John Greene had just taken the wrong turn and was hurtling towards the Tollway. Knowing that he didn't have an EZ-tag and no bills smaller than a $100 bill in those bags in the trunk, he saw the sign just in time and took “the Last Free Exit,” thus avoiding detection and giving him the idea he needed to escape. Just how he got in this mess John couldn't quite figure out. Just that he was in it up to his eyeballs and had to get out.
Three years earlier John Greene was a successful landscaper in the big city. By landscaper, he meant that he hired illegals to do the hard work and hauled them around the city cutting grass and edging the St. Augustine back to where it showed dark edges of bare dirt. It all started seven years earlier when he arrived in the city straight out of high school with no clue, his 16-year-old bride, pregnant, the big car payment, and dreams of striking it rich. When he had to pay a big deposit and sign up for a year in the dream apartment she found, the small inheritance Greene got when his father died was gone and he had to look for work.
There was no work for a high school dropout with no skills except making babies. So John looked in the Green Sheet and picked up a few odd jobs that put food on the table but wasn't paying the rent. Finally, he settled for working on a landscaping crew and learned the works, struggling with the relentless heat and dehydration over 12 hour days spent hopping from one yard to another and then to a business to weed eat and water a stunted plant or two. His crewmates were mostly Spanish, so he had to pick up a word or two just to find out what they were laughing about when they picked on him.
After hearing, “What are you doing here?” too many times from the customers, Greene decided that he had to get out of the business of being a sweat back employee and go into business for himself. His boss was a son of a bitch Italian that treated him like dirt and took most of the customers for a ride, telling them that he could do landscaping when all his crew could do was mow and trim. Greene thought he could do better. After discussing it with his wife, April, their baby son now three years old, he approached the problem in an enterprising way. First, he stole his boss's customers. While asking for a drink of water, John would feel them out for a soft spot, and then claim that he could do the work better, and cheaper than his lying, cheating boss. Once Greene had lined up 10 potential customers, he told the Italian, “Go stick it where the sun don't shine,” and walked away right in the middle of working a cushy business site with the owner looking on. Just payback for the bastard's cheap ways.
Over the weekend Greene bought a used pickup with $100 down and a promise -- with no money to pay the rest off -- at a usury interest rate. As soon as the Rental Center opened at 7 am, Greene rented a lawnmower and weedeater, and, by the end of the day of hard work had $120 in his pocket after paying for the rental. The next morning he rented more equipment and stopped by the local Home Depot parking lot where he picked up two strong looking illegals and put them to work on customers he'd taken from the Italian. By the end of the week John had cleared $1000, more money he had ever made in a week his life. John Greene suddenly liked the idea of business. It was the American way, and he liked it -- well, the money at least. He wasn't too fond of the hard work. John's success was short-lived. April began getting threatening calls, and sometimes, when Greene arrived at a job, the Italian was already there, as if he had psyched out what John's schedule was. It was war after that. He suspected that the Italian was behind the harassment, but couldn't prove it.
John had to teach himself some of the basics of landscaping so that he could pass them on to his customers. That worked, and eventually after what amounted to mostly posturing and pestering, the Italian left him alone and Greene began to prosper on the backs of the poor illegals he hired. It didn't take long for him to pick up the same workers every day until one crossed him and then, when that happened, John never picked that guy up again. That situation rarely came up because most of the illegals were grateful just to get steady work from him and not have to worry about being reported. They'd do almost anything for the little money that they made. Before long, Greene was able to buy himself a new truck, and, after his expensive contract was up after their first year in the apartment, he was able to buy a house from one of his customers because the bank would not give him a loan based on his business income, alone. Since a lot of the business was in cash, he reported only what he had to, to the IRS, cheating on his taxes like everybody else did. So, John prospered and was able to give his little boy, Sean, everything he wanted, from a bicycle, a good preschool, and eventually, private school. Everything was happy in the John Greene family... but it wasn’t.
From the beginning, John had insisted that his woman, April, be a stay-at-home mom. The apartment complex had a wading pool because the city did not, and insurance did not, favor swimming pools because small children drowned all the time. But it was a place where April hung out with her baby when they first moved to the city. She got a nice tan and got to know some of the neighbors. There were some single guys in the complex that occasionally hit on her, and she took it as a compliment because April wasn't particularly beautiful or attractive. While John put in his 12 hour days, April started to have affairs that she never told him about. Mostly, the guys would ply her a little bit with liquor, flex their pecs and flashed their abs, something John did not have, and she would sneak into an apartment for a little quick nooky before John came home and she had a hot dinner waiting for him coming out of the shower. The activity with the guys made her hot, so she didn't have any trouble having sex with John whenever he wanted it. That all changed when they moved to the house. Still, April had some phone numbers that she used from time to time when their little boy was in preschool and she was bored. Their second child, a little girl that they named Pearl bore no resemblance to John, but he didn't care, he loved her a lot, but told April, "That's all we can have in the urban environment like this." April had her tubes tied. That was all right with her, because she could play anytime she wanted and not worry.
Likewise, John strayed. Some of his clients were stay-at-home wives. Some would carelessly wear bedroom nighties or loose loungewear and flash him while paying for his services, offering him water or lemonade for his crew, or just looking out of open windows at him and the crew working. While he forbade his crew from entering the houses, sometimes, while they were busy on jobs, John allowed himself time to flirt with these, just as often, flirtatious women. Some gave him their phone numbers. Some just invited him in for a quickie. There was something about a working man that was hot and sweaty that turned them on. Likewise, they turned him on. He kept some rubbers in his work vest where April couldn't find them, but rarely used one. The women didn't seem to mind. He wondered if he'd impregnated any of these women happily looking at it we will put their own, but no one came forth and declared that he had fathered their child.
So, that was the happy story of John's life up until 3 years ago when they cracked down on immigration. Not only that, a recession had made it difficult for people to lavish money and tips on him for mowing, edging, and landscaping that they had in the past. As customers lost their jobs or their businesses lost income, Greene found his clients dropping away as fast as his source of legal help. Although he worked harder than ever, John found that he was losing money every month because his wife had developed the habit of shopping and using their credit cards until they were all nearly maxed out. That's when he found the money.
One of those accounts John couldn't take from the Italian was a rather suspicious house in a rather ordinary, but wealthy neighborhood. A guy that had Mafia written all over him would meet the Italian in the parking lot of a nearby shopping strip and the guy would give the Italian the gate key and pay him handsomely to keep the yard looking as pristine as any in the neighborhood. However, while mowing around the house, John noted that the place was blacked out with silver-one-way glass throughout that couldn't be seen from the street because the way the house was set behind heavy shrubbery and high fencing. The only entrances were through an automatic garage door off of a curved drive and a heavy gate to a wrought-iron fence that was always locked except when they were working that separated the front yard from the back. Anyway, John was always curious about the house, and after his business died down and he had time to kill, he happened to be in the neighborhood and noticed that the front yard had not been taken care of. Maybe the Italian had gone out of business after John had stolen so many of his clients, maybe not? Whatever it was, it bore looking into.
John could sure use a work and wondered how he could possibly contact the guy who paid the Italian. He couldn't remember ever seeing the car the guy drove because he was always standing in the parking lot under a particular tree whenever the Italian went over to get the key and get paid, usually right before they started and right after they finished work at the site. The Italian had no key to the gate and all contacts were made by cell phone. So, enterprising as he was, Greene looked up and down that street at midday and saw no one stirring. He backed his truck up the driveway with its obvious advertising on the side as a legitimate business doing legitimate work, walked up to the gate, and climbed over the fence. The rear of the property was worse than the front. It looked like it hadn't been mowed in months and there were weeds, tall as his knees, everywhere. The shrubs were overgrown and the flower beds had flowers that were overrun with weeds. The place had a look of being abandoned. Green felt rather safe trespassing because he remembered that it didn't appear that anyone could look into the backyard from any direction. The windows were still silvered over so he couldn't see in, but, with a little jimmying, he was able to force the rear sliding door with gloved hands off the track and open enough for him to squeeze through.
The place had the distinct smell of marijuana that he couldn't help but easily recognize because John had taken a toke or two in his time. Like the yard, the kitchen he entered was abandoned. As he cautiously explored the rest of the house John found evidence of a very large marijuana grow that had been nearly entirely dismantled. John wasn't sure why, but then he wasn't the police or even a newspaper investigator, just some guy trying to find out who owned the place so that he could get some work. However, the thought dawned on him that if he could find some weed he might make a profit from some guys that he knew that smoked, not to mention himself. Except for a few dried leaves and buds, left when the plants were removed, he picked up barely a gram that he slipped into a small plastic bag that he found in the kitchen. Systematically, John went through the house and checked every drawer and closet and shelf to see if there was anything of any value. There wasn't any. Greene had been in the house about a half-hour and was getting very hot and sweaty because there was no air-conditioning and the only light in the place was through the uncovered one-way windows when he found it.
In one of the closets upstairs, John noticed a cutout piece of sheet rock that had been replaced with four screws. He unscrewed the four screws with a dime. And then John carefully removed the sheet rock, leaving a 2' x 2' hole in the wall. There was a small space behind the hole that had been made when the closet was constructed. John reached around the corner from the hole and felt a bundle tied with twine. “Ah ha,” John said to himself, “I found their stash.”
John was wrong. What he found was four bundles, each about a cubic foot, neatly wrapped in plastic and tied with twine... of money. He didn't know it was money at first, but John carefully cut through the plastic on one of the bundles with his pocket knife and discovered hundred dollar bills. Greene stopped looking after that and carefully carried all four bundles down to the kitchen, two at a time, and out to the yard, and then out to the fence where he hid them under some overgrown shrubbery by the fence, and then, looking either way to see if anybody was on the street, he slipped over the fence and went to his truck. As he was about to open the door to get in, a car came by. Trying not to raise suspicion, Greene waved at the car, looked in the bed of his truck as though he were checking some tools, opened the truck door and got in. Something caught the corner of his eye as he backed down the drive. A small camera was mounted on the corner of the garage -- staring straight at him. A chill ran down John's spine. "What if they are filming me," he thought. There was nothing he could do about it, so Greene left the scene and the money. As he drove past the shopping center, he swore that he saw the mafioso standing under that tree.
When John got home, it hit the fan. April was packing. "What's going on?" He asked. Greene didn't dare tell her about the money with all their money problems.
"They are scaring me. Those empty phone calls. Those nasty e-mails. I can't go anywhere without thinking someone is following me -- and they are threatening the kids!" April was having one of her usual rants and she was stuffing things into suitcases laid out on the bed. "I'll need some cash and the truck."
"The truck? Why do you need my truck? And where are you going, anyway?" This was all John needed.
"I'm going home. Mama has already lined up a place for me to rent. I'll need some furniture and you'll have to load it. All my credit cards are maxed out and now they have jacked the interest up where I can't even pay them back in 20 years. We are six months behind on the house payment and I got a letter today saying the bank was going to foreclose. There's nothing here for me. Nothing! I don't know why I ever came here with you in the first place!" April broke down crying but kept on working with tears streaming down her face, running her mascara, dabbing at her eyes occasionally with a tissue as she packed.
Feeling helpless, John Greene left the room and wandered into the kitchen where he found a cold beer to quench the fire burning in his gut. He plopped down in the living room on the huge leather couch and contemplated the ceiling fan and tried to settle his mind and his stomach over what was about to go down. "What the hell," John thought to himself, "if this is the way it's going to be, then this is the way it's going to be." He finished the beer and helped April pack the truck with furniture and household belongings.
In three hours the truck was piled high like an Okie was leaving for California. John tied it down with rope as best he could under an old camping tent that served as a tarp to keep the rain off. They scoured the house for cash and came up with a couple hundred. John left himself five bucks and gave the rest to April. He found himself kissing April goodbye and waved as she drove off to get the kids at their schools. John was sure going to miss those kids, but that's the way it had to be. He'd seen too many divorces and broken homes in his short time in the city. The country would be better for the kids. At least he knew where she was in case he wanted to drop by sometime and see them.
Greene found the Corolla in the garage where April had left it, keys in the ignition. A year before, when the dealership was about to take back the Lexus, she talked them into trading it in for the used Corolla. April didn't like driving around in such a cheap car and she railed John on it whenever she felt like it. That woman could sure make him feel small. And she wasn't the pretty little thing he married anymore. Grabbing the four beers left in the sixpack, John drove over to the grow house and parked about a half block away. He felt like he had to do surveillance like he saw on the TV shows. But he wasn't sure what he would do if he saw something or he didn't. John was just worried about that camera. What was it doing there? Was it live? Had it recorded him in the truck? His license plate? Were there any other cameras? Too many questions. He sat there, drinking the beer and watching the house until dusk. Seeing nothing, he drove back to his house, now full of emptiness, that he had shared with April and the kids. He grabbed some left over food that was in the refrigerator, a couple more beers, rolled two joints from the marijuana he found -- all he found -- and tried to think of what to do. Somewhere along the line he fell asleep.
It must've been around midnight when John Greene woke up. He found a black pullover and a black ski cap. He cut two holes for eyes in the old ski cap and pulled it down over his face just like the ski masks he saw in the movies. A pair of work gloves and a worn pair of boots with no cleats rounded out his outfit, fit for a cat burglar. Luckily, both of the flashlights he kept around for storms had good batteries. The only money he had was the five bucks in his pocket. There was a half tank of gas in the Corolla so he could get around for a while without having to buy gas. Grabbing his toolbox and four black plastic garbage bags that he had stuffed in his pullover pockets, John jumped back in the Corolla and headed for the grow house once again.
As John drove up the street towards the grow house, he saw a car in the driveway. He decided to drive on by and when he did, the Lexus with blacked out windows had Mafia written all over it. A shiver ran down his spine as he wondered if they had film of him or had captured the license plate of his truck with that camera. As much as he wanted to drive away, Greene returned to the place he had done surveillance earlier and parked. In less than 10 minutes he saw flashlights and two men get in the Lexus, back down the driveway with malice, and fly past him on the way to the corner leading to the main drag. John Greene had the good sense to duck down in time, and hoped like hell that they didn't notice that the Corolla wasn't parked there earlier.
John waited for about 15 minutes until he got up enough courage. And then he left the car where it was and tried to approach the house from the front of neighboring houses so he wouldn't be seen on the street or sidewalk and wouldn't be in line with the camera. From the cover of shrubbery on the other side, John quickly skipped across the drive in front of the garage door under the camera to the gate. His ski mask pulled down over his face and his gloves on, Greene was surprised to find the gate open and the cubicle packages of money under the shrubs where he had left them. He followed the wall of the house along until he spotted another camera covering the backyard. "Why didn't I see that before?" John question himself.
The sliding glass door was off the track like he had left it. "Damn, I should have put that back." Greene cursed himself as he entered the kitchen, watchful for other cameras. There was one in the kitchen and he was fully in it. He saw the little red light indicating that it was on. There was another in the great room and another at the top of the stairs. The place was full of cameras that he hadn't seen before because he wasn't looking. He once again started checking closets and found one in the kitchen that probably had been a pantry. Inside was a bank of electronics with a lot of green lights indicating that the security system was working just fine. John looked for tape decks that he could pull out but there weren't any. This system probably transmitted the images to another location. His skin was crawling now and the only thing he could think of was to find a block of wood and smash the bank of electronics to bits. And then, in a moment of sanity, he decided that they already knew that he was there and that smashing equipment would only give off an alarm in the middle of the night and have them down on him.
John Greene knew he was in mortal danger. There was no time for anything else but to run. When he got to the shrubs in the front of the house, he quickly threw the four bundles into each of four garbage bags and tied two of them together. Slinging the tied bags over each shoulder, Greene ran for the car with the bundles slung over his shoulders. They were heavy so he could only trot, making his way to the far side of the Corolla and dropping them down behind the car, John quickly opened the trunk, and slung the bags in. He was shaking so bad he had a hard time putting the key into the trunk lid. The ignition was even worse. Just as he was about start the car, John saw headlights in the rearview mirror and stopped, grateful that he didn't have his foot on the brake. Two cars came careening down the street and into the driveway of the grow house. He heard doors slam and saw flashlights raking the area and several men rushed into where he had just been moments before. His skin crawled with the thought of them catching him there.
John started the Corolla as quietly as he could, and, with the lights off, backed all the way down the street to the main street, where he flipped a louie and drove halfway up the block before he turned his lights on. Trying to stay calm with his heart pounding, the scared thief finally slowed down and headed back toward his house. When John arrived, he saw the blacked out Lexus in the driveway and thought better of going home. "I'm never going home again." He thought. But where would he go?
John drove around for a while trying to think of what to do. Finally, about 3 am, a couple of miles from his house he pulled into a darkened shopping center parking lot and pulled up near another Corolla for the night. Before he finally went to sleep, he exchanged license plates with that car and walked over to an all-night Stop & Shop and, with a few coins he had in his pocket, called his mother-in-law.
"Hello, Maude, this is John. April told me she was coming to stay with you. I can't tell you what it is, but I am in deep trouble and April and the kids are too -- maybe even you. She can't stay where you planned..."
A sleepy Maude didn't understand what he was saying. "But.. But, what do you mean? She can't stay where...?"
"She can't stay anywhere near you or around you. I'm really sorry but she has to sell the truck or at least get new license plates and then move on to another state and get license plates there, too. If anybody, anybody at all, asks where I am or where she is, tell them you don't know. I don't know who these people are, but they will kidnap or kill April and the kids if they find her to get to me. Tell her that if she does this for me I will send her a lot of money. Tell her I will call her later if she is careful. You be careful too, Maude, both you and Carl. No talking to strangers -- call the police if anyone bothers you -- love you."
"We love you too, John. Bye."
"Kiss the kids for me. Bye."
John hung up the phone. Not sure if he got his message through. He crawled back into the car and tried to sleep. He didn't. Instead, thoughts kept running through his mind what he needed to do until the sun peeked over the buildings, warming the car and warning him to get out of there.
John Greene spent a long breakfast in a fast food place trying to figure out what he was going to do. He spent his last five dollars and the Corolla needed gasoline. He was losing his mind thinking. John found himself on the freeway and took a wrong turn. Instead of being on the freeway he was headed for the Tollway. He knew they had cameras and things like that. In fact, everywhere there were cameras and checks to see who you were -- there was no way out. John even thought of crashing the car into a concrete barrier. But with his luck, he'd probably survive.
And then John saw it -- the Last Free Exit sign -- and suddenly knew what to do. He almost missed the turn off, but with scuffed tires from the curb he bounced off of, reached the first cross street that took him into a neighborhood where there was a flea market. Backing the Corolla up against the wall of a building between two parked cars, John got out of the car like any other shopper and went to the trunk and opened it. He had to open two of the black garbage bags before he found the one with the package of bills already cut open. First, he pulled out ten $100 bills and looked at them. They were new, chrisp, and sequentially numbered. That scared the hell out of him, probably ransom money, not that kind of money you get from day to day drug transactions. Still, money was money, he stuffed the bills in one pocket and pulled out ten more for the other pocket.
Walking into the crowd, he approached couples and asked them if they could make change for him. If they hesitated, he asked them if they would give him $75 for a $100 bill. Most of the people he approached said "Yes " and quickly exchanged money. Some even asked if he had more $100 bills to change. By the time he moved through the crowd once, John had $1700 in clean money. With one of the bills he bought a flowery shirt, khaki shorts, and some leather sandals. Liked the shirt so much he bought a couple more. It was getting hot in that black sweater and jeans.
John Greene filled the gas tank of the Corolla, cleaned up and changed clothes in the gas station after buying a razor to shave, a toothbrush and toothpaste and other necessities. He felt pretty good when he got back on the freeway and headed for Mexico. Without a passport, he only had one free exit from the country. From experience, John knew that the Mexican officials at the border would just wave and let him go on through. There would be no cameras taking his picture or the picture of the plates he had stolen. No dogs to check for dirty money or drugs and no nosy cops to check the contents of his trunk. He knew enough Spanish to get by, even do well almost anywhere in Central or South America. John Greene suddenly felt free, light and airy, like a great load had been lifted from his mind. John worried a little bit about his kids, but he set those aside for better thoughts of the life he would lead and the ladies he would have south of the border.
By evening Greene reached San Antonio. He checked into a fine hotel on the River Walk. When they questioned his shopping bag for luggage and the fact that he had no credit card, he explained that he was a landscaper, showing them his callous hands, who only worked for cash, and was only in town to work a landscaping job for a rich client. They bought his story and he got a room with a view. Out on the River Walk, John stayed late by the water, drinking tequila sunrises and listening first to the mariachi band, and then switched to scotch and the jazz band until he was nearly too tired and too drunk to get up from the table.
Somehow, John managed to get back to his room and was awakened by housekeeping telling him that he had overslept his checkout time and would be charged a penalty. Not wanting to rile anyone, Greene quickly got dressed, checked out and paid his bill. He had given them a false address of one of his mowing clients and fortunately, did not have to give his license plate number to them. Before he left, John had brunch in the hotel. Felt that from here on out, it would be the best of everything.
By four o'clock in the afternoon John Greene was watching palm trees spring up on either side of the road leading to paradise ahead. As they grew taller they became mesmerizing as the light of the sun flickered through the fronds. With the sun's heat on him, John drifted off into a dream. The Corolla began to wander and he was jarred awake by the sound of the tires on the rumble strip. John grabbed the wheel, but before he knew what had happened, red lights were flashing in his rearview mirror and he was being pulled over. So close but no cigar, already John Greene was missing that last free exit.
Copyright 2001 © Ronald W. Hull