You might ask why did Jack turn his attention to killers? Some folks when asked why they do things say I’ve got my reasons, by which they mean they have reasons they don’t want to tell. But Jack, if you asked, would say, I haven’t got a reason, and for all you know, he was telling the truth. A pain, a pang, a ladybug landing on his wrist, a song overheard on a summer morning on his way to the Venetian Pool. Or was it the day he saw an article in the paper? You might have seen it, everyone did. A man stuffed a child into a well. Modern wells are narrow pipes in the ground. The man, an orchard keeper from Poughkeepsie, stuffed the four-year-old daughter of a migrant worker into the nine-inch-diameter well behind his house. A pain, like a knife in Jack’s side, reading this.
Was that it, the knock that set him off, a collector of murderous facts? If you asked he would say he didn’t know. He himself never broached the question.
“What makes you like this?” Pedro Gomez, his cabdriver friend said as they sat in the Orange Bowl parking lot eating boliche from paper plates.
“Chaser of the public murderer.”
“I feel like I inherited the tendency.”
“That—or why—I couldn’t say.”
A couple dressed in the two halves of an elephant costume crossed in front of the cab, the one guy carrying the head under his arm. Bedraggled, the outfits undone, one, the tail part, eating a red popsicle, they looked like ladrones de carnaval, he thought after a long night, only sweat stains and a slightly exhausted happiness to show for it
“A thing of the blood,” Pedro said.
“Somebody’s,” he said.
Or maybe, like everything else, it had something to do with Randine.
He hangs around the library a lot during daylight hours—it’s like the old days when he was a kid, educating himself up in Hialeah, discovering murderers and their intrepid trackers—looking for a line on specialized killers, those who slice through the neighborhood—a big or little neighborhood—jacking homefolks out of the living world. Reading specialized authors mostly these days and looking up words. He’s read true crime and Juan Rulfo and Bruno Schulz and Jim Thompson and Beckett, Kafka, Söderberg, and Céline, and James T. Farrell and the Brontë sisters, and Dostoyevsky, whom everyone reads in prison, and more true crime. He gets into the OED. It’s a huge corpus, the English language. And truth is, even after all these years the language’s been in operation, many useful words haven’t made it into the dictionary. That’s something to ponder. There’s family slang and kid nomenclature and sacramental blather and love’s lexemes. Battle cries and bloody shouts. Mutterings of the desolate in their lonely beds. The usages of pointless entreaty. The cries of the murdered as the knife goes in—they’re missing. And the ecstatics of the murderer. Utterance that no one pays attention to. Ejaculations of the broken or limited minded, eloquent, but unfathomable, and unrepeatable, spoken by other parts of the body than the voice, also eloquent, but never written down. Cries diviners use, infantile or sophisticated, the diviner, that is. Idioms slipped from one country to another as the cutthroat pauses at the border for a last look back. Blood feasts, jungle banquets, pirate talk. Confessories scratched in a dying throat. Syllables possibly never reaching the mouth. Vocables spending their whole lives in the murks and mists of flesh, organic designatos, pancreatic, and respitorial, and les cris—ride ’em cowboy—de coeur. Everywhere you go, anything you do, there’s a word for it, or will be, or just was, to explain how your throat got cut, and a clue as to who did it. And somebody you know, friend or foe or neighbor gurgling blood and cyanide froth, is struggling to say it, or struggling to deny that he did.
He lays himself down to sleep beside these words. He gathers paragraphs of revelation into his arms. He rests beside the still waters of murder. In the valley of the shadow of death traps he naps. And awakes with a chill.
He doesn’t tell anybody about this but he begins going out at night, injecting himself into scuffles. He peers from the windows of cabs searching faces for signs of miscreancy and murder. Once in a while he comes on something scary. A man beating a boy at the entrance of an alley. He jumps from Willie Best’s cab and runs over there. A large aurelia bush half shades the affair. The man is beating the other fellow, the boy, with a switch. “Hey,” Jack says. “Hey.”
“Hey yourself,” the man says, his voice friendly.
“You got to cut that out.”
“I got to do nothing of the sort.” The man, under a great shock of white hair like a clown wig, has not looked up at him. He goes on beating the boy—Jack is sure it is a boy—lying on the ground.
“I’ll have to make you stop,” Jack says.
“Do what you got to.”
Jack grabs the man by the shoulder and turns him, or thinks he does. Actually the man catches the momentum of the pull and whirls on Jack, striking him across the face with the switch.
“Goddamn!” Jack cries, falling back.
He exits the alley and reenters the cab.
“You got some blood on your forehead,” Willie says.
“And shame in my heart,” says Jack.
He cuts back a little after that. Goes back to writing letters. But still he steps out. On Compton Street just before dawn he thinks he sees a man fighting a woman and can’t keep from interfering, but the woman turns out to be a man who is holding his own. She—he—is very pretty and has hard muscles in her—his—forearms. Jack writes threatening letters to gangsters and misbehaving politicians. A few write back saying he is terribly misinformed and a couple invite him for a drink. At Jud Going’s regular table at Shoddy’s he insults an associate and is escorted out back and beaten senseless. He comes to lying in a plastic laundry basket behind the Sea Crest motel in Surfside. Pinned to his shirt is a note that says, “Please take me home and feed me.” He shouts from passing cabs at malefactors—especially insulters and threateners of women—but the drivers make him cut it out. Some say they won’t carry him anymore if he keeps that up. He prints flyers and sends them out. The flyers urge wife beaters, crooks, and ruffians to turn themselves in, on penalty of getting surprised by watchmen as they sleep. The police notice no uptick in confessions. He interferes with bookies, gets arrested for attempting to reclaim what he thinks is a stolen purse. The police say they are going to put him in jail if he doesn’t stop. He doesn’t stop.
It’s a hard road.
In his mind, like a destiny, he builds slyboots characters, night runners, excellers at cracking the skulls of snoozing drunks, murderers of deli owners and owners of shops specializing in scuba gear and sea shells; bitter touts; enraged dwarfish lovers; sneaks and arsonists, rapists who at pancake suppers chatter menacingly; retired firemen dragging their chipped axes down lonely byways along which the street lamps flicker and buzz. He wakes, troubled, in his hotel room, his copy of Heine’s poems lying broken-backed on his chest, sure someone is in the room. He calls out, asking what they want, but no one answers. He can see shapes in the dark and though these shapes are not in human form he becomes convinced that the forms he sees are ominous, minatory. For seconds, minutes—for years it seems—they stare at each other. As the gray pearls of dawn fill the room the shapes reorganize imperceptibly into chairs and coat stands. In matinee movies he finds characters that seem to be rude aggregates, dim, groped-together caricatures of the ones haunting him. Walking down Meridian late he sees a white wispy figure flitting through the tops of the casuarina trees. His true crime books seem true. The accretion, menacing and scary, is not especially fast, but it’s one thing after another and it’s moving in one direction only.
There’s clearly an infestation.
“Yeah,” Spael says when he mentions this. “In your fucking head.”
“Okay,” he says. “But why of this particular variety? Why the buildup?”
“Drugs’ll do that,” he says.
This he knows, but truth is he’s cut way back on the additives.
“That’s probably the problem,” Arnie Budger, his internist, says.
Arnie prescribes new helpmates and a schedule which he stays on a while and then discards, discards the pills, scattering them in the Templar Canal. The sense, the true understanding that’s filling him of how much actual menace there is in the world, doesn’t subside; it grows. Down the street, around the corner and the block, back onto your street and then through the pretty ficus hedge into your hotel, up the stairs, down the corridor, right into your room—it doesn’t matter whose—the creepy beasts rove. They are gathering in strength; anybody can see this and many do. Nobody’s safe. Into your gated community, onto your island, they come, about to crack the baby’s skull. The awful shapes expend and sink back, like a bellows. The air fills with noxious gases.
“Think I’m exaggerating?” he says to the guy on the next stool at Minnie’s Cuban Cafeteria. “Then why do the clerics weep? Why do the rich rage?”
And he’s thinking, right along with this, as he stands in the shallow surf wearing canvas sneakers and casting with a Shakespeare Supersport reel into the tallowy, slowly collapsing Blue Key waves, that he is totally nuts or fast on the way to it, and this thought becomes a sensation that travels from his head through his neck into his shoulders and enters from there deeply into his chest, so deeply it feels as if the cavity is depthless and continuing, this feeling like a gout of hot slag falling, and he drops to his knees, letting the rod drift into the water so its tip catches a wave and the rig starts to slide away from him and he sinks over to his side and lies there with the little waves licking his face and the late afternoon sun, which was really most of what he came for—sea-purified light—going down behind the old railroad bridge, as Randine, who’s up on the shore in the grass barbecuing something neither of them will eat, speaks to him in a voice without alarm, something about coming to help her, but this is like hearing a voice calling as you descend into hell or some lower chamber, possibly the reeking basement of the local killer everyone has been searching for, and he is almost blacking out here and would if not for one wave in particular, a wave built from water, agua, bocum, H2O, that started out in the Baía de Setúbal or Casablanca or Dakar or the Gulf of Guinea or who knows where, that slaps him in the eyes and he comes to stinging and coughing and sits up in the macerating surf and looks out at the little islands small as overturned lifeboats and he can’t believe what he is thinking or has been thinking (that he must take care of this killer business), it’s crazy, daft, he’s unhinged, and now, sick to his stomach, he vomits into the out-of-the-tap-clear water, and loses his sight and bearings and doesn’t know where or who he is, and is only just able to feel (however many it is seconds later) Randine’s strong piano-playing hands (play me something with punch & bounce, please) begin to drag him up onto the beach.
—Charlie Smith is the author of seven books of poems, six novels, Three Delays being the most recent, and a book of novellas. “Kixote,” being shaped as we speak, is one of maybe three forthcoming novels from Harper Perennial, “Men in Miami Hotels” and “Ginny Gall” being the others. He is at work on a volume of selected poems for Norton.