September 11th, and every other day

      2 Comments on September 11th, and every other day

[I feel very strongly that people should take some time today and wrestle with (and celebrate) this thing that Dashiell Hammett wrote, even as we, in this country and elsewhere, are quite rightly focusing on that moment when the beams fell. -V.]

Spade sat down in the armchair beside the table and without any preliminary, without an introductory remark of any sort, began to tell the girl about a thing that had happened some years before in the Northwest. He talked in a steady matter-of-fact voice that was devoid of emphasis or pauses, though now and then he repeated a sentence slightly rearranged, as if it were important that each detail be related exactly as it had happened.

At the beginning Brigid O’Shaughnessy listened with only partial attentiveness, obviously more surprised by his telling the story than interested in it, her curiosity more engaged with his purpose in telling the story than with the story he told; but presently, as the story went on, it caught her more and more fully and she became still and receptive.

A man named Flitcraft had left his real-estate-office, in Tacoma, to go to luncheon one day and had never returned. He did not keep an engagement to play golf after four that afternoon, though he had taken the initiative in making the engagement less than half an hour before he went out to luncheon. His wife and children never saw him again. His wife and he were supposed to be on the best of terms. He had two children, boys, one five and the other three. He owned his house in a Tacoma suburb, a new Packard, and the rest of the appurtenances of successful American living.

Flitcraft had inherited seventy thousand dollars from his father, and, with his success in real estate, was worth something in the neighborhood of two hundred thousand dollars at the time he vanished. His affairs were in order, though there were enough loose ends to indicate that he had not been setting them in order preparatory to vanishing. A deal that would have brought him an attractive profit, for instance, was to have been concluded the day after the one on which he disappeared. There was nothing to suggest that he had more than fifty or sixty dollars in his immediate possession at the time of his going. His habits for months past could be accounted for too thoroughly to justify any suspicion of secret vices, or even of another woman in his life, though either was barely possible.

“He went like that,” Spade said, “like a fist when you open your hand.”

When he had reached this point in his story the telephone-bell rang.

“Hello,” Spade said into the instrument. “Mr. Cairo? …This is Spade. Can you come up to my place—Post Street—now? … Yes, I think it is.” He looked at the girl, pursed his lips, and then said rapidly: “Miss O’Shaughnessy is here and wants to see you.”

Brigid O’Shaugnessy frowned and stirred in her chair, but did not say anything.

Spade put the telephone down and told her: “He’ll be up in a few minutes. Well, that was in 1922. In 1927 I was with one of the big detective agencies in Seattle. Mrs. Flitcraft came in and told us somebody had seen a man in Spokane who looked a lot like her husband. I went over there. It was Flitcraft, all right. He had been living in Spokane for a couple of years as Charles—that was his first name—Pierce. He had a automobile-business that was netting him twenty or twenty-five thousand a year, a wife, a baby son, owned his home in a Spokane suburb, and usually got away to play golf after four in the afternoon during the season.”

Spade had not been told very definitely what to do when he found Flitcraft. They talked in Spade’s room at the Davenport. Flitcraft had no feeling of guilt. He had left his first family well provided for, and what he had done seemed to him perfectly reasonable. The only thing that bothered him was a doubt that he could make that reasonableness clear to Spade. He had never told anybody his story before, and thus had not had to attempt to make its reasonableness explicit. He tried now.

“I got it all right,” Spade told Brigid O’Shaughnessy, “but Mrs. Flitcraft never did. She thought it was silly. Maybe it was. Anyway it came out all right. She didn’t want any scandal, and, after the trick he had played on her—the way she looked at it—she didn’t want him. So they were divorced on the quiet and everything was swell all around.

“Here’s what happened to him. Going to lunch he passed an office-building that was being put up—just the skeleton. A beam or something fell eight or ten stories down and smacked the sidewalk alongside him. It brushed pretty close to him, but didn’t touch him, though a piece of the sidewalk was chipped off and flew up and hit his cheek. It only took a piece of skin off, but he still had the scar when I saw him. He rubbed it with his finger—well, affectionately—when he told me about it. He was scared stiff of course, he said, but he was more shocked than really frightened. He felt like somebody had taken the lid off life and let him look at the works.”

Flitcraft had been a good citizen and a good husband and father, not by any outer compulsion, but simply because he was a man most comfortable in step with his surroundings. He had been raised that way. The people he knew were like that. The life he knew was a clean orderly sane responsible affair. Now a falling beam had shown him that life was fundamentally none of these things. He, the good citizen-husband-father, could be wiped out between office and restaurant by the accident of a falling beam. He knew then that men died at haphazard like that, and lived only while blind chance spared them.

It was not, primarily, the injustice of it that disturbed him: he accepted that after the first shock. What disturbed him was the discovery that in sensibly ordering his affairs he had got out of step, and not in step, with life. He said he knew before he had gone twenty feet from the fallen beam that he would never know peace until he had adjusted himself to this new glimpse of life. By the time he had eaten his luncheon he had found his means of adjustment. Life could be ended for him at random by a falling beam: he would change his life at random by simply going away. He loved his family, he said, as much as he supposed was usual, but he knew he was leaving them adequately provided for, and his love for them was not of the sort that would make absence painful.

“He went to Seattle that afternoon,” Spade said, “and from there by boat to San Francisco. For a couple of years he wandered around and then drifted back to the Northwest, and settled in Spokane and got married. His second wife didn’t look like the first, but they were more alike than they were different. You know, the kind of women that play fair games of golf and bridge and like new salad-recipes. He wasn’t sorry for what he had done. It seemed reasonable enough to him. I don’t think he even knew he had settled back naturally in the same groove he had jumped out of in Tacoma. But that’s the part of it I always liked. He adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to them not falling.”

[From The Maltese Falcon, of course.]

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

2 thoughts on “September 11th, and every other day

  1. Jim Moskowitz

    Yes, the ephemerality of existence is a truth which I believe people by and large don’t think about as much as they ought, and yes this is a gripping, very well-written story.
    But, Grep, this Flitcraft has no heart, no empathy! Were a falling beam to nearly crush me, the first thing I would do is talk to my wife (had I such), for mutual reassurance, for solace, for someone to talk with about life and death. But no, he not only did no such thing, he figured as how “he was leaving them adequately provided for” and thought not a jot about what his wife and two young children would feel confronted by his utterly unexplained disappearance. The casual torture he inflicted preys on my mind after reading that excerpt more than the life-lessons I really should be focusing on…

  2. Vardibidian

    So, while I agree that Flitcraft is a fatuous and heartless clod, I don’t think this story is in any simple way about the ephemerality of existence. That is, what I like is that we adjust ourself to beams falling, and then we adjust ourselves to them not falling. Life is simultaneously ephemeral (beams fall without warning, we live in the shadow of no towers, in the midst of life we are in proverbial) and strangely resilient. We have unimaginable powers to carry on.

    We have a sense that when the beams or the towers fall, that then somebody has taken the lid off of life and let us see how it works. But in fact, the beams and the towers falling is no more the way life works than the job, the suburban house, the wife, the child, the afternoon golf. September 11th is very, very important—and so was September 10th. The human ability to live on both days is almost impossible to pay attention to, living as we do in the middle of it, and that, I think, is what Sam Spade can see that neither Mrs. Flitcraft nor Mr. Flitcraft, nor Brigid O’Shaughnessy, nor Dundy and Polhaus, nor even Effie Perrine can see.



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