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About Charlie Huston

Charlie Huston is the author of the Henry Thompson trilogy, the Joe Pitt casebooks, and the Los Angeles Times bestseller The Shotgun Rule. For Marvel Comics he has written Moon Knight, as well as special annual issues of The Ultimates and X-Force. He lives with his family in Los Angeles.

Posts by Charlie Huston

Guest Blogger Charlie Huston Wraps Up Bloody Mess Week

Mystic_arts [Ed.: Charlie Huston's latest book, The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death (Amazon's pick as Best Book of the Month for January), descends into the grisly underworld of crime scene clean-up, appropriately inscribed with his indelible signatures: hilarious, inappropriate dialogue; outrageous supporting characters; and another bloody wreck at the intersection of Money and Violence. Honoring the theme of the novel, Charlie has been posting on Omnivoracious all week, sharing "true stories about messes I've seen, helped clean up, and made." See more posts, and get more at his blog, pulpnoir.com.]


HUMAN MESSES


The worst messes don't clean up.

Bartending is also an education in intimacy with strangers.

I know things about people I barely know, secrets I'd be uncomfortable to know about anyone I am friends with.  It happens.  It doesn't have to be a barroom confidence, although there are those, it's just what happens in front of your eyes when people are drinking.  You don't have to eavesdrop, it just happens.  You can try not to know, but it just happens.

The spills you want most to wipe up, the ones that don't make for dramatic or comic storytelling, those are the human messes at the bar. 

The fluid on most copious display is heart's blood.

They spill it every night. 

That sounds maudlin?  Like a bad song on a juke box?  A country and western cliche?

F--- you.

It's just how it is.  Alcohol is a depressant.  And it loosens inhibitions.  People do and say things.  Wallow in their misery.  I've not just been a spectator at this sport, I've played.  And it may not make you feel any better, but it's a good enough substitute most nights.

There's no SOP for these messes.  Each one is unique, without precedent, and comes with no instructions.   You learn as you go, hope you don't make the mess worse. 

Mostly that means staying out of the way.

Which is not always an option.

LJ was a mess.  Drunk.  Recovering junkie.  Then a relapsed junkie.  Recovering.  Relapsed.  Recovering again.  Shots of Scotch and bottles of Bud.  In and out of the bar all night long.  He had a job that suited his lifestyle, and a wife.  He loved both.

I don't know why he took on a mistress.

The quiet one at the end of the bar, well dressed, a little too young and pretty for the place, white wine instead of beer or booze, nearly prim in style.  There is a barfly like this in every bar.  Rarely what they seem.  But not what you might think, either.  Just people. 

I kept my distance.  To me she screamed, "CAR CRASH!"  I knew her name, what she liked to drink, who she socialized with at the bar.  Little else. 

There were others at the bar who's outward appearance suggested imminent physical danger, people with whom I had warm business relations.  You learn to feel the crazy, and give it a wide berth.  It will sink you.

I have no idea how it started.  No idea how long it was going on before I became aware of it.  From my point of view it was suddenly happening, LJ and the Prim One were f---ing.

I buttoned up and gave her more distance.  Gave LJ more of a buffer than I had before.  There was going to be a huge mess, one that couldn't be cleaned.  I didn't want to slip and fall down and get covered in it.

You cannot clean some messes.  You cannot clean certain messes. 

You can only get dirty yourself if you try.

I don't know what happened.  There was sudden tension between LJ and Prim One.  He relapsed again.  They were together at the bar some nights.  Not together other nights. 

One of the customers dealt in unset stones and jewels.

One night he came in with a package for LJ.  A pearl choker.  LJ showed it to me, beaming. A birthday gift for his wife.  Her birthday was the next day.

I think it was the pearls that did it.

I was out of the place for a few days, something had happened.  The pearls had sparked something.  I believe there had been a confession.  Promises maybe.  Something.

LJ was in the bar.  Prim One was in the bar.  Separate from one another.  Tension.

The wife came in.

I'd only met her once before.  She never came around.  Out of preference, or to give LJ his space.  She never came around. 

Everyone knew who she was.  She knew who everyone was. 

She ordered a drink.  A beer?  I don't remember.  I wish I could remember what she was drinking.  I brought it to her.  She offered me money.  I shook my head.

I heard the word bitch muttered with intentional volume from down the bar.  It was Prim One.

There are messes that cannot be cleaned up.  They can only be avoided. 

There was about to be a huge mess.

I leaned toward LJ's wife.  We'd gotten along the one time we'd met before.  She remembered my name, used it when she sat at the bar.

I put my hand near hers.
"I need to ask a favor.  It isn't fair, and it isn't right.  I'm not asking it because of one person or another.  I'm not asking it for anyone here except me.  As a favor to me, to make my job a little easier tonight, will you please leave?"

There are messes you cannot clean up.

She said she would not.  She said she had a right to be there. She said she'd pay for her drink.  And I agreed with her.  I told her I was not kicking her out.  I told her I was asking a favor.  I told her that if she stayed there would be trouble and I didn't want it in the bar.  She said she wasn't there to cause trouble.  She was just there to have a drink.

I looked at her.
"Yes, you are here to cause trouble.  You never come here.  You came here to provoke something.  And I won't kick you out, but you are the one who came in looking for trouble.  Everyone else here, whatever else they do, tonight they were just sitting where they always sit.  You never come in, but you're here now.  And I need you to do me a favor and leave."

And she left.

I never thought she would, but she did.  And I was so grateful.  She'd been honest with herself, and compassionate toward me.  And she'd left.

Soon after, within minutes, the word bitch was again being heard from Prim One's end of the bar.  LJ decided it was time to defend is wife's honor.  They engaged verbally.  People moved to keep space between them, I moved to eject them from the bar, and before I could LJ shook his head, turned, and left.

Walked out.  Just flat left.  Surrendered the field and blew.

And Prim One picked up a full pint of beer from the bar, walked to the open front window, and threw the contents into his face as he walked past.

He came back in, went at her.  I remember people were holding her, keeping her from clawing his face, but unable to stop her from kicking.  Someone had hold of his arm, to prevent him from jerking out the fistful of her hair in his hand.  I remember forcing his fingers open one by one, untangling them from her hair.  Both of them screaming at one another the whole time. 

Separated, I got LJ to the door.  He didn't need much urging.  He was gone.

Prim One wanted to stay.  She was crying.  When I told her to get out, regulars started objecting.  I told them to shut the f--- up and mind their own f---ing business.  I'd never talked like that to them before.  I told them it had been over.  Prim One had thrown a drink out the window at LJ when he was leaving, the mess had been cleaning itself up and she'd kicked over the bucket.  She was not a wounded party.  She had to go. 

Fight in a bar, get kicked out.  It's not negotiable.  It's how civilization is maintained. 

I got her out.  I don't remember how.  I remember her calling me a cold son of a bitch, and thinking how unlike me that sounded.  But we don't know ourselves.

LJ came back around that night.  He'd fixed and was blissful and mellow.  When I told him he was 86ed, could never come back in the bar, he looked so sad.  Regretful. 

I gave notice the next day.  Those were messes I was unequipped to clean.  Puke, piss, spit and blood, I could handle those.  Not this.

My own life was upended before I could work my final shifts.  The night I 86ed LJ was my last.  I became a human mess in my own right for awhile.  Learned to clean puke and piss and spit and blood from my clothes and bedding. 

A couple years later I ran into one of the regulars from that place.  I asked after a few people.  I asked after LJ.

She was still for a moment.
"You didn't hear.  Yeah, we lost him.  He's gone."
I asked if it was junk.
She nodded.
"Yeah, OD.  Yeah.  He wasn't doing good.  Yeah."

Some messes you cannot clean up.

     I'm Charlie Huston, I wrote a book about messes that can be cleaned up, called The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death.  This week I've been telling true stories about messes I've seen, cleaned up, and made.  I kept some names to myself, embellished a bit for a laugh where I could, but it all happened pretty much like I said. 

    Keep clean,
    -c

Guest Blogger Charlie Huston and the Stairs He Rode in On

Mystic_arts [Ed.: Charlie Huston's latest book, The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death (Amazon's pick as Best Book of the Month for January), descends into the grisly underworld of crime scene clean-up, appropriately inscribed with his indelible signatures: hilarious, inappropriate dialogue; outrageous supporting characters; and another bloody wreck at the intersection of Money and Violence. Honoring the theme of the novel, Charlie is posting on Omnivoracious all week, sharing "true stories about messes I've seen, helped clean up, and made." See more posts, and get more at his blog, pulpnoir.com.]

THE STAIRS I FELL ON


The guy with the mop at the bottom of the stairs looked up as I came through the basement door and held up a cautioning hand. 

We didn't speak one another's language, but the message was clear, "I just mopped the stairs, be careful."

So I was careful, I took hold of the banister, stepped out to place my foot on the first tread, and my legs went out from under me and I was suddenly riding my ass down a flight of wet stairs.

It hurt.

But not while it was happening.

While it was happening it was terriifying.

At the bottom, I didn't move.  The guy with the mop stared at me with bug eyes, said something I didn't understand.  I still didn't move.  The door at the top of the stairs opened and someone stuck their head in and asked if everything was OK.

The guy with the mop pointed at me.
"I told him."

The owner came down the stairs.
"Mr. Charles, can you move, Mr. Charles?  Did you hit your head?"

I could move.  I hadn't hit my head.  He helped me up.  Things were starting to hurt now.  My ass.  He led me to the office, a room that also accommodated liquor storage.  He got me a drink, brandy, a traditionalist.  He gave me a cigarette.

I had the drink and the cigarette. 

He came back and asked me, worry in his eyes, if I could work.  I nodded.  The worry left his eyes, he'd not be short-handed on a Friday night. 

I limped all night, told the story to the regulars, the waiters told it to their regulars.  After closing, over shift drinks, I told it again, the owner told about opening the door and seeing me unmoving at the foot of the stairs, how his heart had stopped, how the guy with the mop had looked up.

"I told him,  he said.  Motherf---er, he told him.  I'm thinking the a--hole is dead at the bottom of the stairs, but the motherf---er told him, so it's OK."

We all laughed.  Got pretty drunk.  It was a good night.

Ten years later the restaurant celebrated an anniversary.  The place was packed.  Customer, former employees, vendors, neighbors.  Packed.  A speech.  Brass plaques set into the bar at the stools of the two most beloved regulars.  Food in unbelievable quantities.  Liquor likewise.

Some of the people are family.  From the first year, from the days of twenty-dinner nights, before the reviews, before the place was a staple of the street, before people waited on the sidewalk to get in.  We worked three jobs each, at once.  A waiter was useless if he or she couldn't run food and bus tables.  A bartender was a punk if he or she couldn't do service, cash bar, handle the till, and work the door.  The owner had started his days at 3am, getting up to hit the fish market, produce, wine merchants.  No deliveries, he picked up everything, hand-picked the best, at bargain prices.  He built the place.  A landmark building, he'd wanted a picture window where there was none, fought the preservation committee to a deadlock, and said f--- it.  Inches behind the outer wall he'd installed a huge steel-framed window, sandwiched it between sheets of plywood.  In the middle of the night, weeks before opening, he parked a truck on the sidewalk out front, ran chain from the trailer hitch to eye hooks he'd driven into the wall, got behind the wheel, put it in first, and applied the gas.  The outer wall came down, revealing the new picture window.  Piling bricks into the back of the truck, he looked up to see a police can pull around the corner.

He spent the night in jail.  There was a fine.  But he kept his window.

Some of us at the party had been around.  The stories.  Too many.

The Vegas trip.  Perky.  The exterminators.  The couple who wouldn't pay.  The night the owner broke the door with that guy's head.  First Mother's Day.  The night I told the guy I'd smash his face in if he snapped his fingers at me one more time when all he was doing was snapping his fingers as part of a story he was telling his date.  Weddings.  Showers.  Poker games.  Thanksgiving.  Fourth of July.  The night R was punched by the fireman.  S and the owner screaming at one another, hurling obscenities in the kitchen, clearly audible in the dining room.  The girl who threw the bottle.  The Friday Night Sandwich Pickup. 

We'd been there.

We were waiting for the party to die down. We were waiting for it to distill to its essence.  An intimate group, around a table littered with plates and bottles and glasses, telling the stories we all already knew.

Then Senate fell down the stairs I'd already fallen down ten years before.

But he did it good.

Someone came up to me, years now after I'd managed the place, whispered.
"I think Senate fell down the stairs."

I rolled my eyes, looked at my wife.  Just like old times.  Here we go.

I went to the door that led into the basement, opened it, looked down, and saw Senate on his back on the concrete floor at the foot of the stairs, his head resting in a thick pool of his own blood, a pool deep enough it would splash if you dropped a penny into it, his wife kneeling next to him.

He did not look well.

A one-time drunk, Senate had cleaned up his act over the preceding years.  But during the party, at the scene of many past crimes, with a crowd that knew him only in the context of a man who inhaled cheap bourbon and exhaled cigarette smoke, he'd had one too many.

One bottle too many.

At the foot of the stairs I asked him to move his legs.  He did so.  And his arms.  He demonstrated his hands by flipping me off.  There was a large dark stain on his crotch.  He said he was fine. 
"Watch this."

He lifted his head and banged it back against the concrete with a squelch.  His wife and I winced.  I told him not to do that anymore.  He said he was fine again.  I pointed out that he was so far from fine that he'd pissed his pants.  This seemed to worry him.
The door at the top of the stairs opened.
"Motherf---er!"

The owner came down.
"Motherf---er.  Mr. Charles, Mr. Charles, the same f---ing stairs."

The EMTs arrived.

For the amount of blood, I found their examination cursory.
"Can you move? You feel like you can sit up?  OK, let's go."

They say him up, slapped a huge pad of cotton over the dent in the back of his head, wrapped several yards of gauze, and helped him up the stairs, clearly relieved that they didn't have to try and get a gurney up and down the fuckers.

The emergency room was fun.

In an utterly not fun way.

By which I mean it was no fun at all.

Senate kept going through a cycle that began with declarations that he was fine and wanted to go home, transitioned into claims that he wasn't even that drunk, segueing to questions as to just how serious this really was, fear coming into his eyes, ending when his eyes went fuzzy, he forgot where he was, and we started from the top.

It seemed clear that he was concussed.

We stayed a few hours, made sure he wasn't going to die, kept his wife company until a doctor manifested and assured everyone that it looked far worse than it was, and took a cab home.

I don't remember washing my hands.  I must have.  There was so much blood.  I must have washed my hands.  But I don't think I could have been too worried about it anyway. 

I knew Senate.  We'd done some shit together.  His blood didn't scare me.
   
He called the next day.

I picked up the phone and he started talking before I knew who it was.

"So, seventeen stitches and a radical new Flock of Seagulls haircut later, I'm feeling a little embarrassed about my behavior last night."
   
Somewhere in the middle, I'd worked at another place.  A three story restaurant.  Working the door, you ran up and down those stairs during the rush, seating and beating, asses in and asses out.  Theater District style.  I bit it on the stairs one night, landed on them flat-backed, no slide, feet out and up, whole body slam down.  And froze there.  I didn't know if I could move.  Was afraid to try.  But I could. 

The owner got me into the office, offered me a drink that I declined.  I no longer smoked.  He asked me if I could work.  I said yes. 

The bruises on my back, thighs, ass and one arm were ruler-straight.  As if I'd been smacked by boards.  No blood.  No stitches.  No Flock of Seagulls haircut.  Just a fall.  No story.

Just a thing that happened.

Senate let me feel the scar on his scalp, hidden by the hair after it grew out.

I didn't have one to show him.

Bastard.

     I'm Charlie Huston.  I wrote a book about trauma scene cleaning and family.  It's called The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death.  I'll be here all week telling true stories about messes I've seen, helped clean up, and made. 
    Be well,
    -c

Guest Blogger Charlie Huston Has Had a Lot of Blood on His Hands over the Years

Mystic_arts [Ed.: Charlie Huston's latest book, The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death (Amazon's pick as Best Book of the Month for January), descends into the grisly underworld of crime scene clean-up, appropriately inscribed with his indelible signatures: hilarious, inappropriate dialogue; outrageous supporting characters; and another bloody wreck at the intersection of Money and Violence. Honoring the theme of the novel, Charlie is posting on Omnivoracious all week, sharing "true stories about messes I've seen, helped clean up, and made." See more posts, and get more at his blog, pulpnoir.com.]


PIZZA SAUCE


Mild Sunday summer evenings in Manhattan, evenings with a breeze that carries off the midday reek of rotting garbage, are of a rareness that surpasses all other considerations.

Peace descends over the island.  Responsibilities fall away.  A vast cloud of urban anxiety is sucked from the populace and carried aloft by the updraft of warm air, dispersing above the Empire State Building.

Everyone goes out to eat and put on a buzz.

It is an irresistible pull.  In a city where the climate allows no more than a half-dozen days of truly beautiful weather, to miss the opportunities of just one is akin to flushing away a year of one's youth.

Everyone goes out to sit on park benches and smoke a cigarette.

The temperature is flawless, suitable for anything from a bikini to jeans and a light sweater.  No one stares at the pavement, they look at one another's eyes and smile with a look that says, "Aren't we the lucky f---ers to be alive today."

Everyone goes out to look at the beautiful half-clothed people and think about f---ing.

Last minute social arrangements are made, fallen into, long lost friends appearing randomly from your childhood on the patio at that place on Delancy, that guy finally calling you, your wife saying she's dying to go to Coney for a beer like you used to, your buddies discovering that no one has plans for after the pick-up game on the 4th street courts and a bbq is suddenly arranged on a rooftop, a fourth pitcher of margaritas that no one objects to.

Everyone goes out to be with someone.

SPLAT!

Walking down Avenue A on such an evening with a good friend and the women who would become our wives, blissful in our buzzes of beer and camaraderie, that was the sound that drew us back to the world.  The sound of a nose being pulped by a steel basement trap (these steel basement traps, they crop up in bloody stories somehow).

The woman walking several years ahead of us, she went down.  I mean, she went DOWN.  Never having seen someone go down like that, we all froze mid step.

She'd not frozen mid step, she'd simply changed the orientation of her physical mass as it related to the gravitational pull of the earth and, rather than continuing in forward in the direction she'd been traveling, she'd somehow taken a step straight at the sidewalk, her inertia inexplicably redirected into the ground.

SPLAT!

As if an invisible and massive hand had shoved her face first into the trap.

SPLAT!

We were not the only ones halted by this demonstration of the arbitrariness of physics.  All the wafting travelers of this Sunday evening were harshly pulled to the surface.  Not as harshly as the woman lying face down, but with mellow-jarring effect, nonetheless.

It did not look good.  It looked like the kind of incident that might result in bone shards being shoved into someone's brain matter.

I did not want to look.

Motion took over.

The four of us, along with several other, moved to help her.  We reached her first.  She was moving, rolling onto her side, revealing her splattered nose.

Splattered.

I feel I need say no more on the subject.

She herself, we realized at once, was similarly splattered.  And as splattered as she was by the fall, she was twice as splattered by whatever she'd been drinking.

She'd clearly exceeded the limits defined by the classic Sunday summer evening buzz and gone in for plain old s--- faced.

Incoherent, but alive, she lost some of her attendants and audience. 

But we had our hands on her.  Dropping her and heading to the next bar was not in the cards.  A call was placed to 911.

"Um, she fell down on her face and splattered her nose and there's a lot of blood."
"Someone is coming.  In the meantime, we want to stop the bleeding.  I want you to tilt her head back and pinch the bridge of her nose."

I looked at her nose.

"Her nose is splattered."
"Is it broken?"

I looked again.

"It's splattered."
"Can you pinch the bridge?"
"I don't think it has a bridge anymore."
"Don't pinch it."

I thought that was a good idea.  Instead of pinching her splattered nose I tilted her head back, put a wad of paper napkins that had been offered to me from one of the guys in the pizza shop she'd gone down in front of under what looked like her nostrils, and told her to breathe through her mouth.

She laughed, and I saw broken teeth in her mouth.

The EMTs arrived. 

I'd done this before. Knew to get out of the way and not talk unless spoken to.  They spoke to me pretty soon because they couldn't understand a word the woman was saying.  But, soon enough, she was loaded onto a gurney, no accompaniment in the back, and the ambulance drove away without sirens.  No big deal.

One of my hands was bloody.  I was still holding a wad of bloody napkins.  Looking around for someplace to toss it.  One of the pizza guys came to the sidewalk service window where you ordered your slices and waved me to the door.  I told my friends I'd be right back and followed him in, behind the counter, to the kitchen. 

He pointed at a garbage can and I dropped the napkin wad inside.  He picked up a bottle of bleach and poured it over the garbage, nodded at a sink.  I put my hands in the sink, he turned on the water and I put my hands under the taps.  Hot water ran over my hands and he tilted the bottle of bleach and spilled it into my palms, two, three, four cups of it, nodding.
"Gotta be careful.  Gotta be careful."

Outside one of his coworkers was doing the same with the blood splatter on the trap in front of the service window, pouring bleach over it, wiping it away, dumping the rags into a bag.

My friends were waiting. 

"I have never seen anyone fall like that."

We started to walk toward our intended bar.

I nodded.
"Me neither. Never seen anyone fall like that."

The next morning, in the deli across from my apartment, where I went for coffee and the paper, I saw one of the EMTs.  I reminded her that I was the guy who called in the woman who fell down and splattered her nose.  I asked if she knew what had happened to the woman.

The EMT smiled.
"She said she'd been drinking tequila all day.  She was fine.  Broken nose.  Tequila.  Get you every time."

The weather was back to normal that day.  Hot, humid, rank.

Several months later, after the cold had come down, in a freezing subway station after midnight, waiting for the train that would take me home, the doors opened on an uptowner and a man reeled out, blood all over his face, people making way for him as he stumbled and ranted.

A sudden lurch took him in the direction of the empty downtown track, the eight-foot drop to the rails.  I got in front of him, hazed him toward a bench with razed arms, like directing an unsettled cow.  He sat, wanted to get up and go.

I couldn't see a wound.  Just blood.

He got up, wouldn't sit, let me give him balance to the end of the platform, until he was in the tunnel that led to the surface, following the wall, leaning hard into it.  I let him go.

Back on the platform I realized I had a few spots of blood on my hand.  I looked for something to wipe it on.  A hand appeared, offering me a foil-wrapped wet nap.  I peeled it open and wiped my hands.

The woman took a travel bottle of hand sterilizer from her bag.
"I'm a nurse."
She squirted some into my palms and I rubbed my hands together.
She capped the bottle.
"Gotta be careful."
She watched as I threw the used wet nap in the trash.

I was careful not to touch my face, my mouth, all the way home.  Washed there with hot water and bleach.  Repeated.

That was the last time I had direct contact with a stranger's blood in New York. 

Why do I miss it?

     I'm Charlie Huston.  I wrote a book about trauma scene cleaning and family.  It's called The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death.  I'll be here all week telling true stories about messes I've seen, helped clean up, and made. 
    Be well,
    -c

Charlie Huston, Guest Blogger: Another Bloody Mess

Mystic_arts [Ed.: Charlie Huston's latest book, The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death (Amazon's pick as Best Book of the Month for January), descends into the grisly underworld of crime scene clean-up, appropriately inscribed with his indelible signatures: hilarious, inappropriate dialogue; outrageous supporting characters; and another bloody wreck at the intersection of Money and Violence. Honoring the theme of the novel, Charlie is posting on Omnivoracious all week, sharing "true stories about messes I've seen, helped clean up, and made." See more posts, and get more at his blog, pulpnoir.com.]


FLUIDS 101


Bartending often serves as a introductory course in bodily fluids.

Call it Blood, Spit, Urine and Vomit 101: A general survey of liquids and fluids, viscous and non, generated and/or expectorated by the human body under alcoholic duress.

Most people audit it in college.  Sit in a few times, get a feel for the material, and decide it's not for them.  Others sign up as soon as they see it in the catalogue.  The take advanced topics and specialities.  A few attend seminars, endure orals, become masters.  The select, willing to invest the time and effort required to compose a thesis, are eventually granted the status of doctors in the art.  Whether you advance from there into the professional ranks depends greatly on your ability to translate the theoretical into the concrete. 

It's one thing to talk about the puke you just saw sprayed all over the inside of the can at the local off-campus, it's another thing entirely to be the guy with the sponge and the mop.

I was the guy with the sponge and the mop.  Not that I employed them very often.  Not as long as the effluvia was restricted to the confines of a single bathroom in any establishment with two conveniences.  

Brother, that's what out-of-order signs are for. 

Anything on the open floor, anything in great enough quantity to puddle, that was another matter.  A little pride of position, please.  Let's get the regurgitate off the floor before someone slips and falls in it.

Not everyone was so well schooled in their calling.  I've walked into bars that reeked of excrement.  Human excrement.  Unmistakably human excrement, floating in a thick strata all its own in the dead air of the place, while the reeling drunk bartender did a back bend over two stools to allow slobbering customers to take body shots of Don Pedro out of her belly button.

As you move up the bartending ladder, away from frat bars (that's the gutter, well below the bottom rung that is generally occupied by transient-junkie bars located withing two blocks of bus stations) and up toward fine dining establishments (same booze and behavior, more veneer), the fluids become more rarefied. 

Less puke, more blood.

Odd, but true.

Not the kind spilled by violence, but quite a bit of accidental blood.  Chalk it up to a higher proportion of inexperienced heavy drinkers, a greater likelihood that customers sufficiently monied to pony up for an $18 martini may be of an advanced age and more prone to the stumbles, or the chances that any drinking taking place is in the context of a special occasion or a business account (both incite an overestimation of one's capacity for top shelf booze, vintage wine, and caustic digestives.)

B fell into the advanced age category.  God knows he had a hollow leg.  I'd watched B and his boyfriend pass through opening rounds of Manhattans, knock off a warm-up bottle of Prosecco before moving on to Barolo, ease into desert on two glasses on limoncello, pause for a sip of port before closing on a tide of grappa (speaking of caustic materials), and sashay out without the slightest totter.

Which is why drunkenness did not rate high on the list of reasons explaining why they walked out of the place one night, and made it halfway up the block before B keeled over, dropped dead-weighted, and cracked his head on a steel trap that lead to someone's basement.

A customer standing out front, waiting for a table on a summer night, came inside and asked for towels.  I brought the towels.  I also brought a chair.  But when I saw the amount of blood, and the sprawl of B's limbs on the sidewalk, I dismissed entirely the idea of easing him up to the chair. 

"I want to get up."
"I know, B, let's just hang here for a bit."
"This is silly.  Who are these people?  I just fell, that's all.  This is silly."

There were some people standing around.  Not rubberneckers, it was a quiet neighborhood and these were neighbors.  They wanted to help.  There was nothing to do.  Just stand around while I held towels to B's head and watched them turn slowly red.  B's boyfriend was holding B's hand.

"He just fell down. He just fell.  We didn't even have anything to drink.  Just a bottle of wine.  We were walking and he just fell down.  He didn't trip.  He just fell down."
"I want to get up.  This is silly."

B kept trying to stand and we kept gently holding him down.  This was clearly one of those don't-move-them accident scenarios. 

Blood was all over my hand, running up to my wrist, dripping onto the trap, pooling.

The EMTs showed up.

They asked B some questions.  His boyfriend tried to answer and they hushed him, wanting to hear B put it together, listening for signs of concussion. 

In the end they loaded him on a gurney, allowing his boyfriend into the back of the ambulance, and pulled away, no sirens, no need to race, B was going to be fine.

I went back to the restaurant.  Someone had stepped behind the bar while I was gone and I asked him to stay there for a few more minutes while I found a couple plastic to-go bags, walked back to the scene of the accident, sopped some blood from the trap, dropped the ruined towels in the bag, and took them down to the basement where we stored our trash barrels, and where I dumped them.  Before going upstairs I stopped at a slop sink, rinsed my hands and arms, doused them in bleach, rinsed, repeated, washed with soap and hot water, dried off, and went back up to the bar.

B was never quite right after.  It was months before I saw him again.  I gathered he'd had a stroke.  And then his boyfriend started coming in alone. 

The blood that I'd smeared over the trap down the street was hosed away by a porter or a super, washed into the gutter. 

     I'm Charlie Huston.  I wrote a book about trauma scene cleaning and family.  It's called The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death.  I'll be here all week telling true stories about messes I've seen, helped clean up, and made. 
    Be well,
    -c

Guest Blogger: Charlie Huston's Unholy Messes, Day One

Mystic_arts [Ed.: Those who follow our Best of the Month picks may already know that we want to tell the whole world about Charlie Huston, author of the violent and funny Hank Thompson novels, the Joe Pitt vampire-noirs, and January's Spotlight Pick, The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death. In her review, Amazon's Daphne Durham calls Mystic Arts:

A wholly unsettling and exciting reading experience ... [with] all the makings of a perfect Charlie Huston novel--the down-but-not-out antihero, the outrageous supporting characters (each of whom deserves their own spin-off), the very bad situation involving money and violence, and the hilariously inappropriate dialogue that is Huston's signature--but with one surprising addition, hope.

And we're not alone. Stephen King's guest review for Amazon.com calls Huston's latest "a runaway freight that feels like a combination of William Burroughs and James Ellroy."

We're thrilled to have Charlie on Omnivoracious this week, sharing  "true stories about messes I've seen, helped clean up, and made." Get more at his blog, pulpnoir.com]

We lived in the hallway.

Not literally, but for all intents and purposes, we lived in the hallway.

The bedroom of our 204th Street apartment in Manhattan jutted into the ground floor entry hall.  The stairwell wrapped up and around the wall of the room.  One building down the street on the wrong side of Broadway, with a lock that worked only intermittently, our vestibule was and open invitation to anyone looking to duck out of the rain, escape a cold night, get respite from the sun, sleep on linoleum rather than pavement (I've tried both, and you'd be surprised how big a difference there is), or the occasional soul who simply wished to stick their head inside and scream a random obscenity or two.  But, truthfully, these incursions were relatively rare and minor annoyances. 

It was our neighbors who drove us most to distraction.

As one of the four tenants closest to the door, we were central to the building's community.  We could keep an eye on things, accept packages, ward off Jehovah's Witnesses by denying them access when the lock was working, hold keys for the super, and so on.  And even these simple errands and favors were little enough in the scope of things.

The problem was, you see, we lived in the damn hallway. 

Every time the pneumatic release on the door failed (generally five minutes after the last time it was fixed) the steel door would slam shut and rattle the floor under our bed.  Every time anyone, small children included, went upstairs, it sounded as if they were tromping inside our walls.  Every cell call made in the hall, every intimately whispered conversation, every bruising lover's quarrel, we knew the details as if they were our own thoughts.

And then there was Can Man.

How old was he?  Anywhere between fifty and eighty.  Tiny, bend and stooped, speaking an all but incomprehensibly muttered Spanish, Can Man labored from five in the morning to eleven at night.  With two wire laundry carts held together by scrap wood and more wire, he hauled loads of redeemable bottles (Yes, bottles, Can Man being something of a misnomer) up to his third floor apartment.

One.  Step.  At.  A.  Time.

One bottle-rattling, insanity provoking, step at a time.

Eighteen hours a day.  Everyday.  Excepting only Christmas, day on which were legitimate blizzards, and a brief three day period in which he was so sick a doctor was call to attend him and the entire building had settled into the belief that this was finally it, Can Man was dying.

He did not.

He emerged, after his brush with mortality, on the fourth day, and began hauling bottles.

The bottles went up to his apartment not to be horded, but to be sorted, places carefully into empty beer cases, reloaded onto the laundry carts, and brought back down the steps.

One  Step.  At.  A.  Time.

CLINK!
        CLINK!
                CLINK!

Over, alongside, and within our bedroom.

Or so it seemed.

To watch this man, and he is the only man I've ever met to whom I would genuinely apply the term wizened, to watch him tortuously shift his burden up and down the stairs one at a time, was to have your heat broken daily.

How had it come to this?  Did he have no family?  Where were the caretakers?  How long could he last?

A state of affairs that lasted about a week.  At which point one registered the fact that Can Man was beyond normal human considerations.  Yes, there did appear to be family.  A cousin, we were told, took the bottles in semi-weekly pick-up loads to be redeemed.  And friends.  The woman in the apartment across from ours cooked his means and passed the time of day with him.  Indeed, it wasn't just in the building that he was legend, it was throughout the neighborhood, and he was greeted and chatted up wherever he went.  When he allowed himself to be distracted from his task.  Endeavor.  Work.  Art.  Calling.  The collecting and redeeming of bottles.  His purpose.  That which separated himself from the rest of us.  He didn't lack for connections.  Nor did he lack for food, shelter and clothing.  But the bottles were the thing.

Was he initially driven by poverty into the trade? Or was it an obsession that had nothing to do with money?  Impossible to know.  And immaterial.  By the time I spent two years listening to Can Man dragging his carts up and down those stairs, spent the first few months of our tenantry believing that we would never adapt and be able to fall to sleep to the sound, or sleep through it in the morning, by that time he was so established in the routine that he'd have found it impossible to do anything else.  In any other way. 

So one morning I get up and there's something on the floor of the lobby: an empty IV bag, snake of translucent hose, a needle, and a curlycue of blood.

Something desperate and untoward seemed to have happened.  Yet, despite our proximity to the scene of the crisis, neither my wife nor I had heard a thing.  We'd been in the building for some time by then, close to the end of our stay, and living in the hallway didn't affect much any longer.  Breaking glass or gunfire were required to wake us at that point.  Looking at the detritus of emergency, my first thought was, "Oh s---, Can Man." 

CLINK!
        CLINK!
                CLINK!

I looked over my shoulder and there he was, a full load on one of his carts, slamming down one step at a time.  He arrived at the bottom and stood with me and stared at the mess.  We had a conversational shorthand by then, I knew his name (Juan) and he knew mine.  We could wish each other a good day, comment on the weather, he sometimes asked after my wife.  But we had no shared language that covered this.

I asked him if he knew what had happened.  He said something in a tone that indicated ignorance of the facts, shaking his head.

Something about the mess bothered me.  Its existence, I suppose.  Not that I begrudged the world another tragedy.  That's what the world does.  Does best, or so it seems some mornings.  But the mess, why was it there.  I mean, it wasn't much, but that begged the question all the more.  Why hadn't the EMTs or cops or whatever emergency personnel who had obviously tended to this matter cleaned up after themselves?

I shook my head.

Can Man shook his head, took a grip on the handle of his cart, and began to pull it toward the door as I stepped ahead of him to pull it open.

He waved a hand at the blood.

"A mess," I think he said.  Or, "Amen."

I'm Charlie Huston.  I wrote a book about trauma scene cleaning and family.  It's called The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death.  I'll be here all week telling true stories about messes I've seen, helped clean up, and made. 

Be well,
-c

Omnivoracious™ Contributors

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