Friday, December 21, 2012

88. "it had come to this"

by Horace P. Sternwall

edited by Dan Leo* 

illustrations by roy dismas and rhoda penmarq

*Associate Professor of Ancient Greek and Latin Literature, Assistant Table Tennis Coach, Olney Community College; editor of Say Hello to All the Gang: the Prison Letters of Horace P. Sternwall; Olney Community College Press; made possible in part by a generous grant from the Reliable Floor Covering Company of Philadelphia PA: “Our Name Says It All!”

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

click here for synopsis of all chapters so far

And so it had come to this. 

Landon (unfortunately nicknamed “Rooster”) Crow waited with Alice “Sniffy” Smith in a booth at the back of Bob’s Bowery Bar, waiting for “the two Bills” (Grey and Leighton) to return from God knows where with an ounce of marijuana, an ounce which Rooster and Sniffy hoped to parlay into a twenty-five thousand dollar profit.

Rooster sipped his tepid flat Rheingold beer, then he stubbed out his Philip Morris, and quickly lit another one, not so much because he wanted a cigarette, but because this bar smelled like the interior of the most vile men’s room in the world. If it smelled like this in the barroom, what could it possibly smell like in the bar’s actual men’s room?

Sniffy didn’t seem to mind at all. As soon as they had sat down she had taken the cap off a Benzedrine inhaler, pulled out the cloth strip, wadded it into a little ball, popped it into her mouth and begun to chew it with relish, chattering away about how rich they were going to be, smoking Rooster’s cigarettes, and occasionally taking a sip from her own glass of tepid Rheingold.

It had come to this, as the drunks in the bar screamed and shouted and cackled in dubious hacking laughter, and as Gene Krupa pounded his traps on the jukebox, yes, it had come to this...

Rooster had been something of a celebrity at the University of Oklahoma, the president of the Poetry Club and the editor of the campus literary magazine, The Covered Wagon Review. At the commencement ceremony for his class, in May of 1942, he recited one of his own poems, “Lest Fascism Triumph”, and then the next day, along with several of his fellow young littérateurs, he had gone down to the army recruiting office and enlisted.

Rooster happened to be a physical coward who was also completely devoid of patriotic feeling, but he knew he would probably be drafted anyway; it was his plan to use his education to get a safe clerical posting far from battle, but he need not have worried, because his first day of basic training at Fort Dix he woke up screaming, cawing, crowing uncontrollably.

He was taken to the base hospital, where he continued to wake up each morning screaming, cawing, crowing. This habit was very annoying both to the staff and to the other patients, but his condition proved resistant to the ministrations of the army doctors and psychiatrists both at the Fort Dix hospital and then at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center; within a few months, and to the great relief of both the army medical staff and to Rooster, he received an honorable medical discharge. 

Rooster had done his duty. He packed his bag and took the first train to New York City, and as soon as he had settled into a room at the YMCA he went right down to the New Yorker offices, applied for a job, and a week later was hired as a fact-checker, replacing a young Harvard graduate who had joined the marines and who was in due course killed at Tarawa, ensuring Rooster of a job for life, if he should want it. 

Curiously enough, the early-morning uncontrollable screaming, crowing and cawing ceased on Rooster’s very first morning in New York. The freedom of “civvy street” had cured what all those army doctors and psychiatrists could not.

Ah, but New York! Glorious New York!

Rooster loved it all: his new tiny Greenwich Village fourth-floor walk-up efficiency flat, the bars, the subway, the taxi cabs, the drug stores and Automats, the jazz clubs, the girls in their short wartime dresses and skirts, and he especially appreciated the paucity of other annoying young men.

Of course there was the possible problem of being thought a slacker and a coward, but Rooster fended off this possibility by the frequent but seemingly casual mentioning of his own honorable medical discharge from the service; if someone asked him if he had been wounded he would assume a grave expression and say he preferred not to talk about it. 

“Too many bad memories,” he would say, and this was not entirely a lie, as he had not especially enjoyed his time at the base hospital, and later at Walter Reed, with all those poor wretches actually recovering or sometimes not recovering from their wounds or burns or combat fatigue. 

Somehow it became accepted in Rooster’s circle of acquaintances that he had been wounded in New Guinea, or perhaps Guadalcanal, or possibly North Africa. At any rate he had served his country honorably, and, unlike some guys, he preferred not to talk about it. All he would say, if he said anything, after the fifth or sixth drink, was, “I’m no hero. The real heroes are the guys who didn’t come back.” He would often choke up here. His interlocutor would offer to buy him a drink, and Rooster invariably accepted.

It had come to that, but Rooster didn’t care, because he was young and free in New York City, and when he wasn’t working at the New Yorker or drinking in bars he worked on his poetry, sending out poems every day to various magazines, including the one he worked for.

Two poems (“Basic Training: an Aubade”, and “Trumpets of Glory”) were accepted at his old college magazine, The Covered Wagon, but, unfortunately, not a single one of his other poems was accepted, anywhere.

He began laying new submissions on the New Yorker’s poetry editor’s desk by hand, but even this personal touch proved of no avail, and he couldn’t help but notice that the editor began cutting him in the hallway and on the elevator.

The final straw came when a new editor came on at the Covered Wagon Review (the previous editor had been an underclassman protégé of Rooster’s), and he proceeded to reject every single poem Rooster sent him.

Rooster began to drink more heavily, and also to indulge in marijuana.

Then, sometime in the fall of 1943, about a year after his early discharge from the army, the early-morning screaming and cawing and crowing resumed. Of course his neighbors complained, but they relented when Rooster’s landlady explained to them that young Mr. Crow was a wounded veteran undoubtedly suffering from war-induced nightmares,

and so they learned to accept the early-morning howling and screaming as the price one paid as a citizen in wartime, and also as a reliable alarm clock, as Rooster’s cawing started promptly at seven o’clock each morning, and, after all, rarely lasted more than five minutes.

It had come to that.

Many lonely and frustrated months followed, during which the war ended, the poems continued to be rejected, and the matinal screaming continued, as did Rooster’s drinking and reefer-smoking.

One cold wet December night in 1945 at Chumley’s bar, Rooster found himself sitting next to a talkative girl, new in town, just “de-mobbed” as she said from the Wacs. Her name was Alice Smith, and she was fond of Benzedrine and beer, about to start a job at the New School as an assistant instructor in Latin.

She was from Kansas, but she spoke with a slight British accent. She said she was working on a novel. Rooster walked her home in the cold rain. They shook hands, and agreed to meet the following night for drinks...

That was five years ago, and here Rooster was, sitting in another bar with Alice (whom every one now called “Sniffy”, because of her invariably runny nose, a by-product of her fondness for Benzedrine) waiting for the two Bills and an ounce of marijuana, which Rooster and Sniffy hoped to parlay into twenty-five thousand dollars.

The bar reeked, of urine and stale beer, of cigar and cigarette smoke, of failure, of living death. 

Sniffy chattered on, oblivious, regardless.

They had never made love, they had never even kissed. But that was okay. What was the use of making love with a woman when you were only fated to wake her up in the morning with a bloodcurdling series of screams and howlings? 

Rooster looked through the smoke at Sniffy’s face. She was looking at him, but it almost seemed as if he weren’t there, as if she were babbling to herself in a mirror.

Yes, it had come to this.


89. "the best theater"

No comments: