by David Corbett
Christmas patrons thronged the bank. Outside, rain fell, third day running.
You’d think all these bodies would warm things up, Marybeth thought, but no. Still, there were festive touches about—harp and dulcimer carols piping softly in the background, twirled bunting draping the walls, ribboned wreaths the size of tires. She caught a hint of pine, drifted into memory. Sacrament of childhood, she thought, this time of year.
She stood in the teller queue, trembling. Be calm, she told herself. Calm as a mutt by a midday fire—Jamie’s turn of phrase. He had so many expressions, most of a darker sort: vivid as a cat’s ass, face like a bulldog licking piss off a nettle, cold as my dear mother’s heart. That bitter turn of mind, so Celtic, but that was why she loved him.
From the very start the attraction lay precisely in what others might call his failures. Success held little appeal for her. Always something brittle about success, something garish, too lucky. She preferred her men wounded but resolved. Solemn determination had greater purchase in her heart than confidence. A man who knew the edge was only a footfall away and who was thinking of how to grab you back from it, protect you, not because he was scared but because he’d made that fall himself once or twice, loved you too much to wish it on you—that was the fella for her.
The queue advanced a step, everyone trudged forward, squeaky boots, soggy shoes. Not much in the way of merry in the faces, she thought, eyeing the others in line. Despite herself, sheglanced over her shoulder at the guard near the door. He was hardly more than a boy, his uniform draped on his bone-thin body like a hand-me-down on a rack—a Latino, face dotted with acne, hair gelled into a black shiny wave frozen in time, thumbs tucked in his belt—no gun, just pepper spray. Good, she supposed, feeling a bit less afraid.
Sensing her gaze, perhaps, he turned toward her and met her eyes. Unable to help herself, she smiled. He returned a smile of his own, self-effacing and slack, then reconsidered, averting his face toward the door, but in that instant she detected not one of those sullen, antsy, me-first young men she so despised and feared. Instead she caught a little of the lonely, the lost. What is it with me, she thought, and strays?
She looked down at the purse she’d brought, one of those shapeless sack-like vinyl things
you could get so cheap along Market Street, the Salvation Army bells ringing all around you as you browsed the vendor racks and stalls. Would it be big enough, she wondered, was it too big? She nudged it with her foot along the floor as the line inched ahead.
She’d met Jamie two Januarys past, at the Horn & Whistle, her neighborhood pub, the holidays well behind them, just the bleak cold wind and metal-gray sky, the empty promise of a new year. But then there he was, and promise beckoned.
He was a charmer, yes, the sandy-colored hair, the milky Irish skin and rust-brown freckles, the chesty laugh and the endless string of slightly cruel jokes. A pint of stout, that’s what he ordered for her, like a black liquor soup, topped with creamy foam. She nursed it as they got acquainted, she a teacher at city college, remedial composition—a tragedy, how poorly most young people read and wrote these days—and he was in sales, something involving computers, she never did grasp it completely.
Ireland was the new promised land for the digerati then, and he’d worked in Dublin for a while, earned his degrees and certificates, then come over with a cousin, acquired one of those visas Silicon Valley was sponsoring right and left a decade back. He soon tired of the whole
mega-corporate slog, went off with a few cohorts to start their own venture, a freelance affair, striking that right balance, enough coin on hand to keep the wolves at bay, enough freedom in his heart to feel like a man. There were setbacks, sure, and he told her about them and they broke her heart. He knew what it meant to fail, then pick himself up, have a pint, share a laugh, get on with it. Leave self-pity to the Russians and Mexicans, he said. Dreams get dashed so new dreams can take their place. They drank to dreams. And she knew in the pit of her heart they would marry.
A mere four weeks later, they did. Valentine’s Day. The courthouse, two strangers for witnesses.
She suddenly found herself at the head of the queue, and a queasy lightheadedness came over her. She bit back the nausea, dabbed at her face with the back of her wool glove.
The house was Jamie’s idea. No better investment than property, he’d said, San Francisco property in particular. What about the recession, she’d said, and he’d answered that’s why the timing’s perfect. Buy low, sell dear. There’s still no way we can manage it, she’d told him, but he’d taken rein of the finances—a husband’s mortal obligation, his words—and he knew a man who knew a man and said trust me and how could she not? And then there they were, a two bedroom bungalow bordering Noe Valley, a fixer-upper for sure, but home.
She left her job with its benefits to manage the most essential repairs, emptied her savings
to pay for them—the kitchen and bath had to be gutted, rebuilt from the floor joists up, so much dry rot, and she blamed the ache in her joints on all the physical labor, pitching in with the workers—while Jamie, suit and tie and freshly shined shoes, went out each day to slay the beast. Solemn determination. Protecting her.
It took until Thanksgiving for him to confess the truth. There was no job, hadn’t been for over a year. He just rode the bus from one end of the city to the other, or sometimes he’d get on the train, ride down to San Jose or out to Walnut Creek, the suburban outposts, all those majestic hills and bustling malls, all the traffic and the nouveau riche. The mortgage lender, in truth a den of crooks Marybeth could hardly believe existed, filed their notices, moved to foreclose and evict—a scam from the start, and she wondered if Jamie had been duped or complicit. Regardless, two days after the last papers were served, she had her consult, learned her joint aches were not
arthritis but something much worse.
The teller near the end came free and beckoned Marybeth forward. She reached down, snatched up the giant floppy purse, trundled over. The teller said something festive in greeting but Marybeth barely heard, it was like she was underwater, rustling around in the bag for the envelope and remembering what Jamie had said the day he’d left: You deserve someone better, I can only drag you down, I’m nothing, a wretch, a failure. I know, she’d thought, I’m a lover of failures, it’s my curse, wanting to tell him—I have cancer, it’s in my bone marrow—but the words wouldn’t come.
Finally, she felt it, the card, brought it out and, hand shaking as though from palsy, slipped it across the counter to the teller. A plump girl, heavy-lidded eyes, flat nose, chestnut hair. She lifted the flap on the envelope, withdrew the Christmas card, inside of which Marybeth had written: I have a gun. Do not trigger the alarm or make a sound. Give me all the money in your cashier tray or I will shoot, one-by-one, the customers standing in line behind me.
Her heart bucked inside her chest as she hefted the huge bag onto the counter for the teller to fill. A note job, they called it—she’d get consideration for not actually having a weapon when they arrested her. Glancing about to see who was staring—no one, it turned out, not yet—she listened to the fluttery thump of the banded stacks of bills as the teller stuffed them inside thepurse. Then a sudden flare of pain shot through her, ripping through her bones like black fire. No, she thought, not now, and she steadied herself, grabbed the purse, then glanced at the teller whose eyes were scared and resentful.
“I’m sorry,” Marybeth whispered as she turned away, shouldering the purse, surprised at its toppling weight, then staggered toward the young Latino guard. A few of the other patrons finally seemed aware of what had happened, there were whispers and stares but Marybeth paid no heed. Her eyes remained fixed on the guard with his stiff wavelike hair, his expression first puzzled then alarmed as she plodded closer.
“I’ve just stolen this.” Grimacing from the pain, she dropped the purse at his feet. They both stared at it. “You need to arrest me, or call the police, if that’s how it’s done.”
Last week, in a magazine that someone had left behind in the bus shelter, she’d read that women could get chemotherapy in prison. And a bank robbery meant federal custody, better care. By no means good care, she thought, but a small hope is still hope, almost collapsing as the young guard glanced down into the bag, saw the money, then looked back at her, panic in his eyes. So young, she thought. Christmas is for the young.
“I’m not crazy.” Her voice was clenched. “Sick, yes, you can probably tell. But not mad.”
He still seemed paralyzed. Fearing she might faint before he understood, she took his hand, clutched it tight. So helpless, she thought, a stray. “Please,” she said softly. “Help me.”