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The Ninth Step.

When Ben called, it was like hearing an old song, his nervous voice familiar, melodic and deep. At fifteen it was deep. In the mornings after I'd slept over, it was even deeper, with enough sleepy bass in it to do an Everett Dirksen impression. This white-faced kid in pajamas pressing down oranges on an automatic squeezer, his black, sleep-skewed hair branching out over his sly eyes, the low man's voice emerging from the boy's narrow chest. "I take exception to the remarks of the junior senator from Massachusetts."

Or, if he was in a musical mood as he made orange juice in his parents' affluent kitchen and I sat quiet and hungover at the table, he'd be Fats Waller singing, "I want some seafood, mama. Shrimpers and rice, dey very nice," shuffling his bare feet on the tiles.

Not fifteen any more, I thought as he hesitated after his formal, questioning "Andrew?" He was forty-five now and it wasn't Fats Waller he was singing.

He wanted to make amends, he said. When we hung out downtown and the Hare Krishnas--shaved, shoeless mid-Western boys in saffron--would chant at us, Ben would whisper to me, "I can chant too: Get the fuck away from me, get the fuck away from me, get the fuck away from me,'" while--not wanting to cause offense--he smiled amiably at the brainwashed kids.

"Make amends?" Did I ever think I'd see the day? Ben was climbing the staircase to Alcoholics Anonymous sobriety. As if life ain't tough enough. As if being an alcoholic isn't tough enough without having to follow to the compulsive letter some long-dead lunatic's religious fantasy. As if sobriety were somehow preferable. Utterly uninterested in irony, I took a quiet sip from my martini, glad for the absence of clinking ice cubes. Ben said he was working on the ninth of the twelve steps. He wanted to make amends, he said. For what? I thought, and said I'd be happy to see him again. "It's been, what, more than ten years?"

I was excited. If, over the phone, Ben's voice wasn't warm, it was uneasy. And, though I didn't hear the lively, caustic amusement that used to lounge like a bad boy in the back of his throat, he did say my name. "Andrew? Andrew, this is Ben."

It hadn't exactly been ten years. I'd seen him now and again. Twice we'd stopped to say hello. Each time he squinted quizzically at my tie and jacket. Once, he asked suspiciously, "Why are you dressed up?" "Work," I said. For a second, he was puzzled. "Oh! Oh, right." He didn't look well, so I didn't say, "Not all of us are Peter Pan with a trust fund." He didn't look well at all in his perennial corduroys and T-shirt. His face was setting into a grim mask. I fulminated quietly walking away. "Forty years old. Like I'm going to a bar mitzvah. 'Why are you dressed up?'"

But that was a while back and now I was excited, if wary. Ben was going to make amends. Where would he start? I have a good memory for slights, injuries, snubs, even benign neglect. I can hold a grudge 'til the eagle grins. In my spare time, during the two days before our meeting, waiting for the bus or making my lunch, I built and revised the list: amends owed. It was exhilarating. I started to wish all my old friends would join AA. Ben and I have known each other for more than thirty years. Where would he start?

1. 1967 Aram Adamian, Jamie Reiger, Larry Brooks, Ben, and I are sitting in Aram's living room, eating chips, drinking Cokes, and talking. Aram's tiny pretty mother has just left for work, and Larry, whom we all revere--he is tall, handsome, athletic, black, and seventeen, while we are none of these things--has gone to the kitchen to get another drink. "Shit," he calls out, "Tab is all you've got left." "Sorry, man," says Aram. "Shit, I hate this diet shit, artificial sweetener shit," Larry says. I am sitting on the couch, holding my stomach in as I often did when I was fifteen and perching on a cushion. Even without girls around, I was always aware of my body, as if it were an embarrassing friend I had to bring everywhere with me. "Oh," I said, "Tab's not so bad." Ben looked up with a gleam in his eye and an imaginary light bulb above his head. "Perhaps," he said, taking on a serious scientist voice, "perhaps, the diet drink is chemically designed to taste good only to those for whom it was produced in the first place." Larry Brooks laughs so hard he is bent double in the kitchen doorway, rubbing his shortish afro.

From across the street he looked like a statue, standing still on the lively sidewalk with his ragged hair and his long arms--of a fisherman, maybe, a Portuguese fisherman, Spencer Tracy in Captains Courageous. He seemed stopped in mid movement, and the movement seemed, at least to me as I started to cross the street, threatening.

Getting closer, I saw that the danger and fierceness abided not only in his stance, his powerful long arms, and his simian crouch, but also, indeed predominantly, in his face. Ben had been a lively boy with a longish, pale, vaguely freckled face and sidelong dark brown eyes full of intelligence and mischief. In repose, his small mouth would fall into a pursed, reflective frown, his lips nearly pouting. That thoughtful urbane frown, a direct inheritance from his father, was now a grimace, a glimpse into the abyss, something you'd find perched on a gothic lintel. His high forehead was marmoreal, his hair spiked crazily. People stepped around him watchfully as they passed. I had heard things now and then. Mostly I heard that "Ben wasn't doing so great." No, I thought, no, I guess he isn't.

2. 1970 Larry, Ben, and I are driving home late one partying night. Ben is driving, as always, and I'm, as always, riding shotgun. The car is an old, handsome, four-door gray Mercedes, which Ben got when his parents bought a new one. It is moist fragrant midsummer, about two in the morning. My window's wide open and as we whip through the magical green suburban streets I'm holding my hand out catching the wind. "Pull your arm in," orders Ben, who is angry at Melanie, his girlfriend, for going home early that evening. Lit with liquor and the summer night, running my fingers through the moving air, gulping it in big lungfuls, I am too intoxicated to obey. "Patti, do what I say." When Ben was angry or exceptionally fond, he called me by my last name. A laugh rumbles out of Larry, drunk in the backseat, "Do what Mr. Greenman says, Mr. Patti."

"He's kidding," I say.

"I'm serious," Ben says. "Get your fucking arm in the fucking car."

"No." I must be pretty drunk to defy Ben but I try to cover it with a literary allusion. "There are limits. I mean, a man can put up with only so much, without he descends a rung or two on the old evolutionary ladder. Now, I'll hold your hand when it's dark, and I will tote your gin bottles out after dark, but I will not pull my fucking arm in the fucking car. And that, as they say, is that."

"That was good," Larry says.

"It's not his," says Ben. "He stole it."

"I didn't steal it. I was obviously quoting. If I stole it, I wouldn't say it with a Richard Burton impression, for Christ's sake."

"Oh, was that Burton? Sounded like Stan Laurel." Ben says.

"This is another fine mess you've got us into," quotes Larry from the back seat.

I laugh. Ben is silent.

"Whose car is this?" Ben asks after a minute. After another minute, he answers. "It's my fucking car. Given to me by my fucking parents, who happen to be able to drive, unlike some fucking parents, and also happen to be able to afford a car. Now, of course, some parents might conceivably be able to afford a car if they weren't under the impression that they were Puerto Rican instead of Italian and felt subsequently compelled to have sixteen children. It's disgusting, it's fucking anachronistic. Fucking like bunnies. Dropping babies in the fields like Vietnamese peasants."

I have started to cry, something I haven't done in years. It's very surprising.

"Hey," Larry says. "What happened? Hey, man, take it easy."

"So, since it's my fucking car," Ben concludes, sounding like he is losing steam already, "move your fucking arm inside it."

"Let me out," I say.

"No, man." Larry says. "No. What happened? You two."

"Sure," Ben pulls the car over and I open the door and get out without looking back.

"So long, Patti." He pulls away and leaves me in the half-dark under a big beech tree that is pulling up the whole sidewalk around it. I lean against it and sob in shame. A few minutes later as I'm walking along looking up at the bright swatches of green where streetlights light up the leaves, Ben's Mercedes pulls up next to me. "Get in, Patti."

We shook hands. "I wouldn't know it was you," he said.

"Well," I said breezily, "except for the requisite hair loss and weight gain, I think I look a lot like me. You didn't recognize me?"

"I would know you were a Patti," he said very seriously, courteously. I have four brothers and three sisters.

"Well," I said, "I recognized you."

We were in an awkward spot on the broad sidewalk in front of the bookstore, people brushed against me as they went by. It was a busy late August lunchtime, most people's faces held a fine moisture. Ben's was dry and white.

"Where do you want to go?" I asked.

"Let's go into the Yard."

He still couldn't stray far from the Yard, I thought unkindly. Not since his dead father presided over it. Chair of the English Department. Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Provost (first Jewish) of the greatest university in the world. If he could've, Ben would have had old Arnie buried in the fucking Yard.

So we sat on the steps of the Memorial Church across the wide lawn of flawless green, named, with the characteristic self-pumpery of the grand old school, Tercentenary Theatre. The son of the former provost in a T-shirt and green corduroys with a slash in the ass. Lay-about, drunkard, wife-beater, haunter of mental hospitals, sitting on the broad long granite steps preparing himself to take his own ninth step: to make amends.

Before sitting down, I checked the step and brushed it off with a manila folder I was carrying. Ben said, "Why are you dressed like that?"

"Work," I said.

"Oh, that's right."

3. 1972 We are at a party in the dorm room of a fancy women's college, and I'm finally making some headway with one of the short-haired, breasty, brilliant girls. Ben has been taking regular trips to the bathroom with the campus coke dealer and a few of the other guests. We've all been drinking Jack Daniels. I'm leaning on a door-jamb listening to Ella in her horizontally striped jersey talk about her trip to Iceland. Ben is walking by as I say something about a rockbound lake in Maine and how the water laps up against the stone formations and how they resemble fjords. "Oh," says Ben with a lifting of his eyebrows and a wicked smile, "Andrew loves the out-of-doors. In fact, when he's not indoors, that's where you'll find him." We, Ella and I, laugh and turn back to our courting but Ben is not through. "He especially loves a fjord. In fact--did he tell you this? Probably not, he's so modest. His pen name--in Norway, that is--is Fjord." Ella widens her eyes with pretend interest. "Yes," Ben continues, "Fjord Hamsun. Little-known fact." "Is that so?" says red-haired Ella with uninflected disdain. "Oh, indeed," Ben says, countering her flat affect with more faux enthusiasm. "Fjord loves a fjord, he loves a parade, he loves a man in uniform. Who doesn't love a parade, though? That's the real question, who the fuck doesn't love a parade?" He thrusts his sweaty head between us. "And your name might be?" "Ella. My name might be Ella." "Ella Fitzgerald, my dear Watson." "You are a regular laugh riot," says Ella. "Yes, I'm the funny one, like Tommy Smothers, except of course Tommy Smothers isn't funny. In fact, the funniest thing the Smothers Brothers could do in my opinion is suffer a simultaneous heart attack. That would be worth seeing, don't you think, Andrew?" As I wander off to get another drink and wait out Ben's monologue, I hear him singing a Buddy Holly song to Ella that begins, "Wella, wella, wella ..." When I get back he is doing his Ted Kennedy, "And when I returned, Mary Jo and the cah were gone." By now, she is laughing. In a half an hour, she is in the bathroom with him. An hour later, they are in one of the bedrooms.

"You're still at the uh..." he paused.

"The alumni magazine for the ed school, yes, still there ... I'm afraid." Ten seconds and I was already apologizing for what I do. I'm not here to make amends.

"Yeah. How's that going?"

"OK, now. Slow time of year. I dread September, though." I felt as I have for years now in the face of Ben's Bergman-like suffering, silly. Silly using polite, clattery phrases like "I dread September" to someone who palpably dreads the coming of each morning and evening. I felt like Donald Duck talking to Wittgenstein. "Phatic!" we used to whisper with gleeful contempt when someone spoke of nothing. "Given!" we used to say when someone said something we considered superfluous.

"You're doing ... I'm sorry I forget--what are you doing at the magazine?"

"Design."

"Right. Design."

"What have you been up to?" I was skinning a twig and rolling the bark between my fingers. We sat facing forward with our elbows on our knees. The humid heat dampened sound and color both, it seemed to me, and it felt as if the sweaty professors and half-naked students passing before us were part of an old color movie: This is Harvard.

"Actually," he said, "I've been working with some people on a book of my father's speeches." His whisper of a lisp became more pronounced as he said in his deep voice "father's speeches."

"Oh?"

"I'm helping with the compilation, going through his old papers, looking for final drafts, that sort of thing."

"That must be interesting. I mean, fascinating."

"I'm finding some interesting things," he said, adding quickly, "but, Andrew, I did want to talk about some things."

"Sure," I said.

4. 1980 Aram Adamian and I have just published a children's book that I illustrated and he wrote. It is called "Isaac Newt" and is the story of a mathematically inclined amphibian who everybody laughs at until he discovers some basic physical principles and wins the world's renown. Aram and I are sharing an apartment and Ben comes to visit with his wife, Amy. I see them sitting in the car before coming in. They're arguing. Or Ben's arguing and Amy is flinching. After a moment, he gets out of the car and comes around to her door. He opens it, looking in the back, and then roughly pushes down on the back of her seat, momentarily folding his wife in half. She glares at him while he grabs a copy of our book. I turn away. A couple of minutes later, we are all sitting in our barely furnished living room with newly sanded and shiny hardwood floors. The week before, Aram and I have done a radio and TV tour in New York. We are all drinking gin and tonics and Ben, who's already drunk I can see now, is chuckling to himself semi-maniacally. He is agitated. I don't really know why because I haven't seen him in a while. He smiles knowingly, archly, inappropriately. He is wearing, as he always has, corduroys and a T-shirt. He is holding the story of Isaac Newt in his hand and he's shaking his head. "Well, it looks like a piece of shit," he says, tossing his hair back and looking at me sidelong, his dark eyes delighted and frightened. "I mean, Jesus, this is what you guys have been working on all this time? Jesus." "The production values," I venture, "are not the highest, but I think it looks pretty good." "It looks," Ben says definitively while his wife blushes and blushes, "like a piece of shit."

As he paused and took a deep breath, I, for the first time, admired him for attempting to make amends, admired AA, admired all the courageous people in the world. I thought maybe I'd have a glass of wine with lunch if there was time after.

"I don't know," Ben began, "if you know anything about how AA works but--"

"A little," I said eagerly and felt guilty having stopped his momentum.

"Well, you know about the twelve steps?"

"Sure."

"Well, the eighth and ninth steps are concerned with making amends for past hurts. Past ... times in the past when I was hurtful." It was strange hearing that word from Ben. We would have put it in the category of "soft words" when we were hard boys. I stayed silent. "Making amends is an important step for us, for those of us taking the twelve steps, but it's also important for the ones we've hurt. It's supposed to give us all a sense of ..."

"Closure," I helped out with the soft word.

"Yeah," he didn't smile. The sky had turned quickly dark with the threat of a summer storm, and we both looked behind us to see that there would be shelter under the huge white columns of the church. But even as we waited for the first heavy drops, the sky lightened again and the rising breeze suddenly fell.

"It's a little awkward," he said with his first smile, a shy smile accompanied by a quick side-glance that loosed a rush of old love. His eyebrows and eyes were as black as when he was a kid. I had loved his whiteness and blackness, his white arms and legs, pale and never sunned, his dark hair in strange shags and bowl shapes, the result of custom cuts by girlfriends or his own handiwork.

I loved the lightness of his attention, his breezy alertness, knowing that he might be talking to someone while I was talking to someone else and that later when I mentioned something about my conversation, he'd say, "Yeah, I noticed that."

He fumbled in the right-hand pocket of his corduroys and pulled out a piece of notebook paper. Keeping it on the outside of his thigh, on the side away from me, he glanced at it, cleared his throat and began.

"There was that time on Nantucket when we were visiting Elizabeth and her mom, and you had to be at Rob's at, I think, 5:30, and I just kept talking to Anne, really just ignoring your needs at the time."

"Really? I don't remember that."

"I'm sorry about that."

"Hmm. That's OK. I mean you were very kind to Anne. You probably were drawn in two different directions. But, it's really--" I wanted to say "not important" but clearly it was important to Ben. So I said, "not something I've worried over." Ben was already referring to his crib sheet and on to his second apology.

"And ... let's see, this happened after that play you were in, when you were taking theater? What was it, Agamemnon?"

"Antigone."

"Antigone. Afterwards, Rieger and I were making fun of the whole production. And I did a sort of cruel imitation of that guy who played, I forget, the brother or son. And we were just pretty callous about the whole play."

"Yeah? I remember the production. I guess I remember that you and Jamie came to see it."

"Well, I was really out of line," Ben said.

"I don't know. I don't particularly remember the incident."

"Well, I am sorry for it, Andrew."

"Thanks. Really." He looked at his paper. I craned a little to catch a glimpse, but pulled back as he turned with his next mea culpa.

"And when Larry and Clarissa started seeing each other ..."

"Yeah?" I said with actual interest.

"Yeah, I should've washed my hands of him. I should've supported you that way."

"I'm not so sure, Ben. I mean that was between him and me. You weren't obligated to choose."

"I should have. And I'm sorry for that."

"I don't know." I sighed. "I don't know." I glanced over at his paper. "Is there much more? Is this arranged in some kind of ascending order?" He ignored that last question or didn't hear it. "There's just--there's just that time with ..." He began and stopped for a moment. "There was that time with me and Clarissa."

"You? And Clarissa?"

He nodded.

"Is this something I'm supposed to know about?" I said as long

dormant gusts of panic whistled through me, "Or are you surprising me twenty-five years after the fact?" "No, you didn't know."

"Did you fuck her?"

"No," he said quickly.

"Good," I sighed. "Did you kiss her?"

"No," he said.

"Then, what's the rumpus?"

Clarissa was my high school misery, the gatekeeper to a three-year stint in a purgatory of paranoia. Yet, even in the thrall of my most intense jealousy, I never suspected Ben and Clarissa. Ben had a strong moral sense. Snatching a stranger you were trying to pick up at a party was one thing, trifling with a girlfriend was another matter entirely.

"There was a night when you were home and we were all at a party, Melanie, Clarissa, and me. And after Melanie went home, Clarissa and I slow danced for a while. I'm sorry about that."

As relief coursed through me, I said, "What can I say? I forgive you. A quarter of a century ago you danced with my girlfriend."

"You don't have to say anything," said Ben kindly. I looked at him with wonder. He folded the list of misdemeanors and put it back in his pocket. As we sat there on the church steps in the thick afternoon heat taking a few quiet minutes to, I assumed, complete the closure, I remembered a time I'd forgotten for many years until just then. An evening when I was somehow with Melanie, Ben's high school sweetheart, a skinny beauty with thin blonde hair that stuck to her head, as we rode through a thunderstorm in my semi-rural neighborhood on my brother's stocky American bicycle. With Melanie perched breathlessly on the handlebars, I pumped through the pounding rain, lit now and again by white flashes of lightning followed by booms that shook the ground. We stopped for shelter under the ancient beech tree in the churchyard and kissed for a long time under its heavy branches, almost laughing with giddiness, completely soaked and completely, if briefly, in love.

As Ben rose slowly and nodded ceremoniously, apparently signifying that the ritual had been carried out satisfactorily, I got up off the warm granite. We walked together out of the Yard and at the entrance to the subway we shook hands. Nobody suggested we meet again, and a moment later, Ben was underground and I was on my way to lunch.
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Publication:Southwest Review
Article Type:Short story
Date:Jan 1, 2012
Words:4756
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