DYSFUNCTION JUNCTION & THE POCKET OF PUMPKIN PULP
[A Tale Plucked From the Trick Or Treat Bag]
Lillian prayed that there would be no more murder, but even as she prayed she deeply felt the uncontrollable forces of retribution had already begun to unravel her future — and Ben’s.
She watched Dr. Jacobson keenly through the two-inch gap she pulled back from the closed drapes, watched him as he got out of his pearlescent Lexus, his ever-present binder tucked under his arm. He began to navigate gingerly up the slick sidewalk, still iced over from last night’s late October freeze. She hoped he hadn’t noticed her. The way he seemed self-absorbed as by some secret thought that set the corners of his mouth twitching into a nervous smile — a smile that he just as quickly stifled — she doubted that he had.
Not that it mattered. And, it really didn’t matter to her.
She pushed her face more into the opening, the better to see his profile at her door. He fiddled with the knot of his tie while the forefinger of his other hand poised at the doorbell. He wasn’t bad looking. Not drop-dead gorgeous, as Jean thought, after commenting on the news photo Lillian had clipped from the paper and mailed her. Lillian happened upon picture the Monday after his first visit. In the picture, he was standing beside the mayor who was cutting the ribbon outside the ultra-modern office building Dr. Jacobson paid to have erected. One whole floor of it, according to the accompanying article, would house his practice. She could kind of see where Jean was coming from. He had a big, brassy, confident smile, and she found him pleasant to look at, though she would stop short of gorgeous. It wouldn’t be the first time she and her kid sister would disagree over matters of taste. The good doctor did know how to dress; she’d give him that. She was no authority on fashion, but you could always tell the suit that was bought off the rack and one that was tailored. This black serge was not off the rack. A jeweled cufflink caught the afternoon sun and glinted on the sleeve, just below the wrist of the hand that pushed the doorbell.
She wasn’t sure she’d even open the door. She continued to watch him. He blinked, and then glanced at the door knob. He blinked again, looked over his shoulder at the street, then back again. Something caught his attention on the porch, near his feet. He smiled — but it was a grim smile — and he nodded slowly, knowingly. She had told Ben last night it wouldn’t hurt him to take the pumpkin off the front porch, to put it in his room ’til after the visit. Why draw attention to it? Wouldn’t've hurt him. He could’ve put it back out on the porch again tonight. Once again he pushed the doorbell and she heard the chimes a second time behind her. Should she wait until he pushed it a third time?
She pulled back from the drapes and took a moment to tug the hem of her canary-yellow skirt evenly to her knees. Of course she had to open the door. She really had no choice. The school wasn’t going to let the incident go unaddressed. And, now that they had the CPA involved, if it wasn’t this person it would be another. He did seem nice enough at the earlier visits — oh, a bit full of himself, certainly, and he did have his agenda. But still … there could have been worse choices. She brought her tongue across the front of her teeth and she tested her smile.
She pulled the door part way open. He stuck his head through the opening, peered around it with a puzzled smile. “May I come in?” She opened it the rest of the way.
* * *
Across the kitchen table, she watched his face as he studied a page in the binder, spread out in front of him. Weren’t his eyes blue the other times? Now, by God, they were gray, almost silver! They seemed to twitch in their sockets as they crossed the page. His palm faced up from the under side of the page and she could see, through the paper, the shadowed imprint of his fingertips and the flat edge of his thumb just before he turned the page.
“May I call you Lillian?” He looked up so suddenly that he locked on her gaze before she had a chance to avert it.
“Whatever for?” she asked, but she couldn’t hold his silvery stare and dropped hers to the tablecloth where she set herself to brushing some of the wrinkles over the table’s edge. She was vaguely aware she wasn’t controlling a fatuous grin that now trembled at the corners of her mouth. Why was she smiling? The last thing she wanted to do was smile.
“Because I really would like to be your friend. We both have an interest in what’s best for Ben. Isn’t that true?”
Now she could control her mouth, but not the filling-up of her eyes.
“And, we do have a bit of a problem there, don’t we … Lillian?”
She brought herself up straight in her chair and with a resolve that surprised her, and pointed her finger at him. “If you think they’re going to take Ben away from me –”
“Oh, but I assure you, Lillian,” he said, plucking a handkerchief from his breast pocket and holding it out to her, “if Ben’s Principal has anything to do with it, I guarantee you … After all, he does have that gash on his forearm that, well…”
“But he took away…” She realized the irrationality of what she was about to say and stopped. She held the proffered handkerchief to her eyes.
“Exactly! Mr. Murray took away his pumpkin. Ben had been carving on it all morning in the hallway, using a steak knife he had secreted to school. And, for doing his job, enforcing the rules — I’m telling it from Mr. Murray’s viewpoint, Lillian, not mine – what does he get for insuring the safety of all his children by wrestling away a half-carved jack-o-lantern from a nine-year-old child, then going after the knife? What does he get for his selfless act? His reward is a three-inch slash on his arm. I heard from a reliable source he shrieked in a most un-principal-like manner and raced to his office where he slammed and locked his door! If he’d just glanced before he took flight, he’d have seen the knife lying on the floor, blood and pumpkin on the blade, and little Ben already going out the door.”
“He’s only nine, Doctor Jacobson.”
“Paul … Call me Paul, Lillian. Oh, understand — I’m on your side, my dear. You must be just frantic, thinking they have the power — and they do have the power. Sad to say they do — to take him away. But I’m on your side!” He put his hand, with his manicured nails, atop hers. She stared down at it, tanned with stiff, black hairs on the knuckles, over hers. There was no thought. She could only stare at the hand, the knuckles. “Of course,” he went on, “Being a practicing Psychologist, I’m being retained by the Child Protective Agency. You didn’t think I was with the CPA did you? No, I’m here to study the allegations brought against little Ben, to study them in light of the vast body of knowledge of the Mind Sciences and Sociology. You know what I’m saying, Lillian? The CPA thinks they have little Ben’s best interest in heart, too. Now, I have to tell you something that I don’t want you to take — I would be horrified to think you didn’t… take it in the right way and think the worse of me.”
“Just tell me, Doctor Jacobson.”
“Please… Paul… What I have to tell you is the CPA, well, well, they think you may not be a fit mother for Ben … I know, my dear, I know. But, they look at you as — how to phrase it — a mother whose husband had died under — under, well, under suspicious circumstances…”
She slowly withdrew her hand from beneath his. “They’re saying I –”
“Oh, no, no, no, no, no! I’m not saying… Well, yes, I guess I am. They think that you somehow might — but, dear Lillian, they have no way of knowing you as I have over these past — past – my goodness, has it been three weekly meetings?”
“They think I killed Jerry?” She hadn’t said his name in over a year. It sounded strange to her ears. It seemed now to reverberate in her mind. Jerry … Jerry … Jerry ….
“No, Lillian. I’m sure they don’t exactly think that. In fact, it was even speculated by a few that, well, that — you know — that little Ben might even have, I don’t know, resented his father’s closeness to you … I mean, you’ve heard of the Oedipus complex –”
“Oh my God! I think I’m going to be sick!”
“Well, of course, Lillian. And, please know I wasn’t one of those. He was only seven then — and while there are cases of atrocities committed at even younger ages, the youngest I’ve heard of at five years –”
“Just — just shut up!”
The doctor sniffed. “I understand. It’s not easy. And, may I say that only a small minority even thought that you had anything to do with it. I mean, there was no reason to assume — there was no indication… Certainly, that rung could have been — how can I put it? — artfully weakened? But, that’s the stuff of Hollywood, isn’t it? I’m sure a detective might have wondered what the odds were. You know, that the lower seven rungs were solid as a rock while only the third rung from the top, the rung that a man of average height would put all the weight of one leg on while he was about to swing onto the roof — that rung would be weakened. A Columbo or A Monk would have sneaked out to the accident scene late at night to examine that ladder.” He tapped the open notebook with his forefinger, smiling distractedly. “Don’t you get a kick out of them, Lillian? Columbo or Monk?”
She didn’t answer. She watched him sitting across from her, seeming for the moment not to even notice her, smiling an inward smile, slowly shaking his head.
“I’m just picturing Columbo or Monk,” he went on, “sitting on the walkway, right where the base of the ladder had stood leaning against your house and not two feet away from where your poor husband’s head slammed into –”
“My God! Doctor Jacobson! Don’t … How could you!”
A look of absolute horror seemed to flood over his face. “Oh, dear, dear Lillian,” he said, “Forgive me! I can’t believe I was so crude! I got carried away with my own thoughts and words and images. Please, please forgive me!” He made a comical attempt at grasping both her hands in his; she pulled away; he tried again. Finally, he withdrew his hands and, like wounded birds, they fluttered to his lap. He lowered his head. “I’m truly, humbly sorry, Lillian. I — I want so much, so desperately much, to have us both on the same side. But, for that to happen you need to know just how strong the forces are out there who want to remove little Ben from you. It’s not just the CPA and the school — you know that, Lillian. How long has Ben — been — hearing voices?”
This last, he said pointedly and without pause.
“Voices, yes …. Damn it, Lillian! Now is not the time to be coy. Ben certainly isn’t. He makes no secret of them, now does he?”
“Lots of nine-year-olds have their — their invisible little friends, Dr. Jacobson.”
“Invisible friends who tell him something horrible will happen if he doesn’t do certain things? Friends like that?”
She knew she should have taken the pumpkin off the porch herself, when he hadn’t. “I’m not sure I know –” But, of course she did ….
“Lillian!” He brought the flat of his hand smartly to the tabletop.
She shot to her feet, then seeing him smiling up at her, she slowly sank back to her chair. After a moment of watching his unchanging expression she said, “Halloween is just a few days away.”
“Precisely! And, so mama buys him another pumpkin to carve, yes?”
She looked down.
“To silence the voices? To appease the spirits? Is that why, Lillian?”
The tears were starting to come again.
“I saw the pumpkin when I was on the porch. Who crushed it?”
“It couldn’t be! It wasn’t crushed when he left this morning. I saw it.”
“Well, it was in the flower-bed next to the porch, when I came. Crushed. You think the voices told him to do it?” He half-turned in his chair and looked through the kitchen doorway behind him. “Where is Ben, Lillian? I’d like to speak to the lad.”
“No!” she said suddenly.
“He’s not here.”
“Where is he?”
He was pressing her for an answer. She was confused. “He’s, um…”
“You don’t know where he is, do you? You’d leave a nine-year-old child to his own devises? The CPA’d have a field-day with that!”
“He’s, uh”he’s down the street… playing… with a friend.”
“You do know I find that hard to believe, don’t you, Lillian? Still…” A smile crept to his lips. “Still, I guess it’s just as well.”
“Just … as … well …” She meant it as a question, but she wondered at how flat and dead the words sounded to her ears. And, now he was looking at her so strangely?
“You agree, then? Excellent!”
“My dear Lillian, you must listen to me very carefully. Ben’s future holds in the balance. You know we both want the best for Ben, don’t you?”
She stared at him, puzzled. He kept saying that. Of course she wanted what was best for Ben. She wasn’t sure that he knew what was best for him. “Doctor”"
“No, no… Paul!” His name seemed to burst from his throat. And, now his lips trembled slightly before he clamped his mouth shut. She watched him, curiously, as he closed his eyes a moment. And, when he opened them again, he was smiling a small complacent smile.
“Okay,” she said. “Paul. What do you think is best for Ben?”
“To be with his mother, of course.”
“Well, then…” She shrugged. “You have all this power you wield with the committee. Can’t you just –”
His laughter stilled her words. She stared at his mouth. Behind his teeth she saw a white coating at the base of his tongue and behind that the dark opening of his throat with a kind of trigger hanging down. “You’d have me just sign a clean bill of family health, right? Like a prescription?”
“Well, you said he should be with me…”
“If it were a perfect world, my dear. Now, I’m sure you’re a good mother. But the fact is Ben needs, Ben desperately needs, a father”at least a father figure. Consider the facts, dear Lillian. Ben was seven when his father died. That would have been shock enough for most. But, to have been the one who saw his father fall ten, twelve feet to the concrete –”
“Doc –Paul… My God, Paul! Is that — Must you –” She felt the tears spilling out onto her forearm. Holding the handkerchief to her face, she sobbed into it, breathing back the moist trapped warmth. She tried to gather in her emotions, to get some order to her thoughts. Look at him, smiling at her, studying her! What was he doing? He seemed to get her to the point where she felt some hope, and where she even had some feelings toward him, where she thought there might even be a future with him. And, it was like he waited for that moment… so he could pull the rug out from under her. Was he trying to drive her crazy? Was he trying to play good-cop, bad-cop with her mind? But, why?
He went on as though nothing had happened. “Fact is, my love…”
She pulled the handkerchief away from her face and stared at him, but he seemed undeterred.
“…Our little Ben needs a strong, masculine presence in his life. I see the pattern forming. He is anima directed. No, not directed! He is possessed by the anima – the female psychodynamic. It’s all there… The voices. The internal commands. The obsessions, and the feeling of impending doom if he doesn’t follow their anima-driven dictates. I’d give him seven years, ten at the most, without some masculine balance in his life, without a defined structure, a disciplined emotional life – in other words, the animus function — without it, Lillian, my love, be certain our Ben will be institutionalized… at best.” He paused to stare at her. He’ll be dead… at worst!” There was silence while she assumed he was looking for the right words. At last, he put his hands on the table, tentatively, palms up. “Lillian,” he said, “please.”
She hesitated a moment then placed her hands on his. He wrapped his fingers around her hands and closed his eyes, letting his chin drop to his chest. Racking sobs escaped him, followed by a fluttery inhale. Somewhere in the background, through the doorway behind him, miles, seeming miles away, she heard a rustling sound in the front room. She glanced in that direction. It was over an hour before dark. Ben was told to come home by dark. She always had to go get him. Surely now would be no different. She looked back at Paul. His eyes were still closed, his chin still on his chest.
Then, he spoke: “I want you, Lillian. Please…”
“No… You can’t!” His jaw was trembling, and it confused her. Everything was mixed together. Ben… Paul… Paul helping Ben… Paul wanting her… Wanting her! She didn’t want him to want her! But, she wanted him to help her — her and Ben. Was he adding a price tag to it? But, no, she saw the cold, calculating part of him. He knew how to manipulate people, deliberately, efficiently. And, she was an easy mark for him. He knew which of her buttons to push. But, what she was seeing now was different. He was making himself vulnerable. He couldn’t look her in the eyes. He was shaming himself to her — all because — because he wanted her? Dear Jesus! It had been so long since anyone wanted her. Jerry had wanted her… once. Jerry… Jerry… It still sounded strange to her. But, even with Jerry, there was never the desperation she saw now in Paul. Her hands were still wrapped in his. He had been massaging her knuckles with his thumb, but now he tightened his grip, and strange, guttural sounds where coming from his throat.
“Oh, Lillian,” he said through a sob, “say something… You have to know how much I love you — you have to!”
“I can’t … It’s not right. It’s for Ben. You’re supposed to be here for Ben.” She tried to pull her hands from his, but his grip tightened more.
“And I am, I am, my love — my sweet love. Ben needs me — needs us and I need you. You don’t know how much I need — how much I’m burning up inside for you!”
Her hands were hot inside his, and now his hands moved up to take a tighter hold on her wrists. Sudden panic seized her. “Paul … you’re hurting me!”
“Tell me you love me! Tell me you want me, too!”
“No! No! God dammit!” From under the table she heard his feet tapping, then scuffing against the linoleum floor, then a louder tap or a thud almost simultaneous with a pressure against the inside of her calf, up to her knee, and before she had a chance to bring her knees together, she felt his foot, the toes of his stockinged foot flush against her panties. Her body stiffened. He held her hands imprisoned in his. And, now — now he was trying to slip his toe under the elastic of her panties! She wanted to scream out — to shriek! But, the moment she opened her mouth she saw those vacant, glazed-over silver eyes, his flared nostrils, and she could feel his hot breathing against her face. Instead of a scream, laughter bubbled out of her, grew so strident that she thought she was going crazy. Now tears streamed from her eyes and she flung them right and left as she shook her head. “No… No…” And then she laughed until she was breathless and the tears again crowded out her laughter… “No…Oh, God, no… Ha-Ha-Ha.” Laughter and rage and violation all boiled up out of her until she could no longer see him — only a kind of liquid shadow of him and another shadow to his rear, smaller, but elongating behind him, and above that elongation, a glint, sparkling in the gray mists, and dropping, falling like a comet, rising and then and falling, rising and falling, now like the prismatic zigzag of lightning through the rain, ripping into the earth.
The soft, warm weight of him slammed forward onto the table, onto their hands. She was able to extract hers easily now. Reaching beneath the table, she pushed the foot away from her crotch and off the end of the chair, his knee bumping the underside of the table before his foot fell to the floor. She put her knees together, and pushed the chair from the table and stood up. She rubbed away the tears with the heels of her hands… and when she pulled them away from her eyes she saw what she knew all along she would see.
Behind the chair that once held the now slumped over Paul, the knife’s handle protruding from between his shoulder-blades, a very diminutive Ben stood, his thin shoulders hunched over, his arms at his side. He was staring down at Paul whose neck showed two other puncture holes from which dark, almost black blood oozed. Blood was also puddled and spreading on the tablecloth by his open mouth.
Lillian bounded around the table to Ben, who still stood unmoving. She wrapped her arms around his body which now began to shake uncontrollably. He sank into her, trembling. With one arm she pulled the chair back from under Paul, and as she swung it around for Ben to sit in, she heard the muffled thud of Paul’s body followed by the sharper crack of what was probably his head against the linoleum.
“Ooops,” she said, and giggled. He wore one of his designer shoes; a pumpkin seed and orangey pulp adhered to the heel. The other shoe was under the table. She giggled some more.
Ben slumped into the chair, his head bowed. She came around to face him, getting down to her knees, her hands resting on his bony shoulders. She stared up at his closed eyes for a full minute, not speaking. Then, bringing one hand to rest under his chin, she gently raised it, and he opened his eyes. She smiled.
“He was a bad man, mama,” he said through trembling lips.
She nodded. She needed to be strong for Ben.
“They s-s-said I had to do it. He would — would’ve hurt you. They told me not to think about it, just to do it… ’cause he was gonna hurt you. They said he was a bad man and bad men shouldn’t live. I did right, didn’t I mama? Didn’t I?”
She nodded, swallowed back the rising emotion, and sniffed.
“He didn’t believe in them –I could tell. They said it was ’cause he was afraid of them. He was afraid they’d get inside his head until there wouldn’t be enough room for him. They’d squeeze him out like pimple juice.” He laughed, and then stopped short. “They thought that was funny, mama…squeezing him out like pimple juice.”
Feeling the tears coming, and knowing she couldn’t stop them, she reached out and cradled his face in her hands and pulled him forward to her. Her tears wet his cheek. Wrapping her arms around him, she rocked him forward and back. “Oh, my little Ben. My lovely little Ben.”
“Don’t cry, mama…”
“Ben… Ben… You did save me, darling. He was a bad man, and you saved me from him.” She pulled away from him a little, held him from the shoulders, kneading them as she spoke: “But, now I’ve got to ask you to be a big boy, okay? Will you try to do that for mama?”
“It won’t be easy, Ben… Are you sure? You’ll be a big boy?”
“I’ll be a big boy, mama.”
“As hard as it will be, darling, I don’t want you to ever tell anyone about this. I mean never! You did what was right, Ben — you did! But, Ben, no one else will understand. They’ll think what you did was wrong. But I know it was right, and you know it was right. It will be our secret, okay? Just the two of us.”
“The two of us.”
“Say it, Ben. Tell mama you promise.”
“I do. I promise, Mama.”
“Tell me what you promise, Ben.”
“I promise I won’t — tell anyone about what happened.”
She looked away, took a deep breath, and then looked back. “Good… Good. Here’s what else I want you to do. I want you to go up to your room and empty out your laundry basket. And I want you to put five of your most favorite toys in it. I’ll be there in a few minutes. I’m going to pack you a few things and then you know what we’re going to do?”
He shook his head.
“We’re going to drive down to Anaheim.”
“We’re going to Disneyland?”
“We’re going to Aunt Jean’s. You’re going to visit her for a while. I’ll give her some money so she’ll take you to Disneyland. You always liked Aunt Jean.”
“But, I want to go to Disneyland with you…”
“I know, sweetheart. I do know. It’s just that I’ve got some things to do first. Then we’ll go to Disneyland together, okay?” She looked away. She didn’t want to have him see her eyes lying to him. “Now, go get your toys together. I’ll be there in a minute.”
* * *
After Ben left the room, she stayed on her knees, her hands on the seat that still held Ben’s warmth. She closed her eyes, hearing his door click shut. Jean would understand. No two minds were more enmeshed than hers and her sister’s. Of course she would have to brace herself not to let her sister get even an inkling of the real truth. Even though she claimed she understood about Jerry — when she told her, “Lillian, when you’re put through all that you were put through, you sometimes just have to take matters in your own hands.” But this was different. She just couldn’t make her a confidante in this. She smiled, imagining Ben being raised to manhood sound and strong under her sister’s Christian tutelage. She was so grateful that Jean signed the papers, shortly after Jerry’s death, agreeing to guardianship of Ben if anything happened to her sister. Of course, who’d have guessed?…
She got to her feet and looked over at Paul. He was on his stomach, his left arm akimbo with his hand under his thigh. His right arm was stretched forward as though he were swimming in mid-crawl. His mouth and eyes were open as if he were gawking at her. She feigned shock. “Why, are you — sir, listen to me! Are you trying to look up my dress?” She retrieved his handkerchief from the table and, squatting down in front of his face, began wiping the knife handle clean. Then, bending forward to get in a better position, she grasped the handle tightly. She had the urge to pull it out and ram it back in, but the thought that she even had this urge disturbed her. “You are better than that,” she said to herself. She loosened her grip on the handle and pulled her hand cleanly away.
“Mama,” she heard from Ben’s room, “You said you were gonna help me pack. Oh… can I buy a Coke to drink in the car?”
“We’ll buy Cokes and maybe even some chips to eat on the way. I’ll be there in a minute, sweetheart.” As a final gesture, she scraped the pumpkin pulp and the seed from the heel of his shoe into the handkerchief, rolled him enough to his side to expose his suit pocket, and jammed the handkerchief, slightly used, back inside its comfy little black serge home and let him fall back to his stomach. She started to leave, but then she cocked her head, looking down, one last time, at her handiwork. On a final whim, she withdrew his left hand from under his thigh and stretched his arm down beside him. Now it was metaphorically complete. She left him there, swimming across the linoleum.
Before closing the kitchen door she stuck her head back through the opening. “Now, you be good, Paul, you hear? I’ll be back tomorrow — or maybe the day after, if Ben and Jean can talk me into going to Disneyland.”
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