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Second Best

By Brennan Doherty

If there was a resume for my job, I think it would look something like this: failed writer with four years of university, three unfinished novels, two different bank cards (expired) and a sixteen-inch knife hidden in my desk drawer. Not that I'd be any good with it, but my job requires a weapon for no other reason than to scare the other guy into beating feet.

I'd not even sure who I'd submit it to. The police? God knows they've got much bigger, nastier fish to fry. A homeless shelter? They expect the victim to come to them, thus destroying the essential literary relationship between person and circumstance. A newspaper? The words 'printer' and 'pauper' are mutually inclusive.

If my job had a title, it would probably be something like 'backstreet archaeologist.'

Webster's Dictionary might describe it as some sub sect of journalism; a specialty of sorts. I walk through alleys. Then I write about it. It's not a complicated concept.

Maybe it is. It's a dirty, dangerous, lonely job. Someone's got to tell them stories.

If a city is a symphony, the backstreets are the bass line. They don't get many solos, but take away the bass line, and the symphony ceases to be a symphony. It becomes incomplete. It becomes noise. Poverty's the skeleton of any city, from Jericho to Jersey. Last night, I probed those rusty bones.

What do I do? Finish my novel with an ersatz encounter, or publish the unaltered, original truth, for free? Either way, I refuse to deny the last request of my first real client.

Rats scurried across pavement littered with salt, gum, cigarette butts. Syringes shattered under my heels. Wailing demons let loose a cry down the grungy alley; a pair of cats locked in combat, no doubt. I kept walking.

The alley swallowed me up in grey mortar and peeling signs, fading fire escapes, howling breeze and power lines. Horns, whistles, the soundscape of the city, faded into a constant drone. The concrete jungle had swallowed me whole.

I'd only taken ten paces in when I saw the alcove. Strip lighting flickered, no better than candlelight in the midnight black. Walls oft-coated in whitewash and lime slowly revealed twisting scrawls of graffiti; numerals, mystical symbols, obscene images, the odd scrap of poetry. This continued for, perhaps twenty feet to a service door. It was locked.

The grille wasn't. It hung open, creaking in the artificial breeze.

Some unfathomable force drew me inside. I've read about those lines in the earth; ley lines? Lines of power? Static tussled my hair. No power lines extended inside the urban burrow. I wasn't convinced.

My hand pushed the gate aside.

A motorbike slumped on tires long slashed and defaced along the right hand wall. Pavement cracked and snapped under my steel-toed boots. Resting against that cold concrete wall, I closed my eyes.

I'm not religious. I don't go to Mass, I've never been baptized, and I fully expect that I'll be given a number in Limbo and have to read magazines and drink cheap coffee until Judgment Day. And yet, power rippled through this alley.

I stood transfixed by its tranquility.

Stories have an odd hold over people. Someone's story was holding me, and I was very, very keen on breaking that hold. A man had visited here, often, constantly.

Why? Fingerprints were all around me. Figuratively, of course; the damp would have washed finger oil away by now. A half-rotten toque waved from a corner filled with grime. A dozen crushed Coke cans sat heaped behind the bike's rear. Old schoolwork had been crumpled into a rat's nest; trigonometry, calculus, philosophy. Love notes. Silver and gold-trimmed paper twinkled faintly in the filthy alley. Some sort of scholarship award. Scattered across this tapestry of trash was a faded black notebook, pages torn and ripped asunder. Was this an old smoker's pit?

I wasn't sure. Hoodlums don't keep notebooks.

I pried the pages, held them to the dim light. They were gritty from damp and mistreatment. Intricate, measured, black handwriting soaked the pages. My eyes feasted. For a minute I stood, bewitched by print.

Now it made sense. All of the pieces fit.

Why? Boot steps pounded down the alley. Heavy panting shadowed the racket.

I threw myself behind the bike, heart pounding. The door was sealed. I couldn't sprint from the grille: what if this guy was armed?

Turns out he was.

He was hooded, stooped with malnutrition, clad in jeans faded nearly white. He was panting, hard. A tattooed fist clutched a knife-sharp beer bottle, minus the end. Buzz cut hair shone in the dim light-sweaty and drenched.

One hand cupped my throat. The other held the shank to my eye.

“Hey-” I managed to choke out. I couldn't see his face.

“What are you doing here?” he rasped. Headlights down the alley lit up his sunken, waxy features.

Those steel fingers eased up. A necessity for conversation I guessed; breathing had been impossible, let alone speaking.

“You've had a rough night. I'll buy you a coffee.” I had a ten in my back pocket. Bribing a bottle-wielding tough with Timmies wasn't a bad trade in my opinion.

“What do you know about my night?” Blood dripped, drop by drop, down my jacket. I'm still bleeding as I write.

Steady now, I thought. Time for your grip on words to shine; a slip of the tongue may prove to be a slip of that bottle.

“I don't know anything about your night. Here, however” I gestured to the walls; our own backstreet theatre.

“This place means more than any apartment you've ever lived in. It was your safe haven during your dad's drunken benders. When you grew older, it was your hangout spot.” One finger pointed to the Coke cans.

“You sat here a lot, but you never brought friends. Ever. It's your own private haven.”

My finger changed direction again, this time to the graffiti on the walls.

“You painted here, it being the only place where you alone could express your anger in secret. You're a vocal man now, a violent man.” Glass twinkled under the lights.

“ You didn't used to be vocal or violent.” Now I pointed to the certificate, rotting in the gutter.

“It's plain to see. You've left a fingerprint here, your own mark. And it's whorls and swirls are all around us.”

Fingers tightened round the bottle.

“It's why you came back here, isn't it? To hide?”

Yells echoed down the freeway. Rubber fried. Someone's headlights tinkled.

Fear's vile musk oozed off the man in waves. He was terrified.

“Shut up.” I was tossed to the wall like a rowdy drunk. Curled against his burrow, the man gripped the bottle in hands whiter than salt. Feral eyes darted about, calculating angles and bloody murder. Someone (more likely several someones) wanted this guy's hide. “What did you do?”

“Why do you care?” Dogs brayed. Cars beeped and honked.

“It's my job.” I replied simply.

“What are you, some kind of writer? What you gonna do, write me into a book or somethin'?” False bravado brought light to his face, but only a flicker.

“I'll tell your full story, if that's what you want.”


“Your story needs to be told, whatever it is.” Seeing as it's ending in about a minute, I thought.

“So you can make a buck? Forget it. Leave me alone.” “You aren't a hoodlum, are you?” My trump card, his black notebook, rose to the light within my clenched fist.

More screams echoed from the freeway. Wind murmured and shrieked through cracked brick at the alley's mouth.

“You were an honors student; 98.6% average. Top of the school. Kids would kill to trade places with you. You were a bright kid. You had prospects.”

He stood silent a moment. I wondered if he was going to kill me.

“You're wrong.”

A little straighter, a little taller, the man voice morphed into a clear, crisp, articulate tone. “I graduated with the second highest average. My older brother won the valedictorian. No effort whatsoever, and a 100% average. I busted my brains out, and he sailed right on by. I knew my lesson after that; if you can't wing it, don't bother trying.” One grey eye locked onto mine.

“You know what they call being second? First loser. I turned down the scholarship, got into drugs, and pissed off a few dangerous people.”

With one fluid motion, he pivoted and kicked in the door.

“That's a fire escape. Go. Tell them papers 'bout me. But don't tell 'em where. This is my hideout. ” Bottles smashed across the alley floor; gang chants and guttural challenges shook the pipes.

“You're coming behind me.”

“No. This place is mine. ”

I ran

I had my story. As I bolted through another rusted out cement tunnel, onto an intersection packed with uncaring pedestrians, I had my title.

I called it 'At the Corner of Second and Best.

Did You Know

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