“I don’t consider ‘Postmodernism’ and ‘Naturalism’ to be oppositional literary (life)styles; they are tools. I keep both in my tool kit and deploy them as I see fit. Both approaches represent ancient traditions, in any case.”
In 1966, the Murchesons moved to a better part of Golders Park, a lateral shift of no more than half a mile that made all the difference in the world. They moved from “Mud Lane” to the best street in the neighborhood, nicknamed “Fed’s Row” because most of the original home-builders had been colored employees of the Federal Government (postal workers) or had worked the steel mills in nearby Gary, Indiana, under naval contracts during the war. Benjamin Franklin Murcheson Sr. had been saving for over twenty years, since the end of the war and the birth of his son Benny Jr., to make that move, but his wife Ethel died about 15 months before the big day arrived. “Died doing laundry,” he’d say, early in the morning or late at night, “Might as well a-been breaking rocks in the penitentiary.”
The house that Mr. Murcheson paid cash for was attractive and small, on a hilly quarter acre of land decorated with apple and cherry trees, a black grape arbor and a two-car garage in which the previous owner had kept his horse. Mr. Murcheson’s seven children were named Thelma, Marva, Bernadette, Antonia, Edwina, Gloria and Benny Jr. , who was the youngest, at 22 the year they moved. Thelma, the oldest, was that same year 52 and lived in California with a self-ordained preacher who was older than Mr. Murcheson himself. The next daughter, Marva, was younger by quite a span. Marva was 40. Daughter number three, Bernadette, 39, remained in Chicago, a “spinster” school teacher. This was roughly thirty years before Bernadette could be referred to politely as a lesbian. The four youngest children still lived at home, and Benny Jr., being the only boy, was the luckiest because Benny was the only Murcheson who had never had to share a bedroom. Having a room of his own for as long as he could remember contributed, probably, to Benny’s preternatural sense of self and it is exactly of such seemingly trivial material, as Billie informs us in “God Bless the Child”, that a soul is made.
Benny Jr. was not tall or particularly handsome but he was terribly popular with the girls. He had high and prominent cheek bones and deep-cut dimples when he smiled. He had neat, close-cropped hair. Benny was courtly and amusing and full of “pep” … he was not cheap, didn’t eat cabbage with his hands, dressed well, was a great dancer and never once in all his life pressured, coaxed, worried, harried or otherwise hounded a female into risqué activity. And this was the secret of his popularity. That casual attitude.
“If a bus come, man, I catch it,” he’d say, “if it don’t, I jus’ walk.”
Benny never seemed particularly interested in any of the neighborhood girls he could choose from. Very few were aware of the fact that Benny’s sangfroid regarding sex was the result of a heartbreak dating back to his fifteenth year. He loved Her and She loved him but it wasn’t to be. Forces beyond their control conspired to keep them apart. Benny, not even old enough to shave when it happened, contemplated suicide: a .22, a straight razor, a mug of lye. Awkwardly drunk, he even laid his head on a tasseled pillow on the rusty cold B-and-O rail one night but the vibrations in the steel as the freighter thundered towards him bounced his head off the track.
After seven years, it still hurts. He has not held another girl nor has he abused himself, to spill his seed, in all that time. The pressure building within him is tremendous. But he adheres to his outraged code of honor and he lets the pressure build to heroic proportions.
He sees Her, from time to time, but always from a distance. Hanging laundry in Her mother’s back yard or posting a letter at the corner mailbox or crossing the street towards the shopping center. Not that his glimpses of Her are ever an accident. Not that his glimpses are kindly arranged by merciful Fate itself. He has to make the opportunities for himself.
He works the graveyard shift as the night watchman at the new Golders Park Shopping Center, so his days are free. There’s this show on television, a hit called Dragnet, and Benny learned a word from that show: stakeout. This is a stakeout. He sits and eats a cold lunch of an apple and a cucumber sandwich in his big old secondhand sky-blue Buick Roadmaster. He watches Her from across the street, or from up the alley and She knows he’s there and he knows She knows it. Benny’s hopeless fidelity to the idea of Her is only by the slightest degree different from what his mother Ethel, a fervent Baptist, used to call Faith. But this isn’t what they’d call blind faith because Benny can see Her.
Ethel Murcheson had known and liked Benny’s girl and had fully approved of Benny’s interest in her because the girl’s family was relatively prominent (they lived in the good part of Golders Park; the part that Ethel would never live to live in) and they were well-off and high-yellow eccentric. Creoles. When all that bad mess happened, Ethel was truly sorry and as scandalized as everyone else while being, in addition, terribly upset for her son. Benny’s mother had gotten the sickening story directly from Benny himself. The thing that had happened to Benny’s girl. He whispered the unbearable part when he told her.
Whenever Benny sees Her, she’s in the company of Her son, now seven, whom Benny has a difficult time not hating. There were times that Benny seriously entertained the notion. You know. There were times. You could hire someone right here in Mud Lane for as little as twenty dollars, the right time of year. Would anyone even notice?
Benny’s father comes into the kitchen and slaps him on the back and says, with a voice like a gravel road in Mississippi, “Forget about it, son,” knowing somehow that this is exactly what Benny is frowning about. “File it away.”
Golders Park, in 1966, was a lovely place. There was no way to extrapolate, back then, looking at all those well-kept, cutely gabled, modest wooden houses… all those oak trees and maples rippling with the dull silver of squirrels and studded with Kodachrome blue jays and finches and cardinals… no way to drive by those dewy hedges at dawn or stroll safely across the lightning-bug-bejeweled expanse of the 20 acre park at midnight… impossible to see all this and guess that within ten years the property values would plummet and the rot would creep in and putrefy yet another American dream. The black middle class was destined to be the canary in the coal mine under the post-War Boom.
But from Benny’s birth until the first flush of his young adulthood, life in Golders Park (ignoring the ten pounds of broken heart he was forced to lug around rotting in his chest) was as close to the American Dream as the average black Americans would get. Ever. Golders Park in 1966 had two black churches, several black barbers, a grammar school, a high school, two post offices, two filling stations (the kind with the dinosaur logo), a brand new shopping center (featuring a grocery store, an appliance outlet, a dry-cleaner, a record shop) and a library boasting more than twenty thousand hardcover volumes. There was even a movie house on the cusp between Golders Park and the neighborhood they all called Beverly Hills: the PARK THEATER.
The Park Theater. Benny saw Goldfinger there, with his father, the week it first came out: Murcheson Père et fils were wearing suits and ties and had their shoes polished simultaneously to a ceramic gloss in the red-carpeted foyer to the men’s room. They ordered hot buttered popcorn and a jazzy fountain refreshment called a Green River. Up until that day, Benny and his father had usually held hands through most of a show… just an old habit from Benny’s childhood… but this time they didn’t and would never again. This was going to be the first truly grown up night at the cinema for Benny and his dad, man to man. He will never I mean never forget sitting in that packed black grandiose auditorium with his head tilted back as the curtains parted and the opening bars of Shirley Bassey’s electrifying title song stunned him and his father and the crowd. Bassey’s salacious sturm und drang over a montage of the flame-filled silhouette of a naked white girl in repose. God-damn, thought Benny. If he’d known that the exquisitely caterwauling Miss Bassey was colored, a beautiful colored Brit… it probably would have been too much for his over-excited heart to bear.
Benny thinks often on the day he first saw Lula-Dee. Some of his friends already knew her and referred to her with equal parts lust and derision as The Gypsy Girl. Or Gypsy Woman, as in Curtis Mayfield’s sweet hit. This was because she had very long straight black hair and olive skin that went a ruddy brown every summer. Her face wasn’t so beautiful but you couldn’t ignore that hair. Hair like that on a black girl? Benny had never in his life on this earth touched hair like that… how did it feel? She resembled a character in the illustrated Bible he’d used in Sunday school. Benny thought she resembled Salome or Bathsheba or Delilah.
This was years ago that this stuff happened with Lula-Dee; 1958; six years before the Civil Rights Act. Benny was fifteen and she, as he later discovered, was seventeen. She was sitting on a bench at Nathaniel D. Golders Park at dusk, with the sun reaching up with its last lights over the tree tops at the western edge of the playing field. It was a casual game of softball and she was cheering her friends and drinking a grape Nehi out of the bottle with a straw. You could already hear the crickets and it must have been late in the summer because she was very brown and it was almost dark but young kids were still tumbling with mad shrieks from the swings on the playground and tearing helter-skelter around the grass, so it couldn’t have been much later than eight in the evening. Last call for supper for kids from good homes had already come and gone.
Benny sat himself down beside her, not on the bench proper but on its back-rest, hands clasped and chewing a long blade of grass. He sat there like that for twenty or thirty minutes, through several innings, not saying a word, enjoying the occasional boon of a shift in the wind that would push her hair and rustle her blouse and elevate the scent in his direction. Benny said not a word until a kid stood to bat, a kid named Raymond Simms who everybody called X-Ray because of his glasses, the lenses of which were thicker than tavern ash trays and X-Ray clutched his bat and squinted and blinked with helplessness in the general direction of the pitcher and Benny said, with a perfectly understated delivery,
“I ‘spect that young fella gonna need a bigger bat.”
And Lula-Dee laughed very, very hard at that, her hand on her chest in a demure way that hooked him.
Benny can’t walk through that corner of the park now without having some kind of breakdown, seven years later. That’s the devilishness of it… the lye in the eye of his soul: there’s only one of her. There are no replacements. He would gloat about that fact when they were together. He would think, with relish, with his arm around her at a dance: I have what I like and I like what I have. She was unique, his Lula-Dee. She wasn’t the most beautiful, nor the smartest, nor the strongest, and for all he knew she couldn’t boil water without a recipe. But she was one of a kind, and she was his, and he was already prepared to marry her. You could do that, with permission from the parents, get legally married at the age of fifteen in the state of Illinois. Marriage, job, house, kids, the works. Just like his daddy, who proposed to Benny’s mother in a streetcar after he saw her rolling around the corner, in and possibly out of his life forever again in four seconds and he just jumped on it. Murcheson blood, reflects Benny, ain’t thin.
And the pressure…
An apple, a carton of milk and a cucumber sandwich.
It’s so early in the morning and the air has such an insinuating chill to it that it occurs to Benny that a Thermos of hot alphabet soup would have been by far the superior breakfast. If I were sitting in my car about now, gloats Benny, I’d be wishing I had a radio, too. But it’s not Benny’s car; it’s a stolen ’63 Volkswagen Beetle, black, and it has a radio. Benny hasn’t stolen the car… he “stole” it from the people who stole it. He had to walk thirty blocks to the notorious junkyard/chop shop on Calumet Avenue at five in the morning where he knew for a fact that the mean-as-a-rusty-razor terrier who usually guarded it had been mortally injured the previous night in a heavily-bet-upon match and Benny’s fingers were numb when he twisted the ignition wires together after pushing the Beetle a ways off the lot. He popped the glove compartment and found a stack of Marvel comic books in it. And a half a pack of Lucky Strikes. He then tried the radio and discovered to his delight that it worked.
At this hour, all the radio had to offer was news and weather and ear-burning fast-talk in Spanish, but at eight forty five a.m. he would tune in to Charlie “Chinaman” Walker’s Rooster Hour at WVON. Walker played the gritty Chicago sound, such as the Chi-Tones and the True-Lees and Fontella Bass. He played The Dells, Ramsey Lewis, Sugar Pie DeSanto and the unmatchable Billy “Fat Boy” Stewart, who may have been from D.C., originally, but who recorded his most important stuff with Chess in Chicago whereas all the other stations played the same old Stax and Atlantic and Motown stuff. WVON was owned by Chess… that might have had something to do with it. Benny used to be a big Gene Chandler fan, but Benny caught Chandler doing his big hit, ‘Duke of Earl” at a surprise gig at the Algiers Lounge one night, bedecked pathetically in top hat, white gloves, a monocle and some kind of dime store medal around his neck and Benny wanted to throw his drink at the goof. This is not adult music, decided Benny, who was all of eighteen and already an introspective thinker busy formulating a workable philosophy of Existence. This ain’t real. From that point on, he concerned himself with the real.
When Billy Stewart came out with “Sitting in the Park” a year later, Benny pledged his allegiance forever. He saw Stewart, who was even fatter than legend had it, with his hair in a glistening pompadour, wearing a butterscotch plaid jacket, on stage at The Regal promoting the single soon after its release. He did that song and two others. The big man sang like he had the history of the planet trapped safely in his belly, and the notes and phrases… the style, the rage, the humor and majesty, were fully formed, were already in there for centuries… he just had to open his mouth and aim it all at the audience. He worked the microphone cord like a whip, sweating like a Georgia bricklayer and Benny sat on the edge of his seat in the balcony and even managed to forget about Lula-Dee for about two minutes and thirty five seconds. But, just as when one is given a general anesthetic for a root canal, the pain Benny managed to skip in his balcony seat at the Regal that night came back triple while he was walking home. But that didn’t matter: Billy Stewart changed Benny Murcheson’s life. For better or worse, under the raging tutelage of Stewart’s proud and inhumanly powerful voice, Benny went from contemplating suicide to contemplating murder. Perhaps he had become a man.
Along the Dan Ryan Expressway, near 85th street, towering over the traffic like an abstract variation on a sphinx: a huge advertisement for MagiKist Carpet Cleaners and it lit up spectacularly at night. So high in the sky: the Pharaohs would have loved it. And Benny drove with his father and several sisters right after the death of his mother to visit relatives in St. Louis, and he had an epiphany when, after several days in St. Louis he suddenly realized that there was no MagiKist sign looming over the highway in St. Louis and that the town where he lived, Chicago, was a specific place with a particular identity built up from irreplaceable details in Time and he was proud of it just because it was his, somehow. And he came to understand that pride is a big part of love and that pride is in the possession and that love without possession is a love without pride and it shames you. No longer would he allow himself to love what wasn’t his. Not that the whole matter was settled.
Far from it.
Benny is leafing through a Fantastic Four comic when he catches some movement in the upper right corner of his eye. He turns the radio off and tosses the comic book back in the glove compartment. He blows on his fingers to get some feeling in them again and waits a minute or two before very carefully re-connecting the stripped ignition leads. The VW jolts like an uncle roused from boozy sleep. Benny eases the car forward, as slowly as he can without stalling, trying to maintain a half-block distance behind the little nut-colored kid with the Prince Valiant haircut. It helps that the boy is a fast-walker; it helps that maybe he’s a little late for school.
For years, Benny was forced by his pious mother to attend Sunday school but the only thing he gleaned from the experience (other than developing an aversion to being addressed in a certain tone that only Sunday school teachers ever use) was a fascination for a passage that he stumbled across during one of his unauthorized readings of The Bible. His Sunday school teacher, Mrs. Hood, was firm about that: never read The Bible without adult supervision. You won’t understand what you’re reading, anyway. The Bible is not for children. But the passage was stuck in his head and haunted him whenever there was nothing else to think about, or when there was too much to think about. And now he thought of it:
-And Ehud said (to Eglon, the King of Moab), I have a message from God unto thee. And he arose out of his seat.
-And Ehud put forth his left hand, and took the dagger from his right thigh, and thrust it into Eglon’s belly:
-And the haft also went in after the blade; and the fat closed upon the blade, so that he could not draw the dagger out of his belly; and the dirt came out.
And the dirt came out. No Saturday matinee horror film ever left Benny with an image as powerful, as terrible, as… compelling… as that. Ehud wasn’t a killer, he was raised up by The Lord himself in response to a cry from the children of Israel to deliver them from the King of Moab. Ehud was chosen because he was left-hander, The Bible implies… Eglon would have had trouble defending himself against the thrust of a left-hander’s blade. The Bible described the blade. It was double-edged and a cubit in length. This is serious stuff. Level-headed and technical and described in such a way that it never left a doubt in Benny’s mind that it actually happened as described. Benny could imagine Eglon’s fat all yellow and clotted like chicken fat pushing fresh out of a plump, just-butchered fryer. He could picture the dirt. Sure, you stab the stomach, puncture the intestines… dirt will come out. If you don’t butcher a hog proper you get dirt too. You know what Benny is thinking? He’s thinking: don’t think about the knife.
He has a kitchen knife under the driver’s seat.
Benny waits until they’re three blocks away from “home” when he speeds up and cuts the kid off at a corner while the kid’s waiting to cross (looking dutifully left, then right), shoving the passenger door open and ordering the kid to get in. He knows exactly how to talk to this kid because he’s been observing him closely for most of the kid’s short life. Benny could tell from his posture that he would get right in the car when Benny told him to. This kid knows. He knows there’s some kind of mistake; some kind of accident. The kid gets right in the car.
Benny doesn’t even want to know his name. He reaches across and locks the passenger-side door and puts the car in gear and takes off. He lights a Lucky Strike on the electric lighter. You press the knob in, the plug on the end of the knob heats red, you touch the Lucky Strike to the poker-red plug when the knob pops out of the dashboard. He doesn’t smoke often but he feels the need to now and takes a deep drag and blows it out of his nostrils. What does he want? It’s like walking into a store full of too many things that you’ve been wanting for too long. Your mind goes blank. He’s been imagining this situation for five, six years. He knows if he doesn’t say something in the next second he never will so he says I’m driving you to school today and takes another long drag.
The kid shrugs.
“But first we gotta make a few stops.”
The kid looks out of the window.
This is awkward, Benny is thinking. This is awkward as a first date. In his imagination… in his thousand imaginings of this… it wasn’t awkward at all. Nossir, not a bit. Sometimes it was poetic. Sometimes it was quick.
Kid’s hair and lips and nose and something about the way he holds his head… all of that is his mother. Benny sees so much of Lula-Dee in that mouth that if he doesn’t watch himself he’s gonna lean over and kiss the damn kid. And that is not the plan. That is definitely not the plan. But it’s the goddamn eyes that Benny can’t stand to look at, because those eyes are Him, the rapist, those are His eyes and they have the nerve to look right at Benny, right at him, to remind him what rape is.
Benny says, How is she? Your momma. How is she these days?
Kid shrugs again. He’s staring out the window, watching trees, parked cars, everything roll by. Watches his school roll right by. Goodbye, school: doesn’t even react. Or maybe he’s so scared his shitting himself. Or maybe not. The expression on his face was like he’d been expecting Benny. It was like: finally. As though Benny wasn’t the only one suffering from the build-up of all this tension over the past seven years. Benny concocts an experiment: think about the knife and at the same time look at yourself in the rear view mirror and then you will know.
The thing is, it’s not a crazy plan. It’s not a stupid plan. Not a person on this Earth saw this kid get into the car with Benny and even if they did, it’s not Benny’s car, it’s stolen goods twice-removed. Benny knows exactly where he can go. There’s a freight yard not far from Lake Calumet. There ain’t nothing there but tons and tons of rusted shit and train tracks that go for about fifty yards in either direction and stop. After cooling it a bit, Benny will bring Lula-Dee a beautiful bouquet of flowers and say I’m so sorry… so sorry, My Lula-Dee… he gazes upon himself in the rear-view mirror, takes in his own eyes with a cautious glance and he crushes out the cigarette on the dashboard with the wild freedom of a man who does not own what he is defiling. And The Lord raised Ehud up…
“What would your father say if he saw you in this car with me?”
The kid looks down at his book bag and starts fucking with the buckle on it.
“What would you say if I said there’s no school today?”
Benny spots, up ahead, on his left, at a stop light that he has to speed up for to make the green, a girl waiting primly for the bus, waiting for the 115C towards Golders Park, a girl he knows from the shopping center. She must be on her way to work. LaVonne or Yvonne or Vonetta. Huge bosom in a powder-blue angora sweater, a red leather coat, big brown legs in a short white skirt and a bee-hive hairdo. Little bit of a double-chin but you expect that with a bosom of such magnitude. I could’ve had that. I could’ve had that, he gloats, but he isn’t interested, constrained as he is by his Spartan code. Seven years. Benny is a walking hard-on. But he has sworn to himself to let the pressure build in order to transform his useless heart into a bomb. That’s the beauty of it. It’s a matter of Faith. He lowers himself in his seat and the Beetle slips through the yellow light at exactly the moment that the 115C pulls over to pick busty Vonetta up and she never sees him. Never sees them. As if God willed it.
“What’s your daddy’s name? Do you know what your daddy’s name is?”
If rape is a sin, then what is the fruit of that rape?
“Damn,” says Benny, “you’re a talkative fellow, ain’t you? Your momma have a boyfriend these days? A man to take care of her?”
The roadside sights are thinning. This is actually a scenic route. The idea was to follow a route that would minimize the chance of Benny being spotted by anyone he knows and therefore the logical choice was to take kind of a detour through a white neighborhood. Drawback: a car with two colored mugs in it will definitely attract undue attention. Upside: the colored faces could be anyone, everyone and no one for all that these citizens care.
The houses are getting bigger and further apart. So much so that it’s beginning to look like a conspiracy. Lawns are greener, deeper, and ringed by higher and higher fences. It’s like a fast-forwarded film of economic progress itself as the Beetle speeds through increasingly fresher, higher, tree-replenished air. And Benny thinks: just how long is a cubit?
Benny is not conscious of the fact that the Beetle, climbing the subtle curve of a gently graded hill, is racing faster and faster as his foot grows heavy on the gas and from the left, as the Beetle strains the tether of the centripetal force that keeps it shy of the double white line dividing the road, Benny watches a squirrel dart out from a big front yard, followed by a big dog, a German Shepherd, squirrel and dog shooting from under the high bumper of an idling blue bakery truck and the Beetle slams into the dog with a hard bang. It feels like they’ve hit a sack full of firewood and they double bump over it skidding half a block and screeching to a skewed halt. The squirrel gallops into an unfenced yard across the wide street and rockets unharmed up a tree.
“Goddamn!” shouts Benny, banging the steering wheel, “Goddamn goddamn goddamn,” and he’s out of the car, engine still running. There’s a big round heart-shaped stain in the crotch of his khaki pants. Happened at the moment of impact: Benny saw stars and the earth appeared to be rolling backwards for a moment. Guess the cork blew. He legs it back across the path of the skid marks which shade from attenuated arabesques of blood into heavy black rubber streaks and the dog is laying there on its side with what looks like a raw red puppy nuzzling its teat but no it’s the dog’s heart, still beating and the animal is making a sound. Like it’s growling half-submerged in a puddle of water. It’s almost a funny sound… Benny can’t help it… he thinks of his youngest sister Gloria’s longest ever underwater fart in the bathtub. The delivery truck’s driver, a tall fat white man with sandy blonde hair and wings of sweat spreading in the pits of his sky-blue shirt despite the morning chill, comes to kneel beside the terrible thing. Peppermints on his foggy breath.
“Merciful Christ,” the white man cries, crossing himself . Then he gets a good look at Benny who looks so terrified that it’s terrifying and the white man says:
“Wasn’t your fault, son. But…”
He stares hard for several seconds and stands up. Has the white man noticed?
“I gotta go call the cops now and you better get the hell out of here.”
Benny is walking very fast towards the Beetle when the guy calls out to him, “Hey, aren’t you forgetting something?” And Benny turns around and the kid is standing back there staring at the dog-thing.
The Beetle makes a very cautious U-Turn and rolls back past the scene of the accident, rolls by the sticky and smudged black heap of dead and the back of the blue shirt and dark pants of the fat man walking towards the open gate the dog had escaped from. The entire event as Benny participated in it lasted three minutes. Benny is shaking uncontrollably and concentrating on keeping the car on the road and at a moderate speed until they are out of enemy territory. As they descend the hill he can feel the air pressure, and his heart rate, ease to normal. A post-adrenaline calm creeps in.
Jesus Christ, he whispers. He looks over at the kid who looks over at him and Benny lights another Lucky Strike. The kid has a knot on his forehead from when they ran over the dog. Looks like he got beaned by a fastball. Benny has a stain. What was he thinking?
Benny parks the Beetle in front of a rib joint on Throop Street, pulls his bolero shirt out of his pants to cover the stain, tells the boy to stay put and orders two deluxe rib dinners. The day is still young. Birds are singing. You have to love a neighborhood where you can buy a deluxe rib dinner (half a pound of baby-back ribs, fries, Cole slaw, strawberry Jello in a Dixie cup, an ice cold Pepsi Cola and two slices of Wonder bread, $3.99) on a Monday morning. It’s not even ten am. Rib joint called Hog Heaven. The kid handles his ribs with impeccable manners, just like Lula-Dee.