Due to flight canceling weather, Dan O’Shea had to miss our January Noir At The Bar. Luckily, you can’t keep a good hard boiled author down, and he’ll be at our July 7th Noir At The Bar, reading along with Jonathan Woods, Tim O’Mara, and Jesse Sublett. Dan’s series featuring Chicago detective John Lynch (Penance, Greed) are some of the best modern cop book’s written, with an epic, gritty scope, and energy of a great Eighties action film. He also has a great sense of character which he demonstrates in with the story originally published in Needle, A Magazine Of Noir.
(Note: This story contains mature language and content)
“THE SHROUD OF TURIN” by Dan O’Shea
Used to be you had a job. Used to be you could pay the bills, or most of them anyway. Used to be, when the kid got bad, you could take him in to the doc, and that stuff the doc prescribed, you could get that over at Walgreens and the insurance would cover most of it. Now, when the crying starts, you wait a day, you hope the kid can tough it out, then you head over to the ER at County and you sit in the waiting room, waiting for a lull in the gunshot wounds and heart attacks, the kid bawling because of how his gut ties up on him on account of the colitis, maybe five or six hours, everybody looking at you like you’re a loser because you were just in there last month and they know the only reason you’re at the ER is because you can’t pay and they have to treat you and that the three figures this is going to add to your tab, they’re going to end up eating that, but they try to be good people, that black lady that works the desk, the one that’s as dark as the inside of your pocket and about the size of the minivan you had until the repo guy took it, she always sticks in that Barney DVD she’s got in her desk, the one the kid likes, and sometimes that calms him down a little, and the bawling backs down to a steady whimper, and you hold the kid in your lap and you stroke his sweaty head and you listen to the purple dinosaur singing about how he loves you and you love him and you’re all a happy family. One time you started crying. Most times, when you finally get in to see the doc, they scrounge up some of the Asacol, send you home with enough to get you by. But this time all you get is a scrip.
The stuff’s eighty bucks at the hospital pharmacy, so you wrap the kid back up, you only have that fall jacket for him, so he’s wearing that, and you’ve got your old Carhartt coat on him over it, that thing stained with ten years worth of construction grime, but it’s the only coat you’ve got, so he’s wearing that and you’re wearing three sweaters ‘cause it’s like ten degrees out, and you hop the bus down to the Walgreen’s where you figure the Asacol will be cheaper, and it is, but it’s still better than sixty bucks, which is twenty more than you’ve got, and you’re six days away from the next government check, all of which is going to the rent anyway.
So you grab the bus back to the apartment, the driver telling you your transfer expired fifteen minutes ago, and you beg for a free ride, the guy giving you that look that used to piss you off, not straight pity, but pity with a little fucking loser thrown in, but you beg for the ride anyway, even though you’ve got the two bucks, because two bucks, Jesus.
When you get home, you ransack the place. Couch cushions, the pockets of every piece of clothing you’ve got, the pockets of the all the clothes Betsy left behind the day she told you she was going to see her sister for a while. That was six months back. After an hour, you’ve found $3.17. The meds from the ER haven’t worn off yet, the kid’s sleeping, probably sleep for a while, seeing as how he’d been up most of the night screaming. So you head down to the storage crib in the basement, start going through the boxes there. Not like you’re going to find any cash, but maybe there’s something left you can hock.
But there’s nothing.
You’re standing at the back of the storage crib looking at the mess on the floor. Boxes you just dumped out. A few baby clothes, wedding pictures, a few books from fifteen years back when you first got married, when the construction thing was a temporary gig because you were taking night classes out at the community college, you were going to be a teacher. But pretty soon Bets was in your ear about how the construction money was better than anything a teacher would make, about how much you were wasting on tuition, so you took a semester off, took the OT instead of the classes, pretty soon you hadn’t been in school for five years, and then the kid was born and Bets quit her job because she said the kid needed a mother at home. Back before the diagnosis, before either of them. She wasn’t so big on being home after that.
The half-dozen boxes of crap you dumped out on the floor, cleaning that up is a bigger job than you’re up to just then. One of the labors of Hercules you might have said, once upon a time. A Sisyphean task, you might have said, back when you still said shit like that. But Bets would always give you that look, the one that said you were showing off, the one that said you were trying to make her feel stupid. And, after a while, the few friends you had who might get it if you mentioned Sisyphus had moved on anyway, had finished school, gotten their downtown jobs, their places out in the burbs.
You put your back to the wall and slump down to the floor, and you just sit there, your mind empty, and not some yoga-class world-peace empty, but a bad empty. An empty-medicine-bottle empty. A no-food empty. You know you have to think of something and you can’t even think, so you just sit on the floor, useless, until your ass starts getting cold and numb.
You reach over to grab one of the wooden slats that wall your storage space off from the next crib so you can pull yourself up, that crib still crammed with stuff left behind by the tenants across the hall who got evicted a month back. As you wrap your hand around the slat you feel something stuffed in behind the boxes, something metallic. You grab it and pull it out between the slats. A gun, an automatic of some kind.
You’ve got no idea how to work it. You fiddle with it a bit, trying everything except the trigger. The trigger seems like a bad idea. You press some button on the side and the magazine drops out. It’s empty. But a gun, that’s worth something, right? You don’t know the rules, but you know there are some, you know you can’t just walk into a pawn shop with it, but it’s worth something on the street, and some of the guys you’d worked with, they’d know where.
“It’s a Colt,” a guy from a couple of the big jobs downtown, back during the boom years, guy that had some shady connections. “It’s a .45, older one, WWII or so.”
You’re at Danny Boy’s in a booth against the back wall, he’s got the gun in his lap. You ordered a water when sat down, your buddy asking what the fuck is up with that, you telling him water is free, they guy shaking his head, telling the girl to bring a couple of Guinness’s. First beer you’ve had in what? Two months? Almost gone, you’re actually feeling it a little.
He pulls the slide back and a round cartwheels out, catches in a fold in his shirt.
“Shit, you said it was empty. Had one in the pipe.”
You shrug. “I don’t know anything about guns.”
“Coulda blown my fuckin’ rocks off.”
He hands the Colt back to you, you stick it in your pocket.
“Kinda nicked up, nothing special about it. Give me a couple days I can get you a hundred and fifty, two hundred if I find some dumb fuck collector who doesn’t know there’s maybe a million of these around.”
“I need it tonight.”
“Tonight I can get you a hundred,” he says.
“That all?” You’d figured more.
“Bangers don’t like the old .45’s much. Clip only holds seven. They like the new nines. Dumb ass fuckers, most of them can’t shoot for shit. So they like to put a lot of lead in the air. Nines nowadays, hell, fourteen or fifteen round clips anyway.”
Not much to think about. If you’d reached into the next unit and pulled out a hundred in cash, you’d be down at St. Catherine’s now, lighting a fucking candle. So you found a gun and you thought more, so what?
“OK,” you say.
The guy gets up, hands a twenty and a five to the girl. “Bring my friend another Guinness, keep the rest.” She heads back to the bar. The guy zips his coat.
“You know the Citgo a couple blocks up, across from the cemetery?”
“Give me an hour then meet me there. I gotta make a call.”
“Hey, you landed in the shit. We all end up there some time or another. Chin up, sport. Things’ll turn around.”
The girl comes back with the Guinness, sets it in front of you, smiles at you with no bullshit behind it at all.
“Seen you around,” she says. “You live up by Western, right?”
“I’ve seen you with your boy. You take good care of him. He’s got some kind of problem, doesn’t he?”
“Autism,” you say, “and some stomach trouble.”
She nods. “I see you at the park sometimes. I take my daughter there.”
You’re feeling unsure, like you don’t know how to do this, and you can’t think why, simple enough conversation, just small talk, except this is the first conversation you’ve had with anybody in six months that wasn’t about getting something, getting money, getting medication, getting the super to let you slide a week on the rent. The last six months, since Bets took off, it was all reaction, like you were stuck on some cliff and as far forward as you could think was the next place you were going to put your hand. It was all reflex and need.
“He likes the swings,” you say.
She smiles again, puts a hand on your shoulder. “I know. God, the way he laughs on those swings. My daughter calls him the laughing boy.”
The laughing boy. Some girl who doesn’t even know your son thinks of him as the laughing boy. And you feel bad, feel like that little girl has a better opinion of your son than you do, how you’d probably call him the crying boy, or the needs medicine boy, or the daily reminder of what a fuck up I am boy.
“How old is your girl?”
“My son’s age,” you say.
A voice from up be the bar. “Hey, sweet cheeks!” Rich looking guy, high-end leather jacket, expensive jeans, a pair of sneakers that would pay your rent.
She gives your shoulder a squeeze. “Gotta go.”
And your eyes burn a little, want to tear up, that purple dinosaur shit all over again, the way life can have you down, be putting the boot in, and out of the blue somebody is holding a cool cloth to your face, like that chick in the crucifixion story, that Shroud of Turin thing. You’ve still got most of an hour to kill. You take a long pull on the second Guinness, definitely starting to feel it. You’ve still got forty bucks and change in your pocket, and you’re thinking you might finish this one, flag the girl down for one more, just to talk to her again.
You keep feeling the gun in the pocket of the Carhartt. Before it was making you paranoid, but now it was feeling like it meant something, something more than just a quick payday, like a totem, a charm, a sign even, maybe. You got a guy you knew from work four years back going to bat for you, the girl talking to you, an extra hundred right now, for you that was practically lottery money. Things can’t suck forever, you figure. You got to hit bottom somewhere, and maybe this morning, begging for a free bus ride, wearing three sweaters like some homeless fuck because your kid is wearing your coat because he doesn’t have one, riding the bus home to ransack your place because you’re too broke to buy your own kid his meds, maybe that was it, maybe that was bottom.
Another pull on the Guinness, almost empty. You look toward the bar, ready to flag the girl down. You think of all the times you’ve done that, summer nights, coming off a job, a mess of you from the crew stopping off somewhere, dropping twenty on beers, thinking nothing of it, all the times you’ve held up a glass and wiggled it at some waitress, and all it meant was one more beer, but this time it felt invested with a sacred weight, like some ritual, like she’s going to bring you a beer and somehow that’s going to wash your life clean, going to rinse the stink of degradation and hopelessness off of you and you’re going to walk out of here as a man again..
Crowded up by the bar, Leather Jacket and his posse bunched up, the girl squeezing through, setting her tray down to pick up her next load. Leather Jacket reaches over, squeezes her ass. She spins, slapping his hand away, her face fierce, Leather Jacket’s crew cracking up, Leather Jacket holding his hands up like she’s got a gun on him, the hand that had been on her ass empty, the other one, the one he’d had in his jacket pocket holding a fat money clip with a Franklin on the outside of the roll.
“Easy baby!” he says, talking loud, performing. “Hey, top-shelf stuff like I’m ordering, you oughta be thinking about your tip.”
She holds her ground, holds his eyes, says nothing. He’s the one that looks away.
“Spirit,” he says, still in his stage voice. “This one’s got spirit!”
She starts to walk away, heading for a four-top in the corner. One of Leather Jacket’s boys grabs her arm, holds out a twenty.
“He’s harmless,” the guy says.
She freezes the guy with the same look. “Him grabbing my ass makes him a dick. Me taking your money for it would make me a whore.” She slaps the bill away and leaves.
You wait a bit. You want a little space after that scene, don’t want her talking to you while her head is still full of him. Things calm down, she makes a few runs to other tables, finally she looks back at you. You raise the empty glass, give it a little wiggle, she nods, and you find yourself wondering if you did it right, thinking of all the glasses you’ve wiggled over the years, wondering how much space there was between you and Leather Jacket. Maybe you never grabbed any asses, but you and the boys had sure commented on enough of them, and you’re sure you’d done it loud enough sometimes that the girls heard it, and even if they hadn’t, you’d never thought of a single one of them as anything other than a pair of feet that brought you another beer, except for the times you’d thought about them as a pair of tits. And then you’re thinking maybe you’re going off the deep end here a little, and you see the girl grabbing the Guinness from the bartender, heading for your table, and you’re thinking how you almost got yourself tied up in knots last time just talking about the park, how you better relax or you were going to come off like a retard, and then you remembered you weren’t supposed to say that anymore, thinking of your son, then somehow the girl is setting the glass down when you would have sworn she was still half a room away and you want to ask her to wait a second while you get your shit together.
“Five bucks,” she says. You fish into your jeans for your wallet.
“You OK?” you ask. You tilt your head toward Leather Jacket and his crowd.
She snorts. “Occupational hazard.”
“I’m sorry.” You say it without thinking, too fast.
That seems to confuse her. “For what?”
You feel checkmated, like anything you say will just make you some patronizing prick trying to fix things for someone you know nothing about.
“I dunno. Just that the world sucks, I guess.”
That gets you another smile. “Just sometimes.”
You smile back, before you realize you’re smiling, and you think of your son on the swings, how that seems to be the only place in the world that makes sense to him, the joy he feels then, complete and entire, a kind of joy you’ve never known, you think how being happy always seems just out of reach to you, how it always has, even before everything went to hell, about how you usually think before you smile.
“Yeah,” you say. “Just sometimes.” You open your wallet. A twenty, two tens, a couple ones. Everything you’ve got in the world, except for the .45 in your pocket. You pull out a ten and hand it to her. “Keep it.”
Her face clouds. “Don’t do that.”
“The savior thing. A buck on a five dollar tab is a tip. Five is a gesture.” She counts out five ones and hands them back to you.
“So keep one,” you say.
She takes a one and smiles again, but the smile is flat and generic this time, and you know you fucked up, you know that every other person in the world is carrying their own history of hurt and insult, you know you just stepped on something sore and broken, and now she was pushing you back outside that boundary you had only just crossed. You have this sudden ache, this sense of something possible slipping away, and want to say something before she leaves but she’s already turning to go.
“Can I say thanks at least?” You just blurt it out, like she’s one of those ink blot tests and that’s your first thought.
She turns back. “Thanks for what?”
“For what you said about me and my son.”
A full smile this time, the best smile. “Maybe I’ll see you around the park,” she says.
You take your time with the third Guinness, definitely feeling it. Not drunk, not sloppy. Relaxed, like you like you just exhaled for the first time in months, like you’re finally taking a deep breath. You check your watch. It’s time.
The crowd has thinned out, Leather Jacket and his crew left a few minutes ago. The girl is at the bar as you pass.
“Night,” she says, little smile again, and you keep thinking about what a crap shoot it is every time you open your mouth, so you don’t say anything, you just smile back and wave.
Not as cold out, or at least the wind has died. You turn north, a couple blocks to the Citgo. You clear the end of the building. At the mouth of the alley, Leather Jacket is leaning on the front end of a Mercedes, finishing a smoke. He looks up, smirks.
“What do you want, you sad-sack fuck? Little slut inside send you out to defend her honor?”
Nobody in the lot, nobody on the street, your brain goes bright, like somebody threw a switch, the .45 in your pocket vibrating in your hand. And it’s all reflex. You pull the gun, level it at his head.
“The money clip, asshole. That’s what I want.” Rich fuck squeezing asses, waltzing through a world that for most people is just one long open wound, and all the asshole can do is throw salt around, make everything worse.
The guy smiles. The guy flicks his smoke at you, the butt sparking as it bounces off your jacket. You got a gun on him and he throws his smoke at you? Who does that? The guy unzips his coat and you can see the gun on his hip. Everything is wrong.
“Freeze asshole,” you say, going for hard, going for intimidating, using the line by reflex, the line from all the TV shows.
This time the guy laughs. “Freeze asshole? You arresting me or robbing me?” His arm knocks his jacket open and his hand flies down to the pistol.
You remember the bullet that flipped out of the Colt when your buddy ran the slide, and you try to remember if he ever put it back. It flipped up, landed in his shirt, he fucked with the gun a minute and the slide closed.
The guy’s gun is coming up and you realize that it doesn’t matter, the bullet is there or it isn’t, you pull the trigger or you stand there and get shot. If you do pull the trigger, and if you do have a bullet, then you’re killing some guy you know nothing about, some guy you tried to rob because he acted like a dick in a bar, and if you don’t pull the trigger, then he will, and the cops will be showing up at your place in an hour or so, and the lady upstairs who is watching the boy is going to hand the kid over to them, and the kid is going to go to DCFS, and you’ve heard enough to know what happens to a kid like your son once he goes into the system, and you know you have to pull the trigger and then you don’t know if you did or didn’t, but you’re on your back and you know you’ve been that way for a minute or so at least, because there are feet all around you, and it had just been you and Leather Jacket before, and you can hear Leather Jacket saying “Dumb fuck tried to rob me,” and somebody else saying the cops are on the way, and then you see the girl’s face, and it’s really close because she is kneeling over you and you feel yourself smile, and you feel a tear fall on your face, and you’re all tied up again, trying to think what you can say to her now, nothing coming to mind that seems right, but you want to thank her again for what she said about your son, you want to tell her that laughing boy is the kindest thing anyone has ever called him.
“What?” she says. You realize you’ve been muttering to yourself.
You feel another tear fall on your face, hers you realize, and you don’t want her to feel bad, you want to tell her the Shroud of Turin thing, you want to say that, if you are on your way to Golgotha, then she has been the last good thing, and then you’re thinking maybe you shouldn’t say Golgotha, Bets in your ear again about you showing off, but your mind is a little sluggish now, you can’t think how to rephrase it, then you can’t remember what you were going to say anyway, her face still there, but all the rest of it, the feet around you, the commotion, all going a little foggy at the edges, like how the pictures in Penthouse used to be, and you remember something you read about how that Guccione guy used to rub something on the lens to get that soft focus effect, something ironic about that, hard core in soft focus, and you shake that off, shouldn’t be thinking about Penthouse, not now, and then there’s a noise, a siren, still far away, except it isn’t because the fog is all strobed in red and blue now, and her face is floating above you in this cloud that’s red and then blue, and it’s beautiful, so beautiful, and you see that she’s nodding, her head bobbing in time to your thoughts, and you realize you’ve been talking all along, you’ve been saying all of it, and that feels so unfair, how she got to see inside you like that, she shouldn’t get to see inside you like that, and then there’s a hand on her shoulder, pulling her away, and she reaches down once, her hand dragging along your cheek and then she disappears into the red-and-blue fog, some other face dropping down, a man’s face, saying something to you, but you don’t hear it, don’t even want to hear it, the pain starting then, all at once, like someone hollowed out your chest and filled it with burning coals, and you arch your back a little, like you’re trying to buck the fire out of you, and the new face is yelling something at you, but you can’t hear it – just hold still, you think from how his lips moved, and he unzips your coat and rips your shirt open and now you’re cold, too, but you still feel the fire hollowing out your chest, and you realize you’re crying and you remember your son crying, all last night, this morning, and how you still waited, hoping he would get better, knowing he wouldn’t, but how you waited anyway, and you wish the girl would come back, the last good thing, but you’re not even sure now that she had been there because that image, her face floating in that neon fog, that seems like a dream and the pain is so real and you suck in one more breath, enough to say something loud enough for her to hear if she is real.
“My son,” is all you can manage.