the physicist

There is no heartbeat like this one, of seventy in a minute, hung like a Rembrandt on a wall inside of me. In a 4am diner telephone booth. My rattling hands, unable to slot the nickel or dial the running number – ALpine-5690. But finally, and with mercy, it’s done.

“Hello?” Her voice. “Hello?”

It is the role of the fugitive, in narrative and in life, to hesitate at this moment. To avoid giving anyone a hold on the confusion. I’m living parallel to this rule. I quietly focus on the payphone coin slots, without knowing why.

“Is this you, David?” Felicity says. There is caution and upset in her voice.

Another rule is that people are always waiting for the fugitive to call, a premise so indisputable as to be accepted as true without controversy.

“Yes,” I say.

“Where are you?”

“The city.”

“Where, though?”

“That’s not why I called.”

“Why then? Everybody is so worried.”

I pause. Where am I? I mustn’t say. Maybe somewhere downtown cops huddle round a speaker on a metal table in a dim room, listening. At the telephone company, men in shop coats and graveyard shift operators examine switches and look for lights on wall sized circuit boards, attempting to trace my call.

“So, do you know what has happened?” I ask.

Now Felicity pauses. There are clicking sounds on the line. Distant nearly invisible voices overlapping our call. Men talking about deliveries, about morning. One laughs. Do they hear us?

“Have they gotten to you yet?” I say.

“Yes.”

“What did you tell them?”

“What could I tell them?” she says. “I don’t know what anybody’s talking about.”

“The papers.”

“Papers?”

Pause.

“Yes,” I say. “The goddamn papers I took from the Company lab. My papers. I’ve been working on them for a year. I had to smuggle them out. The information will change things — look, I need money.”

“I have none. You know it.”

“Your mother, then.”

“No.”

“Then what am I supposed to do?”

“Go to them. Apologise. You’re valuable, what you know. They’ll forgive you.”

“I can’t. They’ll burn everything. They probably already have. Except what I have with me now.”

“Then live rough. There’s no in-between.”

“What?”

There’s a blunt Bakelite rumble in the cradle of the telephone, and then a click. Felicity has rung off.

I sit down at the lunch counter. The coffee is night coffee. It keeps the nocturnal planet alive. Thick, black and acid. It burns like a torch going down, and rages in my empty belly. Through the broad window, I can see the early light begin to spill onto the street. Like a tide. The papers.

I light a cigarette. Coffee’s a nickel. Smokes, twenty cents. I take the change from my pocket, spill it onto the countertop and count. The waitress watches out of the corner of her eye.

The theorems and algorithms. No one on the outside believes in their importance, or they all have a gun to their heads.

Two dollars and seventy-eight cents.  Live rough. That’s all there is.

“You got enough for some breakfast there, mister,” the waitress says. “You look hungry. Why not have some ham and eggs?”

She looks hungry, too. Her pink uniform’s shabby, worn on too many late shifts. Her hair, slightly undone.

“Sure,” I say. “Why not.”

She writes my order down fast, like it’s the lunch rush, and hands it to the cook through a square hole in the wall. The cook studies it and walks away. She hasn’t asked how I want my eggs.

“You know what I figure?” she says, coming back to the counter.

“What?” I say.

“I figure a fella deserves a break, now and then.”

“Do you?”

“Sure,” she says. “It’s not like you’re a bad guy. The numbers just aren’t on your side.”

“Numbers? What are you talking about?”

“We get plenty of bad guys in this joint,” she says. “Mob thugs. Government people with guns under their jackets. Even some geniuses like you, with slide rules and a half dozen different pencils in their shirt pockets. ‘Cept them geniuses aren’t on the square, like you. They all work on the same side, and cash in. Then they expect a nobody like me to finger decent people for ‘em, you know?”

“No,” I say, pushing my empty coffee cup forward. “Fill me up.”

“Sure,” she pours.

“Take the cook for example,” she says. “Right now he’s callin’ some of them bad boys. The ones from the government with the guns. They’ll be here in a minute, and they’ll slide into that booth over there and order coffee and toast. Like they was just moseying on by, and decided on some breakfast in this here glamorous all night establishment. But they’ll be here for you. I don’t get how fellas like you always end up here.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Smart fellas, I mean,” she says. “Who discover the secret of the universe, or somethin’. Or maybe little green men on Jupiter. Then they gotta run ‘cause they ain’t supposed to know it. And the bad guys come after ‘em, and find ‘em here. Every time, sittin’ where you are now. Different faces, but in that exact same stool. With exactly two dollars and seventy-eight cents in their pocket, worrying ’bout the price of a deck of smokes. You don’t know it yet, but that’s what’s happenin’. Even that telephone call you made was just like every other telephone call.”

Now the door opens and two men in trench coats walk in and take a booth.

“See?”

“What the hell’s going on?” I say.

“You oughta know. You’re the physicist, monkeying round with space and time. You oughta know how a guy can get trapped in a twister and end up in the wrong place every time.”

She’s right, I do. It’s just theory, though. A game of equations.

“How do you know I’m a physicist?”

She places the ham and eggs in front of me.

“Eat ‘em up,” she says. “It’s on the house, always is. It ain’t much of a last meal. But then this ain’t much of a diner, neither. We got bugs, and the cook don’t wash his hands.”

From behind me, I hear one of the men in the booth say, “Two coffee and toast, Millie.”

Millie writes down the order, passes it to the cook and pours the coffee.

My eggs are scrambled. Just the way I like them.

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the neon purple SOS

The hotel’s ancient neon sign still shines through my window every night, even with the venetian blinds closed. During the day it’s like any other sign, but after dark it blinks out an SOS dispatch in purple Morse code. · · · – – – · · ·, · · · – – – · · · , · · · – – – · · · . All night, every night. But no one responds to the plea. If this old hotel were a ship at sea, it would sink with all aboard. Without a trace. Without ever being remembered.

I told Vladislav about this once, before everything happened, mostly to fill up some of our hour together. He increased my Thorazine. I always left the pills in their bottles at the Altar of Our Lady, in the cathedral down the street. She accepted them as an offering. They were never there the next day.

A new tenant moved into the hotel, just before the shit hit the fan. He sang a cappella at night. Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer. Until about 4am every morning. With all the right breaks in all the right places. He had amazing timing. Kind of like Sinatra, after he divorced Ava Gardner. I could hear him through the air vent over my bed. It was like having a Vegas floorshow piped in — with the old neon sign going SOS SOS SOS, ad infinitum. So, who the fuck had time to sleep?

At one of my last appointments with Vladislav, he suggested that perhaps the new tenant wasn’t real, and asked if I’d been taking my meds. He used to get a little thrill out of suggesting the things I enjoyed in life weren’t real. Like all of the beautiful red and orange leaves in autumn, that blanketed the floor of my room, and crunched under my feet when I got up in the night to go to the can.

I smiled and lied about the medication, of course. And purposely failed to mention that the Virgin Mary was taking the pills now, instead of me. And that her beatific smile seemed to imply that they were working better for her than they had for me.

He shifted belligerently in his chair, and took iniquitous notes. But we weren’t friends, or anything.

In fact, by then, Vlad had become a problem. He only wanted to see me biweekly, and said I could email him if I had an issue. Except he never returned my emails. Even when I emailed him that I was surrounded by the Greys, and they were eating out of my refrigerator. The little alien fuckers would scare the hell out of me. Standing round my bed, staring at me with their big orbicular eyes, eating my KFC leftovers, throwing the bones onto the floor. Would they do that on their own planet? I don’t think so.

Anyway, I’d been planning something special for ol’ Vladislav. Something based on an idea hatched out of one of those crushing, self-obliterating darknesses I enjoy so much. The ones that permeate my inner-metaphysical assemblages at the deepest possible level, and suck every molecular spec of me down the kitchen drain. Then spit me back up in a seweratic bloom, renewed and radiant like the still-glowing hands of a long dead thrift store alarm clock.

It always surprised me and boosted my mood, the creativity that bled out of my blackest despondencies. It was like getting my bonus Air Miles in the mail on a gloomy day.

My depression inspired idea was a mind control transmitter. It turned out all I needed was a PC, an internet connection and a proper set of headphones. Not earbuds, mind you. But a full-on headset, like the hippies used to use. Skullcandy’s okay, but Bose is better.

This was the trick:

  1. Plug the headset jack into audio-in, instead of audio-out.
  2. When this is done place the headset on your head, over your ears.
  3. Twist the headset ninety degrees to the right, so that the left earpiece is on your forehead.
  4. Now you had a direct line, through the left earpiece, from your prefrontal cortex into the CPU. And you could stream your thought controlling messages into Gmail.

It took up a lot of bandwidth. But when I pressed send, my thought control messages would go out over the driftnet they called the worldwide web, and they were delivered to the addressee. When the recipient opened the email, his or her brain would lock onto the message, and they would do whatever I demanded.

I used Google Drive’s 10GB attachment size limit to avoid Gmail’s meager 25MB limit. A thought control message could be pretty huge. There was a lot of code involved. Maybe that would have changed once it caught on. Mothers could have used it to sneakily coax their children to call, and governments to convince the people that critical thought was terrorism.

The first thought control message I sent was to the Mayor, and it took him less than a week to fix the sidewalk out front. It had been cracked and bumpy before, and old people had been tripping and falling all over the place. By lunchtime, most days, it looked like a geriatric killing field, all of the oldsters fallen and unable to get up. But after my mind control message made it to the Mayor, and the sidewalk was repaired, they just floated by with their walkers, like wheeled robots blissified in their new found movability.

My point is that this was a proven technology, baby. I didn’t hold any patents or copyright on it, though. It was like shareware. You could have tried it at home. I didn’t care.

After the Mayor, it was Vlad’s turn. I didn’t have any demands like fix my sidewalk for him. He probably couldn’t even use a screwdriver. I just wanted to fuck him up a bit, introduce the cardigan-wearing comb-over mother fucker to an existent reality, separate from the DSM 5 and Land’s End deck shoes.

And so, by now you’ve probably figured out that Vlad was a psychiatrist. He wanted me to call him Vladislav, instead of Dr Pulin, because he thought being on a first name basis gave him some perversely deserved form of street cred. But it just made him seem like Sally Field in The Flying Nun. And like I’ve said, he liked to tie most of my lived experiences to my presumed psychosis. He even refused to acknowledge the presence of the Greys, with their big buggy eyes and Domino’s Pizza, whenever they’d come along with me to an appointment.

His office was on the twelfth floor of an old downtown art deco number, with a stone balcony above the busy street. The balcony was festooned with flowering potted plants, vines and shrubs. And he had a small Ethiopian man named Bruck come in once a week to take care of them. Vladislav didn’t really like Bruck though, and Bruck thought Vlad was an asshole.

Sometimes Bruck offered insights into what he overheard from patients on the balcony. Insights that seemed far more informed than Vladislav’s. Vlad really resented this. I watched it happen in the waiting room a few times, as Vlad leaned forward, breathing heavily over the receptionist, pretending to read a file on the counter. Bruck would say something clinically astute, and Vlad would sneer and send him back out onto the balcony with his pruning shears.

“That little African bastard’s really pushing my buttons,” he’d whisper into the receptionist’s ear, with his garlicky lunchtime escargot breath. “Can we do anything to revoke his citizenship?”

The receptionist would shrug and wheel away on her desk chair.

In the summer, I’d sit out on the balcony for sessions with Vlad. This would have been almost enjoyable if he wasn’t such a dick, smoking his pipe, nodding needlessly, raising his eyebrows and squinting critically, displaying mock empathy at what might have been the right moment, but never was. It was like a well-rehearsed alienist pantomime, probably perfected in his intern years, surrounded by slobbering imbecilic psych ward inmates in a hospital just off of skid row. And it had the adrenaline stink of his own internalised horror. But I never said anything; sometimes the patient must accommodate the physician.

Sometimes he’d say shit like, “Let me help you take joy in choosing life.” Like he wasn’t the single most suicidal ideation inducing factor in my life.

I would have split and run if the visits weren’t court ordered. Hell, if the visits weren’t court ordered, I’d have been drinking beer and snorting amyl nitrite under a bridge somewhere.

But getting back to mind control via the doubtable Windows operating system.

I’d bought a pair of Bose SoundTrue on-ear headphones the day before it all went to hell. I believed they’d work better than the vintage Sears model I’d been using, with its adapter plug and fraying cord. Besides, I probably looked like a total loser with a pair of headphones from the eighties, turned ninety degrees on my head. The eighties wasn’t a bad decade, but they had different ideas about what was compact and streamlined back then. As soon as I tried on the Bose set in the store, gave them a quick turn so the left earpiece was on my forehead, and asked to see myself in a mirror, I knew that I was making the right choice.

That night I came home, sat in the blinking neon purple SOS light and listened to the Vegas floorshow guy singing through the air vent. And I composed my mind control message to Dr Vladislav Pulin, as I did.

I’d brought home a couple of six packs and started to guzzle. This was going to be great.

I really wanted to set the shithead up for some grief, and I’d spoken to Bruck earlier in the week to tell him what to watch for, that there would be a chance to peg Vlad with a harassment complaint that might really pay off.

“Do you believe you can control world events, Tommy?” Bruck asked me.

“No,” I said. Okay, I sort of lied.

“Well that’s fine, then.”

After I explained my plan to him, he put his hand on mine and told me that he understood that realities could differ greatly, but that that didn’t deny the importance of one’s personal perception. Then he said that I should proceed with my plan, as long as no one got hurt.

It was absolutely the right thing to say, in so many ways. And it came out of the mouth of an Ethiopian grader. Ain’t that something?

The as long as no one got hurt part really didn’t sink in, though. That might have been the beginning of how it all went so wrong. And in hindsight, I might have worded things differently. Too late now.

The message sort of went like this:

Hi Vlad, (regular email salutation protocols apply to thought control messaging) Why don’t you get back at the little bastard, Bruck, and push his button? Find it and push it, Vlad. Push the button that will ruin, even eliminate, your greatest enemy. Go ahead, Vlad, push the button that will change the world and put you in charge. You know you want to.

By then I’d gotten through the first six beer. I was a little bit tipsy, I’ll admit. I forgot all about the Google ezAutoCorrect extension that lived on my computer, in an alternative reality all its own. It ended up drastically changing the spelling of key words in my message. In the address field, Vladislav.Pulin@gmail.com became Vladmir.Putin@gmail.com. And in the text field, Bruck was changed to Barack.

I take no solace in knowing that I’m not the first drunken fool to press send, when he should have held off until the morning after.

And who the hell knew Vladimir Putin had a Gmail account?

The mind control email message arrived on Putin’s PC in the afternoon, and The Button was pushed shortly after.

So, now the neon purple SOS has a new kind of importance. Worldwide electrical grids are failing, along with mass communications. A massive electromagnetic pulse wiped every hard drive and flash drive on the planet clean in a nuclear second. The Vegas floorshow guy still sings, but his songs seem a little more melancholy, and he’s developed a persistent cough that messes up his timing. The good news is that the Greys haven’t returned. I guess it’s because KFC and Domino’s don’t deliver anymore.

a modern opera

hey Puccini
in the parking lot
in the Smart Car with your metronome
write me an opera for Wayne Newton
post-Romantic and verismo

put Danke Schoen in the aria
and make the tenor weep
blue as mouldy cold cuts
in a two-bit Vegas buffet

because an idol should shed a tear
as he walks onto the stage
smoothing his Icarus lapels
before the spotlights of Crete

Hollywood

Fiduciary’s a word Producers like to throw around as much as lawyers. But for Producers, it’s all about the way it sounds coming out of an actor’s mouth. In a scene, the lawyer takes the private dick aside and says something like, You must remember the fiduciary nature of your relationship with the client. That’s when the private dick goes kind of slack jawed and stares at the coatrack, and the director shouts, Cut—Print it!

My point, I guess, is that it’s a cliché. But just like the private dick, it’s a cliché we tolerate because it makes the movie going public comfortable. There’s a lot of noise at writing school about avoiding clichés, but the racket quiets down once a writer starts working for dough. Because that’s when a guy comes to realise that thematic arcs and subliminal mysticism don’t pay the light bill. It’s the cringe-worthy little chestnuts that do.

I put the Producer’s memo endorsing the word fiduciary on the spike, and looked out the window. It was the first day of spring, all chickadees and daffodils. Another goddam cliché. A guy couldn’t turn round without stepping on one.

The script I was finishing was a dog. Just what they’d asked for. It would run right after the newsreel on double feature night, and be forgotten by intermission. I could probably deliver it by Tuesday, ahead of schedule. Then I could binge drink for a week and have the keys on my typewriter oiled and rotated.

There was just one more small but necessary element to the screenplay that was missing. The Noble Prostitute, Gladys, she needed her soliloquy. Something she could say before they took her away, for shooting the crumb who murdered the bum she wanted to marry. It would come in the third act, and need a lot of street level profundity. Because working girls never get a break. That’s what sells popcorn, baby. That’s screenwriting 101.

I put fresh paper into the Olivetti, and started to type. I was going to nail it. It got this way sometimes, when things were wrapping up. It was when I did my worst work. And the Studio boys loved every word of it—

FADE IN:
A ROOMFUL OF COPS. THERE’S A DEAD MAN ON THE FLOOR. A woman stands in the centre of it, hands cuffed behind her back. It’s 8 a.m. and she’s wearing a cheap evening dress with a wilting corsage. She’s got on her bravest face. She knows it’s over for her. And maybe she likes it that way. She talks to a detective.

GLADYS

(Mock pride and courage in her voice.) Sure, I loved him. And it wasn’t just infatuation, neither. Nah, it was real love. The kind that sticks to a girl like bug splat on a windshield. The kind of love that gets into her shoe on a rainy day and rubs up against her toe, and causes open sores that get all full of pus that makes squishy sounds when she walks around. 

That’s the kinda love I’m talking about. The kind a dame should be able to take to the bank, but she can’t because they don’t take love at the bank. You take love to the bank and the guard’ll wrestle you to the ground and kick you in the ribs. Not because he’s bad. But because he can’t get another job. Because his parents could only afford to send his older sister to barber college. And that’s the way the world is. A girl gets all covered in bug guts, her shoes make squishy noises and her ribs get kicked in by a bank guard named Chico. 

And sure, love’s for chumps. But so’s brushing your teeth with a screwdriver. And most people don’t do that. Not unless they’re screwy, or somethin’. But they all fall in love. Like Cupid’s holdin’ a gun to their heads. Like they can’t just say no, love ain’t for me. I’d rather eat a kitten on toast. 

Golly, do these handcuffs have to be so tight? It’s not like I’m gettin’ paid for this.

Yeah, I loved him. But he didn’t understand our fiduciary relationship. I guess that’s why he got all sloppy over me. And that was wrong from the start. Because a girl like me’s trouble with a capital “T”. Yeah, I know it. I see it in my face when I look in the mirror at night, when I’ve got one of them blind zits that kinda hurt, but you can’t pop ‘em, but you try, and they get all swollen and red, and it ends up looking like you gotta apple stapled to your forehead. 

So now I’m gonna get the chair. Sure, I know it. It’s been comin’ a long time. What chance has a dame like me got, anyway? Me with my squishy shoes and busted ribs. And the way guys forget to be fiduciary round me. Hell, I was born to fry in the chair. Yeah, put that on my tombstone, BORN TO FRY. That’ll give ‘em something to think about, you bet. 

Well, I guess we gotta go now. It’s prison chow and a cellmate named Butch for me from now on. I won’t squawk. I’ll go willingly. Because I’m little people. And little people can take it on the chin, and laugh about it. HA! Sure, I shot the nincompoop. And I’d do it again. Because learning from your mistakes is for squares. And my mother never raised no squares. 

THE END

And my mother never raised no squares. Pure gold. Money in the bank.

sidewalks

sidewalks are wordless people
cigarettes and Lucifer
how is it that you grew from there?
out of the footprints of dogs and the
twig written graffiti
of hunkered down boys

your fingers came first
wrists and elbows
then the muscle and gut
with your knuckles busted
in the gutter with the weeds
where the whitewall roamed
and the hubcap reined
and the shoes of shotgun women
stepped forth from automobiles

where a nickel cup of coffee
once was king
and pockets were for the dollar
a poet never has

because sidewalks are wordless people
composing their lines
that are witnessed by no one
that are girders and beams

body night

a little spin on the Spoon River Anthology -- apologies to Edgar Lee Masters

Chase Henry

IN life I was the town drunkard;
When I died the priest denied me burial
In holy ground.
The which redounded to my good fortune.
For the Protestants bought this lot,
And buried my body here,
Close to the grave of the banker Nicholas,
And of his wife Priscilla.
Take note, ye prudent and pious souls,
Of the cross–currents in life
Which bring honor to the dead, who lived in shame

Edgar Lee Masters, Spoon River Anthology

*   *   *   *   *

1948

I slid a ten dollar bill sideways across the bar, under my index finger, and let it stop next to Wexler’s sweating glass of beer.

“What’s that for?” he said.

“Chase Henry. I thought you might know something.”

“For a saw buck? I don’t know fuck all about Chase Henry.”

“The ten just demonstrates my willingness to pay,” I said. “There’s more where it came from, if you have anything to say that’s worth a damn.”

“He’s dead,” Wexler said, and took the cash.

“I know.”

I knew I was looking for a stiff. But I was doing a favour for a desperate customer. Who wasn’t really a customer, because she didn’t have a dime. It was the sort of thing that suckers do. I placed another ten on the bar.

Spitz the bartender watched. It was starting to look like a crooked exchange. Stolen goods maybe. He knew me better, but he still didn’t want it in his bar.

“Street says he’s been dead for twenty-four hours,” I said. “His girlfriend wants the body. What do you have on that?”

“Check the morgue.”

Wexler was fat, slow and half shit face. I withdrew the bill this time, before his salami fingers could take it.

“All right,” I said, and put the ten under my empty glass. I made sure Spitz saw it, so he knew it belonged to him. Then I got off the stool.

“Chase is dead because he messed with Morley and Nicholas,” Wexler said. “That’s why even if I knew something, I wouldn’t say. He’s probably in the trunk of some junker under a bridge by now.”

“Is he?”

“I’m just speculating.”

“What bridge would you speculate?”

“Fuck off.”

It was June, 1 a.m. and warm. I took to the sidewalk. I didn’t mind walking the strip. There was a lot to learn there. And the neon made it kind of like Christmas.

Wexler was right. Chase Henry always messed with the wrong people. He was an able-bodied drunk, and he spent his sober hours looking for the cash to get bombed again. He could have got a job, shoplifted or boosted cars. But he thought he was too good for any of that. So, he played the brink, with some grisly characters. He cheated at horses and bet heavy on numbers. And he made like he was friends with Jake Morley – The Pope of Ghetto Road.

If I had a handle like Pope of Ghetto Road, I’d join the circus. But Jake Morley stayed close to home, and dealt heroin and cocaine. He had his hand-to-hands haunting the bus station and the YMCA with entry level bags of shit, getting the kids and the yokels just in from Donkeytown hot, hooked and ready to go.

Chase Henry had recently borrowed heavily from a shark name Victor Nicholas, and bought a quantity of junk from The Pope. He thought it’d be a sensible way to sustain his drinking habit for a while. Maybe he’d even go citywide if it grew lucrative. But what Chase Henry never considered was that The Pope of Ghetto Road would sell anyone a ton of shit. But he’d ice them if they ever tried selling it in his city.

It was a conundrum in answer to a question, like so many things street side. Where there were just bad guys and everybody else, and a switchblade snapped faster than a guy could panic.

Chase’s girlfriend was a skirt named Freda Taps. She lived on the street Jake Morley was named after. 10 Ghetto Road, at the Luxton Hotel. She’d always been a dope for Chase Henry. But then she was a borderline lush, herself. She tricked on the strip for a pimp named Oswald. The two of them were there tonight, talking when I showed up.

“You’re getting too fat for this,” Oswald told Freda. “Stick to the booze and lay off the Mulligan stew.”

He wasn’t what you’d expect for a pimp. Just a crewcut, tee-shirt and a pair of faded dungarees. But he liked to slap a dame around, and his girls were either money makers or dead.

“Some fellas like a girl who’s a little plump,” Freda said.

“Then where’s the dough?”

“It’s been slow.”

“It’s a dry night in June,” Oswald sneered, putting up a fist and pushing her against the wall. “Payday was yesterday. The Navy’s in town. Don’t give me slow.”

Freda dug around in her purse and pulled out a pitiful wad of bills. She handed it over.

“I’ll do better,” she said.

“I’ve heard that from every dizzy under achiever I ever managed. Don’t disappoint me.”

“Managed?” I said, coming up from behind. “You couldn’t manage to fall down the stairs.”

Oswald turned round, fast. I saw his hand go for his back pocket, where he kept his balisong knife. Then he realised it was me, and relented.

“What do you want, Clyde?” he said.

“Oh Billy,” Freda said. “How nice of you to happen by.” She was mighty glad to see me.

“People say you’re looking for Chase Henry,” Oswald said. “I hear there ain’t nothin’ left to find.”

“We know,” Freda said, looking down at her scuffed pumps. “But a fella deserves a decent send off.” She was fixing to cry, and said, “He paid the price for being a fool. He don’t deserve to end up in a shallow grave. A girl sure gets sick of being pushed around in this burg.”

“Yeah,” said Oswald. “And I hear it was you who put this dick on the trail. Maybe that’s why you ain’t got no dough tonight. ‘Cause you’re paying this bastard to find a dead body.”

“I’m working gratis,” I said. “And since I’m here, what do you know about it?”

“Nothing,” Oswald said. But he suddenly had the look of a pigeon. He knew something.

“I don’t wanna push a guy around, Oswald,” I said. “Especially on his own turf, but….”

“The Pope knows you’re nosin’ round,” he said. “There ain’t nothing you can do to me that he can’t, and in spades.”

“What about Nicholas,” I said. “Was he a player in this?”

Oswald went dumb. I could have slapped him, pushed him through a plate glass window. But why draw attention?

“You and me are gonna meet exclusively one night, Oswald,” I said. “It’s been coming for a while. But for tonight you can go home and fondle whatever little boy you got locked up in your closet.”

He remained mute. A good move on his part, in a lot of ways.

I’d been legging it most of the night, and realised that sources on the sidewalk and in the rummy joints weren’t going to cough. What Freda wanted really wouldn’t be such a burden to anyone actually involved. So, I caught a cab.

“25 Ghetto Road,” I told the driver.

“This time of night, mister?”

“You wanna live forever?”

“Nah, just to the end of my shift.”

He was looking at me in the rear view mirror. I pulled my coat open a bit so he could see the .45 in my holster.

“I’ll make sure you get out alive,” I said.

“Sure you will,” he said, pulling the arm down on the meter. He didn’t sound convinced.

There was nothing to set Ghetto Road apart from any other derelict part of the city, at 3am. To the eye, that is. It was more the feeling of menace, and potentiality. There were faces in the shadows here and there. And sometime the sound of a body being dragged down an alley, a stiffs heels bouncing off the cobblestones. And The Pope had his gorillas on lookout, of course.

But I was a familiar face. And no one in the neighbourhood wanted me dead, for the moment.

The driver pulled up to 25. It was an abandoned storefront. The Pope’s apartment was on the second floor. I tipped big and got out. He sped away.

At the door there was a big goon name Willard Brass. He was reading True Detective.

“Willard,” I said, greeting him.

“Billy Clyde,” he said, sort of bored, without looking up from his magazine. “I figured you’d show up here tonight. So did the boss. He’s upstairs.”

“Swell.” I went for the door.

“Hang on, Clyde,” Willard said. “Gimme the gat.” He held out his hand.

“But Willy,” I said. “It’s like a part of me.”

“Don’t call me Willy.”

This was the routine. Willard asked for my heat. I hesitated, and called him what his mother called him. He got indignant, and then I handed it over.

“Oil it and check the slide,” I said, putting my .45 in his big sweaty paw.

“Hang it out to dry, shamus.”

And that was it. I was now in one of the most undesirable addresses in town. I walked up the stairs, and was frisked by another goon named Buster Milk at the top. Then I went into The Pope’s apartment.

It was like any other apartment in town. Not where you’d expect a crime boss to live. There were even doilies on the furniture. The Pope’s girl took care of that. She was a skinny cokehead with a nervous itch, named Delilah.

The Pope was sitting in the kitchen, counting money at the breakfast table. He greeted me warmly. The wintry Victor Nicholas was sitting across from him.

“Billy, my boy,” The Pope said. Have a seat. Help me count todays take.

I sat.

“I hear you’re looking for what’s left of that low life, Chase Henry,” The Pope said. “I guess it’s body night.”

“Yeah.”

“And you figure I’m the bum that waxed him?

“Yeah.”

“Ha!” The Pope put down a stack of tens and slapped his knee. “Yeah yeah.  See, Victor. This is why I like this guy. Why he’s the only private dick in town I’d let up here. He never messes around with words. Straight shooter all the way. Aren’t you, Billy Boy.”

“I guess.”

“Ha! There he goes again.”

“What makes you think we know about Chase Henry?” Victor Nicholas said. Then he bent over a marble slab on the table, and snorted a long line of white powder.

“Because he owed you. He didn’t pay his debt.”

“It wasn’t absolutely like that,” said The Pope. “We wanted the dope back, too.” He had another good laugh. Victor Nicholas smiled weakly, but his pencil mustache didn’t budge. “You see, it’s all business, Billy. Our man Victor, here, he’s the banker. He supplies the loan. Then I supply the inventory.”

“And then you don’t let a guy sell it to pay you back,” I said.

“This city, and all its junkies, belong to me,” said The Pope.

“Murder can’t be proved without a body,” said Nicholas. “Why should we hand it over?”

“I’m no rat, you know it. Neither’s Freda. She just wants to give him a proper burial.”

“Uh-uh,” said The Pope, holding forth his index finger. “He was a deadbeat and a rotten drunk. Now he’s a dead deadbeat.” He slapped his knee again. “Dead deadbeat, get it? Ha ha! And deadbeats don’t get no proper burial. He stays where he is. Wanna beer, a little coke maybe?”

“No.”

“Then we got nothin’ else to say to one another,” said Victor Nicholas.

“Looks that way,” I said, and got up to leave.

Then there was the sound of commotion at the bottom of the stairs, and we heard the shouts of Freda Taps.

“Let me up, Willard, you dumb mug.”

“No way, honey. The Pope don’t wanna see you.”

“Let me up there, you son of a bitch.”

The Pope went to the door and yelled down, “Let her up.”

“Should I frisk her?” Willard said. “I ain’t never frisked a broad before.”

“Just let her up,” said The Pope. “She ain’t gonna hurt no one.”

The Pope grabbed a bottle of whiskey and a glass from a cupboard, and sat back down. He was grinning when Freda walked into the kitchen.

“Have a seat, toots,” he said to her, pouring. “I got some whiskey here, for you.”

Freda hesitated and licked her lips.

“No,” she said, and pulled a revolver from her purse.

“Ha!” The Pope laughed once more. “We should’ve frisked her, after all.”

“At least checked her bag,” I said. “Now you’ve got to ice her, too. The bodies are stacking up.”

Freda looked at me nervously when I said this.

“I gotta gun,” she said, nervously backing into a corner. “I’m not the one getting iced tonight.”

Willard and Buster came into the kitchen. “Wadda we do, boss?”

“Nothin’,” said Nicholas. “For the moment.”

“C’mon, Freda,” The Pope said. “Sit down. We’ll talk. Ever had a hit of this?” He spooned out a teaspoon sized mound of brownish powder onto the table.

“No,” she said.

“It’ll make all your troubles disappear. I’ll fix you up right here.”

“No.” She was sounding frantic now, her eyes darting back and forth.

“Let Willard take care of her,” said Victor Nicholas. He was getting impatient.

“You stay put, Willard,” said The Pope. “We can work this out.”

“The hell you say,” said Victor Nicholas. “I’m not gonna be held hostage by a boozy whore.”

Nicholas got up from his seat, believing all the way that he could control the situation. He held out his hand.

“You’re not going to shoot no one, Freda honey,” he said. “Gimme the gun, sugar.”

“No!”

“C’mon. Word is that that junk The Pope just spooned out for you is some mighty good shit. We’ll help you with it. You can stay over on the couch.”

Freda seemed to be thinking about it. She’d never taken heroin, but she’d been through a lot so far. Maybe a short vacation from it all made sense.

Nicholas recognised the look in her eye, the confusion and the ache. He stepped closer to take the revolver. And she fired.

The bullet hit him in the gut, and he went down. Willard and Buster charged and she got off two shots. Willard went down, but Buster was still standing. There was blood coming from his arm. He pulled his automatic and took a bead on Freda. And I picked up the whiskey bottle and threw it hard. Buster Milk got it in the head and fell to the ground.

The Pope got to his feet, pulling a gun from his shoulder holster. I cracked him one, across the nose and took his weapon.

“You were never good on the attack,” I said to him.

“Jesus, Billy,” he said. “You busted my nose.”

“Just tell us where he is,” I said. “Before the cops get here.”

“The cops get paid not to come here,” The Pope said.

“Good thing,” Freda said, and fired again.

The Pope looked stupid for a moment, standing there with a bleeding nose and a bullet hole in his forehead. Then he fell onto the table and scattered money and dope everywhere.

Freda walked over and shot Buster Milk in the head.

“Just makin’ sure,” she said, suddenly cold. Then she looked at me and pointed the gun. “Sometimes I wonder if you’re on the square, Billy Clyde.”

“Now’s your chance to put an end to your wondering. Pull the trigger.”

“Nah,” she said, and lowered the gun. “You’re square enough for my money.”

*   *   *   *   *   *

They found Chase Henry’s body in the sewer line that runs under Ghetto Road. When the time came, Freda Taps had all the cash she needed to plant him decently. The Pope, in his current condition, wouldn’t miss it. There were flowers, a granite headstone and a hearse. And there was room for everyone in the large, rented chapel. But what made it all seem to work, in the end, was them burying Chase a few plots over from the loan shark Victor Nicholas.

gangster

she is a gangster in an alley, a
public enemy
with her lovers dead around her
and her hot .45
melting a Smith & Wesson hole
into the dark
hear it drip like a glacier
onto the cobble and pool
and when she looks
watch it drink her in
with all of the Gurus and UFOs
the nights that have tapped at her window
Grecian pillars and the subways of man
children on doorsteps
in their eager pose
the power grids of cities and the
Taj Mahal

there are footsteps in the Noir
and rage in the stairwells