Munchies

A complete story from the Hardbroiled anthology.

by Jack Bludis


......"Do you think private eyes are really like that?" Sheila said, as we filed out from a double feature of The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep.

......"Not nearly as adventurous," I said. I looked at my watch and saw that we had plenty of time. "Let's go down Amsterdam."

......"Broadway's quicker if we --"

......"We can't smoke on Broadway." I was not talking about ordinary cigarettes.

......I had a Minox camera in one pocket of my black designer fatigue trousers, and a Sucrets tin with a few joints and a pack of matches in the other with my keys and wallet.

......"Oh," she said, and she wanted to hurry.

......By the time we came to our favorite fern bar on Columbus Avenue, we had smoked half-a-joint. I was thinking about food and wine and how good it tasted when you were high on grass or hash, and about the insights that came to me. I had just left my job on Wall Street, and I thought the private eye thing might be a smart alternative.

......We stepped inside, walked around to one of the long ends of the rectangular bar, and slid up on our stools. The place was something like Cheers, which wouldn't be on TV for a few years yet. It was only 1973, and I wasn't even thirty.

......"Give us a half carafe of the red, and a plate of cheese with that special hot mustard," I said to the bartender.

......"Burgundy all right?"

......"Perfect."

......He walked away and my mouth was watering as I thought about the cheese and wine.Wall Street was in the past, and I was still thinking about my future.

......"I have the munchies," Sheila said.

......"Me too," I said, and I glanced to the short sides of the bar near the front window.

......"Look down there - the brunette and the surfer," I said.

......"I saw them when I came in. Nice dress."

......"She's married and he's not," I said.

......"Nah," Sheila said. She tried to be casual as she studied the brunette in the black dress and the clean-shaven, blond guy in the Hawaiian shirt. The dress was out of sync with the wild colors most people were wearing, but it made her stand out.

......"Yep. She's married," I said.

......"Is that a grass insight?"

......"I just know."

......"You and grass," she said, and she chuckled.

......The brunette caught me looking, and she smiled to herself. I didn't think the smile was about me, but more about the attention she had drawn.

......The bartender brought us the cheese and he poured the wine. I tasted the wine. Then I jabbed at a hunk of cheese with a toothpick, slapped it in the mustard, and slipped it on my tongue. For some reason I thought, "Holy Communion," and I let the cheese and mustard just lay between mytongue and palate while I savored it. In a sense, I was savoring the brunette too, because I was watching her from the corner of my eye.

......"Do you think they're swingers?" Sheila said.

......I shifted the cheese to the side of my jaw. "What makes you say that?"

......"Just the way they look."

......"You can't tell from looks." I chewed now, still savoring.

......"You can tell what they are when they look at you like they want to gobble you up."

......". . . And you're high," I added for her.

......The surfer guy was looking at Sheila. The woman's smile was more overt now, and she really was looking at me.

......"I think you nailed it," I said.

......"See? I'm entitled to insights too."

......I tapped the Sucrets box in the pocket of my fatigues to make sure it was there. Then I slid off the stool.

......"I'll be back in a couple of minutes."

......"Where you going?"

......"I won't be long," I said. The brunette watched me as I walked by them and onto Columbus Avenue.

......I crossed at the light, even though it was red, and walked along the shadows of 68th Street toward Central Park. I took the half-smoked joint from the tin and lit it again. I took only two hits before the euphoria enveloped me, and I wished I had brought some of the cheese. I knew what the game was, and I wanted to win at it.

......When I wasn't inhaling, I cupped the joint in my palm so nobody could see it, but I took two more hits, as I came back to Columbus by way of 69th Street.

......When I stepped back into the bar, the brunette and the surfer were gone from their places, and I thought I had screwed up. It was almost enough to take me down from the high.

......When I looked for Sheila, she was where I left her, but now between the blond guy and the brunette who were smiling and taking turns talking. Sheila was smiling too, but there was a weakness in her smile. She was afraid, and when she saw me, she was glad I was there.

......My smile wasn't real either, and the paranoia was starting to grip me. Sheila was right, they were swingers, but maybe they wanted just her.

......The paranoia part of the grass high kicked in for just a second. Then it was gone. As I approached, the brunette looked at me with a smile that was not far off the Mona Lisa's, and just as puzzling.

......"Ha, I'm Tracy," she said. I had expected the southern accent.

......"Alan," I said.

......"Like Ladd?"

......"My mother's fault."

......"Ah like it," she said.

......"I'm Todd," said the blond guy. "And you're Alan?"

......"That's what he said," Tracy said.

......Now that I was there, Sheila was more comfortable, and she was smiling at Todd and rocking her leg. Her skirt had climbed well over her thigh. My chest was starting to heave under the black T-shirt. After all, I was in love with Sheila and another guy was trying to make out with her.

......"Tracy says we should all go to my place," Todd said.

......"Where's that?"

......"55th near Sixth."

......"That's not too far," I said.

......Sheila looked at me.

......"What do you think?" I said.

......She shrugged.

......My place was closer, but I had a doorman and I didn't want anybody to know about this kind of thing, even though I had never done anything like it before.

......"Todd's place sounds good to me," I said.

......All the cheese and mustard was gone, and I ordered a new batch to go, and the bartender wrapped it in aluminum foil and shaped it like a swan.

......"Do you have wine there?" I said.

......"Oh, yeah. We've got wine," Tracy said. She was high too.

......I had to crunch the aluminum neck and tail of the swan to stuff it in my pocket with the Minox. Then the four of us walked over 67th, and we shared a joint as we walked along the west side of Central Park.

......"What do you do?" Tracy said. She was walking with me. Sheila was with Todd.

......"Wall Street," I said.

......"Ooooo, sex-eee."

......"It pays the bills."

......"You look like an assassin in that outfit."

......"Thanks."

......"You like being an assassin?"

......"Not yet."

......She giggled and grabbed my arm as if we had known each other long enough to have a relationship.

......"You want this?" Todd said, coming back to us.

......Tracy let go of my arm, grabbed the joint, and sucked in hard. Todd came alongside her, and Sheila backed up, and we were back to our original pairing.

......"He's cool," she said.

......"Where does he keep his surfboard?"

......"Jealous?" Sheila said.

......"A little bit," I said.

......Todd and Tracy were older than we were, and Todd seemed a little dissipated-some people just didn't know how to hold their grass.

......"I'm jealous too." She grabbed my arm like Tracy had, but closer, as if she thought I would get away.

......There was a lot of smoking on the streets in those days, and even if somebody minded, they didn't complain if you were discreet. Todd tossed the butt into the park. We crossed and went down Sixth Avenue, which out-of-towners still called "Avenue of the Americas." Sheila and I fell a bit behind them.

......"Are you sure you want to do this?" I said.

......"Don't be a party pooper." She giggled again.

......"You don't have to, you know. I have a job."

......"And so do I," she said. She was fully into the giggles now, and I had to stop and kiss her to cure that. Finally, she recovered.

......"I want to," she said.

......"What if --"

......"You're being paranoid. If you want to be a private eye, why not just call it practice?" Her logic made sense.

......"OK," I said.

......I liked the way the black mini-dress hugged Tracy in the back, but Sheila had a better behind. Neither of the women wore a bra, so I knew that Sheila was built better too, at least to my taste.

......We followed Tracy and Todd to the vestibule of a Chinese carryout on 55th Street.

......"What's this all about?" My voice echoed in the small space.

......"Wouldn't you like to know," Tracy said, and she giggled.

......I did know though, and I thought about how I was letting a woman I didn't know and one I thought I might be in love with take me to something I both drooled over and feared. I also had another motive, and that seemed to make it all right, maybe even perfect.

......Todd unlocked the front door and we climbed the stairs after him. Before he flicked on the lights, I thought I saw an outline of someone watching us from a window on the other side of 55th Street. It was probably part of my paranoia.

......Todd's fourth-floor, front apartment was more like a large room with a kitchenette against one wall and a counter between it and the bedroom-living room area. There was a bath behind the kitchenette.

......Todd took a bottle of vintage Chardonnay from a portable rack over the sink and handed it to me with a corkscrew.

......"You do the honors," he said. Then he fished a professionally rolled joint from a cigar box on the counter and lit up with a stick match.

......"Bring on the cheese," Tracy said.

......I fumbled in my pocket to untangle the aluminum foil from the Minox.

......When I put the crushed swan on the counter, Tracy went immediately domestic. She took down a serving plate from a cabinet over the sink, brought down a box of toothpicks and put it on the counter between the kitchenette and the other area. Then she rummaged through the fridge, and came up with a jar of black olives, one of green olives, and a fresh jar of mustard. Alternating between jars and the aluminum foil, she arranged everything except the bar-mustard, which she crinkled inside the foil and dropped into the plastic trash container.

......"Don't you think we should close the curtains?" Sheila said.

......"Shutters," Todd said, and he passed the joint to her.

......Tracy was washing her hands in the sink. "Leave 'em open. Give 'em a show," she said.

......She turned her head to the side, locked her gaze on mine, and she gave me that close-mouthed smile again. She continued to hold my attention while she blotted her hands on paper towels. Looking back, I think it was something like hypnotism, because from the corner of my eye, I saw Todd and Sheila pass the joint back and forth at least twice before I broke my gaze.

......Tracy stepped around the room-dividing counter and went into the big living area, where Todd and Sheila were whispering now. After Tracy stepped up to them, she turned and looked straight at me with that smile.

......In what seemed like a single, long and slow motion, she reached behind her neck, untied the string, and let the dress fall. It hung at her breasts momentarily, then at her hips, and it gathered at her feet. She was totally naked underneath.

......"Jesus," I said.

......"Wow," Sheila said in a hoarse whisper. She stepped to the counter and held the joint in my direction. She was still holding smoke in her lungs, and she was looking at Tracy.

......"Cool," Todd said.

......"Now, you," Tracy said to Sheila.

......I took a deep hit on the joint that was so perfectly packed and shaped that it looked as if it had been made by R.J. Reynolds.

......Sheila held her breath, but she squeaked out, "Already did."

......"I mean your clothes," Tracy said.

......"Oh." Sheila was surprised, but I picked it up the first time.

......"You don't have to," I said. I was holding my breath, but I was sure she heard me.

......I watched the mustard and cheese and olives on the plate at the counter as if I thought they were going to go someplace. I had opened and poured the wine into four glasses like the ones in the bar, but I did not remember doing it.

......"Why, yeah, she does," Tracy said.

......"I do what?" Sheila said. She had already forgotten what she was being asked to do, but it seemed like a long time ago.

......"Take off your clothes," Tracy said.

......I handed Tracy the joint, and jabbed a green olive with a toothpick on the first try. I slopped it in the mustard, and took the whole thing into my mouth. It was amazing how you could differentiate the taste of the olive and the mustard, and how good the whole thing tasted compared to when you were not high. I was concentrating on the taste and I forgot that Sheila was waiting for more reassurance.

......"Oh," I said. "You don't have to."

......"Don't have to what?"

......"Don't have to take off your clothes."

......After two tries, I jabbed a black olive, put it between my teeth, and bit down to the pit. I was gazing at Tracy, who gave the joint to Todd. She kicked her dress aside and now stood in only her platform shoes.

......"Sure she has to," Todd said. He stepped behind Sheila, and cupped his hands under her breasts in the halter top. I wanted to slug him, but I knew these were the wrong circumstances for that.

......"Whoa," I said, savoring the first squeeze of the black olive between my tongue and my palate where the juice was oozing. Todd stopped what he was doing, thinking I had protested. I had frightened Sheila too, but not Tracy.

......"I thought you were cool with this," Tracy said.

......"I am cool, but nobody asked me."

......"We asked her," Todd said.

......"Not really," Sheila said. She looked at me, then away, and I knew she was at least shading the truth.

......Tracy stepped around the counter, went up on her toes, and touched my lips with hers. "But you are interested in me. And don't you tell me you are not." She was lathering on the accent.

......She strolled into the big area again, making sure I saw her behind which was better naked than under the black dress, but I still liked Sheila better. I was in love with Sheila.

......I had chewed around the pit of the black olive, and I decided that I liked it better than the green one. I liked all black olives better than green olives, and all food tasted best when you had the munchies and so many things went on in your brain at the same time. I still had the Minox in my pocket, and I still had the Sucrets tin too, but it was the Minox I thought about.

......"Yeah," I said.

......By then, I forgot what I was answering to, and when I remembered, I realized I was saying in front of Sheila that I was interested in Tracy.

......I wondered if I was kinky-sick, just kinky, or just sick. It was the times. There were a lot of deep questions whose answers we never learned, or when we learned them, we found out later that the answers were wrong, and sometimes, we just learned too late.

......"Does your husband know about this?" I said.

......"Not unless you tell him," Tracy said.

......I wondered if she knew something that I didn't know she knew, but I decided it was just the grass that made me think that. She grabbed the joint from Sheila, who had already smoked most of it.

......"Is that how private eyes do it?" Sheila squeaked out at me, still holding her breath from her last hit. I didn't know what she was talking about.

......"Private eyes don't do shit," Todd said.

......"Bogart does," Sheila said.

......"It's just the movies," I said, and I took one each of the black and green olives and put them both in my mouth at the same time. With my other hand, I pulled out the Minox and palmed it as I palmed the joint on Central Park West.

......Tracy had beckoned Sheila to her, and Sheila obeyed, and by that time, Tracy was kissing her. Sheila was reluctant at first. Then she was into it, and I clicked the Minox. Todd pulled Tracy away from Sheila as if in an adagio. When you were really high, everything seemed like a slow-motion film.

......"You do him. I do her," Todd said.

......"He won't cooperate," Tracy cooed, but she decided to try again. She took two long strides and stepped to my side of the counter. Her breasts were small, with a small bounce, but they were shaped well.

......I wanted to, damn, did I want to. I could blame it on the grass, and the fact that I had been away from my job on Wall Street for almost a month now. I could claim I didn't know what I was doing.

......Tracy was naked, but I still wore my big-pocket fatigue pants and my black T-shirt, and Todd was running his hand under Sheila's mini. I was out of sync with the others, but in sync with the situation, because I still knew what I had to do. I understood food and people and my life and its meaning and everything else there was to know. Everything I needed was here, but some of it was in my mind.

......"Do you like blondes or brunettes better?" Tracy said.

......"Blondes," I said. I tried not to watch Sheila and Todd.

......"Ah you tryin' to hurt my feelin's?" Tracy said. She was exaggerating her Virginia accent to the point of parody.

......"Not at all," I said.

......I could actually tell which bits were green olive and which were black. I liked the texture and the shape of the pit, but I liked the taste of the black olives best. I liked blondes better than brunettes, I liked Sheila better than Tracy, and I wished I had bought an apple coming down Broadway.

......I was trying not to watch, but I saw how Todd was examining Sheila's tonsils with his tongue, and she was fully into it.

......"Let's go," I said across the room to Sheila, but she was busy.

......"Have you tried a brunette lately?" Tracy said. Her hard nipples touched me through the 100% cotton of my T-shirt, and she kissed me again. Her tongue slipped from between her lips. For just a fraction of a second, I reacted. Then I backed away.

......"No," I said.

......"You heard Todd - I do you and he does Sheila. It's the only fair way."

......"Come on, Sheila, let's go."

......"You go," Sheila said, breaking her oral entanglement for just a moment. Her halter-top was loose, but I focused my attention on the front of her skirt, which bulged from Todd's hand.

......"I assure you, I'm very good," Tracy said.

......"I like Sheila," I said.

......I felt stupid, especially because I was watching Sheila and Todd and I was excited by Tracy, but I was thinking about olives all at the same time.

......"I like her too," Tracy said, and she went over to where Todd was kissing Sheila. She lifted up Sheila's skirt and I saw where Todd's hand was.

......"Nice," Tracy said.

......I was jealous, but I was excited too. "Let's go," I said. I was trying to be forceful, but my voice was cracking.

......"Mmmmm," Sheila moaned at Todd. Then she said, "Go without me," and she said it with conviction.

......"OK," I said, and now my excitement had risen to anger, and I took another shot with the Minox, as Tracy reached around the front of Sheila and peeled away her halter top.

......I picked up one of the black olives with my fingers, and I put it in my mouth, and I watched them move in slow motion. I watched clothes, and mouths and hands and other body parts. By the time I ate two more olives, Todd had opened up the sofa bed, and all three of them were naked and entangled on what looked like satin sheets. I raised the Minox next to the plate, and took two more shots.

......"This is . . . ooooo." Sheila moaned and for just a moment, I thought she was talking about the olives, because they were so good, but it was me who was totally out of it, me who didn't understand.

......"Take off your clothes," Tracy said across the room to me. I was still behind the counter.

......I took two more shots with the Minox, and I raised it to eye level because I wanted to make sure I got everybody in the picture. Tracy looked up and I got her full face, with most of her body. The others were behind her. She saw what I was doing, but I didn't care. I took one more good photo, moved toward the door, and unbolted the lock.

......"Hey!" Tracy called from the sofa bed, and she scrambled to her feet, but Sheila was too occupied to notice.

......I was on my way down the worn linoleum stairs and Tracy was on the landing above me, and she was naked.

......"Hey," she called again.

......By the time I had turned the latch on the front door, I could no longer see her. I heard her coming down the stairs, but she did not follow me onto the street.

......Spade would never do that and Marlowe would never do it, but it was what being a private eye was all about -- finding things and finding people, and maybe more importantly, finding out about people.

......I was being paid to find out about Tracy, but what I learned about Sheila was a bonus. Learning about myself was a bonus too, but I still don't know why I didn't join them. Maybe the old Catholic in me wasn't totally gone yet, or maybe I thought my testimony would be no good in the divorce if I went through with it. I had a new job and a new reputation to build and maybe even one to protect.

****

......The next time I saw an image of Tracy Gallagher, was in the black-and-white, front-page photo in the Daily News. She lay on a carpet someplace, and there was black blood all down the front of her white dress.

......I ended up testifying for the defense at her husband's murder trial. He had a sharp lawyer who had worked the jury for extenuating circumstances. I should have been happy with that, but I wasn't, because it was my report and my photos that drove him over the edge. If there was guilt, I shared it, and I wanted them to tell me that.

......One thing I do know now is that I like black olives better than green. There was one other insight too -- the Sheila thing - but I still don't know if that was good or bad.

.....The best thing that came out of it, I suppose, was that it was my first job as a PI, and I earned an immediate reputation for getting things done.

Copyright (c) 2003 by Jack Bludis



How "Munchies" Came to Be

When Michael Bracken, the editor of the Hardbroiled anthology, invited me to write a story to the theme, I wasn't quite what that meant, but I did see that he wanted stories about food.

And that got me to thinking...

I was in New York, and the play "The Producers" had just won its Tonys. That made me recall how, way back in the 70s I once spotted Dick Shawn (who had played the Hitler role in the original "Producers" movie) and an entourage of fellow young actors walking away from the Baronet and Coronet Theaters on Third Avenue laughing and giggling. I think they had been smoking pot -- a lot of that was going on, on the streets in those days -- not only in New York but in Baltimore as well.

It occurred to me that back in the day, we used to think we had great insights when we smoked pot -- not to mention that we got pretty silly, and hungry as well. The hunger was called "The munchies" and food was called "munchies."

The only "insight" I ever remembered had to do with olives. From pot and olives and "munchies," I took the idea to smoking pot of the streets of New York in the early 70s. I added wine and cheese -- two other favorite munchies, a couple of Bogart movies, moved the story to the Westside, and worked it from there.

So the entire story is more or less a combination of ideas and things that I dug out of my past and worked in.

PS: I haven't smoked pot since the late 70s.

A version of this originally appeared on the discussion list DetecToday in March 2004.
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Jack Bludis is a Hunt Valley, Maryland writer who has sold over 450 short stories and thirty novels under a slew of pen names. He writes about forties Baltimore eye Ken Sligo, forties LA gumshoe Rick Page and fifties Hollywood dick Brian Kane, and has been nominated for Anthony, Shamus and Edgar awards.

Like what you've read? Hardbroiled, edited by Michael Bracken, is available now. And head here for more Thrilling Detective Fiction!



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