The fistfight is over and now Benjamin Wenberg – fruit trader, patriot – has to his name only the sooty clothes on his back, his broken knuckle (cracked and split on that rolling tray of baby gherkins), and the sixteen remaining blue mass pills he’s stuffed in his left front pocket. He’s stumbling down 44th and he’s breathing loudly through his mouth – there’s chicken fat in his beard and a black bruise dawning across his half-exposed chest; a woman grabs the sticky palm of her dirty firstborn and pulls her away. Now Benjamin sees stars, now he falls to his knees. Lost: his wife, his fleet, his empire; next to go will be his fatty, overwhelmed heart – give him another five minutes or so – and then the entire cursed remains of the Wenberg Fruit Trading Company1 will lay face down on the wet corner of Fifth and Forty-forth and await the touch of some other unlucky bastard whose fortunes are next in line for the crapper.
The Spring of 1876 had been an unusually hard one on Wenberg – first it was the rains: the black afternoon skies and the crackling lightning strikes just off Fort Columbus, the thick air and his feeling that he was supposed to be aware of something that he could not understand2. Late into the many stormy nights Wenberg’s nervous retriever Mims collected and stacked piles of firewood at her owner’s foot in a desperate attempt to communicate with him while Wenberg tried to interpret the strange meteorological phenomena of early March. Soon came a peculiar dream that left him terrified, in which he was walking about Manhattan and there was no-one who knew his name; when he awoke he was naked atop his bed sheets and coughing something black and wet into his pillow. As he tried to clear his mouth he felt red hot pain in his shoulder and shook his wife so that he might say, “I think I’m dying.”
His wife was not one to wake easily; she whispered, “What does it mean?” and fell quickly back to sleep.
Here, Wenberg raised himself on his elbows and said, “Well what does that mean?” but she was long, long gone.
Desperate, lunatic stacks of firewood appeared in half a dozen rooms at the Wenberg’s: anywhere Benjamin sat, stood, briefly came to rest Mims quickly went to work stacking and restacking half-chewed husks of firewood until Benjamin moved on or knocked them over in his own restless, uncertain state. Though Benjamin was an inveterate eater, a man of great appetites, his life of vigor and consumption had very suddenly been replaced with blue mass pills3 and sleepless nights spent with his hands flat on the cold bedroom windows, hoping to spot the thing he felt was suddenly coming very quickly for him before he was smashed into thousands of tiny bits.
“I’m fucked, Mimsy,” he said.
Here, she re-arranged her stack of firewood and shook her head.
“That’s a pretty one,” he said.
Here she moved her stack again and cried.
“Even better,” he said. “Fantastic composition there.”
By the end of March the storms had grown worse and Manhattan was flooded, Benjamin was pale and weak and his cough persistent, his wife had changed bedrooms, his left hand had developed a palsy, and his doctor said, “This thing isn’t going in a direction I like.”
Wenberg said, “There’s a question I need to ask.
“Do you ever feel a thing so heavy bearing down on you that you know it will finish you whensoever it arrives?”
The doctor nodded his head and told a long story about how his wife saved him from a life of sin and fornication; late into the night Mims stacked and whined, and stacked and whined.
Come the first week in April New Yorkers were beset by allergens and queer fungi and Benjamin Wenberg received word that dangerous, unknown men had attacked and destroyed the two schooners that comprised his fruit fleet. Only a week before the ships had been moved two miles off the coast of Cuba in preparation for the long, difficult trip Northward and as such they were heavy with plantains4 and avocados and the crew perilously drunk on thick Cuban rum. The attacks were swift and violent – after a memorable crimson sunset the sea grew quiet and most of the men slept; then came fire and cries to God and the terrified fat hired men were run through with swords and knives, nearly half were bleeding out from their stomachs and the other half drowned trying to swim to Florida or Cuba or Africa. Only two survived – both Cuban-born slaves – and both swore to have seen, standing astride the deck of The Old Mistress and The Bon Fortuna the pale and eccentric ghost of Peg-Leg Leclerc. Each slave recounted in curious detail the spinning dance Leclerc performed as he dropped his torch to the masts of each ship and burned them in his own name.
Two days later Wenberg kissed his mostly disinterested wife goodbye, gladly received a good-luck stalk of kindling from the mouth of his retriever, and boarded David Jardine’s5 The Olde Mistress bound for Havana. Wenberg loathes sea travel – his stomach and intestines, the fierce smell of the men, the oddly communicative birds and their piercing stares – and the bulk of those seven days were spent locked safely in the aft cabin, reading and re-reading his ruined trade ledgers, madly rubbing blue Indian Ink across the lines in the hopes that he might temporarily confuse the taxman (one Mr. Alpert, who had written several letters inquiring about shipping tariffs curiously unpaid). There was no chance of sleep; instead, Wenberg continued on his regimen of blue mass pills and suffered terrible hallucinations. One such hallucination occurred a quarter mile from the ruined avocado operation in Havana: Wenberg imagined he was lying face down in a box, that he could hear the voices of the world around him, that he could neither speak nor move, and then the hallucination was quickly broken by a series of desperate shrieks and the sight of twenty eight Bahamian pirates boarding his (loaned on credit) ship. Wenberg locked his door and slapped himself about the face; he said, “Real or imagined? Real or imagined?” and for the second time in three weeks the pirates sliced their way through his overweight crew. With hardly time to spare, Wenberg forced his enormous posterior through the aft window, prepared to swim for it. Here, he collapsed on the aft deck and cracked his tooth and shouted, “Oh, ow!” and once again tossed himself overboard in the hopes that something better could be found amidst the Cuban archipelago.
An hour later the sky was black and red, a fire still burned aboard his (borrowed/mostly sunk) ship and Wenberg sat on Varadero Beach, shouting at God and the ghost of Pegleg Leclerc, “Why have you done this to me?”
Leclerc himself sat heavily next to Wenberg and ran his hand through the sand and said, “Geez it’s beautiful here. There’s going to be all this tourism one day – people are going to come just for the drinks and to lay out in the sun and relax.”
Wenberg said, “What will happen to me?”
Leclerc said, “You get forgotten.”
Wenberg said, “Why me?”
Leclerc shrugged. “Just bad luck I guess.”
By May the rains had ceased, flowers and hats decorated the streets of Manhattan, and Wenburg was ruined. All that remained of the fleet was a canoe he paddled in the Hudson River to relieve the chronic constipation and irritability he incurred from his four year dependency on mercury treatments and without a sudden influx of cash and a ship to repay Jardine the Wenberg Fruit Trading Company’s doors would close in days and Wenberg could expect some kind of prosecution6 . Thus the gamey Sewickley boys in Queens quickly switched avocado distributors, plantains were nearly out of season, and his mistress Ella Roubideoux (who was not allowed to come to the house, by the way) announced at the front gate that she was pregnant and the likelihood was reasonably high that the child was his. After seriously advising Ella Roubideoux to find a high stairway and engage in the activity of throwing herself downwards, Wenberg passed three hours sniffing cocaine and thinking until at long last the messages Mims had been trying to pass to him made perfect sense and, as the sun rose at 262 Park Avenue, the final piece of the Wenberg Empire burned to the ground7.
So now here is our man: friendless and wifeless and childless and homeless, a former fruit trader turned arsonist, owner only of a fistful of pills in his pocket and the smoky clothes still on his back. Wenburg arrives at Delmonico’s at ten past noon; the morning humidity tormenting Manhattan has just broken and in its place the sun shines bright and cool. By the time he presses his palm against the front door of Delmonico’s he is huffing, soaking through with sweat, his lungs charred with smoke and guilt, and for the first time in his life Wenberg bets he’s something close to death.
“Mr. Wenburg,” the garcon cries, “Are you alright?”
“I,” Wenburg panted, “am in need. Of much. Food.”
The garcon cries again, “Whatever you need sir!”
“Food,” Wenburg said. “And as much of it. As you have.”
At his usual table at Delmonico’s, Wenberg orders squab chicken, Lobster Wenberg, new potatoes, new asparagus, two bottles of red wine and has no plan for how to pay the dinner bill (thoughts: sneak out back; ask for credit; burn restaurant to ground; fake ataxia?). His heavy heart feels huge in his chest, he’s fidgeting badly – first with napkin, second with tie, third with knife – in the vain attempt to slow his own breathing and control his over-reactive heart. He is afraid he has hit the end and he says, “My hand won’t stop shaking.”
A nearby waiter says, “That would seem a useful business tool!”
Wenberg says, “Waiter, question. Did you know that I’m a close friend of Charles Delmonico?”
The waiter says, “I did not.”
Wenberg says, “Waiter, a follow-up. Of late, I’ve impregnated a woman I hardly know. I’ve been attacked by pirates. I owe seven hundred dollars to the local taxman, and I’m more than sixty percent certain I’m on the cusp of heart failure. Do you think I’m in the mood for your humorisms?”
The waiter’s life is always like that – apology after apology. “I apologize Mr. Newberg.”
Here, the waiter dashes off.
An hour passes; perhaps another. Benjamin Wenberg is overstuffed and overfed, half-asleep, his head lost in a wretched cityscape of empty wine bottles and husked lobster shells, he is more asleep now than he’s been in weeks. But as the waiters and the garcon’s and the Crème Boy gently clear his dishes and napkins, he cracks his eyes enough to see Pegleg himself across the dining room. Those boots, that damned famous cape. Pegleg gives Wenberg a brief smile and walks to his table, he lays a gentle hand on Wenberg’s back and whispers warmly in his ear, “That thing that was coming for you? Here it is.” And at that moment a tiny man seated at a table across the restaurant stands atop his chair and shouts, “You there! Benjamin Wenberg! Your lobster meal is not fit for a man half of my size!”
A man half his size!
If only you had been there. If only you had seen giant Benjamin Wenberg rise to his feet, seen him launch across the airspace separating himself and Tom Figgins. You would remember for the rest of your life the sound of the man crying, “Midget Man!” his ragged soul bared to the room, his fat fist swung at brief Tom Figgins with all the might of the dead. But Tom Figgins (semi-professional boxer, on the under card of Saunders v. Harland) ducks, turns, and delivers a blow to Benjamin Wenberg’s heart that casts him back and back, into Chef Ranhofer and exploding gherkins and all kinds of fancy cream. The laughter in the restaurant in torrents, Charles Delmonico furious and red, our boy stripped even of his own name, out the door and into the same world as everyone else.
Here we all are, here is Fifth Avenue – strange carriages and beautiful children, great hats roll by us. Here is the mud in the street, here is the stink of the unwashed, here are the sweating hopeful immigrants, the neat black pants of the wealthy, the prayers of the dying. And here is the book, here is history – rolling up and over us, renaming and forgetting us, everyone falling and falling away.
1Dealings: mostly plantains and avocadoes; some tobacco. Routes: New York-Boston; Cuba-New York.
2One theory: he had picked up a curse of some kind. The source and the brand of the course was uncertain, but certainly his predilection for prostitutes in Cuba seem a likely possibility.
3See: Abraham Lincoln.
4The money was in plantains, by the by.
5Nephew of William Jardine: Jardine, Matheson, and Co.
6Of note: debtor’s prisons had been illegal in the United States for 34 years.
7Survivors: Wife, two children. Casualty: Dog.