Friday, August 6, 2010

A Twist Of Noir 533 - Jane Hammons


Originally published in Kitchen Sink Magazine in Summer 2003

Until I left with Rory, I shared a tiny one-room trailer with my mother who used to wait tables at the Corners before it turned into a self-serve cafeteria. Even when she was a waitress, she was a whore, so when the diner went self-service, she became a whore full-time. Most of her customers were truck drivers who kept her occupied day and night. When I wasn’t asleep, I lived in the cafeteria where I’d had a job bussing tables and tending the cash register since I was in junior high. At night, I retired to the old Rambler station wagon that has been parked outside the trailer for as long as I can remember. For as long as I can remember, it has rambled nowhere.

In cold weather, I ran a cord into the trailer so I could turn on my electric blanket; warm, I rolled down the windows, opened the back and counted the headlights of cars passing through the night.

Living in the Corners, you learn to read the tired, cranked-up anger of truck drivers running behind schedule; the agitation of tourist Daddies driving their families around to visit Indian pueblos and to hike on the mesas.

Where are the nearest petroglyphs? How far to the lava tubes?

Living in the Corners, you learn to hear the real questions.

How can you live in a place like this? Want to fuck?

For years, I dreamed of murder. Truck drivers, bikers, hitchhikers. More often the girl whose family was driving her to college. Slipping into her skin, I’d take my place in the back seat of the station wagon, squashed between two little brothers who loved me more than anything in the world. I would miss them terribly. But there was no turning back. My luggage was piled high atop the station wagon and strapped down with bungie cords. Rory promised me a life on the golden beaches of California. When I left the Corners, all I took was the extension cord and my electric blanket, its frayed wires exposed and dangerous.

As soon as we found a little apartment in a shabby neighborhood across the bay from San Francisco, Rory took me to the local Goodwill and bought me some used-up career clothes and some run-down practical shoes to wear when I went job-hunting. He told me to be sure to mention that I had worked at the same place for over 10 years. Employers like long-term commitment, he said. Then he took off on a fishing boat. Every month, he deposits money in a checking account. In this way, he tends to my needs.

From the fire escape, I can see the Golden Gate Bridge. I know there must be a beach nearby. But I spend my days in the apartment: two square rooms; living room, bedroom; two rectangular ones; kitchen and bathroom.

The dog lives three houses over behind a white stucco box with a fake cottage front. He is chained to a post at the entrance of his ramshackle tin shed. The chain is long, extended by a fraying rope looped through the collar around his neck. It allows him to cover every inch of the hard-packed earth that is his yard. Sometimes he naps in the shade of a scraggly tree. Like the tree, the dog is fed and watered, but never really cared for.

He is sadly happy. He leaps after butterflies and birds, the staked chain yanking him back to earth. He is a loud, carefree barker. Whenever I venture out onto the fire escape, he greets me sharply. He accompanies the far away foghorn and the whistle of the trains on the tracks nearby. He answers the screams and giggles of small children in the neighborhood and the insults and loud music of the older ones. When he barks too long or too loud, the neighborhood begins to twitch.

When you live in the Corners, you learn to feel it: children cooped up in the corners of cars; dogs and cats imprisoned in travel cages; wives needing to pee; husbands longing to drive their minivans over the nearest canyon ledge. Here, too, I feel the twitch of the people who surround me, especially the wretch who gives the dog exactly three barks before she barks back.

“Would you keep your dog quiet?” she whines. She never says anything else. Just ‘Would you keep your dog quiet?’

When the woman whines, the dog usually stops barking immediately. If the woman whines twice, his thin arthritic owner limps out into the backyard and beats him with a heavy stick. I believe that, like me, the woman watches this.

In November, the fog closes in. The foghorn bellows day and night; the dog barks; the woman whines. Given the height of the apartment buildings and the angle necessary to see over the bungalow, I predict fourth floor, street-side window.

When you live in the Corners and spend your days listening to trucks approaching from miles away, you learn to measure distance through sound.

I put on my career clothes and stuff the extension cord into the pocket of my jacket. I migrate from one apartment building to the next, standing amid the stiff shrubbery that surrounds each, sometimes moving beneath the broad leaves of the obligatory palm tree. A few neighbors glance my way. It is possible that they have never seen me before. It is certain that theyve never seen me in my career clothes and practical shoes.

Occasionally, I check my watch as I’ve seen others do and look down the street as if waiting for a ride. At noon the gaily-dressed pack of small children clamors by, waving their construction paper creations as they skip home for lunch. The sharp anxious barks echo off the building across the street.

A hand appears at the bottom of a heavy dark curtain and raises the window an inch or two. “Would you keep your dog quiet?” Fourth story, end apartment. Street side. The next day, the woman has a visitor.

I knock at the door, and it is opened quickly by a woman in a wheelchair. “Good morning,” I say. “I am from the Temple Mission. We’re out this morning to see how many of our Brothers and Sisters need assistance getting to church.” I imitate a woman who has often come to my own door.

“Well,” she whines. “I’ve told you people before that I won’t go to your church, but I could use some help with my shopping.”

Already I know she is the kind of person who takes for granted the things she should simply be grateful for. “We might be able to do some shopping for you.”

“My neighbors shop for me,” she whines, backing up to let me in. “But they always get the wrong things. I want someone to take me shopping. Do you have a van with a lift?” She rolls over to the window.

“Yes,” I say. A pink cupid adorns her coffee table, its plump plaster hand offering Coffee Nips. I walk to the couch and sit down, taking a Nip. I twist its shiny wrapper carefully and place the candy on my tongue. She follows me in her wheelchair.

“Twice a week,” she declares. Her coffee scented breath is too warm on my face. “And I will only shop at the little market down the street.”

“We can arrange that.” I give her a moment to look satisfied with herself before I grab the plaster cupid and bash her head in with it. I take out the extension cord and twist it quickly around her neck. Blood drips onto my shoes. I drop Cupid to the floor where he lands with a thud next to the Coffee Nips that have spilled from his generous hand. I take one and put it in the pocket of my career jacket along with the extension cord that has blistered her neck.

Back in my own apartment, I lie down on the couch in the corner by the window. I am awakened in the afternoon by teenagers marching noisily through the street. I look out the window to watch the dog enjoy his first moments of freedom. He barks one, two, three times then stops to listen. Frantic, he sniffs the air and attempts to jump the fence. The chain around his neck pulls him back to earth. He barks furiously and races about the yard. His confused arthritic owner comes out and hits him with the stick. He whimpers and crawls into the corner of his shed. I fall back onto the couch and sleep until morning when the children will once again pass on their way to school.

One, two, three times, he barks then pauses, waiting for the whine. He barks louder, more insistent now. The old woman comes out and beats him with the stick. Freedom, I remind myself, takes getting used to.

The next morning, I am up before the foghorn begins. I go out and sit on the fire escape. It is cold and the fog is so thick that I can just barely make out the figure of the dog three houses away. He sees me and falls into his maniacal pattern: three barks then wait. Three barks then wait. Three barks then wait, and now the owner is furious. She flies out the kitchen door, slips and lands hard on the bottom step. The dog comes to her side. She kicks him in the face and struggles to her feet. She beats him until he is silent.

Later, a siren screams down my street. The police car stops at the old woman’s apartment building. Neighbors crowd onto the sidewalk. The dog goes berserk. Her death is briefly important. Brutal, the local paper calls it. Savage, neighbors whisper. The dog barks constantly. His owner gets her exercise marching back and forth from her kitchen wielding the stick. Yesterday, someone threw a bottle over the fence. I heard the glass break as it hit the cement patio. Last night, someone threatened to shoot him.

It is 5:00 A.M. and very foggy. I station myself beside the window. Stepping behind the curtain, I slide the window open two or three inches and wait. The foghorn begins and the dog barks one time, two times, three. He waits and turns his eyes accusingly toward me. I smooth my filthy career skirt. I have begun to smell. My rundown shoes are stained with dried blood.

I can feel neighbors shift in their half sleep, waiting for it to begin. “Would you keep your dog quiet?” I whine.

The dog returns to his corner. I return to mine. There will be no question about what I have done. Clues are everywhere. Killing in California can get you the death penalty. I don’t care. In life there are all kinds of penalties. Death is just one of them.

BIO: Jane Hammons teaches writing at Berkeley and is working on novel. A section she cut will appear in July/August Crimespree Magazine. Some of her writing and soon a blog can be found at Fictionaut.

1 comment:

Michael Solender said...

This is masterful in its development of scene and the psyche of your protag. Bleak, dreary and then out of nowhere this rebellion of rage unleashed at a lifetime of neglect and joyless existence, all transferred to the object of her transferred hatred. Brilliant line re: penalties in life, this piece simply oozes noir at its finest.