Lesson No. 3: Writing Loneliness with Charles Bukowski



by Charles Bukowski

Edna was walking down the street with her bag of groceries when she passed the automobile. There was a sign in the side window:


She stopped. There was a large piece of cardboard in the window with some material pasted on it. Most of it was typewritten. Edna couldn’t read it from where she stood on the sidewalk. She could only see the large letters: 


It was an expensive new car. Edna stepped forward on the grass to read the typewritten portion:

Man age 49. Divorced. Wants to meet woman for marriage. Should be 35 to 44. Like television and motion pictures. Good food. I am a cost accountant, reliably employed. Money in bank. I like women to be on the fat side.

Edna was 37 and on the fat side. There was a phone number. There were also three photos of the gentleman in search of a woman. He looked quite staid in a suit and necktie. Also he looked dull and a little cruel. And made of wood, thought Edna, made of wood.

Edna walked off, smiling a bit. She also had a feeling of repulsion. By the time she reached her apartment she had forgotten about him. It was some hours later, sitting in the bathtub, that she thought about him again and this time she thought how truly lonely he must be to do such a thing:


She thought of him coming home, finding the gas and phone bills in the mailbox, undressing, taking a bath, the T.V. on. Then the evening paper. Then into the kitchen to cook. Standing there in his shorts, staring down at the frying pan. Taking his food and walking to a table, eating it. Drinking his coffee. Then more T.V. And maybe a lonely can of beer before bed. There were millions of men like that all over America.

Edna got out of the tub, toweled, dressed and left her apartment. The car was still there. She took down the man’s name, Joe Lighthill, and the phone number. She read the typewritten section again. “Motion pictures.” What an odd term to use. People said “movies” now. Woman Wanted. The sign was very bold. He was original there.

When Edna got home she had three cups of coffee before dialing the number. The phone rang four times. “Hello?” he answered.

“Mr. Lighthill?”


“I saw your ad. Your ad on the car.”

“Oh, yes.”

“My name’s Edna.” 

“How you doing, Edna?”

“Oh, I’m all right. It’s been so hot. This weather’s too much.”

“Yes, it makes it difficult to live.”

“Well, Mr. Lighthill…”

“Just call me Joe.”

“Well, Joe, hahaha, I feel like a fool. You know what I’m calling about?”

“You saw my sign?”

“I mean, hahaha, what’s wrong with you? Can’t you get a woman?”

“I guess not, Edna. Tell me, where are they?”



“Oh, everywhere, you know.”

“Where? Tell me. Where?” 

“Well, church, you know. There are women in church.”

“I don’t like church.”


“Listen, why don’t you come over, Edna?”

“You mean over there?”

“Yes. I have a nice place. We can have a drink, talk. No pressure.”

“It’s late.”

“It’s not that late. Listen you saw my sign. You must be interested.”


“You’re scared, that’s all. You’re just scared.”

“No, I’m not scared.”

“Then come on over, Edna.”


“Come on.”

“All right. I’ll see you in fifteen minutes.”  

It was on the top floor of a modern apartment complex. Apt. 17. The swimming pool below threw back the lights. Edna knocked. The door opened and there was Mr. Lighthill. Balding in front; hawknosed with the nostril hairs sticking out; the shirt open at the neck. “Come on in, Edna…”

She walked in and the door closed behind her. She had on her blue knit dress. She was stockingless, in sandals, and smoking a cigarette.

“Sit down. I’ll get you a drink.”

It was a nice place. Everything in blue and green and very clean. She heard Mr. Lighthill humming as he mixed the drinks, hmmmmmmm, hmmmmmmmm, hmmmmmmmmm…He seemed relaxed and it helped her. Mr. Lighthill—Joe—came out with the drinks. He handed Edna hers and then sat in a chair across the room from her.

“Yes,” he said, “it’s been hot, hot as hell. I’ve got air-conditioning, though.”

“I noticed. It’s very nice.”

“Drink your drink.”

“Oh, yes.” Edna had a sip. It was a good drink, a bit strong but it tasted nice. She watched Joe tilt his head as he drank. He appeared to have heavy wrinkles around his neck. And his pants were much too loose. They appeared sizes too large. It gave his legs a funny look.

“That’s a nice dress, Edna.”

“You like it?”

“Oh yes. You’re plump too. It fits you snug, real snug.”

Edna didn’t say anything. Neither did Joe. They just sat looking at each other and sipping their drinks. Why doesn’t he talk? thought Edna. It’s up to him to talk. There is something wooden about him. She finished her drink.

“Let me get you another,” said Joe.

“No, I really should be going.”

“Oh, come on,” he said, “let me get you another drink. We need something to loosen us up.”

“All right, but after this one, I’m going.”

Joe went into the kitchen with the glasses. He wasn’t humming anymore. He came out, handed Edna her drink and sat back down in his chair across the room from her. This drink was stronger.

“You know,” he said, “I do well on the sex quizzes.”

Edna sipped at her drink and didn’t answer.

“How do you do on the sex quizzes?” Joe asked.

“I’ve never taken any.”

“You should, you know, so you’ll find out who you are and what you are.”

“Do you think those things are valid? I’ve seen them in the newspaper. I haven’t taken them but I’ve seen them,” said Edna.

“Of course they’re valid.”

“Maybe I’m no good at sex,” said Edna, “maybe that’s why I’m alone.” She took a long drink from her glass.

“Each of us is, finally, alone,” said Joe.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, no matter how well it’s going sexually or love-wise or both, the day arrives when it’s over.”

“That’s sad,” said Edna.

“Of course. So the day arrives when it’s over. Either there is a split or the whole thing resolves into a truce: two people living together without feeling anything. I believe that being alone is better.”

“Did you divorce your wife, Joe?”

“No, she divorced me.”

“What went wrong?”

“Sexual orgies.”

“Sexual orgies?”

“You know, a sexual orgy is the loneliest place in the world. Those orgies—I felt a sense of desperation—those cocks sliding in and out—excuse me…”

“It’s all right.”

“Those cocks sliding in and out, legs locked, fingers working, mouths, everybody clutching and sweating and determined to do it—somehow.”

“I don’t know much about those things, Joe,” Edna said. “I believe that without love, sex is nothing. Things can only be meaningful when some feeling exists between the participants.”

“You mean people have to like each other?”

“It helps.”

“Suppose they get tired of each other? Suppose they have to stay together? Economics? Children? All that?”

“Orgies won’t do it.”

“What does it?”

“Well, I don’t know. Maybe the swap.”

“The swap?”

“You know, when two couples know each other quite well and switch partners. Feelings, at least, have a chance. For example, say I’ve always liked Mike’s wife. I’ve liked her for months. I’ve watched her walk across the room. I like her movements. Her movements have made me curious. I wonder, you know, what goes with those movements. I’ve seen her angry, I’ve seen her drunk, I’ve seen her sober. And then, the swap. You’re in the bedroom with her, at last you’re knowing her. There’s a chance for something real. Of course, Mike has your wife in the other room. Good luck, Mike, you think, and I hope you’re as good a lover as I am.”

“And it works all right?”

“Well, I dunno…Swaps can cause difficulties…afterwards. It all has to be talked out…very well talked out ahead of time. And then maybe people don’t know enough, no matter how much they talk…”

“Do you know enough, Joe?”

“Well, these swaps…I think it might be good for some…maybe good for many. I guess it wouldn’t work for me. I’m too much of a prude.” Joe finished his drink. Edna set the remainder of hers down and stood up.

“Listen Joe, I have to be going…”

Joe walked across the room toward her. He looked like an elephant in those pants. She saw his big ears. Then he grabbed her and was kissing her. His bad breath came through all the drinks. He had a very sour smell. Part of his mouth was not making contact. He was strong but his strength was not pure, it begged. She pulled her head away and still he held her.


“Joe, let me go! You’re moving too fast, Joe! Let go!”

“Why did you come here, bitch?”

He tried to kiss her again and succeeded. It was horrible. Edna brought her knee up. She got him good. He grabbed and fell to the rug.

“God, god…why’d you have to do that? You tried to kill me…”

He rolled on the floor.

His behind, she thought, he had such an ugly behind.

She left him rolling on the rug and ran down the stairway. The air was clean outside. She heard people talking, she heard their T.V. sets. It wasn’t a long walk to her apartment. She felt the need of another bath, got out of her blue knit dress and scrubbed herself. Then she got out of the tub, toweled herself dry and set her hair in pink curlers. She decided not to see him again.



“Loneliness” by Charles Bukowski (Read it again here, even if you read it already in the collection from Week 1. The second, third… re-reading is important.)


Writing Exercise

Write an additional scene or short short story, 1000 words or less, picking up where the short story ends. Study Bukowski’s ‘no holds barred’ language and unflinching details. Focus on either Edna or Joe: 

Edna is in her home, hair in pink curlers, contemplating how she will never see Joe again. Does she keep to that promise? Does she put herself in the same situation with another man? How might she come to a fuller realization of her choices? How is Edna culpable in her circumstance? 


Joe is rolling on the floor after being kneed in the groin by Edna, who has just walked out of the apartment. How does he cope with the violent rejection? Does he have another drink? Does he call someone? Does he go to a bar, pick up a prostitute…? How does he soothe his emotional wounds from this rejection? How does he face his own behaviors?

After you’ve written your first draft, change the name(s) of your character(s). In revision, give yourself freedom to depart from Bukowski’s original narrative and make this your own, though, if you prefer, feel free to keep your narrative within Bukowski’s framework. Whichever is most comfortable for you and feels best for your story/scene.



The “boy meets girl” story is a recurring theme in narratives. It is familiar and connective for readers. Knowing and intellectually exploring our own personal experiences with “boy meets girl” is an essential part of growing our narrative crafts. Again, emotional honesty and unflinching detail are key attributes toward build excellent “boy meets girl” narratives. Below, briefly describe a situation in which you found yourself either “preyed upon” or “rejected.” How did this experience effect you? Were you skittish with men/women afterward? Did you jump right back in? 


Rae Bryant, FacultyRae Bryant is the author of the short story collection, The Indefinite State of Imaginary Morals. Her stories and essays have appeared in print and online at  The Paris Review, The Missouri Review, Diagram, StoryQuarterly, McSweeney’s, New World Writing, Gargoyle Magazine,and Redivider, among other publications and have been nominated for the Pen/Hemingway, Pen Emerging Writers, &NOW Award and Pushcart Prize. She has won awards in fiction from Whidbey Writers and The Johns Hopkins University as well as fellowships from the VCCA and Hopkins to write, study and teach in Florence. She earned a Masters in Writing from Hopkins where she continues to teach creative writing and is editor in chief of The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review. She has also taught in the International Writing Program at The University of Iowa. Rae is the director of The Eckleburg Workshops. Rae is a member of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, AWP, NBCC, CLMP and Johns Hopkins Alumni Association. She is represented by Jennifer Carlson of Dunow, Carlson and Lerner.


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