Thursday, May 11, 2023

“Would That It Were”

The bartender came over and addressed Milford.

“We got a table for two now if you still want it, pal.”

“Pardon me?”

“You said you wanted a table for two, didn’t ya?”

“Oh, yes,” said Milford.

He had forgotten, dazzled as he was by the strange regal beauty of Bubbles, forgotten that he had requested a table to have dinner with Polly, who was sitting there chattering with Addison. But if he took a table with Polly he would have to leave Bubbles here at the bar, divine Bubbles! Why was life so hard and complicated? 

“Um, you know what?” he said. “Never mind about the table.”

“So you’re not gonna eat after all?”

“Well, uh, maybe later?”

“There’s other people want that table.”

“Well, go ahead and give it to them.”

“No skin off my nose.”

“Thank you,” said Milford.

Somebody tapped Milford’s arm. He turned and a little man was standing there. He wore a wiry beard, an old derby hat, a worn gabardine coat.

“Excuse me,” said the little man, “but if I am not mistaken you are a poet.”

“How did you know?”

“The newsboy’s cap, the peacoat, the Hemingwayesque ribbed pullover, the dungarees and work boots. The universal uniform of the young poet of today!”

“I dress as I do in solidarity with the working man.”

“And yet I would deduce from your delicate and lily-white hands that you have never done a lick of physical labor in your young life.”

“This is true, but only because my labor is of the, uh, creative kind.”

“Sure, pal, sure. Hey, I’m with you! I myself have never done an honest or even dishonest day’s work in my not so young life. Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Lucas Z. Billingsworth, and I too am a poet.”

“Oh, hi.”

“Don’t leave me hanging, man.”

The guy had extended his right hand, which was as uncallused as Milford’s if not so lily-white. Milford took it in his own weakling’s hand.

“What’s your name, sir?” asked Lucas Z. Billingsworth, not letting go of Milford’s hand.

“Milford,” said Milford.

“Just Milford?”

“I prefer just Milford, yes.” The flesh of the man’s hand was an unsettling mélange of dry and moist, like a lizard’s, and with an effort Milford disengaged his own hand and wiped it on his dungarees.

“First or last name?” said the man.

“Pardon me?”

“Is Gilford your first or last name? Or middle perhaps?”

“It’s Milford, and it’s my last name.”

“So your first name is something you prefer not to be called by. Norbert perhaps. Or Herbert?”

“Look, I just prefer to be called Milford, okay?”

The man pointed to Milford’s silver cigarette lighter standing there on the bar, with the cursive double-M monogram.

“Two Ms. Not Michael, certainly. Martin? No. Melvin?”

“No,” said Milford. “Thank God.”

“Oh, wait, it must be Marion then, am I right?”

“Yes,” said Milford, with a sigh. Why was life so insane?

“Very well, Marion, I shall call you Milford, and I don’t blame you. It’s not your fault that your mother is a sadist.”

Milford winced.

“Ah, I see I have touched a nerve, my good friend Milford. And now to the purpose of my intrusion. I wonder if you would be so kind as to buy a fellow poet a drink?”

The gall of this fellow.

“Here,” said Milford. He picked up the glass of brandy he had not wanted, and held it out to the little man. “Take this, with my compliments.”

“I don’t want to take your drink, Milford.”

“It’s okay, I don’t want it.”

“Then why was it sitting there?”

“It’s too tedious to explain. Look, just take it, okay?”

“By which you mean,” said the man, taking the drink, “‘Take it, and now go away.’”

“I am with friends.”

“But I was hoping that we could be friends.”

“So that I would buy you more drinks?”

“You cut to the bone, sir!”

“Look, I’m an alcoholic too. I sympathize, but, as I say, I am with my friends.”

“But are they really your friends?”

“I, uh –”

“I see you’re with the radiant Bubbles. Hello there, Bubbles!”

Bubbles turned and looked at the guy.

“Hiya, Lucas,” she said.

“How’s it going, beautiful?”

“Do you care?”

“I do, Bubbles. I care deeply.”

“You care about where your next drink is coming from.”

“I am willing to pay for my drinks.”


“In my own way.”

“Take a hike, half-pint.”

“May I compose a poem ex tempore for you and Milford in exchange  for another drink?”

“I think I’d rather swallow gasoline than listen to you recite a poem,” said Bubbles.

“You have inspired me, dear lady.” 

The little man drank down the brandy in a gulp, put the empty glass back on the bar, and cleared his throat. As chance would have it, the jukebox went quiet just at that moment, and he began to declaim, in the classic boring singsong voice of the poet:

I’d rather drink gasoline, she said,
than listen to your doggerel.
I’d rather drive nails into my head
than submit to such living hell.

How can you bear to exist, old man,
as pathetic as you are?
Why don’t you go outside and
jump in front of a passing car?

Polly and Addison were paying no attention to any of this.

“And so I envision,” said Addison, “my novel to be so much more than a mere western. You see, it is my goal to utilize the framework of a western tale of revenge to explore the deepest questions of existence. Why are we here? What do we live for? What does it all mean?”

“How odd,” said Polly, drunk for the first time in her life on the three drinks she had now had, “because that’s the same way I feel about my own novel! I mean, sure, superficially it might be a Bildungsroman of a young girl who comes to the city to find herself, but it also asks those very same questions. What is the meaning, if any, of human existence? Or is it all in aid of nothing, nothing at all?”

“I knew we were kindred souls,” said Addison.

“Do you really think so?”

“Oh, yes, indeed.”

Polly realized that Milford’s thirteen-page poem was still lying on the bar in front of her, and that she had still only read the first few lines. And the poem was about her! But now Milford and Bubbles seemed to be listening to a little man who sounded like he was reciting a poem.

Yes, she thought, this, this was la vie de la bohème! But would her own life be as tragic as Puccini’s opera? Oh, would that it could be!

Another song had come on the jukebox, “Take the A Train”, and amidst the clamor of the song Addison was saying something, but Polly didn’t quite catch it, fascinated as she now was by the queenly face of Bubbles, who seemed to be examining the bottles of liquor ranged on the shelves opposite. Polly knew she simply must put this beautiful and mysterious woman in her novel, mutatis mutandis of course. Maybe she would change the color of her hair to red, or, no, auburn, and of course she would need a different name. Trixie?

“So you agree, then?” said Addison.

“Uh, yes,” said Polly, “certainly.”

“I knew it,” said Addison. “A young adventurous woman like yourself is not to be hidebound by repressive social strictures! And, quite frankly, neither am I. I believe that love is to be given, and, yes, to be received, freely – and, dare I say, joyfully!”

And he touched her knee, in a tentative way, and only momentarily, but still.

And in that moment Polly caught the glance of Bubbles, who rolled her beautiful eyes.

Hurry, hurry, hurry, take the A Train
to get to Sugar Hill way up in Harlem...

{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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