It was then his stomach made an urgent appeal for nourishment, so he swallowed his saliva to appease it and failed. Now it growled as he pushed open the café door and warm air swept over him like a blessing.
It was a cozy Mom and Pop place called Tommy’s, the pricier uptown eateries. He found a seat and rubbed his hands together to gather more warmth. The place was close to half empty. Some music was erupting from overhead too raucous and loud.
The fried chicken he ordered had been darn good. He got the bill, frowned a little then left his last tip money on the red and white checkered tablecloth for his waitress hovering nearby. She was a tall, slender woman with flaming red hair and a tattoo of a pierced heart on her cleavage. Unmarried, looking for Mr. Right and knowing this one wasn’t in the running.
“There you go, sugar,” he smiled. “Don’t spend it all in one place.”
The chef called out an order from the kitchen, and another waitress retrieved it.
The old joke failed as his waitress stared at the lone one dollar bill. The place was filling up now, some to get out of the snow, others from work. She would make good tips this night, but not with him, so she picked up the bill akin to slight disgust.
“Gee, sure you can spare it?” she asked, and truth be told, he couldn’t. He’d been out of work for almost three and a half years, literally out of work.
Charlie Reardon, age thirty-seven was a qualified electrician, of late working for a three-story company named Templeton’s on two or three homes in the same week, plus even one or two corporate offices. He’d made good money, found a nice if pricey apartment and moved in. Life was good. He’d even found a girl he liked named Judy.
Then 2009, Recession landed on him like a load of bricks.
It was a nice June day, Charlie now recalled, when he got the call from the boss’s phone to go to his office. He took the stairs two at a time, excellent exercise, but a sudden depressing feeling began its way into his stomach.
He knocked twice on the dark office door. Two secretaries looked up and smiled.
“Come,” called a voice. The man seated at the mahogany desk put his fingers together to form an arch then said in a low voice. “Sorry, Charlie but the last deal for the Bedford Arms apartment we bid for fell through,” his boss said now standing up from his blue leather executive chair. He’d been a decent boss for three years and more.
Charlie’s boss, Amos Clary, wore a fine gray suit bought in better times and cared for by excellent cleaners, plus a white starched shirt and a blue tie. His wavy brown hair was beginning to recede, and was, after all, a good boss when times were good. But this downfall in the economy had irreparably killed jobs, and this company was one of them.
“We almost had it signed,” he said in a deep baritone voice as he waved Charlie into a chair, seated again leaning forward again his chin in clasped hands. Then he said, “Every company – ours included – within a radius of two hundred miles aren’t hiring, there’s no work out there, and the worst isn’t over,” he began. “This recession could last for months, even years. So, heck, Charlie, I have to lay off half my workers, and you’re one of them. Sorry, man.” A shaft of sunlight suddenly lit up the office window. Amos Clary sat grim-faced. His own company was failing, too.
“Yeah, I figured this was coming,” agreed Charlie, getting to his feet. He shook hands with his now former employer, packed up his stuff from his locker and shook hands with the other workers in his group obviously there waiting for the ax to fall.
“See ya.” He called out as he left the building.
That was three long, frustrating years ago.
Now he was broke. For the first time in his life, he was afraid. More like scared as hell. Soft snowflakes settled on his head and shoulders as he walked without purpose. The soles of his shoes were wearing thin; the bank had sent out a final letter several months ago, and yesterday the sheriff had fulfilled his duty.
Charlie Reardon was homeless as of this afternoon at four o’clock. His rent hadn’t been paid, and now he’d been unceremoniously evicted. His twenty-year-old Chevy Impala had blown her engine, so he was walking instead of driving. Not a red cent available for a used car even.
He was talking to himself, Great day in the morning, what was happening to America? When you’re a skilled electrician on the job for eighteen years, you think you’ve got the world by the balls. Then that call comes from the front office telling him,”Hey, sorry, Charlie, things are tough all over, pal, and we gotta lay some of you guys off.”
Suddenly the bottom had fallen out of the electrical construction business, the banks get richer after being bailed out by the government as they are ‘too big to fail’, and guys like Charlie Reardon were thrown under the bus, his small unemployment money now all gone on rent and other sundry items, like food. His stocks and 401 cratered with the market’s downturn, government money finished, credit not good enough for a bank loan. He had hit damn rock bottom, now walking down a lonely street, his life on hold, so now what?
Then he recalled what his now dead father had instilled in him as a youngster. “It’s up to you to build a life, so pull up your boot laces and get going,” Right, all well and good, but he first had to find lodging and a bath. Life can kick you in the gut, but you do go on.
Charlie knew there was a Salvation Army mission at the end of Madison Street, just around the corner. A gust of wind whipped across his face. A silver moon slipped out from behind cathedral size clouds. Digging his hands deep in his coat pockets he trudged on.
At least he’d have a bed for the night he hoped and a hot meal in the morning. But what he would do after that would take some thinking. An elderly man walked by peering suspiciously at him until he was gone. Then he heard him cough and spit phlegm.
Two elderly men coming from the west side toward the mission probably looking for a bed and maybe a soup kitchen. He changed his one suitcase to his other hand. It was all he had now in the world. The dog had gone to the animal shelter. That was hard. When his wife Mary had been alive, God bless her soul, she’d been his rock. No kids. That was the luck of the draw but he’d loved her and when leukemia took her four years back. He’d grieved and gone on a drunken binge for three weeks before coming to his senses.
“Snap out of it, Charlie!” He swore he’d heard her voice call out as he shouldered his way into the mission entrance, signed up and got a bed.
He missed his collie dog, Max. Jeez, when you had to give up your dog could things get much worse? He ground his teeth together and slapped his right thigh with his hand. He always did that when he was frustrated. How could things like this happen in America? There is no justice. When you work hard all your life you’re supposed to achieve the American dream, don’t you? Now only the rich get richer, and the middle-class gets the finger.
Then he powered up his thought process. Adrenaline began to flow. He let his agile mind start quizzing every possible avenue. He needed money to survive.
“I could rob a bank,” he muttered, a little surprised, not knowing the idea was already taking up space in his mind. But gee, there were a lot of details in that job.
Reardon was a relatively handsome man, a tad over six feet, strong in body and limbs. Hazel eyes and a two-day-old beard he liked because it was fashionable these days to grow facial hair.
“I should rob a bank,” he said again to himself and began to think about maybe getting one of those toy pistols that look like the real thing. Yeah, you just walk in, nonchalant like, stick a toy gun in the cashier’s face and ask for money, then a quick get-a-way with some cash and not hurting a soul, except the bank. Not a shot fired, no one hurt. Figure out the details, that’s a plan.
He finally slept and left when the morning bell to rang out, he ate at the mission table, drank tea, then back n the street. A black car drove by sending wet slush against the sidewalk. This snow is not going to stick, he thought. Not today. He walked on polishing the idea that had jumped into his brain. People did rob banks. He’d heard it and seen it on TV, men holding up banks. “I’ll only do one,” he said out loud to himself, just enough to get him through this rough patch. It was now a growing idea, like a seed looking to flower.
“Morning,” he called out to a passerby who hailed him back. The stranger walked on by then crossed the street to his parked Honda car. The speeding traffic roared by.
Charlie now thought more rationally as he walked on. Slow down; think about things when you rob a bank – like people and guards. Suppose he got the money and a red dye pack exploded in his face. Then what? He thought some more. A bank robbery was a federal crime; he knew this for a fact. Everyone did. Twenty years in the joint! Another car slowly passed him headlights blinking: probably a drug deal going down. After all, this is the USA. Then out of a doorway stepped a lean young man to approach the idling car and he saw money passed, and white powder exchanged. The car drove on.
Now Charlie allowed himself to think of other things. Like guns. He hated guns.Live by them, die by them. Guns he loathed. But a fake plastic gun didn’t count. It wasn’t real. Just a kid’s gun. But would the bank teller know it wouldn’t kill her when he showed it and demanded cash?
He passed a huddled figure of a man in a gray blanket in a doorway who croaked, “Hey, fella you got a cigarette?” Someone in the area coughed a cigarette smokers cough and spat noisily. He knew the homeless population would soon grow by leaps and bounds in this area.
“Naw,” he answered. “I ain’t got squat.” He kept on walking, thinking his grand plan.
There was a Toys R’ Us store right across the street with bright red, blue, and green lights in the long glass windows. Not many folks wondering around either. Not on a day like this, but it was warm inside. He shook the snowflakes from his collar and brushed some more from his thick brown hair. The aisles, for the most part, were devoid of any customers, a couple of boys raced up and down until their mother gathered them in with a scolding finger.
He strolled down an aisle until he found a couple of shelves that looked like they had toy tanks and boy’s stuff and games of one kind or another. Then he saw a black gun.
Lord, but it looked real! Like a Sig Sauer he’d seen in a magazine. Perfect and as menacing as can be. It was like fortune was offering a hand. He reached to touch it. He didn’t know they still sold these toy guns, which have been taken off years ago when kids started with real guns.
“Help you, sir?” said a voice at his elbow. He jumped, but it was a young store clerk just sweeping the floor. It was warm inside. The clerk stared at him, waiting.
“My kid’s birthday tomorrow,” he lied. “Gotta find something,” he inspected the toy gun then decided. He would do it! He paid for the toy with his maxed-out credit card, and as he left the store, he began to plot the bank robbery. He’d case a few local banks for the best timing, with not too many customers and he could think of nothing but the job now. It would be tricky.
Then he knew in his heart he would rob t the bank tomorrow, but tonight he needed a bed at the Army mission again, and then think about which bank to hit. Lord knows there were plenty of them in this city. He was penniless and homeless in a country where the streets are paved with gold! The time now to take something back!
“You can have a bed for one night,” said the man at the door of the building, a light shining behind him as he opened another door to a long line of cots. Charlie knew this from the previous night.
“But you have to leave after breakfast; those are the rules.” The man was all of seventy, no hair left, and just a few teeth. He opened his mouth to say something then decided not to bother. Charlie left the man and tossed his coat on the allotted bed.
As he lay on the hard cot, the rough army blanket keeping him somewhat warm, he thought about his life. His mind shot back to when his dad had told him after high school, “Son, I ain’t got money enough to send you to college, and anyway you need a trade and I can teach you that.” And he had. Charlie Reardon became a skilled electrician under his own father’s tutelage, joined Templeton’s Construction Company and helped wire all the new houses built around the city, and it was the sweet life. Until the recession, then it all went west. His dad died of a heart attack at fifty-nine and then his wife, Miriam in the same year.
He fell asleep again to the sounds of men wheezing and coughing. Weak daylight filtered through the windows as morning broke, and the clanging bell sounded.
“Breakfast in fifteen minutes,” called a woman’s voice from the open doorway. “Eggs and bacon and grits for you southern boys,” she laughed. “Don’t linger, gentlemen, time’s a wasting.”
He rubbed his eyes and dressed quickly. There were a sink and a toilet in the next room, and he took advantage to wash again as much of his body as he could reach. The towel was pretty clean, all things considered.
So there it was, his second night as a homeless man in a Salvation Army Mission; and his last, he hoped.
It turned out to be a small bank on a back street, away from the flow of traffic. Charlie walked the city most of the morning, not that he didn’t know it like the back of his hand. He did some detailed observation of the comings and goings of the few customers, where the security guards stood, how many cashiers in each one, how many exit doors or lack of them, just like they did in the movies.
Then he smiled. I can do this, he thought. Betcha.
He picked the lunchtime. With his heart fluttering like a captured bird, he walked through the glass doors to the table where they kept the deposit slips. There were two customers at one cashier’s station, one other vacant, the lady counting out bills, her lucky day.
He had all the words planned. “This is a hold-up,” he’d whisper bringing out the toy gun but hiding it from view with his other arm. He had planned to just ask for the twenties, easy to pass. But suddenly no words or action could take place as the bank door flew open with a crash. The cashier’s face drained of color, but she wasn’t looking or even listening to him. She was staring over his shoulder. Four masked men, all over six feet, had just rushed into the bank with ominous, black automatic firearms. One of the men shouted, “On the floor, everyone, now!” and an impressive burst of automatic gunfire hit the ceiling sending pieces of ceiling cascading down. Two of the hooded men ran up to the counter roughly brushing him as they vaulted over with guns held high yelling, “Get down! Get down! This is an armed robbery!” The other two could be seen hurriedly rifling the open vault as cashiers stood with hands held high or flat on the floor.
Then it was over. “Oh fuck,” Charlie Reardon cursed. The toy gun skittered out of his hand as the first security guard slammed into him sending him crashing to the floor, just his luck. He could spit!
As he lay prone under the guard, the robbers had taken all of two meticulous timed minutes to strip money from the cashier’s drawers then with another short burst of gunfire ran from the bank to a waiting car which sped away. Customers got off the floor looking stunned, shaken, and a cashier called the police with a quivering voice. “We’ve just been robbed,” she began then broke into sobs. The customers too began to rise too now the danger was seemingly over.
“Here! He’s one of them!” The heavy guard looked at the toy gun on the floor and smiled. Suddenly everyone was looking at him.
“You’re toast, buddy,” he said drawing his revolver, placing it at Charley’s neck. “Your buddies got away, but you’re mine, jackass!”
He didn’t remember too much of the ride in the police car. His hands were manacled behind his back and hurt like hell.
“How come you were doing a bank robbery with a toy gun?” asked the cop in the passenger seat laughing so hard his name badge wiggled.
“I didn’t want to hurt anyone,” he answered truthfully. “Just needed some cash, I wasn’t with those other guys. I just needed some money until I could find another job.” He tried to move to get more comfortable but there was no give, so he sank back and looked at his face in the cop car’s rear view mirror. It was white and drawn he’d aged a year in five minutes. The cop continued shaking his head as if it all were a big joke.
“Some fool you are, buddy. Your cohorts got away with the money, and you’ll wind up in the federal pen doing maybe a dime.”
The police car turned on its lights and sirens for effect.
“A dime?” questioned Charlie.
“A dime if you’re lucky,” rejoined the chatty cop. “Try copping a plea, and it might be a nickel.”
Charlie didn’t want to play this nickel and dime game anymore, so he stared out of the window and watched the traffic in the next lane. Snow blew in his side window, but he couldn’t close it with manacled wrists. Damn.
“Hey, close the window, it’s snowing.”
“Yeah we know it’s snowing,” said the driver. “Hope you’re enjoying it.” Charlie slunk back in his seat.
Well, it hadn’t turned out so good after all. His suitcase was back at the Salvation Army mission in a locker. Chances of him ever getting it back were slim and nil. At least he had his wallet with I.D and driver’s license in his back pocket. The cop was talking again as they drew up to the white stone police station 43. They helped him climb out of the back seat. The first officer looked him in the eyes.
“Okay, you’re going to get booked and fingerprinted then stashed in a cell until your arraignment. By the looks of you, it’ll be a public defender, another drain on the city. Is there any chance you’ll make bail?” asked the driver, a younger man, not burned out yet with junkies and deadbeats.
Charlie shook his head and thought well at least I’ll have another bed for tonight. Tomorrow would take care of itself. He felt the handcuffs being unlocked then led by the shoulder, shoved up against a desk to be fingerprinted, and mug shot taken.
“What’s your name?” The noise in the room was hushed as the booking procedure began. He answered the fresh-faced young policewoman, producing his wallet to make it all easier. She took out everything, made a notation on a pad and stuck his wallet inside a brown paper bag, sealing it and stamping it with the date and her initials. DM.
“Over there,” she pointed to a door which opened, and he was in a shower being disinfected along with three other guys. An orange jumpsuit landed in his face then shivering with cold was led by yet another officer down a long corridor into a single cell and unceremoniously shoved inside. There were a cot, a steel toilet, and a shelf. He had seen movies of prisoners holding bars, and he did the same, grasping the cold metal and hating the sinking feeling that all had gone so disastrously wrong.
“You want I should call your lawyer?” asked the trustee through the bars. In two years he would put in his retirement papers and go with his wife somewhere nice for an overdue vacation, maybe the Virgin Islands.
“I ain’t got a lawyer,” Charlie replied and sat down on the cot. “I ain’t got nothin’ at all.” He heard someone yell out and a metal dish hitting the floor somewhere.
“Yeah you do, buddy,” said the man. “Look at it this way; you got a clean bed, a roof over your head, three square meals, free medical and free dental and a room all to yourself. All at the taxpayer expense. You hit the jackpot!”
Through the clamor and yelling of other inmates down the cellblock, he thought about what the trustee had just told him. Bed, a roof, and room, He forgot something, three meals a day, too. It was like having his own room again. Just that it was in jail.
At least he was warm as he fell into a dreamless sleep that night. He used his right arm for a pillow then turned over some time to ease the numbness. He awoke with a screw banging on the cell bar.
“Get dressed, Reardon, you’re first up first before the judge this morning, and you don’t want to keep O’Malley waiting.” All inmates were awake the noise vibrating from wall to wall. Charlie smiled wryly and thought to himself, “Like I’m going anywhere.”
A quick wash and a new toothbrush and toothpaste landing on his cot as he gathered himself. All the comforts of home, he thought.
Then upstairs to the judge and suddenly a slim, pinch-faced man wearing a bad suit was at his side.
“I’m your public defender,” he said, holding out a hand with badly bitten fingernails. “George Findley, What’s the beef?”
“I tried to rob a bank.”
The lawyer’s face fell, “So, and you want to plead Not Guilty?”
“No, I want to plead guilty.” He’d suddenly made up his mind.
The lawyer swiveled his head and stared, “Huh? This is just a preliminary arraignment.”
The in the back a robed judge appeared and took his seat on the bench.
“All rise, the Honorable Judge Norman O’Malley presiding. The first case, 3682 Reardon, Charles, attempted bank robbery.”
The shuffling noise in the courtroom grew louder as the gray-haired judge seated himself and glared down at Charlie over his glasses.
“Counselor, how does your client plead to the charge?”
“Your honor I was just retained and haven’t had a chance to speak with Mr. Reardon,” Findlay called out, glancing back at Charlie with something like panic.
“You honor, I wish to plead guilty to the charge,” Charlie interrupted in a high voice. There was a hum of voices from the other inmates awaiting jurisdiction, “I tried to rob a bank with full knowledge of the consequences and I wish to plead guilty,” he said again straightening his shoulders. The public defender gasped speechless now then turned and rattled some papers on the desk. “If it pleases your honor, may I have a word with my client?”
The judge appraised the lawyer then peered at Charlie a little puzzled.” It appears to me your client has already made his wishes known. He attempted to rob a bank, and that’s a federal offense. Therefore his guilty plea leaves me no option but to impose sentence. But I want a word with Mr. Reardon first in my chambers. Is that understood?”
The gavel came down, and Charlie felt the courthouse guard take him by the arm and steer him to a side door, leaving the public defender staring after him in astonishment.
Here he stood in the judge’s chamber wondering what the heck was going on. Then the door opened, the judge entered hanging up his robe and motioned Charlie to sit.
“Tell me your story,” he instructed lighting a briar pipe filling the air with a delicious apple aroma and Charlie then did as he was instructed – the whole story of lay off, no money, no bed, nothing but maybe to rob a bank but with a toy gun.
“What was your profession?” the judge inquired. When Charlie told him the judge nodded dismissing him with the escorting officer in charge as he picked up the black phone on his elaborate desk.
“Warden I just might have what you’ve been looking for all these months. I have a prisoner I’m shipping to you so take good care of him. He’s had a stroke of bad luck, but he’s no criminal that I can assure you.” He relayed what Charlie Reardon had told him and delayed sentencing. Then Judge Peters made yet another call, left his chambers to go home to a finely cooked meal, his wife Joan and his dog Felix.
The ride to the Federal Correction Facility from the regional jail took two hours and seven minutes. After which he was once again fingerprinted, a mug-shot for the FBI data files, disinfected in the huge overflowing showers crowded with inmates. The noise was deafening. It was if a thousand monkeys were banging on the bars of their cages.
“What’s your size,” asked the guard at the clothing allocation room. Charlie thought for a minute then told him. Shoes, pants, shirt, and underwear landed on his face which he held tight to his chest as he was walked to cell A6. He was now Inmate 4634 with an as-yet-unknown stretch for Armed Robbery, albeit no one bothered to mention it was a toy gun.
“The warden gets to see all new inmates,” said the paunchy cell guard as he closed and locked the cell door with a clang. “Make yourself at home,” he added gruffly.
“Warden Price will be along in a day or two. Put your things in that locker. For now, you have this cell to yourself, but as you see there are twin bunks so don’t get comfortable. Rules and regulations are on the cot. Behave yourself, and we’ll all get along.”
Then he was alone. After a few minutes, he rose and began to inspect his new accommodations. A gray, steel seat-less toilet, a wooden ledge for “stuff,” a locker and upper and lower cots for sleeping and a small black and white TV. The TV surprised him. Federal pens had money it seemed to give inmates a few little luxuries. Or maybe the former inmate had left it. He didn’t care which.
Day two, he had settled in. Got an hour of exercise by pushups fifty times then ate in the huge mess hall with other inmates, followed shower instructions and watched the black and white TV alone in his cell quite contently. The warden had yet to appear.
Then he summed it all up again. He had a roof over his head, a cell to himself, three square meals a day, a God-given gift of a TV, and in maybe a year, his actual sentence not known to him yet, but when he got out of the joint, the recession would be over, and he’d get on with his life. What more could he ask for?
“Mr. Reardon?” Charlie sprang to his feet and faced the man at his cell door. “Yes, sir?” he replied, straightening his back
It was a lean, tall man in a gray suit. Ten o’clock in the morning, after breakfast before exercising.
“I’m Warden Thomas Price I meet all new inmates to this facility to let you know we run a clean prison. What was your occupation on the outside before you ran afoul of the law, may I ask?”
“I’m an electrician, warden.” He felt like a schoolboy but wanted to get off on a good footing and cause no problems.
“Are you indeed? Yes, that’s what the judge told me.” It was amazingly quiet the length of the cell block. “Are you familiar with computers as well as wiring?”
“Yes sir, I know computers as part of my training. I’m an expert. I’ve wired many houses in the past eighteen years, offices too, and then got laid off because of the recession. Life got hard after that.” He squared his shoulders.
“Yes, well it got hard for a lot of people, but they didn’t rob banks, did they?” The warden was appraising him with a speculative eye.
“I guess not, sir. It was kinda a spur of the moment thing,” replied Charlie, hoping the lie would stick. “And it was a toy gun, sir!”
“Mr. Reardon,” Warden Price spoke in a low voice, confidential now after entering the cell and sitting down next to Charlie.
“I have a proposal for you. You have no previous record, so I am assuming this was a stress aberration on your part. A momentary lapse in judgment, shall we say. However, there is an enormous new wing presently under construction here at this facility called D-Block. It has yet to be completely wired for the new computer controls as upgrading is now imperative. With your experience and expertise, I can assign you daily work on this project, at prison minimum pay of course, and place you in charge of any workers you might need. That way federal money allocated for this project can be diverted and utilized for the benefit of all inmates in an educational program thereby cutting the recidivating statistics. Since your sentence is as yet undetermined by the judge, you can leave with money in your pocket and a new lease on life when the job is completed to my satisfaction. Or I can put you to work in the kitchen or laundry.”
He knew the choice was blatantly obvious and smiled.
Charlie couldn’t believe his ears. “Warden, I would be most happy to be your lead electrician for any purpose you decide,” said Charlie, his heart pumping adrenaline. He had a job!
“It’s settled then,” said the warden standing up. “Be ready at ten tomorrow morning.” Then he strode away, and Charlie pumped his fist in the air.
“Only in America,” he whispered deliriously.
“God bless the U. S. of A.” He couldn’t stop smiling for an hour.
They had fried chicken in the mess hall that evening. Charlie thought about the waitress and hoped she didn’t think too badly of him for the lousy tip. Maybe when he got out of prison, he’d ask her out. He’d have a little bit of money in his pocket, and the recession would be over, God willing, and the creeks don’t rise.
Hey, even recessions don’t last forever. But for now, this was his life. He’ d made it easier even if it was a prison job. Sometimes you can’t be too choosy.
He would be in command of the brand new complicated electric installation in the new part of the prison and earn a little to boot. His father had been right. Hang in there; something’s bound to pop if you just try. Charlie Reardon sat down on his small bunk bed and inwardly cheered. Life sometimes would throw a curve ball, but he was satisfied he’d caught a good a break as he could wish for. Tomorrow was another day, and he’d be working again at a job he knew so well. He had all he needed, for now.
Carole Hall is a native of the UK but now an American citizen living in Northern California. After 17 years working for the hotel industry in Los Angeles, she opted out of the steel and concrete for softer climes. She has 16 short stories published and a novel Nairobi Bloodstar currently on Amazon in print and e-book. Her second novel Killing At The White Swan is due out in print 2018.