Crystal read the article again as she sipped the brandy Verne insisted she drink.
"It'll calm your nerves, darling," her husband said.
Darling. He hadn't called her that in years. Or had he ever called her that? The brandy sure made her feel like somebody's darling. Crystal had never seen her name in print. Carefully, she cut out the article and thought about having it framed.
Hippie Burglar Strikes Area Bank
By Lindsey Lore
Daily Progress staff writer
A slim man dressed like a hippie robbed a Wachovia bank this morning– with a t-shirt and a note.
According to Charlottesville Police Officer Nicholas Walker, the robber struck the bank's West Main Street branch near the University of Virginia around 10:30am. He was described as 5 feet 6 inches tall and of medium build.
"He had on some sort of Darth Vader mask," said bank teller Crystal Worthington. "I couldn't see his face."
Worthington added that the robber wore faded blue jeans, a dark wool cap, and a t-shirt that indicated he was armed. "He handed me a note demanding all the money in my drawer," she said.
After the teller complied, giving the robber an undisclosed amount of cash, "He calmly walked out of the bank in the direction of the bagel shop," she said. According to Worthington, a weapon was never displayed. "But I wasn't taking no chances," she added.
The note as well as a security videotape has been sent to the FBI for investigation. This was the first bank robbery of the year in Charlottesville, according to Walker. The suspect is still at large.
The sound of her name gave her a thrill when it jumped from the reporter's lips on the 5:30 news. And at 6 o'clock there was a picture to go with it. Verne was so pleased that he ordered pizza with sausage and peppers which was her favorite, though she knew he hated peppers. Her mother, Min, must've watched the news, because she called at 6:30.
"I told you to quit that job," Min said. "It's too dangerous you working in the city with all them students and criminals running around doing Lord knows what. And you handling money day in and day out. They should get you a personal guard. Tell them you want a guard or you'll quit. Did they catch him yet?"
"The robber, that's who. Sometimes Crystal, you're 'bout as thick as lard."
Maybe they'd want her to be on Oprah. Boy, wouldn't that be something! She always taped the show on the days she worked late. Oprah would have her tell the story to the whole world while she leaned in and listened, big-eyed and respectful. She'd be so sympathetic and would coo about how brave Crystal had been. Officer Walker had been sympathetic at first, but then he kept asking her about the damn mask. Had the guy walked in with it on? He had. Then Walker wanted to know why she hadn't hit the alarm right away.
"I thought he was a patient," she explained, "from the hospital. Across the street."
"A masked man walks into a bank and you're not suspicious?" He was staring right at her and didn't even seem to be on her side anymore. "Is that something that happens here on a regular basis?"
"Yes, as a matter of fact. A lot of people come in from the hospital to withdraw money. Some wear oxygen masks and push little carts. One told me he needed cash to buy cigarettes. Can you believe that? Man can't hardly breath and he gotta have a smoke. Some are in wheelchairs or pushing walkers. One had his face all bandaged up like a mummy," she said.
"So the mask didn't tip you off?"
"No, sir." Jesus. How many times did she have to repeat this?
She finished her brandy, poured another glass, and read the article again. Oprah would understand about the mask. But something else bothered her, and she didn't know what to do about it. She wasn't really positive the robber had been a man. Not 100 percent. He looked like a man. She could still picture him. No make-up, no hairdo, no body curves. Flat as a pole, he was. She'd assumed he was a man. But he was kind of smallish.
And then there was the business about the message on his t-shirt. The one he'd pointed to that "indicated he was armed," as the paper put it. "I'm out of estrogen and I have a gun," the shirt had read. She'd told that Officer Walker about the gun threat, but left out the part about estrogen because it was embarrassing. Didn't that have to do with sex or something?
And there was another thing she'd left out of her account. The part after she'd read the guy's note and passed the money from her drawer over the counter. The part when he said something in a low voice that could've been a man's. Probably was.
"Before you call the police," he'd said, "do 200 kegels. Or else. Someone is watching and I don't want you hurt."
She hadn't been exactly sure what a kegel was, but knew it was something women did. Down there. That wasn't something you could talk about to a man you didn't know, even if he was a policeman. Now Oprah, she'd have told. After the robber left the bank, she just stood there stunned. Then she prayed to God nobody shot her. After that she counted to 200 before hitting the alarm.
With the second brandy drained, she set down the glass. Famous, that's what she was. The burglar had to have been a man. It said so. And whoever heard of a woman bank robber anyway? Women had more sense. Maybe with a guy as a partner a woman could do something that crazy. But this burglar had been alone. A skinny hippie like the paper said. Probably a medical student. Probably from up north.
Still in bed, Vicky Monk read the front page of the paper she'd lifted at a coffee shop.
"A man," she said aloud. "How could anyone think I'm a man? Oh, my God. A man."
She swung herself out of the bunk and took two steps over to the tiny mirror hanging on the inside of her closet door. She couldn't see much, but what did she expect in a Volkswagen camper? She saw enough. She saw down to her unfortunate thighs and looked away. True, she was no longer as feminine as she liked to imagine, but that didn't mean she should be mistaken for a man. What kind of dingbat tellers do they hire these days? No wonder people rob banks.
And dressed like a hippie. What was that about? She dressed just fine. That teller was too young. What the hell did she know? Vicky wondered if she'd ever even seen a hippie.
She picked up the paper again. "A slim man." A man, my ass. It was so insulting. Just because she was 65 didn't mean she was sexless. Then she smiled and peered back at herself in the mirror. At least she hadn't been described as a fat man. She danced the few steps she remembered from tap class. Slide, tap click. Then she hugged herself. Unless some genius at the FBI looked at the security tape carefully, she'd gotten away with it.
The wool cap had been a good call. She hadn't even thought about the implications of the t-shirt, but obviously that had been a good call too. And her C-PAP mask had done the trick. It was a last minute decision– the only thing close to a disguise she could find.
"You look like a Martian in that," Paul had said the first time she wore it to bed. She wore it every night after the sleep apnea diagnosis. It worked for sleeping, and apparently it worked for robbing a bank.
She counted the money again, carefully arranging it into piles on the back seat. It was almost enough to solve the immediate problem. She'd been doing fine, surviving on social security and Medicare, until her dentist mouthed those three dreaded words, the most dreaded words in the English language– "extensive dental work." Was it her fault Medicare didn't cover teeth? What idiot came up with that?
Beside her campsite, a car was moving slowly up the dirt road. She held her breath and watched it pass. Then she thought about the t-shirt again. Time to get rid of it. The shirt had been a favorite, but she retrieved it from the plastic bag that held her dirty laundry and stuck it in the plastic bag that held the banana peels, coffee grinds, and the rest of her garbage.
While fresh coffee brewed, she worked on the paper's crossword puzzle. King Lear's daughter, an eight-letter word ending in "a." She knew that one, but before filling in the boxes, she had to put down the page. Her head fell into her hands and she waited to weep. Oh, she should've paid more attention to Mrs. Gottlieb in 12th grade when she was supposed to be reading King Lear.
"Poor King Lear. Poor Cordelia," Mrs. Gottlieb used to say, her large watery eyes brimming with sorrow. "Poor everybody."
Poor everybody, indeed. Poor me, to start with. Here she was a grown woman, a woman, dammit, living in an old Volkswagen camper instead of in her house in the mountains. Her perfect house. The cabin built to fit her like a wedding gown. She'd planned every window to frame another breathtaking view of the mountains and forest. Every corner held a memory.
Poor Philip, her brilliant son, pushing up daisies in the cemetery instead of teaching Comparative Literature at Brown where he'd been a full professor. Poor everybody, in fact, except her daughter-in-law, Eva Mueller Monk, AKA Godzilla, AKA The Bitch, who was living in her house. The house she'd built with Paul for their retirement.
Paul would just die if he knew what happened to our house. But he was already dead. Poor Paul. Poor everybody. If he'd been alive none of this would've happened.
Paul would've stopped her. Her and her grand property scam. The idea had materialized out of nowhere as Vicky tackled her taxes the year after Paul's death. The loss of her husband had left her unmotivated and forlorn. She was officially alone, retired, unemployed and without any prospects for work. What really bothered her was the thought that she would never have enough income to make writing off the interest on her mortgage worthwhile. Someone should benefit. Waste was so depressing. She called Philip. He was salaried, he rented, he was still single and he had no deductions.
"How 'bout I put this house in your name? That way you'll be able to take advantage of the tax break on the mortgage."
"I don't think that's such a good idea, Mom."
"Well, I do. Waste not, want not. Look, this house will be yours when I kick the bucket," she'd said merrily. "So you may as well reap the benefits of owning property while I can enjoy it."
"I can wait," he'd said.
But she couldn't. It was just too good an idea. There was a perfectly legitimate tax deduction sitting around, begging to be claimed. Philip could use the deduction and it wasn't even illegal. Well, not very. Anyway, who would care. She changed the deed that afternoon.
As she sat in the van feeling miserable all over again, morning light found its way into her metal cocoon in spite of the carefully snapped brown curtains. And the kids from the next campsite were already fighting. It was only 6:30 and they were at it– in a tizzy, no doubt, with what to do about the novelty of having no television to distract them from the horror of being related.
Related. Don't get me started. She stood up, checked the cotton dress on the floor for spots of spaghetti sauce. It seemed clean enough, so she stepped into it, pulled it up over her shoulders, and hurried to the bath house before the rush. Her back was sore from sleeping on stiff foam. Eva, "the detested kite," to quote the bard, was probably still snoozing on her $1400 Thermapedic mattress.
The kids ignored Vicky's good morning, but at least they'd stopped fighting. They were busy scrounging for firewood. Pyromaniacs in training. When had she become so negative? Hadn't she always liked kids? She'd been absolutely nuts about her own little boy. But then he grew up and turned into an idiot, married an unhappy woman who made him unhappy too. He'd obviously stopped taking care of himself, and then, before he could reproduce or sign a quitclaim, he'd blown a gasket.
Had it been only three months since that call from Eva? "I have bad news, Vicky," she'd said.
Her grandmother. Hadn't Philip said something about a sick grandmother? "Oh my dear. What is it?"
Yes! He'd come to his senses and left her. "Where'd he go?"
"I'm hardly a theologian."
Shouldn't that be hardly a travel agent? "Where is he?" Vicky asked again.
"He's dead. It happened the night before last."
"What are you saying?"
"Are you hard of hearing? He died."
"But he was just here for a visit."
"His heart. I guess he didn't want to bother you with his problems. It's been out of rhythm for some time. Two nights ago, in the middle of the night, it stopped."
"Is this a joke?"
"You think it's funny? His heart stopped."
"Stopped? What are you saying?"
"Don't take that tone with me. I called 911, but by the time they got here, it was too late."
"Oh, my God. Philip. My baby. I'll be there as soon as I can."
"Don't rush. Everything's arranged. I've donated his organs and body to the Medical School."
"You can't do that. It's not your call. I'm his mother."
"Well, I'm his wife. We've been married for five months. All winter. It's so cold here, I just hate it. I've always hated Providence, but now it's unbearable. Philip's job kept us here, and I didn't bitch about it too much. But he's gone, and I'm free to move into my house. In May, I think. That should give you plenty of time to find a place to live."
"But I have a place to live. In my house."
"It's not your house. It was Philip's. I have the deed. Now it's mine."
The line went dead. She couldn't believe this was happening. It was horrible enough that Paul had died, but Philip was too young. He was just beginning. This couldn't be fair. I gave at the office.
She sat stunned in her cabin as time continued its heartless march. The sun set and rose again in spite of everything. She flipped through her calendar. What day was it she said Philip had died? The day before yesterday? What had I been doing when I could've been holding onto him, saving him?
She studied the calendar as if it held the answer. But for once Erma Bombeck had no wisdom to impart and no humorous take to get her through the days that followed. She definitely should've paid more attention to Mrs. Gottlieb when she was prattling on and on about King Lear. Poor King Lear. Poor Philip. Poor me. Poor everybody.
Vicky was on her daily walk from the campsite to the park entrance when she spotted a white car as it sped down the highway. Was that Philip's Jeep racing north toward Waynesboro? Yes, Rhode Island plates, the Hun at the wheel. If there's a God in heaven, she'll be ticketed up the road where the police lie in wait. She ran back to her campsite, lowered the pop-top, jumped into the front seat, and drove to the entry.
"I'll be back," she shouted to the Ranger. "Hold my space."
He smiled and waved. Vicky headed south, hurrying up the mountain. The guard at the entrance to Wintergreen raised the gate and let her pass. So I'm not black-listed. Yet. At the house, she parked alongside the wild azaleas. They were in bloom and the yard was mad with color.
The last time she'd been at the house, they were still buds, she thought, though in truth she hadn't taken the time to look. She'd left in such a hurry that she hadn't taken or noticed anything. She hadn't been ready to move out when Eva rolled up, moved in, and kicked her out. This was her chance to reclaim some of her things. The front door was locked, but she still had a key and it still worked. Vicky figured she had two hours to grab what she could before Eva returned.
The house was a mess. Bags and boxes were everywhere. What to grab? The TV stared at her. What about the VCR, the DVD, a CD player? But she'd missed none of these things in the weeks she'd been out of the house. Why had she bought them in the first place?
In the kitchen sat her bread machine, food processor, blender, percolator, rotisserie, and microwave. Had she really used all this stuff? Did she want any of it now? The van had two burners, and all the cooking utensils she needed fit snugly into one drawer. There was a grill and barbeque area at the campsite if she decided to live it up. Nothing was even tempting except for a battery-operated milk frother that she grabbed and stuck in her backpack.
She raced upstairs to her bedroom. Even the bed seemed excessive. It was king-sized and over-shammed. She rushed to the closet. How many shoes did I think I needed? She rifled through her still-hanging clothes. Why had I kept those jeans? They'll never fit me again.
She closed the closet door and went to the vanity. It was crammed with make-up samples she'd never used, bottles of pills to treat ailments she could no longer remember having, the Rogaine Paul never used, and tampons she was long past needing. Sorting through her battered jewelry box, she found earrings last worn in college and a horrible necklace her mother must've sent after finding it in her jewelry box. A bracelet Paul had given her years ago joined the frother in her backpack.
Was that it? Only two things she wanted from a 40-year life? And she didn't really need either of them. After locking the front door, Vicky paused to take in the sight of the azaleas. They were lovely, but in a week they too would be gone. She left without looking back.
On the drive to her campsite she thought about King Lear. Like him, she had no one but herself to blame for her troubles. But for the first time they didn't seem so bad. At least she wasn't wandering half naked in the wilderness. She had almost ten grand from the bank job and a dental appointment to schedule. Before calling the dentist, though, she'd head into town. She definitely needed a new frock and some make-up. And maybe she'd invest in a bra. A man, my ass.