Thursday, February 22, 2024

"The Finest Young Novelist of His Generation"

It was midnight in the bar called the Kettle of Fish, and the place was filled with smoke and the damned and the lost and the never to be found. 

A small jazz combo played against the back wall, and a knot of people shouted, "Go, man, go!" 

Outside on MacDougal street the snow still fell as it had been falling without surcease all day, covering the Village in pillowy and dreamlike whiteness and silence, but here inside everyone was drunk, not just the customers but also the musicians and waiters and bartenders, but especially the customers.

At the bar the famous poet Wallace Stevens stared into his Manhattan, and just to his right sat our friends Addison and Bubbles.  

"D'ya know, Bubbles," said Addison, in the 'thoughtful'

tone of voice he reserved for his deepest pronouncements, "do you want to know what my most intense desire in life is?"

"To get drunk every day?"

"Well, that, yes – I suppose it goes without saying – but, putting that noble desire aside, do you know what my real ambition is, I mean at bottom and in fine and ultimately?"

"To put people to sleep? You ought to market yourself, Haberman," said Bubbles. "You could be the new Seconal. Make people pay the big bucks to let you put them to sleep."

"Ha ha, no, but what I should most like in life is to be generally considered – and not just by the best critics, but by hoi polloi –"

"Hoy who?'

"It's Greek for, well, 'the many', that is to say the great churning mass of men."

"And dames too?"

"Yes, dames as well, of course. Where was I?"

"I'm sure I have no idea."

"Oh, I know, I was about to say that what I really and truly want more than anything is to be recognized not just by the literary and academic establishment, but by the common man –"

"And dame."

"Yes, by the common man and dame – recognized as the finest young novelist of my generation."


"I ask you, is that too extravagant of a wish?"

"You don't look that young to me, Dennison."

"Oh, very well, let's say the finest youngish novelist of his generation."

"Depends on what you mean by youngish."

"Let's say finest young novelist under the age of forty."

"I could believe you're forty, even forty-two, maybe."

"Well, I'm not actually, in fact I am only –"

"Hey," said Bubbles, and she put her finger with its red-painted nail against Addison's lips. "I'm fucking with you, boss."

She swiped the finger downward and off of his stubbled chin (shaved only every other day or so, in aid of the thrifty conservation of razor blades).

"Oh. Ha ha," said Addison. "This is why I adore you, Bubbles. Such a devilish sense of humor."

"And you're a boring windbag, Hackerman."

"Yes, so I've been told before, many times, more times than I could possibly count."

"And yet you keep it up, spewing nonsense like a fountain in the park spews water, nonstop, at least until some park ranger guy turns it off after midnight."

"What a splendidly striking and, yes, apt image!"

"See, there you go. "

"Yes, there I went."

"You just don't care, do you?"

"Y'know, Bubbles, I don't think I ever thought about it before, but, yes, hang it all, I suppose I really don't care. I mean, you know, damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead, you may fire when ready, Gridley, because, nuts, and, surrender, hell, I have not yet begun to fight. That sort of thing."

"Finish that bourbon and coke."

Obediently Addison picked up his glass and drank the last of it.

"Ah, delicious. Shall we have another round?"

"No. Take me home now."

"Oh, yes, of course."

"I know my limit, and I passed it over an hour ago."

"I wish I could say the same."

"That you've passed your limit?"

"That I could ever know my limit. You see, for me my limit has always only ever been reached when I run out of money."

"You kill me, Patcherson."

"I hope in a pleasant way."

"Let's go."

"Of course."

"But listen."


"Don't get your hopes up."

"My hopes are hopelessly up, always, dear Bubbles."

Bubbles climbed down from her stool without falling. 

Addison looked at his money on the bar top, scooped up the bills, but left the coins for the bartender. No matter how impoverished he might be, it was his policy always to leave at minimum a modest token of good will wherever he drank.

He got off his stool, and he swayed briefly but did not fall.

"I must be crazy," said Bubbles. "Even to spend time with an idiot like you."

"Yes, in a sense, I think you must be," said Addison.

At this moment they both turned and gazed across the room at the plate glass window looking out on the lamplit snow still falling thickly outside, and they experienced roughly the same second thoughts, which were that Bubbles lived only a couple of blocks away, but it was snowing, the snow was a foot deep or more on the sidewalks, and they would probably not find a cab, and in here it was warm and dry and cozy, and from deep in the memories of Addison's boyhood reading rose up those poignant last words of Captain Oates during the ill-fated Scott expedition to the South Pole: "I am just going outside and may be some time…" 

"Hey, buddy," said the big older man who had been sitting to the other side of Addison, and he put his hand on Addison's arm.

"Yes, sir," said Addison. 

The man looked familiar, but like whom?

"You take care of this lady," said the big man.

"Um," said Addison.

"She's too good for you."

"I know," said Addison.

"See here, chum, if it's not too presumptuous of me, and if you don't mind staying, I should consider it an honor to buy you both a drink."

"Oh," said Addison, who had never refused a drink in his life, and he wasn't about to start now. He turned to Bubbles. "Darling, this kind gentleman would like to buy us a drink."

Bubbles paused for a moment. 

The combo crashed and wailed, and someone yelled, "Go, daddy, go!" 

Voices laughed and shouted. 

"What the hell," said Bubbles. "I got the rest of my life to sleep."

She climbed back up on her stool.

"I'll take a Hennessy, pops," she said. "VSOP."

"Splendid," said the big man. 

Was it Wallace Stevens? thought Addison. He didn't think much of the man's poetry, but, boy oh boy, what a contact!

He climbed back up on his own stool, beaming with joy.

"What'll it be, pal?" said Wallace Stevens. "You want a Hennessy too?"

It had been at best half a decade since Addison had tasted a brandy other than Christian Brothers or E&J. 

"Why, yes, sir," he said, feeling his sails swell with a fresh full wind, the ship of his self bound boldly now for unknown shores, "I should think a Hennessy would make a delightful nightcap, thank you very much."

{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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