Miss Lonelyhearts, by Nathanael West

Miss Lonelyhearts and the Cripple

Miss Lonelyhearts dodged Betty because she made him feel ridiculous. He was still trying to cling to his humility, and the farther he got below self-laughter, the easier it was for him to practice it. When Betty telephoned, he refused to answer and after he had twice failed to call her back, she left him alone.

One day, about a week after he had returned from the country, Goldsmith asked him out for a drink. When he accepted, he made himself so humble that Goldsmith was frightened and almost suggested a doctor.

They found Shrike in Delehanty’s and joined him at the bar. Goldsmith tried to whisper something to him about Miss Lonelyhearts’ condition, but he was drunk and refused to listen. He caught only part of what Goldsmith was trying to say.

“I must differ with you, my good Goldsmith,” Shrike said. “Don’t call sick those who have faith. They are the well. It is you who are sick.”

Goldsmith did not reply and Shrike turned to Miss Lonelyhearts. “Come, tell us, brother, how it was that you first came to believe. Was it music in a church, or the death of a loved one, or mayhap, some wise old priest?”

The familiar jokes no longer had any effect on Miss Lonelyhearts. He smiled at Shrike as the saints are supposed to have smiled at those about to martyr them.

“Ah, but how stupid of me,” Shrike continued. “It was the letters, of course. Did I myself not say that the Miss Lonelyhearts are the priests of twentieth-century America?”

Goldsmith laughed, and Shrike, in order to keep him laughing, used an old trick; he appeared to be offended. “Goldsmith, you are the nasty product of this unbelieving age. You cannot believe, you can only laugh. You take everything with a bag of salt and forget that salt is the enemy of fire as well as of ice. Be warned, the salt you use is not Attic salt, it is coarse butcher’s salt. It doesn’t preserve; it kills.”

The bartender who was standing close by, broke in to address Miss Lonelyhearts. “Pardon me, sir, but there’s a gent here named Doyle who wants to meet you. He says you know his wife.”

Before Miss Lonelyhearts could reply, he beckoned to someone standing at the other end of the bar. The signal was answered by a little cripple, who immediately started in their direction. He used a cane and dragged one of his feet behind him in a box-shaped shoe with a four-inch sole. As he hobbled along, he made many waste motions, like those of a partially destroyed insect.

The bartender introduced the cripple as Mr.-Peter Doyle. Doyle was very excited and shook hands twice all around, then with a wave that was meant to be sporting, called for a round of drinks.

Before lifting his glass, Shrike carefully inspected the cripple. When he had finished, he winked at Miss Lonely-hearts and said, “Here’s to humanity.” He patted Doyle on the back. “Mankind, mankind . . . ” he sighed, wagging his head sadly. “What is man that . . . ”

The bartender broke in again on behalf of his friend and tried to change the conversation to familiar ground. “Mr. Doyle inspects meters for the gas company.”

“And an excellent job it must be,” Shrike said. “He should be able to give us the benefit of a different viewpoint. We newspapermen are limited in many ways and I like to hear both sides of a case.”

Doyle had been staring at Miss Lonelyhearts as though searching for something, but he now turned to Shrike and tried to be agreeable. “You know what people say, Mr. Shrike?”

“No, my good man, what is it that people say?”

“Everybody’s got a frigidaire nowadays, and they say that we meter inspectors take the place of the iceman in the stories.” He tried, rather diffidently, to leer.

“What!” Shrike roared at him. “I can see, sir, that you are not the man for us. You can know nothing about humanity; you are humanity. I leave you to Miss Lonely-hearts.” He called to Goldsmith and stalked away.

The cripple was confused and angry. “Your friend is a nut,” he said. Miss Lonelyhearts was still smiling, but the character of his smile had changed. It had become full of sympathy and a little sad.

The new smile was for Doyle and he knew it. He smiled back gratefully.

“Oh, I forgot,” Doyle said, “the wife asked me, if I humped into you, to ask you to our house to eat. That’s why I made Jake introduce us.”

Miss Lonelyhearts was busy with his smile and accepted without thinking of the evening he had spent with Mrs. Doyle. The cripple felt honored and shook hands for a third time. It was evidently his only social gesture. After a few more drinks, when Doyle said that he was tired, Miss Lonelyhearts suggested that they go into the back room. They found a table and sat opposite each other.

The cripple had a very strange face. His eyes failed to balance; his mouth was not under his nose; his forehead was square and bony; and his round chin was like a forehead in miniature. He looked like one of those composite photographs used by screen magazines in guessing contests.

They sat staring at each other until the strain of wordless communication began to excite them both. Doyle made vague, needless adjustments to his clothing. Miss Lonelyhearts found it very difficult to keep his smile steady.

When the cripple finally labored into speech, Miss Lonelyhearts was unable to understand him. He listened hard for a few minutes and realized that Doyle was making no attempt to be understood. He was giving birth to groups of words that lived inside of him as things, a jumble of the retorts he had meant to make when insulted and the private curses against fate that experience had taught him to swallow.

Like a priest, Miss Lonelyhearts turned his face slightly away. He watched the play of the cripple’s hands. At first they conveyed nothing but excitement, then gradually they became pictorial. They lagged behind to illustrate a matter with which he was already finished, or ran ahead to illustrate something he had not yet begun to talk about. As he grew more articulate, his hands stopped trying to aid his speech and began to dart in and out of his clothing. One of them suddenly emerged from a pocket of his coat, dragging some sheets of letter paper. He forced these on Miss Lonelyhearts.

Dear Miss Lonelyhearts —

I am kind of ashamed to write you because a man like me dont take stock in things like that but my wife told me you were a man and not some dopey woman so I thought I would write to you after reading your answer to Disillusioned. I am a cripple 41 yrs of age which I have been all my life and I have never let myself get blue until lately when I have been feeling lousy all the time on account of not getting anywhere and asking myself what is it all for. You have a education so I figured may be you no. What I want to no is why I go around pulling my leg up and down stairs reading meters for the gas company for a stinking $22.50 per while the bosses ride around in swell cars living off the fat of the land. Dont think I am a greasy red. I read where they shoot cripples in Russia because they cant work but I can work better than any park bum and support a wife and child to. But thats not what I am writing you about. What I want to no is what is it all for my pulling my god darned leg along the streets and down in stinking cellars with it all the time hurting fit to burst so that near quitting time I am crazy with pain and when I get home all I hear is money money which aint no home for a man like me. What I want to no is what in hell is the use day after day with a foot like mine when you have to go around pulling and scrambling for a lousy three squares with a toothache in it that comes from useing the foot so much. The doctor told me I ought to rest it for six months but who will pay me when I am resting it. But that aint what I mean either because you might tell me to change my job and where could I get another one I am lucky to have one at all. It aint the job that I am complaining about but what I want to no is what is the whole stinking business for.

Please write me an answer not in the paper because my wife reads your stuff and I dont want her to no I wrote to you because I always said the papers is crap but I figured maybe you no something about it because you have read a lot of books and I never even finished high.

Yours truly,

Peter Doyle

While Miss Lonelyhearts was puzzling out the crabbed writing, Doyle’s damp hand accidentally touched his under the table. He jerked away, but then drove his hand back and forced it to clasp the cripple’s. After finishing the letter, he did not let go, but pressed it firmly with all the love he could manage. At first the cripple covered his embarrassment by disguising the meaning of the clasp with a handshake, but he soon gave in to it and they sat silently, hand in hand.


Last updated Monday, April 18, 2016 at 12:07