The smell of the inner-city stays with you. It burrows into the denim of your jeans and fills the spreading lines that sprout from the corners of your eyes. You can taste it. It’s not the smog of the outskirts. Not too many cars come around here. It’s the fetor of sweat, of dying things thrown out with the Tuesday garbage. It’s the reek of hopelessness, of trembling desperation.
Here the changing of the seasons meets with little fanfare. The gray clouds hang a little lower. Instead of March showers to wash away the putrescence there is an ashen snowfall freezing it in place.
I stared at my feet as I walked over the crumbling concrete. You don’t make eye contact in this part of the city. Eye contact is an invitation. Eye contact is an indication of vitality, a silent declaration that you have something worth protecting.
The building blended in well with its surroundings. It was the color of shale, although not in the state of disrepair of its neighbors. This part of the city was known as “The Grays” due to the color of its buildings. It was an astute name for many other reasons.
The Grays teemed with secrets. People were good at keeping secrets. It was a survival mechanism, but no less admirable. However, secrets have their ways of coming to the surface, whispered through broken teeth, scrawled in blood on an alley wall.
M. was not a secret to me.
The building blended so well because that was its purpose. It was in The Grays because it could exist nowhere else.
The letter M, in cursive, rested just above the door. I grasped the knob, expecting to meet resistance, but it relented.
The room I entered was about the size of an elevator. The door slammed behind and a lock engaged. The fluorescent lights flickered before I heard a burst of static.
“Leave your driver’s license, social security card, and a hair sample. Come back tomorrow at 10:17 AM.”
I knew I was under surveillance and so simply nodded and did as I was told. There was no ledge upon which I might place the required items so I left them on the carpeted floor. As soon as this was done the door behind me opened and I was back in The Grays.
I walked in the direction of my apartment. Though I stared only at my own boots I felt the presence of another. The man behind me threw his hands up in submission, his wild eyes staring at anything but my own. He opened his mouth to speak but did not. His single, maxillary incisor was the color of parchment paper.
He put a hand out.
I retrieved a five-dollar bill from my jacket pocket. He smiled and the tooth slid over his lower lip, coming to rest in the dimple above his chin.
From my other pocket I withdrew a switchblade.
He frowned and offered both palms again.
“I want you to remember me. I want you to remember the nice man who gave you five dollars. Carve my initials in your arm so I know you will remember me forever. J-A-K.”
He pivoted as if to run away and then looked at the yellowed bruises along the inside of his elbows. When I tossed him the knife he caught it. Tears rolled across the hard angles of his coffee-colored cheeks.
“That wasn’t so hard,” I said.
He handed me the knife, his chest heaving, and took the bill. For one brief moment his eyes locked on mine.
I returned to M. the next day at 10:17 AM. When I opened the door I found a syringe still wrapped in plastic.
“Leave a blood sample. Come back at 11:32 AM tomorrow.”
It was, in fact, an elevator. When the doors parted, after descending for what felt like a minute, the contrast to The Grays could not have been more severe. The room was expansive, filled with abstract art pieces and various furnishings. Well-dressed men mingled, sipping wines and liquors, and laughed in a manner that spoke to their stature. For these men, hunting elephants from the safety of a Jeep no longer sufficed.
I approached the only individual who seemed to be an employee, a man younger than myself with thin, blond hair parted down the middle. Before I spoke he motioned with his eyes to enter a door located behind his desk.
The office was spacious yet cozy. A log hissed and popped in the fireplace before me.
“What brings you to M.?”
The man seated behind the desk was small in frame and of voice. He seemed on the verge of being consumed by his padded, burgundy office chair.
“I would like to supply.”
“Times are tough, aren’t they?”
His moustache twitched like a feeding rat’s whiskers.
“Yes. Not easy for a working man like myself.”
“Now that the war’s over,” he clarified.
“Still, there are opportunities for men with your skillset,” he said, reclining in his chair.
I noticed my own picture on his desk as well as various other documents relating to my prior, lawful life. There were pictures of my children also, taken more recently than even I could recall them.
“Yes, many opportunities in The Grays, but I suspect you might be looking for more intricate work.”
He took me to the holding area. The guests, as he called them, were segregated by value. At the high end was a reality TV star I thought I recognized, sleeping on a cot.
“Business never slows around here. Our clients are always willing to pay for the experience of M.”
At the low end was a naked black man cowering in the corner of a bare room. He held a single, yellow tooth in his hand.
“How much would a supplier get for that man?”
He looked over my shoulder.
“Him? Oh, about five dollars.”