Winter in Brooklyn by Sam Carter
Hugo Hart walks into the December dusk to commit today’s letters of application for employment to the mail. It’s a hopeless waste of paper and postage, but he’s honor-bound to try, for Sarah’s sake. Eighty-seven rejections in three months tell him he’s doing something wrong, but he cannot fathom what. Trudging down the rickety tenement stairs, he hears the Toniolis fighting like starved raccoons. The apartment walls here are so thin, that when Mrs. Tonioli sneezes, Sarah says “Bless you”.
He wonders again how his wife keeps so cheerful, when he can feel his own spirit eroding day by day, like the gum around an extracted tooth. Sarah’s letters from the new job she’s had to take in Cleveland always somehow contrive to arrive between rejections from prospective employers or magazine-editors, and he loves them, and her, for that with helpless fierceness. His wife’s letters, like his wife, are optimistic, affectionate and warm, physically so: his fingers tingle hotly when he holds the flimsy paper up before his nearsighted eyes. As the yellow teeth of the Brooklyn winter bite, Hart’s taken to reading Sarah’s letters in bed, wearing pyjamas, overcoat and gloves to save on expensive coal.
Now is the commuter-hour; the streets bustle and bristle. Hart tries not to glance at the Christmas store-window displays, determined not to covet what he cannot afford. Back in Manhattan, in Bloomingdale’s, where Sarah worked in Millinery until losing her job, dashing dinner-suits and silk evening-gowns shimmer behind glass like exhibits in a museum of glamour. But Silverman’s styles are smudged carbons of the originals; the materials and cut as cheap and poor as the customers. Sarah wouldn’t be seen dead in the shoddy, gimcrack little hats they sell here; which is a shame, because Hart desperately needs to get her a gift, and could just about afford one.
Opposite the mailbox is an office-supplies shop, where Hart occasionally purchases ink or envelopes; it’s inexpensive and well-stocked, though the owner’s Ukrainian accent is thicker than borscht and hard to understand. The shopfront, ludicrously adorned with hand-tinted images of a corpulent Santa Claus, is brightly-lit and in the center of the display, angled stylishly atop a polished-oak roll-top desk, is a brand-new Remington No. 16 typewriter.
Hart has been wary of typewriters since catching a finger in his friend Emerson’s Olivetti, but this is nothing like that rattling old mantrap. He’s never fallen in love with a machine before, but the Remington is a thing of sleek beauty on four rubber hooves, its round white keys like perfectly manicured fingernails. It’s a magnificence of steel and enamel, and the creamy watermarked sheet perking from its roller says:
WIN ME FOR CHRISTMAS! ENQUIRE INSIDE
The door-bell jingles seasonally as Hart slides his long, awkward body through the warm gap. Mr. Shuropov hurries forward, all bonhomie and effusive mustache.
“What can I do for you, my friend? More paper for letters? You need a pretty secretary! Or maybe one of my new typewriters?”
Hart removes his hat, passes an apprehensive hand over his oiled hair.
“No, thank-you. I wondered … how might one win the, ah, machine in the window?” Some sort of competition, probably. Perhaps a writing contest? Hart brightens; if he can do nothing else, he can write. He’s even sold a few horror stories toWeird Tales at $6 each; the only remuneration he’s received since he married and moved here.
Mr. Shuropov smiles, flashing gold. “You like the Remington, eh? Twenty dollars new. Top-of-the-range almost, beautiful thing. First prize in the draw; we pull the winner Christmas Eve.” He reaches behind the counter, producing a blue book of raffle-tickets. “Dime a ticket, great Christmas present for the wife, better than sewing-machine.”
“Almost the top-of-the-range?” Hart’s eyes are swallowed in the blackness of the Remington. If this is second-best, his mind dazzles to imagine its superior. Truly, that would be an emperor among typewriters!
“Ah!” says Shuropov, eyes gleaming with love, “best model is the Number 92. In our Manhattan store we have it, just one. Thirty dollars, ninety-two characters. Quiet as a mouse, smooth like butter. Five-year guarantee.”
Hart’s infatuated, but hardly trusts himself to touch the machine. “May I?” he asks softly.
Shuropov shrugs. He closes in fifteen minutes, and though this odd, lanky letter-writer clearly cannot even afford a scarf, why not let him have his fun? He pulls out the desk-chair with a flourish, like the Plaza waiter he used to be, and fits a new page.
Tentatively, Hart presses a letter-key. The Remington springs to life at his touch, like a sensitive horse, marking the virgin sheet h. He looks up, appealing: “How do I …?” Shuropov smiles. They always type their names first. “For capitals press this one.” He guides Hart’s questing finger to the Shift key.
Hugo Hart, Esq.
274c Red Hook Lane
types Hart, stifling the giggle of delight that bubbles in his chest. He recalls playing with his model train-set as a child, the precise, absorbing thrill of it. But the Remington is not a toy; it’s a tool. A man’s machine, foolishly relegated to women by a blinkered, backward society. A symbol of sophistication, freedom, civilisation: for what is the written word, if not the ultimate signifier of culture?
That he should find such an instrument on the grim, shabby streets of Red Hook, where the only literature is flyposters advertising boxing-matches and fire-sales, is nigh-on a miracle. The stories he could write on this! The applications for employment! Surely any resume written on this machine would instantly be moved by reverent hands to the Interview pile? How Sarah’s eyes would stretch to see the Remington perched majestically on Hart’s treasured cherrywood desk! She types a little herself: with this, she could quit her job in Cleveland and Earn $$$ Typing From Home? He has seen advertisements promising such things. Perhaps he could, too? It simply cannot be impossible for a woman of her skill to teach a man of his intelligence to type. If the bubble-headed girls crowding the lunch-counters of Brooklyn can do it, so can Hugo Hart!
The soft clack of the CLOSED sign turning jerks Hart back from his rosy future. The paper’s covered in fragmented sentences, the phrase Earn SSS Typing From Home (he couldn’t find the dollar sign), strings of nonsense words produced in the sheer joy of pressing the keys, when his inexpert fingers faltered in the wake of his racing brain. Phnglui mglw'nafh Khatala wgah nagl fhtagn he reads; chuckles, and digs dreamily in his pants-pocket for change.
“Five tickets please,” he says, breathlessly.
Shuropov tears off a strip and hands them to Hart ceremoniously. Secretly, he pities the poor sap. It’s never the ones who can use it that win the prize; it always goes to someone who’ll sell it in the Classifieds for half its value. If life has taught Mr. Shuropov anything about luck, it is this.
Outside, Hart flies along the black, wet streets towards the walk-up, blue tickets as warm in his pocket as if they were a letter from Sarah. He may not have found her a Christmas gift, but he has bought them both a chance (five chances!) at happiness.
Hart’s joy in short-lived. He’s accosted on the third-floor landing by a red-faced, red-eyed Mrs. Tonioli. Despite her name she’s pure Irish, with flame-orange hair and a temper to match. She flings out a histrionic arm to stop Hart from entering his apartment: she smells of roasted chestnuts and cheap whiskey.
“Mrs. Tonioli? What’s the meaning of this?”
She lays her untidy ginger head on his breast and sobs. He stiffens, but endures it.
“Oh Mr. Hart! We come back from visiting our daughter on Staten Island (you know, Marie with the education) we were only away the day, and they’ve burgled the whole floor. Your apartment and ours, took everything! It’s a crying shame, Mr. Hart, and your poor wife away in Cleveland and nobody to mind the place …”
“They what?” His pulse judders, his breath is short. He staggers through his front-door, behind which, after a wild glance around the disordered room, he finds Mr. Tonioli fixing the lock. Tonioli is a squat Sicilian, the sort who invariably fills the labouring jobs for which Hart applies in vain. He’s naturally good with engines, machines, horses, women and anything else he can charm with a touch of his broad, competent hands. For once, Hart doesn’t resent his gruff neighbor his manual skill.
“Your place too?” he asks.
“All my jewelry,” laments his wife. “Vittorio’s shoes and his best suit … they even took the Victrola.”
Silently, Hart thanks Heaven for his and Sarah’s poverty; trinkets aside, the apartment contains almost nothing of value. A swift visual inventory confirms that it’s scarcely barer than when he left. He’s not sure whether this gladdens or saddens him.
“I’m awfully sorry to hear that, Mrs. Tonioli,” he says. “Let me know if there’s anything I can do.”
Tonioli rises, tries the lock and gives Hart a taciturn thumbs-up. Remembering his manners, Hart fumbles in his vest-pocket for the emergency dollar-bill he always keeps there, unfolds it with shaking hands, and offers it to Mr. Tonioli, who wards it off, laughing. Unsure of the etiquette, Hart tries to press it on him again: he’s never known a tradesman to refuse a generous tip. This time Tonioli takes the note, carefully refolds it, and tucks it back into Hart’s vest-pocket.
“You need it more than we do, friend,” he says. He turns to his wife and circles his finger at his temple. “How you like this guy, Betty? Just got robbed and wants to give his last dollar away!”
He smacks his neighbor meatily on the shoulder, almost knocking Hart off-balance, and vanishes into his own apartment, trailing his weeping wife. From inside, Hart can hear the rattle and scratch of Mr. Tonioli mending his own lock. He’s always nursed an instinctive distaste for the fellow, without ever really considering why; yet Tonioli fixed Hart’s door even before his own, unthinkingly, without expecting reward or thanks. There’s a tart stinging in the back of Hart’s eyes; he closes his door abruptly, before he says or does anything untoward.
Item: 1 pair nylon stockings.
Item: 1 lady’s hat: ivory satin, faux-pearls, and lace.
Hart can picture it, sunshadow-sharp: in fact, he’ll have to from now on, because the wedding photograph in which Sarah is wearing the Bloomingdale’s hat, a gift from her colleagues, has gone too.
Item: 1 wedding photograph in rhinestone-enamel frame.
The thieves probably thought the frame was worth something. Hart snorts bitterly. Surely even the most obtuse burglar could see anything of value had already been sold? Apart from his furniture, of course, which had been spared as too heavy to carry, or (more likely) too difficult to sell.
Item: 5 tins Turkish cigarettes, filter-tipped.
His favorite blend, bought when he was flush with a six-dollar story sale and hoarded against special occasions and visitors. At least the ruffians had the decency to leave his pipe and tobacco, though they’d stolen Sarah’s stockings.
Item: 1 brass oil-lamp & ½ bottle lamp oil.
In the dim candlelight, Hart rubs his aching head and stares at the sad, petty list of lost things. He comforts himself that if he’d had a typewriter it would have been the first abductee. Hart has never been a violent man, but the acid rage in his chest feels like it must burn its way out somehow. He needs a drink. If only he could beg a tot of Mrs. Tonioli’s whiskey … but no, his neighbors have done enough.
He rises, creaking, winkles Sarah’s emergency brandy from under the kitchen-sink. One should always drink to something, so he raises a glass to the sordid, painful death of the burglar who ravaged his and Sarah’s poor little apartment.
The rough liquor torches his throat, but it forces his despair and rage further off, like an ebbing fever. He walks to the window, looking down at the street. Below mill men and women, dark and fair, gaudy and drab, melancholy and gay, but all poor. Any one of them could have done it, but most are decent folks, like the Toniolis. The hell of it is being unable to tell behind which human faces lurk the heart of a beast.
He opens the rattling window and up rush the cries of hawkers and shrieking giggles of women, already half-drunk though the evening’s only half-gone; the boisterous babble of new Babylon. Popcorn and beer smells, sour sweat, cheap cigars, cheaper perfume, tarmacadam: the body-odour of Brooklyn. Seen from above, the humanity thronging the streets appears herdlike, subhuman. In the country of the blind, Hart recalls, the one-eyed man is king: but this is the city of beasts, and in that fierce place Man is not King, but only a weak and lonely animal with blunted teeth.
He gulps the remaining brandy. Sarah returns home a week tonight, for Christmas, and somewhere he must find a scrap of good news to cheer her. Luckily, Sarah’s best clothes are safe in Cleveland, packed in a heartwrenchingly small valise. But it’s less what’s been taken, than the fragile sense of safety they’d built that’s been broken. He’ll replace everything somehow, tell her the hat’s being cleaned, the photograph-frame polished: buy new nylons, a new lamp. He’ll get a job at last, or sell some furniture; everything will come right again. It is not madness to hope this. It would not be mad, at this point, considers Hart, to pray.
Sarah and he do not discuss religion. How could they? She a twice-divorced Jewess, he a lapsed Protestant with a pantheon of monsters sloshing about his skull. They have so little in common in terms of faith that he’s not even sure where they might touch. But this Hugo Hart knows about any and every god: a god is a powerful thing. A god, like the genie released from a forgotten bottle, has the power to grant wishes (for what are prayers if not voiced wishes?); smite enemies; perform miracles. Perhaps what Hugo Hart needs right now is a God.
Hart barely leaves his apartment over the next days; partly because he doesn’t dare, partly because he cannot afford to. Instead, he smokes, drinks coffee, writes. Not job applications, but a story which has bubbled in him like black tar since the break-in. Thieves anthropoid but not fully human; a half-bred, inbred, monstrous race older and darker than Homo Sapiens, bent on the resurrection of a godlike species of shattering evil. A New England academic’s library violated in search of a powerful book; a ship lost at sea, the surviving crew mad … It’s more than a single tale, it’s a globe-spanning spiral of destruction, everything his nightmares have taught him to fear; Hell in the civilised shadows. He only needs look out the window at the antlike teeming Brooklyn streets to be inspired anew by dread.
Lampless, Hart finishes the story, or rather stories, by candlelight; scores of pages sprawling into three separate narratives, each more unnerving and uncanny than the last. For once, Hart the meticulous doesn’t read his work back in the half-dark; frankly, he’s afraid to. He crams it into envelopes as soon as the ink’s dry and feels an enormous, superstitious relief as he mails them to a new magazine,Strange Stories, which claims to seek “the black, hideous, sordid and bizarre.” Well, they asked for it.
The day before Sarah’s return, Hart, penniless, enlists Mr. Tonioli’s help to heave his grandmother’s tallboy down the mice-smelling tenement stairs and into the nearest secondhand-furniture store. Mr Tonioli conducts negotiations, but still, the price they agree is miserable. Hart pats the smooth wood one last time as he leaves. It feels like sending a faithful old steed to the knacker’s yard. But the clutch of dollars in his hand will re-purchase everything they’ve lost, except the hat and the frame; and besides, tonight one of the blue raffle-tickets might turn golden. Hugo Hart has not, after all, forgotten how to hope.
But Hart is not destined to win the Remington 16 typewriter shining like a black beacon in the window of Shuropov’s; Fate does not even hand him the runner-up prize of a year’s supply of paper. Instead, he shuffles home through the greasy grey snow in misery, with a grocery-sack full of wretched objects which are not even gifts, but replacements. On the third-floor landing he’s accosted once again by Mrs. Tonioli, who presses a typewritten envelope into his hand.
He takes it with a wan nod; he knows the look of employment rejection letters by now. Inside, he makes coffee, lights his pipe, and prepares to add it to the No pile. He supposes his beloved cherrywood desk must be the next thing to go.
It’s from Strange Stories. “We greatly enjoyed your submissionThe Cry of Khatala and would like to publish it as the cover story in our next issue …”
Folded coyly inside the letter, like the petal of a virgin flower, is a cheque for fifty dollars. $50. Fifty dollars! His prayers have been answered. His dark God Khatala has performed the miracle he’d given up hoping for. Never, not in Salem nor the darkest devil-worshipping cults of Haiti, was a demon more fervently praised!
Hugo Hart pelts out into the street and hails a taxicab. His last, folded dollar should get him to Shuropov’s Manhattan store, where the fabled Remington 92 waits for him, coldly gleaming. He’ll just have time to pick it up before meeting Sarah off the Cleveland train at Grand Central. Her face, lit up like in the stolen wedding-photograph, when he tells her he has a cab waiting, and that they’re going to Bloomingdale’s to buy her a new hat for Christmas.
© Sam Carter, 2013
Sam Carter is a reviewer and long-term student who has lived all round the world (currently in London, UK). Sam has had stories performed at Liars' League London and Hong Kong, and other work has appeared in Litro Magazine and anthologies from Leicester University and Arachne Press.
Winter in Brooklyn was read by Kate Chadwick on 4th December 2013