April 3, 2017
Our Lovely War
by Molly DiRago
Second Place Winner in the Chicago Writers Association First Chapter Contest
Palm-sized, cool, brass. A cowboy hat on one side, a horseshoe on the other. Smooth and shiny from repeated rubbing. I shake it. After more than five years, the thing still has fluid. I spin it between my fingers, flip it open, then spark the flame with my thumb. This trick used to impress people. Girls, mostly. Now it’s only Benson who watches. His lack of facial movement tells me he’s less than impressed.
“Everything there?” Benson’s tall, black, mustached. Someone irons his uniform.
“All there,” I say, pocketing the Zippo and my other belongings: wallet, comb, a photo of my ex-girl, Fran (eyes scratched out with a paperclip). All the shit I had on me when I was pinched five years and forty-two days ago.
“Fantastic.” It’s sarcasm. No one’s happy about anything around here, least of all the C.O.’s. “And because the great state of California can’t stop paying your way, here’s three hundred and fifty bucks. Don’t spend it all in one place.” He puts the cash plus some papers into a large manila envelope and hands it to me. “Info on your P.O., the halfway house, everything’s in there.”
“Know when the next bus to L.A. is due?”
He checks his watch. A Tag knock-off, but a good one. I could get a few hundo for it easy, assuming Smitty’s still working at E-Z Pawn on South San Pedro.
“You’ll be waiting a long time,” he says.
“Time’s all I got.”
He doesn’t even crack a smile.
“Well, okay … bye,” I say.
“Oh, it ain’t goodbye, Phelan. Statistics say there’s a seventy percent chance you’ll see me again.”
“Not me. There’s no way I’ll—” But by the way he walks away, I know he’s heard it a thousand times. Fucking Benson. I turn and head to the double metal doors, the first time in years I’ve had no one watching me, and I feel vaguely sentimental as I push through them, a free man.
It takes my eyes a minute to adjust to the bright California sun. I squint and blink and focus on the parking lot: the women walking from their minivans, fixing their kids’ hair, straightening their clothes, gotta look good for visiting hours. And then I see her. She’s leaning against the passenger side of a sky-blue Buick, circa 1995, wearing oversized sunglasses and a red sundress, smoking what I know to be a Virginia Slim: my mother, Ruby. She turns slowly, spotting me, and then she chucks her cigarette to the ground.
I pretend I don’t see her. See, there’s something about Ruby that makes me feel not free, and free is exactly what I want to feel at this moment. I cross the street, toward the bus stop and a bench displaying the face of some smiling white dude, apparently named Max Hartmann, apparently the NUMBER ONE REALTOR IN KINGS COUNTY! I sit against Max’s broad chin and capped teeth and bury my nose deep in the envelope Benson gave me. I sift through pamphlets and poorly-Xeroxed leaflets, yep, all there, trying to ignore the sound of high heels clicking across pavement and the raspy cough of a woman whose lungs have endured years of abuse.
She plants herself in front of me and coughs. “Didn’t you hear me?”
I look up, straining to see through the glare of the sun suspended over her left shoulder. I can really only see the outline of her body, like a solar eclipse at that exact moment when the moon is directly in front of the sun, but it doesn’t matter. The familiar smell of Jack Daniel’s and Virginia Slims is enough to bring back every last memory of her I’ve ever had.
“What are you doing here?”
She smokes her Slim, glaring at me. For Ruby, a cigarette’s like a fifth limb. She’ll let it burn to the filter, unaffected by the heat inching towards her knuckles, then immediately light another. Sometimes she forgets to even take a drag. But there they are, wedged between her yellowed fingers at all times.
“I came to pick you up.”
“You drove three hours out of L.A. just to pick me up?” This is unlikely. “I don’t have any money, you know.”
“I don’t want money. Can’t I do a favor for my son?”
I laugh once—all air, no sound. “You never came to visit. Not even a letter. Thought maybe you croaked.”
“Alive and well.” She twirls slowly, arms outstretched. “Don’t tell me you’re mad.” Before I can answer, she adds, “I don’t do prisons very well, D., you know that.”
I stare at her, squinting, not sure how I would know that.
“Listen, I heard you were getting out today, so I got Wayne to drive me.”
I look past her to the Buick and see a man with slick gray hair and black shades behind the wheel. A heavily tattooed arm hangs out the window, fingers drumming the door.
“I don’t need a ride.”
She pulls a pack of smokes from an oversized Louis Vuitton (real, but certainly not retail) and hands me one. “Bet you need this.”
I take it. I don’t even hesitate. But as I toss it between my lips, I start to regret it. It was just a nibble, but already I can taste the metal hook in my cheek, tugging me upstream. I light it with my Zippo.
“You still got that thing?” She’s amused.
“Sure.” I close my eyes and inhale.
“You got a place to stay?”
“They put me in a halfway house in Torrance.”
“Well, for Christ’s sake, let me give you a lift.”
I glance down the long open road, hoping a bus will appear in the distance, but there’s no bus, not a single vehicle at all, just a long, empty stretch of highway surrounded by farmland.
“I’m driving back to the city either way.” Her red hair often reminds me of fire, but now, backlit by the sun, it looks like one massive flame about to incinerate her head. “Come on,” she says.
I sigh, imagining what my court-ordered shrink, Cassie, would say. “You need space from her, Danny,” she’d tell me. “She’s a bad influence.” As if Ruby were an old sweater I could stuff in the back of my closet. “It don’t work that way,” I told Cassie over and over, and she’d sit across from me, chewing the end of a Bic, nodding as if she got it. But she didn’t. Ruby’s the type of woman you’ve got to meet to get, and even then, most people come away confused. Though Cassie may be right that I need space from Ruby, right now I also need a ride to L.A. And maybe some smokes.
“Yeah, okay,” I say.
The Buick’s a large, four-door LeSabre, in pretty good condition: shined and buffed, four Nitro-polished chrome hubcaps on every wheel. I open the door and look inside.
He’s older than he appeared from across the street: well into his fifties, I’d guess. His skin is thin and stretched, his hairline high, his goatee gray. He doesn’t turn to face me when I slide in, but from what I can see, he’s completely tatted up (black tribal patterns, lots of skulls and flames, the word roadkiller). There’s one that gets my attention more than the others. It’s obviously new, raised and red around the edges, covering a good third of his neck: Ruby in Olde English lettering. I wonder if Ruby has a matching Wayne or if she knows herself better than that.
“This is Wayne,” she says.
“Hey,” I say.
He glances into the rearview mirror, nods, but says nothing. Then he pulls down the gear shifter and peels out of Avenal State Prison’s parking lot, heading south on Route 33. He drives with one hand, placed squarely at twelve o’clock, and I can’t help but notice the word “LOVE” tattooed across his knuckles. It’s either meant to be ironic, or deep down, this guy’s a real teddy bear.
“Wayne spent time in Avenal,” Ruby says as we drive.
“And Kern Valley and Folsom State,” he says. “Then I stuck a dude in Folsom and they transpo’ed me to San Quentin. Motherfucker came at me with a toothbrush so I put a blade between his ribs.” He keeps his eyes on me through the mirror. “Added a nickel to my sentence, but it was worth it.”
I know Wayne’s type. Ruby’s dated a thousand Waynes, each boasting varying facial hair and tattoos, but they’re all the same: losers who want to get drunk, high, and laid, and like Ruby because she’s amenable to all three.
“You wanna know the moral of the story?” he continues into the mirror. “Moral is nobody fucks with me and that goes for you, too, Junior. Got it?”
I stare back and say nothing. It’s not that he isn’t intimidating. He’s clearly a man who spent years in the pen with little to do but lift weights. (I’m pretty sure Love Knuckles didn’t make much use of the library cart in Kern, Folsom, or San Quentin.) Still, if there’s one thing I learned in Avenal, it’s never back down. I stood my ground to dudes bigger than Wayne hundreds of times: Gunny, Smash Face, Toons. I tangled with them all and only got my face smashed once. By Smash Face. I guess he had pretty well earned his name.
“Why can’t men ever get along with each other?” Ruby blows small rings of smoke towards the dashboard.
“Oh, I’m just having fun with Danny Boy, here,” he says. “But I’d rather have some fun with you.” He reaches over and cups her tit. Might as well piss on her. But I don’t care: Wayne’s not the first to feel up Ruby in front of me and despite his new tattoo, he won’t be the last. So I lean back, against the cracked vinyl seat, and finish my smoke while he does ninety towards L.A., Ruby’s tit in his hand.
It’s not until we’re almost at the halfway house, stopped at a red light, that Wayne speaks to me again. He lowers the stereo, puts a hairy forearm over the bench seat for leverage, and turns.
“Hey,” he says.
“Hey,” I say back.
“I got a job you might want in on.”
I look out the window. Despite my long speech to the parole board, I don’t plan on going straight. It’s just too goddamned easy making money stealing shit and too goddamned hard making it mopping floors or tarring roofs. But I need to be smart about it. I can’t go jumping on the first thing that comes my way. As Hightop from Cellblock A always said, I ain’t goin’ straight, I’m goin’ smart.
“I doubt it,” I tell him.
“Oh, I see. So you’re rollin’ in scratch then.”
I sniff. I’m no idiot. I know the cash Benson gave me won’t last. A week or two, tops.
He points to my envelope. “What’d they give you? Four hundo? Three fitty? And they set you up with a career counselor, right? I can tell you how that goes. You got experience? No? Then you can wait in line down on Brack Street with fifteen illegals willing to work their culos off for twenty pesos a day. Not everyone can be as lucky as me when I got out.”
“Wayne’s got a sweet gig at animal control.”
“Mostly, I’m scraping skunks and ‘dillos off the road, but I’ve had to dart a few coyotes, a mountain lion.”
“You’re offering me a job at Animal Control?”
“What? No. Shit, no. I’m offering you a job-job. A fucking real job.”
The light turns green and somebody honks. “Motherfucker!” he yells, flipping off the car behind us before gunning it through the intersection.
“I’m not interested,” I tell him. “In the job. I need to lay low for a while. You know, parole and all that?”
There’s silence before Ruby says, “You’ll be interested in this.”
“And why’s that?”
“We need a box man,” Wayne says, and immediately, it’s clear. Ruby didn’t drive three hours to pick me up from Avenal out of the kindness of her heart. They’ve got a safe that needs cracking. “A Diebold PermaSure.”
There’s only maybe half a dozen guys on the West Coast who have the skill to open a Diebold PermaSure. Outfitted with a cobalt plate behind the dial, you can’t drill the lock like most boxes. You need to drill in from the side, at just the right angle, use a borescope to view the wheelpack, and then work out the combination by lining up the wheel notches.
“Shit,” I say. “It’ll take hours. Half a day, at least. You plan to do it on-site?”
“No, it’s a lift job.”
“No, but it’s bolted to the floor.”
“Might as well bolt the thing into butter. Still, a bitch to open.”
“Not for you.”
I smile. They say in the biz that box-work takes equal part skill, patience and finesse. And tools. Expensive tools.
“I can get the tools,” Ruby says.
I look at the back of her head, trying to figure out what kind of stake she has in this whole thing. It’s not just safes. Patterns and puzzles and that kind of thing have always just come to me. In the pen, only Moreno was faster at the Rubik’s Cube. But as I look at Ruby now, all I see is a jumble of colored squares. “Where’d you get the specs?” I ask.
“My boy Pat’s on a construction crew that’s renovating a mansion in Brentwood,” Wayne says. “Pat does roof work, but a few weeks ago he goes inside to take a piss. Damn place was so huge, he couldn’t find the head. Next thing he knows, he’s walking into some office and the dude who lives there has the safe wide open. He saw a shitload of cash in there. Jewelry, too.”
“You plan to race the security system?”
“That’s the thing,” he says. “The goddamned beauty of the whole situation. After Pat takes a piss, he comes out and there’s the babysitter, punching in the security code real slow.”
“Pat’s got a real good memory,” Ruby says. “He’s photogenic or telepathic or some shit.”
“Babysitter never even knew he was there.” He laughs into the rearview mirror, revealing wide lines around his mouth. “Just last week, Mr. Richard William Bennett III told Pat’s boss to take a few weeks off because they’re going to the Caymans.”
“Easy money,” Ruby says.
I spin the colors in my head, matching them up. “Why isn’t Pat doing the job?”
“He’ll be the first motherfucker they look at when this shit goes down, so he sold me the numbers. I got my boy Lee on it, but neither of us can open a box.” He slows down as we arrive at the halfway house and after throwing the car into park, turns to face me. “So, you in?”
I finger the Zippo in my pocket, tracing the raised cowboy hat. And that’s when Cassie pops into my mind again. It’s just a flick of an image, one frame of an old movie. She’s sitting across from me, her legs crossed, a high heel shoe dangling from her top foot, her finger pointing at me. A caption under the picture says, “Don’t do it Danny. Don’t get involved with her.”
“Nah,” I say finally. “I’ll pass.”
“Think about it,” he says, and I get out of the car.
“Thanks for the ride,” I tell Ruby, and I start up the walkway of the halfway house. But then I hear her door open and those high heels running up behind me and I half expect her to jump on my back and tackle me—it wouldn’t be the first time. I turn and brace myself but she stops short in front of me.
“Danny,” she says, placing both hands on my shoulders.
“Think about it, okay?”
“Yeah, okay,” I say, but I’m lying. At least I’m pretty sure I’m lying.
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