Sunday, November 4, 2012

82. "the gen"

by Horace P. Sternwall

edited by Dan Leo* 

illustrations by roy dismas and rhoda penmarq

*Associate Professor of Pompeiian Literature, Assistant Checkers Club Coach, Olney Community College; editor of A Ghost Named Gerald and Seven Other Short Novels of the Supernatural by Horace P. Sternwall; Olney Community College Press; made possible in part by a generous grant from General Electric: “Tomorrow’s products today!”

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

click here for synopsis of all chapters so far

Let’s return to the Automat just next door to the hallowed Hotel St Crispian, where the young cashier and aspiring novelist Polly Powell pretends to read George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda as a young lady approaches the counter… 

“Hey, doll.”

Polly looked up.


“Doing a little light reading, huh?”

“Yes, I quite like to read.”

“You think you could sell me a pack of Luckies?”

“Of course.”

Polly handed the young lady the cigarettes, took her proffered dollar bill, opened the register, and gave the young woman her change.

“Thanks, doll.” The young woman tapped the pack of cigarettes on the counter, smartly tapping first one end of the pack and then the other. “What’s your name, sister?”

“Polly. Polly Powell.”

“I’m Flossie. Flossie Flanagan.” She began to peel the cellophane from the cigarettes. “I’m a reporter for the Federal-Democrat.”

“Oh! I’ve read your articles! I loved your hard-hitting series on the reefer dens of Harlem.”

“Thanks, Polly.”  Miss Flanagan flicked the cellophane to the counter top, and Polly picked it up and dropped it into the waste basket by her stool. Instead of going back to her table the girl reporter gazed at Polly a moment, then gave her pack of cigarettes a shake; one and only one popped up a half-inch, and she extricated it using only her lips.

Suddenly Polly did something she had never done for anyone before. 

She took a book of matches from the cardboard box on the counter, tore off a match, and after a few unsuccessful tries, she struck it, and then, leaning across the counter, she gave Miss Flanagan a light. This was a procedure she had witnessed many times in real life, and in movies and plays, but it was actually one of the few times in her life when she had ever actually struck a match. She waved it out thoroughly and dropped it into the tin ashtray on the counter top.

“Thanks, Polly,” said Miss Flanagan. “How long you been working here?”

“Since the summer of 1945.”

“I guess you’ve seen a lot of people come and go.”

“Oh, thousands. A virtual panoply of humanity.”

“A virtual panoply, huh?” Miss Flanagan looked at Polly, not saying anything. Polly felt herself beginning to perspire. “Tell me something, Polly, that lady I’m sitting with, do you know her?”

“I know who she is. She’s Hyacinth Wilde. The actress.” “That’s right. You seem pretty on the ball, Polly. How’s your memory for faces?”

“Oh, excellent. You see, I want to be a novelist, and so I study people’s faces all the time.”

“Except when you’re reading George Eliot.”

“Yes, except for then.” Miss Flanagan opened her purse and dropped the cigarettes into it.

“Now listen, Polly, be discreet, but take a look at this picture.” She took a photograph out of her purse and laid it on the counter. “Don’t pick it up, but just look at it. Do you recognize this man?”

Polly bent over the photograph and studied it.

“He looks familiar. But then I see so many people.”

“Do you think you ever saw this fellow with Miss Wilde, maybe a few years back?”

“You know I think I might have. He was always very well-dressed, and they always came in late at night, after her performances I suppose. Is he another actor?”

“Not exactly,” said Flossie. “His name is Slade, Stanley Slade. And he’s a jewel thief.”

“Oh! How thrilling! Isn’t he the one who escaped from Sing Sing?”

“He sure is, Polly,” said Miss Flanagan.

Polly glanced over to Table 27, where Miss Wilde was eating a sandwich with one hand while holding a newspaper with the other, apparently reading it quite intently.

“Well, thanks, Polly,” said Miss Flanagan. “For the cigarettes and the gen.”

“The gen?”

“The dope.”

“The dope?”

“The info on this guy.” 

She tapped the photograph lying on the countertop with her fingernail, which Polly noticed was painted the exact same shade of red as Miss Flanagan’s lips. She must begin to take note of such details if she were going to write a truly classic novel.

Smiling, Miss Flanagan picked up the photograph and slipped it back into her purse, clicked the purse shut. “Catch you on the way out, Polly,” she said, and she turned and headed back to Table 27.

Polly thought she knew what was going on here. Miss Flanagan and Miss Wilde were indeed lesbians, except that Miss Wilde had once not been a lesbian and had dated this Stan Slade fellow, and Miss Flanagan was jealous now that Slade had escaped.

How absolutely thrilling!

She reached under the counter and took out the leather-bound notebook which she always kept on the shelf down there next to the Lifesavers. She laid the notebook on the counter and opened it up. The only thing she had written in it so far was:

AUTOMAT DREAMS a novel of the great city

by Polly Powell

She reached under the counter again and took out her purse, which she always kept next to the Wrigley’s. She opened it up, scrabbled around in it, and found her fountain pen. She closed up her purse and put it away, then uncapped the pen and replaced the cap on its barrel.

Polly began to write...

83: "girl friday"

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