It was sad, that Estee Lauder makeup kit, unwrapped on Christmas Eve. It depressed him: pale beige-pink opalescent plastic, cheap and brittle, cruelly posing as grandeur, those regimented little pockets of face paint. To what purpose? As if smears would make her young or attractive, as if she'd ever, really, been young. Or attractive.
Quite the contrary. Cosmetics denied even a graceful aging, making women, especially old bags like Mother, look grotesque, a cadaver in the hands of a hayseed mortician. The kit was just a big dumb waste of everything, emblematic of their lives, four disparate entities existing under one sorry roof. The sight of it forced him, without a thought, without the ghost of a plan, to stand up, quietly excuse himself, go the hallway closet, shrug into his overcoat, step out the front door, light a cigarette on the stoop, skip down the Brooklyn brownstone steps to the sidewalk. Snow was beginning to fall, leaving a lacework, disturbed only by his footprints. Dean never saw his family again.
Swallowed by the IRT station, waiting a few minutes on the platform, he decided to take the subway to quiet and cavernous Grand Central. Once there, a ticket to Bridgeport. Who would ever disturb him in Bridgeport?
The New Haven Railroad car was sparsely populated. He loosened his tie, eyes straying across the aisle to her legs, and up. Their eyes locked. He smiled, she returned the smile, like a mirror. A copy of The New York Times sat next to her.
"Would you mind if I read your paper?"
"Not at all," she said, leaning across the aisle, handing it to him, still smiling.
He tried to read it, but couldn't focus. There was something about this girl. He pretended to read, wished the paper had funnies, something mindless.
His thoughts drifted to another time and place, decades ago: late October, a family excursion, a hike and picnic near Tarrytown. The day had begun well enough, trees a riot of color, the family chipper, or at least as close to chipper as they were capable. Then, on the drive home, as angry storm clouds collected, their mood flipped, from familial to feral. In the back seat Dean fought viciously with his older brother, punching Roy in the stomach, getting slugged in the nose, blood splotching his shirt. To squelch the violence, Mother snapped and snarled, spitting like a mad dog, as she swatted at her spawn with a tightly rolled Good Housekeeping. "Shut up! Your father is trying to drive!"
Father was silent, taut Teutonic eyes pinned to the road, tensely focused on home. His grip on the wheel of the aged radio-less Rambler was white-knuckled, molars ground his pipe stem. A migraine dusted off a spot on its well-worn sofa. All was quiet for a few minutes until Roy whined, "Why don't we get a neat car? A Pontiac or something? This Rambler is a laughing stock."
The train pulled into the Bridgeport station. As he got up; so did she.
Waiting for the doors to open, the folded paper under his arm, he said to her, "Merry Christmas. And thanks for the paper."
"That sounds like a good-bye. I detest good-byes. My name's Kelly. Why don't we get a cup of coffee?"
Now the snowfall was heavy, a cozy coat covering the diner as they shared a booth and Christmas Eve cups of coffee. Their window was black with night, occasionally brightened by the flashing lights of a plow truck barging through the blizzard.
"I'm running, I don't know a soul in Bridgeport, I just figured I could plunk down here for a time out. No one would ever look for me in this dump. To me, Bridgeport has always spelled death: shabby funeral homes, necrophiliacs lurking in SROs, decrepit cemeteries with acres and acres of tipsy tombstones, sunken-eyed and jaundiced dope addicts, murders committed with rusty straightedge razors, decaying neighborhoods… if you can call collapsing rat-infested slums neighborhoods.” She shuddered at her vision, grinned warmly at him, raven hair obscuring gray eyes, delicate hands wrapped around a cup of hot coffee, black, a little sugar. He was entranced by her. She was sharp, no doubt about that. I'll bet she was a tomboy, one charming tomboy.
Then she added, “Gee, where on earth, besides Bridgeport, do you find shabby funeral homes?”
He looked at the table-top, scratched the back of his head and laughed, “You've sure thought more about Bridgeport than I ever did!”
A late and intimate Christmas Eve dinner: two grilled cheese sandwiches and a big plate of French fries. Kelly slathered the fries in ketchup, emptying most of the bottle of Heinz. Dessert was a shared slice of apple pie and more coffee. The snow still falling, they chatted until dawn, watching the sun rise on Christmas Day, the grim city costumed in virgin white.
On the street she said, "Have you ever thought about a life of crime, real crime, not namby-pamby white collar stuff. I mean two-fisted crime? Y'know, bank robberies. Have you ever thought about that, I mean really considered it?" Her rat-a-tat delivery nailed him. He looked directly into her eyes, in a heartbeat knew her audacity to be genuine. Something else he grasped in that instant: that this is what they'd do, the two of them: they'd rob banks. Electricity trotted up and down his spine, and right there, on a snowy sidewalk outside a grimy diner in Bridgeport, CT, early Christmas Day, he threw his head back and laughed. He loved her.
Their first job, a few weeks later, was so simple, so smooth, it was almost luxurious. Dean hot-wired a nondescript Ford sedan, and they drove to a small Connecticut town, cased the local bank. The next day they returned, pulled nylon stockings over their heads just before entering, flaunting snub-nosed 38s purchased from Bridgeport teens. He fired a shot into the ceiling to make sure all the yokels were paying close attention to his orders: hit the floor; fold your hands behind your head; don’t be a hero and you’ll live; anyone gets out of line, you’re all dead. Kelly stepped forward with a paper grocery bag, pistol pointed at one teller, then the next, until each had filled her bag with all their money, while Dean kept one eye on the floor-huggers, one eye on the door.
Out they sprinted, around the corner, then another, to the car, stockings pulled off. They sped away briskly, but not too fast. His hands were slick with sweat on the wheel. Onto the highway, ditching the car back in Bridgeport, then a stroll to their hotel room.
She loved the way he handled the getaway, like a man. A little nervous, sure. Heck, he’s only human.
Counting the money on their bed, Kelly entertained Dean, told him about the very first time she stole. She was five; it was a Baby Ruth from the corner market. The heady thrill she got from stealing floored her. And how good that candy had tasted, sweeter than anything. Stealing became a habit: candy bars, comic books, small toys. Then, in junior high, records and clothes. By high school she was swiping money from lockers, an open cash register, her mother's purse. She adored free money, laughed when she overheard a square say that unless you worked for something you'd never appreciate it. While in college, she stole a canoe, walking it out the sporting goods store like she’d paid for it. An hour later she returned for the oars. What good's a canoe without oars? But she liked stealing money the best.
"Hey, Dean! Y'know what? We got nearly four grand!"
"Wow! What to do with that much bread? We’ll have to put some of it in the bank.” She laughed until tears ran. Catching her breath, she gasped, "You silly! Don’t y’know? People rob banks!”
That evening, over after-dinner drinks, at a table tucked away in the shadows of Angelo's, their faces lit by dancing candlelight, they plotted their future. They'd travel about New England, knocking off banks in sleepy towns, using the same MO as the first job. After each heist, move along to a new state, lie low, relax, see the sights, and when time and place were aligned, strike again, quick and clean as a cobra. The next morning Kelly snatched a Rand McNally from a service station and they hit the road. All was smooth as a kitten's purr, for a while.
It was the job on a sunny July morning, around 10:30, when their plan hit a rude pothole. A black-and-white happened to roll by as they dashed out of the bank, nylons still distorting their features. The cop glanced over and saw them. Dean fired just two rounds, one killing the copper in a blink, but the other shot was wild, hitting a boy on a Raleigh 3-speed across the street, blasting his brains out the side of his head, boy and bike toppling to the pavement with a clatter and a thud. “Dammit, dammit, dammit,” Dean muttered, as he and Kelly bolted around corners.
Two shocked bystanders on a porch, a biddy peering through lace curtains, a man stepping out of the hardware store: eyes everywhere. Dean could practically hear all the phones being dialed. A citizen yelled, "Police! Police!”
Dean cursed and cursed, tires squealed, they catapulted out of the parking spot, tore down the shady street, whipped around one corner after the next, finally winding their way out of the hick burg, onto a highway, icy rivulets running down Dean’s ribcage. A summer rain broke, intense for a few minutes, then passed. Steam rose from the road.
"Don't worry, baby. The world's a better place without a lousy cop. As for the kid, when your number's up, it's up! End of story. Besides, I hate kids. They're little pains. Then they grow up to be big pains. Hey, look! A rainbow!"
Raising the bag of cash, she looked over at him, winked and gurgled, "And ain't we got a pot o' gold!"
They were in the left lane, maintaining legal speed, no other cars on the road. To the right, entering the highway, a state trooper. Kelly's window rolled down, she waved. Mr. Cop nodded. She unbuttoned her blouse, reached in her bra, waved again to regain his attention, and presented a breast to him. Their cars were neck-and-neck, so close she could almost place it in his mouth. His eyebrows shot up. Then, seemingly from nowhere, her Colt was in his face. Without pause, she squeezed off a neat one, plugging him in the middle of his broad flat forehead. The crew-cut cop slumped forward, leaning into the horn. His blaring vehicle did a wiggle-wobble off the road, sailed through the railing, somersaulted down a ravine, exploded in a fireball, just like the movies.
Sitting there, holding the pistol with both hands, arms extended straight, she spread and closed her knees, over and over. She hissed between clenched teeth, "God! That felt good! That. Felt. So. Good! Wow! My first kill! And it was a cop! Now, if I kill a kid I'll be even with you!"
He looked over at her and chuckled, "You crack me up!”
Kelly was pensive for a few minutes, then said, "Besides cops, y'know who else I hate? Old people! I mean, it used to be everyone died at, like, 68. They had a grabber, that was it. Now modern medicine keeps the zombies alive forever. They stumble about, drooling, they plow their Cadillacs into crowds killing everyone: Oh me! Oh my! I shim-plee don't under-shtand what happened! I shtepped on the brake pedal and my auto-moh-beel lurched forward crushing all those poor people...
"They're too creepy. I don't know what the answer is. I mean, no one's gonna round 'em up and kill 'em. And doctors. I hate doctors. When I was twelve, I told my parents that Dr. Whitman felt me up during the exam, and asked me do it. My pop went over to his house with a baseball bat and beat the snot out of him in front of his family at dinner. Too bad, y'know, that I just made it all up.” She looked down, shook her head, smiling, almost not believing her own wacky past.
With a slight, very feminine, clearing of her throat, Kelly continued, "When I was a kid, about seven or eight, I was playing in the woods, near the pond, and I saw this boy, one of the older kids, and he'd caught a frog, and I could see he was going to torture it, his pocket knife was open. So I picked up a good size rock and threw it as hard as I could and hit him, solid, in the back of his head. That sound! Thunk! He was never the same after that. Eventually his family stashed him in one of those facilities, I guess they call them homes. Ha, ha! Like it’s, y’know, home! All nice and homey, gramma bakin’ biscuits. Anyway, the froggy hopped back to the pond, no worse for the wear. Y'know, I love frogs. All reptiles and amphibians, really. I used to be nuts for dinosaurs, just nuts. I wanted to be a paleontologist, but that looked like an awful lot of work, to be a paleontologist. School. That’s another thing I can live without. Only lasted a year in college.”
Dean rested easy in her stories, the tales a font of the amazing, ever-fresh. Also, her voice had a soothing effect, like “Beautiful Dreamer” on Mighty Joe Young.
After a time she said, "I know where there's an abandoned farmhouse way in the boondocks, about 30 miles from here. We can hunker. Take Exit 7. We'll be fine, we'll live in the sticks for a few weeks, then we'll follow the Burma Shave signs way out west: Wyoming, Colorado, the Dakotas. They have banks there, too, y’know. I've always wanted to see the Rockies and saloons and stuff. When we have enough dough, we can buy a ranch, get some horses. We'll be cowboys, it'll be glorious. Just you wait and see." Despite a calm tone and countenance, her brain was speeding, so exhilarated by the day's doings. My guy! Wow! He's something, never misses a beat. An errant shot? Happens to the best. And to top it off, I killed a copper! Red letter day, you bet!
"Dean, this has been, like, the best day ever. Y'know what we should do? Let's find a justice of the peace. Let's get married!" Smiling gauzily up at him, Kelly clicked on the radio, twiddled the dial, craving a symphony.
—Follow J.D. King on Twitter: @jdking_mod