DB Cox is a blues musician/writer from South Carolina. His poems and short stories have been published extensively in the small press, in the US, and abroad. His first collection of short stories called “Unaccustomed Mercy,” published by Studio Books, is available at the Amazon Kindle Store.
Paint It Black
--- “no colors anymore, I want them to turn black”… The Rolling Stones
Night slides into daylight. I lean forward against the steering wheel of my 1998 Oldsmobile—tapping gray ashes from my last cigarette into the open mouth of an overworked ashtray. The cold whips through the hole where the rear window used to be. The blue light of “oldies radio” reaches out like a lifeline—imaginary time machine that cannot save me. Black asphalt bleeds out behind me—a nowhere man on the run—moving somewhere between “now” and “not now.”
Last night, on Christmas Eve, I killed a man—a policeman. He walked up on me while I was asleep in the backseat of my car—my last point of retreat. I was dreaming of empty picture frames strung along a white hallway. I was crying in my sleep because the faces, once secure inside the boundaries of those frames, were gone—scattered like refugees.
The cop was pounding on top of my car and shouting at me to “move on”. I opened my eyes wide enough to see the glare of the flashlight in the window. I pulled my pistol from under a pile of dirty clothes on the floorboard, and put one bullet through the glass—a sharp flash, a fine rain of crystal shards, the metallic smell of burnt gunpowder, then total silence. I had moved across an invisible line into a world of complete moral indifference.
Once, I believed in the American dream. I followed all of the rules—did what I was told. I was a GMC man. Now it's all gone. Scattered like old bones on the ground. The relentless clatter and hum of the assembly line lately replaced by an alien silence that has settled across the "motor city" like a sheet tossed over a deathbed.
Now I know, that no one is, or ever has been on my side. The only way to survive, even for a little while, is to start my own game. There is no looking back toward “old rules” that no longer hold, or “old order” that has spilled over into chaos. I hold to no flags, no governments, no causes, no religions. I am now a primitive element of the bodiless soul of this country. And fuck all of the lying sons-of-bitches—the architects of empty speeches and slogans. I have become what they have made me—the perfect terrorist—taking no hostages, making no deals.
The Rolling Stones are on the radio—a classic from the 60s:
“I look inside myself and see my heart is black
I see my red door and must have it painted black
Maybe then I’ll fade away and not have to face the facts
It’s not easy facing up when your whole world is black…”
The first clear idea I’ve had in months stirs inside my brain. Finally, I have a destination.
I jack up the volume. The tiny speakers rattle. I slip into highway dawn—headed home for Christmas.
I shield my eyes with my left hand and look through the sliding glass door. There’s a Christmas tree in front of the picture window—the best spot. Anyone driving along the street can admire it as they pass. I take the handle of the door and pull slowly. The door is not locked. I open it just wide enough to squeeze through.
A fire is burning in the hearth. Holiday lanterns are placed at either end of the mantel—one in the image of a snowman, the other Santa Claus. There’s a small stack of firewood—pieces, all cut the same length, like the kind you buy at the grocery store. A woman is sitting in a rocking chair in front of the fireplace. She is bent over a book.
When she notices me, she drops the book and sits straight up in the chair—a look of fear on her face.
“Do you live here alone?”
“Okay, here’s what I want you to do. I want you to get up, put on your coat, and get out of my house. Do you understand?”
“Do you have a cellphone?”
“Take it along. When you get outside, call the police. Tell them that the guy who killed the cop downtown last night is at home waiting. You got that?”
I wave the gun in her direction and say: “Now, get out.”
She gets up, walks to the kitchen counter, and picks up her cellphone. She takes an overcoat that’s hanging on the back of a barstool, slides the phone into one of the pockets, and puts on the coat.
“Do you like the house?” I ask.
When she looks back at me, I notice that some of the stress has left her face.
“Do you like this house?”
“It’s a wonderful house,” she says, looking around the room.
Using the barrel of the gun, I point toward the back of the house.
“That deck—I built it myself.”
She smiles at me like a mother.
“You did a good job.”
She buttons the coat, turns up the collar, walks across the room, and out the door.
Behind me—a loud pop. I spin around with the gun leveled toward the sound. The burning wood crackles in the fireplace.
I have spent too many fearful days—too many nights sleeping with my eyes open.
Once, I was certain that fear was the worst possible weight a human being could carry. Now, I know that it is rage—the fury that eats away at you until there is nothing left except madness. How long do you have to be dead before you stop tasting the poison?
I look down the hallway that leads to the bedrooms. There’s a large picture hanging on the wall. I walk down to take a look.
It’s Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam”—the one he painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Adam’s left hand is reaching out toward God. God’s right hand is reaching out toward Adam. There’s a small space between their fingertips. It’s as if both arms are simply too short to make a connection.
And there it is—that tiny gap, forever frozen in time.
I stuff the pistol inside my jacket pocket. I take out my wallet and remove two snapshots. I wedge one into the bottom left corner of the wooden frame and the other into the bottom right. I reach out with both hands and lightly touch the beautiful photo faces. For a few seconds, I stand with my eyes closed. I am so tired.
I retrieve the pistol and wander back into the living room.
I stop in front of the picture window and push back the curtain. Nothing to see except my own distorted face—caught in the glass. I walk back to the rocker, and sit down. The warmth from the fire makes me sleepy, but I must stay awake—just a little longer. I lay the gun in my lap. I watch the street and wait—somewhere outside of myself.
I am now living second to second.
I am close to dozing off when I hear the sound of the SWAT truck pulling up out front. Through the open curtain, I watch black-clad bodies taking up positions around the house. I glance down at the pistol.
A voice through a loudspeaker:
“You, in the house, come out the front door with your hands up.”
A calm, like I’ve never felt before, closes over me. This is the only worthwhile thing I have left to do. It is the only thing that has any meaning.
I pick up the pistol, eject the loaded magazine, and drop it beside the chair. The only round left is the one in the chamber.
As I’m leaning forward to stand, I notice the book on the floor—the one that the woman was reading. It’s a paperback—red and green cover—A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf.
In slow motion, I walk across the room and open the front door. Holding the gun straight down at my side, I step out onto the porch.
The volt-magnified voice:
“You, on the porch, drop the gun, put your hands up, and move away from the house.”
I turn my eyes toward the armored vehicle and make my appeal to the dark machine:
“For a long time now, I’ve been helpless and hopeless. I’ve been kicked out, knocked down, and pushed around. But not today—not ever again. Don’t you people understand that this is my house, my front porch, my dead grass? You see that deck out back—I built it myself.”
The word, “myself,” dies away as it leaves my mouth.
“You, on the porch, drop the gun, put your hands up, and move away from the house.”
I look out across my front yard. I can see everything and nothing. It’s warm for December—quiet. So quiet, I can hear the beat of my heart. I can feel the deadly telescopic eyes fixed on my chest.
I smile my best Paul Newman smile, that old Cool Hand Luke grin. I shout as loud as I can.
“WHAT WE GOT HERE—IS FAILURE TO COMMUNICATE.”
I lift the pistol and point it toward the God-like voice hidden inside the loudspeaker. I fire my last shot.
I know what’s next, because today, standing right here on my porch, I understand the meaning of "mercy."