The Escape Club

My cousin Billy and I were born the same year, and as our mothers were sisters and we were their first, we saw each other often, all the way through our teens. He lived out in Great Neck with his father and stepmother, an older stepbrother and eventually two half sisters, but Aunt Evelyn lived in the city from when we were eight to around thirteen, and every other weekend his father put him on the L.I.R.R. and she’d meet him at Grand Central. Several times a year, instead of taking Billy to her place she’d put him on the Westchester train to visit our family in Dobbs Ferry. I don’t ever remember her coming with him, so those must have been weekends when she had something going on. He viewed us—his aunt and uncle and cousins—as a model family, like those on TV. I did, too, I suppose; but Billy’s was the more interesting childhood.

He used to stay with us a week or two before or after we went to Camp OWHYO in Ohio, and he spent one whole summer with us when Evelyn briefly moved to Cuba with the guy Billy called Jake the Snake. (She would later claim they got out on the last flight before Castro took Havana.) Other times, my parents would drive in from Dobbs Ferry and drop me off at her rented studio apartment on Park Avenue up in the Seventies for an overnight or the whole weekend with them. My brother was five years younger, and Billy had only the stepbrother who he claimed was a Nazi, so he and I felt like brothers, without the rivalry.

One thing you could say in Aunt Evelyn’s favor back when we were kids, she was all about giving us a good time. And while this may not sound like a convincing excuse, it was the only explanation I could offer Bill these forty-some years later, for helping his mother break out of jail.

“For fun?” he said. “You did it for fun?”

We were drinking Jim Beam in the bar of the Ramada. Unless you’ve had a seventy-nine-year-old relative elude armed guards and go on the lam, you won’t understand how we could be laughing and making wisecracks about it, so I won’t even try to explain. Every few minutes, though, the seriousness of my situation sobered us. I filled him in on the details of the three preceding days, repeating the statement I’d just given the police.

I felt bad about it, of course—about running afoul of the law for the first time in my life, but even more for enabling his mother to go underground in her condition, perhaps never to be heard from again. A prospect, however, which seemed to fill Billy with equanimity.

“Don’t blame yourself,” he assured me, setting his drink firmly on the table. “No man of ordinary physical and moral strength could have resisted her in a matter like that.”

“No way did I believe she’d actually make it,” I said. “It would have been hard enough to spring her from the hospital even without the twenty-four hour guard posted by the door of her room.” Evelyn was recovering from double bypass heart surgery, which she was lucky enough to obtain at taxpayers’ expense at the University of Kentucky Hospital by virtue of her incarceration in the Federal Correctional Institution. “I mean, with the I.V. drip in her arm, the oxygen tent, a catheter and see-through plastic urine bag? The nurses’ station right in front of the elevators. Closed circuit cameras as well as uniformed security in the lobby?”

“Not to mention,” he pointed out, “the congestive heart disease that got her there.”

“Right, not to mention that.” But the U.S. Marshal was the most obvious deterrent I could see. Standing outside her door, all those black leather holsters hanging from his belt—a gun, handcuffs, flashlight, thick wooden nightstick, sunglasses; a scary canister that was either tear gas or a grenade; two different sized walkie-talkies, or maybe it was one walkie-talkie plus his personal cell phone. I must have been insane. Any sane man could have seen it was crazy. “If this gets back to the Evanston or Chicago papers or the School Board finds out, I’ll be fired, simple as that.”

E.T.H.S. Social Studies Teacher was Cardiac Granny Accomplice, U.S. Marshals Say. Sorry,” Billy said, making a token effort at a straight face. “I know it’s no laughing matter.”

What else could we do but laugh? He had met the Marshal, too, when he visited his mother the week before. Of course she couldn’t say anything to Billy about planning to slip away. He’d have alerted the warden to double the guard on her door. So she called and begged me to fly down to see her. I expected it to be a routine visit to my elderly aunt in the hospital. I forgot that nothing with Evelyn was ever routine. That word has no place in any sentence involving my aunt.

“This is my only chance, Keith.” She squeezed my arm with the strength of a wrestler. “Don’t let ‘em stick me back in the joint.”

Whatever else she has been in her colorful life—swindler, torch singer, ex-fundraiser for candidates of both parties, crossword puzzle prizewinner—Evelyn’s always been a comedian. I thought she was kidding. But she pressed a folded paper into my hand, a list of things we’d need for the breakout, including a carton of Newports. “We have to be ready by day after tomorrow. Four p.m.”

“You understand there’s a burly, armed, U.S. Marshal outside your door?”

That’s when she whispered, “No problem. Leave the Marshal to me.” She waved toward the door. “Open it.” Then she called out, “Henry?” In a moment, Henry filled the door from jamb to jamb with the holstered tools of his trade. He was bald on top like myself, but the Marshal kept his blond fringe clipped close like a Marine.

“What can I do for you, Evelyn?”

“Meet my favorite nephew, from Chicago. Keith is a college professor up there.” (I didn’t correct her.) “I’ve been telling him what a sweetheart you are,” she said in a croaky voice, noticeably frailer than when she’d been talking to me a minute earlier.

“We met,” the Marshal said. He’d frisked me before letting me into the room.

“Henry’s going to look the other way when I make a run for it, after I pick the winning horse for him in the Derby.”

“That ain’t the deal,” he reminded her. “I said I want a pair of seats in the boxes.”

(Billy interrupted my account here to point out Henry’s good judgment: If Evelyn had been able to pick winning horses with any consistency, she wouldn’t have wound up behind bars.)

“Done!” Evelyn wheezed. “We have ten days; my nephew will get right on it.” Then she waved the Marshal out, weakly. She perked up as soon as the door closed behind him. At first I thought she really expected to bribe the guard. But it was only banter. “Henry’s a good guy,” she said. “They do their jobs, like anyone else. Come to work, go home to their families, make mistakes.” Her eyebrows flashed up and down twice to be sure I got the message. “Human errors.” Now she fixed me with gunmetal gray eyes, all jocularity gone from her voice: “We have to take advantage of that.”

I shook my head. “Sorry, Aunt Evelyn, you’ve got the wrong nephew for a jailbreak caper. Not to mention the fact you wouldn’t get ten feet before they’d catch you, which would only add to your sentence.”

“I’ve got the right nephew, Keith, trust me. And there’s no downside risk. Extra time in the can means nothing because I won’t survive the stretch I’m already doing.”

“I’m not in jail. What about the downside for me?”

“None. There’ll be no proof you helped me. That’s the beauty of it. Like Houdini, I’ll disappear into thin air.”

Precisely, I thought: thin air. “You’ve gotten high on that pure oxygen.”

“All part of the deception, my boy. I don’t even need it. The surgeon said I’d be on my feet in four days, but it’s only been two and I’m better already. When they tried taking off the oxygen, I pretended I couldn’t breathe till the nurse put it back on. They don’t imagine I can get out of bed, much less take it on the lam. You saw how Henry thinks it’s a joke. Now, here’s what you do …”

It takes a rare talent to project helplessness and authority at the same time: evoking so much pity as to tempt a fifty-five-year-old schoolteacher to commit a felony, while simultaneously projecting the steely determination of a commander who must be obeyed. Evelyn struck that balance perfectly, maybe because she wasn’t acting. I thought she really feared her heart wouldn’t survive a return to the privation and indignities of prison life. At the same time, she acted like Washington crossing the Delaware. Eisenhower on D-Day. Napoleon marching on Moscow. In a brilliant embezzlement scheme five years ago, it was her partner’s small insubordination that landed them in the pen. He deviated from her careful instructions regarding a bank deposit. So she wasn’t about to tolerate any resistance from her nephew. In fact, I suppose my utter lack of law-breaking, much less prison-breaking experience was half the reason she tagged me for the job rather than a more seasoned confederate with a sharper instinct for self preservation.

She talked like there was no question I’d fulfill the role she assigned me. When I’d been there an hour and stood to leave, promising to come back and see her in the morning, she said, “Wait a few minutes. Watch what happens between four o’clock and four oh five.” Sure enough, one minute past four Henry looked in. She waved at him and he waved back, went out and closed the door. “Now look outside,” she said. Henry was halfway down the hall, passing the nurses’ station with the same friendly wave he’d given the prisoner, on his way to the Family Lounge for coffee and a donut. She said he took his break the same way every day at four—he’d look in at her lying there, and then immediately swagger off down the corridor to the Family Lounge. “Human error,” she repeated, with the eyebrow wiggle again. He left her a five minute window she couldn’t resist.

(“Failure to seize that opportunity would have violated every principle my mother lived by,” Billy said.)

I finished reading a novel that night, slept fine, read another novel all morning. You might think I’d have been nervous, but it shows you how sure I was that Evelyn wouldn’t make it across the hall. When I came to the hospital the next afternoon, I brought the wig and stuff (including a wad of cash she’d persuaded me to loan her, but not the cigarettes) in a paper bag and stopped on Nine to leave it in the stairwell. Then I rode up to Ten and strolled along the hall to her room. “Just came to say goodbye,” I said, as Henry patted me down. “Marshal, I really appreciate the way you humor my aunt. I don’t think she’s got much time left, and you have a very kind way with her.”

“Hey, we’re all human beings,” the Marshal said.

“That’s just what she said about you.” After a few minutes with Evelyn, I made my visible, voluble goodbyes to her, Henry, and the nurses. I was at Blue Grass Airport checking in for my flight ten minutes before Evelyn’s vital signs were recorded for the last time. My mistake was calling her then.

“I just called for the taxi to meet Dr. DeCamp at the main entrance,” she cackled. “Thanks for everything. I won’t be in touch for awhile—gotta go go go.” Two minutes after four, she crossed the hall, hustled down to Nine, put on the wig and heels and belted the raincoat over her hospital johnny, then rode down an elevator and strode through the lobby like the Chair of Geriatrics.

Just as I was about to switch off my phone, it rang: the Lexington area code. I answered tentatively, and hung up quickly when a gruff voice said, “Who is this?” So I wasn’t surprised when they held my flight on the tarmac for awhile, then taxied back to the gate, where two Marshals boarded, slapped cuffs on me and demanded, “Where’s your aunt?”

I stammered out the truth: I didn’t know. The next day, we still didn’t. She’d taken the cab only as far as the Ramada. I don’t know whether she’d arranged to have a car parked there, or someone picked her up, or what. Billy didn’t know any more than I did about her financial resources, other than the $300 she talked me out of. She hadn’t mentioned any friends. She never talked about her post-incarceration game plan. I told the Marshals everything I knew.

“We’ll get a postcard from her, sooner or later,” Billy said, “but it won’t tell us anything I’d stake my life on.”

To tell the truth, her whereabouts weren’t the main mystery on my mind right then. I was beyond wondering how Evelyn got away while I didn’t. My second bourbon on the rocks sat untouched on the table between us. Relief at Billy’s arrival with the bail bondsman had worn off as I realized that, though out of the lockup, I was still in trouble. I’d never been arrested in my life. I was a responsible citizen, a man with a wife and grown kids, house in the burbs, a dog and a cat. “What was I thinking?” I said.

“She suckered you, Keith. My mother always had a keen eye for a mark. Gave you the picture of a frail, sweet old lady returning to the cells under armed guard, probably to die in the clink. Whose only crime was borrowing from an employer without proper written authorization. You didn’t really believe that, did you?”

I shook my head.

“Then why’d you go along with it?”

Why had I blindly followed orders, in thrall to this woman? So what if, long ago, she’d been the most sophisticated and glamorous adult in my life? We sat contemplating the question for several minutes until I looked up at him and said, “For fun?” That was when he said, “You did it for fun?” I added, “The Escape Club.” That made him laugh aloud, but just as suddenly he stopped, I guess because there were tears in my eyes. “Lexington was so dreary. It poured, on and off, and when it wasn’t pouring, it stayed gray and overcast for a day and a half. Driving past the penitentiary, I saw a gray bus transporting gray convicts behind dirty, wire glass windows. I’d promised for three years to come down and see her, but hadn’t got around to it. When she called about the open heart surgery I thought, at least she’ll be in a hospital, we won’t have to talk through plexiglass with telephone handsets. But it was worse: all the tubes, the bed, body fluids—death. So this crazy, merry stunt cheered me. I assumed she wouldn’t get past the corridor, where the Marshal or any nurse would take her by the elbow and lead her back to bed. And it was—as ridiculous as it sounds now—funny, like teenagers taking a car for a joyride. Stashing that bag in the stairs with the wig and clothes and the money I knew she’d never repay gave me a rush like nothing I’d felt for years. I’m not saying it was worth going to jail for. And I’m not trying to excuse myself, only to explain maybe why I let myself go along. She said it herself, that first day: ‘I invited you for a meeting of the Escape Club.’

“Remember when we were kids, ten, twelve years old? My folks would bring me in from Dobbs Ferry for the weekend and you’d be at that little studio apartment of hers on the Upper East Side? ‘Spring meeting of the Escape Club will come to order,’ and she’d have us go through the entertainment section of the Post and pick our options, maybe Radio City or a Dodgers game, a Broadway show, the Planetarium or the Ringling Brothers Circus at the Garden. Always with some guy along to pay for the tickets. To this day, when I see a picture of Fifth Avenue jammed with Yellow Cabs, or a subway station, or of Times Square before they sanitized it, some memory will come to me with Aunt Evelyn in it. Remember The Greatest Game?”

“Of course,” Billy said. “Christmas week, nineteen fifty eight.” Colts v. Giants in Yankee Stadium for the NFL title, Johnny Unitas completing in the final seconds to bring the Colts in range for a tying field goal and then beating the Giants in overtime. We were there—the Escape Club. I forget the boyfriend who took us but I can still see Evelyn afterward, in whatever bar they took us into to warm up with hot chocolate. She’s swirling brandy in a big glass snifter, throwing back her head with those amazing waves of red hair flowing down behind her back, laughing and laughing …

© 2007, Ken Kaye

No comments: