Mound Visit is the second place winner in the Autumn 2023 Quarterly Short Story Competition.
I lit a fresh smoke and hand-cranked the window down a few inches, watching the smoke swirl at my dashboard, fighting for a way to escape into the morning air. The rain relentlessly pounded the roof of my Lincoln Town Car. I was willing to wait it out, I spotted puffy white clouds and blue skies in the distance. Only a passing storm. I flicked the growing pillar of ash onto the sidewalk as a singular fat drop of rain landed on the ember, extinguishing it. I lit another one and coughed until I could feel tiny capillaries cresting to the surface of my cheeks, ready to burst. Most of the blood droplets were able to land in my handkerchief, others dotted the dashboard and steering wheel. The rain transitioned from a downpour to torrential as people on the sidewalk scattered in all directions like cockroaches when you flip on a light switch. Most were headed to work, some were still half-drunk from the night before, stumbling to the diner to soak up the booze with greasy eggs, sausage, and toast before crashing on a couch and sleeping until noon. Ah, to be young again.
I was doing neither, I was just a dying crook with wet pants. Halfway through the cigarette, I started to cough again. I tossed it out and tried to crank the window up as my chest burned and heaved. My coughs transitioned into laughs, but for the life of me I couldn’t tell you one thing that was funny. I suppose it’s because I’m 74 years old as of next week, and I wasn’t rocking on a porch somewhere out in the country spoiling a whole mess of grandkids. I wasn’t golfing every day with other retirees and sleeping in an air-conditioned condo in Fort Lauderdale, pretending it’s not hot, dying a slow death. Maybe that’s what was funny, a few alternate choices some fifty-odd years ago and I probably would be at that country club in Florida, ordering a BLT and an Arnold Palmer in the clubhouse after shooting a quick nine. That actually sounds quite nice right about now.
I couldn’t help but think about the rest of my team, that’s probably what they’re doing right this damn second. George, that man lived for golf, I bet he got those feds to send him somewhere it never snowed, Scottsdale or Savannah maybe. I’m sure they’d do anything he damn pleased after his regurgitation of information in that courtroom. The coward lacked the decency to even look me in the eye when he sat up there. I sat next to lawyers in my nicest suit, stifling a growing cough that felt like television static in my lungs, staring daggers at him. I hope he thinks of me every time he slices a tee shot to the right, which he always does. I hope he remembers how I would howl in laughter and make the same stupid joke. Actually George, the hole is that way.
Reggie was an avid outdoorsman and hunter. He gave up more people than George did, I bet he’s got a million acres up in Alaska or Montana somewhere with FBI and ATF butlers doting on his every need. I white-knuckled the steering wheel thinking about his smug smile on top of a horse, riding through a ranch like some desperado. And again, here I was, an old man fresh out of prison with a chest on fire and no money to his name. And wet pants. Until the day I die, which seems to be sooner than later, I’ll never forget turning to see Reggie during my last job. He didn’t say anything, and he didn’t have to. His eyes expressed contrition and that’s when I knew I was screwed. I’ve been around long enough to know when a job feels right and when it doesn’t. Not a single teller screamed or tried to hit the alarm. They always thought they were so slick when they would slowly back away from the counter after pressing the button. Most banks, right before I got locked up anyway, had those alarms that the tellers could press with their feet. The tellers would take a split-second glance down, making sure to keep their shaking hands in the air. That was my signal to hit the road.
We stormed in that day, waving our guns in all directions, spitting out our usual admonitions. Get down on the ground. Wallets, keys, phones, now. Hands, let me see those hands. The words came out but there was no one to tell them to. Not a single customer on a Thursday morning at 9:00? That’s the moment I should have turned around. The teller didn’t even shake or stutter when I shouted through my mask to open the safe before I such-and-such and such-and-such. She pressed the code and spun the giant wheel on the door, creaking it open. I took one glance behind me; George and Reggie were nowhere to be seen. That’s when I was certain I was screwed. The vault door swung open and the tellers hit the deck. It was so beautifully rehearsed, they looked like actors following stage directions.
All I saw was a sea of badges and shotgun barrels emerging from the safe. They could have easily waited for me outside, but the feds were always a fan of theatrics. Agent Helton, who has been in unmarked cars in my rearview for the better part of a decade, led the hungry pack of wolves. They’re crookeder than me, I bet they stuffed their pockets in there. Helton held his badge and identification open in front of my face.
“I know who you are, Lou.”
“Nice to see you again, Al,” he remarked, folding his credentials back into his pocket.
Someone told me to get on my knees and I told him where he could stick it. They viewed this as resisting arrest, and I caught the butt of a shotgun to the back of my head. I regained consciousness in a holding cell, no George, no Reggie. I rubbed my neck while I imagined them getting their new passports and new lives. They gave them everything. Every last piece of intel for every job I did in the past two years.
There was a time when the FBI considered me the best there was. My picture was posted on the center of every cop’s corkboard from here to Newark. A thorn in the side of every agent who had to look at my picture day after day, surrounded by highways of yarn and thumbtacks. Any man, in any profession, is only as good as his team. If I could have done these jobs myself, I would have. And I did as a young man. I got older and was introduced to Reggie who was a computer whiz. It didn’t hurt that he worked for an alarm company. George, well George had balls of steel. We would slide in and out and no one would get hurt. Most of the time.
The last time I counted, I pulled off twenty-two jobs. On the twenty-third, I found myself in handcuffs. If I succeeded twenty-two out of twenty-three times at the plate for the New York Yankees I’d be a hero. Alas, the Yankees never called and when it comes to banks, one time is all it takes to send you away for a long time.
During those years, I was visited by Helton and his men more than once with photo arrays and surveillance footage of holdups. He wanted my advice in exchange for time off my sentence. I don’t know these guys, I would tell him as I watched a bank robbery halfway across the country. Doesn’t matter, he told me. What do you see? How’d they get the alarm code? Is it an inside job?
“You see that one teller at the end? The big boy?”
“He’s the only one that didn’t look up when those boys ran in screaming. Watch the tape again. He’s the one.”
“Are you sure?” asked the rookie Helton brought with him that day.
“He’s sure,” Helton answered for me.
There was a lull in the rain, so I used this opportunity to light another cigarette. Out of nowhere a vagrant appeared in my window asking if I had an extra one. In another scenario I might have caused a scene, told him to get a job, but not today. My car idled on a side street near the Farnsworth Credit Union, and according to everyone in the can, it was impossible to rob. Vault doors thicker than Fort Knox and armed ex-military guards. I wasn’t too worried, any lock is only as powerful as the one holding the key.
Sitting in my car I thought about Vicki, who was there for me every step of the way until she wasn’t. I never told her exactly what I did for a living, but she was no fool. She knew I worked construction. She also knew that I would disappear for a few days and stash bills under the floorboards in the attic when I returned.
Vicki would come visit me for the first few years, but each visit her eyes looked heavier and the glass between us grew thicker. She ended up getting back together with her high-school sweetheart. I wanted to send some people after him at first, but that thought dissipated before it ever came to fruition. I wanted her to be happy, no one should have to be committed to a living corpse behind bars. I never even called to tell her I got out early. My thumb hovered over her name in my phone, but I tossed it back onto the passenger seat. It’s now or never. I tossed the cigarette out the window, took two deep puffs from an inhaler to soothe the static in my lungs, and tucked a Walther pistol into a newspaper. The door of my Town Car groaned when I stepped out and walked towards Farnsworth Credit Union, using the newspaper to shield my head from the deluge.
One of the saddest things to witness is the athlete well past his prime, refusing to walk into the sunset despite a diminishing set of skills. The basketball player whose blown out knees refuse to let him jump. The aging pitcher, whose shoulder is held together with nuts and bolts, giving up moon shots to kids half his age. Perhaps it’s stubbornness. Not wanting to leave the game that has been the focal point of every facet of their lives. Egos cast a shadow over their reality, and fans regard them with tepid sympathy, offering half-hearted praise like they were watching a nursing home patient being able to feed themselves. A horse on their last race, ready to be lead behind a barn and take a bullet behind the ear.
Well, I didn’t take one behind the ear, but I almost did. It was either in my shoulder or somewhere in my chest. I couldn’t really tell initially, but my whole right side was starting to go limp and numb. I didn’t have time to play doctor, my mirrors were swimming with red and blue lights. Maybe it was the adrenaline, but my coughing fit worsened when I pulled onto the interstate. With each convulsion of my lungs and stomach, I misted the windshield with a red spray. The pack of cigarettes on my passenger seat felt a mile away, my right arm was now a useless appendage. Hot bolts of pain, worse than the ones in my lungs, shot through my arm when I tried to move it. I left the steering wheel unattended for a moment and grabbed the cigarettes with my left hand. The car jabbed to the right, then steadied once I grabbed the wheel and lit what felt like my last cigarette.
I felt like that aging pitcher, the one standing on the mound with a death grip on the baseball, knowing my manager was about to take it from me and I would walk off the mound forever. A line of reds and blues dotted the foreground. I’m sure it’s not doctor-recommended, but the cigarette smoke gave my lungs something familiar. It lulled them into a false sense of security and stopped my coughing, at least for the moment. Two cops on either side of the highway were ready to throw the spike strip onto the asphalt. My thumb left a bloody print on the name Vicki in my phone.
“Hey. It’s me.”
“Are you out?”
“Yes. Have been for a while.”
A lump of silence.
“I heard that. I can hear you smoking. Not even the big casino can make you give it up, huh?”
“I’m quitting right now,” and I actually did toss the butt out the window.
“What is that? Sirens? Are you in trouble?”
“Naw. Must be an accident nearby.”
“You know we shared a bed for many years, right? I know when you’re full of shit.”
“Vicki? I’m sorry about everything. I’m sorry that…”
“Al? I’m gonna stop you right there. Ain’t no sense in going down that road. You did what you did and you went where you went. Nothing we can do about it now.”
“Ya. Vicki? You know that I’ve always…”
“Yes, I know. You take care of yourself, okay Al?”
I don’t think I’m going to be enshrined in Cooperstown anytime soon, but at least I understand why those graying sports stars would stay in for one more inning or come back for one more year. My tires were seconds away from becoming shredded rubber, but I was ready to hand the ball over and hit the showers. It was time to hang ‘em up and walk off into that sunset once and for all.