By Tom Gnagey (c) 2014
My name is Thomas. It doesn’t matter if that's first or last. I just sign my pieces, Thomas. I'm a writer. Tonight, I'm a writer with a great story, but no finish. It has choice charismatic characters, a perfect plot, a sensational setting, and an overabundance of alluring, if altogether absurd, alliterations. But it won't find its finish. That happens for me sometimes. My stories get so caught up in description and feelings that things take on lives of their own, and lives, I have found – mine or others – almost never want to come to a conclusion. I need something mysterious – suspenseful, even. It needs to come out of nowhere and yet be a perfect fit. From just the right conclusion I can even work backward and fix the other things to accommodate it. I've done it before. So far, however, nada, zilch, nil, naught, el zippo.
So, I've set aside the yellow pad. I clicked the pen closed and cozied it into my shirt pocket. I left my hot corner room on the fourth floor in the old hotel where the roaches and I have been living this summer, and find myself walking west on 37th street, making my way the fifteen blocks toward The Corner Bar. It sits in the center of a block so I have no real idea how it came by that name. My fantasy is that it was started by a guy named Corner. It seems logical. Of course, it could have been started by two guys – Corneilous and Nerbert. Unlikely. I'll stick with the first.
It's the old part of the city, a kind epithet for 'slum' or 'ghetto' or 'a good place to stay away from if you value life and limb'. I do, but on a budget that allows fifty bucks a week for a room and fifty cents a day for a shot of whiskey, these fifteen blocks – risks aside – connect those two dots nicely. There are two streetlights for every seemingly endless block – dark canyons more aptly describe the area at night. There is only one functioning bulb for every two or three fixtures. It's dark. It's filthy. Tonight it's wet with puddles left from a late afternoon downpour. Dank is usually the word of choice, I suppose – wet and pungently musty. These fifteen danger-ridden blocks are worse than dank. The moist filth reeks of a putrid odor. I've lived down here for several months and still haven't grown accustomed to it. It is one of those things a person learns to endure in order to obtain necessities – a drink when I'm in my room and my room when I've finished my drink.
The best thing about rain is that it washes traces of blood from the sidewalks and moves the refuse into the gutters to be swallowed by the sewers. It is perhaps understandable that by the time I reach the bar I am more in need of the shot than when I started, and that the journey back home is somewhat less filled with fright once the alcohol has seeped its way through the nooks and crannies of my brain.
I am in block two of the fifteen. It doesn't really matter that a building may have been built of brick or stone or cement. It doesn't matter if the surface was designed as etched or art deco or Baroque. A century of filth clinging to their surfaces gives them all the same, smooth face – the face of neglect and poverty and despair. It has become their unsought badge of brotherhood.
What's that? A noise behind me! Faint, but there, nevertheless. More than a noise, a sharp noise, a clicking noise – a sharp, clicking, rhythmic noise. The soles and heels of boots, perhaps. Expensive boots with leather soles and metal taps sunk into the pretentious, elevated, heels. Not the noise from the hole-riddled tennies of the homeless and riffraff that occupy the alleys and cellars here; but the noise from the boots of the well to do – the ones who have made it, the ones who have found a way to run roughshod over the rest of us down here and take what they want, when they want it, from whom they want. Shiny leather soles and high, tap-laden heels are the predictable companions of brass knuckles and stilettos and hand guns, long bereft of serial numbers.
Click . . . . Click . . . . Click . . . . As I slow, they slow. As I speed up, they speed up. The one directing them must have emerged from the alley I just passed. I seldom peer into the blackness of the alleys for fear I might see what is there – what I know must be there – the drunkards, the addicts, and the lowlifes who prey upon them. Those who lay there among the stench and squalor are better off to have drunk or injected themselves into unconsciousness. Those who cannot finger their attackers are more likely to live and those whose throats get slashed go with less pain and terror when not awake to confront their end.
I adjust my gait to a steady pace. My theory is that it's best to appear oblivious to his presence so as to not lead him to panic and hasten his move on me. Another street light. Another light bulb. Another dingy cross-street well known by the masses that it leads toward distress, so no traffic braves it after sundown. I cross in a circuitous route, stepping around puddles and upended cobblestones.
The clicks stop. I mount the curb and continue on, picking up my pace just a bit. If only one of the buildings were lit. I know there are no such sanctuaries at least until block ten. That is still some distance ahead. I note a shiver and wonder how that could be on a mid-August evening in the city. It appeared to have been of the body. Surely it was of the mind or the emotion. Perhaps a well-conditioned muscular reaction from some childhood fright.
The next several streetlights are unlit. The streets narrow ahead and a predictable, hot, breeze comes at me from the west. I have never found the low whir of its sound pleasing although it sometimes muffles the moans arising from the alleys and that provides a positive service of sorts. I cock my head and listen intently, but the clicks are no longer evident. I sigh and try to shake it off.
I look on up the street along the path I will be following. A man in a long dark coat emerges from an alley and leans against the corner of the building, his knee bent, foot resting back against the bricks. Should I proceed? Should I cross the street? That would be too obvious. It might be taken as an affront by somebody who otherwise would have showed no interest in me. I suck it in and move ahead. As I near the man he turns his head and looks me over. His hair is long and he may have worn a mustache and perhaps a goatee. I only got a glimpse and was not about to linger in my glance. I hope that I look both harmless and penniless. He flicks his spent cigarette at my feet as I come even with him. I move on without looking in his direction. He makes no response. I am soon a half block beyond him. My how I want to look back. I don't.
Click . . . Click . . . Click . . . Is that him or has the first man caught up? I have no way of knowing. Quite clearly, however, I do have a way of becoming more frightened. I begin breathing more rapidly. My heart begins to race. I want to run but I don't. I tell myself again to keep to a steady pace. Hold myself erect. Exude confidence. Yeah, right! My legs won't mind me and soon I'm moving along at a pretty good clip. I wonder if my increased speed has been noticed. Of course it has.
At last I come upon a few lighted windows and doors. By block thirteen they are most all lighted. I slow down a bit and then a bit more. There are a few other people on the street. The lights all contain working bulbs. Many doors have their own lights above them.
As I start up block fifteen, the clicks grow louder and I realize he is no more than a few feet behind me. Would he be so brazen as to thrust his pick into my back there among the others? Of course he would and when the police arrive – if they arrive – no one will have seen what happened.
Actually, those who had been on the street a few moments before have entered cabs and buildings and I am there alone again. The sounds change. Click, click. Click, click. Click, click. The clicks are coming in tandem. There are two of them, now. Perhaps the first has joined forces with the man at the alley. I must not panic.
As will happen sometimes in moments of crisis, a stroke of genius comes over me. I reach for my rear left pants pocket. I unbutton it and slip out my wallet letting it fall to the sidewalk as I move on quickly toward the tavern door, just twenty yards ahead. If money will satisfy them, they are welcome to it.
“Sir,” comes a gravely male voice from behind me.
This is it. They missed seeing the wallet. As one distracts me with conversation the other will slip the shiv between my ribs. I stop and look around, more for help than to confront those who would accost me. The one speaking continues.
“What?” I manage, as I turn, wondering if a stab wound to the front of my abdomen would be more or less devastating than one to the back.
“Well, two things, actually,” comes the reply. “First, you dropped your wallet. Here. And, second, we're scouts looking for the all city meet tonight but we got lost. Can you tell us where Grace Methodist Church is?”
Tan uniforms. Colorful scarfs. Berets. Mountain boots. Painful death apparently averted.
* * *
Two things, actually.
First, I directed them to the church.
And second, I had the perfect ending for my story.