The problem, so the shrink says, is whether Calder is willing to put up with his wife's idiosyncrasies. Is he willing? Does he want to? Yes or no.
The problem, as Calder sees it, is the handwriting on the wall.
The wife's name is Honey-Mae and Calder hates it. Almost any other name is better than Honey-Mae. It sounds trivial. It sounds as if she wears bobbed hair and red circles on her cheeks. As if she speaks with a lisp and sucks pralines all day. Calder hates her name. And she—Calder tells the shrink—hates him.
The man she hates
Calder. This man is not the hateful sort. He smokes pipes, of course, because he's an academic, and he asks how things are going at the shop, are the orders coming in okay, ahem, and whether or not she remembers to take her One-A-Days. But deep down he is not hateful. No.
He had a vicious streak once, but not anymore. During his childhood he had, with all the other kids, doused a cat with gasoline and then set it on fire. And he had stripped his little sister so that everybody could look. And he did other things.
But when he grew up, he did mostly responsible things and the vicious streak just dried up.
He went to war.
He went to graduate school.
He learned five languages and became a promising assistant professor of comparative literature.
And now he is a dutiful citizen and a loving husband with tenure not far off. So he is, naturally, outraged by the handwriting on the wall.
There isn't any child. Either they can't have one or they haven't hit the right combination yet. Sometimes Honey-Mae mopes around the house and he wonders if that's what it is.
"Is it a child? Is that why you ... you know?"
"It isn't a child," she says.
"Then what is it? Why do you do it?"
By now it is clear where the scene is going. At the end she says, "I love you," and she cries and this time, again, he does not leave her.
It can't be money, because they have as much as they need.
Honey-Mae never misses a day of work. She chooses material for drapes and sofas and chairs, and her choices are always right. Her clients say there is nobody like Honey-Mae for the perfect decorating touch. So? What is it then?
How it all got started
"What's this?" Calder said.
"This, under the hook."
Honey-Mae started out of the room.
"It's writing," he said. "It's three words here under the hook. "
"I'm taking a bath."
Calder stood outside the bathroom door, suddenly angry. "Honey-Mae," he said, "I'm talking to you. I said what is that writing?"
"I'm taking a bath."
He heard her begin to hum.
Calder had been hanging up his study corduroys on the hook just inside the closet door when he saw what looked like a bug. It was on the wall under the clothes hook and it wasn't moving. He shifted the corduroys to his other hand and gave the bug a quick hard swat. Then he squinted and adjusted his glasses. It wasn't a bug after all. It was handwriting. The writing was very small but the letters were perfectly formed, a little column of three words. He guessed they were words, some kind of words, though they certainly weren't in any of the languages he knew. "What's this?" he had said then to Honey-Mae, but she was having none of it and was sitting in the bath now, humming, while he stood outside the door feeling angry and wondering why.
He went back to the bedroom and finished undressing. He stood before the full-length mirror and looked at himself in profile. He was getting a pot. He sucked in his stomach and watched the bulge disappear. "It's no good," he said to the mirror. "You can't go through life holding your breath." He reached into the closet for his pajamas and threw a quick glance at the corduroy pants. He pushed them tentatively with a finger. The writing was still there. He found himself getting angry again, and feeling foolish too.
Honey-Mae came trailing steam and perfume from the bath and, laughing, she flung herself on top of him.
"Num, num," she said.
"Listen," he said, "what's that writing in the closet?"
"I don't know about any writing," she said, her decorator's hands busy with his pajama tops. "I'll make little patterns on your chest," she said.
He made a mental note to show her the writing in the closet, afterward, but Honey-Mae was playing tiger lady right now, and what the hell.
"You're so good," she said, her voice gone velvet.
"Mmmm," he said.
The next day the writing was still there. He shrugged and made another mental note to ask her about it and then forgot.
A week later there was a fourth word and then a fifth. He was sure there had been only three. HoneyMae was getting her robe from the closet just then, and he took her arm and turned her, saying, "Lookit. What's this?"
And that was how it all got started.
The writing is small, in a cursive hand, made by a blue ball-point pen, fine-tipped. The words are of varying length, but they spell nothing.
Calder has copied out the words in his most careful hand. He has consulted his dictionaries and his texts on dialectic and grammar. He has even consulted the awful T.D. Wood, who knows everything. But the words spell nothing.
It must be a code of some kind. Calder is at work studying books on code when suddenly two more words appear. This is it. This calls for scrupulous scientific analysis. While Honey-Mae is at the shop, he sets up special lights and he photographs the words exactly as they appear beneath the hook in his closet. He has the prints blown up to five times their size. He compares; he isolates; he grinds his teeth in frustration. He feeds the words into a computer forward, then backward, then any old way. It is hopeless. It isn't a code. Or perhaps the code is incomplete.
Calder has begun gaining weight. He eats absentmindedly, but all the time, and he has begun dreaming that threats are being made on his life. But all the threats are in code. He tells Honey-Mae none of this. He is determined she must not know, though he can't say why. But who can be writing these words? Who is doing it?
"Well, if you're not doing it, who is? Somebody's doing it."
"Why are you so angry?" Her reasonable voice. "It's only a little writing on the closet wall. Nobody's ever even going to see it."
"Maybe it's Goldie. It must be Goldie."
"Get dressed, Calder. You're going to be late."
"But why would Goldie want to write on the closet wall?"
Goldie has cleaned house in this neighborhood for the past fifteen years. During that time professors or their wives have accused her of hitting the dog, spoiling the children, drinking the liquor, smoking the grass (Professor Wood, the accuser), and sitting down on the job. She has never been accused of writing on the wall. She quits.