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Solid Stiehl:
The Death and Life of Hymie Stiehl

1
 



Y
ou've read his stuff. Everybody has. What bookshelf in all America doesn't boast at least one volume by The Master. Six of his books—his last antediluvian trilogy plus the mystery series, Death Wears No Clothes—take up the greater portion of the small shelf sagging ominously above my desk. They are sandwiched there between Joyce, whom Stiehl once called a hack, and Steinbeck, whom he really disliked. Which is not to say that I shared his beliefs or considered Stiehl in the same vein as either Joyce or Steinbeck. He was far superior to them both in the cut of his jib...still is, I suppose.


One night back in the spring of ‘65, after I’d gotten to know him over a few beers at John Barleycorn’s on Chicago’s near North Side, Hymie turned and said to me, "The fucking hell of it all is the more you do, the less people appreciate you. If a writer could crank out one good book—one really fuckin' terrific novel—and then disappear from the face of the earth, he'd be virtually guaranteed a place among the world's great literati. He'd be immortal."


He was right, of course. J. D. Salinger proved that. Forget Frannie and Zooey. Salinger's only real masterpiece was and always will be Catcher in the Rye, and it's for that that he'll always be remembered. Nonetheless, it was ironic that he, Stiehl, had made the observation.


When Hyman Stiehl was a struggling young writer working out of the bowels of the City of Big Shoulders, he was garbage, pure and simple. His work was genuinely uninspired. "Except for the dust jacket," one critic wrote about his very first novel, "it would be impossible to tell that it was a book at all."


But as he grew older and gained some grudging recognition, first writing about school board meetings for the Southtown Economist newspaper and eventually growing into a position on the Society Desk of the Chicago Herald American, Stiehl's approach to writing mellowed, and so did his stories, his characters, his poetry. He began building a reputation as a writer of some renown. By the time I met him, he was already the poet laureate of literature, not merely of Chicago, of course, but of the world, for his works were equally appreciated, sought after, and even bought, for God's sake, in New York, L.A., London, and Paris, his reputation as a Great Writer growing with each passing year, whether or not he produced a book worthy of literary acclaim.


Our very first meeting was a surprise.


“You know him?" one of my students had asked casually as we stood in the hall, talking of literary greatness and how best to achieve it.


"Who?" I asked foolishly, following the gaze of a pimply faced young literary radical down the corridor to a stoop-shouldered old goat with pockmarked skin and a dead stogie dangling from a pale and puckered mouth. "Him?"


I'd known of Hyman Stiehl, the great and famous bastion of the Windy City’s literati, for years. But who was this? I turned to my student and shrugged, then glanced again at the old man. His steel-blue eyes met mine briefly, and they darted away, speeding off down the hall where they came to rest on the sylvan form of a young maiden in a tight-fitting green knit dress.


Could it be? I wondered. I quickly shook the notion from my head. Hyman Stiehl was a Man of the City, a Purveyor of the Greatness that is Chicago. He was a partygoer, a shaker, a reporter of the happenings of the well-to-do, of the people who made the city run and, as such, a major player in the game itself. What would such a man be doing standing outside my classroom on the seventh floor of the YMCA Community College in a seedy area straddling the northernmost fringe of the Loop—an area appropriately, if not affectionately, known as The Bladder, situated miles to the south of the fashionably chic North Michigan Avenue, with all its lounges, bars, and private clubs, miles to the north of the once-glamorous Gold Coast, which had by now degenerated into a seedy assemblage of ramshackle buildings slowly decaying from the inside out, like many, if not all, of their inhabitants— standing in the hall, lusting after a girl young enough to be his daughter...his granddaughter, for Chrissake!


I quickly surveyed his large, bulging eyes, puffed out and encircled by several rings of time, then let my gaze drift across his thick, meaty face to his nose—a great bulbous affair that shone bluish-grey in the cast of a long bank of fluorescent lights stretched out overhead. Running from one side of his nose to the other were scores of tiny blue-green lines—ribbons of highway seen from a jetliner, at first barely visible from high above the city, then growing ever larger and more prominent with each passing second until they threatened to explode into a billion shards of concrete and steel.


His mouth was the only thing about him that did not seem too large for his overall carriage. Not his mouth, exactly, but his lips. Two thin lines that, later when I got to know him, I would see purse out in an effort to expand their size, as though he knew these mere slivers of pastel were the one feature out of keeping with his greatness and set about to change them.


“Yeah,” the student replied as the old man turned and took several sure steps toward us. “Hymie Stiehl. You know him? We have coffee together at Francie’s in the mornings.”


“You? You and …” My mouth fell open as I looked from one face to the other.
“Hey-yeah. Pleased to meetcha,” the two thin lips said, quivering lightly as he held out his hand. “What’s your name again?”


“This is D. J.,” the student responded. “You know, the guy I told you about. The writing instructor?”


“Oh, yeah, yeah, sure,” he said. His eyes glowed suddenly brighter and his brows—already sprouting in every conceivable direction—seemed to rise and swell to twice their previous size. “Oh, so you’re D. J. Yeah. I’ve read your stuff. Some of it. A little. In the papers. Or the magazines. Very nice.”


He held out his hand, and I grasped it firmly, surprised at how weak it felt, how light the grip, delicate, effeminate practically.


“Thanks,” I said.


“Aww, shit. Don’t think nothin’ of it.”


I stared awkwardly at him for several moments. Or an hour or more. Half expecting my student or Stiehl or someone to say something so that I wouldn’t have to. And when it turned out not to be so, I decided to make my move, to take the bull by the horns, wow him with my wittiness. So I shifted my weight to my left, which I’ve always considered to be my best side, and uttered the immortal words, “So you’re him?”
Hymie shrugged. “He.”


“Hmm?”


“He. So I’m he. Guess so. Everybody’s gotta be someone.”


I laughed. He laughed. We both laughed. And as we stood there laughing, his eyes once again swept along the hall, stopping to feast upon the tightly sheathed young girl as she sashayed past the water cooler before slipping finally out of sight.


It was the first and last I saw of him until the big faculty party at a posh private college, where I taught days, off Lake Shore Drive. I was there as the guest of one of the faculty, a petite young brunette, who taught writing during the day and God knows what at night, or so it was rumored. And if she was as good at the one as I damned well knew she was at the other, I was anxious to get to know her better.


Hymie was there, too, of course—in rumpled coat and baggy pants—standing off to one side, fielding questions from men and women who looked a curious cross between Michigan-Avenue chic and Northwestern Literati. And when his eyes first settled on mine, they froze, then quickly darted away, then slowly drifted back. Suddenly he laughed, excused himself, and snaked his way through the crowd until he came to rest alongside me.


“Hey,” he said, smiling and grabbing my hand. “How the hell are you? Haven’t seen you around.”


“Around where?” I asked. “Here?”
“Yeah,” he said. “You know. Here. There. Wherever the city beats, wherever the pulse pounds.”


“I wasn’t going to come,” I said. “Except for this friend who talked me into it. I thought it would be kind of fun to see how the other half lives. I mean, I figured it's time I learned a little something about real writers."


He frowned suddenly and leaned very close to my ear. The smell of stale cigars hung about him like mist over the Great Smoky Mountains. "This," he said softly, "ain't real. Not real people. Not real life."


"No?" I replied, baiting him as best I knew how. "What is it, then?"


"You wanna see real?" he asked, ignoring my question. "Come on. Get your hat and let's go."


"Go? Now? Go where?"


"Where there's real. You know, the real city, the real people, the real guts behind this town. What makes this whole goddam asshole of a city work. Come on. I've got a cab waitin' outside. You wanna see real? I'll show you real. You got any money?"


"Hey, no, I'm sorry," I said.


Hymie shrugged. "That's alright. Everybody's broke these days."


"No, I mean, I can't. Go with you. I mean, I've got this woman. I came with her. Denise? Maybe you know her, petite, brown hair, kinda cute ..." I allowed my voice to trail off dramatically. "I really shouldn't just, you know, take off..."


"Hey," he replied, sensing my hesitation. "It's okay. You wanna stick around here with your girlie, just say so. Me? I gotta get outa here. The air stinks, you know? It's so goddam thick in here it stinks. Sometimes if you sniff the air real deep and long, you can actually get a feel for the type of people in a room. Here, there's so many stuffed sardines all smelling alike, I can't tell nothin' except it's crowded as hell. And that much I can see with my own two eyes. Tell you what," he said, pulling a crumpled Irish farmer's cap down over the rolling dunes of his forehead. "I'll see ya."


He turned to make his way toward the door when panic suddenly seized me. Here I was, a struggling young writer, a struggling young teacher, you could take your pick, it didn't matter much to me, talking face-to-face with one of the greatest literary figures of our time, the greatest of all time, maybe, inviting me to partake of life with him, his life, the life, and I was about to let him leave without me, walk out of my life, possibly forever, all because of a sloe-eyed, honey-and-cream complexioned woman I'd known for all of a week and a half. Okay, and maybe a couple of things I'd heard about her and her insatiable libido in the teacher's lounge between classes. Christ, I didn't know what the hell to do.


Bullshit, I said to myself finally. Denise can find herself another lay, and I quickly turned to trace Hymie's path toward the door.


We had almost managed to snake our way out of the room when Hymie stopped suddenly. There, standing directly in our way, was Dick Alexi, the president of the college, the man who had once hired me and the very next day forgotten my name and everything else about me except that I was on the college payroll in one capacity or another, and—next to him—Denise. Denise of the peaches and cream. Denise of the insatiable libido. And, even more incredibly still, next to her, absolutely the most stunning creature I had ever seen in my life. Tall, raven-haired, with silky white skin that made Denise look like a bag lady with the gout. She was younger than Denise by far—possibly even a student, seventeen or eighteen, nineteen at the most, the kind of goddess an old man would die to possess. Or even fool around with for a minute or two. No shit.


For a moment, I thought I had caught her deep, limpid pools staring at me, through me, making my knees tremble wildly and my spine begin to sag. Then, just as quickly, the pools were gone, and she was smiling, laughing, as Alexi bent past Denise and whispered something witty, something sexy, into the young girl's ear, the way college presidents are wont to do when in the company of raven-haired goddesses. I hated her suddenly, this apparition from another world, this Madonna-whore of the Western World. And I hated Alexi, too, of course, although for him, it was no big deal. He'd done this a million times before, been with her or someone just like her a billion times or more.


But how? How could I suddenly feel so angry toward such a sweet young thing, whom I didn't even know? Merely because she had prostituted herself? Because she had disillusioned me? Because she had failed to live up to my precognition of how goddesses should act and talk and smile and laugh? She was playing up to him. That was obvious. And the way she looked at him, taunted him, toyed with him, and the way he responded, it was obvious too that they were not exactly passing ships in the night. Shit. Who am I trying to kid? Knowing Alexi' reputation for hiring the most devastatingly beautiful women in the universe to fill even the most menial of college appointments—and his evenings away from home, I imagined—I couldn't help but feel she'd been used. Once, twice, maybe dozens of times. Or, rather, allowed herself to be used. Willed herself to be used, and that was even worse. Maybe she believed that, by fucking the college president, she would be fucking the world and all that was in it.


Or, shit, maybe it wasn't she who was doing the fucking, but Alexi. Maybe he had seduced her. Promised her the world. Or even more. Maybe she was merely the victim. A willing one, granted, but a victim. Could it be? Was it possible? Was she in fact purer than I'd imagined—standing there, confidence burning in her eyes, worldliness raging in her groin, security overflowing her very D-cups? Could a nineteen-year-old girl be both seductress and seduced, lurer and lured at one and the same time by a fifty-year-old college president, married and with three kids tucked away somewhere in some goddam cat-infested suburb far from the twinkling lights of the city? Driven and driver into depravity? Immortality? Nirvana?


For several moments we stood there, Hymie, the goddess, and I, and maybe Denise, too, I don't know, I can barely remember, and suddenly I began to fear that I was trapped. "She's such a slut," Denise whispered. Somebody whispered. I don't know who, really. I didn't even look. Standing barely inches from the goddess's right thigh, feeling the heat undulating across time and space, the unmistakable charge of electrical impulses arcing from her body to mine, causing the auditory receptor hairs inside my rapidly degenerating ears to tingle, standing right next to her and, no matter how much I wanted to hate her, the way she was playing up to Alexi, throwing herself away on a man so unworthy of her classic Grecian beauty, I couldn't peel my eyes off her. Not for a second. Not for a century. Even when Denise or someone else turned to me and said something about the party gearing up, I failed to catch it, chose instead to ignore it, to place the blame silently upon the swelling din of the room. It was then that I knew I was trapped. Captured. By her beauty. By my own vulnerability.


Still she laughed with him, toyed with him, grabbed hold of his arm at precisely that point where the elbow bends back, at that most delicate, sensitive, personal point where there is no room for error as to understanding what is intended. Understanding what it is she wishes to convey through that touch. And would she look at me? Acknowledge me? Throw me a morsel by which to sustain myself for another few moments? Not on your life. But she looked at him—him, this overblown bag of lakeshore wind—and in a way that signaled unmistakably that she was ready, this Whore of the Universe. Not just flirting with another man, but with Alexi and all of his pretentious, garish, collegiate airs. Jesus Christ, how I hated him.


Suddenly I felt a strange aching in my heart. Not as though I wanted her. More as though I realized I couldn't possibly have her. Not now nor ever. Not so long as she was with him. I felt the need for air; I felt the need for escape; I felt the need to put myself as far from this woman and Alexi and the stink in the room that Hymie had talked about as possible. But now Alexi was talking with him, with Hymie, who seemed to know Alexi from years back. At least from their body language. And now I would have to stay and listen to the chatter, cringe over the bragging, waddle through the bullshit. I would have to watch the overt glances, ache over the subtle touches, struggle beneath the tremendous weight of all the crap Alexi loved to throw around. I'd been to parties at which he was in attendance before. I'd seen him with other goddesses.


Suddenly Hymie turned his head half toward me as if to whisper a secret. I pulled closer to him so I could hear above the growing noise.


"Christ, I wouldn't mind fuckin' her," he said in a voice loud enough to carry to the end of Navy Pier and back, and then he shuffled his feet right past a stunned crowd, parting Alexi and his busty young companion like Moses and the Red Sea.


I suddenly felt all eyes upon me. My feet clung tenaciously to the floor as if they suddenly had some vested interest in the real estate along North Lake Shore Drive and, as tenants in good standing, were not about to vacate the premises even a second before their lease had expired at the end of the month. My face grew redder and hotter by the moment as I realized just how many people, including Alexi, Denise, and the goddess herself, had heard the remark. I didn't say it, I proclaimed via a sheepish grin. Don't look at me, for Chrissake, I didn't say it!!!


But it didn't work. They did look at me, and just about the moment I thought I would die or melt away beneath their hostile stares, my feet grew tired of their inactivity and began shuffling slowly but steadily across the grey-tile floor. "Have a nice day," I heard my lips mutter to Alexi as I slipped past him. I found myself winding my way down the stairwell and out through the arched opening leading toward the thick summer air, and when I finally emerged, I could hardly contain my fury.


"Jesus Christ!" I shouted as I slipped into the cab waiting at the curb and slammed the door behind me. "What the hell did you do that for? It'll be a miracle if I still have a job in the morning. Alexi knows everyone in this town. What the hell did you have to say that for? What the fuck did you say that for???"


"Aww, forget it," Hymie said, fumbling for a match to re-ignite a stogie that he had originally lit in the spring of '46. "They're nothin' but a bunch of horses' asses, anyway. You wanna spend the rest of your life kissing up to them, that's up to you. Me? I got better things to do, thanks. Besides, you always got your night job."


"Oh, yeah," I said. "Right. That's easy for you to say. You've got a secure future. You've got money in the bank. Me? I need this job. You know, to help provide for the little things in life. Food, shelter, clothing. My night job at the ‘Y’ doesn't pay shit."


"Thirty-fifth and Shields," Hymie barked at the cabby, motioning off to the right as the car shifted into gear and lurched from the curb. "And step on it, will ya?"


"Not to mention," I continued, "that that fantastically beautiful woman in there, the one to whom you so eloquently alluded upon our unceremonious departure, will never look at me again so long as we both may live. Let alone Denise..."


"Denise?" Hymie said suddenly as he blew a puff of smoke against the back of the cabby’s head. "That little bitch with the perky tits? Is that her name?"


"She's the fellow instructor. The one who invited me to the party."


"Ahh, shit. You're better off without her. She's not your girlfriend, is she? Jesus, the one you were telling me about? Oh, shit. I could tell you stories about her would make you blush. No class. None at all, you know? Christ, she's had half the college, faculty and all. Including Alexi. Used to ball him on the conference room table at lunch hour. Door unlocked. Unlocked, hell, it was wide open. The one on the fourth floor, you know? Room 457, I think it is. She's still got her ass prints etched in the varnish. Check it out, you don't believe me."


I shook my head. "I don't believe you."


Hymie grinned. "Hey, kid, you're all right. Got your head up your ass sometimes, but basically you're okay."


Hymie leaned forward and rapped his knuckles against the driver's back like he was knocking on a door. "Hey, Hor-hey," he growled contemptuously. "I said Thirty-fifth and Shields, not Forty-fifth and Michigan, comprende? Where the hell you takin' us, anyway? Come on, wetback. There's fiftycents American in it for you if you get us there alive."


"Where the fuck are we going?"


Hymie looked stunned. "Nice language from a college professor."


"Never mind that. Just tell me where we're going."


"Where the hell do you think we're going? Where did I tell you we're going? We're going to find out what this goddam town is all about, that's where we're going. We're going to experience life, that's where we're going. We're going where it's real, we're going where you can't fake nothin', we're going where when you fart out your ass it stinks, pure and simple, no doubt about it. That's where we're going." He sucked on his cigar until the butt glowed ashen red against the black stillness of the Chicago night. "Anything else?"


There were lots of anything elses, but only one popped into mind clear enough to verbalize. I still don't know why. "Yeah," I said. "Are we going to see the White Sox?"
Hymie's eyes rolled twice around their sockets and his head turned toward the cab wall.

 

"No," he said. "We're not going to see the White Sox. We're going to see life. We're going to see real. We're going to see Jungle Jim Alavera." He sucked once again on his cigar. "Any more stupid questions?"

 

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