In Like Flint (1967) | Main | e-Monkey Newsletter -- Volume 1, Issue 10

February 20, 2003

Honor in Pulp

Posted by Mike on February 20, 2003 10:51 PM

This is what passed for a mid-term in the beginning fiction class I'm in. We were supposed to "describe a character and face him/her with an unresolved choice," which provoked a lot of unhappiness and hand-wringing as I came to realize how much I hate the sound of my own voice when I'm writing about things besides computers. So I handed the camera over to Stan, a mean old crook, and let him mess around with Nick, whom I was unable to draw on my own (and who was supposed to be the character under consideration). So more consternation and hand-wringing ensued when the nice grade and positive comments were for Stan, who just wasn't the point.

It's probably an indicator of a high nerd factor at work that I confronted the professor and told him I didn't mean for Stan to be the character of interest and that I'd like to know how I did with Nick. He told me it didn't matter what I meant and that Nick was fine, but simply not the point.

O.k. Just wanted to be clear.

One additional fun thing from this term has been realizing how much leaning on genre can relieve the tensions generated by a lengthy series of exercises designed to thwart my narrative impulse. There's a story in there, even if it's only implied by the conventions of the gangster/thug narrative.


New guy came up to the second floor today. There's one from down in collections every few months. Always the same guys: muscle used to smacking bookies and barbers around, shaking out the cigar boxes of mom-n-pops all over the east side. Someone decides these kids are ready to manage their own thing, so they send them up to me for an interview and some OJT with a real earner.

The way this kid comes through the door? Same as the rest, slamming it open and standing there like he’s in a room full of Korean grocers he needs to squeeze. Whatever. When no one jumps up and offers him coffee, he’s a little more quiet about closing the door behind him.

You can't miss that I'm the guy up here. He figures it out, but he’s too busy trying to stare down Sal and Vic to notice me watching him as he walks over.

Have to give the kid points for size. Big. Indiana prom king big. Corn-fed. Marks probably tip him after he’s done shaking them down. From across the room it’s sort of hard to see where that big neck ends and that ugly little head begins... he could be one solid block of non-moving parts from the waist up.

But Jesus, who dresses this kid? It’s like he’s some sort of sausage his mommy stuffed into a blue polyester used car salesman costume. I almost want to cover my eyes. When that jacket button he forced over that gut goes, someone’s going with it.

I decide his new name is Jethro even before I get a good look into those mule-stupid eyes or hear his breath coming out of his mouth. With the hair and the freckles, Jethro’s more merciful than Howdy Goddamn Doody.

By the time he’s at my desk I notice that nose, too. There's this theory among the guys that the big ones don't know how to get bopped, but that nose is a mess. If he'd had it bent that bad out of shape as many times as it looked and still came up from collections, he either didn't mind taking one or two for the cause or he was someone's nephew, sent up for his own protection.

He stops in front of my desk.

"You Stan?" he asks in this high voice, and I almost feel sorry for him. His voice is what got that nose broken. How could a tough guy not want to test the waters with Hulk Junior after hearing that voice? Hell... I know some rabbity little accountants who’d take a poke at him, just to see.

"Yeah," I say, looking over my glasses. "I'm Stan. You must be, uh..."

"Nick," he says, after a beat, like I was supposed to know.

"Jethro, right. Roll that chair over there. Sit down."

The Jethro crack pisses him off. He snatches at the chair and rolls it around fast. It gets away from him and bounces off the front of my desk and into his legs. He knocks over my waste paper basket trying to stop it. His face gets red. Here I am, this little mick Mr. Miyagi and I’m already all in his head, making him look stupid.

After he sits down, we do some talking. He must mention his respect for “old schoolers” twenty damn times. Once these kids think they have you snowed with their whole “reverence for the old ways” routine, you can learn something. So once he’s warmed up, punching the air and pulling pretend people over imaginary counters, I lock him down a little.

“Look... Jethro... quit flappin’ your hands around,” I say. “It makes me nervous.”

So his hands go into his lap, and his stories about this guy or that he shook down or straightened out are a little less scenic. For a big, hick-looking hog-wrestler, this kid’s a natural actor and it bugs him he can’t perform. But I don’t get him. Ten minutes later, he’s walked me through the time he knocked out seven bookies with one blow, and I still don’t get him.

Now that his hands have stopped moving, I give them a look. Big, like the rest of him, but fat, too. And almost pink. Class ring sitting there on one finger. Nail biter.

He’s still talking, jogging his leg like he’s gotta go to the bathroom or something, and I’m smiling and nodding and he’s blabbing about some thing he did with Stinky Smith in that high little voice of his and my eyes drop back down to his hands. His pink, fat hands with their perfect, smooth knuckles.

“Alright,” I say to myself, “it’s time for the skill assessment phase of this interview.”

“Good story, Jethro,” I say. “Too bad all your little fairy tales are a buncha bullshit.”

Funny how suddenly the kid stops jiggling, and sits there, hands in his lap, eyes wide.

“Hunh?” he gets out.

“Hunh?” I say, mocking him. “Hunh, as in: you ain’t done none of that shit, and if you’ve seen half of it with your own eyes, you were just standing in the door lookin’ out for cops while the men inside earned the damn money.”

His fists ball up around his thumbs down there on that fat lap of his, and he’s trying to work that moon face into a glare, and I’m out of my seat, grabbing him by his little sport coat and pulling him over the desk, close enough that he blinks when spit sprays from my mouth.

“Take a poke,” I say. “Let’s see some a’ that grief you brought down on that tailor that one time. Just a little of it. You’re ready to be a boss... let’s see. Show me or I’m throwin’ you down those god-damned stairs.”