Forgotten Young Men on the Literary Trapeze by Michael Paul Hogan

Charles Jackson once walked into a pawn shop on Second Avenue wearing a double-breasted blue suit with a narrow chalk-stripe and carrying a Remington portable typewriter in a black wooden case. A bell over the door rang when he entered and a bird in a cage hanging from an old-fashioned hat stand made the sound that plastic window blinds make when a cop tries to strike a match on them to light a cigarette. There was a fake-fur coat hanging from another arm of the hat stand and in the left-hand pocket of the coat there was a stick bomb from World War One and in the right-hand pocket a wooden ruler marked in inches and centimeters. From behind a glass-topped counter a surprisingly well-made, surprisingly good-looking young man glanced up at the sound of bird and bell, a jeweler’s lens still screwed like a light-bulb into the socket of his left eye, a silk handkerchief flopping lazily from the breast pocket of his shirt. An instantaneous frisson of acknowledgement passed between them. The button-sized rubber beads on the base of the typewriter case made a small window-leather squeak against the surface of the glass counter. The bird rattled its beak against the bars of its cage. The pawn broker’s son or nephew or assistant or whoever he was said,

“It needs a new ribbon. Most folks don’t know how to change ’em. Twenty dollars. Best I can do.”

Figure it’s a bright November day with just a hint in the air of snow; the sort of thin snow that kind of whirls around but never lands on anything. What my grandmother used to call “miser’s snow.” Charles Jackson put his hands in his pants pockets, scrunched them down, and thirty minutes later was sitting at the counter of a bar on Fifty-third and Fifth. The bartender put down a double scotch and a glass of beer and went back to polishing the bottles on a mirror-backed shelf. Charles Jackson took a mouthful of the beer and then out of the pocket of the jacket of his double-breasted blue suit with a narrow chalk-stripe he took a cardboard pill box and out of the cardboard pill box he took two Seconal and the two Seconal he swallowed down with another two mouthfuls of the beer. Then bedded them in with a twist of scotch. The bartender took down a bottle, polished it, and put it back. Took down the next. Charles Jackson, feeling everything take nice effect, loosened his tie and pushed back the brim of his hat. Did I forget to tell you he wore a hat? Of course he did! This was New York in 1934, take a look at the movies, take a look at the photographs, everybody wore a hat – even Clark Gable in It Happened One Night. Even everybody on the Greyhound bus where they sing

He swings through the air with the greatest of ease,
That daring young man on the flying trapeze…

Hats were total. So Charles Jackson set his hat back of his head and drank the scotch and ordered another and loosened his tie a little looser and ordered a third. After the third, by a process of logical mathematical progression, there must be a fourth – but that isn’t what was important right there and then. If you looked at the way the all the labels on the bottles were reflecting / flected, and the parallels and camera-angles on the shelfs the shelfs descending, tilting, escalating, wasn’t it that, dammit, that! that if you wrote would be it more terrific even Hemingway more than better truly truly way, oh yes oh gorgeous yes! far out and everybody would most definitely def, “Hey, soldier!”

A muscle twitched above the bartender’s shoulder blade, the shoulder blade of the shoulder of the arm holding a bottle of Chivas Regal up to the light. He glanced in the mirror at the guy at the bar and replaced the bottle on the shelf. He came forward, wiping his hands on the polishing cloth. He said,

“Uh, huh?”

“Did you ever read The Three Day Blow?”

“Can’t say I did, sir.” Then: “If it’s about boxing, I prefer the track.”

“It’s about – everything,” said Charles Jackson. And suddenly he had the awfulest, damnedest feeling he was about to cry. He took a handkerchief out of his pants pocket and made like he was dabbing at a fleck of grit in the corner of his eye. A pawnbroker’s ticket for a Remington Portable No. 5 typewriter came out of his pocket along with the handkerchief and floated down unnoticed onto the beer-stained wooden floor. He said, Charles Jackson said,

“I think, if you don’t mind, and under the circumstances, I will have another glass of whiskey and, if convenience permits, an also glass of beer.”

If 1934 wasn’t the best of all possible years for Charles Jackson, it was certainly a good year for another, a very different writer, for it was the year that William Saroyan’s breakthrough story The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze was published in (appropriately) Story magazine. Meanwhile, a whole bunch of other writers destined to be famous in the ’forties were pursuing the agendas that would see them get there. Businessman Frederic Wakeman had taken his family over to Cuba or Bermuda or wherever it was – somewhere nearly-but-not-quite America – and was twelve years away from The Hucksters, while Mary Jane Ward was experimenting with short stories in Greenwich Village, likewise twelve years away from her own masterpiece, The Snake Pit, based on her subsequent breakdown and incarceration in Rockland State Hospital, a mental institution in Orangeburg, New York. As for Charles Jackson – well, he himself had exactly ten years to go before the publication of his (indeed, America’s) alcoholic masterpiece The Lost Weekend….

“Set ’em up, soldier, and I’ll tell you a story Hemingway didn’t write…”

When I lived in Key West twenty-odd years ago I rented the ground floor of a house on Varela Street and balanced my typewriter on a plank of wood across two orange boxes and used a couple more orange boxes to make a set of bookshelves – on the top shelf of which I had first edition copies of all of these books, The Hucksters, The Snake Pit, The Lost Weekend, as well as Best Short Stories of William Saroyan (1945), the collection that contains my all-time favorite of his, ‘The Sunday Zeppelin,’ plus about a dozen more almost equally good. I’d picked them up from the bargain boxes of Key West second-hand bookstores for a dollar or two apiece – first editions! A dollar or two! – and read them with the sheer joy of discovery, for nobody, absolutely nobody, nobody else, read them then (or reads them now), and so there was, there had been, nobody to tell me how brilliant, how totally unexpectedly great they were. So I guess basically what I thought was –

Jesus, what a literary trapeze this business is! And falling off has nothing to do with your hands with your talent with your timing with your practise with your confidence with your audience with anything. It has to do with who catches you or who doesn’t catch you. And you can be the best in the world who ever lived, but if the catcher doesn’t catch… Well, be the best that ever was, be the best of your whole damned generation, but like I say, if the catcher doesn’t catch… Forget it. You can’t legislate for that

“Now you weren’t aiming to steal that car, were you?”

The boy stepped back from the black Plymouth sedan with whitewall tires that was parked up at where the road forked down to the landing stage or carried on to the bridge upstream.  

“No, sir!”

“Relieved to hear it. Hate to have to steal it back off of you.”

The man who’d spoken came out from behind some bushes, still buttoning up the top button of his pants, a biggish man in a black suit with a black vest, his hat pushed back a little on account of the Virginia heat, his shirt collar showing white against all the black. He said,

“Not that it ain’t good for much else – except stealing, given it barely got me these eighty miles to – to where, sonny? Where am I ended up at?”

“Nowhere, sir. Only Moundsville. Moundsville, Marshall County.” The boy hesitated, he said, “Listen, mister, I wasn’t aiming to steal your car. Only admiring it. We don’t get many out-of-state automobiles riding through these days, and when we do they ain’t got preachers riding ’em. You are a preacher?”

“Smart, boy. And what about you? Smart enough to want to be a preacher yourself?”

“Smart enough to be a painter, sir. Or maybe a writer. But I prefer to paint.”

“How old are you, anyhow?”

“Fourteen, sir. Fifteen in July.”

“See these hands?”

“I surely do, sir.”

“Oil made ’em, oil ’stained ’em. Lord knows, I ain’t no goddammed preacher! Saw one once, S A T A N tattoo’d on one hand, J E S U S on t’other. Scared the hell outa me. Scared me aways from religion, not toward it. Stick with oil stains. Morally cleaner. Son?”


“This year of our Lord nineteen hundred and thirty-four. Our Lord? The devil, more like. Kids by the side of the road, near dead from hunger. Menfolks and womenfolks near dead as their kids. If I were a preacher, I’d spit in m’ own eye. What kind of pictures you paint, son?”

“Landscapes mostly. Birds, trees. Everything along the river. People sometimes. Not so much. You sure you ain’t no preacher? You kind of talk like.”

“You want to know what I do? Why I pitched up here same’s I pitch up nearly everywhere this side ’n’ that of the Ohio River? I sell typewriters, son. Specifically, the Remington Portable Number Five. If you ever give up painting for writing, you may own a machine like this someday. Though a word to the wise, give up both and take up fishing. Less time-consuming and more profitable.” He took off his hat, he ran his finger around the band, he said, “Recommend a place to eat around here? Nothin’ fancy. A mug of coffee? Pork ’n’ beans?”

A bird flapped and resettled in the trees that separated the road from the river. The sound was like when a cop strikes a match on plastic window blinds to light a cigarette. The boy said,

“There’s Joe’s Diner, ’bout half a mile back. You maybe missed it without realizing. Food’s good and Joe and my father go away back. Joe’s wife makes the best pie in town.”

“Joe’s it is then. Who shall I say recommended me?”          

 “Davis, sir. Davis Grubb.”

The stranger tipped his hat and swung open the driver’s door of the Plymouth. The boy caught a glance of a typewriter on the passenger seat. The door slammed, the driver made a three-point turn, then paused and leaned across to shout through the passenger-side window. He said,

 “So long, Davis. Davis Grubb. An’ if you ever get to be a writer, remember the first typewriter salesman you ever met.”

 “I surely will do that.” Then: “Enjoy your lunch, sir.”

 “Aim to. So long.”

He set himself back behind the wheel and accelerated in the direction of town. The boy stood watching until the road was just a blur of dust. Then the dust settled and the car was a black speck in a shimmer of sunlight.

Then it was gone.

About the contributor

Born in London, Michael Paul Hogan is a poet, journalist, fiction writer and literary essayist whose work has appeared extensively in the UK, USA, India and China. He is the author of six poetry collections and is currently working on a book of short stories.

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