Miss Lonelyhearts, by Nathanael West

Miss Lonelyhearts and Mrs. Shrike

Miss Lonelyhearts lay on his bed fully dressed, just as he had been dumped the night before. His head ached and his thoughts revolved inside the pain like a wheel within a wheel. When he opened his eyes, the room, like a third wheel, revolved around the pain in his head.

From where he lay he could see the alarm clock. It was half past three. When the telephone rang, he crawled out of the sour pile of bed clothes. Shrike wanted to know if he intended to show up at the office. He answered that he was drunk but would try to get there.

He undressed slowly and took a bath. The hot water made his body feel good, but his heart remained a congealed lump of icy fat. After drying himself, he found a little whisky in the medicine chest and drank it. The alcohol warmed only the lining of his stomach.

He shaved, put on a clean shirt and a freshly pressed suit and went out to get something to eat. When he had finished his second cup of scalding coffee, it was too late for him to go to work. But he had nothing to worry about, for Shrike would never fire him. He made too perfect a butt for Shrike’s jokes. Once he had tried to get fired by recommending suicide in his column. All that Shrike had said was: “Remember, please, that your job is to increase the circulation of our paper. Suicide, it is only reasonable to think, must defeat this purpose.”

He paid for his breakfast and left the cafeteria. Some exercise might warm him. He decided to take a brisk walk, but he soon grew tired and when he reached the little park, he slumped down on a bench opposite the Mexican War obelisk.

The stone shaft cast a long, rigid shadow on the walk in front of him. He sat staring at it without knowing why until he noticed that it was lengthening in rapid jerks, not as shadows usually lengthen. He grew frightened and looked up quickly at the monument. It seemed red and swollen in the dying sun, as though it were about to spout a load of granite seed.

He hurried away. When he had regained the street, he started to laugh. Although he had tried hot water, whisky, coffee, exercise, he had completely forgotten sex. What he really needed was a woman. He laughed again, remembering that at college all his friends had believed intercourse capable of steadying the nerves, relaxing the muscles and clearing the blood.

But he knew only two women who would tolerate him. He had spoiled his chances with Betty, so it would have to be Mary Shrike.

When he kissed Shrike’s wife, he felt less like a joke. She returned his kisses because she hated Shrike. But even there Shrike had beaten him. No matter how hard he begged her to give Shrike horns, she refused to sleep with him.

Although Mary always grunted and upset her eyes, she would not associate what she felt with the sexual act. When he forced this association, she became very angry. He had been convinced that her grunts were genuine by the change that took place in her when he kissed her heavily. Then her body gave off an odour that enriched the synthetic flower scent she used behind her ears and in the hollows of her neck. No similar change ever took place in his own body, however. Like a dead man, only friction could make him warm or violence make him mobile.

He decided to get a few drinks and then call Mary from Delehanty’s. It was quite early and the speakeasy was empty. The bartender served him and went back to his newspaper.

On the mirror, behind the bar hung a poster advertising a mineral water. It showed a naked girl made modest by the mist that rose from the spring at her feet. The artist had taken a great deal of care in drawing her breasts and their nipples stuck out like tiny red hats.

He tried to excite himself into eagerness by thinking of the play Mary made with her breasts. She used them as the coquettes of long ago had used their fans. One of her tricks was to wear a medal low down on her chest. Whenever he asked to see it, instead of drawing it out she leaned over for him to look. Although he had often asked to see the medal, he had not yet found out what it represented.

But the excitement refused to come. If anything, he felt colder than before he had started to think of women. It was not his line. Nevertheless, he persisted in it, out of desperation, and went to the telephone to call Mary.

“Is that you?” she asked, then added before he could reply, “I must see you at once. I’ve quarreled with him. This time I’m through.”

She always talked in headlines and her excitement forced him to be casual. “O.K.,” he said. “When? Where?”

“Anywhere, I’m through with that skunk, I tell you, I’m through.”

She had quarreled with Shrike before and he knew that in return for an ordinary number of kisses, he would have to listen to an extraordinary amount of complaining.

“Do you want to meet me here, in Delehanty’s?” he asked.

“No, you come here. We’ll be alone and anyway I have to bathe and get dressed.”

When he arrived at her place, he would probably find Shrike there with her on his lap. They would both be glad to see him and all three of them would go to the movies where Mary would hold his hand under the seat.

He went back to the bar for another drink, then bought a quart of Scotch and took a cab. Shrike opened the door. Although he had expected to see him, he was embarrassed and tried to cover his confusion by making believe that he was extremely drunk.

“Come in, come in, homebreaker,” Shrike said with a laugh. “The Mrs. will be out in a few minutes. She’s in the tub.”

Shrike took the bottle he was carrying and pulled its cork. Then he got some charged water and made two highballs.

“Well,” Shrike said, lifting his drink, “so you’re going in for this kind of stuff, eh? Whisky and the boss’s wife.”

Miss Lonelyhearts always found it impossible to reply to him. The answers he wanted to make were too general and began too far back in the history of their relationship.

“You’re doing field work, I take it,” Shrike said. “Well, don’t put this whisky on your expense account. However, we like to see a young man with his heart in his work. You’ve been going around with yours in your mouth.”

Miss Lonelyhearts made a desperate attempt to kid back. “And you,” he said, “you’re an old meanie who beats his wife,”

Shrike laughed, but too long and too loudly, then broke off with an elaborate sigh. “Ah, my lad,” he said, “you’re wrong. It’s Mary who does the beating.”

He took a long pull at his highball and sighed again, still more elaborately. “My good friend, I want to have a heart-to-heart talk with you. I adore heart-to-heart talks and nowadays there are so few people with whom one can really talk. Everybody is so hard-boiled. I want to make a clean breast of matters, a nice clean breast. It’s better to make a clean breast of matters than to let them fester in the depths of one’s soul.”

While talking, he kept his face alive with little nods and winks that were evidently supposed to inspire confidence and to prove him a very simple fellow.

“My good friend, your accusation hurts me to ‘the quick. You spiritual lovers think that you alone suffer. But you are mistaken. Although my love is of the flesh flashy, I too suffer. It’s suffering that drives me into the arms of the Miss Farkises of this world. Yes, I suffer.”

Here the dead pan broke and pain actually crept into his voice. “She’s selfish. She’s a damned selfish bitch. She was a virgin when I married her and has been fighting ever since to remain one. Sleeping with her is like sleeping with a knife in one’s groin.”

It was Miss Lonelyhearts’ turn to laugh. He put his face close to Shrike’s and laughed as hard as he could.

Shrike tried to ignore him by finishing as though the whole thing were a joke.

“She claims that I raped her. Can you imagine Willie Shrike, wee Willie Shrike, raping any one? I’m like you, one of those grateful lovers.”

Mary came into the room in her bathrobe. She leaned over Miss Lonelyhearts and said: “Don’t talk to that pig. Come with me and bring the whisky.”

As he followed her into the bedroom, he heard Shrike slam the front door. She went into a large closet to dress. He sat on the bed.

“What did that swine say to your

“He said you were selfish, Mary — sexually selfish.”

“Of all the god-damned nerve. Do you know why he lets me go out with other men? To save money. He knows that I let them neck me and when I get home all hot and bothered, why he climbs into my bed and begs for it. The cheap bastard!”

She came out of the closet wearing a black lace slip and began to fix her hair in front of the dressing table. Miss Lonelyhearts bent down to kiss the back of her neck.

“Now, now,” she said, acting kittenish, “you’ll muss me.”

He took a drink from the whisky bottle, then made her a highball. When he brought it to her, she gave him a kiss, a little peck of reward.

“Where’ll we eat?” she asked. “Let’s go where we can dance. I want to be gay.”

They took a cab to a place called El Gaucho. When they entered, the orchestra was playing a Cuban rhumba. A waiter dressed as a South–American cowboy led them to a table. Mary immediately went Spanish and her movements became languorous and full of abandon.

But the romantic atmosphere only heightened his feeling of icy fatness. He tried to fight it by telling himself that it was childish. What had happened to his great understanding heart? Guitars, bright shawls, exotic foods, outlandish costumes — all these things were part of the business of dreams. He had learned not to laugh at the advertisements offering to teach writing, cartooning, engineering, to add inches to the biceps and to develop the bust. He should therefore realize that the people who came to El Gaucho were the same as those who wanted to write and live the life of an artist, wanted to be an engineer and wear leather puttees, wanted to develop a grip that would impress the boss, wanted to cushion Raoul’s head on their swollen breasts. They were the same people as those who wrote to Miss Lonelyhearts for help.

But his irritation was too profound for him to soothe it in this way. For the time being, dreams left him cold, no matter how humble they were.

“I like this place,” Mary said. “It’s a little fakey, I know, but it’s gay and I so want to be gay.”

She thanked him by offering herself in a series of formal, impersonal gestures. She was wearing a tight, shiny dress that was like glass-covered steel and there was something cleanly mechanical in her pantomime.

“Why do you want to be gay?”

“Every one wants to be gay — unless they’re sick.”

Was he sick? In a great cold wave, the readers of his column crashed over the music, over the bright shawls and picturesque waiters, over her shining body. To save himself, he asked to see the medal. Like a little girl helping an old man to cross the street, she leaned over for him to look into the neck of her dress. But before he had a chance to see anything, a waiter came up to the table.

“The way to be gay is to make other people gay,” Miss Lonelyhearts said. “Sleep with me and I’ll be one gay dog.”

The defeat in his voice made it easy for her to ignore his request and her mind sagged with his. “I’ve had a tough time,” she said. “From the beginning, I’ve had a tough time. When I was a child, I saw my mother die. She had cancer of the breast and the pain was terrible. She died leaning over a table.”

“Sleep with me,” he said.

“No, let’s dance.”

“I don’t want to. Tell me about your mother.”

“She died leaning over a table. The pain was so terrible that she climbed out of bed to die.”

Mary leaned over to show how her mother had died and he made another attempt to see the medal. He saw that there was a runner on it, but was unable to read the inscription.

“My father was very cruel to her,” she continued. “He was a portrait painter, a man of genius, but . . . ”

He stopped listening and tried to bring his great understanding heart into action again. Parents are also part of the business of dreams. My. father was a Russian prince, my father was a Piute Indian chief, my father was an Australian sheep baron, my father lost all his money in Wall Street, my father was a portrait painter. People like Mary were unable to do without such tales. They told them because they wanted to talk about something besides clothing or business or the movies, because they wanted to talk about something poetic.

When she had finished her story, he said, “You poor kid,” and leaned over for another look at the medal. She bent to help him and pulled out the neck of her dress with her fingers. This time he was able to read the inscription: “Awarded by the Boston Latin School for first place in the 100 yd. dash.”

It was a small victory, yet it greatly increased his fatigue and he was glad when she suggested leaving. In the cab, he again begged her to sleep with him. She refused. He kneaded her body like a sculptor grown angry with his clay, but there was too much method in his caresses and they both remained cold.

At the door of her apartment, she turned for a kiss and pressed against him. A spark flared up in his groin. He refused to let go and tried to work this spark into a flame. She pushed his mouth away from a long wet kiss.

“Listen to me,” she said. “We can’t stop talking. We must talk. Willie probably heard the elevator and is listening behind the door. You don’t know him. If he doesn’t hear us talk, he’ll know you’re kissing me and open the door. It’s an old trick of his.”

He held her close and tried desperately to keep the spark alive.

“Don’t kiss my lips,” she begged. “I must talk.”

He kissed her throat, then opened her dress and kissed her breasts. She was afraid to resist or to stop talking.

“My mother died of cancer of the breast,” she said in a brave voice, like a little girl reciting at a party. “She died leaning over a table. My father was a portrait painter. He led a very gay life. He mistreated my mother. She had cancer of the breast. She . . . ” He tore at her clothes and she began to mumble and repeat herself. Her dress fell to her feet and he tore away her underwear until she was naked under her fur coat. He tried to drag her to the floor.

“Please, please,” she begged, “he’ll come out and find us.”

He stopped her mouth with a long kiss.

“Let me go, honey,” she pleaded, “maybe he’s not home. If he isn’t, I’ll let you in.”

He released her. She opened the door and tiptoed in, carrying her rolled up clothes under her coat. He heard her switch on the light in the foyer and knew that Shrike had not been behind the door. Then he heard footsteps and limped behind a projection of the elevator shaft. The door opened and Shrike looked into the corridor. He had on only the top of his pajamas.


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