Hard Eight, USA, 1996, Director Paul Thomas Anderson
Like, I thought Sydney had cancer, the way he looked and everything. Not that he ever had looked good. Sydney had these bags under his eyes that reached half-way down his face. I saw Sydney the week before he died. The guy wanted to talk, needed I suppose, except he could hardly breathe. He had this emphysomething, that’s it, emphysema. Sydney always liked the nicotine. I liked the way he smoked. Sydney had a neat way with a cigarette. All in all, he was a neat guy. He was not so tall, not as tall as me. I’m tall for a woman but only a little tall. Short or not, Sydney occupied his own space, like he was above us all, even down there where he was. The man didn’t talk so much. All I remember is him giving orders. God knows, Sydney had cause.
The visit to the hospital was the first time I’ve seen Sydney since the night in the motel when John and me screwed up. That was the one time Sydney lost his temper. That afternoon John had proposed to me and I said yes. I only met the guy the night before but I thought why not. John was clean and polite and he knew Sydney. Girls who’ve never been in the business can’t understand why I did a trick on my wedding night. The guy offered $300, and it was an opportunity, so I said yes. The problem was the guy didn’t want to pay. I always carry these handcuffs in my bag, you know, some men like that sort of thing. The guy was loaded and arguing how he didn’t need to pay especially as he had lost so much at the tables. This was when I cooed something in his ear and slipped a handcuff on his wrist and fastened the slug to the bed. I told the guy his wife would have to cough up the dough. The guy said no way was he calling his wife and telling her he was being held hostage for 300 bucks by a hooker. So I called John and asked him to come over. After John roughed him up the guy called his wife and said she had to bring the money.
The wife still didn’t turn up, so John hit the man again but it made no difference. I screamed a few times, and that didn’t help any either. Some of these guys have no shame. The john on the bed, not my John, groans and bleeds some more, and we wait. John has a pal called Jimmy who is this black guy running security at the hotel where I work as a waitress. Jimmy arrives because John calls him but all Jimmy does is say wait for the wife to pay what’s owed. John tells Jimmy that the wife doesn’t want to hand over 300 bucks because she doesn’t think it right that she should be paying for her husband banging a hooker. Get rid of the guy then, says Jimmy. Kill him, says John. Why not, says Jimmy, and I say pardon me what about my 300 bucks and how about fair is fair. Jimmy just grins and walks out the door. John has this puzzled look on his face the frequency of which recently I have to admit has begun to annoy me. What about my 300 bucks, I say, is anybody listening to me? This is when John calls Sydney, the man who looks out for him and has done since Sydney found John sitting against the wall of some diner and with nowhere to go.
Sydney arrives and says what the hell and is soon giving orders. I say, Sydney, what about my 300 bucks, and Sydney starts talking about how this is kidnapping and how that this guy bleeding and handcuffed to the bed is one serious business and we should be worrying about a lot more than 300 bucks. The guy is just handcuffed to the bed is all. I’ve lost count of the number of guys I’ve handcuffed to a bed. I don’t say this to Sydney and John. Sydney pushes John and me out the room and into some car and makes sure that we get the hell out of Reno. John agrees with Sydney to take me to Niagara Falls. Have yourselves a honeymoon, says Sydney, which is a good idea especially as Sydney gives John some money to pay for things and promises to send us more cash when we need it which he did, for a while at least.
The money helps John and me to settle down in Idaho. John forgets the casinos, and I don’t turn no tricks no more. John now works in a car repair shop and does local deliveries. I work in a coffee shop but all the guys want are breakfasts and apple pie. John and me live in a real quiet town. The life in Reno and Vegas I put behind me. I made my mind up to do this at Niagara. The sight of all that water affects you. I wanted the rest of my life to be clean. And then I get this phone call to say Sydney was in hospital, didn’t have long left and wanted to talk to me. I was surprised, I can tell you. Most of the time Sydney just gave John and me orders.
I see Sydney in the hospital, and he looks and sounds terrible. He is sitting up straight in this hospital bed. These giant pillows are bright white, and his face is as grey as a bad Idaho sky before it pours down of which I have seen plenty. I cried just at the sight of him, and, typical Sydney, he tells me to shut up straight away. I have to talk to someone, he says. You should talk to John, I say, seeing how you looked after him for so long. This can’t be said to John, he says. Sydney pulls on my arm and says how Jimmy said something to him, Sydney, the night before he, Jimmy, died. Now at this point I say nothing because I know Jimmy was plugged and I have a strong suspicion that Sydney was the man that did the plugging, especially with what I know about Jimmy and John.
Sydney is struggling for breath but he tells me that Jimmy knew about how Sydney had shot John’s old man in the face and killed him and that this was why Sydney looked out for John. Why are you telling me this? I say to Sydney. If anyone tells John, you have to tell him it’s not true. You tell John, says Sydney, that you saw me on my death bed and I denied killing his father and that I insisted and you believed me. Can you say all that, Clementine? he says. I know. I hate my name. And he grabs my hand so tight that I think he’s going to die with him holding on to me and they’ll have to drag him off. Sure, sure, I say. I kiss the top off his head and somehow that convinces him. I knew he was dying right then because his hair tasted funny. Even now it makes me feel queasy to remember.
Of course, I do not tell Sydney that Jimmy had told me the tale well before John and me left Reno and how John has known for some time because I told him but that John figured that Sydney was old and those things were in the past and, whatever went down, Sydney had always been good to us. Sydney talks more. I’m in the mood to confess, says Sydney. I ain’t no priest, I say. I ain’t no Catholic, says Sydney. I don’t want no priest. All my life I’ve had to be the guy who’s had to fix things. Even as a kid.
And then Sydney stops and bends his head forward. I know who did it, he says. Did what? I say. I was a kid of 16 and working in the Astor Motel, says Sydney. I kept the forecourt clean and the drinks machines stocked. I saw them arrive, these two men and a woman. This was back in 1947. One of the guys had a limousine and dressed like a movie star. The girl was a dark haired beauty. The next day they were all gone but Henry Hoffman who ran the motel came up to me and said, you have to help me, Sydney. something has happened in Cabin 3. The cabin where the beauty stayed, I said. She’s gone, Sydney, but there’s, well there’s a lot of stuff left. Stuff, I said. Blood and stuff, said Mr Hoffman.
You can guess, Clementine, says Sydney. The deal was I would clean Cabin 3 but, if anyone asked, I was not in that day. So I held my nose, cleaned the cabin, and Mr Hoffman paid me overtime. I said nothing to anyone but the LAPD turned up soon after and asked around. Mr Hoffman said he cleaned the room but, yes, there had been blood and stuff in the room that day. The two men I had seen were known to the police but no one was charged. Typical LAPD, said Mr Hoffman. The woman I had seen in that cabin I saw later in the newspapers but there was no mention of her ever being in the Astor Motel.
Sydney takes a deep breath and his chest rattles like a steam train. He smiles at me and despite the wrinkles he looks like a little kid. The murder the Press boys wrote about had a special name, says Sydney. You won’t remember, Clementine. Well, I say, what did they call it? The Black Dahlia murder, says Sydney. Those were the last words he said. You could say my visit to the hospital was a waste of time. John knew about Sydney and his father already, and I have other things to worry about besides some damned murder from over 60 years ago.
Howard Jackson has had ten books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories, travel books and collections of film criticism. His latest travel book No Tall Heels To Tango is now available here.