I've always enjoyed reading old pulp noir crime fiction, Dashiell Hammet, Mickey Spillane, and the like. A little while back I thought it would be fun to write one myself, so I gave it a shot. The result is Walking The Mile, the first chapter of which I offer to you here. I'm open to any input and constructive criticism. All contents are copyrighted and presented here on Arfcom with permission and may not be reproduced or redistributed without express permission from myself. The Arfcom text editor didn't like my formatting and I've gone through and tried to make it more readable than a monolithic Wall Of Text, but some paragraphs, linebreaks, and other formatting are probably off, but it's otherwise readable.
Hope you enjoy it.
I sat there feeling like a sap, my hands slowly wringing the hat in my lap like a couple of stray dogs worrying at a bone that they’d dragged from a garbage can. The knuckles on my right hand were raw and scabbed over where they’d been cut by the guy’s teeth during the incident that had brought me here. When I finally clued into what they were doing, I made them stop because it only made me feel more pathetic . The moment my attention returned to more pressing concerns however, they were back at it again. I let them go this time. I had things to worry about and rumpling my hat wasn’t one of them.
“Are you sure?” I asked the man on the other side of the desk and trying desperately to sound like I wasn’t begging. It didn’t work very well; we both knew that I was.
“I mean, I can try real hard. Heck, I been trying really hard, but… I dunno. I can try harder,” I concluded lamely.
I hated the whining tone in my voice, but I couldn’t help it. I felt like I was on the verge of tears, but I was damned if I was going to let this soft, doughy man see me cry. There were only a few men on this planet that had earned the right, and most of them weren’t walking on it anymore. This fat slob surely wasn’t one of them.
The man looked at me, peering at me through the greasy fingerprints on his eyeglasses, his big eyes trying to look as sympathetic as they could. I wanted to take one of the pencils out of the cup on his desk, the one with a picture of a cactus in the sunset and the name “Herman” on it, and put it through one of his watery peepers. He wasn’t obscenely fat, he just had that rotund, soft look that comes from years of good food and a sedentary lifestyle. If he was a department store Santa you’d describe him as jolly, but at the moment Christmas had never seemed so far away and he just looked irritating and a little sweaty.
“Shoot, I know you’ve been trying, and you do good work. Mostly. But like I told ya, you’re just too volatile. You’re unpredictable, you come in late or sometimes not at all. Hell, some days you don’t even bother to let me know that you’re not going to show up.”
“I don’t have a phone,” I said quietly, looking at my hands. It sounded like what it was. A sad excuse for what we both knew was poor behavior from someone who supposedly wanted to keep his job.
The man just looked at me for a moment, then continued, his voice exasperated. I could tell he just wanted to get this over with so he could go back to whatever it was that he did all day up here in this stuffy little office. By the way his eyes kept wandering back to it, I think it had something to do with the folded newspaper with its half-finished crossword puzzle that was sitting on the edge of the blotter on top of his desk.
“Look, I know you’ve had a rough time of it, and I wish I could help you. I’ve given you more chances than I’d give most guys but you keep blowin’ it, and I got people that I have to answer to, ya know?” His eyes shifted towards the ceiling like a man in prayer but I think he was just indicating the third floor, where the executive offices were located. I wondered if they did a better class of crossword puzzle up there or if they just got theirs out of the newspaper too.
“I really wish I could do more for you,” he continued. “But the word came down and I gotta give you your walking papers. I’m sorry.” It was the kind of sorry people use not to convey regret or sympathy, but the kind they use when they’re trying to tell you that they don’t want to discuss the matter any further.
“I know I screwed up, Mr. Jacobsen,” I pleaded. “I don’t mean to. It’s just…” My voice trailed off, the words becoming elusive and inadequate. “Things are tough. I really need this job. Give me another go, will ya?”
I looked up at him. If I was going to beg, I was at least going to look the man in the eyes while I did it. I hated him for making me beg. But more than that, I hated myself for doing it. At any other time in my life I wouldn’t have. I just would’ve told him to take his lousy job and put it into that flabby tuckus that was always following him around like a caboose. It wasn’t like loading canned soup onto trucks was a noble career. Any ape could do it and judging by my coworkers, many apes did. As it was though, rent was already overdue and I didn’t have the money to pay for it.
“Heck, I know it’s been tough. I can only imagine what you guys went through over there.” He was making a production out of being sympathetic but it was just theatrics and I’d heard it all so many times by now that he could’ve left the room and I’d be able to finish his end of the conversation for him. I knew the lines by heart.
“What?” His large lips flapped closed, cutting off his next line.
The sudden change in the tone of my voice surprised both of us. It was the complete opposite of the pleading and simpering of the last twenty minutes. I was getting used to this voice. It came up whenever someone trotted out that trite, simplistic sympathy.
Maybe in his own way, he thought that he was being genuine, but his sentiments were as hollow as the cheap emotions printed inside greeting cards. I think if he wasn’t so concerned about being perceived as a jerk, he would’ve been just as happy not saying a thing. People tried to act like they were sensitive to my situation. I’m sure some of them meant it. But it all rang hollow to me. It just sounded like they were saying what they thought they were supposed to say. I knew they were doing their best to try to relate, but I resented them for not being able to and thereby highlighting my own inability to relate to anyone else. I hated them for making me look at the gulf that existed between me and them. If I didn’t look at it, I could pretend it wasn’t there. But it was, and I didn’t know if I would ever be able to get back to the other side.
“No, you can’t imagine,” I replied, my voice hard and jagged, like putting your hand into a bag of nails from the hardware store.
Jacobsen’s mouth flapped open and then shut again when he realized that he didn’t quite know how to respond to this sudden change in my demeanor. He was used to men begging for their jobs. He was used to them getting angry or defiant when contrition had failed. I could tell from the look on his face that this was something new. He looked at my eyes and saw what could only have been the barest glimmer of the dark, crimson burden I carried inside of me.
“You’re soft and fat. You probably can’t even remember the last time you did anything really difficult. Sure, you think you work hard. If you stay an hour late to shuffle some papers around on your desk, I bet you go home and tell your fat wife what a tough day you had. The worst possible thing that could ever happen in this building is paradise compared to the things I’ve seen. The things I’ve done. While you were telling your secretary to hold your calls so you could take a nap at your desk, I was trying to get the brains of some kid I’d only known for three hours out of my hair. I have a scar where I pulled a piece of his skull out of my neck. Wanna see it?” Nobody ever did.
Jacobsen involuntarily tried to sink deeper into his chair, his face clamoring to not show the revulsion that he felt, the fear that was climbing his spine. I’d seen that look a lot. He was afraid that somehow the violence was contagious. That if I got too close, the smoke, the blood, the hurt of that far away place would get on him; onto his clothes and through his skin. Get inside his head and stay there, the way it stayed in mine.
“I didn’t think so.” I stood from the chair, shoving my hat onto my head, glaring across the desk, putting all of my contempt into my eyes and turning the deluge on the sack of meat that overflowed the chair on the other side. I hated him for letting me beg for more than a quarter of an hour when he had already decided that it wasn’t going to do any good. My eyeballs let him know it. I scooped a cigar out of the box on his desk. His mouth opened reflexively to protest my insolence, but realized it would be easier to just let it go so he pulled it closed.
I paused at the door and turned to look back at Jacobsen, knowing that it was likely to be the last time, and savoring the awkward jumble of expressions clamoring across his gob.
“Randy,” I said, striking a match on the doorframe and putting it to the tip of the cigar.
“Huh?” His hands were fidgeting nervously with each other on the desktop.
“The boy whose skull I pulled out of my neck. His name was Randy.”
“I’m… I’m sorry.” He eyes fell back down to his hands.
It was the most common response since nobody ever knew what to say. Hell, I don’t know what I wanted them to say. I haven’t any idea what I would say if I were them. It was a lousy situation because nobody could win.
“It might have been Rick though, come to think of it. Like I said, I’d just met the kid.” Jacobsen looked like he might throw up so I had to get out of there before he did. I’m one of those people who if I see somebody else throw up, it makes me throw up too. It’s like my body gets sick out of sympathy or something. I don’t know. Anyway, unless I wanted to join him in a duet, it was time to go. I dropped the cigar on the floor and ground it out with my toe. I hadn’t really wanted it anyway; I’d just done it for dramatic effect. I’ve always enjoyed a little touch of theatrics. It keeps things interesting.
“Catch ya around.” All the menace and aggression disappeared from my face. It was a trick I’d learned shortly after coming back from the war. Turn it off. It wasn’t gone, I just learned how to hide it so that I could try to get along. I pushed it back below whatever rock it lived under when it wasn’t sneaking up on me in nightmares or making me dive for cover when a moving-truck backfires in the street.
I tipped my hat and walked out, throwing a wink at the secretary on my way past her desk. I didn’t need that lousy job anyway. Besides, the soup they turned out tasted like hell and I felt bad for helping to ship it to the unfortunate suckers who bought and ate the stuff.
Stepping out the door and onto the sidewalk, my face was slapped by a cold rain. I pulled my hat down to my ears and turned up my collar.
“Chee-rist. This figures,” I said aloud to nobody in particular. It was late June, it wasn’t supposed to rain like this. It wasn’t even one of those pleasant warm rains. It was cold and sharp and felt like it dampened your spirits as much as your hat. It did, however, seem like the perfect weather for a guy who’d just been thrown out on his can yet again. I guess I wasn’t the only one who appreciated throwing in a little theatrics. I looked upwards, past the third floor at the gray sky and gave a little wry grin as though to say, “I get your joke, already. I’m the punch line. I get it, I get it.” I got a drop of rain smack in my eye for my efforts.
Looking up and down the street, I was at a loss as to what to do with myself. I hadn’t planned on having a whole day to kill and hadn’t the faintest idea on what to do with it. The weather was lousy, and being broke like I was, going to a picture show was out of the question.
Falling short in the idea department I turned left. That way at least the rain was at my back and not hitting me in the face.
Passing a grocery store, I noticed that the proprietor was distracted, weighing out some bananas for a woman whose body looked like a potato in a polka-dotted dress, garnished with a hat that resembled a pheasant that had been pressed into indentured servitude. Taking advantage of his momentary distraction and the fact that he was eclipsed by her ampleness, I snaked an apple off the display on the sidewalk and tucked it quickly into my pocket. Someday when I struck it rich, I told myself, I’d come back and pay the guy for it. But in the mean time, I was hungry.
The rain tapered off and a couple of blocks later, I parked myself on a damp bench in front of the library to enjoy my apple and figure out my next steps.
Clearly, I had to come up with something quick. Rent was due in a week, and I still owed the building manager some money for the remainder of last month’s rent as well.
Now that I had calmed down, I really couldn’t fault Mr. Jacobsen for turning me loose. He’d cut me more slack than most of my other employers had since I got back. It’d been barely more than a year and I’d already lost six jobs but this one had been the record for the longest time in one place. Some days I almost felt normal. I had been starting to think that maybe I was over the bad spell. Maybe I was getting back into the swing of things, getting used to life in the real world, I thought. Moments when I let my guard down, I almost started to feel hopeful.
The war had been over for about a year and a half now, and I’d been a civilian for thirteen months. Thirteen and a half, but who’s counting? For some reason, I had expected to step off the boat and just pick my life back up where it had left off. Like everybody at home would have just frozen like a museum exhibit, waiting for me to come back so they could return to life as well. Life stateside didn’t seem to have changed that much. Europe had been blasted from one end to the other and by the time it had stopped burning, there wasn’t a town or city that didn’t show some signs of the industrial meat grinder that had passed through. Some towns that had stood for hundreds of years were now nothing more than piles of bricks that were being carted off to rebuild other towns that stood a better chance of rising from the ashes. The States on the other hand, seemed to be largely untouched. At least not on the surface.
During the war it had seemed like America was some sort of dream that you’d had once. At first, it was the war that had seemed like a dream that you so desperately wanted to awaken from. The first word out of my mouth every morning was “Dammit.” I kept hoping that one day I would wake up and I’d be back home, going to my crappy job at the tire factory, riding the train in every morning with the same load of familiar strangers. Then one day, probably eight months into my tour, the table had turned and it was Stateside life that had become the dream. Real life was marching, sleeping in a hole dug into the ground, waiting, and sudden explosions of extreme violence that seemed to both pass instantly and at the same time to go on forever. America was a blissful dream that you hoped to have every night when you went to sleep, or more accurately, tried to go to sleep. A dream where people wore clean clothes and slept in beds. A dream where it was OK to make new friends because they weren’t likely to do something stupid like get shot by snipers. A world where things almost never exploded while you were just trying to mind your own business.
When this change had happened, it was like the bottom fell out of my soul. How could you look forward to rejoining a pleasant dream you’d had once? You couldn’t. You can’t. Once it’s over, it’s just over. You have to take it for what it was, a pleasant sojourn into slumberland, and get on with the business of daily life in the real world, which largely consisted of alternately killing or trying not to get killed by the Germans.
After I’d walked off the gangplank and onto the pier, placing my foot on soil that hadn’t been touched by war since the nineteenth century, I’d felt myself go instantly from one of a society, the society of infantrymen, to an outsider. I could tell immediately that I had nothing in common with these people.
Everybody was happy to see me, sure, and I was happy to see them even though I didn’t know anybody. I was just happy to see people that hadn’t had their cities bombed or their houses blown up. But they were alien to me now. Their eyes were missing something that I had gotten used to. It wasn’t something I could put my finger on right away. I looked at them, my eyes moving from face to face, searching. But I didn’t know what I was looking for. I turned around and looked at the faces of the men that I had come home with and knew what it was that was different. It was the eyes. The people waiting on the pier didn’t have something that the men coming off of the boat had. The war was over, but it had come home with the men who had been there. Some philosopher said something about it once. “Look too long into the abyss, and the abyss looks into you.” Something like that. One of the guys in my company who had spent some time in school before enlisting had talked about it. Coming down the gangplank, I knew that the man was right. And what’s worse, when that abyss looks into you long enough, it moves in and starts to look out through your eyes as well.
I knew then that I would never be a full-fledged member of society again. The meaning of it had changed for me. I could try to put it behind me and get on with my life. I didn’t really have a choice in that. But that abyss would always be there, hiding in the back of my head and every now and then, it might crawl forward, pushing into my mind and looking out through me. Trying to see what else it could swallow.
Some guys didn’t have this problem at all. Most were able to put the bad things behind them and concern themselves more with their future than their past. They learned what they could from what they’d been through and put the rest of it away in some dark corner where it never saw the light of day again, getting dusted off only in the quiet solitude of the night and in private moments of reflection. Others had some trouble readjusting, but learned each in their own way to carry their burdens.
Then there were the broken ones. What we’d been through had penetrated too far, the marks too deep to hide completely. We drifted to the outer edges of society like the frayed threads at the edge of an old tapestry. Not really a part of the picture anymore and worn out, but hanging on nonetheless because the only other choice was to let go and fall into that abyss that lived inside of us.
We all learned pretty quickly that it wasn’t something that we could talk about. No matter how understanding people seemed, their face changed when we tried to tell them about what it was really like. We’d done and seen things that nobody should ever have to do and brought those emotions home with us, hidden inside like rats in the hold of a ship. These people didn’t know anything about what it was really like except what they had seen in movies and newspapers. Soldiers were heroes fighting the good fight without fear. Death was clean and tidy and the dying had time to say a few noble words before passing on to their great reward. Death never involved men trying to walk and hold their guts in at the same time. Soldiers didn’t have to try to console someone whose name they didn’t even know while he melted the snow around him with his own blood. They’d never had to kill a 15 year old German boy up close with a knife so that he wouldn’t alert the sentries, seeing the hurt and confusion in his eyes before they faded and he went limp in their arms.
My youngest brother was 15 and I’d only talked to him once since I got back. The last time I saw him, the only thing I could see was what his eyes would have looked like as he bled to death instead of that German boy. I had to excuse myself to the bathroom where I’d cried silently for half an hour. Of course, I never told him about it. I never told anybody about that part.
Eventually I gave up on seeing my family. Since mom and pop had passed away while I was overseas, it wasn’t too hard. My sister couldn’t reconcile what she saw in the depths of my new eyes with what she had known when we were growing up together and the telephone calls grew further apart until they stopped happening altogether.
Sometimes you’d spot a man on the street or in line at the grocery store or something and you’d take one look and just know. He was one of the broken ones. He might not look like it on the outside. Some learned how to hide it really well, but it was always there to be seen by those with the right kind of eyes. Sometimes we’d share a nod, but most of the time we pretended we didn’t see it in each other. It was part of the façade of forgetting. I wish I was able to. I tried to find out the secret that some of the other guys seemed to know. How to file it away and keep it from poisoning the rest of their lives. How to keep the past from infecting the present.
I was never able to develop a knack for it though. I tried to pretend it had never happened and that it was all just a bad dream, but it didn’t work. More often than not, when the garbage truck came by in the early morning hours and disturbed the stillness with the banging of the cans in the alley underneath my apartment, I would wake up on the floor next to the bed trying to find some cover from an artillery barrage that had ceased years ago. For a while I’d slept with a gun under my pillow, but I’d sold the gun to a pawn shop when I almost shot the apartment building manager when he woke me from a nap. It took me two months more to learn how to sleep without a gun nearby.
I’d lost every job that I’d managed to land since I got back. Some days I was just unable to pull myself out of bed. Unable to go through the charade of pretending that I belonged in this society. Other days it was just because I was too hung over from the copious amounts of whisky that it sometimes took just to be able to fall asleep. I got in fights. Fights over stupid things. Things that wouldn’t have bothered me before. Since I’d spent the last four years learning how to fight and then refining that skill with advanced application in Italy and France, I tended to win those fights.
It was one of these fights that had finally cost me my job at the soup factory. Some 4-F schmoe had made a crack to one of the other guys about some broad he had been banging during the war while her man was overseas. He was unconscious and missing three teeth before he even hit the floor. He lost a few more before they pulled me off of him. I didn’t even know the guy, the gal he was talking about, or the serviceman in question. It was the principle of the matter. I’d seen too many guys get those damned “Dear John” letters and then just stop trying to stay alive. The war was usually more than happy to oblige anyone who felt that way. Truth be told though, I think it was really just an excuse to be mad at somebody, anybody. It was easier to be mad at someone, even for something stupid, than to be mad at something as abstract as the world in general.
I didn’t fault Jacobsen for giving me my papers. Maybe I would have done the same thing if I were in his shoes, I don’t know.
There was no sense in sitting here feeling sorry for myself though. I tossed the core from my apple into the gutter and pulled a cigarette from my pack. There were only three left. This didn’t bode well. Damn. I should have saved that lousy cigar I’d lifted from Jacobsen.
I watched some pigeons swarming around an old lady who was buying their companionship with breadcrumbs on the next bench over and weighed my options. With no job my prospects weren’t too good. It was getting harder to find new jobs as my references got worse with each one that I lost. At this point, I’d be lucky if I could get a job hunting rats in the sewer with a pointed stick. Beating coworkers within an inch of their lives without any real provocation wasn’t good content for a resume and ever since being discharged from the service, I hadn’t come across any employers that valued a capacity for sudden violence.
With no hope of making rent it was a safe assumption that I would be homeless in just a few days, what with the end of the month coming up and the balance still due on last month’s rent. I figured what the hell, since this event was a certainty either way, why bother saving what little money I had left in my pocket. I decided to buy myself a nice glass of whisky and go see a picture down at the Emporium. It was some show by this fellow that people seem to be all hot and bothered about these days. Hitchenson or Hitchert, or something. It doesn’t matter, the picture was just OK. I fell asleep the first time through, so I had to sit through the second feature just to see the parts of the main feature that I’d missed. I sat through the second feature again too, just for the hell of it.
By the time the show got out it was getting pretty late. The weather had cleared up some and things were drying out. The moon was competing with the bright lights of the theater’s marquee. Moviegoers spread out along the street on their way home and I followed suit. It was only a matter of time before my building manager figured out that I was going to stiff him on the rent again and impound my stuff in lieu of payment so I had to figure out what I was going to do with it.
I decided to save the bus fare and hoof it. It was turning into a nice night and it wasn’t as though I had to get up early for work. Ha ha. The crowd from the theater thinned out quickly and I walked alone for a little while until a stray dog found me and we walked together for a little while. Eventually he caught wind of something more interesting and struck off down a side street with his nose held into the wind. I was kind of sorry to see him go.
After a few more blocks I passed a bar that was letting out. The sidewalk was filled with rowdy drunks, milling about and shouting to hear themselves over their own voices, trying to figure out where they were going to go now that their watering hole had turned them out. I bummed a couple of smokes off of one guy. He was the jolly-drunk type, and gave me half of his pack before offering me a lift home. His breath smelled like he brushed his teeth with hops and barley so I declined the offer. Besides, the cool night air was helping me sort my head out. When I was finally able to convince him to stop shaking my hand I ambled off down the street. Drunk folks are a hoot when you’re one of them, but when you’re not they make you want to never drink again. At least, not in public.
I turned the corner and was grateful for the return of peace and quiet. I idly wondered what that dog had got up to. Halfway down the block I heard tires squealing behind me and turned to see a Ford barreling around the corner. My new drunken acquaintance was hanging out the window, whooping it up.
“Haaapyyyy Newww Yeeeeeaarrr!” he hollered at the sleeping neighborhood, waving a pocket flask at me as he sped past. Since he was driving, I hoped to God that he knew it was June. I was suddenly very glad that I had decided to decline the ride.
Down at the end of the block, a figure stepped into the street underneath a streetlamp, his figure cast in silhouette against the pavement as he fumbled in his pocket for something, probably keys or a lighter. I saw the accident coming before any of the people who were actually involved did.
The drunken fool in the car was still hanging out of his window and had turned to yell something else at me. He leaned a little further to keep me in view and being both drunk and stupid, he pulled on the wheel as he did so, causing the car to veer sharply to the right. The poor slob with his hands in his pockets didn’t even see it coming and the Ford slammed into him. Hard. There was a bright, glittering sound of breaking glass and smashing metal as the man was crushed between the front bumper of the car and one of the vehicles parked along the curb.
After glancing off of the parked car and back into the street, the car screeched to a halt, the tires complaining loudly, and the driver’s side door opened halfway. The driver leaned out and gaped in stuporous surprise at the twisted and broken aftermath of his foolishness. His eyes bounced between the man in the street and me several times, clearly more worried that I had seen him than he was worried about what it was that he had actually done.
“Holy shit! Did you see that buddy?! That guy jumped right in front of me” He was obviously trying to convince both of us that this was what had really happened. If he was selling, I sure wasn’t buying. That’s another common trait of the drunk. They tend to think that everyone else is as confused as they are.
“I couldn’ta missed him if I’d tried!” The drunk protested. He wasn’t so jovial now, that was for sure. His voice was high and shrill, trying to cover his guilt and fear with indignation and protest. “He jumped right the hell into the middle of the road! What the hell was he thinking! Jesus!” The man ran his hand through his greasy hair, slicking it back.
His eyes flickered between me and the mound of carnage in the street a couple more times. Maybe he had sobered up enough now to realize that I wasn’t buying his line. He suddenly stuck his hat back on his head and ducked back into the car. The engine made a grinding shriek as he tried to jam it into gear without using the clutch. After two more tries, he figured it out and left a plume of smoke from his tires as he sped off down the street. The car was too powerful for his frayed, boozy nerves and he careened woozily from one side to the other and almost wound up hitting another parked car before he got it back under control, took the next corner and was gone.
For a second I thought maybe he was just going to get help. I guess I’m a little naïve sometimes. It wouldn’t have even occurred to me to leave the guy there like that. The drunk’s departure passed that burden off onto me pretty neatly though. Without even pausing to think about it, I started running to the fallen man who lay in a heap under the sickly yellow light of the streetlamp. The man wasn’t moving at all and there were a few wisps of steam rising from his body into the triangle of light. The leather soles of my shoes were slapping against the pavement and I heard a voice hollering for a medic before I realized that it was me and there weren’t any medics around waiting to help the wounded.
It wouldn’t have mattered a bit I realized as I came to a stop next to the man lying in the street. He’d probably been dead before the car that killed him had even come to a stop. Think about the last time you hit your thumb with a hammer while pounding a nail. Now imagine that your thumb was this man’s ribcage. Then imagine that the hammer was a couple of thousand pounds of finely manufactured automotive steel. Stop imagining after that because it only gets worse from there.
Clearly, there wasn’t anything that I could do to help this guy. Whatever worries and cares he’d had, they were in the past now. I stood up, sliding my hat off my head and running my hand through my hair. I looked both ways and there was nobody on the street. There wasn’t a payphone anywhere in sight either, but I figured that wasn’t too big a deal since this guy wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon. The cops could stop for coffee on their way, for all it would matter.
It was the first time I’d seen a dead body since putting my civilian clothes back on. They don’t really change much. I mean, the individual stiff does, sure. They get soft and smelly and do that whole “dust-to-dust” thing. What I mean is that the essential sameness of them all, the corpseness doesn’t change. That probably doesn’t make sense, and to really understand it you would have to go look at a lot of violently dead bodies, which I wouldn’t recommend.
Maybe if dead people hadn’t been such a common feature on the landscape of my life the situation would have struck me differently. As it was, I didn’t really feel anything at all. If the body isn’t dead yet, you run around and do everything you can to help them. Just like you hope they’d do for you if you were the one lying there staring at the sky. But once the breath stops and they’re gone, there’s no point in getting upset anymore. Their role in the drama is concluded and you might as well move on. There are more pressing matters. In this case, there really wasn’t anything more pressing so I just looked at him for a moment, waiting to see if I would feel anything. Now that they’d called off the war, we were supposed to go back to feeling some form of abstract sadness or regret when somebody we didn’t know died. I didn’t. He was dead and I wasn’t. It was lucky for me and unlucky for him. Or vice versa I suppose, depending on your point of view.
After watching him for a minute I remembered that there were actually some pressing matters for me. I was flat broke. I needed money badly and it occurred to me that this guy might’ve been carrying some when his ticket got punched. I felt a fleeting moment of guilt at the thought. Looting corpses was a mixed bag, morally speaking, at least as far as I was concerned. During combat, it was accepted that you took whatever ammo the guy had on him, but you never touched his personal effects unless you were going to send them home for him. Well, unless the uniform was the wrong color, in which case it was all just spoils of war. Back in this world, there was a moral quandary to be navigated. This guy was dead but to most people it was like he still owned his stuff. As though his cold hands were still on it, clinging to these last vestiges of his earthly existence. Like a spirit is really going to be concerned if you take a ten-spot from his pocket. He’s probably got harp-playing lessons to attend or something. Besides, if I didn’t come up with some money I’d be starving on the street by week’s end. That kind of thing really helps to clear a guy’s perspective on moral relativism, I tell you what.
I decided that whatever cash he had on him wouldn’t be missed, but that I’d leave any personal effects behind for his family or the ambulance driver or whoever. I felt bad for a second, but the winds of necessity cleared the air pretty quickly. I had to move swiftly before anyone came along. They wouldn’t understand and I’m not real good at explaining things. I rolled the body over onto its back and a second later I’m choking off the beginnings of a scream and scrabbling backwards on the pavement away from the body that stared up at the streetlight silently. The face that looked up at me with those cold dead eyes had been my own.
My heart felt like it had stopped. This was like the dream that I’d had countless times, only it was unfolding on the pavement of an American city instead of some European battlefield.
I’m not sure how long I sat there, staring at the body but scared to go back and take a better look. A couple emerged from an apartment building down the street talking loudly between themselves, arguing about something or other. The sound of their car starting up snapped me out of my reverie. Fortunately their car was parked facing the opposite direction and they drove off, apparently not noticing me. Their tail lights disappeared into the night and left me alone in the street with my own corpse.
Pulling myself together, I got back onto my feet and approached the body cautiously. Getting closer, I realized that it wasn’t exactly my face. The resemblance was striking, that was certain. Close enough that we could have gotten away with using each other’s drivers licenses. Our families and friends would have been able to tell us apart, but the average person in the street would easily confuse us. It was like when you see someone you haven’t seen for a few months and they’ve lost or gained a little weight, or gotten a different haircut.
The effect was unnerving. I’d seen more dead bodies than I cared to think about, many of them in even worse shape than this one. Seeing one looking back up at me with my own face was different though. Like most people, my face was familiar enough; I might not be pretty but I own a mirror anyway. Seeing that same mug staring up at me with those lifeless eyes was really giving me the creeps. I was standing there staring at it for a minute or two when I remembered that somebody could come along at any time, so I better get moving.
I rifled the pockets quickly feeling a little bit guilty, but not really. It was more like I felt guilty because I knew I was supposed to. He had a pack of Lucky’s in his pocket, which quickly found their way into mine. In the pocket of his overcoat I found a small package, wrapped tightly in brown paper and taped shut. It was quite heavy for its size. I was going to leave it when I found a slip of paper in the same pocket. I unfolded it, tilting the page so that I could read in the light from the streetlamp. It was brief:
1437 Littlehorn Ave. Alley entrance. Ask for Dave, then Rory. Payment on delivery.
It wasn’t Shakespeare, but the part about payment sure was interesting. Glancing up and down the street for inconvenient spectators, my brain worked the situation over. Odds are that whatever was in the wrapper wasn’t entirely on the level. It was wrapped up very securely, and you don’t usually courier things around to alley entrances at two in the morning unless you don’t want people to see you doing it.
Payment, the note said. I could use me some of that. I gave the dead man a good hard stare. He really did look a lot like me, the poor bastard. He looked enough like me that I might be able to get away with taking his place on this errand and get my hands on his paycheck in the process. It might not be much, but anything was more than what I had at the moment. Desperate times, desperate measures and all that. Hopefully it would at least give me enough that I could maybe catch a bus somewhere else and try to start over. Someplace where I hadn’t burnt so many bridges.
I finished going through his pockets and came up with a small pistol. Nothing fancy, just a little .32. A girl’s gun, frankly. Not good for much, but a lot better than nothing.
That pretty much cinched it. Running errands in the middle of the night, packing heat. This guy was into something that good folks wouldn’t be. If this was a criminal errand that meant it would certainly pay better than a legitimate one. That was the whole point, right? What the hell, I thought. I could just make it quick, drop off the mail, get the dosh, and hopefully be on the next bus to Chicago by the time this guy turned up missing. I was definitely in.
Halfway down the block it occurred to me that Littlehorn Avenue was clear on the other side of town. If this guy’s body was found before I got there and his pals heard about it, I wouldn’t even get a chance to audition for the part. I double-timed it back to the scene of the once and future crime but had no idea how to handle it. It’s not like I could drag the body two miles over to the river and dump it in. I suspected it was even harder to get a cab holding on to a dead guy, and the bus was right out. I looked around quickly, spotting a section of loose curbstone. I wriggled one of the chunks free and turned back to the body.
I hesitated a moment. It’s not often that guy smashes his own face in with a piece of concrete so I had to pause and contemplate the moment. Gripping the stone tightly, I brought it down hard on his face. On my face. My dead face. After the first couple blows it didn’t look so much like me and it got easier. I started to enjoy it in a way, which was a little worrisome in some distant part of my thoughts. The violence felt good. My anger at myself, at the world that had put all of this anger and violence into me, I let it all out on that lifeless face until it wasn’t even a face anymore. There was no way that it could be easily identified and that should at least buy me enough time to complete this poor jerk’s errand and collect his dough before anybody figured out that he was gone.
After some thinking I decided to leave the gun with the body. That way, when the cops found this pile of meat, they were more likely to think that he was probably involved with some sort of criminal element and not try too hard to figure out who he was. I wiped my prints off the piece and tucked it back into his pocket. While I was at it, I picked up his hat from the gutter to help complete my disguise as Mr. Whoever. I’d have to check the ID in his wallet before I got to the place so that I could at least know what my name was supposed to be.
One last look around didn’t reveal anybody who had seen me. I might have been able to make excuses to the cops if I’d been caught with my paws in his pockets, but beating an already dead person into hamburger was difficult to explain in polite company. I got while the getting was good.
If anyone is interested in subsequent chapters (or the whole thing) let me know. It's finished, but I was only given permission to post an excerpt.