by Colin Deerwood
I took the bus cross-town. I rattled around in the dim interior like a wooden pin, the only passenger. Raindrops slammed and squirmed into the black window reflecting my battered mug. The swelling had gone down and the bruises on my face were beginning to ripen. The egg on the back of my head had shrunk down to “over-easy.” I had to take care of first things first. Della’s problem had sidetracked me. I had to get back what little self-esteem I had started out with and that meant I had to settle my score with Kovic and his goon.
There was a little Polish eatery over on 10th that Kovic frequented. Rain was still pouring down when I got off the bus and opened the umbrella. Occasionally a flash of lightning would send a clap of thunder rebounding down the brick canyon. I kept my hand on the butt of the revolver in the pocket of my overcoat. The drops were bouncing knee high off the sidewalk. I found a dark doorway across the street with a good view of the restaurant and settled down to wait.
It wasn’t long before Kovic’s limo swung into view followed by a big blocky sedan carrying the troops. They all hurried inside except for one guy who stayed in the car as a lookout. He wasn’t the one I wanted.
I waited. The rain kept up. The night passed. There was a street light about two doors down. It illuminated the scene in some places. In others it made long shadows. Finally I recognized the shoulders and square head of the gorilla I wanted. He ducked into the sedan, which rocked with his weight. Then the driver’s door swung open and the other mug got out and made a dash for the restaurant.
I waited till the door to the eatery closed and then stepped out of the shadows. I walked up behind the car and knocked on the window staying just behind his shoulder. He had to crane his neck and wipe his breath off the window. Finally he rolled it down.
I showed him the cigarette in my mouth. “Gotta light?”
He scowled and gave me a hard look. That must have been when he recognized his handiwork. He startled, eyes splayed open and his mouth followed seconds later.
I popped a slug into the dark cavern of his jaw and he slumped forward. I reached into the inside pocket of his coat and extracted his wallet. It felt as thick as a pocket dictionary. My umbrella had shielded the muzzle flash and as I edged away, I dropped the pistol into his lap. Maybe they’d think it was suicide.
I walked away pulling off my gloves. I made it around the corner before anyone came out of the joint to investigate whether it was a backfire, thunder or a gunshot that they’d heard.
My luck seemed to be changing. A yellow cab was dropping off a fare. “Grand Central,” I told him. We were there in no time at all. I pulled a page of currency from the wallet and told him to keep the change. He wasn’t sure.
“Whatsis? A gag? I want some real money.”
No matter how much I assured him, the cabbie wouldn’t take the hundred-dollar bill. I had to fish through my own pockets for the right change. I came up a nickel short. The guy was giving me the mean eyes.
“Gedoudayere!” he said finally.
Day and night Central Station is packed. I shifted from foot to foot in line to the ticket window. I kept glancing back at the revolving doors expecting an army of Kovic’s goons to come charging through, Tommy-guns at the ready.
The clerk wore a mask of complete indifference. He leafed through the pages of the large book at his elbow and quoted me the fare and departure time. I spread the bills on the marble tongue of the ticket window. He, in turn, folded, stamped, and inserted the ticket into an envelope marked with the Railroad’s insignia.
I walked out onto the platform. The din was incredible. People on the platform pushed by each other, maneuvering around clots of humanity standing in one spot, saying goodbye and trying to make themselves heard above the noise of locomotives shuffling and bumping cars around. The railroad men signaled with their lanterns and the engineers answered with a nod of the head or the wave of a hand.
What I first recognized was the back of her head, the way her hair, a shiny lustrous blond, defined the shape. I pushed past a family bidding farewell to their uniformed son and caught up with her.
“Grace?” I was positive it was her. I wanted to tap her on the padded shoulder of her fox fur.
She turned a sidelong glance on me. It was Kovic’s hop head daughter. I couldn’t believe I’d made that mistake. I felt as if I should rub my eyes, but I just blinked. Then she was Della and she turned to me with a slow seductive smile.
I woke sitting straight up, sweat pouring out and over me, my undershirt drenched. I was going to have to change my shorts. Some dream.
I untangled my legs from the sopping bedcovers and threw them over the side. The cockroaches weren’t expecting me and scurried off to the corners when I pulled on the light. I looked at my face in the discolored mirror above the cracked, stained basin that often doubled as a urinal when the urge was too urgent or I simply didn’t have ambition to make the trek down the hall. My face didn’t look any better. But it was returning to normal.
I thought of climbing back into bed. A pale light was leaking in through the rips and tears in the blinds and around the frayed edges. Morning. No going back on what I had decided to do. I was determined to get my life back on track. First, the matter of Kovic and his wise guys. Then, Al’s sister.
I threw my arms into the sleeves of my burgundy bathrobe and headed down the hall to the shower. I was gonna start off clean.
Occupied. The sound of rushing water, steam curling up from under the door. Oh well, on to the next option.
My old man, he was a seaman and knew about these things, said that just like any other animal we’re always on our guard against predators, be they physical or supernatural. We’re all predators so we should know. And we’re the only ones who prey on the guts of our own species. He was a philosopher of sorts, my old man. He said that this caused us to close up the unconscious so as not to allow the real and secret self to be vulnerable to predation. There are these shields around our unconscious that don’t allow our real selves to come out unless we’re drunk, stoned, sleeping, or hypnotized, he said. He liked to repeat himself, my old man.
There are an infinite number of ways of expressing yourself, he’d say, why not try it. Repetition is the pulse of the universe. It’s so awesome that it terrifies us, which is where we get the word “repulse.”
Once you got my old man going there was no stopping him. No matter how far afield he wandered, he always came back.
“Only one other instance when we let those mental shields down,” I could hear him say. He would pause for effect at this point. “Yup, only one time. ‘ats when you got your dick in your hand and gonna pee. Or when you squat to shit.
“Just working the release on the old sphincter or bladder requires all your concentration. All of a sudden your guard is down and all this stuff comes pouring out. Great ideas, improbable inspiration, solutions to problems, all sorts of things. The greatest minds have all had their inspiration while sitting on the pot. Luther, Einstein, Picasso, Ford, Pythagoras, Archimedes. The great dialogues of philosophy were all conducted on the way to or from the shit house!”
He liked to exaggerate, my old man. He was always saying we should use language to its fullest capacity. Fact is but a seed from which the truth will grow. He was full of shit, my old man. One day he flushed the toilet and went down with the rest of it.
I watched the waters swirl in the yellow, blotched bowl. I knew what I had to do. Shave.
I pulled on a heavy peacoat and fit a stocking cap on my head. A pair of my rattier shoes and I looked like any mug that’d likely be drifting around the riverfront docks and warehouses.
Kovic’s turf was the waterfront. He ran the longshoreman action. He was king rat on the East River. And that’s where I headed. On the way I ran into Alice.
She was coming up the steps from her basement apartment. She had a thin hand on the black pipe railing and was stepping up onto the sidewalk. She fixed me with those deep sad watery eyes of hers. “Hi, Lack, where you off to?” So much for my disguise.
We went for coffee down at Hopper’s Diner. Her long pale fingers wrapped around the thick white cup. She stared into the depths of the black coffee. It was a while before she said anything. But when she said it, I knew what she was going to say. “Have you heard from Grace?”
Grace was my ex. Alice and she had gone to school together. Alice had married Grace’s brother, Ted. Then he died. That made Alice a widow. Then I died for Grace. She moved to Hollywood. That made her a divorcee.
Alice gave one of her sighs and lapsed into more silence. Sipped from her cup, pensive. Her bobbed hairdo fell around her ears like the puff of pantaloons and she was gazing out the window when she said, “I was more alone than I could have ever imagined when Ted died.”
Ted was one of those starving artist types, a small time painter who designed calendars and repaired furniture. He sold bits and pieces of himself just to survive so he could continue doing the same thing over and over again. I never saw any point in it. He also liked to take pills. Something else I never saw any point in. Alice wasn’t an artist. She was a starving widow.
I was depressed enough as it was. I held her limp hand in mine as I got up to leave. I slipped her a fiver. “Pay for the coffee, will ya?”
The Bucket Of Blood was the watering hole Kovic liked to operate from. It was a waterfront dive. The floor was covered in sawdust. The dominant cologne was obviously eau d’urine and essence de fart, and was favored by most of the splinter faced denizens. A haze of cigarette smoke topped the atmosphere like foam on the surface of fermenting juice. The din created by the inhabitants of this festering tide pool was about as soothing and pleasant as a herd of lovesick sea lions, and just as loud. I ordered a beer and found a corner in the shadows where I could keep an eye on the door at the top of the stairs where Kovic had his office. I’d been there before. I knew if I went in I’d recognize the red shag carpet. I didn’t have a plan. I just wanted to get even. I’d play the rest by ear.
I was just about to drain the last of my beer when they walked in. They stood out like terriers in a cat show. They were feds. None of the local gendarmes had the money or the taste for those suits. First there were just two, then six. I caught the bartender reaching beside the cash register for the alarm button. The hubbub had subsided to a murmur. The guys had obviously not come to drink. I spilled the rest of my beer down the front of my coat and staggered to the door. The clot of feds parted to let the drunk pass.
Outside, the street was crawling with suits. I brushed past one and he called to me. “Hey! You!”
Since that wasn’t my name I continued my stagger down to the alley next to the saloon. Once around the corner and in the dark between buildings, I put on speed. The alley was a dead end, a high wooden fence blocking my escape. Over the top went to the East River. Off to one side of the fence was a ladder going down through a square opening in the boardwalk. The fed was being a bit more insistent. “Hey, you, stop! I want to talk to you!” He had his flashlight out and shined it on me as I hesitated before dropping down through the deck. As I did, I heard shots come from the saloon. The feds had not met with a friendly reception.
Under the wharf there was at first darkness. Then the glow of a red bulb showing toward the outer pilings, and a speedboat parked under it. There was a guy in a watchcap and peacoat standing by it, ready to cast off the line. He didn’t hear me behind him. I used my gat on the back of his head. He slumped to his knees and I rolled him off the catwalk into the water. I climbed into the boat and found the starter. The water bubbled up under the stern as the inboard motor rumbled to life. Then I had visitors. There were five of them. “Ok, ok, shove off!” a voice I recognized ordered. I pushed the throttle to full and the boat shot out of its berth. As I steered the craft out into the river, I looked over my shoulder just to make sure. It was Kovic.