the fixed point of Asa Zook/paul pietsch -- copyright 1996 by Paul Pietsch


How singular is the thing called pleasure, and how curiously related to pain, which might be thought to be the opposite of it; for they are never present to man at the same instant, and yet he who pursues either is generally compelled to take the other; their bodies are two, but they are joined by a single head.

-- from Plato's dialog, "Phaedo"

chapter 7 Joyce Page

Joyce Page paused for a sip of sherry and then haltingly resumed playing Traumerei from memory: "As my mind prattles away," she uttered, but continued her monologue in silence: Forgive what I'm doing to your art, sir. I don't have Millie's hands. Nor soul! My talents don't equal my admiration. What does your music cry out for, Robert Schumann? For somebody like me? I'll bet. She smiled. After she finished what she could recall of the music, she drained her glass and went to the bar for a refill, which she took over to the couch.

Shit! She'd been depressed since late morning when her father had failed to show up for her turn at moot court. His attending had been his damned idea in the first stinking place. And then he'd take her to Bookbinder's for lunch and a nice chat before heading home, he said, "To begin a fitting Yuletide." She'd looked and looked for him just before and then during her turn. His commanding (and influential) presence in the gallery might have kept the judging honest. And after she beat the ears off her adversary, but lost anyway, she partially blamed her father, which thought alternated between the utterly profound and the thoroughly ridiculous. Profound, because at the abstract level his kind were the very reasons a woman couldn't whip a man's ass at moot court -- not be recognized for it, anyway. Ridiculous, because..."Ah shit!" She drained the glass and went for another.

But the ridiculousness compounded the hurt, not of being cheated -- which happened regularly -- but of allowing a stinking, trivial thing like his no- show to affect her at all. After moot court, she walked down to Spruce Street and caught a taxi, guessing he'd meet her at the restaurant. He was there all right, learning into a Yellow Cab kissing a woman who was neither her mother nor her sister. Nor herself! She chuckled quietly at the last thought.

He ordered dry martinis and asked what she wanted to eat. "Cock," she growled loud enough to draw the quick glance of some bald guy three tables away. He vanished behind the menu. When he did uncover his face, he looked very serious. She'd seen him at the cab, he knew. He was in the process of contriving an elaborate prevarication, he confessed. But he couldn't lie to her, he realized. He would not go into particulars, of course. But, "This splendid young woman gives me something I desperately needed."

"Nookey," Joyce fired at him.

"That's unkind, darling." He looked almost as though he'd cry. And Joyce suddenly felt like a champion- class shit. Because if he'd been anyone but her father, she'd have been congratulating him for embracing romance.

"I apologize, Dad," she said. He stared at her, astonished. Apology was not something Joyce tendered lightly. Not ever. Not even as a little girl. And definitely not on the one and only occasion when, with hairbrush in hand, he'd sought to extract the word from her. He was the one who ended up both crying and apologizing. And it was she who put her little arms around his muscular neck and consoled and forgave him. Her apology meant something to him, she knew. Now he seemed suspended between the to impulses to blubber and to get up, walk around the table and hold her close. Otherwise, she might have asked the only worthy question on her mind at the time: What if you caught Mom in bed screwing the milkman? The question, of course, was rhetorical. Or would have been if she'd actually posed it. For, a priori, she could have articulated his answer herself:

"It's an affliction of many men my age, you know, dangerous, if it isn't kept discreet and within reasonable bounds, but not really serious if one maintains perspective and self- awareness. An attempt to hang onto youth until..." Her mind deleted his actual words and filled in what it preferred: the last drop of manjuice coagulates in the prostate. She was quickly becoming a bitch again. But she still loved him, anyway, postulated that her reaction to the floozy in the cab was not honest chagrin but Electra flitching her sparky twitch, ordered a second martini and shifted to serious talk about jurisprudence.

At her apartment, she'd suggested he not take another drink "Not unless you want me to drive." He recapped the decanter at once and said she was right. He, of course, didn't say he'd rather not drink than ride in a woman- driven car, despite the fact (which he would have admitted) that her reflexes were far safer than his.

"It'll be very tough for you, darling," he'd warned when she'd first announced her intention to study law. The law was a man's world. Of course he knew that, the sonofabitch. He'd helped make it that way. She wouldn't let him carry her luggage to the car.

"Aah!" he sighed as they came off Ben Franklin Bridge. A return to his own jurisdiction seemed almost to give him sexual gratification, Joyce thought. Almost? Hell it was sexual, the equivalent of sporting antlers.

"Will you be at home for the entire vacation?" he was asking when she tuned back in. She told him yes, except for a trip or two to New York to browse the used bookstores. Was he asking if she was planning to cat around on Roger? Her father would have disapproved more of Joyce's adultery than of Mom's, Joyce was certain.

She went for another sherry. Instead of returning to the couch, she took her glass to the mantel and set it between Roger's graduation photograph and their wedding picture. She'd never liked the wedding picture. Roger looked scared and she looked angry. They were married on his graduation day, but the graduation picture, which she lifted and inspected, had been taken some weeks earlier. Too bad he was wearing that ugly cap. But through his studied seriousness, she could still see the beginnings of a smile. His pre- smile was his most charming attribute.

She exchanged photographs. It was too bad about the wedding picture, really. The day had been so lovely. She'd arisen very early (eight thirty), walked around the marina, up to the State House, which she hadn't seen before, and strolled the colonial parts of the town. She remembered little of the graduation or wedding ceremonies, except sitting between her father and sister and seeing lots of white cloth and broad shoulders and, in the chapel, trying to decide if the magnificent scent was orange blossom or honeysuckle. It wasn't hothouse rose. Anyway, she was happy that day. Well, happy was a bit strong. Cheerful? Yes, of course, she was cheerful. She was always cheerful -- except when unjustly denied a clear victory at moot court or if she caught her salacious father exploring the hanky- panky. Merry? Never! Fulfilled? No, marrying Roger wasn't fulfillment. It was like what? Like graduating summa cum laude from Bryn Mawr instead of in the middle of the class at Montclair State Teacher's College. Or Annapolis instead of OCS. Glad? Well, sure, she was glad to have a husband like Roger Winfield. Who in heck wouldn't be. But glad lacked precision. Looking at her picture, she realized what made the day memorable. "I didn't feel sentenced," she whispered to her own image. I was relieved to find myself married without feeling as though I faced life in solitary confinement. "Relief was the principal emotion of my wedding day!"

She turned toward the bar but halfway there decided against another glass of wine. Millie was bringing someone to supper. What was his name? Zook. The girl had called her a dozen times and talked about nothing else but this Zook. Asa, wasn't it? Anyway, Millie was obviously smitten. Another sherry and I might not be able to contain myself if and when he opens with 'Yes, but now you take them there Puerto Ricans...'

Joyce went back to Roger on the mantelpiece. She'd first seen that beautiful face at Franklin Field after Navy scored another zillion of its touchdowns. She'd glanced across the aisle and he was looking directly at her. "It'll soon be over ma'am," he called out. It wasn't her agony, she called back. Her date was the Penn man. (She hadn't thought of entering law school yet.)

"Who was that creep I was with?" She winked at Roger's graduation picture. "Let's pretend he was the prosecutor at moot court today?" she whispered. "Why the hell did I bring up moot court!" She seized the poker and jabbed at an innocent log in the fireplace. It spat an aurora of sparks and collapsed into an embrace of flames. She replaced the poker and rested her elbow next to Roger's frame.

"Can I call on you, ma'am?" he'd shouted, to her date's obvious chagrin. You bet he could. She'd taken a slip of paper from her purse, wrote down her name and phone number and then, wrapping it in a stale chocolate kiss, pitched it his way.

Roger swooped the missile from the air. "My," she called out. Why wasn't he down on the field catching passes?

"Baseball's my game, ma'am." Thank God, she'd thought, admiring his splendid teeth and recalling what Doc Blanchard had done to that poor Pennsylvania tackle's dentition.

Joyce shifted to the far end of the mantel, to an enlarged snapshot Roger had sent Mom for her birthday, a recent one of him leaning against the fuselage of presumably his own Hellcat, arms and ankles folded, trying unsuccessfully to project nonchalance, but looking much older than he actually was. Poor devil. Stuck with the likes of me. When she wrote to him about law school, he'd answered with predictable objections. He couldn't see the point. He wasn't suggesting that she kick off her shoes and cultivate a new watermelon seed in her belly every year (at least he still had a sense of humor, although the watermelon thing was hers, not his). But his career could force them to move around, particularly at first. Then too (and now enters the truth, she'd thought) there were appearances to think about. She'd fired back her reply, at once. "My dearest Roger," she'd married Roger Scott Winfield, not the United States Navy. If he believed her career would adversely affect his, then perhaps they should go their separate ways while they were still good friends. Better 'twas done, she'd thought,. licking the envelope.

"That was so brutal, Joyce!" she said to his picture. He wrote back immediately from Pearl. First he begged her to forgive his thoughtlessness. His life would be empty "without my Joyce." If she wanted to be a garage mechanic, he'd live with that, too, providing only that she tendered her oath to use with Lava soap.

She smiled, raised his picture with both hands and kissed it. "My poor sweet darling husband," she said. "Oh Joyce, why do you so complicate things?" she added. The truth was, though, that it was even more complex than the poor guy realized. She was intending no sedate career in the law. No, Joyce Page wanted politics.

Joyce heard her parents talking to Mrs. Gerhardt in the kitchen. She returned Roger to the mantel, went to the bar, put her glass in the sink, mixed a Scotch and soda for her father -- a single ice cube -- a gin and tonic for her mother -- mostly tonic -- poured a glass of water for herself and put a SenSen on her tongue.

"Gee, I admire that Riker boy," her father said, briskly entering the room, nimbly easing into his chair and gracefully accepting both his drink and her kiss. He gestured at the Christmas tree with his glass and said something about the fine selection of blue spruce the Boy Scouts had on sale this year and informed Joyce that the Riker lad (whoever he was) was already only a merit badge or two from Eagle Scout. Her mother sauntered in, announced that Mrs. Gerhardt was prepared to serve whenever Millie and her company arrived, assumed the nesting position on the end of the piano bench and postured to receive a) her drink and b) one peck on cheek. Poor Mom! Probably knows, but forces the thought from her consciousness. Reality is a bitch when one can't control it. Joyce prolonged the kiss. Her mother stared at her briefly but continued with something about Joyce simply having to get up to New York before Bloomingdales took down their Christmas window; this year's motif was gakalakgaka something or other...Joyce tried in vain to listen. She finally excused herself and went to her room.

She'd read a bit, she thought. Who? Elizabeth Barrett B? It wasn't that sort of an evening, really. Emily D? Byron? Frost? What went with Zook? Whitman? Not quite. Something virile, yet gentle. Something ass- scratching honest but tender. Of course! Who else? Carl Sandburg. She was in love with Sandburg, anyway. "Literally!" She giggled.

She took the volume to her couch. As she read, half reciting from memory, she tried to picture an Asa Zook saying Carl Sandburg words. She hoped Millie was blessed with a man such as the one now inventing itself in Joyce's mind. A sob formed deep in her chest, but she checked it. It was a sob of pity. Self pity? Not quite. Pity for what? When the answer formed in her conscious thoughts, she let a lone tear roll down her cheek. It was for Roger, she realized.

Why? Why do I pity him at this instant? I've been over this ground too many times for a new emotion to sneak up and squeeze a tear from me. Why would Carl Sandburg evoke such a feeling from me now?

"Joyce," this is becoming absurd, she admonished herself. This Zook, doubtless, will turn out to be just another moronic Adonis, a penis appended to the body of a halfback. Perhaps it was better that way. For Joyce's concocted Carl Sandburg Zook would surely break either her heart or Millie's. Or both. And the tear for Roger? Because he irrevocably chose not to be her imaginary Carl Sandburg Asa Zook.

Joyce began to love her faceless fantasy. "I'm transferring you to him, Carl," she whispered to the sacred page. She listened to the power of the Sandburg Zook register within her brain. God I love this Asa Zook. "Joyce!" Come back to reality. You don't even know what the guy looks like. "But I'd crawl on my hands and knees to the ends of the earth to have this creature of my fantasy."

Muffled noises came from downstairs. Joyce jumped to her feet, covered her mouth with her hand and snickered. I feel as though I've been caught masturbating. "I supposed I was." She giggled again, returned Sandburg to the shelf with a love pat, and went to her bathroom to pee. She washed her hands and face, looked quickly at her reflection, decided, no! not even lipstick, and, as an additional concession to Millie, found and squirmed into a pair of panties. Then she went downstairs.

The voices were coming from the living room, Joyce could hear as she reached the bottom step. She wiped her moist palms on her skirt, took a deep breath and entered. All were at the bar, Dad behind, fixing drinks, Millie and Mom on the other side, flanking a very tall, rather young, genuinely handsome man. He was indeed an Adonis. Joyce exhaled and advance with bold strides. "Asa Zook, I'm Joyce Winfield," she said extending her hand, "And I've heard a great deal about you."

He grinned and ensconced her hand in pure callous. "I'm very pleased to meet you, too, Joyce. But my name is Ray. Asa is my brother."


Joyce watched her father engineer roast beef slices onto his plate and simultaneously interrogate their guest. "Zook? German?" Joyce examined Ray's profile as he turned toward her father. That, Mr. Zook is Ivy League sub rosa for 'Are you a Jew?' Dad concealed his anti- Semitism even from himself.

"Pennsylvania Dutch," Ray answered.

"Amish?" Mom asked.

"Related but not identical."

"Mennonite?" Joyce volunteered.

"That's what my father was. He still abides by many of the secular ways. But he attends a Methodist church now, although not for the religion."

"For what?" Mom was curious.

"Out of respect for my grandparents. I do to. Mainly because of my grandfather."

Dad: "Your grandfather must be quite a man, Mr. Zook."

Ray: "He is Judge Page. I love him. And I wouldn't miss his sermons."

Sermons? Wow! Joyce sensed her nasty side warming up.

"Zook? Do we know a Reverend Zook?" Dad asked.

"It's my mother's father, sir. Milton Overfield."

Dad almost choked. "Doctor Milton Overfield? The Milton Overfield?"

Joyce had heard Milton Overfield speak back in October at the Wharton School. His theme, which struck a kindred chord in Joyce, had been that religious and racial prejudice threaten the very essence of Christianity.

Dad's face was beaming, she noticed. The bastard! Oh Millie, honey, you brought you home a real live one tonight. Not only is he a non- Catholic, non- Jewish, non- Untouchable. He is the real live grandson of a genu- wine 'Murican bona fide- A Methodist preachin' man (and how less kikie can you get than that?). A celebrity's grandson, no less. Socially acceptable celebrity, on top of that. Quick Millie, jump up and take off Ray's shoes so's Mom can reassure herself he has only five toes on each foot.

"And your father? What does he do?" Mom asked.

"Contracting. Houses. At least nowadays. But his real love is the land. And as soon as I know enough, I'm going to assume the business myself and let him get back to what he should be doing."

Joyce looked at Ray. She had to fight to keep a sudden attack of remorse from pouring down her cheeks. She had never, ever heard love expressed in quite this way before. She looked at Millie, and an apology almost slipped from her mouth. And Millie exacerbated Joyce's shame with a trusting, affectionate smile.

"Does your mother enjoy farm life, Ray?" Joyce attempted.

Ray directed his gaze to her, and sadness spread across his beautiful face. "My mother is dead."

Joyce winced as though someone had punched her in the back. And a few tears did escape. "That's all right, Joyce. You didn't say anything that hurts me, not directly, anyway. I hardly remember my mother. She died when we were boys. It's my brother Asa who suffers. He never got over her death."

You are a sensitive man, Raymond Zook, Joyce wanted to say. I will love you always for....

"What does your brother do?" Dad was shifting to lighter subjects. Yes, what does he do, Joyce also wanted to know, herself.

"He's a philosopher." Joyce gasped at Ray's reply. "Metaphysics and mathematical logic." And now she was blushing. The real Asa Zook was a...a. Did she dare repeat what she'd just heard?

Joyce: "Where is he now?"

Millie answered. "Japan. In the army. But he went to the University of Chicago, first. And he was in the Philippines. And he has a Bronze Star and a Silver Star too."

Joyce felt her heart sink with the army, rise a bit at Chicago but plummet on the Stars. Ray must have talked incessantly about the family hero. For Millie seemed to know more about Asa than she did Ray.

Dad, too, suddenly became excited about Asa -- but for the very reason Joyce would just as soon not hear Asa Zook mentioned ever again! She had nothing in particular against medals. But goddamn it, they belonged on Roger Winfield, not on her Carl Sandburg Asa Zook's chest, was all. And it wasn't funny, either. And suddenly she felt preposterous and heartbroken all at the same time.

Ray was looking down at his plate. "You don't seem very excited about your brother's achievements," Dad observed. "Was he seriously wounded or something?"

"No sir. But it's a touchy subject in our family. Especially with my father. Asa going in the army was bad enough. We'd known nothing about the medals until one Sunday after church a well- meaning member of the congregation handed us the newspaper clippings. The medals hurt my father almost as bad as if Asa had been killed, I think."

"And you, Ray?" Joyce asked. "About Asa's medals? Are you ashamed?"

"No, Joyce. I'm not ashamed of my brother. Never, ever."

"But your brother's accomplishments should be a source of great pride for his family," Dad insisted.

"I don't have my father's strong convictions about it, or Asa's insight. But I see nothing to celebrate or glorify about killing."

"Even Japs?" The Ivy had slipped from Dad's league, and Joyce was readying to transfix him against the back of his chair when Ray pre- empted her attack.

"Even the Japanese, Judge Page."

"Even Hitler?" Mom wanted to know.

"Oh, Mrs. Page, I'm only a carpenter. In the heat of the moment, I might kill a Hitler. Sure. Or any evil person. Or anyone attacking somebody I loved. I don't know how well my will would hold out against my anger. All I know is, I want to be the kind of human being who'd not harm even Hitler."

"Do you know anyone who actually attains your ideal Mr. Zook?" Dad asked.

"My father, Elwood Zook. Asa, probably now."

"You wouldn't go to war?" Joyce asked.

"No, Joyce, I wouldn't. I did have a silly notion in my head a while back about joining the marines. But I got over it. No, Joyce. I won't go to war."

"Even if they'd line you up against a wall and would shoot you?" Mom asked. She looked genuinely fearful for him.

"Well, as I said Mrs. Page, I'm just a carpenter. And I really don't know how brave I'd be if it came to that kind of a choice. But my father is, I can tell you that. "

Amid sentence, Joyce realized what she was saying: "If I have sons, I hope they'll grow up to be Elwood Zooks. Raymond Zooks, too. Yes, Ray, I think you're just that kind of man, too." Now Joyce was blushing and Millie was frowning at her, as was her father. But Mom, bless her heart, was looking as proud as ever she'd looked at Joyce. We really know, don't we Mom. And Joyce smiled at her mother. And she wished she hadn't evoked Millie's jealous dread vis-à-vis Ray.

"And Asa?" Joyce asked now, smiling a no- thank you to Mrs. Gerhardt's offer of pineapple upside- down cake, "I'm puzzled about how he could come from such a family and submit to the draft. I mean...philosopher and all..."

"Oh he wanted to go, Joyce. Volunteered." She didn't believe her ears. Oh but look at that grinning whoremonging, he- man, phony, leering sonofabitch of a father of hers, sitting over there, wondering how he could work some kind of a Zook swap, whereby his little Millie'd get soldier boy Asa instead of carpenter Ray. An Adonis for a Silver Star. But Ray continued.

"Asa doesn't understand the real world. He told us something about Socrates being a good soldier, something about even a philosopher having to be a citizen. But he made a bad mistake. A terrible one. For him. He makes mistakes about people. And about life. It's that he can't judge evil, not with individuals. My father and I, we aren't fooled. Maybe that's why we're so firm about the ways. Because we can sense our potential wickedness ready to pop out given half a chance. But Asa is like an innocent child. He doesn't have our measuring tape.

"But he's a good man." Ray paused for a sip of water. "He's the best of all of us. The very best. Which is what hurts so much. Because he had to live through a war to know what evil actually looks like. He had to go through it, be part of it and see for himself that war and all that goes with war, as he used to say when we were boys, unphilosophical."

Ray stopped talking. Even Dad was silent. Unphilosophical? "How old was he Ray?" Joyce asked.

"That's a hard one, Joyce. Goes way back. I'd say he'd have been maybe ten or eleven. It was when he used to tell me bedtimes stories with a central character named Timmy and always with some philosophical theme. Growing up to be unphilosophical was about the worst thing in the world to me. And to Asa."

Joyce would have reached for a glass of water, but her hands trembled very badly, and she clasped them in her lap. Asa Zook was telling philosophical stories as a child? Her Asa Zook?

"I'd certainly like to meet him," Mom was saying and Dad echoing.

"So would I," Millie declared.

Joyce looked at her sister. Millie's visage passed through several puzzled transfigurations as she stared back at Joyce. Then Millie's expressions stabilized. And Joyce knew that Millie now knew the force consuming the total inner self of Joyce Page. Its name was Asa Zook.

Copyright, 1996 by Paul Pietsch, all rights reserved. May be copied for personal, educational or other non-commercial "fair-use" purposes, as defined by U.S. copyright law.

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