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Shambhala Sun | May 2011
You'll find this article on page 69 of the magazine.


Characters are taken over by their desires and make bad choices—that’s the appeal of noir fiction, says BRIAN HAYCOCK, because we’re all struggling with our desires. In the May 2011 Shambhala Sun he offers a hardboiled story with a Buddhist twist.

McCall rises from the cushion and stands in the room. He feels the stillness around him. His legs are stiff and there’s an ache in his right thigh, where the bullet passed through. He tries a few steps to get the blood moving.

He walks to the window and pulls the curtains open, raises the sash. He lets the city sounds come in. Then he climbs out through the opening onto the fire escape and stands on the steel grate, looks down at the avenue. It hasn’t changed. People on the sidewalks, standing on the curbs. Sirens in the air. The avenue never changes.

But he’s changed. He watches the neon flashing in the night, the cars cruising slow in the right lanes, the steam rising from the manhole covers, swirling in the air. He watches it all, lets it go by him.

He’s looking for her. Emmy. He tries not to, but he can’t see the street without wanting her. He forces himself to look up, over the slate roofs, at the half-moon with the shadow clouds passing across.

He’s been six months sober and still he wants another hit. He spent four years on the avenue, chasing the high that would make it all make sense. In the end he hadn’t cared about sense. He only cared about the high. And he cared about Emmy.

He looks back down at the avenue, watching the people in the shadows. He knows that life. It’s almost all he knows, really. He can tell who’s dealing, who’s hustling the girls in the rooming houses, who’s waiting for a chance at a snatch and grab. And he can tell which ones are just standing in the shadows with nowhere else to go but down and down. He has a sense for that. He knows about down.

There’s a man under an awning. Fidgeting. He’s wearing a denim jacket with the collar up, hands in his back pockets. He thinks it’s Rodrigo, but he knows better. This happens to him. He’s outlived his friends and most of his enemies. Now when he looks down at the street he sees them, alive as they were before they overdosed or killed each other. There’s another man stepping out to the curb to cut a deal with someone in an old Buick. It could be Grady. But Grady took six bullets in an alley and died trying to get one last hit off a square of foil.

And still he wants to see Emmy. But he won’t. He sees everyone in the street, but he never sees Emmy.

A man comes out of the pizza shop, balancing a pizza box. He stands in the light and looks up and down the avenue. He’s tall and thin as rails, with stringy black hair and skin the color of paper. McCall can’t see his eyes, but he knows they’re black and empty. It’s Karek. McCall has been looking for Karek. Karek, who’d sold smack laced with lye. Karek, who’d ratted out everyone he knew to cover his own ass. Karek, who’d come into McCall’s with a .45 looking for whatever he could steal, firing into the darkness, putting one through McCall’s leg and bouncing another off his ribcage. Putting one though Emmy’s forehead as she slept, passed out after three days of hitting lines off a three-inch mirror. Karek.

McCall watches Karek turn and come toward him. A cold wind blows. The man keeps his head down, turns a little as he walks. McCall can go down the stairs, out into the street. He can follow Karek until he’s alone on some side street. He can come up behind, take him before he knows. Make him suffer. Make him pay. McCall feels his blood hot under his skin. He’s waited for this. He’s wanted this.

Karek knifes into the wind, half a block away. He looks up, sees McCall on the fire escape. They lock eyes.

It isn’t Karek.

McCall remembers. They told him Karek was dead. Shot down by a Jamaican drug gang he’d owed money to. He’d owed almost everyone and robbed or snitched out everyone else. He’d just been another desperate loser out on the avenue, trying to get by a little longer. Like McCall. Like all of them. And like Emmy, who’d been stretched out on a mattress in McCall’s apartment only because he had more coke than anyone else that week. That was the life. That was what they all did.

McCall climbs back through the window. He settles back on his cushion. He takes a long, deep breath, lets it out slowly. Then another. He’s outlived them all, and this is what he has left. His next breath. His next moment. And the moment after that. He feels everything else fall away. And he lets it go.

Next page: Haycock's thoughts on the bright side of noir, also from our May 2011 issue.

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