Ramses the Great

I guess you could call it a little like a publicity stunt. Richard had been hired by the Ramses Corporation to promote safe sex in schools. What that amounted to was standing in the cafetorium or lunchroom of school after school amidst various displays on venereal disease and AIDS, wearing a thin, slightly lubricated latex membrane pulled down over the top half of his body and handing out free samples.

For this, the company paid Richard $100 a day which was more than twice what he got waiting tables at Francesca’s. Richard was a waiter by practicality; by trade, he was an actor. He had played a lot of character men in college—clowns, villains, victims and drunken uncles—and now he and his friends had been loosed on the great white way—New York City. 

For almost a year now, the theatrical world lay at their eyebrows; and together they looked up at it like kids do at a candy counter they can just barely reach. Julie had gotten a bit part in a musical about Paul Revere that toured the schools, Walter was living on free samples of new breakfast cereals he handed out on street corners for Kelloggs, Brian was playing Claudius for no money in Wheelchair Hamlet in the back room of a bodega in Queens and Richard had been hired to play Ramsey the Human Condom.  

The condom suit had two holes for Richard’s nostrils and slits for his eyes and mouth, but most impressive to the kids who took the samples he dispensed was the costume’s authenticity. It had a little space at the top of his head “as a receptacle to collect fluid during lovemaking” and then covered him right down to the hips with a latex film so sheer that you could see Richard’s features clearly, though slightly discolored, through the yellow/pink cast of the thin rubber. Right above his crotch, a band of tightly rolled latex clamped down hard on his stomach “to keep any sperm spillage to a minimum.”

Ramsey explained it all as he handed out the little cellophane packets to each new crowd of adolescent curiosity seekers and it worked. The condom corporation’s marketing studies had shown that Ramsey, the Human Condom was more than just good publicity. He was an animated product spokesman, a mascot and also an enormous visual aid, achieving the best understanding with youngsters of how to use the latex device. Ramsey was an excellent tool in teaching even the shyest teenager about safe sex. 

Richard believed in safe sex. He did. He had carried a condom around next to the YMCA card in his wallet for eight years. Unfortunately his hands-on knowledge of sex itself was a bit limited. That little condom represented the one hope of his entire adolescent life, for Richard was still a virgin. Now at least, as Ramsey, he could act experienced. 

The specially made condom suit he wore included a fleshy little latex bow tie painted black at Richard’s collar bone that he plumped and straightened whenever he became nervous, and long black formal gloves and arm coverings, making him look for all the world like a penis at a prom. With his shyness fully encased, however, plus the key phrases the corporation had given him, Richard boldly plunged in. Today he was working the lunchroom crowd at Martin Luther King Middle School for their Safe Sex Day.

“Don’t forget kids, you have to use a new condom each time you have intercourse,” Ramsey intoned jocularly. “See you put it on the head of the penis,” here he pointed to his own head, “and then roll it all the way down.” 

Richard was in an open area on one side of the room, but he could already see his effect on lunchtime. There were the usual condom water balloons, condom-and-food battles, condom measuring, snapping and stretching contests going on all over the large multi-purpose room. And with the true cruelty of youth, two boys had slipped a condom into a pretty girl’s chicken vegetable soup and five others took easy pot shots at a pop-eyed, acne-faced girl, slinging peas at her with their slingshot condoms from a nearby table and driving her from the lunchroom in a lurch. 

An overweight kid grabbed a condom packet then made the most of his chance encounter with the model penis.

“You use this with girls,” he asked.

“It’s protection,” explained Ramsey.

“Protection from girls?”

“Not really from girls.” Richard juggled quickly for a buzz phrase. “If you love…when you love…sex, I mean. If you have sex. This is protection.” 

“From sex,” the boy asked quizzically. 

“Not from sex. I mean you have the sex. Well…really…you shouldn’t be going around having sex at your age. But if you do, this protects the girl from pregnancy.” 

“So why don’t she wear it,” reasoned the kid.

Richard sighed and for a weary moment fantasized the physical implication of a woman wearing a condom, then snapped to the present. What had the brochure said? He parsed his words slowly. 

“It protects you from getting her pregnant, and both of you from various diseases.”

It was a very long hour of work. Sweat streamed down the inside length of the latex; waves of adolescents pressed him for condoms and Richard involuntarily flinched when the kids called him a dick. Richard’s nickname as a young child had been Dick. This, when the name had been the proud moniker of tough detectives, not a laughingstock. Now he was trying hard to inure himself against that word. Personifying a penis didn’t help.


Rubber slapping rubber and a sensation at the back of Richard’s head. He turned as a whistle sounded and he saw a woman pulling a boy from a nearby lunch table and verbally dressing him down. Richard pressed the thick rubber over his dark hair at the back of his head—ouch!—and turned to his business again. A boy had opened the cellophane wrapper of the offered gift and was looking at the fleshy rolled rubber thing. 

“You put this on your dick?”

“Penis,” Ramsey corrected. 

Just then a teacher approached. “I have to apologize for one of our students, Ramsey,” She was saying, but Richard just gaped. It was Karen!

She was probably the most sought-after girl at college: an extremely pretty Journalism student that he and every other male had had a crush on. What was she doing here? But it was her. It couldn’t be anyone else. Here she was, a teacher at King Middle School in a rough section of Queens! She had cut her long brown hair to a more business-like perm. But she was still radiant.

“This is the first Safe Sex Day we’ve ever had,” she explained, “and I’m not sure the students know how to handle themselves. Some of them may be finding it a bit difficult relating to a man in a penis suit.” 

“Condom suit,” Richard corrected. 

“I’m sorry, condom suit,” Karen repeated and let a sweet smile burn for a moment on her beautiful lips, momentarily erasing her harried teacher expression.

Richard was infatuated all over again. There was color in her cheeks and a challenge in her green eyes and pretty figure. He looked at her left hand. No ring. She was still a free woman. He pressed his lips together and touched the latex over his chest to make sure it was still there. She hadn’t recognized him. But she had called him a man—she’d said “a man in a penis suit.” Somehow that meant something.

“Condoms these days are a matter of life and death,” he heard his voice as Ramsey saying, but then a student came calling. 

“Miss Volpe? Suzy is crying.” 

“Excuse me,” and she left to deal with the problem, to shy Richard’s relief but Ramsey’s despair. Her dress, her face. He watched her as she made her way across the lunchroom. She was strong. She was beautiful. She looked like a teacher who believed in something. Richard might have let it go at that, but Ramsey had made up his mind. He moved through the crowd towards her, disseminating condoms as he went. 

As he got near, she was leaning over, pouring empathy towards a girl crying at one of the tables. Richard stopped. What would he say? What was he doing here?

Suddenly she stood, feeling the presence of a tall pink thing standing just behind her and turned to him. “Excuse me,” Ramsey exclaimed. Richard was sweating heavily now. He paused, waiting breathlessly for what he would say next. “Remember me? Richard White from Northeastern?”

A blank stare.

He plumped his bow tie.

“Ellsworth Hall? Mrs. Mason’s class, remember?”

“Richard White?” She twisted her face trying to connect what she was hearing with what she saw before her.

“Yes, Richard! Don’t you remember? I won the class contest for best poem?”

The girl had started to cry again. Karen was nonplussed and the girl demanded attention. “Look, I have to get to my class. Come on Suzy. You’ll be fine.” She put her arm around the girl, lifted her to her feet and began walking away.

Don’t let her go! She was already a lunch table-length away.

Ramsey was adamant. Say something idiot.

Palms sweating, breath heaving, Richard followed her down between lunch tables. She turned at the last table and walked three steps to the door.

“Listen? Maybe we could get together some time.” Whether these words came out before his heels hit the pile of discarded lima beans is pure conjecture. What isn’t conjecture is that he went down hard. Penis falling in the line of duty. Condoms spraying from his hands like Fourth of July fireworks. Kids laughing and scattering like polliwogs.

There was a split second of calm before Richard’s adrenaline kicked in. He scrambled up, pulling himself erect with the help of the lunchroom benches. He checked himself. He seemed alright. The condom costume had opened a small tear around its base. Karen Volpe was long gone.

Children swarming, shouting, laughing, reaching…if anything, this stunt had made Ramsey even more popular—a field of hands for Ramsey to press the secrets of safe sex into. Like a primitive God of Infertility—a virgin phallus disseminating rubber bags to keep life from happening. A sweaty shaman for the future.

The perspiration dripped from his forehead and gathered at the edge of his eye slits looking for all the world like Ramsey was crying. Until somewhere, sometime, the lunchroom began to empty. The shouts and screams, the attention, the society of children receded. 

He picked up and packed up the Ramses display into its specially built trunk. For the umpteenth time he marveled at the name the corporation had chosen for its product. Ramses the Great had been a mighty Egyptian pharoah who fathered literally hundreds of children by numerous wives in his harem.

He rolled the latex up his chest, over his head and threw it flaccid in a heap. Finally, his protection gone, he breathed fully for the first time in hours. He looked around at the mess of condom wrappers the kids had carelessly discarded on the lunchroom floor in their excitement to reach the surprise inside. Condoms were scattered among the mess. Their job was done, Richard thought. These rubbers had been demonstrators and would never test their true strength in love.

Richard hoped someday he would. 

Warm Thanksgivings

“Happy Thanksgiving, William,” like William Bradford, first settler of the First Thanksgiving and what do you suppose his Thanksgiving truly was–savage red-skinned men and wild turkey and corn piled high at the table, the present of their peaceful Indian guests.

“Happy Thanksgiving, Benjamin” and little Benjy went running between Gilla and Alice, all the way to the carved oak dinner table where he set his load of squash down.

“What have you got Benjy?”

“Squash!” was the happy answer and he jumped and ran around the dining room having been released from his short but important arrival duties.

Will and Benjy were always the first, because Will was closest to Alice and both the sisters loved a little time in young Benjy’s company before the hordes descended and because Will’s coveted turkey basting sauce was needed to cleanse and flavor the bird just in its second hour of cooking.

“Who are we going to see today, Benjy,” Alice prompted. But Benjamin was still testing the pile of the carpets.

“Are you going to see Bob with the tummy?”

“Don’t say that Alice,” Gilla chastised, that’s really so unfair to fill the child’s brain with.

He started it last Thanksgiving!”

“But you don’t have to remind him of it! He may have forgotten!”

“Oh Bob loves it. It separates him from the pack, gives him a bit of prestige in this thin family,” and as she spoke Alice checked the merriness of her gaunt figure in the mantelpiece mirror. “Come on Benjy, let’s play chef with Aunt Gilla,” and the two went pretentiously into the kitchen to put Benjamin’s chef hat on from Halloween and smell and poke and judge the day’s viands as if they were County Fair judges.

The clock in the hall rang one and so did the clocks in all the other halls where warm Thanksgivings were being prepared. On Venice Blvd. the elderly rich were ladling out a Thanksgiving soup for the elderly poor, who took their brimming plates and cups and finally eased themselves onto the grass to face a full meal. Of course Venice Blvd. rarely saw the frost, and never so early as this. Sometimes California’s fire season was still raging hot and dry when the furs were pulled out, strictly for show, or perhaps so bystanders could distinguish between classes of elderly. Let there be no mistake. Some arrived on foot and some in Mercedes’. And not one of them had shot the turkey they ate.

But outside Gilla and Alice’s comfortable Newton home, the trees were blotchy with forgetting their habits and some leaves dropped for form’s sake only. Others, awaiting the cold snap, still kept their green smiles burning, and thought they had fallen asleep somewhere in August, and upon waking felt it was still August. In fact some of the bolder leaves advanced the notion that they could ride out winter, bracing for the dash to spring.

The grass here had also not felt the frost and was spongy as ever as Benjamin spilled out onto it, useless parka flung to the bushes, and somersaults were in vogue.

And just when the last one had fallen particularly hard on the flagstone step implanted neatly in the grass to limit somersaults of just this kind, Uncle Bob and Julie arrived, and so did Tamás and George, and the Curvingtons all at once. And all of them were happy to see all the others, and Will hearing the ruckus in the driveway came out to greet them and truth be told there was so much to say and so many relatives to hug, that the party could have gladly carried on there in the driveway by Gilla’s sensible tan Toyota for most of the afternoon, except that Gilla was so sensible.

She heard the outdoors tumult just as loudly as William and Alice had but she would not leave her post. The water for the little onions was boiling and if Will didn’t want to re-baste the turkey with his special sauce, she thought it crucial. Wasn’t it last year, or the year before, that the turkey had been so dry? And basted and boiled and cut carrot strips for the hors d’oeurves table since, though not yet physically here, the guests had indeed arrived.

So finally with questions turned to spirited shouts of “Where is Gilla” the whole happy menagerie and attendant dishes swarmed through the front door and into the kitchen, nearly knocking Gilla’s sensibility into December.

“Hello dear.”

“We brought the cake!”

“Good put it in the pantry away from all of this.”


“Really Bob I must finish the carrots.”

“I’ll give you a carrot,” And he took one stick, stuck it in his mouth and attempted to kiss Gilla.

“Stop it, Bob. Stop it.” Half the carrot snapped off, I won’t say how, and Bob took both halves and chewed them gustily.

“I will. I will stop it. How long ‘til dinner? The game’s in its fourth quarter.”

“Don’t get started Bob. I put the TV away.”

“I just have to know the score, it was tied in the car. “ And Bob went off to open the chestnut doors of the TV case and, with an early sample of the hors d’ouerve table well in hand, sat on the thin violet vinyl of Alice’s couch and purveyed the channels before settling on the beer commercials that he knew would soon transform into the game.

Tamás was lost. It always happened about this time. ‘Hellos’ were over and nothing substantive had arisen to take their place. And the clatter and chatter in the kitchen did not qualify as conversation. The draw of the television was enough, even for a sports hating Hungarian émigré and with an early whiskey in hand, he appeared standing at the divider between the living room and the TV room, pretending to be interested in the game.

“Tamás old man!” Bob waded through commercials, waiting. “How about those Hungarians!” Tamás winced, but hid behind a sip of whiskey and sours. “Are they getting a taste of Capitalism or what?!” He might have been talking about the game, his melody a football cheer, as if an entire nation had been reduced to the size of the New England Patriots.

“Dey are vinally opening up,” spoke Tamás. He had succeeded after 20 years in getting his brother-in-law to stop calling him Kissinger, and in fact he prized his different sounding words in the country where they flattened out differences with a waffle iron.

“Ve vill go in and vinally be able to deal vith the gov-ern-ment.” This last he said in three heavy syllables as if it had some weight, which it did in 1956 when he excaped it on the boy scout adventure of his young life.

“And now ve vill vait and see, to see if dis openink vill be permanent. If so, I can do much business vith Budapest.”

“Look at that, 4th down, 15 to go, the idiots,” and Bob’s serious conversation for the day was done.

Benjamin, sensing the company of men and the sound of the big TV, came running from some kitchen mischief and hopped onto the sofa next to Bob. Bob was warm.

“Come on pal. We’ll root for the wrong team, won’t we Benjy? Come on you idiots.” And somewhere in Minnesota the same phrase was shouted at the same TV to cheer on the opposing team–the TV hearth alive this Thanksgiving, or at least until the tie was broken. And Tamás sat down in the wing backed chair and Benjamin played on the exer-cycle and dinnertime crept upon them.

William had finished the last basting and in the calm before the storm of dinner was sitting with his favorite sister out in the porch swing.

“It’s Thanksgiving and you still haven’t taken this in.”

“Why should we,” said Alice, “It’s still so warm.”

“I know, but it’s Thanksgiving.”

“William, that doesn’t mean a thing!” and to the south next to the brown wetlands that run along Route 3, William Bradford bowed his head for a prayer and twenty-four other heads bowed in unison while the Indians just stared.

“I have a friend who is hiking in Maine with his whole family this Thanksgiving. Can you believe it? They were gonna go skiing, but there’s no snow in Vermont.”

“It’s a changing time.”

“Yes but we made it change,” demanded Will. “We’re heating up the planet. Just to drive over here and share a Thanksgiving dinner, we’re heating up the world. We’ve got to do something!”

“Well, you could have stayed home,” said Alice with a sly smile curling up into her eyes.


“Oh stop it Will, you can’t take the world on your shoulders and you can’t become a hermit.”

“I’m not trying to.”

“God’s creatures can take care of themselves.”

“I thought we were God’s creatures.”

“We are, and aren’t we doing alright? A lovely big dinner, a healthy family. What more can you ask for?”

“We’re not doing alright. We’re fouling the nest.”

“Personal foul,” cried Bob from the other room. “Look at that! You can teach ‘em to run, but you can’t teach ‘em to keep their hands off each other. Oh my God!”

“God is in nature and we are nature and nature is balance. It will work out.”

“It won’t. Unless we do something. Now.” Silence. Endgame. Will’s constant companion in these discussions.

“You may be right,” said Alice. “Did you ever think that just when Man has gained the knowledge to foul the world, he also gained just enough to fix it again? I cling to that hope. It’s either that or floods.”

“Forty days and forty nights,” William recited.

Alice smiled at nothing out in the quiet residential street and started calculating when the rains would finish if they started tonight. Maybe New Year’s Day.

“Well, I think I smell the turkey getting dry.”

And they called this brotherly and sisterly love, but this patch was worn.  John ignored the need to hug his sister and weep and make a family again, any family that stayed together and was not always in some danger of being rent apart.

And out came the turkey and off the onions, drained and buttered, warmed the squash, and spooned the dressing into the big china bowl and another filled with drier, crisper dressing from the pan in the oven and Gilla was there, moving at twice her normal speed, but still in her sensible glory enlisting Will’s help to bring things out to the table, who in turn subcontracted to Benjamin who could always find the center of excitement in the family and went right for it, bringing three extra serving spoons out to the table because Gilla had forgotten to put them in the dishes. And the cranberry sauce at the last minute opened from the can and chunked with a fork to take out the impressions of the can it came in and made to look homemade. And milk in the fancy glass pitcher because Gilla would not have something so common as a milk carton on her sacred Thanksgiving table and Benjamin sent round to call everyone to dinner. But not before Alice whispered something in Benjy’s ear and he smiled, knowing this ploy would get all the attention and ran, and did it too, and…

“Benjamin, they’re winning! Turn it back on!”

“Dinner time!” In high happy knowing female tones from the kitchen. “Come on everyone.”

“Benjy,” Bob chuckled. “I got to hand it to you. You know how to get my attention.” And Tamás trailed in, his ghostly wife behind him straining to see what she was missing this Thanksgiving and making sure that Tamás missed her all the more on this special day. He brought his whisky with him, too.

Of course by now the proto-type Thanksgiving had all but broken up. It got dark early this time of year and the snows were already encroaching on their little outpost, a kind of added incentive to get the Indians here in the first place. And William Bradford felt rewarded somehow with the savages’ presence and said so, and had smoked with their guests and this too was some kind of an honor. But now it was over, and the shadows deepened and the grain was stored and the peaceful Indians had smoked with William and all, at this moment of thanks, was right with the world and engendered the ‘giving’ as far as benevolent settlers could allow in this rough beachhead, this little incursion on the pine forests and the great hills of Massachusetts.

“To us,” said William at the head of the table.

“God bless us everyone” said Gilla who couldn’t stop smiling at her family arrayed about the table in her home for another Thanksgiving and bowed her nose deep in her sherry for Tiny Tim’s sake, and then they ate.




Always the best. The best I am eating right now. The best that can be! Laudable food in my stomach. Award winning little pearl onions. One to you and ten to me, in their soup of butter. Because I can smell it all. And taste it all. And the more the love that everyone’s dishes poured out onto platter and into mouths, the happier everyone got. The fuller too, and the more ruddy-cheeked and little Benjamin ate all his favorites and passed on all the rest, and today, that was okay. Will could barely see Benjy’s plate in the fog of delicate steam arising from the happiness at the table. Except of course when Benjamin needed his turkey cut.

And outside the world grew hotter as a warm front pushed up from the Gulf of Mexico and sent the moderately cool temperatures packing for the North. Another warm fall night ahead. Or is it winter yet, I can never remember whether winter starts at Halloween, Thanksgiving or Christmas.