Dumb Luck: Literary Noir Short Fiction By Craig Terlson
Craig Terlson, author of Dumb Luck, has previously published short fiction in Mystery Weekly, Carve, Hobart, and other literary journals in the U.S., U.K., and South Africa.
When the curdled cream made a face in his coffee, Jim knew the universe was talking to him. At first, he was surprised, because he was used to the fake stuff at the diner he usually hit in the morning. But then he saw those lumps of sour milk were just like the string of bad luck that stretched back three weeks to seven years, depending on who was keeping score. It wasn’t that Jim’s bosses were bad, more that each was trying on a bigger size of asshat to see which one fit best. Bad milk and bad luck, they both had to stop.
Jim pulled on the duct-taped door handle of his ‘85 Aspen, swearing he would drive that car into a ditch and leave it there to rot. He had to make two stops on the way to his latest job. He wasn’t going there to work, it was Sunday. He was going to the bank for a whole ‘nother reason. Stop one was the liquor store. Jim knew it opened late on Sunday, and he arrived just as the kid unlocked the door. The punk looked like he’d barely started shaving. Jim drummed his fingers waiting for his change.
Stop two was the shed behind the junior high where he worked his last shitty job, sweeping hallways and ogling the French teacher. His roaming glances got noticed and Jim was shown the door barely a month in. It suited him fine. Three days in he’d felt trapped, swallowed up by the place. He was like Jonah, except he was looking at cleavage, not whale guts.
The afternoon he got fired, the head custodian told him to take some extension cords, wrap and tape them, and hang them in the tool shed on the other side of the running track. He also told Jim that the Vice Principal wanted to see him. Jim knew things were headed south—he always had a knack for knowing when his luck began to slide. He threw the cords in the corner of the shed, where they bunched up like a bundle of dead snakes. Jim lit a smoke and fished around to see if there was anything of value he could snag before his meeting with the VP. She’d be the one kicking his ass out the door.
The afternoon he got fired, the head custodian told him to take some extension cords, wrap and tape them, and hang them in the tool shed on the other side of the running track.
The shed’s treasure included garden tools, monkey wrenches and rusted saw blades—nothing worth a damn. A tall cupboard hung off the back wall, a thick padlock dangled from the latch and metal strip sort of deal. The lock was so big it was like something out of a comic book. A gym class ran out to the field, and the whistle made him jump, nearly dropping his smoke onto a jerry can. The local newsrag would’ve had a good time with that one: Thompson Junior High Janitor Ignites Tool Shed and Himself While Zit-faced Teenagers Practice for Big Meet.
Jim pushed at the lock with his knuckle, surprised when it fell open. He was even more surprised what was hanging in the cupboard. The school security chiefs were batting a thousand that day. He couldn’t quite figure why they’d have guns in the shed, could be for shooting gophers out in the football field. Jim filed the information away like he always did.
In the Aspen, Jim took a long swig of Canadian Club and tossed the bottle onto the passenger seat. He’d woke that morning thinking of that cupboard. It was time to claim that treasure. There was no gym class today on account of it being Sunday, and even more it being the beginning of July. Jim squinted into the summer sun, watching a thin stick of a guy paint lines in the football field.
“Probably the guy they replaced me with.” Jim spat on the ground. “I bet he never even looks at a woman and goes to church four times a week.”
Jim strode over to the shed. Another lock hung off the outside door. That was new. It wasn’t near as thick as the one that hung off the cupboard, but this one was locked. He scanned the ground for a big rock and found nothing. Besides stick-man pushing the line maker there wasn’t another soul around. The wind had picked up, not cooling down the hot day, but making sound travel a little less far, or so Jim figured.
Two good kicks and the door splintered. Jim picked up the pace, moving to the cupboard. This time the lock wasn’t even on the cupboard door. Geez Louize, what if a kid got in here? This thought made Jim glad for his plan. Opening the cupboard, it took him a moment to decide which one to take. He wanted something that made a statement, but didn’t overpromise. His old man said something like that on one of the few days he wasn’t drunk or beating on Jim’s head.
“Be particular about your choices, Jim-Boy. You tell someone you’re gonna do something, you better be prepared to deliver. The world hates a faker.”
Back before he left his basement apartment in Alberta, Jim got a stained letter from his mom. She must have spilled coffee or her rum and coke on it before she dropped it in the mail. She told him the old man had got sent away to Federal, and the first week inside someone knifed the son-of-a-bitch in the yard. Dead as a doornail. Mom had a way with words, telling Jim his father made the worst shishkabob in the world. Ha ha, she wrote at the bottom of the letter. She signed it with a fat M like she always did, and said, see you soon or I might not. Jim threw the letter and the other stuff he didn’t care about into a dumpster.
Stick-man was halfway back across the field as Jim pulled out of the parking lot. He took it easy, didn’t peel rubber or even gun the engine. No sense in being an idiot about it.
Jim drove down the main drag, studying the mostly empty streets. Probably half the town was at church. Other Sundays he’d seen them piling out of there like rats from a sinking ship, which covered what he thought of both religion and the people that lived in the stink-ass town. About hundred years ago, Jim had grown up here, attending the same junior high that fired him for a bit of boob-gazing. In school, it wasn’t that he didn’t fit in, Jim just didn’t give a shit. When the other kids’ parents met the teachers to discuss Johnny and Suzie’s grades, his parents were down at the Legion seeing who could get the drunkest.
About hundred years ago, Jim had grown up here, attending the same junior high that fired him for a bit of boob-gazing.
The Greyhound that finally took him out of town three years ago was the best ride of his life. But the promise of high-paying Alberta dried up when the economy tanked, so Jim figured he’d try out east. Leaving Calgary, he knew he didn’t have enough cash, and that he’d have to take a crap job somewhere to finance a trip to Toronto, and have enough to pay big-city rents. When the sign for his hometown appeared on the horizon, he figured, what the hell, he’d work for a few months and burn out of there before the leaves fell.
The junior high people didn’t remember him, and the stiff necks at the bank didn’t know Jim from a hole in the ground. The false resume he’d put together was working pretty good. He’d been back in town five weeks, but Jim told the bank that he’d arrived in town only a few days ago.
“Thought I saw a fellow looked like you down at the Co-op last weekend. Wasn’t that you arguing with one of the girls at the till?”
“I look like a lot of people,” Jim said.
His references were all out of province. His three buddies that vouched for him should have had a contest to see which one was the best bullshitter. Leroy probably came out on top. They’d both worked a big warehouse in Calgary, and Leroy was kinda Jim’s boss. The two of them loved knocking off early and splitting a cold dozen while they watched the Leafs on the sports channel. Talking to Leroy was usually good enough to secure him a job, but if need be, Sam and Sawbuck were good backup.
For some people bad luck came in threes, Jim’s was more in the dozens.
“Have you ever worked at a bank before, Mr. Sterling?” The guy looked fat and full of money.
“My father was in banking. When I went to school, I’d clean up there on weekends.”
“Oh. Which location was that?”
“Just a small town in Alberta. I don’t think it exists anymore.”
“The bank is gone?”
He laid it on pretty thick, thinking how Leroy would explain it, and ended up getting the job. It was the usual vacuum the rugs, water the plants, and make sure all the shitters were working kind of deal. Paid two bucks more than the junior high. Jim thought he could buy a higher grade of whiskey, or get a large pizza for dinner instead of the medium.
Jim took another swig of the CC before he made the corner down the alley that led behind the bank. A kid on a wobbly mustang bike kicked up a pile of dust. The kid spun his bike on the gravel, wiped a greasy arm across his face, staring at Jim behind the wheel of the Aspen. Jim flipped down the visor and the kid rode off.
Bank work was like any other work. Wherever he was, he was the lowest monkey in the tree, taking all the orders from the big apes. The teller’s counters weren’t shiny enough, the nap of the rug was running the wrong way, and the women’s can had a toilet that didn’t flush right. Jim wasn’t averse to work, but dammit if he didn’t hate being told what to do. There was the brunette in the tight sweater that smiled at him every morning, but then she stopped coming to work one day. She got replaced with some woman that reminded him of the VP at the junior high, except about nine times as mean. He was six weeks into it, before he realized that once again he’d drawn first prize in the shit sweepstakes.
The thing about being in a rut is that you know eventually the same damn thing will come along. For some people bad luck came in threes, Jim’s was more in the dozens. He’d let out a grumble at work, or a yeah right, which always gained him a look and a couple of tongue clucks. Mr. Fat-Ass Banker took him aside and asked if everything was ok.
“Tickety-boo,” Jim said.
“All right then. I’ll check in with you later in the week.”
And that was all he said. In his mind, Jim replaced the check in with fire your ass, because that’s the direction the rut traveled.
Jim drove slow by the back door to the bank. Inside he knew there’d be the same sleepy security guard as there was every weekend. Jim never even bothered to learn his name, though one of the tellers must have said it whenever he arrived at closing time. He was a dopey looking guy, and Jim figured he wouldn’t be much trouble.
He parked the Aspen in the vacant lot on the south-side of the bank. Word was they were going build a Dairy Queen there to replace the one that burnt down. That’s what the sign said, but besides the notification Jim had never seen anyone sink a shovel in the ground.
He popped the trunk and took out his treasure from the shed. He thought of it that way, as it was going to serve him just perfect. Jim saw it as a parting gift. The bastards over at the junior high had taken their sweet time sending him his last cheque, so Jim figured this was interest. He wondered for half a second if anyone from the school knew anyone from the bank. But he pushed it out of head on account it didn’t matter. Anyway, the treasure was more for show than anything. He was sure if old sleepy got one look at it, he’d stay the hell out of the way and Jim could get his business done.
…an action demanded some other thing—and it wasn’t about luck, or chance.
On the drive through town, he thought of what his old man did that sent him to prison. Ha, yeah, he was in banking all right. Jim could see the bugger laid out on the yard with a shiv sticking out of his guts. Jim wasn’t like his old man. When he put his mind on something he got to it, and got it done quick.
He didn’t wake up thinking today was the day he’d rob a bank. But, hell, how else was he supposed to jump out of that rut if he didn’t force himself into action? It was one of those scientific laws where an action demanded some other thing—and it wasn’t about luck, or chance. This was science, just like when bad milk hits hot coffee it curdles. If Jim wanted to change his luck, then it was his job to put that law into action.
Jim was careful not to bang the trunk closed. Up the alley he saw another cloud of dust and wondered if it was the kid on the bike pedaling back to give him another eyeful. Jim wasn’t going to hurt anyone, but if he had to put a boot in the kid’s ass, so be it. The dust thinned and then disappeared. The kid, or whatever made the cloud, was gone.
“Where the hell did he go?”
A clanging sound broke into the air and he jumped like when he’d heard the whistle that day in the shed. Two more clangs followed before Jim realized church was letting out. Jesus in a rowboat, when did those bells get so loud? None of the pew sitters would be coming to the bank, but they might wander downtown to get some food at the Chinese diner on the other side of the soon to be Dairy Queen lot.
Jim went to the door. He twisted the knob, already knowing it would be locked. He rapped on the door somewhere between a knock and a pound. He held his treasure low, behind one leg. It was light in his hand. It had to be one of those carbon jobs he heard someone talk about once.
“Hey, I know.”
Dammit, what was sleepy’s name?
“Come back tomorrow. We open at 9:00.”
“I know, I work here.”
A chair being slid on the floor squealed, then a long silence, dead air.
“Is that you Jim?”
Of course the bastard knew his name.
“Uh, yeah. Funny thing. I forgot something in the bank on Friday and I need it back today.”
The door opened too fast.
“What’d you need Jim?”
He had small gold bar on his chest that said his name. Why had he’d never noticed that?
“Damn, you scared me. Sorry to bug you on a Sunday, Fred. You were probably taking a siesta, ha!”
“I don’t sleep on the job, Jim. What did ya forget?”
“Uh, I had a set of keys to my place. Left them in my locker I think.”
“Then how did you–”
The guard stopped talking. He looked down at Jim’s treasure and then back at Jim. He reached down to his holster.
“Just hang on there, Fred.”
Jim raised the gun.
“You know what you got there?” Fred asked.
“I sure do. Now you just back up inside and let me into the vault. I’ll be out of your hair before you know it.”
“They make ’em look real these days,” Fred said.
“Real as rain. Now back up.”
“You load it yourself?”
“Came that way. Ha!”
Fred didn’t smile.
“It’s loaded you son-of-a-bitch, now get on back.”
Fred took a step and Jim came through the doorway. The dopey bastard was going make him fire the thing, and that was never the intent. Shit, he never did check if it was loaded, but now he hoped like hell it was.
“First day you worked here I knew you weren’t the smartest cookie in the carton.”
“Well, who’s smart now?”
Jim pointed the gun at Fred’s forehead. “You got a will, Fred?”
The security guard took his gun out of his holster and shot Jim in the chest. The gun Jim held didn’t make a sound. He crumpled in the doorway.
A kid on a bike skidded to a stop.
“Holy crap what happened?” “There was no need,” Fred said. “But guys like that—”
Fred never finished his sentence. He kneeled down and put his fingers on Jim’s neck. Jim still had his gun cradled in his arms, the light gone from his eyes. The barrel had cracked on the floor and split like a straw.
“You g-get over to the police station and tell the chief to come to the bank.”
“Was that a real gun, Mr. Fred?”
“He said it was.”
“Bad luck running into you this morning,” the kid said.
Fred didn’t say anything, so the kid peeled off on his bike, his chain made a rattling sound all the way down the alley.
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