Harlan Ellison

Have Coolth

ONCE UPON A WHEN, DERRY MAYLOR had been cool. But that was past, and now there were long, thin dark spaces when he walked. Even the night was quiet for him; no sounds of the boo-dowin his head. He had taken to squareness, and wore his collar turned up.

How does a man blow his coolth?

It takes a combo of many littles. Like the chick with the eyes so green and so razor-slim the little kids ask her like, “Are you Chinese?” It takes the loss of all your bread and the loss of all your steam and most of all, the loss of your virility.

Get creamed once by a badass chick, and you’ve had it. Derry Maylor had had the course. Now came the times when the drums were quiet, and the horns didn’t blow, and the faint cha-tah of the sticks could not be heard. Rose had been her name, and Rose was her name, but Rose wasn’t right.

Try Bitch.

Which is the worst of all, man, when you blow piano that’s more than piano, and the chick takes your blood and your liver and wraps them up for 59¢ a pound — (any buyers?) — then you got to stay away from the lofts where the men are blowing and the smoke is warm and thick; then you got to stay away from the Sweet Lucy and the good Guatemalan shit and the honk and spike and the speed and the Good Book because when you come down off them, you got the blues so bad more worse you want to puke. Then you got to stay away from it all, like the piano, because the piano has been Mama and Poppa and home and life and all of it so nice. But what you got now?

You gottsuris.

Derry Maylor was about medium height … this is the make on him, so dig. He had eyes set up under his brows, so unless the light was with them, you knew he had no eyes. But when the light was right, then dig, they were as blue as something Tatum tinkled. His nose wasn’t merely a blow-station, it was a monument. Cyrano and Derry Maylor were blood brothers in the Society of Snot-Sockers. But it didn’t look bad, that was what made it swing so; it was a nose like larger than life. It was straight and squared at the tip, and it came down at you like a hungry buzzard, but it swung, and that counted. His mouth was very strong, but very thin; and all that, with the high Cherokee cheekbones, made him look rough and cold and with it.

But was he?

Not now, he wasn’t. Once, but Rose, and whamm!

No, he was a loser now.

That’s why he was mugging lushes in the Village.

For piss money. For pennies.

That was how I met the Tiger. I always called him the Tiger because he had a scrapbook he showed me once, with some pix from when he was at Middlebury, with all that sophomoric jazz in the room he shared with a guy he called the Bear. All fancy liquor bottles and like that. But that had been in the days when he had been another Derry Maylor, and the world was smelling like Air Wick.

I met him in the Village, most strange.

I mean, he tried to mug me.

He came out of this dark little side street off Bleecker, and came sneakity up behind me, like I played it cool. This cat didn’t. He just didn’t. I mean, he came on like gangbusters. Down came the duck and burped and said the secret word, “I’m gonna lick you one up longside the head and take your bread man,” so I just naturally turned on him when he got close enough and had this leather glove full of nickels raised to whomp me, and I said, “Shit, man!” And tagged him one right on that monumental bazooz of his.

He did a back flip and swam the length of the pavement, just for chuckles.

I mean, like I got a nasty temper, so I picked him off the sidewalk and shook him a little till his eyeballs registered UNCLE, then I set up that kook against the building wall and belted him again.

I got to learn to control my temper, for true.

After a while, after about half my Viceroy was gone he picked himself off the deck, shook his head like a St. Bernard what wonders who swiped his cask, and tried to take me out with a strong left. I ducked and caught him around the shoulders in a loving clinch.

“Baby, you want a mouthful of bloody Chiclets, you keep peppering my good nature. I’ll kill you, baby.”

So the Tiger just naturally settled back, because when you’re being hugged close by a two-hundred-pounder you make all your decisions for Christ.

When I saw the light of sense flick in his eyes, I turned him loose. I dug this guy, and the first make I got was one of chagrin. Like this cat was really ashamed; I asked him, “You got bills to pay or is this a hobby?”

He shook that boney head of his, and in the faraway streetlight I caught a glimpse, for the first, of those blue eyes. They were but tired.

“You got a name?”

He wouldn’t say. I felt more sorry than anything else for the guy, but what could I do? Not only was I not my brother’s keeper, I was almost not my own keeper sometimes, what with public relations being as slow a game as it is.

“Well, watch yourself, Cootie,” I laid it down, and made to split. “The next mark might tear your head off. Try getting a job, hey?”

I started to walk away, and I heard this odd voice behind me, and the guy said:

“I haven’t eaten in three days, mister.”

It was sogoddam pathetic, I stopped. I would have backed up without turning around, I didn’t want to catch the expressionI knew he had on his face, and put a buck in his hand, but there was something strange in his voice. Something sullen, and yet very hip. It was like away of talking, that gave me the tip this guy had it.

“You want some coffee?” I asked him. He gave me a weary peck with that beak of his. So …

I took him to Jim Atkins and we fell down on a pair of straight-blacks, till I saw the way he was hollow-cheeked and miserable.

“Come on, man,” I said, clapping him on the shoulder. We went over to Eighth Street, to a little delicatessen I know, and walked through to the back where Cummerbund holds dominion over a twelve-table kingdom. Hardly anybody but the hip go to the delicatessen to eat, and Cummerbund is part of the reason those who do go come back often.

Cummerbund isn’t his name, but his real name is so easy to forget, and that silk cummerbund is so incongruous, it fits — so why fight it? It’s a good place to talk.

I ordered a hot plate of matzoh ball soup for him, and when Cummerbund had brought it — nodding to me in recognition, which warmed me — I put in a request for two hot corned beef sandwiches — lean — two orders of blintzes, two slaws, and a couple more coffees. While he shoveled it all in, I sized him up and decided this was a good kid.

He looked as though he was with it.

Over a cigarette and a second coffee, I tried to feel him out: “You got a name?”

He didn’t look up from the java, but he said, “Maylor. Derry Maylor.”

We sat and gabbed, and after a while he started to open up, and gave me a little of himself, and it came up seven that I’d dug this kid before.

“You ever play any piano?” I asked.

“Some,” he said, and it clicked.

“You used to be the fourth in Con Whitney’s Quartet, right? Played the Vanguard and that one side for Bethlehem, right?” He gave me the nod again. It was like a salute by a buzzard.

Then I knew the kid was okay, because he had talent, not the kind of gaff the Village phonies put out, but the real thing. So I became my brother’s keeper. So sue me.

Derry Maylor, the Tiger, came back fast. All it took was a strong hand because when it came down to it, he was pretty weak in the clinches.

Working as a freelance public relations man for a grab bag of second-rate attractions — like Lulu Seeker, The Girl with the Educated Crotch, so help me that’s how they bill her in Jersey City — I didn’t make much bread, but man, did I have coolth.

Part of the coolth came from taking my fee out in trade at low joints like The Hedonist Union, a down-the-stairs bôite featuring prices too sour and jazz too sweet. But I got it mentioned in the columns from time to time, and once in a while CUE did a restaurant piece mentioning it; I was being paid what I was worth.

Usually, I took my pay out in meals. I bought my own bicarb. Giulio, the chef, was a worse cook than my mother, and she had been only the last in cooking. Burned water.

Giulio was worse. But it was free.

So I took the Tiger down to see Frankie Sullivan, who owned the joint, and in a burst of fantastic dynamiting, sold him on the kid. Sullivan started the Tiger at fifty a week, backing him with three pick-ups from around town who were pretty well known. It wasn’t a smash at first, but that was how Miles and Bird and Cannonball had started, so I waited. I figured he had it, and when he had enough under his belt, he’d start to shine.

I was right. The kid began to make real sounds. By no sheer coincidence Derry Maylor was living with me, and I saw him every morning when I got up to start pounding my rounds, so I’d ask him, “How they swinging down there?” And at first he’d just nod sleepily from the Castro and turn over. But in a few weeks, he started to tell me things:

“We hit a couple good ones last night. Richie was really fine on Monk’s ‘Midnight,’ and I think Tad’ll be a great stick man one of these days …” then he’d realize he’d been exposing himself, and flip over in the sack. But he was coming back up the road, and that swung.

A couple evenings, when The Hedonist Union was closed, we’d make the scene at The Five Spot o ...

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