By Chris Miller
His actual name was Charles Cripps, but most everybody called him Cripple after he injured his leg as a kid. Jumped off a roof and the leg never healed fully, so he walked around with a limp for the rest of his life. Always seen hobbling down the street like a cripple, the moniker stuck.
Gordon Baxter and Cripple were drinking buddies for many years, and fellow rig pigs. Only had each other as friends. Gordon chose Cripple as a friend when nobody else would. Given his criminal record, others regarded Cripple as nothing more than a lowlife felon. Most of his criminal convictions were of the petty variety: mischief, shoplifting, break-ins, resisting arrest, failing to appear in court, and a couple of peeping Tom incidents. Got charged with sexual assault for touching a female police officer inappropriately at a nightclub. Grabbed her ass, actually. It’s not as though he was a killer or anything. Rather, he was just another guy whose goal in life was the pursuit of money and sometimes he turned to thievery to achieve that goal.
Much older now and in spite of his physical impediment, Cripple was still regarded by Gordon as the finest thief in his hometown, and Cripple once instructed him: "If your brain ever goes kaput, and you’re too exhausted for honest swindling, go to Edmonton. A chump is born every minute there!" Only weeks later, Gordon’s brain was really going kaput. Discovered to his chagrin that he couldn't remember the names of his cousins anymore. Due to overdrinking almost every night, the next morning he felt like crap, rubbing his sore temples instead of getting ready for another grueling workday. Also, he noticed his head was dappled with gray hair. The time had come to heed Cripple’s advice and head over to the big city. Gordon was convinced that Cripple would land him a soft job someplace, something effortless where he wouldn’t have to wake up at an ungodly hour. Or get his hands dirty.
Four-hour bus ride gave him time to reflect on things. Thought about his life, where he’d gone wrong, where he’d gone right, that sort of thing. His life was always a series of compromises. He either had to do the typical nine-to-five thing, or else be a penniless bum. Neither path was all too comfortable. Trying to be both a working man and a drinking man never worked out for him. Those were the kinds of things he thought about while on the Greyhound bus to Edmonton.
Gordon struck Edmonton about lunchtime, and took a downtown stroll along Jasper Avenue. Didn’t walk without purpose. On the contrary, he had a specific destination in mind. Cripple was staying in a nearby hotel and Gordon headed in that direction on foot. Sights were good as he walked because it was mid-July and good-looking women in their bright summer clothes went up and down on the city sidewalks.
Wouldn’t you know it, Gordon bumped coincidentally enough into Cripple himself, all wrapped up in a capacious sort of haberdashery, leaning against the hotel wall that was smeared with colorful graffiti that read "Madore blows goats" and another reading, "I licked your sister’s sugar box." Some scar-faced guy sat slumped on the sidewalk smelling as though he’d dirtied his drawers.
"Cripple, you’re here," said Gordon, stating the obvious.
"Hello, Gordon," said Cripple, who doddered over. "Glad to see you again."
Gordon cut right to the chase, saying, "So, making money here?"
Said Cripple, "Yeah, those small town folks were amassing a little too much cleverness."
"So you saved Edmonton for dessert?"
"You betcha. Here they’re mostly simpletons. It's contemptible to steal from these rich folks. But, hell, they walk around in the sunlight like everything is OK with the world. I take advantage of their naivete."
Sometimes Cripple used fancy words. Not an educated man by any means, yet he used a lot of 50-cent lingo such as "contemptible" and "naivete". The grandiose vocabulary didn’t seem to fall in sync with the fact that he dropped out of school in the ninth grade.
"Sure your mother would be proud," said Gordon.
"Well, no, not proud. She raised me better."
Gordon sought a fresh start in Edmonton. If he could believe what Cripple kept telling him, this was a city of chumps, not champions.
"What scams you got cooked up?" asked Gordon.
"No more scams. Been studying this city," said Cripple, "and reading the papers every day, and I know it as well as the cat in City Hall knows a fat mouse. Lots of money here, Gordon, and we'll work this city together, just like in the good old days."
Gordon didn’t recall any good old days. They had always worked menial jobs, usually doing grunt labor on the oilrigs or someplace, then spending their weekly wages on watered-down whiskey and diseased whores. Still, if Cripple had some get-rich-quick scheme in mind, he wanted in.
Coming down the sidewalk towards them was a lovely female—maybe 18, if that—wearing skimpy shorts and a white top. As she passed by, both of them gawked at her. Cripple stared at her body longer than decency allowed.
"Hell, I’d like to paint her wagon," said Cripple, using a Clint Eastwood colloquialism as they continued watching the movement of the woman’s legs and ankles as she departed into the daylight.
Up in Cripple’s hotel room the two of them discussed the latest plan. Under a dim light they sat in his shabby little room. Numerous irrelevant odds and trinkets were lying about.
"Soon enough we’ll have money, plenty of it," said Cripple. "Most of these cosmopolitans have the intelligence of a housefly."
"A foolproof moneymaking scheme? Can’t wait to her all about it," said Gordon.
Explained Cripple, "This city’s so easy a burglar can go into a home, the folks inside will have a fresh supper waiting on the table, and while you’re eating their supper and stealing their stereo, some guy will come out and pour you drinks."
"Sounds easy," said Gordon.
"It is easy. That’s what I’ve been saying all along."
The eagerness to hear Cripple’s plan was evident in Gordon’s expression.
"Well, I have this house scoped out," said Cripple.
"A house?" Gordon raised an eyebrow querulously.
"Yeah, a rich guy and his wife, no kids. When they’re out, we go steal their shit. They got jewelry, expensive artwork, electronics like you wouldn’t believe, you name it."
Looking at Cripple with open-mouthed wonder, Gordon said, "You mean, that’s your plan? Burglarize a goddamned house?"
"Geez, I didn’t come here for that. I thought you had some great elaborate plan worked out, something not so risky."
"Come on," said Cripple. "Everything involves an element of risk."
Cripple went on and on about how unsuspecting people were around here. He said it would be a real shame to not rob this rich family. Apparently, the guy was a doctor and his wife sold Avon. According to Cripple, they had more unnecessary possessions than any two people deserved.
Gordon said, "You might think you have this city all figured out, but I have my doubts."
"What do you mean?"
"Hell, Cripple, I've only been here two hours now, hasn’t dawned on me that this city is ours with a big red cherry on top."
"What you going on about?"
"The people here don’t look easy," Gordon told him. "They’ve got cops patrolling the streets here and alarm systems in their banks, and video cameras in the shopping malls. We can’t get away with fuck-all here."
As if disappointed, Cripple’s head dropped. This time he didn’t respond with fancy words, just silence.
"I don’t like your idea," said Gordon. "Burglarizing homes is just desperation, that’s all. It’s what you do when you don’t have a plan."
"Tell me, how much money in your pocket right now?"
"Enough for a beer or two, that’s all."
"Exactly! I got about the same," said Cripple. "Now we can sit here and decay in this stinking room or we can go make some quick cash."
"You make it sound easy."
"Easiest thing in the world, so easy that almost nobody can do it." Then, "Come on, let’s get those beers you were talking about."
So they did. They went downstairs to the hotel lounge and shared a bag of potato chips, and spent the last of their dimes and quarters on a Budweiser apiece.
It was an affluent neighborhood, with roomy homes lined up under a pale moon, homes with well-manicured lawns, picket fences, and full of families who had never slept in back alleys. Inside were men and women of good fortune. Silence hung on the listless air, the only sound being that of a dog barking in a hoarse tenor somewhere far off. Gordon and Cripple stood outside of this one house in particular and Cripple was all sonorous and stirred with a kind of hushed joy, anticipating the big score ahead of them.
"Geez, Cripple, I’m not so sure now. Having second thoughts, you know?"
"Cut it out," said Cripple. "Want to eat pizza crust from the garbage for the rest of your life?"
"Of course not," said Gordon, reluctant to steal from these strangers. While lost in thought and contemplating what to do, the moon danced on the asphalt driveway.
"Let’s get in, then get out, and it’s all over."
"Just scared is all," said Gordon, who didn’t have any genuine desire for wealth, possessions or sexual conquests. Wanted an easy life of sleeping, drinking and intermittent evenings at the casino.
Cripple paced up and down the sidewalk, and he swore in a loud tone, "What’s to be scared of, Gordon? Go in, we grab the shit and get the fuck out of here!"
At first, Gordon didn’t respond. A Canadian flag blew high upon a flagpole in the yard. He looked up at the flag. He was not a patriotic man. The red maple leaf, so majestic, was representative of the supposed greatest country in the world, and yet Gordon resided here his whole life. Saw nothing great about it whatsoever. This country had disappointed him, deceived him.
"OK, let’s get this over with," said Gordon, conceding finally.
The two of them circled around to the back of the house. Cripple carried a cloth bag that clanged with iron and metal.
"What’s in there?"
"Tools of the trade," said Cripple, just as the porch light came on, putting them in a makeshift spotlight unexpectedly.
Both Cripple and Gordon dropped to the ground instantly and took cover behind a prickly hedge. Stayed silent for a time.
"Just one of those motion lights, I think," said Cripple in a low voice.
"Comes on automatically when somebody gets close."
Waited for the light to turn off. About a minute later it did and Cripple stood up, struggling to his feet. As he did so, the light came on again, confirming Cripple’s theory that it was a motion light. They crept through the backyard toward the window there. Cripple removed a pocketknife from his cloth bag, and sliced at the screen. With the screen off, Cripple, knowledgeable about burglarizing, wrapped a towel around his elbow and struck the windowpane. The window smashed quietly. Wearing gloves, Cripple broke off the pointy shards of glass.
They entered the house. It was dark, very dark. Cripple turned on his flashlight. Saw purple velvet drapes, oak furniture, a cabinet in the corner. Cripple made a beeline for the cabinet, limping furiously. He had a suspicion that something valuable was inside the locked cabinet. Started
digging in his bag for the appropriate tool to pry it open with.
Grunting, tool in hand, Cripple started prying the cabinet open, as they heard sounds from upstairs, first the sound of bedsprings and then the sound of a man walking. Mere seconds later, a man came downstairs, flicked on a light, and was in the same room with Cripple. A man of indeterminate age, presumably the doctor, stood there in his boxer shorts. He had a stunned expression.
"What are you assholes doing in my home?"
Gordon came in from the kitchen and advanced on the guy. He dived at him, actually. He tackled the guy to the carpet and started hitting him with a flurry of fists to the face and chest. Gordon had never been a fighter, but with the adrenaline searing through him now, he kept hitting the doctor again and again. His fear gave him near-superhuman strength. Next, he hit him with an elbow to the skull. Atop him, the doctor could not defend himself and eventually his body went limp, no resistance, and his head tilted to one side with blood streaming from his mouth and nose. The doctor was definitely unconscious, maybe dead.
While the affray ensued, Cripple kept working on the locked cabinet. He couldn’t get it open.
Heart racing, Gordon knocked the doctor out cold. The next thing they knew, this woman—presumably the doctor’s wife—was descending the stairs.
"Get out of here!" she said, all panicky. She was a young blonde in a flowery nightgown, without a bra, her breasts loose. Her stipples were nicking out, as Cripple would say. Her lips were pale and her eyes were wide with fright.
The doctor was still motionless on the floor. Gordon wasn’t sure if he was alive or dead. Really, he didn’t care. There was something like six billion people in this world, so who cared if one man was killed tonight in a burglary?
"Can’t get this cabinet open!" said Cripple, discouraged. Instead, he went to the kitchen and opened drawers. Put things in his pockets that he found in the drawers.
"Come on, let’s vamoose!" said Gordon.
"Right, I got enough here!" said Cripple, piling items into his jacket pocket.
They exited through the window, and ran off. Cripple limped behind slowly, pleased that he’d pocketed a few items from the kitchen. They headed back to the hotel, Cripple with a big smile on his face.
"That was damn close," said Cripple, as they neared his frowzy hotel room. As Cripple put the key in the door, Gordon said, "Just glad you managed to steal some shit."
They went inside. Breathed a deep sigh of relief.
"Let’s see what you got," said Gordon.
Cripple dug into his pockets, and removed what was there: butter knives, matchbooks, a sample-size squeeze tube of moisturizing lotion, elastic bands, paperclips, and a Las Vegas bumper sticker. There was nothing of significant value.
With a blank expression, Gordon looked at his friend, and said, "You fucking idiot."
Chris Miller (established 1971) is an Alberta writer, currently working as
Photo " Broken Mirror 4" courtesy of Kat Callard, South Yorkshire, U.K.
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