Dead Man’s Hat

Inspired by “Small Change” by Tom Waits.

Lenny heard the shots. Hell, everybody on the block heard the shots, but nobody saw anything. Nobody ever saw anything, not even those who were there, looking right at whatever was happening. They especially didn’t see anything because they knew what would happen to them if they did. Lenny knew, so he made an extra effort to not see anything. Like when he saw Artie go by, and enter the arcade. Lenny knew it was only a matter of time when he’d need to look away. So he did.

Arthur DeSanto had been in town for about a week, from Chicago he claimed. Lenny hadn’t met many people from Chicago. He’d get a lot of New Yorkers asking him if he knew where they could find the Times, but Artie was the first one from Chicago, or at least the first to say so. Artie got kind of quiet when Lenny asked why he was in Atlanta, and Lenny knew not to press him. Other than that, Artie had been pretty talkative, asking about the night life, such as it was. Lenny told him about the San Souci and the Domino but Artie had already found them and didn’t seem too impressed. There was also the Clermont over on Ponce, which Lenny mentioned to Artie.

Artie was staying in the Grady Hotel, which was why Lenny had the opportunity to get to know him a bit. Artie never seemed to have anything to do from two to four, so he hung out near the diner, chewing an enormous wad of gum and quizzing Lenny about baseball players on cards he had in his pocket. Artie was a collector, he said, though Lenny couldn’t figure out why anybody would want to hang on to those things once the gum was gone. As a kid, Lenny had been a fan of the Crackers when they played on Ponce, but didn’t follow the sport on a national level. He hadn’t yet warmed to the new team they brought in from Milwaukee and hadn’t been out to the stadium they built for them South of town. Artie was fairly knowledgeable, but Lenny got the strong sense Artie was just showing off, which didn’t really impress Lenny all that much, but he didn’t want to seem rude. Lenny figured Artie just needed someone to talk to and Lenny didn’t have a whole lot to do until the afternoon edition came out anyway.

Lenny was a news boy, hawking the Journal in the afternoons on Peachtree between Ellis and Cain Streets downtown. He’d been doing it for about a year, among other odd jobs, after dropping out of school to help his Mom make ends meet following his father’s death. Lenny was the oldest of two boys and two girls, so he saw it as his responsibility to step up once his father was gone. He liked working for the Journal, even if he was just selling papers, because his dream was to be a writer, covering the mean streets of his hometown of Atlanta. Because of this, he always kept his eyes and ears open, and only turned away when he knew it was in his best interest to do so. He liked to study people, though, see how they dressed, how they carried themselves. He could usually guess someone’s profession by what that person was wearing, and working outside a hotel he encountered a fine mix of people from all over.

What caught Lenny’s eye when he first saw Artie was the hat. A porkpie, they were called, dark brown and made of felt — not the sort of hat one usually saw around Atlanta, which is why it made such an impression on Lenny. He never saw Artie without it, not even when Artie was in the diner, eating. He didn’t take the hat off or hang it up like other guys would do. It was always perched atop his head, like Artie expected to run out at any minute and didn’t want to risk leaving it behind. Artie was a nervous sort, small and wiry, and not much taller than Lenny, who, at sixteen, was just a hair over five nine. During one of their discussions, Artie let it slip that in Chicago, he was known as “Small Change” and Lenny felt the nickname suited Artie, who seemed small and unimportant, the sort most would pass by unless he gave them a reason to stop. Beyond that, Lenny had no idea what Artie did for a living, if anything, and Artie wasn’t the sort to volunteer the information.

In the aftermath, people would say Artie was an idiot, thinking he could run to Atlanta and be safe. Nobody was safe in Atlanta, but most of them didn’t know it. Artie knew it. He wasn’t safe anywhere. There are just some folks you don’t mess with and the consensus was that Artie should have known that. Lenny was never a hundred percent sure exactly what Artie had done to or to who, but whoever it was wasn’t the sort to forgive and forget. Artie seemed to sense the end was coming. Each day when he’d stop and talk, he’d seem more nervous, looking over his shoulder, asking if anyone had been looking for him. Once, when a car backfired, he practically jumped out of his skin. Whatever it was, he wasn’t telling Lenny. “The less you know, my friend, the less you know,” Artie would repeat, often without prompting from Lenny.

Both the Constitution and Journal fudged on the details of the crime, stating only that Artie had been shot multiple times by an unknown assailant, most likely a robbery gone bad. Lenny had seen him, though, sprawled on the ground, his head resting against the base of a gumball machine. Lenny knew the real story — five shots, one in each shoulder, one in each knee, then the final one between the eyes, with a single, unspent cartridge beside his head. Everybody on the streets knew whose signature that was, even the cops. Nobody could prove it, though, and that was the show stopper. The kicker was, whoever did the deed this time used Artie’s own gun, the .38 snub nosed revolver he kept in his coat pocket, which was found, empty, a few feet from the body. Lenny imagined Artie going for it, but being a couple of seconds too late. The type of men he was facing needed to be surprised to get the drop on them. It takes a special kind of man to look someone in the eye then shoot him multiple times and Artie just wasn’t the type. Whoever killed Artie probably went home, had a nice dinner with the wife and kids, and never gave it a second thought.

Lenny was halfway down the block, just a few yards away from the entrance to the arcade when it all went down. He’d seen Artie nervously head inside, after ignoring Lenny’s usual greeting, “Hiya, Artie,” as he passed. Lenny had also seen the man in the black suit and the grey fedora pass by with two other fellows dressed less formally, who entered the arcade behind Artie. He’d seen the flow of teenagers leaving quickly and that’s when he knew it was time to turn away, to focus on something else for a few minutes, until he knew all was clear. It took maybe five minutes, but then the shots came and the three men who’d followed Artie in exited, not in any hurry, and passed Lenny as they headed to the end of the street. One of them even stopped to buy Lenny’s last paper, and waved off the change Lenny offered him, with a cool, “Keep it, kid,” before they disappeared around a corner.

Then the buzzards descended, Wally from the shoe shine stand, Hazel from the coffee shop next door, Frankie from the clothing store across the street. They grabbed what they could easily remove from the body and beat it quickly. By the time Lenny got there the corpse had been picked clean, no watch, no wallet, no cufflinks or ring. But there was one thing left, and, for Lenny it was the prize. Lying just to the right of the body, away from the quickly spreading pool of blood was the hat, where it must have fallen when Artie reacted to the first shots, or maybe while the men were “talking” with Artie beforehand. Lenny stepped over and picked it up, examined it to be sure there was no trace of blood, then walked to the mirror and tried it on. He’d need to grow into it, but he had to admit, it looked pretty good on him.

Lenny straightened his jacket and walked out of the arcade wearing the hat. He breathed in the early evening air, then turned right and headed South, just as the first of the police cruisers rounded the corner with sirens blaring and lights flashing. Lenny didn’t stop. Nobody had seen him going in or coming out. Nobody ever saw anything. He had no idea how the situation would eventually be resolved, but he knew he was going to write about it. As he strolled away from the scene, words began to form in his head.

“Small Change got rained on by his own .38,” he thought and nodded with satisfaction. He shoved his hands into the pockets of his jacket, and headed off to the Journal to collect his day’s pay, with a slight bounce in his step.

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