i was down on my luck - again.
i had been played for a chump - again.
the wind was whipping down broadway - again.
i was headed for maisie's. she might be open.
she might not.
another bum passed me by. i didn't say nothing to him.
he didn't say nothing to me.
he disappeared into the night.
i guess he disappeared into the night - i didn't turn around to watch him.
but i didn't disappear. i was still freezing.
maisie's was open. that was something, anyway.
i opened the door. it creaked, but maisie didn't look up from the counter where she was reading some big fat book, the way she does.
the place was empty.
maisie must have a heart of gold. or a heart of something, because she will let a bum come in and sit down even if he don't buy nothing, as long as the place isn't full, and it never is.
once i asked her, what's that book you are reading, the bible? she didn't look up, she just said "no" and kept on reading.
i went over to the corner and sat down at my favorite table.
i wished i had a smoke.
i looked around. i did a double take.
the place was not as empty as i thought.
there was a girl sitting at the next table.
a blonde, real pale, in a crummy gray raincoat. she wasn't very big, maybe that's why i hadn't noticed her .
she looked at me through the smoke of her cigarette.
"spare a smoke?'' i asked her.
"yeah, i can spare one."
i moved over to her table.
at first i thought she looked about fifteen years old. then i looked again and thought she might be about 15,000 years old.
she nodded at the pack of cigarettes on the table in front of her. herbert tareytons. not my brand. but of course i took one.
she stared at me as i lit up with the book of matches in front of her. i looked at the matchbook when i put it down. there was writing on it, but it was in french or chinese or something and i couldn't read it.
"down on your luck, huh?" she asked me.
"you're very " - there's a big word starting with a "p" that i tried to remember but i couldn't - "you're pretty smart " - i ended up with.
she looked at me some more through her smoke. for about five seconds, but it felt like five million years.
"want to make a little money?", she finally asked.
i had been down this road before. "how much?" i asked. the herbert tareyton didn't taste half bad - it wasn't stale. maisie's was nice and warm.
she laughed. "what are you, choosy? you got a briefcase full of good offers? i don't see no briefcase."
she sounded like her mama didn't beat her enough. "no, just asking."
she looked over at maisie. she still had her face in her book, not paying us no never mind.
the girl lowered her voice. "listen, you want to know how much? i'll tell you how much. untold riches. untold riches, how does that sound?"
"pretty good. say, how about a little advance on the untold riches, like the price of a cup of coffee?"
"sure. hey maisie!" maisie looked up from her book. "give this joker a cup of java. on me."
"coming right up." maisie put her book open but face down on the counter. "his name is slim, by the way." maisie was like that, very polite, big for introducing people to each other. "and that's iris, " she told me as i went up to the counter.
i nodded back at iris to show i got her name.
maisie shoved the little of pitcher of cream at me and turned around to the coffee machine.
"what's that you're reading?'
"you mean the name of it? 'lord ormont and his aminta,' by george meredith. it's one of his later works."
i took the cup from maisie, sipped off about a third of it and filled it up with cream. i always did it that way.
maisie went back to her book and i took the coffee and went back to my new friend iris.
iris lowered her voice again. "so - you want to be a bum all your life?"
"not really, but i'm getting used to it."
"listen, pal - slim - while we're sitting here, you know what?"
"no, what?" i took a sip of coffee. it was still nice and hot, even with all the cream in it.
"somewhere in the universe a caravan loaded with amethysts and emeralds is setting out across a silver spangled desert under a purple sky. and in the desert is an oasis filled with roses and orchids. there is a castle in the oasis, a castle with golden towers and ruby corridors and marble rooms filled with precious paintings and priceless statues just begging to be stolen and added to the caravan. but there is no rush. because outside in the garden there is a breeze from a green river just over the horizon that will take you to even bigger castles and richer palaces. and harps and drums are playing, and dark eyed servant girls are passing out opium pipes in the shape of golden dragons. are you with me so far?"
"opium, frankincense, myrrh, a thousand wines - whatever you want. and food? they got platters of sizzling steaks from animals you never even heard of. spiced up with recipes it took a thousand years to perfect.
"and what do i got to do to get all this?"
"i'm just using these as examples. i'm just saying there's plenty out there if you got the nerve to take it. have you got the nerve, brother?"
"it depends. what exactly are you proposing?" i was hoping for another cup of coffee out of her, or at least another cigarette.
she lowered her voice even more. "there's an old lady lives a couple of blocks away - in an alley off west 49th street. she pretends she don't have no money, but she's really rich!"
i had to laugh. "are you kidding me? do you know how many times i heard this tale?"
"but it's true! she lives in this little room but there's a big room behind it that she keeps locked. why does she keep it locked?"
"it is probably filled with old newspapers. old people like to keep them some times. it's just what they do,"
"but why keep it locked, huh? i'm telling you she's got more than king tut, king midas, king solomon, jesse james and j p morgan all rolled into one. and it's there for the taking. if you got the nerve."
i finished off the coffee. "so what are you suggesting, that we bump her off?"
"if that's what it takes." she leaned forward. "what are you, afraid?"
"sorry, i burned my fingers on this match before."
"so you ain't with me?"
"uh - it sounds like kind of a long shot."
"so what? you got to take a chance! look at you. are you going to be a bum all your life? how are you going to feel when you're dying in the gutter with walter winchell's column flapping around your face in the cold morning light and you know that king farouk and joe dimaggio and the duchess of windsor are drinking martinis in monte carlo and you'll never be there! take a chance. for once!"
i stared at her. "okay, i'll tell you what. i'll go with you. we'll see what happens. but when we're through, you buy me another cup of coffee. and give me another cigarette. "
she stared back, with a look of disgust on her face. "sure, big guy. i'll buy you another cup of coffee. i'll buy you two cups, how's that?"
"how about another smoke, right now,?"
i lit up and then we both stood up. "so long," iris called over to maisie, reading her book.
"yeah, so long." maisie didn't look up. if she had heard any of our unseemly conversation, she didn't let on.
outside the wind had picked up. i put my head down and headed into it, walking as fast as i could.
"hope i'm not going too fast for you," i told iris.
"don't worry about that."
we were down 49th street and in the alley in no time. iris looked around, then rapped on a door almost hidden behind the trash barrels that were rattling around in the wind. i was ready to do anything, just to get out of the cold and wind.
no answer. iris rapped a little louder.
"okay, " i said. "we tried."
then i heard a little voice. "who is it? who's there?"
"it's me, mrs mccarthy. iris, from st clorinda's girls home."
"iris, honey, do you know what time it is?"
"yes, but it's freezing out here. let me in, please."
the door opened a crack, and iris pushed it open and i followed her in.
mrs mccarthy, the possessor of untold riches, looked like she weighed about twenty-five pounds. she blinked at me, like she could hardly see me. i figured she was at least half blind. "who's this?"
"this is father mike. he's a new priest, helps out over at the home."
"oh? a little late for a priest to be out, isn't it?"
"we were out comforting the sick. can we come in?"
i had closed the outside door behind me. a door behind the stairwell was half open, and a very dim light came through it.
iris and i followed the trembling mrs mccarthy through the door behind the stairs. as soon as it was shut behind us, iris got down to business.
"all right, mrs mccarthy, the time for talk has passed. your bags of money are going to some one who can use them - me!"
"iris, that's crazy! i thought - i never thought you of all people would believe those crazy stories!" the old lady looked around at me, like i was going to help her.
"give me the key to the big room - now!" iris kept her voice low, but it still filled the little room.
the old lady tried to get to the front door but iris grabbed her and pushed her into me. her bony little hands flapped at me and i shoved her back a little.
she fell back on the floor and i heard her back or her neck snap or maybe both of them.
we looked down at her. i looked around. there wasn't much to look around at. a little bed, a chair, a crooked little table and a little window that looked like it never opened. i wondered if anyone had heard anything.
"that was easy," i said.
"we have to find the key."
i wondered if i was dreaming. "you find the key. it's probably in her pocket."
iris knelt down and had a key in her hand in five seconds,
"listen!" i said. "do you hear something behind that door?"
"you just hear your own crawling guts." she got up and put the key in the door. it swung open easily, soundlessly.
a huge black dog sprung out over iris and slammed me down on the floor.
"yikes! i never knew she had a dog!"
the dog pinned me down and started barking loud enough to be heard in brooklyn.
because in five seconds the room was filled with people.
"it's all right, buddy, it's all right," somebody was saying to the dog, and it backed off of me, kind of snarling and whining at the same time.
i sat up. a couple of red faced guys built like charles atlas and primo carnera were staring down at me.
iris was gone. the little window was open. i don't know if she got through it or what, but she was gone.
mrs mccarthy's body was still there.
"poor thing," i heard a woman's voice. "i always knew something like this would happen."
the two big guys just glared down at me. i didn't move.
someone took the dog away, and i could hear it barking outside.
another minute, and a cop in uniform and two detectives filled the room up even more.
"well, mac, i don't think we need to call in hercule poirot on this one, do you?"
"no." mac looked around the little room and down at me. "i think this is what you call - what's the word - begins with an 's'?
"yeah. sordid. a real sordid affair."
they cuffed me and took me outside. the cold air almost felt good.
the uniformed cop turned to me. "what kind of guy are you, anyway? murdering a helpless little old lady?"
i didn't answer. the sun was coming up, filtering down 49th street from the east river.
how many cold dawns like this had i seen through the centuries, how many times had i been hung, and burned at the stake, and drawn and quartered, and run through with pikes, and split open by cavalry swords, and blown to bits by cannonballs?
they put me in the back of the squad car. i was headed to the chair.
horace p sternwall was born in chicago in 1919 and is a poet and a dreamer.
The piece above was originally published, under the authorship of harold p sternhagen, in the february 1948 issue of man up! magazine.