Henry Miller in the Rain
By Rodger Jacobs
The rain came down upon the old man’s smooth and hairless head like stinging needles of punishment. When he saw the yellow glow of the Western Union sign in the night sky he momentarily forgot about the storm and the wet clothing that clung to his wizened skin like death’s wraith and became lost in thoughts about Henry Miller.
“Stop me if you’ve heard this before,” the old man told Trace over the phone when he returned home. “Henry Miller worked at Western Union in New York for four years. He wrote his fist book during a three week vacation from Western Union.”
“He left Western Union in 1924,” Trace responded like a student called upon to complete the master’s thought, “determined never to take a job again, and devoted his entire energy to writing.”
The old man was still in his damp clothing. Juanita had a fire roaring in the rugged stone fireplace. He carried the phone closer to the warmth of the flames.
“You remind me of Henry Miller, Trace,” he said. “Accompanied by great poverty, you still manage to write wonderful prose.”
“And sometimes I get paid for the effort,” Trace said with a self-deprecating sigh.
“At least you’re not selling your book door to door like Miller had to do with ‘Mezzotints’.”
“Considering how slumped my sales have been, Max, that might not be a bad option.”
It was nine-thirty in the evening in Florida, where Max Wiesner was calling from. In L.A. it was six-thirty and the sun was beginning its descent into the Pacific. Trace stood on the balcony of his hotel room, cell phone painfully pressed to his ear, and watched the sky succumb to a reddish-pink sunset.
Trace awoke that morning with what he diagnosed as another cloying hangover but the dull roar in his head, just behind his left ear, said otherwise. He had eighty-five dollars in the bank, magazines were rejecting his pitches like batters refusing to swing, and a much-needed visit to the doctor’s office was sure to tap him out.
The dull roar gave way by mid-afternoon to a stabbing pain deep in his ear and momentary losses of equilibrium. There could be no doubt about it. He had to go to the doctor.
Trace was diagnosed with a severe middle ear infection, caused and compounded by a sinus infection. He was prescribed Zyrtec-D for the sinus problem and was placed on a full course of antibiotic therapy. He wrote a check for the office visit and the medications, setting him back $150.00, and determined to worry about how to cover the check when he was feeling better. The doctor told him it would be three or four days before that most welcome event would occur.
“I’m getting vibed by you all the way out here in Tampa Bay,” Max said when he phoned Trace that evening. “Is everything okay?”
Max Weisner was long retired from his career as a classics professor, an occupation he came to after stints as an infantryman in the Korean War, a rodeo clown on the southwest circuit, and some dubious work as a “tour boat” operator in the Florida Keys.
When Doubleday was preparing to publish Trace’s first novel, “Northfield Through A Haze”, Max, whom Trace had never met before nor even heard of, offered a favorable blurb for the dust jacket after a former student passed a galley proof of the book onto him.
“It’s a fine book, an outstanding first achievement,” Max wrote Trace. “I would be pleased to prepare a fitting response to your accomplishment as it has been years since I have seen my own name in print. I’m getting on in years and I would like to be remembered as a man who had at least some small impact on American literature.”
Over the last two years Max and Trace enjoyed weekly telephone calls. Max was fascinated by Trace’s daily struggles as a writer for hire and Trace enjoyed hearing the colorful tales of Max Weisner’s life before academia beckoned him.
“I have a goddamn middle ear infection and I just spent every dollar I had left in the bank on a doctor’s visit and medications,” Trace told Max. “Maybe that’s why you’re getting vibed by me.”
Max was accustomed to hearing Trace’s tales of economic peril and had never offered to intercede. For some reason, though, this episode had an impact on the old man.
“Give me the name of the nearest Western Union and I’ll wire you some bread,” Max offered.
Trace wanted to protest but he had no idea where his next pay check was coming from. He expected that Max would wire the cash in the morning but two hours later the phone rang and, after the banter about Henry Miller, Max detailed his adventure.
“We’re having a major thunderstorm here tonight, got soaked walking from the car to the door of the store where they have a Western Union office. I got to the Western Union office five minutes before closing, only to have the door slammed and locked in my face.”
“Ahhh, Jesus, Max, I didn’t expect you to go out in that kind of weather to wire me money.”
“Don’t worry about it, Trace. I’ll send it first thing in the morning. Fifty bucks. It’s all I can spare until the eagle shits on the first of the month. I hope it helps. As Granny said while pissing in the ocean, ‘Ever little bit helps when you’re trying to drown yer no account husband’.”
Trace laughed and settled down on the bed, popping another tab of Zyrtec to stop the kettle drum in his head. He washed it down with a shot of Potter’s Vodka.
“A lot of good ideas were generated by getting out of the house and sucking up some fresh, moist air,” Max continued. “I’m thinking of writing some short stories about the days when Juanita and I first courted.”
Max had been married to Juanita for thirty-five years. They had two grown daughters to be very proud of. Teresa was a commercial airline pilot and Estelle followed in her father’s foot steps as a classics professor. Max and Juanita were spending the waning days of their retirement shuffling from one doctor’s appointment to the next.
“Junaita had both a mammogram and one of those echo things today,” he said. “She has something very large, ugly and sore in there. Her radiologist went ballistic when he saw it, so she’s going into the hospital for a biopsy ASAP.”
“Oh, Jesus, Max. I’m sorry.”
“I’m rattled, Trace. That mass is as large as my ashtray and it’ll hold eight cigarettes at once. And then on Friday the goddamn doctors have me galloping on a treadmill while wired for sound and graphics. The ticker ain’t getting any better. We have good neighbors to feed our cats and dogs should we become inpatients simultaneously but it’s been our habit to take turns getting sick.”
Trace felt horrible now. It wasn’t the ear infection that caused him pain. It was Max’s tale of advancing age, stories that must come to a close, lives that inevitably end. He wasn’t confronting his own mortality – he did that several times a day every day of his life – but rather the mortality of a friend and of his friend’s beloved wife.
“Seeing that Western Union sign tonight brought Henry Miller up from the depths,” Max said wistfully. “I could see him taking Anais Nin by her lovely little hand as they danced on the cobblestones.”
Trace grappled for a pack of cigarettes on the night stand. He felt affection for the old man and affection for living things did not come easily or painlessly for Trace.
“Check your Western Union first thing in the morning,” Max said after a considered pause. “There’ll be fifty bucks there. Get yourself a decent breakfast.”