“Some old bag probably just lost her old bag,” Mike Feller decides with a shrug.
He had just turned onto Godfrey Avenue when his beams swiped an object. At first Mike thinks it’s a dead animal, then realizes it’s a bundle of some sort. It could be a pocketbook; it’s laying on the yellow line close to a streetlight. Gone by dawn, for sure.
Mike drives about a block more, and that stupid little voice starts; that damn voice that’s caused him so much grief lately. It’s asking him those pick-pick-pick questions that Mike tries to ignore.
“Shut up!” Mike yells in the dark morning hours of a Thursday. It’s been rough, lately, for him and his family—his girls, wife Christie, and daughter, 4-year-old Emma.
But that’s no excuse for the outburst.
He thinks: “Get. Your. Shit. To. Gether.” Because there’s just too much to do for any pity parties. And, anyhow, yelling does no good because, see, that doesn’t stop the little voice.
It’s saying: Some senior citizen is going to wake up tomorrow and get frantic when she finds out she lost her pocketbook.
“It might not be a pocketbook. And it might not be an old woman. Might be a young woman.”
Oh, that makes it OK then. Some lowlife’s going to scoop it up and go to town with the victim’s credit cards.
“It’s probably a bag of trash, something some drunk threw out the window. And whoever scoops it might find the lady and return it.”
Is that really what you’ve learned about human nature lately?
An old lady suffers. All because Mike Feller couldn’t be bothered to do the right thing.
“The right thing.”
The right and moral and ethical thing to do.
“So me—who’s working more than 70 hours a week because, by the way, I did do the right and moral and ethical and, turns out, stupid thing to do and got canned from my old job for it—you expect me to U-turn and go back.”
Which will take all of five minutes.
And then the voice stops and Mike knows that he lost. Again.
The car-clock says 2:24 when Mike U-bees. He has to be up in another five hours. Dag! He just wants to go home and collapse, maybe gently kiss Emma who’s clutching her blankie and then crawl into bed next to Christie. He’ll rub his wife’s shoulders. Like always. She’ll grab his hand from behind and wrap it over her and then whisper, “We’ll get through this,” and fall back to sleep. Like always.
There’s the bag!
The mystery on Godfrey Avenue.
Mike double-parks, blinkers on. The car rocks into a stillness foreign to him. He might as well be on a country road instead of in a Philadelphia neighborhood. Well, looky, it is indeed a bag, the kind you’d carry a digital notebook in. Mike gets out, takes a step, stands over it with arms clasped behind his back as if he’s about to swing them forward and say “Pick a hand. Any hand.” But that’s no gadget that’s making the mesh bulge. It might be somebody’s laundry, or maybe a cloths donation. Great, another errand he’ll have to fit in somehow. Just what he needs.
Mike grabs the bag, straddles it on his lifted leg, like he’s the Karate Kid. He unzips it a bit, then stomps his foot like he’s going to charge, but instead almost swoons back into his car. He slams the door, jerks into drive, hits the pedal and gets the hell out of there. Does he leave skid marks? That would not be good.
Well, that’s like when the doctor tells you to breathe naturally and all of a sudden you’re thinking about breathing and it doesn’t feel natural at all.
“It can’t be,” Mike thinks. “Just not possible.”
But it is, Mike finds out when he parks on Fern Street. (Thanking God that for once he didn’t have to search for a spot and, not only that, found one right in front of his rowhome.) His hands shake when he looks into the bag again. Are they real? They’re in cylindrical bundles bigger than his grip, and wrapped by rubber bands. He twists one bill free. It sure as hell looks real—a $20 bill. He holds it up to the windshield, then jams it back in. He ferrets in the bag some more, trying to count the bundles, but realizes he won’t get it right that way and soon Miller will be barreling down his steps, late again for his job as a bread deliveryman. Crazy Miller who thinks he’s a poet and recently asked Mike if there’s a difference between “dick,” “asshole,” and “jag-off.”
“I don’t mean the real words. Yeah, an asshole’s an asshole, and a dick’s a dick. And a jag-off….”
“Yeah, I get it, Miller,” Mike snapped.
This had been a couple of weeks ago coming home Morgan. A spring storm was moving in, litter tripped down the street.
“You OK, bro?”
Mike sighs. “Yeah, sorry.”
“Joanie and me, well we’re pulling for you and Christie. I can’t give much….”
“Stop,” Mike says, raising his palm.
Miller turns toward his car.
“Wait,” Mike says.
Miller stops, looks over his shoulder.
“Those words,” Mike says. “Dick. Asshole. Jag-off. To me, they seem to be interchangeable as insults.”
“Shit,” Miller says, turning toward Mike again. “I was looking for, looking for….”
“Nuances,” Mike says.
“That’s the word. You got some words in you.”
“I read,” Mike admits.
“We need to beer sometime again soon.”
“That we do,” Mike says, though he’s not having a beer until Christie can drink her wine. He’s been dry for over seven months, which hadn’t been all that difficult until one of the part-time jobs he had to get to make up for Drummond was bartending three nights a week at Morgan, where he’d been tonight.
Miller would grab a beer with Mike everyday if he could. Mike had starred on the only football team that ever won the state championship at their high school. Miller’s five years older than Mike, but he’d still be doing Friday Night Lights and bleeding Bulldog Blue if the board of education hadn’t shuttered the alma mater.
Mike played right tackle, made first team all-state. But the honor that Mike relished most was first team colonial conference: The one voted on by the players, his teammates and competitors.
But Mike was too short to play college ball so no scholarship, even if he had tried in school, and he hadn’t. Meh grades. Mike usually dodges these conversations with Miller or anybody else who wants to reminisce. He doesn’t want to be one of those pathetic people who feel that they’ve peaked at 17.
He’s now 35. The hair’s already going gray the way it might someday go altogether, receding. It’s more pepper than salt from the crown on down. His mustache is darkish.
“You look so distinguished and handsome,” Christie often coos, and that dispels any insecurity. Mike keeps his five-foot, ten-inch frame wire-taut. Sit-ups, push-ups and some running when he can. (Less and less since Emma.) So far, no dad bod.
Now, Mike rezips the bag, carries it by one of the straps around his shoulder. He enters the house as quietly as possible—Emma startles easily.
Since Drummond, it’s been a dreary little ceremony this coming home to a home they may not be able to keep or, perhaps worse, ever escape. But that is not the issue now. The issue now is this bag. Mike pats the bulge. Where to put it? Mike doesn’t want to let it go, doesn’t even want to let it out of sight. He wonders for a delirious few seconds if there’d be a way he could take it to bed with him without Christie noticing.
“Shows you how tired I am.”
Mike actually starts tiptoeing but realizes that he looks ridiculous.
“Be natural. Be normal.”
He glances at Christie’s wall paintings. That’s Christie. A spirit free enough to ignore the scratched heads of neighbors who wonder just who the hell paints pictures on their walls? Christie just one day decided to throw a bed of flowers up there. Other renderings followed; landscape bleeding into still-life, bleeding into a portrait of Emma, bleeding into Emma’s little scribbles and handprints and—best of all—a stick figure with a cape, and Emma’s crooked little label underneath: “Daddy.” Christie helped her with that, down to the little heart serving as an exclamation point. Emma’s love note to Mike is followed by another Christie landscape: A single home on a hill, complete with picket fence, curtains fluttering out the windows (yes, out, as if the wind is inside), and a sign on the gate that reads “The Feller’s.” The artwork stretches from the living room to the kitchen, one side of the downstairs.
Mike would tease Christie, calling her stuff graffiti, but when she’d finished that wall, he said: “You can’t stop there! We’ve got other walls!”
“In-deed!” Christy said, imitating one of her favorite teachers, a nun who taught history at Nazareth Academy where, of course, Emma’s going. Mommy’s got it all figured out.
Christie needed this. Mike needed this. The colors overwhelm, like snapshots taken in a dream, because reality doesn’t produce such joy. It’s Christie’s answer to the abyss.
And Christie sings when she paints. Actually, she sings when she does anything. Her singing usually makes Emma join in with clapping joy, except when Emma’s acting like a 4-year-old. Kids.
A month or so into chemo, Christie’s voice fell from soprano to contralto as if it had been pushed off a cliff, and when Mike started to explain to Emma that it’s because Mommy’s sick, Christie sliced the air, cutting him off.
“She’s four,” Christie mouthed.
Either Emma didn’t notice the changes illness brought to their lives, or else noticed and didn’t want it explained. Get Christie through this, wig and all, and no explanation would be needed. Just one of their goals in the new normal.
Down in the cellar, behind the furnace, there’s an opening to a crawlspace that no human could possibly crawl through. A wedge of drywall hanging on a rusty nail hides it. You just swing it up, and there’s the cubbyhole. Mike marked it as a hiding place when he and Christie first moved in, but that was four years ago and he’s never had occasion to hide anything. Well, once. Pearls for Christie which, of course, started a fight because they couldn’t afford it and they needed every penny to save for the new house. That magical, mystical house that would put Emma in a good school district and in which Mommy and Daddy would grow old together. (Christie demanded that Mike return the pearls and he did.)
Mike stuffs the bag into the crawlspace. Perfect fit. Now, he should just go to bed and deal with it tomorrow. Of course, he doesn’t. Instead, he pulls the bag back out and counts what’s inside. It takes about an hour, as the heater pings and hisses. Unwrapping bundles, counting the bills, jotting with a carpenter pencil the totals on a random receipt he’d kept in his wallet.
“Damn!” Mike says. “I need my sleep!”
But he keeps going because he’s not going to sleep this night. When finished, Mike reluctantly stuffs the bag back and pulls himself away.
When he finally lowers himself into bed, Christie whispers: “Baby, you’re late.”
“I was down the cellar putzing around. I’m feeling revved.” Two statements that are not lies.
“Mike, you need to stop. We’re going to get through this.”
He kisses her shoulder. “My brave girl.” One month out of chemo, always exhausted and proud of the peach fuzz where once blonde hair cascaded onto an inviting back. Men always looked and Mike always glared them off.
“You’re the brave one, Mike. And we will find a way.”
Mike thinks: “Honey, you don’t know it yet, but I just found a way.”
Ninety-seven thousand dollars. Ninety-seven thousand stinking dollars. Now who carries that kind of money around in a computer bag? The scum who sell kids drugs, that’s who. The scum the Fellers want to move away from. And now they can.
“Thank you, scum.”
Mike listens as his wife’s breathing slides into sleep-rhythm. He stares into the dark. The most surprising thing is that the little voice has yet to visit. Mike, of course, realizes that the voice is his conscience, that he’s not unique at all in having something inside reminding him of what’s right and what’s wrong. But no voice. Nothing telling him that he needs to hand that bag in to the 35th precinct. Silence, that’s all.
Except for Christie’s breathing. Mike doesn’t know how long he’ll have her. He hopes it’s another 40 years, but cancer is cancer, and Christie’s is stage 4 uterine that required a hysterectomy and then the poisons. But Mike does have her now, right at this moment and that thought comforts him. He can love her. Still.
He and Christie had been friends in high school, lost touch when she went to college and Mike started at Drummond, and then started dating when she graduated with an art degree.
“What the hell you going to do with that?” Mike needled, and she did not appreciate it one bit.
“Well, at least I can avoid working in a warehouse for a factory that makes train parts.”
“It’s a living. It’s a job, for now.”
Mike had begun taking college courses at night. The plan was for him to get a degree in computer science, make a shitload of money being the tech nerd somewhere.
“I know those kind of guys,” Christie said. “They’re not like you.”
“Stereotype and, besides, nobody’s like me sweet-heart.”
Christie sighed. Long-suffering and only halfway through the first date.
Yes, that had been part of the plan, Mike becoming a computer geek. The other parts included getting married, saving for a house in the burbs, Christie eventually switching to a part-time job so that she could concentrate on her art and music, and then starting their family.
What they hadn’t planned on was a pregnancy before their wedding, having to settle on a starter house, and just how expensive raising a kid and maintaining a home could be. They hadn’t planned on Christie’s father going bankrupt and Mike’s mother not being able to pay for some of her medicines. But family is family and you do what you can.
And, of course, they hadn’t planned on the Devil. He showed himself in Christie’s excessive bleeding last September, bleeding that was not her period. He showed himself in biopsies and blood tests and MRIs. His pink ghostly countenance smirked at them in that bag of goo connected to Christie’s port. He came in and planted his forked-tailed ass right in the middle of their happiness.
“You’ll beat it, babe,” Mike would say.
“This is not going to put me in the ground,” she insisted.
Once, she’d caught him slumped over the sink, starring into the drain.
“Don’t be depressed, Mike. I am not going to die.”
The bills keep mounting. Mike had decent health care coverage, but even out-of-pocket costs can kill you when you’re fighting the Devil.
And then came the event that the Fellers really, really hadn’t planned on. Mike getting canned as the warehouse manager at Drummond. He’d gotten along OK with Terry Drummond, the old man’s son; the guy who was going to inherit the business. Terry’s a little older, married with two kids. Sometimes they talked sports: Phillies, Sixers, Eagles, but they could go weeks without seeing each other.
And, also, Mike kept his distance in a polite way. There was a line between being cordial to your boss and being a kiss-ass that Mike is all too aware of. He never crosses it. And the 12 men and women Mike supervises never cross it either.
Heather Molina was not one of Mike’s. She worked in accounting or finance or something over in the office section; another one of the invisibles. Invisible to Mike, anyway. The boys drooled over Heather, talking about the usual things, but adding some stuff that daffy Miller the poet would have liked—mentioning her soft smile, and hearty laugh.
Mike half-listened to this locker-room jive, just because he’d sometimes have to remind the guys to keep it down in case any female employees happened by. But even in the old normal, Mike didn’t let his thoughts travel there. He kept a lid on the urges that ruled his younger, hell-raising self just as he knew—never doubted—that Christie kept a lid on hers. It’s called trust. And, anyway, by the time of the incident, the new normal had settled heavily into the Feller’s everydayathons. Mike just wanted to save his wife.
Mike’s downfall began at the Christmas party, which he’d skipped that year because of Christie. (Old Man Drummond insisted on calling it a Christmas party and anybody who didn’t like it could go to hell.) Mike avoided office politics, mostly ignored gossip. But even Mike had heard that Terry Drummond had acted a little too friendly toward one of the girls at the party. And it hadn’t been Heather Molina.
Mike stepped into the fallout of that indiscretion when he had to return to the warehouse one ink-black January night because he’d forgotten to process some vouchers. The lights were on. That didn’t surprise Mike because somebody often worked late, usually one of the Drummonds, and the quickest way from off-site parking to the offices led through Mike’s domain.
But piercing screams echoing in the warehouse? Now that was a surprise. Mike heard it as he approached.
“We are through!” a woman yelled. “Get off me!”
Was that a slap?
Mike darted toward the door, but it swung open as he got there. Heather Molina ran by, holding the side of her face and sobbing.
Mike tried grabbing her, but she shook him off.
“Leave me alone!”
Mike thought of running after her but didn’t want to make things worse. When he went into the warehouse, Terry Drummond was sitting on a stack of skids, holding his head in his hands.
He looked up as Mike approached.
“I didn’t do anything,” he said.
“That’s not how it looks, boss.”
Terry struggled to rise, as if he was on old man in an easy chair that was too easy.
“You got to believe me.”
“Do I? I hope you didn’t put your hands on a woman. Men who do that are the lowest of the low.”
“What?” Outrage that didn’t fool Mike at all. Son of a bitch hit that girl.
“Heather and I are just friends! Just a little disagreement between friends!”
“Ask her!” Terry demanded.
Somehow Mike restrained himself from punching that punk in the face because, after all, he hadn’t really seen anything. Mike and Terry parted like boxers going back to their corners: Terry to the offices, Mike, vouchers in hand, out the door and into the cold.
For a day and a half, Mike wondered what he should do. Confront Terry again? Talk to the old man? Pull Heather aside, encourage her to go to the cops if Terry had in fact hit her? And was that the first time? Maybe Terry will control himself now that he’s been found out.
“It’s none of my business.”
But the little friggin’ voice didn’t let Mike off.
You have to do something.
“I am not getting involved.”
“What possible good can come from me saying something?”
You’d be protecting a young woman.
The stupid little voice did not whisper in a vacuum. Mike had been lately fascinated by the downfalls of famous men who looked the other way. Joe Paterno the Penn State coach, for instance. Because Paterno didn’t speak up loud and long enough about incidents that he hadn’t actually witnessed, the reputation he’d spent a lifetime building had been torn down, just like the statue of him the school had installed, and he died a broken old man.
Heather Molina hadn’t returned to work the next day.
Maybe she’s broken, too.
“It’s not my business,” Mike explained, but the voice went silent and he knew what he must do.
Mike talked to HR about what he’d seen and heard, and the company acted quickly. Old Man Drummond didn’t have the balls to tell Mike to his face. But the next day Terry Drummond went on vacation, word leaking that he’d put himself into detox. That afternoon the HR lady summoned Mike to her office to tell him that his position had been eliminated.
“Just like that.”
She handed him an envelope with his pay and other official papers, one of which included a letter from the company’s shark about what could happen to Mike if he slandered any of the Drummonds. The package also contained a signed statement by Heather Molina in which she denied being at the warehouse that night of the “alleged” incident. Mike had to sign papers in order to get his severance, which the Drummonds had capped at nine weeks.
“Why didn’t I just mind my own damn business?” Mike said to Christie.
She’d been going through chemo so he never told her what happened until the day they canned him. He didn’t want to upset her.
“Well, that went as planned,” he thought.
But, here’s the thing: Christie didn’t seem upset.
“You did right,” Christie said.
“If I’d just talked to Heather first. This whole situation could have been avoided. It’s just another stupid woman involved with an abusive, cheating, married man. Happens all the time. Like the Delaneys.”
The cops were always at the Delaneys’ house across the street and the missus always eventually said that nothing had happened even though she sometimes wore sunglasses at night when picking up a few items at the convenience.
Mike and Christie were in the kitchen when he’d told her. Emma was in bed. Christie was fixing food for the next day. She knew what Mike’s firing meant. She realized that it could be the end of her treatments if Mike couldn’t find another job with health benefits and fast. They’d lose the house, for sure. Unemployment wouldn’t stretch far enough.
Christie’s voice, though, discovered a chord of gentleness Mike had never heard. She talked into the steam from a boiling pot, as if it conjured her thoughts.
“You can’t help yourself, Mike.”
She turns to him, smiles. Her coloring, reddened by the boiling, nearly matches her bandana.
Mike had forgotten that he’d told her.
“The ancient Greeks said that character is fate,” is what Miller said. Part of one of those awkward pep talks Miller insisted on giving since Christie. Character is fate and that’s why, Miller was saying, Christie is going to pull through and die in her sleep when she’s 99-years-old.
“You know that Socrates drank hemlock, right?” Mike responded.
Miller knew when to shut up, give him that.
Now, Christie says: “You’re one of those who have to do the right thing. It’s just the way you are.”
Just the way you are.
Problem was that Christie just wouldn’t let that thought go. She’d repeat it in the frenetic weeks that followed. One of Mike’s friends got him a job at a supermarket that included health benefits. Good. But the coverage wasn’t as comprehensive as what he’d gotten at Drummond and the pay was shit. Bad. With that, and Morgan, and working as a guard on weekends, Mike took home a little more than half of what he made at the warehouse. Very bad. And, of course, Emma cries because she hardly ever sees Daddy-Superman anymore and even among some of her little friends, the mommies and daddies have been divorcing. That word, divorce, becomes another of the goblins that haunt modern childhood.
Meanwhile, Mike had heard that Terry Drummond had come back from detox talking all born-again, and Heather Molina had gotten engaged. Terry and his wife had been invited to the wedding.
“Why didn’t I just keep my big mouth shut?” Mike said. “Why didn’t I talk to Heather first? Why couldn’t I have just waited until riding in there like some… like some….”
And every time Mike would say this, Christie would remind him that he could not do anything less because he was a good man.
“Please stop saying that!” Mike snapped one night.
They were in the living room watching a show Mike paid no attention to.
Christie smiled warily. “You’re insulted because I call you a good man.”
“Telling me that is like cutting my balls off.”
“You didn’t marry me because I’m a good man. You married me because I’m a bad boy.”
“I don’t need this right now. You’re not a good man. Happy?”
“I’d be happier if we’d have sex now and then.”
“I am exhausted!”
“So am I! I didn’t sign up for this. I wait on you hand and foot. In your wild days, you smoked, drank, did drugs, ate poison; all the cool artsy bullshit And now—Surprise! Surprise!—cancer, and I have to suffer for it.”
Mike smiled. “Now that’s more like it,” he managed to say, before breaking down. “That’s my girl.”
Their sobs encircled each other before their arms did. When it was finally over, when they calmed down after an hour of heart-to-heart on the couch, Christie said: “I will not say that to you again. Promise.”
Because Mike had done things in his life he’d been ashamed of. Bullying smaller kids, like that time he pushed little Frankie Paladino out of a tree. Broke both his freakin’ arms. Not out of anger. Just to see what would happen. He’d acted like a cad to girls. He’d been cold to people just when they needed an understanding ear. Things that still make him burn with shame.
And even worse. Like what he’d done to that beggar. Mike was—what? —about 23 at the time? One winter’s night downtown on South Street he’d been drunk, gotten separated from his friends, saw a bar some hot girls were going into, and wondered what could one more beer hurt? Except, the only money he had left he might have to use to bus it back.
Mike had actually passed the homeless man a few times that night. He even slipped a dollar into his coffee can. Poor soul. Worldly possessions, in plastic trash bags, served as a makeshift sofa-bed. American flags stuck out defiantly from a scuffed tote bag. And, of course, a sign; printed letters sloping down and to the right on brown cardboard: “Please Help This Vet.” There were more lines; an explanation no one read.
Mike to this day remembers: thirty-five dollars and fifty-two cents. That’s how much he grabbed from the beggar. He casually bent down, scooped the can, and walked on.
“I’m good for it,” Mike joked.
The man looked at Mike, the eyes glimmering from inside the cave of debris-speckled hair and beard, and a veteran’s patch cap pulled down over the brow. He groaned, moved his foot. Then the eyes went dark again.
That meant nothing to Mike at the moment. He got his beer money. But in the days following, he’d see those eyes in nightmares. Those eyes became Mike’s eyes and that groan became Mike’s as well.
Mike needed to end the spell. It took him about three weeks, but he finally saved 60 bucks. One Friday afternoon, he went back to where the old man had been. Not there. Mike asked one of the bartenders at a corner tavern.
“Sammy?” the bartender said.
“That’s his name?”
“We called him Uncle Sam. Who knows his real name? Maybe somebody claimed the body.”
The bartender stopped washing a glass, took Mike in.
“Buddy, let me tell you, these homeless people; life expectancy ain’t so great, buddy. Especially with the winter we’ve been having. Hey, I feel bad for those people. They need to put them someplace, though. Not leave them on the street. Not around here. Better for the homeless and it’s better for business too, buddy. People do not want to see that when they come down here for a good time. Why just yesterday I was telling….”
Sammy’s eyes didn’t appear every night. But the visits didn’t stop completely until Mike started dating Christie. It had been years, now, since Mike had seen that horrible pleading in dreams. Had he’d somehow gotten forgiveness without confession? What would Christie think if she ever heard that story? That would stop all this “you’re such a good man” bullshit.
Now Christie sighs, gathers more covers about her.
“Focus,” Mike thinks.
He knows exactly what to do with the $97,000, but he wasn’t the one who had figured it out. His father had. The Joey Coyle story had fascinated Dad. In the early 1980s, Coyle, a longshoreman from South Philly, found $1.2 million in the street that had fallen out of the back of an armored car. Coyle kept it.
Listening to Dad and his uncles talking about Coyle introduced young Mike to one of life’s paradoxes. These men would never steal, for a lot of reasons. Virtue, sure. But also pride and an inclination to tell the truth, not because of the Ten Commandments, but because truth-telling is one way of telling somebody to fuck off. Dad was the most honest man Mike ever knew. Yet, Dad kept plotting and planning until the end exactly how he’d have gotten away with what Coyle couldn’t.
Coyle handed out $100 bills to friends and neighbors; and even though he didn’t tell them where he’d gotten the money, he made the mistake of swearing the benefactors to secrecy. The cops nabbed him just as he was about to board a flight to Acapulco with something like $100,000 taped to his ankles. He got off by pleading temporary insanity, but then died a drug addict at 40 anyway.
“Idiot!” Dad eulogized.
Here’s what you do. You slowly deposit it in $9,000 chunks in several new bank accounts. Banks won’t ask you questions so long as you keep it at that amount or less. And not just a straight $9,000; better $7,520 here, and $8,740 there.
A two-year plan, Mike thinks. Of course, he will pay cash for a lot of items in those two years. Christie won’t be up to peeking at the family’s books; she’s always left that to Mike anyhow. So, all the cancer meds? Cash. The out-of-pocket costs? Cash. Car repairs? Cash. Food sometimes? Cash.
Writing checks off Mike and Christie’s original account, while transferring funds from the stealths. Meanwhile the Feller’s savings account keeps growing. Eventually, he’ll buy that house in the burbs.
This is where Mike gambles, because this is when Christie could start asking questions. But Christie is not the same Christie, and will never be the same Christie. And not just in the way that nobody’s the same person as he or she was a year ago or five years ago or even a minute ago. This cancer mutates you, body and soul. It’s profound.
What do mobsters’ wives do? What do the spouses of unethical businesspeople do when their significant others spend money out of nowhere? They don’t ask questions, that’s what.
Now, though, Mike has many questions. Should he drive a different route home from Morgan? Or will that just make whoever will be looking (and someone will be looking) suspicious? Were there any cameras around? Had anyone been at a window? Mike will read the newspapers, scan the Internet in the next few days. Maybe there will be some mention. Or maybe not. That’s telling in and of itself. Look for tiny ads in out-of-the-way corners that might be signals. Maybe they’ll write it off as a loss. Anybody carrying that much cash around has to be dealing in millions. But what if it is somebody whose rich relative just died, or who won the lottery, or got lucky at the casino? Some poor schmuck.
Mike would love to have the next few weeks to ponder. But he knows he needs to make a decision today. Because if he turns the money in in a week or a month, the cops and the owner will ask what took him so long. Christie will ask what took him so long.
“You haven’t slept at all,” she now whispers.
“We’ll get out of this somehow, Mike. You’re going to have your pain-in-the-ass wife around for a long time.”
“Might as well get up.”
Mike sits on the side of the bed, resisting the urge to dash down to the cellar. Instead he staggers into the bathroom, like every morning, shaves, showers. When he comes back in, she’s asleep again.
Emma will be up in a bit, and Christie will be a mother running on empty. Mike marvels at his wife’s grit. She’s been talking about applying for full-time when she goes back to work.
“Get better first,” Mike said. “That’s your job now. Then we’ll figure things out.” He so wishes he could give her the rest of her life off. Now, maybe….
He flicks on the coffee machine as he passes—like always—then makes his way to the cellar. His hands tremble a bit as he slides the drywall over, but there it is. The little black bag, bulging with hope. Adrenaline pushes his vision out of focus. His breathing gets labored and he would wonder if it’s his heart, except Mike had experienced panic attacks before. Like when Christie got diagnosed; like when the HR lady called him in.
“Steady,” Mike tells himself. “It’s nerves.”
Just then the heater stops, as if it’s taken a last breath. A quiet Mike had never experienced settles, like a giant quilt had been laid over their house. No creaking in the floorboards, no outside traffic. Mike can’t even hear the coffee machine.
Mike thinks: “Show yourself.”
But the stupid friggin’ little voice doesn’t answer. There’s no stealing is stealing or the money doesn’t belong to you or even if you can get away with it, nothing good can come from this. Nothing. No rebuke.
Mike thinks: “I need to do this for my family,” but wonders just how much harm’s been done in the world by people so motivated.
Then, the lights go dark. Blackout. It happens enough times that Mike keeps a small flashlight on his keychain that he now clicks on. He makes his way to the other end of the cellar, checks the fuse box. All good. The entire neighborhood must be off-grid. The quiet weighs even more heavily as Mike feels his way up the stairs.
Shadows troll and disappear when he glances their way. All the familiar objects that his beam falls upon—refrigerator, toaster, sink, the dripping faucet—no longer seem familiar. It’s as if the inanimate objects let their masks fall to reveal their sinister animate selves. Even the dripping’s stopped, or it’s on long-pause.
Mike thinks: “Ninety-seven stinking thousand dollars. And I get us a house with new appliances in a neighborhood with a good school and the electric stays on during cold winters. Aren’t you going to tell me that I’m stealing? Aren’t you going to be like Christie and tell me that I can’t help but do the right thing?”
Just then, Mike’s flashlight hits Christie’s mural. The sign on the fence looks like it says “The Beggar’s” instead of “The Feller’s.” And from inside the window, past the fluttering curtains, Mike thinks he sees eyes glowing. He backs up, almost trips over one of Emma’s shoes, but then realizes it’s a mirage. There it is. “The Feller’s” the sign reads again as usual.
“This money’s got me revved,” Mike thinks. “I’m keeping it. The Fellers deserve a break.”
But, no. No. He can’t convince himself, standing for a long few seconds in the dark. Mike at last realizes why the stupid little voice stays away.
It’s already won.