Thursday, September 15, 2022

“A Limitless Source of Wonder”

“Raoul,” said Farmer Brown to the bartender, “if you please, sir, another Cream of Kentucky with a small bottle of White Rock ginger ale for my new friend Madison here, and, what the heck, same again for me. Oh, do you prefer ice in your highball, Madison? I prefer not, but that’s just me.”

”I assure you it’s a matter of complete indifference to me,” said Addison, “as long as the Cream of Kentucky is not stinted on.”

“Spoken like a stout fellow of my own bold stripe,” said Farmer Brown, and, turning to Milford on his right, “and what do you say, Montfort, how about just a soupçon of Cream of Kentucky to liven up that White Rock of yours?”

“No,” said Milford, “thank you, but, again – as I believe I have mentioned no more than half a dozen times in our brief acquaintance – I am an alcoholic, and as much as I would like to quaff an entire fifth of Cream of Kentucky in very short order, I choose not to.”

“But another bottle of gingy ale is okay, right?”

“Okay, fine,” said Milford, “thank you, I’ll take another ginger ale, even though I’m about to burst with the stuff.”

“So that’s also a fresh bottle of White Rock for young Malfort here,” said Farmer Brown to Raoul, “and all on my tab of course.”

“Right away,” said Raoul the bartender and he went away.

“By the way,” said Addison, inclining his head to look past Farmer Brown and address Milford, “I wonder if you could spare one of those Woodbines?”

“I probably could,” said Milford, “but for your information there’s a tobacco-and-candy stand out in the lobby of this hotel, and I know for a fact that they carry Woodbines, as well as many other brands of cigarettes, both foreign and domestic.”

“Oh, but I’m so comfortable on this bar stool,” said Addison.

“Here, have one of mine,” said Farmer Brown, clicking open his silver monogrammed cigarette case and shoving it toward Addison. “I hope you don’t mind Old Golds?”

“Love Old Golds,” said Addison; indeed he loved any cigarette, especially a free one.

Up on the little stage Shirley De LaSalle had launched into a new song:
Why do I always choose a man who
doesn’t have a job?
Why do I always pick a chap
who’d rather steal and rob,
who likes to gamble
and run around
with every two-bit
Jane in this old town?

Why do I always pick a fella
bound to make me blue
Why do I always settle on
a ham-and-egger just like you?

Oh, I got no choices left to choose –
I got them ham-and-egger blues!
Addison was happy. He had a free drink on the bar in front of him, and in his hand a free Pall Mall, which had been enthusiastically lighted by Farmer Brown with his silver monogrammed lighter that matched his cigarette case. Or was it platinum? Regardless, the oaf had the air of someone with money, and Addison thought that someday, after his novel was published and became a bestseller, this is the sort of bar he would frequent. Nothing against Bob’s Bowery Bar, you really couldn’t fault a place where you could purchase a glass of the hearty basement-brewed house bock for a dime, but he could get used to a less shall we say demotic place like this Prince Hal Room. Oh, sure, he was sitting next to a madman, with a po-faced young bad poet on the other side of the madman, but the madman was buying, Addison was in love, and all was as well as could be expected in this most imperfect of all worlds.

“So, Madison,” said Farmer Brown, “have you read young Mordant’s poems?”

He tapped the sheaf of typescript lying there on the bar.

“Oh, yes,” said Addison. “Really, uh, marvelous.”

“We were just talking about this one poem here, what’s it called –” he lowered his head and his thick eyeglasses closer to the top sheet on the pile – “’Those Who Are Dead’ –”

“Oh, yes, wonderful poem,” said Addison, despite not having read it.

“Did you realize it was about the Rosicrucians?”


“I mean, not the Rosicrucians, I think it was the Knights of Columbus – isn’t that right, Morton?”

“My name is Milford,” said Milford, “and, no, as I told you, the poem has nothing to do with the Rosicrucians, or the Knights of Columbus, it’s about AA!”

“Right, you told me that,” said Farmer Brown, “AA, for anti-aircraft.” He turned to Addison. “My mistake, it’s about these meetings Milton goes to with his fellow veterans of the anti-aircraft battalions. He must have been so terribly young –  probably lied about his age to get in the service. I tried to enlist but they said I was too old. Did you serve, sir?”

“Alas,” said Addison, “I was declared 4-F – flat feet and knock knees – and so I did my war service in a parachute factory in Fayetteville, North Carolina.”

“And I’ll bet you made a darn good parachute, too, sir!”

“Oh, I did my best,” said Addison, not mentioning that his best was not much, and that he had been relegated to janitorial duties after his first couple of weeks, so clumsy he was with his hands, and so absent-minded when it came to even the simplest assembly-line work.

“Nothing but respect for our brave boys who fought,” said Farmer Brown. “Like young Merton here, brave lad.”

“Mr. Brown,” said Milford, “I was not even sixteen when the war ended. I was not in the military. I was in prep school.”

“Then how could you have been in the anti-aircraft batteries? Did they have one in your school?”

“Oh, Christ,” said Milford. “oh, Jesus Christ and all the saints in Heaven, please help me.”

“What is it, Mervyn?” said Farmer Brown.

“Nothing, nothing at all,” said Milford.

Farmer Brown turned to Addison, and leant his large red face closer to Addison’s thin pallid face.

“You know what I think it is?” Farmer Brown whispered.

“What’s that?” said Addison.

Shell shock. That’s what they call it. Or battle fatigue. These lads who went through the real barney while guys like you and me were safe at home, making whoopee with them Rosie the Riveters and Allotment Annies. The horrors these young fellers saw. And it comes back to them at odd moments. Just rises up from the depths, so to speak, like a bad plate of oysters. And poor Mimson can’t even drink to drown his terrible memories, on account of he thinks he’s an alcoholic. Ain’t that sad?”

“Yes, very sad,” said Addison.

Milford had turned to look at and listen to Shirley De LaSalle up there at the microphone. Damn it, he would stay here at this bar just until she went on break again, and then once more he would attempt to talk to her. He felt that he was falling in love, even though he had only spoken a few stumbling and awkward words with her. Could it be that she might care for him?

Shirley was singing another song now, a slow song rich with sadness:
I got them melancholy blues
from my head down to my shoes,
them mean old melancholy blues,
I think I’ll drown myself in booze…
“And you, Madison,” said Farmer Brown to Addison, “if I am not wrong, and I don’t think I am, are you also a poet?”

“Novelist, actually,” said Addison.

“Novelist!” said Farmer Brown. “I knew it! I only suggested poet as a gambit, as I didn’t want to seem one of those annoying people who are always pigeon-holing other people, but I just knew you were a novelist!”

“Was it my slightly threadbare brown serge suit?”

“It was that, yes, but even more so, those penetrating eyes, the hawklike eyes of a novelist – or perhaps a short-story writer? But nonetheless the keen eyes of a skilled observer of humanity and of the world.”

Farmer Brown’s eyeglasses were so thick, the eyes behind them hideously but dully magnified and looking like the eyes of a cartoon character in the Sunday funnies, that Addison wondered what if anything they did see, but all he said was, “Thank you, Mr. Brown. Yes, the world and its inhabitants are a limitless source of wonder to me.”

Tony went into his piano break, and Shirley gazed through the smoke at all the punters on the dance floor and at the tables, and there at the near end of the bar was that weird younger guy in the peacoat who had bought her a drink and tried to chat her up, stammering and sweating, and he was gazing longingly up at her now.

Yeah, another conquest.

What was his story? Dressed like a longshoreman, but he sure didn’t talk like one. Maybe he was one of these eccentric rich guys. Who knows, maybe he was her ticket out of this joint and six nights a week, four sets a night. A girl could dream, right?

{Kindly 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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