Monday, 12 December 2011

Nighthawks: A Fable of New York by Oscar Windsor Smith

New York Snow Globe -- Creative Commons

Okay, so you're outside Jimmy's Bar and Diner looking in through this wide window, in from icy darkness to cool fluorescent light. At the bar are two figures, a guy in a fedora who’s chewing the fat with the bartender and a dame in a red dress. The dame is counting her fingers. I’m the guy in the fedora. We're nighthawks, get the picture? This is night in New York City and not just any night. My name? You can call me the Truth Fairy.
A black and white glides in over steaming gratings and slithers to a stop. Two cops stumble out. They lurch across the sidewalk blowing on their hands and cursing the knee-deep frozen snow. Mahoney is first in the door, dripping and slipping. O'Shaughnessy reaches shelter a second later, stomping the snow from his boots. The barman produces two glasses and a bottle of bourbon.
Mahoney roars, 'That'll be two coffees for us, Jimmy.' He winks at me and I nod. He addresses the bar: 'Them eejuts will believe any fairy story, little green men an all.'
Jimmy replaces the glasses with china mugs and fills both with neat bourbon. He gives the cops a look that says: pay up you mean bastards. A second later Mahoney's nightstick crashes on the counter an inch from Jimmy's fist. They're nose to nose.
'Call it a present, Jimmy,' I whisper, trying to save him losing teeth as well as dough.
'You siding with them?' says Jimmy. 'Now I got three wise-guys, huh?'
I tip my fedora, glancing at O'Shaughnessy. He shrugs and downs the bourbon, probably the only seasonal spirit he knows.
O'Shaughnessy hiccups. 'Sure we'll need the drink if we're to deal with them eejuts out there.'
I flash my press card, peel a bill from my wallet and slide it over the bar to Jimmy.
'And which particular idiots would that be, Officer?'
The cops stare at me, at my card and at the remaining bills. Mahoney empties his mug and licks his lips. I nod at Jimmy and he refills the cops.
#
The back seat of the black and white stinks of smoke, sweat and stale piss. Out the window the snow clouds have cleared, the stars are crisp, the sky dark. This is crazy but I've got to check the story out.
O'Shaughnessy belches. 'Sure we never get a minute's peace now, since them movies.'
'Movies, what movies?'
'Men in silver suits, flyin' saucers an' the like.'
'Invasions from Mars,' Mahoney chimes in. 'Never been the same since that eejut, a while back. What's-his-name? Horse an' something, on the radio, wit' his stupid Martians.'
'But you know the guy who reported this incident?'
'Sure, it was Morrie Kaiser. He's okay.' Mahoney has turned on the radio. He's shouting over Sinatra, banging the wheel in time with the beat. 'He runs a drug store wit' his two brothers down on Lower East Side.'
I look out over the East River and see nothing but regular stars. The sidewalk looks almost civilised. Nature has swept man's garbage under the carpet of snow. Rows of brownstones zip by and then we're in the war zone. Hispanics, Poles, Italians - name any nation - you'll find some up the rusting fire escapes in these tenements.
It's ten degrees below out there. That should keep the natives inside, but up ahead there's a crowd milling about in the pool of light outside Kaiser's Deli. They're excited, pointing at the sky. Strangest thing is they’re all pointing in different directions.
The cops pile out of the black and white, nightsticks poised for action. Mahoney slips, falls flat on his fanny. O'Shaughnessy trips over Mahoney. O'Shaughnessy collapses too.
This proves something weird is going on. One cop on his back should make the day of any Eastsider; two should make their year. But nobody has noticed.
The cops have scrambled to their feet and Mahoney is pointing at the stars, his jaw hanging loose. 'Will you just look at that!' he shouts. O'Shaughnessy is scrabbling about in the snow trying to retrieve his nightstick. He looks up, whispers 'Holy mother o' God', and falls in a dead faint.
I climb out of the stinking black and white, glance at the heavens and see only stars and darkness. Granted, there are more stars here than uptown where the streetlights work. However, to survive a sidewalk at night on Lower East Side, stargazing I do not recommend, so I go find the Kaiser brothers.
Morrie Kaiser is a nice guy. He sends a brother to get me coffee.
Morrie shrugs. 'What can I tell you?'
'Tell me what's going on.'
'You see nothing out there?'
'There's nothing to see but stars.'
'Come.' He picks up something and leads me out the back door. We clank up three flights of fire escape to where light is leaking out from a curtained window. I hear raised voices. Morrie turns, an index finger to his lips.
'You're a useless drunken fool, Joe. You've not brought home a dollar in months.'
'Sure, there's no work to be had for a chippie in New York, y' junkie slut.'
'Seems you've found enough dough to finance the drink, and your gambling.'
'But me luck's changing, Mary, I can feel it.'
‘Maybe, but I'll be seein' none of it. Oh.' Her scream rattles the windowpanes. 'It's coming, Joe. The baby's coming.'
That’s when I hear bells, not the fire department this time, the church kind. It's midnight.
I turn to Morrie. 'It's a miracle,' he whispers. 'Tonight all our wishes are granted.' He smiles with glistening eyes. 'Seems like we all see what we need to see.' He shakes his head, wind-milling his arms, lost for words. And then he finds his voice and can’t stop talking of the visions he has seen: his late and sainted mother and his grandfather back in the old country.
Morrie Kaiser’s brothers are standing behind us, nodding agreement. All three brothers are carrying small packages. Queuing behind them are the cops, laughing like a pair of kids, and behind the cops a line of smiling people stretching down the fire escape and on as far as you can see. The cold doesn't seem to matter any more. In fact, the night seems almost warm.
Pulled by some unseen hand, the curtain moves aside and there sits Mary, thin and white, a baby at her breast. Dark-lidded and stubble-faced, Joe leans for support against Mary's chair. 'It's a boy,' he slurs. A cheer rises and spreads out down the line. I glance around. Tonight has brought joy to so many simple lives. What right has a cynical hack to interfere?
I'm mulling this over when I find myself thinking of a dame in a red dress. The strangest feeling fills me, could this be what those starry-eyed dreamers call hope? Perhaps it’s the atmosphere, the booze or the time of year. Suddenly all I know is I must get back to Jimmy’s bar. I push my way down the stairs and out onto the sidewalk.
I'm trudging back through knee-deep snow. Discordant voices assail the air somewhere behind me. The cops are singing Galway Bay. Candles burn in windows everywhere. Despite the biting cold more people are out on the streets, strangers dancing, embracing. An old guy totters past me wearing little more than a pair of pants and a shirt; he's singing The Rare Old Mountain Dew at the top of his lungs.
I turn my face skywards and imagine the dame in the red dress has made it big in showbiz and life is good. Perhaps tonight dreams really can come true?
I'm two blocks away from Jimmy’s when streetwise sense returns. Maybe the miracle would have lasted longer if I hadn't seen Fingers De Vinci and his pickpocket outfit working the crowd, and then I remembered that ‘Mary’ and ‘Joe’ were two of his regular team. But, hey, they've spread the Christmas dream to so many people, even me… well, almost. Who am I to throw cold snow over the celebrations?
I make it back, and Jimmy's place is full to bursting. Shouldering my way to the bar, it crosses my mind that this is the first time Jimmy has decorated the place. And then the dime drops: the power is out. His candles are in beer bottles.
‘Still here, Babe?’
The dame in red turns and says something I can hardly make out over the din.
‘What's that? You want to know what Mary called her baby?’ I give her my cynical laugh. ‘Hey, this ain't Hans Christian Anderson.’
She pulls a sad face.
‘Next thing you'll ask if Morrie Kaiser and his brothers got a slice of the action.’
The lady purses her lips and nods. I try to catch Jimmy’s eye.
‘How’s about one more drink to warm up, Babe? Then back to my place and I’ll tell you the whole story, okay?

About the Author: Oscar Windsor-Smith was born in Cheshire but now infests rural Hertfordshire sustained by one charitable wife and tolerated by four semi-feral cats. He has fiction and non-fiction writing published in print and online. Other credits include a novel WIP short-listed for the W&A Year Book centenary competition, a horror piece performed professionally in London and readings at Sparks events in Brighton.
You can find his WW1 poem, 'Farewell Sweet Molly Brown' in audioboo here: http://audioboo.fm/boos/583429-farewell-sweet-molly-brown-prose-poem
On Twitter he is @OscarWindsor. He blogs at: http://oscarwindsor-smith.blogspot.com/

Photo (c) Edwin Land