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Something Happened

Something Happened

Something Happened 48


  You have to call quick. Once the autopsy's over and the funeral parlor's got them they give you nothing; they say: "We have no record of any such patient."

  I could write a manual. (I think I know what a morbid compulsion is.) I had to gird myself to speak to Ben Zack, even when I did not identify myself to him the first time. (I did not want him to know who I was.) I had to disguise my voice. I was certain Ben Zack would uncover my deception, snap angrily at me from his wheelchair, demand to know what type of demented prank I thought I was playing (I've never been wholly comfortable with telephones or banks. All my life I've had this fundamental fear of being chastised over the telephone by someone who does not know who I am.) "How odd," Ben Zack said. "I can't get over it. Somebody else called to ask about her just last week. Then somebody else yesterday. And now you. I guess all the boys must be coming home from the war."

  "Could you tell me how I can reach her?"

  "I'm afraid that will be impossible," he reported to me again in that same dropped octave of ceremonial awkwardness and lament. "She doesn't work here anymore, you know. She's dead, you see. She committed suicide some time ago."

  "How?"

  "She did it with gas."

  "Her father did it that way too. Didn't he?"

  "Did he?"

  "Did she turn all red?"

  "I'm afraid I don't know. I wasn't able to attend the funeral. I'm afraid I'm not able to get around too easily. I have to drive a special car."

  "Then she's really out of a job now, isn't she?"

  "She doesn't work here anymore, if that's what you mean," he snapped in a troubled voice. "Everybody keeps asking that, and I'm afraid I don't understand."

  He thought I was somebody else. (I think he was probably right.) I told him I was a former wrestling champion from Duke University. (But somebody else than whom? Nameless I came and nameless I go. I am not Bob Slocum just because my parents decided to call me that. If there is such a person, I don't know who he is. I don't even feel my name is mine, let alone my handwriting. I don't even know who I'm not. Maybe I'll ask Ben Zack the next time I call.) I have called Ben Zack since.

  "I asked for number three.

  She told me it was free."

  "Who is this? I don't understand."

  "Don't you know?"

  "No."

  "Then I must be somebody else," I said and hung right up.

  He keeps thinking I am somebody else. (And I keep thinking he's right. I get the wheelchair and metal canes and crutches I give to Horace White from him.) He is the only one left now. Len Lewis retired years ago. (He is my personal dead record file. He had infantile paralysis in his teens and came and went in a wheelchair even then. He drove a special car and had a special permit from the police department that allowed him to park anywhere. He was a handicapped person. He had an animal's sex drive and went to whorehouses.) Sometimes I tell him I was a national intercollegiate weightlifting champion at Duke University who was once engaged to her. Sometimes I tell him I am somebody else. He is easy to lure into conversation. (I have the feeling that when I am not talking to him, no one else is. He has grown garrulous with the years. He has been grotesquely fitted all his life for work in the Personal Injury Department and will remain in that opening until his wheelchair stops rolling or until the police department takes away his special parking permit. Then he will have to park himself elsewhere. Without permission to park, you are not allowed to park.) Len Lewis left a long time ago after a serious case of influenza from which he never bounced back.

  "He never really bounced back."

  I knew he was dead before he told me. I can add: Len Lewis was fifty-five when I was there and that was thirty years ago.

  "Then his wife passed away about a month after he did. It's odd, really odd, the way people remember and keep calling up after so many years. I'm sorry I don't remember you, but you say you only worked here a very short time, didn't you?"

  Len Lewis never left his wife. He didn't really want to. Virginia didn't want him to. He was too old. She was too young. Then she was dead. And I was alive in a phone booth. I called Len Lewis once shortly after I was married when I was feeling terribly lonely and despondent (and didn't know why. Oh, that abominable cafard. I was over thirty years old before I even knew what to call that permeating, uninvited sorrow dwelling inside me somewhere like an elusive burglar that will not be cornered and exorcised).

  "Won't you come up and say hello?" he invited in his reticent, soft-spoken way. "There are still a few of us left."

  "I want to get in touch with Virginia," I said. "I think I'd like to keep in touch with Virginia Markowitz if I can."

  "She did it with gas ..."

  "How terrible."

  "... in the kitchen of her mother's home. I was very fond of her. She was always very fond of you."

  (A woman's place is in the kitchen. A man's is in the garage. If I catch my wife and leave her, it won't be out of jealousy. It will be out of spite. If she leaves me, it would be shattering. I will turn into someone nervous. I might never be able to meet anyone's eyes. I would lack confidence and lose my job.) I called Ben Zack a month ago late one afternoon when I felt I could not make myself go home one more time to my wife and children on my country acre in Connecticut if my very existence depended on it. I do indeed know what morbid compulsion feels like. Fungus, erosion, disease. The taste of flannel in your mouth. The smell of asbestos in your brain. A rock. A sinking heart, silence, taut limbs, a festering invasion from within, seeping subversion, and a dull pressure on the brow, and in the back regions of the skull. It starts like a fleeting whim, an airy, frivolous notion, but it doesn't go; it stays; it sticks; it enlarges in space and force like a somber, inhuman form from whatever lightless pit inside you it abides in; it fills you up, spreading steadily throughout you like lava or a persistent miasmic cloud, an obscure, untouchable, implacable, domineering, vile presence disguising itself treacherously in your own identity, a double agent--it is debilitating and sickening. It foreshadows no joy--and takes charge, and you might just as well hang your head and drop your eyes and give right in. You might just as well surrender at the start and steal that money, strike that match, (masturbate), eat that whole quart of ice cream, grovel, dial that number, or search that forbidden drawer or closet once again to handle the things you're not supposed to know are there. You might just as well go right off in whatever direction your madness lies and do that unwise, unpleasant, immoral thing you don't want to that you know beforehand will leave you dejected and demoralized afterward. Go along glumly like an exhausted prisoner of war and get the melancholy deed over with. I have spells in spare time when it turns physically impossible for me to remain standing erect one second longer or to sit without slumping. They pass. I used to steal coins from my sister and my mother--I couldn't stop. I didn't even want the money. I think I just wanted to take something from them. I was mesmerized. I was haunted. I wanted to scream for help. I had only to consider for an instant the possibility of taking a penny or a nickel again from a satin purse in a pocketbook belonging to my mother or sister and it was all over: I would have to do it. I was possessed by the need to do it. I would plod home through snow a mile if necessary in order to get it then. I had to have it then. I took dimes and quarters too. I didn't enjoy it, before or afterward. I felt lousy. I didn't even enjoy the things I bought or did. I gambled much of it away on pinball machines at the corner candy store (and felt a bit easier in my mind after it was lost). I didn't feel good about a single part of it, except getting it over with--it was an ordeal--and recovering. After a while the seizures ended and I stopped. (The same thing happened with masturbation, and I gave that up also after fifteen or twenty years.) I called Ben Zack again yesterday.

  She was still not there.

  "I asked for number four.

  She said she wanted more."

  "Although I remember her very well, of course, of course. Then you don't know what happened to her, do you?"

  I told
Ben Zack my name was Horace White. He didn't think he remembered me.

  "I asked for number five."

  I asked for Mrs. Yerger and was so glad when he said he didn't think he remembered her either.

  "I felt it come alive."

  "She was that very big, broad woman who was put in charge of the file room from someplace else and said she was going to fire all of us if we didn't shape up soon."

  "Perhaps she didn't stay long, Horace," Ben Zack apologized. "It was all so long ago. Somebody else called up a few weeks ago to ask about Virginia Markowitz also. Isn't it odd? Isn't it odd that there are still people who call up for her after so many years?"

  I asked for Tom.

  "Tom who?"

  "Thumb."

  "Thumb?"

  "Johnson. He worked in the file room too when Virginia and Mr. Lewis and you were there. He left to go into the army."

  "He isn't here now. There's hardly anybody here now."

  Tom Terrific, of course, who had given me the handwriting I use and who was able to stick it to Marie Jencks whenever she wanted him to in a way I wished I could and knew I could not. I couldn't even do it to Virginia, and I wasn't really afraid of her. (Just of that.) I asked for me.

  I was not there either.

  (I had never done that before.)

  It made me sad to hear that.

  "But I'm pretty sure I remember who you mean, Horace," he said. "He was that nice-looking, polite boy with a good sense of humor, wasn't he? No, I don't know what ever became of him."

  Neither do I. (I don't feel even distantly connected to him.)

  It would have made me glad to hear I was still working there in the file room as a nice-looking, polite, seventeen-year-old boy with a good sense of humor (at least I'd know where that part of me was while I scrounge around looking for the others), cracking jokes as I carried my accident folders back and forth past Virginia's desk, humming "Take it in your hand, Mrs. Murphy," or warming and coloring with contentment (I had everything in life I wanted) as I whistled: "Johnny, come tickle me.

  You know just where.

  Under my petticoat,

  You'll find a bush of hair.

  If you don't tickle me.

  In the right place,

  I'll lift up my petticoat.

  And pee right in your face."

  We had other dirty songs we loved too.

  I could find that right place now and wish I had a chance to prove it. I wish I had her on her back right now (and that I was the one who was older. She is twenty-one. I am twenty-eight). There'd be more than just bone with her. I wouldn't be afraid. (I don't think I'd be afraid.) There is just bone with so many of them now. (I get black and blue marks instead of ecstasy. I might still be afraid of Marie Jencks. I was enamored of her size and flashy good looks. After I found out about her and Tom, I was afraid. Her yellow hair seemed cold and crackly, her skin looked rough, and I often dreamed of the things growing in the cluttered junctures of her thighs as mossy crustacean claws, dark and barnacled as uncooked lobsters, if indeed they were hers. The smeared rectangular smile of vivid lipstick on the face they bore along beyond them was hers as the pincers advanced to seize, engulf, and consume me. Poor Tom. I often feared for him in that cavernous burlap wilderness that fascinated and repelled me. Maybe that's what happened to him. I envied him.) Virginia, at least, was soft and kind. More and more often lately I find myself wishing I had remained on closer terms with my sister and her family, and with my brother's wife and her children and even with her second husband. She married again and had at least one more child. She sent a card. They are nieces and nephews and might even enjoy a visit from me for a few minutes. Some people don't mind their uncles. I wish I were part of a large family circle and enjoyed it. I would like to fit in. I wish I believed in God. I liked shelled walnuts and raisins at home when I was a child and cracked the walnuts and mixed them all up with the raisins in a dish before I began eating. My mother sent out for ice cream often in the spring and summer. In the fall we had good charlotte russes. I would spin tops. I remember the faces of street cleaners.

  I was so distracted to hear from Ben Zack that I was not in the file room anymore that I left work early to drink alone in Red Parker's apartment. I began making phone calls.

  I called an airline stewardess I'd met who was out of town. Her roommate had a date. I tried a model I met at a photographer's party last week who said she was desperate for help in finding some kind of temporary work, but I wasn't sure of her last name or even that she was really a model, and I was unable to locate her in the phone book or obtain a number on what I thought was her street from directory assistance. (Telephone companies are putting more and more announcements on records that are no more efficient than people.) I called an actress I've known for several years and got her answering service. I called a woman I know who's divorced from a man I knew; her son told me she had driven to the shore that day to try to sell their summer house. I called a soft hooker I know who's always glad of the chance to pick up a dinner and fifty dollars, but she was already busy for dinner (or said she was) and was leaving the next morning for a week in Barbados with a man who was older than I was and had much more money. (By then I should have gone home and fucked my wife--I thought of that. She would have been a pushover, unless she hadn't sobered up graciously from the day's imbibing. Wine gives her headaches. Whiskey makes her sick. I have my problems.

  "I don't feel well," I could hear her bleat. "Can't you understand?"

  So I called a widow with two children in private school instead who sounded doomed: she told me in a flat, barren voice that she was going to try getting by alone from now on rather than waste any more time going out with men like me who had no intention of ever marrying her. (She didn't enjoy sex anyway.) It was getting her nowhere. I called Jane. She was out (I was relieved). Her roommate sounded younger than my daughter and dumber than my secretary and seemed squeaky and disappointed, as though I had interrupted her timetable for putting her hair up in large pink rollers. I didn't leave my name. (I would have been ashamed to.) "Did I interrupt you? I'm sorry."

  "I thought you were somebody else."

  "Were you very busy?"

  "I was doing something."

  "Were you putting your hair up in pink rollers?"

  "That's for me to know and you to find out."

  I called Penny, who had just come in from another one of her singing lessons and exercise classes and begged me to give her an hour and a half to wash up and straighten the apartment. I was there in fifty minutes. She was still damp and fragrant from her bath.

  "Please, baby," she requested gently. I had opened her robe. "Go a little slow. I still get scared when I see you start so fast."

  Penny has an alabaster body that never fails to astonish me with its sturdy beauty every time I see it again. I think I must gasp loudly and glare voraciously. Her white neck flushes. I came three times with her (and think I could have gone four. It was just like the army again) and was back in Red Parker's apartment with the newspapers before midnight. (It was an unqualified success.) I really don't like spending the whole night with anybody but my wife, not even Penny. (That's one reason I never take girls with me on overnight business trips and am surprised by men that do.) I guess I'm used to my wife. I like waking up with her. I like it better than waking alone. I had to use Red Parker's apartment again because I had nowhere else to go. I did not want to go home. I may have to get a small apartment of my own. I will have to lie to my wife about it. I lied to Penny, who thought I was on the last train back to Connecticut. I made her come once, the second time (when I could take my time and work on her as scientifically as she likes--it is work), and that is all she wants. Her neck and pale face flushed. The third one was all for me. She made me coffee afterward and hinted I could stay the night. (I felt so much at home I didn't want to.) Someone like Amazonian Marie Jencks would have suctioned me right back up into the womb with a single siphoning contraction, and then puffed me o
ut on a flat trajectory into the spongy, red catacombs of a testicle belonging to a man riding the subway trains in search of a curvy backside to splash me back out against. That's what I call dismemberment. That's regression. (It wasn't so bad living in my old man's scrotum, as far as I can recall. It was warm and humid, and there was lots of companionship. I had a ball.) (That was a good one.)

  Maybe I do love my wife. I think I would have been stricken sightless and mute and turned into a dangling form of dingy cement or sodden papier-mache from the top of my head down if I'd ever been forced to mate with Marie's. (She was so large and domineering.) "I asked for number six."

  I asked for Marie Jencks.

  "Oh, yes," Ben Zack remembered immediately. "I'll always remember Marie."

  "The sperm began to mix."

  "Her husband passed away from heart trouble at a very early age. They didn't have heart surgery in those days. She married again soon after and moved with her husband to Florida to cash in on the land boom."

  I was not ready for Marie Jencks then. I was not ready for Virginia. My wife has brown nipples as lovely as any I've ever seen in the movies or still photographs and a nest of curly black hair I can rest my head on snugly. I feel safe with her. I feel safe with Penny. (I wonder why I always think of Penny last.) I don't think a human twat has teeth and don't believe I ever did. I've got this idiot child of mine I don't want and don't know what to do with. He belongs to me. Little Derek. (He doesn't even know what he is.) He is small, heartrending. He is unbearable. (He cannot be borne.) What threats he will pose for me later. What hazards he poses for me now. What will they do to him? Who will take care of him if I don't? How will he survive? What will become of the poor little thing if he doesn't die soon?

  There's no getting away from it

  I've got to get rid of him. There's no getting away from it. (He is so sweet. People who meet him tell us how sweet he is. They are being sweet when they say so.) I've got to get rid of him and don't know how. And there's no one I can ask. There's no one I can tell I even want to, not even my wife, who wants to get rid of him also (but doesn't dare say so to me). Especially not my wife. We blame each other for him, when we aren't blaming ourselves, and that's another thing we haven't been able to say to each other yet.