Just a Little Jumpy Tonight
by Jackie SprattBoomer heard the noise and wheeled to face it. There was something in the darkness behind him. He could feel it.
He probed the shadows with his eyes, but saw nothing beyond the hulking walls of the buildings, the black form of a derelict Honda Civic, some cardboard boxes piled by the back door of the Chinese restaurant, discarded food wrappers, a Styrofoam cup upended in the middle of the sidewalk.
The alley was narrow, dank and empty. Deserted.
So what was that noise?
Boomer cocked his head and listened. Nothing. Nothing.
Then a muffled clink.
His eyes darted to the apparent origin of the sound near the cardboard boxes.
He opened his eyes wide to let in maximum light and focused on the boxes. Ah. The flick of a movement, like a shadow, in the corner of his eye. What was it? A mouse? A cat’s tail? A foot? A hand, hastily withdrawn from his line of sight?
Was he being silly or cautious? A theatrical fool or a man about to be killed?
He debated turning and running, but found himself immobilized. If he turned, he would be exposing his back. To what or whom? A startled cat or a cocked gun in the hand of an assassin? Yet, if he continued to stand, immobile, in the middle of the alley, he would be making a clay pigeon of himself.
And that would be too perfect.
A literal, as well as figurative, pigeon.
Attack, flee or drop and roll. Which was it to be?
He felt sweat prickling his forehead and upper lip. His stomach was making watery gurgles and prodding him with sharp pains that warned of an imminent loosening of the bowels. Ever the thinker, he saw the image of himself, frozen in the alley, on the brink of soiling his underwear for the first time in his adult life. He saw the image and hated it. Then he hated the people who had brought him to this state.
What a fool he had been to come into this alley.
What had he been thinking? A shortcut. He had been running late. It had seemed so easy, to dart into the alley behind the restaurant between the two streets. It would save him a couple of minutes and maybe get him to the appointment on time. So he had thought.
If this turned out badly, he would not get to the appointment at all.
Still, suffused with anger at what they had done to him, he glared at the boxes and began to walk slowly toward the noise. Enough is enough. Time to live free or die. Wasn’t that what the Americans said? Live free or die? So here it was. The end of days. For him, at least, and maybe for others.
One foot in front of the other. Quietly, quietly. Toward the noise and the flitting shadow among the boxes. Fists balled, muscles tensed. Ready to leap on any human shape, knock it to the pavement and pummel it senseless. Before it poked its head over the boxes and saw him, defenseless, bearing down with nothing but anger and fists to counter the threat of a gun.
Boomer reached the boxes and stood, silently, looking at them. Then he pulled back his right leg and kicked them as hard and as sharply as he could. The empty boxes flew up into his face and clattered down the empty alley.
There was nothing there.
So what was that noise? Not here? Somewhere else?
Boomer spun on his heel and searched the darkness behind him.
Idiot, he told himself. You’re letting this get out of hand.
Ah, but it had got out of hand, so to speak, long before he had made the rash decision to take a shortcut down a dark alley at night. Now was not the time for berating himself. He could do that later, when he was in safer waters. Now, his task was to get himself out of the alley and into the bright harbour of the restaurant.
Boomer took a cautious step toward the mouth of the alley, still listening intently. Nothing. He took another step, then another. Soon he was walking rapidly toward the lights of the main street, no longer listening for phantom sounds. Wanting to break into a run, but still too afraid of looking silly, foolish, to anyone who might be observing his bizarre behaviour.
If anyone saw him, what would they think? Absurd man. Gaga, no doubt. Seeing demons in discarded boxes. Thinking himself so important that he imagined the governments of the world sending assassins to kill him, to stop him from revealing their secrets. There were people like that, wandering the streets with tangled hair and disheveled clothing, talking about aliens and space craft and government conspiracies.
Was he one of them now?
No. This was real enough. The threat was real.
There were no aliens or space craft or government conspiracies. Just crazy mad people who wanted him dead because they found his continued existence offensive and intolerable.
What had he done to them? He didn’t know them. They didn’t know him.
All he had done was write some things. Things he cared about and wanted to say. Then, finally, after a lifetime of rejections and disappointments, he had enjoyed the great good fortune of having them published. And what did they mean, those things? Nothing. They meant nothing. They were nothing but stories. They did nothing but relate some things he had in his mind and his heart. Things he thought.
Boomer saw a group of people at the end of the alley, walking along the street, chatting and laughing, maybe coming from the theatre or going to a nightclub. Two men, two woman. Happy and normal. Just going about their normal evening in a normal city in a normal country on a normal night.
He saw them and loved them and drove toward them, to be with them, to lose himself in their little group so that the assassin, if there was one behind him in the alley, would have no clear target.
His life had come to this, he thought. Using innocent theatre-goers as shields against murky gunmen who may or may not be hiding somewhere in the shadows of the alley.
What a farce.
And yet, what could he do about it? It was absurd. It should end. But what could he do about it?
He walked with the two laughing couples, hanging close to them, trying to seem a part of their group without spooking them. When they reached the restaurant, he broke off and turned toward the door. He took a quick glance over his shoulder, back toward the alley, and saw a man’s form pull back into the shadows.
Boomer shivered, knowing that he had been right about the noise but so, so wrong in his reaction. So close. So close. Not knowing what else to do, he yanked open the door and fell into the light and warmth of the restaurant.
He barely heard the maitre d’ with his smarmy do you have a reservation, very good, sir, take your coat, sir, just over here sir. Boomer’s eyes searched the room frantically. They lit on Jonathon Barnes sitting over an open bottle of red, near the back of the restaurant. Boomer sighed and relaxed.
Home free, for now at least.
He thrust his overcoat at the maitre d’ and strode across the road toward Jonathan, big smile on his face.
Man, am I glad to see you?
Why? What’s up?
What to say? Because I’m going to sit with my back to the wall and put your body between me and the door? Because you, all five-foot-six of you, is somehow going to protect me from the crazy mad zealot who is stalking me, gun or knife in hand, to kill me for some offence I have committed, unknowingly and uncaringly, against him and his kind?
This is not the type of thing one says to one’s publisher in a restaurant in downtown Toronto.
Instead, Boomer grasped at straws and spouted the first thing that came into his reeling mind.
I’ve got a whole bunch of great ideas, he said, and I want to know what you think of them.
Yeah, right. As if he would ever write anything like that again.
Jonathan smiled and poured a glass of Merlot for him.
Boomer smiled back. It was so normal. Once, this had been his life. For a few short weeks, this had been his life. Gosh. He had heard that fame was fleeting, but he had never expected it to be this fleeting. This was ridiculous.
He tried to think of something normal to say to Jonathan. Nothing came to mind. He kept thinking of the man in the alley, the muffled clink and the necessity of leaving the restaurant at some time before dawn. It was unlikely they would let him stay here, with Jonathan, forever. He would have to leave the light and warmth. And the man would still be out there waiting for him.
Unless he came in here.
Boomer started looking around at the waiters.
They were all small and dark. Maybe Mediterranean. Maybe Arab.
What was to say they weren’t part of it? How much money or sex or eternal glory were they offering for his head? That’s what they wanted, wasn’t it? He had seen the hand-lettered signs on TV. Death to the blasphemer. And the faces, ugly with hate. Lusting for his head. Angry, offended, wanting to lick the blood off his severed head. Wanting to hold it up to the moon and howl in their triumph.
Crazy mad people who wanted him dead. Not just dead, but dismembered and trampled and sucked dry of life. Crazy mad people.
And they were everywhere.
Something wrong, Boomer?
No, why would you say that? Just a lot of things on my mind. New ideas, you know, that I want to write about. Things are great. What could be wrong?
So it doesn’t bother you?
The fatwa. The imam’s curse. The price on your head. It doesn’t bother you?
Of course not. Why should it? This is a civilized city. We live in a civilized country. We’re civilized people. Things like that don’t happen here. It’s silly to think it.
Well, good for you. Personally, I’d be shitting myself.
Boomer thought of himself, so close to soiling himself just moments ago in the alley, because some ridiculous man was stalking him, ready to kill him in some fiendish way. Would it be a knife? That Dutchman. It had been a knife for him, hadn’t it? They like to slit the throat and sever the head, don’t they?
Grotesque acts by grotesque people.
It was enough to make you believe in parallel universes. Certainly, they didn’t inhabit his universe. It was like something you read when you were a kid and you found some old adventure books for English boys in a box in the attic. Lost empires and secret societies. Saxe Rohmer and his yellow peril. Fu Man Chu and the Thugees. Indiana Jones and beating hearts torn from living chests. Some kind of insane cult living in caves in the desert.
Fun at a Saturday matinee, but real life? You’ve got to be kidding.
Surreal. And now he was in the middle of it. A parallel universe that he couldn’t escape. And yet he couldn’t speak of it, because it would make him sound like a paranoid fool. A gaga old man, conjuring demons from shadows. Had they said that about him, what was his name -- van Gogh, wasn’t it -- the Dutchman?
Oh, he’s just a paranoid old man. Don’t pay any attention to him. We live in a civilized city, in a civilized country. Nothing like that can happen here. But it did. What did they say to him then? Oh, sorry, Mr. van Gogh. A slight miscalculation. Nothing we could do. We’re a diverse, multicultural society, you know.
He felt like throwing up on the table. What had they done to him, severing his liberalism, turning him into a racist and bigot? One time, not long ago, he might have joined his colleagues in speaking in their favour, demanding justice for them. Not now. Not ever.
What do you feel like? The chicken is usually good.
Sure. That’ll be great.
Of course, it wouldn’t be great. It would stick in his throat, rise in his gorge. He’d probably end by chucking it all over Jonathan and his crisp, new shirt.
The waiter reached in to refill his wine glass. He caught the motion in the corner of his eye and jumped away. Little brown man reaching at him. All his nerves screaming danger, danger. The waiter’s hand jerked and wine spilled out, gushing over Boomer’s clean shirt like blood on a shroud.
No, no apology necessary. It was my fault. Didn’t see you. You startled me, is all. No apology necessary, please. I’m fine.
Except the heart is beating like a trip-hammer and Boomer is ready to throttle the first brown man who comes too close.
Do that again and I’ll kill you. I’ll grab your brown hand and twist it until it breaks. Brown hand that could so easily grip a knife. I’ll break your hand off and stuff it in your mouth before you have the chance to slit my throat and sever my head from my neck.
I’m sorry, Jonathan. I’m a little jumpy tonight. A bit off-colour. Cold coming on or something. Pay no attention. Now what were you saying? A tour? Let me think about it.
A tour, of all things. Now? What a crazy idea. Bright lights. Public places. Stuck behind a desk full of books with no way out. Smiling and signing. Anybody – any nut – could walk right up. A sitting duck. A clay pigeon. What kind of pigeon did Jonathan think he was?
Actually, Jonathan, I’m thinking of going away for a while. To do some writing, of course. Someplace quiet where I can work on my ideas. I was hoping you could see your way clear to give me a bit of an advance against my next work. Given that the last one has done so well and all. Not much. Just enough to set me up somewhere quiet and give me a chance to do some serious work.
We’d have to see something. An outline or something.
I’ll work on it. I can have it to you tomorrow.
Boomer smiled and looked at his publisher and thought how it had really been Jonathan who had provoked him to write the damned book. Oh, the ideas, partly formed, had been his own. But Jonathan had pushed him to go farther than he had meant to go. To say things he wouldn’t have said, or even thought, without Jonathan’s promise of a publishing contract and big sales and maybe even a multi-book deal. To sharpen the language and make the narrative more controversial so the book would get attention and sell more copies.
So in reality, now that he thought about it, it was Jonathan who had got him into this mess with imams and curses and fatwas and brown men in alleys, waiting in dark doorways to ambush him and slit his throat.
Dessert. Let’s have dessert. And a nice dessert wine to go with it. And a coffee to chase it all down.
And let’s never leave this place, Boomer thought, because once I step outside that door the shadow man with the knife will be waiting and the chances are maybe 50-50 that I’ll never have the chance to write another book or think another thought or live another day.
He looked up to see Jonathan gazing at him with worry or concern or disbelief. It all somehow looks the same, doesn’t it?
What? Why are you staring?
So Boomer told him. About the shortcut and the noise and the flick of movement in the boxes and the shape of a man emerging from the alley, then ducking back into the shadows when he turned to face him.
He’s still out there. He’ll kill me when I leave. I know it. They’re everywhere, but I don’t know who they are. I’m not equipped to fight them. I’m a writer. Not some kind of Ian Fleming, James Bond, trained killer. They’ll slit my throat and leave me to bleed to death in the street. You know they will. They’ve done it before.
We’ll get you out.
Now, if you like. I’ll make some calls. We’ll keep you safe.
Move you around. Hire bodyguards to watch your back. Make sure nobody can get to you. It won’t be forever, Boomer. Just until this quiets down. And it will quiet down, I promise you. It always does.
Okay. Let’s do it. Let’s do it now.
He sat back in his chair, hand wrapped around an untouched glass of Merlot, while Jonathan went away to make calls to some people he knew.
Boomer was absurdly grateful. He felt like bursting into tears. Like a child or a woman. Perhaps they were right about him. Perhaps they were right about everything. Perhaps his own universe was nothing but a sham, and theirs was the real one.
It seemed now, at the end of this day, everything was theirs to be right about.
Submitted on 2007-07-10 20:07:35
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