Thursday, January 25, 2024

“A Man Called Slacks”

 “Ain’t seen you in here before, son,” said a voice.

Was it the voice in his head again? Why must it torment him so?

“Go away!” yelped Milford.

“What?” said the voice, and suddenly Milford realized that the voice came not from within him but from without, specifically from his left, and he turned and saw a very thin man sitting on a barstool in a worn-out black frock coat and a crushed stovepipe hat.

“Oh, I’m very sorry,” said Milford. “I thought yours was a voice in my head.”

“I see,” said the man. His face was pale and unshaven and his eyes were hollow. “So may I take it that you suffer from lunacy?”

“Perhaps, but, you see I foolishly ate some mushrooms not long ago, and so now I am hearing voices.”

“Ah, mushrooms! Well, then, unbodied voices are to expected! Tell me, if it’s not too personal, have you had visual as well as auditory hallucinations?”

“Yes, when I first came in here a few minutes ago it seemed to me that all the people in here were made of vegetative matter.”

“I cured him of that,” butted in Shorty, from Milford’s right. “Got him to close his eyes and stare deeply into the abyss of existence and non-existence for a minute, and then when he opened his eyes again, he was all good, wasn’t you, Bumstead?”

“Well, I wouldn’t say I was ‘all’ good,” said Milford.

“But better,” said Shorty.

“Okay, yes, I was better,” said Milford.

“My name is Caesar Augustus McQuaid,” said the thin man, and he proffered a thin long hand to be shaken. “Put ‘er there, Bumstead.”

Milford looked at the hand. He didn’t want to shake it. It looked like one of the hands of his great-uncle Woolford Milford as he lay in his white velvet cushioned coffin, another victim of the bibulousness that ran rampant through both sides of his family. The nine-year-old Milford had reached in and curiously pressed a finger on the flesh of the white thin bony hand of his dead great uncle and it had felt cold and yet slightly spongey, and that night he experienced nightmares which had recurred regularly ever since.

“Take the man’s hand,” said Shorty. “Don’t be a asshole, Grumley.”

“Oh, sorry,” said Milford, and he took the man’s hand, and the hand squeezed his, hard. “Ow,” said Milford.

“Very pleased to meet you,” said the man, continuing to squeeze Milford’s hand in his, in what the authors of the mysteries Milford’s mother read (and which Milford himself sometimes surreptitiously read, in attempts to forget his life, albeit briefly) would call a vise-like grip.

“Ow,” said Milford again.

“Can you feel the supernal strength of my hand?” said the man.

“Ow, yes, ow,” said Milford.

“Not bad for a skinny guy, huh?”

“No, not bad, now will you let my own hand go? Ow.”

“Call me Slacks. My friends call me Slacks.”

“Okay, Slacks, now let my hand go, please, you’re hurting me.”

“Pain is good. It reminds you that you exist, even if you’re not alive in any profound sense.”

“I don’t care, now let go of my hand.”

“Say please. Don’t be rude.”

“Please let go of my hand.”

“Please let go of my hand, Slacks.”


“You have to say, ‘Please let go of my hand, Slacks.’”

“Okay, please let go of my hand, Slacks.”

“Because my friends call me Slacks, and I’d like to think we could be friends.”

“Please let go of my hand, Slacks, Jesus Christ!”

At last the man released Milford’s hand, and Milford raised his own now-paralyzed hand and stared at it, trying to will its fingers to move.

“You say your name is Rumpstead?”

“No,” said Milford, blowing on his hand, feeling the blood slowly return to its veins. “My name is Milford, actually, not that I expect you to remember it.”

“Of course I’ll remember it, Milbourne.”

“His name ain’t Milbourne, Slacks,” Shorty butted in again. “It’s Milbert.”

“Sorry,” said Slacks. “Milfort it is then. You’re probably wondering how I acquired such strength in my grip.”

“Not really,” said Milford, patting his pockets in search of cigarettes.

“What I do is I squeeze tennis a tennis ball for an hour each day. You should try it.”


“So that you can have a manly grip like mine.”

“Millstone don’t care about shit like that,” said Shorty. “He’s a poet.”

“Ah, I thought so,” said the man called Slacks. “As soon as I saw that peacoat and that newsboy’s cap, not to mention the hearty ribbed fisherman’s sweater, the dungarees, and, yes, the workman’s brogans, I said to myself, here is a poet!”

Milford found the cigarettes in his inside peacoat pocket and brought them out.

“Might I have one of those Husky Boys.”

Milford offered him the pack and the man fingered out a  cigarette.

“I’ll take one of them Husky Boys too if you can spare it, Milvern,” said Shorty.

Milford turned and offered the pack to Shorty, and Shorty’s stubby fingers pulled one out.

Milford finally took out a cigarette for himself. Maybe it would help, it certainly wouldn’t hurt. At least not yet. He was still young after all, and cancer and emphysema might be years away in the future.

“Got a light?” said Slacks.

Milford put away the pack of Husky Boys, and with only minor difficulties he found his lighter, brought it out, and after six or seven clicks he got it to produce a flame, and he ignited the cigarette in the thin lips of Slacks and the one in the more protuberant lips of Shorty, and at last the one in his own relatively normal-sized lips.

“Ah,” said Slacks, “tobacco, ale, good fellowship. For what more can one ask? Tell me about your poetry, Quilford.”

“Pardon me?”

Milford had been occupied with putting his lighter safely away in right-hand pocket of his dungarees.

“Your poetry." said the thin man. "I’m guessing you are a lyric poet.”

“I am a bad poet.”

“Ha ha. You jest.”

“No, I’m quite serious.”

“False modesty will get you nowhere, Pequod.”

“My name is Milford, and my modesty is not false. I have never written a decent line of poetry in my life.”

“Okay, fine, be like that. But I look at you, Rillford, and behind those milk-bottle glasses of yours I see the eyes of a great poet.”

“I’m afraid your own eyes deceive you,” said Milford.

“Spoken like a true poet. Finish that glass of ale and I shall buy you another.”

“I’ll take one too, Slacks,” said Shorty, “long as you’re buying.”

Milford picked up his stubby glass, put it to his lips, and poured its remaining contents into his mouth. Swallowing, he thought of the AA meeting he would go to tomorrow, if he were still alive tomorrow. What a tale he would tell to those boring fools in the basement of Old Saint Pat’s!

He laid the empty glass on the bar. He must get out of here.

“Good lad,” said the man called Slacks, and he quickly lifted the stubby glass in front of him and sucked the inch of yellow liquid in it into his own mouth. “I say, Joe!” he called to the fat bartender, putting his emptied glass on the bar top and shoving it forward. “Three more of the same over here!”

“Wait,” said Milford. “I don’t want one.”

“Why the fuck not?”

“Because I am an alcoholic, for one thing, because I am bored for another, because I am tired of no one remembering my name even one second after I’ve told them my name, which is Milford, not Rillford, or Milthorne, or Millstone, or Milfort, or Milbert, or Milbourne –”

“Jeeze,” said Slacks.

“Yeah, jeeze,” said Shorty, “lighten up, Milborg, we’re all trying just to have a civilized good time here.”

“Also,” said Milford, “I fear that if I stay here at this bar any longer I will lose my mind.”

“You got to face those kinds of fears,” said Slacks.

“Yeah, Slacks is right, Millstone,” said Shorty. “You don’t get nowhere by running away from your fears. You got to meet ‘em head on.”

“Crush them,” said Slacks.

“’Cause no matter where you go, you ain’t gonna escape yourself,” said Shorty.

“Nor yourselves, if’n you be one of them what they call schizos,” said Slacks.

“Three ales,” said the fat bartender, laying down three more of the stubby glasses. “Who’s buying.”

“That’s all right,” said Slacks, to Milford. “I insist.”

“What?” said Milford.

“You don’t have to buy this round.”

“I didn’t offer to.”

“I really insist.”

“I’m waiting,” said the bartender. “I ain’t got all night and I got other customers.”

“Just hold on a second here, Joe,” said Slacks. “Really, Quilboyne, you needn’t get this round. You can have the next shout.”

“Fifteen cent,” said the bartender.

“Take it out of there, Joe,” said Shorty, tapping the pile of bills and change in front of Milford.

The bartender picked up a dime and a nickel and went away.

“Wow, thanks, Quillman,” said Slacks. “You didn’t have to do that.”

“I didn’t do anything,” said Milford. “And you know what? I’m leaving.”

“You can’t leave. You have a full glass of ale there.”

“You can have it.”

“I’ll take it,” said Shorty.

“How about if we share it,” said Slacks.

“Okay,” said Shorty. “That’s fair. But I get the first half, ‘cause I brung Milburton in here, and also so’s I don’t got to drink your backwash, no offense.”

“How do I get out of here?” said Milford.

“That’s a very good question,” said Slacks.

“Please answer it.”

“It depends on what you mean by out of here.”

“I just want to get out of this barroom.”

“Don’t we all?”

“Oh, Christ,” said Milford.

“You can go out the way we come in,” said Shorty, “through that door back there and back through that long dark corridor and back into the Pointers room and out the door there.”

“Oh, God,” said Milford. “Isn’t there a quicker way out?”

“Sure, just go down beyond the end of the bar there to the right and you’ll see a door that’s got a electric EXIT sign over it. Just go through that door.”

“Oh, thank God.”

“Don’t leave, Milliburton,” said Slacks, in a half-hearted sounding voice.

“He’s got a hot date with Lou Alcott,” said Shorty.

“That bitch?” said Slacks. “Ain’t she a dyke?”

“Apparently not,” said Shorty. “Or at least not a hunnert percent. Anyways, you know what these young bucks are like. They just want to get they ends wet and it don’t matter to them if a frail is a dyke or not.”

“Yeah,” said Slacks. “I remember them wild days of young manhood. Vaguely, but I remember. And I got my share. Maybe more than my share.”

“How many, Slacks?” said Shorty.

“Oh, I’d say at least a baker’s dozen, maybe nigh on to nineteen or twenty if you’re counting the stray dark alley gobbler or Baltimore handshake.”

“God love ya,” said Shorty.

“How many you reckon you’ve had, Shorty?” asked Slacks, politely.

“Seven hunnert and twenty-two, and that ain’t counting stray gobblers and Baltimore handshakes.”

“Holy shit.”

“What can I say, Slacks. Chicks dig me.”

“I should say so!”

“They think I’m cute. I just burrow on in there like a little puppy dog and they love it.”

“I’m sure they do, Shorty, I warrant they do. How many you had, Burgoyne?”

“What?” said Milford.

“How many babes you shared the act of darkness with?”

“I’m leaving now,” said Milford.

“So the answer is none?”

“Goodbye,” said Milford.

“Well, all I can do is wish you good luck, Quillman, and if I know Miss Louisa May Alcott, you’re going to need it.”

“Milford,” said Milford.

“Say what?”

“My name is Milford.”

“I know it is. Put ‘er there, Gilford,” said Slacks, and he offered his long thin hand again. Milford ignored it. He turned to Shorty.

“Thank you for talking me back from the abyss,” he said.

“Don’t mention it, Guilfoyle,” said Shorty. “And I hope you achieve la petite mort with Missy Lou.”

The tiny man offered his tiny pink hand hand, pink and hairless, the only kind of hand he had, and Milford hesitated for just a moment in revulsion, but then took it, gave it a brief shake, pulled his own hand away and turned and moved away from the bar, into the churning mass of shouting and laughing people. He realized as he did so that he was leaving nine dollars and change on the bar, but this was a small price to pay to get out of here, if he got out of here.

Above and through the noise of the barroom a man was still singing, to the accompaniment of a jangling banjo:
Well I went to the river
but I couldn’t get across
singing polly wolly doodle
all the day…

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

No comments: