By Jim Parks
It's a living.
Maybe that's why they call it the life.
I've often wondered. It's depression proof, recession-proof, proof positive that men and women are just right for each other, but - and this is the hell of the story - it just isn't bullet proof.
As outlaw and raunchy as the life is, it just isn't something that is done any which old way. There are rules, ways of doing things, little courtesies and not a few tender mercies - all in the eye of the beholder.
I don't think anyone was surprised when the shootist came looking for the Jack of Diamonds, Diamond Jack to most who hadn't played the game - but just plain Jack to we who lived on the row.
You have seen it all before, whether you knew what you were looking at - or not. You may have caught a glimpse, just a glimpse, from the window of a squealing, grating, hooting, farting train rolling slowly in or out of town, or through the windshield of a taxi as you waited out one of those inexplicable traffic jams that happen most any afternoon in any big city as you made your way from the airport to the expense of the hotel accounted for through departments and committees and controllers and the rest of the bureaucratic maze of mazes of mazes of amazing fortune, the fortunes, the fortunate.
It's what remains of America's hell towns, the little settlements that ebbed and flowed in the path of the railroads, the gold rushes and coal fields and oil strikes and land grabs and wars of attrition and racism and just plain old sorry-ass hate.
That great equalizer, that pulse in the right arm of the world, that gleam in the eye of the beholder, that bright, sharp and white hot pain shooting from nerve ending to nerve ending across endless synapses facilitated through the unknown chemistry of the chemistry of the chemistry of the chemistry of the mind, the nerve, the muscle and grit and bone and sinew of that which is only experienced, never fullly understood, moment to moment to moment. The life is all about who has what and how they got it and how much they will scratch, bite and fight to keep it - sweat and stink and peep and hide and bribe to pay, pay, pay that mordida de mordida de nada de nada de nada de nada.
No one was really surprised when the shootist showed up with a suitcase and a satchel made of soft Mexican goat leather that showed the shape of a take-down shotgun through its supple skin.
Those who know, know; those who don't are in the dark, the darkness on the margins of the rotarian, the libertarian, the booster and bouncer and the romantics in the reserved nickel seats, the ones that are reserved for the unknowing.
Diamond Jack probably never knew he was touching off a war when he fell for the dark-eyed, petite, sporty little new chick they brought into the spot joint on one end of the cost differential and loss leaders of the row and he flipped when he got a load of her looks and her figure and her soft voice and the depths of her eyes and the light and lilting manner of her stride.
No other name, just Ramona.
Diamond Jack, pimp.
He broke the most basic rule of his profession, that cardinal point on the compass card that keeps the whole enchilada on course, keeps the platter from spinning madly out of control and away and gone.
He fell for one of the ho's.
Now, this girl knew she was just passing through, knew it better than she knew her street name.
She knew how she got to that particular part of the row, that funny little spot joint down at the end of the row where the pastel glued sawdust panels and aluminum window frames and phony, phony, phony little colored lamps and iron balconies and the nasty-smelling little swimming pool all conspired to put the finishing touch on any john's thrill on the hot sheets.
Diamond Jack, pimp.
He just couldn't accept the fact that this seemingly docile taste from nowhere could turn down - spurn - his advances. He conspired in various ways to keep her from hopping the bus with the rest of the crowd and easing on to the next spot on the tour of the tank towns where those chicks work between stops in Nevada and Idaho and South Carolina and all the other silly places where they sell romance by the minute and it's okay, just fine, just another matter for the pussy posse to police, prod, massage and prune to the local tastes of the local - ah - community.
Diamond Jack, pimp.
Wiry little mean little evil little fool.
Diamond Jack, pimp.
He got a little bit evil and he started tying her up and standing her up tied between two iron pipes in an out of the way loft over an old warehouse where they put on freak shows in that part of the row, made her stand there wide-eyed while he threw darts at her eyes and she dodged and screamed, whimpered, wet her pants, struggled against the ropes.
She had bit his chin while he hurt her one afternoon - a total no no on her part, a total no no on his part, to jack around with the help, try to hurt her, try to - oh, you know.
She paid with the loss of sight in one of her eyes, some deep and ugly scars on her forehead and a lifetime of completely freaked out ways of thinking and looking at her fellow humans.
Life for her was far from over, but life as she had known it was over for her - forever.
Sociopath that Diamond Jack was, he never stopped to think of the consequences of all this. After all, there are ways to do things and the kind of people who organize the business of shipping ho's from one spot joint to the other, taking and raking their dough off the top and up front, they don't tolerate that kind of behavior.
Somehow, his sociopathic mind never even registered the fact of the matter. So, when the shootist arrived driving a plain jane Chevrolet in a shade of dirty white with a very big engine and smiling that oily, charming smile some men smile from behind their shades, he didn't give it much of a thought. Diamond Jack didn't have enough sense to go crazy or he would have gone crazy long, long before.
The truth is that Diamond Jack was as unwitting as a rat suddenly dropped into the cage of some lethal pet snake while the freaks in some 24-hour dope house sit and watch with sick fascination to see how the snake takes him, takes him in, then swallows him whole.
The shootist caught him sitting down to a poker game in a crib on an alley way, way downtown. He kicked the door in with a combat engineer's lace-up steel-toed boot and ushered Ramona across the threshold, the old Model 97 .12 gauge Winchester "Trench Sweeper" leveled, his finger on the trigger of that thumb buster.
He covered that crowd of pimps and other folks like the daily news; he'd done it all before. He nodded at Ramona. She nodded her head back at him and squeezed a round off with the government model .45 she held in her two tiny hands, sighting down the slab-sided barrel with that one eye.
The bullet caught Diamond Jack with his mouth open - an expression of total surprise in a perfect circle of flesh and teeth and jawbone - slammed into his shoulder and flipped him ass over tea kettle, backward, away from the table. The shootist squeezed the trigger and started pumping the old gun for all it was worth, the .12 bore belching fire and black powder smoke and double ought charges and wadding with each stroke.
When he stopped to reload, no one was there to register with ringing ears the sudden fact of the sudden quiet. He drew the other government model from a cross draw holster threaded through a two-inch gunbelt on the waistband of the cheap suit he was wearing while he cradled the trench sweeper in the crook of his left arm and slowly, with not a small amount of ceremony, circled the table, putting the coup de grace in each man's forehead.
Then he winked at Ramona and covered her as she backed out of the room, following her down the stairway to the Chevy and a quick, quick ride out of town to the darkness where it creeps in from the prairie, driving circles and squares and making a false start down one way and then another before he doubled back and checked out the flashing lights and sirens from a completely neutral and brand new direction.
He put the car in a slow turning high road gear that eats the miles and cruised at a legal speed to an airport in a town a hundred miles distant, dropped Ramona at the departures lounge, and doubled back again, driving back through the town at a slow speed, just smiling and living the life behind his shades in the new and sudden dawn.
He had done it all before.
Old timers like the shootist know that it's the getaway that counts. Anyone can do the rest; not everyone can make that getaway.