‘The Note’ by Ben Lerner

When I was seven or eight, she said, a couple of years before the accident, I discovered my dad’s Penthouse magazines. I was playing dress up in my parents’ closet and they were in a shoe box among other shoe boxes on the floor in the back. The magazines filled me with wonder, confusion, and disgust. Around the same time, in my third grade class—Mrs. Allan’s class—we made a series of handmade cards to give to the cigarette smokers in our lives, little notes that said: I love you and I want you to quit, smoking kills, something like that. Now it’s amazing to me that our teacher encouraged us to give these notes to our parents, that the school would mobilize us against the adults in our family. We even gave them to other teachers. Cut out hearts, red crayon, little valentines. My dad was only a very occasional smoker, I’d only really seen him smoke around my uncle, from whom he’d bum cigarettes at cookouts. But after I found the Penthouse, I started leaving the notes about the dangers of smoking between the magazines’ pages. Like pressed flowers. The first couple of times I went back to the magazines after I’d left my notes, everything was just the same—as if he hadn’t looked at the pictures since I’d intervened. But I sensed that he had, and that he’d left everything as it was to give me the impression that he never looked in the box, that maybe the box belonged to somebody else, that he’d forgotten all about it. But then one night when I went and checked—I remember it was really late, while they slept—I found that the Penthouse had been replaced with old issues of National Geographic. I remember a sea turtle on one cover. Lincoln, for some reason, was on another. I flipped through the pages and discovered my notes: I love you, stop smoking. The implication was that I’d somehow been wrong about the porn and I felt that if I brought it up now he’d claim the box had contained these “nature magazines” all along. Maybe you saw some naked pictures, Emma, they do sometimes show people who don’t wear a lot of clothes. I remember being stunned by how crass and stupid my dad’s switch was—I would not, could not forget these airbrushed women spreading their labia—but I was also immediately suspicious of my own memory. On the one hand I was disturbed by how childish my dad’s behaviour was, how tawdry; on the other hand, as an actual child, I didn’t yet trust my own grasp of reality. Maybe I’d had a sort of waking dream. I was much more upset by all of this than the images, I still am. And I don’t care that he looked at porn, but why couldn’t he have at least put it on a higher shelf? It wasn’t until recently that I realized I’ve had this habit ever since that time—that I kind of shake out my magazines and books (especially library books) when I get them. Shake them out, I repeated. Yeah, she said, or maybe I don’t really do it so much as almost do it, think about doing it, have to stop myself from doing it. To see if there are any notes, I said. Yes, she answered. Notes from my younger self, notes to or from my dad.

From Gold Custody by Barbara Bloom Ben Lerner (MACK, 2021).

Embossed paperback with flaps
20 x 25cm, 104 pages

ISBN 978-1-913620-46-2
October 2021
€35 £30 $40

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