Monday, January 7, 2008

Exit, Pursued by a Bear

Chapter Eight

The first time I met Rae, an insidious process was set loose to work within me. Because of the frustration and excitement attending the meeting, I was too distracted to sense the subtleties at play. But on my second encounter with her, the process began to reveal itself, reminding me of a worm who had found its way into the midst of a crisp, tart apple, sated itself, and was now boring its way out in search of another target of opportunity.

I was in Springfield, Illinois, Land of Lincoln, a person whose sentiments and writings I admired. But I was not there to research him or ponder, as he did, the better angels of anyone's nature. My destination had to do with some extraordinary municipal laws that severely inhibited the sporting instincts of traveling salespersons and bored locals. Accordingly, games of chance were driven into what my former academic colleagues would call the priate sector, which is to say in this instance, a converted loft apartment over a warehouse fronting the Sangamon River.

Sitting with a select group of traveling salespersons and bored locals about a commodious circular table, covered in green felt, I estimated them and my chances of success. With the hole card left to be dealt, one of the players had aces; Harry could have been working on a flush. Although I had sevens showing, the true strength of my chances was the snub-nose .38, taped to the inside of my lower left calf. There was a thousand dollars in the pot., most of it in chips, but about two hundred in cash from players who thought well enough of their respective hand not to buy another stack of chips, not just yet. There was easily another ten thousand dollars symbolized by piles of chips before each player.

A dapper-looking young man, tieless in a striped shirt and J. Press or Brooks Brothers jacket, was the banker. He was called Thumper by many at the table. By my estimate, Thumper was marshaling fifteen or sixteen thousand dollars in cash. His apartment, his booze, his lavish display of sandwich food and snacks. I felt an affinity for him. This activity was clearly Thumper's way of supporting his habit, a series of adventurous landscapes and still lives, stacked against the brick walls and on one or two easels over toward a skylight that opened to the north. I saw at least one Motherwell and a number of John Registers in the display. Thumper was looking at at least a two-thousand-dollar night, minimum, which could buy a lot of paints and canvases. I was looking at close to twenty after my expenses.

The player with the aces had pared up with some fours. His two pair was the winner and he was raking in his pot when I decided to make my move, be out of there and on Highway 66, heading northeast to Bloomington by midnight. But a crisp knock sounded at the door and the single word "pizza" was shouted, sending my scheme irreparably aft a-gley.

At the knock, Thumper looked up, surprised. "Who would call out for pizza with all this?"

When the door opened, we saw three of them, two men, one rather tall, the other square and stubby, with a Pancho Villa moustache. And of course there was Rae. I recognized her immediately, which proved to be my undoing.

They deployed with practiced skill, but before any of them could bark out orders, I groaned and placed my hands in front of me
on the table.

"Okay, listen up," the mustache said. "Hands onna table. Forehead touches the green. Any funny stuff earns you frequent flier points to a place you don' wanna go, 'cause you don' get back."

From a vantage point where he could watch Thumper, Big Guy covered the table with his gun and directed Moustache and Rae, who moved among us, relieving us of wallets, credit cards, the better watches, and the cash from those of us who used money clips.

I drew Rae, or rather she drew me as a--what would you call it?--friskee. She patted me down, quickly finding my breastfold and money clip. You may wonder, dis she find the snub-nose taped to my calf? She did. She even went to the point of giving it a little push into my leg, just to let me know she'd found it. But she said nothing about it to her cohorts. It struck me then (and it does to this day) as an incredible risk for her to take. That awareness yanked me directly into my vision of the worm and the apple, all the more so when Rae's attention was drawn to one of the stacks of paintings. "Hey," she called to Thumper, "you got a Motherwell here. Cool."

Thumper merely groaned.

From that point until our intruders cleared out and made their get-away, I was in a fugue state in which my senses recorded details about Rae. She wore blue-and-white Nikes, a pair of khaki culottes, and an L.L. Bean insulated vest. She also wore a string of pearls and her nails, although cut short, had a fresh coat of dark maroon polish. The thing I found most remarkable was the tortoise-shell barrette holding her shiny dark hair in place. And was I imagining a light purple eye liner?

When Rae and her cohorts left a few minutes later, my thoughts were not of the twenty-odd thousand dollars that might have been mine but rather of the awareness of the extraordinary odds at play here. What were the chances of being robbed by the same person in two different cities when I had just committed or was contemplating a robbery of my own? What were the chances I'd see her again? A woman had robbed me twice at gun point and here I was, reflecting on the color of her nail polish and the ease of her stride as she moved about the table, stuffing currency into the pockets of her vest.

(Later, when Rae and I, dressed in nothing but terry-cloth robes, sat on the balcony of our room at the Westin Peachtree in Atlanta, sipping Florida grapefruit juice, I` asked her why she hadn't alerted her cohorts to my concealed snub-nose.

"All the time we were doing the room? I kept trying to place you," she said. "When I found the gun, the penny dropped. You were the dude in Cedar Rapids who was so outraged when we clipped you?"


Rae smiled. "I was just curious enough to see what would happen next.")

That conversation was almost a year in coming. What happened to me next in Springfield was the inevitable result of Thumper and some of the regulars being convinced by my early response to the break-in that I'd given the game over to our three intruders in payment of some outstanding debt.

You can see my quandary there. Explain that it was all a mistake; I'd planned to rob them? In what followed, I learned a painful thing or two about the relative values of actions and words. "If I'd given you over," I argued against their suspicions, "why would they leave me behind`? Why wouldn't I have just left with them?" I spread my hands as though I'd just turned over a full house. "Why would I still be here?"

"Let's put it this way," the player named Harry said. "You're here and they aren't."

My net loss for that job: two cracked teeth, one of them loosened. Severe bruised about the lower jaw, a broken nose, and a ringing in my right ear for nearly a week. Which says nothing of the two thousand dollars I carried in cash.


R.L. Bourges said...

1. "you never count your money
sitting at the table..."
the subtext there: even mentally
(but every gambler knows that - it's just pretty hard to put into practice when the chips are just there for the grabbing)

2. that Rae: cool customer; intriguing chippy, all right; multifacetted; hard to tell which way the rays are going to disperse and then bounce right back at you. It's the nature of the internal structure of natural crystals to do that: to dazzle and refract at the same time, I mean. But any good gambler knows that too - about diamonds and clubs, broken teeth, hidden guns and phony/real friskings.

3. wouldn't you know it - those organic, untreated apples? you just never know what to expect when you take that first bite (I'm curious to know which of the pov's is the gambler's in this instance - the apple's? the worm's? or the process? And will the next chapter reveal this?)

Only one way to find out, isn't there? To move on to chapter 9.

Lori Witzel said...

The eternal thirst -- "Oh tell me a story!" -- is slaked.

And that narrator. Hmph. I keep craning my neck, trying to see just past him to what's really going on.

In lieu of that, I imagine running into Rae in a threadbare exurb laundromat, hearing her cuss at the change machine when it spits out 75 cents for the worn dollar she slid in, and sharing a grin when she picks it open.

(But that's another story, no doubt.)

Looking forward to more.

R.L. Bourges said...

re Lori's "I keep craning my neck" (and the rest of her comment) - just want to say I can see now why her avatar only shows one of those two eyes of hers - lots of x-ray vision in that pair. probably a whole lot more than some people find confortable.

Yep, I'm waiting for the quarter to drop too.

Smiler said...

I'd say it's a page turner but of course having no actual pages to turn I'll say my mouse was scrolling as fast as I could read. I'm sure there are many layers of subtext that I am not equipped to discern but what I am reading I'm liking a whole lot.