Chick Lit


By Matthew Asprey



So they robbed a bank in Little Portugal. Know the place? I'll draw you a map. Start at the subway station and walk up Hunter Street. The Imperial West Bank is halfway up the street on your right. I live opposite the bank in the Westhill Apartments, third floor. In the afternoon I like to sit on the balcony between my potted limes and drink a cerveja, which is what the Portuguese call beer. I had a perfect view of the bank on Tuesday afternoon.

I'd worked all morning at the bakery and my spine was twisted like one of Mr Flender's pretzels. I drank one beer then cracked open another. Lazy afternoon. I watched six Portuguese construction workers smoking at a table outside the Cidade Café. The Cidade is one door up from the bank. Three old ladies were eating pastéis de Belém outside Casa Rio. Casa Rio is one door up from the Cidade. There wasn't much traffic. The neighbourhood was all white sunshine and white concrete and black smoke from Frango Reinhardt up on the main strip. Yes, Frango Reinhardt — that chicken crematorium on the hill. I don't see the appeal. Their chicken burgers ooze mayonnaise the colour of dental plaque. Yet every lunchtime a queue of taxi drivers and road labourers and skirted office workers spill out of Frango Reinhardt onto the pavement. The black smoke gets into your clothes in Little Portugal. After my first weeks living in the neighbourhood, I never wanted to eat chicken again. It turned me into a vegetarian.

At about three o'clock a guy wearing a black balaclava walked out of the bank. He carried a bulky duffel bag in his left hand and a sawn-off shotgun in his right. I leaned over the balcony to get a better look. The old ladies and the construction workers didn't notice the sawn-off till the bank alarm howled. At that point the guy started running up Hunter Street towards its intersection with the main strip.

The guy's timing was unlucky. The moment the alarm sounded a fat policewoman was coming out of the post office next door to my apartment building. She was about thirty years old. Heavy. Her trousers were bursting like sacks of pig slop. She drew her pistol, levelled it straight-armed at the fleeing bank robber, and ran across the street. She yelled "Stop!" Pretty dangerous move. It could have been a very bloody confrontation. But by then a skinny guy lurking by himself outside the Cidade Café had launched uphill after the bank robber. I watched his trajectory close in on the trajectory of the cop. You know what happens when two trajectories meet? Thwack. What was surprising was that the fat policewoman bounced off the skinny man like a basketball. You would have thought she'd crack his spine. Instead she tripped backwards off the curb, rolled, and tore open her too-tight trousers at the knees. Her pistol flipped and slid down the street. Anyway, she was out for the count. But the skinny guy didn't even lose balance. He kept running. By now the bank robber was around the corner. A couple of seconds later the skinny guy was out of sight, too. Heroic, I thought.

But the skinny guy didn't come back with or without the duffle bag and people started to get suspicious.

* * *

I watched three police cars and an ambulance arrive. A couple of smart-suited bank tellers came out of the bank to sit in the back of the ambulance. The fat policewoman got her bloody knees patched there, too, and then insistently went back to the job of asking questions. I saw her talk to Maria at the Cidade Café, and then to Miguel, the Brazilian guy who ran Casa Rio. The old ladies had moved on, but the gang of Portuguese construction workers were still at their table. They seemed to enjoy their interrogation. They all lit up cigars.

I recognised Officer Meakin in the crowd. He'd been my tennis coach when I was a kid. Meakin was fattish now and stubbly in that policeman's way, a real slob. His uniform looked as neglected as paint clothes — curry stains on the trouser legs and oil smears on the cuffs. I always pictured him in my mind's eye with a racquet in his hand, dancing from foot to foot. I went downstairs to see him.

"Johnny-Can-Do!" he said.

As a kid tennis player I'd had a problem with self-esteem, you see, and Meakin was a one-man cheer squad. I joined him outside Casa Rio.

"Did you see this thing?" he said.

"From my balcony."

Meakin looked up at the apartments. "Get a look at the bloke's face?"

"Balaclava."

"Right. The big question is whether the other fellow was aiding and abetting or just being a dumb hero. This guy Chick Lit."

"Who?"

"That's his name."

"I thought Chick Lit was a kind of novel about shoe-shopping."

"Yeah, my wife reads that junk," said Meakin. "Did he look like an accomplice or a hero?"

"Hard to say, but he can sprint like a panther."

"You should have seen Officer Tar's knees. They looked like two peeled mangos, the skin hanging off the caps by little threads of flesh."

"Ouch."

"I can't understand how this skinny fellow knocked her down. She's built like a first-calf heifer."

"He's wiry but strong."

"What do you know about him?"

"Nothing much. I see him down here every afternoon. He must be fifty, and dresses like a fourteen-year-old who's trying too hard to be cool. Big logos on his t-shirts. Dyes his hair black. Swinging bling. A bit slow, or maybe he's got Asperger's or something. Seems always to be the punch line with these dudes."

I gestured towards the construction workers' table. They had burnt amber tans from the Baixa Street Solarium. They were speed-talking in Portuguese, having a great time, waving cigars. I hadn't seen them this excited since the World Cup.

"I can't see why anyone would risk their life to rescue eighty thousand bucks for the Imperial West Bank. He must have known it was insured." Meakin leaned closer. "And come on, it's the Imperial West. They deserve a heist with those fees they charge."

I said goodbye to Meakin and went into the Cidade Café. There were Lisbon trams in the picture frames. I smelled the freshly ground coffee beans. The dark-haired waitresses were standing by the espresso machine, arguing in Portuguese with Maria, who was the boss. She acknowledged me with an underhand wave and set about making my regular coffee.

"Chick Lit was like this in high school," Maria said.

"Like what?" I said.

"You know. An idiot."

"Why do they call him Chick Lit?"

"Short for Chicken Little. He was a runt in those days. One year he burned down the church hall. Playing with matches. He's always ruining things. He still acts like a teenager."

There was a hoot of laughter from the construction workers' table outside. Maria sighed and said:

"There are a lot of teenaged men around here."

I paid for my coffee and went outside. One of the construction workers, Risto, was saying to his bald buddy:

"I'm positive Chick Lit was in on it."

"He's dumb enough," said the bald guy. "And he's full of ideas."

Another guy with a goatee said:

"The stick-up guy's gotta be Chick Lit's cousin Marty, that crook. Six foot four, skinny, shaggy hair. I mean, come on! A balaclava can't hide all that."

I stepped over, sipping my coffee, and said:

"Did you guys share this theory with the cops?"

Risto smiled. "Yeah, I told the fat girl with the bloody knees. So what? They'd have figured it out soon enough."

"Isn't Chick Lit your buddy?"

They all laughed. "Chick Lit?" said Risto. He was incredulous. Chick Lit?

Chick Lit didn't turn up that afternoon or the next morning.

* * *

Wednesday afternoon I spotted Officer Meakin in the queue outside Frango Reinhardt.

"Got a whiff on the job here yesterday and been craving it ever since," he said. "Little Portugal must be paradise to live in, Johnny-Can-Do."

"Except for the crime wave. Find Chick Lit?"

"Nope. Went to see his missus last night. She'd already packed his clothes and dumped the boxes on the front lawn. Four kids with snotty noses and scabby knees squealing at the TV. A new bloke eating scrambled eggs in his underwear." Meakin laughed. "Already! I think he's the plumber. He had a bagful of plungers and pumps."

"She's convinced Chick Lit's gone?"

"Ah-huh. Sounds like a happy marriage. Chick Lit had been racking up debts betting on soccer. These Portuguese love their football. And he lost his job on the building site last week. Things were stacking up. And Mrs Lit thinks he's been playing around with a woman from Sun Village."

"Did you find her?"

"Nah, Mrs Lit doesn't know her name."

Meakin reached the front of the queue and grabbed his hot bag of chicken and a big carton of fried potatoes. He sauntered towards his squad car down the strip, already digging his fingers into the bag. I tagged along.

"The rumours are hinting at Chick Lit's cousin for the bank job," Meakin said. "That guy fits the description and he's in the database. And nobody knows where he is. With Chick Lit still missing it's not looking good."

"But what if Chick Lit is tied up somewhere?"

"In that case," Meakin said, "I hope he's a Houdini."

* * *

Hunter Street snoozed through the next morning. I went to the Cidade for coffee and watched the Portuguese construction workers wolf-howl at passing schoolgirls. They were still convinced of Chick Lit's guilt. Sal at the deli reckoned that Chick Lit must be tanning himself on the peninsula, drinking pińa coladas, hiring Asian prostitutes at full weekend rates ("the lucky bastard"). Ancient Mrs Delgado from apartment 12 told me in confidence that Chick Lit's late mother used to shoplift, particularly from the Barbosa Brothers grocery, so this new development was not a surprise. On the front page of the Thursday issue of El Diário, the free local Portuguese newspaper, there was a soft-focus 'glamour' photo they'd taken from Chick Lit's internet profile. They'd added cell door bars with some digital trickery.

So on Thursday afternoon everybody was shocked when Chick Lit turned up in Hunter Street on his motor scooter. Miguel at Casa Rio called the cops. I guess the cops told him that Chick Lit was in the clear, because after that Miguel just stood in his doorway with a scowl. The Portuguese guys yelled something at Chick Lit but he didn't answer. He went into the Cidade, ordered an espresso shot, drank it down, then sped off on his scooter.

I got the full story from Meakin twenty minutes later. I found him sitting at a table in Frango Reinhardt, waiting on his lunch.

"Join me, Johnny-Can-Do, I can't eat a whole roast chook myself." He had second thoughts. "Well, I probably could. This flavour's addictive. I reckon I'm going to have to retire here and eat it every day."

"Tell me about Chick Lit."

"This morning he turned up at the station with a duffle bag full of cash. The whole eighty grand. Said he had the bank robber tied up in the back of the car ready for charging. Not just for robbery. For murder. And he wasn't lying."

The food was taking its time. Meakin told me the story in full. With the bank alarm screaming, Chick Lit had chased the hold-up man into the backstreets of Little Portugal. He caught the guy ten feet from the getaway car, tore off the balaclava, and got a look at the guy's face. It was Guy Leon from Baixa High, class of '87. He'd bullied Chick Lit all though school. Now the guy was robbing a bank in his old neighbourhood, which is exactly what you shouldn't do. The getaway driver came over to thump Chick Lit on the back of the head. It was goodnight, Chick Lit.

Our man woke up inside an empty tool cupboard. It was one of those staggeringly heavy metal cupboards with a lock on the outside, floor space about two square feet. The shelves had been removed. There were air vents but no food or water. Chick Lit yelled for help, but there was nobody around. He heard foghorns. So he was on the docks.

Chick Lit sat crumpled in that cupboard for hours. Late at night Guy Leon unlocked the cupboard door for a couple of seconds to toss in a cheeseburger and a bottle of water. Chick Lit had a glimpse of an empty warehouse. Nothing to see but puddles of motor oil. After that Guy Leon left him locked in the cupboard for the whole day. When he came back with his getaway driver it was the early hours of the next morning. Guy Leon opened the door to give Chick Lit another cheeseburger. Chick Lit tried to run. Guy Leon elbowed him in the face and locked him back in the cupboard. Then poor Chick Lit had to listen to the two fellows debate what to do with him. Guy Leon was for dumping Chick Lit in the harbour. The getaway driver was tormented. Should they just let him go? Sure, the bank job had been botched, but the getaway driver didn't want to become a killer. He'd rather go to jail. Chick Lit figured these guys had been squabbling since the robbery. Soon enough Chick Lit heard a shotgun blast and then a falling body.

Five minutes later the cupboard door was unlocked. Guy Leon, pointing the sawn-off, made Chick Lit drag the getaway driver into the cupboard. The man was dead. He had to be squashed in, all the while seeping blood. Chick Lit had to squeeze back inside, too. He protested but was kicked. The cupboard door was locked and Guy Leon's footsteps drifted away.

Chick Lit said he nearly went crazy in that cupboard with the dead man bleeding onto his shoes, but finally he got smart and checked the dead man's pockets. Eureka — a switchblade. Chick Lit was able to jimmy the door. But before he could run free the warehouse filled with the roar of some sort of machinery. It sounded like a truck. Chick Lit remained inside the cupboard as the noise came closer and closer. Then the cupboard suddenly levitated clear off the warehouse floor and began to float. Guy Leon was operating a forklift, you see, moving the cupboard out of the warehouse and onto the wharf. Chick Lit and the dead guy had a date with the bottom of the harbour. The ships in port drew thirty metres even in low water, so it would be a long sink.

Chick Lit screamed so Guy Leon wouldn't think anything amiss and bet on his only chance. He felt the forklift brake and set down the cupboard. He could smell the brackish harbour, hear it lapping against the pylons. Bracing himself, Chick Lit felt the cupboard topple.

The splash was gut-jolting. Chick Lit banged his head on the ceiling and then everything began to dive. He wasn't able to push open the door till the cupboard was entirely filled with harbour water. For a few moments he thought the pressure would lock him inside. But he made it. And as he swam to the surface he watched the cupboard continue to drop with open doors and the getaway driver's crumpled corpse slide into a reclining position. Chick Lit said it looked like an open coffin sinking into the abyss.

He hid under the wharf for fifteen minutes then climbed out and ran from the docks in sopping clothes. It was a grey dawn. Chick Lit didn't go straight to the cops. He went home for breakfast. He found his missus eating leftover takeaway chicken with her boyfriend. Chick Lit sat down, ate a cold wing, drank a cup of coffee. He scowled at the plumber but figured he'd deal with him later. He wouldn't answer the wife's questions about where he'd been, nor the kids demands that he get their soccer ball off the roof. Chick Lit grabbed his baseball bat and rode by motor scooter to Guy Leon's mother's house out on Hasbrook Hill.

"These unmarried Portuguese guys all live with their mothers, don't they?" said Meakin. "Twenty five minutes later Chick Lit was at the Police Station with a bag of cash and Guy Leon tied up and bloody as Mary in the back of his car. The getaway driver had been bobbing around the harbour from first light. I guess Little Portugal owes Chick Lit an apology."

A waitress came over with a whole roasted chicken and a bucket of deep-fried potatoes swimming in gravy. Meakin lifted his carving knife. Before I could tell him of my vegetarianism, he said:

"In the immortal words of Grace Kelly, do you want a leg or a breast?"


MATTHEW ASPREY is a writer and academic from Sydney, Australia. His short stories have appeared in Island, Extempore, and Total Cardboard. The novellas Red Hills of Africa (2009) and Sonny's Guerrillas (2011) are available in paperback and ebook formats. During the first half of 2011 dispatches from Asprey's Global Prowl appeared at PopMatters.com.

In 2011 Matthew Asprey was awarded a PhD in Media Studies by Macquarie University in Sydney. He lectures in creative writing at the university.


Copyright © 2012 Matthew Asprey. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!


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