TIME AND TIDE
DON’T TAKE YOUR GUNS TO TOWN
South Boston, MA:
Guys that look like me don’t do well in prison.
They just don’t, it’s proven fact. If you’re not one of the blacks or the Mexicans or the skinheads or the chinks, you’re in no man’s land and you might as well kill yourself on the first night because you’d only last two days, maybe a week tops and that’s if you get yourself thrown in solitary. If you’re just an average guy who’s not quite white trash but who’s not exactly white collar either, the only way you even think about taking a long hot shower or eating a peaceful meal at chow time without finding your own dinner fork oscillating in your back is if you’re a degenerate mick convict who at one time worked for my old man, if you’re still loyal to him now. And as blind luck has it, I’m a spitting image of the sumbitch, the soft-spoken but equally seedy racketeer, loan shark, gunrunner and convicted cold-blooded murderer.
Billy Ray Landry.
I know that his death will mean my death but when you got nothing and when you know he takes away and takes away without ever giving a single thing back, the color of your skin and the status of your prison popularity start to mean a lot less. When he took away that one thing in the world and came away with a menial forty-five year sentence, up for parole in twenty, the color of daylight, of your own blood starts to mean a lot less to you.
Leaning against the brick structure of Kelley’s Pasta Village on the corner of E. 3rd and L Streets, dragging on my Marlboro and slowly working my way into doing what I swore to myself I’d do.
Still dark, early.
The sky a deep blue watery grave, the morning sun a ravenous, reclusive beast.
Car horns, ambulances, cop cars screeching and wailing and serenading the city with their monotonous, luminous nocturnes.
The unmistakable stench of diesel fumes and car exhaust, grime and garbage, dirt and desperation.
A massive hangover from of a night of blood drunkenness, the smell of Italian food that’s been sitting cold and clumpy throughout the night, forcing my stomach and the world around me to spin against one another like yin and yang.
I fish my cell phone from my pocket and check the time. Nearly five in the morning, the bitterly cold sea breeze whispering up the port and through the streets as unseen and unmerciful as the Angel of Death. I stand and wait in this existential enclave of the city, crammed and packed into this blue-collar community, this hard knocks haven. Restless, can’t sleep, and honestly who could when you have as much weighing on your mind, your shoulders and your heart as I do? It was a long walk to get here, and I know it’ll be an even longer one into the loving arms of Boston’s finest.
The brown leather jacket covers the gray wife beater with the frayed edges and the snag and the sweat stains in the armpit, and that just barely covers the black Smith & Wesson .44 hiding in the waistline of my jeans. The one Billy Ray gave me ions ago, another lifetime ago.
The one I plan to raise some hell with.
Through the thick clouds of cigarette smoke, I squint over at the Exxon across the street, Newhill Plaza opposite the gas station on the corner of E. 3rd. When I cut my eyes back over to the station, I pay close attention to who goes in, and more importantly, who comes out.
Flailing headlights, the warm buzz of the occasional car and the clunking and roaring and grating motors that propel them, all blazing down L Street ahead of me and all around me. I wait for the cattle to clear the beaten path before I even attempt to cross the street and do what I told myself I’d do.
What I have to do or I won’t respect myself later tonight or any other night for that matter.
I run a surprisingly steady hand through the long and unruly dark blond curls on my head and use my dirt-caked fingernails to scratch my dry scalp. I reassure myself it’s just a deep itch and not a nervous tick. I reassure myself that I’m not apprehensive at all because actually getting away with this crime is not something I’m really trying to do anyway.
I’m the ticking time bomb who will intentionally fail to detonate.
Now that the sunrise has finally managed to crane its neck up from over the top of Southie’s brand new row of condos, I know I look more than suspect as the unrefined, tattooed construction worker type, loitering and staking out the gas station across L Street, South Boston’s main drag. My location is completely intentional but no one else in the world would know that and after I’m apprehended, I’ll probably end up on one of those World’s Dumbest Criminals programs. Maybe I should’ve come later in the day, rush hour maybe when I’d cause a lot more attention. It’s common knowledge that most criminals don’t want to be seen, noticed. But even though I look the part of the lowlife, the derelict petty crook, I think I’ll just take a seat on the dirty tile floor and light up another smoke and wait until the cops take me willing and grinning to Cedar Junction Maximum Security Prison after I stick-up the Exxon.
It’s not like I have a deathwish or I’m scared to be a contributing member of society because I have been for the past eight years. It’s just that now she’s gone and she was the only family I had except for Billy Ray.
I wait and I smoke and I continue to lean against the pizzeria until I see the subtle hints of the sunrise, batting its eye up from behind the John Hancock Tower. That’s when I leave behind any lingering apprehensions along with the shortened cig butt I crush beneath one of my steel-toed Wolverines. That’s when I quickly secure the .44, take a deep breath, wait for the Pest Control van to clunk its way through the yellow light and then cross L Street without waiting for the pedestrian crosswalk sign.
A jaywalking armed gunman, off to do the Devil’s work.
I cross the cracked tarmac, the wind constantly smacking me in the face instead of remaining at my back like the old Irish blessing promised. I walk across the fading white line under the stoplights, stride to the narrow median between the four lanes, that slightly raised concrete island that serves as the halfway marker. Terra firma. The point of no return. It only reminds me that this is my last chance to turn back, to turn right around and go back to the hotel and pack up my clothes and head straight home instead of going to jail. It reminds me it’s not too late to turn in my room key and pile into my Nissan pick-up and drive right back to Charleston with my tail tucked firmly between my legs. It reminds me that I can learn to live with myself if I leave and go back to living in yet another compacted city where all my friends are either in jail or dead or completely different people than they used to be. Different people I wouldn’t recognize even if they knew the minute details of my life, like how my old man made his bones in the 70’s and 80’s, killed a few people in the 90’s, ran his own crew of Irish-American criminals early in the new millennium.
I come up on the median, that vexing concrete island, and I use it as the only green light I need to leave L Street’s center street divider and shove onward towards the Exxon. As I cut through, violently separating the holly bushes that surround the front side of the station with no regard, I pat the handle of the .44 to make sure it hasn’t slipped out of place. That’s right around the time when I remember one of the two songs she sang to me when I was just a toddler, one she used to put me to bed with at night.
“Don’t Take Your Guns to Town,” Johnny Cash.
As I approach the pumps, the fresh fumes stinging my nostrils and throwing a swift sucker punch to my already groggy head, I silently tell her I’m sorry, tell her that I did take my guns to town but that I did it all for her and for the betterment of everyone else in this city. For the betterment of my own buried soul. I tell her it wouldn’t be coated in grime and sin if she were still here. Now I don’t know who I am or how what happened to her could’ve actually brought me to this. All I know is that there’s not much else to lose, and that now I’m preparing to walk headfirst through the fire and brimstone and the flames of retribution and all that other metaphorical horseshit. I prepare to turn the main drag of South Boston upside down and right back around again.
Two trucks at the pumps, both old, beat up, ridden hard and hung up wet, the beds boasting strings of roof shingles and lumber and grimy water coolers. I peer through the glass and into the station to see both drivers standing in line at the counter with their steaming coffees and their honey buns and breakfast burritos. Behind the counter, a moderately attractive young woman with pale skin and dark curly hair taking cash and punching buttons, beaming a toothy grin as she exchanges chit chat with the working-class heroes. I see that underneath all her coy, flirty charms, she’s a bored, ditzy tease who seemingly hopes for a tip even though you don’t give tips to the pretty gas station attendant girl, no matter how pretty she is.
The smartest thing for me to do would be to stop, wait for these two clowns to come out before I roll in and pull the gun. I figure just to show off for the checkout girl, they just might try to get righteous and take me down. Which wouldn’t be the worst thing, except I might catch a beating and I’d much rather scare some chick half to death than to catch a beat down by sixteen calloused, simultaneously thrown knuckles. I go for the pocket of my jeans, pull out my Marlboro pack only to find it empty.
Guess I was so honed in on my target that I didn’t even notice I already finished off my last smoke. To compensate, I fish through all my pockets and come up with the cracked, splintered toothpick I snagged from the counter at the Cracker Barrel a few nights ago, just outside of Charlotte. Snagged it while I paid for my meal and the road CDs I picked up from the gift shop. Both extremely significant and guaranteed to fuel my need for an unbridled revenge.
Celtic Roots, and the 16 Biggest Hits of Johnny Cash.
I haven’t shaved or had a shower since her funeral earlier this week. Few of her co-workers, the priest, the gravediggers and me, standing in the rain at the Sister of Mercy Cemetery in Summerville. I was so overwrought with grief and guilt when I got the phone call back in Charleston, it took until I was halfway through Virginia to transition myself, to fill myself full of anger, rage, a relentless all or nothing vengeance. Didn’t even tell Doug what happened, just packed a bag and left town without calling in for work. I just split and if he doesn’t understand my reasoning for leaving my job behind and driving up to Boston, then he’s a seedy businessman who’s in love with his money and who knows shit about the human heart.
I chew on my toothpick, taste mint-flavored splinters and pocket lint. That’s right around the time the first guy exits the station, and I hear the second ask the checkout girl for a pack of Newports from behind the counter. Working man number one looks over at me suspiciously and I throw him a nod with a smirk that tells him to beat feet or get clocked in the noggin with my piece. He’s staring at me, seemingly sizing me up like he wants to kick some shit. I take it in stride, follow through with my best-laid plan, wait until Paddy McBlue-collar inside joins the Mighty Quinn out here and the two of them take flight in their trucks.
More for his sake than mine, I glance in the other direction, over across 3rd at Newhill Plaza, which seems to appear even more desolate than the Exxon. Thinking I may have chosen a poor location for my heist, starting to feel just the slightest anxiety rise from my belly and trail down to my now quivering hands, I toss the toothpick to the asphalt, swing the door open, and step inside the Exxon as the first guy returns to his vehicle.
Paddy’s leaning in towards the chick behind the counter, telling her some kind of anecdote about a priest and a rabbi while, judging from her reaction, his rancid breath forces the unruly hair nestling on her shoulders to dance a jig. She’s more attractive than I originally thought. Thin lips, a few endearingly uneven teeth, big blue eyes, same shade as mine. She looks like a cross between Natalie Portman and Scary Spice. Probably has the same story every other twenty-something gas station checkout girl has. Single mother, living temporarily with mama while she works insane hours to support a toddler, no child support check from deadbeat daddy.
Sounds familiar, in more ways than one.
Paddy stalls like a used Chevy, overstaying his welcome, taking for fricking ever to get to the punch line of his joke. Checkout girl stands frozen, halfway between disgust and faux anticipation. I stand behind Paddy, stare up towards the ceiling, huff and puff and wish I could blow this goon away for simply keeping me from what I’ve come in here to do. I cross my arms, place a shaky palm over the Celtic cross tattoo on the right arm, and Spike, the Tom & Jerry bulldog on the left. When he gets to the end of his agonizing attempt at humor and suavity, the girl tosses him a sympathy giggle as I step up to the counter and crowd him, force him to subconsciously move aside. Fortunately, he does and I plant both hands on the coffee-stained countertop in front of me. Paddy shifts his body halfway behind me, halfway between the double doors. I turn and eyeball him, see what his hold-up is. His eyes glued to the back on my jeans, he’s either a queer or he has an uncanny ability to spot the outline of my thought to be discreetly placed pistol under my shirt and jacket.
His eyes on the covered .44, he takes the first swig of his coffee as he points to the gun.
“Bro, you ain’t carryin’ no pistol under there, are ya?”
I can’t rightly pull a stick-up if Paddy here won’t frigging put boot to pavement and walk away. I think quickly, concoct an answer, throw it at him as he casually rests a hand on the top of the leather knife sheath on his on his belt, the top snapped shut.
He grins at me, cocks one eye closed like Popeye and guffaws in a way that could only make me want to quit smoking, today.
Aggravated that this shitbird can’t seem to mind his business like everyone else in this neighborhood does so well, I snap at him.
“Why don’t ya move the stand-up comedy show to the street, work your sad-ass jokes to the morning traffic? Kindly, can ya go ahead and do that for me? And by the way, no, it ain’t no gun. Why would I be carrying around a gun in broad daylight? I don’t even know you. Beat feet, leave me the hell alone and catch up with the Mighty Quinn out there so you won’t be late for the union meeting or the Patriots game or some shit.”
“Go on, screw, Jimmy. Pat’s gonna catch a bad one if you’re late to the job site today. He told me you been slackin’ off lately, takin’ long liquid lunches in the park if ya know what I mean and I know you know what I mean. Leave this poor fella alone, will ya?” says the checkout girl with a slightly low-pitched grain in her voice, firing a furrowed brow at Paddy, winking at me.
He stares me down, takes another sip of coffee, burping under his breath before scratching his junk ardently.
“You ain’t from around here, are ya, bro? Well, since you’re new to the neighborhood or whateva, I guess I can cut ya some slack. Today. Tomorrow, I might just cut ya, okay, talkin’ shit like ya got a mouthful of it. So, yeah, okay, apologies, sure, just yankin’ your chain or some shit. Talk to me like you’re my old man again, I’ll pull your fackin’ card, got me? Alright then. I’ll catch ya, Maggie, take it sleazy,” he says, spinning on the heel of his mud-crusted boot and pushing the glass doors open.
He stumbles off towards his truck as I figure the wind tossed the tail of my jacket up, allowing him to successfully call my bluff. I turn my head back to the checkout girl, and because I guess I’m so appreciative of her interjection, because she’s a lot better looking up close than she was from outside the station, I hold off on the urge to pull out my gun and snatch up all the dough from the register.
I opt for a new pack of smokes instead.
“Pack of Marlboro Reds, please ma’am.”
“Ma’am? Don’t think I ever been called that before. Marlboro Reds, sure thing. And don’t worry about Jimmy…he’s just a bitter ol’ dink who gets all pissy and jealous when I bat an eye at anybody who’s male, and who’s not him. He treats me like I’m his daughter slash girlfriend, and if ya put those two together it equals just full on wicked perverted pukefest. He’s just mad ‘cause you’re young and cute and he’s not at all.”
“Young and cute, huh? Well, I guess that’s about the closest thing to a compliment I heard all day. Well, besides I talk shit like I got a mouthful of it, of course.”
If I was ever considering pulling out my gun and scaring her half to death, I surely can’t do it now. Damnit. Why couldn’t she have been some fat and rude trucker-type with a greasy Grizzly Adams beard and holey flannel shirt?
Maggie, you just threw a wrench into the spokes of my foolproof plan, botched up my entire day’s work.
he grins at my last comment, then speaks.
“Oh, by the way, I need to see some ID for the smokes, if ya don’t mind.”
“What if I do mind? Need to see my ID? Wow. I guess I’ll take that as a compliment too,” I answer, a little taken aback as I awkwardly reaching for my back pocket.
As I do, my fingers brush up against the handle of the .44, and because she insulted me by suggesting I was younger than I actually am, I nearly reconsider my plan to keep my peace.
After she grabs my smokes, she sets them on the counter and picks up my driver’s license, fastening a pretty blatant smirk on her lips while her tongue paws the inside of her mouth.
“Morgan Landry? Morgan? That really your name?”
“The inconceivable, unbelievable truth.”
“Wow. Never met a dude named Morgan before. Kind of a girl’s name, isn’t it? It’s kinda like ‘A Boy Named Sue’.”
“I met Johnny Cash once, y’know. No lie.”
“Oh, go screw. No ya didn’t. Did ya, really? No shit?”
“No shit. My Mom and I were eating fried chicken at a local dive in Nashville when the man himself walked into the joint with John Jr. I was young. Too young to remember Mom said, but I know I recall shaking Johnny’s hand. Anyway, yeah, she got me his autograph. She said she nearly didn’t because people had been telling her how flat-out mean the guy was. Said people in Madison County pretended like they knew him and he’d embarrass ‘em for it, call ‘em out, call their bluff and all. But yeah, I met the man in black, back in ’78 I think it was.”
Her eyes are wide, the lids heavy with a metallic blue eye shadow and thickly coated mascara.
“Geez Louise, you’re serious, aren’t ya? That’s pretty damn cool I must say.”
“Serious as a heart attack.”
As serious as the heart attack I would’ve given you had you not been such an attractive young bird.
“Well, Morgan Landry, that makes me your number one fan I spose.”
I grin, pay for the smokes, tap the pack and light up. Her head lowered, Maggie peers up at me, crossing her arms and resting them on the countertop in front of me.
“So, this how you normally sweep all the unsuspecting gas station attendant chicks off their feet, huh? Ya just waltz in off the street all cool and Don Juan and spew out some story about how you met the man in black himself?”
“Every once and awhile. Usually, I at least try to rob the place blind first.”
She giggles. I don’t.
“Y’know, you do look like you’d just go ahead and stick me up with the quickness. Swoon me away with all that southern charm and just take me for all the money I got. I know. I can just read it in your baby blues, Morgan Landry. So, anyway, you’re from Charleston, right? Civil War and southern hospitality and shit. Whatta ya doin’ all the way up here in Boston? You lost?”
“Ya visitin’ family or somethin’?”
That’s one way of looking at it.
“Yeah, something like that.”
“Nice,” she answers as she hands over my change and my receipt.
“So how long you in town for?” she asks, snatching my receipt right back from me, pulling a fountain pen from the Boston Bruins coffee tin by the register.
How long am I in town for?
Depends on how long my sentence is.
More than likely, I’ll be in town for oh, twenty-five to life.
“I guess I’d have to say that my stay here is pretty indefinite.”
“Ya don’t say.”
he feverishly scribbles on the back of my receipt and I listen to her multitude of earrings, her multitude of silver bracelets clank against one another like a wind chime symphony. When she’s finished, she holds the thin piece of slightly curled paper up beside her face and cocks an eyebrow.
In a fancy, discreetly nervous cursive, her name and phone number.
“Look, I don’t normally do this a lot ‘cause let’s face it, all the other bums in Southie are boozehound hooligan loser snorefests. If I give ya my number…will ya call me?”
“Maggie, I gotta be honest with ya…I don’t think I’ll be calling anyone for a pretty long time. Why would you want me to call you anyway? For all you know, I could be some kinda psycho killer, some kinda burn-out career criminal.”
I’m not there yet, but I’m slowly clawing my way closer as we speak.
“Oh yeah? Well maybe I like bad boys. You don’t even know. Besides, how bad could you really be with a name like Morgan?”
“What can I say, my old man had a sense of humor. That doesn’t mean I do.”
I give her a reluctant grin and accept the recycled receipt as I turn, take a few steps and exit Maggie’s Exxon station. I don’t even reply to her last statement, don’t even give her a parting word before pushing through the double glass doors and leaving the store. I don’t want to lead her on, lead myself on because I know I’ll more than likely never see her again after today.
And because I didn’t account for Maggie being so easy to look at and witty to boot, I secure her number into my back pocket just next to my gun when I cross the tarmac and storm into L Street Liquors just next to Kelley’s Pasta Village, using nothing to cover my face. I calmly walk up to the register, pull out the .44 and bark at the young slacker behind the counter, engulfed in the Guns & Ammo magazine splayed out in front of him. I aim my .44 at his chest, scream at him, scare him into handing over all the cash in the drawer. When he does, I hop up onto the counter and order the kid to put ass to tile. Before he complies, I watch him clumsily fumble for the red button under the counter, and I pretend not to see him push it in.
As I sit and wait for the cops, I hold my piece in one hand, and with the other, I count up the 522 bucks that mean jack squat to me. No money in the world could buy me what I ache for, what I’m willing to rot away for, to die for.
As I sit and wait for the cops, I stuff the money into my pocket, set the gun down onto the counter next to me, and I light up another smoke.
As I sit and wait for the cops, I think about Maggie, how I finally found one girl in the past five years who’s been worthy enough of snagging a date with me. I think about how I can’t even call her now because of all the days in my life, I had to meet her on the worst one imaginable.
As I sit and wait for the cops, I think about how I’ll soon be in Cedar Junction with Billy Ray and I won’t even care about being the fresh fish lone white boy with no allies. I’ll only care about being able to see my father again, the long-awaited family reunion.
When the cops finally squeal up on the curb of L Street Liquors, I sit and smoke, welcome them through the doors and thank them when they snatch up my gun, grab me and throw me to the dusty floor, grinding a multitude of angry, pointy knees into my spine.
I thank them when they handcuff me, read me my rights, curse me up and down, stand me up and shove me face first through the double doors.
Full of resolve, I peer up at the morning sky, take a deep, calming breath. I glance over across the street at Maggie, now standing outside the Exxon, crossing her arms and shaking her head with a dropped jaw. I throw her a nod, a grin before I silently thank the cops for finally arriving on the scene and promptly arresting me. I silently thank them for ushering me to the police cruiser and clumsily shoving me into the backseat.
And I thank them because now I can finally go to MCI-Cedar Junction Maximum Security Prison and kill my father for killing my mother.