Stash rolled the stolen Chevy Nova off the shoulder of the forgotten state highway, cut the engine alongside the “Welcome to Garfield’s Crossing” sign, and took a long overdue piss among the waist-high weeds. He’d passed nothing on the northern side of this town for at least 40 miles and he wasn’t giving these rednecks the satisfaction of stopping somewhere for a piss and a gladhand. These folksy small towns always want to get to know the outsider. They want to know you for nothing longer than the unfortunate moment it takes to pass through their city limits. Better yet – the town didn’t even look like it wanted to be found. Despite the welcome sign, he didn’t see a gas station or watering hole. Just more road.
After a shake and a zip, he lit a cigarette and took in the landlocked, stagnant country air filtered through menthol stench. The almost periwinkle Nova’s prior owner loved cats and smoked menthols. So he smoked the menthol and watched as the tchotchke Maltese feline on the dashboard bobbed its head idly. He’d boosted the Nova somewhere back in West Virginia and swapped the plate for something less stolen. While he didn’t have a Georgia plate in his collection, he had one from Mississippi and figured it would do. In many ways, he was right back where he started. West Virginia. Georgia. Mississippi. These places were all the same. Only the accents changed.
He sat down on the hood to finish his Consulate. “The long ones,” according to the package. He’d put some distance between his immediate problems and his future problems, but in that horrible moment, he felt the ache and knew he didn’t have it in him to keep going.
“Fuck,” he spat, kicking gravel against the tire of the Chevy. It made sense; if the town on that sign couldn’t locate itself, where better to disappear? The thought filled him with equal measures disgust and hope. Hands in pockets, he drew his drab, green military-style jacket closer around his body, again fingering the bloated envelope in his pocket. Just to make sure he still had something to live for.
Garfield’s Crossing. Presumably named after a president that barely happened and not the New York actor John Garfield or Dr. Sidney Garfield. James A. Garfield. 20th president of the United States. Assassinated in office on March 4th, 1881 (or was it the 6th?) after serving only six months and change. Garfield wasn’t even from Georgia. He was an Ohio man and fought as a general in the Union Army, and Georgia would have most definitely voted for the Democratic opponent, Hancock, if memory serves. Yes, his name was definitely something something Hancock. Stash just remembered these things. He had an affinity for facts even if he didn’t know what to do with them besides answer questions on TV quiz shows. Things just stuck in there and he couldn’t get them out.
A wheezy cacophonous rumble increased in volume and agitation. He glanced behind him. A red pickup with rusted out wheel beds and a rope tying the grill into place. It’s like he’d stepped inside the mind of Flannery O’Connor. And now this Samaritan would pull up next to him and ask him if he needed any assistance as if driven by good intentions instead of pure xenophobia.
“Good morning, sir. Are you in need of assistance?” the driver bellowed over the truck’s clatter. The exhaust fumes were overwhelming.
Stash pasted on his ten-dollar smile and turned toward the man. Nothing more than a boy, hardly a man at all. The A.M. sun reflected off the driver’s Pomade slicked hair. The cantankerous truck gave enough fumes so that Stash’s eyes watered over to choke out the haze.
“Good morning! I decided to stop and enjoy the natural wonder.” Stash pointed off into the distance and the boy glanced, like he’d never bothered to acknowledge the ebb and flow of days.
“Why, I suppose it is a wonderful morning for a smoke,” the driver said. “Mind if I bum one? I’m fresh out and my daddy says I ain’t old enough, so I can’t have none of his.”
Stash eased off the hood of the car. He rapped the pack across his palm and up popped a single extra long Consulate. The driver reached across the seats and snared it through the open window.
“Menthol,” he said, a little taken aback. “Well, alright. I only ever heard of these. The name’s Earl.” He brushed back a single, loose strand of hair that had, against all odds, fallen out of place. “Of Earl and Son Towing, but we do a little bit of paint and bodywork on the side.” Earl lit the cigarette with the plug from his truck, inhaling the cigarette to life. The vehicle rumbled and kicked. Earl wiggled the gearshift in and out of Neutral like a jockey whipping a horse.
“Your daddy’s name is Earl and your name is Earl,” Stash said.
“Even my sister’s name is Earl, but we call her Imogene because she just likes the name Imogene.”
“Imogene didn’t get a say in the Earl and Son monicker?”
Earl laughed a little. “The ‘Earl’ in the name is my pap and the ‘Son’ is my pa. If we kept adjusting for every new Earl generation, it might get a little, uh, vociferous for the trucks. Earl and Son and Grandsons.”
“Right,” he said through an exuberant fit of laughter. “And Imogene.”
Stash tossed his cigarette and stubbed it out with the heel of his boot. “I would appreciate a nudge in the direction of a pay phone and a warm breakfast.”
“I know just what you need. Head on over to May Belle’s. I believe her phone’s working again after Jim went a quick round with it. He was having a long-distance argument with his Mrs. and the phone saw the worst of it. Also, don’t you mind Miss May Belle. She’s a character alright, but she’s mostly harmless. Mostly. Hauled Jim out by the ear for what he did to her phone.”
“And where might I find this Miss May Belle, with her telephone and warm breakfast and questionable character?” he interrupted before the tertiary character development spun out of control.
Earl gestured down the road at nothing in particular. “Just head straight on into town. You can’t miss it.”
Stash shot a glance down the empty road.
“Alright,” he said.
The driver tipped a hat that wasn’t there. “Maybe I’ll see you around, Mister. I don’t believe I caught your name,” he said and shot him a grin that suggested he noticed more than he let on.
“Hancock,” Stash said. “Just call me Hancock.”
Earl nodded. The rusty Ford belched cancer, lurched into first gear and jumped back onto the road.
Stash slid back into the seat of his Nova and exhaled. What was he doing here? The voice in the back of his head told him to keep driving and eventually he’d reach a place where not even the Brothers could find him. This job, nor a dozen like it, could redeem him. For however long it took, he’d be looking over his shoulder waiting for two in the back of the head and a shallow grave. For now, he’d follow instructions. He’d just have to play along until he saw an opportunity.
Stash pushed the clutch and turned the key in the ignition. He tossed the Consulates into the middle of the road and aimed to crush them beneath the tires. The Nova spun on the gravel before catching pavement and lurching back onto the road. Stash glanced into the mirror. The menthols escaped harm.
Damn. He slapped his hands on the steering wheel. Winfield Scott Hancock – that’s it. They called him The Superb. Once upon a time, nicknames suggested excellence or largess. These days you became synonymous with the first time you got pinched. Stash had a dimebag on him during a routine traffic stop. Similarly they found an eight ball on Cokie. And poor Pony bet a grand -- every dollar he had on a four-horse at Pimlico and won. The next week he got arrested for fixing. He still swears he wasn’t in with those guys.
After more than a mile of nothing, Stash finally parked along the quiet main drag and parked in front of what appeared to be a diner. No name, no mention of May Belle, just a flickering neon “Open” sign.
“Three eggs over easy. Rye toast. Coffee,” he said to the waitress before she had a chance to hand over the laminated menu.
“Good morning, sir,” the woman said. An elegant plumpness suited her carriage and complete disregard for the order that had already come from Stash’s mouth. “Would you like to try one of our specials,” she continued. “We have—”
“Three eggs. Over easy. Rye. Coffee.”
Their eyes locked.
“Sausage-hash cass. Cheesy sausage cass. Sausage and crescent cass. Sausage and grits cass,” she said.
“Yes, sir. Casseroles. You look like a sausage and crescent man. You look hungry. I bet you are.” The words were pleasant enough, but the way she said them caused Stash to twist in his seat. “Fresh out of the oven. Just like my momma used to make.”
“Three eggs. Over easy. Rye. Coffee. Thank you.”
She scribbled on her pad and punctuated it with a quick tap of her pen, which she then stowed behind her ear. “Crescent and rye!” she hollered.
An unseen cook called back “Sludge and Curl. Coming right up.”
She looked down at Stash with a smile, “If you need anything else, my name’s Miss May Belle – just give me a holler.”
When she returned a moment later, she slapped the plate on the table and poured him a cup of coffee. The plate contained a gelatinous block, one piece of rye toast and a sprig of parsley garnish. May Belle smiled. Dimples became craters. “I’ll come back to check on ya.”
“Do you have a phone?”
May Belle nodded and pointed to a cubby at the back of the restaurant. “Won’t dial none, so you’ll have to call the operator because the only button that works is the ‘Oh.’”
“Much obliged,” Stash said, burying his frustration. He left his plate and wandered through the tables and around a wall of booths to the back. Three old men sat together in a booth, each silently reading a different section of the paper and drinking coffee. Everyone in the place looked sad, tired or sad and tired.
He picked up the phone and listened to the dial tone while he fished in his pocket for a dime. Nothing but small change. He heard the voice of a woman. Low and steady, almost a whisper, but something about this woman suggested she wasn’t capable of hushed tones. “Pop, you can’t go on like this anymore. Nobody’s going to your movies.”
“I’ve got movies, darling, and the whole world wants to see them.”
“Just because you got movies from Italy don’t mean the whole world wants to see them. Not even the Italians wanted them – that’s why they sent them to you is what I believe. Why they never asked for them back, anyway. And for godsakes, Pop you’ve got to start putting money in the bank.”
“You said nobody comes to my movies. Nowhere could be safer than the place where nobody goes guarded by a senile old man with a musket. Who’s going to go to the trouble of robbing my safe?”
Stash made a show of fishing around in his pockets some more without luck. He turned around and smiled awkwardly at the woman. The words caught in his throat and before he could them out, she asked, “Do you need something or are you just an eavesdropper?”
She had short brown hair, cropped above the shoulder and pinned up with a bobby. She held her hand gently against her cheek, unconsciously guarding what looked like a scar just below her eye. Part of it cascaded out from behind her fingers, a river delta carved by someone else’s madness. He’d never met a woman that got a scar like that from falling off a bike.
“I’m so sorry, miss,” he finally said, putting on his finest folksy smile. “I seem to be out of calling coins. Do you happen to have one?”
“I don’t carry change. Get some change from May Belle,” she said, gesturing to the waitress.
“I’ve got some,” the old man said and fished around in his pocket. Stash’s gaze remained fixed on the woman.
“Do I know you?” he asked her. “Because it seems like you’re flexing some awful familiar disgust, like I’ve wronged you in a past life.”
“Mister—I have no doubt in my mind that I have never met you. In this or any other life. I just don’t know you and I don’t like the look of men I don’t know.”
“Here it is!” the old man blurted out, having apparently found something in his bottomless pockets.
Stash held out his hand; the man placed a large, red button in his palm. He glanced from the button to the man and back to the button and after a prolonged moment of contemplation, Stash decided the old man really did believe he’d handed him a quarter. He held the button up. “Thanks,” he said, and then returned to his seat. He heard the old man’s schoolboy giggle from across the room.
“Do you think he noticed I gave him a button?”
“Pop,” the woman scolded. “He was being kind. He thinks you’re mental.”
May Belle appeared and began cleaning away Stash’s plates.
“I haven’t started eating this yet.”
“You had time to fraternize with Pop so I assumed you’d had time to eat.”
“Put it down, Miss May Belle. I haven’t eaten in two days and I don’t even care if I did order three eggs over easy and rye toast – but I’m damn sure going to eat this block of egg now that you’ve given it to me.”
He stabbed the egg with his fork – even though May Belle held it a foot over the table – and shoved a hunk in his mouth. May Belle withdrew, returning the plate to the table. “This ain’t half bad, Miss May Belle,” he said.
“I know,” was all she said in return.
Stash took some time to finish his plate and drink his black coffee. Pop and the woman left; the door chimes jingled. After May Belle cleared away the dishes, he got another pour of coffee. Truth was he didn’t know the woman, but he felt the need for her to remember him. She wore her disgust on her sleeve, her pain on her face. Stash didn’t want to make trouble, but sometimes jobs required trouble. He had to keep Xavier away from Garfield’s Crossing. In order for that to happen, he had to keep the Brothers happy without giving up his location, not yet.
Xavier brought more than trouble. Xavier left the kinds of scars that didn’t heal. He needed an angle. He needed time.
“Closing time,” May Belle said. “Coffee’s gone. Everyone else is gone, too, because there’s no more coffee. No people means May Belle’s is closed.”
“That’s an awfully peculiar means of doing business.”
“Seems right by me.”
“Say, Miss May Belle, I’m looking for something to do this afternoon. Something inside and cool because I’m already sick of this heat.”
“Something like a movie?”
“How’d you know?”
“I saw the way you looked at the girl. I know that look.”
“Yeah, well, I don’t want none of that business. The theater is next door. Don’t know what Pop’s runnin’ this week because nobody goes unless he’s showing one of those Jerry Lewis pictures. The ones with Dean Martin. Whole town turns out for Jerry and Dino.”
This town had turned out at once worse and better than he’d expected.
Afraid of reciprocation, Stash overtipped and exited May Belle’s. As soon as he was out the door, May Belle locked it and pulled down the shades. The neon “Open” sign fizzled and then extinguished. The hum remained. He looked up. Right next door – a marquee for Pop’s theater. Stash crossed the street to get a better look at what he’d hoped would become Opportunity.
The building couldn’t have been built after the 1920s. The marquee remained in perfect condition. The black letters read “Fellini’s Casanova 1 4 7.” The sign above the marquee said only “Theater.” As if the full name had been washed away by time and tide. Stash checked his watch. He had a little time to kill before the one o’clock, so he walked back to the Nova and put up the sunshade he’d found in the back seat. Not even noon and the sweat had already begun pooling at the base of his back. His mind lingered on the woman from the diner, presumably Pop’s daughter – but when everyone called a man “Pop” that could muddy more obvious familial lines. He checked beneath the seat for his gun. Having found the inexplicably still cold steel where he’d left it, he threw his seat back into full recline and closed his eyes. He needed to rest, if just for a minute.
Stash awoke in a violent sweat. He’d dreamt of being found, of being tossed into a kiln and becoming a part of a large ceramic flower vase, in which one of the Brothers’ wives would put her daily fresh red roses. In the moment of waking, he’d felt disoriented, out-of-body, but the reality of the stifling car had explained away the nightmare. He rolled of the car and even though the outside temperature approached 90 it felt breezy, almost refreshing. He checked his watch. Time for a matinee.
Pop sat inside the ticket window in a yellow-piped red velvet jacket and a bellboy cap, next to him a wheel of tickets. While Pop’s dedication felt face-value impressive, the frayed clothes and desperate attachment to the past inspired pity. And yet, Stash couldn’t help but admire the man’s persistence. The backwoods town demanded moldy Martin and Lewis pictures and he gave them Italian art films, specifically Casanova directed by Federico Fellini. Probably his most recent film. Donald Sutherland and Tina Aumont. Nino Rota score. Nominated for a couple of awards. He couldn’t remember which ones. Nor had he seen it, but that’s really beside the point of knowing things.
“One, please,” he said to Pop, whose eyes lit up with uncertain recognition. Pop tore the little red ticket and pushed half through the arched opening in the glass. “You—did you ever make your phone call?” he asked with a wink.
“I held off.”
“The best calls are sometimes the ones we don’t make.”
“I’m not sure that’s the takeaway there, Pop.”
“Are you a Fellini fan?”
“I saw Cabiria a few years ago,” he said. “I’m not sure it was my thing.”
“There’s a little bit of Cabiria Ceccarelli in all of us, friend. Dare I suggest instead that maybe Le notti di Cabiria hit a little too close to home. I don’t know much about you, but you look like a man in search of something, perhaps feeling a little betrayed, too.”
“That’s enough out of you, Pop.”
“I see these things. I’m a keen observer of the human condition,” he said with a laugh. “It comes from watching so many different kinds of movies. My grandfather always said you have to show what the people need to see and not what they think they want. He ran this place before me, you see.”
“Again, I’m not sure that’s the takeaway.”
“It was something like that anyway.”
“It doesn’t sound like your daughter wants you to keep this up.”
“Oh, Sylvia? Sylvia doesn’t care a wit about this place. She wants to leave town. Always has, ever since she was knee high. Thought this was a two-bit piece of redneck heaven but I kept telling her that we can make a difference, we can make this town something special. Name me one other place in the entire South that’s playing Fellini or Michelangelo Antonioni!” he said before sending himself into a coughing fit, the mere thought of Antonioni’s Red Desert causing apoplexy.
Stash had spent some time in Atlanta and figured that at the very least they’d care to exhibit European art films, but point made and taken, and he didn’t feel like arguing semantics with Pop. Instead Stash just thanked him for the ticket and wandered in through the formerly glorious and velvety lobby. Once plush and blood red, the carpet showed through to bare spots. The draperies along the walls, similarly red, had faded into a Texarkana pink, bleached of their prominence and covered in years of neglect. But the smell, my God. The popping of corn and hot oil and the musty sweetness that becomes one with the cavernous dark.
Behind the concession counter stood a boy, no more than sixteen. Old enough to dishevel, pretend he didn’t bathe and purposefully distress the lick of blond hair. He too wore the red jacket with the yellow piping and cap, albeit far more begrudgingly than pop, who suggested a Hugh Hefner level of comfort in his. The suit propped the boy up, all awkward angles, as he leaned against the counter and doodled away on a sketchpad.
“Got time to fix me a popcorn and a Coke?”
The boy went rigid before pocketing the doodle pad. “Of course, sir.”
Sir. Pop had at least taught him some manners.
Popcorn and Coke in hand, Stash wandered back through the swinging double doors into the grand old movie house. A couple of seniors sat at the end of the back row, a cane leaning on the wall behind them. As his eyes adjusted to the light, Stash spotted a number of broken seats without armrests and a small bird flying from wall sconce to wall sconce, never satisfied with his viewing angle.
Stash assumed a seat in the fifth row, second from the end with a clear view of the exit through emergency doors in the front right of the building. He’d learned to always have an escape plan in an enclosed space. Some lessons require seventeen stitches.
The lights dimmed. The projector whirred to life behind him. Stash glanced back to see Pop leering through the small window next to the lance of flickering images. The sound popped and crackled through the speakers. An old call to the concession stand backed by a brassy marching band.
“Yum yum it’s time for a tasty snack!” A bag of popcorn doused itself in butter, a hot dog performed flips for a bun in some kind of food service mating ritual. Ice cream bars danced across the screen like majorettes. The echoes from a drive-in movie Stash snuck into as a kid flooded back. He never had money of his own, but he and Jimmy could always push in through a loose piece of fencing along the wooded end of the parking lot. They’d hang out at the concession stand, like they had other places to go, cars with families, cars with girlfriends if they only knew how to drive. He would return to those days in a heartbeat if he could.
The title “Il Casanova di Federico Fellini” advanced aggressively to the center of the screen. A Venice street scene, a religious rally of some notoriety. Some blue guy slides down a rope into the water. Harlequins and religious rituals and Donald Sutherland as the world’s greatest lover. Fantastical indeed. Stash hoped Pop wouldn’t mind if he took in only ten or fifteen minutes of this before dozing off again. His earlier rest had been fitful. There wasn’t anyone around to concern about his snoring at least. No offense, Federico, but it’s been a long goddamn few days and I’ve been running a long time.
Stash started awake when the end of the film unspooled and thwack thwack thwacked until Pop began the respooling process. The lights did not come on. In that moment he felt very conscious of the gun he’d left beneath the seat of his car and decidedly not tucked into the back of his jeans. Unfortunately using the planned emergency exit required one to remain conscious.
“I was beginning to think we’d be here through another screening,” the all-too-familiar voice marbled through the darkness. “And honestly that was fucking terrible.”
“Not a Fellini fan, Xavier?” Stash asked, trying not to sound surprised by the man’s sudden appearance.
Xavier shifted his reed-like body in the seat. “Movies are an opiate for sheep that can’t get from Point A to Point B without anesthesia.”
He said these words with an air of pride, like he’d just started a chapter on a biography in defense of Mussolini and couldn’t help but champion the dictator’s worst ideas about art. Full name: Benito Amilcare Andrea Mussolini. His signature looked like an EKG readout and he stood only 66 and a half inches tall – only a half inch taller than Napoleon, though Stash always presumed the half inch to be a fabrication, a personal assertion of physical dominance over the diminutive Frenchman.
“You said you’d call, Stash.”
“What’s your excuse?”
“So you roll into town in a hot Nova and what, you decide to catch a movie?”
“A boosted Nova’s still better than that Oldsmobile fatback of yours.”
“If you want to be invisible you drive the most invisible car on the planet,” he said, an edge suddenly present in his voice. Xavier, despite his everyman camouflage, average clothes, unremarkable facial hair, remained quick to temper when anyone poked him, especially about his shitty car. He changed direction. “I don’t need to tell you what’s at stake.”
Stash didn’t need to listen to the laundry list again. The bottom line – if he didn’t come up with a soft target, an easy mark, quick cash strike to repay his debts to the Brothers, he’d be erased, and the world wouldn’t miss him because the world didn’t know he existed. A blight, a speck, a wart. He didn’t forget details. Unfortunately, neither would the Brothers, and sitting behind him was their sniveling lap dog to remind him of his insignificance.
“I’m not the bad guy here, pigeon. You’re the bad guy in this story. The way I see it and the way the Brothers see it, your lips slipped and now we’re out 300.”
“I didn’t—” Stash stopped himself. There was no use arguing because the truth meant nothing to these people. The truth had been erased the minute Jimmy put his nose where it didn’t belong. Stash couldn’t help but think that in a Hollywood movie it would have been a girl that had gotten him into so much trouble. A femme fatale or a vamp, the boss’ woman, looking for another angle. That would have made a more interesting story than the old story of the friend that wanted out and talked to the wrong cop. And then the idea struck him, an open-handed slap across the cheek for sneaking around on Lana Turner with Lizabeth Scott. The Hollywood version sounded so much better. So Stash tried to come up with his own on the spot.
“There’s a clunker of a safe in the projection booth. I don’t know how much inside, but it’s at least a start. An old Brain, easy to crack. I could do it in my sleep.”
“Now you’re starting to talk straight, Stash. Tell me more.”
“Just a banana split and a speedy divorce.”
“Speak English, Stash.”
“Crack the safe. Take the money. Leave town. You get yours. The Brothers get theirs. I get another chance to make amends.”
When Xavier began running his thumb and forefinger over his unimpressive mustache, Stash knew he had him hooked.
Stash didn’t have a plan, but he had the next best thing. Hope drives a desperate man further than fear, further than Xavier and the 9mm stuck inside his belt. Down here in backwoods Georgia no one would miss the man passing through on his way to somewhere else. They wouldn’t miss him when they found his stolen Chevy Nova and they definitely wouldn’t bother to unravel the mystery behind a body found by teenagers smoking pot in the woods.
Stash told Xavier to meet him behind the theater on the other side of the emergency exit forty minutes after the last showing of Casanova. He’d have opened the safe – a safe he’d identified to Xavier as an old turn handle from W.E. Brain and Co. of Birmingham – and pilfer the “independently wealthy” theater owner’s hard-earned life savings, which he refused to keep in a financial institution. He’d learned about this job in the diner as he idled at the pay phone. The only truth to be found in the whole conversation. Xavier raised a skeptical eyebrow, but the draw of a potential life savings stored in a creaky old safe tickled the goon’s weak underbelly. Money, and not just any money – but cash. Untraceable cash he’d pocket for himself after eliminating Stash. He’d report back to the Brothers about Stash’s wrong turn at Garfield’s Crossing, how he’d tried to disappear into the foothills. And how he’d been dealt with accordingly. None of the risk, but all of the reward. Ghosts don’t stay ghosts by taking unnecessary risks. Stash handed Xavier the promise of a risk-free pension plan.
The only question in Stash’s mind was how much (or little) Xavier trusted him. He would believe Stash’s story because greedy men always believed in outcomes that most benefited them, but just because he was blinded by potential didn’t mean he was dense. He had to count on Xavier’s greed to overcome his devotion to the Brothers. If he thought he could take all the money for himself he wouldn’t call in and report Stash’s location until after the job. In the meantime, he’d be watching Stash every second. Leaving to collect supplies wouldn’t do him any good. What supplies would he even collect to crack a safe he hadn’t seen? He could leave to collect the gun, if nothing else, but that would put Xavier on edge. It made more sense to leave the gun and use what he had at his disposal. Stash had never played golf, but he loved one particular golf idiom: “Play it as it lies,” and right now he had to take a wicked hack with a 9-iron and hope he hit the green.
Stash found an old receipt for a Kit Kat and an Atlantic Monthly in his wallet from somewhere in North Carolina. He borrowed a pen from the kid at the concessions counter and scribbled “meet me in the projection booth at 6:15.” To the note he stuck the red button Pop had given him at breakfast.
“Give this to Pop when he comes down.”
The kid stared at him blankly.
“What’s your name, kid?”
The flop-haired teenager responded, “They call me Cubby.”
“Cubby? What the fuck—whatever. Cubby,” he said again, handing the kid a crisp ten, “make sure Pop gets this or... I don’t know. I don’t really have a useful threat here.”
Cubby’s eyes lit up. “Or you’ll kill me?”
“I wasn’t going to go there.”
Cubby sat up and shifted in his chair. Until that moment, Stash figured, Cubby had never had skin in the game. Today, he apparently wanted to feel like he had skin in the game.
“One more thing—”
“I want to make it clear that I didn’t threaten you life. And I need to use your phone.”
“Payphone outside the men’s room.”
Stash hesitated for a moment. “Oh, Cubby, one more thing. I’m going to need a dime.”
The dime trickled down inside the payphone’s innards and produced a dial tone. Stash closed his eyes and searched his memory before punching the number.
“Is Earl the Third handy? Tell him it’s Hancock.”
He’d picked the lock with a simple flick of a hairpin and settled into a folding chair behind the swing of the door. As Stash waited for Pop in the darkness of the projection room, he went over the plan again and again. These were the facts: Xavier would watch the front of the theater and keep Stash’s car in front of him at all times. There would be no disappearing into the Georgia backwoods. He had to push those idle Thoreau dreams into the back of his mind. The Brothers and their lapdog would retrieve his supposed debt or a pound of flesh. These facts didn’t paint a rosy picture for Stash’s future.
But he had some suppositions that might possibly play out in his favor. He bet that Xavier thought himself one step ahead. And as long as Stash played dim, he had the upper hand. But one more thing had to fall into line. Pop. And he had no reason to believe that it would. Just a hunch.
A key jostled in the lock and the door swung open. A hand started toward the light switch.
“Touch that light and we’re both dead,” Stash said. It sounded cinematic.
“You could give an old man a heart attack!”
“That would also be detrimental to both of us, Pop.”
Neither man spoke for a long moment. Only a car driving along the main strip interrupted the silence.
“I have a business proposition that I think benefits both of us.”
“You’ve been talking to Sylvia, haven’t you? How am I going to do business with the lights off? I can’t even tell if you’re looking me in the eye when you’re talking to me.”
“The light stays off.” He paused. “My name is Alexander Cole. My friends call me Stash. There’s someone outside this theater that wants me dead and plans to steal the money in your safe. I think I can stop him from doing both, but I need your help.”
“You’re in debt.”
“Someone decided that I’m indebted.”
“We’ll call them vertically integrated.”
“This is straight out of a Jean-Pierre Melville film. There’s a bad guy – that’s you – you’re the anti-hero in this production. You’ve done wrong, and maybe you regret or maybe you just came into the wrong business. Then there’s the real bad guys. The villains. The ones that see your act of conscience as a liability.”
“If you’ve got this all figured out—how do you fit in?”
“I’m the trusted friend with a hazy backstory who may or may not be helping you pull a heist on the really bad guys.” Pop’s enthusiasm escalated the more he cozied himself into French crime films, but Stash wasn’t about to dampen the enthusiasm, he needed Pop whether he was fully in touch with reality or not. “But what’s the score?”
“That depends on what’s inside your safe.”
Pop’s rat-a-tat-tat ceased at the mention of his safe.
“We’re going to need a different mark. No way around that.”
“Why’s that, Pop?”
“There’s no money in that safe, that’s for true.”
“Don’t hold out on me, Pop. I need to know what we’re working with.”
“Son, I’ve got nothing of – what would the kids say? – ‘street value’ in that safe.”
“I spent everything on film prints. I’ve inherited film prints. I’ve had film prints sent to me because people don’t want to store ‘em anymore. My ‘safe’ or should I say safes are coolers filled with vintage Nitrate film prints.”
Stash felt the floor fall out from beneath him. Nitrate film. Used for most every film print before 1952. In 1952, Kodak began converting the Nitrate prints to acetate or safety prints due to the hazardous flammability of the stock. Last year, both the George Eastman House and the United States National Archives had their films spontaneously ignite. Pop’s life savings could go up in flames at any moment.
“Okay. Okay. We can work around this,” Stash said finally, if anything to reassure himself that he could think of a way out of this mess. “Pop, what would you say if I told you that I can front the money to refurbish this theater to its original state? All new carpets. All new seats.”
“Don’t tell Sylvia.”
“Do you trust me?”
“I like the cut of your jaw, Alexander Cole. A little Alain Delon. A little Klaus Kinski minus the crazy. What I’m saying is that I trust you, but I’m not sure I have an option. When you become embroiled in these cons, you’ve got to hope that you stay on the right side of their relative morality.”
Stash fingered the envelope in his jacket pocket one more time before standing, removing the jacket and laying it over a table filled with fragments of film and splicing tools. Stash sat back down in his chair, and the two men sat in comfortable silence, listening to the other breathe.
“If anything happens to me, I want you to have my jacket.”
“That’s a nice gesture, son.” Pop sounded skeptical. Rich coming from a guy that hands out buttons for phone calls.
“Pop—what happens at the end of that Melville film?”
“What happens at the end of Le Doulos?”
“I’m just curious.”
“Blaze of glory?”
“Somewhere between blaze of glory and quiet dignity.”
“That’s unfortunate for us—hang on,” Stash said. “I’ve got a terrible idea... and this will sound absolutely crazy, but do you have any decomposing prints?”
“What can you possibly know about film decomposition? You know—never mind. I don’t need to hear any more because this is a terrible idea.”
“Unfortunately. It’s my only one.”
“And unfortunately… or fortunately in this instance… I do actually have a print of Angel and the Badman that needs to be put out of its misery. I’ve hung onto it too long. I store it in a water barrel in the basement to prevent combustion. I haven’t been able to bring myself to burn it. It was my first.”
“1947. John Wayne, Gail Russell. Directed by James Edward Grant.”
“You know your movies, Alexander.”
“I just remember things.”
Stash made his way through the dark and empty theater, a few wayward popcorn pieces crunching beneath his boot. The last of the 7:00 pm crowd had long since escaped the clutches of Fellini’s Casanova and headed out into the Garfield’s Crossing nightlife—which apparently offered more for the fun-seeking partygoer than Stash had assumed. As they left through the lobby, the distant sounds of blues music and discordant merrymaking could be heard from a nearby bar. It had been the first happiness he’d heard since arriving in this sweltering hole. Maybe he’d been too quick to judge this town and with its curious moniker and attraction to an assassinated president. Hancock’s Folly would have been a more appropriate name.
His hand clutched the strap on Pop’s weighty, canvas shoulder bag, careful not to jostle the contents too much, at least not before it was necessary. So he didn’t have cash. He didn’t even have a safe to crack. He didn’t have a gun. If this were to be his last night on Earth, it could have been worse. He’d lost himself, at least momentarily, in the narrative. Movie theater owner and champion of the arts had not been something he’d ever imagined – but in the last few hours, the thought had kept him going. This crazy old man and his European art cinema had given him a reason to try. He hoped for his and Pop’s sake that he could make these celluloid dreams a reality and now it was showtime.
Stash kicked open the exit door. He heard nothing but the distant frogs and a blues guitar. He stepped outside and immediately felt the muzzle grind into the back of his head.
“I was beginning to worry,” Xavier said. “I was beginning to think you fell asleep in there and weren’t ever going to come out.”
“How’d you know I’d decide to come out the back door?”
“I’ll always be one step ahead of trash like you, Stash.”
“You’re behind me right now.”
The gun pushed further into his skull. “Fuck you is what I meant to say. Now step away from the door and start walking to the car.”
“There’s at least 60 thousand, maybe more like 70 in there. That’s got to buy me some time with the Brothers.”
“I said step away from the door, Stash, or should I just collect payment in full right here?”
Stash took another step and the steel door slammed behind him. Another suggestive nudge from the pistol and he found himself descending the steps, one hand on the rusty metal railing and the other nervously stabilizing the shoulder strap. One step at a time. He could feel the heat building in the backpack, but he needed to put that out of his head. When Stash reached the front corner of the theater, he saw the Nova right where he’d left it, parked diagonally along the main street in front of May Belle’s.
“Take the car keys out of your pocket slowly. Hold them up in your hand where I can see ‘em. You’re going to get in the front seat. Once you’re in the front seat, hand over the money and drive north out of town. I’ll tell you when to stop. I’ll tell you when to talk.”
“What happened to your fatback, X?”
“Some red-trucked redneck towed it because I was in a two-hour zone.”
“You’ve got to pay attention to those signs.”
The butt of the gun slammed into the back of Stash’s head. The white flash of pain. The town’s main street returned to focus. A flicker of movement in front of the movie theater.
“I told you not to talk,” Xavier said, pushing him toward the Nova.
The pump of a shotgun. A backlit silhouette lurched onto the sidewalk from beneath the illuminated marquee – much too nimble for Pop – and without hesitation, one blast—followed by another. The first knocked Stash backward to the ground. Pain radiated out from his chest.. He’d rolled down onto his side, gasping for air. But had his back hit first? Had the jar broken? He couldn’t remember, but he’d find out momentarily. Either way the chemical reaction in his backpack would continue. Jesus how his chest burned. A return shot. Stash covered his head as the glass of the poster case shattered and rained down on top of him. Xavier ripped the keys from Stash’s fingers. Another gunshot. Xavier pulled the bag’s harness over Stash’s head with force enough to spin him over the glass shrapnel.
Stash clutched his chest; he felt the blood. What the hell had hit him? Pop said he had blanks. Did he say he had blanks? Did Stash just assume he wouldn’t actually shoot him? What the hell had gone wrong?
The Nova roared. The 275 horses, 4-barrel quadrajet carburetor with four-speed Saginaw transmission sounded much better than it actually drove. Jesus—he couldn’t even keep the facts at bay as he lay here – what – dying? Bleeding out on a goddamn sidewalk, shot by an old coot who found himself role-playing his favorite French crime movies.
Another volley from the shotgun disintegrated the Nova’s rear window. It swerved to avoid an oncoming car before veering back into the right lane. Just as the car barreled through the town’s single stoplight, it veered off the road, striking a telephone pole. The interior of the cab ignited; flames poured out of the shattered back window. Stash heard Xavier scream. A moment later he threw open the driver’s door as the hand of fire pressed him to the ground. Suddenly engulfed in flames, Xavier rolled over the pavement, his last instincts before the screaming stopped. The funeral pyre gave off enough heat that Stash felt it where he’d collapsed on the sidewalk some twenty yards away.
Stash looked up at the silhouette standing over him, still backlit by the blinding marquee overhead.
“Wow—it looks like you did shatter the jar when you fell. Lucky for you he was quick on the grab and snatch or you’d have been the toast.” It was a woman’s voice. And though he’d known the gunman had been too spry for old Pops, he still expected the old man’s fragile drawl. “I’d like to say I’m sorry for hitting you with shrapnel, but I had to make it believable.”
“Yes,” she said, extending a hand. “Now get up before the cops get here and start taking names.”
“Did you really think that when Pop came looking for a steel wool and vinegar, I wasn’t going to ask a few questions? That was pretty ingenious, creating a kind of Nitrate bomb from Pop’s old film. He would have been miles away before that thing created enough heat to ignite the film. Had it all gone to plan, of course, and you hadn’t sat on the jar. Then again it may not have ignited at all and you’d be, well...”
“Right where I started.”
Although the sirens had finally ceased outside, the flashing lights indicated that the last of the incident had not yet been cleaned up outside. Sylvia had given Stash tweezers, gauze and antibiotic ointment to take care of his own wounds because she wasn’t “the mothering type.”
“Jesus,” he said, wincing as he removed another piece of shrapnel from his chest. “Do you have anything stronger than herbal tea?” He’d already pulled a dozen shallowly-embedded pieces of glass and shrapnel from his chest and arms. He couldn’t stand the sight of blood, but a doctor right now was out of the question because it was time for Stash to disappear.
Sylvia poured herself a cup of chamomile, placed one opposite Stash and sat down at the table. “You’ll want to blow on that,” she said before taking a long, loud sip of her steaming beverage. “Pop’s on the wagon again. Nothing but tea and Sugar Free Dr. Pepper. The sparsely attired kitchenette attached to Pop’s apartment above the theater boasted the essentials but nothing more. A working stove, a kettle, running water and a takeout rotisserie chicken in the small refrigerator.
“How’d you know how to make a bomb jar?”
“High school chemistry. I remember things. Like how to create an exothermic reaction from common household chemicals. I just never expected Dr. Marklevitch’s lessons to save my life even though he always said you never know when a chemical reaction could save your life. I should write him a letter.”
“You also torched a man and a Nova, knocked out telephone communications and—”
“I’ll leave that out of the letter.”
“You’re lucky Pop likes you. I wanted him to let you die out there tonight because you and that guy – you’re both the kind of lowlifes we’ve been trying to keep out of this town. We’ve seen too much of this as it is. If we let you go on your way, we’d never see either of you ever again. And now? Well, I certainly don’t know.” Another sip. “So I’m not sure where that leaves any of us.”
“If Pop sticks to the story, we’ll all be fine.”
“Fine—sure. From what?”
“Who or what exactly are you afraid of?”
Stash couldn’t answer her. Not now. Maybe never. The answer was “the Brothers,” but that was a potential outcome he couldn’t admit. He picked up his tweezers again and prodded the wound on his chest. “I swear there’s something still in here. It hurts, goddammit.”
Sylvia sighed and put the mug down on the table with some force, short of a slam, but the kind of placement used to let someone else know they’re mad as hell, but they’re probably going to continue to take it.
“Give me these,” she said, ripping the tweezers out of his ineffective hand. “This is what Pop told me. Correct me where I stray.” For the first time their eyes met. Stash felt a toxic attraction, just as he had earlier in the diner, that was definitely not returned. It caused her to pause, and that at least was something more than indifference. “Since this other slightly bigger asshole than you will be found dead with your gun and the car that you stole, you’ll also be presumed dead.”
“I’m not finished,” she said and purposefully dug deeper. “As compensation for his assistance and his indefinite safe-haven in the form of this theater you’ve promised money to completely renovate Pop’s theater. And here’s where I’m immensely skeptical. People run for many different reasons. My ex-husband was a runner. He was a different kind of runner from you, unless I’m completely mistaken,” she said, again looking up at him. “The sight of blood makes you squirmy.”
Sylvia pulled out a tiny piece of glass and dropped it onto the ashtray along with the rest. “Which means you ran because of money.” She sensed Stash’s need to talk but preempted anything he might want to say in his defense. “And if you ran because of money it’s not likely that you’ve got the money to pay anyone the sum required to completely renovate this money pit.”
“Can I talk now?”
“Oh, by all means. I’m just dying to hear how you’re not full of shit and just trying to save your skin.”
“I am not blameless, but I believe that a man should be able to pay debts when they’re owed and keep what’s his when it’s not.”
Stash leaned forward over the table. He felt the bandages tug at his frayed skin. He brought the hot tea up to his lips and swallowed. The hot liquid rolled down his throat and into his stomach. He’d burned his tongue. She’d warned her, but he welcomed this pain. The pain of being alive and still a stubborn kid from the wrong side of Massachusetts. Even though he’d come out a little beaten and none of this had gone the way he’d hoped when he’d rolled into town, he couldn’t help but think he’d won by losing. Sure, he was still alive, but at what cost? Hancock, he thought immediately. Good goddamn, he was Winfield Scott Hancock. Even though he’d lost the election, he wouldn’t be assassinated because he wouldn’t be president. Not that that was a sure thing either way because assassin Charles J. Guiteau shot Garfield because he’d claimed he’d gotten him elected without reward of a consulship. The analogy remains even if the facts probably don’t back it up. If this had gone to plan, he’d still be on the run, but now he had a chance.
“Winfield Scott Hancock didn’t get assassinated.” Truth be told Stash didn’t know how he died, but it probably wasn’t by the hands of an assassin.
“That’s it? That’s what you have to say for yourself?”
Stash shrugged and let all that was left unsaid hover in the air between them.
It was in that silence that Pop pushed open the door, his wide eyes greeting first his daughter with a ferociously, if largely unrequited, hug before turning toward Stash, losing none of the warmth in the transition. “Alexander,” he said, “I’m so glad you’re okay. I heard Sylvia let loose with that volley and I thought she’d gone overboard – captain of the rifle team. GC High, class of 1962 – I’ll have you know.”
“You should be,” Sylvia added under her breath.
“The jacket I left in your projection booth contains an envelope with 250,000 dollars in traveler’s checks—are you sure you don’t have a bottle of whisky or something around here? Anything? Jesus. My chest really hurts.”
“Alright. Enough,” Sylvia said. She opened the cabinet beneath the sink and reached in behind a few cans of Drano and a box of steel wool pads. She pulled out a half-finished bottle of Rebel Yell bourbon. In another moment, Pop procured two glasses. Sylvia poured a shot in each. “I’ll call it a toast to new beginnings; you can call it anesthesia.”
Pop lifted Sylvia’s mug of tea.
Stash and Sylvia lifted their glasses of bourbon.
“I won’t believe it until I see it, but let’s celebrate despite ourselves,” she said.
“I’ve always wanted to redo the marquee. No great theater ever bore the name ‘Theater’ atop its grand visage.” Pop spread his hands out in front of him imagining a marquee larger than anything Garfield’s Crossing ever saw.
“So, what should it be called, Pop?”
Stash cleared his throat. “I hope I’m not being too bold, but I think I have the perfect name,” he said.
And after a moment of silence, he said, “Let’s call it The Superb.”