Friday, June 20, 2014

Tough Landladies are Best

    Jimmy Freeman always felt in Central Square in Cambridge Massachusetts a certain remote magic that was hard to explain.  There were lots of bars in the neighborhood, there were numerous strange stores, an organic grocery, for instance, in the cellar of one of the buildings.  In Central Square there seemed to be everything you'd want or could think of, so there was something for an outsider like Jimmy.  The closest other place to that feeling was Newbury Street in Boston.  And, of course, at this time in the morning, Massachusetts Avenue and the big sidewalks were bustling.  Big crowds were energetically popping out of the underground T station, busses stopping and people coming and going.  Where were the people coming from, where were they going?  Famous Harvard Square was just up the street.  Jimmy had worked in a couple of the restaurants in Harvard Square.  He had wasted many an afternoon looking through boxes in the used book stores.  He was just old enough to stop in a bar and drink beer.  But Jimmy preferred Central Square to all other places.  Each time he went to Harvard Square, he went through Central Square.  In Central Square there were educated middle class people living beside regular factory workers, real people, all shapes, sizes, colors.
    This day Jimmy and Neal took their time walking through Central Square.  Jimmy stood in a quiet corner in the shadows near an alley thinking about work.  Neal, a huge, majestic Great Dane, Jimmy's friend, Roger's, dog, sat on haunch having his thoughts, too.  Roger hired Jimmy to walk Neal during the week days.  Jimmy wasn't a big fan of work in the first place.  He just did it in order to avoid being hungry.  But as he considered the subject of work he wondered how it had come to be that work was so boring.  Most jobs even simple jobs, while you were doing the job, there was no time to do anything else.  But here with Neal, you could walk, mind that everything was going okay, and while you were at it, there was always time to think about whatever you wanted to think about.  Jimmy was always feeling his mind wandering.  It was hard for him to fix his mind on any one thing for any length of time.  He was thinking about somebody behind him like a shadow who had a notion of what Jimmy should do with his life but the shadow had not revealed it to Jimmy yet.  He often pondered this mysterious thought.  And then he was thinking about walking onward to Harvard Square where he might visit his favorite used book store, whose owner and chief employee, an enthusiastic dog lover, would be overjoyed to see Neal, because he often had a big, sweet Doberman around.  Jimmy liked to talk about dogs with him while he was looking through the shelves, and digging into the unsorted boxes of books stacked up everywhere.
    "I think I know where there's a pal for you to hang around with for an hour or so," Jimmy said to Neal.
    "We're talking four legs?"  Neal wondered.
    "Why not?"
    "Thanks, pal.  No offence, but that would be almost too good to believe."
    So Jimmy and Neal were taking a break from their walk, enjoying their thoughts and soaking up the mild hard working vibes that prevail in Central Square when two shots rang out.
    Jimmy knew instantly that these sounds were gun shots, not a motor backfiring, not anything else.  When he was little he had lived with his grandfather on a working farm, so he knew gunshots.  Then two shrouded ski-masked men ran out of the bank across the street, and they jumped into a car and sped off toward Harvard Square and took a hard right a couple of blocks up the street.  Just as the car was disappearing around the corner, a third shrouded ski-masked man came out of the bank.  He seemed astonished that his fellow patriots had already taken off.  He was standing alone; people who happened to be passing by were giving him plenty of room.  Then he was standing completely alone, nobody nearby, nobody looking at him, a mushroom on a stump in a field of daisies.  He stripped off his ski mask, his robbers' shroud, kicked them under a car parked empty at the curb, and then proceeded to slip into thin air.  A cop car pulled up to the bank, siren blazing, another and another, and cops jumped out and ran into the bank.  This while Jimmy and Neal were trying to follow the stranded bad guy slipping up Mass Ave toward Harvard Square.  He walked peacefully, and a block away he turned as if by magic into a tourist just passing through, and he crossed the street, retraced his steps, coming back toward Jimmy and Neal, who were watching him approach in all good curious seriousness.  Now a crowd was gathering along the street nearby the cop cars.  The emergency medical truck loudly pulled up also.  And the ex-bank robber couldn't have been cooler, more casual as he wafted his tall scrawny body along the sidewalk toward Jimmy.  Then almost brushing shoulders with Jimmy he turned sharply and walked into the shadows of the alley, sat down on a trash can and sighed.
    Jimmy looked at Neal.  Neal looked at Jimmy.  Both of them turned around, wandered into the shadows.  Jimmy sat down on a trash can opposite the man.
    "Wow, did you see that?"  The man said. "Somebody tried to rob a bank."
    "We noticed."
    "I think I'll hang around here for a little while, if you don't mind."
    Jimmy shrugged.
    Then the man's eyes fell upon Neal.  "Say, that's some fine looking dog."
    "He's something isn't he?"  Said Jimmy.
    So the robber stared into a contemplative shadow, woke up abruptly and said.  "When the crowd clears I'll move along.  That's one thing about me, I've never liked crowds very much.  Most everything I've tried to do in my life worked out fine so long as nobody was around.  I guess that is the opposite of how just about everybody else does things.  The less people know about what I'm doing, the better I like it.  So what are you guys doing today?"
    "Oh, just out walking.  That's Neal," Jimmy said, nodding.  "He's taking care of me."
    The man stood up, took a look around the corner, squinting.  "I imagine.  A fellow shouldn't get into trouble.  You eventually go away on a long vacation just to relax and think about things.  Lord knows, the wonderful fellows you run into."
    "I've often thought," Jimmy replied, "going to jail would be an interesting thing to get into, I mean just for the experience.  Course, you have to do something wrong, usually, don't you?  I don't know about doing something wrong."
    "I think so, usually, unless you get framed.  You'll learn a lot.  They are wonderful fellows in jail.  Next thing you know, they are hanging around for a lifetime."
    "So what happened in the bank?  I hope nothing too serious.  I mean, we heard the shots, but nobody got killed, I take it?"
    "You saw me come out?"
    "Well, what are you gonna do about it?"  He wondered, calmly.
    "I don't see any big reason right now to do anything immediately.  I don't think anybody saw you leaving in the mix up.  So you've got a little time to figure out your next move."
    The man laughed.  "What would you know about anybody's next move, kid?"
    "Well, you must have a next move, right?"
    The man was laughing outrageously now.  "Next move?  Convince you to put on my clothes and go to jail for me?  How does that sound?"
    "What happened in the bank, mister?"
    "Nothing much.  No big time serious stuff that I know of.  Lord knows what the other muck-a-lucks were doing while I was looking around for the money.  I got into a big stash, and we were outside our time frame.  So they left.  I've got at least twenty-five grand on me."  So the man eyed Jimmy and Neal in silence.  Then he perked up, "Say, wonder where you live?  Maybe we could make a deal."
    Jimmy giggled, "There are about a dozen good reasons why that can't happen not the least of which is you'd never get past the landlady."
    "Really?  You don't know me, I guess.  Wouldn't you like to have a couple of grand in your pocket right now?  Tell me where the place is, stay away for say two days, and I'll be cleared out, and you'll never hear a thing about it."
    "One question I would like to ask is, how did you get into this fucked up situation, I mean what happened?"
    "It occurred to me early on that thieving works, or I wanted to make it work.  It's just like anything else in life.  There's a notion behind it, and then you try to make it work.  I can't tell you exactly when the notion came to me or why, it just did."
    "So it always worked out so well it never occurred to you to stop?"
    "There were exceptions.  But why stop?  You've gotta be positive about these things.  So what do you say?  Three grand?  I've gotta get on the move now.  Once I'm in the subway, I should be able to get clear for awhile.  Then I need to hole up, and with any luck...they'll be chasing the other guys, then...I'm not in too bad shape."  He thrust out a jumbled up wad of bills.  "Sure?"
    Jimmy knew that in just five seconds he could change his life forever.  Neal growled softly.
    He was a handsome, soft-voiced fellow, slick and he had a persuasive way about him.  Jimmy knew that he could go off the grid for the next six months, or at least all summer till winter.  The big woods of northwestern Maine near the Canadian border had been calling to him lately.  It was a woods he knew well.   Or he could hide out in the Boston Public reading room for a couple of days.  And then carry on.
    "What's the matter, kid?  They're all small bills."
    "The matter is that you'd never get past the landlady..."
    "Oh, some old woman.  She'll never know anything."
    There were some old women who were landladies and there was Mrs. Wheeler.  That's who Jimmy thought about, he thought about Mrs. Wheeler.  Jimmy didn't think of any moral principles or theories why he couldn't get mixed up in this, not the law or the way society was put together.  He thought about how Mrs. Wheeler had helped him out getting a library card and he didn't want her to be angry with him.  As silly as that sounds, that's the way he felt about it.  There wasn't any principle to observe and obey.  Just Mrs. Wheeler and the fact that she had just got over being angry with him for something he had done and he did not want her to get angry at him again.
    "Besides, why should you ever have to see her again?  Even if she does happen to spot me, which I would be stupid to let happen.  Give me the key and take the money and run.  Come on, last chance, I've got to go."
    Neal picked up, rolled eyes, turned around a couple of times, head to tail, dropped down, yawned and curled up and eyed Jimmy amused, as if to say, "Come on, Podnah, you can't figure this one out?"
    Jimmy thought: somehow this seems so far away from everything that is real!  And the more I think about it the less real it seems.  Of course, that's the way it is with your errors, you don't run into these situations every day so they never seem quite real.  They seem more real the more often you run into them.  He quickly calculated how long he could hang out in the big woods on three grand.  Then suddenly he decided that he didn't want that, he didn't want to hide out, he wanted to figure out something to do.  It just made more sense.  That was as far as he got with it.  It just made more sense to worry what Mrs. Wheeler would think.
    "Okay," the man said, who had just robbed a bank, but who didn't look like you'd think an evil person would look like, who didn't look like anything different.  "Now's my chance.  Gotta go."  Then he was gone round the corner toward the subway station.
    In those few seconds Jimmy had become bathed with sweat.  His face was red and bloated.  Neal mirthfully eyed him and said, "Please don't bother to tell me that was hard."
    "That was hard, I wish I knew why.  If ever there was a ditch to jump in, that was it.  And where were you, good buddy?  Where were the acrobatics, the run around?"  When Neal was trying to get Jimmy's attention, he often jumped up and did crazy run arounds.
    "Why?  You didn't need me, and there was no hope for that guy.  He was in way too deep."
    "Isn't it awful to think that you might get stuck on something that is no good for you?  I mean the idea of it, and not be able to let it go?"
    "That's why dogs say their prayers, you know, 'deliver me from evil'.  Any dog will tell you, sometimes you can't do it alone."
    A few minutes later Jimmy managed to calm himself, and he said in a soft voice, "Let's get out of here."  He thought he might be able to walk it off but he never did.  Not in his whole life.

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