San Francisco, July 21, 1996
In the refrigerator are five cakes: carrot, lemon, raspberry swirl, three-layer chocolate, and some kind of tiramisu, or maybe it’s mocha. I can’t tell. Five large, heavily frosted cakes, a slice or two missing from each. Otherwise, the refrigerator is empty. I want a cheeseburger. I want fries. I want anything but cake.
Two days ago Saul and I robbed a local bakery. Saul took the cakes too. Hungry, I stand in front of the refrigerator with the door open. At my feet is a cat. I stare at the cat. It stares at me. I look at the cakes. So does the cat. I look back at the cat. It looks up at me.
“Hey, whose fuckin’ cat is this?” I ask. The kitchen window is open. I push the cat toward it with my foot. The cat looks at me, looks at the cakes, and walks toward the window, its tail sticking straight up in the air.
“It’s a fuckin’ zoo,” I say. “It’s a fuckin’ cat zoo with cakes.”
“Who are you talking to?” Jenny’s in the bedroom, in bed. We’ve done our morning shots. I’m in that space where I know I have to figure out what I’m doing today. I have to eat. I have to get Jenny to eat. I have to do a robbery. I have to score more drugs. I have to buy cigarettes. I have to put some clothes on. I’m standing in front of the refrigerator, naked.
“There’s some strange cat in here.”
“That’s our cat.”
I push my finger into the thick white icing on the carrot cake, scrape off an inch and stick it in my mouth. The combination of butter, cream cheese and sugar explodes on my tongue and I almost gag. I close the refrigerator, pick a half smoked cigarette from the ashtray, lean down, and light it off the stove.
“We got a fuckin’ cat?”
Saul is in the bathroom standing in front of the mirrored medicine cabinet. He’s applying theatrical glue to his face. With a practiced movement, he presses the fake beard and mustache to his upper lip and chin. He turns, sees me watching standing in the doorway. He looks like some demented lumberjack-junkie, except he’s dressed in a three-piece suit. I’m dressed in slacks and a button down shirt. I can’t find my shoes.
“Jenny, you seen my shoes?”
She doesn’t answer. She’s probably asleep. Jenny can sleep. Like all day long. I dig through a pile of dirty clothes, find a wrinkled tie and put it on. The toe of one of my shoes sticks out from under a chair. I reach down, grab it, see the other one, and pull it toward me.
Saul is waiting by the door, attaché case in hand. I pick up my suit jacket and we walk out into the alleyway that leads to the front of the building.
“You got the piece?” I ask. Saul pats the inside breast pocket of his suit and smiles. I light a cigarette as we walk toward the supermarket two blocks away. It’s a beautiful afternoon. The sun is shining, the sky is clear. My mouth tastes like shit. I forgot to brush my teeth.
“Is my breath bad?” I say and lean towards Saul and blow at him.
“Don’t breathe on me,” says Saul. His newly acquired facial hair looks really fake in the sunlight.
In the supermarket parking lot I spot what we need: It’s an older Honda Civic that looks to be in good shape. I slip the slim jim’s hooked end down between the window and the door’s rubber seal and jiggle it until it catches, then abruptly pull it upwards. The door’s lock mechanism clicks. I open the door and get in.
I take a screwdriver and wire cutters from my suit pocket and force the plastic housing off the steering column and then jam the end of the screwdriver into the ignition. Prying the entire lock off I expose the three contact points attached to the wires: power, ignition, and starter. With the cutters I snip the wires, then strip the ends and twist the power and ignition together, and touch the starter lead, which sparks as I press the gas pedal. The engine hesitates then roars to life and I feel smugly satisfied at having picked the right car.
I lean over and unlock the passenger door and Saul gets in. I hit the gas and pull out of the parking lot as I light another cigarette and adjust the rearview mirror. I look at Saul. He looks tense. The bank is only five minutes away.
“Why do I have to go in alone?” says Saul.
“We’ve been over this,” I say. Saul can’t drive. He never learned how. “Can’t leave a stolen car running at the curb. It just doesn’t look right. It says, hey, there’s a fuckin’ robbery going on. I know how to drive. I stay with the car.”
“I hate going in alone.”
It is always better to have two people for a bank job. It can get a little crazy inside. We’ve looked around, but everyone we know who dabbles in this sort of activity is either too high, too sketchy, or just way too insane. The last thing we need is someone’s nerve getting the better of them. Then there we are coming out of the bank and the car is gone. Not my idea of a getaway.
Turning onto Union Street I drive past the bank. There’s no one out front, and the pedestrian traffic on the sidewalk is relatively sparse. A mailman with a large leather bag slung over his shoulder chats with a woman standing in the doorway of a high-end boutique.
“Drive ’round the block,” Saul says. A precaution we always take. Never know if a cop is eating at a local restaurant, or some meter maid with a police radio is close by handing out parking tickets.
The neighborhood is quiet. Everything seems normal. I pull up to the bank’s front door and double-park. Saul sighs, gets out and walks into the bank. I adjust my tie in the rearview mirror. Traffic is light. There are no cars behind me. I look over at the bank, but can’t see in the window, the sun’s reflection is too bright. Down the block an oncoming car stops and backs into a parking space. I look in the rearview mirror. I look over at the sidewalk. I glance at the bank. Sweat runs down my face. A city bus passes. A woman pushing a stroller stops in front of a store and then continues walking. I look at the gas gauge. The tank is half full. I want a cigarette, but I don’t want to lose my concentration. I check the rearview mirror. See my reflection. I glance at the bank. I look across the street. A woman gets out of her car, walks around to the parking meter. I check the rearview mirror again. I wipe my forehead with my hand and run my fingers through my hair. Then reach over and open the passenger door. I look over my shoulder. I look at the bank. I release the parking brake. I grip the steering wheel and look over as Saul comes out and walks to the car.
Before he’s all the way inside I push down hard on the gas pedal and we take off, tires squealing. My heart pounds as the car accelerates. At high speed I make the intersection, swerve around the corner, drive two blocks, and turn again. Sliding through the next intersection. I ignore the stop sign, slip in between a taxi and a delivery van, then make a quick left and drive down a deserted alley.
Saul opens the attaché case; inside are two stacks of twenties, a few loose hundreds, tens and fives. It’s an okay haul. You never get as much as what you’re expecting. Thumbing through a wad of money Saul stops when he feels a strange piece of plastic.
“Look at this,” he says and holds up a clear circuit board with metallic copper strips and a small round battery glued to the back of a twenty.
“Tracer?” I say.
“Who the fuck knows? It sure as hell ain’t money,” he says and hands it to me with a couple of loose bills—getaway money once I ditch the car.
Two blocks before my apartment building, I slow down. At the corner I pull to the curb and Saul gets out, casually adjusts his suit, and walks away, briefcase in hand. I push down hard on the gas, drive to the end of Fillmore Street and maneuver the car into the commuter traffic on Marina Boulevard. Five minutes later I make a right at the entrance to the yacht club and slip into the first open spot in their parking lot. Picking up my tools I place them in my coat pocket and get out, kicking the door closed with my foot.
The Golden Gate Bridge rises in front of me out of the Bay, the water glistening in the afternoon sun—a nice view any other time. I walk past the sailboats moored at the dock, stop at a trashcan and toss in the weird circuit board. At a concession stand I buy a pack of cigarettes, take one out, light it, and walk along the breakwater toward home.
Bank jobs are a motherfucker. Even when I’m driving my adrenaline’s pumped so high I’m jacked up for hours afterwards. Going inside is even worse. Your senses are so hyped up. There’s all these people staring at you, scared as hell—you definitely have to have your intimidating demeanor down to a science to be in control. It’s all in the acting, baby.
The minute you pull the gun you have ninety seconds to finish the job and get out. As ninety seconds is the minimum possible amount of time it takes the police to respond to a bank’s silent alarm. If you’re alone, you stand in line waiting your turn and when you get to the teller you show the gun. You have to be discreet. You have to act quickly. You have to get in and get out before somebody realizes what’s going on and triggers the alarm.
Below the counter is the working cash drawer, which holds a few thousand dollars and is the quickest to access. The other, the large drawer, holds more, but takes an additional key to open, which takes more time. Unless you’re doing a takeover job where one gunman holds everyone at bay while another empties the drawers, your best chance is the working drawer and whatever money is inside.
Then there are the disguises: glasses, fake beards, mustaches, even fake ponytails hanging out the back of baseball caps. Cheap suits, athletic gear, army fatigues, and security guard uniforms can be worn over regular clothing and then tossed—anything to confuse witnesses. We once went in wearing motorcycle helmets and riding gear then fled the scene in a van certain the cops were on the lookout for anyone on a bike that fit our description. Stolen cars, taxicabs, and bicycles all come in handy for getting away. Although I’ve simply just walked off, blending into the crowd.
When I cross Marina Boulevard I see the dope man’s cheesy Mustang in the driveway of my apartment building. Jenny must have called him the minute Saul walked in the door.
The dope is strong. My eyes barely open as I pull the rig out of my arm. I scratch the bridge of my nose and fumble with the cigarettes, but I can’t seem to get hold of one. Dropping the pack I lie back and feel warm dullness through my entire body. I remember thinking something about my mother, but can’t remember what it was. I stare at the television. A masked boogeyman runs a butcher knife across a woman’s throat, the sound turned so low her screams are far away. The cat jumps up, walks across the bed, and stands on my chest. Its paws feel like steel rods pressing into me, its face inches from mine.
“Whose fuckin’ cat is this?” I ask and then pet it on the head and scratch behind its ears—the purring becoming louder as I close my eyes.
An excerpt from GUN NEEDLE SPOON, published by Dzanc Books, 2015, by Patrick O’Neil, from Sensitive Skin #13.
Sensitive Skin 13 available here in PDF format here for just $4.95, or get the full-color print version via Amazon and select bookstores.