Authors: Robert Grossbach
“No,” said Willie. “I was just saying good night.”
She eyed him suspiciously. “You were, huh?”
“Because the lease gives me rights to perform inspections, ya know, if there’s a reasonable presumption of damage to the premises.”
“There’s no damage,” said Al. “You needn’t worry your pretty head about that.”
Mrs. Flaum watched him darkly. “All right. Good night then, gentlemen.”
“Good night, Mrs. Flaum,” said Al cheerfully.
Willie shut the door behind her and waited quietly, hearing her footsteps on the stairs. “Bitch,” he said after a moment.
“I swear,” said Al, “that woman’s got eighty-eight teeth.”
“If they threw her in a tank of piranha,” said Willie, “it’d be the fish you’d see jumpin’ over the sides.”
“I’d like to try the experiment,” said Al.
Willie shook his head. “I was a fool,” he said. “I should’ve bought a house right after the war when I had the chance.”
“Hindsight,” said Al. “If you was to kick yourself for all the things you shoulda done, you’d wear your legs out.” He paused
a moment, aware suddenly that Joe hadn’t spoken in nearly five minutes. It was unlike him to tolerate Mrs. Flaum’s intrusion
without even a single word. Al walked to the table. “Joe?”
Joe slowly lifted his eyes. “Yeah?”
“You all right?”
“Yeah, I’m okay.”
“You want a doctor’s note?”
Al shrugged. “I noticed you ain’t been eating too much lately. That could be a sign of something.”
“Like poverty,” said Willie.
Joe’s attention seemed to drift. “Just haven’t had an appetite,” he mumbled.
Al and Willie exchanged glances, then Al returned to the sink. He rinsed the last glass, dried his hands, and headed into
the living room to turn on the TV. Willie lingered behind with Joe. After awhile, Joe’s eyes seemed to refocous. “What?” he
“Nothing,” said Willie.
“Something’s on your mind.”
“No, no. It’s just—you sure you’re okay?”
“Yeah,” said Joe. “Just thinking about things, that’s all. You kow.”
Willie nodded. He went into the living room. Al was turning the dial on the old 1956 RCA television. Al was the only one who
could operate it properly, since the tuner was worn and the channels did not come in where they were marked. Al had the knack
of stopping the dial at the right point and then using the fine-tuning to bring in the picture. An image appeared halfway
between channels nine and ten.
“Leave this,” said Willie.
“Leave what?” said Al, still working to clarify the picture. “You don’t even know what it is yet.”
“Let’s see it,” said Willie who was enthusiastic about anything that moved on the screen. Al found this lack of discrimination
“C’mon, Willie. This is a rerun.”
Willie sat down in the chair. “It looks good.”
“We must’ve seen this a thousand times already.”
“What’re you talking about?” said Willie. “We ain’t seen this once.”
“Willie, I’m tellin ya—”
“Sit down, I can’t see.”
“We saw this already.
“Don’t you remember?” said Al. “They build a giant robot monster to fight the real monster, and the two of them battle it
out just outside Tokyo.”
“And who wins?”
Al looked at the ceiling. “The real one wins.”
“He don’t,” said Willie. “See? You’re thinkin’ of somethin’ else.”
“Willie, I’m telling you, we saw this.”
Al puffed out his cheeks. “You goin’ senile on me now?”
Willie fell silent for a moment, then looked at him coldly. “Yeah, that’s it.”
“Hey, I was only—”
“Go ahead, change the damn channel.”
“Aw, c’mon, Willie, I was just kiddin’.”
“That’s all right,” said Willie, his voice still cold. “Change it.”
“Go ahead. Turn the knob. We saw this a thousand times, right?”
Reluctantly, Al moved the tuner. He hadn’t wanted to hurt Willie’s feelings, but there was little to do now. Willie
beginning to get senile, and he knew it, and was touchy about it. Al resolved not
to tease him on that subject any more. There were plenty of other things to tease him about, after all. Between channels eleven
and twelve an old gangster movie came on.
“Ooh, leave this,” said Willie. “This is good.”
Al fine-tuned the picture, then took a seat. The characters in the movie were on their way to rob a bank. He sat back and
In the kitchen, Joe had shut off the light. Alone in the darkness, his attention was caught suddenly by snippets of dialogue
that drifted in from the living room.
“All right, everybody! This is a stick-up! Everyone down on the floor!”
“…small bills, only, you hear? Tens and twenties.”
“Anyone moves for the next five minutes, they get their heads blowed off!”
Joe stood up and moved to the doorway. The light from the TV filled the kitchen with strange, flickering shadows. He studied
the screen. Four gangsters were collecting sacks of money from frightened bank tellers. Guns blazing, the thieves exited the
bank just as a black getaway car pulled up in front. As the men dived inside, the car jerked forward. A moment later, its
brakes shrieking, it disappeared around a corner.
A commercial came on for an amazing vegetable processor that could cut in five different ways and would make a hit of any
party. It sold for nine-ninety-nine and was available only from a special number in New Jersey. Joe retreated into the kitchen
and sat again in the dark. His mind was going faster than even the fabulous chopper.
“What was that again?” asked Al at the breakfast table the next morning.
“I said,” said Joe carefully, “how’s about we all go on a stick-up?”
Willie looked at him blanky; Al began to smile.
After several seconds, Joe smiled back. “It’s foolproof.”
“That’s what half the guys in Sing Sing said,” noted Al.
“Different story entirely,” said Joe. “With this, even if we lose, we win.”
Al wrinkled his eyebrows. His wire-rimmed spectacles nearly fell off his nose.
“Look,” continued Joe, “if the job works, we’ll be in great shape. If not, maybe they’ll give us three years… maybe… and that
would be free room and board.”
“Three years could be a life sentence,” said Willie.
“Could be,” agreed Joe. “But if not, when we get out we’d each have thirty-six Social Security checks waiting for us. And
that, by the way, adds up to eight thousand, five hundred and thirty-two bucks… apiece.” He looked around, as if proud of
the calculation. “Not a bad hunk of change.”
a lotta dough,” agreed Al. “You checked your numbers?”
“You could buy a lotta meat with that kind of money,” said Willie. “And I don’t mean dogmeat, either.”
“Or you could invest it,” said Joe. “Maybe we could put all our dough together and buy one of
them newspaper and candy stands in some big Manhattan building. A friend of mine’s son bought him one, and he lives pretty
good. But what the helLare we talking about this for? Investments are only if we get caught… and I don’t think we will be.”
Willie was looking at him queerly.
“Well?” said Joe.
“Well, what?” said Willie.
“Well, what do you guys think?”
Al’s face compressed itself in a tight smile. “I dunno. Sounds like a great idea.”
Willie turned to Al. “What do you mean, it sounds like a great idea?”
“I mean it sounds like a great idea.”
“I don’t understand,” said Willie to Joe.
“Don’t understand what?”
“I don’t understand what you’re talking about. Are you talking about actually doing this, or what?”
“Yeah… actually doing this,” said Joe.
“Wait a minute,” said Willie. “Just hold on there. I’m confused. Do you hear what you’re saying?”
“Look,” said Joe, “let me tell you something. I gotta think back and say my life was okay. I got my share of everything but
money, and the guys that went out for that, some of them got it today but they put too much time in getting it. People forget
that part. Whatever… that’s history.”
“Get to the point,” said Al.
“It’s coming,” said Joe. “It’s coming. Right now, here we are and I ain’t complaining, but things would be a lot easier if
we had a little extra cash. You agree so far, Willie?”
“Yeah,” said Willie reluctantly.
“And besides,” went on Joe, “what the hell is there for us to lose? Either we get the money, or we get caught. We’re winners
He looked at Willie triumphantly, confident his logic was impeccable. Willie would hem and haw and bitch a little, but he
would come around.
Of course, Joe thought he had omitted perhaps the most compelling argument of all, the one that could not be measured in dollars
and cents. Working on this project would relieve the deadly terminal boredom, would restore the sense of themselves as human
beings instead of dried-out, mindless husks waiting to take their place among the fossils. This was the true worth of the
idea, the real reason it was irresistible. Oh, Willie would stir up a fuss, Joe knew, but in the end he’d choose life. Past
a certain age, conventional morality simply no longer applied. Willie would come to understand that, Joe thought. He’d have
It’s 1901. Baby Joey Harris lies in the maternity ward at Bellevue, eight pounds six ounces of shriveled, bald, grasping,
sucking half-Irish American. Three days later he’s home, a tenement on Ninety-sixth Street, two rooms, occasional hot water.
He grows up with Italians and Jews, raises a little hell, has his knuckles rapped in school. His parents are hardworking,
uneducated, dedicated to their only son; they take him sledding in Central Park, touring around the Museum of Natural History,
swimming at Coney Island. He graduates high school, gets a job as a clerk at the Five-and-Dime. There is no money for college,
and besides, his grades aren’t that good. He joins the Army, fights in the First Big One, is gassed in France, recovers.
It’s 1922. Spats are in, skirts are short, and
young Joseph Harris is having a hot time. By day he sells shirts in a dry-goods store on Third Avenue; at night he does the
Charleston, Black Bottom, and Heebie-Jeebie. Once he wins a marathon in Flat-bush, collects a hundred dollars for dancing
forty hours straight. Each new year brings a substantial salary raise. “The business of America is business,” declares President
Coolidge. Illegal liquor is plentiful, jazz is sweeping the country, and a young man named Ernest Hemingway writes a book
Farewell to Arms.
Joseph, not normally a reader, reads that one, and at the end, he weeps.
It’s 1929. Joe meets Myrna Sawyer at a dance in the Bronx. She is shy and retiring, an old-fashioned girl who likes to cook
and stay at home. A year later they are married. The stock market crash is a good buying opportunity, Joe decides. It’s a
temporary phenomenon, will last six months at the most; he invests his entire savings, fourteen hundred dollars. In 1934,
the dry-goods store lays him off. Without cash, he is forced to sell his stock.
“Time to unload the Finley Shoes,” he tells the broker.
The broker shakes his head. “Finley’s went bankrupt four months ago,” he says. He explains how the first call on assets went
to the outside creditors, the remainder to the bond holders and owners of preferred shares. “There’s nothin’ left for those
who’ve got the common stock,” he adds.
Joe peddles underwear and socks on the street. When it rains, he sells umbrellas; when winter comes, he pushes gloves and
knit caps. In bad years he even tries to move a few Christmas trees; if the people aren’t buying, he shovels snow. He and
into a tiny apartment in the Bronx, one room, no running water. As for Home Relief, the hell with that, says Joe. He’ll be
damned if he’ll stand in those long, sad lines with his palm out. A
just doesn’t do that sort of thing.
In 1941 America finally enters the war. Joe works in a factory on Long Island. His job is to bend sheet metal for the wings
of airplanes, and there’s as much overtime as a man could want. He puts in sixteen hours daily until V-J Day, loses partial
hearing in one ear as a result of the constant noise, forfeits half a pinky in an accident with a saw. He is disgusted with
the work; on impulse, one sunny spring Friday afternoon, he gives two weeks’ notice. He is unemployed for three months, then
finds a job in Queens, selling ladies’ clothing. He, Myrna, and the kids move to a garden apartment in Forest Hills, a mile
from where he works.
The business does well; Joe can charm the women into anything. He himself, of course, is charmed into purchasing an overpriced
car, a dining room set, a couch that seats five. By 1950, he has a son, Brian, in high school, and two girls, in junior high.
When the Korean War breaks out, Brian rushes to join the Navy, but is rejected because of his health. The physical examination
reveals an early form of diabetes.