Authors: Robert Grossbach
“Yes. I thought I heard one. That’s why I went down there.”
Kevin’s grin changed gradually to a look of concern. “And was there one there?”
“How could there be?” teased Al. “There’s no such thing as a ghost.”
“You mean goats?” said Colleen. She smiled broadly, her eyes gleaming, delighted chortles gurgling from her cherub lips. “There’s
no goats in the basement.”
Al nodded. “You’re right,” he said. “Uncle Al was just teasing.” But Kevin, he noticed, was no longer quite so sure.
Kathy had been nearly an hour late getting back, and then Al had to wait almost thirty minutes for the bus to Astoria. Younger
people always assumed that waiting was easier for old folks, he reflected. That the elderly, because they had no job to rush
off to, or children to feed, somehow didn’t mind aimless, mindless periods of doing nothing. That bank lines and bus lines
and the benches of health clinics were their natural habitat. Of course, it wasn’t
true. Waiting was as boring for the old as the young; the former were simply not as vocal in their resentment. It was past
4:30 in the afternoon when Al entered Astoria Park.
Two teen-agers approached him. One wore a vest with no shirt underneath; his pony tail reached two feet down his back. The
other, in bandana and T-shirt, had the bulk and muscle of a wrestler. On his shoulder was a tattoo: SEX KILLS.
“Hey, Pop, you got a cigarette?” said the ponytail.
Al kept on walking.
The teen-ager stopped, then turned back. “Hey, man, I asked you something!”
Al kept going. He felt a hand on his shoulder.
“Hey, it’s not polite not to answer,” said the wrestler. “My friend asked you a question.”
“Take your hand off my shoulder,” said Al.
The boy did not move. Al brought his own wrist up suddenly and knocked the hand off. The boy quickly replaced it. “We got
a tough egg here,” he laughed to his friend.
“You’d better let me alone,” said Al. He tried to resume walking, but the hand on his shoulder tightened like a steel pliers.
you answer the question,” said the wrestler.
“I didn’t hear,” said Al. The pain was beginning to spread to his chest.
“You heard,” snarled the ponytail.
“He says he didn’t hear,” said the ponytail.
The bulky boy increased the pressure The pain was so paralyzing, Al could barely speak. “I…
don’t… have any cigarettes,” he croaked through clenched teeth.
“He don’t have any,” repeated the wrestler. The pressure eased.
“See?” said the ponytail. “All we wanted was some courtesy.” He looked at Al through violent turquoise eyes. “How about lending
me a dollar so’s I could get some?”
“Go to hell,” said Al. He backed away.
“Come on,” said the wrestler, advancing. “A dollar ain’t much.”
Al knew another shoulder pinch would make his arm immobile for days. He looked around. The nearest people were a hundred yards
away, what good would be an old man’s hoarse screams? Besides, there was the embarrassment.… Slowly, pain streaking down his
arm, he reached into his pocket. He threw the dollar bill at the ponytail’s feet. “You should be ashamed,” he said.
The boy bent to pick up the money. “I ain’ ashamed of nothin’!” he snapped.
“Someday,” said Al. “You wait. Someday, you’ll be old.”
The boys smiled at each other, and walked jauntily away. Al stood motionless for several minutes. At last he managed to reach
around and massage the soreness in his shoulder. Bastards, he thought. Sonofabitch criminal bastards. He began to cry with
frustration and humiliation. “Twenty years ago I would’ve killed those punks,” he said aloud. What good is it what you would’ve
done, he thought. Twenty years ago, they weren’t alive. The only thing that matters is today and tomorrow. The past is a mirage
in an old man’s mind, an image on a
fading film, a ghost in the basement. He dried the tears from his cheeks and hurried along.
Joe and Willie were sitting on their usual bench. Before them three little boys were playing cowboys-and-Indians. Two of the
boys had toy pistols, while the third simply imagined a gun out of a forefinger and raised thumb. There was a great deal of
shooting at point-blank range, although no one seemed to actually die.
“Hey, I got you!” a blond boy protested to the gunless cowpoke.
“You did not.”
“I did! Right between the eyes. You’re dead!”
“I am not.”
“Are.” The blond appealed to Joe. “Mister, isn’t he dead?”
Joe looked at him. “He don’t look dead to me.”
“No, I mean, didn’t I get him with my gun?” whined the boy.
“He did not,” said the thumb-and-forefinger cowboy. He hesitated, weakening in the face of the blond’s determination. “Maybe
he wounded me,” he admitted. “I think I ducked and he wounded me.” He held his arm limply.
“How could I wound you in the arm if you ducked?” asked the blond logically. “Make believe I shot off the top of your head…
but you’re still alive.”
“I don’t want to be shot in the head,” protested the other boy.
“Then you’re chucked,” said the blond. He turned to the third boy, who was a bit older than the other two. “If he’s not wounded
in the head, he can’t play, right?”
“Right,” agreed the older boy.
The gunless cowpoke moaned, but accepted his fate. “Well, make believe I wear a hat,” he said, “so you can’t
that part of my head is off.”
This seemed a reasonable compromise. The game resumed.
“See,” said Joe, “they’re like us. They have differences, they work them out.”
“They’re not planning a robbery,” said Willie.
“They’re dealing with guns,” said Joe. “And they actually use theirs. Ours will be just for show.”
“Unless something goes wrong,” said Willie.
go wrong,” said Joe. “What are we, crazy? We agreed, there’s no way we can come out on the short end here.”
“There’s always risk. What if someone shoots us? I’d call that a short end. And your hat won’t cover the hole in your head,
“Willie,” said Joe, “there’s risk when you cross the street. At least, like this, we’ll be makin’ our future, not leaving
it to chance. Ain’t you tired of thinking that you always got your finger on the action just because of the two bucks you
throw away each month on them lottery tickets?”
Willie grinned. “It supports education.”
“Okay,” said Joe, not cracking a smile. “Well, then think how much more you can contribute from your share of the take.”
“Bet you didn’t know your friend was such a philanthropist, did you?” said Willie.
“It had escaped my notice,” said Joe.
A fourth little boy had charged onto the grass in front of them. He was wearing an Army helmet and, weaponless, he was pretending
he had a machine gun. With rapid eh-eh-eh-ehs, he sprayed the other players with a barrage of bullets. Their potency was evidenced
by all his targets sinking to the ground. When Joe looked up, Al was sitting alongside him.
“What’s going on?” Al asked.
“Massacre,” said Joe. “Soldier killed the cowboys and Indians. Superior technology, looks to me.” He paused. “And what about
our own armaments?”
Al rubbed the shoulder where it still hurt. The pain had subsided to a dull, deep ache. “It’s perfect,” he said. “No problems.”
“What’d you find?” asked Joe.
“Four pistols. There are these four pistols right in the top drawer. We don’t want rifles, right?”
“’Cause Pete got a couple rifles too.”
“All right,” said Al. “There are these four pistols. One of them is a German machine type. Seemed a little heavy. I didn’t
think it’d be too good.”
“And the others?”
“Thirty-eights, I think. The other three looked great.” He winced as his finger prodded an inflamed area that seemed to extend
to his neck.
“Bursitis actin’ up?” asked Joe. “Mine’s been kill-in’ me.”
“Nah,” said Al. “Had a little run-in with some young punks when I come into the park. One of the little darlin’s grabbed me
by the shoulder an’ spun me around.”
“Bastards,” said Willie. “Takin’ advantage of an old man.”
“Never mind,” said Al. “Soon’s I got my bearin’s I scared hell out of ‘em. You never seen kids run so fast. Twenty years ago
I woulda chased after the little creeps and—“He stopped, conscious of their stares. “Anyway, the whole thing amounted to a
heap of beans.” He stopped rubbing his shoulder.
“Gettin’ back to the guns,” said Joe. “You think you’ll have any problem sneakin’ them out of there?”
“It’ll be a piece of cake,” said Al.
“When all this is over, we’ll give your nephew some money, okay?”
“Okay with me,” said Al.
“May as well,” said Willie. “One way or another
don’t figure to be around to spend it.”
“Just one other thing,” said Joe. “If—I said ‘if,’ Willie—we happen to get caught, we don’t tell where we got the guns, right?”
“Right,” said Al. “Good point.”
“You sure you wasn’t in the Mafia?” said Willie.
“I taught the Godfather everything he knew,” said Joe.
There was silence as the men drifted into their own streams of thought. The young mothers in the park began to collect their
children. It was 5:15 in the afternoon, time to go home. Men would be returning from work soon and they’d be hungry, would
want supper on the table. Only those people without families could afford to spend their lives on wooden benches.
“What’re we gonna stick up?” asked Al suddenly.
“I was just thinkin’ about that,” said Joe.
“How about a liquor store,” suggested Al.
“Oh, come on,” said Willie. “Some poor guy spends twelve hours a day in his place, six days a week, tryin’ to eke out a livin’,
an’ you wanna hold him up? Forget it. A man puts his life savings in a store of his own, I ain’t about to rob him. That’s…
that’s criminal. Count me out.” He turned away from the others.
“Willie,” said Joe, “this is just a discussion here. We’re brainstormin’, tryin’ to get a fix on things. We ain’t actually
anything until we agree. You got a better place to rob, let’s hear it. We got open minds.”
Sullenly, Willie swiveled back. “How ‘bout a department store?”
“Too hard,” said Al, shaking his head. “First of all, they got security guards all around, and also hidden alarm systems.
Second, the cash is in thirty different registers, too much to collect from. Third, there’s too many people to be able to
“All right, all right,” said Willie. “I get the point.”
“Now, if you’re talkin’ holding up the payroll truck for a department store,” said Al, “maybe you got a different story.”
“That’s not what I’m suggesting,” said Willie.
“It would take too much planning,” said Joe. “We’d have to follow the truck on its route, see when the guards break for coffee,
stuff like that. And how can we follow the truck when none of us drives?”
“The whole thing is preposterous,” said Willie.
“It just requires some thought,” insisted Al. “Any worthwhile project needs planning.”
Again, the old men lapsed into silence. The park was nearly empty now; the sounds of laughing children had stopped.
“A hijacking?” said Willie, after five minutes.
“A hijacking of what?” asked Al.
“I dunno. A plane?”
“We can’t afford no plane tickets,” said Joe.
“Something else, then,” said Willie.
“What—a train?” said Al. “How about this: We get on one of them Metroliners and tell ‘em to take us to Cuba.”
Willie waved down Al’s raucous laughter with a threatening motion of his hand.
Joe waited until the byplay had ceased. “Might as well make it a bank then, right?” he said with exaggerated sweetness.
“Yeah, I guess so,” said Al, as if he’d been considering that possibility all along but had refrained from broaching it until
all other ideas were exhausted.
“Willie,” said Toe, “what do you think?”
“You’re asking the wrong person,” said Willie grumpily.