Muriel had been surprisingly even-tempered about the dog and the hour. When Merck emerged, she said "So there you are" and thrust the leash of the dog and his fecal bag upon him. She took the arm of Ronald, saying, "And so you're the great white owl," and thus they proceeded for twenty minutes, until the beast had tired of dragging Merck along the gutter and discharged his bowels. It was cold and dark but Muriel exuded warmth, and Ronald was anyhow too drunk and pleased to feel the cold.
She invited him to "drop by anytime" and he said "great," that he would come by to drop off his chapters for Merck to read, so that late the next afternoon found him ringing her bell and stomping his shoes to kick off the fresh snow;
His heart jumped when the door opened. She seemed not so tall now, standing in slippers, hardly taller than himself. Nor, in her quilted kimono, lashed by a waist-belt, was she the majestic cloaked figure of the night, but was wide-bodied beneath her flat face, torpid brown eyes and mass of black hair. She practically sucked him inside with her brazen helloing and preceded him into the parlor.
"Sit anywhere . . . There," she said. "Merck is not home yet. Let me fix you a drink. How about a glass of sherry."
They sat, studied each other, and talked. "You can leave the chapters on the table next to you. He'll find them first thing . . . Are they all as good as the first chapter? I read it, you know, at least the beginning. Do you mind?"
"No. Certainly not. I'm happy to have you see it . . . Read more, too, if you like."
"I'll see what Merck says. He might become jealous of my angling into the picture . . . I can see that he truly likes you . . . What happens to the puppets . . . I liked them."
"I'm sorry. They get killed off."
"What a shame! Who does the dirty job? You seem so kind-hearted."
"An earthquake, but not before they steer Panku into his life's mission . . . There's a synopsis of the plot along with the chapters, if you're interested."
"I would be, and I'll read it right away . . . Tell you what -- why don't we read it right now?" Muriel was determined to be impetuous "You can read it to me and I'll listen very well -- I'm a good listener, better than Merck."
"Truly do you want me to read it to you?"
"That's what I said."
"Well O.K., I'm happy to do it, you know, really. I've imagined you reading my book. Maybe even in it." Ronald could be impetuous, too.
"When? In a prior incarnation?"
"No. . perhaps? . . no. I've seen you and connected you here, even before last night."
"Strange I've not seen you. You're the more conspicuous one"
"I doubt it . . . You walk in a special way."
"Have you seen me all dressed up?"
"Yes. You're very special then."
"How nice. Do tell me more . . . no. . don't say any more . . . How is your drink? . . Do you walk with someone like a guy or a girl?"
"No, just alone. With the job, and writing, and keeping things going, I don't have much time for anyone's company." Ronald was not above playing the game of lonely hearts.
"Well, now you have female company, and your female company wants you to tell her a story." The female had also marked well the censorship in Merck's first account of Ronald.
"O.K. Here goes . . . " Ron began rather confusedly, for he was thinking rather of the possible meanings of her words and how she was stretching back in her low chair, letting her slippers dangle, then fall, and showing her ballet dancer's legs. He wanted to say that his Ella had legs like her, and such black hair and brown eyes; about the rest, he didn't know. She startled him then, for she said, "Wait a moment . . . First, let me see your eyes, before you drop them . . . Yes, they're like emeralds all right . . . marvelous . . . go ahead . . . Can I interrupt you?"
"Sure, sure, O.K., here goes again. You know already about San Francisco, 1982, Panku, the puppeteer, Mr. Havok."
"Yes, he's greedy and officious. I don't like him."
"Panku spends all of his money on a girl of his age named Ella, who is of mixed East Indian and black ancestry from Trinidad and is a bar girl with an ID card saying she's nineteen. She sends Panku home one night in order to accommodate two customers. He goes home and in despair begins to berate his puppets. There is a slight earth tremor, and he is astonished to see the puppets jump about, and before his enchantment ceases, he hears them speak of the forthcoming destruction of mankind. They gather to peer beneath the bed, telling a Presence there: "Speak to Panku." "The world of puppet-men is endangered," says the voice from beneath the bed, "It is time for you to go into the world and transform the puppet men into a new human race. You will get ten messages and no more, but not now, not for years. They will guide you. You will have the first message now. Go away." Panku waited almost too long for the first message, until he realized that it was the first message: "Go away." He thought, no, I can't, I love Ella, I love my parents, I love my city, I love my puppets."
"You have to sacrifice;" said Muriel, "sacrificing is the meaning of the message." Ron glanced at her admiringly.
"Suddenly the earth quakes violently and destroys the puppets, the house and the city. His family are dead. Ella's house and the bar are in flames. The few survivors are fleeing and soldiers begin pouring into the ruined city. He meets Mr. Havok, now in the uniform of a Colonel of the California National Guard, who is busily executing looters of all ages and degrees of suspicion. Now, says Col. Havok, we shall build a single skyscraper city, of perfect law and order, and he set Panku to plagiarizing the plans of an Italian architect who had designed such a city earlier. But a sort of watermark in the design paper shows through and says: "Land needed."
"That means 'farming comes first,' a message," suggested Muriel and Ron said "Right."
"So he flees into the country and comes upon a farm, but the farm is only a factory producing wine, though starvation is rife.
"But wine is not so bad. Maybe it should be tobacco," interjected Muriel. "Maybe you're right," said Ron, sipping his sherry.
"A gang of refugees comes upon the farm and breaks into the storehouses, carousing and spilling wine all over the earth. ("You see," said Ron to Muriel, "it's the idea of the saturnalia following upon destruction.") Panku gets drunk, too, and amidst the chaos, a voice tells him, "Go to sea, the land is drunk and reeling."
"This voice, Ron, that he hears, is it real, is Panku hallucinating, or on drugs?"
"In high, tense states of mind, Muriel, messages may get through."
"Do you use drugs, Ron?"
"Good. Neither do I." And she wriggled on her couch feeling him compatible.
"As Panku leaves, he meets the army of General Havok who is now killing everyone to adjust demand to supply. He informs Panku that this is the neutron-bomb principle -- to kill people and preserve property -- reapplied and adapted so that the great many soldiers will have jobs to perform.
"Panku finds his way to the sea and is hired as a scrub-man on a Japanese fishing boat. He is supposed to scrub the tars, and sores, and phosphorescence off the catch. He gets sick from radioactivity. His hair falls off"
"How terrible." She thought of going over and reassuring herself about Ron's blond curls, but that would be too impetuous and perhaps frightening.
"Yes . . . He leaps from the boat in despair, intending to drown, but a dolphin playfully nudges him shore-wards. In his delirium, he hears the dolphin say, "'The land and sea are dying. Now to work.'"
Muriel pursed her brows. Ron smiled and went on.
"Panku is washed ashore at a survivors' camp where a lady doctor finds him and treats him. She is in fact Ella and she pleads with him to stay with her. But he is determined to carry on his work. He locates a paper factory where all are in uniform and publishing vast numbers of martial proclamations and newspapers. He protests their polluting the sea, and is led off to be executed, but the Director of Industries Havok halts the execution and tells him to build puppets of papier maché to replace the inhabitants of the depopulated cities.
"Two years pass and Panku, closely guarded, cannot escape, until one day he slips into a hole that he has carved in a store of old books, used as raw material for puppets, and finds himself amidst the works of Mahatma Gandhi. All about him are the wonderful words of Gandhi calling for an end to violence in the world. He understands this remarkable fact to be his fifth message."
"Ronnie, dear, I know this one: pacifism. But I also know the others; farming, fishing and then manufacturing." Muriel smiled in self-satisfaction. Ron nodded, "Yes, conciliating."
"As Panku sneaks from his hole he is shanghaied by a patrol of soldiers and forced into the army, which is now fighting a war of all against all. Disputed issues are decided by selective destruction; if the site selected is struck or captured the point at issue is won by the assailant; otherwise the opposing side takes a shot. It's called the preemptive duel. The remaining people of the world live in dread of this method of adjudication, which was devised by the world's elite so that all-out nuclear war, with its unequivocal decision, can be avoided, while permitting any nation with even a single bomb to get into at least one dispute, and even win it."
"Ron, what's the use of all this killing in your book? It's so sad, the world coming down like that."
"Yes, I guess it is."
"Why do you prophecy such evils? My mother pulled me out of Sunday school when I told her all the stories we were hearing -- the apocalypse and all of that."
"I feel it in my bones."
"Is that enough? I mean, I don't want to sound like Merck with his 'hard science', but . . . "
"Oh, but you do not, not for a moment . . . But let me go on, please."
"He is sent to Mexico, to Cuba, to Alaska, where he is entombed with an enemy soldier in ice. They are freed by an astonishing rainstorm. Giant floods are racing everywhere as the atmosphere changes. He is swept south by one of them and deposited atop the Cascade mountains. He discovers there a paleolithic human sign that he believes to be a message. It seems to read: 'Contemplate eternity, for it is upon you.' He moves into a cave and grubs for insects and herbs while performing a combination of Yoga and Cartesianism."
"I'll not ask you what that consists of."
Smiling gratefully at her, he continued. "Then one night, long after, he hears voices echoing from the valleys all around, 'Settle the heavenly city.' The next morning there passes by his cave a nun leading a file of children. They are orphans and the nun is Ella, his love. He takes them into the cave and that night there is a tremendous explosion in the sky above a high city on the mountain opposite, and shortly afterwards there rains down a fluid from the sky, like manna of ambrosia. They eat it and feel well. The tiniest of the orphans speaks her first words to Panku, "Make it yourself." This, he imagines, must mean that they will find a way to create ambrosia, indeed, to make everything by themselves, once again.
"O.K.," said Muriel cheerfully, "so now I get the message; there is conciliating, then contemplating, then settling, and now creating. That must be ten now, all of the Ten Messages accounted for, sir."
"You have a gift for labeling."
"You should see my boutique windows, 'Levitating Dirndls, 50% off!"
"Never you mind now. Today is your day to fascinate me."
"Panku leads Ella and the children into the city and as they come up to it, all is silent save for a single cry of 'help,' which Panku takes as the tenth and last message. He answers the cry and finds Chief Marshal of Destructive Defense Havok, dying. He tells Panku that the ambrosia will not only cure disease, but it affects congenitally the infant system to produce even-tempered and helpful persons, and that he, Panku, must now analyze it and make it, and with the words "Go help the world' Havok expires. Panku, Ella and their young friends take up new lives in the city, fearlessly sending their progeny out into the world to preach the ten messages and redeem the chaos."
"But isn't 'helping' the eleventh message?" inquired Muriel.
"It is, unless I don't count the first message, which is 'Go away,' the renunciation, you know. Maybe helping is part of 'settling the Heavenly City.' I sure would hate to have eleven messages."
"You should call the novel, "A World of Love and Ambrosia."
"Maybe I should . . . with the subtitle "The Ten Messages."
"Ronald, you are a darling, but quite mad. . no kidding . . . You don't mind my saying so?"
"Coming from you makes it sound like a compliment, Muriel, but I'm not a kook . . . Merck says that I'm one of the few creative people he knows who is normal."
"He should know . . . But the fact remains . . . "
"It's your secret then, Muriel. No one else knows." (Does Mr. Shiller know? Ron wondered.)
"Ronald, tell me, why do you make Ella so bad and then so good? Why do you have to make a nun out of her?"
"I know," confessed Ron, "it is a stereotype."
"But it's not fair to women. Here you are, getting all mixed up with sex and virtue like a parish priest and putting it out as universal."
"May be I'll change it -- when Merck finishes with the part -- I wonder what he'll say to it?"
"Never you mind Merck. Listen to what a woman tells you. Look at me here" (Ron did, gladly.) I'm a good enough girl, if that's what you want. I try never to hurt anybody. I don't sleep with a man unless I really like it (oh well it's true that a couple of times I let a man make love to me out of pity for the poor guy). I have never taken a man for all he's worth. I don't get drunk. And you don't find me unsympathetic, do you? Nor do I care much for a lot of luxury. I share the work. I work for a living. I even read books!"
"Muriel," Ron had been trying to say, "you're an angel." (Presumably not the same angel his mother had played as a girl in Camden.)
"There you go again, blinding your pretty green eyes. Look at your Ella. Did you ever fall in love with a good girl who turned out to be a bad girl?"
Ron blushed and looked unhappy . . . he hesitated.
"Come now," said Muriel, suddenly sitting straight, "don't tell me I . . . "
"I did have a puppy love affair with a girl long ago, and I did find out that all the boys on the street were screwing her, except me."
"I hit on something. It hurts, I know . . . "
"I don't see why it should, even if it did . . . "
"It hurts Panku."
"He gets over it . . . "
"By bringing in a nun. You kill off the original Ella whom he loves."
"Muriel, you're either a psychiatrist or clairvoyant. Honestly, I had nothing but the fuzziest awareness left . . . "
"Well, if you can make a doctor out of Ella, I guess you can make one out of me."
"Muriel you are my good-bad angel." Then realized the implication . . . and added hastily, "I don't of course mean, that I hope . . . " but he might well have meant that he hoped she would be bad with him, and she ducked her head for a moment and then looked up at him avidly, then nodded her head vigorously, smiling.
"Ronald," she reported in a low, confidential tone, "it's seven-thirty, I don't know what's happened to Merck."
"Shall I wait longer for him?" Ron asked hopefully.
"We'll have to leave for our dinner appointment almost as soon as he comes."
"You have to dress."
"I hate to say so, but I do."
Ron stood up. "Good-bye, Muriel. Thank you for yourself as I imagined you, but better."
"Ron, you're a rare bird, and quite lovely. Come visit my nest again." Vainly her face beseeches kissing.
She closes the door on him and does what tragic actresses affect: She leans back against the door for support, and lets the dizzying feeling run its hormones through the boudoirs of her body. She also must remind herself of her age. She passes her hand over her forehead, and she tightens her legs.
"Boy, I must really want it bad," she murmurs.
When Merck arrives a few minutes later, he is coifed, accoutered, and composed. He is rather manic, highly energized, protesting acidly against an examining committee that has put in an extra hour of wrangling over their responsibility, once having admitted a dullard to their doctoral program, to prolong his presence among them until he would either voluntarily quit or eke out a dissertation.
"The hour is late, Merck."
"I have found the most universal of universal plots, Muriel," he thereupon announces irrelevantly. "It is electricity. The electron and the proton are locked together in a profound attraction. Yet let there be an electron too many, and this will become discontented, so that, should a passing charged stranger be lonely and in need, the electron will surrender to him and pass on to microscopic infinity, to bewildering distances, at a speed near that of light . . . " He thinks for a moment of Ronald. "Yet look at us, how long we take to arrange our affairs, and we never get really unstuck." He is thinking now of his estranged wife, living not far away. Muriel is thinking of something else.
"Ronald came by. He left his writing for you over there."
"Did he wait?"
"Yes, quite a while."
"That's too bad."
"I did my best to amuse him. He read me his plot."
"But it was hardly up to you to comment."
"What do you mean? I know a bad story when I hear one."
"Bad? You think it bad?"
"Yes, it's all a fairy tale, working out his juvenile problems and weaknesses."
"But . . . but . . . you must be insane. It's a very mature story. He's very gifted. What in the hell is the idea of discouraging him."
"I don't think that I discouraged him . . . Quite the contrary."
"Where is he . . . at home? . . I'll give him a call."
"Merck, we're late."
He gives her a hostile look as he dials. "Hello, Ron? How are you, dear fellow . . . Yes . . . Sorry I wasn't back in time . . . yes, yes, she told me . . . Listen, Ron, I must go now but I want to see you just as soon as I've gone over all of these chapters . . . Yes, maybe a week from tonight? . . No, not here. (He cast a reproachful glance at Muriel.). . I think that we might have more privacy at your place . . . I know . . . yes . . . O.K.. Fine . . . eight o'clock. See you then." He hangs up and addresses Muriel.
"Righto, now, my sweet lady electron, your proton is ready to go."