Ben Stein’s Money
“I was never all that bent out of shape over the political stuff,” Dad told me once.
I only met Ben Stein once, though they were old friends. Dad knew a lot of people in Hollywood; his family had worked in the industry for years: MGM, Paramount, Universal, you name it. He wasn’t the best but he wrote a few seasons of Grey’s Anatomy and an op-ed for The New Yorker on the Olsen Twins that Mom framed in the guest bathroom some time after I left for college. When I came home for break, I started to read it a few times taking a dump. Never finished though.
We both look at the small television perched by the kitchen window. I shrug.
Hanna tilts my hand toward her face.
I mutter something about being sorry and wrap my arms around her the way I used to wrap them around myself in the locker room. Like I need to make sure we’re both still fully there.
I teach seventh grade English in a public school in Madison. I told a lot of people that the day of the funeral. I tried to explain what it was like in the middle of the country. Why would someone feel drawn to the middle of something? Well, I don’t know.
In Los Angeles people want these things explained in terms of pathology. So I’d say something like “All my life I had these complexes.” I was scared of my privilege, of being drawn into “the biz” by nepotism or lack of effort or whatever simple force had acted on the rest of the men in my family, men I respected and did not want to resent. And they would nod, sort of pityingly. And really, most of that was true. I want to deserve things.
I remember the cool fog of the Palisades so clearly, even though I hadn’t been to California in years until I came back for the funeral last month and took the Delta flight through Vegas out two days after. Mom tried to keep it small (partly for my sake) but the courtyard was still overfilled with unfamiliar, stately executive types. The ceremony was indiscreetly secular. Ben Stein wasn’t there but sent flowers and a consoling message I shoved in the pocket of my tux.
I stood beside my sister and her fiancé, Stewart, who was deemed “estranged” soon after. Yes, I explained, Madison was pleasant, kind of like Denver or Portland or at least how we imagined them to be. My students behaved well and were, for the most part, from liberal middle class families tethered to the idea of public education, even though they had the means to do better.
Molly had just gotten promoted at a PR firm in West Hollywood; her new office, she explained, had a larger window. She had begun the arduous but necessary work of transferring her belongings, though the intern was being less focused than she had hoped. Like most of her boyfriends, Stewart was handsome, but vaguely lacked ambition and was hoping to be cast in a pilot. Mom hated these guys. I tried to be polite to him, knowing well that my sister will do what she pleases, either taking some perverse joy in suffering fools or cutting them loose and complaining to me on the phone in the pitchy, long winded way that she does after. Or both.
This was Winter Break, the year Molly turned 17. She had just been expelled from prep school for either smoking weed or selling it in some ostentatious manner. I can’t really remember. It seemed like she had have to have done it on purpose. She would start at a new school in January and graduate the following June having barely met the attendance requisite. I was curious when she came home late, smelling like smoke even through the floral perfume she doused her clothes in but still too young to want to participate in any of that. Sometimes she chastised her friends when they came out of her room stoned, asked me if I had any girlfriends and keeled over giggling. As I have felt for most of my life, I was embarrassed and did not understand why.
Spending too much time around adults, I had grown strange, small and precocious moving ploddingly towards pubescence. Dad got that. For all the pills, for all the strange nights I watched Mom pull him out of the bathtub like a sheet, we were in many ways the same. We both relied on intelligence in the wake of sloth. We read the same easy-to-esteem books many times: Gatsby, Less Than Zero, Fear and Loathing. We wanted to admire the rich and beautiful but shared this attenuation; we were too aware of our bodies, too suspicious to be subsumed in society despite our proximity to it. Maybe, too, it was the memory of the East, or the idea of it: like Gatsby, we were born into the wrong side of the country. I don’t know.
Though, of course I didn’t realize then, how no one is Californian, not really. That the half crystalline forms of houses braided through vistas of the Hills were transplants of the Bauhaus, derivative baroque or half-aspiring villas. Or that the violence and purity of Classic Cars was meant for the Italian countryside. I did not see how the freeways crippled them and took their lives too early. I saw only the impenetrable beauty.
When I met Ben Stein, he was waiting for his Newfoundland to be stuffed. I did not know his job or purpose, though my parents had spoken of him before. It is like this:
They are sitting in Dad’s old office. Everything is still there. (Later, Mom gutted it, a little bit at a time, as if we didn’t notice. Eventually it became just another storage space, somewhere Mom and Molly put shit they didn’t need or know to sell on the internet or felt poor people weren’t capable of appreciating as donations.) But earlier, it was a private place full of leathery binders of scripts and photographs. Dad would sit at his desk and drink a small cup of scotch quietly reviewing his work.
Dad and Ben Stein are drinking beers. This is the only time I ever see my father drink anything other than hard liquor, bottled water or juice. Later, when he is dry, he sometimes orders a water or soda with bitters, but no alcohol in it.
Ben Stein asks my name but proceeds to call me “boy” after I’ve told him. He asks me what I do. I say I like to write and fish.
“I’m not a good writer like my dad.” I tell him. Which is true.
“Well, son, I’m sure you’re a better fisherman.” Ben Stein laughs and Dad groans reluctantly.
I’m thinking about how for a prostitute, Hanna looks more like a book model: leaning to one side, drenched in light dimming and coming into the kitchen. How maybe that isn’t even her name. I’m crying before I realize I’m crying, so when I hand her the roll of twenty-dollar bills from my desk it’s already damp. I am a ridiculous man.
I want to hold her hand and tell her how I miss my father and I’m scared of being buried. I want to make a joke about the game show and the wad of cash and Ben Stein’s leering face on the screen but I don’t. I don’t do anything except sit there, while she kisses me on the cheek and reaches out her arm to turn off the television.
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If you’ve been looking for a chance to say something then this very well could be it.
I wish to God I’d had a list like this when I was 23.
Answer phones better than anyone else has answered phones before. Relay messages so brilliant, they bring people to tears. Turn the coffee run into the choreography of Swan Lake. Become best friends with every intern and every underling and every taxi driver you encounter.
I remember taking the pen and notebook from that woman outside the courtroom, flipping to a clean page in the book, and writing, JESSICA IS SAD in big, bold, uncoordinated letters. “My sister is going to be a good writer someday! Look at how nice her lines are!”