Thursday, August 24, 2023

“The Hope of Our Nation”

Milford became aware that his cigarette had burned down to its last half-inch, and he stubbed it out in their shared tin ashtray.

“Have another one,” said Mr. Stevens, and he offered his Philip Morrises, giving the pack a shake so that exactly two cigarettes protruded.

“No thanks,” said Milford, although he did want one.

“Suit yourself,” said Mr. Stevens, and he stuck one in his pendulous lips, the only kind of lips he had, and lighted himself up with his golden lighter. “God, I love cigarettes,” he said. “Not as much as I love Scotch, but pretty damn close to it. Sure you don’t want one?”

“No, I’m okay,” said Milford.

“Just help yourself if you change your mind.”

“Okay, but, um, uh –”


“Look, Mr. Stevens, I appreciate everything, but –”

“Excuse me?”

“I said I appreciate the good, uh, advice, and, um –”

“What did you call me?”

“Oh. I meant to say Wally.”

“That’s better.”

“So, anyway, Wally, I appreciate everything, but I really should be getting back to the San Remo –”

“Oh. Okay.”

“You know, it’s just that, well –”

“I said okay. I get it, Wilford.”

“You do?”

“Of course I do. You’re young. You want to get your ashes hauled.”

“Heh heh, well, uh, it’s not just that –”

“Oh, isn’t it? Could it be that I bore you?”

“No, not at all,” lied Milford, “but, really, I was sitting with my, you know, my friends, and, uh –”

“Your friends.”


“Young people.”

“Well, yes –”

“The hope of our nation.”

“Uh –"

“Whereas I, I am old. One foot in the grave. Who gives a shit if I have written some of the most original poetry of the century?”

“It’s not that –”

“Sure, you’d just really rather be with your ‘friends’. And quite rightly so. Please, go, don’t let me keep you.”

“But –”

“I’ll just sit here and drink my Rob Roys.”

“Well –”

“I’ll be fine.”

“Okay. Um, thanks for the ginger ale.”

“Don’t mention it.”

“Okay, then –”

Milford made as if to get off his bar stool, but Mr. Stevens said, “Wait.”

“Yes?” said Milford.

“I’m going to give you my card.” Mr. Stevens was digging under his topcoat, and he came out with a wallet, an old and very thick one. He opened it, riffled through it, brought out a card, and handed it to Milford. “This is my business card, so you’ll get my secretary, but just ask her to put you through. Tell her it’s Wilford, and that it’s a personal call.”

Milford looked at the card, identifying Mr. Stevens as Vice President of the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company.

“Okay, thanks, Mr. Stevens, I mean, Wally, but, listen, my name isn’t actually Wilford.”

“It isn’t? Then why did you tell me it was?”

“I didn’t. My name is Milford, but you must have misheard me.”

“Milford? Why did you allow me to continue calling you Wilford?”

“I tried to correct you, but I guess you kept forgetting, so, after a while I just gave up.”

“Oh. Well, I apologize, Wilford, I mean Milford.”

“It’s okay,” said Milford.

“Anyway, look,” said Mr. Stevens, “I said I’d give your book a good review, and I will, so when it comes out, just give me a buzz at the office.”

“Okay, thanks, Wally.”

“No skin off my nose. Just please don’t tell anybody you gave me this.”

He pointed to the ever-growing and glowing bright purplish bruise on his jaw.

“I won’t tell anyone,” said Milford.

“And, look, maybe next time I’m in town we can ‘hang out’ again.”


“What do you mean, ‘Oh’?”

“Nothing. I suppose I’m just a little surprised, or, uh, flattered –”

“Flattered that the great poet would want to hoist a few with a young buck like yourself?”

“Well, yes, I suppose so –”

“Do you have a telephone?”

“What, yes, I mean, my mother has a telephone.”

“Give me your number. You got something to write on?”

“I have a card actually.”

“Now I’m surprised.”

“It’s my mother. She insists on having calling cards printed up for me.”

“Old school dame, huh?”

“Yes, I suppose so. Give me a second.”

Milford put Mr. Stevens’s business card on the bar, then dug his old Boy Scout wallet out of his dungarees, opened it, took out a card, gave it to Mr. Stevens.

Mr. Stevens looked at the card.

“Marion Milford?”


“Your first name is Marion?”


“Your mother must really be a piece of work.”

“Well, Marion is an old traditional name in our family, so –”

“I don’t give a shit. It’s just a terrible thing to do to a boy.”

“Yes, I suppose it was. Anyway, I prefer just to be called Milford.”

“I don’t blame you.” He looked at the card again. “Milford. Not Wilford.”

“Yes, sir, I mean Wally.”

“I’m not sure I can get used to calling you Milford now.”

“You can call me Wilford if you like.”

“Do you mind?”

“Not really.”

“Then I’ll call you Wilford. But only if you call me Wally.”

“Okay, Wally.”

Mr. Stevens put Milford’s calling card in his wallet, closed it up, put it back into the depths of his topcoat and suit, and Milford in his turn put his Boy Scout wallet away in his dungarees.

“Slide me five,” said Mr. Stevens. “Isn’t that what you young people say?”

“Well, I suppose some of us do.”

“Then gimme some skin, daddy-o.”

Milford gave the great poet his hand, and the hand was swallowed up by the older man’s enormous hand, and squeezed, but not quite to a pulp. At last Mr. Stevens released Milford’s throbbing appendage, and the young poet climbed down from his stool.

“Don’t forget,” said Mr. Stevens, “call me. Even if you just want to get together sometime.”


“We’ll get a nice load on.”

“But, Wally, as I told you, I don’t drink.”

“Oh. Right.”

“I mean, I’d like to be able to drink, I do sort of miss it, but it’s just that I –”


“I’m an alcoholic.”


“I’m just not able to, you know –”


“So, uh, I can’t, um, each day I have to, well, walk the straight and narrow, and take it one day at a time, and –”



“What you’re talking about. All this straight and narrow stuff, all this one-day-at-a-time bullshit. This is no way to live, Wilford. No way for a man. So just call me. One beer won’t kill you. And neither will two. For Christ’s fucking sake, kid.”

“But –”

“Look, you told me you were going to stop being a cunt, didn’t you?”

“Um, yes –”

“Well, it’s no use not being a cunt if you’re just gonna turn around and be a pussy all your life.”


“So give me a ring when you’re ready to go out and behave like a man, okay?”


“Good. Now go, Wilford. I hate long goodbyes.”

“All right. Goodbye, Wally.”

“Oh, but wait.”

Mr. Stevens put his great hand on Milford’s arm.


“You do hope to get your weezer wozzled tonight, right?”

“Um, uh, if that means –”

“You know what it means.”

“Yes, sir, I mean Wally.”

“Good, very good. Well, there’s just one thing I want you to do, Wilford. One small favor.”


“It won’t cost you anything, but it would mean a lot to me. Will you do it?”

“Sure, I guess –”

“Don’t guess, just say you will.”

“All right, I will.”

“Good. Here’s what I want you to do for me. Are you listening?”


“Put it in once for me.”

Mr. Stevens’s bleary eyes looked into Milford’s eyes, through the thick lenses of the younger man’s round glasses.

“Okay,” said Milford.

“Put it in just one time for me, Wilford. Will you do that?”

“Yes, sir, I mean, Wally.”

“You promise now?’

“I promise.”

“Thank you. Now go. Go and fuck well, my lad. Fuck as if your very life depended on it. Or at least try. Now go. Go now.”

Milford was about to say something, but he could think of nothing to say, so he nodded, turned and headed for the door, through the noise of the laughing and shouting people, the thick swirling smoke, the cacophonous wailing and crashing of the jazz combo.

He opened the door and the cold night air assaulted him on thick falling curtains of snow. The headlights of an automobile approached, and then the huge car drove past, almost silently. The world was white and cold, beautiful, and alive. Across the street the neon word Rheingold glowed blurrily red and gold, beneath it in blue the words Extra Dry. Snowflakes plopped on and smeared Milford’s glasses, turning the world into a vague and cold wet living cloud. He removed the glasses, folded them and put them away in his peacoat. Snowflakes flopped against his face, and he breathed deeply, breathing in the icy air, then he shoved his hands in his peacoat pockets, and headed down MacDougal Street. 

It suddenly occurred to Milford that he had left Mr. Stevens’s business card on the bar at the Kettle of Fish, but he decided against going back for it.

(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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