In Ryan Björklund’s latest story, a bad man receives an unexpected second chance at a first start.
Dennis Earnsmore was becoming increasingly temperamental. He was poor, yet his surname was Earnsmore. Though people normally regarded this as an unspoken irony, it remained a constant source of inner turmoil for Dennis. As a 27 1/2 year old adult, who was expected to have certain things going for him at that stage of life, money troubles plagued him, leaving him perpetually anxious.
Dennis worked as a lifeguard at a Jewish Community Center just outside of Pittsburgh. He hated it. He didn’t like the idea of saving people, as it went against his fierce advocacy of natural selection. But he could swim for free and enjoyed the lax atmosphere. He had saved a few Jewish kids from drowning.
Moses Earnsmore. Yeah, right.
Lifeguarding was originally his plan for a summer job that he’d quit once he got back into the local community college. But he no longer qualified for financial aid, so he just perched in his lifeguard chair, devising get-rich-quick schemes of dubious legality. A few of these schemes turned out to be big, one-time scores. Most left him poorer than he was before he had thought them up.
Dennis Earnsmore lived this way for 3 years. He didn’t have a girlfriend, despite being rather handsome. Women often noticed him in public, sometimes quickly averting their eyes before their boyfriends could notice. He was lonely. So goddamn lonely.
“You’re making my dreeeeams coooome truuuuue.” He’d casually sing along with Darryl and John, as he fantasized about flooring the accelerator of his Chevy Shitbox straight through a Starbucks storefront during peak business hours.
But he wasn’t doing that this morning. He was quietly pulling into a secluded parking area near DJ’s Chicken Shack. A cash-only, locally-owned regional fried chicken hotspot. They closed at midnight. It was 7 a.m. on this tranquil Saturday morning. Most people in the neighborhood were sleeping off hangovers from the night before, and nobody would be waking up early for any sort of religious function. Reasons why Dennis favored observing on Saturdays. Every roadside pole had a little fluttering American flag attached. The land of opportunity. Sure was.
Dennis recalled his avenue of approach to DJ’s was a 6 mile straight shot from his approximate point of origin. His route of egress was exactly 2 righthand turns from an on-ramp to a 3-lane eastbound highway. The building was rectangular, single-floored, center-fed front door, corner-fed back door, and a drive-through window. The manager’s office to the left of the deep fryer contained a safe. This job looked promising. He planned to get a new car after this. No more Hall and Oates.
He watched 3 uniformed employees saunter up from the bus stop. A frumpy woman and two young men. A family, perhaps. The bills of their hats were fashioned to look like chicken beaks. They looked miserable. Dennis recorded their arrival time, and the name of the bus route they had just departed. The sun came up 48 minutes before that. A solid buffer zone, he thought to himself.
From his car, he stared at the generator he’d placed there a few days before. (Thanks, Craigslist) It remained untampered with. Just another piece of unassuming junk people wouldn’t bother to understand while en route to line their guts with grease.
His plan was to cut all of the power to the building from the circuit breaker near the dumpster, cut the ribbons of wires that powered the alarm system, and then hook up the generator as an auxiliary to re-power the building so the electric company wouldn’t notify the owners of a power outage, or , even worse, send someone to make sure the refrigerators were serving their purpose. It’d look like a self-correcting electrical hiccup.
Once the alarm was disabled and the power was back on, he’d pry open the drive-through window with a rubber crowbar and push his duffle bag through, following in after it. He’d unhinge the manager’s office door with a modified bolt-stripping kit. 8 minutes maximum.
Inside, he would use a battery-powered circular saw to breach the broad side of the safe. It’d take roughly about 30 minutes if it was an older safe. Up to 60 minutes if it was one of the more modern ones. He had 4 extra batteries and 4 spare blades. It’d be the last Friday of the month, so he’d pile stacks of cash into a smaller bag that fit inside the same bag he brought his tools in. He’d get in his Chevy Shitbox and quietly leave. He’d make two right turns, get on the eastbound highway, and listen to John and Darryl sing “When The Morning Comes” to him as he drove into the rising sun.
Dennis glanced from the generator to his rearview mirror and saw a bumbling man approaching his car. Dennis was prepared for everything except this. The man pressed his entire body up against his trunk–where Dennis had stowed his criminal toolkits–and began rocking the entire car. Dennis immediately sprung out of his car, filled with primordial rage. The man’s eyes glared white in fear as he backpedaled and fell onto his back. He covered his face and began sobbing.
“I’m sorry…I’m sorry…I’m sorry.” He was gasping for air. He was a tubby white man in his 50s, and wore dirty blue sweatpants that were slathered with grease stains. He had fallen out of his shredded leather shoes, which were probably 3 sizes too big for him. His red and white Hawaiian floral print shirt was up over his head, covered in a brown substance. He was using it to shield his face.
Dennis stared down at this man, his mind frantically grasping at possible contingencies. Then came a sequence of bad ideas. He could beat him down. He could stomp his head in, right here. He could pop the trunk and get out the circular saw and do this guy in. Forget the whole plan, and just head eastbound without the safe’s contents.
He couldn’t. He wasn’t evil. Dennis considered himself to be a good man in a bad situation. Just as he began to regain his composure, the three beak-billed DJ’s Chicken Shack employees waddled out into the parking lot. The frumpy woman had a cordless phone in her hand and stepped over the injured man. She moved close to the back of the car, and was reading the license plate and describing his beloved Chevy Filthmagnet to a police dispatcher. Her two sons were holding up their cell phone cameras, probably YouTubing this entire scene.
The filthy old man on the ground began to moan loudly. One of the young beak-bills shouted to Dennis:
“Why’d you hit him? Why you hitting’ on a old man for?”
Dennis said nothing. This was bad. Dennis went to his car, took the keys out of the ignition and manually locked every door. The trunk had a separate key, so he took it off his keyring and flicked it into the grass as though it were a cigarette. He emptied his pockets and neatly arranged the contents on the ground. He looked up and made eye contact with one of two policeman getting out of their Dodge Charger squadcar. This was very bad.
The matriarch of the beak-billed morons lumbered over to one of the officers and pointed at Dennis and then at the man on the ground, who was still moaning away. The police officer put his palm up to her face and said “Shut it lady, go back in the building. Now.” Heartbroken that her contribution to society didn’t earn her a merit badge, she and her sloppy employees went inside to begin their various tasks. One of the employees called her “Mom.”
As one burly moustached officer knelt down to the greasy man, the other approached Dennis. He was tall, bald, and muscular. The nametag opposite his badge read “SWINEHART”. He wore the prototypical police-edition mirrored aviator sunglasses. Dennis looked at his reflection in the lenses, and was surprised how composed he looked.
The cop looked down at Dennis’ pockets, hanging inside out. Then further down at the contents neatly laid on the ground. He picked up Dennis’ ID and examined it. Dennis was looking at the rows of American flags along the road.
“What brings you here this early? DJ’s don’t serve breakfast.” Composure. Vitality. Elegance. Whatever. Dennis was scared.
“Oh nothing, really. I was just making sure that my initial plan to rob this greasy shithouse was up to par. I was hoping to never see you guys, or any of your buddies. How about you go cram some fried dough down your cockpleasers?”
Dennis didn’t say that. Instead, he said this:
“I thought I heard something clanking around in my engine. Stopped to check it out, but hadn’t gotten out of my car yet when this man came up and began shaking my car.” What connivery Dennis was capable of. He missed the relative safety of his lifeguard chair.
The cop chuckled, and looked over at the filthy man. “Yeah, well Frankie’s a real vagrant piece of shit. You don’t have any weapons on you?”
“No, sir” Dennis lied.
“What do you do?”
“I’m a lifeguard at the JCC.”
“Oh yeah? What do they fill the pools with over there? Money?”
Dennis feigned amusement at Officer Swinehart’s attempt at anti-Semitic humor. He began to speculate as to why Officer Swinehart kept his head clean-shaven.
“You can get your stuff up off the ground now.”
The burly moustached cop had a nametag that read “FISH”. Officer Fish helped Frankie to his feet and brought him over to a wary Dennis and Officer Swinehart. Frankie held a plastic grocery bag in one hand. It contained one empty 7-up can, some torn up rubber tire surface, a single ketchup packet, and 3 French tickler gas station bathroom novelty condoms.
Frankie was wiping patches of crusty vomit from his scraggly salt-n-pepper beard. His hands were covered in scabs, and he sported long yellow and brown claw-like fingernails. He was swaying drunkenly.
He mumbled along through the drool that coated his chapped lips, with minimal coherence. A brown tooth stuck out of the bottom of his mouth like a Narwhal horn. Frankie spoke as though his tongue was too big for his mouth.
“Didd’n do nunna’at.”
“Never hit you?”
“N’awl… never eeben touches me. Just scare me.”
“What were you doing to his car?”
“I’s… getting’ a coupon. Down’ere. Save me up some… some money.” Frankie began a coughing fit that repulsed his audience.
Officer Fish kneed Frankie in the abdomen. “Cough on me again, you fuckin’ slime ball! I’ll kick your ass all over this goddamn lot!”
Frankie was now having an even worse coughing fit, having swallowed a mouthful of pebbles after colliding with the ground. Officer Swinehart glanced down at Frankie the way a desultory substitute teacher would look at a class clown.
“What’re you doing? Dickin’ people around this early? DJ’s ain’t even open yet, you big mongoloid. Should beat some more sense into ya.”
Officer Fish pulled up his utility belt, and took out some black tactical gloves and began putting them on. The classic police TV show set-up. Bad Cop, Worse Cop, Filthy Vagrant, Misanthropic Aspiring Criminal Mastermind.
“You mind if we check out your vehicle?” asked Swinehart, the image of a coughing Frankie still reflecting in his mirror lenses.
Just when he thought he was absolved of this mess, Dennis realized he was done for. His heart sank. His fundament puckered. Conspiracy to commit grand theft, conspiracy to commit burglary, conspiracy to commit…This was it for him.
“Sure.” Dennis felt his ears getting hotter. Officer Fish took the keys and opened the driver side door. Swinehart’s hip-mounted radio began keying static while Fish rooted around Dennis’ mobile crime office with his neoprene tactical gloves.
Fish had his knees in the driver’s seat, and was turned around digging behind the chairs and the floorboards of the backseat.
“Look at what we have here!”
Fish stepped out and held something up above eye-level, as if it were the result of some decade-long archaeological expedition. It was a copy of The Bible, New Testament.
Swinehart smirked, and mumbled something into his radio, eyeing Dennis up and down closer than he ever had before.
“Pretty good book, eh?.” Said Fish, looking Dennis dead in the eye.
“Its not too bad, sir,” Dennis said, as though he were describing mediocre entrées to the host of a dinner party. Dennis had no idea where that Bible had came from. He had never owned one, and certainly couldn’t recall having ever read one.
Was this divine intervention? he wondered.
“You’re goddamn right it is,” assured Officer Fish with his wolfish stare and thick whiskers.
“It’s too early for this shit,” Fish said, looking down at Frankie. Frankie still had his back to the ground, quietly cackling to himself in between coughs. Fish tossed the Bible to Dennis.
Officer Swinehart walked over to the trunk of Dennis’ car. He knelt down and picked up what Frankie had been after all along.
It was a promotional subscription insert for Maxim Magazine. 10 issues for $10. On it, was the picture of a happy woman wearing a red bikini and a Santa Claus hat.
“Jesus fucking Christ. Is this what you wanted?” He walked over to Frankie and tossed the promo down onto his chest. As Frankie reached up for it, Swinehart booted him in the groin.
Frankie bellowed like a stuck pig as he held his crotch with one hand while gently caressing the magazine subscription with the other. He kissed the girl on the promo insert. She remained smiling as he rubbed his slimy beard and narwhal tooth all over her youthful body.
Fish dropped Dennis’ keys on the ground followed Swinehart back to the squadcar. He made sure to expectorate a wad of phlegm onto the back of Frankie’s head before he got in.
“Stay outta trouble,” Swinehart instructed through the window as his squadcar pulled away. “And get that vehicle fixed up.”
Dennis nodded in compliance.
After Dennis had collected his things (including the discarded trunk key) he looked up at his primary objective. The Mom and her two idiot sons looked back at Dennis from behind the window. They were all still wearing the stupid beak hats. Dennis grabbed his genitals with one hand, and displayed his middle finger with his other hand.
“Hope you got insurance, motherfuckers,” he said softly to himself. He kicked the Bible over to Frankie. Frankie didn’t notice. He was still caressing the Santa Claus girl. Still whispering sweet, romantic nothings in her ear.
Dennis got into his car and started it up. “Out of Touch” played as he drove past the fluttering rows of American flags.