Miss Lonelyhearts, by Nathanael West

Miss Lonelyhearts and the Clean Old Man

In the street again, Miss Lonelyhearts wondered what to do next. He was too excited to eat and afraid to go home. He felt as though his heart were a bomb, a complicated bomb that would result in a simple explosion, wrecking the world without rocking it.

He decided to go to Delehanty’s for a drink. In the speakeasy, he discovered a group of his friends at the bar. They greeted him and went on talking. One of them was complaining about the number of female writers.

“And they’ve all got three names,” he said. “Mary Roberts Wilcox, Ella Wheeler Catheter, Ford Mary Rinehart . . . ”

Then some one started a train of stories by suggesting that what they all needed was a good rape.

“I knew a gal who was regular until she fell in with a group and went literary. She began writing for the little magazines about how much Beauty hurt her and ditched the boy friend who set up pins in a bowling alley. The guys on the block got sore and took her into the lots one night. About eight of them. They ganged her proper . . . ”

“That’s like the one they tell about another female writer. When this hard-boiled stuff first came in, she dropped the trick English accent and went in for scram and lam. She got to hanging around with a lot of mugs in a speak, gathering material for a novel. Well, the mugs didn’t know they were picturesque and thought she was regular until the barkeep put them wise. They got her into the back room to teach her a new word and put the boots to her. They didn’t let her out for three days. On the last day they sold tickets to niggers . . . ”

Miss Lonelyhearts stopped listening. His friends would go on telling these stories until they were too drunk to talk. They were aware of their childishness, but did not know how else to revenge themselves. At college, and perhaps for a year afterwards, they had believed in literature, had believed in Beauty and in personal expression as an absolute end. When they lost this belief, they lost everything. Money and fame meant nothing to them. They were not worldly men.

Miss Lonelyhearts drank steadily. He was smiling an innocent, amused smile, the smile of an anarchist sitting in the movies with a bomb in his pocket. If the people around him only knew what was in his pocket. In a little while he would leave to kill the President.

Not until he heard his own name mentioned did he stop smiling and again begin to listen.

“He’s a leper licker. Shrike says he wants to lick lepers. Barkeep, a leper for the gent.”

“If you haven’t got a leper, give him a Hungarian.”

“Well, that’s the trouble with his approach to God. It’s too damn literary — plain song, Latin poetry, medieval painting, Huysmans, stained-glass windows and crap like that.”

“Even if he were to have a genuine religious experience, it would be personal and so meaningless, except to a psychologist.”

“The trouble with him, the trouble with all of us, is that we have no outer life, only an inner one, and that by necessity.”

“He’s an escapist. He wants to cultivate his interior garden. But you can’t escape, and where is he going to find a market for the fruits of his personality? The Farm Board is a failure.”

“What I say is, after all one has to earn a living. We can’t all believe in Christ, and what does the farmer care about art? He takes his shoes off to get the warm feel of the rich earth between his toes. You can’t take your shoes off in church.”

Miss Lonelyhearts had again begun to smile. Like Shrike, the man they imitated, they were machines for making jokes. A button machine makes buttons, no matter what the power used, foot, steam or electricity. They, no matter what the motivating force, death, love or God, made jokes.

“Was their nonsense the only barrier?” he asked himself. “Had he been thwarted by such a low hurdle?”

The whisky was good and he felt warm and sure. Through the light-blue tobacco smoke, the mahogany bar shone like wet gold. The glasses and bottles, their high lights exploding, rang like a battery of little bells when the bartender touched them together. He forgot that his heart was a bomb to remember an incident of his childhood. One winter evening, he had been waiting with his little sister for their father to come home from church. She was eight years old then, and he was twelve. Made sad by the pause between playing and eating, he had gone to the piano and had begun a piece by Mozart. It was the first time he had ever voluntarily gone to the piano. His sister left her picture book to dance to his music. She had never danced before. She danced gravely and carefully, a simple dance yet formal . . . As Miss Lonelyhearts stood at the bar, swaying slightly to the remembered music, he thought of children dancing. Square replacing oblong and being replaced by circle. Every child, everywhere; in the whole world there was not one child who was not gravely, sweetly dancing.

He stepped away from the bar and accidentally collided with a man holding a glass of beer. When he turned to beg the man’s pardon, he received a punch in the mouth. Later he found himself at a table in the back room, playing with a loose tooth. He wondered why his hat did not fit and discovered a lump on the back of his head. He must have fallen. The hurdle was higher than he had thought.

His anger swung in large drunken circles. What in Christ’s name was this Christ business? And children gravely dancing? He would ask Shrike to be transferred to the sports department.

Ned Gates came in to see how he was getting along and suggested the fresh air: Gates was also very drunk. When they left the speakeasy together, they found that it was snowing.

Miss Lonelyhearts’ anger grew cold and sodden like the snow. He and his companion staggered along with their heads down, turning corners at random, until they found themselves in front of the little park. A light was burning in the comfort station and they went in to warm up.

An old man was sitting on one of the toilets. The door of his booth was propped open and he was sitting on the turned-down toilet cover.

Gates hailed him. “Well, well, smug as a bug in a rug, eh?”

The old man jumped with fright, but finally managed to speak. “What do you want? Please let me alone.” His voice was like a flute; it did not vibrate.

“If you can’t get a woman, get a clean old man,” Gates sang.

The old man looked as if he were going to cry, but suddenly laughed instead. A terrible cough started under his laugh, and catching at the bottom of his lungs, it ripped into his throat. He turned away to wipe his mouth.

Miss Lonelyhearts tried to get Gates to leave, but he refused to go without the old man. They both grabbed him and pulled him out of the stall and through the door of the comfort station. He went soft in their arms and started to giggle. Miss Lonelyhearts fought off a desire to hit him.

The snow had stopped falling and it had grown very cold. The old man did not have an overcoat, but said that he found the cold exhilarating. He carried a cane and wore gloves because, as he said, he detested red hands.

Instead of going back to Delehanty’s they went to an Italian cellar close by the park. The old man tried to get them to drink coffee, but they told him to mind his own business and drank rye. The whisky burned Miss Lonely-hearts’ cut lip.

Gates was annoyed by the old man’s elaborate manners. “Listen, you,” he said, “cut out the gentlemanly stuff and tell us the story of your life.”

The old man drew himself up like a little girl making a muscle.

“Aw, come off,” Gates said. “We’re scientists. He’s Havelock Ellis and I’m Krafft–Ebing. When did you first discover homosexualistic tendencies in yourself?”

“What do you mean, sir? I . . . ”

“Yeh, I know, but how about your difference from other men?”

“How dare you . . . ” He gave a little scream of indignation.

“Now, now,” Miss Lonelyhearts said, “he didn’t mean to insult you. Scientists have terribly bad manners . . . But you are a pervert, aren’t you?”

The old man raised his cane to strike him. Gates grabbed it from behind and wrenched it out of his hand. He began to cough violently and held his black satin tie to his mouth. Still coughing he dragged himself to a chair in the back of the room.

Miss Lonelyhearts felt as he had felt years before, when he had accidentally stepped on a small frog. Its spilled guts had filled him with pity, but when its suffering had become real to his senses, his pity had turned to rage and he had beaten it frantically until it was dead.

“I’ll get the bastard’s life story,” he shouted, and started after him. Gates followed laughing.

At their approach, the old man jumped to his feet. Miss Lonelyhearts caught him and forced him back into his chair.

“We’re psychologists,” he said. “We want to help you. What’s your name?”

“George B. Simpson.”

“What does the B stand for?”

“Bramhall.”

“Your age, please, and the nature of your quest?”

“By what right do you ask?”

“Science gives me the right.”

“Let’s drop it,” Gates said. “The old fag is going to cry.”

“No, Krafft–Ebing, sentiment must never be permitted to interfere with the probings of science.”

Miss Lonelyhearts put his arm around the old man. “Tell us the story of your life,” he said, loading his voice with sympathy.

“I have no story.”

“You must have. Every one has a life story.”

The old man began to sob.

“Yes, I know, your tale is a sad one. Tell it, damn you, tell it.”

When the old man still remained silent, he took his arm and twisted it. Gates tried to tear him away, but he refused to let go. He was twisting the arm of all the sick and miserable, broken and betrayed, inarticulate and impotent. He was twisting the arm of Desperate, Brokenhearted, Sick-of-it-all, Disillusioned-with-tubercular-husband.

The old man began to scream. Somebody hit Miss Lonelyhearts from behind with a chair.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 12:30