Matt Pine, a Chicago native, lives in the city’s Logan Square neighborhood. Frequently he flubs even his own name.
–Well, the story’s simple, really. I just… Or, one day I… OK, it’s like this: What’s it matter? The point is I’m giving it up. Gave it up, I should say. One day off of it and I feel fine. They say that the first 24 hours is the hardest part to suffer in any dramatic change, and I’ve gotten past that. Just barely, maybe, but I’m past it… But then, it couldn’t have been yesterday. If I’d stopped yesterday, because this morning… And where are the shakes? And the irrational anger? Which means that last night I… So I couldn’t have… Doesn’t matter. I’ve given it up. Behind me and done. Over. No more.
Somewhere along the Night Moves highway a solitary car speeds towards Daylight City. A long-forgotten, sloppy parking job crumpled the car’s nose so that now, as it has for years, one headlight beam slightly overlaps the other. For hours Detective Heinz has watched empty road pass through the cockeyed illumination. The night is nearly finished and he is exhausted. Home calls out to the detective, but he finds the tone not entirely inviting. A flickering light bulb beneath cracked yellow plastic heralds the car’s shift into the exit lane. The detective pulls in beside a gas pump, though he can’t need more than half-a-tank.
Another night, another eight hours sacrificed to his questions, his searching. Who, what, when, where — there was a time when these questions were his tools, he used them expertly, physically, but lately the only person he interrogates is himself and all he asks is, How did he end up here? The detective starts the pump. Gently he rubs his temples, counting up, counting backward — there was a time when incremental numbers soothed him. He gives up and heads into the convenience store.
The store is brightly lit and the windows are quite large. The man behind the counter stands tall and twitchy, eyelids trimmed off, as if he has sampled all of his goods: coffee, candy, cigarettes and caffeine pills. Detective Heinz pours a cup of the self-service, long-past-burnt joe. Somehow the smell has a little good left in it, and this pleases him. At the register, the transaction completes without words. The attendant’s hand shakes as a trickle of change spills from it.
The detective rests his coffee on the car’s roof while he returns the nozzle to the pump. He gets behind the wheel, starts the engine, then remembers his cup. He rolls down the window and cranes a hand up to the roof. He feels something then loses it. Coffee pours down the windshield. The wipers, which for months now he’s been swearing to replace, muddle the coffee with splattered insects, creating pasty, parabolic streaks. Pulling out of the rest area, an empty cup tumbles over the back window.
An hour later, at the last off-ramp into Daylight City, the detective yawns and rubs his eyes. Vision cleared, for a moment he is not the detective at all but an entirely different man who is breathing heavily and lying on his side in an uncomfortable bed. The hairy taste of rot is smeared through his mouth and stale garlic packed into his armpits. Through the gauze of eyelashes he sees that haunting room again. The detective blinks and he’s back in the car. The streetlights are still on, but they’ve begun to pale before the gathering red at the horizon. From the passenger seat he picks up a notepad and records this experience. He eases the car back on the expressway.
–Don’t ask me about my cases. That business is done. Forgotten. Ask and you’ll get nothing. And anyway, it’s confidential. Probably. The point is I’m looking forward. And frankly, I’ve earned a little rest. I was an accomplished detective. Highly regarded, really. Still am, I mean. The reputation lives on. Each solved case was an illustrious decoration. The Rothschild girl, well there’s one I can talk about. All over the papers like it was, no pretense of privacy there. Who wasn’t moved by those pictures of the pale little girl crawling from the blown-open bank vault? You remember that, I’m sure. She’s entirely recovered her hearing, by the way. The little ones, they bounce back. The papers, of course, they write as if they have privileged knowledge, but that’s the classic con of journalism. It was no surprise they didn’t have the name of the private dick who tipped off the police. But those who should know, know. Important people are familiar with my work. Very important people. High-ups. But I don’t like to brag. Ah, my work. My work! Why am I talking about it again? Done. Behind me. Over.
Buildings take solid shape under the sun like pottery beneath a kiln fire. The detective has reached the city, and the highway transforms into a boulevard. He passes a garbage truck. Next, a milk truck. Soon will come the newspapers and then a trickle of early commuters, grey-suited men with briefcases. The growing energy of the day does not beget the calm required for good sleep. One fact of the detective’s life is that he must toss in bed when the streets are noisy and the draped windows leak strong light.
Daylight City, the climatic repetition is repulsive: hot, bright, cloudless, all day, year round. Weather like that changes people. You start to think that all of life is easy, transparent, that it slowly delivers reliable niceness. Urgency is lacking but so is suspicion. When a lie is discovered (and it doesn’t need to be a big lie) the whole operation of person and city becomes suspect. It’s easy for a detective to sign clients going through an uprooting like that. They want it, their wives, their homes, politicians, business partners and children, strangers, neighbors, celebrities, persons from long ago, and others whose existence is suspect, they want it all re-evaluated, brought back into focus, they want life built again on solid, no-deception facts. The truth, out with it. Even with no client, he searches.
Traffic hits and he is puttering. Several slow miles of side streets separate the detective and home. He has stayed out too late again, and once more getting home will be a struggle. The day is warming. The detective gives the air conditioner its 100th chance to work, but its tepid hiss does not cool so he rolls down his window. The car isn’t moving fast enough to create a breeze. All that’s let in is bluish exhaust and the cyclic disappointment of start-and-stop traffic. From the windshield, the detective faintly smells the dried coffee.
He pretends that the congestion requires his full attention, both hands on the wheel. He inches forward, then is still. Forward, then still. This should keep him alert. The detective rubs his eyes and feels himself turn sideways. Again, stuck in that slob. With great nausea, he realizes that he can feel what the man feels. If a wet towel were wrapped around his head and allowed to dry and shrink, tightening boa-like, it would just compare to the feeling in his skull. His skin is a wriggling conglomerate of pores and grease, his stomach a wet ashtray. How can one man reek of so many things? Cigarettes, dirty clothes, dirtier sheets, newspaper ink, bacon, coffee, earwax, piss. For all of the times the detective has experienced the interiority of this man, he has never learned anything about him, except that he sleeps a non-nourishing sleep. The detective pulls his car over to collect himself. Sweating, he reaches for the notepad and waits for his hands to steady.
–And I was tough, too. Not just fit or trim, that appearance of tough that those gym rats put on. I was hard. I’ve taken my licks. I’ve been twisted, bruised, broken and crookedly healed into a rough-hewn thing. I could take them. Two or three of them. Four, if one’s a pansy. No one has ever slipped me a mickey without my going back and asking for seconds. So why did I give it up? Same reason every other hardworking American gives up their career. To retire. I’ve got enough saved, the 20 percent of every retainer that I never failed to bank. And on top of which, despite my most firm-yet-polite declining, some clients insisted on the payment of reward money. I’ve squirreled away enough to move near the beach. Maybe, should I get bored, I could use all this photographic equipment that’s just collecting dust to start a postcard business. Sunsets and pretty girls holding pina coladas. Snapshots of paradise, right? Sounds like it to me… That is, assuming people on the beach don’t ask why I’m not out there still fighting and solving. Assuming no one I’ve put away should happen to find me. My reputation and accomplishments, as proud as I am of them, they can be a burden. You see, when you’ve been important… But there I go, talking about it again. So why am I here still if I’m retired? Why ain’t I at the beach? These are good questions, but let’s not confuse which of us is the detective here, alright? My answer is plain and simple: I’ve just given it up. I’m still getting used to it. The hard part is past, but it could take a few more days. When my strength has returned and I can withstand a fresh start, then I’ll go. Yes, I’ll get going. Much like you should be doing.
During the night the streets have changed. Identifying landmarks, an unusual house or a large dead tree, have been hidden under a sheet of pastels and manicured lawns. Detective Heinz is having a hard time getting his bearings. He is sure that it was around here. Somewhere. If only traffic would lighten, then he could cover more ground quickly. He is tired and needs to get off the road. He is distracted. Who is this man that he sporadically channels? Why does the man only come to him in a state of near waking? Is the man even a real person? Is he a living person? The detective cannot stop his questions. It is so bright out now; with the asphalt glaring, he can hardly see. Sweat rolling from his forehead only worsens the squint.
–Your tone is starting to sound like a tin trumpet, mister. Real shrill. Now I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt, but I’m starting to suspect that you don’t believe me. But then, what does it matter what you think? I’ve got boxes full of newspaper clippings and letters of gratitude. I’ve gotten recognition from mayors and even a senator thanking me for the service I provide to the community. There’s a certain police chief who wrote me a letter once. I’ll spare him the indignity of having you hear his name, but I can tell you that he gave me an award of civic distinction for being a rough and hard private detective that has, not by accident, never interfered with the procedures of mainline police work. A model private detective, he calls me. A credit to the private detective system, the letter says. But why should I show this all to you, if you’re already doubtful? I know they’re real — they are real. Maybe I could show you a thing or two by digging up dirt on you. What would you think about that? Let’s see what happens when your dirty laundry is hanging out. But no, I’ve given it up. A schlub like you won’t get me to come out of retirement.
–Because the thing you’re not understanding is that I’ve made a difference. Cases come and go, and I worked through them because it was my job. But the people — a woman who learns the truth of her husband’s infidelities, a dancer who discovers in a secret will that the old man wasn’t as gullible as he seemed, the parents of a suicide that turns out to be a murder, bank robbers, back-stabbing bootleggers — the people who came to me left with different lives. Better lives, or at leased morally aligned lives, or else lives attuned to reality. I have made a difference. My work cascades. Truth carries on. And who are you? A nobody, that’s who.
–Listen, my story has all the parts. I’m at the last act now, when I rest and relax and live a normal life. And doesn’t every good guy have a point where he comes out of retirement? Well maybe I will fall into it and it will be necessary and inevitable. But look how you got me thinking! It’s so hard to quit this, I certainly don’t need you, a nobody, with moron thoughts, distracting me, ripping down my strength.
Traffic lightens as the day scalds into noon. Too fast now, the detective goes up and down the streets, certain that his place is there, just around the corner, just over on the next block. But speed makes the houses look all the more similar. None of them have numbers. The streets are unnamed. What was his address anyway? Is he looking for his home or his office? The day is going to be a real scorcher. And he wishes that he had not spilled that coffee, because he is getting very tired. Thirsty and hungry too, but overwhelmingly he is tired. What I am doing is unsafe, thinks the detective as tires squeal and the car fishtails around another corner.
–I’ve got nothing left to say to you. So if you’ll excuse me mister, it’s time to say get lost.
Involuntarily the detective closes his eyes. He gets stretched sideways again. The heavy man roles over and, half awake, coughs up a glob of dusty mucus. He wonders how he got to sleep. Maybe last night he abstained. Maybe for once he found straight sleep. Maybe today is the first day of something new. Maybe, just maybe. But then why would his head hurt? Why would his mouth have carpet? Memory flashes a glint of the night before (a bottle smashing into a blank wall). No reason to get up, the man rolls over to sleep a little longer. He was just dreaming but what was it? He hates that clumsy feeling of a pleasant thought slipping away. If he closes his eyes, maybe it will come back to him.