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Anthony Knott
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the1010.jpg
Illustration by Kenneth James Crist 2018

The Ten Ten


By A.F. Knott

 

Merle jerked the Impala door open and swung the canvas bag into the back. He peeled up his purple ski mask and as soon as it cleared his mouth, he started to chatter.

“OK, I’m ready. The guard was being all Hero-Sheegie, so I had to bust him.”

Francine wrung the steering wheel. She’d dyed her hair pink the night before and looked like a match stick. Francine stopped trying to explain her art pictures to Merle because he never took what she said seriously and ended up spouting off some shit that wasn’t even funny like the Hiroshige reference; it wasn’t anything.

“Is that our pizza pan you’re sitting on?”

Francine dragged it out from under her seat while he’d been in the bank. Merle was going to say something more but his door hadn’t shut. He turned and pulled it in harder; it bounced out again so he had to lean over the top and jerk. He’d been doing that the last couple of weeks and had made a mental note to fix the latch before the bank but forgot. The 85 Impala’s engine ran smooth, but the locks and rusty frame were ready for the nursing home. Merle wasn’t sure if he heard the lock click. The door was staying shut so he looked down at his watch.

“See that?”

He pushed his wrist under Francine’s nose. She moved her head away. He brought it back down to his lap and focussed: 10:07. He left the bank at 10:06 and 30 seconds.

“To the fucking minute.”

Merle leaned over again and squinted at the dash board. The car was in Park. They should have been at the end of the block and half way down Elmford.

“We need to fucking go.”

Francine half turned. Merle recognized the posture, what he called her box of Corn Flakes and she was giving him the full unopened version, on top of that, tapping the steering wheel. Merle’s head jerked to one side as if she’d stuck a fork in one of his ears. He knew how much time it took to unravel one of her moods; like waiting for a pizza delivery on a Friday night. He looked into the side view. The bank doors were still closed. The guard had been sprawled on the floor after he hit him with the coin bag but began moving a little right before Merle left. He had turned to make sure everybody was still lying down with hands over their heads like he told them and that’s when he saw the guard, looking like a sleepy dog rubbing a paw over one ear.

Merle kicked the glove compartment.

“So it seems like I’m getting it from both sides. On one side Hero Sheegie, on the other side, you. You might as well be a guard too, a goddamn prison guard accusing me of something I didn’t do. You know I can’t stand that. And I know you have no clue what I just went through in there.”

Merle realized at that moment he’d better reel himself in or they weren’t going anywhere. He looked at his watch and couldn’t see the numbers. His hand was shaking. Merle started speaking fast, like a squirrel.

“I got more than we planned for. I got bills, I got a bag of coins and six wallets. We need to talk but we need to do that talking in the goddamn trailer!”

He couldn’t stop himself from bellowing and looked into the side view a second time. The doors were still closed. He took a deep breath.

“The guard tried to be Yul Brynner so I yelled at him, ‘Stay down, Yul!’ You would have liked that one.” Francine gripped the wheel tighter: She knew Merle was going to start spouting what he thought was intellectual. It wasn’t; it was garbage. “The truth was, that guard couldn’t be King of Siam in that uniform. I could tell right away he didn’t know me. He could never know anything about me or my philosophies. He didn’t know the whys and was judging me for things I never did.”

Merle parroted a lot of what Francine had told him as if they were his own thoughts.

“The guard wasn’t going to get my whys and there are always whys. He’s not going to get them because he’s a guard in a bank, not living the hand-crafted life of his choosing. He’s not a free man like me.”

When he swung the bag of coins, the guard’s head cracked against the edge of the manager’s desk and sounded more like a cantaloupe than a watermelon to Merle.

Merle tried looking at his watch again, but the shaking still hadn’t stopped. All he knew, they should have been around the corner and down two blocks already turned onto Commercial heading toward the left turn three lights up that would lead them past the railroad crossing. He told Francine the night before they needed to be on Commercial by 10:08 and 30 seconds. He told her three times as it was that important. The train came through at 10:10 on the dot every Wednesday morning.

“OK. I don’t know what’s going on.”

“You don’t?”

“No.”

“You’ve been talking to her.”

Merle turned beet red: He knew the “her” she was talking about.

“Now that’s one of those things .  .  .”

Merle couldn’t speak for a moment and kicked the glove compartment. The little door swung open and he kept coming down on it with his heel until it snapped off.

“. . . being accused of something I didn’t do. This is one of those times I’m being accused of something I didn’t do, and this isn’t a good time to be accused of that, I’m telling you right now.”

“When would be a good time then, Merle?”

She was using her calm voice and Merle felt like he was suffocating inside the same old paper bag, trying to punch his way out. He knew right off what had happened: She’d seen the torn picture. He laid it out on top of the TV then had to go in the kitchen and forgot all about it. When he remembered he hadn’t put it back in his box of saved shit, he almost crapped himself. She asked him to throw it out months ago, but he never did. Two days before the robbery he’d been looking for his watch with the second hand and found the picture sandwiched between some receipts and old lottery tickets. He’d been surprised to see her face – the woman had fucked him evil, real evil, while they lay on all of Francine’s shit. She even held him down by his throat. The woman scared Merle more than Francine did but last he heard, she’d been bitched at Mable Bassett in Oklahoma.

“I haven’t talked to her.”

“I know how you get.”

Merle heard Francine’s tone drift down a notch and wasn’t sure which way it was all going. He knew why he hadn’t thrown the picture away and knew Francine knew as well. Merle looked at his watch again. This time he could see the face: 10:08.

“The train crosses at 10:10. I told you that. This whole thing is . . . “ 

Merle told Francine over and over it was all about the freight train what he called his thing of beauty. The ten-ten pulled one hundred seventy cars, was more than a mile and a half long, and took ten sometimes fifteen minutes to pass by that particular crossing gate. Merle had timed it. Francine cut him off:

“I don’t care about your train.”

Merle looked in the sideview for the third time, took a hard swallow and could barely speak.

“I got ten thousand in bills, three hundred in coins and at least six wallets.”

“We didn’t discuss the route. I’m the one driving and you didn’t ask me about the route.”

Merle knew this was “that” discussion: Merle didn’t listen and couples discussed things. Merle started bellowing.

“OK. Look at me.  I don’t fucking listen. I admit that. I should have asked you about the route. And the other thing was I hate that fucking cunt worse than I hate you. I fucking hate you but I would cut off her head off and stick it on a post in the middle of the street. Or stick it on a flag pole and wave it through the air, have Lady Liberty carry her head on top of her flag pole. But I wouldn’t stick your head on a flagpole. I wouldn’t do that to you but would to her.”

Merle had been looking over her shoulder at the Delacroix painting the night before after Francine had come out of the bathroom with her haired dyed pink. She told Merle she did it because she was wanting a change.  Merle hadn’t even asked her what kind of change and shrugged. While they sat there, Francine pointed out Gavroche, the kid running beside Lady Liberty. She said Gavroche looked like her brother when he was that age. Her brother lived over in Fresno.

Francine yanked the gear stick into reverse, stamped down on the gas and said,

“You really need to start editing yourself, Merle.”

Merle’s head jerked, smacking against the dashboard. He pointed and chirped, “We should be going that way. . . “

“No, we shouldn’t.”

Francine dragged the right side of the steering wheel down, swerving the Impala backwards into the alley beside the bank, throwing Merle against the door which swung all the way open. He had to reach out and grab for the handle, pulling it in right before the car careened into the narrow lane and she mashed down on the gas again. The Impala swerved and swiveled from side to side like a steel ball moving through a pin ball machine, garbage cans slamming into the bumper one after another. Merle reached for his seat belt. It jerked up short. He tried tugging it a little softer, but it jerked again, and he slammed the buckle against the door. The buckle ricocheted and cracked Merle in the temple, right about where he had smacked the guard with the coin sack. After that, he gripped the handle above the passenger window and turned to look out the back window at road getting bigger in the rectangle at the end of the alley. Sun was shining on a sliver of sidewalk. Francine was doing fifty in reverse.

“Sidewalk, sidewalk, sidewalk,” he spoke through his clenched teeth, shoulders rising and practically touching his ears.

The Impala hit the concrete lip at the end of the alley and launched three inches over the pavement and into the road, missing a dump truck passing within a hair of the rear bumper. She yanked the left side of the wheel, spun the Impala again and Merle heard the train whistle as well as the sirens. They’d ended up on Sutpin, not Commercial, jammed the accelerator and ran the next intersection. Merle giraffe-necked and saw the train behind them. He tried to hold up his watch but couldn’t focus. She shot across the next intersection, the car becoming airborne again. His head bounced against the roof when they landed, and his door creaked open a little, swinging back and forth.

When Merle heard the “ding ding ding,” he understood her shortcut. The Impala was headed straight for the train crossing with about four seconds to spare. Francine floored it as the conductor saw the car and laid on his air horn. Merle started whooping and yelling at the top of his lungs, knowing they were going to make it. The Impala hit the little incline of asphalt at seventy just as the crossing gates were coming down. Francine swiveled on the pizza pan, like the BMX mid-air bike trick she watched her brother do, brought both knees up to her chest, and mule kicked Merle out the door and onto the tracks. She swiveled back, both hands still on the wheel. The Impala’s shocks crunched as the car came down, the muffler scraping and sparking against the concrete.

Francine reached up and twisted the rear view, so she could watch the train cars passing, one after another, all filled with coal or gravel. The conductor sat on his horn, the air brakes squealing like a hundred pigs were being slaughtered at the same time. She knew twenty cars would pass before the train came to a stop. Merle had been right about his thing of beauty: The ten-ten was the best cover they could have asked for.

In twenty minutes, she turned onto the farm road, puffing her e-cig and knew she’d be at the barn in another five to swap cars. They wouldn’t have even gotten around to looking under the train by then and she’d be in Fresno by the time they started putting Merle into bags.

        Francine had stuck all her shit in the Impala’s trunk the night before, all her art books which was everything that mattered to her. She was looking forward to a couple months of peace and quiet, really looking forward to it.


                                   

page141.jpg
Art by John Thompson 2018

PAGE ONE FOUR ONE

A.F. Knott

Ensenada sprawled to my left, the Pacific to my right; blue, like he described it, but darker blue, grey even, with low cloud cover: Page one four one of Brown’s Requiem, James Ellroy. Hadn’t been there before, on that page, that is, until I stepped out of the car. Brought the book to keep me company. Never been to Ensenada, either. Only border crossing I’d ever done was Brownsville into Matamoras. Wanted to try Pulque. Ended up spitting it out, ordered a cerveza instead, then several more cervezas.

In the book, detective parks by a wooden railing. His view was my view. Like me, he’d been waiting for the Sandoval widow to come out of her house.

She had lost weight; described as ‘troubled’ in the book. When I saw her, if anything, she had gained: Fluid retention, legs like sausages. The widow addressed my presence right away. Took off her sunglasses and glared. I was standing on the edge of the bluff, above her house, interrupting her privacy. Someone in town mentioned she used to be a bombshell; now more of a crater. I felt for her.

Why did she skewer me with those bloodshot eyes? John Dillinger was living in her house was why, the John Dillinger: One hundred fourteen years old. That’s right. She told the postmaster he was trying to break the Ukrainian record; deliberately, she said: One hundred and sixteen. Only ate yogurt and drank vodka. Little known fact.

Dillinger’s body double had been shot in the lobby of the Biograph by Melvin Purvis, in the back of the head: Cowardly if you ask me. Everybody knew it wasn’t Dillinger. Face in the Cook County morgue didn’t fit Dillinger’s: Missing a dimple. Kind of like the Kennedy single shooter theory. People lie. More common than you’d think.

Dillinger ended up at the Sandoval widow’s place with a nice view of the Pacific. Took me ten years to track him. That was too long. By the time I arrived, couldn’t give a rat’s ass. Had lost my lust for life.

Dillinger was bedbound: Pressure sores, pissing himself, all the shit we look forward to. Told the widow to smother him if it ever got that bad. She didn’t. He was John Dillinger. Americans idolize their criminals, at least the successful ones. And she may have been in love. Who knows. Didn’t mention love to the postmaster, though.

What I heard was one Saturday afternoon, in the middle of a three-day tear, tequila and gin, not necessarily in that order, the widow felt chatty. Ended up at the Ensenada post office, leaning on the counter. Held up the line for twenty minutes. Postmaster wasn’t paying attention. Some writer down from San Diego was. Waiting to buy Mexican stamps. Story ended up in the LA tabloids: John Dillinger living at the Sandoval widow’s house. Everybody figured it was bullshit. Dillinger lead a hard life and wouldn’t have lasted much past sixty let alone one hundred fourteen. Nobody came down to check; nobody except me.

I could see into their bedroom from the bluff; saw the long lump under a pink and red checkered quilt, Foley bag on the bed post, ready to pop. She hadn’t been emptying it.

Widow told the postmaster, John yells ‘Whore!’ at me, and a lot worse. That’s why I drink, she said. Wake up at one every day to make my first Bloody Mary, she said. Sounded a little whiney to me. But that’s just me.

Old man Sandoval owned a field of derricks up in Long Beach back in the fifties. Made his money then got drunk one night. Had a snooze on the Southern Pacific railroad tracks. Run over by the three-nineteen out of Fresno. Left it all to the wife. She took in Dillinger two years later. He’d been staying in a hotel on Tecate, few blocks from the brewery. They met at the bar. She recognized him. Big true crime fan.

I was packing when I pulled onto the bluff: Two forty-four magnums. Got the permit easy, Gun Emporium, in Pasadena: Told the man I wanted to hunt geese. Real reason? These tanks were loud. I wanted to wake Dillinger: His brand of alarm clock.

When the widow finally opened her door and staggered onto the terrace, I popped both toasters off into the air. Curtain fluttered and whoever was in that bed jumped. Foley bag fell. Smacked the floor. Heard a splash. Mission accomplished.

That’s when she took off her sunglasses and caught me in her sights, gripping the Bloody Mary with two hands as if it were a jackhammer: Water glass filled to the brim, three celery sticks. Didn’t even flinch when the guns went off.

I slid both magnums back into their holsters, crossing my arms over one another. Did it slow: Wild west move. Practiced in the mirror. If either had gone off, I would have lost a leg. I’m a risk taker.

The widow squinted, trying to read my license plate. That’s when I waved, one of those opening and closing your hand kind of waves, my idea. She curtsied and went inside. Slammed the door. Endearing. I got in my car and drove back up the coast, glad it was over. Border crossing, bumper to bumper nightmare, the whole thing anticlimactic.

Returned the guns. Store owner was surprised. First time anybody done that, he said. I watched him examine me over the counter, holding his wad of Double Bubble still for a moment before starting to chew again.






Anthony Knott is a burned-out individual who gave up everything to write stories of mayhem and do collage— so that's what he’s doing. Novel Number Two was published in 2016 by Hekate: Ramonst, the dark story of an East Tennessee teenage serial killer's summer of 1970. The way Knott sees it, it's a matter of finding your voice in life; although he'll have to die first to confirm that. Writing site: afknott.com. Collage site: afknottcollage.com.

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