Thursday, September 28, 2023

"The Question"

Milford swallowed the last remaining mouthful of spaghetti and meatball and suddenly realized that he was oozing sweat from every pore, and simultaneously realized that he was still wearing his peacoat and his woolen newsboy’s cap.

He stood up, almost knocking his chair over.

“Where are you going?” said Polly, sopping up the remaining spaghetti sauce on her plate with a piece of bread.

“Nowhere, it’s just that I’ve suddenly gotten very hot.”

He fumbled with the top button of his peacoat. Why were his fingers like fat Italian sausages?

“Do you need some assistance with that?” said Polly.

“No, I think I’ve got it. I think. Oh, damn. Pardon my language.”

“Oh, you’re just like my father,” said Polly. “Unable to admit that you’re unable to do anything.”

“I don’t know why it’s so hard to unbutton these.”

“Perhaps you are intoxicated, old boy.”

She was speaking in an upper-crust English accent again, or was it rather the accent that Hyacinth Wilde used in her popular comedies and dramas, despite her being born in Kansas?

Milford paused in his attempted unbuttoning.

“Polly, I have a confession to make.”

“Oh, good! I’ve never heard a chap confess before!”

“I, uh, smoked marijuana with T.S. Eliot just now, outside.”

“Oh my goodness! So that explains your lack of dexterity!”

“Yes, that and the fact that I have just drunk a couple of glasses of wine.”

“The French and Italians drink loads of wine and they can still unbutton their coats.”

“Yes, but do they smoke marijuana and then drink wine?”

“Oh you poor boy, let me help you.”

Polly dropped her napkin on the table, got up, came around, and turning Milford to face her, she began to unbutton his peacoat. She was still wearing her own coat (to Milford’s mind of a tasteful and chic design, ivory colored with red piping) although it was open, revealing a gentle grey dress with a high white collar. She gave off a pleasant odor of perfume, somehow reaching his olfactory sense through the surrounding miasma of smoke and beer and whiskey and wine.

“Now turn around,” she said.

Obediently he turned around, his legs bumping into his chair, and she deftly lifted his coat by its shoulders and slipped it off of his torso.

“My goodness, this thing weighs a ton!” she said.

“Yes, it’s meant to be worn by sailors on the high seas.”

She draped the peacoat over the back of his chair.

“Okay, you can sit down now,” she said.

Milford sat, and Polly pushed the chair in under him, like a head waiter in one of the nice restaurants that Milford’s mother forced him to accompany her to, despite or because of his protestations that he preferred automats and workingmen’s diners.

“Thank you,” he said.

“Sitting comfortably now?”

“Yes, I’m all right now, Polly,” said Milford, although he wasn’t.

She came around and stood by his side, and she patted his shoulder in a maternal way, not that his own mother had ever done any such thing.

“Would you like to remove your cap, Milford?”

“Oh, yes, I suppose I should.”

Before he could do so she had lifted the cap from his head and placed it on the table. For just a moment Milford felt as if his entire inner being – call it his soul, his spirit, his consciousness, the essence of him – was rising up out of the sweaty gauzy skin stretched over his cranium and through the matting of his sweat-soaked hair to escape into the thick smoky atmosphere of the bar, leaving his body a senseless and immobile life-sized mannequin sitting at this table, but by a desperate and panicked effort of will he sucked his spirit back down into his skull, and when finally the last iota of it was within him he heaved a great sigh.

“Are you really quite all right, Milford?”

She patted the top of his wet head, which was good. Tamp it down, he thought, tamp it back into me where it belongs, if it belongs anywhere…

“Ommm,” was all he was able to say.

“I say, Milford, do you feel faint?”

Milford breathed deeply, in, then out, and then he looked up at her.

“I think I’m better now,” were the words that came out of his mouth.

“You must have been dreadfully overheated!”

“Yes,” said Milford, as if that explained everything, but let it go, let it go.

“Feel better now?” she said. “Not so hot?”

“Yes,” said Milford. “Thank you, Polly. For your concern.”

She put the back of her fingers to his forehead. Her fingers were cool.

“You feel almost feverish,” she said.

“It will pass, I think,” he said, just as my life will pass, he thought, but did not say.

She let her fingers drift down the side of his face, and for a moment Milford felt he might indeed swoon, and crumble and tumble off the chair to the litter of sawdust and cigarette butts on the floor. He put the palms of both his hands on the edge of the table and held on.

Polly went back to her side of the table and resumed her seat.

For the first time Milford now became aware that Polly was herself wearing a hat, a small thing like a hard-shell clam on the top of her head that matched her dress. It was adorned with a small stone of red, shaped like a drop of blood. Why was he so unobservant? This was yet another reason why he would never be a good poet!

“Do you know what I think?” she said.

Milford had no idea what she thought. He didn’t even know what he thought. He could still feel the touch of her fingers on his forehead and cheek.

“Um, uh,” he said.

“You might think me terribly decadent,” she said.

Was she going to propose that they pay the bill and leave at once, and go to her place and make intense, perhaps savage love?

“Ommm?” he said.

“I think,” said Polly, “we should order cheesecake, with cherry sauce!”

“Oh,” said Milford. “Yes, that would be good.”

The waiter came over, a middle-aged Italian man. He picked up the empty spaghetti bowls, and Milford wondered what his life was like, picking up people’s empty bowls and plates.

“Youse wanta sumpin else?”

Milford thought, Yes, I want to be someone else, I want to be someone capable of enjoying life, but he said nothing, and so Polly ordered two slices of cheesecake with cherry sauce.

“Oh!” she said. “And an expresso! Would you like an expresso, Milford? It will perk you right up!”

“Yes, please,” his voice said.

The waiter went away, and Milford remembered that he had never gotten cigarettes. But what would happen if he tried to go to the cigarette machine again? He might never get back alive…

“Oh! Look what I have,” said Polly, and she opened her purse, a leather purse of a twilight color, another thing about her he had not noticed before. She took out a folded-up rectangular sheaf of papers. “It’s your poem!”

“Oh,” he said. He had forgotten the poem. It seemed like a century ago that he had written it, and yet it had only been this afternoon. “That old thing.”

“Shall I read it now?” said Polly.

“No,” said Milford.

“Why not?”

“Because it is rubbish,” he said.

“Oh my!” she said. “That’s a harsh assessment!”

“But it’s true,” he said.

“But, and pardon me for asking, if you think the poem is rubbish, why did you give it to me to read?”

“Because,” said Milford, “I was a different person then.”

“But it was only an hour or two ago.”

“Yes. But I was young then, and saw myself and the world through a filter of egotism. But now the filter has been dissolved, and I see myself and the world clearly.”

“Oh dear. And what do you see?”

Milford was unable to answer that question, and after a pause, a pause filled with the laughter and shouting of drunken people and of loud music from the jukebox, he answered Polly’s question by saying he could not answer the question.

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

Thursday, September 21, 2023

“The Great Leap”

“Pleased to meet you by the way, Mr. Slick,” said Mr. Eliot. “Put ‘er there, pal.”

The two thin men shook hands.

“Just make it ‘Slick’, daddy,” said Detroit Slick. “And what’s your moniker?”

“Eliot’s the name, T.S. Eliot, perhaps you’ve heard of me.”

“Heard of you? Why, buddy, I wrote a term paper when I was at Michigan on Murder in the Cathedral!”

“Oh, that old thing –”

“No, my man, it’s a banger, and I don’t care what nobody says!”

“Ah, you are too kind, Slick.”

“Still, I gotta say,” said Detroit Slick, “The Waste Land? That poem is the bomb, man. First time I read that I says to myself, fucking hell, I don’t know what this poem is about, but I dig it!”

“Why, thank you, buddy,” said Mr. Eliot.

Milford was standing there, or, rather, floating there, gently rising and falling between a height of approximately two feet  and eighteen inches above the snow-covered pavement of the entrance area, and he still held in his fingers the inch that was left of the reefer.

Mr. Eliot and Detroit Slick were saying words on the white puffs of breath that escaped from their mouths, the puffs that turned pink in the neon light of the San Remo Café sign and then disappeared, and now Detroit Slick held his lighter up to Milford, clicking a blue and orange flame from it, and Milford realized he was expected to put the stub of the reefer in his lips, and he did so, and as the fire ignited the weed and he breathed in the sacred smoke he suddenly remembered Polly Powell sitting in there in the San Remo, at the little table, waiting for him to return with cigarettes.

By force of new habit he drew upon the truncated reefer deeply, once, twice, three times, and held the smoke in as his consciousness now floated out and away from the entrance area, into that heavily falling snow which somehow fell all around him but not onto him and he was one with all and all was one with him.

“The hollow men,” said Detroit Slick, “J. Alfred Prufrock, the goddam four quartets,” and other words followed, drifting away into the snow falling in the neon light.

I am free at last, thought Milford, free of my pathetic corporeal host, and now I will exist beyond time and place, floating through the falling snowflakes through the universe as the universe flows through me, but then Mr. Eliot was taking the stub of a reefer from his hand and Milford felt his feet in their sturdy work shoes standing on the surface of the earth again, in the glowing pinkish snow drifted into the entrance area of the San Remo.

“I have to go inside now,” his voice said, echoing through the obscure back alleys of his brain, “Now, now, now…”

“Yeah, I’m starting to get cold,” said Mr. Eliot, sticking the the butt of reefer into the side pocket of his tweed suit coat.

“You got any more muggles?” said Detroit Slick.

“No,” said Mr. Eliot, “but I think I know where we can get some.”

“I could go for a nickel bag,” said Detroit Slick.

“Bag that nickel bag shit, my chums will hook us up.”

“Swell, daddy-o,” said Detroit Slick.

“Come on back inside with us, buddy.”

“I was gonna hit another bar,” said Detroit Slick, “but sure. I am like a leaf, man, tumbling down the dark city streets, from gutter to gutter. Where the wind blows me, I go, and if it don’t blow me, that’s where I stay, just digging everything.”

“Spoken like a true poet, my man,” said Mr. Eliot, and he went to the door and opened it, waving to Detroit Slick to go on in, which he did, and Mr. Eliot turned to Milford.

“You coming, Melvoin?”

“Ommm,” said Milford.

“Is that a yes?”


A slender bony hand reached out and grabbed Milford’s arm, and he found his corporeal host, with him in it, pulled through the doorway.

The music, the smoke, the noise, the shouting and laughing people, the rich smells of burning tobacco and of whiskey and beer and wine, the warmth of human bodies, and Mr. Eliot and Detroit Slick forging away through the crowd. To the right at the bar sat the lovely Bubbles, with Addison leaning in close to her, his lips moving, like an actor in a silent movie. And turning to the left Milford saw Polly Powell sitting at the little table, facing toward the rear, and he sighed and made his way to her. On the table were two bowls of spaghetti and meatballs, a carafe of something red, two water glasses with something red in them.

“Hello,” he said.

“Milford!” said Polly, looking up, slurping strands of spaghetti into her lips. 

At last someone who knew his name.

“Sit down,” she said. “I do hope you don’t mind, but I started without you because I was so absolutely starving.”

Milford floated down into his seat.

“Did you get the cigarettes?” said Polly.

“Oh no,” said Milford.

“You didn’t?” said Polly.

“I forgot. You see, I ran into T.S. Eliot.”

“The poet?”


“That’s that old man I saw you with?”


“You’re friends with T.S. Eliot?”

“Well –”

“That’s so exciting! I don’t know anybody famous, although sometimes I see famous people come into the automat. Do you know the actress Hyacinth Wilde?”

“Um, well, I’ve seen her –”

“Did you see her in the The Speckled Honeybee?”

“Yes, my mother took me to that one –”

“What about The Travails of Harold and Sylvia?”

“Yes, my mother took me to a matinée of that one.”

“I think my favorite was The Songbird Does Not Sing, did you see that one?”

“Yes, my mother takes me to all the shows.”

“She’s so beautiful.”

“My mother?”

“No, Hyacinth Wilde. She comes into the automat all the time. She always gets the lemon meringue.”

”Uh –”

“Eat your spaghetti, Milford!”

“Oh, yes, of course,” and Milford soon found himself shoveling spaghetti and meatballs into his mouth. He had never in his life before been so hungry. Polly was shoveling, too, breaking pieces of bread from a wicker basket and dabbing it into the sauce, and at intervals picking up her glass and drinking the red liquid in it. And all the while she was talking about plays she had seen, about how Hyacinth Wilde was even more beautiful in person than on stage, and as he ate Milford suddenly remembered he was an alcoholic when he realized he had just drunk a small tumblerful of red wine.

Oh well.

Tonight was the first night of the rest of his life, and even though he felt quite deranged at the moment, tomorrow he could resume his sobriety, start counting the days once again. He would go to a meeting first thing, he would confess his slip…

Polly refilled his glass.

“Oh, no,” he said. “No more for me.”

“But you’ve only had one glass!” cried Polly. “Listen, Milford, may I ask you a personal question?”


“Have you ever had sexual intercourse?”

Fortunately Milford’s mouth was full of spaghetti and meatballs, and so he had an excuse not to say anything straight away. He chewed, thoroughly, more thoroughly than necessary if truth be told, and then at last swallowed the mouthful, with his pride, and said: 


“I knew it!” said Polly. “And guess what? Neither have I!”

“Um, uh,” said Milford.

“What do you say?” said Polly. “I mean, if I’m not being terribly forward, but, do you know, I consider myself a modern woman, unconstrained by outmoded social mores.”

“Oh, uh,” Milford gripped his fork and his spaghetti-twirling soup spoon tightly, as if they were weapons he might need quite soon.

“So, how about it, Milford, shall we? Shall we take a great Kierkegaardian leap into the vast unknown together?”

She seemed quite sincere. Milford picked up his wine glass and drank half its contents, forgetting again for the moment his alcoholism.

“Um,” he said.

“It’s okay if you say no,” said Polly.

“No,” said Milford, after gulping and swallowing nothing, “I mean, yes. Yes I mean. I mean yes. Yes.”

“Oh, good,” said Polly.

She resumed eating her spaghetti and meatballs, and, after a moment, so did Milford.

{Kindly go here to read the unexpurgated "adult comix" version in A Flophouse Is Not a Home, illustrated by the illustrious rhoda penmarq...}

Thursday, September 14, 2023

“M.F.K. Montaine”

They stood together outside the door of the café, protected from the falling snow by the overhang of the entranceway. 

Mr. Eliot reached into a side pocket of his suit and brought out a thick hand-rolled cigarette.

“Here ya go, in your parlance, ‘daddy-o’. You like the wacky backy?”

“Well, I only smoked it once.”


“Yes, I confess I found it somehow – exhilarating. But –”


“You see, it was with a young lady, and I think that perhaps she had a lot to do with the feeling approaching ecstasy I felt.”

“The feeling approaching ecstasy you felt.”

“Uh, yeah.”

“Only approaching?”

“Mr. Eliot, approaching ecstasy means a lot when you’ve never before in your life been within a million miles of it.”

“Good point, but, please, call me Tom.”

“Tom,” said Milford.

Mr. Eliot had a slim silvery cigarette lighter in his hand, and he lighted up the weed, inhaling deeply several times, and holding in the smoke for a full minute, after which he exhaled, breathing an enormous cloud of marijuana smoke in Milford’s face.

“Wow,” he said. “Good shit. Take a hit, Melvoin.”

He proffered the “reefer”.

“I really shouldn’t,” said Milford.

“Why the fuck not?”

“I am an alcoholic. I should avoid any mind-or-mood altering substances.”

“Bullshit. I’ll bet you drink coffee, don’t you?”


“And I’ll bet you smoke cigarettes like there’s no tomorrow.”

“Yes,” admitted Milford.

“Then take a hit, for Christ’s sake. Jesus Christ, kid. How often do you think you get a chance to burn a J with the world’s foremost living poet?”

“Well –”

“Dig it, Melvoin, I’m thinking about you, in your old age, suffused with regrets and bitterness. Is that what you want to be? One of my hollow men, bemoaning his wasted dull and miserable boring life?”


“Then take a fucking toke.”

Milford took the “J”, put it in his lips, and Mr. Eliot fired him up with the slim handsome lighter.

Milford inhaled deeply, and then again, and again, and, following Mr. Eliot’s example, he held the smoke in for a full minute, then finally exhaled, and with the smoke all the tedium of his existence seemed to flow from his mouth and into the cold night air and the living curtain of snow falling upon the intersection of Bleecker and MacDougal, upon Greenwich Village and all its living and dead and those who were dead but still walked or stumbled about almost as if they were alive.

“Wow,” said Milford.

“Good, huh?” said Mr. Eliot.

“Yes,” said Milford.

“I’ll bet you feel like you could write a pretty darned good epic poem right about now.”

“I do, actually, but I’ll probably wait until the morning.”

“Sure,” said Mr. Eliot. “Now slide me that dooby, wouldja?”

“Oh, sorry,” said Milford.

They repeated the smoking ritual, once, twice, and then three times, barely saying a word, and any words that were said were not important, and quickly forgotten except by the Lord Almighty, looking down from the heavens and shaking his head at his bizarre handiwork.

“You do still got that pen I gave you by the way, right?” said Mr. Eliot.

“The pen?” said Milford’s voice, from somewhere deep in the lost echoing corridors of his being.

“Yes, the pen I gave you, that I wrote The Waste Land and all my other masterpieces with. You still got it?”

“Oh, the pen, yes,” said Milford. And after no more than a minute he found it in the inside breast pocket of his peacoat, and showed it to Mr. Eliot. It shone magically, gleaming black and gold in the neon glow of the San Remo Café sign and the snow-filtered light of the corner streetlamp. “See?” said Milford. “I didn’t lose it.”

“Good,” said Mr. Eliot. “May you write as many chefs-d'œuvre with it as I did. You know what A.E. Housman told me one time when I was about your age?”


“He told me, ‘Tommy,’ he says – he always called me ‘Tommy’, or ‘Tommy Boy’ – ‘Tommy Boy,’ he says, ‘you wanta make it big in the poetry game I got only one piece of advice for you, and that is to find a comfortable pen.’ And so he gave me a pen.”

“Was it this pen?”

“Fuck no. It was a worn-out old quill pen, but I didn’t really like using it, on accounta you had to keep dipping it into the ink jar all the time. Which is why I bought that Montblanc there, much better pen to write with you ask me.”

“It seems like a very good pen, sir.”

“’Tom.’ I have to tell you again I’m gonna take that pen back off you.”

“Sorry, I meant to say Tom.”

“I still got the quill pen Housman gave me. Maybe now that I’m old and all written out I’ll drag it out and try to write something with it.”

“You can have this one back if you think you need it.”

“Thanks, but I don’t want to be an Indian giver. And besides, it don’t really matter what pen you use. All the pens in the world are not going to give you the one sine qua non of being a great poet.”

“Which is?”



Milford for the millionth time in his life felt a falling-away feeling, deep in his soul, as if anything that could possibly matter or give meaning to his life was slipping off into oblivion. He put the pen back in his peacoat pocket.

“You think you got that sine qua non, kid?”

Milford sighed.

“I very much doubt it, sir. I mean Tom.”

Mr. Eliot was lighting himself up again, while Milford’s words faded away into the snow-swirling night. The old poet drew upon the reefer deeply, once, twice, thrice, and again held the smoke in a for full minute before releasing it in a great cloud that dissolved like the hopes and dreams of youth into the snowy night air.

“Y’know who gave that quill pen to A.E. Housman?” said Mr. Eliot, passing the reefer to Milford.

“Walt Whitman?”

“No. Robert Browning.”

Mr. Eliot gave Milford a light with his lighter, the silver gleaming lighter with its blue and gold flame.

Milford inhaled deeply, three times, and when after a minute he exhaled he said, “Who gave the pen to Robert Browning?”

“You’re not going to believe this,” said Mr. Eliot.

“Yes, I will,” said Milford, because he knew he would believe anything at this point.

“William Wordsworth.”

“William Wordsworth?” said Milford.

“Himself,” said Mr. Eliot. “And so, you see, my son, that the poetic torch is passed down through the generations, Wordsworth to Browning to Housman to Eliot to Melvoin.”

“To who?”

“To you – Melvoin.”

“Oh, it’s Milford, actually.”

“Is that what you told me before?”


“You’re sure?”

“Yes. Why would I tell you a name other than my own?”

“I don’t know. Perhaps you wished to remain incognito.”

“Well, anyway, my name is Milford, and before you ask, my first name is Marion, but I hate that name, and so I prefer just to be called Milford.”

“Your name is Marion?”

Milford sighed.


“You poor misbegotten son of a bitch. No wonder you appear so downtrodden and ill-favored. Marion? What were your parents thinking?”

“I don’t think they gave it too much thought at all, to be honest.”

“And yet to cripple a lad emotionally and psychologically for life, when they just could have called you Jack, or Mike, or Spike, or Buck, or –”

“Okay, I get it, Tom. I’ve been living with this curse my whole life, so, believe me, I get it.”

“You need to change your name, Marion.”

“I don’t know –”

“No, you must. Look, go ahead and be Marion Milvoin in your private life if you want to –”

“I don’t want to –”

“Whatever, but for your poetry you need a new name.”

“Like a pen name?”

“Exactly. Here’s a good one: M.F.K. Montaine.”

“M.F.K. Montaine?”

“Yeah, got a ring to it, doncha think?”

“What’s the M.F.K. stand for?”

“Who gives a shit? All’s that matters is that it’s a cool-sounding name. That’s what you young guys say, isn’t it, ‘cool’?”

“Well, I don’t, but I’ve heard other people say it.”

“Look, it’s only a suggestion. Pick whatever name you fucking like, just as long as it’s not Marion whoever.”


“Why do you think I chose T.S. Eliot over Thomas Stearns Eliot?”

“Because it sounded cooler?”

“Yeah, precisely. Of course if I was coming up nowadays I might’ve gone with Tom Eliot, maybe even Tommy Boy Eliot.”

“What about if I call myself Buck Baxter?” said Milford.

“Don’t push it, Marion.”

“Too much?”

“Look in a mirror, kid. I don’t think you’ll see a Buck Baxter there.”

“What about Mike Molloy?”


A guy came out of the bar and stopped there, looking at them.

“How about Chuck Calhoun?” said Milford.

“No,” said Mr. Eliot.

“Mike Ryan?”


“What are you cats talking about?” said the new guy, who looked vaguely familiar to Milford.

“We’re trying to come up with a new nom de plume for my young buddy here,” said Mr. Eliot, "on accounta his name is Marion Melvoin.”

“Yeah, that name’s no good,” said the guy, a slender man with a thin moustache, a snap-brim hat, and a worn brown leather workman’s jacket. “I had to change my name when I became a poet.”

“What was your name?” said Mr. Eliot.

“Marvin S. Fogelberg.”

“I don’t blame you for changing it. So what did you change it to?”

“This guy knows,” said the guy, pointing to Milford, and suddenly Milford remembered where he knew the guy from, accosted by him outside the men’s room of the San Remo not an hour ago.

“Detroit Slick,” said Milford.

“That’s my name,” said Detroit Slick. “Don’t wear it out. Say, could I have a hit of what I think is that muggles you’re holding?”

Milford glanced at Mr. Eliot, who said, “Sure, give old Detroit Slick a hit, Melvoin.”

Milford handed the reefer to the fellow.

“Thanks, buddy,” said Detroit Slick, and he took a lighter out of his jacket pocket. “By the way, I thought your moniker was Bradford.”

“No,” said Milford.

“It’s Murvoin,” said Mr. Eliot.

Milford sighed. What did it matter what anyone called him? Soon enough, an infinitesimal blink in the beginningless and endless history of the universe, he would be dead, and forgotten.

Detroit Slick lighted up the reefer and drew deeply, once, twice, three times, and Milford and Mr. Eliot watched as the man held the smoke in for a full minute and then at last exhaled a huge fragrant cumulonimbus cloud of smoke into the cold nighttime air.

“Good shit,” he said.

Milford felt as if he were floating a foot above the pavement. He must be careful not to bump his head against the low ceiling of the entrance area. What if he floated away, into the falling snow and up into the enormous nighttime sky? Would he ever be able to come back down again?

Detroit Slick was holding what was left of the reefer out to Milford.

“Thanks, Murvoin,” he said.

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

Thursday, September 7, 2023

“Insistent Old Poets”

“Hey, yo! Magwitch!”

Someone grabbed Milford’s arm. It was T.S. Eliot, and even amidst the thick swirling effluvia of the bar, he reeked of gin.

“Oh, hello, Mr. Eliot.”

“Tom! I thought I told you to call me Tom, man!”

“Sorry. ‘Tom’.”

Mr. Eliot gripped Milford’s arm tightly, as if he wanted him not to escape before some important business was taken care of, and he stepped closer.

“Where the hell you going, kid?”

“I’m, uh, just going to the cigarette machine to buy some, uh –”

“What happened with Stevens?”

“Wallace Stevens?”

“Who else? What happened? Did you kick his ass or what?”

“Um, not exactly –”

“Look, don’t fuck with me, Magwitch. I saw you go outside with the big goon. Did you do what I said? Give him the old one-two combo in the breadbasket?”

“No –”

“But you took care of him.”

“Well, I don’t know if I ‘took care of him”, but –”

“Look, all I want to know, is he gonna come back in here and try to make trouble for me?”

“I, uh, don’t think so.”

“I’m too old for the bar-brawling, Magwitch. I don’t got time for that shit no more.”

Milford noticed that Mr. Eliot’s English accent had completely disappeared and been replaced by a demotic American one, perhaps that of his Gay Nineties boyhood on the mean streets of St. Louis.

“Well, anyway, Tom,” said Milford, “I don’t think you have to worry about him.”

“Wait, just what do you mean by that, exactly?”

“I mean, I think you can just relax –”

“How bad did you fuck him up? For Christ’s sake, you didn’t kill him, did you?”

“No, not at all, sir.”

“Tom. Or Tommy. Or Tommy Boy.”

“I didn’t kill him, Tom.”

“But still you fucked him up pretty bad, huh?”

“Look, it really wasn’t like that, uh, Tom. To be honest, he took a swing at me, stumbled and lost his footing, and slammed his face into that entrance column outside.”

“So he went down for the count, huh? Good. Great. But, hey, jeeze, he ain’t still lying out there in that blizzard, is he?”

“No, he was unconscious briefly, but then he woke up and insisted that we go somewhere and have a drink together, because he didn’t want to come back in here with a big bruise on his face.”

“So you went and had a drink with him?”

“Well, I had a ginger ale.”

“Whatever. Where’d you go?”

“The Kettle of Fish, right up the block on MacDougal.”

“So he’s still there?”

“I suppose so. He seemed pretty comfortable on his barstool when I left.”

“I owe you, man. Seriously.”

“I didn’t really do anything, Mr. Eliot.”

“Tom. Or Tommy.”

“I didn’t do anything, Tommy.”

“Don’t be modest, Magwitch. You put down the big man of American poesy. And the only other guy was ever able to do that was Hemingway.”

“Well, as I say, I didn’t –”

“You got balls, my boy. Big ones. And I am gonna publish your fucking début book of poems.”

“Well, thank you, Tommy.”

“When can you get me the manuscript?”

“I don’t have one.”

“What the hell are you talking about? You’re a poet, ain’t you? You tellin’ me you ain’t got a couple-three dresser drawers filled with your shit?”

“I do, but that’s what it all is: shit. I realize now I have never written a decent line of poetry in my life.”

“Wow. Those are some pretty strong words, Magwitch.”

“My name is Milford, actually.”

“Isn’t that what I said?”

“No, you called me Magwitch, like the escaped convict in Great Expectations.”

“So it’s Milburg?”


“Say it again. It’s so fucking noisy in this joint with this ragtime jazz music on the jukebox and all these drunkards yelling and laughing.”

“Milford,” said Milford.


“Milford!” shouted Milford.


“Yeah, sure,” said Milford, sighing. “Mimford.”

“Anyway, I want to see your book of poems, Mimford. A spot of editorial work, perhaps a trim here and there, a spelling correction or two, we’ll have it out with our spring releases.”

“Tommy, I just told you that everything I have written thus far is no good. It’s all shit.”

“I’ll be the judge of that.”

“No, it really is bad, and I’ve only just realized it tonight.”

“Maybe you’re wrong.”

“I’m not wrong. It’s all shit.”

“Well, I still want to publish you. How long will it take you to write some good stuff?”

“I don’t know. Maybe never.”

“Bullcrap. I see that fire in your eyes, burning through the half-inch thick lenses of your glasses. Here’s what I want you to do. Get up early tomorrow, perc a big pot of strong black coffee, break open a fresh pack of smokes, and write something good.”


“Something epic. Would you like that?”

“I confess I would.”

“A great epic American poem.”

“That’s something I would actually –”

“I’m talking maybe a hundred fifty pages, maybe two hundred. Or more!”

“Okay –”

“You want a tip?”


“Don’t overthink it. Just sit down and start writing. You still got that pen I gave you, the Montblanc?”


“Use that. Just start writing. Keep at it, and when you get a good chunk finished – fifty, a hundred pages, get it to me straight away.”

“Well, if you say so –”

“I do say so. You did me a solid by knocking down that gorilla Stevens, and now I’m gonna do you a solid.”

“Okay, thanks.”

“I’m stopping at the Hotel St Crispian, you know where that is?”

“Yes, I do.”

“Good, bring me something tomorrow. Meet me in the Prince Hal Room, say one o’clock.”

“One o’clock?”

“No, better make it two o’clock. We’ll have a nice brunch, a Bloody Mary or two, and we’ll look through your manuscript.”


“Why not? You got something better to do? Bring me some pages. Twenty, thirty, whatever.”

“I’m not sure I can write that much in one morning.”

“Look, I knocked out the first draft of The Waste Land in one day, high as a kite on cocaine and Tanqueray, so don’t give me that shit. Just do it.”


“My man. Now bring it in, buddy.”


“Give me a hug, daddy-o.”

“I don’t hug, Tommy.”

“Come on, Mimford. Nobody’s gonna think you’re gay. We’re all poets and artists in this joint. Now give me a big bear hug.”

Mr. Eliot pulled Milford close to him, and hugged him to his skeletal old body reeking of gin, tobacco, tweed and pomade. Milford had not been hugged since he was thirteen when his Aunt Adela had had too much eggnog one snowy Christmas Eve.

At last, after what seemed like a half hour, while the jukebox music played and the drunken people laughed and shouted, while the tobacco smoke swirled, Mr. Eliot drew away, although he kept his hands on Milford’s boyish upper arms.

“That settles it then, Mimford,” he said. “You and me, buddies for life. You want to go outside and blow a doobie now?”

“A what?”

“A reefer. My boys back at the table hooked me up. Come on. We’ll get a little crazy, just you and me.”

“Mr. Eliot –”

“Tommy – don’t make me tell you again, tough guy.”

“Tommy, I’m sitting at a table with a young lady, and I was really just on my way to the cigarette machine, and I’m sure she’s wondering what’s taking me so long.”

“Oh, I get it. A young lady.”


“You might not believe me, but I was young once, too, y’know.”

“Uh –”

“Is she good-looking? Where is she?”

“She’s over there.” 

Milford pointed through the throng to where Polly sat at the small table by the wall. She was just lifting a glass of something red to her lips.

“Oh, okay,” said Mr. Eliot. “She’s all right, I guess. You like that type? Small, mousy, probably likes to read George Eliot?”

“I, uh –”

“Look, don’t get me wrong, she’s fine.”

“Well, I, um –”

“Once the lights are out they’re all pretty much the same anyway.”

“Yes, well, anyway, Tommy, I really should just buy some cigarettes and get back to her –”

“Fuck that noise. Women like to wait. Come on, let’s go outside and burn this muggles, man. Five minutes.”

Mr. Eliot let go of Milford’s right arm, but he pulled on his left arm, with surprising strength leading him through the crowd and toward the entrance of the bar.

Is this my fate? wondered Milford. To be dragged in and out of bars by insistent old poets? But was this not preferable to not being dragged anywhere by anyone? 

He caught Polly’s eye, and she waved, smiling, apparently seeing nothing strange or out of the ordinary, but maybe that was just because she was drunk, that blessed timeless state Milford remembered all too well, when everything seemed just as it should be, if only for the moment…

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