Yet one more short story by Eric Stringer, my strainge-fiction persona….
It was a dark and stormy night, but nobody noticed. They didn’t even care. They were all characters in another novel that would never be published because of opening lines like that one. Even before he put them on paper, while they were still little more than electrical impulses in Jacobsen’s brain, they had breathed a communal moan of disappointment. Well, all but Sam Stade, whom Jacobsen envisioned as the main character of the novel.
Sam was the resident tough guy. He never sighed and he never moaned. In fact, shit was nearly all he ever said, ususally as he was flicking a cigarette butt, which was never shorter or longer than three-quarters of an inch, either out the window of his car during a mandatory high-speed chase or into the corner of an alley just before he slammed a bad guy’s face into a brownstone wall.
He nearly always looked neat in his brown suit with black pinstripes, although it was seldom buttoned. His hair was always in place too, cut short, and combed straight back. In fact, the only time he looked even slightly dishevelled was when he was getting beat up by bad guys in his office.
At those times, his jacket hung on the coat rack beneath his fedora. The collar button on his shirt would slip out and his narrow black tie would loosen and drape across his white shirt at an odd angle. Jacobsen allowed him only a very limited vocabulary that consisted mainly of curse words, other tough-guy talk that was usually italicized for emphasis, and clichés, and Sam was none too happy about it.
“What’s the matter with this jerk?” he said to Sheila, the buxom, lighter-than-air blonde Jacobsen had once again assigned as Sam’s secretary. “He just doesn’t get it, does he? Nobody talks like this in novels anymore! All fragments and one word sentences? Shit!” Sam reached into the file drawer of his double-pedestal desk and retreived a bottle of bourbon. “And to top it off, he’s got me drinkin’ this crap!” He filled an Old Fashioned glass.
He lit a cigarette, then raised the glass to eye level to inspect its contents. “Liquid fire. All the flavor of piss on a hot summer day. Shit!” Sam quaffed the whiskey, then pitched the glass over his shoulder. It sailed through the open window and crashed onto the sidewalk four stories down. Another full glass appeared on the corner of his desk. Sam uncrossed his ankles and braced his feet against the front of the desk, then pushed, forcing his chair away from the desk. He stood and walked around the desk, grabbing Sheila by the elbow. “Look, Kid, we’ve gotta take him out!”
Sheila’s voice was child like. “Take him out? Where?”
Sam released her elbow with disgust. “Nobody’s that dumb! See what I mean? Wouldn’t you like to have an original thought every now and then?” He pinched her naïve face between his thumb and forefinger and stared at her. Her puckered lips made her look like a pouty fish. “You don’t have a clue, do you, Bimbo?”
The fish spoke. “Talk straight, Sam. I don’t like it when you get like this.”
He retrieved his hat from the coat rack near the door and pulled it low over his brow, cocking it slightly to one side. Then he lit another cigarette and reached for the door knob. “Never mind. I’m going to prep the scene. Just call the boys. Tell ‘em to meet me at the Flamingo Club. Nine p.m. Damn, I hate talking like this!”
Jacobsen was very punctual, so the boys arrived at the club right at nine. Their suits weren’t quite as nice as Sam’s, of course. They found him sitting in a booth in a dark, smoky corner of the club. He flicked a cigarette butt into the corner near the jukebox. Another one appeared between his fingers.
One at a time, the boys slid into the booth and sidled around until all four of them were seated: Link, the lawyer; Scar, a Coke dealer from Chicago; Stupid, a thug whose apparent function was to repeat everything Scar said; and Willie, the beat cop who was also Sam’s only friend. Someone had relocated Scar’s pockmarked nose onto his left cheek, where it interrupted the narrow white furrows that would otherwise have run from his forehead to his chin. His overall appearance had earned him the respect of the others. He spoke first.
“So what’s going on, Sam? I got a load of Cokes to deliver.”
“Yeah, what’s going on?”
“Shut up, Stupid.” Sam glared at Stupid, then glanced at Scar and the others. “Look, boys, I’m really tired of playing the patsy for Jacobsen. The slob hits a few keys and thinks he’s a writer. I used to think he’d come around, but not anymore! Damn! I wish someone else had dreamed us up.” He lit a cigarette and blew a smoke ring for effect.
“Well what can we do about it, Sam? We’re just characters.”
“Shut up, Stupid!” Sam turned his attention back to the others. “I know we’re just characters, f’Christ’s sake! But there’s gotta be a way to end this agony! Shit! That’s why I brought you boys down here. We gotta figure out what to do and how to do it! Any ideas? Link?”
Link nervously straightened himself and looked at his fingers. “I guess we could cuff him to death, Sam.”
“Brilliant, Link! Just goddamn brilliant!” Sam flicked his cigarette butt into the corner, then lit another one. “Where’d you get your degree, anyway? Monkey Ward? Think! Exactly how are we gonna slap him around? We ain’t even real!” Sam shifted his attention. “Willie, whadda you think? Help me out here! All these italicized words are driving me nuts!”
Willie slipped his fingernail file into his vest pocket and looked up calmly. He lit a cigar and blew a trail of smoke over Link’s head. “We cut him, Sam.”
“What? How we gonna cut him? Haven’t you been listening?”
Willie was unphased. “Every time he gets near a page of the manuscript, we all rush to one side. The paper shifts and voila! We cut him.”
Sam fired another cigarette butt into the corner. “I think you’ve been hanging around Link too long. What good’s a paper cut or two gonna do?”
Willie smiled patiently. “How often does he go to sleep with one of his worthless manuscripts on his chest?”
“Shit, I don’t know. At least once a day, I guess.”
“Right. And at least one page is always next to his throat, right?”
“Well, yeah… I suppose so.”
“You know so, Sam. And we’re in all the slob’s manuscripts, aren’t we? On every freakin’ page.”
“Sure, you know we are, but….”
“We cut him. End of story.” Willie drew his thumb slowly across his throat. “Then we disappear to wait for some other genius to invent us. And maybe—just maybe—the next one will at least have an agent.”
When Marge Jacobsen came home from work that night, the house was dark except for the eerie glow cast by the test pattern on the television.
“Baby, I’m home,” she called. No answer. She flicked on the hall light, then walked into the living room and found her husband asleep on the couch, the last few pages of his manuscript sprawled across his chest as usual. Idiot. Give your characters just a little life and you might actually sell something. “Come on, Big Guy. Let’s go to bed.”
She reached to shuffle the manuscript pages together, but they seemed stuck together. “Eating toast and honey in the living room again, hmmm?” She picked up the pile of papers and carried them to his desk, then turned on the desk lamp and screamed.
It was sweet, but it wasn’t honey.
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