It wasn’t only that the leftover grains of wild rice on the plate he’d just set down on the windowsill were cold; he was cold, through and through, to the point of shivering. In the mirror over the fireplace, his skin had assumed the cast of a green olive rotting to yellow. He’d drunk too much, yet craved another drink and, despite the nausea creeping up on him, was hungry. Lured by the slab of roast beef a fat woman in a baby blue crepe pants suit was heaping on her plate, Sherman joined the buffet line.
“Billy Boy Birnbaum, are you gonna feed me? Hey, Billy Boy Birnbaum, you gonna feed your wifey?” bellowed the fat woman.
“You can dress her up, but you can’t take her out in public,” called her husband from the opposite end of the line, and everyone, including “wifey,” laughed.
Attacked by another wave of nausea, Sherman left the food line. Making his way through the crowd of revelers, he noted that he was the only man at his son’s birthday party with a beard. No. Scratch that. The bartender was bearded, too, but his was far trimmer. Sherman grabbed a glass from the far end of the bar and ignoring his bearded counterpart’s “What’ll ya have?” poured himself a neat scotch.
“Hi, Dad.” The hitherto invisible fourteen-year-old birthday boy suddenly appeared before him.
“Here’s to you, Eliott, my son. May your birthdays all be as—” Sherman had barely launched his spiel when he was cut off by Frieda Benjamin. (Was she stalking him?) Taking Frieda’s intrusion as an excuse to escape the remainder of his father’s birthday toast, plump, baby-faced Eliott turned and walked away. Though shaken by the abrupt departure, Sherman the novelist couldn’t help but note that his son was dressed like an Atlantic City croupier. Had his mother chosen the outfit? If so, why did Eliott let her?
“Odd tastes these kids have,” Frieda commiserated, simultaneously reading Sherman’s mind and recalling a similarly annoying encounter with her two weeks before.
He’d just descended the podium after delivering an enthusiastically received talk at New York’s 92nd Street Y and was heading for the exit when, as now, she’d pushed her way through the crowd and stationed herself in front of him.
“Do you really believe in this stuff yourself, or do you just write it so that thrill-seeking spiritual wannabes like me will buy it?”
Coming from his wife’s supposed “best friend,” Frieda’s hostile remark had at first caught him off guard. But when it became apparent that she was baiting him for what in her opinion was his undeserved overnight success (Sherman’s literary agent had landed a six figure advance for his “Yogi Babu Spiritual Detective” novel trilogy, transforming him from an obscure writer of “literary fiction” into a best-selling celebrity) he’d excused himself and left her standing in the aisle. Stung by the rebuff, Frieda had retaliated by instilling in Sherman’s wife an obsessive preoccupation with his beard. How else to explain Evelyn’s daily pestering him to shave it off? Though usually acquiescent, Sherman—whose beard had come to embody all that was left of his formerly obscure and comfortably familiar self—stubbornly resisted his wife’s demands.
Now, as Frieda once again stood waiting for his acknowledgement, Sherman hurried away, this time without bothering to excuse himself.
“Hey, Sherm, have I got an idea for you . . . spiritual porn! You’ll write the spiritual stuff and I’ll write the porn. We’ll cover both markets. How can it miss?” Les Frome intercepted him.
“Billy Boy” Birnbaum, returning from the bar with two dangerously full glasses of Medoc, chimed in, “Yeah, Sherm. Dirty . . . dirty’s where the money is.”
Intending to drive off and disappear into the Pennsylvania night, Sherman brushed past them and headed for the front door. Albeit less assuredly as it dawned on him that he might be too drunk to drive. Had only the night before seen a drunk on Route 23 deliberately crash his SUV into a telephone pole. Miraculously protected by the god of drunks, the man had emerged from the crumpled SUV without a scratch, placed an Emmett Kelly finger to his bulbous clown nose, and “tee-heed”. Sherman had found the gesture whimsical at the time—but less so tonight.
Rejoining the party, he set his empty glass on an abandoned food tray in the living room and took stock of his guests. On the sofa, Dorothy Brody, unusually appealing in a form-fitted black strapless gown, was loudly complaining to Evelyn and an unknown man in a tux and combat boots standing in front of her eyeing her cleavage about someone named Betty who’d snubbed her the other night at the opera, and then telephoned the next day to berate her— “a woman old enough to be his grandmother”—for flirting with her son. And this, when everyone knew Betty’s son was gay!
Evelyn threw back her head and laughed, her heaving melon-shaped breasts recalling the erotic cave sculptures she’d insisted on visiting during what, for tax purposes, was supposed to have been Sherman’s latest “research trip” to India. But count on India for the unexpected: in this case—to Sherman’s delighted surprise—Evelyn’s seemingly magical transformation from a rather coarse, hard-drinking suburban housewife with a diminishing sex drive into a ravishing temple goddess. Judging from the capacious quantities of Tantric sex she’d been favoring him with since their India trip, Sherman suspected he would soon have to give in and shave off his beard rather than risk offending her. Sensing an oncoming erection, he tried, unsuccessfully, to will it away. Fortunately the place was too crowded for anyone to notice, and most of the guests were too blind drunk to care anyway. Sherman checked his watch: five minutes to three—his turn to look in on his asthmatic five-year-old daughter.
He laboriously climbed the stairs, only to be rewarded on opening the door of her room by the obnoxious strains of Three Blind Mice. Clearly, Evelyn had been here. Totally ignoring his complaints, she persisted in turning on the music box lamp, a Christmas present from Wendy’s maternal grandparents in Sarasota. Leaving the light on, Sherman quickly switched off its musical base. He hated that so-called children’s song for its mind-numbing repetitiveness and violent lyrics. Unfortunately, his parental strictures had rebounded, for of all her Christmas gifts, Wendy treasured her grandparents’ Three Blind Mice music box lamp most.
Sherman was suddenly jolted from his musings by his daughter’s all-too-familiar asthmatic wheezing. Wendy was now fully awake and sitting up, red-faced, her shoulders heaving convulsively.
“Al . . . al . . . ery, Da . . .da . . . dad . . . y,” she sputtered.
Sherman grabbed the bottle of medicine from her bedside table and sprinkled three drops on her tongue, reflecting as he did so on the suffering of this, his accidental child, whose sickly “karma” the famous Indian Aryuvedic healer he’d consulted attributed to violent acts committed in a past life, or lives. Which was why Sherman, despite his attraction to all things Indian, had never become a true believer.
The medicine having done its work, Wendy’s wheezing subsided and she sank back on her pillow and fell asleep. Children . . . he and Evelyn had had three: stately, plump Elliot, sickly Wendy, and Charlie, the unplanned baby boy lying new to it all in the nursery. Too many, given the overpopulated, under-resourced world he was bequeathing them.
Quietly closing the door of his daughter’s room, Sherman descended the stairs and left the house. He stood for a while on the lawn in the early April darkness gazing up at the stars through bare tree branches clawing a path to the moon. Then taking a few unsteady steps toward the driveway and unzipping his fly, he urinated against the tire of a Mercedes belonging to . . . he didn’t know who . . . but the transgressive piss made him, for the first time that night, truly happy. He zipped his fly and walked away from the house. A sloshy puckering in his shoes alerted him to the fact that the ground was quickly turning into mud, sinking under the weight of the rain pooling at Monkey Puzzle Corner—named with unwitting irony for the two absent monkey puzzle trees chopped down to make way for the road leading to his house, which, it now dismayed him to admit, had been built too close to the lake. In spring the waters would rise and flood; in two springs he’d be forced to level the slightly elevated mound on which his paneled, filigreed, but oh so fragile bark brooded.
Behind him, a loud blast of music followed by what sounded like dishes crashing against a wall tore through the night. No neighbors around to complain of the noise, for the neighbors were all at the party. Tucking his hands into his armpits for warmth, Sherman entered the woods. It wasn’t as cold here among the denuded trees bordering the lake. No wind rising from the water, and even if there were, he was too deeply hidden in the little grove to feel it. Only the icy radiance of the stars seeping through the gaunt branches accompanied him as he strode, hunched over, plotting his next novel. Having decided to pit his leather-mackintosh-clad yogi sleuth against a quack clairvoyant and a nefarious astrologer in elevated shoes, Sherman was ruminating on a possible “hook” linking the two villains when he happened briefly to raise his head and, glancing through the trees, saw a figure approaching with a flashlight. A minute later, his wife stood naked in the path before him.
“I thought you were inside,” Sherman said without surprise.
“It’s the essence of Evelyn,” she laughed. “The astral Evelyn . . . the, whatever you want to call it, ‘Evelyn’. The other one is stretched out snoring on the sofa at the moment, so this one has decided to join you in the woods.”
“You like me best naked, so I’m naked.”
“Aren’t you cold?”
Sherman suddenly realized he was not. In fact, it seemed warm enough for him to strip off his sweater and shirt, then his pants, shoes, socks, and briefs, until he stood naked too. The ground beneath them was spread with soft, sweet-smelling ferns. All at once it was spring, or rather a strange admixture of seasons combining the living heat of their bodies and a dense atmospheric curtain of warmth. Evelyn laughed and beckoned him closer. Sherman stumbled toward her. His amorphous hunger seemed to have found its object: he watched it alight in the shape of a phosphorescent purple butterfly on Evelyn’s shoulder. Then, taking form in his loins, it led him, without hesitation, to her body. Sherman leaned in close and kissed his wife’s eyelids, then moving downward, the soft raised pocket of skin between the outer edges of her breasts and arms, ritually depositing kisses all the way down to her toes. Putting off his pleasure, he hovered over her until, no longer able to contain himself, he pulled her with him down to the night-warm earth and entered her.
When he awoke, he found Evelyn gone and himself ludicrously naked and shivering in the pre-dawn mist. It was only as he was gathering his little pile of clothing that he realized he was sober. In a few hours he would be playing squash at the country club with Eric Grady. The sun would come up, and everything would again go back to normal.
“Jerk,” he admonished himself as, hopping around on one foot trying to put on his socks, he landed in a ditch. “Jerk! Jerk! Jerk!” He was furious now.
“Enough of this; let me help you up.” Standing in front of him with an outstretched hand was Detective Yogi Babu in his familiar leather mackintosh and “wine-colored turban of the finest silk.”
Effortlessly, he pulled Sherman out of the ditch.
“I always say it is better to converse with a man of equal standing,” the yogi coupled his double entendre with an impish smile.
“Since when did you start talking with that high-caste British accent?” Sherman wanted to know.
“Rabindranath Tagore . . . I knew him far longer than I know you. But let us not bother about me, it’s you we are here to discuss, is it not? I mean, you didn’t call me all the way over here in the middle of the night for idle chatter, did you? If I weren’t already acclimatized to your environment, I might have even taken a chill, n’est-ce-pas?”
“Don’t tell me you speak French, too.”
“Now that you mention it, Victor Hugo and I . . .”
“Yes, of course. You do get around, don’t you?”
“You ought to know, we dilettantes—a little here a little there. . .”
Confronted by his protagonist’s trademark “high, splendid cheekbones and sly, pointed subaltern gaze”, Sherman was curious to see what would happen next.
Leaning in closer, Yogi Babu sniffed and frowned. “You’ve partaken of the spirits a bit too freely, I’ll wager.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Sherman chided.
“Don’t try to cover it up; I’ve been watching you all evening . . . .”
Sherman opened his mouth to speak.
Yogi Babu glared at him. “If it were anyone else, I’d call it lying but in your case, it isn’t a question of deliberate fabrication as much as . . . well, muddle-headedness.”
“Forgive me if I sounded harsh just then, but, you do tend to bend the truth out of shape . . . those novels of yours, for example. . .”
“Well, I’m a fantasy writer, and a successful one, too. Sony is even making a video game of my trilogy.”
“Ha ha ha ha ha!” Yogi Babu laughed, his body shaking so hard Sherman feared he might launch into one of his whirling dervish displays. Then, just as quickly, the yogi’s laughter subsided and his gnome-like features grew serious.
“What I am trying to say is how do you know that these fantastic so-called ‘spiritual’ powers you attribute to me can’t be found back there in your own house among your party guests? Can you be sure, for example, that this ‘Billy Boy Birnbaum’ whom you so scorn is not an avatar of the Laughing Buddha himself? Not that he is—but let us just suppose . . .” Yogi Babu wagged a long brown finger in Sherman’s face.
“Yes, but . . .”
“May we not say that you are, um, passing up the forest for the trees?” Again the turbaned figure was catapulted into a mirthful spasm that ended as abruptly as before.
“Since the sky over the lake has begun to brighten and our time together is growing short, I am going to present you with a quick parable to illustrate what I mean . . . if that’s all right with you, of course.”
“Do I have a choice?”
“Good, then. Here we go!” the yogi snapped his fingers, transporting them both to the podium of the 92nd Street Y—himself at the lectern and Sherman seated behind him.
“Frrrrriends!” trilled Yogi Babu. “Our topic for discussion tonight is ‘Enlightenment in a Tweet!’ The wizened face broke into a thousand crevices of delight and the tiny frame shook.
“You cut that out!” Sherman called from his seat in the shadows.
“Ah, my worthy constituent . . . . What have you to say for yourself? Are you and your ilk not paving the techno-spiritual path of the future?”
Sherman rose to his feet.
Waving his spindly arms in the air, the yogi swung around to face him.
Sherman was about to punch his mocking protagonist in the nose when lectern, podium, audience . . . all suddenly vanished, leaving him alone in the now dawn-lit grove. From a distance, someone was calling his name.
“Sher-man! Sher-man! Where are you?” It was a woman’s voice, not his wife’s.
Then closer: “He can’t be far from the house.”
“God, I hope he hasn’t drowned himself or something.”
“Yeah . . . think of the mortgage still left on this place.”
“Nah . . . he’s sleeping it off, more likely.”
“Maybe a vampire got him. To Sherman, anything could happen.”
“That’s not funny at a time like this.”
“Oh, knock it off.”
The voices of his party guests—two men and one woman, from what he could tell—were drawing closer. Something dramatic was being called for here, like, maybe rushing out of the grove naked and howling and scaring the bejeezus out of them. Sherman wondered fleetingly if he was up for it. Then just as quickly decided against it. In the end it was the sound of footsteps crackling over twigs and the woman shrieking, “Help, I’m stuck,” that, recalling Evelyn stretched out on the sofa, sent him sprinting home instead.
Recipient of the Theodore Hoepfner Fiction Award and past writer-in-residence at the Mishkenot Sha’ananim Artists’ Colony in Jerusalem, Pushcart Prize-nominee Perle Besserman was praised by Isaac Bashevis Singer for the “clarity and feeling for mystic lore” of her writing and by Publisher’s Weekly for its “wisdom [that] points to a universal practice of the heart.” Her autobiographical novel Pilgrimage was published by Houghton Mifflin, and her short fiction has appeared in The Southern Humanities Review, AGNI, Transatlantic Review, Nebraska Review, Southerly, and Bamboo Ridge, among others. Her most recent book of creative non-fiction is A New Zen for Women (Palgrave Macmillan); and her story collection, Marriage and Other Travesties of Love, is currently available online from Cantarabooks. Her latest book, Zen Radicals, Rebels, and Reformers, published by Wisdom Books, was co-authored with Manfred Steger. She has lectured, toured, taught, and appeared on television, radio, and in two documentary films. Perle currently divides her time between Melbourne, Australia and Honolulu, Hawai’i.