Read A Crowbar in the Buddhist Garden Online

Authors: Stephen Reid

Tags: #LCO10000, #SOC030000, #BIO024000

A Crowbar in the Buddhist Garden (2 page)

If ever there was a time to bail it is now, but it's only a fry pan to fire situation. I am ninety grand deep into the crew back East and tomorrow is payday. I have stalled long enough. My only option is to meet their plane. With their loot.

I tug on my gloves and motion Lintball to pass the bank, I need more time. He turns right at the next street and I haul the heavy zippered duffel bag into the front. By the time he has circled the block and is coming up on the rear of the bank again, I have already checked the load on an Ithaca pistol grip 12 gauge pump, have a long-barrelled .22 pistol on the seat beside me and secured a .44 magnum in the holster on my hip. From the back seat, under a blanket, I take a Chinese assault rifle with a square clip of twenty-one steel jacket bullets, each the length of a basketball player's finger. I flick the safety off, cover it again with the blanket. It's a chase gun, one to discourage even the baddest dog from biting our tires.

I rip at the metal fasteners and have my tearaway tracksuit off before Lintball turns into the rear parking lot. He jumps on the brakes; I adjust the eye holes on my clear plastic mask, and exit the still rocking car.

I lope alongside the bank, hugging the red brick wall, the duffel held loosely and my face to the ground hoping I'm incognito in the homemade uniform — a SWAT ball cap and POLICE stencilled boldly on the jacket. But the mask — as I catch my reflection in the bank's glass doors — a product of some last minute shopping, too, with its rouged cheeks and red painted lips, makes me look more like bank robber Barbie than a facsimile cop. I place a gloved hand on the crossbar of the front entrance doors and push inside.

Three months earlier. Three o'clock in the afternoon, my birthday, March 13th. One of those brilliant champagne days that comes to Victoria in the early spring. Seated at a small ornate table on the raised patio of Café Mocha with a thimble-sized coffee in front of me, I observed the circuit traffic in the Cook Street Village, nursed a sense of detachment, and amused myself by imagining the lives of the passers-by.

A guy two tables down took a pull on his Gauloise; I envied him the thick smoky hit on his lungs and wanted to ask him for one, but I hadn't had a cigarette in almost a year. My life was mostly defined by ex's these days, ex-smoker, ex-con, ex-bank robber, ex-addict. But there was always one shadow I could never seem to turn into an ex — a sense that I am as separate from this world as a switchblade knife.

The too familiar feeling had descended upon me earlier in the day without invitation or warning. I had been to a lunch, a birthday gathering of six other Pisces poets and writers. Years ago when we all learned that a bunch of us had been born under the same self-contradictory sign, we planned an annual lunch. “The Literary Fish Lunch Bandits” had grown to include two lawyers and a bookseller. Somewhere before dessert and after my third refusal of wine I began to distance from the comfortable humour of my friends. They were animated about their gardens, happy with their ex-partners, and self-deprecating about their publishing successes or their literary prize nominations. They were smart, sensitive, and sensible people. I saw in them, perhaps wrongly, a coherence, an essential wholeness that I lacked.

Since leaving prison twelve years ago I had wanted desperately to build something of my own life, too. But with every task completed, every responsibility met and promise kept, there came — along with a sense of satisfaction and well-being — another unsettling sense that my life was becoming nervously enclosed. Increasingly I felt too far inside, too weatherproofed; I feared I might lose the feel of the rain on my face and the wind in my hair.

I had made my excuses and left the luncheon early and was on my way home when I decided to stop in the Cook Street Village and people watch. An old man shuffled by, his body bent like the drooping ash of a cigarette. He scowled and struck out with his cane as if loathing the ground he walked upon. Was this how it all turned out? You made something of your life and wound up near the end getting mad at a sidewalk?

I abandoned my coffee and started down the steps to the street. A pickup truck booming rock music cruised past. The driver did a double take but didn't slow down. I watched him park a few blocks away, far enough that when he exited the truck I couldn't make out much except leather and jeans. He jaywalked, dodged a few cars and with one last look my way hustled up the steel fire escape on the side of a low apartment building.

My truck was in the same direction as I headed along the sidewalk, stooping to pick a few of last year's chestnuts off the ground. As I straightened up, shaking the chestnuts like dice, I found myself facing, from across the street, an old red brick bank. I laughed at the whiff of nostalgia, seeing the Lions in navy, blue, and gold mounted on either side of the glass doors to the lobby. The Royal used to be my bank of choice. I had walked through those roaring lions more often than I cared to remember, but a long time ago.

I was fitting the key into the truck door when I heard my name: “Stevie!” I've got two kinds of friends, ones who call me Stephen and those who know me as Stevie. I looked up. The leather and jeans guy from the truck waved wildly from the landing. He was motioning me over and bounding down the steps at the same time. As he came nearer I couldn't quite fish his name out of the memory pool but for sure he was someone I had walked the big yard with. Close up his eyes were glassy and pinned to the nines. He greeted me with that hand slapping faux exuberance of a heroin high: “Great to see you Stevie, me and my old lady watched you on TV . . . channel surfing and there you were. Hey, come on up, I want her to meet you.”

And there it was. My conundrum, my Rubik's Cube without the colours. I was in old brain territory; I simply withdrew the key from my truck door and followed him up the fire escape into the building. It wasn't his “old lady” I hungered to meet, but a much whiter, paler lady from my own past.

He knocked, two haircuts and a shave, and we entered a small airless junkie apartment smelling of toadstools and cat urine. A slow-lidded woman in a housecoat bid me be seated on a sagging couch. It seemed the perfect place to unmake my life, just for this afternoon. Just for today.

I smoked the heroin and got a go flap. I stopped twice on the drive home, once to throw up and once to buy a pack of cigarettes. My wife smelled the tobacco on my breath and saw the long-distance holes in my eyes. She retreated to our bedroom, closed the door, and wept. My birthday cake on the table, surrounded by presents, looked even lonelier.

I slept that night on the couch and in the morning said my junkie prayers,
never again Lord
. Within three days I was back in that toadstool apartment; within three weeks, I was injecting five speedballs a day and the number was becoming a vortex.

I emptied my bank account and flew back to Toronto to cuff a shitload of coke from a crew of old friends, major earners known as The Graduates (from the school of hard knocks). I used my reputation as collateral. By the third month my home life was in shreds. I had either shot or fronted the coke out to some gypsy junkies from whom I had no hope of ever being paid. I was ninety grand in debt, payday was looming, and my life was in the toilet. Time to go to the bank.

I'm standing here holding a weapon the length of a Volkswagen and wearing a mask, yet people are just staring, wondering what it is I want. No one is moving. Thankfully, I've been a hold-up guy so long I've learned the words for “On the floor!” in five languages and two dialects — Mandarin and Cantonese, for the casinos.

Today I give the bank customers the lowdown in English. People begin to fold, to lower themselves cautiously to the floor. I step between the sprawled bodies — a familiar scene; the polished floor looks like a swimming pool that has been drained too quickly.

I wave my gun at the moustachioed manager behind a desk in a glass cubicle. He emerges, sleeves rolled up, tie loose. His hands pose surrender but his face wears a confidence not warranted, as if he knows something I don't. But I already know. An alarm button somewhere in the bank has been pushed. That this score was going to be the feature news bulletin on the police radio channel within the first fifteen to twenty seconds was just a bank robbing fact of life.

The manager starts for the floor but I stop him. Just then, another man wearing the same shirt, tie, and rolled up sleeves ensemble scoots out of a back office already down on his butt. I have the moustached manager still standing there showing me his elbows and palms and what I assume to be the assistant manager on his butt on the floor. For a few seconds nothing happens. Then I realize they are waiting for me.

I had never done a bank alone. Usually I just wore the stopwatch and all I had to do was command the floors and doors while my partners cleaned the place out. Finally I click into gear and tell them I want the back door unlocked, the night deposit bags brought out, and the safes opened up. The two managers stare at each other helplessly and like helpless men everywhere they both cry for a woman. “
Helen
!”

The fifty-ish woman rises timidly from the floor. “The safes can't be opened for another hour, the night deposit bags are already gone, and the key to the back door is in the middle office, first drawer on the right. All we have on hand is the cash in this drawer.” With that she steps over to a desk behind the counter and begins emptying the drawer of its money. My heart crashes at the sight — a pitiful pile of fives and tens. There sat the hard evidence, the difference between a drug-fuelled fantasy and the reality of a well-planned score.

I still have to get out of here, I know that much. I get the assistant manager off his butt and on to the job of opening the back door. I swing back around to hold sway on the bank then I spot it. The punch line to an old joke: “When is a door not a door? When it's ajar.” This jar lead to the room behind the automatic teller machines.

A new plan
ka-chings
into place like three cherries and an anchor. I throw the duffel bag at the manager and tell him what I want. He rolls his eyes and calls, “Helen, I need you to open the machines.” He joins Helen-the-Teller and together they head into the loading room. The assistant manager has the back door opened and I catch a fresh jolt of fear — the car is not in sight.

Stacks of tens and twenties are flying into the duffel bag in three-foot lengths but it's taking too long to withdraw and then unload each cassette. I yell for them to hurry, to throw in the whole tray. They do, and out comes moustache, dragging the now bulging duffel bag. I point towards the back door.

The car and my driver are still there, to his credit and my relief. The manager drops the bag into the opened trunk and I thank him. He slams the lid shut and strides back into the bank without so much as a “you're welcome.”

All there is left is to scram. A car driven by what appears to be a hundred-year-old elf pulls into the lot and stops bumper to bumper in front of us. Behind her car and across the street stands a cop in her summer uniform — short-sleeved tunic and navy shorts. Her bare legs are planted two feet apart. She and her gun are in a three point stance aimed right at us. “Stop! Right where you are!”

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