the 2nd in the .38 trilogy
read The Retired Private Eye here
We were all sitting in the dining hall watching Elvis—Aloha from Hawaii Via Satellite—live on TV, drinking coffee and smoking cheap cigarettes. Elvis had walked out on the stage with a crown in his hand, he was the King after all, dressed in a white bejeweled suit. A bit much. I wasn’t an Elvis fan, but it was a distraction from the routine. I found myself, nonetheless, thinking about how I got there. I did that a lot. Life wasn’t fair.
I’d been living in a cold colourless third floor room, with a sock in a hole in a windowpane and a pile of explosives on the floor next to my bedroll.
Vaillancourt, a friend from back on the way, didn’t object to visiting such squalor. Not completely, since this was a recruiting call. He’d asked me to work for him many times before, retailing methamphetamine etc. on a nearby corner. I could live well, he told me, on what I earned, provided I didn’t get hooked. (Secretly, I knew that he liked his street dealers hooked. It made them loyal, until they got too messed up, at which point he’d have them disappeared.)
“So you wanna live like an artist,” he said when he saw the place, “is that it? Like van Gogh during his hard times? Can you even paint write or compose music? I don’t think you can. You’re just a pretender, aren’t you, but I bet the chicks love it. It’s just some pretentious dedication to poverty, right? Suddenly you don’t like money, is that it?”
Maybe it was. But it was the cops and some closet case of a Judge, named Harold T Swallows—swear to God—that put my fencing business to bed, leaving me without a source of income.
After my court ordered detox, my parole officer suggested that I consider a career in fast food. I said I’d give it some thought, and for my next appointment, I shaved off my beard to reveal the colourful grinning anaconda tattoo that slinked from one jaw, over my chin, to the other (a speedball induced error in judgment on my part). Never again did the PO bring up the topic of fast food.
“I’m transitioning,” I told Vaillancourt, “ever since I got clean and started twelve step, NA and AA, baby. My life’s become fluid, like a dream. I’ve become a changing sea of change—” an awkward phrase, I knew. Even I cringed when I heard myself say it, but I’d yet to come up with something better. I thought I’d try improving on it when the tide came in on my serpent-infested sea of changingness.
Vaillancourt made no secret of it, as he considered the sock in the hole in the windowpane, then looking down at the box of C4 on my floor. “Bomb-vests and bank jobs don’t mix,” he said.
He broached the subject again a few days later in a bar down the street, telling me to, “Use a gun.” That was his advice. “A bank robbery wants a gun. Better yet, get a damn job and forget the whole thing. You’re gonna fuck up this bank job you’re all excited about. Come work for me, seriously. I’ll move you up faster than any other loser I’ve got out in the field.” (in the field. Jeez. He always talked about dealing drugs like it was legit.) “You’ll be in distribution in no time, then accounts and acquisitions, cost benefits analysis—you can add and talk on the phone, right?
“You may be hungry now,” he said, “but you’re not angry or nasty enough to rob a bank. Not yet, anyway. In the end, with that bomb you’re talking about, it’ll just be body parts and dinero falling like autumn leaves. Just think of the moms and dads not taking the bus home after work. All the leggy lady tellers never leggin’ it nowheres ever again. You want that on your conscience? And you’ll be bug splat a second after you flip the switch.
“It’s the street that’s in yer blood, man. Look to accumulate your wealth and status slowly, over time. You could be big one day, with my help. You could go into business for yourself. I’d have to kill you if you did, of course, but that’s way off in the future. Don’t think about that. For now, just come over and work with me.”
Then he leaned in, across the bar table, and said the words I knew would stick with me for the rest of my life, no matter how short it was. He said, “You’re an aesthetic, Arlo.” He grinned warmly when he said it. Like I’d never seen him before. Vaillancourt was a killer, and liked to get kids hooked on coke and heroin, or whatever his trolls could sell at schoolyards and out front of the 7-11. But suddenly, he was like the camp counsellor a kid gets a sweaty juvenile homoerotic crush on—a crush that makes the kid wonder if checking his pals’ junk in the gym shower ain’t so wrong, after all. (Fortunately, I got over that.) “You may not be an artist, but you’re willing to sacrifice for art’s sake. You’ve proved it by going sort of straight. That roach motel yer living in proves it. Are you seeing what I mean? You ain’t no bank robber. You can’t flip the switch on a bomb-vest.”
An aesthetic, he’d said. It wasn’t a jab, either. But who said anything about flipping a switch?
“I don’t want to flip no switch, man,” I said. “Why even say that? You’re gonna jinx it.”
“I’m saying it because, and you keep this to yourself or I’ll cut your thumbs off with a pair of poultry shears, I’ve done a bank job or two myself. It’s how I set myself up in my current profession, and what I know from my experience is that you can’t go in assuming you know what’s going to happen, except that there’ll be chaos. Sometimes it’s a quiet subtle chaos, just between you and the person across the counter, other times it’s a violent kinda chaos, screams and crying, the gnashing of teeth, with the sound of sirens in the background. And when it gets like that, you want everyone to see that you’re serious, that you really will shoot someone if everyone doesn’t just shut the hell up. Except in your case, you’re gonna flip the switch.”
“No,” I said, wondering if he was right. “I only want some respect when I stand there in the middle of the bank and shout holdup. I don’t get any respect no more, not like back when I was the man with the bones to buy all the hot swag and sell it at a big profit, and loan out money at outrageous interest rates. This job’s gonna be my Renaissance. My AA sponsor says gaining respect is an important element of my sobriety, and I got my three-month chip the other day. I don’t wanna blow it.”
Vaillancourt looked at the beer in my hand.
“Beer just takes the edge off,” I said to his shady gaze. “You ain’t got no idea what it’s like going dry and clean all at once. Besides, it’s just the arm motion I miss, mostly. A guy misses bending his arm at the elbow, bringing the glass up to his lips and taking a swig. And when a fella’s bending and swigging, it’s beer he wants.” I raised my glass in a false salute and took a gulp, the end of my seventh pint. “See what I mean?” I said. Then I chanced paraphrasing something I’d read somewhere, “The elbow thing, it’s sort of an embedded physical behaviour. It’s psychological.”
Vaillancourt finally blinked, and I got up to go to the men’s room. He followed me moments later, and stood farting fruitilly at the urinal next to me. Then, after shaking off, he followed me to the sink (yeah, I washed my hands) where he looked back at me in the mirror. Then, pulling a gun out of his jacket pocket, he slid it to me across the wet countertop.
As a responsible Canadian, I was conditioned to be suspicious of guns. This one, though, made me shiver. It was an obvious hand-me-down of indeterminate age. Blunt, black and mute in the dim yellow cast of the only functioning lightbulb. It held no opinions on its intended function or its place in the world; it didn’t care. No eyes to see, ears to hear, no soul to take. No court could convict it; it was a lethal innocent.
“Pick it up,” Vaillancourt said. “It’s loaded, so be careful.”
“I can’t,” I said.
“Don’t be an ass,” he hissed, grabbing my wrist and forcing it into my hand. “You hold it like this.” He used his right hand to show me, index finger and thumb. “Your arm out straight, no bending at the elbow. Both eyes open.” I did it. “It’s part of you now, get it? Your blood’s pumping through it. In the bank you walk up to a teller. Choose a man. Men are cowards. Women aren’t. Never hold a gun on a woman unless you’ve already made up your mind to shoot. She’ll have a dozen ways up her sleeve to make you feel like a crumb, otherwise, and that’s not the point of using a gun. And when you aim that roscoe at the guy, you hold it so close to his face he can taste the gun oil.”
Suddenly, I was facing my armed and dangerous self in the men’s room mirror. I was a domestic terrorist, a bag of monster meat.
“Then you cock it,” he said. “You don’t actually have to, of course. It’ll fire fine either way. Cocking a revolver used to be something only pussies did, but it’s what people expect now days. So you cock it, hear me?”
I heard a stony click as I thumbed the hammer down into place.
“And now that it’s cocked, you shout—you shriek it like a motherfucking freak of nature—give me the fucking money! DO IT.”
“Do it, now.” He slapped the back of my head. “Say it.”
“Give me the fucking money now,” I yelled.
The bartender opened the door and looked in.
“Fuck off, Morrie,” Vaillancourt said. Morrie gave a short wave and vanished.
“More,” said Vaillancourt. “Louder. Crazier.”
“Give me the fucking money now.”
“Don’t be a bitch,” he said. “Do it again.”
This time I took a deep breath, like they taught in the Sunday school choir when I was a kid, and let loose with my diaphragm—“Give me the fucking money now.”
“That’s better, but try looking crazy when you say it.”
“Crazy?” Another slap to the back of my head.
“Tilt your head like this,” he said, tilting his head ever so slightly in the bathroom mirror.
I did the same.
“Then do this shit with your eyes,” he said. “It’s all in the eyes, and the face follows the eyes. See, like this.”
But I couldn’t copy it. All I could do was stare at his reflection. Just knowing that he was a sociopathic street dealer capable of murder hadn’t prepared me for what I was seeing.
“What’s the matter,” Vaillancourt said.
“That’s fucked up, man.”
“What?” His face had softened.
“Your crazy-look,” I said. “You’re Satan.”
“Nah. I know Satan. I ain’t even close. I’m just doing this to show you that, if you’ve really gotta rob a bank, there are easier ways than a bomb-vest. A hold-up’s all show, I’ll give you that, but a guy can go overboard. Small is large. Remember that. It’s all about art. Be an artist. Now un-cock the revolver, and put it in yer pocket. Take it home. Get used to it, but don’t play with it. Put it where you can see it. Meditate on it. Count your breaths. Empty your mind of everything but it. There’s beauty in its costume of night.”
“Its costume of night?”
“I told you, it’s art. Your chance to be the artist. And just so you know, it’s a .38.”
A .38. My hand was on it in my pocket. I was already counting my breaths. Surely there weren’t many left. I’d become a contradiction: a Canadian, packing.
When I got home that night, I placed the revolver on the table by the window with the sock in the hole in the windowpane. Small, I thought, looking at it. Then I looked down at the makings of the bomb-vest on the floor. Large.
It came to me then; the vest was just an absurd symbol of my lazy rage, comic and sad. Vaillancourt said that I wasn’t angry enough to rob a bank, but maybe I just wasn’t angry enough to do it wearing a bomb.
I picked up the gun again, and found its shape had changed. It fit my hand differently than before. Now it felt like it belonged there. It wasn’t blunt. It was elegant. Straightening my arm out before me, I cocked it and whispered, “Give me the fucking money now.” Then I shouted it, “GIVE ME THE FUCKING MONEY NOW.” My blood was pulsing through the weapon. It was part of me.
The next day I took the bus downtown to the Fidelity Credential Bank of Canada, walking in shortly after opening. I’d been planning to rob it for months, attracted by its interior neoclassical revival features, the kind of architectural features that made it a bank any man would be proud to rob.
Before entering, I put on a baseball cap and sunglasses. I had re-grown my beard to cover my anaconda tattoo.
Once inside, I stood a moment taking in the scene. It was busy. There was a line up, and that didn’t seem right. After all, should I, the guy with the gun, have to stand in line to rob a bank? Vaillancourt hadn’t mentioned this. And as I glumly took my place in the queue and pondered the unfairness of it, something else became unpleasantly obvious. There were no male tellers, just three women, each wearing cat’s-eye glasses, each with a matronly blue rinse, each looking like somebody’s grandmother.
Never hold a gun on a woman, Vaillancourt had said. Or on someone’s granny, I quickly added.
But Vaillancourt also said that this was art, and I was an aesthetic. Pondering further, I realised I had no choice. I had to proceed, for art’s sake. And fuck lining up to do it. I pulled the revolver from my pocket and pushed ahead, to the sound of shouts and slurs coming from the customers in line.
Arriving at the counter, I took off my sunglasses and quickly chose the teller I thought most likely to fold under the weight of the horror I was about to bring down on her, a sad and timid looking crone with bright red lipstick, the lipstick obviously constituting a mask behind which she hid from the world. Her name badge read Daphne.
Stepping up, and cocking the gun, I thrust its muzzle so close to her face she could taste the gun oil, maybe. How could I know for sure? Then tilting my head a little to the side and putting on my most depraved crazy-face, I yelled, “GIVE ME THE FUCKING MONEY NOW.”
A heinous spell had been cast. I was a gun-toting demon now, at the height of his demonic game, the peak of his season. What else could she do but stand transfixed by my absolute evil and hand over the cash. “DO IT,” I shouted, tilting my head the other way now ever so, squinting wickedly and letting my face follow my eyes.
That was when Daphne folded her hands on the cool marble counter, pursed her red lips and said, “You’re not gonna use that gun, junior. I’ve been robbed before. You’re not the type.”
What the fuck?
“THE MONEY,” I hollered, using my diaphragm. Stepping back I swung my aim back and forth, including all three tellers. All three looking at one another, shaking their heads.
“Just someone’s little boy,” one of them said. Rachel, her name badge read.
“Well, shouldn’t we give him just a little,” said the third of the three, her name badge reading, Vanesa. “Maybe something for lunch and bus fare home.”
She’ll have a dozen ways up her sleeve to make you feel like a crumb…. Was this what Vaillancourt meant? I looked over my shoulder. The bank patrons were watching. “I’ve got an appointment,” said a fat man in badly fitted suit. “You wanna hustle this up?”
“Look,” I said, turning back to face Daphne. Now I was confiding, wondering how it had come to this. “This is really important to me. A friend of mine says I’ll fuck….”
“Language!” said Vanesa, holding up her index finger.
“Screw this up,” I said, “and I’ve been planning this for months.” I pulled a laundry bag out of my coat pocket and handed it to Daphne. “Just fill the bag. Put what you think’s a reasonable amount in it. Then I’ll go. I was going to use a bomb-vest, you know?”
“Oh, that wouldn’t have worked,” said Daphne. “What if it went off? You’d have just made a mess.”
Now Vanesa was rummaging through her handbag, and said, “Look,” holding up a fiver. “The cafe up the street has a very nice lunch special. $2.99. Includes coffee. It’s usually quite good, isn’t it, girls?”
Daphne and Rachel nodded enthusiastically.
“And you’ll have some change left over if you don’t over tip,” said Rachel.
Vanesa handed the five-dollar bill to Rachel, who handed it to Daphne, who, smiling warmly, held it out to give to me.
“I just want some respect,” I said.
“Give some and get some,” said Rachel, primly.
I stared at the five for a moment. Then I said, “Fine,” and took it.
But then Vanesa said, “Oh dear, I think I hear a siren.”
She was right, we all heard it.
“Now you’re in for it,” said the fat man.
“But he’s not really a bad person,” said a woman with a child at her side.
“I think he’s bad,” the kid said. “I hope they give him the chair.”
“You should go,” Rachel said to me. “And let this be a lesson to you.”
I and my revolver had been defeated by three women with blue hair.
* * * * *
All of the inmates, including me, cheered at the end of the televised Elvis concert, as the voice of the prison guards’ Shift Supervisor came over the loudspeaker telling us to return to our cells.