Okay, I'm writing a fiction book. Here's chapter 1, tell me what you think....
To look at Michael Catania’s apartment was to look into the heart of despair. The one-bedroom domicile still had vestiges of a more prosperous time, but those were being buried by the ravages of poverty and neglect. The beige walls, so painted to provide a neutral tone for prospective renters, were grimy and stained by years of cigarette smoke. The furnishings were best described as “Early American Cast-off” as no two pieces seemed to belong to the same set. Adding to the atmosphere of overall decay were the numerous boxes and bags from various fast-food restaurants, occasionally fluttering from the breeze created by a dusty, oscillating fan.
Michael, himself was a reflection of his environment; just 35 years old, his face would be handsome if one could see past the five day growth of beard and the bloodshot and sunken brown eyes. Though slim, his body had little muscle tone. His clothing consisted of dirty, old, sneakers, a sweat shirt emblazoned with a local university logo, and a pair of jeans that may have fit once, but were obviously too big for him now.
He was sitting on his couch staring down at a couple of objects amid the clutter of liquor bottles strewn across a dark, stained, coffee table; a Glock pistol, and a photograph. Incongruously, the pistol was clean and appeared to be well oiled, the blocky lines and black finish emphasizing its utilitarian appearance. He had a round in the chamber and a full magazine.
Michael thought of the hundreds of hours he had spent honing his skill with it, the thousands of rounds sent down range, the classes and schools he had attended to improve his ability with it, all in preparation for….what? To protect his family? Himself? What? All of his preparation had come to naught.
His eyes strayed over to the well-worn photograph. The image was that of a woman and child. The child, a boy, was about five years old. He had an unruly shock of red hair and blue eyes that dominated his face. In the photo, he was smiling as if laughing, possibly from being tickled by the woman in the photo. His little hands clutched at her arms around him as if trying to pull them apart, confirming that that was exactly what was happening.
The woman had the same shade of red hair and the same blue eyes. Whereas the boy had a round, almost cherubic face, the woman’s was long and her features delicate. She too was smiling in the photo, her perfect teeth slightly parted as if she were laughing with the boy. The sight of those two together brought forth a racking sob from Michael as tears flowed from his eyes. He buried his face in his hands and cried silently for a minute.
Pulling himself together, he looked at the pistol on the table and stared as the conversation ran through his head for what seemed to be the thousandth time,
“Just do it. You can end this pain if you just pick it up and do it. You failed. You failed everyone around you and they all know what a failure you are. Just pick it up, put it in your mouth and do it. One split-second and it will be all over.”
These thoughts dominating his mind, he reached for the pistol, picked it up, and placed against his chin so that it pointed up and rearwards; a definite kill shot.
“That’s it, just four and a half pounds of pressure and it all ends. Just do it. Doitdoitdoitsdotidoitdoit…”
Michael suddenly pulled the pistol away and set it forcefully upon the table. He began crying loudly now, his head dropping to his chest.
“Didn’t even have the balls to do that right.” He said out loud through the tears.
He picked up the photograph and looked at it again. The pain he felt cut into him like a knife, evoking another sob from him. He brought the photo to his lips and kissed it gently, “Happy birthday buddy.”
He set it down and stared off into space. A drink, he needed another drink.
He rummaged among the empty bottles before him, checking several for any dregs. It wasn’t long before he resigned himself to the fact that there was nothing to be had; he would have to go out. Rising unsteadily to his feet, he walked to the front door, grabbed his wallet and keys, and stepped into the hall way. He walked slowly, more shuffling than striding, keeping one hand on the graffiti covered wall as he made his way to the elevator. In a minute, he stepped out the door into the street.
He was shocked slightly by the heat. The fan in his apartment had kept him cool enough to be comfortable, but outside there was no wind and even the exertion of walking caused him to break into a sweat. It also struck him that he hadn’t realized it was night. He had no idea how long he had sat in his apartment mourning his…losses.
The neighborhood was a shining example of what happens to a city when its major source of revenue suddenly disappears. The houses on the block were separated by empty lots where other houses had been burned or torn down. Of the houses that were left, a full third of them were vacant. Those street lights that still worked gave the area a surreal glow as young children ran around on one of the vacant lots. Michael could feel the eyes upon him as he walked down the block towards the main drag where the liquor store sat. A white man in this neighborhood was a curiosity to his neighbors. He had never spoken, or even acknowledged any of them and they, in turn, did nothing but stare as he walked by. The rumor was that he was a ‘crack head’, a person addicted to crack cocaine, that was on his way to bottoming out. The people that lived in his building had often heard crying and yelling coming from his apartment, but they never inquired as to what was going on. The infestation of drug dealers had taught them long ago that curiosity could get you killed, and getting involved in other peoples’ business was a sure way to end up dead. Their attention was so concentrated on Michael’s progress that none of them noticed a second figure walking on the other side of the street parallel to him.
Michael walked as if he were on auto-pilot. He had traversed this route countless times in the last eighteen months, often times in worse condition than he was in at this moment. Anymore, head down, hands in pockets, he just plodded along the cracked and broken sidewalk towards his destination; so lost in an alcohol-fueled haze of grief and self-pity that he was almost completely unaware of his surroundings.
In a neighborhood like this one, that was yet another condition that could be fatal.
It is a fact of life in inner cities that the lack of opportunity and gainful employment results in high crime. Young men with too much idle time roam the streets like wolf packs in search of prey. In fact, there is a direct correlation between the two groups; both seek out the weak, the sick, and the unwary. Most often, the result for the objects of either group’s attention is injury or death.
Michael finally noticed the group of four when they were thirty feet away. His first indication that he was in trouble was when the largest of the group moved directly in front of him and stopped him with a rough palm to the chest. Somewhat startled, Michael looked at the man in front of him. He looked to be in his mid-twenties, and had a muscular build as if he worked out frequently. The jailhouse tattoos revealed where he held his gym membership. He was dressed in a black sleeveless sweatshirt and jogging pants with high-top sneakers that were glaringly white in contrast. The other three were similarly clad, though all were younger and smaller than the man in front of Michael. Michael was shaken from his reflection by another rough shove and the large man’s voice, “I said, ‘where you goin’?”
Michael, as if noticing for the first time, looked around and realized that he was in a bad spot; no occupied houses for a hundred feet in either direction, and nothing but empty lots across the street. He looked at the speaker, “To the store.”
“Yeah? You got five dollars I can get?”
“No. I don’t have any money.”
“You don’t have any money? ‘Then what you goin’ to the store for?”
“How you gonna get vodka, you ain’t got no money? You lyin’ to me? Huh motherfucker? Now I know you got money, let me get ten dollars.”
Michael, even though he knew this wouldn’t end well for him, had receded into that crazy place within all men where, when they had nothing left to lose, they simply spoke their minds and hang the consequences, “I’m sorry. I meant that I don’t have any money for you. You might try getting a job.”
“A job? You know what happens to white people around here? Especially drunk, out of shape, mouthy, white people?”
Michael, now to the point of being beyond caring what happened to him, looked directly into each face, pausing long enough to be sure that they acknowledged his eye contact. He then stared directly at the apparent leader of the group, “Yes, they get assaulted by a group of semi-literate jailbirds.”
Just as the man whom Michael had come to think of as Muscles, moved towards him with bodily harm on his mind, another voice spoke loudly from the street, “Well! It looks like I found you Mike! Who are your friends?”
Instantly, all eyes shifted to the source of the voice. A man, approximately fifty years old, six feet tall and maybe two hundred pounds, approached them. His grey pullover shirt and blue khakis, combined with graying blonde hair and blue eyes made him stand out even more than Michael did in this neighborhood. The group of young African-American men reflexively stepped back to assess this new threat.
Finally, the group leader spoke, “Who the fuck is you?”
“Who is he? Who am I? You’re just full of questions. The name is John McCool. My friends call me John. You can call me Mr. McCool. I’m a friend of Mike’s.”
The group, as if choreographed, looked over to Michael who just shrugged.
“You his friend? Then maybe you got the ten dollars he was goin’ give me.”
McCool smiled, “Nope. Don’t you know it’s dangerous to carry cash?”
“What if I decide to take it? What you gonna do then muthafucka?”
I’ll tell you what I’m not going to do; I’m not going to give you any money, I’m not going to let you hurt either of us, and I’m not listening to anymore of your nonsense. C’mon Mike, we’ve got a lot to talk about.”
Muscles moved in, throwing a wide right hand while saying, “I gots sumthin’ fo you to fuckin’ talk about!”
As he moved, McCool intercepted his arm while simultaneously moving out of the way, yanked him off balance and drove him into the ground. He held him there with an arm lock, applying enough pressure to assure Muscles that any resistance would end up in him losing the use of that arm. The other three, stunned into inaction by the sight of their champion being so easily defeated, looked stupidly at one another. By the time they had reached a decision, McCool had adjusted his position so that he could maintain the arm lock on Muscles while drawing a large, black, semiautomatic pistol out and point it at the nearest of the three remaining miscreants,
“Too slow, boys!” he said jovially, “now here’s how it’s going to go down; you three back off five steps, you on the ground, I’m going to let you up. If you make another move towards Mike or me, I’ll send you to the hospital where you can consider your errant ways while they figure out how to get you to walk again, understand?”
Muscles grunted in the affirmative. McCool let him go, stood up and backed away rapidly. He motioned to Mike over to him. He immediately complied. As the four regrouped, Muscles, who was trying to preserve some dignity squared off with McCool again, “Without that gun you ain’t shit. This ain’t over.”
“You’re right. I forgot something.” McCool reached into his back pocket. He came out with several business cards, “Mike, I want you to hand one of these to each of them. “ Looking at the four, “If any of you moves on him, I will shoot all of you.”
They remained tense but motionless while Mike handed them the cards.
McCool spoke again, “That is the business card of Reverend Darryl Shelton. He’s Pastor of The Lord’s Beacon Church on Six Mile and Hayes Avenue next to the fish and chips place. If any of you decide you want to work towards something other than a police record, go talk to him. Tomorrow is good, tonight is better. Just tell him that Mr. McCool sent you. Let’s go Mike.”
McCool gently pressed Mike’s shoulder, guiding him away from the sullen group. When they were far enough down the block, McCool re-holstered his pistol. Mike noted that he did so without looking at the holster; he had done this often. Neither man said anything as they made their way to Mike’s apartment. The denizens of the neighborhood took immediate notice of the pair; one white man in this neighborhood was a curiosity. Two was an event. While walking past one of the houses whose occupants were sitting on the front porch, they heard a voice comment, “Oh shit. There goes the neighborhood.” The rest of the people on the porch laughed in appreciation.
Still fueled by adrenaline and the need to put some distance between themselves and the group of thugs, they covered the distance to Mike’s apartment in much less time than it had taken Mike to reach the place where he had run into trouble. Once they had entered the building and got on the elevator, Mike turned towards McCool, “Do I know you?”
“No, and I don’t know you, either. I know about you, but we’ve never met.”
They arrived at Mike’s apartment and stopped. Mike, who was still drunk and now very tired as a result of the evening’s events, looked at McCool, “You want to come in? I don’t have anything to drink but water. I was on my way out to restock when I ran into those guys.”
“Water would be fine.”
They entered the apartment. The first thing McCool did was look around as if he were taking it all in, “Maid’s day off?” he quipped.
“Took the whole year,” Mike replied.
Mike went into the kitchen, found a clean glass and filled it with tap water. He handed it to McCool and sat heavily on his couch, “Who did you say you are again?”
“John McCool. I’m here to talk to you.”
“Me? What’s there to talk about?”
“Well, for starters, how does one of the most respected men in the mayor’s office end up here?”
“ What? This? Naww, this is just the end result. When I say poor choices, I mean from start to finish. I believed in a man and it turned out to be the biggest mistake of my life. You know? You do all of the right things, college, internships, job…you try to make good choices, you try to be a good man, and one day, some psycho asshole rips it all out from under you. Worst thing is though? It’s the guy you thought was your best friend.”
“You’re not the first person to have suffered losses.”
Mike looked sideways at him, “Easy to say when you’re not the one who lost.”
“True enough. Unless the speaker has already walked the path you’re on.”
“You mean you?”
“Among others. We can get to that later. Right now I need to ask you three questions and I need honest answers.”
“Why? What do you want from me?”
“All in good time. Can I ask or not?”
“Sure. Why not? Least I can do after you saved my ass and all.”
“Good enough. First: Are you sober?”
“Are you kidding? I haven’t been sober for a year and a half. At best, I’m functional. Like I said; I was on my way to restock when I ran into the local youth group.”
“Fine. Second: Is this where you want to stay for the rest of your life?”
Mike looked at the floor, “It’s what I deserve.”
“That wasn’t the question. Do you want this to be your last place on Earth?”
There was a long silence. Finally, as if to himself, “No. I just don’t know how to get back.”
“Understandable. Finally, Can you keep from drinking for 12 hours? It’s 9pm right now, can you stay dry until 9am?”
“I guess so. Why?”
“Here’s the deal; you keep from having a drink until I return tomorrow. At that point, we’ll have breakfast, and we can discuss your new start.”
“New start? What are you talking about?”
“Not now. Like I said; tomorrow. Just stay dry for 12 hours and we’ll go from there.”
McCool looked around with a calculating eye. He looked directly at the pistol and the photograph, “Nice pistol. Doesn’t do you much good here when you’re out there.”
Mike just shrugged.
“Is that your family?”
Mike looked directly at McCool with a challenging glare, “It was. I don’t care to talk about it.”
“Right. Okay, well, I’m going to go. I’ve got a lot of preparations to make between now and tomorrow morning.”
Mike was curious as to what he meant by that but said nothing. McCool nodded to him and let himself out. Mike got up and locked the door behind him. He didn’t look forward to facing the night, this night without the refuge of a bottle of vodka, but for some reason he couldn’t identify he was compelled to see where this chance encounter led.
His first action was to turn on the small television set in his bedroom. He watched what seemed like an eternity of beer commercials and then turned the set off. He tried reading a paperback book he had started several days earlier but couldn’t concentrate. He ended up moving restlessly about the apartment for a while and then decided to try and lay in bed for a bit. Amazingly, the combination of alcohol and danger had drained him to the point where the act of laying in bed caused him to fall asleep in less than a minute.