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…}

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