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The Dreams of Benny Munificence

Benny Munificence sits in his office and daydreams. Benny in his daydreams sees horses and bloodroot, butterflies with wings of sunburst. Sometimes Benny awakes from these reveries and there is a colored pencil in his hand, and he is drawing something, sketching a figure, a flower, a torso, an antler, on a piece of copy paper. From his window Benny sees a parking lot for forty cars and a road at the edge of this desert; in enormous block letters, fifteen feet high, stacked across the lawn at the lip of the company driveway, is spelled out: KALOI. This is the name of the company where Benny works, the company his father owns. KALOI: Keep A Lid On It. They manufacture bottle tops.

Sometimes during the day Benny emerges from his office. After he eats his lunch, he takes a constitutional, wandering through the parking lot and onto the lawn beside it. Sometimes, having dreamed, having sketched, he arises from behind his mahogany bow-front desk and makes his way out the door, to the waiting room where his secretary, an over-breasted boob named Misses Tippish, sits and files. She files her fingernails; she files her toenails; occasionally, she files the drawings Benny drops into the wastebasket. Benny Munificence is his name by God and law, but most of the men in management call him, in his and his father’s absence, Scribbler the Magnificent.

Sol Munificence at seventy is strong; the hours that pass are marked according to the ticks of his watch alone. Benny, as Sol’s only child, is heir to a bottle cap fortune he has done nothing to hinder nor help. At company meetings, though his seat is at his father’s right hand, his head is miles away. As Sol talks strategy and survival, Benny artfully sketches bales of sunkissed hay and fish with fair scales.

Lest Scribbler the Magnificent be taken for an affectionate pet name, know that it is said with true malice by those who believe the boy does not deserve his spot at the company. The innocent among us may ask, Why blame the fortunate for the circumstances of their birth? For this we do not castigate the poor. But then, who of us would truly be surprised to learn of the bile sprouting in the livers of these executives? Since when is a clamor of rooks judicious toward a ladybug out of its loveliness?

Benny, his great shock of prematurely grey hair bouncing atop his head like a child on a beanbag, lives as is natural to him. His great love is sketching, and the figures he sees in his daydreams are jungle rains to a chocolatier. He is tall at the ends and slight and soft in the middle, and his nose is long, his lips thin. Benny’s father is his reflection in a convex mirror, a veritable fire hydrant of a man, with an anthill nose and soft, supple ears. Sol stomps around the office and in his pointer finger he has more business savvy than entire small peasant nations. He is an eleemosynary man, though fatherhood with such a son is trying.

Once, when Benny was younger – now he is twenty-nine – Sol commissioned him to paint a portrait. Sol’s brother, childless, unmarried, a partner in the business (now deceased), came to the house and sat. Sol thought, if the child wants to paint, all the good, let him paint something I can hang upon my walls. After two hours Sol came to check on his progress. His brother, dentures squaring his mouth, sat sportingly with a smile despite the hemorrhoids in his bottom. Benny was engrossed in painting.

And what did Mister Munificence see there, on the canvas? A picture of a great grinning horse, forelock braided and beaded, sitting upright in an upholstered chair, a red necktie, white dress shirt, and plaid jacket mounting his bust. White teeth, shaped like carnival tickets, protruded from the horse’s grin.

Sol tore the paintbrush out of Benny’s hand, apologized to his brother without allowing him to see the portrait, threw away all of Benny’s brushes, tossed out his paint, burned the canvasses. Two days later Rosa Munificence bought her son a set of colored pencils but he never painted again.

Today at KALOI there is an important meeting. Sol does not know the art of knocking, and so he bursts into Benny’s office like a heart attack and jolts the boy from his visions. A red pencil drops from his hands. On a piece of paper lying before him, a bicycle halts to a screech, as does the boy chasing after it, on whose back are the soft velvet wings of a painted bat.

“We got a four o’clock meeting today with the whole circus!” roars Sol, for this is how it sounds when air, in the shape of words, escapes his mouth.

“Sales are up seventeen and a third this quarter but the government’s got a plan to up the taxes on bottled water. We’ll eat some of that if it passes and we need to find a way to take a bite out of the juice market. We barely got our pecker in the door with the big bottlers overtaking the health sector. Now I’m flying out to Beijing in two weeks and I want to take some ideas with me. Something that’ll catch their eye. If they’re selling bongo juice, dammit, I want the cap to reflect it. If they sell berries harvested in the crotchpit of the Amazon, I want to show that even the cap is in on the game. Got it?”

Benny lifts his head.

“What is a bongo,” he asks, for he would like to draw this strange fruit.

“Nevermind the bongo. The point is, we need to synchronize cap and bottle!”

But Benny is already staring out the window. Something is moving in the world, something that doesn’t ever think about markets and mills.

“Yes, synchronize. That’s a nice idea,” says Benny, watching as first a Frisbee rushes past, and then a magnificent Chocolate Labrador. “For the new Chinese cola?”

“Cola? Chinese cola? Goddamnit, Benny, do you listen when I talk? I said fruit drinks. Make a list of thirty fruits you’ve had before, or never had before, I don’t give a rat’s ass. And then draw me something.”

“How can I draw a prototype for a fruit drink cap if I’ve never tasted the fruit?” The dog has run by again, a soldier of goodwill.

“As your Uncle Howard used to say, ‘Business is making believe.’ Draw up a prototype, we’ll make it work. Use your imagination. Hell, you can bottle anything but pussy these days, and I’ll be damned if the Chinese don’t figure out a way to do that, too.”

Benny flushes bright red at the vulgarity.

Sol pauses to take a breath, turns behind himself to the window, where Benny’s gaze is caught. He doesn’t realize what his son knows: the dog has been tricked. The owner has mimed a final tossing of the Frisbee, sending the dog on a false mission. Now he is slinking back, this Chocolate Lab, having failed to capture the treasure that was never launched.

“At three, is it?”

“What’s at three?”

“The meeting?”

“Four, Benny. At four. In the conference room.”

And Sol Munificence is gone, leaving after him only the stale redolence of a phantom cigar. On the page he lifts now from his lap, Benny begins sketching a purple puff of smoke.

All the king’s men are assembled for the meeting, around a polished table of red oak that, Benny thinks, must have in life harbored an entire population of forest elves and tree fairies. Everybody, to a man (and there are only men), is wearing a wide necktie. The suits are all pressed; buttons shimmer gold, navy blue, polished chrome; growing from the floor are oxford shoes or loafers, and blue or black socks are the foliage of these strange plants. Benny, an exception among them, wears brown trousers and a button up shirt coming long below his black belt. His socks are mismatched. His mother, who does the laundry, folds the socks and balls them, so how does he always get this detail wrong?

Mornings, Benny retrieves a pair of socks from his wardrobe, gets distracted by the dew on the flowers hanging in the planter outside his window, then wanders over to the book beside his desk, recapturing the paragraph that rocked him to sleep the night before. He retraces his route, having forgotten he’s already unballed his socks, and takes out another pair. Then he walks to the window again, watches for a cloud formation, returns, retrieves another pair of socks. He repeats this until he has eight or ten of them laid out on the bed haphazardly. He stabs two socks at random and he’s gone.

“Scribbler the Magnificent takes a seat,” says a man with a crew cut, fortyish, muscular hands, tattoo of an anchor hidden somewhere on his skin, at the opposite end of the table. This is Big Jim, and he has taken to narrating Benny Munificence’s every move at meetings. He narrates to anybody who will listen, because he is bored and because he is a mediocre salesman.

“Scribbler the Magnificent draws a pony,” continues Big Jim, but by now the meeting is underway, Sol is talking about increasing productivity while decreasing waste.

“Cut the colored pencils, save a buck a month,” quips the man with the short hair to the chubby engineer on his right, who is so stupefied by these meetings he keeps a sandwich bag full of ice in his pants to stay awake.

Sol cuts him a glance. He knows people gossip about his son.

About his son, who now has an orange pencil in his teeth and a gold one in his paw, and he is leaning hard over the piece of paper in front of him, a paper on which is listed this meeting’s agenda. Benny has drawn a harp across the page, and with all of his guts Sol wishes to pluck the strings of the fantasy instrument until they bust.

Sol, embarrassed that a business sense has long escaped his son, feels the steam boil out through his ears. He tries to catch Benny’s eye but he is engrossed in his sketching. Sol tries to return to his agenda, but his rage is peaking with each twist of Benny’s pencil. Finally, he turns to his son:

“Now you get the hell outta here,” he shouts, and the room is silent as an empty chamber pot. Benny looks straight ahead of him, then down at his page, then up to his father, then out the window, where he notices a pack of cyclists racing by, chasing after something which eludes them. He looks back to his father, picks up his drawing, and begins to exit, harp in hand. But Sol reaches over, grabs the sheet and crumples it.

With a gruff pop of his throat, he says, “Let’s get back to this meeting.”

Big Jim snickers; Sol tosses the rolled-up picture of a harp at the dressed troublemaker.

“You too, big shot.” He motions to the door with his thumb. Big Jim’s face is stricken with fear.

“Don’t scat, just scram,” says Sol, and the salesman has passed out the door like a mouse.

As they drive home at the end of the day Sol’s feelings vacillate between anger and pity. He tries, but can’t imagine what it is to be laughed at; but then, he would never do the silly things Benny does to cause the ripping laughter. He is sorry he lost patience with his son as he looks at him slouched in his seat only a few inches away, staring out the window, thinking God knows what.

Though what is he really sorry for? Benny is no child, and sorrow does not wear well on Sol’s frame. If he is sorry, it’s that he didn’t kick the butterflies out of his son’s behind when the boy was young enough to excrete them. Now they’re trapped in his stomach forever. He’s sorry Benny’s a buffoon.

At home, Rosa can sense something is wrong from the molecules that mix, or don’t, between the two men she cares so deeply about as they unshoe by the door. She is in the kitchen poking around the stove.

“Let me set the table,” says Sol, and Rosa knows that he is in fact deeply troubled. She turns around.

“Honey,” she says, and this is enough.

“I can’t understand. Butterflies in his goddamn brain.”

“What happened, Sollie?” She looks to make sure Benny is out of earshot. He is probably upstairs, waiting to be called for dinner, licking perhaps his wounds.

“I can’t even tell you,” he says, taking out three knives, spoons, forks, plates.

“Do we need the spoons?” he asks, and when Rosa shakes her no, Sol puts them back and disappears into the dining room.

Benny chews all through dinner and is back in his room quickly, lying on his bed, reading. He wears silk pajamas he inherited from his grandfather. They are robin’s egg blue with bold white vertical stripes, and the books he reads are always hardcovers, still tight in their jackets. He likes, at night, to feel that both he and his stories are wrapped up snugly in their bedclothes.

There is a knock at the door. Enter, Rosa and Sol Munificence, in that order. Rosa has convinced her husband to sit down with Benny and try to talk to him, to reason with him, and to listen to him, without being too pushy. Sol would like to; Sol would very much like to have an easy discussion with his child, but he is afraid he does not know how.

“Come with me,” he implores his wife. “Sit with me. Otherwise I start yelling, I lose it.”

Rosa is leading her husband, like a child, by the hand.

Sol sits at the bottom of the bed. Benny doesn’t look up.

Sol’s chest heaves more rapidly with each passing second as he waits for his son to shut the book, lift his head, acknowledge his father.

Rosa stands tentatively in the bedroom doorway.

Sol has had enough. He stands up and his volume rises with each word that erupts from inside him.

“He doesn’t notice me? You’re telling me somebody walks into your room and sits on your bed, and you don’t notice him? Rosa, this is too much. I can’t do this.”

“Say something, Sol. Don’t fight, just talk.”

“Say something? I sat on his bed, for Chrissake, why else would I be here? What does he think, there’s a shortage of chairs in this house?”

Rosa now:

“Benny?” She walks over and rubs his shoulder.

“Benny? Your father would like to talk to you. Could you put your book down for a minute?”

Benny looks up, smiling sweetly. He places a feather in the book to hold his page and he sits up.

“Sorry, Dad. I was reading. This book is very—.” There is no trace of premeditation in his voice, but he stops, seeing that his father wants to talk. Sol harrumphs.

“Today. At the meeting. Benny, I’m sorry I snapped at you, but you’ve got to step up. You can’t twiddle your thumbs all day.”

“I don’t twiddle my thumbs. I’m just not a businessman… I’d rather draw. Or read. We’re not made the same.”

“Not made the same? You’d rather quit the job and play fiddlesticks all day, with your pictures and your books, because we’re not made the same? You can’t hopscotch through life, Benny. You’re a grown man already.”

“I sit in the meetings and I feel like everybody else is from a different planet.”

“You think everybody’s from a different planet?”

“In a way, I mean.” Benny’s voice falls as Sol’s, like a missile, takes the opposite trajectory.

“You think they are from another planet? Benny, have you looked in the mirror? Jesus Christ, you’re a manchild. A dreamer! A nebbish!” Sol turns to his wife: “He organizes tea parties in his pj’s for the people in his books and he thinks they’re from another planet?”

Sol’s voice is trembling it has reached such heights. The absence of protest from Benny inflames him even more.

“I’ll tell you what the problem is.” He casts his glance across the room, takes everything in. He is suddenly horrified by the bookshelves, the pajamas, the children’s lamp that stands at his son’s bedside. It all seems perverted to him, a crime against nature, against God. To treat a man like a baby – this is wrong. The perversion of a man.

Like an elephant he is up. He charges at the bookshelves, reaches inside and starts ripping titles to the floor. He sweeps his arm and brings down thirty books. He goes to the next shelf and causes more light destruction.

“This is the problem. Right here. You live in the clouds with your stories and your drawings.”

He turns to Rosa now:

“You’ve raised a pussy cat, not a man!”

Rosa rushes up to her husband, who is bending over and has picked up a book from the top of the pile. She grabs his arm, but he shakes her off.

“Sollie, enough. Enough, Sollie. Come.”

He has a book in his hands. A bald man stares out at him from the cover, and Sol opens up to a random page.

“No, Rosa, if he wants to live in his stories, let’s see what’s so interesting about them. He was drawing today at the meeting. Can you imagine? Drawing. While I’m trying to make a living. And this is where he gets his ideas from!”

He reads in a loud voice. It is not the voice of a man unaccustomed to reading, but of a man unaccustomed to reading for pleasure:

“Apply voracious lips to her young matrix, her unknown heart, her nacreous liver, the sea-grapes of her lungs, her comely twin kidneys.”

Sol is white as a ghost. Benny, whose face is cherry-red, is rocking back and forth on his bed, sitting up, eyes heavenwards, as if searching for an elusive secret patterned by the ceiling paint.

“Oh, that’s rich,” says Sol. “That’s rich. Whatever the hell that is, it’s sick, is what it is. Pornography.”

He tries to tear the cover off the book, and though his forearms strain with effort, the book will not be unbound. He rips out several pages and tosses it across the room.

“Garbage. Pure garbage. What other trash have you been reading?”

Benny’s voice, barely audible above the strained breathing of his father, now finds itself:

“Stop. Please, please stop. Please.” He seems almost to be crying. Rosa again rushes closer.

“Sollie, stop it. You’ll give yourself a heart attack. Leave him alone. I’ll talk to him. Just go. Get out of the room.”

But Sol already has another paper victim in his hands. This one is thicker than the last, with a red cover. It is in fact nearly seven hundred pages, and he opens to one of them at random.

“What else you got here, Benny? Is this what you do in your room when you come home from work?” He spits on the floor. “Pervert.”

And he reads, cantorially:

“He followed her up the steps and took advantage of her in the hallway, where they were discovered by Marchand when he came back to get his briefcase.”

Sol glares at his son. He does not try to tear this cover off, having failed with the last book, and that one smaller by half, at least. He spits again, onto the page he’s just read from, and tosses the whole thing across the room. As it leaves his left hand, his right clutches for his heart and his face takes on a strange expression, half shock and half dismay.

Rosa knows this look. She rushes over, reaches into the inner pocket of Sol’s sports jacket, and takes out a vial of pills. She places a nitroglycerine tablet into her husband’s open mouth, onto his dry tongue, and she sits with him on Benny’s bed. Benny gets up, his stomach having been torn open, his inner chambers having been ravaged by buckshot. He locks himself in the bathroom and stares out the window at what remains of this terrible day.

When he hears footsteps emerge from his bedroom and make their way down the hallway to his parents’ room, he climbs back into bed. He hasn’t the strength to reshelve his books. He takes refuge under his covers.

He is quickly asleep and in moments his forehead is covered in the trickling perspiration of a dream. Here is what grows beneath the furrow of Benny’s brow, as outside the crickets throw their regular evening bash:

Benny Munificence, standing on the street, holds a white envelope in his hands, stiff from the proper invitation inside. He looks at the envelope again, to check that it really is addressed to him, and enters a building. Inside is the type of lobby where the doormen still tip their caps and before noon you are always greeted with “Good morning,” whether you’re coming or going. The gilded ceiling shimmers off the black marble floor and the ashtrays dotting the landscape are decorated with lipstick-stained cigarettes. It is a world of lost customs and outdated habits but Benny is comfortable there. He has read so much about these manners in his books.

The elevator man seems to be expecting him. “Thirteenth floor,” he says, and up they go, the liveried operator shifting a gear. The elevator is a cloud of light in a lightless shaft of sky and each floor brings with it its own world: as they pass three a mother yells to a child, “I said put your shoes on now, Jimmy, before Uncle Charlie changes his mind.” On seven, the radio announces, “BRING SOME COLOR INTO YOUR BREADBOX”; on twelve, there’s the barking of a King Charles Spaniel with a bow in his hair and a tenant’s mistress holding his leash; and on thirteen, as the doors open and the elevator man wishes Benny a good evening, the unmistakable sounds of a cocktail party swim through the heavy air. It must be summer, for the air smells of saltwater and iced drinks.

Benny looks again at the invitation, taking it out of the envelope. He hears the words, “The gadgets make us lazy,” and knocks on the door of 13A. A man in a tuxedo and a thin black necktie opens up, a man whose face has been softened by years of drinking. He is the famous writer who is hosting the evening, and there is elegance in every one of his movements. He navigates the gymnastics of the crowd the same way he navigates an empty page. Even opening the door it’s as though he’s a dancer and he holds each position, stretching it out, so that all of his body is embracing his actions and he is captured, for a brief second, allongé.

As the door closes Benny looks around the room to see, to his terror, that all the guests are clothed in uniforms of understated elegance, while he is dressed for nothing more than a cocktail party at a casual lounge. The host himself has a vest on beneath his tuxedo jacket and in his shoes one can count the light bulbs in the chandelier. Misses M., that reedy secretary and lover to many important editors over the years, is shouldering a handbag large enough only for a calling card and kissing an hors d’oeuvre of smoked salmon. Beside her stands a thin bald man, nose like smashed raspberries, hands in the pockets of his pinstriped trousers. The man is staring at the woman but, it seems, seeing somebody else entirely.

The host takes Benny gently under the elbow before the other guests have a chance to register the new arrival. Only the pink man with a pink handkerchief in his pocket has noticed them, and he is as luminous as a rose window; his smile radiates toward the host and the new guest, and he leans back and laughs a hearty yachtsman’s laugh.

Benny thusly steered finds himself soon enough in a bedroom off a hallway, tunneled between what must be a bathroom and the room from which they’ve just come. The host modestly opens up a mirrored closet. He gives Benny a quick look, then waves his hand, like a benevolent magician, across his hanging wardrobe.

“There’s something here that fits you, that’s a certainty,” he says. “I’m sorry I forgot to specify the dress code on the invitation. Oh well,” and Benny understands that he is to change into one of the hanging suits, all of which bear the mark of superior tailoring and slight but careful wear.

The man takes his leave and Benny grabs a dark suit off a hanger and sizes it up. It sizes well. As he puts one leg in the trousers, he hears, coming from the assemblage, a laugh, and he knows it to be the laugh of the kindly pink man greeting the returning host. Benny, too, then laughs a laugh, and on the invitation in his hands he finds that his name has been calligraphied in gold.

With a tug at his jacket, he walks out into the hallway, comfortable to swim into the sea of revelers.

Rosa is sponging his forehead when Benny wakes, and he lies in a state of disorient until he looks askance and sees the pile of books, ravaged on his floor. He groans, then passes off to sleep again, as his mother mops his brow.

He spends the day in sleep, waking only long enough to realize his mother is at his side and the world he’s in and out of can offer no material proof of its existence.

On the second night he enjoys the same dream: the same suspicion of the white envelope; the same elevator ride with the same elevator man; the same suit, the same fit, the same feeling of health and vitality in his bones as he pushes open the door.

On the evening of the third day, as his mother lies attending him, Sol tiptoes into the room, wearing the face of a cautious dog.

“How is he,” he asks his wife, and Rosa shrugs in return.

“He’s alright. Upset, probably. A little fever. But he’s alright.”

“I’d like to apologize. I want him to come back to work.”

“Sol, now’s not the time. Can’t you wait until he’s feeling better?”

“At least let me apologize. Let me.”

She nods her head, agreeing. He is genuinely moved by the illness in the room.

Leaning over the bed, shaking his son with as much gentleness as he has in his heart, Sol waits until Benny slowly opens his eyes. He is feverish, but his dreams have been fleecy and warm.

“How do you feel?”

Benny’s eyes are a bathtub full of water until, finally, when his father repeats the question, the water drains.

“I’ve been dreaming,” he says.

Rosa rubs his arm.

“You feel good? Better?”

“Such strange dreams,” Benny says.

Sol’s jaw goes tight.

“Forget the dreams. You need sleep. You’ll be fine tomorrow. Maybe the day after you can…”

Rosa slashes him with her eyes. He promised he wouldn’t ask.

“Maybe the day after you can give it another shot at the office?” Like a parcel fallen off the back of a truck, this sentence. “Forget it. Feel good first, then you’ll come back.” He massages the slip of tongue with a smile.

The water rushes back to Benny’s eyes in a whirlpool.

“Yes,” he manages. “I’ll return,” and he is back in dreamland for the night. And this is what he sees:

Benny Munificence, standing on the street, holds a white envelope in his hands, stiff from the proper invitation inside. He looks at the envelope again, to check that it really is addressed to him, and enters a building. Inside is the type of lobby where the doormen still tip their caps and before noon you are always greeted with “Good morning,” whether you’re coming or going. The gilded ceiling shimmers off the black marble floor and the ashtrays dotting the landscape are decorated with lipstick-stained cigarettes. It is a world of lost customs and outdated habits but Benny is comfortable there. He has read so much about these manners in his books.

The elevator man seems to be expecting him. “Thirteenth floor,” he says, and up they go, the liveried operator shifting a gear. The elevator is a dim cloud of light in a lightless shaft of sky and each floor brings with it its own world: on three, a man’s voice saying, “But how will we break the news?”; on seven, the elevator car stalls long enough for a snatch of a Lied to come wobbling down the hallway: “Mir graust es, wenn ich sein Antlitz sehe–”; on twelve, a kaleidoscope of prepubescent girls’ voices flutters in the air, and with that perfume still in his ears, Benny steps out onto thirteen and rings a golden glowing buzzer.

There is an archipelago of hairs running laterally along the bald ocean of the head of the man who opens the door, and in the false moon of electric lighting Benny imagines that this man’s cranium resembles the planet Saturn. There is a fluttering in his gut as he realizes that here is his host, the great writer himself, entertaining guests. He welcomes Benny warmly inside, and his smile smells faintly, but distinctly, like rubbing alcohol.

The entry room is filled with people. There is the woman whose small novel won heaps of praise; staring at her shoulders is the public intellectual, privately ineffectual. The air is sucked out of Benny’s belly by the realization that all the guests are dressed to the nines, and he, Benny, is in jeans and a chalk-colored button-up shirt with a dirty spread collar. Over there, smoking a Lucky and exhaling vaguely in the direction of an open window, the chief critic for an alpine literary journal is holding a handbag that must have cost four hundred subscriptions. The woman of the house, her hair a white cottony blaze, has on a black dress with the only adornment a silver broach in the shape of a double-headed eagle fastened above her right breast. Benny desires nothing more than to die and come back as an area rug.

Now the writer approaches, holding a saltshaker in his hand. He leads Benny to the center of the room and chimes a long coffee spoon again the saltshaker.

“My dear friend,” the host intones. “It seems you are a bit underdressed.” He has a muddy accent that could pickle a herring.

Benny wants to protest, but he does not dare say more, for he sees several of the audience covering their teeth to hide their laughters.

“Obviously you did not notice the watermark, containing precise and explicit directions, in the upper right hand corner of the invitation. Of course, this you would only have noticed had you held the paper up to the sunlight at three o’clock in the afternoon.” He pauses.

“Everybody else got the message.”

And everybody else, having gotten the message, erupts into an orgy of chuckles.

Benny rushes out to the elevator, ravaged by the darlings of the drawing room.

In the morning his fever has disappeared and, surprised at himself, he dresses in good cheer, with matching socks, shaves his chin, combs his hair, and enjoys the car ride with his father. The windows are cracked, there is a May breeze which washes through the interior of the car, infusing it with a scent of grass which makes them both feel as equals.

Sol accompanies Benny into his office and leaves him with a directive, worded like a request, to sketch a cap design for a new coconut soft drink. Sol will be meeting with the manufacturers in Beijing.

“I’m glad you’re feeling better. Let’s get at it,” he says, gently shutting the door behind him.

Benny, on this fine day, is engrossed in the task he’s meant to do. By three o’clock he sits, satisfied, with a sketch in front of him, awaiting his father’s footsteps. He luxuriates in the unfamiliar feeling that his fingers are fine little machines.

Sol enters, apprehensive, at the end of the day, tiptoeing into the office like a cat into the hidden wing of an old man’s mansion. There is a tingling in his chest as though a large check is about to be cashed, no silverware can fall off the finished plate, no drizzle can dampen his day.

As he approaches the desk he is pleased. In front of Benny is a large sheet of paper.

Sol leans over the desk. Turns the paper around. His eyes narrow. In the artificial lighting he must lean close to the paper to comprehend it. Puzzled, he turns it around yet again.

“Which side is up?” he asks.

“That way. As you have it now,” says Benny, who is clenching his thigh muscles under the desk from nerves.

“This way? This way?” says Sol, and he springs back up like a beanpole.

“Yes. The way you have it now.” Benny is smaller than he was at the start of the day. Flesh is being carved off his frame as he sinks into the mud.

“This way!” Sol repeats, but it is no longer a question. He grabs the sheet from the desk and holds it up in the air. “This way’s a goddamn coconut!” he rasps.

Is Benny a flower? He is wilting so quickly. He is all stem.

“It’s a cap shaped like a coconut. It’s what you asked for.”

“I told you to draw this? To draw a coconut?”

“For the coconut drink,” says Benny, his mouth no larger than a peanut.

“How the fuck do we stack these?”

“How do we what?”

“Stack them! How can we ship ’em unless we can stack ’em? How the hell do you stack a coconut? Welcome to earth, you pervert!”

Benny is road kill atop his office desk as a marvelous rainbow of paper shards arcs above his head.

When Rosa appears a half hour later, he is in the same position. She leads him, like an invalid, out to her car. She must open and close the door for him, and she almost tells him to remember to breathe. From the car she takes him straight to his room, pushes him past the mountain of books, and lays him in his bed. Benny groans, and in moments his eyes are closed. Sweat once more bubbles on his brow.

Rosa keeps vigil by her son’s bedside as Sol hides in the kitchen with a bucket of salted nuts. His heartburn has nearly climbed all the way up to his nose. He is not sure whether he has a broken heart or a busted spleen. “A nebbish,” he thinks to himself, “I have raised a nebbish.” Someone has taken a hammer to his heart. “But not a mean bone in his entire nebbish body.”

“I’ll bring you some juice,” Rosa says to her son.

“Can you bring me a book?” he asks, after a few sips. His voice has not even the strength of a light downpour.

“You shouldn’t read, pussycat. You ought to sleep.” She places two fingers on his cheek, sideways, the way a man does when he’s showing another man how much whiskey to pour. She rubs up and down.

Benny deflates back onto the pillow.

“Can you read to me, then?” He is terribly pale.

She is caught by surprise. She hasn’t read aloud to her son in twenty years. She goes over to examine the lowest bookshelf, still in neat order.

“From the pile,” he says. “Pick something from the pile.”

What she grabs is small and attractive, with carved gold lettering flowing over the leather cover like a stream.

“The Book of Psalms,” she says, puzzled. For all that the name is familiar to her, she’s never actually read the psalms before. But he is satisfied with the choice and so she sits down next to him and begins.

Her voice is uncertain. She sounds like a girl auditioning for a role, not a woman reading to her son. She feels silly.

I am wearied with my sigh, every night I drench my bed, with my tears I soak my couch.

She feels like a fool.

“Is this alright?” She is hoping Benny will tell her to stop, but his eyes are closed, and through a tight jaw, from the reaches of his throat, he makes an affirmative sound.

She notices, on the nightstand, a small clip reading lamp.

“Shall I shut off the lights?” she asks, and does so gladly, happy for the privacy. She closes the door as well, so the sound of Sol wandering the house like a ghost will not disturb them. It must be later than she realized. “Oh my,” she sighs, for the psalms are ghastly the first time around, but Benny, his bones visible through the transparency of his skin, is listening, though almost asleep.

“He will be ok by tomorrow,” she thinks, and measures the heat of his forehead. “He will not go back to work for Sol. Maybe he can go work for my cousin in California, the fat one, in the crafts store. He can sell his drawings there. It is not a lot but it can be something,” she thinks, “and this, this is not something at all.”

The lamp clipped onto the book gives off a very yellow light and it leaks jaundicely outside the borders of the pages, discoloring the dark room and the skin of mother and son.

By David: When he disguised his sanity before Abimelech, who drove him out and he left.

Rosa wonders if her son is having a nervous breakdown. He looks like a scarecrow in the lamplight. Drops of sweat cover his forehead and his teeth are chattering. She pulls the blanket up to his chin and leans close to his ear.

“Pumpkin pie. Darling. My sweet. Go to sleep. I’ll stop reading now.” She hasn’t used such tenderness in ages.

Benny lifts his head, and there is a damp spot where he was just lying.

“Keep reading a little?” he pleads, and his voice is so plaintive, all Rosa can say is, “Of course.” She turns the page and reads the next psalm.

I will incline my ear to the parable, with a harp I will solve my riddle.

Rosa’s breath is acrid and the harshness of it is a comfort to her. It is the breath of one who has spoken much, who has said difficult things. The words lift her up, and her voice, unaccustomed as she is to hearing it in darkness in an act, soothes her mind, and soothes Benny.

Then I said, ‘O that I had wings like the dove! I would fly off and find rest! Behold! I would wander afar, and dwell in the wilderness, Selah.’

Benny’s face is grey, the color of the morning paper. He lets out a feverish sigh from somewhere in his dreams.

And this is what he sees:

He is swimming in a murky sea. The light is weak, as though cheesecloth has been spread across the sun, and its rays are doubly refracted in the rippling water. Each pin of light seems to bounce off invisible particles and emerge elsewhere, or break into a thousand sloppy bits. There is silence. Benny only knows that he must swim down and retrieve two books lying on the seabed like sunken ships. Though the water is brackish, the books are illumed by a light shining from within them. As he goes deeper, the water is colder, and Benny feels the blood pulsing like elephant steps inside his temples.

His body learns the rhythm of what his mind cannot understand. Benny’s lungs are so full of air, he feels he can keep diving forever. The books are so close. He does not know why he must bring them to the surface, what they contain, or even what land awaits him where the water comes to shore. It is so easy to descend. He does not crease the water as he goes. Benny Munificence is learning to be a fish.

As he gets closer to the bottom he sees that it is a fire burning inside the books, a fire that does not consume them. The tips of his fingers, when he extends his arm to capture more distance, are brushed with their light.

Then suddenly his body is pulled; he is sideways now, and he is futilely trying to orient himself. He can no longer see the bed of the sea, and a carnival of objects floats by. There are tin cans that once held peas and beans; here is a shard of black glass; a rotting pig’s foot brushes against his cheek and he wants to wretch, but clamps his mouth shut with his hands. Firmly, he insists to the water that he will find the books again. The elephants stop tramping inside his temples just long enough to let through a brief splash of self-pity.

I do not place before my eyes any worthless thing; doing wayward deeds I despise, it does not cling to me. A perverted heart shall remain removed from me; I shall not know evil.

            Benny lets go of everything except his determination and rights himself. He has spied again, out of the corner of his eye, the great burning fire of the books, and he sees these treasures in all their gold. His movements are so fluid he is not pushing the water, he is sliding into it. Now he feels the heat of the fire, blazing at the bottom of the sea, upon his face.

He brings forth wind from His treasuries.

He is carried onward, fed by the light, a leopard through tall grass. The waters collude; Benny, with barely a ripple of his legs, reaches the seabed. There, there are the books, burning with a holy fire, and the light is blinding. The pages are still dry. What are these treasures he has found? He wants to read them, there, sitting cross-legged at the bottom of the lake. He begins to open them up.

Would I say: ‘Surely darkness will shadow me,’ then the night would become as light around me. Even darkness obscures not from You; and night is as luminous as the day – darkness and light are the same.

The fire, without so much as a flicker, is gone. Benny’s disappointment lasts no longer than a sneeze and he reorients himself, more easily in his dreams than ever in real life.

It is pitch black around him. He will not see the pages of these books again unless he makes it out of the water. He does not worry about finding his way through the stillness. Benny is pure intuition now. From somewhere in the blackness of Egypt he hears a sound. It is not the crashing of elephants inside his temples. This is gentler music, and though it seems he is moving in a direction neither north nor south, neither east nor west, he follows it, moving backwards through himself, propelled not by waves of water but by waves of sound. Sweet notes are calling him, summoning him with sheer mellifluous whispers; in his bookless hands he feels the lightness of the music.

Praise Him with the blast of the shofar; praise Him with lyre and harp. Praise Him with drum and dance; praise Him with organ and flute. Praise Him with clanging cymbals; praise Him with resonant trumpets. Let all souls praise God, Halleluyah!

Rosa has finished reading the one hundred and fiftieth, the final, psalm, and she closes the book. She kisses her son’s forehead, dry now of sweat and cool, and switches off the lamp. In the darkness she finds her way to the door. She will not read to her son tomorrow night.

For Benny now is swimming, swimming through the stillness, following the traces of the lyre and the harp. The trumpets are blowing for him. He does not need to exhale. Benny Munificence is once again a fish.

Ross Ufberg


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