Coolness Plays Upon His Face

Coolness Plays Upon His Face

When you think about it — and I’ve had plenty of time to — all of this happened because of a Jack Russell terrier named Samson, although I hate those kinds of explanations because you could just as easily claim that it was because of his mother, or a man in Illinois deciding he wanted to breed dogs, or that man’s grandfather moving from Romania to the U.S., or Charlemagne, or the Big Bang. What we call a confluence of events could more accurately be considered shit that just happens.

But now that I’m here, my only regret is not fully understanding how toast can go from perfection to burnt black in less than three seconds. It’s crazy. I lift it off the skillet enough to sneak a peak of golden brown, and an instant later I can smell the rotten carbon that means I’ll have to fling it out into the yard for the birds to eat. Assuming they eat it. It could be the squirrels.

Why does it skip over darker shades of brown? Why does the descent take an eye blink when the ascent to buttery excellence takes a page and a half of the morning paper? I guess the scientific answer is that I should have bought a toaster a long time ago. Add that to the list of regrets. So, two then. If we’re keeping score.

Other than the toast thing, I had life pretty well figured out. Except for that final lesson in human frailty, I guess. It has to count. So that’s three.

The problem is that when you’ve walled yourself off from other people, you can’t recognize how badly you are at reading them. Like not having any books written in Mandarin on your bookshelf, you assume the grade school sensibilities will stick with you through years of asocial behavior. It doesn’t, though, and you never notice it slipping away. All those years of coming home from work to an empty house. I should have gone dancing or joined a book club.

What really gets me is how I could have gotten so bad at basic human psychology that I ended up here. I thought I was good. Really good, actually. In 19 years of quality professionalism and friendly service as a teller at First Comanche National, I’d had nothing but high marks — not only for my demeanor, but for my ability to spot customers who were trying to deceive or misrepresent themselves. We have training for that, but I prided myself on picking up the smallest cues. I can’t figure out why that skill fell through the floor when I really needed it.

People complain constantly now that you can’t create a relationship with clerks and teller and store managers, but it’s definitely not true. You have to put in the effort. The time. You can’t expect the girl selling you sweaters to ask about your balsa wood carvings unless you’re in the department store regularly. Nowadays everyone wants to go into a restaurant for the first time and be treated like a family friend. Get real. Meet us in the middle. Take some responsibility for your role in the quality of the interaction.

Fortunately, you get lots of people who come to the bank on a weekly basis. Some who come daily: the older woman asking for an account balance as a pretext for the small talk that represents her only human contact, the young man dropping off the record store’s deposits, and Eva Turnmeyer.

She wasn’t beautiful. At least not in a physical sense. She could also come off as a teaspoon too shy, but she was incredibly smart and bubbly, and she was the best five minutes of my day for over seven years. Sometimes I’d ride home on the bus wondering what she was doing, who she was going home to, what kind of wine she’d have with dinner. It wasn’t creepy or anything. Just casual musings, and then yesterday she ended up on my doorstep with an overnight bag asking if I had a comfortable couch.

Samson and I slept on it that night, offering her the bed and worrying about whether she’d laugh at how many canned goods and frozen meals I had.

Damn, I miss that dog. I really do. I assume he’s in a better place. At least I’m glad he’s not with me. In hindsight, I should have been more curious about how Eva found out my home address. I’ve gotten a ton more curious in the time since, that’s for sure, and I think I’ve locked most of the pieces into place now. Solved the puzzle.

It’s definitely the birds eating my toast. Squirrels don’t like bread, do they?

Like I said, I’ve had a lot of time to think about all of this. At least it’s been quiet. The darkness helps, too. Easier to stay focused.


My grandfather used to tell me all the time that if you stop to ask someone directions, and the person hesitates or says, “um,” you shouldn’t pay attention to anything they say afterward. Find directions from someone else, he’d say. I wonder how often he got lost. He never struck me like the kind to ask for directions anyway.

It would have been nice to have had a grandson to pass that along to. I’d also tell him not to take overnight bags from virtual strangers, no matter how many pleasant encounters you’d had setting up wire transfers and making change.

Eva showered the morning after she’d pulled her front porch appearing act, but she put on the same clothes from the night before. One more detail I should have asked about. She told me over runny eggs and no toast that she was running away from an abusive boyfriend named Tad, that she’d had the last of his tantrums and that she was going to head up toward the panhandle to stay with an Aunt who’d cried with her over the phone and suggested she change her name. Eva wasn’t going to go to that length, but she was definitely going to get a restraining order. I was happy to help, blinded by the possibility that all of our micro-engagements had built to something substantial in her mind, too. Like how sleeping eight hours a night adds up a third of your life. What was five minutes every week day for seven years?

Something real, I think.

Add to the list of questions I should have asked: why didn’t she have other friends to spend the night with? Why spend the night at all? Why not make tracks immediately?

Of course there wasn’t a boyfriend, abusive or otherwise. I’m not even sure there was an Aunt. Probably not. But there was a kiss on the cheek for me — a still happy, stupid me — when Eva went to buy a bus ticket, leaving her bag in my guest bedroom. She never came back.


“I’d like change for this,” he said. His voice was higher than you’d expect from looking at him. Like soap bubbles caught in a dirty drain. He slid a one-dollar bill under the bullet-proof partition.

“Do you have an account, sir?”

“I need an account for four quarters?”

“Technically, yes. There’s also a change machine in the arcade about a block away.”

“Does it cost you money to make change for me?”

“I guess not, no.”

“So what’s the problem?”

He’d adopted a stance we’re trained on before we can even shadow another teller — an aggressive, hip-flashing steadiness that rhinos also take during pre-fight posturing. We’re supposed to respond with polite firmness. I’m not totally sure what that means, but a younger me practiced at home in front of my bathroom mirror for an hour before graduating from trainee.

“It’s not that I don’t see the logic in what you’re saying, but I can’t physically open the till unless I plug customer information into the computer.”

“So you’re saying you want to help me, but the system won’t let you.”

“Exactly, yes. That’s it. Like I said, there’s a change mach –”

“Then maybe you just give me the bag Eva stashed in your guest room instead.”

I have no idea why (another question for the big list), but in that moment the bullet-proof glass seemed inconsequential. Maybe because I didn’t have any at home, and this hulking princess knew where that was. He knew about Eva. I thought I knew him.

“Let me take my break, Tad. We can talk it over.”


I woke up in the trunk of a rusted red car. He hadn’t even bothered to tie my hands together, which was a little insulting, although it’s not like I tried to run or anything. Embarrassing. You always wonder why the victim didn’t fight back, and then you find yourself held against your will in a gasoline-soaked cage rolling down the highway, and you freeze up. I don’t think I can accurately be judged for it, though, unless you want to think of subconscious, fight-or-flight responses as our “true selves,” which is ridiculous. That would mean the bulk of what we are stays hidden.

It couldn’t have been ten minutes later that we stopped, Tad and another bruiser opened up the trunk, and a bright light branded my eyes. We were in a field outside of town where I sometimes take Samson on weekend walks. He chases everything that moves. Never catches anything.

They hauled me out and threw me to the dirt.

“Why’d you call me Tad?”

Not what I was expecting to hear.

“You’re Eva’s boyfriend, right?” I said, tasting copper.

They both laughed.

“Is that what that upjumped whore told you?” the second asshole chimed in, offering a far more reasonably deep voice. “She’s a genius.”

“Not smart enough to juke a tail on her way to your place, but still, she’s clever,” Not Tad said, slamming his boot into my rib cage.

“I’ll get you the bag. No problem. Just take me back home.”

“We’ve already got it.”

“Then what do you want with me?” I said.

I almost yelled it. I was crying. I can’t be ashamed of that now. My ribs hurt.

Not Tad pulled out a gun.

“I’m going to shoot you in the head, and then my associate and I are going to dig until our arms get tired.”

If I’m being honest, and I should because it’s all that counts, I pissed myself. If I were in denial, I’d say I lit a cigarette, took a deep bellow and blew it in his pockmarked face.

I’ve never even smoked before. It upsets the digestive tract.

Not Tad kept the gun aimed at my mouth while Not Not Tad pulled me to my knees.

“You should be thankful,” said Not Not Tad. “We throw the problem children in the hole without giving them a bullet.”


Click, click, click, click, click, click.

I, against all odds, pissed myself even more.

“Did you seriously fucking forget?” Not Tad shot a vicious look at his partner. “Why do I even send you email reminders?”

Not Not Tad opened the glove compartment, and I was already running.

There was no thought. Only blistering, foot-cramping instinct. My heart was a steel factory, and when I looked back, I saw the two thugs hesitate before stumbling into the car. I thanked Samson and headed into a familiar, heavily wooded area marred by a ditch small enough for me to cross but large enough to destroy a front axle.

I didn’t dare look back again, but I assume they were almost out of sight when I heard the first gun shots of desperation.

I couldn’t go home.


Or, really, I shouldn’t have gone home, but there was Samson to consider. I love that little guy so much. I used to go to the animal shelter to relax after work, and one day he was there, running in circles and winning a large section of my heart. I’d considered adopting a little mutt a dozen times before, but with Samson, I asked for paperwork before I took my eyes off him. I couldn’t just leave him. I had to rescue him.

I hid behind my trash cans, watching from the side of the house for a good while before deciding it was safe enough. They’d broken the sliding glass door, giving me a clear view of the kitchen, dining room and back half of the living room. I whistled, quietly at first, and then louder. It made my ribs hurt, and Samson didn’t come out. In that moment, I wished I had bought the dog whistle I’d seen online, but 15 dollars seemed like a lot at the time. Add that to the list of regrets, I guess. Not that I would have carried it on me at all times anyway.

Glass cracked and spattered under my feet before I tucked into the door frame. They had me handcuffed to a chair inside a minute.

Grunting through restraint and a fresh ache in my jaw, I sat in front of a toad of a woman wearing a purple jumpsuit and sunglasses. She was flanked by Not Tad and Not Not Tad, who now had Eva’s overnight bag slung across his shoulder.

“So strange to see so much unrealized potential, this close up,” the woman said, her voice like silver honey.

She held her hand up as if expecting a waiter with the bill, Not Not Tad unzipped Eva’s overnight bag, and he pulled out a thick, plastic-ringed pamphlet. It looked like one of our training manuals from the bank.

“If you want money or access, I can give it to you,” I said. We’re trained to acquiesce to demands, not only for insurance and liability purposes, but also because it’s now near impossible to rob a bank and get away with it. There are too many safe guards. Paint packs, tiny tracking devices, federal programs that trace serial numbers. Not to mention it’s all insured by the FDIC, and we budget for theft. It’s all part of doing business. They don’t want any heroes.

“Shut up,” Not Tad said, hitting me across the face again.

“This isn’t about money, my dear,” the woman said.

I could feel a pomegranate starting to form where my cheek used to be. “Then what’s it about?”

My grandfather used to tell me a story about a time when he was stuck in a tall tree in the forest near his childhood home for four days. He’d climbed too high and was afraid to break his leg on the way down, so he stayed up there, eating leaves and bark, and befriending an owl that kept him warm at night. It was the kind of story that you listened to with half of your brain turned off. All of us knew it wasn’t true, and we held onto that anchor even as we let the fantastical slip over us. He told it about a million times, and I stayed blissfully grounded every one of them, but something in the woman’s voice made me believe everything she said without hesitation.

“Eva has done a splendid job monitoring you for the past seven years, absolutely marvelous. She’ll most certainly be rewarded once you’re activated,” she said, thumbing through the manual in her lap. “Once we give you the code phrase, there’ll be no need for those awful handcuffs. All this violence and running? It’s absurd, and it has to stop before it all gets too gymnastic.”

She’d reached the page she was looking for. Not Tad shifted closer to me.

“You see, you’re a robot built specifically for us to stay ahead of the curve. We’ve been selling stolen prescription drugs, meth, kidneys, you name it. Everything under the radar we can get our hands on, but turf wars have gotten tiresome. My father was a gangster, but I’m a business woman. You’ve been developed to end our problems, to genuinely dominate our competitors, and we’re finally ready to deploy you. It’s exciting! To see what you can do.”

I stayed silent.

“I can tell by the look on your face that deep down in your programming, you know what I’m saying is the truth. And, now, the code phrase.”

I stiffened, waiting for a different kind of punch.

“Orange Whiskey San Jose Fifteen Delta Omnibus Trademark Ruin.”

My eyes rolled back, then forward again. Not Tad removed my handcuffs, and I smiled at both of them, standing taller then I had before.

“How do you feel, my darling?”

I punched Tad in the throat, breaking his windpipe, and then took flight. I splintered my roof without even feeling it. My jet boosters sent me high into the air, and a protective helmet emerged from my collarbone. I flew faster, watching on the ground as the odd woman’s henchmen pulled personal drones out of the car. They were on me fairly quickly, but I blasted them with a percussive wall that sent both of them crashing too far down to the pavement.

I twisted around to find thousands — maybe millions — of drones that swarmed like Medieval arrows laying a shroud on the sky. I shot rockets and punched my way through, but they gave chase. Fire burned inside me, and I saw Eva standing on a cloud. She waved to me, smiling like the next star over. Drones slammed into me like ants covering a dead thing before drawing it inside their hill. I was glorious. Big and bold and shimmering wonderment.

Bullets and contrails littered the sky, and I battled back with rapidly depleting energy. Everything around me went pink. A planet-sized squirrel eating burnt toast appeared on the horizon. I may have become a dragon for a few moments, and then a gargantuan spaceship settled a hundred yards from me where the purple jumpsuited woman was shouting every flavor of orders. There were show tunes, Samson’s bark, and I heard the crish-crunch sound of digging.

Finally, they brought me down.


I fought the good fight, but now I’m here in this containment unit that smells like dirt and sawdust. I can still taste copper. They’re probably sending me to space.

Do you know how much oxygen is in a 6×2 box and how fast a human can use it all up? Robots don’t need it, but I’d like to know anyway. My night vision must finally be recharged because I’m starting to see shapes again. I just wish they’d put me into sleep mode before locking me away like this.

Like I said, I’ve had a lot of time to think about everything, although the little details seem to get fuzzier the more I try to bring them into focus. I was running, then there were handcuffs and a purple track suit. A bank manual. I got hit again. It was pitch black. I was screaming and clawing to get out. Maybe for hours, but that’s all over now. I feel so relaxed. I’m ready for what comes next, although if I have one regret it’s that I wasn’t programmed with more curiosity.

I’m guessing Samson ran out of the house after they broke the door. I hope he did. I’m sure he did.

I’m tired now. I think I’ll close my eyes and rest for a bit. At least it’s quiet. The darkness helps, too.


Title Inspiration: Matthew Arnold’s poem “The Buried Life”
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