Appears in Betting On The Muse
Confession of a Coward
Note: This story was written by Charles Bukowski in 1956, long before he had achieved any literary recognition. He was living with his first wife at the time, Barbara Frye, who was from a well-to-do Wheeler, Texas ranching family and who was the editor of a small literary magazine there called Harlequin. After almost a decade of not writing, Bukowski had begun to write again and was sending his poems out to underground magazines around the country. Barbara Frye had been enthusiastically printing everything he sent her and was eagerly corresponding with her new literary discovery.
The story of their meeting and subsequent marriage has been described by Bukowski in his novel Post Office and in some of his most famous early poems, notably "His Wife, the Painter" and "The Day I Kicked Away a Bankroll." Bukowski finally went to Texas to meet his new editor (and her very conservative family) and after a time they were married in Las Vegas (in 1956). They subsequently settled in Bukowski's hometown of Los Angeles expecting to live the literary life but as this story clearly demonstrates their expectations did not materialize. They soon separated and were divorced in March 1958. It was not until 1960 when Bukowski published his first small chapbook of poems, Flower, Fist And Bestial Wail, that his career as a professional writer would finally be launched.
Confession of a Coward
God, she thought lying in bed naked and re-reading Aldington's Portrait of a Genius, But... he's an impostor! Not D.H. Lawrence, but her husband-Henry-with his bauble of a belly and all the hair he never combed and the way he stood around in his shorts, and the way he stood naked before the window like an Arabian and howled; and he told her that he was turning into a toad and that he wanted to buy a Buddha and that he wanted to be old and drown in the sea, and that he was going to grow a beard and that he felt as if he was turning into a woman.
And Henry was poor, poor and worthless and miserable and sick. And he wanted to join the Mahler Society. His breath was bad, his father was insane and his mother was dying of cancer.
And besides all this, the weather was hot, hot as hell.
"I've got a new system," he said. "All I need is four or five grand. It's a matter of investment. We could travel from track to track in a trailer."
She felt like saying something blasé like, "We don't have four or five grand," but it didn't come out. Nothing came out: all the doors were closed and all the windows were down, and it was in the middle of the desert-not even vultures-and they were about to drop the Bomb. She should have stayed in Texas, she should have stayed with Papa-this man is a goon, a gunnysack, a gutless no-nothing in a world of doers. He hides behind symphonies and poetic fancies; a weak and listless soul.
"Are you going to take me to the museum?" she asked.
"They're having an Art Exhibit."
"Well, don't you want to see Van Gogh?"
"To hell with Van Gogh! What's Van Gogh to me?"
The doors closed again and she couldn't think of an answer.
"I don't like museums," he continued. "I don't like museum-people."
The fan was going but it was a small apartment and the heat held as if enclosed in a kettle.
"In fact," he said, peeling off his T-shirt and standing in just his shorts, "I don't like any kind of people."
Amazingly, he had hair on his chest.
"In fact," he continued, pulling his shorts down and over the end of one foot, "I'm going to write a book some day and call it Confession of a Coward."
The doorbell rang like a rape, or the tearing of ripe flesh.
"Jesus Christ!" he said like something trapped.
She jumped off the bed, looking very white and unpeeled. Like a candy banana. Aldington and D.H. Lawrence and Taos fell to the floor.
She ran to the closet and began stuffing herself inside the flying cloth of female necessaries.
"Never mind the clothes," he said.
"Aren't you going to answer?"
"No! Why should I?"
It rang again. The sound of the bell entered the room and searched them out, scaled and scalded their skins, pummeled them with crawling eyes.
Then it was silent.
And the feet turned with their sound, turning and guiding some monster, taking it back down the stairwell, one two three, 1, 2, 3; and then gone.
"I wonder," he said, still not moving, "what that was?"
"I don't know," she said, bending double at the waist and pulling her petticoat back over her head.
"Here!" she yelled. "Here!" holding her arms out like feelers.
He finished yanking the petticoat off over her head with some distaste.
"Why do you women wear this crap?" he asked in a loud voice.
She didn't feel an answer was necessary and went over and pulled Lawrence out from under the bed. Then she got into bed with Lorenzo and her husband sat on the couch.
"They built a little shrine for him," he said.
"Who?" she asked irritably.
"They have a picture of it in that book."
"Yes, I've seen it."
"Have you ever seen a dog-graveyard?"
"Well, what about it?"
"They always have flowers. Every dog always has flowers, fresh, all in neat little clusters on each grave. It's enough to make you cry."
She found her place in the book again, like a person searching for solitude in the middle of a lake: So the bitter months dragged by miserably, accompanied by Lorenzo's tragic feeling of loss, his-
"I wish I had studied ballet," he said. "I go about all slumped over but that's because my spirit is wilted. I'm really lithe, ready to tumble on spring mattresses of some sort. I should have been a frog, at least. You'll see. Someday I'm going to turn into a frog."
Her lake rippled with the irritating breeze: "Well, for heaven's sake, study ballet! Go at night! Get rid of your belly! Leap around! Be a frog!"
"You mean after WORK?" he asked woefully.
"God," she said, "you want everything for nothing." She got up and went to the bathroom and closed the door.
She doesn't understand, he thought, sitting on the couch naked, she doesn't understand that I'm joking. She's so god-damned serious. Everything I say is supposed to carry truth or tragic import, or insight or something. I've been through all that!
He noticed a pencil-scrawled piece of paper, in her handwriting, on the side table. He picked it up:
My husband is a poet published alongside Sartre and Lorca;
he writes about insanity and Nietzsche and Lawrence,
but what has he written about me?
she reads the funnies
and empties garbage
and makes little hats
and goes to Mass at 8 AM
I too am a poet and an artist, some discerning critics
say, but my husband wrote about me:
she reads the funnies...
He heard the toilet flush, and a moment later, out she came.
"I'd like to be a clown in a circus," he greeted her.
She got back on the bed with her book.
"Wouldn't you like to be a tragicomic clown stumbling about with a painted face?" he asked her.
She didn't answer. He picked up the Racing Form:
POWER 114 B.g.4, by Cosmic Bomb-
Pomayya, by Pompey
Breeder, Brookmeade Stable.
1956 12 2 4 1 $12,950
July 18-Jam I I/16 1:45 1/5ft. 3 122 2
1/2 3 2h GuerinE'Alw 86
"I'm going to Caliente next Sunday," he said.
"Good. I'll have Charlotte over. Allen can bring her in the car."
"Do you believe she really got propositioned by the preacher in that movie like she claimed?"
She turned the page of her book.
"God damn you, answer me!" he screamed, angry at last.
"Do you think she's a whore and making it all up? Do you think we're all whores? What are we trying to do, reading all these books? Writing all the poems they -send back, and working in some dungeon for nothing because we're not really interested in money?"
She put the book down and looked back over her shoulder at him. "Well," she said in a low voice, "do you want to give it all up?"
"Give WHAT all up? We don't have anything! Or, do you mean Beethoven's Fifth or Handel's Water Music? Or do you mean the SOUL?"
"Let's not argue. Please. I don't want to argue.
"Well, I want to know what we are trying to do!"
The doorbell rang like all the bells of doom sweeping across the room.
"Shhh," he said, "shhh! Be quiet!"
The doorbell rang again, seeming to say, I know you are in there, I know you are in there.
"They know we're in here." she whispered.
"I feel that this is it, " he said.
"Never mind. Just be quiet. Maybe it will go away."
"Isn't it wonderful to have all these friends?" she took up the joke-cudgel.
"No. We have no friends. I tell you, this is something else!"
It rang again, very short, flat and spiritless. "I once tried to make the Olympic swimming team," he said, getting completely off the point.
"You make more ridiculous statements by the minute, Henry."
"Will you get off my back? Just for that!," he said, raising his voice, "WHO IS IT?"
There was no answer.
Henry rose wide-eyed, as if in a trance, and flung the door open, forgetting his nakedness. He stood there transfixed in thought for some time, but it was obvious to her that nobody was therein his state of undress there would have been quite a commotion or, at the very least, some sophisticated comment.
Then he closed the door. He had a strange look on his face, a round-eyed almost dull look and he swallowed once as he faced her. His pride, perhaps?
"I've decided," he announced, "that I'm not going to turn into a woman after all."
"Well, that will help matters between us considerably, Henry."
"And I'll even take you to see Van Gogh. No wait, I'll let you take me."
"Either way, dear. It doesn't matter."
"No," he said, "you'll have to take me!"
He marched into the bathroom and closed the door.
"Don't you wonder," she said through the door, "who that was?"
"Who what was?"
"Who that was at the door? Twice?"
"Hell," he said, "I know who it was."
"Who was it, then?"
"I said, 'Ha!' I'm not telling!"
"Henry, you simply don't know who it was, anymore than I do. You're simply being silly again."
"If you promise to take me to see Van Gogh, I'll tell you who was at the door."
"All right," she humored him along, "I promise."
"O.K., it was me at the door!"
"You at the door?"
"Yes," he laughed a silly little laugh, "me looking for me! Both times."
"Still playing the clown aren't you, Henry?"
She heard the water running in the basin and knew he was going to shave.
"Are you going to shave, Henry?"
"I've decided against the beard," he answered.
He was boring her again and she simply opened her book at a random page and began reading:
You don't want any more of me?
I want us to break off-you be free of me, I free of you.
And what about these last months?
I don't know. I've not told you anything but what I thought was true.
Then why are you different now?
I'm not-I'm the same-only I know it's no good going on.
She closed the book and thought about Henry. Men were children. You had to humor them. They could take no hurt. It was a thing every woman knew. Henry tried-he was just so-all this playing the clown. All the poor jokes.
She rose from the bed as if in a dream, walked across the floor, opened the door and stared. Against the basin stood a partly soaped shaving brush and his still wet shaving mug. But the water in the basin was cold and at the bottom, against the plug, green and beyond her reach at last and the size of a crumpled glove, stared back the fat, living frog.
©Linda Lee Bukowski - used with permission