Friday, July 5, 2013

116. “The Ballad of You and Me and Us”

by Horace P. Sternwall

edited by Dan Leo* 

illustrations by konrad kraus and eddie el greco

*Assistant Professor of Fantastic Literature, Associate Rugby Coach, Olney Community College; editor of Return to Harrowgate and 37 Other Tales of the Working Class by Horace P. Sternwall, with an Afterword by Johnny Carson; Olney Community College Press.

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Lying on his filthy bed in his wretched single room the doomed romantic poet Hector Phillips Stone considered his options.

One good plan would be just to walk out to the middle of the Williamsburg Bridge and take a flying leap.

Or, and this would call for considerably less effort on his part, he could go downstairs, walk to the nearby corner of Bleecker and the Bowery, wait for a large truck or bus to come rumbling up and simply step in front of it.

For that matter, and requiring even less physical effort, he could just get out of bed, go to the window and throw himself out; after all, six floors down to the hard pavement should do the job well enough. 

Hector had smoked his last cigarette and he had no more, as well as no more money and no more whiskey, and so with a resigned sigh he dragged his emaciated body off of his bed and went to the window, his only window, which overlooked the Bowery.

He pulled the sash up, not without difficulty, but eventually he got it up, and the fetid air of the slums below wafted in to merge with the even more vile atmosphere of his room

Hector looked down, everything was so much less ugly now that it was nighttime: the elevated train tracks and the street below, the passing cars and trucks and their headlights, the wretched drunks stumbling along the sidewalks.

Then he remembered that he was afraid of heights.

No, he didn’t have the guts, not to do it this way.

He wouldn’t be able to jump off the Williamsburg Bridge, either, who was he kidding.

No, his only reasonable choice was to step in front of a fast-moving truck. 

And would he even have the courage to do that?

Well, he would see.

He considered shaving first, just to leave a reasonable last impression on the world, but he remembered that the only blade he had left was horribly dull and rusty, so he passed on that.

He put on his suit jacket, his only suit jacket, a tweed, as befitted his calling.

He even put on a necktie, the only one he had left, his old school tie from St. Joseph’s Prep.

He put on his genuine Basque beret, and, the final touch of the poet’s uniform, his burgundy scarf, which was in fact the official scarf of the St. Joe’s Prep Aesthetics Club, of which he had been president in his senior year, at least until he was finally expelled for drunkenly vomiting in Father Flaherty’s confessional booth one wet Saturday afternoon in March.

He looked around the “Attractive, Affordable Bed-Sitting Room With View”. He certainly wasn’t leaving much behind, besides the overflowing tin ashtray (stolen from Bob’s Bowery Bar) and a few empty beer and whiskey bottles. Not even a typewriter, for he had hocked it a month ago. And no books, they had all gone to Mose the old rag-and-bones man, along with all his clothes except for those he now wore.

There was however on the scratched and stained and cigarette-burnt night table, along with some other rubbish, an envelope.

Hector picked up the envelope, looked at it for just a moment, sighed, folded the envelope once, and slid it into the side pocket of his jacket, he didn’t know why.  

He went to the hallway door, opened it, went out, closed it. He didn’t bother locking it.

He went down the six flights of stairs, thinking, as he descended, that this was the last time he would do this.

He came down to the entranceway, the lightbulb was out, as usual. Lightbulbs never lasted very long in this foyer. The tenants (including Hector) stole them.

He pushed open the street door, went down to the pavement, on Bleecker Street. There wasn’t so much traffic here, so he turned left and walked to the corner of the Bowery. 

Lots of trucks came down the Bowery, big trucks, going to and from the factories and the docks. 

He stood on the curb and waited. One would come by soon enough, preferably a great big tanker, or maybe a cement truck. Better yet, a garbage truck.

Behind him and to his left he could hear the sound of jukebox music coming from Bob’s Bowery Bar. It would be nice if he had a nickel for one last glass of Rheingold but he didn’t, so the hell with it.

And here came a big dark truck barreling down the street, and it had the green light. 

Hector took a big breath, his last breath, and he thought his last thought:

Here goes nothing.  

“I say, Stone.”

Hector turned. It was Scaramanga, the leftist poet.

“Oh, hello, Scaramanga.”

“What’re you doing, comrade?”

“To be quite honest I was just about to throw myself under the wheels of that truck that just went by.”

“Just about had it, huh?”

“Yes,” said Hector.  

“No money in romantic poetry these days, is there?”

“Hardly. Especially if the poetry rhymes.”

“I know just how you feel. Try selling a poem in praise of Stalin these days. Go on. Just try it.”

“No thanks,” said Hector. “I always knew this day would come. Complete penury, and my parents refuse even to answer my letters, not that I blame them.”

“Wouldn’t consider taking a job, huh?”


“Sorry,” said Scaramanga. “But, hey, listen, you got any new poems?”

“Why, is some new quarterly being launched that will pay for a poem with one copy of the magazine if I’m lucky?”

“No, but you know that really boring guy Landon Crow? The one they call Rooster?”

“Rooster, the one who’s always with that chick who never shuts up?”

“Sniffy,” said Scaramanga. “I think her name’s Alice but they call her Sniffy on account of she’s always got a runny nose.”

“Right,” said Hector. “Hey, you got a cigarette?”

“No,” said Scaramanga, “but listen, this guy Rooster Crow is in Bob’s right now and he’s buying poems at five bucks a shot.”

“What, is he insane?”

“Who cares? I just sold him a new sonnet about Rosa Luxembourg. Now I’m gonna score some bennies and try to knock out a couple more poems before closing time.”

“You’re saying he’s paying five bucks a poem?”

“A fin a poem, that’s the going rate.”

“Thanks for the tip, pal.”

“Anything for a fellow poet, Hector, even if you are a romantic poet.”

Exactly thirty-two seconds later Hector pushed through the front door of Bob’s Bowery Bar. He looked around the smoky crowded barroom.

Fagen the nature poet and Studebaker the western poet and McSeamas the Irish poet were all sitting at the bar roaring and shouting. From the sound of them undoubtedly they had already sold poems to Rooster. Five dollars went a long way in Bob’s Bowery Bar.

And there at a small table he saw Landon “Rooster” Crow and Alice “Sniffy” Smith. As usual Sniffy was talking, he could see her lips moving even if he couldn’t hear her from here over the noise of the drunks and the jukebox, which was playing Anita O’Day singing “Don’t Kick It Around”. And just as usual Rooster sat silently gazing at Sniffy, with the expression of someone who was trying to look as if he were listening but wasn’t really. But he looked different from the way he had seemed to Hector all the other times he had seen him in the bars and coffee shops. He didn’t look so depressed as usual. He almost looked happy.

Hector reached into his jacket pocket, brought out the envelope he had put there, the envelope in which his landlady had put his notice of eviction. On one side of the envelope was written a poem, in pencil. Hector only vaguely remembered having written it, sometime last night, under the influence of that last half-pint of Mr. Boston whiskey. It was a poem about a girl named Ida, the only girl he had ever loved, and the only girl who had at least professed to love Hector. She was dead now.

Hector walked over to the table at which Rooster and Sniffy sat.

“Hello,” he said.

“Oh, Christ,” said Sniffy. “It’s another one. Fuck off, chump, nobody wants to buy your romantic poetry.”

“It’s like this,” said Hector. “I have a poem here, and I’m offering it for sale for five dollars.”

“What did I just say,” said Sniffy. “Screw, Percy Bysshe.”

“If I can’t sell this poem then I’m going to throw myself under a truck.”

“There’s the door, outside is the street,” said Sniffy. “Make sure you do it right and don’t just cripple yourself. The only thing more useless than a bad romantic poet is a crippled one. Now breeze.”

“Wait,” said Rooster, whose lust for poems had only increased with each new poem he bought. “Let’s see your poem, Hector.”

“Perhaps I should read it aloud. My handwriting was a little shaky when I wrote this down, an access of emotion, you know how it is.”

“You mean you were drunk,” said Sniffy.

“I had perhaps a drop taken,” said Hector. “May I begin?”

“No,” said Sniffy. “Split, Chatterton.”

Hector ignored this last remark, and raised the envelope to an appropriate distance from his eyes. 

“I call this poem “The Ballad of You and Me and Us”. It goes like this:

When we walked through those
empty fields in New Jersey
There was no question 
of his or hers; we
simply shared in the 
joys and the ecstasy
engendered by peyote.

And when that fateful night 
We boarded that Greyhound bus
There was no question of
me or you, but only us,
heading down to New Orleans
hoping to make some non-boring friends.

All those nights we caroused 
in French Quarter dives,
it wasn’t your life wasted,
nor mine, but our lives,
the only way we knew how,
living in that eternal now.

And when on that hot afternoon
I awoke to find you hadn’t,
a part of me died as well;
life’s rich varied pageant
and you with it, had passed,
leaving me to die last.

Hector tossed the envelope on the table.

“There it is,” he said. “Take it or leave it.”

Half a minute later Hector was walking toward the bar and his fellow poets, with a five-dollar bill in his hand. 

Perhaps tomorrow he would walk in front of that truck.

But not tonight.

No, not tonight.   

117. "just part of the dream"

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