Writing seriously for twenty years (and writing unseriously for at least a decade before that) will, as it did in my case, afford you a few discoveries. Among which (in my case) being that “Experimental Writing” cannot remain experimental forever: you must, eventually, come to conclusions and act on them. For example. The strange and/or absurd can be so much more powerful, and affecting, when it does not announce itself, necessarily, as such. Well, that’s how The Gods handle it. I defer to Them. Especially when considering anything as absurd and/or strange as Race…
JESUS in VEGAS: AN EXCERPT (from chapter 2, part 1)
An hour later they were waiting for seafood platters over bottomless glasses of so-so wine at the street-level bar of the relatively-rundown Stardust. As everyone who actually knew Vegas knew, each of the major casino/hotels was calibrated to appeal to visitors from a specific region of the greater Midwest, with The Sands aimed at Kansas, The Tropicana keyed to Oklahoma, and The Frontier designed specifically to rope in tourists from North and South Dakota, and so on. Or something like that. Benny could never remember the exact formula. Elements of the Stardust felt like an homage towards the blue-collar, redlight ambiance of near-Northside Chicago; the shocking abundance of colored waitresses (two) couldn’t have been a coincidence. The fact that Parker preferred the Stardust over the garishly swanky Circus Circus couldn’t have been a coincidence, either. As the waitress, a Benin bronze in a polyester wig, marched towards the kitchen, her red satin hotpants sucked so hard on Parker’s eyes that his optic nerves twanged like a banjo.
Parker had a habit, especially when he was feeling rose-lit by the grape-light, of calling Benny Pierre, due to Benny’s French-sounding surname, probably, and the only thing that kept Benny from taking umbrage at this was his knowing that Parker didn’t know he was a Negro. It was okay, in other words, because he was being denigrated as a man but not as a human. Most Negroes would never know how good that could feel, or even that an inexplicable appetite for such abuse (first to receive it, later to dole it out) was the key to success in business.
“Looks are everything, Pierre,” said Parker, checking the time, “…why do you suppose my watch is worth more than your monthly salary and yet yours costs less than this lunch? Does one keep better time than the other? I think not. Look,” he mimed drawing a diagram on the bar with his finger, “there’s an atomic clock with an IBM brain buried a mile under a mountain in Colorado in a top-secret room that cost the tax payers eighty five million dollars to build and a million a year to maintain… ” He raked his fingers through a haircut the color and texture of doll hair. He had a phenomenally small face. He looked bewildered, briefly, and started again.
“Pierre, I know you appreciate frankness. So I’m going to be frank. Why do you think the old guy hired you, despite your somewhat, shall we say, skimpy qualifications? Two years of art school on the G.I. Bill? Six months in the mail room of an AM radio station in Philly? Good grades in High School? I think not. We took you on because you look the part. The sideburns, the cheekbones, the suede jacket and turtleneck sweater. You beat out a guy who graduated near the top of his class from Harvard.”
It hit Benny that he was either about to be promoted to junior executive or fired with less ceremony than Parker had ordered their drinks with and his posture changed accordingly. With almost imperceptible stealth, he shifted back up off his elbows. He tasted a deep swallow of the bar’s stale layer-cake of old smoke and gambler’s fearsweat and became lucid as hell, clear as a tall glass of lunar vacuum, ready for whatever Parker was about to throw at him. His mouth was as dry as all that encroaching desert out there, only a three minute walk in any direction from any point on The Strip, tumbleweeds blowing down Sahara Avenue. He was ready for death.
Hamilton Gold entered the bar with an exaggerated tip-toe pantomime made all the more would-be comical by his briefcase, sneaking up on Parker with a wink at Benny, who was far from in the mood to play along. Gold loomed behind Parker for what felt like a solid minute, obviously stuck on what to do next, unable to think of anything hysterically funny. He took a seat at the bar and nodded defeated hellos. He caught the waitress’s eye and asked Parker,
“Have you, uh…?”
“Not yet. I was just getting to it.”
Gold turned to Benny and, making that face he made when he meant to make it clear that the face he was making meant he wasn’t beating around the bush, said, “We were interested in knowing whether you know any Negroes.”
“He means qualified.”
Parker leaned forward for emphasis. “We thought you might know, or might know someone who knows someone who is or knows…”
“See, you’re a bit younger than we are, LaFontaine, despite our official ages… ” Gold winked and turned to the waitress to order whatever the other two were having, then joked, as she sashayed towards a table of leisured-suited Missourians who were waving hundred dollar bills to get her attention, with a jerk of his big chin at her back,“Hey, I know, maybe we should ask… ?”
Parker made his in-point-of-fact-we’re-being-quite-serious-despite-Gold’s-tiresome-japes face and said, “Pierre, ever hear of a colored guy with the unforgettable name of Thaddeus Mumford?” When Benny shook his head, reaching for the steaming plate a Malaysian busboy was lifting shakily over Parker’s shoulder, Gold said,
“Talented kid… sings, acts, writes… I even hear he can direct. Clean-cut, well-spoken, sweet as a hundred eighty pound Hershey Bar…”
“Million-watt smile… sexy as hell… ”
“Not mad at anyone…”
“We want a Negro like that, Pierre, and we figure you can help us find one. Can’t you go to one of those parties we hear you go to… ?”
“There must be a couple of colored college types… ”
“Or Jewish girls who… no offense, Gold… they usually…”
Gold watched Parker pop a fried scallop in his mouth with a well-fed dog’s bored envy and said, in a neutral tone, “None taken, Gray. Maybe we should tell LaFontaine… ”
“Why we’re in desperate need of a Negro?” Parker frowned at Benny, chewing. “Think he can be trusted?”
“I think so. He’s one of us now, Gray,” said Gold, though his eyes darted to Parker to check for any notable reaction to the word us. “I think LaFontaine,” he toyed with the sound of the word, “needs to be aware of the gravity of the situation.”
Parker fixed Benny with a blinkless this-goes-no-further-than-this-conversation stare and said, “Remember that guy I was telling you about, before, the way-better-qualified guy you cheated out of a job…? The Harvard grad? Well,” Parker smiled pleasurelessly and Gold smiled back, “word has it his lawyers are about to hit us with a multi-million dollar lawsuit… discrimination… ”
“And it looks like they’ve got a pretty tight case.”
“We need your help.”
Benny drove directly home after the meeting, steering as straight as he could, though it felt like the Cougar, or the road, or the earth itself, was zig-zagging. Not just right and left but up and down and back and forth, too. And he tried his best to ignore the roadrunner, which resembled so much the famous cartoon…the long-necked bird pacing the car for a mile in a cloud of dust before loping off on a side-road towards North Las Vegas… he tried to ignore the tumbleweeds blowing into traffic in the middle of the city or the redneck sheriff’s deputy that zoomed past doing ninety wearing aviator sunglasses on the Tonopah Highway… or the billboard out there advertising The Chicken Ranch which featured a blonde, a brunette, a redhead like an Attack of the 50 Foot Whores and everything else conspiring at that moment to make him scream what the fuck am I doing here?
He spoke to himself, he spoke aloud, he declared in a firm, clear voice that he should go grocery shopping to secure provisions for the long weekend he predicted would see him reverting to the bunker mentality he’d perfected at his all-white Art School alma mater, where he flirted with and then fucked his first white women, experiences he only found exciting because they could get him killed, theoretically, though only if he confessed he wasn’t white. But still. He decided he needed a shower to clear his head before going grocery shopping. On top of everything else, he was very tired.
When he parked the Cougar he sat in it for a while and almost nodded off listening to the very weak signal of an AM radio station from L.A. playing rhythm and blues records from his adolescence… what they called jump blues back then…ladies and gentlemen Mr. Wynonie Harris… those old shellac 78s so heavy you could break windows with them… he would’ve preferred jazz for his mood but only one station featured one weekly show with jazz of any value and that was late in the evening on Saturdays… until he noticed there was mail waiting in the bank of aluminum boxes under the stairs curving up to his second-level apartment. A Stargazer’s Monthly magazine and other items visible through the slot. He got out of the car and fetched the mail, his mind still zonked on various Alexander-Dumas-grade ironies as he gripped the hot handrail and laid a tasseled loafer on each consecutive concrete step as the almost patronizingly helpful geometry of the spiral led him to his unlocked door.
He kicked off his loafers and treated his delicate feet to the carpet. He gazed upon the totem of his alphabetized collection of jazz LPs, seven thousand records in row upon row on shelf upon shelf along the wall leading out of the living room emitting the delicious perfume of time and cardboard. On the top shelf, beside the book-ended collection of miscellaneous 45s, was the painted wood and wire scale-model of the solar system that used to sit on his father’s desk, the only thing he got (by stealing it) when the old man migrated to the afterlife.
In the bundle of mail was a letter from a person with a name he suddenly remembered he’d forgotten years ago, a buddy from art school, Ricky Lang, a white boy with a Quaker background who’d been more or less indifferent towards Benny until discovering Benny was a Negro, which had seemed to make all the difference. This was before Benny had learned to dissemble on the topic. Parting the curtain of glass beads and standing in the arched passage between his modern white kitchen and the earthtone living room, Benny opened the letter first, before the bills, or even the latest issue of Stargazer, featuring a ten-page cover story on black holes, with its lurid artist’s renderings of stars being eaten alive, stars and their screams of light, destruction on a scale that made the continent-clearing whims of the Old Testament’s Jehovah seem childishly cute and extremely local. Clearly, Jehovah Himself answered to an even supremer being, and whatever It was, It was not to be fucked with.
I hope this finds you in good health and cheerful as ever.
Tomorrow, I start that weird occasional job again that I couldn’t expect you to know about, since we haven’t kept in contact much since our time together at the Franklin Academy, where we both planned to be world-famous artists. I was going to be Matisse and you were going to be Picasso, if I recall it right (wink).
Well, for a year now my job is standing naked before the art students. I swear, there are probably 300 drawings of me in student’s portfolios, trying to get them into the best colleges. Skinny guy, small dick, pot belly, gawky neck, womanly breasts, pointy nose. You can imagine. It’s at least SOME money (6 dollars per hour unless they’ve upped it again) and I just can’t say no, since I know that no one else in this whole fucking town of 3500 people wants to (or in some cases, would be allowed to) stand naked before our children. Did I tell you already that I moved upstate after my divorce? Anyway, I’m up in the sticks now.
It’s a funny fantasy. Do you ever have dreams that you show up in highschool and you’re partly or completely naked? Many people do have that dream. I do sometimes — and I’m the guy who’s actually doing it for real. I stand there in some pose and I think, hey, I really AM NAKED in front of the eyes of these people. I see these teenagers on the street and say Hi, and I think, wow, that person usually sees me naked.
But I think my more frequent dream is that I’m walking on the street at night, naked. I dreamed that the other night, and it was so real, I was thinking to myself in the dream, yes, I do this often actually, and no, it’s not a dream. After I woke up, I actually scanned my memory to clarify for myself whether I actually do go walking naked at night or not … and I don’t … but I have this nagging almost-memory, like yes, it does seem familiar.
I guess I should go do something productive now. Or just curl up.
Keep in touch,
Your old friend,
Benny lifted the wall-mounted white trimline receiver from the kitchen wall and dialed Sheila Silver’s number, auditioning a variety of salutations (so wide in range that he realized he hadn’t a clue as to the proper general tone to adopt with her, and this after nearly screwing, and then eating, her twice) before she answered. When she finally fumbled the phone and drawled a very weak Yes?, sounding something like someone wearing a blindfold in bed in a dark room in the middle of the afternoon you’ve only managed to rouse at all because she just took the sleeping pill; sounding, in fact, exactly like that; Benny hung up. Sheila was a depressive jazz-head with big tits who often slept in the middle of the afternoon. There was just no way Benny was seriously going to ask Sheila Silver if she knew of any parties this weekend at which there might be college-educated Negroes present, though he knew that there was no logical reason for him not to. Which is why he rang Sheila Silver’s number again, immediately after hanging up, rolling his eyes at his own squeamishness, his own lack of business acumen, before hanging up again the moment she answered again (this time a lot less drowsy, annoyed, even) while Benny mused on how telephones were less useful for talking than for not talking. What middle-late 20th century man accomplished by slamming a phone in its cradle could only have been achieved as thoroughly, in the time of Louis XVl, with a guillotine. And that was progress.