When awash and still dripping with early drafts of a new story, I’m reminded of a teacher, confronted by pumped-up third- and fourth-graders, eager to show not only the answer to a question but to demonstrate how much they know.
At such early draft moments, the temptation is great to in effect call on the smartest, most reliable source for response. But if I know anything at all, I know such responses are not reliable; instead, I call on the equivalent of those kids hunkered in the back rows, the ones most likely to have secrets they’re holding back.
What follows is the current opening of I Can See from Your Outfit That You Are a Cowboy, a story that began for me in conscious time on the day I received a note in my Gmail spam filter, asking, “Is your identity secure?”
I Can See by Your Outfit That You Are a Cowboy
by Shelly Lowenkopf
“I can see by your outfit that you are a cowboy.”
These words he did say as I boldly walked by.
“Come an’ sit down beside me an’ hear my sad story.
“I’m shot in the breast an’ I know I must die.”
–The Cowboy’s Lament
“—stop being a goddamned cowboy when there’s no rodeo.”
–Harway, Michael, NMI
“Cowboy” is sometimes used today in a derogatory sense to describe someone who is reckless or ignores potential risks.
I want my place! my own place! my true place in the world! my proper sphere! my thing to do, which Nature intended me to perform when she fashioned me thus awry, and which I have vainly sought all my lifetime!
“The Intelligence Office”
THE LIMOUSINE, MORE a lovingly maintained 1941 black Cadillac sedan with the egg-crate grille than a serious limo, pulls up in front of 1001 N. Alameda Street. The driver, Albert, opens the rear door for a trim man of middle age, dressed in a dark gray suit, his sideburns dramatic in their gray hue, his eyes a preternatural, Paul Newman blue. The man is followed by a younger version of himself, his eyes definitely not blue, but in all other respects the acorn that will become the oak.
“Your first time here,” the older man tells his son. “You have no idea how long I’ve waited for this.”
They enter the Los Angeles equivalent of a shrine, “Here since 1908,” the father tells the son, its floors awash in fresh sawdust, its trencher tables filled with an eclectic demographic of lunch-hour-hungry Angelenos, its counters delivering tides of French dipped beef, pork, or lamb sandwiches on French rolls, ambitious bowls of cole slaw, and inticing sides of crisp pickles.
“What was Albert disbarred for, Dad?” the son asks his father.
“What is this you’re saying?”
“The guys at school, they say all your drivers are disbarred lawyers.”
“Just a moment here. Who said that? Was it the Goldfarb kid?”
“Dad, I can’t snitch.”
A sigh of recognition, then a nod. “Shlomkowitz? Aha, Gundel, which, I’m sure you know, used to be Gundlefinger.”
“I can’t, Dad.”
“All right then. All right. We’ll go to the counter to give our orders. Roast beef for you, yes? Albert was never an attorney. He was a mechanic who made some bad investments, lost his garage and all his tools.”
“A mechanic who invests?”
“Horses, son. He backed the wrong horses.”
Later, while consuming their Phillippe’s French-dip beef sandwiches, they are approached by a portly man, his heavily bandaged left arm in a sling. “Mr. Nussbaum,” he addresses the father. “Once again, our paths cross.” He turns his rheumy eyes to the son. “Your father,” he says. “He saved my life in the court room.” He extends his hand to the son. “Frank Memoli,” he says.
The father is quick on the uptake. “Frank, meet my son, Joshua. You know kids. He—“indicates his son—“he prefers Josh.”
“A privilege, Josh.” Frank Memoli says. “May I hope you will follow in your father’s illustrious footsteps?”
“Are you kidding?” the father says. “Already got him short-listed at Yale Law.”
Later, when they have been left to complete their French dips, the boy asks, “Why did you let him think my name is Josh?”
“Because he mistakes me for Mort Nussbaum, who just won him several hundred thousand dollars in damages, and because Mort Nussbaum has a son named Josh.”
“How is it he thinks you are Mort Nussbaum when you are Benjamin Bloom?”
“Good. You question like a lawyer. He is seeing only the symbol of a man who won him a great judgment. If he discovers his mistake, if he sees now that I am not Mort Nussbaum, he will be embarrassed and humiliated. It is wrong to humiliate and embarrass a person. Understood?”
“I think so.”
“That you think so is not enough.”
“Wartnick. What’s his kid’s name? Melvin? Was it him?”
“Marshall, Dad; Marshall Wartnick, and no, it was not him.”
“I knew it wasn’t a good idea to send you to that school.”
Later still, in the lovingly restored 1941 Cadillac, Benjamin Cardozo Bloom, Sr., speaks. “You got your sandwich all right, Albert?”
From the front seat, “Yes, sir, and thank you.”
“Best French dip beef in town, right?”
“Yes, sir. But, Sir?”
“You should really try the lamb.”
A few moments later, after the 1941 Cadillac has turned onto Sunset, heading west, toward the center of the known universe, Benjamin Cardozo Bloom, Jr., says, “Dad? Nussbaum? That’s nut tree, right?”
UNA VOCE POCO FA
THE LETTERS TO Benjamin C. Bloom, Jr. from the Office of the Registrar were mailed almost a month apart, sent originally to the Landfair Avenue address where Ben lived in jerrybuilt pragmatism beyond the coin-operated laundry room. The letters appeared to enjoy traveling together, lingering in USPS limbo before they found their way on the same day to Beverly Glen Boulevard, then up the ambitious angle of Hebron Lane, where Ben, reading the first one in the communal dining area, discovered he’d made the Dean’s List for academic achievement.
When he showed the second letter to Hal Bevington, his hands shook with frustration. “They’re all but calling you a draft dodger.” Bevington spoke through as much of a grin as Ben had ever seen from him. “That is, if avoiding ROTC can be considered an offense,” Bevington said.
“They,” the Office of the Registrar, reminded their newly minted scholar of the current laws requiring certain male students at the University of California of the need , in Ben’s case, to have completed two semester credit units before he could expect to graduate.
Accordingly, “They,” wrote, Ben would be denied any future registration in any classes until he showed proof of enrollment in the basic Freshman ROTC entry course.
“I’m not here for a degree. A degree is of absolutely no consequence to me.”
“Nevertheless.” Bevington offered Ben a crisp salute.
“What’s wrong with this picture? We’re at the same grade level and I don’t see you taking ROTC classes.”
“Ruptured ear drum.”
“Cadet Bloom, reporting for duty, sir.”
“Nobody ever gets a straight answer out of you.”
FOR HIS FIRST THREE semesters at UCLA, Ben lucked into a job as dogsbody for a twelve-unit apartment building on Landfair, below Westwood Village, giving him quarters in the laundry room and three hundred-fifty dollars, each of which was earned, but nevertheless, three-fifty a month coming in for a full-time student was not to be disregarded.
Halfway through his sophomore year, he discovered the sort of fraternity that appealed to him, which was not in any traditional sense a fraternity, so much as a group of young men who would in no way attract the rushing attentions of conventional fraternities.
The driving force behind the fraternity turned out to be a business major named Hall “Call me Hal” Bevington, who described himself as a person who grew up eating too many tuna sandwiches, his own, deprecating excuse for a ruddy complexion and a tending-toward-red hair that always gave the impression of being wet. Living an off-campus residential hall with a group of sorts with no redeeming qualities of attraction for the conventional campus fraternities, Bevington discovered a local rental loophole favoring fraternities, sororities, and theme-based living groups.
Within a month of Bevington’s discovery, Ben was out of his laundry-room quarters and in with a group of six others as Digamma Chi, which conventional fraternity types disparaged as having no Greek letter equivalent and, thus, no meaning. Bevington was delighted to inform them that digamma had, indeed, once been a Greek letter.
Using the Digamma Chi temporary recognition by the University, Bevington wasted no time suggesting Akim Akbar Fatal as Chapter President, Ramondo “Any” (as in “Any relationship to the former President of Mexico?) Cardenas, as chapter vice-president, and Ben as recording secretary. In one bold swoop, Bevington had emphasized the inter-racial nature of the fraternity and insured its minutes would be imaginative enough to allay administrative suspicions. His next move was to secure a two-year lease on a secluded house on Hebron Lane, a tiny offshoot of Beverly Glen Canyon.
Meals at Hebron Lane tended toward ramen cups, two-for-one pizza deals, and impromptu means from beyond-use-by canned goods supplied by Bernard “Bulldog” Drummond from his family’s markets in Victorville, but Monday night dinners, co-incidental to the traditional Monday Night fraternity and sorority meetings, were another matter. Quite often, significant quantities of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and, on occasion, Nigerian foods began appearing from four or five in the afternoon, leading Ben to joke with Ike Gelb that Bevington had a criminal mind if not outright criminal connections.
At one such dinner, Hal found himself at the buffet counter with Gelb, under most circumstances a taciturn pragmatist. Gelb helped himself to a slab of Moo Goo Gain Pan, extended the serving spatula to Ben. “Ah, the fraternity life,” he said. “Not to intrude on your personal life or anything, but I’ve been asked to convey a message. If you’re available—if you’re free, there’s a person in my Econ class who fancies you. Muriel, if you’re available.”
Ben helped himself to Moo Goo Gain Pan. “Sure,” he said. “Thanks.”
“You never know,” Ike Gelb said.
IN RECOGNITION OF what seemed a direct invitation from the Cosmos to be someone else, Cadet Bloom, Benjamin, C., Jr.,pounced on the nametag resting before him on the mirror ledge.
He removed his own name tag, replaced it with the new one over the left pocket of his tunic, confident his new identity would pass unnoticed by that asshole student Brigade Commander Sturgis, Stewart S., that is, if Bloom were able to resist the temptation to knot his khaki field tie with a forbidden, non-military dimple. Sturgis was the type who noticed such things, while Bloom liked to think of himself as the type to provide dimples for them.
The new nametag offered Bloom the opportunity to be seen as Melnick, Wilbert, I., who’d doubtless faced this same mirror in this same men’s room, attending grooming rituals prior to required weekly ROTC drill. (Thursdays, 13:30 hrs to 15:00 hrs)
Who was Melnick, Wilbert I.? He had no idea, which made this opportunity even better because of its randomness. Adding to the adventure, perhaps Melnick was serious about a reserve officer commission, as concerned for his ROTC grades as he was of his business administration or pre-law major, or any of the predestined-to-professional-status majors in which Bloom, a Liberal Arts major, had not enrolled.
Before Bloom now, the shaggy, questioning image of Higgins, Eugene J., in similar military regalia, came, thrusting past the doorway. “You still want on?”
“Absolutely,” Bloom said.
“Got to move it then, man. We smoke in five. Trees beyond the snack shack.” whereupon Higgins was no longer a presence, the swinging door clattering in his wake.
In another moment, Higgins was back. “You will remember to put a lid on the giggles?” He hitched his head at the direction of the drill field. “Lot of funny military shit out there, but he who giggles at it gets us busted. Capisce?”
“Capito,” Bloom said.
“Let me hear you say why.”
“I get the giggles again, they’ll know I’m stoned.”
“Mindfulness.” Higgins told the swinging door. “Focus.”
After a new tug at his tunic, an inspection of his borrowed name tag, and the removal of the dimple in his tie, Bloom made his way toward the snack shack, campus home of the Bruin hot roast beef-and-cheese sub sandwich, beyond which where he pictured Higgins, ceremonious in lighting up, drawing a hit, passing the J to Harway, Michael, NMI, then two other members of the ROTC marching band, and two other outlier cadets who, like Bloom, were better able to endure ninety minutes of marching thus prepared.
ON HIS WAY, Bloom thought about the nametag as an omen, his growing attraction to the cloudy uncertainty of identity. He spoke aloud to the mysteries of Nature and the human condition about him on this crisp Spring afternoon. “Samuel Spade said: ‘My name is Ronald Ames,’” he told the afternoon. The Spring afternoon’s response surprised him.
“What the fuck is this?” Muriel Zimmerman confronted him on the pathway across the grassy mall leading to the snack shack and, just beyond, the clump of trees in which Bloom’s alternate universe extended tendrils of engagement.
Muriel’s grip on his arm arrested his stride, spun him about to face her. “Since when—“ she squinted against the afternoon sun, her focus on his nametag. “—have you joined the same military industrial complex Eisenhower warned us against? And why did you lead me to think you were Ben Bloom all this time when you are in fact—? No. I get it. Wilbert embarrasses you. Jesus, Wilbert Melnick. Wilbert I. Melnick. You are something else.”
Hopeless in his love for her these past weeks, beyond any belief he could attract her, Bloom said, “This is not going well.”
Muriel Zimmerman had a sharp, defined way of snapping her head in agreement that caused her ringlet curls to bounce, one of her many qualities that wrenched Bloom’s heart. “Too fucking true it isn’t going well.” She needed another breath. “How do I explain your militarism to them?”
“Them?” Bloom said.
“Our children. Do you think second lieutenants survive wars? Why do we have even have second lieutenants—to not survive wars. ‘Your father, whom I once thought was Ben Bloom, died in a needless war, a tool of imperialist aggression.’ You think that will comfort their orphan asses?” She started to storm away, had apparent second thoughts, turned to face him again. “All right,” she said. “We start with the truth. All of it.”
“The truth is—“ Bloom said.
“The truth is,” Muriel Zimmerman said, “My name is not Muriel. It’s Rachel. Now, who the fuck are you?”