Appears in Portions from a Wine-Stained Notebook
Charles Bukowski's first published story
Aftermath of a Lengthy Rejection Slip
I WALKED AROUND outside and thought about it. It was the longest one I ever got. Usually they only said, "Sorry, this did not quite make the grade" or "Sorry, this didn't quite work in." Or more often, the regular printed rejection form.
But this was the longest, the longest ever. It was from my story "My Adventures in Half a Hundred Rooming Houses." I walked under a lamppost, took the little slip out of my pocket and reread it -
Dear Mr. Bukowski:
Again, this is a conglomeration of extremely good stuff and other stuff so full of idolized prostitutes, morning-after vomiting scenes, misanthropy, praise for suicide etc. that it is not quite for a magazine of any circulation at all. This is, however, pretty much a saga of a certain type of person and in it I think you've done an honest job. Possibly we will print you sometime, but I don't know exactly when. That depends on you.
Oh, I knew the signature: the long "h" that twisted into the end of the "W," and the beginning of the "B" which dropped halfway down the page.
I put the slip back in my pocket and walked on down the street. I felt pretty good.
Here I had only been writing two years. Two short years. It took Hemingway ten years. And Sherwood Anderson, he was forty before he was published.
I guess I would have to give up drinking and women of ill-fame, though. Whiskey was hard to get anyhow and wine was ruining my stomach. Millie though - Millie, that would be harder, much harder.
...But Millie, Millie, we must remember art. Dostoievsky, Gorki, for Russia, and now America wants an Eastern-European. America is tired of Browns and smiths. The Browns and the Smiths are good writers but there are too many of them and they all write alike. America wants the fuzzy blackness, impractical meditations and repressed desires of an Eastern-European.
Millie, Millie, your figure is just right: it all pours down tight to the hips and loving you is as easy as putting on a pair of gloves in zero weather. Your room is always warm and cheerful and you have record albums and cheese sandwiches that I like. And Millie, your cat, remember? Remember when he was a kitten? I tried to teach him to shake hands and to roll over, and you said a cat wasn't a dog and it couldn't be done, Well, I did it, didn't I, Millie? The cat's big now and he's been a mother and had kittens. We've been friends a long time. But it's going to have to go now, Millie: cats and figures and Tchaikovsky's 6th Symphony. America needs an Eastern-European....
I found I was in front of my rooming house by then and I started to go in. Then I saw a light on in my window. I looked in: Carson and Shipkey were at the table with somebody I didn't know. They were playing cards and in the center sat a huge jug of wine. Carson and Shipkey were painters who couldn't make up their minds whether to paint like Salvador Dali or Rockwell Kent, and they worked at the shipyards while trying to decide.
Then I saw a man sitting very quietly on the edge of my bed. He had a mustache and a goatee and looked familiar. I seemed to remember his face. I had seen it in a book, a newspaper, a movie, maybe. I wondered. Then I remembered.
When I remembered, I didn't know whether to go in or not. After all, what did one say? How did one act? With a man like that it was hard. You had to be careful not to say the wrong words, you had to be careful about everything.
I decided to walk around the block once first. I read someplace that that helped when you were nervous. I heard Shipkey swearing as I left and I heard somebody drop a glass. That wouldn't help me any.
I decided to make up my speech ahead of time. "Really, I'm not a very good speaker at all. I'm very withdrawn and tense. I save it all and put it in words on paper. I'm sure you'll be disappointed in me, but it's the way I've always been."
I thought that would do it and when I finished my block's walk I went right into my room.
I could see that Carson and Shipkey were rather drunk, and I knew they wouldn't help me any. The little card player they had brought with them was also bad off, except he had all the money on his side of the table.
The man with the goatee got up off the bed. "How do you do, sir?" he asked.
"Fine, and you?" I shook hands with him. "I hope you haven't been waiting too long?" I said.
"Really," I said, "I'm not a very good speaker at all -"
"Except when he's drunk, then he yells his head off. Sometimes he goes to the square and lectures and if nobody listens to him he talks to the birds," said Shipkey.
The man with the goatee grinned. He had a marvelous grin. Evidently a man of understanding.
The other two went on playing cards, but Shipkey turned his chair around and watched us.
"I'm very withdrawn and tense," I continued, "and -"
"Past tense or circus tents?" yelled Shipkey.
That was very bad, but the man with the goatee smiled again and I felt better.
"I save it all and put it in words on paper and -"
"Nine-tenths or pretense?" yelled Shipkey.
"- and I'm sure you'll be disappointed in me, but it's the way I've always been."
"Listen, mister!" yelled Shipkey wobbling back and forth in his chair. "Listen, you with the goatee!"
"Listen, I'm six feet tall with wavy hair, a glass eye and a pair of red dice."
The man laughed.
"You don't believe me then? You don't believe I have a pair of red dice?"
Shipkey, when intoxicated always wanted, for some reason, to make people believe he had a glass eye. He would point to one eye or the other and maintain it was a glass eye. He claimed the glass eye was made for him by his father, the greatest specialist in the world, who had, unfortunately, been killed by a tiger in China.
Suddenly Carson began yelling, "I saw you take that card! Where did you get it? Give it here, here! Marked, marked! I thought so! No wonder you've been winning! So! So!"
Carson rose up and grabbed the little card player by the tie and pulled up on it. Carson was blue in the face with anger and the little card player began to turn red as Carson pulled up on the tie.
"What's up, ha! Ha! What's up! What's going on?" yelled Shipkey. "Lemme see, ha? Gimme tha dope!"
Carson was all blue and could hardly speak. He hissed the words out of his lips with a great effort and held up on the tie. The little card player began to flop his arms about like a great octopus brought to the surface.
"He crossed us!" hissed Carson. "Crossed us! Pulled one from under his sleeve, sure as the Lord! Crossed us, I tell you!"
Shipkey walked behind the little card player and grabbed him by the hair and yanked his head back and forth. Carson remained at the tie.
"Did you cross us, huh? Did you! Speak! Speak!" yelled Shipkey pulling at the hair.
The little card player didn't speak. He just flopped his arms and began to sweat.
"I'll take you someplace where we can get a beer and something to eat" I said to the man with the goatee.
"Come on! Talk! Give out! You can't cross us!"
"Oh, that won't be necessary," said the man with the goatee.
"Rat! Louse! Fish-faced pig!"
"I insist", I said.
"Rob a man with a glass eye, will you? I'll show you, fish-faced pig!"
"That's very kind of you, and I am a little hungry, thanks," said the man with the goatee.
"Speak! Speak, fish-faced pig! If you don't speak in two minutes, in just two minutes, I'll cut your heart out for a doorknob!"
"Let's leave right away," I said.
"All right," said the man with the goatee.
ALL the eating places were closed at that time of the night and it was a long ride into town. I couldn't take him back to my room, so I had to take a chance on Millie. She always had plenty of food. At any rate, she always had cheese.
I was right. She made us cheese sandwiches with coffee. The cat knew me and leaped into my lap.
I put the cat on the floor.
"Watch, Mr. Burnett," I said.
"Shake hands!" I said to the cat. "Shake hands!"
The cat just sat there.
"That's funny, it always used to do it," I said. "Shake hands!"
I remembered Shipkey had told Mr. Burnett that I talked to birds.
"Come on now! Shake hands!"
I began to feel foolish.
"Come on! Shake hands!"
I put my head right down by the cat's head and put everything I had into it.
The cat just sat there.
I went back to my chair and picked up my cheese sandwich.
"Cats are funny animals, Mr. Burnett. You can never tell. Millie, put on Tchaikovsky's 6th for Mr. Burnett."
We listened to the music. Millie came over and sat in my lap. She just had on a negligee. She dropped down against me. I put my sandwich to the side.
"I want you to notice," I said to Mr. Burnett, "the section which brings forth the marching movement in this symphony. I think it's one of the most beautiful movements in all music. And besides its beauty and force, its structure is perfect. You can feel intelligence at work."
The cat jumped up into the lap of the man with the goatee. Millie laid her cheek against mine, put a hand on my chest. "Where ya been, baby boy? Millie's missed ya, ya know."
The record ended and the man with the goatee took the cat off his lap, got up and turned the record over. He should have found record #2 in the album. By turning it over we would get the climax rather early. I didn't say anything, though, and we listened to it end.
"How did you like it?" I asked.
"Fine! Just fine!"
He had the cat on the floor.
"Shake hands! Shake hands!" he said to the cat.
The cat shook hands.
"Look," he said, "I can make the cat shake hands."
The cat rolled over.
"No, shake hands! Shake hands!"
The cat just sat there.
He put his head down by the cat's head and talked into its ear. "Shake hands!"
The cat stuck its paw right into his goatee.
"Did You see? I made him shake hands!" Mr. Burnett seemed pleased.
Millie pressed tight against me. "Kiss me, baby boy," she said, "kiss me."
"Good Lord, ya gone off ya nut, baby boy? what's eatin' at ya? Sompin's botherin' ya tonight, I can tell! Tell Millie all about ut! Millie'd go ta hell for ya, baby boy, ya know that. Whats'a matter, huh? Ha?"
"Now I'll get the cat to roll over," said Mr. Burnett.
Millie wrapped her arms tight around me and peered down into my upward eye. She looked very sad and motherish and smelled like cheese.
"Tell Millie what's eatin' ya up, baby boy."
"Roll over!" said Mr. Burnett to the cat.
The cat just sat there.
"Listen," I said to Millie, "see that man over there?"
"Yeah, I see him."
"Well, that's Whit Burnett."
"The magazine editor. The one I send my stories to."
"Ya mean the one who sends you those little tiny notes?"
"Rejection slips, Millie."
"Well, he's mean. I don't like him."
"Roll over!" said Mr. Burnett to the cat. The cat rolled over. "Look!" he yelled. "I made the cat roll over! I'd like to buy this cat! It's marvelous!"
Millie tightened her grip about me and peered down into my eye. I was quite helpless. I felt like a still live fish on ice in a butcher's counter on Friday morning.
"Listen," she said, "I can get him ta print one a ya stories. I can get him ta print alla them!"
"Watch me make the cat roll over!" said Mr. Burnett.
"No, no, Millie, you don't understand! Editors aren't like tired business men. Editors have scruples!"
"Roll over!" said Mr. Burnett.
The cat just sat there.
"I know all about ya scruples! Don't ya worry about scruples Baby boy, I'll get him ta print alla ya stories!"
"Roll over!" said Mr. Burnett to the cat. Nothing happened.
"No, Millie, I won't have it."
She was all wound around me. It was hard to breathe and she was rather heavy. I felt my feet going to sleep. Millie pressed her cheek against mine and rubbed a hand up and down my chest. "Baby boy, ya got nothin' to say!"
Mr. Burnett put his head down by the cat's head and talked into its ear. "Roll over!"
The car stuck its paw right into his goatee.
"I think this cat wants something to eat," he said.
With that, he got back into his chair. Millie went over and sat on his knee.
"Where'd ya get tha cute little goaty?" she asked.
"Pardon me," I said, "I'm going to get a drink of water."
I went in and sat in the breakfast nook and looked down at the flower designs on the table. I tried to scratch them off with a fingernail. It was hard enough to share Millie's love with the cheese salesman and the welder. Millie with the figure right down to the hips. Damn, damn.
I kept sitting there and after a while I took my rejection slip out of my pocket and read it again. The places where the slip was folded were beginning to get brown with dirt and torn. I would have to stop looking at it and put it between book pages like a pressed rose.
I began to think about what it said. I always had that trouble. In college, even, I was drawn to the fuzzy blackness. The short story instructress took me to dinner and a show one night and lectured to me on the beauties of life. I had given her a story I had written in which I, as the main character, had gone down to the beach at night on the sand and began meditating on the meaning in Christ, on the meaning in death, on the meaning and fullness and rhythm in all things. Then in the middle of my meditations, along walks a bleary-eyed tramp kicking sand in my face. I talk to him, buy him a bottle and we drink. We get sick. Afterward we go to a house of ill-fame.
After the dinner, the short story instructress opened her purse and brought forth the story of the beach. She opened it up about halfway down, to the entrance of the bleary-eyed tramp and the exit of meaning in Christ.
"Up to here," she said, "up to here, this was very good, in fact, beautiful." Then she glared up at me with that glare that only the artistically intelligent who have somehow fallen into money and position can have. "But pardon me, pardon me very much," she tapped at the bottom half of my story, "just what the hell is this stuff doing in here?"
I couldn't stay away any longer. I got up and walked into the front room.
Millie was all wrapped around him and peering down into his upward eye. He looked like a fish on ice.
Millie must have thought I wanted to talk to him about publishing procedures.
"Pardon me, I have to comb my hair," she said and left the room.
"Nice girl, isn't she, Mr. Burnett?" I asked.
He pulled himself back into shape and straightened his tie. "Pardon me," he said, "why do you keep calling me 'Mr. Burnett'?"
"Well, aren't you?"
"I'm Hoffman. Joseph Hoffman. I'm from the Curtis Life Insurance Company. I came in response to your postcard."
"But I didn't send a postcard."
"We received one from you."
"I never sent any."
"Aren't you Andrew Spickwich?"
"Spickwich. Andrew Spickwich, 3631 Taylor Street."
Millie came back and wound herself around Joseph Hoffman. I didn't have the heart to tell her.
I closed the door very softly and went down the steps and out into the street. I walked part way down the block and then I saw the lights go out.
I ran like hell toward mv room hoping that there would be some wine left in that huge jug on the table. I didn't think I'd be that lucky, though, because I am too much a saga of a certain type of person: fuzzy blackness, impractical meditations and repressed desires.
The following note accompanied Charles Bukowski's first published story, in the March-April 1944 issue of Story:
Charles Bukowski was born in Andernach, Germany in 1920. His father was California-born, of Polish parentage, and served with the American Army of Occupation in the Rhineland, where he met the author's mother. He was brought to America at the age of two. He attended Los Angeles City College for a couple of years and in the two and one-half years since then he has been a clerk in the post office, a stockroom boy for Sears Roebuck, a truck-loader nights in a bakery. He is currently working as a package-wrapper and box-filler in the cellar of a ladies' sportswear shop.
In Bukowski's 1975 novel Factotum, he describes the experience of his first publication (calling Story's Whit Burnett "Clay Gladmore"): "Gladmore returned many of my things with personal rejections. True, most of them weren't very long but they did seem kind and they were very encouraging...So I kept him busy with four or five stories a week." On the subject of his first sale, Bukowski wrote, "I got up from the chair still holding my acceptance slip. MY FIRST. Never had the world looked so good, so full of promise." Upon seeing the story in print, however, Bukowski's joy disappeared. "Aftermath" had been placed in the end notes, and he felt Burnett had published it only as a curiosity. Feeling humiliated, Bukowski never again submitted anything to Story.