The dark side of America
in Kansas City, the dark side of America in Pittsburgh, the dark side of America in El Paso, the dark side of America in St. Louis, the dark side of America in New York City, the dark side of America in Chicago, The dark side of America in New Orleans. The dark side of America is always out there and the dark side of America is always in here.
The dark side of America smells like burnt toast, the dark side of America smells like stale wine, the dark side of America smells like vomit laced with red chile, the dark side of America smells like garlic smeared on bullet lead which is just seconds away from being fired into a man’s kneecap, the dark side of America smells like cheap perfume and armpit hair, the dark side of America reeks of soap and crotch, the dark side of America tastes a little like snot, the dark side of America is a fuck finger caked with shit.
Shorty and I saw a red car come down the street and hit a little black dog. Sometimes when a car hits a dog, it will just run over the dog’s body, the car going bump like it hit a branch or a pothole but this time it almost looked like the dog was trying to jump toward the car and got hit full in the chest and flew over the hood. Sometimes I can see it in slowmo even now. At the time it made me feel a little sick but also a little excited like this was death in the raw and I didn’t have to pay any money for it like at the movies where all deaths are fake. And I can remember that dog coming down and hitting the pavement kind of like a pound of ground beef that my old man has slapped into the big iron frying pan that he rescued from the dump. The slap of the meat woke me up and then the driver pulled over to the curb, rolled down his window and said, that your dog kid. And, I said no, and he thought about it a couple of seconds and said, okay but here’s a buck anyhow to keep your mouth shut. Then the red car burned rubber all the way to the telephone pole at the alley. I looked over at Shorty who was touching the dog. He glanced up at me, said it ain’t moving but it’s still warm. He waited a couple of seconds, then said, does it look like it’s smiling to you.
I used to get the old movie stills mixed up with the photographs of real outlaws. The lobbies of the movie theaters in town were loaded with movie stills from the thirties and forties and it was a little ritual of mine to stop before each one like I was pausing before the stations of the cross. And, the kid I was going to the movies with would yell come on for chrissake we’ll miss the previews. And, I’d yell back, we’ll see them after the movie because I’m gonna have to sit through this one twice. I did that with WHITE HEAT, THE TREASURE OF SIERRA MADRE, THE ASPHALT JUNGLE, KISS OF DEATH, THE MALTESE FALCON, THE BIG SLEEP, and I don’t know how many others. Once, some kid said to me, why would you ever wanna see any movie twice, and my reply was, why wouldn’t I. It just seemed natural like learning to dream or stealing something and crime was like breathing, maybe the most natural thing of all.
We always had guns. Toy ones at first. BB guns next. Then the real ones. My old man would never let me have one but I had friends who found ways. The best place to go to shoot anything was down to the river or across that black water to the city dump where the rats were almost as big as small dogs and the shooting was easy and Lucky had a 22 revolver I forget the make I think it was one of those midnight specials and we would shoot at anything that moved in the garbage. I remember once watching a guy shoot the back legs off a feral dog with a 12 gauge shotgun. Somehow the dog got away in the underbrush and the guy kept saying, could you believe all that blood. I never told him but I always believed blood. Blood never lies.
Even in those old black and white movies where they didn’t show much blood, I believed in blood because in those days blood was all we had. A wino is sitting on the pavement behind the hotel. I walk outside and he looks up and smiles and says, this is good shit would you like to try a little and I tell him no. Just twenty feet away the fire barrel is going and the flames are flying up several feet above the rim of the barrel and the wino says, my soul is in there. But you know what, I can’t feel it burning. Then he adds, see all that green in the black smoke, that’s the color of a soul when it’s on fire.
When I was twelve I’d see a movie still of Bogart and think it was Dillinger. And, in a book, I’d see a photograph of Dillinger and think it was Bogart. It was easy to do they could have been brothers. And, even when I finally realized that Dillinger never made any movies and Bogart never robbed any banks I thought to myself that they should have. That maybe in some alternative universe each man had lived the other man’s life and that thought somehow made me feel good.
Rick pulled up his pants leg and showed me the bullet wound. It wasn’t what I had imagined. I thought I would see a hole in his leg that would go to the bone and that there would be blood going all around the bone but it wasn’t like that. I just saw this scooped out place in the pale skin of his leg. It looked like a scar and it didn’t look like a scar. I don’t know exactly what it looked like but it wasn’t what I expected. He touched it with his right index finger and said, I wasn’t supposed to get shot. My old man’s finger just touched the trigger and the gun went off and he was down on his hands and knees trying to make the hole go shut. But it wouldn’t because I don’t think it wanted to. He had another shot of Beam before he called the cops and they said it was an accident. I go to the movies now just to watch guys get shot to see if they do what I did. Some nights I swear to god I can dream with this thing. I never told him but I always thought his dreams were filled with the images of scars.
Red asked me how come you like guns so much? He was going into a prize fighter’s stance and motioning me to come at him. I backed up several steps because I knew he had a really nasty right cross, I’d seen him knock kids down in the gravel and then kick them and I’d made up my mind I wasn’t going to be one of them. What are you, a chicken, he said, doing the thumb on the nose thing like Cagney. You like guns, right, he did a couple of quick jabs at some phantom in the air and moved in low. Yeah, I said. Well, why doncha say why you like guns. You tell me, I said dancing away from an uppercut that was already ten feet out in front of me. You a wise guy, he said, dancing up and down like he was trying to do Sugar Ray and Fred Astaire both at the same time. It’s death, isn’t it, he said, still dancing. It’s history, I said. Gunfighter history like Billy the Kid, Wyatt Earp, you know the Old West shit. It’s death, he said. Guys who say history really mean death, but death is okay, death means you are a little fucked up and that means you are human. I’m not fucked up, I said, even though I knew I was a little fucked up but I never told anyone that. You didn’t talk that way to kids who could beat the shit out of you for just standing in the wrong place. Then he went wham wham, got him, and said, it’s okay to be a little fucked up and you know what, you never heard it from me.
Jerry was just standing there and the freight was starting to crank up the speed. To the left of us was a small holding pen for cattle and beyond that a hobo woods and beyond that the river. Jerry said, you ever wanna drown in the shit of that river. And I yell, you asshole, you trying to get yourself killed and Jerry goes I’m playing chicken and I go that freight ain’t gonna turn away and Jerry gives me the finger so I get up on the tracks with him like okay if he’s gonna stand there then I’m gonna stand there and he shoves me almost like he’s trying to get me to fight him and the train is bearing down on us now, I can feel the tracks shaking and the heat coming off that big engine’s steel and then Jerry shoves me again and that did it something went crazy fucken haywire in my head and I grabbed him as hard as I could and pulled him away and we both went down the weedy embankment and he was screaming fuck all the way down and when I looked up the freight was lunging past dragging bits of scrap paper with it and some of the gravel came down on top of us and Jerry was laughing and I said what the fuck were you thinking and he said my old man said I would never amount to anything and I just wanted to show him. So you tried to take on a train. Was he watching I asked. Jerry smiled and said, fuck no, he’s probably getting shitfaced in some dingy bar. Then if he wasn’t watching, what good was this, I said. Jerry smiled around the dark places in his teeth, pointed to his head and said, he wasn’t watching but he really was watching.
Cowboy liked to play Russian roulette with a Smith and Wesson 32. It was a break open pistol where the barrel would pop down and you’d load the cylinder while all those black cylinder eyes were staring at you. Once he showed me how it was done. We were standing between two garages behind the hotel where no one could see us and he took all the bullets out of the revolver and then put just one in. I watched him do it. He held that bullet between his thumb and index finger and slid it in. Then he clicked the barrel in place and spun the cylinder and it went around a couple of times, maybe three and stopped. He looked over at me. Cowboy had one of those square faces where the skin was drawn tight over bone and if he ever smiled I never saw it. He said, you wanna play. You go ahead, I said. I’ll just stand here and watch. You like to watch shit like this, don’t you. Some guys get off on watching. He lifted the revolver, his hand came up quickly, faster than I expected. He put the gun barrel point first in the hair above his ear, pulled the hammer back and I braced myself for the explosion, but all I heard was a click. Want me to go again, he asked. I gave him a nervous smile and said, fuck yeah. He repeated the motion. Pistol up, barrel in the hair, click. Again, he asked. I didn’t say anything. I was sure he was going to blow his brains all over the garage wall and after that I didn’t know what. Before I could answer, he repeated the action one more time. Click. Then he did a quick gunfighter spin, stuck the pistol in his belt, put his thumb up to the side of his nose and blew snot all over the garage wall. You didn’t have any shells in that gun, I said. Cowboy smiled and said, maybe yes maybe no. Maybe I was just trying to fuck with your mind. Show me the gun, I said. He just grinned, gave me the finger, and walked away. Maybe five steps into the walk, he glanced back and said, sweet dreams kid.
I always liked watching SHANE but I never really liked Alan Ladd for the part. He didn’t fit my idea of a gunfighter I don’t know why. The role had a dark side that doesn’t show up that much in the movie. And, yeah, I know Shane is really the ideal gunfighter, but I wanted him to be the un ideal. I wanted him to be darker than that. I used to think that Jack Palance should have played Shane. Palance was total dark side. Just that way he looked with that gaunt almost skeleton like skull face. To me, that was Shane. You couldn’t really like a man like that for a hero but you could somehow be drawn to him as a gunfighter. And, for Wilson I would have picked either Richard Widmark or Dan Duryea. They both were always bad to the bone, perfect for the bad guy and can you imagine that last shootout in Ryker’s Saloon with Palance mowing them all down. No, you couldn’t love Palance or even like him. He was too dark for that but he was just dark enough to be a stone cold killer who happened to want to help out some farmers on a whim, shoot down all the villains who needed shooting down and then ride out into the night as though he was really part of the night. Because America’s killers are really part of the night, they belong to the night. They belong to the moon.
I remember some nights going to a gangster movie or maybe it was a double bill, Bogart and Cagney, or maybe it was George Raft and Dane Clark and there was always a shootout. And a lot of times they were using machine guns and the sounds of those guns going off always got to me, got me so nervous I couldn’t get to sleep, and then the lights were off and my old man was snoring and I could hear the rat in the hole in the wall above my old rickety fold up bed and I could hear the way his little claws were going over rotten wood and I would lie perfectly still and think he’s staring at me, I can feel his eyes going all over me. I never got him but I wanted to, I wanted to kill that rat more than anything else but when that hole got plugged up I know he went somewhere else in that hotel’s walls, he escaped and was in there waiting and you wouldn’t be able to see him even if you could somehow crawl into the space of that wall, maybe all you would be able to see were his eyes. The thought of his eyes went straight through me. I wanted to get him in the eyes.
Why do you wanna be a writer Roy asked, knocking some ash off his roll your own. I wanna make a lot of money, leave this shit pile of a hotel and be somebody. Roy shrugged and said, maybe you could write a movie. But if you want me to like it, it better have a lot of shooting in it. Like a western, I said. Yeah, a western would be fine. Also, a gangster movie. I just like shooting, he said. You ever see anyone get shot, I asked. A long time ago in Chicago, he said. A guy came running out of this bar, he said. Blood on his shirt, I thought he was faking it. Like he’d poured ketchup all down himself and I was gonna yell some smart ass shit at him and he fell down on the sidewalk and I thought he was just playing dead like you do when you are a kid and I went over and touched him with my shoe and he never moved and some cop walked over and hit me with his night stick and I never even did anything. Then he hit me again and I fell in some dog shit and I was afraid to move and he said, get the fuck outta here kid before I run you in and I did and while I was running I looked back and saw some guy walk over to the cop and give him some money. Roy paused, flicked some more ashes and said, shooting in the movies sometimes clears up the head. From what, I asked. The dreams, he said. The dreams.
When my old man wasn’t drinking or hustling a scheme with some local gangster he was whittling a piece of wood. I still have the jack knife he used to whittle me a wooden gun. He carved it out of a cheap piece of wood he’d picked up while doing a fire department inspection at a lumberyard. This was just before they kicked him off the force for drinking on duty. I remember him sitting on the front step, a bottle of Jim Beam jammed down inside his jacket for quick hits while he worked. At first I didn’t know what he was carving. And, he didn’t volunteer any information. He’d just sit there making little cuts in the wood, then shaving the surface smooth. His pants legs were starting to get covered with wood shavings, when I finally said, are you making a gun. He blew all the little bits and scraps away from the surface, sighted down the length of the wood and said, you know what happened to the guy who asked Machine Gun Jack McGurn too many questions. No, I replied. My old man paused for a couple of beats and said, he was staring through all the holes that Thompson made in his clothes.
After that I went somewhere else so my old man could work and when I got back a few hours later, the gun was finished. He was still working the rough spots on the barrel when he finally just passed it over. It ain’t much, he said. It’s supposed to be an automatic but it’s a little crooked in places and the grip has some bumps. Otherwise, it looks good. One other thing, you’ll have to paint it black if you want it to look like Dillinger’s gun. Dillinger’s gun, I said. Yeah, the one he used when he escaped from Crown Point, he said. He took a hit of Beam, then said, second thought don’t paint it black. No wooden gun could ever be as good as the one Dillinger had. Still, it needs a little something extra. He fished a sack of Bull Durham out of his shirt pocket, took out a cigaret paper from a little book of papers, tapped some tobacco into it, sealed the paper shut with some whiskey spit, lit the end, and inhaled. Then he blew whiskey smoke all over the barrel, winked, and said, if that don’t magic it up then goddamit nothing will.
Kell Robertson is sitting at a kitchen table in his second storey apartment in Raton, New Mexico. He has just poured himself half a water glass full of vodka and cracked a can of beer. Within easy reach is THE EYES OF JESSE JAMES, his fifty page mimeographed book sporting a cover with the title hand painted in garish reds and orange across a green background. I’m nursing a beer and have books one and two that Primal published of DILLINGER, approximately three hundred pages of the poem, placed in front of an ashtray. Kell is just staring at me. Then he drinks the half glass of vodka straight down, chugs the beer, slams the empty down on the table and says, I’m raising and calling you. I take a drink of beer and say, I have Dilllinger. Kell smiles and says, you think you have me beat. Maybe I have a whole book of John Wesley Hardin poems you don’t know about. My big book, the mother lode of poetry. What would you say to that? I’d love to read it, I tell him. You’d love to read it, he replies. He pours himself another four fingers of vodka and sets the empty bottle down. Then he stares at me for maybe the longest minute in the world and says, you’re a son of a bitch, you know that. He takes another drink of vodka, sets the glass down. It’s still substantially full. Then he cracks another beer, licks his trigger finger and touches a guitar which is leaning against the wall for luck and says I was getting all set to write the goddamdest outlaw poem anyone ever saw and you came along. Dillinger, you… he pauses, takes another hit of the vodka, leans forward in his chair. We are just inches apart when he slaps his hand against his leg, brings his hand up, and points his trigger finger at me, thumb cocked up in the sign of the gun. Then he says, you know that it’s dangerous to be sleeping with wolves. You never know when they’ll decide to eat you.
I called him Stick because he was always breaking sticks in half and throwing them out into traffic just to see if any drivers would slam on their brakes or slow down and when they did and it looked like someone was going to pull over, get out, and come running after him he’d take off down the alley and once he did that he could never be caught. Once, when I asked him why he threw sticks at cars he said, I like to fuck with people’s heads. Then the match he held between his teeth would go up and down like he was trying to see if by moving it around he could somehow scratch up some fire in the air.
I always wanted to ask Charles Bukowski what it felt like to be writing out of the dark side. He’s writing very late at night and while he writes he notices that all the words float out of his typer and blacken the air. I always wanted to ask T. S. Eliot what it felt like to be writing out of the dark side. The shadow he walks with every day at noon begins to tell him things he puts into THE WASTE LAND. Maybe that’s why he suddenly became so religious. The whole process had fucked with his head. I always wanted to ask Walt Whitman what it felt like to be writing out of the dark side. I like to pretend that he walked way back in the woods and while walking found an old rusted trade tomahawk with some old blood and hair plastered to the steel. And, because he was so far back in and there was no one around to see what he was doing, he tasted it and discovered that it didn’t taste bad. I always wanted to ask Cormac McCarthy what it felt like to be writing out of the dark side. I have this vision of him buying a human scalp from some antique dealer who specialized in the historically peculiar and while McCarthy was working on the novel he kept the scalp draped over a door knob in the room where he worked and sometimes at the odd moment he could feel some strange energy climb off it and go into the air. I always wanted to ask Ernest Hemingway how it felt to write out of the dark side. Every time I read After The Storm I see him finding a corpse washed up on the beach at Key West and when he searches the body he comes across a jack knife which gives him the idea for the story. And, the jack knife is such good luck he carries it in Africa for all the big kills. I always wanted to ask F. Scott Fitzgerald how it felt to write out of the dark side. I can see him one night coming out of this speakeasy drunk and he looks down, sees a human tooth, picks it up and gets the idea for a character in GATSBY called Meyer Wolfsheim.
The second my old man pulled his molar with that old pair of pliers he passed the tooth on to me, leaned over the sink as far as he could, and puked. It took him three tries to get it all out and the stuff that wouldn’t wash down the drain he picked out with his fingers and threw in the toilet. Then he went in and sat on the edge of the bed, drinking Beam, gagging, spitting blood and pus out in an old rag and then drinking more Beam. Finally, he said, I heard it pop free, didn’t you. Yeah, I said, I could hear it across the room. Son of a bitch, I think the roots are still in there. Maybe they’ll word themselves out. The worst thing is the pus. It keeps trying to go down my throat. He took another hit of Beam. Then he said, take that goddam tooth out and throw it in the fire barrel. Be sure you put enough dry shit in with it so it’ll burn up good.
I took out some old newspapers and rags and got a good fire going and I pretended to throw the tooth in. Instead, I palmed it back into my jacket pocket. For some peculiar reason I wanted to walk around with my old man’s tooth in my pocket. I wanted to feel it there against my hand, I wanted to have it knock against my leg, I wanted to see if I might be able to get a story out of it, I wanted to take it out and look at it in the dark. And, I wanted it to make me feel dark, so very dark all over.
Sonny Paige sat in the dirt behind the hotel. He had a big jagged piece of concrete in front of him and he was using a claw hammer to smash something. His hammer swings went high and came down hard and each time he brought that hammer into whatever it was he was wrecking he’d say, there, now I kill you again. I couldn’t see what he was beating into a pulp until I got close and realized he was pounding a cheap 22 revolver into pieces. The trigger guard was already bent and the snub barrel had gone crooked and nearly flat under the hammerings and Sonny looked up at me. He had a pushed in face and eyes that went sideways whenever he talked. He said, this is the gun my dad used to kill hisself with and now I gonna kill it. Some spit came out of his mouth when he said kill like he was trying to somehow eat the word up so that nobody could ever say it again. Then he hit the pistol one more time so hard that the gun’s hammer broke off and he picked it up and stuck it in his mouth. It kill my dad so I gotta taste it. When he finished I helped him pick up the pieces of the revolver and we walked over to the fire barrel where we dropped them in. He said, the fire burn it up and I shook my head yes knowing that all the fire might be able to do was scorch raw death out of the iron.
The wooden gun my old man had carved for me turned out to be my good luck charm. I liked to carry it jammed inside my coat. And, because it was small enough I’d often stuff it down inside my right trouser pocket. Just to have it there, just to feel it ride against my leg made me feel lucky. Then one day several months later it turned up missing. When I asked my old man if he had seen my wooden gun, he said what wooden gun. I said the one you made for me. He said, I never made you any wooden gun. Then he added, the only kind of gun that is worth a shit in this world is a real one. Bang bang bang bang. I never bothered him about it again.
I was sitting with Eddie G in the Clifton Café. He had just poured a ton of sugar into his coffee. Before he took a sip he said, what do you think dying is like. I said I have no idea. Why, are you dying? He grinned and said, my old man put a knife next to my face last night for not passing the ketchup. You gotta learn to pass the ketchup, I said. Yeah, the ketchup. But what do you think? You stop breathing, I said. But do you stop dreaming, he said. No, but all of your dreams start to smell of ripe shit. He gave me the finger, then said, is that really true? True as that sugar. But, can you smell those dreams that are all turning to shit? No, I said. You can’t smell anything. Eddie smiled and said, that takes a load off my mind. I’d hate to spend eternity smelling my shit.