Miss Lonelyhearts, by Nathanael West

Miss Lonelyhearts on a Field Trip

It was cold and damp in the city room the next day, and Miss Lonelyhearts sat at his desk with his hands in his pockets and his legs pressed together. A desert, he was thinking, not of sand, but of rust and body dirt, surrounded by a back-yard fence on which are posters describing the events of the day. Mother slays five with ax, slays seven, slays nine . . . Babe slams two, slams three . . . Inside the fence Desperate, Broken-hearted, Disillusioned-with-tubercular-husband and the rest were gravely forming the letters MISS LONELYHEARTS out of white-washed clam shells, as if decorating the lawn of a rural depot.

He failed to notice Goldsmith’s waddling approach until a heavy arm dropped on his neck like the arm of a deadfall. He freed himself with a grunt. His anger amused Goldsmith, who smiled, bunching his fat cheeks like twin rolls of smooth pink toilet paper.

“Well, how’s the drunkard?” Goldsmith asked, imitating Shrike.

Miss Lonelyhearts knew that Goldsmith had written the column for him yesterday, so he hid his annoyance to be grateful.

“No trouble at all,” Goldsmith said. “It was a pleasure to read your mail.” He took a pink envelope out of his pocket and threw it on the desk “From an admirer.” He winked, letting a thick gray lid down slowly and luxuriously over a moist, rolling eye.

Miss Lonelyhearts picked up the letter.

Dear Miss Lonelyhearts —

I am not very good at writing so I wonder if I could have a talk with you. I am only 32 years old but have had a lot of trouble in my life and am unhappily married to a cripple. I need some good advice bad but cant state my case in a letter as I am not good at letters and it would take an expert to state my case. I know your a man and am glad as I dont trust women. You were pointed out to me in Delehantys as a man who does the advice in the paper and the minute I saw you I said you can help me. You had on a blue suit and a gray hat when I came in with my husband who is a cripple. I don’t feel so bad about asking to see you personal because I feel almost like I knew you. So please call me up at Bugess 7–7323 which is my number as I need your advice bad about my married life.

An admirer,

Fay Doyle

He threw the letter into the waste-paper basket with a great show of distaste.

Goldsmith laughed at him. “How now, Dostoievski?” he said. “That’s no way to act. Instead of pulling the Russian by recommending suicide, you ought to get the lady with child and increase the potential circulation of the paper.”

To drive him away, Miss Lonelyhearts made believe that he was busy. He went over to his typewriter and started pounding out his column.

“Life, for most of us, seems a terrible struggle of pain and heartbreak, without hope or joy. Oh, my dear readers, it only seems so. Every man, no matter how poor or humble, can teach himself to use his senses. See the cloud-flecked sky, the foam-decked sea . . . Smell the sweet pine and heady privet . . . Feel of velvet and of satin . . . As the popular song goes, ‘The best things in life are free.’ Life is . . . ”

He could not go on with it and turned again to the imagined desert where Desperate, Broken-hearted and the others were still building his name. They had run out of sea shells and were using faded photographs, soiled fans, time-tables, playing cards, broken toys, imitation jewelry — junk that memory had made precious, far more precious than anything the sea might yield.

He killed his great understanding heart by laughing, then reached into the waste-paper basket for Mrs. Doyle’s letter. Like a pink tent, he set it over the desert. Against the dark mahogany desk top, the cheap paper took on rich flesh tones. He thought of Mrs. Doyle as a tent, hair-covered and veined, and of himself as the skeleton in a water closet, the skull and cross-bones on a scholar’s bookplate. When he made the skeleton enter the flesh tent, it flowered at every joint.

But despite these thoughts, he remained as dry and cold as a polished bone and sat trying to discover a moral reason for not calling Mrs. Doyle. If he could only believe in Christ, then adultery would be a sin, then everything would be simple and the letters extremely easy to answer.

The completeness of his failure drove him to the telephone. He left the city room and went into the hall to use the pay station from which all private calls had to be made. The walls of the booth were covered with obscene drawings. He fastened his eyes on two disembodied genitals and gave the operator Burgess 7–7323.

“Is Mrs. Doyle in?”

“Hello, who is it?”

“I want to speak to Mrs. Doyle,” he said. “Is this Mrs. Doyle?”

“Yes, that’s me.” Her voice was hard with fright

“This is Miss Lonelyhearts.”

“Miss who?”

“Miss Lonelyhearts, Miss Lonelyhearts, the man who does the column.”

He was about to hang up, when she cooed, “Oh, hello . . . ”

“You said I should call.”

“Oh, yes . . . what?”

He guessed that she wanted him to do the talking. “When can you see me?”

“Now.” She was still cooing and he could almost feel her warm, moisture-laden breath through the earpiece. “Where?”

“You say.”

“I’ll tell you what,” he said. “Meet me in the park, near the obelisk, in about an hour.”

He went back to his desk and finished his column, then started for the park. He sat down on a bench near the obelisk to wait for Mrs. Doyle. Still thinking of tents, he examined the sky and saw that it was canvas-colored and ill-stretched. He examined it like a stupid detective who is searching for a clue to his own exhaustion. When he found nothing, he turned his trained eye on the skyscrapers that menaced the little park from all sides. In their tons of forced rock and tortured steel, he discovered what he thought was a clue.

Americans have dissipated their radical energy in an orgy of stone breaking. In their few years they have broken more stones than did centuries of Egyptians. And they have done their work hysterically, desperately, almost as if they knew that the stones would some day break them.

The detective saw a big woman enter the park and start in his direction. He made a quick catalogue: legs like Indian clubs, breasts like balloons and a brow like a pigeon. Despite her short plaid skirt, red sweater, rabbit-skin jacket and knitted tam-o’-shanter, she looked like a police captain.

He waited for her to speak first.

“Miss Lonelyhearts? Oh, hello . . . ”

“Mrs. Doyle?” He stood up and took her arm. It felt like a thigh.

“Where are we going?” she asked, as he began to lead her off.

“For a drink.”

“I can’t go to Delehanty’s. They know me.”

“We’ll go to my place.”

“Ought I?”

He did not have to answer, for she was already on her way. As he followed her up the stairs to his apartment, he watched the action of her massive hams; they were like two enormous grindstones.

He made some highballs and sat down beside her on the bed.

“You must know an awful lot about women from your job,” she said with a sigh, putting her hand on his knee.

He had always been the pursuer, but now found a strange pleasure in having the roles reversed. He drew back when she reached for a kiss. She caught his head and kissed him on his mouth. At first it ticked like a watch, then the tick softened and thickened into a heart throb. It beat louder and more rapidly each second, until he thought that it was going to explode and pulled away with a rude jerk.

“Don’t,” she begged.

“Don’t what?”

“Oh, darling, turn out the light.”

He smoked a cigarette, standing in the dark and listening to her undress. She made sea sounds; something flapped like a sail; there was the creak of ropes; then he heard the wave-against-a-wharf smack of rubber on flesh. Her call for him to hurry was a sea-moan, and when he lay beside her, she heaved, tidal, moon-driven.

Some fifteen minutes later, he crawled out of bed like an exhausted swimmer leaving the surf, and dropped down into a large armchair near the window. She went into the bathroom, then came back and sat in his lap.

“I’m ashamed of myself,” she said. “You must think I’m a bad woman.”

He shook his head no.

“My husband isn’t much. He’s a cripple like I wrote you, and much older than me.” She laughed. “He’s all dried up. He hasn’t been a husband to me for years. You know, Lucy, my kid; isn’t his.”

He saw that she expected him to be astonished and did his best to lift his eyebrows.

“It’s a long story,” she said. “It was on account of Lucy that I had to marry him. I’ll bet you must have wondered how it was I came to marry a cripple. It’s a long story.”

Her voice was as hypnotic as a tom-tom, and as monotonous. Already his mind and body were half asleep.

“It’s a long, long story, and that’s why I couldn’t write it in a letter. I got into trouble when the Doyles lived above us on Center Street. I used to be kind to him and go to the movies with him because he was a cripple, although I was one of the most popular girls on the block. So when I got into trouble, I didn’t know what to do and asked him for the money for an abortion. But he didn’t have the money, so we got married instead. It all came through my trusting a dirty dago. I thought he was a gent, but when I asked him to marry me, why he spurned me from the door and wouldn’t even give me money for an abortion. He said if he gave me the money that would mean it was his fault and I would have something on him. Did you ever hear of such a skunk?”

“No,” he said. The life out of which she spoke was even heavier than her body. It was as if a gigantic, living Miss Lonelyhearts letter in the shape of a paper weight had been placed on his brain.

“After the baby was born, I wrote the skunk, but he never wrote back, and about two years ago, I got to thinking how unfair it was for Lucy to have to depend on a cripple and not come into her rights. So I looked his name up in the telephone book and took Lucy to see him. As I told him then, not that I wanted anything for myself, but just that I wanted Lucy to get what was coming to her. Well, after keeping us waiting in the hall over an hour — I was boiling mad, I can tell you, thinking of the wrong he had done me and my child — we were taken into the parlor by the butler. Very quiet and lady-like, because money ain’t everything and he’s no more a gent than I’m a lady, the dirty wop — I told him he ought to do something for Lucy see’n’ he’s her father. Well, he had the nerve to say that he had never seen me before and that if I didn’t stop bothering him, he’d have me run in. That got me riled and I lit into the bastard and gave him a piece of my mind. A woman came in while we were arguing that I figured was his wife, so I hollered, ‘He’s the father of my child, he’s the father of my child.’ When they went to the ‘phone to call a cop, I picked up the kid and beat it.

“And now comes the funniest part of the whole thing. My husband is a queer guy and he always makes believe that he is the father of the kid and even talks to me about our child. Well, when we got home, Lucy kept asking me why I said a strange man was her papa. She wanted to know if Doyle wasn’t really her papa. I must of been crazy because I told her that she should remember that her real papa was a man named Tony Benelli and that he had wronged me. I told her a lot of other crap like that — too much movies I guess. Well, when Doyle got home the first thing Lucy says to him is that he ain’t her papa. That got him sore and he wanted to know what I had told her. I didn’t like his high falutin’ ways and said, The truth.’ I guess too that I was kinds sick of see’n him moon over her. He went for me and hit me one on the cheek. I wouldn’t let no man get away with that so I socked back and he swung at me with his stick but missed and fell on the floor and started to cry. The kid was on the floor crying too and that set me off because the next thing I know I’m on the floor bawling too.”

She waited for him to comment, but he remained silent until she nudged him into speech with her elbow. “Your husband probably loves you and the kid,” he said.

“Maybe so, but I was a pretty girl and could of had my pick. What girl wants to spend her life with a shrimp of a cripple?”

“You’re still pretty,” he said without knowing why, except that he was frightened.

She rewarded him with a kiss, then dragged him to the bed.


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