Fiction by Alon Preiss: The Ghost of Jack Benny Returns!

DANIEL FOUND HIMSELF at a crossroads. Ageing — rapidly, it seemed, zooming towards 40 — and facing life as, let’s face it: a lawyer. What did he have to look forward to? Partnership. Or, perhaps even worse: not-partnership.

It was the 1980s, and Daniel was ageing, and that was that.

While photographs of Daniel suggested a fit and ethnically attractive fellow, reality presented a man seemingly uncomfortable in his own skin. In person he seemed somehow just a little too dark, and, in spite of his actual height, a little over five foot ten, just a little too short.

He always needed a shave, even immediately after shaving. Suits never quite fit him, either hanging loosely from his body or clinging uncomfortably. Tailor-made suits were no help.

Wherever he was, he looked as though he belonged somewhere else. He didn’t belong to the world, and, he realized, all of a sudden, that he would one day leave it.

And there was Henry’s death. His colleague at the firm, Henry, the handsome recovering alcoholic on the verge of partnership. Henry had worked out at the gym three days a week, spent time in a tanning booth, ate no red meat and popped vitamins. At the time he had seemed terribly healthy, but after Henry’s sudden death — his inexplicable death, his death from nothing, from a blood clot, something stupid and sudden and for-nothing — in retrospect, Daniel would realize that Henry had really been a man desperately trying to stay alive. As though Henry had always known his fate.

Now Daniel was looking for answers, answers that didn’t exist to questions that didn’t exist.

“Talk to my friend, the one who runs the gallery,” his wife, Natalie, said to him. “Give her a call She goes to see this guy, he’s not a psychic, really.” She glanced at Daniel. “OK, look, I don’t believe this for a second, but it seems like maybe he would be the only kind of person you could talk this problem out with. A psychiatrist wouldn’t give you any answers, because psychiatrists aren’t supposed to bullshit us. Even a rabbi wouldn’t have the balls to promise you eternal life anymore, and I know that’s what you want.”

“So who is this guy?” Daniel asked. “Who’s going to solve all my problems?”

“Well,” she said, nervous. “He’s a sort of psychic who communicates with the spirit of Jack Benny.” She stopped him before he could interrupt. “You always liked Jack Benny. As a little kid, remember, you watched Jack Benny on television, and you fell asleep to his voice. Remember, when you went down South and everyone beat you up, you watched Jack Benny on TV because he was the only Jew around and because that was one thing that was the same as New York. Jack Benny. He helped you when you were a little boy, maybe he can help you now.”

“But that’s not the point….”

“I don’t personally believe it,” she said again. “But I’m satisfied with ambiguity. You’re the one who needs to be spoon-fed somebody’s idea of paradise because, I don’t know, your knees ache or something these days. Maybe he’ll convince you. Maybe he’ll talk you into believing, and then you’ll have faith, and you’ll be completely happy for the rest of your life.”

“That stuff,” Daniel said. “It’s like a cult.”

She touched him on the cheek. “Oh, Daniel. Anything that makes you feel better is OK, so long as you don’t crash afterwards or have a sudden heart attack. I don’t want answers; I don’t want to know the point of things, because I am quite sure there isn’t one. But if suddenly you want answers and a point to your life, you won’t get that by being rational. Give him a call, OK? And snap out of it.”

DANIEL WENT HOME and immediately phoned the gallery owner, who seemed rational, which put Daniel somewhat at ease. He called up the medium, who sounded just like a rabbi. They made an appointment for the following day. After he hung up the receiver, Daniel took out some vodka which he drank right from the bottle, not because he really wanted to or needed to, but because it helped him create a tragic-romantic self-image. He watched afternoon TV. A crazed young woman named Judith was sitting on a stage in front of a hushed studio audience, while a kindly looking talk show host stood in the aisle. The talk show host had a complicated but pleasant name. Calliope-Luu. Never just Calliope. Always Calliope-Luu. She was a national treasure. Calliope means “beautiful voice” in ancient Greek, she would often say; and Luu means “servant of knowledge” in a lost tongue. (She had once had a different name, back when she was a local anchor.)

After you left the mental hospital, Calliope-Luu said, you had a bad experience.

The audience cooed sympathetically.

Calliope-Luu, her tremendous hair bobbing dramatically, leaned forward. Her eyes grew wide. Would you like to tell us about this experience? she asked.

Devil worshipping Jews stole my baby, Judith said, almost calmly. But tears began streaming down her cheeks. Jews eat babies, she added. They eat babies to appease the devil.

Calliope-Luu nodded. Her voice cracked just a bit as she remarked, This is the first time that I’ve heard about this form of Jewism. Um … Jewishism.

They put me away, Judith said. They put me in the psychiatric hospital so they could steal my baby and eat my baby.

Calliope-Luu turned to the camera and offered a disclaimer. Of course, she added seriously, not all Jews eat babies. So don’t write in. We’ll be right back, she added, and she broke into a warm smile, tinged with just a trace of sadness, just a hint that she too knew what it meant to suffer, that once she had lived a quietly desperate life, a life filled with devil-worshipping, baby-eating Jews, abusive ex-husbands, married men, sodomy, rape, group rape, group sodomy. She had not always lived in a polished, ivory mansion. She had not always starred in television movies about important subjects. She had not always been America’s sweetheart. She had been there.

After several commercial messages, Calliope-Luu returned to interview a brother and sister who enjoyed what Calliope-Luu described as “mutual masturbation.” An oxymoron, Daniel thought, briefly entertaining the notion of writing to Calliope-Luu to point this out.

Daniel took another swig of vodka, was repulsed by the two siblings, now in their forties, gray and fat. He switched channels, watched a bit of “The Jetsons,” and was quite comforted. The program ended, the news came on. Erich Honecker, the East German leader, had just been placed under house arrest. The man who had supplied the voice of George Jetson for twenty or thirty years had passed away a few hours earlier. Communism and George Jetson had died on the same day, and perhaps there was a message there someplace about the impossibility of utopia. An old woman, a radical from the 1920s who now lived in Florida, remarked, If Communism can’t work, then Marx was still right about one thing. There is no God. Daniel took another gulp of vodka, now wondering what he was doing all this drinking for, and he fell asleep on the living room couch.

Still speaking, her tired voice seeping into his dreams, the old woman on the news said, In my day, we had important things to worry about. Power to the masses. Equality for everyone. I’m not happy about causing tyranny and murder and starvation, but I’m still proud of the struggle.

He slept until eight pm, woke up, ordered a pizza, took a few bites, threw up, called his firm and left a voice mail for Dolores, told her he had the flu and made a mental note to over-bill next week to make up for missed time. He would leave the light on in his office and a jacket hanging from his chair when he left work each evening. Maybe someone would be fooled. Then he passed out on the living room floor.

THE NEXT MORNING, Daniel awoke to find a message from Natalie on their answering machine. Things were happening, she insisted, with her art. She needed time. She loved him and missed him, and please don’t call the studio; she wouldn’t answer anyway, even if he did. Things were happening.

To Daniel, Natalie was warmth personified: far too lovely for him, a limber, dark-haired woman he had known for many years, who had never made an enemy, who could vanquish all resistance with one doe-eyed glance. But to others, as Daniel occasionally surmised, she was beautiful and icy. Maybe, he sometimes mused, they knew something that he didn’t.

10 am Thursday, and Natalie still had not returned from painting. He thought of calling, but realized that either she had disconnected the phone at her studio, or he would wake her up. Or she wasn’t in the studio at all, but somewhere else, and he would never really learn the truth.

DANIEL ARRIVED at the psychic’s home five minutes late, a two-room apartment, muggy and old and desperate. The psychic, Morty Scolnic, actually bore a great resemblance to Jack Benny himself; he had the same deep, caring eyes and tight mouth, but he was fatter, and his voice was pure New York: harsh, grating and slightly effeminate. He seemed like a happy man, and why not? What could be better than communicating with the dead and bringing hope to the hopeless? A framed article from some newspaper tabloid hung in the living room. “The Ghost of Jack Benny Returns!” the headline screamed.

Morty Scolnic explained to Daniel the origins of his gift. He used to work the night shift in a grocery store, all alone. One night, Jack Benny came to him, just like that, bathed in a brilliant blue mist, playing the violin, struggling through Love in Bloom. “Let’s save the world together,” he said to the startled grocer, holding out his arms. “You and me together, Morty.” Then he added, “Just cut me in for 15%, OK, Morty?”

“Mr. Benny,” Morty asked, “you need money up there?”

“I told God,” Jack Benny replied, “if I can’t take it with me, I’m not going.”

The two of them shared a quiet laugh.

To this day, Morty explained to an increasingly dubious Daniel, he did not know why he had been chosen. Dead vaudeville comics move in mysterious ways. He considered himself blessed, and he asked no questions.

SITTING OPPOSITE each other at Marty’s coffee table.

Morty put himself into a trance, emerged a moment later as the famous comedian, announcing his transformation with a cheery “Jell-O again!” For the next hour, Morty performed a third-rate Benny impression, to which Daniel responded with increasing sarcasm, until, exactly an hour later, Morty froze, then slapped his forehead, his eyes bobbing about. Finally he spoke, in a conspicuously less mellifluous tone: “Jesus, Daniel. Jack took off in a hurry. You got him really pissed. I can feel the residue of hostility stuck to the back of my head.”

“Yeah,” Daniel muttered. “I hate that.” Then: “Anyway, he got me pissed.”

Morty got up from his chair and walked into the next room.

“Tell me about it,” he shouted, “while you write out a check.”

“You know all about it,” Daniel called after him angrily.

Morty came back into the room, sipping ice-water.

“I wasn’t here, Daniel. You know that.”

“For God’s sake, Morty, getting down on one knee doesn’t make me Al Jolson.” Daniel shook his head, took a check out of his wallet and began to fill it out. “Why is it, anyway, that a spirit would stop possessing you exactly when the hour is up? Why would the spirit care about billables? I guess if anyone were really psychic, he’d go out and play the lottery every time there was a big jackpot and never have to work again. A paradox, right Morty? The existence of people who call themselves psychics rules out the possibility that psychics really exist.”

Morty and Daniel locked gazes for a moment.

“I have lots of satisfied customers,” Morty said.

“I am sure you do,” Daniel said. “There’s a sucker born, as the fellow said, you know.”

Morty took Daniel’s check.

“I wish it were true,” Daniel said.

If it were true, where would Jack Benny go when he wasn’t inhabiting the body of Morty Scolnic? Probably off to some Palm Springs soiree in the sky to sip cocktails and reminisce about the past with the likes of Joe E. Brown and Jim Jordan, to splash in the pool with Gracie and chuckle over the latest Lum and Abner routine.

It sounded nice.

Daniel did indeed wish that it were true.


Alon Preiss is the author of A Flash of Blue Sky (2015), from which this story is adapted, and In Love With Alice (2017), which are published Chickadee Prince Books.