Summer 2012

Legend / In Hades There Is No Statute of Limitations

The importance of being Ernest

Wayne Koestenbaum

“Legend” is a column by Wayne Koestenbaum in which he suggests one or more possible captions for an image provided by the editors of Cabinet.

When I got offered the lead in McHale’s Navy, I thought of the advice my good friend Henry James gave me before he died: Never accept a new role without first inspecting linoleum samples.

My then-wife Ethel Merman (like me, a belcher) pushed a canapé in my fetid direction.

My success in Marty still preoccupied me. Those were the years of recovery from The Catered Affair. Was it the syntax of Bette Davis that discombobulated my heretofore impeccable memory for every occasion on which I’d used a flavored prophylactic? Bette’s syntax, like Fleda Vetch’s, took Dover as its Brighton, and Constantinople as its Mars.

Back to linoleum samples, and to my identity-crisis: if indeed I am the one and only Ernest Borgnine, who told Fox News, “I masturbate a lot,” then why am I also, when the moon is full, a bedtime companion of Jim Nabors, who makes cornholing seem as easy as a whale-vista to Ahab’s pineal eye? Why be confident that I am Ernest Borgnine? What if I am some other chunky man, an unplacable traveling salesman, a counterfeiter?

Clatter-clatter go the linoleum samples, my statuesque brides, my little Egypts, my Mondrians. I am your Ernest Borgnine. Dear puce linoleum sample, I handle you with Marty-deepened fingers, the fat thumbs of a cleft-chinned, dimpled Adonis (my muscles unpraised by Tom Cruise), a Doric column with entasis, a gruff star whose gastric troubles—forever tied to Annie Get Your Gun’s overture—are as abyss-entranced as Bette Davis’s Connecticut circumlocutions.

And then I accepted the lead in McHale’s Navy, and my proper history began, leading to the sordid boon of a United States turned into one large hemorrhoid, a Declaration of Independence where a Borgia eating the genitals of her own kin is ordinary feel-good tabloid fare. Welcome to my planet!

Venereal pox are not yet my portion; the not yet defines this purgatory of holding a linoleum sample but not knowing its function, holding a linoleum sample for the information it gives but not for the fallopian or testicular beauty it radiates, as a co-star (Shelley Winters) radiates a salary.

The red linoleum sample I hold in my left hand is Scylla, from my ex-wife Ethel Merman’s point of view. The brown linoleum sample in my right hand is Charybdis, as seen by my father, the late Camillo Borgnino, fleet-footed fox-trotter from Ottiglio, who saw and conquered every rouged chippy I ever brought home for his inspection. The red linoleum sample is Orpheus; the brown, Eurydice. My chunky fingers—suprematist compositions in the manner of Kazimir Malevich—have entered every orifice available to a man whose love of Latin elocution stymies no cosmic meanderings that are a McHale’s Navy star’s Circean destiny. I mean, dear reader, dear linoleum sample, not to disorient you, but to guide you toward anatomically Andalusian regions Dad’s chippies tasted before you were born.

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