Hamburgers, by Richard Smyth

The big Irishman swung his fist. I ducked, but too slow. The blow took me on the point of my chin and snapped back my head. But I’m two hundred and thirty pounds of private eye – I don’t go down easy.

‘You’re gonna make me mad, Red,’ I growled, wiping a smear of blood from my lip.

The Irishman grinned wolfishly.

‘There’s plenty more where that came from, shamus,’ he said.

Feinting a right, I hit him with a roundhouse left and then stepped inside, hammering double-fisted at his midriff. He grunted, stumbling backwards. That gave me the split-second I needed. I went for my hip pocket. But the big Irishman had the same idea.

Two revolvers roared in the alleyway.

He –

The big Irishman –


Hey, you.

Yes, you. This time, I wanna talk to you. This time I don’t wanna talk to the fat teamster reading Perchanski, P.I. on the can while he takes his lunchbreak shit. I don’t wanna talk to the twelve-year-old kid having his first jerk-off over Snake-women Of Neptune. I don’t wanna talk to the ninety-pound sales clerk who figures one day he might be Sheriff Pete Goodstuff, Lone Wolf Of The Old West.  

I wanna talk to you – mister editor man.

You know, I don’t even know who you are any more. Who are you? Where are you? Is this Black Mask magazine? Weird Tales? The Mystery Magazine? Saucy Stories?

Hell, it don’t even matter, you’re all the same bunch of cocksucking robbers and thieves. A cent a word. A cent a word!

What do you get out of this, mister editor man? You enjoy it? You enjoy reading this goddamn dog-shit day in, day out, sitting on your ass at that comfy desk? Running your blue lines through page after page, and each word you strike out with each dash of that pencil taking out a penny from the pocket of the poor dumb motherfucker that wrote it?

And what’s worse is that as well as all the shit you publish you have to read the shit that’s so bad even you can’t make money off of it, and oh, man, that can’t be any fun, son, that’s gotta give you a pain in the ass like you’re getting fucked by a mule. That ain’t no job for a man.  

I can’t get a handle on it. Is it a power thing, son? You like to be in control, I guess. Some little bitch sometime said ‘no’ when you told her suck on that, I guess – or your old daddy wouldn’t listen to your crying ‘no’ when he was beating your ass for trying to fuck the family dog. So now you’re the man who gets to say ‘yes’ and ‘no’. I bet you get a hard-on every time, you sick son of a bitch.

Oh, I know really what it’s all about. It’s about the fat paycheck in your postbox every month, that’s what it’s about – means you got the money to go chase more pussy, drink more light beer, buy more cheap-ass suits from JC fucking Penney.

You ever write a book, son? Ever write a story? Hell, I bet you never even spun a yarn round as campfire. Never even told a tall tale ‘bout some girl you fucked to a bunch of drunks in a bar. No idea, son, that’s what you got – you got no goddamn idea what this motherfucking life is like.

My name is Merle Pilcrow, only you might not know me by that name ‘cause I got lots of names. I been Bud Brownlee, I been Chuck T. Crumpacker, I been Benjamin O’Kane. Hell, I even been a girl once, Moira Lavelle for two thousand words of whack-off material in Western Spice. They ran one Black Mask back in the ‘forties where there was nothing in it ‘cept stories I’d wrote, only using a different name for each one. I wrote you bastards story after story after story and what do I got?

I got a skinny wife in shoes with no heels on ‘em and a baby squalling in the goddamn kitchen ‘cause we ain’t got nothing to give her to eat.

That’s a cent a word, kid. That’s a dime a line, a dollar a page.

Here’s something for you, mister editor man – here’s something for you to chew on, only don’t get excited, ‘cause it ain’t a dog’s dick. One million words. One million words. That’s what I got to write son, every fucking year that’s what I got to write – just to keep a goddamn roof over my family’s head, and it ain’t even much of a motherfucking roof, at that.

I figured it out. There ain’t even been a million days since the birth of baby Jesus Christ. That’s how many a million is, son.

And there’s something else I figured out. Shakespeare. You heard of Shakespeare? You heard of that book he wrote, Hamlet?

You’d have paid William Shakespeare a little over three hundred dollars for Hamlet. Only you wouldn’t, ‘cause of that little blue pencil you’re holding in your hand right now. You tell me that book of Shakespeare’s needs to be thirty-thousand words long, you don’t know your own trade.

But you know it all right. So it’d be, Bill, we’re going to have to trim some of the fat – we love it, Mr S, we love the fighting, the murders, the fucking with the crazy girl – but we’re just gonna have to make it a little tighter.

Just like that you’d have him down to twenty-two, that’s two hundred bucks, that’s two weeks’ take-home for a goddamn street-sweeper, and that’s for the greatest book ever written in the goddamn English language.

But I tell you, kid – Hamlet was nothing next to what I was gonna write when I started out.

I was young. Bet I was younger than you are now, only no-one paid me through college and I had a set of balls in my pants. I took a bus to New York City with a couple of bucks in my pocket and a story in my head. September nineteen-forty-six. My god, what a gamble. My god, what a gambler I was.

This story in my head, it was a war story, only it wasn’t ‘Dead-eye’ Fairhead, the Milwaukee Marksman.

And it was a love story, too, only it wasn’t –

It wasn’t –

Well, it wasn’t any fucking love story you ever read in any fucking magazine. It was my story, all of it. All the war. All the love. A real story.

And then? You know what happened then. I wrote my goddamn story, wrote is just about as well as I could – and nobody would publish it. Nobody.

What could I do? Tell me that. The war story, that was over, I wasn’t going to go back in the goddamn army. The love story, well, that was back in Shortville, Missouri, in her parents’ house, waiting for her bigshot writer husband to bring her to the big city.

What could I do? I could write. Maybe I couldn’t write well enough for the smart guys in the book game but dammit I could write about private eyes and their dumb dames, I could write about spaceships and the Thing from fucking Venus, I could write about cowboys and goddamn Indians, I could write well enough for you motherfuckers.

A penny a word.

So here I sit, writing, writing. My fingertips bleed from the typewriter keys. I got hemorrhoids you wouldn’t believe. I’m a writer.

And there you sit. Counting words, counting words. What are you?

How many am I up to now? A thousand? Must be a thousand by now, maybe a thousand-two, a thousand-three. Look at that, ten dollars – ten dollars thirty and I ain’t even got started, I’m still getting warmed up. I can go on and on.

Only you won’t pay me for this. Will you, mister editor man? No, I know, you won’t buy this, you won’t print this, this won’t suit your needs, this won’t play with your target audience. I know why, too. ‘Cause there’s too much fucking truth in it.

I knew a guy once. This is back in Shortville. Nice guy, real nice guy, not smart, not your corporation president, not your goddamn captain of industry, just a nice, good, dumb guy. Had a nice wife, had a kid, maybe two, I don’t remember. And this guy worked a lunch counter, there in Shortville.

I don’t imagine he ever dreamed of being a guy who works a lunch counter. Wrapping sandwiches, pouring coffee, grilling goddamn hamburgers. But he did it, anyhow, ‘cause a guy’s got to work, specially if he’s got a wife and a kid or maybe two, and he did it okay – actually for what it’s worth he grilled a pretty good hamburger. Not great. Just pretty good.

And this he does for fifteen years. He works the counter for fifteen years. Never gets made supervisor. Never thinks to put aside a little dough, buy a diner of his own – guess he can’t afford to, after he’s paid the rent, the bills, bought his wife a hat and the kid a goddamn bicycle. No, that guy never changed so much as his fucking apron, far as I ever saw.

And then one day a guy walks in, comes to the lunch counter. Average guy, crewcut, grey suit, tan shoes, smoking a cigarette. Coulda been just any guy. Point of fact his name was McFee, Ron McFee of Carlton, Missouri, but really he coulda been just any guy.

I’ll have a cup of coffee, friend, he says to the guy at the counter.

The guy pours the coffee and says: that all, buddy, or can I getcha something else?

And the guy says, you know what, I only came in for coffee, but those hamburgers smell so good I believe I’ll have a hamburger, too.

The guy behind the counter nods. Then reaches into his pocket, pulls out a gun, and shoots the guy square in the middle of his head.

And after, after the cops pick him up – and he doesn’t even try to run away – they ask him what the hell, and he says, I was counting, for fifteen years I’ve been counting, and that guy came in, and he ordered a hamburger, and that was the hundred thousandth guy ever asked me for a hamburger.

I didn’t have anything against him personal, the guy says. In fact, I kinda feel sorry for him.

That’s the end of the story. It’s just a story, about this guy I once knew.

So where was I? Was it Perchansky, P.I.? Was it Love Slaves Of Atlantis? Was it Deputy Whitefeather,the Halfbreed Lawman? Whatever, buddy – whatever, son. I’ll just keep writing words, words, words. And you just keep sending me those pennies. ‘Cause all we got here is a transaction – it ain’t nothing, after all, but a square deal. And so what, if you get the best side of it? That’s just the market at work, ain’t that right?

I figure I been looking at this all wrong. You ain’t an editor. I ain’t a writer. All we are is, we’re businessmen. I’m providing what they call a commodity, and you’re paying the price for that commodity that the market dictates.

Ain’t no different from buying a stick of gum. Or a hamburger.

What are we up to now, son, do you figure? One-eight-five? One-nine? I wouldn’t want to go over two thousand, ‘cause I know more’n two thousand’s too long, but then the thing is that if you’ve been doing a thing long enough it somehow don’t feel right to stop – even when you’re too tired to go on. It don’t feel right to stop doing it, I mean, just ‘cause some goddamn cocksucking mister editor-man don’t want you to do it no more.

So I figure I’ll just carry on. Two thousand. Two thousand-one.          

Richard Smyth is the author of ‘Wild Ink’, a novel, published June 2014.  His work has previously appeared in Litro, Stinging Fly, Fiction Desk, Riptide, Firewords and Vintage Script.

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