THREE LIVES WERE UNDER THE GUN

(Mitch Albom’s column did not appear in one edition Wednesday because of a computer problem. It is reprinted today in response to inquiries from readers.)

I didn’t write this story on Opening Day, the day it happened. I wanted to think about it for a while. When somebody sticks a gun in your stomach, you do a lot of thinking.

Live and learn. But live first. That’s what’s running through my mind now. That and the image of the gun. It was Monday morning. I was heading to work, to the Detroit Tigers’ season opener, and I stopped at a dry cleaners in Southfield to pick up the sports jacket I planned to wear.

When I walked in the place, I saw no one there except a tall man in a brown coat and an old man way in the back, halfway inside a closet. I held out my receipt. There was an awkward silence. Suddenly the old man started to scream. “It’s a robbery! Help! He’s holding us up!”

The voice was terrified. It should have warned me. Instead, I said, “Huh?” and the tall man walked behind me and I turned around and he was pointing a black gun at my stomach and I just stared at the barrel even as he said, “Get in that closet, you —– or I’ll kill you.”

What do you do when a gun is breathing on you? What do you think? Nothing. I turned around and walked slowly to where he wanted.

“Get in there,” he yelled.

I entered the closet with the old man. An old woman was inside as well. Her hands and lips were trembling and she stared at me silently.

“Now shut that door, and don’t look out here!”

We shut the door.

Suddenly the old man grabbed at his chest and began gulping air. He mumbled something about a heart condition and pulled out a vial of tablets. The old woman, small and white- haired, stood frozen, too petrified to say anything.

Five minutes earlier I’d been thinking about the Tigers’ lineup. And now we were in a closet together, three strangers. The only thing among us was the desire to live.

After a few seconds, it was quiet. We opened the door. The gunman was gone with the old man’s wallet and the old woman’s pocketbook and the cash register money. How much could he have gotten? Maybe $200, tops? Trade it in and multiply it by a thousand and it still won’t counter the haunted sleep that will come out of this.

The old man said the gun had been pressed in his neck, he remembered the cold feel of it, and as he said this, he began to shake. It’s after you survive terror that you really dance with death.

Eventually the police came. They asked questions. The old man kept shaking his head. He said he’d been in the cleaning business for 30 years. “How could this happen?” he kept repeating.

The old woman was holding her face in her hands. “He took everything,” she said, her voice cracking. “What do I do now?” Someone told her to call the banks immediately, cancel the credit cards, and she just stood there and said, “It’s too much. I can’t do all that.” She was crying.

Around the city, people were pocketing their tickets and making plans to get to the ballpark. The weather was good. Every radio station was talking baseball. When the policeman asked my name and occupation, I told him, and I guess he remembered what day it was, because he said — right there in the dry cleaners where this little nightmare had just taken place — “Hey, are you going to Opening Day? I wish I was going.”

At the moment he said it, it bothered me. How callous, I thought. These people had been terrorized and he was talking baseball? But a few hours later, standing on the Tiger Stadium grass with the sun warm and soothing, I realized what the officer had meant. “I wish I was going.” Sure. Who wouldn’t rather be there, talking curveballs and sipping Cokes, than answering the car radio for another gunman?

I was the oddball. This stuff goes on every day. How many holdups before the first inning, I wondered? How many assaults, rapes, even murders? And you never hear about them.

So much of our time is spent on who’s playing, who should be traded. We kick our TV sets when our teams lose and throw parties when they win. And then something real happens and we wonder why it matters so much. For millions of us, Monday was dipped in victory, Tigers over Red Sox. But for two elderly people in Southfield it will be forever painted in horrible colors, and it’s strange to think we’re talking about the same day.

This column seems to have rambled. I’m sorry. I’m sitting here with a cup of coffee and a baseball box score, and I keep thinking that somewhere out there is this tall man in a brown coat who had all my tomorrows in one squeeze of his finger.

And I have no idea who he is.

That’s the balance of life. And no matter how deeply you dive into the sports pages, you can never forget it. Because it never forgets you.

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