Forty Three.

Challenge.

Next morning, I woke to Joe grunting, a steady rhythm of “Uhn…Uhn…Uhn,” a familiar sound I hadn’t heard since prison. After a pause, the grunting started again. I didn’t feel the bed moving, so I assumed he was in the bathroom, and I tried to go back to sleep. But…, yeah…

So I faked a sleep-roll to face the bathroom door, then laid still. When I was sure he was still at it, I peeked. He was in there, and still grunting, but he wasn’t jerking off. He was doing pushups. I waited five minutes then pretended to wake up.

“Hey, Joe.”

“Hey. We should all go out for breakfast this morning.”

“Are you sure? Is everything cool?”

“Yeah, fine.” It wasn’t convincing, but it was a chance to get out of the room, so I agreed and went next door to check with Sadie and Jane.

At the diner, Joe and Sadie were civil, but didn’t talk much. We ate in near-silence and it wasn’t until we were finishing coffee that a real conversation started. Joe, who had forked his food and eaten little, looked over at Jane. “So, Jane…” He smiled.

“Yes Joe?” She lilted, trying to lighten the mood.

“I have a challenge for you.”

Sadie squinted. Jane moved up to the edge of her seat. “Do tell.”

“Walk into a place, right up to the register, take the money and walk out.” Joe leaned back and folded his arms.

Jane leaned back and let it sink in, but Sadie erupted, “Fuck you, Joe.” She glared at him, “Are you trying to get her caught?” She held her glare until Joe looked down.

“Now Sadie,” he said, leaning forward again and raising his eyes back to meet hers, “let Jane speak for herself.” He took a drink of coffee and glanced around the table, then back at Sadie. She was still glaring. He looked down at his coffee for a moment, then looked up at her and smiled. There was a glint in his eye I didn’t like.

“Fuck you, Joe.” Sadie didn’t like it either.

“It’s ok, Sadie. Really, it’s ok.” Jane held Sadie’s arm until Sadie looked at her, then she whispered again, “It’s ok.” As Jane caressed her forearm, Sadie’s posture relaxed. “I’m cool,” she said, smiling and gently removing Jane’s hand.

Jane looked at Joe. “So Joe, care to wager?”

I looked at Joe. He was smiling, but he wasn’t happy. “A wager, huh?” he nodded, leaned back, and folded his arms again. “What you got?”

“Sadie gets to choose.”

Joe smirked. “Didn’t she already?”

“Huh?”

“Nothing.” He smirked again. “What does Sadie choose?”

“She chooses the prize, of course,” she said with a giggle.

Joe looked at Sadie, then at me, then back at Jane, “Ok.”

“Jane, you don’t have to…”

“Sadie,” Jane touched Sadie’s arm again, “it’s ok. Joe just wants to play a little, spice things up a bit. It’s Ok.”

“Remember, though,” Joe wagged a finger, “no help from any of us.”

“No problem.” She wagged her finger back, “My target, though. Right?”

Sadie stood first, “I don’t like this.” She left the diner and walked back to the motel. I think she was angry at all of us. I followed her back, but I didn’t approach her. I just followed to make sure she was alright. I knew she could take care of herself, but I got a weird feeling whenever someone left the group. I wasn’t superstitious, but I had moments. My fear was more evolution than superstition anyway. There’s safety in numbers. Billy Boy was gone. We couldn’t risk losing another from the herd, especially not Sadie.

So I followed Sadie back and sat on the wall outside her room, contemplating the same old shit. I thought about the tattoo on Joe’s arm, the spiral getting smaller and smaller. Where does it end?

It wasn’t long before Joe and Jane arrived. They weren’t walking together, just in the same direction at the same time. Jane arrived first. “Hey, Quiet One.” She caressed my leg as she passed. Joe walked by and went to our room. I sat a while and stared at the mid-day sky.

I didn’t notice the clouds roll in, and I was still staring when the storm came. A crack of thunder shook me and a wave of water dumped from the gray sky. The heavy drops pelted the metal awning, and brought the thick smell of summer dirt as it washed to the gutter. The sky grew darker. When the streetlamps lit, I went inside.

The heavy rain continued through the next day, bringing somber feelings with it. We didn’t meet for breakfast. I stopped over to check on Sadie and Jane, but they didn’t want to go out. Jane was planning her caper and Sadie was helping with details, so I went back to my room and re-read Auden. Joe seemed to stare at the wall for hours. As soon as the rain stopped, he took a shower and said he’d be back later, said he was going to check on things. He didn’t elaborate and I didn’t ask.

While he was out, I checked on Sadie and Jane again. They seemed to be in better spirits.

“Hey, Quiet One.” Jane smiled, looking up from the table where she had her plans and diagrams spread out. It was the first time I noticed that she wore reading glasses. And I thought she couldn’t get any sexier. “Wanna see what I’ve got, big boy?” …Or any flirtier.

“Uhm, yes.” I didn’t really know what else to say. So, Jane shuffled the papers around to organize them, then explained the details and diagrams for her caper. When she finished, she smiled and said, “And that’s about it. What do you think?”

“Well, if anyone can do it…”

Jane sat straight and her face lit up, “Just the thought of it makes me tingle.”

“Uhm, yeah…, me too.” I felt shy saying it, but I couldn’t help it.

“I love being bad. Feels good.” I know she couldn’t help but to rub my shoulder as she said it.

Sadie stepped closer and squeezed my other shoulder, to wake me from Jane’s spell. “We need your help with this.”

Angelo’s Pub was small and smoky. It had a small bar down the middle, with stools and locals on one side, and booze and bartender on the other. Just past the small bar was a small pool table. There was a small jukebox in the corner.

It was a weeknight. I sat at the far end and ordered a beer. Three locals watched TV over my head. The bartender brought my beer. “Here you go, Mack.” He re-joined the locals, re-lit his cigar, looked at the TV.

A while later, another local joined the three at the bar. He was equal in age, wearing a flannel shirt and John Deere cap. When they asked about his crop and about something that sounded like farm equipment, I started to worry I was conspicuous. But a few minutes later another guy came in and the bartender called him “Mack,” too. He ordered a shot of whiskey, slammed it, bought cigarettes, and left. A while later, one of the original three left, too.

By midnight, I was on my third beer, one other “Mack” came through and one other regular. Neither stayed, though. Just long enough to grab a shorty and cigarettes. The locals still at the bar had to be drunk by now. Even the bartender, who was taking shots with them, was redder in the face.

At twelve-thirty, as planned, I got change for the jukebox and punched in Jane’s requests. First up was Patsy Cline. At the end of “Crazy,” I heard the front door open. I knew it was Jane. The door hung ajar with no sight of her. Then she stepped through to the opening chords of the Rolling Stones, “Playing with Fire.” She was wrapped in a motel bed sheet, that blew tight to her body from the draft in the doorway. When the door closed, she dropped the sheet. The men’s eyes glued to Jane’s body. The three at the bar kept their backs to her, but watched through the mirror behind the liquor.

Jane was covered in bronze glitter. She glowed in the dark bar. Her leg muscles sparkled as she stepped forward. She moved slowly to the cadence of the music, eyeing each man, then locking on the bartender, who was leaning on his stool, mouth agape, cigar hanging from the corner. She stroked each shoulder as she passed to the first empty stool, then climbed onto the bar with the ease of experience.

Jane crawled down the bar, passing close enough for each man to smell her skin. They stared as she passed, their eyes drawn to her glittering body like bugs to a lightbulb. When she got to the bartender she paused, then arched her back and leaned across to the cash register beside him. She put her hand between his legs, onto his stool, for support, then leaned closer so she could reach the register.

Her ass was facing the men, and I saw their eyes widened when she leaned forward and her ass spread open. They made no other movements. Even the bartender was transfixed as Jane took the money from the drawer and pushed herself back to kneeling, then up to standing.

Jane winked at me as she walked back to the end of the bar, then stepped onto the stool, onto the floor, and walked out the door, just as the song on the jukebox was ending.

After she left, I watched the men. They didn’t move, didn’t speak, didn’t look around. They just sat quietly, staring through the mirror at the door. When I was sure they wouldn’t chase after Jane, I laid the cue on the table and walked out. Before I made it through the door the bartender called, “Hey, Mack.”

I looked back. “Yeah?”

He reached into his pocket. I reached into mine. “Here,” he said, holding out some money. “Give her this, too.” I hesitated, then reached across the bar and took it. Then one of the locals said, “Here,” and handed me more money. I nodded, stuffed the money in my pocket and followed after Jane.

In Wheeling, we got two rooms overlooking the river. It was a quiet ride. No one spoke except Jane, and mostly to Sadie in whispers. We found a diner on the south side of town. While waiting for lunch, Sadie said she had made her decision.

“About what?” I forgot about the challenge. Joe kept staring out the window.

Sadie smiled then looked at Jane, “I think it’s Joe’s turn. It’s time for him to shake his ass a little.”

I looked over at Joe. He was still staring out the window, but I could tell he was listening. I was intrigued. Jane was, too. “What should we have him do?” She asked Sadie in a playful voice.

“I want Joe to steal the offering plate from a church.”

“Huh?” I looked at Joe. He closed his eyes for a second, but still didn’t say a word.

Then Sadie pointed out the window and across the street to where Joe seemed to be staring, “That church.”

Assemblies of God. Joe’s shoulders dropped when he read that. “I’ll need a prop,” he said, still without looking at Sadie.

“Name it.”

“Mann.”

“Huh?” I said. “No way. No way.” The scope of the whole caper became crystal clear to me as soon as my name was mentioned. “I ain’t robbing no fundamentalists. They’re crazy. Especially in church. That’s when they’re craziest. No way.” I was shaking my head and planning my escape. “I ain’t even going in there.”

Joe ignored me and talked directly to Sadie, “No Mann, no deal.”

“You told Jane she couldn’t have help with her caper.”

“But Mann did help, didn’t he?”

“No. He was there just in case.” Sadie looked at me, then back at Joe, “No deal.”

“Wait. Wait a minute. Don’t I have a say in this?” I felt like I wasn’t even in the room.

Sadie looked at me. Her eyes were hard and cold at first, then they softened. “I thought you already said.” She smiled, “What do you want?”

Suddenly I didn’t know what I wanted. Sadie’s smile was so sincere and so beautiful I forgot what we were talking about. All I could think about was how much time we spent together and how seldom we really looked at each other. It was like we lived in little bubbles that kept us apart, and then there she was, in my bubble, looking at me like it was her bubble and I was just visiting.

“Well,” Joe said, shrugging his shoulders. “You in or not?”

I stared at him while collecting my thoughts. “You sure you want to do this?”

“Hmmm,” he leaned back and gave me a Crazy Joe smile, “Why not?” And there was Joe, in my bubble, too.

Early Sunday morning I stood looking at myself in the mirror. “I’m telling you, Joe, my tits are crooked.”

“Stop fucking around. Here,” he pushed up on one of the water balloons and tightened the bra strap. “Better?”

I checked the mirror again. “Well, at least they’re even. But, why do I have to be the woman? Why can’t you? And, I don’t know about this dress.” It was frilly pink and purple with white flowers.

“I told you, it’s how the plan works. It’s gotta be this way.”

“I don’t know…, and this fucking wig. I think it’s blue.”

“Besides, you’re the artsy one. It’s like acting.” Joe pinned an old lady hat to my wig, then stepped back to look at me in the mirror. “You are the ugliest woman I’ve ever seen.”

“Fuck you very much.” I looked in the mirror. “This will never work, Joe. I have a beard.” I stared at myself in the mirror. “I have a beard for Christ’s sake.”

“Not for long. It’ll work. I’m telling you. It’s a church. They’re looking at your inner beauty.”

“Yeah? If they look up my dress they’re gonna see my inner beauty.”

“Don’t worry. They’ll just sacrifice it to God.”

“That ain’t funny.”

“It’s cool.” Joe shifted into business mode. “All right, just the way we planned. When the offering plate comes, you sneeze, big sneeze. I dump the money into this Bible pouch.” He held up a black leather book jacket. “See, it zips shut, to protect your Bible.” He must have been impressed because he zipped and unzipped several times. “So anyway, I dump the money in and pass the plate to you. You drop in the fake stuff and pass it on.”

“Alright, sounds good,” I said, still looking at the mirror. “Even if it doesn’t look good.”

“Bitch, you’re beautiful,” he smacked my ass as he turned away to start dressing himself for church. “Now, go shave.”

The church was huge. Actually, it wasn’t a church. It was the gym of a private school. They were fundraising to build a church. They had been here for ten years, their “flock” had grown exponentially, their missions work was going “swell,” and several of the church “gals” were pregnant with “little spiritual warriors.” When the preacher announced they were half way to their goal, Joe whispered, “Ka-ching.” Then the preacher prayed to end abortion and convert the world. He updated us on someone with cancer, and on missions in Indonesia, then led us in songs about the steadfast love of the Lord.

Joe leaned over, “This is great. What a scam.” He joined the singing, reading the lyrics from the overhead projector.

Half hour later, everyone was high. The ushers received collection plates and took positions in the aisles.

“Praise the Lord,” said the preacher. “What a beautiful Sunday morning. But aren’t they all. Turn to your neighbor and wish them a beautiful day.” His smile was big and lit up his face. “Welcome, and Wow, what a turn out. It’s wonderful to see so many together in God’s house. Praise Him. Wasn’t that last hymn great. One of my favorites. Especially the line ‘I will never deny you, Lord.’ Because he does, doesn’t he. Peter, he denies the Lord three times. Not once, or twice, but three times. And this was Peter. No one loved Christ more than Peter. How many times have you denied the Lord today? I know I have. But you know what? It’s ok. Because, what does the hymn say? Ask forgiveness and it shall be given. Jesus doesn’t want us perfect. If we were, we wouldn’t need Him, would we? He wants us to want Him, to want His forgiveness. That’s why He came. To show His love, and to give us a chance to love Him. Do you?

“As the ushers come forward I want you all to meditate on how much you love the Lord. And on how much you need Him, and His forgiveness.”

Joe nudged me again, “What a scam.” I didn’t hear him because I was caught up in what the preacher said. Not that I believed in God or anything. I didn’t know how I felt as far as that went. I mean, I read the stories, and I went to Sunday school back when I was too young to protest, but as far as religion went, that stuff was for people who needed it, like when your grandmother died. But when he preached about how we all make mistakes, and it’s ok, because we’re expected to, and we’re forgiven, well that touched something deep. I know it was supposed to, he’s a preacher. I just didn’t think it would affect me. I wasn’t about to drop on the floor and speak in tongues or anything, but I did feel bad about all the shit we did, especially robbing a church. I had reservations to begin with, but now I really didn’t want to be there. If I could have left, I would have. But I couldn’t. Joe needed me.

As the collection plate started down our row I had a mild panic attack. My hands started shaking and my palms turned clammy. My head got hot under the wig and I could feel sweat dripping down my neck. Since that never happened before, I got really nervous, which only made it worse. I felt the urge to run, just get the hell out of there. I started mumbling to myself, “This is wrong. This is wrong.” But in the back of my head I kept saying, “Joe needs me. Joe needs me.”

Joe saw me freaking out. “What’s up?” He whispered. “Keep cool. Keep cool. You’re gonna fuck this up.”

But I just kept mumbling, “This is wrong. This is wrong.” I tried to breathe but could only gasp. I wanted this over. I needed this over. I tried to take a deep breath. I decided to do this and then it would be over, and we could get the hell out of there.

I was so busy calming down I didn’t notice Joe got the collection plate. He paused, waiting for me to sneeze, and when I didn’t, he cleared his throat. When I still didn’t, he poked me with his elbow, which scared the hell out of me and caused me to jump and try to fake sneeze at the same time. My arms flailed outwards, my body jerked backward, but my head shot forward. The fake sneeze was so bad it sounded like a scream, a little girl’s scream.

When my head shot forward, the wig shot three rows forward and hit an old man in the side of the head. When the wig landed in his wife’s lap, she screamed, “Rat.” She threw the wig in one direction and her Bible in the other. The Bible hit her husband in the head and knocked his glasses right off his face.

When my arms flailed, the fake offerings flew everywhere and rained down like confetti. At first, everyone stared like I was Paul blinded on the road to Damascus. I stood, frozen, uncertain what to do. Then I saw Joe still trying to steal the real money from the collection plate. He was moving frantically, but had trouble getting the money in the pouch. He dropped the brass plate on the floor and it rang louder than my fake sneeze. When the ushers saw what he was doing, they started climbing down the aisle toward us.

“Time to go,” Joe yelled as he climbed back six rows and bolted out the door. I was right behind him but my dress kept getting snagged, and my high heels just wouldn’t cooperate. I nearly broke my neck scaling the folding chairs.

Eventually the heels broke, the dress ripped apart, and I sprang free. I ran for my life. I didn’t look back, but I was sure a legion of angels was hot on my ass. I never ran so hard in my life, not even when that guy shot at us after we robbed his house. I passed Joe and beat him to the car by a good three seconds. Thank God Sadie was waiting in the driver’s seat. If I had to drive we would have died for sure.

Joe jumped in next to me. “Go. Go. Go,” he yelled as he grabbed me and pulled us both to the floor out of sight. “Son of a bitch.”

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