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The Atlantic Monthly | April 1977
The Anatomy of Bliss
"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"
by John L'Heureux
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.
The man she loves
There are ten words now. Now there are fifteen. Now twenty. Calder has no control over it. He wishes they were not there. He wills them not to be there. But there they are, tiny irregular scratches descending in a perfect row beneath the hook in the closet. Words. In no language he knows. He says nothing more about it to Honey-Mae. They pretend to each other that the words are not there.
But now they have made love, and it is good, and they are lying against one another, counting breaths. He kisses her wet forehead. She sighs and nuzzles him. And then he says it.
"It is you, isn't it? Making those marks."
"Marks. On the wall. In the closet."
"No, Calder. I swear it isn't."
They lie together, silent. Honey-Mae moves her shoulder against him, but he does not respond.
"You do believe me, don't you? Calder?"
"'Yes. I want to. Yes, I do."
"I love you," she says.
In the morning he is full of energy and when she comes out of the bathroom, brisk, ready for work, he mentions almost casually, "You know, it's the damnedest thing. Where do you suppose those words are coming from?"
And just as casually, she says, "I wrote them."
Calder stares at her, a pain in his chest. "You? But you told me..."
"Oh, for God's sake, Calder, don't make such a big thing out of everything. " And then she is off to work.
Mrs. Fischer is leafing through a book of sample brocades. Each time she turns a heavy page, she fingers it, and checks Honey-Mae's reaction. The tiniest frown, the tilt of the head in a question, the pursed lip. Mrs. Fischer has not yet made the right choice.
Honey-Mae is sitting at her little antique desk helping Mrs. Fischer select the fabric for a Queen Anne wing chair. Honey-Mae wears her oyster pantsuit with the beige silk blouse. She is short and shouldn't be able to get away with a pantsuit, but somehow she does. Her blond hair, clipped close to her head, emphasizes her delicate features. She uses no makeup except a gray pencil above her lashes. Her eyes are large and gray. Sitting there, expectant, encouraging, she is herself the most impressive sample of her art.
Honey-Mae smiles gently as Mrs. Fischer touches for a second time the melon and gold brocade that is perfect for her wing chair.
"This one, I think," Mrs. Fischer says.
"Perfect," Honey-Mae says.
Perfection. The brocade is perfect, and so is the shop, and so is Honey-Mae. Yet, in less than a quarter-hour Honey-Mae is on the telephone to Calder, sobbing over and over, "Forgive me, forgive me."
Calder has been voted tenure and so they are going to dinner at The Silly Goose to celebrate. "Life is good sometimes," Calder says. He reaches into the closet for his dark blue suit and checks the wall beneath the coat hook. Smooth, white, unspotted. He shouldn't have checked it, but he can't help himself. After their last fight Honey-Mae had scrubbed the wall with Bon Ami and most of the writing had come out. Later he thought he saw signs that new words had been written and then erased, but he was never sure. Anyway, no words are there now, and he shouldn't be checking.
The celebration is perfect. A tenderloin of lamb and a Nuits St. Georges and, before bed, there will be some very good brandy. And the two of them together, in love, with no writing on the wall.
She is in the bath now and Calder carries the little silver tray with the two snifters into the bedroom and puts it on her bureau. Perfect.
Suddenly he thinks how he can surprise her. He goes to her side of the closet and looks for the lace negligee he bought her on their honeymoon in Florence. White chiffon. Where is it? His fingers flick through her dresses, but there is no negligee. Just as he decides that it must be in the bureau, his eye catches the long skirt through a transparent plastic cover, way in the back, against the wall. He takes it out carefully, making sure it does not catch on anything. And then he gasps, holding the gown crumpled against him. He stares straight ahead at the wall, the white wall, covered from top to bottom in minute handwriting, words, words in long columns and in wavy lines and in circles and arabesques. Words covering the entire wall.
Honey-Mae is standing behind him, naked and perfumed. She looks at him with disgust, with hatred. She turns and walks, wooden, to the bed.
Calder takes the brandy to his study. He sits in his big leather chair, gazing helplessly at the books everywhere around him. He drinks the brandy, and keeps on drinking until he is drunk.
"Why?" he says. He is begging her. "Please. Just tell me. I want to understand. Why do you do it?"
"What does it matter?" Honey-Mae says, surly, not herself. "You've never loved me anyway."
Calder and Honey-Mae have decided on a frank talk. The morning light streams through the blinds and a frank talk seems the sensible way to begin the day, to begin a new life.
"I just want you to be happy," Calder says.
"I know. I know that," Honey-Mae burrows into his chest.
"No, I don't want you to burrow now. I want us to have a frank talk. Will you do that for me?"
Honey-Mae sits up, all business.
"I just want you to be happy," he starts again.
"I know that."
"And if you're writing on the walls like this, something must be the matter."
She says nothing.
"I'm not writing on the walls."
He says nothing.
"Suppose I did?" she says suddenly. "Suppose I threw shit all over the walls? So what? You've done worse."
"Me! I! What have I ever done?"
"Well, I'm not writing on the walls."
"This is hopeless. There's no sense trying to have a frank talk with you. Nothing ever follows in logical order. There's never any sequence. It's just denial and accusation. I thought we were friends. I thought we loved one another." He says the last part bitterly and pushes his way out of bed.
"Calder?" Honey-Mae tugs at his sleeve as he sits at the edge of the bed fishing for his slippers. "Calder, I'm sorry. I'll try. I'm trying my best."
Honey-Mae hides her face in the pillow and begins to cry. Calder bends over her, smoothing her shoulders and back. He kisses the nape of her neck, slowly, lovingly. She turns and pulls him down on top of her.
And then, he asks, "But what are you writing? Or what do you think you're writing?"
"I just do it," she says, her face turned away now.
"But why? Words have to mean something."
"Why can't you be with me?"
"But I am with you."
They are silent for a while: he staring at her profile, she with her face to the wall. Finally she speaks, her voice shattered.
"You understand nothing," she says. "Nothing."
Dr. Robertson practices at the University Medical Health Center but he takes some private patients too. The problems are always the same, variations on a theme.
"She writes on the walls?" he says, with only half a smile.
"The closet walls only."
"Do you know why she does this?"
"No. That's the problem. That's why I'm here."
"And how do you feel about it?"'
Calder gives a very long, very clear explanation of how he feels about Honey-Mae's writing on the walls and when he finishes, Dr. Robertson is silent.
"The Goldberg Variations," Dr. Robertson says finally.
"Or Art of the Fugue."
"Bach?" Calder says.
"Tell me about you. Tell me what you want out of life."
In class Calder lectures on the mythic elements common to Don Juan, Don Quixote, and Faust. He's happy. He forgets what awaits him at home. As he crosses the campus to his car, however, the tension begins, and by the time he reaches home, he is covered with sweat. How can this be happening? Is he losing his mind? He pauses at the front door and pretends to examine the lawn. Everybody in this town is crazy on the subject of crabgrass, so nobody is going to care if he stands there for an hour staring at the ground. Finally, sick, he puts his key in the door and goes inside.
"Honey-Mae?" There is no answer. "Honey-Mae?" he calls again, a new sound in his voice.
Honey-Mae is working half-time these days and if she does not answer, it means only one thing. Calder squares his shoulders and walks down the corridor into the sunlit bedroom. Honey-Mae is lying unconscious on the bed, but Calder only glances at her as he strides across the room. The closet door is open and the floor is heaped with clothes.
The walls are covered with writing.
For one whole mouth everything has been perfect. Honey-Mae has painted the closet and she has not gone near a pencil. Calder brings her flowers every other day, they dine out on the weekends, they are friends.
"What do you suppose it was?" he asks her.
That look comes over Honey-Mae's face and, as it does, he feels something tighten in his chest.
"I mean, do you think it was tension, or overwork, or something? Maybe you were worried for me, that I wouldn't get tenure. I mean, it has to have some logical explanation."
"Why do you have to bring it up?" she says. "Do you like to humiliate me? Don't you think I'm disgraced enough?"
"You?" he says. "You! That makes me laugh. What about me? Do you have any idea what it's like to live with a crazy woman? Do you have any idea what it's like to be at school, talking about Don Juan and the perfection of unattainable ideals, and be thinking yes, by now she's finished one wall and is moving on to the next one. She wants to have the whole closet finished by the time I get home. For a surprise. For a treat. And meanwhile the kids are looking at one another, figuring I'm losing my mind. Christ, it's out of Jane Eyre, the loony in the attic. You make me sick. You disgust me. I wish to God I'd never laid eyes on you."
Later, much later, he wakes her up and says he is sorry.
"I've got a vicious streak in me, I guess."
"It's my fault."
"It's mine too."
"Will you hold me?" she says.
She is shivering and when he takes her in his arms, she clutches at him, pressing her body into his.
"Make love to me, please. Please."
And he does, frightened, because he is making love to a stranger.
The handwriting on the wall
Honey-Mae is writing on the walls every day now and she makes no secret of it. She goes to the shop in the morning where she sees customers and puts in orders for fabric and furniture and accessories. She does her work well. By noon she is back at home and she writes without stopping until she collapses or until she hears Calder at the front door. He comes in and stares at the writing and stares at her. Sometimes he tells her he loathes her. Sometimes he tells her she needs help. But mostly he tells her that unless she stops, and stops now, he will leave her. She says nothing. She turns to the wall, covered now in her tiny script, and she sleeps.
Calder stops suddenly in the middle of his lecture comparing the poetic vision of St. John of the Cross with the mystic vision of Cervantes. It has just struck him that he has no idea what he is talking about. After a minute he goes on anyway.
Honey-Mae wakes him in the middle of the night and says, "I love you, Calder. You are the only one. I love you. I love you."
Calder lies there with his eyes closed, his hand dutifully caressing her back.
"I've had it. I'm done with her. I want out."
Dr. Robertson raises his eyebrows one sixteenth of an inch.
"I know how that sounds, but I want out."
"Well, that's a choice you have to make."
"I don't want to leave her, but I've got to. I can't take any more. I'm not sleeping, my work is going to pot, I look like hell. She looks like hell too, for that matter. I've done everything I can think of. I've begged her to stop. I've pleaded. I've tried to be understanding. I've been a bastard, too, I can't help it. I've got this vicious streak and she brings it out in me. You should see the walls. It's unbelievable. It's a crazy house. It is! The bedroom, the bathroom, the kitchen. She's even started now on the living room. She's left my study alone, that's the only place. I go in there and get drunk."
"'She's left your study alone."
"Oh, she'd never write in there."
"Why is that?"
"She just wouldn't. It's where I, you know, do everything. My writing, my books. She wouldn't."
"And you get drunk there."
"Well, only sometimes."
"And why do you get drunk?"
"To escape. You know, just to get away from it."
"And do you?"
Calder looks at the shrink. Forty dollars an hour for this.
"I come back to the study," Dr. Robertson says. "Why do you suppose she leaves that, of all the rooms, untouched? What do you suppose it represents to her?"
"It's where I work. It's... oh, God... it's..."
"It's where you go to escape, you said. It's where you do everything, you said. Your writing, your books."
"That's what you said."
"Is she trying to tell you something? This Honey-Mae? Is she trying to make you notice her? And even while she's doing it, protecting your most secret place? What if she should invade that place? What would that mean to you?"
"But if she did?" The shrink is wearing his little half-smile.
"She may." Pause. Tick tick tick. "She will."
"I Iove her. She's crazy, but I love her."
"You have to decide what you want," the shrink says.
"What I want."
"And then get it."
The woman he loves
Honey-Mae has put on the weight she lost and she is back at work.
She has painted the walls of every room except Calder's study. She never goes in there.
She does not write on the walls.
She is the perfect wife.
The woman he hates
Honey-Mae has done it again. But only a little bit. In the bedroom closet.
Calder flings his glass across the room, almost at her but not quite, and then he slams out of the house. In a minute he is back, with a purpose.
He goes to his study and comes back with a marking pen. In huge black script he writes I HATE YOU across the bedroom wall. He writes it three more times and then he turns to face her. She is slumped against the door, her head bowed. Her small body shakes as she cries silently.
Honey-Mae has agreed to see Dr. Robertson. Calder waits in the reception room until she comes out, pale, smiling faintly.
"What did he say?" Calder asks as soon as they are in the car.
"He says I am unhappy."
"But why do you write? Did he say? Does he know?"
"He said it sounds to him that I do it because I'm unhappy."
"Forty bucks for that?"
"I'm sorry. " She covers her face with her hands.
"What's the use," he says. "What's the use of anything."
Calder is listening to a student talk about the subtle connection between St. Teresa's Interior Castle and Franz Kafka's The Castle when Calder suddenly realizes something and blurts out, "She is unhappy."
"Can we talk tomorrow?" Calder is all action now, gathering books, throwing papers into his satchel. "Let's talk tomorrow. I have to get home."
"Who's unhappy?" the student says.
"I have to go."
Calder tosses the satchel into a corner and makes a break for the door, leaving the student behind. "Unhappy," he says. He knows what he will find when he gets home, but it doesn't matter.
He runs a yellow light at Fifth and Bryant and another one at the corner of his own street, but he knows he won't get caught. Not now. Not today. "She is unhappy," he says aloud, to nobody. "Unhappy." His heart races because it may be too late. He bounds up the walk, into the house, straight to his study.
Honey-Mae is on her knees, so engrossed in her work that she does not even turn at the sound of his steps.
Beside her and behind her rise long shelves of books, some with torn jackets, some with notepaper sticking out of them. She has pushed aside the heavy desk, loaded with his papers, notes for lectures, outlines for articles he will write.
She kneels before the wall, which was white this morning, and which now is covered with words. But not columns of words this time, not random scratchings. No, the words grow from the baseboard and rise up the long length of white wall into airy patterns of trees and flowers and animals. The words are all in different colors, written close together, so that you do not see happy unhappy happy, you see only the flowering tree the words have formed, and on the tip of the longest thinnest branch, the delicate shining blossom that says bliss, over and over.
Honey-Mae kneels before her work, before this blessed jungle, creating words, oblivious.
"It's all right," he says.
At the sound of his voice she crouches and hides her face. He has never actually seen her writing before. He kneels beside her, carefully, and strokes her hair.
"It's all right," he says very softly. "I know. I know."
She lifts her face to him and he kisses her, first on the brow and then, almost formally, on the lips.
"I understand," he says again. She turns to face him and he watches, astounded, as slowly the madness drains from her eyes.
They sink to the floor and lie there in each other's arms, not making love, only looking. Above them are his books and his papers and the flowers and trees full of happiness, unhappiness, happiness they have finally made.
But he and she do not look at the wall; they lie beneath it and stare into each other, looking and looking.
Copyright © 2002 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; April 1977; The Anatomy of Bliss; Volume 239, No. 4; page 66.