/ Fiction / Short Story /
written around 1969, 1970
It was a completely weird night the only other time I’ve ever gone down into the park after dark. I never would have gone alone. And no one could have talked me into it. It just happened the way I’ll tell you. If I hadn’t I don’t guess I ever would have found out about Danny. And I probably never would have become … I mean, maybe I wouldn’t have gone through all those changes, and maybe I wouldn’t be here now.
I haven’t seen Danny in more than five years, but I think about him a lot these days, the way things are. It was what happened with an old lady who lives down the hall from me that reminded me of him today. I’m just coming through the front door and she’s fumbling with her keys by the elevator. She didn’t hear me behind her or something, because when I reach out to press the button to hold the door open for her, she kind of half stumbles, stiffens, half turns her head. Her face is the color of a dead fire in the rain. She clutches her purse into herself, tight, and one of the paper handles on her shopping bag breaks. A cantaloupe drops out and rolls into the crack made by the elevator door being open. I reach out to keep her eggs from falling, and the door lets go and hits her from the other side. The rubber safety makes it jump open again, but right away it slides right back at her: and all the time she’s making a noise like some wheezy furnace. I go down to get the cantaloupe and she’s tying to knee me in the face. I back up and this time she gets clear of the door. I heard all of her groceries hit the floor just as the door squishes the cantaloupe. The door just kept jerking there, squishing, because the cantaloupe wasn’t connecting with the safety. I was out on the street again by the time she screamed. I’ve been living down the hall from her all this time and still she doesn’t know me from any other n-word (Bowdlerizing K. 2016 08 01, you know the offensive word I used in my story).
Maybe it wouldn’t have happened to Danny the same way. I don’t even know if he felt the same way about it as I’ve come to.
It was never like that for me, and I’ve always been as harmless as anyone could wish. I grew up around Mt. Kisco and I used to cry when the kids in the neighborhood would step on ants. There was one kid who would get mussels from the stream and put them in the road and make me watch the cars hit them. I couldn’t do anything. Then he sat on my chest until I foamed at the mouth.
But even so, things like this happen to me. I was on line for the cash register at Sam Goody’s. You know the record store. And there was this other old lady up by the counter, having trouble with the string on her package. “Excuse me,” she says to me, after looking around for a minute — there must have been twenty people on the line – “Excuse me,” she says, “may I borrow your knife?”
Danny was with me and he laughed.
Still, I knew him only a little bit our first couple of semesters at college. We shot a little pool together. And of course we were both into a lot of music. But what I mean is there were so many things you never would have guessed about him. First I was surprised that he was from Texas – he was so hip. I never would have known that he was Jewish. We were both into music, but I didn’t even know that he played the violin.
That’s how it started. It was about midnight. I was in my room. I had been having a sound battle with the creep next door. For months this cat plays nothing but Tammy, Tammy, Tammy’s in Love on his five speaker system over and over again. So this night I blast him out with some John Coltrane. After a time, he left, and I turned the sound down. I changed to some earlier Coltrane with Miles Davis’s group. I still had the bass up full to really listen to some of Paul Chambers’ lines underneath everything else. There’s a soft knock at the door and there’s Danny, playing the violin. I tell you, it was something else. He was into a completely different thing. A pentatonic, but it wasn’t the blues. Well I had two different heads there for a while, until they sort of seemed to go together, the blues and this music I had never heard before.
“Come on,” Danny said. “Let’s go down to the park.”
Like I said, the park was completely weird. The fog was solid, waist high. The path lights winked in the wet air like bright spider web. Ordinary things rose strangely out of the cottony mists around our legs. We hardly knew that the ritual bowl was a water fountain, the bishop’s crook the stone back of a bench. Trees were black holes in the sky. You couldn’t see the moon, though there was a sparkling through the wetness over the river. Danny sat where the stone wall had been, like levitating in the mist.
I had on just my gym class tee shirt and shorts. Danny was wearing his trench coat.
He didn’t play with the violin tucked under his chin. He held it to his side where it was half in the mist. What he played now was more insistently rhythmic. Episodic. He bounced the bow over and over the G string for the ground, first single time, then the variations in double time. Again. Then again. The rhythm had a melody that you almost missed. Then he beat a higher melody on the other strings. His playing was percussive, without vibrato, and almost without resonance. Over and over. Da rhum … pa pum pa pa … rhum pa pa phum …
The music I was hoping to evoke were waynos, from the Chilean Andes.
I don’t know how many times he played it. I knew that this was a whole other culture. I knew like I have never known before that there were other people who had trouble, maybe worse trouble, and who had music. I heard unknown centuries without change, over and over again, without change or hope, festival music without joy or change.
Brother John! A tall, stoop shouldered spade stood in front of us. He looked like Trane might have looked before he made it. His jacket was frayed around the upturned lapels. He carried his head forward like a black lantern. His eyes were big and heavy, with brown lines through the lower part of their cream colored whites.
“Got a match?” His large frame leaned forward like a wall torch.
Danny put the violin down into the mist. I edged away through that damp fluff. Danny stood up. He too was over six foot, was stooped, and carried his height curved forward. But if this other cat slouched it was the slouch of a football player between plays. Danny looked like the drug store Ichabod Crane.
Danny felt around his pockets through his trench coat. “Yeah, I think so.” He finally found them and lobbed them to him. The man caught the matches, still in his forward lean. “Got a cigarette?”
My heart felt like an Elvin Jones solo.
“Yeah, I think so.” Danny reached inside his trench coat to his breast pocket. The cat moved forward, but Danny threw it so he had to turn back to catch it. “You can keep the matches,” he said.
He inhaled the next puff while the smoke was still somberly jetting from his nose. Two more bobs and, psst, the cigarette went out where he had thrown it into the mist between his feet.
The cat smiled. “Oh, yes,” he said. He shuffled forward another step. “Tell me.” He exhaled two more thick columns of smoke. “How much money are you carrying on you?”
Again Danny patted his pockets. He reached inside his trench coat. The cat smiled an even, serious smile. Serious and expectant. Danny’s hand came out slowly. The cat stood very still. Danny’s hand kept coming. He had to turn his wrist the other way, and still his hand came, slowly. The cat straightened up, his shoulders still stooped. His big eyes looked heavier.
There was no longer moonlight nor yet wet dawn light to glint along the three foot burnished edge, its sharpening strokes neat circles against the matte, flat side of the machete which only now cleared its blunt tip through the wide lapel of Danny’s coat to rest, edge forward, in Danny’s other hand. “Oh, thirty or forty dollars, I suppose.”
Well, I’ve thought about that scene lot since then. Even at the time, I became so fascinated I stopped being scared. That was my first experience of that kind, even in imagination. I just about never went to the movies, or anything. What I liked best about it was that nobody was hurt. And Danny’s timing had been magnificent. The cat had meant to be something of a dramatist himself, but it was Danny who had really been in control all the way. And he did it so that it was funny at the same time that it was heart stopping and sad.
It was soon after that that I saw my first Japanese movie and commenced to see all the samurai films I could find. If it hadn’t been for that night, I don’t think I would have enjoyed them so much. You see, I felt that I understood them. What’s so beautiful about Toshiro Mifune in so many of his roles is that he always has everybody beat so far psychologically that when the time comes for the actual fight he hardly has to so much as defend himself: he just walks around and chops everybody up while they’re trying to run away. He doesn’t worry that he may be killed, even though it’s clear he knows he may be: that’s just one of those things. He has more important things to concentrate on. Or how he’s the only one with a true sense of danger. When the mere signs are there, everybody is jumping up and down and waving their swords in the air while he’s just yawning. Then, when it really happens, he’s the only one who’s moving.
But what I meant to say first, about psychology, is that he’s never indiscriminate about killing. He never does more than he has to. Like the time when he’s traveling around the country practically in rags with his sword bound and rolled up in a straw mat, like the ax on an old dime, spending all his time meditating and carving little Bodhisattvas, and also trying to get rid of the kid who insists on being his disciple. He’s staying in this fly blown hotel and there’s a horse fair going on and the heavies from the horse fair are downstairs, drunk and loud and looking for a fight. His side-kick yells down that they should shut up because his master is trying to meditate. All the heavies are happy because now they have their fight. They sneak up the stairs, shhing each other, and throw open the screen to Mifune’s room. There he is sitting in the middle of the floor with the bowl of rice the kid has just given him and a pair of chop sticks.
All right smart-ass samurai, don’t give us any of that bushido crap. Inscrutable, hell; we know you’ve got to be shitting in your pants. No actual words, understand: but that’s how they looked.
Mifune just eats his rice.
When they sass him again, he still doesn’t look at them. He just glances up to where a fly is buzzing past and picks it out of the air between the points of his chop sticks! Real silence from the heavies. Two flies later, he holds the rice bowl out until two more land on it, whetting their forelegs. With no sound one is gone, and the other hasn’t even been scared away! Then the last one, and Mifune says to the kid, “Here, wash these. They’re dirty.”
The horse traders have been ready to burst a blood vessel and now they have their fight sure enough. They fight each other on the narrow stairs, each one trying to be the fastest one to get away.
The movie referenced is Duel at Ichijoji Temple:
You see, that’s what I mean about psychology being even more important than the physical part, and that’s what I admired so much about Danny.
It wasn’t until after that that I found out that he really killed people. And I was still slow enough to be surprised again. In fact I wouldn’t have believed it when we met those other guys from E1 Paso in the bar and they were talking about it. I wouldn’t have believed it even after seeing how cool he was with that cat in the park and what kind of hands he had on the violin and after hearing his music if I hadn’t then realized that it was he I had seen on the street the week before. I was walking along with Shipper’s girl friend, helping her shop for a birthday present for Shipper, and hadn’t noticed yet that I had noticed two other college kids in the crowd ahead of us … when one of them brushes against one of the three Puerto Ricans who were walking the other way. The three clicks came almost as one and the guy who had been ignorant enough to have the accident of jostling one of them disappeared into the wave of the crowd as it moved away. The taller one stepped back. The Puerto Ricans came in on him and he put his hand up, like to protect his face. Then there was a fourth click and the three spicks were bleeding on the sidewalk. Shipper’s girl had never touched me before, and she was squeezing my arm like crazy. Then the tall cat just kept walking along. Nobody said anything to him. There was a cop across the street. He stayed where he was and nobody said nothing.
We were in the bar and I asked Danny if that had been him.
“Yeah, I sometimes carry a little one in my hair.” Then he told me how it was best never to brush against a spick. How they were sometimes sensitive about it.
I listened to Danny’s conversation with the other guys from El Paso. One of them knew all about Danny, though they had never met, and Danny knew all about him. It turned out that they had had almost identical careers only about ten miles apart along the border.
“Damn: you got your training from Molé Jake, didn’t you?” he said. “Molé Jake used to come down our way and we’d get blind on that one peso tequila. How is he, anyway? Have you seen him?”
“He got it in the eyes with a broken bottle last Christmas.”
“Holy Jesus, how did that happen? I would have heard about that. He was the only gringo I ever saw who could hear anything coming, bottles or anything, from behind him or anywhere.”
“It was his girl friend that did it,” Danny said. “There wasn’t too much talk about it. He didn’t think she would. … Maybe that’s why she did it.”
Danny got up and switched stools with one of the guy in order to sit next to the cat. “Yeah, we buried him out on the desert.” I talked to the guy who took his stool for a while and then went home.
I was thinking of Shelley’s funeral on the Italian coast
After that, Danny and this cat were always together. I couldn’t even listen anymore to what they were saying because they never said anything. There they’d be at the bar, sitting next to each other and just nodding.
By that time it had occurred to me that maybe Danny used himself as bait. That maybe that night in the park he was using himself and me and the violin as bait.
I’ve told a lot of stories in trying to tell this one story and I hope that just one more will show you what I mean. I think it’s why it really got to me about that old lady today. It’s about a musician: a different kind, but still, a musician. Last night I was visiting a friend who is doing his stint in the emergency ward of the hospital where he’s an intern. There were cops all over the place. They frisked me before they showed me into a room where my buddy was doing something to some thread on a needle. The guy on the table was as pale as the linen under him as he stared in excited disbelief at the thickening mess of blood that was forming a deep bowl in his pillow. You know how Buddhas have a big bump on the back of their head where they keep a second brain or something? Well, this guy had a lump half the size of the rest of his head that all the hair had been shaved away from, leaving gray stubble patches against the ashen white. I couldn’t believe it: they were talking about Wagner. My buddy would hum something heavy and the cat would laugh even while his head was vibrating. His head was vibrating and his eyes looked the way a star looks through a telescope on a hot night, jumping and trembling. It turned out he was a tenor just down from Alaska to sing Loge in a production of Das Rheingold. It was his first night in town, and all he had done was smile when the guy asked him for his wallet.
So like I say, I’ve changed in a lot of ways. Five years ago I never would have believed that I could go into a pawn shop and buy an eight inch switch blade. Or go down into the park at night and just walk around, waiting. Whoever it’s going to be, I doubt if it will be the guy who put the cleaver to Loge. And it wouldn’t be the guy my neighbor is afraid of, because she’s probably afraid of everybody. I’m hoping that, whoever it is, he’ll be surprised at what I’m going to do. Since I don’t know what I’m doing, I’ll probably need that. And I can’t say how it will turn out. But we’ll see. We’ll see.
Submitted to Playboy, Esquire, the New Yorker … a bunch: well before Death Wish, well before Taxi Driver …
Scribble on the subject I put up last week now needs editing:
I was just astonished to discover no mention at K. of my short story In the Park from the late 1960s. It probably wouldn’t take long to add it here, but that’s not the bee in my bonnet: I was just surfing around about Shane, loved the movie in 1953, have loved it since, was just reading Roger Ebert, Ebert talking about Shane’s weird psychology:
Why does he do this? There is a little of the samurai in him, and the medieval knight. He has a code. And yet–there’s something else suggested by his behavior, his personality, his whole tone. Here is a man tough enough to handle any threat and handsome enough to win the heart of almost any woman. Why does he present himself as a weakling? Why is he without a woman? There must be a deep current of fear, enlivened by masochism. Is he afraid of women? Maybe. Does he deliberately lead men to think they can manhandle him, and then kill them? Manifestly. Does he do this out of bravery and courage, and because he believes in doing the right thing? That is the conventional answer. Does he also do it because it expresses some deep need or yearning? A real possibility. “Shane” never says, and maybe never knows. Shane wears a white hat and Palance wears a black hat, but the buried psychology of this movie is a mottled, uneasy, fascinating gray.
Yeah, Shane presents himself as a patsy, then beats up the bigger guys, then kills the badest: then moves on.
Ah: just like the protagonist of my short story: guy looks like a fruit, plays the violin in Riverside Park at night, in the fog, in the mist, then cuts the mugger: dangerous bait, baiting his own trap.
I’ll be back. Note meantime: my story was passed around the major magazines, then the Death Wish series began: they changed my black mugger killer with a knife to a white mugger killer with a gun. Did they discuss it with me? pay me? have my permission?
About as much as they had Sutter’s permission to take his cattle, his land, his gold: or Crazy Horse.
2013 08 14 Funny coincidence: I just watched Taxi Driver, Martin Scorseze, 1976. Weirdo uses an assortment of handguns to scrape scum from the streets: credited as being a vigilante movie before the genre came into existence. My story of the mugger killer was written in 1969, maybe 1970: around then. Magazines mouthed my bait, but none took my bait.
In human court the lawyers have the record of the patent office. At Judgment God may be presumed to have the complete record: including the opportunities of the patent bureaucrats to steal ideas being presented for patent: and ideas spurning patent. Leaqve it to humans to mistake partial information with adequate information. There’s no such thing as complete information: no sentience, not God, would have access to it.
Maybe I’ll mount that story after all.