THE LAST NASTY - ROBERT CRISMAN
Wong’s was a trick bar, hos for days upon days. Stars, so-sos, skanks, whatever your budget might dictate.
A lot of girls on that last low, low level went home with Roger.
Roger the Dogcatcher came up to the bottom to feed.
The first thing you noticed, he had these thick, wide, red lips, so red they almost looked lipsticked. They were set in a sneer that advertised hatred, contempt for all women. He wouldn’t want you to miss it. It was up there in lights.
This man in a deep, dank, dark hole…
His eyes clinched it. Gray as cold winter ice with bodies buried beneath.
He’d fix on some ho, one of the ones who, next year or next month or next week, or maybe tonight, would be pawing through dumpsters, for something to eat or a rig. He’d measure them there with those eyes, as if he’d already picked out their coffin. A cheap one.
And these women would go with him, man! Every time he came into Wong’s he took one or more with him. Every time. The skanks and the dregs. Like Old Maggie with maybe five teeth in her head.
The ones whose habits had chewed up all memory of good times and hope.
You’d have thought even they would have passed. But maybe they’d looked in his eyes and found just the thing they’d been seeking forever.
His eyes held this promise: he’d take them down to that place at the end of their long, bump road, the one at the end of their dope dreams, where pain itself dies and the blood on the walls turns to gray and fades out.
He’d take them and flay them and make them eat mud, those eyes said, then make them walk home with the dawn coming up on the last of their cold, gray tomorrows.
Roanne and Michelle watched the skanks as they schlumped out the door with this fucker. After the first time they saw the parade, they didn’t pay it much mind; they were stars in this bar were they not? Michelle, early 20s, suburban svelte, with lips and blue eyes that belonged on a billboard. Roanne, the Mediterranean princess at age 29 whose black eyes could tell you your secrets, put hunger in all the men’s eyes.
They were stars! At least in those first weeks...
And Roger? They simply couldn’t imagine... Better dogs than that motherfucker.
This wasn’t a thing they’d give voice to of course, joke or no joke. Yeah, shit was starting to press on all sides—dope chews you—but no way would they let that guy next. The skanks he took out? Well, sad on them. Roanne and Michelle? Never happen.
The guy, though. Something about him... It grew in their guts. Part of it was, he dealt dope. Not at Wong’s, a Mexican there had the franchise, but word gets around, and they gave him a spot in the back of their minds, where all dark tomorrows are stored.
Chiva sings, does it not?
Time passed. Roanne and Michelle turned the tricks, banged the dope, turned the tricks, banged the dope. The tricks and the dope chewed away, chewed away...
Things changed up.
The first thing they noticed, Roanne and Michelle, trick action fell off. It took them some while to notice it too. They’d put it down to slow nights. Every bar has them. A pain in the ass—dope has no slow nights—but, c’est la vie. They were stars, right? Nothing to sweat. Except, well, uh...all of a sudden it seemed that tricks’ noses were pointed in other directions.
Before, they’d lock on with a snick, just like that, when Roanne and Michelle would come stepping on in. Now, though, yeah, sure, they’d look—and then look on past to see who might be coming in after.
See, tricks want to pop cherries, man, every last one. They want the girls all wide-eyed beneath them, their lives changed forever or some shit like that. And now, a guy could come in from Spokane or Chicago, never been in this bar in his life, and know that Roanne and Michelle had worked here a lifetime.
It’s something to do with the eyes and the posture. On any stroll in the world it’s the same: a ho walks the beat and the next thing you know, her eyes are off in some middle distance to stay. And somehow the air presses down on her now; her shoulders are bunched, an invisible hand presses in on her stomach, and check out the way that she walks—like she’s finally resigned to the fact that this sidewalk is it and there’s no roadmap home. Even the way that her jaws crack that gum—this speaks to the fact that she knows every crack in the sidewalk by name.
Same in the bars. One night too many and a girl starts to look as if she just wants to phone her act in.
Dope sucked them right up, Roanne and Michelle. Their hollowed cheeks and cavernous sockets, the leeched-out complexions, the droop in the place of the drape of their slacks off their ass told the story. As did their grooming faux pas: bird-nest hair gone unwashed; baths gone untaken...
Roanne had two molars just break like thin sticks in a week.
They ached and they oozed and they started to smell.
Trick action? Low flyers. Cheap motherfuckers, in-and-out blowjobs in cars and like that.
You take what God gives you. All those bills, man, right there, and no late pays accepted...
Dark tomorrows crept closer. They started to feel the Dogcatcher’s iced-over eyes...
Each time he came in now his eyes sought them out. Each time their jaws would notch tighter.
Each fucking time... They could hear a clock ticking louder and louder...
Hounds baying at doom bells striking the hour.
He softened them up, got them used to being two women his eyes would seek out.
Tick-tock went the clock. Things dried up. The stars fell from heaven.
Then this happened: Michelle stumbled up from her chair one night around ten to go to the can. The dude on his usual stool at the bar as she passed said, “Walk steady, baby, or you’re gonna fall.”
From then on, little nothings: “Hi, ladies, cold out there, ain’t it?” Or maybe, “You doing okay?” He knew fucking well that they weren’t.
He wrapped them like odors and smoke.
They finally got hungry enough. They were starving, their bones showed.
And who else to feed them? The last candyman in the world...
They made the approach and he ran it down, the way it would be. Their bodies for dope, tonight at his place in Shoreline. Eleven o’clock, they’d have to cab out there. He wrote the address. Be there or be dopesick.
They got there on time. They spent the next hour-and-a-half on their bellies and knees. Dude took his time...
After, he broke out the dope.
On their way out the door, he told them, Friday, you be here, same time.
They stumbled their way to a bus. Michelle cursed and cried through clenched teeth. “Fucker, the fucker, the fucker...” Roanne stared ahead, as if she was walking alone through a desert.
Michelle lurched to the curb, bent over, threw up.
Roanne said, “We’ll rob him.” This was on Thursday.
She was half-drunk when she said it. Michelle blinked, almost missed it, said, “Huh?”
Roanne told her again. Michelle felt this clench in her gut, then tried to get used to the idea and like it.
They got there that Friday. Roanne had a gun in her purse, a .25 auto she’d bought from some bikers months back. The miracle was, she hadn’t hocked it.
She knew dude had one, of course. He’d fucking have to. And she had never fired a gun in her life. Michelle? Forget it. But Roanne had it mapped: she’d pull the gun when dude had his hand on his dick. Then, easy from there...
You know what it takes to be good with a gun? You aim the thing, pull the trigger, bang, bang, you’re a marksman. No sweat. The main thing is this: you better be ready, the minute you bring the thing out, to blow somebody away.
Here, Roanne blinked. She wanted that last though to lay down and die.
It kept popping back. The visual: red, ragged…
Dude had them strip naked first thing.
Roanne naked, the gun in her purse; fuck best-laid plans.
What had she been thinking? He did this last time! The booze made her stupid.
Dude took Michelle first, on her knees. He bunched her hair tight in his hands. He stared at Roanne with a terrible smile.
Bitch, let your mind work on what’s coming...
He disengaged then, made it a show, letting his half-a-hard hang there a moment, pinning Roanne all the while. He tucked it slowly, zipped up, and looked down on Michelle. She knelt like a carving on some bas-relief of some tired orgy long, long ago. He told Michelle, “Up,” and turned toward the bedroom. He said to Roanne, “You wait till I call you.” He pushed Michelle into the bedroom. He left the door open a bit.
Dude really thought he was showtime.
He wanted Roanne to hear all the ramming, the slamming, the slapping, the squealing, the strapping, the epithets sprayed like saliva, the commands to Michelle to sink deeper in shit.
He dumped Michelle on the bed with a thwump. Then, dude’s nasty laughter, the crack of his hand on her ass, Michelle’s yelp of pain. Then, “Gimme your hands.”
A gutteral rasp, Michelle whimpered something. All Roanne heard was the fear. Dude said, “Shut the fuck up.” He cracked her again and Michelle yelped again.
Roanne made her way to the couch like a blind woman, groping. She felt fear and more fear and confusion.
The thing was on, like right now...
It scared her to death. All she could hear now was drumming.
The purse on the couch. Get the gun...
She pulled the gun out of her purse. She was naked. She wanted her clothes...
She got to the bedroom and pushed the door open, slowly now, slo-o-owly. Slow as a trip to the other side of the moon.
The door squeaked...
The dude there on top of Michelle. Big, fat, hairy ass—stopped dead in mid-stroke. His head whipped Roanne’s way. A big flash of fear in his eyes.
Just her presence. He’d never imagined anything like this when he scripted this thing.
Roanne, frozen, mouth open, gun still at her side…
Dude bounced off that bed. Moving now, screaming! “You fucking bitch!”
Roanne, insides shrieking, noise like a jackhammer, roar all around her—
She brought the gun up. The thing weighed eight tons. She made herself lift that gun up. God knows where she dredged up the will.
Dude, rushing right at her! Roanne’s eyes squeezed almost shut! She shot his ass, blam, then again—and dude screamed, spun away. She shot him again.
Dude, staggering, crazy, all over the room. Roanne’s eyes, still half shut. She shot him again, then again, then again, blam! blam! blam! Dude hit the bed. She sighted again, pulled the trigger, it clicked. Dude slid to the floor on his back and lay still. His whole face was blood.
Silence then; dead, crackling noise...
Dude on the floor by the bed and—
Michelle! On the bed, sprawled! Her eye, the left one, red, spattered—dripping down onto her chest…
Roanne sank down on her haunches.
She sat there, Roanne, her mind a sheet of white noise. Michelle on the bed... Roanne sat and gaped. The room disappeared. The gun slid away to the floor.
The clock inched ahead, and all of a sudden this room was the world...
Roanne, blinking... This didn’t happen... Michelle on the bed, the gray sheets sopped red, but...this—didn’t—happen—not—No!
Roanne’s gun hand started to shake. Palsied hand! It wouldn’t stop shaking! The tremors spread up her arm, through her body.
She scrunched tight, clasped her arms to her chest. Squeezed her eyes shut, bowed her head. Seeking blackness there at the end of the maze spread before her. A squid’s-ink-like blackness born of her fear, in which she could lose all the demons now tearing her heart and her brain and her nerves and her guts.
How many times had she thrown off pursuit in this blackness? Ten million times...
She drifted in toward the promise of freedom.
A promise kept, with provisos.
Roanne sat for forty-five minutes.
Michelle on the bed. Her death took on life as a monster with tendrils that snaked all around and inside Roanne. A monster, shadowing the world, all the way to its very last outpost.
But the blackness enveloped the monster, then moved like a fog right on in, seeping through fissures and into the monster’s dark veins, into tendons and gristle and bone. It chewed through the monster’s rank substance and leeched out its blood. The monster’s tendrils retracted, began to dissolve.
The monster, wisped smoke, hollow bones, almost an abstract.
Roanne could ingest and shit out the bones.
Roanne ingested the monster, now nothing but bones, No flesh, no blood. Nothing even to say where it came from. The monster, effaced...
She lay on that bed with no past. She came from some other world, far away from Roanne.
Nothing but bones in the room now...
Within the silence, a pulse like a mantra, soothing in blackness. Inuring Roanne, not only to death, but her life.
Her life, on the floor with those bones. Blackness ensconced in her marrow.
The last dim lights have gone out. Roanne is a ghost.
She sat there for forty-five minutes, then opened her eyes, looked around. Click, dude on the floor. Michelle on the bed, click, click, click. The room, the oversized bed, the bric-a-brac, garish.
The dresser, the mirror, the end-table lamp that smashed to the floor when Dogcatcher bounced off the bed. The purple-draped window... Death couldn’t mute the hamburger pasha’s conceit.
Roanne looked around. The room’s hard dimensions. The clock by the bed, ticking, ticking.
She gathered herself. She was naked. She’d peed on the floor where she’d sat. She viewed the puddle of urine and she was detached, yet it spurred her to move. The gun there beside her... Yes, time.
She lurched to her feet. Her mind clicked dully, as if underwater, trying to come up with moves. Her clothes lay on the living room floor. She had to get to the bathroom to wash off the piss and the stink.
Then...what? Slow down... The gun, yes, and then—she had to get out of this place, get to...where? How? She took two steps, shaky steps, blinking and—whoa! She stopped, shook her head as if to shuck off the cobwebs.
The dope in the box by the bed...
Hunger kicked in.
The dopefiend came back to the land of the living.
Roanne moved to the bed. Michelle there but—Roanne armored herself and kept moving.
She took one look, full-on, at Michelle, enmeshed in death’s odors. She looked quickly, breath stopped, and then—on to business.
She snatched the box, took it back by the place where she’d sat for 45 minutes. She opened the box and—oh yes, there it was. Two, three ounces. Primo brown dope…
And the cash. A thick wad of bills. Her belly tightened.
A quick flash of dreamscape, the dream we all dream of: clouds and blue sky and the whole world receding in distance.
She looked at the door, closed the box, started out of the room. Now, get her clothes! She stopped and went back for the gun. She picked it up, paused, looked around.
Dude always carried a flash wad of cash in his pockets. Where were his pants? Ah, there at the foot of the bed, crumpled up. The prick couldn’t wait to get at Michelle.
Roanne dug in the pockets, came out with another thick roll.
The getaway fund, growing, growing... A giggle almost ripped out of her then.
She left the room. Goodbye forever. Goodbye, Michelle...
No time! She breathed in deep, a last farewell to her friend.
On the way out the door she stopped in the bathroom, wiped off the piss, dressed, and fixed. She muscled the fucker. No time to search out a vein.
Roanne walked swiftly away from the house. The street: dark, silent, and no one around.
Three ounces of dope and a shitload of cash in her pockets. No telling what might come at her out here.
She would have cabbed but, not from that house.
She had to get somewhere safe.
Shari’s, the restaurant, six blocks away, on Aurora. She’d hotfoot it there, call a cab and go...where?
A motel, someplace. Tuck herself in for the night. And then, after? Out of here, out of here, gone and away…
She’d think the thing through in the morning.
Shari’s, six blocks, forever... But now, Aurora. She saw Shari’s light in the distance. Cars ghosted by.
Alongside a cluster of signs by the road up ahead, a streetlight bathing a bus stop. A shadow moved into the puddle of light. Roanne slowed, heart thumping under the chiva.
A man with a gun? Something with six-inch-long teeth? Ah, just some old broke-dick, huddled and shuffling, slow-moving, skinny. A woman...
Roanne shivered. The night, cold as hell.
The figure there, lit like a statue under the light. Old woman, seemed like. Cracked, sucked-in face and—Jesus Christ! Maggie!
Old Maggie from down at the bar.
Flashback: Dogcatcher walking out of the bar with Maggie in tow. Roanne laughing, telling Michelle that Maggie’d be no good for dogs...
Roanne slowed, then stopped, as if fixed in headlights.
Maggie there, huddled, abandoned, Xs for eyes... Yet oddly intent. Checking the cars gusting by. Maggie, trolling...
She turned, saw Roanne, blinked, and then stared.
Rage flared in her eyes.
And winked out. She turned to the road, eyes again blanks. She gestured, vaguely, toward Shari’s.
Telling Roanne to find her own spot.
Roanne stared and stared. Maggie, trolling, so cold she was blue.
A freeze that will come at the end of the world.
Bone-deep in Roanne.
BIO: When Crisman got out of the mix he brought some ghosts with him. Roanne was one. Noir by and large is a romantic genre--doom as the Goddess of Night and all that--but there’s nothing romantic at all about the milieu where the stories were born.
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