KOOTCHIE TOWERS: excerpt #5

(That's Mrs. Augustine in the Cover Photo)

 

TRACK SEVEN/ SIDE ONE: KUTA TAU

 

A ghetto is a neighborhood goaded into the condition of an archetype; an enclave with a militant  opinion of the neighborhoods surrounding it. A “Red Ghetto” is such an enclave with a thousand-year old pedigree, although the “ghetto” part hadn’t kicked in for the first eight or ten centuries.

Benji woke in a darkish room within which he could see shapes standing in a murky distance. He mistook it fleetingly for the rumpus room in the basement of his father’s house, blinked away that phantasm and tried again. Summer camp? Frat house? Co-ed’s bed?

Benji was under several blankets on a futon on a hardwood floor in a biggish darkish room. Now he knew. Kind of.

To the left of the futon he could see Myrva in a yellow bathrobe, perhaps six long paces away, on a folding chair beside a red plastic milk bottle crate on its side with two white fat candles on it, reading a book and decimating a giant stalk of celery with distracted ardour. Which made Benji hungry. A set of big white expensive Pioneer SE30 headphones (as advertized in Esquire) flattened the sides of Myrva’s asymmetrical bob, which lost most of its striking mathematical effect when Myrva wasn’t in that Mondrian-print dress.  In a yellow terrycloth bathrobe Myrva looked like an upper class Jewish housewife in a steam bath, waiting for her massage, frowning self-improvingly over the pages of a landsman’s bestseller.

The cable curling from the headphones disappeared behind the folding chair Myrva was sitting in and she rocked slightly while reading and listening, causing the folding chair to creak and squeal rhythmically, the sound that Benji identified as the one that probably woke him, a rhythmically metal sound which was perhaps keyed to music Myrva was listening to but that Benji couldn’t hear, as though Myrva had become the key component in a very crude music-to-squeaks translating appliance, converting James Taylor or Johann Sebastian Bach or Japanese Shakahachi music into futuristic repetitive metal stress effects. Unless she wasn’t moving to the music’s pulse or even listening to music at all and was as nuts as Benji secretly hoped she might be. The rocking of the mad is so pure.

Benji thought of a beautiful time he had decided to go down on Prentis while Prentis was listening to Gregorian Chants in headphones.

Headphones just like the big white Pioneer SE30s Myrva had on; the exact brand and make, like two bottom-halves of an ostrich egg. Headphones connected by a curly white cable to a portable record player playing side one of an album issued by the Nonesuch Label. Benji, still not entirely awake,  closed his eyes again and saw the scene and Prentis clear as day.

Prentis was cat-sitting for a friend at the time, a friend who lived in a building that F. Scott Fitzgerald had supposedly spent some of his childhood in, a building subdivided now into eight expensive little apartments for people with good jobs in downtown Saint Paul, working at places like West Publishing and so forth, the law book people. Prentis was cat-sitting a nervous, bitey, scratchy black kitten. Kitty would come bounding into the room with such terrifying surpluses of angular momentum that it would pinball off the baseboard or an antimacassar and end up halfway up Benji’s pant leg, a demonic burr designed to draw blood, so they’d barricaded themselves in the bedroom. The soft, white,  kitty-free bedroom with its center stage of cool clean bliss. Benji and Prentis had flopped on the bed  after very carefully removing the immaculate duvet and folding it upon the seat of a great cloth chair beside it. They humped with abandon while the cat clawed and cried and patted the strip of bare wood floor directly under the door,  a mittened homunculus looking for the key.

Opposite of the great cloth chair, on the other side of the bed,  near the window (late-morning blinds slicing the honeydew of sunlight) was a Phillips portable record player. There was an audio jack for stereophonic headphones between the Bakelite volume knob and Bakelite tone control. A pair of expensive Pioneer headphones were hanging from the headboard, already plugged in,  and so Benji, lushly inspired after coming half in Prentis’ pussy before backing out and finishing in spurts on her freckled belly,  reached over and clamped the headphones on the fluffy fine cloud of Prentis’ adorable head.

Feeling like Victor von Frankenstein on the cusp of a momentous discovery, Benji had hopped off the bed semi-erect and squatted, magenta balls  dragging the hardwood floor,  to thumb through a selection of LPs in a red plastic milk crate on the floor near the closet. Benji dithered about whether to put on side one of Simon and Garfunkle’s Greatest Hits or Janis Ian’s Society’s Child, which might be a tad heavy… he couldn’t find any Cat Stevens… until he found Gregorian Chants on the Nonesuch record label. Beautiful blue and gold cover art of cherubim amidst clouds and stars.  Benji congratulated himself over how mind-blowing this experience for Prentis was going to be.

Benji lowered the album on the player’s spindle, eased the needle down and left it at the mouth of the groove as he climbed back up on the bed and gently spread Prentis’ legs. Well he’d never really done this before, had he? That morning in that slanting sunlight near the white duvet in the white room with the residual tingles of an orgasm’s sepiatone fireball ebbing from the shores of his toe-tips just felt like the best time to start.

It was early summer, late spring, early late morning and Richard Nixon had gone to China. A new era was opening up and so there Benji was, readying himself to lick an actual pussy. Comical thought: tongue-limbering exercises.

Benji totally imagined a scene like that from some Woody Allen flick.

Or maybe he’d actually seen that and now he wondered if he was half-remembering that “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (but were afraid to ask)” featured a pussy licking vignette? Which didn’t help if you thought of it that way. I am not, Benji was thinking, getting ready to Lick Pussy, all Pussy, Pussy as a generality, in aggregate, the notion of every living pussy on the continental united states, young and old, skinny and fat, a trillion tons of pussy in a squishy mountain looming over a spreading lake of viscous moisture, no, I am going to lick Prentis’ highly specific pussy. As individuated as a slimy thumb-print. Because of Prentis’ specialness and the pleasure she had given him and the special beautiful place she occupied in the journey of Benji’s life. Benji was going to put his tongue there.

Benji had gazed with some fascination at Prentis’ ruddy brown bush where a stripe of sunlight struck it at various depths, touching off filaments of flaring gold here and there above a scattered undergrowth of pink or red bumps and scratches, micro-debris stuck in the hairs, the imperfections which endeared the territory to him. It was a big bush, a bushy bush fluffing the crimped fold of her puss and up her lower belly, stopping along the neat edge of the pale limit of her bikini-shaped tan line, just below her navel where some of Benji’s cum had pooled into a tiny opal coin with a hole in its center and Benji had never really looked at it before, the bush belonging to Prentis.

And neither had he looked at the pussy itself, her tender  lips down there posing casually ajar but freshly sealed with a cloudy strip of moisture to which he had only to apply, repeatedly, the subtlest touch of his nervous tongue. How long, on average, would such a thing take? Benji squinted at the moisture, which had beaded to a creamy dollop cooling under the raspberry hood of clit. He assumed that was her clit. But how could you not sort of wonder about the chemical composition of all that moisture? Obviously, a lot of it was going to consist of Benji’s own semen.

Prentis was now open-mouthed and most of the way through side one of the Gregorian chants when Benji realized that Prentis, who had had no idea, thankfully, that Benji had initially planned to go down on her while she listened in headphones to Gregorian chants, was asleep (and anyway she’d already had an orgasm because Benji, as a Feminist, always encouraged Prentis to concentrate on her own pleasure first, just as Benji concentrated on his: Benji told her later that all he’d wanted to do by spreading her legs that way was gaze awestruck at her vagina, meaning her vulva, because Benji never used the word “pussy” with Prentis), her breaths deep and unselfconscious and even, in a way, Gregorian as Benji got himself half-dressed.

Benji had sat cross-legged, at the foot of the bed, in half of the receding pool of the sliced sunlight that lingered of the morning. He’d had a look through a big fat brand new hardbound book he found on a wheeled shelfy thingy while snooping around. Benji remembered being intrigued by the marginalia that had already found its way into the book. Page one, inscribed, he assumed, by Prentis’ friend in her school girly cursive, in red ink, Is Pynchon referring to the screams of the camps?  but later, after several other scrawled entries, he’d been even more intrigued by the synchronicity of the cryptically triple-underlined comment Prentice breaks his fall. Prentice? Too bad the book was fucking incomprehensible gibberish. Benji had tossed the book aside…

… and Prentis had sat up wearing the headphones, suddenly, but, instead of looking at Benji, had looked down and to her left, looking into herself or listening into the music, far away from Benji’s reach or existence and Benji had felt like a ghost, extinct, irrelevant, disconnected, not in the room, observing. How alienating the technology of those headphones is, how selfishly exclusive, how isolating and post-humanity and also how unfathomably unfussed-over Benji had felt for thirty whole seconds (even worse was the fact that he’d done it to himself; the headphones had been his idea) until Prentis came back to hereness and yawned and smiled at Benji  and gestured come on over here you silly boy…

Benji had a fleeting resentful vision of everyone on Earth eating, sleeping, shitting, cooking, working, bathing, reading, walking, biking, driving, horse-riding and even fucking with headphones on. Especially women: he could see headphones becoming a Feminist accessory second only to mace. If Benji had known how to write a filmscript he’d have written a script for an Oscar-winning Sci Fi film even more scary and psychologically-ultra-violent than  A Clockwork Orange  called HEADPHONE. Benji saw himself shouting and arm-waving and running naked down an infinite up-escalator packed with business-suited women wearing HEADPHONES…

Myrva looked up from her book and saw that Benji was blinking awake again and staring at her as if to make sure she was real.

“Hey sleepy king,” said Myrva, winking, removing her big white Pioneer SE30 headphones and putting them on the floor at her feet. She placed the IOU of a bookmark in the inky- crisp heart of the book. “I’ll bet you don’t realise it’s already the next evening.”

“No I don’t,” said Benji. “It is?”

“Oh extremely so. We’re already well past dinner time and heading full speed toward our second midnight together in a row.”

“Ooops.”

“Don’t look so worried. We didn’t. Not that I was aware of, anyway. You have that look…”

“We didn’t what?” Benji blinked. “Oh.” He scanned his physical memory for any hint that his hands knew how Myrva’s tits or waist felt. “We didn’t?”

Myrva dredged a chuckle up from the smoky room in the back of the bottom of her throat. “Don’t look so relieved. You’re not out of the woods yet. Wait until you see me in hot pants.”

Myrva seemed to be operating at 15% of her normal energy levels, which was relaxing. It felt good. Myrva was a soothing person in her diminished and chastened (it seemed to Benji) state. He could have reassured her with the honest truth that 85% of the outrageous things she’d said, previously, were a colorful blob of mashed syllables in his room-temp memory of the evening. Maybe he’d manage to call discrete and incriminating bits of it forth when his head cleared but, as things stood, even memories of Benji’s father’s beloved face were fuzzy. That, too, felt sort of good. What Benji really wanted to do was ask Myrva,  with adult bluntness, if Prentis had put Myrva up to seducing Benji. If Prentis had the whole thing up. This lull seemed like a good time to ask. Benji wanted to say,

“Come on Myrva, we’re both grownups…” but he couldn’t.

To the right of the futon was rippling darkness; the room was big enough that the candle light illuminating Myrva’s book, and the right side of her face and body, did nothing for the far sides of the room, in which darkness Benji believed he could make out a curtained window in the wall that the upright soles of his blanketed feet faced. A window and stacks of boxes, some towering taller than a man, along the far wall to their right, perpendicular to the curtained window in which, if Benji stared long enough, the flimsiest stain of moonlight or streetlamp was visible, soaking through jungle patterns in a batiked fabric. What the biggish, darkish room smelled of was cardboard and candle smoke, mostly. Cedar, too.

Benji propped himself up on his side on a naked elbow and yawned, converting the end of the yawn into a sentence. “So, what are you reading?”

“Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.”

“What?”

Myrva gestured with her book at the stacked boxes on the mysterious side of the room. “I got it over there. Those boxes are full of these. Hundreds. It’s a nice new book called Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Somewhat engrossing. I’ll have a book report ready for you in a couple of hours. ”

“Well it’s got a helluva title and I wish the author luck. Where are we?”

“The Kuta Tao dojo.” Myrva pronounced “Tao” to rhyme with “now” and spelled out Kuta Tao. “K-U-T-A…”

“Huh?”

“Well it’s your fault you drove us to the wrong place last night, Mr. Smarty Pants. I mean, I was planning to come here anyway, but not for another week. A friend asked me to deliver a box of Stayfree Maxi-Pads.”

Benji stopped himself before saying, “The heavy box of Stayfree Maxi-Pads in your purse?” and said, “Makes sense. And we’re, uh,  still in Minnesota, right, Myrva?”

“Right off good old Franklin Avenue, conveniently located within walking distance of the Indian slum.”

“Hey, you got any more of that celery? What were you listening to on the phones?”

Benji suddenly remembered that professional musicians referred to headphones as “cans” and wished he’d used that.

“Let’s go down to the communal kitchen and see for ourselves, why don’t we? Lots of home-grown veggies down there and other good things.”

“What are you listening to there, Myrva?”

“I was enjoying a brand new album,  just released, as it happens, Benji. This is the house of New Things, you know. Just being here tonight makes us kind of cutting edge people. Are you one of those intellectual types too immature for Cat Stevens?”

Benji felt his heart flutter. “Myrva. Wait. That’s what you were listening to in the, uh, cans? The latest…”

“Over and over again. The cans?”

“Buddha and the Chocolate Box?”

“Oh Wow. What a perfectly delicious name for a record. But how could I glean the album’s title by listening?  I thought maybe the record was called Oh Very Young. It’s very sad, lush music, Benji. Very deep. Chocolate fits it, yes. Chocolate and candle flame and…”

“Myrva, Where did you get it?”

“Benji, I didn’t. Chocolate and candle flame and…”

“But how could you be listening to Buddha and the Chocolate Box at the same time you were reading Zen is the Art of Motorcycling?”

“I’m ambidextrous. Benji! You never noticed? Chocolate and…”

“But so where’s the record player, Myrva?”

“Questions, Benji, questions! I have no idea but I suspect it’s probably an eight-track because I’ve listened through the whole album more than twice, already. Here…” Myrva, twenty feet away,  held the cans out for him but Benji, being naked under the blanket…

“Oh don’t be silly, Benji,” said Myrva, “You don’t have any equipment I haven’t already seen two or three thousand times since I was an eighth grade honor student and if you do I need to see it in the name of Science. There’s absolutely nothing to be ashamed of. Oy! Such hang-ups about the human body!  Did poor old Willy Reich die in vain? Come over here you silly man!”

Myrva gestured emphatically with the cans and Benji counted to three and peeled off the blankets. He had only known Myrva for something like eighteen hours but it felt like thirty-six. Years. He got up and just outright walked across the futon. He did it comically stiff-legged like Frankenstein’s monster,  biting his upper lip and grunting to cover his nudity. Benji’s Mona Bone Jakon was by no means inadequate but this was one of those special times he’d wished he could be unexpectedly impressive, rebutting Myrva’s flippant attitude (toward the notion of the concept of Benji’s nakedness) with a jaw-dropping natural wonder.

Clearly, Benji did not want to fuck Myrva but he would like to think that Myrva wanted Benji to want to fuck her (whether she wanted to fuck Benji or not). And, again, it wouldn’t have hurt to be able to wipe that sweetly smug look off her face with a unit the size of the one he’d been forced to see on former friend, now persona-non-grata and possible Nemesis, Skip. To be that big would mean never having to be embarrassed.

Benji was so embarrassed, in truth, that he realized his Frankensteining eyes were actually really mostly all the way closed as he walked toward Myrva off the futon and across the shag. It was with some relief that he felt another terrycloth bathrobe hit him across the face before he reached her.

Benji got the robe half-way on and thought, no, fuck it, and flung it, laughing, to the floor.  Myrva wolf-whistled and Benji said,

“You know what? You’re right, Myrva. Fuck all that junk. All that shame. Centuries of repression and shame. Sin, right? Fuck sin. Fucking isn’t a sin and neither is the sight of my body. This is where I live. My heart is in this thing, banging away. Why shouldn’t I let you see it? This is the home of my soul.”

“Why indeed, Benji. It’s a very nice home.”

“It’s not perfect. I’m not Bruce Jenner or anything. I could stand to lose a few pounds. But so what?”

“Exactly.”

Benji pranced in a modest circle, arms outstretched.

“It’s 1974. Think about that, Myrva. It’s 1974 and I was ashamed to show you my genitals!”

“Hard to believe, Benji.”

“We’ve come so far in so many ways. I just want to be free.”

“You are free, Benji.”

“I’m just now realizing that, you know? You’re free, too, Myrva.”

“I know.”

“We’re all free.”

“If only the general public could Grok this.”

Benji tried to think of a way to get the bathrobe back on without bending forward, unflatteringly, in front of Myrva, to pick it up off the floor and thereby push his gut out, amplifying the expanding jiggle of girth there. Benji said,

“Myrva, could you toss me those headphones, please?”

And when Myrva reached down for the headphones she’d placed on the floor, looking to them as she reached for them, Benji made his lightning-fast move and got the robe off the floor, too, and shimmied half-into it in time to catch the headphones, which were still warm from Myrva’s head.

Highbrow critics like that fartsucker Robert Christgau praise Dylan or Lennon or Phil Ochs or Joni Mitchell or Paul Simon or Van Morrison or whoever and nitpick the living daylights out of Cat (jealous of his looks) Stevens  but no modern singer-songwriter, in Benji’s sincere opinion, came close to embodying the forward-looking era as Cat did. The era with its astonishing social and technological strides. Who did it with the unaffected and analytical grace of Cat Stevens?  Man has walked on the moon and they can now fit both sides of an entire album on a high-fidelity cassette of oxide tape in a housing the size of a Hershey’s chocolate bar …  you can make a long-distance phone call collect, from Hawaii to Rome (actually, Benji wasn’t sure about that), via telecommunications satellites orbiting the planet, with operator assistance

Stevens’ music was  The Enlightenment in nutritious liquid soundwave form. It was an aural granola milkshake with a Realist’s shot of vodka to give it sting, distinguishing it from the sugary comforts of the horn-driven Pop Music dominating the contemporary charts. The year Stevens released the masterpiece Catch Bull at Four, what was John Lennon doing?  What was Mitchell up to? The only artist who came close to Cat Stevens that glorious year was the guy who did American Pie, Bob McClean, but even that song was hopelessly provincial and coy compared to anything off Catch Bull at Four.

Not even wondrous Afro-American newcomers and possible saviors O.N.E. could come close to Cat Stevens, although Prentis’ love for the band O.N.E., while Benji and Prentis had been truly together (though maybe they were, still) had forced Benji, in deference to Prentis, to tone-down his thing about Stevens. Well, no longer. At least Benji was free to be himself again.

And if breaking up with Prentis (although they hadn’t, as far as Benji could tell, made any official moves yet, but maybe really with-it moderns did these things by telepathy and the reading of omens) was the price Benji had to pay to be himself again, well, fine, Jesus, so be it. Maybe the time had come for Benji to become the New Benji by reverting to the Old Benji.  Born Again Old Benji. There was still a corn-colored, incense-scented, St. Jeff’s-sized pool of Feminist co-eds for Benji to dog-paddle across, after all. Why be coy about it? Benji had three or four orbiting co-ed flings to juggle already and more to come and why be coy about it? Well Cat Stevens isn’t coy: he sings with his Mona Bone Jakon. His life-affirming cock.

Benji imagined Cat’s Mona Bone Jakon as big and bronze but not freak-big, not Skip-big but civilized-sized like Benji’s, just a little bigger than Benji’s. Not so big that Benji would feel inadequate glimpsing it; just big enough to be inspiring. If it had been Cat Stevens’ Mona Bone Jakon Prentis had had in her mouth when Benji walked in, Benji would have been fine with it. Benji felt pretty with-it and sophisticated to be able to dwell without discomfort on the notion of another man’s penis. The penis of a sage. No hang-ups, indeed. Benji listened to the album in the amazing headphones and thought: Cat Stevens is the Erotic Politician Morrison claimed to be. If Morrison had a name for his cock you just knew it was something outmoded like T-Bone.

If Morrison was erotic at all it was a boozy West Coast homoeroticism he disguised with vulgar antics and glamorous beards. e.g. that Nazi foghorn Nico. Benji had heard a rumor, a thrilling rumor, from a co-ed with a powerful father (few words can be as delicious as a rumor shared by warmly-orange lavalamp in a sleeping bag in the wee hours before a trip to Planned Parenthood) that Cat Stevens and John Lilly were secretly working on a rock opera about Dolphins

Now, to be fair, Three Dog Night weren’t a bad little band by any standard and they had what you call social issues songs in their repertoire. And Paul Williams could write a serious lyric, thought Benji. MacArthur Park seemed like quite a heavy song. Maybe Richard Harris hadn’t been the best possible interpreter of it. And how far can a metaphor… sex as a birthday cake melting in a park (MacArthur Park), in the rain… stretch before it becomes unintentionally funny? Especially with Richard Harris at it, dressed for a battle with Zulus. Benji reckoned that Mama Cass would have been a better fit to the tune.

Soon Benji found himself with zero self consciousness sitting on Myrva’s lap (no danger of a bathrobed erection: Benji didn’t care; he wasn’t even sucking his gut in)  while he listened from a random starting point through Buddha and the Chocolate Box and would until the same approximate mid-point again while Myrva read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Repair, licking her finger and turning the pages at a prodigy’s rate, shifting Benji’s weight on her lap, occasionally, for comfort.

Here I am, thought Benji, in the final quarter of the 20th century.

What he only half-thought but didn’t allow himself to dwell on had something to do with losing Prentis and being increasingly close to being alright with that.

If Prentis thought Benji couldn’t live without her and had set Benji up with old school friend Myrva as some kind of consolation prize boy was she wrong. In fact, although Benji was almost too guilty to admit it to himself quite yet, he was beginning to feel rather liberated. He’d been caught up in the old Capitalist trip of possession and tradition and fidelity and this had been the cause of all his pain… not the sight of that pretentious former-friend asshole Skip Woode’s bestial taupe cock, jammed in Prentis’ delicate mouth, at all. The cock was an illusion. The cock was Maya.

 

*******

 

A short while later Myrva and Benji were dressed in their own clothing (Benji in his mildly flaring denim flares and his hiking boots and his flowery shirt, Myrva in her boxy glossy Mondrian dress plus Myrva’s big pink Christian Dior  purse), out the door of the dark room and into the squint-inducingly well-lit and lushly-green-carpeted second floor landing, stepping out from one green door in a row of green doors, each with an animal silhouette or  esoteric symbol painted on it and some featuring random stickers that had obviously been stuck there at kid-height, peace symbols and smiling suns and unicorns.

Myrva and Benji found themselves stepping over a jungling undergrowth of black cables running the length of the landing and under the respective doors of the six rooms along that long, narrow,  balustraded landing, overlooking the entrance hall, while still other cables continued on their way, up the staircase, to the third and possibly fourth levels and maybe even an ultimate attic.  This futuristic hippie mansion was wired for sound.

Following cables back down the staircase they came to that hazily familiar, grand and dark entrance hall with its marble tiles instead of carpeting and its stone walls covered in murked old satiny noble wallpaper. The wallpaper was greenish-goldish-brown and it depicted golden stags alternating with golden fleures des lis, each figure set within a thin-lined diamond of gold. To the rear of that entrance hall, to the right, a dark passage opened to a large cool kitchen full of sinks and refrigerators and four brilliant violet-tinged fluorescent Gro-Lites lashed to pipes in the high ceiling.

Plants in clear plastic tents grew tall along the stark white walls and buckets and baskets of potatoes and carrots and tomatoes and apples and plums and all were lined up along three long picnic tables you had to scoot between to cross the room. More fruits and vegetables slumped in giant burlap sacks on the floor under the tables. It was impressive. A full scale operation of some kind.

Myrva said, “That’s so weird. There was this humungous pewter serving tray right over there on that table and it was covered with crudities and dip. That’s where I got my celery. Like there was going to be a party. I’m sure it was right there, next to where those gardening gloves are…”

There was a back door and it was half-open so they passed through it into the chilly, windy, half-clear and romantically-lit night. The mansion’s long backyard was boxed by a three-sided, giant-tall wall of red bricks interrupted and continued in its rearmost segment by the wall of a carriage-house. The  ground floor of  this rather grand-looking carriage house had been hollowed out to become a four-car garage with an upended motorcycle resting on its seat and handlebars on the concrete plaza in front of it.  Intertwining trails of old oil blots and dots and tools and discarded WD40 cans ran back up the walled driveway past the yard and the mansion toward the street. Bordering the other side of this walled driveway was the muddy yard which Benji and Myrva were now walking across toward the garage, open and bright yellow versus dark blue, in its depths,  around a single swinging work-light.

“Light swinging and no one in the vicinity to be seen. Not strange at all, I guess. Oh fudge, my book,” said Myrva. “I left it…”

“The biker karate…”

“The Zen and bikes book. I better run up…”

“Oh, I’ll get it for you, Myrva.”

“Would you, Benji? You would be such a mensch and a dear…”

Benji had to admit to himself he was a little. Not scared. Spooked. What if these unusually-well-organized hippies were some kind of spin-off of the Mansons? How square and soft and easy-to-kill  would Benji look to a Squeaky Fromme type? Benji tried to see himself as a crazed cult-Hippie might: a defenseless-looking swinger-type with a special-offer, two year subscription to Esquire magazine (addressed to the faculty lounge) and a growing paunch:  easy kill.  Yet how bad could they be if they’d wired their urban commune with Cat Stevens?

So back alone through the spooky entrance hall,  the murkily elegant wallpaper of golden stags and fleures des lis, Benji went, whistling no particular tune, up the stairs, hand gliding the banister boyishly as Benji climbed. When he was faced with the cable-infested green carpet of the first landing, and the six green doors, Benji realized he had no idea which of the doors he and Myrva had come out of. He was fairly sure it wasn’t the furthest door from him and he was certain it wasn’t the nearest, so that left the four in the middle.

Benji stood in front of the first of the middle four and opened it a little and saw immediately that it was too well-lit to have been the room he and Myrva had just come out of.  He got the door open a little more and out poured gouts of golden air, candle light suffusing clouds of incense. Benji smelled very strong sage and cedar. It was a much smaller room than the other and it contained a big brass bed of red satin sheets,  its headboard against the wall directly opposite the door, the space to the left and right of the bed filled with dozens of white candles set in various free-stranding, full length candelabra and chambersticks such as Benji had seen on sale for handsome prices in groovy import shops.

The room’s centerpiece was a very pale woman or girl on the bed, breasts firm and globed, pelvis both bony and padded, bright in repose, legs pressed together and tapering to flawless ivory feet, feet like a saint’s at the bed’s headboard, the top of the goddess’ headphoned head visible to Benji above the bed’s brass footboard panel. Benji longed to see her face but hadn’t the nerve to cross the threshold and walk into the room and gaze boldly back upon what was undoubtedly perfection, elevated to that obscuring angle by the pillow under her head. The headphones were big, cushiony headphones unlike the kind Myrva had been using.

Benji could imagine he was hearing faint traces of Cat Stevens as her profusion of corckcrewing hair of ruddy-gold and platinum poured itself out from under the headphones and over the pillow and over the edge of the foot of the backward bed, down to the floor where it fizzed and scattered like fireworks. Benji eased the door shut again and tried the next room to his right, his heart zooming, slightly but lingeringly awestruck, where he immediately found Myrva’s book where she’d left it but  then…  back he went like a thief with growing ambitions…

Gushing cataracts of curly hair pluming  from pillow to floor, white forehead and bridge of nose visible, freckled white shoulders visible, nipple-capped scoops of the coolest cream visible, hands clasped under the breasts, legs stretching down toward bed’s end (the headboard), two sets of toes at 45 degrees left and 45 degrees right, explosive pinkgold bush, headphones clamped to the sides of her head, her eyes closed, her lips slighted parted around the hint of a smile: bliss. The door opening into the narrow room that the foot of the bed was at the head of was not all the way open and Benji lingered cautiously within the range of the door’s swing, leaning in but one foot firmly outside the threshold and unless the girl in the headphones had felt the little swoosh of air from the door opening quietly into the room she’d have no idea that a man was standing half in and half out of the doorway, mind-blanked by her naked beauty, a full sense of which Benji could only have gotten by entering the room much further, deeper, to investigate Her from other angles but he just didn’t have the nerve.

A minute later,  back out of the back door of the building, he found Myrva more or less where he’d left her, although Myrva seemed startled and slightly flustered when Benji walked out to the open area in front of the garage to find her, smoothing her hair and recomposing her face as though Benji had caught her singing Natural Woman into a hairbrush in front of a mirror. Benji smelled Binaca on her breath.

“Oh you are a dear,” she said, and took the book from Benji and stuffed it into her already-open purse and added, sotto voce, “But what took you so long? You get lost up there? I hope you weren’t snooping around,” with a wink. Benji couldn’t, for whatever reason,  admit he’d spent a full minute standing outside that wrong door, again, the one festooned with unicorn decals, trying to gather the courage, along with a reasonable excuse, to go right back in and pretend he’d again entered the room by mistake and somehow then manage to make casual chit chat with the naked sylph/goddess with the startling hair on the bed in the candle-bright room. He said,

“I was just double-checking we hadn’t forgotten anything else.”

“And a highly responsible thing to do that was, Benji. Prentis…” Benji thought he could see Myrva detecting Benji suddenly hold his breath… “… always said…”

“Prentis…?”

“She always appreciated…”

“Appreciated. Past tense.”

“Appreciates. Present… tense. Benji… Jesus…”

“Myrva. Myrva. Listen. Let’s be frank. Is Prentis…?”

“What?”

“Is she? Is this the plan…? Come on. Is she, was she, trying to, uh, somehow set us, you know, up? You and me, I mean. Together. Is Prentis… to make it easier…  is she trying to palm me off…?”

Benji gestured to clarify.

“Benji! Oh, my Lord. Benji. You think…. you really…?”

“Be honest.”

“Oh Lord, no. Benji you have no idea how jealous. Benji. Benji.  Do you know Prentis at all? She and I… do you know how competitive… Benji. Jesus. Benji…”

“Go on.”

“Benji. Listen. My hand to the Gods. May lightning strike me right here and now and help me lose a few pounds if I’m lying. Two people could not be closer than Prentis and I are, we’re closer than sisters and the very-nearly-brutal competition between the two of us… it eggs us on, it spurs us to outdo ourselves and it’s always been that way and it’s always been good. It’s a healthy, passionate, creative competition and despite my blatant flirting… let’s be frank: it says cock tease right there on my passport. Alright? I’m all bark and ass-sniffing and no bite. Certainly no hump. If I laid a sexy little hand on you, Prentis would never speak to me again. In fact. You know, she hid you from me for the longest time. She was afraid, I guess, that I might… I don’t know. The first couple of times I swung through town I just assumed she wasn’t even seeing anyone. I thought: wow: the kid’s finally exhibiting some self-control! Unlike me! When she finally confessed… you’ll laugh. The first time I heard anything about you was the morning  I stepped on the plane to fly out here! I had called quickly to confirm my flight number and she just sort of blurted it all out; you could have knocked me over with a feather! She made me swear not to steal you from her when I got here! Prentis is not the most secure beauty on Earth! Don’t you know this? Do you two ever talk? I think she was weeping! She said, Myrva… she actually made me swear on Joyce’s grave; she said, like, repeat after me:  I swear on Modernism’s ghost and everything else I consider sacred that I will not not… !”

Benji made the rapid calculation and realized that the conversation between Myrva and Prentis that Myrva was half-farcically relating there in the chilly driveway of the mysterious Hippie mansion had occurred the morning after Prentis had taken Skip Woode’s bestial taupe tool between her lips.

Which changed Everything, surely.

Benji wanted to sing or dance. He wanted to pick Myrva up Gene Kellyishly and twirl her. Benji was in love with Life again because Life had resumed making sense.

Myrva and Benji stood for a heavily pregnant pause at the mouth of the cluttered garage in the chill night wind, not sure what to say next.  They watched the caged work-light hung from the garage ceiling burning yellow and swinging,  still swinging, if ever so slightly, from its hook, more from the wind’s influence than the lingering momentum of some shy ghost’s touch, stretching blue shadows like horrified rubber. Neither looked at the other. All eyes on the spooky depths of the abandoned garage. Benji’s were smiling.

“Croatoan,” said Myrva.

Benji whirled and kissed Myrva forcefully on her freshly Binaca’d mouth.

Benji lifted his hands to Myrva’s face as if to hold it in place and Benji kissed Myrva harder and longer and deeper, hyperventilating through his nose and accidentally making a boyishly-embarrassing whimpering noise that he was careful to avoid repeating, the chemical spearmint of the Binaca flowing through him with Myrva’s essence, her prana, their Orgone particles intermingling with Benji’s supermarket aftershave.

Benji was thinking oh my god, oh my god and he wondered if Myrva was thinking the same and, just like in the movies, Myrva had at first gone “Mmmmph… mmmmph…” (eyes wide, fingers splayed) before acquiescing and resting a hand lightly on Benji’s chest until, tentatively, inquiringly,  her hands floated down and came to rest upon, and then grip,  Benji’s passion-clinched, denim buttocks as her eyes eased shut.  Myrva pulled their pelvises together with unambiguous force.

As she did so she thought of Isaac Asimov and his predilection for congress in the largely vertical. Asimov’s knees were surprisingly strong, as strong as a wrestler’s and several times he performed a kind of a strongman’s circus stunt with Myrva’s legs wrapped around his waist and her skirt hiked up. He would lower them both, Myrva’s clothed shoulders sliding down the cool wall in his hot little attic apartment, the one he kept around the corner from his agent’s office, the one with unfolded centerfolds taped to the walls, the attic apartment that opened to the roof and his neighbor’s carrier pigeons, gruntingly and pumpingly lowering the two of them as one sweaty unit then slowly lifting her again until both her ass and shoulders were flush to the wall, his legs trembling terrifically as he came. Exactly the kind of thing that his generation of Russian Jew would do on special occasions if convenient or possible. Asimov’s cock was comically purplish and very thin  but his entire chesty corpus was his cock, his bull cock, really, crowned with that big head and those ostentatiously pubic sideburns and testicular jowls that appeared to puff up like bellows when he was coming, after which he either laughed loudly or wept quietly or both. Myrva had been so much skinnier then.

She certainly didn’t expect Benji to lift and lower her like an Asimov but she’d been led to believe by Prentis that Benji’s lovemaking was movingly tender, not an ounce of woman-hatred in him, which was rare enough to be a turn-on, medium cock or not. Especially to a woman who’d been spanked, slapped, spat upon, pissed upon, shoved, head-locked, throttled, pinned to the ground prostrate, dragged by her hair, punched in the arm and had every imaginable vulva-synonym hissed judgmentally into her ear during her many years of experience at the receiving end of the so-called act of love. Myrva tried to imagine making a list of the many times that things in the Sex department had gone exactly, exactly,  like, clairvoyantly exactly how she’d imagine they would, starting when she was 12.  The list would be yea-long, single-spaced.

Benji thought of the various times in his life that things had been seeming to go one way and had suddenly, shockingly, forcefully gone not in just another way but the opposite direction. As though a parallel universe had opened up and Benji had been shoved through a slit, a token in a coin-operated mirror, the Bizarro world mirror, like, for example, when was it… Benji was trying to think and kiss at the same time… he did not want Myrva to catch him thinking as opposed to being…

… he was 12 or 13-years-old and facing off on the playground against Calvin Gordon Goodie, that squirrelly Calvin Gordon Goodie, that needle-nosed shit, son of a Nazi carpet cleaner,  relocated from Tennessee to Illinois in the middle of the school year, not as tall as Benji but tough and mean as an old wire brush with his chipped teeth. His knees and elbows red knots, his knuckles black  scabs, gums always bleeding, kid thought he was the ringleader from The Bowery Boys, what was his name, Leo something,  always talked out of the side of his mouth and whapping minions with his hat,  Calvin Gordon Goodie with the fucking blonde crew cut and acne as vivid as raspberry jam and so Benji and Calvin Gordon Goodie are at the end of the playground set aside for the bigger kids to smoke irresistibly-named Pall Malls and trade baseball cards reeking of bubble gum and talk about venereal disease in relative privacy and they’d been through a few listless rounds of What are you looking at and I don’t know, what are you looking at and so on and they’d gotten to round five of that after which it was traditional to either fight or quit and then Calvin Gordon Goodie starts laughing his ass off, suddenly breaking character (it was weird, almost a miracle, a moment of otherworldly wisdom and peace in our time, a plea for civility in Goodie’s horripilatingly diphthongal twang)  as he said, improbably,  “Man, what are we even talking about here, when you think about it? Shucks, this is kid’s stuff!” and Benji, shocked, started laughing his ass off too (what sweet relief) and they kind of walked in toward each other to shake on it and Benji reached for the shake and Calvin Gordon Goodie jerks his right hand away and does the get-lost-thumb over his shoulder instead, the old suckerooni and he catches Benji with a stinging left-hook over Benji’s right ear because Calvin Gordon Goodie is ambidextrous, his secret weapon and Benji reeled sidelong into fist number two…  then fist number one again…

Benji remembered how his mother took one look at the fresh black eyes in the snot-glazed mask of Benji’s downcast face as he walked in through the kitchen door and she ran right out before the screen door could slam shut behind Benji. She didn’t even need to be told where Benji had been or who had kicked her son’s ass. She found Calvin Gordon Goodie,  laughing about his victory in a circle of his cohorts, and she broke his arm and chipped more of his teeth. Which gave Benji mixed feelings of pride and shame when he found out about it later (when the police came to get Benji’s mother’s side of the story) but increased, of course, his love, their bond, the bond that broke, somehow, not long after that event (the bond’s high point).

What happened (Benji thought, fighting the unstoppable flood tide of his memories as he tried to make out with Myrva in the driveway) was that things got strained  between Benji and his mother as Benji’s anus asserted itself as a post-pubertal flashpoint when a book advocating enemas as the cure for cancer, alcoholism, obesity, diabetes and kleptomania entered the household wearing some bald charlatan’s grinning cover photo and kept things fraught around there until Benji was fifteen, three fucking years, the first two years with zero resistance, the Sunday afternoon enema, those epic stand-offs in the downstairs bathroom (Benji’s father had declared the nicer bathroom, on the second floor, near the master bedroom, with its carpeting and tapestries, an enema-free zone: enemas were strictly verboten in any room in the house except the basement toilet, with its exposed pipes and peeling wall paper). That terrible old rubber mat and that terrible old rubber-hose-and-nozzle combo hanging from the showerhead (the terrible German Expressionist shadows it cast down the water-stained sheetrock wall from under the bare bulb that swung when Benji’s mother knocked the bulb accidentally stretching the hose out) and that terrible succession of trays… the memory of which Benji pushed down and back… down and back… but which seemed to be making him harder right there in his embrace with Myrva in the driveway… which was disturbing, to say the least. Eyes jammed shut he saw Myrva in a nurse’s uniform, holding the hose and telling him, in professional tones, in a voice uncannily familiar from his youth, to turn over on the towel and unclench his buttocks…

When Benji and Myrva broke out of the moaningly passionate, vertically-dryhumping clench to get some air and they opened their eyes to the night, they saw that they were surrounded.

The number encircling them was neither large nor small. But…

Benji laughed. Look at those! He will always remember what he thought the instant he opened his eyes in the driveway that night.

Look at those! They look like toys… !

 

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