~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp ~
They had a two side-by-side rooms around in back at the Arimosa Auto Court, away from the road, underneath the tall trees. The rooms were small but clean and the walls like paper. Everything that went on in one room could be heard through the wall. Blanche resisted when her husband, Buck, reached for her after lights-out because she knew the others in the next room would be able to hear the slightest intake of breath and she didn’t like the thought of putting on a show for them. She didn’t mind rebuffing Buck from time to time, whenever his appetite needed curbing. We’re not animals, she would say, slapping at his hand. Besides, it’s my time of the month.
Buck and Blanche hadn’t been married long and were still on their honeymoon. They were both nearly forty but still felt young and amorous. Buck had been married twice before and Blanche once. Now that they had found each other, they wanted to forget their previous marriages and not ever talk about them—start out afresh, as the saying goes.
They met at a bingo game in the basement of a church in Kansas City. When he flirted with her, she thought he was crude and low-class, but he persisted and eventually she succumbed to his charms. Two weeks after they met, they were married in a civil ceremony at the courthouse. As Buck liked to say, it was the face powder that caught him and the baking powder that would keep him at home.
They set out on a grand honeymoon. They drove around from place to place in Buck’s sturdy old Ford, seeing the sights, laughing a lot, reveling in their freedom. They spent a few days in a fancy hotel in St. Louis where they saw some shows, ate in fine restaurants and shopped in the big stores.
From St. Louis they drove down to the Missouri-Arkansas border, where they stayed nearly a week in a kozy kabin with a kitchenette at a lakeside resort. It was at the resort that Buck heard through a family friend that his brother Clyde was staying nearby. Clyde wanted Buck and his new wife to come and meet him. He had plans for a moneymaking venture that he believed Buck would be interested in.
Blanche was peeved with Buck for making her leave the lakeside resort before she was ready. She didn’t especially want to meet brother Clyde and wondered why it was such an urgent matter. She was carsick on the way and Buck asked her if she might be going to have a little baby in a few months. He laughed then and tried to pinch her, but she slapped his hand away and moved over as far away from him as she could get.
Clyde had summoned them to an out-of-the-way country town (Far Corner, population 113) where he was staying at a rundown motel, and it ended up taking half a day to get there. Buck got lost on unfamiliar roads and had to stop and get a map at a gas station. Blanche fumed the whole time and refused to help him read the map.
Finally Buck found the place. It was a place so far off the main road it was almost impossible to find, but find it he did, and the brothers were reunited. They whooped and hollered and acted like a couple of backwoods boys in their pleasure at seeing each other again. They embraced and jumped up and down and took affectionate punches at each other.
When they settled down enough, Buck said, “Hey, brother! I want you to meet my missus!”
Blanche was still in the car, forgotten for the moment. Buck motioned her to come out and even took hold of her hand to pull her if need be. She decided she wasn’t going to be mad at him anymore. She dredged up a polite smile.
“This is my wife Blanche!” Buck said.
“Hello,” Blanche said to Clyde, shyly shaking him by the hand.
“Congratulations, Mrs. Barrow!” Clyde said, showing his prodigious teeth.
She wondered why he was congratulating her and then realized it was because she and Buck were newly married.
“Hey!” Clyde said. “I got somebody I want you to meet!”
A blond-haired woman came out from behind Clyde’s back. Clyde took hold of her shoulders as if she was an animal he had caught that might get away.
“Well, who is this little lady?” Buck gushed. She was as thin as a pencil and sallow as if she didn’t get outdoors very much.
“Bonnie, honey, I want you to meet my older brother, Buck Barrow. And this here is his wife, Mrs. Blanche Barrow.”
“H’lo,” Blanche said with her same polite smile.
“Pleased to meet you,” Bonnie said.
“Wife?” Buck asked Clyde.
“You old dog, you! You always did have an eye for the prettiest gals!”
“And rounding out our little entourage,” Clyde said, “is Mr. C.W. Moss. He’s my driver and all-round factotum.”
C.W. shook their hands profusely. “I sure am glad to meet all of you!” he said. “Clyde’s told me all about his family! It sure is a pleasure! How do, ma’am!”
Buck and Clyde laughed because C.W. was wearing only his union suit and seemed to not know he wasn’t wearing any pants. Blanche had seen men in their union suits before but was embarrassed anyway. She blushed like a schoolgirl and turned her head away.
C.W. spied a movie magazine on the seat of Buck’s car with a picture of Myrna Loy on the cover.
“I see you got the latest issue of Motion Picture World!” he said. “Would it be all right if I borrow it from you, Miz Barrow? Myrna Loy is my favorite movin’ picture actress!”
Without waiting for an answer, C.W. snatched the magazine off the car seat and held it to his bosom. He couldn’t wait to get off by himself and read the latest news from filmdom.
With introductions out of the way, they had a picnic lunch in Clyde’s motel room. Spirits were high. Buck was the life of the party. He told jokes he heard on the radio and did impressions of Rudy Vallee and Bing Crosby. Blanche laughed so hard she wet her pants.
“She’s got a weak bladder! “Buck said, setting the men off on another outburst of laughing while the women looked bewildered.
After lunch, Buck and Clyde went off by themselves to talk business. Blanche still wasn’t feeling well, so she lay down on the broken-down sofa in Clyde’s room, turned her face away and went to sleep. C.W. looked at all the pictures and read all the gossip about his favorite motion picture stars in Motion Picture World and then went to sleep in a hammock under the shade trees. Bonnie sat on the front steps smoking cigarettes and after a while went inside and washed her hair.
Buck and Clyde didn’t come back for three hours. Blanche was anxious to leave and wasn’t happy when Buck told her they were staying.
“Staying here with them?” she said. “What for?”
“We can manage for one night. Tomorrow we’ll move on to a bigger place.”
“You mean all of us?”
“Move on where?”
“We haven’t decided yet.”
“What were you and Clyde talking about so long?”
“A little job he’s got planned.”
“What kind of a job?”
“I’ll tell you about it after we’ve worked out all the details.”
“It’s nothing illegal, is it?”
“Now, honey! You don’t have a thing in this world to worry about!”
The little job Clyde had planned—and worked out to the smallest detail—was robbing the bank in the town of Morganville. He needed help, though. He needed his older brother, Buck. The two of them together would be unstoppable.
At first Buck didn’t think that robbing a bank anywhere on God’s green earth was a good idea. He was a newly married man, he said, with a wife to think of, and he didn’t want to get mixed up in any old bank robbery.
“It’ll be so easy,” Clyde said, “you won’t believe your eyes.”
“How do you figure?”
“Shit! A bunch of farm hicks and small-town rubes! They’ll be so scared when you flash a gun in their face they’ll piss their pants.”
“I don’t know,” Buck said. “It seems kind of mean to me.”
“We don’t have to actually kill anybody, if that’s what you’re worried about! We’ll just pretend we’re going to kill them if they don’t do what we want!”
“And what is it we want?”
“To put all the cash in a bag and not try to keep us from leaving!”
“Well, that sounds easy enough.”
“See, you’re talking about the element of surprise! They’ll be so surprised when we burst in on them that they won’t be able to think until after it’s all over.”
“When do we do this little thing?” Buck said.
A week after talking it over, the Barrow brothers, along with Bonnie and C.W. Moss, robbed their first bank in the town of Morganville. They took a little over three hundred dollars without a shot being fired. Even Blanche was impressed. She had never seen that much cash before. She was able to bury her religious scruples for the time being.
Other banks followed. Clyde and Buck saw it as a sure-fire way to get large sums of money without having to work for it. The only trouble was they became wanted across five states and people were on the alert for them. Banks hired extra guards and armed them well. Small-town police departments took on extra deputies.
And then the expected happened. One bank put up more resistance than the robbers were accustomed to. Bank guards fired their weapons and Clyde had no other choice but to fire back. A zealous fellow who was determined to stop the robbers from getting away with the bank’s money jumped on the running board of the car. Clyde shot him in the face and killed him. Now they were something more than robbers. They were desperate killers to be feared by the public at large.
At first it was fun: robbing banks, outsmarting the laws, being always on the move. Then, when Clyde had to kill a man and the laws began to take them seriously, it wasn’t quite so much fun anymore. Their pictures were everywhere: in newspapers, post offices and government offices. Their story blasted on the airwaves. They could no longer go into a restaurant and order a meal, for fear of being recognized.
They found the Arimosa Auto Court by accident. It was so far removed from the known world that they felt safe there. They could rest for a few days and plan their next move. They got two rooms around in back, away from the road, underneath the tall trees. It was a peaceful place, where the birds sang and the soft breezes blew. The place was run by two old men and they didn’t ask any questions.
They got on each other’s nerves, though, being cooped up in two small rooms, especially Blanche and Bonnie. More than once, they had been about to come to blows over little things, until Clyde and Buck had to separate them. The sound of Blanche’s whining voice made Bonnie want to tear her hair out by the roots. Blanche complained of Bonnie’s “rotten disposition.” Buck and Clyde didn’t know how much longer they could keep them from killing each other.
It was a Sunday afternoon. The men were hungry. Blanche was the only one whose face wasn’t known to the public, so they sent her into town to get some food. C.W. drove her in Buck’s car.
As soon as Blanche and C.W. were alone in the car, Blanche began crying.
“What’s the matter, Miz Barrow?” C.W. asked.
“I’m just a nervous wreck!” she said. I don’t know how much more of this I can take.”
“Just waitin’ around. Just waitin’ for the laws to come and shoot us to ribbons, one by one.”
“They won’t find us way out here,” C.W. said. “Clyde made sure of that.”
“Oh, Clyde! May the devil take Clyde! He doesn’t know anything! He’s the reason we’re in all this mess!”
“What do you mean?”
“My papa would just die if he knew the kind of life I’m livin’. With a bunch of thieves and bank robbers! It just don’t make sense!”
“What don’t make sense, ma’am?”
“Even if they do get away with lots of money, you know people are not going to stand for that! It don’t take a genius to figure it out!”
“Figure what out, ma’am?”
“When you’re livin’ this kind of a life, it’s only a matter of time before they catch up with you. And when they do, they’ll either shoot you on the spot or lock you up in jail for the rest of your natural life. Those who live by the gun die by the gun. It says so in the Bible.”
“You just have to take it as it comes, I guess,” C.W. said.
“You’re not afraid of dyin’ or goin’ to jail?”
“I don’t think about it much.”
At the restaurant in town, C.W. waited in the car while Blanche went inside and ordered the food. Five chicken dinners to go and twelve bottles of beer. While she waited for the food, she sat at the counter drinking a Coca-Cola and smoking a cigarette. She didn’t look directly at anybody for fear they’d know who she was.
Most of the other people in the place didn’t even look at her, but a couple of older men over to the left were giving her the eye, whispering back and forth. When she realized they might be a couple of lawmen and they might know who she was, she felt a chill go up her spine.
When the food was ready, she lugged it out to the car, along with the twelve bottles of beer. C.W. got out and helped her put the stuff in the back.
“Did you see a couple of men go in that place who might have been laws?” she asked C.W.
“I didn’t see nobody,” he said.
“They were givin’ me the eye while I was waitin’.”
“Why would they do that?”
“I think they know who I am.”
“How could they know that?”
“I don’t know how they know. They just know.”
A couple miles down the road, she asked C.W. if they were being followed.
“I don’t see nobody,” he said. “Just relax.”
Blanche couldn’t eat her chicken at the thought that those two men were laws. If they knew who she was, they couldn’t just let it go. They would follow her and she would lead them to the Clyde and Bonnie and Buck and that would be the end of that. Shoot now and ask questions later.
Blanche had never participated with them in any of the robberies, had never fired a shot, but she’d be just as guilty as they were, just by being with them. She’d be just as guilty of shooting that man in the face as Clyde was. It’s called guilt by association.
She loved Buck, or believed she did, but she wasn’t going to die for him or go to jail for him. If he and the others were too stupid to see the writing on the wall, she saw it plainly. The laws weren’t stupid. The laws would find them and make them pay the price for their crimes and it was going to be sooner than any of them imagined.
She hardly slept at all that night. She got out of bed before daylight and dressed quietly in the dark, making sure not to wake Buck. Carrying her suitcase, she left the Arimosa Auto Count for the last time and went out and started Buck’s car as quietly as she could. She drove the seven miles to the nearest town, the same town where they had bought the chicken dinners, and stopped at the bus station. She left the car in a place where Buck would be sure to find it when he came looking for her.
Everybody would expect her to go back home, where she came from, but she wasn’t going there; it was the first place Buck would look. She bought a ticket to Chicago. She had only seen Chicago once before in her life, and she knew it was big.
A day and a half later her bus rolled into Chicago. She spent the night in a cheap hotel beside some railroad tracks and the next day she fixed herself up, had her hair bleached, and got a job as a hostess in a nightclub, going by the name Ruby Weems.
She was just one of thousands of dames in the big city, scratching out a living. Someday somebody would come looking for her, and they’d find her, too. If it was the laws, she’d tell them all she knew to get them to go easy on her. If it was Buck, she’d run to him, give him a big kiss, and tell him how she much she missed him. One thing was certain, though: she was never going back to a life of crime.
Copyright © 2021 by Allen Kopp