O Maurice! Where is thy briefcase?
O former desk-mate! Where is thy brio?
Maybe it’s my imagination acting in a highly irregular way, but Maurice’s presence is still so vivid that I look over at his old desk and, I swear, it actually “vibrates” with his “aura,” if you’ll pardon those expressions. Believe me, I’m not one to talk about vibrations and auras. Not at the Institute. That kind of locution could get you terminated.
Though, come to think of it, “terminated” is strange locution itself, don’t you think?
Anyway, Maurice hit this place like a meteor. He also lasted about as long. But while he was here, my-oh-my, did he dazzle.
You see, things here in Public Information are pretty routine. Our job is to look up facts and figures for the ordinary citizen who needs help on account of all the information exploding these days. It’s not what’s known around here as “seminal thinking,” more like “sominal.” Still, I’m thrilled to be part of the world-famous Institute, “the Valhalla of think tanks.” I’ve been here nine years, ever since graduation. I’ll get a certificate if I make ten. Here’s hoping.
But Maurice never even made it to ten months. Right from the start he was, well, so unorthodox. Take his debut. We’d just come back from break and were getting set for the 5:00 mailing. As always, Amalia positions her enormous body vis-à-vis her computer, while Randall leans way back in his chair, hands behind his head, staring at the ceiling. Amalia says he’s awaiting divine intervention, but I say he’s awaiting a nasty fall. Me, my modus operandi is to open all my reference books, number my note cards—and panic. I’m always afraid I won’t get it all together by 5:00. I keep thinking of the guy who loses an argument with his neighbor just because I didn’t get all the particulars down for him. He could hate me for that, you know.
Just as Charlie was about to get us underway with his “It’s showtime, folks,” in walked the Director with Maurice. Now, my heart always flip-flops whenever I see the Director. He just exudes scariness. And he has the same effect on Dr. Selzer, our division chief. Dr. Selzer grabbed his jacket and scrambled to his feet and—well, he looked like a dummy shot out of cannon. Amalia was fearless though. “Chiggers,” she said, “the Czar visits the provinces.” I wish she’d be more subtle. I mean, she sits right in front of me.
Through all this Maurice just stood there, with his blazer draped over his shoulder and his beat-up old briefcase dangling at his side and his curly brown hair just sitting on his head, looking like Michaelangelo’s David. Except that Maurice had his clothes on and instead of white marble he had a nice tawny tan. And those eyes! They were the color of espresso, with just a touch of cream. He was a very nice sight and I confess I felt certain “stirrings.” But I considered my engaged condition and deep-sixed the urge. (Franklin and I have been affianced for eight years. I can’t make up my mind about my heart.) Meanwhile Amalia, a free woman and smitten on the spot, trumpeted “I think I’m in love, I think I’m in love.” Everything about her quivered—her frosted hair, her muumuu, her swivel chair.
As is his wont, though I wish it weren’t, Dr. Selzer introduced his new employee to all twenty of us—one at a time—making a fool of himself, again, with his harrumphing and cuff-pulling and repeating over and over, “Maurice has just hired on with us.” Really, is there anything more embarrassing than a person trying to be cool who hasn’t the aptitude for it? I always hide behind my reference books and wait it out.
But this time my eyes were riveted on Maurice and not because he looked so nice, but because he looked so bored. Bored? How could anybody be bored their first day on the job? My first day I was throttled with nerves. Anyway, when Dr. Selzer got to us in the back for his finale, guess what Maurice did? Maurice, standing next to his new boss, rolled his eyes and smirked. Smirked! Somehow my arm, shocked, extended itself and I shook hands with him. (I notice women doing that more and more, shaking hands.) Maurice said “Aha” and gave me a little bow.
He sat down at the desk next to mine—only inches away—and began removing stuff from his briefcase: a volume of Voltaire, signed photos of Lech Walesa and Bette Midler, a maroon velvet pillow (to cushion a wound, he told me later, he’d got getting out of Chile). When he had everything in place, he stared at the center of his desk for a long time. Then, very slowly, he turned toward me and looked deep into my eyes—deeper than anybody ever has—and smiled his crooked smile. I was so fascinated I couldn’t blink. Inside my head a big banner unfurled that said: “Major Influence Enters Her Life.”
Likewise, Maurice had a major influence on the Institute. Sort of.
Things started out O.K., though Maurice caused a big stir that first week when he sat at the senior fellows’ table in the dining hall. Such a boo-boo, though Maurice laughed about it. “Rattled the sociology of the place, didn’t I?”
Indeed. You see, the senior fellows are the resident geniuses (Maurice called them “the mandarins”). Each of them has so many degrees that with my puny B.A., I could never talk to them. I mean, what do you say to a genius? “Hi, there”? Anyway, it’s their mission to conduct those terribly important research projects about the state of the world that you hear announced in the news. Very dire stuff. Their books have two-part titles hitched together with a colon, like “Terrorist Demands: Negotiate or Shoot?” And, as Maurice noted, “They part their names on the left.” There’s G. Edward Barkle and R. Igor Tribble and D. Dudley Deldorico, to cite only three.
The one that got Maurice was C. Warwick Breitenstein. “That’s gotta be Curt. Curt Breitenstein and I were in the Peace Corps in Malaysia. I’m going to call him.” And before I could stop him, he’d dialed Dr. Breitenstein’s office. Imagine! “Hello, Stratosphere, this is the basement calling.” Fortunately Dr. Breitenstein’s secretary said her boss was out testifying somewhere, which gave me time to explain to Maurice about hierarchy and protocol. But Maurice laughed. “Jesus,” he said (if you’ll pardon that, plus the forthcoming), “they don’t piss perfume.” My shock must have shown, because he patted my arm—right near the elbow—and said, “Curt’s an old buddy. Don’t worry.”
The way he told it, he and Curt—Dr. Breitenstein—were like brothers. In Malaysia they’d built a water system together and got thin as rails because the food was so hot they could eat only rice for two years. It sounded like what’s called a “special experience.” So when Maurice and I went down to lunch the next day and he spotted his old friend, off he sprinted, heading for what he thought was a reunion but what I knew was disaster.
Sure enough, when Maurice sat down, it was as if a leper had wandered into a spa. Conversation crashed to a halt and heads snapped toward him as in a military parade. And the way their noses were twitching, you’d think they’d smelled something bad. I still can see L. Wright Hardley, mouth open in mid-thesis and forking pointing up, a French fry impaled on it. It was awful.
But that wasn’t all. By then the entire dining hall was hushed, so the audio was excellent when Dr. Breitenstein turned to Maurice, swallowed laboriously, and without a flick of recognition announced in tones that rang like a xylophone, “I’m so sorry, but that’s Doctor Barkle’s seat. Unless you’re his guest, of course.”
Well, I was beet red. So was Maurice, though not from embarrassment. After that Maurice went out for lunch, which was understandable, except he went when he felt like it. When I mentioned the lunchtime shifts assigned to us, Maurice smiled, patted my arm—lower this time, right above my wrist—and said, “I eat when I’m hungry.”
* * *
Well, that sets the setting for you. I’m not what you’d call prescient (I don’t have the training), but even I could peek down the road and see I’d probably be standing there but Maurice wouldn’t. I mean, you join an organization, you mind the rules, right? With Maurice though, rules did not register. Non computare, as he’d say. Granted, Dr. Selzer doesn’t actually tell you the rules. After his intro, you’re on your own. Still, you naturally pick these things up, don’t you?
For example, there’s our policy that all requests coming to the Institute get a response, each and every one, including the diatribe we occasionally get—actually they’re quite regular—from the guy who goes on and on about how the U.S. should get out of the United Nations but never actually asks a question. The first time Maurice got one of those, he fired back a note saying “Your request is incoherent. Try again.” Well, not only is that against policy, but it’s hardly the language that’s specified in the Institute’s style manual. When Dr. Selzer saw Maurice’s memo—he checks our stuff before it goes out—he started moving stuff around on his desk real fast. He didn’t say anything to Maurice, though. He’s not that kind of boss.
Amalia tried to help. Since she never consults the manual either, she gave Maurice her copy, wrapped in memo paper with a big smile button taped on top. I could have told her that wouldn’t go over, but I didn’t want to interfere. Besides bearing an unflattering resemblance to its sender, Amalia’s smile button was bound to rub a worldly guy like Maurice the wrong way. I mean, you could tell by the way he held his cigarette—between his thumb and forefinger, pointing down—that Maurice had been around. He was nice about it though. He put the manual next to his Voltaire and, nodding to Amalia, slipped the button into his pants pocket. Later he told me he’d almost shrieked because he gouged his leg with the pin, but he had learned to stifle sounds while a stowaway on a freighter. See what I mean about worldly?
Another thing that got Maurice in hot water was making up citations, or “cites.” You see, we’re supposed to “source” the information we send out, like a warranty. I visualize the guy who’s having that argument with his neighbor nailing it with a truly great cite like, “You’ll find it in The Congressional Record, Vol. 110, Pt. 18, 88 Cong. 2 sess. (1964), pp. 23653-65. So there, Alfred!”—my idea of Beauty. Anyway, Maurice was so erudite—he knew all the Seven Deadly Sins, and what Plessy v. Ferguson was about, and Joan Crawford’s real name, and the phonetic alphabet, and the etymology of tycoon, you name it—that he hardly ever looked anything up. He’d simply dash down the information, give the logical source, then ask me for a number—“Any number, sweetheart”—to use for the page. I’d just look at my watch and give the time. Me! Oh we were audacious! And: He called me sweetheart.
Anyway, what with his erudition, Maurice could economize on time and he’d reach his quota by noon, asking Dr. Selzer for more. Meanwhile, the rest of us were mired in indexes. Naturally Dr. Selzer got suspicious about the speed of his new employee, so he checked Maurice’s cites and found “discrepancies” as to the pages. Maurice took the hint and started looking up stuff he already knew. Even so, he was still faster than the rest of us. Obviously, knowing the answer in advance gives you an edge. Dr. Selzer kept him under surveillance, but that didn’t bother Maurice. As he said, “It gives the boss something to do.”
* * *
You know, it really was amazing what Maurice knew. And I’m not talking about the zillion facts he had at his fingertips. Besides, Maurice thought facts were boring. “That’s why this job will narcotize me,” he said. Though myself, I look on facts as friends in a world that’s “strange and loony.” That’s how Maurice called it. “Strange and loony.”
No, what I’m talking about is how Maurice got his facts. For example, he knew the elevation of the Jungfrau—because he had climbed it. And Joan Crawford’s real name? “Got it from Lucille herself,” and he dazzled me with the story about being her guide up Macchu Picchu. That’s the thing about Maurice. He got his facts firsthand. Not like Randall who’s memorized The Guinness Book of World Records and pesters you with “Hey, guess what?”
But there’s more and I’m not sure I can put it into words because it’s just a feeling and I’m not good with, you know, feelings, but: I got the feeling that Maurice knew other things—mysterious things, beyond facts. Extremely dire stuff. And, I got the feeling that he’d learned these things with bullets zinging past, or gazing out the window of the Trans-Siberian Express. It was just something about him. I mean, when he smiled, his mouth did, but his eyes didn’t.
Speaking of facts, I never knew Maurice’s academic background. I don’t even know what school he went to, and that’s a major gap, because your school(s) are the mother credential here. But with Maurice, “non importa.” He did mention once an “outstanding Master’s thesis.” Of course Randall thought that meant a thesis Maurice never handed in. But myself, I prefer to think Maurice meant one really terrific piece of work.
What little I do know about Maurice I learned mainly on our breaks. Every day at precisely 2:59:45 Maurice would lean over and whisper, “Amiga, let us go in search of the perfect doughnut.” The first time he said “Amiga,” Amalia thought he meant her and, flash, she was ready. Big mistake. Amalia monopolized the conversation, describing the ten greatest doughnuts in her life, complete with sound effects. Maurice was masterful at stifling his yawns, a skill he said he’d acquired during various job interviews.
Since Maurice was so nonstandard, I never knew what we’d talk about on break, and that was so exciting. Imagine: no agenda! Sometimes our discussions were triggered by a request he’d gotten, or maybe he’d notice the book in my purse and that reminded him of how he’d met the author on a march in Alabama or in a bar in London. Or sometimes he’d ask me what I thought about some current event, and I’d strain my mind’s eye at the day’s headlines I’d scanned, and then Maurice would editorialize in a real lyrical way.
And, sometimes, he’d astonish me with questions like, “Why don’t you and Frank get married?” or “Have you noticed there are no women at the senior fellows’ table?” or—listen to this—“Can you picture your death?” One time he picked up his doughnut and looked through the hole and said, “So, Amiga: Are you happy?” Really, how should I know?
I often wonder why Maurice honored me with his company. I mean, Maurice had accumulated so much charisma and wisdom, whereas I—well, I still see myself as the Daughters of the American Revolution “Good Citizen” that I was in high school. Maybe it was the handshake I gave when we were introduced. If so, to be honest, that was more Zeitgeist than me. Or maybe it was the first time he asked me for a page number and I gave him the time of day and he said, “Thanks, sweetheart. You’ve got potential.” Potential for what? I never did ask, and he never did tell. I wonder….
Of course it was Maurice who had potential, bundles of it. Except as the weeks went by, it became clear his potential was not going to pan out at the Institute, as I will describe.