It was one of those hot sticky nights that makes Manhattan show its age. There was something dreary and stagnant in the way all this syrupy heat refused to budge. It was anything but a night for labor, and Vanning stood up and walked away from the tilted drawing board. He brushed past a large metal box of watercolors, heard the crash as the box hit the floor. That seemed to do it. That ended any inclination he might have had for finishing the job tonight.
Heat came into the room and settled itself on Vanning. He lit a cigarette. He told himself it was time for another drink. Walking to the window, he told himself to get away from the idea of liquor. The heat was stronger than liquor.
He stood there at the window, looking out upon Greenwich Village, seeing the lights, hearing noises in the streets. He had a desire to be part of the noise. He wanted to get some of those lights, wanted to get in on that activity out there, whatever it was. He wanted to talk to somebody. He wanted to go out.
He was afraid to go out.
And he realized that. The realization brought on more fright. He rubbed his hands into his eyes and wondered what was making this night such a difficult thing. And suddenly he was telling himself that something was going to happen tonight.
It was more than a premonition. There was considerable reason for making the forecast. It had nothing to do with the night itself. It was a process of going back, and with his eyes closed he could see a progression of scenes that made him shiver without moving, swallow hard without swallowing anything.
There was a pale blue automobile, a convertible. That was a logical color, that pale blue, logical for the start of it, because it had started out in a pale, quiet way, the pale blue convertible cruising along peacefully, the Colorado mountainside so calm and pretty, the sky so contented, all of this scene pale blue in a nice even sort of style. And then red came into it, glaring red, the hood and fenders of the smashed station wagon, the hard gray of the boulder against which the wrecked car was resting, the hard gray turning into black, the black of the revolver, the black remaining as more colors moved in. The green of the hotel room, the orange carpet, or maybe it wasn’t orange—it could have been purple, a lot of those colors could have been other colors—but the one color about which there was no mistake was black. Because black was the color of a gun, a dull black, a complete black, and through a whirl of all the colors coming together in a pool gone wild, the black gun came into his hand and he held it there for a time impossible to measure, and then he pointed the black gun and he pulled the trigger and he killed a man.
He took his clenched fists away from his eyes, opened his eyes and brought himself back to this room. Turning, he saw the drawing board, and it threw an invisible rope toward him, the rope pulling him in, urging him to get away from yesterday and stay with now. Because now had him listed as James Vanning, a commercial artist specializing in the more intricate kind of work that art departments of advertising agencies hand out to proven experts. Tonight he was mixed up with one of the usual rush jobs and the deadline was for tomorrow afternoon. But if he went to sleep now he could get up early tomorrow and finish the assignment in time to satisfy the art director.
If he went to sleep now. That was downright comical. Sleep. As if sleep was something that came automatically. As if all he had to do was put his head against the pillows and close his eyes and go to sleep. He laughed without sound. He laughed at the picture of himself trying to sleep. Every night he had a debate with sleep and it was one rebuttal after another and it kept on like that until it knocked him out just about the time when the sun got started. That was his sleep.
He walked into the bathroom and saw himself in the mirror. Average height but on the husky side. Curly blond hair and quite a lot of it, so that was no worry. The worry came in where suggestions of silver showed here and there through the blondness. Very little silver, hardly noticeable against gold, but even the little that was there was too much silver for a man only thirty-three. And the lines under his eyes and around his lips, those lines weren’t age. Those lines were ordeal. And even his complexion. It still retained considerable South Pacific, specifically Saipan and Okinawa, but the darkness of it was more shadow than sun. It seemed that there was shadow all over him, all around him.
More shadow moved in, and he decided to fight it. He took a shower and a shave, he put on a freshly cleaned and pressed palm beach suit. And he was getting his arm through a sleeve when he heard the noise from down the hall.
“A cop,” a voice said. “Get a cop.”
Another voice from out there. “What’s the matter with you?”
“Get a cop.”
Vanning’s teeth came together, biting at nothing. He couldn’t breathe. He stood there, waiting.
“What are you all excited about? What’s wrong?”
“Who’s excited? All I want is a drink. Bring me a cop of water.”
“Why don’t you learn to speak English?”
“Shut opp and bring me a drink of water.”
From there on it became a typical husband-and-wife discussion, the wife yelling for a drink of water and continuing the yelling after she got it. Vanning used up a minute or so trying to decide whether they were Spanish or Italian or Viennese. He wondered when they had moved in. He wondered about all his neighbors. It was a point he made, keeping away from them. Keeping away from everybody.
He told himself to get a move on. He didn’t know where he was going, but wherever it was, he was in a big hurry to get there.
Excerpted from Nightfall by David Goodis, reprinted by Stark House Press featuring a cover photograph by Peter Rozovsky.
David Loeb Goodis was born March 2, 1917, in Philadelphia. After working for an advertising agency, he published his first novel, Retreat from Oblivion, in 1939. He then moved to New York City where he wrote for the pulps, sometimes turning out 10,000 words a day. By 1942, Goodis relocated to Hollywood, where he began scripting radio adventure serials. After the success of his novel Dark Passage and its subsequent filming with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, he signed a six-year contract with Warner Bros. Discouraged by the experience, Goodis returned to Philadelphia in 1950, living with his parents and prowling the seedier streets at night. Here he wrote his only solely authored screenplay—for The Burglar—and the majority of his paperback original noir classics. Goodis died at age 49 in Philadelphia on January 7, 1967, from a cerebral vascular accident caused in part by a previous beating he received while resisting a robbery.
Image courtesy of Pixabay, altered by Cartoonize.