The wisest man I ever met told me about the Secret Court. That’s the one in each of our heads where we are defendant, prosecutor, judge and jury. Despite his warning I was unprepared when my own court began handing down death sentences.
The trial began on a soft spring night in that year when Carter and Reagan were still just out-of-work governors and I was newly sober. Alone and unsure of myself without the props of drugs and alcohol, I sought the intimate anonymity of the decaying West Side piers. There hands reached out, clothes got peeled away and only a carefully timed match flicker revealed my partner as a goblin or a god.
I was about to cross West Street when a Checker cab pulled up beside me and a voice said, “Kevin!” Startled, I turned to see Carl Valleck smiling as he got out of the back seat. “Kevin,” he said, “I need to talk to you.”
The blond hair was shorter than I had ever seen it. He had muscles that hadn’t been there before. But the brown, slightly Slavic eyes were the same. Around me indignant cruisers wondered why they hadn’t been chosen.
Maybe fresh sobriety had distorted my memories of Carl and me. Otherwise, I might have recognized him as chief witness for the prosecution and passed up the invitation. Instead, I replied, “Long time, no see.”
A man and a woman in dark glasses followed him out of the cab. The man paid. Carl made the introductions, “Kevin, this is Judith and Michael. Neither of them reacted at all. Carl just shrugged.
We were in front of Cape Fear on West Street. “Join us,” said Crl. The other two said nothing. Curiosity drew me. Carl and had once been close; then we fought. Neither condition had been pretty. But obviously Carl still had a hold on me because I followed him.
Entering Cape Fear was like going from a darkened wing onto a bright stage. What once had been a warehouse was now a restaurant, all exposed brick, polished wood, and photos of great ladies and talented young men. On the stereo, the Velvets sang the concert version of NEW AGE.
Judith was the only woman in the place. She looked around avidly like she wanted to implant it on her retinas. Along with the glasses, she wore a black sheath dress and long black hair. As we got seated, she fixed on two guys walking past.
One wore a wide, scarred belt with several feet of chain attached. The chain ran into the half-opened zipper of his partner’s jeans. They moved in tandem and you had the feeling the friend was very tightly secured.
“This place is theater of the eye. Brilliant!” said Michael. He looked kind of delicate, his hair was mostly gone. He wore a beard, a watered silk vest, and the only suit in the house.
Carl sat opposite me and ordered a double Wild Turkey when the waiter came.
“The same,” said Judith. It was th first time I heard her speak. The voice sounded remote.
When I ordered a club soda and lime, Carl indicated Michael. “Daddy Big Bucks is paying, man.” But I just shook my head. My instinctive take on the situation was that Judith had Michael, Michael had money, Carl was for hire and they had rented him. I guessed that he was a tour guide and wondered about the other terms of the lease.
“What are you doing these days?” Carl asked me.
“Oh, a little acting.” This was a perfectly acceptable in that time and place. Were we not all actors in the dramas of our own lives?
Judith and Michael paid no attention. Carl winked again and lighted a cigarette. As he did, the arm of his leatherjacket fell back, revealing a series of cigarette burns on his wrist and arm. Some were old, some fairly new.
My stomach turned, but I couldn’t help looking. He told the other two, “Kevin was the one I talked about on-camera last time.” The attention of the pair of voyeurs was on me, their expressions calculating but respectful. Suddenly, I was somebody, but I didn’t know who.
A big, grey-bearded guy with a beautiful half-Asian kid in tow stopped to kiss the top of Carl’s head and say in an awed whisper, “The boy in the white room.” He continued his grand exit. But what he had said and the sight of Carl’s scars left me with a twinge, a memory I didn’t much want to probe.
When our drinks came, Michael looked around the room and said to Judith, “Half the people here would be delighted to be in our little project.”
She spoke again. “Asshole, we have the one we want.” She stared at me raptly. I looked to Carl for an explanation.
“Kevin and I have to talk,” he said. Shortly, he swallowed his drink and got up. We left the two of them gorging their eyes.
Outside, I cast a glance at the dance of the silhouettes across the way as men singly, men in pairs, outlined by streetlights, passed under the ruined highway and headed for the Hudson. I could have joined them, but by then curiosity, or maybe boredom with my life had gotten the better of me. “Carl, who are those two geeks you were with?”
“Judith is a video-maker. Michael is, like, her producer, puts up the money. I guess they’re an item. I’m the star of the thing they’re doing now. Let’s take a walk.” He gestured uptown. “I live at the Landing.”
That was a couple of blocks from where I lived. As we walked, I had a million questions. “What did you tell them about me? What was it the old chicken hawk said about a white room?”
“That’s why I got to talk to you.” The Landing was an old river-front hotel way west in Chelsea. Carl lived on the top floor. We went up wide, worn stairs that stank of piss and mold. “You disappeared, Kevin. I guessed you were dead. Then I got involved in this project that was, basically, your idea and started seeing you around. Like fate, man.”
His room was bigger than I expected. White paper covered the windows. Walls, floor, the bureau, table, and two chairs were all painted white. The only intrusive items were a stand of lights in one corner and five bullets on the table. The paint job was recent and hastily done, intended for immediate effect and the camera’s eye. “The white room all set up for shooting.” Carl emphasized the last word.
I sat on a chair. Carl sat on the bed and stared at me with his fixed half-smile. Painful memories I’d managed to put aside wanted my attention. To continue avoiding them, I asked, “What are you doing with your time. No TV or radio, I mean…”.
“You have amnesia Kevin? When I was just a kid you told me how to set this scene. The room had to be white, a complete blank. Nothing to identify yourself. Hide anything personal away, you said. Maybe leave one item out, an open switchblade, a pair of handcuffs, a needle. Something to grab a straight’s attention. You talked like nobody I ever heard. Sometimes there were two of you. I saw it. Now you’re going to tell me you don’t remember any of it?”
What I recalled was the place of utter clarity at the apex of my benders. It was where morality got left behind and the shakes hadn’t started. The past was a wreck, a terrifying crash lay in the future but in that eye of the storm, I was cold, unhuman, immortal.
“All that’s behind me,” I told Carl. “I’ve had a lot of apologizing to do.”
He shook his head. Slowly, he reached under the mattress and drew out a revolver. It looked like a .38. Still smiling, he broke it open, showed me there was one bullet in it. “The straight won’t be able not to look,” you said. “Just sit and watch the straight’s reaction,” you said. “Well man, I am watching.”
“It was booze and drugs talking, not me. I was just about the same age you are now and scared people would see what a fraud I was. I can’t connect with that anymore.”
Carl locked the pistol. The sharp snap of metal made my heart lurch. He spun the cylinder. “Do something like this, you said, and the straight can’t look away.”
A pulse I hadn’t seen before stood out on Carl’s forehead. It started throbbing as he brought the gun up behind his right ear.
Trying to keep my voice steady, I said. “You play this game often, your number is going to come up.”
“I’ve done this a lot, man. And it’s not a game. It’s a test. If you gotta think of it as gambling, then, you get five to one odds. This is a test.” he spoke softly, looking right at me. And I was unable to move or look away.
In the instant before he pulled the trigger, his eyes glazed and lost contact with mine. Had they bulged and rolled back into bloody sockets, my own brain and heart would have stopped along with his.
Instead, the hammer clicked on an empty chamber and the breath rushed out of my lungs. Carl’s hands hardly shook as he offered me the revolver. “Want to try it?”
The hotel, the streets, the whole city, was silent at the moment, transfixed. I shook my head. Sirens cried in the east and music burst, then died as a door opened and closed. On the street, a man yelled for a taxi.
Carl’s smile came on again. “I know what it is, you want to wait, save it for Judith. I talked about you on the video the other night before I rolled. Said how you taught me. Then I saw you tonight and thought what a great film it would be. Think about it, man. Two good-looking guys in a white room. They discuss old times. Then first one rolls and the other. People will watch that video.”
“We’re supposed to die just so those ghouls can film it. How did you get into this?”
Carl rolled up a sleeve so that I could see his whole scarred inner arm and said, “Love bites. What you don’t see is even better. Remember one time you held matches next to your hand to see what it was like?” I remembered how that got to me and I thought it would do the same for other people.
“Of course, things kind of escalated. I was so drugged out I didn’t even feel it. But after a while, not enough people dug the way I looked to pay for my medicine.
“Without this,” he indicated the gun and room, “I would have ended up peddling my ass out of some bang-and-walk up on the Square. That’s what happens to kids with no daddy to send them money. People play with our bodies, play with our minds. Then they discover Jesus or something. Forget about us.
“Kevin, nobody is going to forget about me. Weirdos and perverts, that is to say everyone, will whisper to each other, ‘I saw this shocking film you are just not going to believe.’ If you weren’t so numb, you could be this in on it too.”
He sounded disappointed in me. All I possessed of any value was my sobriety. So I offered that. “There’s this guy I’m seeing who helped me out of drinking and drugs. He’s real good. You can talk to him.”
Carl shrugged. “You’re clean. You’re broke. Your magic is gone and you’re nothing.” He took a worn piece of paper out of his pocket and handed it to me. “When you change your mind, call the number where it says Judith.” He said nothing more, just stared at me until I left.
The next evening from the windows of Mr. Dunn’s apartment on Madison Avenue I watched the setting sun turn the Chrysler Building bronze and pink. I had come here directly from my ridiculous research job. The night before, I’d had trouble sleeping. That day summer heat had arrived in the city. Mr. Dunn was the one I had wanted Carl to see.
“I’m just no damn good,” I said.
“My friend, no one tells me that about a client of mine. Not even the client. You are the best person in the world, the bravest, the smartest.” Mr. Dunn’s technique was that I went three or four times a week to his apartment and he talked. He paused and I turned to watch him, white haired and a bit majestic in his big chair as he lighted a cigarette and smoked. After a while he asked, “What brought this on?”
“A guy named Carl that I haven’t seen in a few years. We lived together. No, that’s not right. This isn’t easy to explain.” Dunn nodded and drew on his cigarette. “He was a kid I picked up when I was really crazed. I let him stay in my place. But I didn’t give him keys. When I left for work, I’d give him a dollar and put him out on the street.” Then describe my previous night.
When I finished, Dunn leaned forward across the glass coffee table and said,” Even the cleverest of us can get caught in twisted logic.” Leo Dunn was a great performer in a wide variety of roles, priest, fellow sinner, salesman. That evening, he was a wily old lawyer with a tough case.
“You say someone you knew in bad times made you an offer that leaves you with a fairly good chance of blowing your brains out. You refused, showing I would say, very good sense. Do I understand that you are blaming yourself for his having tried to get you killed?”
“Eventually, he’s going to shoot himself and I planted the idea.”
“And does drugs. Probably junk.”
“You want me to talk to him?”
I shook my head. “I asked.”
“In other words, despite the great influence you had on him, he knows you stopped getting stoned and that doesn’t make him want to stop too. Do you see the flaw in that?”
“He never had a chance. People think that guys like him and me are trash.”
“My friend, I know what it’s like to get the back of society’s hand. I drank myself onto the Bowery, wrecked career, family, marriage when people believed only a born degenerate could do that. I’m not asking what others may think about this unfortunate boy. I want your own unbiased judgment of yourself in the here and now.
“Kevin, we’ve talked about the Secret Court where each of us is defendant, prosecutor, judge and jury. Like any court of law, it can be corrupt. I’ve seen the worst offenses get winked away. Other times it’s harsh and unjust. Sometimes the death penalty gets dealt when the defendant was at most a bystander.
“By the look on your face, I would not care to come up before you at this moment looking for the mercy that human weakness always deserves. Fortunately, I don’t have to worry about that because each one’s Secret Court tries only him or her. Its decisions can be biased, its methods suspect, its authority tainted. But its verdicts quite often get enforced.”
Dunn said, “I plead for compassion for the poor drunk inside each of us, Kevin. There’s a way in which our basic instincts play us false. Other people don’t have that trouble. But a drunk’s instinct is like a bad knee. He can’t put his full weight on it. What seems to him a sure thing is just bad judgment. The young man you described can only be helped if he learns that. The same is true for you, my friend.”
A long pause followed. I was lost in thoughts about the white room. I found myself missing the cold clarity of the bender’s apex. A big reason for my sobriety was Mr Dunn convincing me that saving my life was a worthwhile project. Carl’s recent testimony had thoroughly undermined that case.
Mr. Dunn sighed, “This is Wednesday. I have a special client in from England all day tomorrow. I want to see you Friday at six. But call me sooner if there are any problems. This is important. Against great odds, you have stayed sober for months. I am proud of you, Kevin.”
When I got home, sunlight still bounced off concrete and chrome, blazed on the Hudson at the end of the street. My block, all small trucking companies and decaying tenements, was a long-established whore run. That evening, the girls’ halters were extra skimpy, their skirts mere slivers.
My apartment was at street level with the windows of its front room barred like a cell. The place was two tiny rooms and a bath. It was damp and impossible to keep clean. But it was cheap and not quite the gutter.
It was dark by the time I re-emerged. Certain girls I thought of as regulars. One, a black called Rosie, had a sweet, round face. “You want a date?” she asked.
When I smiled and shook my head, her friend Carla laughed and said. “Don’t bother with him. Where he’s going, they’re giving it away.”
Down on West Street, guys flocked like pilgrims to a holy place. Then someone dropped a heavy set of keys with a sound like a hammer hitting an empty chamber. Suddenly, the warmth drained out of my night and the scene lost all appeal.
A drink seemed very tempting at that moment. Drugs were easily available. Carl was the one I had to see. His life and mine had tangled together again. It seemed to me I could save myself by saving him. But he wasn’t at the Landing. I spent hours circling the hotel waiting for the lights to be on in his room.
The girls were busy when I gave up and came home. Across the street, Rosie bent over to talk to a taxi driver, exposed her ass to the world. Compared to me, she was so innocent.
My apartment was an oven. The bedroom was a crypt. Finally, I dragged my mattress out near the front window and fell asleep to the music of the car radios of the cruising johns.
Then deep in the night, a familiar voice called, “Kevin? Kevin we got to talk.”
I awoke and recognized Carl crouched outside. Only when I rose and went to the window, did I see that his eyes stared empty and unfocused. The white of his right eye was dark red. The entrance wound on his right temple still throbbed with blood.
I closed my eyes so as not to look at his ruined face. But I could still hear him. “Kevin, I talked about you again tonight. I held the gun and faced the camera and told how when I felt scared you talked to me the way no one else did.
“You used to say how you weren’t going to clear thirty because you didn’t want to. You were going up in smoke, you said. The hustlers and queens and junkies were going to be amazed by what they saw. The important thing was to call the shots, to make it your own game.
“I told them how after, when we didn’t have much to do with each other, I’d still see you around and it looked like you were right on schedule. When you disappeared, I thought the way you went wasn’t that great. But at least your words meant something.
“All of a sudden I saw you again. And I thought that maybe you had problems with forgetting. Like forgetting it was time to die. But when I reminded you, man, you were afraid.
“That made me afraid. For the first time tonight, when I put the gun to my head, my hand shook. The magic was gone. When the gun went off, the sound of the explosion hurt worse than the bullet.
“It was weird. I could still see the room, but from high above. Like I can see us now with you too scared to look. Michael threw up, but Judith was so god damn cool. She got her stuff and him out of there so fast that she stepped over me on the way. I could have been alive. They didn’t even check for a pulse.”
Carl paused. The thought of their leaving him for dead brought bile to my throat. “For years, my mother hangs up the phone when I call,” he said. “You’re the only one I can tell.”
But I had stopped listening and turned away. Rage pounded in my heart. I was a hanging judge. I reached for Carl through the bars and felt nothing. I opened my eyes and saw only the first grey of dawn and a couple of hookers watching me from across the street.
In a kind of trance, I got dressed and went around to the Landing Hotel. Sometime after that, I called Mr. Dunn from a pay phone. “Carl who I told you about? He talked to me last night. It must have been when he died. The side of his head was all blown off. Just now, I saw the police take his body out of his hotel.”
“Kevin, where are you?” Dunn was very calm.
“Everyone will think it’s suicide. But those two bastards killed him with a lot of help from me.”
“The older I get, the more sure I am that there is no great trick to becoming dead. Life, that’s the hard part. For some poor souls it proves impossible. I have confidence that you aren’t one of those. I want you to come up here and talk.”
“He came to me asking for justice. For revenge!”
“They aren’t the same thing,” was the reply and I hung up. To the Judges of my Secret Court, blame for what had happened to Carl was obvious and only one course was open.
For what had to be done, I needed fuel. In the first bar I saw, a nondescript place down the avenue from the Landing, I got a double bourbon, my first drink in months. Despite the heat, it was the only warmth in my body.
When I told Carl the part of me he remembered was gone, I was lying. With booze it was very much present again. I ordered another double and felt myself in a place beyond fear and pain where I was judge, jury and executioner.
I took out the piece of paper that Carl had given me. On one side was a faded number with a New Jersey area code. On the other, several numbers had been crossed out. One remained with ‘Judith’ written beside it. The phone booth was at the back of the joint.
The line was busy. I returned to the bar and had a drink. Then I called again. I did that a few times until the phone was picked up. “This is Kevin, Carl’s friend,” I said and the person at the other end hung up. When I dialed again, the line was busy.
A delivery man wheeled a loaded handtruck into the bar. A couple of guys in coveralls came in for a mid-morning snort. I finished my drink and dialed. The phone rang six or seven times before it was picked up. I said, “This is Kevin. I’m ready to play my scene.” The other party hesitated before they hung up.
The delivery man needed to use the phone. I had one more drink and left. The vacation from booze had done me good. The stuff hit me the way it had when I was sixteen.
But now at thirty, I had better connections. In a narrow candy store on Eighteenth Street, I walked the length of the counter back to where the magazines were. “You got that racing magazine?” I asked the tiny woman with reddish blond hair. She looked at me empty faced and I held up five fingers.
“Twenty,” she said. I had all my money with me. Without arguing, I gave her twenty dollars and took the five black pills she dealt.
The amphetamine kicked in fast. My senses were acute. When I called from a street phone, I heard two receivers get picked up. I said, “What Carl did, he did because of me. I accept my guilt. I’m going to put myself on trial right in front of you. The penalty will be execution.”
Around me, people were out of their offices for lunch. Michael said in a whisper, “We can talk about it tomorrow.”
“The scene gets played today with you filming it or not.”
“We can’t,” he said.
“Where?” Judith asked.
“I have a room that looks like a cell.”
“Was soon as you can get to my place with a camera and a loaded revolver.”
“If you don’t have a gun, how were you going to play roulette?” he whined.
But Judith grabbed at what I offered. “Call back in an hour,” she said.
Ten minutes later on Thirty-First near Penn Station, my nerves jumped as I ran up two flights of stairs. Banging on the door I called, “Angel? Man, what you got?”
A peep hole opened. “Mother-fucker, who are you? I don’t know you.” But Angel let me in. The door clicked behind me. And I heard a hammer hit an empty chamber.
Once I had bought junk and taken some, everything became more like a dream. I asked, “When?” from a phone booth.
“A few hours. Hang on. I’m waiting for the guy to bring the piece.”
I gave Judith my address and telephone number. “Ring three times. Hang up and ring again.” Then I sat in a playground near the river and plotted the scene, saw in detail how Judith and Michael would arrive at my apartment and set up their equipment.
It would be dark by them as I moved smoothly to draw the curtains against prying eyes from the street. I saw Michael, looking sick and scared, hand me the unloaded revolver. It was a Smith and Wesson .38. Sober, I wouldn’t want to touch it. But as an agent of the Court, I feared nothing. “Let me have six bullets so I can be sure.”
“Five,” said Judith. “There’s no dramatic tension if it’s six.” Both of them were sweating but I felt cold. I didn’t argue. I just made sure that I was seated between them and the exit.
She filmed me loading the piece. The junk let me sit quietly until all was ready and I could face the camera and say, “The Secret Court condemns everyone who killed Carl: the family who threw him out, the johns who used him. But they are beyond our control. Before us right now are the prime murderers, the one who gave him the idea, the ones who stand to profit from his death.”
Michael broke and ran as soon as I leveled the revolver. The first shot caught him in the side and he fell through the bathroom doorway. My second shot hit the camera. Judith cried in a high-pitched wail as she backed into the bedroom. A shot in her face threw her against the wall. I finished off Michael as he writhed under the sink.
That left one bullet for me. I was careful not to waste it. The last sounds heard were shouts and footsteps on the street and then a final explosion. There was an unbearable bulge behind my eyes. Then something snapped and all was black. Such was the movie that ran in my head.
When I came off the nod, I was still sitting on the bench. Before me, silent grey forms moved majestically from left to right up the Hudson. Rising, I saw that it was a tugboat hauling a string of barges.
On the street outside my place, Rosie and the night shift had just come on duty. “Honey, you look bad. Want a date? We can do it in your place.” I shook my head. “Your friend the other night seemed like he was hurt bad.” I looked at her. “The one talking to you at the window,” she explained.
In my apartment, the phone rang three times, stopped and rang again. I picked it up. “Yeah?”
“The gun took longer than we expected,” said Judith. “We’ll be over within an hour. Just hold on.” As she spoke, I glimpsed a face outside the window. Pale and fleeting as the moon in daylight, it was gone when I went to look.
I thought maybe Carl was reminding me. He didn’t have to worry. All that remained was enacting what I had already seen.
While waiting, I nodded out. The phone rang and I came to in the light of the setting sun. It stopped and rang again. Knowing it was Leo Dunn, I ignored it. Having him plead my case would make it hard to maintain my remote calm.
It was dark when Judith and Michael appeared at my apartment. Things ran much as I had foreseen. They set up their equipment. I moved to draw the curtain against prying eyes from the street.
Against the city night, I saw a pale face. Reaching back, I turned off the lights. The two behind me protested. Then they saw and shut up.
“Kevin.” Carl’s voice was a whisper. “They got me in the morgue. I am more cold and lonely than I could ever have believed.”
“He’s still alive!” Michael was terrified. “It’s a trap!” I heard them scramble in the dark for their equipment.
This time, I looked at Carl. Evening masked the wound and he appeared lost, childlike. Once when he lived with me, I had stayed out all night drinking and forgot he had no key. Coming home, I found him sitting on the stairs rocking back and forth with his head on his knees. When I called his name and he raised his head, it was with the same lost expression.
The memory tore my heart. Behind me the door banged as Michael and Judith fled, “Kevin.” Carl pleaded. “Don’t get angry and stop listening like last night. I have no i.d, nothing to tell them who I am. My mom’s number was on the back of the paper I gave you. They don’t know who to call. You’re the only one I can ask for help. See if she won’t come get my body. All I want is some place to rest. That’s all. Please?”
I managed to choke out, “Forgive me, Carl.” Then the booze and drugs caught up with me. My head spun and everything went black.
Light hit my eyes like nails and all I could see was a tall figure looking down at me. “Jesus Christ,” I said.
“No,” replied Leo Dunn. “You’re not even close.”
I lay on the floor of my front room feeling very sick and criminally stupid. “How did you get in here?”
“I couldn’t sleep last night thinking about you. I came down this morning and saw you lying in here. Two young ladies from the street picked the lock. Did it easily. In their way they were quite concerned.”
Still confused, I saw, on the floor, the paper with Judith’s number. I looked around expecting to see carnage. “What have I done? What the fuck have I done?” I crumpled the paper.
“Nothing that millions of others before you haven’t. Wash your face and put on a clean shirt and we’ll begin again.” His voice held a sadness that I had never before detected. And I was the cause.
My Secret Court was still in session. Judges, a whole panel of them, held that I didn’t deserve to be in the same room with anyone who could still stand the sight of me. Instead of wasting Mr. Dunn’s time, I should continue what I had started and kill myself. Unless I could think of one redeeming aspect, one thing that would cause me to be allowed to continue in this life.
Then I looked down at my hand and remembered one slim possibility. Smoothing the paper, I looked at the Jersey number. It took several tries before I managed to pick up the phone and dial that number. It rang several times and I felt my life hang in the balance.
“Hello?” A woman answered.
“Not for years.” She sounded tough but tired.
I took a deep breath. “It’s about Carl.” On the other end was silence. She knew what this was. I hesitated.
Mr. Dunn reached out and put his hand on my shoulder. It was the only time he ever touched me except to shake hands and I felt like I had dirtied him. Then I looked up and he smiled at me.
“I’m sorry I have to do this,” I said. “But he needs you now.”