Melinda says, “By day I am a corporate controller for a motorcycle manufacturer but by night I mutate into a fiction writer. I actually only started writing about a year ago after my husband died and I found myself with a lot of time on my hands.”
This story is her first publishing credit. She is currently marketing a science fiction novel. She lives in south central Pennsylvania with her two dogs, Bear and Peekaboo.
Pick Your Poison
by Melinda Newmin
Uncle Walter lifted his left brow as he considered my request. Didn’t look happy about it. Puzzled maybe. Or annoyed. I’d never been good at reading Uncle Walter. Hadn’t been particularly good at much of anything, truth be told.
“You want to learn to pick locks?” he repeated, chomping on a celery stick with what was left of his smoke stained teeth. He winced as he swallowed. He winced at pretty much everything these days. He was sick but would never tell me what ailed him.
I nodded eagerly.
“I suppose that might be a good idea,” he commented, pointing at my face with the celery stick. “You need to find yourself a way to make a living that doesn’t end with your face planted in someone else’s fist.”
I felt my face grow red with embarrassment where it wasn’t already red from the pounding it had taken. I’d been making a living, as Uncle Walter liked to put it, by ripping off the dudes selling crack on the Block. Seemed like an easy way to make a buck when I first thought of it. I mean, what crack dealer was gonna run to the police and yell he’d been robbed? And that Marty fool who worked Lombard Street was about as dumb as they came, keeping his stash in his back pocket, bulging like he had a tumor on his ass. Too busy messing with the girls was Marty, thinking he was fly and would get himself some. I’d practiced till I got good and then I started picking that pocket. Got five hundred bucks the first time I hit him, and a couple of hundred the second. But Marty wasn’t the only dumb man on the Block. Seems I was as dumb as he was because the third night when I went to pick him his buddies were there. All eight of ‘em. Worked me over but good. Three days later my face was still swollen and there was a tooth rocking as if it couldn’t make up its mind if it should stay or go.
Uncle Walter had taken pity on me that night when I limped to his house looking for a place to hide. There was no way I could go home looking like that and Uncle Walter was no man to judge. Took one look at me then let me in so’s my mama wouldn’t see my face looking like an uncooked hamburger patty. Packed me with ice, shoved a beer in my hand, and told me I was one lucky son of a bitch. Anyone else would have ended up dead.
Thus ended my career as a pickpocket. In the dumpster like the career before it, snatching purses from little old ladies. That had ended just as badly when I chose the wrong little old lady. Oh, she couldn’t put up much of a fight, but damned if her grandson hadn’t won a state boxing championship. Kicked my ass from here to Cleveland that boy did. Lucky for me he was too buff to run very fast and I outclassed him in the fifty yard dash.
Yeah, maybe it was time to find a crime that paid cash money but didn’t involve direct contact with the victim. Lock picking sounded safe enough.
“So will you teach me?” I asked my uncle.
He grunted at me and took a swig of his beer. It was the only thing that made him happy these days, that and me hanging around. No one else bothered with Walter. Washed up my papa called him. A good for nothing wastrel exclaimed Aunt June. Wasn’t invited to the family reunions and no one had him over for dinner. The family pariah, he declared himself. Not that our family had covered itself in glory, he’d snarl on those Friday nights when he’d had too much to drink and the sickness was making him ache. Papa was nothing but a day laborer, he’d sniff, and Aunt June married herself a preacher man done got her pregnant at the same time he knocked up his secretary, and now the poor woman was raising both them kids. Made no sense, Uncle Walter would complain. Just because he’d done his time didn’t make him any less a man.
He’d spent his youth chasing crime just like me, trying to get one up on those who had more than he did. Stole cars and claimed once to have robbed a train, although I had my doubts. Did a dime for assault with a deadly weapon then a nickel five years later when he stole a city bus. Now he was just old and tired and getting sick. Retired, he’d like to say, like ex-cons had pensions or something. What little hair he still had was totally white and stood up on end like he was perpetually frightened. On that hot summer’s day he was wearing his favorite tank shirt, stained with grease from working on the Chevy. It hung loose on him now where once it could barely cover his paunch. That’s how I knew he was sick. He’d lost his beer belly while still slugging away the beers.
After giving me a long hard look, Uncle Walter tossed his empty over his shoulder and dragged himself to his feet. “All right, Jojo. Let me teach you something of value.”
Grunting with every step he took, Walter stomped in his bare feet into what he called his office which was actually the three foot square necessary, the second room in his two room apartment. I watched him as he dug in some worn cardboard boxes and heard him make some different kind of grunt and then he was coming back, a leather wallet in his hand.
He looked me hard in the eye, old man to young, like he was the passing of the torch. “Listen close, lad, cause this is good stuff. I’m gonna teach you the single most important thing I know.”
He handed me the wallet.
Inside was a set of professional lock picks. Stainless steel and worn with time. I could tell his hands had used those things long ago in a different life, maybe even when he was my age.
“That there is the wrench,” he explained, pointing to a bit of metal that looked to me like an Allen wrench. “And those are the different picks.”
“Why so many?” I asked, fingering the various tools and wondering about the different shapes.
“Different picks for different locks. And different lock pickers. You’ll develop your own favorites after a while.”
Uncle Walter plopped a padlock into my hand. Like the picks it was worn and tarnished. “Use that to practice on.”
He then explained to me the mystery that was the humble lock, telling me things I was sure no one else knew. The average lock, he said, was a simple thing. Most anything a man might want to break into was probably protected by a pin tumbler lock. Almost all doors, desk drawers, cash boxes and such used that most common type of lock and were therefore the easiest to open. Far tougher were magnetic and electronic locks but for my purposes I only needed to know the basics. Uncle Walter knew what I was after, easy money, and that could be found behind a pin tumbler lock.
To open one took a little bit of knowledge, delicate hands and a good sense of touch, he told me, because a man’s eyes were useless when it came to picking locks. The art existed all in the fingers. He showed me using the old padlock.
The lock is made up of pins set in pairs, he said, held in place by springs that kept them tensioned. When a key is inserted in the lock, its ridges and low points push the pins to the proper position, moving the upper pin out of the way of the cylinder so that the cylinder can turn. If even one pin wasn’t pushed up out of the way, it blocked the cylinder and the lock stayed locked. So the trick, he said, was to get those pins to rise up and stay there without the use of the key. To do that you used the wrench.
He showed me by inserting the wrench into the keyhole and with his thumb shoved it to one side as far as it would go before the pins engaged to hold the cylinder. The trick was to keep up just the right amount of pressure for that particular lock. You wanted the cylinder to be slightly misaligned so when you pushed the pins up they got stuck on the little ledge caused by the misalignment, he said. Then it was just a matter of using the pick to push each pin up until it passed the wall of the cylinder and got caught on the ledge, setting itself. Once all the pins were set the cylinder would turn as if there was a key inside.
Voila! He cranked the wrench and the padlock opened.
“It’s really just a matter of developing a feel for the lock and the movement of the pins. Listen for the clicks that tell you if you’ve set a pin or lost one. Keep trying until you get it right. Eventually you’ll be quick as lightening just like your Uncle Walt.”
I grinned at him, my eyes aglow like he’d handled me the keys to White Castle. I couldn’t believe picking locks could be so simple. It was a wonder everyone wasn’t doing it.
Seeing the avarice gleaming in my eyes, Uncle Walter slapped me on the shoulder and gave me a shake. “Just make sure you don’t get caught,” he said in warning, flopping into his worn brown recliner. “You don’t want to end up in the can like me.”
I shrugged, uncaring. “Don’t mean nothing to me if I do, Uncle Walt. It’s not like I’d be the first guy on Guilford Street to go to jail.” Eagerly I started fooling with the lock.
Uncle Walter snapped open another beer and took a long chug of it before wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “Don’t be so eager to join the brethren,” he commented, his gray green eyes watching me sharply. “It ain’t a picnic being in prison.” When I shrugged again and kept working the lock, he leaned forward, his hands holding his beer between his knees. “I might have been someone once, Jojo. But prison stole any chance from me. I won’t bore you with the details, but I’ll tell you this. If it hadn’t been for prison, I wouldn’t be sick.”
That caught my attention. Uncle Walter never talked about his illness.
“What’s it you got?” I asked.
He smiled and shook his head. “Nothing good and nothing I can lose. Caught it when I was about your age, the first time I went to prison. I was a handsome kid then just like you. Pretty.” His eyes pierced mine, holding them fixed. “Don’t pay to be a pretty kid when you’re in prison, Jojo, if you get my meaning.”
I blinked at him in shock and surprise, expecting a lot of things but not that. “AIDS, Uncle Walt? You got the plague?”
He nodded slowly and sadly then sunk into his recliner like he was becoming a part of it. He turned his attention to the TV and Vanna White who was dishing out consonants. He was done talking for the day.
I turned my attention to the lock and after an hour I finally broke it. With a whoop I showed him and he smiled. Then I did it a second time and a third. That was all the encouragement I needed. I locked myself out of the apartment and broke back in. I picked the lock he used to keep his gun safe. I even picked the lock little Eddie Tutman used to chain up his bicycle next door just to show Uncle Walter that I could. Then I locked it up again. I wasn’t so low I was stealing a bicycle from some eight-year-old kid.
My eyes spied Uncle Walter’s old lockbox-style safe and with glinting eyes I was on it. Then, to my surprise, Uncle Walter yelled at me.
“Ack! Get away from that! You ain’t got no business in my safe.”
“I was just going to practice some more,” I complained, still eyeing the safe the way a shark eyed the legs of a surfer.
Uncle Walter climbed to his feet and made his painful way to my side. Putting his arm around my shoulder, he pointed at the safe. “That, Jojo, belongs to no one but me. It contains everything left I hold dear in this life and I don’t want you messing with it.” He looked me hard in the eye. “The single most valuable thing I have in this world I keep locked in that safe. Don’t you be messing with it, hear?”
Disappointed I nodded. As he wandered to the kitchenette to find beer number three, I continued to study that wall safe with greedy eyes. Oh yeah, I was breaking into that safe. If only to see what he kept in there.
Over the next two days I practiced my new trade. I broke into my parents’ bedroom and stole some jewelry that I sold for cash to buy some smokes. Then it was the lock on pop’s junker Ford to see if car thieving was in my future. Pretty soon I could work every lock in the house and was making my way down the street, just practicing on buildings I knew were empty. I still took way too long to pick a lock. According to Uncle Walter, a good pick could open a lock in a couple of seconds. The faster the better to keep from being caught. I timed myself and worked to be faster. Soon, I thought. The city of Baltimore wasn’t gonna be safe.
And speaking of safes, that damned safe of Uncle Walter’s continued to beckon me. When I came by his place to offer him pizza I’d study it and wonder what he could keep in there that could be worth anything at all. He had nothing as far as I knew. Just the ratty furniture in that apartment that he’d inherited from the prior occupant and the few clothes he occasionally wore. Sometimes he’d catch me looking, scruff my hair and laugh at me.
“The most valuable thing in the world, Jojo!” he chuckled. “At least to me. Maybe you wouldn’t see it that way. Who knows?”
But he wouldn’t open it or let me break in.
I couldn’t sneak in when he was away either. I knew I could pick the lock to his door any time I liked but Uncle Walter never left home. Aunt June brought him his groceries in return for him giving her his benefit check. She made out on the deal, I was sure. I could tell because even on benefit day there was never much food in that chest fridge he kept in the kitchenette. Half the time I had to bring him something. He slept in the recliner and never slept deeply. The slightest noise brought him grunting awake, so I knew I couldn’t pick that lock with him in the room. So I waited and bided me time. And learned my trade so as I could keep him and me hip deep in beer.
That’s why it surprised me as we were sitting there watching Judge Mathis when Aunt June came stomping in demanding he get his sorry ass out of that recliner. Uncle Walter complained and bellowed, but Aunt June would have her way. She’d come all the way from Hell’s Point to drive her brother to his damned appointment with the oncologist so he’d better get himself moving so they weren’t late. Uncle Walter shrugged philosophically at me.
“Gotta get the blood work done,” he said. “They’s just gonna tell me I’ve got a year to live. Don’t know why they need my blood to tell me that.”
Aunt June was huffing at him and hitting him with her purse. Grumbling, he tottered out the door, shoving me out of the apartment in front of him. He pulled the door closed and checked that it was locked. He winked at me with a conspiratorial grin that said you and me know the secret. Aunt June didn’t care. She was yelling at him to get his sorry ass into the Lincoln; she didn’t have time Walter’s nonsense. He tumbled in and slammed the door. With a roar of exhaust, Aunt June was gone, hauling poor Uncle Walter to his date with the vampires, the only social life he had.
It was late afternoon and hot as Hades in Baltimore. I looked around but nothing was moving on Guilford Street. Little Eddie Tutman was down at the “Y” like every day in the summer instead of playing in the street. Old widow Baker was hiding inside her brownstone across the way with her giant fan cranked to hurricane while she watched her soaps at fifty decibels. And the Handelman kids were probably down at the harbor hassling women and trying to get laid. Wouldn’t be seeing them for a while. Alone on Guilford Street I eyed Uncle Walter’s door like a vulture eyeing a road kill squirrel. Easy pickings.
I checked one last time for watching eyes then seeing none stole up onto Uncle Walter’s porch. I knelt down, feeling a little safer behind the shelter of the balustrade as I pulled out my leather wallet. My favorite pick and the wrench fell easily into my hand and with only a few twists I heard the lock give. Victory.
I slipped into the apartment.
There it was, almost singing like the angels of glory. Uncle Walter’s safe. Just a look, I told myself. Even if the riches of Solomon were inside, I wasn’t going to touch them, I promised. Well, maybe. Depending on just how rich the stash was.
I dropped to my knees and started working the lock. It was a good one, unlike the one on the door. Uncle Walter didn’t have much to protect so he didn’t bother with a fancy door, but there was something of value hiding in that safe. I could tell just by the quality of its lock. Try number one failed when my sweaty hands wouldn’t grip the tools and they slid onto the floor. On try number two I got two of the pins to set but was fighting with the third when I heard a siren just outside. Jumping, I lost my set and knelt in the dim heat of Uncle Walter’s apartment, heart in my throat, waiting for the end to come. It didn’t. I had to start again. Try number three and four didn’t go well. Then finally on try number five I hit it. I heard the clicks. The wrench turned. The door opened.
I looked inside.
To find nothing.
I was so shocked I just stood there for a second staring at the empty box. There was nothing inside. Nothing at all. Except a little blinking light in the upper corner. I stuck my hand in to see what it was and found it was a piece of something electronic. A camera staring right back at me and it was on. What the fuck?
From somewhere distant I heard more sirens. Panicking I pulled out of the safe and slammed the door shut, knowing that safe had a silent alarm. It didn’t matter, I told myself. I was in my uncle’s apartment and hadn’t taken anything. It wasn’t like I’d broken the law. I tucked my tools into the wallet and shoved that in my back pocket. Then I was racing to the door to get outside.
Even as I pulled open the door I knew I was in trouble. There on the porch stood three of Baltimore’s finest, service revolvers in their hands. I yelped and tried to back pedal into the apartment but they grabbed me faster than a cat on a mouse. They whirled me around and suddenly I felt the cold steel of handcuffs closing in on me.
“But it’s my Uncle Walter’s house!” I whined. “I didn’t do nothing!”
“Tell that to the judge,” the huge policeman snapped. A pat down revealed the wallet and a quick look told them all they needed to know. Busted. The evidence right there in my pocket. I really was a stupid fuck.
I was jerked into the street and shoved into a police car. Then it was the ten minute ride to the precinct, an hour for booking and a wait in the holding cell. That cell smelled like whores and piss which wasn’t surprising since I was stuck there with three drunks and a couple of the girls Marty was always trying to get for free. When I was given my chance to make my phone call, I dialed pop knowing he always answered his cell but not this time. It ran and it rang but he didn’t answer so I had to leave a message. Hey pop, I’m in jail. Come bail me out. It wasn’t the proudest moment of my life.
I spent the night there in that jail surrounded by crack whores, winos and thieves. Didn’t sleep but a wink and even then I kept my eyes open. Pretty boys like me didn’t sleep in prison even if our only company was the whores. Those big ugly men in the next cell was eyeing me like the Christmas goose. Lord have mercy. In the morning the bailiff hauled out them that had drawn a judge. Off those lucky fellows went while I was left to sit in the cell wondering where my life had gone wrong.
Then the bailiff came for me. Not to the judge, no sir. He took me to an office where Uncle Walter was waiting.
“Are you sure you don’t want to press charges?” the captain on duty was asking. “Burglary is a serious crime.”
“He didn’t steal nothing,” Uncle Walter said, looking at me like I was the sorriest thing he’d ever laid eyes on. And I was. I could barely look him in the eye. “Just let me take the boy home and give him a whooping.”
The captain raised his brows but gestured we could go.
Chastised and embarrassed I walked out of the precinct with Uncle Walter at my side.
“Do mom and pop know?” I asked bleakly, sure that he’d yelled it from Inner Harbor.
I looked at him in surprise. “You didn’t tell them? Hell!” I swore, thinking of the message I left on pop’s phone in that fit of panic yesterday. “He knows without you telling him, don’t he?”
Now I was scowling at Uncle Walter. With a sly grin the man lifted his hand and there in his big paw rested pop’s cell phone.
“You stole pop’s phone?” I gasped.
“I borrowed it so as I could call your Aunt June to pick me up after my appointment yesterday,” Uncle Walter stated. “I got your message and deleted it. Your pop will never know you spent a night in jail.”
“Oh man! Thank you, Uncle Walt! Jesus, I thought my old man would kill me.”
Uncle Walter continued to grin as we strolled along the street in the broiling sun.
“There was nothing in the safe,” I complained. “Why did you lie to me?”
“I didn’t lie,” he said, and there was a rumble of laughter in his voice.
“You said the most valuable thing in the world was inside that safe.”
He nodded. “And it was.” He looked at me hard but I didn’t get whatever it was he was trying to tell me.
I glared angrily back at him. All this heartache was over nothing. Maybe the drugs or the plague was starting to eat his mind.
“Are you going to lecture me, Uncle Walt?”
“Then what?” I demanded. There had to be a price for what he’d done.
He shook his head with that quirky smile. “Then nothing, Jojo. It be over.”
He continued to grin as we continued to walk.
The next day I came around Uncle Walter’s house to give him a six pack and stuff a couple of frozen pizzas into his icebox. There was no way I was gonna thank the old buzzard but I felt it was okay to be generous. While I was there I told him that I’d gone with pop to the lumber yard and gotten myself a minimum wage job.
“Good” was all he said.
Two weeks later Uncle Walter died. I sat in the front row of the church in my Sunday best with my family all around me. It had been the first time in three years I’d sat in a church. It felt funny but right.
The preacher stood beside the casket exhorting all of us to mind our manners because death was stalking each and every one of us. Like me, Uncle Walter hadn’t been much into attending church, so the fool didn’t have a clue about the man he honored, but he rambled on about the sins of life, of which Uncle Walter had indulged in a few. My sisters were squirming with boredom long before the preacher wrapped up his eulogy.
It was Aunt June who had the final word. She’d been with Uncle Walter at the hospital as he died and thought it her duty to send her brother off with something nice. She told a few stories of when they were young but skipped the middle and his life of crime. She ended her reminiscing by telling us that although Uncle Walter hadn’t been the most Christian of souls, he’d tried his best to do right by his family. He’d died content, she said. A happy man on his last day. That was because, she said with some confusion, Uncle Walter was convinced he’d finally taught one person everything he knew.
Copyright 2015 by Melinda Newmin