First off, I’m so very thankful that this story is not in Runyonese, unlike Earthquake. I can retreat to my own writing style…which is less than nothing special, but at least it isn’t too much of a struggle to get it out into the world. Runyon was a genius and his style of writing is very hard for me to emulate.
Second off, this story was always meant to be next in line after my previous post on Damon Runyon, as the Part 1 of last time would suggest. As you might have guessed from the title, this one touched a nervy nerve, and I lost that nerve for…
…over seven months. Yikes. I’m sure Dad would argue this only demonstrates that I was clearly getting on with my life and being busy and happy, rather than getting trapped in something that made me so unhappy.
I was economical with the truth in my previous entry. This story is one other that I know for certain our father read to us. I wouldn’t call it a habit of his, but we still experienced a fair few unhappy narratives whilst sat at his knee. Death Pays a Social Call stands out due to Dad informing us, before beginning the story, that Runyon wrote it while he was dying of throat cancer. The collection of stories it occupies goes by the name Written in Sickness; the story itself is positioned at the very end of Runyon: From First to Last*. Other stories in the section are titled Why Me?; No Life; Goodnight. I may have settled down in dread, waiting for something terribly depressing.
I need not have worried. Even to the last this was pure Runyon. The opening lines are thus:
Death came in and sat down beside me, a large and most distinguished-looking figure in beautifully tailored soft, white flannels. His expansive face wore a big smile.
Little me was tickled by the idea of the Grim Reaper in white flannels.
The narrator, who this time is clearly Runyon himself, points out that Death is supposed to be sombre and done up in black, ‘not like a Miami Beach Winter tourist.’ Death believes that flannels are just the thing for a social call, but the narrator will have none of it. As soon as they learn that Death is not here on official business, they drop all politeness and tell him to get lost. Repeatedly and rudely, while taking all the ominous aspects of the Grim Reaper and turning them utterly comical:
“You need not fear me,” Death said.
“I do not fear you, Deathie, old boy,” I said, “but you are a knock to me among my neighbours. Your visit is sure to get noised about and cause gossip. You know you are not considered a desirable character by many persons, although, mind you, I am not saying anything against you.”
Such unkindness makes Death burst into tears, great heaving sobs. He is so lonesome! Why does no-one ever want to punch the bag with him awhile? Why does no one ever put the welcoming mat out for him? What can he do to make people like him? (All done in the pleasant high pitched voice that Dad adopted for gentler and ineffectual characters.) The narrator admits that a publicity campaign might work – “The publicity men have worked wonders with even worse cases than yours.” – but firmly repeats the order for Death to not let the door hit him on the way out.
Death had halted his tears for a moment, but now he turned on all the faucets, crying boo-hoo-hoo-hoo.
“I am so lonesome,” he said between lachrymose heaves.
“Git!” I said.
“Everybody is against me,” Death said.
He slowly excited and, as I heard his tears falling plop-plop-plop to the floor as he passed down the hallway, I thought of the remark of Agag, the King of the Amalekites, to Samuel just before Samuel mowed him down: “Surely the bitterness of death is passed.”
After three pages of humour and defiance at Death’s expense, that last line is a solid smack of reality. Behind the comedy is Runyon’s blazing rage against his decline, with true death coming closer and not to be put off by rudeness or reticence. Dad played up the triumph of Runyon kicking Death out, but in the end I think it highly unlikely that any bitterness of death ever passed for Runyon. I think he fought with his last breath to tell Death to keep on doing that scrammola. Rage against the dying of the light, let the Reaper feel our fists in his face, and such bold attempts at bravery.
I’m undecided whether at the end, it’s better to slip away peacefully without knowing what’s happening, or to go out struggling. I do know that I was lying to myself up there at the beginning of the post. I wasn’t simply too busy or distracted to begin this post until now. I was too afraid to tell my memories of this story, plus the boo-hoo-hooing that goes arm in arm with them, to get out and stay out.
The memories can remain, but the boo-hoo-hooing can take itself off at once. Screw, bum!
*Dad’s copy was printed in 1954 by Constable Press, a first edition and claiming to contain all the stories by Runyon not included in Runyon on Broadway. Dad bought the book at university, with his name and that of his college on the very first page.
Sixty-five years later I saw that inscription, and had to lie down for a minute.