The Hour of the Ungovernable

by Michael Covino

Late afternoon and we’re beginning to grow hungry, late autumn and the holiday season, the downtown streets are thronged with shoppers, a well-dressed crowd, a fashionable crowd, strings of colored lights and ornaments decorate the facades of the big department stores while arches of blinking red and green holiday lights stretch one after another up the crowded avenue, that’s nice, the effect is pleasing, people are loaded down with all sizes and shapes of boxes, a fairly well-mannered crowd too, not too pushy, not too rude, our pack breaks up and we fan out through them,—

We mingle with the crowds, weave in and out among shoppers, gently lifting purses out of handbags, nimbly picking wallets out of pockets, nothing crude, nothing abrupt, we don’t snatch and run, no percentage in upsetting people, there’s an art to pick-pocketing like everything else, it’s serious work requiring deftness, a sense of timing as exquisite as a circus juggler’s, all right, so our reasoning’s fatuous, but don’t pass judgment on us without knowing all the facts, we could just as easily have waited in some dark alleyway with crowbars and lug wrenches,—

It’s growing chillier, the sun is setting behind the hills west of the city, the shadows moving up the facades of the office towers while the lights grow brighter on the window mannequins, and now, over there, a store detective is making an arrest just outside the revolving doors, an attractive young woman, elegantly dressed, the sort you’d least suspect, at least we think he’s making an arrest, he looks abashed, confused, and she’s pouting coquettishly, let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that she was ugly . . . but it’s silly to shoplift during the holiday season, whole armies of store detectives move invisibly among the customers, and then there are the massive banks of surveillance cameras, quietly panning every inch of floor space,—

We’ve almost finished working the crowd when an elderly gentleman suddenly starts shouting—about what?—and shoppers turn and stare at him, then slowly turn and stare at us, at some of us, we’re pretty spread out, and now other shoppers begin checking their handbags, patting their pants pockets where their wallets should be, if they’d have been more careful—leave it to the old gent, there’s always one wet blanket, one skeleton at any feast—and now a gasp here, a shout there, this doesn’t bode well, the holiday mood is starting to sour—come back!—then on the edge of the crowd, attracted by the growing commotion, two officers of the law start working their way in,—

We race through the crowd knocking over hysterical shoppers, upending shopping bags filled with purchases—what hullabaloo!—presents spilling out in a jumble of gift-wrapped boxes, sets of crystal crashing to the ground, and now the two police officers tear through the crowd shouting, we can’t hear them but we are keeping an eye on them, and a good thing too, one officer drops to his knee and—huh?—raises his long revolver, his job must be getting to him, the pressures of the holiday season and all, braces it on the crook of his arm, takes aim—isn’t he going to consult with his superiors about this?—blam! blam! actually for a moment we thought he was going to do something foolish like fire into the crowd, but those were just warning shots way over our heads,—

But one shot goes wild and hits one of the arches of red and green holiday lights spanning this crowded street, the light bulbs start sputtering and then exploding, the wires begin lunging and crackling, the whole arch swings and sways then shudders, suddenly it shorts and blazes up! then the whole thing drops flaming into the hysterical crowd below, the police could’ve exercised a little discretion, it’s real pandemonium, naturally this puts both officers in an even worse mood, if it’s not one thing it’s another,—

What uproar! what tumult! we weave in and out of screaming shoppers, department store windows shattering and caving in, people being trampled underfoot, our crowd is no longer behaving so well, it’s become every man for himself, as usual, and in the meantime the police, our old friends the police, pursue us with their guns drawn, this time they both drop to their knees, raise their long revolvers, carefully take aim—blam! blam!not overhead either, if you ask us this is appalling fanfare over a little pickpocketingblam! blam!—some holiday season! the merchants are going to be screaming, the police, now totally unnerved, with fires raging in the street, are furiously emptying their guns at us, as we continue darting in and out among screaming shoppers, and nearby someone suddenly shrieks horribly, we turn, it’s the elderly gentleman who started all this, with his big mouth, he looks at us as blood trickles out of his mouth, then he collapses to the pavement, kaput, well, there you go, literature teaches you nobility, the newspapers to mind your own business, blam! blam! no time for reflection though, keep moving, it’s disgusting the way the police sometimes take the law into their own hands, blam! blam! another shopper falls, and another, killers are on the loose tonight, completely irresponsible, utterly unaccountable, they think they’re a law onto themselves, blam! blam! still another falls, and another, we don’t subscribe to this, and another, and another,—

But our job’s to get on with the story, not hand out opinions on law enforcement, and our story’ s growing more and more confusing, people are crying, screaming, caterwauling, running for cover as flaming debris rains down all around them, the dead and the wounded lie everywhere, fires rage, sirens wail, bear with us, everything’s happening so fast we’re skipping around a bit, still, if you saw this in a movie you’d say the director is wonderful at handling crowd scenes, and to add to the pandemonium it’s growing darker,—

And now we break away from the confusion and run down a side street, we can hear the sirens drawing nearer, converging from every direction, on the next dark side street a man is helping his girlfriend out of a car, a getaway car, how do we know it’s a getaway car? well, we lend the man a helping hand then pile in and rocket away, in the rearview mirror we can see the couple sitting on the pavement staring after us in astonishment, what are they going to do? take down our license plate?—

We speed through the streets though just under the speed limit, towards the hills, ahead are the hills, some drivers already have their headlights on, others don’t, it’s that hour of dusk, we have ours on and several police cars speed past us in the opposite direction, sirens wailing, red lights flashing,—

On this side of the city the highway runs along a river and follows it up into the surrounding hills, this is how cities should be, small, manageable, with good escape routes, we make it up into the wooded hills and not a moment too soon, below we can see the roadblocks being set up on the roads we just travelled, patrol cars lining up solidly across the major intersections,—

The light is draining from the sky quickly now, and the cloud formations look strangely flattened and compressed, the fleecy tops of the clouds glimmer darkly while their long undersides ripple with crimson,—

They will be looking for us everywhere tonight, looking for us amidst the broken glass and charred beams in the basements of the gutted tenements, and in the ramshackle movie houses in the rundown parts of town; in the dark deserted lanes of the city’s shabby parks, and in the cinder block stairwells of the city housing projects; they will be looking for us in the pool halls, the bowling alleys, and the fast-food drive-ins, they will be looking for us everywhere and there’ll be fewer and fewer places to hide,—

But tonight we are watching them, watching them from this darkening hilltop as a distant column of police cars moves along the elevated thruway that rings this crumbling city, watching them as another column slowly climbs the far hillside, and the flashing red lights are like eerie nocturnal flowers that bloom with the approaching darkness, while the sky continues deepening and shading, and the brooding clouds roll ominously across the lowering city skyline,—

It’s dusk that we love best, it’s dusk that appeals most to us, this nothing hour when an unspeakable strangeness steals across the land, when we simply stop wherever we are as this powerful strangeness grips and transforms everything, this unreal time of day when it’s neither this nor that, not light, not yet dark, when the air begins to chill, the fading light turns baleful, this unearthly hour when the old world itself seems to be fading while in the shadows a new world bides its time, in anticipation of its moment of monstrous birth,—

And there, far below! where two major arteries intersect, four police cars screech to a halt then back into positions so that each one blocks an approach, and now the police officers climb slowly out—they leave on the blinkers and roof lights though—and now they’re milling around with binoculars and shotguns while the red lights flash pitilessly as darkness drops again,—

It’s at dusk that we feel most at home on the streets, it’s at dusk that we feel most comfortable, we believe in moderation, we believe in some restraint,—

NOW is the hour of the ungovernable.

Tags:
Short stories
Crime
Gangs
BOMB 7
Fall 1983
The cover of BOMB 7
Share