Harry Rabinowitz switched the alarm off before it could ring, and lay in the darkness. Go to a bank and get some money. But his firm command did little to dissipate his reluctance. After a few moments he got out of bed, felt his body ache with the effort of standing erect, and slowly walked to the bathroom just outside the bedroom door. Becky continued to snore.
Before turning on the light, Harry took his false teeth from the glass of water where they had been soaking and slipped them into his mouth. He preferred doing this in the dark even though once he had accidentally chosen Becky's teeth. It had been an unpleasant experience, but looking at his collapsed face in the mirror was even worse.
Not such a bad looking guy, old but distinguished, he imagined people thinking as he looked in the mirror. People said that he looked younger than seventy-seven, and he was pleased to agree with them. Becky simply looked old; nothing like in their wedding pictures.
He urinated. It happens to the best of us, and she was once the best.
Then, stripping off the underwear he had slept in, and adjusting the shower curtain on its sagging support, he turned the water on--his building's water heater worked again--and washed off the dried perspiration and the thin layer of grime that had accumulated on his body over the past several days.
Without conscious thought he made sure not to splash any water on the cracked part of the shower wall that he had inadequately covered with masking tape. The landlord had often promised to fix up the apartment, but it never happened. Harry had too many things on his mind to start another struggle. No matter what he thought about, everything funneled eventually to the reality that he would have to get some money.
It was nice to shave.
Finished with cleaning himself, he turned away from the bedroom where Becky was still snoring, and walked through the living-room. Its furniture was almost as old as he, furniture that had been dragged from apartment to apartment as the size of his family changed with births and deaths. Only Max, their oldest, was still alive.
Painful memories fluttered into Harry's mind; he could not totally suppress them. The furniture, especially in the early morning, had the power to drag into his awareness how cruel his life had been. The sofa still had the marks where Samuel, these many years dead, had tried to pick the flowers from the fabric. And Harry could not keep from sliding his fingers along the surface of the credenza, to feel the dents that Ruth had made with a toy hammer. She had been bewildered and frightened by his anger, and he continued to curse himself for caring so much about a piece of furniture that he had lost his temper and upset that poor sweet child.
"My life is over," Becky had screamed. "God hates me. I hate God."
Harry had not escaped her helpless rage. "It's your fault!" she would tell him over and over, desperately trying to absolve herself of the guilt she felt for agreeing to send them to summer camp where they had both drowned, Samuel trying to rescue Ruth who had tumbled into the water.
The trip to the kitchen, encompassing all that anguish, was short. Harry turned on the light; its naked bulb produced harsh shadows, gave everything a yellow tone. The roaches that lived with them had already begun to scatter at the sound of his approach, so that when the light went on he saw only two rushing away, one under the stove and the other under the refrigerator.
There are fewer of those sons-of-bitches. At last, some success in my life, he thought, remembering the roach traps he had spread around the kitchen.
A dented tea kettle sat on the stove with enough water in it so that he didn't have to fill it. After igniting the burner, he put some instant oatmeal into a cracked bowl and got some cream cheese and bagels out of the refrigerator that had started to groan with the effort of keeping its contents edible.
Harry sat at the old kitchen table while waiting for the water to boil so he could make his oatmeal and instant coffee. The bagel and cream cheese were a treat to be enjoyed at the end of breakfast; he had time to think about which bank he might visit to get the money they needed to keep going. He had retired after forty years with General Grinding, Inc., expecting that his pension would make their old age palatable. But the company's officers had run off to Brazil with the retirement fund, and Harry and Becky had become poor. Their son, Max, had moved out and made it clear not to expect anything from him.
The toilet flushed, interrupting his reverie. Becky was awake and would shuffle into the kitchen in a few minutes. He busied himself with setting a place for her.
"Good morning, sweetheart," Harry said, "the water'll boil soon. Sit and have a bagel."
Becky frowned at the cups he had placed on the table. Without comment, she put them back into the closet and replaced them with two others, indelibly stained from thousands of fillings. Her dingy gray hair lay flat on her head like an old cap, its shape only a vague memory of the beauty parlor. She still had sleep on her wrinkled and tired face, and she moved with all the aches and pains to which her age entitled her.
"When will you remember that we don't use guest cups for every day?"
"Sorry, my dear.... I'm trying to decide which bank to go to and thought we might celebrate a little. Maybe I'll get a little extra this time, we should be able to go to a restaurant, maybe."
Before Becky could respond, the kettle began to whistle. She poured the boiling water into his bowl of instant oats and added water to his coffee cup. He ate silently. She watched him for a moment and then made some toast for herself.
"A restaurant is a nice idea," she said, as if there had been no gap in the conversation. "But how much money will you get?"
Harry disliked such questions. He hated lengthy discussions with her about banks because she thought that getting the money was easy. Becky thought all he had to do was ask. It was more complicated than that.
After several more spoonfuls of oatmeal he finally said, "Who knows? Everything depends on the bank and how they run it. I'll ask for the money, but who knows how much I'll get? Have you heard anything from Max?"
Becky began to cry. He reached forward with his handkerchief to try to dry her face.
"I'm sorry," Harry said, "don't cry. I'm sorry that I mentioned his name. He's such a.... I don't know what he is." But he knew exactly what his son was and cursed himself for bringing up his name. It was always impossible to predict Becky's mood. His shift away from the discussion about money had simply started a more unpleasant one.
"You shouldn't hate him," Becky said, as she jerked her head back from his attempt to dry her face. "He's all we have left. Ever since they... they... Oh God, how could you take those sweet babies from me."
Harry sagged back into his chair. He had learned to remain quiet until her moods ran their course. You stupid bitch. You are too dumb to live. Look at what you've done to him, with your carrying on.
His stomach tightened. The first tendrils of heartburn grew in his chest. How could Max be a man? You let him steal, and when he knocked up little Gladys you swore that she had finagled him into bed. Ah, what's the use. Poor Becky. She can't help herself... look what she got left. Just me, an old goniff, and a miserable son. She got a right to complain.
Becky cried and cried, and then, with a bitter, "You don't care, do you," went back to the bedroom to cry herself to sleep.
Harry waited until he could hear her snoring again and then went to his closet and examined the contents of the new bowling ball bag hidden behind a pile of old clothing. He hadn't bowled in years; the bag was for other things. After taking some antacid, he left the apartment.
Am I so different from Max? he wondered, standing in front of his walkup apartment house. Rush-hour traffic had not yet started, and he enjoyed the quiet solitude. He could hear the leaves rustle in the wind; there was a fresh quality to the breeze. Later there would be lots of cars making noise, fouling the air with their exhaust, dirtying everything with the oily residue of their combustion.
Harry's son had become a bookie, taking small bets in the back of Moskowitz's florist shop. He don't want to work and I can't. Ah. It all comes down to the same thing. Poor is poor.... Brazil. Those momsers, they ran to Brazil. They have my money, with all that coffee, and naked girls at Mardi Gras... and safe from justice. God. God. They should only have an interesting death.
He went to the luncheonette around the corner to buy a newspaper and have some coffee where Becky couldn't interrupt .
"Hello Mr. Rabinowitz. So, how are you this gorgeous morning?"
"Abie, how do you want me to be? I'll satisfy your every desire. Meanwhile, a cup of coffee, please, black. Uh, also the yellow pages, if you don't mind."
He sat at a table away from the front door and found BANKS in the directory. Nothing too large. "Big ones have too many people. If I approach the wrong one, who knows what'll happen."
Flies buzzed around his head, swooping down to nibble on some crumbs missed in the hurried wipe-up at closing time. Harry absently brushed them away as he tried to decide. A pleasant, family bank was what he wanted, a long distance away. Abruptly, he closed the telephone book and checked the ball scores in the newspaper. "METS LOSE ONE-HITTER," the headline told him. He added more sugar to his coffee.
"Hi, pop." Max had come in for his morning Danish and coffee, and joined his father.
"So, are you making money on the Mets," the old man asked. "I hope so, because if you can't give us some money, I'm going to have to go to a bank." It was an old irony that had never struck home.
"Ah, pop, you don't know what my expenses are. Sure I make money, but times are tough. You want to know what I give the cops? Just so I can stay in business? And the presents I have to give regular customers? And paying those goddamn kids so they shouldn't bother me? And the hard guys? Don't even think about them."
Harry knew all this by heart. The package sometimes changed, but the garbage always smelled the same.
"Anyway, pop, you've got all that money in all those banks. Why the hell don't you live a little? Take Mom on a trip. Enjoy. Just don't spend it all. I'm looking forward to a little inheritance." Max smiled. "How much do you have salted away, anyway?"
"As far as you're concerned, nothing. Get a job, get married, then maybe we'll talk about inheritances."
"So long, pop. I don't want the lecture." Max stuffed the rest of the Danish into his mouth and drank the last of his coffee, mashing it all into a semi-liquid consistency that he could swallow. "Give my love to mom." Max walked out, pointing to his father so that Abie would understand that Harry was to pay.
"I'm going tomorrow," Harry said when he returned home. "The bank's in Queens, so I'll be home late."
"It's about time," Becky yelled, moving the vacuum cleaner back and forth across the carpeting. "Make sure you don't get too much." Becky didn't want Max's inheritance to dwindle to nothing.
The next morning Harry walked to the subway. He had chosen a bank in Queens that would take him about and hour and a half to reach. It was an easy trip because everyone was going in the opposite direction, toward Manhattan where they worked. Later they would rush home to dinner and to lawns that needed their loving care, but Harry would be back well before then.
What will they say when I ask for the money? He imagined their faces filled with astonishment and then rage as the enormity of his request overwhelmed them. What will they do?
Oblivious to his surroundings, Harry strolled past the bank with his new plastic bowling ball bag in hand. Walking several blocks further on, he came to a small park. There were some bicycles carelessly dropped on the sidewalk, their young owners playing ball. Harry sat on a rickety old bench provided by the city, and, fumbling in the bowling ball bag, found his pocket knife. Bending over as if looking for something, he punctured the tires of all the bicycles except one. Getting on the one he had spared, Harry sped off. The few passersby had hardly attended to his activities. After going around several corners, satisfied he was safe from pursuit, he began slowly working his way back toward the bank.
He began to breathe hard. "Oh God, I hate this. Why am I doing this? The hell with it, I'm going home." He started pedaling away from the bank, but then remembered the bills.
Those bastards. It's all their fault. The goddamned government, I should work so hard and have nothing, and they tell me about no extradition from Brazil. One of these days I'll go there and get those bastards. May they rot in Hell.
He headed back toward the bank. It was not at all imposing, living up to its advertising as "friendly."
The effort of the past twenty minutes had exhausted him. Body aches made any movement cruel. He sat on the bench provided by the bank's management until he recovered.
What a nice neighborhood. His heaving chest slowed, and he regained his strength, but the chest pain he would have to accept for a while. Thinking about Brazil, he put on his stocking cap bent over and went in, staggering as if in dire distress.
A woman got up from behind a desk and went over to him. "Mister, what's the matter? Are you all right?"
Without lifting his head Harry replied, "The bathroom. Where's the bathroom? I'll be all right. I just need to take some medicine."
"Come, this way," she said, taking his arm and leading him behind the teller's cages and through the door marked "Employees Only" to the bathroom reserved for the staff.
"Thank you. God bless you," Harry said. "I won't be long. Please wait. I'm not sure that I'll be able to find my way out."
"Oh," she said, when the door opened and she saw Harry coming out toward her, pointing a gun at her, his stocking cap rolled over his face so that she could only see his eyes through the holes cut in it. But the gun occupied her attention.
"This is a joke, mister. Right?"
Harry shoved the gun up to her face. "This is a stickup," he said. "Don't move and you won't get hurt." His voice was hoarse, as if in the grip of great passion, more menacing than the gun. She didn't realize his terror.
"I'm a desperate man, Madam. Don't force me to do anything that I'll later regret. We're going back into the bank. T-t-tell the t-t-tellers to give me their money. Turn around. Go."
By now Harry's hand was trembling violently, but she had turned at his command, tears streaming down her face; she could not see how frightened he was. The look in his eyes, seeming so murderous to her, only reflected the return of his heartburn.
With Harry at her back, the woman walked up to the first teller. "Marjorie," she said. "Clean out your drawer. Put the money into his bag."
When the teller, surprised, hesitated, Harry's hostage said more urgently, "For God's sake do, it. He'll kill me. Give him the money."
Mechanically, Marjorie scooped money into the bowling ball bag, some of it falling to the floor. No one noticed what was going on. With Marjorie staring at them they moved to the next teller and repeated the act.
Harry, now nauseated, said, "That's enough," and walking to the front of the teller's cages, shouted, "Everybody down! Lay down, everybody!"
The few customers stared at him, unmoving. Somebody said, "Is this some kind of a gag, mister?"
"Down, everybody!" Harry shouted again, and when no one moved, he fired into the ceiling. The snap of the twenty-two shocked them. Harry fired again, and they quickly lay down on the floor. "Fifteen minutes. Anybody sticks his head out before then, I blow it off. Got it?"
Harry's terror was gone; he had begun to enjoy the power of the moment. "Let me tell you, my friends, that I am a desperate man and desperate men are not to be trifled with," and with another shot into the ceiling he ran out of the bank. Outside, he quickly rolled his stocking cap up and shoved the gun into the bowling bag along with the money, got onto the bicycle, and pedaled to the subway station and safety. Another perfect crime.
Or so he thought. After six bank robberies in five years, he had finally made a mistake. The bowling ball bag sales slip, with his name and address neatly written on it, had fallen to the floor when he reached for the gun.
Harry opened the door of his apartment and called out, "I'm home." To his dismay, police rushed at him with pointed guns, shouting, "Drop it. Don't move. You're under arrest!"
Harry threw up.
The country fell madly in love with Harry after hearing his story about the stolen pension fund, the dead children, and how he had figured that going on welfare would be a disgrace. Becky's collapse further convinced everyone that he had suffered enough. A FREE RABINOWITZ NOW committee was formed and got him the best defense lawyer in the country. Harry was found guilty, but because no one had any inkling of his other crimes, he was given unsupervised probation. Television talk shows wanted to interview him, but Harry's agent turned them down and sold the movie rights for big bucks, plus royalties.
Later, during a quiet family moment, while Becky and Harry planned their trip to Brazil, Max was heard to say, "See pop, it really does pay."
Bertram Benmeyer is a retired clinical psychologist who has taken up writing in the last few years. He has published more than 20 short stories and articles and is currently working on a science fiction novel. He enjoys listening to jazz, blues, classical, and other music.