(mon semblable, mon frere)
The worst person I ever met was also the happiest and the one who was most convinced he was in God’s good graces. It’s been over four decades since I last saw him, but he’s still in my thoughts. I even work my recollections of him into one of my graduate-course lectures at the university where I teach—he serves as something of a cautionary tale for young people who are about the age I was when I first met Milton.
Milton Carlyle Blacke-Cummings looked as absurd as his name sounded. He stood six-four, weighed two-fifty, and was spectacularly pear-shaped, with huge hips and rump. His shoulders were narrow, his head smallish, his eyeglasses oversized horn-rims, his pale skin mottled with florid acres of acne, and his infrequently washed black hair a dark, greasy forest, dusted with a light snowfall of yellow-white dandruff.
Milton was my dorm roommate when I first began grad school in English at a well-known southern university. As he introduced himself to me he pulled an elegant-looking little leather packet from his pocket and handed me a calling card engraved with his name. I’d never been handed a card by anyone but a salesman before, or since, for that matter. Of course, I’d sometimes seen people casually offer cards in old films, but they were suave types like Laurence Olivier or David Niven. I fought back a snicker, but I couldn’t resist saying, “Nice to meet ya, Miltie.” Milton frowned slightly and said, “Yes, some people find my name rather a difficult one to grasp at first, with the hyphen and all, you see.”
I saw. I also saw within the next few minutes that he loved that ridiculous name and the whole British cachet he thought it conferred on him. “My late father’s people, the Blacke-Cummingses, are an ancient Scottish clan, old chap,” he said, “rather an interesting history, really. I’ll tell you about it when you have a free hour or two.”
I never did find that free hour or two. My loss, I’m sure. Oh yes, Milton also told me that the plaid of the short, stubby tie he was wearing, a mix of slime-green, sickly fuchsia, and black that clashed to the death with the red plaid of his Madras sport coat, was actually the tartan of the Blacke-Cummingses. He was a vision still vivid to me.
But, surprisingly, he was a vision the British Isles had not yet seen. Milton had been born and raised in New York City, majored in Biochemistry at MIT, and never been farther from home than he was now on his first day at grad school. His parents, also native New Yorkers, had once spent a summer in England and Scotland and scouted up a relative or two. His mother told me that. I met her that first day. She’d come down from New York with Milton to help him “get settled,” she said, and it took her nearly a week. After filling his closet and bureau with the clothes she’d chosen and packed for him, she helped him set up his elaborate stereo system, uncrated his records and books, bought him, among countless other absolute necessities, an oriental rug, the latest-model IBM electric typewriter, and a large leather toiletry bag (monogrammed “M C B-C” in gold) in which she placed the toiletries herself.
She worried about Milton. “He’s in a new place and so terribly trusting and unworldly,” she said to me one day while she was sorting his socks and he was off getting himself a cup of hot chocolate and a fistful of candy bars. “I’m so dreadfully fearful that people will misuse him frightfully, this world being as wretched as it is.”
Her accent was the oddest mix of Prospect Park and St. James’s. As a New Yorker myself (the Bronx), I wasn’t going to be taken in by that performance. But I’m pleased to say that although my own mother would probably have laughed in her face for being so “fancy-shmantzy” as she would have put it, I allowed myself only a hint of a smile.
Mrs. Blacke-Cummings also told me that day, “I can see that you’re more knowing than Milton, and I hope you can look after him the least little bit. Oh, if you only knew how vulnerable he is! There’s a vile woman up in Boston, with a checkered past, no doubt, who even now is trying to get her dirty hooks into my son.”
In spite of my best efforts I must have looked astonished. “Oh yes,” she said, “it’s all too ghastly. If only Milton, Senior were still alive!” And then this woman, large and lumpish like her son, took me by the wrist, fixed me with a teary, myopic gaze from behind lenses even thicker than Milton’s, and told me “Milton is my only child . . . all I have, you see. His late father’s family has never taken to me, and my own family cut me off when I married his father, because, well, because Milton, Senior wasn’t . . . Jewish.” I surveyed the woman more closely now. If I hadn’t been so taken aback by the whole pathetic pseudo-Brit performance, I realized that I would have seen from the first that she looked like she could have been a cousin of my mother or father, an especially homely one, and obviously more strenuously committed to social climbing than they ever were.
Still holding my wrist, she said, “Please do keep an eye on him. I implore you.”
Frankly I could have done without the hysterics. After all, I was in a new place, too, and I myself had never been more than an hour or two from New York. And I didn’t have my mother with me to make sure I was “settled in” and to ask for strangers to watch over me. All I had was a small trunk of clothes and towels, a little table radio, a rickety Underwood non-electric typewriter, a twenty-year-old dictionary, and a new paperback copy of Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy. My mother’s last words to me, as I left the apartment to take the subway to the bus terminal were (stereotypically enough) “So okay, you don’t care to stay around here no more, but don’t forget, Mr. Bigshot, to find a synagogue down there so you should pray on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur at least and not forget you’re a Jew.” (My last words back were, “Yeah, maybe,” and then I was out of earshot). But here was Milton’s mother “imploring” me. So what could I do? I figured she deserved at least some sympathy for being stuck with a son like Milton, so I nodded and muttered “I’ll do my best.”
Well, Milton didn’t make things easy on me. On our first Saturday as roommates, the day after his mother left, he asked me if I was going to find a synagogue in town so that I could “celebrate the Sabbath.” When I told him that I didn’t “celebrate the Sabbath,” that I was not an observant Jew, and that, like Emerson, whom I much admired (and still do), I preferred to be religious only on my own terms, he said with a cheery serenity “That’s because your Judaism has failed you, old chap. It’s spiritually dead because it rejected the Son of God.”
Though I didn’t much care if I ever walked into a synagogue again, it still took considerable restraint to say nothing more than “I hear tell that you’re something of a member of the tribe yourself, old chap.”
Milton blanched only slightly and then went on happily, “Frankly I’ve never considered myself Jewish in the least, as my father was Episcopalian and my mother was a convert to his faith, not that I have anything against your co-religionists, of course. I just wish they could see what they’re missing.”
“The poor bastards,” I said.
“Heh, heh, quite so. By the way, I’ve undergone something of a conversion myself. I’m no longer an Episcopalian, you see. Last spring I was born again. I’m now a Baptist.” And he proceeded to tell me that the previous April an evangelist had come to MIT and in that unlikely setting won several young scientists for Christ. “Oh, some of the smart-aleck rotters scoffed at him, of course, but that’s their loss. Meanwhile I have a personal relationship with the Son of God. How many chaps do you think can say that?”
I muttered “Not too many, I hope.”
He smiled, “You’re a bit of an ironist, I see.”
“Clever boy to see it,” I said.
The point, though, was that Milton saw nothing, not then, not ever, and, further, was completely oblivious to the impression he made. He said to me, that same Saturday, ‘I trust that you don’t mind that my stereo takes up some of your space in our room, because, after all, you’ve brought so little into the mix here that you’ve got more than enough space as it is, and, besides, you’ll have the benefit of it when I listen, instead of your having to be limited to that tinny little radio you have.”
As it turned out, I had no benefit of it, because when Milton played his music, as he did for hours at a clip, invariably classical, or, as he called it, “serious” music, he talked constantly, informing me of a “breathtaking” passage coming up or a “badly misinterpreted” violin solo. So, after a couple of days of that, I told him he had to use his headphones whenever he had music on while I was in the room. Though he seemed a little bewildered at that, he agreed, but there wasn’t much improvement anyway because as he listened he whistled and hummed, his fingers now and again drumming his desk-top, or even the walls. Sometimes, I couldn’t resist stopping people on our floor and ushering them in for a look at him. As they stared at him incredulously, Milton would cheerily wave at them and, it seemed, perform even more vibrantly, absolutely unaware of what they had to be thinking. “What a bizarre fucker,” I’d mutter, and they’d silently nod their agreement.
In the cafeteria he would seek me out, plop his tray down beside me, spread his arms out alongside it, bow his head, and spray his blessing over the food in a loud, moist whisper. On the stroke of his “Amen,” Milton would look up, grin, say something like “Smile, the Lord loves you,” and start shoveling in his food, his breath coming in heaving groans, his thick lips smacking percussively, his chin dripping with whatever had oozed from the corners of his mouth.
Crossing campus, I’d occasionally hear my name being trumpeted and turn to see Milton galumphing along after me and beginning to chat loudly from twenty yards away about the “beastly dull” lecture he’d just sat through, “nothing like the stimulating matter” he’d absorbed at MIT, or telling me in all earnestness something like “It pains me to think of a good sort like you being damned for all eternity. You really ought to come to our Wednesday night discussion group at Mt. Pisgah Baptist this week, old fellow; there’s this chap speaking who converted from Judaism after hearing his own four-year-old daughter ask him in Yiddish, in the very accents of his late mother, to accept Jesus, and, old top, the child had never heard a word of Yiddish in her life. Isn’t that amazing?”
Amazing, indeed, wasn’t it?
I’d tell people about him, and they’d sympathize and ask why I didn’t find another room. A fair enough question. At first, I couldn’t have, had I wanted to. The grad dorm was booked solid. This was during Vietnam, and a student deferment had allowed many a guy who didn’t care to carry a gun to spend a few more years carrying books. After a few weeks I heard that a couple of slots had opened up, but I didn’t take them. I suppose one reason was that I had made Milton’s mother something of a promise, after all; even though I knew there was nothing either I or anyone else could really do for the grotesque that had issued from her womb, I told myself I owed it to her to hang around on the odd chance that I might at least be able to keep him from stepping in front of a steamroller or falling down a well.
Truth to tell, though, an essentially coerced promise from a stranger’s mother can’t exert much pull, especially to a fellow like me whose fervent goal was to see his own parents only a couple of times a year at most (a goal I managed, happily enough, to attain). So, I suppose, I stayed with Milton mainly because he interested me, and I was willing to put up with a good bit to watch him, even with hearing him say to me a few times things like “You’re about the best chum I’ve got, you know.” What was Joseph Conrad’s term?—“the fascination of the abomination,” I think? Well, that’s what Milton exuded for me, so I stayed and recoiled and watched.
Whistling indoors and out, praying, bragging about his undergraduate achievements, he was constantly euphoric. Once, when I was worrying that another big troop call-up might eventually lead all of us grad students into the draft, Milton cheerily said, “Well, a fellow with my background, you see, would be sent to some government lab where I’d have some great fun coming up with new chemical weapon possibilities. Quite interesting, I should think.”
“Quite,” I answered, “and your Savior will think so, too.”
“Remember what He told us about rendering unto Caesar,” he said cheerfully.
I sighed and said nothing further about his personal relationship with the Son of God.
And then there was the mist of euphoria that surrounded his personal relationship with his “gal,” as he called her, the woman his mother so feared and loathed. The day after his mother went back to New York, having urged him not to do anything “rash” with regard to this woman, Milton had written her a formal proposal of marriage. I didn’t know this, he only showed me the thing after she accepted—he’d actually written phrases like “Do me the honor of exchanging nuptial vows with me” and “most profound expectations of wedded bliss.” It was an astounding piece of work. And, what seemed probably even more astounding, she accepted.
I was really curious to see how all this would play out, but there was that promise to Milton’s mother. So I felt duty-bound to say, “You’re sure that you’re not rushing into anything here, Milton, you’re sure that you don’t need to give this a little more thought?”
“Oh no,” he said. “Of course, I know Mother has some misgivings, but you know how mothers are, old chap, so overly protective, you see. She just doesn’t know Gloria as I do. Here, just take a gander at my gal.” And he reached into his wallet and handed me her photo.
She was blond with a face that looked as if it had once been working-class hard and had since softened with fatigue and regrets. Her eyes, wrinkled at the corners, were a faded blue, and though her cheeks were a bit puffy, her mouth was thin, drawn, and lined. She looked as if she once might have almost been attractive. She was also clearly at least ten years older than Milton. I guessed that she must have seen him as her last shot at something different from what she’d known.
They’d met at, of all places, one of those revival meetings Milton attended back on the MIT campus, where Gloria had begun some sort of office work. Whether she’d taken it into her head to find Christ or merely to find some nerd with prospects who was looking for Christ, I don’t know, but she showed up and Milton was smitten immediately.
“She was the only female there, among the seven or eight of us lads,” he told me, “and when I saw that a looker like her was interested in getting closer to Jesus, it sure did make an impression on this old boy. And I’ve always been partial to blondes, actually. Most of the chicks I’ve sowed the old wilds oats with have been blondes, y’know.”
My guess was that, in fact, Gloria was the first girl he’d ever dated, but I said nothing.
“Well,” Milton said, “Jesus blessed me by letting me stand next to Gloria during the fellowship circle, and her right hand was in my left, and I couldn’t resist giving it a tiny squeeze, and after what seemed an eternity, my honey squeezed back, and I felt a charge run straight to the old ticker, and I knew God had rewarded me for coming to Him. And, boy oh boy, I’m sure looking
forward to returning to the home fires each night, with a dish like her waiting for me. We’re tying the conjugal knot right after the semester ends and, needless to say, old sport, you’re invited to see us get hitched. I’m anxious for her to meet my pal.” And he grinned at me happily. I envisioned it all as playing out like some ancient horror film—“The Bride of Blacke-Cummings” struck me as a marvelous title for it. As I chuckled at my notion, Milton whistled a few bars of the Wedding March, gratified to see how pleased I was for him.
As it turned out, I didn’t make it to the wedding, but I did get to meet Gloria anyway. She came down for a weekend in early November. When Milton told me she was coming, I razzed him a bit, insisting that I felt honor-bound to act in loco parentis and keep two dangerously impetuous Christians from jeopardizing their chances of eternal happiness with a few moments of stolen lust. “Milton,” I said, “I don’t want the two of you looking back on this weekend with remorse, mutual loathing, and self-contempt.”
The truth, though, was that, Milton had no intention whatever of diving onto the hot premarital sheets. “No,” he said, “you haven’t the foggiest about our plans, old man. There won’t be the least bit of hanky-panky, my word on it. This gal’s not that sort, and she’s making me toe the old line, which, I have to confess has not been my way with the other women in my life.”
“You mean your mother and grandmother?”
Milton said, “That’s not amusing. Hellishly vulgar, really.”
I nodded as if contrite, while I was thinking that if Milton’s mother was right about her, it was Gloria for whom toeing the old line would be the big change. Meanwhile, mollified, he went on, “No, Gloria and I are restraining ourselves until that fellow at the altar gives us the go-ahead. We don’t want to sully the sacramental nature of our marriage, you see. But I can’t swear that I won’t plant a few wet ones smack-dab on her lips, starting right at the airport.”
But on the drizzly Friday afternoon that she arrived, I was the one waiting for Gloria at the terminal. A special lab session had been suddenly called for one of Milton’s courses, a session “too bloody important” for him to miss, so he asked me as his “one real chum on campus” to pick her up for him and take her to her motel. I couldn’t think of any plausible excuse on the spur of the moment, so there I was, scanning the arrivals for the poor soul who’d flown seven hundred miles to be with my roommate, her betrothed.
I recognized her immediately. She looked as she did in the photo I’d seen, except a little more tired and a little older. Large-breasted, slightly thick-legged, and a bit overweight, she was heavily made up, with a smear of bright lipstick, broad swatches of rouge, and caked powder. In her stiff bouffant, high heels, A-line dress, and full-length coat, she looked like a factory worker dressed for church or a secretary doing her best to look “professional.” She might also have been taken for a former cocktail waitress who’d spent the better part of her twenties in some of Boston’s shabbier watering holes.
When I introduced myself and told her that Milton would join her at the motel in a couple of hours, she sighed, as if she was glad to have a little more time by herself before having actually to face Milton as her fiancé.
In the car I offered her a cigarette, which she took eagerly, confessing, “Milton doesn’t want me to smoke—the whole cancer thing, you know. He also told me that he thought it was ‘hellishly vulgar’ for a woman to have a cigarette in her mouth. I don’t know. Maybe he’s right. He’s pretty brilliant, I think.”
“Yeah, I guess he is,” I said, and let it go at that.
There was a pause as if she were expecting me to say something more. When I didn’t, she went on, “Anyways, I’m gonna give up smoking. If Milton and I ever wanna have a kid, it’s better if the mother’s not smoking when she’s pregnant and better if the kid doesn’t grow up with smoke smelling up the whole house.”
“Personal reformation project, huh?”
“I suppose so,” she said.
“Yeah, Milton mentioned that he met you at some old-timey revival meeting or something.”
“Well, it was a meeting where people could be born again.”
“And were you?” I asked, smirking a bit, I’m afraid—it was hard not to whenever I was dealing with anything that involved Milton. “Maybe. I hope so,” she said, with a sad, tired smile. “Anyways, I’d like to do better this time than I did after I was born the first time, that’s for sure.” And she took a long drag on her cigarette and stared out the window at the gray, damp landscape.
We made some small talk for the rest of the ride. I don’t recall much about it other than that Milton’s name never came up again.
I didn’t see much of either Gloria or Milton that weekend. On Friday evening, after Milton got back from his lab, he picked her up at the motel, took her out to dinner and then to a moral uplift lecture of some sort at his church. He was back in our room not long after midnight, saying “What a gal! Whoever said that love at first sight doesn’t last? And, boy, was that honey ever pleased to see this lucky bloke, and I was so proud to pay for her at the restaurant! I figured that it needn’t be Dutch treat anymore now that we’re engaged and after she was so decent about paying for her flight and accommodations down here. She understands that a young fellow has to save his dough. And I’ll tell you, we did some genuine smooching!”
“Nothing to endanger your eternal souls, I hope.”
“It was bloody hell to hold off with a gal like that,” he said, “but I can tough it out till our wedding night.”
Saturday, he showed Gloria the campus, took her to a shopping mall and dinner, and then to a movie. It was “My Fair Lady.” I remember when I got in about one that night from a date of my own, Milton was loudly singing “I’m getting married in the morning.” He asked me as we turned out the lights if I thought Gloria looked “a wee bit like Audrey Hepburn around the eyes.”
“Yeah,” I told him, “sure, I think she does a little. I noticed that right off, the other day.”
Sunday morning they were at church, and in the afternoon they went to a church picnic. Sunday night they were at evening worship. By eleven, Milton, thoroughly content with the way his weekend had gone, was back in our room
“Better get to sleep, Milton,” I told him. “You’ll need to save your strength for an impassioned farewell at the airport tomorrow morning.”
“I wish,” he said, “but something’s come up for my prof in 675, and he can’t meet his undergrads in the morning. He asked me if I could pitch in for him. It’ll be deadly dull, really. They’re not much, you know, the undergrads here, never would have gotten into MIT, but I want to stay on this codger’s good side. So, I know it’s a damnable imposition and all that, but since you don’t have class till tomorrow afternoon, would you be a good fellow again and take Gloria to the airport? I’m perfectly willing to reimburse you for the gas, if you wish, and for Friday’s, as well. I shouldn’t think it’d be more than two gallons total.”
“Don’t forget wear and tear on the car and tires,” I reminded him.
“Oh,” he said, “I didn’t think you’d be such a penny-pincher as that.”
“That’s all right, Milton, I don’t need to be reimbursed.”
“Thanks, you’re a real brick—we’re trying to get a nest egg growing, you see—otherwise, I’d simply call for a cab, but that could run into some serious bloody change, what with a tip and all.”
“No,” I said, “a tip to the cab driver might put a serious crack in the nest egg.”
So the next morning I was at the motel, knocking on Gloria’s door. She opened it with tears in her eyes, looking as if she’d been crying for hours. When I asked what was wrong, she hesitated and then told me that the evening before, just after he’d kissed her good-night, Milton had pulled out a sealed envelope and handed it to her, saying, “My mother wanted me to give this to you. I think it’s to welcome you to the family. I’ll let you read it in private, and you can tell me about it when you call me from Boston tomorrow night.”
Blushing deeply and starting to sob, Gloria handed me the letter. The gist of it was that Mrs. Blacke-Cummings said she knew Gloria was no good but hoped that she would not be as hideous a wife to her son as everything she knew of the girl’s past made clear she was likely to be.
Gloria lay on the bed, heaving with sobs as I read the thing. “Well, it gives you a convenient out if you think you need one,” I said when I finished. “After all, he is a first-class prick. Anyone can see it.”
“Oh Christ,” she cried, “what am I gonna do? I know he’s got problems, but he loves me. He’s the only guy who ever really has, and I thought I could make him a good wife, and he could grow a little, and we could have kids, a house, the whole deal. I mean I’ve made my mistakes, but I’m not a bad person.” And getting up from the bed, she stood before me and repeated tearfully “I’m not!”
The next minute, I was grasping her shoulders, as I told her of course she wasn’t all that bad. A moment later I had pulled her toward me, and then we were on the bed.
We stayed in bed till late afternoon. A phone call to the airport had gotten her on a later flight for just a twenty-five-dollar penalty, and I figured I was due a little vacation from my afternoon class. She was a fierce lover, eager and needy. Milton, I told myself, was in for quite an initiation. She almost made me forget that she wasn’t all that attractive.
Finally, as it got closer to the time to leave for her new flight, we lay quietly, side by side. She asked, “Will you visit me in Boston?”
I laughed with surprise, then said, “Well, I really don’t see what the point would be, since you’re still going to marry Miltie anyway, aren’t you? You’re the one who said you both could grow, and, let’s face it, you could do a lot worse than marrying that prick, couldn’t you?”
“My God, you really do hate him, don’t you?” she said.
“Maybe. All that pretentious, phony British crap of his, all the Christer baloney he never lets up on, all that goddamn, relentless cheerfulness, all his blindness to the impression he’s really making. It pisses me off, I suppose.”
“I’ve seen worse,” she said. Then, after a moment, she went on, “I don’t have to marry him, you know.” And she gave me a little smile. “I’d be willing to reconsider.”
I sighed, looked up at the ceiling, and said, “My advice is to forget the letter and hang onto old Miltie.”
For a few seconds she didn’t say anything, then asked “Why did you make love to me today?”
“Why did I get into bed with you?” I said, “I don’t know. I suppose because you were all beat up and I felt sorry for you and sort of attracted to you.”
“Yeah, ‘sort of,’ she answered, turning over, leaning on one arm and studying me. “Tell me something. Did you go to bed with me because you wanted to be able to say to yourself you fucked Milton’s fiancée?”
“No,” I told her, “not really.”
“‘Not really.’ Great. Okay, look we’ve gotta get to the airport. Let’s get moving, okay?”
“Sure,” I said, “why not?”
When we got there, I helped her get her bags over to a skycap station. Then, as I said goodbye, I remembered the twenty-five-dollar penalty she had to pay for changing flights, so I pulled some money from my wallet. I had two twenties and a ten and couple of singles. I was about to give her thirty dollars, then thought it might be nice to give her something extra so maybe she could get herself a little something. So I handed her forty.
She gave a sort of dry laugh as she took the bills and said, “I hope I was worth it; and at least you didn’t have to pay for the room.” There were tears in her eyes again.
That line was uncalled for, of course, but I didn’t see the point of pushing things further, so I simply said, “I hope everything works out for you and Milton,” and I went back to the car.
I never saw her again. She did, in fact, marry Milton. Desperation must have trumped distaste. I wasn’t invited to the wedding, after all. Milton told me, “Sorry, old chap, but both Mother and Gloria have decided they prefer an intimate sort of family thing. We blokes can never figure the fair sex out, can we?” He was whistling when I let him out at the airport to fly north for his wedding.
Less than two months into their marriage Gloria tried to kill herself—apparently being Milton’s wife was harder for her than she’d anticipated. Just a week after her honeymoon she’d gone to see a psychiatrist, who’d prescribed something or other for her, and whatever it was, it obviously hadn’t worked, so she’d decided to take an overdose.
Some acquaintances of mine lived next to the happy couple at our university’s apartments for married students, and they told me the sad story. Arriving home from classes, they saw a medical emergency vehicle, and then saw the Blacke-Cummingses’ door wide open. Gloria, unconscious, was on the living room floor while the medics worked to save her. Milton, for once not cheerful, was pacing the room, wringing his hands and saying—and my acquaintances swore these were his actual words—“How could she do this to me? How could she do this to me? That medicine cost me almost thirty dollars.”
Gloria survived, left Milton for good, and moved back to Boston. I don’t know what became of her. And Milton, well, according to those same acquaintances of mine, he was genuinely baffled at the breakup but cheerfully vowed, as he put it, to “find myself another gal, one who doesn’t have something wrong with her.” Whether he ever did, I don’t know. After that semester together, I never spoke with him again. I saw him just a couple of times on campus and was able to avoid his noticing me. There was no need to speak to him; observing him for one semester had been enough.
The last I ever heard of him was that after he completed his doctorate he took a high-paying job with a major chemical firm, one that did have military contracts, by the way. I can’t say for sure, of course, but I’m quite confident that if he’s still alive he’s happy no matter how things have worked out for him, even if, as I have, he’s had to go through a couple of divorces. Well, at least neither of my wives tried to kill herself before or after leaving me.
I should note, I suppose, that just a year or two out of grad school, I did see Milton once more. It was in Washington, D. C., where I was working for a time as a civilian consultant at the Pentagon, helping to put out morale-boosting pamphlets for the troops in Vietnam. Anyway, I was walking down a crowded street one afternoon, and who should be coming toward me but Milton, talking enthusiastically to some poor fellow who probably wished fervently that either he or Milton, no matter which, were in the Mekong Delta just then. I couldn’t avoid my old roomie, so I said, “Hi, Miltie, how’s it going?” He walked past without a sign of noticing me. I counted myself blest, though I wondered whether he really failed to notice me or just didn’t choose to acknowledge me. Had Gloria told him about our afternoon together at the motel? Well, I guess I’ll never know, will I?
In any case, Milton survives for me as the happiest man I’ve ever known. And through my four decades of teaching, after I finished my little stint at the Pentagon, Milton also survives for me, as I’ve said, as a truly valuable pedagogical talking point.
You see, when I teach the famous “Divinity School Address” by Emerson, I take up his notion that heaven and hell are here and now, and I ask my students how a bad person might be in hell while still alive. Drawing on their full store of worldly inexperience, they tell me that the bad know their own corruption and privately loathe themselves for it.
But I convince them finally that such is rarely the case, that, just as Emerson claims, those who are in hell here and now rarely know it and go on, thoroughly satisfied with themselves, ever more thoroughly out of acquaintance with God. My regaling the students with Milton’s case and especially with that scene of Gloria lying in his living room convinces them of that. Frankly, though, in spite of the ready lesson I draw from Milton, when all is said and done, he puzzles me to this day. It remains absolutely mystifying to me that someone so repellent could be so pleased with himself.