A little fun - I tried to write this as quickly as possible to imitate the situation of being a pulp writer in the 1930s trying to earn a living paid by the word in the middle of the Great Depression. Of course I wound up cheating a little as I'm working with a computer instead of an actual typewriter, but this is a pretty clear cut first draft.
It’s July and my apartment windows are open, desperately trying to catch a non-existent breeze to circulate the thick air. I can hear kids playing ball out in the courtyard and traffic bustling around in the street, as if the unending heat and oppressive humidity aren’t pressing them down and sucking the will to move out of them. I put out the stub of my cigar and pick up the electric fan so that I can feel the miniscule wind on my skin; the blades’ motion is too weak to reach me otherwise. I figure my exercise is over for the day and set the near-useless machine back on the corner of my desk, an unnecessarily overlarge paperweight occupying too much real estate in my work area for the good it does me.
I take a drink and gather my thoughts. At room temperature, the water is too warm to give much relief, but from the way my undershirt is soaked, I’m losing it almost as fast as I can drink it. Bourbon would not be any good for me in this heat, even if I could afford a bottle.
My fingers hover over the keys of my typewriter as I glance at the fresh blank page. Where did I leave off? Which story am I on?
Carl Jeffries picked up his rifle when he noticed the stranger moving the wooden slats of his hastily repaired fence. He’d lost enough cattle and enough money on that new-fangled barbed wire fence to allow someone to undo his morning’s work of replacing the torn wire with solid wood planks, and no goldarned curiosity-seeker was going to do as he pleased on his property, much less invade his corral. Climbing into the saddle, he urged his horse into the pasture at a brisk gallop.
The sun setting over the mountains kept him from getting a good look at the stranger, even when he got within a few yards of him. The man was on one knee, looking at the ground and pieces of wire. Funny thing to do, Carl thought, especially for a man wearing white.
“What in blazes do you think you’re doing mister?” Carl wasn’t a cruel man, but frustration was getting the best of him. “You’d best put that fence back the way you found it and get off my land.”
The stranger stood and turned to Jeffries. His movements were liquid smooth, swift but not hurried. He was tall and seemed to exude strength just standing still. “I beg your pardon, Mr. Jeffries, I meant no offence. I thought I’d see what I might be able to do about your wolf problem.”
Jeffries started to retort, but the thought died as if struck by lightning when he saw that the man before him wore a Ranger’s badge. He still couldn’t see the face under the hat brim, not with the setting sun behind the Ranger, but Jeffries was now less sure of himself and confused. “I don’t understand. What’s a lawman doin’ chasin’ down wolves? Ain’t ya got any bank robbers to chase?”
If the Ranger took offense, he made no sign. Instead, he effortlessly hefted the pieces of fence back into place, his body shifting like quicksilver as he repaired and stabilized the fence. “Not at the moment.” He coiled the loose ends of the barbed wire around the fence posts to get them out of the way, snaking them around the slats as well. “I like to help people out when I’m not rustling up thieves, sir,”
The stranger walked toward Carl, smoothly, casually. There was no menace in his manner or voice. “Did you hear or see anything of the animals that did this?”
“Naw, found the fence like this and the herd scattered when I got up this mornin’. Then I found what was left of three of my best.”
“May I see the remains?”
The setting sun was still blinding Carl Jeffries, but he just could make out the black mask over the stranger’s face.
I pull the paper from my typewriter and feed in a pristine sheet, settling the guide roller over the top edge, measuring the top margin without even thinking about it. It’s second nature to me, a reflex. I lean back in my chair and crack my knuckles, fingers sore and aching from the day’s work, the week’s work, my life’s work.
It’s too hot. I get up to refill my water glass and stretch my back and my legs and my arms. The afternoon is waning, but the sun has hours before it hides; the air is as thick as ever, and the eventual night will bring little relief this time of year. The noise from the dying fan is almost enough to make me want to turn it off – almost. When I’m in my place, focused on the words, the fan’s noise blends into the street sounds and it all fades as my fingers jump among the round heads of the keys.
I sit down again, my water glass already half empty, but not in a pessimistic way. My hands are poised, ready to begin again. I’m a six-fingered typist. Guess that makes me a wimp, the antithesis of my paper heroes; my pinky fingers aren’t strong enough to hammer at the keys. I suppose I would make a lousy secretary.
A light machine makes its way through the dark desert of heavy white snow. It makes little noise and is hard to see, should anyone be looking for it. No one is, though perhaps there should be. Nothing but trouble will come from this machine as it searches the arctic wastes for a sign of… what?
The vehicle slows and comes to a halt. Pausing for several minutes, it moves forward again, changing direction. It has a purpose. It has located its hidden destination.
There is a single occupant in the tiny snow craft. Sunlight has returned to the winter dark. Sunlight should not exist here, now. Sunlight should be dead.
John Sunlight brings death.
I wonder how the story will be received? At least it’ll pay well, which is fortunate as it will be anonymous, another contribution to a fictitious house name, an imaginary tale ghost-written by an imaginary author.
The sun has set and as expected there’s scant respite from the heat. As I pick up another cigar, I realize that writing about the arctic had helped keep me cool – but now the heat wave slams into me again like Rocky Marciano with a grudge.
When I make my rounds on Friday, when I deliver my scripts, after I receive payment for my newly-crafted tales, I’ll buy a new electric fan – if I can find a store that hasn’t sold out.
I’d like to go to a diner, get some real food, but all I can afford is the automat – it’s close and I don’t have the time to walk the six extra blocks to the Lantern. Ham & cheese, a fruit cup and a coffee. Afterward I have a second cup of coffee and get lost in the smoky haze of my cigar…
I can’t recall when I first saw Henry East, as it seems that he was always to be found in our midst whenever we’d gather, wherever we’d gather. A rally on the commons, a meeting at campus, dinner at our fraternity. He never joined in with our anecdotal witticisms, never contributed a tale of misadventure with a young woman, never added to our collective efforts to alleviate our boredom and promulgate our self-worth. Which is not to say that he was in any way detrimental to our festivities, merely that he was almost entirely ornamental in his completely passive presence.
But he was watching, observing with exacting detail the comments and gestures of those around him, taking in such information that no writer, no priest, no detective would have considered worth noting. He mentally weighed and compared us, and god help us, he judged us!
The night is my best time, my favorite time, and it is so short this time of year. The sun will return in an hour or so, and it is time to rest from my day’s labors. I’ll sleep until noon and return to my craft. My stories are all I have, my stories are all I need (except maybe a new fan).
And my stories need me.