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Alfred de Grazia: Ronald's Norm


A youth dressed in tennis shoes, sweatshirt and shorts jogged around the corner and hurdled gracefully the leash of Merck's dog. Merck was walking softly and hopefully with the poodle, pausing every few steps to let it experience the urge to defecate. Broadway was quiet. Now it was exhibiting its buildings, a line of busty, ornate dames, arched and columned, heavy and aged, ankle-deep in rubbish with shoes of garish plastic and metal. Merck, who walked here often, just as often thought of their youth, of the promise of finely executed industrial capitalism. Several men emerged from a building where lights were still on and printing machines were clattering as they slid and turned. In an hour the traffic would rise up and threaten to slaughter anyone to dared to look upwards.

The jogger came into sight again, but no sooner had he turned the corner than he froze in his tracks and threw his hands up high. Merck was startled, the poodle yapped. A policeman came about too, huffing and puffing and pointing a gun.

"Up. . up. . Face the wall and keep 'em up!" The jogger faces the wall. The policeman recalls "Procedure #2: Search suspect for a concealed weapon." He cautiously approaches the suspect from the side and peers at his tights, his tennis shoes and his sweatshirt imprinted "City College of New York." He sees no pockets, no suspicious bulges.

The court of public opinion convenes promptly -- four tired printers, one dressmaker, one short-order chef, one drug addict on a high, one professor of psychology, one dog. They examine the arrested man: Age, 22; skin, brown; hair, afro-cut; height, six feet; weight, 170 pounds; musculature, well-developed, with long, clean limbs, powerful shoulders and biceps obviously not gained from jogging, all a golden brown. (A beautiful body, thinks Merck, how I should like it for my own, whose muscles are laid on like strings, and whose curves twist instead of flow, and whose flesh is inadequate and pasty white and chest is flat and who needs clothes and more clothes, and candlelight when available.)

"Since when is jogging against the law?" pleads the arrested man.

"Yeah," says the cop, flatly.

"What's up?" asks a printer.

The cop is fiddling with a walkie-talkie with his free hand. This is Frank 22IP. Come in. . (Static, then 'Come in Frank") . . . Arrested suspect . . . Station #four, holding on a street, send a car.

"You can't arrest me. You're not even a cop," asserts the jogger.

"Never you mind lest you want to get hurt."

"Are you a policeman?" asks Merck.

"I'm a security guard."

"Can you arrest people on the street?"

"Who are you?" asks the cop, truculently.

"Yeah," the others look at Merck with some unfriendliness.

"Nobody." Merck feels a social class barrier building up rapidly. They know already that he would be the one to cause a hung jury. Merck wishes that his poodle could be transformed into a huge snarling killer police dog so that his word would count more.

"Everybody's jogging, man," argues the arrested one. "Can't you see I was just jogging? It's a free country."

"Free, free . . . " quotes the drug addict from his lofty perch. "He's free, we're all free . . . who are you going to blow away with that gun?"

"Come in, Astor Place," calls the guard to the static. "Waiting for a car, waiting for a car, Station #four."

"Where's your witness, huh, where's your witness?" demands the arrested.

"Is he a real cop?" asks the chief of the printers.

"Sure." "I don't know." "It makes no difference." "Could be."

"What'd he do ?"

"Break-in," says the cop. He can no longer be wordless and hold his majority.

"Can I put my arms down. I'm tired. You have no right to keep me hanging like this."

"Keep 'em up. . He was lifting a second floor window sash, standing on three ash cans, one on top of the other."

"Attempted burglary."

"I was hurdling."

"Shut up. . It's a watch repair shop."

"Watches, watches, who needs watches? . . you can have mine." The addict is fumbling in his pocket and pulls out a remarkable gold watch.

"Get lost," says the cop.

"Where'd you get that?" Everyone moves closer to see the watch. It looks as large and heavy as a potato, gleams dully and richly in the early light, is studded with devices. They stare at the addict and then back at the watch; the two do not match well. The jury sense that they are in the neighborhood of two crimes, trying the one and discovering another.

"Watch out! There he goes!" And of course the jogger, now a sprinter, is away in a flash.

The cop points his gun. Merck cries, "Don't shoot!" The cop doesn't shoot.

"You don't want to kill a man for so little," Merck insinuates.

"What do you mean?" says a printer. "Now he'll be back on the streets in an hour."

"He would've been let off anyhow," says the short-order chef.

"Hey, where'd you get that watch?" asks the dressmaker.

"Wouldn't you like to know?" says the addict with a silly smile. "That spade who got away. He gave it to me."

"Did you hear that?" the chef says to the cop, who is nervously twiddling his walkie-talkie and pushing his gun in and out of his holster.

"What? . . Nah! . . I told you he was trying to get in. . He didn't get in. . He didn't get in. . What a job . . . If he had a gun and shot me, nothing would happen either, nobody would care."

"You should have shot him when you spotted him at the window."

"You can't do that," says Merck. "That's against the law. You have to attempt the arrest."

"You worry a lot about these poor criminals, don't you?" asks the printer sarcastically.

"Well, it just happens that I am . . . " says Merck, but it also happened that the police car drives up, the cop goes over to report the story, and human clot suddenly dissolves.

Merck is walking towards his house. "Come on, what's the matter? Constipated again, eh?" He sneers at the animal and jerks the leash. The dog drags back, stubbornly; he feels no blame. "I'm glad that I have no children," thinks Merck, "It does no harm to be occasionally irrational with a dog."

The jogger . . . dammit . . . beautiful youth . . . trading it all for a couple of watches . . . watches so cheap . . . how do you sell stolen watches . . . why can't he work . . . can't find work . . . hard labor . . . modeling . . . male models . . . Black Orpheus . . . Nobody has a real place in our society, nobody more stable, emplaced, dug in, than I, the Tenured Professor . . . yet a couple of workers can make me feel insecure, without any authority, all my knowledge to no avail against some low prejudice . . . Maybe it's New York . . . people drift in and out, try and fail, "What's your bag?", up to something . . . shake hands cordially and say 'see you soon' and never see them again . . . a show closes as you're about to see it . . . good students don't finish their theses . . . bad students become ministers of education . . . best student is non-student Ronald . . . sleeping now, or getting up. . does he have breakfast food, vitamins . . . milk and cookies . . . he should be more sophisticated . . . will never realize nothing is what it seems . . . vulgar origins and great dreams yet wants them in vulgar terms . . . wealthy origins and neat and proper demands . . . hundred carriages and three buildings . . . pillar of society grandfather . . . society of a few German Jews . . . Catholic masses . . . teachers . . . cab drivers . . . politicians . . . no society in society . . . a condom blown up Zeppelin-size . . . community of scholars local world-wide physical mental, lucky professors . . . all the rest grabbing at flotsam and jetsam, wife, kid, job, church, another church, another wife, kids gone, two more jobs, no single piece human being from this . . . but words for it . . . anomie, consensus, mores, social order, social role, integration, norms . . . Vedas 'truth is one, but wise men have many words for it.'. . the truth is many, the adjusted person like a brahmin, believes truth is one."

Merck was surprised when Muriel met him at the door, surreal in the early morning light. "What are you doing up?"

"Ronald just called . . . Guess what?. . He's just burned his book."

"Is that all?. . I mean, he's not threatening to do himself in, is he?"

"No. . I was afraid of that. But he seemed satisfied just to make the announcement about the book . . . I don't know what I am supposed to do . . . Cry, I guess . . . I do feel awful about him, about it, really . . . "

"It's a form of infanticide. He must feel guilty. He can't help but realize what he's done, what a gaping hole he's cut into his existence."

"We should go over and see him a little later, don't you think so?"

"We should . . . I should, perhaps . . . "

"Why not I? I feel very much involved with him."

"No. not you . . . He doesn't need a woman blubbering over him. He needs a man's strong arm around him."

"Well, if that isn't the biggest bucket of shit you've ever tossed! Didn't you see the way he behaved last evening, like a guy getting ready to pull off something big . . . and he was trying to communicate it to me, not to you . . . He's given up trying to get his signals across to you, you deaf snake! For weeks now, you could see that something was wrong with him . . . He didn't call off any meetings with me, dammit. We haven't even been together alone. It's you that's been there all the time, pushing yourself on him . . . "

Merck is drawing himself up into a taut wire, but she goes on. "If he's sick of anybody, he's sick of you -- with your criticisms, your own big book so much cleverer than his, your diets, your fads, your homosexual big talk. Did you seduce Ronald?"

"It's none of your business . . . No!"

"All platonic, huh? You certainly haven't been seducing me. Why don't you admit it? -- He's your boy, your patsy, your charming audience. Why didn't you take him with you to Nassau?"

"Because you were along . . . and he has a job."

"Why didn't you leave me behind?"

"Because you wouldn't like it . . . Look, this is all sheer nonsense. Where do you come into the picture, anyway? Whose friend is he? Who discovered him? Who nurtured him? Who made some sense out of his cockeyed mission in life? Not you . . . "

"But don't you see. He feels you are too much for him . . . Believe me, I don't give a damn about your mutual masturbation clubs . . . but it's over, he's trying to say, he's finished with you."

"Oh no, he isn't. He means that he needs me more than ever, with or without the book."

"Oh my God, what vanity!"

"Rubbish. The problem is that you're in love with Ron yourself. You're surely not in love with me, and I know you well. You can't get along without fucking, and if it weren't Ronald, it would be someone else. You're jealous of my relationship with him. Well, you can't have him, he's mine, so there."

"You mean I can't even share an itsy-bitsy part of him?"


"Merck, you are disgustingly selfish. Furthermore, you are wrong. I'm an angel, Ron said to me, get that? . . a good girl. Why shouldn't I interest myself in a man who thinks of me so? You don't think that I'm an angel. You don't even think of me at all."

"You love Ronald, else you would be angry with him, not with me. He's the person who was taken my time up, kept me from your sweet embraces, turned my attention to time-consuming studies and writing. He's your proper devil."

"Never . . . To me he was always your victim, and only my innate decency and loyalty to you kept me from saying so."

"Didn't you tell me you thought his story was feeble and childish?"

"Childish, not feeble."

"Well, how do you think he felt when I told him that! A few more comments of the same type and how long do you believe that he would continue to write"

Muriel has been red-faced with anger, but now she becomes purple with rage. She cannot decide whether to hit him or scream at him. "You foul pervert!" she screams, glaring at him and sweeping her gaze about the room for a weapon. If only she had her pointy hard shoes on, she'd know where to kick him! "You told him that I didn't like his story! you ugly pinheaded prick!"

Merck backs away two steps and looks around also as much to avoid her Gorgon's head as to block a move toward a weapon.

"You told him!" she hollers, "You told him . . . and I didn't even mean it."

"So you didn't mean it," says Merck savagely. "You didn't mean it. Isn't that nice . . . You just wanted to make me angry, did you? Well it serves you right." He now pauses for a moment -- another thought was emerging -- and then he comes as close to bellowing as ever his rather thin pipes will allow. "Wait one second! You were trying to keep me off of him, weren't you? Hoping I lay of him, so you could climb on, weren't you? That's it. What a phony bitch. And to think that I've spent years on you, touting your loyalty like a carnival shill . . . how embarrassing. The whole world must know what a fool I am!"

"If they don't know yet, they certainly will when you publish that stinking book of yours on universal literature."

"If it has a defect, it's caught your contagious disease. Imagine the effects of living with a fat female cretin for years!" He sweeps his arm around in an appeal to a wide imaginary audience.

"The years bother you, do they, " she sneers. "Well they might, you old has-been. Feeding that poor boy all those vitamins -- you should be gobbling them up instead, that and a lot of saltpeter, or whatever the hell they feed men like you -- yes, testosterone, that's it."

"So that's it," he yells. "And what do you eat to make you so sassy and sexy -- hair dyes, creamy skin falsifiers, eyebrow shadow, lipsticks, girdles, support bras, black stockings up to your belly, false eyebrows, a dental bridge for where you tried to bite a cracker with your soft gums. And that's not all . . . "

"Taking inventory of my bathroom cabinet -- just like the impotent creep that you are." Muriel loads her contralto with contempt.

"It's my cabinet, take them out!" he demands. "I want them out. They exude whenever I open the door -- like a witches' stewpot. No. . " The phone rings and he snatches it up, hollering "hello" into it as if he were connecting with Djibouti. "Oh, it's you, Ron," he says, several decibels lower and in silky tones. "We were just talking about you. I'm concerned . . . as if part of me is gone . . . What can I do? May I come over to see you?. . You're at work . . . I see . . . Well, might I drop by after work then? Before dinner? . . Yes, I'll leave my office a little early . . . All right . . . It will be so good for both of us if we have a chance to talk."

"There," he declares emphatically, hanging up the phone. "Now, you . . . " He looks around for Muriel. She has left. Damn that woman!

By continuous coordination of his fine Seiko with the classroom, hall, and office clocks, he was enabled to master the passage of time until five-thirty, when he left his excuses with the secretaries and walked over to Ronald's rooms. He knew very well what was happening, and had a plan of action to bring it under control.

"Ron," he exclaimed upon entering the door. He embraced the somewhat still and depressed-looking figure standing before him. "I've had a rotten day thinking about your difficulties. All that we've been working toward, all that's inspired us -- you cannot seriously be wanting to destroy it."

"Merck, it was only another bad novel. No, no. . don't protest. It brought us together. And I'll always be grateful for that fact. There is no universal novel in the sense that I had intended, and the Ten Messages no longer pleased me."

"Please, Ron, believe me when I say that the book was my inspiration. I am a new man because of it."

"Sorry to let you down, Merck. But, you know, I've thought sometimes that you were exploiting me, maybe not on purpose, still, you are ahead of me. You have a book well along and a contract for its publication. I hadn't finished my book but you had already analyzed it. You've been putting the cart before the horse."

Merck does feel a twinge of guilt. "I know, Ron, and it makes me uncomfortable. That's why I want so badly to see you finish it. I'd never forgive myself if I had to imply in all of my discussions of your book that the book never appeared. But it's not only the book. It's you. I've come to depend upon you, more than upon anyone else in the world, and in a positive way that fulfills my life."

"What about Muriel ?"

"Muriel . . . Ron, I think . . . Muriel and I are probably finished . . . Listen, Ron, let me tell you what . . . " But Ron interrupts. "In any case, Merck, it's history. The book is gone. I've burned it. See, there it is," and he waves toward the bedroom. "See?"

Merck can see a large cooking pot with a long handle in the middle of the floor, in it a mess of paper and the remains of several candles. "I fried it. In olive oil." Merck is already imagining the new grim chapter, full of anthropological parallels, "Infanticide and the Destruction of One's Writing."

"Are you sorry, Ron?"

Ron flares, "What a question! Of course I am. My stomach sinks whenever I think of it. But . . . "

Abandoning his interview on the field, Merck the scientist flees before Merck the compassionate lover. "Let me tell you, Ron, it's not dead. I have a copy of it, not a perfect copy, you've made a few changes, but I've got it, Ron, it's in good hands."

Ron is hardly astonished, but neither will he play games. "No, I don't want it, and I don't want you to have it. Merck, this is too much."

"No, it isn't, Ron. I did it for you. I needed the copy to work with, true, but I was always afraid for its life. I never trusted you with your baby," adding, with a sentimentalism that would once have made him puke, "our baby."

"No, really, Merck, this is too much. Burn it. Get rid of it."

"No, it must be published."


"Yes. It can be. It will be."

"O. K. Finish it yourself. Put it out under your name. I don't ever want to see it again."

"You cannot do this to yourself, Ron. Look here, I have a plan. It's about the book. It's about you . . . and me . . . Ron, come live with me. Muriel's going to move out. We've been talking it over . . . You and I can manage very well together. I'm not difficult . . . honestly, I'm not. If I could stand that slob, Muriel, I could stand anybody . . . but you're far from being just anybody . . . I'll even get rid of the dog if you want -- he's a little pest, anyhow. What do you say, Ron? It's a proposition straight from the heart, from someone who loves you and believes in you."

Ron should be all ears to this attractive proposal. Instead he seems to be far away. He seems to be musing, like an old man sitting in his overgrown garden at sunset. He begins to speak, but it is hardly an answer, hardly even relevant to what Merck has said.

"A book is universal when it is written, never thereafter. When a woman gives birth, she is the eternal mother, no matter that her child dies of dysentery or spends its life tending a cow. The story is written for all the imaginable people in all time and space who should read it, all of whom one would love if he knew them. It is a perennial valentine for all past and future episodes of togetherness . . . "

He continues, dreamily, rooted to the same scrap of rug where Merck has come upon him. "Like pure love, it needs a beloved, but no special lover. It's to give to the Emperor of Japan on his birthday. It's for the computer technician on his trip to Mars. It's to a savage girl in a Filipino forest who can't read. If it dies, then it joins all the good -- so much there is in the world, too -- that has died. It is universal because there will always be somebody -- a potential reader if not an actual one.

"Merck," he looks up abruptly at Merck, who is standing, also unmoving, "my book is universal if you like it, see, it's a valentine from me to you. This I have decided. Or rather, this I have learned," and he added "from you," which was appropriate, as well as generous, for Merck's courage and intelligence had cracked the universal norm and had not ceased to love the book. "Don't think that I do not appreciate you -- I believe that you're the greatest person I've ever met."

"You will consider my offer, won't you? Merck pleads, "to live with me and publish the book?"

"No," says Ron, and abruptly he moves to his birdnest armchair and drops into it. "No. I don't think so. . I'm going to sleep. I didn't sleep last night . . . Goodnight, Merck. Thanks for coming."

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