Debuting a new piece of noir fiction
I’ve been thinking about noir fiction lately. I love the ambient grime and the snappy dialogue. I love the thrill of a mystery and the mystification when it goes unsolved.
The first piece of proper noir I read was probably Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, which I thought was a masterpiece until I read Chester Himes’ Harlem detective novel Blind Man with a Pistol and fell in love again.
From there I dipped into the violent hillbilly-noir stories of Frank Bill and Ron Rash, and started thumbing my way through the Grit Lit anthology from University of South Carolina Press. Most recently, my friend Eddie lent me a dog-eared copy of Jim Thompson’s Savage Night, which left me bewildered in the best way possible.
So this week I’m publishing a piece of genre fiction that I wrote. It’s a first for the Brutal South newsletter, but hey, I figure we can all use a change of pace. Let me know what you think, and feel free to tell me not to quit my day job.
Financial District, New York, United States
. Jesse Williams, 2017. Public domain.
Outside on the sidewalk, a street lamp flickers off forever. The two men in the booth by the window pay it no attention, hunched over coffee and the last of the food. You can hear the rain but no longer see it.
A slow night, and these two the only entertainment. Time was, councilmen and beat cops filled the booth by the window, ordering too much pie and drinking too much coffee.
Now: Two men, thirtyish, white and brash. One wears a seersucker suit, though the season for that has long since passed. The other wears dungarees and flannel with a baseball hat.
The one with the hat talks like he's seen a few too many diner scenes in movies. The suit is unimpressed. Maybe a cousin arranged the meeting, or an old coworker, as a joke.
“I'm looking for young blood,” the hat says, “real go-getters, fresh out of college.” The suit gives his pecan pie a savage stab with a fork, saying nothing.
“I got guys lined up waiting to take this opportunity,” the hat continues, pointing a thumb over his shoulder at an imagined line of guys. “The market is looking up. You know it, I know it, anyone with a little business acumen knows it.” He pronounces the word “acumen” like “a cumin,” like the spice. No one has ever corrected him on this.
From my vantage point at the hostess stand, I have surmised that the hat has a plan involving fertilizer and honeybees, and he wants someone to go in with him on buying a grain elevator someplace. He might as well talk about colonizing the moon. I leave my post to pour another patron a weak drink, then return as soon as possible.
The suit has asked a few perfunctory questions about a business plan, causing the hat to slump his shoulders a little lower each time. He hasn't touched the brownish cherry pie in front of him.
A lame joke from the hat now, and the suit barely bothers to laugh. The hat needs to regain composure, so he pivots to something he knows by heart.
“You ever find yourself at a loss for what to do next, in business or in life?” the hat asks. He's staring straight through the suit now, on an autopilot setting he learned as a child.
“There is only one way, and it's God's way,” the hat says, “and I always say there's no sense in me wasting time doing things my way, because God's gonna do it his way anyway in the end.” The words are avalanching out of him. “You ever seen a sign from God? Because I have. That's why I'm sitting here with you today, is 'cause I saw a sign and I'm walking in obedience now. There is only one way.”
The suit smirks. As if some omen could have any bearing on the earth as she stands.
I am trying to keep my eavesdropping discreet. The suit catches my gaze, and I freeze until he asks me to top off his coffee. I tip the pot into his yellowed mug and drain the silty dregs. The mug is only half full when I finish.
The suit looks up. I hold the pot out for him to inspect.
“That's all there is,” I say.
“You making another pot?”
“That's all there is.”
The police barged in here earlier looking for trouble. I told them I was the shift manager and didn't have time for trouble. I offered them coffee and they left without answering.
Now a red light crawls past the window in silence and casts bars through the venetian blinds. For a moment the light passes over the suit, and the grimacing face looks torn to strips. The light passes; he speaks.
“Well I suppose I'm the bear,” the suit says.
The hat has just finished telling a certainly apocryphal story about a once-well-regarded president – something about a shepherd and his flock, a tedious morality tale. He has asked the suit if he feels more like the sheep, the sheepdog, or the wolf in the story.
“The bear. OK. Yeah, I can see that in you,” the hat says, thumping a finger into the suit just below the bowtie. “Whatever you are, you sure as hell aren't some kind of a sheep.”
This is the first time the hat has cursed tonight. The suit snorts at the outburst.
“No, I suppose not.”
I am out of earshot now, tending to customers who haven't ordered anything in hours. One of them, sitting alone at the lunch counter, has gotten finicky about the bacon. He pushes it around in a pool of syrup, considers the greenish film on it from every angle, and sets his fork down with a pained look on his face. The eyes are sunken in. He tells me he’d like to pay his bill.
I decide that I would like to be the sheepdog.
Back at the hostess stand, I can hear the suit and the hat talking about politics in the most abstract way imaginable, one-upping one another to prove which one finds politics the most distasteful. No one in the diner talks about the news, for fear of causing offense. They all have had their eyes fixed on the screens today, watching sporting events broadcast from indoor arenas. They are playing doubles tennis in Japan right now.
I return to the hostess stand and start eavesdropping again. The suit is some kind of contractor. Speaks about soldiers in a reverential tone. He is maybe the only person I've met who has seen an actual soldier.
“To the victor go the spoils,” the suit says, “but why let it spoil?” And the hat laughs as if he knows what this means.
It is getting late, probably. A man who ate alone has settled his tab but still hasn't left the diner. He hovers by the jukebox, feeding it quarters to play one sad rock 'n' roll song at a time. Honestly, who has the stomach for that maudlin shit anymore?
The doubles tennis tournament is finished in Japan, and our country has won. I've been given special dispensation to pour out a celebratory round, on the house, but nobody is drinking what I'm serving. I take a sniff of the brown glass bottle and feel the fumes burn the back of my throat.
The suit's reserve of courtesy has dwindled. He is asking for his bill, looking out into the street.
The interior of the Fog City Diner in San Francisco, California, USA
. Atlant, 2006. Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic license.
The hat fumbles with a phone, tries to turn on the power — no luck.
“T-tell you what, you just write your number on this napkin, and I-I'll send you my information when I find a place to charge this thing.”
The suit does not reach for a pen. He just creases a twenty dollar bill longways and stands it between the salt and pepper shakers. He pats a breast pocket, checking for cigarettes, and shakes the other man's offered hand.
“You going out there right now?” the hat asks.
The suit stands up, pulls a panama hat off the rack, lowers it onto his brow. With one hand he tips the brim toward me, and with the other he parts the curtain hanging from the curved rod by the door, opening onto the makeshift coatroom.
Outside, the rain has stopped. A puff of cinder infiltrates the crack between the front doors, and bluish smoke pours in near the ceiling when the suit walks out. The red light approaches again.
The man feeding quarters to the jukebox has been casting glances at the hat in the least subtle way imaginable. He nearly peeks under his own armpit, furtive like, craning.
The hat has taken these past thirty minutes to notice. Now he narrows his eyes, sucks his teeth, and then jerks his head up at the jukebox guy. The jukebox wanders over to the booth by the window.
The hat sweeps a hand over the cold cup of coffee and congealed cherry pie in front of him, offering a seat on a tape-patched vinyl bench in the saddest grand gesture I've seen today. The jukebox obliges.
There is nothing to be done and no one to make me do it. So I drag a chair to the hostess stand and plop down listening in on the booth, pretending to watch the door.
The jukebox's face is pitted like the crust of a hostile planet. The cheeks slide back from the cheekbones, and the veiny eyes sink so deep you can see the pink insides of the lids flipped out. The fingernails are dirtier than most. He wants to know about the investment opportunity.
The hat and the jukebox and everyone in here should know full well that there's no farmland to be had, in the heartland or elsewhere. We all know where the food is made, and it isn’t on any of God’s green acres. We all know what happened when the sun stopped rising. But I know why the jukebox is so eager to believe the hat's vision. Hope springs eternal.
The hat drops his tone to a conspiratorial register.
“The future is soybeans. I got a scientist buddy in Johnson City says he can make it happen for us,” the hat says.
The jukebox is leaning back now, slicking his unctuous black mane and then scratching between the buttons of his gray dress shirt like a man with prospects and a view of open country. All at once he leans over the plate and announces what he wants.
“I want in.”
The cops walk into the diner again, and we all straighten our backs at once. The hat and the jukebox have been making little drawings on cocktail napkins with grease pencils, but they tuck them out of sight and fall silent.
One of the cops knocks on the bar and jabs a fat finger toward the coffee pot. Skin-headed son of a bitch with neck meat straining the collar and the sort of biceps only afforded to men with access to real animal meat. I mutter something to the effect that we’re all out of coffee, and he glowers and cracks his knuckles. Orders a cola instead.
I pop the top and he claps some coins down on the counter. Walks off, and the crew follows his lead. Now they’re sniffing the place out, leaning over every booth and making the customers all kinds of nervous.
I reach under the counter and feel the cold metal toggle switch we installed last weekend. I count the cops in the room: Six in all. Then there are the seven customers, plus me. No one would miss us.
The cops’ radios crackle some sort of code language, and one of the guys steps outside to squawk back at whoever’s running dispatch. I take my finger off the switch and pick up a rag to swipe at nothing.
The remaining cops have surrounded one of the regulars, posted up on her usual barstool farthest away from the door wearing janitor’s coveralls and a severe ponytail. They’ve all got their arms crossed, standing way too close. The regular locks eyes with me for a second and nods at the counter. I jerk my head toward the entrance and she averts her eyes to the floor.
“Got something to hide, lady?” one of the cops asks. The regular doesn’t move a muscle.
A creaking hinge and a wisp of creosote from the street, and the sixth cop walks in through the front door. The suit walks in after him, hands in his pockets, practically strutting.
The suit whistles to the boys in the back of the restaurant. He nods toward the booth by the window, where the hat and the jukebox seem frozen in place.
They move in an eerie lockstep to the front of the restaurant, past the bar and the hostess stand, until they’re all fanned out beside the booth by the window. Before anyone can say a word, the suit snatches the nearest service pistol from one of their holsters and plants a bullet right in the hat’s boney chest cavity. The hat is pinned against the ruined upholstery now, ramrod straight and gushing blood.
The pistol does its job, advances a second round into the chamber. The jukebox, in his first dignified act of the evening, does not beg for mercy. His volcanic face is shining now, beatific like an orthodox icon as he locks eyes with the suit.
I realize all at once that I am backed up against the sink, my arms half submerged in gray dishwater. Across the counter, the regular is moving silently toward the door. She lunges across the counter and slides her hand under the ledge, then stops.
She looks my way one last time. The cops have turned toward us now, pistols drawn.
I nod, and she flips the switch.
Late Night Diner
. Ethan Rose, 2013. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
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