Sunday, April 3, 2016

# 99 Easy Street, Part Five. Louis Shalako.






Louis Shalako



Being with Duke was frankly terrifying for someone out on his best behaviour. Four years in the institution, being declared no longer a danger was one thing. But his treatment there was ordered by a court—and as a responsible adult, theoretically cured, (or at least stable and competent), he was now technically responsible for his own actions. To screw up was to go back inside for three more years. It would be a jail instead of a cushy old insane asylum, which, while it had its drawbacks, was far preferable. He had to stay out of trouble, which wasn’t all that much of a stretch. All he’d ever cared about was his music and where his next gig might come from. He’d never seriously worried about where his next meal was coming from. In that sense he’d had it pretty good. There had been one or two persons of interest of the female variety along the way…always temporary of course.

Competent.

What kind of a fucking word was that?

No one is more incompetent than me, not in this town and not at this exact moment in time. 

He’d be even worse off almost anywhere else in the world, though. At one time, he’d understood New York, in the same way he’d once understood the Corn Belt.

You’d have to be dead, to be much more incompetent than Mark Jones…a proven madman with violence on his rap sheet. All he wanted to know, was where was his next meal coming from and that would be sufficient unto the day.

There had to be a soup kitchen around there somewhere.

They would also be keeping some kind of regular, if restricted hours, and if you missed the bell, you were shit out of luck.

It had been a long time since Mark walked down a sidewalk with a buddy. A friend. What a puzzling thought that was.

Is Duke really my friend?

How in the hell did that happen?

Is this guy as desperate as I am?

Am I his next victim?

There was really only one way to find out.

So be it.

Time reveals all truths.

Someday he would write that song—again.

Three blocks away, Water-Beds Galore was a glitzy little storefront, with sharply-dressed salesmen ushering prospective customers out into a much larger storeroom behind. Like the showroom, there was bright overhead lighting way up high. The formerly grubby brick walls had been studiously sandblasted clean, showing a nice, ruddy salmon colour with white mortar at the joints.

There were stacks and stacks of unassembled beds in boxes, with a demonstrator set up in front of each side-aisle for the more popular products.

“This one’s our top special this week.” The bed in question was in a pale, stained knotty pine.

The bed was off the floor, up on a plywood pedestal.

“It’s actually going for one-thirty-nine, but since you’re a friend of Duke’s I would let you have that one for ninety-nine-ninety-nine, and that includes everything. Tell you what, that comes with the comforter.”

There would be sales tax on that. He’d be making payments, and there would be some kind of interest rate. They’d get their forty bucks back and then some, in Mark’s opinion. The trouble was that he needed a bed.

“What about the lamp?”

Ed, their salesman, looked owlishly at Duke through pebble-thick granny glasses, love beads and amulets clanking around his neck substituting for a tie. It wasn’t just the Jesus beard, it was the Jesus boots as well.

White socks in brown sandals.

Mark’s personal style was somewhere else. These people were all aliens or something.

“Sure, why not, man.”

“Groovy, baby.”

Mark could have kicked Duke, but the sales guy nodded.

It’s not like he cared either way. Waterbeds were hot and he could sell them all day long. If these guys didn’t buy one, the next person probably would.

It came with a heater, a headboard with some integral shelving, and a heavy cardboard liner to protect the actual water-bag as Mark perceived it.

“Take it.”

“What?”

“Take it.”

Mark could hem or haw, he could say yes or no or maybe, but whatever. He must make up his mind.

“Sure. Yeah, I’ll take it.”

“What about delivery?”

Ed nodded.

“Yeah. Ah…yeah, okay, sure.”

They went back up to the front of the store to fill out the paperwork. Other patrons, unsure of themselves or looking for something a little more special, filed up and down the bare, polished concrete aisles.

“Mark’s going to need a sheet, at least, and what about some kind of comforter?”

The salesman brightened up.

“Oh, yeah, dude. We got all that. I’ll tell you what—”

***

“Okay. Wait here—and give us a whistle if you see a cop.”

“Huh?”

From an image by Billy Halton, (Wiki.)
Duke was already jogging down the alley, the dark shadows and glaring bright zebra-stripes of light making him flicker in and out of existence as if perception were indeed reality. He had a purposeful air about him.

“Shit.”

Mark was burdened down by a brown paper bag full of quart bottles. Stroh’s this time, the carefully-folded receipt or contract or whatever in his pocket. He wondered what it was this time.

The bag had gotten wet and it wouldn’t last much longer. Duke seemed to know his way around and as a bonus, just about everyone who was anyone (or nobody) within a ten-block radius.

They’d taken a couple of alleys and a zigzag course to get this far.

Wheeling and dealing. He was beginning to get a better idea of what that meant. Mark figured on playing dumb, plus the fact that he didn’t have anything on him. That might just keep him out of serious trouble—Time Magazine had been all over the drug scene for quite a while now. When one considered how much reading he’d done, he was as well-informed as anyone. 

That wasn’t much comfort right now. It was no substitute for experience. He wasn’t so much locked-up as locked-in. They were just moseying along, taking their sweet time about it. 

Mark had always marveled to turn one corner and see another fifty blocks of high-rises, apartment blocks, and cars, cars, cars. The day was fairly warm and he was sweating again. 

St. Louis was big, but New York was vast. It was like you could never run out of city. Once it got into your blood, it was over. It was a metaphor for a lot of things.

So far, they’d cut through from one block to another via a long, narrow pool hall with doors on each end, picking up a pack of smokes for thirty-five cents from a vending machine in the lobby.

Duke knew half the guys in there. He was making a few dope sales on the way through, surely with the knowledge if not the connivance of a Greek proprietor. Mark knew that from the thick, bristling black mustache, sticking straight out for a good inch at first glance.

There was just something Greek about the guy. He wasn’t stupid, he couldn’t be, and yet he was looking every which way but here.

It was an interesting observation.

Mark was feeling pretty good. There was nowhere to run anyways, and freedom was a hell of a lot more fun than captivity.

Or maybe he could run.

At one time, he must have been capable of it.

***

Duke came back with a pillowcase over his shoulder. It was bulging with square shapes, hard corners and heavy objects.

“Here. Take this.” He slung it across but Mark still had the paper sack.

He set that down for the moment.

“Oh.” It was heavy too.

Duke took the beers and Mark spurted up into a walk again. They turned the last corner and stopped dead again as Duke ran into yet another person he knew.

“Hey.”

“Hey.”

The girl, a willowy blonde with a spacy look to the eyes, gave Mark a curious look.

“Hello.”

“Hello.”

She wasn’t bad looking with the thick, wavy blonde hair, halfway to her ass and the little granny glasses.

If nothing else, she had some shoes on her feet and the jeans clung very nicely.

“I’ll meet you up there.” Duke, half a head taller, gave him a little shove with his elbow.

“Ah—I still don’t have a key, Duke.”

“Yeah, well, it’s not that heavy.”

From an image by Fletcher6, (Wiki.)
In other words, beat it.

All Mark could do was to shrug, ignore anyone who took an interest, and half a block later, mount the stairs as if he owned the place. There were still two guys sitting on the steps. The same two guys, although this time they sort of acknowledged his existence, with a focused look, rather than beside or beyond or above, perhaps even half a nod from the leaner one.

They probably lived somewhere in the building but he wasn’t in the mood to introduce himself just yet. He was already starting to recognize people and that was good. You needed to know who was who and who was what. You needed to understand your operating environment. At some level they would need to know him as well. He was a part of their environment, whether ally, resource, or hazard they wouldn’t quite know yet.

Whatever was in the bag had some damned sharp corners. Mark was dreadfully out of shape after years in a hospital. It was easily forty pounds.

Once in the building, he went and put the bag by his door. There was no note on the door from Olivetti or anything like that. There didn’t seem to be anyone around but that could change quickly. Nipping up the stairs, going out and around on the fire escape again, he crawled through the window and unlatched the door. Barely a minute had passed and no one had stolen the bag.

Mark sighed, pulling the sack inside. Duke would have been mad, of course.

But Mark figured he had some rights too.

He took a look, and then pulled it all out.

There was a pretty nice car stereo, wires hanging out the back, and a plug for the antenna as well.

There was an amplifier and a pair of small, very heavy and very expensive car speakers. Sort of triangular in shape, they were meant for the rear window deck. They would be lethal to passengers in a collision. No one ever cared about that. There were short bits of wire trailing from them as well. The ends weren’t bared, they were snipped clean off.

“Ah, shit, Duke.”

More small objects in the bottom revealed themselves. There was a set of needle-nose pliers with integral side-cutter, a couple of different screwdrivers, the knobs for the amp and stereo, and what had once been a coat hanger. Duke had cut it, putting shepherd’s-crook hooks on the ends. This was nice, soft but relatively stiff wire, folded up in four short sections. All of this would easily fit into a pocket, including the pillowcase.

He didn’t quite know whether to laugh or to cry. There were footsteps in the corridor, and Mark hastily grabbed the more incriminating items and stowed them in the bedroom. Closing the door, he was just in time to see Duke coming in without bothering to knock.

“Ah.” Mark nodded at the closed bedroom door. “Your stuff’s in there.”

“Good. That one’s a special order and hopefully the dude will be around to pick that up tonight.”

“Ah—”

“Beer?”

“Sure.”

Mark took the bag and stuck the other bottles in the fridge. When he came out, Duke was sitting on the window-ledge again.

“So, uh…you’re going to take that with you when you go, right?”

Duke nodded, taking a swig.

“Duke.” Mark’s stomach was rumbling again, and in one of the temporary lulls in traffic that sometimes occurred after lunch but before closing time in this town.

He was surprised Duke couldn’t hear it. Or at least guessed it.

Couldn’t take a hint, maybe.

“Yeah?”

“Thanks for everything, Duke. But, as you can see, I still don’t have a few things.”

Supposedly he would have a bed by four-thirty or five, but Mark had some doubts about that. 

It was getting too close to that time now. Why wouldn’t they do a credit check? It just seemed a bit implausible.

“Anyways, thanks for helping with the waterbed.”

He was still having a bit of trouble getting his head wrapped around that one—as a musician, on tour, out on the road with bands, groups, and Negroes among other things, he’d never even considered credit. They were going to ask what you did for a living, and laugh you out of the building shortly thereafter.

People knew you were moving on and it was strictly cash on the barrelhead. Musicians hung with all sorts of marginalized people.

But this was different.

It’s that government cheque, he thought, eyes going cloudy for a moment. That makes all the difference in the world. Theoretically, a government cheque couldn’t bounce, although they could be stolen.

Duke grinned as if reading his thoughts. He pulled out one of the fat cannons he’d rolled earlier, gave it a quick lick and sparked it with the trusty lighter.

“So what are you trying to tell me, dude?” Something snapped, sparks flew and Duke moved a leg to dodge a smoldering seed as it fell. “Fucking seeds.”

“I don’t know. Shit. I have to find Olivetti. I’m going to need a key to my own house. I could really use the rest of that cheque. I need to eat once in a while—and now I kind of have to wait around for the delivery people. Because I got this funny feeling they’re not going to want to crawl around on fire escapes.”

There was probably more, but he let it go.

Duke looked him carefully in the eye as he reached for the joint.

“Okay, so what you need is a plan, my young amigo. It might go something like this. I lend you ten bucks, and you go get a couple of things. I sit here until you come back…just in case your bed shows up.”

Duke made a habitual glance at the end wall, but of course there was no clock there.

“Do you have a phone, Duke?”

“No.”

Mark bit his lip.

Yeah. That’s what he needed—a plan. Otherwise it was just too easy to blow whole days away, moping about and feeling sorry for yourself. When you weren’t locked up in the hoosegow. His own worst enemy would be his own fear, his own inertia. Sometimes you just had to put yourself out there.

He took a hit on the demon weed in speculative fashion.

People were so down on it, what with dire warnings, documentary films, hysterical news reports, important magazine articles, and all of that.

People were full of shit, when you got right down to it.

Duke, on the other hand, was probably right.


(End of Part Five.)


Speak Softly My Love is the fifth in The Inspector Gilles Maintenon Series, and the reader can find it free in serial form here on this blog.



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