The following story is included in L.A. Noire: The Collected Stories, a collaboration between Rockstar Games and Mulholland Books. Today also marks the publication date of Block’s novel A DROP OF THE HARD STUFF, which Time Magazine says “reads like it’s been jolted by factory-fresh defibrillator pads.”
But it stirs things up, doesn’t it? The other day—Wednesday, it must have been—all I did was talk for an hour or two, and then I went home and lay down for a nap and slept for fifteen hours. I’m an old man, I got up every three hours to pee, but then I went back to bed and fell right back asleep again. And dreams! Can’t recall the last time I dreamed so much.
And then I got up, and my memory was coming up with stuff I never thought of in years. Years! All the way back to when I was a boy growing up in Oklahoma. You know, before the dust, before my old man lost the farm and brought us here. Memories of nothing much. Walking down a farm road watching a garter snake wriggling along in a tractor rut. And me, kicking a tin can while I’m walking, just watching the snake, just kicking the can. Del Monte peaches, that’s what the can was. Why’d anybody remember that?
Mostly, though, what I kept going over in my mind was something that happened in my first year on the force. If it’s all the same to you, that’s what I’ll talk about today.
Now, you know I wasn’t but sixteen when the Japs bombed Pearl, and like just about everybody else I was down there the next morning looking to get into it.
They sent me home when I told them my age, so I waited two days and went back, and wouldn’t you know the same sergeant was behind the desk. This time I told him I was eighteen, and either he didn’t remember me from before or he didn’t give a damn, and they took me.
I went through basic and shipped out to England, and from there to North Africa, and what happened was they cut me out of the infantry and made an MP out of me. But I don’t want to get sidetracked here and tell war stories. I came through it fine and wound up back here in Los Angeles, and I’d been military police for better than three years, so after a few months of beer and girls I went down and applied to join the LAPD.
Now, what they would do then, and they probably still do it, is when they were done training you they’d partner you up with an older guy. You were partners, you’d ride around together, take turns driving, all of that, but he’s the guy with the experience, so he’s more or less in charge. He’s showing you the ropes and it’s something you can’t get from a book or in a classroom.
They put me in a car with Lew Hagner. Now, I’d heard of him, because he had a big part in the Zoot Suit Riots in ‘43, and there were plenty of Mexicans who’d have liked to see him dead. And after I was home but before I joined up with the department, there was an incident where he got in a gunfight with three zoot-suiters or pachucos or whatever you want to call ‘em. Mexicans, anyway. He got a scratch, treated and released at Valley General, and they were all dead on arrival. One of them, the wounds were in the back, and the press made some noise about that, but most people wanted to give him a medal.
Lew was fifteen years older’n me, and I was, what, twenty-two at the time? An old twenty-two, the way everybody’s older after a war, but still. Plus my old man died while I was overseas, and a fifteen-year age difference, plus he’s there to show me the ropes; well, I’m not about to say he was like a father to me, but you might say I looked up to him.
Anyway, we’re two guys in a car. And it’s good, and I’m learning things you don’t learn any other way. All the feel of the streets, and what might be trouble and what’s not. What you had to enforce and what you could let slide. When you had to go by the book, when you didn’t even have to open it.
How else are you gonna learn that sort of thing?
A thing he told me early and often was that domestics were the biggest headache I’d ever have. By that I mean domestic disturbances. You just say “domestics,” you could be talking about somebody’s cleaning girl.
A domestic disturbance, he said, you got two people trying to kill each other, and you walk in the door and they’ve got a united front. It’s both of them against you, and they’ll go back to killing each other as soon as you’re out of the picture, but for now they’re a tag team and you’re it.
And even when that doesn’t happen, Lew said, it’s just so fucking frustrating.
I’m sorry, I guess I should watch my language.
No, that’s all right, Charles. Don’t worry about anything like that.
Well, it’s how he said it. But I’ll watch it from here on in. I don’t know what you’re gonna do with all this stuff, but I might as well keep it clean for you.
But about domestics. You get a man’s beating his wife like she’s a rug, and the neighbors call it in or she calls us herself, and he’s there in his underwear, smelling like a bomb went off in a liquor store. And she’s sporting two shiners and a split lip, and that’s her tooth on the floor there, and you want to pack this bum off to Folsom or Q, and you’re lucky if you even get to haul him in. Because maybe six times out of ten she’s hanging onto his arm and telling you it was all a mistake, that she fell down, she’s just so clumsy. And the rest of the time you take him in, and he’s out the next day because she won’t press charges. Oh, officer, it was all a mistake, plus it only happens when he drinks, and he never has a drink except on days ending in a Y.
You get the picture.
Well, we had our share of those. Part of the job, you know? Then one night we get a radio call, “See the woman,” and it’s an address on South Olive. Don’t ask me which block, and anyway that whole part of downtown’s completely different nowadays. Whatever house it was, you couldn’t find it today. Torn down years ago and something else there now, and no loss, because it wasn’t the best part of town.
And Lew says, “Oh, hell, not again.”
And on our way over there he tells me about this woman, Mildred’s her name, and how her husband beats her like he wants to see how much damage he can do. And she won’t press charges. She can always manage to come up with an excuse for him.
“Oh, he really loves me. Oh, it’s my fault, there’s things I know I shouldn’t do because they make him angry, but I do them anyway. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”
“No kids,” he said. “Usually you see kids in situations like this. What they all got in common, they got the oldest eyes in the youngest faces.”
I knew what he meant. You’d see young troops come back from the front lines and their faces’d still be young. But not their eyes, on account of what they’d seen.
“He had kids and beat up on them, be jail tonight and the pen tomorrow. We wouldn’t need her testimony to put him away. But she’s the only one there, and she gets everything he hands out, and the stupid bitch keeps coming back for more.”
The houses on that block were painted different colors, but they were all the same idea—one story tall, and what we used to call bungalows. Maybe they still call ‘em that. I haven’t heard the word in a long time, but maybe they still use it.
This one was like its neighbors in that it had concrete where most freestanding houses will have a lawn. That’s where we parked. I guess she heard us drive up, because she met us at the door, wearing open-toe bedroom slippers and a housedress with the color washed out of it. Stringy blond hair, patchy red polish on her toenails. Imagine what she must have looked like, and it was two, three times worse than that.
He was in a chair, passed out, a bottle on his lap. Three Feathers, that was the brand. It’s a cheap blended whiskey, or it used to be. No idea if they still make it anymore.
The cap was off the bottle, and there was maybe an inch of whiskey left in it. Funny what you remember.
I forget his name, but it’ll come to me.
Lew said, “Millie, you about ready to press charges?”
“Oh, I don’t know, Lew.” Wringing her hands and not meeting his eyes, so you know all I don’t know means is No. “You all put my Joe in jail and then what am I gonna do?”
Joe, that was his name. Told you it’d come to me.
“Live your life,” Lew said. “Find a real man.”
“I got a real man, Lew.”
“Find one who keeps his hands to himself.”
“It’s my fault as much as it’s his, Lew. I know better than to say the things I say. But I go and get him upset, and he’s had a drink or two—”
“—and he can’t help himself. I’ll be okay, Lew.”
We got back in the car, on account of there was nothing else for us to do, and the rest of the night Lew never said a word unless he had to. Long silences, and if I tried to start a conversation it didn’t go anywhere, so I let it go.
It wasn’t two weeks later that we got another call for South Olive. “See the woman.” Lew let out a sigh when he heard the address, and when we got there it was the same story, except this time Joe hadn’t reached the point of passing out. He was belligerent, and he ran his mouth a little, and that gave Lew the excuse to smack him upside the head. And all that did, besides shut Joe’s mouth, was make her feel the need to stand by her man. I said her name a minute ago and now I can’t think of it. Damn, what was that woman’s name?
I believe you said it was Mildred.
Millie, that’s right. A man gets old and things just come and go out of his memory. First I can’t think of his name and then I can’t think of hers. Joe and Millie, Millie and Joe. “Oh, don’t hit him, Lew, don’t you dare hit my Joe!” And they’re arm in arm, a united front against the damn cops.
We got out of there, didn’t even bother to ask about pressing charges. Would have been a waste of breath.
Rest of the night, same story. Lew’s quiet. We wind up in a greasy spoon a block from Pershing Square, sitting over eggs and home fries and coffee, and out of nowhere he says, “You wouldn’t know it, but that’s a fine-looking woman underneath it all. Beautiful girl, she used to be. Son of a bitch cost her her looks, along with her spirit.”
I asked how he knew her. He was quiet, then pointed out something on the other side of the room. Somebody he recognized. Far as how he knew Millie, I never did get an answer.
There may have been a third time we got called there, or maybe not. Hard to keep everything straight. But then our shift changed, and we were working days, and if there were any calls to see the woman at the Olive Street address, well, we were off duty by the time they came in.
I think there must have been other calls. And looking back, I think Lew kept up with it, checked reports. He had an interest that ran deeper than mine.
A month, maybe six weeks, and we rotated back to nights. I liked nights better. You didn’t have the traffic, and it was dark, and just being in the car was better at night. The things Lew would find to talk about, and the way a conversation would just twist and turn like an old river. And the silences, too. It was all somehow better at night.
Of course, domestics were the downside of working nights. Now, you’d have husbands drinking any hour of the day, so you could in theory have a domestic disturbance on the stroke of noon, but they mostly happened in the hours right after midnight. And we weren’t back on the night shift a full week before we heard the Olive Street address coming over the radio. “Seven-forty-four South Olive, see the woman.”
You hear that? I just remembered the street number, it popped right into my head. Now, ten minutes from now I may forget my own name, but right now I remember the address.
At least I think that was it. But you know it didn’t matter when I couldn’t remember it and it doesn’t matter now. All torn down now, anyway. I can picture that little house clear as day, for all that I only saw it in the middle of the night, but in a few years when I’m gone there probably won’t be a person alive who remembers it.
That’s when something’s really gone, isn’t it? When there’s nobody left who remembers it …
Sorry, I just got distracted there. Hopped a train of thought and disappeared into the distance. That particular night, well, it was the same as the others. Maybe he was passed out that time, maybe he was belligerent or ob—what’s the word I want?
Obstreperous. Maybe he was this or that, maybe he was apologizing all over the place. Whatever it was, at bottom it was the same story. She had some new bruises and he was the one that put ‘em there. And over the next couple weeks there were two or three more calls, just variations on the theme. No, she won’t press charges. No, it’s really her fault, and he’s sorry, and they’re married, and this is something for them to work out on their own, and she’s just sorry we had to waste our time coming all that way, but we can go now, and thank you very much.
“Next time we hear that address,” Lew told me in the car, “we acknowledge it, and then we’ll go grab a hamburger someplace. Why burn gas chasing out there? Why waste our damn time?”
Then we’d get the call again, and we’d answer it, same as always.
And then one night the call came in, with the usual address. One thing different: “See the husband.”
I said, “See the husband? What did she do, beat him up?”
Lew shook his head. He knew what it meant, and by the time we got there I’d pretty much worked it out for myself.
He met us on the front step, standing out there in his underwear, and there were bloodstains on the front of his undershirt. He was bleary-eyed, and he reeked of Three Feathers. It wasn’t just on his breath. He was sweating like a pig, and the alcohol was coming out of his pores.
“I’m sorry,” he was saying. “I didn’t mean it, it was an accident, I don’t know what happened, I didn’t mean it, I’m sorry.”
Same thing, over and over and over.
Lew led him inside, and I was surprised as to how gentle his hands were this time, as if all the anger had faded away, with sadness taking its place. He put the man in an armchair, found a bottle with a little booze still in it, and gave it to him. The man took a drink, then clutched the bottle to his chest, as if to shelter it from the world.
Or to keep us from taking it away from him.
We didn’t see Millie right away, but we checked out the rest of the house, and she was in the bedroom. She was sprawled on the floor next to the bed, blood all over, and her head at an odd angle. Lew knelt down next to her, tried for a pulse, put his lips to her mouth, shook his head.
“Oh, you poor baby,” he said. “You were dying by inches and now you’re gone for real. Ah, Millie, you couldn’t listen, could you? You just couldn’t, poor baby. By God, you deserved better than what you got.”
He stood up and looked surprised to see me there. Like for a minute there it was just the two of them, and him talking to her, and no one else in their world.
To me he said, “Well, we got the fucker now, Charlie. We get to slam the barn door on him now that the horse is miles away and gone forever. If they don’t give him the gas, he’ll spend the rest of his life in a cell. The one good thing that comes out of all this is the world’s through with him.”
We were talking about that, and speculating about his chances of winding up in the gas chamber, and what difference it made one way or the other, and then there was a sound from where she was lying, and we stopped talking and turned to look at her.
And she opened her eyes. She said, “Lew?”
Her eyes closed.
And opened again. “Where’s Joe? Is Joe okay?”
Her voice was very faint, her eyes unfocused. Lew drew a breath, let it out. “Jesus,” he said. It was somewhere between a curse and a prayer. Then he said, “Charlie, go get on the phone. Call in, get an ambulance out here on the double. Go!”
So I went back to the other room, where Joe was passed out in the chair where Lew had put him. I didn’t have a number for a hospital, so I called the operator and gave her the address and told her to arrange for an ambulance.
In the bedroom, Millie looked as though she’d been crying. Tears down her cheeks, along with the blood and all. I told Lew I’d made the call, and he lowered his voice and said he didn’t know if she would make it. “She goes in and out,” he said. “You’d better wait outside so they’ll get the right house. Flag ‘em down before they fly right on by.”
I was on my way, but I stopped in the front room to look at the husband. He’d slipped off the chair and was sitting on the floor with his head on the chair cushion. I thought to myself that this piece of garbage was one lucky son of a bitch. He was sitting on a one-way ticket to Q, and then she opened her eyes and set him free.
Free to do it all over again.
The front door was open, and I’d hear the siren in plenty of time, so I stayed where I was. And I sort of heard something from the bedroom, or half heard it, and while I was trying to figure out just what it was, I heard the siren of an ambulance maybe three, four blocks away.
So I went outside and stood on the front step, and I motioned to the ambulance and pointed out where they could park, and then Lew was beside me, hanging his head.
“I think she’s gone,” he said.
Joe went to prison. There was no trial, his court-appointed lawyer had him plead it out, and that way he beat the gas chamber. The sentence was twenty to life, and Lew said that wasn’t long enough, and swore he’d turn up at the guy’s parole hearing and make sure he didn’t get out early.
Never happened. Lew and I pretty much lost track of each other. I got transferred to the Hollywood Division, but I heard about it when he killed himself. That’s not what they called it, they said he was cleaning his gun and had an accident, but it’s funny how so many cops’d have a few drinks and decide they better give their gun a good cleaning.
That must have been around 1955. And it wasn’t more than one or two years later that the husband died in prison. It seems to me somebody stuck a knife in him, but I may not be remembering that right. Maybe it was natural causes.
Then again, in a state joint, getting a knife stuck in you is pretty much a natural cause.
Charles, is there anything more you want to say?
All these years I kept this strictly to myself. There were stretches when it was on my mind a lot, and other times I’d go months or years without thinking about it at all.
But I never said a word to anybody.
And maybe I should leave it that way.
Same token, all of these people are gone. I must be the only man alive even remembers any of them. Why do I have to keep their secret?
Thing is, I don’t even know what I know. Not for certain.
No, this is what, oral history? What you call it?
Only way to say it is to say it.
When I’m in the living room, what I hear is a snapping sound. Like a twig breaking. It’s faint, it’s coming from the back of the house, and if I’m outside where I’m supposed to be I most likely don’t hear it at all.
And after the twig snaps, there’s like a little sigh. Like the air going out of something.
“I think she’s gone.” That’s what he said, and as soon as I heard the words I knew she was gone, and I realized I knew it from the moment I heard the twig snap.
Easy to call it that, but I don’t remember seeing any twigs in that bedroom.
I didn’t say anything, and Lew didn’t say anything, and then one night he did. Slow night, quiet night, and we’re in the car. I remember he was driving that night.
Out of the blue he says, “There’s people in this world who never have a chance.”
I knew he was talking about her.
I just sat there, and a minute or two later he says, “Say she pulls through. So he kills her next time, or the time after that. Or the twentieth time after that. You call that a life, Charlie?”
We caught a red light. More often than not what we’d do is slow down enough to see there was no cross traffic and then coast on through it, but this time he braked to a stop and waited for the light to change.
And while he was waiting he took his hands off the wheel and sat there looking at ‘em.
The light went to green and we moved on. Two, three blocks along he said, “This way she’s in a better place. And he’s where he belongs. You don’t know what I’m talking about, do you, Charlie?”
“No,” I said. “No idea.”
It wasn’t that much longer before they moved me to the Hollywood Division, which was an interesting place to be in those days. Not that you didn’t get domestics there, too, and every other damn thing, but the people were a little different. The same in many ways, but a little different.
Where was I?
Uh, the Hollywood Division.
No, before that. Never mind, I remember. It was maybe another month I was with Lew, before the move to Hollywood. And he never brought up the subject again, and I for sure never said anything, but there was one thing he kept doing, and it made me glad when they transferred me. I’d have been glad anyway, because the move amounted to a promotion, but it gave me a particular reason to be glad to get out of that particular radio car.
What he would do, he’d go silent and look at his hands. And I couldn’t see him do that without picturing those hands taking hold of that woman’s head and breaking her neck.
I guess he saw the same thing.
And is that why he sat up late one night, all by himself, and gave his gun a good cleaning? Maybe yes, maybe no. The things he supposedly did during the Zoot Suit Riots, far as I know he had no trouble living with them, or the other three Mexicans he killed, and he might have been the same way with this.
Because, you know, it was the only way that woman was gonna get out of it, the mess she was in. Look at it that way and he was doing the humane thing. And it was the perfect opportunity, because her husband already thought she was dead and that he’d killed her. So this way she’s out of it, and this way he goes away for it, and that’s the end of it.
So would it make Lew kill himself a few years down the line? My guess is it wouldn’t. My guess is he was feeling low one night, and he took a long look at his life, not what he’d done but what he had to look forward to.
Stuck the gun in his mouth just to see how it felt.
Here’s something else I never told anybody. I been that far myself. I remember the taste of the metal. I remember—now, I haven’t thought of this in ages, but I remember thinking I had to be careful not to chip a tooth. One trigger pull away from the next world and I’m worried about a chipped tooth.
I never broke any woman’s neck, or shot any Mexicans, or did any big things that weighed all that heavy on my mind. But looking at it one way, Lew pulled the trigger and I didn’t, and on that score that’s all the difference there was between us.
Of course that don’t mean I won’t go home now and do it. I’ve still got a gun. I guess I can clean it any time I have a mind to.
Lawrence Block is a Grand Master of the Mystery Writers of America and the New York Times bestselling author of A Drop of the Hard Stuff, the newest in the highly respected Matthew Scudder series, as well as over fifty other books.