Honor in Pulp

February 20th, 2003  |  Published in Uncategorized

This is what passed for a mid-term in the beginning fiction class I’m in. We were supposed to “describe a character and face him/her with an unresolved choice,” which provoked a lot of unhappiness and hand-wringing as I came to realize how much I hate the sound of my own voice when I’m writing about things besides computers. So I handed the camera over to Stan, a mean old crook, and let him mess around with Nick, whom I was unable to draw on my own (and who was supposed to be the character under consideration). So more consternation and hand-wringing ensued when the nice grade and positive comments were for Stan, who just wasn’t the point.

It’s probably an indicator of a high nerd factor at work that I confronted the professor and told him I didn’t mean for Stan to be the character of interest and that I’d like to know how I did with Nick. He told me it didn’t matter what I meant and that Nick was fine, but simply not the point.

O.k. Just wanted to be clear.

One additional fun thing from this term has been realizing how much leaning on genre can relieve the tensions generated by a lengthy series of exercises designed to thwart my narrative impulse. There’s a story in there, even if it’s only implied by the conventions of the gangster/thug narrative.


New guy came up to the second floor today. There’s one from down in

collections every few months. Always the same guys: muscle used to

smacking bookies and barbers around, shaking out the cigar boxes of

mom-n-pops all over the east side. Someone decides these kids are

ready to manage their own thing, so they send them up to me for an

interview and some OJT with a real earner.

The way this kid comes through the door? Same as the rest,

slamming it open and standing there like he’s in a room full of Korean

grocers he needs to squeeze. Whatever. When no one jumps up and

offers him coffee, he’s a little more quiet about closing the door

behind him.

You can’t miss that I’m the guy up here. He figures it out, but

he’s too busy trying to stare down Sal and Vic to notice me watching

him as he walks over.

Have to give the kid points for size. Big. Indiana prom king

big. Corn-fed. Marks probably tip him after he’s done shaking them

down. From across the room it’s sort of hard to see where that big

neck ends and that ugly little head begins… he could be one solid

block of non-moving parts from the waist up.

But Jesus, who dresses this kid? It’s like he’s some sort of sausage

his mommy stuffed into a blue polyester used car salesman costume. I

almost want to cover my eyes. When that jacket button he forced over

that gut goes, someone’s going with it.

I decide his new name is Jethro even before I get a good look into

those mule-stupid eyes or hear his breath coming out of his mouth.

With the hair and the freckles, Jethro’s more merciful than Howdy

Goddamn Doody.

By the time he’s at my desk I notice that nose, too. There’s this

theory among the guys that the big ones don’t know how to get bopped,

but that nose is a mess. If he’d had it bent that bad out of shape as

many times as it looked and still came up from collections, he either

didn’t mind taking one or two for the cause or he was someone’s

nephew, sent up for his own protection.

He stops in front of my desk.

“You Stan?” he asks in this high voice, and I almost feel sorry for

him. His voice is what got that nose broken. How could a tough guy

not want to test the waters with Hulk Junior after hearing that voice?

Hell… I know some rabbity little accountants who’d take a poke at

him, just to see.

“Yeah,” I say, looking over my glasses. “I’m Stan. You must be,


“Nick,” he says, after a beat, like I was supposed to know.

“Jethro, right. Roll that chair over there. Sit down.”

The Jethro crack pisses him off. He snatches at the chair and

rolls it around fast. It gets away from him and bounces off the front

of my desk and into his legs. He knocks over my waste paper basket

trying to stop it. His face gets red. Here I am, this little mick Mr.

Miyagi and I’m already all in his head, making him look stupid.

After he sits down, we do some talking. He must mention his

respect for “old schoolers” twenty damn times. Once these kids think

they have you snowed with their whole “reverence for the old ways”

routine, you can learn something. So once he’s warmed up, punching

the air and pulling pretend people over imaginary counters, I lock him

down a little.

“Look… Jethro… quit flappin’ your hands around,” I say. “It

makes me nervous.”

So his hands go into his lap, and his stories about this guy or

that he shook down or straightened out are a little less scenic. For

a big, hick-looking hog-wrestler, this kid’s a natural actor and it

bugs him he can’t perform. But I don’t get him. Ten minutes later,

he’s walked me through the time he knocked out seven bookies with one

blow, and I still don’t get him.

Now that his hands have stopped moving, I give them a look. Big,

like the rest of him, but fat, too. And almost pink. Class ring

sitting there on one finger. Nail biter.

He’s still talking, jogging his leg like he’s gotta go to the

bathroom or something, and I’m smiling and nodding and he’s blabbing

about some thing he did with Stinky Smith in that high little voice of

his and my eyes drop back down to his hands. His pink, fat hands with

their perfect, smooth knuckles.

“Alright,” I say to myself, “it’s time for the skill assessment

phase of this interview.”

“Good story, Jethro,” I say. “Too bad all your little fairy tales

are a buncha bullshit.”

Funny how suddenly the kid stops jiggling, and sits there, hands

in his lap, eyes wide.

“Hunh?” he gets out.

“Hunh?” I say, mocking him. “Hunh, as in: you ain’t done none of

that shit, and if you’ve seen half of it with your own eyes, you were

just standing in the door lookin’ out for cops while the men inside

earned the damn money.”

His fists ball up around his thumbs down there on that fat lap of

his, and he’s trying to work that moon face into a glare, and I’m out

of my seat, grabbing him by his little sport coat and pulling him over

the desk, close enough that he blinks when spit sprays from my mouth.

“Take a poke,” I say. “Let’s see some a’ that grief you brought

down on that tailor that one time. Just a little of it. You’re ready

to be a boss… let’s see. Show me or I’m throwin’ you down those

god-damned stairs.”

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