In 1973, Oregon State University Press published Men in Exile: An Anthology of Creative Writing by Inmates of the Oregon State Penitentiary. Twenty-two of Smoky Epley’s pieces appeared in the book, including the one here, “Robbery.”
Smoky spent most of his adult life in state and federal prisons for robbery. In 2008, during one of his brief stints of freedom, I met Smoky after I had written a newspaper column about Men in Exile and and he had reached out.
He returned to prison in 2009 after forging a check. Upon his release in 2011, I encouraged Smoky to write a memoir. He completed half of Auto before dying in February of 2013.
Nestucca Spit Press is proud to present The Savage of State Street: The Thieving and Literary Lives of Smoky Epley.He is the greatest unheralded writer in Oregon history and also one of its more mediocre, colorful and persistent thieves. The book is available through nestuccaspitpress.com and Amazon.
Have you ever read a newspaper account of a robbery and wondered what it was really like? The following is a true story—even to the grapes. The robbery occurred in a small town in Oregon at approximately 3:15 p.m. on a Saturday, September 22, 1968. In March of 1969, I got ten years for it. I got busted because the man at the store remembered me and described the gun to the police. When I was arrested elsewhere for forgery, I still had the gun in my possession.
The story is written with very little regard for the standards of English usage. The tense changes; the mood changes. It is written in the style stories are told on the yard, the style, with reflections, that I’ve listened to, spoken to, spoken in, and sometimes even thought in during the past ten years.
So we’re just driving around on Saturday afternoon, minding our own business, looking for someone to rob. We only got a couple dollars and don’t feel like working; besides, free money’s easier to spend. We drive past this country store situated at a crossroads and I tell my partner to go back and we’ll have a look at it. He goes in and buys a pack of cigarettes, then comes out and draws me a map of the joint and tells me about the people inside. You see, I never go into a place until the cameras roll. That way I stand very little chance of being identified. If people only see you once they’re less apt to remember you, especially if when they see you that once you’re holding an automatic on them. It sort of takes their eyes off your face if you know what I mean.
Anyway, my partner runs the joint down to me and I decide we’ll take it. I get to make this decision because I’m the one who puts himself out front; I’m the stick man. I gamble my life against a couple hundred dollars (that’s all you’ll usually get out of a mom and pop store). My partner’s just wheels and his life isn’t on the line.
I can gamble my life because, you see, my life ain’t worth but maybe a couple hundred dollars. I’ve just finished serving thirty months for the feds and I’ve only been out thirty days. I got no job because I quit it; I got no family because I left them; I got no friends except the guys I’ve done time with all my life and most of them are behind bars some place or other. You see, four days after I left the feds I really wanted to go banging on the front gate, crying “let me back in where my friends are.” But I was a tough bandit and tough bandits don’t do that. That would be really foolish. Tough bandits pull some chicken-shit caper and go back talking big shit.
Now this store is situated on a crossroads and the man who built it built it to be robbed. All four roads lead to a highway. A quarter mile to the west is an old graveyard with several exits and a quarter mile past that is a freeway. About half a mile to the east is a highway. To the south is the city and to the north a maze of country roads that my partner and I grew up on, roads we know better than the bulls possibly can.
So we drive into the city and rip off a new Ford. We park that behind a warehouse on the highway to the east. We make another trip and steal a Plymouth. This is one of the most exciting parts of the game, writing the script. It’s got to be just right because, you see, every time I rob someone I’m playing to a camera. I’m on stage, the center of attraction; and I wouldn’t want anyone to think I didn’t know my business.
So here’s the plan. My partner drives up beside the store and lets me out; then he parks out front, keeping the motor running. He can’t look to conspicuous because there’s a gas station across the street and a lot of traffic on the roads. I’ll go in, take care of business in less than four minutes and calmly walk out. The door on the passenger side is left ajar with the window rolled down so all I have to do is pull the door open; by the time I’m in the seat we’re down the road. We drive off calmly and slowly so as not to attract attention.
If by the time we get to the graveyard there’s one behind us we wheel in, change to the pickup and away we go. If there’s someone behind us (anyone might remember a Plymouth driving into a graveyard) we circle back to the Ford, drive right past the store again and then change to the pickup. It’s all very simple, smooth. We each know our part and are ready for action.
One more question. What if there’s trouble while I’m inside? If my partner hears my pistol speak a single word he splits. If hears it bark twice he comes to help me. Now, he can recognize my pistol’s voice just like a good hunter can recognize his hound. And if I ever bust a cap I’ll bust two. If I don’t pull the trigger twice it means I can’t and if he hears another piece go off and mine don’t answer, it means my trigger-pullin’ days are over.
The curtain rises, the cameras roll and the absurd drama opens.
I’m wearing a black sweat shirt (you can tell I’m a bad guy) and blue jeans and my piece is tucked in my belt. I walk in the door and glance around. There’s a young girl running one register and an old lady piling her purchases on the counter. She’ll be here awhile. That’s good; she’ll keep the kid busy. I don’t like to mess around with broads, especially young ones. You never know what they’re gonna do. Young guys are bad, too; sometimes they like to play hero. The best type of person to rob is a middle-aged man. An old man or woman has the “all my life I’ve worked for what I’ve got and no punk’s takin’ it away” attitude. A middle-aged man knows he’ll get it all back from the insurance company with interest and he’s usually pretty calm.
I see my middle-aged man back in the meat department and I know he’ll come up to ring up my stuff.
Here’s where things get a little ridiculous. I forgot my bag. Now, I can’t go back out and get it; my partner will think I’m losing my touch. So I go over to the produce counter and put a few grapes in the bottom of a paper sack. I carry the bag to the end register. There are four registers and I figure I’ll get the butcher to clean out the first then march him down the row—pickin’ greenbacks.
The man sees me and starts over. I’ve got my back to him, pretending I’m looking at some small stuff on the shelves.
He says, “Yes, sir?”
Quartering away from him, I place the grape sack on the produce scales and say, “There’s about a pound of grapes there—and all your money.” And I pull my piece.
The guy knows the game; he’s been robbed before, he’s watched a lot of television. Anyway, he puts up his hands and stretches.
Very calmly I tell him, “Put ’em down and open the register.”
Now he’s the butcher and he’s got an apron on with a whole lot of knives in it. He sees me looking at them and very politely asks me if I should get rid of them. I smile and tell him no. Then I sneer and tell him again that I want that register opened—now!
He flips the little bar on the side that opens the till. I point my piece to the bag and he begins filling it. I notice he starts with the ones and works up, and that he’s working pretty slow. It’s amazing how lazy some of these storekeepers get nowadays.
So I says, “This thing makes a big hole and I don’t want to have to shoot you.” That’s just what he needed. He even lifts the till drawer and throws in a couple of twenties. Then he looks at me questioningly.
“Spare the change,” I tell him. “Let’s go next door.” And I motion with my power piece.
This is where the guy gets real smart. Now he don’t know any more than I do what the young broad’s gonna do when I drive up on her. So he decides he ain’t gonna let me get the next door. But he knows better than to rush me. So he goes into an act. He puts one hand over his heart and starts taking deep breaths and gasping.
“I gotta bad heart,” he says.
“Just calm down. I ain’t gonna shoot ya.”
And he says, “ooooooooooo” and falls to the floor, banging his arm on the scales as he goes. I mean, he really did a good job of acting. I can respect him for it and so I don’t get mad. I just look down at him, say thank you and walk out. As I reach the door I put my gun in the bag and calmly walk to the car. I don’t look behind me; that’s my partner’s job. He’s watching my back and he’s got a thirty-eight in his lap to help him pay attention. I open the door and we’re off.
We make the switch at the graveyard. It takes a couple minutes to start the pickup, but that’s all right; I need the time to puke. You see, I gotta be so calm and sure and debonair in the store and the tension builds so much that by the time I can relax a little my gut just goes wild.
We change shirts and drive off. The grocer must have got to a phone pretty quick because by the time we get to the freeway there’s a state bull pulled across the access. My partner looks at me and I nod. We don’t have to say anything. There’s only one cop in the car and we’ll play bluff or bulldog. If he lets us through, we go; if not, I kill him. Or he kills me—it doesn’t make much difference.
We drive onto the access. Now, we’re in an old rattletrap Chevy pickup with a rifle and a shotgun in the rack overhead. You can tell by looking at the rig that it can’t do over forty. And if we’d jut robbed somebody we sure as hell wouldn’t be driving calmly up to a cop. Did I say calmly? I’m clutching a nine-mm. automatic in my hand, holding it between my legs and I’m tense as a truck spring.
The man pulls out of our way and we drive off into the sunset, counting easy money and eating seedless grapes.