Eleven Karensby Peter Lefcourt
Not since Flaubert's L'éducation sentimentale has a novel so vividly described man's helplessness in the face of woman. In this tale of sexual education, the narrator recounts his experiences with eleven fascinating women -- all of whom happen to be named Karen.
In an attempt to explain this statistical anomaly, he takes us on a journey that/i>… See more details below
Not since Flaubert's L'éducation sentimentale has a novel so vividly described man's helplessness in the face of woman. In this tale of sexual education, the narrator recounts his experiences with eleven fascinating women -- all of whom happen to be named Karen.
In an attempt to explain this statistical anomaly, he takes us on a journey that begins in the fifth grade when he is the groom at his own shotgun wedding. He survives this ritual sacrifice to go on to his other Karens: a high school cheerleader who teaches him how to run the bases, a young disciple of Margaret Mead whom he meets playing volleyball in a nudist camp in Pennsylvania, a lovely Italian woman with Monica Vitti eyes who steals his heart on the Via Appia Antica in Rome, a statuesque African capitalist who literally takes the shirt off his back in Togo, a sexually confused waitress who appropriates his sperm in Quebec, and a boozy southern actress in L. A. who can't decide whether she is Vivien Leigh or Joan Collins.
From each of his Karens he learns about women and life. And as he gets older, though not necessarily wiser, he marches on intrepidly to confront the next Karen who inexorably crosses his path.
Eleven Karens is both a coming-of-age story and a touching homage to women -- a funny and tender tale told in the delightfully cracked voice of one of the most unusual comic novelists writing today.
- Simon & Schuster
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Chapter One: The Hair Job
There was always a Karen, even before the first one. There was a past-life Karen and a prenatal Karen, and a Karen who took me from my mother to lay me down gently in the bassinet in the hospital where I was born.
And there were undoubtedly Karens who took care of me from time to time in my very early years, who spelled my mother when she was tired, who played with me, bathed me with tenderness, took me for walks, holding on to one hand as I tottered along exploring my universe.
But the first Karen in my life was none of these. She has the distinction of being not only the first one I slept with but the first one I married. When I tell you that this Karen was named Karen Shrummer and that I knew her in the fifth grade, you'll accuse me of lying.
Of course I'm lying. Reread the epigraph.
I can see her now, sitting at the desk near the wardrobe, her hands folded in front of her, waiting for Mrs. Murtaugh to dismiss us. Mrs. Murtaugh was red-haired, pallid, a woman whose patience had been honed thin by too many years of teaching the fifth grade in a New York City public school. She slapped me once, good and hard, when I was horsing around with Kenny Birnbaum, my best man, in the back of the class.
Tell you the truth, I don't blame her for whacking me. I can only imagine what a dull headache at 3:20 in the afternoon of a hot early-June day in a school in Queens in the mid-fifties felt like. You're ten minutes from peace and quiet, from a mentholated Salem in the teachers' lounge, and two boys are loudly playing knights on horseback in the back of the classroom.
I took the blow well, managing to stay mounted on Kenny Birnbaum's shoulders. When Mrs. Murtaugh, losing it entirely, started to screech, I calmly dismounted and returned to my desk, running the gauntlet of girls with their hands folded in front of them, hearing a collective intake of breath, a palpable fluttering coming from them.
This incident earned me a bad-boy reputation in the class, a reputation that I did not entirely deserve but one that I was in no rush to disclaim. From that moment on it was clear to the fifth grade girls that I was a threat to civilized society. I would have to be domesticated. I'm convinced that that was the moment in which they decided to marry me off to Karen Shrummer.
Why Karen Shrummer? Why not Denise Demarco? Or Bonnie Baer? Or, for that matter, why not that fetching little strumpet Bertha Haas, who went to parties in costume jewelry and with a dab of her mother's Shalimar behind her ears?
I had dark thoughts about Bertha Haas, but I don't think I would have married her. You didn't marry Bertha Haas. Karen Shrummer, on the other hand, was the girl you took the long walk down the aisle with.
Still, I wasn't envisaging getting married to anyone yet. I had plans. I wanted to be a shortstop for the Dodgers, then maybe go out west and herd cattle in Montana. At that point in my life I didn't see settling down to TV and pot roast with Karen Shrummer or with any other girl.
But it made little difference what I wanted. Once the decision had been made to marry me off to Karen Shrummer, I was a marked man.
The parties we had in the fifth grade were organized by the girls. We showed up, hair slicked back, starched white assembly shirts, in sweat socks and shiny shoes, and hovered around the Cracker Jacks and Pepsi while the girls congregated in the other corner, admiring one another's dresses and occasionally walking over and dragging one of us off to dance.
All of this, of course, was just prelude. Around ten o'clock we got down to business. Business consisted of prepubescent kissing games that were played out in a darkened corner of someone's knotty-pine finished basement to the strains of Johnny Mathis from the portable RCA Victrola.
The two principal games were Spin the Bottle and Post Office. Spin the Bottle was the less interesting of the two. It was played out in public: You had to kiss the girl in front of everybody else, which provided for the girls a sense of collective triumph and for us a sort of collective humiliation. But Post Office was strictly down and dirty. With Post Office you got to do it alone in a closet in the dark.
The way it worked was that somebody would say they had a letter for you from a girl, and then you marched off into the closet with that girl, often taller than you, and either kissed her or stood there counting to sixty. You would have thought that they could have come up with a more imaginative way of getting a boy and a girl alone in a dark space.
I had gotten letters before from Karen Shrummer and had a vague memory of soft lips with a cool aftertaste of peppermint Life Savers. But her letters weren't like the letters you got from Bertha Haas. Those letters left you dizzy. After you got a letter from Bertha Haas you needed a moment to compose yourself before wobbling out of the closet to face the disapproval of the girls.
On the Saturday night in June after I got slugged by Mrs. Murtaugh, there was a party at Denise Demarco's. I wound up getting more letters from Karen Shrummer than I had ever gotten before. We marched off together to the closet and locked lips for sixty seconds at a time. A minute is a long time to stand there with your lips pressed against someone without doing something with your hands, but your hands would get slapped down if they wandered. And forget doing anything with your tongue. If you got cute with your tongue, they'd bite it off.
Nevertheless, that night, after getting the third letter from her, I found my hands wandering a little up her back, if only to break the monotony of what was degenerating into a simple act of physical stamina. She didn't stop me. Instead she put her hands on the back of my neck and did the hair thing.
Remember the hair thing? Movie actresses would run their hands through the back of a man's hair. Your mother would be watching Million Dollar Movie on television and break into a hot sweat when Loretta Young would run her hands through Jeff Chandler's hair.
I walked out of that closet a little wobbly, not unlike like the way I walked out after getting a letter from Bertha Haas. This wobbliness, however, was clearly acceptable to the other girls. They had baited the trap, and I had bit hard.
From that point on, I was a dead man.
In the cafeteria at lunchtime there seemed to be an inordinate amount of attention directed at me. I'd be about to blow my straw into Larry Burkhardt's face when I'd notice the girls watching me from the next table. I'd look over and see them, with their neatly wrapped Velveeta-cheese sandwiches, surrounding their candidate, Karen Shrummer, who sat there with a self-satisfied look on her face.
Then there was the school bus. I found that there was usually only one seat available, the one beside Karen Shrummer. So we rode home together, silently, eyes straight ahead. In retrospect I can see the inexorability of the series of events that unfolded that June which would lead me to the altar. But at the time I was clueless.
One day I had the following conversation with Kenny Birnbaum. We were in his basement playing Ping-Pong when he suddenly asked, "You like Karen Shrummer?"
"Uh-uh," I protested.
"So how come you're getting married to her?"
"What are you talking about?"
"After school ends. In Bonnie Baer's garage."
"Get out of here."
"It's not true?"
"Kenny, don't you think I'd know about it if I was getting married? I mean, I'd have to get a suit."
"But if you were getting married, I'd be your best man, right?"
"I was the best man at my brother Nathan's wedding last summer. I got to hold the ring."
"There's not going to be any wedding, okay?"
I served, low and hard, with a lot of topspin.
"Three serving zero. . ."
That week was the annual class trip to the Museum of Natural History in Manhattan. There was an hour bus ride from Queens, and I found myself, big surprise, beside Karen Shrummer.
We rode in silence till we got to Queens Boulevard and she offered me a Life Saver. I took it, noncommittally, like Rory Calhoun accepting a cup of coffee from the schoolmarm, and went back to staring at the back of the seat in front of us.
She broke the silence just before we went through the Midtown Tunnel."I'm going to Howe Caverns with my family on Saturday."
"What are you doing on Saturday?"
"You ever been to Howe Caverns?"
We entered the dark, vaginal interior of the Queens-Midtown Tunnel, and I looked out the window at the cops sealed in the glass booths and thought they had great jobs. Which will give you some idea of where my mind was at the moment.
We were still in the tunnel when she said, "My sister can't go because she has hives, so my mother said I could bring a friend."
"So do you want to go?"
She had me. I had already admitted to never having been there and to having no plans for Saturday. So I nodded, said something vague, which I thought had been, at best, noncommittal. But by the time we got to the museum the assignation had been communicated to the other girls. There was more than the usual amount of whispering among the Sisterhood as we trudged past the big birchbark canoe and the other American Indian exhibits.
In the cafeteria, Kenny Birnbaum sat down next to me and said, "So you're going to Howe Caverns with Karen Shrummer Saturday?"
"Who told you?"
"Her sister has hives."
The Shrummers picked me up in their new 1956 Chevy Impala at 8 o'clock Saturday morning. Gordon and Marilyn Shrummer sat in the front in Bermuda shorts, smoking Old Golds with the windows open, and Karen Shrummer sat in the back, burrowed into a corner, wearing dungarees with the cuffs rolled up, a sweatshirt, and sneakers.
We took the Triborough Bridge into Manhattan, then the West Side Highway to the Sawmill River Parkway to the Taconic State Parkway north.
Gordon Shrummer drove with maddening regularity, keeping the speedometer needle right on 50, one hand on the Impala's enamel steering wheel, the other hand holding the Old Gold. Karen Shrummer and I weren't talking until Marilyn said, "Awfully quiet back there."
So we talked about school, running out of gas after a couple of minutes and going the rest of the way in unpunctuated silence.
It was 11:30 when we got to Howe Caverns. The sun had burned off the cloud layer, and it was hot. Still, we were told to bring sweaters with us down into the cavern, where the temperature supposedly went as low as 58 degrees Fahrenheit.
We followed Gordon and Marilyn down the stone stairs into the belly of the cavern. For a while it was single file, and I was behind Karen Shrummer walking down the steps.
At ten and a half Karen Shrummer did not yet have a woman's body. As I recall. There may have been tiny breastlets under the sweatshirt, maybe even a training bra, but that would have been the extent of it. But I have to tell you I can still remember what she looked like from the back in dungarees walking down narrow stone steps into cold weather. That image goes into the Oldies but Goodies Hall of Fame, alongside such early entries as Maria Schell dancing for Yul Brynner in The Brothers Karamazov and Brigitte Bardot sunbathing nude in And God Created Woman.
But the day itself, as far as I was concerned, was a lead balloon. When you've seen one stalactite, you've seen them all. There was an endless geology lecture and a trip through the souvenir shop, where Gordon bought a collection of color slides, which he no doubt showed to captive audiences in his finished basement. We had hamburgers and french fries in a little cafeteria down below, shivering in our sweaters, and then took the long climb back up.
On the way back to the car, Gordon put his arm around my shoulders and said, "Wasn't that great?"
"Yeah," I said.
"Nature made that thousands of years ago."
"It'll be around for your children and their children too, won't it?"
"Sure. . ."
When we got in the car, Marilyn said, "Now stop chattering away so much back there, you two." Gordon laughed. Karen Shrummer and I didn't.
It was a long drive home. Between the heat, the hamburgers, and the monotonous drone of the Impala's engine locked into its 50 mph cadence, I fell asleep before we reached the city. I reawoke as Gordon handed the guy in the Triborough Bridge tollbooth a quarter, and when I did I discovered Karen Shrummer's head resting on my shoulder. She jerked awake, as if she too had been asleep for a while.
Did her head drift unconsciously onto my shoulder in her sleep? I would never know. We quickly separated, each of us flushed and not risking a look at the other one. But the fact remained that we had fallen asleep together in the back of the car.
Then we heard Gordon say loudly to Marilyn, clearly for our benefit, "Well, Marilyn, it looks like those two are just going to have to get married, since they've already slept together."
"You bet," Marilyn replied, and the two of them had a long, loud laugh at our expense.
I couldn't even look at Karen Shrummer till her father pulled the Impala up in front of our house and I turned and mumbled a hasty "see you." Then I uttered my thank-yous to Gordon and Marilyn and got out of the car. The Impala, already sporting its WE'VE BEEN TO HOWE CAVERNS sticker, backed out of the driveway.
The first thing that Kenny Birnbaum said to me on the way to school Monday morning was, "You really sleep with Karen Shrummer?"
There was only one possible source for the story, and she wasn't meeting my eyes. Not even in the cafeteria, where I made it a point to stare right at her, as if to say, "Excuse me, it was bad enough having to listen to that cretin of a father of yours in his Bermuda shorts make bad jokes, but must the entire fifth grade of P. S. 26 be in on this as well?"
I was helpless in the wake of the story. She had obviously told everyone about her father's little joke, and it was the joke that created the momentum for the inevitable next step. The marriage. I'm convinced that without the joke the marriage might not have been possible.
The first I heard of the marriage was, once again, from Kenny Birnbaum, whom the girls were obviously using as a conduit to me. I assumed he thought he was being funny when he said to me, "I guess you got to marry her now, huh?"
We were opening bubble gum packages to see what baseball cards we had when he made this bizarre statement.
"What're you talking about?"
"Karen Shrummer. You can't sleep with her and not marry her, can you?"
"Would you come off it, Kenny," I said, and started shuffling through the cards."You want Bobby Shantz?"
"Got him. Her father's going to come after you with a shotgun."
"All I did was fall asleep in the car on the way back from Howe Caverns, okay? You got Allie Reynolds?"
"Uh-uh. I'll give you Snider for him."
"You'll give me the Duke for Allie Reynolds?"
"I got two of them. . . . If you did it I could be the best man."
"Kenny, I'm ten and a half. You don't get married at ten and a half."
"They do so. In Kentucky."
"You got to be at least sixteen, even in Kentucky."
"Uh-uh. Herbie Karp said he heard that an eight-year-old girl had a baby in Kentucky."
I didn't even know why I was having this conversation with Kenny Birnbaum. He was a notorious disseminator of misinformation. He had told me that after his heart attack President Eisenhower had a secret battery-powered artificial heart put in that only Mamie and the CIA knew about and that they had to plug him into the wall every night while he slept to recharge the battery.
"Look, I'm not getting married, okay?"
But even as I stood there trading baseball cards with Kenny Birnbaum plans were being made. The Sisterhood was hard at work. The date was being set. The venue chosen. The bride's wardrobe discussed.
As June progressed and the weather got hotter, we sat in class with the windows wide open and gazed longingly out at the parched grass, waiting for school to be over.
One day, a few minutes from dismissal, there was an air-raid drill. We had to file out into the hallway and sit there in silence, our heads down in our laps, our arms over them protectively. As if our arms could save us from the radiation the Russians were dropping on us.
I found myself next to Louise Leventhal, a skinny girl with stringy black hair and an overbite. When Mrs. Murtaugh was down at the other end of the hall, looking impatiently at the clock, waiting for her deliverance, Louise Leventhal turned to me and whispered, "Saturday afternoon. Three o'clock. Bonnie Baer's garage."
"What?" I whispered back.
"The wedding," she whispered, louder. Mrs. Murtaugh's head turned toward us. Louise Leventhal put her head back under her arms.
On the school bus home, Karen Shrummer was sitting with Louise Leventhal. I got stuck next to Bonnie Baer because Kenny Birnbaum's mother had picked him at school up for his monthly allergy shot.
"What are you going to wear?" she asked me.
"What do you mean, wear?"
"You should wear at least a sport jacket. And don't wear sneakers, okay?"
"I don't know if I can come."
"You better be there," she said.
All that week, these types of peremptory conversations took place. Various girls would approach me with wardrobe suggestions, questions about the ring, admonitions about showing up and being on time.
Kenny Birnbaum had by now openly defected. He started obsessing about the ring. I had to have a ring, he kept saying. Time was running out.
He dragged me down to Union Turnpike after school to scour the Cafoutas' Five-and-Dime store for something appropriate. They had costume jewelry there, but the cheapest ring was a buck seventy-five, and I wasn't blowing seven weeks' worth of allowances to give to a girl in some shotgun ceremony in Bonnie Baer's garage.
He said, fine, he'd buy the ring. He was the one who was supposed to hold it anyway, and it made no difference who actually bought it, did it? All I had to do was put it on her finger.
"What if I won't do it?" I asked.
"You have to. You have to have a ring when you get married."
"What if I won't get married?"
He looked at me, his eyes watery from sneezing, and said, "You got to."
"Because. . ."
It was clear to him that I had to because somebody had to. And I was the one they had chosen to do this. So it had to be done.
News of my recalcitrance was evidently reported to the Sisterhood because they decided to roll out the heavy artillery. That afternoon they made sure to have Karen Shrummer next to me on the bus.
She was wearing a yellow seersucker dress and open-toed black shoes, her hair tied up with a red ribbon. Even at three o'clock in the afternoon, you could still smell the Ivory soap on her.
As usual, we didn't say much. But as she was getting off, the stop before mine, her hand reached over, ostensibly to hold on to the back of the seat for balance, and as it did, her hand brushed the back of my head.
"Sorry," she said, regaining her balance, and continuing past Bonnie Baer, Louise Leventhal, and Denise Demarco.
It was a hit-and-run hair job. No doubt about it. She had gotten off that bus every day without balancing herself on the back of the seat.
Anyway, that was Friday, the day before the wedding. That evening I was interrupted at dinner by two phone calls. The first one was from Kenny Birnbaum.
"I'm eating," I said, into the hall phone.
"The condemned man ate a hearty meal."
But the second phone call was the one that counted. It was from Karen Shrummer.
"Hi," she said.
"Hi," I replied.
There was a long pause. Finally she said, "You really want to do this tomorrow, don't you?"
I didn't know what to say. I really had no idea what I wanted at that moment.
What I heard in her voice was fear. Fear that I wouldn't show up, fear that she would be there all alone, stood up at the altar, in front of the entire Sisterhood, whose exemplar she was.
Somewhere in the hard wiring, there was a better part of me. Or a worse. I'm not sure. For all I know, it could have been the hair job, but I said, "Yes."
I didn't leave my first Karen standing at the altar. Not only did I show up but I showed up wearing my one and only sport jacket, a blue-and-white plaid, and my Thom McAn brown shoes.
Bonnie Baer's garage was decorated with crepe paper for the occasion. The entire Sisterhood was present. Some girl had dragged Larry Burkhardt along. He and Kenny Birnbaum and I were the only boys.
The girls had worked hard to make the garage look like a wedding chapel. There was an aisle created with a dozen bridge chairs, six on each side. They had thrown a couple of old sheets over Bonnie Baer's father's snow tires and lawn mower. There was a portable record player plugged in to the electric socket that Bonnie Baer's father must have plugged his soldering iron into.
Though I would have preferred her in dungarees, Karen Shrummer looked terrific in somebody's sister's white communion dress with somebody's mother's white veil and a pair of white pumps, at least a size too big for her.
It was very well organized, from start to finish. Kenny Birnbaum and I walked down the aisle to a scratchy Mendelssohn. We stood in front of a folding stack table and waited for the "Here Comes the Bride" part of the Wedding March.
Larry Burkhardt had been drafted to give the bride away. What did they have on him? I wondered. To his credit, he did it without smirking, but you could tell he had better things to do with his Saturday afternoon than watch one of his own take the pipe.
He walked down the aisle with Karen Shrummer looking as if he was at his grandmother's funeral. I stood gaping at her, swept up in the white vision in front of me, momentarily paralyzed until Bonnie Baer whispered loudly, "You have to go meet her."
I walked toward her; then Karen Shrummer herself turned me around and put her arm on mine. We walked another ten feet and we were in front of the stack table.
Bonnie Baer took out a piece of paper and read the whole ceremony. Dearly beloved. We are gathered here together. Do you? Do you? Does anybody here object? And so forth. By the book. Verbatim from every wedding you've even seen on TV.
I stood there, a deer in the headlights, and gave the appropriate answers. At the crucial moment, Kenny Birnbaum dropped the $1.75 ring, which rolled under the snow tires and had to be retrieved.
When Bonnie Baer told me that I could kiss the bride, I could sense the collective breathlessness of the Sisterhood. This was it, the sanctification, the point to the whole exercise.
I moved in, Casanova with a hair lick, and tasted the peppermint and warm breath of my bride. The back of my head waited for a hair job. In vain.
There would be no hair job then, or at any time in the future, from Karen Shrummer. She didn't need to do hair jobs anymore. I had walked down the aisle; I had put the ring on her finger.
As soon as it was over, as soon as Mendelssohn ground to a halt and the girls all gathered around Karen Shrummer to congratulate her, Kenny Birnbaum, Larry Burkhardt, and I made our escape. We went home, got into sneakers and jeans, and twenty minutes later we were back on the street playing stickball, whistling in the dark, as if nothing had happened.
But we each knew that something profound had happened that afternoon in Bonnie Baer's garage. We didn't know exactly what it was, but it lay there undigested in the pits of our stomachs. We danced through the stickball game like ghostly figures. We were dead men, moving in slow motion.
I went to camp that summer, tried to feel up a few sixth-grade girls, with no success. When I got back to school next year Karen Shrummer barely gave me the time of day. She was going out with some guy in the seventh grade who wore a leather jacket and pegged pants. The parties became less frequent and were relatively sober affairs. We watched movies and played charades. The post office had shut down for good.
There should, of course, be an asterisk next to Karen Shrummer's name. The same clinical standard was not applied to her as it was to the others. You may think I was just padding my numbers by including her. But that would be beside the point.
She remains a Karen, nonetheless. The first Karen. La Prima. She set the standard. She left her fingerprints on my heart.
Copyright © 2003 by Chiaroscuro Productions
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Very few writers combine both humor and sentiment. In all his books Peter Lefcourt has the ability to make you both laugh and cry. Eleven Karens is a delightfully wistful memoir, which the author warns us may or may not be fiction, of the romantic and sexual education of a young man in the 1970's and 1980's at the hands of eleven women all named Karen. It takes the reader from the shotgun wedding he endured at age ten to his adventures in a nudist camp in Pennsylvania, his year as a student in Italy, to being a Peace Corps Volunteer in Togo. It's a terrific read.