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John Holman

BENEFACTORS

Louis lay in the university hotel suite, stripped to his shorts, air conditioner off, wide window open. For now, the blue-sheeted bed was a raft and Louisiana's warm wet air was a pool. The light through the window was bright and watery in the sheer white curtain, a breeze wafting shadows over the room.

He wanted to get up and go over his speech, which he was to give the next day to an audience of graduate students and professors of city planning. He was to talk about public space, or more precisely, city parks. He considered the invitation to speak here a private triumph, for this was his hometown, where relatives had died and were buried, and where he had not returned in twenty-six years, not even to funerals, since his parents had moved him away. But now he preferred to float, to drift under the sun under the air, over the city like the shadow of clouds. He could just float into the auditorium and hover over the podium, as if to show, This is public space, and there would be no need for his speech.

A huge boom sounded outside the room. Then another. Louis got up and strode into the living room of the suite where another wide window looked out onto the courtyard. Green, strafed-looking dumpsters had been moved in overnight, while Louis slept. He'd heard the noise, the rumbling, he remembered now. They crowded the courtyard like huge tired animals. A desk fell from the sky and landed in one. Boom!

People came out of their rooms to stand on the thick lawn and watch. They wore bathrobes, slippers and bewildered expressions. Dew still glittered on the grass. The movers wore black t-shirts and wide blue brace-belts, and stood on the third-floor balcony of the u-shaped complex. These were big men. They hoisted furniture over the rails and dropped it. A chest-of-drawers fell. There was a sound like a brief thunderous battle inside the dumpster, and shards of wood leapt out over the sides. The guests who had come out to watch stepped backward into their doorways.

Louis closed his windows and turned on the air conditioner. He took a shower, and with the door closed, the water spraying and the radio on, he could barely hear the sound of furniture dropping. By the time he stepped out of the steam the muted booms seemed almost the norm, as if in his absence his hometown had evolved into a sort of domestic-variety Beirut, a cartoon Bosnia, something wondrous with illusory danger that a visitor should have known to expect. He lacked much memory for reality to match.

But he couldn't work in these rooms. He consulted his map of the campus and plotted a course to the library. Spread out, the map spanned the width of the bed. He would have to cross the park and pass the planetarium and the Fine Arts enclave. The library was across the street from the Student Center. Everything, except the old park and the planetarium, was new to him.

Outside, people hugged the hotel building as they walked toward the courtyard gate that led out to the street. They crouched, flinching as furniture fell and exploded. "In coming!" one of the movers yelled.

 

Louis spent two hours in the library before meeting his hostess, the chair of the department, at the Student Center. They drank Hawaiian coffee at a table in the food court while she discussed his itinerary for the week. He would meet with two graduate classes, one today and one Wednesday. His public lecture tomorrow night would be followed by a reception. She wanted him to call her Floyce rather than Dr. Loom. She had dark-caramel skin, very short hair--like a little boy's--and wide hips which were evident even beneath the tunic vest and full flowered skirt she wore.

He told her about his half-dream, about hovering in the auditorium to illustrate the union of subject and space. "It made sense in the dream," he said.

She smiled. "I haven't dreamt of flying in years. And you're older than I am."

"I've been in a lot of planes lately."

"Last time, I dreamed I flew to the corner of the sky. There was no place else to go. The sky had a limit."

"Yeah? When was that?"

"Years ago, when I was about to take comprehensives. I was delirious. You know how it is. But I hadn't reached all my goals, if that's what you're thinking. Still haven't."

" What? You want a deanship, a presidency? I'll bet you want to be serene."

"Aren't I serene?"

"Then you want those other things."

"Well, don't attack me. What I want if for you to relax. I want you to be the most comfortable guest we have ever had. Look at that girl there. She's beautiful."

She motioned toward a passerby, a young Arab-looking woman in gossamer-like clothes, which were cream-colored with glittering embroidery at her wrists and hems.

"See?" she said. "You mustn't miss these things."

"My wife would just as soon I did. Don't be too good to me."

"Well, of course, she wants you happy, too."

"I think the strategy is to keep me respectable, fit for heaven, and incidentally hers forever."

"She sounds like a genius. You tell her I envy all that. Still, I have a sense about what you might like and I intend to show it to you. We can take a tour."

Floyce stirred her coffee with a tiny red-and-white striped straw. She jiggled her foot. He considered telling her that he was not really a guest, that he was a native. Yet the house he had lived in had long been demolished, and there was nothing and no one here he wanted to revisit. There was no use trying to locate any childhood friends after these decades, or the graves of his relatives, who had been dead too long. He felt an unexpected relief to find that there was nothing here to remember. Besides, sitting with Floyce Loom in this spanking new building, watching her plum-colored lips, this young plump-cheeked chairman flirting with him with random, exotic women, he felt pried loose--not clamped under the lid of a local identity.

He said to Floyce, "Feel free to be my guide. And you know, they're dropping furniture outside my window. That's very relaxing."

"I heard. Such a waste. There've been complaints."

"Well, the workers, these are America's best-conditioned people. These are war veterans, I think."

"Nevertheless, they are behaving like criminals."

"I think they are very unsubtle capitalists. I mean, evidently, it's time for new furniture."

"I've already called someone. It turns out there's some mystery about who is responsible."

"It's some fiscal guy, probably."

"A bright idea man."

"He has to do what he has to do."

"Meanwhile," Floyce said, "you have to earn your money."

 

The next morning Louis was awakened by the booming furniture. During the night, at 2:00 AM precisely, he'd heard a gear-grinding truck pulling into the courtyard to empty the dumpsters. Now the workmen again had empty targets to hit. On his way to the library, the workmen shouted, "Fast ball!" "Stirrikke!" People ducked and ran across the yard as sound exploded around them.

He walked through the park, and homeless people were still asleep on their pallets on the grass under moss-hung oak trees. One of the other hotels guests, an irate man, had complained to Louis that the discarded furniture should be given to the homeless. But what would they do with it? Louis wondered. He imagined wall-less rooms of arranged furniture in the park, made-up beds, dark lamps with limp unplugged cords, sofas on a carpet of grass and ant hills, rough-bearded men pulling pajamas out of dressers at night and hunched over coffee at square tables in the morning, fog rising in the dawn. He wondered how he could work that vision into his speech tonight.

After the library, he met Dr. Loom for lunch. They walked through the campus to a business strip where shops sold beads, vinyl records, Vietnamese food. The sidewalks seemed the home of the pierced population. They settled on a shop that sold pitas. The three young men who worked there all had vivid red hair. "The salons must have a sale on raspberry," Floyce Loom said. The young men smiled at her. They knew her. They filled her pita with chicken salad, filled his with tuna.

Other raspberry-headed people came into the place. Dr. Loom pointed out one woman whose whisk of neon hair ended neatly above the base of her skull where the under-fuzz was dark. She stood at the wall by the door reading homemade flyers that advertised violin lessons and cars for sale, and which were stapled next to a poster that announced his lecture tonight. She wore tiny black shorts and horizontally striped stockings that stopped over her knees. Her white, wiry sweater bared her midriff. All of her clothes seemed shrunken, exposing skin in unexpected places, yet she seemed to be wearing too much.

"Thank you," Louis said to Dr. Loom.

"Do you like her?"

"She's frustrating me."

"I'm trying to make you happy," she said.

"I'd like to go swimming. Do you swim?"

"I used to. I used to get waxed for it." She crossed her legs under her sarong, which covered her ankles.

"Hairless?"

"As a bubble."

Her shoulders were broad, now that he noticed.

"You were a competitor."

"But I didn't wax my head. I wore the cap."

He pointed behind her at a concave mirror in the corner of the ceiling. "We're in a bubble now."

She turned around and they watched themselves. They were small and distorted, a long way away, surrounded by the people with raspberry hair.

"That's about as far as we can go," she said.

 

That night, he opened his speech with the observation about the homeless people in the park. He wondered about people's comfort with limitless space. He said that people build shelters not so much for protection against the elements as for illusion against limitlessness. Then he suggested that if given the chance, the people in the park would surround themselves with the hotel's discarded furniture, set up room-like boundaries as a hedge against the wide-open. He got them to think of a park full of household furniture, and they laughed. Then he told them that the fear of the wide-open was planned for in park designs, that people were glad for planned paths, park benches, arboretums, for taxi-driven streets on the other side of the trees.

He was on an auditorium stage in a spotlight, and the rest of the room was dark. He could see down to the front row where Dr. Loom had returned after introducing him. After a while, he stopped reading from his pages and took a sip of water. Dr. Loom was smiling up at him, her necklace of clear glass reflecting the white light bounced from the podium. When he was finished, someone asked whether he thought space was limitless or limiting. He said he was content to study why people did what they did with the space they encountered, but that people were like air--always expecting to encounter more and more space.

 

The reception was held at Dr. Loom's house. It was a condominium near the university. There were slices of meats, cheeses, and breads; bowls of pickles, olives, and cherries; plates of pates, chocolates and chicken wings; a tureen of gumbo. In the center of a long table was a silver tray with an arrangement of peaches and grapes. The place was plush with thick rugs and green and burgundy velvet couches and chairs. She had tasseled lamps and dense paintings in gilded frames. Everything was soft and heavy and cool, the air-conditioned temperature very low.

People began filling up the house. Dr. Loom's assistant, a short young man with a big head, guided Louis about the house. His round face was in one of the frames on the fireplace mantle. Floyce lit short sticks of sweet, black incense, and placed them in small ceramic burners in various corners of the rooms. Louis talked with a few people who had comments about his talk. One man encountered him by the fireplace and said he wasn't sure whether or not he liked Louis, that he was indifferent to most of his talk until the end when Louis said people inhabit space as if they were air. "You got psychedelic there," the man said. He looked away from Louis as he spoke, as if he was a spy pretending not to speak. His nose, at that angle, seemed shaped like and as sharp as a knife blade. He wore a beautiful blue suit and a blue silk subtly textured tie. Louis looked away, too, and because he pretended that he was also a spy, it seemed easy to walk away from the man.

Louis wandered into another, less populated room where one of the white-cloth-covered tables that functioned as bars was staffed by a stunning, red-lipped bartender. He figured Floyce had hired her for him to look at. Before Louis could speak to her, the man with the sharp nose was beside him again.

"I meant no offense," he said. "I'm only loosely affiliated with the university, but I enjoy coming out to its programs, whenever I'm in town."

They faced the bartender instead of each other. The man touched his long finger to a bottle of bourbon on the table, and the bartender poured some into a shallow plastic cup of ice. Then he pointed to a pitcher of water.

He had silver hair and blue eyes. "You know, my family freed the slaves."

It was difficult to know to whom he was talking. The bartender frowned and straightened her bottles.

"Please, then," Louis said. "Thank them for me." He eyed the man peripherally.

The man's thin, white eyebrows performed some graceful arcs, like wry curls of incense smoke.

"But you know," he said. "I can't say that was a good thing. It was in 1863, before the Emancipation Proclamation, and my maternal great-great granddaddy told his slaves they could go."

The bartender stopped her bother with the bottles. She folded her arms and looked at the man.

"Now can you imagine?" he continued. "You see, insanity runs in my family. Where were they going to go? They walked with their bundles out to the road and saw there was nothing out there, no place for them, and no way to get there. You could say I come from cruel stock, or you could praise my magnanimous heritage. But I'm reminded of the time we had an African poet a couple of years ago, and there was a group of high school students in the audience. He talked about the part of the continent he was from, and a young man stood and asked, 'How far a drive is that?' It is that kind of ignorance our slaves must have known."

The bartender's eyes widened. She looked astonished at both Louis and the man, before whirling around and busying herself with boxes of wine against the wall. Presenting her crisp, starched back, she said, "Sir, those people your family enslaved and freed. What happened to them?"

"Why, I suspect that, like my ancestors, they perished," the man said.

Louis regretted the loss of the bartender. When he left the room, the man was holding out his glass toward her back, as if wanting his drink topped off. His silver cuff link sparkled.

In the kitchen, Louis was approached by a student while he leaned against a counter and lined cherry pits and stems on a red plastic plate. She was a reporter for the campus newspaper. She wanted to know if she could interview him now. Her purple fingernails were so long they curled. She held a small recorder in her hand.

"Anyway," she said, "what did you mean tonight by that last part? That stuff about being air?"

"Just what I said. It was a metaphor," Louis said.

"So," she said into the recorder, "it made no sense?" She held the recorder up to his face.

"It made sense to me," he said.

"Really?" They stared at each other a while. She turned off the recorder, and then switched it back on. She looked disappointed. "But what's that got to do with anything?"

Louis sighed. He started to explain, but the student switched off the recorder again. The kitchen had become crowded. Floyce Loom entered carrying an empty silver tray. She smiled at him. She put down the tray and turned to speak to an elderly man who leaned against the refrigerator door. The man wore a tuxedo. Floyce smoothed his satin lapel.

Louis left the student reporter and stood beside Floyce. He smoothed the man's other lapel. Maybe the student would report that, too; another senseless effort, like his coming back home merely to remain anonymous.

"Take me to my rooms," he said, facing the old man, but speaking to Floyce. Floyce seemed as reluctant to stop stroking the man's coat as Louis was. He had brown blotches on his cheeks the various sizes of Tiddly Winks. He was as compliant as a corpse.

After they were in Floyce's car, she seemed relieved to be out of the house. She put the top down. The moon, which had lost some of its fullness, was clear, the grayish craters visible in the glow.

"Do people still go there?" she asked, sounding wistful.

"I only feel a little bit sad," Louis said.

Floyce turned on the car's air conditioner and put the windows down. It was a small, good car with tan leather seats. Her beige silk blouse fluttered in the winds. They didn't speak for a while. They sped along a wet, unfamiliar street, water streaming down it in rivulets and waves. After a curve, they saw the water gushing from a sliver hydrant up ahead. It shone under a street light. When they passed it, they seemed to burst through a pool of silver water and light, the hydrant pushing water in the car at the sound of Floyce's scream, the swish of the tires, and the quick cold drench of Louis's right side.

Floyce pulled over and stopped the car. "Was that sudden?" she asked.

Her blouse was stuck to her right breast, until she noticed Louis' gaze and plucked the wet fabric from her skin. "I should have worn a brassiere, I guess," she said.

"It had the effect of sudden," Louis said.

"It was irresistible," she said.

From the moment she pulled the silk away from her breast he'd had the feeling of deja vu, but now he couldn't see beyond the present, which was pink and blue dashboard lights glimmering in the wet glass discs of her necklace; a gust of wind waving the trees on the side of the road; the wipers swiping the windshield once; a long, circus-lighted truck passing on the overpass in front of them.

"I was born here," he told her.

Floyce looked around, as if searching for the exact spot. "Right this moment?"

"In this town, silly,"

"Oh. I thought you were being metaphorical, or metafreaky."

He blotted his face with a handkerchief from his jacket pocket, and then offered it to her.

"So why the secrecy before?" she asked. "Are you mixed up in something?"

"I can't tell you. Or I wanted to be here without being here. Either one."

"You think you're haunting the place? You've come back as ghost?"

"I'm ignoring the town."

Floyce tossed the handkerchief back to him, and pulled away from the curb. When they had gone under the bridge, she said, "Who knew you had such an ego? I must say, though, your strategy for revenge seems peculiarly ineffective."

"Yeah, I know. Anyway, I didn't mind until I met Abe Lincoln's grandson at your party tonight."

"Who?"

"That sleek, old blue guy."

"Oh, Mr. Trent. He's a benefactor. He's weird enough. You know him?"

"He's familiar."

"Right. He's a reason people leave a town. Why'd you ever leave?"

"My parents took me with them."

"And why did they leave?

"They couldn't stand the place."

"I see. You want to say nothing."

"They thought they could do better."

"Well, tomorrow you'll be flying away again. So, shouldn't I take you somewhere? Your old neighborhood?"

"No thanks."

She kept her gaze toward the road. Traffic was thin, and they were approaching the campus hotel. "I think if I were you, being here," she said, "you could do this differently."

"They're buried here," he said. "My parents are."

She pulled the car into the university hotel parking lot and stopped at the gate to the courtyard. She turned off the headlights but kept the motor running. Lamps on hook-shaped poles shone down on them. One of the big green dumpsters crowded the gate.

"Listen," she said, turning to him. "You let me be a fool trying to make you feel comfortable in your own home town. I really wanted this to be pleasant for you. Instead, you get noise and danger at your lodgings and harassed by rich old Trent. But you knew there was nothing I could do about your history here."

"I appreciate the bartender, though. If you ever visit me at my place, bring her with you."

"Your wife, remember?"

"Of course. And my children. Don't forget them."

"You know," she said, "I'm very lovely, myself."

Louis kissed Dr. Loom on the cheek. "I haven't really minded the falling furniture," he said.

He got out of the car and squeezed past the dumpster in the gate. The dumpster was filled to overflowing with dropped furniture, edges jutting out like chunks of chiseled stone. Popped-loose brass hinges glittered dully in the grass. They looked like perfectly good hinges, and he bent to pick up a few. When he stood up and looked back, Dr. Loom was driving away. Across the street, the park was dark, with dim lumps of homeless people sleeping on the ground. Thin, lit clouds moved across the sky near the moon.

 

The next morning, a light rain was falling. From his window, Louis watched a TV crew outside filming the movers. Evidently, someone had had enough, and now there would be a local scandal. Someone could now be shamed. Someone else could get use of the furniture. Still, the workmen were showing off. "Three-pointer," one of them yelled as a headboard sliced down from the balcony.

When Louis left his suite, the rain had gotten heavy, the movers had stopped, and the TV crew was gone. To get to the seminar, he cut through the empty, soggy park under a red and black umbrella. He didn't see the homeless people anywhere. The walkways glistened dark grey, and puddles teemed in front of gleaming-wet, dark green benches. The large, black, bowl-like fountain spouted water high into the air, Rain drummed atop the umbrella.

He discovered the homeless people outside the planetarium that bordered the park. They huddled out of the rain under the eaves and in the alcove. Some of them stood, and others crouched or lay curled, all under blankets. A car horn sounded behind him, and a black limousine pulled up. A man wearing a belted, black trench coat and a dark homburg got out. A few of the people crept down the planetarium steps and got in the car, and the man drove them away. He looked familiar to Louis. It wasn't Trent. Louis couldn't determine if he had seen the man before or if the man simply resembled somebody he knew.

Suddenly the rain fell with such volume that he could barely see the people still huddled in the alcove. He considered joining them to get out of the torrent. Water soaked his shoes and cuffs, and he was hot under his raincoat.

He moved on, preferring to make it all the way to the classroom building, and wondering just who that man in the limousine was. He had heard stories in which the homeless were lured and harmed. But probably the man was kind, with a car full of sandwiches; he probably wished he could help everyone and would be back to pick up the others, to feed them and to get them dry. Maybe he had a house staffed with doctors, nurses and counselors trained to heal their possible wounds. Maybe Floyce Loom knew about him, another benefactor.

Louis turned the corner at the Fine Arts enclave. He could short-cut through the science quad to the building housing his seminar. The rain sounded like a loud, strident shush for quiet, and he smiled to think how it had definitely silenced the mad furniture movers. It fell like a moving curtain around him under the umbrella. He felt comfortable again, and was grateful to Dr. Loom for distracting him, glad he hadn't spent his time in cemeteries looking for the graves of his parents and grandparents. Perhaps he hadn't wasted his time, despite Floyce's insinuation.

Besides, by tonight, he thought, he would have flown at thirty thousand feet home to his family, landing where everything else he could possibly forget should come rushing up to meet him.

 

 

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