Wednesday, July 29, 2015


by horace p sternwall

illustrations by konrad kraus and roy dismas

it was all over.

the jig was up. there was no tomorrow.

he was up the creek without a paddle, and there was no rest for the weary.

he was caught like a deer in the headlights, between the devil and the deep blue sea.

soon it would be morning. dawn would break over the city like the sneering smile of a railroad boss, ready to crack the whip over the millions of chumps and losers and punks and hacks who sweated and strained to keep the machine of so-called civilization running.

running and running and running until it wore them all down and threw them away like pairs of old shoes. like yesterday's papers.


he would have to man up, get his act together, and do what had to be done.

he lit his last cigarette with his last match.

the bottle of cheap whiskey - the devil's brew, which had undone many a good man and true - was empty, drained to the last drop.

all his so-called friends had deserted him, like rats leaving a sinking ship.

only trixie was left, passed out on the couch. she was a cheap floozie with a heart that had tuned from purest gold to deadest lead a thousand dimes a dance ago, across a thousand red dawns coming up over a thousand cheap rooming houses, and a thousand torn up love letters blowing down the boardwalk into the sand.

she'd stick around as long as there was a nickel or a smoke to bum or a drop of booze to mooch.

then she'd be gone like a cool breeze.

suddenly there was a knock on the door, breaking the silence with a noise like a machine gun.

before he could make a move the door opened.

there was maxie, the big guy's most trusted gorilla, with a cheap stogie pasted in his ugly mug. and a roscoe in his right hand.

and right behind him his sidekick phil - phil the parrot, with his permanent giggly sneer, the slimiest rat that ever crawled out of the lowest sewer.

phil had both hands in his pockets, but you could bet dollars to doughnuts he had a .22 in one and a shiv in the other.

"hello, johnny," maxie drawled.

"hello, maxie. i wish i could say it was a pleasure."

"then the pleasure will have to be all mine, johnny. no problem."

"come on, maxie, let's get it over with."

maxie raised his bushy eyebrows. they looked like two evil gray caterpillars getting ready to fight.

"get what over with, kid? we just came to have a friendly little chat."

behind him phil giggled like a hyena.

"don't try to play me for a sucker, maxie. i know the score. i know the big guy don't forgive and forget. and he's got a memory like an elephant. it's over. it's the bottom of the ninth, and i got two strikes on me with nobody on base. there's no more light in the tunnel. there's no more water left in the well."

maxie laughed. "don't be so dramatic, kid. you sound like sarah bernhardt playing hamlet at the white house. there's no need to be nervous. we're all friends here."

phil giggled again.

johnny nodded. "yeah. when i had money i had lots of friends. but now nobody knows me when i'm down and out."

maxie looked around the flea-bitten room, noticed trixie on the couch.

"who's she?"

"just a dame."

"yeah, i kind of figured that." maxie stared at trixie for a few seconds and then looked at johnny . "well, back to serious business. it seems the big guy, in his inscrutable way, and for reasons known only to himself, has decided to give you one last chance."

"one last chance," johnny repeated.

behind maxie, phil giggled again. he sounded like a broken record.

"he has a job for you. just one. it's easy."

"he wants me to kill somebody."

"no, he wants you to go out to his farm on long island and milk a goat. what do you think he wants?" maxie turned and nodded to phil.

phil took his left hand out of his pocket and tossed something to johnny.

johnny grabbed it. it was a zip gun. it looked it was held together with chewing gum.

"you like it?" phil tittered. "i made it myself. i'm real proud of it. like an old mama lion watching her boy go off to war."

johnny turned it over gingerly in his hand. "it doesn't look like --. " he didn't know what to say.

"no," maxie finished for him. "it doesn't look like something remington hand crafted for j p morgan or the prince of wales. but it will work like a charm if you walk right up to somebody and stick it in their guts."

"it's got one shot in it," phil added. "one. so don't be getting any ideas, punk."

"phil's right," said maxie. "it's got just one bullet in it. so make sure you aim straight and true."

johnny shrugged. he put the zip gun on the table beside the empty whiskey bottle.

"all right. who's the one lucky customer?"

"a guy named skorzys, he has a little tailor shop over on 21st street."

"what kind of name is that?"

"foreign. he's a foreigner. he just fell off a slow banana boat from china."

"let me guess. he doesn't speak the language?"

"no," said maxie. "he don't speak the simplest language of all - the language of knowing who his friends are."

"or knowing how to play ball," added phil.

"you don't want me to try to talk to him?" johnny asked.

"he's already been talked to," said maxie. "the time for talk has passed. we just want you to write the book on him."

"the final chapter," added phil.

"it's your party," johnny agreed. he got his coat and hat. he didn't want to stick the zip gun in his belt or his pocket so he wrapped it in his coat and put the coat under his arm.

johnny put his hat on and followed maxie and phil out the door.

trixie was still asleep on the couch.

johnny didn't lock the door behind him. he had lost the key.


skorzys the tailor was small and bald. his mustache looked thick enough to sweep grand central station with.

he stood behind a counter and didn't say anything to johnny when he entered, just watched as johnny put the rolled up coat on the counter.

"what i do for you?" he asked as johnny unrolled the coat.

johnny showed him the zip gun. "you can do something for yourself, pal. say a prayer. prepare to meet your maker. "

the little man's eyes blazed. "ah... you come for me, eh? just like the old country!"

"the countries are all the same, pal. you got to pay the price. no tickee, no shirtee."

"i thought this country different. i work hard, i save my money to come here, to the new world where a man can be free..."

suddenly a door behind the counter opened. someone started to come through, with something in their hand...

johnny fired the one shot. it sailed above the open door and into the ceiling.

a girl stood in front of him, with a coat on a hanger. she was about seventeen years old. she was the most beautiful girl johnny had ever seen, with long black hair, dark eyes and rosy cheeks. i could marry a girl like this, thought johnny, go away and live on an island with her forever, have nine or ten kids...

"you punk!" she screamed at him. "go ahead and kill us! burn in hell, you no good cowardly punk!"

johnny dropped the empty zip gun and turned and ran out the door.

the sun was coming up over broadway.

phil was waiting for him. he had a gun in his hand, not a .22 but a .45.

"you had one chance, punk," he told johnny. "you blew it."

he put two slugs into johnny's guts, slugs that would have stopped a charging rhino.

"yeah," said johnny, "i had one life. and i blew that."


"recognize him?" officer o'malley asked father joe.

"i sure do," father joe answered. " johnny 'the blade' o'flaherty. a real tough guy."

officer o'malley stuck his boot under johnny's body and flipped it over on its back. "he was a tough guy, all right. a real tough guy."

johnny's hat rolled away and the wind picked it up and blew it down 21st street.


Wednesday, July 22, 2015

the ballad of willy and nora and old doc

by horace p sternwall

illustrated by konrad kraus

willy white and nora green
were connoisseurs of the unseen
willy wanted love and cash
nora pined for jewels and flash

what they wanted they wanted now
they didn't need it just anyhow
they were sick of being hurt
treated like some kind of dirt

ever since the world was new
people told them what to do
passed them by in cadillacs
with hard rain pounding on their backs

as they passed from town to town
the locals tried to wear them down
threw them in the county hoosegow
with hardly even an excuse, now

when a guy can't make a buck
and a dame's down on her luck
and can't take it any more
what can they do but try to score?

humans have been around too long
seen every dance, heard every song
though suckers are born every day
it's harder to find new tricks to play

when willy and nora hit parkerville
the night was cold and very still
old number 9 sped down the track
they knew there was no turning back

even the general store was closed
willy sighed and rubbed his nose
nora blinked and suppressed a yawn
said "no use standing here, come on"

should they try to peddle their wares
down among the squares
hiding behind their shades so drawn
and their perfectly barbered cubes of lawn?

over time the world had changed
human mores had been rearranged
people hardly walked the streets
but had become much more discreet

all the streets were now main
there was one big central brain
almost nothing left residual
of a standup individual

the time had passed for talk
willy sat down on the sidewalk
nora squinted with her weak sight
and said "i think i see a light"

they had been down this road before
from shore to shining shore
from malibu to plymouth rock
it was time to see old doc

every town has an old doc
don't act shocked
every tribe in the bush has one
ever since the world begun

but although they are all brothers
some old docs are worse than others
some have just the thing you need
others only have their greed

some are worth their humble pay
and send you happily on your way
others, fortunately not so often
will drive the last nail in your coffin

the town in which our tale commences
was hidden behind white picket fences
willy and nora passed whole streets by
without attracting a single eye

where was old doc?
a distant steeple clock
mocked their desperate hopes
they were on the ropes

the whole world was asleep
time on its serpent skin did creep
it was different from times past
they had come to the end at last

the old laws no longer applied
they were being taken for a ride
the light that nora thought she saw
was brushed aside by midnight’s paw

yes, old doc was there for sure
but no longer dispensing cure
his withered carcass could be found
six feet under the ground

on his stone was this inscription -
he has written his last prescription
for fifty years he filled the scores
but they don’t write them like this any more