previously appeared in WAITING TO BE FORGOTTEN: STORIES OF CRIME AND HEARTBREAK INSPIRED BY THE REPLACEMENTS
“Yeah?” Mag says, picking up after one ring.
“It’s me,” Temple says.
“You didn’t do it yet?”
“I didn’t do it.”
“You’re what, scared?”
“I don’t know.”
“Just put on the mask and go in. I’m telling you. It’s cake.”
“I mean, what if Forkrum—”
Mag cuts her off. “Forget it. Just go.”
“You’re nodding, right?” Mag says. “I can’t see you.”
Temple reaches across and opens the glovebox. The ski mask is there. Traffic cone orange. Mag picked it for her at Dick’s Sporting Goods. She takes it out and bunches it up in her hand.
“You still there?” Mag says.
Temple nods again.
“You’re nodding, right?”
“It’s just fucking Forkrum.”
“What if he recognizes me?”
“We’ll be in Buffalo tonight.”
Temple says, “Okay, okay. Cool.” She closes the phone and puts it up on the dash. She pulls the mask on over her head and adjusts the eyeholes. Her heart is thumping. She’s always been told she’s tall but she feels little, so little that the steering wheel seems dumbly huge in front of her. Her hands are shaking like she’s chased eight coffees with caffeine pills. Last time she felt like this was driving back to New Paltz after her first night tossing some drunk in an alley with Mag in Kingston. Maybe the shaking’s more intense now. This, after all, is Forkrum. She’s known him since college. He opened up this record store on East Chester Street a couple of years back and she’d come in to browse pretty often around closing and find him counting out the register. She told Mag—mentioned it offhand—that he had at least a couple of grand in the drawer last time and it was crazy how easy it would be to hit him for that. She said she was surprised it hadn’t happened already, Kingston junkies on the loose the way they were. And then that big bright lightbulb had gone off over Mag’s head. She didn’t say anything straightaway, but Temple could sense what she was thinking. Mag had been talking about scoring more than some drunk’s pocket change for months. She’d been dreaming of getting back to Buffalo, where she’d gone to school the first time, and moving into her pal Sally’s guesthouse on the cheap. Dreams were one thing with Mag; action was another. After a while, though, Mag pitched the idea to hit the record store, saying it would have to be Temple since she knew the place inside out.
And so here she is. Seven years ago in a sociology class at New Paltz, Forkrum across the aisle from her, and now in this alley behind his store with a traffic cone orange ski mask on. Mag said the mask was enough, but what about her body and her voice? That’s why she’s wearing her grandfather’s old Army jacket, one thing her dumb mother held onto, so baggy that it’s swallowing her up. And she’s practiced deepening her voice and walking on the balls of her feet so Forkrum might tell the cops that the person who stuck up the store had a funny walk and sounded gruff.
Mag had wanted her to bring a gun, some piece of junk she’d gotten at Podsie’s in Poughkeepsie for a song, but Temple wasn’t having it. Instead, she’s brought along the stun gun her ex-girlfriend Alexa bought on Amazon for her birthday senior year of college when they were hanging out at Rolling Thunder a lot and kept getting hassled by some bikers in the parking lot. Temple’s idea was that just showing the thing to Forkrum would scare him shitless. But she’s used it and knows the current and zap can put fear in someone real quick. Worst case scenario: she has to hit him with it. That happens, he’ll be fine once the temporary paralysis wears off, even have a scary little story to tell his drinking buddies.
She gets out of the car. The stun gun is in her pocket. So are a pair of purple surgical gloves she’s rolled up and stuffed in there. She puts the gloves on and takes a deep breath and tries to calm down.
The alley is a blessing. Dead quiet. The building nearby used to be a bagel joint; it’s abandoned now, weeds grown up the walls and over the windows. She knows Forkrum leaves the side door open and brings boxes out to the dumpster as he gets deliveries. She also knows there are no deliveries today because it’s Sunday and almost closing time.
She stays close to the wall and hooks the door handle with her thumb. It squeaks a little as she opens it but that doesn’t matter because Forkrum has music blasting inside.
She’s thinking, Mag should be doing this.
She’s thinking, Neither of us should be doing this. It’s Forkrum.
She’s thinking, It’ll be over quick. Then back to Mag’s. Then Buffalo. Maybe things’ll be better there. Maybe I’ll be able to break away from all my bad habits. Maybe Mag will too. Really.
Inside. She sees Forkrum before he sees her. He’s singing along to whatever’s on the stereo and punching his finger against an iPad, his glasses low on his nose, his cap off. She hasn’t seen him without a cap on since college. He’s almost all-the-way-bald.
She takes out the stun gun and turns it over in her hand. She holds it up and worries that it looks too much like an electric razor.
There’s no one else in the store.
Forkrum notices her then—she’s only half-hidden behind the doorframe to the storage room—and starts making a noise that’s something like a fox’s scream, loud even pushing against the music.
Temple is startled and almost drops the stun gun.
Forkrum stops, catches his breath, and screams again.
“Hands up,” Temple says in her best guy voice. She knows there’s an alarm unit on the wall but this isn’t a bank—there’s no panic button under the counter.
Forkrum puts his hands up. “Yeah, sure. Don’t hurt me.”
“Just give me what’s in the register and I’ll be out of here in a minute,” Temple says.
“Turn down the music!”
He keeps his hands up and goes over to the stereo. He lowers one hand and nudges the knob until the music is a whisper.
“Give me what’s in the register and I’ll be gone,” Temple says.
Forkrum just looks at her.
Temple goes over to the counter—he’s still on the other side, both hands back up, and she’s totally fucking spaced on her funny walk—and flashes the stun gun at him. He looks confounded by it; maybe he’s never seen one. She decides to show it off. The sound and light are enough to get him screaming again. “Jesus, be quiet,” she says.
His scream slows to a whimper. “I have asthma,” he says.
“Okay,” she says. “Just get the money.” Her voice is wavering now. Deep and then less deep. She didn’t expect so much talk.
He shuffles to the register and keys open the drawer and starts pulling out wads of bills. Big stacks of twenties and tens Less on the fives and ones, but that’s okay. Gotta be at least two grand. Maybe more. He fumbles the money and drops some on the floor.
“Get it all,” she says.
He leans over and picks up what he’s dropped. “You want the change too?” he says.
“Sure, why not? Put it all in a bag.”
Shaking, he grabs a record-sized brown bag and drops the cash in and then he starts emptying the coins in slot by slot. Stupid to wait for the change but every penny counts. If she was really smart, she’d grab some rare records off the wall and sell them on eBay, but she doesn’t have time to be discerning and she’d have to go to the library to get online.
He hands the bag across to her, squinting, still whimpering. He looks dumpier than he’s ever looked. He’s wearing an XL T-shirt with the store logo on it: a sloth hanging from a tree branch. She feels bad for him. “I’m sorry,” she says. “And thanks.” As if this was just another transaction.
“Natalie?” he says.
No one calls her Natalie anymore. Not since college. Mag renamed her Temple. She’s stuck in place. She knows she should forget it and get out of the store. She knows it doesn’t matter. The chance was there. Maybe it’s better this way. Maybe Forkrum will just figure she’s desperate and chalk the money up as a loss. As a donation. Keep the cops out of it. But she stays still.
Forkrum’s breath has slowed. He doesn’t seem scared anymore. “You could’ve just asked me,” he says. “I would’ve given you whatever you needed.” He pauses. “Mag put you up to this, right?”
Now it’s Temple who’s panting.
“It’s okay,” Forkrum says. “Just take off your mask. Let’s talk.”
Temple doesn’t think taking off her mask will help. She holds up the stun gun and shows Forkrum how it works again. Zap. “This thing is real. Like seventeen million volts or something,” she says in her regular voice.
Forkrum doesn’t scream this time. “Natalie,” he says. “Come on. Give it up. This is what you want? This isn’t you. It’s Mag.”
“Fuck you,” she says, biting her lip. Forkrum’s always been such a nice guy. He’s always been nice to her. He’d take her over to Village Pizza every Friday sophomore and junior year. He’d ask what growing up in Newburgh was like, even though he was from Monroe originally and knew what a hellhole Newburgh was. He was reading dumb shit in his English classes and wanted to talk about it. He wore a black trench coat and some weird glinty class ring. Sometimes he painted houses; two or three times, she’d accompanied him and he’d let her work on a window frame while they listened to mixes he’d made.
He reaches out for her. She knows what he’s doing—he’s going for the mask. He’s guessing he gets that off and they see each other face to face, she’ll let go of the charade and crumble to the floor in tears. But she knows she’s harder than that. She’s always been hard; Mag’s just taught her to be vicious. She snaps the stun gun at him and hits him in the neck with it. The sound seems bigger, worse. He goes down howling, holding his neck. He’s spinning, saying fuck fuck fuck, maybe crying.
“I’m sorry,” Temple says. She drops the stun gun in her gaping pocket and puts the bag of money under her arm. It feels like forever skittering though the store and back out the side door.
Soon she’s sitting in the Civic and pulling off her mask and breathing so hard her chest hurts. She feels like a sinking city. She keys the ignition and thinks of poor Forkrum on the floor, writhing around like some damaged animal. The bag of money is on her lap; she’s keeping it close. She’s about to shift into reverse, but she keeps imagining Forkrum like that and wants to go back. She’s thinking of all the times he brought her coffee in the computer lab on campus. She’s thinking of mixes he made for her. She should’ve done this to a stranger, not Forkrum.
She throws the car in reverse and backs out of the alley. Mag is waiting for her. Mag will be happy, that kind of big shivery happiness that only happens when they score. They’ll hit the road. Buffalo’s nobody’s dream, and she likes that. Everyone trying to get out of Buffalo and them holding onto it as some magical place to escape to.
The whole drive home on Route 32, she’s feels jolts in her legs. She’s worried about getting pulled over. She’s doing forty, a couple of cars tailing her close, and she keeps thinking she sees cops lurking on every side road.
She pulls into the gravelly parking lot of Muffs, a strip club where Alexa used to work. She catches her breath and stares at the sign, a woman in high heels and a bikini holding onto the stem of a giant cocktail glass. Alexa had bad times there.
She picks up her phone—still, somehow, balanced perilously on the dash—and calls Mag.
“It’s done?” Mag says.
“It’s done,” Temple says.
“So why are you calling?”
“I don’t know. I’m nervous. You should’ve come with me—at least to drive.”
“You’re fine. Deep breaths. How far are you?”
“I’m in the parking lot of that strip club.”
“Not that much further. Keep cool.”
Mag’s place is on Church Street in New Paltz next to a rooming house. A dive. The front steps rotten, the ceiling in the bedroom caving in from a leak. Temple doesn’t have her own place anymore. For a while, between apartments, she crashed on couches. And then she spent a couple of weeks at the hostel in town. She stayed with Mag the first night they met at Snug’s and has been with her every night since.
She gets the car going again and continues on carefully, as if she’s taking a driving test.
Back in New Paltz, she turns onto Church and parks on the street outside Mag’s. She runs in with the bag under her arm, skipping over the rottenest step. Mag is sitting at the kitchen table with a pack of yellow American Spirits, cherry-ashing a cigarette in a lidless butter dish.
Temple smiles at her.
“How much?” Mag says.
“About what we guessed,” Temple says, emptying the contents of the bag on the table. The coins scatter everywhere.
Mag’s blue eyes go bright. And there’s that smile, the one that makes it worth it, the one that pushes poor Forkrum out of Temple’s head. “You did awesome,” Mag says.
“I’m happy now,” Temple says, sliding onto Mag’s lap.
They kiss. Mag’s hair is dirty and dread-clumped. She tastes like beer and cigarettes. Her forearms are bruised.
“Buffalo,” Mag says.
“Motherfucking Buffalo,” Temple says. “Now? Let’s just go.”
“Okay,” Mag says, that smile shifting into something else. She scooches Temple off of her and relights her cigarette. “Okay,” she says again.
Temple scans the room. It doesn’t look like Mag’s been packing. Not that there’s much to take. “Forkrum’s okay,” Temple says.
“What?” Mag says, dragging deep, bunching her forehead.
“Forkrum will be fine. I think.”
“Good. The Taser—or whatever—was a good call.”
“You didn’t pack?”
“I’m not bringing anything. We’ll stop at a Target and get some new clothes. And we’ll hit the beer distributor for smokes. The rest of this shit, we’ll leave for the landlord.” She pauses, thumbs through a stack of twenties in front of her. “I was thinking. We get to Buffalo, you should grow your hair out. I’ve never seen you with long hair.”
“I hate long hair on me.”
Mag stubs out her cigarette in the butter dish.
Temple has some things she doesn’t want to leave behind—jeans and shirts from the Salvation Army, a drawer full of bras and underwear she shoplifted from Ames when it was still around, a box of paperbacks from the library sale. She goes in and gets them together. Takes her maybe three minutes.
Mag says, “You’re bringing all that shit?”
Temple laughs. “It’s hardly anything.”
“Let’s start fresh.” Mag stuffs the cash back in the bag and pushes the coins into a pile. “Clean slate. Doesn’t appeal to you? Just us and the car.”
“That’s a yes, right?” Mag says.
“Sure, I guess.”
“Let’s go to Snug’s for a drink to celebrate.”
Mag grew up rich. She doesn’t know Temple knows; it’s something that took time to piece together. Mag likes to play poor—and she is now, her family having disowned her—but she’s still got the recklessness of a rich kid. Which means lack of planning. Which means expecting things to pan out even when hope’s only a pinprick in the distance. What she does, she does for kicks. Everything’s kicks.
Temple didn’t grow up rich. She grew up hard. Alkie-whore mom. Her father a ghost. Newburgh schools like prisons. Drugs and booze took her early and then she righted the ship for college, worked herself through, and then she was done, no prospects, and there was Mag, all put-on desperation, so beautifully destitute. Temple’s desperation is more immediate. You live most of your life on the ropes and you start to grow hungry for the promise of anything good.
Temple always says it’s Mag who brought the bad out in her, pushing her into a world of small crimes, but for Mag it’s just like reality television. She doesn’t know about consequences. Her desires are manufactured. Taste real fear early, that’s what makes you hard. Rolling drunks and sticking up stores is nothing. Try watching your mother get dangled from a balcony by a john. Try waking up to strangers in your room. Try sleeping with a knife under your pillow at ten-years-old.
Temple senses now that if they go to the bar, Buffalo won’t happen. They’ll blow all the money on whiskey and then the days will continue on, more wallets snatched, the ceiling in the bedroom collapsing worse, more cigarettes, back on junk in no time.
Bank on Buffalo? Sucker’s bet. In reality, Buffalo would just be more of this anyway. Might as well save on the gas money and just roll across to Snug’s. Difference between a dream and a lie only depends on how fucked up you are.
“Just a couple of rounds,” Mag says. “Maybe some pool. Izzo’s bartending.”
Temple looks out the window and starts thinking about Forkrum again. He’ll be okay, probably is already okay, but she feels somehow like she left him for dead. Her gut says call him, check in, but she won’t, she can’t. Another bridge blown to shit. Her mom in that home, dead to her. Her aunts, how they tried their best to help, and she can’t even send fucking birthday cards. All these people she keeps leaving for dead, even when they’re not dying. “Okay,” she says to Mag. “Drinks it is.”
|AP Katie Farrell Boyle|