By Tom Stevens
Sometimes not even the knife cuts deep enough.
Instead, I choose to live.
So I drive. My new car knows the way. My destination is of no consequence. Tonight, nothing is.
If a policeman, his red lights revolving menacingly were to pull me over and ask how I got the fifty thousand dollars in new bills in the black bag on my back seat, I might tell him the truth. Or not, as the case may be.
Some believe that I hit the lottery because I told them that I did. Others suspect that I committed a crime because I refuse to tell them. “Did you shoot a man while robbing his castle?” someone might ask, paraphrasing that stupid Steve Miller Band song. Great, now it’s stuck in my head again.
Although I struggle to keep my newfound wealth a secret, some find out anyway. And when they know I have money, people change. My face is the same, my wardrobe is what I’ve worn for years and my personality has not become that of another. I am the same. It’s everyone else who has changed.
Take the bank teller, she of perpetual 20-something youth, hapless misdirection and no personal eye contact. Sometimes while in line I watch her, wondering if she is interested in anything at all. She is blessed with more physical beauty than she has the capacity to comprehend. Her large blue eyes deliciously bulge with vacuity. Her full mouth speaks in a sing-song voice and seems to ache for careful, unhurried attention.
For years I have come and gone from this bank building. The young woman never notices that I spend extra time waiting to visit her window, drink in her beauty, breathe in her scent somewhat masked by cheap perfume, and maybe even exchange a smile, however insincere and professionally motivated it may be.
Professionalism aside, this woman ignored me completely until I withdrew fifty-thousand dollars in cash today. Her big blues popped as her screen displayed all the zeros in my bank accounts. She paused, lingering on the figures as if tending a garden, then looked at me, a changed person. Now her eyes gazed deeply into mine. I welcomed the change, but it was obvious how this newfound interest took root.
“How would you like that?” she asked, as a lady working the brothels of Paris might ask a visiting dignitary. Her lips seemed to throb as if she would swallow me whole given half a chance.
“Could I have half hundreds and half twenties?” I said with a yes-I-ate-the-canary-and-it-was-really-tasty grin. I lifted the black bag up to the teller window. “Could I have it all in here, please?” She excused herself with a soft smile and alluring cock of her head as she rose. I always loved when she stood up to walk. It was a shame that she always wore unflattering clothing, as if it made her appear more professional. Still, her natural movements inferred she’d been something more special in a previous life.
She returned with a man in a crew-cut who carried himself as someone with authority. “I’m sorry, sir, may I see some ID for this transaction? Just policy, you understand.” I plucked my license from my wallet and handed it over. As he stared at it, I wondered if he always moved his lips as he read a customer’s ID. “OK, excellent! Thank you, sir!” he said, and left in a rush. She seemed relieved to be rid of him.
She counted the stacks, each wrapped in identifying binding, and then placed them all into my bag gently, as if putting them down for a nap. All this cash brought out of her an odd motherly instinct.
“Will there be anything else?” Her eyes cornered mine with something that seemed more than professional interest. Perhaps with all those zeros she now attached to my visage, I suddenly became Prince Charming, about to slay her fire-breathing boss and whisk her to a land where she could safely be that disinterested and vacant forever after.
“No,” I said. I would not take advantage of my big chance, and instead hoisted the now-heavy bag from the teller window, mumbled a sheepish “thank you” and within seconds was turning the ignition key to my new car.
I always wanted to drive a BMW. I’m still not sure if it’s worth the money, and I don’t know how people afford these cars. Obviously, most people can’t. They drive what they can barely afford using their tax refund as a down payment. They fumble under hoods on icy mornings, cursing filthy, past-their-prime engines that won’t start at the absolute worst time. If they’re lucky, this happens in their driveways. If they’re not, you’ll see them roadside, desperately pressing phones to their ears as vehicles slash past. I remember those days all too well.
But no, that is all in the past. My annuity is secure, and my next destination was to my Mother’s home, where my sister also lives since her husband vanished last year.
I knocked on the front door of my boyhood home, and Mom greeted me warmly. She still radiates the same unconditional love that I took for granted as a child. Over the years I have come to realize that she is the strongest person I have ever known, and among the most kind. This combination means that she gets dumped on all the time. It is the way of the world.
I would never tell her, but lately Mother’s features sag with the gravity of trial and age. I swear it’s contagious, because my sister, now emerging from her childhood bedroom, is fast taking on those same features. They both seem happy for my surprise visit. I could bear only a little small talk before I revealed why I was there, and passed Mother a cashier’s check. Stunned, Mother studied the check for errors while I waited for her reaction.
“Is this a joke, son?” Her face seemed to say “I’ll-go-along-if-it-is-a-joke-honey.” I assured her this was no joke, it was now her money, and it was partial compensation for the pains of raising me.
“Do you really have this much money?”
“Yes, Mother, and plenty more.”
“How did you get it?”
That question again. I thought for a moment. “The lottery, Mother. I made sure that it was not made public. I wanted to surprise you, and I didn’t want people bugging me about it.”
I figured this gift was ample money for her to live well into old age, to fix the house and even support my sister Emily in case her hard times continued. Mother was always great with money, especially after Dad died. I wish I’d had her sense of tight budgeting back when I was among the working poor.
“I must go,” I said. The sun was about to slip under the horizon outside their living room window. “I’m going on a long vacation, but I hope to see everyone soon. I love you Mom, I love you Emily.”
As we embraced they both looked concerned. It was as if they both shared my suspicion that I may never be back. But there was nothing any of us could do. My plan was set, and there was one last stop to make.
She still lived across town in the apartment we shared until seventeen years ago. Now when I see her, starting at shelves across a supermarket aisle or walking the dirty sidewalk near her house, I do not acknowledge her presence. I can tell by her clothes and walk that nothing has changed in her world since our breakup, except the slow cruel wear of passing time.
It’s permanently burned into every breath I take, the way we met that night by accident. We started talking as if old friends. Our easy friendship soon turned physical and serious. We were swept into a situation we blindly trusted, as if school children accepting a ride from a stranger. It built and built until the evening that the unraveling began. We were in my car and she’d been quiet all evening. When she finally spoke, she said needed a change. I was smothering her, she said, and she needed time to sort out some things. I acted aloof and drove her home without a word, then totaled my car on the way home while driving too fast in the rain. She called me the next day, and for a few months we tried to navigate around The Big Scar. But the spell was broken and I never trusted her again.
It was a Friday evening. We sat in her room, back from seeing a lackluster movie and completely drained from something we never could identify. Suddenly the clarity of the moment hit us hard. We realized that we’d gone on one date too many. Game over.
And it was then that I did what I should have never done.
I have no idea how long I cried, but I did. And I never cry. I didn’t cry when Dad died. What the hell was I doing? Floating overhead, I watched myself below as I shook like prey in the jowls of its captor. Worse, I let her see me cry. There was nothing I could do.
I was alone from that moment forward.
Afterward I would see her sister Marie in town. She was always friendly and liked to talk. I suspect she’s always had a crush on me. It’s a shame that Marie never affected me as her sister had. She’s actually the better looking of the two sisters, and more stable to boot. I enjoy her company, but I feel nothing extra between us.
We’d see each other in town sporadically, and get coffee when we did. I’d listen as she told me stories without my prompting about her sister. Those two were not getting along. Then suddenly, their parents both died in a car crash. I avoided the funeral with apologies. Marie understood. Her sister was made executor, probably because she is the oldest. She booked a moving van and took all material items of value from the family home for herself, even items that belonged to Marie. That aged her. The two sisters never spoke again. “There’s another thing we have in common,” Marie said. But I find it difficult to bond over spite.
I used to pass her house on the way to work, and for years noticed a BMW regularly parked in front of her apartment. I thought it was hers until I saw a guy getting out of the car. He wore a three-piece suit, was below average looking and his car and manner spoke of awkward new money. Once while I drove past I watched them both get into the BMW and realized that she was far more materialistic than I recognized. It was this realization that gave birth to the final part of my plan.
It was my one last gift, just for her.
I parked my BMW in the same spot as her ex, killed the engine, grabbed the case full of money and rang the bell. I heard footsteps, and then a pause. I figured she was debating whether or not to let me in.
She opened the door and we stared wordlessly at each other. Age can give us depth, wisdom and character, but it does terrible things to youthful, romanticized faces. Her eyes were dark and sunken as if the weight of the world had crushed her from the outside in. Nonetheless, the sculpt of her cheekbone and her grace as she sat down on the couch reminded me what I had loved about her and still do.
“I brought you a present,” I said while we both started at the black bag I’d placed in front of us on her coffee table. The table was solid oak, her couch plush and comfortable and all her furnishings spoke of much money and some taste. I could imagine her alone after work reclining here, pretending to be happy in her world. I also wondered how many of these furnishings she’d stolen from Emily.
She said nothing to me, like old times, and looked again at the bag with apprehension, perhaps expecting a bomb to detonate or a wild animal to spring from it. Gently I placed the bag between us on the couch and unzipped it.
“Go ahead, look inside. I now have more of this that I could ever need or want, and I want you to have some, just for making a fraction of my life so happy.”
I watched as she took her first careful peek inside the bag, and her body stiffened as if injected with strong medicine. Tentatively, as if still fearing a rattlesnake, she reached inside and brought out a stack of hundred dollar bills, letting it pass near her face as if to savor the aroma.
This is where my mind goes blank. To my surprise it was she that made the first sudden move, and I offered no resistance. I can only recall tiny flashes of our mad, emotional lovemaking that followed. It rushed hard and electrical through us both as evening became night.
She was transformed – beautiful and daring and filthy and very naked. My body still responds to the memory and I can still feel scratches down my back and elsewhere. My eyes were red as if I’d cried, and I recall moisture on her face as well –tears mixed with our sweat, cried as a baby does when first born.
When my eyes could again focus, her digital clock glowed a pale 3:06 in the morning from across the room. She was snoring seductively next to me, but I managed to slip from under the sheets without disturbing her. The clock gave me just enough light to locate everything I needed to take with me. I had no time to waste.
I dressed quickly and stepped lightly from her apartment into the cold night air. I reflexively patted my wallet and cell phone, turned the ignition key and I was down the road. There was no activity in my rear view mirror. I had escaped.
I continue to drive. My only route is to stay on the largest highway ahead of me. It’s rained throughout my entire trip, like a recurring scene from a bad melodrama. I imagine the gods now having a great laugh at my expense, and why not? Perhaps I should learn to laugh as they do. It’s not too late.
Sometimes it gets hard to see the road, between the cold rain and hot tears. Ahead is the life I choose to continue to live. That’s the last part of my plan, and I’m sticking to the script.
Every once in a while I turn to have another look. Each time, there is the black bag with the $50,000, still sitting at attention in the back seat.
I hadn’t planned that part of it any more than I’d planned that amazing flood of money that started this all into motion. But now my only regret is that I will not see her face when she wakes to find the cash, along with me, all gone. To her, that was my one last gift.
This story originally appeared in Cynic Magazine.
Tom Stevens is a songwriter/musician/writer possibly best known for his years as a member of alt-country godfathers The Long Ryders. His songs are still heard worldwide, and here in the United States on XM Radio. His latest CD, Sooner, was released in 2008. Besides his musical career, Tom’s short story “The Garfield Ghost” is slated for inclusion in the upcoming book Rock & Roll Ghost Stories Volume 2, published by Charles River Press in October of 2012. He writes short story fiction, novels and is assembling memoirs of his career spanning five decades. Tom currently resides in Northern Indiana.