I’m sitting in the Commander’s Office

I’m sitting in the Commander’s office, across from him at his desk, in the client position, as if I’m a bank customer negotiating a hefty loan. But apart from my placement in the room, little of that formality remains between us. I no longer sit stiff-necked, straight-backed, feet regimented side by side on the floor, eyes at the salute. Instead my body’s lax, cosy even. My red shoes are off, my legs tucked up underneath me on the chair, surrounded by a buttress of red skirt, true, but tucked nonetheless, as at a campfire, of earlier and more picnic days. If there were a fire in the fireplace, its light would be twinkling on the polished surfaces, glimmering warmly on flesh. I add the firelight in.

As for the Commander, he’s casual to a fault tonight. Jacket off, elbows on the table. All he needs is a toothpick in the corner of his mouth to be an ad for rural democracy, as in an etching. Flyspecked, some old burned book.

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The squares on the board in front of me are filling up: I’m making my penultimate play of the night. Zilch, I spell, a convenient one-vowel word with an expensive z.

“Is that a word?” says the Commander.

“We could look it up,” I say. “It’s archaic.”

“I’ll give it to you,” he says. He smiles. The Commander likes it when I distinguish myself, show precocity, like an attentive pet, prick-eared and eager to perform. His approbation laps me like a warm bath. I sense in him none of the animosity I used to sense in men, even in Luke sometimes. He’s not saying bitch in his head. In fact he is positively daddyish. He likes to think I am being entertained; and I am, I am.

Deftly he adds up our final scores on his pocket computer. “You ran away with it,” he says. I suspect him of cheating, to flatter me, to put me in a good mood. But why? It remains a question. What does he have to gain from this sort of pampering? There must be something.

He leans back, fingertips together, a gesture familiar to me now. We have built up a repertoire of such gestures, such familiarities, between us. He’s looking at me, not unbenevolently, but with curiosity, as if I am a puzzle to be solved.

“What would you like to read tonight?” he says. This too has become routine. So far I’ve been through a Mademoiselle magazine, an old Esquire from the eighties, a Ms., a magazine I can remember vaguely as having been around my mother’s various apartments while I was growing up, and a Reader’s Digest. He even has novels. I’ve read a Raymond Chandler, and right now I’m halfway through Hard Times, by Charles Dickens. On these occasions I read quickly, voraciously, almost skimming, trying to get as much into my head as possible before the next long starvation. If it were eating it would be the gluttony of the famished, if it were sex it would be a swift furtive stand-up in an alley somewhere.

While I read, the Commander sits and watches me doing it, without speaking but also without taking his eyes off me. This watching is a curiously sexual act, and I feel undressed while he does it. I wish he would turn his back, stroll around the room, read something himself. Then perhaps I could relax more, take my time. As it is, this illicit reading of mine seems a kind of performance.

“I think I’d rather just talk,” I say. I’m surprised to hear myself saying it.

He smiles again. He doesn’t appear surprised. Possibly he’s been expecting this, or something like it. “Oh?” he says. “What would you like to talk about?”

I falter. “Anything, I guess. Well, you, for instance.”

“Me?” He continues to smile. “Oh, there’s not much to say about me. I’m just an ordinary kind of guy.”

The falsity of this, and even the falsity of the diction – “guy”? – pulls me up short. Ordinary guys do not become Commanders. “You must be good at something,” I say. I know I’m prompting him, playing up to him, drawing him out, and I dislike myself for it, it’s nauseating, in fact. But we are fencing. Either he talks or I will. I know it, I can feel speech backing up inside me, it’s so long since I’ve really talked with anyone. The terse whispered exchange with Ofglen, on our walk today, hardly counts; but it was a tease, a preliminary. Having felt the relief of even that much speaking, I want more.

And if I talk to him I’ll say something wrong, give something away. I can feel it coming, a betrayal of myself. I don’t want him to know too much.

“Oh, I was in market research, to begin with,” he says diffidently. “After that I sort of branched out.”

It strikes me that, although I know he’s a Commander, I don’t know what he’s a Commander of. What does he control, what is his field, as they used to say? They don’t have specific titles.

“Oh,” I say, trying to sound as if I understand.

“You might say I’m a sort of scientist,” he says. “Within limits, of course.”

After that he doesn’t say anything for a while, and neither do I. We are outwaiting each other.

I’m the one to break first. “Well, maybe you could tell me something I’ve been wondering about.”

He shows interest. “What might that be?”

I’m heading into danger, but I can’t stop myself. “It’s a phrase I remember from somewhere.” Best not to say where. “I think it’s in Latin, and I thought maybe…” I know he has a Latin dictionary. He has dictionaries of several kinds, on the top shelf to the left of the fireplace.

“Tell me,” he says. Distanced, but more alert, or am I imagining it?

“Nolite te bastardes carborundorum”, I say.

“What?” he says.

I haven’t pronounced it properly. I don’t know how. “I could spell it,” I say. “Write it down.”

He hesitates at this novel idea. Possibly he doesn’t remember I can. I’ve never held a pen or a pencil, in this room, not even to add up the scores. Women can’t add, he said once, jokingly. When I asked him what he meant, he said, For them, one and one and one and one don’t make four.

What do they make? I said, expecting five or three.

Just one and one and one and one, he said.

But now he says, “All right,” and thrusts his roller-tip pen across the desk at me almost defiantly, as if taking a dare. I look around for something to write on and he hands me the score pad, a desk-top notepad with a little smile-button face printed at the top of the page. They still make those things.

I print the phrase carefully, copying it down from inside my head, from inside my closet. Nolite te bastardes carborundorum. Here, in this context, it’s neither prayer nor command, but a sad graffiti, scrawled once, abandoned. The pen between my fingers is sensuous, alive almost, I can feel its power, the power of the words it contains. Pen Is Envy, Aunt Lydia would say, quoting another Centre motto, warning us away from such objects. And they were right, it is envy. Just holding it is envy. I envy the Commander his pen. It’s one more thing I would like to steal.

The Commander takes the smile-button page from me and looks at it. Then he begins to laugh, and is he blushing? “That’s not real Latin,” he says. “That’s just a joke.”

“A joke?” I say, bewildered now. It can’t be only a joke. Have I risked this, made a grab at knowledge, for a mere joke? “What sort of a joke?”

“You know how schoolboys are,” he says. His laughter is nostalgic, I see now, the laughter of indulgence towards his former self. He gets up, crosses to the bookshelves, takes down a book from his trove; not the dictionary though. It’s an old book, a textbook it looks like, dog-eared and inky. Before showing it to me he thumbs through it, contemplative, reminiscent; then, “Here,” he says, laying it open on the desk in front of me.

What I see first is a picture: the Venus de Milo, in a black-and-white photo, with a moustache and a black brassiere and armpit hair drawn clumsily on her. On the opposite page is the Coliseum in Rome, labelled in English, and below a conjugation: sum es est, sumus estis sunt. “There,” he says, pointing, and in the margin I see it, written in the same ink as the hair on the Venus. Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.

“It’s sort of hard to explain why it’s funny unless you know Latin,” he says. “We used to write all kinds of things like that. I don’t know where we got them, from older boys perhaps.” Forgetful of me and of himself, he’s turning the pages. “Look at this,” he says. The picture is called The Sabine Women, and in the margin is scrawled: pim pis pit, pimus pistis pants. “There was another one,” he says. “Cim, cis, cit…” He stops, returning to the present, embarrassed. Again he smiles; this time you could call it a grin. I imagine freckles on him, a cowlick. Right now I almost like him.

“But what did it mean?” I say.

“Which?” he says. “Oh. It meant, ‘Don’t let the bastards grind you down.’ I guess we thought we were pretty smart, back then.”

I force a smile, but it’s all before me now. I can see why she wrote that, on the wall of the cupboard, but I also see that she must have learned it, here, in this room. Where else? She was never a schoolboy. With him, during some previous period of boyhood reminiscence, of confidences exchanged. I have not been the first then. To enter his silence, play children’s word games with him.

“What happened to her?” I say.

He hardly misses a beat. “Did you know her somehow?”

“Somehow,” I say.

“She hanged herself,” he says; thoughtfully, not sadly. “That’s why we had the light fixture removed. In your room.” He pauses. “Serena found out,” he says, as if this explains it. And it does.

If your dog dies, get another.

“What with?” I say.

He doesn’t want to give me any ideas. “Does it matter?” he says. Torn bedsheet, I figure. I’ve considered the possibilities.

“I suppose it was Cora who found her,” I say. That’s why she screamed.

“Yes,” he says. “Poor girl.” He means Cora.

“Maybe I shouldn’t come here any more,” I say.

“I thought you were enjoying it,” he says lightly, watching me, however, with intent bright eyes. If I didn’t know better I would think it was fear. “I wish you would.”

“You want my life to be bearable to me,” I say. It comes out not as a question but as a flat statement; flat and without dimension. If my life is bearable, maybe what they’re doing is all right after all.

“Yes,” he says. “I do. I would prefer it.”

“Well then,” I say. Things have changed. I have something on him, now. What I have on him is the possibility of my own death. What I have on him is his guilt. At last.

“What would you like?” he says, still with that lightness, as if it’s a money transaction merely, and a minor one at that: candy, cigarettes.

“Besides hand lotion, you mean,” I say.

“Besides hand lotion,” he agrees.

“I would like…” I say. “I would like to know.” It sounds indecisive, stupid even, I say it without thinking.

“Know what?” he says.

“Whatever there is to know,” I say; but that’s too flippant. “What’s going on.”