Terese Svoboda

Mugsy wasn't his name but it should have been. He wore a porkpie hat, according to Dad who had trouble remembering what they are called—the name's a dish. Dad's looking out at the snow rows of sheared wheat that are making up what scenery he's not slept through, and telling me about Mugsy's case. An overpass reminds him, and like the telling of any tale, several overpasses pass before Mugsy is a fish that can swim—Dad's way of saying when all the pieces start adhering, story-wise.

The porkpie hat he set way back on his head the way those Jews do. It looked like a kind of halo, if a halo had black felt and Jews wore them. Mugsy didn't take it off coming into the courtroom so the sheriff had to show him how to do his duty. He probably never removed it ever, not even for a bath—this was before showers got to be what everyone took. He stank—the whole courtroom covered their noses—all five foot and maybe five of him. But he liked the ladies and wore some of that toilet water. It was one of them who turned him in.

Dad really enjoyed being a prosecutor so long ago. It meant he met people who just went ahead and made mistakes or people who didn't see the world as a problem, especially with regard to ownership.

Mugsy cracked safes, he says. You could see it in his build, the shortness in his upper legs and his hammy arms. He looked as if you could twirl a combination lock on his chest and he would yield gold bullion right from inside himself. The legs were from getting himself around a safe and lifting.

The small banks around here—Dad points toward the end of a snowy row where nothing ever so bank-like as even a gas station interrupts the view, as if small is a distance—the banks here didn't have as much money in them then, the money sat in the back of the lumberyard or in the hardware store in a register. Not like it is now, with people running to a teller twice a day to make a deposit. They had safes on the premises that they emptied the register into. Mugsy specialized in that business-sized safe not only because he could hug one right into the back of his pickup but because he wasn't much good in the safecracking department.

Dad optimizes the suspense of his story by blowing his nose. We have just come from the track. The horses here run even in a snowstorm but just looking at a horse through the glass of the box makes Dad sneezy. I'm driving because he sneezes so often, and because when he makes his points, he has to turn completely to one side to watch my lips for my answer. When he did drive, he talked a lot but when he listened and watched he slid the truck into the snowy bumpy part, toward the bank.

Mugsy broke the bank, Dad goes on to say. He'd haul the safes into the truck—he'd done this a couple at a time is what he said after the trial, after they got him on only one charge. He said then he'd drive the safes in the truck to an overpass, wait until all clear—no cars were coming—and throw them down one at a time to open them.

He must've had a partner to collect all the flying bills at the bottom.

Bills come in bags, says Dad. Mugsy said once his shirt tore off when a safe handle caught on it. That time he almost lost more than his shirt.

You'd never know beforehand if it were worth the trouble, I say.

It was a better bet than those horses.

What would Mugsy have done today at the track? I ask. Put a firecracker under Five?

Dad is asleep just like that. He told me to keep him up, that he didn't get so many chances to chat and not drive. Did they ever get his partner? I ask as loud as I can and still sound cordial.

Dad rubs his face awake. It was probably his wife. We didn't prosecute a wife then. She had the kids. When I asked him why he stole all those safes, he said the milkman needed the money. He used those very words. And he wore that hat.

A porkpie.

A lunch hat. Dad stares out the window while a snowy town dismembers itself alongside the highway: car parts, billboards, slow signs, implement stores.

I'll bet more on the horses next time, I say.

Thatta girl, laughs Dad. Don't be afraid to break the bank. The milkman can wait.

And he is asleep again, head to chest. I think. He turns to me with his eyes still closed. We caught him that time with a broken safe. It was empty.

That means some overpass might have a bag of bills hidden nearby from forty years ago.

You put it like that—yes. He scans the highway, blinking. A better bet than Five.

Five was a grey horse. Nobody bets on the greys, I say.

Your mother likes grey.

She's not dead yet.

I'm not a betting man.

The town breaks around us but we don't stop. She hates me, I say in somebody else's voice.

Dad appears to be asleep. He hates complainers, the world is full of them. Be different is what he liked saying.

Maybe his ear apparatus has shorted out. He's making some sound. I can't tell with his glasses whether he is feigning a noisy sleep, or sobbing.

I drive on, overpass after overpass, looking for bills.

Terese Svoboda is the author of six books of fiction. She's a 2013 Guggenheim Fellowship recipient.

Read her postcard.

See more of her work in the archive.

Detail of photo on main page courtesy of Rob Pongsajapan.

W i g l e a f               09-19-17                                [home]