TRACK ONE/ SIDE ONE: PRENTIS & BENJI
Cowper Lundgren slipped into Benjamin Schamansky’s office with loafered stealth. Such loafered stealth that he was able to stand and watch Schamansky enjoying a smutty undergraduate humor magazine for a full minute before Schamansky noticed he wasn’t alone. Looking up and to his left suddenly Schamansky jumped out of his skin, catapulting the magazine against the acoustical foam in the ceiling, where it left a little dent. Lundgren’s hands were clasped behind his very straight back and the signature wave in his full head of hair gleamed white like his smile as the magazine crashed down upon Schamansky’s denimed lap.
“Fucking A, Dean,” said Schamansky, with both his hands on his denimed heart. Shaking. “Fucking A.”
“Benji,” he said with a smile.
“Give me a sec. Jesus.”
“Of course. May I?”
Chancellor Lundgren plucked the mag off Schamansky’s lap and flipped through it while Schamansky jerked open and slammed shut, in rapid succession, four or five little drawers in his desk. Lundgren studied each page he turned to in the magazine with a serious expression on his relatively unlined face before licking his thumb and turning to the next.
“The April issue,” said Schamansky, chewing, having found the gum he was looking for, heart no longer racing. He raked his hands through his hair. “Good issue. Go right to page 63.” On page 63, in the upper right corner, was an ad for mod-looking stereo speakers from a company called EMPIRE SCIENTIFIC CORP. Positioned behind a hi-tech speaker, in the ad, was a grinning, naked, fully-mustached man embracing a grinning, naked, large-breasted woman from behind. Lundgren said, without much heat,
“Those are truly magnificent,” and, “I can remember when you had to drive down to Tijuana if you wanted to see something like this.”
“Got it off the magazine rack in 7-11 this morning.”
“Amazing.” He handed the magazine back, shaking his head. “Where do you suppose it’s all headed?”
Schamansky offered a stick of his cinnamon chewing gum to Chancellor Lundgren and frowned into the middle distance as Lundgren took one, saying, “Society? I suppose things will keep heading in the general direction they’re heading. Maybe the rate of change will accelerate. X-rated movies on network Television by 1980. Afro-American in the White House by ’92. Howard Johnson’s on the moon by 2001. A talking computer in every library by 2050, maybe? Stuff like that.”
“Cinnamon always puts me in mind of a woman’s private parts,” said Lundgren, chewing carefully. “You’ll see more of what’s to come than I will. I envy you that. A world without racial prejudice… without war. I was born thirty years too early. My people were decent people, they were progressive in the context of their era, certainly, but they considered colored people , for example… my mother was born the year Nietzsche had Beyond Good and Evil published. So, you can imagine.”
“Well then, Benji.”
Chancellor Lundgren chuckled. “The students trust you.”
“The Freshmen do. The others know better, I think.”
“This combo they’ve hired out of the student union’s winter ball budget… the combo of colored musicians they’ve hired. You were on the committee for allocating those funds. You and Ms. Coolie and the freckle-faced Queer… what’s his name… Lundberg. Do you know anything about these musicians, Benji?”
“Just what I’ve heard on college radio.”
“What sort of thing is it?”
“Well, hard to describe, really. Very hard to describe.”
“Would you call it militant?”
” ‘Strange’ would be closer to it. Avant Garde. Some people are very excited about it. Not militant, though. I wouldn’t call it that at all, no.”
“I only ask because of the alumnae. St. Jeff’s is not a poor college. Out of curiosity: how much was budgeted for this musical group, Benji?”
“Three thousand and change.”
Lundgren whistled. “Because, here’s the thing. We’re at a point in recent history when, to be frank, if one of our esteemed benefactors among the alumnae even sees a colored face that isn’t on a box of oatmeal, they’re going to think of the Symbionese Liberation Army. If you…”
“Yeah, there is that to consider.”
“It’s the timing of the thing.”
“The pictures in the papers, though… an heiress robbing a bank with a machine gun! That’s hot stuff, Cowper. You have to admit. In that beret…”
“My word, yes. ”
What a strange conversation, he thought, two hours later under Prentis.
The music blasting through Schamansky’s live-in VW van, ironically, was from the album of the combo that Cowper had been so worried about. The colored combo playing Progressive Rock capable of curling Torquemada’s toes, as Benji would have put it if he were writing a review. Not the part about “colored”. Afro-American? It was lunch break.
Benji had pulled up to the corner of Selby and Grand where Prentis was already doing the “it’s chilly!” two-step and blowing silver clouds into her cupped hands in her Zelda coat with the high fur collar up. Benji had the heat roaring through the Beetle so when Prentis climbed in as he shoved the passenger-side door open without quite bringing the van to a complete halt she felt great just climbing in. He gunned the engine into a screeching U-turn, zigging left and zagging right, dumping her laughing across the mattress on the astro-turf. They hurried down the empty side streets to a nice spot overlooking the foam-flecked parade of the pewter river.
Prentis had brought the cassette with her again, of course, and slipped it into Benji’s old deck as he eased his earthship to its idling rest amid low-hanging branches. The tape took a whole squeaking minute to rewind to the beginning of side one before she could press down the temperamental “play” lever that had to be wiggled a little as she pressed it and kick off her Birkenstocks and shrug off her Zelda coat. She unbuttoned her silk blouse and shed her jodhpurs like a snake and already-naked Schamansky crawled back there and sprawled across the mattress, craning his neck up for a quick kiss, in time for the spoken-word intro. Then the thrilling opening aria over a persistent clash of cymbals and heroic run of pre-drum 16th-notes on the lead guitar plummeting headlong into song one, side one…
…. OUROBOROS BOBYRYGMUS
the flavor of infinity
the taste of one’s own soul
to swallow whole
Prentis Bell rode Benji on the mattress in his idling van, striped with diagonals of chilly April sun through the skewed rattan Venetians over the fogging windows. Leafy branches fluttered on the windshield facing the river. With her ruddy-blonde halo of static-fluffy hair she looked like a Hibernian princess out of the Robert E. Howard books Benji had loved as a precocious masturbator of all of eleven, his days already sore-pink and sodden with habitual tinglers while his school chums were still into pointless crap like jacks and air rifles. The van rocked on its springs under Prentis Bell’s needful power, which was governed by the throb and bang of the music which, itself, was nailed to a blind drummer’s foot. The blind drummer triggered Prentis’ whisking pelvic impacts from his double-kick pedals and when the singer hit his many operatic high-notes Prentis’ mouth hung open and her tongue lolled and her eyes rolled back in her mind. Whether or not she was faking, thought Benji, her ecstasies were real and it was all he could do to keep from cumming while watching her.
The immediate goal was to make it until the end of song two, side one.
The ultimate goal was to make it until the last note of the last song on side two, the high E the singer sustains, miraculously, for nearly an entire minute over the band’s cacophonous crescendo all gold-plated with horns, zithers and church organs. The goal was to last until that, to last for 43:33, until Prentis had her crowning orgasm during the last long miraculously sustained high E of the singer’s falsetto and only then could Benji in good conscience cum, since cumming, these days, for Benj, meant waiting at least an hour before he could think of cumming again or even stay reasonably hard. Thank the gods it wasn’t a double album. But: baby steps.
This was the third attempt. Benji’s best effort thus far was two minutes into the second song on side one. Prentis was beautifully forgiving about it. She was patient and willing to teach. She was, after all, a teacher. A real teacher, thought Benji, with opulent self-reproach. She mimed every lyric almost perfectly well as she ground him like an apothecary root with the pestle of her pubis. What kind of all-conquering phenomenon was this band becoming that a well-educated, middle class, naturalized Irish-American 32-year-old poetry teacher was as obsessed with O.N.E. as any working class second-generation Nicaraguan teeny-bopper from the wrong side of the goddamned tracks?
O N E
N E O
E O N
Benji was whispering I’m fucking you, I’m fucking you with tender violence and a frown of selfless concentration.
Anyone who wanted to peek through the crooked blinds to see Prentis riding Benji with the impersonal vigor of a woman straddling experimental equipment in a Reichian lab could have done so, which was part of the liberating fun of it all. Let the uptight housewife or frustrated municipal worker or hapless schoolboy playing hooky have their minds blown; was it any better or worse than watching dogs do it in the life-encrusted ghetto just a few blocks off campus to their North?
Imagine a catcalling crowd of young Negro men surrounding the VW, faces pressed against the glass of the windows, big pricks pressing against the VW’s rocking bod through rugged overalls. The old kind of sepia tone, bluesy, pastoral Negroes with bits of straw in their softly napped hair… not the new kind… not the feminist, intellectual, post modern, bare-chested, top-knot-wearing, above-pity vanguard like the heroes of the all-conquering O.N.E. No, the classic kind of untainted Negroes Benji loved and feared with all his heart.
A Mexican lunch lady waddled right behind the van on the grassy path on her way to the campus, wincing in the warp of the bottled blasts of music.
A shrew scooted out of the left rear wheel well.
Benji slipped half a finger into Prentis’ sweat-slick rectum pretending it was a little black cock and she reached back and yanked it out again without missing a beat and scrubbed down harder with the brush of her mons on his pubis.
Benji loved Feminism.
If loving Feminism made you a Feminist, Benji was a Feminist. It was 1974 and Benji had been teaching, professionally, in some form or another, since Grad School. But he had never gotten as much sheer pussy, in such heavy wet quality and quantity, as he’d been getting since Feminism exploded in the brand new decade’s earthtone sky and across TIME and LIFE and LOOK magazine and trickled down through Lefty bookstores and the leaky vaulting roof of academe, making everything sexy, sexier than it had ever been, sexier by far than the Paris of the 1920s or even Caligulan Rome, which both suffered from a lack of modern facilities of hygiene. Indoor plumbing and capitalism’s innovations in the field of soaps and deodorizers had opened new doors of body-joy for everyone. The door was open a little while before many really stepped through, though.
Back in 1969, the Summer of Supposed Love, he’d had one affair, a niggardly affair, a paltry jab or two, a few brackish licks and pokes and way too much awkward clean-up, at the age of 31, with somebody’s twice-divorced mother who’d had to pretend that Benji was a windbreakered rapist to enjoy the act without guilt, mouthwash-drunk as she was the two times they tried it. The mother of the kid with the receding hairline he was tutoring very poorly in calculus. This was long before Benji’s pop-physics book hit and the corn-colored beauties of the upper Midwest cocked and opened their unshaved legs and fruity monses for his uncurled nautilus. His nautilus was suddenly afloat on the sultry pink sea of little deaths. The ’70s were turning out to be everything the ’60s had pretended to promise. The ’50s: dire hand jobs from homely fiancées with skills in the kitchen. The ’60s: regretful sex with itchy hippies or frowsy Mrs Robinsons who referred to your cock as “you know what” and their pussies as “you know where”.
In 1974 alone, he’d fucked twelve or more Feminists, each a goddess, and that’s just the Feminists (not to mention his gloriously earthy lunch ladies) , there were overlapping Feminist trysts every month, most of the sisters uniformed in Gloria Steinem’s owlish glasses, slender and wry of tit and brown as Polynesians from picketing. No exaggerated tan lines, sadly (he dearly missed exaggerated tan-lines, the great invention of the Playboy magazine) because they sunbathed nude, in a Feminist cabal, reading Ms. Magazine and Simone de Beauvoir on the Student Union roof. The Zen cock trick was giving the Feminists firm handshakes and uninterrupted attention when they held forth and never (never) suggesting that they’d look better with their hair down or in a skirt instead of pinstriped slacks and taking it seriously (sincerely) when something pissed them off. No more patronizing chuckles. No more unsolicited feedback. Let them lead. Let them be the aggressors. Let them climb on top. Be the prey, Benji. The prey.
Men who didn’t get Feminism didn’t get Feminists.
Prentis sometimes wore a long white silken Isadora scarf around her neck for sexual style and wire-rimmed glasses like a tiara snagged in her perfumed nimbus of gilded flesh-toned hair but today she was magnificently unadorned. Prentis who pronounced “cock sucking” as cork sacking. Her hair the precise tone of the ruddy-blond flesh of inner-illuminated cherubs. Benji’s mitts were on the inverted teacups of her very faintly tan-lined boobs. Those sweetly not-big tits. Tits like the mathematical symbol for tits. Schamansky felt like a bear in an enchanted china shop in a psychedelic version of a Grimm’s fairytale with a savage sexual subtext as they rolled into song two…
come plumb troves of darkened psyches
wanderlust in gloom
telling tales of schizo nikes
beasts and gods on shrooms
Benji mistakenly thought that Prentis thought, mistakenly, that she was fucking like a man thought sex should be: an honest mistake. And of course he was profiting from this mistake. But these energetically beautiful young women who put their diaphragms in every morning (more natural than the Pill), just in case, screwing at the drop of a hat, all over campus, owned by no one but themselves and circumscribed by no hoary desert-convention of the intact hymen as a commodity to be traded for guaranteed life-long financial support and social status: they weren’t acting like men, they were acting like their mothers. Their upper-middleclass, pre-menopausal mothers. Which was great, wasn’t it? If there was anything more exciting than a divorcee’s to-hell-with-it rapacity wedded to a face undamaged by alcohol, Benji had no idea what it could possibly be at that moment.
He slipped a finger into Prentis’ sweat-and-pussy-goo-slick rectum and she yanked it out again and slapped him (not hard) without missing a beat and pinned his wrists to the mattress and bore down on him with redoubled intensity, her shifting woof of pyrite hair a visual effect on his face.
He was busy trying not to cum while wanting to remain hard, the Scylla and Charybdis of 36. At 20 he could hold out no longer than five minutes before cumming in 5000-volt spasms and unbelievable volume (he’d once accidentally put out a scented candle from the other side of the room) but he could do it five times in a row, then, too.
I’m fucking you, I’m fucking you.
Benji had torn the seats out of the middle of the van and carpeted it with astro-turf and had Venetian blinds put in place by a local craftswoman, to lift or lower at will, installed in every window and plush green carpeting or astro-turf on most every surface, including the curved ceiling and over the seats up front and on the panels of the sliding door, the customization costing him about 800 dollars of his first royalty check for The Physics of Lit, the premise of which he had sincerely believed in when he’d started the project and gotten an advance for the book proposal but about three-quarters of the way through it he’d found himself wondering.
Prentis hopped off and did a 180 and rode his face for a bit and swung around 180 again and scooted down the hirsute length of his torso on the sweaty little balls of her tits to suck his extravagantly curving cock down her throat while gently clawing his nipples, then squeezed the curved cock’s base to lock the purpling hard-on and extracted it to re-mount with the callisthenic speed and fluidity of a motorcycle stunt. All to an instrumental passage of astonishing complexity in 9/8 time…
…THE CRAFT OF AGON
He’d started writing the first draft of The Physics of Lit in ’67 and put it away and started in on it again in ’69 and that was how he thought back then, in an unshakeable sense, that’s how he thought at the age of c. 30. The book was finished in 1970 and out for Christmas of ’71-’72 and he was a different guy by then, a different guy already in ’69, three quarters of the way through it, thinking more and more often that he belonged to a pampered Western sub-culture of naive fantasists under the unwavering control of hard-eyed realists in charge of starting wars and mailing the electricity bills and ordering Mafia hits on upstart ethnic Presidents. But he’d already spent the advance money and when the book was a hit and the royalty checks came in and he was offered a wonderful position at St. Jeff’s teaching a course in his own book (about which no cocky student could possibly gainsay him the way they might gainsay a teacher teaching Newton or Tolstoy), what was he going to say, “I made it all up?”
Not that he didn’t occasionally sort of believe in it, especially when he was teaching it to 19-year-olds like his and Prentis’ students, who not only believed the teachings that came straight out of Benji P. Schamansky’s head but took it all for granted as sort of obvious, credulity being every bit as contagious, in a crowd of upper-middle class pot heads, as terror.
“B. Penrose Schamansky” had made a small fortune with his bestseller, that medium-fat paperback with a Yin Yang somewhere on the cover and an embossed title in silver script. He had promptly spent the two or three phases of windfall (all he had to show for it now was his trusty live-in VW van and an okay-sized boat he rarely used on a local river that held some sex but little mystery for him and a chunk in the bank) but managed to finagle this sinecure at a rich private college in the middle of Holy Nowhere where they granted him a feelgood course named, verbatim, after the paperback. The first half of the first line of the book had originally been “There is no such thing as the ‘immaterial’,” but his editor had asked him to lower and beef up the tone just a smidgen and they’d come up with a much-punchier “Everything, even the wildest fancy of your imagination, is Real.”
Tallish, neat-bearded, meaty Schamansky, who had almost studied Theoretical Physics and had a master’s in Eng Lit and had dabbled in Neurobiology without sticking it out for any kind of status-conferring degree, proposed, in essence, in his book, that when a writer really concentrates on a scene or a character, he or she actually creates a vital and dynamic hologrammic model (he coins/copyrights the terms “Hologrammar” and “Quasicosm” and “Logogenetic”), from subatomic particles, in four+ dimensions, in the particle accelerator of the writing mind.
I’m fucking you, I’m fucking you.
Further, and wilder, the book argues that the characters a writer-and-then-reader creates are, literally, alive, because the mind is alive and the quality of Lifeness is a set of conditions imposed by a field delimited in four+ dimensions by balanced equations in constant parlous flux, animating subatomic matter in real time, on an infinitesimal scale, with the measurable force of the Imagination and the guiding intent of intelligent desire and that, for example, a mathematician pondering a set of equations describing and measuring the application of a force by extension creates that force in the hologrammatical crucible of her or his mind on an infinitesimal level and that the “boundary” between outer-mind and inner-mind is a matter of energy-input scaling and also that Albert Einstein regularly created short-lived black holes in his mind and that a B. P. Schamansky, by imagining a bj from, say, Sally Kellerman, was actually getting one, a very tiny one, so tiny you’d need an atom-smasher to see it along with the nano-jism on the verge of being released in four+ dimensions as a result. They live for as long as you think about them. Not so much the Mind of God as the God of Mind.
He slipped a finger into Prentis’ sweat-and-pussy-goo-and-saliva-slick rectum a third decisive time and he stuck it in so deep he could palpate the outline of the lip of the helmet of his nautilused cock in her vagina through the rectal wall and they both burst, they came, they orgasmed simultaneously with convulsive howling sobs approximately nine seconds into the fourth song on the album, the last song on side one of the tape, a song which began with a recording of the Pacific ocean and a lute solo, twenty minutes shy of their ultimate goal.
TRACK TWO/ SIDE ONE: THE PHYSICS OF LIT
The second chapter in the book. This was his least-favorite part of the book. A weak chapter. It was actually the first chapter he’d written and the flaws in its premises were the flaws of the book, the flim-flam of the book, the facile equivalencies and unsupported leaps in logic and oh-wow conclusions that had little to do with legitimate theories in science or even the legitimate mysticism of the Ancients, which no one would accuse of being facile. At least proper mysticism is based on something, on traditional ignorance, handed down through the ages, the errors piling up like silt choking the river of knowledge, centuries of seekers doing their primitive best to make sense of all things and failing sincerely, failing authentically, to get much of anything right… but at least they hadn’t doodled their creation myths out on leftover Happy Birthday napkins and shared a Canadian bacon and pineapple pizza immediately afterwards, using the sacred napkins to wipe each other’s chins. The Ancients would have pooh-pooh’d Benji’s process.
All Benji had done was compare prana, chi, orgone and quarks without any theoretical framework or calculations or experimental evidence to support his fanciful theory. He’d read an interview in SQUIRE magazine, an interview with Bruce Lee, the Chinese movie star who was famous for executing screaming airborne kicks while dressed as a masked chauffeur on an American Television drama and in this interview Lee had talked a little about Chi, the all-permeating so-called Life Force energy he could tap and control by screaming. And Benji remembered, as a kid, hearing Wilhelm Reich’s spooky sexy Orgone Particles mentioned in dinnertime table-talk with bits of coded German thrown in to obfuscate the sexual aspect. And then Quarks were discovered and reported on in THE LADIES HOME JOURNAL. It all just sort of stewed and culminated, in the back of Benji’s mind, these various primordial particles. Benji found himself doodling on those napkins at a Yoga-flake-girlfriend’s pad, one evening, while waiting for a pizza to be delivered, doodling yin/yangs and infinity symbols and writing prana, chi, orgone, quarks. From that sequence of those four words The Physics of Lit was eventually and fancifully and fairly-lucratively born.
“Quarks” already had a physics-to-literature crossover in that the physicist (with the ’50s sci fi name of Murray Gell-Mann) , who had discovered or, that is, straight-facedly proposed the existence of, these fundamental subatomic particles, began calling them “kworks” and switched to “quarks” after reading a line in James Augustine Aloysius Joyce’s Finnegans Wake: three quarks for muster Mark! Benji got three pages of padding out of that bit alone. If he’d known (as he should have), at the time, that “quark” is also the German word for cottage cheese, he could’ve worked that in, somehow, too.
He hadn’t done any reading on the physics side of the subject deeper than a paper back by Isaac Asimov or two and a few populist magazine articles and here he was teaching a college class called The Physics of Lit. This, he felt, did not bode as well for the future intelligence of mankind as it did for his bank account. He stared at the infernally cynical blank of the blackboard a good long time before pushing out of his chair to walk over there with some serious chalk in hand and deal with it. Sometimes he felt a guilt so palpable it was debilitating as a stroke: these kids’ parents were paying nearly six thousand dollars a year for them to sit at this boutique college and swallow Benji’s utter crap and toss Frisbees. And sleep with Benji.
On his way to the board he did something he’d never done before: he sucked his gut in. It wasn’t that much of a gut but he was self-conscious about it after something Prentis had done in the van while he was semi-naked with her, getting dressed. Always a vulnerable position to be in. He hit the board with the chalk, writing “QUARKS!” and drew a long arcing arrow from that to the next word he banged on the board: “PRANA”. He turned to face the anticipatory near-silence of three hundred and fourteen students in the packed ear of the lecture hall’s amphitheater seating and said, so even the furtive kids in the top rear curve of nosebleed seats could hear:
“Twenty years ago in Sex Ed they taught us about the Oedipus Complex. My mother back then was fat and dull and I had no ambition, repressed or not, to sleep with her. And this will sound funny, I bet it does, but, let’s be frank, I felt cheated.”
Many students chuckled.
“Some of my buddies in the same class that year, this was 1954, they had reasonably attractive mothers who weren’t fat or dull and I could easily, you know, imagine them, I could easily imagine these buddies wanting to sleep with their mothers and letting this buried compulsion influence everything from their choices in girlfriends to their favorite books. Influencing, subconsciously, even, how they would one day name characters in those novels that everybody, at least once in their life, starts writing and sticks in a drawer forty pages into it, only to rediscover it, at the back of this drawer, and find, what, twenty years later that it’s both excruciatingly embarrassing and touchingly true to the fading worldview of a long-dead self?”
Lots of nodding in the audience. Some welling in some eyes.
“One of my friends, name of Billy Rauch, William F. Rauch, I heard he later got a lucrative career in dress design or something. His mother was arguably stunning, she didn’t look like a mother at all, she resembled Hedy Lamarr in red silk blouses attending school functions, that shifty-slow breast mass you come yea-high to as a growing boy, it’s right in your face plus perfume clouds of siren song, a spirited toss of the flashing mane, everything and more and she’s your buddy’s mom. Oh, he’s seen those heavenly globes pop out of the bathrobe over his cereal bowl once or twice, sweet Billy has. And there I was, stuck with Doris Schamansky neé Stern, stuck with a mother I hadn’t even bothered to notice before was not just fat and dull and kind of evasive but very much all of those things, all of those things to their limit.”
He paused dramatically to scan the rows before him.
“I got not what you’d call an Oedipus Complex but a Complex about not having an Oedipus Complex, an Oedipus Complex complex, and this threatened my sense of self and, certainly, shrank any sticky strands of confidence I had managed to scrape from the bottom of the depleted vat that Bill Rauch and my other classmates had liberally helped themselves to heaping portions of. Portions of what I’d almost call ‘Oedipal Pizzazz’. For a week before that Monday in Sex Ed that we were scheduled to hear about Oedipus and sexy Jocasta, Billy Rauch starts walking around on this cushion of confidence that couldn’t have been more cushiony if his father had been a Roman Senator when something like that really counted, do you know what I mean? Because when the teacher starts teaching us in hushed tones about the Oedipus Complex, Billy Rauch is gonna be the King… and I’m going to be the unspoken punchline of a very… graphic… imaginary joke.”
He tossed the chalk high enough that it dinged the coolie-hat of one of the many high-up modern light fixtures hanging over the auditorium and he caught the chalk again without looking while the ding was still ringing.
“Now, you may, at this point… you may be scratching your heads and asking yourselves: what is the point of this story? What does this story have to do with anything?”
In fact it had been two years since Benji had asked the same rhetorical question in front of the same auditorium full of very similar students when one of the kids, a totally crewcut freak (how had he gotten through St. Jeff’s stringent admissions filter?), an independent-thinker who would have earned Benji’s grudging admiration if only he hadn’t called out what he called out in a Southern accent, a really hackles-rising Texarkana twang so turd-corned with diphthongs that it turned a nine-syllable sentence into twenty infuriating syllables headed by a diphthong Benji wouldn’t have guessed was even possible (a diphthongal “the”?), calling out…
The point of the story is horseshit!
But that had never happened before or since. Setting aside the fifty-two minority and/or foreign students on campus, the worldview of the student body of St. Jeff’s was remarkably uniform. Even the physical resemblance between most of the students, and between the students and the tenured faculty, and between every member of the tenured faculty and every other member of the tenured faculty, was nearly familial, if not uncanny. St. Jeff’s between classes in the middle of winter, with students crisscrossing the quad between extravagantly-frosted gingerbread buildings on frosted paths too thick to show sidewalk, resembled any prosperous Scandinavian village of the 19th century, if you ignored the denim and replaced the bandana’d, Frisbee-catching dogs named Bonzo, in your mind, with wolves while replacing Grand Avenue with the Baltic.
“The point is this. This class is not about graphs and charts and high-octane math and impossible-to-grasp concepts of cutting-edge lit and physics. This class is about the human, the humanity, the humanity of these…” he made a sweeping gesture “particular humans in this particular auditorium in this particular time and space. It’s about….”
He suddenly stepped back and turned to the board and wrote THE UNDENIABLE REALITY OF DREAMS so hard the chalk chipped and the chip bounced off his forehead and he drew three squiggly lines under the phrase.
THE UNDENIABLE REALITY OF DREAMS
Schamansky repeated it verbally and let it sink in.
His audience was spellbound.
Many of the students, mostly the ones who were girls, who made up most of the class, were smiling and nodding very, very slowly. The smiles you smile when a crazy notion you have clung to since the age of five and against the withering contempt and cynically rational counter-arguments of the Fully Grown World is finally confirmed by a Cool Authority Figure you trust even more than Gertrude Stein, for example.
Schamansky tried to screw the cap off an encrusted jar of powdered non-dairy creamer and gave up easily, rationalizing the capitulation as a health-choice. He said,
“And then I finish the anecdote, which happens to be true, it really happened to me pretty much as I related it. I told them that the day we went in to read through the chapter about Sigmund Freud’s Oedipus Complex, our usual teacher was out with the flu… that’s what they told us but later I heard he’d had some kind of nervous breakdown because he was hiding the fact he was a Communist. Wait, actually, was he hiding the fact he was Queer? I can’t remember, which is funny. Anyway. Instead of Mr. Berg we had a substitute teacher I’d never seen before, a ham-colored old man in a green plaid suit who opened the class by declaring that ‘Sigmund Freud was a very smart man whose twisted personal obsessions would never have made it into print in Modern America!’ and he skipped the chapter entirely and went right to venereal diseases! In retrospective it was horrifying but the Monday morning it happened I wanted to kick my heels and run home with a song in my heart and kiss my unattractive mother on the lips. I looked over at Bill Rauch at his desk a couple of rows over, the kid with the sexy mom, and all the light had gone out of him and, man, he looked like a never-claimed birthday cake on a discount table at the bakery.”
Benji was leaning over the sink in the faculty lounge washing two coffee cups, one for himself and a better one for Stoddard Huff , before Stoddard’s next studio class. They’d discovered that the cups that Benji had fetched down out of the cabinet over the sink had pale rings of sedimentary coffee in their bottoms and one had the crenellated imprint of an upper lip on it, which was disgusting because Benji couldn’t tell exactly how old the original of the lip-print was. It was that little butterscotch-colored Queer T.A. Lundberg’s job to keep the coffee mugs clean and he didn’t.
“And I told the students… this is the big finish… I told them: they are making it up as they go along. Mainstream science, I mean. Some wrinkled schmuck in a green plaid suit declares Sigmund Freud’s theories to be horseshit, then, by god, Sigmund Freud’s theories are horseshit. This guy was no famous intellectual from Vienna but, I’ll tell you, I have never been able to take Freud seriously from that moment on and that was twenty years ago. That guy showed me the power of NO when faced with Hegemony. The flipside of that being my own power of YES. The YES to fashion an understanding of the fabric of the universe in terms that will mean something to me. And my students.”
Benji handed Stoddard his cleaned cup. Stoddard was a locally semi-famous painter of symbolic figurative works who’d been granted a position, at St. Jeff’s, as the co-chair of the Fine Arts Department, a position he shared with a Jewish Polish Lesbian Pottery Sculptress whose interesting work he seemed to abhor. And not because she threw pots that resembled the de rigueur vaginal conch shells or tiresome postmodern knockoffs of the Venus of Willendorf, because she didn’t.
“And your students,” echoed Stoddard, with that smile he managed to convey without smiling. He was the only genuinely black teacher on campus. Stoddard was what Schamansky had once overheard an admiring coed refer to as “Blackity black”. His mossy beard consumed his heavy jaw and the entire lower half of the polished onyx of his smallish skull. Stoddard’s velour jumpsuits added to his creation myth aura. A totemic fetish (for intimidated white progressives) of impossible-to-determine age named Stoddard Huff. On this particular day, Stoddard’s velour jumpsuit was turquoise, over which the weather had forced him to wear his elegant London Fog.
Openly staring at Stoddard, as he often did, Benji tried to imagine the strange and devastating crypto-historical twists and cataclysms that had somehow given the European dominion over the Earth when a race of Stoddards was on the planet. Benji could easily imagine being Stoddard’s servant and accepting the situation as natural and just.
“You know how I protect myself from falling for flim flam, Benjamin?”
Benji was over at the coffee machine. He wanted to say No, Sir, but he said “How, Stoddard?”
“I never believe in anything I can’t paint.”
“So I am as equally protected from what you like to call ‘hegemony’ as I am protected from…” Stoddard gestured that Benji should finish the thought for him.
“From my bullshit.”
They laughed and clinked their empty coffee cups together.
Benji liked Stoddard because Stoddard could see right through Benji but seemed to like Benji anyway. Benji was dying to ask Stoddard about the size and color of Stoddard’s erect penis but knew, without having to be told, that any direct inquiries of that nature would come off as either Queer or Racist and probably both. Benji only minded being thought of as being Queer to the extent that it might diminish his continued potential for sleeping a swathe across the female polarity of the campus. Though if he began losing his hair or if his gut grew any bigger, allowing himself to seem to be Queer could be a possible tactic for getting pussy from the homelier, more neurotically competitive types when the best pussy began drying up for him. You always have to think ahead, thought Benji. He patted his gut involuntarily when slender, muscular, neutronium-dense Stoddard turned his back to Benji in search of the sack of fancy brown sugar he liked to sweeten his coffees with. Was his gut really growing out of control? Had it ever jiggled like this before? Had Prentis bewitched him with the niggling demon of self-consciousness? Is this what women were going through? Next thing I know, I’ll be worrying about the quality of my coffee-making, thought Benji.
“Come the Revolution,” said Stoddard, pulling up a plastic chair near the coffee machine, “We burn the books. All the books.”
“I’m shocked, Stoddard, shocked,” chuckled Benji. Though he was. Was he? Perhaps more perplexed than shocked. Shocked? It was 1974, after all. Still…
Benji remained standing with his coffee, trying to lean nonchalantly with one elbow on the ever-so-slightly-too-low folding table under the stained tray under the coffee machine while remaining painfully conscious of the fact that his full weight on it could very well cause the folding table to collapse. Leaving him with the exhausting chore of simulating a casual lean that was more of a balancing act than any kind of a rest. His elbow barely touched the table he was pretending to lean on. His back was already hurting fifteen seconds into the unnecessary charade. But if it was unnecessary, why was he doing it?
“Oh, I’m serious, Benjamin. The eyes are for seeing the Truth, but the tongue, and, by extension, the words, are for lying. We love our euphemisms and call lying ‘narrative’ but even the word euphemism is a lying way to say lying. Literacy is only necessary because The System requires it. Because The System is based on words, because The System is based on lying. No lying, no System. No words, no lying.”
Stoddard crossed one ankle over the other leg’s jumpsuited knee and showed an immaculate black foot in a Jesus sandal. Benji envied how comfortable Stoddard looked but Benji couldn’t change his position without revealing the fact that he’d never really been leaning his weight against the table in the first place, which would cause him to appear insane.
“Now, don’t be too literal-minded and extrapolate that we plan on forbidding small talk, or anything heavy like that,” Stoddard winked. “When I say ‘no words’ I mean the authoritarian privilege of print, of the printed word, of newspapers and history books and telegrams and those electric light bulb hieroglyphs that run in that endless snake around the corners of that quintessential building in New York, controlling the world with its brighter-than-bright white lies. Why are you going to let your coffee get so cold? It’s good coffee, man.” Stoddard glanced at the clock over the cupboard over the sink. “Damn. Looks like I’m late. We’re organizing a little… political action… later.”
Fucking A, thought Benji, as he stood in the lounge’s window and watched Stoddard’s jazzfully strident lope across the longest diagonal of the quad, his cream-colored London Fog flapping. He’d totally forgotten what he’d wanted to mention to Stoddard when he’d cornered Stoddard in the lounge in the first place. First his gut and now his short-term memory. He was falling apart. Was he falling apart? Was 36 his last hurrah?
Oh yeah. He’d meant to say, “Dig it, brother. Poor old Cowper is quite the wreck over the impending Mau Mau uprising he expects when that Afro-American act we hired for the Winter Ball parks its bus on his lily-white campus this November!” Or something like that. Maybe remove the Mau Mau reference. And the lily-gilding lily-white thing. Could he really get away with calling Stoddard “brother”? He’d wanted to say a carefully-worded sentence to that general effect and then high-five Stoddard and emerge from the faculty lounge all cackles together, with maybe even comradely arms over each other’s shoulders. Like a hip hit sitcom about racial tolerance.
Benji found himself half-warmed in the sunlight of the unreasonably unseasonable late-spring chill about 50 yards behind long-haired Skip Woode on the path behind the cafeteria, halfway between the faculty lounge and his destination, which was the spot, behind the library, he’d found to park his van on after the riverside interlude with Prentis. Skip was moving at a rapid clip but Benji was toying with the idea of popping into the cafeteria for dinner, which was served between 5pm and 7pm and would be commencing in ten minutes. He could wolf-whistle to stop Skip and catch up with him or see Skip later anyway. Skip was so fast that he was already disappearing into the cold shadow behind the library before Benji could decide. What was the skinny fucker in such a hurry to do or see at 4:50 pm on a Friday in April?
There was a special weekend Planet of the Apes festival at the Grand Theater, on Grand Avenue: Planet of the Apes, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, Escape from the Planet of the Apes, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes and Battle for the Planet of the Apes. The festival was organized by Benji’s buddy Skip, the hip young Racial Studies teacher who’d been kicked off the faculty at Harvard for teaching that former President Dwight D. Eisenhower, J. Edgar Hoover and Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz (the great great great grandmother of Queen Elizabeth of England), among others (including two additional US Presidents), had Negro blood; were Negroes. Skip had just gotten a 5,000-word essay published in the inaugural edition of the hip new radical film journal Jump Cut, and in his essay he compared the conservatively progressive Civil Rights parable of Planet of the Apes to the radical “uncivil disobedience” narrative of The Exorcist, claiming that the Jesuit eponym of the latter film was really a deeply-coded so-called Nigger-breaker of the antebellum. The character Regan MacNeil, the demonically possessed 12-year-old, with her bad manners, terrifying sexuality and creepy physical stunts, was nothing but a middle class white girl with Jungle Fever. Was there a categorical difference being calling someone a “motherfucker” and telling them their “mother sucks cocks in hell”? The film was even set in Washington, after all, argued Woode. The Exorcist was merely carrying on the subliminal masscult discussion about Race, in America, that Planet of the Apes had started. A necessary subliminal discussion indeed.
Benji and Skip had planned on meeting Prentis and Kyndall an hour before the 10:15 showing of Beneath the Planet of the Apes, prior to which Skip was going to be leading a panel on Civil Rights in the Creative Imagination from the theater’s stage. Skip was one of those skinny, balding, long-haired guys who would be resorting to the use of a beret any day now, thought Benji, who’d noticed, the last time he and Skip were hanging out, that his, Benji’s, nervous tendency to rake his fingers through his perfectly thick hair reached a compulsive frequency in Skip’s presence, even as Benji was aware he was doing it.
Fuck it, thought Benji, I’ll see Skip in a couple of hours anyway. With his crazy old lady Kyndall.
Standing in line in the cafeteria with his tray on the rails he smiled into the bustling hive of hair-netted lunch-lady activity on the other side of the stainless steel counter, deep in the kitchen, scanning the melee for the youngish lunch-ladies he’d already had. One lady and one moment he cherished in particular: a great fast fuck, Benji on top, with an armpit-and-cig-scented worker of approximately 27, a quickie in his quickly-mobilized van. During what would have been her cigarette break and triggered when she asked the short-cutting-behind-the-cafeteria-Schamansky for a light in what Schamansky considered an irresistible working class third-generation “Polack” accent, on top of all that curly, netted strawberry-blond hair and those authentic thighs and the pretty vapor of her breath in the slow winter wind as she chuckled throatily at the naughty phrase inscribed on his lighter, a lighter the smoke-free Schamansky only carried to service tobacco-scented women, tilting her head and steadying his hand to read the inscription better. He thought he remembered her name was Sherry. Sherry the slightly-slutty single mother. Where was she back there? Benji couldn’t see her. And where was Donna? Where was Linda…? The kitchen was full of strangers.
Someone tapped Schamansky lightly on his shoulder. Had Benji been holding his tray, the tray would have gone flying across the cafeteria.
“Jeezis. How the hell? I thought I just saw you way over…”
“Emergency crap of a confidential nature. You have no idea. Are we still on for ten? Is, uh, Prentis up for it?”
“Without a doubt. A little socializing…”
Skip leaned in. “No, I mean… after the flick.”
Benji had turned to hoist a few drooping squares of Canadian-bacon-with-pineapple pizza off an industrial baking sheet and stack them on his plate, which felt like it weighed about five pounds when he thought about sliding his tray further down the line toward the cakes, pies, puddings and ice cream at the end of the serving banquette, forgoing the vegetables altogether. Seeing himself as others in the cafeteria might see him… an aging character with Three Dog Night sideburns in a flowery shirt and a growing paunch… he returned half of his haul of gorgeous warm life-affirming pizza to the baking sheet: enough returned pizza for three or four students, he calculated, with shame. He had a physical flashback of Prentis’ hands grabbing fistfuls of his flab and laughing. With his back still turned to Skip he said,
“Haven’t exactly mentioned that part to her yet, Skip. Isn’t it better to let that kind of situation develop organically, Skip?”
Skip slapped his own forehead. “Benji, you frigging pussy.” Skip chuckled explosively. Instead of punching me hard in the arm, thought Benji. “We went over that already, man. Didn’t we?”
“There’s such a thing as over-thinking a situation. Have you mentioned it to Kyndall?”
“Of course I have.”
Of course you have, Benji wanted to say. You’re the one with the undesirable girlfriend and she’s the one with you.
Still, to have dismissed the notion, outright, as soon as Skip had brought it up (while completing the rolling of his own cigarette with a pointedly sexual flourish of his freakishly pointed tongue) would have been to risk being considered a garden variety square. A square as square as Cowper Lundgren, the scientific standard for Squareness on St. Jeff’s campus. The squarest end of the visible spectrum was Cowper Lundgren and the hippest, of course, at the furthest end of the opposite side, corresponding to ultraviolet light, was Stoddard Huff. They had a running joke, Benji and Skip and a few other enfants terribles among the faculty, in which a “cowper” was a unit of measure of “corn-power”. Saying nyet to a close friend’s suggestion of a three-way: what was that worth? Three cowpers of corn-power? Four? With two cowpers of corn-power each awarded for ice fishing, clogging, Gunsmoke, pyjamas, Twinkies and polka dot bow-ties. Five for an old PRESIDENT NIXON/ NOW MORE THAN EVER bumper sticker. Six for a THE CARPENTERS 8-track.
“Well, look, it’s three-to-one, then, right? With three of us setting up the right vibe, and Prentis being the open kind of lady she is, it’ll probably, you know” although I sincerely hope not, “happen.”
“Prentis will love it.”
Benji wanted to say fuck you, Skip, but Skip was still his best friend, or close enough to being one, Benji guessed, to become Benji’s worst enemy if Benji ever slighted him. What with his bad skin and thinning hair and highly-probable teeny cock, Skip had insecurities for miles and would take almost anything too personally, probably, so Benji found himself being by orders of magnitude more careful about Skip’s sensibilities than Skip was concerning his, which is the burden Benji bore for feeling better about himself. He tanked up on ice tea and lifted his heavy tray while Skip grabbed an apple and followed Benji to a little table in the luminous, long-shadowed northwest corner of the glass-walled cafeteria. There was a grand view of the ripped-cotton cirrus of the mellowing sky as it snagged the day’s last radiance in the distance behind the rich green steeple of Anderson Chapel, the first structure on campus, built in 1872. Below that the blue-glassed hexagon of the library looked all black and selfishly modern and students cast shadow-cartoons of themselves to scissor the edges of the sidewalks around and across the quad.
St. Jeff’s cafeteria was a locally-famous high-modernist folly. It featured palace-high ceilings and curving, wrap-around, top-to-bottom windows and had a soaring, open-hearted, neo-Midwestern, unrepentantly Frank-Loyd-Wright kind of optimism to it. You sat there ensconced in the privilege of genteel futurity and munched unusually high-quality cafeteria food while surveying most of the neat-as-a-pin kingdom of St. J’s: not bad. Why the locals mocked it (and considered it all too typical of the era, somehow) was this, that its design had been purchased from an architectural firm in Florida, a million miles to the warm south-east. The cafeteria generated mind-boggling heating bills, every winter (winter lasting from October until May every year) which accounted for twenty percent of St. Jeff’s tuition. St. Jeff’s cafeteria was a beautiful modern structure with high ceilings and wrap-around floor-to-ceiling windows that didn’t make a bit of fucking sense in a part of the country in which winter lasted half of every year. Some adult in the long chain of decision makers between the cafeteria’s conceptualization and its actual construction must have pointed this out. But there it was.
Benji’s back was to the sun but orange-faced Skip was squinting right into it as he proceeded to address the task of eating his apple in the weirdest way that Benji had ever seen anyone do it, starting with the stem. Seeing the look on Benji’s corona’d face (stray fibers of Benji’s unfairly-thick hair flaming in the late-afternoon sun), Skip clarified.
“Don’t tell me you haven’t even heard of the whole apple diet yet.”
At that very moment, two things happened.
First: at the opposite end of the cafeteria, near the orange juice machine and the back-entrance of the cafeteria, Benji saw Cowper Lundgren, waving in his direction, trying to get his attention, gesticulating broadly like some Broadway musical’s lead character in a three-piece suit attempting to fly. Mouthing something, flapping and pointing and flapping. Soon enough, Benji realized that Lundgren was trying to get Benji to bring Lundgren to Skip’s attention; Lundgren wanted Benji to tell Skip to turn around and see him.
Second: a girl seated at the “colored table”… not far from the orange juice machine… at a long table the Afro-American students at St. Jeff’s had years ago designated as their refuge of self-segregation in the cafeteria, a table that new white freshmen occasionally made the social blunder of attempting to sit at (a minor rite of passage at St. Jeff’s, in fact)… a girl stood up and began to sing.
Benji recognized her immediately.
Even among the other rare Afro-Americans at St. Jeff’s, she was distinctive, she stood out, this senior student, with long skinny legs and biggish tits and a shaved black head as glossy and lickable as a fancy chess piece. All of her teachers raved about her. Carrie Goffin was her name and every hetero male member of the faculty wanted to do something with, to or for her. Carrie Goffin, daughter of Lloyd Goffin, successful Afro American entertainment lawyer, and Rhondella Lunette Goffin (nee St. Jacques), successful Afro American housewife and Caribbean former model and high-profile alumnus of St. Jeff’s. Carrie was the best argument for stylish female baldness and exogamy that Benji knew of: if we get some of her, let the brothers have some of ours, was the subliminal agreement among the white male hetero members of the faculty. The unspoken yet micro-managed negotiations of the National Erotic Stock Exchange in which competing tribes of America managed cross-tribal transactions in sex. Their (foxiest) Women-folk as currency. The 17th-through-19th centuries had seen a trade deficit on the Caucasian side… members of the white male owner class were fucking far more Black Women than Brothers were doing the obverse. Tribal Sexual Protectionism? The ’60s and ’70s of the 20th century were balancing that Sexual Deficit out and this was the first firm sign of eventual integration and the end of certain tribal antagonisms: Dr. King’s famous “promised land”. Why not? It was beginning to feel as though it was right around the corner…
While Cowper Lundgren gesticulated wildly a few yards to her right, gorgeous and statuesque-and- luminously-black-and-bald Carrie stood up in her lime-green and blackly-cleavaged sun dress, right there at the edge of the cafeteria, while the others at her table were chowing down pizza and salad, and, without preamble, belted out in strong clear tones a song Benji, expecting, you know, gospel, was surprised to find he was all too familiar with. It was the fourth song on side two of O.N.E.’s eponymous debut and it was called FOREVER IS OVER and Benji absolutely knew the song (as a symbol of his and Prentis’ totally bearable sexual failure to kama sutra continuously for longer than 23 minutes) by heart. Skip twisted around to see what all the singing was about and saw red-faced Cowper flapping and miming back there and Skip said oh shit and grabbed up his apple core and hurried, with his head down, across the room toward Cowper and the gorgeous singing. Carrie Goffin, with arms outstretched and her cleavage pumping, was singing,
If the time shall never come
when nothing can’t not happen
and all that ever wasn’t cease
to fail to not quite matter
…and, surprise!, a couple of goateed Afro-Americans at her self-segregating table stood up and joined in at
then no thing that is always not
no mirror still shan’t shatter
…and three other young Afro-Americans at the same island-table stood with “why the hell not?” shrugs and chimed in with full-on goose-bumpy harmonies at
reflections of the not-unseen
un-madder than un-hatters
…and Benji thought of that commercial, that really groovy Coca Cola commercial that starts with one innocent looking Scandinavian-type moonchild chick on a hillside singing in bell-pure tones that she’d like to buy the world a home, and, one by one, others of various persuasions and manner of dress on the hillside join in as the camera pans back until it’s a rousing global sing-a-long, the whole world (which looks largely Anglo in the commercial) is singing together about Coke. It felt like that to Benji. Most of the cafeteria suddenly stood and came in with Carrie and her table-mates when they reached the uplifting chorus of the song, they all knew the words, the students and the faculty and the cafeteria workers, and it was deafening, exhilarating, wow, thought Benji, wow, wow, wow and now he was standing and singing along with everyone at the top of his lungs, grinning self-consciously and mock-directing the choir of diners with expansive gestures of his knife in one hand and his fork in the other, thinking it’s coming, that change we always dreamed of, it’s really coming and nothing will ever be the same…
Forever is over because it began
Forever is over for woman, for man
Whatever the reason, whatever the plan
Forever is over again, my friend
Forever is over because it began
Forever is over for man and woman
Whatever the reason, whatever the plan
Forever is over
Forever is over
Forever is over
TRACK THREE/ SIDE ONE: PRENTIS & BENJI & KYNDALL & SKIP
Everyone nurtures within his or her soul an idealized version of a self best represented by the celebrity he or she envies the most. In Benji’s case the celebrity was John Lilly, the dashing, fearless, Roshi wagon scout of the freaky sciences, the guy who was writing the first dolphin dictionary and was a counter-cultural hero for tripping on acid in isolation tanks while his disembodied intelligence interacted with extraterrestrial super-entities and returned to Earth to convert the experience into the precise prose of bestselling science books, inspiring a recent hit movie starring George C. Scott that Benji had seen three times since it premiered at The Grand, the first with Prentis. Prentis had dug the flick well enough but Benji had felt the need to go back and see it again alone, the next evening, to enjoy the film’s message without distractions. Lilly was for Benji what Susan Sontag would have been for Prentis if Prentis were only into Sontag’s books, which were near-unreadable in their cold, careerist smugness (and maybe Benji was projecting, he wouldn’t bet his life that he wasn’t, but he’d never read prose, as when he read Sontag’s prose, that seemed so unstintingly self-conscious about the good looks of its author). But John Lilly was no careerist and he was not smug. Benji had read Lilly’s Programming and Meta-Programming the Human Biocomputer shortly after it came out, in 1968, and Benji had almost literally found himself buzzing as he read it, he’d felt the top come off his head and a bright, brave, antiseptic light scrape his thoughts.
He’d felt a pride in his era (not his generation per se: his generation was neither fish nor fowl, too young to have participated in previous, era-defining wars and too old for the current one ); the sense that they’d taken on racial prejudice and LBJ and the Vietnam War and now they were taking on the Universe, they were taking on Reality itself. Lilly had very scientifically, highly methodically, with the sober prose of a gifted 19th century English gentleman-naturalist, blown Benji’s mind with Programming and Meta-Programming the Human Biocomputer and Benji now thought of his own mutton-chopped father, ironically, his own father Albert Aaron Abraham Schamansky II, the pillar of a community (Munich, Wisconsin), who had said to Benji, once, sadly, coming up out of the root cellar with a fading smile, that he felt like a “man of the 19th century, out of place now” and Benji thought, yes, pa, I know how you feel, but at least you have an entire century to belong to, anachronistically, pa, because all I have is that one year, 1968. I’m a man of 1968 and even 1969 left me feeling kind of out of it and 1974 is a total weird enigma to me. I’ve lost my fucking bearings. Something I rarely admit, even to myself. Everything I thought was right is wrong. Okay, I’m exaggerating.
But this kind of thing never happened to John Lilly.
Benji wanted to cry. He knew he was being melodramatic. Still. This was shaping up to be a bad day. It had started so well.
There were camera lights from a high-tech mobile Eyewitness News crew heating his forehead where he stood trying to hide behind Skip, in Skip’s inadequate shadow, Skip who was too short and skinny for Benji to shelter behind, too short by half a head and too skinny by an entire Skip-width. Prentis and Kyndall were up in front with Skip and Skip was holding forth with unflappable pedagogic patience into the fuzzy ball-end of the avid cock of the reporter’s microphone. Every minute or so there came the abrupt sound of bullhorn plus chanters and the mobile unit’s generator whenever someone opened the outer glass door to the Grand Theater’s foyer.
Benji had to admire Skip’s cool. While also hating Skip’s guts for getting Benji in this absolutely unnecessary mess, for getting Prentis and Benji in this mess over these goddamned ridiculous monkey movies. It’s like: you don’t notice it until someone with a bullhorn points it out and then you can’t get it out of your head. Crypto-Racist Bullshit written by some post-Colonial Frenchman. Pierre something. The movies hadn’t even started yet. Skip had been doing his Question-and-Answer thing with a paltry audience (a few locals and a specific chunk of St. Jeff’s ass-kissing Foreign Exchange students) when they heard the first alarming squawks of the bullhorn manned by Stoddard. Someone initially suggested it was the Fire Marshall or a marathon they’d forgotten about. A late-night marathon. Then a teen usher ran down the aisle and bounded onstage and said something to Skip that nobody else could hear, gesticulating.
Marching around in front of the Grand in the flood-lit darkness were about three-dozen people under the guidance of Stoddard’s impressive bullhorn. Did Stoddard actually own a bullhorn? Was it a rental? From where could one rent a bullhorn? A protest mart? Most of the marchers were blonde. Three were dark-skinned. All (but Stoddard) female. They were marching around with bobbing placards in carefully (cleverly)-lettered gothic script that said PLANET OF THE WHAT??? and DOWN WITH RACIST PARABLES and WITH LIBERALS LIKE YOU, WHO NEEDS THE KLAN? and so forth. The placards looked German in the poor light until you looked closely and found you could read them. And here was Benji in the foyer with his best friend the white-as-death Racial Studies asshole who had organized the three-day Planet of the Apes festival and had just given a talk titled Civil Rights in the Creative Imagination and tricked Benji into condoning, with his presence, the notion that Afro-Americans could be compared to Apes in films with a social conscience. Benji thought back with a droplet of nostalgia about his pleasant little time with Stoddard earlier that day, the comradely chat in the Faculty Lounge. Benji remembered with a pang of retroactive foreshadowing that Stoddard had been in a hurry to get out of the lounge because he had some political theater or street theater or a protest or something to organize and that’s why he was in a rush… so…
The only plausible hope: Stoddard hadn’t really seen Benji yet, had he? No. At least Benji didn’t believe that Stoddard had seen him. Had he? Benji’s ignominious little social gathering was still relatively deep in the foyer, right in front of the velvet rope and swinging doors of the actual theater, beyond the concession stand and around a round corner, not super-visible from the street. All Benji had to do was grab Prentis’ hand and very smoothly lead her back into the dimming theater and down the aisle at a brisk pace and out one of the fire exits, down a side-street in the night to sweet freedom. The only people who knew that Prentis and Benji had been fully prepared to sit through two (retroactively) racially-offensive movies (Planet of the Apes, Beneath the Planet of the Apes) in a row were either total strangers or Skip and Kyndall themselves and seven or eight socially negligible St. Jeff’s Foreign Exchange students from India (with their own questionable racial attitudes to remain oblivious to) who would never, in a million years, go on record about anything. They just wanted to keep their heads down and take copious notes in florid script and get excellent grades and move on to prestigious grad schools and host carefully-controlled bar-b-cues, annually, in expansive back yards appended to dream homes commencing approximately fifteen years in the future.
All Benji had to do was grab Prentis by the hand and winkingly lead her back out of this flood-lit nightmare to the soft sweet mood-lighting of the Safety Lounge of the Ideological Purity they’d been effortlessly inhabiting all of their grown-up lives. They’d never been on the wrong side of any issue that mattered, before this. Only because they’d rarely been tested, though. How many of us will ever even know if we’re potentially useful spies for North Korea, for example, or harbor a suppressed proclivity for cannibalism? While tacitly congratulating ourselves on a daily basis that we aren’t cannibals? Because how would we know? Have we ever been locked in a dungeon full of someone else’s dead fleshy toddlers while deprived of food for a month? Just ask that hungry soccer team marooned in the Andes (two years ago this fall), thought Benji.
Prentis and Kyndall were up there in the camera lights, flanking Skip. On camera. How could Benji reach Prentis’ hand to pull her away? How does one get the attention of someone who’s on-camera… discreetly? If Benji went pssssst everyone out there in local TV News Land would hear it. Prentis was so polite, she was too polite, she was caught up in this and didn’t have the rude guts to back out of Skip’s picayune media circus without Benji’s help. Benji was sure Prentis was mortified. Was Benji on-camera? He stepped back even further and could only see the backs of all three heads (Skip’s front-halo of long stray hairs burning in the light; the skull-skin under his thinned patch glowing softly, patiently, coldly in the shadow). The reporter’s creepy-brilliant-mannequin face; the backs of Prentis and Kyndall’s heads nodding vociferously (in a mortified way, he felt), as one, at regular intervals. What Benji needed was to catch the corner of Prentis’ peripheral vision…
But then Skip wrapped up his spiel with the reporter in the foyer of The Grand Theater and moved toward the door and through the door and toward the curb with his captive entourage of Prentis and Kyndall, out across to the middle of the street to “dialogue” with Stoddard, camera crew in tow. And Benji had to choose between following them and revealing himself to Stoddard and the world or sinking deeper into the foyer like the wise coward he wished he could have been.
The others were buzzing when they all drove back to Skip’s place on 4th Street two hours later, they were fizzing from their dip in the meretricious ether of the limelight. Balding Skip was saying coolly that he wouldn’t be surprised if the segment went national. Skip, Prentis and Kyndall: giddy as kids who’d pulled off a delicious prank. That’s how wrong Benji had been in his estimation of Prentis’ reluctance to bask in Slip’s reflected light, apparently, and what a feeling that wrongness was, eh? Do you even know Prentis at all, Benji, thought Benji, do you have any idea what she loves and what she hates or what she dreams of and what dreams those dreams replaced and what she’s even thinking right now? About you, for example?
They had kicked off their shoes (though Benji was stuck unlacing his Scandinavian hiking boots; he was still up on one leg right inside the front door of Skip’s Dinkytown loft in the building beside the building Dylan had lived in, famously, not terribly long ago) and they moved across the wide open, high-ceilinged, tall-windowed and muted light of the living room or whatever it was, moving in a stocking-footed conga line that Prentis ornamented with a little twirl as Skip applauded and Kyndall whistled and then they disappeared around a corner while Benji was still unlacing his boots.
Benji was trying to untie and think at the same time, impeding both functions. He was trying, mentally, to retrace his steps, recount what had happened, map the disaster accurately enough to minimize his growing sense of just how much he should wish that it all had been a bad dream. Think, Benji. He saw them exit the Grand to enter the twilight’s electric glare against the roar of the mobile production unit’s generator and the childish timbre of the protesters chanting under Stoddard’s sharp, declarative bursts of morally unimpeachable megaphone: yes. The three in front and Benji, chewing his upper lip, dragging behind. And the moment Stoddard finally saw that it was Benji in Skip’s entourage and not some anonymous racist… Jesus, God, the sneer of recognition Stoddard gave me.
The rest was pretty much a blur until Benji’s memory of the moment when Stoddard had obviously decided, maybe twenty minutes later (after an impromptu, garrulously-shouted debate) that Skip, while misguided, was, at least, a worthy opponent. Benji could see it in Stoddard’s face: grudging respect for white-man-Skip’s deeply held passion for the principle of Free Speech. Just as Benji could see that Stoddard didn’t even consider white-man-Benji’s run-of-the-mill participation in a racist event worth critiquing because Benji’s kind of default liberal cracker was beneath notice. In Stoddard’s eyes, Benji now had the approximate status of a substitute teacher who might unthinkingly decide to show, for a treat, his treasured 16mm print of Birth of a Nation to a 10th grade English class the day before Christmas vacation. Because Benji had gone to see movies comparing African Americans to apes, you see. Which he had, admitted Benji. Planet of the WHAT? I went to that. Own free will. Assumed I was doing good. The Black Power handshake that Skip and Stoddard exchanged, at the end of their debate, had to be re-posed and re-shot at least half a dozen times before the photographers on hand were happy with it.
First boot finally dropped.
Benji wanted to shout Hey, it’s getting awfully quiet in there before he entered the room the rest of them were in (if he could find the room the rest of them were in) like a kid who was suddenly afraid that the bigger kids were planning to scare him.