Thursday, September 23, 2021

“The French Have a Word for It”

“Order anything you want, pal, anything at all. And I hope you don’t mind my saying so, but you look like you could use a good feed. Now let me ask you a question. Have you eaten today?”



“Does after midnight last night count? Because I think I might have had a hot dog at Bob’s after midnight last night.”

“I mean since this morning, pal. Have you had a meal since this morning?”

“As in this morning since daylight?”


Smiling Jack’s smile rarely seemed to falter, but it was quivering slightly now, just on the verge of disappearing.

“Well, now that you mention it, Jack,” Addison was making it a point to try to remember Smiling Jack’s name, “no, I haven’t eaten today. You see, I was in bed all day actually.”

“Let me guess, after being out all night drinking.”

“How did you know?”

“Addison, just look at you.”

“Must I?”

“Look at yourself in the mirror there, buddy.”

They were sitting at the counter, and there was a mirror across the way, behind the stacks of coffee cups and plates. Addison looked at his reflection.

“Good God, I look like a bum!”

“Grey-faced, unshaven, drawn. Suit, shirt and tie all wrinkled and stained. Hat that looks like Primo Carnera sat on it. Eyes all bloodshot and watery –”

“Okay, okay, I get it, Jack. I mean, jeeze, we can’t all be the picture of jolly pink slightly chubby health that you are.”

“Don’t take it personal, pal,” said Smiling Jack, his smile back in full force now.

Ma was standing there.

“You gentlemen ready to order?”

“How you doin’, Ma?” said Jack.

“Doing fine, Mr. Jack.”

“How’s the meatloaf today?”

“Same as every day.”

“I’ll take the meatloaf then, Ma. With peas and mashed potatoes. And a nice hot cup of your chicory coffee, thank you very much.”

“How about you, Mr. Addison?”

“Is the meatloaf really good?” asked Addison. Normally he only had toast here, or a doughnut, sometimes a hot cross bun, because these were the cheapest items on the menu.

“Addison,” said Smiling Jack, “Ma’s meatloaf is the best in the city.”


“Best in the city. I’ve probably eaten in every darned diner in this town, and Ma’s meatloaf is hands down the best.”

“Okay, then, I’ll try the meatloaf,” said Addison.

“Go for the mashed potatoes and peas, too,” said Jack.

“You think that’s a good combination?”

“I think it’s the classic combination, Addison. Now there is a body of thought that prefers the French fries, with gravy, and coleslaw, and I’m not going to say that’s a bad combination, because it’s not, but if you’re talking classic, I mean the real deal, you just gotta go with the mashed and peas.”

“Okay, that’s what I’ll have then,” said Addison.

“Something to drink?” said Ma.

“Oh, I don’t care,” said Addison. He knew he couldn’t get beer here, so he really didn’t care.

“Go for the chicory coffee,” said Smiling Jack.

“Okay, sure,” said Addison. “Chicory coffee.”

Ma hadn’t written anything down, she never did, and she went away to give the order to her short-order cook, Moses.

She brought back two cups of the chicory coffee.

“Another Lucky while we’re waiting on our dinner?” said Jack.

“Sure, thanks, Jack,” said Addison.

Jack lighted them both up with his Zippo.

“Addison, my friend, I’m gonna make you my special project,” said Smiling Jack.

“Pardon me?”

“My special personal project.”


“Call it a reclamation project.”

“I wasn’t aware I needed to be reclaimed.”

“’Cause I’ve been where you are, buddy.”

“What do you mean?”

“Drunk every night, sleeping it off every day.”

“Well, I’m not drunk quite every night, Jack.”

“You’re not?”

“I mean, not completely drunk.”

“Just a little drunk?”

“Well, I like to have a few after my day’s labor.”

“Your labor?”

“Yes. I hope you didn’t think I was a total layabout.”

“And what sort of labor is it that you do exactly, Addison?”

“I am a –” (Should he say it? yes, damn it, why not? It was true, wasn’t it?) “I’m a novelist.”

“You write novels?”

“Well, I’m writing a novel.”

“Gee, I had no idea.”

“So you thought I was just some opinionated failed intellectual holding forth in a bar?”

“Well, gee, pal –”

“I am in fact in the midst of writing an epic, a prose epic, of the American west.”

“A western?”

“I prefer to call it a prose epic, set in the American west. I shouldn’t want to limit the work by calling it a mere ‘western’.”

“No, of course not. Do you have a title for it yet?”

“I do indeed. Sixguns to El Paso.”

Sixguns –”

To El Paso.”

“And is that like, Six Guns to El Paso, as in six separate guns, or ‘sixguns’ as one word?”

“That’s a very good question, and in fact, it’s ‘sixguns’, one word, one plural word.”

“So it’s more than one sixgun.”


“But not, like, six sixguns.”

“No, just ‘sixguns’. Sixguns to El Paso.”

“Got a ring to it. Six Guns to El Paso!”

Sixguns to El Paso. Not Six Guns to El Paso.”

“Right, that’s what I meant to say. What’s it about?”

“What’s it about?”

“Yeah,” said Jack, his smile flickering just ever so faintly again. “What’s it about? I mean, the story and all –”

“The story –”

“Yeah. I mean if you don’t mind telling me –”

“Oh, no, I don’t mind.”

“So what’s it about?”

Jack’s smile had disappeared, disconcertingly so. Addison paused before answering.

“How much time do you have, Jack?”

And now Smiling Jack’s smile returned.

“I have all night, my friend.”

Addison thought for a moment. On the one hand, here was a fellow actually asking Addison to talk about his work, something that had never happened before, ever, but on the other hand the man was obviously not an intellectual. Would Addison’s words make even the slightest impression on Smiling Jack’s brain cells, or would they simply bounce off, like so many verbal rubber balls, or, to try another figure of speech, would they be absorbed into the spongy mass of Jack’s brain, absorbed and lost forever, like – like what? Like raindrops in the ocean? Could he compare the brains of a fellow like Smiling Jack to the ocean?

He became aware of his reflection in the mirror again.

Good God, did he really look like that? In his mind’s eye he had always seen himself as looking rather like George Sanders, but instead he looked like the sort of person George Sanders would cross the street to avoid.

And there was Smiling Jack in the mirror, smiling, waiting patiently for Addison to speak. Well, the man had asked, and so all Addison could do was attempt to answer his question. Perhaps it would be artistically helpful to try to explain his work in terms that could be comprehended by a layman, an everyman, like Smiling Jack.

“Well, Jack, I think my book is about many things. On the surface, it is a tale of revenge, rather in the classic Homeric tradition, but, beneath the surface, it is a study of the very nature of existence, of memory, of time, and consciousness, and, yes, of the unconscious, of the hidden but powerful currents –”

“Here’s your meatloaves, gentlemen,” said Ma, and she laid the plates down.

Jack stubbed out his Lucky Strike.

“Oh, thank you, Ma! This looks and smells delicious!”

“More coffee?”

“When you get a chance, Ma, thank you.”

Addison stubbed out his own Lucky Strike and picked up his knife and fork.

Smiling Jack had already started in.

The food was magnificent. Smiling Jack had been right. There was just something perfect, and perfectly satisfying about the meatloaf and the mashed potatoes – both the meat and the potatoes liberally slathered with the thick gravy – and the slightly al dente peas, glistening with butter, popping with flavor in his mouth.  

And, as he ate, Addison saw his reflection in the mirror, eating, and he fancied he saw himself turning into the very likeness of George Sanders, and, really, he thought, is not our inner soul our true self, whereas this body one walks around in is only the all-too-temporary host of the soul?

With each swallow of food he felt not only his ravaged corporeal host being nourished, but, yes, his soul as well.

“Pretty good, hey, Addison?”


“I didn’t steer you wrong with the meatloaf and mashed, did I?”

“Far from it.”

“And the peas, Addison. The peas are essential.”

“Yes, I think you’re right, Jack.”

“The peas just give it that I don’t know what.”

“Yes, a certain je ne sais quoi.”

“I don’t know what that is, pal.”

“Oh, it’s just French for I don’t know what.”

“Exactly,” said Smiling Jack. “Leave it to them French people to have a word for I don’t know what!”

And he dug back in.

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

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