Fiction — From the November 2008 issue

The Botch

The idea is to tap into the old traditions, guns waving, eyes behind balaclavas—just one more bank heist breaking the tedium of an Ohio afternoon, leaving nothing but bewilderment, the kind you’d expect from corn-fed farm folks, one or two Mennonites, along with the requisite towheaded kid in overalls, his shoulders slumped from hauling seed bags; maybe a mother, one of those dry-mouth screamers, unleashing a dog whistle cry (from a face begging to be pistol-whipped, Carson cut in), with that lonely look that comes from long, empty hours mashing up vegetables and boiling bottles on the stove, spoon-feeding the baby in a house amid the dead fields. She’ll go from that dog-whistle scream to cold fear to a kind of longing in a matter of a minute, gathering hope from the barrel of a gun, that dark rictus behind which the bore grooves lie ready to spin a bullet to a perfect stability, until it arrives to release her from the obligations of her life, so to speak. The idea being that her life, seeing that gun, hearing the shouts, for a startling moment will become strangely meaningful. Idea is to stand coolly, legs apart for balance, moving the gun from the farm-boy kid to the farm wife to the Old Order Mennonite, slowly enough to offer each one of them a chance to have the aforementioned sensation, Donnie explained, pausing for a moment to suck on his cigar, glancing around our hideout, an old blacksmith shed about twenty miles outside Gallipolis, nothing inside but an old forge, stone cold, with taut, dried-out bellows, a few rickety chairs, an old table nicked and scarred from years of horseshoe pounding, and a dusty window giving a view of the road and a field of dead corn. Idea is to know ahead of time—because it’s pretty much preordained—that the security codger will be sitting on a stool near the front door, ready to put up some kind of fight, Donnie said, slapping the forge with the side of his palm, leaning down to gaze out the window while we stood around and waited for him to continue.

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.

The flex of time against unmitigated factors. The intrusion of the unknown into the idea of the heist in such a way that you cannot possibly attribute the botch that transpired to a failure of planning. It came with the folks who were there from the start, not only the old security codger—named Ed, Earl, or Ike—but also those in line, including the Old Order Mennonite who turned at Donnie’s commands to present placid eyes and a grim mouth. He held the look of a man who was obligated to only one commander. A few of the farmer types stayed put until they saw the gun barrel. Then the line bowed—a small towheaded boy, two women who were just about to shriek—until Donnie went up to the Mennonite and put the gun close in, not touching but close enough to give him something to really think about. (And the man did think. You could see it in his pale, serene gaze. In the way he lifted his shoulders slightly. He had that neat, tidy composure that came from the grace of God, I thought at the window, glancing out at the street and then back inside, trying to keep my head clear, to see both sides of the coin, so to speak.) Donnie moved close and a tension formed. Meanwhile, in the back, Carson was working the bagman routine, hefting his tommy gun, scaring up some cash. In those first few moments everything infolded. The security codger was on his side, on the floor. (We’d pistol-whipped him first, taking him by surprise and from behind, sending him down to the floor for a few kicks, his gun pinwheeling away. He was there for a reason, we knew, and that reason was if not to resist then to look startled and frail, to make us feel a bit more of the guilt that came from our obligations; just as the small kid, the towheaded one, was there to remind us that we had a duty to avoid the botch, to make things run smoothly, if possible, and to keep order.) But the Old Order Mennonite stood firm and absorbed the orders—Donnie was barking hard at him, his neck straining—while the ladies cried, tipping their heads back slightly, exposing the napes of their necks, making birdlike motions as if waiting to be fed, while back behind the counters Carson bustled. Everything was smooth from my vantage. Everything was moving neatly along the general plan, even the Old Order Mennonite, who was a factor already factored in. Bags were being filled up, and Carson’s talent for getting action out of the tip of his gun, of turning fear into motion, was in full play. He rocked the gun against his hip and worked it slowly in relation to his thin, lean, whiplash Okie frame, carrying himself with a formality, a politeness that was tight to his jaw. Just hearing the snap in his voice you knew that everything was sluicing down into a particular moment, a void of air where money slipped into those bags. The tart tension of those bags! The feeling in the air of transaction! Time fluxed around a point in space near Carson. It bent around the fear and fluxed smoothly around the Old Order Mennonite (or Old Order Amish), pouring around him as he held his ground, his spit-shined shoes tight to the floor.

Idea was to glance out at the view—the clean vista of Third Avenue to the west and Cedar Street to the east—and then inside for a few seconds before glancing out again, finding the right balance and speed to hold both (inside & outside) in mind at the same time; never really taking my eye off the ball, so to speak, and in that manner backing up Donnie and maybe even Carson, who might need me to run back to help with the loot. Idea was to find a groove and to stay in it, not losing the sense that the outside world was inside too, in a way, and in that manner also—and this defies logic, but then so does a good heist—assure that no one would come wandering in to disrupt the job.

A quick glance back told me Donnie was doing his part, speaking out the side of his mouth—sans cigar—and holding his edge, adjusting himself quickly to the scene, making sure he had the upper hand on the Old Order Mennonite, while, in the back, Carson worked his role of bagman, took the counters, whispering his commands to tellers and bank officials in a low voice that drew them close, aching to hear, eager to get it right, and in turn allowed each of them a good look at the tommy gun, which he hefted that special way, cradling it against his hips. All in all—I thought—he was the perfect guy for the job and played the role to the hilt, bearing himself in a stately manner under the weight of responsibility that came from being the apex, the guy at the point of transference. Tall and lean, he moved like a movie star, all style, limberly urging folks with small, delicate nudges of the barrel, making improvised gestures, taking what he could as fast as he could, maintaining an absolute cool, speaking with that hayseed politeness, the kind that comes from feeling perpetually outclassed. He rarely lost his cool. When he did, it was usually in the form of a single shot to the head.

In the parlance of the profession she might be called a natural distraction factor. (Cops are an unnatural distraction factor, arriving creaky and stiff-jointed. Cops hobble in fearfully, all leather squeak and handcuff clatter.) A natural distraction factor appears as part of the everyday landscape: a white gull making lovely swooping motions in the sky (the Atlantic City Trust botch) or an unusual calico cat sleeping on the hood of a car (the North Dakota National Bank botch in Fargo), or a towheaded kid with the Pretty Boy Floyd face drinking a soda pop (the Fresno botch/massacre). Natural distraction factors draw the player—usually the door guy—away momentarily from the strict mechanics of the heist, creating not only a few beats of stark distraction but also a wider sense of perspective, reorienting the mind so that the player must, when he returns his attention back to the job at hand, reconnect with the nature of his obligations in relation to the task. In this case the natural distraction factor appeared across the street, moving carefully, sashaying her hips against a tight red skirt, arms loaded with bags. Her hair was piled in a fantastic beehive of blond over her pale forehead as she stumbled in her high heels, just off balance enough to lend her an attractive vulnerability. She moved through an incredibly attractive obliviousness as she struggled against her burdens, swinging those hips in easy gyrations.

Idea was to avoid the following:

The silent-alarm botch, in which case some trigger-happy teller takes pleasure in knowing that a posse of jazzed-up cops are roaring through the streets, eager to get to the scene but keeping the sirens off and trying to avoid wheel screeches, all because he fingered the button at the first sign of a stickup.

The mix-up botch, in which pre-planned roles become fused so that, say, the bagman, at the head of the job, finds it necessary to help with the herding, and in so doing opens up, as it were, a force vacuum leading (perhaps) to a silent-alarm trigger botch and/or:

A heroic fallacy botch, in which one soul stands firm, gathering strength of will from some deeper source—a profound latent rage, perhaps, formed from an overly dramatic sense of fairness—and, seeing the gun muzzle, staring deep into the heart of the bore, feels compelled to side with the idea of authority and thus internalizes the onus of the crime—as he sees it—to the point of active rage, which in turn gives him the strength to stand firm and to resist barked orders. (In a non-botch scenario the hero’s vision is lost when he’s shot, or pistol-whipped. In the non-botch the intuitive abilities—or the connection to some higher law—are short-circuited by a flush of fear. In the non-botch scenario the hero lifts his heels from the floor or has an annoying tick: one way or another, all good intent and God connections—in the non-botch setup—fade when his brainpan is shattered, and he then slumps off with the rest of the customers.) Let it be noted that the botch situation can only, in retrospect, be fully understood in relation to the non-botch possibilities. Therefore, there is a deeply sentimental aspect to the whole matter. Nothing is sadder than the examination of a crime gone awry. Insofar as these things go, a non-botch scenario (resistant-hero type is shot in the nick of time) can shift to a botch (gunshots alert passerby, or create uncontrollable chaos situation in which the disorder supersedes the ability to forcefully instill order) on a dime. So the idea is to play the two sides against each other to create a harmony between the two potentials. Idea is to avoid second-guessing and to maintain focus on the job at hand: getting the money and fleeing the bank, hooting and hollering in jubilation at a fate avoided, lead-footing it out of town and into the spectacular monotony of the open road.

When I turned from the window that afternoon, after watching the woman with those bags—those ankle-hobbling high heels! the instability of her gait! the afternoon sky firm against the brick facades!—I strained to reorient myself to the heist. But my attention was snagged on that beautiful vision in the street. This led to a classic error. Let me say here that I’ll never admit, as some might, to a split in my attention. What transpired was the opposite, actually. The effort that it took to cast the natural distraction factor away (and I did cast her away!) served to sharpen the acuteness of my attention when I swung my gaze back to the interior, and I locked with too much intensity on the resistant factor: the Old Order Mennonite refusing Donnie’s orders, holding his hands out not with his palms up but rather with his palms down, lifting them up and down in defiance, as if he were trying to shoo something away. At that moment my obligation—working hard to unsnag myself from the vision in the street—was to stay steady and calm. The idea was to keep cool. But instead I saw only the Old Order Mennonite. I fixed on him, and he felt me looking and turned to me and presented his face: long, gaunt around the chin, with a bristle of beard, and agate eyes, cold and stony, set deep in his brow beneath bushy black brows, above which were deep furrows leading up to a knobby forehead that drove itself
into the heavy felt of his black hat. The look he shot me was on equal terms with mine—hard, ruthless, and blunt.

Idea is to push the botch as far it can go, to rally the chaos into an escapable situation, to arrange the disorder into itself, to affirm the oft-repeated phrase—by Carson, mostly—that a good botch ends not with a bang but with the whisper of shoe leather on pavement. So when Donnie shot the Old Order Mennonite, I shot him at exactly the same time. Then all hell broke loose. One of the tellers in the back began to break away, running forward, and Carson tagged him one in the back of the head. Another dashed to the side—pure panic, no motive, no real intent—and I unleashed one in her direction. Needless to say, the bullets flew. Nothing but the roar and saltpeter in the air and the echoes in the high reaches as we drove the madness into shape and were left with nothing but bags of cash—the three of us—and a persistent ringing in our ears.

Back at the forge the idea was to do a point-by-point analysis and to tweeze apart the boiling chaos, the plumes of blood, the rattle of the tommy gun until it jammed, the inaudible pleas that had draped around us, unheard in the roar. Idea was to find the exact point at which the potential for a botch (hidden in that stalemate between the Old Order Mennonite and Donnie) was somehow nudged over into a genuine bloodbath. Idea was to put aside the residual urgency of the aftermath—the gunmetal tartness on the tongue, the old iron stench of the forge, our sweat-caked shirts—and to find something instructive in the mess, the educational moment, so to speak. Otherwise, it was just one more smear of carnage on the floor of one more Ohio bank. Otherwise, it was simply three men going into a rage and spilling blood. To break down the scenario, in retrospect, and to figure out just where the human element had slipped in to ruin what otherwise—up to that moment—had been a purely mechanistic situation: everything moving smoothly along the grand traditions. In most cases—Donnie was saying—you could shave it down to a single moment, freeze it to the precise second just before all hell broke loose, and in doing so locate the blame in one of the following:

A human failing. Nothing too big, nothing tragic, but some little error on our part. A sudden distraction in the form of a lament for a lost lover, or a stray thought.

Some pre-heist factor, unnoticed before the chain of events began. A second cup of coffee that led to a poorly aimed shot, or a jittery trigger finger. (Good aim requires at least one dose of caffeine. Too much caffeine and you’re likely to succumb to the urge, so to speak.)

Some impromptu gesture, Ohio- related. Some improvised response to a gesture on the part of one of the customers—throwing the plan off for a fraction of a second.

We drew a blank that night, with the rain drumming down on the tin roof of the forge. We simply could not find the exact cause. Both of us had shot the Old Order Mennonite, we agreed, at about the same instant, arriving at a mutual conclusion and acting on our instincts in the same manner, and that seemed enough to justify what we did and to set it aside as the actual cause of the botch. We’d drawn from the same visual cues and responded, to the best of our abilities, swiftly and without too much thought.

In the end—after a lot of mulling, a lot of cigar smoke and pondering—we agreed that the botch might’ve been caused by some outside factor. Just one of those things. Just another afternoon heist gone bad. We shook hands and gave the forge one last slap for good luck and stepped out into the rain and went our separate ways: Carson headed north toward home. Donnie headed south to Florida. I drove west, staring hard through the swap of the wiper blades, shaking myself awake, doing my best to fend off the desire—and it was a strong one—to return to the bank. Idea was to go back into the heart of that sad scene, to make an end run around fate by entering into the expectations of the law enforcement officials (who knew in turn that we in turn knew that they had this expectation), because it was a given that at least one gang member would come stumbling back to the scene of the botch, the brim of his hat pulled low, keeping what he thought was a discreet distance from the scene, lurking in the shadows—so to speak—and holding himself in compliance with the traditions, scapegoating himself to regain some higher sense of order that had been lost in the maelstrom of the botch itself. Just thinking about it was a retreat into vanity. But the impulse was pure and hard. I wanted another shot at the Old Order Mennonite, a chance to fire a few seconds later, deeper into the unfolding drama, to shake loose the image of the woman on the street, who was probably now in bed, I thought, sleeping soundly next to her husband, while in the bowels of the house—nothing less than a big Queen Anne Victorian—a screw rotated, drawing coal into the maw of the fire, keeping them warm and cozy against the chilly night. It was the kind of house a guy like me could only dream, financed on war loot, backroom deals, and countless bootleg runs. In that house—I imagined, staring out through the rain and dark, trying to keep myself on the road—she slept the deep doze of an innocent. When she woke the next morning she’d go out into her life, sashaying those fine hips, flashing those fine ankles, released from the burden of the truth, never knowing that in the simple act of walking down the street yesterday she had triggered a dismal botch, a massacre of epic proportions. No: In the morning she’d stretch her arms over her head and yawn, smelling the bacon and coffee downstairs, arching the delicate bones of her shoulders, dreamingly rubbing the sleep from her eyes.

Idea was to stake out the town for days on end, if necessary, watching over cups of coffee in Ralston’s diner, knowing full well she’d have to pass that way eventually. Women like that follow strict shopping patterns. A town like Gallipolis has a limited number of retail establishments. The idea was to catch her off guard, to poke the gun into her face and to force her into the car. The idea was to let her know that she had been moving through life the way a fish moves through the water, unable to see the fluid, unable to sort out the larger picture. The idea would be to somehow shift the burden of the botch from my shoulders to her shoulders, heaving it like a duffle loaded with bones of the dead. Then she’d have to raise her arms instinctually—seeing the bag heading her way—and catch it the way a fireman embraces a falling child, bending her knees to ease the weight, lowering herself as far as she could to the ground, staggering under the great weight of the botch, catching her balance on the back of her heels.

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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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