By Pete Dexter
DoubledayCopyright © 2003 Pete Dexter
All rights reserved.
PHILADELPHIA January, 1948
At this point in the story, Packard had never fallen in love, and didn't trust what he'd heard of the lingo (forever, my darling, with all my heart, till the end of time, more than life itself, with every fiber of my being, oh my darling Clementine, etc.). It sounded out of control to him, and messy.
He had spent maybe a thousand Sundays in church, though-make that four hundred-and then two edgy years on a battleship in the Pacific Ocean, and then five very edgy days in the Pacific Ocean without the battleship, and before any of that, he'd deliberately and often put himself in places where he saw awful things happen not only to people who deserved it, but also to people who just seemed to stumble in at the wrong time, walking into the picture as the shutter clicked through no fault of their own.
Which is to say that by now Packard recognized praying when he heard it, and knew the kind of the deals people would offer up, the promises they would make, when they were in over their heads. And that, from what he'd heard, was what it-love-was about.
Later on, however, something in the feminine line in fact came along, custom-fit, and Packard, to his enormous surprise, found himself ape-shit in tow. Although not every-fiber-of-my-being ape-shit in tow. Of long habit, Packard only gave in quietly, without losing his dignity.
And much later on, when he was tamed and had the advantages of maturity and the long view, he would come to realize that everything that had happened was inevitable, that he was after all a human being, and it was therefore not in his nature to keep things simple.
Even the psychologist who did the pre-employment interview had seen something on Packard's horizon.
"Perhaps," he said, "you need someone to share this with."
Packard had just described for the psychologist not his loveless life but his battleship, the Indianapolis, burning to the waterline in the night, and the days and nights of floating around in the Pacific Ocean with the sharks and burned and dying shipmates. The sharks came morning and evening, at meal time, and stayed about as long as it would take you to eat dinner. Packard to this day did not eat at regular hours, but aside from that, on the occasions when he asked himself how he felt, he felt approximately like the same person.
People he'd known before the war, on the other hand, said he'd changed, but he couldn't see it himself. As his grandmother had pointed out along time ago, he wasn't a real sweetheart to begin with.
Packard, by the way, had not brought any of this up to the psychologist himself. All he wanted was a job, and all the psychologist wanted was to keep his job, and he was required by the city's insurers to review applicants' military records and inquire specifically in regard to purple hearts.
The psychologist had a certain baritone manner that made Packard want to slap him, and he sat beneath his diplomas in a cheap suit, absently listening to an abbreviated history of Packard's war-time adventues, pinching his chin, making fifteen-dollar-an-hour dimples and grunts. He nodded from time to time, as if he'd heard it all before.
Then, when the half hour was over, he said, "Perhaps you need someone to share this with."
But it was all a dance anyway. War heroes could get work at any fire department they wanted.
Before this, right after the war, Packard had run into a nun in a bar in San Diego. The kind that didn't talk, although she did play the English horn. She'd given that up, though-her vows, not the horn-and was on the way to Philadelphia, trying to make up for lost time. He was given to understand the city had quite a symphony orchestra.
Packard was not by nature an optimist, but it was encouraging, coming home to America and being fucked half to death night and day for a month, but even in all the confusion and maneuvering-she seemed to expect him to bend back over himself, the way her horn bent-Packard became gradually aware that he was no closer to the girl than he'd been all the other bodies, alive and dead, that he'd been around since he left home.
So he got closer for a little while, and the spent twice that long getting farther away. He stayed in Philadelphia, though, and thought he might never leave.
He loved the Italian neighborhoods; the Irish he could take or leave. He loved the baseball, and the movement of the city-the Mummers and the restaurants and the clubs. He snuck off once in a while to the art museum when he was looking for women. He even went once to the symphony orchestra, thinking she might throw him a bone for old times sake, but she wasn't there in the horn section, and he guessed she hadn't practiced enough at the convent to make the cut.
The city, though, was crawling with life. At least it had been then. Lately, it was slower.
Lately, he'd lie in bed after a fire, naked, hawking up soot, his eyes stinging, lying in the smell of smoke and sweat and rubber, and see himself being walled in. Something was building around him, always at the same numbing crawl, walling him in. He witnessed this phenomenon from a familiar, removed perspective-from his earliest memory, he'd had a facility to see himself from a distance. Sometimes when he thought about it, it seemed like he'd been someplace else watching himself for most of his life.
He'd been in the department two years now, and was already famous for the chances he took. The feeling afterwards wasn't the same as it had been in the beginning, though. By now, in fact, there was no feeling afterwards. He was disconnected.
And so, needing a hobby, Packard became a runner.
Here was Packard's training schedule: Midnight, he would walk into a neighborhood where he did not belong, say Kensington or the Devil's Pocket. He'd sit down in a bar, order a beer, and insult one of the locals. The easiest way to insult one was to use a word he didn't understand. Avuncular, bulbous, crescendo. Say the word avuncular, the next thing you know, fifteen of them had bats and were chasing you down the street, screaming kill the queer.
And the beauty part, as they said in the Pocket, was that they meant it. If they caught you, you were dead. Packard, however, was in excellent shape and undefeated, and eventually went looking for better competition.
Packard had his hands in his jacket, feeling around for his keys, when he noticed the car. His pockets were full of his regular stuff-change, matches, a couple of weiners for the dog, loose cigarettes, rubbers that had fallen out of a vending machine in a bar down on Race Street in Chinatown when he'd pulled the lever for Alka Seltzer. The dog was a stray, all mange and scabs with hideous black tits and a fifty-pound head. She didn't want to be touched, and Packard didn't want to touch her; it was enough for them both just to hand over the weiners. One when he left his place, one when he came back. The dog would bare her teeth before she accepted it-reminding him of the rules-and then swallow it whole. It wasn't much, but the truth was it felt better the next morning than it had with the nun.
The dog wasn't around tonight, and Packard had a sudden, unsettled premonition, that something had happened, that she wasn't coming back. He was loyal, even if he hadn't been a real sweetheart to start with.
It was snowing, and the whole city had stopped. The neighborhood streets were narrow and clogged with cars, some of them packed to the windows by the snow plows, some high centered or simply stuck in ice ruts and left in their own tracks. Earlier in the winter a fire burned half a block in Tasker Homes before the trucks could even get to the houses. Four dead, trapped and innocent of everything except not having money to heat the apartment. At least that night, they were.
Packard looked again at the car, knowing who it was. He stood motionless, the dog still on his mind, trying to focus, trying to get the moment to hold still and feel it. Nothing.
The snow was filthy and wet and black all around him. Traction could be a problem. He'd left his car on South Street tonight and walked back to the apartment from a pool hall. He had tennis shoes on and his feet were freezing. Where would the dog be, a night like this?
He'd gone into the place with a ten dollar bill, bought a beer and gotten into a fifty-dollar game of nine ball, knowing what could happen, but all night long he couldn't lose on purpose, and ended up six hundred ahead, and then spent a hundred of it buying drinks and tipping. He'd gotten himself a little drunk.
The car windows were fogged-that was the first thing he noticed-then a faint glow inside as one of them lit a cigarette. Then, at two o'clock in the morning in South Philadelphia, standing outside on the coldest night of the year, he suddenly felt alone.
A minute later they were out of the car, one of them with a crowbar, the other with a bat. They wore loafers and leather caps and long, camel-hair coats, and slipped on the ice as they separated and then closed in. There was no reason for them to hurry, though. Packard didn't want a head start.
The younger one, who still had the cigarette in his mouth, came in a wide circle around a puddle frozen over with ice and then found himself behind another, smaller puddle. He hesitated a moment and then jumped, skidded when he hit the sidewalk, and went into the air backwards, turning as he fell like a child who decides too late that he doesn't want to go down the slide. Then he hit, and lay still a moment and the crowbar rang on the cement.
"Albert, for Christ's sake," the older one said, "you'll wake up the whole neighborhood."
He came up off the sidewalk slowly, holding his knee, limping and furious, and wiped at the dirt on his coat. Then he picked up the crowbar and began to beat it against the parking meter, slipping half off his feet again as he swung.
"All right, Albert," the man said, "that's enough."
And the kid stopped.
The man looked at Packard almost apologetically. Packard had seen him a few times before-he was not from this neighborhood, but was from some neighborhood, somebody who'd come up the old way, got his nose spread a few times, his ears lopped, and made something of himself in the business. Packard noticed that he'd spent some money on his shoes-Packard knew clothes and shoes, especially shoes-and nothing on his teeth. The locals had called the man Mr. Bambi when they told Packard that he'd been around looking for him. "You're a nice guy, Packard," they said, "pay him his money."
It was eleven hundred dollars and they'd been after him for six, seven weeks, and at that moment Packard could have written a good check for eleven hundred dollars five hundred times in a row. One of his great-grandfathers had invented tire tread, and nobody in the family had worked for a living since. Packard had been connected to money all his life.
Mr. Bambi stood beneath the street lamp, casting a gorilla's shadow across the cement. The shadow looked healthier than Mr. Bambi did-younger, and you couldn't see his teeth.
"You don't mind my asking," he said, "what was the plan?"
That was the question, all right. What was the plan?
"Fuck, Mr. Bambi," the kid said, "I tink I bwoke my leg."
Packard had seen the kid before too, hanging around with his friends, always in new clothes, combing his greasy hair over and over, talking to girls who never even looked up. The kid had lost an index finger somewhere in his travels, and sometimes stuck the stub in his nose for the girls as they walked by. And still they didn't pay attention.
Go figure women, right?
"What do you say we go inside where it's warm," Mr. Bambi said, "take care of this like gentlemen." He sounded like a reasonable man.
The kid was still limping around, holding his knee. "He tinks he's got a bwoken leg," Packard said. "Maybe you should take him to the hospital."
Hearing that Packard was laughing at him, the kid ran at him with his eyes closed, swinging the crowbar at his head. Packard took a step backwards and fell into Mr. Bambi, who was surprised and stumbled and then pushed him away. It wasn't an angry push, though, in some way he was still asking if they couldn't all just be reasonable.
Then they closed in, the kid feinting with the crowbar, Mr. Bambi coming straight on, looking resigned, and Packard waited until the kid closed his eyes and swung again and went right past him and up the sidewalk.
He ran flat-footed for traction, and it felt slower this way but he could heard them behind him and knew where they were, and could tell by the ragged breathing that they were not used to running. He slowed down, not wanting to lose them yet, and led them a block like that, the kid yelling bloody murder, Mr. Bambi not wasting his air, just trying to keep up.
Another block and Packard heard them slow and stop. He stopped too, grabbed his knee, imitating the kid. "Fuck, Mr. Bambi, I tink I bwoke my leg."
They came after him again, balls out, and he ran ahead, running easily, feeling light and happy, crossing the street.
He thought he'd been hit by a car. One second he was there, the next second he wasn't. Then there was a blur of mange and teeth somewhere on the edge of his vision. It brought to mind the night he was lifted out of his bunk in the Pacific. But there were no lights now, no sound except the footsteps behind him, only the animal's terrible breath before she closed down on the junction of his neck and shoulder.
She was still mauling him when they caught up; it seemed like a long time. They stood there a while with their hands on their knees, catching their breath, watching, and then the kid stepped forward with the crowbar over his head, but Mr. Bambi was looking at the strange turns Packard's leg took as it lay in the snow, and stopped him. He watched a little longer and then kicked her away. He winked at Packard and held off the boy.