two chairs

by dm gillis

The house listed severely to the south now, where the foundation beams had crumbled from dry rot and succumbed to the weight from above, giving it the appearance of having been dropped from a tornado. It had been empty since dust storms threatened to bury a continent. All that remained inside was the wind and insect buzz off of the prairie, and two wooden chairs facing one another, placed there decades ago. There were broken windows, and a mirror on the wall, which had reflected the same fixed rendering for decades. And in the walls were dozens of finger sized holes, through which the day and night channelled.

A few hundred feet away, in a roofless barn, polished smooth by grit on the wind, was a rusted ’38 Ford that had once been a car dealer’s dream. The salesman had placed his hand on the fender of it on a sunny day of that model year, and made his pledge to the buyer, believing every word. That the V8 was a daemon, at the diver’s command. The clutch, transmission and column shifter was a near-holy Trinity that moved in impassioned union. And the ride was as safe and smooth as the physical universe would allow. There may have been more expensive cars, but none so suitable for the Everyman.

So, he who had yet to occupy his chair in the dusty room, had paid in full for the brand new automobile. One thousand dollars cash, still redolent of the panic of the tellers who’d handed over. Then he and his girl, the woman who would soon sit across from him in her chair, drove away. West, away from the withdrawing light over the grasslands. Toward more of the towns and cities beneath the crystal dome over America. The big car meant comfort, and the V8 meant quick getaways and the ability to outrun the law.

Sometimes, as he drove in a dreamish state induced by a prairie highway, he could see himself as he entered the vast cathedrallike compass of a bank, like a knight entering Jerusalem, pulling a shotgun like a champion from under his coat, as she, with her own weapon, charmed and disarmed a guard. The movements so well-rehearsed by then, that they were nearly involuntary.

He liked the Colt Model 1911 .45, and the sawed-off Remington Model 31. She liked a .38 revolver and the Thompson submachine gun, with a lightweight twenty round clip. The diversity of weaponry meant a backseat full of ammunition, stolen from hardware stores, town armouries and wrecked police cars with dead cops stupid at the wheel. The ammo even weighed them down, but it paid to be prepared. A shootout could last a day or more.

Their last heist was in Great Falls, Montana, where the small dirt farmers’ bank was sacrificed in a setup to make the two of them legitimate targets. They shot their way out, past the Sheriff, the Troopers and the FBI, and took the lowly bag of marked bills north in the V8 Ford, on the interstate and headed for Alberta. They sped through Sweet Grass, taking the bend out of Coutts at suicide speeds. And as they watched the gas gauge shift to ‘E’, they spotted the wasteland mansion on the horizon and turned down a Dust Bowl road toward it.

Inside of the house, in a room that might once have been a parlour when the rains still came, the two of them laid out the trappings of a gunfight. The weapons and ammunition, a box of dynamite and caps. Then they found the two chairs., abandoned among the last artefacts of a failed homestead.

It would be the itchy-fingered RCMP that would come now, listless so long for the lack of any real criminals in gentle Canada. They were bound to arrive too soon, righteousness with their Winchesters and blow horns.

No one would leave the house alive. Even with their hands up. So, the two of them drew up the chairs, sitting to face one another. And she said —

“They’ll rip us to pieces.”

“We’ll fight ‘em,” he said. “We’ll take some of them with us.”

They’d had a good run. Two years on the road, and a bank in every town.

“Was money all we wanted?” she said, after a moment.

“I thought so, once,” he said, reaching across and taking her hands. “But we never spent much of it.”

“We ain’t no good nowheres else, though, not doing any other kinda thing. I guess this is where we belong.”

“I saw something once,” he said. They heard cars driving into the yard. “I never told you about it, ’cause it’s sorta crazy. Whatever it was, though, it changed me. But I never told the story to nobody. I’d been driving for days, and it was somethin’ way ahead in the distance where the land drops off at dusk, and the road disappears. I was just a starving kid in a stolen car, a few miles outside of Bismarck.”

“What was it?”

He thought for a moment, and said, “A high column of light where there shouldn’t’ve been none. It was in the east, and it was getting late. I wanted to stop for fear of it, but I couldn’t. I floored it, instead. It was like the light was suckin’ me in, and I drove for an hour feeling like it was the end. But the light never got closer, and I never arrived nowhere.”

“Then what?”

“It was a feeling,” he said. “I got this real strange sort of feeling. It was outside of me, inside of me. It was a feeling so strong that it was nearly stone, made of a single word that would’ve filled an entire dictionary all on its own. And the word said that there wasn’t nothin’ noble in the world; there wasn’t no justice. Just chances and the people who took ‘em. And people who’d tell you it’s wrong to take ‘em, while you starved and they stuck their hands into the collection plate.”

There was a commotion in the yard. Rising tension. Men taking instruction and hunkering down.

“So?” she said.

“So, I got a gun,” he said. “I guess they got mental hospitals full of guys like me, who act like that on just a feeling.”

“And books full of heroes,” she said.

“And here we are.”

“We did alright,” she said. “Even Dillinger got it in the end. I remember last spring in the Dakotas. We stayed over in that shitty little cabin joint in the desert, just off the highway. It was cold in the morning, round 4 a.m. I needed a cigarette, so I went out on the porch and looked at the last stars of the night, the last comets shootin’ cross the sky. I was wearing that fine wool coat I bought in Rapid City. It was the first warm coat I ever owned, and owning it made me feel like I was winning for once, that I was protected by my own actions, and would be from then on. No more cold. No one was gonna wallop me anymore, and there weren’t gonna be no more soup lines. The moon was gone, by then. So, it was a strange kinda dark so close to dawn. Nobody ever said there was that kinda dark. I wouldn’t have missed that moment for nothin’. Not for all the gospel preaching in all the back alley poor missions in any city.”

“Throw out your weapons,” a man in the yard yelled over a blow horn. “Then come out with your hands up.”

They remained seated. She looking at him. Him looking at the floor.

“You know,” she said, holding her hand to her cheek. “They never got my picture right in the papers. Always the wrong side.” .

“The papers called us monsters.”

“I saw a thing once, too,” she said.

“Yeah? What was that?” he said. It came out light and conversational, like they were talking in a roadhouse over a cup of coffee. The time for grave discourse was over.

“After my mother died,” she said. “Back when I was still a kid, living in Vancouver. My father used to like to beat the hell outta us girls, me and my sister. I guess because he didn’t have momma to beat no more. Word was in our tenement that momma didn’t die from a fall down the stairs, after all. But a beatin’. He was a cop, so it was covered up. Anyways, he’d tie one or the other of us down onto the bed and whale away with his big thick police belt until we couldn’t even walk, all the while hollerin’ about Jesus.

“I was the younger, so I was waiting for my big sister to do somethin’. But she never did. So, one day when he had her down, I took his razor from the medicine chest and I cut him cross the back of his hand, faster and deeper than I ever thought I could.

“He couldn’t believe I’d done it, and held it up and looked at it bleed. He slapped me a good one, after that. I saw the dark and the light both at once, and the razor hit the floor. In a second he’d picked it up and had me in a hammerlock. I couldn’t breathe. That’s when I saw my dead mamma standing there, glowing like the Virgin, and she said my daddy wouldn’t kill me, that it wasn’t my time. But that it was his.

“Sure enough, he let go and I fell on the floor. Then he swung that razor, faster than a loan shark, and took a slice outta my cheek.”

She put her hand to her cheek once more, and he saw something like shame lit across her face, as though it were a billboard.

“That night,” she said, “he drank most of a bottle of whisky, and when I found him, he was sleeping, stinkin’ like a drunk. I took the razor again, and walked into his bedroom. He was lying there defenceless, snoring like a blameless man. And this time, I cut him cross the throat as firm and as strong as I could. A second after I was done, his eyes bulged open and he sat up, holdin’ his hands against the wound. He was choking on his own blood, drownin’ in it.”

“This is your last warning,” the man in the yard shouted.

“He died tough,” she said. “In a few minutes, he breathed his last. And the angel of my mother, who’d stood in a corner watching it happen, faded into nothin’.”

“And you ran, and lived on the street after that.”

“You know that part already,” she said. “That’s where you found me.”

“Did you ever see your momma again?” he said.

“She’s standing next to the mirror right now.”

“She say it’s your time?”

“She says it’ll be what I make it.”

As he turned to look over his shoulder for her momma’s ghost, the first bullet of the afternoon was fired from the yard, through the window.

“You better believe me,” said the man over the blow horn. “We mean business out here.”

“I love you, baby,” he said, pulling her close, across the gap that separated the two chairs, and kissing her deeply. “I’m sorry I took you here.”

She smiled, grabbed her Thompson, and got out of her chair.

“It was a swell time,” she said, walking over and standing next to the window, with her back against the wall. She chambered a round.

He picked up his Remington slide, and moved low through the room, beneath the bullet line, to the other side of the window.

“I mailed a letter to a Chicago paper yesterday,” he said. “When we arrived in Great Falls. I tried to tell our side. Maybe they’ll publish it.”

“It’ll sell them some papers, if they do,” she said.

“I said we was too proud to just lay down on the path t’ward the shinin’ City upon the Hill, and let others walk over us.”

More bullets came through the window. Then she turned round and fired back in short well aimed bursts, just like the manual had instructed her. The gun wanted to pull up and to the left, but she controlled it. Bodies fell in the yard. Then he took her place pumping and firing his shotgun, while she retired behind the wall once more, replacing the magazine.

“That’s real poetic,” she said of his words, as a hail of bullets began to hit the side of the house. The two of them escaped into the kitchen, with its wider window and a better vantage. He reloaded.

“I’ve had a feelin’ in my gut since I was a kid,” he said, “that this was how I’d go out.”

She smiled, and gave him a nod.

“It never occurred to me until just now,” she said.

And with that they both turned and began to fire out of the kitchen window.

Seven days later, a Chicago paper ran a story and printed his letter. The headline read Bank Bandit Lovers Die Together. The paper said the world was sick of bank robbers, thugs and mad dogs. But that it would never tire of lost souls and desperate romance.

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