The Sunday School kids were locked in the old bank vault through two points of Pastor Rickett’s ten-point sermon before anyone noticed. The lock was said to have been disengaged but here it was closed up tight. It was an older boy, Jason Bricks. Jason had it for Amy, the oldest Jensen girl, who was inside cutting Marys and Josephs out of construction paper with the first and second-graders. It was almost Christmas and the kids were getting set to decorate the tree in the sanctuary once the service was over. Jason had shoved the door closed to say, basically, I love you to the girl. He turned the dial and wheel the way he had seen on TV and walked out and around the building and was having Taco Bell on the beach by the time the congregation discovered that the vault was locked shut.
“It’s what you get when you have a church built into an old bank,” someone said. “It was bound to happen sooner or later.” Another member reminded everyone that the place was looking more and more like a church and the vault was never going anywhere so they might as well learn to live with it. “Once something like that is in, it’s in for good.” “Yes, that’s right,” someone else said. “You really couldn’t be more right about that.”
The combination was written on the 1×3 inch molding that framed the vault door. The pastor wasn’t worried. He started to turn the dial to the four numbers in the sequence. We stood around in a half moon. We stood around and in a way it was a kind of baptism if you thought about it. Everyone was ready to see the kids come out of the vault. But the combination didn’t work. As it would turn out you had to wait longer than ten or fifteen minutes for a thing to feel reborn.
“It’s going to be okay,” the pastor said. “It’s all going to be o-kay,” he said again. He was very young and no one believed him that it was all going to be okay. The only time these people believed or really listened to Rickett was when he was reading scripture straight out or assigning meals for the monthly after-service potlucks. People tended to perk up when ambrosia fruit salad was involved.
Luckily we could hear the kids and they could hear us but everyone had to yell.
Peter Carlson laid his hands on the door and began to pray about it. Jim Pratt thought he had some tools that may help, so he went out to his truck to have a look. The pastor talked to the kids through the door. “How is everyone doing? First let’s say a quick prayer and then, Amy, I have some instructions for you. Can you hear me? Yes. Okay, great.” The pastor started to pray.
There were nine kids total, six of them Jensens. It wasn’t the Jensen kids who were going to be the problem. They’d had had it worse. The Jensens shared two bedrooms between six and their folks were always dragging them to Mexico to build houses for those less fortunate. One trip they left Isaiah at a gas station in Chula Vista and it wasn’t until the Mexico border, during final headcount, that they realized the boy was missing. They drove the two hours back and found Isaiah sitting on a stack of crates behind the counter passing Camel Lights to the counter guy and telling him that Jesus loved him. What worried Rickett were the other three. One was his, one Jack and Tammy Million’s, and the other was the daughter of a single mom who was visiting for the first time. Not a great first impression.
The pastor asked Amy Jensen if she couldn’t turn the release that was on her side of the door. She could turn it some, she said, and everyone quieted to hear her try. Nothing happened. It only spun in its socket. “Someone call the locksmith,” the pastor said. “Okay, let’s see here,” he continued saying to the vault door.
Jack Million walked into the makeshift sanctuary, climbed onto the stage, and started strumming his guitar and singing some worship songs. Stewart York put his head to the dial and kept telling everyone, “Keep quiet. Quiet down, people. Please.” He could crack the code. He could do this, all he needed was to hear the lock. He mentioned something about a drive cam and a click. “SHH,” he said. Stew turned and turned the dial and started to get pretty sweaty. He retried the numbers written on the molding and followed with variations of his birthday and the church’s birthday and then Bible verses that came to mind. “There might be,” Stew said, “a supernatural fix.” Jack Million started up a second song, a six/eight number about Moses and years and years in the desert and also how the Lord made it rain manna. A few people walked into the sanctuary and some went into the office next to the vault and knocked along the shared wall looking for a spot to break in if the time came. Some of us sang under our breath. You know how those songs can be.
“Someone call that banker. Maybe he’ll know what to do,” someone said.
“Good luck. Probably in bed,” another said.
“Or still up drinking.”
“Oh, Gorwitz. How is he? Haven’t seen him in a while.”
“Is his daughter back from school? Marketing wasn’t it? What was her degree again?”
“Marketing or kinesiology? One of the two. A nice girl.”
Daniel Gorwitz was the old banker who pretty much ran the branch into the ground. Better at shooting darts and holding bourbon than issuing loans or keeping track. When the bank closed he kept the lease. For a year or two if you drove by at night you could see light coming from his office in the back. Turned one of the teller booths into a bar and he and his friends drank and played darts and smoked Swisher Sweets.
It didn’t take long for the question of air to come up.
“Actually, it’s not a matter of air,” Jack Million’s wife said. “Actually, it’s an over abundance of CO2. That’s the killer. The CO2 is the killer.” Tammy Million taught fifth and sixth grade science and knew all about suffocation and CO2.
“Thanks, for that,” someone said.
“So it’s not a matter of oxygen,” Rob Sheffield said, “But CO2,” Irene, Rob’s wife, finished. Irene and Rob had been around the church since the start. They sang in the choir and owned a garage door company. They both drank soda from matching Quickstop cups.
“Okay, so how long?” someone said. “And then what?”
“Well, at first,” Tammy Million, began. “Let’s see. How big is it in there?” She sat down cross-legged and began figuring how long the kids had.
“Jason,” Rickett said. “Where is Jason Bricks? He’s the one. He’s the one that shut the door.”
Jason’s dad looked around and worked with the collar of his shirt. He held the collar up to his mouth and said, but didn’t say, that he didn’t know. Jason’s mother had just died and his father didn’t know what to do with the kid. At least church kept them a couple of hours and there were more sets of eyes on the boy. You could see that Jason was the type of kid would push you off your bike for no reason. You could also see that basically behind those two dark eyes was a loop of his mother dying in white sheets in a hospital bed and that basically he was as frustrated with himself as anyone else was. Jason’s dad stood in place and looked around for his son.
Tammy Million took her glasses off and said how long the kids had. “Three hours. They have three hours until they start to feel sleepy. They need to conserve their air, even though that’s not the issue, air isn’t.”
“Jesus, Tammy, don’t. This old place is leaky as a sieve,” Irene said and looked over at the single mother. “I’m sure air gets in there somehow.”
“Everything is always as leaky as a sieve,” someone said. “Why is that?”
“Okay, well has anyone called the police or fire department?” Rob Sheffield said.
“No, but it may be time,” Rickett said.
Jim Pratt came back with the tools and we stood around and sipped coffee and looked at the tools and the door and Jim talked to Rickett about using a crowbar to pry the door. Jim and Jason’s dad had a go with the bar. They must have known it was impossible but at least they could say they had tried.
Then the banker came through the door. Arlene, the church secretary, had called him and he had been in bed but here he was now. He shook his head and told everyone to back away and let him have a try. “That third number is the one. A tricky motherfucker.” Someone gasped. He had said motherfucker.
“Yeah, this has happened before,” Gorwitz said. “I was in here after hours. I was in here with, actually it was with your brother, Stew. And well we were,” he looked around, polled his audience and continued. “Well yes, we were working after hours and he walked in and pulled the thing shut. He was trying to scare me or something or other like that. There’s a lock release inside but it’s stripped. Sometimes it sticks and won’t turn at all and sometimes it just turns, just skips the lock and comes back.”
Gorwitz went to the dial and took a couple breaths. Someone was still knocking along the office wall. Jack was playing “Our God is an Awesome God” for the tenth time. “Can’t get in that way,” Gorwitz said to the folks in the office. “That’s two feet of concrete sandwiched between steel there. There’s only one way.” He started to work the dial. First number and second and then slowly to the third where he moved back and fourth, the thumb and pinky moving the dial a matter of, well, nothing. He didn’t seem to move it at all. Then to the forth and nothing. He tried again and it was the same silence of a door staying shut and so he started again, trying to find the number, which according to him wandered around from year to year. “That third one slips,” he said. But he would find it.
He kept on, first-second-and-third-and-fourth.
The locksmith showed with nothing but a drill and a couple drill bits in one of his pockets. Rickett filled the locksmith in and asked what had happened with disengaging the door a year before when they’d moved into the building. The man looked sleepy and wore sweatpants with a cable knit sweater and flip-flops. Without the drill he would have just looked like a man headed to the beach to walk off a hangover. He watched Gorwitz try the combination twice and said how strange and he would have to drill it through. “I knew it,” Stew York said. The locksmith walked out for more tools and came back with a small case of bits but had to leave to fetch an extension cord and then went back and forth again for gloves and a stool and some protective glasses which he only ever wore on top of his head.
The kids had been in for an hour and the pastor’s son was crying and another was talking about having to go number two. Rickett finally stopped the banker, who could keep trying, he said and the pastor said no, and it was okay and thanks. And Gorwitz said there was another way if only there had been some tools inside the vault. But Rickett raised his hand to stop the man. “Okay, got it,” the banker said and gave the dial one more quick spin. “You guys opened the air release, though, right?” Gorwitz said.
And of course we hadn’t. We didn’t know there was an air release. So Gorwitz walked Amy through the procedure and she got it. The vent was open and we could all breathe now. We couldn’t see the kids, because the vent passed up and down throughout the door, past a series of grates and all, but we could hear them almost as if there wasn’t a steel and cobalt-lined door between us.
“Okay now,” Ricket said. “It’s going to be okay everyone,” he said again. “Thanks for coming, Daniel.”
“What else do I have to do?” Gorwitz said.
“Yes, okay. Where’s that locksmith? Let’s give him a try,” Rickett said.
The banker moved away from the vault and walked into the sanctuary and tried to talk to Jack while he played and sang. Gorwitz looked around at his old bank. He sat down in one of the mismatched fold-up chairs. A banner spanned one of the walls. Hallelujah, it said. “Hallelujah,” Gorwitz said.
The drill whined and Jack and Tammy Million sang and Peter Carlson paced around and prayed.
When the firefighters pulled up the locksmith was an eighth of an inch into the lock face and promising smooth sailing from there on out. The firefighters came in anyway and watched and then went into the office where the folks had been knocking on the wall.
“Maybe here,” one of firemen said. “Maybe just knock it in here.”
“Get them all on the other side of things and just break through,” another one said.
Rob Sheffield came into the office with his giant soda. He had had some experience with demo work and he and the firemen talked jackhammers for a while. The fire department’s was ninety pounds. The firefighters sweated in their fire suits. Rob drank his soda through a straw and inside the vault the kids were starting to lose it. Another boy had to use the bathroom and Amy had run out of graham crackers, so there was that too. Rickett’s wife told the children to hold it, to hold on and maybe sing for a little while to take their minds off of this whole dilemma.
The motor in the drill started to smoke before it quit. Drill bits always outlast the drills in these situations. The locksmith went out to his truck for another drill. Peter Carlson paced around and prayed quietly but loud enough to hear.
Gorwitz walked back towards the vault. He had helped himself to some coffee from the lobby. He stirred and stirred. That nondairy creamer could be a real bitch.
“This thing have cobalt plates? You remember, Gorwitz?” the locksmith asked the banker.
“Cobalt? I believe it does but I could be wrong. It’s certainly happened before.”
“Well we better hope it’s not the cobalt version,” the locksmith said. “I’ve got another drill or two in the truck but if this is one of those with cobalt, we might was well get that jackhammer fired up.”
Two of the fireman had lugged in a ninety-pound jackhammer. It leaned against the office wall. Another of the firemen was running power and another was handing out masks. It would be a real flour storm, the fireman said. A real flour storm. It seemed like no one knew anything about what a flour storm would be like.
The single mother held her mask in one hand and put her other hand to the vault door. “If they start going on that wall,” she told her daughter, “you go to the other side, okay? Don’t be scared.”
“There is plenty of time,” Rickett said. “And there will be some warning before,” he told the single mother and then to the girl said, “Like your mother said, don’t be scared.”
“I’m not,” the girl said, her small voice smaller coming through the door.
One of the women was on her knees with granola bars as if she could pass them through what wasn’t even the hint of a gap.
Jason Brick’s father dragged his son through the lobby and the thinned out half moon of people and told his son to apologize. The single mother moved back to let Jason and his father through.
“Ask for forgiveness,” someone said. “Ask them and then the Lord for forgiveness.”
Jason looked at his father and then at Rickett and adjusted his sagging t-shirt and said through the door that he was sorry. “I’m sorry, Amy,” he told her and she said that she guessed it was okay and her father said, “No, not you guess, you know. You know that it is okay. You know that you forgive him.” And then Amy did. She forgave Jason and for a moment everyone smiled and wanted to clap but didn’t, and if you’d have brought out that ambrosia salad everyone would have smiled more and eaten it up and gone home happy.
But the door was still locked shut. The drill still drilling. The firemen becoming bored and the congregation growing hungry. We still needed a miracle. The single mother wanted to call the cops now and the firemen said what for. Rickett was done directing traffic and had finally sat down next to his wife. And I could be wrong, but Jack Million broke a string on his guitar and the new drill quit and all you could hear was the PA hiss and the kids whine and the old building echo. And Gorwitz was back at the dial saying this time he would try it faster than before. He was saying something about this old place, his old bank, and hallelujah, which was a question. He was letting his hand do the thinking this time. It wasn’t only about the right numbers but the right amount of force. He cocked his head up and to the right like he was remembering, and when he hit the fourth number you could actually hear something click when otherwise the dial had been silent its the socket.
The combination is still on the molding around the vault door. No one could ever paint over it. Maybe this place hasn’t gotten a new coat since, I don’t know. After the church moved out, the building was empty for years until Matley turned it into Wars, into The Civil War Bar. Now at least there’s a group in here who knows when it’s lying to and about itself.
I could see that the day the kids were locked in that vault was the best one I was ever going to have at church so I stopped going after that. I suspect others did too. Sometimes you know to quit when you’re ahead.
You have never seen people so happy, so relieved, as when the door opened. There was true joy all around. Everyone hugged and hugged and Jason’s father pretended to punch his son in the face. Rickett’s wife slumped into a chair and said, “Praise the Lord,” and some pizzas showed up that someone had ordered when we thought we were going to be at the church until kingdom come. Everyone ate and celebrated and Jack Million stopped fiddling with his guitar and joined his wife and son and drank some soda and ate some pizza. Stew York climbed onto the stage and fumbled through a Jesus version of a Nirvana song on the guitar, and Gorwitz, the old banker, collected the useless tools that lay around the door and set them on the table by the coffee and crumbs of all the eaten donuts. After a while the kids went back into the vault, a little shaky but not too. They gathered the Marys and Josephs and the lines and lines of threaded up popcorn and went into the sanctuary to decorate the Christmas tree. It didn’t look beautiful but that was okay.
And that was it for me. My daughter had stopped going by that time and it was only for her that I had gone to begin with. Also, there is something somehow difficult about returning after a victory. Ask the Cubs. They won the 1907 and ‘08 World Series and haven’t come close since. Sometimes a victory is actually a curse.
I saw Rickett right after my double mastectomy. It’d been fifteen some-odd years since we had talked and twenty-some-odd since the church days. My hair was short. I wasn’t so much a lesbian anymore. I wasn’t so much anything anymore. I was me. I was Bobbie. I was still a single mother but mostly I was sick and trying not to die of cancer.
“I used to be a minister and have a church and now I’m doing prep work on paint job sites now,” he told me. He taped off windows and doors before the painters came in to paint. He was feeling pretty badly about things. His ex-wife was around and the kid was off at college, going somewhere down south for marine biology. Rickett and his wife divorced soon after he left the ministry and after that there had been so many jobs. “Jobs upon jobs,” he said. I told him how people think I’m an old man now and not a woman and we laughed at that.
The folks from the vault days are still around. Rickett says it’s more or less the same, the church is. He gets the newsletter and goes to a service every now and then. They’re sharing a building with the Lutherans and it’s working okay. It’s been 20 years since Rickett’s days and there’s been reformation upon reformation but not in the sense that they’ve changed, they have simply kept together. They have only reformed again someplace else.
I tell Rickett my daughter is raised and she and I get along fine. She never went to college but she never killed anyone either, and she has more or less stayed out of trouble. She’s divorced too, I tell him. He still didn’t know what to say about me and that was fine. It’s okay to have small talk. I told him he had been a good pastor and he said thank you and said again that he didn’t know how much longer he could go on with the painting business. For a while he had sold computers, which he liked. He said that selling computers was pretty similar to being a minister. There was something he said about being a conduit. Now, though, people didn’t really need computer salesmen, he said. Now people knew what they wanted and could get computers on their own without any help. I told him I didn’t know shit about computers but that what he said seemed true. It seemed true about computers and people and I told him to come by for a drink. I didn’t know if he drank but said that maybe it’s time he start.
Sometimes when I tell the story about the kids locked in the vault I keep them in longer. Never to the point of death, but closer to it than they really were. In one of the longer versions some of the church members leave to watch Sunday football. Another family runs home for sleeping bags and board games. It’s like a lock-in someone says and someone else says that it isn’t funny because the nine really are locked in. Other times I imagine that the kids never get out at all. They grow up on food flat enough to fit beneath the door and we all visit in shifts for the rest of their lives and ours. Never mind the logistics. It’s kind of a like a zoo in a way, but we can only hear them growing. Sometimes when I tell the story I fixate on but never talk about how Rickett and his wife look exactly the same except that she has bigger breasts. Sometimes larger men can look female in a way. There are other obvious scenarios. Parents pacing around, it’s nighttime now. What a nightmare. A dad bloodies his knuckles against the door. A lot more praying goes on. Sometimes when I tell the story I think about how being trapped is a lot like being lost. It’s pretty much the same feeling, I think. With Kat, my daughter, I tried to do the opposite of keeping her bound because a cage would have only made her wilder. In the version of the story where the nine are in the vault forever, they grow bigger and bigger and then of course older and older. We grow bigger to a point and then just older, as I am doing now. Now, I am old before I am anything else. Before I am a woman or a mother or anything I am old and then likely an alcoholic and a smoker and then everything else. It seems to me that the bad is usually noted before the good.
Gorwitz, the banker, died this past week. His wife spoke at the wake. She told everyone how she knew what her husband could be like but that she knew who he really was. Daniel Gorwitz. Daniel had been a father and a husband. He was a banker. Daniel had lived his whole life in Oceana. He sure did like his cigars, she said. These were the facts, what constituted the man’s obituary.
It’s funny who shows for a wake who probably shouldn’t because it’s for close friends and family. Rickett and another had-been minister were there. There were a handful of us from Wars there too. Most of us hadn’t gone to the funeral. We felt better about being outdoors arced behind the family and the known friends, the ones who’d have been invited to Thanksgiving dinner.
When the wife was done telling us who Daniel Gorwitz had been she did the thing where you throw the first shovelful of dirt onto the casket. She truly labored over it. She’s old as dirt herself. She wasn’t crying or anything, she was only trying to work the shovel right.
Sometimes at Wars I’d catch Gorwitz eyeing the opened vault door. He never told the story about helping Amy and the others because someone else always did. Somebody else would say or basically say how the kids may have suffocated if Amy Jensen, under the care and calm voice of Old Gorwitz, hadn’t opened the vent. And the fireman wanted to jackhammer in and would have ruined the place. And the locksmith would still be drilling if it’d been left to him. But Gorwitz was trying again. He was listening and remembering and telling a story. That final time he didn’t even look at the dial. I wondered why Mrs. Gorwitz hadn’t said anything about that at the wake. Maybe she doesn’t even know, and maybe it’s better that way.
Photo by lancefisher Photo by UnTapping The World

Luke Wiget
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