WRONG TURN ON NOWHERE STREET - JAKE HINKSON
For David Goodis
I was home early because I’d just been fired at work. After I was escorted out of the office, I drove to a liquor store, but I was too scared to stop. I just wanted to get home to Fay, to tell her what had happened, to sit with her and discuss what we were going to do to try to repair the damage done to our lives, to our plans for the future. I so intent on seeing her, in fact, I didn’t notice the car parked across the street. If I had noticed it, I wouldn’t have thought anything of it. There are always plenty of cars parked on our street, after all. I unlocked the front door and walked in and found Fay on her knees in front of another man.
The mind slows down time. Most moments slip by as unregarded as breathing. Other moments outweigh the sun. In that one moment, I had far too much time. I saw my wife from behind, kneeling on their castoff clothes. I didn’t know the man. When I opened the door he looked straight at me and a sudden, terrible horror burned across his sweaty face. He was balding, with curly orange hair matted to his flabby chest and gut. He pushed her away, and she turned and saw me. I had ruined what was doubtless a very erotic moment. They couldn’t wait for each other, couldn’t wait for the trip up the stairs to the bedroom. Her hunger for him was too much.
Most men, I gather, would have stayed. They would have cursed and yelled. They might have even tried to kill one or both of the adulterers.
I turned and ran. I ran like I was in trouble, like I was the one who’d been found doing something terrible. I ran down the street like someone was chasing me. I ran until my lungs began to burn. I ran until I had to stop.
I was many streets away from my house, in another neighborhood I’d never walked through before. It was a rundown section of Philly, with thick rivers of garbage frozen in the gutters. I’d stopped in front of a demolished housing project. A broken mountain of brick, mortar, and twisted steel loomed next to me. I’d driven by it a few times but never paid much attention to it.
Now, however, I walked across the unsteady bed of busted rock and touched the mountain of rubble. I ran my fingertips across a smooth chunk of mortar, formed a fist, and punched it as hard as I could. Four spikes shot through my knuckles up to my elbow, but I did it again and it hurt even more so I did it again and finally stopped and pressed my torn flesh to my mouth.
My mind had been wiped clean by what I’d seen, but now my senses were beginning to return to me.
She was cheating on me. For how long? Who was he?
Then I wondered, does she love him?
Because it wasn’t the sex. It’s a horrifying thing to see the woman you love with her mouth around another man. But at that moment it was the thought that she didn’t love me that opened like a pit at my feet. I was alone.
And I had no job. An hour ago losing my job had terrified me. Now I knew I would have to endure that fear alone.
My knuckles began to bleed. I watched my blood ooze out of my body. They didn’t hurt much if I didn’t move them.
“You looking for someone?”
I turned and a middle aged woman looked back at me from the street. She was skinny, with tiny breasts and very little hair. Her colorless face was neither concerned nor angry. She didn’t even look curious. Her face looked as if she was bored.
“No,” I said.
“Why you hitting them rocks?”
“I don’t know.”
She stared at me. She wore a black t-shirt, jeans, and a pair of sneakers. Her lanky arms hung at her sides like useless appendages.
“You upset?” she asked.
“You want something for that?”
“You want something make you feel better?”
I looked up and down the street. Philadelphia had died years ago. She and I stood among the ruins of a once great city.
She asked me. “You thinking about it?”
“No,” I said.
“You look like you’re thinking about it.” She eased toward me across the uncertain debris. “You look like you’re thinking about something.”
“I’m thinking about our ruined city.”
“America was born here, and it died here.”
She gained her footing. “You want something to make you feel better?”
“What are you talking about? Sex or drugs?”
“I’ll fuck you if you want.”
“I don’t want to fuck anybody.” I thought of the suit coat I’d dropped on the floor of my living room and shrugged. “I don’t even have my wallet, anyway.”
“Do you stay around here? You can go get it. I’ll wait.”
I shook my head. “I appreciate the offer... What’s your name?”
“Why you want my name?”
“Just to know it.”
“Fay, I’m Herbert.”
She nodded. “You got no money?”
“None.” I laughed. “In fact, I lost my job today. I got nothing, Fay. I got nothing.”
“Where do you stay?”
I pointed vaguely to my right. “Down that way. On Baxter.”
“Why don’t you go home?”
I shook my head.
She crossed her skinny arms. “Why don’t you come with me?”
Fay lived in a crumbling tenement on a narrow side street I’d never seen before. She led me to an uneven alleyway overrun with trash and broken bottles. I stepped gingerly, but she navigated it without looking down. We came to a small door peeling green paint, and Fay produced a key from her pocket and went inside. I followed her slowly.
The hovel was an old bathroom converted unconvincingly into an apartment. A mat lay in front of a sink and a toilet. A shopping cart against the wall held a mound of clothes.
That was it.
“You live here?”
She sat down on the mat. “Yeah.”
I sat down. Over us wind whistled through a gaping hole in the ceiling.
My hand hurt. Dried blood caked my knuckles and my fingers. I stared down, afraid to look up at the stranger next to me.
Finally, I did. Fay sat with her back to the toilet, observing me. Her face was gaunt except for the lumps of flesh around her protruding brown eyes. She seemed tired and alert at the same time, and she glanced at the door every few seconds.
I asked, “Why did you invite me here?”
She shrugged. “Something to do. Someone to talk to. Thought you might think again about giving me some money to fuck.”
Something like a grin cracked her lips and I saw some gaps where teeth should be.
“How long have you lived here?” I asked.
“I’ve been over on Baxter about three years. Moved here for a job.”
She moved her head in the approximation of a nod and glanced again at the door. If I’d been in my right mind, I would have wondered why she kept looking at it. But if I had been in my right mind I wouldn’t have been there anyway.
“I really moved here for a woman,” I said. “The job was extra. She knew someone who knew someone.”
Fay moved her head again.
I asked her, “You live here?”
“You said that already.”
“Do you...how do you live here? Like this?”
She rubbed her mouth the back of her hand. “Do what I do. What I gotta do. Nothing else but dying.”
I stared hard at her for a moment and some flash of a long forgotten charity rose up in me. My father had always been a charitable man, but I’d long since decided he was just a soft touch. A good man, yes, but why give money to bums? And not even change. Dad would give cash to any smelly wino who asked him. I didn’t inherit that from the old man.
But now—now I thought about helping poor Fay. This is no way to live, I wanted to say. I’ll help you. I’d go home and get my wallet. I’d buy her some food. I’d take her somewhere. I’d make this poor woman my special mission in life.
This hit me like some kind of religious epiphany. I would save this Fay somehow.
I really was out of my mind.
The door opened and two men stood there.
“On your feet, fuck-o,” one said, but before I could move the other stepped in and smashed me in the head with something heavy.
I wasn’t knocked unconscious but my conscious mind was scrambled. Sight and sound and sensation spun and shook and shattered. I didn’t know what the hell was going on.
Voices moved above me.
Violence erupted around me. I babbled and groped for something to hold and strained for something to see. The only thing I was sure of was the ground.
Things calmed and darkened.
Find your fingers, I thought.
Eventually I did. I moved them.
Touch your face.
It was wet. Blood. Sweat.
I sat up and found the sink, but the water wouldn’t run. I used my tie to wipe my face. I should have stayed blind.
Fay lay on her mat, her skull bashed in, blood still seeping out. I touched her arm. Already going cold. Her eyes were the telltale sign, though. Still protruded, they searched for nothing now. Blood ran across her pupils and dripped on the floor.
I couldn’t move, and yet it felt as if I was being hurled down a flight of stairs. It was as if all the world’s gravity had stopped and everything had flown apart.
I couldn’t move, but I had to move.
I couldn’t. The dead woman next to me bled until her blood was gone. I sat shaking, trying to convince myself to leave that bloody little hole in the wall.
Who were the two men? What had they looked like? Why had they murdered Fay?
I shook my head.
Pull it together. Pull it together. You must leave. You must get out of here.
I stood up. Good. I stepped toward the door and opened it. Weak sunlight spilled across the floor and Fay lay covered in blood. I stepped out into the alley, but I was only a couple of steps away from the door when I saw blue lights reflect off the end of the alleyway. In a moment, I turned to run the other way but it was a dead end. I remembered the hole in the ceiling. Tires screeched. I ran into the room, past Fay and stepped up on the toilet and pulled myself up into the ceiling.
It was dark and cramped and I had to crawl into a fetal position to fit. I didn’t move for fear of making too much noise. If they’d seen me in the alley then that would be that. If not, I needed to be quiet.
The door opened and a cop walked in. He stood in the sunlight and I saw his face. He was tall and handsome, with a shaved head.
He looked at the floor a moment, stepped out and looked up and down the alley. I saw him pass back and forth in front of the doorway. Then he stepped back in. He looked up at the hole where I was wedged.
He stepped forward and peered.
Then he looked down at Fay and rubbed his face. He dug a cell phone out of his pocket, stepped to the door and looked down the alley.
“G, it’s Sean. What the fuck, man? I thought you said the guy was here...No...Well, he sure as hell isn’t here now...Don’t get smart with me, you fucking hayseed. I’m here now, and the guy isn’t here...No, I’m looking at her. She’s deader than all hell, but the guy’s not here. I told you to...shut up! Shut the fuck up, G. I told you call me the second you left, so I could cruise right on in here...Ok, ok, ok, just shut up and let me think for a second.”
He shook his head and lowered the phone to his side. Looking down at Fay, he rubbed his face and the sunlight flashed through beads of his sweat. He looked out the door and raised the phone to his ear. “Okay. Where are you now? ...Good, meet me in the old grocery store under the train. No. Over there. Three minutes. I’m coming on foot. Leave your car. Both of you, be there in three minutes.”
He flipped his phone shut and ran out.
I climbed down and hurried to the door. I was blackened from the grime in the ceiling, and when I stepped into the alleyway dust bellowed off of me. I ran down the alley and stopped at the entrance. The cop was running down Prince Street when suddenly he hung a sharp left on a thru street.
I had only a moment to consider what was happening, but in that moment I knew what I had to do. I started running. I was pretty sure the cop was heading to an abandoned building nearby that had been a family grocery until someone had shot the guy who owned it. The dead guy’s wife and son closed up and left Philly. Now the place was gutted. Someone had bashed in the front door and no one had bothered to patch it up. I knew the cop was heading there, and I thought I knew why.
I ran straight down Prince. I must have looked like a ghoul, covered in grime and blood. People lined the streets. They’d seen the cop and they saw me. That must have looked odd.
The cop was zigzagging through the alleys to get to the grocery. He probably didn’t mind the people on the street seeing him run, but he didn’t want too many witnesses. I followed him, catching occasional glimpses of him, but I tripped over a drain pipe and spilt open my knee. I climbed to my feet and hobbled the rest of the way.
I was almost there when I heard the gunshots. I crouched at the end of the alley behind the rotting frame of an old sofa and watched the front of the grocery. It didn’t take long before I heard sirens and the cops showed up. Sean came out of the grocery and did most of his talking to a stern-faced cop with gray hair. Then he took them all inside the building.
The way I figured things, he called for backup and ran to meet the two thugs. When he got there, he shot them on site. When his backup came, he said he’d followed the thugs from the scene of Fay’s murder, attempted to apprehend them, and shot them in self defense.
If I had it figured right, I was off the hook. Sean had some reason to kill Fay. Maybe he was her pimp. Maybe she sold drugs for him. Either way he had some reason to want to get rid of her, so he had his thugs wait until she had a client—or what looked like a client—and they busted in and killed her. The idea was to frame me for the murder. I’m sure I would have been shot while resisting arrest. Now, though, he’d probably written me off. The cops had their killers. I could go home.
But I thought of Fay dead back there in that little rat hole, and I couldn’t bring myself to run away.
Cops and technicians came and went for the next couple of hours. The tepid sun disappeared from the sky and a wintry moon rose in its place.
Sean leaned against a squad car with his arms crossed and talked to the cops until the gray-haired guy with the stern face sent him away.
That’s when I stood up and walked toward the cops. I had my hands up. “Excuse me,” I said. I was polite because I knew I looked like walking death.
They spread out around me. I locked eyes with the gray-haired guy.
I said, “I have some information about the shootings.”
I knew if I could get them to listen to me I could explain what had happened. I could tell them to check Sean’s cell for calls made to the two thugs. I could tell them to investigate his association with Fay.
I was at the station five hours. They let me clean up in the restroom, and I gave my state-ment about fifty times to people from homicide, narcotics, vice, and internal affairs—to the whole damn department it seemed like. It was midnight by the time someone gave me a lift back to Baxter Street.
I stood outside my front door for a long time. As I climbed the steps, a breeze swept down the street and scalded my face. I moved like a man mounting the gallows, but when I turned my key in the lock I knew she’d be gone. We were too much alike. I had run away. So would she.
Maybe she would be back. Maybe not.
The empty apartment sat cold and silent in the pale yellow glow of the streetlamp outside. When I closed the front door behind me everything turned black. I moved through the dark trying to find my way.
BIO: Jake Hinkson has been hard at work all summer long on his book about film noir. With a rush of recent evil inspiration, we are the beneficiaries of this story. You can find his fiction at The Flash Fiction Offensive, Crooked, A Twist Of Noir and Powder Burn Flash, among other places. You can learn more about Jake and his projects at his own blog, The Night Editor.
Irish Times Crime Fiction column, February 2018
13 hours ago