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Alfred de Grazia: Ronald's Norm


Ronald was still absorbed by Shiller's story when he took a seat on the train for Washington the next afternoon. The day was already darkening and the ambivalence of depression and exhilaration that comes to pervade the holiday season was already stamped upon the faces of the crowd at Penn Station.

He had spent the morning on a common-enough scram (a word used for both agents and their cases by the employees), a middle-aged man who was desperately needing to be rid of the attentions of his old mother "Why couldn't Henry be like you?" the old lady said to Ron when he was explaining her son's determination to limit his filial obligations to legal holidays and objectively guaranteed emergencies.

He placed his dispatch case, which was all he carried, on the seat next to him, hoping that it might discourage occupancy, but it was a full train and a large black lady chose to move in upon him, and, in fact, by her calm and imposing hulk she gave him the precise nostalgia of being behind the big couch at home and the privacy in which he might write upon his pad of ruled paper, this being all he needed from the dispatch case, the remaining contents of which were the document for Mr. Smart, a pair of socks, a clean shirt, a Webster-Merriam Collegiate Dictionary and a 1972 edition of the Statistical Abstract of the United States that he had bought for almost nothing.

He was ready to write, open-mindedly, on the plot of Shiller. Shiller had reminded him of Schiller's friend Goethe and Goethe had reminded him of Goethe's novel, "Wilhelm Meister" and when he had looked up Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) "one of the giants of world literature," he was surprised and pleased at the almost mystical discovery that Wilhelm Meister was none other than he whom Ronald had already during the night dubbed Bill Masters, who came from small-town anonymity and explored the great world, Harry Shiller's hero.

So it was possible, thought Ronald, that Shiller did have the universal novel and it was possibly meant for him, Ron O'Malley, to develop and climax it. There was in this prototype of the Bildungsroman (as Goethe's contribution was referred to in the pretentious article which said all too little about Bill Masters) the upward striving, the good girl and bad girl, but obviously too a lot of wandering that Shiller's hero never achieved, Pago Pago to the contrary notwithstanding. But perhaps that was the form: Let Bill Masters now wander around the world building visions from the cornucopia of knowledge that he acquired en route. Yet it must be simple and never stray from the bounds of Christian and Buddhist simplicity. So he began his Chapter I of the new Wilhelm Meister:

"Bill Masters looked out of the thirty-second floor window of his office at the wind-whipped lake of Chicago. He doodled idly while he waited for the day to begin. He arrived early to work, a habit of a man who until a year ago had run a country store. He remembered the day after it was finally sold, following six months of negotiation. He had received half the proceeds, his mother the other half, and he had come to settle himself into a career in Chicago. He remembered when it began:

"The sun had made golden the whole world from its center in Nebraska. The green leaves Bill walked among showed their every line to him and turned over to show him their backsides too . . . "

Here Ronald paused, not knowing whether to go Howells or Hemingway. He liked a tree as well as the next man but like Ronald Reagan on redwoods, "Once you've seen one, you've seen 'em all." He was color blind, too, his green eyes made green out of subtle shades of landscape. He must see through the eyes of the majority, which he disliked, but was not this his fate, that he the peculiar little guy had to voice all the grand averages of humanity? He broke the lead of his pencil and began again with a ball point pen, pressing and doodling until it oozed a bold line.

Just wait, mother. (Will mothers always wait?) Watch television. You have a color set. Watch the credits . . . You'll know, I'll phone you about it in advance." What is this business of appeasing mothers? I am 180 degrees from my mother, and writing her into my novel like it gyrated around her. Does Panku have a mother? (This was the hero of his other novel.) Did Achilles? George Washington? We'll all be sprung from test tubes one day: "Plant between April 14 and May 1. Transplant to the outdoors when an inch high . . . " Only enough trees are needed to let everybody walk by and see them. Just a few mothers in the zoo. The great lady next to him stirred uneasily. Did she have children, boys? How could Bill Masters stand for them? Am I going to condemn them to eternal non-universality? A sense of the uniqueness of everything attacked his archetypes, he stuck to his guns but fired off center of the target, making Bill Masters just a little different.

"He was dark, as Nebraskans go. There was a suggestion of Cherokee in him, a little, too, of the Negroid that had infiltrated from the runaway slaves of old . . . "

And Ronald had written more, much more, before the train arrived in Baltimore. But there his great companion removed herself, the world around stirred a bit, and Ronald was seized by a terror of failure. He examined these scrawled-out pages, which were supposed to be inspired in some way. They were nothing at all, perhaps only a watery image of himself, faked. How embarrassing, should Mr. Shiller read then. He tore them out of his pad and did what he had before been unable to do -- proclaim his very own writing worthless and tear it up. He tore it carefully so that no one could pick it up later and read it -- who? The slovenly woman who entered the car with brooms and rags after its riders had deserted it in Union Station? -- no matter -- it was destroyed and tucked in the crevice next to his seat.

When he arrived in Washington, he was in a distracted state of mind -- after all, one doesn't marry and divorce a great idea in a single afternoon without consequence. He remarked gloomily the temporary character of the long passageways that led him from station to street, a variety of boards below the feet, and booths, pictures, and stray harbors where people were eating and drinking under what appeared to be emergency conditions, all arched over by a huge dead stone cathedral.

Once outside, he looked up and down and saw little but space, so took a taxicab, and asked the driver, "Please take me to a cheap hotel, it doesn't matter where," and the driver, who was Mauritanian, asked "Northwest or Southwest?" and Ron said "It doesn't matter" so he was dropped and registered at a hotel where everyone was black, but its prices were reasonable and he paid for his room in advance, and munched Snickers and Cheesebits until he fell asleep, nor had anyone given him especially notice, although the switchboard girl said to the clerk standing alongside her, "Well, look at the albino, would you?" and they both had a merry high-pitched laugh at that.

The next day it cost him a lot of money to arrive by cab at Columbia Plaza, where Mr. Smart lived. It was a swanky apartment building, as Washington places go, its pretensions somewhat depressed by the incorporation within its premises of the National Endowment for the Arts and the Commission on Civil Rights. Smart's apartment was chic, though, and let one cast a costly view over a long stretch of the Potomac River.

There Mr. Smart awaited Ron, carrying his cashier's cheque, not much more that a pittance for Mr. Smart, who made it clear from the beginning that he hated Manhattan and much preferred to go South rather than North if he wanted to go anywhere. Smart had the florid, robust look of a baker, and it turned out that he was in fact the owner of two bakeries, though of course he couldn't bake, and that he was a partner of Ron's client in New York, who was gladly offering this ten thousand dollars to keep him away from the bakery for a year.

Ron was curious as to why Mr. Smart and his partner had not made the arrangement directly without the interposition of Disassociation Associates, and the answer was ready: "We fight every time we come near one another." A lawyer would cost too much money because "Figure it out. Two lawyers, both grabbing and both wanting to stretch things out, and you have the answer." Then Mr. Smart smiled coyly at Ron and said, "You see, this is not profit for him or for me. This is a gift from him to me, non-taxable, worth $15,000 to me."

Mr. Smart had time. People somehow seemed to find time when Ronald was concerned. "Tell me about this company of yours. Maybe I've got some business for you myself. You help split up unwanted relationships, right?"

"Yes," said Ron, "That's about all there is to it."

"Come on, now, you must have an organization."

"We do. We have divisions for family relations, for personal relations, for business both internal and external, and for politics." (Actually, there was a fifth division of Special Cases, but, since Ronald didn't know what it handled, he didn't mention it.)

"I scram (it was a verb, too!) I mean, I work, in both the personal relations and the business internal side. Politics is the most active -- politicians are always trying to get rid of old supporters who are now embarrassing -- but it's trouble to collect bills from them too."

Mr. Smart was intrigued. "You know, I could keep a couple of men like you busy all the time. I've got as many hooks in me as an angler's hat. Boy, how I'd like to get rid of them. You name 'em, I've got 'em. Take the customers I'd like to get rid of, more trouble than they're worth. Or take my daughter; we can't get her to leave home though she's twenty-eight years old. And her creepy boyfriend; I've been trying to split them up for two years. . ."

"It's expensive."

"Wait, there's this fag mailing list I'm on; the mailman has lost his respect for me . . . "

"If you would select one of the cases, we might."

"Wait, I'm the guy that introduced the bagel to Washington. So I'm the bagel king, like Dino the Pizza King. But I want to get rid of the bagel business, I'm moving into French pastries. So what do I do?"

"I can suggest something for the first problem, but . . . "

"No, here's another. I've been wanting to get on the board of some artistic organization in the District. I joined the Smithsonian Institution Associates and things like that but they're mostly phony merchandising schemes. Do you work in reverse? I mean, do you associate, besides dissociating? Or whatever you call it?

"No, that's what I wanted to tell you. We don't work in reverse. We don't bring people together." Now Ron felt that he must launch into the harangue that Mr. Shiller had prepared especially for occasions such as this. "We are a unique organization -- young, fast-growing, acquiring new capabilities all the time. But we have to refuse certain types of problems. First of all, we do not associate or even reassociate clients. Second, we are lawful; we engage in no mafia-type disconnections. We are hoping to get deeper into corporate dissolutions, where the need is great, but are feeling our way and not taking on anything too big. Further we reserve the right to refuse cases that would appear to put our employees in imminent danger of life and limb, even though they are covered by generous insurance policies. Our employees are strictly forbidden to change sides in the course of a job. Also they are forbidden to create disassociations other than those assigned to them. All clients must sign a waiver of damages and a guarantee to defend Disassociation Associates at law in the aftermath of any case."

Mr. Smart was now listening attentively, and clearly he was realizing that disassociation, professionally done, was not something to engage in frivolously. He said nothing for a few moments; he was mentally checking off his list of needs. Then he shook his head sorrowfully and said, "That's always the way it is . . . life is full of first changes but you can't afford second chances -- just more, bad, first chances. Then along comes a fine new idea for a cure, but what happens its like another disease. I'd have to put everything I own in hock to hire your outfit for unhooking me all around, and then who unhooks me from the banks?"

"We don't dissociate people from legal debts," Ron put in, unnecessarily.

"Well, anyway, it was good dreaming for a minute," said Mr. Smart, brightening up. "I think it's a good career for a young man like you."

"It's not really my career, Mr. Smart. I'm a writer." Ronald regretted the words as they left his lips.

"A writer! You don't say! What are you writing? You know I have a story that would make a great novel, a movie too. It's got tremendous appeal. Let me tell you about it . . . Here, sit down for a moment longer. You don't have to go yet . . . "

Ron did not bother with the White House. It was too special. He had read War and Peace and seen it in the movies and on television, and was convinced with Tolstoy that the mass of people moving incommensurably throughout the far reaches of the government society were aggregating, by infinitesimal minute influences, the Future. So when he left Mr. Smart he trotted along the route to the station, littered as it was with the megalithic bureaucratic mausoleums, darting in and out of them like a pooch in search of its buried bone. Rebuffed now and then where "Security" demanded it, signing in where it said "Sign in," yet he could find buildings in this most open of all governments where he might as well have been in a public park, so free was he to come and go, but where the freedom was without trees and flowers, without sunrises, without the randomness of play, for indeed, it was the opposite, and he saw the norm here of thousands upon thousands upon thousands of people just like himself, and he wondered and wondered how he could possibly discuss them and whether they were not indeed beyond the pale.

Far from his image of the happy life and of love, they were not even capable of using the services of Disassociation Associates (no wonder the company had no division for them), "one out of six Americans and their families," a brochure said that he had picked up in passing. The Civil service held them, it isolated them; how could they become disassociated? A completely new existence would have to be created for them, else, disassociated, they would drop to the ground like petals of flowers. More and more, Ronald was acquiring the horrible thought that perhaps in the nature of things, and therefore in the fabric of his novel, there must be salt mines, and ships with galley-slaves, and ant heaps of civil servants and corporatites, or whatever they were called.

He missed his new friend Merck. Merck would have an answer to everything. Ron was glad to board the train and head up toward Manhattan. The train was empty this time -- what infinite number of individual decisions (He is still in his Tolstoian mood) had led the actuaries of the railroad company to schedule this train; yet the passengers who were predicted were absent. Was Tolstoy wrong, can a mess change its mind so suddenly? He couldn't solve the problem, so turned to his writing, but where had it gone? Panku was nowhere to be found; humiliated, disgraced by the interjection of a new story, he would not appear under any conjuration. There was nothing left to Shiller, Schiller, Goethe, Wilhelm Meister . . . They were nothing but himself. He might as well write his autobiography -- what difference between the pine barrens of New Jersey and the great plains between Manhattan and Chicago?

His mind began to move just as he would hate to admit to might go, absorbing into the details of his job, and plucked from the job, like feathers from a chicken, by every passing sight and station call. And that is what happens on the journey back to New York. He thinks of slogans for his company: "Ridding is better than Writhing" -- gray waters and ice floes, a splat of cottages on the banks of the Chesapeake, but now we are in Delaware, have we passed Baltimore and Wilmington?. . "Dissociations are the transplants of Success."

Here and there lights appear along the route. Nearing Trenton, the train roars across the Delaware River and hurries through a stop there: what program is Mom watching? He staggers to the snack bar and eats the worst cheese sandwich of his life. He staggers back to his seat and sees that more lights are on in the world . . . "Clone out the clowns in your life." Several students get on at Princeton Junction, sleek, and stinking slightly already of the brokerages and ad agencies that would blow away their cunning ideals -- spores of a dying puffball.

Ronald reaches his journey's end defeated. He is on the edge of a truth that can kill. All the world is disassociating and he cannot find around him the countervailing togetherness. He has barely been able to hold the world together -- but consider his weak tools: a mindless maternalism, a schoolmarm's letter to a collectivity, and happenstance collisions of dissociated atoms in trains, office, and society. (I, the author, say this, for, frankly, I am worried about Ron. I am hoping that Merck may help him.)

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