A gun’s report rattles my loose window pane. I turn to look.
Outside, pigeons startle from among the girders of a rail overpass like a cave of steel and rust. Beyond the cave mouth runs a canyon of tar and concrete, carved by the human stream that leaves its refuse along the banks: shanties full of desperate bodies and flee-ridden blankets in shades of dirt, grime and gray.
In the middle of the street, a man in an ankle-length coat pauses as if he’s had a sudden thought. An exit wound spreads dark fluid down the back of his coat. Sandals peek from beneath his jacket and the hems of his pants look like silk. He tries to keep on, but weariness climbs his legs and pulls him down.
His killer stands frozen on the sidewalk: A woman, grey coated and still in the gloom of the steel pillars. Her loose hair across her shoulders looks like a shawl made of shadows. Her spot is hers. She owns it. The shanties and shacks of the homeless seem to crowd back from her presence, as though willing to cede the ground.
Her right hand returns under her coat so I see no gun, but I know she fired one by the placement of her feet, by the set of her shoulders and the curved slash of her posture that makes me think of a scimitar held ready to cut.
She watches her victim fall. He’s on the ground before the echoes have stopped playing or the startled pigeons have figured out where to go. As his hat rolls from his head, she lifts her gaze to meet mine.
Her eyes burn so blue the color seems to cross the distance between us like falling spikes of ice. So blue the steel and mud world looks monochrome.
A pattern of pale scars on her face matches one I see when I look in the mirror, exactly over my own heart.
My breath betrays my trust and dives under my heart to hide, splashing shivers through me. A rushing in my ears may be blood or thunder. This is fear. Fear like staring down the bared teeth of a snarling dog, like the sting of a knife to my exposed throat, like looking up at the fist of one who means to break me.
The blue of her eyes chills me to the bone.
I have to meet her. Because that cold fear is an invitation I’ll never deny. And also, because behind the alien distance in her eyes I see something familiar – a promise of myself darkly reflected. I don’t just want to meet her, I want to be her: in how she stands at her crossroads and the world bends about her.
In the same instant as that lightning thought she half lifts one hand toward me. It’s almost a beckon, or almost a farewell.
I reach for the window lock to go out the fire escape, but she’s gone. I never saw her move.
My heart hammers like a prisoner against the cage of my ribs. I was looking right at her, and though the shadows and shanties under the overpass are full of places to hide, I should have seen her turning away, or taking a step. But I didn’t. She’s gone, suddenly, magically, and without a trace.
Red blood breaks the monotone world.
Making my legs move is like tearing them out of a block of ice. I watch the pool of red spread far too quickly for its source to survive. He drags himself a few feet toward the curb and then lays still. All the electricity of waiting and watching surges against my frozen muscles. I have to know.
I’ve left my apartment, feet heavy and awkward as I hurtle down the fire escape with raw steel and rust brushing past my fingertips. Cold mud on colder brick squishes between my bare toes. It’s April, but an unseasonably bitter wind off the bay whispers: ‘your hat can’t save you.’ A train approaches on the tracks above.
The dying man looks up at me, his face narrow and high boned, bald head, almond eyes, and skin the color of candle-light. Under his coat he’s wearing a collarless suit of blue silk that’s rapidly turning red. I kneel by his shoulder. The blood on his teeth matches the rust on my fingers. The bullet must have cut an artery. He won’t last long. With a grimace he spits something onto the grit, a wad of paper? Yes, a folded note. He was trying to swallow it. There’s something odd about his open mouth; he hasn’t got a tongue.
The vagrant residents of the overpass have all pulled back into the shadows, watching with eyes rimmed red by their struggles. They’ll take his coat. It may save a life.
His throat rattles a wet and fading rasp that ends with a septic smell. Death smells like shit.
I pick up the paper, pasted into a wad by saliva and blood, and unfold it.
He wants to see you. I’m sorry.
9 PM, 43 north Ziegemeire
It seems a piece of broken eggshell in the palm of my hand. It’s not mine. A stolen ticket onto a train that lead to his death. I take it.
Sirens echo down the canyons, nearing. A freckled teen peeks around the corner by the grocer down the street, staring, wondering if it’s safe. The victim’s hat flaps about in the gutter as the breeze picks up. An old man with a broken glass beard laughs and shakes his head. The badges don’t come this way often. One must have been nearby.
I’m back up my fire escape before the siren rounds the corner, and the window’s closed by the time the police beacon turns the overpass tunnel into a mardi gras. The denizens of the shanties will point my way to keep the police-light off of them, which means a blue-hat might knock on my door. I’ll not be here, if only to avoid the temptation to lie.
The paper sits on my little table. He wants to see you, I’m sorry, 9 PM, 43 north Ziegemeire. I already know I’m going, but I don’t want to. It doesn’t make sense. It’s none of my business what she was up to, or why that man had to die. It isn’t any of my business, but it is a business that involves guns, and a man’s death. The next death could be mine, if I dive in, unreasoning, unasked, and unwelcome.
But I’m going to.
I know I had better not. It’s 1935 and Chicago groans with crime and hunger. The homeless and desperate crowd every alley. We all know with our dry lips, idle hands and empty pockets that one of these days something has to change. But not today. Not because of me. Every sunrise I watch the desperate denizens of hooverville dance between needs – food, shelter, family, spinning about each-other in quick steps like tongues of flame built on top of the white-hot coals of not wanting to die. Every night another one climbs to the track above to step in front of a train, or burns out in a flash of knives or broken bottles. Today it’ll be the unseasonal chill that loosens a few clutching fingers from the bottom rung, after which remains only the six foot drop into the grave.
I interrogate my face in the window glass. “Am I going to do this?” It doesn’t reply, but lurks beneath the reflection’s warped surface – dark, thin, hard, and tired of waiting. My mother had skin like coal and my father like a cloud, mine is somewhere in the middle depending on the light. It might mean I could pass anywhere, but more often it’s the opposite and I pass nowhere without a fight. That’s worn me down to scars and distemper. It’s worn me down to a few dollars. It’s just about worn me out. I often wonder why I came back to America, and why I bother to stay, but at the moment I can’t afford to leave.
I need to be in the labor line tomorrow looking for honest work, not traipsing across town throwing my life into jeopardy because I liked the look in a lady’s eyes. But that’s who I am: a fool for adventure. Marcus Summanus, professional at getting into trouble. My bare room holds none of that, only the promise of an empty bottle and an early sleep.
My mother’s typewriter waits by the window. In frustration, I put a page behind the scroll, remove it, then put it back.
She disappeared like a daydream. I’m half inclined to disbelieve my own eyes and that gets my heart pumping. I think when something magic appears, fear is natural, hesitation normal.
I guess I’m not normal because this isn’t fear. It’s excitement.
To hell with it.
I get dressed: grey wool suit slacks and a button down shirt, both found half under the bed. My one tie is a strip of shredded black with a knot I’ve never undone. My jacket is brown leather thick enough to stop a .22, with deep pockets. There’s room in the pockets for my keys, handkerchief, nearly empty wallet, my thermos of cold coffee, a pencil, and after a moment’s hesitation, a few pages of typewriter paper folded into a crude notepad.
The window is empty. I’ve got nothing left to give. The page is as blank as a grave.