One Night Stands and Lost Weekends Page 1

Author: Lawrence Block

Genres: Mystery , Thriller

One Night Stands



IN 1956, FROM THE BEGINNING OF AUGUST through the end of October, I lived in Greenwich Village and worked in the mail room at Pines Publications. I was a student at Antioch College, in Yellow Springs, Ohio, which sounds like a hell of a commute, but that’s not how it worked. At Antioch students spent two terms a year studying on campus and two terms working at jobs the school arranged for them, presumably designed to give them hands-on experience in their intended vocational area. Like a majority of students, I had spent my entire freshman year on campus. Now, at the onset of my second year, I was ready to begin my first co-op job. I knew I wanted to be a writer, so I went through the school’s list and picked a job at a publishing house.

Pines published a paperback line, Popular Library, a batch of comic books, and a couple dozen magazines, including some of the last remaining pulps in existence. (Ranch Romances, I recall, was one of them. It was what the title would lead you to believe.) I worked five days a week from nine to five, shunting interoffice mail from one desk to another, and doing whatever else they told me to do. My weekly salary was forty bucks, and every Friday I got a pay envelope with $34 in it.

I lived in the Village, at 54 Barrow Street, where I shared a one-bedroom apartment with two other Antioch co-ops. My share of the monthly rent was $30, so I guess it fit the traditional guideline of a week’s pay. I know I never had any money, but I never missed any meals, either, and God knows it was an exciting place to be and an exciting time to be there. (I was eighteen, and on my own, so I suppose any place would have been exciting, but at the time I thought the Village was the best place in the world. Now, all these years later, I haven’t changed my mind about that.)

I didn’t do much writing during those months. I’d realized three years earlier that writing was what I wanted to do, and every now and then I actually wrote something. Poems, mostly, and story fragments. I sent things to magazines and they sent them back. At Antioch, I taped the rejection slips on the wall over my desk, like the heads of animals I’d slain. Sort of.

One weekend afternoon, I sat down at the kitchen table on Barrow Street and wrote “You Can’t Lose.” It was pretty much the way it appears here, but it didn’t end. It just sort of trailed off. I showed it to a couple of friends. I probably showed it to a girlfriend, in the hope that it would get me laid, and it probably didn’t work. Then I forgot about it, and at the end of October I went back to campus.

Where at some point I remembered the story and dug it out and sent it to a magazine called Manhunt. All I knew about Manhunt was that most of the stories in Evan Hunter’s collection The Jungle Kids had first appeared in its pages. I’d admired those stories, and it struck me that a magazine that would publish them might like my story. So I sent it off, and it stayed there for a while, and then back it came.

With a note enclosed from the editor. He liked it, but pointed out that it didn’t have an ending, and that it rather needed one. If I could come up with a twist ending, a snappier ending, he’d like to see it again. So I found a newsstand that carried Manhunt, bought a copy, read it, and wrote a new ending, one which at least proved I’d read O. Henry’s “The Man at the Top.” (My narrator ends with the triumphant boast that his ill-gotten gains are due to increase dramatically, because he’s just invested the whole thing in some gold mine stock. Or something.)

I sent this off, and it came back with another note, saying the new ending was predictable and didn’t really work, but thanks for trying. And that was that.

Then several months later the school year was coming to a close, and I was due to head off to Cape Cod and find a co-op job on my own. One night near the end of term I couldn’t sleep, and I lay there thinking, and thought of the right way to finish the story. I went home to Buffalo to visit my folks, drove out to Cape Cod, and wrote a new ending for the story. The acceptance process was slow—Manhunt had what we’ve since learned to call a cash-flow problem—but, long story short, they bought it. Paid a hundred bucks for it.

My first sale.

I LEFT THE CAPE after a month or so and wound up back in New York, where I got a job as an editor at a literary agency, reading scripts and writing letters to wannabe writers, telling them how talented they were and how this particular story didn’t work, but by all means send us another story and another reading fee.

I lived in a residential hotel on West 103rd Street, where my $65-a-month rent was again a fourth of my salary. And, nights and weekends, I wrote stories, which the agency I worked for submitted to various magazines. Most of the stories were crime fiction. I hadn’t yet decided I was going to be a crime fiction writer—I don’t know that that’s a decision I ever made—but in the meantime I read extensively in the field. There was a shop on Eighth Avenue off Times Square where they sold back copies of Manhunt and other digest-sized magazines (Trapped, Guilty, Off-Beat, Keyhole, Murder, and so on) at two for a quarter. I bought every one of these I could find, and I read them cover to cover. Some I liked and some I didn’t, but somewhere along the way I must have internalized the sense of what made a story, and I wrote some of my own.

They sold, most of them, sooner or later. Sometimes to Manhunt, but more often to its imitators. Trapped and Guilty paid a cent and a half per word, so they were the first choice after Manhunt passed. Then came Pontiac Publications, at a penny a word. (Their magazines had titles like Sure Fire and Twisted and Off-Beat, and every story title had an exclamation mark at the end. I longed to call a story “One Dull Night” so that they could call it “One Dull Night!”)

After I’d been a month or so at the literary agency, it was clear to me I was learning more than I’d ever learn in college, and that I’d be crazy to stop now. So I dropped out and stayed right where I was. In the spring, I decided I’d learned as much as I was going to at the job, and that a student draft deferment was, after all, better than a poke in the eye with a sharp bayonet. I went back to Antioch.

By the time I got there, I was writing books. “Sex novels” was what we called them, though they’d now get labeled “soft-core porn.” I wrote one to order the summer before I returned to Antioch, and the publisher wanted more. So that’s what I did instead of classwork. And I also went on writing crime stories. At the end of that academic year, in the summer of 1959, I dropped out again, and this time it took. I started writing a book a month for one sex novel publisher, and other books for other publishers, and from that point the crime short stories were few and far between.

WHEN DOUG GREENE AND I discussed bringing out a collection of these early stories, he brought up the subject of an introduction. “You can read through the stories,” he said, “and write some sort of preface.”

“One or the other,” I said. “You decide which.”

I have a lot of trouble looking at my early work. I rarely like the way it’s written, and I especially dislike the glimpse it gives me of the unutterably callow youth who produced it. I like that kid and wish him well, but read what he wrote? The hell with that.

You know what? I’m afraid to read them. I’m scared I’ll decide not to publish them after all, and it’s too late for that.

So an uncharacteristic attack of honesty compels me to advise you that I am in the curious position of introducing you to a couple of dozen short stories that I myself haven’t read in forty years.

Someone else suggested that some of the stories might require revision, because attitudes expressed in them are out-of-date and politically incorrect. No way, I told him. First of all, one of the few interesting things about them is that they’re of their time. I’d much rather burn them than update them. And screw political rectitude, anyway. You want to go through Huckleberry Finn and change the name of Huck’s companion to African-American Jim? Be my fucking guest, but leave me out of it.


1. A few of these stories, as indicated in the bibliographical notes at the back, were published under pen names. This only happened when I wound up with more than one story in the same issue of a magazine. W. W. Scott, who edited Trapped and Guilty, would make up a pen name when this occurred, generally by working a variation on the author’s usual byline. Thus “B. L. Lawrence.” The guy at Pontiac asked what pen name to use in similar circumstances, and I provided the name “Sheldon Lord.” Were there other pen names? Maybe, because there have been editors in the business who had house names that they used at such times. Maybe they used them on stories of mine. I don’t think this ever happened, but at this point I’d have no way of knowing. And no reason whatever to care…

2. There’s a story in here called “Look Death in the Eye” that deserves comment. It may strike some readers as curiously familiar. I wrote it way back when, while I was working for the literary agent, and it sold to Pontiac, and I lost all track of it. Didn’t have a copy, didn’t know where to find one.

And I found myself thinking about the story. What I really liked about it was the last line, and that, really, was all I remembered. So I re-created the story from memory, right up to the last line, which I recalled word for imperishable word. I hammered it out and sent it off to a fellow named Bruce Fitzgerald, who was editing a magazine called For Women Only. (It was a beefcake magazine, as it happens, composed of outtake photos from Blueboy, a gay magazine. The stories and articles interspersed among the nude male pix in For Women Only were ostensibly slanted to female readers, of which I doubt the magazine had more than twenty nationwide. The idea was that, by being purportedly for women, it could get on newsstands closed to gay publications, where its true audience would, uh, sniff it out. Its name notwithstanding, it was really for men only. Publishing is a wonderful business.)

Bruce liked the story, but felt it was a little too graphic for his female readers, even though we all knew they didn’t exist. Could he use it without the last line?

Without the last line, of course, there’s no story. And the only reason I wrote the story a second time was so that I could reuse the last line. So I displayed artistic integrity I never knew I had and withdrew the story. I don’t know what difference I thought it would make, since nobody read anything in that magazine anyway, but for once I just couldn’t stop myself from doing the right thing. Gallery wound up taking it, last line and all. It was published as “Hot Eyes, Cold Eyes,” and was later included in my second collection, Like a Lamb to Slaughter.

3. The title deserves explanation. Most of these stories were written in a single sitting. I would get an idea and sit down at the typewriter and hammer it out. You can hold a short-story idea entirely in the mind, especially the sort of brief and uncomplicated story that most of these are. A weekday evening or a weekend afternoon was generally time enough to see one of these stories through to the end.

It still often is. I still write stories rapidly, and sometimes complete one in a single setting. The major difference, it seems to me, is that the gestation period has gotten a lot longer. I’ll nowadays let a story idea percolate or ferment or stew for days or weeks or months. Back then I tended to strike as soon as the iron was hot, or, occasionally, before it had really warmed up.

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