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The Way We Live

by Joyce Carol Oates


Summer. Perpetual summer. In Admiral Myron T. Stern Square, at the periphery of the shabby little playground where children from Small World Day-Care Center are playing, as they do every day at this time, Benjamin Hubbard sits fingering his beard in a cross-hatch of nervous sunshine, telling his two co-workers about his former life; that is, his former lives. Though all three of them must keep an eye out for the children (it was only yesterday that Tim Flaherty tried to gouge out Bobb Bender’s eye, it was only last Friday that little Trish herself, everyone’s sweetheart, fell off the teetertotter and scraped her cheek) both Wilma and Jeannie are listening attentively to Benjamin. As women often do when Benjamin chooses to speak.

The Square is not a very attractive place. It is near the day-care center, a walk of only three blocks, but it is not a very attractive place. Scattered about this morning on the benches and on the grass are derelicts who have obviously spent the night in the park; and those several white-faced junkies Benjamin is careful never to stare at—they are his age, one has a beard like his and wears his dry, frizzy blond hair caught at the nape of his neck by a rubber band, just the way Benjamin wears his; despite the sunny heat all wear long trousers, and shirts with long sleeves, the cuffs unbuttoned and dangling at their bony wrists. There are frequently little gangs of black children. There are sometimes older children—twelve, thirteen— who approach the Square from the east, often carrying plastic baseball bats; though they have never threatened the Small World children, Benjamin and Wilma and Jeannie always get slowly to their feet and go to the playground. Just in case. Just in case there is danger. The children in their care are so small, the oldest is only seven, the youngest three, they are so vulnerable, anything might happen.

Benjamin’s jobs: nursing home attendant in Lakeview, Rhode Island; Yamaha salesman in Boston; telephone line-worker in Denver; deck hand on a third-rate cruise ship, The Empress; waiter in several cities, including Los Angeles; paid volunteer for an experiment in behavioral modification, Boston University; tennis instructor, Aspen, Colorado; truck driver (and, yes, he did belong to the Teamsters, he still has his union card in his wallet); salesman in a religious book and supplies store, Northridge, California; paid volunteer, again, for an experiement programmed by the Enzyme Research Center at the University of Michigan; masseur; male nurse; night watchman; janitor. He tells this somewhat expanded, and then again abbreviated, story of his life with a certain winning charm, both Jeannie and Wilma are amused, he wants to make them laugh but halfway resents their laughter, for can’t they sense all that he is omitting?—all that he is refusing to even hint at? Though his skin, always sensitive, always uneasy, has begun to itch in a dozen places, and perhaps a rash has already appeared on his face, Benjamin himself laughs comfortably, plucking at his beard. He is thirty-one years old. The great challenge, the great risk, was last year in Boston when he turned thirty: but he managed to pull through. It was not even difficult. He simply woke up dazed and groggy and woolly-mouthed and it was a week after his thirtieth birthday and he was still alive and he remembers saying aloud, distinctly: The rest will be easy, all downhill.

Wilma has finished her strawberry yogurt and is now lighting a cigarette. Her graying blond hair is clipped short and fairly neat and her tortoise-shell glasses remind Benjamin of glasses he wore in seventh grade. She has degrees in child psychology and social work, she is the one who will be transferred to another center if Small World is shut down (there are fears, there are rumors, budgets at all centers will be cut severely, their supervisor assures them that Small World, especially since it is in this part of the city, will never close: but Benjamin is skeptical), she once invited Benjamin “over to the house” for a drink when her husband was at a weekend bowlers’ conference; and Benjamin in his surprise said “No thanks” too quickly, without giving the matter courteous thought. So now Wilma often smiles ironically at him, a smile that is not really a smile but a little sting: like cutting your finger on a loose staple. She says, yawning: “Isn’t this a strange way to make a living, though. Stranger than the other things you did, if you really think about it”

“Not at all,” Benjamin says stiffly. “I see nothing strange about it. It’s a wonderful opportunity—it’s educational—for a man to be working with small children. Just because society’s idiotic prejudices—”

“I didn’t mean for a man,” Wilma says. “I mean for anyone. Anyone at all. You know—watching other people’s children all day.”

“I see nothing strange about it,” Benjamin says, his skin going hot. Beneath his beard something stings and writhes and demands to be scratched hard with his nails but he will not give in, not in front of Wilma and Jeannie.

The children raise an excited cry: but it is just Boris, the wandering schnauzer. A meek tattered tongue-lolling Boris, named by Benjamin, trotting by, shy of the children, possibly diseased. “What if that dog has rabies,” Wilma once said, making no move to get up.

“I think this is a wonderful job,” Jeannie says slowly. “This summer . . . This summer has been precious to me.”

Jeannie with her fair brown hair in two braids, both resting on her shoulders. Jeannie who speaks so softly, with such care, enunciating each syllable. Was she spaced-out from drugs, was she perhaps a little simple, Benjamin asked Wilma when he first came to Small World, and Wilma said rather defensively that Jeannie was a brilliant girl who had given up graduate studies in order to work at the Center—in order to immerse herself in work, to be of service to humanity, to erase her ego. I see, Benjamin said prudently.

“Each moment,” Jeannie says, her brown eyes bright as Boris’s, “each moment is precious if we only knew how to value it. . . . But most of the time we’re distracted, or impatient; we compare the present moment with other moments and then of course we lose it . . . ”

Jeannie is looking at Benjamin. He should look frankly back, he should smile. After all the two of them are close. Are very close. But, in Wilma’s presence, he feels merely irritated; he would like to jump to his feet and run away and scratch violently at his skin until it began to bleed.

“If the Center closes I’ll be so . . . I’ll be just heartbroken,” Jeannie says.

“It isn’t going to close,” says Wilma.

“There is this friend of mine at Rodwell, at the clinic,” Jeannie says, “he has a PhD in psychology and did work in linguistics at Harvard and they told him the other day that starting in September he’d be down to three days a week. It’s hard to justify your salary, they told him. That’s how they word it now: it’s hard to justify your salary. . . . There isn’t much he can do about it,” Jeannie says after a pause.

“Harvard, linguistics, a Ph.D—he’s over-qualified,” Wilma says flatly. “He’s priced himself out of range.”

“He hasn’t priced himself at all,” Jeannie says.

She is wearing a flowered wrap—around cotton skirt tied at the waist in a rather wrinkled bow, and a red blouse of brushed cotton that shows her small breasts almost too starkly. Long-faced, with large brown mournful eyes. A scattering of freckles. A pretty girl. Close to being plain at times, at other times wonderfully pretty: like one of the children she changes, she shifts, she is mercurial. Watching her Benjamin has certain complex thoughts; or perhaps they are only sensations. The old reflex of desire, of course, immediate and remorseless sexual desire, but also an impulse toward tenderness, protectiveness. It is not his former wife she reminds him of but his daughter. In play-clothes. In those cheap dime-store pull-over blouses. Benjamin wishes Jeannie would not wear them so often, he wishes she were more conscious of her body, of how she appears in public, in men’s eyes. Her breasts, small and loose and bare, and those brushed-cotton blouses. . . . But of course he will never say anything to her.

“We’d better head back. Better round up the kids,” Wilma says, putting out her cigarette in her yogurt cup, not moving.

There are large American cities in which, within a half-mile of the downtown area and its cultural center, its museums and private clubs and high-rise office buildings and malls and performing arts complexes, neighborhoods jumbled and half-razed and derelict and wild are to be found—a few blocks across an expressway from the new multi-million dollar Institute of Arts are vacant lots, some of them heaped with broken bricks, glass, and debris, some of the made over into vegetable gardens like the one adjacent to Benjamin’s building, neatly cultivated, planted with corn, tomatoes, beets, carrots, sunflowers, hollyhocks, protected from the sidewalk by a rusted chain-link fence. A strange world where contrasts don’t jar as much as one might think, Benjamin has observed on his walks. Pavement, concrete, tiger lilies and purple phlox growing wild in alleys, boarded-up stores. St. Ann’s Home for the Aged, frame houses hardly more than shanties, a poverty that is almost rural, too many children, junked cars, debris in the gutters. There are rowhouses where some of the doors are peeling and others have been painted smart bright colors—green, red, blue, chocolate brown—by young people who haved moved in recently; there are shabby gas stations, and the charred hulks of houses burnt by their owners for insurance, and pawnshops and taverns and pool-halls with grillwork that swings down to be locked in place after hours, like medieval porticulli. Along Third Avenue there are handsome old Victorian and Edwardian mansions, like the one Small World Day-Care Center is located in; they are all rooming houses now, often with offices on their first floors—Dr. Wirtz’s Hydro-Therapy, Adina’s Palm & Horoscope Readings. There are apartment buildings of dull sad brick and stucco, built before World War II, only minimally renovated, probably fire-traps—as Benjamin noted of his own apartment building when he moved in some months ago.

Jeannie was fortunate enough to find an apartment—a large room, really—in a four-storey Victorian mansion on Fenner Street, not far from Small World, a ten-minute walk from Benjamin’s. Of course he prefers her place to be his. He visits her, he rarely brings her back to his apartment, it’s too cluttered, too dreary. When he stands at the wonderful bay window in her room he can gaze out across the smoggy expressway over to the Institute of Arts, and the glittering glass-and-steel tower of the new Gulf and Western Building which rises seventy floors; if he leans out the opened window he can see a jungle next door—wild trees, shrubs, eight-foot thistles. A city in which contrasts don’t jar, Benjamin thinks, though perhaps they should.

He hesitates to say how much he likes Jeannie’s apartment because she might ask him to move in: or she might think he wants her to ask.

Benjamin leans out the window, Jeannie is feeding the cat, shaking dry cereal—like food into a plastic dish. “Did you see Trish’s mother this afternoon?” Jeannie says. “When she came to pick Trish up.”

Benjamin had seen the woman, yes. But he says no.

“She was high. Grinning, and her face blazing, and talking baby talk to Trish. And I to let the child go—I have to let that woman drag herself off, drive away with her in the old Volkswagen—”

Benjamin does not reply. Unlike other women Jeannie falls silent when Benjamin is silent; in the beginning it made him uneasy but now he has become accustomed to it.

Jeannie’s room is large, its ceiling is awkwardly high. Before Benjamin knew her someone, a friend, helped her paint the room white: she has put up cheerful posters in primary colors, prints by Van Gogh and Matisse, a three-by-five picture of the Bahá’i House of Worship in Chicago. On the side of the refrigerator is a bulletin board where letters and snapshots have been tacked up. Some of the snapshots are of people Benjamin doesn’t know, several are of children at Small World, one is of him, shirtless, his chest hair furry, his grin too wide. He is holding a beer can in one hand and a pheasant tail-feather in other.

It is the second time this week Benjamin has dropped by. He brought groceries: eggs, bran bread, ripe tomatoes, cheddar cheese. At a party Jeannie gave here a month ago there were ten or twelve people, all of them strangers to Benjamin, and one of them, a young man with close-set eyes and a neutral smile, seemed to be with Jeannie; at any rate he remained behind when the others left. Who is he, Benjamin asked, and Jeannie said, didn’t I introduce you?—his name is Alan.

She makes cheese omelettes, sprinkled with parsley. She has baked bread the day before—zucchini nut—thick and coarse and rich, too exotic for Benjamin’s taste. On these evenings she wears a long skirt, she drapes shell or bread necklaces around her slender neck, she is barefoot, lithe, graceful, a little girl playing dress-up, playing wife.

Benjamin eats hungrily. This past year his appetite has returned, gradually; if he isn’t careful he will gain too much weight.

Thirty-one. No longer young. Well.

Jeannie turns on the city’s only classical music station and they listen to a harpsichord piece, a Bach prelude. The cat, Cressida, nudges her head against Benjamin’s knee. It is all very pleasant, very peaceful. Benjamin stares at the photograph of the Bahá’i House of Worship: it is bell-shaped, lacy, in design not unlike the White House: Jeannie has visited it a number of times and plans another visit, another pilgrimage, Labor Day weekend. One night, lying in Jeannie’s narrow sofa-bed, they talked of religion, and Benjamin said he didn’t believe in anything but was uneasy about it—uneasy, that is, because not believing in anything was so comfortable, and he has always supposed atheists and agnostics were troubled people. Jeannie said nothing of her background, her family, whatever church she might have belonged to at one time; she spoke only of the Bahá’i religion which is the center of unity of mankind, the divine uniting force of the present-day, and which changed her life. She was quiet and passionate and, as she spoke, tears spilled from her eyes. Benjamin was appalled. He was naked, in a bed with a girl, they had made love not long before, and suddenly the girl was telling him about a Persian prophet named Bahá’u’lláh who taught the unity of God and His prophets, the organic unity of mankind, the promise of world peace. Bahá’u’lláh is the center of my life, I live my life according to his teachings, Jeannie said softly, but I don’t expect people to understand or even to be interested. So don’t be embarrassed, Benjamin, please.

Jeannie who is cautious, delicate, fragile. Sitting now with her needlepoint, prim and graceful as a pioneer’s wife, a pioneer’s wife in a sentimental picture. Long-skirted, with amber beads strung about her neck. She is like a figurine, Benjamin has thought, cracked in many places but mended (with care, with care): there are thin spidery cracks he can’t quite see and does not want to see: secrets she will never tell, and he will never demand to be told.

They talk of Small World. Of Wilma. Of the children: Trish, Bobb, Brenda, Janey, Fred. Who is your favorite after Trish, Jeannie asks. Once Benjamin began to speak of his marriage, and something in his face or voice—some urgency he couldn’t control—intimidated Jeannie; he felt her stiffen, felt her mind swerve away from him. (Because she has wanted to hear?—because she had not wanted to hear? He could not know, but fell prudently silent just the same.)

White walls, molding about the ceiling, cheerful exuberant posters, hanging plants, the odor of bread, a frantically affectionate cat—a bony alley cat when Jeannie found her—pressing against his thigh, a young woman in an ankle-length denim skirt, doing needlepoint; glancing up at him shyly, smiling and showing childish white teeth. A paperback copy of Dinesen’s Seven Gothic Tales on the floor. Another paperback, Vegetarian Cooking Deluxe. If Benjamin wants to smoke dope he will have to leave because Jeannie won’t allow it, even at her party she wouldn’t allow it, and he does want to smoke. “But it’s easy to love the happy children,” Jeannie says, frowning as if a complex thought had just pierced her, “it’s the other children who really need our love . . . ”

“Like Mike? Like Tim? I hate their guts,” Benjamin says.

Jeannie does not smile. She is serious, she is always serious. She says, “I can see how difficult it would be, in a family, with several children. Because you couldn’t help loving one more than others, could you?”

Benjamin makes a grunting sound of assent.

“You couldn’t help loving one more than the others . . . And that would bring discord into the family.”

Benjamin does not reply. And in a few minutes gets to his feet, and tells Jeannie that he is leaving: he promised to drop by at a friend’s.

Suppose she (the wife) allows the baby to smother. Too much beer, too much giggling in the kitchen. Suppose the baby’s blankets get over her face on her pillow somehow . . . somehow gets pulled up. But the baby—Well, the baby. The baby is now eight years old, isn’t she. It is much, much later. In fact for all Benjamin knows there might be a new baby in the crib at this moment. In the crib he painted pink, himself. With great joy and zest and energy and innocence and pride.

But now it is much later. It is another time.

The year after the divorce, eighteen months or so, he used to dial her number. Sometimes she answered, sometimes a man. So far as Benjamin could judge it was always a different man but then he couldn’t judge very well, he was usually somewhat groggy when he made the calls, and it was late at night, and things were weird. “I want to speak to my little girl,” he said once, and the woman’s voice at the other end, “Go to hell, you spoke to us both all you’re going to.”

Another time the receiver at the other end seemed to have fallen to the floor and in the background there was considerable noise from a radio or phonograph turned up high.

Was it an amiable divorce, people inquired.

Well, there was some trickery involved. Benjamin wound up with a six-months’ suspended sentence when someone—who might it have been?—tipped off police that he had a stash of marijuana in the glove compartment of his car. Still, he didn’t wish her dead.

Benjamin in his apartment on the fifth floor of a nameless building in a nameless city, doing an inventory. The hugeness, he thinks, of loneliness. His mind isn’t quite right but he plunges ahead bravely just the same. Loneliness as a huge swollen sausage that has become a dirigible, floating off into the sky. Instead of Goodyear Tires on its side in red, Loneliness in red. He lies on his back, staring at it. Perhaps he can move, perhaps not. Certain drugs deaden the spinal cord, others the muscles that control the hands, still others give a tingling sensation to the groin, but the sensation is misleading. Loneliness. Its hugeness. For instance, Jeannie’s courageous big room (which is where she lives, alone), Benjamin’s cramped three rooms (which is where he lives, usually alone). The bloated sausage drifts moonward. Soon everyone will see. A child’s tattered sneaker on the sidewalk—was it wrenched off?—kicked off?—you always wonder, seeing a child’s sneaker on the sidewalk. The angora sweater they found beneath the swings one morning. Lost. Not the property of one of their children. Kleenex much-crumpled, stiffened with blood, wadded and tossed into a wastebasket. Signs of loneliness, and haste. Discarded potato chip bags, shards of potato chips inside. Wilma Whitman and her alliterative name, curling her eyes at Benjamin, inviting him over for a drink; but no thank you. Fresh energetic “hearty” Wilma, wearing her zestfulness like a oversized apron, all ready for business. Shaking one of the boys, who had wet his pants. (Lentiginous little Bobb with that inexplicable final -b, from which —it was, evidently, wrenched. By his father?—mother? Like most of the Small World children he has only one parent but doesn’t seem to mind.)

Loneliness a great balloon passing across the sun. With the consequence that the city becomes immediately dark. There are mirrors in which the waiting, slanted room reflects itself apprehensively, not wanting to be swallowed up by a greedy observer. And what of Trish’s safety-pinned jumpsuit, so carelessly pinned . . . Mike’s father’s red-rimmed spaced-out very pale blond very angelic presence: emaciated: an elderly young man no more than twenty-nine. Chatting with Benjamin. One train of thought derailed, and another set going, and the words trailed out into silence, and both men giggled self-consciously. Guess I shouldn’t try to make a conversations right now, Mike’s father said. Someone told Benjamin he’d dropped out of first year medical school but that didn’t explain the child, it didn’t explain the missing wife or the missing mother, and Benjamin did not ask. Ah, and the creak of the baby buggy gaudily painted with Day-Glo flowers that is pushed past Benjamin’s open window several times a day . . . and he would hurry out to greet the sad young mother and chat with her, he is neighborly, except, fat-hipped in blue jeans that are too tight and too warm for this weather, her hair frizzed and ruined from a permanent wave, the girl is too sad; and possibly husbandless; and he is experimenting with the idea of being faithful to Jeannie. Then too the wandering dog Boris. Part schnauzer, part hound. Belly swelling until he too is a balloon, a sausage-balloon, veering up into the sky and out of Benjamin’s range of responsibility. Benjamin has begun to cry, lying on his back, helpless. He drinks very little now. If he were drunk, lying paralyzed on his back, he might begin to vomit and you know what would happen then, in fact it happened to a friend of his who had dropped out of the seminary the year before Benjamin did. But he doesn’t drink much now. Never when he is alone. He smokes—he smokes, alone; and often in company; it is a companionable act, it is not anti-social like drinking, it does not ooze through the walls of the stomach and send its veins of poison to the brain. . . . Perhaps we will be married, Benjamin thinks, weeping. A church like a leafy lacy wedding cake. Ivory. Dazzling white. Divine revelation is continuous and progressive, Jeannie says, Bahá’u’lláh has promised world peace, a church domed and ornamented like a wedding cake, like the White House, maybe the top lifts off, so touching, so pretentious, and southward the slums of Chicago; but mankind is an organic unity.

Perhaps we will be married again, Benjamin thinks, drifting off to sleep, perhaps we will have the baby again, not that much time has passed after all.

Parataxis, Benjamin thinks, a week later, in the company of Harry G., the strategy of my life, its essential pattern. Aloud he says to Harry who is about to fuss with a waiter about an unclean water glass: “Honesty is not my strong suit,” but quite naturally Harry doesn’t hear, Paisan’s is too cheerfully noisy, not the place for introspection and revelations.

They are drinking a pitcher of beer. They will soon devour their tossed salads, and after that a large pizza with cheese, sausage, mushrooms, green pepper, and anchovies. They will talk of innumerable things—books (Harry is reading Virginia Woolf’s Diary), films (Harry defends Altman, Harry has encouraged Benjamin to “give acting a try”), music (Harry has probably discovered an “important” new rock group whose music is violently “consciousness-expanding”), work (Harry, unemployed, living rather well off a small trust fund left him by his “angst-driven” and “over-achieving” father who, after building up a paper-products company that has since grown to several branches in the state, died of a coronary thrombosis at the age of forty-one—Harry will ask Benjamin about his “impressions” of Small World, he will inquire in detail about Benjamin’s “spiritual growth” as a consequence of this particular job: for he believes that the proper work is necessary to one’s soul, though of course it must be proper work, it must be worthy if the laborer), mutual acquaintances (Fritz has left town, has evidently gone to Arizona; but Myra and Jack are no longer in Tucson so he isn’t—after all the squabbling, wouldn’t that be ironic—going to stay with them. Andy is evidently back home. Living with his parents. In Duluth, Minnesota. Back home. At the age of thirty-three. Back home with this parents. And Max, what of Max?—does Benjamin have any news of Max?), Benjamin’s health these days (is he sleeping well, does he still have bad dreams, is this little girl of his—one of many, of course, Harry knows she isn’t Benjamin’s only girl—is she making him eat vegetarian messes, is she trying to insinuate herself into his bloodstream?), Benjamin’s plans for the future if his job is terminated (Harry is planning a month’s trip to Hawaii a little later in the year and Benjamin is welcome to accompany him, but in the meantime, more immediately, there is this lodge in northern Michigan, the family always called it a cottage but it’s really a lodge, with ten or twelve bedrooms, on Drummond Island, idyllic, absolutely private, Harry is contemplating going up next weekend and if Benjamin could take a few days off work, or perhaps even quit work altogether . . . )

Tuesday evening, and Benjamin hears himself saying yes, he might, he’d like northern Michigan right about now, the summer has been endless, the summer has been corrosive, his soul has been melting away like a slab of lard in a frying pan . . . Benjamin, swallowing a large mouthful of beer, hears the echo of his words and tries not to see Harry’s immediate reaction (surprise, delight, gratitude, swiftly covered over by an expression of subdued pleasure: he is quite naturally a host, here tonight at Paisan’s, why not at the lodge too?).

Harry G., of indeterminate age. Benjamin thought at first that he was in his sixties at least. Later, observing Harry’s springy step, his carefully trimmed moustache (more red than gray), his bright alert stare, Benjamin thought he might be, maybe fifty-three, fifty-five. But no younger surely. Harry G. who takes him to dinner every week or so, and has lent him $250 not long ago to cover a certain emergency (but Benjamin cannot recall exactly what he said the emergency was, and is grateful that Henry never inquires), and telephones often, since he worries about Benjamin and the way his “life seems to be drifting.” Harry’s life drifts also. But he seems to be guiding it, a toe in the water as a rudder, trailing fingers, a certain exuberant sense of density, or at least what would be marvelous for the next weekend, or tomorrow night. He is, Benjamin notes, a familiar sight here at Paisan’s. They may scorn his white shorts, navy blue T-shirt with white piping, his white knee-length socks, his costly jogger’s shoes, his red-glinting chest hair, his moustache, his crew cut, his friendly hearty bullying voice; they may scorn his very essence; but they are grateful for his generous tips, and hover within range of his call.

“What about the girl? You didn’t elaborate,” Harry says.

The pizza has arrived and is set, with a flourish, upon a little pedestal. Benjamin reaches for a piece at once, and begins to eat, while Harry gazes expectantly at him. Harry is a good listener: he prides himself, Benjamin senses, upon his ability to listen, an ability rare in the contemporary world.

“I don’t elaborate,” Benjamin says, wiping his mouth on a paper napkin.

Harry laughs, the sound arises in his sturdy athlete’s chest, he nods as if he quite agreed, and reaches for a piece of pizza. So, Tuesday. Benjamin’s skin erupted earlier that day, at work—as a consequence, perhaps, of Jeannie’s tears over an especially naughty little boy who would not be won by patience and tenderness and the rest of it—but the rash is on his back and no one can see.

“She sounds like a rather weak personality,” Harry says.

Benjamin says nothing.

“The Persian business, the crazy religion, what was it . . . ”

“How do you know about that?” Benjamin asks sharply.

“How do I know about it? You told me.”

“I did?”

“Certainly you told me. This girl at work, this girl you feel close to, doesn’t she belong to some sort of Oriental sect, like the Hare Krishnas. . . . ”

“I told you about it? But when?”

“Why do you look so surprised, Ben, it doesn’t seem to me very—”

“I never told you about it.”

Harry stares at him, smiling, his hands upraised, palms turned to Benjamin in a gesture of submission. Benjamin pours another glass of beer, eats another piece of pizza. Tuesday evening, and tomorrow a work-day, tomorrow the Square again, the playground, Trish and Bobb and Tim and Brenda and Ramie and Jo-Jo, Wilma and Jeannie, Jeannie’s brown searching stare, Jeannie playing at lover and beloved, female and male. Is love over-rated, Benjamin considers asking the old man, or haven’t we discovered even its contours  . . . ?

In the end nothing much is said, nothing happens, Benjamin says goodbye at eleven-fifteen, leaving the restaurant while poor Harry G. is fumbling with his wallet and staring after him, Benjamin is going to Trish’s mother’s house, he likes the squalor, the dishes in the sink, the dust-balls on the floor, the woman’s noisy ease, her grappling and straining for her own pleasure, her indifference finally to whatever he thinks, or if he is thinking at all. He waves goodnight to Harry who stands sturdily erect, muscled shoulders in place, moustache lifting and stretching in a grin that shows he is not disappointed, not annoyed. But he will be disappointed, Benjamin thinks, and very annoyed, when I call him to say the trip to Michigan is off, something has come up, an emergency back home. . . . My little girl, maybe, in the hospital . . . 

Trish’s mother says, much later: “I was wondering, while you’re here, if you could fix this screen . . . One of us has to go outside, the other can latch it from inside, I’ve tried to do it with Trish but she isn’t strong enough, the damn thing has to be pressed . . . ”

“Fine,” Benjamin says.

He strides through the living room, naked, barefoot onto the little stoop, and around to the bedroom window, naked, pleased at Trish’s mother’s gales of laughter which he can already hear before he gets to the window, fairly glowing with pleasure, with gaiety, with well-being, so that not even the sharp stubbled grass hurts his feet, or the dried mud-clots, or pebbles, or bits of broken glass, or whatever the hell it is. After this, he will go naked everywhere.

“ . . . like sand through my fingers . . . through our fingers,” Jeannie is saying in a hoarse voice, a stranger’s voice. She sits stiffly on the narrow sofa-bed which, beneath its gay orange-and-green-and-purple cover, sags distinctly to one side. Cressida nudges her bony head against Jeannie’s legs, unnoticed. The bay window, illuminated with the last faint orangish rays of dusk, seems to have outlined Jeannie, fixed her, as if she were a frail icon, her hair so bedazzled with light from behind that her features are nearly lost. “This summer. These past few months. The children. The children. Everything,” she says.

Cressida comes to Benjamin, peeved. And Benjamin strokes her head and shoulders and back, hard, to disguise his alarm: his simple prudent fear. How he wishes, how shamefully he wishes, he hadn’t dropped by Jeannie’s tonight. . . . The heat-hazy streets are there to be explored, leading off in every direction; there are neighborhood taverns he has never visited; stray girls in halter tops and very short shorts and platform shoes; panhandlers begging for quarters who turn out to be—and this has happened, this has happened more than once—old acquaintances, old versions of himself; there is even the possibility of an impulsive telephone call home (to his parents’ home, that is, in Lexington, Massachusetts) since he has not made such a call for nearly six months. . . . All of these are possibilities, incontestably appealing diversions; yet he finds himself trapped in Jeannie’s apartment, trying to maintain a calm smiling heartening exterior. And how to escape, when he has just arrived; and how to get through it, when the woman is appealing so clumsily, so nakedly, to him.

For the past eight or ten days she has been behaving strangely at the Center. Is something wrong, Jeannie, Wilma asked more than once; but Benjamin did not, Benjamin smiled and tightened his dry frizzy hair in its rubber band and stayed clear. Jeannie denied any trouble. She is pert and cheerful and squats effortlessly beside the smallest and least tractable of the children; she is simple as the primary colors the children make messes with; of course she denies trouble. Though there are indentations around her eyes, and lines Benjamin has never noticed before around her mouth. She’s no longer young either, he thinks with surprise.

Now this faltering hoarse voice. As if she were stunned. Worrying aloud about the Center, will it be closed, what will happen to the children, what will happen to Trish, to Tim, to the little Bazin girl whose mother shows up drunk. . . . And what will happen to . . . 

Benjamin lifts Cressida onto his lap and points out in a reasonable voice that the Center isn’t going to close. In fact Wilma was talking today about the fall program, wasn’t she, and as long as there is no official word . . . 

Jeannie gazes at him as if listening. But she is simply waiting for him to stop. Then her lips move, and she brushes vacantly at her skirt, and says something indistinct about time passing so quickly, like sand through her fingers; they give so much to the children and what will they have in the end, even their most precious memories will fade, the children won’t remember, after a few weeks they will have forgotten, all the spirit that goes into Small World, the little games, the rituals, the birthday parties, the devotion, the love . . . 

“Well,” Benjamin says uneasily.

“Nothing is permanent,” Jeannie says.

“Nothing is permanent, right,” Benjamin says, digging his nails into Cressida’s arching back. She is a short-haired cat with yellow eyes, scruffy and wiry; her purr is like a cackle. “Except maybe art. Certain kinds of art.”

Jeannie stares at him, uncomprehending.

He has begun to sweat, the moment is long, very long, he feels as if he were sinking, plunging, more and more quickly, accelerating with each passing instant, in terror of drowning, suffocation. Upstairs someone walks heavily across the floor. Across Jeannie’s chaste white ceiling. A child is crying toward the rear of the house. On the street someone shouts, a black woman, an angry fading wail. And Benjamin hears his voice falter, he hears himself telling Jeannie things he has not told anyone for years, not since his marriage, about his hope that he might have been an artist himself, a musician, because music did not feed upon and distort life so violently as the other arts, as literature in particular; though perhaps he judged too impatiently, with the inviolable self-righteousness of the young, fueled as a writer by emotions he could not control and certainly could not admire—anger, resentment, disgust, hatred, a desire to expose and injure—all of which spilled out onto the page: and so his teachers recoiled from him but proclaimed him talented, even gifted: but his very achievement had sickened him, the self he was exposing obliquely through his writing, the shadow he threw on every page he wrote. So at the age of twenty-three he turned back to music again—he’d taken piano and clarinet lessons as a boy, for five or six years—but of course he hadn’t the patience, the discipline, the necessary technique. And then he found himself going down, down, in his marriage, in his life, and for a brief while he’d turned to religion too but that had not worked out either just as nothing worked out and now he was thirty-one years old and his hair was receding around his temples and caught up behind in a kind of pony tail so that he looked like an American patriot somewhat looped, appealing in some eyes, ludicrous in others, at best harmless . . . 

Jeannie nods as if listening but she is not really listening and Benjamin, his face burning, falls silent. After a while Jeannie says that something seems to be wrong with her.

“Yes? What?” Benjamin asks.

A personal problem, she says in her dull hollow voice. Something to do with her health. Her body. Something intimate she hadn’t wanted to tell anyone about. In fact she made a vow before she went to the doctor to be examined that if things turned out badly, if she did need to be operated on, she wouldn’t tell anyone about it. She made the vow but has broken it. . . . Before Benjamin can interrupt she says that the trouble, the thing, the cyst, isn’t supposed to be really dangerous, it’s very tiny, her doctor is optimistic, she has been praying for strength and it has been given her from time to time, not as powerfully as she would like, but she knows that she should submit to the operation without worrying about it, without even thinking about it, she should bother no one else, certainly not Benjamin; she knows that she should lose herself in her work, striving to make her daily life as pure and as egoless as possible . . . for it is only the ugly selfness of the ego that blights our perfect unity with God . . . 

Benjamin crowds in beside her on the sofa. Takes her hands. Squeezes her hands, which are thin and cold and limp. He hears himself speaking to her in a queer impassioned voice. A cyst! An operation! When is it scheduled, which hospital, who is her doctor? Of course Benjamin will do anything he can. She should have told him at once, how could she have wanted to keep it from him! He will take her to the hospital and wait for her there and . . . 

She begins to cry. Like a child: suddenly convulsed with emotion. And he holds her, comforts her, presses her head against his neck. A pang of something close to sheer pleasure—inexplicable, perverse, shameful—leaps in him as he comforts her, exactly as one would a child; and she allows herself to be comforted.

Afterward Benjamin will remember a flurry of activity, an uncharacteristic buzz and hum, a sense of certainty, another Benjamin, making telephone calls to the doctor’s office, to the hospital, even to the medical insurance company, helping Jeannie pack her little overnight bag, folding with care her slightly soiled rayon bathrobe; calling the taxi; walking Jeannie downstairs and out to the curb. For a while she was a polite smiling speechless zombie, now on the way to Grace Hospital she begins to chatter, brushing and plucking at her skirt, picking off cat hairs, asking about Trish, what to tell her, what to tell the other children, what to tell Wilma. “I’ve gone to visit my parents. No—I’ve gone to Maine, to the seashore. Oh but then maybe they would expect shells—though maybe I could buy some at the hospital gift shop, they have all sorts of things at gift shops—”

Benjamin does not see her before the operation, which is scheduled for 7:45 in the morning; but he is waiting in her room when she is wheeled in afterward, he has brought her an untidy bouquet of tiger lilies and black-eyed susans and purple phlox, his heart pounds with love, with dread, as he stares at her small, wan, drained, leaden-hued face. She is dying, he thinks. My God she is dying.

But it is, of course, just the aftermath of the operation, the anaesthetic. She is not dying. The operation has turned out perfectly; the pea-sized lump was benign; she will not even remain the hospital very long.

Then the days of recovery. The sofa-bed, the sheets Benjamin has tucked in, the dazed undersea atmosphere, Jeannie’s eyes large and mournful in her narrow pale face, one radio program followed another—Morning Classicale, Con Moto, Music By Request, Music From France—Cressida mewing petulantly for Benjamin to feed her. Swift as rapacious fish Benjamin’s thoughts dart: Jeannie has not only to absorb the pain of the operation but also the fact of the operation, she has not only to absorb the knowledge that she might have had . . . might have had that forbidden disease (the very sound, the very thought of which banishes romance like a blind snapping up on a bedroom window), but also that her religion, the personality her religion seemed to have promised her, was not there when she groped for it. Sometimes she cries in Benjamin’s arms, helplessly. Somewhat angrily. Well, she is helpless, or was; and she has a right to be angry.

Days pass, summer deepens, Benjamin jogs from Jeannie’s to Small World to Jeannie’s (at noon) to Small World to Jeannie’s again, passing from the undersea atmosphere of the shaded room to the bright glare of August sunshine, which sometimes makes him dizzy and disoriented, but after a few minutes fills him with relief. He thinks of Jeannie’s poor soft hacked-at breast. Fortunately it was not removed: they say it is not even permanently damaged though of course there will be a scar. He has not seen it, will not be allowed to see it; he is not even allowed to kiss the unbandaged breast. Jeannie pushes him away. Says, “You don’t have to prove anything, Benjamin.”

Benjamin makes dinner. A paella, chicken and shrimp and lobster and plum tomatoes and Cuban peppers and saffron and rice, and it is very good. Jeannie takes a few bites, lays down her fork, goes to the sofa-bed to lie down herself, asks him to turn out the lights. Not even Cressida is welcome beside her.

Benjamin reports on Small World activities. Little Brenda’s mother has taken her away, they’re riding “with friends” in a van out to Montana “where the air is fresh and clear and you have a chance.” Trish is always sweet, docile, perhaps too docile, and she has asked about Jeannie and Benjamin has told her what Jeannie requested. “Though it might not be a bad idea, to tell the kids you’ve been sick. Not the hospital, just sick. So that they could make you something. Have some sort of welcome-back party when you return,” Benjamin says.

But no. Children are frightened of disease, Jeannie says at once. They dislike sick people. Crippled people. “When I go back,” she says, moving her arms slowly in a modified version of a yoga exercise, “I intend to be perfect.”

Hardly a week, ten days. But it seems like much longer. She flicks the cards at him and dares him to pick them up and interpret—like playing cards her moods are limited to a very few shapes and colors—and he smiles, smiles, plucking at his beard, surreptitiously scratching at his poor tormented hide. The telephone rings, a friend is on the line, but Jeannie won’t talk—waves him away—goes quickly into the bathroom and locks the door. She won’t eat anything but the same old mushroom soup, maybe some scrambled eggs, three days in a row, but he should grill himself a steak. (“Go ahead and eat,” she seems to say, crouching in the rayon bathrobe on the sofa, her knees drawn up, her fingers clutching her toes, “we both know you’re healthy, you have an appetite, you’re very physical, you’re very male.”) They drift idly, almost sideways, into a quarrel about Aaron Copland, whose music Benjamin detests and Jeannie likes. They quarrel about Wilma: is she ambitious, is she an opportunist? (Benjamin thinks so, Jeannie does not.) But most of the time they do not quarrel because Jeannie has nothing to say to him.

One evening he brings over a bottle of Chianti and when she refuses it he drinks it himself, the entire bottle, and says: “You don’t want me here any longer, do you?” Jeannie’s face tightens. Her eyes snatch not at him but at his hands, resting idly on the table. “You don’t want me here so I think I’ll leave,” he says neutrally, “and if you need me, if you want me, just telephone. All right?”

She assents, in silence.

“All right?” he says in a louder voice.

“All right,” she says indistinctly.

August 31. A farewell party, a closing-down celebration. (Since Small World will not be opening, after all, in September.)

Cupcakes, gingerbread men, lemon and raspberry and strawberry ice, chocolate chip ice cream, Coca-Cola, Kool-Aid, pineapple juice, potato chips, peanuts in shells (which will certainly make a mess), a grocery bag of junk food carried in Benjamin’s arms from the nearby A & P. Beer for Benjamin and Wilma. Peppermint tea for Jeannie, who appears, on this final day, in a long mauve dress with floppy sleeves, something both quaint and rakish, bought at a second-hand clothes store, and she’s gay, she’s ecstatic, a pale gray pigeon feather (a gift from one of the children) in her hair. Small World’s walls, decorated with watercolor paintings, pictures clipped out of magazines and newspapers, snapshots, and other trash, must be denuded: so why not let the children run a bit wild, tearing things down? The noise level rises, the old house’s floor shakes, even Wilma won’t discipline the children, someone is flushing the toilet a dozen times, someone has yanked a desk drawer out onto the floor, pencils and pens and a plastic bottle of Bufferin—Wilma’s?—roll merrily across feet and are kicked into corners. Even little Trish, shy angelic introverted Trish, is screaming with laughter. Benjamin clowns, as he must. Clowns like a big shabby silly shaggy bear. Or is he an orangutan? Arms dangling loose, head lolling on his shoulders. Gibbering noises that seem to come from his nose. If the children were smaller, as his daughter was, once, small, he would toss them up to the ceiling and catch them in his arms and toss them up again and catch them and they would squeal wildly, crazily, and he would roar with laughter, and . . . 

“For Christ’s sake, what is this?”

Tim’s and Bonnie’s mother, known to them only as Mrs. Flaherty, appears in the doorway, smiling a low smile, looking mainly at Benjamin, with whom she has had a few quick sporty conversations in the past. She is a big-boned girl in her twenties, possibly still married, with a wide, frank, freckled face, a gap between her front teeth, a smile that is all dimples and slyness and good-natured anticipation. She wears—Benjamin once counted them—eleven rings. Sometimes she is a typist, sometimes a waitress, she’s even been a dancer (for the noontime lunch crowd) at a club downtown, she is frequently taken out to the Chop House, to the French restaurant near the Performing Arts Center, to the revolving restaurant atop the Gulf and Western tower. Given a beer and a chocolate cupcake she joins the festivities, helps Benjamin put his things in a bag—some dried flowers, a few souvenir drawings, a newspaper “cast” done of Trish’s foot when they were doing such things a few weeks ago—cuffs Tim who is pummelling one of the black children, adjusts Bonnie’s dress which has gone askew, offers Benjamin a ride home if he’s going home, it’s almost five isn’t it . . . ?

Mrs. Flaherty drives a Volvo and because of the several beers she does not drive it well; but neither of the children is frightened, nor is Benjamin. Someone drops his cup of Kool-Aid, someone squeals, Mrs. Flaherty honks impatiently at a car blocking her lane until Benjamin points out that no one is in the car. It is a very warm, rather muggy August afternoon. It is very pleasant. Mrs. Flaherty’s name turns out to be Rose Ann, and Benjamin once loved a Rose Ann in seventh grade in Dwight D. Eisenhower Junior High School in Lexington, Mass.

Joyce Carol Oates has published more than seventy books. She is currently the Roger S. Berlind Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at Princeton University. (updated 6/2010)


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AGNI Magazine :: published at Boston University ©2008 AGNI