Myself, an undernourished flatfoot scalded by misery, called to the same scene over and over again. Children stomp around mud puddles cutting their feet on broken glass. Women wring yellowed bedding in rusty washtubs. Everything is worn thin from overuse. Gaunt and tired and useless. Ride uptown. The same. Downtown. The same.
“Is this his only form of ID?”
No, he had a library card.
“Should have used it more often.”
Warped reasoning. Zip up the body. Satchel of truancy slips. The same. Clerical work. File it, retire for the evening.
Anchored thoughts plunge to the bottom of the lake. A woman in the building practices trumpet scales for six hours. Nobody says a thing. Wouldn’t be polite or neighborly.
“Shut the fuck up!”
Not a tenant. An old man carrying wilted flowers in a shoebox. A vagrant art critic. Is there any other kind?
Three floaters in as many days. Fish food left unsampled. Could be somebody making a political statement about pollution or gangs staking out territory. Not their style, though. No signs of violence. Besides drowning. That’s no picnic.
“You can find me at the corner, sugar.”
The hazards of first-floor living. Every windblown word infiltrates your domain, helps itself to a beer and a sandwich and crawls in your bed to sleep it off like an ex-lover on the skids.
“That’s not my fucking problem.”
“I know. Thought you might want to help out anyways.”
Sunrise bleeds in through green curtains. Fell asleep fully dressed on the sofa again. Dry shave. Eat some toothpaste. Out the door. Let the poisoned darts of a new day fly. More yellow tape and mortal chattel.
I dub him Prince of the Night.
“I think that title’s taken.”
Never take your work home with you. No need. It follows you home like a mongrel and curls up at your feet. Eyes cancelled like a postage stamp. Silt in the lungs. Swollen fistful of nothing. Holding onto a negated future maybe. Maybe something more conventional. Clarinet scales tonight. Somber notes I can feel in my bones, a subtle gnawing grief burrowing through the quick and marrow. Thin gruel of misery spills on the carpet. Count the vomit stains. Sixteen, seventeen. Shampooing the carpeting someday is an option.
Ex-wife knocks on the door, her knuckles translucent, reedy mechanical voice like a pull-string doll. Hank, we need to talk. Hank, we need to talk. Hank, we need . . .
Turn up the TV, ignore the horrible echoes of the past rising out of the fog. She’s gone.
I think we should separate for a while. For both our sakes. Hank, we need to talk. Hank—
Shut up, goddamn it!
Monotonous clarinet scales end. Sorry. Unintentional emotional spillage. Random heaving sobs voyage out into the night. Mine, hers. They mingle. Two broken hearts bobbing in the silence. Play away the pain, if that’s what it takes, or the pain will play you for an all-day sucker.
Overcast dawn swarms over the city like plastic locusts. Sour cream and motor oil mix. Midnight rain’s little gift to us all. Dockside piano bar had a visitor last night. Mermaid whose tailfin failed.
“This one’s a girl.”
Looks like a hooker.
“Looks can deceive.”
Cases don’t break. They shatter into fragments or coalesce into a cogent narrative. Try this on for size. Schizoid cop throws random citizens into the drink for laughs. No message. No pattern. No reason. TV series potential. He throws a new guest star in every week. Cue sighing trombone as lone trench-coated figure wanders through smoky alleyway. The Dunker, starring Hank.
“Get the fuck away from me, creep!”
Hank, we need to talk.
Neighbor knocks on the door, asks through the wood if I’m all right.
Yes. Thank you. Goodnight. As the lady outside said, get the fuck away from me, creep. Curl up on the sofa like a hungry cur. My last substantial meal was a month ago. Steak and potatoes. Dinner roll. Now I live on dry breakfast cereal, the pride of ulcers and hollow, sunken eyes black as thousand-year-old eggs. She did this to me.
This is only temporary. I swear. I’ll be back in a few weeks.
Toilet seat is never up, always down. Terrible aim. I piss everywhere. Puke everywhere. Strange custom that evolved in her honor. Green sun projected on the wall. Lumberjack’s boot print on my tongue. Miscellaneous mouth spaces cemented with filaments of unnatural slime. Must be Saturday, a day of fragmented loneliness and strung-out salvation. Erase voicemail full of cryptic messages from uptown dick chasing leads. I got mine own troubles to sort. I don’t need borrowed ones. I’m cold sandwich meat on white bread waiting for the Great Chomp to scissor me in half.
“Hank, I don’t know how to tell you this, but . . .”
Standard line. Subtle as a granite tombstone engraved with your name.
I don’t feel like talking.
Said once and then again. Context drastically changed. Sure, I’ll play along. Let him tell what I already suspect. Penny’s gone. Spent. That one never gets old. Dogcatcher roves the neighborhood snatching strays for destruction. Delinquents pack the waterfront arcades and dives. Not part of his jurisdiction. Shame really. It would save us time fishing them out of the drink. Six floaters. Hope the Dunker observes the Sabbath. I’m Spent Penny’s spent ex. The ex stands for expired.
“Hank, we got another—”
Hang up. Omniscience becoming problematic. Seven in seven. No rest for the wicked. And it’s a big club. Small freshwater crabs crawl out the negative space where her eyes were.
“You thinking what I’m thinking?”
Not a chance.
“Don’t be an asshole, Hank.”
Drop a line off the pier. Crack a cold one. Gone fishing.
“This has only just begun.”
Caught a big one, a mutated catfish with a dopy barbed-wire smile. Threw it back. No fun killing helpless creatures.
“Did you hear me?”
I heard you. Now leave me alone.
Soaking wet clothes laid out over the balcony railing. Morning consumptive cough rises like a column of damp smoke. I hack my guts out till green goop spouts from my lungs. The kitchen table is covered in sedimentary layers of sentiment. Pacified, florid faces. Figures frozen in moments of asinine candor. Rote memories don’t do it for me. I graft on inelegant and violent schemes deserving of a rogues’ gallery. I do this without malice or anger, but to elevate the importance of the departed. Penny’s the exception. Her act defies fictionalization. One, two, three, and—
Please, Hank, we need to talk.
“You lying motherfucker! I ought to cut you for that!”
“Imma be damned if I hang around you another minute.”
Please, all of you, shut up.
The shiftless denizens of the streets are restless today, driven to riotous outbursts by the rank smell of death closing in. An emotional trigger for the fatalist in us all. Where do you see yourself in five years, Mr. Anderson? Dead for all I know.
Numbers eight, nine, and ten roll in in successive nights with tidal regularity. The impotent look of surprise. The same. The unmotivated dead-end motive. The same.
“We got a suspect in lockup, Hank. Come talk to him. He says he knows you.”
The interrogation room feels colder than a meat locker. The table is a menagerie of broken, bobbing corpses reposed at impossible angles along rocky shorelines. The suspect is an appliance, chattel. I have never seen him before in my life. He is a marginal character. A misty visitation. An indistinct outline drawn in musty disarray. An envious disposition to say the least. We chat for a few minutes. Mindless banter. The conversation stinks like spoiled potato salad.
Tell me one detail besides the obvious or I’m shoving your ass out the door.
“You killed her.”
“You killed Penny. You were a boa constrictor crushing the life out of her. That’s why she left. But she couldn’t leave. She could only slacken your grip. What did she do with that slack? Recreated the circumstances of her slow death. The ligature marks on her broken neck were a message to you. A love letter. You should have had the decency to reciprocate. She awaits your answer.”
The interview ends. Playback. Nothing on the tape but dead-air static, light coughing, longing. Process the dead weight. He’s not the one. I will know the guilty party when I see him. A sickening presence, like a vat of rancid fat and sloughed skin. Slyness sheltered behind a veil of tears and bunkered regrets. Hurricane on the inside. Outside, a stuffed jungle cat with coal button eyes.
I know the type well.
I live with that type every day of my life. It is all around me in constant motion, wearing beaten tin expressions, lips dribbling, weaving through streets and alleyways in the dim yawning mouth of dawn.
“Why did you release him, Hank?”
I see what I see.
“Get some rest, damn it. You look like death warmed over.”
Hunched overcoats march in nebulous formation, tumbling, churning upon paralyzing thoughts. Worms tending the soil of their souls. The caprices of self-reflection invite disaster upon us all. My neighbor, the multifaceted musician, encircled in the serpentine contours of a sousaphone, glides up the stairs. Gonna be a hell of a night. Whale bleating John Philip Sousa’s greatest hits. The building feels about to explode in violence. The tinny taste of electric dazzle and soupy orange air culminates in a jangling headache. Midst the swampy pulses of pain, a simple detail breaks the surface, performs the absent act it reveals. Why didn’t any of the vics swim for the shore? Unable. Incapacitated. Didn’t feel like it. The speculative slop bucket, filled to the brim, overflows into shallow gutters clogged with deserted theories and dead rodents. The conclusion has already been reached. I am only a vehicle for its transmission. An impotent emissary toward whom the bystanders can direct their impotent rage. Cognitive dissonance personified.
Hank, this will do us both a world of good. I promise.
“Repent, sinners, and embrace the Lord of Light!”
Please . . .
Lock broke a week ago, so I sit quietly in the dark, revolver leveled at the door, waiting for an intruder. Nobody has yet to turn the knob. A cockroach drowned in my coffee. I drink it anyway. No material difference between that and drinking gray, gory water laden with bodies.
“Hank, I’m putting you on extended leave, with pay. Get yourself together. We’ll talk in a few weeks.”
The dockside wind smells different than my youth. Gone are the commingling stenches which identify a body of water as a thriving system jazzed with the life and death struggles of a million unseen denizens. All that remains is a nauseating kaleidoscope of gasoline and gummy creosote and slippage.
Girls in bikinis romp on the deck of a passing boat. Other faster boats speed by in a sheen of chemical rainbows and a false sense of motion, of bobbing and rocking, like I’m a buoy floating out on the mucosal waters of the harbor. Scabby, barnacled sea creatures dart for and kiss the soles of my feet, nibbling and pricking my toes with old rusty hooks lodged in silent gaping lips. Thin spindles of blood unspool in the water. Primitive urges boil to the surface. The sea creatures, driven to atavistic madness, wage terrible battles for a piece of my treasured flesh. In the end, the victor releases me back into my natural environment and eats his vanquished foes.
A sailboat capsizes. Small watercraft rush to the rescue.
I empty everything in my pockets on the table and go for a stroll, one with comical overtones, a reenactment of the old saw about taking a long walk off a short pier. A boy on a skateboard stops to ask me what I’m doing. I tell him I’m responding to a love letter.
You’ll get no argument here.
One, two, three . . .
The water is lovely and warm, like I’m a baby being bathed by my mother, and she’s combing soapsuds out of my eyes, and I’m crying but I cannot feel the tears through the burning soap, and my limbs move fluidly through the water, no resistance, weightless and free, the unrestrained joy of belonging and unconditional love, and she swaddles me in a towel, soft succor and peeking darkness, and tickles my belly till I spit up, laughing still, a little gurgling choke in back of my throat, the final pocket of air escaping to the surface in a jellyfish bubble, and I sink further into the arms of an all-enveloping tenderness, a cold, undulating embrace not unlike your embrace, my dear, how you held me . . . in contempt, up to ridicule . . . and when you hung yourself, you were hanging me in effigy . . . out to dry . . . so I moved into trumpet scales and the echoes of dying whales, body bags and sidewalk scuffles and lovers’ quarrels, broken locks and broken promises and the green sun blues, till I, too, was spent, spent and in hock, living on borrowed time, and the trouble with borrowing is somebody always comes to collect.
P.S. I get it now. Better late than never I suppose.
⊡ ⊡ ⊡
R. A. Roth is an unorthodox, mind-bending weaver of wonder, currently hammering away at the first of ten short story/flash fiction compilations. His work has appeared in The Molotov Cocktail. He tweets at @fantagor.