Splinters of wood, chunks of the doorframe, fly through the air as the door cracks in half and falls on either side of me. In shock, I stand there, immobile. Outside I see what looks like a hundred cops, some in uniform, some not, guns drawn, faces and bodies tense. A tall, heavyset blonde police officer steps forward through the doorway and smacks me in the face with the butt of her shotgun, knocking me down as more cops push past her to get into the apartment. I lie prone on the floor, a foot across my throat, a knee in my groin, the shotgun and a nine-millimeter automatic pistol leveled at my head.
“Where are the guns motherfucker!” shouts a plainclothes policeman. His badge, hanging loosely on a chain around his neck, swings back and forth over my face. “Are you alone?” asks another. Before I can reply I hear Jenny, oblivious, slurring her words, wondering what all the noise is about. A finger to his lips, the plainclothes cop points toward the bedroom. My stomach tightens, suddenly fearing what the cops will do to Jenny if I don’t try and make her understand what is happening. I put up my hand, palm out, motioning for him to stop.
“Jenny? Jenny!” I shout, “Could you come out here?”
“What for?” she asks, and then there’s the crash of breaking glass, furniture being shoved, voices shouting for her to get down on the floor. They must be coming in through the windows, I think. Then someone’s turning me over, handcuffing my arms behind my back, as I’m being lifted, half carried, half dragged, out the front door, through the alley, into daylight.
Out on the street in front of my apartment building are a dozen police cars, lights flashing, radios blaring. A small group of my neighbors, down the block, watch, talking amongst themselves, pointing, as I’m dragged to the nearest patrol car. Over my shoulder I can see my friend Dolan being searched, spread eagled, on the hood of another car. Tossed into the backseat, I try to sit up, ask the nearest cop for a cigarette, watch as he slams the door in my face. A minute later a man in a suit walks up, opens the door, apologizes for the other cop’s behavior, introduces himself as a detective. Calls me by my name, says he’s been watching me for some time now. Says, “I’ll see you down at the station later on tonight, Mister O’Neil.” Shuts the door, tells the driver to take me downtown, and stands there staring at me through the window as we drive away.
I keep thinking that this isn’t real. That none of this is happening. That the cop who’s driving the car will pull over to the curb, un-lock the handcuffs, set me free. Every turn of the wheel makes me lose my balance. I push up and off the seat with my elbows, the only way I can keep myself upright. The cuffs are tight, clamped onto my wrists; twisting, they dig into the skin. The monotone of the police dispatcher’s voice coming out of the radio is the only sound, piercing the oppressive atmosphere in the car. My heart pounds, the motor accelerates, an abrupt stop sends me crashing into the metal cage that separates the back from the front.
I feel helpless. I feel like screaming. I feel like crying, only I don’t know how. I want a cigarette so bad I can’t think of anything else. I start to get angry. I start yelling. I call the cop a motherfucker, tell him that this is all a mistake, that I haven’t done anything. I kick the cage, tell him he’s got to believe me.
Head leaning against the side window, I stare out. San Francisco passes by: the Ferry Building, the waterfront, the Bay Bridge, Harrison Street. We turn into a parking lot behind the Hall of Justice, pull into a space marked Official Vehicles Only. The cop opens my door and I feel the cool air against my naked chest. Without saying a word, he grabs my arm and drags me out onto the ground. Two more cops walk up; all three of them look down at me in silence. Menacing eyes dissect me. There’s a kick to the ribs, sharp pain in my shoulders as I’m raised up off the ground to my feet, shoved toward a large metal door.
One cop pushes the intercom button, then waves at the camera above our heads. The other presses my face against the coarse stucco wall, his gloved hand firmly on the back of my head. With a mechanized hiss, the sally port slides open and the smell of jail hits me: dirty feet, unwashed bodies, rancid food, exhaust fumes and human feces mix together in one inhalation. Pushed along by a hand on my shoulder, I stumble down a hall lined with empty holding cells. At the booking desk I just stand there as the cop signs a couple of forms before handing me off to the sheriffs that run the jail. So far my anxiety has been holding the heroin in check, but now the pills that I also took are starting to kick in and I’m fading. Slurring, I mumble my name, address, social security number as a woman in uniform types it all into a computer.
Herded through a maze of desks and filing cabinets, I lose my bearings. An older deputy, bald with glasses, tells me that it’s almost over and I wonder just what he means. Impassively I watch one of the sheriffs grab hold of my fingers, as if they weren’t attached to me, shoving them in black ink, pressing the tips to a sheet of paper, leaving smudged imprints on the appropriate squares. Someone hands me a brown paper towel. As I unsuccessfully try to wipe the blackness from my fingertips, my surroundings become more and more unfocused, the meaning of what is going on increasingly vague. A deputy gives me a shirt to wear; smells like sweat, the cuffs frayed. I open my eyes and a flashbulb erupts, temporally blinding me. I’m turned to my left: profile shot. I hear a door being closed, metal hitting metal. The bombardment of sound that’s constant in jail decreases to a low growl. Half crouched, my back against the wall, I feel down with my hand to a hard surface below me and I sit.
Unable to keep my eyes open, I nod off into a dream about a large Siamese cat that rubs against my body. Her fur is soft on my skin. She tells me she’s been starved for days and stands on my chest screaming for me to feed her. Our protruding ribcages mesh together, her paws embed themselves in my skin. I’m confused as to why she doesn’t just run away when she has the chance. When I reach to pet her I feel my own cold skin taut against my bones. Running my fingers along my ribs, I press the bottom of my sternum and hear it click. I try to light a cigarette with the cat’s face. Its claws tear at my arms and they start to bleed.
With a jolt I wake up freezing on a cement slab that sticks out of the wall, forming a bench. I look around for the cat but I don’t see her. Drool runs down the side of my face; my mouth tastes metallic, bad as the stale air I’m breathing. It takes a minute for me to realize where I am. I want a cigarette really bad, and I want to go back to sleep. I want to be anywhere but on this bench in this holding cell. Sitting up, I rub my eyes and look out through the wire-mesh reinforced windows. I can see Dolan in a cell across the hall. He flashes me a weak smile. I can tell from his eyes that he’s as worried as I am. Twelve years younger than me, he’s less experienced. But that hasn’t kept him from driving the getaway car for most of my recent holdups. Sitting upright makes my head hurt. I want a cigarette. I think about Jenny, wonder where she is, if she’s Ok. Last time I saw her she was in handcuffs being led to a cop car. I could see her head moving. Probably giving the cop an earful.
Thinking of her makes me think about home and I miss it, even though living on Fillmore Street is like living in an alternative dimension. It’s a ground-floor garden apartment in the back of a three-story building in the Marina District – once a nondescript upper-middle class neighborhood that, after the earthquake of ’89, reinvented itself as a yuppie stronghold. Not the most typical of locations to find an apartment full of dope fiends. Maybe that’s why we’d been able to go unnoticed for so long. Nobody expects us to be living there, especially not the landlord whose been lied to so many times about his rent check that he’s practically given up on ever seeing it.
I’ve been living there for about a year. Me and my girlfriend Jenny, nineteen, just as strung out on heroin as I am, beautiful in a pasty-face-walking-dead-junkie-chic sort of way. I’d met her two years earlier coming off a horrendous speed run, shooting speed so I wouldn’t shoot heroin. Hadn’t slept in months when she asked me if I could get her some dope, I immediately knew I was in for trouble.
A succession of nodded-out friends like Dolan had been living with us, using the walk-in closet as a place to crash. These days though, no one could stand staying with us. Even other drug addicts couldn’t deal with our insanity, our demands for money. We smoked all their cigarettes and used up whatever else they might have. Besides, we fought most of the time, and when we weren’t yelling and screaming we were laid out side by side in the bedroom on the futon. Jenny, in a nod, continually burned herself or the bed with lit cigarettes; small fires and red welt burns on her skin were daily occurrences. Over on my side I’d ignore her until I felt flames, and then I’d roll over and put out whatever was on fire.
Jesus, Jenny, I wonder where you are. She’s never been to jail, never dealt with cops. I can only imagine the drama they’re putting her through. The cell door opens, the noise increases. “O’Neil!” yells a gruff looking deputy with a clipboard in his hand. I look up.
“Where am I going?” I ask. I know it doesn’t really matter. The look on the deputy’s face tells me that he doesn’t care either. We walk down the corridor to an unmarked elevator. “Against the wall,” he commands. I turn, face the wall, raise my arms. Taking my right hand, he circles the handcuff around my wrist, pulls the other down, cuffs it too. The elevator door opens. It’s dirty inside and smells like urine. The deputy motions for me to enter. When I hesitate he pushes me in against the back wall. I hear the door close, feel the elevator car start to rise.
“You a tough guy?” taunts the deputy. I stare at the wall and say nothing. There’s no point getting into it with this guy. I’m handcuffed, he’s not; I’m under arrest, he’s an officer of the law. And I’m not a tough guy, never said I was. The elevator shudders to a stop and he pulls me out into a corridor. Hand clamped around the back of my neck, he leads me through a door with Robbery Detail written across it in black letters with gold trim. Inside there are four or five empty desks. A man at a computer, his shirtsleeves rolled up to the elbows, looks over at us as he continues to type. “Put him there,” he says, pointing to a chair by a desk in the middle of the room.
Sitting down I’m suddenly very tired I can feel that familiar emptiness creeping in. It’s not that the drugs have worn off yet; more like my anxiety has kicked in full force. I can’t count the number of nights when I’d be asleep at home and then suddenly, so gripped with fear of this exact moment that I’d all of a sudden be awake, sitting up all in one motion, holding my chest as my heart fought to burst through my rib cage. Somewhere deep down, whether I wanted to admit it or not, I knew all this was coming. I knew someday I’d be sitting here, in handcuffs, under arrest.
I’m not really sure when I decided to start pulling armed robberies. There was a time when I tried selling drugs to support Jenny’s and my habits. Problem was we always end up doing all the drugs before I could sell them. Now and then I’d get a temporary gig working construction or painting houses, but I’d always screw it up. Dope sick and unable to make it to work on time, I’d get fired or stop showing up. Strung out as I was, I couldn’t hold down a regular job. Besides, your average nine-to-five doesn’t pay anywhere near the hundreds of dollars a day it takes to afford an extensive heroin habit, much less two. Faced with needing that kind of money, I had started taking chances, doing all kinds of stuff I never thought I’d do.
One rainy day, jonesing for a fix, out of options, half out of my mind, I walked into a movie theater with a gun someone had traded me for dope when I was selling drugs and robbed the ticket booth and the concession stand. When I got home I discovered that I’d netted six hundred dollars. It had taken me twenty minutes at the most to drive there, pull the job, drive back. After that it was even easier. I pulled off a couple of liquor stores and a 7-11. Then during a gas station holdup, the attendant grabbed a gun from under the counter and almost shot me. Made me think that before I got killed for a few hundred dollars I’d better set my sights higher, go where the real money was. I did my homework and pulled my first bank job.
Soon that’s all I was doing. I got creative and started going in disguise: fake beard and baseball cap with a phony ponytail out the back; dressed in a uniform as a security guard; posing as a businessman, complete with three piece suit and an attaché case. Drop a note in front of the teller, mention the gun, then walk right out the front door into a waiting car. Those days I had more people around me, dope fiends I thought I could count on to watch my back for a portion of the take.
Bank jobs, of course, take planning and a somewhat alert state of mind. And back then I wasn’t so scattered. I was able to bide my time, hang around outside, watch and take notes on what time the guards took their breaks, what time the armored trucks came by and delivered the money. What times the banks were crowded, when the managers were gone. I parked the car across the street, pulled out a newspaper, pad of paper, and a pencil; I’d smoke cigarettes, shoot some dope if no one was watching.
After a few years I started running out of banks to hit. However, I noticed shopkeepers coming in with bank bags to the merchant’s window, depositing the day’s take from their stores. I started following them from the bank to their businesses. Did the same sort of surveillance I’d done at the banks, figured out their routines, saw when their stores did the most business. I always had two or three alternative locations to rob. If one wasn’t ready another would be. I kept myself busy, working different neighborhoods with a driver, in and out quickly. Making it hard to be caught.
But lately, by myself, because everyone else was either scared, dead or in jail, I’d totally slacked off, settling instead for what was easily at hand. I now thought of every cash register out there being somewhat like an ATM machine – except that instead of a credit card, I used a gun. Now, every day first thing, I’d go out and hold up a liquor or grocery store, and that money would keep us in drugs and cigarettes for the next twenty-four hours. Every once in a while Dolan would show up needing cash and offered to drive, and I’d pull off a larger heist, like the movie theaters that I’d recently returned to robbing again.
Dolan was about the last person I knew who’d still do crimes with me. Usually I was so out of it that anyone else would be too nervous to even drive, let alone sit next to me with my loaded gun. Jenny couldn’t drive – she could barely leave the apartment – or she would’ve gone with me. Instead she just sat waiting for me to get home. Waiting for the dope man to deliver and then she sat there waiting while I cooked the dope, her arm stretched out, waiting for the needle to pierce her skin, waiting for that high.
There’s a tap on my shoulder. “O’Neil,” says the detective from before in front of my house. “Feel like talking?” he asks.
“I could use a cigarette,” I tell him.
“Can’t smoke in here. Not allowed to smoke in any State of California buildings.”
“Yeah, I’d hate to break the law,” I respond. That makes him laugh. He takes his jacket off and sits down across the desk from me.
“You know why you’re here, right?”
“I got a pretty good idea,” I say and immediately regret admitting even that much.
“You’re in a lot of trouble. When this is over you’ll be looking at doing some time in prison. I can help you, if you let me.”
I stare at him. He stares back. We sit there in silence. My stomach hurts, my eyes start to water, I sneeze. I’m going into the first stages of withdrawal from heroin. With my habit I have to shoot up every four hours. Taking pills like valiums and klonopins helps, keeps me loaded longer, but in the end it’s heroin I’m addicted to. That’s what my body craves.
“Want to make a statement? Get it over with, tell me about it? I’m going to know the whole story anyway.”
“I could use a cigarette” is all I say.
With a shrug he reaches for the phone on his desk, looks at me, pushes in a number, waits. “Tell the feds we’re ready,” he says, then hangs up and looks at me, stares into my eyes. “Feds are going to see if they want to pick up your case. See if they want to prosecute the bank robberies instead of us. You’re getting dope sick aren’t you?”
There was a time I’d claim to be a bank robber. This sure as hell wasn’t one of them. I looked down at my feet to avoid any more eye contact. In the back of my mind I kept replaying the last robbery. Kept thinking how I’d fucked it up. How I should’ve done things differently. The woman who owned that theater usually waited until Monday to take her money from the weekend to the bank. Arriving late, I’d missed her by minutes, only gotten what was in the till, a few hundred instead of a couple of thousand. Like an idiot Dolan, had parked the car in a bus stop and when I came running out, a bus was pulled up, boxing us in. As I pulled off the ski mask I looked over, and on the sidewalk, three feet away, screaming and pointing, was the woman who worked the ticket booth at the theater. For a few seconds we just stared at each other. Then the bus moved, the car pulled away and I closed my eyes.
Out in the hall there’s the sound of heels striking the floor. Two people walk into the room: a woman, tall with a severe haircut and an amazing figure, and a man, grey hair, thin mustache, carrying a briefcase. Both of them are dressed in dark suits, perfectly groomed. Emulating an air of superiority, they stride over to the desk; the man looks at the detective, the woman looks at me, then they look at each other.
“This O’Neil?” asks the man in disbelief.
“Yep, that’s your bank robber.”
“You a bank robber?” inquires the woman. Her quizzical expression fades to concern. “You don’t look like a bank robber. In fact, you don’t look like you could rob anything.”
I’d like to tell her thanks for the vote of confidence. That yeah, she’s right, I’m nothing but a loser. But even stressed out as I am, I can tell it’s just a ploy. She wants me to bite, take the bait, get angry, prove my criminal credibility by talking about all the jobs I’ve done. I don’t say anything. I don’t even ask for a cigarette. These two mean business and I’ve watched enough movies and television shows to know that you don’t offer information. Besides, I really don’t care what they think of me.
The man pulls a thick binder out of his briefcase. “We’ve got some photos we want you to take a look at,” he says, handing the binder towards me. Jerking my head, I point with my eyes at my shoulder, trying to convey that my wrists are still handcuffed together behind my back.
“Can we get the cuffs off this guy? He ain’t going nowhere.”
The detective looks at me, raises his eyebrows, puts a hand in his pocket. Says, “I haven’t got a key on me. Be right back.” Gets up, walks out of the room.
“You ever been to prison?” asks the woman, who’s got a couple of pages of paper in her hand that she keeps looking at.
“No one’s even read me my Miranda rights,” I say and then wonder if I should have mentioned that fact.
The grey-haired FBI agent spreads open the binder on the desk in front of me and starts slowly turning the pages. “Here, look at these while we wait for the key.”
Each page is a grainy blown-up surveillance photo. Most of them are black and white, some out of focus, some amazingly sharp. “Recognize anyone?” he asks.
After about fifteen pages, I see myself. Or rather, I see a really fuzzy picture of me in a suit and tie, carrying a gym bag, sunglasses, hair combed back, a stringy mustache. The photograph, taken from above is at an odd angle. I look short, distorted; although the top of my head’s in focus, I can’t see my feet. I’m fascinated and I can’t look away. I wonder how many more pictures of me he’s got. The next one shows a giant black man carrying an AK47 machine gun, wearing a rainbow afro wig, a huge grin across his face. I laugh. He stops turning the pages, looks at me.
“You find this funny?”
“Ah, no,” I say, “there’s nothing funny about any of this.” And I actually mean that.
“I don’t think he’s our man,” says the woman. Her face is expressionless as she hands him the papers she’s got in her hands. “I think we’d better reevaluate this.”
“Here you go,” says the detective, who comes back into the room holding a set of keys. Looking up from packing the binder back into his case, the grey-haired agent shakes his head. “We’re not going to be needing those.” He looks over at the woman, who pulls the detective to the doorway and whispers in his ear. They both look over at me.
Then shaking hands, the woman agent leaves with a nod, the grey-haired man follows her out. The detective walks to his desk and lifts the phone. “He’s ready. Come get him.” Sitting down, he rubs his eyes, looking tired; he pulls at his tie, drinks from a Styrofoam cup. “Looks like the State of California’s got you.”
I’m not sure what that means, and it doesn’t really matter. My stomach is starting to get tight. I taste that familiar taste in my throat that comes right before I start to get dope sick. Right before I start throwing up. Right before the diarrhea, the muscle spasms, the headaches, the cold sweats. At this moment I can’t comprehend that the State of California’s got anything in store for me as bad as what I’m about to go through.
Staring at the wall I wish I was anywhere but here. I wish I was back in my apartment, the television turned to some obscure cable network, the smell of cigarettes burning, forgotten in ashtrays. The broken window, dripping faucet, piles of junk, the bare, stained and cigarette burn covered futon, surrounded by dirty clothes. I miss the obscene beauty of its instability, the comfort of its mess.
The same angry-looking deputy arrives, motions me out the door, pushes me down the hall, into the elevator. Only this time, instead of going down to where we came from, we go up. “Sixth floor. Classification,” he says to me as if answering my unasked question. “They got a room with a view waiting for you.” I feel like throwing up, but I hold it in.
In the car coming back from the robbery I’d told Dolan how I had this bad feeling that my time was up, that any day now I’d get busted for a robbery, or shot by the cops. Told him how I couldn’t sleep at night anymore, woke up freaking out, short of breath. Instead of taking the usual precautionary measures of ditching the car outside of my neighborhood to throw the cops off we parked the car two blocks away because both of us were lazy and didn’t feel like walking any further than that.
Jenny was in the bedroom when we got home. Stressed out, full of anxiety, I grabbed the telephone and punched in Bonito, the dope dealer’s number. “How’d it go?” she asked, like we’d just come home from a hard day’s work or something. I ignored her. I knew we’d fucked up. I really didn’t want to tell her that we’d gotten boxed into a parking place by a bus. That the lady I’d robbed had followed me into the street shouting, pointing, making a fuss as her neighbors hurried outside to see what all the yelling was about. At least three or four of them had gotten a really good look at my face before Dolan was able to get us out of there, maneuvering the car through the afternoon traffic, running the red light.
Bonito’s paging service answered. I left my number and hung up, muttering about always having to wait for dope dealers. I was sweating now and took off my jacket and shirt, then sitting down my shoes and socks. The only piece of clothing left on was my pants, so loose they barely stayed up on my skinny waist. Dolan, nervous, sits down, lights a cigarette, stares at the floor. Standing in the doorway, noticing that we aren’t exactly celebrating, Jenny asks me what’s wrong and I mumble that it didn’t go so well. The phone rings. It’s Bonito, says he’ll be here in ten minutes, asks how much dope we want, hangs up with a grunt.
“How long he say it’d take?” Jenny asks, referring to Bonito, and then as an afterthought, before I can answer, “What do you mean it didn’t go so well?”
“I blew it, babe” is all I tell her, and then I pull the pile of loose bills out of the bag I was carrying them in. A quick count tells me I’ve only snagged four hundred dollars, a hundred and fifty of which I hand Dolan. Between drags on his cigarette, he re-counts the money, folds it into a wad, stuffs it in his pants pocket.
Taking the gun out of the inside pocket of the jacket I’d left on the floor, I walk over to the closet and stick it in the hole in the wall behind the shelves. I turn around just as the doorbell rings. All three of us look up in unison. Jenny opens the door, then goes out to let Bonito in through the locked side door in the alleyway.
Within minutes the transaction is done. We’re back in the bedroom before Bonito’s even closed the door behind him. Open the bags, cook the dope, put a needle in my arm. It takes all of about two-minutes. Bought ten klonopins as well as the four grams of heroin. Popped three of those and walk into the living room looking for a cigarette. Dolan isn’t there and I say something to Jenny. Ask if she knows where he went. Standing there half naked, I look down, notice a trail of blood running down my arm from where I just shot up. Looking around for something to wipe it off with, I hear a knock at the door. Thinking it’s Dolan, I grab the doorknob.
A revised/edited version of this post titled: Last Day, was published in New Plains Review Fall 2010.