October 23, 2013
There are four of them.
Dana, Jackie, Pinky, and Cora are cousins. Pinky is also Dana’s little brother. They call themselves the Gorillas because all gangs need a name—see Hole-in-the-Wall Gang, Stopwatch Gang, Winter Hill Gang—and also because they wear gorilla masks during their hold-ups. They are criminals, but they still have rules: no hostages, small scores, never stay in one town for more than a week. It’s late summer and they’re roving through the Midwest, from motel to motel, making just enough to keep going. Dana watches the impossibly flat landscapes of Lafayette and Oneida pass through the car window and wonders how they all ended up here. Why didn’t they go to school and get regular jobs and get married and live in houses? The short answer: they are a group of people committed to making life as hard as possible.
Cora says they need to think bigger. No more knocking over delis and drugstores and dinky banks. They need to do a real heist. There are millions to be made, if they could just grow some balls. Jackie has simpler desires. She wants a boyfriend and a set of acrylic nails. Pinky is thirteen and wants to build a robot. Dana is more about what she doesn’t want, as in: she doesn’t want anyone to go to jail or die.
In L.A., a gang of female bank robbers have been making headlines. They wear Snow White masks and carry semi-automatics. Witnesses have reported them doing tricks with their guns during heists. They’re rumored to be retired Romanian acrobats. Naturally the press loves them. They’ve been nicknamed the Go-Go Girls.
“Why aren’t we ever on TV?” Cora complains one night. They’re in a motel in Galesburg. They have plans for the Farmers & Mechanics Bank on Main Street. Dana lies on one of the musty twin beds; her cousins are curled up on the other. Cora is green-eyed and lean with cropped auburn hair, like Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby. Jackie is shaped like a lemon drop. Her dark, wide-set eyes remind Dana of a well-meaning cow. Pinky is working on his robot in the bathroom. He’s been collecting materials from gas station and motel dumpsters: pins, wires, batteries, little black wheels. Earlier Dana stood in the doorway and watched him screw two metal panels together. He sat cross-legged on the floor, his lips puckered with concentration. The overhead light flickered and buzzed. The spaces between the shower tiles were dark. She’d never seen him work so hard on anything before.
“Those are the kind of people who end up in shootouts with the police,” Dana tells Cora. The Go-Go Girls have just stolen two million in diamonds from a bank in Beverly Hills. Dana picks up the remote and changes the channel to a cooking show. A woman is finishing a dessert with a blowtorch. Dana closes her eyes and listens to Pinky rattle around in the bathroom. Did they want a shootout with the police? She considers the Dalton Gang and John Dillinger. Is that what they want, to bleed to death on the street? The room is hot. The smell of burning rubber wafts through the bathroom door. No, she decides. No it is not.
There is a river in Elijah, Missouri that always appears in her dreams. They all grew up in Elijah. In this river they learned to float. Dana would stare up at the clouds and imagine they were spaceships or trains. In this river they would dive and search the bottom for smooth, flat stones. In real life it’s a slender, slow-moving river, but in her dreams it’s as wide as the Mississippi and silver, as though it’s made of melted-down coins. From the shore she sees a raft with no one on it. She wants to get on the raft, but doesn’t know how.
That night she wakes sweaty and breathless. She sits up. Pinky is next to her, asleep on top of the covers. He’s rangy and sharp-elbowed. His arms are folded under his head. His mouth is pink and sticky from chewing Red Hots. She touches his pale hair—tow-headed, her father used to say—and feels heat rising from his scalp. Outside she hears rain falling. She lays back down. She tells herself to go to sleep. She tells herself to stop dreaming.
In the morning, they case the Farmers & Mechanics Bank. They drive around the block twice in their Impala and then park at the pizza place across the street. To their left is a small roundabout with a patch of green and two withered trees in the center. It’s called Central Park, which makes Dana think of the real Central Park in New York City, a place she will probably never see. A truck rattles past. The exhaust pops and Dana twitches in her seat. Cora is driving. Dana is sitting next to her. Jackie and Pinky are in the back and of course her brother is trying to wind two wires together. Dana imagines that when the Go-Go Girls case, it’s all high tech, with thermal imaging binoculars and fancy cameras. They just have their eyes.
They watch people come and go from the bank. They consider the flow of traffic on the street. They send Pinky in to pretend he’s filling out a deposit slip. In Central Park, an American flag snaps in the breeze. A church bell calls out the hour. The bank is unassuming, just a brick building with tinted windows. When Pinky returns to the car, he gives a report on the interior layout, the number of tellers, and the points of exit and entry. According to him, there are only two tellers and they’re both fat and slow. Dana watches a young woman emerge from the bank; a white envelope is tucked under her arm and she’s holding a little boy by the hand. It startles Dana to think that the course of your life could depend on when you decide to cash a check or buy a roll of quarters.
“This one is going to be a breeze,” she says.
“Where’s the fun in easy?” Cora replies. She turns on the radio and surfs until she finds the news. Tornados are in the forecast. Last night one of the Go-Go Girls was spotted at a nightclub in Malibu. There was a big chase with the police. Naturally she escaped.
“A nightclub!” Cora slaps the steering wheel. “She was probably sitting in some guy’s lap. She was probably drinking champagne.”
“Champagne gives me a headache,” Jackie says from the back.
“That’s because you’ve never had the good stuff,” Cora tells her.
“How would you know what the good stuff is?” Jackie replies.
At the motel, they clean their guns. Except for Pinky, who locks himself in the bathroom. They can hear him banging around in there. It sounds like he’s acquired a hammer and a drill. Dana doesn’t know where he could have gotten those things.
“He really wants to finish that robot before we leave town,” she says.
“What if someone has to pee? Or take a shower?” Cora asks. “What then?”
“Your brother is so weird,” Jackie says.
Their guns are old Smith & Wesson revolvers. They wipe them down with the white face towels they found in the motel room. Afterwards they take out their gorilla masks and line them up on a bed. Black synthetic fur surrounds the rubber faces. The mouths are open, showing off plump pink tongues and fangs. They put the masks on. They pick up their guns and point them at each other. They aren’t loaded, so they pull the triggers and listen to the hollow click. Bang, Dana whispers into the sweet-smelling rubber. She can see a bullet flying from the chamber and pinging her right in the forehead. She can see it burrowing into her brain. When people get shot in the movies, they flail and scream and stagger. Sometimes they even pretend to be dead and then come back to life. But that’s not what it would be like at all, Dana thinks. She imagines it’s just like turning out a light.
LAURA VAN DEN BERG‘s debut collection of stories, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves, was a Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” selection and shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Award. Her second collection of stories, The Isle of Youth: Stories, will be published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in November. A Florida native, she currently lives in the Boston area.
Excerpted from The Isle of Youth: Stories, by Laura van den Berg, to be published in November 2013 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2013 by Laura van den Berg. All rights reserved.