It was over, finally over, and they sat, the two of them, as
they had so many times before, in a huge low-ceilinged room with
windows along one end that looked out over downtown, letting in
now, this early morning, a gray, smoky light. Folding steel chairs
and collapsible tables with brown plastic tops stood about the
room at random, some pushed close together in huddles, others
drifting free. Tabletops were littered with Styrofoam cups, ashtrays,
fast-food wrappers, legal pads, file folders. Computer screens
sat with cursors blinking, surrendering their own light to the
growing light outside. No one else in the room.
All the others were off duty.
All the others had gone home.
Still pinned to the board, arranged chronologically in sequences
painstakingly reconstructed by Jackson, Meredith and members of
the task force they headed, hung photos of victims, crime scenes,
family and friends, workplaces, roadways and buildings, habitual
routes. These ran in discrete blocks horizontally (young woman
with her belly slashed open to a smile, children at rest in spoonlike
curves around beloved stuffed bears, dinosaurs, dolphins) and
vertically (downtown laundromat where teenagers found the baby
going round and round in the dryer, abandoned bloodied Chevrolet
Nova, suburban apartment with kitchen and bathroom surprises).
Like a crossword, Meredith thought. Fill in the blanks.
Filling in the blanks was what they’d been doing, trying to do,
for almost a year now. And finally it was over.
"Well, that’s it, then," Meredith said. "Cut.
So for a while (days, months, a year) that face he knew so well
would be absent from the world. While he and others like him
marked time, waiting for it to come up again grinning. He’d spent
much of his life looking into that face. The sprawl of photos
on the board made him remember all the others: single women, couples,
children, old folk. Who they were, where they’d lived, what they’d
left behind. Days, months and years a blur. His own life a blur.
These memories, this job his only sense of time, his only real
hold on it.
"Guess so," Jackson said, hand working hard at the
muscles of his neck. He tugged at his tie, the dark blue one
Betty gave him last Christmas, already at half mast. His coat
hung on the back of his chair. Each time he shifted weight the
coat shrugged its shoulders.
"What’ll you do?"
"Try to find my way home, I guess. See if Margaret’s still
there. Find out what gangs the kids have joined, see if they
bother coming home at night. Sleep. In three or four days —
who knows? — I might just get up and have me a cup of coffee
out of a real cup."
"Something to look forward to, for sure."
Meredith stared down at a coffee stain on his shoe. Who was
it said that God is in the details. Blue shirtsleeves rolled
up haphazardly onto biceps, underarms stained with sweat. While
Jackson’s white dress shirt, sleeves folded twice, still looked
fresh from the laundry.
"Yeah. What else is life about?" Jackson’s eyes swept
the room. Now that it was all over, time had slowed. Stop-action,
they used to call it. Slow motion. People lived in this drudge
all their lives. Hard to see why or how. "Be a gym again
by the time we get back."
"More likely the captain’s private studio. Backdrop of
the city, a map."
"For all those TV interviews."
"Hey — he’s a hero."
"Sure he is. Caught Mr. Road Kill." Jackson looked
around again. "Still reminds me of my old school cafeteria.
Every day they’d fold down these tables, otherwise it was just
a gym. Dropping hoops, you’d still smell sour milk and cabbage,
the sickly reek of cheap hot dogs."
He’d paid childhood dues in such cafeterias. Not many blacks
back in Phoenix those days. Kids sat down by him, spat in his
tray, called him a nigger and told him what they were going to
do to him out on the playground once he’d finished eating. It
all took time, the way these things do, but he’d managed to dodge
it all, the pettiness, the violence, even the fear, and finally
Meredith got up and walked to the windows. After a while Jackson
came up behind him. They stood together looking down. Buses
pushed through the streets like giant land-grazing beasts. Cars
skittered in and out among them. Sun like a wound bleeding light
into the sky.
Pilot fish, Meredith thought, watching the cars. He was twelve
years younger than Jackson, just enough difference that they’d
come up, lived, in separate worlds. Meredith turned twenty in
Nam sending kids his own age, kids dredged from Iowa City drive-ins
and Memphis burger joints, out on patrol. Gave him a certain
Down on the street Jimmie shoehorned his cart into its usual
space between newsstand and bus stop. Routine’s a good thing,
something you can hold on to. Hot dogs would be steaming inside.
Pretzels hung from hooks above. Smell of mustard and sauerkraut.
"Don’t seem a bad kid," Meredith said, "not really."
"They never do."
"Yeah." When’s the last time he had a hot dog? "But
you have to wonder why things went the way they did."
"For him? Or for the others?"
"Both, I guess."
"My oldest son John? Working on his master’s degree in
philosophy up at Columbia. The world’s the case, he keeps telling
me. What is, is. Try making it different, all you do is make
yourself crazy. Maybe he’s right."
Down in the street Jimmie slapped a dog between halves of a bun,
slathered on sauerkraut, mustard, ketchup.
"Any of it ever more than a toss of the dice?" Meredith
Jackson shrugged. Hell if he knew. Maybe. On the job almost
twenty years, and all his certainties had eroded to one: you never
know what a person will do. Any person.
Meredith’s eyes met his in the window’s reflection: "I guess."
Could it have gone that way with him? "For a couple of
years after the war I was really messed up."
"Sure you were. You earned it."
For a minute or so, neither of them said anything.
"Besides," Jackson went on, "you don’t see yourself
in all this, you’re not likely to see much else."
"So it’s always ourselves we’re chasing."
"You’re gonna tell me you ever doubted it?"
"I doubt everything. More and more of everything as time
"Good. Always figured you were gonna turn out all right."
Jackson’s hand worked at his neck, crawled around again to his
tie. "Choke down one last cup with me?"
Meredith shrugged. "Wouldn’t do it for anyone else, but
what the hell."
Jackson walked to a table along the back wall. On the table
were coffee makers, a tray of sandwiches and half-sandwiches in
plastic wrap, bags of chips torn open along the seams, boxes whose
bottoms were sludged with powdered sugar, icing, doughnut fragments.
One of the coffee makers had a carafe almost full. Jackson lifted
it off the heat, sniffed at it. Poured a cup for both of them.
They sat at another of the tables. Jackson pushed file folders
and papers aside to make room for their cups, but both held on
to them. Something reassuring about their physicality, the warmth,
what this signalled — something far past simple sharing.
"Worst has to be that family in Canton," Meredith said
after a while. "No way I’ll ever get those kids out of my
mind. Laying there like that, all opened up. Ecorché,
they call it up in Quebec." Where Meredith had lived when
he got back from Nam. Just couldn’t face the States again at
first. Lot of hunters in Quebec. See these deer dressed out,
staked on boards outside houses. "You’ve been doing this
a long time, B.J."
"All your life."
It was an old joke between them.
"You tell me how anyone ever thinks he’s able to understand
something like that?"
"No one does. Not really."
Their department expert. Guy grew up in Highland Park driving
a convertible, had a house in his own name there by the time he
was sixteen. Parents bought it for him — for his future. Then
he sailed through SMU and Galveston med school, barely touching
down the whole time, and elbowed his way through a residency at
Parkland like someone caught in rush hour on the New York subway.
Sure he knew how someone like Billy Daniel lived, what was in
Meredith picked up one of the file folders, scanned it quickly
and put it down, took another.
In Billy’s mind there is no connection between what he does — what he has done,
more properly — and the results. For him, the causal link simply does not exist.
This is a difficult concept, I know. Let me put it this way: a metaphor, nothing more,
but it may help you to understand. All the time, every moment of his life, Billy is
passing through doors. He goes out a door and comes back in to where he was before —
but there’s a body there now. Or it’s quiet again. Or someone is trying to kill him.
Whatever he has done, he leaves there, behind the door. And he goes through the next door
without a history — innocent, as it were. The causal connection’s simply not there for
him, never made.
Meredith closed the file folder, put it down.
"Right." Jackson held up his cup. "Stuff tastes
like mud from the Mississippi’s bottom, catfish and all."
"Want some more?"
They sat quietly for a while then, two men dragged out so thin
they scarcely existed anymore, yet reluctant to let go of whatever
it was they had here, intimacy, purpose. Some tiny intimation,
perhaps, of doing good, bringing things back to balance.
Around them the building stirred to life. Footsteps resounded
in corridors and on steel stairs outside. A door at the far end
of the room opened, someone looked in briefly then withdrew.
Cars and pedestrians filled the street below.
"We’re catfish ourselves," Meredith said. "All
this muck we live in, day after day. Managing somehow to get
sustenance from it."
He looked down the room towards where the door had closed moments
ago. That door seemed to him now very, very far away, the room
a kind of gauntlet. Some obscure test he’d sooner or later have
"You think it changes us? All this?"
"Don’t see how it could help but. One way or the other."
"Yeah." Meredith tilted his cup and found it empty.
How had that happened? No memory of drinking. "Sometimes
at night I wake up and look around and nothing — the bedroom,
the curtain on the window that’s been there for twelve years,
Betty asleep beside me — none of it seems real to me anymore.
That ever happen to you?"
Jackson shrugged. "You ought to’ve married her, Ben, long
"There’s never enough for us to hold on to, any of us."
"Guess not." He glanced at his partner’s tie. Remembered
the paper Betty had wrapped it in, gray with blue and green triangles.
"So. We out of here?"
"We are for sure."
They went along the floor, down the stairs, out the door. Parting
on the street by Jimmie’s cart.
Jackson said call him in a couple of days, they’d have a beer
— on him. I oughta be awake again by then, he said. Meredith
stood watching his partner walk away, stood still and alone in
the milling crowd with blades of sunlight sliding through chinks
in the buildings.
He was thinking what the boy, Billy, had said, what he’d said
again and again, to arresting officers, to interrogators from
the task force, to Hargrove and his night squad of psychologists,
social workers and assorted evaluators, rolling it off like a
catechism, his answer to almost every question:
"We went for a ride, and some people died."
Copyright © James Sallis 1997
This story may not be archived or distributed further without
the author’s express permission. Please read the license.
This electronic version of Shutting Darkness Down is published by The Richmond Review
by arrangement with the author.
Shutting Darkness Down was first broadcast on BBC radio.
James Sallis’s novels are published by No Exit Press
All rights enquiries to: James Sallis <[email protected]>
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