Young Benny Horton sat in the cavernous living room of a luxurious high-rise apartment on a round, backless white couch with a giant white button in its middle. It was 1959. Men wore hats. Women had big hair.
People wore sunglasses, and smiled an awful lot.
In the room with Benny was Benny’s mom, Mom. She wore a long, flowing purple , a string of gold pearls draped about her neck. She stood cooly gazing at the city below through the room’s great window.
“Ah, the teeming city,” said Mom. “It is like an organism unto itself.” She spun and regarded her son. “You understand what I’m saying, Benny, do you not? About the city living and breathing as a single organic unit?”
“I sure do!” piped up Benny “Absolutely! The many is just like the one.” He laughed nervously. “I mean, it’s maybe just a tiny little bit bigger than your typical single-cell organism -– but still! The one is comprised of the parts! Everything is in everything! All of life is one! ‘Thou art that,’ as they say! Definitely! You bet!”
His mother looked decidedly nonplussed.
“God, you have a lot to learn,” she said, turning back to contemplate the view.
“It’s true,” said Benny. “I really do. I know it. You’re right.”
Mom responded not. That happened.
“Um, Mom?” said Benny. “I was wondering. You know all those cacti you placed in my bedroom, in what I guess was the middle of last night? They’re really nice and everything. What characters! But the thing is, I don’t think — ”
“No,” sighed Benny’s mom wearily. “You don’t think, Benny. You’ve never thought. It’s simply not in you. At the absolute best your opinions are diverting. You must surrender to the fact that your life will never be a cerebral one, son. The world of the physical is your realm. There lies life the Great Creative Spirit intended for you.”
“Yeah,” said Benny. “I could see that. I actually kind of like that, because … ” Benny thought real quick of soccer, for some reason.
“My child, tell me,” said Mom. “Have you ever had an erection?”
“What?! Jesus, Mom. I gotta tell you, I don’t feel — ”
“No, no you don’t, Benny. You don’t feel anything. That’s your problem. You’re like those poor, stubby cacti I placed in your room last night as a subtle reminder of the fact that the world, Benny — this whole, vast, complicated, screw-’em-before — is full of pricks. The symbolism of my gesture escaped you, naturally. Metaphor is, after all, a subtle, delicate thing, not handled well by strictly linear thinkers such as you. Now, I’ve asked you once, and I’m asking you again. Have you ever had an — ?”
Someone rapped on the apartment door.
“Oh, God,” breathed Mom. “It’s ice cream. I know it.” She crossed to the door, her gown flowing behind her. She swung the door open to reveal a trim, dark-haired, white-uniformed Good Humor man. He was holding a small paper bag.
“Ice cream delivery!” said the Good Humor man. “Did somebody order a half-gallon of Double-Double Triple Quadruple Heart Attack Chocolate?”
Bennie’s mom leaned against the edge of the door, running her hand up and down along its edge. Feeling the power of her lyre-like hips, she said, “You bring creamy, delectable gifts from the heavenly fields of Krishna, don’t you, you delightful thing?”
The Good Humor man looked down into his sack, smiled, and said, “I guess I do!” Then he looked past her to Benny.
“Hi, ya Benny!” he waved. “How’s it going?”
“Pretty good!” said Benny, hoping to use this opportunity to further develop his social skills. “But I’m trapped here with my insane mother! Please help me!”
Not so good with the social, still. Still!
“I hear ya!” rejoined the Good Humor man. Then he dropped his voice and confided to Benny’s mother, “Still doesn’t quite have it, does he?”
“No. We’re thinking of having him committed.”
“I had a cousin who got committed,” said the Good Humor man. “Those places are hell holes. Better to take him to a vacant lot and shoot him if you have to.”Benny’s mom grabbed the Good Humor man by his collar, and pulled him forward until their noses were touching.
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” she hissed. “It would be good for him. Psychologists are our friends. Are you trying to tell me what’s best for my son, you obviously repressed homosexual neurotic?”
“No ma’am,” said the Good Humor man, suddenly feeling very sorry for Benny. “Not at all. My mistake. Sorry.” He pushed his clipboard up between them. “Sign here, please.”
She released him. “What am I signing for?” she asked sweetly.
As if in a daze Mom penned her name and handed the clipboard back to the Good Humor man.
“Suddenly I feel paralyzed,” she said.
“I don’t!” said Mr. Humor. He snatched his clipboard and dashed away down the hallway. “Enjoy your ice cream! Bye! Good luck!”
Benny’s mom feebly waved in his direction. Staring down at the carpet, she remained where she was. She began to dream about when she was a little girl living in a poor country orphanage. She remembered herself barefoot and crying. She remembered her hair caked with dirt. She remembered insects crawling through a half-eaten pan of cornbread on the floor.
She let the ice cream fall from her hand, though not before noting that it was not chocolate at all, but strawberry sherbet. Barely aware of her own movement, she walked off down the hallway toward the elevators. She felt like she was gliding, her feet inches off the ground.
Benny crossed to the door of the apartment, and looked down the hallway.
“Are you going out to lunch?” he called to his mother’s back.
Without turning around she dismissed him by quickly flitting her hand around in the air behind her head.
“I said, are you going to dinner? — you life-sucking, psycho-witch from hell!” Benny screamed. In the hallways his mother stopped in her tracks. She slowly turned to face him. She raised both of her hands. “Can you see the blood coming from my palms?” she asked.
“No,” said Benny sadly. “I can’t. I’m sorry, Mom. I just can’t see it.”
“Well, it’s there,” said Mom. “You know it’s there.” She turned and walked away again, disappearing around a corner. Benny soon heard the familiar sound of the elevator bell. He heard the elevator arrive, open, and close. His mother was going down.
Benny then became aware of how quiet it was. Nobody seemed to be home in any of the apartments on his floor. It was hard to be sure that was true, of course. All those doors. All those homes, and lives.
Benny looked down at his hands, which were hurting. Both had blood on them. He pushed his hands against the outside of his front door; he moved them around a little, leaving red smudges. Then he went inside, closed and locked the door behind him, and washed his palms. The cuts there were small after all, received most likely from the cacti. They barely hurt at all.
Benny sat down upon the round backless couch. He heard a helicopter flying right outside the window. It went whap whap whap whap whap.
Next he heard a “fwunk!” at the big window. He got up, looked, and saw that a pigeon had flown into the pane, and was now lying on the window’s outside ledge. Its neck was broken. It closed its little black eyes. Benny tried to open the window, but found it painted permanently shut. How had he not known it was like that?
Benny went into his bedroom, took a small potted cactus from the floor near his bed, and carried it back into the living room. He placed the small terracotta pot and plant on the inside ledge of the window, but one pane of glass away from the bird. He got down on his knees, resting his elbows on the sill beside the pot. He stared at the bird. He would never be able to state it as a certain fact, but for the rest of his life, Benny would believe that, at that very moment, the bird had done the most impossible thing in the world.
It had opened its eyes, looked right at him, and smiled.