Sure, I knew Aiken Salbrooke. Aiken, Junior, the Second or Third, whatever.

a year ago

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Sure, I knew Aiken Salbrooke.  Aiken, Junior, the Second or Third, whatever.  Bucky.  That’s what we called him, Bucky.  He asked us to use the nickname, said he got it before braces.  Back in college, well you’d never have thought—well, you know.

How’d we meet?  Same freshman dorm, same floor.  We hung out—ate together, played pinball, listened to music and comedy records.  Sophomore year Bucky got his own place, this huge apartment.  He threw lots of parties.  Back when he was eighteen, nineteen, he wasn’t what anybody’s call the crusading type or even a guy who looked like he’d want to go to law school—let alone get in if he applied.  It was all booze and drugs, and girls.  Late nights, late papers, incompletes, and hangovers.  I mean, Bucky was majoring in partying.  Not the kind of guy who’d become famous for locking up his dad’s best friend, not the sort The Wall Street Journal was going to call a class warrior.  “Class warrior”—that’s a good one.  What the professional money-lovers at WSJ really meant, of course, was class traitor.

Don’t get me wrong.  Bucky was one of those kids who are plenty smart, but with piss poor grades.  The way he saw things, college was just the next year of prep school where he’d apparently gotten away with just about everything, including setting up his own wet bar and poker nights.  Oh sure, we were all bowled over by Bucky.  He was our hero—big, strong, rich, good-looking, and reckless.  Freshman year we called his room “Bucky’s single/double.”  This was because, while two people slept there almost every night and one of them was Bucky, the other wasn’t his roommate and wasn’t male.  The roommate who wasn’t there was a fellow named Hartung, I think, from Texas, Houston, maybe Dallas.  Anyway, Hartung couldn’t take Bucky or the East and about two weeks into the semester he just up and went home.  Didn’t even make it through September.  Well, he was a Mormon.  Bucky said Hartung had tried to convert him with harangues delivered after dinner in freshman commons every night.  Maybe Hartung high-tailed it back to Texas; I mean, before he got converted.

Bucky was a frat boy without a frat, a stereotype; but, at the same time, he wasn’t.  What I mean is he appeared to be your standard-issue old-money WASP preppie with a big repressed family that owned three houses.  He had the trust fund and lacrosse sticks and the tall family tree.  He carried on like a shallow hedonist who took his privileges for granted, because they always had been.  Yet he did it all with this smirk, like he was standing beside himself watching and didn’t think much of the performance.  He’d toss out these little ironies, like calling his family “the L. L. Beans.”  If he really cared about anybody or anything other than raising hell and having a good time, you couldn’t tell.  The girls rotated through his room like NFL free agents.  Bucky could be arrogant and make fun of people; but still, somehow, he made you believe he was hard on himself, that he had standards he wasn’t living up to.  That made him bearable, maybe better than just that.  He once told me he’d never stopped feeling bad about Hartung.  He said he couldn’t help it, help scandalizing the guy; it was too easy.  A deep breath would do it, he said.  And, in a way, Hartung was asking for it, coming to college with his moral universe all nicely pre-packaged.  When I asked him what actually happened, what was the last straw, Bucky grimaced.  He said Hartung was giving him his speech about the sinfulness of sex for about the fifth time.  Bucky informed him that he only existed because his parents had sexual relations.  Apparently, he said with a rueful smile, since Hartung thought his parents pure and sex filthy, the cognitive dissonance was too much for him.

Bucky had this thing he would do at parties, also in bars, clubs. You’d be standing next to him talking about the Knicks or your parents or your finance professor and suddenly he’d point to a girl and go, “Hair $95, nails $75, top $125, skirt $150, shoes $200.”  Sometimes he’d include the jewelry, the tan, and the make-up.  The first time he did it with me I thought it was kind of funny, the way he reeled off those numbers.  The second time, though, it bothered me.  It felt like he was putting a price not just the hair-do or the dress but on the girls.  But then I wondered, if Bucky had all this contempt for women, the ones who slept with him and the ones who hadn’t yet, why he did he know those prices—I mean, if he really did know them?  Sure seemed like he did.  Once he started to do it and we were in a group and this girl of his—she was pretty drunk—she just shook with laughter and kept screaming, “You’re right, you’re totally right!”

So that was Bucky when I knew him best.  I didn’t see him so often after sophomore year, but we still ran into each other.  What?  Did he change?  Sure he did.  You bet.  But not overnight.  It took a while for Bucky of the single/double, the party animal and hero of all us wannabes, to morph into Aiken Salbrooke, Boy U.S. Attorney, scourge of the white-collar felons.  What did the paper call him?  The man who took the bull out of bulldog?  It’s actually a pretty good story, if you’ve got the time.  Interested?

Okay.  To understand about Bucky, you have to know about Margaret. Margaret Mary McComb.  A long time since I’ve thought about her.  What?  No, no $95 hair or $200 shoes.  Not then, anyway.

I actually remember how they met, Bucky and Margaret.  This would have been at the start of the spring semester of sophomore year because I was still seeing a lot of Bucky then.  They were in the same English class.  Poetry.  Bucky was taking it to check off a gen ed requirement.  Anyway, it was one of those small classes with a lot of discussion, a seminar. The first time Bucky mentioned Margaret it was to tell me about how this girl with a stick up her ass put him down in public.  She even wears glasses, he said with that smirk of his, as if she only wore the glasses because to look smart or because she was frigid or something.  Smart girls with or without glasses weren’t exactly his type, and I suppose nothing female had put Bucky down since maybe his second birthday.  After that, every time I saw him Bucky had a new story about Glasses, which is what he called her, the things she’d said, the corduroy jumpers she wore, how superior and infuriatingly self-contained she seemed.  Above all, how hostile she was to him.  It was pretty obvious what was going on and finally I just told him.  Bucky, I said, you’re obsessed with this girl, you know.  He drew his head back a little and gave me this look, as if he’d only just discovered I was sitting across the table from him.  I expected a big denial, a scoff and a snicker and maybe another crack about her clothes.  But Bucky didn’t deny anything.  He was quiet for a while, just sipping his coffee.  The he put down his mug and looked at me as if he were relieved.

This was over Sunday breakfast, which we used to have around noon.  Bucky had taken two girls out to a club the night before.  I was there for a while and saw him dancing with both of them at once, bringing them beers.  There was a good deal of giggling and touching.  Like I said, our hero.

He put down the mug and said I was right.  What? I asked.  He said that obsessed is just what he was.  The he asked me if I knew what really got to him about Glasses.  Of course, it was a rhetorical question.  It’s that she’s so serious, he said I mean she’s alwaysserious.  She looks serious and says serious things.  I, on the other hand, haven’t ever been serious.  I don’t know how to do it, not for more than five seconds, anyway.  And somehow she makes me feel as if I might just float away, that I weight as much as a puff of air.

On an impulse, and despite every dig Bucky had taken at her dowdy clothes and high-school hair, I asked if Glasses were good looking.  He said she probably wasn’t but admitted he couldn’t take his eyes off her.  That was when he told me her name—not Glasses but Margaret Mary McComb.  He asked me if I liked the nice alliteration.

A couple weeks later Bucky and I wound up at the same party.  He was with this strange-looking girl.  She wore glasses so I wasn’t in much doubt as to who she was.  As I remember, she didn’t smile much.  She looked ill-at-ease, out of place, self-conscious, kind of annoyed and ashamed at the same time.  Bucky was showing her around—or maybe what he was doing was showing her off.  There was a piano.  He corralled his gang and insisted she play.  She didn’t want to but he kept at her, praised her, promised a treat.  She frowned but gave in.  She played the wrong kind of music.  Bach, I think. But Bucky beamed all around, as if to say, Whaddya think of that?  People listened politely for a while then drifted away and Margaret stopped and said something sharp to Bucky.  But he smiled and asked her something and then got her a beer.

He told me later that he’d asked her to explain how she could play a fugue, the way the music works, how she could coordinate her hands.  She wouldn’t.  She asked for a beer.  Maybe it went to her head.  Anyway, within an hour she was up and dancing.  Wasn’t particularly good at it, but showed a lot of spirit.  Bucky danced with her; he was all smiles, exhilarated—maybe even a little manic, actually.

Sometime after Spring Break, we had dinner together.  I wasn’t surprised that he talked excessively and exclusively about Margaret Mary McComb.  Even when a non-Margaret topic came up, he’d speculate on what she’d say about it or quote something she had said.  Since Margaret couldn’t afford to go home for the break—let alone the tropics—Bucky invited her to spend a few days with the L. L. Beans at their place in Maine.  According to him, the family was enchanted. Why not, he said.  She’s polite, sweet, demure; she’s moral, religious, musical, and brilliant.  And serious, I added.  He smiled—smirklessly this time. She’s everything I’m not, he said; everything every other girl I’ve been with isn’t. Including near-sighted? I joked, but Bucky ignored me.  He talked about her playing played an old baby grand, which his father promised to get tuned before her next visit.  She actually worked on a term paper up there, he said.  It’s for that class we’re taking.  I asked if he knew what her topic was.  Of course he did.  Fascism in Yeats and Eliot. Imagine, Fascist poetry.  I asked what he was writing his paper on.  Haven’t decided yet, he admitted.  Margaret thinks I should write about either Robert Frost or Wallace Stevens—either because I’m from New England or because my grandfather made a pile in insurance.  I asked if Margaret was religious.  Well, she was raised Catholic, he said, and she’s against abortion.  I couldn’t help asking:  Birth control, too?  Then something astonishing happened. Bucky of the double/single actually blushed.

I saw Margaret the following October.  She wasn’t with Bucky.  I was walking across campus and spotted her in a gaggle of co-eds.  At first, I didn’t recognize her because the glasses were gone.  Her hair was different too, longer, smoother, and in place of those corduroy jumpers she was wearing tight jeans.  In fact, she looked pretty much the same as the others.  They were all giggling and talking either to each other or talking on cell phones. Bucky could have priced her outfit, the new hairdo, no problem.

Tell you something. When I was in Europe, I saw one of those cable things the Swiss have for getting people up and down Alps—what’s it called?  Yeah, a funicular.  Ever see one?  No?  Well, it works by gravity.  There are these two cars attached to the same cable.  The cars have water tanks.  When one of them gets to the bottom, they pump out the water, while the one at the top gets its tank filled.  Poof.  The top one slides down, pulling the bottom one up.

Well, I think Bucky and Margaret were something like that.  He was drawn to her as a serious person, to her earnestness, studiousness, even her comparative poverty which he associated with virtue.  What I’m saying is I think it was her gravity that pulled him up.  But, apart from adoration, what did he offer her?  Well, he could have offered parties, money, friends, and the welcoming arms of the L. L. Beans.  Also, I suppose, sex, mushrooms, pot, and booze.  Of course, she would have turned it all down, disdained it.  Or, if she did grab it all, he’d have dumped her.  According to Bucky, she began by despising him?  So maybe it was a sort of unintentional contest, the two cars pulling in opposite directions.  Was Margaret going to redeem Bucky or would Bucky corrupt Margaret?  Thing about funiculars is they only get close when they’re passing each other.

I kept my eye on Bucky senior year, though I saw less of him.  He started pulling A’s.  He’d changed his major to philosophy of all things.  When I saw him, he talked about the LSATs, law school, about public service.  He threw around Latin terms I had to look up:  ad litem, non constat, stare decisis.  There were no more parties at his apartment.  In September, he’d joined the Debate Team and the Cicero Club.  A lot more was gone than just his smirk.

Margaret’s new contact lenses were the opposite of Bucky’s vanished smirk. The last time I saw them together—I can’t remember where, probably some party—he looked tired and glum, but she was excited, exhilarated. I remember her pulling his arm, trying to get him to dance.

They probably broke up some time after the start of our last semester.  I saw less of Bucky but more of Margaret.  She was as smart as ever but now her remarks tended to be cutting or—you know, sardonic.  She dated a few guys from the old circle, guys a lot like the old Bucky, except that they lacked his irony. I don’t know.  Could be she was searching for the old Bucky.  Yearning’s a funny thing.  Come to think of it, Bucky probably missed Glasses, that serious, disagreeable girl who put him down and wrote about poetry and Fascism.  There’s this great line about Beauty and the Beast.  Ever see it?  The French flick.  We watched it in my film class.  Belle finally gets her handsome prince but he seems pretty boring.  The professor told us that on her way out of the theater Greta Garbo complained, “Give me back my Beast.”

So, Bucky went to Columbia Law and stopped calling himself Bucky.  After he graduated he leapt on the fast track.  You probably know the story.  From assistant D. A. to U. S. Attorney in record time.  The rest is history, or history in the making anyway.  After he locks up enough cheats, I figure he’ll go into politics.

What?  What happened to Margaret?  Oh, she gave up her plan to go back home and become a pediatrician or veterinarian.  How are you gonna keep ‘em down on the farm after they’ve seen—the clubs?  She took a job with a non-profit in New York.  Maybe she was hoping that if she was close enough to Bucky, you know, something might happen.  But she went on seeing the kind of men she’d dated her last year.  In the end, she married one of them, a rich guy.  He’s also a second or third and goes by the name of Chip.  I was invited to the wedding.  Chip works for one of the big investment banks. Not a bad guy from what I hear.  I saw them at another wedding a year ago.  Chip had put on some weight, and Margaret was pregnant.  I wonder if she’ll turn into Bucky’s mother, if you know what I mean.

Robert Wexelblatt is a professor of humanities at Boston University. He has published five fiction collections; two books of essays; two short novels; a book of poems; stories, essays, and poems in a variety of journals, and a novel awarded the Indie Book Awards first prize for fiction.   Two collections, one of Chinese, one of non-Chinese stories, are forthcoming.


Published a year ago


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