The guard’s bullet had hit Junior’s skull belt buckle and ricocheted or something, he figured. He had pulled the belt out of its loops and it lay stained with sweat on the seat next to him as drove away from the bank in his father’s Camaro. There was a smear of white metal in the chrome skull above the empty eye socket and blood was soaked through his plaid shirt and the top of his jeans. He’d stuffed a bunch of Dairy Queen napkins up under his shirt, but that didn’t do much, and now sweat stood out on his forehead and he could feel his own pulse in his hands and see flashes of light out of the corners of his eyes.
His mother had told him he’d die thieving and she’d been right. She’d shake her head and say what can you expect. His old man locked up half the time in Graterford and his brother Carson gone into the life at seventeen, part of a gang stealing farm equipment out around Parkesburg. Junior would stand watch in the dark when Carson came home in the middle of the night to give her cash, sneaking across the Stoltzfus’ property next door to get past the county cars idling out on Doe Run. His mother would cry and hug his brother, the green bills crushed in her small hands, and say she was so afraid for him, so afraid.
The bank had just been the last stupid thing in a long and stupid list. It was an old place in Hobart with a stone front and leaded glass windows, a flyspecked cardboard ad that must have been fifteen years in the window so that the colors had leeched to chalky pastels. As soon as he got inside and saw the size of the place he knew he’d made a mistake. It was huge, with a high ceiling and marble walls so that his voice echoed back at him from every direction, small and garbled, like he was in some big underground cavern. He yelled for hands up, but everyone just started running around and screaming, and he guessed the guard saw his chance and took it. Junior had put his gun back in his belt to grab a thin stack of twenties off the counter when the guard ran up to him, as if he couldn’t trust himself to hit Junior from across the lobby with his old revolver. It was all over fast.
His father had shown him how to use the Colt. He’d been home for eight or nine months that time, and Junior was sitting in the back yard throwing rocks at a hornet’s nest and listening to their voices inside, his mother and father, running up and down in volume. Finally he heard a glass break and his father lurched out of the house with the pistol and an old .410 he’d come home with two weeks earlier that he said a friend had loaned him.
Junior watched him drop the guns on a tree stump in the shade of the house and walk out to where a couple of sections of split-rail fence marked the end of the cut grass. He drank from a beer bottle as he walked, then stuck the bottle on one of the posts and stood, his hands on his hips, looking out into the woods behind the house. Junior heard his mother call his father once, then again. His father kicked through the grass and came up with an old plastic bucket that he’d balanced on another post, tipping it back and forth with his finger to get it in place.
His old man came back and picked up the pistol and ejected the clip, squinting to see the loads, then pushed it back again and jerked the slide. Junior stood watching, flinching a little with every abrupt move the old man made, though in his red farmer’s hands the gun lost some of its magic and looked more like a power tool than a weapon. Behind them he heard his mother bang through the screen door. I was talking to you, she said. You hear me plain as day.
His father jerked the pistol up without a word and fired, three times fast, the gun loud and close, the dull yellow shells spinning out into the grass. Junior screwed up his face and clapped his hands to his ears. He didn’t realize his mother was standing there until she reached past him and picked up the shotgun. He turned to see her going back in, the barrel of the gun up on her shoulder like she was marching off to a war.
Junior took his hands down slowly, waiting. His father shrugged, squinting at the untouched targets. He said, “I can’t hit a goddamn thing.” And held the pistol out to him.
Junior was thirsty, so he stopped at a Wawa and slowly pulled a parka from out of the backseat and over his head, though he was sweating before he got his arms into it. It was probably a mistake to drink anything with a bullet in his insides, but he couldn’t think of anything else to do and he didn’t think it much mattered. He was going to die, like Carson, or he was going to prison, like the old man, and he might as well have a drink of cool water.
He remembered when him and his friend Kurt Heinz had gone to school on photograph day and taken the envelopes off three slow kids, Kurt spending his half of the money on candy and plastic dinosaurs from the Woolworth’s on Main Street. When Junior came home she’d been standing in the driveway with Mr. Ferris, the principal. She looked at Junior with something in her expression he’d never seen before. Her eyes cast down and away, her hands working, one moving in the other as if she was washing them. He remembered it plain, her looking ashamed, her wide face with scarlet circles like thumbprints on her cheeks.
She turned away from the principal and walked into the house and stood quiet at the window, watching the man through the blinds as he got into his Dodge Dart and drove away. When his car turned the corner she set on Junior, her mouth open and her face dark like she was strangling. She smacked at his head, his arms, screaming don’t you never, don’t you never bring the law to this house again. When he shook his head, confused, and tried to explain that he wanted to be a man, like his father, like Carson, and bring her money, she smacked on him all the harder, leaving red gouges on his arms and neck. Six dollars, she said. You bring all this down on my head for six dollars.
He held that in for a month till they went up through the giant walls at Graterford to see his father. His mother put makeup on for those trips, dots of red on her cheeks that made him think of the day she broke her nails beating him. Though now she was smiling and acting happy, like she did whenever they went to see his father. Her voice high, her hands up and floating, showing off nails the color of hard candy.
When his mother tottered off to the Ladies’ on her long heels, Junior tried to explain about the envelopes and the money but his father just shook his head.
“Yeah, you got beat. But you ask yourself, where did the money go?” He took a long drag on a cigarette and threw it away, his eyes fixed on the window. “She’ll say this and that, but did she take the money and give it back to them kids? She did not.”
They walked back out through the walls that were pink concrete washed over with something black and dripping, like the giant walls in the movie King Kong, and it gave him a little shivering thrill of fear to think of what would be so bad you had to lock it up behind walls like that, but all he knew about was his father, who always said he was just a farmer from Lititz, PA till his mother got pregnant.
In the Wawa parking lot he opened the car door and swung his legs out, then stood up slowly, his head pulsing. He leaned heavily against the door and wished for full dark, but it was July and the sun was just beginning to drop slowly out of the sky even though the hour must be getting late. He clumsily buttoned a few of his buttons and then looked back into the rust-spattered Camaro. The front seat was littered with bloodied napkins and there was a V-shaped brown stain in the driver’s seat. He reached in and tucked the old Colt under a map of York and straightened up again, giving an audible groan and grabbing at his midsection.
Inside he lurched down the aisles, head down, grabbing jerky he couldn’t imagine eating and bags of dark pretzels. He got a bottle of water and left a red smear on the sweating glass door of the cooler, then tried to blot it with the sleeve of the parka. He kept moving, trying to stay clear of the other patrons. The clerk looked familiar. She was older, gray hair striped with black lines, and looked like somebody who smiled a lot. There was something about her, like she could have been an aunt or some other distant kin. His father had family all over the county, it wasn’t impossible she really was a cousin. He didn’t know anything about his mother’s family. When he was little, before he learned to stop asking embarrassing questions or risk a hard tug on the ear, he’d ask why they never went to visit her sisters or brothers, like they did his father’s on Christmas or Thanksgiving and she’d just say her family was all far away, or sometimes she’d say she just sprung up out of the ground.
The clerk’s eyes went up and down and he wondered how he must look. He went in his empty pocket and remembered the plastic Acme bag on the seat with the money, some of it stained with his blood. She raised her eyebrows as he fished in his pockets, first one, then the other, finally coming out with a crumpled five. Walking back to his car he could feel a rivulet of blood snaking around his thigh.
He tried to remember when Carson died, whether it was the same year his father got locked up the last time. That year or the next, maybe, crushed by a Cub Cadet he was trying to steal from the Full Bible Institute in Sadsburyville. He was trying to get the tractor up a ramp into a truck in the dark and it dropped a wheel and rolled. He lived for a few hours and they saw him in the hospital in Coatesville. When the nurses left the room, his mother went through Carson’s pants and shirt, pulling out his damp wallet and stuffing it in her purse. When they were driving home, he could see stripes of rust on the backs of her hands. He reached over to touch and she slapped his fingers away and rubbed her hands together so that dried blood fell in flecks onto her lap. She said, they’d have just stole it.
He looked back through the glass at the woman at the counter and almost wanted to go back in and ask her if she was a Knapp. But what was there to say about that? The Knapps were all hard-luck now, and Junior the last bad story. Except one. She’d still be home, waiting. A cop pulled into the parking lot, slow, a state trooper from Avondale Barracks and Junior limped fast over to the car and got in. He shucked the parka off, knocking the rear view mirror askew and almost passing out from pulling on the muscles in his stomach. He left the coat piled in his lap and covering the blood. What was his mother’s maiden name? He must know it, but his mind was blank.
Junior started the car and had gotten a quarter mile out when the Statie pulled out behind him. He found the Colt and put it under the parka, but the cop hung back. Maybe it was just coincidence. He reached up under his shirt and pulled the flannel free where it was dried to his belly. He caught his own white, puckered face in the misaligned mirror while he listened to the rasping sound the fabric made pulling at his skin, then he poked at himself gently with the tips of his fingers until he found two ragged slits. The belt buckle could have saved him, that would have been a story, but instead the bullet just split into pieces and he was as killed as if he hadn’t been wearing the buckle at all.
He opened the bottle and sipped at it, the water cold against his hot lips. There was a faint tapping in his ears and he got the giggles, thinking of a TV show he’d seen where a guy gets shot and then drinks water and it jets from a dozen holes in his chest. The road got narrower, or seemed to, and it got harder to keep the car between the lines. He touched his own hot forehead and saw in his mind’s eye his father, the last time out at jail, looking him out of the corner of his eye while his mother talked about the broken water heater and keeping food on the table. His father said, let me just get a job at the feed mill and she said, yeah, that’ll happen.
He’d gotten locked up again, of course, trying to drive a used car she’d wanted off a lot in Downingtown. Junior had seen the ad for the car dealer in the kitchen, with red marker circles around the ones she’d picked out. He’d been six days away from release when they found him in his cell with a blanket around his neck and tied to the bunk. It was low to the ground, so he’d had to squat to hang himself. There was no note. She said.
His mother had pursed her lips and looked at him. She’d asked, who’ll take care of me now? Cried when he said he’d get a job. And who would have you? No. No, she’d said, you’ll end up like your father. Thieving. It was the way she said it. He hadn’t heard it right at first, but now he got it. Her eyes bright and hard, her yellow fingers grasping. You’ll die thieving. He pushed the mirror back into place and saw the cop cars behind him. The state car hanging back and behind him another with his lights going. Ahead was the split, Doe Run running off toward the house and Buck Run heading southwest. He’d told Kurt Heinz he wished he lived on Buck Run, just because it was a better name than Doe Run. Kurt said it was all the same, they all ended up hanging bled out in the garage. He started laughing to think of it, then coughing, and there were spots of his blood on the windshield, and things had come loose inside him and rubbed hard against each other as he shook.
The cops were making their move, swinging out and around the cars behind him. They’d have the road blocked at Towerville, but Junior didn’t care. At Mt. Carmel he cut the wheel hard and shot right, almost clipping a tree at the corner and heading south. He knew all the roads. He knew everything he had to do now. He’d blow right by them, get to 82 and head south with the windows open. Cut the hard left and roar up the drive. They’d be on his tail but it wouldn’t take two minutes to do what he needed to do. She’d be standing in the kitchen with that look on her face and her hand out.
She might even know what he was coming to do. She wasn’t stupid. Maybe she’d go for the .410 and they’d make a show of it. He knew she kept it loaded. She was old, but he was almost bled out, so it would be a fair fight. Maybe she wished down deep somewhere she’d been the one to go out to prowl the dark roads, come home with a sweat-stained paper bag full of cash. She’d have been good at it. He half-wished she’d have been with him at the bank in Hobart.
That would have been something, he thought, fighting the wheel and standing hard on the Camaro’s brakes as the car jumped the curb and plowed under the yellow forsythia and the mailbox that said Knapp. Out of the car he could hear sirens, but he was moving toward the door, trying to keep a purchase on the gun with his sweat-slick hands, his heart filled with love, or maybe pride. Seeing in his mind’s eye the old woman, or some truer version of her, standing on the counter in the dark cave of the bank. Her white hair wild, her teeth bared, racking the slide on the old gun she’d taken from his father. Calling them all cowards, daring them, any of them, to make a move.