by Eric Westerlind
When I turn the corner and get past the Music Mogul, I slow up. Our street doesn’t often have too many walkers this time of evening, especially when it’s all grey-dark and spitting—but somebody turned on the people-switch—probably ten, twelve folks just idling on the sidewalks.
The apartment is up Gerard, so another right, but I walk past it. There’re even more people up our street, in tight groups of threes, all like the same size, same dark jackets.
There are flashing lights too, police lights rolling off the buildings. Two squad cars are pulled up at my apartment building. None of the stand-arounds are drifting toward the lights. No crowd gathering. They look like survivors.
I walk back around the block, the other direction. Amber can cover my groceries and we can take the pizza-rain-check and then maybe grab a coffee or something.
My roommates aren’t out on the corner so I walk in the front door, that little restaurant bell clattering more than ringing, the dust of the cold hugging me even inside.
We’ve never eaten here before (‘Plaisante’s’ apparently, from a dangling wood sign); the first three months in the new apartment we stuck to street vendors, the grocery store. Twice, Macelroy’s over down Rue St. Germaine.
Plaisante’s is dark, not closed-dark, but low-lighting. A couple of booths hug the walls below the small windows, a square table in the center, and the pizza bar in back. The kitchen’s glow is a gaping mouth of fluorescence. I flex my fingers, knuckles pinkblue, shading my eyes at the same time.
Nobody in here, no movement.
I rock back out into the cold, sort-of dive out the door, rub my elbows, look down the street.
A police car hauls past me, the same half-spit drizzle warps the lights it’s got running at pell-mell.
Does sticking your fingers in your ears warm them up? Rotisserie-chicken style? I pass up the opportunity, instead slam them home into my parka’s pockets.
“Pete.” I didn’t even hear the door open behind me, Alexander ‘Priss’ Risprisbur’s face sticking out from the darkness. “What’re you doing, man? Get in here.”
I’m way cold all of a sudden, popping back into the restaurant. That cold when you’re expecting a car to be warm and it isn’t so you’re colder than you were outside. The lights are definitely brighter now and Amber’s definitely sitting over in that corner booth, albeit hugging the wall, hair draped over an eye.
“We saw you come in and then like you just turned and walked out.”
I walk behind Priss, shadowing his steps.
“Amber suggested you might’ve been blinded by the lights.”
Amber perks up at her name, definitely humming, and gets this horrified look on her face.
“What is that?”
Priss looks, I look.
That—my right hand is coated in black, this ooze black. I flip my hand over, muttering a handful of expletives. My palm is uncoated, just the backside.
“I don’t think I—”
I pull the broken pen out of my pocket.
Now my palm has ink on it.
There are certain situations you just have to roll your head back and sigh at; when vitriol is useless. I do so.
Both of them haven’t been, do the daisy-head look around, and I find it myself, just past the fluoro-maw.
The bathroom’s as bright as the wrong kind of day and the mirror above the sink is that borderless square of glass they provide in old libraries, gas stations, and other joints where everyone is the nobody-particularly-interested-in-looking-at-themselves-today self. The ink sticks, glossy and still dry’ish. So much that I’m up on the edge of the sink with a boot on its lip, the sink, going at it with one hand and two fingers.
Priss comes in.
“Amber told me she’s in love with you.”
Somebody farts in the stall and the ink mopes down my hand, mixing only slightly with the water.
I try to make out whose feet are under the stall but it’s the second one so my angle, boot still on the sink’s lip, is like perfectly wrong. Another one of those moments where the expletive is useless, so the sigh.
“I don’t know when she turned on this whole Alex-you’re-my-priest-and-gay-friend, but she’s been practically melting onto the table since we got here.”
I can sort-of see the bottom of a definitely black boot.
“And she says that she thinks you are the sweetest and so smart and she’s pretty much gunning for me to like her so I can make sure you are in-the-right way into her and what not.”
“Yeah, you’re not, je sais, but she’s been dropping all these comparisons to some New York ex who had like way less commitment issues and was less and worse and-”
The jungle roar of the toilet flushing. The stall door swings open. Of course: the stiff fart, black boots—Officer Telpère, accent grave for serious, the North African who’d had my number since he’d caught me bus-hopping fourteen’ish times in a day.
He’s got some very NA-French look on his face. It reads: consequences.
“I mean, I don’t really know what to even begin to tell her, man. She’s been begging me to talk to you; track your emotion is how she’s putting it. Sounds sort of new-agey to me, don’t know how you feel about new agey but—”
Priss has his back to Telpère, and he stops talking when Telpère’s big mitt is on his shoulder. Priss turns, noble-like for a man who’s just been shoulder-grabbed by a man who audibly passed gas and then has not audibly commenced the post-stall washing of said hands, to face Telpère.
“You can tell her the nothing…” he’s got this rapturous throat-swelling English, Telpère does, wherein he tries to set his mouth even lower on his face than it already is, “…for your friend and his ink-stain comes for some talk. Some conversation at the station.”
We’ve tried to have this conversation at the station enough times. I hit the door at slightly lower than full-speed, past an Amber who has definitely been staring at the door with the same half-cocked smile waiting to full-cock and who scrambles admirably but can’t say much more than oh before I’m out the door and into the god-Fuck-its cold once more.
Hiding in shadows has never really been my thing. I mean, I’ve tucked into trees before, or rather, behind trees, but usually in the daylight and usually for something summer-camp related. It’s very different trying to flatten the body into a corner comprised of nothing but the absence of something else, like light.
But here I am. In a corner, shoulder braced against a building. I can see Plaisante’s door, see Telpère come out, hands on his hips. I didn’t see his squad car before, down the street, lights off. He’s a huge guy with a stiff walk. Pretty much the only of Besançon’s policemen willing to deal with my pauvre French-English sputterings, explain that one must obliterate all of your bus tickets because that’s how they know you’ve paid and all that.
Telpére’s got two daughters. I saw them on his desk, pictures anyway. They had red hair, not from him.
Three folks skirt by my hidey-spot, scarves up to their eyes. They’re talking about the situation up Gerard, that’s all I can tell. Telpére’s headed back to his car, peels back, lights on, heads up the street at a crawl. I tuck back as far as I can, but he turns up the street, past Music Mogul.
I’m not ready to go back in. I figure I can douse the hunger in other ways. I walk down the river, hood up, feeling at my tooth. Too much sugar, maybe. French honey is so much damn much gooder than its American cousin. However, it also leaves a much less gooder ache between my back molars.
The river’s shored up against these big old rock walls, runs right around centre ville, moat-style. It’s got a flat glassy reflection, except for some duck-v’s scooting around closer to the bridge, looking for crumbs.
I’ll walk it off. I’m sure stuff’ll have settled down in an hour’ish. Amber will be a bit of a nuisance, nothing new and nothing altogether unfixable. She’s cute enough, but so negative. All the time.
I run my hand along the wall, feeling at the bumps, the moss. The ink on my hand looks like a bog-monster or something, some deformity – stuff that back into my pocket. The ink in there has hardened into a little crust on the fabric of my pocket. I clench my hands.
C’mon. Not my night.
“Not your night, eh Pete?” Priss jogs up next to me, toothy grin on his face.
“Back at the place. I told’er I was gonna go look for you.”
I scratch at my face with the non-ink hand.
“Can smell you from the Mogul.”
I have to turn to look at him, my hood blocking my peripheral vision.
“Here,” he holds up a slice of pizza, “Amber took the rest home but.”
“Is this your slice, Priss?”
“Nope, had my fill. Here.”
I take it and we cross the bridge, the pizza warm on my hands. Priss suggests Macelroys for a beer, and we make our way there, mutual feet sloshing in the growing puddles our only conversation.
The pub is remarkably quiet for a Thursday; we find a corner booth, slide in, order some full-pints from the stringy haired waiter-type guy.
Priss sniffs at his beer, looks at me over the glass.
“What’s wrong with your beer?” I settle into a gulp, the stuff is cold then warm. I pull back my hood.
Priss laughs, staring at my forehead.
“Guilty as charged,” he says, puts a thumb up to his mouth, thinks twice, dips it in his beer, and reaches over. He scrubs at my temple, the finger all wet. A little bit of beer hangs in my eyebrow.
“Nope, not coming off. Though I wouldn’t go to the bathroom here,” he glances around, mock-surveying, “apparently, they’re hiding cops in stalls these days.”
I’m looking at his neck, at a long strand of black coming out past his collar.
“What, is it ink?”
He looks back at me, winks.
“Yeah, brother. The black smear is upon you.” He laughs, Priss has a good laugh, not practiced, like mine.
“So,” he leans across the table, “the Amber.”
I take another long gulp, close an eye, measure our relative beer levels.
“She doesn’t love me, man. She’s just lonely out here. She and her boyfriend broke up what, ten, twelve hours ago?”
The door swings open: Amber, soaked, hair in rivulets down her face. She’s hardly wearing appropriate rain-gear, just a long sleeve shirt and some pants.
Priss and I stand up, move toward her. The girl is shivering, big old wild-eyed shivers. She sees us and runs over, throws a hug around Priss, staring at me. Man, huge eyes, windows.
Priss is just sort-of thump-caressing her back, and I stare at her, stringy-haired waiter stopped mid-glass-polish. I’ve never been much of a comfort to those in need so I keep my mouth shut and wait for her to say something.
We stand like that for awhile, until Amber’s breathing is a bit slower. Priss gets her to sit down, pulls a chair from another table over for himself. The waiter comes over with a large towel and offers it to Priss who offers it to Amber. I try to remember what the word for towel is and draw a blank, opting instead for more silence, and a nod at the guy, who just keeps staring at Amber like he’s seeing something he’s seen before.
“There were police everywhere,” she starts, “there were police in the streets, all through the apartment complex. I got up to our floor; they had 330 all cordoned off but the door was open and I could see the floor in the room was coated, I could see, just coated in black ink. I couldn’t see anything beyond that, some people in the streets were talking on my way up about biting dogs or vicious dogs but I hadn’t been paying attention and I’d just gone right in and the police hadn’t stopped me but I went into our apartment, and that big cop from the pizza place was like there, up on our table, and all of our stuff was everywhere, so I shouted and Pete, I’m sorry, the pizza…” she dazes off weird-like, looking at me there, and I shake my head in a doesn’t-matter-keep-going and she holds out her arm and what I thought was one shirt is actually two, but one sleeve’s been ripped off.
“I ran and he grabbed me and it ripped right off,” she says, “and he’s an animal, I could see it there, his eyes were wild. He’s the dog, he’s a vicious dog.” She drops into a sob, but then she looks up at me, across the table.
Priss offers her some of his beer.
“I’ve gotta take a piss real quick. Be right back.” Priss looks up at me as I walk past him. I ask the bar-back, an older lady, la toilette? and she points at a stone spiral staircase in the back corner of the room. I knew that, I’m thinking, but I’m real nervous, hands are cold. Making a fool out of myself.
I almost fall down the stairs, catch my breath at the sink. Macelroy’s has got a nice big mirror in which to scrub at the ink fingerprints on my forehead. Priss knows, and I keep scrubbing. He knows about Telpère. My forehead pinks up underneath the ink, but the stuff is not going away.
I splash some water on my hands and face. I’m lookin’ pretty ragged, that pub bathroom lighting isn’t good for the hollow cheeks. Something smells in here too, mildew. Snots in my nose though. I stand in front of the urinal, unzip.
“Couldn’t help it.” Priss stands, shoulder on the doorjam. “It’s been a month, Pete.”
I let my chin drop to my chest – gotta start drinking more water, piss is like greening up.
Priss approaches me, hand on the sink. Scratches at his neck.
“Dude, c’mon, I can’t—”
I hold up my free hand, finish pissing. Sniff again— it isn’t mildew.
I turn and knock on the stall once, zip up my pants. Knock again.
“Ouvre la porte.”
Silence. I give the door a solid kick, no lock. The waiter is up on the john, standing, pants definitely not in any position to be relieving any sort of internal build-ups – he’s even still buckled, which I finish doing while giving him the international get-the-fuck-out thumb. Dude is scared.
Priss continues once the waiter is back upstairs.
“The guy never came out of his room. I saw him once, maybe, taking out some soy sauce bottles. Middle-age guy, big belly. You ever see him?”
I shake my head.
“So I figure,” Priss has this face he gets, and always has gotten, whenever he’s done something that he’s rationalized to himself but knows is going to be tough to rationalize verbally, “we’ve waited for a month. If the shit’s going to settle—”
“Priss.” I scratch at my jaw. “What’s with the ink?”
“That’s the thing,” he says, “dude’s got like hundreds of posters all over the wall. Big old black pictures of the transform. Plus buckets and buckets of ink. And he was waiting, Pete. Soon as I saw that stuff, I was headed out but he was waiting, sure as shit. Had a big old sword too. Samurai sword.
Priss is holding his hands out, body length.
“A hermit samurai?”
Priss chuckles at that. “Yeah,” he rubs at his chest, “funny, now. But the thing with the ink – by the time I got him off me I was coated.” He flashes his shirt down, the black ink coating what I can see of his chest, “The stuff was like gum in my fur. Didn’t come off in transform.”
“Pete, the guy was set up for a siege or something. I mean, food in bulk, water in bulk. Mounds of…”
“… I mean he was just waiting for us. I don’t—”
“Priss, shut up for a second. I’m trying to think, man.”
He lapses into silence, rubs his chest.
“What’d you say the guy looked like?”
“Big belly. Middle aged. Covered in ink.”
“He laid me out even in form.”
I wonder about relations for a moment. I think about our upstanding Telpère, about the photos on his desk.
Feels like were playing Guess Who. Is your samurai-slasher Maria? No, he had no hat, dummy.
My stomach grumbles. It has been awhile.
Amber screams upstairs.
We sprint up the stairs and she’s backed into a booth, good ole stalwart Telpère sure enough, samurai sword in hand, is just dripping in Macelroy’s front door. The old-lady bar-back’s behind him and left of center, our mildewed ex-waiter has got some sort of blade in his hand.
“Wolf boys!” Telpère’s got that consequence look on his face again.
They’re definitely blocking the door and the only theoretical other way out I can muck up is back down the bathroom, transform into sludge, flush-self, and rediscover human form in the Doubs, swim to the street and get the hell out of town.
But I can’t do any of that, so Telpère looks very big in the doorway.
Priss boldly stands in front of me. Not sure what he means to do by that but Telpère repeats himself, re-emphasizing the plural, re-emphasizing the wolf as well.
“You’ve got kids, man.” That’s all I can really say. “Go.”
A shooing motion feels a bit pathetic towards a guy with a samurai sword.
He advances slowly into the room, the restaurant staff shadowing him.
“I have a brother also, wolf-boys.”
Translation: had. A big bald brother, likely. Covered in ink. I shouldn’t glance at Amber, she’d probably have something snotty to say about lying to her all this time. Plus it’s one more pair of window-eyes I’d have to ignore.
He knows. “I know.”
He’s already half-way through his transform and I look at Amber, feel my jaws widening, my clothes begin parting at the seams. She’s shaking her head and I nod and keep nodding, like sorry baby, best way to tell you it can’t be is show you it can’t be.
At the crunch of impact, I whip around – Priss is dragging the waiter through the table-wear, the guy screeching, and in so many ways it feels good to howl right in the face of an oncoming swordsman.
He’s big, Telpère. Big throat, big hamstring, neck like a hunk of lamb. I’m around him and on his back, take a rending bite from his shoulder. Bar-back had a knife too, though – she plants it in my leg. I send her scattering back across our table, hoping she lands on some glass, keep her down for a bit.
Telpère drops his sword – sword, silly thing to be using in this day and age – and he’s definitely groping for a gun but that blood smell has got me moving and the waiter is for sure down, judging by the crunching and the spatter and Amber’s screaming, so I don’t wait for the big man to get it unholstered.
He’s only got one hand to block my lunge and he knows he made a mistake, using the sword first, some sort-of French heroics, and I flatten him against the bar and our weight takes us from there to the ground in a roll that dazes him and for a second looking down at him, and he up at me, I see the whole big thing – his eyes, his daughters on his desk, with their red hair and the sword, his brother and then the girl, no woman, a month ago and how her hood had stayed on her head even after we’d finished but that in the moonlight in retrospect I could imagine they’d had similar noses, her and the girls, and mouths and maybe hair.
Rules, though. No survivors.
We step out of Macelroy’s, Priss and me, and splash into the puddles outside. This sky-drool keeps most folks inside; it should keep us in, too. Unfortunately, we’ve gotta move, again. I lead us up the road, headed east out of town, club-limbed trees hanging over us. Priss pulls his shirt closed, tries to anyway, hide the ink.
“I did Amber for you.”
My stomach growls, didn’t even get a chance to eat.
“I did Amber fo—”
“I know. Thank you, Priss.”
“I knew you wouldn’t want to.”
He’s trying too hard to be perky. He’ll probably a—
“So where too?”
I pull the hood tighter, point up the road into the grey with an ink-stained finger.
“Probably Morocco or something.”
“Chance we could stop for some grub before?”