VLADby David Varno
I met Vlad through a moving job I took at the beginning of my last summer in Brooklyn. I took the job because I was bored, heartbroken, and broke. There was an online classified ad with the headline QUICK MONEY FAST and a man named Max took my call. He sent me to a location in Flatbush early the next day and set me up with the man who worked the jobs.
“My friend, let me tell you something,” Vlad said, bouncing gently in the driver’s seat of the van. There were box cutters with the blades out, nude playing cards and the floor of the cab behind the seats had a hole wide enough to fit a body through. The space underneath was not the pavement but someplace dark and shadowy. Vlad’s neck twitched when he turned to me, it was full of muscles. “You not make money doing this,” he said. We were driving under light clouds over the Verrazano Bridge, on the way to a job in Staten Island—an apparently green swath of land where I had never been. As Vlad spoke, he gestured and looked at me more than he looked at the road. I wasn’t sure about him at first, but by lunchtime I found him charming, he insisted on buying me a sandwich and a beer.
“This only for regular paycheck. New York has much other excitement,” Vlad said. The pastrami was metallic and it made his teeth glint in the over-lit deli. Our beers were large and outfitted with straws and paper bags.
When I asked Vlad what he did for fun, he replied, “Chuck, my friend. You want to know so much.” He laughed loudly, then sucked from his beer.
“Soon we talk longer. But not yet—too dangerous.” I appreciated the feeling that Vlad had something to tell me, and despite the mornings with a sore back, and the thin envelope of cash I received on the payday, I continued to bike all the way out to Linden Boulevard each morning, in hope that I would find out what it was.
One morning I told Vlad my feelings about a girl, who after a year of bickering and reversals had ultimately refused me. I don’t think Vlad understood.
“Why she not like fuck?” he said, in another deli over beers and scratch cards during our third week. “What happened? No flowers, no sweet talk? Maybe you that is wrong.”
“No, Vlad, I did everything. Nothing worked.”
“What’s her name?”
“Ah, Becky.” He looked at me evenly. “We all need love, my friend,” he said, satisfied perhaps to see that I actually believed in something.
We were in New Jersey, on a break after stuffing the van with the oversized belongings of a college graduate stored in her parents’ house, now destined for the girl’s new SoHo apartment. When I saw her, dressed in designer sweatpants, zipper warm-up and matching pink scarf, I was possessed by an awareness of the difference between people who have and have not worked for what they own.
“It’s like these people aren’t even aware of their own stuff,” I told Vlad on the drive in. “Maybe we should keep it, just to remind them.” I thought this would make him laugh, but he tensed on the wheel and we slowed into the incline of an overpass as his foot lazed on the accelerator.
“They do have money,” Vlad said, thumbing his lower lip. “Did you see safe?”
“I didn’t,” I said. Then I thought of a painting I’d seen hanging in the parlor. “They must be hiding it.”
“You talk in a way that gets nothing done,” he said. We spoke little for the rest of the day, and that night I was kept awake with self-doubt. He was an excellent mover and his navigation was perfect in a way that never required a map or any help from me. He handled awkward items without showing strain, and inspired trust in the most neurotic customers. When he carried an armoire across that New Jersey lawn all by himself in a bear hug, grinning as he tiptoed past the girl, she had the look of a rescued princess.
In the morning Vlad was caffeinated. He was bouncy and lucid, and spoke constantly. We sat at a diner in Sheepshead Bay, where Vlad liked to wait for jobs to come in. There was an aquarium in front and I watched the gray-haired host fish out a dead one with a net.
“Now I have idea for about two weeks,” Vlad said. “There are these guys. Sometimes they call for heavy stuff. High stake, you know? Maybe I use you. You are smart but sound dumb, which I like. Would be like not even happening. I would be driver, and tell you what to do.”
“What is it?” I asked.
“Have you ever shot gun?” He paused. “Of course not.”
“Actually, I have,” I said, thinking of the .22 semi-automatic that my father gave me when I was twelve.
“That’s good. Okay. But have you pointed at other man? And shot trigger?”
I realized that Vlad was dangerous and had likely killed people. I sat straight up in my seat, aware of my blood as it pumped through me.
“It’s okay, I never kill anybody,” he laughed. “At least, I don’t think so.”
I listened to his plan. He outlined a certain bank in great detail, and discussed it as casually as a weekend camping trip. He described the things we would need and the itinerary with which we would use to cover the ground. I thought it was idiotic for us to rob a bank so close to the office, but he explained that was the whole point. We would use the company van and swap the plates and decals, then change them back and continue on our workday as though nothing had happened.
“But don’t most crimes end with abandoning the vehicle?” I said. “They have ways to figure these things out. They’ll be looking for the van; they’ll stop us.”
“That’s why we dump loot. When we stop at garage to change plates, we leave it there. Only thing, we must promise Max cut.” Max, the company’s owner and dispatcher, was sure to be around the place during the day.
I agreed, knowing that otherwise I would quit the moving job and never see Vlad again, because the idea of concealing an automatic weapon in my clothes and potentially shooting at people and cops terrified me beyond belief and was in clear contrast to everything I thought I knew about myself.
Vlad got up to use the payphone as I waited. Then we drove back to the office. He left the van running and went inside.
“Did we get a job?” I asked.
“No. First we pick up a few things. This is good, everything is happening fast.”
We drove west to Coney Island Ave, then south to Brighton Beach, where we stopped at a two-family brick house on a quiet street. Finally Vlad emerged, and loaded the van with a parcel wrapped in paper bags and twine. This, I knew, was our guns.
I thought about Max, the small old man alone now in the office, with his short-sleeved button-down shirts, khaki slacks and tennis shoes, and the shingles on his arms that dripped onto the desk and tarnished the paperwork. I disliked talking with Max on the radio because he didn’t listen, he yelled. But it felt strange not to hear his voice that day. When Vlad thumped the guns down in the back, he seemed to read my mind.
“Max is gone,” he said.
“What do you mean?” I said.
“Listen. He say he not need money, that business is good. I say bullshit. Then, he make to fire me. Last night this was. Today I get rid of him. You call it what you like. But don’t worry. These guys, they owed me something. Made it look like accident. Now, who knows, maybe we take over Max’s business!” Vlad laughed loudly and without restraint. I was in layers of disbelief.
“What about our alibi, Vlad? And how are we going to?”—
“We have jobs for today, all written down.”
He slammed the brakes in the middle of the street, threw it in park and turned all the way around in his seat.
“Why worry so much?” He slapped me hard on the face. “You worry like that, I worry too.”
I didn’t see it coming and it drew a tear. I turned away so he wouldn’t see. Suddenly I missed Max. He was the man who hired me, who first spoke to me on the phone and directed me to come down. Our interview had been done over the phone and he’d squawked that I would be his first employee with a college education. I wondered now if this had made Max proud.
Vlad got the van going again, slowly now with a low rumble. He was like a father reluctant to lose his patience, as he tensed on the accelerator. I faced forward and looked out the windshield. I sat up straight all the way to the bank.
We double-parked in front of a coffee shop around the corner and I walked quickly along the storefronts and into the lobby. I kept a hand on the front pocket of my sweatshirt to keep the gun from falling out and felt its weight as I stood in line. The small crowd consisted of older men and women, some with strollers. I tried not to pay attention to any of them, and watched the tellers work as I waited my turn.
A Hispanic boy with a bright smile, pink shirt and white tie called on me when it was my turn.
“My name is Robert,” he said, “how can I help you today.”
It must have been his first week on the job. The manager, a tall black woman with bright eyes and a pearl necklace, supervised from behind the counter. Her presence made me nervous until I realized that the manager would be aware of me in any case, no matter which teller I chose. I said nothing to Robert and averted my eyes as I slid the note Vlad had written beneath the protective glass:
AWL $100 $50 $20
NO ONE GET SHOT
I waited for about two seconds, then looked up to gauge Robert’s response. His smile wasn’t completely gone, though the note fluttered slightly in his grip as he leaned back.
“Let me see what I can do,” he said, and walked towards the manager. I turned around to look at the patrons. They were sterner now, and I realized that the other tellers had stopped calling them forward.
“What gives?” one man said, clearly of the mind that the world should operate on his time. He wore a designer shirt unbuttoned over a ribbed undershirt. I decided to show the gun around, and people got quiet again. The manager rang with the clinking of keys as she walked. I put the gun away before she and Robert saw it. Then she opened a cabinet below the counter.
“We’re going to give you everything from my window,” Robert said, as the woman bent down. He stayed there, keeping his eye on me as the woman shuffled around behind the other tellers and appeared at the doorway to the lobby with a brown tarp bag, held closed by handles.
“Over here, sir,” she called, and I walked over to take the bag. The customers were all watching me but I didn’t look at them and I didn’t look back. I didn’t see any guards.
Vlad was parked right outside. I climbed in the van with the noise of the street ringing in my ears over the rumble of the engine and Vlad’s heavy breathing.
“I see we did okay,” he said, eyeing the bag. I stayed quiet as we pulled away.
The drive went well until we turned onto Ocean Parkway. I noticed a Lincoln with tinted windows following us, and Vlad stomped on the gas.
“You tell them about me?” he said suddenly. “You mention van? Plates?”
“I didn’t say anything the whole time. I did exactly what you said to do.”
“Somebody following Vlad,” he said, and cut across the double yellow. We passed a few vehicles, forcing a truck to swerve into the curb, and then we ran a red light without looking left or right. He kept the van over 50 and weaved through everything, gun plastered to the wheel with his finger on the trigger. When the Lincoln resurfaced behind us, Vlad turned and shot a few times, keeping the van steady. Shots were returned and the back of the van shook with bullets. Vlad sped into a corner and tried to make a right, but it was too sharp. We were thrown into the side of a cement truck and the van screeched alongside it, drawing sparks. The steering wheel jammed and we rocked violently before grinding to a noisy halt. I jumped out and ran along the middle of the road, forgetting Vlad. There were more gunshots at my back, and the bullets punched the van, the truck we’d crashed into, and other vehicles. I ducked behind a gypsy cab and returned a few shots of my own. I could see one of the officers, now on foot, running towards me. I shot twice and the officer fell. Shots continued but I kept running, and the shooting became a sort of dream. I thought of Oswald, and looked out for a movie theater or another hiding place, knowing that more police were on the way.
It was loud on the street from the trucks and sounds of summer: car stereos and shouts of children under open fire hydrants amplified by the heat. I thought about Becky, and then I thought about asking her for help. I had my cell phone on me. I walked until the street went quieter, and sat down on a bench somewhere in a neighborhood off Avenue X.
That last time I saw her, we’d left the windows open behind her bed. It was months ago. We hadn’t made love that night, nor the night before that, though we’d spent them together. I’d managed to get her clothes off, but she periodically jumped up from the bed, covering herself on a run to drape another towel or a sheet over the windows.
We woke to a fire across the street. First there were sirens, and then we saw the smoke as the sun tried to rise through it. “Close the window,” I said, getting up to shut the one across the room. “Isn’t this incredible?” she said. The trucks were anchored down with hydraulic feet, in preparation for raising the ladders. Men entered the house with pick axes as another crew lined up with the hoses, six men lined up on each. The water jetted upwards and landed on the roof. Waves of water fell down in heavy sheets over the façade of the building, a three-story brownstone, but the firefighters seemed to be keeping dry.
“Can you believe we have front row seats to this?” she said. She was at the other window now, where she went after I lay back down on the bed. She wore just her underpants and an old T-shirt. The sun was up over the trees now and it shone on her.
“People can see you,” I said.
“What people?” she said. “That building is empty. You mean the firemen? They’ve got things to do.” She shook her head without looking at me and continued to watch the scene. The firemen disengaged the hoses and sent two men up to the roof, where they worked from the ladders with a pick-ax to pry it apart. The roof fell in a variety of shapes and lengths, and a ream of white paper billowed up over the house in a sort of mushroom cloud before drifting down to the front yard. I turned away from my front row seat and laid down my head.
“Isn’t this amazing? They are like superheroes.” She paced back and forth in the room, placing books, discarded clothing and other clutter where it belonged, and then her shirt and underpants were off and she was naked. Her chest was covered by long red hair down past her breasts, as she wrapped herself in a robe, looking on to the street, she twirled quickly in a circle.
“I’m going to take a shower,” she said, on the way through the hall without a glance in my direction. I reached for my shoes and sat there at the edge of the bed. I couldn’t put on my socks. I just wanted to go into the bathroom and watch her shower.
I imagined the cop that I’d shot running to save Becky from a young man with a gun, and felt comfort at having put a stop to it. Men often looked at Becky when we walked together. Not the type of men who whistle from cars, or holler from stoops. She wasn’t that obvious about herself. These men looked at her as someone they recognized, and as though she could see back into them.
I kept my hand on the phone in my pocket as I walked. Becky was still close to me. If only she would call me, I thought. Then my pocket sprang to life in a series of vibrations, and I pulled out the phone. The call was from an unknown number.
“Hello?” I said.
“Yes,” I said, responding instinctively to my birth name as I always did. Since I was a teenager I gave the name Chuck to just about everyone but the credit card people and the DMV.
“Also known as Chuck Kimble?”
“That some kind of joke?”
“No, I just like the name.”
“Okay. This is Detective Silvers, NYPD. We’re calling you in connection to a recent bank robbery.”
“Recent,” another voice added, “like today.”
“That’s my boss, Inspector Doyle,” Silvers said.
“Cops still have names like that?” I said.
“How well do you know Ivan Petrovich?” asked Silvers.
“How well did you know him, the detective means,” Doyle said.
“You mean Vlad?” I said.
“He had your number,” Doyle said.
“Do we have any other handles on the stiff,” Silvers asked someone. Muffled voices in the background.
“Please excuse the language,” Silvers said to me. “We deal with a lot of things down here. Were the two of you close?”
“We work together,” I said. “Worked together, I guess.”
“So you know what happened today,” Silvers said.
“Yes,” I said.
“Where are you?”
“I don’t know.”
“Just stay on the line. Everything will be okay.”
“There are dead cops out there,” the phone crackled, “I want this done right!”
“Joshua? Cool it Doyle. Chuck, I mean. Sorry about that. Are you still on the line?”
“We have his location, Silvers. Don’t fuck this up.”
“I’m here,” I said.
“Could you do something for me, Joshua? Could you stay exactly where you are?”
“Okay,” I said, then hung up the phone and looked around. I was surprised at how quickly they came. Lights, but no sirens, like a movie with the sound off.
DAVID VARNO's writing has appeared in BOMB, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Electric Literature, Paste, Tin House, Words Without Borders, and elsewhere.