edited by Dan Leo*
covers of harold p sternhagen's works by roy dismas
other illustrations by konrad kraus
*Associate Professor of Victorian British Literature, Assistant Bridge Coach, Olney Community College; editor of Beat Me Daddy! 37 Previously Uncollected Tales of the Jazz Demimonde, by Horace P. Sternwall; Olney Community College Press; made possible in part by a generous grant from the Horace P. Sternwall Preservation Project.
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In the lobby of the venerable Hotel St Crispian, just outside the Prince Hal Room, Michael Chandler (called Henry by his wife Carol) has introduced himself to the author Harold P. Sternhagen...
"Yes, I drew a blank like Hank Blank, and I wound up pointing to you over here and saying you were the friend I was meeting.”
“I never meet friends,” said Harold.
“That’s what the doorman said.”
“You are in a pickle, aren’t you?”
“Yes, yes, I am. I’m not used to lying, you see. Except for, except for — other sorts of things.”
“What other sorts of things?”
“Like, like —”
“Like lying about loving my wife, and being content with my life, and my work. About everything.”
“So you’re only used to lying about the big things.”
“Yes, yes, that’s exactly it.”
“But it’s when you try to lie about details that you get all — discombobulated?”
“So why are you here?”
“Why am I here?”
“Yes,” said Harold. “In this hotel lobby.”
“Why am I here in this hotel lobby?”
“Yes. Why are you here, lying to doormen, assuming a false name, pretending you’re friends with someone you don’t know from Adam.”
“I — I — I’m meeting a woman.”
“Ah, a woman. Now it all comes clear.”
“Yes,” said Michael, or Henry, or whatever the hell his name was. “It’s a woman.”
“So you’re cheating on your wife?”
“Well — yes, yes, I’m — well, no, not exactly cheating —”
“You’re hoping to cheat on your wife.”
“Yes, that’s it. You see I’ve met this woman and — um —”
“You’ve fallen in love with her?”
“Yeah. That’s it. So, to cut a long story short, I was wondering if we could go into the bar together as if we really were friends meeting for a drink.”
“And is she in the bar?”
“This woman you’re in love with.”
“Oh — I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe she’ll be in there. Maybe not.”
“Well, okay,” said Harold. “Why not? I was going in for a drink anyway.”
“Oh, thank you so much. Look, I’ll buy you a drink.”
“No need,” said Harold, thinking, yes, no need, but he sure wouldn’t mind a free drink.
“No, no,” I insist, said Michael, or Henry, Harold decided he might as well think of him as ‘Henry’, since after all he did act and look so much like a Henry.
Suddenly Harold could hear Shirley’s voice again, coming in after after what must have been a rather long instrumental passage:
“You and me, we sweat and strain,” sang her lovely voice, “body all achin’ and wracked with pain. Tote dat barge, lift dat bale, you get a little drunk and you lands in jail —”
“Y’know —” said Henry.
“No, wait,” said Harold. “I want to hear this.”
“I gets weary and sick of tryin’,” sang Shirley, Shirley De La Salle, Harold’s love, “I’m tired of livin’, but I’m scared of dyin’, and old man river he jes’ keeps rollin’ along.”
He went to the door and pushed it open. The room was pretty full for this place, but then it was Friday night. There was Shirley up on the stage.
“Thank you,” she said into her microphone, “thank you very much,” even though there had only been a smattering, no, more like a pattering of applause. “That’s Mr. Tony Winston on the piano there,” she said, although it didn’t seem that anyone was paying attention. “And these are the Winstonians,” she added, following by less than a pattering, a pittering of applause. These people didn’t care. They only cared about getting drunk and talking nonsense to one another. “And I’m Shirley De La Salle,” she said.
Harold began clapping, as loudly as he could. A few other people in the room joined in, and there was even a half-hearted whistle from someone.
Harold kept clapping.
“Excuse me, Mr. Sternhoven?” said Henry, Michael, the pathetic man.
“Yes,” said Harold.
“Shall we get a seat at the bar?”
Harold stopped clapping.