscuit with something hot to drink was a good way to wind down the evening. She walked from the kitchen into the living room to stand by the window. She looked down from her third-story window onto the parking lot and the common central area of the complex. It was a nice moment to reflect on things. Her neighbor Barry liked to say, “I like to cogitate.” Gertie smiled, thinking she liked to reflect. She wasn’t sure if she liked to cogitate though.
The lights of a vehicle appeared out of the darkness. It was a van and it pulled into the lot and took a spot close to the side entrance of the building. The headlights went out and somebody got out. Gertie saw the figure walk up to the building and guessed it was a woman. She walked into the light of the main entrance and Gertie recognized her as the woman who had been in the storage room.
Gertie took a sip of her tea and then bit down on her cookie. She wondered if the woman would get away with killing that man. It was hard to say. From the various police shows she had watched on TV, Gertie knew the police were getting more and more scientific in their investigations. Their ability to find evidence meant getting away with a crime must be more difficult.
Gertie turned and looked at the bookshelf beside her. On the top shelf was a framed photo of her husband, Toby, taken years ago up at their cottage. She stared at the picture thinking about that part of her former life. It seemed so long time ago. Gertie glanced out at the emptiness of the parking lot, wondering what the woman was doing.
A movement to one side caught Gertie's attention. She stared in the semi-darkness and realized someone was pushing the baggage cart from the main entrance. The building had a luggage cart like those found in hotels as residents from time to time needed to move boxes, groceries, or even baggage between apartments and vehicles. It was a handy thing to have.
Light shone onto the walkway and Gertie could make out the woman. There was something, a bag, a rug, something on the baggage cart. Gertie imagined it was the body of the man. Did the woman wrap it up in something? There must have been blood. Gertie thought you couldn't shoot somebody without there being blood. How did the woman clean it up and what was she going to do with the body? There was a great deal to consider in trying to figure out how to get rid of something bad in your life.
Gertie shook her head as all these questions came flooding back to her. They were the same questions she had asked herself ten years ago. Toby did not start out to be a bad man, but he had difficulty dealing with things. His education wasn't the best. He found himself passed over in his company and as the years wore on he became progressively bitter about his lot in life. He had gotten angry with Gertie twice. The second time involved Gertie phoning the police and that incident changed the nature of their relationship. He never touched Gertie again, and that meant never.
Unable to deal with his work or with his home life, Toby developed a problem as he tried to escape his situation: he drank. He wasn't a falling-down drunk; he was what they call a functioning alcoholic. Toby held down a job and he coped. But after work each day he drank and drank. Most nights he didn't fall asleep insomuch as he passed out. Gertie was surprised the human body could take that much punishment, but the day did come when the doctor told her. Toby was set to retire in six months. The doctor had taken Gertie aside to explain that Toby was going to die in a year if he didn't stop drinking. His liver was shot; he had cirrhosis, and this was his last chance.
Gertie knew that after so many years of drinking Toby would not stop. She also realized that she would have the onerous task of taking care of him as he went downhill. On top of it, once Toby stopped working, his pension wouldn't be that great and making ends meet would be another problem.
The solution to Gertie's problems presented itself with no intervention on her part at all. After the doctor had given her the news, Gertie went with Toby to their cottage. It was after the end of the season; the leaves were changing colors, and nobody was left on the lake. Toby had been sitting on a lawn chair out on the dock, watching the sunset. He had been sipping all evening and had fallen asleep or passed out in his chair. Gertie walked out and told Toby it was time to go to bed. Toby didn't move. She put down her flashlight, shook his arm, and tried to pull him up. Toby roused himself and half stood. Then he stumbled, lost his balance, and pitched to one side, falling off the dock into the water.
In the darkness, Gertie couldn't see what was going on. There was a little splashing and a little gurgling. She hesitated. Gertie could rescue him. She could jump in the water and hold his head out of the water. But she hesitated. She waited. The movement stopped. Silence. There was what seemed like a bubble breaking or gurgling then once again silence. She stood still, waiting. Listening in the silence. She could hear the crickets. A loon cried on the other side of the lake. Other than that, it was quiet.
Gertie bent down beside her chair and felt around until she found the flashlight. Picking it up, she turned it on and shone it on the water in front of the dock. At first she couldn’t see anything. Then, by moving the beam, she could make out the outline of her husband floating face down in the water. He was still. Gertie turned off the flashlight. She looked up at the stars. She listened to the crickets. It was over.
Toby died before his retirement date so Gertie got his full pension; a full pension for one instead of two. Toby died quickly instead of lingering on for years and requiring expensive hospital or home care and who knows how much work for Gertie. Toby left his wife a little something so she could live comfortably. Not richly, but comfortably.
Gertie had watched the woman wheel the baggage cart around to the back of the van and then proceed to half pick up, half drag the package, whatever it was, into the back of the van. After finishing the job, the woman pushed the cart back to the building to leave it at the front entrance for somebody else to use. Then she came back out, got in the van, and drove off into the night.
Gertie had sold their cottage and their house and moved into a condo apartment. It wasn't luxurious, but it was comfortable. Gertie turned away from the window and looked around the room. She reached out and touched the framed picture of her husband making a minor adjustment in its position. She'd have a good time with the kids tomorrow. Gertie went to the kitchen to leave her mug. Time for bed. Tomorrow would be a busy day.