SIGN UP FOR OUR NEWSLETTER

08/19/09 4:00am

For a long time I read at work. My work itself involved reading: I was a copy editor at The Village Voice. But some days, vast lulls separated the articles, and my fellow copy editors and I would burrow into books at our desks. Michael read Ivy Compton-Burnett. Bruce had his Robert Musil. Jane gave me two of her DeLillos; I gave her Jonathan Coe. If you finished your novel, you could go to the long row of file cabinets near the mailboxes, where editors would discard their unwanted review copies, old issues of Paranoia and The Nation.

This was in the mid-90s, before the colossal time-suck known as the Internet was de rigueur on everyone’s computer. In fact, we didn’t even have computers. We used an editing system called Atex, amber letters glowing on dusty screens so old the black fields had burned to brown. A story editor would put an article in the copy queue and one of us would call it up, make corrections, and place our initials in the space at the top. When I first started, I would keep checking the queue and pounce on any new piece. Then I learned to sit back like the veterans in the department and at least finish the chapter I was reading.

A friend with access to a university library had taken out a book for me: Robert Burton’s 17th-century treatise, The Anatomy of Melancholy, in three volumes. I’d been desperate to read Burton, probably because I myself had slipped into workplace melancholy. Was I beginning my career, or had I made a serious wrong turn? The books could be kept for three weeks, which meant I had to read a volume a week, roughly a hundred pages a day. I became a reading machine. I copied out pungent passages and arcane words like I was studying for an exam. Burton detected the roots of the disease nearly everywhere he looked, but in my case, “overmuch Study” seemed the most relevant: “Why lose the colour of our youthful age/By constant bending o’er the stupid page?”

Not long after, I bought a used copy of Anthony Powell’s first novel, Afternoon Men, mainly because the title came from the Anatomy. Here was a kindred spirit, I thought; Powell first encountered Burton’s work at his job. (“There are worse places to read about Melancholy than a publisher’s office,” he wrote in his memoirs.) Soon I was hooked on Powell, and began my leisurely march through his twelve-volume Dance to the Music of Time, with its intertwining lives and parties in which the narrator calmly discerns an entire social structure at key moments of flux.

I would go to parties, too, but feel self-conscious, as if everyone was asking, What are you doing with your life? I wanted to write, of course, but after several years at the paper I had barely published anything. I did exchange convivial Atex messages with some of the editors, but otherwise contact was minimal. Ron, a longtime editor who now handled the letters section, was my favorite correspondent. He was effusive about my rare appearances in print. The smallest bylined blurb would elicit immediate praise, and in those lean days such words buoyed me. A Dickens fan, Ron was also a Powellite, and when, in 2001, a short film review of mine prompted a complimentary letter, he headlined it “A Question of Upbringing” — a tip of the hat to the first volume of Powell’s Dance. The headline didn’t have much to do with the letter, but I appreciated the wink.

07/16/08 12:00am

Marjorie’s father, Poindexter Bantam, was my philosophy professor at Rue University. Set at the edge of a collapsing milltown, Rue was a power in the short-lived Modern American Football League and did not have much of an academic reputation back then. I attended on the G.I. Bill, intending to major in agriculture and minor in economics, but found my naïve theories of irrigation so profoundly challenged that I wound up in the infirmary for a week. My regulation crewcut grew improbably lush, and for minutes at a time I didn’t recognize the face that met me in the mirror. Nurse Nancy diagnosed melancholy and proposed a course of therapeutic massage. I accepted. A few days after I was released I picked about a thousand flowers and manhandled them into a sad bouquet. But the receptionist told me Nancy had gone off to get married that morning, and I never saw her again.

It was time to get back on track. I bought a houndstooth coat and three neckties, and parted my hair down the center with Brylcreem and a zinc comb. Despite my neat appearance, my mind was still in shambles. It took a semester of floundering before I latched onto Professor Bantam’s course, “The History of Thought.” I began to think about thinking.

Bantam was a gruff old salt who had sailed in the Merchant Marine for twenty years before marrying an Iberian noblewoman and returning to America. He was completely self-taught and spoke five languages fluently. Indeed, his English had deteriorated under the stress of these added grammatical layers, and sometimes it sounded as if a harried leprechaun inside his throat had to painstakingly dub every word as it slid from brain to tongue.

-img2-

“What is happiness?” he asked the eight of us, that inaugural class.

A student said, “Feeling satisfied about your life?”

“The greatest good for the greatest number of people,” offered another.

The professor stopped pacing and frowned. He anchored himself at the lectern, twirled his finger, and pointed—at me.

“It’s all subjective,” I concluded. I saw an enormous tuna, or possibly a trout, tattooed on his wrist.

Bantam shook his head. “Nein, nein, nein. There’s a very simple equation, and if any of you disagree, kindly excuse yourself from class for the rest of term.” He turned to the blackboard and began to write, his thick body positioned so that when he finally stepped aside it was like the pulling of a stage curtain.

“Money plus money equals money,” he read aloud.

The greatest-good student laughed.

“Please leave the room,” Bantam ordered. The student had a look of sincere wounded innocence.

Now,” the professor said. He slammed the chalk on the lectern repeatedly, with such force that white dust could be seen suspended in the air.

Nearly every class brought about a statement from Bantam so surprising that a student, before thinking it over, would object or guffaw or merely appear as though rapped on the skull. When asked to comment, the flabbergasted victim would sputter a defense or denial, and the professor would dismiss him with hardly a word. Once you were out, you were out. By semester’s end, I was the last student standing.

“Superb,” said Professor Bantam, on the day I walked in unaccompanied. “I was hoping it would be you. G.I. Bill?”

He said it as if it were my name. I nodded. Good old Gastro-Intestinal Bill, at your service, I thought.

“Let’s to the office, Bill, for sundaes und Champagne.”

I walked with him down the hall, thrilled. When he opened the door, a girl of twenty was standing by the window, gilded by the sun and looking out at the soft hills to the west.

“I was lost in thought.” Her eyes lit up. “Ha, ha.”

“This is Bill,” he announced. “Bill, Marjorie. My evil spawn.” 

“Sundae?” she inquired. “Champagne?”

I nodded to both and bowed in awe. She was magazine perfect. Later I discovered she had indeed modeled the major elements of her anatomy, in the service of everything from artificial lashes and kissproof lipstick to rubberized corsets and socks that healed athlete’s foot. There were versions of her in the weekly slicks, on billboards by the highway, in the fashion supplements of morning papers. Her tilted neck had advertised thirteen kinds of scent; her full body, vacations in the Poconos and the benefits of literacy. No matter how abstract the product, Marjorie had a glance or a limb that could sell it. At first her mother had clipped each of her daughter’s appearances, but the task soon grew futile. It was like trying to save the entire world.

I didn’t know this then. Mentally I was trying to connect the diaphanous divinity that was Marjorie with Professor Bantam’s tanklike exterior. Mrs. Bantam must have been Venus herself, I thought. Meanwhile my tastebuds were toggling between Rocky Road and bubbly.

“Marjorie’s a graduate student here at Rue,” he said.

Psychology,” she explained, tapping her head with a mischievous smile.

“I want to be a writer,” I said. The thought had never crossed my mind until it was out of my mouth.
“How odd,” said Marjorie, not disapprovingly but not quite approvingly, either.

“A novelist,” I clarified. I had read many novels in the service, stories that usually involved helicopters and truth serum.

“Philosophy will serve you well,” said Professor Bantam, as naturally as if he had been expecting this change in career plans. “Most writers today don’t think about what they write. The result is…” He gestured disparagingly to a box of paperbacks wedged between the radiator and the lowboy.

I glanced at the titles of those books somehow deemed inadequate. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Hamlet. An American Tragedy. Bleak House. The Madness of Crowds. Don Quixote. The Bible. The Magic Mountain. The Count of Monte Cristo. Professor Bantam had a very loose definition of “today.”   

“I want to write a brand-new sort of literature,” I said, emboldened, though I thought surpassing the Bible might be a stretch. “Something full of color, and muscular, and dense. Something terrifying, and bittersweet, and quite impossible to forget.”

My ears were ringing. Muscular and dense? I was getting carried away. I didn’t care.

“You could write about me,” said Marjorie.

“You could write about her,” said Professor Bantam. “Marjorie’s a very worthy subject, I assure you. Complex and intriguing. But first let me show you something. That is, if you really want to be a writer.”

* * * * *

It was a one-hour drive from campus to Mug-Wump, the Bantam estate, and I did not recognize the roads. Their chauffeur took us through ghost towns and slash pine, past mountains of salt and the eerie ruins of forts from the War Between the States. When we passed a cemetery, Marjorie would hold her breath and lift her feet off the floor. It was adorable, the first time. We passed fifteen graveyards.

Near the Wanton River Drawbridge was an ad for nerve tonic, wheatpasted on the side of a dilapidated comfort station. I looked at the woman on the poster and the woman next to me. Marjorie stared at a graying in the distance, where another necropolis was about to start.

The Bantams lived on the edge of an ailing lake, in a three-story house painted with dust. The first floor was sunken, and its decorative tiles depicted an impressively populated fertility myth. Small red humanoids, things with wings and tails, clambered up the sides of a tall white tower, terrorizing the dough-faced inhabitants peeking out the windows. Curls of smoke seeped from masonry cracks. But as my eyes followed the path of the demons, the tower lost its brickwork, and began to curve, until I saw it was the neck of a dragon. I followed the loops, decorated now with infinite minute scales, as the demons became more birdlike, human features dissolving. A cloud of bats terrorized a horse. The style became more primitive as you wound your way inward. At the exact center of the floor was a baby surrounded by a sunburst rendered in gold leaf. The tot smiled sagely, the Mona Lisa of babies.

“This is an exact reproduction of the mosaic floor found in a cave about 50 kilometers outside Guadalajara. Notice the repetition of—”

“Daddy, he must be exhausted.”

“Undoubtedly,” said the professor. “Let’s freshen up first.”

The foyer split into three hallways. Bantam took the left, his daughter the right; neither seemed particularly concerned whether I followed, so I stayed put. I stared at the central corridor, which was narrower than the other two. As I stood there, waiting for a drink, or for someone to tell me where to go, I had the unpleasant sensation that the image below me was about to talk.

What?” I said.

The baby’s tiled smile widened as glassy minerals in its eyes caught the light. For the next ten minutes I tried but failed to look away. I felt like I was standing on a column of sand from which grains were departing at a rapid rate, a constant depletion. At the same time, I was becoming part of the column. A spiral opened up in my head and if I looked away from the mosaic baby I would fall. Memories of the bazooka mishap. There was a smoky smell. Fatigue took hold. I could feel the old jitters returning. The bazooka slipping down the slope, dragging me with it. I needed a pill to pop or a hand to hold. I needed a soft bed and a comforting voice. The baby bore into my brain, obliquely chastising.

“That’s about enough out of you,” I said, a little too loudly.

“How’s that?”

It was Marjorie, with her hair up, and horn-rimmed specs, and a heavy green sweater that did its best to conceal her lithe form. She had lost an inch or two since I had seen her last. She smelled different but still divine.

“Bette Furnace,” she said, extending her hand. “I’m Marjorie’s terrible sister.”

I introduced myself as a student of her father’s. She grinned. “Da’s got plans for you, me boy,” she said in a sudden brogue, putting a cigarette to her lips. I noticed a wedding band. Presumably there was a Mr. Furnace.

“Don’t worry. ’Tis nothing bad. I hope. He must like you, if he’s having you over to Mug-Wump. I can count on one hand—well, one and some of another—oh, call it two hands and a hoof—the number of times Da’s invited a student home. There was Conrad, of course.” She displayed her ring finger with a little giggle that was like an exclamation point smuggled into a windsock. I found her utterly charming to look at, baggy sweater and all, but I was getting a little nervous. Where had Marjorie gone?

“Conrad Furnace, who I married, and Daniel Gray, who I didn’t. And Web Mercer, et Morris Desjardins, and Lewiston Koo, and Sherman something or other, y Pablo Hermosa-Villareal.” She laughed. “In case you’re wondering, I didn’t marry those last five DUDES, either.”

“Where’s Mr. Furnace?” I asked.

“Conrad’s away on business. Marjorie’s a nut, isn’t she? An utter nutter. People think we’re twins, but I’m actually two years younger. We’re exactly the same height.” I instinctively cocked an eyebrow. “We are. You don’t believe me, but it’s true. Anyway, Da’s been keen to marry her off, though I don’t see why he should. She’s more valuable to him if she stays put.”

“Oh?”

“Doesn’t she look familiar? Like you’ve seen her someplace before? Yes, me boy. It’s because she’s the top model in the state for just about every product worth craving and saving for. She just signed a new contract. How do you think Da affords this place? On a professor’s paycheck? Honestly, I don’t know how Margarine does her schoolwork. I’m happy I didn’t pursue my studies, though sometimes I think I should have tried harder. I wonder what could be keeping her. Have you been waiting forever? Let’s go to the den. That’s always a good policy.”

We spanned the central corridor. I imagined the mosaic baby behind me, rubbing its hands together in malevolent anticipation. “And you must call her Margarine,” Bette implored. “Promise me that. She’ll think I’m the very devil, but she loves it. That was the very first ad she did—a kid in curls, spreading the stuff on toast. Lordy!”

I’d grown up under the eye of a great aunt who used to say “Lordy!,” a woman of iron will and secret agendas, and thus this expression threw me for a loop. Bette was all about loop throwing, I decided. I think she had spoken to me more in that foyer interval than Marjorie—Margarine?—had during the entire ride to Mug-Wump. Worse, Bette’s face was replacing Marjorie’s in that part of my brain newly assigned to handle contemplation of the Sisters Bantam.

When Bette and I reached the den, after walking the length of the hall and turning left, we found the professor and Marjorie sipping brandy and soda. Bantam rose and fixed Bette and I the same, as she went to peck her sister on the cheek. Marjorie pecked back, and then Bette pecked again, and a little pecking contest began. Then they started to tickle each other. Marjorie spilled some of her drink. Bantam clinked a glass, at which point each daughter immediately took a great leap backward, fists circling in slow prizefighter rotations.

“Margarine, my love,” said Bette, extending a fist that became an open hand. “Good to see you.”

“It’s been ages,” said Marjorie, grasping at the wrist, maneuvering into what looked like would culminate in a judo throw. “And don’t call me Margarine.”

“I told your handsome friend about the nickname and elaborated on your career as a top-seed mannequin. I hope you don’t mind.”

“Did you also tell Bill how everyone calls you Butter?”

“Butter?” I piped up. “Were you a model, too, Bette?”

“Butter!” screamed Marjorie. “Call her Butter!”

“Ah, how to tout the real thing instead of the substitute?” said the professor, handing me my glass. Liquor had turned him grandiloquent, and I wasn’t sure I liked it. “As you know from my course, one must always endeavor to distinguish the real from the false, though I strongly suggest you not employ my daughters as a test case.”

This was hardly the most hilarious remark ever made, more a mild witticism, but it induced a whoop of barely feminine laughter that gave me a start. Another Bantam had come upon the scene.

“You talk as though this evening were for credit,” brayed the professor’s comely spouse.

“Alma, dear heart,” said Professor Bantam. “I’ve brought home another swain for our brats to battle over.”

“Another swain!” said Alma, but she pronounced it like swine. Or maybe she was simply saying swine.

“Conrad won’t mind at all,” said Marjorie with winning facetiousness.

“At least not at first,” counterjoked Bette.

Alma whooped again. She was about the same height as her husband, though considerably thinner. I imagined she had been of at least moderate beauty in her youth, and wondered if any photographs in the den would confirm this hardly radical notion. In contrast to her white hair, her skin looked almost eerily smooth. Her eyes were equal parts green and gray, and disturbingly recalled those of the mosaic child in the foyer. Good luck, bub, I could hear it say. Shoulda scrammed while there was still time.

I studied Alma’s spry offspring, fairly moving my head as my gaze fell upon one and then the other. Marjorie looked even more desirable than before, if that were possible—yet Bette too seemed to glow from beneath her eyeglasses and bulky sweater. Who were these women? Enchanting creatures, but decidedly odd. Something told me they were trouble, but something also told me I was a fool to think so. Or at least close-minded. Here I was, in a house of baronial splendor, a world away from my dodgy bachelor’s digs, my barren icebox and leaky faucet. I should enjoy my surroundings, drink in the experience. And in practical terms, a close alliance with Poindexter Bantam could only benefit me in the future. Now I resolved not to muck things up during my stay.

“If someone put a gun to your head,” said Alma, “who would you pick?”

She presented this challenge with a note of menace that made me think a firearm would soon be introduced. Chivalry prevented me from answering, of course. “Depends on the caliber,” I said, and proceeded to hail the virtues of both daughters. But something terrible happened amidst Alma’s cooing and the professor’s chortles. Marjorie’s smile dropped, just for a moment, resembling the “before” panel in some discreet medication ad. Immediately my heart sank. Bette appeared nonplussed.

I took a long sip of my drink and felt a fever brewing. Inside my head I addressed Alma’s question in earnest, and realized that, forced to choose between two women I barely knew, I would still vote for Marjorie.

But then again, said a little voice inside, the mosaic baby’s voice—then again, Bette was dressed casually, almost deliberate in her frumpiness. A wardrobe change, and she would no doubt shine with the same wattage. But then again—that infernal tiled tot!—she perhaps talked a little too much. I liked Marjorie’s reserve, which matched my own. The danger with that sort of set up is that it’s possible neither party will ever say a word.

That was the last thought I had before I awoke in the dungeon.

For Meehan Crist and Sampson Starkweather.

Ed Park is a founding editor of The Believer and the author of Personal Days, a novel.