From Harris McCoy, The Disillusioned:
He always liked taking car ride to the beach at night. The smell of the ocean and the sound of the surf, the city behind him and a few stars visible overhead. And in front of him, the Pacific stretching to the horizon, a vast nothingness, the future a void, but one that he could fill however he wished. The starlight and sea yielded up a sense of the grace of life (Vidal on Bowles, H. Mathews, 20 Lines a Day).
The ocean at night. The slur of the ocean’s surf, nature’s vast lullaby. Clouds scudded across the moon–a silver crescent winking now and again at Mickey. The susurrus of the waves whispering, lulling his mind to ease, to nothingness, at regular intervals, like a giant sign flashing off and on–like God was advertising the charms of this place to passersby. But God had long ago vacated this spot, Mickey decided.
Mickey stood looking out at the Pacific for quite a long time. Off to his left the tiny lights of the city glittered. After a while the clouds were gone. A few stars were visible overhead.
He thought about the old man…
…He lives nearly alone on a piece of blasted heath at the far end of the country where it makes a final attempt in the form of a jagged rocky island before finally giving way to the Pacific. For years he poured over the Greek and Latin classics as if they were how-to manuals, looking for tips on how to live, intensely live, in twentieth century North America. For him words have secret harmonies and correspondences, a muted music that exercises a hidden tyranny over rational and discursive language. In his journal he writes again and again of Cervantes and Dante, of his quarantined life as being his true, underground story (“art is the apotheosis of solitude,” he notes more than once, “and I, Colum, am perfectly lonely”), of the artist as a knowing Icarus, slyly refusing flight. But more and more he was writing of Cherry, who chose school over him, and of the blue skies and blue ocean he looked out at every day in his Attic vigil (“my Atlantic vigil,” he would joke when in an expansive mood).
This is what happened to such a writer who was, he knew, very nearly at the end of his life. On a summer day he sits outside in the late afternoon sun. He was reading aloud to his dog, an aging Labrador Retriever. There is nothing poetical or exotic about this image of man and dog, the writer knows; in his tiny seaside village in the maritime province of N—-, this little tableau was repeated over and over among the retired fishermen and other pensioners. And although his life is nearly over, there is no atmosphere of death around him, he himself is jovial of mood, expansive of gesture, the dog large and muscular, its coat thick and lustrous (a word which the writer thought overused, especially when talking of the hair of mammals such as young women or pure-bred dogs). Indeed, far from appearing ill, the writer, in the slant of pale afternoon light, looks like a large babyish boy, with his face lit by the knowing flash one finds in an adolescent still innocent but just beginning not to be so (like Doré angel about to be expelled from Heaven, the writer thought while shaving that morning). Sitting in his weather-beaten Adirondack chair, he reads aloud his stories to the dog, pausing to laugh that he had ever written such serious things, things full of earnest love, such as this, about his best friend’s daughter:
Even in our safe, secular society there is a certain kind of person who has the power of those fabled Dostoyevskian men who were granted reprieve from condemnation. Something almost holy surrounds them. At parties, their utterances are gnomic and disturbing. This is how I like to see myself. After a party the guests will remember what I said long after the party, place, and host are forgotten.
Throughout the last decade I worked at my father’s firm. I worked fitfully, deceptively, keeping my caseload shamefully low, and often passed hours at a time in local galleries, or smoking in my office, reading Parisian newspapers and cultural journals. My aspirations to a life higher than the world of getting and spending never quite left me. My work was good, often excellent, but this was mainly because I would throw myself at a project for two or three days straight, eighteen hours a day, then spend the next two or three days recuperating in a bar, in the dense pages of a late-modernist novel, or the supple arms of a promising young artiste seeking local patronage…
At his house for one last visit, this time not as a publisher’s assistant but as his literary executor, she finds in front of her is his final stack of yellowed papers, their scrawled title “Words Written From The Future.” Words, words, words, Hamlet’s reply. His paintings and photographs, his bottles and plates, clutter the little cottage. She can hear, even feel, the ebbing of the tide while standing in this unofficial museum of a broken life. The tide is like a withdrawn apology, its very absence a menace, an assertion that something precious was vouchsafed here once but is now gone somewhere else. The pages rustle in the ocean wind which seeps in through the chinks in the rotting walls. Is it a whispered message? An apologia pro vita sua? Yes, she thinks. Yes, Colum Aloysius O’Faolain, just plain Colum to the local women, the unknown author. He was, he is, abandoned in this deserted house. Outside, the limitless sky, the sere lawn, the fractured toy windmills weathering away. Such irony, such sadness. But greatness too here in this shack by the sea, its homeless statuary of tilting knights now themselves home to seagulls who fall unremarked from the sky. Fall to this lonely place high above the earth. This old master. Is he one of many? About suffering they were never wrong. At least there’s that. There’s always that.
At night the dread comes. It gets right in bed with me. In my bed-perspiration baths. Night fevers. Throw off the sheets. Clammy nocturnal sweats follow. Nausea jolts. Flash bulb pops of family history. Unexplained genital twitches and contractions. Obsecene snapshots of loved ones. Nightmare cartoons. Jolting awake ’cause I’m about to hit the oncoming sidewalk. All in all, maximum bile. An ongoing mind haemorrage. A kind of mental menstruation. As if your body was merely an extension of your mind and was just leaking away. The three a.m. snap, crackle and pop of the soul.
Intimations of the great unnameable.
Naming the unnameable. That’s Their business here. (Of course there’s a They. Let’s get clear on that right now).
Wash away my sins, O Lord, as Pops would say.
Other people. Other people pass from strength to strength. And so I pass from sickness to sickness.
Why look for answers? For clues?
During this period he exchanged a few words with the bar keepers who gave him his drinks, made phone calls to New Hampshire to his brother, all to piece together his last few years. Near the end months pass in a slow agony, and he destroys one work, then two, three, more. He seeks only to abandon himself absolutely to the thrilling disaster of his poetic impulse. From works of a hundred pages he selects only three or four paragraphs. He wants only the best of his work available, later he will arrange these scraps in a coherent narrative, or at least the narrative that his own life took. Only the best, yes. He trusts his instincts absolutely; he never doubts that an ideal course has been prepared, Parnassus awaiting patiently. Living alone now, he sees that his intuitions are clues, like his visions in early childhood, are confirmations of his goal, his art of total destiny, of massive secular revelation. And of what he called the little movements of the heart. He loses weight, renounces his creditors, friends, enemies, enthrals the local population with this show of inspired artistic savagery. On his island rock he shores his fragments against the ruin (“ruining my fragments against the shore,” he jokes in a bar). The hunger artist, she thinks.
“You think his stuff is like Mailer’s? To dare a new art of the brave?” The publisher’s hand on her thigh, again. “No, not quite.” Is it worth this, to get them published? He wrote only for himself, his only necessity to satisfy himself. Shouldn’t I leave his imagination alone, leave him alone, let the dead words bury the dead man?
“I was thinking of structure. That I-we-could rearrange his stuff. Shuffle it up. You know, like William S. Burroughs. What Allen Ginsberg did for Naked Lunch. Put all the scraps and stories into one big story. A novel.” As he was saying this he deftly reseated himself on my side of the booth. “But I don’t like his morals… his way of seeing things. Like we’re all predetermined. By the things around us, except if you happen to be an artist.”
“Well, you’re hardly his ideal reader; you’re…” I felt his fingers rub along my thigh.
“So who is your sort of reader?”
“My ideal reader is the person who begs, borrows or steals all the other copies of the book just so that no one else can read it.”
“Cherry, do you mean that, um, metaphorically?”
…Later, in the little cottage, she finds what must be his last story, the pages neatly stacked in front of the typewriter. Only the title is written in longhand, as if an afterthought. Original Sin: Largely a Personal History. She begins to read:
She has been through interviews with newspaper reporters who bought him lunch, with the vanity press publisher who put out his chapbooks, 11:45, Saturday Night IN A BAR
You and me, we’re in a bar… The place is called The Last Dance. I’m ignoring you, as usual; I’m looking into the mirror behind the bartender, as usual; everyone else is watching TV, as ususal; someone is spreading lies about me, as usual… Images flicker all around me: across from me, the defiled mirror; above me, the looming bulk of the TV, its channels comprising tonight’s unknown gods… each has its own peculiar beauty. Beauty is the mother of terror-just as my own mother was the mother of a quite literal terror…
The female voices are husky and hungry in the smoky air, push-up bras and their teenage owners crowd against me, but I seek only the gleaming solace of the bar rail. Ice clinks merrily against my glass. A young woman’s breath is hot on my neck, and not altogether unwelcome. I throw my shot of Scotch against the back of my throat. And throw some more again. Faces resolve themselves out of the general confusion around me. The music drifts by me, by us, my new-found friends, and in a while we drift with it. Young women surround us-the click of their heels, the flash of their teeth, the switch of their hips: these motions of sex. Of her.
Behind us some drunk is asking someone about their mother. Specifically, what he’s proposing is how long it would take you, if you and your mother were the last two people on earth, to get together in the sack to start the human race anew. Would you need to be roaring drunk? Would you need much convincing? Or indeed would you need any convincing? Would you jump at the ocassion? Would such a thing even be wrong? You know what those old guys who go to jail for fucking their grand-daughters say? They say, Its society’s crime, not mine. So if you and your mom were all there was of society, would it even be a crime? The slob went on in this vein for some time. I mean, the guy was actually half-way articulate.
Somebody tapped me on the shoulder.
“Hey buddy, that guy’s been talking right at you for the last twenty minutes.”
“Yeah. He’s been looking right at you. Like he knows you.”
I turned around. Some fat clown in a rumpled business suit with big fat tits spilling out was staring right at me. He hoisted his beer mug at me and chugged it down, spilling half of it on him, thereby further enhancing his androgyne attributes, and then burped and winked. He seemed to fade out for a second, then motioned me over. I turned around and he continued the moral-psychological-biological implications of his doomsday scenario.
Much later I would still remember the images on the TV screen, a riot somewhere in Florida, the sunlight murder of the fat cop. The murder, the blood, the camera focusing on the dying man, zooming in, not letting go, and me not letting go either. Neither would you. That dying man consuming me, us, the living. The dying fat man flailing around, shitting and pissing, the snickers from the bar crowd, laughter in the dark if I ever heard it. Outright thigh-slapping from you, only a tired snicker from me. That’s us-the real cool killers. And up above us, suspended in its black corner, ah yes, there’s TV, Channel Zero, telling the old story, telling and retelling it in glib end-of-the millenium technology: the living and the dead, our won dead. And most of all the famous dead. The celebrity dead. And the murder. Always a murder.
I’m out of money; I know you won’t give me any, so I’m going now, stepping out into the evening land. Out into the dark, the night, the stars, with the hint of sex in the summer air-sex, that perfect solitude for two. Or for one, in my case. Cherry-O was sticking fast to her ongoing resolution to ever see me or speak to me, ever again.
But it’s time to go. I grin, I leer, I frown at the mirror. I snake flicker my tongue, cunnilingus-style. A murder, a mirror. Behind them there is no consciousness, no conscience.
The fat she-male keeps doing the police in different voices.
Here I go. Let me tell you something: its getting close to closing time. Its later than you think. Out into the sex-infected night. The smell of the tomcat in the night. (I’m a bit of an olfactory type). Sex: that’s what I want, but friend, trying to get any, when you’re in my condition, when you’re really fucked-up, when you’re wearing a sandwich-board sign that says you’re a piece of shit, well now, now that can be murder.
Let me tell you what I mean. Here we go…
Mickey picked up the gun. He looked at it first from a purely functional viewpoint, as an instrument of killing. Then he began to consider it not as a tool, but as an aesthetic object in its own right, as a thing of rare and inordinate beauty. [Logue, p. 124]
Tall-limbed Tristan snugly readjusted his crotch-nestled gun.
Tristan pulled his Dad’s gun out of the holster. He flipped it open, looked at the chambers, flipped it shut.
The way I always remember him is the way he looked just before he died. That look on his face, that was the first time I knew who he really was-a kind of oracle, a prophet for what was to happen, what he knew had to happen, given what he’d found out about the past.
I spotted him sitting atop a stainless steel garbage can at the end of the alley, curiously immaculate in his white suit. All money-dignity and pimp-glamour. How could he stay so clean in this dump?
He shrugged and sighed, turning his battered head towards me. His hollow eye sockets afforded me no glimpse of his eyes, that famous and false gateway to the soul. All I could see was a sinister white figure, complete with shiny spats and a snap brim fedora with black band, and flecked throughout with gold-gold cuff links, tie pin, watchband.
I stepped closer. Now I could see his face in the yellow light which pulsed and buzzed out of a failing streetlamp behind me. His glazed eyes slowly focused on a point over my head.
“Hey, it looks like you’ve got a halo. Saint Tristan. Ha ha ha.” He hawked at my feet.
“It’s time, Bunny.”
“Time? Time….you want the time? Look at this-brand new two K Rolex.”
“You’re running down.”
“What? No man, this thing’s fine. Right up to the minute.”
“Not the watch. You.” A vision of Cherry, dead Cherry, corpse-yellow with a dirty needle stuck in her arm, flitted before my eyes. And after all the work I’d put into her. Love’s labor lost…. For if I hadn’t exactly recreated Cherry in my image, I had recreated her according to my own set of favoured images: pouty Marilyn for spring, a young Jane Mansfield for summer…
“Hey, don’t get pissed with me, friend. Let’s just do our business. Now let’s see the money.”
“Yeah, it’s payoff time, Bunny. Oh, sorry. Saint Bunny, the holier-than-thou patron of dealers.”
From inside the front of my trousers I pulled out my piece, slow, like some second and greater genital, so he would know exactly what was coming.
“Tristan, wait. About Cherry, she…” Now this I knew I definitely didn’t want to hear. With the deceptive elan I am know for my left hand flicked out my switchblade and put a nice little slash, cholo-style, not too deep, across his smooth, shaved-twice-a-day throat. To make him think I was crazy-and I really need to make an effort?-with my right hand I pointed the gun at my own temple and whispered “Boom.” Then I intoned “Ye shall wash in the blood of the Lamb.” Then, sotto-voice, “Dinner time, mutton lamb chop.”
“Wait. Cherry, she, is-.” He started choking on his blood. A big swallow. “She is…” Cherry was who this little transaction was all about. Bad skag sold under Judas’ aegis meant that I would
never hear her big slow dreamy fuck-me voice again, at least in this lifetime.
He gurgled, I giggled. A few more attempts at speech, then I realized he really was going to get his poisonous tongue working again if I let him.
“I don’t need to hear it. In fact, I don’t want to hear it. But I most assuredly do want to hear this.” I unscrewed the silencer from the gun that I had levelled at his head. He swallowed hard.
This seemed to help get the words out.
“I didn’t know who she was, and neither do you. You’ve got to hear this. Cherri-O, she, she was really your-”
I crooned to him, “Do you like the nightlife, baby?” Another slice at the throat. His savage’s face melted into a tragedian’s mask of fear.
“Wait.” He was begging now. Now he was really scared. “Just give me the time to tell you…” But he was out of time. I aimed-so close I really didn’t need to-I grinned, I pulled the trigger. A big fucking noise errupted in that lonesome alley. Time’s up, Judas. His front looked like a buther’s apron. Even so, he still had that irritating sort of faux corpse-gravitas all dead bodies seem to exude.
I couldn’t resist dropping the change from my pockets on his bent figure: Detective First Class Ambrose Judas, like his namesake, justly rewarded for his betrayal.
In death his face had finally lost the look of fear it had worn just seconds before. Now he looked smug, even arrogant, as if he knew something I didn’t. I lit a cigarette, smoked it down, and lit another. And then I kicked that look off his face; an intellectual’s face, even with an oozing hole in the forehead. (I’m embarrased to admit this, but I actually kicked his face about twenty times, until I was winded).
Catching my breath, I stared at him in a kind of reverie-i.e., no more deaths from bad horse, Cherry-O revenged, etc.-until the smell of the shit and piss from his body brought me back to where I was. My cells and atoms were thirsty and shuddering. I swigged from my hip-flask ten bucks worth of single-malt scotch.
A swarm of flies had materialized, mallorying around his head. One flew into my panting mouth. I swallowed it. I giggled some more-I was like some African tribesman, eating the dead man’s brains for his courage.
Then I stuffed his body into the white-painted garbage can-an obvious and welcome sepulchre here in this elemental Amercian landscape, the dead-end alley.
A howling dog at the alley’s far end provided the valediction.
Twnety yards away Cherry was hypnotized, by the violence. All she could see was that scene from the past, from her childhood. It was if she had been hypnotized her whole life, drugged, mesmerized by the force and spectacle of murder.
Her face showed a pleasure of which she was unaware.
A Man Is Murdered
When I came out he was gone. I dressed quickly in last night’s clothes and stepped out into the hall. It was empty except for a Philipinna.
“Hey,” I asked her, “did a guy just come out of here and go by you?”
She looked back at me from the corner of the wall and opened her blubbery mouth to answer. She was a grotesque looking thing about as wide as she was tall with obscenely large breasts. I remember those breasts perfectly, because I was looking at them when I heard the shot. [description from R. Condon, Winter Kills]
We both recognized the sound for what it was-any Los Angeleno would familiar with the downtown would. She fingered her rosary beads. I ran past her down the hall.
Bunny lay on his face. His arms were spread out, his legs neatly together-his last act was an unknowing parody of Christ. A pool of thick dark blood was congealing on the pavement beside his head. [Bukowski-crucifix in a deathhand]
The maid looked down at him and began chattering in —–. [The Tesseract] at me with a queer, strained expression. I looked around and sat down on my haunches. [Busch the girls] A small crowd of kids on their way to school and some Asian nannies with their strollers formed a circle around me and the whimpering maid. After a while a uniformed cop and a plaincothes cop pulled up in a squad car. The uniformed cop shoved his way in front of us and asked if anyone knew him.
In a few minutes someone in the crowd was going to flash on the fact that the corpse before them was Bunny Echo’s-missing most of his face or not. I drifted away and went back to my apartment. Bunny had scrawled a note on a piece of paper by my telephone: “Changed my mind. No point in getting you mixed up in this. I’m going up north to find Cherry.”
Mickey and The Old Man
I figured it was time to go the office and report in. When I got there the Old Man was reading my report. [description of cigarette smoking from “Ads”]
The Old Man-his rheumy eyes and his air of a perpetual hangover, his head slightly tilted to the left, as if taking counsel from some higher, unseen power.
“Ah, Tristan, I’m reading your report.”
Skinner pulled a bottle of whiskey from his desk. He poured a shot for me, then rubbed his head as if making the worst decision of his life. His face suggested something to me of a steel trap, about to snap. Then he smiled broadly, the trap quickly dissolving into the network of lines and wrinkles which covered his sunburnt features. He winked one of his blue eyes at me and poured one for himself. He toasted me, raised the glass to his lips, then put it down, reached back into the desk and drank some Pepto-Bismo. His mouth had a pleasant pink froth at the corners. Like a rabid Easter Bunny, I thought. A cartoon version of the leering moose head mounted on the wall behind him.
“Brains in a vat receiving electrical impulses. Stimuli which delude them into thinking they enjoy unfettered free will.”
“Brains in a vat. Microchips in a vast motherboard. That’s what most people might as well be, considering the minimal amount of self-knowledge they manifest.”
“Uh-huh.” It was best to be non-commital about things like this with the Old Man.
He looked at me, stone-faced.
“Or talking monkeys. Maybe we’re all just talking monkeys. Obviously some of us are more eloquent than others.”
“History is a shout in the street, Tristan.”
I looked out the window. Nothing going on out there. I looked into my glass. Curses! Empty.
He regarded me for another moment, then poured me another.
“Metaphysics is in the streets. Nietzsche said that, I can’t remember where.” He licked away the pink froth with his even pinker tongue, and threw back his drink. That probing tongue, those pink lips and suspiciously white teeth put me in mind of Cherry, somehow, but I put the kibosh on that thought very quick.
“A choice between empty behavioralism or the rather depressing heritage of Darwin. It’s not much, is it, Tristan?”
“No, it surely ain’t. It’s what my Mama called a devil’s choice.”
“Indeed. But how else are people to account for what they do? How do men such as you and me explain what the great horde of the unwashed get up to on their Saturday nights?”
The Old Man with his rheumy eyes and air of a perpetual hangover, his head tilted as if taking counsel from some higher, unseen power.
Jack Kane at Work
It was Easter and Jack Kane was musing over the mysteries of death and resurrection. More accurately, Jack was pondering the poetics of murder and the likelihood of resurrection. He was nestled in his captain’s chair in his oak-paneled office. The office was like a second home to him. With its shower and small bedroom, plus waiting room and secretarial area, it occupied the entire penthouse floor of a restored Art Deco building on Sunset.
Jack Kane was about 60 years old, with a shock of silver hair and face his first wife described as “not just a poker face but a seven-card stud one.”
Kane’s manner is affably rough-hewn, in that way Texans have–a friendly smile, a quick handshake, and a look in the eyes that belies a general distrust of men who make their living at desks.
He was talking on an untraceable satellite phone, having paid a nice sum to some Chinese college geeks to set the apparatus up. He asked if Hobbs had “closed the deal.” If he had “secured the merchandise”. If there had been any “wet work.” By now Hobbs was used to Kane’s Hollywood-derived euphemisms, and he had long since stopped pointing out that anyone listening in — anyone– could figure out just what Kane was up to.
Still, Kane’s mania for absolute secrecy, even tempered with a streak of absurdist charm, struck Hobbs as paranoid. CIA, FBI, anyone else listening in would have absolutely no interest in Kane’s underworld dealings: they were strictly small-time stuff.
The Book of the Dead
But was all of this because of a book? Had everything that happened in the last 30 years been predetermined by the contents of this book? A book that almost no one had read? It was too much to be believed. And yet . . . what other explanation was there?
Judged in this way, it seemed less a book and more a totem or talisman, something that could damn a man, destroy a family, change a country’s history. He picked the book up in his hands and felt its weight.
He flipped through the pages, seeing the words flip by too fast for them to form a meaning in his mind. Suddenly an idea occurred to him. One that could perhaps explain the book’s apparent power. He knew he’d need help with this. He reached for the phone.
[Mickey contacts professor for help in breaking the code]
Arthur Grayle was a professor of humanities at the University of Chicago: he was currently serving a term on the prestigious Committee of Social Thought. His specialty – in fact, what he really lived for – was something he called esoteric modes of reading. He’d learned the arts of reading ancient texts to glean their hidden wisdom from the likes of Leo Strauss. [see Ravelstein and The Athenian Murders].
By now Henderson knew the labyrinth as well as it knew him. You see, the trick to coming to terms with it was accepting that it was a living thing, capable of deception and malice, yet also prone to forgetfulness and mistakes. It was like the fox and the hedgehog—the fox knows many little things, the hedgehog one big thing. Generally Henderson was the fox: he’d charted little pathways and burrowed little cross-cuts; the labyrinth was the hedgehog, knowing only that Henderson was trapped, and must stay that way. After 10 years, Henderson was feeling that maybe it was time to change roles, to become the hedgehog: time to kill the labyrinth.
The House of The Dead
Tippet and Mother slammed the patrol car’s doors. Each man pulled on his hat and straightened his nightstick. Mother asked if Tippet has remembered his flashlight. He hadn’t.
“That’s the third shift in a row you’ve forgotten some gear, Tip.”
“But your wife only gave it back last night. It was covered in thrush. Like my dick. So I threw it away.”
“Really? You threw away your dick? So how’s your poodle brush his teeth, Tip?”
“Fuck you, Mother.”
Without speaking any further to each other the two men set out into the night.
They walked past a variety of warehouses, vacant lots, abandoned stores. At the end of the first block a Mexican bar sent a little music out into the night.
“Fucking taco benders, huh, Mother?”
“Too true, Tip, too true.”
They walked on. Two and three story warehouses lined both sides of the street. Trash spilled out of the garbage cans at every corner. A dog barked from time to time, half-heartedly testing the night air for signs of life. The neon of a 24-hour gas station fizzed and hummed. Faded For Rent signs decorated the first floor windows.
After a couple of blocks the streetlights were dead, broken or shot-out. Not that the city cared – no one had any legal reason to be here after business hours. They walked on, past bankrupt stores and failed restaurants. Only the odd auto repair shop or check cashing place showed signs of recent activity. Mostly they walked past boarded–up doors and plate-glass windows papered over with yellowed newsprint. Dirty brick and barred windows; gaudy neon and Dixie cups—the signs and surfaces of success and failure in a port city. You would only notice these things on foot, never from your patrol car. Such was Mother’s reasoning.
From time to time a rodent would dart past in front of the two men. Once, down the street to their right, a woman cried for help. Tippet took a step in her direction and started to speak but Mother simply shook his head “No.” They walked on.
A siren came from the southeast, grew louder, then faded.
They walked a couple of more blocks and Mother got out his flashlight and started checking addresses. Number 23 was a three-storey house, a hold out in a commercial neighborhood, the last of its kind.
“This is it.”
“It’s about fuckin’ time, Mother. Christ, why didn’t we just drive here?”
“To retain the element of surprise, Tip. What’d you think we were doing?”
“I think we were trying to help a fat fuck like you lose weight, is what I think.”
“Truly discerning, Tip.”
“Thanks.” Tippet then hawked from deep in his throat and spat onto the sidewalk. Mother turned his flashlight on it.
“Chili. Take-out. From Fitzie’s. ‘Bout two hours old.”
Tippet burped. “Right. As per. Let’s go.”
They turned up the house’s front walk. The lawn’s waist-high grass chirped with crickets. Foot-high weeds poked through the broken concrete slabs.
Tippet and Mother stepped up to the front porch which groaned under their weight. Tippet burped.
“Christ. Draft beer, probably an hour before duty.”
Tippet burped again. “More than half an hour, Mother.”
Mother clicked the flashlight off and holstered it. Both men drew their weapons. Tippet nodded at Mother who then tried the door. Locked.
Tippet stepped away from the door. The two men looked at one another for a moment. Mother shrugged and as Tippet whispered “Three, two, one” Mother stepped forward fast with what Tipped would later describe to the L.A. County Coroner was “something like ya’d see at the circus” Mother, with the odd grace of a bear on a tightrope grunted and the door and its frame gave under his weight. He staggered into the hall and through a haze of sawdust Tippet saw a shadowed shape fall onto Mother’s shoulders.
Tippet made the split-second decision to discharge his weapon for the fourteenth time in the line of duty. Mother fell to the floor and swore first softly and then loudly.
“Fuck, Tip. You dumb fuckin idiot.”
Tippet burped again and after a while he asked in a voice that would make an eavesdropper on this little tableau think Tippet was politely inquiring after a stranger’s health, “You’re still alive then, Mother?”
“You just shot a cat, Tippet.”
Mother pulled out his flashlight and shone it on Tippet’s face, which was splotched with patches of dark liquid. They shone like blobs of motor oil on Tippet’s pasty face.
“This place reeks of cat piss, Mother. Unless you pissed yourself in all the shootin’.”
“Actually, Tip, I think what you’re smelling is not cat piss but cat sperm.”
Tippet looked over to where Mother was pointing his flashlight. A pile of fur sat smoking at the foot of the stairs. It looked like someone had tried to remove the tom cat’s hindquarters with garden shears. The tail and back legs were completely gone and bits of intestine spilled out in pale pink coils in the faint illumination afforded by the flash light.
“Aw, whadda preddy liddle puddycat!”
“You’re doing all the paperwork on this one, Tip.” Mother sighed and got to his feet. “What a fucking mess.”
“All in a day’s work, partner.”
“Let’s see what’s upstairs.” Mother started up the steps to the second floor. “And put away your gun, for fuck’s sake.”
Tippet chuckled. “You must sleep easy at night, Mother, knowing I got your back the way I do.”
Mother continued up the stairs and without turning around gave Tippet the finger. Tippet smirked but holstered his gun all the same.
Mother got to the top of the landing and stopped. He held his hand up and in the gloom Tippet stopped in mid-step.
Mother took another step and a high-backed tom ran hissing past him and down the stairs. Tippet brought his foot down and was pretty sure he’d caught the cat’s tail when something raked his shin. “Fuck! Fuck me fucking purple. Oh, that little fucker.” Mother, let’s get the—“
“For fuck’s sake, Tip, put your gun away and get the fuck up here.”
“Christ, Mother, I’m bleeding.”
“Fuck, Mother.” Tippet pulled up his pants leg and looked at the four long scratches running down his left leg. “Motherfucker! I’ve been fucking wounded in the line of fucking duty.”
“Put it in the report, Tip. I’ll recommend you for a citation myself. Now get the fuck up here.”
“Mother, let’s go get something to eat. This is bullshit here.”
“Tip, let’s go to emergency and get you some rabies needles. Now get the fuck up here now.”
Mother moved the flashlight’s beam up to Tippet’s face.
“You crying, Tip? You in pain?”
“Okay, okay. You win. Let’s go.” Tippet smoothed his pants leg down and walked up the rest of the stairs to where Mother was standing. Mother smiled and Tippet yawned back at him. “What now, boss?”
Mother pointed down the hallway to a closed door about fifteen feet away. Tippet grabbed for the flashlight from Mother’s hand and Mother yanked it back. “Fuck, Mother, let me—”
The sound of shotgun shells being ratcheted into their chambers stopped both men cold.
Harry In A Wet Season
Harry stared at the polished oak bar and tapped his highball glass up and down against the worn wood. It was Sunday, late afternoon. Wintertime in Los Angeles. The writer Harry Elder is already half-drunk and trying hard to block out the uncaring and intricate world around him. This time of day is a rare and sacred time for Harry—he’s just finished his fifth scotch of the day. Actually, any time Harry’s awake any drinking scotch is a sacred time for Harry, because he’s living on borrowed time and he knows it. But right now he’s busy blanking his mind from the remorse that being Harry Elder entails—his unforgettable, unforegiven sins against family and friends, the love withheld, the good not done, the time spent anaesthetizing himself from the world at large, the world to come.
Contemplating his sixth scotch, Harry stares into the bottom of his highball glass. He looks like a man examining tea leaves for signs of hope. His suspicions are confirmed—no portents there. It’s a bad time.
With a slow tragic shrug Harry places it upside down on a napkin and lines it up with its four companions. At certain times Harry feels compelled to measure out his life with shot glasses, highball tumblers, whatever’s at hand. He tells Carl the bartender to bring him another scotch. In the prison of his days
Without a drink in his hand Harry becomes aware of his surroundings. He hears the tinkle of ice on glass, muted conversations and light laughter. Occasional bars of music float to his ears—right now it’s Coltrane, mournfully moving his way through “Greensleeves.”
Harry Elder: Thirty years ago he was a bright young novelist, eager and full of promise, or at least it looked that way on the page. A first book about the Korean war—his war, the real war, the one that didn’t make it into the history books. But it did make it into Harry’s book, according to the critics. Predictably, “young Elder” was the name they’d pinned on him. Great things were expected. But the second book never came. Hollywood had intervened. That was thirty years ago. Harry vaguely recalled the verse, if it could be called that, from a book of poetry he’d published when he was just 22 years old, two years before his big book. When he still believed in Art, the great undogmatized church.
Ten years after that—was it really twenty years ago, Harry wondered!—the promise was gone and so was his wife, his children, his money. All gone, and—worst of all, Harry hated to admit the truth of this—worst of all was parting with his editor. In a matter of months Harry found himself cut loose from his world.
So it was that twenty years ago on a Tuesday afternoon Harry walked into a bar and headed directly to an empty table which sat beckoning by a big window through which golden light poured, light like liquor, warm and caressing. It was like he’d been given the keys to the palace. It was twenty years ago that Harry entered that now-mythic bar, and he’s been sitting there ever since.
Right now Harry’s sitting in a shabby little place called The Last Dance. An authentic Hollywood dive. Little bits of gossip from second-tier companies wafted around the place—murmurs of movie talk, who’s fucking who, that kind of thing. Legends of another era smiled down from the walls. Minor celebrities from last year, last month, last week sat in the fashionable section, by the windows: ghosts in the making. And surrounding everyone there hummed a constant white noise: little whispers of career annihilation.
The air carried the smells of expensive liquor and cheap fried food. Sometimes expensive French perfume, and real Italian cologne lent a hint of fashionable slumming to the place, but not this afternoon. On Sunday it was only the hardcore drinkers and dead souls—a fair sampling of the Los Angeles’ lost and lonesome.
Harry’s dreading the start of another week. To write for a living is to make your life into a perpetual echo of what should have been. And this bar has become my echo chamber, Harry thinks, an exercise in solitude. Harry’s technique was this—write something, anything, that paid money. Usually it was a profile for some kind of men’s magazine, something about hunting or guns or alcohol or cigars, and then live off the resulting $10,000 for as long as he could. He owned his own place, and this alcohol as his single biggest expense. Whisky for him was a way of arranging the world so he didn’t have to experience it.
But once upon a time Harry was a novelist and screenwriter who’d come to Hollywood a quarter of a century before. Come to work in the movies—the great enemy of promise for all young American writers who hit it big with their first novel. Bud Schulberg—a friend of Harry’s dad—had given it to Harry straight, and thirty years later he could still see Schulberg’s face framed in a nimbus of cigar smoke. And just by looking into a spot somewhere beyond the bar’s mirror, he could still hear Bud’s raspy-throated advice: “Look what happened to Scottie Fitzgerald. Stay out of the bars and do your work and go home. Harry, just take the money and run. Avoid making friends with actors—it’s was a waste of time, they can’t help you. Don’t marry an actress. And never trust a producer—any producer. Low expectations, Harry. Go in with low expectations and you’ll leave with a pile of money and no regrets.” So—take their money, do your job, stay out of the bars. According to Bud’s advice, Harry’s a three-time Hollywood loser. Money wasted on houses and holidays, cars and women. Taking easy assignments for easy money. He’d done a thousand things wrong. Mainly, though, he’d simply failed to stay out of the bars. Bud had told him straight, all right. But Harry’d gone the other way—become a minor celebrity himself, married an actress, and directed a couple of flops, one theatrical, one cinematic. Journalism became his main source of income, had been for 20 years. And now that had dried up too. But then he had always been a poor man with money.
Carl puts Harry’s sixth scotch in front of him. With a burning gulp and a merry little tinkle of ice Harry tosses it right back.
After five or six drinks Harry always took stock of his life: Sixty-three years old. No prospects in sight, except the final one. And while faith in the Hollywood happy ending was the seventh sacrament in America’s national religion, Harry had to admit that he was at best an apostate.
Harry yawns, but not from the liquor. Thoughts of death always make Harry tired. And Christ was he tired, even though he sleeps late and wakes only to the sounds of the restaurant below his window when it fills up with the lunchtime crowd. But when he wakes he’s awash with cosmic doubts that he tries mask by seeking some measure of beauty and grace in his world of house, bar, and From darkness at noon to death in the afternoon, is Harry’s wry reflection on his daily life.
Waiting for his next scotch while Carl the bartender polishes glasses and pretends not to see him. Harry starts staring at himself in the mirror—this arid self-interrogation is another old habit of Harry’s, one he’s perfected into a kind of ritual.
In spite of his current state of affairs, Harry realizes he is grinning at himself. He’s always liked looking into mirrors in bars—he’d discovered early on that they were windows into a gilded world where everyone looks a bit softer, smiles a bit longer. We see but through a fly-specked glass, darkly, Harry thinks.
[Where has tenderness gone? he asked the mirror …
…Of the Martini Shot
Can my reflection lean against the glass
Too, wondering where I have gone, into what horror?
Is that it staring at me now with terror
Behind your frail tilted barrier? Tenderness
Was here, in this very bedroom, in this
Place, its form seen, cries heard, by you. What error
Is here? Am I that rashed image?
Is this the ghost of the love you reflected?
Now with a foreground of bottles…
…it was like El Greco gone mad. No, l’Il tell you what it was like. It was as though a moving picture had been projected onto a Greco instead of onto a screen. There was this fixed, timeless, haunted background, but this was not part of what was going on. This was only the relief against which it could be seen, the means by which it became visible.]
On the edge of his vision an unfocused blur passed by Harry and mirror-Harry. He looked down. Carl had just placed a glass of ice water in front of him, a standing chill Harry put it against his forehead and closed his eyes. A gesture thirty years in the making.
Suddenly a hand clapped him on his shoulder. Before Harry look back to the mirror to see who it was—a free drink, perhaps?—a tremor passed through him. Harry felt that old haunted feeling again. The sense that his life was on a string. Was being pulled tighter, too taut to last much longer.
In the mirror all he could make out was a dark shadow—a face without substance. The hand clapped him again. He was afraid he’d turn around to see another has-been hack. Maybe another friend long-released from the studios. He swiveled on his stool, prepared for the worst.
Instead he was presented with a new face. One he’d never seen before, or remembered seeing before. Not one from the Last Dance or any of the production companies.
“Mr. Elder, I’ve been looking for you for about ten goddamn years.”
It was the guy in the photos the cops had shown to him.
(John Crowley, Novelty, p. 207)
His new friend was about his own height, six feet, with strong clear blue eyes and a nose that had been broken about three or four times.
“Yeah, I’m a huge admirer of your work. I mean, I’ve read all of it, all of it. Your journalism, everything.”
Harry nursed his drink, waiting for the man to leave or buy him one.
He smiled crookedly and said his name was Albert Schweitzer. “No kidding, Mr. Elder. Yeah, my Mom loved that guy. Wanted me to grow up to be a missionary in Africa. And that’s why all my friends call me the Good Samaritan.” The cops told Harry the guy’s name was Anton Drexler.
Schweitzer-Drexler said he was a producer of schlock films that always generated huge returns on investment. The cops had told Harry this guy was mob-connected bag man trying to launder money by using the film business as a front. Seeing the guy in person, Harry had a hard time believing that—he looked more like .
Schweitzer said that he wanted Elder’s help writing a docudrama, something about the Koreas. And Jack Kenneaway was to be the producer.
Harry brightened. “If it’s Kenneaway then I guess we’re talking about an advance.”
“Well, you know how things are. The business ain’t what it used to be.”
“You mean Kenneaway hasn’t even heard about this yet. You’re just gonna pitch him.” Schweitzer sighed. He pulled out an envelope and dropped it in front of Harry. “Here’s a ten grand. Your retainer. Get sober and call me Tuesday morning.”
Harry watched Schweitzer leave. He opened the envelope. It was ten grand all right.
Ten thousand in cash, just handed to him. Without even a perfunctory contract. Not even a handshake. Harry was getting that old hinky feeling again.
He tried to shake it off with a couple of quick scotches he begged Carl to give him.
When those failed Harry looked over several of his fellow drinkers, trying to imagine their pasts, their possible futures. Harry does when drunk—enmeshing himself in the nightmare lives of other people… blah, blah, blah.this he feels read it feel like and hitting the wall—with my head.
life can take so long to climbClear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;But at the total emptiness for ever…
And then, a phrase in Harry’s head began to repeat itself in Harry’s head. Marlow’s words, from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, echoed over and over in his mind: it was written I should be loyal to the nightmare of my choice.
Man’s fate—drunk and stumbling through the delirium of the city in the prison of their days. So much for the denizens of The Martini Shot.
The sky is starting to clear and the streets have that wet sheen that shows you the shimmering reflection of buildings and clouds and for a few minutes at least the city doesn’t smell of exhaust fumes and dust.
Across the street from you the school’s lunch bell rings and in a moment the students exit the building, most of them running with lunch bags and knapsacks and basketballs to the school’s field. In the clean air their shouts come back to you fresh and crisp, bringing with them a sudden recollection of your own grade school days, when after-school afternoons seemed to last right up to when with a child’s sigh of pleasure you laid your head on the soft pillow in your bed at the onset of the cool summer night.
The bounce and echo of four or five basketballs being dribbled at once cancels your reverie like a TV set going dead when the electricity suddenly cuts out and once again you remember why you are here. The bounce and ping of basketballs now sound the terrible arrhythmia of the city’s diseased heart. And isn’t that how Dexter explained it to you, that this was simply a kind of euthanasia for a dying animal?
You mind clears and you are yourself again. A part of your mind whispers that Dexter told you to park the car and leave it by the school. Without having to think you pull to the curb and park the car. You step out and shut the door. For the thousandth time today the voice whispers again. The locking mechanism on the key fob activates an improvised timer you took from a two-dollar digital wristwatch and after the door is locked you know you will have exactly ten seconds to escape the three blocks of the blast radius. Automatically you have already begun the count-down. Automatically you have locked the car without even having to tell yourself to do it and so you smile secretly to yourself.
You notice that you are already running. People stop and turn and watch you sprint past. Then there is a flash of light that bleaches everything cleaner than the rain ever could and after what seems a very long time a loud sound pops past your ears and into your head. Bits of the BMW blow past you and you swallow hard so your ears pop again and people start to shout and then scream and you know you have done well. Dexter will be pleased.
Dexter will be pleased with the twenty-two students blown into and through the hurricane fence that encircles the playground. Dexter will be pleased with the arms and legs blown off, with the faces wiped clean of all human meaning, all human form. Dexter will be pleased with the massive school windows blown in on a packed cafeteria, pleased with the crushed skulls, with the children and adults bleeding to death in minutes. The numbness of shock and the stink of viscera. The blasted cement and the uprooted trees and the cloyingly sweet metallic smell of blood that you notice when you return to the bomb site two minutes after the blast—Dexter will be pleased by all of it.
But most of all Dexter will be pleased by the dead. By their names and ages and manners of death. Janitors and teachers, parents and children, innocents and passersby: everyone is equal in this brave new republic of death.
Which is the point.
To quote Dexter.
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