I assumed the mask was for keeping the dust out of his lungs. Here in Alva, Oklahoma it was pretty normal at the time. I hated those hideous-looking things. They always ruined my makeup and made me question what the point was. They made it hard to breathe anyway, so how was that any better than the dust? We were all sick and tired of wearing them, fed up with the economy, and desperate for any kind of change just to break the monotony of the Hoover years.
The fine, beige particles bellowed through the door of the bank in a small cloud as the young man closed it behind him. It covered his eyebrows and the tops of his shoes, and stuck to the ragged bandana like it was a cloth magnet while the vague howl of the wind outside emphasized how alone in this building we two were.
I sent a smile of sympathy his way when he approached the iron bars separating us at the teller window. His thin, short body was shaking. But knowing what I would come to know later, it wasn't only because of fear.
"Yes. May I help you?" I asked in my professional voice. I really meant more than that. I wanted to find out what was going on in his life to cause this frailty. He seemed like a nice enough guy, even with the mask and all the dust covering him.
The bandana wrinkled, suggesting he was about to speak. Then nothing.
"Here to make a withdrawal?" I asked, feeling the inklings of an uncertain day as he repeatedly alternated between glaring at me and glaring behind him.
"Yeah...a withdrawal, please."
The fabric muffled an already calm and pleasant-sounding voice, which was a peculiar contrast to his spasmodic body language.
"Alrighty," I said with my usual nervous giggle while digging out the paper for him to sign. "You'll have to excuse my slowness; I'm relatively new here. What's the name on the account?"
After a more pronounced, rapid, and mechanical switch of gazes, he reached into his musty-looking jacket. Both the loudness of the click and the icy realization of what it was made my heart skip a beat. He aimed the barrel at me - more like, around me - and the voice became every bit as shaky as the body.
Not the usual: 'Give me all your money or else...'; more like a plea for help.
Confused by a half-and-half mixture of pity and panic, I allowed the threat of the bullet to lead us to the back of the bank, where the safe was. My own shaky, thin fingers battled to line the numbers on the dial correctly without him seeing the exact combination.
In total, there was thirty-two thousand dollars, all kept in wrapped stacks of one thousand a piece. That was a fortune considering the average person at the time could barely afford a loaf of bread. Most of that money had been deposited a few years ago by folks with the foresight to sell their stocks before it was too late. This was their money. They needed it now, more than ever. I glanced over my shoulder at him, conflicted over whether or not to take a chance on the gun being fake. Whether or not to trust his aim if it wasn't.
"Give me one hundred," he ordered in a way that sounded more like a request.
"Sir, we don't have that much here! I can give you thirty-two." I paused, certain he could hear my heart thumping inside my scrawny chest. "Plus my jewelry, if that's any help."
"I meant: One hundred dollars!"
I almost laughed, but his rosy ears and the little crinkle at the top of his slender nose as it protruded above the top hem behind the bandana told me he was being serious. Then, just as I was about to plead with him that what he was doing wasn't worth the consequences, I heard the back door squeak open. It was the bank manager.
His own mask flew off to reveal a gaping mouth, and before I could utter a word, he had the man tackled to the ground, punching at his face, his bald head streaking with sweat beads that turned to mud as they absorbed the dust.
"Fred! Fred!" I shrieked.
As he yanked the young man to his feet by his collar, I felt faint.
"Go get the sheriff!" he barked.
"Fred! He just needs a hundred dollars! Can't we just give it to him and forget about it?"
By the time I'd hammered out the words, Fred had taken possession of the firearm, with the barrel rammed into his bandana. "Ever heard of a thing called principle, Claudia? Bank robbery is bank robbery. Now go get the sheriff, I said!"
I took off running through the door and down the hazy mid-day street. But as the grit from all the plowed fields in America's heartland swirled in the air, pelting my eyes and nostrils - nearly choking me - a different kind of storm brewed within. To report or not? I knew this man was innocent. Yes, he had committed a crime. But he was not a criminal. Which was more important to me: My job or my morals? Technicalities or helping out a fellow victim in these hard times?
My name is "806". That's the only name I've known for the last thirty years. I walk around with it printed on the front and back of these plain-looking clothes all day, every day. Even the stripes seem sadistically designed to remind me that I'm in. When you've seen nothing but bars for ages, you tend to get a little eccentric about analyzing things.
I heard about the world here and there. How we recovered from the stock market crash finally after a second World War; how glorious the entire fifties were, with everyone free now living middle-class lives with perfect nuclear families, eating apple pie and playing baseball; how exciting this new-fangled music called Rock & Roll was; and speaking of "nuclear", how we're now in the middle of a crazy, unheard of type of war which involves seeing which country can build up the biggest stockpile of these "peace-keeping" weapons.
I heard about the concentration camps, and it saddened me and still does. Being a prisoner myself, I don't have to imagine what that was like. The conditions here are unspeakable. I truly feel no one should have to go through this. The only difference between those prisoners and myself is they were prisoners of war; I became a prisoner by choice.
I still have nightmares about the month they put me in solitary confinement. They were remodeling Cell Block 12 (so they said) and solitary was the only empty space they had for the time being. The last thing I saw before the echoing iron door slammed shut was the smile. I don't think all of those spiders were there on their own, I think he put them in there as a form of retribution.
He had this thing for my best friend in the whole world, Claudia, and he was jealous. I say "best friend" because she's been there for me as much as humanly possible these entire thirty years. She writes, she visits, sends me gourmet food that I have to hide and guard with my life in order to enjoy. She's tried more than once to help me appeal for a reduced sentence, on the grounds that the amount of money I stole was so trivial it couldn't technically count as bank robbery; on the grounds that this was a crime of desperation and temporary insanity rather than a crime of pre-meditation; and on the grounds of my record of good behavior before and since. All appeals were denied.
It was a crime, and there was no excuse for it. Fred was right. Just like there was no excuse for whoever had broken into my house and stolen my stash of money the week before I walked into that bank. I'd been jobless for months because of this depression, and that stash was the only thing standing between me and starvation. I reckon whoever stole it was probably in about the same shape as me, so I've long since forgiven them.
Just as I've long since forgiven Claudia. She was simply trying to save her skin like we all were in our own ways. Honestly, I'm glad for her sake that she did what she was told. The old bank, with all its dim memories, was torn down in '52 and rebuilt to be more modern. Claudia is now the manager there. I'm so very proud of her.
I wish I could say I've come a long ways myself, but that's kind of hard to do when the farthest you can ever get is that gray, life-draining, wire-crowned wall surrounding your yard. But if I seem a little less miserable today compared to my normal pale, dead self it's for good reason.
Tomorrow morning, those walls will no longer separate us. Tomorrow morning, I will be starting my life all over again at age fifty-one.
We're both speechless at first. Smiling from ear to ear as the ice of the past three decades of my dear friend's life begins its slow, trickling thaw. Without a doubt, we both would have done things very differently that dungy, dust-saturated morning had we to live it all over again. As we examine each other while seated in my '59 Chevy with its sweet power-steering, my eyes see a prematurely-aged man who's still as frail as he was when he so reluctantly and hesitatingly carried out his crime. But in my mind's eye, I see a real gentleman whose tearful glint sparkles with hope. I already know he's forgiven me as I've forgiven him. I will spend the rest of my existence doing what I can to help him move past this dark chapter.
A dry heave from the motion sickness doubles him over for a moment as we merge onto the newly-paved "interstate" highway. Of course it does! He's never experienced sixty-five miles per hour before. I reach over and pat him on the back. Slowly, a starry expression forms on his face as his equilibrium adjusts.
"It's...it's so beautiful!" he remarks with childlike fascination.
To me, it had been just another road. But now, I join him in the admiration. The angelic white of the smooth concrete as the warm sun caresses it. The ambient lullaby of wheels and road living together in harmony as the Chevy traverses this spacious stone ribbon winding its way across America. The freedom. His freedom, my freedom, our freedom.
"I think I like this 'Ike' fella they got in Washington now," he states.
I turn my head to my window to let out a discreet giggle. I don't think he realizes yet that he just paraphrased a campaign slogan.
"The sky's the limit now," I say as we both look straight ahead at the grassy, clean horizon.