Thursday, August 3, 2023

“The C-Word”

And not for the first time this evening, and hardly for the first time in his life, and, he knew, not for the last time, Milford wondered, What am I doing here?

“Okay,” said Mr. Stevens, turning to Milford suddenly, “I know what you want to know.”

“You do?”

“Of course I do.” He took a pack of cigarettes out of his topcoat, Philip Morris Commanders, gave them an expert shake so that the ends of two cigarettes poked out of the opening, and proffered the pack to Milford. “Smoke?”

“Oh, no, thank you,” said Milford. “I have my own, thanks.”

“Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em, kid.”

Milford obediently took out his pack of Woodbines from the inside pocket of his peacoat.

“What the fuck is that?” said Mr. Stevens.

“These?” said Milford. “Woodbines. They’re English –”


“Yes, sir.”

Wally. I’m not going to tell you again, unless you want to step outside again, and this time it just might be me who knocks you down for a ten-count.”

“I’m sorry,” said Milford. “Wally.”

Mr. Stevens lighted up a Philip Morris with his lighter, which Milford noticed was golden, at least golden in color, and then he offered his light to Milford, who quickly stuck a Woodbine in his lips to accept the flame.

“So,” said Mr. Stevens, exhaling a great cloud of smoke in Milford’s face, “if you can’t drink, at least you can still smoke, right?”

“Yes, sir, I mean, Wally,” said Milford, coughing slightly, “it is a great solace to me. To be honest, if I couldn’t smoke I’m not sure what I would do with myself.”

“Have you considered meditation?”

“Um, well, yes, in fact I have. I bought this book about Zen Buddhism by D.T. Suzuki, and –”

“And how did that work out for you?”

“I found it impossible. Every time I tried to think of nothing I found myself thinking of everything, and getting bored, or falling asleep, or –”

“Okay, I get it, Wilford.”

“You do?”

“Of course I do. What man in his right mind wants to waste his time thinking about nothing?”

“Um, uh, I never really thought about it that way –”

“You’ll have all the time in the world to think about nothing after you bite the big one. Because when you’re dead you’ll be nothing.”

“Um –”

“So, like the colored folks say, ‘Get hip, daddy-o!’”

“Uh –”

“You only ride this crazy train once, son.”

“Yes, I suppose you’re –”

“Listen. You’ve got two choices, Wilford.”

“Only two?”

“Only two.”

Milford said nothing. It had always seemed to him that he had a multitude of choices, none of them very attractive.

“Well don’t you want to know what the choices are?” said Mr. Stevens.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” said Milford. “Yes, what are they, sir, I mean Wally?”

“Jesus Christ, kid, here I am offering my services as a mentor, and I’m getting the impression you don’t give a flying fuck.”

“Oh, no, I do, sir, Wally, so, uh, what are the choices?”

“I’m not so sure I want to tell you now.”

Milford didn’t really care, but he said, “No, please tell me.”

“The choice is, are you gonna be a cunt all your life, or are you going to be a real man.”

Again Milford said nothing. He tapped his cigarette ash into the tin ashtray that was there on the bar between him and Mr. Stevens. He looked up and Mr. Stevens was staring at him out of his large, bloated face, with the big pulsing bruise on his jaw and cheek.

“I guess you think I’m a, uh, c-word, then,” said Milford.

“What do you think?” said Mr. Stevens.

“Um –”

“You sit there smoking English cigarettes, dressed like a stevedore, of course you’re a cunt.”

“Wow,” said Milford.

“But here’s the thing, Wilford, you’re still young. You don’t have to be a cunt your whole life.”

“I wish you’d stop saying that.”

“What? Cunt?”


“Would you like it better if I said asshole?”

“Oh. Uh, again, just, wow –”

“Look, I’m trying to help you, Wilford.”


“So I want you to promise me. From this moment on, I want you to promise me you’ll stop being a little cunt.”

“Okay,” said Milford. “I promise.”


Suddenly Mr. Stevens grabbed Milford’s pack of Woodbines off the bar, crushed it in his enormous hand, the only kind of hand he had, and tossed it to the floor.

“Hey,” said Milford.

“From now on,” said Mr. Stevens, “you smoke American cigarettes. Got it?”

“Yes,” said Milford.

“It doesn’t matter what kind. Me, I’m a Philip Morris man, but that doesn’t mean you have to be one, too. Camels, Luckies, whatever. Find a brand you like, and stick to it.”


“Next, you have to stop dressing like a dock worker. As soon as you open your mouth anyone can tell you’ve never worked a day in your life, so just ‘cool it’ as you young people say. Wear a suit. I’m sure you’ve got a suit, right?”


“More than one, probably.”


“Where do you buy them?”

“Well, my mother buys them actually.”

“Where does she buy them?”

“She takes me to Brooks Brothers.”

“Brooks is good. I see you in a nice understated tweed for the winter time. Do you have a tweed?”


“Harris tweed?”

“Yes, I think so.”

“You think so, or you know so.”

“Yes, I have a Harris tweed.”

“Then wear that. Just so you don’t look like a cunt.”


“You might still be a cunt, but at least you won’t look like one. And once you stop looking like a cunt, who knows, maybe after a while you’ll stop being a cunt.”

“All right, I’ll wear a suit from now on.”

“Good. It’s a start. Becoming a man is like, what, like, uh –”

“Like a butterfly leaving the cocoon?”

“Yeah. I’m not saying it will be easy, Wilford.”

“I think it will be, Wally.”


“Yes,” said Milford. “Already I feel as if a great burden has been lifted from my shoulders.”

“The burden of being a cunt.”

“I wish you’d stop saying that word.”

“See, already you’re acting like you’re not a cunt.”

Milford took a drag on his Woodbine, realizing as he did so that this was his last drag on a Woodbine in his life. He stubbed it out in the ashtray.

“I hope I haven’t been too harsh,” said Mr. Stevens.

“Oh, no, Wally, not at all.”

“You realize everything I’ve said has been true.”


Milford picked up his glass of ginger ale, took a drink, put the glass down. 

“Well, I think I’m going to go now, Wally.”

“Don’t go yet.”

“But my friends –”

“Your friends can wait. Your friends will wait. And you know something, Wilford?”

“I know nothing, Wally.”

“Well, I’ll tell you something. Your friends don’t care. They’re not thinking about you.”

“I know.”

“Stay with me for five more minutes.”

“Well, okay.”

“Because now I want to tell you what I was just about to tell you before we got sidetracked by this business of you smoking English cigarettes and wearing a peacoat and just generally acting like a little cunt.”

“Oh –”

“Because I know why you’re really sitting here.”

“You do? How odd.”

“What’s odd about it?”

“Because I was just wondering myself why I’m sitting here.”

“Ha ha. Wiseguy. But I know.”

Milford said nothing. He had nothing to say. Not that having nothing to say usually stopped him from saying something, but this was an unusual night in his life, perhaps a major turning point, and, if indeed he was to stop being a cunt, perhaps not speaking nonsense was part and parcel of not being a cunt. Perhaps the next step would be to learn to speak and not speak nonsense.

“Well, don’t you want to hear what I have to say?” said Mr. Stevens.

“Oh, yes, of course,” said Milford.

And, silently, he added, “You cunt.”

{Kindly go here to read the “semi-adult comix” version in A Flophouse Is Not a Home, profusely illustrated by the illustrious rhoda penmarq…}

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