It was a short bitter winter. Often the streets were vacant fjords while the people used their subterranean burrows for supply-gathering. Ron and Merck swore that they would finish their books together. Merck had contacted a friend in publishing, and the company was pleased to work up a contract with him on The Psychology of Universal Literature, envisioning from it not only satisfactory sales in courses in psychology, including several now aborning, but also in literature, where new concoctions for jaded student palates go well-rewarded.
Merck urged Ronald to offer his novel as well, even suggesting that his own publisher was quite large enough to take on both books. But Ron resisted. He was not ready, he contended, to forswear significant, even radical, changes in his book.
Thence Merck rigorously but speedily examined his classes to measure their progress, while Muriel went about quitting her job -- that is, her friendly employer, May Gomshough, fired her, according to a scheme devised at her hiring some six months before, so that she could now count upon several months of pleasant and modest living on unemployment compensation. On December 20, the pair of them winged their way southward alongside flights of laggard geese, and settled for twenty-seven days in Nassau.
They abandoned Ronald in Manhattan. Why they did so is at first thought, puzzling. Was not Merck most thoroughly engaged in his book and with Ronald? Was not Muriel a dissatisfied woman cramping with longing for her fuzzy friend? But, then, examine closely the case. Why do the geese fly south? -- No one knows, least of all the geese. Very well; no one knows here either. Nevertheless these all habitually do so. Then, also, is it not likely that before taking the final plunge, a person in love uncertainly considers an escape, suppressing the keen intensity of one's deep drive and preparing for an even greater thrust ahead? -- like a bull in a Spanish ring will turn about several times as if unconcerned, hesitant, sluggish, impatient, or harking to a voice from the crowd, swishing quietly his tail, and, then, bunching his immense muscles and aligning them with his great head, will launch himself madly at the roseate toreador.
Nor could either lover go without the other, for there was between them already a distrust and jealousy, which each could tolerate only so long as the other was under constraints such as the distant island and the eagle eye of the one afforded.
Meanwhile Ronald, the apple of their eye, underwent a kind of nervous breakdown, which, when he visited home briefly on Christmas, was ascribed by his mother to overwork. Then he was unsettled by the news that she and Rose Klein had sold their cottages and were moving to Liberaceville, California, the Seniors community. No number of guffaws before a mirror -- whether affected cordially or cynically -- could wipe out the panic in his eyes.
Thereafter he claimed an enduring Asiatic flu as the reason for his sniffling annoyingly in numerous movie theaters that he attended during this season. Actually, if anything revealed what assailed him, it was this continuous solitary movie-going, an expression of loneliness, as if he expected to catch sight, in some battle scene, or Italian villa, or Hawaiian adventure, of Merck and Muriel waving to him.
He was listless at work, but Mr. Shiller had gone off to Miami Beach on several scrams that he felt he must attend to personally. Worse, Ron was careless in his writing. He would begin a paragraph and then jump to the next paragraph, and repeat this procedure, and sometimes he would write from back to front, grateful that he concluded the book and had only to fill in what had led up to the ending.
Merck did telephone him once, while Muriel happened to be out, and, after complaining inquisitively about not being able to reach him on several earlier tries, carried on a monologue of hopes and aspirations, saying how dull life was in the Bahamas but that he himself was in fine shape, building up muscles that he hardly thought he possessed.
And around the same time, Muriel telephoned him, when Merck was trotting down the road to the beach, to say, "I had to wish you a Happy New Year . . . I hope that you're not too cold . . . If only you could be here . . . I'm bringing you some seashells that I've gathered. I hear your voice in them . . . What are you saying?. . 'Muriel . . . Muriel', or something like that" Ron had to laugh, then, although, after he hung up, he was more grumpy than before, and went out to sneeze and sniffle through two full-length motion pictures.
He saw little of Muriel after they returned. Regularly, once a week, he and Merck met at his rooms and went over his novel, chapter after chapter. What concerned Ron about Merck was that Merck, so highly intelligent, could not see the decline in his, Ron's work. When, after several weeks of expecting such criticism to arise, Merck still appeared oblivious, Ron began insistently to point out his deterioration. He even reached the point of interposing Muriel's supposed objections, which he now felt in his very guts -- that he was immature and writing out of his childhood fantasies.
Merck would have none of this. Instead of observing the agreeing to the literary defects, or referring to the contemptible opinions of Muriel, Merck began to examine Ronald about his state of mind, his diet, his vital energy, his job, his fantasies and his affectional life. By the end of February, Merck had elaborated a theory: Yes . . . once a week was not enough, they had to meet more often. They had to take walks together, visit art galleries to contemplate the most universal painting, and, persuaded by the latest mega-vitamin theories, Merck prescribed too, a regimen of vitamin therapy -- a gram of 'C' per day more iron, E, B1k Bu, and some combinations obtainable only at Schlepper's Organic Food Store, -- hoping to discover, as much for his own sake as for Ronald's, a diet appropriate to the creative mind. But no drugs -- no tranquilizers, no highs, no lows, save from coffee and alcohol. Lots of bran in the diet. And Two-Person Yoga at least once or twice a week, involving an extension of Charles Atlas' Dynamic Tension and classical yoga, resulting in some interesting contortions, reminiscent of Laocoon and his Sons (minus one) attacked by pythons.
By this time, to Ronald's mind, the conception of a universal novel had descended into a shambles, and Merck was of no help at all.
"Why are you groveling?" he asked Ron on one occasion when he found him drooping on a pile of rugs at home.
"Merck, you claim the glory of science in prediction. What does psychology predict when an old lady puts on tennis shoes?"
Merck looked blankly at him.
"Merck, I don't have a home anymore. My mother has gone away."
"Very well. I developed nicely when my mother went away."
"To a village of elders?"
"To the graveyard of the elephants . . . She was wearing boots."
"Merck, I have to apologize . . . that cat when we first met -- that Eternal Mother . . . " Ron gave a rueful laugh.
"No apology is necessary. It was a lucky moment . . . Anyhow, it's absolutely true; the universal has to have a foundation. So, being mammals, our mothers are the foundation, temporarily. Then they must be removed, if they don't remove themselves, and leave us to work on our superstructures."
Merck called this "the mature ideology." There was no stopping him. He had found the key in Ronald's pocket -- the key to a higher level of blissful confusion.
He now had made of the universal a dogmatic myth, which, although and indeed because it was completely disproved by sociology, anthropology, psychology and all other science, nevertheless should be uniquely, unequivocally, and preciously maintained as Ron's norm. Ronald should remain affixed to the book as first conceived ("You've worked so long on the hook . . . " Merck declared once, in a Freudian slip of tongue), for Merck liked him to be there, revered him, would have him no other way.
"Be as you are, Ron. Be true to yourself, you are fine, a splendid example. (Once or twice he said "specimen.") That is the universal meaning of the universal story. Like the night is studded with fixed stars, the history of man's mind is studded with universal works such as your own. They are the celestial astro-map of the human psyche. You are in great company. I only wish that I might be there."
But Ron felt miserable and could not be appeased. He had become a sullen boy, tired of his lover. On the two occasions when Muriel called him in February, he was too embarrassed to say how sad he was, and she felt afterwards that she had failed him -- and she didn't know how, nor would he tell her, and she put it down to her age, or to his serious character, or, and not least, to his infatuation with Merck and what Merck had to offer him.
In early March she called once more, almost reproachfully. "I thought that you were busy and all of that . . . "
"I am," said Ron.
"I've finally seen you on the street, and you were not walking alone -- you've destroyed my image of you . . . Who was that woman I saw you with on Tuesday?"
"Tuesday? Woman? -- oh -- that was no woman, that was my teacher."
"With her arm around you . . . fussing with your hair, too!"
"That was Mirabelle, my schoolteacher from Camden. She was in New York, she travels, you see . . . I'll be in her Christmas newsletter. She fastens the world together."
That only confused Muriel, who had made out Mirabelle to be a gorgeous siren (she wasn't wearing her glasses). "You brought her to your rooms? . . you've never invited me there."
"I know, I'm sorry, it's not the same . . . Merck . . . the books . . . listen, Muriel, I'm not so well . . . I'm afraid I would offend you . . . "
"Soon, Muriel, you'll see, things are happening to me, to my mind, I'm beginning to age, prematurely, I think." That ended the conversation but not the post-mortems.
"Did he mean he was getting as old as me?" Muriel wondered, and so on.
"Why did she force me to play the schoolboy?" thought Ronald, and so on. This was the confusion of confidences, the frustrations of meaning, the swamp of unintended offenses from which peculiarly burgeons the great purple orchid of lust.
The short winter broke sharply. A brief energy shortage cleared the air over Manhattan. Rain followed in warm torrents. The sun barged its way into the streets. Flower pots were laid out on window sills. And the human horde that had been constrained in its infinite pens exploded upon the open places. Washington Square displayed upon a human mat of defrosted vagrants, students, and senior citizens, a bewildering carnival of hop-scotchers, rope-jumpers, hand-wrestlers, frolicking pedigreed and mongrel dogs, chess players, frisbee hurlers, tap-dancers, bongo-drummers, a trumpet soloist, an Italian string trio, volley-ball games, flying kites, Seventh Day Adventists, hot-dog wagons, and orating political extremists.
Ron broke as well. On March at 13:30 hours he called Merck's office to say that he had to work overtime at Disassociation Associates and could not meet with him. At 13:40 hours he called Muriel to leave the same message with her. She was happy to hear from him and noted, not without skipping a heart beat, an excited note in his voice, strange considering that he had to work extra on a job that he had come to dislike. Merck could not reach him. On 11 March at 12:50 hours, he called to say that he had a cold and could not meet Merck that evening further, he said that he was going to Washington again during the week following, on a new scram.
On 16 March, Muriel called him twice at home, but he was not in. On 17 March at 15:00 hours, Merck called in some concern and found him unaccountably in bed. "Are you sick?" he asked. "No, I'm fine." "Do you have the day off?" "No." "May I ask, as your close friend, why, then, are you in bed at this hour of the day?" "Merck, has it ever occurred to you that you ask too damned many questions?" Ron retorted. Merck was hurt, but not enough to stop his questions; "May I ask . . . " he began and then almost dropped the receiver in seizure of vertigo, but he went on, "are you alone in bed?" At this, Ronald hung up, and Merck spent a few minutes contemplating the question, the response, and the possibilities. Then determinedly he snatched up the telephone and again called Ronald. "Hello, this is Merck. What I called you about is having dinner out with Muriel and me this evening. Can you make it?"
There was a long pause, followed by a short "Yes." "Good . . . Let's eat at Bradley's, it's convenient and one enjoys the food. We'll see you there at eight-thirty. Is that alright?"
"O.K. Now good-bye!" answered Ron.
The three meet at Bradley's then. Each of the trio expected something extraordinary to happen. However, for one thing, they had taken a table next to the piano and string bass, who, silent and comfortable companions at the one moment, were seized by a frenzy of jazz a little later, and, if for no other reason than that the music was excellent ("far out, far out . . . " Ron kept on muttering) their conversation was reduced to fractured sentences, followed by gushes of nonsense during the breaks. Merck continued to pry into Ron's mind. Muriel sat like a shy girl, ashamed, meeting her secret beau for the first time in public. Ronald played his part almost entirely by expression, now looking like the grim suffering esthete, then like an injured lover, then like a man about to commit some reckless act of heroism -- full of inner smiles, self-pity, cool calculating glances at the opposing host around the table. As they left, heavy with food and wine, their ears ringing, edging carefully between the crowded bar and the diners at the tables close in, Ronald slipped a note into Muriel's hand.
The extraordinary happened the next morning. Ron's note had puzzled Muriel. It was a poem, viz:
They met, she sat,
he posed his learning.
She, then he, made
sounds of yearning.
They could but doubt
what said each t'other,
A censor bid them
believe in another.
They met frustration
at every turn,
now by accident,
then domestic concern.
They suffered long
to be apart,
she in her wild soul,
he in his art.
No doubt whoever's
Has graduated from
the grades above.
A spark's now all
that either needs
to inflame love's wish
for ardent deeds.
Muriel is in bed the next morning when Ronald telephones. Merck is out walking the dog. "Ron," she exclaims, scared and immediately wide-awake. "What is it?"
"Did you read my poem?"
"Yes, I read it, at least three times. It was lovely."
"Is that all you can say?"
"No. What does it mean? What are you telling me?" Poor Muriel is about to cry. She can't understand poetry, any poetry, and she cannot admit that she is beyond beautiful abstract thoughts.
"It doesn't matter. I have a message for Merck. Is he there?"
"No. He's taken the dog out."
"It's this. I have quit writing The Ten Messages. I have burned the manuscript."