The first chapter of the novel Heidegger in Chicago: A Comedy of Errors
Chinchilla Heatherton stared up at the man behind the lectern. “He reminds me of my father,” she thought. He too had legs that could bend in the middle, enabling him to sit on objects smaller than himself. He too had colored orbs embedded in his head, enabling him to register light waves refracted off the surface of objects. He too had a hole below the orbs, from which sounds emerged.
But the sounds she was hearing now were not like those her father made. Those had usually been wet sounds, but these were cool and dry. As cool and dry as a fall afternoon in the Schwarzwald. She plugged another cigarette into her holder. Woodrow Hasenpfeffer leaned forward to light it. “Thank you, darling,” she said languidly. The speaker glanced at her momentarily. She had been too loud, and she knew it. She was used to being the center of attention.
“My pleasure, pet,” hissed Hasenpfeffer, oblivious to the audience.
Chinchilla crossed and uncrossed her legs, then pulled at the neckline of her dress, trying anything to attract the speaker’s attention. She was fascinated by his exotic, peasant dress, especially by his gaiters.
“What is that he’s wearing?” she whispered to Hasenpfeffer.
“I believe they call it ‘the existential suit.’ I imagine it will be all the rage by the time he’s left L.A.” Hasenpfeffer was waspish and suave. Tall, with a thin moustache, impeccable taste in clothes, and brilliantined, black hair, he too had legs that could bend in the middle.
The speaker finished his presentation. Chinchilla, mesmerized, forgot to applaud until seconds after she realized that others were clapping and that some had even risen to their feet. The question period began as soon as the clamor had died down.
“Professor Heidegger, could you explain the ontological difference again, please?” someone asked. Patiently, Heidegger explained once more, speaking in the same monotone Chinchilla had found so hypnotic, and powerfully attractive. She imagined that he was addressing his answers to her and only to her, though she had said nothing.
She searched and searched for something to ask him. Finally, she had an inspiration and shot her hand up. He called on her. “Professor Heidegger,” she said, “do you believe in gay marriage?”
Heidegger thought for a moment, then began speaking. Chinchilla listened intently, more earnestly than she had ever listened to anything before in her life. Her moist, glossy lips parted a bit. She forgot to breathe. This man had her so thoroughly in his spell. He went on, and just when she thought he was finished, he added something. The answer had gone beyond her question entirely, to get at the very basis from which such a question could be asked—to something Heidegger kept calling “originary.” The sounds washed over her and she felt something vibrating at her core, as if the words he used touched her not through their meaning but through sound alone. He finished and went on to another questioner. Chinchilla had not understood a word he had said.
She began to feel faint. For a split second it crossed her mind that if she did faint, Heidegger would definitely have to respond. He would rush to her side. She would reach up, clutching at the little oak leaf and acorn patterns embroidered into his lapels. Suddenly, she was Camille. She was Garbo. She was dying. Heidegger was Robert Taylor. A last kiss? Chinchilla shook herself out of this reverie. But she had to get out—she had to get air. She rose abruptly, heading down the aisle and to the doors which led into the hotel lobby. Hasenpfeffer quickly followed her. “What is it, my dear?” he implored her.
“God I’m beginning to hate him!” she thought to herself. She had allowed Woodrow Hasenpfeffer to court her for the last two years, mainly because he had his own jet. She had the house in Bel Aire, the condo in Malibu. There were occasional TV appearances, and the residuals from that godawful show her agent had made her do in the ’60s, the one where she was shipwrecked on an island with six other has-been actors. Her five-day marriage to Count Massimo Chimichanga had ended in divorce and a hefty settlement, but she had run through that in one afternoon spent on Rodeo Drive.
Outside the meeting room, Chincilla sat down in a red velvet chair and reached for another cigarette.
“Do you need some water?” Hasenpfeffer inquired.
“I need a drink,” she snapped, and soon they were sitting in front of matching drinks in the hotel bar: Bloody Marys with huge stalks of celery. “Tabasco!” shrieked Chinchilla in the direction of the waiter. “I just don’t get it,” she whispered. “I don’t know what it is about this guy. I’ve tried Satanism, Objectivism, EST, Scientology, the Kabbalah, and lesbianism—in that order—but somehow this is different. Just the title of that book, Being and Time . . . it hit me when I saw that title. I just knew: this is the guy.”
Two weeks earlier, she had entered a bookstore in Beverly Hills, wearing a long, camel’s hair coat with its high collar turned up, and large amber-colored sunglasses—even though it had been years since anyone had recognized her. Oh, and the black leather driving gloves. She never took them off. Liver spots.
Chinchilla moved through the store slowly and cautiously, as if she were poised to flee at any moment. When a large man in a dress shirt with wet armpits glanced in her direction she lifted a hand up to hide her face and then turned down the philosophy aisle. She knew where the philosophy books were only because they were on the other side of the General Metaphysics section, which she occasionally visited. And that was when she saw Being and Time: the attractive, hardcover Macquarrie and Robinson translation. Something about the cover of the book spoke to her. She bought it and left hurriedly, as if expecting paparazzi to descend on her at any moment.
Chinchilla began reading the book by the pool that afternoon, while sipping a Long Island Iced Tea. She started with the table of contents, and began pondering the book’s strange vocabulary. She knew something about Being from her experience with EST. “Being alive . . . being alive,” she whispered to herself and sipped her drink. The straw made a rude gurgling, sucking sound, and she realized the glass was empty. She set it down on the metal patio table with a loud BANG. “Time,” she intoned, and lay the book against her breasts. “Being and time. . . . Like the sands of the hourglass, these are the days of our lives.”
But what on earth did “Dasein” mean?
Her thoughts now turned from the book to its author. She imagined Heidegger with a dark, angular face, a beret perched slightly askew on the top of his head. She pictured him smoking those very strong French cigarettes her husband, the Count, had enjoyed. Heidegger was sitting outdoors at a café, scribbling in a notebook. There was a demitasse at one of his elbows, a plate with some kind of . . . French . . . cheese or something at his other elbow. It was 1940. Heidegger was a philosopher by day, a member of the Underground, fighting the Nazis by night. She could hear the sound of jackboots approaching the café. Heidegger quickly closed his book, took a carrier pigeon from his coat pocket, a tiny scroll already tied to one of its talons, and released it into the bright sky. An SS officer with a dueling scar took aim, fired, and missed.
Chinchilla was angry at herself for daydreaming again. She glanced down at the table of contents, and was pleased to see that Heidegger included a discussion of Care. Care was very important to Chinchilla. She opposed Hate in all its ugly forms. “He must be a wonderful man,” she thought. “What does it take to write something like this?” She hefted the book in her left hand. Five-hundred and eighty-nine pages. Chinchilla couldn’t imagine reading a book that long, let alone writing one. Then it occurred to her that this might be yet another of those books that she had bought and never finished. “Not this time,” she said, out loud. She thought that the book might become for her something like the Bible was for others. She would leave it by her bed. She would read a few passages each night before retiring, and go to bed feeling inspired by its wisdom.
Something startled her, and she realized that her houseboy, Hop Theng, was at her side, removing the drink from the table. “You want another, Countess?” he asked, sounding like he had a mouth full of shot. “No,” she said, distinctly annoyed. He walked around the pool to the French doors and suddenly drew back, calling to her, “Oh! Mr. Hasenpfeffer here to see you!” Woodrow Hasenpfeffer emerged from the house into the bright sun, waving to her. He was wearing a pin-striped, double-breasted suit and a bright grin. “Hello, lovely one!” he called, striding around the pool. Chinchilla didn’t want to see him, not now. Not when . . . Well, it seemed silly to think that a book could make her not want to see Hasenpfeffer. But it was more than the book. It was as if Heidegger himself had come between them. She wanted to hide Being and Time before Hasenpfeffer could set his jaded, unsavory eyes on it.
“What’s that you’re reading? Being and Time? Oh, my! Philosophy, Chinchilla? You’re not serious!” he smiled and diddled with his moustache.
She turned her head away. “What do you want, Bunny?” she asked, needling him with his Harvard nickname.
But he wouldn’t let the subject drop. “You’re really reading that book? You know, my nephew teaches philosophy at UCLA. He told me this Heidegger fellow is coming here next week. The name meant nothing to me, but apparently he’s the next big thing.”
Chinchilla sat forward quickly. “What did you say? He’s coming here?”
“Yes, to give some sort of lecture. He’s on a whirlwind tour of several major American cities.”
For the next seven days, Chinchilla Heatherton could think of nothing other than meeting Heidegger. The day after Hasenpfeffer had given her the news, she stood in front of the full length mirror in her bedroom, wearing her nightgown, and her heart sank. “I’m not ready,” she said to herself. “I’m not ready. . . . But damn it I will be!” She rushed over to her bedside, picked up the white, enamel receiver of her princess phone, and dialed. “Hello, Margo? What was the name of that woman who gave you the chelated seaweed-guava eyelid treatment?” She twirled the cord around in her fingers and, looking down, realized that she would have to go on wearing the driving gloves. “Does she do Black Sea salt scrubbing? Or Dead Sea, or whatever it is? . . . Yes . . . Good.”
The arrival of the chelated seaweed-guava eyelid woman began a daily round of therapists, masseurs, natural healers, and plastic surgeons. Chinchilla was massaged, waxed, and scrubbed. She underwent colonic irrigation, neti nasal douching, ear candling, crystal therapy, aroma therapy, essential oil therapy, Reiki, Rolfing, past life regression, fasting, foot reflexology, Tai Chi, Chee Gung, Hatha Yoga, dermabrasion, botox, and Scientological clearing. She was quietly escorted out of a Lamaze class.
At the end of five days, Chinchilla was so exhausted she began leafing through the “spa getaway” brochures Margo had leant her, until she realized that that meant doing it all over again.
On day six, she rested. Hasenpfeffer called her at noon. “The Countess is asleep,” Hop Theng told him.
He called back at 2:00. “Hello . . . yes,” Chinchilla whispered, lifting her heated eye mask.
“Tomorrow is the big day, my sweet,” Hasenpfeffer said. “I still don’t understand why you want to meet this man.” He waited for a response, but none came. “I’d be delighted to escort you to the lecture, though.”
“When is it?”
“Tomorrow at 7:00 pm at the airport Marriott.”
She was glad it wasn’t in the morning. “Do you know what the lecture is about?”
“Well, I have a flyer. They were handing them out at the M-G-M commissary this morning. It’s a damnably strange title. ‘What is Dwelling?’”
“What did you ask me?” Chinchilla said, sitting up and wondering where Hop Theng was with her coffee.
“No, that’s the title, dear. ‘What is Dwelling?’ I don’t know what it means either.”
“Dwelling,” Chinchilla thought. “Dwelling on your problems, I would think. It’s about learning to take one day at a time, and to be . . . proactive. Yes, it’s a self-help talk.” She hoped it would be easier to understand than Being and Time. Two days earlier she had returned to the bookstore and bought another volume by Heidegger: Basic Problems of Phenomenology. Hasenpfeffer’s nephew, the philosophy professor, had advised her that this was easier than Being and Time. But Chinchilla couldn’t understand it either. She imagined the lecture would reveal all.
And now it was over, and Chinchilla still did not understand. She sipped her Bloody Mary, wishing that Hasenpfeffer would just disappear. Suddenly, there was a great deal of hubbub from outside the bar. The lecture audience was leaving. Chinchilla brightened. After they had all left, she might go back to the room and talk alone with Heidegger. But then she realized that the little German was in the midst of the crowd that now moved through the lobby, being peppered with questions. He was moving toward the elevators. Chinchilla caught a glimpse of his face. He looked exhausted and annoyed. She realized he was probably heading for his room. If Heidegger disappeared upstairs, she might never get a chance to speak with him alone.
She pushed through the crowd. “Excuse me! Excuse me! I’m the Contessa Chinchilla Heatherton!” But no one appeared to notice her. Heidegger was entering an elevator alone, waving the crowd away with a polite, but weary smile. Chinchilla pushed past a large man wearing Vulcan ears and got on the elevator just as the doors were about to close.
Now she was alone with Heidegger. He stood stiffly, looking down at the floor. Just once, he glanced up in her direction with a slight twinkle in his eyes.
“What a doll!” thought Chinchilla. And she couldn’t take her eyes off his existential suit. In this new light, she could see that it was dark green, and not the grey she had thought it was earlier. Heidegger had not pressed one of the elevator buttons. “Oh, what’s your floor?” she asked brightly and, when he answered her, she pressed 21. “That’s my floor too! What a coincidence!” she said and began giggling, then playfully slapped Heidegger on the arm. He twinkled at her again, then cleared his throat, bringing his fist up to his lips.
There was silence for several seconds.
“Are you in town long?” Chinchilla asked him. He answered politely, but concisely that he was leaving the following day. Chinchilla froze. She could think of nothing else to say. She was amazed that Heidegger had not shown more interest in her. Most men would have.
The doors opened and Heidegger, with a slight bow, insisted that she leave first.
“Well, good night!” said Chinchilla. She walked deliberately in the opposite direction. As soon as Heidegger’s back was turned, however, she did an about face and squinted to see what door he was headed toward. He inserted a plastic key in his lock, and just as he opened the door, Chinchilla sprinted several feet ahead and saw that the number was 2123. Heidegger had been unaware of her approach, and shut the door gently.
Just as Chinchilla was about to walk back down the hall and formulate Plan B, the door to the room next to Heidegger’s opened and out stepped Tyler Hasenpfeffer, the gay philosophy professor nephew of Woodrow Hasenpfeffer.
“Tyler!” Chinchilla cried, “What are you doing here?”
“Shoosh! Not so loud,” he said and quickly turned to shut the door behind him. But Chinchilla had seen into the room and what it contained.
“Tyler, what are you doing in there!”
He hushed her again. “Keep your voice down. I don’t want the old man to hear us.”
“What is going on here?” she demanded.
“Well, all right. I’ll show you. But you have to keep it a complete secret.” Chinchilla promised that she would, and Tyler unlocked the door and motioned for her to come in. There was a desk against the wall separating Tyler’s room from Heidegger’s. The desk was piled high with sophisticated electronic equipment. Something that appeared to be a thin metal tube had been driven into the wall separating Tyler’s room from Heidegger’s.
“What is all this?” Chinchilla asked, and then she saw the TV monitor. It showed a man in front of a queen size bed, taking off his jacket. It was Heidegger!
“I’ve bored a hole in Heidegger’s wall, and inserted a tiny camera through it so that we can see into his room. I can see—and videotape—everything that happens,” Tyler said with a self-satisfied smirk.
“But . . . why?”
“So that I can out him.”
Chinchilla suddenly remembered what Bunny had told her about Tyler. He had made a small name for himself in something called “Queer Theory,” and had published a book a couple of years earlier called Buridan’s Asshole. It had purported to “out” many a famous philosopher as gay. Recently, Tyler had turned to outing living philosophers. “Yessirree,” he said. “I can see everything that goes on in there. This was the baby I used to out A. J. Ayer,” he said, patting the VCR. “You’ll never believe what Ayer is into.”
Chinchilla reared back. “You mean you think that Heidegger is . . . gay?” Revealingly, she laid her right hand over her heart.
“Well . . . no,” Tyler said, looking down. “That is, I really don’t know. He could be. People have their suspicions. You should hear some of the things Michel Foucault has to say about him.”
“No, it’s impossible!” Chinchilla cried. “He’s a sexy, vibrant, virile man. He’s got a sort of, I don’t know, Burl Ives quality. Only he’s so European or something. Anyway, it’s scary how sexy he is.”
Tyler curled his lip. “You just can’t believe that a masculine man could be gay.”
“I’ll prove to you he’s not gay,” she said, thumping the carpet with one of her heels.
“What are you going to do?”
But Chinchilla didn’t answer. She left hurriedly, and, moments later, Tyler heard her knocking at Heidegger’s door.
Several minutes earlier, Heidegger had unpacked a compact, beige suitcase and had removed two small, stuffed animals: a rabbit and a mole. He went everywhere with them. They were called Rabbit Podvillion and Mole Bracegirdle. Heidegger had gotten the idea from Fritz Lang, who went everywhere with a stuffed monkey. Sometimes, Heidegger would talk to them after a long day of writing or speaking. Once Hans-Georg Gadamer had shown up unannounced at the Todtnauberg hut, obviously tripping on acid, and had carried on a long conversation with the two animals. Chinchilla and Tyler had not noticed Heidegger setting the rabbit and the mole on the dresser in his room. They had been too busy arguing.
Now Heidegger answered his door, coming face to face once again with Chinchilla Heatherton. She had yanked the neckline of her dress down a bit just as the door swung open. “Hello . . . Professor Heidegger? I just wanted to come by and tell you . . . tell you how much I enjoyed your lecture. It was so, so . . . philosophical. And really,” she grinned broadly and scratched at her cheek with long, red-shellacked nails, “really it was so . . . relevant.” Something made her stop. Perhaps it was his glassy stare. Perhaps it was what she interpreted as a “smoldering look” behind the glassiness. Years later, she would write the following in her autobiography, Tinseltown Goddess (Feral House, 2004):
There was a cigarette dangling from his lips. “Aren’t you Chinchilla Heatherton, ‘Cinammon’ from Hoolihan’s Atoll? You know, ‘the movie star?’”
“Why yes, I am,” I said, and stepped into the room. In seconds, I was coming out of my dress. He was breathing against my shoulder, hot and heavy. “Yes!” I screamed, overcome with lust. “Give me your Dasein!”
“I will give you Dasein!” he cried, snapping his suspenders.
Then we were in the bed, coupling like two bison in heat. “More German!” I screamed. He bit into the nape of my neck and began muttering a stream of German obscenity. “Sorge! Gerade! Sein! Welt! Gestell! Gelassenheit!” Suddenly, he went rigid, and then he screamed, “Geworfenheit!!”
Alas, none of this actually occurred. It was simply the product of a ghost writer’s imagination.
“May I come in?” Chinchilla asked, forcing her way past him. Heidegger shut the door behind her. Chinchilla glanced briefly at the mole and the rabbit on the dresser. She took a cigarette from a pack in her bag. Heidegger lit it gallantly. “Nice place you’ve got here,” she said, and coughed on the smoke. “So when are you going back to Amsterdam?”
They made small talk for several minutes. Heidegger glanced occasionally at the clock over her shoulder. She interpreted this as sexual tension. “Listen,” Chinchilla said, “I’ve got something to show you.” She took a videocassette from her purse. On it was a label that read Hoolihan’s Atoll. Fortunately, the TV in Heidegger’s room had a VCR built into it. Chinchilla inserted the tape into the machine, causing the TV screen to blink on. Heidegger, who had never watched television before, sat down on the edge of the bed, mesmerized. Chinchilla appeared on screen, looking twenty years younger and wearing a skintight, red sequined gown. The tape was a compilation of her best moments from the series. The first scene had her as one of three participants in an island beauty contest.
Chinchilla began to babble as the images flickered on the screen. “I didn’t want to do this show. I felt it . . . compromised my craft. I needed something that would stretch me as an actress. I tried to get better scripts. There was this episode where we did a musical version of Macbeth . . . Oh, yeah! That’s what you’re seeing right now. See, that’s me doing the “out, out damned spot” routine to the tune of “Away in a Manger.” At least I got to sing. I’m not bad, don’t you think?”
Suddenly there was a crash. Chinchilla and Heidegger turned in time to see the door flying in, knocked off its hinges. They caught a glimpse of two dark figures wearing gas masks, and then the room was full of grey smoke. The two intruders lobbed gas grenades onto the carpet. Heidegger remained sitting on the bed, but his mouth opened slightly in surprise. Chinchilla screamed and backed toward the window. The intruders were carrying semi-automatic pistols fitted out with shoulder stocks and silencers.
The room began spinning, and all at once Chinchilla felt better than she had felt since . . . since . . . Her face met the plush, beautiful, comfortable carpet, that felt so good, and just as she lost consciousness she thought she had to find out where to get this stuff . . .
Heidegger hit the carpet seconds after she did.
To be continued . . .