Circle Is a Balloon and a Compass Both: Stories about Human Love

Circle Is a Balloon and a Compass Both: Stories about Human Love

by Ben Greenman


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A Circle is a Balloon and Compass Both is a collection of stories about love, the most elusive and problematic of all phenomena. With a mix of traditional, literary prose and bold–some might even say irresponsible–experimentation, Ben Greenman explores the ins and outs of modern romance. Expect tears, nudity, and recrimination. From the half-hearted summer affair between a part-time bartender and a married doctor in a Miami hotel to the cryptic pseudo-erotic love letters to a friend who is “more than a friend,” we experience the love of pop songs, the love of cohabitation in Chicago, and love that is so transporting it takes us to the moon–literally.

“Like Green Day did for punk rock, and The Matrix for kung-fu flicks, this new collection from New Yorker editor Greenman could well become an advocate for the short story with those who haven’t been interested in the form. Amusing, palatable . . . it’s precisely the sort of thing that can gain a new audience for a genre.” Time Out Chicago

“A smart, tightly structured collection . . . playful, wryly comical.” The Brooklyn Rail

“Seriously funny.” San Francisco Chronicle

“Wildly inventive, sometimes surreal, but tenderly told, these stories give a glimpse of what Phillip K. Dick might have written if he’d allowed himself a sincere broken heart.” Paste Magazine

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781596922075
Publisher: MacAdam/Cage Publishing, Incorporated
Publication date: 03/28/2007
Pages: 276
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.21(h) x 1.07(d)

About the Author

Ben Greenman is an editor at The New Yorker. His short fiction has appeared in The Paris Review, Zoetrope: All Story, McSweeney’s, Opium Magazine, the Mississippi Review, and elsewhere. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Read an Excerpt


I am a pop singer. So are you. That's the deal these days. Everyone is. The air is filled with music. Our ears -- our collective ears -- have never been so regularly served. Music comes through the radio, through the television, through the computer, through the phone, and through small electronic cards inserted into the daily newspaper. At the present moment, I am listening simultaneously to three songs that were written and performed in the last week by people who live within a four-hundred-yard radius of my house. There is "Find the Cost of Love" by Anton Ellsberg (older gentleman who lives around the corner, not particularly friendly), "Saying Her Name" by Peter Scopitus (handsome young guy who recently bought the house across the street, probably gay), and "Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! (There's a Frog In My Pool)" by Lee-Lee Parker (assistant manager at my Chestnut Avenue restaurant, wears invisible braces). Everyone and their mother is a pop singer. I mean this just as it is said-Antonia Parker, Lee-Lee's mother, has just released a song called "Come on Now Inside and Warm Me Up." I haven't heard it yet, but I am told that the melody isn't half bad. Lee-Lee provides backup vocals, which she practices at the restaurant. "Inside, inside," she sings softly as she stands over the grill, "Me up, me up."

I am not a pop singer. Rather, I am more than one. I am a pop star, or was. As a young man of eighteen, I wrote and recorded a song about love and friendship called "Strength in Numbers" (#4 Pop). It was followed by a series of other hits: "I'm Not Going to Say That to You" (#11 Pop), "Mission Bell" (#6 Pop), "I Cried Your Eyes Out" (#12 Pop), "Losers Weepers" (#7 Pop), and "The King Cobra" (#2 Pop). "The King Cobra" was a rock and roll song, but it inspired a popular dance of the same name. You put your hands on either side of your neck and then turn them rapidly outward in the fashion of a hood, then you extend two fingers on your right hand and hold them in front of your mouth like a forked tongue. Now you're doing the King Cobra. It was the lead single from an album grandiosely named Ophiophagy, which was a word I had just learned and of which I was possibly too proud. Other songs on the album included "Jacobson's Organ" (#88 Pop) and "Oh Lord! Why Not?" (did not chart). When we filmed the video, I wanted to use real snakes, but the director insisted on hiring a dozen young models and having them dress in snake costumes. In retrospect, this instinct was sound. This is the advice I give to all young people, including my own son: listen to others. Sometimes you are blinded by the need to advance yourself, whereas they are not. They may be blinded by the need to advance themselves, but it is up to you to see their wisdom through the fog of self-interest. My son listens to me intently when I am giving this advice, which suggests that he may not need it. He is seven years old and a beautiful child for many reasons, not the least of which is that he is in no hurry to record a pop song. "I figure I'll do it when I have something to say," he said. Love of my life. I took him bowling and then out for ice cream -- the good kind, not the soft-serve we have at Burger Man -- to reward him.

"The King Cobra," which was kept from the top of the charts by a ballad called "Please Don't Plead," was my last major hit. As a result, it is the song with which I am most strongly associated. Many items that I own, including my car, my favorite Zippo, and a large number of white leather jackets, have a cobra logo or insignia. The song was even featured in a series of action films starring a man named Jake Patko, whose nickname was "The Snake." Thanks principally to "The King Cobra," I made some money, though not as much as I would have made if my business manager had been honest, and I used it to buy a pair of Burger Man franchises. Those were the cornerstones of my empire, and in each of those two original stores, I hung gold-record certificates of my most famous songs. The King Cobra even got a sandwich named after it: chicken with hot sauce, because "it has bite." When I stopped being a pop singer, it bruised my ego more than I would have expected. I used to wake up in the middle of the night and sit in the living room with a guitar, trying to write something else catchy and meaningful. All that came to me was nonsense, doggerel or worse. The emotional effects lingered. My wife, Gloria, who had met me when I was famous -- she was one of the dancers on the "King Cobra" video -- was not entirely pleased to find herself suddenly married to a Burger Man franchisee, and we had some tough times that involved a period of separation and the shattering of car windows with golf clubs. Then came therapy, which did wonders. I spent seven weeks in a little office with a large woman with small glasses and emerged a more balanced man. Trivial things once set me off -- the headline news, the weather. For me, they are usually one in the same. We live in the narrow seam between two temperate zones and, as a result, consistently experience extreme weather: big thick snowflakes that the news anchors call "snowcakes," hot drops of rain. Thanks to therapy, I reached a point where the weather meant no more to me than…well, than weather. I learned to wake up, kiss my wife, hug my son, and drive to work, humming all the way. But then came this new era, in which everyone and their mother is a pop singer. Now that's unpleasant weather. You'd think that the explosion of pop singers would make it easier for me to get back in the game, but the fact is that there is no more game. To tell you how we came to this sad circumstance-as a nation, as a culture -- I will need to take a drink. I have already filled the shot glass, which is decorated with a decal of a king cobra, with whiskey. "Ready for venom," I say to no one in particular, and I kill the shot.

I once knew a man who said, "History happens slowly." He was a homeless man, probably retarded, who liked to dumpster-dive behind my flagship Burger Man restaurant, weather permitting, and I didn't put much stock in his proclamations. In fact, I have found that often history happens with blazing speed. Take the Era of the Pop Singer. We were like any other culture. We had our businessmen and our teachers and our doctors and our priests and our pop singers. Each profession respected the integrity of the other professions. When I was traveling by airplane, I would often sit next to a lawyer or a marketing manager. I would enter into conversation with him or her, express an interest (rarely feigned) in his or her career, and then field questions about my own career. "Choruses are usually written first," I'd say, "and then verses." Or: "I'm not sure how I came up with 'Hear the sound of the mission bell / At the bottom of a wishing well.' Sometimes I think those things are given to me by a divine intelligence." The comments I made were not markedly different from those I made on late-night talk shows or between songs onstage, but they were received with more than simple curiosity. They were part of a dialogue. Then, over the course of a few months, everything shifted. Change had been lurking and it struck. A company in San Jose released a piece of free software that made it easier than ever to construct a song in the privacy of your own home. A large company in Boston refined its online distribution model. And suddenly, voilà!, everyone was a pop singer. I cannot stress how rapid the change was. One day, there were only a few pop singers, men and women who had enjoyed brief periods of national renown and then suffered through long stretches of diminishing returns -- mall tours, oldies packages, occasional appearances on television sitcoms where we were, by mere fact of our existence, the butt of jokes. We were a brotherhood of sorts. When I would see the others -- once I saw Rick Hayward in a hotel, and once I sat next to Kayla Jay on a plane-we would hardly speak. Anything we had to say to one another was already alive within us. Then the next minute, we were nothing special. There were as many pop songs as there were people. This cultural revolution brought about the Litt Act, which was a bill sponsored by the junior senator from California. By the terms of the Litt Act, each and every American is permitted to release only one pop song. It rises as high as it rises, then it falls away, and people go back to their lives. If a person was a pop singer (or star) before the Era of the Pop Singer, he or she is not allowed to release any songs at all. The Litt Act was denounced by civil libertarians, but it passed, and now it is law. Senator Litt himself recorded a song to commemorate the passage of the legislation: "Follow the Rules Behind Me," which seemed by its title to suggest that Litt expected it to hit the top ten, at least, but in fact it barely made the top fifty. This is what I mean when I say that there is no more game. We have a nation of pop singers, but no pop stars.

There are millions of examples of this new phenomenon: as many examples as there are Americans, as I have said. I will give you one. Three years ago, my next-door neighbor was your basic run-of-the-mill thirtysomething lawyer, James Entiendo, who lived a perfectly respectable life with his wife Lily. He and I would see each other over the fence in our backyard during cookouts and other summer-type activities. His daughter was a few years older than my son; they were friendly but not friends; once the four of us went to the circus together. The closest I ever got to James Entiendo, in any actual sense, was about a year ago, at a cocktail party, when Lily got more drunk than any of us could have anticipated and asked Gloria if we had ever considered swinging. Gloria, who was equally drunk, told Lily that she had considered it, that the two of us had in fact talked about it -- you know how it is, your body gets older, your mind stays young, you grasp for a way of maintaining your vitality. I think the two of them made out on the patio, but the next morning, when the alcohol had drained away, they were both mortified, and the subject was never again raised. I am fairly certain that I would not have gone through with it. I love my wife, somewhat desperately, so much so that I will rarely speak of her. What parts of her I can address directly I route through my son, who I can love because he is himself and also because he is of her. I have said that my wife was not entirely pleased to find herself married to a Burger Man franchisee. That is not exactly true. The truth is that she was entirely not pleased. While I was a pop star, she told me daily, and often breathlessly, that she loved me more than the stars, moon, and sun. Now that I am not a pop star, she says that she respects and admires me for recognizing that I had to trade in stardom for an existence as a more stable provider. "I respect and admire you," she says, clipping the words. More to the point: she believes what she says, but she sleeps on her half of the bed, rarely crossing over, and she is more and more indifferent to the monthly romantic dinner that we used to depend upon like the needful thumping of our own hearts. At that same party where the women discussed swinging, James and I talked about my career as a pop star, and James, who was slightly drunk, said that he had an idea for a song. "Yeah," I said. "People always have those kinds of ideas." I was sober and a little surly. I had just bought four more Burger Man restaurants, but Gloria was not the only one bothered by the curve of the road, as you might say. James laughed. "I'm sure you get that all the time," he said. "Let's talk about something less annoying." We talked about the damage to his garage roof, which wasn't less annoying. The conversation about his pop-singer aspirations was forgotten. When the Era of the Pop Singer began, I dreaded running into James. I knew what he would tell me. A bad rain one day trapped us underneath a local oak tree. "I did a song," he said. He was modest enough about it-he only hummed me a little snippet, and then reddened and shook his head-but I knew he was on to something. What I didn't know is how on he was. The song was "Seek America" (#2 Pop). You know it. Of course you do. It was the hit of the summer: "Seek America / America's the goal / Seek America / Inside your American soul." As it was headed up the charts, I found myself falling victim to all manner of minor physical ailments. I had a headache, a toothache, constipation, sinus trouble. I gobbled aspirin, tipped bottles of cough syrup down my throat, consumed a garden's worth of medicinal herbs. Nothing worked. One night I got my guitar out of the closet and strummed a few chords. I guess I can admit that I was thinking of writing a song, and I had a first line that, for one merciful second, took my headache away, "All my life's been diggin' but I've still got far to go." No second line, though, and the headache came back strong. The day that James's song reached its peak position, I had a throbbing hammer-knock that settled in behind my eyes. It woke me up, prevented me from kissing Gloria and even my son, and eventually forced me to vomit into the bin at Burger Man where we keep the miniature action figures that we hand out to kids. The day was hot-temperatures had exceeded all predictions -- but still I sent Lee-Lee out back to hose down the toys. "And hose yourself down if you feel a heatstroke coming on," I said. I watched her through the narrow vertical window, hosing down the bin like the employee of the month that she was, and would in my heart forever be. She set an example, you could say, and so I forced myself to make a congratulatory phone call to James. "Thank you so much," he said. "I'm sure that it's not going to go any higher than this." He was right. It turned around and tumbled down the charts the very next week. My headache cleared right up. The next time I saw James, he was on his way to an appointment with a car company that wanted to use "Seek America" in its commercials. I reminded myself that he would never chart higher than I did, but when I thought about it, that was no consolation at all.

The achievements of my block were not unrepresentative. I read the papers, where it was made abundantly clear that nearly everyone was a pop singer. A woman a few neighborhoods over hit number one, and her boss gave her a ten-thousand-dollar bonus. A pair of identical twins, separated since birth, charted with extremely similar songs, delighting biologists. A man in Ohio snuck back onto the charts a second time, using a false name, and he was sentenced to a month in prison and a two-thousand-dollar fine under the terms of the Litt Act. News of pop singers had replaced news of the weather almost completely. It came in from all directions, but my block was the one that I concentrated on. Ann Weldon, the mail carrier, kicked off the month with a single called "Ooh, Ooh, You're the One for Me" (#19 Pop). Then Jack up the street weighed in with "I Got Something" (#24 Pop), and his wife, Estelle, answered with "Big Bright World" (#33 Pop). Jack and Estelle were always a cheery couple. I'm sure it didn't even bother them that they didn't go top twenty. I read the article about them to Gloria one morning over breakfast. Gloria didn't have much to say in response. She had the same problems with pop singers that I did. Her tastes, as I have said, tended more toward stardom. And while this strengthened the bond between us, it also drove us apart. I was of mixed minds regarding her restraint. I appreciated that she wasn't the kind of woman who would, like Estelle, just cook up a song and place it on the charts, but I also wanted her to record something, for the simple reason that someone I knew had to beat James Entiendo. My interest in this matter had begun with my headaches. It had sprung from the pain in my skull. Over the weeks it grew until it could fairly be called an obsession. I was convinced that a number-one hit from the neighborhood, written and performed by someone other than James Entiendo, was the only thing that would set the world right again. The songs on the block kept coming: Lucas DiLiberto's "Two Ways Back" (#28 Pop), Sadie Shaw's "Put It In the Cart" (#10 Pop), and Little Benny Arthur's "Hidden Agenda" (#15 Pop). The homeless retarded guy who hung out behind the Burger Man recorded "Preventable Famine Candy," which started out surprisingly strong but stalled at #17. Then one day, in my office at Burger Man, I came up with an idea that was so elegantly simple that I felt stupid that it hadn't occurred to me earlier. It was like the time that I decided to sell pineapple milkshakes and call them "Tropical Winter." I was a former pop star. I had a stellar sense of popcraft. I was the only man on the block who had written the couplet "A teardrop falls from eye to ground / Over time that's what I've found." What I needed to do was to plant ideas in other people's heads, seed them with lyrics and melodies, and then watch as their songs shot up the charts-ideally, right past "Seek America." For my first test subject, I chose May Alderson, who lived two blocks over. May was in her mid twenties, pretty, with a small but effective range of appealingly sleepy expressions. She and I had flirted over the years and then, during the period of difficulty in my marriage, embarked on a brief affair. Nothing turned to love, though, and this enabled us to remain friends when Gloria and I patched things up. Once every few weeks I ran into May in the supermarket, and we had coffee at the small round tables that were set up by the bakery section. The first time I saw May after I had come up with my Tropical Winter-caliber idea, we got to talking, and I steered the conversation around to the subject of relationships. May was seeing a man who lived in California. "Might as well be Mars," she said. "Don't knock Mars," I said. "I hear it's nice this time of year." May frowned sleepily. She had done this often during our brief affair. It was one of the most attractive things about her. "I just don't know what to do," she said. "I really want things to work out with this guy." This was my moment. I had counted on it and it had arrived as anticipated. "Well," I said, letting the word dangle as if I was thinking about what to say next, "if you can't be with the one you love, hate the one you love." You could call it a quip, but a quip would not have been written and rewritten as I sat at my desk that morning at Burger Man. May laughed. For a second, the sleepiness vanished from her eyes. It was replaced by a look I can only describe as a guarantee of achievement. The next week, there it was, her song. She had shortened up the title to "Hate the One You Love," which I thought was a little too blunt, but I had no quarrel with the material. Of all the songs generated by our neighborhood, it was the one that I thought had the most going for it. She had done me proud. The day it was released, I bought all the trade magazines for the first time since I was a pop star. "One of the most trenchant subversions of a tried-and-true pop classic in weeks." "A killer melody and a surprisingly strong vocal." "Top ten at least." I was so sure that it would do what I wanted it to do that I took my son out for ice cream again, and we stopped to bowl on the way home. "This is the most fun," he said, rolling a spare with bits of chocolate at the corner of his mouth. I didn't have any answer except to hug him. But popular tastes sometimes resist artistic excellence, and May Alderson's song only reached #16. The next time I ran into her in the supermarket, she was beaming. Her boyfriend had taken the song personally, and he had left California as a result. "It was a number one hit in my heart," she said. I laughed and told her she should have recorded a song with that title instead: "Number-One Hit in My Heart." "I don't care about what doesn't matter," she said. "Or that one," I said, but the joke was thinning out.

Another rainstorm, another day trapped under the oak tree with my neighbor and fellow pop singer James. "It's a bad storm," he said. "I hear there's a danger of flash flooding," he said. "We're built on a hill, but there's a larger hill farther uptown that would put us out of business if it keeps raining like this forever," he said. I didn't say anything. Instead I watched the fat drops of warm rain splash against his black leather shoes. Finally he left off with the weather. "I'm just having trouble with this idea," he said. "The idea that I could rise high and then fall away." I still refused to answer him, but I met his gaze so that he knew that I was with him on this one. This licensed him to buddy up to me, and he did. He told me that he had ordered crates of "Seek America" memorabilia, including a poster in which he had an eagle on each shoulder. "Real eagles," he said. "They weren't cheap." Then he told me that he had been distant from Lily, distant from his daughter, that even though a pop song was just a pop song, it had done something to him. "It feels like a conversion," he said. "As if the man I was is no longer, and this new man, newly born, does not yet know the rules." The rain had let up now, and normally this was something that James would have remarked upon, but he was past the point of noticing the weather. He was also past the point of waiting for me to answer him. "I wrote a letter of resignation at the firm," he said. "It's sitting on the far right corner of my desk while I decide what to do with it," he said. "I could never have imagined leaving the law, and now I can't bear the thought of continuing to practice," he said. The sun was baking us now. His shoes were almost dry. "Have I changed or has everything else changed, revealing my true self in the process?" he said. "This stuff just weighs on you." He was waiting for a nod from me that never came. He leaned out from under the tree, checked the weather, and went off home. That night, Gloria and I were supposed to have our monthly dinner, but instead there was a note on the kitchen counter. "Had to take the car into the shop," it said. "Rattle rattle, you know." My son and I ate homemade pizza and I let him watch a cartoon about a brother and sister who lived on the moon. Gloria came home halfway through, angry from the way the mechanic had treated her, angrier at me for breaking the no-cartoons-after-dinner rule, and went straight to the shower. Because the universe is only benign if you refuse to see it for what it is, the car commercial with "Seek America" came on the TV just as I was turning it off. I didn't hear much, only the part that went "Millions of people just like me / Stretched as far as the eye can see," but it was enough. I got my guitar out of the closet and gave it another shot. It wasn't as complete in its desolation as it usually was. Two lines this time: "I wish I was back inside that darkened place / I wish that I had never seen your face." I guess it was a love song, moody but devoted, one of those songs where the woman is a ghost in the house of the man's head and after weeks of trying unsuccessfully to get the haunt out he just lays down on the bed and dies inside the memory of her. Those two lines hung in the air like steam as I strummed the same sad chord over and over again. When Gloria came out of the bathroom, I pretended to be asleep.

Gloria borrowed my car while hers was in the shop, and though I planned to take my son to a movie, the winds were up, and so we went to fly a kite in the park. "I love spending time with you," I said, and tousled his hair. Other fathers and sons were out there, flying kites with fancy shapes -- dragons, fish, one massive pirate ship. I had a king cobra kite at home, but it embarrassed me, and instead I had brought a simple triangular kite decorated with a picture of a cartoon dog. We got to business: I got the kite up in the air, handed my son the reel, and he played it out or in, trying to keep the thing aloft. Every few minutes it went into irons and came crashing back to the ground, which seemed to please my son immensely. About fifteen minutes after we arrived, I noticed that James was in the park. He was wearing a bright yellow shirt that said "Seek America" in embroidered letters over the right breast. "You here with your daughter?" I said, trying to be neighborly. "No," he said. "She's at the movies with Lily, and I'm killing time until I have to pick them up." He came and stood next to us. The three of us smiled into the sun and the wind. It felt almost like friendship. Then James started telling me how to fly the cartoon dog. "Get it up above the tree-line," he said. "That way it catches enough wind to stay up." He was right, I knew, but my son was having fun running back and forth until he caught a dead patch. James and I watched as the kite shot up and then turned and headed earthward. "That must look familiar to you," I said. I was joking about "Seek America," and how it had done on the chart, but James wasn't listening. He was more concerned with high-handing me about the kite. "Make sure the bridle is in the right place," he said. "I think the way you have it, the bird comes down too fast." I didn't want to talk about the kite. I didn't want to talk about much of anything, except the things that were different, and why they had changed. "How's work?" I said. "Given any more thought to that resignation?" He laughed. "I did," he said, "and then I talked to Lily, and we went through it very carefully, went through all the ways that I'm succeeding and all the wonderful things that come to us as a result of my success. Why disrupt a perfect life?" I thought about tackling him, or punching him in the face. I think I could have broken his nose. I know for a fact that I could have split his lip, and that would have looked pretty spectacular, the firework of blood all over the front of his bright yellow shirt. Just then the kite came down between us with a thud. It saved his life -- his perfect goddamn life. He said good-bye, went off to collect Lily and his daughter. My son and I walked home. I should have tousled his hair again, but my fist was clenched so tight that it felt like it was cramping.

It didn't occur to me right away. I was distracted by problems at home. A few days after my son and I flew the dog kite in the park, Gloria worked up the courage to tell me she was miserable. She didn't say "divorce," but she said enough other things that I saw the word carved out in the negative space of the conversation. We agreed to wait a month and revisit the subject. I started spending all my spare time at Burger Man. Lee-Lee had her braces off, which made her so happy that she spent most afternoons gladly doing whatever dumb task needed doing, whistling "Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! (There's a Frog in My Pool)" as she went. Her mother, Antonia, came by to tell me that Lee-Lee loved her job; I thought about trying for something with Mrs. Parker, but I didn't have the heart. Most nights I brought home pints of soft-serve ice cream for my son, who regarded them with appropriate suspicion. The guitar stayed in the closet, forgotten, and forgotten is a very long time indeed. But then one night Gloria volunteered to take the couch, and I agreed in the interest of compromise, and stayed awake listening to the driving rain on the windows that had become more rule than exception. Eventually I found myself staring at the closet door. What's in there? I asked myself. I didn't know the answer. I didn't retrieve the guitar, but I did dream about music -- more specifically, I dreamed a song. "The bird comes down too fast / It knows the flight can't last" was how it started, and this time it didn't end after one line, or two. It went on through a second verse, a chorus, a bridge, and a reprise. It was all there, beautifully so, and even waking up didn't cost me anything. I thought about asking Gloria to record it -- as another line in the song explains, "A lovely gift / Can heal a painful rift" -- but decided instead to give it to May Alderson for her boyfriend, who she assured me had a pleasant tenor voice. Besides, he was new in town, and as a result would engender less resentment from the neighbors when his song, "The Bird Comes Down Too Fast," did exactly what I knew it would do, soaring into the top ten, biding its time at number four for two weeks, and then ascending, with such confidence that it seemed like destiny, straight up to number one.

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