Nero Wolfe’s Brownstone: 2020 Stay at Home – Days 8, 9, and 10
Hopefully you read posts one , two, and three this series. Over at The Wolfe Pack Facebook Group page, I am doing daily entries from Archie’s notebooks, as he endures Stay at Home with Nero Wolfe in these pandemic days. I’m well over thirty thousand words so far.
DAY EIGHT – 2020 Stay at Home
Sunday is the day things have changed the most here at the brownstone. Normally, Theodore would go to visit his sister, and Wolfe would putter around in the plant rooms, but not the usual nine to eleven and four to six. Fritz would sometimes run errands, including shopping for food. When he stayed in, he usually spent time in his room in the basement, listening to music and reading cookbooks. He had more of those than anyone I’ve ever met. We were all at loose ends on Sunday. But I couldn’t go to a game at the Garden or at the ballpark now, of course, which would have taken care of several hours. In other words, except for Wolfe, the day changed for the rest of us. Which meant all four of us were home together, without our normal routines. That’s a recipe for tension.
Wolfe and I didn’t even make it to lunch. I’ve decided to type up a couple cases from my notes. People seem to like reading them, and they’ve got some spare time at home, so I figured, ‘Why not’? I’ve mentioned before, that when he’s reading, Wolfe doesn’t like what he deems to be unnecessary typing. Granted, it’s not as bad as when I excessively sharpen my pencils, but he prefers quiet. Knowing we don’t have any clients, he would prefer me to do my typing when he’s not in the office. Well, since I’m stuck at home, and he isn’t giving me any work to do, I feel I can be a little more ‘comfortable’ during this lock down. And that includes typing when I want to.
I didn’t give in and he stoically endured. I think he would have liked to sigh and shift position, but he knew that wouldn’t bother me. In fact, signaling his disapproval would just make me type a little more smugly. I won’t tell you what account I was working on. If I don’t finish it, I don’t want anyone to be disappointed.
For lunch, I went out and got pizza. I’ve only seen Wolfe eat it a few times over the years, but he actually likes a good one. Theodore ate in the kitchen with Fritz. I gave Wolfe a break and had mine in the front room, with a playoff game from 1986 on the television. That’s the year the Mets closed out the series over Houston with back-to-back extra innings games. Wolfe ate at the dining room table. I hoped he splashed pizza sauce on his shirt. And I can tell you I wouldn’t be taking it to the cleaners today if he did.
Later, we were both in the office and I was reading through the latest issue of The Atlantic. He was reading about a Civil War general named Sheridan, written by some guy named Wittenberg. He apparently finished a chapter because he picked up his bookmark to keep his place and closed the book. “Archie.”
I looked up from my magazine. “Yes?”
“Leadership in crisis is what we most commonly see and evaluate.”
“But preparation is an element of leadership far less visible, yet equally important, if not more so.”
So, he wanted to talk. That was fine with me. I put down the magazine and gave him my attention. “Where did that General Sheridan you’re reading about fall?”
“He was a Union cavalry commander during the Civil War. He did not act rashly, but he achieved his fame more through action. He was one of the first practitioners of the scorched earth tactic in that war.”
I nodded, but didn’t say anything.
“In the current situation, we were, as a nation, sorely lacking in preparation. But even now, in the middle of the crisis, with the virus growing and deaths increasing, we are still in preparation mode.”
“Both in places where the outbreak is notable and increasing, and in places where it has not struck in force yet, the local health infrastructure – primarily hospitals – are building up their capacity for treatment. Even while some are in the midst of increasing caseloads, they are preparing for more.”
“So it’s a multi-phase situation.”
“Exactly. At the federal level, we were not prepared for this epidemic. That is a lack of leadership. The response we see daily in the news, is a reflection of leadership in the moment. I leave it to you to make your own judgement.”
He frowned, but I think that was more because he realized he didn’t have a beer on his desk. He thought about buzzing for Fritz, but decided against it. “At the state and local levels, elected officials, beholden to the public for their positions, are issuing decrees and orders for the citizens under their authority. And across the nation, we have seen a myriad of approaches.”
“Yes sir, that’s all true. Although, I think it’s safe to say, that many governors who were initially skeptical towards the level of danger, have changed their minds and are taking action.”
He nodded. “Indeed. The outbreak of an illness against which we have neither vaccine nor cure will have that result. It will be interesting to see what effect the timing of such actions have in those states.”
And there you have it. A global pandemic that has shut down nations, and disrupted economies all over the world, is a social experiment to be observed by Wolfe. Whichever side you fall on about whether we’ve done too much or not enough to fight it, people are dying, and people are losing their jobs. To Wolfe, it’s ‘interesting.’ I just said, “It sure will.”
Of course, with his reluctance to shake hands, refusal to hug, and desire to keep people outside of the brownstone, let alone a mere six feet away, Wolfe has been practicing social distancing for decades.
Apparently done with his musing on leadership, he got up and left the office. I heard the elevator, so he was going up to spend some time with the orchids.
Fritz was dusting his quarters, which takes some time with all those books and cooking implements. So, I decided to vacuum the second floor hallway. It wasn’t like I was busy.
I was sipping coffee in the office after dinner and decided to float a trial balloon.
“Do you think we could solve a case without leaving the house?”
Wolfe was comparing verses between two editions of the Bible. “What flummery is this, Archie?”
“The bank balance is going to need replenishing, and we don’t know how long this is all going to last. New York State is over 50,000 as of today. With your genius, and me gathering what I can through telephone calls and the internet, do you think we could take on a client and crack a case without me running all over the place?”
He looked over at me with a frown. “I suppose, if circumstances were exigent, depending upon the nature of the matter, we could. But I don’t propose to test your query.”
I dismissed it all with an airy wave of my hand. “Just something that came to me.”
“Indeed.” He was back at his comparing.
Fritz and I had another movie night. He was enjoying Bogart, and I could always watch another. The Barefoot Contessa was never one of my favorites, but I thought that he might like a ‘big picture,’ so we watched that one. There’s a certain kind of beauty that Fritz likes, and Ava Gardner had it. He made donuts again, over my protests. I ate more than my share of them, though.
DAY NINE – 2020 Stay at Home (SaH)
Not much to report today. I woke up in a funk. Couldn’t tell you why. To Wolfe’s standard greeting when he came down from the plant rooms, my reply started, “What’s so damn good about it?” I took a two hour walk. Stretching the legs usually helps, but not today. It wasn’t Wolfe or Theodore or anything I could point to. I just wanted all this to be over and life to be back to normal. I wanted to dance with Lily. I wanted to bluff Lon with two pair. I wanted Wolfe to give me a ridiculous assignment, then hear him say ‘Satisfactory’ when I came through. I wanted to go to a Mets game with Saul. I wanted to walk into the bank and deposit a check at the counter. I wanted to crack wise with Cramer through the front door. Hell – I wanted to get Rowcliffe stuttering.
I am rarely a man who gets down in the dumps and stays there. There’s too much life out there. Except now, because of this stupid plague virus, there wasn’t. It was going to be one hell of an Easter for those so inclined to celebrating it, I can tell you that.
I shot pool for an hour after lunch. Then I took my walk. Social distancing was probably what my housemates wanted from me today, anyways. Fritz was concerned, but he let me be. He knew there was nothing he could do for me.
I wasn’t good for much of anything, though I kept my bad attitude to myself after that early outburst. There was no reason to take it out on the others. A visit to the plant rooms didn’t help. With the arrival of the Navy’s medical ship, Wolfe talked about the role the Merchant Marine has played over the years.
Fritz did ask if we could watch a Bogie movie. I’m sure he was being nice, but I also knew he was enjoying discovering Bogart’s films. I decided to go with a western. Now, that meant one of two choices. There’s Virginia City, with great cowboy Randolph Scott, and Errol Flynn. I’ve noticed that when Bogart has to wear a mustache, it’s not one of his better performances. That’s true in Virginia City. The other option was The Oklahoma Kid, in which Jimmy Cagney looks like a toadstool. Bogie’s all black outfit inspired Lash LaRue’s look. I went with The Oklahoma Kid and Fritz loved it. It’s not a particularly notable western, but it’s Bogart. I’ll show him a classic Bogart-Cagney gangster film soon.
I admit that I felt a little better after it was over.
“Archie, this too, shall pass. We are all suffering. You have…the blues. The lives we were living have been taken away. Not forever, it is true. But still, we do not get this time back. We do what we can, and what we must. And then, when we can go back to the way things were, maybe we will value things a little differently. Maybe a little better. Who is to know? But we endure. To everything there is a season. Mayhaps this is a time to break down. Soon, we will have a time to build up.” He patted me on the shoulder and went downstairs to his room.
I know that wasn’t from the Byrds song, so he must have been quoting the Bible. I forget the book. I went to the kitchen, poured myself a glass of milk, drank it, washed out the glass, and went out on the front steps. There were a thousand stars. No, ten thousand. The air over the city was clear. A shooting star passed by, winking out in the distance. “Well, damn it all to hell, anyways,” I said to myself and went back inside.
DAY TEN – 2020 Stay at Home (SaH)
You’ll be happy to know my sour mood from the day before did not carry over to this morning. Well, you might not be, but the other three occupants of the establishment probably were. I went up to the greenhouse at 11:00, knowing Wolfe would be leaving. I heard his bellowing as soon as I entered the first of the three rooms. I was surprised that the panes weren’t quivering in their frames as I moved into the middle room. I stopped and listened. Wolfe was absolutely berating Theodore. I don’t know what Horstmann had done, but unless he had introduced aphids to the orchids, it didn’t seem warranted.
“…I wish you had never come back from taking care of your mother. I should have kept Andy Krasicki, rather than let you come begging back for your job.”
“I did not beg for my-“
“You are an oaf. With the horde of under-educated, unemployed witlings looking for jobs, I could certainly find someone more capable than you. Perhaps I should call the zoo and see if their baboon is available!”
Wolfe doesn’t stomp, but he was walking with purpose as he passed by me with a glare and went on to the elevator. I decided to go in and see what the damage was. Theodore was standing by a bench, pretending to look at some brassavolas in a small pot. But I think he was in a state of mild shock. I cleared my throat and greeted him. “Morning, Theodore.”
He looked up at me, still stunned. “Oh. Hello, Archie.”
Readers of my accounts know that Theodore Horstmann is never going to make my list of favorite people. He babies Wolfe, and that just makes my life harder. But he’s still human. And he spends more time alone with Wolfe every day than anybody who isn’t me. That certainly deserves some consideration.
“Don’t let him get to you, Theodore. You know how he is. It’s just that he hardly ever directs it at you, because you baby him…because your dealings with him are strictly limited to orchids. He’s unloaded on Fritz for using a half a clove of garlic, instead of a quarter. And you’ve probably heard him yelling at me, all the way up here.”
He was looking in my direction, but I don’t think he really saw me. “I always wondered if he wished I’d stayed away and Andy could have kept working here.”
This needed a little work on my part. “I don’t know what he was mad about, but you know he didn’t mean that. Any more than he’s going to call the zoo. Like a baboon would put up with him.” I smiled, but it didn’t help.
“He’s going to get grouchier and even more irritating; not irritable, irritating, the longer this lock down goes on. You, me, and Fritz, just need to ride it out. Then he’ll go back to being his annoying but barely tolerable self. Trust me, I’ve already thought about putting sugar in his beer.”
That snapped him out of it. The look of horror on his face was priceless. “No!”
“The thought did occur, but no, I’m not going to.” I waved my arms to encompass the thousands of orchids. “Keep doing what you do. He will be back up at 4:00. He might make some clumsy overture that he would consider an apology. Maybe not. Just proceed as usual. If I held everything he’s said to me against him, Cramer would have taken me out of here in handcuffs years ago. And it would be an open and shut case, too.” I patted him on the shoulder. “Just about every one of your fellow New York City neighbors is going through something these days. Our situation just happens to be occurring in Nero Wolfe’s house. We must all endure.” I paused to let it sink in.
“To everything there is a season. A time to keep silent and a time to speak. The longer we’re all cooped up here together, the more often we’ll be better off biting our tongues. And ignoring it when somebody else doesn’t do that. Don’t take it to heart.”
Yes, I had looked up Ecclesiastes after Fritz’s comments last night.
I turned and started walking out. He said quietly, “Thank you, Archie.”
Without looking back, I waved a hand in the air and said, “Sure thing. You might have a drink before he comes up at 4. It might help.” Theodore rarely drinks, but hey – advice is free. Wolfe didn’t mention anything back in the office, and I didn’t bring it up.
I moved around the papers in that cold case file I mentioned the other day, but I couldn’t really focus, so I gave up without accomplishing anything. I vowed to get serious about it, though. I needed to stay sharp during this period of inactivity. One indolent detective in this house was enough. Don’t be surprised at that word: I’ve learned a lot of unusual ones from Wolfe over the years.
I did get an amusing phone call right after lunch. “Nero Wolfe’s Office, Archie Goodwin speaking.”
“Yeah, hi Archie, it’s Fred.”
That being Fred Durkin, one of the three most commonly used operatives Wolfe calls in when he realizes I can’t do it all. Fred is some thicker in body than me, and that includes above the neck. But he’s capable when he doesn’t have to do too much quick thinking. Oddly enough, he’s damn good at tailing people. Better than me, which I cannot figure. I figured he was calling to beg for some kind of work. Jobs would have dried up from all his usual sources during the crisis. I was wrong.
“Are you guys playing poker Thursday?”
Well, knock me over with a feather. Fred had never joined in on our games at Saul’s place. He had a wife and two kids and if he wasn’t out hustling to earn a buck for them, he was at home with them. “Uh, excuse me. I thought you said this was Fred Durkin.”
“Knock it off, Arch. The kids are bein’ home schooled. I don’t have any jobs, as you can guess. I’m home all day with Fanny and the kids. I’m gonna go crazy. Let me come play, please. I’ll tell the wife I’m seeing you guys to try and get some work.”
I smiled, but avoided laughing. That wouldn’t have been polite. “Sorry, my housebound, henpecked friend. No game this week. We are following the law around here.”
He sighed. I heard a female voice in the background. A loud voice. “Yes, dear.” More of her voice, then he said to me, “Thanks for nothing. I gotta go.” He hung up. As I said, we all had our burdens to bear.
Just one more note. Fritz said he wanted to listen to the radio in his room, so we skipped watching a Bogart movie. I decided to watch another episode of Ken Burn’s Baseball documentary. That footage is simply terrific. The 7th Inning talked about the glory days of New York City baseball, which was just what I wanted to see.
PRIOR NERO WOLFE POSTS
The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes
Meet Nero Wolfe
The R-Rated Nero Wolfe
Radio & Screen Wolfe
A&E’s ‘A Nero Wolfe Mystery’
A Sidney Greenstreet Nero Wolfe Pastiche – ‘Stamped for Murder’ (The Greenstreet Chronicles)
Nero Wolfe’s Brownstone
3 Good Reasons – ‘Not Quite Dead Enough’
3 Good Reasons – ‘Murder is Corny’
The Careworn Cuff – Part One (The Greenstreet Chronicles)
The Careworn Cuff – Part Two (The Greenstreet Chronicles)
The Careworn Cuff – Part Three (The Greenstreet Chronicles)
3 Good Reasons – ‘Immune to Murder’
The Lost 1959 Pilot
2020 Stay At Home – Days One and Two
2020 Stay at Home – Days Three and Four
2020 Stay at Home – Days Five, Six, and Seven
Bob Byrne’s ‘A (Black) Gat in the Hand’ was a regular Monday morning hardboiled pulp column from May through December, 2018 and again from August through December, 2019.
His ‘The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes’ column ran every Monday morning at Black Gate from March, 2014 through March, 2017 (still making an occasional return appearance!).
He organized ‘Hither Came Conan,’ as well as Black Gate’s award-nominated ‘Discovering Robert E. Howard’ series.
He is a member of the Praed Street Irregulars, founded www.SolarPons.com (the only website dedicated to the ‘Sherlock Holmes of Praed Street’) and blogs about Holmes and other mystery matters at Almost Holmes.
He has contributed stories to The MX Book of New Sherlock Holmes Stories – Parts III, IV, V, VI and XXI.