ONE LONELY NIGHT
First published in 1951
Nobody ever walked across the bridge, not on a night like this. The rain was misty enough to be almost fog- like, a cold gray curtain that separated me from the pale ovals of white that were faces locked behind the steamed-up windows of the cars that hissed by. Even the brilliance that was Manhattan by night was reduced to a few sleepy, yellow lights off in the distance.
Some place over there I had left my car and started walking, burying my head in the collar of my raincoat, with the night pulled in around me like a blanket. I walked and I smoked and I flipped the spent butts ahead of me and watched them arch to the pavement and fizzle out with one last wink. If there was life behind the windows of the buildings on either side of me, I didn't notice it. The street was mine, all mine. They gave it to me gladly and wondered why I wanted it so nice and all alone.
There were others like me, sharing the dark and the solitude, but they huddled in the recessions of the doorways not wanting to share the wet and the cold. I could feel their eyes follow me briefly before they turned inward to their thoughts again.
So I followed the hard concrete footpaths of the city through the towering canyons of the buildings and never noticed when the sheer cliffs of brick and masonry diminished and disappeared altogether, and the footpath led into a ramp then on to the spidery steel skeleton that was the bridge linking two states.
I climbed to the hump in the middle and stood there leaning on the handrail with a butt in my fingers, watching the red and green lights of the boats in the river below. They winked at me and called in low, throaty notes before disappearing into the night.
Like eyes and faces. And voices.
I buried my face in my hands until everything straightened itself out again, wondering what the judge would say if he could see me now. Maybe he'd laugh because I was supposed to be so damn tough, and here I was with hands that wouldn't stand still and an empty feeling inside my chest.
He was only a little judge. He was little and he was old with eyes like two berries on a bush. His hair was pure white and wavy and his skin was loose and wrinkled. But he had a voice like the avenging angel. The dignity and knowledge behind his face gave him the stature of a giant, the poise of Gabriel reading your sins aloud from the Great Book and condemning you to your fate.
He had looked at me with a loathing louder than words, lashing me with his eyes in front of a courtroom filled with people, every empty second another stroke of the steel-tipped whip. His voice, when it did come, was edged with a gentle bitterness that was given only to the righteous.
But it didn't stay righteous long. It changed into disgusted hatred because I was a licensed investigator who knocked off somebody who needed knocking off bad and he couldn't get to me. So I was a murderer by definition and all the law could do was shake its finger at definitions.
Hell, the state would have liquidated the gun anyway . . . maybe he would have pronounced sentence himself. Maybe he thought I should have stayed there and called for the cops when the bastard had a rod in his hand and it was pointing right at my gut.
If he had let it stay there it would have been all right. I'd been called a lot of things before. But no, he had to go and strip me naked in front of myself and throw the past in my face when it should have stayed dead and buried forever. He had to go back five years to a time he knew of only secondhand and tell me how it took a war to show me the power of the gun and the obscene pleasure that was brutality and force, the spicy sweetness of murder sanctified by law.
That was me. I could have made it sound better if I'd said it. There in the muck and slime of the jungle, there in the stink that hung over the beaches rising from the bodies of the dead, there in the half-light of too many dusks and dawns laced together with the crisscrossed patterns of bullets, I had gotten a taste of death and found it palatable to the extent that I could never again eat the fruits of a normal civilization.
Goddamn, he wouldn't let me alone! He went on and on cutting me down until I was nothing but scum in the gutter, his fists slamming against the bench as he prophesied a rain of purity that was going to wash me into the sewer with the other scum leaving only the good and the meek to walk in the cleanliness of law and justice.
One day I would die and the world would be benefited by my death. And to the good there was only the perplexing question: Why did I live and breathe now . . . what could possibly be the reason for existence when there was no good in me? None at all.
So he gave me back my soul of toughness, hate and bitterness and let me dress in the armor of cynicism and dismissed me before I could sneer and make the answer I had ready.
He had called the next case up even before I reached the side of the room. It had all the earmarks of a good case, but nobody seemed to be interested. All they watched was me and their eyes were bright with that peculiar kind of horrified disgust that you see in people watching some nasty, fascinating creature in a circus cage.
Only a few of them reflected a little sympathy. Pat was there. He gave me a short wave and a nod that meant everything was okay because I was his friend. But there were things the judge had said that Pat had wanted to say plenty of times too.
Then there was Pete, a reporter too old for the fast beats and just right for the job of picking up human interest items from the lower courts. He waved too, with a grimace that was a combination grin for me and a sneer for the judge. Pete was a cynic too, but he liked my kind of guy. I made bonus stories for him every once in a while.
Velda. Lovely, lovely Velda. She waited for me by the door and when I walked up to her I watched her lips purse into a ripe, momentary kiss. The rows and rows of eyes that had been following me jumped ahead to this vision in a low-cut dress who threw a challenge with every motion of her body. The eyes swept from her black pumps to legs and body and shoulders that were almost too good to be real and staggered when they met a face that was beauty capable of the extremes of every emotion. Her head moved just enough to swirl her black page-boy hair and the look she sent back to all those good people and their white-haired guardian of the law was something to be remembered. For one long second she had the judge's eye and outraged justice flinched before outraged love.
That's right, Velda was mine. It took a long time for me to find out just how much mine she was, much too long. But now I knew and I'd never forget it. She was the only decent thing about me and I was lucky.
She said, 'Let's get out of here, Mike. I hate people with little minds.'
We went outside the building to the sidewalk and climbed in my car. She knew I didn't want to talk about it and kept still. When I let her out at her apartment it was dark and starting to rain. Her hand went to mine and squeezed it. 'A good drunk and you can forget about it, Mike. Sometimes people are too stupid to be grateful. Call me when you're loaded and I'll come get you.'
That was all. She knew me enough to read my mind and didn't care what I thought. If the whole damn world climbed on my back there would still be Velda ready to yank them off and stamp on their faces. I didn't even tell her good-by. I just shut the door and started driving.
No, I didn't get drunk. Twice I looked in the mirror and saw me. I didn't look like me at all. I used to be able to look at myself and grin without giving a damn how ugly it made me look. Now I was looking at myself the same way those people did back there. I was looking at a big guy with an ugly reputation, a guy who had no earthly reason for existing in a decent, normal society. That's what the judge had said.
I was sweating and cold at the same time. Maybe it did happen to me over there. Maybe I did have a taste for death. Maybe I liked it too much to taste anything else. Maybe I was twisted and rotted inside. Maybe I would be washed down the sewer with the rest of all the rottenness sometime. What was stopping it from happening now? Why was I me with some kind of lucky charm around my neck that kept me going when I was better off