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Epitaph For A Dead Beat

David Markson

  David Markson

  Epitaph For A Dead Beat


  “They are very Christlike.”

  Jack Kerouac

  “They are scum”

  Somerset Maugham


  It is a small, not quite square office behind a smaller reception room on the fourth floor of a Paleozoic brick building on Lexington Avenue. Most of the furnishings have been out of style since Lucky Strikes were green, and in professions where they rate you by such things even the dullest girl in the typing pool would pick a more likely doorway to straighten her seams in. But it contains, such as they are, the tools of my trade as a private cop, and I have been spending the better part of five days a week in the place for seven years.

  Probably it is a trivial complaint, but I will always have to wonder why nobody ever seems to need my services until I am out of there for the night.

  So I was home undressed when the telephone rang, of course. It was after eleven, and I’d been reading on the couch. Lolita, a sad story about a twelve-year-old girl who couldn’t find anyone her own age to play with.

  “—This is Mrs. Skelly. Is this Mr. Fannin? The detective?”

  A stranger. Not young, not wealthy, not educated. Probably gray and tarnished, and wearing something cut from shapeless cotton she would call a house dress. There would be a cameo pin.

  “This is Harry Fannin.”

  “Mr. Lubitch said to call you—the lawyer. You’ll have to bring a gun. It’s about my uncle. There’s so much cash, you see, and—”

  “You want me to shoot your uncle for some cash?”

  “I beg your—”

  There was a pause. “You said there was something Ben Lubitch thought I might be able to help you with, ma’am?”


  “I do have a gun—and proper permits. If you need one at this hour I suppose it’s got to do with something you want guarded. Until the banks open?”

  “Well, yes, as a matter of fact. It’s Mr. Casey, who just passed on. The poor man was eighty-one, with the railroad for forty-four years. Mr. Lubitch says he’s sure it will all come to us.”

  “You’ve found money?”

  “In coffee cans, in the closet. Almost four thousand dollars. Mr. Lubitch says you charge sixty dollars a day, but it will be worth it to ease my mind. Especially since he said you would come home and sleep with me, and—”


  “What? Well, really, I certainly didn’t mean—”

  “Any old soft chair will do fine, Mrs. Skelly. If you’ll tell me where you are—”

  She told me. Grudgingly, but it was me or Jesse James. He’d obviously had an eye on those coffee cans for weeks.

  I could have been more enthusiastic. I also could have stopped dreaming that the midnight disturbance, just once, would be a cry of distress from Ava, from Lauren, even from Tallulah. The place was about as far west as you can go in Greenwich Village without driving off a pier, and I said it would take me thirty minutes to get there.

  I had to park a block away, on Hudson Street. The building wasn’t quite yet a tenement, although they were already getting interesting effects from the lobby. It was part tile, part chewing gum. The apartment I wanted was 6-B and there wasn’t any elevator.

  I made six, puffing, then saw the envelope tacked into the door frame from the length of a dismal corridor away. I put the paper currency into my pocket and scowled at the penciled note:

  Dear Mr. Fannin:

  I forgot about the police station around the corner. Thank you for your trouble, but the man said I could leave the money in the safe. If you guarded it until 9:30 A.M. that would be ten hours, which is $6 per hour. This $3 is for the time you said it would take to get here.

  Yours truly (Mrs.)

  Kate Skelly

  PS. Really it would only be 9 A.M. since I would go to the bank as soon as they opened.

  I had a smoke before I went down. I wondered if she expected me to leave her a receipt.

  It was a nice night, warm for September. On other streets the gears of giant trucks were grinding mournfully, suffering their own version of life’s small abuses, and back on Hudson I patted the Chevy on a fender in sympathy. Fifty yards away a sign which was not entirely unfamiliar said Vinnie’s Place, Beer on Tap, in buzzing red neon. I tried, but I couldn’t think of anyone who would be waiting up for me with a candle in the window. I went in.

  It was a mistake, although I could not have known that then. All I had in mind were a few inconsequential drinks.

  I thought I could afford it. I’d just picked up all that easy money.


  Vinnie’s was a bleak, untinseled cavern about as long as a throw from first base to third, with a bar at the left hand wall and six or seven tables at the right. It had been a sensible longshoreman’s hangout in its day, but since the war the bohemians had been driving out the laboring folk. They had even made something of a shrine out of it, which can happen in the Village. Someone like Edith Sitwell stops a cab one night and trots inside to visit the ladies’ room, and for some people the world is never the same again.

  Ten or a dozen stags were scattered along the rail, most of them dressed as if the Kon-Tiki had just discharged passengers at the curb. I found a slot near the back, wondering why my barber hadn’t heard about the strike. Next to me a tall redhead was talking intently to another man I could not see.

  “—So like the cat was my best friend, you know? So he sacks out on the sofa for two weeks, and then I can see my wife is giving him the burning glance. So I move out, you know? As long as the cat doesn’t swipe any of my books when he heads back to Frisco—”

  “—Touching, man. Like brotherhood.”

  A handsome tanned athlete in an open blue button-down set aside a fishing lure with all the care of a museum director situating a mobile, then asked me what it would be. I told him Old Crow and he had to move a paperback called The Way Some People Die to get at the bottle. That made two of us who didn’t belong. I swung around and leaned on one forearm, to get a look at the only girl in there.

  She was worth looking at. She was a blonde, with high cheekbones and a delicate face that would not have been out of place on Harper’s Bazaar. It would not have been a calamity on Playboy either, since there was nothing high-fashion about the rest of her. She was wearing jeans and a man’s faded denim work shirt, and after the third button the shirt fell like the sheer drop off a precipice.

  She was at a table with two men. One of the men was very young. He had on a tweed jacket with leather patches at the elbows, and he was toying with an unlit pipe. The other one’s back was to me. That one had the same patches on the sleeves of his black turtleneck sweater, and a spiral notebook was jutting out from the hip pocket of his Levis. I got the impression that neither of them would have been chagrined if I got the impression they were writers.

  One of them said something and the girl laughed. It was a soft rich furry laugh, like cashmere, and it was wasted in September. In January you could have wrapped it around yourself to keep warm in. Some guy probably did. It made me sad, because the girl reminded me of someone I had been in love with once who died, named Carole Lombard.

  I kept staring at her, being ridiculous. She was drinking beer from a bottle, lifting her head and tilting her chair against the wall as a man might. The way she did it would have made it acceptable at a D.A.R. meeting.

  She was still sitting back, holding the bottle between her lifted knees, when the front door slammed inward against a table with a sound like a gunshot.

  A man had come in on the dead run. He halted himself just past the entrance, hanging forward in a half crouch like a defensive left end posing for
stills. For an instant only his eyes moved. It did not take him long to spot the girl.

  He sucked in his breath and began to draw himself up. He wasn’t anybody’s left end. He went to five and a half feet, no more. He had on G.I. slacks, and there was nothing under his seersucker jacket except a T-shirt. The T-shirt had possibly been clean earlier in the month. Barley-colored hair lay flat above his pink, fleshy face, which apparently he was trying to make look menacing.

  He needed coaching. He looked as menacing as Rumpelstiltskin.

  “You slut,” he said hoarsely. He was either out of breath or somewhat drunk. I had the sensation I could smell sweat from fifteen feet away. “She learned it from you, didn’t she? Where is she, Fern?”

  I looked back at the girl. Whatever it was, she wasn’t buying. She wasn’t even in the shop. She lifted the bottle deliberately, gazing at him the way she might gaze at a rain she knew she did not have to go out into.

  The man wanted more response than that. He lunged forward, stopping about three feet from her table. That put him into profile for me. His features were babyish, and he had almost no eyebrows, which gave him an exceptional amount of forehead. He could have been thirty, in spite of the outraged seven or eight he was being at the moment. He’d fastened his hands to his hips. In a minute he would stamp his foot.

  “Damn it, where is she? Who is she running with tonight?”

  Neither of the men at the table had made a move. The young one dug out a tobacco pouch and did some busy rooting around in it.

  “Why don’t you take it easy, Ephraim?” the second one said.

  “Why don’t you chew axle grease?” Ephraim told him. He was leaning between the two men now, gripping the sides of the table top. “Where is she, Fern? I’ve been ringing the bell over there half the night. You’re the one who gives her all the crummy ideas. Or is she chasing around with that other tramp friend of yours?”

  Near me the redhead with the exalted sense of brotherly love coughed meaninglessly once. The girl’s eyes were meeting Ephraim’s evenly. Very slowly she set down the beer. She spoke softly, but what she said was not meant to be cherished by Ephraim alone.

  “I don’t really believe them myself, Eph, so why don’t you make a formal denial of the stories? You don’t spend all your afternoons watching little girls on the swings in the park?”

  He slapped her. It was not a hard slap, since he was off balance, and she hardly jerked her head. Next to her the lad with the pipe jerked his own just about as much. Then he got to his feet. He did it with all the drawling indolence of James Stewart in the scene when the Bad Guy is about to learn he’s been making sport of the wrong townspeople. I was bourgeois enough to watch for the shoulder to drop before the punch. I had forgotten where I was. His pal in the sweater joined him and the two of them walked away from the table.

  They didn’t leave. They merely strolled to the front end of the bar. They shook their heads gravely as they went. It was all extremely unfortunate, but it really did not concern them. Assuredly everyone would understand their position.

  “I asked you a question, Fern—”

  No one else in the place had moved. The girl’s hands were drawn into fists and her eyes were smarting. Ephraim was still glaring when I took the couple of steps that got me over there.

  “Got a match, hombre?” I tried to give it more of the John Wayne touch.

  He grunted, not seeing me. “Beat it, huh?”

  “All I want is a match—”

  He turned. He had thick lips and protruding teeth. He might have been going to bite me, but the eight inches he had to raise his eyes changed his mind. “Well, for Chrissakes—”

  He stabbed a hand into his jacket and came up with a folder. He shoved it at me, starting to turn back.

  “Say, thanks. How about a cigarette now?”

  His jaw dropped. “How about a fist in the mouth instead?”

  “Aww,” I said. “A fist or a slap?”

  He got red. His corneas were slightly glassy. He could have been junked up, but even so he wasn’t about to fight me. He grimaced, then whirled and started out. Halfway across the room he paused long enough to point a nicotine-stained finger at the girl, being ominous once more. “You can tell Josie she’ll get the same thing—”


  “Agh—” He swung a hand in a gesture of contempt. “Tourists!”

  I laughed, a little foolishly. The door banged after him. Those two stalwart young Balzacs were watching me, but they turned when I glanced that way.

  The marks of the slap had begun to show on the girl’s cheek. She was staring at the table, sitting rigidly.

  “Buy you a refill?”

  She looked at me for the first time, biting her lip. I realized that she had no make-up on except lipstick. Her eyes were incredibly blue, and also remote. Or maybe just uninterested. She was a beautiful girl and she appreciated the assistance, but no thanks.

  I was wrong. It took a minute but then she smiled. It was quite a smile. Two-Gun Ephraim lay face down in the dust, the streets were safe for womenfolk, law had come to the Pecos.

  “I’ll be heartbroken if the chivalry was just to pick me up?”

  “Not me, ma’am. Now I saddle my trusty roan and ride off” into the sunset.”

  “Inscrutable and alone—” She laughed.

  “I like the quick recovery,” I told her.

  “I make an even better one when I’m removed from the battlefield. I don’t think I want another drink, but you can take me home if you would?”


  She stood, then nodded toward the rear. “Haifa second—” Her voice was husky, and it hung around after she’d walked away from under it.

  There was talk again, and the young bartender came across to pick up her bottle. I’d half suspected he’d left for the evening. “You were real good in there,” I told him. “You keep things running smoothly.”

  He bent to wipe the table with a rag. “Be a hero. I can get the skirts without it.”

  I put my hand on his wrist. Gently, but he stopped wiping. We considered each other.

  “So hit me,” he said. “Six bits a week they withhold, workman’s compensation.”

  I let him go. He went away whistling.

  There’s that about Greenwich Village. Nobody ever takes a poke at you, but you’re never quite sure who’s winning.


  She’d been forcing it. She smiled when we went out, but the power lines were down again. I told her my name and she said that her own was Fern Hoerner, but she would have given it to a kitchenware salesman in the same tone.

  She turned south, walking glumly with her hands thrust into her pockets. I indicated the Chevy when we came abreast of it.

  “We don’t really need it,” she said. “It’s only Grove Street.”

  She shuffled along, kicking out with a tennis shoe once or twice and scuffing it on the concrete. I took her arm when we crossed Hudson. There was no traffic, and the few neighborhood stores were closed. The usual imposing American intellects were going slowly blind in the glare of television screens behind random windows.

  “Do you live down this way, Harry? I’ve never seen you in Vinnie’s before.”

  “Up off Third Avenue. You don’t have to make conversation if you’re feeling rotten.”

  “I’m sorry. I guess it was a little embarrassing at that.” She shook her head. “Although I’m acting childish. I was pretty nasty myself, as I recall.”


  “Maybe, but it was just poor old Ephraim. That’s Ephraim Turk—his mother told him he was a poet.”

  “But mother died.”

  She managed a laugh. “But now I’m being bitchy all over again. I’m no judge of verse, really—sometimes I can’t tell William Butler Yeats from Woodbine Willie. All I’ve ever done is fiction myself

  She said it matter-of-factly, not seeming to notice when I glanced at her. “Can I ask,” I said, “or is that the
touchy question?”

  “It’s okay to ask. You damned well better—” The smile was warming up again. “I’ve done a novel. In fact it’s coming out next week.”

  I frowned. She stopped walking when I did. I kept on frowning when I put my hands on her shoulders.

  “You’ve done a novel,” I said.

  She nodded uncertainly.

  “It’s coming out next week.”


  “You’re at least twenty-three years old.”


  “I’m going home,” I said.

  Her eyes were bright. I lifted a hand and let it drop, slapping air. “Greenwich Village—”

  “You don’t really have to be impressed, Harry,” she decided then. “Sometimes I think the book isn’t much good at all. I get the feeling they just want my picture on the dust jacket.”