It is spring of 1974. Hip college prof Benji is grieving and confused the morning after having walked in on his lover, Prentis, engaged in a menage-a-trois…
SIDE ONE/ CHAPTER FOUR
Never was a rainy Saturday afternoon so welcome. Benji had walked all the way back to his van from Skip’s place the previous night… a two hour walk through the dark’s light flurries of snowflake and intermittent drizzle, through three or four classes of ethnic neighborhood and across a lonely, brilliantly-lit bridge spanning the Mississippi… and had passed out almost immediately after hitting the mattress in his van, Skip’s borrowed rain coat off but otherwise fully clothed, shoes muddy, clutching the pantomime torso of a pillow soaked with the scents of several women, though mostly those of one. Every time Benji woke up a little, the grey light and tinny mutter of rain on the VW’s bald white roof eased him back into the palliative care of his dreams. He was fishing with John Lilly.
Lilly had explained that fishing with hooks was one of those practises that seem normal to the average historical character now but that future generations will recognize as almost too barbaric to contemplate. Our entire era, in fact, explained Lilly, will be symbolized, for the EBs (enlightened beings) of the future, by the bloody fish hook, a symbol as horrific to them as the swastika is to us and the crucifix would be to Christians if they thought about it. Benji and John stood groin-deep in the gentle lift of the river’s warm pressure, chins up, hands on hips (as Lilly had demonstrated), gyrating through slow hula-motions until the extraordinarily beautiful (one might even call them sexy) fish began to nibble.
Benji groaned when he woke up. The dream had been so nice. He groaned again, even louder, when he remembered why he was fully clothed in bed with muddy boots on. He groaned very loudly with his eyes scrunched shut, clutching his pillow as hard as he could, in a fetal position. In what was called the recovery position. There was so much he wanted to recover.
The first thing he needed to do was get the motor running and the heater on.
The clock in the Astroturfed dashboard was shocking with deadpan news: three-thirty pm already? The day wasn’t going to be getting any lighter or dryer or more meaningful or less tender to the touch than it already was. But Benji could pull out of his funk and be banally productive, at least. Drive to the DUDZ-N-SUDZ, start a couple of loads, head back over to the faculty lounge to perform his pioneer ablutions as he would on any normal day.
Gingerly, not quite looking, he ejected the O.N.E. cassette from the deck and stowed it in the memory hole of the glove compartment. Even the glove compartment door was covered with its own carefully-cut rhombus of Astroturf. Deep in that dreaded cave, with parking tickets from the ’60s, yellowing sonnets of melodramatically self-serving farewell or sexual recrimination from various students, papers he hadn’t gotten around to grading, a few years’ worth of fat, unopened letters from his mother, a warning notice from Columbia House Records and Tapes, addressed to Benji at St. Jeff’s (since Benji had no fixed abode), a yellow warning demanding more than it appeared to (a money order for $9.99 cost nearly as much as the payment itself if you included the gas for driving downtown and the parking fee), his father’s death certificate, the cringefully-unsent 4th-birthday card for his 7-year-old nephew and a twist-tied baggie of collected pills he’d palmed and never been trusting enough to try. Maybe about two dozen, altogether, in various colors and sizes, handed out by chicks, jazz musicians, dealers, recently-graduated students and little old ladies at the supermarket. He tossed O.N.E. right in there and slammed the glove compartment shut with a shiver of relief and inserted a random cassette that had him bawling his eyes out within seconds, causing the van to swerve dangerously on the mirror-slick road. One of those deliberate mistakes (or pranks) your subconscious will ambush you with when you’re least able to cope.
Benji forced himself to listen.
He forced himself to concentrate on steering as he paralleled the river on a road high up a wooded slope along the edge of the rocky bed the river had dug itself for a million furious years, Benji hunched over the steering wheel, before turning right and then left toward Selby Dale without bothering to care for his life enough to hit the clicker or the brake pedal. The beads on the windshield multiplied and blurred and runneled in mad panics under the wind’s ballooning mouth until Benji finally remembered to switch the wipers on and mercy-kill them all. He willed his right hand away from reaching for the cassette deck’s controls. He willed himself to listen. The tape had been rewound maybe three months ago to the very intro of Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye, fifth song on an album that had been Prentis’ obsession before O.N.E.’s bold debut crushed all musics in its path. The song was a lethal time capsule of unbearable emotions.
Roberta Flack’s version was so much more devastating than Leonard Cohen’s. And not only because it was Flack whom Benji associated most closely with Prentis’ smell, taste, sound, cheek-temperature, superstitions, hair color and gestures. The way she tapped on the table with menu-framing index fingers while deciding on a meal… or covered her mouth daintily and excused herself for imperceptible millisecond-belches or hiccups or whatever they were… and the way she said God love yers whenever Benji stumbled disembarking an escalator or dropped a second fork under a restaurant table or invariably bumped his head laughing “ow!” when climbing in a crotch-scratching daze out of the van after they’d been at rut or just sleeping together in the river’s nearly spiritual haze in the early, early morning last summer. Flack’s take hurt terribly to listen to because her reading was so much braver than Cohen’s, so much more optimistic, the sound of a woman who’s sort of relieved, all beautiful memories aside, to be moving on to better things.
The next song… The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face: holocaust.
The first time….
Benji thought of that Face, the face Benji had many times caressed and once dabbed at with a deli napkin and covered with playful kisses as it beaded with fine cool drizzle during early morning walks and there it was, the face, on display, dramatically, in his memory, deformed beyond recognition…
The last ever I saw your face, thought Benji.
What Benji needed now was a dose of Cat Stevens singing Wild World but the cassette deck had eaten that tape a year ago, sadly, and Benji hadn’t been able to order the new album because he still owed Columbia House that money so he wept about that, too, a loss he’d never properly mourned.
Benji wept so openly that a cop car, at a red light, leading oncoming traffic, flashed its gumballs until Benji waved and gestured, with both hands, limply, that he was okay. Though of course it was obvious to everyone (even the cop) that he wasn’t. Benji then drove himself crazy trying to remember what the slang for the flashing lights on top of a cop car was, despite the fact that he’d been able to think it only moments before. His mind was full of holes and he was going to die alone. Maybe he had Syphilis, like Friederich Nietzsche had probably had, which would probably explain a lot about both of them. Benji needed to brush his teeth as soon as possible.
Puffy-eyed Benji pulled up right square in front of a mercifully empty DUDZ ‘N SUDZ, thanked the Gods grudgingly for the good omen of the perfect parking spot then remembered that today was a big game, one of St. Jeff’s comical debacles in the meta-pagan meta-idiocy of liberal arts meta-football. One could understand, after all, a huge and serious institution like Notre Dame or Penn State needing its footballs to reassure the alumnae that Higher Ed would remain, at heart, as anti-intellectual as it needed to be in order to turn out functional young men and marriageable young women for society’s ongoing purpose (whatever it was)… but weren’t private little liberal arts colleges exempt, outside the process, after all? Weren’t they just a quaint provision… like a stipulation in a civil war treaty… for the children, of upper-middle-class eccentrics, who would never support themselves anyway? Wasn’t St. Jeff’s campus itself bracketed within the protective field of Modernity’s scare quotes? St. Jeff’s, winner of Playboy magazine’s Golden Hare: the Polymorphously Collegiate Perversity Award, for 1970, hadn’t won a football game in 34 years and today they were up against a school… St. Jane’s… that hadn’t won in 5. Which legendary streak was destined, this afternoon, to fall?
Today’s game would prove to be the high point of a High Camp Tradition that Benji perceived as dripping with snobbery. Benji had no intention of attending. Benji didn’t like football or football players but he didn’t like people who didn’t like either without having done a little thinking first to earn the privilege. He searched his pockets for quarters, found only three and went back out to the van in the rain to hunt for more quarters in the ashtrays, the spaces between the seats and under the mattress… wherever his subconscious had been careful to hide the coins with just such a contingency in mind. He also remembered to slip three dimes into the parking meter. He was on the edge of having a profound thought regarding parking meters (and his right, or not, to exist at a given place at a given time, determined by whom, again?) when he remembered, finally: Gumballs.
Which helped him chuckle.
Oh, just fuck it, he thought, chuckling some more as he brought the back of his right hand to the sore corner of each eye in turn. Who was Prentis, really, anyway? Who was Prentis Bel to Benji Penrose Schamansky or he to her? A dock and a ship, really. A blimp and a hangar. Life itself and…
“Okay, Schamansky, you’ve had a good cry,” said Benji, out loud, as he slid the van’s panel door open and began the quarters-hunt. “So snap out of it, already. Jeez.”
Benji took it as another good omen (he needed as many good omens as the Gods could afford to send him) that he found exactly the number of quarters he needed. He got a big front-loader pregnant with sheets, blankets, pillow cases, socks and underwear, sloshing and sudsy and busy enough with solipsistic circles that he had ninety minutes to kill with constructive activity, so he decided to rip the passenger seat out of the van. The passenger seat had been stuck in a sliding position too close to the dashboard for three years now and anyone sitting there had had to squeeze in and assume an unnatural attitude to fit in the narrow space, elbows against the glove compartment, so Benji decided to rip the seat out and fix it, so full of the need to start anew that very Saturday afternoon (the first Saturday afternoon of the rest of his life) that he ignored the fact that he hadn’t the slightest idea how to fix a 1970 Volkswagen van’s passenger seat mount. The passenger seat/ driver seat relationship was a 1/3 to 2/3rd configuration, the passenger seat twice the size and weight of the driver’s seat; it was a bench, really, or a small sofa; and getting it out with two screw drivers and a pair of pliers and several unselfconsciously protracted birthing groans was miraculous enough but repairing the problem and getting that massive passenger seat back in its greasy tracks in the front right side of the van was out of the question. So Benji stowed the uprooted seat in the back of the van behind the mattress, upside down in a tented pose beside the left rear wheel well, where one case each of Mountain Dew and Antifreeze usually had the space to themselves.
Meeting Prentis in the first place had been a literal mistake, recalled Benji. Where do mistakes fit on the Jungian spectrum between meaningful coincidences and paradigm-shifting accidents? Benji had placed a personals ad in the Twin Cities Sign of the Times Weekly, the free rag you got from open blue vending machines at hip record stores like Oar Folkjokeopus or the Electric Fetus or Vinyl Solution and also the Seward Cafe, his breakfast joint of choice, over there on the West Bank (where was there to go, in the Twin Cities area, but Uptown, Downtown, West Bank or Dinkytown? Downtown frigging Saint Paul?). He’d mailed in an ad with a money order for fifteen cents per word, the words reading:
Nice man, fairly hip and fairly young academic, well-reviewed author, Pisces, voted McGovern, Cat Stevens fan, Lenny Bruce enthusiast, digs foreign films, seeking attractive, Polymorphously perverse woman attracted to him.
Two weeks later he got two responses, neither with a photograph enclosed, one from an obvious schizophrenic. Benji responded, via post, to the message from the non-(or high-functioning) schizophrenic: “Can you describe yourself?” To which she (or “she”) responded, via post, two days later: “You won’t be disappointed.” They agreed, eventually, to meet across the river at The Walker Arts Center in front of Chuck Close’s Big Self-Portrait, the hyperrealist, giant-sized black and white and grey-tone painting of the artist in glasses, cigarette hanging from his lips, the painting that everyone who visited The Walker regularly referred to as “Tough Guy” (the way some patrons of the Arts referred to Guernica as “Screaming horse” or to several paintings by Chagall as “The Flying Rabbi”).
“Okay, this Friday, we meet in front of Tough Guy at noon and grab lunch in Loring Park. Looking forward to it!”
His mysterious correspondent had signed her scented notes Charlotte Corday so Benji, unwisely or not, playing along, had signed his responses Marat.
“Okay, this Friday, we’ll meet in front of Tough Guy at noon and grab a lunch in Loring Park. Looking forward to it! Yours in Anticipation, Marat.”
Benji was so excited after posting this letter on the Monday prior to the Friday of their date that he masturbated twice, between classes, driving beside the river with his FM Radio blasting and a violet cock in his hand, the cock and hand under a top hat he never wore but used only for that purpose, the top hat hopping, unusually excited at the prospect of meeting a new woman of unspecified characteristics, despite the fact that he was already maintaining affairs with several beautiful students, two of nineteen and one of twenty, all with dark-to-sandy-blonde hair and owlish, Gloria Steinem glasses. But these weren’t possible soul mates, these narrow-hipped, yogurt-breathed girls without tan-lines: they were students Benji happened to be frigging on meticulously staggered schedules and it was Benji’s ethical responsibility to avoid entangling any one of them in the complex emotionalities of a serious relationship with the worldly teacher who was tasked with the sacred duty of enlarging their minds. Benji always nodded a curt, “no,” wisely, at the very thought of violating his ethical duties to his students, whenever his mind wandered to the subject. There were lines Benji wouldn’t cross and he was grateful for the responsibility of being in charge of painting them.
Benji was especially excited by the unknown dimensions of Charlotte Corday because her response to his ad was a tacit acceptance of George McGovern, Cat Stevens, Lenny Bruce and Polymorphous Perversity. It was almost futuristic; it was Sci Fi: Benji had sent choice words into the ether and, just three and a half weeks later, a heretofore unknown-to-him adult human woman was about to enter his life as a result. As though Benji had written her into existence. Like something out of The Physics of Lit.
The day and the time arrived and Benji, wearing a tuxedo tee-shirt under a mustache-brown corduroy blazer with denim patches on its elbows, pale blue denim trousers and brand new Joe Namath Dingo boots, mounted the stairs in the echoing cathedral of the muted track lighting of the modernist temple to Art with a jackrabbit heart and sweaty palms and a weirdly concrete intuition that his life was about to be changed. And there in front of the room-sized sneer of Tough Guy stood two women with their backs to Benji, one with sensibly-short white hair and a gnome’s knitted cap and the other with the sexiest slouch (hip cocked, pelvis toward the painting like a scanning device), playing with the curls of her milkshake-colored hair, with an indolent left hand, that Benji had ever seen.
“Charlotte Corday?” said Benji. No response. Benji repeated, a little louder (maybe too loud) and both ladies turned to face him, one startled, the other bemused.
“Jean Paul Marat?” said the bemused one.
“Ready for lunch?” asked Benji.
“Why not?” shrugged Charlotte Corday, laughing. Arm in arm they left the Walker Arts Center, like a dream.
It wasn’t until the middle of lunch, across the bridge to the hopeful acre of spring mud around the crimped mirror of the pond at the emotional center of Loring Park, deli sandwiches in their laps as they sat on a good green bench in the intermittent sunshine, that Benji discovered his mistake.
“I merely assumed you were being witty,” said Prentis. “I thought it was just a really excellent pick-up line. I didn’t realise…”
“But how did you know…?”
“I’m an educated woman, Mr. Schamansky. If a strange man approaches me in front of a Chuck Close painting in broad daylight and accuses me of being Charlotte Corday, my inevitable response…”
“… will be to accuse him… facetiously, of course. Of being Jean Paul…”
“Right: Marat. Wow. So…”
“But as for the very idea of me, Prentis Bel, daughter of Viv and Decca Bel, late of Dublin, responding to a personals ad in the Twin Cities Sign of the Times Weekly…”
She shuddered humorously on the bench. The ripping clouds were firing suddenly-intense beams of sunlight here and there and therefore doing amazing things, with very little effort, in the floating realms of her Isinglass hair. Benji wanted to handle her pile of spun gold with the sun’s dumb bravery. He wanted to cum on it and in it. He wanted to eat it. He imagined her bush as tufts of cotton candy.
Prentis continued, “Oh, I responded as I did because I knew. I knew because I was once obsessed with the French Revolution. When I was young and word-mad. How something so noble could end up so wrong. If you’d picked a less famous couple for code-names, God love yers…”
“In other words,” said Benji, with mock incredulity, “Had there been no French Revolution…”
“I guess not,” shrugged Prentis, smiling. “Should we go back and stand in front of Tough Guy until your real date shows up? The real Charlotte? Maybe she’s better than I am?”
Benji dabbed at the corner of Prentis Bel’s mouth with his deli napkin.
“Not possible,” said Benji, chewing. Her Irish accent was intoxicating. “Tell me more about the other unlikely coincidence… that we’re both teaching at the same cute little private college in the middle of corn-fed Nowhere, Miss Corday.”
“Well, Mr Marat,” said Prentis.
But Prentis was lying and Benji never knew. Prentis was the girl who had responded by post to Benji’s poignant ad.
She’d been disappointed, initially, okay, by her peripheral glimpse of Benji (that asinine tuxedo tee-shirt, that jarringly conservative corduroy blazer, those macho boots and although the denim trousers were okay his fly was unzipped, revealing a flexing piscis vesica of childishly white BVDs rather than the world-weary paisley boxers she much preferred to find when she bothered to pull trousers down) but had decided to give him a chance. She gave him a chance because she liked the elephant-bells of his Tom Jones sideburns, as well as his unique quality of terrified fearlessness, a quality normally natural to a much shorter man. The willed-strength under the tremor in his voice the second time he cleared his throat and said “Charlotte Corday?”
Benji scooped and hefted the big wet vivid mass of cleaned things from the front-loader with his tinker-greasy hands and filled two medium dryers with it. Feeding the second dryer with the coins it needed and punching a big green button with a flourish, he said, to the empty Laundromat,
“I got two beautiful years out of a lucky mistake, folks and now it’s more or less over.”
Not that they’d officially broken up. Nothing official had happened. Or even at all, possibly. They hadn’t even spoken since Benji backed in squinting horror out of Skip’s apartment and they hadn’t been speaking then, either. So, no, they hadn’t officially broken up… not that they’d ever been officially together.
While the clothes were tumble-drying Benji took the dimes that remained from the pile allocated to feed the meter in front of DUDZ ‘N SUDZ and fed them into the depressing payphone at the back of the Laundromat. One look at that payphone told Benji that many, many people of all ages, students and retirees, had pleaded into this Eisenhower-era apparatus in every state of health or desperation. Had hissed threats into it, too, before each slamming of the haplessly sinister handset of the vintage apparatus on its hook again. The handset was a perfect post-war bludgeon.
Benji’s two years with Prentis Bel, he realized, had been a series of good or great and often poetic and quite often erotic moments never leading to a deeper understanding of Prentis Bel. It was as though they’d started the relationship in the middle of the relationship and it had never gone anywhere else. There was no “getting to know her” period with Prentis Bel. One minute, Benji had never heard of Prentis Bel, the next minute they were “together,” and then, just as suddenly, they weren’t, a baffling chemical process of efflorescence and evanescence that took exactly two years to complete itself.
Benji stuffed his cleaned, warmed, dried possessions of fabric into a canvas duffel bag. He’d gotten the duffel bag from his father when he first left for college. He tossed the uncannily mobile mass of it like a body into the back of the van (next to the defeated monument of the upside down passenger seat bench). He drove around the corner up Grand Avenue to Applebaum’s, where the overhead lights were just coming on over the parking lot, an armada of UFOs in perfect formation against the cinematic angle of the steel-blue twilight. Benji was there to fetch the list of foodstuffs that had been dictated to him over the wires in the payphone: 16 oz slab of Velveeta, two eight oz bars of Hershey’s baking chocolate, one clove of garlic, a box of cornstarch, a small jar of French’s mustard, a pint of strawberries, three stalks of broccoli, a small container of button mushrooms, two unsliced loaves of pumpernickel and a stack of paper plates. If Benji had forgotten anything: frig it.
He liked the rebellious feel of that “frig it” so much that he repeated it to himself at a volume that flirted with being nearly audible as he pocketed his change and steered the shopping cart away from the checkout and toward the moving targets of the red logos on the electric exit doors. Out across the floodlit parking lot, the neither warm nor cold spring twilight tore across his chest like an invisible finish line tape as Benji rolled his purchases toward the trusty van, fighting the eccentric drift of the shopping cart, the van so familiar and useful to Benji, at rest in its misted cone of light, touchingly aloof at the farthest corner of the lot as if Benji himself had had nothing to do with it being there.
When Prentis answered the door and gave Benji a glancing peck on the mouth before taking one of the grocery bags and ushering him in, he couldn’t, with a gun to his head, have said, truthfully, if she’d ever pecked him on the mouth like that before. Had she? When? Was this a new kind of irony-poisoned greeting? Benji could summon memories of passionate greetings between himself and Prentis, from the previous two years, a sentimental montage of the good times featuring zero irony and lots of tongue and a few giddy twirls or tango dips appended, even, but his arms weren’t normally encumbered with groceries, so maybe that was the difference. Or maybe Prentis just didn’t love him anymore.
He followed her across the brief taupe shag of the brightly-wallpapered dining room doing his best not to notice that she’d never looked better (had she lost a little weight? in eight hours? ). Her slender self glid in a red silk pantsuit with a kimono feel to its big-sleeved top, tied shut with a red silk sash, her hair a futuristic blonde top knot with roots showing. The cork-heeled clogs (with bamboo trim around the toe boxes), in which Prentis somehow managed to cross the kitchen linoleum while making barely a sound, were an early-days gift from Benji. Was the wearing of these shoes symbolic? Had she worn them this year? Was she wearing them ironically? Nostalgically? Subconsciously?
“The dear old fella under me,” said Prentis, quietly, looking not at Benji as she arranged the contents of her grocery bag around the kitchen counter in the free space beside the sink, “Has suffered a death in the family lately and hasn’t left the place in a week or more. I’d feel an oaf disturbing him with the awful din of my twelve league boots up here. He sits in his kitchen with that radio on at all hours. Bless him.”
Benji had, in fact, lingered, on his way up, in front of the sad door of the apartment on the landing under Prentis’ place, listening to the tinny swing music. He’d stood there clutching his two bags of groceries, trying to place the tune and smelling garage and not sure why. He thought back on that moment as Prentis mentioned the poor old guy and the lonely radio the music was coming from but suddenly thought to ask Prentis, instead,
“So who lost the game today? Was anyone there we know?”
“Well it’s not as though it wasn’t the world’s most reliably foregone conclusion, now, was it?”
“You know, I was thinking, there’d be something a lot more meaningful in that legendary record…”
“If they’d been playing as hard as they…?”
“Yes. And lost anyway. Exactly. That would be a loss I could root for. That…”
“An epic poignancy. Yes. A sincere…”
“But something about those smug brats deliberately…”
“Like their fathers and their fathers before them. It’s all a joke, right? Never trust a college football team that calls itself The Sisypheans.”
“It rubs me the wrong way.”
Their dialog had been perfect and almost reassuringly routine (and mutually supportive) until that fugitive last line, which triggered a silence by testing current conditions a little too blithely with the kind of double entendre that either, or both of them, would have jumped on with camp aplomb in better times. Prentis would normally and naturally have then said,
“How would you feel about me rubbing you the right way before our dinner guest arrives?”
or Benji would normally and naturally have then said,
“Not to give you any ideas…”
Or both would have said, in perfect unison, and laughed afterward, and screwed very soon thereafter, and laughed again,
“Speaking of which…”
But neither said or did anything to honor the opportunity. Benji smiled falsely to himself while Prentis continued chopping things.
Prentis prepared the food and Benji continually shifted his spot around the kitchen, to get out of Prentis’ way, instead of just sitting in the dining room because the kitchen was too small for two to occupy at once, because sitting in the dining room would have made it look too much like Prentis was making the dinner by herself, doing all the work, which she was, while kicking himself for the thuddingly-awkwardly-stillborn double-entendre. But was it Benji’s sudden self-consciousness or Prentis’ second thoughts about Benji that had killed it?
There was a little black-and-white television in the corner where the kitchen counter met the adjacent wall and it was angled toward them, sound off, showing a scene, just then, between Carroll O’Connor and Jean Stapleton, a scene that was being played for laughs, probably, because the show was a sitcom… but, with the sound off, and O’Connor’s scowl cross-cut with close-ups of Stapleton’s patented expression of perpetual alarm, her mobile and goggling eyes, it read like a Eugene O’Neill play, a neorealist melodrama about a petit bourgeois patriarch, with an awful secret, in the winter of his spate.
When the doorbell rang, Benji flinched just enough to slosh a cubic centileter of the premature red wine he was helping himself to, in order to give himself something to do, across the refrigerator door and down on the warped linoleum in front of it. The interval between the unbagging of the groceries and the ringing of the doorbell had been mercilessly short of the time Benji would have needed to come up with a safe way to somehow approach the topic of the horrible thing that had happened the previous evening, though, as far as Benji could tell, Prentis was acting so near to normal that it almost began to feel as though nothing much had really happened and the only horrible things to speak of, from that night, were, hopefully, trapped in Benji’s head, where the only harm they could do was to Benji.