“Killing an Arab” details the beach scene in Albert Camus’s The Stranger, where the main character Mersault somewhat inexplicably murders a man who earlier had a confrontation with Mersault’s acquaintance. Many misconstrued the song’s message and intent, and some copies of the album had a warning sticker, not for explicit language, but literary provenance, no doubt providing a point of entry, for many, to an exemplary angsty-young-man novel. The most direct influence on The Stranger, according to Camus, was James M. Cain’s classic noir The Postman Always Rings Twice.
I fired four shots more into the inert body, on which they left no visible trace. And each successive shot was another loud, fateful rap on the door of my undoing.
—Albert Camus, The Stranger
The streetlight streaked the rain puddled on the pavement in long dull stripes like scrapes on a wounded tyke’s knee. Johnny Simile had been playing stickball down by third and Lex, took a dive into second, dinged himself up good, ran home and wailed bloody murder to Momma. Momma’s good for wiping away errant tears and the smooching of booboos; some momma’s good for rye and water and kisses elsewhere too, but that’s another story. Now just the salty street caressed by sodium dance.
Not a soul to be seen in this dismal drizzle save your faithful hero: some dunce of a cat not smart enough to step out of the storm. A habit I might’ve picked up in the war ducking around mildewed trenches, but I lived through it didn’t I, so I guess I ought to have been doing something right, despite Sarge McGrady’s many hard words otherwise. Me and Patches got nine lives, sure; Sarge was a real asshole. In the present deluge—Niagara Falls gushing from the brim of my cap, feet squishing in drenched, holey socks—I was coming back from meeting with Ol’ Joe Louis, an infantry pal from the Argonne, now local fuzz down the 16th precinct. We were rapping on a closed case from last winter, loose ends needed tying, shuffling papers on the table like so many spades and diamonds. Case was a real freakshow went by the name of Spiderman who was up and eating folks left and right. Creepy twink had a tagline even: “Don’t struggle like that or I’ll only love you more,” he’d say to the victim right before tucking in. We got wind by way he recorded the damn thing: a sight I’ll not once forget. Real sicko, that Spiderman. As luck would have it, slug between the eyes from my .357 got the worms eating him. Turnabout, I say. A thousand million shivering furry holes. We got some real sick shows in this town all right.
I ducked my head into my collar and quick stepped up the stairs to the front door of the brownstone and let myself in. My office’s on the third floor and I was huffing and puffing as I pushed past the stack of papers inside. I nabbed the top one off the pile and threw it on my desk; headline splay: Fire in Cairo. Same ol’, same ol’. I sparked a Morleys and stared out the window into a translucent haze, puffing away contented as a dragon perched on his booty. Dirty soles smudging the storied ink of our grey lady, relaxed and easy. It’s a life.
The name’s Bob if you were wondering, Bob Smith. Some right unoriginal saps pushed me out into the world; makes for a real gyp in the Yellow Pages, you better believe. Have to shell out for an 1/8 page ad to stand out from all the other yokels. Picture of a gat and a smile, Bob’s your Uncle, no case too strange, no offer too small. Olly olly oxen free. Spécialité de la maison: divorce and blackmail jobs. Yeah, yeah, you sussed it right, I’m a PI, a Private Dick, and somebody has to pay the bills around here (that’d be me), Yellow Pages included. Samsara’s a real bitch. This particular spin of the demon wheel all started last winter. This dame come in the office all bluster and misgiven accuracy. So what. Yeah, till she plunks a couple of C-notes down on the desktop and I’m all ears. Right foxy bird too. The lady and the tramp, that’s us. Mirror, mirror on the wall. Same old sob story but boys don’t cry, we just stamp our feet and scream a little.
Turns out this broad was summering over in Algiers—I checked the atlas, smart guy—and ended up putting a couple holes in a local cabana boy. Some accusations this way and that, but a lonely beach and just the two of them; the sand don’t speak. Well-heeled she was, they got it straight enough to get her repatriated. But now she’s spooked, see, thinks she brought home a little more than her souvenir Aladdin’s lamp and a notch on her gun belt. The boy’s soul in her hands. Nothing concrete: noises, flashes, feeling she’s not alone. Echoes of footsteps following close behind. That kind of thing. That’s why I’m sitting in my office wet as a duck’s ass rather than down at Ed’s Tavern drowning in something else entirely. Bills, remember?
I must have got some shut eye quick because when I wake up the rain’s stopped, just the tap dripping in the other room. Where is this dame? Ten-fifteen Saturday night and the tap drips, drip, drip, drip, drip, drip, drip, drip…
To be continued