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POLICE RAID MALE STRIP JOINT, the headline said. Crowds of women, the story went, were there to watch men take off their jockstraps. That made him laugh. Sometimes, the story went on, women stuffed money inside the jockstraps, the way men stuffed money into belly dancers' bras, to show their appreciation. That was bringing the old women's lib down to the nitty gritty, he figured. Did the women in those places sit there drinking beer and hollering, "Take it off!" he wondered. Anything was possible.
He cut out the story and filed it away in his file cabinet under S for strip. He kept his ideas for gags in that cabinet. A certain amount of organization never hurt. The women in that place the night the police raided it, the paper said, ranged in age from their teens to their mid-fifties. He tried to imagine his mother there, watching guys take off their clothes, maybe even tucking a few bills in some guy's waistband. He knew her. She'd probably slip the poor guy a quarter, which would sink inside his jockstrap like a thin, cold stone. She'd never part with folding money if she could help it.
One of the women in the strip joint was quoted as saying, "My husband would kill me if he knew I was here." Maybe that had been his mother. Out for a night on the town. When she said she was going to a meeting for better day-care centers, she was really turning on at a male strip joint. Another lady, there with her teenage daughter, if you could believe what you read, said her husband thought it was her bowling night.
This was good stuff. He might be able to work it into a routine. For late-night TV. Those guys got away with murder. Anything went, as long as it didn't come on in prime time. (And once in a while, even if it did.) After hours, the air was blue with the gags they dished out. By then the network bigwigs figured the youth of the nation were asleep and beyond contamination. Little did they know.
Another possible gag presented itself:
NOSY NEIGHBOR: What does your son do?
PROUD MOTHER: Oh, he's a stripper.
NEIGHBOR: You mean in a paint store or a body shop?
PROUD MOM: No, he takes off his clothes. Makes good bread, too.
It needed work but definitely had potential. Maybe next time his father gave him the old what-are-your-plans-for-the-future routine, he'd hit him with that. Shake him up some. Well, actually, Dad, I'm thinking of becoming a stripper. That'd really make the old man's hair stand on end.
When he was alone in the house, like now, he liked to turn on the stereo and dance, hands in his pockets, jingling his change. Once, having recently seen an old Fred Astaire movie on TV, he'd leaped over the love seat in the living room (the parlor, as his sister Leslie liked to call it) and hadn't quite made it. The sole casualty had been a crystal vase full of phony dried flowers his mother kept on a low table.
So the dog was, had to be, the fall guy. The world is full of fall guys. The dog did it. His mother bought that one. The dog, God rest him, had since died of old age, brought on, no doubt, by his punishment: K-rations for a week, with no attention paid to his mournful, blameless countenance. If it'd been a Disney movie, the dog would've spoken up, declaring his innocence. Then he, John Hollander, would've had it in spades.
When he thought at all about the future, which he did as little as possible, he thought he'd become a gag writer. Then work his way up, maybe wind up writing gags for a comedian. Or a conglomerate of comedians. Maybe even help out Woody Allen once in a while. A conglomerate of comedians interested him. Why not. Everything these days was a conglomerate of something. In school he had no difficulty making his friends laugh. In school, he was known as something of a wit.
The telephone rang. He considered not answering, but if it was his mother, which it undoubtedly was, and he didn't answer, she'd call the cops and ask them to check the house. He lifted the receiver.
"John? That you?"
Who the hell did she think it was, the mailman?
"I forgot to leave you a note. There's stew on top of the stove. All you have to do is heat it. Add a little water. It might be dry. And chocolate pudding in the refrigerator."
"How'd you do on the test?"
"I'm not sure. We didn't get them back yet."
"Well, get your homework out of the way. We won't be late." He held the receiver away from his ear and made faces at it. Her voice took on an edge, as if she could see him. "Not too much television now. Get the work done first."
"Yeah, Ma." He had a sudden fantasy of a blonde waiting for him just out of his mother's view. Tried to imagine his mother's face if he said, "Buzz off, Ma. I got a lady upstairs so hot for my bod she's got steam coming out of her ears. She's up there right now, lying on my bed with her knees around her neck, waiting for me."
"Did Les call?"
"No, Ma," he said and hung up before she could think of anything more—any more instructions, any more questions.
He wrapped his tie around his neck and pulled it tight, watching in the mirror to see if his face turned blue. Strangulation wasn't his idea of a first-class way to die. Drowning, he'd heard, could be a sensual experience, if you didn't fight it. He wasn't against sensual experiences, but he was too good a swimmer. He could never let himself be sucked under, all those fish making goo-goo eyes at him, sucking on his toes for starters.
Only last week he'd read about a guy who'd been through an extraordinary experience. The guy was swimming, a long way from shore, when the air in his scuba tank ran out and he started to drown. He knew he was drowning. Then, all of a sudden, he was up in the air looking down at himself swimming. He also said he had a panoramic view of the beach, as if he were in a plane. Really weird. Then the guy said this great feeling of peace came over him, like he was in his mother's womb, he said. When you thought about it, sloshing around in the womb left something to be desired. What if you had a case of claustrophobia? What then? There were better, more peaceful places to be than your mother's womb, or any other old womb, for that matter. For Christ's sake.
The story went on to say that the guy was pulled from the water in the nick of time. Due to the fact that some guys fortuitously happened to be walking along the beach at the right moment. If this guy was telling the truth and wasn't some weirdo looking for a shot of free publicity—like he was in the skin diving business and was trying to drum up customers, for instance—it was a one-in-a-million event. Anyway, when they pulled him from the water, he was clinically dead. His lips were black, his heart had stopped. They gave him a fast shot of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, a little heart massage, and he came back, good as new. The Greeks called it "anabiosis," or reincarnation after death. You had to hand it to the Greeks. They had a word for everything.
That was something to sink your teeth into, being brought back from death. That would be cool. To get that close and come back with all your marbles so you could regale your friends with the story of what it was like to die. You could clean up by writing a book about your experiences, which could be turned into a movie and maybe, the way things were going, a Broadway musical. Death set to music. Maybe they'd sign you up for the lead role and a percentage of the gross. Plus you'd get to write the screenplay. There were all kinds of ways to make a buck, if you thought it through.
A near-death experience, they called it. He wouldn't mind trying one on for size. The ultimate. My God, that'd have women hanging on your every word. They'd go ape. You'd have to beat 'em off with clubs. Better than any sexy aftershave. Anabiosis. That was the kind of thing Keith lost his mind over. As long as you could be sure there'd be somebody to haul you out at the crucial moment, somebody to pump out the old stomach, turn off the gas, give you a shot of CPR. Whatever. That was what made for the happy ending.
He unbuttoned his jacket, took off his shirt and tie. He went to St. Mark's, one of those antedeluvian joints that required full regalia every day. Everything but the vest and watch chain. Day in, day out. Out of touch with reality. That's what his school was. Out of touch, like a lot of people.
He flexed his muscles, stuck out his chest, and studied himself dispassionately in the mirror.
You little wimp. You couldn't fuck an ostrich. Who do you think you are? Woody'd have the thing sewn up by now. Woody was no beauty, but one word out of the side of his mouth and that blonde upstairs, just out of his mother's range finder, would be hard at work right now, cooking up a vat of chicken soup just like Woody's mom used to make. He saw her standing at the stove, bare except for an apron tied around her spelling out CHEF AT WORK in big red letters.
He went out to the kitchen, turned on the light under the stew, and ate the chocolate pudding standing up. When he was little, his mother had always made him clean his plate before she kicked through with the dessert. Every chance he got now, he ate dessert as a first course. When the stew was barely warm, he ate it from the pot. Suppose I was an orphan, he thought, maybe a foster kid, living in some total stranger's house, and they beat me, starved me, held my hand over the pilot light when I wet my bed. He'd read terrible stories about little kids brought to hospitals with mysterious burns or bruises all over their bodies, with broken bones, concussions, venereal diseases, even. Stories about little kids dying and being buried with their teddy bears beside them. It made him almost physically ill to read these stories, but he did anyway. They acted like a magnet, drawing him, holding him. He was repelled but fascinated. He thought he could probably kill a person who committed atrocities upon a defenseless child. He thought he might be capable of murder. Everyone was, he believed. Given the right circumstances, the right degree of provocation, the necessary level of rage or urge for retribution, everyone was capable of murder.
On impulse, he took a bottle of ketchup from the cupboard, shook it well, and spread it around. There was something about his mother's immaculate kitchen floor that asked for it. He pretended he was an artist, Picasso, maybe, an abstract artist, who made his fortune painting in ketchup. Every time the artist made a mistake, he could lick it up. He put some in his palm and smeared it on the gleaming cabinets. It made a powerful artistic statement.
On the other hand, this could be the scene of a murder.
"Looks like a crime's been committed here," he said, pulling at his chin, thinking hard.
"What makes you say that? Ain't no body I can see." Sometimes he knocked himself out.
"This much blood, got to be a body."
"Maybe the dog cut his tail. Labs do that. Bleed a lot. Lot of blood when a Lab cuts his tail."
"Maybe you're right. No body, no crime, right? Might as well clean up the mess and pretend nothing happened, eh?"
Someday he thought he might write a play. Like Woody. He took a bottle of cleaner from under the sink and went to work with a sponge. When the place was pristine, so pristine that even his mother wouldn't be able to detect a trace of ketchup, he ran hot water into the stew pot and slipped in the dessert dish. Then he went upstairs, hung his shirt and tie and jacket on the back of a chair, and took a leak. He studied himself, wondering if he was normal. Probably not. Probably he was stunted. They said you could tell by the size of a guy's nose how big his pecker was. He thought that was baloney, although his nose did seem to have grown some since he'd turned sixteen. Maybe it was his imagination. But there was no denying it looked bigger. But not his pecker.
Ann Landers said it didn't make any difference what size a guy's pecker was. She printed a letter from a guy who said he was a bachelor in his mid-twenties who'd never had sex. He was embarrassed, he wrote, because he thought his pecker was inadequate. He was afraid of failing, so he didn't try. Old Ann fired back a letter telling the guy to go for it, the size of your pecker (his word, not Ann's), she said, was irrelevant. Let me know how things turn out for you, she wrote. She always liked to know how things turned out. You had to hand it to her. She answered the tough ones head-on. He admired that. He kept a close watch, checked the paper every day to see if the guy wrote back to say, "Thanks, Ann, you saved my life," maybe giving some details, the way people did. Up to now, there'd been no reply. Probably the guy was too busy.
He finished his self-examination and went into his parents' room, made a flying tackle and landed, face down and spread-eagled, in the middle of their bed. For a few minutes he stayed there, breathing in the scent of taffeta. His mother had the hots for taffeta bedspreads. He embraced one of the pillows, crushed it in his powerful arms, felt it go limp. If he wanted, he could have an orgy in this bed. Nobody was stopping him. If he ever did have an orgy, this is where he'd have it. The only thing missing was a mirrored ceiling. And a knowledgeable friend of his, already a freshman at Duke, said satin sheets helped.
He lay there, thinking about the size of peckers, remembering the annual or, when he was very young, the monthly feel job he'd endured, courtesy of old Doc Spear, the goddam pediatrician. That had always been a low spot, the feel job. He closed his eyes, saw his mother solemnly escorting him into the examination room. Even at four or five, he'd resented the doc taking liberties. Taking hold of his pecker and squeezing it like it was a grapefruit the doc was thinking of buying and wanted to make sure was ripe. The doc wore big thick glasses that blotted out his eyes. In that phony jovial voice of his, he'd ask, "How're the waterworks, son?"
I'm not your son so don't call me son, he remembered thinking. The worst part was his mother, standing in the corner, staring at the wall like a dog in a Booth cartoon, studying the doc's medical degree. Pretending she didn't know the liberties the doc was taking with him. Why didn't she just stay outside and read the National Geographic?
The day came when he handled that problem. He was nine, in the fourth grade, where the teacher found him obstreperous and inattentive. He and his mother were sitting in the doc's office, twiddling their thumbs, waiting for the summons from the inner sanctum. "You may go in now," the nurse said, and his mother had leaped to her feet as if someone had goosed her.
In a very loud voice, filled with so much authority he'd been astonished by his own boldness, he'd said, "I want to go in by myself." His mother had turned, startled, to see who had spoken. A big fat kid was sitting there, reading a comic, waiting his turn. He could see that kid now, see him perfectly, see how the kid's tight pants were caught up in his crotch. "Bully for you," the kid had said, punching the air with his fist, then ducking down behind his comic. His mother stayed where she was, and he'd gone in alone, walked right in, and hopped up on the examining table like a pro. That was symbolic, he figured. A sort of coming of age. From that day forward, when they went to the doctor's, his mother stayed put.
The telephone beside the bed rang. He leaped off the taffeta bedspread and smoothed it hastily. His mother was giving her famous double cheek.
"Yes? Who iz?" He used his Hungarian accent to throw her off course, make her think she had the wrong number.
"John, it's me, Les. How are you?"
"How's it going, Les?" He tried, unsuccessfully, to keep the pleasure out of his voice. Leslie, in her second year of college, was all of the good things: bright and beautiful and funny and honest. Les could hold her own anywhere. He figured she'd grab a magna or summa something when she graduated and go on to head up a big corporation. Maybe make the Fortune list of the ten most highly paid women in the country. He could see her flying her own plane to board meetings, maybe even making it to the Supreme Court.
"I'll be home next week on my spring break," Leslie said. He could hear music and laughter in the background. There always seemed to be music and laughter in the background when Leslie called. College must be a perpetual party.
"I'm bringing a friend, and I wanted to let Mom know so she'd have plenty of warning. You know how she is."
"They're not home," he said, lying back on the bed, walking up the wall in his stocking feet. "They're cutting a rug someplace, probably getting stoned. You know them. Is your friend male or female?"
"Female. You'll like her, John. She's outrageous."
Excerpted from Other Plans by Constance C. Greene. Copyright © 1985 Constance C. Greene. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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