Sofia throws her lot in with an ex-con, planning to abandon her lover, leave California, and steal back her children from their adopted family in Texas; by Sara Jacobelli.
If you're looking for someone to kidnap your kids, you need look no farther than a forty year old ex-con out-of-prison-for-a-week, already broke parole, driving a stolen van with a stack of credit cards in his hand. If you weren't paying attention, Sofia felt, you might mistake him for a husky rough voiced businessman who looked out of place in the crowded semi-punk Mission District bar. She knew better. The way he looked at JT the bartender when he ordered his beer, the way he sat next to Sofia and sized her up, the way he noticed everyone who walked in the door. This guy's Done Time.
"I know your type." He took a swig of his beer. "Number One: You got in a lotta trouble in school for daydreamin'. Number Two: You're not in love with your boyfriend. And Number Three." He paused to light a cigarette. "Number Three: You work too damn hard at your job."
"You did all right with One and Two, but Three's a total bust. I don't even have a job. My teachers could've rode with Jesse James, for all the time they stole from me."
"That's good. You some kinda poet?"
"It's by this guy, Richard Brautigan, I think he killed himself or some shit. I don't even remember the rest of it."
"Say it again."
"My teachers could've rode with Jesse James, for all the time they stole from me."
"It's real. I can see it. Name's Mick."
"Exactly how I felt in grade school, like the guy was inside a my head or something."
JT leaned across the bar, gave Sofia a handful of quarters. "Play somethin good, sugar, not too sad. You know." He played with his cross earring and nodded towards a bloated middle aged woman with dyed orange hair sitting at the end of the bar, showing pictures of her kids and sobbing loudly in desperate, painful little gulps. "Bernice is at it again."
She took the money. "There's one a them in every bar." Sofia looked at Mick. She recognized something dangerous in his eyes. "I'm never gonna do that."
"Do what?" He made no secret of checking her out. Sofia was aware that she was no more than black-haired brown-eyed glasses jeans and T-shirt average looking.
"Cry in a bar over my kids." She plunked the quarters into the jukebox and picked out some Johnny Cash, some Willie Nelson, some Patsy Cline. Let her cry if she wants to. Let the dumb bitch cry.
Mick steered the van smoothly with one hand, drank his long neck Bud with the other. Sofia never learned how to drive and envied his smooth easy movements, as if he and the machine were one and could read each other's minds.
"You want me to steal 'em back, but you never said why you adopted 'em out in the first place?"
She looked out the window at nothing passing by. Now that they were out of San Francisco they passed through endless identical ugly suburbs. What was that song? Little boxes on a hill, little boxes all alike.
"You were all alone, no Daddy to help out?"
"I was seventeen. Didn't have no one."
"They're twins? Two boys?"
"A boy and a girl."
"No, boy and girl twins can't be identical. They're what's called fraternal."
"Sure they can, I seen it. Hey at least they ain't Siamese, right? Too bad it ain't two boys. Two sons would be better."
They passed a sign, "Half Moon Bay 10 miles."
"I always wanted to see this place. Sammy wasn't interested."
"Says it's just a bunch a spoiled rich pricks."
"Fuck Sammy." Mick took the next exit. He parked the car in the parking lot of a fancy looking restaurant named Bye the Sea. "Just walk in like we own the joint."
They sat by the window with a view of the harbor. The room was filled with plants, seashells, nautical gizmos. Soft jazz music played in the background. Mick ordered shrimp cocktails, salad, Dungeness crabs and fries for both of them.
"I have this fantasy that I'd get a cute little cottage by the ocean for me and my kids. Learn how to paint or sculpt or write poetry. Sit on the front porch sipping drinks with those little umbrellas in them. Write books, take trips to Europe. Something about the name, I like the sound of it. Half Moon Bay. It just sounds like nothing bad could ever happen to you, living in a town with a name like that."
"You never been here before, you thoughta all that?"
"You been to Europe?"
"No, but I want to backpack and bicycle through Ireland and Italy and Spain and France.
"I can't even believe that an educated woman like you is even talking to a guy like me."
"I dropped out of high school in tenth grade. I was making minimum wage in a printing and bindery factory when I got with Sammy."
The pale freckled waitress refilled their water glasses. "Cute cottage here'll cost ya millions, I bet. I can't afford to live here, I'm over in Daly City and can barely afford that. At least the tips are good."
Mick ignored the waitress. Her name tag said, "Citronella."
"But these dreams a yours, these books you read." He leaned back in his chair. "You never told me their names?"
"Lily and Dash. After two of my favorite writers, Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett."
"Never heard of 'em. And I read plenty books in the joint. Mostly Elmore Leonard, George V. Higgins, stuff like that."
"Hammett wrote The Maltese Falcon."
"No shit? How d'you know all a this? You some kinda writer?"
"No. I just like to read sometimes. Me and Sammy, we..." She leaned across the table, lowered her voice. "Sell herb, you know. From Mendo. The good stuff, indica, sativa."
Mick rolled his eyes. "So whyn't you get ole Sammy to kidnap your damn kids for ya? With all his expert criminal expertise?"
"Shhhh." Sofia made the "quiet" motion with her hand.
Mick grabbed her arm and looked at her with a steady direct gaze. "Don't tell me what to do," he said in a low rumble. "Don't order me around. I'm doin' you a favor, sweetheart, and don't you forget it. Ever."
For thirty seconds Sofia was scared. Then she realized he was right. This was a man, a Real Man, not a whiner like Sammy selling overpriced weed to frightened yuppies and acting like he was doing the world a favor by just being in it. She felt an uneasy air-in-a-summer-thunderstorm electricity radiating from Mick. My life is a movie, an action movie.
"Can we go for a walk by the ocean later, after we eat?"
Citronella took away their salad plates and brought some Dungeness crabs. "The ocean's too freezin' freakin' cold here to even stick your toes in." She winked at Sofia. "But girl, we got the world's best sunset. Better than Hawaii, some say."
"Thanks." Sofia crunched on a French fry.
Mick scowled and cracked open a crab. "Answer the question. And dig in."
"Sammy doesn't like kids, he doesn't want two five year olds ruining his life. He can't stand Breeders. He says there's too many people in the world. With pollution and over-population and the environment and all that. That's why he's a vegetarian. To save the planet."
"Vegetarian?" Mick chomped and swallowed the crab, waved at the waitress for more drinks. "So, he can do the world a big fuckin' favor, he can off himself."
Sofia looked out the window at the seagulls and the sea and the impossible blueness of the sky. "Yeah. Yeah he could."
He finished pumping the gas, shuffled through his credit cards. "What color is their hair?"
"They both have blond curly hair."
"We'll dye their hair pitch black, like yours. We need new clothes and shoes for them, trash bags to put their old clothes in." He counted off each item on his fingers. "Fake IDs for us and new birth certificates for them."
Sofia climbed into the passenger's seat and Mick hopped into the driver's seat and started the van. "Where'djou get all this money, all these credit cards, this van?" She lit a cigarette.
"You're sure a nosy bitch. Thought you wanted me to drive to Texas and get your kids back from that stupid rich suburban Christian family?"
She didn't say anything.
"You worried I got a woman stashed somewheres? I do, but she's not a girlfriend, she's more like a, like a sponsor. She kinda has a thing for me, she has money, she got me a lawyer. I'm not attracted to her, she's kinda heavy. She's older. That's a fact, deal with it."
"But you broke parole. Will she report the van and the credit cards stolen?"
"She wouldn't dare. She don't wanta lose me. And she'll come in handy, believe me, when I need money she'll send some."
Sofia fiddled with the radio until she found a blues station. BB King. Better not look down, if you want to keep on flying. "We got everything we need?"
"I need more maps, the IDs, birth certificates. And a gun. But I know a guy in Houston, my old cellie, he can hook me up with whatever we need. The kids' family lives near Houston?"
"That's NOT their family. I'M their family. What do you need a gun for?"
"I know what I'm doing. We gotta take the kids from the babysitter when she brings 'em to school, we need a gun. And some gloves. Can't forget the gloves."
Sofia lit a cigarette and took a deep drag. "Let's stop at K-Mart and pick up some kids' clothes."
Mick drove for a few miles until he found a K-Mart. They walked side by side into the store. "I'm getting my kids back, but what do you get out of this? You're risking going back to the joint."
"I was on my way back anyhow, it's a fuckin' revolvin' door. Besides, I get somethin'. I get you." He put his arm around her shoulder.
She headed for the children's clothing section. "I want to get them some cute tennis shoes. Some toys too."
"They don't need no toys. Just grab some clothes right quick. I'll get the rest of the stuff and meet you by the cash register in twenty minutes. Then I gotta get to a pay phone, call my guy and make arrangements. Can't just pop in on him expecting everythin' I need. That'd be rude."
They ate at a Mexican restaurant in a strip mall. Canned mariachi music played in the background.
"You better start practicin' your Spanish."
"Why?" Sofia ate chips and guacamole while reading the menu.
"Mexico. That's where we're going. Once we get the kids, we'll just move on down there."
"Really? You never told me what you went down for. How many years were you in?"
"I went down because of a rat. Five years, three months, seventeen days. But none a that matters. I got me a new start, I got me a family now. Instant Family. I gotta reason to live." Mick smiled at her, a broad, good looking rough guy smile. I'm Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde. Or maybe Ali McGraw in The Getaway.
"Yeah. Sure." She ordered cheese enchiladas and Mick ordered chili rellenos. She thought briefly about calling the whole thing off, calling Sammy from a pay phone. He'd be pissed, but he'd wire her money through Western Union. She thought of their cluttered Mission District apartment with the Murphy bed, her piles of used paperbacks and Sammy's jazz albums. He used to joke he could never ditch her because, like they say in the Mob, she's a "good earner." All their weed customers loved Sofia. Maybe she could talk Mick into dropping her off at the nearest Greyhound Station. "Where are we?"
"Somewhere outside a LA. I didn't want to get caught up in the city traffic. I need more maps, for Arizona, New Mexico, Texas. We should take back roads as much as possible. I know the main highways from my trucker days, but we need some back roads." He touched her hand. "Hey kid, you're not changin' your mind are you?"
Sofia whispered, "You're not gonna shoot her, are you?"
"Who? The babysitter? I'm not gonna shoot 'er, the bitch. Long as she stays outta my way and cooperates. Besides, fuck her. She's turnin' those kids into sissies, takin' them to school like two babies. We gotta toughen them kids up. We might need to give em a shot a somethin, some drugs to knock em out so they don't scream like little babies when we're crossin' the border. But I figure we'll cross at night, out inna middle a nowhere."
"I don't want to go to prison."
"Prison? Fuck prison. Smart as you are, you'd make a primo Jailhouse Lawyer. But we ain't goin' to no God Damned prison. Shit. We'll be in Mexico on the beach somewheres, drinkin' tequila. Livin' the good life. All four of us. A family. Livin like kings. Just think about that."
They rented a motel room in Houston. Sofia was grateful for a hot shower. Mick left her while he went to score the gun, drugs, needles, and IDs. She got out of the shower, wrapped up in a huge soft purple bath towel and lay propped against pillows, watching daytime TV.
The next morning Mick drove Sofia to a rest stop. He insisted she wait while he went to "get the kids" from some anonymous Houston suburb. Sofia was exhausted from being in the car for days, eating in greasy diners and drinking in roadhouses while Mick hustled pool. He popped speed like candy and was as wired as a ten year old on a rollercoaster.
There was no one at the rest stop besides Sofia. Mick even thought to buy "Out of Order" signs and tape at a hardware store, so no one would go in the bathrooms, maybe they would just try another rest stop.
Sofia sat at a picnic table, smoking and drinking canned Cokes. She tried to remember everything she was supposed to do. As soon as Mick brought the kids to her, she had to take one child at a time into the bathroom, dye the kid's hair black, clean up the mess, change the kid's clothes, then bring him or her back to the van and do the same thing with the other one. Mick would watch the ladies' room door to make sure no one went in. Once the hair dying was done she had to put the hair dye box, old clothes and shoes in a green plastic trash bag. Mick hadn't decided where they would dump that yet.
He was gone for a little over an hour. "Piece a cake," he said. "It went as smooth as a piece a chocolate cake with vanilla ice cream on the side. They're passed out, I gave em each a quick shot so they wouldn't make a lotta noise cryin'."
Sofia wanted to cuddle and gush over the twins but there was no time. He handed her Lily and Sofia grabbed the bag of new clothes and carried her into the restroom. She did her best to dye her blonde curly hair dark black. "Sweetie." She kissed the sleeping girl's pink cheeks and closed eyelids. "I don't even get to enjoy looking at you, just the way you are." She changed Lily's clothes but couldn't get the shiny new tennis shoes on her.
She carried Lily back to the van. Just as she lifted Dash, a tan station wagon pulled up. A whole family got out to stretch. The mom and daughters walked towards the rest room.
"It's Out of Order, see the sign," Mick said.
"What're you doing here then?" the dad asked. He stood there in blue plaid shorts, a Six Flags T-shirt, a fishing hat on his head, sunglasses. The rest of the family froze. Sofia thought of playing freeze tag as a kid.
Mick got out of the van and stuck his gun in the guy's face. "How 'bout we switch vehicles, Mister?"
The guy gave Mick the keys and Sofia brought the twins one at a time into the station wagon while Mick started the car. She went back to grab the trash bag and her and Mick's stuff. Mick drove off as the mom and the kids all started sobbing and the dad stood there looking lost, his white legs and white sneakers gleaming in the sunny morning.
"So now we're going to Mexico?" Sofia asked. She felt whole now that she had her kids back. She kept turning around to look at them sleeping on a mound of blankets and pillows.
"Yeah, sure thing. It's great we got a new car, cops are lookin for the van. Wait till ole Father Knows Best gets pulled over for kidnappin'." Sofia laughed. Who cares about them? They got their kids. They got money too. Mick found a rock station and turned the stereo up full blast.
"You didn't shoot her or nothing, the babysitter?"
"No, she cooperated. Smooth, I'm tellin' ya. Shit. I shoulda got that guy's wallet."
"Yeah. Too bad. But we're just wanted for kidnapping right, not murder? And I'm not sure if I could get arrested for stealing my own kids. I mean, I could do a blood test to prove their mine."
"I left her tied up in her car, so a man is wanted for kidnappin'. Two men, since I needed my buddy Crazy Dan to help out. I stuck a gun in her face, got in and drove her car. Crazy Dan followed in my van. He tied her up and I drugged the kids and stuck 'em in the van. Smooth operation, I'm tellin you. They ain't lookin' for no couple. We'll get a motel room again tonight and see if I made the six o'clock news."
"But now we're in trouble for stealing that guy's car."
"That's chicken shit. The guy loved it, he'll tell that story to his fat golf buddies for ten years." Mick took the exit of a small town, Something Junction, drove around until he found a dumpster to throw the trash bag in. They found a small dark unfriendly looking tavern with a Corona sign in the window.
"Let's grab a beer, I wanta talk to you about somethin'."
"I don't know about leaving the kids."
"You're not gonna be one a those God Damned overprotective mother bitches are you? I got plans for these kids, we could teach em to be the best thieves ever. Real pros. No punk armed robberies, real con artists."
He's a time bomb. At some point he'll explode.
"You sure they won't wake up?"
"They ain't wakin' up any time soon. Not with the drugs I gave 'em."
Mick bought two beers. They sat in a corner booth and watched two young Mexican laborers play a lackluster game of afternoon pool. Mick gave Sofia some quarters to play the jukebox so they could talk. One of the Mexican guys flashed her a smile, all white teeth and dark Indio good looks. Sofia ignored him. No sense in getting Mick angry. She picked out some Willie Nelson. Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain. That's me. Only my eyes are brown.
"Now, I have to ask. You don't have some Mama you gotta run back and see, nothin' like that? Cause we won't be comin' back to the states, once we're gone. Mexico, Hell, who knows? Maybe way on down to South America."
"South America, like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid." Sofia played with the coaster, tapped it on the bar.
He put his hand over hers. "Stop fidgeting. Answer the question. This ain't no God Damned grade school prank. This ain't a movie neither."
"My mother's dead. I've been on my own since I was fifteen and a half. You don't have to worry about that. I don't have no family."
"What happened to her?"
"My father shot her, then shot himself." This was a lie, but a lie Sofia told so many times it was part of her now. She liked the way it shocked people, kept them from asking more questions.
"Good. I don't mean it's good your ole lady's dead, and your ole man's dead, but it's good you don't have no ties. So I was thinkin', with the charges we already could be facin', why not, you know? Just call 'em and demand money? Ain't these folks doctors or lawyers or architects or computer programmers or somethin'?"
"What're you talking about?"
"Why don't we just call these people and ask for some fuckin' ransom?"
"But I don't wanna give them the kids back!"
"Lower your voice, girl. We won't give 'em back. We just need some money, a couple hundred grand." Mick scowled and lit a cigarette. "Yeah, that'd be enough for us all to live in Mexico for a long time. Maybe forever."
"Yeah, the Donovans, they got money, I think he's a doctor." Sofia gulped her beer. "But it sounds too risky to try to get money outta them. I mean, we got the kids. We did it."
"I did it, what'd you do? And I'm just layin out the facts, here, being realistic. You live in a fantasy world, with your books an' dreams an' ideas. I live in reality. I gave Crazy Dan a bunch a cash and credit cards for helping out. He's a stand-up guy. I can get money outta Rose Marie, my sponsor, but the cops might be tappin her phone. We need cash, cold hard cash."
Sofia saw the flash of fury in his eyes. She finished her beer. "I only dyed Lily's hair, what about Dash's? And I didn't get to change his clothes."
"Get some water from the bartender and dye his hair, put his new clothes on in the car. Too risky to bring 'em in here. I'll order us shots a Cuervo, to celebrate."
Sofia dyed Dash's hair with the black dye and a glass of water from the bar. He flopped lazily in her arms, opened his eyes and looked at her, mumbled something that sounded like "dinosaurs." He fell back asleep, rolled over onto his stomach. She took off his shirt and pants and squeezed him into his new jeans and T-shirt which were too small, he was bigger than she expected. She touched his back, lay down between him and Lily, who was starting to move and groan. "I love you guys. You're perfect." She snuggled between them and inhaled their pure sweet little kid smell, her floppy Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy dolls. She closed her eyes and pictured the life they would have together, a TV family life: running on soft sandy beaches in Mexico, living in the imaginary cozy cottage in Half Moon Bay, reading Dr. Seuss books. Birthday parties and Halloween costumes and Thanksgiving turkeys. Christmas presents and school plays and field trips. Report cards and bicycles and roller skates. Pets and best friends and first loves and high school graduations. She held onto their squirmy skinny sweaty bodies until the police car pulled up.