Hands to Heaven

by Heather Birrell

Heather Birrell’s most recent story collection, Mad Hope, was one of the Globe and Mail’s top 23 Canadian fiction titles of 2012. Winner of the Journey Prize for short fiction and the Edna Staebler Award for creative non-fiction, her work has appeared in many North American journals and anthologies. She currently lives on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland with her family.

 

All the best bank robbers got them deep set, inward looking eyes. It’s like they can see what the world should be like for them, and it’s right there, always, even though they gotta walk around like normals in this tough life. I seen my share of them; and they recognize somethin’ in me too, like I got it, that other world right there close behind my eyelids if I just pull them on down. But my daughter Mona says it’s time we made a different kind of life. She’s been packin’ up boxes all mornin’, like she got no attachment to this place, like she can’t wait to leave these walls—with all their secrets and sorrows—behind.

I seen Val for the first time down near the lake. Me and Betty had swept down there along Roncesvalles Avenue with all the other revelers after the war. There was good-lookin’ soldiers everywhere—that’s what a uniform does to a man, tidies up his rough edges, makes him stand taller, gives him a spring in his step and a kind of authority to the way he holds his head. It was September and things was a bit hazy. I’d had a few glasses of beer up the street. Just half pints, but still. And the light too—right over the lake. The light made diamonds on the water. The light made you feel like one day you’d be wearin’ them diamonds.

The light made diamonds on the water. The light made you feel like one day you’d be wearin’ them diamonds.

I held Betty’s hand and we bounced as we stepped. I’d done her hair and she looked the bees knees with all them blonde finger waves. I was so proud of that do. The crowds were pushin’ at us from all sides, but gently, like they had no elbows or knees, only soft places to greet each other with. I hugged Betty to my side, kissed her cheek, which was round like an apple from smilin’. And that’s when I saw him, just standin’ there on a street corner like it was the grandest stage. He had his fiddle—violin I know to call it now—out on his shoulder and he was playin’ a tune like a jig only much classier and I said to myself without meanin’ to ’cause I ain’t regularly that type of girl, but I said to myself, Those are fingers I’d like to feel on my own self. And I swear it was like he heard my thoughts. He turned towards me and stared through the crowd and right into me. He took one look at them thoughts and smiled like the cat that got the canary.

Mona says she don’t want to live in no home that was a hideout, a hotbed for low-lifes. She says we need to hightail it outta here, but quick. When she first brought up the idea, I shut her down, pronto: Where we gonna go, Mona dearest? You got any bright ideas? This place is all I know. Maybe that’s your problem Ma, is what she said, the clever clogs. But I listened to her. I was done listenin’ to my own heart, which had led me in all sorts of upside down directions. Mona’s eight—but eight goin’ on twenny-two. A twenny-two year old nun that is. So proper and rule abidin’. ’Cept when she’s lost in her own head. What are you doin’, mouth hangin’ open, I used to ask her. Catchin’ butterflies? Stop dreamin’. I’m not going to end up like you, she told me once. Fixing other people’s hair and dating low-lifes I meet down at the pier. I’m going to have a real career. I slapped her hard then, and since that moment she don’t really talk to me much and it’s like she’s got her own world too, slid in there behind this one, but she would never, ever let me in on that world, not even if I asked real nice. But I’m ready now—I’m ready to show her and the little one that I deserve to be motherin’ them, I do.

Imagine! To just go ahead and take that money like it was rightfully yours. To feel free for a little while, like you got power and a kind of elegance, you know?

Here is the thing about bank robbers. We’ve all got one in us because of course we do; who wouldn’t want that? To not have to go to work every day like a chump. Sometimes it seems like this town is just shiverin’ with money, and none of it mine. Imagine! To just go ahead and take that money like it was rightfully yours. To feel free for a little while, like you got power and a kind of elegance, you know? The papers snappled on to that Boyd Gang because they understood that people wanna feel that quiver, like look at us livin’ in a big city where things can get dangerous and whoa, you know, I could maybe have that courage, that cleverness, to break my way out of jail—twice! To walk back the next day in my fedora and fawn-coloured coat into the very same bank I robbed the day before! To leap over them counters like it was my right. Like it was the most natural thing in the whole world. Right under their noses!

It was a crazy situation, one that might bear some explainin’ if you ain’t never heard how they joined up—the gang of them and their various pseudonyms and entanglements. Eddie Alonzo Boyd was the big daddy of them all. And an upstanding type bank robber if ever there was one. It was a different type of world they operated and within it that man had both ingenuity and integrity. And it never hurt that he was handsome like a film star. No wonder them papers carried his picture bigger than the columns of words listin’ his wrongdoings. Everybody imagined bein’ with that man or bein’ just like his wife. She was somethin’ too—when they told her she was too short to drive trucks in the army she took to a motorcycle! She stuck with him through thick and thin. I envied her, but I also admired her.

When Eddie got caught due to his first partner squealin’, he met up with Lennie Jackson in the clink. Lennie was also a bank robber and, not folks to waste time, Eddie and Lennie compared notes.

And that’s when my Val’s pal, the other Jackson, Willie, he showed up. Lennie had a false leg due to an accident and inside that leg he had some hacksaw blades. So you can imagine what them three cooked up! Jackson, Jackson, and Boyd. In another world, those three coulda been lawyers or accountants. Val picked them up once they’d hacked their way out, and that was that, a dream team was born.

To be sure, my Val was a late addition and a different specimen, and by that point he weren’t even goin’ by Val but by Steve. Steve Suchan. And, you know, I always wondered a bit, about how he felt, bein’ late to the party. Livin’ like we all did, in Eddie’s radiance. Most of the time, it was enough. But sometimes that light shone so bright Val can’t of helped feelin’ like he wanted to grab a little for his own self.

I cannot tell a lie—when I found out I was knocked up by Val I felt the thrill of it: a little bandit in my belly. How many people get to carry around a secret like that, eh? Adelina, we named her, after his mother. Still and all, on Christmas Eve, that tiny baby with all her precious fingers and toes, lyin’ there like a little Jesus in her manger—that should have been enough to keep him away from that hussy Mary Mitchell you’d think, wouldn’t cha? I knew I wasn’t no genius when it came to pickin’ fathers for my children. Mona’s dad left us high and dry when she was only three. The creep had the audacity to say he was goin’ to make his fortune in the west, send it home for us. We ain’t seen one red cent of any fortune, ‘cept maybe the unbankable fortune of bein’ rid of him. But I thought Val was different, of course I did.

That Christmas before it all went down, I waited for him. I know I ain’t the best when it comes to cookin’. But I tried, and Mona sat there like one of the magi, rockin’ little Lina and bringin’ her bright shiny things to look at and me bent over the stove like my goddamn mother, my hair a mess of frizz around my red perspirin’ face. And then he’s here, and kissin’ my cheek, bendin’ to kiss the baby’s head, but never bothers bringin’ her up to his own warm body, his strong fiddler’s neck and arms, just bends over her like he’s lookin’ at her through glass. And he’s off again. Some presents under the tree, sure, and there was a time that would have been enough. Asshole, I heard Mona say as the door slammed shut behind him, and I had a mind to slap her again except for once I could see myself in her and that gave me pause and a little bit of pleasure.

I cannot tell a lie—when I found out I was knocked up by Val I felt the thrill of it: a little bandit in my belly. How many people get to carry around a secret like that, eh?

She is in her room right now, the tiny room in the corner of the kitchen that mighta been intended as a pantry. She’s packin’ her own suitcase; said she didn’t need no help from me. I packed the baby’s things already, and my Lina’s asleep, her little thumb stuck in her mouth like a stopper. I rented a place about an hour and a half north of here. I’m not kiddin’ myself about what life will be. I know small towns ain’t easy, and I’ve had my picture in them papers too. But maybe it will be a new start for them girls. Soon there’ll be a new story in the paper, a new woman smudged black by the headline.

I wonder what Mona’s puttin’ in that bag of hers. I can’t find anythin’ special to take from this place. I look around at the walls, the stove and the sofa, and wanna shed it like a skin. I have trouble rememberin’ the details of what went down here. I guess I just climbed into the river that was love, and I let it carry me along.

But the day it happened? When I went from bein’ a bank robber’s to a murderer’s woman? I remember that mornin’ clear as a bell. I told Val and Jackson I had to go in to Mona’s school because her teacher was complainin’ she was always late and I needed the car but I’d be back later. And much as them two are brilliant when it comes to criminality and wigglin’ their way out of tight situations, they are big dumbbells when it comes to women and children and in some cases geography because a.) my daughter’s never been late for school a day in her life and if you took the time you could tell that just by lookin’ at her and b.) the school is directly across the street from our home and any non-crippled person could be at the door with bells on within a minute or two. No car necessary. But I took the car, I did, and I went down to the lake to look at the water and the sky because like my friend Betty told me—she may look dim but she’s got some wisdom buried in her pretty head—when you go to a place where your vision ain’t crowded by buildings and people and cars, you might find that your thoughts get larger to match the horizon.

I parked next to the Palais Royale and took my time getting down to the beach, crunchin’ on crayfish and mussels, steppin’ over empty beer bottles. And I thought about seein’ Val that first day. He had a tattoo up high on his arm and his sleeves were rolled so he could play his violin real good. The tattoo kept sneakin’ out because of this one muscle. Oh boy, I loved that muscle. I wanted to feel it under my own fingers. And I still did. But he was not a good man. A clever, brave man. But not a good man. And a terrible father. I thought about my Lina and when I looked out at those waves I wondered what kind of world would she see behind her eyelids and whether she might have a chance to make that world real. Whether she’d one day be sleepin’ with a man who hid guns under the mattress. No one really bothered to get my story after it happened. That’s how it is with the people who sweep up the hair and clear away the dishes. I came back home with my mind made up; I would hatch a plan to take my girls away. And then Val asks me for the car. And to that—just to that!—I say yes. A man gets shot—a police officer—and that is a sad thing. But I never gave permission. I never had no say. You wonder what you can control in these situations and I will tell you. Not much.

I thought about my Lina and when I looked out at those waves I wondered what kind of world would she see behind her eyelids and whether she might have a chance to make that world real.

Oh, boy, but at the beginning it was sweet. Me and Betty were down at the tank on the Lakeshore, one of them last days the pool was open and I was doin’ my best not to dunk my whole self under that cool water because I’m a hairdresser and my do was lookin’ so fine and natural, the perspiration makin’ angel curls around my face. And I know what them pool chemicals can do to a person’s coiffure. But by God I wanted to reach down all the way to the bottom, to scoop up the rings that lay there waitin’ like buried treasure to be retrieved. I remember my child-self, sleek like a seal, in and out of the water, divin’ down and down and glidin’ back up again ’til my head was waterlogged, my ears full up. And when my ma finally dragged me from that place it was like I was still there, underwater, a film over my eyes, sound comin’ at me all wavery and slow. Betty was queen of the lady-like swim—she moved her arms in heart shapes through the water and blew ripples along the surface with her red lips. If it weren’t so graceful-like it might’ve been amusing. There were too many people in that pool. Kids all giddy from the Honey Dew melon and ridin’ upside down on the Flyer roller coaster. The boys flippin’ and cannon ballin’. Men back from the war, white skinned like peeled fruit out of their uniforms, shell-shocked by the sun on their skin. They looked at us girls with hunger and fear. It had been a long time since they’d seen so much peacetime flesh. I had decided not to dunk under—not worth the trouble—when I seen Val on the side, his feet danglin’ in the water, his face tipped up to the sky. When he seen me he held my eye and tilted his head a little. He was always daring me, right from the beginning. I dove under that water to hide from him. But also to show him just what I could do when prompted by the right fella.

He was always daring me, right from the beginning. I dove under that water to hide from him. But also to show him just what I could do when prompted by the right fella.

The Prince George Hotel is on King Street—not hard to get to on a streetcar—so when I heard Val had started takin’ his new squeeze Mary to that fancy steak joint they opened up in there, I got Mona to mind the baby and boarded at the end of my road. I had a mission. It was one thing hearin’ rumours ’bout them two steppin’ out. I needed to see for my own self. I’d heard the steaks in that place were as soft as butter and the waiters treated their customers better than gold. What can I say? I was not used to strikin’ out on my own, findin’ my own fate. Even pullin’ the bell at the stop felt momentous. The Prince George Hotel took up the whole corner and if you didn’t know it was a hotel you mighta thought it was a prison. It was that imposin’ and had that much concrete and them long narrow windows. It was made for keepin’ folks like me out. Just like a prison is made for keepin’ folk like me in. That Mary Mitchell was audacious, I’ll give her that. Maybe that was what Val recognized in her, ’cause she wore it on her sleeve. She didn’t give two fat figs for what other people were thinkin’, and she wanted it all. I almost didn’t see them that first night. They was snuggled in tight together at a corner table. The candlelight made Mary look softer than usual, like she might be capable of some kind thought or gentle action. And my Val! He had no fight in his shoulders, none of the gangster posture that made him so mean and male. Bein’ a bank robber’s girl’s a tricky business, I know that. I weren’t about to flip my wig over somethin’ I couldn’t change. But I did cry my way home, not even givin’ two fat figs about the way my eye makeup marked up my face, the face of a woman who puts up with a two-timin’ cad.

One night, three years after I first met my Val, after the murder, after I knew I wasn’t ever gettin’ that man back, there was a knock at my door. It was only a few weeks after the boys escaped from the Don that second time. The papers was practically teemin’ with it. There was a reward—$26,000!—offered for information on the villains’ whereabouts. Mona was on at me all the time: You’d turn him in, right, Ma? Even if there wasn’t the money? Her face was so sweet then, like a flower that wanted so badly to bloom. Of course, I told her. Of course.

Anyway, I’m with the baby, who’s nursin’ like there’s no tomorrow, little lady clamped right on there, when Mona comes and knocks on the door, lightly, like she’s my secretary or somethin’ and says, Ma, there’s, uh, some ladies at the door. Some big ladies. She looks uncertain, even a bit frightened and I wonder if it’s them Jehovah’s Witnesses tryin’ to convince us of what we don’t got no need to know. Tell them it’s late and we’re Heathens, I tell her. No, Ma, it’s not the God people, and they asked for you by name. I try to detach Lina gently but she’s not havin’ it. She begins to scream, all open-mouthed and angry. Here, I say, and hand her off to Mona, who shrugs as if to say, Not my fault. Does she mean the late night visitors or the baby? Probably both. Little know-it-all.

Mona was on at me all the time: You’d turn him in, right, Ma?

I open the door but the women are standin’ at the edge of the circle of porch light, so I can’t see their faces, only that their shoulders are broad and they’ve got bosoms to match, stuck out in front like the prows of ships. Formidable. Can I help you ladies? I say, and draw my dressing gown close. They might not be sellin’ God but I can tell they are the types that appreciate a little modesty. And then they both come walkin’ up to me and I can sense by the way they move—like they got some rights to this world—that they ain’t women at all. They’re right pretty though, for she-men, and the make-up’s not bad. The taller one, the one who smells like gardenia and man-sweat, smiles at me. Why, hello, Miss Camarrrro. He rolls that middle r and curtsies like a clown. I know from the piss-poor falsetto and the angle of his eyebrows that this here’s Eddie Boyd, bank robber king, prancin’ like a fool on my front porch. Come in for tea, I choke out, because I am laughin’ but also in awe. I’ve always adored that Eddie, such a gentleman to me, and now playin’ mischief as a lady, he still seems a right gentleman. He made me feel like maybe things would all just work out. He looks at me like he can read my thoughts all plain. And he gives me a little salute.

I know from the piss-poor falsetto and the angle of his eyebrows that this here’s Eddie Boyd, bank robber king, prancin’ like a fool on my front porch.

Nah, this is our time to breathe some fresh air. Me and my lady companion’s just takin’ a stroll around the block while we can. It works, don’t it? He lifts his skirt to show his knees.

I nod. You look the bees knees. Just don’t open your traps, ’cause your tone ain’t exactly dulcet.

Boyd laughs (I made him laugh!) and takes Jackson—I see now it is the other Jackson, Willie Jackson, it’s the jut of the chin—by the arm. Shall we? he says. And they half saunter, half skip down the steps and into the dusk. Funny thing but sometimes I think it was worth it just to see them two silhouetted against the darkening sky, to be that close to that much charm and power.

When I came back from the lake that morning, Val asked to take my car, and I said yes, thinkin’ this is it, Anna, this is the last time you do that man any favours. I was tired of his doll dizzy ways. I’d had enough. But I held out my keys on my pinkie finger, dangled them like a carrot, and when he kissed me—when he kissed me, well it was killer diller, and I woulda done anything, believed any gobbledygook that fat head threw my way.

GUNMEN FIRE FROM CAR SHOOT TWO DETECTIVES 2 DETECTIVES SHOT IN GUNFIGHT TORONTO OFFICER SHOT AS POLICE CHASE TRIO THOUGHT BANK ROBBERS JACKSON SHOT 4 TIMES RAID TAVERN FOR BOYD 3 GUNMEN HUNTED BY 1,00 OFFICERS REMAND 3 WOMEN TORONTO’S REIGN OF TERROR IDENTIFY GUNMEN QUIZ 3 WOMEN. Mona clipped all the headlines from the case from the papers. I seen her cuttin’ them carefully—such concentration!—and slidin’ them into a big brown envelope.

They put me, Betty, and Jane Blahut (Lennie Jackson’s other sister) in the police cells overnight after they questioned us. They bunked me in with Jane and left poor Betty by herself; I think they thought we was in cahoots though she was the most blameless of them all. And me? Was I at all to blame for that policeman’s death? I suppose you could rest some of the blame on my narrow shoulders. They’ve carried their share. No difference to me if you heap a little more on there. They found twenty-two .45 calibre bullets hidden in a handkerchief behind a haversack in my front hall. It was a handkerchief I’d given Val, I recognized the border—a pale violet, some might say unmanly, but it suited him. What else had they squirrelled away? A target and air pistols under the chesterfield cushions. Which I swear I knew nothing about. Proof only of my inferior housekeeping skills.

If you’da ever asked me if I would get mixed up with a killer, I’da sworn up and down that there was no way—no way, no how. I was not the most morally upstandin’ dame around, but I knew right from wrong. That’s what I woulda told you, and I wouldn’t be lyin’. But on that day, my man stepped out of my own car and onto the street where he proceeded to put a bullet in to a police officer. I don’t wonder why he did it. He was scared and he didn’t want to let go of what he had. It’s the reason any of us lash out, whether or not we live on the right side of the law. That Tong fella had been on his trail for a long time. Tong was a known quantity. Val woulda seen it comin’ and he woulda known he had to stop it.

If you’da ever asked me if I would get mixed up with a killer, I’da sworn up and down that there was no way — no way, no how. I was not the most morally upstandin’ dame around, but I knew right from wrong.

I did not help him, but I harboured him, oh yes I did. Mine was always a harbour he could return to, I made sure of that. When he called to tell me I should report the car stolen I didn’t know his game or that he was tryin’ in his too little too late way to protect me. I just knew in the deepest part of myself that there was gonna be trouble. I began to shake from my foundations just like the Flyer roller coaster down at Sunnyside when a car goes chugging upwards along those rickety tracks. I had to get Betty to dial the number; she stood behind me, steadied me while I told the police officer what had happened, my voice too quiet and calm to sound true.

I thought of Betty, all alone in her cell. She would be a mess, mascara runnin’ down her lovely apple cheeks. Meanwhile, I’m stuck with Jane, Mary Mitchell’s sister and hussy-by-association-with-that-she-devil-in-furs if you ask me.

Jane sat at the far end of the bench that ran the length of our cell, and I perched on the edge of the bed like a nervous bird. You know, right after the war, when so many women went out to work, there was talk of some solidarity among us, but I never seen it. The way I look at it, women are people, plain and simple, some of them nasty, some kind, some a combination, some got book smarts, some just know by instinct how to get along in the world. But Mary Mitchell, she was worse than all them gangsters combined, and I don’t just say that because of the way she made off with my man.

Hi-de-ho, said Jane, like she was the star of some picture, some outlaw with a cigarette hangin’ out the side of her mouth. You been flappin’ your lips? She was tryin’ to intimidate me; she thought she had somethin’ on me because her sister was Val’s fancy woman and I was just the little lady. But I wasn’t scared of her, with her rhinestone earrings and black garters. I just stared back at her.

What if I was, I said. You’d best keep your nose in your own lunch pail.

You’re just whistlin’ Dixie, she said. You wouldn’t do a damn thing to hurt that man. He’s got you wound round his finger and you don’t even know where he’s been half the time. You think that baby of yours gives you some claim? I’ll tell you what’s got that man’s heart. Money. And you know who smells like money, sweet pea? Mary Mitchell. Mary “Money” Mitchell.

I didn’t say a word, although my blood was set to boil at this point. Jane was lookin’ at me like I was a waste of space. I didn’t budge though. I was stronger than her and I would wait her out. I seen her lookin’ down at her shoes and I thought that’s it, she’s had it. But then I heard her say, in this soft, sinful voice.

Maybe if you hadda given him a boy.

The way I look at it, women are people, plain and simple, some of them nasty, some kind, some a combination, some got book smarts, some just know by instinct how to get along in the world.

And that was that. I flipped my lid and let her have it. I pounced on her and grabbed at that hair of hers. The shrieks was loud enough to wake the dead, or at least one police constable. He was there in seconds, pullin’ us apart like the feral cats he thought we was. But I got a handful of her—it was tangled in my fingers. Proof that I’d defend my own. The next day, the papers described me as a ‘pretty blonde,’ and Jane as a ‘faded blonde.’ I would be lyin’ if I said that didn’t give me some deep satisfaction.

There are things that have stayed with me like tunes that won’t leave my head, things I read in the papers, that made me understand how little we know about anyone’s story, includin’ our own. They stay with me even more forcefully than the sight of Val all caged up when I visited him the day before they hung him. They are details that feel like they been bussed in from some other world. But now they are part of my own. Two were about Tong himself, how he’d whispered to a cop at the scene before he fell unconscious: 190 Wright Avenue. My address on the lips of a man shot down, passed like a secret to another man. I never thought much about the place I lived, but to know it was passed like that, then printed in black and white like it meant somethin’. It thrilled and terrified me.

The second was somethin’ I seen about the Tong family, that they had themselves a pet skunk that they loved like a puppy and insisted had lost its stink. But most visitors to their home still caught a whiff of it, even though they themselves seemed oblivious. I saw then that there was somethin’ they had as a family that me and my girls would never have and that those children had lost a daddy the likes of which Val coulda never been. Finally, there was a story of Doreen Boyd, Ed’s wife and mother to his children. She made them cops return her things, insisted even on gettin’ back a box of Tampax they had confiscated from the hideout on Heath street. This came out later you understand—inside that box, rolled up inside each of those cardboard tubes were $100 bills, $6000 total. That is what you call female ingenuity. It is something far above my pay grade. She made us all look like amateurs.

I bet you’re thinkin’ there’s gonna be some sorta moral to this story. Somethin’ practical like: Don’t get mixed up with bank robbers. Or more philosophical-like: Be careful what you wish for. But this ain’t that kind of story. It’s just my story and it ain’t even the end.

I bet you’re thinkin’ there’s gonna be some sorta moral to this story.

It’s true, I do feel a little bit sad for that Tong fella and his family, but mostly I feel sad for my daughter Mona—she’ll be carryin’ those newspaper headlines around in her head for the rest of her life. And she’s not like me, she didn’t have a choice. Would I of done things differently if I hadda known? I sometimes think yes, of course. I’m a decent type person. But then I remember Val with his violin on that street corner and I don’t flinch or turn away. I move closer to that man. I reach out to him.

Note: This story is loosely based on the (mis)adventures of The Boyd Gang, a group of Toronto robbers who held up at least ten banks in the city in the 1940s and 50s. One of the gang members, Steve Suchan, shot a police officer, Edmund Tong, in 1952. Tong later died of his injuries. Anna Camaro was Steve Suchan (Val Lasso)’s girlfriend. She lived at 190 Wright Avenue.


Heather Birrell’s most recent story collection, Mad Hope, was one of the Globe and Mail’s top 23 Canadian fiction titles of 2012. Winner of the Journey Prize for short fiction and the Edna Staebler Award for creative non-fiction, her work has appeared in many North American journals and anthologies. She currently lives on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland with her family.

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