Miss Lonelyhearts, by Nathanael West

Miss Lonelyhearts and the Dead Pan

When Miss Lonelyhearts quit work, he found that the weather had turned warm and that the air smelt as though it had been artificially heated. He decided to walk to Delehanty’s speakeasy for a drink. In order to get there, it was necessary to cross a little park.

He entered the park at the North Gate and swallowed mouthfuls of the heavy shade that curtained its arch. He walked into the shadow of a lamp-post that lay on the path like a spear. It pierced him like a spear.

As far as he could discover, there were no signs of spring. The decay that covered the surface of the mottled ground was not the kind in which life generates. Last year, he remembered, May had failed to quicken these soiled fields. It had taken all the brutality of July to torture a few green spikes through the exhausted dirt.

What the little park needed, even more than he did, was a drink. Neither alcohol nor rain would do. To-morrow, in his column, he would ask Broken-hearted, Sick-of-it-all, Desperate, Disillusioned-with-tubercular-husband and the rest of his correspondents to come here and water the soil with their tears. Flowers would then spring up, flowers that smelled of feet.

“Ah, humanity . . . ” But he was heavy with shadow and the joke went into a dying fall. He tried to break its fall by laughing at himself.

Why laugh at himself, however, when Shrike was waiting at the speakeasy to do a much better job? “Miss Lonelyhearts, my friend, I advise you to give your readers stones. When they ask for bread don’t give them crackers as does the Church, and don’t, like the State, tell them to eat cake. Explain that man cannot live by bread alone and give them stones. Teach them to pray each morning: ‘Give us this day our daily stone.’”

He had given his readers many stones; so many, in fact, that he had only one left — the stone that had formed in his gut.

Suddenly tired, he sat down on a bench. If he could only throw the stone. He searched the sky for a target. But the gray sky looked as if it had been rubbed with a soiled eraser. It held no angels, flaming crosses, olive-bearing doves, wheels within wheels. Only a newspaper struggled in the air like a kite with a broken spine. He got up and started again for the speakeasy.

Delehanty’s was in the cellar of a brownstone house that differed from its more respectable neighbors by having an armored door. He pressed a concealed button and a little round window opened in its center. A blood-shot eye appeared, glowing like a ruby in an antique iron ring.

The bar was only half full. Miss Lonelyhearts looked around apprehensively for Shrike and was relieved at not finding him. However, after a third drink, just as he was settling into the warm mud of alcoholic gloom, Shrike caught his arm.

“Ah, my young friend!” he shouted. “How do I find you? Brooding again, I take it.”

“For Christ’s sake, shut up.”

Shrike ignored the interruption. “You’re morbid, my friend, morbid. Forget the crucifixion, remember the renaissance. There were no brooders then.” He raised his glass, and the whole Borgia family was in his gesture. “I give you the renaissance. What a period! What pageantry! Drunken popes . . . Beautiful courtesans . . . Illegitimate children . . . ”

Although his gestures were elaborate, his face was blank. He practiced a trick used much by moving-picture comedians — the dead pan. No matter how fantastic or excited his speech, he never changed his expression. Under the shining white globe of his brow, his features huddled together in a dead, gray triangle.

“To the renaissance!” he kept shouting. “To the renaissance! To the brown Greek manuscripts and mistresses with the great smooth marbly limbs . . . But that reminds me, I’m expecting one of my admirers — a cow-eyed girl of great intelligence.” He illustrated the word intelligence by carving two enormous breasts in the air with his hands. “She works in a book store, but wait until you see her behind.”

Miss Lonelyhearts made the mistake of showing his annoyance.

“Oh, so you don’t care for women, eh? J. C. is your only sweetheart, eh? Jesus Christ, the King of Kings, the Miss Lonelyhearts of Miss Lonelyhearts . . . ”

At this moment, fortunately for Miss Lonelyhearts, the young woman expected by Shrike came up to the bar. She had long legs, thick ankles, big hands, a powerful body, a slender neck and a childish face made tiny by a man’s haircut.

“Miss Farkis,” Shrike said, making her bow as a ventriloquist does his doll, “Miss Farkis, I want you to meet Miss Lonelyhearts. Show him the same respect you show me. He, too, is a comforter of the poor in spirit and a lover of God.”

She acknowledged the introduction with a masculine handshake.

“Miss Farkis,” Shrike said, “Miss Farkis works in a book store and writes on the side.” He patted her rump.

“What were you talking about so excitedly?” she asked. “Religion.”

“Get me a drink and please continue. I’m very much interested in the new thomistic synthesis.”

This was just the kind of remark for which Shrike was waiting. “St. Thomas!” he shouted. “What do you take us for — stinking intellectuals? We’re not fake Europeans. We were discussing Christ, the Miss Lonelyhearts of Miss Lonelyhearts. America has her own religions. If you need a synthesis, here is the kind of material to use.” He took a clipping from his wallet and slapped it on the bar.

“ADDING MACHINE USED IN RITUAL OF WESTERN SECT . . . Figures Will be Used for Prayers for Condemned Slayer of Aged Recluse . . . DENVER, COLO., Feb. 2 ( A. P.) Frank H. Rice, Supreme Pontiff of the Liberal Church of America has announced he will carry out his plan for a ‘goat and adding machine’ ritual for William Moya, condemned slayer, despite objection to his program by a Cardinal of the sect. Rice declared the goat would be used as part of a ‘sack cloth and ashes’ service shortly before and after Moya’s execution, set for the week of June 20. Prayers for the condemned man’s soul will be offered on an adding machine. Numbers, he explained, constitute the only universal language. Moya killed Joseph Zemp, an aged recluse, in an argument over a small amount of money.”

Miss Farkis laughed and Shrike raised his fist as though to strike her. His actions shocked the bartender, who hurriedly asked them to go into the back room. Miss Lonelyhearts did not want to go along, but Shrike insisted and he was too tired to argue.

They seated themselves at a table inside one of the booths. Shrike again raised his fist, but when Miss Farkis drew back, he changed the gesture to a caress. The trick worked. She gave in to his hand until he became too daring, then pushed him away.

Shrike again began to shout and this time Miss Lonelyhearts understood that he was making a seduction speech.

“I am a great saint,” Shrike cried, “I can walk on my own water. Haven’t you ever heard of Shrike’s Passion in the Luncheonette, or the Agony in the Soda Fountain? Then I compared the wounds in Christ’s body to the mouths of a miraculous purse in which we deposit the small change of our sins. It is indeed an excellent conceit. But now let us consider the holes in our own bodies and into what these congenital wounds open. Under the skin of man is a wondrous jungle where veins like lush tropical growths hang along overripe organs and weed-like entrails writhe in squirming tangles of red and yellow. In this jungle, flitting from rock-gray lungs to golden intestines, from liver to lights and back to liver again, lives a bird called the soul. The Catholic hunts this bird with bread and wine, the Hebrew with a golden ruler, the Protestant on leaden feet with leaden words, the Buddhist with gestures, the Negro with blood. I spit on them all. Phoohl And I call upon you to spit. Phoohl Do you stuff birds? No, my dears, taxidermy is not religion. No! A thousand times no. Better, I say unto you, better a live bird in the jungle of the body than two stuffed birds on the library table.”

His caresses kept pace with the sermon. When he had reached the end, he buried his triangular face like the blade of a hatchet in her neck.


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