The Use and the Need

Issue #148

From three blocks away, Tom Brown could hear the big bass drum from the Women’s Christian Temperance Union band as they thundered down Second Avenue. With each distant boom of the drum, something pinched him in a tender spot in his skull just behind the bridge of his nose.

Two blocks away, the loud notes on the Sousaphone tuba could be heard too, like a righteous foghorn warning every workingman and vagrant this side of the Bowery to mend his course from the shoals of sin.

At a distance of one block, Tom Brown could usually pick out the tune if the elevated wasn’t rattling too loud outside his saloon windows. This morning, like too many others, the band had settled on “Bringing in the Sheaves”. Tom Brown poured himself a finger of whiskey and emptied it down his throat in the vain hope it would dispel his gathering headache.

“I do detest that awful song,” he said at last, to no one in particular.

Patrolman Cartwright jerked awake. He had slumped over a table shortly after his shift had ended at eight in the morning, and now two hours later was the only other person in the saloon. For a moment, he looked around in alarm, then subsided contentedly as he heard the band approaching.

“Ah,” said the patrolman. “The W.C.T.U. approacheth. Do you think they’ll stop here, Tom?”

Tom Brown twisted his bar rag impotently in his hands. “They almost always do.”

A few moments later, the band came to a halt on the sidewalk outside the saloon in a confusion of clanging tambourines and pious, wavering voices. Outside the windows, the knot of marching women was just visible, white ribbon bows fixed to their hats.

As the song died away, a woman’s voice rose up in tones of exhortation. The stabbing in Tom Brown’s skull spread across his forehead, and he poured himself another finger of whiskey.

“That sounds like Sister Decker,” said Patrolman Cartwright, his ear straining towards the street.

Tom Brown let out a sigh. “It almost always is.”

As the sound of cheering rose from the sidewalk outside, the saloon door rattled open and two women stepped inside, stern-faced and unshrinking. The older carried a small yellow book in her hands while the younger still bore her cornet, now blissfully silent.

“Good morning, Sister Decker,” said Patrolman Cartwright, as he boozily tipped his cap to the ladies. “Good morning, Sister Jute.”

“Patrolman!” said Sister Decker, the older. “You ought to be ashamed to be seen here, day after day.”

Patrolman Cartwright merely smiled and tugged down on his navy blue uniform tunic, puffing out his chest until the gold buttons strained precariously. “That’s a hard line to take with a productive citizen and officer of the peace, madam.” He extracted a handkerchief and hiccupped discreetly behind it. “Especially during a moment of off-duty relaxation.”

“In that case,” sniffed Sister Decker, “I’m sure Mrs. Cartwright would rather see you home.”

“She expressly forbids it, in fact,” said Patrolman Cartwright, with an air of satisfaction. “On account of my proclivity to be underfoot.”

Sister Decker opened her mouth to answer, then thought better of it. Turning instead to the bar, she peered down her nose at the saloon-keeper.

“I suppose I ought to be ashamed of myself as well,” drawled Tom Brown.

“It is you who have said so.”

Tom Brown sighed. “And I suppose I’m to get another lecture on the evils of drink and my contribution to the wreckage of mankind.” He motioned to the window wearily. “I didn’t make Second Avenue what it is—nor the Bowery neither.”

Sister Decker shook her head. “Sister Nation has showed us that mere words have their limits. Until the government makes an amendment banning all alcohol sales, we must take the enforcement of moral law into our own hands.” Sister Decker turned to the other woman and nodded. “Sister Jute....”

At once, Sister Jute opened the saloon door and beckoned outside.

Tom Brown crossed his arms over his chest. “That maniac that you call Sister Carry Nation is in Kansas—though I could wish she were somewhere hotter and more miserable yet. But seeing as she doesn’t seem inclined to visit New York anytime soon, may I be so bold as to inquire which one of you ladies will do the honors of the hatchetation?”

Sister Decker merely smiled curiously and indicated the door.

It took a few moments for anything to happen, but at last there came a sound like clanking from outside, followed by something like the whoosh of a steam valve. Then more clanking followed at regular intervals, and at last—some minutes after Sister Decker’s dramatic flourish—the portal darkened as someone approached the door.

Or rather, something.

Clank. One foot crossed the threshold, heavy and square.

Clank. A second foot joined the first, taking small, clumsy steps.

Clank. Clank. Clank. Whooooooosh. The body of the monster swayed through the door, huge and grey, knocking chips from the door frame on either side. A black hat perched on top of its great round head, the ends of a white ribbon bow streaming down its back.

Besides the hat, however, the thing wore no real clothes, so the circular stamp reading VULCAN IRON WORKS—WILKES-BARRE, PENNA. was perfectly visible on its boiler-like torso next to a W.C.T.U. badge. Below, a chain-link skirt preserved some amount of modesty, swaying and rattling awkwardly around its legs with every awkward step. Its thick metal arms were jointed and riveted, and it gripped a formidable hatchet in its clenched and rigid hands.

Just inside the saloon, it suddenly stopped, with a great gout of steam escaping from a stovepipe at its back, then reverted to regular puffing. As it stood, its head swung from side to side, as if surveying the saloon with its dead, painted eyes, and its mouth sprang open mechanically like a cuckoo clock about to call the hour. From inside its metal head, a voice echoed out as if from a phonograph cylinder.

“There is going to be a change in my life,” said a woman’s voice, thin and ghostly through the open but unmoving mouth.

“Good God,” said Tom Brown at last.

“I present to you,” said Sister Decker serenely, “Sister Nation’s patented and improved Hatchetation Engine.”

Tom Brown called to Patrolman Cartwright. “Make them get that thing out of here!”

But the patrolman was slouched down in his chair, only his eyes and cap visible above the top of the table. “It is forbidden for an officer to execute his public duty,” he intoned solemnly, “while under the influence of intoxicating liquors.” He hiccupped. “Or so I assume.”

Sister Decker pointed to the puffing, clanking mechanical figure. She was reading from the small yellow book, which bore the inscription of “Instructions for the Just and Moral Operation of Your Steam-Powered Hatchetation Engine”.

“Just as this engine is driven by the hot coal-fire in its belly, so too does the liquor YOU peddle—” (and here, Sister Decker haltingly shifted her finger to point at Tom Brown instead) “—so too does the liquor YOU peddle drive the violence, the apathy, the meanness, and every sort of immoral passion in the men who drink here!”

Tom Brown growled. “I tell you again—I’m not responsible for anybody after they leave my joint!”

Sister Decker drew herself up indignantly, her cheeks flaring red as she looked up from the book. “Why Sister Jute’s own husband—”

“To hell with Ned Jute! It’s not my business to tell him when to go home or what to do when he gets there!”

The infernal engine clanked forward a few more steps, its face gazing impassively over the top of Tom Brown’s head. Then its mechanical mouth popped open again. “I don’t want to strike you,” called the phonograph recording eerily, “but I am going to break up this den of vice.”

At that, the engine made a feint towards the bar, its arms puffing and straining upward on groaning pistons and then falling quickly, the blade of the hatchet whistling through the air.

Though nothing had been hit, Tom Brown leapt back and cursed. “Can that infernal steam woman see what’s she doing?”

“I suggest you vacate the area of the bar,” said Sister Decker coldly, “as it will soon be fully hatchetized.”

“Peace on earth,” scrolled the phonograph voice, as the engine’s arms pistoned up once more. “Good will to men!”

Then the hatchet dropped, the iron arms falling with the weight of an anvil upon the bar. Wood splintered and glass shattered, Tom Brown’s empty tumbler exploding under the blow. The arms slowly retracted once more amid a great cracking as the blade of the hatchet unstuck itself from the dented planks of the bar.

“You still refuse to do anything, you gutless Cartwright?” called Tom Brown from where he was sheltering under the smashed bar. The infernal engine was whooshing again as it vented more steam, preparing for another swing of the hatchet.

“Out-of-control conveyances are the jurisdiction of the fire department,” answered the patrolman’s voice serenely from the other side of the saloon. “Though the owners may be liable for damages, and so I will secure these women.” Next followed an incoherent mumble. “Presently....”

Another terrific blow fell, this one cleaving the bar in half, caving in the whole structure over Tom Brown’s head. He yelped and scurried out from underneath, just in time to see the hatchet rising again—this time with his felt bowler stuck on  the axe blade.

White-faced, Tom Brown reached up to pat the crown of his head, but he found it still intact. He turned furiously to Sister Decker. “It’s no fault of yours that I’m not split like a cantaloupe!”

Sister Decker was quickly flipping through the instruction book. “Yes, well—hmmm.... Perhaps, having learned the moral, it would be better to end the lesson.... Somehow....”

“Peace on earth,” droned the Hatchetation Engine again. “Good will to men!”

At that, Tom Brown picked up his broomstick and vaulted over the ruined bar. He menaced the machine as best he could, jabbing at the thing’s painted eyes and its round iron chest. All that resulted were a series of dull clangs. With one final heroic jab, Tom Brown succeeded in connecting with the area roughly equating to the left armpit and was satisfied to hear a rivet pop off under pressure from the steam.

“I’ll teach you to hatchetize my bar!” bellowed Tom Brown. He jabbed again at the weak spot, dislocating part of the collar on the left shoulder and rocking the machine slightly on its feet. Still jabbing, he turned his head to roar at Sister Decker. “And don’t think I’ve said all I’m going to say to YOU either!”

Suddenly there was a snap, and the broomstick was torn out of Tom Brown’s hands as if by a cyclone. He whirled around just in time to see one half of it strike Patrolman Cartwright across the buttocks as he dove for cover and the other half fly through his liquor shelf and into the mirror behind the bar.

But that wasn’t what really transfixed Tom Brown’s attention, nor was it what prompted a string of extraordinary profanities to issue from his mouth—and neither was it what caused Sister Decker’s rebuke of the blasphemy to die unuttered upon her own lips.

The cause of all that, instead, was the Hatchetation Engine itself—now spinning around the saloon floor with a dislocated left arm, scalding steam pouring from the gap in the joint, hatchet swinging free and wide on the unrestrained right arm, flailing in every direction in wide, unpredictable sweeps.

Crack. The hatchet buried itself in the wall.

Smash. It broke free and flung six feet to the left, shattering what was left of the bar mirror.

Zing. It rang through the air, striking nothing yet fanning the face of Tom Brown as it passed.

Tom Brown and Sister Decker both wilted before the onslaught, driven back into a corner of the saloon as the hatchet whirled wildly before them—splitting tables, smashing chairs, and even knocking a shower of imitation crystals and brass fittings down from the chandelier.

“Peace on earth!” said the phonograph for a last time, as the Hatchetation Engine loomed close, the two victims dazzled by the flash of the spinning blade before their very eyes. “Good will to men!”

Tom Brown was never really certain just what happened next. He was vaguely aware of being dragged away on jellified legs, duck-walking behind an upturned table as the Hatchetation Engine ricocheted around the saloon floor in a frenzied, jerky waltz.

He also had a somewhat less clear memory of something streaking past him a few moments earlier—something ducking and diving amid the whirling hatchet and the scalding steam, something quick and lithe that paused at the Hatchetation Engine’s stovepipe before jumping back to drag Tom Brown and Sister Decker safely away.

Catching his breath at last behind a wall of overturned tables and chairs, Tom Brown looked at the other three humans huddled near him—from the useless Patrolman Cartwright to the crestfallen Sister Decker to the suddenly flushed and bright-eyed Sister Jute, her breast rising and falling heavily.

“Why, Sister Jute,” asked Tom Brown, “what has happened to your hat? And your cornet?”

But Patrolman Cartwright’s arm dragged him suddenly back towards the floor. “I recommend a more horizontal posture, good friend Brown.” A loud bang suddenly came from the other side of the tables. It sounded like something was trying to get out from inside the Hatchetation Engine. “And a short moratorium on questions.”

The bang was followed by another, and then a more substantial clang, and then a rapid knocking, and a quick succession of sharp shots like the detonation of a string of fire crackers.

Then, finally, a loud sharp whistle pierced the air, like the boiling of a hellish tea kettle, followed by a deafening crack and a sudden rain of projectiles against every vertical surface of the bar.

“Steady, steady,” said Patrolman Cartwright, as a shower of flying rivets bounced around the saloon walls amid a chorus of tinkling glass. Then at last, after a few seconds of silence, the still-burning ends of a tattered white ribbon bow fluttered down from the air and landed next to Tom Brown’s hand.

And then, only then, did the four stand to survey the damage.

“Madam,” said Tom Brown shakily as he shoveled up a little pile of glowing coals and dumped them into the now-dented spittoon.

“Madam,” he said again, turning humbly to Sister Jute. “I don’t know how you learned to think or move so quickly in the face of such furious violence.... But if you hadn’t clogged that stovepipe with your hat and cornet....” Tom Brown’s face blanched. “Well, I hesitate to consider the outcome.”

Sister Decker cleared her throat tentatively and read out from the little yellow book again—but now in a far less assertive voice. “Just as this engine is driven uncontrollably by the hot coal-fire in its belly....”

Tom Brown waved her off. “Yes, yes,” he said. “I understand.” Turning to Sister Jute again, he hung his head. “I’ve been wrong, madam, and I’m ashamed to think I’ve had any part in your training for such an emergency. If I ever open this place again, Ned Jute will never drink here again.”

Sister Jute said nothing but simply smoothed her wrinkled dress.

“And neither will anyone else,” continued Tom Brown sullenly. Then added: “To excess, I mean.”

Again, Sister Jute said nothing.

“Aw, hell,” said Tom Brown, throwing down the shovel with a clatter. “There are saloons enough on Second Avenue. I’ll open a lunch counter instead.”

At that, Sister Jute smiled.

Patrolman Cartwright clapped Tom Brown on the back. “A noble and enlightened decision, sure to elevate this quarter and its inhabitants,” he intoned. “I only regret that I shall no longer have occasion to haunt the premises myself.”

“Perhaps,” said Tom Brown, “the ladies would not object to one final drink?”

“Yes, a valediction!” said Patrolman Cartwright. But then, as he surveyed the wreckage of the bar, his face fell. “If there is anything left with which to valedict....”

Tom Brown extracted the shattered remains of a bottle of brandy from the wreckage of the bar. Its top had been sliced off and most of the liquor spilled, but a couple fingers of brown spirits still sat in the bottom. Pouring it into two of the least damaged glasses, he passed one to the patrolman and kept one for himself. “What shall we drink to?”

“Why not drink to the original of the late Hatchetation Engine?” suggested Patrolman Cartwright. “Sister Carry Nation—whose work and writings are the occasion for this valediction.”

Tom Brown only sighed but lifted his glass.

“To the USE,” roared Patrolman Cartwright, holding his own glass high and proud. “And the NEED!”

But Tom Brown never drank, and even Patrolman Cartwright found a hand on his arm before he could bring his glass to his lips. For the saloon keeper’s eyes had strayed from the officer to Sister Decker and Sister Jute—who were both now pale and shaking, the shock of the moment having worn off and the terrifying nature of the encounter catching up with their sober nerves in a rush of sensation.

“We’ve had our cups already this morning,” said Tom Brown, “or else we’d be as bad as they.”

“Hmph,” answered Patrolman Cartwright, in the tone of one not fully convinced.

But as Tom Brown passed his glass to Sister Jute, so too did Patrolman Cartwright gallantly hand his to Sister Decker.

“Mark my words,” added Patrolman Cartwright with a sigh as he eyed his swiftly diminishing valediction. “When the history of this day is written and published in pamphlets across the country—as you surely know that it will be—a discreet curtain shall inevitably fall here, lest a moment of honest humanity destroy the everlasting moral of the tale.”

But Tom Brown answered nothing at all, and instead merely watched as the last two drops of liquor he would ever serve disappeared forever from view.


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M. Bennardo's short stories appear in Asimov's, Lightspeed, and others,  as well as multiple times previously in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. One of his stories was selected for Jonathan Strahan's Best Science-Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Volume 8. He lives in Cleveland, Ohio, but people anywhere can find him online at www.mbennardo.com.

If you liked this story, you may also like:
“Cursed Motives” by Marissa Lingen
“Walking Still” by C.T. Hutt

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1 Comment on “The Use and the Need”

One Response to “The Use and the Need”

  1. Maggie Crooks says:

    Well done! Very enjoyable, too. Carry Nation would have been proud of the robot!

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