A Good Man is Very Hard to Find

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
In this short story, the unnamed narrator describes the petty crime he committed and the major ramifications on his life, as his fate threatened to swallow him whole.

Submitted: October 10, 2009

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Submitted: October 10, 2009

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to Flannery

In those days, my mother had no money, so I came home, and spent most of my time in bars, smoking other people's cigarettes I filched from their packs, and putting my drinks on other people's bills.

I spent days on the couch, reading Flannery O'Connor, with spent old-fashioned glasses clinking against one another on the floor and the table, dried sugar lining the side of the glass. I had no job or true friends, but had come home to help Mother after Father died of a heart attack, found in the bathtub, the water having run ice-cold over his naked, flabby, hairy body. They lived alone, and she had discovered him.

I was supposed to get a job and help Mother with the rent, and upkeep on the house, paying for their car, and the food she could barely afford now. That option - employment - was totally unsuitable for me, so I took dollars where I could get them: from the hands of old, drunken sailors, who had not been with a woman in many years, and got some joy in being with a young man of 24 (I usually didn't have to do anything, except drink with them, and tell them they were handsome, and virile, and that I thought them gods and admired them); from the young thirteen year olds down the street who would give me the extra money they stole from their rich parents if I purchased them cigarettes or whisky; sometimes I would help the elderly women in the building, and they deemed me a "nice young man, forget the bad things I've heard! poor dear, having lost your father so young!" and would give me more money than my services were worth.

Sometimes I stole, sometimes this did not afford me anything. Sometimes I loafed, doing nothing but drinking. Sometimes I resented my status in town (a newly-minted half-orphan with an alcoholic mother, with no money, no name, and no opportunities for any better of a future) but I grew to accept it, and embrace instead the avenues it afforded me instead of the avenues I was denied.

I had dreams of being a writer, but I was who I was, not matter how I resented my fate. My name was Thomas then, although it is not Thomas anymore. After St. Thomas, my mother reminded me. My parents were Lutheran, although that facade of being very religious stunk of hypocrisy; it turned my stomach later, when I understood the meaning of hypocrisy. Years later, I made that facade fall apart.

We lived in Brooklyn, and in that Dantesque structure of apartments lay my damnation: where everyone knew everyone else, and my past swallowed whole my future. So I resigned to being me, came home from a self-imposed exile down South, and headed back home.

I had fled to Atlanta, where a friend of mine had gone, assuming, naturally, that I would live with him, and shed my former life. I never found that friend, and now, like everything else, his name has been erased from my past. There, I intended to find myself, but only found myself in trouble. I lived in a brush of woods, and sometimes stayed with men who would take me to their homes, and allow me to stay there, feeding me, letting me shower, buying me things, giving me money, if their wives were out of town, or if they were closet cases, and needed anonymity in their sex lives.

I was arrested once, which is how they found me. I had lifted the wallet from a man whose pockets were too wide, and who was standing far too close to me. Just lifting the wallet from his pocket with my forefinger and thumb would have been so simple - had there not be a person behind me. I felt instantly stupid, foolish, unprepared, that I had been caught - not because I was in trouble, but because I had been found.

After the sirens of the ambulance had pierced the Brooklyn sky, and neighbors emerged, eyes full of sleep, onto their balconies to watch the show, the word of my father's death disseminated like the epidemic through the apartments. A neighbor had taken out a missing persons report, because my mother had not cared enough to do so. In her words, I had left, cared no more for the family, and did not deserve to be a part of their lives. She claimed that notifying me of his death had not even crossed her mind because I had left them to rot in their own unhappiness.

In fact, I had done just that, thinking I would be free, assuming that their fate would devour them, that they would eventually suffocate under the stench of their own fetidness. I swore that their fate would not be mine too, but fate is a bastard, and she is awfully damn determined. So I must allow that suffocation with which my life has always threatened me to overtake me. I must be who she wants to be. And what I am, is a murderer.

"What are you doing today?" Mother said once, running her fingers through unwashed hair. It was about noon, and I had just awoke, I had not yet shaved. It was not merely a mother making conversation with her son; instead, it was a demand.

I mumbled a half-hearted reply that I was going to Wilson's Grocer to talk to Mr. Wilson. Wilson was a man of about sixty, and he knew my father, although any memory he had of my father seemed to be related with a certain kind of disdain, as if he hated his friend. I had told my mother a grandiose story that Mr. Wilson offered me a job, when, in fact, I had never spoken with him about coming to work at the grocer, I had only seen him a few times while wasting time in the coolness of the store, before the bars opened. I often relaxed outside drinking a Coke, and I think my pedigree (note the use of that word negatively) prohibited him from coming outside to shoo me away.

Mother said nothing, she only took a swig of her drink; her clothes reeked of vodka, and extinguished cigarettes she had stubbed out into the lid of a container of peanuts littered the table before her. She drank the rest, and I fixed for her another, as I often did. She finally spoke, her voice jagged with cigarette smoke and gin. "There are plenty of things for you to do." I took one of my mother's cigarettes, which I hated for they were so damn feminine, and she did not even notice me as I lifted the pack, plucked one from the worn package, and placed it between my lips.

"Yes, Mother," I said obediently, my voice muffled, as I had a cigarette between my lips. I lit it, and smoked it for a while. We sat quietly, inhaling each other's breath and cigarette smoke. I fixed myself a drink using her liquor.

"I hear Mrs. Davidson can barely walk." With her thumb, she scratched at her teeth, and sucked on the thumb. "Perhaps she needs someone to help her," she advised.

"I don't think so," I said dismissively, lifting the book I was reading, and locating the dog-eared page that marked my place.

"Mrs. Davidson has more money than she knows what to do with, I think," Mother said, "ever since that husband of hers left her those stocks. And look at her!" Mother scoffed at Mrs. Davidson, who was neither nice nor rude to me. I never spoke with Mrs. Davidson, I only saw the shuffle of her gaudy clothes and large, stone-like jewelry into her apartment. Mother often spoke disdainfully of the old parrots, as she called them: those old women, with the large, Coke-bottle spectacles, and the gaudy, flashy jewelry hanging like chunks of polished plastic from their wrists and necks, and the brightly colored, ill-fitting sweaters and skirts they wore, to the way they squawked instead of spoke. Mother called them the parrots, and she hated birds.

Mother laid her head down on the arm of the couch, and lit up another cigarette. She pushed the ice in her glass around with one finger. "Well, do something, for Chrissakes," she said, and I rolled my eyes. "Because you know I can't do this any longer." She crossed her eyes and watched the paper of her cigarette burn down to almost the filter. It was relaxing to her, and the breath she exhaled even calmed me. She again scratched her unwashed hair.

Mother was only forty. She had been impregnated by my father at sixteen, and sometimes I think she birthed me only so she could tell me that she never really wanted me. I think I was allowed to live, so she could tell me that she really wanted me to die, that she loved me so I would always know that she secretly hated me. Her hair had gone gray far too early; it was usually bound, unwashed, at the base of her neck. Her eyes, once blue, I was told, were now a dull gray, and a forest of tiny wrinkles overtook them.

It is hard to recall my father, what he looked like, what his voice sounded like, any of those normal identifying features. All I remember of my father, all that I need to know, is that, although he never hated me, nor did I hate him, there was a simply an absence of love. He was either with his mistress, drunk, or tired from working in the factory sixty hours a week, and sleeping.

"Do something," she repeated, but I was lost in my book. That night, I did something: I washed my hair in the bathroom sink, dressed, and a pair of my mother's feminine cigarettes filched and in my shirt pocket, I walked to the corner.

The bar was dark, and in lieu of air, there was cigarette smoke, expelled ironically from the mouths of those who were as bored and useless at work as I was. I was next to one who looked over forty, his dark hair shorn dangerously close to his skull. He had a jagged, uneven scar across his face, and I found myself staring at it. He looked at me, said: "You should see the other guy." His voice was deep; he swallowed some of his drink.

"Say," he said much later, after he had purchased us several drinks, and the room was beginning to spin, "I need help." The bar was now empty and we were angled in the corner, his legs open over his chair; I was swallowing the seventh or eighth drink he had purchased me. "And you can make some money, if you want."

I took one of my cigarettes, and lighted it, told him I was listening. "You know Dottie Davis?" he said, and of course I knew her. She lived in my apartment building, and had recently been in the paper after her husband, who was a very rich former mayor of New York, collapsed of a heart attack. Like every other parrot, she had old, gaudy money, money both Daddy and Hubby left; as Mother said bitterly, as she read the paper about rich Davis, "That parrot probably uses it to wipe her ass."

"What about her?" I asked, placing a piece of ice between my teeth, and chewing on it. The icy feel of the ice hurt my teeth. She was a reclusive, whose only company was her old, decaying possessions. She spoke to no one because she was fearful of people trying to hurt her or get her money. She had a deadbeat son, whom she had excised from her will, and I had met him a few times, even drank and smoked with him several times, after I saw him pounding on her door, begging to be let in. He was a nice, scraggly, handsome-in-a-dirty-way guy. "What about her?" I asked.

"I've seen you coming from her apartment building," he said, and I told him she lived two floors above our apartment. I did not even recognize what his statement meant: that he had been watching me; that he preyed on me. "I want to rip her place off," he said, so matter-of-factly. He took another sip, another hit from his cigarette.

I laughed loudly. "Be serious," I said, chuckling, tearing off some of the cigarette's filter with my teeth.

"I am," he said, "dead fucking serious." And his eyes, now darkened, told me he was. "My buddy robbed a place in upstate last week, got $20,000 from it. Twenty fucking thousand. And, of course, you'd get, oh, I don't know, twenty percent."

The specter of money suddenly became for me the fatted calf, the whore of Babylon. She appeared before me, her skin sweet and smelling of perfume; I did not want to turn her down. She whispered to me: "Do it, you're handsome, you're virile, you're sexy, do it just for me."

His plan was simple: I would allow him entrance to the apartment, he would break into the apartment, he would handle everything. "if need be," he said so casually, "we can do away with the old lady," and we would leave, where I would take him to his friend's place outside of the city. There he would give me my share, and I could leave. "Then," he said, "you never have to see me again."

"It will never work," I insisted. "She never leaves her apartment. Everything is delivered to her, she barely opens her door. She is a recluse." I shook my head. "It will never work." His plan to do it in the middle of night further inhibited me. For a moment, I became frightened, but the stench of four thousand dollars - or more! he said - calmed me down, and allowed to reason: Davis may not wake up, or we could chloroform her, we're just stealing things, and selling them, and once she kicked me, and called my mother a whore. That kick hurt my shin, although my mother was a whore.

I agreed to do it, not because of some need of mine to be involved in a life of crime, but because of greed, which is probably the reason why any crime is committed. Four thousand dollars - or more! - for simply allowing someone to enter my apartment building seemed too large a draw to turn down.

He arrived when a night was especially pitch-black, as if Christ himself (if one believes in such beings) knew what the night held, and spread more thick blackness across the sky. I had crept from my apartment, where Mother lay drunk on the couch, and waited outside for the man. I had mentioned my name in passing, yet I never knew his name. I never considered asking him his name, or weighed what not knowing his name would cost me; I figured such formalities were unneeded.

I had a cigarette in my mouth, when he approached in his small, black, nondescript car, from which I noted he had removed the license plates, dressed in all black, as he had instructed me to do. He had a gun tucked in his belt, and carried a suitcase, he told me was full of lye and chloroform and bleach, just in case. He gave me black gloves and he wore some as well.

I allowed him to enter; I smiled at the doorman, who probably assumed that I was bringing home another gentleman for the evening; I pressed four, which was the number of Davis' floor, and I waited in silence with this man, my partner in crime. I never once considered going back, or fleeing down the back staircase, as I so easily could have done, once we were on Davis' floor. Instead, I waited, I went, I partook, while chanting to myself: Four thousand dollars. Four thousand dollars.

I planned to do so much with the money. With it, I could purchase a car, and leave my mother, and perhaps put some kind of down payment on a place far away from her. If anything, I wanted to use the money to leave her, to allow her to die in her own waste, for I was tired of being her son, and she undoubtedly was tired of being my mother. To say that I hated my mother would be dishonest; saying that I resented her would be more correct. She strangled me, and I would quite literally do anything to be free of her, and the waste and ruin she perpetuated. I was tired of living in her stench.

So I pushed myself down that hallway toward Davis' apartment, which was at the end. She liked that no one ever passed her apartment. If any noise was heard outside her apartment, it meant they had come expressly to see her, which no one ever did. No one needed to venture that far down the hallway, except to see her, which she disdained. Dottie Davis craved privacy like most craved love, and hearing that people hated her, or resented her just made her even happier.

Dottie Davis was the kind of person who frowned even when she smiled. And Dottie Davis frowned when she slept, which I was thought was suitable for Davis. She did not look peaceful while asleep, as most do, instead she looked angry, or gassy, or irritated, as though any moment she might spring to life, and enumerate her griefs against the world, as though she might wake up and begin to tell you why she hates living, and people, and specifically you.

Her hair was bound in curlers, wrapped in toilet paper, and pinned in place, and her nightgown was old and ugly. Her wrinkles looked so deep, as though one could get lost inside, and her hands, old, and brown with liver spots, were folded sternly underneath her saggy breasts.

Her living room was noticeably bare, except for a few tiny things here and there, which my companion quickly placed in his bags. He wandered through the apartment, and I followed him, and I could feel the anger that built inside of him. The apartment, which should have been full of rich, expensive things, was filled with nothing, but stale, worthless remnants and remainders of a lonely, bitter, dying old woman. I instantly hated Davis, although anger at her seemed so absurd and I wanted to beat my chest in anger, and frustration.

"There's nothing here!" he exclaimed and I urged him to be quiet. He walked farther into the apartment, looking for something, anything, as my dreams of money, my dreams of leaving, my dreams of freedom suddenly popped and dissolved like bubbles in a windstorm. They deflated before my very eyes like a sorry balloon and resentment folded into anger and into hate. I screamed.

"Hey you! Stop!" I saw the shuffle of nightgown and toilet paper come from the bedroom. She screamed, "Help! Stop, stop!" I turned and saw Dottie Davis, a lamp clutched fiercely in her hand. She recognized me immediately and screamed a churlish scream.

"I know you!" she screamed at me, and pointed her bent finger at me. "You're that little bastard queer whose father just hung himself!"

"My father died of a heart attack," I said to her, to which she laughed, almost cackled. "That's what they told you! Your bastard, loser father tied a rope around his neck and jumped, you stupid queero!" I hated my mother even more and my head spun. My father: suicide? why? why had he hanged himself? For some reason, I retained some belief that my father was relatively good, and Davis was threatening that. My mother, whose face made me gag, was threatening that.

"I'll call the police!" she screamed at me. "They'll lock you up, which is what they should do to queeros!" She shuffled to the phone. I turned around: my companion had bolted, leaving behind the suitcase, and bag, and the door wide open. I suddenly realized: I did not know his name, I had no proof he was even with me. She knew me, she could so very easily identify me. Grabbing the suitcase, I swung it wildly, and it came down on her head. She dropped the phone and fell to the floor. Again, I beat the side of her head with it.

I threw the deadbolt on the door, and I took her fat, swollen, veiny ankles and dragged her to the bathtub, where I heaved her fat body up and over into it. I ran back into the living room, and grabbed whatever was in my reach: a bust of someone I didn't recognize. In the bathroom, I smashed her face in. I broke her nose, smashed it backward into her head, I made a large, bloody dent in the side of her head, I shattered her teeth, and loosened her jaw.

I jumped back, my mouth open, noting comically how she looked as grotesque a monster as Davis actually was. I grabbed quickly the suitcase and flung it open, removing from it the lime. Truthfully, I had no clue how to dispose of a body, and considered for several minutes what to do first, my only basis for information were the mobster movies I had watched.

So with my fist, I jerked out her teeth and flushed them down the toilet, watching the bloody, pulpy, white bite-size pieces circle the bowl and go down. I poured some lye over her body, pouring extra over her face. I stopped up the drain with a handful of toilet paper, and emptied the entire bottle of bleach into the bathtub; it barely covered her body. I emptied the other bottle and a half she kept in her cabinet, and prayed, haphazardly, that it would cover up the smell. I hoped that she would not be missed, for days, weeks, without seeing her was nothing unusual. I did not consider the future, only what was happening right then and there.

I almost felt sorry for Dottie Davis's melting visage, but I knew: I could not stay in Brooklyn. I had to find something to salvage, something that may be worth even a little something, just to get me out of the state. I thought California might be nice, but first I would go home and see my awful, hated mother, and say goodbye in my way. I was careful not to touch anything, and I finally found a handful of jewels in her bedroom, in the back of her closet, that I stuffed into my pockets. Then I fled her putrid apartment and felt like vomiting. I made it back to my own apartment, and let myself in. The bottle of lye was in my left hand.

Days had extended into weeks, and weeks had folded into months by the time Dottie Davis's body was found. I lived in fear, and became myself a recluse, afraid to leave my apartment, that I would carry with me my guilt and it would be evident like a giant, scarlet A on my chest. So I left only when necessary, which was hardly ever, and I watched the news and read the papers. I did not rub my hands in glee when they said that they had no leads, but that a strange man had been seen lurking outside the apartment building; nor did I rejoice when everyone assumed it was just another old-rich-lady-is-murdered story and would die soon. I did chuckle when the paper informed us that the "apartment had been stripped bare," for, cruelly, it was already bare when we arrived. I did not want to sell the jewels yet, as I thought that would be far too suspicious, so instead I stayed in my apartment, and waited for a few months to pass. Then I would sell the jewels and leave town. What I left behind, would stay left behind, dead in that old apartment.

I am sorry to only record my evil deeds, instead of something good I've done (if anything! examples of that would be scarce, about as numerous as money in my bankbook.) Shakespeare tells us, however, in Henry VIII, "Men's evil manners live in brass; their virtues / We write in water." I feel almost drowned by the life I was destined to live, for I could not change it. There is something smothering about poverty, for its hand only pushes one deeper down into the swirling, black water.

I am in another state, although, for matters of my safety, I cannot let you know more, and my name is no longer Thomas. My hair is no longer black, and I no longer have that telltale New York accent. It is strange seeing your face on wanted lists, knowing that everyone knows you've committed murder. How absurd that I almost escaped detection, how absurd my actions that stuck my neck out on the line: I put the bottle of bleach back in her cabinet. I used to worry about life, but I don't worry anymore.

Several weeks later, after I had made some considerable money selling my company to older men and making good money, they found my mother dead, a thick rope about her neck, and strangled. Lye was poured over her body, and she was submerged in bleach. As far as I know, there are no leads.


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