Thursday, July 29, 2021

“The Big One”

In the immortal words of Joseph Conrad’s Mr. Kurtz: “The horror! The horror!”

Gerry “the Brain” Goldsmith looked up at the clock behind the bar. Was it really only 7:32? He had been sitting here since early afternoon, bad enough in its own way perhaps, but he felt as if he had been trapped here listening to Addison drone on for a thousand boring lifetimes, and the man still showed no sign of slowing down.

“…and I think, Gerry, and please correct me if I’m wrong, but I feel it incumbent upon the novelist of today to etch each line as if in stone, because who knows if we will not all be obliterated tomorrow by an atomic bomb?”

How could he escape? Should he just say he had to go to the john, and then slip out quietly? But, no, this was Addison, he would doubtless sit there all twisted around on his bar stool, the better to keep a weather eye on the men’s room door, ready to leap up and catch Gerry in the act and drag him back to the bar by main force…

“Don’t you agree, Gerry?”


“I said don’t you agree?”

“Um, with what, specifically?”

“With what I’ve just said. That the novelist of the present day must write with the finality of the knowledge that we could all be obliterated at any moment.”

“Uh, yeah, sure.”

“No time for frivolity, for mere cleverness.”


“No! Not when we might all be reduced to cinders without a moment’s notice!”

“You mean, like in a fire?”

“I mean like the Japs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki!”

“Oh, okay, I get it.”

“And that is why we must write, nay, limn, with the utmost, dare I say, sacred gravity each sentence, each word, nay, each comma and em dash, and, yes, even the much-reviled semicolon; because as you have mayhap noticed I am quite fond of the unfashionable semicolon; quite fond indeed.”

“Ha ha, yeah,” said Gerry, although he hadn’t noticed Addison’s fondness for the semicolon because he had only read about a hundred scattered words of Addison’s awful novel-in-progress.

“You laugh,” said Addison. “But the semicolon has its place in the writer’s quiver; an important place.”

“Right; I entirely agree,” said Gerry, because it was slightly less painful just to agree with every jackass opinion Addison spouted; or was it more painful? At any rate Gerry couldn’t be bothered not to agree.

“Choose that semicolon wisely, my friend; wisely I say! Because it may be the last semicolon you ever use, when you suddenly look up and see that blinding flash heralding the extinction of all life on earth.”

“Yeah,” said Gerry. And then the devil made him say, despite himself, and damn his policy of bland acquiescence, “That’s one way of looking at it.”

“It is the only way of looking at it!”

“But –”

“But what?”

“Oh, never mind.”

“No, please, Gerry, speak your mind. I encourage, nay, relish, hearty debate with another intellectual.”

“Okay,” said Gerry, although he knew he’d be much better off just keeping his big mouth shut, “well, if an atom bomb does get dropped, and if you die, and if the whole human race gets wiped out, who cares about a semicolon?”

“Who cares?”

“Yes. I mean, you won’t be around, and maybe no one else will be around. And your novel will never get published, because all the publishing houses will be obliterated, along with everything else.”

“As the young people say: wow,” said Addison.

“I don’t mean to sound depressing,” said Gerry.

“So you’re saying it doesn’t matter?”


“The semicolons.”

“Oh, no, I suppose they matter, sure. But on the other hand, if you’re dead, and everyone else is dead, who gives a damn?”

A very strange thing happened right then.

What happened was that Addison stopped talking.

He stopped talking, and stared into his glass of bock. A glass of bock that Gerry had bought. And why was it that Gerry wound up buying four or five rounds for every time that Addison reluctantly dug some nickels from that little change purse of his.

Gerry enjoyed the respite, and lifted his own glass of bock, and drank it down. What was this, his tenth glass? Well, it was too late to stop now.

“You still with us, Brain?” said Bob, standing there just as he always was at the exact moment you emptied your glass. He smiled that small sad ironic Bob smile, the smile of a man who had seen men killed, who had killed men, and who now for his living watched men kill themselves. He took a slow drag on his cigar. He was in no hurry. Let the damned kill themselves in their own good time, Bob granted the damned that much…

And Bob knew. Bob knew what agony it was for Gerry to have to sit here with Addison, not that anyone was holding a gun to Gerry’s head. But, what the hell, Addison couldn’t help it if he was a colossal bore. As horrible as it was to sit with Addison, how much more horrible must it be to be Addison?

“Yeah, thanks, Bob,” said Gerry. “Get Addison another one, too.”

Bob looked at Addison, and gave his head a little shake, one of those “What can you do” head-shakes, and headed down to the taps.

“Thank you, Gerry,” said Addison. “I’ll get the next round.”

“Yeah, sure,” said Gerry.

“And yet,” said Addison, “and yet –”

But he fell silent again. Gerry knew he should leave well enough alone, but despite everything he felt sorry for the man. Not as sorry as he felt for himself, but sorry anyway.

“And yet what?” said Gerry.

“And yet I still feel,” said Addison, “that the semicolon is ever so important; so important, Gerry.”

“You know something, Addison?” said Gerry. “I agree with you; entirely.”

And silence descended again between the two failures as they waited for Bob to return with their fresh basement-brewed bocks. Gerry knew the silence wouldn’t last, but he savored it.

{Please go here to read the “adult comix” version in A Flophouse Is Not a Home, illustrated by the illustrious rhoda penmarq…}

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