It is 1974 and Benji Schamansky is a sideburned, aftershave-splashed, college prof with a bestselling paperback, THE PHYSICS of LIT, to his name. Benji enjoys a poorly-monitored teaching position at St. Jeff’s college of The Most Liberal Arts but all is not mellow. Recent developments (aka The Regrettable Experiment) in his significant relationship, the one between Benji and the beautiful and mysterious Prentis Bel, have left Benji feeling unsure about things… if not Reality itself.
The evening after the night of The Regrettable Experiment, Benji helps Prentis with the fondue as Prentis’ old college chum, Myrva, flies in from the coast, for dinner. Are things back to normal between Benji and Prentis? Are they worse? Is Benji being silly? Is this the End…?
SIDE ONE/ CHAPTER FIVE
The sounds Prentis made as she opened her front door to greet the guest were comfortingly cheap and chirpy. The sounds didn’t sound at all like the sounds of a woman doing a canny burlesque of genuine speech while communicating emphatically in eyebrow code, with her oldest female friend, about a wretched man, in the next room, she was on the verge of totally dumping. Or, if they sounded that way, Benji wasn’t experienced enough to detect this. He’d never been dumped before because he’d never before cared, he suddenly realized, whether or not he’d be dumped.
Prentis’ old east coast college friend Myrva.
Myrva marched into the kitchen while Benji was on his hands and knees, wiping up the spilled wine with a crocheted Pisces oven mitt. The first things he saw of Myrva were biggish, square-toed, patent leather boots, with Pilgrim-styled front buckles of brass. Benji assumed the filler of such stolid footwear must be rather fat. When he stood and took Myrva’s round warm bun of a hand he saw that Myrva wasn’t fat, exactly, but that her torso was chunky, as big in one direction as it was in the other (to exaggerate), her arms in her sleeveless Mondrian dress hammy and dimpled at the elbows, an impression he found totally incompatible with her exquisitely beautiful face. Her exquisitely beautiful face was framed by an expensive, asymmetrical bob that appeared to be made of the same material as her shiny black boots, which were hiding down there at the other end of some other woman’s body.
Myrva’s face was really something, with fine high cheeks and a delicately aquiline nose and ironically arching eyebrows. The effect was mythological: Myrva was a centaur. The head and body really did not fit together. Picasso’s neo-classical paintings being a good reference point. Benji pictured Myrva in a toga at a well. It wasn’t an unheard of thing… Benji had seen women like that before… but he couldn’t think of a male equivalent of the phenomenon. Men with chunky bodies always had chunky heads.
Yes, thought Benji, internally tut-tut-tutting, and it’s not as though Myrva’s breasts are proportionately large to compensate for her extra weight, though he was fully aware that Myrva’s looks, clothed or not, were none of his business, despite the fact that he’d already pictured her naked, twice, one side view and another from behind, legs in an A-frame and hands very proudly on hips. Plus one imaginary tracking shot gliding down into a very low angle while aiming straight up, as though the kneeling subject was straddling the imaginary movie camera of Benji’s obligatory interest, her breasts and chin and bush all bumps on a wavy wall of the goose-bumped bridge the camera was passing under. Which was standard procedure regarding all fully developed women under 55 and only occasionally as old as, say, 70, which had only happened twice and by accident. Benji did it so many times a day (even when no women were reasonably near enough to be put through his filter; women further than three blocks away were a challenge and often yielded peculiar results) that he no longer noticed he was doing it, like being stuck with (sort of) seeing the bridge of his nose in the middle of his face as an inevitable consequence of having an eye on either side of it. Phallically speaking.
The sleek black Trimline on the wall inside the refrigerator’s cove rang like a class room bell and made Benji and Prentis jump simultaneously, Benji a little more than Prentis, who lowered a stack of plates to the table and hurried into the kitchen. Myrva watched Benji pretend to consider the call of no interest; in fact, Benji used this little intermission as the perfect excuse to remove his watch and rub his pale, damp wrist with its flattened hairs and wind the watch and then set it after noticing that it had been dead for either approximately 6 or 18 hours. Benji suppressed the urge to make a pathetic quip about Miss Havisham’s clocks because it would have been pathetic.
“Hey, do you have the exact time, Myrva?”
Prentis stuck her head in the dining room, stretching the Trimline’s curly black cord, and asked Myrva to be fabulous and grab the Glad-wrapped crudités from the fridge and added she’d only be a minute and disappeared again, pulled by the cord.
“Oh, it’s almost exactly six, Benji,” said Myrva, with heartbreaking kindness.
Benji followed Myrva’s shiny modern Mondrian dress into the kitchen to help with the carrying of the crudités and saw Prentis from behind, elbows on the sill, head out the kitchen window, topknot played with by the wind, in the way that people smoked in smoke-free apartments, talking on the phone in the rain. Prentis’ ass was provocatively perfect in those tight red silken trousers and lifted to a suggestive height by the clogs. Benji turned away and mimed looking for more crudités to carry and followed Myrva back into the dining room and they sat and waited for Prentis.
On the dining room wall behind Myrva, just above her head, was a framed poster of the Milton Glaser image of Dylan in silhouette, Dylan as a psychedelic Beethoven, hair in wavy stripes of neon profusion, chin down and nose pronouncedly beaky, which poster Benji had always assumed was the work of Peter Max (the American Pop Artist behind, uh, the Beatles-voiced Yellow Submarine cartoon, as he seemed to recall?). Benji sat himself opposite of Myrva, at the other end of the table, while Prentis plugged in, and lit the wicks, on all the brass-handled fondue equipment and set up the plates and bowls with chunks of things they’d be dipping, trying to remember what framed image was on the wall behind his own head. It was either “Stoned Again” or Desiderata. He hoped it wasn’t the Desiderata, which was exactly the kind of thing you might ponder, philosophically, in the aftermath of (or preamble to) a break-up. Benji stood and stretched and yawned and twisted his spine left and right with his hands on his hips and got a quick look. No picture behind him at all.
To his left and Myrva’s right were heavy curtains covering the dining room window, which overlooked the private parking lot for Prentis’ building. Benji had a sudden, compulsive premonition of keeping a jealous vigil in that very lot, down there in his idling van, staring up at Prentis’ dimly lit dining room window all night from the agonizing distance of three storeys below her. Three storeys removed from the golden light.
Benji became aware of the fact that Prentis was off the Trimline and busy with plates and things in the kitchen again while carrying on an off-camera small talk thing with Myrva, who, after taking a drink so deep that the back of her head seemed to touch a spot between her shoulder blades as she took it, said, in response to something Prentis said or asked while walking in from the kitchen with another tray of food,
“Sure. I’ve just spent an illuminating week in galleries looking at High Art with my ex in Soho. On the last day of our little junket, we had this huge fight in Leo Castelli’s gallery. You wouldn’t believe it. In front of the feyest Twombly you can imagine. I burst out laughing. Like, what if Michelangelo were to walk, miraculously, into this gallery and have a look at this stuff? The 20th century would die of shame. It was the first day of spring. I read somewhere that people fight more when the temperature goes up. I’m thinking: why am I arguing about Art with my ex? What’s the point? Jerry was never super smart but he is sexy as Hell. The hair on his chest is like the most luxurious shag carpet… you have to feel it between your toes to believe it. That’s why I haven’t entirely broken things off with him, if you know what I mean. But I tried to explain, you know. I always tried to explain things to Jerry and that’s probably why things didn’t work out with him. I could live with his snoring but he couldn’t live with my explaining. I told Jerry, Jerry: High Art… non-middlebrow art… decadent art… what have you… it’s always a direct attack on the established order. Avant Garde is a military term, for god’s sake. Could it be more obvious? If the established order is Christian and heterosexual, your priests of High Art will be Jews and fags, working to attack the symbols and sensibilities of what we call the Normal. When the priests of High Art are Jews and fags, and the critics… who are in place to keep the priests of High Art in check, after all… when the critics are also Jews and fags… and even the owners of the newspapers and magazines are Jews and fags, the established order will fall, it will melt, like a sand castle hit by high tide. Or, rather, it won’t fall, the established order, but its faces will change. The faces of the established order will gradually become the faces of Jews and fags. I mean, is it that way, now, or not? I don’t care either way, I’m just making an observation here. In fact, what the Hell, I’m thinking about converting to the other side. I’d make a great Lesbian. I’m already a Jew. What they call a lipstick Lesbian. If dykes had dicks I’d convert so fast your head would spin. A Kike Dyke. Did I just coin that? I like it: Kike Dyke. Dick Van Kike Dyke. Rolls off your tongue, no pun intended. I better trademark that before it ends up as the title of Miles Davis’ next LP. I almost had a Negro boyfriend once but I figured it wasn’t worth the trouble. In a hundred years, maybe. This fondue is yummy. Am I tasting a hint of nutmeg? By the way, the day before I flew out of JFK I saw the rough cut of a film that will absolutely blow your mind, it’s based on a book by Hesse and Bergmann’s alter ego, von Sydow, is magnificent in it, we have to see it together my next trip through town. It’s the first Jungian film in film history. You heard it here first!
“Somebody else say something so I won’t be accused of being a domineering monologist. What do you do, Benji, asked the domineering monologist. You’re a teacher like Prentis, right? Do you love shaping young minds with your bare hands or is your mind a million miles away while you’re at the black board, unintentionally forging Twomblys? Can I have a splash or two more of this exquisite supermarket wine? Thanks, doll. Don’t worry if we spill a little on the dress, it’s like a giant oilcloth bib. A giant oilcloth Mondrian bib. It wipes right off. Are you staring at my tits, Benji? Such as they are, I mean. Don’t look shocked, Prentis has heard me say worse. Much worse, right?”
“Well now that you’ve broken the ice, Myrva,” said Benji, softly, making Prentis and Myrva laugh.
“Benji is more than a teacher,” said Prentis, “he’s written a book. Haven’t you, Benji? A bestseller. All I do is misinterpret the books of others.”
“While I get paid to misinterpret my own book,” said Benji, who wouldn’t look at Prentis while he said it.
“Don’t be so modest. What’s your book about?”
“Reality, I guess,” said Benji, the Undertaker’s son, who didn’t want to be the beneficiary of Prentis’ harmless kindness about his insincere book but also suspected he might be getting slightly shitfaced on the glasses of wine he couldn’t seem to pry from the one hand that wasn’t busy clawing through his hair or scratching the convenient earlobe or drumming in triplets on his sorrowful teeth. Benji was so adept at changing the subject, shitfaced or not, when it came to Benji’s book, that it took no more than half a minute to have Myrva, who was champing at the bit to do so anyway, talking about herself again.
SIDE ONE/ CHAPTER SIX
Myrva produced an unopened bottle of Kahlùa from her capacious purse and pressed the bottle’s cool glass side to Benji’s cheek as the road hummed and swerved under them and Myrva said,
“Let’s play my favorite drinking game. It goes like this. You say a word you think I won’t know and I attempt to define it. If I fail, you get a swig. And, just so you aren’t tempted to cheat, buster, I have a Pocket Oxford Dictionary of Current English, from 1934, in my purse.”
Benji slowed as he approached a STOP sign and hit the right-turn clicker and eased into the turn at the brightly-wet intersection and said, “Widdershins.”
“Well now, let’s see, that would be the, uh, the condition of the thickening of the skin above the ankles, at the fronts of the legs, suffered by the bereaved, uh…”
“Nope. Old Scottish word. Means counter-clockwise on a sundial.”
“I can see I underestimated you, Sir. Open up.”
Myrva screwed the cap off the sealed bottle and leaned forward from the sultry dark behind the driver’s seat to press the wide brown mouth of the bottle to Benji’s lips, a nurse servicing a paraplegic in his vast electric wheelchair. “That’s a good boy,” she said, when Benji had swallowed. Then she said, in a busty FM voice, “The dinner: delicious. The mood: easy. The dessert: Kahlùa and Myrva.”
Benji chuckled, licking his lips. The only time he ever drank Kahlùa was when he sometimes found himself hiding out in a co-ed’s dorm room.
“Okay whizz kid. Next?”
“Declarative statement in pidgin English useful in deli…”
“Nope. Having hairy buttocks.”
“This is humiliating. Whose idea was this game, anyway? Oh well. Drink up.”
Bei Mir Bist Du Schön, sang Benji, later, to the beat of the wiper, against rhythmless tom toms of high Midwestern thunder. Benji leaned forward into the woof and shove of an inconsolable storm on a ribboning road above the Mississippi.
To Benji’s left was all of prehistory, the vast maddened bush lunging soaked where the headlights ran like a boy with a stick along a fence and the bush was a wind-tormented monster lurching up from the black river and down from the trees to hurl rain and torn leaves and stunned squirrels at woozy Benji and unconscious Myrva in the van. The van rising tight on the road-ribbon’s edge under flash-booms. Probable death if Benji sneezed and lost control of the wheel, three big bounces down an eighty foot incline to the water. Two in the morning and booze-propelled thoughts of mortality zigged after Benji’s zagging Beetle in the storm. Time, the subsuming biomass. How does a sentient being distinguish itself in the face of such furious Indifference? There came a curve around the curve and the van ever-so-slightly hydroplaned for two weightless seconds as Benji thought, despite himself, wheeeee…
Benji wasn’t sure how he’d been maneuvered into driving Myrva back to her borrowed house in Minneapolis; whether it had been Prentis’ doing or Myrva’s or even his own; but here he was doing it. Good old Benji, thought Benji.
He could only hope Prentis was in bed by now, asleep and alone or watching the Dick Cavett special and totally alone or doing whatever it was she was doing, absofuckinglutely alone. Prentis about whom he knew even more, now, maybe, and less, far less, than he had known of her when the day before yesterday began. Prentis about whom Myrva had said,
Us? We call ourselves the Two Krishnamurtis, nearly identical but totally different. I was always getting chocolate in Prentis’s peanut butter and Prentis was always getting peanut butter in my chocolate. From way, way back. You know that quip she sometimes makes after blowing you? Don’t go coy on me now, Benji, the kiddies are all in bed and the grown-ups are up late rapping in the kitchen and we are free to speak our minds and isn’t that old age and decrepitude’s only consolation? With total frankness, speaking out? Prentis must have at least once joked ‘I can’t believe I ate the whole thing!’ after blowing you, right? I’ll bet you loved it every time she said it. Well that’s my trademark. But we share. Blood sisters. Two cunts, four brains and one soul. Correction: one Oversoul. I’ve been meaning to ask you if you’re a fan of the Seth books?
Benji had to admit it was thrilling, that kind of talk, some of it dirty. He couldn’t quite pull it off himself, though. He was used to being ‘bold’ or ‘frank’ or ‘telling it like it is’ only by deploying the ameliorating mask of Negro jive-talk. For example, he might say,
“Don’t start no mess, jack!” when he genuinely felt irritated by someone in a social setting (the only time Benji had ever thrown a punch, in his adult life, Benji had prefaced the near-miss by calling his target a jiveass sucka in a high-pitched voice), but it was hard to imagine saying the kinds of effortlessly shocking stuff Myrva was capable of saying, in mixed company, without hiding behind a character. Was it a cultural attribute of Jewishness? A Lenny Bruce thing?
Benji had been making a joke about how much of a Jew Prentis wasn’t (in contrast to Myrva’s running shtick about how much of a Jew that she, Myrva, was) when Myrva had cawed like a crow with a kitten’s tail hanging from its beak and said, “What makes you think she isn’t?”
“She isn’t what? What? Prentis? Prentis isn’t Jewish, she’s Irish. Jeez. You know, sometimes…”
“And the two are mutually exclusive in your book?”
Oh, they’d had a rollicking conversation, he and Myra, a conversation so boisterous and spirited and intellectually unabashed that it had sounded more like a really good New York City style late night talk show, Dick Cavett or Tom Snyder hosting a roundtable of hip-but-distinguished guests, than two, or one, really, drunks yapping over the heroic din of a VW’s Nazi-designed power plant as they paralleled the Mississippi like a space ship in the upper atmosphere of a ravishingly tempestuous planet on the verge of the dawning of the 21st century. Then things went from boisterous to dead silent (except the jackrabbitting VW’s heart) and Benji’s ears were still ringing with Myrva’s big voice yet there she was, a stilled heap, breaths inaudible, far gone, lips slightly parted and legs askew on the mattress behind the driver’s seat. A heap of admirable intelligence.
She’d been hanging on the back of that driver’s seat, watching the same road that Benji was watching through the glittering, light-striped windshield, Myrva and Benji peering through the windshield together like a first date at a popular road movie, Myra laughing and shouting and singing directly into Benji’s ear, her chin practically resting on his shoulder and now, like that, she was out and Benji had no idea where Myrva Marxx’s borrowed house was. The last thing Benji wanted or needed was for Myrva to spend the night in Benji’s van and give Prentis even more of an excuse to do whatever it was Prentis was planning to do next as a result of the terrible thing that may or may not have happened the night before, when Prentis had taken Skip Woode’s cock in her mouth.
“She isn’t what? What? Prentis? Prentis isn’t Jewish, she’s Irish. Jeez. You know, sometimes…”
“And the two are mutually exclusive in your book?”
“Um, have I ever told you the Isaac Asimov story?” had then asked Myrva, with the theatrical air of someone trying to change the subject. Which, now that Benji really thought about it, could possibly have been a deft trick for making her “Jewish” innuendo seem plausible. Prentis was about as Jewish as a box of Quaker Oats. Benji was still trying to decide whether or not to reel over the hinted-at revelation as he ferried the slumbering centaur Myrva through the night and the storm to an uncertain destination.
“It was during our glorious Cornell days, ’65 or thereabouts,” she’d said. “I was seeing a younger man, an undergrad named Conrad, nicknamed Connie, Connie Seldon. What was sort of gruesomely fascinating about our Connie was his anachronistically Bedouin worldview… his attitude toward women. Like a regular Germaine Greer he made Martin Luther seem in comparison. He saw us as temptresses and all that jazz. You know: two dozen Jezebels and twelve Delilahs for every Virgin Mary. Which was peculiar because Connie was a card carrying Atheist. Religion was not just the opiate of the masses, in his opinion, but an opiate being sold to the masses by a pusher who was too clever and professional to use his own product, if you know what I mean. The anti-Religion thing was standard at Cornell but Connie’s open contempt for women was unusual, even in ’65. I guess I thought he was a challenge. I mean, let’s face it, the truth is I decided that it would be sexy to defeat him, utterly and prove my superiority. He was blonde, tall, very Aryan. He never called me Myrva, he called me Delma, my nickname, which is what I always imagined my mother would have called me when I disappointed her, after Delmore Schwartz, but who actually would name a daughter after Delmore Schwarz? It was a very sexy life and death struggle between the top of one food chain and the top of another. I gave myself a semester to do it. Bring the Aryan Übermensch low and leave him begging for more while doing my damndest to avoid getting pregnant with my very own Lebensborn.”
“So, this Conrad Seldon of mine, he worshipped Isaac Asimov. Worshipped is not too strong a word. Had all his books and read each one twice and that was saying something because Isaac Asimov had been writing something like a book a week for twenty years, by then. I mean, he’s still doing it. Connie couldn’t get through a day without quoting his hero Isaac Asimov, the post-war American personification of the Enlightenment, bringing order to the world with the magic wand of Science. Crypto-Nazi Connie and his rabbinical guru Isaac! Maybe it was the eau de Kike Connie smelled in my cunt that made him feel closer to Isaac when he schtupped me?”
“Which, you know, The Enlightenment… is the exact opposite of what, in Connie’s opinion, Womankind is up to, namely sowing the seeds of chaos through lust, menstruation and bad driving. Connie was of the opinion that Science had developed technology, specifically, to wean Man from his dependence on Women. This was the fundamental tenet of his philosophical position. Washing machines, sewing machines, frozen dinners and, eventually, robotic sex slaves and artificial wombs will be all about freeing Man from his destructive and unnecessary relationship with Woman. Can you imagine? Maybe this was a thread running through Asimov’s books… who knows. The irony being, obviously, that, if anything, things are going in the opposite direction and Women are being freed from the technical dependence on Men. Look at in vitro fertilization, for example. Who needs sperm? A little static electricity will do it. But that’s another conversation.”
“The whole time I was with Connie I read maybe thirty pages of Asimov between three books. I can’t really say Isaac ever lit my wick, not on the page, at least. I thought the Science books were a bit light, for my taste… my father was an astrophysicist, after all… but the fiction was campy-yet-detestable fun. Not fun enough to actually keep reading but it was more fun than reading Pynchon, which, that’s not saying anything. You’re not one of those Pynchon fanatics, are you? Because you kind of look like one. Actually, you look exactly like Rip Torn, a character actor I adore, but I’m sure you’ve heard that.”
“Anyway, Connie worshipped Asimov but he had never seen Asimov speak in person. As it happens, Asimov was making an appearance at the 92nd Street Y one warm, clear Friday afternoon, to promote one of his zillion books. Connie wouldn’t even have known about it if I hadn’t dragged him down there… I kept it a surprise until we walked up to the building and he saw the event listed in the framed programs beside the doors. He was beside himself like a teeny bopper faced with the prospect of meeting Ringo of The Beatles. He was a queer and highly Connie blend of ecstasy and outrage. Why hadn’t I told him in advance? He would have worn a suit and tie! He was about to come face to face with Isaac Asimov and he was dressed in khakis and deck shoes, for goodness sakes. Oh, the humanity.”
“Now, it’s funny how the subconscious works. In retrospect, it’s laughably obvious that it was my plan, from the moment that I became aware of Asimov’s engagement at the 92nd Street Y, to seduce him. Asimov was Connie’s citadel of Western Civilization, after all, and I was the Visigoth who was going to breach the battlements. Just because I could.”
“I picked a little fight with Connie, as we sat in the audience… maybe two hundred folding chairs without a single empty seat… we were in the front row… I picked a little fight that established the necessary rhetorical framework by which I would falsify Connie’s vehement position in the most dramatic terms possible. I maneuvered… I’m almost ashamed to admit it, but all is fair in love and rhetoric… I maneuvered Connie into making the falsifiable statement that ‘Someone as brilliant and learned as Isaac Asimov would never fall for the shallow tactics of your female sex trap!’ He insisted, coolly, that whereas he, Conrad Seldon, was still a weak and unformed undergraduate at the mercy of his all-too-human hormones, Asimov was beyond that, and if I tried to seduce the world famous paragon of Western Science, Isaac Asimov, I’d be humiliated. At best, Asimov would pat me on my head and dismiss me like a naughty child! Okay?”
“You can see where this is going, right? I thought I could, too. In the end, as it turns out, both Connie and I were shockingly naive… or maybe just as naive as kids in their early twenties are supposed to be. We were both wrong. To my credit, though, Connie was a lot more wrong than I was.”
“Like all children of the American ersatz of The Enlightenment, I always believed exactly what I was told to believe. I never asked myself who was telling me. It wasn’t my parents. My parents had nothing to do, for example, with making Man Ray and Max Ernst and Pablo Picasso and all those dirty old men my heroes… my parents were already long dead when these creeps started getting magazine covers. Especially that sicko Man Ray. Oops, maybe I’m giving away my age here.”
Myrva had suddenly nipped Benji’s earlobe, making him yelp.
“Knowing what I know now, if I happen to see one of those famous coffee book photographs of his I used to ooh and ahhh over as an intellectual fetus, I’m nauseated. Man Ray… ugh. Just hearing the name makes my skin crawl. The hip among us think of Cher Maitre Ray as a sadomasochist, but that was just his cover. The creep was a sadist. A very different type of proposition. There were the weak ones and there were the strong ones. What was his name? Paul Eluard: one of the weak ones. And that Penrose character. Picasso is just their cover. Oh and that monster who made the first ever Zombie film… I can’t think of his name right now, either. Brooks? William something. He was a literal cannibal. And they were all in on it. All of them witches! Do What Thou Wilst Shall be the Whole of the Law indeed! I think not, Bubby. Have you seen Rosemary’s Baby? You have to.”
“And, oh, God, poor Lee Miller. Second only to Billie Holiday as one of the great gynecological martyrs of the 20th century. Think about it. Diddled by her father and whipped and pissed on by that Man Ray creep and when she finally began to lose her looks they sent her to take family snapshots of the liberation of Bergen Belsen. Ain’t that a kick in the teeth. The ultimate S&M party. I know I’m going farther and farther afield, here, but do you know what the ICA is, right? Founded in 1946! Give me a fucking break… I’ll come back to all that later. Something about a brilliant idea I had. An idea for a book. But where was I? And why am I feeling so talkative tonight? You’ve heard of anal retentive? I’m the opposite, for better or worse: I’m anal explosive.”
“I sat quite patiently through Asimov’s presentation, which was admirably professional, just the right amount of levity and arrogant self-deprecation and Borscht Belt shtick. Asimov was more bon vivant than mad professor, a fact I picked up from those sideburns before he even opened his mouth. They were real mutton chops, his sideburns, even wilder than yours. The kind of Velcro a girl can really hang on to, if you know what I mean. He left us with a few neat little factlets we could take away from the talk to impress our friends at cocktail parties with. I can still remember two of them: one tablespoon of Neutronium would weigh more than the Empire State Building! Actually, I can’t remember the other factlet, but I remember using it at a cocktail party a few years ago with satisfying results. I think I actually managed to fool a man who was nursing a Tom Collins into thinking I had a brain! Can you imagine? Wait, I remember now: yes. I was quite surprised. Did you know that the Age of Aquarius that everyone keeps singing about as dawning won’t, in fact, arrive for another two thousand years? Anyway.”
“Q and A time comes and Connie raises his hand. Asimov nods in Connie’s direction… the first great highpoint of Conrad Seldon’s life. Connie asks his question and Asimov calls it a fiendishly good question and the audience applauds: the last great highpoint of Connie’s life. He’s beaming.”
“I wait a respectful interval. A few more questions are asked and answered. Then I raise my hand. Connie is smirking but Asimov, of course, calls on me, out of a dozen raised hands, because I’m the only really attractive woman in the room. I was thinner then and I can tell you, with professional detachment, that I was a knockout. Being a knockout is almost an esoteric state in high energy physics. You can’t compare it with being anything else and since I’m no longer a knockout, I’m relying heavily, no pun intended, on faded personal memories of that exalted state. It is worth noting, however, that they only shot Mata Hari after she’d lost her looks. Anyway, you can feel, as a knockout, how many centers of gravity any room with you in it has and I could feel that that large room had two, Asimov and me. That sounds egocentric but the way the room was set up, with the entrance, unusually, near the front left of the audience, everyone had to file near or past us where we sat at the front, far left. So, everyone entering the room… maybe 75% were men and boys… got a good look at my legs on the way in. I could feel many eyes on the back of my lustrous head while Asimov was talking.”
“I put my carefully-calculated question to the great Asimov. I asked, ‘Given the relatively meagre representation of females in the Sciences, do you feel that women would do best to give up even trying, in that field, and dedicate the energy to more likely pursuits, or should we persevere even harder?”
“With a grand rabbinical gesture Asimov said, ‘Persevere, young lady, persevere!‘ To great laughter and applause and that was the end of the Q and A. Then came the book signing.”
“I’d brought along a paperback from Connie’s Asimov library without him knowing it. Small enough to fit in my purse. A book about robots, with a sumptuously lurid painting, on the cover, of a woman in a bikini and a fishbowl over her beehive, on the surface of Saturn or something. How can anyone other than a thirteen-year-old boy take a book seriously with a cover like that?”
“There were two lines forming in the back of the room in front of two tables. The first table had on display seven or eight stacks of hardcover copies of the book Asimov was promoting; there were a couple of young conservative types, in suits, selling the books. Asimov was at the table beside that one, ready to sign whatever you brought him… old books from your private collection or a couple of the new ones.”
“I whispered to Connie: and now our experiment begins. Go home and I’ll meet you later and tell you exactly what happened.”
“Now, I’m not sure what Prentis has told you about me, or even if she’s talked about me at all, but I’m quite famous, among the people who know me, for always telling the truth. I’m like the actual Jewish version of that preposterously Waspy myth, itself, ironically, a lie, probably, the myth of young George and the cherry tree: I cannot tell a lie. There’s an actual term for it… it’s a psychological condition… but I’d rather describe my last bowel movement than tell you the term. I don’t know why but it’s an excruciatingly private thing for me, my dear. I know what you’re thinking: she’d probably show a one-armed sailor her bald twat in the subway if he asked politely enough but that extraordinary openness is precisely why some select things are going to be almost heartbreakingly secret, with me.”
“The greater point here being that Connie knew that no matter what might happen, I’d be absolutely honest about it. He expected me… he counted on me… to fail to seduce Asimov. If I did indeed fail at it he knew I wouldn’t embroider my failure with fantasies: I’d tell him straight. He went home smirking, confident that I’d fail, and I was left in that auditorium at the 92nd Street Y to spring my trap on the good doctor. By the way… has Prentis ever discussed me with you?”
Benji said “What?”
“Prentis. Did she ever talk about me to you? In depth or at all?”
“Hmmmm. Prentis did say you were unconventional. That was about it.”
Benji eased to a halt at a lonely traffic light and hit the turn signal as quietly as possible. To be sure, he was enjoying the relative silence of Myrva at rest. But to be even more honest he was using the time to digest more thoroughly so much of what Myrva had said because so jaw-droppingly little of it was useless bullshit. The woman was freakishly interesting. Not sexy at all but interesting. Wouldn’t touch her with a rented dildo but interesting. An open door, to a vaster world, with a scented breeze blowing through it…
Benji switched off the wipers and unevenly spaced droplets reappeared and reproduced erratically all over the celestial map of the windshield so he switched the wipers on again, apotheosizing the constellations into arcs and whisper-singing Bei Mir Bist Du Schön in a march rhythm…
… suddenly now remembering the time he’d caught his dad in his dad’s garage, dad’s back to Benji, dad in his Undertaker’s smock doing something that looked like what Benji imagined he, Benji, looked like, from behind, when he, Benji, jerked off fully dressed, hunched over his bathroom sink, shoulders churning as though he was putting out (or starting) a fire in his crotch. Though his dad was standing over the drain in the cracked floor of the left side of the garage where Benji’s mother’s car was normally parked, leaking oil.
Benji’s father hadn’t heard his son Benji standing there behind him breathing like he was going to cry. Because the garage radio on the stack of appliance boxes was playing the song Benji was whisper-singing to himself, twenty years later, with a real live (he hoped) sexually available (even predatory) woman asleep in the back of his sexually liberated van. Did Benji care? Benji’s sexual options were infinitely superior to what his father’s had been in 1954 but so were Everybody’s. Which was exactly the problem. With hindsight, Benji knew new respect for the fundamentally decent stoicism of his father’s lonely self-abuse; his father’s Living Death.
Abuse yourself, not others, shall be the whole of the law.
He had found them in spasms on the shag.
A half-dressed knot in the center of Skip’s softly lit meditation space. Benji remembered that Skip had once asked Benji if Benji worried about the fact that living out of his van meant that he, Benji, couldn’t have a proper meditation space. A quiet realm to rebalance Benji’s “still-spot” in the center of “modern life’s sensory hurricane” and there it was, Skip’s meditation space, his quiet realm, Benji seeing the refurbished room for the first time. There was plenty about it to take in. Everything so brown, so orange, so cream.
A soothing chamber of India-earthtone throw-pillows and low rattan tables, here and there festooned with exotic treats in wooden bowls beside pretty candles. Framed aphorisms in calligraphy on the orange walls. A framed poster of Sitting Bull. Mother Jones. Frederick Douglass. A big framed watercolor of a blue Buddha wearing stereophonic headphones. The rude size and surprising color of Skip’s upward-curving cock.
They hadn’t even got their socks off and they were going at it like performers at a Turkish sideshow after the sideshow, haggardly nude Kyndall sort of hugging the other two and cooing inanities while the other two were really going at it and Benji had mouthed, involuntarily, not very quietly, Jesus Frigging Christ, lifting a boot to his chin in shock.
There it was, 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 with all the time in the world ahead of them and there it was, that face, on display, dramatically deformed, at the end of an offensively large cock, a cock so large it made Benji’s own balls ache, an evenly-tanned organ protruding incongruously from between Skip’s spindly, milk-white legs, a schoolboy’s pranky porno collage, the kind of thing they (They) must have meant when they (They) invented the word sacrilege.
Benji watched Prentis sucking and it seemed to Benji that Prentis was sucking Skip’s barn-grade thingy like her life depended on it, breathing underwater through the cock’s cockhole. She never breathed that hard through Benji’s, sincerely thought Benji, but maybe it’s because my urethra’s bigger and she gets more air. He completely recognized the thought as demented by shock before he even got to the end of the sentence. No man quests to the very edge of the Earth for incontrovertible evidence that he has a mediocre cock.
“Myrva?” said Benji, experimentally.
“Myrva Delma?” a little louder. But not too.
She was Out.
He could reach back with his right hand as he steered with his left and hook the handle of Myrva’s big pink Christian Dior purse, lifting it from its spot near the top of Myrva’s dreaming head, so he did, swerving a little as he brought the purse forward to his lap. The pink lizard skin container was a pretty good mock up of how a deluxe carrying case for Liberace’s best bowling ball might work. And by the way, thought Benji, how does Liberace get away with it? He’s so aggressively blatant about it that it’s sort of fearless which is sort of intimidating in a way I can’t manage to be, sort of similar to Stoddard, who Benji admired for being so blatantly Black. Stoddard Huff, Benji Schamansky’s best and only chance, in 36 years, of having a best friend who happened to be Black. It seemed so long ago to Benji now.
At the start of the journey, Myrva had read aloud to him maybe half the directions to her borrowed house across the river in Minneapolis, reading off a piece of paper she’d pulled from the purse.
As she read the directions out, Benji had still been what he might call woozily flummoxed by the deftness in which he’d been maneuvered out of any possibility of expecting to spend the night with Prentis as they all donned the masks of their cheerful goodbyes at her threshold and parted. He was down the stairs and out the building’s back door and headed across the dark parking lot in rainy gusts with a squealing Myrva in tow before he could think to wonder when he’d be seeing Prentis in private next. He had thought to look up three storeys to Prentis’ dining room window before climbing into the VW but saw only the curtains sweeping shut on the golden light.
Rifling through the purse with one eye on the road and his least-accomplished hand on the steering wheel, Benji found 1) a red, transistor-radio-sized, battery-powered siren, with a pull-pin activator, in case Myrva was lost in a wilderness within hearing distance of civilization or raped by an armless man 2) a fairly fat wad of ten-dollar bills in a rhinestone-encrusted, dollar-sign-shaped money clip 3) a flesh-colored diaphragm case 4) a tiny plastic Mr. Peanut figurine 5) a roll of Wint-O-Green Lifesavers ™ with the original top mint missing and the exposed de facto top mint hairy with experience 6) two orange scraps of paper 7) a Portuguese/English phrase book 8) a strip of black-and-white photo booth pictures of children 9) a photo-ID card for Staatsbibliotheque Berlin in the name of a Vonya Voynitch with Myrva’s picture on it 10) a white plastic fork with all but one of the tines snapped off, flipping the bird 11) two unopened fortune cookies 12) a Columbia House Record Club invoice for $9.99 addressed to a Vonya Voynich of Las Vegas, Nevada …
[… this “Voynich” business earning half a chuckle because Prentis, for about two weeks, had kept a little blue parakeet (what she cutely called a “budgie”) and she’d christened this parakeet “Voynich” (a shared joke? About the Romanian gymnast Nadia Voynich? It was Voynich, Benji was pretty sure) until they’d seen Bless the Beasts and the Children in the student union at St. Jeff’s and Prentis came home and freed Voynich to fulfil his or her natural destiny as a parakeet, which was, Benji assumed, all about being eaten by a cat or starving to death in the nearest park. “People say birds like this are intelligent as dolphins but that’s nonsense,” said Prentis, once, trying to get Voynich to say “Baba Ram Dass” by repeating the phrase so many times Benji had wanted to get dressed and leave the apartment, “But it’s just an illusion, an inadvertent trick on the little birdies’ parts, the little birdies with raisin-sized brains, because it’s the eyes, you know. The way the eyes are arranged, one on each side of the peanut-shaped head… they have to cock their heads to see things and it makes it looks like they’re thinking but they’re not… Baba Ram Dass… Baba Ram Dass… Baba Ram Dass ya wee twat…” ]
13) Tiger Balm 14) two keys on a ring 15) a Pat Paulsen for President button 16) a Free Ulrike Meinhof! button (whoever she was, she was pretty) 17) an opened and re-taped box of Stayfree Maxi-Pads (the Beltless Feminine Napkin) 18) a brand new baby-blue tube of spermacide 19) Binaca 20) a fat, rolled, flattened and rubber-banded sheaf of onionskin 21) an empty bottle of Kahlùa 22) a Pocket Oxford Dictionary of Current English, from 1934, reeking of attic 23) an unopened pack of Virginia Slims 24) a nickel-plated cigarette lighter shaped like a gun… or a gun.
Well, it couldn’t be a gun.
Operating on a hunch and crossing an ethical line, Benji steered with his knees for twenty seconds and used both hands to open the diaphragm case, fumbling the plastic clam twice before it popped open.
Did this mean that Myrva was perpetually prepared for heterosexual intercourse (much like the Feminist Co-eds of St. Jeff’s) or that she had a man waiting for her in bed at her borrowed house across the river in Minneapolis or that she had lost her diaphragm somehow or that she planned to have intercourse with Benji that evening?
Myrva had excused herself twice from the dinner table to powder her nose and she could have inserted it at either time. Perhaps the second trip was for making an adjustment in the diaphragm’s angle and/or for staring in the bathroom mirror and steeling her resolve. Or maybe her first trip to the bathroom was for removing the diaphragm that was already in place and the second trip was to correct her correction and shove it back in again and stare in the mirror with her eyes narrowed and actually point at herself and nod slowly, steeling her resolve. If Myrva had inserted the diaphragm in Prentis’ bathroom with the goal of intercourse with Benji, had she done so with Prentis’ urging or blessing or, hopefully, despite her long friendship with Prentis, a violation only nature’s irresistible imperative could excuse? But if Prentis had encouraged Myrva or even pleaded with her to do it, what could that mean that wasn’t awful? What Benji needed to do was figure out, with or without Prentis’ help, and ASAP, whether Benji and Prentis had broken up the previous evening. Obviously they had but had they?
Wouldn’t he know by now if they had? Wouldn’t Prentis have mentioned it before dinner? Wouldn’t Prentis have taken Benji aside and said Benji, we need to talk…?
Benji put the empty diaphragm case back in the purse and fished out the curling strip of photo booth pictures and studied it for a risky quarter of a minute with his elbows on the steering wheel instead of his knees. He had steered with his chin once to impress a co-ed. For no good conscious reason, Benji studied the pictures. Benji’s subconscious knew exactly why he should do it but Benji’s subconscious preferred to string Benji along for awhile, sometimes, before letting the penny drop.
He studied high-contrast frames under the slow strobe of downtown Minneapolis’ overhead mercury-arc lamps. He was roaring down the middle of four wide empty lanes of Lutheran Downtown Sunday nightness when he realized, with a tingle, that the kids in the pictures were Myrva and Prentis, both skinny, both with hair black or dark, looking no more than fifteen or sixteen years old, or, no, Myrva looked a bit older than Prentis but just miraculously thin and intimidatingly knowing in a cheekbony, womanish way. Whoa, thought Benji.
The photo booth picture strip was eight inches of jump-cut stills in a B&W film. Myrva’s side of the frame evolving from tight-lipped grimace to a sneer to a giggle and then a toothy smile beside a nearly childish Prentis flashing a peace sign that escalated immediately to “the finger” and stayed that way through the remaining three of the four frames. The photo strip predated by a good five or six years the year that Benji could swear Prentis always told Benji she’d first met Myrva and it was obvious in the images that the girls had already known each other for quite some time when they stepped in that booth with those quarters. But there was always the possibility that Benji was simply mistaken about that or suffering from Heimlich’s disease.
But was he old enough for Heimlich’s?
A tiny unethical voice urged Benji to eat one of the fortune cookies in Myrva’s purse. Or steal one of the tens in the money clip in her purse. Would Myrva notice one missing fortune cookie?
Vonya Voynitch, chuckled Benji.
He’d had a boyhood friend who’d scammed dozens of books from the Science Fiction Book Club by using the aliases Saul Ove and Vince Enpryse and several others and having the books shipped to various addresses on his paper route, slickly scooping the books off the foliage-hidden porches the first Monday of every month; he never read the books, he’d just had a brilliant idea and felt compelled to use it. And then this friend’s family moved away in the middle of the semester so the rumor went around that the friend was dead and that the book club was owned by the Syndicate.
Benji’s subconscious slammed on the brakes for him.
The VW fishtailed and hydroplaned in a fifty-foot curlicue and half-rolled a snoring Myrva around the slid mattress and hissed to a halt, rocking on its springs. Benji, fully awake now, handled the gear shift decisively and reversed a bit and shifted then wrenched the wheel and inched forward, easing very carefully around the obstacle, getting a good glare in to his left as he rolled by, accelerating with relief only when he had the lucky fools stuck safely in his rearview mirror. Whiskery toothless taupe people sucking face in the middle of the goddamn road. Native Americans? Utopian, in a way, since rape in either direction between them looked likely impossible. Bless them.
On one of the orange scraps of paper in Myrva’s purse was a hand-typed literary quotation and on the other scrap were no directions but an address. The literary quotation was, “Were he supreme, were he mighty, were he just, were he good, this God you tell me about, would it be through enigmas and buffooneries he would wish to teach me to serve and know him?” but Benji wouldn’t read it and consider it eerily apropos until much, much later.
The address he read when he finally read the scrap with the address on it (but where were the directions? he needed directions to the directions) was 223 Franklin Avenue.
Bei Mir Bist Du Schön, said Benji, almost loud, still breathing hard, glancing again at the head-fused drunks dwindling in the rearview on an island puddle in the middle of the Teflon of the otherwise empty boulevard, a long Valhalla of mercury arc lamps and office buildings and all of it there for them alone. The stormy Lutheran Sunday Sci Fi nightness of it. The palace of the boulevard of the future for their majesties: two horny Ojibwe tramps.
Bulwark, Benji thought.
Myrva “Vonya” Delma Marxx was so supremely out of it.
Myrva clutched, in a dreaming fist, the scrap on which were scrawled the directions. The directions to and the real address of her borrowed flat in Minneapolis.
Which wasn’t where Benji was driving them at all.