Wednesday, July 25, 2012

65. "Mr. Zilch"

by Horace P. Sternwall

edited by Dan Leo*

illustrated by roy dismas, rhoda penmarq and konrad kraus

*Associate Professor of Latin Literature, Assistant Pep Rally Coƶrdinator, Olney Community College; editor of A Sense of Dread: Six Short Novels of Suspense by Horace P. Sternwall; Olney Community College Press, “The Sternwall Initiative”.

click here for previous episode, here to begin at the beginning

It was just another cold November day on the Lower East Side.

As usual I rolled out of the sack around two in the afternoon, threw on my best and my only suit, and went down to the Chinaman’s for my usual breakfast of chop suey and three or four pots of lapsang souchong.

Outside the window the afternoon was grey, and some rain started to fall as if it had nowhere else to fall and it might as well be here.

After I ate I poured another cup of tea, lit up a cigarette and took out my little black book.

I had six pick-ups to make, and after them I was free until 8:30, when Big Moe had asked me to meet him at the Mobambo Room.

Big Moe never asked me to meet him at the Mobambo Room.

For that matter Big Moe hardly ever asked me to meet him anywhere, and why should he?

I was strictly small potatoes, so far down the chain of command that you couldn’t get any lower, except the gutter or the grave.

But maybe Big Mo asking me to meet him at the Mobambo meant something.

Maybe after all these years Moe had me in mind for a promotion.

Maybe I could move out of that crumby shotgun apartment on Hester Street and get something classier.

Maybe I could buy a new suit.

Maybe I could even get a car. Nothing fancy, nothing new, maybe just like a ‘41 Ford, one of them two-door coupe jobs maybe.

Maybe I wasn’t going to be low man on the totem pole anymore, the last link in the chain, just another hood standing in the background trying to look like he’s somebody when everybody knew he was nobody.

Always last in line, that was me, unless of course Big Moe and his boys needed some poor schmuck to do the really dirty work, then I was first in line. Also first in line to get rousted and pinched, first in line to get the rubber-hose and phone-book massage in the precinct basement, and if somebody had to take a fall, then I was first in line to take a fall.

That was me.

I was nobody.


Mr. Zilch.

But maybe…

Maybe this day was going to be different.

Maybe this day was going to be the start of a whole new chapter in my life.


Yeah, it was going to be a whole new chapter in my life, all right.

The final chapter.

In his small room off the mezzanine of the Hotel St Crispian, Harold P. Sternhagen stopped typing, not because he had run out of ideas but because he had come to the end of the page.

Some writers set themselves a daily quota of a certain number of words, but Harold preferred to go by pages. His daily goal was forty typewritten pages of “fair copy”; he had now reached this goal, and so he stopped.

It had been another good day on the job. He had completed work on two short stories (“A Pistol for Father Flannery” and “Don’t Eat the CanapĆ©s”) and now he had gotten off to a good start on this new yarn, which he was tentatively calling “Mr. Zilch”.

It was time for a drink, for a little socializing. A writer couldn’t spend all his time writing. He needed to get out a little every day, see a bit of the world, have some sort of personal contact with his fellow human beings. So Harold would pop down to the Prince Hal Room, just as he did every other night of the week, and probably his fellow hack Fred Flynn would be there. Most likely that idiot they called “the Farmer” would be there, too.

The Farmer was a bore, but he was a genial and generous bore, and he could always be counted on to buy a couple of rounds. The thing about the Farmer was that, unlike most bores, he seemed to know deep down how boring he was, and so he paid his way with drinks and cigarettes, and even with the occasional light meal.

Rather than wait for the elevator, and possibly be trapped in an endless and inane conversation with Mortimer the elevator-operator, Harold decided to take the stairs. As soon as he opened the door to the stairwell he encountered a thick cloud of marijuana smoke. He stepped inside, looked up and down. No one else was on the stairs, but obviously someone had been smoking an awful lot of reefer in here, and fairly recently.

Harold let the door close behind him and slowly descended the steps, stopping to fill his lungs anew every other step. After all there was no point in wasting this perfectly good reefer smoke, and so by the time he got to the foot of the staircase he was feeling very relaxed indeed, and his brain was teeming with ideas. He was halfway tempted to go right back to his room and rip off another ten or twenty pages of “Mr. Zilch”. But no, he had reached his daily quota and it was past midnight: best to keep to his routine, and, after all, who knew what new ideas would present themselves to him in the bar?

He entered the lobby, nodded to Roland the night clerk, and headed toward the Prince Hal Room. He could hear the band, and the girl singing: Shirley, Shirley de la Salle.

Maybe tonight he would get his nerve up and introduce himself to her. Or maybe he would just sit with Fred and the Farmer and drink.

But maybe…

Maybe this would be a the start of a whole new chapter in Harold’s life.

He pushed open the swinging doors of the Prince Hal Room and went inside.

chapter 66. williams

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