Where Merck showed bone, Muriel glowed soft flesh. To a grasshopper and a slug they would look like a grasshopper and a slug, but in the human tent, they passed with respectable appearances, the one with a lean, erect elegance, the other dressed into a modulated voluptuousness. The thin smile of the one, the thick grin of the other, amplified their ensembles, as did, too, their spectacles, Merck's rimless and white gold, disappearing into his head when he loomed most impressive, Muriel's thick and shell-rimmed, clouding luminously with emotion, and then, when removed, creating, with the emergence of the thick brows, large orbs and dark lashes, an effect similar to Salome's dropping her veil.
A certain problem went along with all of this, developing apace with the clicks of time. Their excretions of characters, following upon their hormonal secretions, were moving them inexorably apart. In Merck, every moment marked an infinitely small progression of sexuality upwards and roundabout, in Muriel, into the womb. Merck's surplus flesh clumped in a small pot behind his belt. Every millimeter by which Muriel's bottom grew wider spelled "mother." And time had had its many clicks: forty-three years of the one, thirty-three (shall we say) of the other.
The prognosis from this clinical analysis is fatal, although the progression peculiar to the case might not be foretold. At what point in time and space, by what raising and lowering of voices, by what dressing and undressing, spending and saving, accidental encounter and rendezvous -- to be brief, how did Merck and Muriel split and Muriel and Ronald come together?
The special history was simple, almost not worth the retelling. It began with a re-reading of Ron's poem, first when Merck sneaked out of his study, ignoring the bedroom, and let himself out of the house with the dog, then again when Merck left the house for the second time, presumably for his office. She became agitated, for she found that she could finally begin to understand the lines, and they were exciting, amounting to nothing less than his, her, their love affair. When she realized as well that she could understand poetry, her ego -- although lacerated by flak from Merck's cannonade of the day before -- careened to new heights.
The first thing she did was to search Merck's study hastily for Ron's manuscript, for she knew that Merck had a copy, and she knew that he knew that she knew. All that she could find was a single chapter, but she took it, nonetheless, and brought it into the kitchen.
The day was warm and the heat was on and Muriel padded around the kitchen shoving this and that into place. As often happened in these remodeled brownstone houses, the kitchen was the largest room in the apartment, full of pots and pans hanging on the wall, a window pale in the daylight, lamps that snaked out of the wall above the sinks and washing machinery, a butcher block table as sturdy as a bank vault, and several film director's chairs strewn around.
As Muriel leaned back against the table, fretting and pressing the keen edge against her rump, the door opened suddenly, Merck appeared, and with the merest of glances at her, passed into his study, announcing, "I told the publisher I had it all, but a chapter is missing," and something else from within like "It's here somewhere. I'll find it." A minute later, a file drawer could be heard to slide open. The search was on. The need was urgent; he had made an appointment later in the morning to meet with his friendly publisher and the fiction editor.
The front door remained ajar -- apparently Merck planned a quick exit -- and the exquisite blend of spring balm and radiator steam carried more heat into the room. When Ronald passed through with a ruminative look and his light steady step, he was pulled up suddenly, for there before him was Muriel. She filled his eyes.
"Hello, Muriel. How are you?"
"Already hot, Ron. And unhappy."
"I'm sorry, Muriel. I've come to ask Merck to give me back my manuscript. I want to burn it, too."
"Oh, I thought that you might have some other reason for coming."
The little fool stands there, and he even appears about to ask for Merck. Then, he gives the proper cue: "I did."
Muriel is not going to take any more chances with literary criticism. She stands up straight before the butcher block table. She throws open her bathrobe. "Ron, am I getting fat? (Front view.) Ron stares. He stops breathing. She takes off her glasses and lays them on the table, slips off her bathrobe, and turning, asks, "And what about from behind?" "No. . no. . ah. . no. . Muriel" She is leaning slightly over the table to guarantee a judicious opinion.
Unfortunately, Ronald is rapidly going blind. His eyes, ordinarily so large, are shutting down to the slits of a tank in combat. He can see Muriel only as a large brown sputtering oven, and then sees red and purple and white lights like a Roman candle. He feels no heat; actually he shivers. He has to clamp his jaw to keep his teeth from chattering. Breathing is still out of the question. He manages to moan "Oh Muriel . . . Oh, Muriel . . . "
"What is it, Ron?" she asks, turning around to him. "I know, I know, Oh come to me. I want you." She moves toward him but is pushed back against the table by his eager advance. They kiss furiously, hungrily. From head to toe every muscle and nerve seek contact. An alarm rings in Ronald's head. "Merck," he gasps, with the anguished look of a fisherman losing his great fish.
"Don't worry. He's searching his files." (But she doesn't say where.) "He'll be at it for hours."
"Oh Muriel, how I love you! How I love you!" His lips, his arms, his hands, his heart, his brain -- levering, grasping, pumping and obsessing organs of his body are full of Muriel. Truly he loves her.
She feels the muffled pressure of his erect penis through his trousers, against her belly. "Give me . . . Ron . . . Let me have it . . . Please, please give it me." Her hands are fumbling with the belt and zipper. She begins to sink. But Ron is sinking faster. His hands and lips move down and in and out. He grips her buttocks and presses his lips to her crotch.
To deem Muriel the wisest of women would be presumptuous, or founded upon unreliable impressions. As Ron's cliché would have it, "Nobody is prefect," and she now forgets what she knew full well about Merck -- that he is immature and in the typical manner of a "spoiled child" (Ron's phrase again) bothers people with useless questions when frustrated. Like, "Where is my green flowered tie?" though no one could possibly fathom ties that hung like a mass of seaweed in the deeps of his closet. Hence she might have been expecting him to emerge from an exasperating search at any time to ask pettishly, "Where is that folder with the Chicago convention notes, Muriel?"
And so, coming out of his study, complaining, "Where is that folder with the Chicago convention notes, Muriel?" he comes also upon Muriel and Ron just as we had left them, sinking slowly down, Muriel slipping back, Ron gripping her and kissing her passionately.
Merck looks. He sees. He tightens up like a fingernail file. Whereupon takes place one of those conversations which authors generally abhor but which Ron, in his wisdom, would insist upon emplacing in his classic normative novel.
"What's going on here?" Intensely said, through compressed lips, with a dry mouth.
"Nothing." Muriel is straightening up, feeling for her glasses, then deciding first to put on her robe.
"Nothing." Ron also rises, and brushes his mouth against his sleeve.
"What do you mean, nothing?"
"This is nothing."
"Well, what is something then?"
"Nothing you would understand," so says Muriel defiantly.
"What do you mean, I don't understand? It's perfectly clear."
"Well, if it's perfectly clear, Why are you asking?"
Merck gives up and addresses Ron. "And you . . . you . . . you . . . you!" When spoken, the pronoun was impressive, carrying a hiss, a suck, a sputter, and a puff. What it signifies may not be immediately apparent, and Ron's norm may be reasonably attacked on such grounds. The first 'you' meant 'you fucking little bastard'; the second meant 'you ungrateful dog, after all I've done for you'; the third stood for 'you burglar, you thief,' and the last 'you' had a certain smidgin of paternal pride in it coupled with the deep disappointment of "How could you prefer her to me." All together the utterable 'you's' and their unutterable meanings composed for Merck his moment of supreme passion, the stone metamorphosing under the heat. Never again would he be the same.
The unutterables signify the limits of action in this day and age, the diffusion of rage, and the imperative need for, but absence of, logic and reason. The Patriarchs of ancient Judah would have stoned Muriel to death, Cato the Roman would have gutted her, King Frederick II of Sicily would have cut off her nose, John Winthrop of Massachusetts would have whipped and banished her.
In the New Age, nothing is clear save that everything is unclear: "You don't own me!" "We aren't married." "Find your own fucking files." "I can't stand you anymore." "I love Ronald." and, on Ron's side, "I couldn't help myself." "I love Muriel." "This has nothing to do with you Merck."
"What do you mean, it has nothing to do with me?"
"I mean two people . . . "
"She is my girl, my woman, my . . . my . . . my . . . " Again the problem of today. While Muriel says, "You see! Aha! It's my this, and my that. Well, up your ass!" she is rapidly assuming the offensive.
It must be said in Ron's favor that he has not thought even for a moment of flight. Fear, yes. Not physical fear. But fear of what should come but doesn't come from impropriety, shame, weak premises, and the loss of regard of a superior. Even as he is swimming gloriously in the body of the Great Goddess, he is feeling sympathetic for the injury to Merck, for the incongruous position in which Merck had been placed. He understands why Merck should not be so rudely interrupted in his search for the missing file, that must contain some new dialectical tool. Nor is Ronald ever to be the same again.
Which left Muriel who had been, was, is, and would be the same forever and ever, amen. She is in fact, beginning calmly to dress amidst the ejaculated storm of hostile hurtling darts.
Once again the classic norms of speech:
"I can't what?"
"You can't leave."
"Oh can't I?"
"After all, we are . . . we are . . . "
"We are what?" (She speaks while putting a comb through her hair.)
"You know what . . . we are together, that's what, we are together, or were together."
"That's better . . . were together."
"You can't just stop everything like this."
"Because . . . "
To Ronald the dialogue is perfect. Clear. It says everything. There is nothing for him to say, and, if there were -- just to show that he is still in the room, for example -- he'd better not say it.
"And as for your Chicago file," Muriel shouts on the way out, 'it's on the kitchen table where my ass was. But you never looked there."
And thus it come to pass that the door slammed, the long-necked lamps glinted from the wall, the butcher table glistened tan and yellow, the kitchen faucet let go a solitary drop, and Merck stood frowning, examining his hands, not asking himself what they were for -- to mete out punishment, to dispense justice, or whatever -- still that was probably why he was examining his hands, for why else would one in a great crisis just stand stiffly and stare at his hands?
Beyond the door and the landing outside moved Muriel and Ronald, wanting to proceed while stopping to kiss, clutching each other, stumbling down the stairs, then straight as an arrow to his rooms.