THE STICKY-SWEET, BODY-WARM TASTE of pornography lingers in the soul long after the fires have been banked and the shades drawn. Where did it all begin? What ancient cave man drew the first dirty picture on the wall of his dank granite hole and then, cackling fiendishly, scuttled off into the darkness? Even today, deep down in our innermost recesses, there is a hot, furry little something that peers out at us with tiny, red-rimmed eyes, reminding us with its lewd chittering that we are still scrawling graffiti on the walls of our caves.
Not long ago I was forcibly reminded of this inescapable fact. It was Sunday', a gray, nothing Sunday in the great tradition and I was lounging at home, coffee cup in hand - vaguely conscious of a gnawing sense of shame and guilt. Knee-deep in the Sunday papers I sat, futilely attempting to ward off these unfamiliar pangs. Why this feverish flush, this fugitive desire to hide under the day bed, I asked myself? True, I had been in attendance at a monumental debauch the night before and had indulged myself strenuously; but after all, the debauch itself is now a recognized art form, and I was merely a creative performer. Then why this persistent sense of unease? Could it be that I was suffering from an attack of vestigial conscience? I immediately crossed that out, since, being a representative citizen of our time, I knew that it was an impossibility.
It must be caused, then, by something from outside my body and psyche. But what? I looked about rue. My television set droned on harmlessly in the corner with its endless pro golf match, its perpetual succession of Arnold Palmers, Gary Players, Don Januarys, Jay Heberts and other heroic figures of our time, hitting little balls with sticks over the green hills of TV land. Surely it could not be this innocent vision. I glanced about the room. All was familiar and normally sybaritic.
I sipped nervously at my rich, full-flavored instant coffee and tried to wrench my mind back into healthier channels. Forcibly I made myself think of higher things. I tried to recall a few of the better scenes front the magnificent 8mm art films I had seen the week before at the Nouveau Cinematique Realite Festival I had attended: The Passionate Transvestite, a superb, delicate, subtly controlled delineation of a sensitive theme: and its attendant feature, Tilly the Toiler Meets Winnie Winkle, a wildly robust comedy making satiric sport of the puritanical mores of our day. Passionate, as it is known to us cinema aficionados, was even better than Candy Meets King Kong, a frank antiwar indictment couched in cuttingly sardonic Voltairian brush strokes.
It was no use. Something was troubling me. I stirred restlessly, kicking at the drift of newspaper that covered my ankles. Something caught my eye - and held it. Those sinister, fugitive pangs of guilt rose to a crescendo. And then I knew! It was unmistakable. Draped over the toe of my Italian ostrichskin and alligator lounging slipper, provocatively half-opened, was the Sunday Times Book Review supplement. It held my nervous gaze like a hooded cobra about to strike. But this was only the good old familiar Book Review, a trusted friend that had sustained me through many a slippery moment at countless cocktail parties. And yet now, for some unaccountable reason, this friendly, faithful companion had touched off that faint but insistent sickness of fear and humiliation, deep in my vitals where such things lurk.
What was there about this innocent sheaf of newsprint? I bent forward to look more closely at the cover page. Its familiar, staid and measured grayness suddenly came into sharp focus. "NEW EDITION OF RENAISSANCE CLASSIC," said the heading in bold type, and at center page was a black-and-white woodcut showing a languorous youth lounging under a fairy-talc tree, and beside him a Florentine lady wearing the flowing gowns of the nunnery. Where had I seen that spent lad, and that lady of the Church before?
And then, eerily, barely perceptible, a voice eddied up out of the swamp of my subconscious, the indistinct syllables bursting like bubbles of marsh gas generated by the decomposition of prehistoric monsters. A feminine voice! What was she saying to me? I strained to hear. It seemed to conic somehow from the very grain of the woodcut itself. I hunched deeper into my motor-driven VibraSnooze lounging chair. The voice came nearer and nearer, and then, clearly, I realized it was asking me a question, a question I had been asked before, eons before.
"Where did you get that book?"
Shaken with a terror such as I had not known since my days as a ten-year-old, I rushed to my Inna-Wall sliding teakwood-paneled Danish bar and blindly pressed a button. Seconds later, clutching three fingers of sour-mash bourbon, I tried to regroup. But Miss Bryfogel pursued me, asking her question again and again. Miss Bryfogel! And then it all began to come back, the whole sordid, fetid mess.
Settling back into my chair, I began to reconstruct that awful moment of my fall from grace. I had once been as pure as the driven SHOW, an apple-checked Indiana lad who delighted in the birds of spring and the soft, humming afternoons of summer, and I was insanely, madly, totally in love. With Mary Louise Bryfogel. Miss Bryfogel taught sixth-grade English at Warren G. Harding School in Hammond, and for every 55- minute period that I was permitted in her presence, I lay, ill imagination, prostrate at her feet. Her soft, heart-shaped face and dark, liquid eyes haunted me in my every waking hour. She never gave the slightest indication that she, too, was stirred to the depths. But I knew.
Miss Bryfogel would read poetry to us as my classmates, clods to a man, dozed fitfully. But I, love buds atingle, eyes misty, wept with her over Evangeline and Old lronsides. I had only one way to tell her of my love: through our mutual secret language, the book report. I was never a stylist, but I felt that sincerity and neatness, as well as meticulous spelling and ample margins, would get my subtle message through.
As far as my reading tastes went, I ran heavily toward The Outdoor Chums (which my Aunt Glenda persisted in giving me), Flash Gordon Meets Ming the Merciless, Popular Mechanics and three tattered copies of G-8 and His Battle Aces, which I had reread at least 74 times, getting more from their rich mosaic at every reading. However, these were not reportable.
And so every week was sheer torture as I nervously phonied up my Friday report on some respectable but impenetrable book. The books were taken from the public library, and were doled out to us by Miss Easter, the librarian. Miss Easter was a kindly, thin, ancient lady who had been born wearing a pair of gold-rimmed bifocals and with a full head of blue-gray hair. I recall vividly one hellish week trying to get through the first page of something called Ivanhoe, which had been highly recommended by both Miss Easter and Miss Bryfogel.
My reports themselves actually ran to a sort of form. For example:
"Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe. Robinson Crusoe is about this man who got lost on this island. He made a hat out of a coconut shell and found this footprint on the beach. His island was named Friday, and he had a goat. This is a Very interesting book. It was exciting. I think Robinson Crusoe is a good book."
"Black Beauty, by Anna Sewell. Black Beauty is about this horse that got sold to a very cruel Mall. He hit Black Beauty and Black Beauty was very unhappy because Black Beauty was a kind horse and didn't hit anybody. I think books about horses are very exciting, and Black Beauty is a very exciting book. It has three hundred and two pages, and I think anyone would enjoy reading Black Beauty."
I felt strongly that unqualified applause for any book on Miss Bryfogel's Suggested Reading List would convey to her my deep feelings not Only about the books she read hut about her - and also would net me at least a C. Miss Bryfogel also encouraged something she called "Outside Reading," which meant books not on the official list. Miss Easter had a vast file of these desirable nonofficial books at her fingertips. She worked hand in glove with all the Miss Bryfogels at the Warren G. Harding School, ceaselessly striving to push back the frontiers of barbarism and ignorance and to raise high the fluttering banners of culture. In Hammond, Indiana, that was an almost impossible crusade.
On several occasions I had gone the treacherous route of Outside Reading. It was invariably stupendously boring. But already I had mastered the art of manufacturing an entire book report from two paragraphs selected at random from the text, plus a careful reading of the (lust jacket - a system that is not unknown to some professional reviewers.
But the library was not the only source of books available to the probing mind. There was home - and in my instance, the bookcase in the dining room, filled to bursting with my father's precious collection of atrocious books. We did not subscribe to the literary magazines, and I doubt whether my father had ever read a book review in Ins entire life, if he even knew they existed; hence he read for pure pleasure - such weight) tomes as The Claw of Fu Manchu, The Canary Murder Case, Riders of the Purple Sage and the complete exploits of Philo Vance. At least these were the books that lie kept in the dining-room bookcase. I never really associated them with book reports; they were just stories, and book reports were about books.
There were also, however, other volumes kept around the house - not many. just a few mysterious books kept in my parents' bedroom, or in the closet. No one ever said we shouldn't read them, They were just kept Out of our way. And foremost among them was this thick, green-covered, bulky book that had sat on the bottom shelf of my mother's end table for longer than I could remember. It was so much a part of the scenery that it wasn't a book anymore: just a thing. I had opened it maybe twice in my entire life - tiny print, incomprehensible; just a book. Until that pivotal day when every-thing changed.
It was a chill, dark, lowering afternoon: faint puffs of oily wind bore the essence of Phillips 66 and the number- one open hearth through the gaunt trees and under the eaves. I was home alone. And itchy. These are dangerous conditions, known to us all. Ranging through the empty house looking for something to do, somewhere to light, chewing a salami sandwich, I homed in on my parents' bedroom - which was something I rarely did: somehow it was off my main beat. Nothing Freudian or Victorian; it just wasn't where the action was. However, as the barometer fell and my, itch increased, I drifted in and past the brass bed, just looking.
The how and why of the exact instant The Book came into my hands I do not clearly recall, and perhaps even that fact is significant. But somehow I knew without even being told that it was wrong, that what I was doing was vaguely on the other side of the line. These instincts run deep. Snatching up the book, my ears pricked for footsteps on the porch, I skulked into the bathroom and began my descent into iniquity and degradation.
The title of the book meant nothing to me - the Decameron of Boccaccio. I had not seen it on Miss Easter's shelves, nor On Miss Bryfogel's Suggested Reading Lists, but it was thick and had small print, so I figured it must be good. Or at least official. Not only that, it had a foreign name, and anyone who has ever gone to elementary school knows that any hook with a foreign name is important.
Bell, I hadn't read four sentences when I realized that I had in my hands the golden key to Miss Bryfogel's passionate heart. Not only was this book almost totally incomprehensible, it was about friars and abbots, counts and countesses, knights errant, kings and queens, and a lot of wild Italians. It also had pictures - woodcuts that reminded me of other important books that Miss Bryfogel had spoken highly, of. In accordance with my usual practice in book reporting, I looked through the table of contents to pick out something specific to read and to quote ill case of embarrassing questions. I had never seen a table of contents like this before. it was listed: "Day the First," "Day the Second," "Day the Third," and under those headings something caught my eye:
"The First Story: Massetto of Lamporeccio feigneth himself dumb and becometh Gardener to a convent of women who all flock to lie with him."
Well, this was a natural, since I knew what "dumb" meant. There were plenty of dumb kids in my class. And Mrs. Brunner, next door, had a garden. I was on home grounds. I plowed ahead, and the more I struggled to read, the more I realized that this was good for at least a B-plus. My senses alert for sounds in the driveway. I forged into unknown territory. There was something about the story that drew me on like some gigantic magnet hauling a handful of iron filings across a sheet of paper. Though I somehow had die idea that an abbess was either a safely-patrol lady or sonic kind of bad tooth, I couldn't put it down, And I began, inexplicably, to sweat - a telltale clamminess.
The stories didn't exactly end - not like The Outdoor Chums, where Dan, the bully, shakes Ins fist at Bill, the fun-loving chum, and retreating in his cowardly way, surrounded by his toadies, shouts: "Bill, and all the rest of you Outdoor Chums - I'll get you yet! Just wait and see!" The Outdoor Chums would laugh gaily, climb into their electric canoe, head back to camp, and that would be it. But these stories didn't exactly end, They, just sort of petered out. But I was hooked.
Steamily, I read on and on and on. And on. The house grew darker and colder; the winds were rising. 0n the far-off horizon the night shift took over in the steel mills. The skies glowed as the blast furnaces and the Bessemer converters painted the clouds a (lull red-orange. My eyes ached: my throat was dry and parched. I read of maidens and virgins, nightingales - and cuckolds, a small, yellowish, canarylike bird, I gathered. Finally, glazed with fatigue, I carefully replaced the green Volume in its place of honor and went into the kitchen to knock together another salami sandwich. It had been a red-letter afternoon. Bait till Miss Bryfogel sees what great books I'm reading now, I thought.
It was one of the very few times I ever looked forward to getting to work on a book report. It was Thursday, and the next day was, of course, our day of reckoning. So after supper I scrunched over the kitchen table, my blue-lined tablet with its Indian-head cover before me, my trusty Wearever fountain pen clutched in my hand, and began my most heartfelt love offering to Miss Bryfogel:
"Decameron, by Giovanni Boccaccio."
I thought carefully, my mind humming like a well-oiled clock, toying with phrases, rejecting, and finally selecting the opening line:
"This is the best, most interesting book I ever read. It is by a Italian and I think this book is very interesting. It is about these people that tell stories about knights and friars and cuckolds."
I figured this was a nice touch, since I knew Miss Bryfogel liked birds. Gathering steam, I went on:
"There was this one story about a man named Massetto who worked in a garden and he made believe he was dumb and he did a lot of funny things, and there was this lady named The Abbess who said she would lieth with Massetto because, I guess, she didn't Want to embarrass him because lie was lying. She did, and they were very happy. I liked this story because I think having a garden is a good thing to have. There are a lot of other stories I liked in this book. It is very hard to read because it has small printing, but anyone would read this would like it."
I leaned hack and reread rny masterpiece. h was good, the hest work I had ever done. My mother, hunched over the sink in her Chinese-red chenille bathrobe, doing the dishes, was humming; When the Blue of the Night Meets lice Gold of the Day. ,At this time she was deep in her Bing Crosby period. The kitchen was warm, my stomach was stuffed and life was full.
Friday dawned bright arid clear, a perfect gem of a morning, and I floated to school with that high, exhilarated feeling of a man who hits his housework done and the world in the palm of his hand. Birds sang, milkmen whistled. I could hardly wait for Six-B English. Now Miss Bryfogel would know! She could not mistake my devotion for a mere passing whim.
That afternoon she sat at her desk looking even more unattainable, elusive and sultry than ever before. Her opening remarks followed the classic pattern:
"Pass your book reports up to the front and open your books to page seventy-eight."
Ahead of me, Simonson shoved his smudgy scrap of paper, bearing the title Sam, the Young Shortstop. From behind me, Helen Weathers poked my ear with Lassie Come Home, and I, violins playing fortissimo in my soul. added my magnificent epistle to their scrubby lot. Miss Bryfogel simply stacked the book reports together, shoved them in a drawer, and we went to work on gerunds.
At long last the class ended. Caressing Miss Bryfogel with my burning, niyopic eyes, I drifted out into the hall, knowing that the trap was set. She had a whole weekend to think about me and our life together. Now that she knew the higher things to which I aspired, the pinnacles I had conquered, there could be no stopping us!
Saturday and Sunday flew by On the wings of ecstasy. And then Monday blessed Monday. It was the first time in the recorded history of education that a normal, red-blooded male kid ever sprang out of bed at seven A.m., a full 15 minutes early, and took off for school without so much as a single whine, The day dragged endlessly, achingly toward that moment of sublime triumph that I knew must conic. The instant I walked into Miss Bryfogel's classroom I knew I had made the big strike. I was not even at my seat when she called me up to her desk. 1 turned, die way I had seen Clark Gable do so many times, and ambled up to her desk. Miss Bryfogel, her voice sounding a little odd - no doubt due to passion - said:
"Jean, I'd like you to stay a few minutes after class."
The jackpot! I swaggered hack to my seat, a man among children. Fifty-live minutes later I stood before Miss Bryfogel's altar, ready to do her slightest bidding. She opened:
"Jean . . . ah . . about your book report. That was a very well-written book report."
"Heh, heh, heh," I. replied.
I was not used to this. I was strictly a C-plus man, and C-plus men never get praised. Miss Bryfogel was talking in a strange, low voice.
"But tell me, did you really . . enjoy the book?"
"Yes. It was a very exciting book."
At this point Miss Bryfogel (lid something I had never seen a teacher do before, and the first faint whisper of danger wafted through my ventilating system. She just sat and looked at me for a long time, and finally said, very quietly:
"Jean; I want you to he very truthful with me."
Truthful! Bas Miss Bryfogel laboring under the delusion that I seas leading her on, toying with her affections? I said:
I was beginning to sweat up my corduroys a little.
"Did you read the book or did you copy that front somewhere?" There is one golden rule for all book reporters: Never admit you didn't read the book. That is cardinal.
"Yes . . l read it."
"Where did you get the book? Did you get it out of the library? Did Miss Easier give it to you at the library?"
The animal in us never sleeps. The acrid scent of trouble, faint but tangible, filtered in through the chalk (lust and the smell of lunch bags. My mind, working like a steel trap, leaped into action:
"Well ... a kid gave it to me. Yeah. a kid gave it to me!"
Miss Bryfogel closed in.
"Someone from this class?"
Uh-oh! Look out!
"Ah . . . no! A kid . . I met on the playground at recess. A big kid."
"Does he go to Harding School?"
"No . . . I never saw that kid before. No, I don't know where he's From. A big kid . . by the candy store."
Miss Bryfogel swiveled her chair and stared off at the Venetian blinds for what seemed like two years. Slowly she turned back to me.
"A big kid by the candy store . . . gave you Boccaccio's Decameron?"
"Did he say anything to you?"
"Yeah, he said . . 'Here's a book!' "
"And he gave you that book?" "Yeah!"
"Would you recognize him if you saw him again?"
"Well, it . . . it was dark! And it was . . ah . . raining."
Miss Bryfogel took some paper clips out of her top drawer and straightened them out for a while, and then said, even more quietly than before:
"Are you telling the the truth?" "Sure I am!"
"WHERE DID YOU GET THAT BOOK!?"
"Home!" I yelped.
"At home? Do your parents know that you read this book at home? Does your mother know?"
"Are you sure?"
"Ah . . . yeah."
Miss Bryfogel picked lip her pen and took a sheet of paper out of her desk drawer, and looked at me in a way that Myrna Loy never looked at Clark Gable.
"I'm going to give you a note. You are going to take it home to your mother, and in one hour I will call her to see that it's been delivered."
My socks began to itch. I had been through this note business before. I winced visibly.
"Are you telling me the truth?" "NO!"
This instant in time, this millisecond, was one of the great turning points in my life, and even then I knew it. Miss Bryfogel leaned back in her swivel chair. She was soft and warm again,
"Then your mother doesn't know you read it?"
"And you really found it where?" "My father's room."
"Oh? Does he know you took it?"
"You know you did something wrong, don't you?"
"Did you like the book?"
Somehow I knew that this was a loaded question.
"I see. It was pretty funny, wasn't it?" "No."
I was telling the truth. It seemed that for the first time in two years I was telling the truth. I hadn't gotten a single boff from the book. The only thing I had liked about it was castles and knights. But there hadn't been a single laugh in it.
"Are you sure you didn't find it funny anywhere?"
She knew I was telling the truth.
"Well, that's good. That's much better. Now, will you promise me one thing --that you will not sneak into your parents' room and get books anymore, if I promise not to send a note home?"
"All right, you can go now."
A great crashing wale of relief roared over me, and, bobbing in the sort, I paddled frantically toward the door. Just before I was through it and out safely:
I figured she was about to welsh oil die deal.
"I'm curious. Did you read all of it:" "Yes."
"Bell, that's very good. I like to see stick-to-itiveness. Now go out and play."
. . .
I sipped my warm bourbon thoughtfully as Miss Bryfogel's voice faded off into the darkness of my memory forever. Arnold Palmer was coming into the 18th three under par. And Arnold Palmer was lining up a putt. Bading through the papers, I retrieved the Book Review supplement. Yes, there he was, my old friend, the languorous youth, reclining provocatively. The nun looked down upon him as as she had for all these centuries, and somewhere off in the fairytale background, a cuckold sang sweetly as he busily built his nest.