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Portnoy's Complaint, Philip Roth

It was my mother who could accomplish anything, who herself had to admit that it might even be that she was actually too good. And could a small child with my intelligence, with my powers of observation, doubt that this was so? She could make jello, for instance, with sliced peaches hanging in it, peaches just suspended there, in defiance of the law of gravity. She could bake a cake that tasted like a banana.

She sews, she knits, she darns – she irons better even than the schvartze, to whom, of all her friends who each possess a piece of this grinning childish black old lady's hide, she alone is good. “I'm the only one who's good to her. I'm the only one who gives her a whole can of tuna for lunch, and I'm not talking dreck, either. I'm talking Chicken of the Sea, Alex. I'm sorry, I can't be a stingy person. Excuse me, but I can't live like that, even if it is 2 for 49. Esther Wasserberg leaves twenty-five cents in nickels around the house when Dorothy comes, and counts up afterwards to see it's all there. Maybe I'm too good,” she whispers to me, meanwhile running scalding water over the dish from which the cleaning lady has just eaten her lunch, alone like a leper, “but I couldn't do a thing like that.” Once Dorothy chanced to come back into the kitchen while my mother was still standing over the faucet marked H, sending torrents down upon the knife and fork that had passed between the schvartze's thick pink lips. “Oh, you know how hard it is to get mayonnaise off silverware these days, Dorothy,” says my nimble-tongued mother – and thus, she tells me later, by her quick thinking, has managed to spare the colored woman's feelings.

But what a mix-up of the sexes in our house! Who should by advancing on me, retreating – and who should be retreating, advancing! Who should be scolding, collapsing in helplessness, enfeebled totally by a tender heart! And who should be collapsing, instead scolding, correcting, reproving, criticizing, faultfinding without end! Filling the patriarchal vacuum! Oh, thank God! thank God! at least he had the cock and the balls! Pregnable (putting it mildly) as his masculinity was in this world of goyim with golden hair and silver tongues, between his legs (God bless my father!) he was constructed like a man of consequence, two big healthy balls such as a king would be proud to put on display, and a shlong of magisterial length and girth. And they were his: yes, of this I am absolutely certain, they hung down off of, they were connected on to, they could not be taken away from him!

I stand at attention between his legs as he coats me from head to toe with a thick lather of soap – and eye with admiration the baggy substantiality of what overhangs the marble bench upon which he is seated. His scrotum is like the long wrinkled face of some old man with an egg tucked into each of his sagging jowls – while mine might hang from the wrist of some little girl's dolly like a teeny pink purse. And as for his shlong, to me, with that fingertip of a prick that my mother likes to refer to in public (once, okay, but that once will last a lifetime) as my “little thing,” his shlong brings to mind the fire hoses coiled along the corridors at school. Shlong: the word somehow catches exactly the brutishness, the meatish-ness, that I admire so, the sheer mindless, weighty, and unselfconscious dangle of that living piece of hose through which he passes streams of water as thick and strong as rope – while I deliver forth slender yellow threads that my euphemistic mother calls a “sis.” A sis, I think, is undoubtedly what my sister makes, little yellow threads that you can sew with...”Do you want to make a nice sis?” she asks me – when I want to make a torrent, I want to make a flood: I want like he does to shift the tides of the toilet bowl! “Jack,” my mother calls to him, “would you close that door, please? Some example you're setting for you know who.” But if only that had been so, Mother!

I was saying that the detail of Ronald Nimkin's suicide that most appeals to me is the note to his mother found pinned to that roomy straitjacket, his nice stiffly laundered sports shirt. Know what it said? Guess. The last message from Ronald to his momma? Guess.
Mrs. Blumenthal called. Please bring your mah-jongg rules to the game tonight.

In sixty seconds I have imagined a full and wonderful life of utter degradation that we lead together on a chenille spread in a shabby hotel room, me (the enemy of America First) and Thereal McCoy, which is the name I attach to the sluttiest-looking slut in the chorus line. And what a life it is, too, under our bare bulb (HOTEL flashing just outside our window). She pushes Drake's Daredevil Cupcakes (chocolate with a white creamy center) down over my cock and then eats them off of me, flake by flake. She pours maple syrup out of the Log Cabin can and then licks it from my tender balls until they're clean again as a little baby boy's. Her favorite line of English prose is a masterpiece: “Fuck my pussy, Fuckface, till I faint.” When I fart in the bathtub, she kneels naked on the tile floor, leans all the way over, and kisses the bubbles.

Tel Aviv, Jaffa, Jerusalem, Beer-She'va, the Dead Sea, Sedom, 'Ein Gedi, then north to Caesarea, Haifa, Akko, Tiberias, Safed, the upper Galilee...and always it is more dreamy than real. Not that I courted the sensation either. I'd had enough of the improbable with my companion in Greece and Rome. No, to make some sense out of the impulse that had sent me running aboard the El Al flight to begin with, to convert myself from this bewildered runaway into a man once again – in control of my will, conscious of my intentions, doing as I wished, not as I must – I set off traveling about the country as though the trip had been undertaken deliberately, with forethought, desire, and for praiseworthy, if conventional, reasons. Yes, I would have (now that I was unaccountably here) what is called an educational experience. I would improve myself, which is my way, after all. Or was, wasn't it? Isn't that why I still read with my pencil in my hand? To learn? To become better? (than whom?)

“Oh, I am going to fuck you, Jew girl,” I whispered evilly.
“You are crazy!” and heaved up against me with all her considerable strength. “You are a lunatic on the loose!”
“No, oh no,” I told her, growling from my throat, “oh no, you have got a lesson to learn, Naomi,” and pressed, pressed hard, to teach my lesson: O you virtuous Jewess, the tables are turned, tsatskeleh! You on the defensive now, Naomi – explaining your vaginal discharge to the entire kibbutz! You think they got worked up over those watches! Wait'll they get a whiff of this! What I wouldn't give to be at that meeting when you get arraigned on the charge of contaminating the pride and future of Zion! Then perhaps you'll come to have the proper awe for us fallen psychoneurotic Jewish men! Socialism exists, but so too do spirochetes, my love! So here's your introduction, dear, to the slimier side of things. Down, down with these patriotic khaki shorts, spread your chops, blood of my blood, unlock your fortressy thighs, open wide that messianic Jewish hole! Make ready, Naomi, I am about to poison your organs of reproduction! I am about to change the future of the race!
But of course I couldn't. Licked her earholes, sucked at her unwashed neck, sank my teeth into the coiled braids of hair...and then, even as resistance may actually have begun to recede under my assault, I rolled off of her and came to rest, defeated, against the wall – on my back. “It's no good,” I said, “I can't get a hard-on in this place.”
She stood up. Stood over me. Got her wind. Looked down. It occurred to me that she was going to plant the sole of her sandal on my chest. Or maybe proceed to kick the shit out of me. I remembered myself as a little schoolboy pasting all those reinforcements into my notebook. How has it come to this?
“'Im-po-tent in Is-rael, da da daaah,'” to the tune of “Lullaby in Birdland.”
“Another joke?” she asked.
“And another. And another. Why disclaim my life?”
Then she said a kind thing. She could afford to, of course, way up there. “You should go home.”
“Sure, that's what I need, back into the exile.”
And way way up there, she grinned.

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Gratitude is the sign of noble souls.

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