Ghost Writers

by Bill Prindle

Table of Contents
Table of Contents
parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

part 4


Nick walked to the nearest stationery story and splurged on a new typewriter ribbon and a ream of paper. He bought some groceries and returned to his apartment.

He popped the cap off a bottle of root beer and sat in front of his typewriter. He typed, “Are you three there?”

“Right here, boss,” said Mac. “How’d it go?”

“You got me fired.”

“Don’t worry, Nicky,” Dixie said. “We’ll stick with ya.”

“Yeah, Nick, there’s always room for one more Trickster,” added Mac.

“It’s time for a serious talk, Nick,” Bill said. “That story about the schmuck who jumps off the GW Bridge is way too depressing. No one’ll buy it. We want to be in rags like The Saturday Evening Post or even The New Yorker with real writers like Saroyan, L’Amour, Hammett, Hemingway, and that crowd.”

“Who doesn’t? You three geniuses have any ideas?” Nick typed.

“Here’s one we’ve been working on,” said Mac, lighting a cigar. “A society type loses everything in the crash. He’s not a bad guy — kind of a Nick Charles Thin Man type — brainy but a real klutz. The girl’s a tough, cute kid who’s lost her secretary job and is all alone in the world. The third guy’s a real sharpster who knows all the confidence grifts—”

“But lacks the requisite savoir faire,” Bill added.

“Yeah, whatever he said,” Mac resumed. “The three of ’em meet up in a soup line, get to talking, decide they got the brains to put something together — some kind of con or something — and off they go. You’ll make it funny, with the Thin Man guy screwing up and Dixie cracking wise, and the con man showing them the ropes.

“You got a classic threesome, so something’s gonna get outa whack when one of them starts falling for Dixie and Dixie falls for the other guy. You got the Depression and rich folks with their thumb on the scale, but our three heroes got moxie and they ain’t gonna let things beat them.

“People’ll want to read a story like this, I’m tellin’ ya. Three down-on-their-luck flimflammers who got nothing except each other and their wits. It’s a winner! Details, of course, to be provided by you.”

“Thanks for giving me the easy part — the details.”

“Come on, Nicky, don’t get pouty!” said Dixie. “It’ll be fun!”

Nick drank some root beer. “Honestly, I like the set-up. It won’t win a Pulitzer, but it might be fun to write. Sounds commercial. The only problem is I don’t know a thing about people like you three except what I’ve seen in the movies. I need to do some serious research. I’m signing off for two weeks, but when I come back, you’ll get your story.”

* * *

For the next two weeks, day and night, through snow, slush, and bitter cold, Nick scoured New York City and talked to the kind of people who had previously been invisible to him. At mid-town dance halls, he foxtrotted and chatted with the dime-a-dance taxi dancers who got their feet mashed every night by drunks and sailors yearning to hold a woman in their arms.

He talked to the forlorn men and women on street corners, selling neckties, apples, and pencils, and asked them how they wound up there. On the waterfront, he listened to stevedores, huddling out of the cold and smoking cigarettes on their breaks, as they described the rough life on the docks and some of the tragic and bizarre things they’d fished out of the water.

Nick spent Carney’s money on cab rides to hear taxi drivers’ strange, funny, and heartbreaking tales of passengers they’d driven around the city. He traveled up to 141st Street in Harlem to the Savoy Ballroom and hung out with the guys selling reefer in the balcony and smoked joints with the musicians and danced with a colored girl who tried to show him how to do the Lindy Hop and finally had to give up.

“Honey,” she’d said, “I’m sorry but you’re just too white.” She let him buy her a drink and introduced him to some con men and numbers runners, who had some wild tales of real-life gangsters and G-men.

He hit the Bowery bars and heard more hard-luck stories and wrote them all down as soon as he returned to the blessed warmth of his apartment. One freezing day he struck up conversations with doormen at the posh hotels and restaurants and treated himself to a beer at Twenty One, where he coaxed the bartender to reveal some scandalous conversations he’d overheard between celebrities.

For two days, Nick tramped around Greenwich Village to rub shoulders with the bohos, bums, writers, anarchists, and artists in McSorley’s, Sammy’s Bowery Follies, and tiny clubs where poets declaimed their artistic manifestos to audiences who dressed as though they were attending a funeral.

By the end of an exhausting two weeks, he’d met dozens of folks who’d lost everything, survived on little, and thrived by their wits alone. He knew the kinds of jokes Dixie’s character would tell, the perfume she’d wear, and where she’d shop for clothes.

From a three-card monte mob, he’d learned the kinds of the short cons a grifter could run to win a few bucks for a meal and a flop, and the more dangerous long cons that could get you ten years in Sing Sing, a bullet in the back of the head — or a trip to Miami in a first-class Pullman suite.

He’d also learned three important lessons. One was that there was something about him, perhaps his Iowan lack of guile, that people trusted and made them want to confide in him.

He met the kind of people who read True Crime, and to his shame, they weren’t the dopes he’d thought them to be but just folks doing their best to get by in hard times and who needed a little amusement, like Carney’d said.

Finally, despite his tranquil, Midwestern upbringing, Nick realized that Mac, Dixie, and Bill had been born from the inexplicable affinity he felt for those who lived on the margins of society and whose ragged and desperate lives burned with an intensity far greater than the pallid characters in his college stories.

Sunday evening he made a pot of coffee, three Spam and cheese sandwiches, and sat down in front of the typewriter. All the people he’d met and their stories were buzzing around in his head like hornets. He summoned up Bill, Dixie, and Mac in his mind’s eye and turned them loose.

Late the next morning he had a finished story he called “One Two Switcheroo,” which involved an elaborate scheme to fleece a gangster. He needed Dixie to impersonate a man, so he rewrote her character literally from top to bottom. Her Mae West figure was transformed to that of a gamine young woman, with dark, exotic features, and a lissome figure.

He slept till four, made more coffee and sandwiches, and over the next twelve hours, wrote a sequel called “Inside Straight,” a gambling caper that took place on a cross-country train. He finished it just as the sun was coming up, slept until noon, took a walk, made more coffee, and wrote the final story of the series called “Bottom Deal,” in which the Tricksters run an elaborate con to exact revenge on a heartless industrialist and barely escape with their lives. After he’d finished, he slept for eighteen hours.

He awoke to the crisp staccato of typewriter letters hitting the paper.

“This is great stuff, Nick!” exclaimed Bill. “Holy Cow, we’re exhausted!”

“I love my new short black hair and the way you passed me off for a guy in ‘One Two Switcheroo’,” said Dixie. “I kinda miss my big boobs, but I loved it when you described me as ‘lissome.’ Gave me goose bumps! Wherever do you get these ideas?!”

“Not a one bullet-riddled body in the whole thing,” said Mac. “Now what, boss?”

“Now I introduce you three to the world,” typed Nick.

* * *

Proceed to part 5...

Copyright © 2016 by Bill Prindle

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