No Black Life Shall Demean Me by Robin Wyatt Dunn

Darkness is a veil; underneath I sleep. I haven’t eaten in three days
and the hunger keeps waking me up.

Outside my window, the streetlamp sheds its orange radiation out over
Western Avenue and through my window. It makes a noise too, a low
crazy-making buzz that will go away for a time but is always there if
you listen.

I’m listening now, and listening for the phone to ring. If I don’t
want to sleep under a bridge starting next week, I’m going to need
work.

For a year—the happiest of my life, perhaps—I had an office and I had
a wife. They left around the same time. I don’t mind being alone,
except that it makes me think things. That’s another reason I need
work: to focus my thoughts.

Above, a meteorite streaks red across the sky.

The phone rings.

“Hello?”

I realize in my astonishment I’ve answered and said nothing. It’s a
woman’s voice.

“Yes.”

“It says in your ad you solve hard cases?”

“Yes.”

“Are you for real?”

“Sure I am.”

The sound of her voice reminds me of my wife.

“He killed my baby . . .” she says.

– –

Of course nothing is settled—how could it be? I’ve barely begun and
already my conscience has run away with me—all the things I’ve done.
Have still to do. Have done, and forgotten.

In the dark silence of my room, I can pretend that I do not exist.

– –

In a former life, I was a college instructor. The two jobs are not
dissimilar. Of course, as a professor I did not carry a gun.

On the whole, I find I prefer my new career, perhaps because lowlifes
are more honest than college students.

I drive my aging Honda north to Hollywood and find a place in one of
the many strip malls, next to a Glamour Headshot photo joint and a
Japanese noodle shop.

“I’ll be wearing a fedora.”

She was already dead.

1.

No black life shall demean me, for I am holy, and my wizard stick is
an onion, it can travel for miles, I have seen it in my dreams.

My wizard stick is my gun. Of course, it is of American manufacture.
The only thing we know how to make anymore. This particular model is
made from Youngstown steel.

I have never been to Ohio, but they are also Americans there. Or so I hear.

I cry from a swamp of England, before it was England, when it was called Swamp.

In that Swamp, my ancestors lived.

How do I know this? Well, I don’t. It is not something I know any more
than I know that an asteroid plowed into Mexico 60 million years ago
to extinguish the dinosaurs.

Still, one knows.

Every biome on Earth reaches into quintessence, which is death, in Los
Angeles, where the climate comes to die, and where men, women and
children do the same, so as to learn, what kind of a thing life is.

For an Anglo like me, the question is: am I still the swamp?

Has the water receded?

Are my frogs still juicy?

And does the black juice of my mud when streaked over my body still
terrify the women and the strangers who come to my watery grave?

Even here amidst my palm trees and horror, these ancestral questions
occupy us. The land where the ancestors were born.

Here I know:  I have made it, to death.

I am death, or at least, one of his servants, a scribe, and I will
seek to know everything that I can about him. I will study Death like
a good hit man, observing his movements and patterns, and coming to
know him in the days before I kill him.

But I am also just a kind of thing that death uses. Despair, and,
occasionally, humor.

I live in the bog, and come to haunt you, whisper into your ear, some
of the secrets of life. But to hear them, first you must die:

America is a place where men have been dying for ideas for a very long
time; and its soil is rich for this reason. Not only with blood, but
with the corpses of the ideas. There is no better fertilizer.

– –

She was a little Mexican girl with skin like glass and those eyes that
make you want to drown.

– –

I am not myself; but maybe this is not news to you. Maybe you know
better than I what happens to people when they study evil men, and
women. When you watch what they do.

– –

You can begin anywhere: in the forest, in your bedroom, inside a city,
or on the ocean. The ocean may be the most difficult: you need some
tight surroundings, to invite thoughts which have some closure to
them, rather than the sea.

Begin to doubt: begin to move: change your hat, and your face. Grow a
beard, wear different clothes, and walk out into your city, your
forest, your bedroom, once again, you are here; here is changing,
thanks to you:

Noir begins inside your heart.

Noir is a question: what have we become? And what are we becoming now?
And who am I?

I am a man born in Washington D.C. under the reign of Jimmy Carter,
watch your oil, eat at Joe’s, buy American, send cancer overseas, and
remain willing to doubt authority, for his shadow is your own, come
nearer now, to hear our blessings and arraignments, to judge our
mighty kingdom, anthill, and make music with his stomping boot:

All women are femme fatales.

The femme fatale, though, only exists when she comes to meet you. The
femme fatale exists because you do, a man. In coming to see you, she
becomes fatal.

And why should this be? Why should the woman be peaceable, until you
have arrived before her? You, her ticket to violence.

This is noir too, of course: the ligature of Athena dressing her
servant, in her raiment of honor, opening the cylinder and dropping in
brass.

If you conscious, but you afraid to drop knowledge, you still a slave.
And all cities are slavery capitals of the world; this is why they
exist.

Indeed, for this reason it is impossible to be conscious in a city:
not completely.

For if I kill it must be done under shadow, not only of light but of
the mind, where thought can slip by unnoticed, under the eaves of the
castle of the king, rich murderer and horrible infant, his towers
mighty, and my arm short, his eyes terrible, and mine weak, and the
arms of the women diaphanous as flame, where I am come, this horrible
vessel, of deliverance.

Ride my steed, for I am weary, and must set afoot to the business of killing.

You can say (and you would be right) that killing is not enough, that
as soon as we become monsters to seek monsters to destroy, we are
helplessly rebuilding our own prison. But I say killing kills some
aspects of philosophy as well, and under its horizon are mysteries
which only come to account much later, in the eyes of history and of
god.

History is full of killing; not all of it bad.

All of a question of who, when and how, eh?

2.

To fight evil, you first have to believe in it. Then, you have to seek
it out. The first part is the hardest.

Rain falls over the kingdom of Los Angeles, from the mouth of the
sleeping god, whose red face peers over our balconies, fire escapes
and convertibles, like a fast orbiting moon, spinning into the dark.

I look for the coffee vendor but he has retreated into his van; I
stand with the homeless and am given a styrofoam cup full of Mexican
hot chocolate by a little girl.

The rain is a blessing; we get so little of it.

I have been hired to find a man, her husband.

Women looking for their men. But when they find them, they often want
them gone again.

There is still a working pay phone by the subway. I pick up the
receiver and drop my dollar coin into the slot.

867-5309, Jenny Jenny Jenny . . .

I dial the morgue.

“Hello.”

“Yeah, you got a body there, a Jane Doe #2?”

“We always have a few Jane Does. Come down, take a look. What’s she look like?”

“I don’t know, I have to see her first.”

The subway has twenty minutes left before it shuts down for the night.
I head down the stairs and hand my card to the guard.

Inside my retina I can still see the streak of the meteorite.

3.

Each instant on the subway is a world of its own; I have become
something of a connoisseur of them, mulling over the psyche of my city
as revealed underground.

Now that I am employed again I find I can bear the various cruelties
of my kind with more ease. It isn’t the money, it’s the psychological
shielding. The certainty that I am wanted, if only for today. Someone
desires that I remain alive, and well enough to sit on the subway, and
get off at my stop . . .

Serving death is much like serving life. Taking account of the
differences, between all manner of ephemera coursing over the surfaces
of the faces of Los Angeles, checking for consistency, depth,
pressure, rage. A pulse. Check for a reason. A phone number. A way
out. You always need two exits, and one of them is death.

“Is this her?”

“It looks like her.”

Now my client is dead.

4.

I have a daughter. She is twelve years old. I haven’t seen her for five years.

What can one man do, when faced with the collapse of his society?

You hold on, to whatever pieces still float, and you swim.

But collapse is not quite the right metaphor, not yet. If we are a
ship, our captain has gone mad, and sealed himself in the boiler room,
cooking it hotter and hotter to make it explode.

So we must break in, and stop him.

But our captain isn’t just one man. In the information age, my duty is
to record, observe, and document the evidence.

And soon, I will have no paying clients left. Perhaps she was the last.

So, I have you. If you can read this, I am doing it for you.

5.

Killing is such a surprise; very close to love.

You encounter a man and suddenly, you undertake to killing him.

Men harbor their deepest instincts in the art of killing: even if
you’ve never thought about it before, never come anywhere close to it,
your body has all kinds of ideas about it. Your body knows all kinds
of killing.

I shot him underneath the balcony of the small palazzo in Encino.

His long face was a gangster’s face, which is something that is
carried not only in the eyes, but in the skin of the face, which is
worn, and tired, and in the posture too, a certain dancer’s spirit,
which is the clothing of crime, worn to allow the mind to move around
the obstacles ordinary joes put up in the face of the gangster’s
desire.

I took the key out of his pocket and went in to his house.

The moment I unlocked the door I saw the alarm flashing on the wall;
it would need a code.

Would the dead man have it in his pocket? Unlikely; and that would
take too long.

Lacking other options I unloaded my clip into the flashing wall panel.
The light went off. Though it was possible the neighbors would report
the gunshots, people do that less in Los Angeles than you might think.
I began to search the house.

The drum beat of my mind is a weapon; I know it serves the city but
some part of it I can’t understand.

I whistle a little, keeping the image of her face inside my mind. The
little Mexican girl—a woman, really—with her Aztec gods, in the realm
of the dead, always so near to our own.

Addresses. Like web addresses, or quantum addresses. Little details
sent to move my feet into their assigned rhythms. In a little black
book. Covered in leather, with little scribbles inside. A strangely
beautiful object.

In a certain frame of mind, when you have a cigarette and your engine
is running, and the night of Los Angeles is on fire, you can imagine
that the arc of your body through space, —not only its vector but its
motivation, its meaning, its purpose—that this arc serves forces
beyond your comprehension; some great beneficence. Although it is easy
to argue that this is a delusional state, the same state of mind, for
instance, which preachers have as they bilk their audience for gold,
or that psychopaths have as they murder their victims, it is a good
feeling. It does not feel delusional, but truer than most things. Like
a good drug, that only you get to try, for an hour a day, in the hour
after midnight, when the whole city, this aspect of the universe that
has inherited you, and to whom you will bequeath whatever is left of
you in death, that this universe celebrates your being, and harnesses
your body to the freeway overpass, and your hand to the window, where
everything is made known, at last, and all the final operettas in the
great gotterdammerung of Los Angeles are fired into the sky,
shattering glass, and tightening the rubber to the asphalt, so that no
one can hurt you, so long as you follow the orders of this kingdom.

It’s four exits west; in Calabasas.

– –

There are some times when I remember why I came to Los Angeles. Los
Angeles is a painful city; we don’t like to remember things here. Why
did men go west? To forget.

When I do remember, it has a dual nature: on the one hand, that person
is gone. The one who came with the big dreams as all new arrivals do;
he no longer exists. On the other hand, I am actually living an aspect
of my dream, and as these things always seem to do, when you make it,
and you survive, and the nature of the work to do those things, to
stay in business, to stay upbeat, to stay awake, to stay in boxer
shorts and cold cuts, cigarettes and whiskey, subway tokens and cab
fare, and the faint rumor of a vacation, maybe to the beach, to stare
into the abyss where everything has flown away, and  you with it,
these things suppress the feeling you had anticipated to be associated
with your work. Your dream.  They commend it, for it is in the nature
of the work to hurt, and to bend, to undo, and rewrite, untie, and
beat, with its life, your life, into submission, but that isn’t all,
because the feeling is still disturbing, as you watch your hands do
the things you had imagined them to be doing, but the feeling is
different. Disturbing simply because it is different. As I say, I’m a
different man now. And this was why men went west, to reinvent
themselves; we know that.

But I don’t believe the cliché expression is the accurate one. It is
not reinvention. It is surgery. You cut things out of you and leave
them behind on the sidewalk, and you can feel the organ miss you; it
remembers you, but you have to get on with figuring out how to live
without it.

Now with tighter tendons, stronger eyes, a fuller gut, a worsening
back, angrier smile, greyer hair, looser joints, and the spirits of
the city, I am come to killing with the arrogance of youth still
again, imagining that it might be everything I had dreamed.

But really I am just preparing for surgery. Not my heart; I will save
that one. I think I still need the liver.

No, I will need to tear out one of my eyes.

6.

There is a poem inside a song I enjoy listening to, by a band named
“Sunburned Hand of Man,” where a grave voice intones,

“Hear me, I who am merely the surveyor of these ruins. I have measured
these crumbling avenues in every direction. These tumbled esplanades.
These terraces and these sanctuaries. I am the father of fathers. The
mother of mothers. I open my mouth to speak in the midst of silence. I
cause to be that men should have a path on which to tread. I open the
eyes of all that they might see. My right eye is the day.  My left eye
is the night. As the waters of the Nile spurt through my sandals . .
.”

The words may be taken from the writings of Ramses II; I am not sure.

The men I hunt now are not dissimilar to Ramses. Fat on blood.

I feel I am a dancer or thief, moving into a dark room. It must
protect you from the demons I summon  (human demons, you understand,
but still very dangerous), but even so I must try to show them to you.

They are here; no; not yet. Almost here, or already here. Very close now.

All these ancient sacrificial rites. Why should they have survived so
long? And yet they have. The addiction of blood is greater than any
other; more powerful than heroin.

Los Angeles is their great blood temple; beneath its surface is a
great Hieronymus Bosch painting, of the rich men and women aping
Pharaoh, sucking the blood of young people in their endeavor to outwit
death, or simply to get as close to evil as they can. To see what it
feels like.

I am not the right man for the job but there is no one else. So here we go.

My phone was ringing.

“Jack?”

“Is that you Marcine?”

“Jack, where are you?”

“Downtown. You still make those good biscuits?”

“Yeah. You’re hunting them now, yeah?”

“Yeah.”
“Do a good job, Jack.”

She hung up.

How many can I kill?

How many is enough?

7.

They work underground; part of me feels I could take a backhoe to any
square meter of the city and unearth these people from their holes.

But I have to follow my little messages, west to Calabasas.

– –

She’s standing outside her house. The bourgeoisie, O the bourgeoisie,
limpid, maniacal, the lost ghost, of a lost freighter, in the Bermuda
Triangle, or the North Sea, sunk in their own Atlantis of the mind,
and swimming in blood . . .

I check there is a round in the chamber of my pistol, put it back in
its holster under my jacket and get out of my car, waving like a
hurried salesman, who has forgotten his hat, atop your granite
countertop . . .

Why should Hannah Arendt have been right? Why should evil, for those
who practice it, be quotidian?

She must have seen something wrong on my face because she dropped her
cigarette and turned for her door but I took out the gun, steadied
myself on the lush suburban lawn and fired.

I hit her shoulder and she lurched into the mailbox, a small black
iron cube nested under the outdoor lamp.

I ran a few steps and fired three times. The last one hit her head.

Inside her husband peered out through the screen door. I fired again
and he screamed like a girl, slamming the door and then, with the
sound of some machinery, activated a much larger and heavier steel
door within.

I ran around to the back. That door was not yet closed.

I caught him about to disappear into his basement.

“It’s not what you think . . .” he began, and I fired twice more,
parting a portion of his skull from the rest of his head.

I kicked his body out of the way and descended the ladder into the basement.

Why should Arendt have been right?

Why should evil nest inside our most quotidian emotions, our slowest
days, our most insignificant desires and habits? For the face it wears
is almost never lurid, lavish and shining with greasepaint, a
theatrical devil. Just the person next door, with a little gleam of
knowledge hidden under their eye . . .

The child was already dead.

I called 911 from their house phone, still wearing my thin gloves, and
drove south, into the darkening sky of the San Fernando Valley, where
all dreams go to die.

Will mine live? Is it still alive? I suppose it is fortunate I never
moved to the Valley.

8.

Absurd, of course, to solve problems with bullets. But it is no more
absurd than how the problems arose. Absurdity is a strong thing.

Now come for me, for I am sitting and ready to receive your blessing,
or whatever it is that you are bringing me, in your midnight dress. If
I said that you were beautiful, I would not be lying.

Anymore than I would be lying if I said –well, what does it matter
now. Nothing I say matters. I am already launched. And the arc of my
rise and descent burns the sky; hear me, for I fall, radiant, over
your howling night, from your rooftop, where I loved you, when you
were my wife.

9.

No black life shall demean me, for I am holy. Even though I’m not sure
what that is. Whole, I suppose. But what’s that?

Better to say because I am determined.

I do not yet have a thirst for blood; will I be able to stop before I get one?

– –

And the old chestnut question, which isn’t really a chestnut, I only
say that because it is a difficult question: how much proof do you
need?

Is being rich enough? Is serving the rich enough? And if you’re rich,
or serve them, but say nothing to renounce their crimes, are you as
bad as them?

To penetrate some of their inner sanctums, you have to be a goddamned
Navy Seal and a master of disguise, both.

I am not a military man; but I need to make some friends.

Life can be a real pain.

– –

I take the train south to Pendleton, and a bus to the gates.

“ID?”

I show them my license.

“Robert Fitzpatrick? You have an appointment?”

“I’d like to speak to the officer in charge.”

“Of the watch? That’s me. What can I do for you Mr. Fitzpatrick?”

“I work for a private firm looking to hire military men. Who could I
talk to about that?”

“You have a card?”

I give him my card.

“One moment please.”

He picks up his phone and calls, then says:

“Colonel Sears will be glad to speak with you. He’ll meet you here at the gate.”

He even offers me a cigarette.

– –

Fighting men, under the ground, like Viet Cong, or Japanese, in the
caves of time waiting to wake up . . .

I don’t really have any money.

– –

I got one man’s number; he took pity on me. Some people know what
you’re up to; you don’t even have to say. His name is Jack. My name is
Colonel Sanders, and I have a secret recipe that I’m going to tell
you.

Take equal parts early Enlightenment idealism and late Renaissance
religious conviction, mix with honed rifling technology and an
industrial economy; knead thoroughly, and bake for two hundred years.
The bread is slow, but it is kind, held within each our minds, like a
deadly weeping stick of dynamite.

“Who do you want to kill?”

“I want to kill em all, Jack. But let’s start with Mike Mellon, of
Western Avenue, Los Angeles, California.”

10.

Fire from oblivion; that is my mantra. I can’t believe I’m still alive.

To hunt a rich man, of course, one has to think like one. If he is
intelligent (and even the ones who aren’t tend to have minders who
are), he has several security procedures. The ultimate one being the
simple failsafe of letting people know his plans, so that if he’s
killed or kidnapped the proper alarms will be set off.

If I am to kill enough of them, I need to avoid any alarms.

Michael Mellon serves the Democratic National Committee as a campaign
organizer; in his free time he rapes and kills little boys, usually
black ones. I need to escort him to Styx and toss him into the water,
without any coin, where his hollow eyes may gaze into blackness for
eternity.

11.

Hear me, in the evening, where my motor is running, and my man beside me.

All my passageways and heart’s victories are perused, indebted, made
useful and astonishing, made my own, made lightning; for the truth.

Make mine the truth, and though it be astonishing it will be slow and
kind, dear and holy, a family member caught out of the wind, tucked
into your coat, for the storm.

I open the door and John gets out with me; and we move into the
driveway bearing our shotguns.

12.

A sympathetic orgy, of blood for blood.

I cut off his head. John is laughing, like a musical.

There is no better feeling; but what does that mean?

If rites are feelings, encoded into stone, then I am a statue,
enacting the centuries with my knife.

It is not mistaken to note the affinity between crime and vengeance;
as old Nietzsche was fond of reminding us, hunting monsters makes you
into one.

Still, I have my support on my side. Even if it’s only one man with a gun.

We are burning the house; from the street, the police are watching.

13.

The work does not do itself; nor are police sympathies anywhere near universal.

I am wearing my hat, and smoking a cigarette. These are both bad
things; but they hide me, from the world.

Over the evening of Los Angeles all may still be possible. I do not
believe it, but I am a small man, with limited knowledge of the world.

It may be that I am forgiven; but even if I am, it isn’t over yet.

– –

“Do you want to come over, Robert?”

“No, not yet. I still have more work to do.”

“It’s a beautiful night.”

“Yeah, it is.”

14.

Each space between points on the hull of the ship LA sticks against my
skin through the body of my car. Night roams, and me.

The wicked and noble silence of intersections and the black gaze of
each distinct strip mall, flooded with white light, remind me that I
am safe, safe inside the terrifying mausoleum of Los Angeles,
tormented but free.

Freedom too is the arc of a ship, launched and sucked back in, each
gravity well a burst from the 101 freeway, enacting the pulse and the
headache and forgetfulness of our city, breeding our stomach to take
better meals, to digest anything you throw at us, we burn it with
acid, in noticeable rhythm, glued to the floor of the asphalt, and
unable to escape.

At this hour, I can travel 90 miles an hour north.

15.

I am booking two one-way tickets, for Jakarta. John will meet me
there; he is flying separately. Hunting bigger fish . . . I will leave
Indonesia by a different name than I came in.

They have chardonnay on the plane, and a movie called “The Last Dance
of Natalie Hersch.” After the fourth glass, it actually makes me
laugh.

16.

What is it to regret? All of the things I could have done. Instead of
the things that I did.

Walk away from everything; all of it. Renounce everything, and my name
too. How American would it be to do that, to say, no, this is a
ridiculous idea, and I will have none of it, not today.

Some evil asshole eats little kids? It’s none of my business.

None of my business.

I will go away, and never come back. And find some place where they
don’t eat little kids.

Still, I didn’t do that.

Here I am.

What is regret? The feeling of joy? The feeling of uselessness?
Starvation? of the body? of the emotions?

The feeling that everything is still possible. I could still turn
around. Still throw away the gun.

Still say, no.

No, America. Not today. Not tomorrow either. I’ve had enough.

Why did I care to begin with?

Why should the truth matter?

Why did it ever matter here at all?

Why should I ever have come to care about it?

What good will it do me?

What good will it do anyone else?

And why should it insist on being here.

Staying close to me like this terrible friend, who will not leave.

Like god.

That must be it; I am this Puritan thing, although an atheist, I am
some horrible servant of god, made to serve this horrible thing of the
truth, even as my enemies serve their god, who is blood.

17.

Jakarta in the midnight rain. All cars have been rented for the night.
I raise my hand but no taxi will stop; none can see me. I stand closer
to the lamp but it doesn’t seem to help.

I can see the hills against the black sky, limned with light.

I start to walk. I have a cel phone which should work here; at least
until the battery runs out. I should wait for John but he’s a capable
man; he’ll find me. Maybe he’ll have more luck getting a car.

They say Indonesia is a good country for killing; they’ve got a
feeling for it, and they know how to do it. They’re not afraid.

I am afraid but it’s good that I am; perhaps I am still a human being.

I managed to snag a cup of coffee before the last shop closed; it’s
all that’s keeping me warm in the storm.

Often I’ve felt that darkness come over me; of the rich and powerful,
like a warm and heavy weight, settling over my body. Like a drug, in
one’s armchair; preparation for surgery.

I have not been operated on, not in that way, but I’ve come close. Now
I feel it again, amplified off the hills, what my ancestors might have
called “an ill wind.”

It is a wonder the 2nd amendment was second, though it be a delirious
and a shameful amendment, it is still needed, desired, this tool of
death men to change the course of history, however inadequately,
however meaningless in the short run.

Of course, there is no second amendment in Indonesia. My contact gave
me this small revolver, and a handful of ammunition. So I bring twenty
rounds to the fight; and whatever John finds. We should have planned
it better but she doesn’t stay at any one address long.

– –

Inside that furious night, many things became clear to me. Not all of
them remain clear now. But in that darkness, ghosts and stories
foreign to me became part of the logic of my brain, and I understood
why these American cultists had done what they had done, why no one
had stopped them before now, and why my own journey should have taken
me here.

Now I want to erase this; say; none of it happened. No knowledge came
to me; I chickened out. Both are true; but the second is truer.

– –

I called John; he understood. Or he made noises like he did.

Back at the airport, holding a bubble tea, I felt the laughter of the
dark gods of some parallel reality shivering over me.

She is alive; but so am I.

What is it to murder, and to pursue murderers? Two wrongs can make a
right, but the calculus is for some other man, a Newton who has not
yet arrived.

I carry vengeance in my heart; it is like a light bulb, flickering, in
the dimness.

robin-wyatt-dunn

Robin Wyatt Dunn lives in Los Angeles. In this picture he is holding his tiny chapbook MARY, from Rinky Dink Press.

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