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Peter Cooper

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An Ocean of Fate
By Peter Cooper
Friday, November 30, 2001

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A routine robbery goes very wrong, and Duke has to hide out in his nephew's basement until the heat is off. When his nephew's wife starts charging for food and... more, the proceeds from the heist start to dwindle and jail starts to look like the only way out of the basement.

There's an old Tunisian proverb that states, "He who steals will find himself alone in an ocean of fate. Yet, he who searches out thieves will never want for company."
Duke Fox had been holed up in his nephew's basement for three days short of two weeks. The Duke, as his friends at Vacaville had called him, was extremely 'hot' at the moment, and had been since he shot three people during the ill-fated bank heist.
Now, a lot of things in Duke's life were admittedly his fault, and he had made no bones about his mistakes the several times he faced the various judges who had planned his life to this point. But, he thought ruefully, surrounded by his nephew's family paraphernalia in the dank basement, very little of his current predicament was truly his fault.
Was it his fault that an old woman in a wheelchair had caught one of his stray bullets in the neck? Or his fault that a pregnant teenager had died, taking her illegitimate fetus with her? His fault that the former teller's name was Estrella? Was it his fault that everyone in the county, state and country was so angry with him at this moment?
Before Duke had the chance to summon his preliminary self-defense, the door to the basement opened allowing a brief glimmer of artificial light to shoot down the stairway. He could see her, waiting for her eyes to adjust to the darkness, carrying another expensive plate of food.
Damn her, thought Duke, how much this time. "How much this time he echoed out loud.
"A thousand should do it."
Grumbling as he fumbled with his satchel, Duke pulled out some bills and counted out the right amount. It occurred to him that a quarter tip would raise his spirits. At the same time, though the irony would no doubt raise the price of his next repast. Instead, he asked the regular question.
"What's in the news?"
"Oh, they still want you bad, Uncle Duke." She paused, contemplating further discussion. "I don't know how long Herbert is going to let you stay."
"What's his beef?" asked Duke, munching on the cheese and ham croissant. "Another few weeks and he'll be a rich man."
"Hmmm," was her only response.
Duke had to give his nephew's wife credit for her wiles. Poor Herbert had stopped coming down to the basement over a week before. Said it made him nervous. Herbert's mother, Duke's sister, Jane Ellen, had similarly been the nervous type. She passed out twice in school. Once during a sex education lecture, again during a women's biology seminar. He glanced up from the meal to catch her eye on him closely.
"I take it I don't make you nervous," he said between bites.
"You're making me rich," she smiled. "I'm going to have nerves of steel."
She laughed all the way up the stairs. Duke turned, mumbling into the food. He knew she was up to something but there was little he could do about it. Besides, the food was good, better than he was ever going to get in prison. And he was pretty sure he was going to prison, it was his lot in life, of that he was certain.

Recividism had made Duke somewhat philosophical about his life. He could trace back through his school days the true nature of his failures. He knew now that his D's and F's had allowed other, more interested mates to get A's and B's. The very juvenile system depended on the Duke Foxes of the world for their monthly paychecks, without even mentioning the burgeoning penal system, without which the very survival of small, insufficient towns across the country would seriously be retarded. No, thought Duke, he was a necessary, essential ingredient to the social soup of America, and he was not about to disrupt the future of America by conforming. He just couldn't do that to his country.
Duke smiled as he crunched the last leaf of fresh lettuce from his salad, so tastefully prepared. Of all the jams he'd ever been in, of all the lams he's ever been on; this was the best, as far as the food was concerned. Anyway, where was he going to go? Leave the country? Why, he'd gone AWOL when the army had tried to send him to Korea. Never mind the fighting, the food was the pits. He settled back on his rollaway bed, saving his dessert for later in the evening. This was the life, his life, anyway, and he was in no mood to hurry things along by trying to make his way across some border.
That night Duke tuned in the heating duct to listen to his nephew's argument with the wife. Herbert indeed wanted his uncle to leave. She called her husband an ass. If they threw him out now, the police were liable to catch him, and an uncle who had killed an old lady in a wheelchair would feel nothing about turning in a pair of relatives who'd done him a bad turn.
"Bad turn?" Cried nervous Herbert. "We took him in, fed him, kept his secret. We saved his life!"
"The police are still hot after him," argue the calm voice of reason and reality. "It's not time yet."
"He makes me nervous," responded Duke's nephew, revealing a family history of weak-kneed genetics. "Knowing he's down there is making my ulcer act up."
"That's not your ulcer, it's you mother's."
Good for you, thought Duke raising his fist. I've been waiting to say that to one of them for years.
"How do you think I feel?" the wily wife continued. "I haven't been able to go out of the house for two weeks. I just couldn't face anybody without thinking they knew he was in our house. I even told my mother I was going away for a couple of weeks so she wouldn't try and stop by."
"You told her what?" Duke grinned at his nephew's high voice.
"I had to. If she ever came by it would be the end of all of us."

Duke's smile tasted good in the dim cement surroundings. Herbert's wife may be greedy but she was doing a good job of looking after his interests. Greed does such wonderful things to people, and Duke was an expert on greed. Not the ordinary avarice of over-achievers who wanted everything they could lay their hands on; not the kind of accumulative sense that keeps people nervous about life until they have closed themselves in by a castle of belongings that shuts out the light. No, thought Duke, just the plain, ordinary kind of greed that makes people pick up the penny on the street, or accept the extra change from a cashier. Duke liked the idea of having things that didn't belong to him, and he understood his nephew's wife and her desire to have some of the money that Duke had taken from somebody else. It was a common thread between common criminals, and though Duke's unfortunate aim had elevated him to a high status somewhat more uncommon than he was accustomed to, the woman who paced the floor above him was at least a comfort for his dilemma.

The next morning she sat on the bottom step while he ate his Eggs Benedict. When he wiped the last bit of white sauce from his lips she told him to take off his clothes. Duke looked at her with a peculiar smile and she shook her head.
"You'll get lice or worse if you don't have clean clothes down here."
"How much for the laundry service," he asked happily.
"This one's on the house."
He stripped off his clothes before her clinical gaze. Not on the house, he thought to himself, under it. Naked, he wrapped his whiteness in the pink blanket from the rollaway and waited. The phone rang upstairs, and rang and rang, but she didn't answer it. He shivered slightly and pulled the blanket tighter around his shoulders.
When she finally returned, everything was neatly folded and he jumped into his pants which were still warm from the dryer. She went back upstairs and brought a steaming lunch of goulash and carrots. Duke ate silently trying to hear the thoughts behind her vacant stare.
"What are you going to do with the money?" he asked with a noodle hanging from the right side of his mouth. He knew she'd heard, but seemed unwilling to answer the straight question. "Come on," he insisted. "I know you got something planned. Mexico? Europe?" He finished the last bite and she took the tray from his lap.
"I'm not stupid, you know," she said, retreating upward. "Either is Herbert."
The water from the kitchen sink trickled down the drainpipe across the basement from where Duke sat. Her routine was maddening as well as comforting. She meticulously removed every trace of him from her dishes as soon as she could. Once every several days she would fly around the basement putting everything back into place. She was so regular, that he feared he was losing track of the length of his stay.
What could have been the next day, Duke heard her speaking on the telephone through the heating duct.
"Yes, mother. I just got back. Wanted to call you first. No, I haven't talked to Herbert yet. He doesn't know I'm back. I just had to get away, to clear my head. I don't know how long we're going to last. Come over if you like, I could use a good talk. No, I've just got to unpack my bags."
Duke followed her footsteps across the floor above his head. The closet door creaked by the front entrance. Several thumps signified luggage and the front door opened. Then silence. Followed by a very long silence. Then a screeching of tires and many footsteps.
Duke leaped for the basement door but it wouldn't open. Something heavy was blocking it. He reached for his gun as the door was opened cautiously.
"We know you're down there. Come up with your hands in the air."
Now Duke knew he could have fired at them, ended it all right at that moment, but he had to know what her plan was. Silly thing, really. But no sillier than killing an old lady in a wheelchair.
He looked for her as he was handcuffed and escorted to the waiting police cruiser. She was standing next to a police captain who was filling out the report.
"Thanks for everything," he shouted across to her, but she only shrugged and continued telling her story to the captain. How she had returned from a camping trip in the Sierras. How she'd heard strange sounds down in the basement. She had heard on the radio that her husband's infamous Uncle Duke Fox was wanted for murder and bank robbery. She had to call the police right away, couldn't take any chances.
And Duke marvelled at her stand on her husband's behalf. Herbert must have been afraid that his uncle's gang would wreak revenge on her if he turned in his notorious relative. Herbert was a nervous man. Always had been. She even gave the police permission to tear apart their basement to look for a large part of the loot Duke had obviously stashed away. Everyone knows that intelligent bank robbers hide part of their earnings. Something set aside for their old age. In Duke's case, he'd have to return from the grave to ever spend any of it, even if he had thought to salt some of it away.
True to form, Herbert was so stunned by his wife's fabrication that he went along with the whole story. The mitigating circumstances were enough to keep him out of jail, but not enough to keep his fragile nerves from breaking down completely. And his wife stood by him even then, never mentioning so much as a word about divorce, much to her credit in Duke's incarcerated view.
Duke Fox really didn't mind being in jail, though the food wasn't nearly as tasty as the fare in the basement. He knew some of the people in his cellblock, and the regular exercise and time to rest did his much for his state of mind. He never told anyone how happy and content he felt in prison, he didn't think they'd believe him. Whenever he thought of her while lying on his bed, he just had to smile at her wiles. She had known better than he that he would never get away with the caper. The lady in the wheelchair had decided his fate as surely as his bullet had decided hers.
Every Thanksgiving he received a good-will package from a different European address. One of the annual packages had a picture in it. She appeared in the center of four large, muscular men. They looked Mediterranean and wore skimpy bathing suits. She looked so happy Duke knew there couldn't have been any malice behind her including the photo with the cookies and fruitcake. He believed the gesture was more to show him the contribution he'd made to her life. In time, her victory was also his. The ocean was blue and endless behind the tanned and happy group in the photo. For thieves, fate is an endless lapping of waves upon the shore, bringing up what others have lost and taking it back with the tide. On the back she had signed it simply with a felt marker: "Love, Shirley."

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