ISSN 1556-4975

OffCourse Literary Journal

 Published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998


"Nothing to see here", a story by Richard Risemberg


“Nothing to see here. Please move on.”

The cop spoke the rote words without conviction, and nobody moved, and the cop didn’t try to move them. It was a tired stretch of Hollywood Boulevard in the unglamorous eastern end of that excessively famous street, lined with fading storefronts and cheap apartment hotels hosting bars, small shops, Armenian bakeries, and Thai diners on their lower floors. The people crowding the sidewalk were employees on their lunch hour, upset by the scene but unwilling to look away. The cop had his back to the scene; this was nothing new to him. His motorcycle was parked blocking the traffic lane where the old woman lay on her side, surrounded by the groceries she had been carrying and attended by a pair of quietly frantic paramedics going through their rote motions. Even the inexpert in the crowd could tell that she was dead, or soon to be so. The blood pulsed out of the gash in her scalp as the paramedics turned her onto her back and began CPR. They had cut her blouse off, and her breasts pointed vainly at the heavens. The CPR seemed brutal, the paramedic pushing down as if he hoped to break her ribs. It didn’t help. The blood soon stopped flowing from her scalp although the cut was still open. Eventually the paramedic gave up and reached for a small tarp to cover her. The car that had hit her was stopped in the lane just beyond the body. Another police motorcycle was parked in front of it, and a fire truck and ambulance blocked the next lane over. The sound of a car horn drifted toward the crowd from the traffic jam forming two blocks behind. Two old women in the crowd pursed their lips and emitted angry whispers in Armenian. They looked enough like the dead woman to be her sisters, though it was obvious they were not. Everyone was stranger to everyone else there, except for some of the store staff who muttered quietly to each other under the sun.

Two of those separated themselves from the crowd: a nondescript white man and a pale Armenian woman with intensely black hair, possibly dyed. They worked in one of the small shops on the block. Both were middle-aged, and the woman was beautiful by any standard. Her manner of walking and dressing indicated that she was well aware of her beauty. The man was tall but moved in a way that indicated he did not want to attract attention, flowing through the crowd modestly until the two found a clearing by a neighboring doorway. “Were you going to lunch too?” she asked him.

“I had just stepped out when it happened.”

“You actually saw—?”

“No. I was looking the other way. But I heard it.”

“Awful. It is awful. This street.”

“Who’s in the store?”

“Enough people. He won’t be angry. Let’s go to the coffeehouse.” She began walking, and the man followed. The coffeehouse was on the corner, there were good sandwiches there. When they came to the door, which opened onto the streetcorner itself and faced away from the scene, they found both baristas leaning out of the doorway alcove, trying to see what had happened. Their eyes queried the two. The woman spoke to them: “Ran down an old lady. Right in front of our store.”

The tall man added: “Dead. I’m pretty sure.” The baristas were young, and their eyes widened. All four went into the coffeehouse. The baristas hurried behind the counter, and the man and the woman stood side by side in front of it. The woman spoke: “I suppose we have to eat something. We at least are still alive. I will need coffee.”

The man ordered coffee also, and a caprese sandwich. The woman ordered a pastry. “I can’t believe I’m still hungry” she said, “after seeing that.”

The man nodded. They went to a table to wait for their order. They sat across from each other. The woman looked down at the corner of the table. The man stared out of the window. Figures passed by outside, walking to lunch or to shop or to go home. “It’s a hell of a thing,” he said.

“Life is so stupid sometimes,” the woman said. “It’s like the stupid war over there.”

“That’s worse. Then they kill you on purpose. That’s got to feel worse.”

The woman shrugged. “It’s still dead. Or you have a heart attack, like poor George. One day he’s late for work. Okay, he owns the place, it’s his right to be late. But he’s never late. I call him, no answer. Then we send Sam over with the key. And George is lying dead on the kitchen floor. The coffee is burned in the pot. The dog is howling. And that’s that.” The woman looks at him. “I’m glad you came to his funeral. But really—he didn’t know we were all crying for him.” She stared at the corner of the table again. “All those years of struggling with the store, of yelling at those idiots he hired, his friend’s kids, because he thought he could straighten them out.”

“You gave him a chance too—Sam, I mean. The latest idiot.”

“I’d promised George I’d try if—something happened. But then I did fire him.” She smiled for half a second.

“And now we work for that shit,” the man said. Neither liked to utter the name.

“George owed him too much. Why didn’t he die instead?”

“God won’t have him, and Satan doesn’t want the competition.”

The woman smiled again. The food came. One of their co-workers came into the coffeehouse, eyes wide. He found them at their table and hurried over.

“You are okay?”

“We are alive,” the woman said. “For now. Is anyone working at the shop? What are you doing here?”

“Jefferson came back from lunch, so there’s two.”

“How is he?”

“He’s okay. He was in the war, he’s used to it.”

The man said, “He told me once you never get used to it.”

The woman said, “But you get used to living without hope. Go back to the store. We are alive. What did you expect? This was not a war. Only someone not paying attention.” Their colleague left; they saw him hurry past the big front window.

The two nibbled at their respective purchases without enthusiasm. The woman sipped at her coffee. “I make better coffee,” she said. “But this is not too bad.” The man sipped at his own cup. He did not evaluate it. The woman said, “I just realized, I have not seen you drink coffee before.”

“We’ve never had lunch together before. But you’re right, I don’t drink coffee much. The caffeine bothers me.”

“I live for caffeine,” she said.

“What happened out there, it made me feel kind of low,” he said. “So, coffee. I guess.”

“George died only three months ago. Then our customer, that actor with the cancer. Too many people dying.”

“They all got to die. We all.”

“Yes, but supposed to die old and happy.”

“You have to be happy first then, don’t you? George was old. Was he happy?”

The woman frowned into her cup. “I don’t think he knew how to be happy. Always fighting for money and not making it. You know he used to work in the store, like us. He bought it when Ben retired. But then there was that recession thing. It made him angry that he couldn’t make it again like he did when he was young.”

“He told me he had made and lost a million dollars three times.”

“Yes, he told me that too. I was like his pet in the store. But he was always respectful, don’t think he wasn’t. Anyway, I like money, of course. But I think liking it too much, maybe that’s what killed him.”

“He was always yelling,” the man said. “The world wouldn’t go his way. And then Sam and the other idiots.” The man slurped his coffee. “But at least he died at home, and not in the street.”

The woman stared at him. Her large brown eyes looked almost angry. “He is still dead, isn’t he? All those years of trying so hard….”

They sipped and nibbled in silence for a while. The man watched the clock on the wall of the coffeehouse. The woman noticed. “Don’t worry,” she said. “I’m the manager; I won’t tell me if you’re late.” The man smiled at last.

“I don’t suppose we’ll get many customers till they clean up the mess,” he said.

“See what we end up as? Just a mess to be cleaned up.” She looked at him, then past him. “I have three kids, you know. I worry about them always. Always. And I guess they worry about me. You have a kid, right?”

The man nodded. “He’s in college.”

“Didn’t you worry he was drinking too much?”

The man nodded.

“So you worry always too.”

The man nodded again. The woman looked at his sandwich. “That looks good,” she said. “Give me half of it. I’ll give you half my cake.” The man silently gave her the half of the sandwich he had not nibbled at yet. The woman cut her pastry with a plastic knife. They made the exchange and kept eating. They heard the motors of the fire trucks grunt as the emergency crews left. Then they saw the police motorcycles go past, riding side by side. Everything must be over with. “That didn’t take long, did it?” he said.

“Less than an hour. Now someone has to tell her family. Tomorrow there will be candles and flowers on the street. Right in front of our store. Everyone will ask who comes in.”

They both looked out the window at the people passing by. “As if nothing has happened,” he said.

“Until they see the candles tomorrow. It will be like that for us too, when the time comes.” She turned and looked him in the eye. “We can have lunch again some time, okay? No funny business, just lunch.”

The man nodded. They finished eating and returned to the store.

Richard Risemberg was born to a mixed and mixed-up family in Argentina, and dragged to LA as a child to escape the fascist regime. He's spent the next few decades exploring the darker corners of the America Dream and writing stories, poems, and essays based on his experiences.
He has published widely in the last few years, as you can see at

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