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"I was a swell guy. I en-joyyed...be-inng...mmmmmm--"
The Peter Pan bus downshifted and swerved, slowing to approach the Lincoln Tunnel. Out my darkly tinted window, the etched-black skyline of Manhattan stood imposing and beautiful against a moonless May night. At first glimpse, my heart surged (almost alive again, not quite) like the last time I saw her--Clair, my sweet Air--fresh and lovely as I always remembered.
From that distance, the city stays the city of your imagination: a scintillating island of promises, of hope, of love renewed. Not until you get closer is the sobering truth revealed: you're happier to see her than she is you. Not angry, not resentful. Worse. Uninterested, dispassionate, preoccupied; her reticence inspires myth.
But eventually you get over it, they say, because reality (whatever that happens to be) sets in, and you take her for what she is: not yours--never your city--but just a city of her own.
I got into my office/apartment overlooking Twelfth Street and Second Avenue at half-past one in the morning with a week's worth of mail in my hand. While I was gone, no one had broken in. I counted the answering machine's flashes--nine--and decided I needed to eat something first, which meantgoing right back out again. The fridge naturally was empty, nothing but a single ice cube in the ice tray and an open box of baking soda.
I was overdressed for the East Village after midnight, still in my dark blue suit, narrow maroon tie, and shiny black shoes from my final court appearance. But I didn't change into street clothes because I was only going down to the Chungs' all-night deli, and I thought they'd get a kick out of seeing me looking so respectable. I was going to kid Mrs. Chung that the outfit was one of my disguises. Then she'd rattle off some English I couldn't follow one word of, but I'd laugh when she laughed.
Except when I got to the deli, the rusted accordian gates barred the doors and a big for rent sign hung behind the plate glass in the darkened window. I peered in. The aisles and shelves were bare. One solitary fluorescent light fixture blinked on and off, spasmodically.
Couldn't digest it at first--I'd only been gone nine days. I still owed them for a pack of cigarettes. Why would they...?
I'd have to ask around in the morning. The more immediate problem was, where to shop now? Less than a block away, another convenience store on Second, but they overcharged (probably why they were still in business), so instead I turned west on East Twelfth, toward an indelectable deli on Third Avenue. The cashier who rang up my cigarettes, gallon of milk, and box of Cheerios wasn't the least bit impressed by my suit.
Rather than walk back the way I'd come, I went home on Eleventh. For no other reason, I suppose, than that I have an inclination to complete circles.
At the Third Avenue corner was the wide stone-block entrance to an NYU dorm, lit up stark orange by sodium-vapor floodlamps. Farther down Eleventh, the sidewalks narrowed and the lighting grew softer. Every five feet a thin, budding tree cast a spidery shadow--like cataracts--across a brick-face wall, the walls mostly belonging to prewar townhouses undergoing reconstruction. No lights on in any windows.
It was a minor through street, at that hour no traffic at all. Quaint and peaceful.
For a moment I even forgot where I was, imagining myself back in Syracuse, strolling down a country lane. The impression was furthered by the last stretch of block, taken up by St. Mark's-in-the-Bowery, a late Georgian church of rough-hewn stone and brick, and its adjoining churchyard housing the burial vaults of some of colonial New York's founding families, all surrounded by a spiked, Italianate cast-iron fence. I looked up; the high steeple clock read a quarter to two. Out of habit, I checked it against my wristwatch. And as quickly, let my coat sleeve drop back down.
I still had on my gold Rolex. My $3,500, perpetual-motion, date-day-chronometer, gold Rolex. I'd been out of the city too long. The watch was the most expensive piece--the only piece--of jewelry that I owned. Upstate, I'd worn it every day, walking through town without inhibition, my shirtsleeves rolled up, the Rolex glinting in the sun.
Something was wrong with my sleeve. I looked down; my coat cuff was snagged on the watchband's crown clasp. I wanted to fix it, but first had to switch hands carrying the cereal and jug of milk; before I could, I heard a zipper zip up ahead.
From behind a scaly elm tree, eight feet away, a lean figure in black leather jacket and baggy camouflage fatigues stepped out and onto the sidewalk, briefly glanced my way, turned, and started walking in the other direction.
Some guy pissing against a car, I thought, and thought nothing of it, just continued walking. Strolling really, at the leisured pace I'd adopted while away. Nothing close to my usual urban-locomotion. Even so, I began to shorten the gap separating us, catching up without trying and certainly without wanting to.
I got a sudden uncomfortable feeling that the sharp slap of my footsteps was being listened to, concentrated on, measured.
Welcome home, Payton.
But I kept walking--had to--I couldn't cross the street just there because the cars parked at the curb were packed too closely. And I couldn't stop suddenly because it might've set him off. And I couldn't run the other way either, because... well, this was where I lived and worked, and I had to be able to walk around my own block. Right?
So, I kept walking. Walking. And getting closer. Closer.
I couldn't tell how either--whether he was taking baby steps or moonwalking--and as I approached, I wasn't even so sure it was a guy anymore. The black hair, cut in a spiky, androgynous crew, came to a lean point on the nape of the neck, pointing to a tattoo of a flaming blue star in a jagged blue circle. Silver rings in both small pinched ears--but what did that mean nowadays? Height: five-five. Build: concealed by the baggy clothes. Hands: out of view, held in front. Holding what?
Blind larvae hatched in my belly.
As my footsteps got closer, the head didn't stir an inch--weird in itself. The neck muscles just tensed and the skin on either side stood like dorsal fins.
I had to pass on either the right or the left. I chose the right; in a pinch, I could've dived over the hood of a parked car.
As we came side by side, I kept my eyes straight ahead on Second Avenue half a block away: cabs, buses, a darkened Mister Softee truck rolling by still playing its happy jingle. At the corner was a lighted pay phone, the receiver off the hook, swaying by its silver cord.
I was keyed up to spring at the slightest movement or sound. From the corner of my eye, I saw a pale face: dark eyebrows, low cheekbones, snub nose, and a cleft chin like flexed knuckles. I heard the high, uneven whistle of nose-breathing, and smelled a heavy, dusky sweetness: patchouli oil, stifling and repellent.
Then I was out in front, upwind, walking away, my back wide open to attack.
Now my ears were the ones carefully listening to footsteps behind, this time the slow clomp of loose-laced boots, trying to calculate their distance... gauge their intent.
And nothing happened.
Maybe after all it was just an ordinary case of pedestrian leapfrog, that nervous game we New Yorkers play daily--the ones who leave their apartments. But just in case I was wrong, I continued to listen, to focus my attention behind me. All of it.
Which is how I missed them--crouched low in the recessed entryway of a semibasement--until I was right alongside, and one softly snorted.
I flinched but kept facing forward, my vision going wide to horse-glimpse.
There were three of them, three stooges--all Curly--bald-headed behemoths with bull necks and beefy arms dressed in flak jackets and blue jeans.
Every advantage in the world--theirs--to have grabbed me as I went by, dragged me down, and gone to work on me in peace.
But they didn't. They weren't interested in me. I walked on by, took three more steps, and didn't turn when I heard a shrill yelp, followed by the scuffle of boots, and then--silence. Relative silence: car horns blaring in the distance, a flatbed truck clobbering a pothole, somewhere, some man's faint angry rant against the government going ignored. When I came to a street-level doorway, I turned and stepped in.
Peeking from the doorway, I saw only empty sidewalk and a head poking out from a stairwell. One of the Curlys acting as lookout, anxiously stealing glances back and descending another step for a better look at what was going on below.
I was curious, too.
Twenty feet to my left, the hustle and not so much the bustle of Second Avenue. Only seconds to reach the pay phone there and dial the local precinct (always quicker than 911). But response time being what it is--anywhere from five to thirty minutes--the whole thing might've been over and everyone on their way before a unit was even dispatched.
But so what? For all I knew they had a legitimate beef--just cause--for ganging up three against one. I couldn't imagine what that could be, but that still didn't make it any of my business. Between instinct and action, always a membrane of reason.
The lookout's head pricked up, as if he'd been summoned, and he left his post, going below to join the others.
So I stepped from the doorway and started back, walking on the balls of my feet over to the four steep, crumbling concrete steps leading down to the half basement, a dusty patio eight feet wide extending to a boarded-up door under a black iron staircase.
There, in the shadows, the four of them crowded.
I ducked down behind a row of lidded garbage cans and watched. I could see now it was definitely a woman, nearly a girl, her face like a tough little boy's. Wide dark eyes, a small blunt nose, and full lips sputtering to speak--but one of the men savagely cut her off.
"No, you listen! LSD wants back his--"
"But I didn't--!"
He snatched her throat and pinched it shut with hairy sausage fingers, each ringed by silver bands.
The other two men grabbed the girl's arms and legs as she started to kick, her face suffusing lavender, eyeballs distending hard-boiled.
I stood up. I was still clutching my groceries. I put down the bag with the cereal, but liked the reassuring weight of the gallon jug of milk in my fist. I switched my grip on it, pointing the spout down, and hefted it a couple times like a cudgel. Better than nothing. I began.
"Goddamn," the man was growling, "if you lie to me one more time, you little--"
She saw me before they did, her wild dark eyes desperate in my direction.
Her cracked voice crying out, "Mister, mister!"
The one with the hand to her throat swiveled round, directing his little eyes on me. He had a thick brow, sloped nose, and square, steam shovel jaw. He squinted, anger momentarily befuddled--but he did not let go of the girl.
I asked him, "Got milk?"
Dropping my left shoulder, I swung the gallon jug up from behind my back. Momentum did the rest. The jug struck him full in the face, knocking him sidewise and one foot back. One of his teeth punctured the plastic, and the jug split wide open, bursting forth a torrent of calcium whitewash. He staggered on bowed legs, but didn't go over.
Drenched in milk, his nose bleeding freely, he shook his head and sprayed red and white drops. Hands clawed his face, not knowing what the liquid was. Then his eyes cleared beneath their soggy brows and they leveled on me. He looked like the sole survivor of a cow explosion.
I dropped the empty plastic container. A hollow, thin-shell conk.
My heart was pounding me--I guess to beat the rush.
There was a gurgle and a giggling snort, then suddenly, from behind the milkman, his two partners burst into uncontrollable laughter.
He whirled and faced them. Whether from the blood in his eye or the actual stuff flowing from his nose, they shut up instantly.
I couldn't see the girl. I looked to my left. She was going up the steps to the sidewalk. She had the right idea. I followed. As soon as she hit pavement she was running. Me, I looked back.
They were right behind me, but had to come up the narrow steps one at a time.
Without thinking, I grabbed a lid off the nearest garbage can and swung it wild at the first one's head. But the lid stuck in midair, jerked outta my hand, and snapped back. It was chained to the railing.
The first man up dived at me in a tackle. We went back together, but didn't go down. My dress shoes had no traction, so I stayed standing, sliding upright until we collided into a parked car.
The collision knocked all my air out. I tried sucking some back, but couldn't.
Obvious truths, taken for granted, blaze like meteor streaks through the mind at times like these: You need air to breathe, stupid! And I've lost her forever. I even heard bells ringing.
Not bells, not ringing--wailing sirens, three distinct. I looked for the raspberry-and-cherry-swirl strobes of police cruisers converging, but the only flashing lights were the high beams of the vehicle we slumped against--our impact having triggered the car alarm.
The sound deluge--whooping, chirping, and eee-eee-eeeing at a stabbing pitch--didn't faze the Curlys one bit. Instead it seemed to drive them. Three pairs of hands grabbed and catapulted me to the ground. I landed on my left shoulder, the concussion rattling my teeth. It was a bad place to be, maybe the worst. I had to get up. I rolled over and pushed up with both my hands, then the first kick arrived.
Implanted in my kidney, the pain wedged in my left side like an ax blade, as another boot drove it, and another boot drove it, deeper and deeper in. Coring me.
I covered my back with my hands, and they kicked my head. I covered my head and they kicked at my chest, and at my balls, my arms, and my legs. I covered my balls and they kicked at my hands over my balls. It went on like that for five pages. I couldn't think of anything witty to say the whole time.
Part of me escaped into thoughts of Air--my nickname for Clair, my pet name for her, she'd say ("Just something to sigh when you're blue"). But she was that for me: cool, clear air. She used to call me Sure, a play on my last name, Sherwood, but no one calls me that anymore. What Clair's husband Brian calls her, I don't know, probably "early to bed." If we were still together, I thought, none of this would be happening. Well, at least not to me. In a way though, lying there, it gave me an opportunity to join in kicking.
The car alarm finished its cycle with a last chirp-chirp-iggy-bleep. The silence made my attackers pause. They were winded, huffing through dry mouths. Hard work beating a man, probably why so many do it in groups of two or more.
One gulped breath, and asked, "Hey, where'd she go?"
The milkman swore. Then swore down at me, using his boot for punctuation. Talk about your lactose intolerants.
One of the others said, "Stosh, come on, we gotta find her. Come on, man, there's a car turning at the light."
They went away then, I guess--didn't know, because every time I took a breath it felt like one was still kicking me. My cheek flat against the cool concrete, the eye I could still see out of focused on something freshly wet on the ground--Mercurochrome? cherry syrup? my blood?--seeping out in a smooth, surfaceless stain, swallowing the glare of streetlight. A sheer, dizzying waste, whatever it was.
My vision went telescopic, my arm elongating, stretching out before me to what seemed like three blocks long, with my watch way way down at the end of it. I could still make out the time: five after two. I watched the thin hand passing the sluggish seconds, pain pulsating in unison. I closed my eye, but that hurt just as much.
When I opened it again, I saw her level with my gaze.
She hadn't run very far, only several yards to where a brown Jeep 4 3 4 was parked. She was crawling out from under it, the carriage just high enough for her to clear the granite curb.
From my perspective she was climbing out of a shaft into open space, in danger of falling, but then she just stuck straight out like a flagpole. Amazing. She walked over and crouched down beside me. I got my first good look at her then.
She was no more than sixteen. Her face as pale as loose-leaf, wide-ruled blue veins showing through. Her active eyes were hazel-brown trout trapped in shallow silty water. She chewed a loose skinflap off her lips as she leaned in closer to touch my hand.
Her fingers were rough and callused. Sticky. I smelled stronger her cloying scent of sweet patchouli as she started checking for my pulse. She had trouble finding one, so I made it easy on her.
"'S okay," I said. "I'm live."
But she didn't stop fiddling with my wrist, actually started twisting it over the wrong way.
"Hey!" I said.
Her black, broken fingernails pried free the crown clasp of my gold Rolex, and the wristband unfolded. She dragged it off of me, scraping skin from my knuckles as it pulled free.
I grabbed her, but she just yanked from my grasp and started off in a shot, running away with my watch, straight toward Second Avenue until she became as remote as its bright lights. Never looked back.
I had to get up. Go after her. I rolled over and pushed myself up. I got onto all fours before a queasy, eel-churning nausea yawned in me, and I felt myself going.
Out. Exactly like a light. The complete darkness.
Then you either wake up at the other end or don't.
Posted March 26, 2011
Bodies pile up as the hands click round the clock in this non-stopping hardboiled detective novel. Set in New York City's Lower East Side, it follows a down-and-out private eye on the search for a young runaway who has stolen his watch, and finding corpses along the way instead. Set in the late 1990s of Manhattan it's a great picture of a city in transition.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.