By Erika Jahneke
I didn’t tell him that what I know about prison came from the summer I mainlined five seasons of Oz, or that I’d read lots of articles about Orange is The New Black, but I hadn’t seen it yet because I couldn’t get the streaming video to work with my new television. As much as I pretended, this was not an ordinary encounter. We weren’t going to rant about technology together, and my usual closer for those rants – about how felons and high school dropouts can make that stuff work but I couldn’t – would not be met with a knowing chuckle. I resolved to stop saying it immediately, as if he could read the thought on a news crawl across my forehead. Mathers himself seemed unable to bring forth something he wanted to say as he opened and closed his mouth and said “Well,” several times. I understood that a ready firearm and a double (or triple) dose of adrenaline usually did his talking. With that in mind, we both watched a skinny stranger buy a muffin as big as his head.
Once the guy with the bran craving left, I whispered “So, should you be … back already, or should I be preparing for a little casita in Mexico?”
“I didn’t break out, if that’s what you mean,” Mathers sounded aggrieved. “And what’s with you and Mexico?”
Somehow, it was flattering that he remembered my Ensenada fantasy, tinged as it was with sunset light and desperation. I supposed it was a compliment to my skills as a storyteller that he even remembered me at all, although I once again wondered if I shouldn’t have let myself fade into the background. ”Of course, you didn’t escape … though you certainly are clever enough to.” Years of mediating between divorced parents had given me placation skills, and the bandit did look mollified. “I meant,” I said, in my librarian tone, “since everything went … wrong with Lola and everything.” I couldn’t believe how far I’d gone to avoid saying “dead” or “shot.” I suppose I could have said “manslaughter” too, since I knew the gun going off had clearly been an accident, and looking back on this moment, avoiding the thought of death seemed as macabre as stepping over her body and complaining about a stain on the carpet. With a stab of shame, I remembered meeting her mother, and how she told us about a freckle-faced, lively girl named Laura whom she’d felt incredibly close to until the summer after seventh grade, until a minor weight loss and a packet of blue-black Manic Panic hair coloring created the Lola I had known and failed to appreciate until those final explosive moments. The grieving mother looked at the door as she explained all of that as if she’d expected her baby to return at any time.
It was that meeting, more than anything else, that made Lola hard to talk about. Even Mathers’ brow furrowed as he said “As unfortunate as that incident was, I got caught for a lesser charge in Gallup, New Mexico. Note when I say ‘lesser,’ it was not petty villainy. In fact, if my lawyer hadn’t been something of a miracle worker, I wouldn’t be here before you now.”
“Oh.” I said, picturing some scrappy sister selling chicken wings by day and learning precedents at night, and just her image was humbling.
“Of course, a family name like ours comes with some advantages,” Mathers smiled, a wolfish, but perfect smile, and suddenly I connected the name in the furtive newsprint with the chemical-company logo I had absorbed, along with too much bad TV, since childhood. “Oh,” I said, and after whispering so much, my normal tone sounded blaring. “You’re one of those Mathers. With the floor wax, and the shampoo …”
“And the pet-food subsidiary … what’s your point?”
“Well, if you have all that, why do you need all the … other stuff?”
“I could ask you the same question, Little Miss Paperback Writer, and you know it. Besides, my father and Uncle Ed have controlling shares and remain strangely hesitant to trust me with large sums of cash.”
“Even though my debt to society has been clearly paid, at least as far as the citizens of New Mexico know. Look, it’s been great catching up, but it’s another debt that brings me here. I want the Maltese Falcon, Natalie. It was mine the moment I broke in … the way I figure it, you owe me $16,000.”
I shook my head. “I checked. Nobody actually gets that price … that is for the most perfect edition, with no rips or tears in the dust jacket and maybe a sweet little note like ‘Happy Valentine’s Day! To Lill from Dash’ You know?” I didn’t know where I found my courage, especially since his use of his first name had rattled me, and I feared that my little stroll down Crime Fiction Memory Lane would get me branded a wise-ass, and Mathers seemed to want to be the only wise-ass.
The bandit didn’t have my tendency to surround myself with facts when I felt cornered, though, so I didn’t need to go around with my heart in my throat. For all he seemed to understand, those were just wacky names culled from my writer’s imagination, although I had thought that about the book as well — Who knew I’d held out on the only burglar who had a family library, and probably an antiquarian bookshop on speed-dial? I wished he had been poor and ignorant like I’d expected, but that thought made my face flush. He reached back, and I prayed, really prayed, like I hadn’t since I was twelve, that he wouldn’t reach back and produce a gun and end my life behind the Dumpsters. I felt sure that it was only the early hour that saved me, when Mathers pulled out the object of his quest: a leather wallet that was brown, supple, and the size of a tiny steak.
He withdrew a printout that it took me a few moments to recognize. Finally, I had to agree that my father’s article about the highly-collectible book was a mistake, especially folded so many times and printed from a printer that made everything grey. The bandit/scion held it out like a Buy-one, get-one free coupon and said “It seems that your copy should fetch a fine price,” and I couldn’t get over how old-fashioned he sounded when he said it. I had to admit, I was as fascinated now as I was afraid, and still imagined myself playing his Etta Place in some long-past Mexican night.
“Could be, but some of the places I talked to say it needs to be restored. We could probably get … nine.” I replied, draining my now-tepid mocha, and wondering why I continued to lie. “Twelve, tops. Sixteen is for the most perfect specimen, ever. No price tags, no underlines, no ink bleeding over, no being shoved in a drawer in my sad single-lady apartment.” I was exaggerating; I had a fine place now, but I really wanted to keep him away from it.
He frowned, and looked me up and down.”I’m sensing reluctance to part with the item.”
I was irrationally afraid that surrendering the actual book might turn my coach back into a pumpkin, even as rational fears of what that guy would do if he felt that I had burned him, even in a deal I hadn’t known I made. “Not reluctant, exactly, but it’s true I don’t have it on me.”
If I’d had pockets, I might have turned the linings out and looked sheepish, but curiosity won out. “How did you find out about the book?”
“A gentleman of my acquaintance had been a collector, before his … unpleasantness with securities. He brought the article to my attention and refreshed my memory.”
Great. My one advantage that was not an accident of birth, neutralized. I struggled to keep my face blank, wondering why I couldn’t have gotten menaced by a true illiterate. Maybe he had even read the book, and had thoughts about how he was portrayed, thoughts that he wouldn’t be content to leave on some message board under an assumed name. “Overall,” he said, rubbing his chin like a man deep in thought, “I’d call your book a nuanced portrait, although it does reflect a certain naivete as regards an extra-legal enterprise.”
Despite myself, I was dying to know what he thought Writers of all kinds love feedback, even the ones who insisted on shoving it all back into a drawer afterward. We even craved it from people who scared us. Some writers probably thought that was the best of all. Maybe there was a program at Iowa or Chapel Hill where some MFA advisor tied people’s hands with bungee cord and made them sit with the copy paper. If so, I could count myself as the program’s first graduate. In the middle of that store, sipping cocoa with my former perpetrator, the thought made me want to giggle.
“Actually, I was trying to reflect that. For a lot of people, that green quality, or whatever, is what keeps the Natalie character sympathetic. I mean, she does try to deprive her father of his most valuable asset. From the inside. So I really had to work at it — to keep her likeable.”
“Does it matter? Because I would submit that it does not. If anything, I believe you erred in having your criminal character care too much about what his victim thinks … my business is business — it would be like a supermarket checker worrying that a customer finds her ugly.”
Suddenly, I felt a crazy flare of courage, and my cheeks grew hot. They might be the last words I was going to use, but they would be honest. “Really? You sure pulled out all the stops to get my attention today!”
His green eyes narrowed. “Maybe we could make some other kind of arrangement.” He studied me further, as innuendo hung heavier in the air than the scents of paper and Kona Roast. As much as I want to say that my ethics rebelled, or that some tender or romantic instinct asserted itself, the truth is, my entry into criminal life began because I didn’t know how to have nine-thousand dollars’ worth of sex, especially with an outlaw who grew up as a millionaire and probably gratified his slightest whim on a daily basis. I didn’t want to say that, or talk about how many of my exciting nights still involved drinking wine and watching Anthony Bourdain chat in the market of a Third World trouble spot while waiting for my toenails to dry and fantasizing that this shade of pink or fuchsia, or lately, silver, blue or green, will prove to be the one out of hundreds that would have a magical effect on my hands and my life. What I said instead was only fractionally less ridiculous. ”Well, then,” I said,”You are in a tough spot. But if you teach me, I could get your money back.”
“Teach you?” he asked, holding back a grin that for once seemed like it would reach his eyes. “Just what are you expecting? A ski mask with “Trainee” knitted upon it? Larceny has no internship program.”
“No, not at all, but surely a man of your experience has some tips to offer, right? Besides you owe me as much as I owe you — I haven’t been able to trust a man in years.” Appealing to his ego has never failed to be a winning bet.
A week later,I was in the big-box bookstore, dressed in navy instead of black this time, with a plain black mask on my face. I put my foot down about not stealing from Mona’s store so we drove a while afield, either because my influence or over an hour of surveillance footage, I couldn’t say. If not for the gun in my purse, which I kept pretending was my old cap pistol from fifth grade, and the preponderance of shiny laptops on the tables, it could have been any dateless Saturday evening from my college years, late enough that shadows were beginning to gather, and people were thinking of getting home to check on their dinners, but still early enough that there was a light golden sheen fading around everything.
When it was my turn at the register, I paid for my selection, savoring the normality of sliding the wrinkled twenty across the counter, because this time I knew it could be the last everyday thing for a while. It felt like a little solemn moment, reminiscent of hanging around on the last day of high school, but for the first time in three years, I was not nervous at all: My body and brain were in perfect alignment, maybe for the first time. The next line slid out like a perfectly-remembered quotation.
“Excuse me,” I said, hoping my voice sounded clear and pleasant,” But this is a robbery.” I opened my jacket, so the counter help could see the flash of the silver “weapon” on my belt, but the would-be writers kept tapping away and the other three people buying books behind me moved ahead like toy soldiers. The clerk, in newscaster glasses too dark and heavy for his slender face, said “Ma’am, would you like a member card? It improves upon our already terrific prices.” He said it as if he got masked and threatening customers every day. For all I knew, he did.
Either way, he probably got graded on how often he delivered the spiel so I felt a flash of sympathy, although not enough to put my name and address on a card that would one day make its way to the police department.
I don’t know what I expected: Bedlam, panic, surely not nothing, with my face itching in the mask. “Didn’t you hear me? I’m going to rob you!”
He stood stock-still – I could read his nametag, which spelled out “Bryce” in wavering letters – and the power was gratifying until he shrugged and said “No offense, but it’s 2014 … who robs a bookstore?” A couple of smaller voices, obviously followers who waited to see how things played out before commenting said “yeah,” and pointed me to the electronics store down the street. One wondered if I wasn’t the hostess of some televised prank show.
After all the build-up, the fear and overblown ethical qualms, the gun felt surprisingly natural in my hand. I enjoyed the power of watching Bryce and his unnamed sitcom fat-kid partner scurry around after I said “I do,” and flashed Mathers’ shiny .38, knowing that if they gave me any static at all, I wouldn’t have whatever it took to really use it. This knowledge didn’t cow me, though. It felt like a promise that I could pay my debt and get back to my soft, safe life, where I could read about guns instead of using them. Even I realized that hope had grown dim with the surreal sight of Bryce, fresh from a theft-survival seminar, stuffing smallish bills into a sturdy paper bag with cartoons of authors on them. I knew I’d turned a corner, if not as dark of a corner as my tormentor and mentor. Tor-mentor? The sick little wordplay gave me something to think about besides the return of my dry mouth and the occasional urge to whimper.
All of my earlier strength seemed to vanish, but I fought my way into the little white rental car as we agreed. Mathers eyed the bag, with its fives and tens sticking out of its generous mouth, and nodded, as if satisfied. “It’s a bit light, though not bad for your first time out.”
“I’m not sure I can do that again.”
Noting my fear, he said “Use it as material. I do.” I tensed again, expecting a weapon, but he showed me nothing but a leather notebook and a gold pen. I was afraid, sure, but alive in ways it was hard for me to feel fully dressed. Even though I feared being caught, I feared wanting to live in this feeling even more, even as I was sure I was glowing, when, down the road, I took off the mask and tossed it into the hatchback.
“You write?” I said, as if that were the most surprising thing about our relationship, and I hadn’t just tossed away over thirty years of fanatical (as far as my public face went, anyway) good citizenship to please the man who shattered than remade my life.
If Mathers thought this was a strange time to bring up our shared interest, he didn’t show it. “On occasion, though I haven’t risked the slings and arrows of publication just yet. For reasons unrelated to a lack of talent.”
Like any man, Mathers had to believe he could score at whatever he attempted. Inwardly, I rolled my eyes, but I was soothing for his benefit. I wasn’t going to be long before I was off, anyway, to stay with a friend in California until I felt as though the heat would be off. I wanted to frolic on the beach and forget my failings and that Banning Mathers ever existed. Like so many wishes throughout my life, that one was not to come true. He reached down into his bag again, and I didn’t know I was holding my breath until a sheaf of papers landed in my lap.” I didn’t want to ask in front of everyone.”
“You want me to read this … But I’m leaving town tonight.”
“I thought perhaps you could send comments on your phone?”
I couldn’t show him my hand-me-down phone with the cracked screen. One day, I was going to have to brave the thousands of choices and pick another one.
“No matter what I say, though, you can’t …” I tested several words before landing on “react,” fearing the horror of being manhandled in my home office.
“Scout’s honor,” Somehow he looked young and humble enough to say that, at least for the moment.
From the comparative safety of my friend’s guest room, I sent him some quietly positive comments, and figured that would be that. I wrote another book, which was grittily anti-heroic at a time when it seemed publishing wanted warm and idiosyncratic, or downright dystopian. After a week of shivering on my Hoth-inspired snow planet that my settlers fled to after mourning the last tree on Earth, I had to admit that was not where my strengths lay, and abandoned that project for a writer’s third love: messing around on the Internet.
I clicked around, feeling that curious combination of envy, condescension and despair that marks a writer finding out what other – lesser, she imagines – writers are being paid, but it was an email from a similar site addressed to me that finally riveted my attention.
At first, I rolled my eyes at what I imagined to be a consoling e-mail from my mother containing some uplifting bit of writer trivia, such as how many publishers passed on Harry Potter, which left me unprepared for the headline “Biggest Spec Penned by Unknown Scribe,” let alone the note “I guess I can buy my own first edition now. —M.”
THE END … FOR NOW …
Erika Jahneke’s stories have appeared in Breath and Shadow, both volumes of the Tales of The House Band music-themed anthology, and Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.