Palo Alto Weekly 19th Annual Short Story Contest
Third Place

The Struggle at Dusk

by R. Calvin Clark

About R. Calvin Clark

Third place in the adult's 18-plus category went to R. Calvin Clark of Menlo Park for his hard-boiled detective story, "The Struggle at Dusk."

Clark, 48, several years ago sold a handful of screenplay options in Hollywood, but now pays the bills solely as a freelance copywriter. He wrote "The Struggle at Dusk" two years ago.

The noir tale takes place during twilight in a Mexican district of a nameless Bay Area town, in which the main character -- a "high-mileage PI" -- faces a moral dilemma while investigating a suspicious dog mauling.

"I enjoy old-fashioned detective stories -- (Raymond) Chandler, Ross McDonald," Clark said, adding he misses the days of pulp fiction magazines.

Clark's was the only story in this category set in the Bay Area.

"I don't know what inspired it. What does it mean to me? Oh, about $200," he said with a laugh.

Clark added that the story's realism reflects his screenwriting style.

-- Tony Burchyns

The sunset tore open the sky. Puffy rings of clouds, all aflame, funneled into the horizon as an immense darkness pressed in relentlessly.

I pulled to the curb and got out of the car. It was twilight and everything was very still in the Mexican district, as it can be in places where people toil and are seen to toil, because there is a sort of hush when they stop laboring, a lull, peaceful or foreboding, depending on what happens when night comes.

I liked the barrio: worn but the fabric was strong, not prettified, not yet, like so much of the Bay Area.

Across the street a dog barked. He was a big dog and he was agitated. The bark bordered on frenzy, a chilling, hateful sound and the only sound to be heard. The dog guarded a small nursery that was now closed. He snarled and jumped behind an old wooden stake fence; he snarled and jumped at a man who stood on the deserted street corner in front of the fence and refused to budge. The man was young. He was "cool" in a leather aviator's jacket, low riding black jeans, and sunglasses that masked his face despite the time of day -- and he was unafraid of the dog. To prove this, he shouted at the dog, kicking the fence once to drive the animal even crazier.
I looked at the man as he hurled one of those stares at me that punks like to throw when they know they won't be challenged. He was right. As a high mileage PT, I've learned not to challenge anyone, especially when the sun disappears and the clear world of shapes dwindles away.

I was happy to get off the street and duck into Eduardo's market: an exotic cubbyhole of spice and color, exotic to me anyway, a member of the retreating Anglo tribe. Eduardo greeted me gayly from behind the little counter, as he did all loyal customers.

"Senor Dunbar, a pleasure! Going to Chino's again, eh?"

"You bet. I'm here for my rations."

He was about sixty and portly, but solid, one of those men with hard fat -- to hit him in the belly might break your hand; then those thick peasant fists would come at you, connected to a pair of hirsute, leathery logs. Let him get inside and you'd regret it.

Eduardo stooped beneath the counter where he maintained a small humidor. Rising on creaky knees, he passed me a brown paper bag filled with contraband, five Cuban beauties, one of which would be fired up after a robust feed at Chino's.

Eduardo claimed to have family in Mexico that kept him well stocked with life's necessities. For a respectable markup, he shared the joy.

Our covert dealings were interrupted by a boy of fourteen who shuffled from a storage room to begin shelving cans.

"Hola, Miguel," I said.

The boy barely acknowledged me. He appeared morose and lethargic, not as I had remembered him through the years, or even a few weeks before when I had been there last.

Eduardo shrugged. "Pay no attention to his rudeness. He does not mean it... the young."

"I understand."

The dog still yapped violently; and Eduardo glanced slit-eyed out the open door at the man on the corner, whispering somberly in Spanish, "Animals.., animals, the two of them."

Miguel dropped one of the cans and cursed to himself.

"How's life, amigo?" I asked, with phony good cheer. "Getting by, I hope."

"Okay," he mumbled, trying to ignore me.

Miguel was raised by Eduardo, his grandfather, and they both lived directly above the tiny store.

I winked at grandpa. "Not easy making the transition from boy to man."

"Yes, especially today, the way things are with the young. There are those who live off them and use the darkness in them for profit."

I got the impression he wasn't talking about the record industry; and I left him leaning over the counter studying his massive hands while Miguel silently stacked merchandise.

The incessant barking was getting on my nerves, so I paused only briefly at the green grocer stalls next door. Pedro was bringing in produce as he readied to close for the night.

"Are the Gravensteins in yet?" I inquired.

"Just yesterday, Meester Dunbar. Would you like a sample?"

"No, I'll take half a dozen if they're still out."

"Certainly."

Pedro stepped over to a crate of apples and took his time picking me some good ones. He was in his early fifties, younger than Eduardo but more fragile, slender and bent with a gaunt face.

"What's with the dog?" I wondered, as he handed me the fruit.

His tired eyes spasmed briefly, though the rest of him just slouched there. "The dog is worse these days."

"Because of him?" and I motioned toward the young man, who had lit a cigarette.

"The dog will quiet down soon. He will get tired, then only watch with hatred."

"Does the man always stand in that place?"

"Often, yes. He is new here, up from Mexico."

"Why does he stand alone?"

"He will not be alone for long."

The sunset now had dimmed to a murky purple. There was no moon. As I walked, the street lamps flicked on and I was relieved to enter the restaurant: old, comforting, with only a few early patrons and a loyal table awaiting me in back. I kissed Anna on the cheek, ordered my pint of Red Hook and watched through the window as the blinds of night filtered out the charcoal of another ebbing day. Soon a different world would issue forth, a place made habitable by our artificial lights, but with enough cloaking darkness for those who craved and needed it. Yet, the twilight would live a little longer, refusing to expire, like an ordained instant in Time that had snared me in its physical and moral no man's land.

Finally, the barking stopped and there was a wary, anticipating silence. For some reason my eyes followed an elderly woman who crept from the washroom to her front table. She was the only thing moving across my static field of vision, where all seemed suspended on an artist's canvas.

Reaching her table, the woman didn't sit. She only gawked -- she gawked in horror out the window before crossing herself.

I quickly beat it outside into the soft cool air, and into fury.

The brave young man on the corner was being eaten alive. No more frantic yelping, no more futile assaults, rather instinctive, pitiless aggression as the big dog ripped and blood spewed. The snarls were almost pleasurable.

I sprinted to my car and withdrew the .32 I keep in a pocket under the driver's seat. Then I fired it into the air. The animal started and glowered at me, smoldering with cruel triumph, its head lowered and the muzzle drenched, hackles like thorns. Under the street lamp, the miserable scene was cast in a sickly pale monochrome. The beast growled in my direction before attacking once more, seizing the young man, or what had been the young man, by the throat, shaking and brandishing him like a trophy. I heard a hideous crunch -- I fired again, and the dog fell on its side with a mousy squeal.

The animal was dead... but at. least whole, whereas its victim was nearly decapitated, his entire battered torso, including the shorn leather jacket, sopped in blood.

My eyes roved to the bottom of the wood fence where six or seven weak stakes had busted as the dog had broken through. But, in the shadowy light, as I looked more closely I could see splintered pieces of wood scattered on the nursery side of the fence, larger chunks laying a couple of yards within the property.

Half staggering back to my car, I phoned 911.

By now, the victory of the night was complete and only the jack-o-lantern street lamps illumined the pitch.

Just a handful of onlookers had ventured outside. I questioned a few but they had seen nothing of course.

Across the street, Pedro the grocer stood by one of his empty stalls and clutched a baseball bat.

I approached, asking him what he knew. His thin face was expressionless, stony, and I thought of something carved long ago in the jungles of the south. He began timidly:

"Yes, I saw what happened... el perro, the dog, it breaks the fence and attacks the man."

"Was he blind, what was he doing?"

"His back was turned.., he smoked a cigarette, he thought he was safe."

"And you, Pedro?"

"I ran for my bat. I keep it, you know, for things. When I come out again, you are here with the gun, so there is no need."

His eyes were guileless. And why shouldn't they have been?

"Are you sure you saw the dog break the fence?"

"Absolutely. That is what I saw, that is what I saw, absolutely."

Next door would have had the best view; so I walked into Eduardo's market, well lighted and seeming to offer sanctuary. But Eduardo was not there. Only the boy, Miguel, stood as if impaled behind the counter, his round black eyes searching mine as I entered, searching for what exactly I couldn't say, still can't -- for a comrade, I suppose.

"Where's your grandfather, Miguel?"

"Upstairs. He isn't well."

"He was well twenty minutes ago."

"His stomach," said the boy, abruptly. "It bothered him so he went to take something and to lie down."

"All right," I said. "What happened?"

His eyes, full of doubt, widened and grew in strength though the doubt remained. He brushed a sticky clump of hair from his forehead, replying, "I didn't see it. I was in back."

I leveled one of those adult gazes at him, but he responded by growing an inch, not easy as he was already posed like a miniature grenadier; but grow in stature he did.

"Let me speak to Eduardo," I said.

"No, sir, I'm sorry." He came around the counter to stand before me. "My grandfather needs to rest."

"He might have seen something from the upstairs window."

"No."

"How can you be certain of that?"

The boy did not answer directly but tilted his head up at me, frowning and asserting, "I am running things now. What I say is enough."

At that moment a patrol car rolled to the curb in front of the little market. We both looked out at it, then at each other. The boy said hoarsely: "I think, Mister Dunbar... I think you are a friend of my grandfather."

Smiling lamely, I replied that I was and then went outside to talk to the police. In my rundown for them I neglected to mention the fence, except to remark that the dog in its frenzy had broken through the decaying wood. Pedro, the only witness, had said so.

The following day I went back to the market, but only found Miguel. Eduardo was still feeling poorly, I was told, and they might have to hire some part-time help for a while, given Miguel's school hours. My six pack of Red Hook was on the house, as was a complimentary Cuban. Then the boy reached across the counter to shake my hand; his grip was damp but firm.

The investigation the night before had been cursory, the cops basically satisfied with what I had to say and with testimony from the only direct witness. The officers played it dutifully by the numbers and then left it at that.

Later, I made a few inquiries, discovering that the medical examiner had concluded the obvious - but with one proviso: a puncture wound in the victim's left lung did not conform with a dog attack. More of a knife wound, he thought, a slim long blade, though he couldn't be certain since the corpse was so badly mangled.

The victim's name was Jose Chacon, a small time drug dealer, or perhaps a member of a syndicate, who had recently arrived from Ensenada to set up shop in the neighborhood, which heretofore had only known a sporadic narcotics trade. Apparently his focus had been on kids, teens and pre-teens, and business was lucrative.

Mexican authorities didn't provide much salient information, except to report that Chacon had connections to traffickers, and that he was usually armed with a switchblade, which he may have deftly used in Ensenada regarding a dispute over a woman, thus precipitating his journey to El Norte.

But no knife, no weapon of any kind was found on the victim's body. A newly minted detective named Smith had wondered if Chacon might have been involved in a fight that preceded the mauling. Perhaps he had lashed out with his blade, been disarmed somehow, and gotten the worst of it himself. The dog assault against an injured man would have conveniently obscured the knife wound. Had an unknown person kicked in the fence and weakened it enough for the dog to finally emerge? Detective Smith poked around but nothing came of it. After all, the initial police report made everything very clear.

I waited several months before returning to the barrio. Eduardo was ensconced again behind his counter; both he and Miguel grinned broadly at me when I entered the store. But I detected a sadness in the eyes of the grandfather, the burden of a man who has seen too much of the world, and who knows what can happen in that moment of twilight when opposing forces meet.


The author of "The Struggle at Dusk" knows how to tell a dramatic story. But the power of this story does not depend solely on plot -- I'm impressed by the fine writing, the sharp dialogue and the vivid setting.

--Ellen Sussman