A NOVEL EXCERPT

Kootchie Towers

 

SIDE ONE

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1.

Cowper Lundgren slipped into Benjamin Schamansky’s office with loafered stealth. Such loafered stealth that he was able to stand and watch Schamansky enjoying a smutty undergraduate humor magazine for a full minute before Schamansky noticed he wasn’t alone. Looking up and to his left suddenly Schamansky jumped out of his skin, catapulting the magazine against the acoustical foam in the ceiling, where it left a little dent. Lundgren’s hands were clasped behind his very straight back and the signature wave in his full head of hair gleamed white like his smile as the magazine crashed down upon Schamansky’s denimed lap.

“Fucking A, Dean,” said Schamansky, with both his hands on his denimed heart. Shaking. “Fucking A.”

“Benji,” he said with a smile.

“Give me a sec. Jesus.”

“Of course. May I?”

Chancellor Lundgren plucked the mag off Schamansky’s lap and flipped through it while Schamansky jerked open and slammed shut, in rapid succession,  four or five little drawers in his desk. Lundgren studied each page he turned to in the magazine with a serious expression on his relatively unlined face before licking his thumb and turning to the next.

“The April issue,” said Schamansky, chewing, having found the gum he was looking for, heart no longer racing. He raked his hands through his hair. “Good issue. Go right to page 63.” On page 63, in the upper right corner, was an ad for mod-looking stereo speakers from a company called EMPIRE SCIENTIFIC CORP. Positioned behind a hi-tech speaker, in the ad, was a grinning, naked, fully-mustached man embracing a grinning, naked, large-breasted woman from behind.  Lundgren said, without much heat,

“Those are truly magnificent,” and, “I can remember when you had to drive down to Tijuana if you wanted to see something like this.”

“Got it off the magazine rack in 7-11 this morning.”

“Amazing.” He handed the magazine back, shaking his head. “Where do you suppose it’s all headed?”

Schamansky offered a stick of his cinnamon chewing gum to Chancellor Lundgren and frowned into the middle distance as Lundgren took one, saying, “Society? I suppose things will keep heading in the general direction they’re heading. Maybe the rate of change will accelerate. X-rated movies on network Television by 1980. Afro-American in the White House by ’92. Howard Johnson’s on the moon by 2001. A talking computer in every library by 2050, maybe? Stuff like that.”

“Cinnamon always puts me in mind of a woman’s private parts,” said Lundgren, chewing carefully. “You’ll see more of what’s to come than I will. I envy you that. A world without racial prejudice… without war. I was born thirty years too early. My people were decent people, they were progressive in the context of their era, certainly, but they considered colored people , for example… my mother was born the year Nietzsche had Beyond Good and Evil published.  So, you can imagine.”

“Yup.”

“Well then, Benji.”

“Yes Dean?”

Chancellor Lundgren chuckled. “The students trust you.”

“The Freshmen do. The others know better, I think.”

“This combo they’ve hired out of the student union’s winter ball budget… the combo of colored musicians they’ve hired. You were on the committee for allocating those funds. You and Ms. Coolie and the freckle-faced Queer…  what’s his name… Lundberg. Do you know anything about these musicians, Benji?”

“Just what I’ve heard on college radio.”

“What sort of thing is it?”

“Well, hard to describe, really. Very hard to describe.”

“Would you call it militant?”

” ‘Strange’ would be closer to it. Avant Garde. Some people are very excited about it. Not militant, though. I wouldn’t call it that at all, no.”

“I only ask because of the alumnae. St. Jeff’s is not a poor college. Out of curiosity: how much was budgeted for this musical group, Benji?”

“Three thousand and change.”

Lundgren whistled. “Because, here’s the thing. We’re at a point in recent history when, to be frank, if one of our esteemed benefactors among the alumnae even sees a colored face that isn’t on a box of oatmeal, they’re going to think of the Symbionese Liberation Army. If you…”

“Yeah, there is that to consider.”

“It’s the timing of the thing.”

“The pictures in the papers, though…  an heiress robbing a bank with a machine gun! That’s hot stuff, Cowper. You have to admit. In that beret…”

“My word, yes. ”

What a strange conversation, he thought, two hours later under Prentis.

The music blasting through Schamansky’s live-in VW van, ironically, was from the album of the combo that Cowper had been so worried about. The colored combo playing Progressive Rock capable of curling Torquemada’s toes, as Benji would have put it if he were writing a review. Not the part about “colored”. Afro-American? It was lunch break.

Benji had pulled up to the corner of Selby and Grand where Prentis was already doing the “it’s chilly!” two-step and blowing silver clouds into her cupped hands in her Zelda coat with the high fur collar up. Benji had the heat roaring through the Beetle so when Prentis climbed in as he shoved the passenger-side door open without quite bringing the van to a complete halt she felt great just climbing in. He gunned the engine into a screeching U-turn, zigging left and zagging right, dumping her laughing across the mattress on the astro-turf. They hurried down the empty side streets to a nice spot overlooking the foam-flecked parade of the pewter river.

Prentis had brought the cassette with her again, of course,  and slipped it into Benji’s old deck as he eased his earthship to its idling rest amid low-hanging branches. The tape took a whole squeaking minute to rewind to the beginning of side one before she could press down the temperamental “play” lever that had to be wiggled a little as she pressed it and kick off her Birkenstocks and shrug off her Zelda coat. She unbuttoned her silk blouse and shed her jodhpurs like a snake and already-naked Schamansky crawled back there and sprawled across the mattress, craning his neck up for a quick kiss, in time for the spoken-word intro. Then the thrilling opening aria over a persistent clash of cymbals and heroic run of pre-drum 16th-notes on the lead guitar plummeting headlong into song one, side one…

…. OUROBOROS BOBYRYGMUS 

the flavor of infinity

the taste of one’s own soul

lotus-bent divinity

to swallow whole

Prentis Bell rode Benji on the mattress in his idling van, striped with diagonals of chilly April sun through the skewed rattan Venetians over the fogging windows.  Leafy branches fluttered on the windshield facing the river. With her ruddy-blonde halo of static-fluffy hair she looked like a Hibernian princess out of the Robert E. Howard books Benji had loved as a precocious masturbator of all of eleven, his days already sore-pink and sodden with habitual tinglers while his school chums were still into pointless crap like jacks and air rifles. The van rocked on its springs under Prentis Bell’s needful power, which was governed by the throb and bang of the music which, itself, was nailed to a blind drummer’s foot. The blind drummer triggered Prentis’  whisking pelvic impacts from his double-kick pedals and when the singer hit his many operatic high-notes Prentis’ mouth hung open and her tongue lolled and her eyes rolled back in her mind. Whether or not she was faking, thought Benji, her ecstasies were real and it was all he could do to keep from cumming while watching her.

The immediate goal was to make it until the end of song two, side one.

The ultimate goal was to make it until the last note of the last song on side two, the high E the singer sustains, miraculously, for nearly an entire minute over the band’s cacophonous crescendo all gold-plated with horns, zithers and church organs. The goal was to last until that, to last for 43:33, until Prentis had her crowning orgasm during the last long miraculously sustained high E of the singer’s falsetto and only then could Benji in good conscience cum, since cumming, these days, for Benj, meant waiting at least an hour before he could think of cumming again or even stay reasonably hard.  Thank the gods it wasn’t a double album. But: baby steps.

This was the third attempt. Benji’s best effort thus far was two minutes into the second song on side one. Prentis was beautifully forgiving about it. She was patient and willing to teach. She was, after all, a teacher. A real teacher, thought Benji, with opulent self-reproach. She mimed every lyric almost perfectly well as she ground him like an apothecary root with the pestle of her pubis. What kind of all-conquering phenomenon was this band becoming that a well-educated,  middle class, naturalized Irish-American 32-year-old poetry teacher was as obsessed with O.N.E. as any working class second-generation Nicaraguan teeny-bopper from the wrong side of the goddamned tracks?

O   N   E

N   E   O

 E   O   N

Benji was whispering I’m fucking you, I’m fucking you with tender violence and a frown of selfless concentration.

Anyone who wanted to peek through the crooked blinds to see Prentis riding Benji with the impersonal vigor of a woman straddling experimental equipment in a Reichian lab could have done so, which was part of the liberating fun of it all. Let the uptight housewife or frustrated municipal worker or hapless schoolboy playing hooky have their minds blown; was it any better or worse than watching dogs do it in the life-encrusted ghetto just a few blocks off campus to their North?

Imagine a catcalling crowd of young Negro men surrounding the VW, faces pressed against the glass of the windows, big pricks pressing against the VW’s rocking bod through rugged overalls. The old kind of sepia tone, bluesy, pastoral Negroes with bits of straw in their softly napped hair… not the new kind…  not the feminist, intellectual, post modern, bare-chested, top-knot-wearing, above-pity vanguard like the heroes of the all-conquering O.N.E. No, the classic kind of untainted Negroes Benji loved and feared with all his heart.

A Mexican lunch lady waddled right behind the van on the grassy path on her way to the campus, wincing in the warp of the bottled blasts of music.

A shrew scooted out of the left rear wheel well.

Benji slipped half a finger into Prentis’ sweat-slick rectum pretending it was a little black cock and she reached back and yanked it out again without missing a beat and scrubbed down harder with the brush of her mons on his pubis.

Benji loved Feminism.

If loving Feminism made you a Feminist, Benji was a Feminist. It was 1974 and Benji had been teaching, professionally, in some form or another, since Grad School. But he had never gotten as much sheer pussy, in such heavy wet quality and quantity, as he’d been getting since Feminism exploded in the brand new decade’s earthtone sky and across TIME and  LIFE and LOOK magazine and trickled down through Lefty bookstores and the leaky vaulting roof  of academe, making everything sexy, sexier than it had ever been, sexier by far than the Paris of the 1920s or even Caligulan Rome, which both suffered from a lack of modern facilities of hygiene. Indoor plumbing and capitalism’s innovations in the field of soaps and deodorizers had opened new doors of body-joy for everyone. The door was open a little while before many really stepped through, though.

Back in 1969, the Summer of Supposed Love, he’d had one affair, a niggardly affair, a paltry jab or two, a few brackish licks and pokes and way too much awkward clean-up, at the age of 31, with somebody’s twice-divorced mother who’d had to pretend that Benji was a windbreakered rapist to enjoy the act without guilt, mouthwash-drunk as she was the two times they tried it. The mother of the kid with the receding hairline he was tutoring very poorly in calculus. This was long before Benji’s pop-physics book hit and the corn-colored beauties of the upper Midwest cocked and opened their unshaved legs and fruity monses for his uncurled nautilus. His nautilus was suddenly afloat on the sultry pink sea of little deaths. The ’70s were turning out to be everything the ’60s had pretended to promise. The ’50s: dire hand jobs from homely fiancées with skills in the kitchen. The ’60s: regretful sex with itchy hippies or frowsy Mrs Robinsons who referred to your cock as “you know what” and their pussies as “you know where”.

In 1974 alone, he’d fucked twelve or more Feminists, each a goddess, and that’s just the Feminists (not to mention his gloriously earthy lunch ladies) , there were overlapping Feminist trysts  every month, most of the sisters uniformed in Gloria Steinem’s owlish glasses, slender and wry of tit and brown as Polynesians from picketing.  No exaggerated tan lines, sadly (he dearly missed exaggerated tan-lines, the great invention of the Playboy magazine) because they sunbathed nude, in a Feminist cabal, reading  Ms. Magazine and Simone de Beauvoir on the Student Union roof. The Zen cock trick was giving the Feminists firm handshakes and uninterrupted attention when they held forth and never (never) suggesting that they’d look better with their hair down or in a skirt instead of pinstriped slacks and taking it seriously (sincerely) when something pissed them off. No more patronizing chuckles. No more unsolicited feedback. Let them lead. Let them be the aggressors. Let them climb on top. Be the prey, Benji. The prey.

Men who didn’t get Feminism didn’t get Feminists.

Prentis sometimes wore a long white silken Isadora scarf around her neck for sexual style and wire-rimmed glasses like a tiara snagged in her perfumed nimbus of gilded flesh-toned hair but today she was magnificently unadorned. Prentis who pronounced “cock sucking” as cork sacking. Her hair the precise tone of the ruddy-blond flesh of inner-illuminated cherubs. Benji’s mitts were on the inverted teacups of her very faintly tan-lined boobs. Those sweetly not-big tits. Tits like the mathematical symbol for tits. Schamansky felt like a bear in an enchanted china shop in a psychedelic version of a Grimm’s fairytale with a savage sexual subtext as they rolled into song two…

…CHEMICAL GRIMM

come plumb troves of darkened psyches

wanderlust in gloom

telling tales of schizo nikes

beasts and gods on shrooms

Benji mistakenly thought that Prentis thought, mistakenly, that she was fucking like a man thought sex should be: an honest mistake. And of course he was profiting from this mistake. But these energetically beautiful young women who put their diaphragms in every morning (more natural than the Pill), just in case, screwing at the drop of a hat, all over campus, owned by no one but themselves and circumscribed by no hoary desert-convention of the intact hymen as a commodity to be traded for guaranteed life-long financial support and social status:  they weren’t acting like men, they were acting like their mothers. Their upper-middleclass, pre-menopausal mothers. Which was great, wasn’t it? If there was anything more exciting than a divorcee’s to-hell-with-it rapacity wedded to a face undamaged by alcohol, Benji had no idea what it could possibly be at that moment.

He slipped a finger into Prentis’ sweat-and-pussy-goo-slick rectum and she yanked it out again and slapped him (not hard) without missing a beat and pinned his wrists to the mattress and bore down on him with redoubled intensity, her shifting woof of pyrite hair a visual effect on his face.

He was busy trying not to cum while wanting to remain hard, the Scylla and Charybdis of 36. At 20 he could hold out no longer than five minutes before cumming in 5000-volt spasms and unbelievable volume (he’d once accidentally put out a scented candle from the other side of the room) but he could do it five times in a row, then, too.

I’m fucking you, I’m fucking you.

Benji had torn the seats out of the middle of the van and carpeted it with astro-turf and had Venetian blinds put in place by a local craftswoman, to lift or lower at will, installed in every window and plush green carpeting or astro-turf on most every surface, including the curved ceiling and over the seats up front and on the panels of the sliding door, the customization costing him about 800 dollars of his first royalty check for The Physics of Lit, the premise of which he had sincerely believed in when he’d started the project and gotten an advance for the book proposal but about three-quarters of the way through it he’d found himself wondering.

Prentis hopped off and did a 180 and rode his face for a bit and swung around 180 again and scooted down the hirsute length of his torso on the sweaty little balls of her tits to suck his extravagantly curving cock down her throat while gently clawing his nipples, then squeezed the curved cock’s base to lock the purpling hard-on and extracted it to re-mount with the callisthenic speed and fluidity of a motorcycle stunt. All to an instrumental passage of astonishing complexity in 9/8 time…

…THE CRAFT OF AGON

He’d started writing the first draft of The Physics of Lit in ’67 and put it away and started in on it again in ’69 and that was how he thought back then, in an unshakeable sense, that’s how he thought at the age of c. 30. The book was finished in 1970 and out for Christmas of ’71-’72 and he was a different guy by then, a different guy already in ’69, three quarters of the way through it, thinking more and more often that he belonged to a pampered Western sub-culture of naive fantasists under the unwavering control of hard-eyed realists in charge of starting wars and mailing the electricity bills and ordering Mafia hits on upstart ethnic Presidents. But he’d already spent the advance money and when the book was a hit and the royalty checks came in and he was offered a wonderful position at St. Jeff’s teaching a course in his own book (about which no cocky student could possibly gainsay him the way they might gainsay a teacher teaching Newton or Tolstoy), what was he going to say, “I made it all up?”

Not that he didn’t occasionally sort of believe in it, especially when he was teaching it to 19-year-olds like his and Prentis’ students, who not only believed the teachings that came straight out of Benji P. Schamansky’s head but took it all for granted as sort of obvious, credulity being every bit as contagious, in a crowd of upper-middle class pot heads, as terror.

“B. Penrose Schamansky” had made a small fortune with his bestseller, that medium-fat paperback with a Yin Yang somewhere on the cover and an embossed title in silver script. He had promptly spent the two or three phases of windfall (all he had to show for it now was his trusty live-in VW van and an okay-sized boat he rarely used on a local river that held some sex but little mystery for him and a chunk in the bank) but managed to finagle this sinecure at a rich private college in the middle of Holy Nowhere where they granted him a feelgood course named,  verbatim,  after the paperback. The first half of the first line of the book had originally been “There is no such thing as the ‘immaterial’,” but his editor had asked him to lower and beef up the tone just a smidgen and they’d come up with a much-punchier “Everything, even the wildest fancy of your imagination, is Real.”

Tallish, neat-bearded, meaty Schamansky, who had almost studied Theoretical Physics and had a master’s in Eng Lit and had dabbled in Neurobiology without sticking it out for any kind of status-conferring degree, proposed, in essence, in his book, that when a writer really concentrates on a scene or a character, he or she actually creates a vital and dynamic hologrammic model (he coins/copyrights the terms “Hologrammar” and “Quasicosm” and “Logogenetic”), from subatomic particles, in four+ dimensions, in the particle accelerator of the writing mind.

I’m fucking you, I’m fucking you.

Further, and wilder, the book argues that the characters a writer-and-then-reader creates are, literally, alive, because the mind is alive and the quality of Lifeness is a set of conditions imposed by a field delimited in four+ dimensions by balanced equations in constant parlous flux, animating subatomic matter in real time, on an infinitesimal scale, with the measurable force of the Imagination and the guiding intent of intelligent desire and that, for example, a mathematician pondering a set of equations describing and measuring the application of a force by extension creates that force in the hologrammatical crucible of her or his mind on an infinitesimal level and that the “boundary” between outer-mind and inner-mind is a matter of energy-input scaling and also that Albert Einstein regularly created short-lived black holes in his mind and that a B. P. Schamansky, by imagining a bj from, say, Sally Kellerman, was actually getting one, a very tiny one, so tiny you’d need an atom-smasher to see it along with the nano-jism on the verge of being released in four+ dimensions as a result. They live for as long as you think about them. Not so much the Mind of God as the God of Mind.

He slipped a finger into Prentis’ sweat-and-pussy-goo-and-saliva-slick rectum a third decisive time and he stuck it in so deep he could palpate the outline of the lip of the helmet of his nautilused cock in her vagina through the rectal wall and they both burst, they came, they orgasmed simultaneously with convulsive howling sobs approximately nine seconds into the fourth song on the album, the last song on side one of the tape, a song which began with a recording of the Pacific ocean and a lute solo, twenty minutes shy of their ultimate goal.

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The second chapter in the book. This was his least-favorite part of the book. A weak chapter. It was actually the first chapter he’d written and the flaws in its premises were the flaws of the book, the flim-flam of the book, the facile equivalencies and unsupported leaps in logic and oh-wow conclusions that had little to do with legitimate theories in science or even the legitimate mysticism of the Ancients, which no one would accuse of being facile. At least proper mysticism is based on something, on traditional ignorance, handed down through the ages, the errors piling up like silt choking the river of knowledge, centuries of seekers doing their primitive best to make sense of all things and failing sincerely, failing authentically, to get much of anything right… but at least they hadn’t doodled their creation myths out on leftover Happy Birthday napkins and shared a Canadian bacon and pineapple pizza immediately afterwards, using the sacred napkins to wipe each other’s chins. The Ancients would have pooh-pooh’d Benji’s process.

All Benji had done was compare prana, chi, orgone and quarks without any theoretical framework or calculations or experimental evidence to support his fanciful theory. He’d read an interview in SQUIRE magazine, an interview with Bruce Lee, the Chinese movie star who was famous for executing screaming airborne kicks while dressed as a masked chauffeur on an American Television drama and in this interview Lee had talked a little about Chi, the all-permeating so-called Life Force energy he could tap and control by screaming. And Benji remembered, as a kid, hearing Wilhelm Reich’s spooky sexy Orgone Particles mentioned in dinnertime table-talk with bits of coded German thrown in to obfuscate the sexual aspect. And then Quarks were discovered and reported on in THE LADIES HOME JOURNAL. It all just sort of stewed and culminated, in the back of Benji’s mind, these various primordial particles. Benji found himself doodling on those napkins at a Yoga-flake-girlfriend’s pad, one evening, while waiting for a pizza to be delivered, doodling yin/yangs and infinity symbols and writing prana, chi, orgone, quarks. From that sequence of those four words The Physics of Lit was eventually and fancifully and fairly-lucratively born.

“Quarks” already had a physics-to-literature crossover in that the physicist (with the ’50s sci fi name of Murray Gell-Mann) , who had discovered or, that is,  straight-facedly proposed the existence of, these fundamental subatomic particles, began calling them “kworks” and switched to “quarks” after reading a line in James Augustine Aloysius Joyce’s Finnegans Wake: three quarks for muster Mark! Benji got three pages of padding out of that bit alone. If he’d known (as he should have), at the time, that “quark” is also the German word for cottage cheese, he could’ve worked that in,  somehow, too.

He hadn’t done any reading on the physics side of the subject deeper than a paper back by Isaac Asimov or two and a few populist magazine articles and here he was teaching a college class called The Physics of Lit. This, he felt, did not bode as well for the future intelligence of mankind as it did for his bank account. He stared at the infernally cynical blank of the blackboard a good long time before pushing out of his chair to walk over there with some serious chalk in hand and deal with it. Sometimes he felt a guilt so palpable it was debilitating as a stroke: these kids’ parents were paying nearly six thousand dollars a year for them to sit at this boutique college and swallow Benji’s utter crap and toss Frisbees. And sleep with Benji.

On his way to the board he did something he’d never done before: he sucked his gut in. It wasn’t that much of a gut but he was self-conscious about it after something Prentis had done in the van while he was semi-naked with her, getting dressed. Always a vulnerable position to be in. He hit the board with the chalk, writing “QUARKS!” and drew a long arcing arrow from that to the next word he banged on the board: “PRANA”. He turned to face the anticipatory near-silence of three hundred and fourteen students in the packed ear of the lecture hall’s amphitheater seating and said, so even the furtive kids in the top rear curve of nosebleed seats could hear:

“Twenty years ago in Sex Ed they taught us about the Oedipus Complex. My mother back then was fat and dull and I had no ambition, repressed or not, to sleep with her. And this will sound funny, I bet it does, but, let’s be frank, I felt cheated.”

Many students chuckled.

“Some of my buddies in the same class that year, this was 1954, they had reasonably attractive mothers who weren’t fat or dull and I could easily, you know, imagine them, I could easily imagine these buddies wanting to sleep with their mothers and letting this buried compulsion influence everything from their choices in girlfriends to their favorite books. Influencing, subconsciously, even, how they would one day name characters in those novels that everybody, at least once in their life, starts writing and sticks in a drawer forty pages into it, only to rediscover it, at the back of this drawer, and find, what, twenty years later that it’s both excruciatingly embarrassing and touchingly true to the fading worldview of a long-dead self?”

Lots of nodding in the audience. Some welling in some eyes.

“One of my friends, name of Billy Rauch, William F. Rauch, I heard he later got a lucrative career in dress design or something. His mother was arguably stunning, she didn’t look like a mother at all, she resembled Hedy Lamarr in red silk blouses attending school functions, that shifty-slow breast mass you come yea-high to as a growing boy, it’s right in your face plus perfume clouds of siren song, a spirited toss of the flashing mane, everything and more and she’s your buddy’s mom. Oh, he’s seen those heavenly globes pop out of the bathrobe over his cereal bowl once or twice, sweet Billy has. And there I was, stuck with Doris Schamansky neé Stern, stuck with a mother I hadn’t even bothered to notice before was not just fat and dull and kind of evasive but very much all of those things, all of those things to their limit.”

He paused dramatically to scan the rows before him.

“I got not what you’d call an Oedipus Complex but a Complex about not having an Oedipus Complex, an Oedipus Complex complex,  and this threatened my sense of self and, certainly, shrank any sticky strands of confidence I had managed to scrape from the bottom of the depleted vat that Bill Rauch and my other classmates had liberally helped themselves to heaping portions of. Portions of what I’d almost call ‘Oedipal Pizzazz’. For a week before that Monday in Sex Ed that we were scheduled to hear about Oedipus and sexy Jocasta, Billy Rauch starts walking around on this cushion of confidence that couldn’t have been more cushiony if his father had been a Roman Senator when something like that really counted, do you know what I mean? Because when the teacher starts teaching us in hushed tones about the Oedipus Complex, Billy Rauch is gonna be the King… and I’m going to be the unspoken punchline of a very… graphic… imaginary joke.”

He tossed the chalk high enough that it dinged the coolie-hat of one of the many high-up modern light fixtures hanging over the auditorium and he caught the chalk again without looking while the ding was still ringing.

“Now, you may, at this point… you may be scratching your heads and asking yourselves: what is the point of this story? What does this story have to do with anything?”

In fact it had been two years since Benji had asked the same rhetorical question in front of the same auditorium full of very similar students when one of the kids, a totally crewcut freak (how had he gotten through St. Jeff’s stringent admissions filter?), an independent-thinker who would have earned Benji’s grudging admiration if only he hadn’t called out what he called out in a Southern accent, a really hackles-rising Texarkana twang so turd-corned with diphthongs that it turned a nine-syllable sentence into twenty infuriating syllables headed by a diphthong Benji wouldn’t have guessed was even possible (a diphthongal “the”?), calling out…

The point of the story is horseshit!

But that had never happened before or since. Setting aside the fifty-two minority and/or foreign students on campus, the worldview of the student body of St. Jeff’s was remarkably uniform. Even the physical resemblance between most of the students, and between the students and the tenured faculty, and between every member of the tenured faculty and every other member of the tenured faculty,  was nearly familial, if not uncanny. St. Jeff’s between classes in the middle of winter, with students crisscrossing the quad between extravagantly-frosted gingerbread buildings on frosted paths too thick to show sidewalk,  resembled any prosperous Scandinavian village of the 19th century, if you ignored the denim and replaced the bandana’d, Frisbee-catching dogs named Bonzo, in your mind,  with wolves while replacing Grand Avenue with the Baltic.

“The point is this. This class is not about graphs and charts and high-octane math and impossible-to-grasp concepts of cutting-edge lit and physics. This class is about the human, the humanity, the humanity of these…” he made a sweeping gesture  “particular humans in this particular auditorium in this particular time and space. It’s about….”

He suddenly stepped back and turned to the board and wrote  THE UNDENIABLE REALITY OF DREAMS so hard the chalk chipped and the chip bounced off his forehead and he drew three squiggly lines under the phrase. 

THE UNDENIABLE REALITY OF DREAMS

Schamansky repeated it verbally and let it sink in.

His audience was spellbound.

Many of the students, mostly the ones who were girls, who made up most of the class, were smiling and nodding very, very slowly. The smiles you smile when a crazy notion you have clung to since the age of five and against the withering contempt and cynically rational counter-arguments of the Fully Grown World is finally confirmed by a Cool Authority Figure you trust even more than Gertrude Stein, for example.

Schamansky tried to screw the cap off an encrusted jar of powdered non-dairy creamer and gave up easily, rationalizing the capitulation as a health-choice. He said,

“And then I finish the anecdote, which happens to be true, it really happened to me pretty much as I related it. I told them that the day we went in to read through the chapter about Sigmund Freud’s Oedipus Complex, our usual teacher was out with the flu… that’s what they told us but later I heard he’d had some kind of nervous breakdown because he was hiding the fact he was a Communist.  Wait, actually, was he hiding the fact he was Queer? I can’t remember, which is funny. Anyway. Instead of Mr. Berg we had a substitute teacher I’d never seen before, a ham-colored old man in a green plaid suit who opened the class by declaring that ‘Sigmund Freud was a very smart man whose twisted personal obsessions would never have made it into print in Modern America!’ and he skipped the chapter entirely and went right to venereal diseases! In retrospective it was horrifying but the Monday morning it happened I wanted to kick my heels and run home with a song in my heart and kiss my unattractive mother on the lips. I looked over at Bill Rauch at his desk a couple of rows over, the kid with the sexy mom, and all the light had gone out of him and, man,  he looked like a never-claimed birthday cake on a discount table at the bakery.”

Benji was leaning over the sink in the faculty lounge washing two coffee cups, one for himself and a better one for Stoddard Huff , before Stoddard’s next studio class. They’d discovered that the cups that Benji had fetched down out of the cabinet over the sink had pale rings of sedimentary coffee in their bottoms and one had the crenellated imprint of  an upper lip on it, which was disgusting because Benji couldn’t tell exactly how old the original of the lip-print was. It was that little butterscotch-colored Queer T.A. Lundberg’s job to keep the coffee mugs clean and he didn’t.

“And I told the students… this is the big finish… I told them: they are making it up as they go along. Mainstream science, I mean. Some wrinkled schmuck in a green plaid suit declares Sigmund Freud’s theories to be horseshit, then, by god,  Sigmund Freud’s theories are horseshit. This guy was no famous intellectual from Vienna but, I’ll tell you, I have never been able to take Freud seriously from that moment on and that was twenty years ago. That guy showed me the power of NO when faced with Hegemony. The flipside of that being my own power of YES. The YES to fashion an understanding of the fabric of the universe in terms that will mean something to me. And my students.”

Benji handed Stoddard his cleaned cup. Stoddard was a locally semi-famous painter of symbolic figurative works who’d been granted a position, at St. Jeff’s, as the co-chair of the Fine Arts Department, a position he shared with a Jewish Polish Lesbian Pottery Sculptress whose interesting work he seemed to abhor. And not because she threw pots that resembled the de rigueur vaginal conch shells or tiresome postmodern knockoffs of the Venus of Willendorf, because she didn’t.

“And your students,” echoed Stoddard, with that smile he managed to convey without smiling. He was the only genuinely black teacher on campus. Stoddard was what Schamansky had once overheard an admiring coed refer to as “Blackity black”. His mossy beard consumed his heavy jaw and the entire lower half of the polished onyx of his smallish skull. Stoddard’s velour jumpsuits added to his creation myth aura. A totemic fetish (for intimidated white progressives) of impossible-to-determine age named Stoddard Huff. On this particular day, Stoddard’s velour jumpsuit was turquoise, over which the weather had forced him to wear his elegant London Fog.

Openly staring at Stoddard, as he often did, Benji tried to imagine the strange and devastating crypto-historical twists and cataclysms that had somehow given the European dominion over the Earth when a race of Stoddards was on the planet. Benji could easily imagine being Stoddard’s servant and accepting the situation as natural and just.

“You know how I protect myself from falling for flim flam, Benjamin?”

Benji was over at the coffee machine.  He wanted to say No, Sir, but he said “How, Stoddard?”

“I never believe in anything I can’t paint.”

“Makes sense.”

“So I am as equally protected from what you like to call ‘hegemony’ as I am protected from…” Stoddard gestured that Benji should finish the thought for him.

“From my bullshit.”

They laughed and clinked their empty coffee cups together.

Benji liked Stoddard because Stoddard could see right through Benji but seemed to like Benji anyway. Benji was dying to ask Stoddard about the size and color of Stoddard’s erect penis but knew, without having to be told, that any direct inquiries of that nature would come off as either Queer or Racist and probably both. Benji only minded being thought of as being Queer to the extent that it might diminish his continued potential for sleeping a swathe across the female polarity of the campus. Though if he began losing his hair or if his gut grew any bigger, allowing himself to seem to be Queer could be a possible tactic for getting pussy from the homelier, more neurotically competitive types when the best pussy began drying up for him. You always have to think ahead, thought Benji. He patted his gut involuntarily when slender, muscular, neutronium-dense Stoddard turned his back to Benji in search of the sack of fancy brown sugar he liked to sweeten his coffees with. Was his gut really growing out of control? Had it ever jiggled like this before? Had Prentis bewitched him with the niggling demon of self-consciousness? Is this what women were going through? Next thing I know, I’ll be worrying about the quality of my coffee-making, thought Benji.

“Come the Revolution,” said Stoddard, pulling up a plastic chair near the coffee machine, “We burn the books. All the books.”

“I’m shocked, Stoddard, shocked,” chuckled Benji. Though he was. Was he? Perhaps more perplexed than shocked. Shocked? It was 1974, after all. Still…

Benji remained standing with his coffee, trying to lean nonchalantly with one elbow on the ever-so-slightly-too-low folding table under the stained tray under the coffee machine while remaining painfully conscious of the fact that his full weight on it could very well cause the folding table to collapse. Leaving him with the exhausting chore of simulating a casual lean that was more of a balancing act than any kind of a rest. His elbow barely touched the table he was pretending to lean on. His back was already hurting fifteen seconds into the unnecessary charade. But if it was unnecessary, why was he doing it?

“Oh, I’m serious, Benjamin. The eyes are for seeing the Truth, but the tongue, and, by extension, the words, are for lying. We love our euphemisms and call lying ‘narrative’ but even the word euphemism is a lying way to say lying. Literacy is only necessary because The System requires it. Because The System is based on words, because The System is based on lying. No lying, no System. No words, no lying.”

Stoddard crossed one ankle over the other leg’s jumpsuited knee and showed an immaculate black foot in a Jesus sandal. Benji envied how comfortable Stoddard looked but Benji couldn’t change his position without revealing the fact that he’d never really been leaning his weight against the table in the first place, which would cause him to appear insane.

“Now, don’t be too literal-minded and extrapolate that we plan on forbidding small talk, or anything heavy like that,” Stoddard winked. “When I say ‘no words’ I mean the authoritarian privilege of print, of the printed word, of newspapers and history books and telegrams and those electric light bulb hieroglyphs that run in that endless snake around the corners of that quintessential building in New York, controlling the world with its brighter-than-bright white lies. Why are you going to let your coffee get so cold? It’s good coffee, man.” Stoddard glanced at the clock over the cupboard over the sink. “Damn. Looks like I’m late. We’re organizing a little… political action…  later.”

Fucking A, thought Benji, as he stood in the lounge’s window and watched Stoddard’s jazzfully strident lope across the longest diagonal of the quad, his cream-colored London Fog flapping. He’d totally forgotten what he’d wanted to mention to Stoddard when he’d cornered Stoddard in the lounge in the first place. First his gut and now his short-term memory. He was falling apart. Was he falling apart? Was 36 his last hurrah?

Oh yeah. He’d meant to say, “Dig it, brother. Poor old Cowper is quite the wreck over the impending Mau Mau uprising he expects when that Afro-American act we hired for the Winter Ball parks its bus on his lily-white campus this November!” Or something like that. Maybe remove the Mau Mau reference. And the lily-gilding lily-white thing. Could he really get away with calling Stoddard “brother”? He’d wanted to say a carefully-worded sentence to that general effect and then high-five Stoddard and emerge from the faculty lounge all cackles together, with maybe even comradely arms over each other’s shoulders. Like a hip hit sitcom about racial tolerance.

Next time.

Benji found himself half-warmed in the sunlight of the unreasonably unseasonable late-spring chill about 50 yards behind long-haired Skip Woode on the path behind the cafeteria, halfway between the faculty lounge and his destination, which was the spot, behind the library, he’d found to park his van on after the riverside interlude with Prentis. Skip was moving at a rapid clip but Benji was toying with the idea of popping into the cafeteria for dinner, which was served between 5pm and 7pm and would be commencing in ten minutes.  He could wolf-whistle to stop Skip and catch up with him or see Skip later anyway. Skip was so fast that he was already disappearing into the cold shadow behind the library before Benji could decide. What was the skinny fucker in such a hurry to do or see at 4:50 pm on a Friday in April?

There was a special weekend Planet of the Apes festival at the Grand Theater, on Grand Avenue:  Planet of the Apes, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, Escape from the Planet of the Apes, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes and Battle for the Planet of the Apes. The festival was organized by Benji’s buddy Skip, the hip young Racial Studies teacher who’d been kicked off the faculty at Harvard for teaching that former President Dwight D. Eisenhower, J. Edgar Hoover and Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz  (the great great great grandmother of Queen Elizabeth of England), among others (including two additional US Presidents),  had Negro blood; were Negroes. Skip had just gotten a 5,000-word essay published in the inaugural edition of the hip new radical film journal Jump Cut, and in his essay he compared the conservatively progressive Civil Rights parable of Planet of the Apes to the radical “uncivil disobedience” narrative of The Exorcist, claiming that the Jesuit eponym of the latter film was really a deeply-coded so-called Nigger-breaker of the antebellum. The character Regan MacNeil, the demonically possessed 12-year-old, with her bad manners, terrifying sexuality and creepy physical stunts, was nothing but a middle class white girl with Jungle Fever. Was there a categorical difference being calling someone a “motherfucker” and telling them their “mother sucks cocks in hell”? The film was even set in Washington,  after all, argued Woode. The Exorcist was merely carrying on the subliminal masscult discussion about Race, in America, that Planet of the Apes had started. A necessary subliminal discussion indeed.

Benji and Skip had planned on meeting Prentis and Kyndall an hour before the 10:15 showing of Beneath the Planet of the Apes, prior to which Skip was going to be leading a panel on Civil Rights in the Creative Imagination from the theater’s stage. Skip was one of those skinny, balding, long-haired guys who would be resorting to the use of a beret any day now, thought Benji, who’d noticed, the last time he and Skip were hanging out, that his, Benji’s, nervous tendency to rake his fingers through his perfectly thick hair reached a compulsive frequency in Skip’s presence, even as Benji was aware he was doing it.

Fuck it, thought Benji, I’ll see Skip in a couple of hours anyway. With his crazy old lady Kyndall.

Standing in line in the cafeteria with his tray on the rails he smiled into the bustling hive of  hair-netted lunch-lady activity on the other side of the stainless steel counter,  deep in the kitchen, scanning the melee for the youngish lunch-ladies he’d already had. One lady and one moment he cherished in particular: a great fast fuck, Benji on top, with an armpit-and-cig-scented worker of approximately 27, a quickie in his quickly-mobilized van. During what would have been her cigarette break and triggered when she asked the short-cutting-behind-the-cafeteria-Schamansky for a light in what Schamansky considered an irresistible working class third-generation “Polack” accent, on top of all that curly, netted strawberry-blond hair and those authentic thighs and the pretty vapor of her breath in the slow winter wind as she chuckled throatily at the naughty phrase inscribed on his lighter, a lighter the smoke-free Schamansky only carried to service tobacco-scented women, tilting her head and steadying his hand to read the inscription better. He thought he remembered her name was Sherry. Sherry the slightly-slutty single mother. Where was she back there? Benji couldn’t see her. And where was Donna? Where was Linda…?  The kitchen was full of strangers.

Someone tapped Schamansky lightly on his shoulder. Had Benji been holding his tray, the tray would have gone flying across the cafeteria.

Skip.

“Jeezis. How the hell? I thought I just saw you way over…”

“Emergency crap of a confidential nature. You have no idea. Are we still on for ten? Is, uh, Prentis up for it?”

“Without a doubt. A little socializing…”

Skip leaned in. “No, I mean… after the flick.”

Benji had turned to hoist a few drooping squares of Canadian-bacon-with-pineapple pizza off an industrial baking sheet and stack them on his plate, which felt like it weighed about five pounds when he thought about sliding his tray further down the line toward the cakes, pies, puddings and ice cream at the end of the serving banquette, forgoing the vegetables altogether. Seeing himself as others in the cafeteria might see him… an aging character with Three Dog Night sideburns in a flowery shirt and a growing paunch… he returned half of his haul of gorgeous warm life-affirming pizza to the baking sheet: enough returned pizza for three or four students, he calculated, with shame. He had a physical flashback of Prentis’ hands grabbing fistfuls of his flab and laughing. With his back still turned to Skip he said,

“Haven’t exactly mentioned that part to her yet, Skip. Isn’t it better to let that kind of situation develop organically, Skip?”

Skip slapped his own forehead. “Benji, you frigging pussy.” Skip chuckled explosively. Instead of punching me hard in the arm, thought Benji. “We went over that already, man. Didn’t we?”

“There’s such a thing as over-thinking a situation.  Have you mentioned it to Kyndall?”

“Of course I have.”

Of course you have, Benji wanted to say. You’re the  one with the undesirable girlfriend and she’s the one with you.

Still, to have dismissed the notion, outright, as soon as Skip had brought it up (while completing the rolling of his own cigarette with a pointedly sexual flourish of his freakishly pointed tongue) would have been to risk being considered a garden variety square. A square as square as Cowper Lundgren, the scientific standard for Squareness on St. Jeff’s campus. The squarest end of the visible spectrum was Cowper Lundgren and the hippest, of course, at the furthest end of the opposite side, corresponding to ultraviolet light, was Stoddard Huff. They had a running joke, Benji and Skip and a few other enfants terribles among the faculty, in which a “cowper” was a unit of measure of “corn-power”. Saying nyet to a close friend’s suggestion of a three-way: what was that worth? Three cowpers of corn-power? Four? With two cowpers of corn-power each awarded for ice fishing, clogging, Gunsmoke, pyjamas, Twinkies and polka dot bow-ties. Five for an old PRESIDENT NIXON/ NOW MORE THAN EVER bumper sticker. Six for a THE CARPENTERS 8-track.

“Well, look, it’s three-to-one, then, right? With three of us setting up the right vibe, and Prentis being the open kind of lady she is, it’ll probably, you know”  although I sincerely hope not,  “happen.”

“Prentis will love it.”

Benji wanted to say fuck you, Skip,  but Skip was still his best friend, or close enough to being one, Benji guessed, to become Benji’s worst enemy if Benji ever slighted him. What with his bad skin and thinning hair and highly-probable teeny cock, Skip had insecurities for miles and would take almost anything too personally, probably, so Benji found himself being by orders of magnitude more careful about Skip’s sensibilities than Skip was concerning his, which is the burden Benji bore for feeling better about himself.  He tanked up on ice tea and lifted his heavy tray while Skip grabbed an apple and followed Benji to a little table in the luminous, long-shadowed northwest corner of the glass-walled cafeteria. There was a grand view of the ripped-cotton cirrus of the mellowing sky as it snagged the day’s last radiance in the distance behind the rich green steeple of Anderson Chapel, the first structure on campus, built in 1872. Below that the blue-glassed hexagon of the library looked all black and selfishly modern and students cast shadow-cartoons of themselves to scissor the edges of the sidewalks around and across the quad.

St. Jeff’s cafeteria was a locally-famous high-modernist folly. It featured palace-high ceilings and curving, wrap-around,  top-to-bottom windows and had a soaring, open-hearted, neo-Midwestern, unrepentantly Frank-Loyd-Wright kind of optimism to it.  You sat there ensconced in the privilege of genteel futurity and munched unusually high-quality cafeteria food while surveying most of the neat-as-a-pin kingdom of St. J’s: not bad. Why the locals mocked it (and considered it all too typical of the era, somehow) was this, that its design had been purchased from an architectural firm in Florida, a million miles to the warm south-east. The cafeteria generated mind-boggling  heating bills, every winter (winter lasting from October until May every year) which accounted for twenty percent of St. Jeff’s tuition. St. Jeff’s cafeteria was a beautiful modern structure with high ceilings and wrap-around floor-to-ceiling windows that didn’t make a bit of fucking sense in a part of the country in which winter lasted half of every year. Some adult in the long chain of decision makers between the cafeteria’s conceptualization and its actual construction must have pointed this out. But there it was.

Benji’s back was to the sun but orange-faced Skip was squinting right into it as he proceeded to address the task of eating his apple in the weirdest way that Benji had ever seen anyone do it, starting with the stem. Seeing the look on Benji’s corona’d face (stray fibers of Benji’s unfairly-thick hair flaming in the late-afternoon sun),  Skip clarified.

“Don’t tell me you haven’t even heard of the whole apple diet yet.”

At that very moment, two things happened.

First: at the opposite end of the cafeteria, near the orange juice machine and the back-entrance of the cafeteria, Benji saw Cowper Lundgren, waving in his direction, trying to get his attention, gesticulating broadly like some Broadway musical’s lead character in a three-piece suit attempting to fly. Mouthing something, flapping and pointing and flapping. Soon enough, Benji realized that Lundgren was trying to get Benji to bring Lundgren to Skip’s attention; Lundgren wanted Benji to tell Skip to turn around and see him.

Second: a girl seated at the “colored table”… not far from the orange juice machine… at a long table the Afro-American students at St. Jeff’s had years ago designated as their refuge of self-segregation in the cafeteria, a table that new white freshmen occasionally made the social blunder of attempting to sit at (a minor rite of passage at St. Jeff’s, in fact)… a girl stood up and began to sing.

Benji recognized her immediately.

Even among the other rare Afro-Americans at St. Jeff’s, she was distinctive, she stood out, this senior student, with long skinny legs and biggish tits and a shaved black head as glossy and lickable as a fancy chess piece. All of her teachers raved about her. Carrie Goffin was her name and  every hetero male member of the faculty wanted to do something with, to or for her. Carrie Goffin, daughter of Lloyd Goffin, successful Afro American entertainment lawyer, and Rhondella Lunette Goffin (nee St. Jacques), successful Afro American housewife and Caribbean former model and high-profile alumnus of St. Jeff’s. Carrie was the best argument for stylish female baldness and exogamy that Benji knew of: if we get some of her, let the brothers have some of ours, was the subliminal agreement among the white male hetero members of the faculty. The unspoken yet micro-managed negotiations of the National Erotic Stock Exchange in which competing tribes of America managed cross-tribal transactions in sex. Their (foxiest) Women-folk as currency. The 17th-through-19th centuries had seen a trade deficit on the Caucasian side… members of the white male owner class were fucking far more Black Women than Brothers were doing the obverse. Tribal Sexual Protectionism? The ’60s and ’70s of the 20th century were balancing that Sexual Deficit out and this was the first firm sign of eventual integration and the end of certain tribal antagonisms: Dr. King’s famous “promised land”.  Why not? It was beginning to feel as though it was right around the corner…

While Cowper Lundgren gesticulated wildly a few yards to her right, gorgeous and statuesque-and- luminously-black-and-bald Carrie stood up in her lime-green and blackly-cleavaged sun dress, right there at the edge of the cafeteria, while the others at her table were chowing down pizza and salad, and, without preamble, belted out in strong clear tones a song Benji, expecting, you know, gospel,  was surprised to find he was all too familiar with. It was the fourth song on side two of O.N.E.’s eponymous debut and it was called FOREVER IS OVER and Benji absolutely knew the song (as a symbol of his and Prentis’ totally bearable sexual failure to kama sutra continuously for longer than 23 minutes) by heart. Skip twisted around to see what all the singing was about and saw red-faced Cowper flapping and miming back there and Skip said oh shit and grabbed up his apple core and hurried, with his head down, across the room toward Cowper and the gorgeous singing. Carrie Goffin, with arms outstretched and her cleavage pumping, was singing,

If the time shall never come

when nothing can’t not happen

and all that ever wasn’t cease

to fail to not quite matter 

…and, surprise!,  a couple of goateed Afro-Americans at her self-segregating table stood up and joined in at 

then no thing that is always not

no mirror still shan’t shatter 

…and three other young Afro-Americans at the same island-table stood with “why the hell not?” shrugs and chimed in with full-on goose-bumpy harmonies at 

reflections of the not-unseen

un-madder than un-hatters 

…and Benji thought of that commercial, that really groovy Coca Cola commercial that starts with one innocent looking Scandinavian-type moonchild chick on a hillside singing in bell-pure tones that she’d like to buy the world a home, and, one by one, others of various persuasions and manner of dress on the hillside join in as the camera pans back until it’s a rousing global sing-a-long, the whole world (which looks largely Anglo in the commercial) is singing together about Coke. It felt like that to Benji. Most of the cafeteria suddenly stood and came in with Carrie and her table-mates when they reached the uplifting chorus of the song, they all knew the words, the students and the faculty and the cafeteria workers, and it was deafening,  exhilarating, wow, thought Benji, wow, wow, wow and now he was standing and singing along with everyone at the top of his lungs, grinning self-consciously and mock-directing the choir of diners with expansive gestures of his knife in one hand  and his fork in the other, thinking it’s coming, that change we always dreamed of, it’s really coming and nothing will ever be the same… 

Forever is over because it began

Forever is over for woman, for man

Whatever the reason, whatever the plan

Forever is over again, my friend

Forever is over because it began

Forever is over for man and woman

Whatever the reason, whatever the plan

Forever is over

Forever is over

Forever is over

and they’ll

never

never

never

under

stand

 

kt-bumper-2

Everyone nurtures within his or her soul an idealized version of a self best represented by the celebrity he or she envies the most. In Benji’s case the celebrity was John Lilly, the dashing,  fearless, Roshi wagon scout of the freaky sciences, the guy who was writing the first dolphin dictionary and was a counter-cultural hero for tripping on acid in isolation tanks while his disembodied intelligence interacted with extraterrestrial super-entities and returned to Earth to convert the experience into the precise prose of bestselling science books, inspiring a recent hit movie starring George C. Scott that Benji had seen three times since it premiered at The Grand, the first with Prentis. Prentis had dug the flick well enough but Benji had felt the need to go back and see it again alone, the next evening, to enjoy the film’s message without distractions. Lilly was for Benji what Susan Sontag would have been for Prentis if Prentis were only into Sontag’s books, which were near-unreadable in their cold, careerist smugness (and maybe Benji was projecting, he wouldn’t bet his life that he wasn’t, but he’d never read prose, as when he read Sontag’s prose, that seemed so unstintingly self-conscious about the good looks of its author). But John Lilly was no careerist and he was not smug. Benji had read Lilly’s Programming and Meta-Programming the Human Biocomputer shortly after it came out, in 1968, and Benji had almost literally found himself buzzing as he read it, he’d felt the top come off his head and a bright, brave, antiseptic light scrape his thoughts.

He’d felt a pride in his era (not his generation per se: his generation was neither fish nor fowl, too young to have participated in previous, era-defining wars and too old for the current one ); the sense that they’d taken on racial prejudice and LBJ and the Vietnam War and now they were taking on the Universe, they were taking on Reality itself. Lilly had very scientifically, highly methodically, with the sober prose of a gifted 19th century English gentleman-naturalist, blown Benji’s mind with Programming and Meta-Programming the Human Biocomputer and Benji now thought of his own mutton-chopped father, ironically, his own father Albert Aaron Abraham Schamansky II, the pillar of a community (Munich, Wisconsin), who had said to Benji, once, sadly, coming up out of the root cellar with a fading smile, that he felt like a “man of the 19th century, out of place now” and Benji thought, yes, pa, I know how you feel, but at least you have an entire century to belong to, anachronistically, pa, because all I have is that one year, 1968. I’m a man of 1968 and even 1969 left me feeling kind of out of it and 1974 is a total weird enigma to me. I’ve lost my fucking bearings. Something I rarely admit, even to myself. Everything I thought was right is wrong. Okay, I’m exaggerating.

But this kind of thing never happened to John Lilly.

Benji wanted to cry. He knew he was being melodramatic. Still. This was shaping up to be a bad day. It had started so well.

There were camera lights from a high-tech mobile Eyewitness News crew heating his forehead where he stood trying to hide behind Skip, in Skip’s inadequate shadow, Skip who was too short and skinny for Benji to shelter behind, too short by half a head and too skinny by an entire Skip-width. Prentis and Kyndall were up in front with Skip and Skip was holding forth with unflappable pedagogic patience into the fuzzy ball-end of the avid cock of the reporter’s microphone. Every minute or so there came the abrupt sound of bullhorn plus chanters and the mobile unit’s generator whenever someone opened the outer glass door to the Grand Theater’s foyer.

Benji had to admire Skip’s cool. While also hating Skip’s guts for getting Benji in this absolutely unnecessary mess, for getting Prentis and Benji in this mess over these goddamned ridiculous monkey movies. It’s like: you don’t notice it until someone with a bullhorn points it out and then you can’t get it out of your head. Crypto-Racist Bullshit written by some post-Colonial Frenchman. Pierre something. The movies hadn’t even started yet. Skip had been doing his Question-and-Answer thing with a paltry audience (a few locals and a specific chunk of St. Jeff’s ass-kissing Foreign Exchange students) when they heard the first alarming squawks of the bullhorn manned by Stoddard. Someone initially suggested it was the Fire Marshall or a marathon they’d forgotten about.  A late-night marathon. Then a teen usher ran down the aisle and bounded onstage and said something to Skip that nobody else could hear, gesticulating.

Marching around in front of the Grand in the flood-lit darkness were about three-dozen people under the guidance of Stoddard’s impressive bullhorn.  Did Stoddard actually own a bullhorn? Was it a rental? From where could one rent a bullhorn? A protest mart? Most of the marchers were blonde. Three were dark-skinned. All (but Stoddard) female. They were marching around with bobbing placards in carefully (cleverly)-lettered gothic script that said PLANET OF THE WHAT??? and  DOWN WITH RACIST PARABLES and WITH LIBERALS LIKE YOU, WHO NEEDS THE KLAN? and so forth.  The placards looked German in the poor light until you looked closely and found you could read them. And here was Benji in the foyer with his best friend the white-as-death Racial Studies asshole who had organized the three-day Planet of the Apes festival and had just given a talk titled Civil Rights in the Creative Imagination and tricked Benji into condoning, with his presence, the notion that Afro-Americans could be compared to Apes in films with a social conscience. Benji thought back with a droplet of nostalgia about his pleasant little time with Stoddard earlier that day, the comradely chat in the Faculty Lounge. Benji remembered with a pang of retroactive foreshadowing that Stoddard had been in a hurry to get out of the lounge because he had some political theater or street theater or a protest or something to organize and that’s why he was in a rush… so…

Fuck.

The only plausible hope: Stoddard hadn’t really seen Benji yet, had he? No. At least Benji didn’t believe that Stoddard had seen him. Had he? Benji’s ignominious little social gathering was still relatively deep in the foyer, right in front of the velvet rope and swinging doors of the actual theater, beyond the concession stand and around a round corner, not super-visible from the street. All Benji had to do was grab Prentis’ hand and very smoothly lead her back into the dimming theater and down the aisle at a brisk pace and out one of the fire exits, down a side-street in the night to sweet freedom. The only people who knew that Prentis and Benji had been fully prepared to sit through two (retroactively) racially-offensive  movies (Planet of the Apes, Beneath the Planet of the Apes) in a row were either total strangers or Skip and Kyndall themselves and seven or eight socially negligible St. Jeff’s Foreign Exchange students from India (with their own questionable racial attitudes to remain oblivious to) who would never, in a million years, go on record about anything. They just wanted to keep their heads down and take copious notes in florid script and get excellent grades and move on to prestigious grad schools and host carefully-controlled bar-b-cues, annually, in expansive back yards appended to dream homes commencing approximately fifteen years in the future.

All Benji had to do was grab Prentis by the hand and winkingly lead her back out of this flood-lit nightmare to the soft sweet mood-lighting of the Safety Lounge of the Ideological Purity they’d been effortlessly inhabiting all of their grown-up lives. They’d never been on the wrong side of any issue that mattered, before this. Only because they’d rarely been tested, though. How many of us will ever even know if we’re potentially useful spies for North Korea, for example, or harbor a suppressed  proclivity for cannibalism? While tacitly congratulating ourselves on a daily basis that we aren’t cannibals? Because how would we know? Have we ever been locked in a dungeon full of someone else’s dead fleshy toddlers while deprived of food for a month? Just ask that hungry soccer team marooned in the Andes (two years ago this fall), thought Benji.

Prentis and Kyndall were up there in the camera lights, flanking Skip. On camera. How could Benji reach Prentis’ hand to pull her away? How does one get the attention of someone who’s on-camera… discreetly? If Benji went pssssst everyone out there in local TV News Land would hear it. Prentis was so polite, she was too polite, she was caught up in this and didn’t have the rude guts to back out of Skip’s picayune media circus without Benji’s help. Benji was sure Prentis was mortified. Was Benji on-camera? He stepped back even further and could only see the backs of all three heads (Skip’s front-halo of long stray hairs burning in the light; the skull-skin under his thinned patch glowing softly, patiently, coldly in the shadow). The reporter’s creepy-brilliant-mannequin face;  the backs of Prentis and Kyndall’s heads nodding vociferously (in a mortified way, he felt), as one, at regular intervals. What Benji needed was to catch the corner of Prentis’ peripheral vision…

But then Skip wrapped up his spiel with the reporter in the foyer of The Grand Theater and moved toward the door and through the door and toward the curb with his captive entourage of Prentis and Kyndall, out across to the middle of the street to “dialogue” with Stoddard, camera crew in tow. And Benji had to choose between following them and revealing himself to Stoddard and the world or sinking deeper into the foyer like the wise coward he wished he could have been.

*******

The others were buzzing when they all drove back to Skip’s place on 4th Street two hours later, they were fizzing from their dip in the meretricious ether of the limelight. Balding Skip was saying coolly that he wouldn’t be surprised if the segment went national. Skip, Prentis and Kyndall:  giddy as kids who’d pulled off  a delicious prank.  That’s how wrong Benji had been in his estimation of Prentis’ reluctance to bask in Slip’s reflected light, apparently, and what a feeling that wrongness was, eh? Do you even know Prentis at all, Benji, thought Benji, do you have any idea what she loves and what she hates or what she dreams of and what dreams those dreams replaced and what she’s even thinking right now? About you, for example?

They had kicked off their shoes (though Benji was stuck unlacing his Scandinavian hiking boots; he was still up on one leg right inside the front door of Skip’s Dinkytown loft in the building beside the building Dylan had lived in, famously, not terribly long ago) and they moved across the wide open, high-ceilinged, tall-windowed and muted light of the living room or whatever it was, moving in a stocking-footed conga line that Prentis ornamented with a little twirl as Skip applauded and Kyndall whistled and then they disappeared around a corner while Benji was still unlacing his boots.

Benji was trying to untie and think at the same time, impeding both functions. He was trying, mentally, to retrace his steps, recount what had happened, map the disaster  accurately enough to minimize his growing sense of just how much he should wish that it all had been a bad dream. Think, Benji. He saw them exit the Grand to enter the twilight’s electric glare  against the roar of the mobile production unit’s generator and the childish timbre of the protesters chanting under Stoddard’s sharp, declarative bursts of morally unimpeachable megaphone: yes. The three in front and Benji, chewing his upper lip, dragging behind. And the moment Stoddard finally saw that it was Benji in Skip’s entourage and not some anonymous racist… Jesus, God, the sneer of recognition Stoddard gave me.

The rest was pretty much a blur until Benji’s memory of the moment when Stoddard had obviously decided, maybe twenty minutes later (after an impromptu, garrulously-shouted debate)  that Skip, while misguided, was, at least, a worthy opponent.  Benji could see it in Stoddard’s face: grudging respect for white-man-Skip’s deeply held passion for the principle of Free Speech. Just as Benji could see that Stoddard didn’t even consider white-man-Benji’s run-of-the-mill participation in a racist event worth critiquing because Benji’s kind of default liberal cracker was beneath notice. In Stoddard’s eyes, Benji now had the approximate status of a substitute teacher who might unthinkingly decide to show, for a treat,  his treasured 16mm print of  Birth of a Nation to a 10th grade English class the day before Christmas vacation.  Because Benji had gone to see movies comparing African Americans to apes, you see. Which he had, admitted Benji. Planet of the WHAT? I went to that. Own free will. Assumed I was doing good. The Black Power handshake that Skip and Stoddard exchanged, at the end of their debate, had to be re-posed and re-shot at least half a dozen times before the photographers on hand were happy with it.

First boot finally dropped.

Benji wanted to shout Hey, it’s getting awfully quiet in there before he entered the room the rest of them were in (if he could find the room the rest of them were in) like a kid who was suddenly afraid that the bigger kids were planning to scare him.

OEDIPUS Rx (a short story from NOT REALLY DIFFICULT TEXTS)

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Goss slithered out of the hotel bed, careful not to wake her. This was not easy because she was the lightest sleeper ever. He hadn’t been able to shift a millimeter without getting an interrogative grunt from her and his escape from the bed had taken what seemed like hours of excruciating control. When he finally slipped into the bathroom he realized it must be suppertime back home. Sat on the toilet, seat down, lights off, with his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands but he was smiling. Not quite laughing. Actually maybe he felt slightly sick.

She was suddenly upright in bed. ‘Jimmy?’ she called. Not his name. And she pronounced it weird anyway. Yeemy?

Go in there, he ordered himself, and get your clothes. And don’t you say a fucking word.

‘Jimmy?’

Goss stared straight at the corner where his pants must be, ignoring the motionless silhouette which registered on his peripheral vision like a human shape in a sinister dreamscape as he groped and found briefs and slipped them on, then socks, his pants and going down on all fours patted the floor for his cap and found it. His scarf. His pullover was flung across the half of the bed they hadn’t used and he remembered kicking his shoes off right inside the door, bouncing them off the wall, so they must be here and here.

‘Jimmy,’ she sang, softly, sounding very sad.

He shod himself with one hop on each foot and got both hands on the doorknob squinting against the light he let like a rush of air into the room so musty with what they had done. He backed out careful not to look as the light closed on her old face and Goss blew out a long breath turning to the red AUSGANG sign and high-fiving his own ghost before it hit him that his jacket containing not only a copy of Levy’s keys but also all of Goss’s money and his passport and the sacred lock of hair was still hanging in the hotel room closet.

He rapped on the door and waited and rapped again. His nerve-endings sang with shame.

‘Mom?’

-2 Days Before That-

Goss on a couch beside Levy in a café on Königinnen Strasse called The Supreme Bean where they both liked the music and one of the waitresses was really pretty. Dogs romping around the café and hot coffee served in water glasses but Goss was comforted by normalizing details such as lonely males over Powerbooks like Nosferatus by the light of their desktops. As Tears go by, the ballad second only to the majestic Angie in the Richards/Jagger songbook was the song playing when it happened.

Goss had never written a song or fucked a girl worth writing a song about but he could remember a time in his life when both activities had seemed like eventual givens. He had almost fucked Tina Yee and had almost written a song about almost doing it, twenty years ago. It was Levy who had pointed out that every woman Goss ever fucked (not counting his first, a cousin) had been the ex-best friend of the girlfriend previous.

It is the evening of the day

Goss was mouthing the lyrics while Levy talked. He anticipated with emotions he could barely control the last stanza, containing as it did one of the great couplets in English verse: doing things I used to do, they think are new. Levy, meanwhile, who knew so much about everything that he knew exactly how much of everything that he didn’t know, as he often quipped, was yammering away. White streamers in the cafe window were part of a greater horizon-wide movement of cold ash padding; a miraculous makeover of the dirty old city.

Something told Goss to look up. An oldish woman, furred and painted, very tall or on preposterous heels, pushing through the corpsey curtain of the snowfall. Her epic grimace and coin-colored bob. Levy with his back to her but Goss’s heart flinched as the beautiful old thing moved across the picture window of the Supreme Bean like a queen puppet traversing a stage and the knowledge, the recognition, was so basic in Goss that it was semi-conscious. His body knew before his mind could react. Levy hunched forward in his chair, prepared to deliver the Levy-affirming punchline to whatever anecdote when Goss suddenly tugged at and freed his army surplus jacket from under Levy’s ass and he held up a finger and said Excuse, please, one sec, and bolted. It wasn’t forty seconds before Goss thought about running back for his scarf and gloves too but didn’t want to risk losing her on the shopper-choked street. She was roughly a block ahead. She was walking so fast with a spine so straight and open coat flying that Goss wasn’t sure briefly if she didn’t look a bit crazy and busy in the bad manner of the insanely alone. She was, or had been, he had been told, a performer and if Goss was 36 she would be about 55 with her bob hard-luminous in the creamy gloom of the high street.

-20 Years Before That-

In back of the house at 25th & Colfax the dog-breathed summer Tie a Yellow Ribbon was a hit young Goss was on his knees digging a hole behind the oak with a bent spatula on a Saturday morning. A lawnmower morning so loud with the sci fi sound of a planet hive, the neighborhood doused in green perfume, while Dad added his own nasal motor sleeping a stiff one off. When was the last time anyone mowed this lawn, thought Goss. He actually spat with contempt. It never occurred to him to mow the lawn. Cursing and in tears he worried a rooty wound in the earth at the mouth of the tree. This was a household of three males sharing the surname Goss and yet Goss, the youngest, was the one they all called Goss. Behind the oak to bury a picture of Tina Yee.

You may lose that fading sense-print of The First Kiss but you will never forget the very first I Don’t Love You Anymore. Despite the traditional disclaimer, it is you, you’re the one, the failure, the disappointment, the faded value, the seed on the deepest level unworthy of egg. Goss could always tell when an outbreak of I Don’t Love You Anymore was coming. They never look better than they do on the day they dump you.

Tina Yee in cap and gown smiling by the hole. About a foot into the nugatory cakemix of middleclass earth his bent spatula scraped a cigar box. He coughed and accidentally dropped a gross track of phlegm-web on the rim of the hole when he levered the box up and out and knocked a jacket of dirt off. An old Panetellas box for a photograph of a disturbingly attractive woman. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. Also in the box a long lock of ice-blond hair. Goss was suddenly not crying and blinked at the photograph with no recognition, no switches tripped but the lock of hair was eerily-if-inaccurately familiar, like flying had been the first time he’d ever been on an airplane.

The evening of that day while Goss was out with his big brother and his big brother’s so-called friends mourning Yee, dousing the burning witch of his heart with tepid beer at a place called Moose’s, the photograph he’d found in the cigar box that morning disappeared from his bedroom from the top right drawer behind the magic mushrooms, never to be seen again. Over breakfast the next morning Goss glowered with the irritating wisdom of not mentioning it. But he had the lock of hair in his pocket and he fought the urge to place it on the table.

Joe senior had been a band-leader, a sax player, he’d even toured Europe. His sister Aunt Pennie told the brothers all about it but there hadn’t been a horn in the house since shortly after the year Goss was born. The saxophone, with its fetal curves, was a dead sibling you never mentioned and had become Goss’s stillborn twin like the twin haunting the dim but intense imagination of Elvis. Elvis was how Goss and Levy had met a month before Elvis’s self-satirizing death on a toilet. Levy was short but ramrod-erect among a slouching jumble of sideburned lotus-eaters near the front of the ticket line, turning suddenly to confront Goss about his t-shirt.

‘You’re wearing an Elvis t-shirt to a Beatles film festival?’ Levy laughed. ‘Man, if we weren’t all hippies, we’d have to kick your lanky ass!’

What you do with your hands when you’re not doing anything with them says a lot about you, thought Goss: this loudmouth has his arms folded over his chest like a drill instructor. Goss’s thumbs were hooked in the front pockets of his dungarees. He hankered after girls who struck limp-wristed postures like Cher (or Robert Plant, to be honest), a pose so feminine that it seemed to have vanished entirely from the increasingly macho planet by the time Goss was thirty, a loss that inspired vague pangs. All these years later, Levy was still Goss’s friend and friendship-deformingly rich. He had a company called The Bombardier Beetle and split his time between Minneapolis, Vancouver and Berlin.

-Last Night-

Back in the spare room, listening to Levy’s German girlfriend do something dramatic with Levy on the other side of the large flat, Goss found it impossible to sleep. But when they were finally finished the noise of his own breathing kept him awake so he slipped into his briefs and out of his unfamiliar bed and down the hall into the flicker-blue living room where he found the post-coital girlfriend watching the final minutes of It’s a Wonderful Life in German but with the sound off. Goss was prepared for what he found because Levy had carefully prepared him: Liesl likes to go naked around the flat. It had something to do with good health, or self-expression, or equal rights. She reflected the light of the widescreen television, naked as an Equatorial baby and unremarkably attractive. Nice big hands, though. Her breasts a goatee’d lunatic’s unblinking stare. A giant bust of Lenin transfixed by It’s a Wonderful Life.

‘Hallo, man,’ she said. ‘…this flick is so corny.’

Goss squeezed her shoulder. ‘Corny? Are you kidding? It’s like something out of the Brothers Grimm.’

She lowered her voice and said ‘Levy is completely asleep. He’s sleeping like a baby. It’s always like that.’

She smiled at the TV. ‘I put him to sleep. Like a baby.’

She stared sidelong at Goss and Goss cleared his throat but said nothing. He scratched his head. Jimmy Stewart was clutching Donna Reed with all of his might, sending a pang through Goss that made him want to jump out of his skin and smash all the lights in the universe. Liesl hugged her knees and said, a tad loudly, ‘You know what I hate?’

‘What?’ asked Goss, who assumed he was about to be treated to a diatribe against American kitsch as embodied by Jimmy Stewart.

It was so cool to be not interested.

-Earlier Today-

‘I’ve heard disturbing reports,’ said Levy the next morning pacing the new carpet in his furnitureless storefront, ‘…that some of you, in violation of my policy, are smoking while distributing promotional materials to the public.’ Levy’s muscular arms were folded over his ever-expanding chest because getting rich had inspired him to start working out. It wouldn’t be long before he became too top-heavy to swim. ‘Smoking on the job is not just verboten. It’s fucking dis-gusting.’

Levy glared at Nikola B, the fleshily-attractive brunette with blonde streaks he had hired on the spot without any references. Nikola gathered her purse and coat from a big pile in the corner and left without saying a word, slamming the front door so hard they were all afraid the building might collapse.

Goss asked himself, hours later, making his way to the building he believed was harboring his long-lost mother, why he couldn’t be like Levy. Why couldn’t he? It was a Vital Force thing.

Goss had followed the woman this far yesterday and turned back. He’d seen his mother enter that building. But did he really believe this? Or was it a sort of meta-belief… a belief that this belief was possible to believe? What seemed shakiest about this latest in a long line of improvised quests was the lack of gravity in his emotional response to the situation. Where was the bloody roil of emotions he was supposed to be feeling? He only knew for a fact that his mother had been from Berlin. Had followed Joe Goss to The States and bore him there two children and very soon after left. She could be in Berlin. A mile, two blocks, a neighborhood away. Yes, she could very well be the woman he saw walk by the café window last night. He would know his own mother, wouldn’t he? Mammals have that going for them, at least. Don’t they?

Last night’s spectacular snow was already melting under the fierce efforts of a little white custodial sun. The shoppers Goss squeezed by were unreadable, avoiding eye contact. Goss was wondering about this eye contact thing when he slowed and then stopped. He stuck his hands in his pocket and cleared his throat.

‘Hey, Nicole,’ he said.

She was crying. Not really crying; her face was relatively blank although her cheeks were bright red and decorated with silver tear-streaks. Her eyes might as well have been glands.

‘Nikola,’ she corrected him.

He looked away up the street towards the shop. He wanted to say: I’ve been searching for all of my life for the mother who abandoned me as an infant and I’ve finally tracked her down to an apartment building right up the street. Will you come there with me now as I see her again for the first time in thirty-five years and share that moment with me? Instead he said:

‘I’m sorry about what happened.’

She snorted.

Goss gathered the collar of his jacket around his neck. ‘Because. I don’t know. I thought you were a good worker.’

She laughed.

‘What?’

‘I thought Levy is so seductive to the women only because he is an American,’ she said, digging in her purse for a taschentuch, a kleenex, ‘But I see now that it is because he is a Jew.’

She blew her nose. ‘Talking to a female is hard for you, I think.’ She shocked Goss by tossing the balled tissue on the sidewalk.

‘You will probably be remembering this conversation for the rest of your life.’ She gestured at a balding red-haired scowler pushing impatiently between them on his way up the street. ‘Whereas to him, sex with me would mean less than nothing.’ She produced a package of Marlboros and lit one and stared at Goss through a cloud she kept adding to. Like eggs in the air.

‘So?’ she said, finally.

It was a very long bus ride away and early in the route the bus took them right by the building that Goss believed it was possible to believe harbored his mother. As the bus rounded the building’s corner he suppressed the urge, again, to proclaim, ‘I have good reason to believe that my mother, who I haven’t seen since I was an infant, is dwelling in that building,’ but he didn’t. Nicole’s hair was in a loose knot and she untied the knot and shook out and re-tied it twice during the awkwardly wordless journey. When they got off the bus at its Endstation it was in a neighborhood of fenced brown snow-patched yards and their dead-vine-covered houses of stone. It felt as though they’d bussed to another city. They walked through a rustic maze of narrow lanes under the high commentary of suburban birdsong until Nikola lifted the latch on a splintery wooden gate and Goss followed her in. I could be a killer, he thought. She pulled off her shoes at the door so he did also and they moved across the gloomy living room. In the kitchen they found Nikola’s mother busy at the sink with her back to them. She either hadn’t heard them enter the house or chose not to react. Nikola opened the refrigerator and removed a large black ceramic bowl of green grapes and pantomimed that Goss should take the bowl and follow her out of the kitchen. The bowl was heavy and warm; the mother had just then put it in the refrigerator. Nikola’s room was up a staircase so brief it was ridiculous, down a hallway, last right before a circular hall window overlooking a stone-ringed pond through the branches of a tree in a posture of agony. Goss managed a peek into two rooms along the way to Nikola’s bedroom and was surprised to see that each room he peeked into contained a person. The first was a teenage boy the second a man and each wearing a churchgoing suit and tie.

In Nikola’s little room, Goss put the bowl of grapes down on a dresser and closed her door and removed his jacket and tried to drape it from her door knob, which wasn’t a knob but a handle. His jacket shrugged off into a puddle on the floor and Nikola removed her own coat and purse and piled them on top of it. She positioned an old wooden folding chair beside her bed and reclined on the bed, smoothing her dress, her feet touching. Then, as though to a blown whistle only she could hear, she sat straight up and pulled the dress off over her head. She unsnapped her bra. The breasts of a beached sea creature when she was on her back. Goss was touched at how helpless they looked on land. They were too smooth, too firm and her vagina was simple as a fold in a table cloth. She reached and patted the seat of the folding chair and Goss sat.

‘No,’ she said, ‘bring the grapes here first and feed them to me.’

Goss had the look of a man attempting to make something happen with his thoughts alone. Bend a spoon or something.

‘Get the grapes,’ she repeated.

Goss was frozen.

Nikola flipped on to her stomach and hugged her pillow and counted to ten before saying,

‘Leave.’

‘Get out,’ she reiterated.

Goss was half way down the hall when he remembered his jacket and had to go back. When he left the house, the sky was a far dilute blue. He was surprised at how calm he felt. Everything was so familiar.

It was possible that Joe Goss, sideburned and swaggery, had been in this very neighborhood, had walked these lanes and maybe Goss’s mother, a teenager not so much younger than Nikola when she’d met Goss’s father, was from this part of town, had grown up in this area and had used the bus that Goss rode out there. He was used to the kind of small-town coincidences that people from Chicago or Tokyo considered mindfucks of cosmic import. He was thinking that very thing when he looked up and saw Levy walking towards him.

‘What the fuck are you doing here?’ asked Levy, who stopped in his tracks.

After Goss said to Levy that he’d taken the wrong bus to the end of the line and was now good and lost, Levy led Goss back to his car. ‘I have a little business to take care of, won’t be long, drive you back home when I’m done.’

-Earlier This Evening-

Goss ended up climbing out of Levy’s car again before night fell. It had been a profitable time alone, he thought. He put his cap on and zipped up his jacket and knotted his scarf and picked a random direction to walk in.

Loping along above the low sear hedge of one chalk-white cottage after another, Goss turned right, abruptly, when he spotted what looked like a major thoroughfare at the end of a darkening lane, a major thoroughfare behind which the sun was crashing to torch the brittle lung of the forest as it ground to a halt in the earth. Where the lane emptied into the thoroughfare, Goss found a bus stop bench in a shelter across the wet black shadow of the road. Seated on the bench was an older but nice-enough looking woman who smiled as he settled on the bench beside her. She waited until he was completely still and said, with an older woman’s precision, ‘You are an American.’

‘Yep,’ said Goss. ‘How could you tell?’

‘You weren’t afraid to look at me.’

Goss laughed. ‘Who would be afraid to look at you?’ He reached for her hand and looked her right in the eye and said, defiantly, ‘Jimmy.’

She hesitated so long before announcing her name in return that he knew it was a lie and he knew what the lie meant and it encouraged him.

‘Margarethe.’

She was tall and slender and profited from what looked like a fairly expensive dye job. Her hair up in a thick bun blurred gold in the fading last lights of the day.

‘Where are you going, Jimmy?’ she asked him. ‘Would you like a ride?’

He pulled his cap off. ‘You have a car?’ She was the right age. It was possible that she’d lived in America.

‘Yes, I have a car.’

He closed one eye. ‘Why are you waiting for the bus if you have a car?’

SALTER’S LUCK

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Salter woke up to Lola shouting there was oil fucking paint on her Jil fucking Sander. He couldn’t at first tell if he was having a heart attack or caught in an earthquake or both but Lola was so up in his face she appeared to have one long ice-blue eye in the middle of her forehead, a monstrous organ of inhuman beauty, a lens through which he could not see the future but through which the future could plainly see him, despising the information it gathered.

On the street ten minutes later he caught his reflection in a shop window showing his t-shirt inside out. Never dress in terror. No wonder those foxy Jap girls had giggled. In that case he headed for the park and wouldn’t bother looking for a new girlfriend until he had a chance to get home and change. He sat alone under a two-hundred-year old tree for two hours, enjoying the indirect pleasures of the So Cal sunshine. The tepid milk breeze and the leaf-cut kaleidoscope spangling the yellow grass at his feet under the quadrophrenic wig of the tree. Fucking squirrels, too. Funny about squirrels: no one seemed to appreciate what a nightmare life would easily be if squirrels decided to go militant. Make mosquitoes look like a blessing. If rats had half the talent and energy of squirrels…

Later, when Lola was at her post at Chez Guevara, gilt and alabaster under her designated beam from the track lighting, he slunk home and started work on a new slab rather than bothering to change and bike over to Pacific Beach in hopes of finding that one true lasting Love capable of paying rent. The name of this new slab was Oil Fucking Paint on Her Jil Fucking Sander and he got bored with it after x-hours of pointless messy work, slopping the cadmium red around the canvas with a palette knife like it was lead-based organic van Gogh spaghetti sauce. Why not just eat it all and kill himself?

It was too late to make it to the beach, too early to sleep and too soon to call Lola at work to see if she was still in hate with him. Yet he grabbed the phone and punched the number with a relatively paintless thumb.

“Chez Guevara, can you please hold?”

“Yes ma’am.”

Brief pause of recognition and then the “hold” click. He’d half-hoped to get Jem, who could always be counted on to flirt with him a bit before handing it over to Lola, thus proving his worth to Lola. Jem: what kind of parents named a girl that? He could never have a girlfriend named Jemima. Names were important to him. A bad name was worse than bad breath. He’d backed out of something once with a model named Santana.

He caught himself nodding to the black black jazz they treated him to while he waited for Lola to release him from the tasteful limbo of On Hold. A CD burned from an authentic and scratchy old 78. He couldn’t help visualizing a synchronized chorus line of Al Jolsons in shoe polish, dwindling towards infinity, strumming banjos and grinning like skulls while being buggered by an equal infinity of Satchmos. Black black jazz for a white white restaurant. Friendly racism. Does any Ethnic Group valued chiefly for the quality of its suffering stand a chance?

When Lola got back on the line, Salter was relieved to find that she was half-whispering conspiratorially in the phone to him so he knew he probably wasn’t in danger of Fargo in bed that night. Fargo; Siberia: name your frigid wasteland. He so badly needed the existence-confirming sensation of something fuckish tonight.

“Get this,” she hissed, “rich fucker just dropped $42,000.00 on a dinner for five.” She pronounced “fucker” fokkar. Otherwise her speech was thoroughly Americanized, which is to say ornamented with luridly nasal banalities. “I don’t know why but the servers thought he’s going to stiff them so each one goes and spits in the butternut squash soup.” Punch line: “Eight thousand dollar tip.”

She got home at one, eight-feet-tall in her heels and the cool fuselage of her dress and hair of burnished blades. He was watching television like a good boy when she clomped into the bedroom waving hello but not speaking as though speaking’s a kind of touch and she wasn’t in the mood but he got a bobbing erection the instant he saw her in all her pomp and name tag.

L. Beedo

Lola unsheathed her nude glory. Breasts and hair lifted and falling as the dress went up and she clomped into the bathroom in heels and zilch else to brush and floss and mop the angel-face off then proceeded to snore and smell of soap on her side of the bed within thirty minutes of walking through the door. A record. He wouldn’t even have minded the usual missionary position and get it over with. No touching the tits, don’t mess up my hair and keep that finger away from my rectum. Poor Salter sat knees-up beside her, treated to a view of a meter of tawny back and he clutched the remote. O wretched man who craveth a fuck.

Tears.

Robbie The Robot warped and blurred, swimming in them. Salter was ostensibly watching “Forbidden Planet” (Walter Pigeon, Patrick O’Neal, Anne Francis) with the sound off and he strained to make sense of the flick through the seawater filter of his grief. The Griffin-like monster, visible only as raw energy, howled and clawed the protective field around the ship. It would have blown Salter’s mind to learn that Griffins are a symbol of monogamy. A heroic crew member with his pastels-emitting blaster was seized and ripped apart. Anne Francis with her buttery coif and the spanking sarcasm of her dotted pout startled a recognition in him for she was his genuine Sexual Ideal and he correctly pegged the futility of his sex life to her unavailability.

Snuffed the tube and the reading lamp on his side of the futon and stood up. Suddenly saw himself running across the bedroom from an impossibly distant corner, axe over his head, bringing the blade down with a scream of regret to cut his frustrating girlfriend in two but the very cartoon of it horrified him and made him sorry and love her all that much more, exacerbating his desire, which frustrated him further, which re-ignited his anger, which again made him see himself running across the bedroom from an impossibly distant corner with an axe hefted over his head, bringing the blade down with a scream of regret to cut himself in two instead.

He crept miserably into the living room with an unrequited hard-on of devilish force and he knelt milking it across the gleaming black pumps with arched backs like onyx cats stacked in a diptych of sadism and sexual snobbery under the coat hooks by the door. He lay three lengths of solder-colored semen in her $300 heels, steadying himself with a hand on the sleeve of an old coat which stood like a priest with its back to Salter’s indiscretion. Not the first time he’d fucked those shoes either. He crouched there, postmodern shoe-rapist, still burning with richly-satisfying orgasms and he pondered this awful exchange:

Lola: Honey, I hate to break it to you, but as a painter you have no talent whatsoever. Not that’s visible in the paintings, I mean. A retard with a paint-soaked ass and no arms could do better.

Salter (with a shrug): So?

That had been six months ago. She’d dropped that A-bomb six months ago so what next? Everything escalates. Hunger, porno, Vietnam. She’d be punching and kicking him soon. Stabbing him on the toilet. Scissoring his face off and wearing it like a bib at breakfast.

In fifteen minutes he was dressed and out on Fifth Avenue in the dark. He walked by the Tea Leaf and Rockit Records and the boarded-up and tramp-infested deco-era Bijou. The Starbucks on the corner and the Rite Aid parking lot across the street. Left towards Sixth Avenue up Robinson. Then a right to the park. What really hit him as he sailed along was the unbelievable number of people in the sultry night who seemed to be happy. There they were, the dozens, the hundreds, holding hands and swinging arms in that triumphalist goose-step of love. Salter had to wonder how abnormal he was. Had it been him all of these years? Him and not them; her; It? His problem and not The World’s?

Standing at the corner of Sixth Avenue and Upas, he near-swooned as his mind came that close to accepting the notion that the Misery he once considered typical of Sentient Life was in fact just his own and his own fucking fault, not even necessary, just the result of faulty thinking and bad choices that could be blamed on nobody else. A pink convertible was honking at the traffic light.

Me? Salter pantomimed and the car honked yes.

The pink convertible was some kind of vintage wonder. Salter didn’t know from vintage cars but with white tires and a lot of chrome and the salvaged motor from a B-52 it looked and sounded like a horny birthday cake in the form of a yacht piloted by a white-haired gent in a Commodore’s cap (Salter didn’t know from Commodore’s Caps but that’s how he would have described it to the police). Beside the gent was a white-gloved woman in matching white shoulder-length hair, presumably the gent’s better half or lady-friend or however the old quaintly put it.

“I said,” said the duffer when Salter had scurried out into the street to lean over the convertible to hear him, “Would you like a ride young man?”

The duffer gunned the motor for emphasis. Or to pressure him. Salter was 30, and the old gent was 66, so, arithmetically speaking, the offer of a ride in the gent’s car was no different than if their respective ages had been 5 and 41. Defying his mother, Salter jumped in the back seat of the car, banging his elbow, as the light changed. He jumped on the naïve belief that a man with a woman is never as dangerous as a man alone. The old guy twisted to face Salter as he drove, saying,

“This is the only city in the world that it makes sense to own a convertible in. Others are too damned dangerous or rainy. Are you from the area?”

Talking like a man in a gale. White-haired ringer for Don Ameche. Salter was, in fact, tempted to ask the old guy if he was related (or even Ameche himself) but instead merely limited himself to responding directly to Don’s query.

They drove as far as Robinson and did a swaggering u-turn so wide they nearly took the door handle off a parked car on the other side of the four lane road and headed back the way Salter had been walking when they picked him up. With his eyes on the road again Don smiled in the rearview.

“We’re practically neighbors then. We do this every Friday night…” he inserted a pause to indicate his companion, whose teeth were the simplest smile… “We see something new every time.” He added, “For example, I’ll bet you didn’t know that there’s a banana tree in the yard of that bungalow on the corner of Robinson and Third Avenue.”

“No,” said Salter, surprised, “I didn’t.”

“Delicious. Stolen fruit tastes better in an open convertible at night, you know. And you probably weren’t aware of the fact that there’s a full-sized statue of the comedian Jonathan Winters in the backyard of a place up there on Point Loma. On a six foot plinth. A prop from the movie ‘The Loved One.’ We saw that when it first came out, at the old Bijou.” He thought a moment. “Evelyn Waugh.”

“Really?” Salter had never heard of the movie or the comedian or Evelyn Waugh. He wasn’t sure about the word ‘plinth.’

“Awful lot of movie people down here,” concluded Salter’s genial host. They were idling at a red light at the corner of Laurel and Sixth. To the left was Balboa Park and its orderly arrangement of skyscraping palms attended by a vassalage of shorter pines in low darkness. The old woman was touching up her lipstick and the drawstringed mouth was grinning at Salter in the rearview and he was thinking what have we here? A crucial detail was all wrong, of course: the combined age of the two was more than half the age of America. Otherwise things seemed to be shaping up into one of Salter’s hoariest fantasies.

Rich couple picks up a young stud… drive to a deserted stretch of the beach. Towel on the sand. Millionaire with his arm around the young stud’s shoulder: love my wife but I’m impotent… please… don’t know how to ask this, but could you… would you… ?

“Vincent Price had a house over there, back a-ways, in Mission hills, overlooking the Airport. Lindbergh Field. I always had a problem calling it ‘Lindbergh Field,’ you know. I guess I’m showing my age, but I can never hear the name ‘Lindbergh’ without remembering one of those awful ‘Lindbergh Baby’ jokes.”

He assumed a perfect deadpan and turned with his right arm along the top of the seat and looked at Salter and cleared his throat and said, “Say, what do you call a… a, uh… oh, wait a minute. That’s not how it goes. Dammit. I’m useless. I just thought of one the other day…”

A classic specimen of one of those old-time couples, thought Salter. The man doing all the talking; the woman just smiling… beaming, really… mostly at the man himself, oblivious to outsiders. Salter tried to remember. There was another example. It rang a bell…

The Reagans.

Salter tried his hand at small talk.

“So, you two are married, then?”

Don was still idling at the intersection of Sixth and Laurel, despite the long-ago fact of the light going green. Was he still trying to remember a Lindbergh Baby joke? The traffic light became a clock. The old guy was staring at something to the left, away from his wife, in the park maybe, so intently just then that Salter guessed that he hadn’t even heard the question but as Salter cleared his throat and undertook to repeat himself verbatim, the old guy replied, overlapping him, “For a very long time.”

For a very long time.

Which sounded so nice. It sounded so nice that it made Salter regret every single fact of his life as it was and made him hunger for a change and it made him long for a second chance and the first thing he resolved to throw out before relocating into the shiny new home of the Duplex of his re-organized Soul was ‘Art,’ that dusty thing, that furry brown shit-caked 19th century attic heirloom called ‘Art.’ Fuck it! Toss it! Filthy old bristly bearded hoary repulsive thing! Musty fusty dirtbag thing! What had ART done but ruin his chances at Life?

Where was Salter’s convertible? Where was Salter’s love-dumb, worshipful wife? Where was all his stuff, his security, his peace-of-fucking-mind? Somewhere back there, at some juncture so remote that he couldn’t even remember what sickly-sweet pop song was a hit on the radio the day that he did it, he had veered Left when so many others had trudged ahead. So many others kept on going down that long straight road. The long straight road of happiness. So easily achieved! You just remain on that long straight road. How hard could it be?

The light went green again and the car moved forward as effortlessly as a breath or a liquid downhill advertising wealth and a jet bellied loud overhead on its way to Lindbergh Field and Salter hollered, “It must be great to grow old with someone you love!” and he was nearly choked with emotion as he hollered it, touched as he was by the serene beauty of human completion radiated by the white-haired couple, the living opposites of Salter’s world and Salter’s monotonously unspectacular luck but Salter vowed to change all that inspired by this couple.

“It must be great…”

“Rubbish,” laughed the old coot. “We can barely stand the sight of each other.”

Salter laughed right back at him. Weren’t old guys always funny in the same way? Never quite slap-your-knee funny but just as reliably never unfunny, either. Wry. Are young people ever ‘wry’?

“I suppose you think I’m joking,” he said and then grunted, like a man on the phone on the toilet, doing something complicated with the gear shift and clutch or whatever as the car took on the hill that rose up before them, “But I’m not, I promise. ‘Hate’ is too strong a word, of course. But…”

“But, no. Love? No. I can see how you’d get that impression. Nice old couple, cruising around in a convertible on a Friday night, right? Not a care in the world! All smiles…” He winked in the mirror.

“But that’s just nerve damage. See? Look: that’s a permanent grin on her face, like a Jack-O-Lantern. Pure luck it didn’t freeze into a scowl. I’ll give The Good Lord credit for that much.”

“She’s ten years older than I am, but you’d never know it. Got a collection of face lifts older than our grown children. I even started naming them! The last one I called Griselda. That’s the nerve damage right there, if you ask me. You can only lift a human face so many times. Something’s gotta give.”

He released a sigh so long that Salter could smell his breath. Bananas.

“I could have had two convertibles for the money I’ve spent on making a seventy-five year old woman look seventy!”

They were headed for the Highway. Salter could see it clearly with his Tales From The Crypt imagination: a Luger in the glove compartment. A Luger stuffed in beside a bloody road-map folded around a sandy, black-edged ear. Or: thirty two wallets. Or: Mexican scalps on a belt. A cock in a jar? Don Ameche was shaking his head. He exploded with a guffaw that sounded like an Apache War Whoop which made Salter jump.

“You must think I’m awful! But don’t worry, I forgot to mention, the poor thing can’t hear a word. Deaf as an old boot!”

He leaned on the horn and raised his voice over it and shouted, “AREN’T YOU, NAT? AREN’T YOU? Can’t read lips, either. Couldn’t be bothered! I keep this happy look on my face,” he nodded, grinning, “And Old Yeller just thinks I’m saying nice things about her. Haven’t done the Hokey-Pokey in a Coon’s age. Mostly I abhor the smell of talcum powder. Turns me off.”

After a long pause he added, with extra significance, “I’m dying for a little company,” and he waited a calculated interval before slipping a shy glance into the rearview. But Salter was already gone. Had he ever really been there?

 

 

THE BIRTHMARK (a short story from DIFFICULT TEXTS)

 

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The little bald citizen from an Otto Dix painting asks Veer ah yoo go-ink and Frederick shrugs so slowly the gesture becomes strange to him before he completes it. The last thing he came to Berlin to do is sit beside a panting homosexualist as the lights go down in a movie house. He doesn’t know what he came to Berlin for but he knows it wasn’t that. He knows so little so well. He can feel Herr Ludwig watching from the kitchen as he saunters up the street with his hands in his pockets under fizzy warm twilight with a hetero set to his shoulders.

It is an omen that The Sheltering Sky premieres the very day he lands in Berlin though Debra Winger playing Kit Moresby (playing Jane Bowles) elicits a sneer as he waits in line to buy a ticket thinking of apter actresses. Dressed in a light gray three-piece summer suit and Italian shoes that Bowles himself would approve of he eases into his dirty velour seat and nods off dreaming Herr Ludwig is Paul Bowles in disguise. A ruse to test Frederick’s sincerity.

“But how could I have known?” pleads Frederick.

“To be is to know,” chides Mr. Bowles, stripping out of his bathrobe. He has beautiful breasts.

Shoved by an usher and reluctant to go home Frederick wanders a bus route through Turkish neighborhoods. He hears fruit vendors wailing and sees burka’d matrons like piles of coats that have walked off from their respective parties. He thrills to bold glances from sloe-eyed houris the color of smoked meat revealed in the slutty garb of the West. The Germans he sees remind him of UN inspectors. On Marburger Strasse he finds a nightclub called Limbo. The doorman nods at Frederick’s suit.

Frederick is staring at a black-haired girl at a table under the window of the DJ’s booth.

Winter comes to Berlin as a sick sweet dream of bunker life i.e. drinking and smoking and fucking in darkness. Back in his room on Hauptstrasse, where Herr Ludwig gives voice lessons at his baby grand to the great-grandniece of Gustave Mahler,  Frederick masturbates under a borrowed duvet pretending to torture the caterwauling Mahler. His orgasm fails to silence her.

Frederick takes the black-haired girl to a Hitchcock festival in a cinema so small the ceiling is someone’s bedroom floor. Watching The Birds in German.

Out the Ausgang and on the street into the night they walk for a block of ruminative silence until Sariah, who emigrated from Iran with her dissident mother as the Khomeini came to power in ’79, says I believe that is the most religious film I have ever seen.

“Religious?” guffaws Frederick. “Au contraire. The most misogynist rant in film history! Fellini’s City of Women is nothing compared to The Birds, as far as that goes, my dear. ‘Bird’ is working class British slang for ‘girl,’ as you know. Don’t forget Hitchcock was British.”

“I mean, what, you have this hen-pecked bachelor, no pun intended, played by Rod Taylor. Rod. Right? And all the other important characters of the film -his girlfriend, his ex-girlfriend, his little sister, and his mother- they’re all women.”

He ticks the points off on his fingers. “The girlfriend’s a frigid tease, the ex is a slut … that’s why her hair is dark… and his mother is a clinging, emasculating shrew and his little sister is a brat, also dark-haired, implying that she’s going to grow up to be a slut too. Meanwhile, the mother and the girlfriend are almost mirror images of each other. Their hairdos are identical, which means a lot in Hitchcock, who was the most hairdo-obsessed director in film history. Our hero, Mitch …rhymes with bitch, if you please… wants to, ahem nest… with a girl who looks like a young version of his own mother, invoking the Oedipus complex. Which ends up putting out the eyes not of Mitch himself but of his ex-girlfriend, in a perfect example of substitution, since the resemblance between Rod Taylor and Suzanne Pleshette, who plays the ex, is uncanny. The birds, like Freudian harpies, pluck out her eyes.”

“The female romantic lead, his girl friend, Tippi Hedron, she goes from being a perfectly-coiffed snob and a tease in the beginning of the film to a disheveled, catatonic loony by the end.”

“Remember that the first blood drawn in the film, in fact, is from Tippi, who’s trying to strike a silly, an absurdly elegant, pose in the prow of a beat up old motor boat. She’s wearing a jade-green Dior dress or what have you. As a matter of fact, as I now recall, she’s even got the nerve to be freshening up her makeup with a compact as she’s sitting there in this filthy boat, proving how vain, how shameless, how typical, or Tippi-cal she really is. Her nose is in the air, her bosom is high and hard, her spun-gold hair is immaculately coiffed.”

“Between the tease, the shrew, the slut and the brat, this guy, Rod Taylor …Rod, for Chrissakes…  he doesn’t have a chance! The illogical savagery, the unpredictable pattern of violence, of the birds, is just a metaphor for the daily reality of life for a guy among these women. All women.”

He looks to see that eleven of tears. He feels long and red and sort of amorally malarial later climbing over her with the tiled stone headache of the heated stove at their feet. Her Bible hair and her cunt the black lamb with its fiercely trusting grip. She resists very subtly at first or wants to control how it plays out but he pushes through that. He jigs her legs around his waist to cross the room and slam the door with her back while Fraulein Mahler wails against Herr Ludwig’s piano. Sariah’s homework is spread on the parquet and Frederick slips on world history coming.

She is always all over again so sweetly tentative, so eager and afraid because her virginity heals between fuckings. Frederick thinks she fucks like dogs swim and records this thought in a notebook. They always seem so surprised they can do it.

She has her eighteenth birthday. Frederick extends his visa. Herr Ludwig discusses opera in German with Sariah at the table while Frederick washes the dishes in his silk pyjamas. She looks so worldly with that cigarette in her mouth.

Summer is the relief that everyone promised. The city gushes foreign greens and the Tiergarten is heavy with stone-white tits and root-red cocks and Sariah studies the earth at her feet as she follows Frederick traversing a field. Her mother isn’t even aware of Frederick’s existence for that first half year. Sariah calls Frederick from pay phones or leaves notes about when and where to meet. The day before she tells him she’s pregnant Frederick dreams it following a long trail of tiny prints in warm snow to a tree which stinks of pillows.

So it is at Chez Jacques Sariah tells him and Frederick finishes his spaghetti in the tender light of the dingy Moorish pale gold walls of Chez Jacques and he looks at Sariah and sees a mistake the size of a grapeseed and asks for the bill.

CAREER MOVE (a short story from CITY of AMATEURS and GERMANTOWN)

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Wednesday evening at 19:00, Simon’s event at the North Coast Gallery, in association with Absolut Vodka and Virgin Records, is scheduled to open with a wine-and-cheese reception, followed by a learned discussion between Kahn-Meyers and five panellists, followed by the event itself. Simon is in competition for the lucrative and prestigious Stein Prize.

The North Coast gallery is a handsome space on Sophienstrasse in Berlin’s gallery ghetto, where there’s an opening every night of the week in the last warm period before the soggy beast of winter’s stomping return. Openings which feature munching crowds on the sidewalks in commingled clouds of German champagne, garlic breath and American cigarettes. The heated scramble for cred and/or authority in a comically under-funded milieu results in a bitter, bitchy lethargy that is part of the charm.

Simon feels that civilization is in conflict with itself and that it all goes back to the playground. We tell children, be good; do no wrong, but a child who turns in a wrong-doer is a quisling or a snitch. We tell a child, do not resort to violence, but a child who goes to a teacher for protection is a whiner or a crybaby and the kid who kicks the ass of a bully gets our eternal respect. Simon did not enjoy his time in primary school.

Simon’s submission for the Stein Prize this year is a tent. Simon has won the prize twice already, but not more recently than the year of the second Space Shuttle disaster, when he hung a gallery full of illegal Chinese skeletons dipped in dark chocolate and called it SUGAR COATING DEATH; the smell itself had been a statement. The current piece is a tent, deluxe model, weather-proof and kelly green, reeking of newness, big enough for two Yuppie camper couples with a wordly arrangement going, pitched in the middle of the gallery’s judging-you-white concrete 85 square meter floor. A cool spider of complex tracklighting stands on the tent, lightbeam-legs akimbo. Within the tent, in odalisque-parodying repose, is reputed to be Simon’s stunningly beautiful irony-naked 29-year-old Eurasian girlfriend Thy Trann, herself an artist (a “Wetter Künstler”), who will likely be ovulating (as the catalogue attests that her gynecologist has attested) during the climax of the event.

As the catalogue puts it on page ten, after recapping Kahn-Meyers’s illustrious CV and indulging in the requisite dense page of art-speak mumbo-jumbo, plus sponsor ads: any one of the six anonymous judges of this year’s Stein Prize is invited to sign a release form (at an undisclosed location) waiving paternal rights and responsibilities and be chauffeured via special limo to the gallery… to enter the tent (hooded) and impregnate Thy. If the insemination is successful, Trann and Kahn-Meyers have pledged to raise the resulting child in a kind of ongoing Performance Art that will, “hopefully,” as Kahn-Meyers put it, “long outlive me.”

The title of the piece is THE ANXIETY OF INFLUENCE and there is a giggly buzz in the usually demonstratively unimpressed crowd of both highbrow and boulevard press and cognoscenti and curious onlookers and free food parasites who meander around the outside of the mute tent with their plastic champagne flutes, their chatter kept at a curiously polite low level, as though in a room where a child is sleeping. The thought that the tent contains not only a beautiful naked girl but the artist’s girlfriend herself electrifies the evening with a kind of verisimilitude that hasn’t been generated since Warhol’s pioneering efforts at making decorum irrelevant in the midst of the decorum-hungry 20th century.

Not that Simon Kahn-Meyers reveres Warhol. He tends to deride the “Slavic hucksterisms”. Kahn-Meyers wants, first and foremost, to draw a line in the critical sand between Warhol’s conceptual moonings and serious work such as his own. Kahn-Meyers considers the post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy of received art history intolerably irksome and will assail this sloppy thinking with this his latest masterstroke, reminiscent of the work that immediately preceded it, the gently titled PLACEBO.

PLACEBO featured a fully operational vintage voting booth from the American state of Illinois containing a naked Thai (not Thy) on a chopped-legged stool in the booth offering oral pleasure to anyone who could produce a passport stating Artist in the blank reserved for “occupation.” In the catalogue Kahn-Meyers refers to THE ANXIETY OF INFLUENCE as a “self-evident escalation” of PLACEBO’s intent: to blur the lines between public duty and personal compulsion. The only thing Simon fears now is German taste: they always confuse metaphysical with intellectual, these Germans, and Simon can never, he fears, get quite metaphysical enough for these Kraut fucking mystics and their prize money. Simon is thinking of his first major piece: a life-sized ironing board made of pure white wax called Irony Board; sold it for a pile. Heartbreakingly beautiful. Seems like a century ago.

At the far end of the gallery is set up a long table upon which are placed three microphones facing six empty seats. Facing the six empty seats, on the other side of the table, at a respectful distance, is a square of thirty six black metal folding chairs. Slowly, the thirty six chairs are filled. Those who stand do so with German Kultur rigor: chins up, hands clasped behind their backs. The difference between the overly-cerebral and the occult is what, exactly?

He takes his seat at the center of the table with a recondite smirk (as if contemplating the news of the humiliating defeat of an old rival) and the five other panellists straggle in from various conversations around the spacious gallery like staff at a private school, summoned by the principal to a disciplinary hearing. The panellists (in the order they take their seats): Yeon-Ju Bongiovi (video soap artist), Riley Klein (Kahn-Meyers’s gallerist), Simone Pohle (film maker/writer/art critic/clothes-designer/model), Siegfried Stummfeldt (photographer) and Sylver Goldin (self-proclaimed “self”-artist, patron of the arts, and prosperous local gender-ambiguous restaurateur, driven to the event in its trademark lavender Jaguar). The music being piped in over the gallery’s sound system (jazzy Bach) dwindles to a hiss as Simon taps his microphone.

“Before I begin,” says Simon, “although, how one can begin before beginning is not entirely clear…” he shrugs to acknowledge the titters this receives, “I’d like to say something to, uh… I want to address something to the artist Thy Trann,  I’m sure you know and respect her work… who… uh… as you are aware is collaborating with me on this particular… piece.” He lifts his chin over the microphone and raises his voice. “Thy?”

All thirty six seated members of the audience and the dozen or so standing twist like licorice to hear Trann call out from the tent behind them, in her throaty trans-Pacific accent, “Yes, Dear?” which also receives titters. The un-amplified quality of her localized voice, in contrast to Kahn-Meyers’s Moses-like omni-directional amplification, serves to call vivid attention to her presence in the tent, while at the same time serving to subliminally support the visual imagination of her as stark naked therein. Not to mention providing, for the comfort of sensitive or militant lesbian members of the audience, confirmation, inferable from the casual music of Simon and Thy’s exchange, that Thy isn’t being coerced… wasn’t bullied, threatened, drugged or tricked… into performing this history-making “action”.

“Thy, I just want to make sure you’re comfortable in there. Are you comfortable in there?”

There is the sound of Thy punching a plush pillow or two. “Yep!”

“And you’re warm enough?”

“Yep!”

“Good. I just need… I just need for you to bear with our chatter for a little while… and, uh… yes. And then… you can… get ready to…” Kahn-Meyers’s gaze sweeps the audience carefully, almost accusingly, in order to complete the sentence in everyone’s head for them.

“A-okay!” Trann calls out, and the panel discussion can commence, granted the easy segue of generous applause for Thy Trann, this evening’s sacrifice.

So far so smooth, thinks Kahn-Meyers.

“Before I begin,” begins Riley Klein, Simon’s jowly American gallerist, pausing a beat for the laughs he anticipates being able to milk further from Simon’s inaugural witticism and getting one… from Simon himself… he continues, “I want to thank all of you for coming, as well as salute Simon and Thy,” more applause, “because we are all, each one of us, a part of this equation.” He clears his throat, plucks his glasses from a pocket in his dark tweed blazer, and hunches forward with the glasses on the end of his nose to read aloud a “provocative statement” from a sheet of paper on the table in front of him, his hands in his lap. He looks like a dutiful school boy and reads with the dutiful schoolboy’s abashed singsong.

After the statement (a long quote from Robert Mapplethorpe) is read and absorbed, the first panellist to speak, Simone Pohle, touches her microphone as if to give it pleasure and looks sidelong down the long white table with narrowed eyes and poses the question, pushing her white-blonde hair out of the way and displaying perhaps the faintest hint of piquant hostility, “Mr. Kahn-Meyers, what is it that you are trying to achieve here tonight?”

Kahn-Meyer’s blinks innocently at the audience and replies, stroking his neat white beard, “What am I trying to achieve here tonight? I’m trying to win an art prize!” And the audience loves it.

 

The Paracelsus of Hair Straightening

Across town, Sadie Olubodun is putting the finishing touches on herself to the sound of Les Negresses Verts, a horn-driven French ensemble that gallops out of the stereo with a loping gypsy beat; the music is a stupid dog dashing ecstatically between the man-sized speakers. There is an aura of romantic anarcho-collective about the band that Sadie loves, having herself been raised and schooled by Catholic nuns from Belgium. The music is very loud. There are intermittent floor, wall and ceiling  bashings from the neighbors. 

In the free-standing “bathroom” mirror (there are no walls around the toilet) Sadie is puckering her lips to paint them: a swollen strawberry into a deliquescing heart. She’s running a special comb through her very long hair; the very long hair she is very proud of. Staying stick thin is easy: pharmaceuticals take care of that. Flawless black vacu-formed skin and giraffe height and a spot-lit Steinway smile she was born with. But her hair is the Grand Project of Sadie Olubodun’s life.

Having just turned twenty seven, Sadie O has been busy with hair maintenance since the day she “graduated” (escaped over a chain link fence) from Saint Serifina’s Polytechnical Boarding School for Wayward Girls. She literally ran away, five barefoot miles down a dusty road at dawn to a bus stop, to make it to a model casting at a French hotel she’d read about a week before, by accident, after unwrapping Friday’s fish. Sister Berthe-Claudette is probably still shouting Sadie’s name during roll call every morning. Sadie Olubodun, that tall skinny shy girl with the modest afro. No longer!

Every three or four weeks for the past twelve years Sadie has gone to have her hair straightened first by the best black private hair stylist in West London, a dwarfish Gay Canadian named Horton Bard, nicknamed Hard-on Board, and then, after she’d escaped London, by the best black private hair stylist in Hamburg, a portly straight Senegalese named Monsieur who often worries about the fact that most of his clients are wealthy black Muslim ladies who procure his services at the risk of being stoned.  Sadie makes the trip to Hamburg monthly. Monsieur happens to be Horton Bard’s hand-picked acolyte; his initiate in the alchemical mysteries of hair straightening. Monsieur is the Comte De St. Germaine to Horton’s Paracelsus.

“Kinky hair,” says Horton “is merely asleep. We wake it up!”

Sadie has cultivated her hair to the point that it rivers down the macadam of her back, ending near the Lamborghini scallop and sudden twin convexities of black lacquered showroom ass. She calculates that her hair (rippling with windblown arabesques like Muslim devotional script)  has cost her, to date… she figures something like £30,000. Her hair is a statement and an investment and a way of life.

What she hates is when sisters of every nationality go the cheap route and prance around in public with armadillo shells and coconut husks for hair. She’s ashamed for them. You’re not satisfied with your natural hair texture and so you fry it, pickle it in pigeon grease, stack it atop your lye-scorched skull like something scraped out of a drain? Sadie wonders what she abhors more, the lye-job conks or the… the thirty dollar polyester wigs from Woolworths. Honey (hah-nee), she wants to say, just shave it off… you might as well… have a little pride. Have a little dignity (deeg-NAH-tee).

If Sadie, a girl from a village (born in a semi-detached house with only two televisions) can afford to do it right, how are you going to persuade her that an American can’t? Sadie’s hair is a contrarian manifesto of equivalence that says: if a European (Your-OH-pee-ahn) can get her hair curled, I can get mine straightened! If she can wear blue contacts, I can too, or wear them red if I choose. For every hundred Your-OH-pee-ahns who pay for twenty minutes in a tanning salon, one Michael Jackson is allowed to bleach his skin! Or lop off his nose! Or whatever. Fuck off.  She kisses the locket on the gold chain around her neck, a thumb-sized engraving of Olaudah Equiano.

“Hey ho, let’s go!” she shouts and punches Siegfried’s ceiling-high, twenty year old rubber tree plant in the midsection on her way out of the flat, slamming the eight foot steel-reinforced door behind her. She can still hear Les Negresses Verts from a block away as she flips her hair in the wind and raises her arm for a taxi. The taxi over-shoots Sadie then screeches to a halt, that time-tested cinematic cliché.

Whoever Loves a Black Girl

Simon glances at his cheap watch as a heated argument between a panellist and a member of the audience stretches like an interminable surrealist ping pong game in which each side keeps serving a brand new unreturned ball. He’s never heard the name Tristan Tzara evoked so many times in his life. Tristan Tzara and the word paradigm. He can remember when it was synergy. Hell, he can remember when it was parameter; he can even remember back to the ‘50s when the artspeak word of choice was atavistic.

Put one Englishman in a room full of Germans and the Germans will outdo themselves avoiding the speaking of German, because no one wants to seem provincial. Consequently, Simon has never lost an argument in Germany, though his rhetorical fire has been doused on more than once occasion in America (even, once, by a Mexican fucking clerk in a fucking Rite Aid ) with the dreaded un-trump-able… whatever. Only Americans could have invented “whatever”, the neutron bomb of heated debates. America, the looking-glass land where the children of slaves subsist on welfare and where being crippled is seen as some kind of advantage and where guns don’t kill people (bullets do); America the anti-abortion, pro-death penalty land of puritanical pornographers and pro-Israel anti-Semites where you can lose weight and save money by eating and buying more…

Simon rubs his eyes and has a vision of a mound of corned beef hash of infant pinkness beside a weighty brick of hash brown potatoes dressed in two fried eggs like a bikini top, an unheard of dish in Berlin and something he could have right now, or even at three in the morning (the hour he roughly calculates this ordeal will be over) if he were in Manhattan. But if he wants to keep his prices up in New York he has to keep his mystique alive in Europe and that’s why he’s doing this. Business has been bad since 9/11, a simple fact. He can’t help selfishly framing that fishy act of terror as him being put out of work by a rival gang of faux naïf Event Artists with deep-pocket patrons.

He’s on the verge of calling the discussion to a halt (fifteen minutes to show time) when the discussion calls itself to a halt. Everyone in the back of the gallery to listen to the nothing-at-stake rhetorical jousting of the panellists is suddenly peering back to the front of the gallery where a taxi was just heard to screech to a halt and screech off again and there are curious murmurs and shiftings of attention and all artspeak has ceased, for the nonce. Art is so easily ignored when Real Life gets up off its ass and deigns to reclaim our attention. Simon stands up and gestures to Riley to put phase two into motion; he leans forward into his microphone and says, solemnly, redundantly, “Ladies and gentlemen, that concludes our panel discussion…if you will please move to the front of the gallery…” because they’ve already started moving that way.

Good God, whispers Simon.

Standing just within the gallery’s front door, having effected a grand entrance, is a six foot plus, on teetering Lucite heels, skinny-as-a-Giacometti alien. Universe-black, possibly female. Nude, at first glance, in a see-through vinyl raincoat. On closer inspection (Simon strides fearlessly her way) she’s dressed in a black bikini under the coat, which warps and pools the light from the ceiling across its dazzling surface. It’s like she’s walking around in a force field or a vertical swimming pool, this towering black alien with the ponytail tickling her flog-worthy ass.

Imagine owning one of those, thinks Simon, with survivable guilt. Those 18th century Yanks weren’t fools.

Ancient graffito from poor Pompeii: Whoever loves a Black girl is set ablaze by black charcoal; when I see a Black girl, I willingly eat blackberries.

She’s not stark naked, but the effect is the same and Simon nearly panics: the integrity of the event is being threatened: camera flashes have already started their scale model electrical storm around the gallery. She’s de-focusing his event.

He takes her by the arm and says, very softly, very deeply, “I’ll need you to clear the entrance, here, darling… would you care for some wine? Some cheese? Riley…” Riley is panting close behind, “Get this lovely girl some… sustenance. Smashing outfit,” he adds, squeezing her waist as he passes her to the blushing care of his gallerist, who takes her by the elbow as though he is wearing asbestos gloves.

“I would like to please draw everyone’s attention…” shouts Simon, then, at a lesser volume, “to the two gentlemen standing in front of the tent.” He has to work to get his timing back after the miraculous aberration of the alien (where is she? Near the back with Riley and that pony-tailed photographer clod; they seem to know each other). Normally, Simon lives for miraculous aberrations. But not now. He points and proclaims: “Elite members of a private security force.” From out of nowhere, two very large gentlemen, dressed in identical secret-service type suits, have materialized, anthropomorphic representations of the capital letter A in front of the tent.

“They are not. Not. Here to protect… Thy.” Simon strokes his beard as though weighing carefully the next remark. “They are here to protect… you. To protect… Art.”

Glancing again at his watch he asks, “What do I mean by that? What I mean by that is that art is a serious matter. I am not, as they say, fucking around. If one of the judges of the Stein Prize has the courage to take me up on my challenge, the question is… will I then have the courage to follow through?”

“Let’s be honest. The odds are not great that one of these so-called judges will climb into that specially assigned limo… have I mentioned already? That the limo… a vintage 1933 Hispano Suiza J-12…”

Simon pauses; several older art buffs stagewhisper Picasso… Picasso. Simon’s eyes narrow.

“I mean: I know that the likelihood is not great that I’m going to have to follow through on all this. But without at least the risk that we will all be involved in a life-changing event here tonight, can we call this… Art?”

“These large fellows,” Simon smiles, “are here to protect you … and Art Itself… by insuring that Simon Kahn-Meyers, the so called international art star, ” he says with very nearly misjudged vehemence, “Doesn’t get cold feet. That I don’t renege on a promise. If one of those judges has the courage and vision to take me up on the ANXIETY OF INFLUENCE challenge, there’s… nothing I can do to stop this thing from running its course… because these gentlemen have been pre-paid rather handsomely and instructed to physically restrain me from interfering with this event, if need be. They are under contract, in fact… should they fail to restrain me from ruining this event at a crucial moment, they are each legally liable for a considerable sum.”

“Thy Trann is now in a state of inner contemplation… she is deep in herself… she is creating this piece even as I speak… deep within herself in this tent. I was the conceptualist but her fertile body is the concept. We have agreed that she say nothing at this point… nor attempt to communicate with anyone until this event is formally over, whatever happens..”

As unlikely as anything really is to actually happen, Simon’s words and masterful delivery have mesmerized the audience. Lulled them into an eerie sense of traumatic relaxation, or anticipatory recovery. As though the event as described has already happened and his words have started a healing process; have started them on the road to recovery after all they’ve all been through. Though nothing has actually happened. But everyone could see it, somehow, as Simon spoke it. Could picture the old man flailing in a shamingly effortless headlock, screaming “No! Stop! Make it stop!” and straining against the merciless professional restraint that he himself has hired. So moved is the audience that they aren’t even sure of the etiquette of applauding, until a trickle starts (from a far corner less affected by the charismatic field of Simon’s presence, possibly) and then an ovation.

During which Simon does his best not to be caught peering furtively after the stunning, must-have Watusi from Mars who very nearly stole the show. She’s still in the dead bit of the gallery where Riley is keeping her. Riley and that ponytailed galoot. Simon sees, with satisfaction, however, that the alien is applauding him heartily, with all the rest. How to separate her from that Nikon-toting idiot (dressed in a Tuxedo jacket and camouflage battle fatigues) long enough to get a phone number or set a lunch date?

Hispano Suiza

The Vernissage has reached that point in the evening when all of the cheese is gone, the champagne is running very low, and the chatter is thinner but very loud. The contemplative low rumble of pseuds wallowing in the aural loam of their own pronouncements has become the boisterous deaf barking of drunks. The evening, which hasn’t even truly begun, smirks Simon, has been a mild success.

About twenty minutes ago, one of the somber giants standing with arms folded in front of The Tent was given a bottle of Evian to hand to Thy within it, for which gesture she was heard, by those nearest The Tent, to thank the guard, who had reached in without looking. About seventy percent of the original attendees are still present; the ones who have gone on (to home, or restaurants, or bordellos) are of no importance. The ones who have remained (Sylver Goldin, Simone Pohle, et al) are networking and therefore connected and therefore useful.

Simon’s already thinking of his next piece. Either the Muslim thing he’d been conceptualizing of late or a technology gambit involving taking dead kittens and puppies and stuffing them with animatronics to get them gamboling around a gallery in all their cloudy-eyed rotting flesh. Which one he starts on next will depend on whether he wins the Stein Prize because those animatronix are expensive.

Simon makes his way to the back of the gallery and touches his gallerist’s arm and whispers “Riley, give that freakish black girl my cell phone number and instruct her to call me in exactly forty five minutes” and returns to a spot where he can hover in close proximity to The Tent. He is thinking, because he suddenly remembers the dread and pleasure of reciting it in his bed in the morning as a child, of:

Solomon Grundy,
Born on Monday,
Christened on Tuesday,
Married on Wednesday,
Took ill on Thursday,
Worse on Friday,
Died on Saturday,
Buried on Sunday,
And that was the end of Solomon Grundy
.

There are about thirty people outside, smoking or cellphoning or smoking and cellphoning or cellphoning smokers, when the Hispano Suiza, huge and sinisterly well-kept in its antique ebony and white leather sleekness, in mass and value so like a cast-iron yacht, pulls into a long space marked by parking cones in front of the gallery, rumbling and hissing like a docking dirigible and scattering a dozen onlookers. The liveried driver climbs smartly out, circles crisply round the side, and opens a heavy door, chin held high, as one… two… three… six, finally, hooded men of various heights, weights, apparent ages and classes; two in tuxedos and others in business suits and one gangling fellow in a track suit; emerge from the limo, striding through the gallery door and stooping into the tent to gasps and then merriment from the crowd.

“Oh my God!” claps Simon. “All six of them! This is great!” He hurries to the front of the tent (where he is blocked, politely but firmly, by the two large gentlemen) and calls into it, hands cupped around his mouth, “Way to go, boys! Thanks for having a sense of humor about this!” He turns to a bystander and adds, “You see, deep down, maybe I was a bit afraid the judges were offended by my little stunt…” laughing “…but, you see, they’ve shown us all how classy…” he turns and gestures at Riley with a sweeping arm, raising his voice jovially. “Riley, get some Moet up here toute suite…”

But wait: evidence of struggle. Grunts and groans and what sounds like a compressed scream in an avid hand clamped over a mouth. Scheisse, comes a brutal male voice from within the tent, Sie hat Mich gebissen!

“Thy!” shouts Simon. He lunges for the tent but, as he had to expect, one of his Armani-suited security guards grabs him and holds him fast to a spot about four feet from the flapped opening. “Let go of me, you fucking ape… are you brain-dead? Those aren’t the Stein Prize judges in there!”

He squirms and punches out wildly but is headlocked with humiliating ease. The chiselled brute holding him doesn’t even look much bothered. He looks pleased. He obviously likes his job. What he’d really like to do in fact is kick the rich old Jew around the gallery floor for a few minutes but that would be a too-liberal interpretation of the range of his duties.

“Let go of me! They’re raping my girlfriend!”

Some of the bystanders are still amused, applauding, but an increasing number achieve a sense of giddy disquiet or even concern, frowning, approaching the tent from all sides, exchanging thrilled glances with a communal sense of having the historical luck of being present where some REALITY is taking place. I was there, many can already imagine saying, when that famous artist was raped in that gallery…

“Thy!” screams Simon.

What did he say to you?  hisses Siegfried to Sadie, after Riley Klein walks off, showing concern, towards the front of the gallery. Siegfried, ignoring the ruckus, grabs Sadie’s hand and pulls her to the dark corner of the gallery where the few remaining boxes of champagne are stacked. He sits her down on a box, hands on her shoulders, staring into her upturned face.

-What did he say?

-He gave me that art bloke’s number and said I should call him in forty five minutes.

-Kahn-Meyers? Simon Kahn-Meyers wants you to call him? And are you going to do it?

-Should I?

-Of course you should. Do you know who he is? Who he knows?

-Who?

-Everyone.

-You’re worse than the nuns. You’re just a pimp…

-You know how much I love you.

-Then why are you always giving me away?

-Because, otherwise, my love for you would destroy me.

-Oh Ziggy…

-You wouldn’t know what to do with me if I loved you the way you think you’d prefer me to. I could write you love poems and give you flowers every day, but you wouldn’t be happy… you’d be bored within a week…

-But how can you stand the idea of other men with their hands on me? With their lips on my lips? Their things… in my…

-It’s just like having a bad tooth. Have you ever had a bad tooth?

-No…

-No, you wouldn’t, not with your east African teeth… your east African teeth are perfect. But we Europeans, we have much experience with having a bad tooth. And when you have a bad tooth, I’ll tell you something strange… it gives you much pain, the bad tooth, but, somehow, biting down on it, and making it hurt even more… it feels good. So I give myself the pain of knowing that another man fucks you in order to kill the pain…

-Nonsense! You simply buckle under your perceived pressure of the responsibility of loving me! You want to spread the responsibility as thinly as possible… and if you can get something out of it, by pimping me to men you want something from… all the better. Or perhaps, deep down, you’re homosexual and giving your girlfriend to other men is a way, indirectly, to fuck, or be fucked by them and the sad truth is it’s probably a little bit of both explanations and I’m a fool to put my heart at your mercy.

-Maybe you’re right. But what are you going to do about it? We’re stuck with things as they are, just like everybody else. Can you pretend that it would be better with other men? Can any woman?

Siegfried stares hard into Sadie’s eyes, blinking slowly, and Sadie looks away, then back into his eyes, then away again. And there’s nothing more to say or think on the topic. She stands, brushing his hands off, turns slowly and walks towards the front of the gallery, where all the shouting is, hugging herself in her transparent vinyl raincoat.

 

Aboveness

The first time Sadie Olubodun saw Siegfried Von Stummfeldt, he was sitting at the snaking long wrought-iron bar of some trendy nihilist cave-like club in a run-down neighborhood deep in East Berlin, reading Baudelaire and looking so above it all. The music was deafening and the disco lights were seizure-inducing and this guy is sitting there with a green glass of Absinthe reading Les Fleurs du Mal with a smirk of genial boredom. Of course she had to talk to him.

He was wearing leather pants, sandals, and a tuxedo jacket over a hooded sweatshirt. Sadie was wearing a terribly expensive tiny kidskin backpack over a second hand wedding dress over thigh-high black vinyl boots and her hair piled in a tilted tower atop her perfect little black head. She stood behind him and spied on what he was reading, so close that she was literally breathing down his neck, but he played it cool and did not react and she spotted a fortuitous couple of lines near the bottom of the page, something that would go very well with the Absinthe, and she raised her voice, quoting it to him over the idiot throb of the music: Et dans ces bains de sang qui des Romains nous viennent, Et dont sur leurs vieux jours les puissants se souviennent…

He closed the book without looking up and finished the passage for her, declaiming: …  Il n’a su réchauffer ce cadavre hébété, Où coule au lieu de sang l’eau verte du Léthé!  He gestured to the bartender to bring another glass, filled it about two thirds full from his bottle, and placed his own monogrammed spoon (the slot in it was like a snake, writhing in harmony with the wrought iron bar itself) over the glass, then a sugar cube in the slotted spoon and so forth. His preparation of her drink of wormwood was practised and precise and embellished with magician-like flourishes of his long-fingered hands. The satiny hands of a man who’s never done a day of manual labor in his life.

One thing Sadie truly abhorred was the hard-earned “character” of a workman’s paws. The pathetic scars and bulging knuckles and ugly calluses. She could never bear to be handled by mitts like that. Mr. Fleurs du Mal’s face was merely so-so and his body was not the sexiest she’d seen, but she was instantly smitten with those aristocratic hands.

He handed her the glass and shouted, “Do you know the Café Slavia? It over-looks the Moldau. There is a painting in it of a good-dressed Bohemian fellow enjoying his delicious Absinthe and seeing this most lovely vision…”  he touched the air above them with the glass,  “… a naked, absinthe-green girl floating. But now I see…”  he handed her the glass,  “…that this floating dream girl, she was really very black and has come to life in front of me.”

Linking arms they sipped the Absinthe.

Things happened very quickly. They left the bar, ears ringing, and hailed a taxi and promised the driver a huge tip to defy the speed limit rushing to Siegfried’s loft where Siegfried practically kicked the huge door down and Sadie hiked up her wedding dress and commanded Siegfried to bugger her without much preamble right there in front of the kitchen sink. In her kidskin backpack there was a water-soluble clove-scented chapstick from The Body Shoppe that she favored and bending over and bracing her hands on her knees she’d directed Siegfried to fetch the chapstick out and smear it on liberally as a numbing lubricant. This chapstick she never used on her own lips of course but she’d been known to share it on location once or twice with various models and booking agents she didn’t much care for. When he’d slipped in with much gasping and groaning she asked him, firmly “Will you do as I say?” and in a very humble tone he said yes.

She said, “Good. Now, hold very still. I will do all the moving. You see?”

And he held very still with his hands bracing his back and his mouth hanging half-open with bomb-defusing suspense as she moved on him in the high-ceilinged gloom of his lit-only-by-a-tiny-fluorescent-light-under-the-buff-aluminum-kitchen-cabinets loft with an almost imperceptible corkscrewing of her serpentine hips. There curled a livid seam somewhere deep in her rectal lining just itching for the jab of a pointed dick. That irritable little seam was her ersatz clitoris. By slowly rolling and shifting and clinching and un-clinching she inched the tip of his organ towards that very spot, holding her breath, eyes closed, straining, knees weak, creeping up on a howl of satisfaction…

Without so much as discussing the matter with him, Sadie moved into Siegfried’s loft the very next week, bringing over a dozen suitcases in a taxi around dinner time, unannounced. He hadn’t eaten dinner yet and they went for a walk in the twilight along the Spree where the sun was warm butter on the cool green water as it set. Siegfried, with a massive old Leica hanging from his neck and dressed in the dashing vest and dented ball cap and worn khakis of a modern war correspondent, took the opportunity to lay out his Manifesto, seeing as they were now living together, and also to tell Sadie about his best friend Hansi Kraus…

…the I.P. photographer whom Somalians had beaten to death in the city of Mogadishu in 1993. Poor sweet little Hansi who loved black American culture like you wouldn’t believe and was executed by an African mob for his white skin. Siegfried described the weekend-long soul parties Hansi would throw in his cool pad on Wiener Strasse… described Hansi’s proudest possession: the old time American juke box stocked with mint-condition 45s… What Does it Take (to win Your Love) by Junior Walker and the All Stars and Give it Up (or Turn it Loose) by James Brown and Love On A 2-Way Street by The Moments, etc., but even better: three different versions of Mbube, that unrivaled Meisterwerk of African pop, by the late great Solomon Linda… the first version (1940 or so) of moan-inspiring rareness and scratchy as a recording of Edison’s voice and it had to be transferred from the original massive clay 78rpm disc to the “modern” 45 on vintage equipment in Stuttgart to even play in Hansi’s jukebox…  that’s how much passionate love and tender respect Hansi Kraus could show towards African culture.

Second version, recorded live in concert in 1957 by a white group called The Weavers and also not the easiest artifact to come by was re-titled “Wimoweh” after a homophonic approximation of the refrain, and Hansi had that one, too. The third version of the song in Hansi’s jukebox was the one almost everyone knows: The Lion Sleeps Tonight, a Christmas hit for The Tokens in 1961, and this was the version that the drunks at Hansi’s soul parties would end up singing along with at three in the morning, cracking the glass in all the windows of the apartment block by singing the high parts en masse, though it was the original version, the version performed by its creator, the profoundly cheated Solomon Linda (who received less than one percent of what he deserved in royalties) that Hansi would insist on.

It just so happens that Siegfried was watching CNN the night they reported Hansi’s lynching and Siegfried was eating spaghetti with ketchup for sauce when he saw the footage… glimpsed a near-naked barefoot limp white corpse being kicked and dragged and spat upon, and it may have been Hansi or it may have been one of the others in his doomed entourage but the sheer magnitude of the injustice was surely greater than whatever happened to Solomon Linda. Siegfried spent the next two weeks shouting accusations at whatever confused little African students were unlucky enough to cross paths with him, no matter from where on that continent they’d come to Berlin.

Siegfried said to Sadie I must be completely honest with you…  since then I have had two feelings…  A) that I need to do whatever I can do to insure that such a misunderstanding never again occurs in this world and B) a certain ambivalence towards blacks.

Siegfried talked and Sadie listened. He talked not only about poor Hansi but also about Baudelaire and Lou Reed and Thomas Bernhard and all about the Artist’s responsibility to his own Aboveness… above Work, above Morality… which is why in ninety nine out of one hundred cases women can’t really be Artists because they are too firmly grounded in the quotidian… the domestic banalities of clothing and food and children… too grounded to know Aboveness… even if they let themselves float a bit they get an earthy reminder once a month that no amount of detachment will enable them to ignore… and yet any woman truly capable of Aboveness is such a freak that her presence would be repulsive and sexually intolerable and the Muslims would be right to stone her. This last bit was a joke. Wasn’t it.

He said, as they passed closely by plain or unattractive couples strolling in cautious or giddy hand-holding silence, these people aren’t even living. He said do you know what the great mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss said when he was told, while he was in the middle of performing a great calculation, that his wife was dying? Siegfried beamed at her and shook his fist with admiration:

He said: please tell her to wait a moment until I’m finished!

Intermittently, during that rambling inaugural lecture on the topic of his  Weltanschauung… his worldview… Siegfried would halt… at a corner or facing a weird old Gothic Church or the streaky hand-lettered storefront of a Turkish Social Club (through which you’d see the men at various little round tables in their cheap boxy suits, smoking and playing cards) and snap pictures. Siegfried said: Sometimes I go out without film in the camera and snap pictures anyway, to remind myself that it’s the taking, not the having, that counts… after which he leered at her significantly. Sadie had just started thinking: yes, I could be happy doing this for a year or two when she noticed that Siegfried’s speech was starting to jumble and slur.

And his stride was getting. It was becoming slightly limpy then staggery and…  was he being funny? But his breath. It smelled…  it began to reek… of chemicals. Acetone. Had he popped some evil powerful pill unbeknownst to her during the course of their conversation? One minute they were walking side by side like any slightly awkward man and woman on a date, crossing Berlin in the twilight, and the next thing Sadie knew this tall strange Siegfried was stumbling and ranting like a shit-faced belligerent drunk trying to walk across a trampoline.

He crumpled to his knees and then collapsed on the curb like a string-shorn marionette. This is not happening, she thought. Oh, okay: it’s a dream, yes? No. Her new boyfriend was thrashing about and screaming and foaming at the mouth and what was she supposed to do about it?! She barely spoke German!

He was having some kind of seizure right in front of the gates of a playground and kids from all over the little park ran to the gate to watch him flop and sputter on the sidewalk under the garishly cruel street light half-shaded by a tree and all Sadie wanted to do was back away… back away a few paces and turn and run because it wasn’t fair because he hadn’t even told her he was an epileptic! Or possessed by the devil or whatever the fuck his problem was. His lips were shiny black with blood and his eyes were vivid whites rolled up in his head and he was growling and banging his skull on the pavement as though refuting the untenable principle the pavement was intent on adhering to.

A cherubic redhead with a mouthful of corrective braces that made her look too young…  in overalls with a two-year-old slung over her hip…  calmly unlatched the playground gate and handed numb Sadie her squirming child. She knelt beside Siegfried and batted his flailing hands away and stuffed a Snickers bar in his mouth and even pressed his jaws together to start him chewing it. She glanced over a shoulder at Sadie and said, with a reassuringly competent British accent, “I’m assuming your friend never bothered to mention that he’s a diabetic.”

Sadie stared.

“I always carry a bit of candy in my pocket or a can of Coke or something in my purse just in case.”

Sadie blinked.

“A pretty good indicator is when they start behaving in an inebriated fashion.” Looking puzzled and shifting back on her haunches and standing up she added, “But then it got to the point with my Marco that I could always tell something was amiss when…  he’d suddenly become this playful, affectionate…  puppy, almost. Not like him at all, seeing as he’s a 14 stone Squaddie. Funny, isn’t it? When he was being lovely to me it always meant something was wrong.” She stared at Sadie and said, “You poor dear.”

She handed down to Siegfried a Kleenex to dab his mouth with and fetched her child back from Sadie and looked on with tired benevolence as Siegfried sat upright on the sidewalk, moaning and looking very much like he’d fallen out of a tree. The lens on his Leica was good and cracked. There was the slow blue flashing light of an ambulance pulling up on the pavement. The redhead squeezed Sadie’s arm and walked back through the playground gate towards where another daughter was calling from the floodlit swings.

How many embarrassing and/or terrifying diabetic fits has Siegfried jigged through since that first one, her initiation, wonders Sadie. Twenty? Twenty five? The prize winner had to be the time his big fat mouth got him in trouble with a Prole in front of a Curry Wurst stand and he puddled into a seizure as Sadie pleaded and the Prole had him by the lapels of his jacket, preparing the head-butt. And yet he’s the one afraid of commitment! And if his racist Austrian mother has finally in some small way accepted the black African Sadie Olubodun in her precious son’s bed it’s only because Siegfried Stummfeldt needs a fucking nursemaid and nobody else, certainly no German bitch, is stupid enough to do this thankless job.

“Aboveness!” spat Sadie, pushing her way through the hubbub of the gallery and looking for Simon Kahn-Meyers, who was at that moment indisposed; working; wrapped up in the grand drama of his own design. She knew better than to interrupt just yet. She spotted his gallerist, Riley, instead, and shoved towards him and Siegfried watched her move, a Queenly silhouette, a head above the others…  he watched from the safety of the darkness at the back of the gallery.

World Fame

Sadie is having her toenails painted with voluptuous care like a travesty of the famous scene in Kubrick’s Lolita where Humbert is abasing himself to his nymph. Heavily allegorical: rich wise old Jew in a bathrobe and lovely young Negress, nude.

Glistening.

Sadie reclines in a special throne of leather and chrome, a customized gynecologist’s chair re-designed for the purpose, her foot secure in a raised stirrup while Simon Kahn-Meyers, squinting into a jeweler’s loupe and squatting on a stool specially designed for the purpose, lacquers her nails from an expensive bottle of cardinal crimson. The scene is reminiscent also of Tintoretto…  a cross between  Suzanna at her Bath (c. 1560) and a detail from Christ Washing the Feet of his Disciples (c. 1547)… compositional elements from the former and psychological aspects of the latter, with Simon playing the part not only of Suzanna’s diligent foot-attentive servant but the voyeuristic elders looking on, as well… and Christ.

Sadie’s toes wiggle indolently. She’s thinking about tomorrow’s hair appointment in Hamburg. She’s not thinking about Siegfried at all. She gazes upon the speckled pate of the old man who is her transitional lover. A patronizing smile softens her calculating expression. She’s thinking that the next one will either be about true love or mind-boggling amounts of money. The next one will either be her soulmate or someone who owns a private jet. Simon is neither, but at least all he wants is to play with her feet. The money shot he spares her. Does it out of earshot (eyeshot) in the bathroom or somewhere. Maybe he can’t even get an erection any more. That’s fine with her. If everyone else in this world could only want what no one would mind giving them, this would be paradise, wouldn’t it?

Sadie wiggles her toes and closes her eyes and drifts off into semi-sleep. It’s so relaxing. She needs this. Simon needs this too. It relaxes him.

He didn’t win the Stein Prize. He didn’t win the Stein Prize. That beautiful Korean nut who calls herself NO won it, of course. She won with a simple-as-a-shit-in-a-bucket piece called YESTERDAY’S INSULTS ARE TOMORROW’S COMPLIMENTS. In which she sat casually dressed in a darkened room in a gallery watching a loop of old black and white Laurel and Hardy movies… crying.

Weeping, softly, non-stop for precisely eight hours and eight minutes. What the numerology of the piece was supposed to symbolize Simon has no idea but he knows that not only didn’t he win the Stein Prize with his infinitely wittier and more provocative installation (come on: a gang rape of the artist girlfriend of an artist competing for an art prize by the judges of the art prize? what’s not to like?) but he’s out a lot of money. That was an expensive fucking installation. From the rental of the Hispano Suiza to the security guards to the actress playing his girlfriend and the actors playing the half dozen rapist-judges and six cases of champagne and god knows how much expensive French cheese and crackers. The sponsors covered the advertizing, flew in a couple of the panelists and presented everyone of importance with a bottle of Vodka, otherwise it was Simon’s dime. Jesus. Meanwhile, how much did NO spend on her prize-winning schtick? The cost of a junkshop television. She probably didn’t even buy the TV. She probably borrowed it. It makes him sick.

Simon needs to relax. Simon needs to think. His real girlfriend, the “weather artist” Thy Trann, has been strangely evasive of late. Could be that she smells a plane crash. Could be that she senses that Simon’s stock is plunging. Simon’s problem is that he’s a British conceptualist, and his reputation is therefore ineffably bound to the public profile of Damien Hirst, who is being perceived as slightly passé of late. What Simon needs is for Damien to make another big splash and soon. Or Simon himself will need to do it.

But he’s afraid.

He first got the idea years ago, when those towelheads laid that career-making fatwa on lucky Rushdie. The death and destruction which Rushdie trailed in his wake (people forget: there were casualties of that particular fatwa, even if Rushdie escape unscathed…  for now) put Simon off the idea for a few years, but then 9/11 happened and he was seriously tempted to go for it. But, again…

He was afraid.

And yet, what does Simon Kahn-Meyers fear more? Death or irrelevance? Which does anyone fear more?

Sadie has a dream right there in the chair in which every man loses his head over her. Their heads literally fall off. Their eyes go wide with panic and they point at their necks, gesturing frantically, as the necks turn black. And then their heads fall off.

Doonk.

Three hours later. Sadie announces loudly that she’s going to a dinner party. No answer. She’s already showered and perfumed and dressed in a gold lamé pantsuit and green velveteen slippers and ready to step out the door… she searches for and finds Simon sitting at a slanted work table in a back room in the flat and announces again quietly that she’s leaving for a dinner party.

“A dinner party? How delightful. I am feeling peckish.”

“Darling, it might be slightly rude to bring you.”

“Why would it be rude?”

“Darling… they aren’t expecting you. You aren’t invited.”

“Perhaps my arrival will be a glorious surprise. I am, after all, a known artist, Sadie.”

“Simon, I promise you, they have never even heard of your name.”

“How do you know?”

“I know.”

“But how?”

“Trust me.”

“But how?”

“I’m going to be late. If you insist on tagging along you had better get yourself dressed in five minutes.” Five MEE-nots.

“I am dressed.”

Sadie gives him a look.

“Okay, okay. Give us a minute. I’ll put on a fucking suit, for Christ’s sake.”

While Simon roots around in the armoire in the next room for his one serious suit, Sadie saunters across the studio and peers with blasé curiosity at the large sheet of drawing paper on the work table that Simon had been hunched over. Beside the paper are a drawing pencil and the wretched black rubber frying pan crumbs of a vigorous erasure or two. There is also a T-square and a plastic lettering stencil.

On the creamy sheet of paper, in roughly-sketched lettering, are two simple words in large block print; one an expletive verb and the other the name of a major religion. Two smaller words, in cursive, look more like notes or directions than sketches of the art itself. The two small blue-ballpoint words are the word green and the word gold…  Sadie is struck by the coincidence: these are the colors she’s wearing. Kismet? The little word green seems to be a note about the color of the background. Gold is scrawled within the body of one of the letters of the two large words which are obviously meant to be the subject of the painting itself.

There are numbers across the bottom of the page: 22′ x 18′.  Sadie nods. That’s feet not inches.

 

THE GRADUATE (a short story from DIFFICULT TEXTS)

the-graduate

Miriam with the curly blonde hair that when you looked closer was full of white and gray. Her point being that everyone knew she had two college-age offspring from a previous marriage. Who would she be fooling with a dye job? Robert didn’t want to seem timid or dull in Miriam Wallace’s eyes.

Robert had first met Miriam during the Christmas season after his twenty-second birthday, the Christmas he flew back to Philly from Minneapolis to tell his parents he wouldn’t be going to graduate school. Turbulence on the flight had strengthened his resolve. Turbulence and his rotten stomach. His bachelors degree would have to be enough. He’d told his father that he needed time to consider his options and his mother, from the next room, the kitchen, had shouted, ‘Your options to fail?’

They drove, not slowly, the twelve blocks from Wayne Avenue to the Wallace house in Mount Airy on streets so icy and some so steep that Robert had a hopeful premonition that they would all die silent and angry in a grisly wreck. His mother angry at his father for his father’s laissez-faire attitude to discipline as Robert was growing up; his father angry at his mother for attaching so much weight to the opinions and judgments of outsiders; Robert angry at both of them for his existence and, more pressingly, the churning guts courtesy of the evening’s outcome. Robert’s mother’s technique of what his father called ‘analytical sarcasm’ was devastating and had left Robert longing for the corrective violence of a bowel-puncturing crash. The fatal relief of it. They drove by five illuminated black Santas in a row without comment.

Robert’s vision of an impact had been so vivid that it felt like a dream of the afterlife when they all found themselves on the Wallace’s dark front porch fifteen minutes later, kicking clots of snow off their heels as if they meant to demolish the building. Miriam Wallace answered the door in a ball gown with that bemused look of hers. She didn’t know Dot or Alan terribly well and Robert seemed new to her, though it’s possible that she’d petted him once at a bar-b-cue when he was a child.

‘Vampirella,’ said Robert’s mother under her breath as they followed Miriam into the living room. Miriam Wallace was tall, leathery, svelte. She had boyishly short curly blonde hair and definition in her biceps and an ass in the shiny dark material of her low-cut backless gown like a wet plum.

Forty minutes prior to their arrival at the Christmas party, right before Robert’s confession that he was ditching the notion of grad school altogether, Robert’s father had confessed, with Chablis breath, that he and Robert’s mother had been ‘fairly dedicated swingers’ in the ‘70s. And that Victor Wallace had been among the discreet circle of friends who had taken their Updike too seriously. Nineteen seventy four. His father said further that Victor, an architect, had fellated him and that the man sported a goatee in those days that looked like an Irish au pair’s fussy pussy. The women seemed to have been more interested in seeing Alan’s cock in Victor’s mouth than in each other and weeks later Robert’s mother was still making his father wash his penis with Phisohex before relations. Robert’s father said Victor had coughed the semen out into his cupped hands with his back to everyone, and then he handed Robert a glass of Chablis and said, winking, ‘This isn’t freaking you out, son, is it?’ Beaming.

‘No dad. It’s just that I have something I need to tell you.’

The swinging had lasted no longer than the whole country’s appetite for Scrabble and fondue. When Victor’s first wife Marnie, who was such a ‘cutie’ that Robert’s father had endured Victor’s ‘finicky’ blow job just to ‘get at her,’ died of breast cancer, the two families of former swingers used the funeral as a watershed; an excuse to wipe the slate clean. The surviving adults behaved as though the swinging had never happened. As though Victor had never tasted Alan’s semen or that Marnie and Dot had never awkwardly petted and kissed or had intercourse on numerous occasions with each other’s husband while the others watched and sometimes photographed it. They only socialized still at all because pointedly not to socialize would have been a tacit reminder of the unspoken. There stood Robert’s family on the Wallace porch on Christmas Eve, alive and brooding.

Miriam Wallace had paid no particular attention to Robert at her Christmas party for the first hour or so after he’d arrived. As Robert put it, in her arms in a rented bed a year later, it seemed as though it was an idea that ‘kinda sorta creeped up’ on her. Miriam said no, it wasn’t that. She’d had a lot on her mind that night. Her husband Victor, also responding to whatever nostalgia trigger a combination of mulled wine, Christmas, and the anticipatory angst of seeing old friends after a gap of years can create, had bragged to her about the swinging, too. With the notable twist that in his version of the confession, Victor hadn’t been the one coughing the semen out. Though Miriam stopped short of adding this detail when the topic came up. Let the boy keep his illusions. There is no kinder sentiment.

They were three assignations into the intermittent affair and spring had arrived in the form of green lawns appearing through block-long scabs of slush. More dangerous driving conditions; a self-conscious, rhythmless slow dance behind the drawn curtains of the motel window. Afterward, Miriam, up on one elbow in bed, tracing random arabesques on Robert’s hairless chest with the finger of a much younger woman, told him, ‘You can’t imagine how jealous I was. It was bad enough that pictures of Marnie were still up all over the house, fifteen years after she’d died. Some of her clothes were still in the guest room closet, for god’s sake.’ She said, ‘Then I have to find out that Victor fucked Dot and Alan and this experience he shared with his dead wife the titless saint? Give me a break.’

As Miriam described it, Victor, clutching a wineglass with one hand and tugging the waist of his wife’s gown with the other, had pulled her into his study while friends and a token neighbor or two were singing along teary-eyed to a scratchy Joni Mitchell album in the living room. The scratches and skips on the record are the sound of our wrinkles, Miriam remembered thinking. That’s when Victor made the confession, producing a manila envelope of faded Polaroids from the back of a locked desk drawer for proof.

‘He was so proud of himself I wanted to slap him.’

The sun was setting in the curtains. Miriam and Robert had known each other for over a year. It struck Robert as his eyes darted from Miriam’s heaped clothing on the chair nearest the bed… to her fur-trimmed coat on the door… to that Panzer-like purse on top of the television and the lipsticked water glass beside it… that she had made the room her own. That is, although Robert had chosen the motel himself and made the reservation and would soon pay for the room with tip money it felt like they were trysting in Miriam’s boudoir. He felt bound by the rules of decorum imposed by being her guest. He couldn’t just get up and switch on a light, for example, or take a piss without asking. The mere thought of voiding his bowels in the motel toilet… her motel toilet… was beyond the pale. He wondered if this was something she was good at, taking over a space, and was it just her or tall, attractive, adulterous wives in general. And yet, he reflected: ironically, she is the guest of her husband’s dead first wife in her own home.

Miriam squeezed the hollows in Robert’s cheeks together in a way uncannily like his mother had done when he was a boy and she was a happier, more playful person and said, ‘You better not be thinking this is anything like a scene from The Graduate, buster.’

‘What?’

‘The Graduate. You better not…’

‘The graduate? Which graduate? Who?’

‘The film. Dustin Hoffman! You…’

‘Who?’

‘Simon and Garfunkle!’

‘Simon and what?’

‘Jesus fucking Christ.’

Miriam said nothing for a long time during which Robert could actually hear his Swatch watch ticking on the counter beside the sink in the bathroom. He thought: there are people who could pass gas in front of an attractive woman and laugh it off with a joke and people who’d rather hold it in for hours of discomfort and I am of the latter group. Although I admire the former. Life must be so much easier for them. He stole a glance at Miriam whose hands were covering her face. He came to understand that she was crying. He tried to imagine what the rest of his life would feel like if he let one fly beside Miriam under these circumstances. Hot and hissing and green like absinthe… the poltergeist of a rotten egg. His actual insides, exposed to the open room and her judgment.

‘Miriam.’

‘No.’

‘Miriam. No what?’

He pulled her hands away from her face and he flinched: she wasn’t crying, she was laughing with mirthless glee like a deaf child torturing a cat. She rolled off the bed and fetched her purse and got her cigarettes and lit a Kretek and sat with her back to him. She puffed like it was a thinking tool or a method of divination. She turned to squint and said ‘Okay, the problem is this.’ More puffing.

‘An older married woman having relations with the young son of her husband’s friends, there’s plenty to hide. But in our case, ja? My husband encourages this. He asks for details afterward. We’re just doing it in this motel room to give us the illusion that we’re indulging in an illicit thrill.’ Puff.

‘We could be doing this at home and Victor would be reading the New York Times downstairs in the fricking breakfast nook. Or washing the dishes. And he’d call up the back stairs and ask if anyone wants an herbal tea. He’d serve us on a breakfast tray complete with linen napkins. How erotic is that?’

‘What we do isn’t erotic?’

‘You think it is.’

‘I always assumed that anything anyone did with my erect penis was erotic.’

She turned her back to him again and blew out an empty blue thought-balloon of smoke. Robert passed wind and waited.