Jack is not a name that is typically written on a birth certificate. Usually, it’s a derivation of John or Jason or some family name with which it would be impossible to go through life, like Clive.
In Jack Leiber’s case, however, it was all he had to go on, and he’d always been annoyed by that. He thought his name sounded like a cowboy or an athlete or a rock star or some other type A personality that he clearly was not.
He was a teacher. A math teacher. A fifth-grade math teacher at a public school in a place that didn’t even get a dot on most maps. The only reason that Taloga, Oklahoma, even had a school is that it was too far from anywhere else to bus the kids to a bigger school. Last year, the Panthers graciously graduated 11 seniors. Three were pregnant, two of those were married, four were illiterate and four more missed nearly half of their senior year working to pay rent. The valedictorian was headed off to Panhandle State University and the Salutatorian (if they could be said to have had one) missed the ceremony to leave early and join her husband in the oil fields of Wyoming.
Nothing about Jack’s life was remarkable. He wasn’t married. He didn’t date. Despite their lack of options, he seemed hopeless to the few single and divorced women that floated in and out of The Tin Can, the local bar. He didn’t have any friends. There were those that liked him; bought him a beer when they saw him sitting alone at the end of the bar or invited him to holiday and housewarming parties, but he mostly kept to himself. One thing that Jack did have was a clear sense of right and wrong. To Jack, things were black, or they were white. Grey is what happened when a person was trying to talk themselves into something. Which is why, if you knew Jack (if any of us had really known Jack) nothing about what follows would have seemed all that surprising.
Once a month, Jack makes a trip to Amarillo, about 160 miles away from home, to shop for groceries and toiletries and the like. It was on one of these monthly excursions that Jack’s life took a turn. He had finished his shopping and had eaten lunch at the same chain restaurant that he always did, when he did something a little unusual for Jack. Not unheard of, just unusual: He decided to take in a movie.
Now, Jack didn’t have an aversion to movies or anything nor to movie theaters. He wouldn’t go see a movie in its first few weeks because he disliked sitting next to strangers, but he did go from time to time. It’s just that it was always planned. Jack liked to know when he woke up on a given day exactly what that day would hold. He would eat breakfast, go to work at 7, leave work at 4, go for a jog around the school track, come home, eat dinner, read and then sleep. On the weekends he usually threw something more interesting into that routine, but he always knew what and when and where that thing would be by Wednesday.
On this day, however, he was congratulating himself on his willingness to be spontaneous. He saw a Western. One where the good guys behaved honorably and saved the girl. He liked it. As he left the theater and began the walk down the street to his car, he became aware of a series of sounds out of place. These sounds were not the music of a busy city street. These were not honking horns and cooing pigeons and the whoosh of tires on pavement at 35 miles per hour. These noises were heavy and guttural and a little wet. As he came nearer the source, they began to be punctuated by sharp, muted notes in a higher key. With a rush he knew what he was hearing. These were the sounds of pain, and they were close.
When he came around the corner of the alley where the small frail man was being beaten, the noises were drowned out by the thud of his heart in his chest and the rush of blood past his ear drums. His knees were beginning to show signs of rebellion, and he wasn’t sure how long he had before he passed out. The three big men swinging boots and fists hadn’t noticed him yet, and he knew if he did fall there, at that moment, he’d likely get the same treatment as the man at their feet. Strangely, it never occurred to him to run. It seemed to him that all of his discomfort came from the noises that these four men were making, and that if he could just make them stop, he’d be able to clear his head. Before he knew what he was doing, before he’d considered what the next few moments might hold, he yelled out in a strong voice that seemed, to him, to come from someone else:
And they did.
The three men in boots all turned toward him, and he could see that they weren’t as big as he’d first supposed. The bleeding man on the ground didn’t look up. He took the opportunity to lay flat on the concrete and relax the muscles that had been tensed against the blows for who knows how long. He also wasn’t the small frail man that he’d looked in the shadow of the other three. He seemed tall laid out as he was. He was skinny, but he also seemed strong. He seemed less like an object and more like a man when they weren’t hitting and kicking him. One of the three spoke.
“Who are you?”
“I’m … .” Jack’s throat caught. “I’m Jack.”
“I don’t give a flyin’ fuck what your name is,” the first man said. “I asked you who you are. Just what the hell is it makes you think this is any of your business?”
“Shut the hell up, Trav,” said another.
With those words the final of the three stepped forward. Jack noticed that “Trav” did as he was told. He walked over to Jack and stood in front of him, a little taller, maybe a little broader through the shoulders.
“You said your name’s Jack?”
“Well, Jack, listen here. I see what you’re prob’ly seein’, walkin’ up on us like this. But you ain’t gettin’ the whole picture. That piece a’ shit over there on the ground ain’t the victim he looks, and we ain’t villains.”
“What’d he do?” Jack asked.
“Dudn’t matter. All you need to know is that we got our reasons. And all you need to do is walk back around that corner and keep your mouth shut. You seem like a good guy. I don’t wanna hurt ya or even cause no trouble for ya. So just walk on where you’re goin’, and we’ll ferget you were here.”
“What’s going to happen to that man?”
Trav snorted out a quick laugh. The man in charge sighed. Jack couldn’t tell if it was out of frustration with him or because he didn’t quite know the answer to the question that Jack had just posed. The man turned and looked at the man on the ground. Then he looked up at Trav for just a quick glance. Trav’s grin spread in a way that made Jack’s stomach turn. The man in charge turned back to Jack.
“We’re just about done with him. I think in a few minutes he’ll have learned his lesson, and we can all go back to bein’ friends.” The man smiled. Not like Trav, but a warm smile that Jack wanted to trust. “OK?”
Jack looked close at that smile, at those straight white teeth, at the lines the smiling action made on the man’s face. He was about to agree with the man when he looked up and into his eyes. What he saw there wasn’t warmth. It was more like heat. It was something close to evil. Jack knew everything he needed to know about the fate of the bleeding man in an instant. Jack spoke softly, almost to himself, but he meant for the man in charge to hear.
“You’re going to kill him.”
Luckily for Jack, the man in charge did not hear. At that instant he had turned around to tell Trav and the other man with them to take the man on the ground further back into the alley, behind a few dumpsters and wood pallets that were stacked against a wall. He turned back to Jack.
“Nothing. I … I’m sorry to have bothered you. I didn’t see anything,” and he turned around and left the alley.
Immediately he started to shake, and his heart started pounding again. He didn’t get very far before the noises started back. Jack’s car was still two blocks away and, instinctively, he counted every step. This always helped to clear his head. The rhythm of it slowed his breath and calmed his shaking hands. He felt that he should call the police, but he didn’t have a cell phone and by the time he found a phone and they got there it might be too late. Add to that, the man in charge had been clear: He’d never actually threatened Jack, but Jack seemed to feel a threat in the very air between them. Almost like it tied them together somehow, like it wound Jack’s fate around the fate of the man in charge. It braided their spirits together in a way that made Jack feel like nothing from here on out would ever be the same. It made him anxious. His thoughts returned to the man on the ground. He wanted to believe that the man deserved that beating, but he knew he didn’t. He wasn’t sure anyone deserved that. He also wanted to believe that the man would make it out of that alley alive, but he knew he wouldn’t. He had to help him somehow, but he could not seem to figure a way to do it.
He kept walking toward his car without any clear idea of why. He knew he couldn’t leave the bleeding man to die. When he reached it, he just stood there in front of the driver’s door for a few minutes, his eyes coated in glass, thinking about the sounds coming from that alley. He was well out of earshot, but he thought he could still hear them. He knew they’d be with him forever, that he’d never be able to be lie down at night again without hearing them, without seeing that poor man’s face … unless …
He had to go back and stop them. He had to save this man’s life one way or another. He unlocked his trunk and looked around. Nothing but bags of groceries and a few blankets, a spare tire, a jack and there it was: a tire iron. Not the kind with four separate ends, but a simple, old-fashioned one with a sharp end and a hooked socket end. He grabbed it and ran back to the alley. He peered around the corner. He could hear them still beating the man, but he could no longer see them. They were behind the dumpsters and the pallets on the right-hand side. He hugged that wall and crouched a bit, running as best and as quietly as he could in that position.
He didn’t need to worry about being quiet really. The three men were so wrapped up in what they were doing, and the thuds and the grunts and the moans were so loud, that they wouldn’t have noticed him anyway. Just like they didn’t notice him the first time. He crept up the side of the dumpsters and took a peek. The men were in a circle around the man on the ground, kicking him. Two of them had their backs pretty well turned to him, but all the man in charge had to do was look up to see him. He was only a few feet away from the first two. Jack decided to be quick.
He lunged at the nearest man and hit him hard on the back of the head. Jack noticed how the impact didn’t feel like he’d thought it would. He hadn’t even known that he expected it to feel like anything, but he had. He’d thought that hitting this man’s skull would be like hitting a rock, that the tire iron would bounce back a little and that his hands might ring, but that’s not how it was. The impact was softer, and the iron didn’t rebound at all. It was more like hitting a pillow. The man next to him reached for the gun under his jacket, but he barely had a hand on it when Jack brought the iron around into his temple. The man’s knees buckled and something in his face told Jack that he’d never open his eyes again. Before Jack could turn his attention to the third, he was thrown into the dumpster by something heavy and solid. The man in charge had tackled him and was on top of him, spending from his fists whatever had not been used on the bleeding man next to them. Jack tried to raise the tire iron, but his arm was pinned and his other hand was busy between his head and the repeated blows coming from the man in charge. Finally, Jack caught the man’s wrist and pulled him close. With everything he had left he crashed his forehead into the man’s nose, covering them both in a torrent of blood and profanity. The man rolled off of Jack, holding his face and feeling around for his gun. He found it. Jack saw him find it. The man spun around to level the weapon at Jack’s heart, and as he did, Jack met his wrist with the tire iron, sending the gun flying down the alley.
By now, the beaten, bleeding man from before was stumbling to his feet. He saw the gun sail past him and skid to a stop on the concrete. Jack had broken the wrist of the man in charge, but the man wasn’t giving up just yet. With his good hand, he lunged at Jack’s throat. Jack dropped the tire iron. The man pushed Jack by the neck across the alley and into the wall.
A bullet struck the wall next to Jack’s head. The man whirled around in time to take the next one in the shoulder. The bleeding man sent round after round into the man and the wall around him. Jack fell to the ground and covered his head. When he finally heard the empty click-click of the hammer against nothing, he looked up. The man in charge rushed at the bleeding man, who ducked out of the way and picked up the tire iron. He brought it down hard on the man’s head, and he dropped, limp to the concrete.
Jack stood up. He felt himself from his belt to his collar to make sure there were no holes. The bleeding man said nothing. As Jack walked over to make sure that he was OK, the bleeding man felt around under the Trav’s jacket. He found what he was looking for. He took Trav’s pistol and sent one into the head of the man in charge. He turned to Jack, who looked at him stunned.
“I suppose you think that wasn’t necessary?”
Jack was silent.
“The only way that man ain’t comin’ after me soon as he wakes up, is if he don’t wake up.”
“S’your …” Jack cleared his throat. “It’s your business.”
“Well, it was my business. Mine and his, the crazy sonofabitch.” The bleeding man shuffled the limbs of the man who’d been in charge with his foot. He stared down at him for a long time, lost in thought.
“I suppose anybody’d go crazy after what I done to his missus.”
He looked up at Jack. “But you had to go and stick your nose in. Don’t get me wrong, I thank ya. But I’m afraid the reward’s kind of a kick in the balls.”
At this, the bleeding man raised the gun at Jack.
“You got anything you wanna say beforehand, son?”
Jack looked the bleeding man in the eyes and thought a minute. He was surprised at how calm he felt. Like he had all the time in the world to stand there and think what his last words oughta be. He wasn’t scared. He wasn’t resigned. He did not, despite all evidence to the contrary, really expect to die in that alley.
“No, sir. Nothin’ comes to mind.”
And with that, he lunged across the alley at the bleeding man.