Matt Pitt is a poet and screenwriter. He has previously published in Ambit, Acumen, Ink Sweat & Tears, Prole and Under the Radar. His second feature film, Man of Sorrows, is due to start shooting next year.
THIS IS A ROBBERY
I was fourteen when Veronica Lake
arrived at our gate in a cream and blue
1952 De Soto Firedome.
She checked her mirrors, levered up the brake,
turned, tilted her head and smiled. Peek-a-boo!
I saw myself reflected in the chrome
of a front hubcap – all squashed up and small,
with sausage dog legs and no neck at all.
This was Sunday. I’d been doing my chores –
mowing, raking, clipping the privet hedge.
Later, I had some homework to begin.
I was cold. Rain pattered through the sycamores
and the air had a damp, autumnal edge.
I opened the Firedome door and climbed in.
It smelled of rose petals and cigarettes.
She said, Well, kid, shall we? I said, Yeah, let’s.
We drove for miles, the windshield sucking up
the Suffolk roads like strands of spaghetti.
I settled back. I listened to the beat
of the engine. I watched the storm clouds slip
across the hood and felt my hams grow sweaty
against the battered leather of the seat.
Most of my concentration was held though
by the famous film star at my elbow.
I stared at her cheekbones, her lips, her hair
(hanging like lemon rind over one eye)
and her soft hands as they stroked the wheel
or swooped between us to shift up a gear.
Occasionally, I saw a half-inch of thigh
escape from its skirt (oh, blessed reveal!)
and whenever I could I tried to get a
glimpse of the bulges beneath her sweater.
Then something odd happened. The Suffolk sky
(which had been a washed out school jumper grey)
turned suddenly to Technicolour blue.
We passed a cactus. A lizard flashed by.
Then the black, sunless sugar beet gave way
to dustbowl, scrubland, and a distant view
of mountains like the ones you see a lot
in films with Alan Ladd or Randolph Scott.
We stopped for gas – a dirty, one-pump place
with tumbleweed, two emaciated dogs,
and an old tin sign croaking in the breeze.
Veronica smoothed her skirt, checked her face
in a compact, then opened the glovebox.
Inside I saw lipstick, matches, spare keys,
two packs of Winston, a crumpled letter,
chewing gum, and a snub-nose Beretta.
She grabbed the gun. She said, Here’s the score, kid –
When I’m gone, slide across and take the wheel.
Keep the engine running. Soon as I’m clear,
open the door, count to three and floor it!
Like fast! I wanna hear that rubber squeal!
I let my thoughts click slowly into gear.
I said, Er . . . I may have missed the point,
but are we, you know, sticking up the joint?
Because, I mean, if we are, the thing is,
I haven’t actually finished my chores yet
and I’ve still got all that homework to do,
so perhaps – She placed two slender fingers
across my lips and I seemed to forget
what I was saying. A tingling grew
in my chest and spread slowly all points south.
Then she leaned in and kissed me on the mouth.
That’s how it happened, the first of my crimes . . .
The next three years, we drove from town to town,
sticking up gas stations and burger stands
and lonely, half-forgotten five-and-dimes.
We started in Idaho, then worked down
through Georgia, the Colorado badlands,
Kansas, Utah, the Mexican border
(though not necessarily in that order)
to Miami and the Florida Keys.
Sometimes, if the price was in our purlieu,
we’d rest up at a motel with air con,
a kettle and a selection of teas.
But usually Veronica preferred to
park off the road and throw a blanket on
the back seat. And there, one glorious night –
but I’ll skip the details, if that’s alright.
Let’s move on instead to the evening when
we went to a drive-in, bought some candy
and watched a couple of James Cagney flicks.
In one, he played an Army veteran
who turns to crime, gets rich, then poor, then, sadly,
gets shot in the snow outside St Patrick’s.
And as I sat there in the dark, blinking
up at the big screen, I started thinking . . .
I said Veronica, listen to me –
these small-time jobs’ll never pay the rent.
‘Course, if we had the muscle to knock off
a bank or a payroll delivery
van, things might look a little different . . .
But we don’t. So perhaps enough’s enough.
That is, what I’m trying to articulate
is maybe we’d get richer going straight.
Rent? She snorted, What rent? You mean to tell
me you know some place as fancy and fine
as the backseat of a De Soto Firedome?
Ah babe, I replied, the Firedome’s swell
but let’s think of the future. Yours and mine.
Don’t you want kids? Don’t you want a home?
She looked at me with blank incomprehension.
Then she laughed and started up the engine.
Leaving the lot, our headlamps raked the side
of a parked, two-door Lincoln Premiere.
Behind the wheel, briefly lit, a man
turned away, but in that second, I spied
a cleft, unshaven chin, thinning blonde hair
and the furred collar of an Astrakhan.
(The cleft chin, incidentally, was a feature
shared by my old economics teacher.)
Then, two days later, I was slightly shocked
to see the same man beneath the awning
of a dry-cleaning store, bending his head
to the flame of a match. Our eyelines locked,
then fell away. It felt like a warning.
But when I told Veronica she said,
Kid, you’re jumpier than a jumping jack bean –
if that’s a cop, I’m Butterfly McQueen!
Another year passed. We headed northwest.
We robbed a mom-and-pop in Wichita
and a diner in Duluth. We swung south
again (narrowly escaping arrest
in Fargo when we couldn’t start the car)
then dog-legged north to Deadlock and Plattsmouth.
And although we never had much money,
the days were long and the skies were sunny . . .
Once, robbing a dime store in Syracuse,
I came across a rack of stationery –
logbooks, diaries and a selection
of ring-bound notepads in various hues.
Since we were in the act of making free
with the stock, I picked one up. From then on,
among other activities nocturnal,
I started keeping a travel journal.
I don’t know why exactly, but something
about the pen and ink and empty page
beckoned me whenever I became bored.
It didn’t matter if days were exciting
or ditch-dull, I’d still attempt to engage
with them and write up some kind of record.
Veronica said I seemed to prefer
“that crazy, signed confession sheet” to her
but that wasn’t fair. What she didn’t know
(I never let her read my journal entries)
was that she provided my leading theme:
her beauty, her grace, which always seemed so
new and yet, somehow, as old as centuries,
like moonlight, birdsong or a mountain stream . . .
But before I get too a priori,
let me tell you the end of the story –
It happened. One bright day, rounding a bend,
we saw something sparkling in the hot sun:
a row of Lincolns, parked as though by plan,
was blocking the freeway from end to end.
And at their head, hunched behind a shotgun,
stood the blonde-haired man in the Astrakhan.
Veronica braked – we screeched to a stop –
and said, Okay, maybe he is a cop . . .
She pulled hard on the wheel, spinning us round,
and slammed her foot on the accelerator.
Next thing, the back window exploded.
We veered off road onto uneven ground,
ducking from the glass. One second later
the windshield went. Then the posse unloaded
bullets at our tyres . . . But Veronica
(or Butterfly to use her self-styled moniker)
kept going. Luckily the terrain dipped,
sheltering us in the lee of some near hills.
Our back tyres busted, we came by chance
to a dirt track, sloping downwards, and slipped
into the grooves left by other vehicles.
We trundled on past rocks and desert plants,
the bullet-ruined windows fore and aft,
letting in a dry, not unpleasant, draft . . .
Then, passenger side, a gap in the bank
revealed a canyon several feet below –
We’d been driving, it seemed, along a ledge.
We turned a corner and my heart sank.
The road stopped. There was nowhere else to go . . .
Veronica braked, inches from the edge.
Well, she laughed, I guess we made a mess of this –
it’s either the state pen or the precipice.
That moment, the posse showed up, then stopped
a hundred feet behind us. Car doors flew
open. Agents jumped out, aiming their guns.
Astrakhan emerged, head bowed, one foot propped
on the running board, and addressed us through
a microphone: Folks, I’ll only say this once.
We just about got you surrounded, here.
Come out slowly with your hands in the air.
In answer, Veronica touched her toe
to the gas. No! No! I heard myself shout.
She paused, a big smile on her face. She said
What are you scared of, kid? Heck, don’t you know
how this works? It’s a DISSOLVE, a FADE OUT.
It don’t hurt any more than going to bed.
You wait. In a couple of months or so
we’ll wake up in another picture show.
I looked at her face – the cool geometry
of cheekbone, jaw and chin, the smooth, sunlit
brow, the fluted nose and the signature
blonde, peek-a-boo hair which curiously
(I couldn’t remember her washing it)
was still as soft as the day I first met her.
I said Babe, I may not have intended to,
but I think perhaps I invented you . . .
Then again (I continued) if I did,
it’s probably because I needed to,
so please don’t think I’m unappreciative.
I was just a lonely, know-nothing kid
when that Firedome trundled into view.
Since then, babe, well, you’ve taught me how to live.
In other words, imaginary or not,
I’m happy you came along. Thanks a lot.
She opened her mouth to reply, but then
she paused. She sat there, still as statue
or (more aptly?) an Oscar statuette.
The posse, I saw, had also frozen –
they looked like a photo of cast and crew
preparing a take on a movie set.
The whole scene, previously so unruly,
was motionless. Except for yours truly . . .
I left the car and wandered to the brow
of the cliff, trying to find some passage down.
But the mountain face, I presently learned,
was sheer as a coal chute, and, anyhow,
the land below showed no city or town,
just miles and miles of baked earth. I returned
to my refuge, my four-year home from home –
the passenger seat of the Firedome.
I opened the glove box and lifted out
my journal. Then, as Veronica glowed,
her grace and beauty forever revealed,
and Astrakhan and his men stood about,
eternally blocking that clifftop road,
and the sun streamed through the broken windshield
bathing my lap in celestial light,
I turned back the page and started to write.