Jimmy Delaney saw kids every day, but there was something about this particular one that bugged the hell out of him. The kid looked short for his age, fragile, and you could see his pink skull through his greasy yellow hair. It was a delicate skull, flimsy, the kind of skull that might crack in half if you stared at it too hard. His nose was always running, his dull eyes rheumy and wanting.
Why did he bug Jimmy? Maybe it was the way the kid would peek over at him, give him that pathetic hangdog look and then turn away. It was a look that said, I see you when the others don’t, and I feel sorry for you, but I’ll never be you.
The little shit, Jimmy thought. The little turd. Every day, except for weekends and holidays, the kid shuffled down Wabansia Avenue with his other snot-nosed friends, and every day Jimmy wanted to reach out from his place under the shrubs, collar the little sissy, and ask him why the hell he thought he was so special. The kid couldn’t have been more than eight or nine. Ten, tops. He didn’t have the right to give Jimmy a look, any look, sorry or otherwise, and that’s what got under his skin. The kid should have just ignored him, like all the others.
Jimmy knew it was the junk talking to him; it was the needle in his arm, the swirl of blood; it was the hunger and hallucinations. Lately, he saw animals in the shrubs, lemurs and boa constrictors staring back at him. This was Chicago’s West Side, and Jimmy knew that these animals probably weren’t there, but still they came to him as he lay on the freezing cold dirt. He had no choice but to sweat the evil bastards out.
“Hey. You holding?”
Jimmy looked up. It was Raoul. Unlike most people, who weren’t even aware that a man was living between two shrubs, Raoul knew exactly where to find him.
“No,” Jimmy said. “Nope.”
Jimmy smiled. He shook his head. Nope. He was lying, of course. He was feeling the first bang right now; he was getting a kick. Raoul was a junkie, too, but he was a lowlife, a moocher, too lazy or stupid to panhandle. He was a stool pigeon and a fag. The fag part didn’t bother Jimmy—a person did what they needed to do—but being a stool pigeon was another story. Stool pigeons ended up gut-stabbed. Jimmy’d seen it before—blood pouring from a wound, trailing down the curb and into the street’s drain.
“Well,” Raoul said, “you look like shit. You look like shit on a grill.” He smiled. “You look like shit on a stick on a grill.”
“How about if I kill you?”
Jimmy should have. He’d fought in the Battle of Normandy. A bullet was still lodged in his shoulder. He used to tell girls that if they thumped the scar tissue hard enough, if they flicked it with their finger, they’d feel the bullet. If they put their ear close enough, they might even hear it, too. Kill Raoul? What the fuck did he care? He’d killed a German in the war. He would kill Raoul, too, and not think twice.
But that was that. Raoul was gone. How long had he been gone? An hour? A week? Jimmy wasn’t sure. He knew it was a weekday because kids had walked to school that morning. The rheumy-eyed kid had looked at him, as he always did. He carried a lunch box in one hand, a book bag in the other. He had offered a fleeting, tight-lipped smile and then turned away.
* * * *
A man with his sleeves rolled up crouched in front of Jimmy, gave him a dollar bill and a cigarette, and introduced himself as Algren. He wore glasses and had a receding hairline, but the hair he still had was thick. He appeared to have no upper lip, just a fat bottom one. He lit Jimmy’s cigarette for him then lit one for himself.
“So tell me, friend, what’s your story? What’re you doin’ out here? You live in those goddamned bushes or what?” Algren took a long drag from his cigarette and said, “Wanna cup of coffee? You take it black?”
“Sugar,” Jimmy said. “No cream.”
And so the routine began: Algren brought coffee, Jimmy listened to what Algren had to say. Jimmy always waited until Algren was gone before reaching into his paper sack and pulling out a syrette filled with morphine. The syrette looked like a small toothpaste tube except that it had a needle where the cap would have gone: puncture the seal with a small needle, pinch your skin, insert hypo at an angle, and squeeze the tube. This was the same shit the medics used on Jimmy when the Germans shot him on D-day. Now they sold it on the streets of Chicago—one buck each if the supply was good, two bucks if the city was dry.
The next time Algren showed up, he was in a good mood. Jimmy had heard leaves rustling before he saw Algren’s shoe parting the shrubs that hid him.
“Hey there, buddy. Brought you a cup of joe. Lotta sugar, the way you like it.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a dollar bill. “Go on,” he said. “Take it.” And then Algren told Jimmy about how during the Depression he’d hitchhiked around the country and ended up in New Orleans, how in the French Market men who made soup would decapitate turtles right there in front of you, how the whores were so desperate you could sleep with them for a pork sandwich, how he’d gone broke as a door-to-door salesman and ended up in Texas, how there was a time in his life when all he lived on were bananas because bananas were all he could get his hands on, how Chicago was his home and would always be his home, how he wrote books that nobody read but what the fuck were you going to do about it, how he couldn’t help believing that it was better to write something worthwhile than to write the sort of crap that so many other fakers and sellouts wrote. Algren shook his head. “It’s been a long road, pal. You could say I’ve been to hell and back,” he said, “and let me tell you, it ain’t pretty.”
Before Jimmy could tell him about his own life, Algren was gone. One of these days Jimmy would have to tell him about his years before the war, when he worked on a Mississippi tugboat that pulled a barge. It was a small operation, usually just Jimmy and Red. The barge was full of trash. It was nearly impossible to have a good opinion about people after spending the day among their stinking, rotting refuse. People were disgusting—and wasteful. Red skippered the tugboat when he wasn’t blind drunk, and he told Jimmy, in detail that left nothing to the imagination, about all the women he’d ever laid. He was eighty-three years old, and the litany of women who’d had the pleasure of Red’s services went all the way back to 1875, starting with this squirt of an Irish gal named Ruth.
“Good Lord,” Red had said. “We were together for only one night. Hard to believe. One night! She was only two years older than me, but she taught me damned near everything I know today, son. That’s a fact.” He then proceeded to describe all that they had done, every nuance of the night, up to and including the moment Ruth gathered her shabby clothes and left his cold, bare room. Listening to Red was like sitting at the feet of Scheherazade: 1,001 one-night stands, one story after the other discarded, disappearing into the tugboat’s frothy wake.
When Red died, he was cremated in St. Louis. Jimmy watched from the tugboat as Red’s boss, Mr. Gardetta, dumped the ashes from a box no bigger than a milk jug. When Mr. Gardetta finished, he tossed the box onto the barge’s steaming heap of trash, clapped ashes from his hands, and said, “That’s that, I guess.”
* * * *
In February, it was colder than shit. As soon as his piss hit the ground it turned to crystal. Not right, Jimmy thought. He discovered a city library, one of the smaller branches that people sometimes forgot about. Junkies spent days like these searching for warmth, a soft glow somewhere, a swatch of heat. They sought out foyers, city buses, the subway platforms downtown.
In the library restroom, Jimmy doused his face with warm water and wiped himself off with stiff paper towels. The library could support one bum, two at most, but only as long as he kept quiet and, at the very least, pretended to read. It was a public building, after all. They couldn’t very well deny someone, even a bum, the right to read, could they? And so Jimmy would get himself the newspaper or a book plucked at random and he would stare at the words until all the letters turned to fuzz and then blotched together. On days when he fell asleep, a security guard would nudge him awake with a nightstick and then prod him outside, back into the cold and the dusk’s blue light. It wouldn’t have been so cold if not for the wind off the lake. The lake made the city arctic, almost uninhabitable. The fucking water, Jimmy thought. Always the fucking water.
Algren came to Jimmy almost daily now. “I was born in Michigan,” he said one day, “but Chicago’s my home. Chicago’s full of real people, like you. You were in the war, right? And now look at you. I’m sure you weren’t born with a silver spoon in your mouth like some of these assholes I meet, were you? Of course not. Here,” Algren said and handed over a dollar bill.
It was true, what Algren said. Jimmy’s mother stayed at home, raising Jimmy and his seven brothers and sisters. Jimmy’s father was a high school teacher. He taught Greek and Roman mythology to elementary students. As a child, Jimmy was often lulled to sleep by tales of Pandora, Atlas, or Hercules. Jimmy’s favorite story, however, was that of Charon, who silently ferried the dead past Cerebus and into the river Styx. “Corpses would be buried with a coin under their tongue to pay Charon,” his father told him. “So don’t go putting any money in your mouth until you know it’s your time.”
One morning, Jimmy’s father woke up thinking he was Tiresias, the blind soothsayer of many legends. “I just saw Athena bathing!” he exclaimed to all eight children, and when Jimmy’s mother walked into the room, his father tried gouging out his own eyes. According to a doctor, his father had managed only to scratch his corneas with his fingernails. After four hospital orderlies fastened him to a bed with leather restraints and administered a tranquilizer, the doctor sealed up his eyes. “The eye heals fast,” the doctor explained, “but every time you blink, you wipe away the progress.” Jimmy’s father remained at the Catholic hospital for another a week before being transferred to the state psychiatric hospital, from which he never emerged. Two years later, he died.
“You and me,” Algren said, walking backwards. “We’re probably a lot alike.” He winked at Jimmy, then turned to face the direction he was headed, whistling as he left.
* * * *
In the library, Jimmy thought he could smell the trash from the barge, that rotting meat-and-fruit stink that wouldn’t leave your nose for days, but the barge had been years ago, before the war. Strolling the aisles, Jimmy saw two books on the shelf with the name Algren on their spines. He brought them to his table. Too eagerly? he wondered. The guard, seemingly unable to stop smoothing down his shirtsleeves, kept a close eye on him. Jimmy could see the question in the guard’s eyes: Why two books? Taking two books was a deviation for Jimmy. When the guard wasn’t looking, Jimmy carried them into the restroom and tucked them under his shirt. He’d heard of junkies who stole used books at one store and then took them to another, selling them for enough cash to score some weed or Benzedrine or yellow jackets, but you couldn’t sell a library book, with its PROPERTY OF stamp and tidy pocket glued inside.
Library books were good only for reading.
Back under the shrubs, Jimmy thumbed through one of Algren’s books but couldn’t concentrate. His arms itched. He clawed and clawed them. Lemurs and boa constrictors stared at him. The world was rotting—a spinning ball of putrid decay. Then Algren showed up with a woman—solid, matronly, older—maybe even older than Algren. She was the sort of woman people called handsome.
“Simone,” he said, “I want you to meet my friend . . .” He stared hard at Jimmy, as if a name might materialize.
“Jimmy,” Jimmy finally said.
Algren nodded, then completed the introduction. “Jimmy? Simone.”
Algren, Jimmy noticed, was paying closer attention to Simone than to him. He watched everything she did, the way she brushed hair from her eyes, the way she squinted one of her eyes when she said to Jimmy in a thick French accent, “Please to meet you.” She leaned forward and shook Jimmy’s hand.
“Her English,” Algren said, laughing. “It needs a little work, don’t you think? I hung up on her three times when she first called me. Wasn’t sure what the hell she was jabbering about. Thought it was a wrong number, for chrissake.”
Algren gave Jimmy a five-dollar bill and a fresh pack of cigarettes before heading down the street, leading Simone with his palm flush against her spine. It was starting to snow. Jimmy opened his mouth and let it fall onto his tongue. The French woman’s perfume helped mask the unrelenting stink of the barge. When a group of boys walked past the shrubs, Jimmy reached out for the pink-skulled boy’s ankle but wasn’t fast enough. The boy saw what Jimmy was trying to do and almost fell down trying to get away. Jimmy laughed. “Sissy!” he called out.
“Who’re you calling a sissy?” It was Raoul, coming from the other direction. “So what if I am!” he said. He sashayed his hips and puckered his lips, lips Jimmy wanted to smash. “Still mad?” Raoul asked. “Still mad at the sissy? Well, you won’t be when you see what I’ve got for you.” He tossed Jimmy a bag. Inside were syrettes, except these weren’t Army issue; they looked homemade. “Don’t look at me like that, Jimmy. It’s new stuff. Better stuff.”
“What do you want me to do for it?” Jimmy asked.
“When’d you get so generous?”
“Questions, questions.” Raoul tsk-tsked. “If you don’t want it . . .”
Jimmy, clutching the bag, leaned back deeper into the shrubs. “I didn’t say that,” he whispered.
* * * *
It was D-day again and Jimmy was a paratrooper getting ready for battle, one of the one hundred fifty thousand men sent to drive the Germans out of France. General Eisenhower even came down in person to speak to the 101st Airborne. Jimmy was close enough to smell his breath, too, but for all of his swagger and finger-pointing, there was still fear in the man’s eyes. The weather wasn’t good that day, for starters. Too much rain. Too much wind. Eisenhower knew; the paratroopers knew. But maybe what Jimmy saw was merely a reflection of his own fears; maybe you always saw in your leaders’ eyes your own doubts, your own second-guesses.
Hours later, when Jimmy jumped from his plane, he was so far off his mark he had no idea where he was going to land. Half his gear had come off in midair. Some of the men were shot on their way down: fresh corpses still subject to gravity even as their souls rose. Below Jimmy was what looked like a dead man floating belly-down, his chute open like an absurdly large umbrella, but when Jimmy landed in the water next to him, he saw that it was actually one of the rubber dummies from Operation Titanic that had been dropped earlier that morning to divert the Germans.
But why had he, Jimmy, been dropped near a dummy paratrooper? And why was he landing in water? He remembered Eisenhower’s eyes: the general must have known he was looking at dead men.
Spring in Chicago: snow, hard-packed and filthy, still clung to the sidewalk. On a day when it looked as though it might start snowing again, Algren returned. He arrived with an extra cup of coffee and a pack of smokes. “Here ya go,” he said.
“Where’ve you been?” Jimmy asked. He didn’t mean for his question to sound so desperate, but the sight of Algren made him realize how much he’d missed him.
“Back from New York,” Algren said. He shook his head. “Women. Jesus Christ. They’ll pull your heart out with their bare hands and then eat it right there in front of you.” He lit two cigarettes, then handed one to Jimmy. “Remember Simone? Just spent sixteen days with her. Happiest sixteen days of my miserable life. But she’s killing me, Jimmy, I swear to Christ. I love that woman. I love that woman so much I feel it in my blood. Ever feel that way? The cabbie thought I was her husband, so that’s what she calls me now. Her husband. But she won’t leave this guy she’s with in France. Maybe you’ve heard of him. Sartre? Maybe not. Why would you? An existentialist, whatever the holy hell that is. I bet you could teach that bug-eyed motherfucker a thing or two about existentialism. You and me both.” Algren squinted toward a part of the ground Jimmy had hollowed out; this was where he stowed Algren’s books. “Hey, hey,” Algren said. “Where’d you get those?”
“Sonovabitch,” he said and laughed. He crouched and said, “Listen. That kid. You know the one.”
Jimmy nodded. He knew. The little snot-nosed bastard.
“Just keep your eye on him,” Algren said.
“Okay. I’ll watch him.”
“Watch who?” It was Raoul. “Talking to yourself again?”
“I’m talking to my friend,” Jimmy said. He motioned toward Algren, but Algren wasn’t there.
“I’m surprised you’re still alive,” Raoul said. He tossed Jimmy another bag of the new shit. “For the war hero.”
“How do you know what I did in the war?”
“You traded me your Purple Heart for a pack of smack. Remember? Last year?” When Jimmy didn’t say anything, Raoul shook his head. “Poor Jimmy. Brain like a sieve.”
Brain like a sieve. Fucking Raoul. Raoul was a mosquito, blood-fat but thin-skinned. An irritant. Slap him and he’d explode. One day Jimmy would reach out while Raoul was talking, sink his fingers into Raoul’s eyes, and try digging into the man’s brain. What did Raoul know about the infinite ways there were to die? In the English Channel, off the coast of Normandy, floating next to a paradummy, Jimmy was certain he was going to die but wasn’t sure how. He might drown or he might get shot.
Later, his buddy Melson told him about what had happened on Omaha Beach, how they unloaded from the landing craft too soon and men started drowning, and how the soldiers who didn’t drown were sitting ducks for the Germans up on the mountain. While Melson struggled to make it to shore, he saw Rickie Lipton’s head explode: “One minute Rickie was looking at me, this look like, Oh shit, this isn’t how it’s supposed to happen, and then, I don’t know, a second or two later some Kraut blew his head off.”
Omaha Beach was bad news, but the paratroopers didn’t have it much easier. The ones who weren’t shot while still in the air were surrounded by Germans the second their feet touched ground, and the ones who weren’t surrounded landed so far off their destination that their mission became a moot point.
Later that day—or maybe later that week—Algren showed Jimmy a letter. “Look at this,” he said. “She writes, ‘My Beloved Husband.’ What did I tell you? She’s killing me, buddy. She’s killing me. I won’t see her again until September. I’m a weak man, Jimmy.” He wagged his head.
Jimmy knew what Algren was going through. He knew a thing or two about love. Before getting shot, before killing the German, before D-day, there had been Martha. They’d had a son together. Everyone thought the boy looked like her: same eyes, same hair, same teeth. Later, Jimmy learned that Martha had already begun seeing her future husband, that she was probably with him on D-day, that he may even have been in bed with her, raking his nails down her back the way she liked, while Jimmy floated in the ice-cold Channel, a godforsaken wind blowing him farther from a shore he needed to reach but didn’t want to step foot on for fear of getting shot.
Everyone had told Jimmy not to think about it, and for a long time he didn’t, but lately he couldn’t help it. It wasn’t Martha he thought about or, for that matter, the bastard she was with, her new husband—the banker. It was his own boy—Mark Delaney. Markie, she and Jimmy had called him. Yeah, Jimmy could tell Algren a thing or two about getting your heart ripped out.
Jimmy finally read a chapter from one of Algren’s books. It was okay, nothing great. It was no Aeschylus. It was no Aristophanes. The books were getting mildewed and starting to reek. Jimmy’s attention span was short. Sometimes all he could read was a sentence or two before he wanted to claw off his own skin and then crawl howling down Wabansia Avenue. The junk running through his veins didn’t feel right; he wasn’t even sure it was junk. But he wanted more of it.
“You want more of it?” Raoul asked.
“Are you reading my mind?”
Raoul smiled. “You’re talking out loud, friend. I’ve been here for an hour, listening to you.” He pretended to look somber, but Jimmy knew it was an act. Raoul said, “I’m sorry about your boy. Markie. Tough break.”
“Quiet,” Jimmy said. “I mean it.”
“If he looks anything like you, I bet he’s a real cutie.”
“Keep talking and I’ll kill you.”
“Kill me?” Raoul laughed. “I’m the one who’s doing the killing around here.” He tossed Jimmy another bag. “You must have the heart of a thousand men, Jimmy. I’ll give you that much.”
After Raoul left, Jimmy pierced the syrette, pinched out some of the junk, and sniffed it. What the hell was it? And where was Raoul getting it? Jimmy quickly squeezed the rest of it into his mouth, afraid some of it might drip on the ground. Wasteful, Jimmy thought. And there was no need for that.
* * * *
D-day: The man sitting next to Jimmy on the troop carrier C-47 leaned forward and vomited all over Jimmy’s boots. “Nice,” Jimmy said. Jimmy looked away and took a deep breath. He was hyperconscious that the things he thought about during this flight over the Channel could very well be his final thoughts; it was entirely possible that by day’s end he would be dead.
He had always imagined that a person would naturally start thinking about God and the afterlife in such moments, but Jimmy couldn’t concentrate on a single idea. He thought about the time Red, using a bamboo pole, fished a used condom from the mound of trash on the barge and said, “Oh, the tales this little fella could tell!” and then flung the wilted rubber into the Mississippi. He thought about the time Dr. Dettlofson swabbed Jimmy’s arm with alcohol and then inserted the needle. Jimmy didn’t flinch or cry. He was four years old and couldn’t take his eyes off the needle in his arm, at the blood swirling into the syringe. He wondered if Hitler’s mother would have suffocated her own child if she knew what horrors lay ahead. Could she have? He wondered how many babies lying in their cribs this very second should probably be sacrificed for the good of mankind. He wondered why the guy next to him had to vomit on his boots and not the boots of the guy on his other side.
Lately, Jimmy’d become aware that there were points in a person’s life that caused everything after to shift. Sometimes the shift created a positive ripple, but most of the time it was negative. What, he wondered, was the first major dividing point of his life? Was it the day he took the half-dead mouse out of its trap, carried it into the backyard, and choked it with a pair of pliers? Was it the day his sister, Lenora, and her friend, Betty, called him into the bathroom and made him take off all of his clothes so that they could look him over? Lenora had said to Betty, “See? I told you,” and then the two girls silently left the room. Maybe it was the night a group of grammar school boys performed short scenes from classic Greek drama. For his contribution, Jimmy had played Oedipus. He was ten years old and understood only a fraction of what he was saying, but he was good at memorizing lines. His parents had sat in the front row, and each time Jimmy looked down at them he saw his father tapping a tooth with one of his fingernails. He’d never seen his father do that before and didn’t know what it meant.
Jimmy performed the scene in which Oedipus learns from the herdsman that he had been adopted. In this truncated version of the play, Jimmy ended his scene by pretending to gouge out his eyes. For days afterward, Jimmy’s father wouldn’t look at his son, but he kept repeating the herdsman’s answer to Oedipus’ question about what it was he did. “The best part of my life I tended sheep,” his father would say at unexpected moments, as if Oedipus himself had just whispered into his ear. Jimmy never responded, but each time his father spoke the line from the play, Jimmy silently asked the follow-up: What were the pastures thou didst most frequent?
What fucking pastures indeed, Jimmy thought now, vomit on his boots. Jimmy’s father, after losing everything in the Depression, tried holding on as best he could, which turned out to be not very well. He had lost his inheritance, of course, but he had also lost Jimmy’s mother’s inheritance. Six months after the night his father had sat in the audience tapping his tooth with his fingernail, he announced to his children that he had just seen Athena bathing, and when his mother walked into the room, he tried gouging out his own eyes. Two years later, he was dead.
The best part of my life I tended sheep, Jimmy thought. And then he jumped from the carrier.
* * * *
Time: what does it mean to a junkie?
There were days when time seemed not to move at all, when watching someone walk down a street took what felt like the better part of an afternoon, and then there were times when a month would slip past, or an entire season, with Jimmy barely noticing.
Jimmy knew who Sartre was. He knew a little something about existentialism, too. He wasn’t an idiot. But he didn’t believe for a second that the woman Algren was seeing was also seeing Sartre. Surely Algren didn’t believe this malarkey. But maybe it was Algren who was messing with him. Maybe it was some sort of sinister game: fuck with the junkie.
Jimmy wasn’t even sure what season it was when Algren and Simone showed up one morning, hand in hand. No coffee, no dollar bill—just the two of them, as if their love alone was enough to sustain Jimmy and keep his heart beating through the long days ahead.
“You remember Simone, don’tcha?” Algren tipped his head toward her and grinned. He seemed almost shy around her.
“Tell him our plans,” Simone said.
“Our plans? What plans?” He squinted into the air between himself and Jimmy. “Oh—oh, those plans. Well, Simone here, she’s coming back next year for a longer visit, and so we’re going to take her on a trip down the Mississippi, just like Huck Finn, only not on a goddamned raft. She’s used to cocktail parties and socialites and all those places they wouldn’t even let you and me into, Jimmy.” He rolled his eyes for Jimmy’s benefit. “Well, I’m going to show her the real America. She hasn’t been to Mississippi. She hasn’t seen New Orleans.”
“And then,” Simone said, “we go to Mexico!”
“That’s right,” Algren said with less enthusiasm. “Mexico.”
“My father,” Jimmy said, “thought he was Tiresias.”
Algren cut his eyes toward Simone, then back to Jimmy. “Tiresias, huh?” Simone tugged Algren’s arm and Algren added, “Well . . . we’d better go, pal. Time is at a premium when Simone’s in town.”
“Au revoir,” Simone said. She kissed two fingers and then waved at him. She made a point of looking into Jimmy’s eyes before turning away.
Why did Jimmy feel compelled to tell them about his father? The words just popped out of his mouth before he could stop himself. It wasn’t any big deal, he supposed, but it had left them with the wrong impression. And he felt like a fool. Stupid, he thought. How unbelievably stupid!
Jimmy pulled himself out from under the shrubs. Days like these, he felt as though he’d never walked before, each step uneasy, his balance questionable. He weaved down Wabansia, stumbling like a rabid animal. He walked this way for two miles, until he reached the brownstone. He climbed the steps and knocked. When no one answered, he knocked harder. When the door opened at last, a boy stood looking out at him.
“Markie?” Jimmy asked.
The boy nodded.
Jimmy cleared his throat. “Do you know who I am?”
Before the boy could answer, a man appeared behind Markie. He had a thick mustache and wore a tie. His eyebrows looked like living organisms. It was the banker. He pulled Markie behind him, pushing him deeper into the house. “Stay back,” he told the boy. To Jimmy, he said, “Get away unless you want me to call the police.”
“I killed a German,” Jimmy said, “with my bare hands. I choked the son of a bitch to death.”
“Okay, now,” the banker said. He tried shutting the door, but Jimmy wedged his foot inside, then shouldered the door open.
Martha stood by the staircase, clutching the boy to her. “Oh, my God,” she said. “Jimmy?”
“I just want to know,” Jimmy said. “What were you doing on June the sixth, 1944?”
“June what? What are you talking about?”
“D-day,” Jimmy said. “Fucking D-day. Where were you? What were you doing?”
Martha took a deep breath. Her hand lay draped over the boy’s head like a spidery, flesh-colored hat. “Just leave, Jimmy. Go before it’s too late.”
“Too late? And what the hell’s that supposed to mean . . . too late?”
* * * *
What Jimmy found out later: the banker had come up from behind and struck him while he was talking to Martha. A cop explained that the weapon had been a coal shovel from their fireplace. “The next time,” he added, “you might not get so lucky.” They kept Jimmy in jail only until they saw that he was starting to convulse from withdrawals, and then they let him go, fearing they’d have to clean up a mess if they didn’t.
Lucky, Jimmy thought. He kept an eye out for Raoul on his way back to the neighborhood. A stool-pigeon-junkie-fag like Raoul might be anywhere, but he wasn’t anywhere Jimmy was looking. Passing the Y, he heard someone calling his name. It was Algren with Simone. Algren’s hair was wet and slicked back, and he was carrying a paper sack.
“You holding?” Jimmy asked, walking closer.
“Holding?” Algren asked. “Holding what?” He put two cigarettes in his mouth, lit them both, then handed one to Jimmy. When Jimmy stepped forward, Simone gasped.
“Your face,” she said. “It’s bleeding.”
“Christ,” Algren said. “You get rolled?” He handed the bag to Simone. “Wait here.”
With Algren inside the Y, Jimmy stared at the crumpled sack. He couldn’t bring himself to look up at Simone, who was a liar. If she wasn’t a liar—if she really was seeing Sartre—then she was both a liar and a cheater.
“What’s in the bag?” he finally asked.
“Oh, Nelson doesn’t have a shower in his little apartment. He comes here.” She sighed. “So silly.” She reached up to touch Jimmy’s hair, but Jimmy flinched and the hand retreated. “You were in the war, no?”
“Yes,” Jimmy said.
“Normandy?” she asked. “Were you there?”
“101st Airborne,” Jimmy said. “Paratrooper.”
“You have been shot?”
When Simone reached up again, Jimmy willed himself to remain still. She rested her palm on his cheek. “Thank you,” she said.
Algren burst through the Y’s door. “Try finding a clean goddamn towel in there . . . I swear. Here,” he said, giving the towel to Jimmy. “This’ll take care of the blood.”
“I’ll do it,” Simone said. She crumpled the towel and began scrubbing. The fabric felt like sandpaper against his face, but Jimmy didn’t move. His mother cleaned his face the same way when he was child. There could be only one puddle outside, she would say, and you’d find it, wouldn’t you, Jimmy?
On their way back to Wabansia, Algren told a story about a whore in New Orleans who didn’t have any arms. “You’d think she’d have charged half price,” he said, “but she actually got twice the going rate. You ask me, that’s New Orleans in a stinking nutshell, my friends.”
Jimmy, arms itching, stopped walking. “I need to find someone,” he said.
“Oh. Okay,” Algren said.
“We will see you tomorrow?” Simone asked.
“Take care of yourself, now,” Algren said.
Jimmy nodded, then bowed good-bye before stepping into a blind alley.
* * * *
The moon woke him. He was back home now, between the shrubs. He hadn’t found Raoul but he’d found Emmett, who could spare four syrettes—enough, normally, to get him through the next few days. But Emmett’s shit was weak. Whatever it was that Raoul had been giving him had raised his tolerance to new heights. Jimmy might as well have been shooting water into his veins.
“Raoul!” Jimmy yelled. “Raoul! Where the fuck are you?”
“I’m here!” Raoul yelled in return.
“Here!” There was laughter, Raoul’s and another man’s. “I see you, Jimmy. Do you see me?”
“Where are you?” Jimmy was on the brink of crying; he could hear it in his voice, that splintering of timbre.
“I’m here, Jimmy. I’m here.” More laughter.
And then the street got quiet. Jimmy waited for more of Raoul’s taunts, but none came. “Raoul?” Jimmy called out. “Raoul?”
* * * *
The next morning, the ghost-touch of Simone’s hand still on his cheek, Jimmy woke up determined to give up the junk. Maybe Algren could spare some clean clothes; maybe he could help Jimmy get into the Y for a hot shower. Jimmy would have to scrub a long time to get some of the grime off. He remembered how, when he came home after helping old man Tomlinson paint his fence, his mother soaked a rag with kerosene and told him to shut his eyes while she wiped him clean. Jimmy, no more than ten at the time, took slow but deep breaths, compulsively sucking in the kerosene’s fumes until the inside of his head seemed to expand ever so slightly. He loved standing with his father at the gas pumps, too, sniffing while his father filled his car. Jimmy always had a headache afterward, but it was the moment that he cared about, the now.
Across the street, Jimmy spied Raoul. His first impulse was to yell out to him, to ask him to come over so that he could score a little something to get him through the day, but he willed himself not to speak. No, he told himself. Don’t. But then he noticed that there was a boy on the other side of Raoul, and that Raoul was holding the boy’s hand. Was it his son? Did Raoul have a past as Jimmy had a past—hidden, all but intangible?
Jimmy crawled out from under the shrubs and padded across the street for a better look. It must have been a weekend, the street was so quiet—that, or the end of the world. It was possible. Jimmy had seen photos of Hiroshima’s aftermath . . . the leafless trees and gray skies, radioactive black rain, skin burning as far away as two miles from the blast. The end of the world was the new reality.
When Raoul crouched to the boy’s height and took the boy’s face with both hands, whispering and motioning with his head toward the abandoned building beside them, Jimmy saw that it was the pink-skulled boy with the greasy yellow hair. Eyes still rheumy. Nose running. Algren’s words came back to him: Just keep your eye on him. Until this morning, Jimmy had thought Algren feared the boy might do him harm, but it was clear now that Algren feared something might happen to the boy. And Algren knew that Jimmy was in the best position to survey the situation, to assess and then, if necessary, to act.
“Raoul!” Jimmy called out.
Raoul swung around. He looked down at the boy. “Remember what I told you, okay?” And then he said to Jimmy, “The early bird, eh? Would you like a worm this morning? Is that it?”
Jimmy’s first punch connected with Raoul’s throat, causing him to drop to his knees. It was the same punch he’d thrown at the German after he’d finally washed ashore, after he’d made his way to what he thought might be a safe haven. There were no safe havens, he soon realized. The German had been waiting for him, hiding. Jimmy had sensed movement, spun around, and punched him in the throat. The German had tried reaching for his weapon. Jimmy, whose own weapons had been swallowed by the Channel, did the only thing he felt could stop the man: he grabbed hold of the German’s face and sunk his fingers into the man’s eyes. Putting out a man’s eyes was harder than he thought—up to a certain point. After that point, the fingers slid all the way in with ease, as deep as brain, and then it was only a matter of how much damage you wanted to do. Jimmy didn’t want to risk it. He pushed in until his fingers disappeared. That’s when another German shot him, leaving him for dead.
Raoul was quiet now. Jimmy’s hands—his arms, even—were covered in blood. The boy had run away. Jimmy thought of Oedipus: No more shall you behold the evils I have suffered and done. Be dark from now on, since you saw before what you should not, and knew not what you should! Jimmy removed his fingers and looked up. Algren and Simone were peering out their window, down at Jimmy. He wasn’t sure how much they had seen. He hoped they had seen it all. To see only part of what had happened would have been worse than not seeing any of it.
Jimmy patted down Raoul and found the bag of syrettes inside his coat. After crumpling the bag and shoving it into his own sagging pocket, he looked up at Algren and Simone again and shook his head as if to say, It wasn’t about the bag, but Simone was crying while Algren, angry or disappointed, jerked the curtains shut.
Jimmy walked due west until, a short while later, he reached the Chicago River. At the river’s edge, Jimmy leaned forward and washed away the blood. He splashed water on his face. He opened the bag of syrettes, took one out, punctured the end of the hypo, pinched his skin, and stuck himself. He squeezed the syrette and felt himself loosen. It was as though the river he was staring at had possessed his own body, swift rapids running through his veins.
In the Army, one syrette was all that an injured or dying man needed. One syrette and he’d wake up later in a hospital, already tended to . . . or he wouldn’t wake up at all. Jimmy took out a second syrette, punctured the open end, and shot it. He took out a third and shot it, too. He would have done a fourth, but the bag slipped from his fingers and into the river. He, too, was starting to slip, unable to hold on. He slid into the river.
Unlike that day in the Channel, when blood and water churned together and men kept dropping from the sky, Jimmy refused to fight. He had no objective today, no goal. The water, clean and cold, felt good on his skin. The current was especially strong. The more Jimmy relaxed, the faster the current carried him. Before slipping under for the final time, he heard Algren ask Simone, “Where do you think we’re going?” but Jimmy refused to answer. He would just keep rowing. Let them wonder, Jimmy thought. Let them mull it over. There was no more need for talk, anyway. Soon, they would be where they needed to be. And then, after they crossed over . . . then what?
He would kiss his friends’ foreheads.
Gently shut their eyes.
Remove the hidden coin from under each tongue.