A Last Minute Truth

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Life With Joe^

Eustace had the gun, a belly full of whiskey, and the moment his television program was over, he would kill himself.

The program on the television was one of those soap operas about a hospital. On screen, noble doctors scrambled to save a girl on the operating table. There had been an accident. Eustace, snake-deaf and mostly disinterested, couldn’t keep pace with the show’s dialog, but that didn’t matter. Cutting someone open. Running around. Crying. Sneaking into the supply closet for a tryst. The doctors on TV inhabited a world filled with motion, whereas Eustace’s world—which was not the real world, but instead something called Lutheran Eldercare—stood silent and still.

In the far corner of the room, lying entombed in a state-issued hospital bed, Eustace’s roommate Joe groaned in his sleep and shifted restlessly. Eustace squinted over at the enshrouded form, waiting for the inevitable. Then it came. Joe farted, a low, wet flapper. Only time would tell if he had shit himself again.

The doctor program went to commercial and Eustace reached surreptitiously under the recliner for the bottle of whiskey. The orderlies didn’t know about the booze and they surely didn’t know he had the gun, or they would have taken both away from him before he could say “God bless Betty Ford.” Keeping quiet. That was the secret here in the Eldercare. Keep quiet and they’ll be happy to ignore you forever. Joe, who had shit himself—and in grand fashion—was proof of that; he only complained rectally, and nobody ever bothered him.

“You stinking son of a bitch!” Eustace growled—nearly sobbed—as the fart started to stink.

Right after the show. Time to go. Way past time. Eustace glanced at the clock. Ten forty-five in the morning. Another fifteen minutes.

The door to the outside hall stood open and Eustace wanted it that way, so nothing would muffle his final word, but an open door also required prudence. He got the remote and fumbled the television’s volume way down, listening for the squeak of orderly shoe on tile. Nothing. Satisfied, Eustace reached a shriveled paw into the recliner’s elasticized side-pouch, where the pistol waited. His fingers crawled across the hammer and the barrel and over the dimples of the cylinder. This wasn’t the way he would have chosen, but it would do. He pulled the pistol free and set it in his lap.

It was a Colt Single Action Army, a Peacemaker, handed down from his grandfather to his father and finally to Eustace. It was an antique and probably valuable, but never once in all the decades since since inheriting the thing had Eustace considered selling it, not even during some hard, hard times.

Ten till the hour.

Eustace reached back into the recliner’s pouch for the ammo. The cardboard carton was old and frayed white around the corners, but the blunt rounds inside shone clean and brass-bright. He’d smuggled them into the Eldercare wrapped in a ball of his own boxer shorts. Would they still work? He thought they probably would. The Peacemaker itself wanted for oil, but still operated smoothly enough.

He pulled the hammer back to half-cock and liked the sound. The gate came open smoothly and he thumbed in the first bullet with a shaking hand. He skipped the next chamber and fed four more rounds to the gun. Never give a Peacemaker the full six rounds. Five was enough. His daddy had taught him that. Eustace dropped the gun back onto his lap and resumed watching television.

Joe let fly again, a high, jaunty whistle that should have set the bastard’s bed sheets on fire. Eustace had long ago dubbed that particular cannonade “the brass band.” Better that than the subtler, but far nastier “angry crocodile.”

Oh Lord, look what he had been reduced to.

After what seemed like a hell of a long time, the doctors finally saved the girl’s life and the credits came up. Staring fixedly at the television, Eustace groped around in his lap until he found the gun. It was heavier than it should be. His chicken arms shook from the effort of lifting it. A bank commercial came on, starring a goofy guy in a polo shirt who walked through a mountain meadow while yammering about home loans and free checking.

Eustace glared at the television, giving it the same look Joe got for farting. When he wanted to open his own repair shop, the bank had been happy to give him a loan. Real happy. But when things went sour, that goddamned bank had come and taken his house. He and Shirley moved into a rented trailer and he had to start working for that prick, Ernie, again. Life never did get back to right.

And here he was, stuck in this shit-befouled, pauper purgatory where the pills came every three hours and the television was the only living thing.

Eustace pointed his pistol at the goofy fellow with the polo shirt and the free checking. He pulled the hammer back to full-cock and again he liked the authoritative click it made settling into place. He pulled the trigger. The Peacemaker's hammer fell on the empty chamber Joe hadn't loaded with a dry, businesslike snap and he grinned. When they came and took his house away from him, he had stood by docile as a mule and then he’d spent most of his life turning a wrench under someone else’s car for the price of a hamburger or two an hour. He’d done it for the kids, and for Shirley, and that’d been right and maybe he didn’t regret it, exactly, but Shirley was long dead, same deal with his youngest son, the only one of the three that had ever been worth a damn. The other two, both of them old men in their own rights, never called and never wrote and had left him in this place without so much as a fare-thee-well.

What did that leave? Nothing.

Hence the Peacemaker.

Eustace glanced out the door. Still empty. The wall clock, hanging above some Christmas cards from Joe’s niece and nephew, said it was three minutes to eleven. It seemed important to go out on a nice, round eleven o’clock. Or noon. Did that matter? Noon would be intentional. Poetic. Right. High noon. A last gunfight in the street.

A man should use what freedom he’s allowed.

The thought came to Eustace from far off, as if someone had mailed it to him.

That bank commercial guy. Low rates. Stop on in.

Eustace sat, fiddling with the gun and waiting for his passing thought to assemble itself into a course of action. Once he had it, he sat a little longer, wondering at the simplicity of it all.

Get Up, Get Dressed^

First things first, he needed to pry himself out of the chair. He positioned each limb just so and then, after an assessment of leverage, weights and air resistance, he hoisted himself up, creakingly aware of his fragile hips.

Eventually Eustace attained a state of upright and shuffled over to the closet, stripping out of his robe as he went. Underneath, he was buck-assed naked, beyond a pair of socks and his slippers, but if that offended Joe, well, Joe shit himself. On the way across the room, Eustace happened to catch his reflection in the bathroom mirror. His body sagged where it hadn’t mummified. He could see his actual self under that mess though, handsome, with a dimpled chin and a pair of green eyes that used to have the leg-spreading voodoo. Or maybe what he saw was only the ghost of what he remembered.

At the closet, Eustace decided on his suit. He might as well make this a formal occasion. Starting with underwear, working ponderously, he got the suit on (worn only to funerals in recent years) and finished with a red bow tie Shirley said he looked natty in and natty was hunky-dory.

Dressed, Eustace put his robe back on and wrapped it tight. The orderlies expected their inmates to wear the proper uniform at all times. That Eustace had had his best wingtips on, not to mention a fine wool suit, didn’t matter a tittle, so long as he had the robe. On his way out the door, he grabbed a twenty dollar bill off of his dresser. It was the only money he had. The Eldercare received his government check directly, on the assumption he had become too addlebrained to pay the rent on his own.

Which he wasn’t. Addlebrained. At least he was pretty sure on that. Most of the marbles were still up in his marble box.

He had to move fast now; if he slowed down, this craziness might drain out of him and that would be a shame. He reached in under the robe and under the jacket of his suit and shoved the gun into the waistband of his pants. It was a stupid way to carry a loaded firearm around—unless he was aiming to blow his balls off—but stupid was the order of the day.

Armed and dressed, Eustace grabbed an envelope tacked to the bulletin board next to the door. Some MediCare thing his son wanted him to sign. Eustace didn’t know what the papers signified, nor did he care. What mattered is that it had the ungrateful bastard’s return address on the envelope. Eustace shoved the whole wad into his robe pocket and stepped out into the hallway.

Ricky—aka The Fat One—was at the orderly’s station, watching television and shoving Cheetos down his gaping, hippo mouth.

As Eustace passed by, Ricky grunted and waved. He didn’t stand up, but he did take his feet off the desk.

Eustace nodded, keeping his head down. He wanted to appear good and zombie-like.

“Going for a walk there, buddy?” Ricky said.

“Sure,” Eustace mumbled, “Stretch my legs.”

“Don’t get into any trouble.”

Ricky went back to the television and Eustace continued his hobble down the hallway. Upon opening the front door (Mother Mary, how did something so simple as opening a door get to be so hard?) and stepping out into the late November sunshine, Eustace was struck with that prisoner’s awe at the size of the outside world. His life was spent in hibernation; whole days passed without him moving any further than the bathroom. Now cars zoomed past every-which-way and even the wind struck him as a trifle intimidating. A helicopter flew overhead. Eustace shivered.

Then he struggled out of his robe and dropped the filthy old thing on the ground like a shed skin. Immediately, he felt better. He adjusted his lapels and felt better still.

The corner store, Eustace’s first destination, was a few blocks up from the Eldercare. It was quite a walk, but he managed, even doffing an imaginary hat to a pretty girl. She smiled at him and waved, laughing.

A bell above the door jangled as Eustace maneuvered into the corner store.

“Good morning,” the wrinkled, sun-dried woman at the counter said, looking at Eustace’s improbable formal wear with one eyebrow cocked.

“Mornin!” Eustace said, beaming. He placed the twenty dollar bill on the counter.

“What can I do for you?” the woman said.

“Smokes,” Eustace barked, scanning the shelves myopically.

“Smokes huh? What kind?”

Eustace checked his memory. He’d had a brand once, before he’d stopped smoking in…whenever he’d stopped smoking, which had been a long time ago. Sunbeam or Dancer or…hell.

“Luckies,” he said. They weren’t his brand, but they should have been. Brand that killed the Nazis.

“Lucky Strike?”

“Those are them,” Eustace agreed.

The clerk had to look around for a while, but she finally found a pack high up on the shelf and set it on the counter. It was covered in a light robe of dust.

“Got some matches?”

“I think so. Somewhere.”

“Gimmie a bag, too.”

The clerk produced a tiny plastic bag that was just barely big enough for the deck of smokes. Eustace shook his head.

“Bigger bag. Biggest you got.”

“How is this?” she said, holding up a full-sized paper grocery bag.

“Bingo!” Eustace said, pulling his lips back from a picket of yellowed, but mostly present, teeth.

Eustace picked up the cigarettes and dropped them into the pocket of his jacket along with the matches, then took the empty bag and tucked it under his arm. The clerk raised her eyebrow again, but made change without comment.

“You have a good day,” Eustace said, shuffling to the door. The woman watched him go and gently closed the drawer.

A Trip To The Mercury^

There was a bus stop directly across from the corner store. Eustace hobbled over to the shelter and had himself a seat on the bench. After making sure no one could see him, he pulled the pistol out of the waistband of his pants. He considered the gun for a moment, before dropping it into the paper bag. He folded the bag over twice, so it made a tidy little package, and tucked it under his arm.

He squinted up at the bus schedule, realized he couldn’t read it, further realized he didn’t know what time it was. Didn’t matter. A bus would come along and he would hop aboard. While he waited, he peeled the wrapper off his Luckies and pulled one of the cigarettes out, relishing the good smell of tobacco. He’d quit for Shirley, after the lung cancer had got its crab legs deep into her. Solidarity and soforth. Made her happy and afterwords he’d forgotten to take the habit back up.

Eustace stuck the Lucky into the corner of his mouth. It took him three tries to strike a match—his hands had a hard time with fine tasks—but the first, trembling inhalation made the effort worthwhile. Like coming home.

He leaned back and watched a pair of sparrows bicker in a winter-bare bush nearby. Scummy gray snow from the storm a few days back lined the gutters, and the sun, while warm against his face, had that peculiar winter hardness to it. He took another long drag, and then blew out. Then he coughed for a good while and his head felt swimmy.

When a bus rolled up, Eustace got on. The driver told him to lose the cigarette, which he did, and then Eustace took out his envelope and asked the man how to find the address written thereon. The driver gave him a long explanation, but Eustace didn’t bother paying attention. All that mattered was that he was headed in the right direction.

Two hours and three transfers later, Eustace stepped off a different bus in an unfamiliar neighborhood. Big, new houses squatted on tiny lots like a row of bulldogs all shitting on napkins. His useless elder son was living the American dream.

Eustace pulled the envelope out of his pocket, and started walking. At each house along the street, he shuffled up, peered at the address until it came into reasonable focus, checked the envelope again and then moved on. It took him half an hour to traverse the three blocks between the bus stop and the porch of what he hoped was Useless Son’s house. Useless Son as opposed to Drunken Son or Dead Son.

By then, Eustace was literally panting, his tongue poking over his lower lip like a dried-up tuber. He double-double-checked the envelope then looked at the numbers by the house’s door. It was a definite match.

Eustace celebrated by sitting on the front step. It was about one in the afternoon, maybe two. Or three. Afternoon, anyway. He looked up and down the street, wondering at the complete and total stillness. Not so much as a housecat. No sign of life from inside either. Where were Useless Son and the Skinny Harpy? Eustace didn’t know. Useless Son was in the far reaches of sixty by now, and retired, so the little shit didn’t have anywhere in particular to be.

Maybe he was at the doctor. That gave Eustace a thrill. Maybe Useless Son was discovering that old happened to everyone.

Or maybe they were inside, peeking out through the blinds while the Harpy called the Eldercare to come collect him.

Once Eustace’s heart had resumed its usual wheezing throb and his tongue fit into his mouth again, he stood and made his way towards the garage. It had two big doors, one for each of the two cars it could hold. Those doors would be hopeless. Even if they didn’t have openers, they’d be too heavy for him to lift. But the garage had a side door, for people, not cars, around the corner. That door was locked. Eustace jiggled the handle, kicked it and even threw a shoulder against the door, trying to batter it down with his scarecrow bulk, but nothing happened.

“Ok. We’ll see. We’ll see,” Eustace said to the door, as he unfolded the paper bag from around the Peacemaker. Squinting and turning his face to the side, as if he were afraid it would slap him, Eustace pointed the gun just to the right of the doorknob and slowly squeezed the trigger. A brisk explosion, much louder than Eustace had expected, rolled up and down the street. The recoil staggered him back ten feet, but a hole, roughly the size and shape of a soup can, appeared in the door where the latch had formerly met frame.

Dogs all around the neighborhood raised an alarm. With the pistol’s kick still clanging his bones together like church bells, Eustace took a quick look at the streets—no cops, at least not yet—and tried the door. This time it swung politely open. Chuckling, Eustace stepped into the garage and laid eyes on his old girl.

She was a 1950 Mercury Monterrey, yard upon yard of Detroit steel. Not exactly in great shape—faded paint and a hardtop with only a few remaining scraps of vinyl—but doing no worse than Eustace himself. Purchased used sometime in his later thirties, the car was what they would call a mid-life crisis purchase—or, one-third-of-life crisis, considering Eustace’s collection of years. He’d driven her up until…right around the time the red-faced President (Carter?) got his dick sucked by that fat…actress?

Anyway, rather than sell her, Eustace had grudgingly given the Merc over to Useless Son. Every time Useless Son showed up at the Eldercare (which was almost never), Eustace pestered him about the Merc. Keep her in a garage and be sure to give her some exercise now and again. Change the plugs, willya?

“Yeah, yeah, of course, pops,” Useless Son would say, “I’m taking care of it.”

Eustace half-believed the little fart had gone and sold his girl, but here she was.

Eustace ran a hand along the Merc’s curved, downward-sloping flank, taking in her scabrous interior and missing chrome. He walked around back and checked the plates. Licensed and everything, with some of those fancy classic car tags. Now it was only a matter of keys. Eustace bowed stiffly at the waist, like an English butler, and, propping himself carefully against the car’s black hide, felt around under the front wheel well, searching for the nifty magnetic hide-a-key key box he’d secreted away all those years ago. After a little groping, he found it.

“Ha!” Eustace cackled, performing a shuffling two-step on the dusty concrete.

That left only one minor detail: escape. The garage came equipped with a door-opener, he could see that, but its operation escaped him. It didn’t matter; a more direct solution presented itself.

Gun went back into paper sack. Paper sack went into car, on the passenger side of the bench seat. Then Eustace performed the complicated ritual of folding his superannuated body into a sitting position behind the Merc’s wheel. From there, he had to stop and take stock. A long time ago, his body had been wired to perform all the actions required to start a car and get it moving, but now each step required conscious thought. Key went into ignition. One foot on the clutch, one on the gas, put her in reverse. Turn the key. On his first attempt, the car turned over, caught, but then his foot slipped off the clutch and the Merc lurched a few inches before dying.

“Damn,” Eustace muttered. He slapped the steering wheel and tried again. This time he got the Merc started and then let her sit for a minute, listening to the engine. A little rough, but who knew how old the gas was? That led him to another important question: how much gas? He bent over the wheel and peered at the gauge, which stood at under an eighth of a tank. He tapped the glass over the needle with a thick fingernail, but the gauge stayed put.

Eustace grunted and revved the engine. Old or not, a Merc straight-six spoke with authority. With his face peeled back into a shit-eating grin, Eustace craned his head around, popped the clutch and slammed his foot down on the gas.

The engine roared and the Merc launched backwards, punching through the garage door like a linebacker through the paper banner at a homecoming game. Jagged spikes of wood blew out all across Useless Son’s driveway as the Merc hurtled towards the street. Eustace screamed and jabbed his foot down on the brake. The car squealed. Stalled. Panting, but still wearing that grin, he sat and looked at the hole he’d left in Useless Son’s garage.

It would take more than a little plywood to patch that action up. Eustace poked his head out the window and looked back for damage on the Merc. A few scrapes, but nothing serious. The ruckus set all the neighborhood hounds off again, but there was still no activity on the street. No mothers poking their heads out of their doors, no children pointing. Eustace supposed all the mothers were at work, just like the fathers, and their kids would be at school or in cold-storage somewhere, waiting for someone to bail them out.

Eustace restarted the Merc and tried easing her into motion, but working the clutch woke the arthritis in his hip and knee. It took him three more stalls to maneuver the car to the end of the driveway. By then he was starting to get the hang of driving again, never mind the red throb rolling up and down his left leg. The Merc pulled out onto the street smoothly enough. From there, he made three right turns at random, passing more of those identical bulldog houses. They said he was too old to drive, and they were right; his cataracts demoted everything at any sort of a distance—stop signs, trees and cars parked on the curbs—to fuzzy shadows, identifiable only by color. Even so, Eustace felt great. He couldn’t stop smiling.

But he needed a rest. After all that walking and sitting, his joints had unionized, led by his clutch-working knee, and were singing a high note.

Maintaining a wobbly fifteen, Eustace piloted the Merc down another six blocks, until he came to a neighborhood park. The Merc’s breaks moaned in protest as it came to a stop by the curb, in a patch of sun that beat nicely against the roof. Just a few minutes would do him up nicely. He swung his legs around and set them on the bench seat, the brown-bagged Peacemaker between his thighs. Stretched out, with his head resting on his suit coat, Eustace lit another Lucky and sighed out a streamer of smoke, watching the play of sun against bare branch in the tree above. Within seconds, he was asleep.

As he slept, he dreamed. Of Shirley, his wife. Of a Mexican whore who had gotten him drunk, given him a tepid hand job and then stolen his wallet.

Artifice and not even that much of a pleasure, guilty or otherwise. But there’d been more than just the one, hadn’t there? Across the border into Juarez. He’d put his wallet in his front pocket and he’d gone back. Wiggling, giggling, paid for. Cheap as a dinner out and not one ever told him that he shouldn’t or that he should.

Somehow all of that dissolved into a new scene: Shirley and the whore sitting on a couch and talking about him, like he wasn’t there. What if it doesn't work out? Shirley asked, How will he feed his children? The whore shook her head, her fat, powdered jowls wagging their disappointment.

Eustace woke up slowly and when his eyes finally opened, he felt far worse than he had pre-nap. His body had gummed up, like tired machinery filled with clotted grease. The cigarette had burned down between his fingers. He threw it out the open window and winched himself upright, using the door handle and the emergency brake for leverage. The sun still hovered well above the horizon, but its warmth was gone.

The Ladies and the Peacemaker^

Eustace started the car and pulled away from the curb with a jerk. As he drove, he tried to decide if he was afraid or not. Something squirmed in his guts, but he couldn’t name it.

Heading generally north, he crept along. Cars passed by on the left in a steady stream and he found himself leaning forward, practically up to the windshield, trying to bring the moving shapes into some kind of focus.

Eustace drove for about twenty minutes, his hands tight on the wheel, that energy percolating in his belly. Finally, he found what he was looking for and pulled off the road into a large parking lot. He found a space up near the building and set the emergency brake, but left the car running. These things followed a certain protocol. He looked at the sign in front of the Merc. Handicap only. Well, he didn’t have the tag to hang from the Merc’s rearview any more than he had the state’s permission to operate a motor vehicle, but Eustace could think of a dozen ailments that qualified him for the cripple spot.

His hands shook badly as he unrolled the pistol from the paper bag, and not all of it was old-man palsy. The Peacemaker gleamed in the winter sunlight. He stared at it for a moment, then broke the ancient firearm open again and checked its rounds one by one. Five minus the one he’d fired into Useless Son’s garage door. Carefully, he shook each bullet out of the gun and onto the Merc’s seat. They made a musical sound bouncing into each other. He picked one up and held it a few inches from his crooked nose. His mouth worked absently as he pondered the bullet. One bullet. Just for him.

Eustace put the single round into the Peacemaker and got out of the car.

There were no guards. That was disappointing. In his memory, there was always a fat guy, or maybe an older fellow like himself, stationed just inside the doors, usually sitting on a stool and trying not to doze off. Missing guard aside, the place hardly even seemed like a bank. No marble, no high ceilings and if there was a vault, Eustace couldn’t see it. Just a long counter, a few cubicles and some bland, barely audible jazz. Ah, but nevermind.

The woman at the front desk smiled at Eustace as he passed. She had that patronizing smirk adults reserved for the very young or the very old. Eustace ignored her and made his way over to the courtesy stand near the tellers, where people could endorse their checks and tally up their deposits. He pulled a blank deposit slip from the stack and, using one of the bank’s pens-on-a-chain, he wrote out a short message, pausing for a moment while his beetle-bored brain tried to spell out “please.” There was an “a” in there somewhere, he thought, but couldn’t say for certain. Eventually, he scribbled over the whole word, deciding that the situation didn’t require that kind of civility anyway.

Satisfied with his note, Eustace shuffled over to the line of folks waiting for a teller. His left shoe tapped out a rhythm on the bank’s carpet. When it was finally his turn, Eustace went up to the teller—a cute little thing, or so he half-imagined, not being able to see her very well—and set his deposit slip out on the counter, along with the now-empty grocery bag, which had been tucked under his arm.

“What can I do for you, sir?” the girl said.

Eustace looked down the row of tellers and then over his shoulder at the other customers. He tapped the deposit slip. The girl looked at it and cocked her head. Even Eustace could see the shift in her expression, from perky to disbelief.

“Is this a joke?” she said.

Eustace shook his head.

“Sir…” the teller said, trailing off.

The next teller down, an older woman, sensed something amiss.

“Is there a problem, Heather?” the older woman said.

“This man, he…”

Heather handed the note to the older woman. It took her a moment to decipher Eustace’s palsied chicken scratch, even though there was really only one thing a note like that could possibly say.

“Sir, this isn’t funny. Are you here with someone? Is someone supposed to be watching you?” the older woman said.

She thought he was senile. That really got Eustace’s goat. The deposit slip was perfectly clear, handwriting aside. He reached under his suit coat and grabbed hold of the blunderbuss concealed within. In his mind, the gun came free in one smooth motion, but somehow the sight at the end of the barrel got tangled in his waistband and refused to budge. The ladies gawked at him as he yanked, twisting his pants all out of whack. As the Peacemaker finally did come free, it jerked his boxer shorts up into his balls pretty good.

“Nuuugghn,” Eustace moaned, stumbling back from the counter and bringing the pistol up with one hand while the other fluttered down to his injured testicles. The Peacemaker hardly looked like a real firearm; it was too big, half a size out of scale with everything else in the room, including Eustace. Heather screamed and put her hands to her face, like a lady was supposed to when confronted by a mouse.

“Sir,” the older woman said, with a disgusted glance at Heather, “you put that thing down right now.”

Eustace pulled the hammer back, pointed the Peacemaker at the ceiling and fired. There was a terrific crack and the ceiling tile above Eustace blew apart. White bits, like chunky snow, rained down on his shoulders. Except for the insipid jazz, the whole bank went immediately silent. He’d left the other bullets in the car because he didn’t want to hurt anyone, not even by accident, but there was no way he’d rob a bank without shooting the ceiling.

“Madam,” Eustace said, his voice clear and strong, “put the money in the bag and no one gets hurt. Understand?”

Hadn’t he spent his whole life wanting to say those words in earnest? Hadn’t every man? Oh, it was fine.

“Do what the man says, Heather,” the older woman said, “just stay calm, sir, alright?”

Eustace was calm. He was also out of ammunition now, but the tellers didn’t know that.

Heather emptied her cash drawer into the brown paper bag, and then handed it to the older woman, who did the same, including a bunch of rolled coins. There were two other tellers further down the counter, but Eustace snatched the bag before she could hand it on to them. The sack had a nice heft—a couple of cats, maybe. Eustace wondered how much he was making off with. It was a simple curiosity, not greed. Ten dollars or ten thousand, it made no nevermind to him.

Moving at top speed—a considerable effort for meager result—Eustace headed for the door. No one got in his way. Some folks even dropped to the floor with their hands over their heads, which was fine with Eustace, even though it wasn’t strictly necessary. When he finally reached the exit, a man in a shirt and tie actually held the door open for him. Eustace sketched a little salute with his left hand.

The Getaway^

Outside, the Merc, now the Getaway Car, waited for him, idling in the cripple spot. He flung open the door and lowered himself in, cackling. His bones hardly hurt at all.

He popped the Merc into reverse and stomped on the gas. The old girl’s tires squealed—actually squealed!—and he clipped the car parked next to him, knocking the rearview mirror off and drawing a long black scratch across its doors. Two people had emerged from the bank, probably to get a look at the Merc’s plates. Let them look. Maybe they’d go and arrest Useless Son.

In his excitement, Eustace lost track of the arrows directing him out of the parking lot and wound up driving a quick lap around a vacuum repair shop, before simply plowing over a low concrete planter filled with evergreen bushes and back out onto the main drag. The car bucked and swayed, throwing Eustace up against the rotting headliner and then sliding him across the seat so hard that he lost contact with the pedals and the engine stalled, leaving the Merc sprawled across two lanes of traffic while he crawled back behind the wheel and started her back up and people behind him honked.

He had no escape route planned. He just went, plunging straight ahead, ignoring red lights and yield signs. People swerved out of his way, their shouts dopplering in his wake. Swinging wide around a corner, he came within a half second of t-boning a minivan, but he swerved and got clear. The Merc, built in the days when gas could safely be guzzled, accelerated steadily, her wheezy guts really warming up for the first time in a long, long while.

The cops found him pretty quickly. They filled the rearview mirror with red and blue lights like fireworks on the fourth of July, but they couldn’t catch him. The Merc was a blur, a comet. Eventually, the road met an interstate highway and Eustace swerved across two lanes to make the onramp. The cops howled in pursuit.

He headed west, up into the mountains, four nearly-empty lanes of pristine blacktop. Traffic had snarled in the eastbound lanes, a stream of headlights in the growing dusk, worker bees headed home after a long day making honey for a queen they had probably never met. Eustace could imagine all those tired faces turning to watch his black Merc scream past, tailed by the cop cars and their flashing lights. It was a high speed chase, by God! Something to tell the wife about over supper that night.

The mountains ahead formed a jagged blue wall against the horizon, but the freeway went through them and all the way out into Utah. That was a lot of blacktop. Sadly, he was never going to see it. The Merc couldn’t hope to outrun the police cruisers forever. Worse, exhaustion was gaining on Eustace faster than the cops were gaining on his car. This needed an ending.

Since Eustace was more or less letting the car drive herself by this point, he didn’t see any real harm in letting go of the steering wheel entirely. He grabbed the paper bag filled with his loot and ripped it open. Bills, some of them banded together, others loose, spilled onto his lap along with a silver cascade of change. How much had he owed the bank? It had seemed like a lot back then, but with out-of-control inflation that jerked a nickel bottle of Coke up to a dollar and some, maybe what he had in his lap came somewhere close to the amount they had taken his house for. Even-stevens.

“Ha!” Eustace yodeled, throwing his head back for the pure joy of revenge and motion and everything else. A concrete divider appeared before the Merc’s windshield and advanced at an alarming pace, but Eustace corrected his course almost casually and the Merc swerved away with whole inches to spare. He grabbed a fist full of those lose bills with his free hand and threw them out the window. The wind pulled them up into the sky. More moolah followed, just as fast as Eustace could chuck it. Quarters and nickels hit the blacktop and skipped up over the barrier in the middle of the interstate, where they landed on those commuter’s cars like hail, startling their driver’s attention away from the hurtling black Merc. An entire stack of bills splattered like a fragile bird against the windshield of one of the police cars behind him. It’s paper band burst and the bills flapped free, a month’s pay for the two cops inside, blowing away like still-green autumn leaves.

Eustace couldn’t stop cackling. All his life he’d been afraid, when he should have been a pirate. He tossed the last handful of available cash out the window. There was still more, but it was hiding under the floor mats or cruising around the back, riding the eddies moving through the car. One bill wrapped itself around the gearshift, flapping like a tiny flag. He watched it, fascinated.

It was then that the Merc died. It wasn’t out of gas, nothing temporary like that. A thunk rocked the car, he felt it through the seat, and then the engine just cut out. Probably a rod come loose. She was done. Being both a professional mechanic and as old as he was made Eustace an expert at fatal sounds.

He shifted into neutral. At the moment of death they had been cruising along at eighty-five miles per hour. Not so shabby, but the freeway up into the mountains was steep and the Merc’s momentum bled away fast. Sixty, then fifty, then forty. Eustace pulled over to the shoulder and flipped on the emergency blinkers.

The cop cars formed up in a wide file behind the Merc, blocking off traffic. Eustace could see more flashing lights coming down from the mountains, eastbound in the westbound lanes. In just a few minutes they would have him surrounded. Good, good.

“Put your hands on the wheel,” a voice bellowed so loudly that Eustace was momentarily startled into thinking God had spoken to him.

Some of the policemen advanced on the car, crouched over with their guns pointed at the ground.

Just then, something next to Eustace exploded with a loud thump and suddenly the car was full of purple paint. It had gotten all over him, too. They did that. Put dye bombs in with the stolen loot. He’d seen it in movies. Why it had waited this long to go off, Eustace didn’t know. He started to laugh so hard that he couldn’t breathe, tears rolling down his cheeks. Until just then, he wouldn’t have guessed his body contained enough moisture for tears.

“Put your hands on the wheel,” the voice said again.

Eustace considered the gun on the seat next to him. It wasn’t loaded, but it could still serve a purpose, if he wanted it to. He could pick it up one last time. He could finish what he had started. He could go out in a hail of gunfire. It was phrase that stung like clean whiskey.

So, was he done? The cops were there, waiting. Eustace looked at the Peacemaker. Put a hand on it.

The Merc’s door swung open and Eustace emerged, one limb at a time, struggling to extract himself.

“Stop,” the voice howled, “or we will shoot!”

Eustace did not stop. He pulled himself up to his full six feet (minus a few inches on account of his hump), in front of all those lights. He wouldn’t stop, not until they made him. Addled by exhaustion and the first squirts of adrenaline he’d enjoyed in many a long year, Eustace wasn’t sure they could stop him.

There was something he’d learned when he was in the army, something a crazy Brit special forces guy had shown him. The Brit way of flipping someone off. It was the same thing Nixon did, only reversed, the back of the fingers out, instead of in. The way he understood it, the French once made a habit of cutting off their British captives’ first two fingers so they couldn’t shoot a longbow in war anymore. So, showing an enemy your two fingers in that wide V shape meant you were still dangerous, still able to put an arrow though a man’s heart.

He raised his gun hand, those two fingers up and spread, covered in purple dye. But he didn’t have the Peacemaker. It was still in the Merc. He stood there, rigidly at attention, saluting the cops with his two fingers until they put the cuffs on him.

Turned out, he wasn’t done after all.

The judge called Eustace an audacious criminal and furthermore the oldest bank robber on record, which tickled Eustace just to death. He clapped his hands together and cawed his old man laugh and goddamned if that judge didn’t smile a little bit as he banged the gavel down. Right there was a moment Eustace would have hated to miss.

And it wasn’t the last. They put Eustace in with a young buck, just fifty-one, serving time for counterfeiting and robbery and assault and murder and Lord knew what else. He was Mexican, with a little South American Dictator’s pencil mustache, but he spoke English pretty good. Since there was nothing else to do in the cell, Jesus (that was HEY-soos, not GEE-zus) sometimes told stories about the his adventures on the outside, screwing and shooting and outsmarting just about everyone. Eustace had no idea how many of Jesus’s stories were true, how many were co-opted from someone else and how many were plain make-believe, but the Mexican paced the floor of their cell like a tiger as he spun them, acting out the interesting parts, and wasn’t that better than a comatose roommate who only announced his presence by shitting himself? To quote Shirley, you betcha it was.

Eustace knew what was supposed to happen in prison—shower room things—and a little of that went on, but mostly it went on between guys who were into it and anyway no one ever bothered him, probably because he looked like a day-glow stick of beef jerky in his orange prison uniform. On the few occasions someone gave him any hassle, Jesus and his Mexican buddies took care of it, because Jesus liked him.

It got boring sometimes, but boredom was an old friend of his. To kill that old friend, he could watch television or read. The food was even good—well, better than it had been at the Eldercare because it actually had salt in it—and they let him smoke, a verboten activity at the home. He paid for the cigs out of money he made swabbing out the bathrooms. He enjoyed that. He liked having a purpose again, even if it was scrubbing down stainless-steel johns.

He would probably serve out his life here, however much of it remained. Or maybe not. Either way, he didn’t mind. He almost never thought about that Peacemaker and the messy deliverance it had once offered. Because there were prisons, and there were prisons.