“It’s too dark”, he offered, throwing the manuscript down onto the desk to land with a satisfying ooomph.
“Too dark? How can it be TOO dark? It’s just what happened, no more, no less”.
Jerry rose from the desk, moved over to the window and opened it before half perching on the sill and lighting a Marlboro, tapping the ash out of the window as he exhaled. The office walls were cream, the perfect colour to mask cigarette stains, and it looked out, three floors up, over a busy Manchester thoroughfare. The dull hubbub and occasional horn drifted up from the walls of the concrete canyon, softened slightly by the February afternoon drizzle.
I was trying to smoke only when drinking, so helped myself to a generous shot of Jamesons from a decanter on the side and assisted it along with a cigarette from his packet. He cleared his throat dramatically and I made another pass of the sideboard and came up with another glass, magically full, that I passed over, joining him at the window.
“Dark’s not selling. Plus, what you’ve got there is a noir“.
The Jamesons warmed my dry lips like a straw – lined jacuzzi.
“That was kind the point. What the hell’s wrong with a noir, anyway”?
Jerry took a sip and smacked his lips together, exhaling his smoke out across the rooftops of the city.
“Noir’s not selling, either”.
I’m a small – town boy, always have been, and the sights and sounds of any big city are things that I find overwhelming to this day. I spend most of my time in such places just looking UP. On this occasion I half expected Spiderman to come swinging by.
” So what IS selling right now?”
He took back a hefty slug of whiskey, followed it down with a determined pull on his cigarette, and fought back a coughing fit. You can take the man out of Salford….
“Ping pong balls”, Jerry concluded, and returned to taking in the view.
“Ping pong balls?” I ventured, hoping there’d be more.
He grunted. “Ping pong balls. There’s a reservoir in LA full of ’em, over three million”.
Whether it was the Jameson’s or just the twist that the conversation had begun to follow, my head began to swim.
“Three million ping pong balls”.
“Got it. And at forty cents a pop, that’s, well…”
He screwed his face up, eyes to heaven. I did a brief recce back to the desk and tossed over a pocket calculator I discovered there.
“…over a million dollars. Well over. That’s where the money is, son. Ping pong balls”.
I drained the last of my glass and parked it next to the decanter with a bang before heading back to the window to flick away some ash. I fixed Jerry with the Beady Eye.
“Are you seriously suggesting that I stop writing and start buying up ping pong balls?”
He flicked his fag end out of the window then flung himself away from it before anybody it connected with could look up. Some men just wanna watch the world burn.
“Cover the entire surface of your reservoir with ping pong balls and it keeps the water clean. Keeps the sunlight out so the algae can’t get a good hold and start choking all the marine life. Everything that needs to can breathe, everyone’s happy.”
“Everyone except fans of noir fiction”.
“They’re not buying anyway. I’ve got a mate, he’s got a warehouse full of ’em, reckons he can get a load of ’em as a job lot, no questions asked, if you know what I mean. D’you want in?”
“I’ll pass. Cheers for having a look anyway, Jerry”.
The spit shower was turning to full on rain as I left Jerry`s building and made my way along the street. Traffic was backed up down the road thanks to a soft bump between a range Rover and a black cab, and the owners of both were sprawled across the cab’s bonnet, gleefully exchanging insurance details. I cast my eyes to the pavement and shuffled along in the direction of the station, hoping that a carelessly tossed cigarette end from the third floor had played no role in anything.
The sky turned to knifeblade grey and the temperature grew as cold and threatening, indicating the coming presence of snow. I pulled my shirt collar tighter and watched the breath leave my mouth and drift upwards to mingle with the air, dissipating quickly in the light drizzle that glowing in the orange lamplight. There was a train every twenty minutes, and I diverted from my course at the station steps and headed into the Stationmasters Arms. I picked my way through the row of upright bodies that clustered around the door and through the stratus of cigarette smoke that they produced. One or two nodded at me, and bidded me “alright” in the time honoured manner.
I had £35 left in the world until something came in, and used over a fiver on a pint of amber bitter and a cheap whiskey. I raised it to my lips and the thin taste of peat burned my throat as it hit. All around were faceless people, some in groups, murmuring, chattering, and no coherent words could I discern, a faceless drinker unknown and invisible in a strange land. I looked from one face to another and beyond them all to the smokers surrounding the doorway outside.
Ping pong balls, swaying and swirling on the surface, masking the depths below.