Wealth, Economy & Madness
by Priscilla Long
Rosalie Morrissey had never robbed anyone before. Oh, as a girl in the thirties she'd snitched Padraic's marbles, one at a time, and kept a nice stash. And once, she and Paddy had pilfered quarters from their father's change purse. They'd run down 40th Street with their loot and bought Blue Bunny Ice Cream Sandwiches from the Durn Good Grocer. Her old friend Mary Rothstein, who'd died of breast cancer last year, shoplifted all her life and boasted about it to anyone. Mary had purloined her entire wardrobe, gaudy and mismatched as it was. She used to laugh and say she never understood why anyone would pay for clothes. But Mary had not come from a good family.
Mrs. Morrissey had come from a good family and besides, a third grade teacher, even if retired, had to set a standard. She was a good woman who did good deeds. Not that she was a churchgoer. But she bought Girl Scout cookies. She canvassed in voter registration drives. She collected clothing for the less fortunate, even after she herself had become less fortunate after Robert died. She purchased her own garments in thrift stores and bought groceries within a strict weekly budget, which she meticulously inked into a green ledger. She volunteered once a week at Harborview Hospital. Her only deviation from perfect goodnessand she had no regrets about thiswas her friendship with the irascible Mary Rothstein. But now Mary was gone and Rosalie Morrissey was being evicted.
Rosalie had not planned to hold up the Durn Good Grocery. If she had given it a moment's thought, she would not have held it up. But she didn't give it a moment's thought. She opened the eviction letter and read it and sat down. She didn't know how long she sat there. But gradually all the hand-wringing and anxiety of the past months drained away. They had raised the rent, and raised it again, until she had become distraught. The days had become an anxious search for ways to economize, to cut back, to gather sufficient funds for the next rent. Now she was distraught no more. She was simply at the end of her rope.
And it was simple. It was as if a decision had been taken by God or the Devil, not by Rosalie Morrissey. She allowed the letter to float from her hand to the floor. She went to Robert's sock drawer and took out the pistol she'd left there undisturbed after he died. It was surprisingly heavy. She slung on her shoulderbag and placed the pistol into it. She walked out the door, not even bothering to lock it behind her. It was evening, hot and dusty, about 9 o'clock, still light. She walked down North 40th Street, past the wood-clad houses with their porches and brick chimneys, past the topped sweetgum trees and scarlet oaks that she herself had helped to plant back when they thought the city was going to bury the power lines. Now the trees were dying, beheaded by City Light for tangling in the overhead wires. She'd walked this walk a thousand times, but on this hot August evening everything looked different. Dusty maple leaves seemed to curl at the edges and the purple dahlias and orange poppies in the yard at the corner of Burke Street glowed in a greenish, sick-looking light. As for Mrs. Morrissey, she felt fine, almost cheerful.
She entered the Durn Good Grocery. The cash register was jingling and clacking and spitting out its long white tongue of the day's transactions.
Why, good evening Mrs. Morrissey. You're just in time. Benjamin Zaslavsky had perched himself on the stool behind the register. He was closing out the day's receipts. He was a stout, balding, red-faced man wearing a white shirt and trousers upheld by suspenders. He was studying the receipts through a pair of round-eyed, wire-rimmed glasses.
Good evening Benjamin. Rosalie removed the pistol from her shoulderbag and pointed it at him. She had known him ever since he was an eight-year-old pupil in her third grade class. Indeed, it was she who'd taught him to make change.
What can I get for you this evening? Benjamin Zaslavsky glanced up absently and then returned to his task. Then the information that she was pointing a gun at him registered in his face. He glanced at it and frowned.
Oh do be careful with that, Mrs. Morrissey. You could hurt yourself.
Benjamin, this is a holdup. Please be so kind as to hand over the cash. The pistol shook in her hand.
Mrs. Morrissey, what's the matter? There was genuine concern in Benjamin Zaslavsky's voice.
What's the matter? She took a breath. I'm getting evicted! Just as if I hadn't lived in this neighborhood all my life! I bought gumdrops from your father! Her voice quavered with indignation.
Evicted! said Benjamin. He stood up and leaned on the counter with both hands and looked at her closely. Then he looked down at the gun.
Evicted! Mrs. Morrissey repeated. I helped plant those oak trees out there, I registered these people to vote! She waved the gun at the wooden houses visible out the plate glass window of the corner grocery.
Mr. Zaslavsky squinted at the weapon as she waved it. That's a Colt 45 semi-automatic pistol! Dad used to have one.
They want to put me into some sort of home like I was a piece of furniture, Mrs. Morrissey continued, or maybe they think I can live under the I-5 bridge. With the muzzle, she brushed the box of Extra Tall Licorice Ropes to the floor. Why don't you start with the safe, she suggested.
Mr. Zaslovsky sighed. But Mrs. Morrissey, it wasn't me who evicted you.
Oh it's not your fault. You're just havingWhat did that letter say?the luck of the draw. You are having the luck of the draw. And they're terribly sorry, and there's nothing they can do about it. She raised the gun with both hands, pointed it, and shot the safe. The gun popped and her arm jerked back and behind her the bullet case pinged.
Benjamin Zaslavsy jumped. Mrs. Morrissey! He put up his hand as if to bless her. Remain calm. I'm going to open the safe. My goodness! I've known you all my life. He turned his back and got down on his painful arthritic knee, and knelt before the safe as if to pray.
Benjamin, I taught you to make change. She looked at the jumble of Juicy Fruit Gums and M & Ms and Clark Bars and Power Bars and Chesterfield Lights and Chiclets and Fritos and frozen burritos and Bazooka Bubble Gums with their twisted waxed papers. My star pupil, she thought. I felt sure he would make a scholar.
If you can count, you can make change, Benjamin Zaslavsky recited. He turned the combination of the safe. Be careful, Mrs. Morrissey. That pistol is already loaded for another shot.
You have a brilliant mind, Benji dear. I've always been sorry your Dad died just when he did. You would have made a scholar. Al Zaslavsky had opposed Benji's going to Harvard, even with a full scholarship. He'd wanted his son to join the family business. He'd gotten the last word, too, by dropping dead the summer after Benji's one glorious year at Harvard.
Benjamin half turned to look up at her. I've just now read Seamus Heaney's Beowolf. Have you read it?
I just returned it to the library! It's delicious isn't it? Mrs. Morrissey set the pistol down on the counter and took a handkerchief from her bag and mopped her face. Doing hold-ups is exhausting, she confided.
Oh, I should say so. You wouldn't want to hold up a store every day, that's for sure. He heaved himself up and plopped the bank-bag of money on the counter.
It's never too late to return to school Benjamin. When you turn sixty, you know, you can take courses at the University of Washington free of charge.
Is that right? He opened the cash register and with both pudgy white hands lifted out the money drawer. I'll be sixty in five years.
Well then. No one with a mind like yours should let it deteriorate. Brains atrophy, you know. They die down.
I was good at the classics. Benjamin set the money drawer on the counter. Well, there's your loot, Mrs. Morrissey. Funny how I don't much care. This saves me from having to close out tonight. I suppose I'll have to call the police though. Where're you off to now?
The old lady dropped the pistol into her shoulderbag, and looked at the cash drawer and cash bag. I'm going home, she said. I have no place else to go.
Can I get you a bag?
Thank you Benjamin, dear.
Mr. Zaslavsky bagged the bank bag and then he bagged the contents of the cash drawer. He folded down and creased the top of the brown bag three times and handed it to her. What are you planning to do with that money, Mrs. Morrissey?
Rosalie Morrissey took the bag. Tears came to her eyes. She said, I'm going to pay my rent. Then I'm going to shoot myself in the head.
Benjamin's eyes widened. Oh, you mustn't do that.
Mustn't I? And why not? What would you do under the circumstances?
I wouldn't shoot myself in the head, certainly not.
They're planning to evict me, Mrs. Morrissey repeated, this time with quiet dignity. She turned to go.
Mrs. Morrissey! Benjamin raised his hand as if he was back in the third grade and needed to go to the restroom.
Yes, Benjamin? She half turned to look at him.
You've got a fighting spirit.
I'm afraid I don't have a fighting spirit, she corrected. I see now that I've lived my entire life as a sweet old lady. I was a sweet old lady when I was twenty-three. Robert used to tease me about it. So did Mary. I can't change now. I'm eighty-five years old.
They both stood there. The ceiling fan made a breathy sound. Outside dusk was fading to darkness. The cars passing on 40th Street had turned on their headlights. Finally Benjamin said in a shy voice, You can hold up a store when you put your mind to it.
Well, said Mrs. Morrissey. She pressed her lips together. Then she said. And you, Benji, can go back to school and become the scholar you were meant to be.
I suppose I could. Benjamin nodded thoughtfully. Maybe I will do that.
You are wasting your brains, Benjamin. Mrs. Morrissey spoke to him in her best gently chiding voice. Your dad would have relented in a couple of years.
Benjamin got a look of concentration on his face. She remembered that look from when he was in the third grade winning mathematics bees, doing long division in his head. He said, And you're wasting the rest of your life by putting a bullet through your brain.
Mrs. Morrissey looked at him for a considerable length of time.
Benjamin spoke again. Mrs. Morrissey, why don't you put up a fight?
Put up a fight, she repeated after him.
Organize the tenants in your building. Don't go shooting yourselfmaybe they'd be sorry, but it would solve a problem for them. One less tenant to worry about. Mrs. Morrissey, I believe you have it in you to make them rue the day they ever sent that letter.
She sighed. Maybe so, she said.
I'll help you, Benjamin offered. The Durn Good is getting evicted too.
The Durn Good Grocery is getting evicted?
The whole block's getting bought up. This neighborhood is history. He swept his hand through the air as if to dispense with the neighborhood.
Mrs. Morrissey clutched the brown bag containing the day's take at the Durn Good. Paddy and I used to buy Blue Bunny Ice Cream Sandwiches here, she said. Before you were born, she added.
Benjamin Zaslavsky pointed to a row of baseball caps he'd agreed to sell on behalf of the King County Central Labor Council. They were camouflage green caps with a motto stitched behind the bills. He quoted, United We Fight, Divided We Beg.
Mrs. Morrissey suddenly felt exhausted and confused. You may have a point, she said.
Think it over. Here, let me keep that pistol. He put out his hand.
Mrs. Morrissey looked at his hand. Suddenly she began to cry. It was Robert's, she said. Then she stopped crying.
Benjamin kept his hand out. We'll keep it safe for you. That way, you won't be tempted. You can get it in the morning.
All right then. Mrs. Morrissey set down the grocery bag and fumbled in her bag for the pistol. She handed it to Benjamin.
Benjamin took the pistol and pointed it toward the floor. He dropped the magazine and pulled it out. Then he racked the slide. The bullet popped out the back. He decocked the gun. Then he got down on his painful arthritic knee for the second time, and placed the pistol and the magazine and the loose bullet in the safe. Then he stood up once again.
Good night then young man, said Mrs. Morrissey.
Until tomorrow, Mrs. Morrissey.
She walked out into the hot August night.
Now it was Benjamin Zaslavsky's turn to draw out his handkerchief and mop his face.