September 17, 2015
“Take it then,” the partners told him. “We obviously overestimated your grasp of the situation. You clearly don’t get it. Do you honestly think you can sell your work without our firm behind you? Do you think anyone else will – what’s the word you used? – bite? Go ahead then.”
Benchere got up to leave but the partners called him back. Another offer was presented and then a third. Two days later Benchere closed the deal. His first design sold in under a week. Built in Newport, fronting the North Atlantic, the buzz surrounding the house made the partners giddy. They offered Benchere a contract, put him on salary and paid him for future works. He was given an office, a secretary and company car, then told to, “Create!” When his second original sold, Benchere used his bonus check to take Marti to Lanikai Beach.
In the end Benchere did seven originals. He also worked on dozens of ongoing L/L projects, offered his unique creative touch, increasing their value with the inclusion of his name. Keenly aware, the partners helped build the Benchere brand. Private clients sought commissions while Benchere was celebrated in magazines, at conferences and on tv. He took to the suddenness of his celebrity with great ease, was accessible, outgoing and good humored. A popular after-dinner speaker, he came with antidotes and irreverence and kept everyone amused.
Impressive this, and yet as the experience was never planned, Benchere eventually grew dissatisfied and tired of the work. The demands on his time afforded little chance to sculpt. He spoke with Marti, and then the partners at L/L who reluctantly agreed to accommodate his schedule and give him more days off. The arrangement worked for a while and then it did not. Eager to abandon the rigid constraints, the purposefulness, functionality and form of architecture for the abstract inferences and influences of art, Benchere began to wrap up loose ends. After his seventh Benchere original sold, after marrying Marti and having in turn Kyle and Zooie and settling into what he never predicted as his working life, Benchere announced he’d had enough.
That summer he gave notice to L/L.
But you can’t. No one could quite believe. What are you thinking? You want to walk away from what made you rich and famous?
I do want to, yes.
To do what? No wait, don’t tell us.
I was a sculptor before.
So? What good were you? None of us knew you. Think of where you are now.
I have thought, Benchere said. And I want to go back.
Again they asked, To what? Anonymity? A shared studio and tending bar? You’re Michael Benchere. You can’t just walk away from that.
Christ. I’m not walking, he told them. I still am.
Are what? They accused him of trying to manipulate his own mythology by becoming an artist.
Bah, Benchere answered the charge with a quick, If you think I’m living my life in order to get a reaction from you, you’re nuts.
So you say. But you plan to show us your art. You’ll want to sell us your sculptures. You’ll solicit our reviews. Be assured, our opinions won’t be neutral. Of Benchere’s claim that he was tired of traditional design, of form necessitating function, they asked, What does that even mean? All your art-speak is nothing more than you looking to make a bigger splash. It’s all about Benchere, isn’t it?
Of course it is. Benchere in a huff, barked back, Of course it’s that.
Marti listened, let Benchere have his howl, then said he should, “Forget them, Michael. Ignore what they think. Why should you care? Save your energy for things more important than this.”
Sage advice. Marti with sound counsel was the voice of reason, unflappable, indissoluble, confident and consummate. Even after she got sick and then sick again she remained fearless and inviolate. Benchere loved her then. He missed her now. As he yelled and snapped, cocked his arms and set his fists, Marti laughed. “Look at you,” she said. “All this chirping and who are you fighting? Really now. What’s the problem? Who’s there to stop you from doing what you want?”
Stern sits with Rose atop the hill. They are 600 yards away from Benchere and the others. The rise is dune-like but with firmer soil, thorny shrubs and grassy patches. Rose’s chair has blue vinyl straps stretched out beneath his weight. A red umbrella is stuck in the ground behind them. Even in the shade the temperature this afternoon is over 95 degrees. Stern swats at the termites which swarm and the black flies that are relentless.
Rose uses binoculars to keep an eye on the scene below. Eschenbach Farlux Selectors, German made. “Top of the line,” Rose praises the product.
Stern leans over and takes the glasses from Rose. Benchere’s sculpture is large enough to be viewed without aid, but becomes resplendent through the binoculars. In the trunk behind Stern’s chair is a Crystal RS101x2 computer with Intel CPU architecture, a Nikon dSLR D700 camera and AF-S Nikkor telescopic lens. All of the equipment, along with the Savage 10FP rifle and Eschenbach binoculars, is government issue. The trunk offers protection from the sand, keeps things cool beneath an insulated lining.
After Marti died, Benchere took a leave of absence from teaching at the Backwater Art Academy and began organizing the details for his Kalahari project. A liberal fellow always, as far back as his days at Brown, Benchere was a staunch supporter of social causes: civil rights, gay rights, workers’ rights, gun control and immigration reform, fiscal, environmental, labor and health amendments, communal and political accountability. As he acquired a certain fame, first as an architect and then as a sculptor, his activities came under increased scrutiny, his conduct kept on file.
Twice in the months before flying to Africa, Benchere was visited by representatives from the House sub-committee on African Affairs. His plans were questioned, were discouraged then blocked, his passport suspended until Benchere howled and filed a formal complaint. “Seriously now?” To those who claimed his trip involved a broader agenda than simply making art, Benchere scoffed and said, “I’m going to build a sculpture. A sculpture, that’s all.”
Rose photographs each person in camp. The shots are digitalized and run through the RS101 for identification. “Nothing to it,” Rose boasts.
“Come to data,” Stern passes the binoculars back. He lays a flat board across the arms of his chair, produces a folder from his briefcase, clips the pages down and studies his notes. The file on Benchere is several inches thick. Stern reviews the contents daily, searches for clues as to why Benchere’s here. “The obvious isn’t.”
“Unless we’re overlooking.”
From the hilltop Stern says, “That’s funny.”
Rose realizes and snickers. “So what do we know?”
Stern reads from the file. Contained within is a detailed history of Michael Benchere at work and play, his personal and political affairs, his involvement in public demonstrations and dissents, civil disobedience, sit-ins and marches. As agitator, Benchere enjoys stirring the waters, his most natural state one of protest, and still he insists in essays and lectures that his art remains a separate beast. Dismissive of the conservative modernists and early forms of progressive modernism, Benchere believes art is meant to inspire the human soul, not issue dictates or dogma. “My art is no roiled fist. I am not some poster maker. My sculptures aren’t done up as a stomping boot or raised middle finger to be monopolized and propagandized for any faction, right or left.”
“And yet here he is in Africa,” Rose says to Stern.
“Go figure that.”
“An influential artist.”
“Disinclined to influence.”
“Or so he says.”
“Art and politics.”
“Politics and art.”
“Benchere claims there’s a distinction.”
“I don’t know.”
Benchere passes below, wears Bermuda shorts, brown boots and a ratty tan hat. Rose wipes his forehead, points toward the sculpture and says, “She’s a big one.”
“It takes an inflated sense of self to build such a thing.”
“Just look at it.”
“I can see.”
“Who’s he trying to impress?”
“That’s the question.” Rose asks Stern, “Do you think it’s what he says?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know, or you don’t, no?”
“I don’t know if what he says is the real reason he’s here.”
Rose blows the dirt and sand from the binoculars by using a pocket-sized can of compressed air. He follows this with a gentle rub from a microfiber cloth and soft brush. The excessive care contrasts with the cracks in his boots and the unwashed shirts he wears until the collars fray and armpits change color.
Stern puts the folder back, takes out the Savage and tells Rose, “Time me.” He breaks the gun down then reassembles it in under 23 seconds, Rose counting, “One Mississippi, two Mississippi…” As Stern finishes, Rose looks through the binoculars. Stern returns the Savage to its case and asks Rose, “Can you see him?”
“What’s he doing?”
“There seems to be something he wants to attach to the sculpture.”
Stern shades his eyes, stares straight ahead. Down below a series of rope ladders run off the armatures. Scaffolding surrounds the spine. Benchere scrambles up the wood, reaches the ropes with a sack on his back. Inside is a drill and bit, a bolt and wrench and chime he plans to connect; a wind bell he’s brought from home that once was Marti’s.
The climb is difficult. The ropes twist as Benchere makes his way off the scaffolding and sets his boots on the narrow rungs. Too old, he thinks. Too fat. Assigning the task to one of the younger and more agile members of the camp would have been sensible, but then Benchere has no intention of letting anyone else hang the chime.
Daimon stands below and films while Benchere works his way along. The rope sways from side to side before he reaches the top. He sets himself inside a harness, applies the bit and then secures the bolt.
Stern leans forward in his chair. Rose, too, thinks he can hear as the wind passes through the hollow of the chime and sings out lightly. Both watch Benchere dangling above. “Quite the sight,” Rose says.
“A work in progress.”
For a moment Benchere appears as a comet, huge and weightless and nearly in flight.
STEVEN GILLIS is the author of the novels Walter Falls, The Weight of Nothing, Temporary People, and The Consequence of Skating, along with Benchere in Wonderland (Hawthorne Books, 2015) as well as the short story collections Giraffes and The Law of Strings. A three-year member of the Ann Arbor Book Festival Board of Directors, and a finalist for the 2007 Ann Arbor News Citizen of the Year, Steve taught writing at Eastern Michigan University before founding 826michigan in 2004. Steve is now the co-founder and publisher of Dzanc Books.
Adapted from Benchere in Wonderland, by Steven Gillis, Copyright © 2015 by Steven Gillis. With the permission of the publisher, Hawthorne Books.