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 a lot.
In the room with Benny was Benny’s mom, Mom. She wore a long, flowing purple gown, with a string of gold pearls draped about her neck. She stood coolly 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.”
His mom remained silent.
“Um, Mom?” said Benny. “I was wondering. You know all those cactuses —”
“Cacti that 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 the life the Great Creative Spirit intended for you.”
“Yeah,” said Benny. “I could see that. I actually kind of like that, because —”.
“My child, tell me,” said Mom. “Have you ever had an erection?”
“What? Holy cow, 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-they-screw-you world — 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 yourself. 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.” Her gown flowed behind her as she crossed to the door. She pulled open the door to reveal a dark-haired, white-uniformed Good Humor man 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 cooed, “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!”
“I hear ya!” said 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. 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 to be committed. 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 began to dream about when she was a little girl living in a poor country orphanage, barefoot and crying, her hair caked with dirt. She thought of 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. Barely aware of her own movement, Mom 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. He looked out down the hallway.
“Are you going out to lunch?” he called.
Mom 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-bitch from hell!” Benny screamed. His mother stopped in her tracks. She slowly turned toward him. She held up 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 of the hallway. Benny soon heard the familiar sound of the elevator bell. He heard the elevator arrive, open, and close. His mother, he knew, was going down.
It was so quiet. All the apartments on his floor seemed empty. It was hard to be sure if they were, though. All those doors. All those homes.
Benny looked down at his hands, which were hurting. Both of his palms were bleeding. He pushed his hands against the outside of his front door and moved them around, leaving red smudges. Then he went inside, closed and locked the door behind him, and washed his hands. The cuts on him palms turned out to be small, received most likely from the new cacti in his room. They barely hurt at all, and when they were cleaned stopped bleeding.
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 room’s big window. He got up, looked, and saw that a pigeon had flown into the glass, 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 it was painted permanently shut.
Benny went into his bedroom, took a small cactus from the floor near his bed, and carried it back into the living room. He placed the pot on the inside ledge of the window, as close to the bird as possible. He got down on his knees, resting his elbows on either side of the pot. He stared at the bird. He would never be able to positively state it as a fact, but for the rest of his life Benny would believe that at that very moment the bird opened its eyes, looked at him, and, however fleetingly, smiled.