Harlan Ellison

Sally in our Alley

THEY FOUND THIS CHICK, this Sally, lying on her stomach, behind the garbage cans. Somebody had tried to separate her from her head, and they’d come pretty close; looked like a dull bread knife.

Actually, I’d have found her myself in a couple of hours, when I came to sweep out the rear doorway at 3126 McMurdo Alley. I’m the janitor there. I mean, it’s not the best job in the world, but they give me the basement apartment at 3128 rent-free, plus twenty-five a week, so I janitor it up for the old Polack who owns the buildings. It gives me time to finish my epic.

I’m writing this epic poem about the destruction of the Great Wall of China, and you can yuck, but it’s a subject that’s needed talking about for a helluva long time. Besides, I like being a poet; it’s easier than working.

McMurdo Alley is glutted right now with the beat element. A bunch of lazy ne’er-do-wells all talking about Hegel and Kant and Nietzsche and writing The Great American Whatchamacallit. They’ll never do it, of course, they’re not like me, they’re all phonies. Besides, they like to party it too much. Well, so do I, of course, but my work … you know, that’s big with me, too.

I just janitor to keep eating. It helps.

But that has nothing to do with this Sally kid. The two who found her were Whipper Georgulis (his first name is Philoctoden, but who the hell can pronounce that? ) And Betty January. That isn’ther name, either, but who needs a last name like Manzenetti to be a stripper. You see what I mean? Phonies, all of them.

Anyhow, they were out in the alley, having left a party upstairs in the Tower Suite, which is what Bernie Katz calls his pad. Be kind enough not to ask what they were doing down in the alley, behind the garbage cans, as it was a rainy night, and whatever they were doing, they would be doing it messily.

So Whipper and Miss January (as she’s billed) found her, oozing into a puddle, and they called the cops. As well as the rest of the damned neighborhood. This January kid has a great set of screamers on her; she even woke old Mrs. Perlmutter, who hasn’t heard a sound since Alf Landon got his ears pinned back.

Then the fuzz descended on us, stringing up ropes to keep everyone back, and all the bearded ones yelled bloody murder because the Alley was the only way into most of their pads. The fuzz had a rough time, let me tell you.

It went that way for a couple of days, with them dragging everyone down to Homicide East, and asking questions you’d at least think they’d offer haggis or baggis for answering. But they drew a blank.

Because the funny damned thing, for a whore, nobody knew who this Sally’s customers were. None of the artists knew her; they had enough amateur talent around ever to go pay for it. In the Alley, payment in cash is a rarity. Everybody had seen the trade slouching up to her door, but no one knew who.

Finally, my turn came, and they took me down in a prowl car, sitting between two yo-yo cops whose faces would have looked great on the lions’ heads in front of the Public Library.

They ushered me into a dark little room, sat me in a chair as hard as the Polack’s heart, and went away. There was a glob of fat and slime behind the desk, and the nameplate read LT. B. C. KROLL.

Let me tell you, this Kroll character was so far out, he’d automatically have to have a ticket stub to get back in.

“You want to help us, Spivack?”

“The name is Snivack. My cat will get hungry if I’m not home in an hour.”

“Screw your cat. You want to help us?”

“Since when do the badges need help from impecunious poets?” I demanded, crossing my legs.

“Since now,” he answered, staring at my thong sandals and my dirty feet.

I uncrossed my legs.

“I didn’t do it,” I said automatically. Philo Vance always said that, and I figured I’d best get on record before the ranks got cluttered.

“Not very well you couldn’t.”

“How do you know? What’s the matter, I’m not good enough?” I was offended.

“Not unless you have abnormally long arms. Your alibi was in here yesterday, and she had corroboration.” He seemed damned smug about it. I was still piqued.

“Aggie never could keep her yap shut.”

“Nice-looking girl.”

“Mind your business, cop. My sex life is nobody’s business.”

This Kroll got up from behind the desk; “got up” isn’t the best way of describing it, but I have a gorge that becomes buoyant easily. So Kroll “got up” and came around the desk. He must have weighed as much as a small Percheron.

“You know what we found in Sally James’s apartment?” he asked. He wanted to tell me, so I saw no reason to be nasty and not wonder. Besides, he could have beaten the hell out of me. Have I mentioned that brutality frightens me? I’m basically a very gentle person. My art demands it.

“A set of bagpipes?”

“Who the hell’s been writing your material? Goodman Ace?” he was getting peeved. I was sorry I had jested with him. The constabulary in our precinct was never known for its riotous sense of humor, and Homicide East could only be the kings of the bland stare.

“All right, I give up,” I fell in with him with a thump, “I’ll play your silly little game;what did you find in Sally James’s apartment?”

Had he said a matched set of cockatoos or a full symphony orchestra, I couldn’t have been more rocked. I pride myself in being rather blasé. Even a no-vacancy parking lot in that little apartment off McMurdo Alley wouldn’t have thrown me as much as what Kroll said.

“That’s crazy,” I answered him, “what kind of a whore would use a set-up like that? Or was she having an abortion pulled on herself?”

Kroll shrugged and offered me a cigarette. It was so dim in his office, I didn’t see it coming: it was abruptly like getting a fence post thrust into my eyes. I took it out of reflex, and when I couldn’t figure out what to do with it, it dawned on me that I didn’t smoke.

“She had the bedroom set up as an operating room. What we think now is that somebody was performing an illegal on her, and something went wrong, she made a fuss, and the doctor used something sharp on her.”

“The trail of blood shows she managed to get from the bedroom to the alley before she collapsed. Almost impossible, but she made it … and then dropped.”

I thought it was about time I ferreted out my place in this little saga of gore and sex. “What’s that got to do with me?”

“You get around in the Bohemian section, Snivack. They trust you; they think you’re nuts, but they know you. We’re going to need help on this thing. We want you to get some leads for us. No detective work, just a little judicious spadework.”

“What’re ya, crazy or something?” I started. “I’m no cop. What good could a janitor do? You better get somebody else.”

Kroll leaned over my chair. “Do you know how old Aggie is?”

“When do I start?” I mumbled. Aggie never could keep her mouth shut.

The next week was a series of low blows for me. I felt like a minor-league Herbert Philbrick, spying on all my friends in the Alley. First, I got so annoyed at Aggie — she came sneaking down to my pad at six one morning when her mother went off to empty waste baskets at the Crane building — I tossed her out on her underage can, and she stood in the Alley yelling she was going to dispense her favors in the future to Bernie Katz. That got back to her old lady, and she being of the shotgun set, it was nip and tuck for a few hours later that day.

Then Priscilla and Teddy, the lesbos on the second floor at 3126, had their monthly falling-out, and this time — since Teddy was playing the male — Priscilla came tumbling out onto the fire escape howling murder, rape, incest, carnage, and I had to go up and separate them.

I came away from that gallant effort with a handsome shiner. Right eye.

As though I hadn’t found my share of aggravation, the union came around and demanded to see my card. I hedged; I didn’t have one. So they sent around a pair of bully-boys who proceeded to convince me of the merits of joining the janitor’s union. Left eye.

Three young toughs from Gulliver Street caught one of the three ballerinas who lived at 3128 on the front stoop, and gave her a real hard time. When I tried to scare them away they yanked shake-knives on me and I decided cowardice was the better part of living, which cut me off from the three ballerinas.

So it went, through the week, helter-skelter, sort of devil-may-care digging my own grave.

Then came Saturday night, which was always big for parties in the Alley, and Scat Bell, the ex–Mr. Newark who had discovered he had a psyche and had moved into McMurdo Alley to nourish it, decided to import talent. He had heard about a whole colony of Zen-oriented poets from way Uptown, and had convinced them to come over, to read their stuff with a jazz background.

Half a dozen boys from the neighborhood got their instruments together, and we had a pretty fair combo. It promised to be a fine bash, with everybody letting their beards grow, and the chicks dying their hair stringy black to go with the turtlenecks.

Interest was running high, particularly when Scat told us one of the boys coming from way Uptown was The Hooded One.

This made no sense whatever until he informed us this guy was really far out; he wore a hood like an excommunicated Ku Klux Klanner. They said he was the beatest, like he had the word and the word was TRUTH! So we were all look ...

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