Thursday, July 13, 2023

“Thin Men of Haddam”

As Milford worked his way through the crowd in the wake of Mr. Stevens, he saw his friends (if friends they were) still sitting at the bar: Polly Powell apparently still deep in conversation with Addison, the lovely Bubbles staring regally in the direction of the sparkling rows of bottles arrayed on the shelf opposite, or was she staring at her reflection in the mirror, or at nothing at all? It had been almost a half hour since he had excused himself to go to the men’s room; had they missed him? No, they were in their own worlds, and he was in his. 

Up ahead he saw Mr. Stevens open the door and go out, and half a minute later Milford reached the door, opened it, went out.

It was snowing still, and the enormous Mr. Stevens stood in the swirling light of a streetlamp, lighting a cigarette, cupping his lighter’s flame in his large hands, the only sort of hands he had.

Shyly Milford walked up to the old poet.

“Cigarette?” said Mr. Stevens, speaking loudly through the falling snow.

“No, thank you, sir.”

“Don’t tell me you don’t smoke. Bad enough that you don’t drink.”

“Oh, I smoke, sir, profusely, but I’d just as soon get this over with as quickly as possible.”

“Well, you’re just going to have to wait. Nothing like a cigarette in the cold snowy air. Something about that warm carcinogenic smoke filling one’s lungs while the snowflakes fall all about, bedizening one’s topcoat and fedora with their crystalline beauty. If you were half a poet you would write a poem about it.”

“To be honest I am not so sure I am even half a poet, sir.”

“You’re still young, lad. I didn’t start turning out good stuff till I was past forty. And you know what was my great turning point?”

How could I possibly know? thought Milford. I am not your biographer, or even a serious student of your work, but he said, “What was that, Mr. Stevens?”

“It was the day I realized that I might as well just write whatever the hell nonsense I wanted to write, and let the devil take the hindmost. I had a good job in the insurance racket, what did it matter if I wrote about emperors of ice cream, or blackbirds, or made references to ‘thin men of Haddam’? No one gave a shit, and once I realized this, I started writing original shit. Was it any good? Who the hell knows, but at least it was different from the shit everyone else was writing.”

Milford said nothing. Was the shit he himself wrote original? He doubted it, but, as Mr. Stevens had said, he was still young.

Mr. Stevens took a good drag on his cigarette, and then flicked it into the street, its redness flying like a tiny rocket through the falling snow. No, thought Milford, it was not like a tiny rocket, it was just a lighted cigarette, flying through the falling snow.

“I should have liked to have finished that cigarette,” said Mr. Stevens, “but I can see you really are anxious to get this over with, aren’t you?”

“I would prefer to just skip it entirely,” said Milford.

“I’ll ignore that split infinitive, if not forgive it, but look at it this way, my lad: if nothing else of note ever happens in your life, you can always say you stood toe-to-toe with the great Wallace Stevens in an old-fashioned street fight, and so, in a small way, you will have already earned a footnote in literary history.”

“Yes, there’s that.”

“Who would now remember the minor novelist and soi-disant critic Jean Lorrain had he not fought a duel with the great Marcel Proust?”

“Probably no one,” said Milford.

“Who today would know the name of Georges Charles d’Anthès had not that rascally Frenchman fatally shot Pushkin by the banks of the Black River?”

“Um, uh –”

“That one was over a woman,” said Mr. Stevens. “Those were the good old days.”

“Uh, yes, I suppose –”

“It’s a pity that writer chaps no longer fight duels, but, sadly, we must now resign ourselves to the occasional bout of fisticuffs. Well, are you ready?”

“Not really, sir, but I suppose I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.”

“Might I suggest you remove your glasses? I should hate to have you lose an eye, all for defending the dubious honor of a pissant prig like Eliot.”

“Okay,” said Milford, and he took off his glasses, folded them, and put them in the inside pocket of his peacoat.

Milford had very poor eyesight, and now Mr. Stevens was only an amorphous huge brownish blob in the swirling snow, in the yellow light of the streetlamp, a blob topped by the smaller pinkish blob of his face under his fedora.

“Put up your dukes, son. I’m not going to wallop a man who won’t defend himself.”

Milford now saw a possible way out of his predicament, and he left his arms hanging limply at his side.

“You heard me,” said Mr. Stevens. “Put up your fists, boy!”

“No, sir.”

“What do you mean, ‘No, sir?’”

“I prefer not to.”

“Don’t give me this Bartleby the Scrivener shit. Defend yourself.”

“Just go ahead and hit me if you must, Mr. Stevens. I won’t stop you.”

“As if you could stop me.”

“Well, I won’t try to stop you.”

“I see, so this is your version of a duelist refusing to fire his pistol, or sending his ball deliberately into the air.”

“If you will.”

“Or, alternatively, are you the fellow who lets the other man fire first, hoping he will miss, or perhaps only graze you, so that you can then take careful aim and fire your shot straight between his eyes?”

“No, I will not strike back, sir.”

“As if you would be able to, after I land one of my famous corkscrew haymakers to your jaw.”

“Be that as it may, I shall not throw, or attempt to throw a punch.”

“So you’re willing to just stand there and take it.”


“You must really want Eliot to publish your book of poems.”

“Um, uh –”

“Very well, then. I have to say I admire your sand, if not your good sense. But, y’know, there’s always a chance that even an ill-favored, small fellow such as yourself might land a lucky punch.”

“I doubt that, sir. And even my luckiest punch would probably have no more effect than that of an adolescent girl’s.”

“Yeah, you’re probably right. Well, I kind of hate to do this, but here goes. Would you prefer I land one on the side of your jaw or your nose?”

“The jaw I think.”

“A broken nose might actually add some character to the inherent blandness of your physiognomy.”

“Yes, but I think it might hurt more.”

“Good point. I’ll go for the jaw then, but towards the ear, so that if I knock a tooth out it won’t be a front one.”

“Thank you.”

“I might suggest tightening your jaw.”

“Okay, thanks.”

“Do you want to close your eyes?”

“I think so, yes,” and Milford did so. He thought of Sydney Carlton at the end of his childhood favorite, A Tale of Two Cities, as he was trundled toward the guillotine. Was this a far, far better thing than he had ever done? Well, no, perhaps a far, far more foolish thing, in a life so far filled with foolish acts and foolish non-actions. But perhaps he would get a book deal out of it…

He heard a grunting sound, like that of an angry hippo, and despite himself he opened his eyes to see Mr. Stevens hurling a great roundhouse right cross in the general direction of his jaw. Despite his stated intention to take the punch Milford found himself stepping backwards, and the big fist missed his face by an inch, Mr. Stevens’s great hulk of a body following the fist, and stumbling, and then crashing headlong into the parallelpiped entrance column that stood there emblazoned with the white painted words SAN REMO CAFE. Another deep groan, now that of a hippo felled by the great white hunter’s gun, and the enormous old poet slumped down in a heap to the snow-covered pavement.

His fedora had fallen off, and he lay there facedown, not moving, his white-haired balding head exposed to the falling snowflakes. 

Good God, had Milford inadvertently caused to be killed one of the greatest poets of the 20th century?

No, this was not the sort of literary fame Milford wanted, not at all, and he wondered if he should run away home.

{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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