phren-z header logo
SCW Logo

Book Art by Jody Alexander

Photo by R. R. Jones

Current Issue
Archived Issues
John Chandler


        It began to gather in him in Griffin’s office, after the third Wednesday afternoon meeting of the Fiction of Melville seminar. He remembered now the moment it started.
        He’d chosen Pierre, or The Ambiguities, partly out of curiosity. He’d read Moby Dick, of course, and Bartleby and Billy Budd (knew them like the back of his hand) and he could talk intelligently enough not to embarrass himself about the earlier, light novels, and Mardi. But he wanted to take on something new, a challenge, and he’d heard Pierre had gotten less coverage in dissertations than any other of the works, including the poetry, which meant focusing on it for his dissertation was a possibility. He’d review the scholarship, be on the alert for angles nobody had discovered, warm up with a 50 page paper.
        His practice when reading a book of serious fiction, he had told Nancy two years earlier when she was an undergraduate and he her T.A., was to plunge all of his attention into every scene, every character, every detail, every word, the rhythm of every sentence, so as to capture exactly every dimension of what the author was saying. “I can’t allow distractions at those times,” he’d said, and noting the admiration in her eyes he’d added, sincerely, “It’s important I really occupy that world.”

        In the initial inquiry into which Melville work each of the members had not read, he shot up his hand for Pierre, and Griffin, jowly and narrow-eyed, wagged his finger at him and raised his eyebrows and said to the seven other students in the seminar, “One virgin here,” and they laughed and five more admitted they hadn’t, either, though two of those had started it. Which left only one woman, Marsha, who said she had read half of it, on a summer vacation, and put it down because, she laughed self-consciously, she wanted to have a good time. Griffin, sitting on the edge of his desk, laughed and, lighting a Lucky Strike—the reason, it was rumored, that Harvard denied him tenure, his refusal to obey the no smoking rule in class--barked out “Good decision!” When they’d finished going down the line of Melville’s fiction Griffin came back to Pierre, and he raised his hand, and Griffin smiled at the class and said, “I guess he doesn’t like his virginity.”
        He didn’t mind the jokes, knew it was one of Griffin’s ironic compliments, an acknowledgment of how eagerly he accepted challenges into new intellectual territory. He was, as most of the seminar members knew, Griffin’s favorite. An intellectual friendliness had grown over three years between the 25 year-old student and the 45 year old Associate Professor, a preliminary understanding that of course Griffin would be his dissertation advisor, and this seminar was a fishing trip for topics.
        Griffin handed him a slip of paper, and told him to glance at it before this meeting. “It’s the first paragraph of the book. Look it over, tell me what you think. We’ll talk in my office afterward.”
        In the ten minutes between the end of the seminar session and his conference with Griffin he’d read it three times, underlined words and phrases he’d been alerted by:

        There are some strange summer mornings in the country, when he who is         but a sojourner from the city shall early walk forth into the fields, and be         wonder-smitten with the trance-like aspect of the green and golden         world. Not a flower stirs; the trees forget to wave; the grass itself seems         to have ceased to grow; and all Nature, as if suddenly become conscious         of her own profound mystery, and feeling no refuge from it but silence,         sinks into this wonderful and indescribable repose.

        In the margins he’d written,
        Use of the word “strange”? 
        Why would Nature want refuge from her profound mystery?
         “Wonder-smitten.” “trance-like,” “sinks,” “repose.” Put to sleep rather than alerted to beauty?
        Tone?? Looks tranquil, but under the surface?

        Griffin was semi-reclined in his chair, feet up on his desk. “Good,” he said, “’Put to sleep,’ ‘under the surface’. Yes, what profound mystery would Nature want to take refuge from?” He took a deep tug of his latest Lucky Strike and exhaled. “You’re hot on the trail, my bloodhound friend.”
        “Thanks. I think this will be interesting.”
         Griffin laughed. “Interesting, you think?” He shook his head a couple of times and flicked the ash. “I love it when students stumble and are candid.”
         “Me?” he said.
         Griffin laughed again and shook his head. “Marsha. She just wanted to have a good time. And she took along Melville. Bad choice. And Pierre, no less.” He chuckled again. “I admire that impulse toward the light. That is, when it isn’t just an evasion of darkness.  Well, we’ll talk. So your presentation will be in three weeks. In the meantime, welcome to madness.” And he winked.
         That’s what started it, the last three words and the wink.

        He’d smiled and stood up and shaken hands with Griffin and left, the discipline of his mind faltering, those words feeling like a curse rather than an inside joke, as last night’s just-before-bed conversation with Nancy returned to him.
        He’d postponed through dinner telling her the new fellowship grant was approved. He was replacing the toothbrush in the holder as he called the good news into the bedroom and added, with careful nonchalance, that they’d have more than enough to live on without her job at the bookstore. No response. When he came in she was standing there in her nightgown, glaring at him. “Just because you’re jealous?” she asked. “That’s it. That’s the real reason, isn’t it?” She leaned toward him. “There is nothing going on with Jerry, okay? I like the job. I like talking about books with customers. I like books, remember? I like to read them in between customers. I like the atmosphere, all the different interests people have. No, I like my job. No.”
        How adamant, how completely independent she was of him at that moment! In a shock of loneliness he remembered how she had hung on his every word at the beginning, the quotes she’d written down from his talks and repeated to him later, sometimes as a prelude to sex. “Nance...” he blurted. He reached out and tried to hold her elbows but she pulled back. “I know what you were doing. You were pretending it was something else. I lose respect for you when you talk to me that way,” she said, shaking her head as he stepped forward and again reached out. “No, I don’t want that,” she said, “are you kidding? Now, after you talked to me that way, as if you were doing me a big favor? Just to disguise your jealousy. Admit it.”
        “Nance, in the totality of my motivation, jealousy was, if anything, an extremely small, and I mean tiny...”
        “So it was there.”
Instinct told him to nod, and that seemed to content her, though not to the point of  anything in bed. But he consoled himself: he was proud of her for catching him in a minor dishonesty, for standing up for herself. She was growing up, coming into her own. He needed to remember to pay more attention to her. For now, the fire was put out. Time, too, would do its work. Maybe he had been a little...suspicious he’d say, rather than jealous.
        Things seemed more or less normal at breakfast. She apologized to him for blowing up and he said he was glad they got it out of their systems and sure, why not continue working if she liked it, he just hadn’t realized how much it meant to her, and she smiled that bright smile he’d so enjoyed when she was in his class. She gave him a brief kiss on the mouth as he left to teach the Short Story class, where he went over Hawthorne’s “My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” holding forth eloquently, he thought, on the opening, Hawthorne’s overview of the years of British occupation before the Revolutionary War, his depiction of the American character, the heedless innocence that prevented the youth Robin from understanding his potential for violence at the end of the story. His questions had guided them carefully toward intelligence. He’d looked down at the students half way through the hour, scribbling notes at a terrific pace, and thought he had whipped them into academic shape in only three and a half weeks. And thought, Yes, those are my words going into twenty-five notebooks, and thought, They’d better be taking notes, and thought, So much for their naive notions of our heroic forefathers. And thought, they’ll need those notes, to review and take time to digest what I’ve just said, because not one of them can put it all together by him- or herself.
        That pleasure stayed with him as he ate lunch alone in the student union. He recalled the party two weekends ago, what he had to say about Bartleby to what’s his name, who also came to those parties but whom he hadn’t talked to before, a first year student in the program, pretty ignorant, pretty weak critical acuity, probably wouldn’t make it past the Masters degree if that. But why not share what he knew with the guy? He didn’t especially like some of the people Nancy sought out for conversation, the Writers’ Workshop kind who preached the We-writers-are-the creators, you-academics-are-the-vultures-who-pick-us-apart sermon. Most of their confidence in their intelligence, he’d found, came from ignorance of what real thinkers had for centuries thought. At least this guy was harmless.
        To kill twenty minutes after lunch until Griffin’s seminar he’d drifted into the poolroom. He didn’t play seriously, but he liked the rawness of the atmosphere, the talent there, the tension of money games, the spectators, the click of ball against ball(s), the aura around a player when he got on a run, a rack, twenty, thirty balls sometimes in call shot, the precision of the successful shot and leave, the skill in setting up the last ball of the old rack to break apart the new rack and keep going. He liked watching the characters who spent a majority of their days there, the varsity football players among them.  A couple of them were over in a corner today, a halfback and a receiver he’d tutored back to eligibility last year, Marvin Johnson and Derek Washington, black kids, 21 or so, from East Saint Louis, two or three inches taller than he, but forty muscled, coiled, ready-to-be-angry, built-for-violence pounds heavier, and hardly able to read or write when he got them.  He remembered the sensation sitting next to each of them in the tutorials, the power and explosiveness, the references to brutal incidents and, in Marvin’s case, the constant complaints about the coach “fuckin’ with my one chance” for a pro career. Marvin had talent, no doubt about it, speed and moves to get free from defenders, power to break tackles, great hands. Marvin’s wife, white, was sitting on a stool again. The last time he came in here she’d whined at Marvin at the end of a game, something about the baby and going home, and he’d answered, loud enough to let players at adjoining tables know, “I come home when I come home. You got that, bitch?” and grinned and shook his head at Derek and added, “Bitch think she make the rules,” and she slumped and lit another cigarette and Derek packed balls into the wooden rack and slid it up and back, and as he lifted it, carefully, he noticed who was standing there and nodded to Marvin and they gave him a thrust of the chin, less than a hello, more an acknowledgment that he’d just witnessed the putdown. And he nodded back and felt guilty of collusion, but what would interceding accomplish? He reminded himself he was responsible only for development of skills, not for improvement of ethics. And who knew the whole story, anyway?
        This time he stood three tables away, off to the side to avoid them spotting him. She had the baby, asleep, and was watching the game absently, with the same beaten down expression on her face. A thought came to him: He’d never heard Marvin say her name. It was no name or “bitch”, followed by a venting of irritation, then dismissal. Another thought: Marvin was used to being the action in a stadium of 50,000 spectators. He had her there to admire him, admire those rippling upper arms and thick shoulders, the sudden power of any move he made. That was her only role, to admire, to worship, and be reminded of her lack of importance.  He thought how different he and Nancy had always been, interested in each other’s minds, courteous, appreciative. He was glad she’d prevailed in their argument last night. Of course she loved books! And it didn’t matter that the books were recommendations from Jerry. After all, what did he know about Jerry, anyway? Only the glib, theatrical voice and manner, that he had glommed on to the new Beat writers as some sort of prophets, thought Naked Lunch was a masterpiece, was short and skinny and somewhere between forty-five and fifty, with long, dirty hair and sagging skin and bad teeth, that he lived above his bookstore and didn’t lock his door because, he’d told Nance the day he hired her, some of his most interesting conversations came when friends drifted up ready to talk deeply at 3 or 4 in the morning (meaning, probably, that they brought booze). He affected the air of a bohemian, wore a beret, always reeked of tobacco and seemed to believe that jeans with holes and a dirty plaid wool shirt made him artsy. Also he played pinball, a penny a point, at Kenny’s, recited lines of poetry to the pings and squawks of the ball, and mostly lost.

        “Not to worry,” he told himself as he turned to go to the seminar room
        All through the seminar the motor of his intelligence had been steady, retrieving, assembling, moving into the core of questions, purring with anticipation of this Melville book he’d passed over before.
        Then that departing sentence from Griffin.
        It was a typical ironic Griffin well-wish, that seemed, below Welcome to madness to say also, and against all reason, She’s lying. He argued with himself all the way to his Ph D. cubicle. Griffin couldn’t have been referring to anything but the novel. Why, then, the additional thought? What did the wink mean? He stared at the cover of the paperback, PIERRE, in red inkon one line, Or, THE AMBIGUITIES below that in purple, Melville’s name in green on the third line, and in a box on the lower two-thirds of the cover nine ink drawings of the same handsome face, the first entirely unmarked, each succeeding drawing darker than the one before, in the last the face barely visible behind a dense web of cross-hatched lines.

        She was a half-hour late getting home. Jerry had gone upstairs to his apartment, she said. He wasn’t feeling well. There’d been a late rush, a group of six just before closing, and she had to “handle the customers.” He didn’t like her saying “customers.” It wasn’t a word she usually used. She usually just said “people.” Were an upgrade in formality and an extra syllable there to hide something? And the way she averted her face a little, going toward the refrigerator.
        “People we know?” he asked.
        “Nope. From Grinnell, they said.”
        “When did Jerry leave the store?”
        “Awhile before closing. Why?”
        “Just wondered.”
        “Yeah, he was feeling bad all day. Boy, I’m tired.”
        “Yeah, you look...”
        She walked by him to the refrigerator. “Go ahead, I’m listening.”
        He’d stopped speaking when he caught the smell of smoke in her hair as she passed. “You smell of smoke.”
        From behind the refrigerator door she said, “No escaping it there. I open the windows, but that doesn’t seem to help. How was the Melville seminar? What book did you choose?”
        Her sudden interest in his seminar felt like a diversion. Had she smelled of smoke before this? Did she always have a faint odor of it when she came back? “Pierre, or The Ambiguities.”
        “Never heard of it. Is it good?” She faced him with a beer in her hand. He stared at her long fingers, her thin wrists. When he reached her face she was staring back at him, her face blank. “Well, is it?”
        “I don’t know yet. But whether or not I think it’s good literature, I might be able to do something with it for my dissertation.”
        She didn’t say anything to that, only nodded and drank some beer, and he saw his statement suddenly as he suspected she was seeing it—soulless.
        He detested this word, ‘soul’. It was the vocabulary of Writers’ Workshop sorts, and musicians.
        And Jerry Stevenson.
        “It’s the one after Moby Dick. You know what Griffin said about Pierre when he gave it to me?”
        She shook her head without, it seemed to him, much interest.
        “He said, ‘Welcome to madness.’”
        “Boy, that’s encouraging.”
        “He’s just kidding. He likes to kid me. He knows I can handle it.”
        “I guess I don’t get the humor,” she said. “But if you say so.” She stretched her arms and yawned. “I think I’ll turn in. You probably need to read awhile.”
        “Yes,” he said.
        He hadn’t been able to get much read that afternoon. He’d thought plunging into the novel would take his mind off things, but he encountered a thicket of prose, a suffocating world, an excess of sunshine and purity and, yes, relentless, cloying reference to soul, in Pierre and his fiancée Lucy (“‘Smell I the flowers or thee?’” cried Pierre. ‘See I lakes or eyes?” cried Lucy, her own gazing down into his soul, as two stars gaze down into a tarn.’”) Too many words, too many references to soul, and his doubts pushed up between him and the book. He wanted to say, ‘Get on with it,’ but of course you don’t say that to Melville. Melville holds you hostage. He thought back on Marsha’s reason for not reading more of the book and the little backhanded compliment Griffin paid her, and wished he hadn’t chosen it.
         And this night he fared no better, dragging, in an hour and a half, through fifteen pages of Pierre’s honeyed life in Saddle Meadows, where nothing was just good, where his love and reverence for everyone and everything, including his horses, whom he regarded as brothers, was ecstatic, and he was blissfully unaware of something dark and persistently hinted at in his future. For the first time in his graduate career he found himself not bored, exactly, more put off, concerned about having something to say by deadline, about even finishing the book.
        As he lay beside Nance that night he ran through their conversation for clues, and thought each thing she said could be taken two ways, as simple response or as calculated deceit, and he couldn’t be sure of either.  
        And he couldn’t stop thinking, the next two days, about how she had broken up with her boyfriend while she was in his class, seen, she said, the difference between a boy and a man who understood life. But what did that really say about her? He had been too flattered then at this beautiful girl’s confession that she was head over heels for him. And he knew it was true. He’d seen her glow in class, felt the bond develop over the semester. She saw him, saw how keen his mind was, how daring his ideas, how well he took in information and organized it into a shape other people hadn’t perceived. It became she who understood first where a discussion was leading, she who engaged his eyes from her seat in the second row, she who spoke the very words he had hoped to evoke. He felt, for the first time, loved in exactly the way he wanted. And when the semester was over and it was legitimate for him to speak to her personally, to date her, he told her, and she said she felt exactly the same, and kissed him right there, in the Student Union, just outside the pool hall. He recalled her exact words: “You are so wonderful. You have a wonderful, wonderful mind.”

        He had discovered, today, the first flaw in Pierre’s perfect world. The only joy lacking for Pierre in the paradise in which he lived was the opportunity to feel the unique emotion a brother feels for a sister. Now Isabel has revealed herself to him as his illegitimate sister, and “the before undisturbed moral beauty of the world is forever fled...and now, for the first time, Pierre, Truth rolls a black billow through thy soul”: His deceased father is not the saint Pierre has always venerated. There were suspicions about his father that he dismissed before but that lingered in the back of his mind. And he knows now that he must hold in secret this catastrophic information, dissemble to his mother, whose haughtiness he realizes he has always understood but never acknowledged to himself.
        At home the next evening he listens as Nancy comes up the staircase. She hesitates three steps from the landing, as if she is deciding something, and she averts her mouth just an inch when he greets her at the door with a kiss. Does he nonetheless detect a tobacco odor there, at the corner of her mouth?
        “I need to use the bathroom,” she says. “I’ve been holding it in the past hour.” When she comes back out her breath is pepperminty. They have sex. He goes soft. She tells him it’s all right. They lie side by side. The edges of their hands touch. Up on the ceiling a shadow window from the streetlight. “Is there something wrong?” she asks. “You’ve seemed kind of...”
        He remembers---how is it possible that he remembers?—sentences word for word from the book: “Consider this strange, ambiguous smile, Pierre; more narrowly regard this mouth. Behold, what is this too ardent and, as it were, unchastened light in these eyes, Pierre?”
        “I’m having trouble with the book.”
        “I can’t...I can’t read it. I can’t concentrate. Or maybe I’m concentrating too hard.” He can feel in himself the impulse he has given in to so often, to blurt out doubts and frustrations to her. It always worked, getting it outside him, having her hear. But not this.
        “What’s stopping you?”
        He stares up at the shadow window. “The style, the tone, I don’t know. I’ll get it.”
        “Of course you will.”

        After the seminar the next week Griffin asks him how it’s going.
        “A little slowly.”
        “You’ve read the book, right?”
        “I’m...I’m having difficulty.”
        “What does that mean? You’ve at least finished the book. Or are you reviewing the scholarship first?”
        “I’m thinking I might have made a mistake.”
Griffin chuckles, impatiently, and taps the ash from his cigarette onto the floor. “You and Melville both. A bigger disaster than Moby Dick. Look at the reviews.”
        “I can’t seem to grasp what I’m reading.”
         “Pretty late to make that discovery.” Griffin shakes his head and smiles a cool smile. “Besides, that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?”
        “Excuse me?”
        “The novel. Pierre. That’s the subject under discussion, if I’m not mistaken.” Griffin inhales again and expels the smoke with a sigh. “Ambiguity. Elusiveness. Look, take any angle you want. You can do word count analysis on his sentences for all I care, do a simile study. But you’d better pull yourself together on this project.” No wink, just the cigarette ground out in the ashtray. “Don’t be a Marsha. This isn’t summer vacation. Don’t come up empty week after next.”

        Over the next days he looked up reviews of Pierre from when it came out. He  discovered what he expected:
        “Puerility, conceit, affectation and insanity...trash of conception, execution, dialog and sentiment from a lunatic hospital...A thousand times better had he dropped authorship with Typee.”
        “Melville has changed his style...We regret the change, for while the new Melville displays more subtleness of thought, more elaborateness of manner, (or mannerism), and a higher range of imagination, he has done it at a sad sacrifice of simplicity and popular appreciation. His present story, although possessing the characteristics we have ascribed to it, is readable to those who, like us, possess a forgiving spirit, and who entertain the hope that the author, seeing his exceeding sinfulness, will return to the simple and beautiful path of authorship so graced by his early footsteps.”
        “It should be the object of fiction to delineate life and character either as it is around us, or as it ought to be. Now, Pierre never did exist, and it is very certain that he never ought to exist. Consequently, in the production of Pierre, Mr. Melville has deviated from the legitimate line of the novelist...If one does not desire to look at virtue and religion with the eye of Mephistopheles...he had better leave (the book) unbought on the shelves of the bookseller.”
        “Mr. Melville has done a very serious thing, a thing which not even unsoundness of intellect could excuse...morbid craving after originality,” “never met with so turgid, pretentious, and useless a book as Pierre.”

        Finally he came, at the end of that third day after eight hours in the library, to Hawthorne’s journal: “We took a pretty long walk together, and sat down in a hollow among the sand hills...and smoked a cigar. Melville...informed me that he had ‘pretty much made up his mind to be annihilated...He can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief.”
At home, waiting for her, he remembered the words of Neruda he’d recited at their wedding:

        I love you without knowing how, or when or from where.
        I love you straightforwardly, without complexities or pride;
        So I love you because I know no other way than this:
        Where I does not exist, nor you,
        So close that your hand on my chest is my hand,
        So close that your eyes close as I fall asleep.

        He had told her afterward, so quietly that not even the minister could hear, I am in you and you are in me, forever. 
        When she got home he repeated those last words to her, stressing “forever.” “Remember?” he asked.
        “Sure, that’s what you said to me at the wedding. It was sweet.”
        The impulse to smash her in the face came on him so suddenly and with such force through his whole body that he had to turn away and hide his hands. He hadn’t repeated those words for their sweetness. He had meant them as a warning and she with her vacuous compliment had deflected them into the past.
        Two days later a cold front hit. The temperature dropped twenty degrees. He shivered as he walked past the Capital Building and down the hill to the library, and a terrible new thought came to him. He had always told himself that he pushed for their swift marriage out of enthusiasm and certainty: She was the girl of his dreams, the ideal wife of a professor, lovely, intelligent, socially adept, intellectually curious, articulate. But had he piled compliments on her to obscure who she really was? Had the real reason been his suspicion that he needed to secure her quickly, or he’d end up just another boyfriend to be thrown over when a new attraction happened? As he witnessed one truth after another tear apart Pierre’s world—the revelation of his father’s hidden life, the cruelty of his mother, the moral indifference of Reverend Falsgrave to the casting out of the household of poor Delly Ulver, a servant who has borne an illegitimate child—he could not escape pictures of Nancy with Jerry, her mouth on his, her slender fingers in his filthy long hair.
        When darkness came he lingered opposite the bookstore on the other side of the street, in a dark area between buildings, as long as he could without arousing suspicion, watched her talk with a girl at the counter, then walk toward the back and return half a minute later with a book. Jerry passed behind her to wait on another customer. They smiled at each other. She rang up the price on the girl’s book, took a bill, returned change, put the girl’s book in a small bag and with a flick of her head tossed her hair over  the shoulder away from Jerry and turned and said something to him and he laughed and tilted his head back and raised his hands and spoke, gesturing lightly, as though he were conducting, and when he finished she grinned and he drummed on the counter with the index finger of each hand, maybe some sort of jazz thing. He remembered now she had told him Jerry liked jazz. She turned to another customer then, and in the sinking temperature of early evening, aware he’d been there too long, eyes watering with the cold, he turned back toward the library to try again to finish the book. He’d seen nothing to indicate one way or the other that anything was going on, nothing but that toss of the hair, that grin.
        But now, with eight days until his presentation, he had to concentrate. The meeting with Griffin had been a warning, and he would see Griffin again tomorrow, and Griffin would ask him again how it was going. He was barely half way through the novel. What was it that kept stopping him? He’d read dense material before. It was just a matter of upping the attention, underlining, taking notes, choosing his angle. He recognized the parody of the pastoral romances popular at the time, the lampooning of transcendentalism, the satirized biblical references, the take-off on Pilgrim’s Progress. He could fall back on a comparison between the two books. But something else was stopping him, a repulsion. Every word, every sentence, every paragraph aroused a loathing in him, an impulse to rip the book up, throw it in the garbage. He was disgusted that he had chosen it, disgusted that it was having this effect on him, as though the book was with each succeeding page pointing out his ignorance, the extent of the cowardice at his center.
        “This won’t work!” he shouted that night. “I won’t get it done.”
        “Sure you will.” Nancy’s voice calming, her footsteps up behind him, hands on his shoulders.
        “My God, my God.”
         A soft pat, maddening. He shrugs her hands off. His hand wants to fly back at her. “Don’t tell me! I know, okay. I know things. Now leave me alone.”

        He read on, every sentence increasing his loathing. It was an attack disguised as a story. Melville was mocking him, leading him as he led Pierre toward the annihilation he spoke of to Hawthorne. Melville’s voice was disgustingly familiar, a hand cupped over his ear, foul hot breath jeering into his brain. Every page told him he was incapable of escape.
        He went to Kenny’s, drank too much, aware the whole time that he was lessening his chances of completing what he had to do, aware that Jerry was absent from his usual spot at the pinball machines at the back of the bar, knowing he himself was headed somewhere he had no control over. He missed a curb on his way home, tumbled into the street. At home Nancy was asleep or pretending when he lay down beside her. He listened to her breath, could not go to sleep, got up, drank the one beer left in their refrigerator.
        He could feel the lifelessness in his lecture to the Short Story class the next day, the flatness in his voice, the shift in their attitude. Pens did not race across paper, faces looked bored or perplexed. He stumbled in his response to a question, misunderstood another. He let them out five minutes early. In seminar he avoided Griffin’s eyes, though he knew they were on him. He raced out at the end of class as Griffin cleared his throat loudly, a signal to stop, to account for himself.
        At his cubicle he forced himself to read: To shield Pierre’s father’s reputation, to protect his mother from learning the truth, and to allow Isabel to inherit her share of the estate, Pierre tells his mother he and Isabel have married. She banishes him from the family estate and he and Isabel go to New York, taking with them Delly Ulver, the disgraced girl.
        “What can I say about this?” he cried out. He slapped the desk surface with the butt of his hands. Faces turned up toward him from adjoining cubicles. The PhD Cubicles were a quiet zone. “This SHIT,” he screamed. He rose, off balance, turning his chair over onto the floor, kicking it. “Hey,” someone said. He didn’t bother to locate the speaker, was aware of a growling sound in his throat, raced from the room, down the staircase, past the checkout desk, out the door, walked across the bridge, looking down at the cold, muscled current of the Iowa River, past the Art department and up the hill past the miserable little cluster of corrugated Quonset hovels. “THIS TOTAL SHIT,” he screamed. A door on the left side of the front Quonset hut opened. “Is something wrong?”
        The student in the doorway looked vaguely familiar. He squeezed his eyes and looked again at what couldn’t be. John F. Kennedy, dead a year now. He shook his head, turned, quickened his step.
        The balmy time of Fall was gone now, the cold front had continued. He watched the clouds of his breath. “How is this happening?” he asked himself. He ought to go back, to keep working, but he continued to walk away, toward the park, and from there over to Dubuque St. He remembered the party at Black’s. He saw himself as if through the eyes of that poor grad student, picking up ideas about Bartleby, and he blindly holding forth, unaware of what was coming, gazing at Nancy, imagining how the other men there envied him. Or was he dimly aware even then? Was there anxiety in his glance? He began to laugh and couldn’t stop himself for two blocks.

        Again and again he pushed into the book as catastrophe after catastrophe piled up—Pierre’s mother dead, Pierre living in penury, denying his increasing lust for his sister, breaking the ice each morning to bathe his face before he sat down to write a book that publishers would throw back in his face, calling him mad. And all the while Melville’s voice ranting, jeering at him to continue, and when he returned home, Nancy’s pleasant coolness and every word a lie, he knew it too well to ask. And then to be so close to her each night, so close his breath fell into sync with hers.
        Three days before seminar he finished the book: deaths in a prison cell of Lucy, Isabel, and, of course, the mad Pierre, “The fool of Truth, the fool of Virtue, the Fool of Fate.” there for the killing of his cousin--‘Tis speechless sweet to murder thee,” he announced as he shot him.
        The next morning an idea came to him. “I’m going to be cramming for this presentation,” he told Nancy, at the end of breakfast.
        He nodded. “The next two days I won’t get home till the library closes.”
        “Are you sure?”
        “I haven’t even finished the book, Nancy. I have to make a fifty minute presentation before other Melville scholars in two days, so there’s no chance I’ll get it done before the deadline. I need every minute now.”
        She stepped closer and squeezed his arm. “This has been an ordeal for you, hasn’t it?”
        “It’s been terrible, terrible.” He tried to look into her eyes, to gauge her, but she blinked and smiled and moved her cheek in against his. “Griffin’s having second thoughts about being my dissertation advisor.”
        “You’ll do it,” she said in his ear. “You always do.” Now she hugged him and patted his back and said good luck and she’d remember not to wait up for him.

        He walked the route he always walked, down East Burlington, as if he were in a tunnel, directly to his cubicle, the third from the right in the second row. There were inquiring upglances from the PhD candidates in adjoining cubicles, though none asked what that was the other night. He sat down, looked at the row of books on the shelf directly before his eyes. His temples were pounding. He opened his notebook and unscrewed his pen.
        “Love is built upon secrets.” It was from Pierre, he must have memorized it. He struck it out, over and over, a cross-hatching too dense to guess what had been there. “I can’t,” he wrote. “Beauty’s a lie. Hideous truth.” He knew. He knew she would go to Jerry tonight. Though with all his heart he wanted that not to be true. He opened a criticism book to its middle.
        “Allegorically considered,” he read, “this passage would seem to be a parody of the aftermath to the temptation scene in Book 9 of Paradise Lost.” He wrote the words down, looked at them. They meant nothing, Nothing. Nothing meant anything.

        At ten he passes by the house, dark, as he expected, both the doctor’s office below and their upstairs apartment. He mounts the steps, does not turn on the lights as he crosses to the kitchen and by feel finds the knife in the drawer.

        He checks the dark windows of the store in passing, rounds the corner to the staircase to Jerry’s apartment. Two steps up he is out of the reach of the streetlight, in complete dark. You chose me, he thinks. We are one. He thinks, now, of Pierre, the happiness and beauty forever before him as he looked into the eyes of Lucy. He sees Nancy’s face smiling into him, yes, he let her in, she is in, he can feel the pain of her beauty inside him, his heart is pounding images of her into his brain and his hand won’t stop trembling. Twice, holding the knife against his thigh as he walked over here he’s stuck himself slightly. His palm has been sweating on the handle, he can feel the slipperiness. I’m holding it too tightly, he thinks, but he’s afraid of dropping it if he wipes off his hand. He stops outside the door and tries to slow his breath, but the trembling continues. With his left hand he twists the knob.  The door is unlocked, just as Nancy told him. It makes no sound as he opens it. There’s a worn spot inside the sill, he discovers when his heel comes down unevenly there. He closes the door softly behind him. He has to move. He can’t let himself think anymore, not about loving her. Now he does it, moves the knife from one hand to the other. He wipes his palm on his pants and takes the knife back in his right hand. He thinks of Pierre breaking the ice to wash his face before another day of translating his madness onto paper. How inevitable his becoming what he became, a murderer.
        I’m inside. Once you’re inside they can’t get you out. They can’t discard you because you’re inside them.
        Down the hall there is a line of light at the base of a door. He moves toward it. The voices are soft, laughter-murmuring. Yes, Nancy’s voice, unmistakable: “You do not.” “Sure I do,” from Jerry. He moves closer to the door. Jerry’s voice begins, quiet but full bodied, relentless, a stream of words. “I saw the best minds of my generation starving, hysterical, naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, angelheaded hipsters burning for he ancient heavenly connection...”  
        He flings open the door.
        Jerry is at the far side of the bed. One bare foot is up on the mattress. He has on a ragged tee shirt with the gold letters, Hawkeyes on the front. He is not wearing anything below. Nancy is in the bed, the sheet pulled up to her waist. Her breasts are bare. Her mouth is open.
        “Okay,” Jerry says to him, “Okay, man, it’s cool, let’s not...” He raises his arm, opens the palm.
        He has moved around the bed faster than he thought possible, stabs the hand, stabs the forearm, the shoulder, fast, fast, the side, Jerry falls. He leans down, stabs the thigh, the calf, the foot Jerry tries to kick him with. Blood is coming out all down the side of Jerry’s body, his skinny leg. Nancy screams.
        “Quiet!” he says, and she falls silent, her eyes big. She has pulled the sheet up to her throat. He glances at and away from Jerry’s penis, thinks of stabbing down into it, down into that flap of skin, those balls and pubic hair, and feels nausea. He bends over and stabs at Jerry’s side, his lower back, impales momentarily the hand that comes up, feels a trembling up through the palm, pulls the knife out, turns to Nancy. “Liar,” he mutters. He leaps onto the bed, pierces the sheet, rips downward, sees the flesh of a thigh. She puts a hand up toward him. He stabs it, stabs above her wrist, up her arm, pinpricks, fascinating, the bubbles of blood. He lowers his free hand to her collar bone, feels its perfect slenderness. He stabs into the point of her shoulder.  Her face has turned white. He hears a long groan. He wipes the knife on the left side of the torn sheet, returns to Jerry, kneels over him, stabs at his neck, misses, has to pull the point of the knife from the floor. A hand comes up. He stabs the hand. “You can’t,” he whispers. “You understand?” and as if in answer the body stops reacting.
        He moves back to Nancy, straddles her. “This is my presentation,” he says. “This is it.Oh you bitch, you bitch!” It sounds in his ear like pleading. He pulls aside the sheet, and there are her breasts again, her beautiful pale breasts, faint blue veins on the insides of them. There is a sound in the room. It is coming from him, he discovers. He pulls his leg back off her leg. His hand, the hand with the knife, is leaping out of his control, contacting flesh somewhere down her body. Her face is wet. He is crying, staring down into that expression that seems to have a patience outside of life. He is crying at that face in which he can detect no message. She is watching something, waiting. And what it is he cannot guess. It is nothing inside their life together. He wonders if he is even here.

John Chandler
John Chandler is a forty year Santa Cruz resident, a retired teacher, a husband of Wilma, who is also a writer as well as being a director and actor. He, I, am the father of two grown children, Karin and David, and step-father of Jana and Valerie. I’ve published a few stories and had a couple of plays performed. This excerpt is from the novel under construction, After Life with Uncle Horace.


John Chandler

John Moir

Barbara Bloom
Anna Citrino
Danusha Laméris
Dan Phillips
Alyssa Young

Plays & Monologues
Wilma Marcus Chandler

  Current Issue/Home || Archive || FloodLight || About || Submit || Contact
Copyright © 2011 Santa Cruz Writes - All Rights Reserved