Matrix of Mandatory Misbehavior
A Short Story by Jeremy Benjamin
Written using the suggestion "Epiphany"
Originally featured on 11-01-2007
As part of our series "Journey To A New Word"

The words were stuck in the upholstery of Pete’s Mazda like cigarette smoke.  Nobody was allowed to smoke in his car. Her voice clung to the fabric of his shirt in that same way, and he just wanted her out of the car.  He wanted to leave her on the side of the road with her one shoe and her nylon purse with the sewn on hemp leaf patch. She was probably a coke fiend ejected from some party thrown by other coke fiends because she dishonored them and their clandestine coke fiend ethics. Did they even call them coke fiends anymore?

He had come out of the gas station to find her slumped in the back seat with one leg hanging out the door like a tentacle.  Her presence did not inspire any curiosity. The only question was, why did a small part of him want to tuck her into bed, kiss her on the forehead, read her some Herman Melville softly and then dump a bucket of ice cold water on her face and smother her body before it could spasm?

It was Pete’s fourth grade teacher Miss Wynnet who told him to do it.  Her exact words were-

Miss Wynnet’s words were of no importance, except perhaps for the ones pertaining to multiplication tables, and he kept a TI-97 graphing calculator wrapped in tin foil in the glove compartment behind the ice scraper.  Peter Staschs was twenty-two years old, and had no reason to be recalling some consoling words spoken by an elementary school teacher over a fruit rollup sandwich (a concoction he invented but Matt "Speedy" Finnigan took credit for, consisting of a vivisected fruit rollup compressed between two Oreo halves with the cream on both sides).

“mister, I really- hold on, I can see straight, I can talk straight too, not like gay straight, I mean, I’m not gonna puke.  I just want you to drive me somewhere, can you fit that into your busy schedule, djya think?"  Her words got more slurred as her sentences approached punctuation, like traffic jams surrounding exits on Interstate 51.

Something about this woman was not altogether repulsing.  There was a certain kind of work ethic in her mannerisms, a tragic striving for functionality that overwhelmed what last shred of un-intoxicated brain matter was operating this creature that had no business being in Pete’s car, or being anywhere.

"Where do you want to go?"  Pete suppressed a smirk behind each word, wishing he were impersonating some famous actor, but none came to mind.  He was driving forty-five miles per hour down East Farm Road.

The woman sprawled in the back was not a human being.  It was a puddle of stockinged legs, tits, alcohol stench, disheveled perfumed hair, all loosely held together as one entity by the unifying demand to be driven somewhere.

She was working on something.  He first heard the rhythmic scratching sound when he closed the window.  She was doing something to the car seat. Anger gathered his guts into a fist and pounded at the bottom of his throat. Pete pulled over onto the dirt.

The woman thing tumbled forward and the soft part of her upper arm unrolled onto the drink holder, popping it open.  Giggles spilled out of her body in the exact same way he imagined she had spilled beer on the floor of whatever social function she had been excused from.

And then Pete laughed.  What he saw when he looked at her arm was not funny by any means, but it explained the scratching noise.  There was a sharpened paper clip jammed into her skin where she had been drawing tiny shapes into a scab that was about the size of a cockroach. He stopped laughing, wishing he could inhale the laughter back in; he would have been less embarrassed had he farted out loud.

“I do that when I’m…it grosses people out. Are you grossed out?” The trespasser creature was looking up at him with her chin buried in clasped hands. In the darkness, she looked absurdly childlike. “What. Puss is pretty, I think. The best art is where people take garbage and things you wouldn’t expect- am I making sense? I mean-” She was looking up at him, but not looking in any direction or from any direction. “You can take a dog turd and make something beautiful out of it, and that’s, that’s like an act of heroism, y'know?”

“Yeah, just try not to bleed on the seat.”

She turned away from him and continued scratching at her scab. Pete sighed. She turned back to him slowly. A tiny spot of moon reflection tickled her lower lip like a piece of food.

Miss Wynnet had looked at him in that exact way, but in reverse.  For a moment Pete was sure he would cry. He clenched his jaw around the surge of tears, contained it and it passed.

“I think you, um, need to leave.”

“Fuck you.” The words rolled out of her mouth to be absorbed back into her hunched, shadowy figure, not aggressive, not even directed at him. She continued to inscribe triangles on her scab. “Kidnap me and then ditch me in east bumfuck — are you trying to make a point? Who knows what you did to me at Franco’s house.”

“You’ve got it all wr- No. No, I don’t need to justify myself to you. Please get out of my car.”

She half crawled, half tumbled obediently to the open door. He helped her to her feet. She was taller than he thought.

Miss Wynnet was tall, and not just in the fabled way that all adults were tall.  When she looked at you, at just you alone, you wouldn’t notice that she was at a higher eye level. She never knelt down in that condescending way that other people’s parents would.  When Miss Wynnet talked to you privately, she made you forget that one of you was a teacher and the other a ten-year-old, or that such distinctions existed. You just talked.  She was a turtle-necked woman in her mid thirties with streaky blonde hair tied back loosely, half concealing glinty earrings that hinted at another identity that came out when those orange-painted metal-rimmed librarian glasses came off and that low shudder in her voice was applied to something far removed from story-time oration.

It was the last day of school and Pete was cleaning out his desk when she leaned across the top of it, swinging her legs up and told him to be disruptive.  Whenever possible.  And stop cleaning out your desk.  Be disruptive.  And no, she didn’t mean right now.  Don’t be afraid to disrupt.  Or do be afraid.  But be disruptive.

She told him that in the real world raising your hand doesn’t get results.  She instructed him to misbehave at every opportunity throughout adolescence, because it wasn’t in his nature and in his self-consciousness he could only do it gracefully.

He wanted to ask her how.  He did not want to kiss her, but in retrospect, he figured he probably should have.  In that uncoordinated, fumbly but passionate, groping but reverent way that is the domain of ten-year-olds wanting to know what sexuality is and why it’s so funny.

Nobody tells you when the required action in a circumstantial moment is to kiss somebody on the lips.

Nobody tells you when a moment calls for something destructive, but every time you miss one of those moments, it ages you.  You're supposed to feel certain sensations in your stomach, he guessed.  Logic will fail to alert you of these duties.  Can logic evolve or devolve to account for whatever animal instincts make people kiss and smash guitars and do the stupid but necessary things people do?

"Drive me somewhere."

Flakes of dried blood peppered the empty Gatorade bottle in the cup holder.

Pete did not want to climb into the back seat, pin her ankles above her head, rip off her blouse and sink his teeth into her hip any more than he had wanted to kiss Miss Wynnet on the last day of school, but it suggested itself as the only correct way to proceed.

Was it intuition that told other people to misbehave?  Intuition was a fancy word for something that had to do with radio frequencies.  Or was it some secret organ in the body that the anatomy textbooks didn’t talk about—the brain’s second cousin?  And why was it so secret that Miss Wynnet could only hint at it?

“Are you grossed out?”

Pete was positive that nature had an algorithm to dictate these things, and a simple and reproducible one at that. If it was universally agreed upon what spontaneous gestures were acceptable and when, then one could write a formula and program a computer to be bad and rebellious. One could program a computer to be flawed.

So that he would never risk neglecting a moment that required disruptive action, he would contrive a matrix of mandatory misbehavior.  That had a nice sound; the words drew just the right amount of saliva to the lips. Matrix of mandatory misbehavior…it was like a private kiss between you and yourself.

The derivation of this matrix was a project he had set aside for a rainy day, something to scribble in the back of calculus books when the professor droned on about integrals.

He needed a matrix to refer to now. For the first time, the TI-97 graphing calculator in the glove box was as useless to him as the ice scraper on top of it. It wasn’t a feeling (at least not one he could locate bodily), it wasn’t a quickening of the pulse, an avalanche of indigestion or a tingling of static electricity in his arm hair.  It wasn’t a gust of conceptual wind rattling the window shutters of his consciousness like an eighteenth century New England ghost.

She was walking away down the road. The woman thing. The trespasser. The death to a lifetime of cleaning out his desk. The drunk whose scar tissue still dusted the surface of an empty Gatorade bottle between the seats.

He nearly ran her over as the Mazda lurched to a halt a few hundred feet further down East Farm Road.

There were things she was not able to articulate. There were things that he never could.

This time he scooted over and threw her the car keys.

“Drive me somewhere.”

Read More By Jeremy Benjamin

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Portland Fiction Project

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