MEN LIKE US - DOUGLAS SULLIVAN
It started in the city. A distance away from the suburban void, close enough to the heart to feel blood pumping through the ventricles.
It started down behind the Jack in the Box, one street over from the pharmacy and three streets over from where they kissed the second time.
It started after school, after supper, after graduation, after two other failed lovers and three abortions, after sixteen part-time jobs, all involving retail cash registers and paper hats.
It started ten minutes ago. The first shot was fired careened two blocks away. It rattled through a young couple’s bedroom, grazed her breast; he had his eyes closed, thought it was her period, freaked. The second shot was from a smaller gun; the pop barely escaped the suite, even as an up the block Cholo bursts from the lobby door. His Jesus chain spattered red, his Spanish fading into prayer English as he’s stumbling by.
It’s through that lobby of the Grand Hotel: spot the bullet casings, spot the tattered wood. The floor’s marble, feels right for the heart we draw closer to.
There’s not many bodies, not many dead, seems most are the type to run from gunfire not toward it. Following the destruction in reverse, back past the discarded pistol, back past a patron, innocent, with her fingers still sort-of crawling themselves forward.
This hotel is a marvel, but its moment hasn’t been defined yet. Its history is still developing as we push along the second floor hallway. The golden glint of the room numbers, a faint scream, a curdle of perceived meaning, but not to us, not if we want to catch it starting; the beginning is too important, has to be seen.
Room six one three. View of the whole valley. Etched into the skyline, the buildings force the sun into jagged patterns that spray across the main room. This is a suite: a sitting room, king bed, plasma, polished bath knobs. We’re moving faster now, passed the couch flipped, cotton shredded across the room’s girth; passed bits of fabric, bits of wood, drops of blood, a limb near the mini-bar. The sun pulls through that room, past the bathroom, and the two men slumped over each other in there.
The money appears in single bills at first; an errant hundred peeking from beneath the door frame, a stack of rubber bands across the marble counter. He’s in the bedroom. Against the nearside wall, hand on his gut, crimson trickling through his fingers. He’s wheezing like a husky grade-schooler, and a blackness is wiping across his pupils. Already we know he’s too young to die. His face hasn’t yet scarred, the angles to his frame are still sharp, able to bear weight. Sweat cakes along his brow, his sideburns. This is James. Never call him Jim.
She comes from an adjacent room. We know her; she grew up around the corner from all of us. She’s the one who used to buy coffee before everyone else. She had the sun blonde hair year round, and one dark winter night she came by our apartment. She wanted to go for hot chocolate, to the market where they still sold looseys, and the strong peppermint cocoa to mask the smell. She came and we went, and we never told her, never took the two seconds to say you’re pretty when you smile. Instead, we became pals; we became achievers at other things, distractions really, because even that young -- not men, but closer in our heads -- we knew a girl like her comes rarely, sometimes not even once. James knew that, probably knew it coming down the birth canal. That’s why he’s here, down on the ground for her, and she’s desperate to love him for as long as she can, but that time is shrinking. She leans over him, kissing his cheek, a tinge of blood across her bottom lip.
Men like us aren’t usually here for this type of thing. The final moments, the lovers dealing with the results of a sage violence. Thugs like us, dirty work people like us, we’re usually getting the car, taking care of the other guy; we bag money, we don’t spend it.
She’s crying softly, her eyes silver by it. She slides the black duffel away from his grasp. It opens wide enough for the dollars, still vacuum-sealed in clear plastic, to reveal their abundance.
He tries whispering pieces of the story together. He’s mumbling about men coming from all corners, blasts of heat, ripples of sound. He tries apologizing to her, a sniffle of words that would never escape the man he was just hours ago. She has his hand on her leg, looking at his mouth as they try the words he’s thinking. He remembers too far back. He wastes precious moments recounting the weighing and cutting. We can still taste the residue on our fingers. Listening to him talk, we’re the ones who start thinking if there’s a balloon anywhere that someone forgot.
He grabs at her body digging his nails into her. She leans in, taking him against her breast. He slides through emotions as though snippets of years he’ll never see. He pulls thin strands of her hair, tells her to take the money. The sirens are distant yet draw closer, the minutes begin making their decisions. He wants her to live a better life, move from the city, find happiness; she mistakes his tears for sadness. He’s angry, sucking air now; he says she needs to get who did this. Hunt them, kill them.
We’re getting antsy in the adjacent room. Our clothes shrink from neck and back sweat. We see them as an abstraction. A collection of noises, hair, and skin. The sunbeams turn sinister amber coming through the off-white drapes. She lays him on his back, as the city quiets for the approaching police.
She moves to the money, zips the bag, but keeps coming back to him. She touches his body, his legs, his arm; when she holds his face for an instant his eyes adjust to see her fill his frame once again, allowing him a smile black with blood. Men like us never have instances such as this. We’re in here shifting one foot to the other, ruffling our jackets.
In these final moments, those things said about him as a boy return: he looks pure, his eyes smokey blue reveal truth in whatever they lay upon, and he has a deep, deep capacity to love. He lays back across her legs, and looks to be remembering some great instance. Maybe it’s when he learned how slick he was, when he first had her over for the night, how he woke up with her leg still jammed in between his.
There’ll always be a key difference between a man like him and us. He never expects to lose, and until now why should he.
That’s his gold ring. That’s his diamond chain gifted to her. That’s his girl, his money, and his Goddamn suite. Men like us though, we took our time to learn things. We use alleys, not avenues. We unlatch your back lock, we use our kiddie knife to do it, and we take what’s been waiting for us.
When we finally lose our patience, we come through the door two guns already out. Her back’s to us, but he sees. He paws and snatches at her, trying to grab her attention. He’s lost his words; all that remains are stutters and vague gurgles. When she steps from him toward us, his eyes nearly burst. His brain’s last synapse carries his sudden understanding of how this all went down. His breaths sharpen to a shrill chirp. Gun rounds chamber, hammers click, and men like us, we always knew it would be like this.
BIO: Born in the Northeast. Cultivated in the Southeast. Maturing in the West. Douglas Sullivan holds a bachelor’s degree in English. He’s been writing professionally for eight years, unless professionally is defined by dollars earned from the craft. He’s held many jobs, from running a boutique coffee shop to editing fitness videos, and along the way his writing has amassed local prizes as Winners of the Barbara A. Pilon Poetry Contest and the Robert Walker Memorial fiction award. Douglas likes clean prose with strong coffee. He lives in a California Valley with increasing adoration, though if he has to choose a coast, he has to choose the East.