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Shutting Darkness Down
A short story by James Sallis

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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. Print."

Jackson nodded.

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 fit in.

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 perspective.

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 said.

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.

"Seeing yourself."

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 goes on."

"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."

"Except Hargrove."

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 his head.

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 to pass.

"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 before this."

"I know."

"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]>

Check out James Sallis’s Home Page


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