Sunday, December 23, 2012

A Godsend for Bonnie and Clyde

Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker both knew they were going to die. There was no doubt in their minds that they would meet their end in a hail of bullets. All they asked of God was that they'd go down together.

Dying was fine by them. What made it worthwhile was knowing that they were on the front page of the newspapers. They were celebrities. The public loved them. The public hated them. It really made no difference to Bonnie and Clyde, because at least the public knew who they were. And for a couple of kids from a nowhere place like West Dallas, that was quite an accomplishment.


Herbert T Barrow, on the other hand, did not quite share their enthusiasm for celebrity. Having been a Marine in France during the Great War, he already knew more about killing and dying than either his young cousin Clyde or Bonnie ever would. All he really wanted in life was to play Jazz, smoke reefer and love him some women. Herbert didn't ask anything of God, because Herbert was an atheist and he had no doubt that the whole idea of God, the Devil and the Sweet Hereafter was a giant crock of shit. As for his bloodthirsty young cousin and his alleycat girlfriend, Herbert didn't see why he couldn't just keep out of their way as he high-tailed it from Knoxville Tennessee to the Mexican Border with the laws hot on his trail..

But fate and/or the collusion of the deities soon forces Herbert into their arms and before he knows it, he has unwillingly become the newest member of their criminal gang and also the focus of media attention. To Bonnie and Clyde, Herbert is a godsend.  Before he appeared, Bonnie was wounded, they were in hiding, and the public's interest in them seemed to be fading with each passing day.  It didn't matter that Herbert refused to carry a gun when he carried the crippled Bonnie in with him whenever they knocked over gas stations and grocery stores. Having Herbert there with them, sparked the public imagination and got them back on the front page of newspapers. Without them ever announcing it, folks already knew that the Barrow Gang's newest member was Clyde's older cousin and, technically speaking, its original founder, since, as the papers were now reporting, Herbert and Clyde's late older brother, Buck, had been breaking into stores and warehouses back when Clyde was still a kid.

Much as Clyde might like their big boost in media popularity, it rankles him no end that the people believe that Herbert is the outfit's new "criminal mastermind." Herbert, of course, wants none of it. He can't imagine how anybody could know anything about the anonymous midnight breakins that he and Buck Barrow had pulled off more than ten years earlier. The last thing he wants is fame. He's happy to be a faceless street musician. To him, his celebrated hosts are nothing but a couple of two-bit hoodlums, vain, vicious, and both mean as snakes.  He's already seen enough violence and killing in the war. He's made his peace and would personally rather die than carry a gun again. 

What Herbert doesn't understand is that God and the Devil have their own plans, none of which involve him refusing to pick up a gun when the time came.

Following is an excerpt from Friend of the Devil:

"Clyde creeps back and forth from window to doorway, checking on the disposition of the enemy. Then he crawls into the kitchen to see how I’m doing.

“That was some good shooting, Boog,” he says.

I don’t say anything.

“Is that what you did in the war? Shoot like that?”

I don’t say anything to that either. In my mind, I’m a Marine, back in France again with the trenches and the mud and the barbed wire and all the dead lying out there, day in and day out, and remembering how they were the first things I taught myself to stop seeing. And I think about all the other things I had to get good at doing so’s I wouldn’t end up one of them corpses myself; things like knowing exactly when to duck, keeping low and crawling through the mud like a rat; killing without mercy and loving the feeling of grabbing someone and holding them close enough to feel their breath when you put a knife into them. And I learned about switching off all my human feelings so that I wouldn’t be howling and crying with grief every time one of my buddies got killed. I did all that because that’s what you had to do if you were going to survive. Most couldn’t and most didn’t, but I did and survived only because I’d let myself become as ugly and horrible as a man can be. Then one day I couldn’t do it anymore. I made a promise I wouldn’t do no more killing no matter what. And I told that to the sergeant and the sergeant told the captain and the captain threatened to shoot me for cowardice and I told him to go right ahead because I’d rather that than have to kill any more German boys. And maybe they would have shot me, except next thing was the Armistice and instead of shooting me, they slapped me on the back and gave me a medal.

“Boog,” says Clyde, “Now, you know I’m a proud man, but dang it, when I’m wrong, Imo stand up and let the world know. Now, all this time I thought you was a coward, but you showed that you’re a real man. So for that I apologize to you. Do you hear me, Sis?”

I hear a loud sniff from the parlor. “Oh, Daddy,” she says. “I’m just so...” and her voice chokes with emotion.

Clyde looks at me jovially. “So what do you say, Boog?”

I don’t know that I’m going to say anything, but it just comes out. “Clyde,” I say, “you and Bonnie think that just because they write about you in drugstore picture magazines, you all are something special, but you’re really just a couple of lousy, two-bit punks.”

I watch Clyde’s jaw drop. His surprise turns to fury and suddenly he and I are staring bloody knives at each other. I guess I must be smiling at him from the way the corners of my mouth feel bunched up, and I got my finger on the BAR’s trigger and I know he’s got his on the Thompson’s. Come on Clyde, I’m thinking. We can do it. Just make your move. I’ll kill you, no problem at all.

“Hey, you two, what’s going on in there?” demands Bonnie sharply.

Clyde and I continue to stare at each other. But then he takes his finger off the trigger and very deliberately lets his hand rest on the drum magazine. My hand stays right where it is. Clyde looks at my like he’s not sure what he could have done to make me angry. “Well, then, in that case, I’m very sorry you feel this way, cousin,” he says quietly, and starts crawling back into the parlor and Bonnie’s waiting arms. I can hear them going into their tearful, oh Daddy/aw Sis, bill-and-cooing. A minute later, the shooting starts up again, but this time it all seems listless, like dinnertime ain’t for another two hours and this is the only thing they know how to do.

But then Hamer’s men start shooting again and Clyde’s got the Thompson back in his hands and he’s back at the window firing at them, cursing them, calling them sons a bitches and taunting them to come on out and attack him fair and square. I run to the front door and empty the rest of the clip at them, put in a new one and use most of that up, too. They shoot, we shoot and it goes on like this for a few more minutes and then it stops and the three of us are left in silence.

I go back to my post in the kitchen and, for a long time, I sit motionless watching the golden reflection of the evening sun fading upon the kitchen wall. Okay, so maybe my life hasn’t exactly been exemplary. Yeah, I’ve boosted things here and there and robbed a couple stores. I vowed never to kill again, never vowed nothing about sticking to the straight-and-narrow. But, of course, none of that’s got anything to do with why I ended up in this situation. If there is a flaw in my character what got me in this situation, it ain’t that I pulled a couple stickup jobs, it’s that I gave a ride to an old hairy-face country preacher, when my better judgment told me to just keep-a-going right past his sorry self."

Written by Brendan McNally

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