By Cleve Sylcox
He was a thug.
Some bum from the south side that never amounted to much, a two-time loser out on parole – just a thug.
We were in an alley at the same time except for different reasons; I was cutting down the alleyway to the rear parking lot of, Mans, a restaurant for the wayward souls of late night dining; he was waiting for me… anyone really.
Mans, is a trailer car diner on the corner of 5th and Lindbergh in the So-Ho region of SouthCity – a real grease pit, where a cup of sock wrenched coffee and a donut still cost two bits. Most come to hang out or test their bravery in ordering some of Kitties gourmet food, like Chow burgers drenched in Pork & Beans. Some come because they have nowhere else to go.
Nowhere, that is, if you call this somewhere.
I come here most nights because it beats sitting in my flat alone. My wife left me for some bum in Manhattan…you know the lawyer type, with the three-piece suit and jazzy hot car. Can’t say I blame her. I never could provide her with much.
Me, I work at a chop shop cutting parts for Louie Maze, a loser from up north trying to seek his fame and fortune stealing cars then dump em’ here for us losers to chop. It pays well…can’t say much else for the job.
Most nights I come here to watch the kids ride their skateboards, or watch Kitty. She is a young, good-looking girl, single mother, raising two boys. Her husband died in a tug accident off shore in the harbor. I watch, not because I have some fancy interest in her, but she remains me of my daughter.
Every night is the same for her; same type of customers cracking jokes and making passes, then there are those who don’t say much ….eat quietly, sometimes staring at something distant – unseen by the rest of us. Kitty tells me those are the ones she watches the closest. Like the guy in the alley.
He sits at the end of the counter reading the racing section of the paper and chewing on a toothpick. His large frame and massive head sit very still as he slowly chews the toothpick and rolls it from one side of his mouth to the other. In front of him sits a glass of water witch Kitty serves to all her customers. I sit a few feet away facing him in a booth wondering where he came from. I never saw him before and thought maybe a passer by. Then he stands. His body hidden by baggy pants, loose plaid shirt and a black over coat, which does not hide the fact this man has muscle. His face is unshaven and he wears a black cap with no insignia. Like the ones you get from a workhouse. Out of his back pocket hang the straps to a blackjack, unmistakable. The bulge in his pocket tells me I’m right. It’s a blackjack all right, the kind the cops use, heavy… thick, designed to crack a skull.
We make no eye contact but watch his every move from the corner of my eye. He goes to the pay phone hanging on the wall at the far end of the counter. He faces the wall the entire time, standing close to it, while hugging the phone as he leans into it, bending down close to the mouthpiece. A few words make it over the noise of shuffling plates, restaurant chatter and traffic on Fifth; words like – trapped – dark – all alone. After the call, he turns leaving the trailer, disappearing down the alley.
I sit motionless for a while thinking about this guy and what I heard, then blowing it off. After all, I never saw the guy before tonight. Probably never will again. I spend the rest of the evening talking with Kitty. Then around four o’clock I figure it’s time to leave.
I say good night while standing at the trailer entrance checking both directions on Fifth Street. It’s deserted. The late night crowds long have gone leaving only tumbling paper to entertain me. I turn my collar up as a cold chill whips past. I step down the concrete stairs to the sidewalk.
You know, it’s funny what a guy thinks at times like these when he’s all alone in this part of town, and it’s late at night. This city isn’t known for its friendly hospitality during the daytime. At night it’s a far cry from, Happyville. So, I walk briskly down Fifth to the alley. My imagination juggles images of stalkers or gangs of hoods that sometimes roam the neighborhood. What other motivation do I need to hurry?
I don’t look left or right but walk forward, pressing myself to move faster until I’m almost at a trot. The wind blows again, seeming colder than before but I keep moving always going forward.
I make the right down the alley with its two tall buildings on either side creating a long narrow canyon not more than ten feet wide. Ahead of me, is the parking lot light casting a faint glow down the alley toward me.
I walk quickly with my head down. I hardly noticing the deep shadows behind the large dumpsters or the deep recess of the backdoor stoops, that project into the buildings creating a cavity of black nothingness. I press forward until a sudden gust of wind topples two trashcans in front of me. Stopping, I stare at the cans as they roll around. Their metallic grinding against the concrete is all I hear as they roll, pushed by the wind.
Then I hear it.
It sounds familiar, then grows louder until it’s distinctly clear – the sound of heavy steps moving quickly toward me from behind. I turn in time to see a large figure in the shadows swing something at me.
I duck and roll out of the way as something whizzes past my ear. Then I stand quickly dodging another swing. I duck- jab him with my right to the midsection, then a left across his jaw. My hits have no effect on him – sleet bouncing off a windshield. Then we step away from each other. Almost at the same moment I realize who he is. He is the man from the diner, the thug. His large frame silhouette with the streetlight behind him – in his hand is the blackjack.
My mind races, with one thought dominating them all – run. Most muggers look for an easy hit and don’t try a second time, especially if they know their victim will fight back, at least that’s what I thought.
As I turn to run, he follows.
His steps pound behind me – I can’t out run him. At the last instant as I feel his finger tips tug my collar I turn quickly, stepping aside, hitting him in the jaw as hard as I can with my right. He staggers off balance lumbering forward into a large trash bin. I watch the blackjack fly from his hands as his head strikes the corner of the bin. I pick up the blackjack in time to see him begin to stand. I run over to him hitting him behind the head repeatedly until he falls face first onto the concrete. I stand over him as he lays still and motionless.
Blood drips off the blackjack.
My mind swirls as I breathe heavily not wanting to believe what I have done…I killed him. Tossing the blackjack onto his back I run down the alley, then across the parking lot to my old roach invested apartment building. This building is dank and dark as always with a dim light burning along each flight of stairs. Climbing the stairs to my third story flat seems endless as I rush up them – a constant climb of weathered steps and shaky railings. Each step echoes in the hollows of the stair well. If in fact I was trying to hide my efforts I was doing a poor job of it.
I open my door, locking it behind me, I find comfort by the window in my old armchair. From here the entrance to the alley is in perfect view but the glare from the street lamp prevents me from seeing down it.
Sitting with my eyes fixed on the alley my fingers dig deep into the soft cushion of the chair. Sweat runs down my face as I breathe deep and quick. What did I expect to see I don’t know? Maybe him staggering out of the darkness with nothing more than a headache or maybe he would crawl out…anything so I would at least know he was alive.
Minutes, then an hour pass before the sun rises and the light goes out. I can see the trashcans in the alley still rolling around. Beyond them I see a lump lying in the sun next to the large green trash bin. It’s the thug. His black coat that cloaked him earlier gives him away in the bright morning sun. He is dead. I killed him.
I wrestle with the thought as I watch his lifeless corpse being sniffed by an alley cat. He was after me…I had to do it…I had too.
A few minutes later I see the trash truck pull into the alley from Fifth. Its air breaks squeak as the driver stops the truck; he hops out screaming some non-senses in Spanish. He runs back to his truck, backs out, then pulls forward and parks in front of the diner. All I can see is the rear of the truck. A few moments later the boys in blue show up. Yellow police tape crisscrosses the alley while men in suits walk around acting like they have a clue, but they don’t.
By noon all the tape is down and everyone is gone…no big deal just another death, another un- resolved murder in So-Ho.
A few days later, I sit at Mans doing my usual routine, when the newspaper lying on a table catches my eye. It wasn’t a full headline, but it was on the front page…just a paragraph or two about a guy found in the alley, killed with a blackjack. No leads. The man was out of prison on parole. If they had a name for him I don’t remember and neither will anyone else in this town…except Kitty.
Kitty tells me how awful she feels for the guy and wonders if he had family or not…. I pat her hand and tell her not to worry about the bum…after all, he was a thug…
Just a thug.