Friday, August 18, 2006

Wren (a short story)

Today is story day. Here's a newly heavily edited short story from the past.

Tricky Betty says it’s too late for games now, we’ve got to go to the backup plan and run the fuck out of here. Tricky Betty is one to make big pronouncements of irreversible change like that. Today, though, she’s wrong.

No, we can still do it. We don’t need to run. Those who have seen us will forget us in mere moments. Those who have not seen us will not notice anything remarkable. We are not wearing masks. We are dressed like the people. Though we may be enigmatic we are not noteworthy.

I am the ugliest of the group. I go by the name of Wren, my last name. I am old and ugly but dressed like the people. I am experienced at heists like this one - complicated, on multiple floors of a single building, in daylight.

Tricky Betty is the oldest but certainly not the ugliest of the group. Oh in her day... But today she is all about the business and though she is not to be trusted with any weapon, she is still an integral part of getting that business done.

Red, so named for his fiery mane, is the kid of the bunch. Though I’ve learned to speak in his argot, he is not very skilled at communicating in mine. Still, he owns the guns and knows how to use them. He is fast on his feet and quick in his wit. I may be the leader but Red is the most indispensable of us.

Finally, there is Zero. His given name.

The four of us met where criminal crews get together: in a park under cover of darkness. There we assembled nightly and hatched our plan to rob the two largest jewelry shops in the Mall ofAmerica in Bloomington, Minnesota. We would rob the two stores simultaneously, both for effect and practicality. Zero and Red would be the point men. Tricky Betty and I would be the watch, vibrating cell phones awaiting text messages. The mall, big enough to hide a thousand jewel thieves, would in essence be our getaway car. In its bowels we would scamper and roll until we would find ourselves at the predetermined common spot, where our four identities would be blurred and we’d calmly walk out into the mall center, amidst the amusement park rides and giant Lego sculptures. We would eat mall pretzels and drink mall slushies. Then, with our bags filled with jewels and cash and our bellies sated with sugar and carbohydrates, we would calmly walk to our white van (always a white van) parked in the West lot, level four, the Hawaii section (in the Mall of America, the parking structures are divided into “states”). From there, we would drive to another meeting place, split the goods and the money and go our four separate ways. None of us liked each other. We only needed each other.

But of course there were problems. There are always problems. Red and Zero had successfully gone into Ben Bridge Jewelers and Helzberg Jewelers, respectively, and, with their big shiny guns acting as the catalysts, robbed the two places of their dignity and a good portion of their less-than-impressive post-Christmas profit margins. And some jewelry. Red and Zero then reconvened in the bowels, behind a trash receptacle in the clandestine service hallway behind Just For Feet, the athletic shoe superstore. There, their heads dancing to the fumes of discontinued rubber and dislocated cardboard, the two salty young ex-convicts waited for Tricky Betty and me. We held their changes of clothes and their disguises. We had the keys to the white van. We were their way out.

During the robberies, which occurred on the more upscale west and south sides of the mall, Tricky Betty and I pretended to shop for linens and stuff at Linens and Things on the east side of the mall, practically within spitting distance of Just For Feet. The meeting place was much closer to us than to Red and Zero, which does not seem to make much sense to the outsider. But, you see, they were quick on their feet and they wanted to throw off the mall security guards and local police, who from what he had heard, were suburban and slow-witted and not prepared for experienced thieves. I think it was Zero who had the idea of running like the wind and fooling the lot of them. Maybe that was naive.

Naivete or not, according to a text message, they were there at our hiding place, waiting for us, having signaled that everything was on the up and up and all was cool.

That brings us to this moment, to Tricky Betty’s consternation. As we approach the secret door by the pay phones, the door that would lead us to the trash receptacle behind Just For Feet, we notice two uniformed police officers enter through that very same doorway. According to the plan we hatched in the park, Zero and Red were to have entered the service hallways from the northeast and we (Tricky Betty and myself) were to have entered from the southeast. Now, we see the two uniforms entering from the southeast. Uh-oh. Not part of the plan.

And these aren’t mall security lugs. These are the real thing, Bloomington 5-0.

So Tricky Betty says it’s too late for games now, we’ve got to go to the backup plan and run the fuck out of here.

Her logic is impenetrable really. If the younger half of our crew does get caught, they can’t turn us in exactly. We only assembled in parks under cover of darkness. They don’t know our names or where we live. Yes, they know me by Wren, my true last name, but for all they care, it’s spelled Ren or it’s my first name or it’s my nickname. Besides, I’m from Canada – no records on this side of the border. If I run, or even just walk quietly, out of the Mall of America, I am essentially home free. Tricky Betty – same story. She’s from Canada and they don’t know her full name, her address, her real hair color (black… a rich silky black).

We could be in Thunder Bay by morning, eating meat pies and drinking whole milk. Because as she says, as Tricky Betty has so skillfully put it: it’s too late for games now.

But you see I want to play games. This is my big score. My last hit. This is the one.

So I bid Tricky Betty goodbye, good luck. These could be the last words I share with her. We had a history. But that’s why they call it history.

I see her vanish. Bloomingdales, second floor, she’s getting smaller. She’s so small.

And then I see their next text message. “Plan B.” We (well there’s really no “we” anymore) are to walk around the mall’s second floor in a counter-clockwise direction. Zero and Red are to hide in adjacent restroom stalls and wait for my “all-clear” text. The mall is a big circle, no a square really, so I may have to circumnavigate it a few times before I'm sure all is clear.

I begin my counter-clockwise walk, wondering about the events in the aortic hallways. I am hoping Red and Zero are quick thinkers. I am hoping they initiate the backup plan correctly.

I am hoping they are not greedy.

I am hoping for so much. I get to thinking that if you hope for too much, you’ll get more. Because God loves an optimist.

Everyone loves an optimist. Everyone loves a winner. A winner loves an optimist. I am nervous.

Look, a sale at Old Navy. Always a sale at Old Navy. These clothes, Old Navy clothes, they are too young for me. I am an old man.

There should be a store for old men like me. I could open a store with my profits from today’s twin heists. I could call it Wren’s Army.

Who am I to trust Red and Zero? They themselves could be in Thunder Bay by now. Although I don’t know why they’d go to Thunder Bay. Why cross borders unless you have to? They’re not Canadians.

They don’t have to. They can fend for themselves here, in the Twin Cities. They can do it. I don’t see them. I don’t hear any commotion. No gunshots.

I am hoping they are not smart and greedy.

Maybe they tricked us. Maybe Tricky Betty figured it out. That’s what she said. “Maybe they tricked us.” I didn’t believe her. I trust people.

Why did they even need us? To drive the white van? They could get their own van and it wouldn’t have to be white.

Yes, I am being exploited by the youth of the Twin Cities. I am being used by the rusty scalawag they call Red. And by the dour stern one named Zero.

They are laughing at me. They’re probably down the highway at Joe Senser’s Sports Bar laughing at me at this very moment. I know it. They're counting their money. Giving their day’s work an amateur’s appraisal. Thinking about which five-star hotel they will blow a few hundred bucks at tonight. Bandying about how many escorts they’ll celebrate with. Two? Two each, maybe? In separate rooms. Or maybe a big party. Jacuzzi suite. I’m such an old sap. I trusted them, the fucks. I trusted them. I don’t even know their real names, their last names. I can’t even exact revenge. They’ll be leaving town soon, I’m sure of it, so no chance meetings in parks under cover of darkness.

The kids today, they sure like that Hot Topic store.

I’m hungry. Maybe I’ll get a pretzel. I could sure use a pretzel. And a slushie.

But I’m broke. I left my wallet – and thus my identity – at home, on the TV. Or maybe on the cable box. I did this on purpose, in case I was apprehended. This way, I could make up a name. It could be a dignified name, like Steve McQueen. I wouldn’t actually use the name Steve McQueen, just something approaching its obvious dignity. I wouldn’t use the name Steve McQueen, because he’s dead and one does not do that to the dead, steal their names.

So no wallet. All I have on me are the clothes on my back and the keys to the white van. And taking the white van might be risky, given the police presence I have just seen. Assuming Red and Zero are not gone already. Assuming they didn’t make a copy of the white van keys when they were riding around in it yesterday, for fun.

Shit. They made copies of the keys.

I used to be an intellectual. I used to be a college professor.

Maybe I should check first, behind Just For Feet. To make sure they’re not still there, that they didn’t mess up the plan codes. Before I accuse them. But the police... I saw the fuzz go back there and I haven’t heard anything, no gunshots, no screams, and Red would use it, the gun, if he had to. Maybe they’re still there, the police, searching for the jewel thieves. Maybe I shouldn’t give them a reason to ask me questions.

That’s a nice wall clock at Pottery Barn. If I only had my wallet. If I only had my quarter share. No, Tricky Betty ran. I would be getting a one-third share.

Or did she run? Too many variables!

I am being used. I am being watched. The mall walkers, in their white running shoes, with their green fanny packs, they’ve seen me pass them. Twice already. Old Navy again. Track n’ Trail. Eddie Bauer. I’m lost.

Nobody cares about an ugly old criminal. The system doesn’t give a damn, the kids today, they won’t give me a moment’s thought.

They’re probably at the Mall of America Best Western already. With escorts. And celebratory wine. Corked.

But wait. What’s that?

A whistle.

From the hallway. From the men’s room. Now I remember. Plan C. Listen for the whistle. Red’s unmistakable swirling high pitched whistle, like a European ambulance .

I am walking down the hallway. I am approaching the men’s room door.

I open the door. I see people.

I’ve got to get more sleep. These people are strangers to me. This is not Red. That is not Zero. These gentlemen do not like me looking at them. No, wait.

These are not gentlemen. These are ladies. Wrong room.

I go next door. No sign of anyone I know. No sign of anyone but a boy washing his hands. He dries them half-heartedly. He leaves. I’m alone.

I’m alone. I’m tired. I’ve got to get more sleep. These days, when I walk around the mall in my white running shoes inventing jewel heists, these days are the worst.


h said...


j. girard said...

yes. it is.