Noir

by Robert Coover


An excerpt from Robert Coover’s new novel, Noir,  published by Overlook on March 4, 2010.


The alley. You can’t say it’s your home away from home, having no real home to be away from, but you know it well. You’ve spent serious time in it. Have been mugged, chased, blown, asked for a light, beaten up, paid off, conned, dumped, supplied, scared shitless, given hot tips, shortchanged, shot at in here. You say, here. The alley is not on any streetmap. It is under it somewhere. Or behind it. It is negotiated intuitively; maps are useless, maybe even deceptive. Even in the rain, its scabrous brick walls are layered with shadows, worn like old rags. It is not uninhabited. It has its pimps and dealers, street tramps, smalltime grifters, misnamed homeless (they know where their home is better than you do), muggers, psychopaths, deviants. Not unlike City Hall, in short, or any church or company boardroom. You have to keep your eye out for one of them in particular. Known as Mad Meg, she likes to leap out of the shadows and stab people with her rusty kitchen knife. Once an honest stripper, but misused by a sadistic sugar daddy who pumped her full of brain-burning opiates, thrown out on the streets when her mind went and her body bagged, now the hidden princess of the alley. Like the alley, she’s treacherously complex yet rough on the surface and without façade, oddly innocent or at least neutrally unmotivated even as she lunges at her victims, somewhat pestilential, smelling of urine and half-blind, the indecorous backside of the human condition, the poxy dead end we all try to avoid. She’s a friend of yours though she doesn’t always remember that. You bring her things that she collects like coat buttons, swizzle sticks, shoelaces, candy wrappers, and old tennis balls, and once she got you out of a scrape by attacking the killer who was attacking you, though that may have just been the luck of who was on top.

One wet day’s end you were tailing a guy through here who you thought might be Mister Big. You’d been having a few in Loui’s, talking with Joe the bartender about the meaning of life, Joe’s view in sum being that life was full of sickness, loneliness, corruption, cruelty, paranoia, betrayal, murder, cynicism, impotence, and fear, and then there was the dark side. You realized that what was wrong with Joe was that he was a teetotaler.

Across the room at a dining table sat a fat guy in a white linen suit with a napkin tucked into his shirt collar, delicately putting away the back half of a cow. Rings on all his fingers, even his thumbs. He looked familiar. Joe didn’t know who he was but said he was a loner who came in from time to time to eat a few dinners. Probably you’d seen him in here before. Joe thought he might be a thin guy disguised as a fat guy.

Maybe. But he sure eats like a fat guy. Everything but the tail and horns.

He sometimes has those with cheese and coffee, Joe said.

On a hunch (a hunch is to a gumshoe what a skirt is to a letch: a tease; pursuit; trouble), when he lit up a cigar, paid, donned his panama, and left, you decided to step out into the drizzle and follow him. You knew zip plus toy soldiers about Mister Big, but you figured it was likely his nickname was for more than power alone. Even if the guy was only a mock-Mister B, it might be interesting to see where he goes, and you’d have something to report to the widow next time she turned up. At first you were on the street, watching in the classic surveillance manner his slow waddling movements in the reflections of shop windows, but then at some point you were in the alley. How that happens is almost always a mystery. You have privileged access to it down your back stairs, maybe everyone does, but if you step out the front door the alley is hard to find. You can’t see it and then, what do you know, you’re in it. The fat man in the panama and linen suit zigzagged along, never looking back, but you had the feeling he knew you were back there, paddling through the garbage, trying to pretend you were just out for your daily constitutional. It was probably time to forget it and turn around, but you weren’t sure where you were and were as likely to find your way out going forwards as backwards. And, besides, the more you followed him, the more convinced you were that this was the guy you were looking for. He was moving faster and faster, he maybe ate like a fat man but he moved like a thin man, maybe Joe was right, it was hard to keep up. Finally, he was running flat out, pivoting sharply around corners like a mechanical carnival target on ball bearings, hopping nimbly over obstacles, darting down narrow passageways, somehow skirting puddles that you splashed through, a pale luminosity flitting through the moist shadowy alley like a will-o’-the-wisp, and soon you were only catching fleeting glimpses of him in the distance and then you lost him altogether.

You leaned against a boarded-up door to get your breath, torch a fag. Where were you? No idea. But you could hear rustlings, knew you’d been had, knew your situation was dangerous. You’d pocketed what remained of the widow’s roll for operating expenses (Blanche on the phone rolled her eyes and shook her yellow curls) and though you’d blown some of it in Loui’s there was plenty left and you worried now about getting mugged, or worse. These guys could smell money like sniffer dogs, even in the rain, and they usually preferred to ice their victims rather than merely threaten them, as it gave them more undisturbed pocket-poking time. The alley branched out in five or six directions from here, mostly you supposed into rat-infested dead ends where killers lurked. Your .22 was back in the office; you had nothing to defend yourself with except your fists. Glancing around for a weapon of some sort, your eye fell on a big ivory coat button and, keeping your back to the wet wall, you snatched it up in case you ran into Mad Meg. Beyond it was an old yellow tennis ball soaking in a puddle, and beyond that a red plastic swizzle stick. The swizzle stick was in front of what looked at first glance like a back door, but turned out to be a low underpass into another dark tangle of alleyways. A brass button off a military coat, a knotted shoelace, another bald tennis ball, a green-and-gold candy wrapper. These objects might have fallen out of Meg’s bagged household effects as she passed through here, or she might have dropped them on purpose. Either way, following their trail was your only shot. At the very least, if you came upon her, you could maybe wrestle the kitchen knife away from her, use it to fight your way out of here. It was a kind of scavenger hunt, chased by muffled footsteps, tumbling ashcan lids, the squawk of a startled cat being kicked.

Suddenly, picking up a pair of crimson-and-blue ice-skate shoelaces, you found yourself in a blind alley. A trap? An aluminum candy wrapper lay like a lottery ticket in front of a puckery patch of wet asphalt. There was a day-glo orange tennis ball, bright as fresh fruit, beyond the patch in front of the windowless brick wall that closed off the alley, but on your left, closer by, between two battered ashcans standing like woebegone sentries, lay a swizzle stick with a little flag on it that you remembered giving her. Mad Meg had saluted it, then picked her nose with it. You chose that over the orange ball, and as you stooped to pick it up, a red-eyed assailant in old army fatigues came charging out of a shadowy hole in the opposite wall with a switchblade. Oh shit. You braced yourself, yanking one of the ashcans in front of yourself, but when the guy stepped onto the puckery patch, that was as far as he got: his feet stuck, sank, the asphalt sucking him down, his screams smothered by the falling rain. There was a final wet sucking sound and your attacker was gone, nothing left but the switchblade and the echo of his final curse. You skirted the patch to gather up the orange tennis ball, saw the pink cloth-coat button in the mouth of the hole in the wall whence your attacker came, crouched down, picked it up, and crept through.

You were in the alleyway behind your office building. You left your collection of memorabilia in the hole along with a button ripped from your own trenchcoat and the switchblade. All right, it made Meg all the more dangerous next time she rushed you, but you owed her as much.

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