Billy Fox stood on the corner of Division and Clark waiting for a sign, at the end of his second endless week in Chicago,. Not from God, necessarily, for he was not yet convinced there was one. Just a sign that this was where he was supposed to be. And if not here, then where? He was beginning to believe the answer to that question might be nowhere. More than once in the past year he’d woken in a strange place, unable to remember for a moment where he was – just one more hot dark room on a street he didn’t know. Different rooms but the same smells of sweaty sheets and cigarettes, same panic squeezing his heart in a cold fist.
A cop car went by and the red-faced one riding shotgun gave him the look.
Yeah, you made me for a drifter.
What was the word now? A transient. The cop squinted his way and Billy met his eyes. If they spoke, Billy knew exactly how the conversation would play out.
I’m looking for work, Officer, he’d say.
But the cop lost interest, bored and hot, and they drove on.
Up the street he saw a hot dog joint. He’d told himself he wouldn’t eat until he knew where his next buck was going to come from – he was down to just a few bucks – but here was food, hot food, and he could smell the onions and the dogs and Polish sweating on the grill, and he shook his head. Almost time to stand on corners again. Hardest thing of all, you were either cut out for it or not, the ability to buttonhole strangers and feed them a line of crap: Hey, buddy, help a guy get back on his feet? Hey, man, I’m trying to get to (fill in the blank here but first you needed to know the names of places a guy on foot might be trying to get to). Hey, Miss, I just need to get a sandwich.
No, I don’t want to do that again, Billy thought. I’ll shovel shit somewhere in this place first.
Billy looked at the hotdog stand and began moving that way. He was just a few feet from the doorway of the hotdog stand when he saw the man in the suit – a white suit, an ice cream suit, his mother would have said, rumpled but a white suit nonetheless, and then the hat, a porkpie with the brim turned up all the way around, like something out of a gangster movie. A small man, but this man in the white suit moved up Division Street toward Billy in a rolling walk, what might have been his tough-guy strut, deep in thought, so deep, Billy thought, that he was nearly talking to himself. He could see the man’s jaw moving. The man looked up, seemed for the first time to notice the hot dog stand and stopped, jingling his change in his pockets in that way that Billy’s father had, as though reminding himself he wasn’t broke yet.
The man in the suit never saw the two kids step out from a doorway behind him. Two of them, one white and one black and Billy knew the look and what was about to go down. The white kid bumped the man off balance and the black one gave him a push and he went down. The white kid reached down with a practiced move and came up with a wallet. Then they were off. They’d gone only a few steps when a cab driver in a turban came running toward them, a big brown-skinned man with a black beard, and the kids took one look, stopped on a dime and went back the other way. The man in the suit was still on the sidewalk, he seemed stunned or injured. Then, as the kids ran past him, Billy saw a bony leg shoot out and the white kid went down, dropping the wallet as he hit the pavement. He scrambled for the wallet but the man in the white suit was on him like a cat. For a moment they were both reaching for it, even as they grappled with each other, and then Billy saw the wallet go flying off the curb. A passing pickup truck rolled over it. Billy walked over and picked it up. Then he turned in time to see the kid get to his feet.
They faced each other, a wiry middle-aged man in a white suit and a tall, thin street kid in a sleeveless t-shirt, and if asked Billy would have said the kid had already made his second mistake – there was no reason to turn this into a fight with witnesses – no, an audience. A few yards up the street, the second thief had stopped at the corner, started to come back and then had second thoughts: the small street action had drawn a crowd – four or five passersby, three of the cabdrivers parked beside the hotdog stand, a woman with a dog. The second kid shook his head in irritation and took off.
Billy hefted the wallet in his hand and told himself he was probably quick enough to take off without fear of pursuit, he’d have money. As though he’d heard the thought, the man in the white suit looked his way for the briefest moment in time, then turned his attention to the problem at hand.
The fighters circled in that old minuet of the street, the kid with his hands hung low, they all fought that way now – Muhammad Ali had ruined an entire generation of street fighters who all thought they could box with their hands down around their waists while they bounced and boogied. And as Billy watched, the kid began dancing and bobbing and moving his head, and looked startled when the man in the suit cracked him in the mouth with a stiff left. The kid licked his lip, glared and waded in throwing wild punches, and one grazed the small man along the side of his face but the others caught nothing but the air. The man in the suit moved steadily to his left, and just when the kid adjusted his stance to this movement, the man shifted his feet and began circling to the right. He threw the jab again, and another one, and then the right hand, which caught the kid on the cheek. The kid threw another roundhouse and took a punch in his eye, a perfect straight right, and the eye starting swelling immediately. The kid shook his head as though this might make the swelling go away. The man came inside then, moved inside the kid’s reach, the kid threw a half-hearted punch at the air, took a fist in the mouth and then bolted. A heavy-set bystander gave chase but stopped after a few paces, panting and grinning.
Billy waited as the short man patted and smoothed his now-abused costume, put the hat back on and gave it a little pat. He straightened his tie, tucked at his shirt cuffs, brushed dirt from his white trousers. He missed the place where his knee had hit the pavement.
The turbaned cabdriver said, “Are you all right, sir?” and the man in the suit held up a hand and nodded.
“No problem. And thanks.”
“You did good,” the cabdriver said, and the man shrugged.
The man in the suit looked around for the wallet – no, he knew exactly where the wallet was. He looked for Billy. Billy held up the wallet and stepped forward.
“Here you go.”
The man glanced at his wallet and then looked Billy in the eye. Then he grinned but Billy had caught the look that preceded the grin. It had passed in the merest fragment of a second but Billy knew this one, a measuring look, as though by looking Billy in the eye this man in the unlikely suit could tell if he’d taken anything out of the wallet.
“Thanks.” He took the wallet and made a show of wiping it off.
“A truck rolled over it. If you got credit cards in there…”
“Nah, no plastic for me. I’m a guy that pays cash.” Now he looked in the wallet, held it up. “Doesn’t look like they got anything.”
“Good,” Billy said and turned to leave.
“Hey,” the man called to him. “Thanks.”
He was holding out his hand. Billy shook it and the man came up with a small vinyl packet from which he extracted a business card.
“Here, take this. I’m just around the corner on Wells. My, ah, place of business, I mean. I’m Harry Strummer. If I can do anything for you – ” He squinted as though to get a better look at Billy. “You looking for work? If you’re looking for work I could make some calls.”
For the first time Billy Fox was embarrassed.
To hide his embarrassment he looked at the card. It said “H.A. Strummer, President.” Below this was the name “Peerless Detective Services,” and just below, as though it explained the name of the firm, the card promised “Discretion, Professionalism, Persistence. Licensed in three states.”
Billy bit back a sudden impulse to ask which three states. Instead he just nodded and said, “Okay. Thanks. I’ve got a couple things going right now –”
“Oh, sure, sure. Maybe sometime down the road, you’re looking for something, give me a jingle, I’ll get on the horn. Smart guy like you, there’s a lot out there.”
Billy heard that note in the voice, that Good-time-Charlie salesman’s note that said he was bullshitting and they both knew it, and the question came out as if of its own volition, “How do you know I’m smart?”
“Your eyes,” Harry Strummer said, as though this was obvious, and Harry Strummer’s own eyes said he was serious.
Billy stopped himself from asking what else Harry Strummer could see there.
“Okay, thanks,” he said, and left. At the next corner he stopped to wait for the light and shot a quick glance over his shoulder. The short fellow in the ice cream suit was walking toward Wells Street, hands in his pockets, looking at the traffic. But he hadn’t gone very far. He’d stood for a while and watched Billy.