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Learning to Read and Write
By Steve Vermillion
I offer my friend, the bank robber, a deal he can't refuse. He is illiterate, can't read or write, and can't hold a job, which is why he robs banks. He says he’s going broke paying literates to write the things he needs written. I agree to write his holdup notes for him, asking only a share of future profits. Seems like a fair deal. It's not hard work, not very demanding. I could misspell half the words, neglect to capitalize the first word of a new sentence, even leave out the punctuation, and what the hell would he know? But I write the usual. I include a gun. This works pretty well for a time. He trusts me. He even asks me to write to his mother, tell her he's doing pretty good in his new job, and not to worry. She writes him back. I read her letter to him, tell him how proud she is, but leave out the part where she worries.
I don't know why. Sometimes he lays low. Money gets tight and so I write to his mother, ask her for money. Work’s slow, he'll pay her back first chance. This breaks his heart, but what can you do? I get a share of that money, too. Not much, but some.
Things have all the appearances of working.
Then, out of the blue, just like that, he gets full of himself, decides we don't have such a good deal after all. He doesn't want to give me my share anymore, wants to go it alone. Starts mailing his mother Hallmark cards he finds at the pharmacy. Happy Anniversary. Congratulations On Your New Baby, Happy Chanukah. What does he know? Just goes by the pictures. He doesn't even sign them.
He takes a blank piece of paper when he leaves. Nothing on it, walks into a bank, casual, slides the piece of paper toward the teller. She doesn't even look at it. She knows. She hands him the money, pretty as you please, just like that, and he says thanks. This only makes him feel more independent, like now he really doesn't need me. That words are bullshit. That's what he told me.
He's flush so he brings home takeout Chinese with real wooden chop sticks and little packets of soy sauce and hot mustard. I'm supposed to be grateful, but I'm pissed. Not confrontational, just pouty. I eat my broccoli beef but don't even touch the Kung Pow chicken with cashews. He knows that's my favorite. I say nothing. I can tell he's looking at me, wondering how long I'm going to keep this up, but he says nothing, just keeps eating.
After dinner I clean up the boxes, the chopsticks, the napkins, the empty, bleeding little packets of sweet and sour.
Later, I open a book, start reading out loud. Only I’m not really reading, I'm just making shit up. But before I do, I give him this look. I look him in the face, straight into his eyes with my head tilted a little down so my eyes are kind of rolled to the top, eerie-looking... “One dark and stormy night, four murderers met at a crossroad. As the lightening flashed and the thunder shook the skies above them, they began to plan their next move!”
He's all ears, says lemme see that book, opens it somewhere in the middle, stares at, takes his time, running his fingertips over the pages like a blind man.
He does this, and then carefully, cautiously, his eyes wincing, turns the page as if something real lay on the next page. Something that could harm him. On some pages he grins and nods his head, like there's a joke to get and he's the only one who gets it. Proud of himself. On other pages, he looks like he could cry. Honestly. He does this for an hour, at least. Doesn't even look up until, suddenly just reaches into his shirt pocket, tosses me a stubby little pencil and a blank piece of paper, and asks me if I'm any good with a gun.
#TheUnreal #LearningoReadandWrite #Fiction
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