That was the year it all ended. I’d never felt such despair and desire. That time lives inside me even now. I relive it here in my sepia world, searching for colour, apprehensive of the starless night.
Perry Como was singing of the chains that bind in “Prisoner of Love” the evening I first saw her shining in the smoke of the Flamingo Bar. I thought then, standing in that crowded room, I wanted to be shackled to her forever. She had this erotic decadence that lived just beneath her skin. I wanted to be tethered to her, bound hand and foot, away from the past.
As we danced, I held her so close I almost broke her ribs. Later I tasted her mouth. Then we were wiping the tears away with only the moon between us. I didn’t want to close my eyes. I only wanted to see her face.
I had the dream every night for a year after that. The world was ending. I was trapped in a basement, a slender beam of light penetrating the darkness. I was trying to escape, to get to her. The crowd on the street was screaming, and the world began to go black. I dragged ten broken nails across the rough cement wall to climb up to a small window, scraping the flesh from my fingers until they were no more than bones. I held onto the tiniest crevices like a mountaineer.
I was afraid the last thing I’d see was that basement and not her eyes. And in the dream she was with Frank. I could see the mushroom cloud in the distance. As I began to open the window I saw there were bars outside it and I woke up. It was always the same.
Mornings tasted of fear. A cold panic set in as I wondered what I’d done the night before. I’d stare at the ceiling, count to ten, and reach out for Sally. I’d feel her warm body there beside me and listen to her breathing, inhaling her smell like an erotic narcotic that saved my sanity each day. I hungered for her like sin, and she yielded to me. Until one morning all I felt were empty sheets.
The summer of 1946.
Allen, South Dakota.
I’d never seen fireflies before that year. They didn’t belong there, but I welcomed them. Maybe the bomb affected things, set the world out of balance. Everything was changing.
I watched them fall like burning cigarettes in the darkness. I remember thinking that Sally was the only thing left for me in Allen. The whole city reeked of poverty and despair. The fireflies’ tiny fragile lights made me think of Christmas and the things I’d buy if I had a family and a job. I’d get Sally a Mink coat and she’d wear nothing under it. No one would know, but I’d know and we’d make love under the transient sky.
All those soldiers had come back from the War. And now we had something that made all wars redundant. I never thought the sky would end, or how events that year would bring suicide to my dreams.
We got away from the burning streets as often as we could, looking for our lovers’ leap. Everything was second rate to me, except her, and I was tired of making do. I had this sense of vertigo as I thought about the bomb. A million words were being written in the newspapers about it.
That night we were sitting near Fort Pierre in the intoxicated night and Sally looked on heat. Sometimes I couldn’t even look at her, because of the things she evoked inside me.
Even now, I can hear her voice, like the husky tone of a saxophone in a smoke filled room.
“Why do you keeping staring out of the window, Harry?” she said.
“They’re nothing special.”
“You always talk this way when you’ve had a drink.”
“Look at them.”
“I don’t see it.”
“I love their violent, erotic light as they catch the window pane and you sit there behind the wheel with your lover by your side.”
“Is that what I am, Harry?”
She was wearing a burgundy dress, and she looked like a star, like Rita Hayworth’s double, the one who did the things she didn’t dare. The satin hugged her figure so closely it took my breath away, and I thought of all the things I’d done and figured I was nothing. I had to peel that dress off her and forget it all again.
“I want to be there with you if they let the big one off,” I said.
“Harry, you’re a romantic, and that’s nice, but a girl’s got to survive, living ain’t easy.”
I thought of them in New Mexico. The Trinity test was the beginning of the end for me. I could hear the countdown as Oppenheimer watched and they let it off. They reminded me of spectators at a sporting event.
“Have you seen what they’ve created?”
“Sure, but we’re still here, aren’t we?”
“Oppenheimer said it brought to mind the Bhagavad Gita, ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ I keep seeing the cloud, Sally.”
“Harry, they’re never going to let it off.”
“How do you know?”
“Maybe I need to believe it.”
She lit a Marlboro and looked out of the window. The night was full of unknown shadows. The landscape had changed. I’d noticed the horizon seemed to be shifting, and I felt as though I was falling off the edge of the world.
I wondered how I would make it with Sally, my bride in desolation. I knew death. I’d watched him in the ring years before. He wore a cashmere coat and smoked a Cuban cigar.
That night as the Rapid City Journal sat in front of me on the dashboard of the Chevy, I thought about the kids we never had, the life I’d led, and what happened in the ring with Chester. And the latest report about the bomb we’d made stared at me from the front page like Chester’s ghost.
“I always know when you’re thinking about it, Harry,” Sally said.
I was clenching my fist and trying to drive the memory away. I didn’t like to touch her when those images of Chester lying on the canvas filled my mind like a rising pool of blood. She was saying something, but her voice was far away, and all I heard was the ref counting down and the medics coming on, Chester stretchered away, and waiting. The long day I quit. The day I decided to be a good man. I knew that you can only kid yourself for so long. I looked away from her face, back at the night.
“Harry, you were a good boxer,” she said.
Her words echoed over and over like a mantra in my head and all I wanted to do was reach for the Chivas Regal that lay like a stolen prize in the glove compartment. But my soiled lover was there and I could feel her hot and fertile body beneath the falling stars. I felt trapped and alone. I needed her to relieve me from myself.
“That’s what they say. You know I heard Chester had a condition, made him unfit to go in the ring.”
“How do you know?”
“You’re just trying to make me feel better.”
She touched my arm.
“It was all I had when I got out of the can. It’s what I did when I went in. I’m not a thief. One dumb mistake for money cost me a lot. I never even got to fight in the War.”
“You might have got killed and we wouldn’t be here.”
“I’m not a hoodlum, Sally, I want to show you.”
“I know that, Harry. One spell inside don’t mark you for life.”
“I couldn’t see the sky when they used to turn the lights out, I used to lay in the bunk thinking about it. I like the way they light up the night.”
“They’re like falling stars in South Dakota.”
“They’re bugs, they don’t belong here.”
“We don’t belong here.”
“You make things romantic that aren’t, Harry. Don’t run from yourself.”
“What do you want, Sally?”
“I want to feel you, I want to feel your weight on top of me in this Chevy.”
I took her face, I took her flesh, and she dragged her nails across my back.
“Fill me with your babies,” she whispered in my ear.
We traded desperation, and I filled her there beneath the whispering sky. I raised the hem of her red dress and made promises I could never keep. She was hungry, I had blood running off my lip when we went to eat with the last of my money. But Sally was mine. We all need someone in this broken world.
Afterwards as we lay together I thought I could smell him on her, but I drove the knowledge away with whisky, like I did the image of Chester there not moving and the crowd milling around the ring. I know what it’s like when the world goes out.
The next morning broke like a blister. I looked at the empty apartment and Sally sleeping, naked and alone with her dreams and I felt excluded and redundant. I wasn’t going back to the ring. We were going to get away, leave the sick polluted town and start up a better life.
I headed out into the yellow dawn that broke like sulphur on Junk Street. I’d make some money fast. I knew I’d run out of excuses, and my feet felt leaden on the hard road.
Turning the corner to Railyard Street I bumped into Frank with his salesman’s eyes, hair greased back, collar up to hide the scar that ran in a red streak from his neck to his ear. I dreamt about him every night and now he looked unreal.
“Hey Harry,” he said. “Thought you’d left town, the amount of times I knocked on your door, how’s Sally?”
“I’ve been busy, Sally’s good.”
“I’m sure she is. You got work?”
“I heard you got out, I was going to visit you.”
“All that time inside, Harry. I saw you only once. I’ve been out for months.” Frank laughed. “It’s OK. I got plenty of visits, from people a lot better looking than you.”
“I wondered how you been doing.”
“Well here I am, Harry. I got a job going if you’re interested.”
“No killing involved. Shooting that cop was dumb, do I look like a cop killer?”
“Exactly. I got style, feel this coat.”
Frank offered his lapel and watched with canine eyes as I ran my hand across the material.
“Harry, there’s a cool two thousand riding on this, you get half. You want be a loser all your life?”
He jabbed me in the shoulder.
“Simple job, what do you say?”
“Half,huh? Maybe I’ll come round later and you can tell me more about it. I ain’t promising nothing though.”
He straightened my collar.
“You need to smarten up Harry, you look like shit.”
It wasn’t what I wanted for Sally. And I couldn’t face her.
I lost days at the Flamingo Bar, hustled some guys at pool, and drank every cent. I pored over articles about the bomb. And with each one I felt the same choking sensation I had in my throat when I heard the news about Chester. I didn’t think the world would be there the next year, maybe even tomorrow.
I wanted to go back to her with the cash to change things, and I didn’t want it to come from Frank. But the longer I stayed away the more I got to thinking about the things we did for money in those Atomic days of loss and heartache. And I was afraid. Some nameless shadow was following me and I didn’t know its name, it had no face.
Then I read about the two bombs they let off at Bikini Atoll in the Pacific. Everyone was making hoopla. I was living in a nuthouse, it was worse than the can. It was July and I had to get out.
Sally was sleeping when I went back to the damp apartment. Her naked legs were astride the night table, her arms sprawled out on the grey sheets. A train chugged by and the bedroom shook as I read the note she’d left, “Either you get a job or I’m leaving. I ain’t doing this no more.”
I thought about the life I’d given her, and crumpled the note and threw it in the trash.
I stood there staring at the tattoo on her back, and the naked woman wrapped around a dollar bill that spread from her spine to her buttocks made me itch inside for something better. I kissed the nape of her neck as I said, “I’ll buy you more tattoos Sally, you’ll see.”
Then I lay down and shut my eyes and waited for the mushroom cloud. Sometimes I was frightened that the dream might bring it all about, like the time I’d dreamed of killing someone in the ring and it happening to Chester.
When I opened them it was dark. I rose and tried the light. There was no bulb in it. I navigated the room in the lurid beam shed by the streetlight, which illuminated the rusty water dripping down the back wall. Sally’s purse lay on the edge of the sofa. I could see cash sticking out of it and I went to shower.
Sally was getting out of bed when I came out.
“I’m getting a job,” I said.
“And how are you going to do that?”
“Harry, what have we got?” She fished her panties off the chair. “This hole by a railway line.”
I looked at her and thought how with her deep green eyes and black hair she could have so many better men than me.
“I’m going to get us out of here.”
She lit a Marlboro, her eyes like pinpoints as she dragged on it.
“You know something, Harry?”
“I know a lot of things.”
“I know we’ve got to leave Allen.”
“No, Sally, start a new future, like the pioneers did. This country was made from that.”
“Sure. You can go anywhere in America.”
“You’re a dreamer. That’s the past, Harry, the thing you’re running from. The world’s changed, there’s no frontier anymore. You got to do what you can. You can box again.”
“Then how are you going to make money? That’s what you do best.”
“I’m out of shape.”
“You could be fit in a few weeks.”
“I’m not going back in the ring.”
“You didn’t kill Chester, it was an accident.”
“I know that, Sally.”
“You can’t spend the rest of your life hiding from that. Look at your hands, they’re a fighter’s hands.”
But I didn’t.
“Are you scared you’re a killer, Harry?”
“What do you want me to say?”
“I want you to stop trying to be someone you’re not.”
“What does that mean?”
“You’re holding back. You talk about the bomb, as if we’re going to die tomorrow and you’re all tense, you even hold back in bed. But I need your hands on me, I need you to touch me with that fire you brought to my body the first time. It was like you were wild and I was taming you. You used to bring me danger in bed, you made me tingle all over.”
“What do you want from me?”
“Talk to me how you used to, before it happened.”
I wanted to smack her. I wanted to put her over my knee.
“You’re inside me, I crave you, you’re eating me up.”
“Because I’m all you’ve got?”
“No Sally, you’re all I want.”
I reached out and touched her arm and she turned her head away.
“I’ll give it everything,” I said.
“How we going to bring a kid up?”
“I’ll make money.”
“I’ll find something.”
“We live in one of the poorest towns in America.”
“This time it’s going to live.”
“What future does our baby have Harry, with you and me as parents to look after it?”
“I’ll make money.”
“Working in Wall Street?”
“Remember burying her, Sally? That night, you and me over by the park with a stolen spade? Remember that tiny body in the cold ground? You puked your guts out.”
“How could I forget?”
“I read your note.”
“I ain’t doing it no more.”
“You don’t.” She sat down and shook her head. “It’s bad enough doing it, but I can’t take this pretending.”
“OK. I know this life ain’t right, I know we need more.”
“Harry, are you blind?”
“Give me till tonight.”
She was about to say something and I left her standing there and headed out beneath the rusted iron bridge which cast a constant shadow on our apartment. A train thundered by as I made my way to meet Frank, my ticket out, my big goodbye.
He was waiting for me. Frank knew how you’d jump. I told myself all the way there this was the last time. I’d take the money and leave, we’d find a new town and start a new life, and all the time I kept hearing the ref count down.
We sat on Frank’s new sofa and I looked at his lifestyle, he didn’t want for anything.
“So what’s the job?” I said.
“It’s simple. This friend of mine owns an office block, it’s all legit, I got the keys.”
“He wants you to rob his office?”
“He ain’t got no insurance, wants out, he’s given me the combination. We go in, get the cash out of the safe, and leave.”
“Simple as that?”
He laid a steady hand on my shoulder.
“One thing I learned inside is not to go back in.”
“So why do you need me, Frank?”
“There’s a night porter, I know the times he does his rounds. We get to the office by the back stairs, he never uses them, but I need you to keep watch while I’m getting the cash. My friend takes sixty percent and between you and me it’s a straight fifty-fifty cut.”
“That’s kind of generous of you, Frank.”
“I’m a generous guy.”
“It’s like you’re doing me a favour.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“Frank, you only look after your own interests.”
“Harry, I got responsibilities. My kids ain’t getting all the things I’d like them to.”
“I seen them, they’re doing OK.”
“You don’t know. You ain’t a father yet, consider Sally.”
I thought of new tattoos, of another town, where I didn’t feel like spitting at myself every time caught my own reflection.
Beneath a sullen moonless sky we made our way to the office block that existed like a scar on a street teeming with restaurants and bars. Raucous drunks staggered out onto the stained pavement, arms heavy on women who wobbled on high heels, spraying cheap perfume into the air. We scurried by, heads down in the anonymous night.
Frank had a key to the back door and we scaled the iron stairs to an office on the top floor, assisted by the torches we held in front of us like knives. It all went smoothly as we moved silently within the building. The safe was set in the wall behind a painting of a man fishing in a lake and I helped Frank remove it and set it down on the floor. He fumbled with the combination as I checked the hallway. All quiet except the satisfying click inside the office. Frank removed the cash and I helped him bundle it into a bag. Then we made our way downstairs.
“Easy see?” Frank said.
As we were passing the second floor a door opened and a large security guard came out. He said nothing as he reached for his gun. And Frank pulled a .38 Smith and Wesson from his jacket and shot the guard. He dropped to the floor like a wounded bull and I watched the blood pool by his head. Frank headed outside, and I followed. And all the time I kept thinking about him mentioning Sally earlier when he spoke about his kids.
Back at his apartment he handed out the cash, licking his thumb, and peeling back the notes one by one as he counted them. It was the same gesture I’d seen him use out of the corner of my eye the night Chester died.
“What did you mean about Sally, Frank?” I said.
“She’s a good looking woman, and you ain’t going to keep her if you don’t develop some style.”
“Is that what you’ve got, style, shooting the guard?”
“You can’t help killing can you?”
“You mean like you and Chester.”
He lit a Cuban cigar and I remembered seeing him smoking ringside that night. In my mind the ropes looked like the bars on the window in the basement.
“Did you fix it?”
He had his yellow teeth clenched on the butt of his cigar and I wanted to knock them out of his mouth.
“Chester. You set the fight up.”
He held his arms up.
“Chester could take a punch, how come he died?”
“Take your cash.”
I had him by the shirt and his heels were off the ground.
“Tell me. I got out of prison and you said you’d promote me.”
“I heard he had something wrong with him, but only after the fight. I swear.”
“Like you’re going to do in court that you didn’t kill that guard tonight? You just got out, you’ll be first on their list.”
“What you going to do Harry, tell them?”
I put him down and watched him walk over to a cupboard. He reached in for some Jim Beam and I saw his cashmere coat hanging there and I was right back in the ring.
“I remember that coat,” I said.
“Must have cost you.”
“You know, I like classy things.”
“Have you screwed her?”
A smirk began to crawl across his face.
“I wouldn’t do that.”
“No? Did you tell her Chester had a condition?”
Frank poured a finger of whisky, drank it, and looked away. He was staring out at the black backdrop of night, smoking, as I came up behind him, grabbed him by the shoulders, and spun him round.
I hit him in the face, knocking him over a chair. His cigar singed his lip and his nose opened up.
“That was a dumb thing to do Harry, real dumb.”
I grabbed my money, and Frank pulled a knife. I was moving to the door when he slashed my shirt. I looked down and saw the ripped cotton and the gash in my stomach. I held the bag in front of me to ward off the knife as Frank came again and all I kept thinking was that we could destroy the world and how I dreamt of being locked in a basement while Sally was with him. I could feel the ropes and I could see a crowd and a mushroom cloud over their heads as Frank said, “You lost your balls after Chester.”
That’s when I opened up my shoulders and let loose all that anger I’d carried for years. I knocked Frank across his apartment, picked him up and held him as I smashed his teeth out, using him like a punch ball until he just slumped to the floor and lay there without breathing.
Then I headed out the door and down the stairs with the money, dripping his blood from my knuckles on the ruined steps.
Sally stirred in her sleep as I entered the apartment. I inspected the wound in the bathroom. It didn’t look too deep and I bandaged it.
I had the dream that night, but it was confused. It was like I was trying to get away from something in the basement, not to reach Sally, and the window was dark as I climbed the wall towards it. I was running away, and I could hear someone breathing behind me. I didn’t want to turn and see his face. I woke up sweating and my hands felt swollen, like when I’d done too much time on the punch ball. I reached out for her and the bed was empty. I waited for her to return.
When she did she walked past me and went into the kitchen.
“Where’ve you been?” I said.
She didn’t answer.
Over coffee I said to her, “Let’s get out of here, you me and the baby.”
“Where are we going to go?”
“Anywhere. I got money.”
“It’s a loan.”
“There’s blood on your shirt, I saw it in the trash. You’re wounded.”
“I’ll see a doctor when we get out of here. Come with me, Sally.”
“Loan. You got involved with Frank didn’t you?”
“Why do you think it’s Frank?”
She looked away.
We waited until night, avoiding each other in the wounded silence of the dripping apartment. We packed our few clothes into our tattered bags. And we got the last train out of Allen, walking with the conviction of the hunted up to the platform on the creaking iron bridge that scowled down on Railyard Street.
I clutched the bag with the cash in it, as if I was clenching the slender promise of a future in my hand. I jumped every time someone walked up, but no cops came, and finally the last night train limped and wheezed down the line and we got on. We sat side by side watching the long line of misery that was the final houses of Allen shrink and fade on the grey horizon. And the empty train rocked its way into the black unknown landscape outside.
“Where are we going, Harry?” Sally said.
“Anywhere. Away from here.”
“Away from us? We’re going nowhere, we ain’t got nowhere to go. Look at this, it’s like a ghost train, and we’re the only two riders.”
“I got cash. We got a future.”
“Stolen cash, they’ll find you.”
“No they won’t.”
“Harry, I know what you are, I’ve always known what you are.”
“But you don’t. People like us do things to make money. How do you think I got cash these past few months?”
“I’ve been keeping us afloat by seeing other men, what does that make us?”
“You don’t know what you’re saying.”
“Harry, sometimes you have to face the ugliness of life and carry on. You have to face the bombs and the things like what happened to Chester. You don’t know yourself, you’ve separated who you are into bits, and the pieces you don’t like are buried in a drawer.”
I was clutching the arm of the faded seat with white knuckles as the train sped into the silent night.
“All I used to want was for you to embrace me, to hold me. How come you don’t hold me no more? It takes a piece away Harry, it steals your hope. I tried to be your girl, I tried to belong to you, but what I had to do to support us made belonging impossible.”
“Whatever happened, leave it back there. There’s a future growing inside you.”
“It got spread around Harry, you’re the great pretender, it’s like you went deaf with despair.”
“You never heard them talking? I got used, everyone knew. All those men. It’s killed something in me.”
“Men like Frank? Tell me, are you carrying his baby?”
We passed through a tunnel and in the altered light Sally’s face changed. She looked older, harder, like someone else. As we came out of the tunnel she turned to me with cold clear eyes.
“I went to pay a visit to Frank this morning.”
“To tell him to leave you alone, and he was dead.”
“Whose baby is it?”
“Does it matter? It could be anyone’s. What are you, Harry? A piece of Frank’s charity? Look at this world. What are we bringing life into it for anyway if we’re just going to blow it up?”
“You bitch, nothing is ever good enough for you.”
A stranger entered the carriage then, he’d being following me for days. As I looked at him in the bleak window of the moving train I remembered him from the basement in the dream. It was him I was trying to get away from. Then he hit Sally. I had no control over this other man who punched her in the gut, doubling her over, as I tasted all the poisoned impotent years gathering like a black tide inside me. Then Sally was screaming and I was trying to say her name, but my voice was torn in my throat, and no words came, only a gasp of despair like a howl erupting into the train.
I looked down at the littered floor. Sally was bleeding and I reached for her, my hand falling through the air, as the train jostled on the broken track, knocking me against the rails of the carriage. I put my hand to my side and it felt wet. As the train thundered on, my wound opened up and all we had left was the endless embrace of the blackness around us, and the fireflies bombing against the night.
I still look for the fireflies sometimes from my window when it gets dark, but they’re not there. They belonged to that year when it all ended. I keep waiting for the bomb to fall. I can’t see much from my window. All I can see when I look at my murdering hands are the scars on my wrists. They’re getting fainter, so one of the guards says.
Richard Godwin is the author of critically acclaimed novels Apostle Rising, Mr. Glamour, One Lost Summer,Noir City,Meaningful Conversations, Confessions Of A Hit Man, Paranoia And The Destiny Programme and Savage Highway.