By Jessica E. Lapidus © 2004
The guy who shot up the Burger King on Washington Street, they called him Hochner.
Ilka never saw him walk in the place. How could she have? Nothing separated Hochner from the rest of the old white homeless men who hung out there. He walked over to the counter to place an order, leaning close to the girl behind the register. Ilka had just finished a phone call to her boyfriend and was snapping her phone shut when she heard the scream. By the time Ilka turned around, the wispy black girl behind the counter had the back of her head all over the fry station. Hochner was waving his gun at the crowd in the restaurant.
"Any more of you motherfuckers scream and I'll put your brains on the walls!!" he bellowed.
A fat Hispanic woman had her hands over each of her two children's mouths and had tucked her chin into her chest. Two young black guys, thugged out in red, had stopped their chatter about "bitches and benjamins" and were staring at Hochner, jaws slack. An older white man had moved to the other side of the booth to sit with his wife, who had vomited onto her tray. The place was silent. A man walked in through the front door and when he saw the crazed homeless guy pointing a sawed-off shotgun in his direction, he changed his mind and headed for the McDonalds down the block.
The bathroom door opened out into the silence but Hochner didn't seem to notice.
"Hochner, man, what the fuck are you doing?"
Hochner swung his arm at the other homeless man standing in the half-opened bathroom door. A moment froze between them and Ilka watched it in slow motion as Hochner pulled the trigger of the shotgun pointed at the shoulder of the man before him. The range was so close that his arm was shot off and went flying into a table of trembling Japanese girls. They screamed in unison and Hochner shot one of them in the back.
Sirens were blaring up the street and Hochner's head snapped to the door. He just started shooting at the door and as the screams rippled from the front of the restaurant to the back door, he shot at them, too. Ilka dove under the table and a bullet nicked the head of one of the little Hispanic boys with his fat mother and nailed Ilka in the back of the knee.
As Ilka lay curled in a ball under the table, blood gushing from her leg and tears streaming down her cheeks, three police officers barged through the doors of the Burger King and shot Hochner five times in the legs, and as his finger tightened around the trigger of the shotgun, a stray bullet ricocheted off the hot, white tile and took out the leg of an empty baby stroller.
Ten patrons of the Washington Street Burger King lay dead and eight severely wounded as five more cops came running in and stopped cold in their tracks, surveying the carnage. Whimpers and sobs of the wounded rang through the restaurant, but the police officers just stood there. Some of them looked at the front windows, wondering when the EMS would arrive, and some glanced at their bloody boot prints as they approached the barely breathing homeless man, a sawed-off shotgun still in his left hand, finger limp and curled around the trigger.
"He dead?" a young, stunned rookie cop asked the air.
"Don't think so," an older, black cop mumbled.
Hochner was alive, blood bubbling out of his nose at every weak exhale, both legs shattered in a million places. His brown coat was stained by years of living in the streets, but remained otherwise unmarred by the bloodshed of the last five minutes. Squeaky breaths came sore out of his throat as the cops stared at him in muted shock.
"I've seen this guy around the neighborhood."
"Yeah, me too. He's been on the street for years."
"Where the fuck did he get a Beretta?"
Two ambulances screeched to a halt in front of the Burger King and as four medics came running in with stretchers, one of them was already on his radio, calling for three more vans. The EMS guys went to work, running over to each person on the floor. They felt the pulses of each one. If they were dead, the medic would move on to another. When they found one who was alive, they'd holler for a stretcher and another guy would come over and they'd get the person into the ambulance. Ilka watched from under the table as the medics ran around the room like Doozers, methodical and smooth, as though this kind of thing happened every day. It occurred to her that none of them knew she was there. Every time she blinked, Ilka saw Hochner standing at the counter, screaming "any more of you motherfuckers scream and I'll put your brains on the walls!!" His warning flew through her brain, his face full of strained anger and fear. Don't scream! Don't fucking make a sound! Ilka put her hand on her left knee and felt bone and blood, hot and cruel between her fingers.
She screamed into the blackness.
The media went insane with witness' accounts of what they had seen that day at the Washington Street Burger King. There was the man of the old couple - his wife had puked on her tray that day and had had a heart attack and died when the cops burst through the door - talking to the press about the tragedy. The Mayor, the reporters, the idiots who saw everything and nothing through the blood-soaked windows. Ilka watched their images and heard their words go by with mild disgust. The reporters had tried to talk to the fat Hispanic lady whose little boy had been hospitalized after getting his head skimmed by one of Hochner's bullets, but she was too hysterical. The reporters came out of nowhere almost immediately, and had interviewed the friends of the Japanese girl who had been shot in the back. They cried a lot. The reporters from Channels 6 and 7 had tried to interview Ilka, but her father had intercepted them in the doorway of her private room, threatening them with bodily harm.
Ilka's father spent most of his time in his daughter's hospital room, and when he wasn't there, he was drinking Jameson's out of a silver flask that had belonged to his own father. It had been years since he'd gotten drunk on a regular basis, but seeing his only child in such a state of wounded shock had gotten him started again. His wife, Ilka's mother, disdained his behavior in public, but even Ilka knew that she had been sucking at the same flask behind her husband's back for 20 years.
Ilka had been in the hospital for only one day before she lost her left leg just above the knee. Ten days after she arrived at the hospital, Ilka was drifting in and out of sleep while her mother read in the chair next to her cot, and the Channel 6 news ran their afternoon report.
"…he was severely wounded by police and as soon as he is released from the hospital, Louis Hochner will go on trial for the murder of ten and the shooting of eight others in the Burger King downtown."
Ilka stirred to the sound of her mother's choking gasp.
"What is it?" she murmured.
"Nothing, dear. Nothing. Go back to sleep."
Ilka's eyes fluttered open and she glanced at the television over her bed. To the right of the anchorwoman's head was a photograph of an angry white man, thickly wrinkled brow and receding hairline. Her mouth opened at the sight of Hochner's face and she watched in silence as the anchors shook their heads and frowned, as they commented briefly on what had happened to "those poor, poor victims."
Her mother saw the way Ilka was looking at the television. It was the first time she had seen or heard anything about the shooting. The one thing she had been sure of was that the man who shot her in the leg had been killed by the cops that day. The reality of his life and the fact that he was actually going to get a fair trial for what he had done absolutely devastated her. Ilka started crying. Her mother rushed to her side and rubbed her shoulders, but Ilka could not be assuaged. Sobs wracked her body as she choked on her tears.
"He's alive… he's alive…" she whimpered.
Ilka was still feeling the twitch of her missing leg, and as she slept after crying herself into heavy sleep, she dreamed of running through the summer streets, hot concrete beneath her bare feet, both legs churning as she pounded the pavement with her steps, knees bending beautifully in pure liquid grace. She had had this dream nearly every night in since the doctors had amputated her left leg, and every night it ended the same way: running smack into the doors of the Washington Street Burger King and falling on the ground in pain before waking up. But after seeing the face and hearing the name of her assailant on the mid-day news, the end of her recurring dream took a dynamic turn. This time, instead of running into the doors of the Burger King, she ran right into the arms of Louis Hochner, who grabbed her and screamed into her face, I'll put your brains on the walls!! In the dream she opened her mouth to scream, but no sound came out. In the real world, as she twitched and cried in her sleep, the nurse came in and gave her a swift 10cc shot of Valium.
By the time Hochner's trial began, Ilka had been home from the hospital for a month. Severely depressed, she had been unable to return to her job as a travel agent. She had been forced to break the lease on her studio apartment and went back to living with her parents. They hated the circumstance, but they were more than happy to take care of their convalescing daughter. Not that Ilka would have noticed. She was in a wheelchair while waiting for her wounds to fully heal before she could get a prosthetic leg. Her father worked and drank and her mother stayed home with her all day. Ilka watched soap operas and talk shows and CNN. She barely spoke. A young woman who had been the president of her sorority, who had graduated at the top of her class just a year and a half earlier, who had a loving boyfriend, who was extremely popular among her peers - was now reduced to a frightened, silenced, frail little girl.
Her friends came by all the time with CDs and books and catty gossip. Her boyfriend would stop by on occasion with pink roses and Toblerone chocolate, her favorites. They would all talk and tell stories and laugh at the things on TV. But Ilka wasn't interested. She stared into space or at the flashing images and thought about Hochner. His murder trial was being televised on Court TV. She had made the mistake of lingering too long while flipping through the channels one day, and had seen his face, framed by an orange polyester collar against the backdrop of the pale wood paneling of a courtroom. The mere sight of his face and his name etched on the bottom of the screen over the word "Defendant" sent Ilka into a crying, shaking, terror fit that lasted two hours. Ever since then, she avoided that end of the dial and mostly watched The Weather Channel.
It was a quick trial, lasting only about three weeks. The jurors barely deliberated. Hochner was found guilty on nine counts of first degree murder, eight counts of attempted murder, and one count of manslaughter, for the old lady who puked and had a heart attack. His lawyers had hoped for an insanity plea, but there were six character witnesses, all of them fellow homeless (tested for mental capacity before appearing on the stand, of course), who all testified that Louis Hochner was a perfectly normal guy whose only real fault was that he liked Macallan scotch, and probably would have done anything to get some. But Burger King doesn't serve whisky, does it? So why would he go in there…?
And that's where the questioning would often end.
To Be Continued...
Jessica E. Lapidus is a writer from Jersey City, NJ.