What a Piece of Work I Am Cover

Augustus John, Grace Westry (1897, detail)


HARDCOVER BOOK   The Babbington Press (2018)
288 pages
6 inches by 9 inches
$ 29.95

The Babbington Press (2009)
286 pages
6 inches by 9 inches
$ 19.95

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What a Piece of Work I Am

(a sample)

Chapter 1
Tootsie Koochikov

WHEN I ARRIVED at Ariane’s house, she greeted me with a wet kiss, quite a kiss—lascivious, shameless, dizzying. It was the very kiss that I had dreamed of when I was a boy, except for the fact that she tasted of scotch.
     “I used to dream of that kiss,” I said. “Except for the scotch, that was exactly the kiss that I dreamed of when I was a boy.”
     “All the little boys dreamed of kisses from Tootsie Koochikov,” she said. She took my coat.
     “I had forgotten that they called you that,” I said.
     “Had you?” she said. “I hadn’t.”
     “Well,” I said, embarrassed, not certain how she wanted me to respond.
     She shrugged and handed me a glass with some of the same scotch she was drinking. “I had an unusual name,” she said. “It was a trial. Kids made fun of it. They made fun of me for having it. Lodkochnikov—a preposterous name. My little school chums found it impossibly hard to pronounce.”

BECAUSE THEY COULDN’T say “Lodkochnikov,” they crushed it into “Koochikov” and called her that instead. It’s hard to blame them: “Koochikov” is fun to say, and each time they said it all the other little girls got the giggles. Ariane didn’t find it particularly funny, but then, she wasn’t supposed to.
     The first time she heard herself called Koochikov, in the first grade, she thought that the little girls who said it, an adorable bunch, cute kids in mary janes and pinafores, with their hair in pigtails, were calling her to join them, so she bounded over, smiling and eager, and that made them break out all over in hysterical giggling, which made Ariane feel very amusing and popular and welcome for about three seconds before she realized that it had been a joke. She pretended that she didn’t mind, pretended even to herself, because she didn’t want to spoil their fun.
     After that, she never quite heard them call her Koochikov. She heard it whispered as she walked by, and she soon discovered the trick of pretending that she hadn’t heard it or had misheard it. It might have been a sneeze. It might have been Lodkochnikov. Very early on she understood and appreciated the convenience of pretending that it was a sneeze or Lodkochnikov—pretending, when she turned and looked at the giggling girls, that she didn’t get the joke, didn’t even see that there was a joke, didn’t have the faintest idea that she was a joke.
     When it was unavoidable, when one of those odd silences fell and into it clattered, unmistakably, “Koochikov,” she stepped right in, eager to please, and made her second mistake about the name: from ignoring it she went to endorsing it.
     “Oh, I don’t care,” she said. “I can hardly even say ‘Lodkochni­kov’ myself. Call me Koochikov. Or anything. Just don’t call me late to dinner. That’s what my father says.”
     “Koochikov” was such a big success, and Ariane was such a good sport about it, that the little girls and boys gave her a new first name, too: “Tootsie.” They had such fun with that, and she had such fun going along with it, that she hardly even noticed that she was collaborating with them in making herself into somebody they could really enjoy, that good sport, the easygoing Tootsie Koochikov.

Chapter 2
The Sad Tale of Ariadne

IF “LODKOCHNIKOV” was an embarrassment for her, “Ariane” sometimes felt like a curse. When—in junior high school—she found out where the name came from, she could hardly believe that her mother would give her such a name, a name so rich in implications for a life. Ariane made her discovery in Mrs. Fendreffer’s class, in the pages of Ancient Myths for Modern Youth, the book with the indigo cover that turned the hands of generations of Babbington youth blue:

The Sad Tale of Ariadne, Stranded on Naxos Without a Clue

     Minos, the King of Crete, son of Zeus and Europa, grandson of the great Minos the Lawgiver (though some say it was otherwise, and the old myths are full of holes and contradictions, so no one can say for sure), boasted that he could obtain anything by praying for it. (We still hear this sort of thing nowadays, when people say that “God will provide.”) A skeptical Cretan challenged this boast of Minos’s, so Minos prayed to Neptune to send him a bull. (This may seem like an odd request from someone who boasted that he could get anything, but the ancients had many strange ideas about the relative value of things, and Minos apparently hadn’t heard the old saying “Be careful what you wish for because you may get it.”)
Neptune sent Minos a bull, as Minos had asked, but, as was the wont of the gods, he added a twist: the bull was so beautiful that Minos couldn’t bring himself to sacrifice it to Neptune, as he should have, according to the custom of the times and the implied contractual arrangement between Minos and Neptune.
     Neptune was furious. He racked his brain for a way to show Minos who was boss and soon came up with a humdinger. He caused Minos’s wife Pasiphaë (pass-if-AH-ee) to fall in love with the bull, and he made the bull return her ardor. (This sounds strange to us, since we don’t hear about this sort of attachment much in modern times, but we mustn’t forget that in rural areas farmers have been known to develop deep affection for their sheep.)
     Pasiphaë gave birth to a monster, a beast with the head of a bull and the body of a man, a beast that came to be called the Minotaur. (The name is a combination of Minos and tauros, the Greek word for “bull,” so it can be interpreted as “Minos’s bull.” The myths are mute on the subject of who named the beast. If Pasiphaë did, she may have been using the power of naming to get some little revenge. If Neptune caused the bull to be so named, he may have been thumbing his divine nose at Minos, saying, in effect, “You wanted a bull, pal, and you got it.”)
No one was happy with this result, as you can imagine. The Minotaur must have felt like an outcast, disdained as a freak of nature by both bovine and human society. It roamed Crete, terrorizing everyone, until Minos ordered Daedalus to build a house—or prison—for the beast. Taking the inspiration for his design from the river Meander (you could look it up), Daedalus built the Labyrinth, a structure that was all passageways, with so many twistings and turnings that once inside no one, man or Minotaur, could find his way out. (Some of us think life’s like that, don’t we?)
     Meanwhile, Minos had conquered Athens, and he began trying to placate the Minotaur by feeding it a diet of Athenian youths and maidens, a practice that made the Athenians grouse and grumble. One day, the dashing Theseus, son of Aegeus, king of Athens, vowed to slay the beast and end the awful tribute paid to it. With that aim in mind, Theseus volunteered to be among the youths tossed to the Minotaur. When Theseus arrived on Crete in a shipment of sacrificial Minotaur feed, Ariadne, the elder daughter of Minos and Pasiphaë, espied the handsome lad and immediately fell in love with him, and Theseus in turn fell in love with her (or at least he seemed to fall in love with her—read on).
     To aid Theseus, Ariadne gave him some thread to string behind him as he entered the Labyrinth so that he could follow it out again. (How much thread did she give him? She gave him a whole ball of it, or, in Old English, a clewe of thread. From this association with the myth, the word clewe developed the metaphorical meaning that we assign to it now, with its modern spelling, clue, and meaning, “something that helps solve a puzzle.”) Theseus entered the Labyrinth, trailing the thread behind him, slew the Minotaur, followed the thread out of the Labyrinth, and ran off with Ariadne, the apple of her miserable mother’s eye.
     On the way home to Athens, Theseus and Ariadne stopped at Naxos, and there Theseus deserted her while she slept. (Theseus seems to have had an attitude of “Hey, this whole Cretan business was just a job, you know, something temporary, an episode, not my destiny!” He also seems to have had a hard time keeping his hands off young women. Later in life, with a friend as accomplice, he kidnapped a beautiful child—Helen, who later attained fame as the cause of the Trojan War. Still later, he courted and married Ariadne’s younger sister, Phaedra. How do you like that guy! Geez, Louise! Phaedra wound up hanging herself—but that’s another story.) Ariadne was miserable, of course, when she woke up and saw Theseus sailing off, leaving her stranded, but she eventually found happiness in the arms of Dionysus, which shows us that even in ancient times people who told stories knew the value of giving them unexpected twists and turns, of meandering, of making labyrinthine plots.

Discussion Questions
1. How the heck do you suppose they got the Minotaur into the Labyrinth?
2. (optional, extra credit) Do you think that the whole Labyrinth business is an elaborate sexual metaphor? I mean, think about it, girls. Isn’t this what boys are afraid of? Getting in and not being able to get out? Siring something. Confronting a monster at the heart of Woman?

IN ARIANE’S MOTHER’S DEFENSE, it must be said that when the time came to name her she was reacting, perhaps overreacting, to the trouble caused by the names she and her husband had given to Ariane’s older brothers. They were both named Ernie.
     Mrs. Lodkochnikov had a well-to-do Uncle Ernie, and so did Mr. Lodkochnikov. When the Lodkochnikovs named their firstborn Er­nie, they had supposed that they would be honoring both old birds with a single son, but they found that the uncles didn’t appreciate this economy. They couldn’t accept the idea of one boy named for two uncles. Worse, each Uncle Ernie decided to assume that it was the other Uncle Ernie who was actually being honored and that he himself was merely being humored, patronized—perhaps even ridiculed. There was a danger that both of the uncles Ernie would wind up irremediably offended by the boy’s having been named for them. Fortunately, Mrs. Lodkochnikov’s next child was also a boy, and he was promptly named Ernie, in the hope that each of the uncles now could—and would—take pride in having a namesake of his own.
     It didn’t work. Each of the uncles continued to believe that he had been slighted initially, and each regarded this second Ernie as a sop to his ego, which made them decide, after they had considered the situation for a while, that having the child bear the name Ernie was an embarrassment, since it suggested that the Uncle Ernie subjecting himself to this labyrinthine ratiocination had been offended by the fact that the first son had been named for the other uncle, that he was the sort of annoying old pest who is easily offended by such things, and that his ego was the sort of ego that needed sopping.
     So, each of the uncles continued to regard Big Ernie, the firstborn, with envy, as the estimable namesake of the other uncle, and regarded Little Ernie with scorn, as the contemptible consolation prize tossed his way like a bone. Neither of the uncles was inspired to the munificence the Lodkochnikovs had hoped—even prayed—for, and, as a result, Mr. Lodkochnikov developed a permanent grumbling resentment of his sons. He fell into the habit of smacking the two lugs whenever they came within smacking range.
     Mrs. Lodkochnikov, who felt that naming the Ernies had discharged all obligations to her relatives, or, perhaps, found that the ingratitude of the uncles Ernie had made her indifferent to such obligations, chose for her next child a euphonious name that she had heard a man’s voice call out one gentle spring day many years before, shortly after she was married, just a day when she was out for a walk. She heard a man call, “Ariane!” She turned in the direction of the voice just in time to catch a glimpse of a woman running toward a roadster, her chiffon scarf fluttering behind her as she ran. The name came to suggest to her lightness and a romantic life, so she was delighted to be able to give it to her daughter.



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Copyright © 2008 by Eric Kraft. All rights reserved. Photograph by Eric Kraft.