Way back in Tommy Tutone's childhood Chicago, the word on the street is that Tommy was conceived under a dead hickory tree, on top of a burned-out patch of grass in Harrison Park. The same run-down park near the East Garfield projects, by the rail yards, where he'd played as a child. That is a damned lie.
The truth is, Tommy was created on the green banks of Lily Pond, in Washington Park, by his dead mother and father.
Tone's daddy was white. He'd claimed he wasn't the birth father, child support and all. He'd died from an overdose, the year Tutone was inching up on the age of five. His mama, Asantewaa, was a beautiful black magic woman, a woman who'd saved herself up some perfectly bad luck. Tommy Tutone had gotten most of his soul from his mama.
Asantewaa had been murdered and turned into a Jane Doe. That is until a coffee shop manager saw the Al Grene tattoo on her shoulder. The Chicago Police had photographed it for the newscast. Al Green's name had been misspelled.
Tone Leaves Chicago
Tutone was nineteen when he'd taken a windy bus west out of Chicago. To Tutone, that seemed like such a long time ago, the other place, the other planet, since he’d landed in L.A. for a minute. Just a few years along the bus route had turned him into a twenty-one-year-old man, the time it had taken him to get to the left coast, now much warmer in La-La Land, much warmer than he'd thought possible.
Soon after he'd arrived, the locals ferreted out his story, as well as how he'd caught his street name back in Chicago, how he'd been named after this funky rock duo, Tommy Tutone, the one-hit-wonder boys who’d made a living off a single hit song, 867-5309/Jenny. The song had climbed the Billboard Hot 100 in 1982. It had reached number four. Ever since, the Tommy Tutone duo had hit the county fair circuit and had become an opening act for other more well-known, forgotten rockers.
"Boy, come over here. I got something you might want?" said Liz, the attractive girl in the brand new Mercedes Benz.
"What's your name, boy?"
"It's Tommy Tutone, Ms.," he'd said. There would be plenty of time to discuss the roots of his unique moniker later.
Tommy hopped off the curb and froze in place, once he could see Liz clearly. He crashed his eyes into her natural beauty. After pausing, he'd walked closer to her fancy car until their eyes paired. It's then he discovered some kind of magical frequency. He'd entered some exotic electromagnet field. Hot pavement cinders cracked under the heels of his shiny shoes until he'd ended up next to the open passenger window.
Tutone had nothing to lose and everything to gain. He'd left carcasses of years strewn behind him, along Interstate 80, on his journey away from his past in Chicago.
Since leaving, he'd created stories that he'd share with his grandchildren one day, tales about his travels and sojourns through the thrums of cities and small towns along Interstate 80.
Though he hadn't met with much success on his journey, Tone was confident that his luck was about to change. It already had, as he basked in the hoarded California sunshine they'd stored up in L.A. And, he was about to make a new acquaintance.
"Sup?" He'd said to the girl in the pretty window.
"Hi, handsome," Liz had said, using her smile to light up a pheromone lantern. "You're as cool on the eyes as mint candy," she'd said.
Then, she'd looked at Tone, first north then south. She'd been purposeful as she conducted her physical inventory, careful not to misplace any of his parts in her mind.
"Ok?" He asked the way young people do, using the carefully crafted inflection of his generational voice.
"My name is Liz…Elizabeth. You can call me Lizzy, Liza, Beth, Lazy Beth, Liza, take your pick, been called them all and worse.
The truth is, any name would sound good coming from her crooked, gorgeous smile.
"Ok, then Liz, it is. What can I do for you?"
"I need some rooms painted, Mr. Tone. My painter stood me up. He thinks he's a damned Rembrandt or something. Said he found a better gig. It's easy, a few rooms. I have the rollers, tarp, and brushes, paint. Come on, please?"
“It’s Tutone, Liz.”
Liz could convince time to stand still, better yet, make it moonwalk.
“Ok, sure, Tone.” She’d said.
"I don’t see why not? Just make sure you bring me back here later."
Because Tone had grown up on the streets of Chicago, he'd muzzled most of his expectations. He'd already convinced himself he wasn't going to be particular any time soon. He'd hit some rough patches, which had turned him into a minimalist. Based on his travels west, most small towns and cities seemed obsessed with mediocrity—this bored Tone.
On the other hand, all the big cities wanted to do was to dominate and control. They'd worked hard at alienating and abandoning Tone. All this had pissed him off. He expected better. But sometimes, you have to control your reality.
Tone is a survivor, you see, sharp as the tip of a stiletto, comfortable on any bad side of a town or big city. Comfortable anywhere a buck can be made, places where locals and tourists are vulnerable and receptive to con jobs.
Somehow, he'd thought L.A. would be different. Maybe his luck would change, for the better?
Elizabeth was excited to meet this Tone character, but she could have cared less about what the street had named him in truth. She's already labeled him a messiah. He was something to worship in her despicable world: abandonment, physical abuse, homelessness, foster care, prostitution, a few B-list actor shack-ups.
Her last hook-up had been with an older man who she'd come to love, but not that kind of love. He'd recently died and left her a shitload of Moneta. The inheritance was good, but money wasn't everything in her opaque world. She was old enough to know that easy money had very few answers and was attached to many things.
Liz, the beautiful, damaged, the very smart Liz, had been searching, searching for something, more in her life, all those damned elusive answers. Something to fill all the emptiness she'd felt inside, maybe something or someone to take her away, wash over her, flood her being, someone who could drown her in a Tsunami of love.
In truth, Liz didn't know what answers she'd been seeking or what it would mean if she found them. She didn't have a complete set of psychological or emotional tools that she truly needed to gain real enlightenment. Mechanismsthat could assist her in fitting some of her jagged and disconnected pieces back together. But, she had two important things going for her, she was searching, and she was stubborn.
Tommy had been down more than a few dead-end streets in his life too, but at least he knew most of the right questions to ask. Since he'd arrived in L.A., he'd been searching for meaning.
In Los Angeles, self–actualization is an address that belongs to others. And so, the streets remained Tones home. In Chicago, it was a flop here, a flop there, a pretty couch.
Out in L.A., it had been a bed for labor, shared with want-to-be movie stars, the ones with the Valentino, Voce Viva Eau de Parfum scented, silk sheets. He'd worked as a personal aide and at being personal.
In L.A., there exist empty rooms, a survivor's inventory of hollowed-out nothingness, a specific kind of narcissistic emptiness, an emptiness that can only be filled by unquenchable, unrealistic expectations and unfulfilled dreams, vacant rooms, eternally available, run-down Hollywood motel and hotel rooms, red rooms, rooms as empty as hearts.
Liz parted her velvety lips as softly as a coffin lid at a funeral, the same, soft lips that had cut and buried scores of love affairs.
"Twenty bucks an hour, straight up labor, my painting," she'd said.
Tone had said, "Can't turn that down."
In reality, he couldn't turn her down. Opportunity and boredom had made quick work of his decision. He'd seen a lot of pretties in L.A., but this girl's teeth needed a good licking. Tone opened the passenger door, jumped in, got comfortable.
"Hell yes. Look at you?" Liz said. Then she sharpened her eyes over the rough edges of his chiseled face, his broad shoulders, and thick chest.
Her hands turned wet and slippery on the steering wheel as she looked over her shoulder to the left. Then she drove onto Sunset Boulevard, with the ragtop down. She appeared to blush in the late morning sun, but she hadn't a shy bone in her body. The sun had lit her red hair on fire.
Tone stilled like a Starbucks iced latte on a to-go counter. He knew every little thing he could bring to this new table. He ached over how much he wanted her.
Liz drove West: Chic-fil-A, N. Highland Ave, The London Punk Museum, N. Poinsettia, India's Tandoori.
Finally, she parked two blocks away from the Bank of America, the one on the corner of West Sunset and Ogden.
"It'll be back in a New York minute, Tone." Tone frowned into the luxurious dash and synched his Bluetooth to her playlist.
"Liz, it's your dime. I've already punched my time card." Tone had said. He relaxed his playful grin. He looked over her bubbled ass as she'd carefully gotten out of the car—something she'd planned.
"I'm all good with that, sugar," she'd said, "be back in a jiffy."
Tommy was busting Uptown Funk by Bruno Mars. He was moving his head and grinding his ass, slow and easy, dancing in honey.
Suddenly, Tone pulled out his earbuds. He stared through the spotless windshield, 'Did the heat just crack the windshield?' He'd asked himself.
There it was again, crack, crack, crack. The windshield appeared perfect. He craned his eyes over his right shoulder, vigilant for the crazy-ass noise he'd heard.
And here comes Liz, she was running. She’d turned the corner that shielded the Bank from view. She was blasting her Glock into the sky. People were screaming, some freezing in place.
To create chaos, Liz fired another shot into a street light. That's when the statuesque, gawking street folks scurried away, as fast as any Santa Monica beach crabs. They ran everywhere. There'd been an Afghanistan IED explosion after all.
"Scoot your ass over," Liz yelled ahead as she ran closer to the Benz in slow motion. Tone was frozen in place. Liz pointed the gun at him, waving him over.
Tone scooted his junk over the console, landing in the cockpit of a fighter jet, one that came with custom Napa Leather Seats.
"Fire it up," she yelled, now a few feet closer, her voice pouring out of her mouth as slow as blackstrap malaises.
After she'd slammed the passenger door, Tone pushed the button, startling the twin-turbo V-8 into action. The afterburners kicked in. It's then Tone piloted the Mercedes Sport L/243 due west, leaving hot tire tracks on the pavement.
Tone yelled over the wind, "What in the hell just happened?" Liz placed her index finger over his excited lips as if he'd just told her a terrible secret.
"West, west," is the only damned thing she'd whispered."
Back at the Condo
Her beautiful car had been cooling its jets in the downstairs garage. Liz said, "Sorry, Tone, really."
"Sorry, what the hell have you done?" He said. Tone was certainly pissed, but it was more about losing the painting gig, and not about the bank robbery.
Liz handed Tone a San Pampelmo, Pellegrino.
"It's what we drink out here, Pellegrino."
Tone fixed his eyes on the 10-20 years he was looking at, not on the bubbles in the bottle. He wasn't the bubbles type.
"Now what, now that you've made me an accomplice? No one's going to believe me?" Tone raised his voice.
Liz awkwardly smiled as if she'd truly meant the apology. Neither had believed there'd remain an attraction, after all the initial deception. But, it was inevitable.
"I am sorry, Tone. I wore a mask inside, COVID and all, been casing the Bank for months. This I.T. guy that owes me a favor controls most of the cameras down Sunset Boulevard." Liz had the kind of confidence that you'd want in a battle. Tone felt relieved.
"What about all the folks who lost their cash deposits?" Tone wasn't naive. He was empathetic.
"Bank of America has plenty of insurance, Tone. I got everything covered."
Tone couldn't believe how relaxed he'd felt. Maybe it was something that Liz had brought out in him, something she'd slipped in his drink, and perhaps it was just the real Tone coming to grips with his wild?
"I like you, Mr. Tone, “throwing the fish a worm.
He bit, "It's Tommy Tutone Liz."
"Whatever, Tone, I like you a lot. Sleepover tonight, and think about joining me?
I'm going to head out east for a while until things cool off out here. I’ll be taking Interstate 80 through Sacramento, Reno, and Cheyenne, then North Dakota, and Iowa, all the way to Cincinnati, Ohio. Cincinnati is where I was born. I want to see that shitty, clapboard house my mother still calls home. It could be fun. I'm bored?"
Tone had said, "I didn't leave anything out there, along Interstate 80, except loneliness. I came from Chicago. I have no plans to return that way."
Tommy lowered his gaze to the floor, at the thick piled carpet, the straight vacuumed furrows. Liz was a planner. He'd thought he'd never point in that direction again, toward the mean streets of Chicago, toward all the failed foster care, and all that dark, low history he'd left behind.
Up most of the night, getting acquainted, Liz had spoken about her own foster care experiences, but mostly about what she wanted out of life. After she'd finished talking about all that, the sum total was nothing.
Nothing had made sense to her, not even all the money she'd ever dreamed of having, including the $350,000 heist.
Cash so casual, it lay in a large canvas bag, chilled in a nondescript corner of her living room. It lay upon nothing except the glossy, thin, planked surface of a hardwood floor.
They hadn't stopped talking, even as they'd headed east out of L.A. Tone had shared how his foster care was experience was supposed to be easy-peasy, after the seventh home, and how each home was going to be better with practice.
He railed on how none of his placements had lasted, including the one in suburban Milwaukee, out near the good schools. He explained how the police had helped him move out of the suburbs, just in time. It seemed that he was next in line.
Liz spoke of her troubled youth too. The one she’d left behind in Seattle. She chuckled about how her foster care managers were thespian actors, based solely on their theatrical performance in front of the social workers. She explained how she’d spoken to this lady named Shirleen Collins, a new worker, who had seemed so caring. They'd met at least once a month at the King County placement. She explained how the foster parents had made sure they were always present and how they’d kept their eyes on her, how her last foster father had more on his mind than fathering.
She cried, about her story, how she'd run away at least a dozen times, been placed in that juvenile hall in Clark County. She was sad how the detention had made her feel happy compared to her last placement. She thought she was in Buckingham Palace.
Tone should have been named Trouble, not Tommy Tutone, cause' from what he'd been told, that's all he'd been. They laughed at all the other names they'd been given over the years: Loiterer, pilferer, truant, incorrigible, God-what-potential, stupid as ever there was.
Tone informed Liz how his efforts had almost landed him in a gang, he’d forgotten, either the Bloods or the Crips.
Tone had said, "The head of the gang said since I was part white, I was already in a gang, the devil's gang."
Liz spoke how she'd walked the streets in Seattle, mostly on Aurora. Surprisingly, how most of the men she'd met just wanted to pay for a good hugging, too limp for sex. How much of the time, she'd felt, "like a loser," drowning in the sadness that everyone on the street had in common.
They'd made it as far as Ely, Nevada. The name Ely sounded as friendly as a country song or the name of a good neighbor. They'd learned Ely had something in common with the state of Alaska. It was the kind of place where everyone ends up when they've run out of luck, or in case they were hunted or haunted.
The love birds had taken five years to drive from Reno to Ely, Nevada, and that's counting good weather. The three-hundred and twenty miles typically would take about five hours.
They'd hit a lucky streak in Reno, after all, and doubled their money.
In Ely, though it took some time and effort, eventually, they'd set up a boys and girls summer camp operation for the tossed away and/or neglected. The two camps were built around the idea of early intervention and supervised love. Tone and Liz had mostly supervised the operations and financed them, unable to be bonded. This limited their exposure.
They'd repurposed each home with a sense of family and caring. In great measure, they'd done this by hiring only the best directors and qualified staff for each of the operations. After all, the dynamic duo had bad-ass reputations to maintain. The Nevada Division of Child and Family Services was encouraged to visit more than required by state law. Both homes received the highest ratings available and a lot of awards.
Tone had convinced Liz to take a trip to Cheyenne, Wyoming, about an eleven-hour drive east. They had discussed the journey several times. She agreed.
Shortly after arriving, they'd delivered the stolen money in a sealed, nondescript, cardboard box near the First United Methodist Church's altar. The church is a Cheyenne landmark, with its clay brick, gothic architecture. The one is located on East 18th Street. It's the one with the three-story tower.
Tone had parked three blocks away. He had used an aluminum hand truck to deliver the 40 pounds pre-addressed cardboard box. It was filled to its cardboard rafters in $20.00 bills. He'd used a plague mask and an eBay UPS uniform. They'd already checked for cameras.
The conspicuous package had been addressed to the Bank of America in Los Angeles. They'd even left two of those cryptic, cutout-letters, magazine notes, like the ones you see on crime shows when someone is kidnapped.
Tone had tucked one of the notes inside the beige box, seriously apologizing for what was now history.
Another note had been Scotch-tapped to the top of the large box with specific instructions for the clergy, along with a $500.00 tip stuffed in the envelope. The note asked that the money be provided to the local food pantry.
Everything they'd touched had been handled using Ammex doctor gloves. Every damned thing had been orphaned of any DNA.
After delivering the box, Bonnie and Clyde took in a movie. Shortly after, they enjoyed a juicy rib-eye steak down at Poor Richards. Later, they headed out of town, back to Ely, Nevada.
Three days later, KTLA-TV in Los Angeles couldn't get enough of their story. Liz had become a local hero, even though they'd never figure out who she was. Hell, Liz was still attempting to figure out who she was?
The clerk at the Bank had dubbed her, girl on fire. She'd been the one who'd opened the vault. The only thing she cared to remember was that there was one thief. The crook had red hair and wore expensive perfume.
While in Ely, they'd built themselves a little cabin, out near the White River Reservoir, about an hour's drive from town. It was a real home, built from scratch by the loving couple, who'd never known of such a thing before. And then it all ended, as it often does.
Tone dropped his headset on the kitchen table, like a boss. He wouldn't need it anymore. Their world-building days had come to an end.
Oh, how he'd loved his HTC Vive Pro Eye, Virtual Reality Headset. He'd never tossed it down before.
Recently he’d been depressed and angry, having lost the love of his life.
For the past several months, he and Liz had been emotionally invested in the purest form of alternative reality–love building. The HTC headset had offered them both precision eye-tracking.
The HTC is considered the top of the line, often used to create virtual gaming experiences and alternative worlds.
Tone and Liz had loved it handled the actionable insights, how the end-users experience seemed more than real in V.R. Heat mapping, gaze tracking, the unit had it all.
The advanced interactions had allowed them to escape their tiny world if just for an instant. The headset foveated rendering and GPUs, was state of the art.
But, there was nothing virtual about the love they'd designed, nothing virtual about losing her.
Tone had taken advantage of Capella College’s, online, distance learning courses. YouTube had also been important while he developed his programming skills. He didn’t have a fancy software master's degree, but he could program circles around most of the H-1B Visas.
In truth, Tone had picked up work through Flexjobs, a temp agency that specialized in remote programming. Some of their contracts in Las Vegas included Konami, Silver State, and Rye Park gaming. Virtual gaming had grown since the arrival of COVID. Reality has become something you could brew up at home.
The couple lived in a doublewide, at the El Dorado Estates mobile home park, the one with all the palm trees in the driveway. The park was directly across from the Gold Coast Hotel and Casino where Tone had also re-programmed some of their gaming machines.
There had been no Los Angeles, no sexy robbery at the Bank of America in the City of angels. There was no bullet car, or any care facilities in Ely, Nevada, where the souls of AI kids were being saved.
Everything and anything had been a fantasy, created by a keyboard.
But there had been love, and it wasn't based on A.I. Yet sharing A.I. had offered them hope, something they'd both thought dead and buried.
Dust to Dust
Liz had six months to live, Pancreatic Cancer, the worse. She died in five.
Tone made the long drive from Vegas to the river in the fall, the time of year when everything is too real. Liz had been cremated.
He released her ashes into the wind, overlooking the bluffs of the White River. There had been nothing virtual about that.
Liz had left the way she'd entered this world in a cyclone of mystery and atmospheric disturbance. Her ashes rose a few hundred feet into the blue Nevada sky before settling down in the currents of the White River. She'd been freed to travel, to parts unknown, again.
For three months, Tone grieved. He'd cried under his sheets, sunup to sundown. His throat had turned into raw hamburger. And then he stopped.
Tone sold everything next, including his beloved headset, which had given them both an alternative universe. He'd left the care facilities in good hands on a Silicon Valley chip, back on the doublewide trailers counter-top. The care facilities had indefinite funding thanks to substantial grants and endowments.
Tone hitched rides, rides, some he didn't expect. He would have walked clear back to Chicago to deal with his grief if necessary.
In Salt Lake City, Utah, he'd purchased a one-way ticket back to his pain in Chicago. Then, he'd entered a time portal on a Greyhound bus. Everything seemed too real. Back in Chicago, he'd attempt to make his life better than he'd left it.
Dan A. Cardoza’s poetry, fiction, and nonfiction have appeared, or will appear in After the Pause, Apricity, BlazeVOX, Bull, Cleaver, Entropy, Fri(c)tion, Gravel, Grey Sparrow Journal, In Parentheses, Open Journal of Arts & Letters, New Flash Fiction Review, Poetry Northwest, Running Wild Press Anthology,2021, Spelk, and Your Impossible Voice. He’s been nominated for Best Micro Fiction, Tiny Molecules, 2020, and Best Poetry, Coffin Bell, 2020.