Sunday, September 01, 2013

Street of No Return by David Goodis (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard 1954)

Bones frowned. Then he took a deep breath as though he were about to say something important. And then he said, "I wish we had another bottle."

"I wish to hell you'd shut up," the other man said. He was a short bulky bald man in his early forties and his name was Phillips. He had lived here on Skid Row for more than twenty years and had the red raw Tenderloin complexion that is unlike any other complexion and stamps the owner as strictly a flophouse resident.

"We gotta get a drink," Bones said "We gotta find a way to get a drink."

"I'm trying to find a way to keep you quiet," Phillips said. "Maybe if I hit you on the head you'll be quiet."

"That's an idea," Bones said seriously. "At least if you knock me out I'll be better off. I won't know how much I need a drink." He leaned forward to offer his head as a target. "Go on, Phillips, knock me out."

Phillips turned away from Bones and looked at the third man who sat there along the wall. Phillips said, "You do it, Whitey. You hit him."

"Whitey wouldn't do it," Bones said. "Whitey never hits anybody."

"You sure about that?" Phillips murmured. He saw that Whitey was not listening to the talk and he spoke to Bones as though Whitey weren't there.

"I'll give odds on it," Bones said "This man here wouldn't hurt a living thing. Not even a cat that scratched him."

"If a cat scratched me I'd wring its neck," Phillips said.

"That's you," Bones said "Whitey ain't made that way. Whitey's on the gentle side."

"Gentle?" Phillips had a thoughtful look in his eyes as he went on studying Whitey. Then he said, "Maybe gentle ain't the word. Maybe the word is timid."

Bones shrugged. "Whatever you want to call it. That's the way he is." He spoke to the third man who sat there, not saying anything. "Ain't that so, Whitey?"

Whitey nodded vaguely.

"He ain't even listening," Phillips said.

"What?" Whitey blinked a few times. He smiled mildly and said, "What are you talking about?"

"Nothing," Phillips said. "Let it drop."

Whitey shrugged. He aimed the mild smile at the empty bottle. The curved glass showed him a miniature of himself, a little man lost in the emptiness of a drained bottle. Aside from what he saw in the bottle he was actually on the small side, five feet even and weighing 145. His eyes were gray and he had the kind of face that doesn't attract much attention one way or another. The only unusual thing was his hair. He was thirty-three years old and his hair was snow white.

Another thing not really unusual along Skid Row, was his voice. He always spoke in a semiwhisper, sort of strained and sometimes cracked, as though he had a case of chronic bronchitis. At times when he spoke there was a look of pain in his eyes and it seemed that the effort of producing sound was hurting his throat. But whenever they asked him about it he said there was nothing wrong with his throat. They'd insist there was something wrong and then he'd smile and say that his throat was dry, his throat was very dry and he could use a drink. Some of them would check on that and treat him to a drink and maybe two or more shots. But no matter how many shots he had, he went on speaking in the strained painful whisper.

He'd arrived on Skid Row seven years ago, coming out of nowhere like all the other two-legged shadows. He made the weary stumbling entrance to take his place in the soup lines outside the missions and the slow aimless parade up and down River Street. With nothing in his pockets and nothing in his eyes he joined the unchartered society of the homeless and the hopeless, to flop on any old mattress and eat whatever food he could scrounge and wear what rags he could pick up here and there. But the primary thing was the drinking, and was always a problem because there was always more thirst than cash to purchase drinks. In that regard he was identical with the others, and when they saw he was no different from themselves, they didn't bother to ask questions. He was accepted and included and completely ignored. There was an unspoken agreement that they'd leave him alone, they'd pay no attention when he got drunk and stumbled and fell and passed out. It applied to any condition he was in; they'd definitely leave him alone. That was all he wanted and that was why he liked it here on Skid Row.

The three of them sat there with Bones and Phillips discussing the alcohol issue and Whitey staring at the empty bottle. It was getting on toward midnight and the wind from the river was colder now, and much meaner. On both sides of River Street the taprooms and hash houses were crowded. In the hash houses there was a demand for hot soup. In the taprooms they hollered for double shots and gulped them down and hollered again. The bartenders hollered back and told them to be patient, a man had only two hands. The sounds of drinkers and bartenders were reaching the ears of Bones and Phillips and they were getting irritated and sad and then irritated again.

"Listen to it," Bones said.

"I'm listening," Phillips said. But as he said it the sounds he heard were not coming from the taprooms. These were new and abrupt noises from several blocks away. It was a clamor of shouts and screams, glass breaking and things crashing and footsteps running.

"They're at it again," Bones said.

"The hell with them." Phillips waved wearily in the direction of the violent noises.

"They buried two last week," Bones said.

The sounds were coming in waves, getting higher and higher, and at the top of it there was someone screeching. It was on the order of the noise an animal would make while getting crushed by a steam roller.

"It gets worse every day," Bones said.

Phillips made another weary gesture.

Bones said, "They've been at it for more than a month. You'd think they'd have it stopped by this time."

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