(Photo by Bernard Safran can be found here; editing by Laura Collins)
“I wouldn’t mind being built like a boxer,” he tells me.
“I wouldn’t mind a million dollars, but I don’t see that droppin’ out of the sky,” I reply.
We’re walking in the cold. It’s just now late September, but the city’s already got a kind of deep chill to it. I’m fighting the wind with a light khaki windbreaker and jeans, boots and a black golf shirt. Merv is wearing a black hoodie with dark denims and Timberlands. His pasty white beer belly hangs over his sun-cracked leather belt. Unwillingly I’d traded in my normal power suit and tie for this new casual look when I was sacked from my cubicle downtown over a year ago. Even now, I look ridiculous, I think. No, maybe I just feel ridiculous.
“I’m serious,” Merv continues, popping a quick jab in my arm. “I wouldn’t mind looking like a middleweight, you know? But who has the time?” I know Merv is right. We both want things we don’t have much time for. We’ve been out of work for so long that leisure time is a thing of the past. Fighting to put food on the table is a little more important than a gym membership for a husband and father of three like Merv. But then again, so is staying safe.
“You’ll have plenty of time out in the yard at Leavenworth,” I say, smirking. Merv ignores me. He twitches after I said it, though. We were best friends in high school and he still twitches like that when he hears something he doesn’t like. Merv was there when Mom passed, and he helped me get through a really rough patch then. He took the rap for me for an aggravated assault when we were kids. He pleaded out to a lesser charge, but after that I knew I owed him. But right now I can’t help but think about my own problems.
Problems like my father. No, Pop ain’t a problem, but getting his medicine is. He’s sick – chronic leukemia – in constant pain from gout and the meds are the only thing that makes it better. Without my job my insurance is gone and Medicare won’t pay for it all, so I can’t take care of him. Mom’s been gone, God rest her soul, and I’m an only child. He took care of me damn near my entire life, so all I’ve got left is my old man to fight for. That’s why I’m walking with Merv today.
Merv punches my shoulder again, harder this time. “Come on, Johnny…”
He knows I hate it when he calls me Johnny. “Merv…”
“Whoa, whoa. Excuse me, Jonathan,” he laughs. He just doesn’t understand the purpose; he never has. My father was Jonathan just like his father and his father’s father. There’s no reason for me to shorten something like that. It would show a lack of appreciation, a lack of respect.
We take a left at the intersection of Robinson and Palisades. It’s a Tuesday, and I check my watch: 8:55. “Sly is already there, right?”
“Yeah, yeah, he is, he is…” Merv wipes away my question like it was a fly in his face. I didn’t like the tone, but it wasn’t worth the argument.
We round the corner and a sax player is on the curb doing his run through some jazz number. There is a black case on the ground at his feet filled with loose change and a few dollar bills. In the background noise I hear someone yell to him to get a real job. Merv flies off the handle.
“What prick had the nerve to say some shit like that?” he screams to the people passing by as we approach. “How the fuck do you know this guy hasn’t been on a thousand interviews? People are gettin’ laid off left and right in this city and you want to be some asshole yellin’ at a guy for tryin’ to make ends meet?”
I snatch him up by the arm. “What the hell are you doing?” I shout in a whisper. I shake him loose, pushing him a few feet away from me. People are gawking at us. Merv looks around then stares at me. His eyes are glazed over; I gather that he’s startled. He surveys the area and shakes his head.
“I’m good, Johnny, I’m good. These people…this great country is drowning all around them and they couldn’t give two shits about the common man. My brother owned a bar…”
“Yeah, yeah, Merv. I know, I know. ”
When the market bottomed out Merv’s brother Steve lost his life savings. Banks weren’t giving out loans then. He couldn’t make any of his payments, so he lost his bar. Then, he went and got a shotgun, and put the barrel in his mouth.
“Come on, Jon! Don’t treat this shit like it’s nothin’.”
I throw a gentle hand on his shoulder. “I know, Merv. I’m here, ain’t I?”
We’d gone a few years without seeing each other, and then I hear about Steve. Couldn’t believe it. I go to the funeral and the old gang was there: Merv, Sly, Terry, and Doug. It was good to see them, I tell them. We reminisce about old times and talk about their wives and kids, how we were all out of work, and tell stories about Steve all night. Merv doesn’t seem right the entire time, but his brother had just passed so I don’t think much of it. We say our goodbyes and part ways again.
A year later out of the blue Merv calls. Says he’s heard I’ve been down on my luck. Says he needs my help with something big that can maybe change that. So we meet up at his place and Sly and Doug are there. Terry shows up later with some big black dude I hadn’t seen before. Terry says he’s got something for all of us. Something that’ll make things right. The government and the banks might have forgotten us, but we ain’t forgotten them, he tells us. But they needed another guy, a guy they knew and could trust. Merv was looking at me then with big blue doe eyes and chubby red cheeks like a blue collar Santa. I was out of options. When you put desperate men in a room together, sometimes bad things happen. That’s how we got here.
Merv wipes his eyes, shakes his head. He’s a little off today. He looks down at his watch. “We’re late. We gotta get goin’.”
Merv begins to jog. He’s right, we’re late, and the morning has him motivated now. Five minutes later we’re at the corner of Periander and Gaius staring up at a skyscraper. Calmly, Merv motions towards an alley dimly lit to the right of the building. He walks down the path, and I follow. There, in the back we find a rear entrance to the building being blocked by a white delivery truck.
The black man whose name I’ve never known appears before me. He’s around six-foot, broad shoulders, and a muscular build with a scar over his left eye. And he doesn’t talk much. He’s in a city police uniform, radio on his hip, gun to his side. He nods towards the glass doors at the top of a small set of stairs. Doug is standing there in city maintenance overalls with a workman’s reflective vest and a hard hat. He’s got a radio in his left hand and a shotgun tight against the side of his leg on the right. He doesn’t say anything. He sets down the radio, takes the hard hat off, reaches into his pocket and pulls out a mask. Everything’s ready.
Through the doors I see Sly. He’s wearing a police uniform this time. I nod to him through the glass door as we move towards the steps. In return, I watch him stoop down, pull a ski mask from his pocket and slide it on. A black duffle is at his feet. The guns will be in there like they were every time during our practice runs in the warehouse over the past month. I look back at Merv digging into a pocket. He pulls out his mask, and starts pulling it down over his face.
As I pull my mask down over my eyes I can hear Merv behind me rushing up the steps. Doug swings the door open and Merv barrels through like a freight train. We’re hitting First Federal Savings and Loan: one of the branches of the bank that denied Steve the help he needed. Terry chose that to help keep Merv’s head in the game, I think.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Terry announces at the top of his lungs above the cries and screams, “this is a…” his voice fades as the glass doors close behind Merv. I think about my dad lying awake in bed at night in pain… I take a breath, release it, and follow Merv inside.