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Fiction #321
(published March 15, 2007)
Gunnar Caspbury's Standing O
by M.K. Laughlin
Gunnar Caspbury stood on the edge of a subway platform with other early-bird commuters, waiting for approaching train lights to appear in the dark tunnel. The misty fall morning marked his sixty-fourth birthday; also the due date for his rent, the anniversary of his dog's death, and the aftermath of yet another Yankee gangbang of a Red Sox postseason. Those strangers around Gunnar who happened to look up thought idly that the faded old man in the discount suit perhaps might throw himself onto the tracks. He had the aura of a jumper about him, the look of a man ready to end things.

But when the train arrived it came to a mangle-free stop and a nearby accountant hoping for a delay cursed silently as Gunnar, unquestioning end product of inbred Catholic stock, simply stared at the cars. Gunnar knew which rules he could bend. Some, like the Don't Kill rule (which he broke once in a Vietnamese rice paddy) and the Don't Patronize Gay Whorehouses rule (which he broke frequently in downtown Boston) could be absolved with a last minute deathbed apology. Other rules, like the Don't Consummate Relationships With Subway Trains No Matter How Much Life Sucks rule, bought non-refundable tickets to hell.

So Gunnar plodded to an empty window seat on the train. And had an idea.

It came suddenly, complete and infallible and instantly accepted by his eager brain, and from that point on he rode to what had just become his last day on the job with a smile bursting the seams of his normally flaccid face. An elderly lady en route to her bi-yearly perm job happened to look up and thought worriedly that the leering old man in the discount suit perhaps might drop his pants. He had the aura of a flasher about him, the look of a man on the cusp of satisfaction.

The bank was quiet in the seven o'clock gloom of the city, the entrance draped with winos seeking the heat of its grates. Gunnar nudged them aside to enter the bank, inhaling Mad Dog and a urine/armpit combo stench. One of the winos was about to wake up with a massive hangover. The other had once been a trucker before he started supplementing his speed intake with meth. Both chose the bank locale as their morning hangout because the branch manager sometimes gave them muffins. But not today.

"You're late," the branch manager said to Gunnar, who grunted and nodded and headed to the vault to help open the double-controlled lock. He made a point to smile at the security cameras nesting on the ceiling. After today their tapes would be scrutinized, most probably by the muffin-generous bank manager. The MGBM had a harelip scar and a deep dislike of dogs, small children, and gays. Gunnar knew all this, and had wanted to donkey punch him in the back of the head for years.

But his new idea promised to be much better than a mere physical blow.

Inside the vault was dark and serene, almost mysteriously so, like the interior of a hidden treasure cave. Gunnar opened up several of the six-foot steel safes that housed the bank's cash supply, revealing thick solid stacks of money, counted and banded and grouped together by denomination in dirty-mint clusters of wealth. Ten of the bills in the stack had been deposited by the winner of a bet, a middle-aged lawyer whose belief in his ability to chug down a Scorpion bowl in under three minutes paid off big time. One of the bills bore a hand-drawn stickman in the right hand corner, penned by a bored high school sophomore who was later decapitated in a drunk driving accident.

Gunner picked up one of the money stacks, appreciating the compact weight of forty thousand dollars cash. Usually he felt nothing but resentment when he handled the money but this morning there was a jittery optimism as well.

Brett and Jenny found him grinning, gripping the cash between his hands like a football.

"Gunnar!" Brett exclaimed, high-pitched and nasal. "You're not supposed to handle the money like that!" Gunnar scowled, and Brett sneered, and both wondered if the other knew they occasionally frequented the same bars; Gunnar had seen pretty-boy Brett grinding in cages with fit young men he didn't have to pay for, and Brett had observed the old man vomiting into a shot glass after one too many rounds of Jack.

"Relax boys," Jenny told them. She stood taller than either man, had black hair and blue eyes and a very pretty set of breasts many customers had difficulty looking away from. She also had a sick mother in an assisted living facility and a tendency to make mistakes when she counted out small change.

"But you're not supposed to do that!" Brett whined. "If you crush the edges of the bills it makes it so much harder to feed through the counters."

"Gunnar can do what he wants." Jenny smiled. "Besides, it's his birthday today."

"Is it really?" Brett asked prissily. His voice had perpetuated negative stereotypes on more than one occasion. "Happy birthday, then!"

Jenny handed Gunnar a slightly smashed cupcake, frosted in red and dotted with pink sprinkles. "I hope you don't mind me announcing that," she said. "It's on the calendar in the employee lounge. And my mother makes really good cupcakes, so I figured why not?" Gunnar winked at her. He hadn't received a birthday cupcake in decades; by default, she earned temporary status on his Favorite Things list, just above reality television and just below good wine.

Jenny felt delighted with the wink. She had convinced herself that Gunnar the Head Teller was a lonely old romantic at heart, with secrets to tell and a dead widow somewhere in the wings. She had obsessed over his birthday cupcake with a fervor that was ninety percent pure intentions, ten percent extra hormones courtesy of her impending period.

Brett and Jenny exited the main vault while Gunnar grabbed up stacks of cash to bring out to the teller line. No one was around to notice that he grabbed more hundred dollar bills than usual — to be precise, ten bricks of hundred dollar bills, equaling out to one hundred thousand dollars. Bank policy set a teller's drawer limit at thirty thousand to cut down on large cash losses in the event of robbery. With a final sneer at the cameras, Gunnar headed to his place behind the front counter for the last time.

The day started off with the usual scurrying rush of bike messengers and tradesmen depositing cash into business accounts. These harried ones didn't want chitchat or lollipops or complicated transactions, and followed a militaristic routine: wait in line, go to next available teller, hand over money, nod head, evacuate bank. There were others, of course. The pasty man with the green backpack wanted to deposit all the cash he'd skimmed the night before working overtime at the local Gas'N'Stuff truck stop. Behind him, a college co-ed with an ugly purple-red dye job needed seven hundred dollars in cash to pay for an abortion. At the rear of the line a hyper six-year-old waited with Mom to cash in a savings bond his perpetually AA-ing grandfather had given him as a very late birthday present.

Gunnar went through nearly forty people without making eye contact. He repeatedly said "Thanks for banking with us!" and repeatedly thought "Almost time almost time almosttime."

He was waiting for ten-fifteen. At ten-fifteen he'd casually grab his moneybag and go stock up the ATM machines with cash, at which point the ATMs would get an unofficial upgrade. Instead of filling the machines with twenties, Gunnar planned to stuff them with hundreds and then disable the computer that kept track of the withdrawals. Any passing patron who used the ATMs would receive five times what they requested, completely and utterly and untraceably for free. All day, something for nothing for anybody with a bankcard.

And then if he made it to the end of the day without anyone blowing the whistle Gunnar planned to go home and get drunk — there was one remaining bottle of quality wine in his cabinets — and see how long it took the police to arrive. After that, he'd ride his one-way ticket to country-club prison, where health care was free, meals were consistent, and a built-in family of white collar, female-starved gentlemen was ready to offer friendship (in fact, at that moment there was a man in the state's white-collar detention center who would make a very suitable match with Gunnar. His name was Oliver Cottage. He had bilked the Jimmy Fund out of a half-million dollars and enjoyed wine, Michael Crichton novels, and being ploughed by gentle older men).

It was a good plan, Gunnar told himself. He'd be able to kick back and relax and wait for death with an on-call Catholic priest nearby, handy for those last-minute confessions. Fifteen minutes to go.

Gunnar blindly continued to run through transactions at his station, ignoring Brett and Jenny and his increasingly jittery nerves. He concentrated instead on the single moms and starving artists and good-hearted college kids he was soon going to rescue from financial insecurity. Perhaps they'd thank God for their good luck, and God would listen, and all those brownie points would help to further mitigate all the murder and the anal sex on Gunnar's permanent record.

Caught up with his thoughts, Gunnar didn't pay particular attention when a certain customer pushed paper across his counter. It took him a few moments to process what was happening; namely, the paper wasn't a deposit slip or a check. It was a note.

"Empty your drawers," it read in black block letters. "I have a gun."

Gunnar's stomach froze like it did during his army career, and that time his father caught him with that naked picture of John and Yoko with the Yoko cut out. He reread the note and looked up at his robber: a big man, shiny-bald and very pale, with a barbed-wire tattoo snaking across his knuckles. His eyes belonged on a reptile. Gunnar remembered similar sets of eyes snipering behind rifle sights in steaming jungles of rain.

The man really did have a gun. He also had a substantial gambling debt to pay off courtesy of the goddamned Red Sox and a small tumor in the motor cortex of his brain.

Now Gunnar, according to bank policy, had one choice: hand over the money. Quickly. Quietly. Don't be a hero. But bank policy didn't take into account the hefty payload in Gunnar's drawer, earmarked for The Idea and not some crazy-eyed punk. More importantly, Gunnar didn't care about being shot. In fact he had entertained robbery fantasies (always ending with his heroic, day-saving death) even more than he flirted with the train. After all, Death by Robber wasn't a mortal sin. And he had just been to Confession the Sunday prior.

"Fuck you!" Gunnar spat at Crazy Eyes, who blinked in surprise. "I'm not giving you a damned cent." Crazy Eyes pulled aside his David Ortiz sweatshirt to reveal the butt of the gun. The gambling debts were a huge problem for him. The tumor was still an undiscovered secret.

"Go for it," Gunnar challenged, mentally crossing himself, wondering what kind of gun the man had. It wouldn't have to be particularly accurate. There was nothing between the two but a counter. No glass, no bars. Renovations to add both were slated for the following month.

"Last warning," the robber said calmly. His head hurt. There were two guys at his apartment waiting to bash his kneecap in.

"Take your best shot," Gunnar dared. Crazy Eyes decided to fire a warning shot above Gunnar's head. But at that precise moment the undetected tumor sent a freak impulse through his motor cortex, causing an involuntary jerk in the hand muscles.

The bullet missed Gunnar by a good foot as screams erupted around him, high-pitched compliments to the sharp cough of the shot. Brett hit the floor, thinking of his little sister and Cute Phil. A glass lamp exploded. In his office nearby the muffin-generous branch manager wet his pants, and later that night his wife would see it and once again consider leaving the cowardly son of a bitch. Gunnar himself remained standing and unscathed. After a long few moments the would-be bank robber sprinted for the door and kicked it open, disappearing into the misty morning rain. It was the last time he'd be able to run for a long while, but on the bright side doctors would later discover the tumor while taking care of his broken nose and shattered kneecap.

Gunnar turned around, a perfect mixture of rage, incredulity, and excitement. Jenny lay at his feet. There was a little red hole just above her heart and a growing red pool spreading beneath her back — earthy maroon red, not like the cartoon red of the birthday cupcake. He wondered if she saw a light at the end of a tunnel. He'd wondered a similar thing after killing the solider in the rice paddy (in fact, neither of the two saw the light. The solider has died trying to come up with a word to match the taste in his mouth and Jenny simply saw Gunnar's rapidly fading face).

Brett pumped frantically at her pretty chest as she gurgled blood, and later he'd tell his boyfriend (Cute Phil) that he had touched a girl's breast and then collapse into tears, and Cute Phil would hold him and recommend counseling for post-traumatic stress disorder.

The branch manager refused to leave his office. The stain on his fly was noticeable and pungent. Jenny took one last breath and died with her eyes open. They didn't close until the mortician glued them shut two days later.

A fourth-year medical student waiting to re-set her ATM password to a number she could remember vaulted over the counter and assisted Brett with the CPR. One of her nails broke. It pissed her off because by this point, the compressions were clearly for show and not purpose.

Gunnar continued to stare. The customers who tentatively picked their heads up to look around thought distractedly that the old man with the tears in his eyes would collapse to the floor, clutching at the upper section of his left arm. He had the aura of a coronary about him. But Gunnar didn't collapse. Instead he strode purposefully to his vault and spun the dial with practiced ease. "She's gone," he muttered. The med student with the broken nail looked at him sympathetically. "My fault," he muttered, taking the sack of hundred dollar bills from the vault. Brett heard him and felt a bewildering urge to hug the old man. "But it doesn't change things!" Gunnar shouted. He dashed for the exit, money clutched to his chest.

A black-and-white cruiser pulled up to the bank minutes later. Two officers sprang forth and attempted to push their way through the tightly-packed crowd, filled not with faux-horrified rubber-neckers trying to gawk at a crime scene, but instead with cheering, clapping, grinning people. The homeless meth-addicted former trucker with the armpit/urine stench was among them, wondering what he had done to deserve such good fortune.

For at the middle of the crowd danced Gunnar, crazy-eyed, flinging money into the air like mint-colored parade confetti.

"Something for everyone!" he cried, as the officers approached with their guns drawn, fighting the urge to grab at the bills.

"Put your hands up!"

"Something for everyone! Something for nothing! Someone should be a winner, goddammit!"

The police cuffed him and loaded him into the black-and-white as more squad cars pulled up, and the crowd gave Gunnar a standing ovation as he wept in the backseat and screamed for a priest. Across town in an assisted living facility Jenny's mother decided to get up and have another cupcake. Far away in country-club prison Oliver Cottage shivered in anticipation and did not know why.

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