The Fiction of Owen Thomas

Signs of Passing

Jimmy D’s Thrive-n-Dine   —an excerpt

When the waitress came with a pad and a pen he ordered a soda and a cheeseburger and a basket of fries, but only because this diner, inexplicably, did not offer corned beef on rye with a pickle, which is what Garrett always ordered in diners.  He did not have the energy to be upset at this, and even appreciated the general congruity of the disappointment with his overall mood. He agreed with the waitress that it was a lovely day, even though he did not really think so, seeing nothing particularly lovely about the heat, which was pressing its swollen, sweaty palms against the window to get in. 

Three wicker-bladed fans quietly stirred reassurance into the air from above.  The waitress – her nametag read Glorious—turned with a bright swishing sound and disappeared through a swinging door behind the arc of a white Formica counter to place his order.

Garrett tossed his hat in the seat next to him, fished a book of matches and his last cigarette out of his pocket, and opened his notebook.  He fanned through a dozen pages until he found the three paragraphs he had read every day for the past three months.  He lit his cigarette and read them again: 

He lay on his back, in the grave he himself had dug in the dark woods, and she above him, her legs straddling the opening, pointing the long barrel down at his face, her finger caressing the trigger.  The black autumn night enveloped all but what the orange glow of the lantern could find.  Her features, still beautiful, flickered and shifted in the air above him and her dress wafted in the light breeze.  Every so often he could smell the perfume that had been his undoing, even through the layers of soil and decay that now surrounded him.  Church bells rang in the distance.  Life was proceeding without him, oblivious of the irony that after a life of criminal detection, after three decades of staying one step ahead of hardened, scheming, treacherous villainy, the likes of which his beloved city had never before encountered, Jack McMannis had lost his edge to a woman.  And not to the flesh of a woman, for Jack was better than that and no slave to lust. With his wife gone six years now from a stray bullet, Jack was as true as they came and would sooner die than betray the memory of the woman he still loved. No, Jack McMannis had lost his edge not to a woman, but to the very essence of a woman, or perhaps to love itself, floating within a cloud of perfume past the innate cunning and suspicion that had always kept him alive. He stared up into the long lamp-lit barrel in her hands; up into that tunnel of black steel that held within its charred hollow the sum of his experience in the world; a life of violent justice and righteous vengeance brought to an untimely end by mere sweetness in the air.  It was fitting, he supposed, that he should smell it now, again, in the instant before it all ended.

He had done a poor job of the digging.  The grave was too narrow and his arms were pinned to his sides, his powerful shoulders suddenly a hindrance.  He could feel the butt of his Colt Pocket Hammer – the Hammer, he called it—pressed between his leg and the wall of dirt.  She should have bothered to frisk him.  That was the sort of oversight that could get you killed. Just the same, Jack realized as he stretched his fingers towards his pocket that he could not reach his gun without either sitting up or swinging his legs skyward.  The slightest twitch either way would earn him a quick bullet in the head; a hole in the skull to match the one in his shoulder that was still burning like a white fire. One smooth movement would do it; one quick sit-up like the billion or so he had done in the army and he would be able to reach his gun.

But not while she was pointing that canon at his face. He would have to distract her.  He would have to get her talking; get her focused on something else just long enough to make a move for the Hammer. But what did one say to a face like hers? To whom should he address this last effort at distraction: to his memory of love or to his assassin? For she was both of these to him, and only one would be willing to let him live long enough to speak the words that would save him. If, indeed, he was to be saved at all.  Jack McMannis swallowed hard and spoke out from beneath the ground:

Garrett sighed to himself, folding the notebook over his hands.  He leaned back in the booth and closed his eyes and tried again to put himself in the grave – in Jack McMannis’ very body.
But the words did not come.  The words never seemed to come any more.  Jack McMannis had, by the narrowest of margins, escaped certain death dozens of times – on the cliffs above Niagra, in the trunk of a car sinking to the bottom of the East River, strapped to a bomb in the torch of the Statue of Liberty—over narrative landscapes and labyrinthine plots that spanned six novels.  And now, Garrett had quite literally written his hero into a corner – a grave!—from which he could not escape.  There were no words to come to his rescue.

Garrett opened his eyes in time to see the woman in the sky blue car with the white walls and the red slash trolling down the street, moving across the window, through the looping red letters, written backwards now, through which he peered.  She looked casually this way and that as she rolled slowly past the diner, eyeing every automobile until she found his.