Thursday, October 1, 2020

“There’s a Reason Why They Call It the Badlands”

After a couple of minutes, during which Jace Calhoun fought back the urge to shout for service, one of the bartenders came over to him.

“Whaddaya want, cowboy?”

“I’d like some lunch, please.”

“So would I.”

“Do you have a menu?”

The bartender pointed with his thumb to a blackboard mounted on the wall behind him.

“You blind?”

“Yes, I saw that, but I thought you might also have a printed menu.”

“What’s the matter with the blackboard menu?”

“Nothing at all. I just thought that the blackboard menu might just be specials, and that you might also have a printed menu.”


“So the blackboard menu is your only menu?”

“Yes, and look, as you can see we’re really goddam busy in here, so if you’re not ready to order I’ll check back with you in five, ten minutes.”

“No! Look, your boss, Zeke –”

“Mister Zeke to you.”

“Okay, your boss, Mister Zeke, he recommended the chicken fried steak, but I see you also have a T-bone up there.”

“So you can read.”

“Heh heh, yes, so how’s the T-bone?”

“I get few complaints.”

“A buck-fifty, right?”

“That’s what it says, don’t it?”

“Yes. But what about that ten-alarm chili for a quarter, how’s that?”

“What do you want for a quarter?”

“Okay, well, does it come with bread?”

“The chili?”

“Yes, the chili, does it come with bread?”


“Okay, hardtack. And is the chili really hot? I mean spicy hot?”

“Why do you think we call it ten-alarm?”

“All right. Now Mister Zeke told me that you get a bottle of red eye with the chicken fried steak. Do you get a bottle of red eye with the chili?”

“No, but you get an imperial pint of our house bock.”

“Well, that doesn’t sound so bad –”

“What more do you want for a lousy two bits?”

“Excuse me, cowboy,” said a small old man sitting on the stool to the right of where Jace stood. “Are you a vegetarian?”

“A vegetarian?” said Jace. “No, why?”

“Because the ten-alarm chili is a vegetarian chili.”

“It is?”

“Most assuredly. I’m a vegetarian, and I eat it every day.”

“I didn’t realize it was a vegetarian dish.”

“What do you expect for a quarter?” said the bartender.

“Well, it did seem pretty inexpensive,” said Jace.

“This is the 19th century,” said the bartender. “You need at least one or two vegetarian items on the menu.”

“I can see that,” said Jace. “Well, look, I think maybe I’ll just try the T-bone.”

“We’re out of the T-bone.”

“Okay, well, I’ll go for the chicken fried steak then.”

“Just sold my last order.”

Jace sighed.

“I’ll come back,” said the bartender.

“No!” said Jace. “Look, how about the ham and eggs for fifty cents?”

“All gone.”

“Go for the chili,” said the little old man. “It’s to die for.”

“I’m sure it is,” said Jace. “It’s just I’m not very good with hot spices, especially for my first meal of the day –”

“Then don’t order it,” said the old-timer. “No skin off my nose.”

“Okay,” said Jace, and he addressed the bartender again. “What do you have on the menu that you’re not out of yet?”

The bartender turned and looked at the menu for a moment, then turned to face Jace again.


“Flapjacks, great, I’ll take those.”

“Tall or short stack.”


“That’s another good vegetarian option,” said the little old man.

“Yes,” said Jace. “I’m sure it is.” Turning to the bartender again he said, “Do I get some red eye or beer with that?”

“Not included. You do get a bottomless cup of our house fresh-ground chicory coffee though.”

“Well, I was really hoping for a nap after lunch, and so I’d better not have coffee.”

“So don’t have it.”

“Can I substitute some red eye or at least beer for the coffee?”

“You looking for trouble, pal?”

“No, not at all, it’s just –”

“Look, it’s two bits for the flapjacks, pal. You don’t want coffee, fine, that’s on you. Order some red eye then, but I’m gonna charge you for it.”

“Okay,” said Jace, “look, I’ll take a tall stack of the flapjacks and I’ll also have a bottle of red eye.”

“It’ll be a quarter for the red eye.”

“Great, that sounds very reasonable. Could I have the bottle of red eye now while I’m waiting for my flapjacks?”

“Of course.”

The bartender reached under the bar, pulled out an unlabeled bottle and a whiskey glass and put it on the bar in front of Jace.

“Fifty cent,” he said. “For the red eye and the flapjacks. Pay in advance.”

Jace had his money all ready and he put down a silver dollar.

“Keep the change.”

“Thanks, big spender,” said the bartender.

Jace pulled the cork out of the bottle with his teeth, spat it onto the floor, filled his glass with the red eye, and drank it down in one go.

“I think you’ll like the flapjacks,” said the old timer. “I eat them every day.”

“At this point I don’t much care,” said Jace. “As long as it’s food.”

“You should really consider adopting a vegetarian diet.”

“Okay, I will,” said Jace, and he refilled his glass. It wasn’t the worst red eye he’d ever tasted. He drank this second glass down and felt a little better.

“Hey, old-timer,” he said, “can I ask you a question?”

“Fire away, sonny.”

“Why is everybody in this town so unpleasant?”

“I don’t think I’m unpleasant.”

“Okay, I generalized, I’m sorry.”

“Apology accepted.”

Jace refilled his glass again.

“I wouldn’t mind some of that red eye,” said the old man.

“Sure,” said Jace. 

There was an empty glass in front of the old fellow, and Jace filled it up with red eye.

“To your very good health, sir,” said the old man, and they both emptied their glasses.

“They call me Old Mose,” said the old man.

“Jace,” said Jace, “Jace Calhoun.”

They shook hands. The old fellow’s hand was filthy, but Jace’s hand was not so clean either.

“There’s a reason why they call it the Badlands,” said Old Mose, and he shoved his empty glass toward Jace for a refill.

Herbert Goldfarb paused with his fingers over the typewriter keys. Was he losing his mind? No one would buy this story. He’d typed five or six pages, and not a gunfight or saloon brawl in sight. He needed to eat, that was the problem. But he was stone broke, all he had was one subway token to his name. At this rate he would never get this story in shape in time to take the el up to the Minchkin Publications offices and try to get Schwartz to take it for a sawbuck. He was doomed. He turned and looked out his one window at the steel girders and columns of the elevated train in the bright but dirty sunshine. Then he hung his head, in despair, and there, on the bare floorboards, was a ten-dollar bill. He bent down and picked it up, held it to the light. It was crumpled, and dirty, but it was real.

A ten-dollar bill.

Had his guardian angel left it here? Or had he himself somehow dropped it on the floor when he was flush, possibly when he had had one too many bocks at Bob’s Bowery Bar? He wouldn’t put it past himself. He only swept up once every couple of weeks or so, and the floor was littered with crumpled typewriter paper, gum wrappers, crushed Philip Morris packets, and dust bunnies.

Ten dollars. He could eat today, and he could even give Mrs. Morgenstern five bucks toward his overdue rent.

He pocketed the ten, and turned back to the sheet of paper in his typewriter.

He began to type again.

{Kindly go here to read the “adult comix” version in A Flophouse Is Not a Home, profusely illustrated by the one-and-only Rhoda Penmarq…}

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