Thursday, February 22, 2024

"The Finest Young Novelist of His Generation"


It was midnight in the bar called the Kettle of Fish, and the place was filled with smoke and the damned and the lost and the never to be found. 

A small jazz combo played against the back wall, and a knot of people shouted, "Go, man, go!" 


Outside on MacDougal street the snow still fell as it had been falling without surcease all day, covering the Village in pillowy and dreamlike whiteness and silence, but here inside everyone was drunk, not just the customers but also the musicians and waiters and bartenders, but especially the customers.


At the bar the famous poet Wallace Stevens stared into his Manhattan, and just to his right sat our friends Addison and Bubbles.  


"D'ya know, Bubbles," said Addison, in the 'thoughtful'

tone of voice he reserved for his deepest pronouncements, "do you want to know what my most intense desire in life is?"


"To get drunk every day?"


"Well, that, yes – I suppose it goes without saying – but, putting that noble desire aside, do you know what my real ambition is, I mean at bottom and in fine and ultimately?"


"To put people to sleep? You ought to market yourself, Haberman," said Bubbles. "You could be the new Seconal. Make people pay the big bucks to let you put them to sleep."


"Ha ha, no, but what I should most like in life is to be generally considered – and not just by the best critics, but by hoi polloi –"


"Hoy who?'


"It's Greek for, well, 'the many', that is to say the great churning mass of men."


"And dames too?"


"Yes, dames as well, of course. Where was I?"


"I'm sure I have no idea."


"Oh, I know, I was about to say that what I really and truly want more than anything is to be recognized not just by the literary and academic establishment, but by the common man –"


"And dame."


"Yes, by the common man and dame – recognized as the finest young novelist of my generation."


"Uh-huh."


"I ask you, is that too extravagant of a wish?"


"You don't look that young to me, Dennison."


"Oh, very well, let's say the finest youngish novelist of his generation."


"Depends on what you mean by youngish."


"Let's say finest young novelist under the age of forty."


"I could believe you're forty, even forty-two, maybe."


"Well, I'm not actually, in fact I am only –"


"Hey," said Bubbles, and she put her finger with its red-painted nail against Addison's lips. "I'm fucking with you, boss."


She swiped the finger downward and off of his stubbled chin (shaved only every other day or so, in aid of the thrifty conservation of razor blades).


"Oh. Ha ha," said Addison. "This is why I adore you, Bubbles. Such a devilish sense of humor."


"And you're a boring windbag, Hackerman."


"Yes, so I've been told before, many times, more times than I could possibly count."


"And yet you keep it up, spewing nonsense like a fountain in the park spews water, nonstop, at least until some park ranger guy turns it off after midnight."


"What a splendidly striking and, yes, apt image!"


"See, there you go. "


"Yes, there I went."


"You just don't care, do you?"


"Y'know, Bubbles, I don't think I ever thought about it before, but, yes, hang it all, I suppose I really don't care. I mean, you know, damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead, you may fire when ready, Gridley, because, nuts, and, surrender, hell, I have not yet begun to fight. That sort of thing."


"Finish that bourbon and coke."


Obediently Addison picked up his glass and drank the last of it.


"Ah, delicious. Shall we have another round?"


"No. Take me home now."


"Oh, yes, of course."


"I know my limit, and I passed it over an hour ago."


"I wish I could say the same."


"That you've passed your limit?"


"That I could ever know my limit. You see, for me my limit has always only ever been reached when I run out of money."


"You kill me, Patcherson."


"I hope in a pleasant way."


"Let's go."


"Of course."


"But listen."


"Yes?"


"Don't get your hopes up."


"My hopes are hopelessly up, always, dear Bubbles."


Bubbles climbed down from her stool without falling. 


Addison looked at his money on the bar top, scooped up the bills, but left the coins for the bartender. No matter how impoverished he might be, it was his policy always to leave at minimum a modest token of good will wherever he drank.


He got off his stool, and he swayed briefly but did not fall.


"I must be crazy," said Bubbles. "Even to spend time with an idiot like you."


"Yes, in a sense, I think you must be," said Addison.


At this moment they both turned and gazed across the room at the plate glass window looking out on the lamplit snow still falling thickly outside, and they experienced roughly the same second thoughts, which were that Bubbles lived only a couple of blocks away, but it was snowing, the snow was a foot deep or more on the sidewalks, and they would probably not find a cab, and in here it was warm and dry and cozy, and from deep in the memories of Addison's boyhood reading rose up those poignant last words of Captain Oates during the ill-fated Scott expedition to the South Pole: "I am just going outside and may be some time…" 


"Hey, buddy," said the big older man who had been sitting to the other side of Addison, and he put his hand on Addison's arm.


"Yes, sir," said Addison. 


The man looked familiar, but like whom?


"You take care of this lady," said the big man.


"Um," said Addison.


"She's too good for you."


"I know," said Addison.


"See here, chum, if it's not too presumptuous of me, and if you don't mind staying, I should consider it an honor to buy you both a drink."


"Oh," said Addison, who had never refused a drink in his life, and he wasn't about to start now. He turned to Bubbles. "Darling, this kind gentleman would like to buy us a drink."


Bubbles paused for a moment. 


The combo crashed and wailed, and someone yelled, "Go, daddy, go!" 


Voices laughed and shouted. 


"What the hell," said Bubbles. "I got the rest of my life to sleep."


She climbed back up on her stool.


"I'll take a Hennessy, pops," she said. "VSOP."


"Splendid," said the big man. 


Was it Wallace Stevens? thought Addison. He didn't think much of the man's poetry, but, boy oh boy, what a contact!


He climbed back up on his own stool, beaming with joy.


"What'll it be, pal?" said Wallace Stevens. "You want a Hennessy too?"


It had been at best half a decade since Addison had tasted a brandy other than Christian Brothers or E&J. 


"Why, yes, sir," he said, feeling his sails swell with a fresh full wind, the ship of his self bound boldly now for unknown shores, "I should think a Hennessy would make a delightful nightcap, thank you very much."



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

Thursday, February 15, 2024

“Heaven in a Highball Glass”


In the meantime and just at this moment the fool people called Addison and the lady called Bubbles tumbled together out of the San Remo Café into the night thick with snow swirling down through the light of the corner streetlamp.

“Fucking hell,” said Bubbles, “look at this shit.”


“I adore the snow,” said Addison. “It reminds me of the Norman Rockwell Christmases I never had as a lad myself, and now I daresay, alas, I shall never have them.”


“Hold on just a minute, Patterson,” said Bubbles. 


They were standing wobbling together in the narrow rectangular shelter of the San Remo’s entrance area, and Bubbles put both of her ungloved hands on Addison's narrow shoulders. 


She stared into his oblivious eyes.


“If you want to kiss me I shan’t object,” said Addison.


“Kiss you?”


“Yes. I mean, gee, Bubbles, how many times have we shared each other’s company? I think it’s obvious by now that there is a mutual attraction.”


“Oh, is it obvious?”


“Yes, I should think so,” said Addison, pulling away her wrists with their remarkably strong hands so that he could more comfortably dig out his crumpled pack of Husky Boys. “Cigarette, darling?”


“What? No, I don’t want one of your Husky Boys. You know I smoke Philip Morrises.”


“Sorry. You don’t mind terribly if I light up, do you?”


“Go right ahead, Pattinson, and now there's something I want to ask you.”


“An open book am I,” said Addison, lighting up his Husky Boy with a match from one of the seven complimentary San Remo Café matchbooks he had helped himself to from a bowl on the bar top. "Ask away, ma cherie. I have no secrets, at least none worth keeping."


“What I want to ask you is this," said Bubbles. "How can you be so gay?”


“I beg your pardon, dearest Bubbles. I am not always gay. I too have my dark moments, nay, even dark hours or entire days. Why, not so very long ago, I was so overwhelmed by the misery of my life that I walked out to the middle of the Brooklyn Bridge and prepared myself to jump into the icy cold and oh so unforgiving East River.”


“Why didn’t you?” said Bubbles. She had replaced her left hand on Addison's right shoulder, while with her right hand she toyed with the loosened knot of his necktie, his old Andover "school tie", a stained and threadbare memento of those long ago days of youth when he still thought he might not be an utter failure his entire life.


“Well, you’re not going to believe this,” said Addison, and he took a drag of his Husky Boy. He exhaled the smoke into the snowy cold night air. “It was one of those horrible freezing gusty winter days, when the sky is a cloudless arctic blue, and all the hideousness of the city stands out in high relief.”


“Oh, for Christ’s sake, get to the point,” said Bubbles, tugging hard on his necktie.


“Yes, to the point, well, there I was, standing by the guard rail up at the middle of the bridge, and trying to summon up the courage to throw myself over, when suddenly this little old man appeared by my side.”


“A little man?”


“Yes, a shabby little chap who gave his sobriquet as 'Bowery Bert'. He informed me that he was the guardian angel of the Bowery, and so apparently he felt it incumbent upon his duties as regional guardian angel to have a word with me before I should leap over the rail to my doom.”


“And so this guardian angel talked you out of jumping.”


“In a sense. Because he reminded me of the little things in life I would miss."


"Like what?"


"Like a doughnut dipped into a hot cup of chicory coffee at the diner across the street from my humble abode. Ma's Diner it is called, and I should love to breakfast with you there someday –”


“Oh my fucking God.”


“Anyway, after we chatted for a bit, I gazed out over the river for a moment, and when I turned he had disappeared, and there I was, standing alone over the no longer quite so beckoning East River. But then a most extraordinary thing happened.”


“You walked back to the shore and got loaded?”


“Well, yes, but before that, what was extraordinary was that I suddenly flew off the bridge, but instead of falling I continued to fly, looking down on the river, and to the land to my right and left, and upon all the buildings and automobiles and tiny people, like the people on a toy train set, and I flew all the way out to Long Island Sound, and then, I don’t know why, but I suppose I just didn’t feel like flying out over the ocean just then, so I turned around in a graceful swoop and flew back down the river and back to the middle of the bridge. And then I walked to the shore and to the Bowery and to my local, Bob’s Bowery Bar, and, yes, I admit I got quite drunk, and quite gloriously so.”


“So,” said Bubbles, and she touched the stubble on the side of Addison’s chin. “You’re not only gay, you’re psychotic.”


Addison felt almost as of he could swoon at the touch of her cold fingers on his face. 


“See here, Bubbles,” he said. “My friend Milford gave me a twenty-dollar bill tonight.”


“What did you have to do for it.”


“Nothing, but what he wanted me to do with it was to ask you to give me a throw.”


“I only charge ten, you know that. I ain’t no grifter, except with these rich uptown swells that come down here slumming. But for regular joes I charge ten for a throw.”


“Well, I was going to save ten of the twenty perhaps for some other time.”


“Tell you what I’m gonna do, Patcherson. I’m gonna let you walk me home.”


“Oh, splendid.”


“Maybe we’ll stop over at the Kettle of Fish first, on account of I like the bourbon and cokes they make there.”


“Oh, are they good?”


“I recommend them. They use the coke you get from one of them soda guns, and there's just something about the way the soda gets mixed with the coke syrup, the bartender squirts some of that stuff over some Cream of Kentucky bourbon and ice, and it’s like heaven in a highball glass.”


“I should like to try one!”


“You can buy us a round, since you got that twenty burning a hole in your pocket.”


“Yes, but I really do want to save ten, just for, well, you know.”


“Tell you what, Hatcherson, you behave yourself, maybe you will get a throw tonight.”


“Now that would be heaven.”


“And maybe I won’t even charge you.”


He didn’t say so, but that, that would truly be heaven. A throw, and for free! Leaving him a whole twenty dollars to spend as he pleased!


“So,” said Addison, “shall we toddle on then, into the blizzard?”


“Yeah,” said Bubbles. “Let’s.”


And, putting her arm in his, she pulled him out from the shelter of the entranceway and into the not quite a blizzard, and led him trudging through the thickly fallen snow and around the corner up MacDougal Street, and they and the street looked for all the world like a Norman Rockwell painting for the Saturday Evening Post.


{Please go here to read the unexpurgated "adult comix" version in A Flophouse is Not a Home, profusely illustrated by rhoda penmarq…}