Thursday, August 25, 2022

“Farmer Brown”

“Excuse me, young fellow, but may I ask you a question?”

It was a middle-aged guy, pleasant-looking and plump, with a smiling flushed face and thick eyeglasses.

“What?” said Milford.

“Now when you say ’What?’, is that in the sense of ‘What is your question?’, or, rather, simply, in the sense of ‘What did you say?’”

“’What?’ in the sense of ‘What did you say,’” said Milford.

“I said, and say again, begging your indulgence, ‘May I ask you a question?’”

“Yeah, sure,” said Milford.

“Are you a seafaring gent?”

“A what?”

“A sailor. Perhaps a merchant seaman? Or a bargeman? Or a tugboat man?”

“No, I am none of those.”

“I see,” said the man. “I ask because of the peacoat you are wearing, and, also, to an extent, because of the thick ribbed woolen sweater you wear beneath it.”

“I am not a sailor.”

“Very interesting. And, if it is not too intrusive of me to ask, may I inquire of your occupation?”

“Yes, you may.”

“And that is?”

“I am a poet.”

“I knew it! By the sensitive cut of your jib – if I may speak in nautical terms – I just knew you were a scribe of some sort, perhaps an autobiographical novelist or a literary essayist, but most likely a poet, a modern troubadour!”

“If you knew I was a poet, then why did you ask if I was a sailor?”

“Only because if by chance you were a sailor, then you might have been offended if I assumed you were a poet.”

“Oh, okay. But since I am a poet, I shouldn’t be offended if you were to assume I was a sailor?”

“Precisely. If anything, in my experience, poets are flattered to be taken for anything but a poet. I once met T.S. Eliot, and he told me that he was always pleased when people took him for a bank manager or an accountant. May I buy you a libation, sir?”

“I don’t drink. This is ginger ale I’m drinking.”

“Excuse me, do you mean to say that you do not partake of alcoholic beverages?”

“That is correct. I am an alcoholic, and if I have even a taste of alcohol, then next thing I know I’m waking up in an alleyway.”

“A pity. And so young!”

“Yes. It’s a struggle. But life is a struggle. And then we die.”

“How true! But – and again, please stop me if I am being overly inquisitive – why are you sitting at a bar?”

“You know, sir, I have been asking myself that very question ever since I came in here an hour ago. Why? Why am I here?”

“On this planet? In this life?”

“Well, that, too, but more particularly, why am I in this bar? And the most obvious answer is that I was sitting all alone in that automat across the alley from this hotel, and that ventriloquist and his dummy up there came in, and they suggested I come over and see the show.”

“Waldo McGee and Mickey Pumpernickel?”

“Yeah. The dummy said I was missing out on life sitting in the automat by myself and smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee.”

“The dummy said this?”

“Yeah, the dummy did all the talking. Although I guess it was really the ventriloquist guy talking.”

“Yes, I suppose it must have been. And are you glad you came over?”

“In a sense, yes. Because the dummy introduced me to the singer.”

“Shirley De LaSalle?”

“Yeah, he introduced me. And, even though I don’t drink, I bought her a champagne cocktail, and she said thanks. But then she had to go back onstage and sing.”

Shirley was at that moment singing, and her song went:
“Dark are the alleys I stumble down.
Steep are the stairs I tumble down.
What is that sound that’s comin’ round?
Is it the siren of that train hellbound?”
“She’s quite the little songstress, isn’t she?” said the man.

“Yes,” said Milford. “I’m reluctant to say it, because I’m so used to not wanting to be wherever I am, but I have to say I’m almost glad I came in here now.”

“Ah, to be young!” said the man.

“Being young is wasted on me,” said Milford.

“You might feel differently when you are no longer young, my friend.”

“Oh, I’m sure that if I live long enough to be no longer young, that I shall be suffused with regret for wasting my youth.”

“It is not too late!”

“Do you think so?”

“Look at me,” said the man. “Three decades ago, at the dawn of the so-called Roaring Twenties, I came to this great city from my hometown in Indiana, bright-eyed I was and full of dreams.”

“And did you fulfill your dreams?”

The man paused.

“In a sense, yes.”

“In what sense?”

“In the sense that my whole life has passed like a dream, a dream full of dreams, which were themselves composed of dreams, dreams within dreams within the great dream of life.”

For an awful moment Milford saw himself in the man. Would he, Milford, still be sitting at this bar, thirty years hence, boring some other young fellow in a peacoat?

Shirley sang, and the words of her song went:
“Down dark alleys I creep.
Into dark windows I peek.
Words like night winds I speak.
And the universe makes not a peep…”
“Brown is the name,” said the man, and he was extending a hand.

Milford gave the man his own hand, and their two soft and uncallused hands, one young, one older, embraced briefly.

“Call me Farmer,” said the man. “That’s what all my friends call me: ‘Farmer Brown’. Phineas is my actual Christian name, although I like to joke that it was most un-Christian of my parents to give it to me. Ha ha. ‘Farmer Brown’ they call me, on account of I’m originally from Indiana. Not that I’ve ever been on a farm. May I know your name?”

“Call me Milford.”

“Milford? An unusual name.”

“It’s my surname actually.”

“I see. So you prefer not to be called by your, uh, given name?”

“Yes, I prefer it.”

“May I ask what that name is?”

Milford sighed. This was another reason why he shouldn’t go to bars.

“My allegedly Christian name is Marion.”



“And I thought Phineas was bad. So your friends call you Milford?”

“Yes,” said Milford, not getting into the question of whether he even had any friends.

“We all have our little crosses to bear,” said Farmer Brown.

“Why do I even bother to live,” sang Shirley De LaSalle, on the little stage, “when I ain’t got nothing left to give?”
“Why do I get up in the morning?
Why do I go to bed at night?
I’ve got no man to love me,
to kiss and hold me tight.”
Milford gazed at the bottles of liquor ranged sparkling on the shelves of the bar. He wondered if he would be stuck with this Farmer Brown character all night.

“Y’know, Milford,” said the Farmer Brown guy, “I should really like to read some of your poetry.”


“I said I’d love to read your poetry, I mean if you wouldn’t mind.”

This was the first time, the absolute first time that anyone had ever asked to read Milford’s poetry. Would it be the last?

Milford told Farmer Brown that, yes, he would show him some of his poems, and in fact he just happened to have a sheaf of them rolled up inside his peacoat.

{Please go here to read the “adult comix” version in A Flophouse Is Not a Home, profusely illustrated by the illustrious rhoda penmarq…}

No comments: