Sample Chapters from Hanger Stout Awake

Here are some sample chapters from the beginning of  Jack Matthew’s 1967 novella Hanger Stout, Awake! which is now for sale directly from this website and Amazon and BN.  See also: the Cars of Hanger Stout Awake! (a photo gallery).



Chapter 1. 

The first thing I notice was they were driving this Caddy and it was a new one. The big man stood and watch me while I took the flat tire off. He was half a head taller than me and he had sort of blond hair in the back of his head and he was bald in front. He took off his sunglasses and watch me change the tire and I could see two little dents in his nose where the glasses fit. His eyes were real light color.

The other one was over at the cigarette machine, juggling the knob, and he was kind of little. Not as big as me. He wore regular reading glasses with them sunglasses that clip over them. He looked a little bit like a teacher.

The big one kept watching me close while I am changing the tire. But at first I didn’t pay no attention because I was still thinking of Penny, who was away to summer camp, where she was a counselor, and she hadn’t written any letters to me. She had just finished her first year at college, where she is getting all A’s, practically, and naturally I didn’t go to college because I barely made it through high school and didn’t want to go anyway. But Penny and me had been drifting apart ever since high school. It wasn’t my idea, I can tell you that. She thought I wasn’t good enough for her because I was working in a filling station and she was going to college.

Pretty soon, the big one starts to talk to me and I can’t think about Penny no more.

Right before this, I had just bang my knuckle against the tire rack when my hand slipped. It sliced a little of the skin away there, but I have bang and cut my knuckles up so much I do not ever notice little things like that.

But this man noticed it. He said, Didn’t that hurt?

I told him it didn’t. I didn’t even notice such things.

Let me see your hands, he said.

So I stood up and let him look at all the scars on them, plus a few fresh cuts I always got.

You say you don’t notice things like that? he said.

Not so you would notice, I said.

He shook his head sideways once or twice like that made him pause to think. He said, You must have a high threshold of pain, my friend.

I told him I didn’t know about that. And then I got back to work on the tire. I am the sort of person that would rather work than talk, any old day.

You handle tire-changing tools real good, he says.

Yes, I said.

I started pounding the hubcap into place with my hand like I always do, and this man leans over and says, You did that fast. How old are you?

I am eighteen, I told him.

And how much do you weigh, may I ask?

I told him about a 130. Maybe 135.

Very lean, he says, sounding pleased. Very lean. And you’re about five ten, I would say?

I guess so.

About five ten, he says again, like he was really thinking of something else while he was saying it, and awful happy about it, whatever it was.

Are you married, may I ask? he said.

I told him no and then squinted right at his face, which I don’t do very often. I don’t think I ever really once stared in the face of Penny’s father even though Penny and I went together about a year.

You probably want to know why I’m so curious, the big man asked. Well I tell you. How about coming over to that Dairy Freeze across the street and I will buy you a milk shake or whatever you want and I’ll tell you.

I figure this was just his way of giving me a tip, so I wipe my hands off on the grease rag and the two of us wait for a semi-outfit to go by, then we cross over the street and the little guy is about ten feet behind following us.

This here’s Leo Herbert, the big man says, and my name’s Dan Comisky.

When he first said that I thought he said something like Comisky and it wasn’t until I got to know him better that I asked him, That’s some kind of foreign name, isn’t it? and he said, No, it’s Irish. Irish as Paddy’s pig. People frequently think it’s foreign, but it’s Irish.

Anyway when we was walking up to the Dairy Freeze window, I saw Phyllis standing there, all eyes because I was walking up to the window with two rich guys she had seen driving up to the filling station in a Cadillac.

What’s yours today, Clyde? she asked, looking more at the other two men than at me.

Is that your name? Mr. Comisky said, turning to me and smiling so I could see some gold teeth.

Yes, I said.

The treat’s on me, he said to Phyllis. A strawberry milk shake and a Coke for Mr. Herbert and me, and Clyde, he said, turning around slow like he was a big stiff door, you just have anything you like.

I’ll have a milk shake, I said to Phyllis, even though she knows what I have.

What’s your last name, Clyde? Mr. Comisky said.

I got set for a laugh, because sometimes people laugh when I say Clyde Stout, since I am on the thin side.

But Mr. Comisky and Mr. Herbert just nodded seriously when I say this, like they had already figure I would have a name like that, so the three of us go over to the bench on the shady side of the Freeze and sit down. I know Phyllis is breaking her neck watching us, since she has known my mother for years and she don’t miss a thing. I figure she knows the license plate of every car that goes past, she is so nosy. Phyllis is about thirty-five and her husband has had two or three nervous breakdowns, and she supports him.

Clyde, Mr. Comisky says after he’s drained half his strawberry milk shake with one drag, I’d like to talk with you. Do you ever gamble, Clyde?

I thought that one over, and I said, Yes I am always in a football pool, and sometimes I go to Millford and bet on the trotters.

Swell, Mr. Comisky said. That’s just swell. Millford’s where I live.

All this time, Mr. Herbert is just sitting there with his legs crossed in front of him, drinking his Coke without saying nothing and watching the cars go by. I saw Pete, over at the station, get in the Caddy and drive it away from the pump to make room for more cars.

I start in drinking my milk shake so I could get back to work fast. And then I thought of Penny and wondered what she was doing now.

You like this town, Clyde? Mr. Comisky said.

I don’t know how to answer a question like that, so I just said it was okay.

Let me tell you about my business, Clyde, Mr. Comisky said. I’m a gambler.

Is that right? I ask.

Sure that’s right. I gamble for a living and I make a lot of money on it.

What do you bet on? I said.

Well, lots of things. I bet on cards and horses a lot of the time. And then I like to bet on sporting events. You know, like football games and things like that.

Mr. Herbert hit the bottom of his Coke and the straw made a noise. I notice that Mr. Comisky was through a long time ago so I finish up my milk shake and we all throw the cups in the trash barrel. When we walk back to the station I wave to Phyllis, who was just dying out of curiosity, I could tell.

I was trying to figure out why they was talking to me so much. Mr. Comisky paid Pete for me fixing the flat lire. The tire bell rang and I went out to fill the tank of a ’63 Corvair. Its hood had waves on it, it was so hot. When I come back, Mr. Comisky was talking to Pete and then I hey both stop talking and look at me. Pete was kind of grinning and he nodded his head.

Mr. Comisky come up to me then and said, Clyde, I tell you what.

What? I said.

I’ll give you a five-dollar bill if you can hang by your hands from the runner on that grease rack for two minutes.

I look up at the grease rack and see a ’62 Fairlane up there. It was waiting for a lube and oil change.

That’s right, Mr. Comisky said. Your boss said he don’t mind. So if you want to make five easy bucks, it’s yours. You can’t touch your feet or nothing. You got to hang free, with your arms straight. No shoulder shrugging or regripping. No pulling yourself up. Most men can’t hang over thirty or forty seconds in a position like that. Believe it or not. But if you can hang on for two minutes, I’ll give you a five.

Go ahead, Pete said, and he was grinning so hard I knew he couldn’t wait to tell everybody I done it. Pete has got a bad natured wife and he gets in all the kidding he can down here at work. He works about seventy or eighty hours a week. That’s what happens when you’re in business for yourself, he told me.

Well, they wanted me to and I made sure it wasn’t a bet because I didn’t know how long I could hang from that rack. Pete says, Go ahead. I’ll lower the rack and then raise it up and you won’t even have to jump for it. If that’s okay with you, sir, he says, checking with Mr. Comisky.

Mr. Comisky said sure, so Pete lowered the rack and I put my hands around the rim and then I hear the hydraulic lift make a whirring sound and feel my arms pull up and there I am hanging right up in the air, my feet off the cement a couple feet.

A little while later, Mr. Comisky says, Thirty seconds, and right about then I feel like my arms are about to come out of their sockets. It don’t sound like much, but just hanging there like that gets tiring very fast.

I was about to quit when Mr. Comisky says, Forty-five seconds. Then Bo Thompson comes in and says, Clyde, what in the hell you doin up there? Man, you lost your cotton pickin mind?

Pete explains everything to him, and I can tell he’s grinning so hard he can hardly talk. I wish his wife was a nicer temper woman. It would make things a lot easier on us down here at the station sometimes.

Anyway, Bo Thompson is just another attendant. I could hear him chewing and snapping away at his Spearmint gum while Pete explained why I was hanging from the grease rack. Then I smelled cigar smoke. I guess it was Mr. Comisky who had lit up.

Things got a little better, maybe, right about then. I mean, my arms got numb. Another half-minute, I was thinking, and I won’t be able to let go even if I want to because my hands will be curved around that rack like two pieces of hammered iron.

Then things got kind of dreamy. I was hurting all the way down my sides and all I could think about was Penny and why she hadn’t written me a letter and if this was the actual end between her and me. I closed my eyes and saw her face when I did. My arms felt like they was being stretched way out like you see some kid stretch bubble gum out of his mouth. That’s the way my arms felt.

Then Mr. Comisky said, Let him down. He done it.

He sounded happy, like he was glad he lost five bucks in two minutes. Some gambler, I thought.

I felt my body sway a little and then my feet was slapped against the cement and I pried my two hands off of that rim and turned around.

By God, Mr. Comisky said. By God.

He give me the five bucks right there and I almost couldn’t hold on to the bill, but I did.

He’s a natural, Mr. Herbert said, flicking the ash off his cigarette. I hadn’t seen Mr. Herbert smile and he didn’t smile now. But Mr. Comisky was smiling.

You know, Mr. Comisky said, I had a hunch he could do it. He was saying this to Pete, who was about to split his face grinning.

How was that? Pete ask him.

Why, I saw him cut a big gash out of his knuckle when he was changing my tire. Remember, Leo? He said this to Mr. Herbert, who nodded his head with his eyes closed.

I told Leo here, that boy has it. Strong hands and a high threshold of pain.

Is that what it takes? Pete asked, looking interested, even though he didn’t know no more about what this Mr. Comisky was talking about than me.

That’s right, Mr. Comisky said, getting real serious. The thing that brings most men down off that bar they’re hanging from isn’t a loss of strength. No sir. You know what it is?

Pete shook his head.

It’s pain, Mr. Comisky said. It’s the pain they get in their shoulders. Because the shoulder wasn’t meant to stand up under the strain of that constant kind of pulling. Not only that, the blood goes out of the arms. Also the head after awhile, and I’ve seen boys have hallucinations when they are free hanging from a bar. Yes sir.

Did you have any hallucinations, Clyde? Pete ask me.

I shook my head no, and Bo Thompson, who just come in from filling a ’63 Dart with regular, said, How could you tell with Clyde there?

And everyone laughed at that. Even Mr. Comisky, who patted me on the shoulder while he was laughing.

Well, he said, some people can take it. And Clyde here looks to me like he’s a natural.

He turn around to me once more and shook my hand. Yes sir, Clyde, he said, I will be getting in touch with you. Meanwhile, let me give you some friendly advice. Okay?

Okay, I said.

Hang every chance you get, he told me.

Chapter 2. 

Well, I didn’t know what he was talking about and I didn’t think nothing about what he had said. What I did was take that five bucks and get in my ’56 Chevy (which I rebuilt a transmission for and put it in last winter) and go downtown. It was about ten-thirty and a slow night, so Pete got tired of kidding me about hanging from the grease rack and he said, Hanger, you go ahead and take off, because I know that five dollars is burning a hole in your pants.

First thing I thought of was I would buy gas with it because my old Chevy isn’t very good on mileage, but then I got this other idea, so I drove up to Hillary’s Drug Store, which is the only one stays open in this town after nine o’clock. You get sick after nine o’clock in this town and you either go to Hillary’s or else you die or wait til eight the next morning.

Anyway, I go into this store and it smells like face powder and things like that. And it’s empty because they are about to close up at eleven o’clock. After eleven o’clock in our town, it’s every man for himself, sick or not.

I saw this woman who’s about forty or fifty and her first name is Annabelle. I don’t know her last name and she’s always got this kind of make-up on that looks like dried sassafras tea, and she wears great big earrings.

She says hello, Clyde, and I say hello. I can tell the way she talks she’s tired and bored.

I ask her if she hasn’t got any customers, and she says no, she hasn’t.

Then I told her I was looking for a gift for a young lady.

How much do you want to spend? she says.

Oh, about five dollars, I said.

What does your young lady like? Annabelle said.

She likes to read a lot, I said.

Well, Annabelle said, this isn’t a bookstore. And then she laughed, and I did too.

Would you like perfume? she ask me, and I said I didn’t think so.

How about a nice make-up kit. Here’s a nice one selling for $4.95.

I ask her to let me see it and she pulled it out of the glass case and said a bunch of things but I wasn’t listening. I didn’t think Penny would like it.

Maybe I look around some more, Annabelle, I said.

And she said that was all right with her, so I went outside. Some big hairy bug landed right on my arm, and I jumped. Then some crazy guy come roaring through the square, doing about sixty in a ’53 Mercury with twin carbs.

And I went home to bed.

Chapter 3. 

We just got one bookstore in our town and it is in the back of a gift store where they have little cuckoo clocks and ashtrays and cups and things like that. There was a little fat man there, smoking a cigarette in a cigarette holder when I come in the next morning. I don’t know his name, but I seen him around a lot.

May I help you? he asks.

I would like to buy a book, I told him.

Fine. What book would you like?

I would like to look around first and then pick one out, I said.

He said that would be fine too, so I started looking over the books he had in the shelves. First, there was a lot of cooking books, and then there was some books on mending furniture and buying a house and one book of poetry by Edgar A. Guest.

She likes to read, I said when I noticed the man was looking at me.

I see, he said. It’s for a young lady then.

Yes sir, I said.

And she likes literature?

Yes, she does, I said.

Well, then, the man said, let me suggest a nice book of poetry.

I thought he was going to get the book by Edgar A. Guest, because I seen that was poetry, but instead he reach around and got a lot thicker book, called Singing on the Wings of Time, by a man named Farad Karaji.

The little fat man held the book and just stared at it with his eyes almost closed, and then he laid his cigarette down with the holder part on the counter. It was right next to a little ashtray shaped like a Mexican hat, and I wonder why he didn’t put it in the ashtray.

Then he shook his head sideways in little jerks and said, Beautiful. A beautiful, beautiful book.

How much is it? I ask him.

This book is $4.50. So I buy it and walk out of the store, where it has really gotten hot for so early in the day.

(Copyright Jack Matthews, 1967. Book can be bought here).

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