Friday, December 13, 2019

"The Genie"

It didn’t happen often, but Harry Beachcroft was stuck. He had been sitting at his battered old Royal portable all afternoon, and he still hadn’t typed a single word. This is what happened when your rent was a month overdue, when you hadn’t had a story or a novel accepted in three months, this is what happened when you really needed to make a sale!

Harry lighted up another Philip Morris Commander and looked out through the thick smoke of his fifth-floor walk-up out at the grey December rooftops of the Bowery, at the elevated tracks, at the sky that promised snow. How he wished he could be downstairs and just around the corner at Bob’s Bowery Bar, hoisting an imperial pint of Bob’s rich basement-brewed bock, carousing with the rest of the gang of pulp writers, bad poets, four-flushers, punks, and assorted reprobates, but he had promised himself he wouldn’t go down to the bar until he had at least knocked out a first draft of a story or the first chapter of a novel or maybe a novella. Something, goddammit!

Why couldn’t a genie suddenly appear out of this cloud of cigarette smoke and tell him a story fully-formed, so that all Harry would need to do was type it up – and Harry was a fast typist, too!

The hell with it, the thing to do was just to start typing, just bash out the first nonsense that came into his head, and let the devil take the hindmost.

And so Harry typed:

Gary Meeker was blocked, blocked goddammit! He had been sitting here in his Bunker Hill hotel room overlooking the Angel’s Flight railway tracks all this hot August afternoon, trying to find a way into this screenplay he needed to write, and write quick, before he got kicked out of his room and had to shift quarters to Skid Row. Mel Melvin over at Colossal Studios had promised him five hundred bucks for an original script in their Range Riders of the Jungle series if he could turn it in by Monday, but here it was Friday and he had idea zero, zilch, nada, nothing! What he wouldn’t give for an angel to drop down from heaven and give him a story idea – an angel, a genie, a devil, Gary didn’t give a damn.

“Well, here I am,” said a voice, kind of like Peter Lorre’s, and Gary turned, and sitting there yogi-style on the unmade bed was a little guy dressed up like an Arabian. He was smoking a roll-your-own, and if Gary was not mistaken it was a reefer. “You say you need a story, Mr. Meeker? I got a million of them. You ready?”

“Sure, pal,” said Gary. “Fire away. But can you make it about the Range Riders of the Jungle?”

“No problem,” said the little guy.

“Okay, then,” said Gary. He cracked his knuckles, then splayed his fingers over his battered old Olivetti portable. “Go.”

And the genie began to tell his tale.

Illustration by the fabulous rhoda penmarq. Click here to read the fully-illustrated "adult comic book" version in A Flophouse is Not a Home.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

"Hic est enim calix sanguinis mei"

They called him “the whiskey priest”, but strictly speaking this was a misnomer, because Father Frank didn’t care too much what he drank, so long as it had alcohol in it. People also called him a “defrocked priest”, but this was wrong, too; he had never been officially dismissed from the clergy; no, one day he simply walked away from the diocesan “rest home” he had been sent to (for the sixth time), and he never came back, nor did he return to his post at Old St. Pat’s down on Mulberry Street, where he had become infamous for his drunken sermons and for quaffing a whole chaliceful of sacramental wine in one go.

Father Frank now lived in the Parker Hotel, the cheapest flop on the Bowery, and he made his living, such as it was, by begging on street corners, wearing an old army overcoat over his cassock and collecting donations in an ancient tambourine.

“Alms for the poor!” he would call, shaking his tambourine. “Alms for the poor!”

Sometimes, especially if he had been sipping from a bottle, he would get creative and call out: “Alms for the damned! Alms for the wretched and the hopeless and the misbegotten, like myself, yes, like myself!”

It’s true he kept all the donations for himself, but was he not poor after all? Was he not wretched and hopeless and misbegotten?

He had a sideline of sorts, ministering to his fellow bums on the Bowery, dispensing in alleyways the sacred host in the form of Uneeda biscuits, for which he asked in return only a slug or two of Tokay or whatever other libation might be offered. He would also hear confessions, seated on an overturned Andy Boy crate, and always giving a penance of three Hail Marys and three Our Fathers, no matter what the sins, of theft or sloth, of blasphemy or onanism, or even of murder.

When he had the money Father Frank’s favorite stop was Bob’s Bowery Bar, and Bob let no one bother or make fun of him. A single rap on the bar with his Marine Corps ring was the only warning he gave. Bob was not a religious man himself, but in his time in the marines he had seen many mortally wounded men gain some solace in their last gasping breaths thanks to the presence of a chaplain and his murmured prayers.

One night, as he had done innumerable times before, Father Frank slumped forward with his face on his crossed arms on the bar, and as usual, Bob came over and shook his shoulder, saying, “Hey, Father, wake up. This ain’t the Plaza Hotel.”

But this time Father Frank did not wake up. He fell off his stool and down to the sawdust and spittle on the floor, and simultaneously his soul rose up to the gates of God’s great house on a hill.

“Well,” he thought, “I always knew this day of reckoning would come, so let’s get it over with.”

He walked up the winding stone path and finally mounted the steps to the porch, where St. Peter sat at his table with his smoking pipe, his great book open before him. He wore a colorless old canvas jacket, and he looked at Father Frank over his wire-framed glasses.

“No need to go through a great rigamarole, St. Peter,” said Father Frank. “I know I’m guilty, so just point me the way to Hell, and I’ll be on my way.”

“Guilty of what?” said St. Peter.

“Of being a drunk,” said Father Frank. “A hopeless degenerate drunk.”

“Look,” said St. Peter, after a very brief pause, “take this.” He scribbled something on a pad with his quill pen, then tore the sheet off and handed it to Father Frank. “Go in that door there, and hand this over inside.”

Father Frank looked at the piece of paper.

“You mean I’m not going to Hell?”

Again St. Peter took a very brief pause.

“It seems to me,” he said, “as if you’ve already been in Hell for what –” he glanced at the great book before him, “for fifty-three years. Or don’t you agree?”

Father Frank went in the door, handed over the slip of paper to the man there, and a docent led him through many long corridors and cavernous rooms and finally to a bar much like Bob’s Bowery Bar.

“Just sit anywhere you like, Father, table or bar, and a server will be right with you.”

Father Frank found an empty stool at the crowded and smoky bar.

“What can I get you, Father?” said the bartender.

“I’ll take the blood of Christ,” said Father Frank.

“Up or on the rocks, Father?”

(Art by the fabulous Rhoda Penmarq. Kindly click here to read the fully-illustrated version in A Flophouse Is Not a Home.)

Thursday, November 28, 2019

"A Thanksgiving Miracle"

On this cold and grey November afternoon Reggie Wertham sat on an upside down Andy Boy crate in the alleyway next door to Bob’s Bowery Bar, drinking from a quart bottle of Tokay wine. He would much rather have preferred to be sitting and drinking in the warmth of Bob’s establishment, but, alas, he was short of funds, and had only fifty cents in his pocket, which was enough for a cot in the Parker Hotel, the cheapest flop on the Bowery, or, alternatively, the plat du jour at Ma’s Diner, but not both.

The thing to do was to drink the Tokay slowly, to try to savor it and make it last, and not guzzle. But of course Reggie guzzled – he was not a man of great self-control, which was only one the many reasons he was on the bum and had been for ten years.

Suddenly a swell-looking chap in a camel’s hair topcoat tumbled into the alleyway.

“This place taken?”

“Why, no,” said Reggie. “Help yourself, sir.”

The man collapsed against the brick wall and slid down to the cobbles next to Reggie.

“Whatcher name, pal?”

“Reggie,” said Reggie. “What’s your name?”

The man’s chin fell to his chest. He was wearing a nice-looking felt trilby hat, with a blue feather in it.

Suddenly his head popped up again.

“Whatcher name, buddy?”

“Cyrus,” said Reggie.

“Cyrus. The king!” said the man, and his head once again slumped forward.

His shoes were shined, cordovans. His blue socks looked like silk, with tiny black and red clocks.

The head popped up once more.

“Whudjur name, pardner?”

“Jason,” said Reggie.

“Jayzon anna fuggin Argonauts!” said the man, and this time he slumped completely over against the Andy Boy crate.

Reggie shoved the guy’s shoulder.

“Hey, buddy, wake up. This ain’t the Ritz Hotel.”

The man began to snore.

The guy looked like he could spare it, so Reggie got off the box, reached into the camel’s hair, and found the guy’s wallet.


Pay dirt.

Three hundred and forty-three dollars, in fifties, twenties, tens, fives, and singles. Reggie put three singles back in the wallet for carfare, he was not a brute, and he stuck the wallet back into the guy’s flannel trousers. He was just about ready to go, when he figured what the hell, pulled the fellow’s camel’s hair coat off, and tucked his own ragged old gabardine around the guy. For good measure he took the man’s hat, and replaced it with his own foul old woolen watch cap. He left the swell his nice suit and shirt, his shoes and socks, but he took his neck tie, which was silk, with a red and grey regimental pattern.

A brief cab ride later Reggie presented himself at the front desk of the venerable Hotel St. Crispian.

“I should like a room, with a view,  and I shall pay in advance for one week.”

“Of course, sir,” said Mr. Bernstein, who was used to bearded but well-off eccentrics. For all he knew this not very fresh-smelling fellow was a Nobel laureate, a famous professor, author, or sculptor.

“Would you like me to reserve you a table for dinner, sir? I ask because we still have a table available for the eight o’clock seating.”

“Are you always so busy for dinner here?”

“Ha ha, I wish we were, but, you know, it’s Thanksgiving, and we always fill up for our famous ‘Turkey ‘n’ Trimmings’ table d’hôte.”

Today was Thanksgiving? Reggie had had no idea! After all, a holiday was just another day on the Bowery.

“Yes, by all means,” said Reggie, “a table for one for the eight o’clock seating, please.”

At last, a Thanksgiving with something to be thankful for. In another week he would doubtless be back on the Bowery, but that was the future, and the future was for squares.

(Artwork by the talented rhoda penmarq. Kindly click here to read the fully-illustrated version in A Flophouse Is Not a Home.)

Sunday, November 24, 2019

"Ten Pages a Day"

Harry Beachcroft had one rule, which was to knock out ten pages a day, no matter how hungover he was. He gave himself one day a week off, Sunday, which meant he could really tie one on Saturday night at his favorite stop, Bob’s Bowery Bar, conveniently located just around the corner from his fifth-floor walk-up at Bleecker and the Bowery.

Today was Monday, a grey November Monday in the year of our Lord 1950. Harry rose at noon as usual, and went down to Ma’s Diner across the street for his usual breakfast, scrambled eggs, scrapple, hash browns, burnt toast, and lashings of black coffee while he read the Times. You never knew, you could get a good story idea from the Times. He left his usual fifty-cent tip, then crossed the street again and went back up to his one-room flat and his battered old second-hand Royal portable.

Harry rolled a blank sheet of paper into the machine and lighted up a Philip Morris Commander. At present he had at least a dozen stories out circulating at the pulps, and three novels (a western, a detective, an exotic oriental adventure) making the rounds of the paperback publishers. He’d finished up his most recent novel on Saturday, so now it was time to start a new “project”. 

What would it be, a short story, a novel, maybe a serializable novella? As usual, he had no idea. But something always came to him, something clicked in his brain once he’d rolled that blank sheet into the machine and lighted up that first Philip Morris.

Harry started typing:

Barry Beecham had one rule, and he stuck to it. Ten pages a day, no matter what. Rain or shine, horribly hungover or just normally hungover, he always ground out ten full pages before he let himself call it quits for the day and went around the corner to Big Bill’s Bar and that first gloriously satisfying mug of bock.

Barry picked up a fresh sheet of typing paper and rolled it into his old Remington standard, a gift from his father on his matriculation at Yale.

Barry had just finished a story the day before, so it was time to start a new one. What would this one be? A science fiction yarn? An African jungle adventure? Maybe a war story – they were always fun to write, even if Barry had been 4-F (chronic bunions) himself. Whatever, something would come, who knew, maybe a new novel? He had made a cool three hundred bucks from his last one, Range Riders of the Open Steppes, about a band of cowboys in Czarist Russia, pulling off “one last caper” – robbing the fabled Orient Express!

Barry lighted up a Camel, and started typing:

Larry McGarry had one steadfast rule. Ten pages a day. Come hell or high water, that was his quota, ten pages, and he never let himself go across the road to Phil’s Roadhouse for that first cold “English style” ale until he had finished those ten pages…

(Illustration by rhoda penmarq. Click here to read the more lavishly-illustrated version in A Flophouse Is Not a Home.)