Monday, December 1, 2014

a familiar narrative: a fragment

betty blaine was very bright
she wore her dresses short and her sweaters tight
she sat in the drugstore with her bases covered
sipping a soda, waiting to be discovered

her mama wanted her to be a nun
but that didn't sound like very much fun
her daddy wanted her to settle down
she had her pick of the men of the town

but one day, without any fuss
betty went down and got on the bus
she had her plans set out real good
and left behind the neighborhood

which would have sheltered her all her days
from the big world's pernicious ways
if she would walk her destined path
but betty had figured out the math

husband and kids did not equal fame
she wanted to play a faster game
the odds against her were prohibitive
but betty wanted to really live...

she took her place among the masses
with cashmere sweaters and dark glasses
who dreamed so big and tried so hard
to soar above hollywood boulevard

guys named al, and bob, and jim
guys called fats, and guys called slim
gentlemen with waxed mustaches
and rivals with long legs and lashes

all flowed like water through the sieve
of this familiar narrative
the faces passing by the mile
mirrored her own - without a smile...

one night the rain began to fall
she'd waited all day for one phone call
she went to the drugstore to buy a pack
of chesterfields and never came back...

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

lines - to a nephew

by alice marston sternwall

little lad, poor flesh and blood
why are you playing in the mud?
we know not what the morrow brings
please consider higher things

life is long, if not cut short
fate is cruel, at last report
fortune's wheel oft spins unjust
why spend existence in the dust?

look upward, then, into the heights
and let your soul attempt pure flights
soar above the gray faced clods
with their false prophets and dead gods

though lighting blast you from the sky
give it "the old college try"

Monday, November 3, 2014


it was all over.

the jig was up. there was no tomorrow.

he was up the creek without a paddle, and there was no rest for the weary.

he was caught like a deer in the headlights, between the devil and the deep blue sea.

soon it would be morning. dawn would break over the city like the sneering smile of a railroad boss, ready to crack the whip over the millions of chumps and losers and punks and hacks who sweated and strained to keep the machine of so-called civilization running.

running and running and running until it wore them all down and threw them away like pairs of old shoes. like yesterday's papers.


he would have to man up, get his act together, and do what had to be done.

he lit his last cigarette with his last match.

the bottle of cheap whiskey - the devil's brew, which had undone many a good man and true - was empty, drained to the last drop.

all his so-called friends had deserted him, like rats leaving a sinking ship.

only trixie was left, passed out on the couch. she was a cheap floozie with a heart that had turned from purest gold to deadest lead a thousand dimes a dance ago, across a thousand red dawns coming up over a thousand cheap rooming houses, and a thousand torn up love letters blowing down the boardwalk into the sand.

she'd stick around as long as there was a nickel or a smoke to bum or a drop of booze to mooch.

then she'd be gone like a cool breeze.

suddenly there was a knock on the door, breaking the silence with a noise like a machine gun.

before he could make a move the door opened.

there was maxie, the big guy's most trusted gorilla, with a cheap stogie pasted in his ugly mug. and a roscoe in his right hand.

and right behind him his sidekick phil - phil the parrot, with his permanent giggly sneer, the slimiest rat that ever crawled out of the lowest sewer.

phil had both hands in his pockets, but you could bet dollars to doughnuts he had a .22 in one and a shiv in the other.

"hello, johnny," maxie drawled.

"hello, maxie. i wish i could say it was a pleasure."

"then the pleasure will have to be all mine, johnny. no problem."

"come on, maxie, let's get it over with."

maxie raised his bushy eyebrows. they looked like two evil gray caterpillars getting ready to fight.

"get what over with, kid? we just came to have a friendly little chat."

behind him phil giggled like a hyena.

"don't try to play me for a sucker, maxie. i know the score. i know the big guy don't forgive and forget. and he's got a memory like an elephant. it's over. it's the bottom of the ninth, and i got two strikes on me with nobody on base. there is no more light in the tunnel. there's no more water in the well."

maxie laughed. "don't be so dramatic, kid. you sound like sarah bernhardt playing hamlet at the white house. there's no need to be nervous. we're all friends here."

phil giggled again.

johnny nodded. "yeah. when i had money i had lots of friends. but now nobody knows me when i'm down and out."

maxie looked around the flea-bitten room, noticed trixie on the couch.

"who's she?"

"just a dame."

"yeah, i kind of figured that." maxie stared at trixie for a few seconds and then looked at johnny . "well, back to serious business. it seems the big guy, in his inscrutable way, and for reasons known only to himself, has decided to give you one last chance."

"one last chance," johnny repeated.

behind maxie, phil giggled again. he sounded like a broken record.

"the big guy has a job for you. just one. it's easy."

"he wants me to kill somebody."

"no, he wants you to go out to his farm on long island and milk a goat. what do you think he wants?" maxie turned and nodded to phil.

phil took his left hand out of his pocket and tossed something to johnny.

johnny grabbed it. it was a zip gun. it looked it was held together with chewing gum.

"you like it?" phil tittered. "i made it myself. i'm real proud of it. like an old mama lion watching her boy go off to war."

johnny turned it over gingerly in his hand. "it doesn't look like --. " he didn't know what to say.

"no," maxie finished for him. "it doesn't look like something remington hand crafted for j p morgan or the prince of wales. but it will work like a charm if you walk right up to somebody and stick it in their guts."

"it's got one shot in it," phil added. "one. so don't be getting any ideas, punk."

"phil's right," said maxie. "it's got just one bullet in it. so make sure you aim straight and true."

johnny shrugged. he put the zip gun on the table beside the empty whiskey bottle.

"all right. who's the one lucky customer?"

"a guy named skorzys, he has a little tailor shop over on 21st street."

"what kind of name is that?"

"foreign. he's a foreigner. he just fell off a slow banana boat from china."

"let me guess. he doesn't speak the language?"

"no," said maxie. "he don't speak the simplest language of all - the language of knowing who his friends are."

"or knowing how to play ball," added phil.

"you don't want me to try to talk to him?" johnny asked.

"he's already been talked to," said maxie. "the time for talk has passed. we just want you to write the book on him."

"the final chapter," added phil.

"it's your party," johnny agreed. he got his coat and hat. he didn't want to stick the zip gun in his belt or his pocket so he wrapped it in his coat and put the coat under his arm.

johnny put his hat on and followed maxie and phil out the door.

trixie was still asleep on the couch.

johnny didn't lock the door behind him. he had lost the key.


skorzys the tailor was small and bald. his mustache looked thick enough to sweep grand central station with.

he stood behind a counter and didn't say anything to johnny when he entered, just watched as johnny put the rolled up coat on the counter.

"what i do for you?" he asked as johnny unrolled the coat.

johnny showed him the zip gun. "you can do something for yourself, pal. say a prayer. prepare to meet your maker. "

the little man's eyes blazed. "ah... you come for me, eh? just like the old country!"

"the countries are all the same, pal. you got to pay the price. no tickee, no shirtee."

"i thought this country different. i work hard, i save my money to come here, to the new world where a man can be free..."

suddenly a door behind the counter opened. someone started to come through, with something in their hand...

johnny fired the one shot. it sailed above the open door and into the ceiling.

a girl stood in front of him, with a coat on a hanger. she was about seventeen years old. she was the most beautiful girl johnny had ever seen, with long black hair, dark eyes and rosy cheeks. i could marry a girl like this, thought johnny, go away and live on an island with her forever, have nine or ten kids...

"you punk!" she screamed at him. "go ahead and kill us! burn in hell, you no good cowardly punk!"

johnny dropped the empty zip gun and turned and ran out the door.

the sun was coming up over broadway.

phil was waiting for him. he had a gun in his hand, not a .22 but a .45.

"you had one chance, punk," he told johnny. "you blew it."

he put two slugs into johnny's guts, slugs that would have stopped a charging rhino.

"yeah," said johnny, "i had one life. and i blew that."


"recognize him?" officer o'malley asked father joe.

"i sure do," father joe answered. " johnny 'the blade' o'flaherty. a real tough guy."

officer o'malley stuck his boot under johnny's body and flipped it over on its back. "he was a tough guy, all right. a real tough guy."

johnny's hat rolled away and the wind picked it up and blew it down 21st street.


2 more poems


morning gilds the fallen dew
words of lovers false and true
linger in the fading distance
as the sunbeams meet resistance

from a sudden fall of rain
the world goes back to sleep again
who would ever wish to rise
to face such gray and weary skies

but return to fitful slumber
as the raindrops quite outnumber
any good intentions
or meaningful pretensions

rather sink beneath the stream
of an endless violet dream



brothers, let us no more think
or dream, but have another drink
with foolish things let us be done
and only seek oblivion

from wives and children let us hide
and let the bosses scan the tide
to find the wreckage of the ship
on which we made our final trip

the good ship jolly smiling drunk
on which we sailed but now have sunk
so peaceful now our happy band
beneath green water, on silver sand

and let the fish upon us feed
silent in the waving weeds


2 poems

by alice marston sternwall

a flower

the little flower bends
before the wind that never ends
and feels the heavy drops
of the rain that never stops

as the road is washed away
it can hear the ocean say
we have come for you at last
all your sunshine now is past

beneath the darkened sky
the flower has no reply
and can only wait for dawn
although all the birds are gone

with their lingering melody
vanquished by the surging sea


a princess

the princess woke in darkest night
and felt that something was not right
and heard the dragon's sad lament
in the dark outside her golden tent

all her guards had run away
because that was their useless way
leaving her alone to bear
the burden of the dragon's tears

oh, thought the princess as he roared
have we not passed this way before
days are endless, nights are long
but he will never cease his song

beneath the sky, across the sea
no prince, no army, to rescue me


Saturday, October 25, 2014

sonnet: to oblivion

comrades let us rest a while
before we walk our final mile
fortune has withdrawn her smiles
so now we must go out in style

oblivion to us now doth call
in tones both sweet and stern
the water rushes o'er time's falls
beneath a bridge already burned

the way was long, and had its moments
more of minus than of plus
now its ended, and our opponents
can sit and laugh at us

the race is run -
what else could we have done?

Friday, October 24, 2014

sonnet: to a bird

little bird, what makes you sing
the same song every morn?
your chirping is a weary thing
that makes me wish i were never born

oh! life is not very long
and is devoid of much surprise
but your repetitive song
beneath the dreary morning skies

only aggravates the bleakness
of the empty yawning day
and in my helpless weakness
i just wish you would fly away

the road is long, the sky is wide
but neither of us has a place to hide

Thursday, October 23, 2014

expanding universe sonnet #2

by helena garfield sternwall

i strove to be a sensitive soul
and love the world without restraint
universal acceptance was my goal
at any nastiness i would faint

at first my fellow humans smiled
and only slightly raised their brows
but soon grew weary of my style
and quit my company with polite bows

"tiresome", "bluestocking" , "thundering bore"
were the inevitable epithets
i walked along a lonely shore
no longer one of society's pets

into darkness the idealist slinks
as the world orders another round of drinks

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

expanding universe sonnet #1

everybody should write a sonnet
as soon as they arise each day at dawn
grab a pencil and get right on it
before they even put their undies on

because buddy it seems to me
although nobody asked me for my view
the world can not get enough poetry
because it is always beautiful and true

true, these are the end times
the encroaching darkness can not be rolled back
and polishing your syllables and rhymes
will never get the cosmos back on track

roses are red, violets are blue
you got to do what you got to do

Monday, June 23, 2014

the book

by samantha monday sternwall

everybody has a book
being written inside their head
and no one will ever read it
not even when they are dead

in the book is the story of everyone
who will ever live and die
and if you could only read one page
you would sit right down and cry

everybody has a story
that only they can tell
and it all gets written down in a book
a book that will never sell

everybody is a dragon
a dragon they slay themselves
everybody is a wizard
with a book of spells on their shelf

everybody is a princess
leading the hero to his doom
everybody is an evil queen
plotting in a dark-draped room

everybody is friar tuck
hoisting a tankard of ale
everybody is guinevere
so beautiful and pale

everybody is blackbeard's cat
watching the wind fill the sails
everybody is a bulldog
wagging its stumpy tail

everybody is tarzan
swinging in the trees
everybody is sherlock holmes
watchng his bees in the breeze

everybody is robin hood
hiding in the woods
everybody is long john silver
bringing home the goods

everybody is cleopatra
floating down the nile
everybody is oscar wilde
stepping out in style

everybody is jesse james
shot in the back so sad
everybody is salome
born to be bad

everybody is samson
trying so hard to do right
everybody is delilah
whispering good night

everyone is dracula
taking what he can get
everybody is lucy
who can never forget

everyone is medusa's child
slowly turning to stone
everybody is a monster
walking the world alone

Saturday, June 14, 2014

down the last road

the mysteries of this world add up
sum to sum to sum
and yet there are depths, and depths and depths
no human should ever plumb

every grain of sand is a riddle
laughed at by the beach
every star is a laughing sage
with nothing to teach

every street has no beginning
every road has no end
every sunset has a message
that it will never send

there is a light in every window
that goes out as you draw near
there is promise in every smile
that dissolves in desperate fear

the beautiful people beckoned
but only in your dreams
now the streets are all deserted
as rain in the gutter streams

no cat or dog or police car
as far as you can see
or even a fellow drunkard
for pathetic cameraderie

the party goers have all gone home
vanished without a trace
there is a picture pasted on the lamp post
"wanted" - of your own face

Wednesday, April 30, 2014


i sat down and wrote a poem
it was not very good
i tried hard to explain myself
but no one understood

i went out in the garden
to watch the flowers grow
but the rain began to fall
and the wind began to blow

i went back inside my house
and lay down on my bed
and passionate thoughts of love and war
thundered through my head

Friday, April 11, 2014

dames hold the aces

adapted from the story "l'eternite" by joris-karl huysmans

i opened the door and walked into the room.

audrette was standing at the window, looking out at the rain.

she turned to face me. she had a .357 magnum in her perfect pink fist.

"this is how you do it," she said.

she put three slugs in my chest.

i never had a chance to say a word.

a shadow fell across my face.

audrette looked past me.

"dave," she said.

it was my partner, dave flaherty.

i knew i was in good hands. dave would avenge me, and take care of this two-timing frail.

he would either blow her away right here if she made a false move.

or take her down to the station - first stop on the way to the chair, where they would fry her pretty little carcass up like a piece of bacon on the grill at mom's diner at four in the morning with the fog coming in off the docks…

"you did good, baby," dave said. "real good."

audrette shrugged. "it wasn't that tough."

dave laughed. "here, let me have that."

she handed him the .357. he put it in the pocket of his trench coat and they fell into each other's arms.

they embraced for what seemed an eternity. there wasn't much i could do about it.

and i might as well get used to eternity.

finally they broke apart.

"plenty of time later, baby, " said dave.

"all the time in the world," audrette murmured.

"right now we got things to do."

"do i have to go down to the station?"

"nah. i'll go over to the bowery or the docks and find some poor slob to pin this on. some ham-and-egger just off the boat from palermo or vladivostok. "

"all right." audrette looked down at me. "just think, we'll never have to listen to his pathetic typhoons of hot air again."

dave chuckled. "you mean how he won the war and all?"

"the war? i thought he won all the wars."

dave laughed again. "i got to get going." he kissed her again, pulled his hat down straight on his head, and left.

audrette moved away from my body, back into the shadows.

she lit a cigarette.

rain beat on the window.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

final damned desperation at dawn blues, amigo

when i was young i dreamed of fame
of branding destiny with my name
and finding the truest of true love
by giving fate the faintest shove

was i not destined for great things
would not the sky that daily brings
the rain to earth bring love to me
and happiness for all to see?

alas! my open heart was scorned
i wished that i was never born
sneering hipsters and frowning prudes
conspired to make my journey rude

and every baby step i took
was greeted with a mocking look
and every hopeful word i uttered
was tossed into the nearest gutter

and the epics that i spawned
in my lonely room from dusk to dawn
into which my soul i poured
were totally ignored

and so the glittering smile of bottled drink
with its confidential golden wink
trampled my weak defenses
and robbed me of such senses

as were meet to keep my soul
resolutely towards its goal
and i fell into the pit
which today i have not quit

what is now my destiny?
who is fate to question me?
into oblivion must i sink
without a friend, without a drink?

darkness, lend a hand
to the well and truly damned
who can sit alone upon a beach
with even desperation out of reach

Monday, March 24, 2014

night is calling

when there is no turning back
and the last wallop has been packed
and the last freight train runs down the track
will the universe cut us some slack?

or are we eternally doomed
to look out the window of the same room
and hear the same gypsy play the same tune
and the same dog howl at the same moon

the world would be a great place
if you never had to show your face
but could put yourself in a state of grace
and disappear without a trace

night is calling
the rain is falling
i could go outside and dance
but would rather fall into a trance

and be sported far way
to a world without night or day
with no need for absinthe, opium or magic spells
and wake up changed into - anybody or anything else

Monday, January 20, 2014

dark night of vengeance, part 1

part one of ?

a man walked into a bar
smoking a big cigar
he had some pennies in a jar
and was not a movie star

the other patrons hardly reacted
by his presence they were not impacted
and turned away with nary a sigh
as to the bar he drew nigh

the man bellied up to the rail
his face was strangely pale
he continued puffing on his noxious weed
and had an altogether ghastly mien indeed

(this all happened in the distant past
when humans were not built to last
and practices decidedly unhealthy
were indulged by both the destitute and wealthy)

the bartender's name was mike
his fellow humans he did not much like
(the regular barman named mort
was a much more tolerant sort)

but mort was on vacation
perhaps at some exotic location
and mike's glowering visage
in the newcomer's gaze loomed large

mike announced without a trace of cheer
"we don't take pennies in here
or personal checks or credit cards"
his manner grew increasingly hard

oh no, the new chap laughed
as he began to unwind his scarf
(perhaps you have not yet been told
outside it was bitter cold)

these pennies are only my hobby
i work for a large manufacturers lobby
my name by the way is phil
and i bear no one any ill will

because, lordy, it's cold outside
and i have nothing to hide
i think a nice hot toddy
would bring much needed warmth to my ravaged body

the making of so complicated a drink
as a hot toddy made mike blink
but putting on his game face
he began making it with an ill grace

phil continued to puff on his stogie
like a most contented old fogy
but as mike was heating the ginger ale
suddenly phil turned very pale

because out of the corner of his eye
which he rarely used, as he was not one to be sly
he saw a figure which triggered his memory
and he thought, can it really be he?

for phil had not always been an old fud
once he had been a dashing young blood
with fire in his veins
and a body devoid of aches and pains

and had competed on a nightly basis
for the attention of feminine graces
with other young males of his breed
before he had gone to seed

he had rivals naturally enough
who tested his mettle and stuff
but it had all gone by so fast
and was lost in the dim past

could it really be bill smith
whom he had a desperate contest with
for the love of emily brown
the prettiest girl in town

at least that was how it seemed
before reality intervened -
as it was intervening now
beneath the bartender's menacing brow

which was turbid with tensile traction
as he repeated - "satisfaction -
does it meet with your approval
or do you demand its removal -? "

"oh no!" cried phil in haste
for he had no time to waste
for he wished to consume the beverage
and then with sudden leverage

to quit this fearsome place
where the now remembered face
had triggered waves of primal fear
which had slumbered many a lonesome year….

part 2