Front-Page McGuffin & The Greatest Story Never Told













Introduction by Joe Hill






READING PETER CROWTHER’S “Front-Page McGuffin and the Greatest Story Never Told” left me blue.

This is, of course, its intended effect. In one sense, the Land at the End of the Working Day is simply a walk-down, Manhattan gin-mill where friends come to meet and drink together. In another, larger sense, it is the place all of us are finally headed. It’s a good place, in Pete Crowther’s conception of it, this last stop on the human journey. A place where you can have a cold beer and a bit of good talk before you step outside the door and disappear from your own life. But like the jazz obscurities so frequently referenced within these tales, The Land at the End of the Working Day stories are full of sweet grief, and all happiness to be found herein is laced with mourning. They are, each of them, a glass raised in a toast to fully-lived lives: lives inevitably marked by struggles and losses, humbling defeats and a few essential, precious victories, lives punctuated by a happy romp or two in the sack, and the bitterest of heartbreaks.

But that isn’t precisely the reason I finished reading “Front-Page McGuffin” in a state of low-grade melancholy. Or it’s
reason, but not the
—or even most important—reason.

You see, the piece that follows this introduction is a study in simple, unpretentious, straight-forward storytelling. Which is to say there’s almost nothing ‘simple’ or ‘straight-forward about it’. Like great jazz, the simpler it seems, the harder it is to do. Those looking for post-modern irony or literary stunts have come to the wrong bar—they don’t have that on tap in The Land.

A story like “Front-Page McGuffin” could easily have appeared alongside the fiction of Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov in the pulps of the fifties. If you came across it in a 1970s-era back issue of
The Magazine of Fantasy & Science
, in between entries by Sam Delaney and Spider Robinson, you would not have thought twice, Pete’s ‘Working Day’ tales are intended, quite consciously, as homage to Spider Robinson’s ‘Callahan’s Saloon’ stories, although they’re
also rather more than that). But to find them in our own age is a modest sort of

And so here’s why I was blue after finishing “Front-Page McGuffin and the Greatest Story Never Told”: I often think this kind of fiction is dying now. Like the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, or the Siberian Tiger, the free range fantasy narrative can hardly be found in the wild anymore, and may soon only exist in the arid, dismal zoos of academia (if there). To put it another way, I think stories of this sort have taken their seat on a stool in the Land at the End of the Working Day, or soon will. They have only one slim chance of survival. To be read and shared and loved.

Raise your glass now. Here’s a toast to this story and all the others like it. Here’s another toast to you, for reading and caring.




—Joe Hill






IT’S NOT ALWAYS AS EASY as you’d think to tell dead folks from those that are still alive, and certainly not by where you happen to find them. Or where they happen to find

Take now, for instance.


It’s a Tuesday in The Land at the End of the Working Day, a Tuesday Happy Hour, that no-man’s land between afternoon and evening, when the drinks are half the regular price and the conversation is slow. But then the people who come in to the Working Day specifically for Happy Hour, no matter what day of the week it is, don’t come in to talk.

The conversationalists of Manhattan (of whom there are many) don’t bother with the hard-to-find watering holes tucked into the street corners and tenement walk-downs; they concentrate instead on the gaudily-coloured window-painted bars on the main drags, the bars with the striped awnings and the piped music spilling out past the muscled doormen with their emotionless stares, out onto sidewalks littered with people looking in and wondering if—
maybe—they could be a part of that scene.

There is no scene in The Land at the End of the Working Day. Not as such, anyways.

And there is no piped music here. Only the soft strains of one of Jack Fedogan’s jazz CDs wafting in and out of hearing the way trains and car-horns Doppler in and out of existence as first they approach you and then they pass you by, going on someplace else.

Tuesday, a little after 6 pm, and Oliver Nelson’s ‘Stolen Moments’ is lazily washing around Jack Fedogan’s bar, Freddie Hubbard’s lilting trumpet solo making conversation unnecessary even if it were desired. Just a lot of introspective folks nursing Manhattans and Screwdrivers and Harvey Wallbangers and Sours, sitting staring into the mirror behind the bar, occasionally chomping on an olive or pulling on a cigarette, nervously flicking ash into a tray even before it’s formed, sometimes going with the music by tapping a foot on the bar-rail or a hand on the bar itself, thinking of the day that’s done or maybe the day that’s still to come. Another one in an endless parade of days stretching out through the weeks and the months, the seasons and the years.

They look into that mirror like it’s the font of all knowledge. Like the silvered glass is going to tell them what’s wrong and how to put it right.

Every few minutes, one or another of the guys shucks the shirt-ends free of his jacket sleeves, picks lint-balls from his pants and pulls them up at the knees to keep the creases fresh, occasionally waving to the ever-watchful Jack to pour another whatever, some of these guys lost—or appearing to be lost—in the headlines of the
USA Today
, but mostly the headlines on the sports pages.

The women in the booths along the back wall cross their legs first one way and then the other, sometimes checking in their purses for something though these checks always end without their pulling anything out. And then they just sit, staring into space or maybe glancing across at the bar while they light another cigarette, wafting the match out and tossing it in the tray in a kind of subconscious synchronized motion with the music.

For those who don’t know it, The Land at the End of the Working Day is a walk-down bar in the greatest city in the world, New York City.

It’s a Tuesday and Tuesdays here are quiet.

Most everyone here tonight knows everyone else. Not by name, nor by job nor by relations nor even by what they each like or what they don’t like. They know each other by the lines on their faces and the depth of their sighs. These are the irregular regulars or maybe the regular irregulars, exchanging nods and pinched smiles like they were passing out on the street. They know what they’re here for and it isn’t company.

They’re here to drink.

They’re here to forget.

And a few are here to remember.

But there’s also a nucleus of
regulars, folks who
know each other’s name. Usually, these guys—they’re mostly guys—sit together at one or another end of the bar, clustered around the soda and beer taps and always within reaching distance of one of Jack’s bowls of pretzels and nuts. But not in the great misnomer that is Happy Hour.

There’s nothing particularly happy about Happy Hour.

Come 7:00, 7:30 at the outside, the place will start filling up. Folks will come in as couples, some married and some not but all of them comfortable with each other’s company. And, generally speaking, all of them comfortable with life itself. They’ll come in before going to a show or before going for a meal. Some of them will even come in to make a night of it, to get lost in conversation. And laughter and talk will fight for position with Jack Fedogan’s CDs and the result will be a curious but entirely right amalgam of energy and sound and excitement.

But not now.

Now it’s a little before 6:20. The heart of Happy Hour.

At this time, the regular regulars usually sit at the tables between the booths and the bar, conversation low and intense. Like a hospital waiting room.

only two tables filled tonight.

The table tucked in behind the bar close to the back wall has one man sitting at it. One man and a pack of playing cards. He’s turning the cards over one by one, placing some on one pile and some on another. Every once in a while, he starts another pile by placing a card away from the others and then leaves it alone, putting cards on the other piles. For anyone watching, any casual observer, there wouldn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason for the way he’s turning those cards. But what do casual observers know about another man’s chosen path in life?

This man is dressed in black—shirt, jacket and pants; the shirt buttoned right up to the neck but with no necktie—and he slouches back in his chair, a glass and a pitcher of beer on the table amidst the piles of playing cards. His eyes are hooded, bushy-browed, his face is thin—some might say ‘gaunt’ or ‘drawn’—and he sports a small, neatly-clipped goatee beard which covers the tip of his chin and not a lot else.

This man is Artie Williams, sometimes known as ‘Bills’ and others as ‘Dealer’. He is something of a communicator, his head filled with numbers and probability percentages and ratios. There are those who say he has a direct line to the world beyond the rain-slicked streets of Manhattan and far away from the leafy thoroughfares of Central Park: the world where the spirits roam. But where this reputation has sprung from nobody knows. Artie Williams keeps himself very much to himself. Like tonight, Happy Hour, turning cards over on the table, drifting with the music, making piles and occasionally smiling to himself. And occasionally frowning.

The table midway between the stairs and the bar has three men sitting at it. One is Edgar Nornhoevan; another is Jim Leafman and the last of the three is McCoy Brewer.

They’re talking about the condition of the subways right now. A little while ago, they were discussing the flow of traffic down Fifth. In a while, they may be talking about what kind of winter they’re going to have this year. It’s the middle of September now and the weather is a big consideration in New York, particularly after the excesses of the previous winter.

These men are what you might call real friends.

They can talk deep-down personal stuff—like Jim’s wife Clarice cheating on him or Edgar’s prostate problems or McCoy being laid off from his job with the Savings and Loan company—or they can talk controversial stuff like religion or life after death or abortion rights, but that isn’t always necessary. Like tonight. And the truth is that only real friends can discuss trivialities with the level of intent and interest that Jim, Edgar and McCoy are displaying right now.

But that conversation about the subways will be interrupted in just a minute. And it won’t drift into the weather. At least not tonight.

For tonight, the City will be sending to The Land at the End of the Working Day one of its casualties for healing.

It does that sometimes.

The sound of shoes echoes through the bar, shoes coming down the stairs. One guy at the bar stops tapping his hand for just a couple of seconds, the wink of an eye, and takes in this sudden intrusion. Then he goes back to tapping. An elderly man further down the bar mutters something to himself and then smiles into the mirror, gives a kind of half-chuckle and then reaches for his drink, running a finger down the iced-up side. The man he sees looks right back at him and returns the smile, runs a finger down his own glass.

Over in one of the booths, a woman in a red dress that’s so red it looks like she just spilt berry juice all over it—looks like it should be dripping that redness onto Jack Fedogan’s polished floor—she looks up for a second, drinking in the sight of the descending feet, then looks back at the glass she’s twirling around the coaster on the table in front of her, the glass next to the pack of Marlboro Lights and matchbook, next to the ashtray with a collection of butts sitting in it that she is determined not to count. The feet don’t mean anything to her. There’s nobody knows she’s here tonight. Nobody who even cares where she is, tonight or any night.

The truth is the feet don’t mean anything to any of the irregular regulars.

But they mean something to Jim and McCoy and Edgar, and they stare at the line where the ceiling meets the diagonal stairs and watch as the owner of the feet comes fully into view.

As the feet get closer to the floor, walking strangely stiltedly on the stairs like one or both of them is favouring a broken shin-bone or a twisted ankle, these feet grow into legs and the legs grow into a waist and the waist turns into a full body and that, at last, leads into a head. The feet reach the floor and stop. The body sways slightly, like it has already had enough Happy Houring without looking for more, but the face on the head does not appear to be Happy Houred. Not at all.

The eyes are wide, wide but somehow not taking in what they’re seeing, and the hair is mussed up and in bad need of a comb not to mention a razor and clippers. The sports coat hangs off of one shoulder, its sleeve obscuring the hand at the end of the arm it contains. The necktie is undone and hangs askew, the thin end flopped out over his sports coat lapel. The pants hang baggy around his crotch, no creases in them at all, the ends sitting crumpled up on mud-caked shoes whose laces are trailing untied on the floor.

“Hey,” says Edgar Nornhoevan in a voice little louder than a whisper, “isn’t that—”

“Front-Page McGuffin,” says Jim Leafman, keeping his own voice low, nodding slowly.

McCoy Brewer keeps the nod going. “Sonofabitch, so it
,” he says.

It won’t surprise anyone to learn that Front-Page McGuffin’s first name isn’t really Front-Page, so it hardly seems like worth mentioning. But it kind of leads into other things that
important, so I will.

Front-Page McGuffin’s first name is Archibald and the only other Archibald he ever
of—he has never actually
any at all—is Cary Grant. And, as Front-Page is wont to remark at regular intervals—such as when someone introduces him to someone he doesn’t already know (though there has never seemed to be many that ever fit
particular bill) as Archibald McGuffin, just for a joke kind of—
renamed himself. The fact that there are so few Archibalds says it all as far as Front-Page is concerned. And so he changed his name.

But, like it happens so often, the truth is slightly different. Front-Page didn’t actually rename him
. It was done for him.

When A. D. McGuffin joined the
New York Times
back in the 1940s, he was 16—”too young to fight but old enough to cuss and make coffee,” is how he usually tells it. The guys in the
newsroom called him Adie, making something almost tuneful out of the acronym of his initials, sometimes putting their hands on their hips in an effeminate manner and shouting across the hubbub clatter of ringing telephones and pounding typewriter keys, ‘Hey, Adie, howsabouta coffee over here?’ And they’d laugh. They’d laugh every time, like it was a new joke that nobody had ever heard before.

Hank Vendermeer, the guy who employed Front-Page, didn’t make a big thing out of Front-Page’s reluctance to divulge his first name. At that time, Hank had got a boy out in the Pacific, a problem making the payments on his house, a meeting with the Editor in about 10 minutes (for which he was decidedly unprepared) and a peptic ulcer that made him wince every time he burped up wind. The fact was, Hank Vendermeer couldn’t care diddly about names.

“What’s the ‘A’ for?” Hank Vendermeer asked at the time, suddenly thumping his chest with a hand shaped like a fleshy meathook into which a tiny pencil had been incongruously placed.

“Just ‘A’,” Front-Page responded.

“Okay.” Hank wrote it down. “And the ‘D’?”

“Just ‘D’,” said Front-Page.

Hank Vendermeer shrugged and wrote the ‘D’ alongside the ‘A’ on the sheet on the desk in front of him, then made a few ticks here and there. And that was that. “Okay,” he said. “You start tomorrow.”

Front-Page had a job.

The ‘D’ in Front-Page’s initials actually stood for Donald. But this seemed even worse to Front-Page than Archibald. Hell, the only Donald he’d ever heard of was a grumpy cartoon duck. No Thank You, Ma’am.

A. D. McGuffin worked hard and he learned fast and, pretty soon, he was making less coffee … though he was cussing more. At first, his daily routine pretty much consisted of schlepping copy around the various offices, doing a little typing, answering a few telephones, generally pinch-hitting around the floor. Then he got the chance to write up a piece on LaGuardia’s speech in Atlantic City, when the Mayor of New York agreed to head up the UN Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, imploring Americans the country over not to overeat and not to waste. A. D. wrote a nice piece and made it onto page 4. His first solo flight in print. “One day,” he told Sonny Vocello, “I’m gonna be on the front page.”

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