Authors: David Goodis
Tags: #Fiction, #Crime
This page formatted 2005 Munsey's.
It was one of those hot sticky nights that makes Manhattan show its age. There was something dreary and stagnant in the way all this syrupy beat refused to budge. It was anything but a night for labor, and Vanning stood up and walked away from the tilted drawing board. He brushed past a large metal box of water colors, heard the crash as the box hit the floor. That seemed to do it. That ended any inclination he might have had for finishing the job tonight.
Heat came into the room and settled itself on Vanning. He lit a cigarette. He told himself it was time for another drink. Walking to the window, he told himself to get away from the idea of liquor. The heat was stronger than liquor.
He stood there at the window, looking out upon Greenwich Village, seeing the lights, hearing noises in the streets. He had a desire to be part of the noise. He wanted to get some of those lights, wanted to get in on that activity out there, whatever it was. He wanted to talk to somebody. He wanted to go out.
He was afraid to go out.
And he realized that. The realization brought on more fright. He rubbed his hands into his eyes and wondered what was making this night such a difficult thing. And suddenly he was telling himself that something was going to happen tonight.
It was more than a premonition. There was considerable reason for making the forecast. It had nothing to do with the night itself. It was a process of going back, and with his eyes closed he could see a progression of scenes that made him shiver without moving, swallow hard without swallowing anything.
There was a pale blue automobile, a convertible. That was a logical color, that pale blue, logical for the start of it, because it had started out in a pale, quiet way, the pale blue convertible cruising along peacefully, the Colorado mountainside so calm and pretty, the sky so contented, all of this scene pale blue in a nice even sort of style. And then red came into it, glaring red, the hood and fenders of the smashed station wagon, the hard gray of the boulder against which the wrecked car was resting, the hard gray turning into black, the black of the revolver, the black remaining as more colors moved in. The green of the hotel room, the orange carpet, or maybe it wasn't orange—it could have been purple, a lot of those colors could have been other colors—but the one color about which there was no mistake was black. Because black was the color of a gun, a dull black, a complete black, and through a whirl of all the colors coming together in a pool gone wild, the black gun came into his hand and he held it there for a time impossible to measure, and then he pointed the black gun and he pulled the trigger and he killed a man.
He took his clenched fists away from his eyes, opened his eyes and brought himself back to this room. Turning, he saw the drawing board, and it threw an invisible rope toward him, the rope pulling him in, urging him to get away from yesterday and stay with now. Because now had him listed as James Vanning, a commercial artist specializing in the more intricate kind of work that art departments of advertising agencies hand out to proven experts. Tonight he was mixed up with one of the usual rush jobs and the deadline was for tomorrow afternoon. But if he went to sleep now he could get up early tomorrow and finish the assignment in time to satisfy the art director.
If he went to sleep now. That was downright comical. Sleep. As if sleep was something that came automatically. As if all he had to do was put his head against the pillows and close his eyes and go to sleep. He laughed without sound. He laughed at the picture of himself trying to sleep. Every night he had a debate with sleep and it was one rebuttal after another and it kept on like that until it knocked him out just about the time when the sun got started. That was his sleep.
He walked into the bathroom and saw himself in the mirror. Average height but on the husky side. Curly blond hair and quite a lot of it, so that was no worry. The worry came in where suggestions of silver showed here and there through the blondness. Very little silver, hardly noticeable against gold, but even the little that was there was too much silver for a man only thirty-three. And the lines under his eyes and around his lips, those lines weren't age. Those lines were ordeal. And even his complexion. It still retained considerable South Pacific, specifically Saipan and Okinawa, but the darkness of it was more shadow than sun. It seemed that there was shadow all over him, all around him.
More shadow moved in, and he decided to fight it. He took a shower and a shave, he put on a freshly cleaned and pressed palm beach suit. And he was getting his arm through a sleeve when he heard the noise from down the hall.
“A cop,” a voice said. “Get a cop.”
Another voice from out there. “What's the matter with you?”
“Get a cop.”
Vanning's teeth came together, biting at nothing. He couldn't breathe. He stood there, waiting.
“What are you all excited about? What's wrong?”
“Who's excited? All I want is a drink. Bring me a cop of water.”
“Why don't you learn to speak English?”
“Shut up and bring me a drink of water.”
From there on it became a typical husband-and-wife discussion, the wife yelling for a drink of water and continuing the yelling after she got it. Vanning used up a minute or so trying to decide whether they were Spanish or Italian or Viennese. He wondered when they had moved in. He wondered about all his neighbors. It was a point he made, keeping away from them. Keeping away from everybody.
He told himself to get a move on. He didn't know where he was going, but wherever it was, he was in a big hurry to get there.
The heat came in waves, big rollers of heat wallowing in from all parts of Manhattan and down from a sky of melted asphalt. The heat flowed into Washington Square Park and stayed there despite a sporadic breeze. Vanning remained in the park only a few minutes. As he left the park, he aimed toward the corner of Christopher Street and Sheridan Square. There were a lot of lights in that direction, and he figured on a drink or two and maybe a chat with some unimportant person who would talk about unimportant things.
He was crossing a street and turning a corner when a man came up to him and asked for a light. There were no street lamps in this particular area and Vanning couldn't get a good look at the man. He could see, however, a small figure and a mustache and neatly combed black hair. He lit a match and applied it to the man's cigarette. And in the glow he obtained a fairly comprehensive view of the face. But it lasted only a moment. There was no special reason for analyzing the face.
“Hot night,” the man said.
“I saw some kids diving off the docks,” the man said. “They got the right idea.”
“If we did it,” Vanning said, “people would call us crazy.”
“The trouble with people is they don't understand people.”
The man had a pleasant voice and a free-and-easy air, and Vanning told himself there was nothing unusual about the matter. The man merely wanted a light and a minute or so of chewing the rag, and if he was going to start worrying about all these little things he might as well put himself in a sanitarium.
The man leaned against a building wall. Vanning lit a cigarette for himself. They stood there like a couple of calm animals in a calm forest. The night was all around them and the streets were quiet and the heat was dominant.
“I wonder how they stand it in the tropics,” he said.
“They're born into it.”
“I don't think I could stand it,” the man said. “Ever been near the Equator?”
“A few times.”
“What's it like?”
“Great,” Vanning said. “You go nuts but you don't mind it, because everybody goes nuts.”
“I've never traveled much.”
“Don't go near the Equator,” Vanning said. “This is twenty per cent of what it's like.”
“When were you there?”
“During the war.”
“I didn't get in,” the man said. “A wife and kids.”
“They put me in the Navy,” Vanning said, and listened to himself saying it, and told himself to put a lock on his big mouth. He figured it was about time to start moving.
But the man said, “You see much action?”
“Around Borneo.” He told himself it was all right. It would last maybe another minute and then he would tell the man he had to meet someone at Jimmy Kelly's or someplace and he would go away and the incident would fade into one of those vague little incidents that never make the front pages or the history books.
“I envy you,” the man said.
“Farthest I've ever been away from New York is Maine. I used to go there summers, before things got tough.”
“Lately,” the man said.
“What's your line?”
“More or less.”
“I'm in advertising,” Vanning said.
“How do you fellows make out?”
“It runs in cycles. We don't know what we depend on. Maybe the sun spots.”
“I think we're in for another depression,” the man said.
“It's hard to say.”
The man let his cigarette fall to the sidewalk. He stepped on it. “Well,” he said, “I think I'll be going. She always waits up for me.”
Vanning was about to let the whole thing pass, but he found himself saying, “Been married long?”
“I wish I was married.”
“You say that as though you meant it.”
“It has its points,” the man said. “In the beginning we were all set to break up. Times I'd be eating breakfast and there she'd be across the table and I'd wonder if it was possible to get rid of her. Then I'd ask myself why and I couldn't think of a good reason.”
“Maybe the freedom angle.”
“It gets monotonous. I think if you're normal you've got to have someone. You've got to have something special and it's got to be around all the time.”
“Can't that get monotonous?”
“How do you feel about it?”
“Monotony's a relative thing.”
“That isn't a pun, is it?”
“No,” the man said. “I'm saying it in a positive way. You go out and look for a thrill and when you get it there's no thrill. The only thrill is looking for it. When you have someone you can look for a thrill together.”
“Isn't that going a little deep?”
“I met her at a dance,” the man said. “I had a devil of a time really getting to know her. She hadn't been around much, and you know how it is in New York. I bet you'll find more virgins in New York than any other town in the country. I mean in ratio. Even the little towns in the sticks. This is one burg where they build a defense mechanism at an early age. You can wear yourself out breaking it down. But don't get the wrong idea. That isn't why I married her.”
“Why did you marry her?”
“I got to like her,” the man said. “We had a lot of fun together. I don't know who you are and I'll never see you again in a hundred years, so it's all right to talk this way. I think it's a good idea to get things off your chest with strangers now and then.”
“There's something to that.”
“I developed a feeling for her,” the man said. “I wanted to put my hands on her and at the same time I didn't want to do that and I got to thinking about it. It reached the point where I was buying things for her and I got a kick out of watching her face light up when she opened the packages. That had never happened before. We went around together for a little more than a year and then I went out and bought a ring.”
“It always works that way.”
“Not always,” the man said. “I think I really fell in love with her about two years after the marriage. She was in the hospital then. We were having our first kid. I remember standing there at the bed, and there she was, and there was a baby, and I got all choked up. That was it, I guess. That was the real beginning.”
“How many you got now?”
“Three is just right.”
“They're great kids,” the man said. He raised a wrist toward his eyes and peered at the dial of a compact little watch. “Well,” he said, “I've got to be running. Keep in trim.”
“I will,” Vanning said as the man started away. “Good luck.”
“Thanks,” the man said, and he was crossing the street. He turned a corner and walked up another block and crossed another street. A taxi came down the street in a listless way, the driver indifferent at the wheel, a cigarette miraculously hanging onto the driver's lips. The man raised his arm, waved it, and the taxi pulled toward the curb.
The man got in and gave the driver an address on the east side, slightly north of Forty-second Street, in the section known as Tudor City. The driver threw his cab into second gear and they were on their way.
In a little more than five minutes the man was home. He had an apartment on the seventh floor of a place once in the high-rent category but now toned down a bit. In the elevator he lit a cigarette, glanced again at his wrist watch as he left the elevator, and saw the hands indicating a quarter to twelve. Walking down the hall, he took a key ring from his trousers pocket, and as he came to the door marked 714 he glanced once more at his wrist watch. Then he inserted the key, opened the door and entered the apartment.
It was a pleasant little place, definitely little for a family of five, but furnished to give an impression of more space. The main element was a large window that showed the East River. And there was a grand piano that had put him in the red for several months. There was a presentable secretary desk with some intelligent-looking books behind glass. The top row was given over to a set of The Book of Knowledge, but underneath that it was all strictly adult stuff. A good deal of Freud and Jung and Homey and Menninger, and some lesser-known works by other psychiatrists and neurologists. The kids were always standing on chairs to get at The Book of Knowledge, and once in a while they'd mess around with the other books and sometimes use crayon on the pages, but the top row was the only place for The Book of Knowledge because the other rows weren't high enough. There'd been a bit of discussion about that, especially when the six-year-old daughter had torn out all the pictures in one of the more involved and pathological works of Man's Nervous System, but there just wasn't enough room for another bookcase and it was rather useless to make a big issue over the matter.
He came into the living room and his wife put down a book and stood up and walked toward him.
“Hello, Mr. Fraser.”
“Hello, Mrs. Fraser.”
He kissed her on the cheek. She wanted to be kissed on the mouth. He kissed her on the mouth. She was an inch or so taller than he was, and she was on the skinny side and had the kind of face they use in fashion magazine ads where they don't want to concentrate too much on the face. It was an interesting face even though there was nothing sensational about it. It was interesting because it showed contentment but no smugness.
She put her hands on the sides of his head. She rubbed his temples. “Tired?”
“Just a little.”
“How about a drink?”
“I could eat something.”
“No meat. Something light. God, but it's hot.”
“I couldn't get the kids to sleep. They must be swimming in there.”
“You look cool.”
“I was in the bathtub an hour,” she said. “Come on in the kitchen. I'll fix you something.”
In the kitchen he sat down at a small white table and she began preparing a salad. It looked good to her and she added things to it and made enough for two. There was a pitcher of lemonade and she put more ice and sugar and water in it and sat down at the table with him.
She watched him as he tackled the salad. He looked up and smiled at her. She smiled back.
She poured some lemonade for him and as he lifted a forkful of lettuce and hard-boiled egg toward his mouth she said, “Didn't you have dinner?”
“Who can eat in this weather?”
“I thought we'd get a breeze from the river.”
“Should have sent you and the kids to the country.”
“We went through that.”
“It isn't too late,” he said.
“Forget about it,” she said. “The hot spell's almost over.”
“I could kick myself.”
“We'll go next year.”
“We said that last summer.”
“Is it my fault?”
“No,” he said, “it's mine. I'm sorry, honey, really I am.”
“You know something?” she said quietly. “You're a very nice guy.”
“I'm not nice at all. I was thinking of the money.”
“They want too much these days,” she said. “The prices they ask, they're out of their minds. Out on Long Island you should see what they're asking.”
“I'm thinking of the country.”
“You're worried about the kids.”
“You and the kids.”
“Oh, stop it,” she said. “You're making enough.”
“I'm making a fortune. Next week I'm buying a yacht.”
She added some mayonnaise to her salad, mixed it in, ate for a while, and while concentrating on the food she said, “Anything new?”
“Still checking.” He sipped some lemonade. “It's a tough one.”
“Is he still there?”
“Still there. Tonight I talked to him.”
“I just talked to him. Nothing happened. He came out about eleven. Walked to the park. I followed him. He left the park and I walked up and asked for a match. That's about all.”
“Didn't he say anything?”
“Nothing I could use. He's a difficult proposition. If there's anything criminal in that direction, I can't see it.”
“I mean it, honey. He's got me buffaloed. For two cents I'd walk in and tell Headquarters they're on the wrong track.”
“Suppose I gave you two cents?”
“I'd back out,” he said.
She poured more lemonade into his glass. “I took your brown suit to the cleaner's. And you could use another pair of shoes.”
“I'll wait till fall.”
She studied his eyes. She said, “You never buy yourself anything.”
“I do all right.”
“You do fine,” she said. She got up and walked toward him. Her fingers moved through his hair. “Someday you'll be important.”
He smiled up at her. “I'll never be important,” he said. “But I'll always be happy.” He took her hand and kissed it and looked up at her again. “Won't we?”
“Sit on my lap.”
“I'm gaining weight.”
“You're a feather.”
She sat on his lap. He drank some more lemonade and gave her some. She fed him a little more salad and took some herself. They looked at each other and laughed quietly.
“Like my hair?”
He nodded. He put his hand against her head, played with her hair. “You women have it tough in summer. All that hair.”
“In winter it comes in handy.”
“I wish it was winter already. I wish this case was over with.”
“You'll get it over with.”
“It's a problem.”
She gave him a sideway smile. “And you eat it up.”
“Not this one,” he said. “This one's different. Something about this one gives me the blues. The way he talked. That tone. I don't know—”
She stood up. “I want to see if the kids are asleep.”
Fraser lit a cigarette, leaned back a little to watch her as she crossed the living room. When the wall cut her off, he leaned forward and dragged deeply at the cigarette and stared at the empty glass in front of him. A frown moved onto his forehead and became more of a frown. The empty glass looked very empty.