Wednesday, May 29, 2019

"Wild Times"

It had been another good day for Gerry “the Brain” Goldsmith; after less than a month of work on assembling his book of philosophical reflections (his latest title: God is Only Dog Spelled Backwards), today he had not only finished his third page, but got a start on the fourth. He left the sheet of paper in his old Royal portable (all ready and waiting for tomorrow’s assault on immortality), pulled on his threadbare chesterfield and left his little room on the sixth floor of his Bowery tenement.

On the third floor landing he came upon his landlady, young Mrs. Morgenstern, who appeared to be prizing up a wad of chewing or bubble gum from the floor with a butter knife.

“And a good day to you, Mrs. Morgenstern.”

“Good day to you, Mr. Goldsmith. How’s the great book comin’?”

“Oh, swimmingly, swimmingly – I started the fourth page today!”

“Fourth page already! By this rate it should be done in another ten years, no?”

“Perhaps, Mrs. Morgenstern, perhaps!”

Gerry continued on down the stairs.

Ah, Mrs. Morgenstern! Would only that he were twenty years younger, or even ten years! Five years? No, that was stretching it…

He went out into the biting but bracing cold and around the corner into the smoky and comforting warmth of Bob’s Bowery Bar.

The after-work crowd was all there, even though most of this crowd didn’t work.

Gerry found an empty stool between Hector Philips Stone (the doomed young romantic poet) on his left, and that strange little guy Billy Baskins, on his right.

Gerry had worked hard today, and now he was due his reward, a fine brimming mug of Bob’s basement-brewed bock.

He had enjoyed that first soul-satisfying deep swallow when suddenly Hector spoke, out of nowhere:

“What was it like in Paris, in the Twenties?”

Paris, in the Twenties.

Two years spent idling in cafés, wandering the streets, going to movies, sleeping the greater part of each day away.

Yes, it had been a good time, or as good as time got.

As good a time as any time of Gerry’s had got.

“It was pretty great, Hector,” he said, and he remembered with fond amusement the one time he had tried to visit the Louvre, only to find the place was en grève, on strike, and he never did manage to make it back there again. It was hard to get to museums when one slept until two or three in the afternoon every day, and it was so much nicer to wake oneself up in a civilized fashion, sitting at a table drinking café au lait, reading an abandoned French movie magazine and watching the girls walk by.

“Did you ever meet Hemingway, or Picasso, or Gertrude Stein?”

Once Gerry had seen Hemingway, he was pretty sure it had been Hemingway, at Shakespeare and Company. Another time he had definitely spotted Picasso at the Dôme. And another time he had stood next to Gertrude Stein when she was buying some apples from a stand.

“Well, you know, Hector,” Gerry prevaricated, “one couldn’t help but run into all sorts of people in those days, in Paris.”

“I guess those were pretty wild times,” said Hector.

Wild times? Was sleeping into the afternoon, sitting in cafés, walking idly around and going to movies what one could reasonably call wild times? No, but why disappoint the young fellow?

“Oh, yes, wild times, Hector, wild times.”

Wild Times, and Other Tales of Bohemia, by Horace P. Sternwall, a Kozy Book “paperback original, 1935; out of print.

Monday, May 27, 2019

"A Christmas Miracle"

It was the first Christmas card Gerry “the Brain” Goldsmith had received since his college days, and it was from his younger brother Alistair, whom he hadn’t heard from in at least twenty years.

Inside the card was written:

“Dear Gerry, I know it’s been a long time but I thought perhaps we could have a drink next week. Could you meet me at the bar at the Plaza on Friday, say, 4pm? Please reply by return post if this is convenient for you. As ever, Al.”

As ever? As far as Gerry knew, Alistair had never liked Gerry. What could this be about? But who was Gerry to be churlish? He had never sent a Christmas card in his life, but he immediately went out to the drug store and bought one, then went to the post office, bought one stamp, and sent it off to Alistair, with a note saying he would be delighted to meet him at the Plaza the following Friday, which happened to be Christmas Eve.

Gerry deliberately arrived fifteen minutes late, because he knew the drinks at the Plaza would be expensive, and he didn’t want to get stuck having to pay for one himself.

Sure enough, there was Alistair. He looked fat, and worried.

“Hi, old buddy,” said Gerry.

“Well, hello there, stranger!” said Alistair, brimming with false bonhomie.

The next half hour soared with tedium.

Alistair had three kids, they were all doing well, one was already at Harvard, carrying on the family tradition. His wife was doing well. His business was doing well. Gerry wanted to scream with boredom. How was it he could happily spend hours at Bob’s Bowery Bar with the bums and degenerates and not be bored, and yet here he was with his own flesh and blood, and all he wanted to do was escape?

Finally Alistair got to the point.

“Anyway, Gerry, I guess you’re wondering why I got in touch after all this time.”

“I must say I was surprised.”

“It’s about Aunt Edna.”

“Aunt Edna? What about her?”

“Well, I mean, about her passing away, and her will.”

“Oh, yes, very sad, but she lived a long life, what was she, eighty something?”

“Yeah, in her eighties. But, look, I heard about what she left you.”

“Oh, really? Well, I must say I was pleasantly surprised she left me anything.”

“A thousand dollars isn’t much, Gerry.”

“To me it’s a lot. You see, it’s allowed me to get my old typewriter out of hock, and so now I can finally finish my book.”

“Your book. Wasn’t that supposed to be a book of philosophy or something?”

“Yes, a book of philosophical reflections. My latest title is Raindrops on a Leaky Roof.

“Ha ha, clever. So you’re not disappointed?”

“Disappointed? What about?”

“That she only left you a grand.”

“No. Why should I be disappointed? I’ve never had anywhere close to a thousand dollars in my life.”

“Oh, that’s swell, Gerry. I’m glad to hear that.”

And finally Gerry understood. Aunt Edna must have left Alistair a packet, because he worked, because he had a family and was an upright citizen, because he was everything that Gerry decidedly was not, and Alistair was afraid Gerry might make a stink and try to get some more money.

Gerry had never liked Alistair, and he didn’t like him any more now, but when Alistair took an envelope out of his pocket and slid it over to him on the bar top, Gerry took it. He was no one to look a gift horse in the mouth.

“Just a little Christmas present,” said Alistair. “Well, look, I have a train to catch, so have a good holiday, Gerry, and let me know if your book ever comes out.”

Gerry didn’t even open the envelope until he had settled onto his usual stool at Bob’s Bowery Bar. There were five twenties in it. He took one out and put the rest away.

Christmas Eve or not, the bar was filled with all the usual gang. To Gerry’s immediate left sat Hector Philips Stone, the doomed young romantic poet, staring into an empty glass.

“May I buy you a beverage, Hector?”

“Of course you may, Brain,” said Hector. “But I shall not be able to reciprocate.”

“Your lugubrious presence is all the reciprocation I should want,” said Gerry “the Brain” Goldsmith, and he signaled to Bob. “Bob, two bocks, please, and take it out of here.”

Bob didn’t see too many twenty-dollar bills in here, and he held it up to the overhead light.

“I hope it’s not counterfeit,” said Gerry. “It was a Christmas present.”

A Christmas Miracle, and Other Tales, by Horace P. Sternwall, a Pinnacle Books “paperback original”, 1955; out of print.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

"Café Express"

“Everybody has a point in his life when he begins to live more in the past than he does in the present, and once that point is reached it’s all downhill to the grave.”

Today was the second day of Gerry “the Brain” Goldsmith’s “typing up” of his book of philosophical reflections, and the above sentence was the second in the first marble composition book of the dozens he had filled over the past twenty-six years.

The sentence, written when Gerry was still but a beamish lad of twenty-two, gave him pause. How had he attained such wisdom at such a tender age?

He remembered the time and the circumstances well: his second year as a committed flâneur in Paris, living comfortably off his fifty-dollar-a-month remittance, residing in a cheap hotel on the rue Claude Bernard, sleeping until mid-afternoon every day, spending his time sitting in cafés, walking aimlessly, and going to movies, until that one windy and cold winter’s day at the Café de Flore when he had finally begun “to write”. He wrote one sentence that first afternoon, and then, deliciously exhausted, he took a stroll by the Seine, and then popped into a movie theatre to see the new Garbo. Then a few glasses of bock at the Dome, a croque-monsieur, a chat with some French students, most of which went over his head, but he pretended to understand anyway. A couple of more bocks and then back to the rue Claude Bernard and to bed.

The next day he brought his copybook with him to the Flore again, and sure enough, he came up with this second of his philosophical reflections:

“Everybody has a point in his life when he begins to live more in the past than he does in the present, and once that point is reached it’s all downhill to the grave.”

He remembered being so struck by the profundity of the thought that he felt his work for that day was done, and he closed up his notebook and ordered another café express. All of life beckoned to him, and, being only twenty-two, he still lived in the present.

Gerry typed up the sentence, changing not a word.

He gazed out of his grimy window at the snow-covered rooftops of the Bowery, at the chimney pots breathing smoke up into the ashy grey sky. The elevated train came roaring by from uptown, filled with people who had jobs, going to their homes, and Gerry thanked God, if there was a God (and this was a question he intended to grapple with at the appropriate time, or times, in his book) that he had no job and had never had a job; he closed his eyes in a sort of ecstasy, and when he opened them he was twenty-two years of age, going on twenty-three, sitting at his favorite table in the Café de Flore, looking out the window at a grey wintry afternoon on the Boulevard St. Germain. He was young again, or still. The life of the forty-eight-year-old failure of a remittance man had all been a long and not even very vivid dream, and now real life in all its glory and possibility lay spread out before him!

Gerry ordered another café express, and he re-opened his composition book with its black-and-white marbled cover. He licked the tip of his #2 pencil. He felt another brilliant thought coming on, and he had only to allow it to emerge.

Café Express, and Other Tales of the Bowery, by Horace P. Sternwall, an Ace Books “paperback original”, 1955; out of print.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

"Confucius Says"

“Confucius says that he who speaks unceasingly of himself is the most tedious of men.”

Gerry “the Brain” Goldsmith had opened the very first of the dozens of schoolboy composition books he had filled over the years with the raw materials of his “book of philosophical reflections”, and this was the very first sentence he had written. He had not dated the entry, but he remembered the day well. He had brought several of the black-and-white marble copybooks with him when he went to Paris to learn how to be a writer of some sort after his graduation from Harvard in 1927, and after a year-and-a-half of lounging in cafés, one blustery cold winter’s day at the Café de Flore he opened this very copybook, licked the point of his pencil and wrote that first sentence.

And it was brilliant! No need to revise or rewrite it at all.

So today was the day when he would finally begin to type up his magnum opus. If even half the sentences in all those piles of copybooks were even half so brilliant, his work would not be so hard at all – after all, had he not been working, in his way, all these past, what, twenty-six years or so, (mathematics was not his strong point)? After all, even on those days when he had only written one sentence, that was work, of a sort. In fact, even on the many days when he wrote no sentences, that was work also, because some days it was best to let the brain lie fallow, to let life flow through one’s soul and brain, and when an aperçu was ready, well, then as likely as not it would rise up from the depths, fully-formed, just as the Confucius sentence had done.

In fact Gerry had never read Confucius, and he had made up the sentence from whole cloth, but the false attribution was part and parcel of the beauty of the sentence, for by ascribing this morsel of wisdom to the ancient Chinese philosopher, the young Gerry was living that wisdom, by effacing his own authorship of the thought. Brilliant!

Gerry had set up his old Royal portable (rescued, at long last, thanks to his late Aunt Edna’s unexpected bequest of an incredible one thousand dollars, from Iggy’s Pawn Shop, where it had languished on the shelf these past twenty years) on his little table in front of his window that looked out on the Bowery and the El tracks. He had inserted a new ribbon and a fresh sheet of paper. Now it was time to begin.

In the upper right corner  of the sheet he typed the number “1”, and he was all set to type up the Confucius sentence when he remembered that he needed to type in the title of his book.

But what was the title? He had come up with so many titles over the years. Droppings from a Broken Sky. Hello from Hell. Zero Is Not a Number. The Song of the Mute Man. Don’t Say You Kant When You Can…

He was seriously thinking of going back to Pensées for a Rainy Day, but he wasn’t quite sure, and so he decided, for the nonce, to leave the space for the title blank, and instead went right to the byline:

by Gerard Goldsmith

Nobody called Gerry “Gerard”. In fact nobody called Gerry “Gerry”. His landlady, nice young Mrs. Morgenstern, called him Mr. Goldsmith, but all the gang at Bob’s Bowery Bar always called him "Brain'. But you couldn’t write a book of philosophical reflections and sign it “Gerry Goldsmith”, nor could you sign it “Mr. Goldsmith”, or, God forbid, “the Brain”. His middle name was Llewellyn, but, no, “Gerard Llewellyn Goldsmith” sounded far too pretentious, so “Gerard Goldsmith” it would have to be.

Now what? Should he write an introduction, or an author’s preface? No, that was boring, no one ever read that stuff, or at least Gerry never did.

What about a chapter heading, or a chapter title? Again, no. Who said a book needed chapters? Looking back over all these years of filling up all these marble composition books with his thoughts, weren’t all these words really one very long chapter, like the very long chapter of a man’s life?

No, better just to dive right in, and so, copying from the old and water-damaged composition book laid open at his left elbow, he typed out that first sentence, rather surprisingly making not a single error:

“Confucius says that he who speaks unceasingly of himself is the most tedious of men.”

Brilliant. Really brilliant. A good start.

Gerry realized he was hungry. What time was it? He had no idea. He had long ago pawned his old Wittnauer pocket watch, as well as his alarm clock, but it must be going on well into the late afternoon at least, and he hadn’t had a thing to eat yet today. In fact, all he had eaten for the past week had been day-old pumpernickel, butter, and eggs that he boiled himself on his little hot plate, and with no bock beer at all.

Today was two-for-one hot dog day down at Bob’s Bowery Bar, and so Gerry decided that he had done a good day’s work, and now it was time for some food and refreshment.

Outside his grimy window, snow began to fall out of the grey sky onto the Bowery and over the El tracks, over the rooftops and the smoking chimney pots and the dirty brown buildings, the first snow of the winter, and soon the ugliness and despair of these streets would be made beautiful, for those like Gerry who could see the beauty.

He left the sheet of paper in the typewriter, all ready for tomorrow’s work, and he put on his threadbare old chesterfield coat and went out and down the six flights of stairs and then around the corner to Bob’s. 

One thing he was sure of, he wasn’t going to tell any of the guys and gals at Bob’s about Aunt Edna’s bequest. He may be a philosopher, but Gerry was no idiot!

Confucius Says, and Other Tales, by Horace P. Sternwall, a Pinnacle Books paperback original, 1955; out of print.

Monday, May 20, 2019

"Her Small Bit"

Normally it was a bit of a struggle for Gerry “the Brain” Goldsmith to climb the stairs to his tiny efficiency apartment on the sixth floor, but today he all but floated up those stairs. On the fifth floor he met his landlady, young Mrs. Morgenstern, working her broom down the stairs. The building was old, and shabby, but the hallways and staircases were kept scrupulously clean, and his rent was only fifteen dollars a month.

“Good afternoon, Mrs. Morgenstern. What a fine day it is!”

“It’s freezing out there.”

“Ah, yes, but it’s a bracing cold.”

“I don’t know what that means, Mr. Goldsmith. You know I don’t speak English good.”

“I mean it’s the sort of cold that makes you feel alive!”

“Oh, okay, I get it. As long as you don’t freeze to death.”

“Ha ha, yes.”

“What’s all that you got there, Mr. Goldsmith.”

“This, my good lady, is my old Royal portable typewriter, which I have at long last redeemed from the pawnbroker. In this paper sack is a ream of twenty-pound typing paper, and with it in there are two typewriter ribbons.”

“Let me guess, this means you’re finally gonna finish your book?”

“It means, Mrs. Morgenstern, that the light at the end of the tunnel is now ever so slightly visible.”


“I mean, yes, now I am about to start the final stage of preparing my book for publication.”

“Good for you, Mr. Goldsmith.”

“Oh, yes, I am very happy, Mrs. Morgenstern.”

“You don’t mind my asking, how’d you finally get the money to get your typewriter out of hock?”

Gerry was on the very verge of telling her about his Aunt Edna’s surprise bequest of a thousand dollars, but then he remembered that his rent was by far the cheapest in the building, even if his apartment was literally an expanded and renovated storage closet.

“Some three months ago,” Gerry lied glibly, “I resolved to try to save twenty-five cents a day, which feat I accomplished by forgoing one bock beer each day. And now – voilà!”

“Well, that’s swell, Mr. Goldsmith. I wish you the best of luck with your book.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Morgenstern.”

And off the chubby fellow in the threadbare chesterfield coat went up to the sixth floor.

Poor Mr. Goldsmith, thought Mrs. Morgenstern, sweeping the dust and cigarette butts and gum wrappers down the stairs. She didn’t believe for one second that cock and bull story about saving a quarter a day, but she didn’t blame Mr. Goldsmith for fibbing. However he had got that money, hook or crook, at least he had spent it on a typewriter and paper and typewriter ribbons, and not on whiskey like some of the tenants in this building would have done without a second thought.

Her husband Jake said they were giving that little efficiency away for fifteen bucks a month, and after Jake himself had knocked down a wall and put a Murphy bed and a toilet and shower in it, and a sink with hot and cold water, but who else were they gonna get to take it even for thirty or forty a month who would be so nice and polite like Mr. Goldsmith?

And, who knew, maybe he would finish his book, and it would get published, and he’d make a lot of dough from it. Then maybe she would raise the rent on him. Maybe bring it up to twenty a month. Or maybe not. At least Mr. Goldsmith said good afternoon when he passed you on the stairs, unlike some of the bums she could name in this building.

And even if Mr. Goldsmith never finished his book, where else was he gonna go? Some flop house? An educated, polite man like him, even if he did drink? 

No, Mr. Goldsmith could stay on, at fifteen a month. What with two kids and the headaches of running this building, Mrs. Morgenstern didn’t have the time to read much herself except for the movie magazines that Pat and Carlotta on the second floor would give her when they were done with them, but somebody had to write the books in the world, and by giving Mr. Goldsmith a cheap rent Mrs. Morgenstern would be doing her bit, her small bit.

Her Small Bit, and Other Tales of the Working Folk, by Horace P. Sternwall, a Pyramid Books paperback original, 1955; out of print.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

"Kant Is Just a Four-Letter Word"

The first of the month, and so as usual Gerry Goldsmith (known as “the Brain” to all the other regulars at Bob’s Bowery Bar) arrived at the offices of Goldstein, Goldberg, and Gold bright and early to pick up his allotment of fifty dollars. Bright and early for the Brain was not what it was for the rest of the world, and so the time was 11:45 am.

He went right over to Gladys’s desk at reception. Gladys always had his money for him, in fives and singles, in a plain envelope.

“And good morning to you, Gladys. How’s the family?”

“A continuing heartache, Mr. Goldsmith, but what are you going to do?”

“What can one do but soldier on?”

She handed him the envelope and Gerry put it away in the inner pocket of his old tweed suit, worn under his even older camel’s hair chesterfield, with its velvet collar which had been royal purple once but was now a faded ashy blue.

“Mr. Goldstein asked me to ask you to see him in his office when you came in.”

“Oh dear. Did he say why?”

“Nope. Just asked me to ask you to see him when you came in. You can go right in, Mr. Goldsmith.”

Gerry’s heart seemed to fall two inches beneath the flab of his his chest. Had his annuity run out, or been canceled in some way? Did his grandmother not leave enough of the ready in her will to last beyond these twenty-seven years during which these monthly payments of fifty dollars had been his sole source of income?

Like a condemned man, Gerry opened the well-worn waist-high wooden gate, went through the reception area and down the hall to Mr. Goldstein’s office. He had only spoken with Mr. Goldstein perhaps a dozen times in all these years.

The door was open, and there was old Mr. Goldstein sitting at his cluttered desk.

Gerry stood in the doorway.

“Mr. Goldstein?”

“Ah, Mr. Goldsmith. Please come in, and take a seat, sir.”

On legs of rubber Gerry staggered over and took a seat in one of the two ancient arm chairs in front of the desk.

“Please don’t spare me, Mr. Goldstein. Just give it to me straight. If my remittances are to be ended with the new year I’ll just have to find paying work of some sort. Perhaps I could be a night watchman? Or, I don’t know, if you might have an opening for a minor clerical position here, or even a messenger’s job, I am quite familiar with the city’s public transformation system. The Goldsmiths have always been an enterprising clan, and maybe it’s best that I start to make my own way in the world.”

“Relax, Mr. Goldsmith. Your monthly remittances will remain the same, fifty dollars a month, probably up until the day you die, which let us hope will not be for many years. It’s about your late Aunt Edna.”

Aunt Edna. Gerry’s mother’s sister, whom he hadn’t seen since he graduated from Harvard. He had belatedly gotten word of her demise last year, but of course his circumstances had made it impossible for him to attend the obsequies all the way down in Florida.

“It seems the lady remembered you in her will, Mr. Goldsmith.”

“She what?”

“She remembered you. To the tune of one thousand dollars.”

If before Gerry’s heart had descended two inches, now it seemed to rise four inches. His mouth opened, but no words escaped.

A thousand dollars.

It was December the first, 1954, he was forty-eight years of age, and tears came to Gerry’s eyes.

“Would you like a glass of water, Mr. Goldsmith?”

“What? No, no, it’s quite all right, but tell me, do I get it all at once, or what?”

“If you like we could give you a check right now.”

“But I don’t have a bank account,” said Gerry, in a mild panic. “I’ve never had a bank account!”

“Again I say, ‘Relax, Mr. Goldsmith.’ With the check it would be easy as pie to start up a bank account, and within a few days you could start withdrawing cash whenever you like.”

“Oh, but that all sounds so complicated. Couldn’t you keep the money for me, and I could just come in and get some of it now and then?”

“Certainly, Mr. Goldsmith. If you like we could even put the money in savings bonds for you, and you could make a little interest on it.”

“I don’t understand these things. I don’t even know what a savings bond is, but I like the idea of earning interest, so, sure.”

“Leave it to us, Mr. Goldsmith. You would just have to let us know how much money you would like us to keep available for you at any given time.”

“How about if you kept, say, fifty dollars available for me?”

“You’ve become used to the sum of fifty dollars.”

“Yes, I suppose I have.”

“We could do that, Mr. Goldsmith. Any time you should need some cash, just drop by the office, and we’ll make sure always to have at least fifty dollars in the kitty for you.”

“Oh, that would be splendid. I wonder, could I have a little of it now?”

“We always have a small sum in the petty cash box, Mr. Goldsmith. How much would you like?”

“I need twelve ninety-nine.”

“Twelve ninety-nine?”

“Yes, to get my typewriter out of hock.”

“I see. You’re writing a book, aren’t you?”

“Yes, a book of philosophical reflections, and now I can finally get my typewriter out of the pawn shop and start typing it up, so all I need is twelve ninety-nine.”

“You’ll need some typewriter paper. And you should probably invest in an extra typewriter ribbon or two.”

“I hadn’t thought of that. Yes. Do you think I should take out fifteen dollars?”

“Why not make it an even twenty?”

“Sure, twenty it is then. Thank you, Mr. Goldstein.”

“You’re quite welcome, Mr. Goldsmith. And please keep me apprised on the progress of your book.”

“Oh, I will!”

“Do you have a title for it yet?”

“Y’know, Mr. Goldstein, I’ve gone through many titles for it over the years, but just on the way over here I had the idea to call it Kant Is Just a Four-Letter Word.”

“Ha ha. Delightful, Mr. Goldsmith.”

Mr. Goldstein gave Gerry a chit for the twenty dollars, Gerry thanked him again, profusely, and glided from the office with the paper in his hand to give to Gladys out at the front desk.

Mr. Goldstein sighed.

Who knew, perhaps this strange fellow Gerard Goldsmith was the next Kant?

Kant is Just a Four-Letter Word, and Other Fables of Our Time, by Horace P. Sternwall, an Ace Books paperback original, 1955; out of print.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

"The Quarter"

The Brain always introduced himself as “Gerard Goldsmith, but please call me ‘Gerry’; Gerry with a ‘g’.” But pretty soon everybody wound up just calling him “Brain” if they were addressing him directly, or referring to him as “the Brain” on those rare occasions when someone was talking about him.

At the age of twenty-one, upon his graduation from Harvard, Gerry had come into an annuity from his deceased grandmother, which was doled out, in accordance with that good lady’s last will and testament, in monthly payments of fifty dollars. She had hoped that this income would ease young Gerry’s passage through life, but yet not shield him from the need to earn a good living. The lady had underestimated Gerry’s laziness, however, and he had never worked a day in his life. This fifty a month had seemed a goodly sum when Gerry first began receiving it back in 1927, and indeed he had spent a couple of years living fairly comfortably in Paris, where, if he had never met Ernest Hemingway, or James Joyce, or Picasso, he had met people who had met people who had known or claimed to know Hemingway or Joyce or Picasso.

The fifty a month however went not nearly so far in the year of our story, which is 1954, and Gerry now lived in a tiny efficiency apartment on the sixth floor of a tenement on the corner of Bleecker and the Bowery, and he wore the same three-piece tweed Brooks Brothers suit he had been wearing since 1931. Gerry had put on a bit of weight over the years, and the suit had been “let out” several times over the decades until it could be let out no more, and so Gerry left the top button of his trousers unbuttoned, left the waistcoat completely unbuttoned, and only (and just barely) fastened the middle button of the coat, but he didn’t fool anyone, and his fat bulged at the side and the stomach and the rear, but still Gerry wouldn’t buy a new suit, because new suits cost money, even used Goodwill suits cost money, and Gerry would much rather spend his money on bock beer.

Whenever anyone asked Gerry what he “did”, he would say, “I’m writing a book.”

He would then wait, hoping that his interlocutor would ask what his book was about. If they didn’t ask, which was usually the case, he would finally break down and add:

“A book of philosophical reflections.”

If anyone asked him the book’s title, although practically no one ever did, he would reply, depending on the day or the year or his mood, with: 

The Philosophy of a Fool.

Aphorisms of an Ass.

Thoughts Cast Into the Wind.

Against Kant: or, a Critique of the Critique of Pure Reason.

Lucubrations of a Loon.

Lately he had been calling his book Pensées for a Rainy Day.

Some people thought that the Brain was a fraud, that he wasn’t really writing a book, but they were wrong.

If anyone had been invited up to the Brain’s little room (no one had ever been invited) they would have found stacks upon stacks of those children's’ copybooks with the black-and-white marbled covers, and these copybooks were indeed filled with aphorisms, observations, and rhetorical questions. Someday Gerry Goldsmith (familiarly known as “the Brain”) would begin the tedious but necessary work of amassing all these notes into a book that he could submit to a publisher. But in order to do this he knew he needed a typewriter, and in fact he once had owned a portable Royal typewriter, but he had hocked it during that cold winter of 1934. Every once in a while he would wander into Iggy’s Pawn Shop on Mulberry and check to see if the machine was still on the shelves, and it was always there. Not to waste the trip, sometimes Gerry would pawn some little item: his last pair of cufflinks; his tennis racket from his days on the Harvard team; his last remaining golf club, a MacGregor driver; his Andover class ring, an only slightly moth-eaten cashmere scarf.

Sometimes the Brain would muse that if only he abstained from bock beer for just a couple of weeks or so he could get the old Royal out of hock and set to work on whipping his manuscript into shape, and then it would just be a matter of lugging it over to a reputable publisher.

But two weeks without bock? Even one week?

No, that was asking too much.

And so he continued living as he always lived, going back and forth from Bob’s Bowery Bar (conveniently located in the building next door to the tenement in which Gerry lived) to his little room, and occasionally jotting down a thought with a #2 pencil in a schoolboy copybook.

But Gerry did not despair, because he knew that someday he would find a ten-dollar bill on the pavement, or perhaps on the sawdust-strewn floor of Bob’s Bowery Bar. And once he had that ten-dollar bill it would only be a matter of a month’s modest economizing (perhaps making do one day a week with only cornflakes for breakfast instead of his customary scrapple, eggs, home fries and fried tomatoes) to raise the further two dollars and ninety-nine cents he would need to get his typewriter out of hock.

And so it was on this cold November morning as Gerry staggered around the corner to Bob’s for his eye-opener shot of whiskey and hearty breakfast he saw a quarter lying in full view on the pavement. Without shame he bent over and picked it up.

A quarter. A long way from the $12.99 he needed to redeem his typewriter, but it was a start. If he could only save another quarter every day he would have a sufficiency to reclaim his typewriter in, what, fifty-two days? Let’s round it out to sixty. Two months. Let’s say three months. A mere moment of time in the great scheme of things. He pocketed the quarter and went into Bob’s.

After his usual shot of “Chinese whiskey” (his jocular name for Schenley’s blended American whiskey) and his scrapple, eggs, home fries and breaded-and-fried tomatoes, washed down by two mugs of Bob’s excellent basement-brewed house bock, he was all set to go back upstairs and take his usual leaden nap when he remembered the quarter he had found, which just happened to be the price of a mug of Bob’s house bock.

Gerry fished out the quarter and laid it on the counter.

“I think I’ll just have one more mug of your fine bock beer, Bob,” he said. 

Tomorrow was another day, and he would start saving then.

The Quarter, and Other Stories, by Horace P. Sternwall, Ace Books, 1955; out of print.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

"The Music of the Spheres"

“Never trust anyone who acts a little too enthusiastically as if they’re actually interested in what you have to say,” said Gerry Goldsmith, commonly known as "the Brain". “It means they want something from you. It might be a favor, or a loan, or a drink, or perhaps they want you to be their friend. Never trust someone who wants you to be their friend. This means they want to suck the life out of your soul, leaving you a mere empty husk. Or perhaps you disagree, Hector. I say, ‘Perhaps you disagree, Hector.’”

“What?” said Hector Philips Stone, the doomed romantic poet.

“I said perhaps you disagree.”

“About what?”

“About what I just said,” said the Brain.

“I neither agree not disagree,” said Hector, “because I wasn’t listening.”

“Listening to the music of the spheres?”

“No, wondering where my next meal is coming from.”

“And yet you found the quarter to buy yourself a bock beer.”

“If it’s a choice between a bock and a hot dog with my last quarter, the bock will win,” said Hector.

The Brain raised a finger to attract the attention of Bob, the eponymous proprietor of Bob’s Bowery Bar.

“I say, Bob,” said the Brain, “I should like to order another bock for myself, and one for my friend Hector. And two hot dogs, please, one for me and one for Hector. I prefer sauerkraut with my hot dog, Hector, on account of the nutrition. Would you like yours the same?”

“Sure, thanks, Brain.”

“Thank you, Hector.”

“What for?”

“For not pretending to listen to me. You see, by the very fact of your indifference to my blather, you proved that you wanted nothing from me. A lesser man would have feigned interest in my pathetic lucubrations, especially a broke and hungry man angling for a free beer and perhaps a hot dog. But not you, my young friend, no, you sat stoically staring into the dregs of your bock, not even pretending to care about a word I said. Hector? I say, Hector.”

Hector wasn’t listening. The Brain’s words were as a distant buzzing, no more meaningful than the buzzing of a fly. But the prospect of another bock was good, as was that of a hot dog, with sauerkraut, and with that homemade hot mustard they had here at Bob’s.

The fresh bocks and the hot dogs arrived, and Hector drank his bock and ate his hot dog. 

The Brain continued to talk, and Hector continued not to listen.

Scaramanga the leftist poet came in and sat next to Hector.

Scaramanga had just sold a poem to the Daily Worker for five dollars, and so he bought a round of bocks for himself and Hector and the Brain.

The Brain and Scaramanga talked over Hector, who sat between them, and now Hector listened to neither of them.

Eventually another hot dog appeared in front of Hector, and another bock. He had started the evening considering suicide again, but that could wait for some other night.

The Music of the Spheres, and Other Tales of Bob’s Bowery Bar, by Horace P. Sternwall, Ace Books, 1954; out of print.

Thursday, May 9, 2019


Mr. Kaplan and Mr. Cohen (for such were their earthling names, chosen at random from an old New York City telephone directory) studied the hand-pod in Mr. Kaplan’s palm as they sat together on the 21 bus.

“Okay,” said Mr. Kaplan. “Look how strong the signal is now. I think we should get out here.”

They descended from the bus at the corner of Houston and the Bowery.

Both were well-dressed gentleman, of medium height and build, wearing new and well-cut suits that were at least thirty years out of date.

“It’s cold,” said Mr. Cohen. “We should have been given overcoats, or at least topcoats.”

“We’ll stop into the haberdashery of the Brooks Brothers later,” said Mr. Kaplan. “After we find Burgoyne and O’Toole.”

If we find Burgoyne and O’Toole.”

Mr. Kaplan showed Mr. Cohen the hand-pod.

“Look at this signal. Beeping to beat the band.”

“Which way?”

Mr. Kaplan turned the hand-pod this way and that, studying the screen. No one paid any attention to them. This was the Bowery.

Mr. Kaplan pointed his finger uptown.

“That way, it can’t be far.”

“Let’s move,” said Mr. Cohen. “I’m freezing out here.”

A couple of minutes later they stood outside a bar.

The neon sign said BOB’S BOWERY BAR.

They went in.

It was 3:16 in the afternoon on this December Tuesday, and yet the barroom was crowded. Seated near the middle of the bar were Burgoyne and O’Toole. Mr. Kaplan and Mr. Cohen walked over.

“Well, look who the Arcturian star cat dragged in,” said Burgoyne. He was drinking a mug of some dark liquid, and smoking a cigarette.

“It’s Frick and Frack,” said O’Toole, who was drinking a yellowish, viscous-looking liquid, and also smoking a cigarette.

“Can we go someplace to talk in private?” said Mr. Kaplan.

Burgoyne looked at Mr. Kaplan and Mr. Cohen, then turned to O’Toole.

“Shall we step outside to the alleyway?” said Burgoyne to O’Toole.

“Why not?” said O’Toole.

Both men raised their drinks and finished them, and each shoved two quarters toward the bartender’s side of the bar for a tip, then scooped up their remaining change. Taking their time, they stubbed out their cigarettes and climbed off their barstools. They both wore wore well-worn but well-cut topcoats, and fedoras.

“This way, gentlemen,” said Burgoyne.

Burgoyne and O’Toole led Mr. Kaplan and Mr. Cohen outside and to the alley next door.

“You know why we’re here,” said Mr. Kaplan. “Four earthling years, and not a single word.”

“Command is very disappointed,” said Mr. Cohen. “Is this what you two have been doing for four years? Sitting in a low dive drinking?”

“It’s not all we’ve been doing,” said Burgoyne. He took a fat hand-rolled cigarette from his pocket. O’Toole was ready with a Ronson lighter.

Burgoyne took several deep drags, then passed the cigarette to O’Toole, who also took several good drags, and then passed it to Mr. Cohen.

“Try this, buddy.”

“We are not here to smoke your earthling cigarettes,” said Mr. Cohen. “We are here to –”

“Smoke first,” said O’Toole, “then we talk.”

“Oh, very well.”

Mr. Cohen took several deep drags, coughed.

“It’s a little harsh,” said O’Toole, “but you’ll get used to it. “Now pass it to your buddy.”

Mr. Cohen passed the cigarette to Mr. Kaplan, who in turn took several deep drags.

The four “men” smoked two of the fat handrolled cigarettes, and then went back into the bar and drank bock beer and Tokay wine and ate hot dogs with sauerkraut and hot mustard through the rest of the afternoon and early evening, then they hopped a cab to Birdland to catch Chet Baker play.

It was two more earthling years before Command gave up on hearing anything from O’Toole and Burgoyne, or from Kaplan and Cohen. It was decided to send two more explorers, and to hope for the best.

Explorers, and Other Tales of Science Fiction, by Horace P. Sternwall, an Ace Books paperback original, 1954; out of print.

Saturday, May 4, 2019

"What the Cat Dragged In"

One minute Marie was stumbling out of Bob’s Bowery Bar with her husband Jerry after celebrating her birthday with the two-for-one hot dogs special and lashings of Tokay wine for Marie and bock beer for Jerry, and then the lights went out and when they came on again she was standing at the bottom of the hill looking up at God’s big house at the top of the hill.

“Great,” she said to herself. 

Well, it had to happen sooner or later, so there was nothing to do but walk up that hill and face the music. It took her about five minutes to work her way up that winding stone path, so she had a little time to gather her thoughts and prepare her defense. This wasn’t the first time she’d been hauled up, although it looked like it was about to be the last time.

There was St. Peter himself on the porch, wearing a colorless old canvas jacket and dozing in an armchair in front of a little table with a big leather book like a ledger on it.

“Hey, wake up, pal,” she said. “You got business.”

The old guy started awake.

“Oh, sorry.”

He looked at her, and then opened up his big book.

“Name, please.”

“Marie McCarthy. Mrs.”

St. Peter turned the pages, looking through his bifocals, running his finger along the entries.

“Ah, yes. Marie McCarthy. Mrs.”

“That’s what I said, chief.”

Apparently he found the entry.

“Oh, boy,” he said. “I’ve been expecting you.”

“Fabulous,” said Marie. “So do I get in?”

“Do you get in? Mrs. McCarthy, you paid a man to kill your husband.”

“Oh, come on, daddy-o. I didn’t mean nothing. That little guy I met at Bob’s?”

Peter consulted his book.

“Billy Baskins.”

“Him,” said Marie. “Whatever his name is. I got my load on with Tokay, I start talking to this little guy, he tells me he’s a professional international assassin. So for a joke I ask him how much to bump off my husband, and the twerp says fifty bucks, and then I jew him down to a double sawbuck.”

“You do realize I’m Jewish, do you not?”

“Oh, sorry, man, I meant to say I negotiated him down to a double sawbuck, no offense.”

“So you hired a stranger to murder your husband for twenty dollars.”

“I promised him another thirty when I got my insurance payment, so that would have brought it up to fifty.”

“You hired a man to kill your husband for fifty dollars.”

“It was a joke, man, and it was the Tokay talking.”

“Maybe to you it was a joke, but not to this Billy Baskins. He killed your husband with a brick to the head.”

“He did? How come I’m only hearing about it now?”

“Because about thirty seconds prior to bashing your husband’s head in he bashed you on the skull with the same brick, and you’ve been in a coma until you passed away a few minutes ago.”

“Wait. What the hell did this idiot bash my skull for?”

“Gee, I don’t know, because he’s an idiot, and he was drunk, and he fell asleep in an alleyway until he heard you two coming, and then he lurched out of the alleyway with the brick and he hit you by mistake? Then, realizing his mistake, he went ahead and bashed in your husband’s skull?”

“Oh, so I’m at fault because this Billy Baskins is a moron? Listen, buster, I am not taking the rap for this one. And anyway, even if I had meant for this retard to really bump off Jerry, maybe Jerry deserved it, because all that guy ever did was get drunk, and when he got really drunk he’d slap me around, and when I threatened to leave him he said he’d break a beer bottle in my mug first so’s nobody’d want me no more. So, yeah, I ain’t saying I’m responsible for getting Jerry bumped, but maybe he deserved getting bumped. Look at my face. What kind of a man would threaten to break a beer bottle in this puss? Answer me that, St. Peter.”

St. Peter looked at her prematurely worn and haggard face, and all the sad stories of a sad lifetime it told, and he heaved a great sigh. 

He closed the book, took out a pipe, and began filling it from a leather pouch.

Marie waited. She had said her piece. She had put up with ten years of marriage to Jerry McCarthy, she figured she could take anything this ham-and-egger could dish out, and more, if she had to.

St. Peter lighted up his pipe with a kitchen match, took a few puffs, and then finally he spoke, without looking at her.

The docent led Marie through a great entrance hall, then through several long corridors and large empty rooms, and finally he opened a door to a barroom not unlike Bob’s Bowery Bar. It was crowded, and smoky, just the way Marie liked a bar to be.

“Grab a seat anywhere, table or bar, and a server will be right with you.”

Marie had always been a sit-at-the-bar kind of gal, so she headed for the one empty stool she saw, climbed up on it, put her purse on the bar and took out her cigarettes.

“Well, look what the cat dragged in,” said Jerry, sitting there to her left.

It looked like he was drinking his usual, bock beer.

The bartender came over, and Marie ordered a Tokay wine.

What the Cat Dragged In, and Other Tales of the Supernatural, by Horace P. Sternwall, a Perma Book “paperback original”, 1954; out of print.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

"On the Couch"

The noted psychiatrist Dr. Blanche Weinberg had not seen Pete Willingham in almost a year, since his last court-mandated session, and so imagine her surprise when her receptionist Donna told her that Peter Willingham had made an appointment for Wednesday at three.

Dr. Blanche had worked with Pete off-and-on for five years, but the work had always been done on a judge’s orders, and her fees had been paid by the city. This would be the first-ever time that Pete had made an appointment of his own volition – and apparently at his own expense. She had to admit she was madly curious.

“Hey, Doc, long time no see.”

“It’s good to see you, Peter.”

Pete went right over to the couch and lay down.

“You surprised I made an appointment, Doc?”

“Let’s talk about you, Peter.”

“Maybe you heard about how I’m a playwright now.”

“I certainly have, Peter, and not only that, but I saw your play.”

“No kidding? You see it at the Demotic Theatre or after it moved uptown?”

“Well, Peter, I saw the original production at the Demotic, and then I went again when it moved to Broadway.”

“Wow, so you liked it?”

“I liked it very much, Peter.”

“Hey, that means a lot to me, Dr. Weinberg. Because you know what? I don’t think I ever would’ve become a playwright without these sessions I had with you.”

“I’m very glad to hear that, Peter.”

“So maybe I should talk about why I’m here.”

“I’m here to listen, Peter.”

“I’ve missed these sessions. Since you last saw me I converted to Catholicism, so’s I could have somebody to talk to, in confession I mean, and that’s great, but somehow it ain’t the same, being able to just lie on this couch and talk and know that somebody’s listening. And so if it’s okay with you I would like to like resume our sessions, on account of I think it will help me.”

Pete paused. He took out a pack of cigarettes, but he didn’t take a cigarette.

Then he began to talk, and he never did light up a cigarette.

“Well, Peter, I hate to stop you, but I’m afraid our time is up.”

“Wow, that hour just flew by, didn’t it, Doc?”

“It certainly did, Peter."

“So I’ll see you next Wednesday, same time.”

“I look forward to it, Peter."

“By the way, here’s a couple tickets for the opening night of my new play at the Demotic this Friday night, if you ain’t doing nothing.”

“I’d love to go, Peter. Thank you very much.”

“Did you get married yet?”

“No, I’m afraid not, Peter.”

“What about a boyfriend? Good looking woman like you I mean.”

Dr. Blanche paused, for just a second.

“Yes, Peter, I am seeing someone.”

Joe McIntyre, her colleague at Bellevue, and married with two kids, but Pete didn’t have to know that.

“So bring your boyfriend maybe.”

“I’m not sure if he’ll be able to make it actually.”

“So bring your mother, or a friend.”

“I’m sure I’ll find someone to accompany me, Peter.”

“Good. By the way, I changed the names.”

“You changed the names?”

“Yeah. You’ll see. Have a nice day, Doc.”

Pete Willingham left, and Dr. Blanche opened the envelope.

Two tickets for “On the Couch, a new play by Peter Willingham. Directed by Artemis Boldwater, and starring Angus Strongbow as ‘Pete Cunningham’, and Hyacinth Wilde as ‘Dr. Maude Steinberg’.”

On the Couch, and other Tales of Modern Life, by Horace P. Sternwall, Ace Books, 1954; out of print.