We are nearing the end of the hottest, driest summer I have ever experienced. Eighteen years old and living on South Damen and Savage, in the heart of HellTown, with my mother and two younger sisters.
Standing at the edge of a dusty parking lot, near the canal---the water level is very low, the water a murky grey-green color---waiting for my friend Johnny Fuller when a shadow moves to my right. Turning quickly, I realize it is the shadow of a bird, turning in a tight arc just above me. Looking up, shielding my eyes from the harsh early afternoon sun, I see a vulture riding an updraft above the blazing city. He is joined by another, and together they turn in a widening arc, circling higher and higher, joined by two more in succession, lazily riding air currents, and drifting off to the northeast.
Looking after them, toward the Castle that dominated the view of the east side of The Old City, I see thin columns of smoke rising from the Portside, and hear gunfire in the distance, increasing in intensity and volume. Johnny pulls up fast, with a cloud of dust, and yells, "We're being invaded! There's a battle going on in the Castle, in the marsh, and in Portside!" I jump in and he peels off, narrowly missing a passing car, heading east toward Mid City.
Prologue: Friday, 21 March, Midnight
The last traces of sunlit day sink into the western horizon, carrying the rooster call of a new morning to the Orient, but bringing a different call---more raven- or buzzard-like, let’s say---to the doors and windows of The Old City. Nowhere does this call more resonate than along the intersection of Lower Greene and Clark Streets, in the Portside neighborhood, and just to the west in HellTown. Down here, the bulls are on permanent vacation and the Day-Glo Freaks emerge from their caves, longing for the artificial light of the street lamps and neon signs to put the color back into their cheeks.
The dark clouds of a late‑evening shower pass off into a still‑darker eastern sky, leaving banks of fog rolling in off the bay, blanketing the avenues and streets of Lower Mid City and the Portside. The 7:30 west‑bound streetcar pulls into the station at the intersection of Racine Street and O'Gara Avenue and a single passenger steps onto the damp, green wood of the platform. With a mechanical roar and a shower of sparks, the train is moving again. From his elevated vantage‑point the man surveys the city spreading out in front of him beneath the pale light of the desert cemetery stars.
The peeling green paint and the red rust on the now‑exposed metal crunch beneath his boots as he descends the stairs to the street. Once again at street level, he stands peering down Racine Street in both directions watching the cars move back and forth beneath the dark canopy of the El. A vague smile comes to his face at the site of the white-wall tires rolling along the paving stones and an inexplicable feeling like he has just seen an old friend fills him. He takes a deep breath, exhales a cloud of steam, picks up the two bags---an olive green duffel bag and a saxophone case---at his feet and begins making his way down the avenue.
The buildings jut out of the street at strange angles to the ground and though some are only three stories tall, in the strange yellow light of the street lamps they tower over everything, looming above the heads of the pimps, prostitutes, punks, dopers, drifters and dingbats prowling the avenue below.
The thin man watches him go and decides he's seen enough.
"It's hard to believe I actually missed this place."
He resumes his walk down the avenue. At the corner, the slender green sign reads Willis Street.
Steam drifts lethargically from the grate at the edge of the empty, quiet street. Reminders of the late‑evening downpour lie in puddles and trickle down a storm drain into the cavernous dark below. From an alley halfway down the block opposite him, the man sees three skaters emerge at lightning speed. They are caught, briefly, in the street lamp light before descending again into shadow. With their passing, the street returns to silence. The only sound, itself barely audible, is the water trickling down into the hollow heart of the city. The man looks down at his now‑submerged ox blood Doc Marten boots and the damp cuffs of his grey herringbone trousers and smiles. As usual, he is in the drink before he has taken the time to look around. "Harry," he thinks to himself, "at last you're home."
With the duffel bag on his shoulder and the saxophone case in his right hand, he crosses the street and continues on his way. After walking three blocks he stops in front of a large, four story, gargoyle‑crowned brownstone, puts down his bags, and takes a cigarette out of the inside pocket of his trench coat. Placing it between his lips, he notices a woman watching him from a first story window. She quickly yanks down the shades, pulls the curtains to, and disappears into the room. Harry shrugs, pulls up his collar, straightens his hat on his forehead, and lights the cigarette, his lips pursed. He picks up his bag and his case and strolls into an alley. He quickly melts into the shadows and fog.
To Carthage Then I Came
Chapter 1: Slow Burn
It’s a slow Thursday night, the 23rd of March, at Nick’s Cave. The weather has been terrible for days, as winter very slowly and stubbornly gives way to spring. O'Gara Street is nearly abandoned, and several inches deep with snow and slush.
Around 21:00, a motley crew of Day-Glo Freaks slithered in for an early set by Show-Biz Kids---a sleazy, decadent electro-fusion group---and what a sight they were. They are always cadaverously-thin, gaunt and pale; most of them shaved bald, others sporting mohawks or mohicans; finger nails painted black or silver; their sunken eyes, those not hidden behind foster grant wrap-around mirror shades, are black or silver pools due to the contact lenses they habitually wear; they are all got up in the new spray-on, multi-colored, full-body holographic body paint; with matching loincloths, thongs, rubberwear bras and halter tops, strap-ons and jockstraps in rubber, leather, plastic and metallic mesh. Of course, to top it off, most of them are also using the slow-burn heavy metal drugs which light you up from within in glowing metallic shades of purple, blue, and green. They have now drifted off, back down O’Gara Street, heading for the arcades of Lower Greene Street. At this time of night, they’re looking for more danger than Nick’s has to offer.
On stage, Harry Fletcher, on tenor sax, is accompanying Lenny Christlieb, who has put his trumpet aside for the time being, and is singing an old pre-war romantic ballad like he means it. Raoul and Anton Brodie, on bass and drums, share the stage.
Me, I’m sitting in a booth with a good view of the stage, the bar, and the front stairs, nursing my second Jameson’s on the rocks. The place is now more than half-empty, a few tables on the main floor are occupied, half-a-dozen people at the bar, and two or three booths along the front wall with the curtains closed.
With Show-Biz Kids scheduled, that meant the Freaks coming out, so Nick asked me to come and handle security, which at this point doesn’t amount to much---I’d already sent my two associates (they covered the front and side doors) home. Fact is, the freaks, for all their extremism in appearance, aren’t really all that threatening. Nick’s has never attracted a dangerous clientele. But things have gotten ugly in the streets of MidTown recently---there have been numerous attacks by uniformed thugs against Asians, Arabs, Jews, homosexuals, anarchists, punks, mods, jazzers, Freaks, and members of the smaller gangs that occupy the fringe territory between MidTown, Portside, and Hell Town. Just about anybody outside the mainstream is a potential target, which, in The Old City, means a lot of people. And, as usual, the cops haven’t done a damn thing. So far, though, they haven’t ranged this deep into MidTown, and Nick’s has not been hit. I assume it is only a matter of time.
A storm is blowing in off the Vermillion Sea, and the city is lashed with sheets of rain and black wind. But, down in the Cave, we are barely aware of it.
On one table---where a young man had spent most of the evening alone, an eye on the door, waiting, drinking cheap Scotch… finally giving up, walking out---the waitress finds a twenty piaster note and a crumpled one-way train receipt.
“Look how far he came, Frank,” she said, holding the train ticket out so that I could read it---a two-tone rectangle of paper she had carefully smoothed out on the tabletop---her index finger indicating the city of origin, a long one-way ride upriver---“to meet someone who never showed up.”
What can I say? She takes the twenty, and leaves the ticket lying on the table. As she walks away, I stare at the ticket, wondering if the young man had already purchased his return ticket, or had he assumed he would be staying?
Harry and Lenny have segued into another song, another slow-burning torch song. Lenny looks tired and haggard---no, frankly, he looks like shit---but, his voice, it’s the damnedest thing; the worse Lenny looks, the better he sings. How much longer can he continue in this manner, though? I know only too well the cost; I came so close to paying it myself. Lenny… well, maybe Lenny just doesn’t care anymore. I know who he’s singing about, too, which makes it all that much worse. He wants me to feel it, just like he does… the slow burn… the slow, aching burn of loss, with no hope of redemption or healing. I don’t need to be reminded of it, Lenny; did you think I’d forgotten so easily? Kristen, in the early morning, on the train platform, sunlight on her face as she said goodbye… those eyes as blue and clear as Arctic water…. And my sister, Cathleen, the one Lenny is singing to and about… how many years gone? Jesus, Lenny, let it go….
Harry just plays---his face betrays no particular emotion or feeling---it is a mask of concentration. But, he feels it too, I know…. How many nights have you stayed up late with the bottle of absinthe and the hash pipe as your only companions, Harry? How many a night was your sleep interrupted by dreams of Emma? And you can no more cross town to talk to her than I can cross the Vermillion Sea to find Kristen and bring her home…. Perhaps you and I are even more cursed than Lenny, the women we love are still here---we are haunted by the living, Harry---while Lenny is in love with a ghost.
I realize I’m no different than the Day-Glo Freaks with their heavy metal habit, the young man with the one-way train ticket, the gunsels down at the Terminal Bar, or any strung-out junky on Gunn Street in Hell Town: we all feel the slow burn, of one kind or another, in one way or another…. You can no more escape that than you can escape yourself, your own soul---or what remains of it.
My pocket watch chimes the half-hour---23:30. I finish my drink, carry the empty glass to the bar, and see Tom Robertson, followed by another man, descending the front stairs. They are right on time.
Chapter 2: Hrothgar, an Introduction
He walks unevenly, leaning on a five-foot-long oak staff under his right arm---I’ve never seen him without it. He has the air of one who is simultaneously primitive and ultra-contemporary---like some kind of cybernetic Viking. When Tom introduces him as Hrothgar the Red, I'm not sure whether to laugh, wince, or shit myself. Huh… cyber-Viking, indeed.
The three of us return to my regular booth, the waitress following with whiskey. Tom closes the curtain as soon as she walks away.
I realize that I've seen him around---here at the Cave a few times when Harry Fletcher’s quintet, New Frontier, played---and over at Tom Robertson's Killing Floor. Tom seems to know him well, but Tom knows everybody, so that doesn't mean much. He’s always by himself, always at a table in a back corner. I do not believe I’ve ever heard him utter a single syllable. I see him most often at The Starry Plough, an Irish pub on Lower St. George’s Street, with a cadre of men---eight or ten of them in total---sitting on the upper level, where it’s dark, brooding over their pints of Guinness and glasses of Jameson’s, all of them with blond, auburn, or red hair, and worn long, with full beards or long sideburns and mustaches; dressed in a mix-and-match of old fatigues; full tool belts around their waists; guns in hip and shoulder holsters; at least two or three of them jacked-in to the wire at all times. None of them is very talkative---but, when there is conversation, it is generally about guns, tools, or politics. They are all hardboiled and inscrutable, with that look men get when they’ve seen more death than the law allows, and drank more than should be humanly possible. I liked them, from a distance, but really knew next to nothing about them.
I look him over, because that is what I do, as a detective, without even thinking about it. His height and weight are average, though he gives the impression of a once-muscular man who has gotten somewhat soft---trust me when I say I know of what I speak. He is wearing black fatigues, with knee-high lace-up boots desperately in need of the polishing they'll never get, and an officer's green wool trench coat from which all insignia have been stripped. His blond-to-red hair would hang down nearly to his ass were it not pulled back into a severe braid, into which a strand of silver-metallic beads is woven. His red sideburns are long and unkempt, and he has no other facial hair, except a mask of stubble. He wears one lug in his left ear lobe, and a dozen-or-more small loops and rings are divided between left and right ears. Oh yes, and he has a moddie implanted behind his right ear.
We converse, quickly, tersely---he seems to feel pain at the very idea of talking---but we soon get the job worked out. Alex Hill says he’s the best, Tom agrees, and, as a friend-of-friends, he'll do the job at a cut rate---but only at his place, and it has to be tonight. How can I say no?
Chapter 3: Home At Last
I follow him to his place---in an area of Hell Town I rarely go anymore. We are well beyond and below The Terminal Bar, Parade Club, Ballard's Orbit Room---all the "jack-in 'n' jack-off" joints along Lower Greene Street as it merges with Clark, where MidTown, Portside, and Hell Town rub shoulders for a few blocks. Down there where the neon puts a little color in otherwise dead faces. This is the turf of the Day-Glo Freaks, Young Torpedoes, Downtown Nihilists, Wild Boys, Desert Vipers, Dead Rabbits, and a host of other colorfully-named fools, drugged-out weirdoes, and death-worshipers.
He rides a stripped down BMW R69/S motorcycle, speeding through streets of shattered glass and refracted light. I am right behind him on my Indian Chief. He parks behind a launderette, in an enclosed, brick-paved alley gated at its far end, walks around the corner, down a flight of steps to the basement, and unlocks a well-reinforced steel door. We step into a narrow entranceway with a similarly-reinforced steel door directly in front of us, and another door five feet to the right with a handwritten sign which reads employees only. He unlocks the first door, pushes it inward, flips a switch on the wall, and a lone, bare light bulb hanging in the center of the room comes to life. He motions me in, but does not follow---I hear his footsteps moving away, a door open and close, and the sound of running water. Stepping into the room illuminated by that single 60 watt bulb, I find a dank cell better served by darkness.
The room stinks of animals, fetid water, and damp, rotting wood and carpet. Two steel columns stand in the center of the floor---each evenly spaced from the other and the side walls---supporting a steel girder which runs the length of the room. Ductwork runs alongside the girder for several feet before curving upward into the ceiling. A webwork of metal and plastic pipes, translucent cables, orange extension cords, and electrical wires of red, silver, and black crisscross just above my head---this room was not designed for anyone as tall as me---all of them festooned with a thick layer of spider webs like faded streamers and tinsel from a party long-forgotten. Fastened to the ceiling between the girder and heat duct, a wide bamboo curtain divides the nearer half of the room from what can only be a storage area for unclaimed laundry. To the right, along the back wall, plastic clothes lines are strung---crowded and burdened with musty, dusty, cobweb-enshrouded garments from some other century. A large dark green plastic canvas, hanging from nails pounded into the ceiling, conceals the entire wall opposite the door. Along the front wall, beneath still more clothes lines carrying the load of another era’s fashions, the concrete floor is stained a putrid brown where groundwater had once spread, sat for a time, and slowly receded. Along the narrow seam where floor and wall meet, I can see water slowly advancing again. On a short length of rope strung between two steel pipes hangs a small rectangle of carpet which was, I guess, once blue, but is now faded to a dirty, dismal grey-green---the color of a murky, polluted ditch. The discolored floor just below it is riddled with pockmarks where the wet carpet had dripped, creating a mottled grey-brown pattern.
In the midst of this, on a raised platform constructed of layers of pallets, is Hrothgar’s living and working space---the whole area can’t be more than 12’ square---framed on three sides by these walls of bamboo, green canvas, rotting carpet, and old clothes. Ducking to avoid a fat steel pipe, I step up on to the platform. An umbrella stand loaded with canes, walking sticks, and staves, and a tall coat rack like a dead tree spreading its naked fingers to an empty sky, guard the left corner.
Just past these, a large chest of drawers---a valuable antique, perhaps, once upon a time---water stains now climbing its flanks---occupies the center on the left. Piled on top are his sacraments and fetishes: cigar boxes, pouches and bags of hashish and various tobaccos, a dozen pipes made of wood and clay in a variety of sizes on a wooden pipe stand, and numerous small boxes of wooden matches; four bottles of Irish whiskey in varying stages of consumption, two glass tumblers, and four shot glasses; candles, an incense burner, cards with pictures of Catholic saints, a plethora of small bottles containing liquids of different colors---tinctures and oils of exotic extraction; a garishly-colored postcard of the goddess Kali; an old Colt .45 revolver; and two framed black-and-white photos of an unnamed city-at-night.
Above all this, suspended by a length of bailing twine, is a framed black-and-white poster of an unidentified man playing a saxophone.
But the one item that truly attracts my attention is a framed black-and-white photo of a well-dressed older man sitting behind a desk with a similarly-attired younger man standing behind him, holding a whiskey glass identical to those sitting on the dresser top only a few inches away. I pick up the framed photograph, staring at the two men---the younger man could be Hrothgar, in a different era, in different clothes. The older man looks familiar as well… I can’t place him…. The whole setting, I feel I’ve been there….
In the far left corner, a small black wooden desk with a Russian knock-off of a Japanese computer, beside it stand two sets of metal shelves filled floor-to-ceiling with computer hardware. A tangle of electrical cables and wires extends down from the ceiling, splitting off in different directions, connecting a network of machines whose uses and purposes elude me.
Glancing behind the tarp, I see an old washer-and-dryer, with appliances of every kind and description piled on top of them, the whole lot sitting on wooden pallets on the damp floor.
Directly opposite the chest of drawers sits a small refrigerator on top of which are a small espresso machine, a grinder, and a sealed jar of beans. Hrothgar returns with a small pitcher of water, and sets to making two double shots of espresso with sure hands that work effortlessly. He puts a lot of sugar and cream in his, but I take mine straight.
In the corner formed by the meeting of bamboo and green canvas, a ragged army cot slouches; a gray tabby cat sprawls across it. Above it, four bags---two large, faded olive duffels, a small backpack, and a bag specially-designed to carry communications equipment, like a small computer---hang together limply. An effort has clearly been made to obscure or remove any identification from them, but one still bears the faded insignia of the Smyrna Marines.
From a crate next to the refrigerator, Hrothgar retrieves a can of cat food, opens it, and spills its contents on to a dirty saucer. The tabby cat rises, stretches himself, and lazily moves toward his dinner. The smell of it---like fish rotting on the piers---overpowers the miasma of odors in the room---hitting me so suddenly; I unexpectedly feel a sudden rush of nausea. I grab the nearest bottle of whiskey, pour and guzzle two shots in quick succession, and collapse on the cot, a hand over my mouth and nose.
He seats himself at the desk, picks up an old cassette tape, labeled "Jazz Greats of the '30s," slides it into an even older cassette deck, and presses play. A short chorus of hisses and pops is replaced by the sonorous tones of a trumpet. "Louis Armstrong," he says, with a quick glance over his shoulder. He jacks in, disappearing into that crystal world, swimming in the current of white noise searching for an attractor---where the icy crystals begin to coalesce into coherent shapes---stars form constellations to steer by---peninsulas of drifting sand---an oasis in the distance in the midst of that vast desert of the real, his destination, but hard travel to reach it.
The cat, his meal completed, climbs high up into the corner behind the tarp, to curl up and stare out into the night through a cruddy window.
I lean back against his ratty pillow, close my eyes and begin to drift off... the faces of the two men in that black and white photo haunting me… recognition floating there on the horizon of thought, just out of reach. We are all drifting now… our own hard travel to sacred places…. For me, it is the past, and a war fought in these same streets, where this man and I met once before… I barely remember it… a different lifetime altogether….
Chapter 4: Yesterday Is Here
I dream I am in the desert, lost, drifting aimlessly---I was looking for someone, a man, though I no longer recall who or why.... Unable to find him, and forgetting what the purpose is, or was, for the search, I collapse in the shade of a high dune, and darkness envelops me.
Gun shots echoing nearby awaken me, and I am in an alley in Hell Town, Colt .45 automatic in my hand, on the run, with several of my fellow Dead End Boys. Glancing quickly behind me, I see the sand dunes disappearing into a crystalline fractal supernova, blizzards of glass above the buildings as the walls on either side of us tilt and collapse into brick shards and dust swirling in tornadoes that obliterate the sky.
Across the street, a heavy machine gun is churning away merrily, and we are trapped, hiding desperately behind piles of rubble---no clear shot---an angry swarm of shrapnel buzzing around our heads. The desert sun, a bloody red eye, beats down on us mercilessly---the asphalt street turns to a sludgy river of molten tar, in which cars burn and sink. Shimmering waves of searing heat singe our noses, mouths, and throats as we breathe in the fine powder of obliterated brick and concrete, pinned down, outnumbered, attempting to fight on.
Suddenly, the man I had been seeking in the desert appears across the street---I know him, I recognize him, I remember the reason I sought him so obsessively: I meant to kill him. And kill him is what I must do.
Now, a wave of uncertainty overcomes me---is this steaming street, this losing battle, only a hallucination as I lie dying in the desert? Or was the journey across the desert a a mad projection of my desperate flight through this blazing city? Can I kill a mirage---a fragment of a fever-induced nightmare?
I raise my gun---he is exposed, in the open---aim, squeeze the trigger... there is no report, only a sound like paper tearing... time gradually slows in the bullet's wake... I watch it moving through the air toward its target... but never quite reaching it....
The whole scene disappears in an explosion of icy crystalline images---10 million neon sparks in a slow-motion shower---
black-and-white photographs hover in mid-air, overlapping, dissolving into each other, fading out and disintegrating into a handful of dust...
flickering newsreel footage on a tattered movie screen: the attack on The Old City, intense fighting in the streets of Hell Town, eventually retreating to the piers, returning to their ships, and steaming away---a major general and a lieutenant, who made contact with Col. Smith to end the fighting, and arrange for their departure... I see their faces now so clearly... how could I have forgotten? The two men in the black-and-white photograph, not in uniform, and the room, Smith's office at the university....
Chapter 5: Burning burning burning burning
I awaken slowly, burning with fever, back in my apartment. vaguely aware of the presence of someone in the room---sound and movement at the furthest edge of awareness.
Chapter 6: The Cruelest Month
It's the first of April, the first warm day of spring, and Nick's Cave is jumping. The usual suspects are all here: Colin Fraser, Samuel Coffee, Tom Robertson, Lenny Christlieb, and I are sitting in my usual booth on the right wall.
With tonight's line-up, a diverse crowd of Jazzers, Mods, Spiffs, and Freaks have come out. And, even if these groups despise each other, and would gladly mix it up on almost any given night down on Lower Greene Street, this evening has been calm. I have five men working tonight, though, because the situation in the streets has become increasingly violent and bloody. The number of attacks by the Blackguards has more than doubled in less than a month---from an average of ten a week to four or five a night now. At least part of me believes that the real reason we've had such peace here in the club is because everyone is prepared to give each other a little room inside the Cave rather than be out on the street taking their chances.
Whatever happens outside, I'll be damned if it's going to spill over into Nick's. Tonight, in fact, I am actually armed---the first time in a very long time that I have worn a gun to Nick's---a Browning 9mm under my right arm, and a Colt .32 automatic in my jacket pocket---as are all the men in my employ. I also impressed on Nick the necessity of keeping guns behind the bar, and I made sure all the bartenders know how to use them.
The final band of the night, Saxophone Colossus, is onstage, reinventing Christlieb's old pre-war standard "Strand Road Shuffle," and taking their sweet time about it, too. A swing tune like this is not their usual fare, but Lenny is in the house tonight, and Harry Fletcher apparently wants to knock him sideways and see if he can still stand up straight. So far, Lenny looks more perplexed than impressed.
Chapter 7: Rats' Alley
Early in the morning, the third of April, I find Peter Arsenault in an alley in Bay City---and he looks like the wild dogs have had a go at him. But, I know what actually got him is far worse than dogs, it was Schlink & Noyles.
Chapter 8: The Police (In Different Voices)
Why is it that bad cops make such great security men? Schlink & Noyles are the greatest example I know of the rule.