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…}

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