Fiction — From the November 2008 issue

The Botch

( 2 of 13 )

Before we left that day we conducted a dry run of commands and gestures, scuffing through charcoal dust in the dreary afternoon light, drawing together into a huddle formation, arms over shoulders, trying to establish a sense of camaraderie, a communal intent, a team spirit so tight and consuming that it would—when the time came—allow for an intuitive coordination of gestures, the kind of cohesion of action that comes from knowing a role by heart, pure muscle memory and nothing else, so that when we were done with the heist and making our getaway, we’d carry only physical sensations—twitches, cold gunmetal, a grimace. Nothing useful for an interrogator to piece together. No dots to connect, Donnie said. No consistency in the story from one man to the next. Again, the idea would be to make sure we factored in the old codger and the solitude his face might contain, having, most likely, lived a widower’s life the past five years or so (all widowers, these bank guards in Ohio, Carson said). One must factor in a no-nonsense attitude on his part, forged in confrontations with the likes of Dillinger. If not top guys, then at least bootleggers making the West Virginia/Cleveland run. Not so much the Capone gang per se, though Capone’s shadow had loomed all the way down into these parts, but more likely bit players with nothing to lose. Most likely the codger had had at least one genuine run-in with a stickup artist over the course of a long career in these parts. Guys like Jim Molloy and Stark Wallhouse—running product down from Pittsburgh, speaking in their snappy, big-city vernacular, riding roughshod over the law—have left a bitter taste in the mouths of retired cops all over the state. Idea will be to show a bit of panache in the way we handle things, so that the old codger and the other victims sense that the outcome is simply out of their hands and follow the easiest course, moving as directed, moving to the right-hand side of the room (always the right) while in the back the bagman collects the money. Idea being not to spook but to keep the fear level steady and cool. Closing the blinds, if necessary, and trusting in the wider dynamic. Idea is to entrust the job not to the hands of some kind of fate, Donnie explained, relighting his cigar, rolling the tip into the flame, taking a couple of deep draws, sucking hard, trying to get the smoke from one end to the other. But rather to tap into the rubbery nature of all that cash, eager to be relieved of the restrictions of the bank. The idea being that most good folks will side with the money and, in turn, with us. After so many years in the desolate countryside—in particular the Mennonite-slash-Amish, tired of all that harness adjusting, the hard clop of shoe iron on modern roads, the wheel hoops sparking the pave, not to mention sunup-to-sundown toil, trying to make ends meet without most of the modern conveniences—they will side with the monetary release and, as a result, secretly root for our success while recognizing, I might add, he said, taking another deep puff, the ethos of our work and the fact that we’re Robin Hoods of a sort, doing our best to free the money from its reluctant association with the bank and the big syndicate empires of speculation. Idea is to assure them—through the stateliness of our behavior—that the money will land in the hands of men who have suffered indirectly from the Great Depression years, at the hands of parents who had scrimped and scraped, rode the rails (my old man), gone door-to-door begging meals (my old man), sold apples on the streets (Carson’s old man), ran backwoods stills down in Clark County (Carson’s old man), lived hand to mouth by their wits, only to come out of those years hardened in a smithy of desperation, the skin tight around their jaws (my father), ready to beat thriftiness into their sons (all of our fathers). Suffering while the syndicate men hooked their thumbs into their vests, spread their fingers across their fat bellies, and retreated to their oak-paneled dens to ride out the storm. Idea is to take advantage of the fact that the heist itself will cause most of the folks in the bank to look back at a time when those of our ilk were heroes while we, for our part, make a getaway into the future, tearing out of town with a flamboyant wildness that comes from knowing—after belt whippings, after knuckle rappings, after verbal beratings—that what we have in hand is rightly ours, for keeps.

is the author, most recently, of the story collection The Secret Goldfish (HarperCollins).

More from David Means:

Fiction From the April 2009 issue

The blade

Fiction From the April 2006 issue

The gulch

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