Did other men still drink seltzer water? Or was that just classless—like lint-rollers. Mr. Bender sipped his seltzer water pouting. The arc of the continent below seemed pre-historic. No trace of mankind, only the vatic forests and the limbic rivers as still as lead. When the mountains came Mr. Bender fell into a deep sleep. He snored so softly in his sleep.
The lady sitting next to Mr. Bender pitied him. She had an idea that only acute anxiety or a slovenly character produced such low, careful snoring. Her husband was positively sonorous in his sleep. Cacophonous. Her husband was quiet and focused during love-making but loud and sloppy in slumber, snarling and choking all through the night. They were very much in love. They told each other so.
Mr. Bender woke to the evening’s meal. He had dreamed that he was a ball-turret gunner. There were no enemies in the sky. But he had a big big gun, and there lived live-stock far far below, and he swept the fields to fell them all. The evening’s meal was steak and salad, with a roll and brie. As he cut into his steak he felt painfully responsible for the meat, as if he had killed the cow and carved the steak from it himself, although he could not fathom why.
Like most airplane food, the meal tasted bloodless but brand new, as if beamed into the cabin by aliens capable of synthesizing matter from the energy of a parallel universe. This playful thinking added the necessary spice to Mr. Bender’s plate. As he rapturously consumed what the aliens had specially prepared for him, the lady sitting next to him began to wonder what was missing from her entrée. The brie was missing. “God damn that steward!” she exclaimed.
Mr. Bender instinctively clasped her hand. They held her searching fork together. Their blood pressures commingled and brought the tines to prance, minutely, across the fogged plastic shield of her meal. He rubbed his right hand over her left, his ringless finger over her ring-finger, and tapped absently at her wedding band and the stones, so like baby teeth come up through the gum. He thought of the last phone call he shared with his all-grown-up-baby daughter. She had said “Nope” over and over into the receiver, a mellow-voiced dispassionate fact. The sound of small, once-preciously kept mementos pitched into the black waters of a well. “Nope … nope … nope.”
“But may I speak to your mother?”
“Nope … nope … nope.” Rattle. Mobile. Bassinet.
The brie-less lady had a look on her face—blood run cold, haughty. All the disgust of his grown-up daughter, and mortal terror.
“Grief infantilizes you,” Mr. Bender offered, “and the fresh flowers make me sad.”
“No, this has not been a banner year. For you, for anybody,” conceded Mr. Bender’s boss. “But I think we’ll rally. Hell, I know we will.” He was fishing goop out of his eyes, then eating it, all the while gently hectoring Mr. Bender about a first quarter review. Rather than find this behavior repellent, Mr. Bender was impressed. Here was a man at one with luxury. He treated his face like a buffet. “That said,” continued the boss, “put a goddam cork in it.”
Mr. Bender’s automatic response was to nod and say, “Put a little torque on it.”
“Huh?” said his boss, filling a fingernail with earwax. He made a brave cover, as if to be cleaning his ear to hear better, then brought finger to tooth.
“I will put a little torque on it,” repeated Mr. Bender.
The boss scrubbed his beard with his thumbs. In the silence of the room Mr. Bender heard the scraggly hair catch. Neither man had a healthy glow about him. Mr. Bender, paunched, jaundiced, purple-eyed; his boss thin but wide, like the door of a refrigerator; together, looking as if they had arrived in their suits after a particularly grueling sea voyage. Windburned. Salted.
“I said put a goddam cork in it.”
“I said put a little torque on it.”
Mr. Bender brought Celeste home to watch Breathless. He only wanted to watch the movie. “No hanky-panky,” he said, “you got that?”
Celeste did not care either way. Mr. Bender was paying good money for her to pay attention to whatever he wanted her to. If he wanted her to watch some dumb French movie, by God she would, and she would smile all through it. She would smile until her face hurt if it meant he tipped. Her teeth chattered. She pulled a fine green ribbon from her hair and began to chew on it to quiet her mouth.
“No hanky-panky,” he repeated as he started the film. “No hanky-panky.” He had not said those words in decades. Just saying them released the vitality of jockish high school assholes, able to cum their buckets at the drop of a hat. He felt so virile, here beside Celeste, watching Breathless, repeating the sacred phrase: hanky-panky.
Celeste was transfixed. To her, actor Jean-Paul Belmondo was a revelation. Her face went slack with longing. She ached to kiss Michel, to taste the cigarette on his full froggy lips. Actress Jean Seberg baffled her. How did she get her hair so short and keep her face so pretty? Did it take having such a pretty face?
Mr. Bender wondered if to break his loves, he would ever inform on someone. He was no Stasi, sure, but this was different. No politics involved. Could he betray a lover to cleanse himself of love?
Celeste cried as Michel stumbled down the road. When his knees buckled she released an animal groan. “Why—why?” she sputtered. She turned to Mr. Bender. “Why?” she repeated.
Ah, the fond memories of childhood. Mr. Bender wondered at them as they passed behind his eyes. He got a migraine if he looked backwards like this. If he remembered too much, he was bound to spend the afternoon and late evening with his head under a damp rag, all the lights in his room turned off and the fan positioned to blow cold air on his feet. What was there to remember of Mr. Bender’s childhood? He got puking migraines as a boy and his mother tried in vain to rock them away. The images came as thick as stew, and bitter, or bland, depending where his mind’s ladle fell. Nothing was nourishing anymore. The past, especially, only gave him a massive headache.
Mr. Bender could not stop thinking about his childhood. One memory in particular—or only the crumbs of a memory—haunted his palette (to continue with the previous metaphor). He remembered his father giving him a cookie after dinner and patting his head and telling him, “Good-boy, such a good-boy.” Mr. Bender smiled at his father, at his papa, at Daddy, and then looked at his hands. His little fingers were clean but they felt slimy. He licked his thumbs. His father said, “Ah. Ah, what is this? Is my good-boy still hungry for a cookie?” Mr. Bender smiled wide and nodded his head vigorously. Of course he wanted another cookie. His father gave him one and said, “Eat. Eat it up.” And so Mr. Bender did.
Mr. Bender’s fingers were smeary again. He licked them. His father sighed and said, “Still hungry, my boy? Still searching for morsels? Have another cookie.” But his father gave him two, one in each hand. Mr. Bender lightly squeezed them. He could eat four cookies. He was delighted to eat four cookies. But his father seemed unhappy. He tried handing them back to his papa, to Daddy.
His father shook his head. “No, go on. Eat your fill, my boy.” So Mr. Bender did.
And he licked his fingers again. And his father gave him three cookies this time, practically shoving them into his son’s face. “Eat them up!” he screamed. “Eat them up you filthy pig! You dumb sow! You fatty fatty little fart-eater!”
Mr. Bender sobbed. He spit the cookies on the floor.
His father went berserk. He shook Mr. Bender. He shouted, “Eat them up! Lick them from the ground! Do this! Do this, you disgusting boy!” And his father imitated the humiliating enterprise of getting on ones hands and knees to eat from the floor, repeating, “Do this! Do this! Do this!” turning blue in the face.
Mr. Bender marveled at the memory of his father’s big bushy mustache. An acre of the fierce man’s face seemed entirely the property of the dark, lush thicket with the merest tremble of dribbling lips below it. Lips like a squished cherry tomato.
Mr. Bender wondered where his mother had been during this awful time. “Ah,” he recalled. She was getting her hair done. He wondered if she ever learned of this formative encounter. He decided she had not. His head was starting to hurt and he needed to get some reading done.
One and the next, one excruciating take on the nouvelle vague after another. A yellow-haired girl eating the peach-pink ice-cream he had paid for. She tongued languorously after a cranberry morsel. He said, “Let’s stay indoors, and enjoy the air conditioning.”
Mr. Bender fiddled with the thermostat. He listened to the hidden mechanism exhaling icy breaths throughout the home. He breathed with the home, sullen, his ear creased against the wall. Not a pulse but a ticking. Because of the humidity and the cold, his wall’s glossy paint always felt wet, as though the home were panting. Not a ticking but a dog, secreted in the walls, panting. Here, pooch, thought Mr. Bender, wending his ear and cheek and forehead along the length of the hallway and into the kitchen.
Aubrey focused on the splendors out of doors, sympathizing with an elm flagging from disease. O tree of tattered bags nimbed by molten sunset. O amber flags of rot. O bare branches gold-beamed and, her phone tinkled, a friend, interrupting her search for another B. Bitch wut doin? She took a pretty picture on her phone and sent it to her friend, appending the message: Date night. She continued to stare out the frigid living room’s bay window and imagined she was an ice-cube, jammed ass-end out of the automatic dispenser, observing the melting threats of a world precariously near.
His moment of anguish dissolved, Mr. Bender appeared with two large cocktails. “Bombay Sapphire,” he said, having disguised what was in fact McCormick’s jug spirits with 7 Up. He seemed to offer one to Aubrey but did not, setting both glasses down on his end-table on the far side of the sectional couch.
“Sing me a poem, Aubrey,” called Mr. Bender.
She repeated some of the foregoing thoughts on Dutch Elm Disease.
“Not a lamentation,” said Mr. Bender. “Do something free-er.”
He paid her by the hour. “Something free-ish. Quickly.”
Rather than make up a poem, Aubrey read from a random selection of text messages:
Wut r u doin gooby
Picking thru box of bran flakes to find delicious raisins
One of my hs friends had an aunt and a grandma that would do automatic writing. Looking back idk what was going on there …
“Keep it coming,” said Mr. Bender. He reveled in this poem that was split between seven or so people. She tantalized him. He saw her zinging little French-tipped fingers sending and receiving luscious little love nuggets from her best gal pals. He found it very erotic and told her so. “Do you text about underwear?” he asked.
“Of course,” said Aubrey, improvising a line:
I found that honey mustard pretzel in my D cup bra …
He nursed the second drink as the hour wound down. Only one of the poem’s lines was from a friend, a business acquaintance (Celeste). The rest were from male clients like Mr. Bender.
Mr. Bender resented being called a “wino,” something his ex-girlfriend called him, as did other women before her, including his ex-wife. Still called him, actually. She saw him in the street the other day and shouted at him. She said, “You fucking wino! You dumb fucking wino!” But he was asleep.
Mr. Bender liked Thursdays because they were his only days off. (He spent weekends in the office, balancing ledgers.)
He associated Thursday with talismans—they both began with a T. He associated almonds with omens, because, accepting a specious over-pronunciation of their vowels, they sounded the same. “I regulate my misery with child’s play,” Mr. Bender was fond of announcing. He meant he enjoyed rhymes and puns and wordplay. To his own enormous delight he substituted “carving petroglyphs” for “cooking the books.”
Speaking of, this Thursday he had an important business dinner. Although he had been drinking since around ten that morning (his custom every Thursday morning), he would be sober by then, wash up, put on his jacket and tie, and feast on the company’s dime. He had drank mightily the night previous but had passed out and forgot all that.
Mr. Bender had a checklist living in his head. The checklist told him small things like this: “Ovo-lacto vegetarian lunch.” He could not decipher this and went for chili that afternoon instead. Pork fat and beef curtains festooned his bowl. The kidney beans were as squishy and burned as his own kidneys. The waitress in the cafe was just as old as he felt. She hocked a loogie into his coffee and he thanked her for it and tipped a little extra.
Mr. Bender used to think his fine education would save his friends. Save his friends from important business dinners. Nerves were inching up on him. A coil of shit, as thin as the bowels of a cassette tape, had eeked from his squat bird’s haunches, and he studied the black ribbon in the bowl. “What if I wound you back up?” he said to the shit. “What if I resurrected you from your tomb? Huh?”
He used to think his fine education elevated him to the rank of poet, and that he could live out his mornings and afternoons and even evenings, despite reality, swilling wine or brandy, everything iced. Just like his fine, martyred poet heroes. None of his painter heroes were so insensible.
But Mr. Bender stopped painting a while back. When he stopped painting he started slamming his fingers in doors, any doors, the car door, the bathroom door, French doors, the doors of churches! As if the world were saying, “You’ve one mind and we’ve another. Hop to it.” Incensed, he said this back to the world: “I’ve no mind at all, I’ve no mind at all.” When he stopped painting he discovered he had a mind for finance and equity.
Wobbling now—the dinner hour upon him. His shoulders dusted by the all the disappointment of his wasted time. His youth. The day. The dinner hour.
Mr. Bender opened his pumpkin and threw up in it. He ignited the vomit. The pumpkin grinned and glowed until the flames had drunk their fill of it.
One brilliant fall day Mr. Bender drove into the city proper. He paid exorbitantly to park. He walked through the glassine canyons and felt the heights like suction. All his worries went up, up and away. The south side had discreet massage parlors that he frequented beside the banking men. He was not certain, in all fairness, if bankers also frequented the massage parlors. But this made sense to him.
“One day, I’ll come into the city and a taxi will strike me dead.” He relished this thought as he went inside the parlor.
How did Mr. Bender find the address? A cybernetic entity on an erotic website forwarded it to him. He thought at first that the whole thing could be a scam. Mr. Bender was a simple man: he frequented certain sites for a quick jerk-off; he did not need to develop relations in them. Yet he did develop a certain rhythmic repertoire between certain cybernetic entities within the erotic sites, and among the entities he had developed a culpable amount of trust. The phrasing “cybernetic entity” had percolated out of some deep teenage distrust of machines, via Asimov or Bradbury. The rancor of its judgment arose out of the lawn mower, dish washer, and furnace duct work, chores he lagged behind in order to masturbate, and, the industry riven, to face inevitable humiliation when his sister, or sister’s boyfriend, or—just the worst: his mother—found him huffing and puffing in the garage, regulating a fine white jizz ribbon away from the jeans bunched at his knees. As Mr. Bender appeared before the mistress of the parlor he began sweating. His shortness of breath prevented him from speaking.
While having his toes sucked, Mr. Bender stared out the window and began to hum a song his mother had taught him. He had never felt so insensate in his life. He wondered when he might drink until he slept again. “How soon, how soon,” he said aloud. The young woman sucking his toes misheard Mr. Bender and so she stopped and stared ravenously at his crotch, a place as insensate as the rest of the man. She stared and stared and then went back to work on the gnarled old potato-toes, bewildered, disappointed.
Mr. Bender continued to hum. Incidentally, the young woman also knew the song. Unconsciously, she began to hum along while laboring over his heel and ankle with her tongue. Mr. Bender and the young woman hummed together for the remainder of his hour, neither realizing they were in harmony.
When he got into the little voting booth, Mr. Bender punched for a straight-ticket. His ballot was entirely committed to the Democratic party. He liked queers and Jews and blacks. He liked Hispanics, too. He liked everyone today. When he had finished with that he went to Starbucks and got his free coffee. He had a sticker on his vest to prove that he had voted. He beamed at the cashier. He beamed at the barista. He loved America. Hope filled Mr. Bender.
In the parking lot, his guts heaved with so much hope. He threw-up on a nearby Nissan. Hastily he left the scene. A leaf fell from a tree and stuck to the sick on the side of his face. This made him laugh. He wore the leaf to the post office.
I am the boy. With his thumb. In the dyke. He pieced this congratulation together so slowly because anytime his thinking took on plaudits therein strobed the face of an angelic girl. “She May Look Clean—But.” A precious baby doll like Shirley Temple, her bronze ringlets soaked to the roots in venereal disease.
Mr. Bender had lately taken refuge in public television. He beheld The Face of Disaster, a documentary miniseries about the ill use of women in World War II propaganda. “Rosie the Riveter, Wendy the Welder—offensive and limiting myths,” explained a lady historian. “Take these apple-cheeked maidens out of the military manufactories, whip off their kerchiefs, slap on some rouge, and you have heroines turned into harlots, luring soldiers into vice. They employed the same firms, the same illustrators—men, I might add—to implore females to take up hard labor. Then—different agency, same block, same model—they turn her right-side-out as the face of Susie Rotten-crotch.”
Remarkable. Mr. Bender removed his pants and belt. He licked his hand. He took Rosie in one arm and Wendy in the other. He nipped their apples. He whipped them and slapped them. Susie Rotten-crotch sauntered into the den and shouted, “I don’t fucking think so, asshole!” before smothering their wet faces in soothing kisses.
“And this is where it gets confusing,” admitted the historian, shrugging, “to deplore men for fraternizing in any capacity whatsoever with European women, and to do so by appealing with the same visual rhetoric as the women’s relief effort they’d seen in the magazines in Camp Legeune.” The historian brought a limp finger to an enlarged sign and, as she said the words, rapped on them: “If. You’ve. Canned. Peas. You. Can. Shell. Munitions.”
“Arg!” huffed Mr. Bender. He felt so stirred. The vision of the three women—whom he’d apologized to, in the end—dissipated. He sat up to search the historian’s face. She was not uncomely. Serious. A blue pantsuit. He found his glass and swilled.
She rapped on another poster: “Juke. Joint. Sniper.”
He misunderstood her scholastic ardor and took it for disappointment. Or fanaticism. He licked his hand again, bewitched. Something was just off. Something was blurry beneath her nose.
“The. Great. Crippler.”
She had something on her face, a divot above her lip, perhaps a deep and obvious scar, obscured by a trick of the camera. He spit into his hand. Stock footage appeared. Gaunt soldiers smooched fearful brides.
The historian continued, saying, “This paradox is borne out in the reactionary femininity of the postwar market where these broken boys come home and shunt the women out of jobs. All in the name of victory. For whom?”
Some dopey feminist! Some sham historian! Some hair-lipped academic! It was the cleft-palate. He wanted to caulk over it with a misplaced sense of fatherly domination. “I will teach you!” he shouted. “Let me get your think on!” He could not place it. What to discipline. What to renounce. He brought his fist over his cock with all the force of a newborn’s spasms. What to grip.
Now trawling through an archive of fierce, heavenly creatures. “Frankly,” continued the historian, “what was the equivalent of our modern Center for Disease Control in the Thirties and Forties faced a scourge in numbers not seen since boys jumped frigates in the mid-1800s. We have diaries of farmhands from Missouri, Idaho, Louisiana, inarticulate fellows, docking in Calais, Le Havre, Bordeaux, pouring into brothels there, and so ignorant of STIs they described their afflictions to their mothers in their letters home.”
Not a hairlip but a bug.
An Asian lady beetle was resting on the television screen, appearing just below the historian’s nose each time the program cut to her talking head. Mr. Bender crept very close, very slowly, to the television, modulating the torsion on his penis, trying to get his spit ribbon to land on the floor and not on his khakis. The clasp of his belt lolled and jangled and knocked softly on his knees. Before the beetle could scuttle off he smashed it in the woman’s eye. He smelled his fingers. That muted vinegar smell. He continued to stroke himself.
These posters had impressed on Mr. Bender: that the titanic fortunes of nation-states, good or bad, unduly rested on these simpering sex automatons fueled by syphilis and gonorrhea. “You can’t beat the Axis if you get VD,” quoted the historian. Clattering flesh blankets. Why not? They were capricious, winsome girls, who happened to have a few, powerful secrets.
Mr. Bender shouted at her, “I miss my whores!”
When he got to the city he got lost. He took a different road and this took him far away from where he had meant to be. In the parking lot of a car dealership he screamed his head off. His phone rang somewhere far away, under his seat. To reach his phone he had to climb into the backseat and fish around the floor. He screamed at the floor, at the phone, at the missed calls. His back hurt. He swore at his back. His voice went out. At work the next day he talked softly and economically. He coughed softly, his vocal cords red ribbons chewed on by werewolves, peed on and frayed. His managers thought he was sick again. When he got off work and napped he dreamed about work, about yelling, about the food the night before—yellow curry. The city was a nebulous hell, every pocket full of boiling spoiled meats, the neighborhoods filthy with trash, pulsing with sirens wailing past gaping shop windows. Mr. Bender was in an unforgiving mood. He would walk to the package store, Hi ho! Hi ho! Snow flakes the size of coffee filters fell upon his shoulders. One brushed his nose. He burst into tears.
When Mr. Bender left his office party he was too drunk to notice one associate making out with another associate. They were both guys, one of them the boss’ son. The next week his boss pulled him aside and asked him straight-up: “Did you see my Roy with Gene Hassell?”
Mr. Bender tried to remember that night. He remembered screams as the Christmas tree fell over. That was the highlight of the whole shebang for him. He did not remember anyone’s faces, not even from the beginning of the party. The rented clubhouse was dark and oddly spacious. He had driven there in ecstatics believing, as he did in college, that this party was where he could find some funny girl to screw. But none of the office women showed up. They all stayed home with their husbands and kids.
“No, I didn’t see anybody with anybody.”
The boss sized up Mr. Bender. He looked furious. “You haven’t been telling people you have?”
“Who’s Gene Hassell?” asked Mr. Bender.
“He’s just some prick. I don’t know. He’s on another floor.”
Mr. Bender shook his head. He hoped by shaking his head his boss would leave him alone. He had no idea what this was really about. He raised his shoulders. He tried to look furious too, about something distant.
“You’re a lout,” said the boss. “And you’re a drunk.”
Mr. Bender shook his head some more. He didn’t know if he shook his head because he agreed or what.
The boss said, “You’re a goddam lout,” and then he left.
Goodness, he thought as he drank another. And another. And another! Mr. Bender, he said inside, you really should slow down!
Sitting on the couch there in his underwear in the cold, he found scissors under the rug. Now who left these under here? he thought.
Mr. Bender took his wedding band from his fourth finger. He took a scissor-blade and carefully sliced into the pale skin there. He cut away until he could see the bone, sucking the blood away every now and then, scraping the bits of viscera into his lap.
Now this, he thought, looking at his finger-bone, now this is my lazy-bone. Systematically then he searched for others. That night he slept like a battered king.
Photo by Shane Pope