Vincent Craig Wright
Wasn’t long before we needed a code.
“Ethics,” Amber said, “For some stuff.”
Like kid shit.
Even if it’s what people wanted she didn’t feel good about bikes and toys any more.
Riding around in my old Silverado we’d grab all we could, but we’d started considering our approach, making notes on come-backs, keeping up with what come in/went out on our tablet we got off a table at the mall food court, “Next level,” she said. Now she wanted to figure out how to not feel bad.
So we left off kid stuff.
Also, Amber realized a target of 300 dollars a day (up from 200) gave us weekends off.
“Fifteen hundred a week, fifty weeks,” she said, “Two weeks vacation.”
“Vacation from stealing,” I said.
She gave me her look and I knew. She said, “Seventy-five thou a year.”
“From stealing.” I said.
She did her regenerating, repurposing, as radical as we could get under the radar shit. Off the grid. Next level.
Up to then the hard part wasn’t trying to not get caught as much as knowing what to say when people asked what we did so we hung a wouldn’t-work-weed-eater and rusty rakes on the truck and became D and D Landscaping.
When I asked what the D’s stood for she said make up something.
Best I come up with was Down and Dirty.
Clyde Tonkin took in pretty much anything we brought for ten cents on the dollar.
The Martins picked through for a quarter, and come off thirty, thirty-five, on special request items.
“That time a year,” Mr. Martin told us last time we dropped off three chainsaws we got off the back of a pickup at the Rest Area. “Canoe weather. They sell better life jackets, paddles and all.”
The first time we got offered to rake around Pizza Hut I told Amber a little exercise and honest money wouldn’t hurt and she said once we went down that road.
She said, “Work’s where I got my gun. That shit’s traceable.”
Helping her mom clean houses back in the day, Amber took this old woman’s pistol out a box of Tide.
“Powder-covered zip-lock.” Amber said, “Looked like evidence.”
“Kinda is,” I said.
She said, “I don’t mean on me.”
I met Amber when she broke up with this Iranian dude.
He was just American-Iranian. He liked the Clippers and lifeguarded where Amber was working on a bikini contest she never entered. They started messing around in the ladies locker room after the pool closed is all there was to it the way she told me.
She said it wasn’t fun after a week but he still thought it was.
She said she hung in a few more days until the smell of chlorine and piss and that dude made it physically impossible to even lay out any more much less go back in the locker room.
She said it wasn’t racial because black, white, Iranian, happens every time, and for all she knew he might not be Iranian but Iraqian or Italian the more she thought about it.
“He’s more Iranian in my memory’s why I say that,” she said. “It started with a fucking ‘I.’”
When it’s hot and rains, they go away if you look at them, but if it’s hot and raining and you’re walking from your ride to Wal-Mart you’re walking through little rainbows.
And later in the sun the diamond thing happens and you feel rich.
Before I met Amber I didn’t think about shit like that.
I wanted beer, codeine and shotgun shells.
On-sale toilet paper.
It was kind’ve raining so the rainbows might’ve been there but I hadn’t met her and I almost walked right past this manager-dude telling a hottie in a Tool t-shirt how she couldn’t be selling kittens.
“Not mine,” she kept saying.
“Whatever, ma’am,” he’d say, “Not allowed,”
Her sign said Not Free and at the bottom in parenthesis was (Small Rehoming Donation Encouraged).
A calico and two black kittens tumbled the box.
“Ma’am I really have to ask you, and them, to leave.”
I guess I’d been watching.
She handed me the whole thing and said meet her at Macdonald’s in an hour.
I saw it as a chance to get laid.
Me and the kittens went to the park and I put them on the wet slide and they wouldn’t make it all the way down.
When we got to Macdonald’s she was sitting on the curb in pilot sunglasses twirling a whistle.
I’m free she said. I thought for the day but she meant then on.
We dropped off the kittens at the humane society and fucked in the car on the side of the road because it’s where we were.
She told me her boyfriend wasn’t her boyfriend any more especially now.
At the time I was still living in The One-Room House.
It backed up to a place people dropped off paint, oil, and old appliances.
Shit that made good targets.
After six we’d grab anything we could shoot. A washing machine one time. Fire extinguisher, a bucket of cooking grease, we didn’t give a damn.
Blowing up a picture of a sunset one night, Amber, shooting in the same tone she talked, said, “There’s enough time on movies and tv nobody has to die,” she said, “Save a lot of sadness.”
I told her people like that.
“They don’t give no choice,” she said, “Sad music comes on and here the fuck we go.”
She had the idea of us dressing like river-guides, wore her regular shorts and bikini top and I had my red swimsuit from since I was fourteen.
She gave me a tube of sunscreen for my face and told me not to rub it in. “That ounce of prevention shit.”
I told her some shows like sit-coms off-set sadness and she said that shit’s saddest of all.
I said maybe I knew what she meant because I used to laugh every time the laugh track laughed, just as hard and long, until I got tired.
We planned to walk up like we were borrowing the canoe. Wasn’t much we could do if somebody pulled up or walked out, but we did what we could timing wise and hoped for the best.
We’d driven by enough to know this old silver Jetta came and went and a 4Runner sat there nights.
Amber said, “Accessories in the boat, everything in the truck, then down to Texaco, tie it down and straight to the Martin’s.”
Which was about fifteen miles.
“Further we get from the vicinity the better,” Amber said.
When I was seven I walked out of Safeway with a box of Nerds.
Mom wouldn’t buy them and everyone had them.
We were in the checkout and I saw no one saw. In their world saying what they say in the loud lights up there.
I went for speed over deception. Grabbed the box of Nerds and stuck them deep down my pants and it felt good and didn’t feel bad later. I didn’t confess or go back to the store all guilty. I enjoyed each one and ate them when I wanted.
She was being so quiet I knew she wanted to talk.
Sat that way forever, then asked, “What if we sell the shit our selves?”
She’d always said we needed to keep that buffer I told her.
“That’s the tricky part,” she said.
I told her life gets tricky.
She said, “Like I hate guns but love mine.”
Smith and Wesson chrome .38.
She’ll get it out and point at herself in the mirror but keeps it unloaded and makes sure each time by shooting six times at the floor.
The guy next door always has a different dog barking at you with the same personality.
Amber says it’s not the dogs, it’s the guy.
Every time you talk to him though he’s got a different personality.
Amber says that’s what she means.
Only thing Amber hates worse than her name is when I call her something else.
“Ain’t no fucking Ambi,” or whatever. Says I remind her how much she hates Amber but she’ll let me call her baby if it doesn’t sound like I’m trying to avoid.
Amber decided she wanted to try her pistol but we’d always used my dad’s old twenty gauge.
“No point having it don’t shoot it,” she said and I could see that.
I could also see how it’d get good to her when she hit the first thing she shot at, a cracked Coors mirror.
Reloading, with that whole box of bullets left, she said, “We’ll need more ammo.”
I told her how I stole that box of Nerds and after I ate one of each color I knew I’d need more.
“You think that candy’s like bullets,” she said and started back in, shooting faster like on tv.
“I never stole anything else until I met you,” I said.
And she reloaded again.
Told me when she was thirteen her uncle showed her pictures on the internet, gave her two cups of wine and her first bong hit then tried to kiss her.
“I stabbed him in the arm with a pencil, got a vein or something so he had to go to the hospital and made up some story how he did it sitting down on the couch and we never looked at each other the same.”
When I asked did he ever try anything else she said no but she did.
And she shot the next six like each shot was a word at me from a sentence I ought to already know.
I didn’t want to hear the whole thing but wanted to know what happened.
“He didn’t come around anymore and when he did like a year later I’d been feeling bad I stabbed him.”
I felt like I was listening with my whole body.
“He got cuter and we never were related by blood.”
I told her I didn’t want to hear this part.
“I didn’t really fuck him or anything,” she said.
We left the whole story half-finished and that word ‘really’ I’ve spent a lot of time hanging on.
Sometimes I’d finish the story in my head.
She told me he has four daughters and two wives, how one’s his ex but he don’t act like it everybody says.
The couple times she was around his daughters Amber encouraged sluttiness, “Just something I noticed,” she said.
As soon as we walked into the garage a blue Camry pulled up blocking us in.
At first they didn’t notice us, two ladies in the front seat focused on the front door of the house, and I thought maybe they’d back out and drive off. Then Amber walked out with a big smile and a wave like we owned the place.
One woman seemed delighted, one confused.
The passenger, the delighted one, rolled down her window and said, “We’re a little early,” or something.
She and Amber talked and next thing I know Amber’s showing them her bicep and I’m wondering what the fuck while they back out and pull in front of the house.
Amber stooped and pulled a weed like we owned the place and told me in a loud quiet voice, “Hurry the fuck up. They’re meeting Denise here in ten minutes.”
We loaded up the canoe with paddles and life jackets and a Skil saw Amber grabbed at the last second and we pulled out, Amber smiling, pointing at her muscle and waving.
When we got down the street I asked.
“From paddling,” she said. “We’re borrowing the canoe for a mellow trip.”
“You got paddling arms?”
“To them ladies I do,” she said.
And it was true. She could tell anybody anything.
“They only got to believe a little while,” she said.
One dog next door didn’t bark. Before you knew it he’d be there smelling your crotch.
Amber said, “I hate dogs with their tails straight up,” when she pet him.
We figured he stuck around longer because he didn’t bark. Amber’d put out water in an old Country Crock container, give him a piece of cheese.
But one day he was gone, too.
Amber said, “Every time I quit hating something it disappears.”
Just when I thought she’d reload and fire off the whole box she laid her gun on the lawn chair and went inside.
I got everything together and went in and she had on the tv but wasn’t watching I could tell how she stared in.
She said, “I was trying to sell them.”
I didn’t know what the hell.
“Those kittens. I was asking for a rehoming fee if anyone wanted them.”
“Your sign said free. I go with what’s in writing.”
“I’m trying to tell you what was on my heart. I told this lady who was giving them away they were for my kids. Then I tried selling them, then we left them at the pound.”
“That ain’t the pound.”
“To them kittens it is.”
“I’m sure they ended up in good homes like you said.”
“It ain’t about that. It’s about me. How I do shit like that. What the fuck kind’ve person am I?” She asked.
When we got there Mr. Martin got picky.
He said people don’t pay a premium on the used boats.
“It’s what you ordered, delivered,” Amber said.
And it was.
And he’d never been this way before.
I got to thinking it wasn’t about the canoe when Mrs. Martin come through with salt and pepper shakers, one in each hand, like she was seasoning the place. The way she didn’t say anything said a lot I told Amber later.
“Yea, well I don’t let personal shit interfere with business. Lost a lot of respect for both of them,” she said.
It got apparent he wasn’t going to buy the canoe for close to what he’d said because of something they’d argued about and Mrs. Martin wasn’t leaving the room, or saying anything, until the whole thing transpired.
What did transpire was Amber said, “We’ll take it back,” which stopped everything because nobody’d heard of that in the adult world.
But it’s what we did.
Nobody was home but didn’t matter to Amber if they had been.
“We borrowed the wrong canoe. Once we got down the road, way before we got in the water, we realized and are now bringing it back unharmed.”
We kept waiting for the neighbor’s new dog.
Wasn’t one though.
Also, the woman across the street changed her whole yard over from grass to some kind’ve southwest desert looking thing.
And they were building a convenience store, not a 7/11, like a mile away.
“Changing’s easy,” she said. “You don’t have to do nothing. Staying the same’s hard.”
Didn’t seem like it for us. Seemed like that’s all we did for a while, stay the same.
Then Amber found Jesus.
“I don’t want this gun anymore,” she said one night, “But it’s found its home.”
“You need a dog,” I said.
She said, “I need to shoot something.”
I told her it was late and we left it at that.
The very next morning we were leaving Safeway and in the field across the street this little brown dog chased a bird hopping and flying enough to lead him along.
We sat in the car and watched like we did that sort’ve thing all the time, didn’t say anything.
Bur the bird flew straight toward us then over us and the puppy, we could see it was a puppy, ran straight for the road and before I knew it Amber was out of the car and running for the dog and a white van hit its brakes and two cars blew their horns but she kept running and so did the dog like he’d been running for her all along and like she’d been running for him all along and when they came together I knew.
She named him Jesus because he saved her she said. She said we had to return the Skil saw we’d decided to keep out of the canoe. We needed to return her gun. She said we needed to figure out a whole new way.
She said, “I think that’s what Mrs. Martin seen coming for us.”
But we didn’t do any of those things.
After two days I came home from the new store’s grand opening and she’d given the neighbor the dog.
She said how you can’t fight the life you have. “I ain’t a dog-owner,” she said.
“What then?” I said.
“I need to get things out my system.”
What she meant was she wanted us to try robbing something.
“Or somebody,” she said.
So we went robbing. That same day.
And it was the easiest thing in the world. People see a gun and they’ll do anything for you. Unless they freak out. This one lady fucking freaked in the Target parking lot so Amber started saying, first thing, “We’re nice people, not going to hurt you.”
Thing is hardly anybody had much cash and we were scared to use their credit cards or bankcards or whatever.
“I wasn’t doing it for the money,” she said and the next morning before we woke up the police banged on the door so loud you could hear Jesus barking next door.
I could see police at the back door too.
They took us away.
Nobody got us out on bail so we sat in jail until court and never saw each other.
We had different court attorneys and I found out from mine she was testifying against me so I saw her that one day and she never looked at me.
I got six years and she got three.
One day I got this letter from her.
Said she had an extra year for messing around with a guard but when she got out she wanted to find us a place and come visit me and did I ever think about us moving far away if we could get our parole worked out.
She’s married now though.
Turns out she met somebody the first week she was out.
I get out next month and will move to a place they’ll let me but also of my own choosing. I want a motorcycle and a dog.
I want to send her this letter I wrote but don’t know where.
Vincent Craig Wright is a short story writer and songwriter from Ashland Oregon. Professor of Creative Writing at Southern Oregon University, Craig’s stories have recently appeared in SleetMagazine, BlazeVox, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Fourteen Hills, Solstice, Bookends Review, and two in The Harvard Advocate. Craig's book of stories, Redemption Center is with Bear Star Press and two songs with Megatrax and one with BMG. He has headlined the Oregon Country Fair with members of The Grateful Dead and received numerous teaching awards.