You could say he chose me, although perhaps I was in the mood to be chosen. He came out of nowhere, and I was swept up. But I was concerned about things too: Lola’s recent desertion, the state of my heart, my aching tooth. And so on.
So when he descended on me at Siegfried’s, I was basically ready for him. The day was radiant, warm for late October, and portentous. A dropping barometer. I walked along the sidewalk in sneakers and corduroys, crunching dead leaves underfoot every chance I got.
Siegfried’s in the afternoon still smelt of burnt toast and coffee. I ordered a sandwich and waited for Lola. She had been gone a month but had called yesterday, suddenly. How strange to hear the voices of these people we make mythical. Like the dead rising. Silence, silence, silence and then, “Hello,” as if nothing could be more common. Which is true, of course.
I sat at a big wooden table by the window and, waiting, discovered I had no appetite. A fatheaded old man huddled in a chair by the counter, and of course people came and went. I kept my sad eye on the door.
During those easy fall days since her departure, feeling contemplative and sad, I would climb the hill by the university and, with the skill of the depressive, envy the leaves glowing golden on the slope. The warmth of those afternoons brought out others: couples taking pictures or sitting on the grass, exercisers, parents tending children who bounced between the trees like rubber things; above, the sky aloof, blue and staring.
Rallying a bit, I would gather chestnuts to toss. Their glossy richness was difficult to part with, and I walked with four of them in my hand, freshly cropped from their spiny shells, dewy and hard, with that pale tawny spot like a friar’s knobby head. From them I received some slight spiritual relief. Such liquid compact brown, deeply grained like the crystallized runoff of a thousand rivers choked with earth. Autumn varnished and dropping from above. I’d rub them between my hands, and they would impart something to me.
I nearly brought them home to see how they aged, gathered on the sill, but their throw-ability got the best of me, and I nailed a couple of lampposts with them. They ricocheted like cork, but something about the way they sounded upon impact reminded me of my aching tooth and how it might possibly have to be removed or pulverized into dust. And then what? Thrown out?
The longer I waited in Siegfried’s, the more relieved I became, and this was very educational to me. I may as well be clear: Lola never came. This upset me—I had been rehearsing my lines and begrudged them going to waste, but indignation is easy when you know you hadn’t really wanted it any other way. So I managed to read, and by late afternoon I bit into my staling sandwich while some kind of red-striped bug struggled with crumbs on the tabletop. It tumbled onto its back.
I reached over to right the insect when a voice behind said, “Don’t touch her.”
I looked up. It was the old, moonfaced man from the counter. His face was enormous, like a boulder perched on a stump, wide and deeply terrained, red and glowing as if he had just shaven with a belt sander. A large crumb hung on his cheek.
He made an encompassing gesture. “Leave her. Without this floundering, she would perish.”
He glided into a chair with surprising animal grace, handling his cylindrical frame with fluid swooping skill. But the way his body pressed out against his clothes suggested the marble density found in ancient columns.
“Look!” He pressed his cheek to the tabletop, wide-eyed. “Come, come.” He tugged my sleeve, and although I wasn’t exactly thrilled, I allowed myself to be hauled down, our heads almost touching. The table smelled of dishwater and yeast. “Listen. Listen. Do you hear?”
I stayed silent, but no, I didn’t hear anything like what he might be talking about. The cash register jingled and clanged. My tooth pulsed, and it seemed to me I could feel the roots of it shriveling in my gums as if my body, still young, already yearned for the grave. I read somewhere that the skin is replaced completely every month, that our skin is continually flaking off in heaps, all of us snowmen in a gale. What awful disintegration.
Our bodies lack greatly in discretion and subtlety, I thought. They present not clues but buzzing neon signs: scars, toothaches, dandruff, hunger, soreness, thirst, exhaustion, blindness. At age ten, my grandfather lost his sense of taste, and now this tooth was coming dislodged. Perhaps it was the cornerstone.
Yet how early we learn to ignore this persistent death chatter, how the child who falls in the kitchen looks around in wonderment for any cause and, finding none, settles for a witness, a mother or father, and then sets to wailing. We, ferocious creatures, create entire civilizations of distraction in order to carry on amid the fatal blaring.
Isn’t the act of procreation, I asked myself with my head pressed against the greasy table, essentially an attempt to divert death, first by investing the bodies of your offspring with that particular bend of your nose, with your splayed feet, your human sluggishness, and then by holding up your helpless child to the heavens hoping to prick God’s heart. “See? I am needed here.”
And so (the bug still made no progress) this existence with its police officers and grocery clerks and mechanics and executives, its brick houses and sewers and concrete and buried pipes carrying off our sewage, its gardens and poetry and weddings and children and contracts and money, and its constant arrangements—all this knitting together is us begging to be spared, as if by our super-involvement, by digging our fingers into the earth and gripping, by continuing to heap our plates with food, we might not be dismissed from the table.
So I reasoned while the man in the bagel shop went on:
“She rests now, but—there she goes again—what boldness! What spirit!”
All this with my head against the bagel shop table, his hand firmly on my sleeve. We watched the floundering bug, its black spindles pumping the air, and I felt the warmth of his head near mine. Perhaps it was just as he said, that this little creature was having the time of its life, but I did not see such silent wailing panic as the paragon of living. If I could find a cool stream and a hammock, I might very well take them the way things were going. But then again he had taken me by surprise, and I hadn’t had time to think anything through. I wasn’t sure I liked being treated this way, though familiarity is infectious, and I knew that now I was linked to this old man. This was all exposition.
“There,” he said, and, releasing me, I met my assailant.
He introduced himself as Benedict Pierce, a barely believable name, but considering what I had just experienced, I hadn’t the energy to doubt it. Benedict was old—I guessed in his middle seventies—but appeared nevertheless stout and energetic. He asked what I did, and I told him, feelingly, “Nothing,” but that I had attended the university, had studied literature.
This news affected him greatly. He sighed, not at all for me, but evidently for himself and as if from the belly of the earth. He too, he said, was a lettered man. A lettered man.
“I study waterfowl, presently. Ducks. Mallards. Anas platyrhynchos. They are probably the most overlooked birds in existence—forget all the paintings. I don’t know of one piece of genuine literature devoted to them.”
“No kidding,” I said.
He looked away, out the large windows where the sky was clear and many people walked, and said, “They are straightforward creatures.”
He fell silent and I waited. He had, after all, approached me. He sat erect in gray sweatpants, soiled white button-down shirt, and an indistinct tweed coat, as if unsure of which world to belong to—but he sat with dignity, frowned, and proceeded to ignore me. I nevertheless felt he was not quite done with me; he still radiated a certain attentiveness, perhaps by the way he had angled his shoulders. The lines we toss are often so simple.
“Come tomorrow, if you want, and I will show you the ducks.”
“All right,” I said. “When?”
He looked at me now, fully in the face, as if trying to classify my species. “Anytime,” he said.
Why did I agree? It indicated a great need of something. Since Lola left I had spent many afternoons at Siegfried’s. Here, I could sit for a long time by the big windows and watch the citizenry spin in their orbits, kicking up maple leaves with their strides and tires. I pretended to read—brought Gogol tucked under my arm and furrowed my brow when I ordered. I’d sit at a table with the book open, rifle through newspapers, gaze outside, and drink buckets of licorice tea.
But now I left Siegfried’s, and I went for groceries, and when I emerged from the store, the sky was putting on quite a show, and I was taken in by that too. The evening-blue air churned, clouds hung low and cozy, and in the far horizon, it was clear, letting the light pour in between the mountains and the clouds as if from beneath a door. In light like that my soul nears cracking, and I’m ready to feel anything and use unintelligible words like “soul” and feel my chest begin to tighten.
At these times it’s best to stay inside. Such light is too unifying, and we humans can’t abide too much unity. I’m liable to feel and think rash things about the closeness of others and to begin calling the rocks and the trees my kin and hug and kiss and love just about anything. I nearly married Lola under such luminous circumstances. But it fell apart, and I was grateful she hadn’t shown up at the bagel shop. And not just because I was afraid to have been caught with my head pressed to the table admiring the death throes of that sorry little creature. Humanity, I guess it was; that was the point. In fact, that was the sort of thing she would have liked. Fanciful old men with their ideas. I wasn’t terribly different myself, I suppose. I was looking for a little something new like everybody else. But, no, my joy at her stiffing me was because I was under the influence of the light and thought that there’d be others who might appreciate my particular skill set, such as it was.
The morning after I met Benedict—that bug-gazing, his strange adoption—I woke up in my clothes from the previous evening. Slacks and a dress shirt. In those days I sang in the community choir and was developing into a passable baritone. Last night had been our Veterans Day performance. All stops had been pulled out. Bagpipes and sopranos in the organ loft, making for a generally somber occasion, which filled me with deep regret at not having ever fired a gun at someone. Nevertheless I had slept well in that formal attire, and in the morning I felt fancy lying in the budding light.
I was preoccupied by my heart. Lola had failed to show up at Siegfried’ s, and I was no longer feeling generous about it. We hadn’t spoken for exactly one month, and I had been very torn up and was only then beginning to mend. So waking in those clothes and remembering her abandonment labored my heart. This figurative struggle became literal. I felt the pulse in my neck, unbuttoned my shirt, and placed my hand on the skin of my chest. I imagined I could feel my valves opening and closing and thought I discerned some hesitation in their workings.
Before I proposed to Lola, I allowed a physician to give me a physical to ensure my general fitness. To obtain a baseline. Lola had insisted on it.
“How often do you exercise?”
“I do some walking,” I said.
The doctor smiled.
“At your age, vegetables and regular exercise are essential.” He inclined his ear to my body, peering and then finally handling me as if I were some overripe fruit.
Essential? I would soon be turning thirty. Still, I was disappointed to hear this because I have no patience for formal exercise, for that constant preparation, the deliberate fatigue, all that running around, lifting, pushing, pulling, grunting, sweating, springing—all for what? To die hard and slender?
I’m not against activity. If the day is fine, I will walk to the store and buy a melon or a length of twine to truss a chicken. Or climb a hill to collect chestnuts. And bicycling in this little town is joyful. But to puff around in nylon or to take up iron weights seems too much like courting death, like how under the stern gaze of a teacher we huddle over our desks and busy ourselves, hoping to escape notice but drawing it all the more with our exaggeration. I believe fitness ought to be put to use, not gathered and saved. I once mentioned this to Lola, and she told me I avoided usefulness by being unfit, which was true.
As for vegetables, well, I hardly knew the doctor—saw him that once and never again—so I failed to get an accurate reading about what a man like him meant when he spoke about something. Because hardly anything’s a vegetable, strictly speaking. Only certain edible leaves and maybe broccoli. The rest is fruit or legume or grain or root or nut, sprung from the ground, certainly, but would they save me, unstop my arteries?
I took up like this about all sorts of things, believing people to have chosen their words with my own mental peculiarities in mind when they’re just spewing forth as I do. To be understood and to understand are endeavors requiring immense ego.
Which I possess. I believed, for example, that I understood Lola. Lola—at that breathless age of twenty—had used words a reasonable man would have understood. That is, my instruments for seeing things I wanted hidden were out of calibration.
We were picnicking at her mother’s plot in the graveyard when I proposed. The sun was setting seductively, and Lola’s face shone. Shadows lengthened and increased the bulk and significance of everything—the maples, headstones, our glances, love itself. I got on one knee and recited a Neruda poem in the original language, which she did not understand. Produced a diamond. To me she seemed very happy to accept, but in such heart-blinding moments, much goes unnoticed. I have as witnesses only the dead.
For several days, she and that flawless stone got along swimmingly. But then certain cracks began to appear. She also saw her doctor, and, while perfectly healthy, she returned depressed. I took her sailing on the reservoir, and she cheered a little, as if by being out on the water certain earth-tied consequences couldn’t reach her, but sooner or later we had to return to solid ground.
We visited with my parents. Their excitement ran in all directions, and I believe Lola became upset. The four of us sat at the kitchen table playing hearts, and her hands were trembling. I got her out of there. In the park down the road, we sat on a picnic table, and she apologized and dropped the jewel into my hand while some neighborhood kids played tag and squealed. Then, a month later, she called, I went, and she didn’t show. I got Benedict instead.
I got up and left the apartment without changing my clothes. The day was chilly, gray and breezy. I found Benedict outside Siegfried’s leaning against a car. He was dressed in the clothes of yesterday and was smoking a cigarette. I felt conspired against. Again, his head impressed me with its size and deep features. As if he were being gripped and squeezed about the belly, and that as a result, his face was somehow inflated.
When he saw me he said, “Ah, right,” and extinguished his cigarette. He almost looked at me. He gestured sweepingly. “Do get in,” he said.
I did get in. He drove a scaly-blue Corsica with “Handyman” and a phone number scrawled onto the inside of the back windshield with soap. I expected staleness, the odor of old bed sheets, and I got it. Dampness, too, like a bog. He nested into the deeply rutted seat like one of his mallards into a marsh. I sat, obviously, in the passenger seat, and he paddled at the pedals and launched us into the street.
He was terribly angry about something—I saw this immediately—but he was not ready to disclose the matter fully. Only that long ago some professor at the University of Virginia had snubbed him, a visiting British poet he had known from his college days. His name escapes me. Dead now, from what I could gather, and therefore haunting. He’d light a cigarette, put it between his fingers, and just let the damn thing burn. He began to tell me things. Benedict had apparently known Robert Frost.
’Not studied exactly, but you could say I knew him intimately. Which is far better. Far more instructive.”
Fine. I didn’t disagree. Why couldn’t he have known Frost? His current state did appear to be the result of a fall from somewhere much higher up. From the bosom of Frost down into dayn-old newspapers and common earthlings. If it was true, what a shock.
The point is I went willingly. But I also felt I’d better not refuse. He spoke to me as if as the result of some agreement, some contract. That by agreeing to listen to him, I was also agreeing to quite a few other unknown things. He was adoptive in that way. Not tender—certainly not—and not fatherly, but like I was a piece of recording equipment he had hired for a certain period of time and into which he would say things. I didn’t know for how long, but he was obviously harmless. Such people don’t know they’ve recruited an actual human, and so their ability to harm you is limited. Still, I knew that to refuse him in his state would be a certain kind of error, though I couldn’t say exactly which kind.
Benedict drove fast, for an old fellow, and decidedly out of town. As expected. I did wonder when we passed the red-brick police station whether I were being abducted and what secrets his glove box—that curiously omnivorous receptacle— might be hiding. But looking around at him as the town shot by, and hearing him carry on about waterfowl, and the past, and Frost, was not compatible with violence. Like I said, to him I sat in his dingy automobile mainly as a representative, an example of a species—I looked like one of his fellow beings, talked, moved, inquired, occupied a human-sized space, and so on, but to him I had no discernable will. My personality, such as it was, mattered little. Or so this contract that we had appeared to me. His curiosity about other humans’ offerings seemed mostly depleted. Which was all fine by me, being generally more inclined to take than to give.
He fell silent.
We approached some railroad tracks, and he pulled off to the side of the road. A canal of jumping breadth ran slow and dark beside the road. Up the far bank a stretch of autumn lawn lay scattered with yellow leaves and a horde of ducks. Surrounding the grass a dozen fading RVs sat, like inextricable stumps, in the partial shade of some willows. It was nearly November.
The ducks—there must have been fifty of them—loitered on the grass like wobbling hunks of smooth-grained driftwood, bobbing through tufts and shitting, teetering down the embankment to the canal and back up, a continuous line of babbling antiques.
We got out and observed them. Benedict burned cigarettes and said nothing. Neither did I. Of us, the ducks steered clear. As they descended into the canal, their passing through the tall dry bank grasses sounded like scissors, keeping always one eye, black as a piano, aimed at us. They swam somehow without disturbing the water, sending only a faint, widening triangle back behind.
“And yet from the muck they are sustained,” Benedict said, hissing it, and got back into the car.
I got in too, and off we went. Over the tracks and back through town, through chain-link neighborhoods, past trailer parks, along windowless factories made of cinder block and sheet metal long as city blocks, skirting lumber yards and vacant lots, and then finally coasting into the valley farmland of corn stubble, alfalfa, and fallow. Grass the color of burlap. Green cattle gates, rusty barrels, and barbed wire. Low, lean-to, clapboard outhouses, gray under a gray inscrutable sky. Out here black cattle roamed in the mud, and the flat-roofed houses stood always at a distance.
I received these sights only superficially. I was considering Benedict’s lament. I must say I mostly agreed. Our acquaintance with filth is troublesome. However, I believed things to be generally good at their center and only superficially compromised. For some humans—perhaps for me—that surface descends very deeply. So with such a belief, the notion of spitting out filth can’t hold. Something else must be done with it, and it seems as though the ducks had found their way.
Avoidance was my method, there being a certain amount of evil that must be allowed or ignored or altered in order to keep our minds from caving in.
So driving out in the farmland, he finally told me about his friend, how they had attended school together, his friend having come from England to study at the University of Virginia. They were freshman roommates. They both became poets. “My old friend,” Benedict continued to call him, clearly in pain and digging deep for the words so that they might be more spewed than spoken, “he followed me into poetry, hid in my slipstream and was catapulted out of reach.”
This guy could suffer—no question. It was a sight to behold: that great face trembled and melted, hung waxy and slack as he suffered in memory. I half wondered if his tremendous cheeks would slide off; had I a dish I would have placed it in his lap as a precaution.
“But,” he continued, pulling himself together for what I supposed I had been recruited to hear, “we were both talented in our ways. His talent was not as a poet. No, his gift was to appear gifted, to approximate ability, to dress mediocrity in finery. He could have chosen anything and he chose poetry. He could be very cruel.
“Once, at a reading—I have mentioned this occasion but have not explained it, have been unable until now—”
He had not, by the way, asked my name, and because of how we met, I had forgotten to offer it. But he was never at a loss, never seemed to require anything specific about me.
“Now that I have company I can say that it was at a reading, long after we had graduated and gone our ways. He returned to the university for a reading as part of what they called a ‘Master’s Series,’ which I found quite humorous, considering.
“Over twenty-five years had passed since we’d seen one another, and I wanted to look upon my old friend, tense though our parting had been. We were young, but now we were old. He had children. I knew this because I could read about him. You see, he was famous. It’s awful to have to read about the ones you love. When I heard about his Guggenheim Fellowship, I wept. He had children and an estranged wife, so I knew he had suffered too and that now things would be better.
“He read upstairs in the rotunda. Presidential candidates had debated there. A remarkable structure. Like standing on the face of a giant clock, surrounded by white Ionian columns, shelves full of books old as Jefferson’s grave, ancient windows of speckled glass gazing in all directions as if to demonstrate the laws of simultaneity, of the foolishness of moments and places. On the roof there is an observatory.
“A hundred chairs faced a slender wooden lectern. Between the thick shelves of books and out the warped windows, the low autumn sun basted the evening. He had very likely arranged it all, planned it very carefully, would have rehearsed, consulted meteorological charts, studied forecasts, hired psychics. So the beams shone straight in and illuminated his face. Afterward—he knew how to vanish after a scene—I inspected the floor behind the lectern for a mark of some kind, like a strip of masking tape stuck to the floor like is used in the theater for stage directions. I found nothing.”
Benedict flicked on the headlights. He slowed the car, and the pavement became gravel and growled beneath us.
“In that grand light, he read for over an hour. It was pure rubbish. The ‘copper glance of the nova’ and other such nonsense. Utter filth. But he—he was magnificent, like the president of something unfathomable. At fifty, he stood before us, tall, elegant, and handsome with a full vigorous face, dressed in a coat and no tie—we, his fools, were all wearing ties. His voice rumbled sonorous and significant as if your ear were pressed to the surface of a black, speaking Earth. He could have been reading a stock report and we would have held our breath.
“I read he never took questions, so when it was over, he reached down and drank water from a wine glass and prepared to leave, while we clapped ourselves silly. I was caught up in it too. We stopped when our hands were stinging and raw and he at the stairs. I yelled at him, ‘How dare you!’ ”
By now Benedict’s high-pitched voice had lost its affectation, and he was speaking without urgency or nostalgia. We were far from town, out in the flats, passing through farmland and by small, yellow brick houses with wrought-iron porch railings and old machinery out front.
“Oh how magnificent he was! My outburst had silenced everyone, and I was attempting to stand very still but nevertheless trembled with excitement in the middle of that room that to me seemed like a portal. He stopped at the top of the staircase, by a huge window in which the horizon was like burning iron. Was there a mark also at the top of those steps, had he planned this too? He turned without the slightest sense of alarm, his body like living stone—cool, relaxed, impenetrable. He spoke slowly, again with that elemental voice, and addressed the crowd, as if explaining to a group of his children some strange but altogether natural phenomenon.
“ ‘Ladies and gentlemen. This is Benedict. He has come very far to be here.’ He sighed and shook his head, which he hung as if with great effort. He went on: ‘How long it has been for him. Tell him, my dear colleagues, when I am gone, that he must not be angry. He is passionate. It is his burden, his croix à porter. Here at university,’ he gestured to the window as if bestowing a blessing, ‘he made such passionate declarations, thinking me asleep. A very lonely boy.’ He began to turn as if he would look at me, and then he was gone.”
We rolled along in as much silence as a gravel road can offer. Benedict squinted into the dusk.
“What a devil! You see what he was up to. His words were basically meaningless, always had been, but with his voice and his smearing eyes, he could imply entire continents of lewd acts. He was implying, of course, that I had made advances and had been rebuffed! Ha! What nonsense!”
Benedict’s voice had risen again in his excitement, but now he quieted. The car had rolled to a stop on the side of the road. A hundred yards ahead, a house stood in the twilight. The porch light burned but nothing else. Beyond I made out the outline of a tractor and further still, a barn. We had stopped at the far corner of the property, which was fenced and gated with wire and ramshackle posts and populated with weeds and slender cattails that nodded in the light breeze like a long-faced congregation. Benedict began to smoke, and I opened the window. The air entered cold and smelling of water, damp earth, grasses, and animals. I did not know where we were.
“But of course I did love him, loved in any case the creature that he was. But not sexually. No, that was his improvisation. It was suitably shocking and delicious for the occasion. And I suppose he knew, as I now do, that all men can ever do for one another is love or envy. Anyway, here we are.” He got out, scuffing the earth as he walked, and waddled, with arms spread, down the ditch, fumbled with the gate, and disappeared into the yard. Slopped right through the cattails until the darkness took him.
I lack physical bravery, being more willing to scrape my heart than my knees. So trespassing at dusk on a farm where there likely lived dogs and excellent shots wasn’t an activity aligned with my particular strengths. But I do honor agreements very strictly, never mind that this was one I couldn’t see a way out of. Yes, I could have walked away—Benedict had disappeared, although I could still hear him slopping and muttering out in the yard—but there is the living afterward that needs considering. So I guess in the end, I’m more afraid of guilt than guns. But I also saw that this thing with Benedict wasn’t quite fulfilled. Something else was required, I didn’t know what. So I waited.
Not far from me, a struggle ensued. Grunting, splashing, flapping. I opened doors and gates and rushed into the yard, wading through the thick vegetation, and nearly falling into a pond that was hidden from the road. Benedict stood in the middle of it with a goose, white as the pope, cradled in his arms. He was beaming like a constellation.
“Meet Gretel,” he said. “Say hello.”
“Hello, Gretel,” I said.
“Good, good. Now take her.” He plowed over to me and presented the bird. She didn’t want to leave him, laid her long neck across his shoulder. “Go, go, it’s okay. He is all right.”
I wasn’t, of course, but I took her into my arms and felt suddenly very much at her mercy, as if I were being done a personal favor. I don’t know why I put it in those terms since the bird’s eyes gaped wide with terror. I held her tightly against my chest and squeezed my eyes shut, fearing she might pluck them out. She didn’t, and I felt the motion of her neck swing back and forth like a cobra while he cooed to her, felt the iron strength of her wings, the slap of her feet against my belly, felt, and this time heard, the fluttering panic of her heart.
Andrew Berthrong is in the PhD program at Texas Tech University, where he teaches sophomore literature and creative writing. ‘‘Benedict’’ is his first publication.