Thursday, March 2, 2023

“All the Fellows in All the World”

And now Milford was alone again, sitting here with his dregs of cold coffee in the automat, looking out the steamed window at drizzly cold Bedford Street, at the piles of dirty snow, at all the defeated people trudging back to their meaningless jobs after forcing down their dyspeptic lunches.

Shirley had gone, leaving her little round crockery plate with the remains of her slice of cheesecake and the cup from which she had drunk her cocoa, the cup with the red smudge of her lipstick on its rim.

And her stubbed-out Philip Morris Commander in the ashtray with all of Milford’s Woodbine butts…

What was the use?

Of anything?

Milford had thought he was in love, in love for the first time. And in his masturbatory fantasies he had even taken to imagining Shirley as his collaborator in ecstasy.

“Yes,” she would whisper, not unlike a modern day Molly Bloom, “yes, yes, yes…” 

But, no, those fantasies were not to be realized, or even approximated. Of all the girls in all the world, why did his first love have to turn out to be a lesbian?

Shirley had said he would find a nice girl. But would he? And if he found her, would she like him? And if she liked him, would he like her? These were unanswerable questions.

He looked at the leather folder lying on the table next to his cup and saucer, the folder containing his unfinished long poem (“The Dawn of a Fawn”), a poem which had been inspired by his love for Shirley De LaSalle. But what horrible direction would the poem take now?

There also on the table was the purple velvet box with his grandmother’s (or was it his great-grandmother’s) engagement ring, which Shirley had refused. He really must remember to put it back in the drawer in the foyer credenza.

Milford picked up the purple box and shoved it without ceremony into the pocket of his peacoat. And then he sighed. Alas, he knew, he was not destined to be happy ever, no, except for those all-too-brief moments approaching and including the yet briefer instant of self-induced orgasm. Should he get a refill of his coffee? Would that bring him happiness? What about another Woodbine? The first puff always, or sometimes, gave him a moment – a half-moment – of, if not quite happiness, then at least a slight mitigation of misery and boredom…

In her cashier’s booth Polly Powell closed Felix Holt, the Radical over her finger and gazed at the strange young man in the newsboy’s cap and the pea coat and white muffler with blue trim. For years she had been observing this fellow and wondering what his story was, giving him his nickels in exchange for his quarters and dimes, but never exchanging a word beyond “thank you” and “you’re welcome”. And she had not failed to notice that for the past couple of weeks he had occasionally been joined at his table by that attractive blonde girl. And Polly had also observed today’s little drama: the proffered purple ring-box, the box which had been opened but then shoved back across the table to the young fellow in the newsboy’s cap. Yes, this was it, the sort of everyday drama she needed to put into her novel-in-progress, working title: Automat Dreams

And wouldn’t you know it, the newsboy-cap fellow approached the booth, shyly, as he always approached, and he laid a quarter on the counter.

“Five nickels, please.”

Polly took the quarter and replaced it with five nickels.

“There will be someone else,” she said.

“I’m sorry, what?” said Milford.

“Someone else. Another girl will come along.”

Milford stared at the young woman, whom he had seen pushing nickels here for years. She wasn’t bad-looking, and, anyway, even if she wasn’t the ravishing beauty that Shirley was, who was he to be critical?

“Excuse me,” he said, “but may I know your name?”

“Polly. Polly Powell.”

“My name is Milford.”

“That’s an odd name.”

“It’s actually my last name. My first name is Marion, but I prefer to be called Milford.”

“I don’t blame you, Milford.”

“I see you’re reading Felix Holt, the Radical.”

“Yes, I love George Eliot. I am in the process of developing my first novel myself.”

“Fascinating,” said Milford. “I myself am a poet.”

“I knew it,” said Polly. “I’ve often seen you writing in your notebooks, or reading a slim volume of Mallarmé or perhaps Baudelaire.”

“Hey, I’d like some nickels, if you two are done conversing,” said some big guy.

Milford scooped up his nickels.

“Thank you,” he said to Polly.

“You’re welcome,” said Polly.

Milford walked back to his table. His heart was racing, and his breath came in short quick gulps.

Should he ask Polly Powell to meet him for a cup of coffee? Would she find him annoying, unattractive? He went to his table and picked up his cup and saucer. The cup rattled on the saucer. Why was his hand trembling? Was he in love again, so soon? Or was it only too much caffeine? He went over to the coffee dispenser, breaking out in a sweat, and he fancied he could feel Polly Powell’s calm eyes on him. He laid the cup and saucer under the coffee spout and dropped a nickel into the slot, then pulled the chromium-plated arm downward to release a steaming jet of coffee into the cup. He glanced over his shoulder, at Polly Powell, shoving some nickels at a little old lady, and, yes, Polly looked up, and glanced at him, at Milford, of all the fellows in all the world…

{Please click 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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