The Great Helmsman
When things get dicey between me and my husband, as they have a little lately, my thoughts turn to Jesse Helms. Apart from all that homo-gyno-negro-phobia of his, I think he’s sweet, a perfect companion when you’re feeling guilty about having a hyperactive fantasy life in which your husband plays a lesser role than he’d like. To me, Jesse is the avuncular molester every girl dreams about, a personage heartless as sex itself and as courtly as you once hoped it would be.
I once asked my friend Mandy, a performance artist who impersonates a used tampon, how she imagines Jesse’s helm. She hates Helms if he was going to make someone famous by denouncing that person’s work, why couldn’t he have at least picked her? “I imagine it resembles Karen Finley,” she snipes. “Droopy, abject, smeared with something sticky.”
But I myself imagine it as a pillar of society, one of the fluted columns that ring the portico of the Jesse Helms Center in Wingate, N.C. As I lie dying on my couch, all tropical with sweat (I’m skimping on air-conditioning to help the planet and because I took a pounding in tech stocks), before me stands Jesse “The Jackhammer” Helms, in red tie and blue blazer, welcoming me graciously. He says things like “Y’all” and “Come on in,” his voice all country honey.
Inside his eponymous temple (lavishly subsidized by tobacco lobbies) we are surrounded by photos of the man whose obstructionist stance earned him the moniker “Senator No.” In the pictures, he is palm-to-palm with people like Pinochet and Spiro Agnew.
Slowly, with a gentlemanly nod, Jesse turns to appraise me. At seventy-nine, he has the face of a cherub and eyes that ex-NEA chief Jane Alexander describes as “sharp as black buttons on a teddy bear.” I can see why Madeleine Albright gave him that “Somebody in the State Department Loves Me” T-shirt. For a Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman, he’s cute.
Knowing that he thinks about bodily fluids all the time, and that what he thinks is that they are debasing and dirty, the juices of my peach rush forth to drown his loathing. Where, beyond the walls of Soon-Yi’s bedroom, could I ever find a man as ripe with the guilt and dread of desire? Prurience inspires in him elaborate acts of spiritual foreplay. The single rose, the julep, the sly compliments, the second and third juleps, a hundred charming jokes and endearments before the pounce and roll in the memorabilia. Penance heaven.
He turns off all the lights, does old Jess. The photos and citations vanish. It’s dark as a moonless African night now. We’re in some furtive hotel in the next county where no one respectable can find us, eyes shut tight so that he can’t see how lithe I am, how like an angel, a boy, a demon, and I can’t see how cruel time can be to a man’s midriff, his wattle, his lance.
To reconcile himself to the taste for pleasure that God has so devilishly bestowed upon our species, Jesse has mastered the missionary position, the sexual equivalent of kneeling in prayer. And his faith has the force of a rebel yell. He’s up for whatever angling or lifting of hips it takes to make his holy water gush miraculously prostate cancer, quadruple bypass and knee replacements be damned!
Wheezing aside, the harmony of lust with shame intermingling in his every breath takes me back to an afternoon I spent in a church with my daddy, the harmonium moaning in mortal ecstasy up to the belfry and the belfry bong-bonging in eternally stern reply, a song whose chords, like desires, by blending, never end.
“Jesse,” I whisper, “I love my husband, but you are divine,” at which utterance we both turn into rivers of butter like the evil tigers in Little Black Sambo, which I suspect was his favorite book as a child.
Afterwards, we share an incredibly tasty, nicotine-boosted cigarette the kind they smoked without a second thought in the Old Carolinas when cotton wagons clattered through town, only the rich had electric and everybody was something leapt wild out of Faulkner: ancient, mad and deadly to the bone.
“I’m sorry if I seem a bit perverse,” I tell him, to be polite. “But I must thank you for making art matter again.”
“I just want you to remember, Kitty: Perversity has its rightful place,” he drawls, his eyes glittering in the dark, “but that place is not in any muse-ee-um. That place is in Congress.”