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Famous After Death (Benjamin Cheever)


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  Thursday, February 9,1984, I weigh 189 lbs. I'm fat and the pen ($3.95) I had left in the jacket pocket of my Paul Stuart suit has leaked all down the lining. So naturally, I'm depressed. But this time, I'm going to do something about it. Acropolis may not be a first-rate publisher, but it does have a first-rate health plan, and so people like me, people like myself, functioning melancholiacs, can see a psychiatrist once a week at $100 an hour. Which I am now doing. I got the woman's name from Human Resources, phoned this morning and saw the doctor this afternoon. This little flower aims to bloom. Speaking of blooming, my shrink won't talk about diet.

"This is NOT Weight Watchers," she said, and she said it disdainfully. Disdain is what I get from attractive women. Doctor Santarelli is an attractive woman. She was wearing black cowboy boots with white stitching, and a long suede skirt, suitable for riding sidesaddle. Paint a powder smudge on her pale white cheek and she might have stepped out of a TV western. She had everything but the carbine.

No wedding band. But, then, aren't they supposed to hide their wedding rings for therapy? That way the patient is free to imagine that the doctor is really his mother. Or his lover. Or both. You're also supposed to pretend that the psychiatrist would still care about you for no money. Which is way too much heavy lifting for this dwarfish imagination.

Doctor Santarelli does seem to think the journal is a good idea. Especially since I'm having so much trouble with my memory. She wants me to spice the entries with current events. "Place yourself in the exterior world," she says.

I told her about my memory lapses. "I lose whole days," I told her.

She wanted to know if I'd seen a "real doctor" (her phrase), an internist or a neurologist. I told her that I had been in an auto-mobile accident once, several years ago, and had hit my head, but that afterwards I'd been thoroughly checked. "I seem to be able to function adequately at my job," I said. "I do what's expected of me. It's just that afterward I can't always bring it to mind."

"And what is it about the disability that concerns you the most?"

"The bottom line is that I can't recall what I've eaten. I don't know if I had one bagel with two foil units of cream cheese, or two bagels with one foil unit of cream cheese."

"You can write that down, too," she said. "If you want."

"I might. If I can remember what to write down."

"Write down whatever you remember," she said.

"Do you want me to read my journal here?" I asked. "Or you could read it yourself."

"If you'd like. Not all of it necessarily," she added, quickly. Ever notice how loath people are to read anything longer than their own horoscope? Not a good sign for those of us in publishing. In any case, the doctor expects that the very process of keeping a diary will be therapeutic. She expects that I will get to know myself. "Find out what you need from life."

I told her that was simple. "I know what I need from life."

"And what do you need from life then?"

"I want to be beloved of women. Beloved of many beautiful women. I don't want them to get tired of me either. I want the women always to feel the way they do when we've just met. Or if she's married to a brute."

Cleo didn't look pleased. "This is not a joke," she said.

"And I'm not joking," I said.

"Okay," she said. "Anything else?"

"Thin. It's difficult to get a lot of beautiful women to love you if you're plump," I said.

"You've already mentioned that you want to reduce," she said, and she said it quite sourly.

"And tall," I said. "I'd also like to be tall." This last remark to the psychiatrist was meant to get a laugh. When it failed to do so, I was disappointed but not surprised. I've never yet met a therapist who hadn't had the laugh organ removed. True mental health, apparently, will be the death of humor.

"Is that all you want?" she asked.

"Well, actually there's more," I said, prepared now to horrify my audience.

"Yes?"

"You want to know what I'd really like?"

"Yes, of course, " she said, although she was already beginning to sound bored.

"What I'd REALLY like is to be famous."

"Famous?" she asked, as if she'd never heard anything so rude, as if penis would have been a better word. Penis envy was something she'd been trained to deal with. Envy envy was not.

"That's right. I want to be a household name."

"Like the president, or more like a movie star?"

"Is there a difference?" I asked.

The doctor shrugged. "I suppose Ronald Reagan confuses the issue. Not all U.S. presidents were movie stars."

"More like a movie star then," I said. "I don't actually have a national platform all thought out. I want to be a sort of modern Buddha, sit somewhere quiet and read my clips." Here she started to take notes, which I considered a good sign. At least I had her attention. "I want somebody to tell my story. Most lives aren't a tragedy, you know. Most lives aren't recorded at all."

"So you want to be on Sixty Minutes?" she said. "Or Larry King Live?" and at this point she almost smirked. I don't believe they're allowed to smirk. Not while on duty.

"Or the CBS Evening News," I said. "Any in-depth interview on any news show would be a start as long as it isn't one of those neighborhood cable programs. You know, where they have the village board and advertisements for the Acme Body Shop. Cable is almost as banal as life. I want drama in my episode. I suppose I could also be written up in a best-selling book. Nonfiction. With myself as the hero, protagonist. Then I'd end up on the Today Show. I will not go gently into the good night of anonymity. I'm with Mrs. Willy Loman on this: Attention must be paid."

At this point the doctor tried to regain control of the session. "Don't you think that all this is an attempt to make up for something simple, something that you might be able to discover in your own character?"

"Fuck no!" I said, and that made her flinch. She has a fetching little flinch. "Famous people don't necessarily have fully realized personalities," I pointed out. "We often hear about how needy Elizabeth Taylor is, or how sad and lonely Marilyn Monroe was. Monroe actually died with the telephone in her hand. But now I'm off the track. The main point here is that we care about these people. We love them more than we love our own husbands and children."

Cleo scratched her left eyebrow with her left forefinger and sighed noisily. I guess they're allowed to sigh. She was already beginning to think of me as a difficult case, a big, fat problem. "Do you have any clear idea how you might go about getting this attention?"

"I think so."

"Really?" she asked, displaying, I thought, just a little too much surprise.

"Well," I said, and cleared my throat. "I am a creative person. I have a play in me. I think any play I wrote would be special and unique. Something like Edward Albee's The Zoo Story, or else The Death of a Salesman. Something sad, specific, and universal. Then I could be Arthur Miller, marry Marilyn Monroe."

Now Cleo was openly looking at her watch. A Timex. Takes a licking and keeps on ticking. She was checking to make sure it hadn't stopped. We complain a lot about the time famine, but time isn't only a shortage, it's also a protection. Cleo hoped she was running out of time. Clearly she was running out of patience. "What if playwriting fails?" she asked, and you just knew she thought it would.

"There's nothing about my being fat that means I can't write," I said. "Norman Mailer is plump. Dickens was chubby. G. K. Chesterton was obese. There's no correlation."

Cleo wasn't shocked by this. "I didn't think there was any correlation," she said. "I only wondered if you had another plan. In case the play doesn't win a Tony."

"I suppose I could murder somebody," I said. "I suppose I could murder a lot of people. It takes courage to write a play, talent and money to get it produced. Murderers are oafs."

 
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Excerpted from Famous After Death by Benjamin Cheever. Copyright © 1998 by Benjamin Cheever. Excerpted by permission of Crown Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.