No Prizes for Subtlety

It was the sort of place you wouldn’t be found dead in; the guy on the floor didn’t agree. Didn’t seem to like the floor — but it was in better shape than his face. Then someone had gone duck hunting on his chest.

And either another guy was standing in front of me, or the landlord had put in an echo.

I’m not crazy about waking up with strangers, especially baritones, but he held the gun, a big one, and I didn’t want him to stop talking.

I wanted him to start. He’d been mumbling something as I came to, now he just kept looking at me and waiting, like a guy feeding arsenic to a rich aunt.

Wasn’t sure how I got there and often use my brain like a prescription, once every 4 to 6 hours, but I figured this fast, and stood pat. Forcing the issue woulda been like tryna win the Kentucky Derby on a pogo stick.

I didn’t seem to have my gun.

‘She gave me $5,000 to take care of this guy,’ he said.

I wanted to say this might be a growth area for him.

‘That’s too much dough unless it’s murder,’ I said, instead. ‘And if it is murder, it’s not enough.’

He shook his head.

‘You don’t get it. He treated her wrong. They all did.’

‘Passed around like the potato salad,’ I said.

He stared at me in case I’d insulted his girl.

‘Traded more than a journeyman infielder,’ I added cryptically, nodding. Nods always help. ‘Used her badly, like a dictionary in a stupid family.’

The overkill seemed to work, and I cd see him seeing how I meant the other guys, not him, and also other women, not her, whoever that was.

‘Only reason he’d move 10 feet in any direction is if a girl was nine feet away,’ he said.

‘What kind of girl?’ I ventured.

‘Any. How many kinds are there?’

‘Two,’ I said. ‘One’s quiet as an April morning and twice as pretty.
The other’s pretty as an April morning and twice as angry.’

‘Yeah,’ he said softly, adding almost a low whistle. ‘That’s her.’

‘That’s all of them,’ I said. ‘You just hope she’s wearing a V-neck, and the designer believed in capital letters.’

His eyes darkened again but just then the door to the bedroom opened and the woman appeared. Not the V-neck, exactly, though it took something of a plunge. She wore a strapless deal that had no worries, and walked with the nice easy swing of the satisfied leopard; had some pretty good spots, too.

When she entered the room you felt like a shovel full of scrap iron in a Pittsburgh blast furnace. She swung simply, swiftly, like the trap door on a gallows.

I glanced back at the corpse, realized the holes there were small, too small for his gun, that’s what had looked off. Too small but big enough.

Fat men all look alike, but it always hits you when someone’s recently stopped paying taxes. I could see he hadn’t been much to consider before being bashed on — like washing your kid’s face and finding out he’s ugly underneath. He was at least 50; you can’t look that bad without practice.

Never looking at the guy for the rest of their lives, she came at me. A repeated motion, like a female praying mantis. But legs like that are the reason God invented silkworms. She said hello and you knew it was time to send in the varsity.

She held a gun.

It was a small gun, but big enough.

He saw all this, especially her not seeing him. Looked at the dead again with me, looked at me, then seemed to collapse, starting in his shoulders, turtling all the way down like he wanted to hibernate inside his suit, too large even for him. His shoes shuddered at the end of the wave, I swear. A couch corner received his schlump.

The gun went into his pocket — perhaps he hadn’t used it at all. Figured he started on the face, prolly to the body too; he’d done some boxing, for sure. He hoped hitting him wd satisfy her. But it never does. Some girls … nothing does. Then she got impatient too, couldn’t wait for duck season.

By now, she’d been moving steadily, curves rippling new routes for those Thomas Guide guys. She stood in front of me, scent of an April morning. I could feel the gun pressing into my suit pocket but she let me lower her hand, taking me in the other and feeling me rise.

‘C’mere,’ she said.

‘I get any closer, I’ll be behind you.’

‘We could try that sometime,’ she said.

Emerald eyes appealed to the Irish in me, but the seafoam cut hard as it roiled up thousands of angry shards on the rest of her tanned sand.

She kissed me, and I didn’t want to be rude.

She tasted of almonds, like a pricey sundae.

‘A thirty-two,’ I said, tryna sound casual when I’d extracted my tongue.

‘A woman’s weapon,’ she said. ‘So I hear.’

‘So’s a bread knife if you’re in the right mood. You in the right mood?’

‘We’re always in a mood, right?’

‘You shot him.’

‘Just passing through when the noise started.’

‘That’s what General Custer said.’

A pause. She began to back away.

‘The best trouble always looks good from the outside,’ she said.

‘You killed him.’

She scoffed, waved the gun. ‘You men are all alike.’ She clucked angrily again. ‘You wanna fight some strange mythic battle, some fantastic cause, but can’t find anyone your size. Other men are too small; the gods are too big. You end up with your hobo’s bundle of regrets, something softer than truth to sleep on, and to drag out periodically as proof of your decency.’

‘Different ways to put it — Peter Novice, I tried out earnestly, at your service, which is my entire elevator pitch — but it’s often easier if you let your slip show right up front.’

But she was right; I had no play. I had no gun, to begin with. No proof. The guy would be no help. I had no more business here than second trumpet in a string quartet. I cldn’t do anything, especially with my hands, with that body; like taking your nubile niece to a nightclub.

You build a house, you’d want somebody like her in the blueprints — even knowing she’d burn it down one day. At least you’d have some snapshots for the wanted poster, and maybe, but prolly not, a mugshot to make the world right again.

She stood by the window staring out at that world as if she meant to do away with it. The previously pastoral eyes now more like envy. I thought of letting her go, this was the tale I tried to tell myself at least, as if it weren’t going to be a reloaded .32 conducting that movement of the symphony.

‘You can get your mom a visitor’s pass,’ I said.

‘Tell us how it looks in left field,’ she said. ‘I never liked my mom.’

I could see she meant it twice; she wasn’t leaving this room in cuffs.

‘That explains some stuff.’

‘Pipe down, before you wind up in a boys’ choir.’

‘Don’t threaten me; you’re the one with the earrings.’

‘What does that matter anymore? You know I have to kill you.’

I was about to agree with the first part of that, if only to keep buying time on credit. It often seemed true, though I knew it wasn’t. She stood, not in front of a mirror but a window, open to the world, with absolutely no one to talk to about it, not even a mother, and involved with at least three males — one done, one dead, one me — worse off by leagues than when she entered the room, even without whatever was about to happen.

But I was wrong on nearly all of that.

I saw the hole in the window, felt the spray of glass, tasted in my gut, and lower, the red flower blooming at the glorious plunge, before hearing the echo of the shot. The bullet I saw not at all, until it came out from behind, in the small of her back, where men should be putting their hands to care and guide and later more besides.

She dropped the gun, which sounded, oddly, because how could it and how could I know, empty, and raised a hand to her chest as if about to adjust a broach. She turned toward me, grieved. For a split second I thought she thought I might’ve done it but I think she resolved it before the shooter, on a roof somewhere based on the angle, double-tapped her. She fell, lay, and the vermillion mingled in her viridescent eyes like rushing Christmas.

Forty shades of green, and claret.

In the end, I let him go instead. For one thing, he hadn’t done it — not anything more than what they used to pay him for, if he was the won meant to win that night. He hadn’t won in some time, except when near enough to her. For another thing, he likely wasn’t going anywhere, since she wasn’t. So the cops wd sort it out.

I supposed he might say something about me, but all I’d done was wake up at then leave the scene of several crimes. And anyway, I thought he prolly wouldn’t. We were on the same side, worldwide, and with the girl, in a way — even if he’d lost her, I had, too; and she’d kissed both of us, which is another connection, if you don’t think about it too much.

Mainly I cleaned the place up a bit as it related to me, then left.

The world did not seem right, again.

Later, my friend Jefferson Davis Daniels — we call him Jack to avoid the scenes — gave me his rueful look. We were drinking good Irish whiskey, and is there any other kind? I danced as fast as I could, but he had a 30-year head start.

‘I wish you’d forget about women.’

‘I wish you’d forget about whiskey.’

‘Least I can look at the label and tell how old it is.’

‘Tomorrow is another day,’ I tried.

‘That’s what the woman said.’

‘What the drinker did.’

And tomorrow was another day, would be anyway, maybe. Another chance at hopeless battles tilting at what are really windmills, and of women, and of blueprints for empty houses.

I would start from scratch, like all the days.

Like Adam on Day One.








Note …

A third of these words aren’t mine. They’re from Pat Novak: For Hire, one of many guilty pleasure noir detective-fiction old time radio shows of the 1940s, a precursor to several radio and TV productions starring Jack Webb — Dragnet being the best-known and most-successful. Pete Kelly’s Blues, for example, ran the summer of 1951, and it’s essentially a transplanted Pat Novak — from San Francisco to St Louis, with a healthy jazz theme; the detective was in a band, and plots, on a PN foundation, often involved the scene. Each one, totaling under half an hour, included several minutes of music — Webb cd play the cornet, and he loved jazz.

I return to OTR every so often and one night did so, catching an episode of Pat Novak [‘John Saint John’] on YouTube, then poking around the web [ha!] for a collection or two of quotes. I found several dozen I liked, remembered a few from the past, and compiled them. Even added a few of my own. [There’s actually a line from the John Malkovich film Ripley’s Game, tossed in there also, which very noirly fit just fine.]

Next day, sitting down to write, somehow came the notion to write a full [necessarily short] item using only the [mostly] campy but [occasionally] clever and [sometimes] sharp noir zingers for which such tales are known.

At one point considered expanding it to more with my ‘Jocko’ … maybe even ‘Lt Hellman’ [played by Raymond Burr in the radio show] but then it came out OK to just keep it short with one set: the room. Thought it’d really stretch the lines to breaking, many goofy [but loveable] to begin with … but I think it turned out OK.

Salutary work, got the words flowing, and was only 10 AM.

Then I learned I’d ‘saved over’ the first draft and hadda write it again.

Thanks for reading.



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