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The Octopus Dilemma

The terms of the bet declared that for every ten seconds under sixty seconds it took the diver to wrestle the octopus out of the tank, Elias Coehorn Jr. would lose a hundred dollars, and for every ten seconds over sixty seconds, he’d win the same increment. The diver that night was a Chelsea longshoreman who could break your nose so badly with one right hook that a doctor would have to tweezer the cartilage out through your nostrils, and he’d never been known to take more than a minute and a half to humble an octopus. Once or twice he’d even flipped the beast out of the tank almost the instant the bell rang with the nonchalance of a teenage swimming pool attendant retrieving a deflated flotation aid. “The first thing you have to learn,” he’d been heard to say, “is that you can’t put a crotch hold on a fucker with eight crotches.”

Although Coehorn had stamped on his own wristwatch back at his friend Irma’s apartment to emphasize some rhetorical point that could not now be recalled, he estimated that it was some time after midnight on Saturday, which meant he’d been up for at least thirty-six hours, and his own consciousness floated in a tank of champagne, gin, cocaine, hashish, Benzedrine, and sewing machine oil. Despite all that, he didn’t need a slide rule to tell him that those odds weren’t in his favor. And yet he’d taken the bet anyway, because he believed this particular octopus wouldn’t give up so easily. Earlier, as he’d stood there with Irma admiring the noble bulge of its purple cranium, she’d pointed out that this captive Martian had only seven intact limbs. Petticoat rags of intertentacular membrane trailed from the stump of the eighth. This octopus already knew what it felt like to fight for its life.

“Hey,” someone said to Coehorn, “anybody ever tell you you look just that singer, uh . . . what’s his name?”

Coehorn rolled his eyes at Irma. “Frank Parker?”


“Only about half a million times.”

The impresario who organized these weekend sprees in the basement library of the derelict New York headquarters of the Bering Strait Railroad Association of North America had never bothered to clear out the rotting atlases from the bookshelves, and the sulfides in the blue inks had begun to give the dead oceans within an appropriately algal reek. Tonight the whole venue was so alarmingly crowded that if you wanted to provoke a morbid giggle from your date you could point at the precarious candelabras and make a reference to the recent West Side abattoir fire that had turned the Hudson into bouillon for a day. I was on my way to 49th Street myself, because I was hoping to run down a source of mine in the Boilermakers’ Union case I was looking into for the New York Evening Mirror, but I wouldn’t arrive at the basement for another few minutes. As I’ve explained, this memoir is going to describe a number of events that I didn’t see with my own eyes but learned about some years later when I went inside the temple.

The hubbub diminished a little as the diver got to the top of the stepladder beside the tank. The thin straps of his black swimming costume did such a tenuous job of containing his pectorals that they brought to mind a burlesque dancer’s lingerie. After taking a bow he turned back toward the tank and bent his knees in readiness like a marble Kratos on a plinth. “Good Lord, look at him,” said Irma appreciatively. Coehorn himself found ostentatious sexual characteristics—in physique, dress, or behavior—to be unattractive in both males and females. Having sampled everything under the sun, he now felt that his ideal concubine would be a wiry hermaphrodite, equipped for any configuration, groomed and tailored so exquisitely as to transcend sex. He tried to get the octopus’s attention, hoping to communicate his warm wishes, but too many different refractive media were interposed. Then, as the bell rang and the diver made his short dive, Coehorn felt a hand on his arm. He turned.

“I didn’t know you were a gambler, Mr. Parker.”

If you found this creature scampering around your kitchen one night you’d telephone for a fumigator, and although there was an oily familiarity to his manner, Coehorn was certain they’d never met before.

The hubbub diminished a little as the diver got to the top of the stepladder beside the tank.

“Yes, I’m banned from the Saratoga track, so I have to come here instead,” he replied sardonically. Two in a row. Sometimes he found himself resenting Frank Parker as deeply as if the crooner had adopted the resemblance as a willful mode of bullying. Parker was an Italian Jew who’d changed his name, whereas Coehorn didn’t have a drop of Jewish blood. Plus Parker was at least five years older. The most insulting episode of all was when he was approached by a scout from a celebrity impersonators’ agency called Seeing Double! who told him that he could probably get some occasional work if he were willing to pay for his own singing lessons.

“I ain’t had the pleasure of your acquaintance, ma’am,” said the ratty man, turning to Irma, “but I hope you’ll allow me to say that the two of you make a very eye-catching couple.”

“We aren’t together,” said Coehorn.

“Oh, I’m sorry. Well, in any case . . .” He stuck out his hand. “Leland Trimble. New York Evening Mirror.” He really seemed to have convinced himself that Coehorn was Frank Parker. Coehorn was about to tell him to go to hell when he saw Irma turn pale.

Not more than thirty seconds had passed since the splash, but he was astonished, in a woozy sort of way, by what he saw when he turned back to the tank. The octopus seemed to be riding the diver piggyback, with its beak nuzzling between his shoulder blades. Two of its tentacles were suctioned to the glass wall of the tank for leverage; two more had the diver’s wrists trussed behind his back; a fifth tentacle was a long way down the diver’s throat; and a sixth, though concealed by the seat of the swimming costume, seemed to be equally deep in the diver’s rectum.

The notion of an octopus getting the drop on a wrestler was as laughable as the notion of a greased piglet at a county fair trampling the farmhands trying to catch it, but on the other hand this could hardly have been a deliberate strategy on the diver’s part, and the diver’s bulging eyes were enough to assure Coehorn that he’d been correct in his earlier evaluation of the octopus’s vigor. Apart from a few chattering girls at the opposite end of the basement who probably didn’t even know there was a fight going on, an uneasy silence had fallen over the crowd. By the time the clock showed sixty seconds, you could tell from the kicking of the diver’s legs that his current ambition was not so much to unknot himself from the rapine harness as it was simply to get up to the surface of the water where he might have a chance of breathing through his nose. But the octopus wouldn’t even let him do that. He should have been able to hold his breath without any trouble for at least three, maybe three and a half minutes, but perhaps the shock of enclosing about a foot of mollusk at each end, like reverse food poisoning, had prematurely loosed a few pints of air. Coehorn wondered how that would feel. He’d had dicks in his mouth and his ass at the same time before but, fortunately or unfortunately, none of them had been prehensile.

“Which way did you bet, Mr. Parker?” said Trimble. “Long,” said Coehorn.

“Same here! You know, the rules say the clock keeps running until either the diver or the octopus is out of the tank. So, technically, if he croaks in there, they got to keep paying until somebody dredges one of them out. We’ve got a home run on our hands. Unless they argue that he’s not in the tank any more because he’s already in heaven, but I don’t think they could get away with that.”

“You don’t mean he could actually die?” said Irma. “I don’t see why not,” said Coehorn.

“Isn’t anyone going to do anything?” “Like what?”

“Smash the glass and get him out.”

“What about the octopus? It’s only defending itself.”

“You can fill up a sink for it in the men’s room,” said Irma. “This waistcoat is lacewing silk and my tailor specifically told me not to get so much as a drop of water on it.”

“For heaven’s sake, Elias, if I have to watch that man die I won’t be able to sleep for a year!”

Coehorn could never say no to Irma, who was very sensitive. Also, this would make a good anecdote. “Well, all right.” He rolled up both sleeves, knowing there was a particular phrase you always said in this kind of situation. Then he remembered it. “Stand back, everyone.”

“Hey, hey, hold on just a second, Mr. Parker,” said Trimble. “How much are you up?”

Coehorn looked at the clock. He was now up three hundred dollars. If he made five hundred dollars tonight, which would only take another seventeen seconds, he could hand it straight over to Irma to reimburse her for the money she’d lost on the paintings he’d taken it upon himself to entrust to that “charming” “White Russian” “gallerist” while she was away in the desert, which would be a wonderful gesture. Surely she would prefer that to this capricious intervention in the life of a stranger, and if there was a choice of problems to solve, Coehorn always preferred to solve the one he could solve neatly with money. Admittedly, he wasn’t sure that in good conscience he was allowed to put off saving the diver’s life for another seventeen seconds. But perhaps he was allowed to put off making the decision about whether he was allowed to put off saving the diver’s life for another seventeen seconds for another seventeen seconds. That is, for another sixteen seconds. Fifteen seconds.

“Elias!” shrieked Irma.

By now the seventh tentacle of the octopus had blindfolded the diver, who was still wriggling like a bad escape artist but looked as if he was beginning to slacken. Shuffling from foot to foot, Coehorn willed the time to go faster. When he glanced at the spectators behind him he found them as detached as masturbators. Deciding that Irma was right and he’d rather find her last hundred dollars somewhere else than wait another nine seconds, he reached for the metal stepladder so he could smash the tank with it.

By now the seventh tentacle of the octopus had blindfolded the diver, who was still wriggling like a bad escape artist but looked as if he was beginning to slacken.

But just as he was hoisting it unsteadily over his head, four hands yanked at his shoulders and the stepladder crashed back to the stone floor.

At first he assumed that some other gamblers who’d bet long on the octopus were trying to keep him from curtailing their prize. But then, instead of the punch in the nose he’d been expecting, he felt himself being dragged backward through the crowd.

Twisting left and right, he saw that his new escorts were two men in black serge suits, built like sasquatches, even more muscular than the diver. Coehorn owed a lot of people money but he was careful about the lenders he used—nothing more harrowing had ever resulted from his delinquency than a chocolate box full of dead cockroaches in the mail—so there was almost no chance that these were thugs here to collect. “Irma, stop them!”

But Irma was now struggling to lift the stepladder herself, and the other spectators were still too entranced by the floor show to notice Coehorn’s abduction. “Whoever you’re looking for, I can guarantee it’s not me!” It wasn’t until he was at the stairwell that he came up with another guess about what might have happened. “Now, listen, I’m not Frank Parker! Do you hear me? I don’t know what he’s done, but I’m not him! I just look like him. If he was younger.” He craned his neck for one last look at the diver, but Irma and the tank were already out of sight.

I’d just arrived at the building, and at the top of the stairs I had to press myself up against the wall to let the three men past. The recent craze among midtown filing clerks for a new chewing tobacco that was supposed to whiten your teeth had turned the sidewalks here piebald. Outside, Coehorn found 49th Street painfully bright. “Good grief, is it Sunday morning already?” he asked, squinting. That’s the only part of this I saw with my own eyes.

For the first time one of the sasquatches spoke. “Monday morning.” “Oh,” said Coehorn.

Without loosening their grips, they marched him to a Buick limousine parked at the corner. Waiting in the front seat was a chauffeur and on the back seat a steel bucket. Coehorn got in, moved the bucket from the seat to the floor, and sat down with a sasquatch on either side of him. “We won’t need this,” he said, “I’m not going to puke. I never puke.” As the chauffeur started the engine, the sasquatch on Coehorn’s left took from his trouser pocket what looked like an asthmatic’s nebulizer. “What’s that?” said Coehorn. The sasquatch jammed the nozzle of the nebulizer up Coehorn’s nose and gave the bulb three brisk clenches.

Coehorn felt as if he’d been shot in the frontal lobe with a bullet made of mustard powder and static charge. Turquoise flares went off in his eyes and he got a strange cramp at the base of his tongue. Then he felt the remains of his last meal stampeding out of him. He bent over the bucket and puked so hard he thought he was going to punch through the bottom. When he’d finished, the sasquatch on his right handed him a silk handkerchief and a glass ampule of lavender water, so Coehorn gargled and wiped his mouth before dropping both the handkerchief and the empty bottle into his dregs. The sasquatch cranked down the tinted side window, dropped the bucket into the road, and cranked the window back up before Coehorn could get any idea of which direction they were headed.

That was when Coehorn realized he wasn’t swacked any more. Careful introspection didn’t turn up the slightest blush of champagne, gin, cocaine, hashish, Benzedrine, or sewing machine oil. He had no hangover. And he didn’t even particularly want a cigarette. His head hadn’t felt so clear since he was about sixteen. The tank had been smashed, and now he lay there in a puddle with nothing between him and the grasping fingers of the world. As a child, Coehorn had been a drooping orchid—bilious and photophobic, deeply in love with his bed and his dog, so late to puberty you might have taken him for a castrato—until the day he got drunk for the first time and discovered he could be as gallant as anyone else for as long as he forgot that he wasn’t. “What did you just give me?” he mumbled. The sasquatches didn’t answer. Deglazed by this horrible new clarity, Elias Coehorn Jr. now found himself able to deduce his real destination without any trouble. The sasquatches didn’t think he was Frank Parker. They knew exactly who he was.

They were taking him to see his father.