Sunday, September 16, 2012

73. "Hank Blank"

by Horace P. Sternwall

edited by Dan Leo*

illustrated by roy dismas, rhoda penmarq and konrad kraus

*Associate Professor of Victorian English Literature, Assistant Rugby Coach, Olney Community College; editor of The Shameful Secret of Mrs. Fairfax, and 37 Other Previously Uncollected Tales of Rich Old Women, by Horace P. Sternwall; Olney Community College Press, made possible in part by a generous grant from “The Horace P. Sternwall Appreciation Society”.

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“Are you here to enjoy the music, sir?” said the strange old man, still politely holding open the door.

“The music?” said Michael.

Yes, of course, the music, you could hear it from somewhere beyond the lobby, it sounded like a jazz combo, but not one of these new-fangled bebop outfits --

“Yes,” said the old man, in his sad old neatly pressed uniform. “Tony Winston and his Winstonians, featuring the lovely chanteuse Shirley De La Salle.”

“I must say I’ve never heard of them,” said Michael, taking out his cigarettes.

“They are quite well regarded among the cognoscenti for their interpretations of Chicago-style jazz, and Miss De La Salle, whose d├ębut it is tonight, has just recently finished a tour of some several of the southern states in a production of Mr. Porter’s Fifty Million Frenchmen. Or was it the Midwest?”

Still holding the door open, the old man whipped out a lighter and gave Michael a light for his cigarette.

“Thank you,” said Michael.

Michael was wondering. Should he pump this old fool about Stan Slade? But what if the old fool was in cahoots with Slade? Everyone knew how venal New York doormen were. It would make sense for Slade to pay the old boy off. No, Michael decided, he would play it cool, like the detectives in the magazine stories.

“So you haven’t come here to hear the music, sir?” said the old man. Which Michael realized was another way of saying, “Why have you come here?

Who was pumping who?

He must be careful. If this ridiculous coot was indeed a confederate of Slade’s, then Michael knew that he himself had to appear completely innocent, just another random stranger off the street, and not someone out for that ten thousand bounty on Slade’s head.

“I was hoping to meet a friend,” he said.

“A friend,” said the old man.

“Yeah,” said Michael, and he suddenly realized he was sweating. “I have a friend who said he might be here tonight. At the bar. And I thought maybe I could catch up with him. If he’s here.”

“May I ask this friend’s name?” said the old man. “I know practically everyone who comes in here.”

“His name?” said Michael. The sweat was pouring down his brow now.

“Yes,” said the old man, calmly, “if you tell me your friend’s name perhaps I can tell you if he is here.”

“Oh, you probably wouldn’t know him.”

“You might be surprised, sir. Once during the small hours of a night shift I did an idle calculation and I concluded that I know by face and name approximately fifty-seven hundred living human beings, while the names and faces of perhaps another twenty thousand of the deceased are still engraved on the walls of the endless and labyrinthine winding galleries of my brain.
For instance, you, sir. Although I do not have the privilege of knowing your name I assure you I would remember your face and indeed every word of this conversation even if ten years should pass before we meet again.”

“Wow,” said Michael.

“Should I live that long,” said the old man.

“Oh, I’m sure you will,” said Michael.

“I am sixty-nine years of age. Each day now is a gift, of which I am grateful to the universe.”

“Not to God?”

“I beg your pardon, sir, but I am an atheist.”

“You don’t believe in God?”

“In my sixty-nine years in this plane of existence I have seen not the slightest evidence of a God, or gods.”

“I don’t know what to say.”

“You needn’t say anything, sir.”

“No, I suppose not. But, like, what about the meaning of life?”

“I beg your pardon, sir?”

“Like, what’s the meaning of life if there is no God?”

“I haven’t the faintest idea, sir. I think that each man has his own meaning, or not, but I myself doubt that there is one meaning for all men.”

“You’re very philosophical for a doorman.”

“That is not saying much, sir.”

“No, I suppose not,” said Michael.

“You still haven’t told me the name of your friend, sir.”

“My friend.”

“Yes, the friend whom you are hoping to meet.”

“Oh, him. His name is, uh --”

Michael tried to come up with a name. Why couldn’t he think of one? He saw a man across the lobby, standing stock-still to the side of a double doorway with a sign above it that read: " Prince Hal Room”.

“Oh, wait,” said Michael. “There he is now, standing over there, by those doors.”

“Mr. Sternhagen?” said the old man.

“Uh, yeah,” said Michael. “Good old Sternhagen.”

“Mr. Sternhagen is your friend?”

“Yep, good old Sternhagen.”

“How extraordinary.”

“Why do you say that?” said Michael, and he attempted a slight chuckle, but he could tell that it came out more like a nervous cough.

“Because,” said the old man, “in all the -- let’s see -- in all the I should say five years that Mr. Sternhagen has been a guest here at the St Crispian I have never once known him to, shall we say, ‘meet’ a friend.”

“Keeps to himself, old Sternhagen,” said Michael, with what sounded to himself like a whole discordant symphony of notes of desperation.

“Oh, don’t get me wrong,” said the old bastard, whom Michael was beginning to hate with what little soul he still possessed. “He is a polite gentleman, if perhaps often slightly distrait, as writers are wont to be in my observation, but the only socializing I have ever observed him partaking of has been casually as it were with other guests of the hotel.”

“Well, look, I better catch up with him,” said Michael.

“It doesn’t look as if he’s going anywhere,” said the old fart.

“Yeah, he is kind of just standing there.”

“Looking at the sign advertising the orchestra, I think.”

“Yeah,” said Michael.

“And the photograph of Miss De La Salle.”

“Maybe he has a crush on her,” said Michael.

“I shouldn’t doubt it. I shouldn’t doubt that at all, sir.”

“Why is that?”

“Every afternoon without fail Mr. Sternhagen stops into the Prince Hal Room at two and has a cup of coffee and a slice of cheesecake at the bar. He always stays for no longer than fifteen minutes, and then goes back to his room on the mezzanine. Yesterday afternoon he stayed for an hour, and it just so happened that Mr. Winston and Miss De La Salle were rehearsing during that hour. As soon as Mr. Winston and Miss De La Salle finished rehearsing Mr. Sternhagen left. And this afternoon he was back in the Prince Hal Room again while Mr. Winston and Miss De La Salle were rehearsing, except he came earlier, and once again he didn’t leave until they had finished.”

“You don’t miss much, do you --?”

“Olaf, sir.”

“You don’t miss much, do you, Olaf?”

“In this hotel I daresay there is very little I miss.”

“Okay, Olaf, well, I guess I’d better catch up with old Sternhaven.”

“Sternhagen you mean.”

“Yeah, Sternhagen I meant to say.”

“May I know your name, sir?”

“To add to that endless gallery of names and faces in the winding galleries of your brain?”

“Precisely, sir.”

“Um -- Henry,” said Michael.

“Mr. Henry,” said Olaf.

“No,” said Michael, “just Henry. Or Hank.”

“And may I know your last name, sir?”

“My last name.”

“Unless you would prefer not to tell me, of course.”

“Oh, no, of course not,” said Michael. “My last name is --” he looked around, he was drenched with sweat, and he was drawing another blank. Blank. “Uh, Blank,” he said.

“Mr. Blank,” said Olaf.

“Yeah,” said Michael. “Blank.”

“With a ‘c’ or a ‘k’ at the end?”

“A ‘k’. Blank. Henry Blank,” said Michael, hating himself now as much as he hated this old man.

“Mr. Henry Blank,” said Olaf. “Unless of course you prefer the appellation ‘Hank’.”

“Right,” said Michael. “Hank. My friends call me Hank.”

“Mr. ‘Hank Blank’ then.”

“Uh, yeah,” said Michael, wanting to scream, “Hank Blank. Hank Blank is my name.”

“A very easy name to remember, Mr. Blank.”

“Yeah,” said Michael. “Well, look, I’d better catch up with old Sternhall over there.”

“Sternhagen you mean.”

“Right. Sternhagen. Talk to you later, Olaf.”

“I hope you enjoy yourself,” said Olaf, “Mr. ‘Blank’.”

Damn, thought Michael, as he walked across the lobby, damn!

Why was he such a fool?

He could feel that old bastard’s rheumy old eyes on his back, watching his every step, probably memorizing his every slightest move and twitch.

There was nothing to do now but to go over to this Sternway guy and just start talking to him.

Hank Blank.


(To be continued.)

74. "a curious destination"

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