Nighttime of the City - A Short Story by Robert Coover

Robert Coover's new novel, <em>The Brunist Day of Wrath</em>, is a sequel to his 1966 debut, <em>The Origin of the Brunists</em>. You may be wondering: Why did he wait so long to write a sequel? Is it possible to enjoy the new book without reading the...

Robert Coover

Illustrations by Domitille Collardey. Story © Robert Coover, published with permission.

Robert Coover is a brilliant fiction writer who's best known for the classic, The Public Burning. His new novel, The Brunist Day of Wrath, comes out April 1, and it's a sequel to his 1966 debut, The Origin of the Brunists. You may be wondering: Why did he wait so long to write a sequel? Is it possible to enjoy the new book without reading the old one? What's a Brunist? Relax, who cares, do whatever feels right, and read this new short story Robert just sent us.

She drifts through the bleak nighttime of the city like an image loosely astir in a sleeping head, disturbing its rest, destined for the violent surreality of dreams. She wears a belted black trench coat, a black silk scarf around her throat, a black felt hat with a wide pliable brim shadowing her face. Streetlamps mark her isolate passage, drawing her out of the velvety dark and casting her back into it, until, under one where she is expected to appear, she does not. Nor is the clocking of heels on wet pavement now heard. There are echoey calls and whistles, as from hungry men, but none are seen, nor is she. As if by a conjuring, a man wearing a black narrow-brimmed fedora now appears under the streetlamp that had been awaiting her arrival, his belted black trench coat not unlike hers, black silk tie and white collar at the throat. Somewhere there is a menacing rumble as of a train passing underfoot or overhead. As it fades away, the man withdraws a pack of cigarettes, taps one out, fits it between his lips, drops the pack back in his pocket, lights the cigarette inside cupped black-gloved hands. His sharp cruel features are briefly illuminated. Then, hands in pockets, cigarette dangling in the shadows beneath his hat brim, he slips into the dark space she was last seen entering. Distantly, a siren can be heard, rising, falling. She reappears, stepping into the damp light, then continues on into darkness, into the light of the next streetlamp, into darkness, light, gone again. A second man appears under the streetlamp toward which she had last been moving, dressed like the first. The soft muffled rumble, ominously coming and going. He cups his gloved hands, lights a cigarette, disappears into the shadowed space she last entered. Faint wail of a distant siren. After it fades to silence, she reappears, moving from streetlamp to streetlamp as before. The two men, thought dismissed, if they be they, have also returned, cigarettes burning beneath their hat brims, and they follow her at the distance of a lamp, visible, then lost to sight, as she is visible, lost to sight. She pauses under a lamp. They pause. There is a third man already standing under the next one, his face in shadows. He cups his gloved hands, lights a cigarette. The wings of his white collar gleam at the margins of his black silk tie like place markers. She turns back: The other two are silently watching her. She steps into the darkness. Hat brims lowered, they follow. There is something like a sighing wind, rising, falling, and the streetlamps brighten, dim again. Behind them in the darkness, nothing can be seen or heard, but for what might be the scurrying of vermin, the icy clicking of knife blades opening. But then a bottle shatters explosively against a brick wall, and there is suddenly a blazing light, revealing an alleyway heaped with headless corpses clothed in black. Not far away, tires are screeching, cars crashing, and something like screams that are not screams rip past and fade again. She rises impassively from the pile of bodies, and as the headless men also slowly rise, she reaches up as if to pull down a window blind. As her hand descends, darkness does as well. Silence.

She enters an elegant white-marble bar filled with men, some headless, some not, those with heads wearing black fedoras, lit cigarettes in the shadows beneath their brims. There are mutterings, the scratch of matches, clinking glasses, chairs scraping, all fading as she enters, a glacial silence falling. She crosses the white room under her broad-brimmed black hat, hands in trench-coat pockets, black heels ticktocking on the marble floor, toward a black-leather door at the other side. The men, those headless, those not, their white shirt collars crisp and gleaming, rise to follow her. She pauses at the door as the men gather menacingly around her; then she opens the door and steps into the next room, the men pushing through behind her. But only she arrives on the other side, a severe and solitary figure as before. It is a glossy white-marble bar much like the other one, with motionless men scattered about, some with heads, some without, faint barroom sounds fading away to a taut silence. Her measured tread on the marble floor fills the silence the way a heartbeat might resound in a hollow stone breast. A headless man rises to block her passage, two men with heads and hats, cigarettes aglow beneath the brims, a second headless man, a third. She passes through them as though they were not there to the black-leather door at the other side, where she pauses. The men crowd up around her, threateningly as before. She steps through to the next room; they step through. But only the men arrive on the other side. They stumble about in seeing and unseeing confusion, knocking over tables, chairs, each other. They turn back toward the door. She is standing there, just beyond the threshold in the room that they have left, scarved and hatted. She closes the door. They press against it, pounding on it silently or on each other as darkness descends.

She moves down a dark street lined by parked cars, her way lit only by the occasional streetlamp, each dropping a small puddle of wet light for her to step through. As she passes, headless men and others with heads in black fedoras step out of the parked cars and follow her in and out of the light of the lamps. She turns down an unlit alleyway, heels clocking hollowly, now little more than the shadow of a moving shadow, the men behind her jostling one another between the dark brick walls, their shirt collars eerily luminous. Where the alley opens out onto the lamplit street, she pauses. Behind her, the walls of the alley, grating harshly, slam together on her pursuers. She crosses the empty night street (distantly, sirens cry and fade away) to the next alley, followed by another lot of men in belted black with and without heads and hats, many emerging from parked cars, streaming in from all directions. This time, at the far end, she turns to watch impassively from under her wide soft hat brim as the brick walls crash shut.

In the docklands, they follow her out to the end of the pier, her heels thudding on the wet wood to guide them in the dark. Some of them are now pressed flat, looking like paper cutouts of men in belted trench coats, some of these with heads and hats, some also without. She steps silently aside. The headless ones, unseeing, both flat and full, tumble off the end of the pier, and those with heads, pushed along by the confused headless ones, tumble in, too. The water is soon filled with drowned men. The flat ones float on top along with bobbing fedoras, their bodies rippling rhythmically as the waves roll under them and softly lap the pier.

In the railyard, she crosses the tracks in total silence, the hatted and headless men following, the flat ones wrinkled and waterlogged, the full ones bloated, and they are crushed by a train roaring suddenly out of the night.

She stands in pale light against a brick wall as if pinned there, her face shadowed by the wide soft brim of her black hat, hands in her black trench-coat pockets. Somewhere, hungry men are growling and muttering. Her shadow darkens in contrast to the rapidly brightening wall. She steps out of the dazzling light as the men pursuing her step into it, and a large truck, horn blasting, tires screeching, crashes explosively into the wall, its own headlights extinguished by the impact, dark descending amid an invisible rain of falling brick and felt fedoras.

Everywhere there are men under streetlamps, stepping out of parked cars, those with heads lighting cigarettes, all of them roaming the docklands, moving in and out of bars, patrolling the railyards, and scurrying—seeing and unseeing—through the bleak labyrinthine streets of the night city. There is an occasional ominous rumble, underfoot or overhead, and the distant wail of sirens can be heard, the crumpling of crashing cars, the muffled kerwhumps of dull explosions. Also, from time to time, never far away, the echoey hammering of heels on pavement, which causes the men to pull up short, cock their ears if they have them, turn toward the clocking heels, then continue, redirected, when they stop. The men are headless or else they wear black fedoras, brims pulled down over lit cigarettes; they are wet and ripply if flat like cutout men or bloated if not, and all now carry silvery handguns in their black-gloved hands. Remotely, shots can be heard, the whine of ricocheting bullets. Sometimes a man falls clutching his chest, but after a moment rises again to continue his mazy pursuit. Drawn by the pulsating footsteps, the men converge upon a small barren lot from which lamped streets radiate damply in all directions. She appears out of the ubiquitous shadows, first in one of the wet streets, then another, the men firing upon her wherever and whenever she is seen. She appears in two streets at once, dually approaching the men in the empty lot, then three, five, eight, all of them. There is a rattle of gunfire in all directions, the glittery shattering of glass, the dull thuck of bullets striking bodies; she is fragmenting, disintegrating in all the streets, while the men—flat, full, hatted, headless—topple, one after another, surrendering their small measure of dignity to the black city streets. She walks, whole again, among their sad crumpled bodies, glass crunching underfoot; then, as the streetlamps brighten briefly, only to fade again, she disappears into the descending night. The men are all dead. No, they are not. They rise once more, step under streetlamps, light cigarettes in cupped black-gloved hands, tug their hat brims down if they have them, adjust their black silk ties in their gleaming shirt collars, cock their ears. In the silence, the clocking heels resume.