The first night I end up in The Hut, I try to get people to talk about the money pinned to the walls, but everybody acts like they’re over it. Only the bartender will engage on this subject.
“It’s the first dollar the students make, at their first job,” Chuck says. “They come back here to celebrate and pin up a buck.”
This dive bar with thousands of one-dollar bills on its walls and ceiling is within sight of Santa Clara University’s campus, and the location is part of the reason patrons would think rooms covered in cash was no big deal. And how privileged do the locals have to be to shrug it off, right?
“What’s with all the little notes stuck on all the dollars?” I ask.
“Those aren’t notes. Those are their first business cards.”
Ah, that’s how privileged. I try to imagine a world where kids are so spoiled their first job comes with a first business card. With a blue-collar upbringing and years of union strike food in my lunchboxes, this all sounds like science fiction to me, and it helps to say “imagine a world” with a deep announcer’s voice. Kind of like the bartender’s voice actually. And Chuck is lingering near me longer than his job requires, which usually means free beer, but I blow it with my next question.
“Don’t you guys worry about someone stealing them?”
“Who the hell would do that?” he says, walking away disgusted, without even taking my drink order, which is fine really, since I don’t know what I want yet.
But I have some ideas.
The next morning, I drive up to San Francisco for the long Memorial Day weekend, avoiding the toll booths. I grew up in Northwest Ohio, where toll roads were a plague, and where spending every weekend feeding dollar after dollar into the greedy metal mouths of the machines between Toledo and Chicago with only a mile of highway between stops and starts was as depressing as feeding them to a stripper’s G-string, with exactly the same depressing lack of progress.
When I get home, I tell my dad I’ve been kicked out of another school for plagiarism. He doesn’t care as much as he did the last time, but he sure doesn’t get the joke when I explain it was my critical-theory class on postmodernism so, actually, plagiarism should have been rewarded.
The second night I end up in The Hut is about a month later, and now I can’t take my eyes off all the cabbage on those walls. I stare at the money on the roof, too, until drunks peepin’ up my nostrils feels a little too intimate. But after 2:00 a.m., I finally get a chance to lay down on the pool table and calculate the money on the ceiling to add to the cash register in my head. Half the balls are missing, so no one cares.
Staring up at such a canopy of limp but leafy greens, I’m reminded of the novel Black Sunday, when the Secret Service stops by Tulane stadium for their security check before the President’s Super Bowl visit. But they’re so used to checking the doors and locks and windows that no one ever thinks to look up to the sky.
I lay on the filthy pool table for a long time, picking at a cigarette burn in the felt as I keep counting. Some guys circle the table to hit on me or to pretend like they want to play the game, and I’m good at letting people run their mouths while I nod, so I’m able to do a rough count through all this attention in just a couple hours. As I do this, I try to imagine that counting each dollar is the exact amount of time it would take to steal one.
I’m up to $5,000 when I finally sit up, and she grabs my face and spins it into a kiss.
The third night I head to The Hut is to meet Holly again. My lips are still chapped from our smooch, but this time she’s all talk. And at first, we’re talking about how she was a biology major at SCU until she pilfered someone’s chemistry project for her final exam. But now that I know she can’t be trusted, I figure it’s safe to confess my obsession with the dollars on the walls.
She’s well aware of them. Together we marvel at how no one else seems to think this is odd, and we talk about Santa Clara being made of money or something and how only losers like us think walls made of money is something we need to convince strangers to notice.
“It’s like the ‘Emperor Has No Clothes,’” Holly says.
“You mean ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes,’” I laugh. “And it’s kind of the opposite.”
“So, what do you think?” I ask some dude desperately elbowing us for attention. He’s been trying to get on our radar for an hour, and it reminded Holly of her ex’s favorite riddle:
“So, is it grosser to watch some dude position himself to see the girls or grosser to watch them position themselves to be seen?”
“Either one?” I shrug.
“The money is a trick!” the drunk says, flicking the corner of a dollar bill like it’s not really there. Chuck shakes his head without looking up from a spill he’s swabbing.
“What do you mean, slapjack?” I ask the guy, thinking he overheard our dudebro-line-of-sight dilemma. He angles his head in to whisper, his swampy exhale making me switch to mouth breathing.
“It’s a psychological experiment,” he says, and more guys gather. Not for his lecture but because Holly and I are on stools blocking the lane of the Atomic Dunk bar-basketball game. Enjoying our roles as obstacles, we both spin our knees towards him and give him the universally understood signal to “go on.”
“Okay,” he says, excited. “You ever see that movie Witness? Where that cop is hiding out with the Amish, and he’s up there on the roof sweating and pounding in bizarre wooden nails with toy wooden hammers and wiping his brow while the womenfolk passed around lemonade?”
“Probably not.” It was on Netflix a couple months ago actually, but I turned it off when the hero wrecked a birdhouse. I knew I’d just keep thinking about the birds.
“Well, I saw that movie in the theater years back, and afterwards I started thinking, ‘I wanna help an Amish family build a barn, too!’ So I get a map, and it’s only a three-hour drive to the Amish stronghold of Shipshantucket or wherever, but it’s a total tourist trap, right? I find exactly one horse and carriage, but they pretend they can’t see me. Even though I’m yelling out the window plain as day, ‘Got a barn?! I’ll friggin’ build it, bro!’ So I eventually settle on eating a tuna sandwiches in an ‘Amish-owned diner.’” He gives us the air quotes. “According to the sign anyway…”
“Awesome story, my man,” Holly says, starting to spin away, and he speeds up.
“Wait, wait, so I go in the diner, and on the floor is a silver dollar. And I go to pick it up, but it’s one of those gags, right? It’s nailed to the floor. But is that to trick the tourists or the locals? I ask the suitably plain-looking waitress, who, it should be noted, is wearing a suspiciously colorful hair clip. And if Amish weren’t allowed to use nails and hammers and, say, electricity, how are they able to hammer silver dollars into the floor? Or even toast my sandwich? But apparently, besides invisibility, another Amish superpower is refusing to answer sarcastic questions, and she just gives me my tuna without a peep. But before I leave, I ask her one more time, ‘Who’s that silver dollar for?’ And she sighs and says, ‘It was for you.’ So maybe I didn’t build a barn, but I passed their test, you know? But now you know what else I’m thinking? Maybe they did the same thing the kids do here. That was the first dollar that joint ever earned.”
“Cool story, bro.”
“I’m basically Amish now.”
Chuck stifles a laugh from behind the bar, and we spin back toward the basketball hoop, new drinks in hand. We don’t even look to see who bought them for us because we’re already having fun planning the caper.
We talk about how we need at least one more person, how Holly would prefer it if we had four, but Honorary Amish Guy is currently our only sad prospect. He lingers near the hoop game like he wants to feed it a dollar, but I freeze him out until he leaves. But apparently I’ve smiled at him too many times without realizing, and he returns, stuck to us like glue. First, he wants to shoot baskets, but then he’s back on his theory about the money being fake, and at one point suggests that Chuck has raised the temperature in the bar three degrees and that someone else has released exactly three bees.
“We appreciate the heads-up, buddy.”
Suddenly, Holly pulls Honorary Amish over by the collar and whispers her own something, and out he marches into the night, eyes blank as the Manchurian Candidate.
“What’d you say to him?” I ask.
“I said he was shunned,” she laughs. “Went fuckin’ Amish on his ass.”
Then we drag our stools out of the way and spend the rest of the night shooting hoops and kinda sorta pretending to plan our heist. But by the time we’re drunk and out of dollars for the basketball game, it’s turned serious.
We’re still looking around for recruits when Holly’s ex-girlfriend walks in, and now I’m hoping we have our third. Not at first though, because some terrible hair-metal music is playing when she swings open the door, but once someone puts on some boozy Tom Jones, it suddenly feels like this girl would be down for anything. Up for anything? Either way. And this is even before she starts telling us about her adventures in expulsion. So I’m thinking this makes the perfect squad with three women who’ve been bounced for “conduct unbecoming a Santa Clara University student.” But then she clarifies.
She got kicked out of the Secret Service instead.
Holy crap! Even better.
The Hut is dead, but we’re still getting our share of unwanted attention. Another day, another dollar, another shitty free drink. Something about three women makes young men bolder, though to them we’re indistinguishable. If we were in a movie, we’d be allowed one character trait each. I wish that we were one blonde, one brunette, and one bright red or some other color not found in nature, but this is California, not The Witches of Eastwick. We do have handy increasing levels of hair though, which means Holly, the bigger hair of our bunch, gets most of the propositions. I worry she’ll become our leader by default.
But besides the odd come-on, it’s a ghost town until a graduation party floods the place around midnight. When June hits, students go home every weekend to hang with friends who’ve already been on summer break for weeks. See, SCU is on quarters instead of semesters, which drives students bonkers near the end of Spring quarter. I could never get used to this system, myself, when everyone is posting beach pics and you have eight weeks of classes to go. We were convinced Santa Clara just liked the word “quarter” because it sounds like money. Money everywhere on this campus, too, not only on the walls of The Hut. And perfect, green grass-like golf courses, even though the surrounding neighborhoods are on all-year water restriction. They water everything in the dead of night, by the way, I’ve heard it hissing. And once I saw a gnarly palm frond pinwheel down from the sky and plop into the middle of all that glistening emerald, and it finally gave me something interesting to stare at. Then a Mexican man in a golf cart zipped over and gathered it up without even stopping like the poor bastard was one of those Flintstones dinosaurs they used for menial labor gags. Remember when some prehistoric critter would stop trimming hedges with its snout and shrug at the camera, “Hey, it’s a living!”
When the graduates get too noisy, we step outside so Rachel can smoke, and we talk about the lack of security at The Hut, how no one is even checking I.D.s at the door. Holly says she’d been bounced from a bar before for underage drinking, but never The Hut. The location has made this bar an anomaly, we decide. When we were enrolled at SCU, other students called this end of town “the dark side” of campus. They were probably being racist, but it could also be the lack of streetlights. This reputation would help us, regardless.
I pick at the dog-eared corners of the flyer on the window, where the Santa Clara Health Department has posted The Hut’s grade. I’m excited to see it matches my grade-point average the quarter I was kicked out. We’re made for each other.
We keep drinking until close, and at 2:30, we’re outside the door again, under the street signs at the corner of Franklin and The Alameda, and Holly jokes that “Alameda Franklin” sounds like Aretha’s Spanish cousin. We watch Chuck the bartender cram red-and-white balloons into the dumpster until it’s overflowing. There had been a graduation party on the patio the whole night, and we didn’t even realize the place had a patio. But we knew there’d be no dollar bills out there, so we didn’t care.
Chuck struggles to pull the lid down on the dumpster, and the balloons are bulging out the sides, and Holly walks over to pop one with her pinky nail.
“You know, there is a way to make those all fit, dummy,” she says, and he goes back inside, ignoring her. She keeps on popping.
In so many ways, The Hut is ripe for the picking. Or the popping.
Two dozen pops later, and we realize the balloons are just the siren song we needed because two drunk frat bros think they’re fireworks and stumble up to our street corner to sway back and forth, looking us over like we’re steaming chicken legs on a desert island. I tense my old rugby muscles getting ready for a scrum when they ask what we’re doing. But as usual, the question is directed at Holly and her big hair.
Holly smiles and pulls one kid close and makes all sorts of promises, lips an inch from his earlobe. They barely hesitate because she’s saying it’s just “one little thing,” and she’s hot enough to have the last word on what constitutes a little favor or a big favor. They’d have probably done it even if they weren’t hammered.
We’re only a block away from the bar and diving into some jade trees when we hear the glass shatter.
We go to the bar one final time, a last hoorah before the night we’ll be pulling the purloin. I’ve always loved that word, “purloin.” Sounds delicious. Second maybe to “pilfer,” but way better than “filch.” Ew.1
We talk it out. It will be an all-night job, this we know. Just the sheer amount of dollars we’ll be plucking means a labor-heavy piece of work. In the movies, stolen money is always bundled into little bricks, and the crooks bring the stacks up to their faces, to run their thumbs along the corners like they’re shuffling cards.
“They’re making sure the money isn’t marked,” Holly explains.
“Really,” I say, swishing two shots in a row.
“Remember, I used to date a Secret Service agent,” Holly smiles, and the way Rachel is half-smiling back, I know I want to see where this story will go. One thing I learned from that term paper I stole for my post-modern class is that modern heist films are expected to have a relationship triangle, so the shakier Rachel seems and the more she resembles a fictional wildcard in the typical movie crew, the more excited I get that our job might actually be real.
“I dated her while she was being recruited? Isn’t that right, Rachel? But she didn’t make it past the probationary period though, did you?”
“Do tell,” I say, and I give the straw in my drink an unnecessarily adorable suck.
“Okay,” Rachel says, cracking her thumbs. “Did you know that when you join the Secret Service they give you a lie detector test and ask about when in your life you've stolen things or lied to people and then keep asking questions until you cry?”
“Yup. And then when you finally cry? They say, ‘Don't worry, everybody cries.’”
“However!” she says. “You can beat the polygraph with kegels every time.”
“This part is true,” Holly nods.
“Crazy. So, did she ever get to run alongside limos or whatever?” I ask them both.
“No, she got bounced when she screwed up a stakeout,” Holly laughs. “She was new, so they gave her the shit detail of marking all the bills. She was supposed to put a mark in the upper right-hand corner with a marker, and they said any mark would do, but she had to do this all night, with a huge stack of cash. But she had to get creative…”
“How so?” I ask Rachel. Reluctantly, she finishes her own story.
“Well, to pass the time, I did one of those flip cartoons instead.”
“Oh, my god,” I say, covering my mouth. “That’s amazing.”
“So when the bad guys did that move, running their thumb down the corner, and they always do that move. You know the move?”
“Oh, I know the move.”
“This time they got a little surprise. A cartoon showing a tiny burglar getting scruffed by the neck like a puppy and tossed into a cage.”
“You gotta love her,” Holly says, and I agree. “Even though she was a pain in the ass.”
“But we have to ask ourselves. Is this even worth the effort?” Holly says, smile dropping, and I nod without hesitation. Ironically, for me, it’s the unusual length of time that makes the job worth doing. That sort of work just feels right. Maybe it’s from growing up in a union household, but I feel certain that the eight hours it’ll take us to pluck those dollars off the walls would be worth exactly the amount of labor. Of pluck. And this satisfying sort of symmetry doesn’t happen in any other line of work, legitimate or otherwise.
We scooch our stools away from the basketball game to give other people a shot for once, but now we’re too close to the restrooms, which is a lot like being in the key on a basketball court actually. Every inch of The Hut has a toilet smell, though, stale air like an old casino, so hanging out around the restrooms is as good as anywhere, which makes sense considering their peculiar choice of wallpaper. Doesn’t science agree that 75% of paper money is speckled with microscopic amounts of blood, sweat, feces, and cocaine? Or maybe they just proved those five things secretly powered the world.
Money has gotta be stinky though.
All three of us abandon our circle of stools and walk toward the bar, and dudes fight over buying us more gross “girly” drinks. We take them, of course, and while we wait, I point out the huge, jagged hole in the mirror behind the bar. The bartender sighs as he slides me my Smurf-tinged Blue Hawaiian, Holly’s nuclear Fuzzy Navel, and Rachel’s toxic green Mixed Martian Arts.
“What happened there, Chuck?” Someone points.
“So, get this, two assholes came in here at closing yelling about losing their keys,” Chuck says. “Then they started fighting, and one of them whipped an ashtray at the other one and smashed my goddamn mirror.”
“Oh shit!” I say. “Did you get a description?”
“Description? Yeah, two assholes with bars over their faces, since I got ‘em arrested. Cops and campus security seasoned them with pepper spray, choked them out, then dragged them away. They’ll probably get expelled, for starters.”
“I thought it smelled better in here,” I giggle. “Spicy!” The three of us share a glance, all of us two-finger sucking our straws and trying to look innocent. But after sucking down a couple more Lemondrops, we don’t feel guilty anymore.
Someone tries to slide another Candyland drink in a glass full of toys and trinkets, and I complain to Chuck about his selections.
“Why the hell do you make all these goofy beverages?” I ask him. “An impossible amount of cosmopolitan refreshments in here. I thought you were a dive bar. Aren’t you embarrassed?”
“Well, you guys keep drinking them.”
“We’re not talking about us,” Rachel says. “We’re talking about you and your sorry-ass saloon.”
“Now, that’s where you got it all wrong,” Chuck explains. “That old myth about cowboys just drinking straight whiskey? Don’t believe the movies. Did you know that the most popular drink in the 1800s was a ‘Stone Fence.’ That’s six ounces of whiskey and some apple cider on the rocks. Maybe real rocks, I don’t know. But that’s some sissy shit if ever heard.”
“I’m sorry, but that’s still a shitload of alcohol.”
“Still, those cowboys were ‘girl drink’ drunks! So I’m just keeping shit real here. Real drunk. Now, do you want this with or without the umbrella?”
Eventually, Holly gives up trying to get the bartender to notice her song selections (Thin Lizzy? Come on, that’s played so much these days it’s invisible to the naked ear), and she finally says “fuck it” and slinks around the bar to straight-up nosh Chuck when he’s restocking down on his knees and out of sight. I could have told her the days of leaning against jukeboxes and locking eyes was over. Now that they were glued to the wall like payphones, nobody gave a shit. But it’s small, unexpected hiccups like the jukebox that might sink us, so I’m worried.
And going behind the bar without asking, or being asked, is a bold move. It’s not quite peeking behind the curtain in the Emerald City, but close. But it works. It works because she’s in the forbidden zone, and this puts the bartender into an entirely different state of mind, his voice a whole octave higher and much more susceptible to Holly flights of fancy than she is to his flights of sugar-coated cocktails. She keeps their lips locked, and she grabs his head to crank him around to face the ragged black hole in the mirror behind the bar.
He’s none the wiser to our hasty firefighter bucket line, as she unhooks the keychain from his belt, passes it behind her back to me, then to Rachel, who heads outside for a smoke, but instead meets Magic Mark’s 24-hour Key Cutters van in the parking lot of the 7-Eleven across the street. Magic Mark grinds a copy right there in the back of his van for three bucks, which suddenly seems like a lot more money tonight, since that will be three more green flowers I’ll have to pluck from the walls.
Holly stays behind the bar to chitchat and open beers, and with one more kiss and rotate for misdirection, his face is buried in her wheat field of hair, haloed by harsh lighting and the shattered void in the mirror… and his keys are back on his belt before he closes the bar.
Now we’re ready. And after clocking traffic inside and outside The Hut for a week now, we decide next Saturday will be perfect.
His keychain is one of those stupid dreamcatchers, by the way, which was the bartender’s first mistake, but not his last. Coulda told him they don’t catch shit. Or us.
The night of the heist, we get there a half-hour before closing, and we already know we’re in trouble when Chuck the bartender vows he won’t lock up until he’s drained a Long Island Ice Tea with his penis.
In retrospect, we should have expected this. Like they always told me in college, there are only three classic tales; man goes on a journey, stranger comes to town, idiot tries drinking with his dick.
The three of us stand there, trying to decipher what we’re seeing. It’s an unnatural sight that takes a good ten seconds to process. Chuck is squatting on top of the bar, genitals ugly as a hairless cat piling over the lemon spirals on the edge of a mug, eyes pinched tight while a line of patrons press in around him, whooping and hollering encouragement. I see the Honorary Amish guy in the crowd, and he turns toward us when the light from the swinging door shines a spotlight on the shenanigans. He gives us a wink, and I recoil, but Holly winks back.
The way I see it, we already had some pretty big obstacles, and now time has become another. The original plan only gave us from close until dawn to do the deed, less than five hours tops. Past that and people would see us through the windows, depluming those dollars and whispering five thousand “She loves me… she loves me nots.”
“How long is this shit going to go on?” I ask Holly and Rachel, and Rachel bites her lip.
“Hopefully all night,” Holly grins.
“Don’t we need him out of here?”
“No, we need him.”
“I don’t get it,” I say. “We have the key.”
“The key doesn’t matter now,” Holly says. “Because you missed something.” She cocks a finger at the wall behind her, but all I see are dollars. Rachel pulls the corner back on one of the bills, and a half dozen dollars peel back with it. Underneath is the keypad to an alarm.
“Shit!” I hiss. “When did you find that?”
“I stopped by this morning when he opened. Final recon.”
“And we don’t have the code,” Rachel adds.
“So it’s off?” I ask.
“No, it’s not off,” Holly says, positively giddy. “That just means we get to go with Plan B.”
“What does the morning-after pill have to do with anything?” I’m only half-joking. Nothing would surprise me now.
“I think she means Plan ‘D,’ as in that shit,” Rachel laughs, and I try not to make eye contact with Chuck’s peen. Then I see Holly wink at the Honorary Amish guy again, so I put a basketball under my arm and move in to listen. The ball’s squishier from the overuse, about as firm as a 60-year-old testicle. Reflexively, the Honorary Amish puts up two hands as if I’d pass the basketball to him, but I only choke it harder. He’s earnestly explaining to a handful of guys exactly what Chuck needs to do to win this seemingly impossible bar bet.
“…listen, I learned this back in India, in 1976,” he says. “And what Chuck isn’t understanding is that you can’t just start drinking like that. Not drinking drinking anyway. It takes some training. I should know! ’76 to ’77, I’m riding elephants and all that shit. Basically, I’m an honorary Yogi…”
“How much is gone!” Chuck yells from the bar, eyes still closed. Some kid leans in as close as he dares and takes a quick measurement drink-to-rim ratio with his cigarette.
“Damn it!” Chuck yells.
“…see, first, you have to have non-ejaculatory sex for about a year,” the Honorary Yogi goes on. “Then you step it up. You practice urethra suction, first with water, then milk, then, sure, maybe a Long Island Ice Tea. But that’s expert level.”
The room erupts in laughter. Holly and Rachel are back to shooting hoops.
“You gotta understand. Most people think those muscles can’t be controlled. But a Yogi like me can submerge his ‘choda’ in a glass of milk and just suck it on up. Ever heard of ‘brahmacharya’? It’s a code of honor, guys...”
People start to wander away.
“Listen! Dinabandhu Pramanick definitively proved to onlookers he could completely drain a glass of milk with his urethra, then eject the fluid right back out. Most people wrote it off as a ridiculously complicated way to masturbate in public, but the science is sound!” He locked eyes with me, the only one still paying attention. “You see, you must, in essence, ‘breathe’ inside your partner during copulation, fully absorbing her soul, over and over again. And if you reach the highest levels, one day you could even drink with your finger…”
Some distant laughter and some cries of “Shut up!” and Chuck suddenly stands up high on the bar, zips up his pants, and jumps down to his regular spot. Holly stops shooting hoops and comes over with her basketball under her arm, too, Rachel in tow.
“Anybody want a free Long Island Ice Tea!” Chuck offers. No one volunteers.
Now that the three of us are close enough to the bar for the girl drinks to start flying again, Holly announces to any college kid who’s paying attention that “Yes, she would like a Razzamatazz, please!”
“What the hell is in that?” he asks.
“What kind of bartender are you?” Holly feigns confusion.
“Yeah!” I shout. “I thought you were authentic, barkeep! Like the cowboys!”
For the record, once Holly lays out the instructions, a Razzamatazz is pretty simple, really. Three Olives, or any raspberry-flavored vodka, cranberry juice, and club soda, on the rocks. Holly drinks hers before the ice even shrinks, but the Honorary Yogi does something much more uncouth than that.
The crowd goes nuts when he squats, unbuttons his fly, and dunks his glans into the glass. He begins to hum, and even more people swarm him than Chuck. So many that they’re fighting to see and knocking him off his heels, until Holly somehow kicks his Razzamatazz over in the middle of the scrum and spills the crimson cocktail onto the floor.
“Foul!” someone yells, and the Honorary Yogi solemnly picks up the empty glass and waves them back, still clutching himself with his other hand.
“Don’t worry, men,” he says. “The deed has been done...”
Then he proceeds to piss into the glass until it’s up to the brim with red.
“Oh my,” I say, genuinely in awe, and the applause is deafening. Chuck runs around from the safety of his bar and snatches the glass from Yogi’s hand to study it. The crowd recoils in case it spills. Not sure how to investigate, Chuck gives it a sniff.
“Yes, the Yogi way,” he answers to even more cheers.
“Fuck it, drinks are on the house, boys!” Chuck yells. “As long as you leave your pants on!”
I didn’t believe what I’d just seen, but it was okay because I hadn’t really seen it. Here’s what really happened:
Days earlier, after our illusionist had told us his story about the Amish, I hadn’t heard what Holly had whispered in his ear. But what she’d given him were simple instructions to eat nothing but beets, berries, and rhubarb until the next time he saw her.
It seems unlikely that she could relay all that information and convince someone to do her bidding in three to five seconds, but the other explanation, that she exploited the Honorary Yogi’s off-the-cuff story so effortlessly, wasn’t that equally insane?
Later, Holly told me that she had first considered punching someone repeatedly in the kidneys so they’d piss blood on cue, maybe dare them to take as many of her “Houdini punches” as they could. But only if she had to. This must have been Plan P, I’m guessing, so the Yogi was pretty lucky she didn’t go that route. At least I don’t think she did.
But here’s the thing. When I think about the Honorary Yogi and the kids that staged the fight to smash the mirror, I now understand something I didn’t realize in the moment.
When Holly said she’d make do with three people if she had to? She was actually making do with six.
“Last quarter, I was writing this story for my creative-writing class about some people stealing something, and it got really complicated, and for three days I was stuck on the last third and couldn't figure out how to get them to complete their robbery in a believable way, so finally, on the day it was due, I just said fuck it and had them all get arrested.”
I pull down another handful of dollar bills, a fast, fluid motion under the business cards and stick pins, like a magician careful not to dump the dinner on the floor. The dollars end up with a tiny rip about halfway through, but I’m careful not to tear them any more than that. I know there’s no establishment in the world who wouldn’t accept a one-dollar bill with a little mileage on it. Behind me, Rachel pins new dollar bills right back up under the cards where I’ve gently torn them down, in roughly the same spot on the wall.
This will all make sense at the end.
“Great,” Rachel says to me. “You can’t be trusted”
“Yeah, the moral of that story is this is also the level of loyalty you can expect from me in real life,” I laugh as I keep ripping.
The Hut is empty. Except for the four of us. Rachel and I working the walls, and Holly up at the bar, sipping on something pink and sweet, and making sure a hopelessly plastered Chuck never turns around.
I pull down another fifty ones in rapid succession. We move to the wall under the jukebox where rich white kids write rap lyrics on the walls and the money grows the thickest. Holly fills my void under the flashing New Castle sign, pinning crisp dollar bills right back up, stamping them like butterflies under all the business cards those smug golden boys and golden girls left behind. Huh?
Here’s how it works.
A couple nights back, while we were first shooting arcade ball and whispering and being all sneaky and bonding over our nefarious plans, after a couple real sweet drinks got us dizzy, it came out that Rachel wasn’t kicked out of the Secret Service at all. No, she was kicked out of SCU, just like the rest of us, and kicked out for plagiarism, too. Actually, she clarified this and said her plagiarism case was so bad, the Provost said she was “technically a counterfeiter.” But that’s where the Secret Service thing came in.
Her story about a Secret Service interview and all the crying was accurate, sure, except she was on the hot seat for photocopying fake twenties in the basement of the library.
It was a big confession, and I think it was supposed to bring us closer, but when she started missing baskets, I guessed Holly already knew.
But after she came clean, and after the timer wound down on the basketball hoop and each of us was just cradling our ball, the buzzer went off and the red siren swirled, and it was just like light bulbs going off over our heads.
If you’re not trying to be good at it, counterfeiting is easy! Rachel spent about fifty bucks on green toner to make our fake dollar bills. And that expensive resume paper wasn’t cheap either. But she’ll get it all back. Like I said, it’s a labor-heavy job, more than one all-nighter, but when we’re all “sad and done,” we’ll have earned whatever we take. Earned as in deserved. No one could deny that.
Hands a blur, I seize more dollars, and Rachel puts her fake dollars back up, and Holly cheers on Chuck until he passes out from the strain, which is good for us because then Holly can help out, too.
On the way out, garbage bags of dollars rustling in each fist like I’d just cleaned up an after-party, I kick Chuck’s glass with my open-toed sandal and flinch as I wait for the spill.
But his glass is only half full, and I’m thinking, “Holy shit, he did it for real.”
But he’s out cold and will never know what he achieved, which makes sense because he’s always been more of a half-empty kinda guy.
Before I can open it, the door swings wide in my face, letting in the first slivers of morning, and a man walks in. Sherry had called him the Honorary Amish, and Holly had called him the Honorary Yogi, but he was looking real different all of a sudden, probably something to do with the break of dawn. He glances at the useless bartender and sighs, then scans us up and down. With his white collar, his faces seems much darker, more ethnic, more Jesus than Amish? And when he talks, a Spanish accent I hadn’t noticed now peeks through.
"What are you girls up to?" he asks.
"Don't you worry about it," Holly says, most of the charm gone from her tone.
"I think you're taking down all my dollar bills," he says cheerfully, and I wrap the end of my black bag around my fist in case it’s a “fight or flee.” He looks at our piles of new and old bills.
"What do you mean, 'yours'?" Holly says, not sure what to do.
Honorary Jesus cracks his knuckles and strides to the center of the bar, boots clomping on the tiles.
"I mean, me and my kids have spent years decorating those walls as part of our lesson, and now you've decided to cut straight to the end of the sermon.”
“Riiight,” Holly says, sarcastic. “Teach us a lesson?”
"You gals sure like bar bets. But have you ever seen the one where you dip a twenty-dollar bill in alcohol and set it on fire?"
"Nope," I say, looking to my partners for ideas.
"Well,” he says. “It is quite remarkable. When the fire goes out, and the money stops burning, it is perfectly fine. The currency just stays the same."
"Fascinating," Holly says, motioning for us to pack up faster.
"It’s something to do with the fibers or thread count or something, but they make real money to last. So, if me and my kids wanted this place to burn easy one day, to, say, cash out? We'd have to line the walls with something else besides cash money. Because cash money ain’t gonna cut it!” He laughs and claps his hands, excited. “We’d need something that burns up real good, you see."
I’m not following completely, but I think Holly is getting the idea. She picks up a dollar and sniffed it.
"What do you mean ‘besides money?’"
"I mean, all that time you spent, all that preparation, it was a waste."
"Who are your children?” Sherry asks. “Is this some sort of a cult?"
"What are you talking about?" he laughs. "This is a fine, Jesuit university. An upstanding and faith-based community. Did you know Santa Clara University has the highest post-graduate employment rate in this Christian nation? The student population isn't as diverse as we'd like it, sure, but it's getting there."
“Eventually, we’ll all resemble Jesus. The real Jesus, I mean.”
“Good talking to you!” Holly says, heading for the door.
"What I mean is,” he says, arms wide to block her. “If you're stealing paper and replacing it with paper. Well, this is bad for you, but doesn't really change things for us."
“What do you mean?” Holly asks, but I think I get it.
“I mean, that wasn’t money.”
And at this, he unzips his fly, and a long, arcing stream covers the counterfeits on the nearby wall. Then, in a smooth action-hero motion, he produces a golden Zippo, flicks it, and waves it over his head like a concert encore.
Honorary Jesus doesn't quite turn his water into wine that morning, but it’s close enough. We can smell it, and I’m still trying to wrap my head around the idea that he was drinking gasoline along with those other colorful cocktails. More likely, it was Sterno.
The gasoline roars from between his legs to cover the fake dollar bills surrounding us, and when he reaches in front of him to break this piss stream with his lighter, the flames boil up like dragon's breath, and the wall of the bar goes up like a righteous bomb.
An actual miracle, Chuck snaps out of his trance and runs for a fire extinguisher, and he puts out the wall with an unceremonious gust of foam. Like it’s his job, which is sort of is. Then he shakes his head to try and understand what’s happening. Honorary Jesus is walking out the door. But he calls back over his shoulder.
"Good work, Chuck. Today wasn't the day. But I’ll be back for the next graduation party."
"Okay, see you at graduation!" Chuck yells, waving like the dumbass he is, then sits on the floor, cradling the extinguisher like a baby.
We gather up our money and leave. We don’t care that it’s fake. We did the work. We earned it.
When we walk out the door, a maintenance man in a red jumpsuit zips by in his golf cart, the back end full of palm fronds. Typical crazy Southern California weather, a storm had flooded our streets for a moment, and we didn’t even notice. Drainage rushes over my feet toward the gutters, and for some reason, I’m convinced I could tread water forever.
Is this what church is like?
The maintenance man stops to idle and let us cross the street to our cars, head-turning to follow the dollars peeking from our bags and our belts. We hold our breath. Then he nods and drives away without a word.
When I get home, I take off my shoe to wash off the tequila and find a dead honeybee in the tread. I don’t check under my other foot.
There isn’t a happy ending. We rake in $5,379, yes, split three ways, but only a month after counting it all on the floor between our wiggling toes, all three of us are in that proverbial hot seat, hooked directly to the legendary government earthquake detector.
I fall back on what I know, and my kegels, unlike the mythical urethra drink-draining trick that the gurus apparently actually bullshit about, are a real, live muscle that women can strengthen to turn the tables on their incarcerators. Or at least turn a table over? Or, okay, maybe just cause a barely detectable but no-less insignificant seismic disturbance to that needle on the table and get away with a lie.
It turns out that students regularly steal the dollars off the walls, too, just a couple at a time, but they’re replaced by alumni and hundreds of weekly new-job celebrations so often that no one ever notices. So when some of my funny money ends up buying a freshman some rubbers at the 7-Eleven across the street, it doesn't take much legwork for the real Secret Service to backtrack those half-ass counterfeits to Rachel’s famous photocopy skills. As a bonus, the agents make sure to tell me mine was by far the least lucrative scam they have ever encountered, narrowly stealing the number-one slot from the halfwit who tore four corners off a twenty-dollar bill, just to glue them to a single.
“Which means each counterfeit twenty he created cost him twenty-one dollars,” they explain.
It’s not much consolation, however, but we don't go down easy, and when the questions start flying, nobody starts crying this time. But the needle jerks and traces our lies out on the paper like the Rocky Mountains, and we mostly just squeeze our fists instead of our pelvis… and get seventeen years. Divided by three. Yeah, you know why that math doesn’t work? Because the judge has a jar of candy next to his gavel, which betrays his sweet tooth, so he only gives Holly five years when she tries some of those mesmerizing hair flips of hers, and no doubt he ended up buying her a girly drink or two after court. Sugar and alcohol, and she could always get away with murder. But it’s a man’s world, and most of them are judges of some kind or another, and there was a lesson after all.
We end up in the same place, and we always will.
David James Keaton's
first collection, FISH BITES COP! Stories to Bash Authorities
was named the 2013 Short Story Collection of the Year by This Is Horror
, and his second collection, Stealing Propeller Hats from the Dead
, received a Starred Review from Publishers Weekly
. He’s also editor of Hard Sentences: Crime Fiction Inspired by Alcatraz, Dirty Boulevard: Crime Fiction Inspired by Lou Reed,
and Tales from the Crust: An Anthology of Pizza Horror.
He lives in California.