(Published in the Oddville Press, Vol. 2, Issue 3)
The guard turns his back to light a cigarette and William “Dutch” Gutman, seizing the opportunity, squeezes through the gate and is gone. He was a long-distance runner in high school and still has some steam left in those skinny legs of his to make it over the bridge and into Manhattan. Cars to his left, the Hudson on his right, with each step he feels freer. The air is fresh; the sun is shining; the few hundred bucks his mother had smuggled into the joint is stuffed in his underwear. He smiles for the first time in a very long time. Luckily, Libby is at home; she gives him a square meal and gets him a change of clothes from a downstairs neighbor.
“Don’t worry,” she tells Gutman. “He’s not the inquisitive type.”
She was only eighteen when they met. Fair-haired, attractive, Libby was one of the most desirable women at the junior college. Gutman was handsome back then: black wavy hair, athletic, and a great smile. He wasn’t enrolled in the school, but he’d walk the campus with a book bag, show up in the cafeteria and attend some classes with his friend, Ronnie Fineman. It was Fineman who introduced him to Libby. On dates, he’d take her to the zoo, the aquarium, the museum, and to Yonkers Raceway to watch the harness races, where he’d work it so they’d arrive after the seventh race to get in free. Gutman loved watching the horses, but he was not a gambler. “It’s for chumps,” he’d say. He felt the same way about college, but he never said that to Libby.
He was running numbers for a small time mobster in Queens before he decided on a plan to make him rich. He wangled a desk job in the city’s Child Services Administration. The money, taken in small checks over a three-year period, was deposited in the account of The Hudson River Boys Club. When an auditor doing a routine check discovered there was no such club, Gutman vanished. The account was closed. Gutman had pulled off what the Times called “The Crime of the Month.” Eight hundred thousand-dollars embezzled, all by his lonesome. Three weeks after he disappeared, Gutman was captured. The cops had put a tail on Delores Feldstein, Gutman’s old flame, and followed her to a movie theatre on the west end of Houston Street. After the film started—a documentary about a fashion photographer—a tall, thin man in a dark trench coat and a fedora sat down next to her. The cops, watching from the back, swooped in and cuffed him. The money was never found.
Libby stands behind him now, softly rubbing his shoulders while he eats. “You can’t stay here, Dutch. I’m clean. Been clean for fourteen years. I’m not going back inside for anybody. No one, not even you.”
It took a minute for Gutman to remember that she was in the slammer overnight once for copping a cashmere sweater from Macy’s. Not exactly hard time. But she always stood by him and he’s grateful for that. “Sure, sure, baby,” Gutman says, finishing the last of his miso soup.
“Don’t get excited. I’ll be out of here as soon as it gets dark. And burn those blues for me, okay?” he says, leaving his prison uniform folded neatly on her bed.
Around ten, he edges out of Libby’s apartment house and catches the N headed downtown. He transfers to the 1 at Times Square and gets off at 23rd. It’s a warm night, so if Delores won’t let him in, he’ll sleep out on the Greenway.
She buzzes him up. “Look what the cat drug in.” she says, cracking gum the way nobody does anymore.
“Miss me?” he asks.
“Got the two grand you stole?”
“Don’t start with the two grand, Dee. I’m in trouble. Can you put me up for the night?”
“With or without, uh, you know, privileges?” she asks, still with her hip hard against the edge of the door and a hand high on the doorframe.
“Your call, sweetheart,” he says with a small smile, wishing he had a toothpick to roll around in his mouth or a cigarette to flick. Delores is looking none the worse for wear, but Gutman is dog tired. He needs sleep; he needs to figure things out. The adrenalin from this morning’s break has long since been metabolized. He hopes she’ll just throw a sheet on the couch and leave him be.
“Well, maybe just a quickie,” she says. “You know, a kind of, ‘Hello stranger?’”
Next morning he’s in the shower deciding how safe it is to pick up the key to the safe deposit box. Gutman had buried the key in wax, covered with a layer of white rice, in a small cardboard box that’s been sitting in the walk-in freezer of the Happy Dumpling restaurant on Hester Street. He’s known the owner, Madam Hu, since he was a kid. All he needs to do is pick up the cardboard box and he’s home free. The question is when. He cautions himself to be patient.
Maybe, he thinks, he should just lay low for a couple of years. He toys with the idea of heading into Mexico for some plastic surgery, but even in Mexico it takes dough. And dough is something he is short of at the moment. Delores makes him a breakfast of scrambled eggs and sausage.
“Just like home,” he tells her.
“You’re takin’ a chance being here, Dutch,” she says. “Don’t you think the cops are gonna come knocking on my door before too long?”
Gutman goes to the window, pulls the shade back about half an inch and looks down at the street. His eyes darken, his brow furrows. He walks over to Delores and grabs her wrist. Pulling her close, he says, “Say, sweetheart, you didn’t happen to make a call to the cops while I was asleep, did you?”
“You’re talking crazy, Dutch. I’d never do that. I’d never rat on you.” She yanks free, sits down in an overstuffed chair and, rubbing her wrist, begins to cry.
“Awright, awright,” he says. “There are two plainclothes dicks leanin’ on the mailbox across the street. What am I supposed to think?”
“You’re supposed to think that maybe comin’ here wasn’t the smartest thing in the world, Dutch. You’re suppose to think how the hell you’re going to get out of here without running smack into those two dicks.”
He always thought Delores was all glitter and no paste, but maybe he was wrong. He kisses her quickly and takes the back steps to the roof of the apartment building. He crosses from one brownstone to the next until he’s at the end of the block, where he shimmies down a copper downspout, crosses Ninth Avenue and is on the C train before he has any idea of where he’s going.
He gets off at 168th and looks for a fleabag hotel he thought he remembered in Washington Heights. He gives his name as Amado Guzman, a character he recalls from Wiseguy. Looking out of the dingy window in his shabby hotel room, he sees the Harlem River and beyond that the Bronx. He lies down on the double bed and realizes how tired he is. He’s got enough dough to stay at the hotel for a couple of weeks, but what comes after that? Does he risk going to Hu’s place to pick up the box with the safe deposit key? With eight hundred thousand dollars, he can live like a king. But in what kingdom? The police aren’t going to give up. And how long before the bank becomes suspicious? He’s been paying the yearly fee for the box through an automatic transfer from an account at another bank in the name of Victor Laszlo. The bills are sent to Laszlo at Gutman’s mother’s address in Newark. He wonders now if the police are screening the mail.
He dozes off and is startled awake an hour later by the fear that Madam Hu is dead. Or what if he goes to the restaurant and she won’t give him the box? What if the restaurant is no longer there? He moves quickly, taking the train to Canal Street. From there he walks over to Hu’s. He sees the old woman behind the counter. She doesn’t seem to have changed.
The old woman’s eyes light up. “Yes, yes. All these years. Mr. William. Welcome back.”
“The box,” he says. “Is it okay?”
“The box? Oh, yes. It’s gone.”
“Gone?” Gutman asks, sitting down.
“About five summers ago we lost power for several days. Big storm. Unusal. Very hot. We had to throw out food. Everything. When I remembered your box, I checked and it had been thrown away with all of the other things.” The old woman gives Gutman a toothless smile and asks if he is hungry.
Gutman sputters, “But, but …” But he can’t think of anything to say. And he can’t even consider eating. He gets up to leave.
“Sorry,” Madam Hu offers.
On the train back to Washington Heights, Gutman decides he’ll have to go to the bank and see if he can talk his way into the safe deposit box without a key.
“Laszlow. Laszlow,” the bank manager says. “The name sounds so familiar.”
Gutman explains that he’s lost the key to his safe deposit box.
The manager’s eyes grow dark and small. “How so?” he asks.
“What do you mean, ‘how so?’? I can’t find the fucking key.”
“No need for that kind of language, Mr. Laszlow. Now, we’ll need two types of identification and we’ll have to check your signature against the one on file. You understand that the box will have to be drilled and a new lock installed. Of course, you’re required to pay for this. It will run you, let’s see, one hundred and ninety-five dollars. You’ll then be issued two new keys.”
Only problem is: Gutman does not have one hundred and ninety-five dollars. “There’s money in the box,” he says. “Can’t I pay you once the box is opened?”
“I’m afraid not, Mr. Laszlow. Our policy is quite clear on this.”
Gutman leaves, not knowing what to do or where he wants to go. He’d like to see his mother, but he knows the cops will be casing the joint and will have her phone tapped.
A week goes by with Gutman staying in his hotel room, venturing out only to eat. He calls Libby. “Look sweetheart, my dough is almost gone. I need a new drivers license. Probably a passport. I know a guy who can dummy these up for me. And I need a couple hundred to get into the box. All told about fifteen hundred. Can you front me that?”
“Fifteen hundred. Where am I going to get that kind of dough? Look, Dutch, you know I’d give it to you if I had it.”
“I’m in a spot here, doll. Can you borrow it? It’ll be paid back ten fold once I’m in the box. We’ll be sitting pretty, you and me.”
There was a long pause. “I meant what I said, Dutch. I’m not going to risk it. Getting that money for you puts me in the deal and if I get caught I’ll end up in the slammer. I can’t do that, not even for you.”
Gutman decides to risk it and calls his mother from a telephone booth. They had agreed on a code. He’d call and ask for himself. If things were safe, she’d say, “He’ll be home in about an hour.” If she felt it wasn’t safe, she’d say, “He doesn’t live here anymore."
“He doesn’t live here anymore,” his mother says.
Gutman feels his options slipping away. Contacting Delores again is too risky and there’s no way she’d front him the money. Fineman, his old friend from junior college days, is dead. His old mob buddies, if you could call them that, would want too much of a cut.
Out on the street, he walks south toward Central Park. It begins to rain. A bum asks him for change; he says he doesn’t have any and the bum calls him a cocksucker. He dips into the Essex House to get out of the rain. A man in a suit asks, “Can I help you, sir?”
“No,” Gutman says. “Just want to wait out the rain.”
“I’m afraid not,” the suit man says, and he takes Gutman’s arm leading him back toward the revolving door.
“Get your hands off me, punk,” Gutman says, pulling away his arm. In the blink of an eye, another man, larger than the first, appears and together they push Gutman out the door and back into the rain. Can’t afford to get pulled in, Gutman thinks as he crosses over into the park. The rain has soaked through to his skin and he’s shivering. He goes deep into the park, looking for a resting place the police are unlikely to find. He crawls into some dense brush and spots a man lying beneath a large, flattened cardboard box.
“Hey,” Gutman says. “Where’d you get the box?”
The man doesn’t move or respond. Gutman moves close and pulls the box down a few inches. “I was just asking about the box,” he says. But the man is motionless. Gutman pushes his shoulder with his foot. “Mister?” Nothing.
Gutman bends down and puts his hand on the man’s abdomen. He picks up one of the man’s arms and tries to find a pulse. After a few seconds, he takes the flattened box, folds it in half and puts it under his arm. He walks north for about twenty minutes before he finds the right spot. He lies down and pulls the box over him.
Gutman has trouble falling asleep. These are some of his thoughts: A power failure and they throw out my box. What rotten luck! What’s that they say about the best plans? But what if Madam Hu is lying? What if she got curious, scraped off the rice and saw the key buried in wax? She could have taken it. Lost, my foot. But wait a minute, she doesn’t know my signature or which bank to go to; even with the key she couldn’t get into the safe deposit box. Gutman begins to shiver in the cold; he’s coughing and his nose is stuffed. Could try knocking over a drug store; they might have enough cash around to stake me. Wouldn’t be too hard. Na, get caught and they’d send me away for life. Can’t risk it. Got to sleep.
At first light, unsure whether he’s slept an hour or not at all and worried he’s got a fever, he walks slowly, hands in pockets, along a winding path leading toward the Pond. He sees the flashing lights, the yellow tape surrounding the area where he had taken the cardboard box covering the dead man. Dozens of cops. An ambulance.
“You,” yells one of the policemen. “Over here.” Gutman turns as if to run, but he knows better. He turns back, his hands in the air, and heads for the police. The one who yelled at him grabs his arm and takes him to the dead body.
“Know anything about this?”
“Who was he?” Gutman asks.
“We don’t have a make on him yet. No identification.”
“Saw him there last night. No pulse. He was dead. I took a cardboard box that was covering him. Spotted a wallet a few feet away. Don’t know if it was his or not.” Gutman throws his wallet on the ground. “Lot of good it does me.”
The cop draws his revolver. “Pick it up, punk, and hand it to me.”
Gutman does as the policeman asks.
They push him into the car and drive a few blocks to the 22nd precinct on 86th Street. It’s a century old horse barn patiently awaiting renovation. Gutman is fingerprinted and it is here that the police discover that he’s an escaped con. And that the wallet was his.
Gutman is assigned a public defender. Her name is Jennifer Weinberg. “Comely,” is the word that pops into Gutman’s head.
“You’re off the hook on the murder charge,” Ms. Weinberg tells him. “Natural causes. Heart attack. In any event, the rain washed away all the fingerprints. You’re in for a Class A, so busting out could cost you some extra years. And don’t hold your breath waiting for parole.”
“Can I get my old cell back?” Gutman asks, half serious.
“Look, Dutch, the joint’s like a hotel. You got the reservation, but no telling which room you’ll get.”
“I’m cool,” Gutman says. “Let’s get this thing rolling.”
“You anxious to get back to the pen?” Ms. Weinberg asks.
Gutman has to stop to consider this. On the one hand… On the other hand… “I suppose I am, Jennifer. But only if you promise to visit.” “I promise,” she says.