Thursday, October 28, 2021


You just gotta say “What a guy.”
Pinkerton and vet, living life as hard
as the concrete beat he pounded
when he was closing a case,
pulling the brim of his Fedora down
and disappearing into his overcoat
when he passed the man he knew
had cracked the hotel safe
and made off with the broad
with white legs that went on forever.

You told a guy, “She’s a keeper and you’re a fool.”
“I know, Dash,” he said.
“She bought me a beer and beat me at pool.”

You never gave up your sources,
never ratted names to the feds,
not even Tail Gunner Joe,
that baldheaded bastard who hated
lefty activists like you and the rest.
Jailed, blacklisted, checkmated,
but not down for the count.

They say that Papa picked up his style
from your clipped noir narratives,
even your words playing it close to the vest.
Smooth as the Continental Op
and as hard-boiled as the Fat Man
searching for the black bird,
you hammered out dialogue
on a black Remington Royal,
coughing and smoking
and throwing back cheap whiskey
while foghorns sounded in the Bay.

The clack of the keys sounded like gunshots
at the Chinese laundromat across the street.
Chandler was in the shadows
looking over your shoulder, unnoticed
because the rumble of a cable car
or the wailing siren fed your next sentence,
the one where the detective
clocks the police sergeant in the jaw
and walks away to the Grand Hotel
to meet the femme fatale.

You and Lillian had staying power.
For thirty years you lived with her
at Hardscrabble Farm while she typed
her own oeuvre on an old machine
with you in the background.
Hardscrabble—life imitating art.
The booze was never far away,
but you were a political southpaw,
never folding your hand
even when the DA made you go all in.
“A man should keep his word,” you told her.
And you did, in front of Congress,
but most of all on the printed page,
where truth and mystery
were strange bedfellows.

You were a thin man,
lungs black and always wheezing
through the day or Hollywood
when you potboiled your way
through screenwriting and radio dramas
that still retained a hard edge
that was the chisel of a man’s jaw
or the heft of a .44 caliber
that created widows and contested wills.

And when dying,
testy or  resigned depending on the weather,
you followed your iron code
even though your heart was dying by degrees.
All those years ago,
you slipped into the biggest shadow of all,
no one tailing you up the hill
after you turned in your badge and gun
for the last time.
It was quiet—
the way you would have wanted it—
and then they laid your bones
in Arlington, loyal and with the peace of mind
that you’d never dropped the dime.
What a guy.

I was just a kid,
but I read your stories until the pages
turned yellow, seasoned and full
of my parents’ secondhand smoke
before I pecked out stories in a black Royal.
I’m just sorry that we never met
and shook hands, exchanging a folded paper
in a secret gumshoe handshake.
Or maybe we did.

~William Hammett

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