Monday, October 12, 2020

A Sea Of Blurred Light by Basil Rosa

Kent Paxton and his drinking buddies speculate on how their buddy Danny Rice ended up dead, in Basil Rosa's hardboiled noir. 

The shamrocks on each corner of my cocktail napkin have changed into leprechauns and jigged away. New customers have barkeep Newton Smalls jumping. Most of 'em are travelers with small Gladstone bags who sit on the stool along the far wall in the darkness under a dart board nobody ever uses. I fix my numbed senses on the sot Dooley Mullhaven whistling as he explains to pal Elton Dimmer his technique for grooming his mustache. Dooley Mullhaven refers to the mustache as his pussy pleaser and this gets a guffaw from a beefy working stiff seated elbows-up over a mug of draft to Mullhaven's right. I don't know this working stiff and don't care to. I'm kinda in a compromised position since I'm sandwiched between the working stiff and Elton Dimmer. We're what you could call Dooley Mullhaven's peanut gallery.

That ain't a good thing these days on account of Dooley's been laid off, but the man is heroically, tragically upbeat. He holds to a romantic, and what I interpret as a soon to be obsolete, form of charm. He's kinda like the boxer, Jim Braddock, with dreams to play football for the Fighting Irish that never really materialized. Another thing is that Dooley will shovel Shinola with his face before accepting a dole from Uncle Sam. The man's got moxie. He knows how to listen and make a person feel welcomed. As a clown, he'd be as appealing as Emmet Kelly. Maybe the best word is compassionate. Exudes a sense of caring for others. In my book, gotta like that about any man.

Tired of talking about his mustache, Dooley turns to me from his end position at the small bar and asks if I know why this city we live in sinks three inches a year.

Dooley got the bum's rush and I feel sorry for him, but I can't answer his question. It's the first I've heard of this. Not Elton Dimmer. Seething, slurring, Elton pipes in his two cents: "Built on a swamp, Dooley, that's why. Whole country's nothing but a picnic for mosquitoes. Beyond me how any crackpot can measure such a fact to begin with."

Dooley Mullhaven rolls those citrine eyes of his as if he's had it with rubber-lips Dimmer. He says to me, "What else you hear of all the flap-doodle about Mayor Grifasi reinventing the city?"

Again, Elton Dimmer cuts in, sounding stentorian like he's a puffed-up Victor Mature out of one of those torch-and-sandals epics. "Now that, Mister Mullhaven, is worthy badinage. It's no secret this bunghole of a Metropole is going the way of the wrecking ball. Have you heard that this bus station is moving out to Rainy Falls? Soon to be prime real estate, where all the Good Housekeeping couples will soon be buying new abodes. Connected to Greasy Grifasi's allegations of a renaissance. Am I right or am I right?"

Elton Dimmer's smile, his teeth like milky kernels of corn, reminds me of a word my wife Polly once used to describe him. Polly's a nut for crossword puzzles, so she's got a vocabulary like Roget's. She called him rugose. I still ain't sure I know what Polly's descriptor means, but the word's sound, what it suggests, it's Dimmer in a nutshell.

Scratching tufted white hair at his crown, Dimmer gawks at the drink in front of him as if he's surprised it's still there. Everything about him is down tempo, a little seedy but smooth, like Johnny Hartman signing "Lush Life." Natch. With Dimmer, lush is the operative word. Maybe not rugose. The veins in his neck swell against his starched shirt collar, buttoned to the top. His wrist trembles as he holds his Lark cigarette, the red pack out on the bar. That filterless coffin nail jumps as he remarks, "We are all genuine rumors of no consequence."

"Don't bother Paxton with that babble," says Mullhaven. This is a reference to me, Kent Paxton. "He's still smarting over Danny Rice." Mullhaven leans toward me and nods. "Aren't you, Kent? Nobody saw it coming. Danny was a stand-up fellow. I'm not buying the suicide line. Not after what he did in the war."

"All the more reason to buy it," I tell Mullhaven. "They call it shell-shock. I know a thing or two about it, but I'm inclined to agree. His young wife, a baby on the way, that'll keep most men in control of their demons."

"Maybe Danny wasn't most men," says Dimmer. "And maybe those demons didn't live inside of him."

Dimmer has a point. Danny had seen some brutal combat in Okinawa. He was a survivor, a churchgoer. This is how I want to remember him, but I know better. Before the war, Danny ran numbers and clean-up errands as part of a dues-paying member of a neighborhood watch managed by The Ear. Maybe he still owed some dues. Danny's wife, Anita, wouldn't know. Polly might. She'd dated Danny before he'd put on a uniform, but when I'd asked Polly about him, she'd played it coy. She didn't want to revisit her past. When I asked why, she'd said, "Because if the truth came out, it would destroy Anita. And you too, Kent. You know that behind that tough exterior, you're nothing but an egg-cream."

Natch. Maybe Polly is right. I'm lucky to share my life with her. She's still a bombshell and she and Danny had been an item once. I can speculate further, but I don't want to hurt myself or any people I'm close to. Polly has given me enough to chew on. The Ear is dead. What I need is a link, a particular favor, an IOU, or the wronged man who needed to exact revenge and terminate Danny's party.

The phone rings behind the bar. Newton answers, croaking, "A half-dozen. Andrea's Bakery. Right. I'll get 'em tomorrow morning after mass and bring 'em over. No problem."

Newton hangs up, winks at Dimmer. "My mother. She knows I live here."

A Trailways bus driver enters the lounge, complete with jacket and red and white oval patch. A colored man, sweating profusely, his eyes rimmed in red, he fills the place, has the attention of everyone at the bar. After looking at us, seeing he's probably okay, but not really sure in that way that coloreds can never really be sure among whites no matter what city they're in, I think he gets the gist we aren't about to pull anything on a working man, least of all a hard-working bus driver. We're tippling in a bus station dive, after all.

The man asks Newton for a shot of bourbon and a short beer. The slacks of his uniform are wrinkled enough to prove he's been on the road a long time. He keeps his hat tucked under one arm while he runs a kerchief over the sweat glazing his forehead. His wary eyes shift toward Newton, who works up a smile for him.

Dooley Mullhaven perks up, asking Newton, "You know this man?"

Newton nods and shoots Dooley a look as if to warn him no monkey business. "I do. He's new on this beat. This is Baltimore, fellows. It's Saturday, so he's in from Cleveland, ain't that right Baltimore?"

"PFC Newton, my man." Baltimore looks relieved. He says in a deeply resonant, syrupy musical way, with a slightly southern lilt that expands his vowels, "That is so right. And how is it going with you, my good Sir?"

"No need to be formal. I'm very good," says Newton. "What's new in Trailways world?"

Baltimore keeps dabbing sweat off his neck with a handkerchief. His voice matches his size. I feel puny next to him. "I did blacktop a few fine ladies the other day, since I thought they was bad roads that needed improvin', but I been wrong before."

There's a delay among us all before his joke sinks in. Then we each begin chuckling until we're all in stitches. Baltimore, seeing he's landed among friendlies, beams and says, "Yeah, it's going to be fine, just fine."

Newton places both drinks on the bar. Baltimore knocks back the bourbon with ease. He drains half the short beer. "Please, one more." He wipes his lips with a napkin. Removes his wallet and lays a fin on the bar. Drains the short beer and then the second bourbon. Sighing through his nose, he yanks up his trousers with two hands and checks his shirt to make sure he hasn't spilled anything. He belches into his fist and then puts on his hat, adjusting it to look neat. He motions toward the fin. "You keep the change, PFC Newton."

Newton takes the crumpled fiver. "I thank you much, Sir."

Baltimore grins, his teeth large and bright and even. He has that wise sidelong look about him, no doubt a former soldier and a survivor, one accustomed to taking it on the chin. "We is off to Philadelphia."

I feel sad to see him go and hope I'll see him again. We seldom get coloreds in the bar and none of us, except maybe Dooley who is wholly unpredictable, has anything against them. In fact, we've all talked more than once of how we approved of Truman's desegregating the military services. I'd known some tough and dedicated colored boys during my time in the service during the war and I think it would have done me good to have shared a barracks with some of them, gotten to know them better. They're Americans just like the rest of us, and they put their lives on the line, but some jokers just don't see it that way.

The silence in Baltimore's wake lingers and for a moment I think the man never happened, that I'd dreamt him up. I say to Newton Smalls, "He looks like a real pro."

Newton checks his watch. "And I'm guessing he'll pull into The City of Brotherly Love about midnight. Right on time. He'll down a few more before he rolls back to Cleveland, though he won't stop by again here to visit. If I understand his timetable these days, I think I'll see him once a month on a Saturday."

"A little too regular perhaps and probably why there's talk of closing down this establishment," says Dimmer.

"No," says Mullhaven. "If they close Newton down, it'll be to punish you. Nobody else."

Dimmer smirks at Mullhaven and silence settles in again. I'm getting nowhere. Like Baltimore, I can roll with a Saturday drink or two in me. Unlike Dimmer, I can't make it a habit. I tell the boys "see ya soon" and to keep their ears to the ground regarding Danny Rice news.

How much is enough? I once heard a man joke on the radio that enough is a little more than what you already have. Probably the smartest thing that joker ever said. What I have is the wherewithal to get that far, you know, to that place I think of as out there. It's where everyone else is really whooping it up, making all sorts of dough, having the time of their lives. Each day, I'm getting to the core, am I not? That's good. I wish I could do more of it. But I can't. Not now with the way my work is going. Not a single lead on the Danny Rice case.

I'm feeling blue, restless, like a lost wanderer. I need something to cling to. Who knows what will be the bedrock that a person uses to get through life? We'd all like to know that. I relish the idea of being anyone's bedrock. It cures me of loneliness. I'll do anything for loved ones, for my Polly, but I've got cases to solve. Eventually, Polly will want kids. At least two of them. If I don't solve a few high profile cases I'll have to take down my shingle and go back to the kind of piece work I was doing before the war. I'm not an optimist. Second chances are one thing, but wishful thinking needs a category of its own. It's a sucker's bet.

What puzzles, as always, is motive. Why would a man not yet middle-aged leave his existence behind? Nobody wants to be forgotten. The poet in Danny Rice, if such a creature existed, had to crave immortality. The more I learn, the more I doubt that Danny died by his own mitts. I remember Polly saying - and it's one of many reasons why I'm so fond of her - "Your work, Kent, is an affirmation of your worth." She said I should feel free to overreact, to live like there's no tomorrow. That's what I'm trying to do, but I feel like I'm spinning my wheels. She called it "Existential angst." Work distracts me from it.

Two weeks later out with Polly on a Friday night and stopping at The Spotlight for a late dinner after drinks and a movie, I run into Elton Dimmer, who looks every bit a corruptible slow-burning fuse and is sitting in a booth with Dooley Mullhaven. It's like those two can't get enough of each other. They invite us to join them. There's plenty of room in their booth. They'd been out on the town and are wiping up remains of minute steak, mashed and green beans.

"We're talking City Hall," says Dimmer. "A topic, no doubt, of some interest to you."

"To bloody hell with them," says Mullhaven. He sips from a glass of beer. Judging by his speech, it's one of many he's emptied that night. "I think Grifasi is a Commie. In the old days, they would have lynched him in the square. Drove him out on a rail."

Dimmer strikes a note of melancholy. "Not in this city. He's a hero."

"Who asked you?" says Mullhaven.

I lean over the table toward Dimmer. "I think what Grifasi needs is a good lawyer."

Dimmer nods. "I'm sure he's got more than one. Any news on Danny Rice?"

Dooley Mullhaven butts in. "If you ask me, this so-called Grifasi controversy is gonna die down soon enough. Go to the courts and get lost in the shuffle. The public's got a short memory."

Dimmer winks at Polly before he turns to Mullhaven. "But you forget. Scandal sheets entertain the working folk. It's the judge that matters. Not just the right lawyers. But the judge. That's where the difference is made."

"Are you saying threaten the judge?" asks Mullhaven.

"We all have our price," says Dimmer. "As it turns out, Danny Rice used to date the judge's daughter. I bet none of you geniuses knew that."

"And me too," says Polly. "When I was a size four, of course."

Dimmer shrugs, baffled. "I love you Polly. You're a doll at any size."

I say to Dimmer, "You really think one of the circuit judges had something to do with Danny's death?"

"No proof of suicide," says Dimmer. "He was strangled. The suicide story was a diversion. And we have a judge in Mirko Vivian, first circuit, who has a daughter that was in Photoplay once, a real corker. Gams to die for."

"I think I read about her in the paper," says Polly.

"Yes." Dimmer eyes her. "You're as bright as you are pretty. See, this daughter went out to Hollywood and played some small roles in pictures. I guess she knew Norma Shearer out there. I don't think her Daddy Mirko wanted her to keep playing footsie with the likes of Danny Rice. But Danny, maybe feeling jilted, didn't listen. Then he went off to war with the rest of us. But he came back. And guess who got pregnant out in Hollywoodland?"

Mullhaven, looking stunned, brushes sweat off his forehead as he remarks to Dimmer, "That's the first smart thing you've said all night. Christ almighty on a pancake, do I hate politics and murder. Let's talk something else."

"You brought it up," says Dimmer. "You're always talking scandal and murder."

"I think I'm gonna scream," says Mullhaven. He then buckles as if speared in the ribs.

"Here we go again," says Dimmer. He leaps into action, hurries to help me to help Mullhaven stand. Polly helps too. Dooley Mullhaven groans as his head falls to her shoulder.

A phlegmatic Dimmer says to me, "You two sing him a lullaby and keep him calm. I'll phone a hack."

When the taxi arrives, we walk Dooley Mullhaven out and seat him in the back. Dimmer gives the driver Dooley's address, pays the man knowing a sawbuck will cover a generous tip.

The three of us return to our booth. Polly, looking glum, asks, "Why do you think Dooley's doing so bad?"

I shrug. "Shell shock? I don't know. The man survived the D-Day launch."

A melancholic note from Dimmer. "He was fond of Danny Rice."

"We all were," I say. "Dooley's like anybody else. Look around. All these people, they're a little mad. That guy there lost his wife. Another one, his daughter got pregnant too soon. That woman there, she just got old too soon. That other poor sap he got injured on the job and now he drinks whatever pittance on the dole that the state pays him each month."

I look at Polly, work up a sour grin. "The good thing, Polly, is that at least most injured souls are still smart enough to know our politicians are bought off and there's nothing they can do about it. Dooley Mullhaven knows this, but it's what you call hurtful knowledge."

"The pain of living," says Dimmer. "A little bit of knowing is a dangerous thing. I hate to say this, but if you ask me, Dooley's problem is he pays too much attention. He's like me. Stays inebriated in order to stomach it."

I look Dimmer in the eyes. "You choose. You have to. I feel sorry for Dooley, but he's been a wet firecracker since he lost his job. My sympathy won't change a thing."

"Tell me something," says Dimmer. "Will I get so callous? Is it inevitable?"

"You already are," says Polly.

Dimmer's stunned reaction is priceless. Polly had levelled him. I have to smirk. Polly knows the likes of Dimmer cold. No flies on her. "How many choices has that man suffered through?" she asks. "How many winds of fate and losses? I suspect that for those you call calloused, the losses are more numerous than any of us can imagine."

"With each year," I say, sounding wistful, "visions of hope have to die in everyone, I suppose."

"You suppose all you want," says Dimmer. "Me. I need some air."

"I'll join you." I want to smoke outside. I tell Polly to order both of us pie and Sanka.

I step out to the street. The darkness feels too cold for November. I believe it's going to snow. I sense such things. Rubbing my hands together to keep warm, I watch my breath spread like a wave dissolving on a beach. I begin to float into the dank air, rising higher until I'm above the city rooftops. I walk across the sky, climbing in long strides upward through the night, tilting and dipping, my body weightless, the city shrinking beneath me like a sea of blurred light.

Big changes are coming. It will snow, doping the city, killing people left to starve in alleys. Dimmer, next to me, is unusually solemn. Silence from him, of all people, isn't something I'm accustomed to. I remember him telling me once that we're all rumors, that reality is a matter of perception. The city sinks more than three inches a year, but who knew?

I'm walking across the sky. I see the ghost of Danny Rice and take his hand. He nods as if to suggest I'm on to something. I say to Dimmer, "Mullhaven's idea that Mirko Vivian could be implicated, since he was the judge due to pass sentence on Danny before he was murdered, I gotta tell you, it's given me a new angle on this case."

"It's the only angle," says Dimmer. "But can you go after a circuit judge? The answer is no. You can't go after his corker of a daughter either."

"Why not?"

"The woman has a boy who I think looks a lot like Danny. And the judge, well, like me and like our man Baltimore that we met the other day, he knows how to survive. And sometimes that means protecting secrets."

Dimmer is in the wrong line of work. I tell him not to hang a PI shingle. I don't want the competition. Nor do I want to keep Polly waiting. I wish him goodnight.

For as long as I've been able, I've kept climbing between clouds, but the climbing ends with this Danny Rice case. Judge Mirko Vivian and his daughter are off limits. One more boy in Hollywood won't know who his real father is.

Polly and I commiserate over pie and Sanka. "I know when I'm licked."

"Sweetheart, if you want to keep living," she says, "any time is a good time to clam up and grow invisible."

More hurtful knowledge. Call it wisdom. I bet that driver, Baltimore, could lecture me.

2 comments:

  1. Love this style, gives the story an attitude and makes the characters really stand out.

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  2. The downtrodden then much like the downtrodden now. I loved the acknowledging of real life that the characters accepted. It felt very real. Thanks for the story.

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