The best way out is always through. ― Robert Frost
WHEN THIS WORLD CATCHES FIRE
BOOK THREE: SAVAGE NOXTOWN
CHAPTER NINE: PART TWENTY-SIX: THE MAYOR OF HELL
Tipsy Smith, the proprietor of the Seven Stars Saloon, also gave me
the low-down about Smash Coughlin, which he didn’t exactly need to do,
since I was actually at the Saloon on the night he stumbled in there,
and actually witnessed a good deal of what transpired there.
Now, as I think I told you before, the Seven Stars Saloon was a
basement room, paneled all in wood, with ornate carvings from what
must have once been a rich man’s fancy but was now the lowest flop dive in
Noxtown, and tht’s going some, because there was any number of Blind
Pigs and Blind Tigers and Knock-out Joints and Shanghai Dumps and
Holes in the Wall and Low Dives hard by the Salt River where the air
is damp and the tugboats make their infernal tooting all night
long–not so any of the patrons noticed–so stupefied were they by
Coffin Varnish and Stagger Soup and Pop Skull and Bug Juice. You
could of exploded a stick of Dynamite in that joint and it wouldn’t
have come out looking one whit different. The oaken chairs all had
cracks in them and the oaken tables were scarred yellow with years of
booze slop and the barstools were shiny with the wear and tear of
a thousand asses and the sawdust on the floor was most likely
yesterday’s furniture–as Tipsy Smith never tired of claiming.
And with all the cracks in the thick glass windows that faced the
street, why, in the wintertime the joint was cold as hell on the
stoker’s day off. And in the summer it was hot as hell with the hinges
off. The Seven Stars drew the riverboat trade. Sailors, merchant marines, and
dock- wallopers. It was also full of lushermen and common tramps and
yekkmen. Of circus troupers, carnies and roustabouts, especially in
the cold and rainy off-season. Of boodlers, boozers, kickers, knockers,
and would-be managers. Of dips, molls, punks, gunsels, catamites, and
other perverts. Plenty of stray Tups on the loose, too, along with
demis and lallygags and ladies of joy. And every one of them drank, and shouted
in an argle-bargle of different accents, lingos, and several languages
too, none of which I knowed. It’s how I imagine hell might have
sounded, in one of its more sentimental moments. What with the
brawling and the bawling and the singing of chanties and drunken
Barber Shop favorites and the shouting and the blubbering and the
babbling, if you was any kind off respectable lady you would be well
advised to stuff some cotton in your ears and sport a pair of hoss
blinders because “discreet women have neither eyes nor ears ; that
would be wooed and not unsought be won.”
Of course, no respectable lady would be found within one red mile of
the joint. Not even the ladies from the Sally–the Salvation Army–or
the settlement house cared to venture there. Any preachers who set
foot in the joint would be chawed up and spat out, tout suite.
Policemen hardly fared much better, and besides, the patch fee was
paid to the patch man to square any beef in advance, and no jolly
copper ever stopped by except maybe early in the morning for a bracer, gratis, courtesy of
the house. That’s because the money went all the way up to Police
Captain Tom Aston. The world may be round but it hangs on crooked
hinges all the same–and for all three-hundred and sixty degrees.
Everybody has an agenda. Ev-ry-bo-dy. Like a squirrel who gathers
nuts. People store up their grudges and petty revenges, and life long.
Anyway, because there warn’t never no bulls there were fights at the
Seven Stars that lasted from can’t see till daylight. So when Smash
Conklin walks in and looks as if he’s going to start something, the
whole place goes quiet.
But Conklin–old Uglyface–warn’t his usual brash self. Instead, he
started babbling about the crazy experience he had. He was down at
the carnival midway, drawn in by the hurly-burly, with electric lights
and grinning clowns. He took a mallet in the test of strength and rang
the bell and got a free cigar. Then he entered the Red and Black
Carnival. “A hall of horrors, it was!” Where a twisty-mouthed midget
chased him around a mulberry bush. Where a man with three eyes pointed
three pistols at him and while firing them all at once, shouted
“You’ll never get me!” Where a drooling half-wit mumbled,
“Hurr hurr hurr…Going to cut his head off and give it to my girl!”
And there was more.
Conklin ventured into a heavily curtained room where a fly copper with a
green skull was lurking behind the arras, truncheon at the ready. As
he twirled it, it transformed into a sleek brown rattlesnake. The curtained room
led to the middle of the vast hallway, where a skeleton was rising
from a gunny sack. In another part of the hall, a man was seated on a
trash can, praying for Lucifer not to take his soul. Over by the
stained glass windows, a Sky Pilot was giving an oration over Smash
Conklins’s earthly remains. “But I wasn’t dead yet!”
So Smash ran outside, past the cemetary, where, just over the ridge, a
battle raged amid the tall grass. A pig-faced man on two fat legs wearing
a soldier’s uniform jabbed a bayonet into his shoulder. Behind him, a
man wielding a monkeywrench was threatening to conk him in the noggin.
Off in the far corner of the meadow, the village blacksmith was vowing
to use his head as an anvil. Suddenly, he was surrounded by Red
Indians on all sides. They were all ready to scalp him “for heap big
wampum.” He fled to a nearby stream. A Romanian river nymph–a
grinning fat lady covered with seaweed who said her name was Sase
Duca–rose from the
stream and threatened to drown him. Instead, he was carried off by an
eight-foot giant who hefted him under his arms like a sack of meal.
Smash squirmed free. “I said ‘Gangway! I want out!”
So then he fled to the Seven Stars.
Suddenly, a full platoon of Russian Hussars mounted on horses burst in
through the windows and threatened to run him through with their
flashing scimitars. Smash screamed in terror.
“And I woke up.”
It sounded to Tipsy Smith as though someone had dosed him with
Laudanum or opium. As it was, Smash’s mouth was dry and his face was
gurning in a most unpleasant way and if my guess was correct I would
suspect he had just shoved his nose into some of the asthma powders
which were so popular with the cocaine fiends who prowled around the
joint–the Good Lordie Himself knows there were plenty of suppliers of
Smash started running low on talk and with his sad scarred face he
looked and actually seemed contrite. I–almost–felt sorry for him.
But then he spied Jimmy Ragmop–a harmless old eccentric vagabond who
cleaned up the place. And he started lashing into him. “YOU!” he
shrieked. “I’ll trim your sails for you, Ragmop. I don’t care who
you’re with. You’re a lopsided mistake of nature. Ragmop, Ragmap,
what ARE we going to DO with you?” he sneered. And he made as if to
strike poor old Jimmy.
It was a big mistake.
For Ragmop, having patiently tried to appease Smash Conklin in the
past, suddenly turned around and you could see he was holding in both fists a
wicked-looking Bowie knife of the kind they called a Arkansas
Toothpick. It was at least eight inches long. “Uglyface–I swear to
God–if you so much as touch me, I’ll cut you from ear to ear so your
own Mammy won’t recognize you!” Conklin began slowly backing up to
reach the door. The bar was, for once, deathly silent. “I allus
knew–allus knew you was a menace, Ragmop,” Smash feebly said.
“And you druve me to it,” said Ragmop. “I tried to make nice with you,
Brutus, but you are an infamous miscreant! The lowest dog that ever
crawled from the whelping den! A big, fat, liver-lipped,
blubber-nosed, black-eyed recreant! I live to see the day when you are
reduced to plucking pennies from out’n the gutter. There you’ll
be–your filthy ulster covered with snot and puke–and there I’ll
be–rolling by in my horseless carriage–lightin’ big ceegars with
hundred dollar bills–a boofur lady on each arm–laffin’–laffin’!”
Jimmy Ragmop then stepped forward and made a one-handed threatening gesture with
the knife, and Smash Conklin, as white as a sheet of parchment, turned
tail and scrambled up the flight of wooden stairs as quickly as though
he were a scalded pup.
I knew there would be trouble to come of this. And soon. Because Smash
was also connected, in a big way, and was in with some pretty
desperate characters, including he who must not be named–namely (to
name him), The Big Man. Cokey Stolas.
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758. REVIVE–WITH VIVARIN!
Back in the drug suffused sixties I was but a lad of tender years,
and the kaleidoscopic array of substances on offer were of little
interest to me, although I was quite taken with a frantic if not, in
fact, frighteningly manic little broadcast ditty which went thus:
Get a little lift, take Vivarin
Get a little lift, take Vivarin!
Not since reading Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle,” in which Jurgis
Rudkis serenaded his Lithuanian family with his maddeningly repetitive
rendition of “In the Good Old Summertime,” had I been so entranced by
the stupefying potential of cheap music.
But the ghouls at the Vivarin ad agency weren’t quite through with me
yet. Witness the following, highly sentimental 1985 scenario, which I
have taken the liberty of dubbing, “If You Don’t Graduate, We’re
For those of you without the benefit of advanced computer technology
such as youtube, I will summarize this poignant playlet.
A young woman has, judging from her sweater and
high prole-cum-bargain basement bourgeoise feathered hairdo,
haphazardly hunkered down at the local institution of higher
education. Let’s assume she lives in the Jan Miner Dormitory at
Palmolive Dish Liquid Community College. This busty but slightly drab
midinette is apparently hellbent on landing a spoiled and rather
dimwitted young scion of the middling to lower-upper mercantile
class. (I am assuming that the stolid hunk’s
pappy made his bundle with some dumbass minor-league scam, such as
selling slightly used popsicle sticks to second graders, or hawking
off-brand auto parts to purblind septuagenarians, or palming diluted
Penicillin off onto impoverished bohunks, or some such.)
Unfortunately for the young lady, her big plans for matrimony and a
life filled with screaming brats and her future husband’s alcoholic
shenanigans threaten to be derailed by the Big Stupe’s inability to
pass his final exams.
This, so far, is the backstory.
Into his den she strides, happy as a daft moggy with a catnip collar,
when she espies Lunko fast asleep with his head on his desk, with
presumably only hours to go until the big test.
She then delivers the following deathless line of monologue with all
the ferociousness of the powercrazed Barbara Stanwyck in “The Violent
Men”: “Wake UP! If you don’t graduate, we’re THROUGH!”
Thoroughly duped and cowed by this display of feminine animus, he
lethargically croaks, “I’m bushed!”
It is here that the sweater girl lashes into her dozey Romeo with the
forceful avidity of a god-intoxicated Maenad preparing to give suck to
a wolf cub. “Heah,” she crows, “Revive with Vivarin…helps wake yew
UP.” And then the shameless hussy literally wraps her sinister pink
coils around the halfwakened dumbbell’s hapless neck while proffering
what might as well be labeled, in boldface letters, “THE FORBIDDEN
At which point the hearty voice of Zeus from out of the clouds booms
out the information that “Government appointed experts” have approved
the stuff as safe. (Presumably this omnipotent voice is referring to
the omniscient Food and Drug Administration, which has, in fact,
grudgingly allowed that the principal stimulating ingredient in
coffee, tea, cocoa, aspirin, soda pop, and even ice cream is, in fact,
generally recognized as safe.)
Goaded by the shrieking caffeine Harpy, the young fellow, still in the
throes, it seems, of having been wakened from a badly needed
restorative dream, rather groggily endorses the rather sinister pills
with the dubious encomium, “Revive…with Vivarin!”
Alas, the master playwrights writing circa long-ago October 1985 have
tragically left us with only a fifteen second fragment. Here’s the
suspenseful part. What happens next? Some of the greatest literary
minds have grappled with this conundrum, but nobody yet has emerged
with a definitive answer. The dramatic question needing to be resolved
is as follows: Does Diploma Boy actually marry the Vivarin whore–or
do they break up three days before he gets the sheepskin?
I’m guessing the former. I’m hoping the latter.