Miss Lonelyhearts, by Nathanael West

Miss Lonelyhearts and the Fat Thumb

Miss Lonelyhearts found himself developing an almost insane sensitiveness to order. Everything had to form a pattern: the shoes under the bed, the ties in the holder, the pencils on the table. When he looked out of a window, he composed the skyline by balancing one building against another. If a bird flew across this arrangement, he closed his eyes angrily until it was gone.

For a little while, he seemed to hold his own but one day he found himself with his back to the wall. On that day all the inanimate things over which he had tried to obtain control took the field against him. When he touched something, it spilled or rolled to the floor. The collar buttons disappeared under the bed, the point of the pencil broke, the handle of the razor fell off, the window shade refused to stay down. He fought back, but with too much violence, and was decisively defeated by the spring of the alarm clock.

He fled to the street, but there chaos was multiple. Broken groups of people hurried past, forming neither stars nor squares. The lamp-posts were badly spaced and the flagging was of different sizes. Nor could he do anything with the harsh clanging sound of street cars and the raw shouts of hucksters. No repeated group of words would fit their rhythm and no scale could give them meaning.

He stood quietly against a wall, trying not to see or hear. Then he remembered Betty. She had often made him feel that when she straightened his tie, she straightened much more. And he had once thought that if her world were larger, were the world, she might order it as finally as the objects on her dressing table.

He gave Betty’s address to a cab driver and told him to hurry. But she lived on the other side of the city and by the time he got there, his panic had turned to irritation.

She came to the door of her apartment in a crisp, white linen dressing-robe that yellowed into brown at the edges. She held out both her hands to him and her arms showed round and smooth like wood that has been turned by the sea.

With the return of self-consciousness, he knew that only violence could make him supple. It was Betty, however, that he criticized. Her world was not the world and could never include the readers of his column. Her sureness was based on the power to limit experience arbitrarily. Moreover, his confusion was significant, while her order was not.

He tried to reply to her greeting and discovered that his tongue had become a fat thumb. To avoid talking, he awkwardly forced a kiss, then found it necessary to apologize.

“Too much lover’s return business, I know, and I . . . ” he stumbled purposely, so that she would take his confusion for honest feeling. But the trick failed and she waited for him to continue:

“Please eat dinner with me.”

“I’m afraid I can’t.”

Her smile opened into a laugh.

She was laughing at him. On the defense, he examined her laugh for “bitterness,” “sour-grapes,” “a-broken-heart,” “the devil-may-care.” But to his confusion, he found nothing at which to laugh back. Her smile had opened naturally, not like an umbrella, and while he watched her laugh folded and became a smile again, a smile that was neither “wry,” “ironical” nor “mysterious.”

As they moved into the living-room, his irritation increased. She sat down on a studio couch with her bare legs under and her back straight. Behind her a silver tree flowered in the lemon wall-paper. He remained standing.

“Betty the Buddha,” he said. “Betty the Buddha. You have the smug smile; all you need is the pot belly.”

His voice was so full of hatred that he himself was surprised. He fidgeted for a while in silence and finally sat down beside her on the couch to take her hand.

More than two months had passed since he had sat with her on this same couch and had asked her to marry him. Then she had accepted him and they had planned their life after marriage, his job and her gingham apron, his slippers beside the fireplace and her ability to cook. He had avoided her since. He did not feel guilty; he was merely annoyed at having been fooled into thinking that such a solution was possible.

He soon grew tired of holding hands and began to fidget again. He remembered that towards the end of his last visit he had put his hand inside her clothes. Unable to think of anything else to do, he now repeated the gesture. She was naked under her robe and he found her breast.

She made no sign to show that she was aware of his hand. He would have welcomed a slap, but even when he caught at her nipple, she remained silent.

“Let me pluck this rose,” he said, giving a sharp tug. “I want to wear it in my buttonhole.”

Betty reached for his brow. “What’s the matter?” she asked. “Are you sick?”

He began to shout at her, accompanying his shouts with gestures that were too appropriate, like those of an old-fashioned actor.

“What a kind bitch you are. As soon as any one acts viciously, you say he’s sick. Wife-torturers, rapers of small children, according to you they’re all sick. No morality, only medicine. Well, I’m not sick. I don’t need any of your damned aspirin. I’ve got a Christ complex. Humanity . . . I’m a humanity lover. All the broken bastards . . . ” He finished with a short laugh that was like a bark.

She had left the couch for a red chair that was swollen with padding and tense with live springs. In the lap of this leather monster, all trace of the serene Buddha disappeared.

But his anger was not appeased. “What’s the matter, sweetheart?” he asked, patting her shoulder threateningly. “Didn’t you like the performance?”

Instead of answering, she raised her arm as though to ward off a blow. She was like a kitten whose soft helplessness makes one ache to hurt it.

“What’s the matter?” he demanded over and over again. “What’s the matter? What’s the matter?”

Her face took on the expression of an inexperienced gambler about to venture all on a last throw. He was turning for his hat, when she spoke.

“I love you.”

“You what?”

The need for repeating flustered her, yet she managed to keep her manner undramatic.

“I love you.”

“And I love you,” he said. “You and your damned smiling through tears.”

“Why don’t you let me alone?” She had begun to cry. “I felt swell before you came, and now I feel lousy. Go away. Please go away.”


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