After his second layoff in three years Daryl Glans finds a temporary position answering phones for a company with a one-year government contract. Senior citizens mad with loneliness call to find out why their Medicare doesn’t work. Where are my pills? Did the doctor die?—maybe he got emphysema, too. Doctors shouldn’t smoke. I have nobody. I have kids, but I have nobody. Where are my children? Do you know where they are? They must be far away. Are they in Israel?
On the evening of the day before Christmas Eve a tipsy female named Roxy Gunn calls from Sacramento and laughingly asks, after he has helped her solve a minor reimbursement problem, if he mightn’t really be Jesus Our Lord or one of His special angels? No, he says, so far as I know I am not. I’m a man on his third job in four years and this one ends in three months. Then on to the next bullshit. He has no calls waiting and speaks with the woman for ninety-four minutes. She tells him she is eighty-one and has been a widow for many years. Her husband was a philandering psychiatrist named Jack who had a gambling problem and then a king-hell stoke and left her nothing. Though he had trained as a Freudian psychoanalyst he was eventually seduced by the HMOs and at the end was little more than a mule for pharmaceutical companies. I was damn good looking, she says, true brunette with a nice bust—a Cadillac profile, let me tell you! Can you picture it? Too bad he didn’t die when I still had my looks. I would have made out just fine, thank you very much.
His supervisor calls him into her office at the end of the shift. She is an overweight white woman named Nichoe two decades his junior. She had listened to the entire conversation and upbraids him with particular condescension. You know you must limit customer contacts to seven minutes, she says. You know you can’t discuss personal issues—especially bosoms! In the middle of her tirade he jumps from his seat and bellows two inches from her face. Still bellowing he shakes both fists at her eyes and cocks his left as if to strike. Nichoe drops to the floor and covers her head. Feeling invincible are you? he shouts. You are? Are you? Fuck you! I quit!
He expects to find the police waiting for him at home but they never show. That evening, law enforcement being the laughably inconsistent and ineffectual entity it has always proven to be, he decides to rob banks. Why not? He does not mention the incident to his wife, who operates a miserable grimy daycare in the basement, and is forever awaiting the arrival of a parent who is forty-five minutes late and never pays the afterhours fee. Driving in frozen gray overcast through his miserable grimy subdivision, and past the miserable grimy Christian church to which his family has fatally tied itself, he realizes he cannot go on. I will steal money for my family. Lots of money. Then I will buy a plane ticket and fly to Greece. A Greek island in the sunshine. Baklava. Or whatever the Greeks eat. Olives, maybe. And lamb. Mental note: Get passport while you still have a paycheck.
Life sucks. It is a rare night he does not fall asleep without contemplating violence or illegitimate throw-away sex. He knows this is wrong, and attempts the discipline necessary to center his drowsy thoughts on the life and sacrifice of Jesus, but a bra-less neighbor wife in loose housedress intrudes, or any number of mythic adventures that feature, depending on the era, a flashing sword or a .44 magnum with a muzzle-blast like the crack of doom. He speaks languages, exotic tongues, and his companions in these fantasies are astonished as much by his intimate comprehension of alien cultures as by his physical prowess, which is all the more amazing given his spare build and soft features. I’m like an elf except bigger. I swing this sword so fast they can barely see my hands.
That night he sleeps well, figuring if the police aren’t there by 12 a.m. they’re not coming at all—and anyway, now that he thinks of it, he didn’t actually hit the nasty bitch so what can they do? He wonders what Roxy Gunn looked like forty or even thirty years ago, and pictures a classic American beauty in the Rita Hayworth mold, but with her blouse off and nipples the size of teacup saucers. He leaves next morning as always, taking with him his birth certificate, first finding and kissing his wife amongst a score of screaming toddlers in the basement and before the first of many network soap operas. She hasn’t combed her hair in a week. The fatigue in her eyes stings him. He holds his head a few moments in the garage while the engine is warming up.
And then backs out into the cold dim day.
Instead of going west on Highway 10 to Lawrence, he drives east into Kansas City, to the main municipal library. His first book search leads him to the Lonely Planet Greek Islands, which he peruses carefully but does not check out. Bookstore, he thinks. Cash. No tracers. I better figure out where I’m going. Then everything else will fall into place.
Next, he finds a U.S. Post Office and fills out a passport application. He has forgotten the checkbook but realizes he’d have to explain the charge to his wife, so just as well. He finds a bank and takes a cashier’s check, then returns to the post office and gives the clerk the completed application, $135, birth certificate, and driver’s license. Where’s your headshots? asks the clerk, then hands him a list of nearby photographers. He chooses one at random halfway down the page, and when he gets there discovers that the studio is attached to a costume house, where people dress up like Jesse James or Jack the Ripper and take portraits for their Christmas cards. There is a bin full of worn-out black hats and beards for sale, and he buys one of each. It is a sign, he thinks: I have my disguise.
Six weeks, says the postal clerk when he returns with the head shots. We’ll mail it to you.
What about my birth certificate?
Don’t worry, sir. We’ll mail that, too. We’ll mail everything. This is the Post Office.
Then he considers the matter of weapon, which is all-important. Bowl games are on television now, and between a thousand commercials for dancing obese people with diarrhea and Shortcuts to Internet Millions! he’s watched a few: the Chick-fil-A Bowl, the San Diego County Credit Union Bowl, the Meineke Car Care Bowl, the PapaJohn’s Pizza Bowl, the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl. One commentator, quite out of the blue, mentions that Donny Osmond and Ozzy Osborne are close friends. Best buds. In disgust he flips the channel and finds The Christian Worship Hour, a smiling preacher and his faux-earnest gloomy gingham-clad wife, both speaking sincerely from a set meant to imitate a farmhouse kitchen. He flips again: An ad for injury lawyers. Flip: Tacos filled with cheese and bacon. Flip: the dancing diarrhea people.
He declares to himself that his enterprise requires the genuine article, bona fide karma, not the realistic child’s toy he has envisioned. He drives back to the library and on a free computer finds the website for Smith & Wesson. In less than half an hour he’s found his gat, a model that seems to speak to him from the screen. Before noon he’s also found a gun dealer, in Blue Springs, Missouri, and placed his order: Smith & Wesson Model 27, a revolver with a four-inch barrel in .357 Magnum—a steal, so to speak, at nine-hundred and seventy-four dollars. He also buys three boxes of 158 grain jacketed hollowpoints, a pistol cleaning kit, and a little box with two good earplugs.
Two weeks, says the gun dealer. If you pass the background. I’ll call you when it gets here.
Next morning at 7:15 a.m. the phone rings and his wife answers. It’s for you, she says. Your boss.
He takes the receiver and Nichoe asks, Where have you been?
Just leaving, he says, heart beating so loud he thinks his wife can hear.
Are you coming in today?
Why would I?
Please come to my office when you get here.
He considers the indefensible liberty with which others conduct their lives, blasting past his little car in their powerful Saabs and Audis and filling their shopping carts with unadulterated staples and delicacies at Whole Foods. Bitterly, his life lacks that. His family is mired in poverty and fear. Their tithing-gathering pastor says the humble life is the life of the Chosen, though his wife drives a Volvo—an old one, demurs the pastor one day to his flock, we got it from her dad. Looking to God seems only to lead him deeper into darkness. Nor is anything ever solved by appeal to the Bible, which had obviously been designed without moral structure and is useless as final authority in any argument. Rush Limbaugh is a drug addict worth two-hundred million dollars. The banks and credit card companies nail you for everything and charge so many extra fees it’s like another car payment. No savings. Can’t afford health insurance. Thermostat set so low in winter the house is cold as a barn. Screw Limbaugh. He shuts off the program and drives, like he never does, with both hands on the wheel. Shit, he thinks. Who the hell lives in Kansas City, anyway?
Where were you yesterday? Nichoe asks. I don’t recall giving you the day off.
Daryl Glans stares incredulously, then peeks out in the hallway for cops.
I have an abusive husband, Daryl, she says almost tenderly, then shrugs her shoulders as if he should understand. Her eyes fill with tears, and she says, Your stupid little life, Daryl! You have a future here. Be my friend. We can help each other.
Daryl sits in his cubicle and visualizes the money he’s making. He does some quick division: $12.50 per hour makes twenty and nine/tenths cents per minute. He imagines the first two dimes and fractional penny clanging into an empty bowl. After the dimes pile up a while the sound is more like “chunk.”
At lunch Daryl strolls back into Nichoe’s office and finds her eating a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken Dinner Classic with her fingers. The room smells terrible and there is a pile of greasy crumpled napkins on the floor. I’ll be gone the rest of the afternoon, he says. Do I have sick leave?
She nods her head, then says with her mouth full of mashed potatoes, Five and one-half hours. Please be on time tomorrow. She licks her fingers and smiles at him. Thanks for asking, Daryl. That’s the spirit!
The church is a tin shed designated Brethren Cathedral of the Victorious Nazarene, a deranged hybrid of Jehovah’s Witness and Opus Dei Catholicism that is heavy on the incense, advocates penance and illiteracy, and allows the leadership, a majority of exactly one, to dress up like the Pope on Easter Sunday. Pastor Rick, in fact, is a defrocked Franciscan who was caught with one hand in the cookie jar and another, so to speak, in the underwear of a parishioner who loved both his easy good looks and his comprehensive grasp of those scriptures that seem to forgive anything. Able to recognize a frustrated woman from half a mile with his eyes shut, he can choreograph a handoff from uninterested mate to the compassionate arms of Jesus, or Jesus’ earthly representative, with nary a false nor wasted step. One husband, in fact, caught him with his face deeply between his wife’s too-lovely, too-long legs late one night after bingo, behind the vestry on a table in a storage room where the wafers and wine were kept. The husband would claim that he had been led in there by the Lord himself and also, perhaps, his wife’s loud moaning. Later, his wife would admit that such rendezvous had only been the latest of many, some much more comprehensive, and he would wonder why the Lord had not pointed him in the right direction somewhat sooner. Being himself a convicted wife-beater with an extensive legal history, said husband decided to give Pastor Rick a pass. Screw it, he thinks. Let the Lord deal with the little shithead, and pass the popcorn, please.
Daryl’s family showed up one Sunday because the church was nearby and advertised heavily in their area. It promised salvation and canned goods for unemployed believers, plus a wholesome environment for children who needed every bit of help they could get to avoid the temptations of homosexuality and drugs. Especially the homos. But also the drugs.
Homosexuals? asked his wife, clutching her small hands to her bosom—What do they look like?
Homosexuals! boomed Pastor Rick one Sunday. Is this the Church of Jesus or the Church of the Elephant?
What’s that? whispers his wife—church of the elephant? Are elephants homos—my god!
InCARnation! booms Pastor Rick. Becomes ExHALtation!
It’s just an example, he whispers back. A church has to be from Jesus. That’s the law. Anything else isn’t right.
But is there really the elephant church?
Good hell, Jean, it’s just an example. Maybe they worship elephants in India, or some damn place. How should I know?
You know what women want? Nichoe asks him several days later, having again called him to her office for reasons more or less completely unrelated to business—I’ll tell you: A man who flosses his teeth and eats a salad once in a while. Why is that so unreasonable?
It’s not, he replies.
Do you floss?
Once a month, he says. If I remember.
What about all the crap stuck between your teeth? They are eating in the lunch room. He is chewing a bologna & cheese Jean has thrown together.
It eventually works its way out.
Are you a beer drinker, Daryl?
My wife gives all the extra money to the church.
Obviously she expects something.
Does it work?
I’m here, aren’t I? he says, motioning around himself.
What kind of answer is that? she asks.
That night after his wife has fallen asleep, Daryl slides off the bed onto his knees and offers up a prayer, the first in many a day. Among other things, he asks the Lord why their church smells like cat shit and old socks; why human life, the very crown of His creation, is so goddamn cheap and miserable, especially when He, Creator Of All, is also able to make the hawks of the air, the lovely fishes of the sea and the lily of the valley; he asks Him if it is even remotely possible that Pastor Rick is screwing his dear wife, whom he loves from the very bottom of his heart; he asks His blessings upon his bank robbing enterprise, which is in essence taking from the corrupt rich and giving to the downtrodden—namely himself. You owe me this, he says. My life is garbage and it’s Your fault. What did I ever do to deserve this? I promise I won’t hurt anybody but I’m going to take what I need.
Saturday two weeks later Daryl drives west, through Topeka and out into the wide, clean prairie. He drifts north off the interstate and goes from pavement to gravel to dirt, until he is really and truly in the middle of nowhere, grasslands and agriculture as far as the eye can see. He reads, from cover to cover, the instruction booklet that’s come with the revolver. When he’s done he opens a box of ammunition, pulls out a round, and carefully inspects it. He marvels at the tiny hole at the end of the slug and wishes he’d brought along a ham or something so he could see what a hollowpoint can do.
Carefully loading according to the manual, he opens the car door and stands, then cocks the hammer and, without really thinking or intending, or even installing the earplugs he’s brought, holds the weapon over the door, aims at the sky and pulls the trigger. The concussive forces of muzzleblast and recoil jerk the revolver out of his hand; it bounces off the driver’s side mirror and hits the ground where it discharges again, destroying a tire and blowing a headlamp thirty feet onto the prairie.
Julianna Margulies! he shouts. Julianna! Julianna!
He is adjusting his headphones when Nichoe’s soft hand touches his shoulder. Good morning Daryl, she says. Please come to my office.
She is waiting by the door and motions to a chair. When he walks through she closes the door and locks it. She bends to his face and kisses him, then lifts her sweater and bra and releases her enormous breasts upon him. One knocks his glasses off. She laughs, covers herself back up and returns to her chair behind the desk.
So much for the sex harassment seminar, he says, bending over to pick up his glasses. This is wrong.
Wrong? You’re robbing banks!
Pull your shirt up again, he says.
She stands and repeats the exercise, also turning to give him a side profile. Across her ample behind she’s wearing a very tight, very short white miniskirt, green pantyhose and high-heeled black boots up to her knees.
You are beautiful, he says.
Do you want to know how I know?
That you’re robbing banks, of course!
I haven’t robbed a single thing.
You want to know how I know?
No. Lift up your sweater again.
She does this once more, and this time gives him the full three-sixty. He sees that she’s wearing a thong. It is a black thong with frayed edges, and loose black threads tangled together in a ball.
It’s just a matter of time, she says. You and me—she motions back and forth between them. Do you do porn, Daryl?
I love my wife, he says.
You’re obsessed with Julianna Margulies.
If I am?
Do you want to know how I know—about the banks? And Julianna?
She stares at him for a few moments, then sits down heavily. Do something for me, she says, and pulls an envelope out of a drawer. She leans across the desk and hands it to him. When he opens it he finds eight Walmart Moneygrams for four hundred eighty-five dollars and twenty-five cents each.
They’re counterfeit. From Oklahoma City. Cash them. She hands him a card with an address and a name. This is the Walmart. It’s in Wichita. She points to the name. He’s one of the guys at the service counter. Call him and tell him when you’re coming. We split thirds.
Pull up your shirt again, he says.
This time she pulls her sweater all the way over her head, then does a kind of fatgirl’s striptease with her bra. She walks around the desk and gently bats his face back and forth with her breasts.
Finally! she says—someone to torture in the basement as long as I want.
You’re an animal, he says.
So are you. I’m just the animal that won.
You ain’t won yet, he says and pushes her away.
The first depository Daryl chooses is a little Bank of the West branch office off Shawnee Mission Parkway. It squats brown and ugly just north of a dense residential neighborhood with convoluted roads snaking through the houses. He scopes it out carefully, mapping four alternate escape routes with lots of cars parked along the road in case he has to pull over and blend in for a while. Late evening just before dark he drives there through sprinkling snow. A car directly ahead has a vanity plate that says NOWWHAT. Another car passes with a plate from Mississippi that features a lighthouse, as if Mississippi were somehow a beacon of hope; another pulls up with a yellow plate from New Mexico, which features the Zia sun. It’s a sign, he thinks. Goodbye PaydayLoans. Goodbye DollarStore. Goodbye KC Plasma Center.
An old man calls Medicare just after lunch. The area code says North Dakota, and Daryl asks how cold it is up there. Not as cold as Calgary, the old man says, then laugh/wheeze/coughs for the better part of a minute. I’m on O-2, he says. If I laugh too hard, blood sprays out my nose.
They talk briefly about an excessive prescription charge that in reality amounts to small change, then the man asks if he plants a springtime garden.
Don’t know a thing about it, says Daryl.
The old man allows as how he plants vegetables and ganja periodically and smokes a little of the latter himself for pain control. Rheumatoid. Can’t afford the meds anyway, he says, even with the gov’ment. Took the matter into my own hands. If they lock me up at least I’ll get my meds, now won’t I? I’m seventy-seven. What can they do?
He sells his excess to Sioux of the Crips persuasion, but keeps a revolver handy for unauthorized entry. It’s a dirty business, he says. Bad people, ever one. Gangs, even way out here on the rez. You got to be ready.
What caliber, Daryl asks.
Three five seven, the old man says. All you need. Anything bigger’s just a waste.
Hi Daryl, it’s Roxy. How have you been?
She has the comfortable voice of a hardcore tobacco addict. He sees her in his mind’s eye as a luminous being languidly smoking, as close to all-loving and all-knowing as a mortal can get.
O hi Rox. I’m good. How are you?
Same as ever, she says. Still alive, obviously.
How’s the Medicaid?
Fine, fine. Never any problem there. That gov’t of ours . . .
You know, this is gov’t too, he says adjusting his headset. I work on a contract for the Feds. They pay me to find out why they’re not doing their job.
Imagine that, says Roxy. Well, you’ll never be unemployed, that’s for sure. Did I ever tell you I can see the future?
Daryl considers this for a moment. I don’t think so.
Sometimes I’m right on. You’d be surprised.
Then tell me this: My Greek summer—when will it be?
You’re robbing banks, Daryl. That’s dangerous.
What the hell! he says.
Your big fat boss—is she coming on to you?
I’m no great beauty myself, I’ll tell you that.
I need an opinion: Should Israel make nice with Syria. I’m a Jew.
I don’t know how I feel about that, he says. If I knew exactly when the Lord was coming, maybe I could say.
The sermon that Sunday revolved around UFOs and the Bible. It also contained, unbeknown to any parishioner, a generous helping of Scientology. Pastor Rick had always felt free to access verity when and where he found it, and, for a promoter of putative fundamentalist Christianity, he found it in the most unlikely places. Over the years he had quoted entire passages, unattributed, from the Book of Mormon and the Bhagavad-gita. One sermon had centered around the Tibetan Book of the Dead; yet another, around Justine and similar works by de Sade with which, as man of the cloth, he was uncommonly familiar. Messages from God were also to be found in such venues as American Gladiator and Wheel of Fortune.
Who among you knows the late, great John Keats? Pastor Rick asks his congregation.
From amongst the throng, one pale, skinny arm belonging to a high school girl timidly rises.
Pastor Rick takes note.
John Keats was a great poet who died of tuberculosis on February 23, 1821. He was twenty-five years old.
Pastor Rick pauses for emphasis. He grips the podium and hangs his head.
Keats suffered for years. In those days there was no cure. When he got to heaven, Keats says to the Lord: Lord, was that really necessary? You ever had TB, Lord? Do you have any idea?
Upturned faces wonder what happens next. What next? their eyes implore. Where are we going Pastor Rick?
Poor John Keats. O the poor dead great man—all that gift and passion fizzing out at twenty-five! And all those people in Jonestown—what did they ever do to deserve that KoolAid? He spreads his arms: All part of the same Space Opera, my people. Stuff happens. We’re part of it, too. Quarantine the Thetans! But that’s is a subject for another day.
What’s a Thetan? whispers Jean. Is it in the Bible?
Revelations probably, says Daryl.
Are they homos?
I have a question, Jean. It’s real serious.
She turns only her eyes and looks at him sideways behind thick round glasses. By the way she’s blinking he can tell she expects it. She looks like a child. His heart cracks a little.
Pastor Rick: Is he laying hands upon you?
She turns back to look at the pulpit. She sits like this for a full minute, then whispers breathlessly, He says it’s the will of God. I’m supposed to be his Spiritual Wife.
Does he take off your spiritual clothes? Or your real clothes?
He told me I can’t say a thing. She collects herself for a moment. He took my glasses off and told me I was beautiful. That’s all.
Daryl stares into her eyes through his own thick glasses.
It’s between us and the Lord. Please don’t do anything, Daryl. He hasn’t touched me. I’m not very bright, but I’d figure it out sooner or later. Something else—she touches his arm. I haven’t told you: He’s buying our groceries. We don’t make enough to pay rent and bills and tithing and eat, too.
At the Big Bang everything is really jammed together, says Pastor Rick, now leaning over the podium and beginning to hit his stride. As it began to fly apart—he spreads his arms—space was created. We were created. God was created. This—he indicates his shabby tin shed filled with souls and folding chairs—This, too, was created, our sacred space, our cozy little corner of the frozen universe. Doesn’t this feel good, in here all together?
I’m going to shoot this fucker right between the eyes, Daryl whispers to himself, moving his lips slowly.
Fornicators, says Pastor Rick. We are a nation of fornicators. Surrender. We must surrender.
Surrender what? Daryl asks her.
Just listen, she says. He’ll tell you everything.
Monday morning first thing he plops himself down in front of Nichoe’s desk.
I have a problem.
You have many problems, Daryl. Which one are we going to discuss.
A guy named Pastor Rick.
You mean Bastard Rick.
You know him?
I sure do. You want to know how?
He takes his head in his hands and bends to his knees, moaning softly
I’ll just say this, she says: That magic pistol you have?—It may be time to wave that thing around a little.
Experimenting with disguises Daryl learns that the beard will work but the hat will not. It is not so much a disguise as a carnival advertisement, so he throws it in a dumpster behind a grocery store, someplace he is reasonably sure is not under some kind of surveillance. He figures out how the beard functions and what he needs to keep it securely in place, even when he’s running. He takes a pair of abandoned glasses from the lost & found box at work, thick black frames of classic proportions, and knocks the lenses out. He buys a knit cap at the Dollar Store, a box of latex gloves at Walmart, and figures he’s ready to go.
He was married to my sister for five years, Nichoe continues. This was after he left the priesthood. Actually, after he got kicked out of the priesthood. The pedophiles they kept. Rick?—Bam! Right out the door. What does that tell you?
Those Catholics are pretty bad.
That’s not what it tells you, Daryl.
He was even worse than the pedophiles. For god’s sake!
But we’re talking about Catholics here!
I know some respectable Catholic people. Pastor Rick is a piece of shit. Has he screwed her yet?
Your wife, idiot.
I don’t think so.
Well it’s just a matter of time. Is he giving her grocery money?
He sure is.
Well he gave me some, too. And then he did what he wanted—which, I have to admit, was pretty amazing. He told me I was beautiful. After he divorced my sister he wouldn’t give me the time of day.
I said you were beautiful, too.
But you meant it.
That’s amazing, says Daryl shaking his head. Truly amazing.
Daryl approaches the bank at five forty-eight pm Friday the tenth of January, twenty days, ten hours and fifty-two minutes after winter solstice. Feeling he must honor the Formless God of Chance, he’d loaded only five rounds into a cylinder designed for six, then spun it and locked it into place, not knowing if the empty chamber was the first, the last or somewhere in between. He’d heard once that the Navajos purposely weave imperfections into their rugs so as not to insult their perfect gods, and he liked the idea. He reflected that his own life in and of itself constituted an entity of such awesome imperfection that it could doubtless serve perfectly as propitiation to any god; but formalizing the offering to a specific deity makes him feel more confident. No telling what he’ll run into. Not wanting to create a video record as the undisguised Daryl, he’s not yet gone into the bank.
A mile from his target he pulls off the road by a little park with picnic tables and a swing set. He smears his license plate with a bag of thick mud he’s got in the trunk so it is unreadable. He tosses the bag into a trash can, then carefully fits the beard in place with spirit gum. He dons glasses, knit cap, and lays two latex gloves carefully on the passenger’s seat.
He gives the bank parking lot wide berth, then finds a spot to pull off on a now-darkening road two blocks away. The temperature is considerably below freezing and light snow sprinkles from the sky. He checks himself in the rearview one last time, pats the gun in his coat pocket, makes sure all the doors are unlocked, leaves the engine running, and steps out of the car.
He gets half a block and realizes he’s forgotten his earplugs, so returns to the car, reseats himself in the driver’s seat, and inserts these, struggling with his cold fingertips to compress the foam just right so it will enter the ear canal.
He gets half a block and realizes he’s forgotten his latex gloves, so returns to the car, again reseats himself in the driver’s seat and slowly puts them on. What else am I forgetting? I can’t come back again. Somebody’s going to see. He thinks about the earplugs for a moment, then removes them and replaces them in their little box.
Shock and awe, he thinks as he walks beneath the gaunt splendor of winter trees. I will stun them with terror, then take what I need.
The entire country is grinding to a halt, says Roxy from Sacramento. Those goddamn Republicans! I worry about you.
I have other sources of income, he says. I’ll be all right.
You’re robbing banks, she says. I know.
You and everyone else. The only ones who don’t are the police.
Isn’t that strange? That’s how life works sometimes, and I don’t know why, even after all these years. My husband, for instance, disciple of Hippocrates. A worse son-of-a-bitch you never met. And then the other day I read about this Serbian prison guard who lost his life saving a bunch of Bosnian women. Snuck them in a truck and drove to the border. When his officers found out they shot him—just for saving these poor women who were being raped and tortured.
I won’t hurt anybody, he says. I have a pistol but I’d never hurt a soul.
.357 Magnum. See—I even know the caliber. Isn’t that amazing?
Not really, he says. For all I know you’re a ghost or an angel. These days I’ll believe anything.
Pastor Rick, she says—Let’s talk about him for a minute.
O my god, says Daryl. O my sweet god in heaven.
The bank has one way in and the same way out. He also notices that the drive-up window in the back oversees his escape route, so he can’t run off that way. The lobby is empty when he enters, and no tellers are visible behind the counter. He approaches it and hears voices in the back, then leans over and sees that the vault door is open. It’s a sign, he thinks. He looks once behind himself then jumps the counter and pulls the gun. This is a stickup, he says quietly to two women who are preparing bags of money for the transport service. Get on the floor. He zips the bags, which are almost full, and takes them by the handles. One is very heavy, and he figures it’s coin, so he drops it. He unzips the other and places the gun inside, then clambers over the counter and steps brightly to the door. He opens his coat and, as best he can, hides the bag against his chest. Except for two cars he takes to be the tellers’ the parking lot is empty—he strides due east, and as soon as he’s among houses and trees starts to run. Impulsively he takes an alleyway he thinks is a shortcut, then gets lost and can’t find his car for six minutes. He looks quickly about himself, throws the bag on the floor behind the driver’s seat and leaves with his lights off. He expects a roadblock at each intersection all the way to his house, but does not even see a patrol car.
Julianna! he shouts when he closes his garage door behind him.
The man at the Walmart service counter in Wichita is named Larry and he looks a lot like Pastor Rick.
You look just like someone I know, Daryl tells him. You could be his brother.
That’s because I am. Only I don’t have the meth issue. I was married to Nichoe. I’m her X.
Well this is interesting, says Daryl. So what we got here is more or less a crime family—?
More or less, replies Larry. But it’s a broken family and very dysfunctional. All we have in common is love of money and, once in a while, some craaaaaazy sex.
When Daryl gets home from robbing the bank he sits in the garage for ten minutes. The operation has been more like a withdrawal than a robbery. He sorts his feelings. Disappointment. That’s it. You could almost talk about something like this on Oprah, though you’d have to speak from behind a curtain so the police couldn’t see your face. He had not discharged the hand cannon. He may as well not even have brought it!
He turns on the dome light and pulls the bag out from behind the seat. He unzips it, removes the revolver, and probes carefully, hoping there isn’t a can of exploding dye in there. Nothing but deposit bags, twelve of them, all swollen with cash. He opens the first, pours the contents in his lap and counts: $2,455. When he’s done counting he finds that he has stolen $21,380—Heist of the Week! This is for real! He stuffs everything into the bag and carries it inside as casually if it were his briefcase.
There are no late parents today and Jean is in the kitchen making supper. Their three children sit at the table working on school assignments. How did it go? she asks, as he knew she would. Did anybody see you?
He pulls a chair from beneath the table and sits down. He sets the bag on the floor.
Did anybody see me what?
She motions to the bag. You didn’t shoot the gun, did you?
Don’t ever shoot the gun, Daryl. Don’t even put any bullets in it. It’s OK to take some money, but don’t you dare hurt anybody.
I know about that whore at work, too. Did you touch her?
Not ever, she says.
The next day Nichoe tells him that she’s in a struggle for dominance.
Who with? he asks.
Is Pastor Rick involved?
Of course he’s involved.
Well then, let the battle rage. You can borrow my gun.
I don’t need a gun, Daryl. I just need to get my fingers under the rock. She makes digging motions with her hands. A little leverage. That’s all I need.
Now financially semi-secure, Daryl takes the next day off work and waits in his car on a side street just beyond the church parking lot. There are wrongs to right re: one bogus-ass philandering preacher and no time like the present. There is a glass church marquee on which is spelled out in large, removable black letters the church meeting times and a spiritual message for the week: “Those Who Judge Have No Time To Love!”
He listens to the student-run radio station from the University of Kansas. There seems to be some kind of musical revival coming out of nowhere, suddenly all this beautiful music—Five Deez, Flying Lotus, Fat Jon, Rainstick Orchestra, Lemongrass. Who the hell are these people?
He drives kwikly to a nearby KwikStop for a kwik kup of koffee, then returns to his spot. Daft Punk, Common, Telephone Jim Jesus, Nightmare on Wax, Meego. He reclines his seat, sips his coffee, turns up the volume. Deep base shakes the cabin:
So when I say I want
Us to be together
Just say you want me too
And I’ll be yours forever
He cries unabashedly. When the track is over he turns the radio off, reclines the seat and covers his eyes with the back of his hand.
A mean new black Mustang bulging with engine and sporting a dealer plate squeals into the parking lot. Pastor Rick and an obvious car salesman step out and walk around the car. The salesman pops the hood and they examine the engine for several minutes. Daryl lowers his window and listens to the conversation. If the church buys it . . . he hears the salesman say. Write-off . . . Pastor Rick laughing. Wow! he shouts. The salesman bobs his head: A real statement, he says. You’re saying something when you pull up in this thing. Pastor Rick claps his hands: Man drives a Japanese car and then tells me I’m not a patriot? I hear that, says the salesman. You’re helping your country. You really are. Far as I’m concerned, that’s what Christian is all about, the good ‘ol USA. Where else!? Plus, every one you bring, there’s three hunnert bucks in your pocket. You got a whole congregation in there should be driving American Fords. If they’re driving one already, it’s time they traded up.
That night he dreams of tall slender women in bikinis. To the best of his reckoning there are ten, walking single file in high heels along a rural road at night. They have tiaras in their hair and some kind of sash over their left shoulders. He pulls up beside them in a Mustang and rolls down the window to ask what the hell they’re doing way out there. They just keep on walking and don’t say a word. Finally, he gets out of the car and approaches one in the middle of the line. Without stopping she turns her head to look at him. Her eyes glow and he sees fire flicker on her lips.
At five a.m. his four-year old daughter climbs into bed between him and Jean. She snuggles against her dad and he pulls her close and kisses the back of her head. She twists to face him and puts a little hand on his cheek. Don’t shoot anybody, she says. You’ll go to jail.
Roxy calls from Sacramento five minutes before noon, and it’s a relief. The old folks have been particularly noisome this morning. If he hears another word about liver disease or colon cancer there’s no telling what he’ll do.
Good morning, darlin’, she says. How are you this fine day?
It’s plenty cold out here on the prairie, he says. Otherwise, I think we’re good.
I had a dream last night. It concerns me. Do you have a moment?
Of course, he says. For you I have plenty of moments.
You having problems at work?
Is this about the dream?
Yes it is.
You were driving a black car with a stick shift. These half-naked women were walking down a road in the country. Single file. Kansas, from the looks of it. It was evening, and their eyes looked like flashlights. When they spoke, flames came out of their noses.
My God, says Daryl. How the hell would you know that?
I hardly dream at all, but this one was clear as day. Now, the problem at work—?
Does she wear high heels?
Yes she does. She’s also listening in, you can be sure. Did you hear that, Nichoe? I know you’re there.
Be careful with her, says Roxy. I know those women. I used to be one. How do you think I got the doctor?
Jean is watching her murder shows when he arrives home after work: CSI: New York, CSI: Las Vegas, CSI: Miami. Law & Order Criminal Intent. NCIS. Blood and charred remains fill the screen. People are upset and punching each other in the face. He recalls The Sopranos where he first fell in love with the otherworldly Julianna Margulis, heroin addict. He finds the remote and hits the mute button.
Why is my life an open book? he asks. I didn’t open it. Who did?
Probably the Lord, she says. If it’s open, He’s the one who opened it.
Why would He do this?
Pastor Rick says the Last Days are on the way.
I think they’re already here.
It scares me to think about it, she says. On the television screen behind her a coroner saws off the top of someone’s head.
It doesn’t scare me, says Daryl. Not at all. I like our chances. The sooner He comes, the better.
Jesus wants us to buy Fords, Jean says.
Daryl peers at her over the top of his glasses. What did you say?
I think we should buy a Ford, Daryl. It helps our country. This is the greatest Christian nation on earth.
Who told you that?
She looks at her hands and says, You know.
I sure do!
Dinner in fifteen minutes, she says. I made your favorite.
The first thing Daryl does at work the next morning is call Roxy Gunn. She’s an hour behind in California, but he figures she’ll be up drinking something and he’s right.
Well hello Hello HELLO!, she says. What a niiiiiice surprise. I was just having some breakfast.
What are you having?
Coffee and whisky, she says. The whole equation. What’s on your mind, sweetheart?
Do you like Sacramento?
It’s a shithole. Why do you ask?
I’m wondering if you’d like to move in with us.
With your family?
Why Daryl . . . !
We both need some help, Roxy. You shouldn’t live by yourself and I need someone to be with my wife. If I can’t get someone to help, I’m going to kill the Pastor.
Ah, the Pastor, she says. How many times have I heard that story? Is he buying her groceries?
He sure is.
Do you think . . . ?
Check her underwear drawer.
Nothing I don’t recognize.
Then you’re probably OK.
Here’s the crazy thing: She knows he’s an asshole.
But she can’t help herself?
Poor thing. And she loves you. I know she does.
It’s time for action, isn’t it?
It sure is, Daryl. You’ve got to save that girl!
We’ve got a little room above the garage. You’ll like it. It’s a two story house, you know—three, if you count the basement.
I don’t care if it’s a chicken coop. If I’m with you, I’m in heaven.
That’s a nice thing to say, Roxy.
I am kind of an alcoholic. I hope that’s not a problem.
Not for me
I won’t drink in front of the children. That you can bank on.
After he hangs up, he walks over to Nichoe’s office. She’s on the phone, but smiles and waves with her free hand and motions to a chair. He closes the door and sits with his legs stretched out. That’s too bad, she says into the receiver. That’s a shame. I’m really sorry that happened. Uh huuuu. Ummm. Ummmm. This goes on for ten minutes. Then she hangs up abruptly.
Who was that?
A friend. Man trouble.
What about it?
She’s married. Got a boyfriend. Can’t break it. Knows he’s a bastard.
Poor thing, says Daryl.
Well it happens. It’s a terrible thing, but it happens all the time. You’d think we’d learn. I guess biology takes over. Anyway, I get sick of hearing about it. So what can I do for you, honey?
Time for lunch, he says. I’m buying.
The church parking lot is empty when they drive up. He stops where he parked before and turns on the radio. This is the college station, he says. KU. You won’t believe some of this stuff. It’s amazing.
How do you know he’s coming?
So we’re just sitting here?
Relax, Nichoe. He indicates the bag with the burgers—‘Cause when he finally shows, all hell’s gonna break loose.
The last talk I heard him give was about virtuous mortification. Right here. She points to the building. He said it’s a principle.
What is it?
Doing crappy things you don’t want to do so you can feel good about yourself.
The example he gave was drinking pee.
Does that make you a better person?
So he says.
Does he do it?
He drank mine.
Daryl makes a face and waves her off.
He reaches across her chubby knees and pulls the .357, a box of ammo, and the Lonely Planet Greek Islands out of the glove box. He slips the book and box in his left coat pocket.
Nichoe, meet Baby. He swings out the cylinder and hands her the gun. She hefts it and points it and makes a little Boom with her lips. It’s heavy, she says. Is it loud?
Second Coming loud!
He pulls out the box of earplugs and hands them to her.
No thanks, she says. I don’t want to miss a thing.
He sees the Mustang half a block away and tells her to duck. After it passes he raises his eyes just enough and watches Pastor Rick unlock the side door. He’s talking on the cell phone, laughing and shouting, and doing everything in slow motion. They can see his dazzling white teeth even from where they hide.
He’s a good-looking bastard, Nichoe says. At least give him that.
When Pastor Rick enters the church Daryl loads the gun, all six rounds this time.
I need to do a walk-around, he says. In case a bullet goes through the wall.
Immense cornfields stretch north and west of the church. The nearest house is three-hundred yards away, and Daryl figures if there’s anyone home it’s old people plugged into TV and high on prescriptions.
How do we get in? Nichoe whispers, even though they’re still in the car.
He pops the trunk from a button on the dash, slips the now loaded revolver into his coat pocket and steps out of the car. He fishes around in the trunk for a minute before he finds a tire iron, then shuts the lid and taps softly on the roof.
The shed is without windows. They avoid the glass front doors and reconnoiter the sides and rear. They figure there is another door on the side away from the parking lot, and after moving catlike around the back of the building, find one they can jimmy. Daryl pulls the jamb far enough from the door that the deadbolt slips out and the door swings open. He carefully pokes his head inside and looks around.
What can you see? whispers Nichoe.
He pulls his head out and pushes the door to. Why don’t we have a little prayer, he says. I wanna make sure we do this right. Go ahead. Say it.
Nichoe offers up her thanks for life such as it is, and asks for guidance and blessings of spirit. She mentions the word “justice” three times.
When she’s done Daryl hands her the tire iron and pulls out the gun. He removes one round, carefully replacing it in the ammo box, which is with the Greek island book in the other pocket. Then he spins the cylinder.
That very morning, unbeknownst to Daryl, or even Nichoe and Roxy, Pastor Rick had made yet another attempt on the virtue of Jean. He had shown up with his Mustang full of groceries and cosmetics and a little package from Victoria’s Secret that had arrived at the church UPS only an hour before.
Why are you doing this? she had finally asked him. If Daryl ever finds out . . .
He won’t, says Pastor Rick.
I think he already knows.
Daryl! he laughs. Why don’t you let me worry about him. He takes off her glasses and gathers her in his arms. She does not resist, but when he tries to kiss her she pulls her head back.
Not yet, she says. I’m not ready for anything else.
He pulls her closer and nuzzles her neck. That little package, he says, nodding to the black wrapping. I’d sure like to see you try that on.
I will, Jean says. But you got to promise to keep your distance.
Scouts’ honor, says Pastor Rick, and brings his right hand to the square.
Jean checks the kids downstairs who are watching a soap opera, then locks the bathroom door and opens the box. The garment inside is so diaphanous and strange that she can’t figure out what’s the front and what’s the back. After she’s undresses she also discovers that she’s not shaved her legs for a week. She sighs and looks at herself in the mirror.
After they enter the dark church, Nichoe takes his arm and whispers, It’s got a cement floor. You have to remember that.
You can’t shoot him in the foot, that’s why. It’ll ricochet around and kill somebody. Probably me.
Why you? he laughs.
Because I deserve it, she hisses. I’m not much better than he is.
They take off their shoes and creep toward the back of the church where they see a faint luminescence and hear a voice. Rick is behind his desk, still on his cell phone, tapping away on a laptop at the same time. He’s laughing and hearty and very very happy.
I told him, he shouts—How DARE you call ME a traitor when I’M the one driving the AMERICAN CAR! Uh hu. Uh hu. Uh hu. HAW HAW HAW HAW HAW
Daryl backs them off and whispers, We got to wait till he’s off the phone. I don’t want them to hear the gun at the other end.
My god, she says—are you actually going to shoot him?
Yes I am, he says. Right through the nuts.
Nichoe claps a hand over her mouth and runs away on stocking feet, giggling doubled over to the end of the hall. He pushes her into a little room and softly closes the door, then doubles over himself, both of them hooting into their hands and coats.
I got to tell you something, she says, still laughing. You know that phone call—my friend with the man problem?
It was Rick’s wife. She’s having a fling with his brother.
Jesus Lord, he says and shakes his head. What a goddamn mess.
That’s nothing. I have two brothers and a sister. Wait till I tell you about them.
And—I also have a little confession, she says, wiping the laugh-tears from her eyes. I may be falling in love.
Nichoe smiles at him.
O for god’s sake—
I can lose some weight if that’s a problem—
Nichoe, don’t you think I’ve got enough on my plate right now?
OK, OK, she says, waving him off and laughing again. But you know we’re gonna have to deal with this sooner or later.
Jean gets the thing on backwards and looks at herself. Her small breasts are plainly visible through the fabric. She considers how temporarily fine Pastor Rick’s hands might feel temporarily upon them. Then she changes her mind. I have not done this before, she says firmly to herself in the mirror. I am not going to do it today.
She cracks the bathroom door and says to Pastor Rick who is standing just outside, I’m sorry. I have diarrhea.
O come on! Let me see.
I’ve pooped myself.
No problem. Let me help—
Come back later.
She thinks for a minute. One hour.
You’ll model my teddy?
Promise, she says. She sticks out her left hand and brings it to the square.
OK, he says. I’ll just run on down to the church.
When Pastor Rick finally hangs up Daryl walks to his doorway, aims just over his head, and touches off a thunderous explosion. With no apparent effort Pastor Rick levitates seven feet straight up. Daryl blasts the laptop, which flies off the desk and shatters like a beer bottle against the wall behind. Then he vaporizes the pushbutton executive desk phone. God Almighty screams Pastor Rick, and dives beneath his desk, where he scrabbles himself into a tiny ball. Daryl tips the heavy desk over upon the Man of God. The air is full of blue smoke and Pastor Rick is still screaming and Nichoe is shouting, The Mustang’s mine! The Mustang’s mine!
Julianna Margulies! He blows a hole through the wall, and another through the roof and click at Pastor Rick’s head. Julianna! Julianna! Julianna! Julianna!
He ejects the spent brass on the floor where it bounces and chimes like Chinese coins, half-heard through roaring ears. He reloads with six rounds, then takes one back out and spins the cylinder. He steps to where Pastor Rick groans stuck beneath the toppled desk and clobbers him on the forehead with the pistol butt.
He cocks the hammer, aims right between his eyes and yells, Here comes the elephant, shithead! Are you ready?
By now, Jean has showered, shaved her legs, and figured what’s right-side-up with the teddy. She ties little bows where they require tying and snaps little snaps where they require snapping. She walks through the door into their bedroom and looks at herself in the full-length. She reaches into her closet and slips on high black heels she hasn’t worn for ten years. The garment itself is so transparent it’s like she’s wearing nothing. She looks herself over, front and back. I am beautiful, she smiles to herself. No wonder they love me!. She slips an old housedress over everything, finds her glasses, and teeters downstairs to the children.
Roxy Gunn, dreamer of his dreams, has bought a plane ticket for Kansas City and is packing two bags, plus a carry-on. She will leave everything else in the rental and simply disappear. Jack’s paper and personal effects she has already burned in the back yard, a small fire lit exactly in the middle of the grass square. Jack may as well have never existed. Only Daryl, the Social Security Administration and Medicare will know where she has gone. She figures she doesn’t have long to live. That Daryl is one-in-a-million! Don’t kill the Pastor, she prays. OK, knock him around a little and make him beg, but don’t finish him off.
Luckily, the Formless God of Chance is listening. The Formless God of Chance is amorphous and unreliable and utterly uncanny. Of all the gods, he is my favorite. Of all the gods he is most unknowable, the most humane. Of all the gods he is most like me.
(Lyrics by Walter Meego, Voyager, “Forever”)