Thursday, July 6, 2023

“The Roller of Big Cigars”


“Excuse me,” said Milford, “Mr. Stevens?”


The enormous old poet gazed down at the small young poet.

“I wonder, that is, if you don’t mind, I wonder if I might –”

“Stop dithering, boy. What is it? Do you want an autograph? I don’t do autographs.”

“No, sir, I didn’t want your autograph –”

“Good, because you’re not going to get one. If you had one of my books on you, I would sign it, maybe, but you don’t have one of my books on you, do you?”

“Well, no, sir, I don’t –”

“But I assume you have read at least some of my books.”

“Well, I, uh, have read some of your poems, yes –”

“Some of them?”

“Uh, yes, you know, in anthologies –”

“Oh, anthologies. But you couldn’t be bestirred to cough up a few bucks actually to buy one of my books. You dilettantes disgust me.”

“Um, uh –”

“Next thing I suppose you’ll be telling me ‘The Emperor of Ice Cream’ is your favorite poem.”

“Well, that is, certainly, one of, uh –”

“Or ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at Blackbird’.”

“Um, that one, too, is surely –”

“Okay, tell me something, kid – what’s your name by the way?”


“Mildred? What kind of name is that for a man?”

“I’m sorry – it’s so noisy in here – but my name is Milford.”

“Speak up. It’s so goddam noisy in this joint with this Negro jukebox music and all the shouting idiots.”

“Milford, sir!” shouted Milford.


“No, sir,” Milford shouted again. “Milford! Milford!”

“Don’t shout at me. I’m not deaf.”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Stevens.”

“Okay, then. Wilford, right?”

“Yes,” said Milford, “sure, it’s Wilford.”

“Okay, now tell me something, ‘Wilford’. In your honest opinion, what is ‘The Emperor of Ice Cream” all about?”

“Um, well, that’s difficult to say, briefly, but, uh, I suppose –”

“Okay, you don’t know. What about that old much-anthologized fan-favorite ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’?”

“Oh. ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.’ Well, in my opinion – and this is only my interpretation of course – it is a sort of distillation of moments of pure clarityepiphanies as it were –”



“I was drunk when I wrote those poems. They don’t mean shit. As you young people say, ‘Can you dig it, daddy-o?’”

“Um, heh heh –”

“Wait a minute. I know you. You’re one of those sycophants sitting over there with Eliot.”

“Uh, yes.”

“Another one of his dick riders I suppose.”

“Pardon me?”

“You heard me. Dick rider. Or should I say ass kisser?”

“Really, Mr. Stevens –”

“Did he send you over here?”

“Um, well, yes, but only in a matter of speaking –”

“He sent you over here.”



“Um, he asked me to extend an olive branch.”

“An olive branch.”

“Yes, sir, an olive branch. He asked me to, uh, tell you that he apologized for the perhaps too harsh review he wrote about your book –”

“Fuck his apologies.”

“He said he would print a retraction.”

“Twenty years too late, and a dollar short.”

“Um, he’s really sorry.”

“Sorry my ass. For twenty years that review has been gnawing at my soul, keeping me up at night, destroying on a diurnal and nocturnal basis any slight chance I might once have had for a modicum of, if not happiness, then at least the absence of misery. If one might speak of a modicum of the absence of misery.”

“I’m very sorry to hear that, sir.”

“Are you yourself a poet? By your garb – the newsboy’s cap, the peacoat, the Hemingwayesque heavy ribbed rolled-collar fisherman’s sweater, the dungarees and the work shoes – I assume by your uniform that you are a member of the confraternity of troubadours.”

“Yes, sir, I am.”

“Have you published any books yet?”

“Not yet, but I hope to,” said Milford, not mentioning that he hoped Mr. Eliot’s firm would publish his début collection, which he was now thinking of calling Love Songs of the Unloved, Vol. I.

“How do you think you would feel if you poured your heart and soul into a book of poems and some asshole wrote a review describing it as, and I quote, a ‘hotchpotch of meaningless claptrap’?”

“I, uh, I don’t think I would be too happy –”

“Damn straight you wouldn’t be ‘too happy’. So, tell you what, you go back over there to Eliot and tell him to take that olive branch of his and shove it right up his tight anglo-catholic keister. And tell him also I’ve decided to have just one more Rob Roy, and then I want him to meet me outside in exactly five minutes so I can repeatedly bitch-slap him like the pretentious nasty bitch he is.”

“Well, here’s the thing, Mr. Stevens, uh, and this is difficult for me to say –”

“What? Spit it out, man.”

“Mr. Eliot asked me, if it came to that, that is, he asked me if I would step outside with you in his stead.”



“You want to step outside with me?”

“Well, I don’t want to, but Mr. Eliot –”

“If ‘Mr. Eliot’ asked you to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge, would you do that?”

“Uh, well, no, of course not –”

“Because I’ll kick your ass kid. I may be old and fat, but I’ll still kick your ass, from here to next Tuesday.”

“Yes, I’m sure you will, sir.”

“I once went a few vigorous rounds with Ernie Hemingway down in Key West, and even though he was twenty years younger than me I would’ve put him on his ass except he caught me with a lucky left hook and I slipped and fell in a mud puddle.”

“I don’t want to fight you, Mr. Stevens.”

“Then what do you want?”

“I just want, I want, I want –”

“God damn it, stop beating around the bush, boy!”

“Mr. Eliot said that if I stepped outside with you he might publish a book of my poems with his firm.”

“Oh. Okay. Now that explains it.”

“Yes, I suppose so.”

“In your shoes, at your age, I should probably have behaved in just such a dubious fashion.”

“It’s just that I would really like to see my poems published.”

“Yes, of course you would.”

“So you understand?”

“Sure I do. What is it, ‘Wilford’?”

“Well, actually –”

“Let’s go, Wilford. I’ll hold off on that next Rob Roy till I get back.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean let’s step outside.”

“You really want to?”

“Since you have offered yourself as Eliot’s proxy, you regrettably leave me no choice. Let the blame and the guilt and the shame lie on his narrow and bony shoulders. Come on, kid.”

“Um –”

“Lookit, I admire your gumption, so don’t punk out now, boy. And I promise to make it quick. One good right cross to the jaw should do the trick. And, listen, when I put you down, stay down. No need to play the hero. You shall have made your point. But mark me, I shall not pull my punches. Or punch, singular, most likely. Would you like a shot of Dewar’s before we go out? A spot of Scotch courage?”

“No thanks. I don’t drink.”

“More’s the pity. You might change your mind about that after I wallop you a good one. Alcohol makes a very splendid general anesthetic, albeit temporary.”

“Uh –”

Mr. Stevens raised his glass and emptied the last of its contents, then put the glass down on the bar.

“Let’s go and get this over with. I’ll buy you that shot when we come back inside.”

And the enormous old poet turned and heaved off toward the entrance, through the laughing and shouting crowd, through the thick swirling clouds of tobacco smoke and the clangorous jukebox music, and the young small poet followed in his wake.

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

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