“But what’s a thriller?” her neighbor, the Professor, said. The Professor, who might turn out to be the only innocent in this story if Cora gets to tell it afterwards.
In the meantime, maybe she thinks about the beginning (if that really was the beginning). Sitting there, in HR, an easy question, a common question, only not so common now:
“How would you like to be paid?”
The Professor again: “Suspense. How is a thriller different from suspense? Is there even a genre called suspense? Doesn’t every movie contain at least a little …”
“There’s direct deposit (recommended), paper check (not recommended), or … or …” (why does the woman from HR pause, dramatic effect, distracted by her computer screen, what?) “… or a suitcase of money out on the edge of town (discouraged).”
Maybe Cora thinks about her dad who, on Fridays, wore these green socks with dollar signs on them. He said they were his payday socks. (Trust me, that’ll play well in Omaha.) Presently, Cora, without socks (because she’s wearing high heels), looks at her watch. Time may be an illusion, but there’s still plenty of it. Plenty of it to fill with …
“… suspense. I mean even …”
The inversion layer in the road shimmers, extending all the way to the sky. Can you see Cora bugging her dad about when she gets to wear the green socks? Then an office, current time, HR asking twenty-something Cora how she wants to get paid, and Cora right out with the answer, the definitive answer, though she doesn’t know why she gave it. A strange look on her face (like what’s done can’t be undone and she accepts that) carries back over to her staring into the blur, a curtain obfuscating the world from view.
“… even Disney movies have suspense.”
Tight on the sunglasses, road reflection until we see young Cora and Dad, him saying something like, you, little girl, will get a payday when you get a job. Cora firing back with okay, but she wants the socks too. They laugh, then the HR worker, middle aged woman, late middle age, done it all a million times before, now actually looks surprised, gives a small nod, almost introspective, somehow not same shit different day, this is … this is new.
“How do you plan on spotting a nondescript sedan?” said Sybil at the salon. Kind of like Cora’s adopted mom.
“They said nondescript, silver …”
“Why does it have to be nondescript? You’ll be out on the edge of town! Bagman could pull up in the Oscar Meyer Wienermobile …”
“What they’re called in the movies. Anyway, who drives a car? SUVs these days, Cora. Don’t even make sedans here anymore. A nondescript SUV. Or a …”
“I don’t think it matters that …”
“… gold plated Escalade, for goodness sakes. Is this their first time out?”
“They did discourage …”
“Things are falling apart already. No surprise. Where do they have you waiting for your suitcase of money?”
“Other than ‘outside of town,’ that is. I bet I know. There’s gonna be a long road winding into the desert …”
“But we don’t live in …”
“What? It’s not hot enough for you? Anyway, a long road, winding into the desert. You’ll pull off at a busted concrete slab surrounded by sickly scrub brush, creosote, a broken-down old bus on rusted jack stands, so the wheels can spin when the wind blows, making this godawful intermittent racket that gets into your spine, all the worse for being intermittent because you’re never sure when it’s gonna start up again …”
Gimme my money is what Cora’s dad would say to the people in the power company’s office, the secretaries laughing. This is all they pay me for bringing electricity to everyone. Afterwards, cheeseburgers. Back in her car, head up against the window, likely bored and maybe anxious, Cora probably shouldn’t have arrived so early. Too much time to think. The beat to shit look of her ride tells us she needs this money. Could be the job isn’t worth it, though.
“Wait a minute,” said Haden at the gym. Tells her friends it’s an on-and-off deal with the two of them. “Where do you work now?”
“Just an office.”
“An office? What kind of an office did you end up at that you’re …?”
“I mean, it’s hell, but the pay’s really good.”
“The pay. What do you think the bagmen will be like?”
“There’s that word again, I mean …”
“I’m thinking Russian.”
“Da, comrade. Russian. Three or four of them. Tall. Walls of muscle. Looks like each one could palm the suitcase. Wearing dark sunglasses. Suits. Bulges under their coats where their guns are …”
“Guns?! Anyway, I don’t know of any Russians where I …”
“Well, okay. It won’t be Latinos, though. Not now. Central Casting, they wouldn’t go for it, no way.”
“Central Casting? Whoever they are, they sound racist.”
“Yeah, but Hollywood, you know?”
“Wait, what …?”
“Could be Irish. Probably not Italian. That’s dull. The whole mafia thing is played out. Maybe some miscellaneous Eastern European. Yeah, I can see it. That’d work. I …”
“Starting to sound like a movie here.”
“That’s sure as hell true, Cora. If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were making the whole thing up.”
“But I’m not making anything up! You are!”
“Remind me,” pause here … “Who’s getting paid with a suitcase of money out on the edge of town?”
In the distance, a car moves through the heat curtain. If you don’t eat all your lunch, the boogeyman will come and get you. Is it silver? Too far away to tell. He’ll pop out from his home underground, grab you, and pull you down with him. Is it nondescript? Cora reaches into her handbag and rubs a piece of ragged, green fabric. The woman from HR nods introspectively. The car is silver.
“What?” Cora said, almost spilling her coffee all over the table.
“I’m telling you this now because you need to know. You could’ve gone your whole life without knowing, but now you need to know,” said Iris, a woman who, moments before, was Cora’s retiree friend.
“You’re a black market gun dealer?”
“I’m a black market gun dealer,” said the Black Market Gun Dealer.
“But I don’t know any black market gun dealers. I have an MBA; I work in an office.”
“Very good, Cora. That’s what you tell the police if things go south.”
“Yes, honey. There’s always the possibility. That’s why you had to know I wouldn’t let you roll up to this situation without any firepower.”
“You just had to know. You just had …”
“Look, this isn’t some criminal operation, Iris. I work at a legitimate business.”
“Don’t say that, honey.”
“Gangsters talk like that, honey. You have to work on not sounding like a gangster. It might be tough for you now, but …”
“It might be tough for me now …?”
“You were doing much better before. You don’t know any black market gun dealers because …”
“Because I work …”
“In an office. You have an MBA”
“But Iris, guess what, I do know a black market gun dealer.”
Stone serious: “You? Well I never. Who is it?”
Cora mouths many things that want to become words, none of which do.
“You see, honey, you just had to know I wouldn’t let you go into this without any firepower.”
Cora still can’t talk.
“Except for the fact there’s no way you could know. None at all. I made sure of that. I … am very good at my job.”
Finally snapping out of it, Cora: “And I’m good at my job!”
“Of course you are, honey. You just need help picking up your paycheck,” said the Black Market Gun Dealer.
The silver car pulls off the road, stops a good distance away, as Little Cora says to her dad from bed that she ate her lunch, but the boogeyman came anyhow, was pulling her underground. The door swings open, but we’re still not sure if this is it, windows maybe too tinted to be nondescript. Could be someone just happened to pull off here. I lied. The boogeyman doesn’t care what you do. If he decides to come for you, there’s no stopping him. Cora unrolls the ragged green fabric covered with faded dollar signs and weighs the gun in her hand.
“Are you gonna count the money?” said Callie at the bistro. Her friend from way back.
“I mean I don’t think I’ll …”
“Good plan. They won’t stiff you the first time. Or maybe they will, but not completely. Later, when your boss or your contact mysteriously disappears, they’ll accuse you of stealing from them, and that’s when you’ll really need to be ready. This first time, though, just say, ‘I don’t figure I have to count this, gentlemen.’ Yes, that’s the …”
“Callie, what? how do you …? I’ve known you your whole …”
“Ooh! And think about learning how to say gentlemen in Russian …”
“Or some other Eastern European language. Whatever the bagmen are …”
“Bagmen, again …?”
“Right, what do you know about them?”
“No more than you.”
“Nothing? Oh, Cora. This is bad. Bad, bad, bad, bad, bad. You ought to have something on them. But maybe it’s better you don’t. Probably, when you went looking for intel, they’d either catch you, or you’d get away barely in the nick of time, only to leave something behind that lets them know who was there, the soundtrack with the dun dun duuuuuuh …”
“Are you packing?”
“Excuse me, are you Callie?”
“Never mind. Iris told me she was giving you a …”
“You knew Iris was …?”
“Here’s the plan: don’t even talk to them. As soon as you see the suitcase, start shooting.”
“What the fuck is going on?! I feel like I’m being pulled into the underworld!”
“Pulled? Cora, you’re already here.”
“All because … all because …”
“What are you drinking? You need a drink. What are you drinking?”
“With your new life, Cora, you’re gonna need something harder. Ooh! And maybe think about changing your name! A gun moll kinda name! What about Persephone?”
The silver car with the darkened windows sits impassively before her.
… a busted concrete slab surrounded by sickly scrub brush, creosote, a broken-down old bus on rusted jack stands, so the wheels can spin when the wind blows, making this godawful intermittent racket that gets into your spine, all the worse for being intermittent because you’re never sure when it’s gonna start up again…
… bagmen …
… miscellaneous Eastern European. Three or four of them. Tall. Walls of muscle. Looks like each one could palm the suitcase. Wearing dark sunglasses. Suits. Bulges under their coats where their guns are …
… if things go south … there’s always the possibility … that’s why you had to know …
… as soon as you see the suitcase, start shooting …
… if the boogeyman decides to come for you …
Cora, with the gun in a shoulder holster under her blazer, opens the door, steps out of the car, and heads toward the shimmering curtain. On the other side, she’s in a building, there are stairs and a sign that says Human Resources. The descent lets us know what we need to know. The fact that she’s resigned’ll make more people like her. People in Muncie. People in Fargo. People in Great Falls. Cora signs the papers, barely noticing the middle aged woman behind the desk, obviously trying to focus on all the vacations she’ll be able to afford, all the things she’ll be able to collect, when actually she might be thinking about taking the Professor to a pub so she can listen to him go on and on, “But what’s a thriller?” until:
“How would you like to be paid? There’s direct deposit (recommended), paper check (not recommended), or … a suitcase of money out on the edge of town (discouraged).”
Cora gives her answer, only now really seeing the woman from HR, who, introspective, pauses and then nods.
The two of them laugh nervously.
“Sounds like a movie, huh?” says the woman from HR. “My husband would probably drag me to it if it were playing.”
Cora: “Thriller? Isn’t that just film noir?”
Professor: “Film noir! Lemme tell you about film noir!”
Cora: “Sure, but first, here’s the suitcase.”
“Only it’s not playing.”
Professor: “Wait a minute! I thought this was all a joke. What are you doing? You haven’t opened the suitcase yet? You gotta know it’s gonna explode!”
“Because it’s not a movie.”
Cora: “You think so?”
“Anyway, here’s where you go. Look for a nondescript, silver sedan.”
“Has anyone ever selected this option before?” says Cora.
“No. You’re the first. I wonder what it’ll be like.”
We see the pub from outside.
“Me, I wasn’t as adventurous as you.”
We hear the click of the suitcase latches.
“I just took direct deposit.”
Cut to black.
Cora (voice over): “And that, Professor, is a thriller.”