Mr. Benz

By Luke Fiske

My wife came home that first evening with a note.

Dear Karen,

I seem to be lying here more and more thinking about how grateful I am to you, and what a special person you are.  I don’t know what I would do without you.  Probably you are the only thing keeping me going, although I know what you would say to that, you’d say I’m flying in the face of Western science.  It’s a strange metaphor, now that I think about it.  How can one fly in the face of Western science?  How can one fly in the face of anything?  I’m pretty sure the next flight I take will be to the big casino in the sky.  There I go again!  I’m insufferable (but hopefully not incurable).  And I care about what you are doing for me and who you are very much.  I wanted to say that.

Richard

He had slipped the note inside a card, and on the front was a photograph of an old man sitting on a bench in a park, with pigeons flocked before him.  The man’s chin rested on the top of a cane and his small, wrinkled eyes looked off into the distance.  Inside the card read

THINKING OF YOU

“He’s got a crush on you,” I said.

“He’s dying,” Karen replied.

Richard had cancer.  Bowel cancer.  This, Karen had explained to me, was one of the worst forms of cancer, because it attacked just about everything inside you.  At Vincent Pallotti hospital where she worked as a nurse she took care of him and rinsed his teeth and changed his sheets and patted his old bald head.  Richard had two doctors assigned to him, and he called them Laurel and Hardy and told jokes about them when he and Karen were alone.  He thus was in a long line of old men who had fallen in love, briefly, with my wife, but none of them had written notes as far as I knew, and none of them had become a topic of conversation at home in the way Richard had.  It wasn’t that I was threatened in any real sense.  But the note writing was a little creepy.

It got worse when Karen told me she was going to write back.

We were driving up Ou Kaapse Weg to Noordhoek for lunch with some friends.  In the rearview mirror, False Bay was big and blue behind us.  Just a moment before, we’d been talking about our plans for the following weekend, whether or not we should travel to Hermanus to see the whales.  Then out of nowhere Richard had come up again.

“I think he might be right, it is the only thing keeping him going,” Karen said.

“You’re not serious.”

“I am, Mark.”  She tapped her temple, beside her eye.  “I’ve seen men like this.  They’re only hanging on by a shoe string.  A small thing, like a note, a pet, it can make all the difference.”

Though I felt she was exaggerating, I didn’t reply.  I couldn’t see what I would get out of it aside from a fight.  This was also my reasoning when, a few weeks after she had written back to him, I listened calmly as she told me that Richard wanted to take her, and me, out to lunch.  He had recovered well from the surgery and was going to be nursed at home by a private nurse while going through the chemotherapy.  Karen had transferred from Pallotti to the Medi Clinic in Cape Town and so she was not going to see him again.  They had shared an intimate and intense experience, at least from his perspective, she said, and Richard wanted to celebrate that.  We were having breakfast together in the small backyard of our place in Rondebosch.  Winston, our cat, was in Karen’s lap.  She was stroking him absentmindedly.

“Well?” she asked.

“That sounds great,” I said.  “Really great.”

The note Karen had written back to Richard earlier, in response to his own, had read

Dear Richard,

I thank you from the bottom of my heart for your kind note.  It has been a real pleasure to meet you, I am so happy you will be feeling better soon.  I will take this opportunity to thank you for being such a great person too!

With care

Karen

 

“Aren’t you going a bit far with this bottom of your heart stuff?” I asked.

My wife frowned.  She pushed the note forward with the tips of her fingers, pulled it back.  “What do you mean, like giving him false hopes?”

“He’s seventy,” I said.  “And he has cancer.  All his hopes are false.”

“Mark.”  She folded up the note and tucked it away in her pocket.  “You could be a little more sympathetic, couldn’t you?”

“I am being sympathetic.  I think it’s a very nice note.  Only that ‘bottom of my heart’ might be a bit much.  But do what you think is best.  You’re the nurse.”

The doctor had given his wife an electrolarynx, but apparently they are quite difficult to learn how to use…

We skirted around each other the rest of the morning, Karen doing the weeding in the backyard, me re-alphabetizing all my old LPs.  It was the kind of stupid, time-consuming task I always started but never finished, but it was Saturday mid-morning, we didn’t have cable so there was no sports on, and I felt too lazy to go out for a run.  Winston sat on one of my old Bang and Olufson speakers licking himself and watching me.  “What do you think, Winston?” I asked quietly.  “Do you love me for feeding you each morning?  Do you thank me from the bottom of your heart?

“Why are you passing notes back and forth anyway?” I asked Karen when she came in from the garden.  “Why don’t you just tell him you are grateful, or whatever?”  I dropped U2’s The Joshua Tree on the floor and stood up.  I’d finish the alphabetizing next weekend.

“Mark, I thought I told you about this,” she said impatiently.

“No, you didn’t.”

My wife tugged off her garden gloves.

“Well, it all goes back to his wife,” she said.

It turned out the poor bugger’s wife had also died of cancer.  Throat cancer.  But it hadn’t come as quickly as anyone might have hoped.  She went through all the surgery, almost recovered, didn’t.  The worst thing was that she lost the use of her voice.  The doctor had given her an electrolarynx, but apparently they are quite difficult to learn how to use and she had never quite got it.  So they had started passing notes back and forth, and not just for the simple things, like don’t forget to do the shopping, or call your brother, but deep, intimate things about Love and Life.  It was much easier for Richard to write notes to his wife than to talk to her.  He told Karen that he learned more about her, and himself, in the last six months of her life than in the whole forty years of their marriage before that.  He had become so used to it, he said, that whenever something was in his heart, it came out as a note.  He’d just pull out his pencil and scribble it down.  So this was why he had given her a note in the first place.

“But why are you writing notes back?” I asked.

“Come on, Mark!  It just feels more normal, that’s all.  The man is playing out some fantasy, so let him play it out.  What’s the harm here?”

“No harm.”  I put my hands in my pockets.   “What am I this morning, a whipping post?”

“He’s not going to live, you know.”

“Okay, I’m sorry.  I’m sorry to hear that.”

Later, I had an opportunity to read more of Richard’s notes.  Not to my wife, to his own wife.  He kept them all in a cardboard box tied in string, and the box was one of the few personal possessions he had brought to the hospital.  He liked to read through them when he was feeling strong enough.  Better than the doom and gloom in the newspapers! he said.  He had handed the box to Karen one afternoon on impulse.  No real reason, just handed them to her and told her to take a look.  She would learn something, he said.  She hadn’t wanted to be rude, so had accepted the box.  She had brought them home and that night after dinner read them through for over two hours.  I couldn’t remember the last time I had seen her so absorbed in her task.

I read them myself after she was finished.  It was late and I couldn’t sleep.  I was lying in bed thinking of the stupidest things, what my boss had said to me at work, who I needed to interview the day after tomorrow, in what way the newspaper editors would ruin my work, and as was my habit when I couldn’t sleep, I had gotten up to get a glass of water and a couple of Panado.  The cardboard box full of letters was sitting on the kitchen table.  The moon was actually coming in the window to illuminate it.   What the hell, I thought.  If he’s handing them around, he should expect people to read them.

He shook my hand firmly, the way old folks do to let you know they still have some strength left…

I don’t know what I had expected to find.  Probably love poetry or childhood confessions, how much he needed her, something touching.  But it was junk.  Sentimental stuff of the worst order.  Richard would write her how she had looked in the sunlight that morning.  She would write back she had felt him looking at her.  It was really embarrassing.  I had to read some of them with my head tilted away.  Still, it was the kind of thing that my wife liked.  She cried at romantic comedies when we were alone and she took my hand while the credits rolled.  She went, “Look at that!” if we passed an old couple tottering along together holding hands.  I put the letters away and tied the box up.  I was pretty sure she was playing through her own fantasy, too.  But I knew there wasn’t a thing I could do about it.    

We were going to take Richard to the Kirstenbosch Botanical gardens for lunch and a very short walk.  He could walk a bit, and at Kirstenbosch there is a lot to see in a short amount of time, so it seemed perfect.  Also, I thought, if things became awkward, I could just stare at the mountain and relax.  I wore a pair of jeans, a white T-shirt.  No point in getting dressed up, I thought.  Karen, on the other hand, had put on a red dress with white polka dots that showed off her neck and legs.  When she left the bathroom, it was all clouded up with hairspray.  I had to wave my arms about before I could get in there.

Richard lived in Tokai, in an old-looking, thatched house with pine trees lining the driveway.  I parked in the gravel turn around and waited for the dogs, two vicious Dobermans, to scratch the hell out of my silver paint and snap at me, while I shouted at them Voetsek! and banged on the driver’s side window.  We waited until the maid came out to drag them around back of the house.  When the coast was clear, we got out.

Richard was all ready for us.  He was a tall man, with a crown of silver hair and a neatly-clipped moustache.  He wore spectacles, also silver, khaki slacks, a white dress shirt, and a Harvard cap.  After he had shaken my hand firmly, the way old folks do to let you know they still have some strength left, he grabbed his cane and lifted a blue sports jacket off a peg by the door.  “Let me help you with that,” Karen said.  She held it open while he angled to get his arms through.

“So where are we headed, the Ritz?” Richard asked once we were all settled in the car.  He patted the empty seat beside him.  “Nice car,” he said.  “I’m impressed.  They don’t make them like this anymore.”

“Thanks.”  I owned a 1969 Mercedes 230 E, which I had bought from a family friend in White River seven years ago.  It was painted silver, had an all-leather interior, and I had spent a lot of time keeping it running and looking good.  I was very proud of it.

“Mark thought Kirstenbosch would be nice.”  Karen had her seatbelt on, but she was turned back to look at him.

“Mark thought right.  Kirstenbosch it is.”  Richard rolled the window down and waved at the maid.  “Mark,” he said.  “The famous Mark.”

“How have you been, Richard?” my wife asked him.

“Oh, the same.  The older you get, the less things change.  Only the girls get prettier.”  He tried to let out a laugh, but it sounded more like a cough.

“Richard was an accountant,” Karen said to me.

“I think you mentioned that.”

When we got to Kirstenbosch Gardens, we parked at the second gate.  I thought we could stroll through the gardens to the restaurant, have lunch, then stroll back.  I held the door while Karen helped Richard out the car, keeping her hands under his arms until he was steady on his feet.  He waved a security guard over while I was locking up.  The guard approached him warily.  “Listen.  Keep an eye out for us,” Richard said, and then, with a flourish, presented the guard with a ten rand note.

“Yes, Mr. Benz,” the guard replied, almost curtsying as he accepted the money.

“Ha!  Did you hear that?” he said to Karen.  “He called me Mr. Benz.  Mr. Benz!”

We moved off, Mr. Benz shaking his head.

The first garden we came to was the Garden of Extinction.  I thought this was unfortunate.  But Karen, when I caught her attention, only said, “Do you want to look at the endangered plants, Richard?”  She was still holding his arm.

“Yes.  Let’s go.”

We began the short loop beside the main path.  There were Erica Verticillatas, thought by the sixties to be extinct but found surviving in other gardens in England.   Bottle brush spiderhead plants, endangered, and the low whorled heath, which was extinct in the wild.  There were tall rush-leaved strelitzias and more heath, Albertinia heath, threatened by thatch harvesting.  Mr. Benz would pause and peer at each of them and read the description.  I could see him mouthing the words.  He came to a silver tree near the end of the loop, and, raising his cane up, hooked one of the low branches to bring it close.  He ran his fingers along it.  “It’s so soft,” he said.  “Feel it, it’s soft.”

We took a break before continuing to the next garden, sitting on a bench beside the stream.  There had been rain the night before, and the water was rushing noisily over the rocks and under the bridge.  Before us, there was a large marble slab in front of the bench that read

IN MEMORY OF ERICA PYRAMIDIDALIS
LAST SEEN IN 1907
AND ALL OTHER EXTINCT PLANTS.

The bench was dedicated

IN MEMORY OF SHEILA HELEN COLEMAN,
11 SEPTEMBER 1948-
05 SEPTEMBER 2005.

“I probably knew her,” Benz said dryly.  “I probably knew the Erica Pyramidalis too.”

Karen slapped his knee playfully.  “You did not,” she said.

I leaned back and crossed my arms.  It was going to be that kind of day.

The sun behind fleecy, fast-moving clouds was now high in the sky.  We rose and together walked slowly past the Otter Pond, where I used to throw coins when I was a kid.   Karen asked Benz if he wanted to toss a coin and make a wish, but he scoffed.

“It’s a sham,” he said.  “The Africans clean them all up and then go buy booze.”

I let this pass.

“Drinks?” my wife asked.

“You’re drinking?” I asked Benz.

“No.  Yes.  Champagne.  Let’s order champagne.  I’m paying.”

“You shouldn’t, Richard,” my wife said.

He winked at me.  “Of course I should.”

The champagne came in a silver bucket.  The waiter wiped the bottle, aiming it away from us as he popped the cork.  It fizzed and he filled Richard’s glass.  Before the fizz was even done, Benz raised his glass.  “Listen.  Top it up,” he said.

“I propose a toast.  To Karen, who has been a wonderful nurse.  A friend, even.”  Benz raised his glass even higher.  “I wouldn’t have made it without you.”

“I don’t deserve this.”  She was blushing.

“You do, you do,” he said firmly, shaking his head.

When the waiter returned, I ordered the lamb, Karen the pasta, and Benz chose the springbok Carpaccio.  We then spoke about Benz’s late wife.  It was Karen’s suggestion he get on that topic.  Before, emboldened by the champagne, he’d been complaining that South Africa, the South Africa he knew, was vanishing and disappearing without a trace.  But Karen was smart.  Soon enough Benz was back on the Seine, honeymooning, walking hand in hand with his wife.  The sun was on the river.  The buildings looked made out of gold.  The Eiffel tower rose to the heavens.  He got excited when he spoke of this.  His eyes, like the coins we had seen in the pond earlier, flashed.  Eventually, when he was quieting down, and the champagne had left us light headed and a little sad, Karen announced she needed to go to the ladies room.  She patted me on the shoulder as she left.  Good luck, she meant.

I scraped the bread crumbs on the table into a pile with my knife.  Benz filled my glass, filled his own glass, and sighed.  He raised his glass and peered through it.  “I respect you, Mark,” he said.

“Right.”

This wasn’t starting as I’d hoped.

“You like the champagne?”

“Very much.”

“To be honest, I don’t know a thing about champagne.  It all tastes the same to me, even though I always order the good stuff.”

“Kind of you.”

“Tell me,” he said, reaching across the table to take my arm.  “Can I ask you a question?  A personal question?”

“Of course.”

“Be honest.”

“I will.”

He pursed his lips reflectively.  “What’s it like, being involved with your wife?  I’m only asking because I’ve wondered.”  Benz paused again.  “But you must know that.”

I put my knife down.

“It’s great,” I replied, keeping my voice even.   “Really great.”

“No,” Benz shook his head.  “I mean give me some details.  About why it’s special.”

I thought for a moment.  “It’s a comfortable relationship.  I can wear my socks to bed.  Stuff like that.”

Benz frowned and shook his head.  “You’re not playing right,” he said firmly.  His cheeks were red.  “I’m an old man, and I’m asking you a serious question.”  He closed his eyes.  “Please.  Tell me what it’s like.”  He turned his hands over, palm up, and wiggled his fingers like he was helping me back into a parking spot.  “Come on.  Tell me.  I need to hear this.”

So I told him a few details about what it was like.  Nothing too revealing, though.  I said at the end of the day, coming home from work, I still got excited to see her.  I said she was my best friend as well as my wife.  I said we held hands when we went for a walk.  It was the kind of sappy stuff I knew he’d like.

I waited for a long time after I had finished speaking for some sort of reaction from Benz.  He was perfectly quiet.  He just stared out across the lawn with his eyes half closed.  I worried then he might actually be about to fall asleep.  I cleared my throat.

“Richard?” I asked.  “You feeling alright?”

Suddenly he looked at me as if trying to place me.  Then he said, “Yes, I know that’s what it’s like.  It was like that for me, too.”  He turned away from me.  With his face covered by his hands, he sat perfectly still, breathing slowly, composing himself.  It was very awkward.  I didn’t know what to do.  I picked my knife and fork up and tapped them together, like drum sticks.  I felt people were watching, waiting for me to do something.  But what should I do?  Eventually I reached forward to pat him lightly on the shoulder.  He didn’t flinch, but he didn’t look at me, either.  He kept his head bent.

“It’s okay,” I said, patting his shoulder again.  “Come on, Richard.  You’ll be fine.  You’ll be alright.”

When Karen returned, I saw she must have slapped her face with water, because the front of her shirt was damp.  She had pulled her hair back.  “What are you two gossiping about?”

Benz rubbed his eyes with a fist.  He didn’t look at her.

‘Nothing,” I said.

“Did you ask for the bill?” Karen asked me.

“Not yet.”

“I’m paying,” Benz said.

“No, please, it’s our pleasure.”

“I’m paying,” he repeated.  He drove a finger into his chest.  “Me.”

But when the waiter arrived, I handed him my credit card quickly, before Benz could beat me to it.  “Richard, please,” I said.  He protested, then gave up.  I signed the slip without looking at the total.  “Should we go for another short walk?” I asked.

“Yes, that’s a lovely idea,” Karen said.

But Benz was not ready to go just yet.  He seemed recovered from the episode earlier.  Either that, or he was doing a good job faking it.  “You know what?” he said.  “I’d like to sit here and enjoy the view for a bit.  It’s not often I get the opportunity to go out like this.”  Looking pointedly at the bottle of champagne in the bucket, he said, “There’s half left.  You two go and have a walk.”

“Are you sure, Richard?” Karen asked.  “You don’t feel like coming with us?”

“No.  Someone has to stay here and finish this.” He raised the bottle and re-filled his glass.  “You two go ahead.”  I caught Karen’s eyes, but she did not seem concerned by his wanting to stay. I was pleased.  I’d had about enough of his sadness.

We gave the waiter instructions not to bring him any more champagne and then we went for a walk.  The sun had slid toward afternoon and the trees made long shadows on the grass.  We passed the Otter Pond, and went left, toward the Old Dam.  Nursery Stream was beside us.  We took another right to keep following it.  The branches of wild almonds, Cape Beech, Keurbooms were laced overhead.  We crossed the stream on a small wooden bridge.  The path curved back down the mountain and soon we were again at the Old Dam.

When we entered the restaurant, Benz was sleeping.  He had his hands on the table, and his head resting on his hands.  I asked the waiter what was going on, and he just shrugged.  “I don’t know,” the waiter said.  “He must be asleep.”

Karen shook Benz gently by the shoulder.  “Richard?” she said.  “Richard?”

Benz raised his head up and blinked.  He took his hat off.  He put it on again.  “Hello.  I must have conked off.”

“We have to go now,” she said.

“Yes, of course.”  He let her help him up, out the restaurant, and then guide him to the car along the paved walkway.  It took him longer getting in than it had getting out.  He fussed about with his seatbelt, getting irritable, until Karen leaned back to help.  On the way back home he seemed confused.  Karen chatted lightly, asking him what his plans were for later, but he was stony faced and silent.  I turned the music up.  Finally, at the second stoplights before his house, he suddenly raised his voice.  “Mark?” he asked.  “Karen?  Did you have a nice walk?”

Once the maid had again controlled the dogs, and Karen was out the car talking to her, Benz reached forward to hand me a note.  “Listen, Mark, I wrote you a little something,” he said.  “While you were walking.  You can read it when you get home.  It’s nothing big.”

“Thanks,” I said, slipping it into my front pocket.  “It was good to meet you.”

“Yes, it was good to meet you too,” he said.  He spoke in a tone of voice I recognized from doing my interviews.  He knew he would never see me again.

My wife helped him to the front door.  They moved very slowly, his hand on her shoulder.  In the rear window, I watched him reach out to give her a kiss, on the cheek, both cheeks, like in France, and then we were back in the car.

“Wave goodbye,” Karen said to me.  “It means a lot to him.”

I waved enthusiastically and then we drove off.

Karen and I made love that night for the first time in a long time.  I was in bed, reading a magazine, and she came out the shower with only a towel on.  I shooed Winston off the bed.

When we were finished, we lay on our backs and held hands.

“What a day,” she said.

“Yes, I guess it must have felt like work for you.”

“No, that isn’t it.”  My wife drew a long, slow breath, and then let it out.  “Oh, what’s the point?  I don’t want to talk about it.”

It was very late, about two in the morning, when I got up to read the note.  Winston was on the kitchen floor, curled up beside his bowl of milk.  I poured myself a whiskey and sat down.  I took a deep breath.   “Dear Mark,” the letter began.  The handwriting was shaky.

Dear Mark,

I am sitting here, after a wonderful lunch, and I am feeling grateful to you for paying, but also wretched, because I didn’t pay, and because I am drunk.  It’s an ugly thing, an old man who is drunk, but there you have it.  You were a gracious and kind host.  In particular, I would like to

I kept reading.  But as the paragraph continued, I began to feel more and more uncomfortable, like I was peering into a place I didn’t want to see.  I got up.  Without a second thought, I shoved Benz’s note in the rubbish, and I moved some of the rubbish around so it was deeper in and hidden.  But still this didn’t feel right.  I wanted to be done with it, with him, once and for all.  I wanted to do something symbolic.  I settled on stepping outside and with a match setting the note alight.  There was only one page and it burned quickly.  The ash in the wind blew from side to side, and some of it, toward the end, in the stronger gusts, spiraled up and up.

For the next three months I tried consciously not to think about either Benz or the note. It was not a moment I felt particularly proud of in my life.  I hadn’t acted badly, but I hadn’t acted great.  Then, one afternoon in August, Karen came home from work to tell me that Benz had died.  The tumor had returned and a second surgery had not been possible.  It was peaceful, the nurse had said, in his sleep, but Karen told me they always say that.  I thought it was strange Benz had not contacted her to let her know about the second surgery, but Karen didn’t seem surprised at all.  We were standing in the kitchen, right beside the door where I had burned his note.  I waited for her to mist up, but she didn’t.  She was tough that way.  She had learned, being a nurse, how to say goodbye.  I guess I hadn’t.

I went for a walk alone that night after dinner.  It felt like the right thing to do.  The stars were out and, despite the city lights, I could see them, count them even, though I didn’t.  I walked along Main and then through the empty side streets.  I listened to the wind moving through the tops of the trees.  It made the leaves and the pine needles hiss.  It was a constant, never ending sound.  Hiss, hiss.

Back outside our house, I stopped and leaned against the car.  The air was cold, but I wasn’t ready to go inside yet.  I put my hands behind my head and I looked up for a while.  There are satellites up there somewhere, I thought.  There are galaxies way bigger than the Milky Way.  I closed my eyes.  I thought about Benz for a while.  Then I came inside and wrote this note.

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About Luke Fiske

Luke Fiske is a graduate of the University of Cape Town in South Africa and New York University's Creative Writing Program.  His work has been published recently or is forthcoming in The Connecticut Review, The Georgetown Review, The Painted Bride Quarterly and A City Imagined: Cape Town and the Meanings of a Place (Penguin South Africa, 2006).  He is currently finishing a collection of short stories, Beautiful Jewish Women Will Sleep With You For Free, and a novel.  He won third-place in Glimmer Train's October 2008 Family Matters Contest and was a finalist in the Georgetown Review 2009 contest.  Luke divides his time between Cape Town and New York City, where he is a Lecturer in Expository Writing at New York University.

4 Comments

  1. Tyler
    Posted June 2009 at 5:40 pm | Permalink

    Wonderful story. I have very fond memories of Kirstenbosh. I really look forward to reading more of your work in the future.

  2. Kathleen
    Posted June 2009 at 10:05 pm | Permalink

    Great story. I really enjoyed it, particularly Karen’s character.

  3. Jesse
    Posted July 2009 at 9:44 am | Permalink

    Great story. I enjoyed the realistic dialogue, and I liked and identified with Mark as a narrator. I’m looking forward to reading more in the future.

  4. Bekkah
    Posted July 2009 at 9:41 pm | Permalink

    I loved the unique flavor of your story. I’m captivated, and will definitely look for more of your work in the future.

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