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 Eliot’s English accent had completely disappeared and been replaced by a demotic American one, perhaps that of his Gay Nineties boyhood on the mean streets of St. Louis.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

No comments: