Authors: Robert Grossbach
That afternoon, Al, carrying a folded
under his arm, slowly climbed the six steps to the porch of his nephew’s house. He peered through the screen door, saw no
one inside, and decided to knock. He was not a member of the immediate family; it would not be right simply to walk in. He
rapped lightly. “Kathy?”
A man appeared from the kitchen. He was heavy-bearded, short, dressed in a mechanic’s uniform. The insignia on his chest read,
“A & J Auto.” His eyes and arms seemed somehow not to go together. The arms were hairy, knotted with snaky muscles and veins.
His eyes were droplets of warm liquid—soft, downcast, retiring. They lit up when he spotted his visitor.
“Pete!” said Al.
“Al! How ya doin’? Come on in.” Al’s nephew pushed open the door. “I was just on my way out.”
Al tried unsuccessfully to conceal his surprise. “What, uh… I mean, how come you’re home in the middle of the day?”
Pete steered him toward the kitchen, carefully sidestepping a pair of roller skates and an open Candyland game. “Didn’t expect
to find me at this time, did you?” said Pete.
“Well… I’m always glad to see you, you know that,” said Al.
They stood for a moment in the living room. “I been taking an early shift over at the station,”
said Pete. “The boss was real good about lettin’ me switch.”
“You prefer working in the mornings?”
“Prefer?” Pete wrinkled his nose. “Nah. It ain’t a matter of preference. It’s a matter of money.” He looked over his shoulder
toward the kitchen, then lowered his voice. “She, you know… I mean, we ain’t took a vacation since way before Kevin was born.
She don’t say nothin’, you know, but…” His voice trailed off.
“Sure,” said Al. “Believe me, I know what you mean.”
“Anyway,” said Pete, “I picked up a job at night, bartendering up in the Bronx.”
“Jeez,” said Al, “all the way up in the Bronx, huh? That’s rough.”
“Yeah…” agreed Pete. “Little place in the southeast part. Near Soundview and Westchester Avenues, under the el.”
“You work alone?”
Pete grinned. “Well, they got a barmaid to help out, except every hour or so, she’s supposed to double as a stripper. That’s
what they advertise in the window. ‘Exotic,’ they call her.”
“I gather she’s not that attractive.”
“Well… I don’t know about attractive,” said Pete, “but she has this habit, when she’s strippin’, of reaching down and taking
a little of each customer’s drink. She strips on top of the bar, see, and the manager encourages her. Anyway, last week, ten
minutes into her little act, she throws up all over the place.” He chuckled. “I think a lot of the patrons got turned off.
They wanted an exotic dancer, but not
“It must be rough on you,” said Al. “I was a
bartender most of my life, so believe me, I know.”
Pete shrugged. “Yeah, it’s hard… but that’s the way it goes. The most difficult part is getting my fingernails clean enough
after working on them cars all day. That’s one thing people don’t like to see, a guy servin’ drinks with grease on his thumbs.”
“You figure you’re gonna stay at this place awhile?” asked Al.
Pete nodded. “I have to. You know… the kids are growin’ up, they need clothes, they eat a lot more. There’s not really much
choice.” His voice softened. “Tell ya, a couple days ago, I got Kathy a pair of earrings—first present since I dunno when.
You know, they were little tiny things, circles… but she went crazy. She loved them.” He shrugged. “That’s worth goin’ up
to the Bronx.”
He led Al into the kitchen. Kathy was at the sink, washing dishes. “Kath?” said Pete.
She looked around. “Al! How are you? How you feeling?” She shut off the water, dried her hands with a towel, and came over
to kiss Al on the cheek.
“I’m pretty good,” said Al. He pointed to the side of her face. “Nice earrings.”
She smiled. “Thanks. They were a present from a secret admirer.” She paused. “Sit down, I’ll give you some coffee.”
“Oh no, no,” said Al. “No thanks.”
“No extra charge.”
“No, really,” said Al. “I can’t stay too long. I was just walking by and thought I’d stop in and say hello.”
Pete opened the screen door that led to the tiny backyard. “Kevin!” he called, and waited. There was no answer. “Kevin, what
are you doing?”
“Digging,” came a small voice.
“Well, get up from there,” said Pete. “Where’s Colleen?”
“On the side.”
“Well, go get her. Uncle Al is here.”
Kevin ran to find his sister, and Pete put his hand on Al’s shoulder. “Al, I’m sorry, but I gotta get outa here now. You gonna
stay for dinner? I’m sure Kath and the kids would love to have you.”
“Nah, thanks, not today,” said Al. “I gotta go meet Joe and Willie soon.”
Pete nodded. “Okay. Up to you. I’ll see you then, huh?”
“Yeah, Pete, okay. Don’t work too hard, hear?”
Pete kissed Kathy good-bye, then left the room. At the doorway, Al saw Colleen’s round face peek quickly in, then move away.
He pretended not to notice. Again, the little girl poked her head around till she was just in view, then withdrew. Once more,
Al feigned oblivon. The peek-a-boo game continued for another minute until Kevin ran in from behind his sister.
“Hello, Uncle Al!” he said, not stopping in the kitchen, but rushing on into the living room.
Shyly, Colleen pushed open the door. Al knelt and opened his arms wide. “How’s my beautiful princess today?”
Colleen giggled, then charged into his loving embrace. “Good,” she said.
Al smothered her with hugs and kisses. “Were you teasing Uncle Al before?” he asked.
“But you kept peeking in.”
“You saw me?”
“Sure. I see everything. How come you didn’t just march right over?”
Colleen moved her eyes back and forth. “Mmm… I thought you were a monster.”
“Naw. How could Uncle Al be a monster?”
She paused. “But then I saw you wasn’t.”
“Thank you,” said Al. “Now, tell me, what were you doing outside.”
“Planting,” said the little girl.
“Seeds. Kevin pulls up the grass, and I plant it so it will grow again.”
“I see,” said Al. “Very nice.”
“Will it be grown yesterday?” asked Colleen.
“She means tomorrow,” explained Kathy. “She confuses yesterday and tomorrow.”
“Oh…” said Al. “Well, I think it’ll take longer than tomorrow to grow.”
“It won’t grow?” said Colleen.
“It’ll grow,” said Al. “It just takes time.”
“Why don’t you show Uncle Al the pictures you made?” suggested Kathy.
“I made pictures?” said Colleen.
“You remember.… Think.”
The little girl smiled sheepishly. “I drew them.”
“You think I’d be able to see them?”
“Colleen!” chided Kathy.
“Okay, you could see them.”
“Well, where are they?” asked Al.
“Upstairs,” said Colleen. “And I drew them myself. And Kevin didn’t help me.”
“I believe you,” said Al.
“You want to come with me to see them?”
“Do you want me to?” asked Al.
“Well, okay, then.” He turned to Kathy. “See you in a while.”
“Follow me,” said Colleen. “Make believe I’m a master and you’re a dog, and you have to follow me.”
“Okay.” Al’s newspaper was still folded under his arm as they left the kitchen. At the staircase, he called quietly up to
the little girl. “You go ahead, sweetheart, and I’ll be there in a minute.”
“But you’re my dog and you have to follow me,” said Colleen.
“I will,” said Al. “I have to get something… a leash. Go ahead, I’ll be right up.”
Colleen looked at him suspiciously, hesitated, then went on up. Al checked to be sure that Kathy was still in the kitchen
before he moved over to open the basement door. His footsteps sounded to him like thunderclaps as he descended the stairs.
At the bottom, he spread his newspaper carefully on a table next to the gun cabinet. Reaching up, his gnarled fingers probed
the top surface of the wood and closed finally on the key. In a moment the top drawer was open, and he was peering inside.
He removed the pistols one by one, placed them in the paper, and neatly covered them. Fish, he thought. Just like I’m wrapping
fish. The second drawer held a confusing mixture of ammunition.
Al dumped the contents of the various boxes out on the table, then placed the bullets in his pockets. He
closed the drawers and returned the key to its hiding place. At the top of the basement stairs, as he shut off the light,
he called softly up to Colleen.
“Uncle Al is coming,” he sang. “Here comes Uncle Al.”
At the stove, Willie scraped the contents of three cans of stew into a pan. Behind him, Joe and Al sat at the kitchen table.
The newspaper with the guns lay spread out before them; a pile of bullets, looking like a new kind of cereal, filled a plastic
bowl. Joe lifted a pistol and aimed it at the refrigerator.
“All right, you, where’s the dough?”
The refrigerator hummed softly.
“Oh, won’t talk, huh?” Joe pulled the trigger. “Let’s see how tough you are
He pointed the gun at a chair, then the sink, then the stove. “Okay, no nonsense and nobody gets hurt.” He paused, nodded,
then placed the pistol back on the newspaper. “I shocked them into silence.”
“Pete had a million kind of bullets,” said Al, who’d been ignoring his friend. “I didn’t know which were for which guns, so
I took them all. I figured we’d work it out here.”
At the stove, Willie stirred the stew “Are we gonna use real bullets? Why do we have to use real ones?”
“Because,” said Joe, “if we don’t do this thing right, and we get caught, the bleeding hearts in the city will make sure we
get put on probation. ‘How could you send three sweet old men to prison?’
they’ll argue. I’m tellin’ you the knee-jerk liberals are everywhere.”
“I don’t follow…” said Willie.
“The cost!” said Joe. “Don’t you see? The whole thingll wind up costin’ us a fortune in subway tokens going to see some probation
officer. We can’t afford it. We gotta make sure they send us to the can.”
Willie seemed unconvinced.
“Don’t worry about it,” soothed Joe. “Like I told these two guys”—he indicated the refrigerator and chair—“if they cooperate,
they come out all right.”
“What about clothes?” said Willie.
“After the stickup, we get rid of ‘em. Just wear something you can throw away.”
Al, who’d been studying the bullets, turned around. “You know the best part of this whole thing? We get to wear those disguises.
You really picked out good ones, Willie.”
“My big contribution,” said Willie.
“All right,” said Joe. “Here’s how it goes. Al, as soon as we get into the bank, I want you to hold your gun on the guard
while me and Willie collect the dough.”
“What if he ignores me?”
“He won’t. Believe me, he won’t. If he gives you any trouble, fire a shot in the air. I’m telling you, he’ll be scared silly.”
“How about other customers?”
“We tell ‘em to lie on the floor. Willie and I will watch ‘em while we get the money. Any new people come in, anyone come
back from the bathroom, just wave your gun, yell they should hit the deck.”
“What’re you gonna use to collect the dough?” asked Al.
“We’ll have ‘em fill up that airline bag I got,” said Joe. “I figure that oughta hold a nice couple of dollars.”
“Especially if they ain’t all ones.”
“Then we’ll get outa there fast,” said Joe. “Get back into the gypsy cab.”
“And return to Corona… or here?”
“Neither,” said Joe. “To straight, too easy to trace. We wanna confuse things a little. Instead of taking the cab all the
way back, we’ll get out and hop into the subway.”
“Now you’re really talking danger,” quipped Willie. “To chance the subway twice in one week—hoo-ha!”
“Once we get past the turnstiles,” continued Joe, “we’ll transfer the money from the airline bag to a paper bag. That way
we dump what somebody maybe spotted or identified, and we ride home on the subway like a bunch of dopey old men. No one’s
the wiser, and we’re scot-free.”
Willie looked at Al. “If he wasn’t a personal acquaintance, I’d think our roomie was a professional, you know? I’ll bet we’re
livin’ with the brains behind the Lufthansa robbery, and don’t even know it.”
“That was peanuts compared to this,” said Joe.
Willie dipped a spoon into the stew, tasted it gingerly. “One last thing…” he said.
“Yes?” said Joe.
“Suppose we get shot?”
Joe and Al glanced at each other quickly, amazed that Willie could be so obtuse.
“What’s the difference?” said Joe finally.
Nineteen oh five, when Willie is born, is a year of the unexpected. A clerk in a Swiss patent office publishes a strange paper;
it concludes that the mass of a body increases with velocity, that time can flow at variable rates, that matter and energy
are different manifestations of the same thing. The Wright Brothers airplane, first flown two years earlier, has virtually
disappeared from the news—
what happened to all the predictions of commercial long-distance flight by 1910?
Instead, a work-oriented, puritan-minded country now seems preoccupied by limericks. Willie’s father, a tailor, brings home
a new one from one of his customers the night Willie is born: