BY: SHELLIE RICHARDS
Lester Suggs’s brows sank lower and lower with each passing second, as if the full weight of what he was about to do was resting right on top of his temple. One eye twitched as he slumped against the truck window. He methodically stroked his cheekbone with his index finger and bounced one leg so that the cab of the truck shook in time with his movements. He took the plastic bottle from the glove box and emptied several chalky disks into his hand. He tossed his head back and swallowed two Tums—whole.
“You’re supposed to chew ’em, Lester. Damn.”
“I know that, you crazy bitch. And you know how I hate them fruity-flavored ones. I told you to get me the minty ones. You don’t listen. Never did.”
“Uh-huh. You the one that don’t listen, Lester. Ever since your daddy died, you been nothing but a little horse’s ass. You don’t respect nobody and you don’t listen to nobody neither. You need a good ass-kickin’. Boy, I wish your dad—”
“Shut up. You hear me? Shut your mouth. Maybe if you’d been more than fifteen years old when you had me, you’d have had the sense not to have me. So shut up.”
Lester tucked the nine-millimeter into the back of his Levi’s and shot her a final look that said: Don’t screw this up. Jackie Suggs did what she was told and kept both hands on the wheel of the old Ford truck. She’d wait for his signal and pull up to the front door. “If that damn Mercedes ever moves,” she muttered.
But Sharon Waters was planted at the curb, watching the beads of rain that formed on her windshield gather into larger droplets that slid down the path of least resistance until they disappeared into the abyss beneath her car hood. Occasional shards of sun broke through the rainclouds, and a beautiful rainbow settled somewhere on the east side of the town, near where she and Bernard had lived in their 1920s bungalow for twenty-five years. Glorious years, she thought, and at the same time: Rainbow be damned…sun-shower be damned… oleanders, damn, damn, damn! The surge of bitterness jerked her back into reality. At that moment she didn’t care about the sun-shower or the oleanders…she didn’t care about anything anymore. She wished, in fact, that she might simply hold her breath until she suffocated and died. Then, she thought, then she might have peace.
So she sat in the shiny, black Mercedes sedan at the curb of Trustmark Bank, trying hard not to breathe. She pressed her lips to conceal the quiver and focused on the lush blanket of pink rose blooms that lined the sidewalk. She blinked to keep any tears from escaping when she heard Bernard sigh. He reached over and squeezed her hand, as he’d done so many times during their twenty-five years. She knew Bernard was too weak to walk very far, and so she had pulled up as close to the door as she could.
“I can do this,” he told her. “It’s thirty feet to the door. I’ll be right back, okay?”
Sharon nodded. She couldn’t speak. She watched him tremble while he opened the door, but he stood up strong and straight, gave her a wink, and walked into the bank.
Bernard was dying. Her sweetheart. Her true north. The other half of her soul. Her best friend in the world. Who else did she have? She and Bernard shared everything and had shared everything. The fact that they didn’t have children magnified this point. They’d wanted kids, but when they found out Sharon was unable, Bernard stood by her, resolute in his love. They were a family of two, he’d said. Through all of their trials, Bernard had been the glue that held everything together. When her mother died, Bernard made all of the arrangements so she could mourn quietly. On their tenth anniversary he’d taken her to Africa on safari, a dream she’d had all of her life. And when her dog, Jet, was bitten by a poisonous snake, Bernard rushed him to the all-night vet and was right there with her, and when they had to put him down, he’d held her up. Always, he’d held her up. Her favorite music on the radio, her favorite dinners, her favorite vacation places. He’d spoiled her all of these years, and now bone cancer threatened to take him away. Sharon had cried for a week. She didn’t eat and slept only from exhaustion. Bernard assured her he was a fighter. He’d beat this one way or another. “I’m not leaving you, Sharon. Not for a second. Not for God, not for the devil, not for anything or anyone. I’m here. I’m staying. You’re stuck with me.”
Now their time was running out. She thought again of his words: “You’re stuck with me.”
The words rang in her head, and she played them over and over again. They had sustained her then as they did now. But the chemo and radiation had been rough, and each time they thought they had it, it cropped up somewhere else: lungs, liver…and now Bernard’s heart was surrounded by cancerous tissue—his big, beautiful, super-sized heart. They’d promised to be together until the end when—and if, he always threw in—it came. But Sharon knew. And so did Bernard.
Lester Suggs couldn’t stand it any longer.
“That bullshit Mercedes ain’t movin’! Fuck this crap. I’m going in.” Before Jackie Suggs could utter a single word of disapproval, he was halfway to the door.
“Damn fool,” she mumbled. “Damn fool.”
Lester entered the bank and took one look around. He ran his hand back and forth over his bald head and fingered the tattooed base of his neck. He could feel where Jeanette, his ex-girlfriend’s name, appeared in large, military-green, gothic letters. Maybe he’d take some cash from today’s job and have it removed. He shifted the red bandana over his face and fired a single shot toward the ceiling.
“Everybody down! Get the fuck down now!”
They did as they were told. All except one.
Bernard. Still standing, he turned, shaking and pale.
“What’s-a matter with you, pal? Can’t you hear? I said, get the fuck down!”
Lester’s voice bellowed, filling the tiny bank branch in a way that scared the patrons breathless.
All but Bernard. He was breathless already.
“I heard you.” Bernard’s voice sounded confident.
Lester pointed his gun toward Bernard’s face, hoping a little intimidation might do the trick. He needed to get this guy on the floor and fast. He didn’t want the rest of the customers thinking he was some kind of pushover pansy. He waited for Bernard to lie down like everyone else. On the floor to his right, a young mother and her boy, maybe five or six, wrapped their arms around each other. Across the lobby an old lady, pasty white, passed out, a young college student spilled her coffee when she went down. There were two female tellers, and the bank manager—this should be an easy job. Easy-peasy.
Bernard stood tall and still. He glanced around the bank at everyone lying in the floor and then through the tinted doors at Sharon.
This could be it. This could be the end. This could be the place he’d die. Not in some hospital room where your light goes out while you’re staring at the institutional, aqua-colored tiles, or at home where the last thing you see is your favorite chair from the bed you shared with your spouse of twenty-five years—breathing lavender and vanilla pillowcases—and you curse your situation while waiting to die. There was no good place to die. Not really. This was as good as any. A bullet traveling two thousand miles per hour straight to the heart wouldn’t take long.
Ironically, he’d come in to collect his will from the lockbox. Now he had some nut job shaking a gun at him. He and Sharon were on their way to plan his funeral, literally, and here he stood, looking down the barrel of a beautiful, shiny Glock. Go ahead. Do it. Kill me. Shoot me. Shoot me in the heart. Shoot me in the cancer. Make it quick. Save me the trip to my attorney’s office.
The thought of it all was so incredulous, so ridiculous, that Bernard began to laugh hysterically, and the only sound filling the tiny bank branch was not that of Lester Suggs’s deep, gravelly voice, but that of Bernard’s high-pitched, maniacal laughter. He laughed so hard that he had to grab the counter to steady himself. It was invigorating. In fact, Bernard couldn’t recall a time in the last few months he’d felt so alive as he did, looking down the barrel of the nine-millimeter and laughing at the obscenities of the crazed redneck wielding it.
“Hey, pal! What the hell’s your problem? I said, get down!”
Bernard laughed even harder, choking until he finally spat at Lester’s feet. A perfectly round, scarlet-red ball of sputum hung from the edge of Lester’s alligator-skin boot.
Lester stared, simultaneously mystified by the ruby-red pearl on his boot and his nemesis, who continued to laugh even harder and crazier than before.
What was this bullshit? And what was this red goo crap hanging from his brand new, alligator-skin boots? C’mon, Lester. Man up. Stand up to this. Do something! Lester looked from one bank customer to the next, grinding his teeth to conceal his nerves. What was this a-hole doing? Damn! He’d just wanted to rob a bank. Should have been an easy job—a small bank on a slow day with hardly any people around, and now here he was and it was all on the line ’cause some freak decided he wants a fight. He could walk away and risk getting caught, or he could smack down this crazy fuck ruining his day. He tried to think it through but his thoughts were tangled. He wasn’t even sure of his own name. How could he pull off this bank robbery if he couldn’t even remember his own name?
He looked at Bernard more closely. He was a small guy, and his clothes hung off him like maybe they belonged to his big, fat brother. His skin was yellow and he looked sickly. Lester’s grip on his gun softened at the thought. Suddenly, though, he was jerked back into reality.
“You came here to take something that’s not yours, right? Am I right? Take me, asshole! Take me. Shoot me. C’mon! Kill me right here. You want to take something that’s not yours? That how you get off? Go ahead, take my life!”
Bernard bellowed like a madman, and Lester was suddenly more than a little nervous. He felt fear creeping in like a distant thunderhead building strength. But he was also transfixed. Who was this crazy? Lester wanted to check on the other customers, but he couldn’t—his gaze was locked. Bernard’s fury and rage sucked Lester in with such force that he felt like a rubbernecker at a freak show. What began as a robbery was now a carnival.
“You hear me? You’re nothing but a thug. A common thief. Someone who thinks he’s somehow entitled to other people’s things—their money, their livelihood, their stuff that they earned!” Bernard’s rant was a crescendo of insults.
“That how you got those fancy boots, huh? You steal those? You’re a loser. A nobody. Nothing. A big, fat zero!”
Bernard screamed so hard his face went purple, and his body lurched forward as if the sheer power of his voice required the strength of his entire person. Instinctively, Lester swung at Bernard, knocking him to the floor.
Lester turned to confirm that the other bank patrons were still down. He’d been so mystified by Bernard’s rant and ruby-red sputum, he’d failed to make sure everyone else was behaving like normal people behave. Everyone was down, still. Good. Check. Check. He didn’t need this freak giving them any hope of pushing any alarms or making any phone calls. Who was this crazy? Lester’d had girlfriends who weren’t this messed up. And this guy was a runt. He’d had hunting dogs—beagles—that were bigger.
Lester turned back toward Bernard, who’d gathered himself, and was headed toward him full bore. Before he knew it, Lester went down, busting his head on the travertine floor as a single shot went off into the ceiling.
“C’mon, tough guy! C’mon! What happened to ‘get the fuck down,’ huh? Now who’s the big guy? Now who’s down? C’mon! Kill me! Get up and kill me! Right here, big guy!” Bernard beat his fist to his chest. Right here. Right here in the cancer. Do it, Bernard thought. Bernard thought he heard Lester mumble “crazy fuck,” just before he passed out amidst the applause and screams of the other bank patrons.
Later that afternoon, still dizzy, still shaken by the onslaught of first responders, followed by the din of sirens and breaking glass, Sharon sat by Bernard’s bed at St. Catherine’s Hospital, as she had so many times before. She watched carefully as the physician flipped through the ER chart…waiting.
Bernard furrowed his brow and Sharon’s heart sank.
“That was quite a show, Bernard. I’m impressed.” Then, checking the IV drip one last time, he looked at Bernard and patted his shoulder. “You’re gonna be okay, Bernard.”
Shellie Richards is a research editor and teaches science writing at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN where she lives with her family. Her work has been published in The Chaffey Review, The Cream City Review, Bending Genres, Oatmeal Magazine and Bartleby Snopes (winner, story of the month) among others, and she has a forthcoming essay in BioStories. She is a member of AWP, the Porch Writer’s Collective, holds an MA in English (writing emphasis) and is currently working towards an MFA.