Short Stories: In the First Place …

I never wanted to kill him. That’s not the reason I stabbed him.

In the first place, I'm like a pacifist. During the war and everything, I was a protester. So I'm all, No way do I want to kill this guy.

That’s why I think Jack's a bad influence on me, see? Jack got all excited about those stupid Damascus steel edges dudes brought back with 'em after the war. They still bring 'em back for collectors and shit, only no way can Jack afford a kumi-kuchi, or whatever they're called. They are kinda spooky and cool in a way, but compared to Jack I'm all, What's the big deal?

Don't get me wrong: I like knives, too, only I like them survival knives. I think a lot about being lost somewhere, only me and my knife, and having to make it back to civilization. But I'm not as bad as Jack. In the first place, I don't go kissing 'em and shit like Jack, no matter how drunk I get …

And I don't want you to go thinking that I get drunk a lot, neither. It's just that Jack and me was, you know, hanging out and shit, and they can get real obnoxious if you don't buy something while you're taking up space at the bar, so I knocked back a few. I wasn't drunk, though, and neither was Jack. We was just … we was just drinking, that's all. Big deal.

As usual, I ran out of money first. Jack offered to sponsor the drinks — I guess he scored somewhere, I dunno — but a couple rounds later he ran out, too.

So we was walking home when Jack suddenly stops and turns towards me, all tense and stuff, like he'd just figured something out.

You know what most people are? They're survivors, that's what, he said, leaning against this brownstone. All they care about is gettin' from one day to the next. Hell, most of 'em are so afraid of their own shadows they don't dare take a piss without lockin' the door first. He spat on the sidewalk and pulled his coat closed. When you see them nature shows on the TV, that's how most people live. Like rabbits or something. That's why we're better than them. Survival is bullshit. We're fuckin' … uh, shit. What's the word I want?

Broke. We're broke. It sounded like Jack was going to get philosophical on me, which is kinda funny when you think about it. Jack's as dumb as I am.

No, man. What's that word that means when you do real good?

I don't know, man. I'll ask your wife next time I fuck her. I don't think Jack even heard me. In the first place, Jack's not married.

There are two types of people in this world, Jack began again. Most people are just survivors; that's about as low as you can go. You go any lower than that and you're dead. But we're better than survivors. We're prospectors … something like that. We're prosperous. That's it. Jack's eyes looked all red 'cause of this stupid sign across the street. He didn't know what the fuck he was talking about. I told him so right to his face.

It didn't even slow him up. When you're a survivor all you're worried about is dying, Jack went on. Us prosperous — I mean, prospectors — don't worry about nothing. He slumped down a little bit like he was gonna pass out, but then I could see he was just thinking.

We should of gone to 'Nam. We coulda kicked some ass there, man. I started thinking that maybe I was a little drunk. I couldn't figure out what the hell he was talking about, and I sure as hell couldn't think of anything to say back. I always figured that if you live in New York City you don't need to go to no Vietnam …

You remember that white guy at the other end of the bar? Jack asked suddenly.

No. I was having trouble seeing Jack real clear right now, let alone remember some stupid guy sitting in that stupid bar. In the first place, I guess I don't notice other people too much.

That's just it, Jack nodded his head, satisfied. When you're not a prospector … or whatever the fuck that word is … you gotta blend in and hope nobody notices you. Jack was on a roll. You and me, we don't have to blend in … unless we wanna. We can go anywhere and take anything we like, and if anyone gets in our way, it's too bad for them. I decided it was time for me to sit down. The fire hydrant seemed like as good a place as any.

Shit, I'll bet you'd never find him in Central Park after midnight. My foot slipped off the spigot and splashed in a puddle of water underneath one of the caps. I propped myself back up as Jack continued. You and me, we could live like kings in Central Park with our bare hands. And that's just for starters, he added. Hell, if we had our knives … Jack stopped to take a breather.

I think I'd rather be just a plain old survivor so I could use my survival knife. Jack didn't laugh at my joke, probably 'cause he knows I ain't big on camping out. In the first place, just 'cause I like knives don't mean I ever use 'em. I tried to open a can once with my brother's Life Knife, but I fucked up the point and cut the shit out of my finger. I was starting to get cold.

I'm freezing my ass off, I said. You can be a Boy Scout if you want to. I'm going home.

Wait. Jack's eyes reflected bright red for a moment, and then he shut them and sagged back against the wall again. I'm all, No way am I going to sit out here listening to this shit. I tried to stand up but I didn't get real far. I guess the cold was affecting my balance. I got ready to make another try.

Jack snapped his body away from the wall and put his hand on my shoulder. Wait here, he said. The red glow seemed to be coming from inside his head now, like his eyes were two tunnels going someplace bad. I'll show you exactly what I'm talking about. I'll give you a demonstration. He started backing away from me in the direction of the bar. Try to think of that word, he called out. It's a really great word. I'll fuckin' show you what I mean. Then he turned and walked off, only this time he wasn't hardly holding onto the wall or nothing.

To tell you the truth, I was kinda glad he was gone. The way I figured it, either I was drunk or Jack had gone off the deep end. And I knew I wasn't drunk because in the movies and shit, they always say that alcohol warms you up. But I was cold, so I knew I didn't have enough alcohol in me. In the first place, when we got there I thought I had a twenty and some change but it turned out I only had a couple of ones, so no way could I of bought enough alcohol to get drunk.

About ten minutes later Jack comes back with this guy. Well, maybe it was fifteen minutes, only when you're waiting for something to happen fifteen minutes seems like a long time and it didn't seem that long. But anyway, Jack has this guy with him.

This is David, Jack said, dragging out the first part of the guy's name like we used to when we’d tease other kids about being sissies. Jack forgot to introduce me, but David didn't look like he was going to sass no one. He looked kinda like a lost dog; obedient but still lost, you know?

Davey here is our friend from the bar, remember? Jack winked and tried to nudge me with his elbow but missed and almost went down. I didn’t have a fuckin’ clue who David was and I couldn’t care less. All I know is that he wasn’t the bartender. I would of remembered that.

Jack wheeled suddenly and grabbed David's arm, their faces about an inch apart. Let's go, buddy boy. What are we waiting for?

David balked a little as Jack tugged on his arm. What are we going to do, again? he asked.

You're gonna take us over to Central Park and show us how some of your survival shit, Jack reminded him. You're gonna show us how to blend in so nobody can see us.

David didn't seem convinced. I still fail to understand what you expect of me, he said.

Come on, Jack. What the fuck? Let's just go home. In the first place, I'm freezing to death. Jack wasn't paying too much attention to me. He seemed real interested in David, though.

What's wrong, Davey-boy? Jack continued staring at David. Are you afraid to go into the Park at night?

No, not really, David said, backing away from Jack's breath. But I do believe we need to think this through before we start. He started to say something but then he stopped for a second and looked at me. In the first place, it will take almost an hour to get there, he said, looking back at Jack, and we should take something to drink along the way …

That was the first smart thing anybody had said all night.

I looked over at Jack. If we had been playing poker, I would of folded my hand after seeing the look on his face.

A drink. Hmm. Jack tried to scratch his chin thoughtfully, but it wasn't hard to see he was up to something. Can't be big, brave survivors unless we have a little alcohol, can we?

With that, Jack reached into the pocket of his coat and pulled out a fifth of whiskey. Good stuff, too. You could of knocked me over with a feather. Here I was thinking we was broke, and Jack pulls this bottle of whiskey out of his coat pocket like he's some kinda fuckin' magician.

Oh, looky here, Jack said, real condescending like. We're in luck. He held the bottle up and leered at David. That's when I noticed the bottle still had the spout in the top of it from when Jack stole it out of the bar.

Jack twisted the spout out and tossed it out into the street, offering the bottle to David. Here, he said. Guests first. He turned and winked at me, but I didn't get the joke.

David took a quick slug and made a face. Jack took the bottle back.

You survivors are real he-men. Only a real he-man can drink straight whiskey like that. Isn't that right? That was supposed to be my cue.

Right, I said. Is there any of that left over for us prospectors? Jack grinned wildly again and took a slug of the whiskey, wiping his mouth with the back of his sleeve with satisfaction before he handed it over.

That's something else I forgot to tell you about Jack. He likes whiskey, too. A lot more than me. But I took a swallow anyway and passed the bottle back. I didn't like it much, but it was better than the stuff Jack usually gets.

Jack grabbed the bottle by the neck and let it swing to his side like it was the most natural thing in the world. Now, he said, looking at David. Is everybody ready?

David hunched himself up in his coat and shrugged. He didn't look too sold on the idea, but then, neither was I.

David was right on the money; it took us every bit of an hour to get to Central Park. Getting there was only the beginning for Jack, though. Me, I was drunk and frozen solid, somehow, so for sure the movies is wrong about that one. And I was tired. In the first place, I'm not much on walking. Jack ain't neither, but I could tell he wasn't going to let on he was as tired as me in front of David.

Jack started the bottle towards his lips and then stopped. I wondered what the hell he was doing until I noticed the bottle was empty. He must of been sneakin' it while we was walkin'. Jack chucked the bottle over into the bushes, but it sounded like it hit something glass. Probably another empty.

Here's where the fun starts, Jack said, only I got the feeling that whatever he had in mind wasn't going to be much fun. All we gotta do now is find a place to … uh … camp out.

Jack was already half-way down the steps into the park when David said, I know a place. Jack spun and looked at David like he couldn't believe David had actually been brave enough to say something. David tucked his chin down into his coat like he wished he could take it back. It is rather far away, though.

Jack stared up the steps at David. You know a place, Davey boy?

Actually, yes. Just south of 96th Street? I doubt you gentlemen have any desire to walk that far, though. It will take us at least half an hour to get there. I was thinking I wouldn't want to go up to 96th Street at this time of night if it was around the corner.

Jack came back up the steps and kinda circled around David with his head down like his was putting together this big plan only everything was always changing, you know what I mean? Then he turned his back on us and walked over to the curb and spat into the street. I guess he was looking at the lights on Seventh Avenue.

He was far enough away that he probably didn't hear David when he said, Cops, under his breath. A split-second later, this big ol' spotlight hits me in the face. I put my hand up over my eyes, but it was so bright I couldn't hardly see Jack, and he must of been standing right between me and it.

We must of looked okay because after a couple seconds the spotlight slid over to a bum who was pissin' in the bushes. Even after they turned it off, all I could see for a minute was this big white blob with blue around the edges.

Jack turned around casually and walked back to the railing where me and David was standing, only David wasn't there no more. I was still having trouble with my eyes, and by the time they got readjusted he was standing there next to me, just like before. The way Jack was leaning up against the railing on the other side of me I could tell his eyes was still giving him trouble, too. I would of bet the rent he never even saw David disappear.

You scared of cops, Davey? There was something in Jack's voice like he didn't really care but he still wanted to know anyway. When David didn't answer, Jack stepped back from the railing so he could see David without having to look through me. What'd I tell you? That's the difference between him and us, Jack said. We don't give a shit who sees us.

David shrugged. Sometimes blending in is easier than explaining yourself. Jack just snorted, but David's excuse sounded pretty good to me. I thought David seemed like a pretty good survivor, no matter what Jack said.

I was still pondering things when I realized Jack was looking at me funny. What? I said. Nothin', he said, looking away. His eyes narrowed to little slits as he looked at David. Half an hour, huh? Let's go.

If it had been me I would of stuck to East Drive, but David headed out across the park like he knew where he was going and me and Jack followed him. I didn't think we had been standing around that long, but once we got moving again my feet and legs felt real tight. I figured they'd loosen up in a couple minutes only they didn't. The park is pretty dark away from the roads, and I was thinking to myself that it was pretty fuckin' stupid walkin' around in the middle of fuckin' nowhere in the middle of the fuckin' night. I was also thinking that David always looked like he was waiting for me and Jack to catch up. I was doing my best, which I figured was good enough. In the first place, I was ahead of Jack.

We weren't making very good time, though, and half an hour later we weren't even up to the 79th Street Transverse. Jesus, where is this place, I asked no one in particular. David stopped and waited for us to join him.

I apologize for not anticipating how unaccustomed you gentlemen are to walking. It has never taken me this long.

This long in the daytime, you mean, Jack puffed, coming up to where me and David was standing.

Actually, I prefer the night. It is less crowded and thus easier to blend in. David probably didn't know it, but that just pissed Jack off even more.

How much farther, Jack asked between his teeth.

We are about half-way there, David said. Our bivouac is just on the other side of the reservoir. Do you wish to rest a minute?

Rest, hell, Jack snarled. I ain't got all night for this. Come on, let's run the rest of the way.

Run? Jack, are you crazy? I … Jack cut me off. Run, he barked, pushing me forward. My feet were so numb I stumbled. That's when Jack kicked me in the butt. Get your fat ass in gear. That shocked me so much I just kinda started running, but it sure didn't make my legs feel any better.

A few minutes later, I heard Jack stop running so I stopped, too, although I turned around first to make sure he didn't kick me again. This time, Jack looked like I felt, and when he sat down to catch his breath I did the same.

We sat there for a couple minutes breathing hard. I didn't even notice at first that David wasn't with us. This whole thing was turning out to be a bad idea. There I was in the middle of Central Park probably miles away from the nearest cab, and with no money even if there had been one. I looked over at Jack, but he was still blowing plenty hard. It's funny; I always figured Jack was in better shape than me.

He must of caught his breath or something because he looked up all sudden-like and started scanning the bushes around where we were. He even stopped breathing so he could hear better, but that didn't last long. I wished I could of stopped breathing myself for a minute or two 'cause my lungs was hurting.

Jack dropped his head down and went back to trying hard to catch his breath, so he was clued out when David stepped out of the dark as if he had been standing there watching us the whole time. He looked different from the last time I seen him but I couldn't figure it out for a second. Then I noticed that he had turned his overcoat inside-out so the tan-colored side was facing in and the black side was facing out.

I think I found a place that will do. He said it quietly, but Jack whipped around just the same. Jack wasn't gonna let David know he was wore out, or that he'd been snuck up on. It is less secluded than the other location, but it is closer.

Jack eyed David as if he thought maybe David was lying or something. Then he spat on the ground and said, Let's go. He glanced over at me again and heaved himself up on his feet. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw David take a step back when Jack stood up, kinda like he was getting ready for Jack to try something.

Which way?

David pointed off to a part of the park that was even further away from the lights than where we was already. Unless I miss my guess, we are not going to be alone.

What do you mean? Jack was having a hard time keeping the fear out of his voice. Well, not fear, really. But he didn't sound very sure of himself right then. I don't suppose I'd of been any better right then if I'd been doing the talking.

Jack let David take the lead by a couple of paces while I took up the rear. David talked over his shoulder to Jack. We are being followed. He said it real matter-of-fact, too. This must happen a lot to you guys.

Jack tried to straighten up but he didn't quite make it. Yeah. All the time.

I advise we proceed with caution, David said.

That's a survivor talking. Even Jack's voice sounded tired now. We're in charge here, and we're not survivors, we're prospectors, remember? Now I was sure that wasn't the right word. I normally don't give a shit, but it was starting to get to me.

I guess David knew what Jack was talking about because he never asked. I started looking around to see who the fuck was following us but I didn't see nothing. Jack was playing it cool, but I could tell he wanted to look, too.

The thought of someone following us made me kinda jumpy. Every time I heard some bird or something moving around in a bush it gave me the creeps. This is stupid, I says. I'm tired of traipsing all over fuckin' Central Park. Let's just go call my sister and have her pick us up. In the first place, it's not getting any warmer.

I hate to admit it, but I am bushed, too, said David. He didn't look tired, but he rubbed his hands together to get the circulation back in 'em. That made me feel better. If both of us was tired, maybe we could out-vote Jack and go someplace warm.

Fuckin' wimps. Jack stopped dead in his tracks and I almost ran him over. He grabbed my sleeve and jerked it. We're in this together, compadre. Don't you ever forget that. David had stopped, too, and was looking at us like he knew more about what was happening than he let on. One thing was a cinch; he knew more than I did, 'cause I didn't know nothing.

Jack let go of my arm with a little push and looked at David. Come on, survivor man. Show us some of that survivor shit you was talking about.

We walked a while after that but I didn't keep track. My legs was numb from the hips down, so I tried not to think about them. I remembered I seen on some TV show these guys who didn't know all the words to the national anthem, so I tried to remember them in case anyone ever asked me.

When we finally did stop walking I couldn't believe it. I hadn't really been paying attention and I didn't even know where we was. David opened his coat like he was too hot and looked around the clearing, nodding his head.

This should do, he said. Jack looked around, too, but from the expression on his face I don't think he was seeing the same thing David was seeing.

Good, Jack said. Now we can get down to business.

If you don't mind my saying so, David said, the first thing we must do is prepare to welcome our guests. Shit! I had completely forgotten about those guys who was following us. I looked around again but I still didn't see nothing. This time, Jack looked around, too.

You see anything? Jack asked me. I shook my head. I could feel the heat from under my jacket escaping past my collar when I moved. Jack turned to David How come you're the only person who sees these guys, Davey-boy?

That kinda started me wondering, too. Jack and David stared at each other for a second, then David started looking around on the ground for something. It was pretty dark, but when he finally bent down I saw he had found a rock about the size of a golf ball. Maybe smaller. He bounced it in his hand once, then wound up and drilled it into the bushes back where we just came from. Only instead of hitting some plant, the rock thudded into something that yelped and ran off on two legs. I'm no expert, but from the way it was running it sounded like a person.

It will take them a few minutes to figure out what to do now that they have been spotted, David said. Of course, they will be armed, so we should be armed as well. That did it for me.

Let's get out of here, Jack, I said. This is bullshit.

Shut up, Jack said.

What are we gonna fight with?

I have a knife, David said. It was hard to tell who was more surprised, me or Jack. David reached into his coat and pulled something out. Even in the dark, I could tell it was a Marine Corp issue Ka-Bar, my favorite knife in the whole world. I used to own a primo one but I lost it somewhere. I looked everywhere for that knife but I never found it.

Jack started going through his clothes like there was fleas in them. Then he stopped and looked at David. How did you get that? Give it back, he said. I couldn't see the look in his eyes, but his voice said it all. Jack grabbed at knife but he missed by a mile and David tossed it over to me like we was playing keep-away.

You know anything about knives? he asked. Man, it was good holding a Ka-Bar again. Jack looked like maybe he was gonna try to grab it away from me but he changed his mind. I could tell it was an early one but it was in bitchen shape, just like mine used to be.

I got it from you, Jack, David said. It looked like it might fall out of your pocket so I saved it for you.

You stole that knife from me, mother fucker, Jack said. You're a fuckin' pick-pocket.

If it is yours it will be returned to you, David said. He didn't seem to be afraid of Jack now.

It's mine, alright. You took it out of my pocket.

That's when I noticed the initials A.W. on the sheath. My Ka-Bar had those same initials carved in the sheath by the guy who owned it before me. Hey, Jack! This is my Ka-Bar. I held it up so he could see. See the initials? 'A.W.' This is my knife. Oh, man, this is fuckin' great! I held it by the handle and watched the curve of the blade where it came out of my fist. The edge was even in good shape, just like when I lost it. Jack gave David another look and it wasn't pretty.

Did Jack forget to tell you he had your knife all this time? David asked all innocent-like. You should have mentioned it, Jack. You know how much he loves that knife.

Jack backed up and couple steps and started goin' through his clothes again. David reached into his coat and pulled out something else … another knife. Is this what you are looking for, Jack?

David slid the knife out of its sheath. I couldn't see what it was at first, but then I figured it out. It was Jack's favorite knife, the Tanto. It looked like it had been designed by some Jap computer but it sounded like that Indian on The Lone Ranger. Go figure. I guess Jack always liked it because it looked a little like one of those kumi-kuchis only you can buy one just about anywhere.

David held the knife out to Jack handle first. For a minute, it looked like Jack wasn't gonna take it, but he did.

I get the impression there are many things Jack keeps from you, David said. I assume he did not tell you where he got the money he has been spending all night. I shook my head. And I assume he did not tell you that he was sick and tired of having you around, or that he invited me along tonight to help kill you. I just looked at Jack. Between you and me, David said, I think he was planning on killing me, too. Jack wheeled on David.

You mother fucker. You better shut your mouth. Jack looked back at me. Don't listen to him. He's trying to fuck with your head.

David's face looked completely calm and his voice was dead flat. Jack, he said, you have stolen from your best friend, you brought him out here to murder him brutally with his own knife, you have kicked him, you have insulted him, and now you want him to trust you. He may surprise you this time, Jack. In the first place, he is much smarter than you think.

Fuck you, Jack said, and lunged at David again. Only this time he was closer. And this time he was holding his knife. David tried to catch Jack's arm, but it was a straight thrust, which is hard to block. Jack got him right in the stomach and David went down with a little grunt.

Jack stood looking at David for a second, then he turned to me. This is better than I thought it was gonna be, he said and started coming after me.

What the fuck are you doing, Jack? I said. Jesus, you just can't go around stabbing people. Man, we need to get out of here. Jack was getting a little close for comfort so I started backing up.

Like I said, I was a pacifist during the war, so I kinda hoped that Jack would get tired and cut it out. The more I thought about it, though, the more it made me angry about him takin' my favorite knife and my money and shit. And he never should of kicked me.

He circled around to my left to get on my weak side and I could see he wasn't playing around. He faked a couple a times but I didn't go for it. I seen Jack play with his knives all the time so I knew he didn't have no patience. He was gonna fake twice and then come at me, which was just what he did. I faked like I was gonna move to his left, which is what he expected, then I moved to his right.

He stabbed and missed and lost his balance. I hit him as hard as I could right square in the nose like they showed me in that self-defense class Jack took me to that one day, only I used my fist instead of my palm like I should of. My hand hurt like hell, but holding the knife kept me from breakin' my fingers. Jack's head snapped back so's I could see his throat, I figured it would probably be my last chance to finish this thing standing up, so I stabbed him kinda in the side of his neck. I could of tore his whole fuckin' throat out, but my heart wasn't really in it. He used to be my friend, after all. As of an hour ago the doctor said he was still alive. I don't know if he is now or what. I guess he lost a lot of blood.

At any rate, it took a minute or two, but it finally dawned on me I better take Jack's knife away from him in case he wasn't as bad off as he looked and go get some help in case he was.

That's when I noticed that David was gone. There wasn't even a trace of him. Even Jack's knife was clean as a whistle … no blood. I must of ran all the way back to my place in the Village. They picked me up a few hours later but I'm not sure I can explain what the hell happened. You see, in the first place, I'm not sure I understand it all myself.