It was supposed to be an easy job.
“Like cake and pie,” Rick said, slicing the air with a box cutter, practicing jab-stab-shoot combos, a pellet gun tucked in his waistband. I believed him because Rick was the only friend I had left. I believed him because I hadn’t been around long enough to learn a valuable lesson of the old neighborhood: trouble always starts with box cutters and pellet guns.
I had used a pellet gun for protection, tagging rats out back at Uncle Andy’s appliance repair shop. The size of cats, they ate water bugs as big as hard-boiled eggs. Despite what people say about junkies and rats, we were hardly friends. Many nights they nibbled holes in my socks. The invaders clattered over greasy, broken-down boxes I slept on in the summer. If I couldn’t crush their skulls with my boot heel in the darkness, I waited until morning and shot off a couple rounds. The pellets sliced through falling dust, their trajectories made visible by a golden glow pouring through the storefront windows.
When I found Rick heehawing, shooting empty cans of Old Style off a busted ice box, I knew he meant business, not rats.
It was time to take Carol’s Diner, and take it fast.
We had planned to rob the joint for months, sketching the job over beer and blow at the shop at 63rd and Central. We were messed up, bored. We needed a thrill.
Despite the plans, I felt nervous. The decision to carry them out came sooner than I had hoped. Rick was never enthusiastic about much – unless pinched, of course, influenced by something outside of him, like a debt too deep or a bet too good. This time it was Uncle Andy landing in the clink for driving drunk again. None of us had money for bail. We were majestically broke.
“He’d do the same for us,” Rick said, shirtless, sawdust sprinkled through the hairs of his Christ-like chest, his face like a swollen orange, his eyes as wide and bright as silver dollars lost in the mud. Rick was the kind of friend who made you wonder why you had friends.
“With these,” he said, handing me the tools, “we can slice and blind the brave.”
I studied the box cutter: about four inches long, grey-colored and speckled with rust.
“We’re gonna poke their eyes out,” I said, raising the blade in the palm of my hand, “with this?”
“That’s right,” he said, snatching his weapons back. “Whadda you know, anyway? You’re chickenshit.”
Rick often went out of his way to prove he wasn’t dumb. I saw him light himself on fire once, put out cigarettes with his tongue.
“Here,” Rick said, annoyed, “hold my beer.”
He then showed me how to gut a guy.
“Has to be one fluid motion,” he said. Almost dancing, Rick kicked up some sawdust from the floor and sneezed in the middle of it all. He never stopped. “In. Up. Out. Boom! Their guts hit the floor.”
I wasn’t sure if he was making it up or not.
“You see,” Rick said, briefly showing his teeth, “like cake and pie.”
He pulled the pellet gun from his waistband and emptied a clip into the dead mouth of a dryer.
Carol’s Diner sat on the corner of 55th and Central, a main vein through Chicago’s south side. A 24-hour stop for spitfires past midnight and churchgoers after dawn, Carol’s scraped in a lot of dough from different crowds. It was the only joint of its kind within a mile of the convents and bars, nestled between Elm-dotted knolls and an empty prairie kids sometimes used as a makeshift ball field. Carol’s also pulled in patrons from places far from the middle. Places like Oakland, El Paso, Miami. Didn’t matter. Outsiders always asked the same question: how can you stand the sound? They meant the sound of airplanes descending, screeching, rumbling into Midway International Airport. It happened several times an hour, every hour, every day. We were used to the sound. It wasn’t unlike the sound freight trains cutting through neighborhoods to the yard in Cicero, visible from patios and playgrounds. It wasn’t terrible. On borrowed time between arrivals and departures, visitors could never really know our kind of terrible. Not about the rolling, skeletal industrial parks of 65th or the $25-a-night deep dive Pink Palace Suites, where recently laid off line workers pumped quarters into vibrating heart-shaped beds, with women who came of age in dark corners of Rudy & Ann’s, their grey hair dyed blond or black or red, their routines sparked by mini-fridge mimosas on dust-colored mornings, a shaken concoction of 10-buck Mumms and Tropicana from McDonald’s. From cracked-up postal clerks to single mothers splitting time between the bakery and light switch factory to old men turning wrenches under trucks at International Harvester, the faces of the old neighborhood, hard and furrowed, as if fashioned with stone, found comfort at places like Carol’s. The place was bright and open, with long, wrap-around windows, a kitchen bar, fixed stools and fresh donuts, served up by girls from the Catholic high schools farther south, in Oak Lawn, Burbank, River Forest. From the parking lot, past welcoming neon, you could see grave-looking men and women chewing their breakfasts, almost always senior specials, sipping shaky, decaffeinated coffee, not saying much, the reservoir of conversation outside Christ and Christmas dried up. At night, Rick and I blended in just fine, splitting a basket of gravy fries. We planned to take it in the afternoon, a slow, safe time.
The night before the pop, I tried to get some sleep, slumped on an olive green vinyl couch in Uncle Andy’s office. Rick was wired. He wouldn’t shut up.
“How can you sleep?” Rick asked, squeezing a box cutter in his hands, his knuckles turning white.
“Easy,” I said, “Like this.”
I closed my eyes.
“I’ve got fire running through me … Blood’s burnin’ like oil,” Rick said. “I could punch through a brick wall or could jump over a speeding car if I had to … Ten feet off the fuckin’ ground … Yes-sir-ie-bob.”
A beautiful dark-haired reporter flashed on the small black-and-white television on the desk and launched into a story about a little boy shot dead at a playground. A stray bullet found the back of his skull as he ran through woodchips, his best friend, a few feet away, swinging on the monkey bars.
Rick shot the tube. A cluster of pellets ricocheted off the screen and shattered a mason jar sitting on a cabinet across the room. Rick wasn’t a sentimental dude.
“Jesus,” I said, sitting up. “I’m trying to relax. Visualization. Shouldn’t you be doing the same? This ain’t a game. If you’re gonna fuck around, do me a favor and do it out back.”
His eyes wide, Rick threw a knife at me. It pierced the couch cushion. I launched from the couch and punched him in the head for fucking around like that.
“Do it again,” he said, a sick grin growing on his face. “Do it again.”
“I just want to relax,” I said.
“Poor baby,” Rick said, shrinking, the air leaving his swollen chest. “You know they have pills for that.”
“Yeah? Well, I don’t have any.”
“You will in about 23 minutes.”
It was 1:37 a.m. when Rick pulled the knife out of the couch. I noticed the word “Diablo” stamped across the blade, a parting gift from his father. He never left the shop without it. He wiped the blade on his jeans, slipped it in a sheath fashioned into the leather of his boot and stormed out of the shop.
The shop was home.
Rusted water heaters, washers, and dryers lined the aluminum-sided walls; mold often filled the busted appliances, once loved, hauled from city junkyards, stained yellow and smelling like an abandoned urinal. The scars came from the months of rain, heat and snow before Uncle Andy came along and gave the machines a home.
I called him Uncle Andy, but Andy wasn’t my uncle. I met him after my dad died, after the bank took his place in Bridgeport. Nowhere else to go, I ran drugs for the Cobras, a Mexican street gang with fronted chop shops in the projects off Pulaski Avenue. Andy was a regular customer, but he never used. Instead, I later learned, he took trips to Michigan and Indiana and doubled his money, dealing to old friends, mostly ex-jailbirds, he said, with piss poor attitudes. I don’t know what Andy saw in me, but he eventually pulled me off the drug circuit and offered me a job salvaging parts from the yards. The post came with a place to stay, a few meals a week, and a few bucks if he had a few bucks to spare. It didn’t take long to decide. With a chance to leave some of the nasty shit behind, I split, real quick.
I met Rick a few weeks later, his body hanging halfway out a green dumpster in the alley behind the shop, his head tucked between the factory orange foam of a few old couch cushions. At first glance I thought he was killed by revenge-seeking men and left there, dead – until I heard gargling snores, smelled the rotted citrus smell of booze sweated out.
I tossed a bag of trash in the dumpster. The exploding tinks of glass against tin jarred awake the slumbering vagrant.
“What time is it?” he asked, fresh from his dreams. His question startled me.
“Six o’clock,” I said.
“Morning or night?”
“It’s six o’clock in the morning,” I said. Uncle Andy liked to hit the yards early.
Uncle Andy had been looking for extra help. Picking through the yard with three men shortened the day and brought in more loot. On good days we walked through the gates with two lifters and a scout. For his age, Uncle Andy could lift just fine, but in those later years it seemed he had a sharper snout. He preferred to scout.
Rick looked like a guy who had spent some time around junk.
“You lookin’ for work?”
Rick rubbed his eyes, looked down the alley at the cars rolling down a sun-flooded 63rd and then turned his eyes back to me, squinting real hard.
“Six in the morning, you say?” I sensed him considering the difference between taking work from a stranger at dusk and taking it at dawn, his odds of staying safe.
“Six in the morning,” I said.
“When do we start?”
I invited him inside for instant coffee. We passed a thermos around. He sobered up, telling me stories of other times he had landed in dumpsters. He had been everywhere, from abandoned hotels in Seattle to construction sites of multi-million-dollar developments in Provincetown. He had some pills and shared them with me. I saw a lot of myself in Rick, most of our families gone, dotting the country at indefinite addresses or graves in California, Texas and Florida. Talking with him in the shop, it seemed we both understood that things could get better if we could just keep our names out of the newspapers. Considering old friends, long dead or jailed, it seemed things stopped getting better once your name rolled off the presses. An honest living seemed like a good place to start.
In his work attire, which was never anything more extravagant than blue jeans and a tucked-in grey T-shirt, Uncle Andy interviewed Rick for the job.
“How good are you at moving things?” Uncle Andy asked.
“Depends,” Rick said, scratching the back of his neck, looking down. “Would I be crossing any state lines?”
Uncle Andy turned his jaw and gave Rick a hard look.
There was a beat of silence – immediately broken by Uncle Andy’s deep laugh.
“He’ll do fine,” Uncle Andy said, tossing me the keys to the van.
A dark, silent hour after Diablo careened past my jugular at 100 nerve endings per second, I tried to picture the job in the parking lot of St. Jermaine’s. There, we planned to snatch some cash, then shoot up and nod out, get some sleep.
“It’ll be real quick,” Rick whispered, “In and out.”
He pulled a key from his pocket and unlocked a side door beneath an aluminum awning barely attached to the building’s crumbling brown mortar. The key was stolen.
He had been a janitor at St. Jermaine’s a few summers before. Part time, on the weekends, when the kids were home. Rick preferred to be called a civil engineer, but all he did was mop the floors and scrub toilets. His mom got him the job before she took off to Vegas for good. She had an in with the full-time janitor, a man named Munch. That’s where she slept when the baker let loose on her. I always admired the secrets of the boiler room.
The job seemed easy enough: monitor the wear of the urinal cakes, clean the bowls, and lock up everything when everything was done. Leave it to Rick to fuck it up. He always had excuses. It was hard to trust a guy like Rick with loud machinery, out of fear the noise would drown the bit of good sense he had left inside him.
“What did I tell you?” Rick snapped, jiggling the key in the lock. “Don’t worry about it … Relax.”
I hadn’t said anything. He must have been hearing things, the drag of insomnia kicking in. It happened sometimes.
The steel door stood in front of us like a medieval barricade. The heaviness of the thing, its creak, screamed we should stop, but we went ahead anyway. Letting the darkness swallow us, we hoped it’d lead to a place of light and goodness. The shadows covered a long hallway leading to the priests’ quarters, the sacristy. The sound of footsteps and careful breathing never sounded as terrible before or since. We were there.
I walked toward a dim, golden glow at the end of the carpeted hallway. I began to see the outline of the rug, dyed burgundy with black, rubber edges. An explosion of candlelight made me squint. I spun around, trying to study the gigantic room. Candles illuminated several rows of wooden pews, their edges distinct, the others slowly fading into a brown pool of varnish. A single wide aisle led me to the altar, covered in purple cloth.
I wasn’t a religious man, but the stained glass and wooden statues made me wish I believed in something. Feeling like an ant that had wandered into a foot-heavy kitchen, an anxiety expanded inside me, pulling my heart, it seemed, with 15 or 16 strings hooked in my belly. I paced back and forth from the doorway to the pews to fight my nerves. I stretched and stretched, standing on my toes.
There was a lot of wood in that place. A large crucifix hung behind the altar, a detailed statue of Jesus Christ nailed to it, bony and bloody, the eyes open, as if someone had placed him there as a guardian. I wondered how much good a savior could do nailed to the cross he was forced to bare. I slipped a cigarette in my mouth, but I couldn’t find the nerve to light it, surrounded by tiny flames, dancing and willing. I felt smothered by the stained-glass windows along the side walls of the church and the detailed figures the artist had trapped. I gave them names: the unknown saint, the shrouded angel, the nameless woman – all staring down with impenetrable eyes. I was sure mine were as black by then, too.
I found the fingernail of a saint in a case at the back of the Church. It rested on a stout iron concession box. A combination pad and lever protruded from its midsection, painted gold but starting to oxidize to a dull olive green. The nail looked like a burnt potato chip.
I looked at my own fingernails in the candlelight. They were calloused, yellow from smoking cigarettes. I wondered if in a thousand years someone would put my nails behind glass, maybe throw money at them, if their powers would cure diseases, answer prayers.
I dropped a quarter in the coin slot of the concession box. It was my last quarter. A jingle let me know it wouldn’t be lonely in there. I prayed.
I prayed the heroes would die.
I prayed bravery outside my own would shrink.
I prayed Rick would find riches in the darkness.
I prayed I’d get wise.
I prayed Uncle Andy’s liver would grow back.
I prayed dad was still alive.
I prayed for a different story, a different time.
I prayed my prayers would work like wishes, remembered old advice: wish in one hand and shit in the other, see which one fills up quicker.
I prayed and I prayed and I prayed until a hand fell on my shoulder blade.
“Hey, relax,” Rick whispered, his pockets jingling. “Were you talking to that potato chip in there?”
“Let’s get the fuck out of here.”
In the car we counted the change: $35. It was enough to load up and fly down I-55, past the light-dotted skyscrapers, a black tide reeling over the shore of Lake Michigan. We floated through the world on autopilot and headed back to the shop for some shuteye. A bomb couldn’t disturb my dreams.
I fell off the couch around 11, woke up with a thud and hazy hangover.
Today, I thought, today.
A month earlier, today seemed so far away. Somehow, we’d made it, but I was afraid, feeling like a boy again, trying to think of some excuse to stay home and skip school. I didn’t know much about following through. What I did know was I didn’t have much of a choice in the matter, not when the aroma of cooking oil billowed into the room.
I stumbled to the front of the shop where I found Rick. He had cracked a window and propped a camping stove on top of a washer-dryer combo. He stood over sliced and sizzling potatoes.
“Taters,” Rick said, a dirty apron tied around his waist.
In those days, we were potato guys. Couldn’t afford much else.
One potato in the morning burned like a 10-mile wick. Most days, one potato was all you needed to get through a long haul. We hoped splitting one would carry us through the getaway.
“Here,” Rick said, forking three golden brown strips of starch onto a plate and handing it to me. “Eat.”
I took a bite, burning the roof of my mouth. I knew it would bubble up later.
Rick stayed quiet most of the morning. He stared out the window, eating his taters. The sun poured into the shop, warm, the kind of light that leads to dreams.
“We’ll leave at 3,” Rick said.
I nodded and ate, imagining the plan:
We roll up to Carol’s, and Rick parks the beast out front. I get out, looking tougher than I actually was, maybe with a pair of old sunglasses on. Slipping a few stolen church coins into the newspaper dispenser’s slot, I grab the city tabloid, then grab a stool at the diner’s bar.
Order coffee. Turn to the sports page. Read. Strikeout Leaders. The National League. There he is again. Randy Johnson, throwing heat: 103 Ks before the break. Think about Kerry Wood and his torn up elbow. Imagine how good he’d be with a bit of health.
Easy, I think.
Glance around the diner between statistics. Count customers, memorize their seating arrangements. Halfway through my coffee, stretch arms to the ceiling, scratch back of neck, signal Rick. He’s waiting, watching from the parking lot. He walks in, pulls the pellet gun from his waistband, its plastic, orange safety broken off. He demands the cash. Bags in hand, we’re out the door, the whole thing taking 10, 15 minutes.
Easy, I think. Easy.
Next thing I knew I wasn’t dreaming anymore.
“It’s time,” Rick said.
It sure was.
Rick had been stopped at the light at 55th and Central, in front of the diner, when I looked through the long, shimmering windows and watched a short, bald man in green flannel push the barrel of a sawed-off shotgun into the face of a pretty, dark-haired waitress.
Somehow, we’d fucked up without trying. Someone had gotten there first and left the toys at home. That’s why I was surprised when Rick pulled the van around back and rolled into the parking lot anyway.
“What the fuck are you doing?”
Rick didn’t say anything. His eyes darted left and right, scanning the lot, it seemed, for clues. He parked the van between a busted up and burgundy Crown Vic and a payphone flanked by a gluttonous green dumpster, a few towering light poles.
“Those guys were serious,” I said. “Let’s go.”
“Don’t worry about them,” Rick said. “Follow me.”
He crawled through the van’s cavernous belly – gutted to store sickly machines – and looked out the tiny back window.
“See that Olds?” Rick asked.
I crept to the window, trying not to hit my head on the van’s roof, and looked out, toward the front of the shop, where a rust-bottomed white Cutlass sat next to a cluster of handicap spots. Its nose pointed away from the diner. Someone had backed it in.
“I need you to yank the battery,” Rick said. “We ain’t leaving with nothing.”
My eyes cooled, opened wider than I was used to.
“They’ll see me,” I said, pleading. “How the fuck do you expect me to pull that off … They’ll shoot me dead.”
Rick grabbed my collar. His hand was surprisingly still, as if he thrived in the moments closest to death, which, by all accounts, was true.
“Very carefully,” he said.
He let go of my shirt and crawled to the front of the van, swinging open the driver’s side door.
“Bring it back here when you’re done,” he said, stepping out of the van, looking back. “I’m going toward 55th to scope things out.”
He headed toward the back of the diner, disappearing behind a row of bushes.
I stepped out the car, a little stiff, my heart racing. My legs buckled a bit, as they often do in the moments closing in on death, like an arrow hurtling toward a target in a hail storm, unaware on the impending weight falling toward the ground. I leaned my head on the side of the van and tried to think of something better to do.
Nothing. This was the thrill I had been looking for.
I walked, slowly, toward the front of the diner, the Olds growing larger and larger until I found myself crouched next to the driver’s side door. Peeking my head just above the door handle, I looked into the shop. There, I saw two men, one much taller and thinner than the other, talking to an elderly couple. The barrel of tall one’s .40-caliber glock orchestrated the conversation. A grey-haired lady sat there, shaking and praying, her hands folded and pointed toward heaven. The robber flipped through what looked like one of those picture books kept in purses and wallets, only shared with a chosen few. The lady didn’t have a choice. The sight made something rise inside of me, something I could only, at that time, describe as rage.
I crawled around to the driver’s side door, opened it and wedged myself inside, keeping my head below the headrest, out of sight.
The car smelled of cigarettes, gas station jerky and oil. It was a smell I knew well, having hauled freight between coasts for a spell. On the seat rested pastry wrappers and road maps, from Colorado, Nebraska, Iowa. From the rearview mirror a CDL license hung from an elastic neck band. I pulled it down and read the greasy, laminated card.
He was born in Reno, Nevada.
Name: Peter Walling
Height: 6 feet, 3 inches
Weight: 185 lbs
Peter Walling’s mustached face was pockmarked and dotted with stubble, his nose bulbous like most of the men I had come to know, most likely from swimming in booze or indulging in other means to thin the blood.
I knew his face well, because I saw it everywhere. Another emotion then reared its head in my gut, one I could only, at that time, describe as sorrow. I felt sorry. For what? I couldn’t tell you.
The car’s ignition had been ripped from the dashboard, a screwdriver stabbed into the rounded-out keyhole. I recognized the rig. It’s the first thing they teach you on Pulaski Avenue. Stabbing the switch with a Philips head screwdriver and shifting the blade down, like a lever, you could start the car, allowing current from the battery to flow through the tool and power the alternator.
I reached under the dashboard and pulled the hood release: nothing. It was jammed. Pulling the screwdriver out of the ignition, I slipped it into my waistband, next to my pellet gun.
Outside the car, I crawled to the nose of the Cutlass. A jagged hole stretched across the grille, looking like the mouth of a piranha. The bumper, bent, looked like a wide “V,” its sharp tip piercing the car’s face like an arrow. A fuzzy piece of dirty blond twine held the hood down.
I peeked above the nose of the Olds and looked through the windshield, into the diner.
Peter Walling, the bigger one, had the old lady up from her seat. She danced with him. Her husband’s mouth hung like a horseshoe, the open end pointed toward the linoleum.
I crawled around the Cutlass and slipped into the driver’s seat again, gently clicked the door shut. The seat had been adjusted for a man with long legs. I pulled the seat forward and leaned back, looking into the passenger’s side mirror, saw the backs of heads. I reached a hand up and adjusted the rearview.
Inside, I could see Peter and his boy barking orders at the waitress. She riffled through the cash drawer with unsteady hands, filling a brown, paper doggy bag with every kind of bill.
That’s when I pulled the screwdriver from my waistband and stabbed the ignition, pushing the handle down, like a lever. The car choked, as if to say it had had enough. Then, a roar, a plume of white smoke rising in the rearview.
I stomped my foot onto the gas pedal and slipped the car into gear. The Cutlass darted forward, its belts squealing. I ripped the steering wheel toward the back of the lot and saw Rick talking on the pay phone. Hearing the terrible sound, he whipped his head around and saw it was me coming at him.
I stopped and looked in the mirror: the short, fat one ran toward the back of the car, about 30 yards away.
“Go to the shop!” I yelled through the window.
Rick nodded, the air sucked from his chest as he looked toward the diner and the back window of the Cutlass exploded with the blast of a shotgun shell.
Rick ducked into the van. I stomped the gas like the skull of one of those fucking rats. The exit in sight, I glanced in the mirror again. The robber raised the sawed-off. That’s when Rick plowed into him with the back of the van, spilling his body, face first, over the asphalt.
At the light near St. Jermaine’s, I could see the one good headlight of Uncle Andy’s van trailing in the distance.
I was scared shitless, but all I could do was laugh, realizing I had just blown out of the parking lot of Carol’s Diner in a stolen car listening to Chopin. A string of cop cars raced past, sirens blaring. I knew, then, Rick had called the fuzz. He was one vindictive son of a bitch. The burst of flashing lights fading behind me, I felt relieved for the first time in a long time.
I felt even better when the Cobras slapped a couple hundred bucks in my hand. More than enough for Uncle Andy’s bond, maybe some to spare for a celebratory trip to the bar. The Reno boys had a toolbox, donut tire, and coin-filled coffee can stashed in the Cutlass. Julio, head of the chop shop on Harding, where I used to work, took everything, even the car. Julio was a good guy to see about making things disappear. I knew in a week’s time the car would be in a thousand pieces, its battery sold, its catalytic converter stripped of the precious metals it held – trace amounts of platinum, I’m told – its Nevada plates mounted to Julio’s wall, its frame crushed and stacked at the Archer junkyard, another building block, rising toward restless heavens, toward God.
I took the long way home, cutting through forgotten parts of the old neighborhood. There was Pasteur, the park off Kenneth, the keeper of secrets crafted in adolescence. There were the vacant docks of Acorn, a shuttered packaging firm that once employed my father, the lunch whistle a ghost lost somewhere between the brickyard and budding billion-dollar supercenters. I walked train tracks, toward Sante Fe Railroad, where I once worked the graveyard shift, monitoring refrigerated freight cars. That was the last steady spell I had the luxury of exploding into a million tiny pieces, splattering shards of really rank stuff into everyone. That was the last time I tried figuring out what needed fixing.
I stopped at Rudy & Ann’s, never expecting to find Rick there. But there he was, standing at the jukebox, bobbing, Springsteen singing about deals gone sour. Money in my pocket, I felt good. I called Rick over and ordered up some drinks. Annie, Ann’s younger and more graceful daughter, tended bar like an angel. Her gins were gifts from the heavens, never measured, never short.
“You did good,” Rick said, pulling the glass to his lips. He didn’t say much after that. It wasn’t long before he bowed his head and crashed. I paid the tab and circled back to a mile-long stretch of sidewalk running along the steel barriers of Midway.
Sometimes, I stopped and stared at the bellies of airliners. Some fell to runways, others soared to somewhere else, far away, where no one knew a thing about the old neighborhood, where I came from.
Ed Komenda is a writer and journalist from Chicago’s south side. He holds an English degree from Western Illinois University. Since leaving the Midwest he has worked as a reporter for newspapers in Pennsylvania, South Florida, and Nevada. He now lives in Las Vegas, where he writes about gambling for the Las Vegas Sun.
–Art by Jon Damaschke