When the half-moon, past a half night bent its light on the red-brown building,the misery, it quickened, the despair, it doubled, grim thoughts like fiends fourscore, the spirit they pummeled.
The Bonners, they were at it again; rusty springs on their bed creaking as the walls shook with their heaving and cursing and panting. They’d cast their blind boy outside the shabby one-room apartment; he played in the moldy passage with his stuffed blue jay.
Griffey, unshaven, unmindful, trembled with the cold steel of the .380 Glock grating against his teeth. His mind frantically groped for a reason to not shoot himself, and finding none, his index finger curled around the trigger, and feeling its free play, began to squeeze. As his gaze swept over the bronze cross on the wall opposite him, a vague, unphrased prayer crossed his mind. Just as the hammer was about to get cocked, a loud thump came from outside; there was the clumsy shuffling of someone scraping to his feet, and then, tuneless singing:
“Com’on, sing me a numbah,
Sing me to slumbah,
Com’on, ring me a numbah, ring in
Damn. Griffey carefully withdrew the cold muzzle from his mouth and placed the loaded pistol in the open drawer, banging it close with a fist. He opened the door and shouted across the passage, “Hey, quit all that bawling – your bed gonna fall off the damn building.”
And to the kid he said, “Hey kid, stop croaking to that stuffed bird or I’ll tear his head off myself!”
“It’s not stuffed – it’s live,” the kid yelled back.
The din had ceased and the door to the Bonners creaked open; Missus Bonner, sweaty and flushed from the drinking and fornicating, a joint dangling from the corner of her mouth, bawled back at him “Mind your own business, psycho! Get a life – or a fuck!”
A tittering and then raspy coughing came from behind her half-open door. She leaned against the doorway and grazed her fingers across her sagging bosom. Her gown fell carelessly around her naked body and she let him see the light brown fudge below her belly.
“Only one bed can shake on this floor at a time,” he said, “before the damn house keels over!
And get the kid off my passage…to school or something.”
“He’s blind,” she shook her head. “Can’t you see?”
“No, I don’t see – excuse me! There are special…”
“Mind your own business – creep!”
“ We hate you,” added the kid, clutching the bird close to his chest.
“I hate you back! I hate myself!” I wanna throw myself away, he thought, as he banged the door on them. He felt drained already with the shouting and the arguing.
He returned to his couch; his fingers caressed the knob of the drawer nervously, but couldn’t slide it open. The moment had passed – on to the next lonesome, sleepless, wretched night when he would be desperate enough again. Suddenly, a knock came. He cocked his ear to the sound – the walls were so thin one couldn’t be sure whose door was being addressed. It came again: soft, pleading, tentative – it was definitely at his door. It was an unearthly hour to be visited, not that anyone – except the landlady who called in once a month for the rent – ever visited him. And for some reason she was always armed with a shotgun when she came calling. He opened his mouth to bawl away the visitor, but a queer curiosity got the better of him. He rose and threw open the door – no peeping through holes, or restraining with door chains for him – he let the elements in, wide and handsome.
Not that it was much of an element that presented itself; it was only Nell Gwynn from next door, the third occupant of their sordid floor. She leaned against the wall and blew smoke rings moodily at the empty, green bulb holder dangling from the ceiling. She turned to him and held out an empty cup. “Got sugar, Sugar? I heard the little exchange of pleasantries and figured you was still awake…so I could disturb you.”
She had the usual swollen eye and a purple patch on her cheek. It must be her pimp again, the guy who hung about in the shadows in the yellow flannel check jacket and patented leather oxfords. Her breasts swelled out from her faux leather dress as she tottered on her red 5-inch heels – she was still dressed for work. She’d probably look less trashy if she wore a paper bag to the mall.
Griffey winced as he began to close the door on her. “If this is an excuse to…I’m not paying.”
“All I was thinking was coffee, and maybe sling our legs over the balcony and stare at the half moon as it bends its light through the clouds on us…”
“Not me – you take care,” he said, averting his gaze as he shut the door.
The next morning Griffey made out a money order for two hundred dollars at the post office for a Mrs. Breckenridge, smiled at the old lady behind the glass cage, collected his beer and rum, and Camels from the corner store and, munching on an odd thought, rambled back home.
The pavements were still wet from the rain; they smelled of vermilion glides, the sighs of departing tides, there and then lost again. Pale clouds against a silver sky rambled on, despite a scarlet sun that pried through but failed. To the edge of earth they drifted through, raised up their plumes to the sky, and asked to be taken up.
In front of his building little boys were pummeling a frail kid. The kid bore the blows stoically, with the resignation of a monk, not even putting up his hands to parry. All he did was to save his little stuffed blue bird from getting knocked about. The boys, sensing it might hurt him more to hurt the bird, tore it out from his wretched grasp, and stomped on it with their boots. That brought the tears out in the blind kid.
“Hey, scram!” Griffey shouted, shoving one of the larger boys away. “Leave the damn smut alone.” He leaned his paper bag against the lamppost and helped the kid up. “Are you okay?”
The kid, bleeding and sore from the punches, patted his sleeves and groped on the pavement for his bird. “Here,” Griffey picked up the mangled toy and handed it over.
“Is my bird okay,” the kid asked, caressing the twisted beak.
Griffey raised his hands skywards unbelievingly and chuckled to himself. “You are something, kid. Yeah, the bird seems okay, but I can’t say the same for you. Go on, git. Listen to a book or something – stay off the streets.” Picking up his bag, he walked into the building, muttering and shaking his head. Other than a clumsy flier pleading the cause of Syrian refugees, he had no mail. He crushed the paper and tossed it into the waste bin. As he began to climb the creaky stairs he heard a scuffle in the stairwell. It was the pimp. And Nell. He’d pushed her against the wall and was twisting her arm. Her face was contorted in agony. She looked at him beseechingly, but Griffey stared ahead and continued climbing. The pimp snarled at him and laughed.
As Griffey slid in the key he heard noises from the Bonners’ apartment again. He cocked his head to listen carefully – it was the bed again, and the heaving and panting of frenzied lovemaking. It was still early afternoon – Mr. Bonner was in construction, he never returned home till after dark. Griffey crossed himself; kicking his door in, he slumped on the couch to wait for the night to fall.
Within the voices they spoke, the quiets they broke, they screamed, they croaked, they shivered, and they poked red-hot irons in his soul. The dusty winds broke over the leaves’ faces, snapping them off pale-green stems that cried over torn ends. The spot on the wall moved as he stared for far too long; it lingered, it went, it came, and it spent in self-torment. Griffey reached out for the rum and drank long and hard. Then he banged the bottle noisily on the table beside him. His fingers twitched as they played with the drawer; finally he slid it open and cocked the pistol. He sat with the gun in his lap, waiting for that moment when his hand would shovel the cold steel into his mouth.
Then, came a knock. “Who’s it this time,” he bellowed, nursing the pistol’s soul-dead butt.
A tiny, plaintive voice came from out the door, “’tis me.”
What could the kid want from him? Griffey grunted and got the door. He glared down at the boy and his bird.
“I think you’d better come.”
“What’s up…your parents done somethin’?”
“It’s Miss Gwenn. Something’s wrong – she’s a-cryin’. Hurry up!”
The kid’s eyes were useless but his ears were fine. Griffey followed the boy to Nell’s apartment. The door was ajar. She was on the bed, naked, bleeding, chained to the bedposts. A hell of a stink came from the room; she had a lot of body fluids smeared on, and some device of perverse gratification stuffed in every orifice. “Don’t look this side,” he said to the boy, as he removed the butt plug, the nipple clamps, and other knick-knacks from her battered body. He held up a glass of water to her lips to sip. He heated some water on the gas burner, found some towels from the bathroom and sat by her on the bed and sponged her down. She tried to rise on her elbows to say something. “Shush,” he said, putting a finger to her lips, “ I know, it was your boyfriend from the stairs.”
She nodded. “Do you want me to call 911,” he asked. She shook her head; a flash of panic contorted her features.
“It looks superficial,” he said, examining her body expertly. “You’ll need to rest and take plenty of fluids.”
He rummaged in the room for clothes – all she had were mostly work clothes. Damn. He walked back to his room to fetch clean pajamas and antibiotics from his first aid box. He dressed her up and after helping her swallow the pills, he said, “ Just lay yourself low, okay? We’ll leave you alone now. Knock on the wall or just shout across if you need me. Come on kid – what you lookin’ at? Keep your ears clean and call me if…” he grabbed the boy by his collar and led him out.
Between Griffey and the blind kid, over the next couple of days, they took turns watching over Nell, and nursed her back into some state of repair that she could shuffle about without whimpering. Griffey entered his kitchen after a long time finally, and began to cook meals – for the three of them. The pistol stayed out of view in the drawer. One day, after taking Nell and the kid on a walk through the rain-swept park, he slid the bolt forward and emptied the magazine of its rounds.
“Do you know the bird sings back to me nowadays?” the kid said one day, grinning widely and holding out the blue jay for them to see, as they sat on a white bench in the park. The bird seemed to be in fine fettle indeed: its head was sewed back on, its cheeks were rosy, the crest perky, the plumage shining bright, feathers licked clean, and its glassy eyes wobbling happily in their sockets. It looked good to fill up its little white chest with the bracing air and hum a lilting melody too.
“Someone got you a new bird?”
“Nah – it’s the same one,” the kid said in surprise, probing the features of his songbird with knowing fingers.
“Well, it’s a remarkable case of prayer and self-recovery then.”
Next day Nell brought a book to the park. She nestled her head in Griffey’s lap and began to read. The kid was on all fours, combing the damp grass for acorns to feed his bird.
“That’s a funny title,” Griffey said, tilting the book a bit.
“Waiting for Godot,” Nell replied.
“What does it mean?”
“No one really knows – maybe an agent of change…a harbinger of good tidings… it’s all about waiting. A critic once said, nothing happens in this book – twice. Because this book is in two acts. I say even if you read this book backwards – you’ll not know the difference – twice. In fact that’s how I read it the first time – last page onwards.
“I noticed a lot of books in your room – you fond of reading?”
“Funny isn’t it – a well-read hooker?”
“I didn’t mean it like that.”
“I was in college – can you imagine – smoking joints… waiting tables…doing odd jobs to help with the fees and rent…when I met him. One mistake led to another, and here I am. What’s your story – what are you doing in this rundown place – you don’t belong here.”
“Why don’t you leave him?”
“I have a contract with the devil.” She laughed. “They said you were a cop – is it true? What happened?”
“Have you been to the movies…lately?”
“Are you asking me out?”
“I’m hungry. Haven’t been hungry in a long time. Hey kid – ” Griffey whistled after the kid. “ Wanna see a movie? Let’s go.”
That night, for once, Griffey slept. For once, his personal demons held at bay, grief did not gnaw at his insides, and his memories left him in peace. Alas, fickle was peace, inveigled away by a great hue and cry that rose from the stairs. A multitude of voices filled the din; he could hear almost everyone at once. Cursing, he walked out of his flat.
The man in yellow jacket was dragging a screaming Nell by her flaming red hair. The blind boy was biting the hand by which he held her. The Bonners were jabbering, and the landlady was barking orders with a shotgun in hand.
“Leave her be,” Griffey roared in a firm, commanding voice. He’d snatched the shotgun from the landlady and was aiming it squarely at the back of the pimp’s head.
The pimp turned and leered. “You want her – pay me.”
“I’ll pay you with hot lead, punk. I’m lookin’ for a reason to kill someone here – and I don’t feel very reasonable right now.”
“Yeah?” the man licked the blood off his hand and looked from one glowering face to another. “You don’t want to be messin’ with me man.”
Griffey pulled the fore-end of the shotgun to the rear and fixed him in a grim stare. “You want to be walkin’ out of here now man – alone!”
“I know all about you – loser – pointing a gun at an innocent, unarmed man,” said, releasing Nell’s hair. Wrapping his pocket square around his hand, he snarled and climbed down the stairs. Griffey handed the shotgun back and helped Nell up.
“He’ll be back,” she said, pausing at her door, her pale blue eyes scared. She gripped the lapel of his gown. “You know that.”
“No he won’t,” he said, softly uncurling her fingers from his collar. “You have free will. Don’t be in bondage to anyone – not even the devil.” He pecked her lightly on a cheek, turned, and left. As he was crossing his doorway, his unshod feet nudged against something soft and furry. He looked down, it was the blue jay. And I always thought the two were inseparable. Kid must have dropped it in the melee. He picked up the bird and went back to bed. But sleep, like a capricious goddess, dodged him yet again.
Early next morning Griffey walked over to Wharf Street. He knew last night’s insistent, but unwelcome visitor ran a shady nightclub of sorts there. Griffey was dressed in a black suit, and wore black sunglasses from his cop days. There was a bulge under his breast pocket and he didn’t seem to bother that his jackass rig holster could be seen.
In the ‘Bonfire’ the chairs were still placed upside down on the tables and somebody in a far corner was mopping. The place had distressed brick walls, exposed wooden beams; industrial, Edison-inspired bulbs; reclaimed wood floors; and a digital jukebox. The barman was shining the glasses.
“Hey, we open at eleven,” he said, as Griffey coolly walked past, ignoring him.
“You can’t go back there,” the barman hollered after him.
Griffey went over to a grey door set in the back wall that said ‘Staff Only.’ He opened it to find himself staring at a narrow, semi-lit passage with a row of doors on either side and one door at the end with the sign ‘Manager.’ He headed there and swung the door open. Two mean looking, beefed up men stood by the sidewall, bored. They had guns stuffed in their belts.
The man in the yellow jacket was hunched over a table by the window, counting wads of cash. His jaw dropped as he saw who’d come. The bozos, suddenly all snappy and cagey, drew their weapons out. “Well, well, well,” he thumped his palms on the table. “ Look who’s here? The cop who shot his own wife! Ex-cop, rather.”
“I wanna make a deal with you,” Griffey said, lightly flapping open his jacket so that they could see he was loaded.
“Do you even have a license for that thing – you’re a fuckin’ trigger-happy homicidal bastard, you know that?”
“Cut to the chase – name your price – for the girl.”
“Aah!” the pimp rose and walked around the table, bending slightly and wringing his moist palms in an exaggerated gesture of awe. “He’s come to love the girl,” he said, addressing his men in a mock tone. Turning to Griffey he said, “Or is this one of your Christian deeds?”
“What do you mean?”
“I know everything that goes on in this town – I pimp for most everybody. For example, we know of your handsome donations to our church. Why, I even know of your confessions! And you’ve been wiring money to anybody who writes to you asking for it. Hit a jackpot, Jack, or is it your severance pay – how long will it last? Or you don’t think you’re gonna outlast it?”
“It’s not your business.”
“Trying to atone for your sins – after shooting your own wife and kid in cold blood – hotshot cop?”
“It was an accident. It was a hostage situation – I was aiming for the kidnapper – I missed. It could happen to anyone…”
“How many people it’s happened to, eh? You took a chance, man – a chance with your own family! You wanted to prove something there, isn’t it – that you’re a crack shot who can get a man holding a gun to your wife and baby – hidin’ behind them?”
The familiar nausea that had lived with him for the last few months lashed Griffey once again like the blow of a whip. He reeled and clutched at the wall to steady himself. Sweat poured from his hairline. He gritted his teeth. “Name your price, you scum!”
“You want a price, eh? A price for your atonement? You want to be healed – look around you – does this place look like Rehab to you…or a church? You ain’t got a badge to protect you this time, cherry-tops. Now scram – I’ll be coming around after work to get my girl – tell her to doll up if you see her.”
“You ain’t coming that way no more – ” Griffey shouted. In one fast, deliberate movement, his hand flashed into his jacket.
“Get him,” the pimp screamed and went for his gun. The bozos, whose fingers were already itching at their guns, opened fire. They all didn’t stop shooting till Griffey’s limbs stopped twitching. His hand was still inside his jacket – he never had a chance.
“What should we do now, boss – should we get rid of the body?”
“Don’t be idiots! He’s got a reputation – nothing’s gonna happen. It was in self-defense. Now don’t touch anything – it’s a crime scene – call the cops,” he ordered, blowing the smoke off the muzzle of his gun.
“What?” a bozo cried out, his eyebrows shooting up, and eyes going wild.
“Call 911 – now!”
“So, do you care to explain why this man has had nearly three full magazines pumped into him,” the detective, pulling on his gloves, asked the pimp a half hour later.
“Everyone knows he’s a nut case, officer. Jealous, raging bastard – he came here to kill me over my girlfriend.”
“Who – Nell… or Mrs. Bonner?”
“We hear the blind kid is yours?”
“Did the deceased fire at you or somethin’?”
“He was going to – he went for his gun – but we got him first.”
“Let’s see…” The detective sat on his haunches and carefully slipped his hand inside Griffey’s jacket. He groped about, looking puzzled; and then withdrew his hand. In it he held a bluejay: bleeding, still warm, still twitching with a proof of tiny life left inside of him.
“Is this what you refer to as his gun, mister? Sir, you are under arrest!”
Nidhi schooled at American International School, Kabul, before moving on to Delhi University for her BA (English Honors). She is the author of a few novels, and miscellany on Indian Cinema, and Sikh Holy Scriptures. Her short stories and essays have appeared in Asvamedha, eFiction, Aerogram, Flash Fiction Press, Fabula Argentea, Romance Magazine, Under the Bed, Nebula Rift, Mouthshut, Pothi, Flyleaf Journal, Liquid Imagination, Digital Fiction Publishing Co, LA Review of LA, Flame Tree Publishing, Firefly Magazine, Four Ties Lit Review, The Insignia Series, Inwood Indiana Press, Bards and Sages Publishing, Scarlet Leaf Review, Bewildering Stories, Down in the Dirt, Mulberry Fork Review, and tNY.Press. She lives near the sea in Kutch, India.