Saturday, November 25, 2023

"Husky Boy"

At last Milford came to the cigarette machine. It stood before him, squat and heavy and powerful, the oblong window at its top declaring CIGARETTES in glowing scarlet script on a gold background. Yes, ecstasy awaited and it was long overdue. But what brand should he choose? Needless to say the machine did not carry his usual preference, Woodbines, but no matter, This is the new me, thought Milford, no more English cigarettes that he could only find in better-stocked tobacco shops or at hotel counters catering to the foreigner trade, no, from now on he would smoke good sturdy American cigarettes!

Camels, Lucky Strikes, Pall Malls, Philip Morris, all the usual, but what was this? Husky Boy? He had never heard of the brand, but it looked intriguing in the little brightly lit display panel, with a painting of the smiling face of a chubby lad with a lighted cigarette in his smiling or grimacing lips. Husky Boy! This would be his new smoke of choice!

The little tag above the display picture read 25¢. A cheap price to pay for twenty sacred cylinders of satisfaction!  

Milford dug his hand into the right pocket of his dungarees, and his old Boy Scout wallet was in there, but no coins whatever. He tried his left pocket, but all that was in there was one of the monogrammed handkerchiefs his mother bought for him by the dozen at Brooks, and which came in so handy during his nightly bouts of self-abuse. He remembered the change pocket above his right pocket and stuck his thumb in there, but all he came up with was a ticket stub for a movie: Raise High the Topsail, Lads!, which he had seen at the Thalia last week when he was thinking of chucking it all and signing up for the merchant marine. He tossed the stub away. Who wanted to mop decks all day in some uncomfortable freighter, especially when the one time he had been at sea (a fishing excursion on his Uncle Bert’s Chris-Craft on Long Island Sound) he had gotten violently seasick?

He investigated his dungarees pockets again, and this time he even checked the back pockets. Then he dug his fingers into the pockets of his pea coat, the two exterior ones and the one on the inside: except for lint, and, in the right-hand side pocket, that copy of Leaves of Grass which its soi-disant author had given him, and which he had totally forgotten about, they were all empty. 

Yes, empty, like my life, thought Milford.

There was nothing for it, he would have to ask the bartender for change, and the thought of doing this filled him with a weariness approaching despair. He would have to squeeze into a space at that crowded bar, raise his hand, try to catch the bartender’s attention. The very thought made him want to cry.

And then he did begin to cry, standing there before the impassive machine. Harsh breaths escaped from his lips in gasps, and hot tears emerged from his eyes and rolled down his cheeks. And no one cared. No one cared that he had not a lousy twenty-five cents in change for a pack of Husky Boys!

“Hey, buddy, you gonna buy some cigs or are you just gonna stand there and think about it.”

A woman was standing next to him, dark hair and dark eyes, an old-fashioned dress of blue trimmed in white and red.

“I, I, um, I don’t have a quarter,” sobbed Milford, “and all I want, all I want, it’s just, just a pack of cigarettes, but –”

“Gee, are you crying?” said the woman.

“Yes,” said Milford.

“You’re crying because you don’t have a quarter for a pack of cigarettes?”

Milford snuffled, pulled out his handkerchief and dabbed his face and eyes.

“It’s just, I really just wanted a pack of cigarettes.” He tried to get control of himself. “I have money, but I don’t have any small change –”

“You do realize you can ask the bartender for change, right?”

“Yes, I do realize that,” said Milford, trying not to blubber, “but the very thought of asking him, or trying to ask him, fills me with existential dread.”

“So you’re a sensitive kind of guy.”

“Yes, I suppose so.”

“Let me guess, you’re a poet.”

“Yes.” Milford stuck the sodden handkerchief back in his dungarees. “But I am a bad poet.”

“How did you get in here anyway?”

“Walt Whitman brought me here.”

“Oh, okay, well, that explains a lot. So are you a cabin boy as well as a bad poet?”

“No, just a bad poet. I only dress this way out of affectation.”

“I see. What’s your name?”

“If I tell you my name, will you try to remember it, and not call me something else?”

“Sure. What is it?”

“Milford. Not Mumford, or Redburn, or Mervyn, or Melvin, but Milford.”

“Milford. That’s a funny name.”

“It’s my surname, but I prefer it to my first name.”

“What’s that?”


“I see. Do you have a middle name, or a confirmation name?”

“My middle hame is Crackstone and my confirmation name is Aloysius.”

“Well, I see why you like to go by, what is it, Millstone?”

“It’s Milford. Milford.”



“My name’s Louisa. Louisa May Alcott.”


“Call me Lou.”

“All right.”

“Tell you what I’m gonna do, Milford. It is Milford, right?”

“Yes, and thank you.”

“Thank me for what?”

“For not calling me Melvoin, or Mumphrey, or –”

“Tell you what I’m gonna do, Murphy –”


“Just kidding. Tell you what I’m gonna do, Milford, I’m gonna spot you to a pack of smokes.”

“Oh, no, I couldn’t!”

“Nonsense, what’s a quarter?”

“But it’s, it’s the principle of the thing. You don’t even know me.”

“Listen, I’m going to buy you a pack of cigarettes and that’s the end of it. Or maybe it won’t be the end of it. Maybe someday you’ll do someone a favor.” She paused, apparently taking note of the expression on Milford’s face. “What?”

“I have never done anyone a favor in my life,” said Milford.

“Well, maybe now you will.” She had taken a small embroidered purse from a pocket of her dress, and now she opened it and took out a quarter. She dropped the quarter into the slot in the machine. “What kind of cigarettes do you want?”

“I was thinking of trying the Husky Boys.”

Husky Boys. Okay –”

She pulled the handle under the Husky Boy display, and sure enough a pack of cigarettes plopped down into the rectangular mouth at the bottom, along with a book of paper matches.

“Take them, husky boy,” she said.

Milford bent over and picked up the cigarettes and matches.

“Thank you,” he said.

“Smoke them in good health, Milford.”

“And thank you for remembering my name, Miss –”

“Lou. Call me Lou.”

“Thank you, Lou. I will always remember this act of kindness.”

“And now, if I may –”

She took another quarter from her purse, put the purse back into her pocket, and then inserted the quarter into the coin slot.

She pulled a handle, and a pack of Lucky Strikes fell down into the opening, along with its accompanying book of matches.

She picked up the cigarettes and matches, rapped the pack against the side of her hand.

“Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em, Milford.”

Milford’s tears had stopped by now, and he wondered if this could be the beginnings of love. Sure, she was older, but perhaps an older woman was just what he needed. Someone who could not only show him the ropes, but who would do so in a kindly and patient fashion.

“I wonder,” he said, still sniffling, but only just slightly, “if it is not too forward of me, if you would allow me to buy you a drink, Miss –”

“Lou, just call me Lou.”

“Lou, then, I mean, if you would like a drink, but only if you want one, you see, I myself don’t drink alcohol, because I am an alcoholic, although somehow I did wind up having a few drinks tonight, and I’m not quite sure how it happened, and come to think of it, I also inadvertently smoked marijuana, and hashish, and, oh, I almost forgot, I ate some mushrooms which I now realize are the intoxicating kind that certain Indian tribes eat as part of their religious ceremonies, and maybe all of the above explains why I am babbling quite uncontrollably now, I mean, in addition to the fact that I am incurably neurotic, but.”

“But what?”

“But would you like a drink?”

“Sure, Marvin,” she said, having lighted a Lucky Strike and tossed the match to the floor. “Okay, take it easy, pal, don’t start crying again. Milford, right?”

“Yes,” said Milford, holding back a tidal wave of tears, and emitting a gasp, of relief, and joy.

“Yes,” he said.

{Kindly go here to read the unexpurgated “adult comix” version of this, our very special fourth-annversary episode, in A Flophouse Is Not a Home, profusely illustrated by the illustrious Rhoda Penmarq…}

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