Seven Short Stories
(1962 - 1999)
NIGHT TO NIGHT
AT THE FLAME
CUL DE SAC
Why here? Crystal without calculus, a riddle when examined, 'here' was simply the place she was and whys could always be annulled by the arrant laws of security. It was quite safe, no doubt, if only because it would be thought odd. The exhalations, inhalations and heavy breathing of her immediate environs were different indeed from the adamant white wind of the heights. She had once journeyed the peaks but now was confined to human cellars, the after hours of non-time, the night life that exists only when day life does not.
'After hours.' What hours? What actually happened within the time confines after which her time came? Not much, she knew, which was why after-hours were at all. But to the people around her they were ours. A sort of 'After Theirs.' A continuum from ours to ours, stepping stones, white nights across their black river of day.
Nice, perhaps. But she had seen The Real Thing. oneself living and dying not for oneself. Consummating freedom by oneself. She had known the angels of the edge, skew saviours and crafty christs.
Now she lived in a nightclub. Night to night, tight to tight, bite to bite, flight to flight.
And somehow, in this land, it rang consonant.
And yet terminal. It would have to end one day. That was the truth that empowered every minute, each penultimate to the as-yet-untimed last.
What was next? After these hours? Neither ours nor theirs nor hours timed at all, after was itself a time self-possessed, extending till it too was done, for her alone, in her personal (no longer personal) death.
What would premonition the coming of that next-time? Would its advent cast a shadow in a color she could see? Or would its reflection be visible, and if so would she see herself when she looked in the mirror, already acting on the other side? Or would she hear a reveille, a music encrypted or silent to all but her? Perhaps she would smell the fag of action, raw and even boring at times as waiting did not end on the other side but was just named, every second of it and the 'it' was all-encompassing. Maybe she would feel a veil, sliver-thin and apparent as an oil-slick-erect, like passing through the wall of a soap bubble, it rejoining itself behind her. To return would puncture it and so there would be no more wall and so, no more sides at all: The End.
Or maybe, just maybe, the hour would come with her decision. "It must be done so I shall do it." That's all.
She put down her glass on the neon-infused table and laughed silent, her eyes directed down.
The bar was still fairly empty. The zenith (or nadir?) was still several hours away. At that time one would scarcely be able to make passage across the white-washed room.
A man walked in, made two laps of the scuffy floor, and sat down several seats away from her. He was of indeterminate origin, foreigner, perhaps, but already a native within these walls. Something about her was repellent to him. He had sized her up upon entering. Still, he looked at her from time to time, as if, it seemed to her, he thought she might have changed by some alchemy of desire, to a more malleable metal. Apparently not yet, for at last he turned away.
She looked at her watch. It had taken an hour or so for him to accept futility.
She had done that long ago. But knew that she must continue (taking up when she struck the hour), precisely despite that futility. But doing battle on a more glabrous terrain. No, we would never win, never convert multitudes, never create a perfect world. Rarely, even, successfully sabotage a particular engine of the enemy. But it was right to go on. Futility didn't bother her a bit. It had become quite irrelevant.
The ones whom it did bother, of course, or worse who didn't believe it was futile: those were the ones to shun. She loathed them. They were not to be trusted. Always, they walked under an impending lightning dagger that would rend their world and reveal (at the most awkward of moments) that it was all in vain, doomed to carve of microseconds bereft of vanity. Instants oft-forgotten, so many times ill-recalled, our acts melted-down and poured into traitors' molds and so revered. But act to act, we might clear a path of instants. To a time-giant they might appear like the days of one man's life.
Sometimes she did wonder if the man was a child or breaching senility. But go on, she had to.
And there were others who had to too. Mostly they were someplace else.
But it hadn't always been so.
The night was long. One of those winter dawners celebrating a holiday. This one seemed more Billie than Christmas.
At the clubs, warm coats were piled in riffraff mounds. At the roller skating arena they were placed just to the side of the rink. It was there that I left behind my black leather trenchcoat and took a shiny red one instead. I did not become aware of this until much later.
So late it was by that time that even cross-pollinating clubland had been swept away by winter wind. I walked the streets of darkest Chelsea. Looking. For a club? I told myself I needed some nightcap to the evening's romp. It soon was clear this finale had both a door and a plunger, was torn open and sprinkled in a spoon and likewise acceded to by a door. I needed both. The warmth inside and the warmth of a festive company. Both would be found in one place. It would be small, walls almost at ones fingertips. People, but not too many. Enough to raise the thermostat but not to scald.
There was no one else in the streets. The wind had full reign.
Perhaps I heard it first. Maybe I saw a spray of light. Wisewoman I followed it, nearly to the end of the block where on the lefthand side was a locked door and a dim light source within. I knocked, and knocked again.
At last the door cracked open, ajar over a Black woman's face. She smiled in recognition. yes! I had been here before but...
She answered for me. "We moved. I remember you. You used to come by when we were in the other place. Now you can find us here."
I entered and felt the swirling warm draft that I had craved. Men and women surrounded me, some seated at small tables think with ancient varnish. Others stood, drinking and not drinking, speaking and silent. Some faces turned to greet me, others didn't notice.
At the back of the room was a cubicule. I noticed a woman I had seen earlier that day on a bus headed downtown. The woman who had let me in led me towards this sanctum behind the bar. She smiled as was her way and I knew I had to ask her.
"Do you hate this red leather coat? I'm afraid it's vulgar and looks like it's been painted with plastic. You see, I picked it up by mistake at the roller derby, leaving my black leather trench coat behind."
First she shook her head. I knew she understood my plight. She motioned towards and old Black man who had been crouched, so it seemed, under the bar. He stood up, back towards me and the other guests and spoke over his shoulder. It was clear he had heard all I'd said.
He looked me up and down, or the coat up and down, I was not sure. With a half turn he reached his large Black hand to my collar and with the smooth pink pads of his thumb and forefinger, worn to baby velvet, he caressed the red-dyed skin of my lapel. Divining. With each stroke, a frame turned in my mind. The fingers felt the pulse of falling tumblers, invisible behind a grey safe wall. They wrapped and met their palm again around the cold bars of a cell. They moved slowly toward a nipple and found it, then traced their path along the charted mystery land of his own arm, aching to take a drop from the reservoir and return it, different.
"Shoe polish?" he said. "You could cover the coat in black shoe polish. That would do it."
It seemed it would I took off my red mantle and put my elbows on the bar. I shifted my feet. My knees had not been cured by an exit from the street.
The woman retied a bow that held her holiday blouse together over her breasts, four times larger than mine. She beckoned me to come round behind the bar. Her eyes pointed down and mine followed. The old man had a needle in his vein.
"You want some?" he asked, soft and whispery. The woman laughed, shaking and silent. The bow came untied.
The man reached deep in in the left front pocket of his brown belled pants. The hand came out holding a bag. I reached out mine to receive.
"It's called 'Monkey Man.' Like the song."
An electric rooster cock-clocked morning and his cry tore a jagged edge to her dream. over that edge she kilroyed, and long ago read a note.
This story was included in The Howard Marks Book of Dope Stories (2001).
CUL DE SAC
The sky went red. Slow rivulets defined themselves, mapping the insides of her eyelids. There was a change of light.
She rubbed her eyes and looked around. Fluorescent and ugly, the place was awake. It was Four AM and one could no longer sell liquor. So the people had to leave.
As her pupils adjusted, contracting even more, above her head was something she had seen before.
The mobile des mobiles.
Round and round they spun, all the whys and wherefores. The good reasons and the real, balanced but never content. Bobbing now, her motives were marionettes with an invisible master. She couldn't see him for there were no mirrors in the place. Subjects of torque, they twirled each on edge, off a roving axis. Prey to entropy and atrophy, empathy and apathy, they were hanged and hung as one, above her.
And faded away as the emptying club came up.
Nightclubs always look hideous at their middle-of-the-night morn. The floor was awash with alcohol, mud, drug cut and a jigger of vomit. Her footprints left brown-outlined imprints that soon would ebb away.
Like all the patrons, she left quick, hand over eyes. Outside, it was night again.
She did not want to take a cab. But walk -- where to?
Aha! The North West Wind! An old joke, ever blowing her South East. But she didn't need to cop just now. Not quite yet. Something else was driving her Downtown.
At the causeway of Astor Place she stopped, questioning her direction. But thoughts were no deterrent. These streets were, as she had remembered earlier that night, vertical not merely horizontal. So she wasn't only traveling in length but also in depth. And though she could follow the map of those terrains, she had never been able to surface the guide at will. So where was she, really? She could only find out by arriving at her destination and then counting back.
St. Mark's was its usual carnival and she walked swiftly, collar up, eager to slip into the anonymity of the easterly blocks where her sole identity was that of someone vaguely recognizable as another one who might know what's up.
Midway in longitude and midway in latitude, at the heart of it all, there is a dead end. In the cul de sac they once sold kick-ass bags, but now, as gentry forces draw lines to Avenue C, the escape route through a murky swampish backyard, complete with a sort of muddy stream, is a barren flatland. Dry and mowed into plain view, it is no cloak for your dagger. Many a time, just-copped, she had scattered herself through that mystery marshland, works poking into her thigh as she forded the sewer-brook and ran, not looking back till she was gone from the four-meter wilderness.
That land of Atlantis trees was now a nascent parking lot. The parking lot was a condo on the way.
Just a block away on Fourth Street, flat red brick buildings had been put up, all in a row like those in down-heeled suburbia. She hadn't been here in months.
The last time her need had been clear. It was Four AM and she had come to cop. The police had been busy and the heat had taken its toll. All the spots had closed down early. Long overdue for a fix, she was crying with the sickness. If she hadn't been so crazy-ill, she would never have allowed Mark, a freelance dopespot steerer whom she had never trusted, to show her where to go.
Back then, the red brick buildings were still under construction, and to access the cul de sac she had to cut through the building site, passing by the silhouettes of worker-guards who gave not a shit for a passing copper. "They won't care unless we start breaking the new windows they just installed," said her guide. Mark was smiling too much and she didn't like it. By the occasional worker's flashlight beam, his long Black face glistened in the dark. Except where his beard was. She didn't like most beards. It takes a very honest man to wear a beard for pure aesthetics.
She hadn't thought anyone sold dope anymore in the cul de sac, but Mark had convinced her otherwise. He led her into a hallway in one of the buildings at the very dead end. A white girl of twelve or so gave her dope for good money. And she gave Mark the obligatory tip. That meant that she would have to walk home even though she could hardly stand up.
Just before the exchange she had started to cry again. "I'm so sick, Mark," she'd said. "This is good, right? It's good. Right? I don't have a penny more after this. It's good, right?"
"Yeah, sure. Hey. Of course it's good," said Mark.
Walking home with the stuff in her pants, she'd felt it burn against her belly. She tried to measure the degree of heat that the bags gave off against her skin. To perform alchemical analysis as she walked.
Arriving home, she knew.
It was flour. 'Beat.'
Now she was back. Alone and with no motive. She had a scratchy, nude feeling at the nape of her neck. Like she had an unknown cunt there that she had never noticed. And autonomous, it had made a rendezvous the day that she was born. For now. To be deflowered. But her terrible lover was unknown.
To her right was the rubble-strewn plateau that had been the woodsy exit. All was now in evidence. No more dealers stood at the mouth of the forest, no more junkies scurried into the brush. It was a stage without a curtain. Naked and obscene, she felt her neck getting wet.
It was then that she first heard voices. Men speaking. One was engagingly familiar, the other she recognized but it made her want to run. She understood when she heard a third voice. The squawk of a walkie-talkie.
She was clean, so she looked for the voices' dark source.
On an overlooking roof, two figures were gesticulating. She could observe their shadow-play while remaining, herself, in darkness. One, complete with regulation fat ass, was in blue. The other, diminutive and agile, was a friend. An Hispanic of considerable wit and evident life-competence, Joey had remained a street-life recidivist. He was certainly aware that he could 'cross over,' but she gathered he would rather die. Her friend pleaded his case while the cop registered his find in the walkie-talkie.
She moved closer to the building but remained out of sight. Knee-deep in rubble, she wondered how to help.
By the time she could climb a fire escape, the incident would be long over. If she shouted, she'd be taken for a loon. She caught words as they fell off the roof.
"This time you're out of luck cause I'm clean. But I know what you do. Every day you stake out this roof. When you see people copping, you radio their descriptions to your guys on the corner and they pick them up and take them to jail. Why do you do it, man? Yeah, you. Personally you. Why? So you can tell your wife that you put seventeen junkies in jail for buying a powder that eases their pain and hurts no one else? Do you realize that a junkie's body doesn't let him not cop? And in jail we go through cold turkey -- cruel and unusual punishment for an utterly victimless act that we can't not commit. If you busted a non-junkie mass murderer and somehow put him through the symptoms of heroin withdrawal while he was awaiting arraignment, his lawyer would have an easy time throwing out the case and hanging a rap on you for torture!"
The cop had been silent through all this and did not speak even now. It was Joey whom she heard speak up again.
"What the fuck is this? I did not come up here to shoot up! The proof is that I have no works on me. You know that. You just searched me. Why are you doing this?"
"Come on, asshole," said the cop.
"I came up here to look at the fucking sky, man. Is that a crime now too?"
The silhouettes merged for an instant, then separated again.
"Hey!" shouted the cop. "Don't touch the evidence. That'll be another count."
"Evidence my ass!" It was Joey. "You just planted that shit on me! You know it and I know it!"
"And no one else," said the cop.
She was about to yell "I know, I know!" when the cop burst out, "Cut it out, motherfucker, or I'll get you for assault!" Somehow she knew her friend had spat in his face. It came back to her like an instant replay. It was then that things took a wicked turn.
Only a few days before, Joey had told her that he had drugs and switchblades stashed in various places around the eastside so they wouldn't be on him but would be retrievable in case of need. She had taken it as flamboyance but realized now that this roof must have been one of those places because --
"Put it down!" shouted the cop.
"Not until you throw the dope off the roof. Get rid of your fucking 'evidence'."
She cursed her monkey as he chirped "Wow! If it falls I'll get it!"
"Too late, asshole," said the cop. "Now you're really up for assault." He paused for effect. "Of a police officer."
Joey was hurricane-eye calm. Each word was measured and she felt a tingle at the back of her neck. "I don't give a fuck. At least I am assaulting you and you are a police officer." Even more softly he added, "Throw it over. Ditch that bullshit evidence. Now."
Both figures were near the edge and she could see them clear against the sky. Joey whipped out of the eye and into the fury of the storm. "Throw it over!" he screamed. "Throw it over or I'll kill you!"
"I'll throw you over first, you fuck!"
"Then we both go."
She lunged at their shadows as Joey made for cop and cop-gun at once. The knife, the gun, the man and the cop spiraled on the edge. She arced to a white-hot chant as her medulla vagina quaked and howled and wind tore into the chamber that could never be hymened again.
Tears welled up and blurred her vision. In that second of blindness her hearing was more acute. It seemed someone until then invisible had taken a step behind her. She turned and saw. He hadn't even screamed.
Joey lay on the ground, face up and unscathed, eyes open.
Looking at the sky. A crime.
She bent over him but heard the words, "I'm dead."
His knife was in his hand.
Before she noticed having reached for it, his knife was in her own. She flattened herself against the building whose roof had hidden the weapon that was now hers. And she waited, knowing he would come.
It seemed like an hour before he did. Bent slightly at the ass, he walked toward the body, slow, eyes pinioned to her friend. Silent, she stood behind him. Two good yards, a long way to leap. In order for her to do it, he would have to be distracted. Her mind conjured a pigeon shitting a bullseye from on high. But that wouldn't work because the bastard wouldn't feel it. He hadn't even taken off his cap.
The cop was looking into Joey's eyes. His back radiated fear but he seemed certain he was alone. She could see that Joey's eyes bore twin tunnels through the sky. Toward something.
What? Unable to resist, the cop's head made a slow tilt skyward. She felt the warmth of flower-blood at the nape of her neck.
The knife slipped through the blue cloth and deep into the cop's back. She had often heard that it takes a lot to kill with a knife, so she turned him round and face to face, in a rush of mad need to perfect the act, had him see her while she saw him. Yes, we live on after, she thought, and "He lives" was what she said and slit his throat.
She dropped him fast for the blood was spurting rapidly, a geyser to fill a mighty needle.
For a moment all was still and then it broke.
Though city silence met the death of Joey, sirens rose to greet the cop's demise.
They'll find me. That she knew. Fast and hard.
It came to her, then. With nowhere to run, she could only stay here. Right here. Until they took her on a stretcher, herself the victim of a crime.
Her friend would be indicted post-mortem for her wound. But that didn't matter. Judges' opinions were of no consequence. Such things had not even practical import, unless you were alive. So it was a little joke between friends. A last laugh.
She thought of the fertile wound at the nape of her neck but knew that the blood that poured from that gash was only visible to the naked eye and so they wouldn't see it. She had to penetrate herself again, in the language that they know.
The knife was dripping with the dead cop's blood. The thought flashed that she wanted to wipe it off, for that blood contained the most contagious disease of all. But there was no time. Anyhow, she knew she had the antibodies to fight off the blue plague.
She rolled up her sleeve. Now that she wasn't running, she had time, lots of it, to do things right. She took care and blessed the echo of each move.
Sleeve above her elbow, she examined her arm. Incredibly thin, it wasn't bad as arms go, etched with years of work toward the perfect design. Better I disguise all this anyway, she thought soberly. Her other arm would pass, for it confessed much less.
The blade was still red. She hoped it was sharp. By habit, she pulled her sleeve tight around the upper arm and tilted the blade so it caught the pale street light.
A smooth cut along the guidelines, at first it didn't hurt much. So she took her time. But then a locomotive rode her tracks. Her limb cried out and she knew she had to act fast before her body forbade passage.
A long cool rip hit the finish line. Straight and clean, she had left no flap to hold onto.
She backed up against the building and realized what was happening. She was bleeding. A lot. And she recognized the feeling.
Nodding. On the most illegal of drugs. She balanced her head against the building and let her eyes close over the sky.
Sirens rose fell rose again in the darkness of her blazing arm as her body throbbed a calliope of pain. A song sung for a marriage of will between woman and knife.
And from her new canal flowed an afterbirth of silence. Conceived at knife-injection, it was deeper than ten thousand times before. Rather than adding to the reservoir, this time the dam had burst. She was watering the sidewalks of the cul de sac and her fountain would rebirth the bog. Marsh vines would claim her friend and her self, and strange crabs with lanterns in their eyes would devour the remains of the officer of the law. Hard workers, these creatures would transform him in their bellies. As crustacean shit he'd be free and food again for fertile animals.
In her lidded vision, all returned.
A Lido smile wrapped round her finger. Pink fingers of a Black man ran through her hair. And she walked, walked, walked with her fifth column in the dream.