Helen sat behind the wheel of the panel van, chewing her bottom lip and trying to surf the rising tide of adrenaline before it overwhelmed her completely.
Kelly would be on the bike, a hardy little motocross bike that they had picked up for a couple of grand off a dealer in Philly along with the van. They had fake plates as a precaution, but no one would stop a white van, they were part of the landscape, as anonymous and unseen as homeless people.
Helen’s problem was containing the excitement. Not fear, although there was that element to it, but it had diminished with each job they pulled. The excitement though, it held the pull of gravity to it, an exotic spicy set of emotions and instincts. It challenged everything about her, which appalled and excited her in equal amounts. Kelly embodied that in every fibre of his being, and despite everything they had suffered, they had done so together.
Hardship had been part of the deal for her, he had told her, with marrying a Lumbee.
She had no idea what one was before she met him. She had left college with a degree in social work, at a time when such qualifications were not valued, but she had kept motivated, landed herself some work in North Carolina, outreach for a non-profit working with families who were not so much poor as destitute. A sullen, wounded lot of people who were only unappreciative because they had never gotten anything without being made to feel like shit for it.
Kelly had come back from the north as he called it. Sallow lined cheeks the texture of dried biscuit, caramel brown eyes that held a pensive, wounded quality and long, sandy-brown hair pulled away. He had a rangy, lean body, the kind built for lengthy periods of toil with little to no nutrition. He moved with the restlessness of a smoker trying to quit cold turkey, but his voice had the soft twang of the county rubbed into it, even as he talked about books and his two tours in Vietnam.
He had left North Carolina and the job in the textile factory to serve and came back to nothing. Less than nothing because the contempt for the Lumbee went back generations. A tribe, recognised as Native American but without the iconography or liberal guilt to get them sucking on that sweet, pink federal teat. He was younger than he looked, but war had put miles on his inner clock and the hateful legacy that was his birth right kept the hands spinning fast enough until you felt the hot wave of him from a single look.
She had fallen for him from the first. Hard and fast, marrying him had been worthwhile just for the horrified reaction from her parents, plump and bovine liberal arts professors who had tried to map out her future from the time she could walk. Marrying an honest to goodness indigene challenged them beyond their capacity for compassion.
The problem had been apparent when she had tried to apply for a credit card at the Walmart. They had seen her married surname and sneered at her.
Then, someone made a complaint and her job got lost in a reshuffle so they were soon living off what the VA threw their way in a house with packed dirt floors and tarpaper roofing.
It was one night, their lips greasy and shining with the taste of processed government cheese, that Kelly suggested it.
‘Being smart ain’t got us nowhere, so we might as well try bein‘ stupid.’
Helen had responded with an appalled gasp, but after a few hours, the idea had rooted herself in her nerves, that chill, low whisper that came to her when she wanted to be bad. The same impulse had led her to his bed, and, it suggested, why not a little further?
Why not, indeed?
She had vomited on the first morning they were going to do it, like morning sickness but when he had slipped into the car with the tan duffel bag fat with cash, a surge of utter invincibility had wiped it all away.
They had fucked that afternoon like the world was ending.
A few more robberies under their belt, and they had a nest egg, but it was never enough. The cocktail of it had been a more effective weight loss program than cancer, and Kelly had said to her, when they were laying in bed one night something that made her eyes damp and clutch at him with a desperate passion.
‘You look like a Lumbee, darlin”
Kelly kept his voice neutral beneath the balaclava and the polished, gleaming.45 in everyone’s eyeline. Helen would drive the van and park it somewhere close, Kelly would get out, get on and they would get off.
Helen would look at the balance and not even see it. Sometimes when they were trying to live a normal life, or start one, she wondered how longer they could keep going. These concerns were always delivered in her mother’s voice and then Kelly, as though he knew, would gaze into her eyes, touch the small of her back and tell her that they had this and they could stop anyone they wanted to.
Helen’s employment had attuned her intuition to the patois of the habitual addict but she was so deaf and dumb before the excitement that it would only arrive in retrospect.
She looked at her watch. They wound them both before they left for the job, part of the little steps they took, a funhouse mirror of domestic routine that they would chuckle about in the quiet times.
He was two minutes late. She wiped her palms against the thighs of her jeans, looked at her hollow, damp eyes in the wing mirror and said a silent prayer for God to help them. He hadn’t turned up before now, but there was always a first time.
‘If he comes, we’ll quit’ she said.
She flinched at the sound of sirens and gripped the steering wheel. Her body flooded with the instinct to hit the accelerator, but she fought the spasm and focused on her breathing. Police were everywhere, much like the white van she was sat in, waiting for her man to come to her.
She heard the hum of a motorcycle being pushed to its limit and in her peripheral vision, watched as Kelly rode past. The arm of his black leather jacket was slick and wet and he was sagging as he leaned over the handlebars. His hair was loose, and he had an expression of animal acceptance. She wanted to call his name but the physics of the situation defeated her. He rode on. Two patrol cars, lights flashing and sirens wailing were in close pursuit, on his trail like relentless metal hunting dogs.
She sat there, stunned as her thoughts compressed into a high whining sound. It was a minute before she realised that she was actually making the noise. There was a tap at the window. When she turned, she looked into the sunken apple face of an old black woman, her steel wool hair fighting a losing battle against the array of hairpins and slides she had allayed against it.
She smiled at Helen with a bemused kindness that stung like a slap.
Helen just stared at her, stripped of everything but the futile, brutal urge to see her husband again.
‘If he comes, we’ll quit’ she said.
Two thoughts were trying to take her over, and she knew, that if they succeeded, they would send her plummeting her into a final, doomed madness.
The best romances were doomed ones, her mother had said.
She wondered if she would ever to confirm that with her.
She watched the woman speak to her through the window and kept on saying the same phrase.