Fiction

Words

Joyce Carol Oates
Black and white striped background with hand holding a shape with text on it.

A little Westwood secretary figuring to improve her mind.

A religious fanatic maybe. Or a daughter of such. That type youget to recognize in Southern California.

Mostly we paid her no attention. Prof Dietrich would inform us afterward that she’d never missed a single class until November. But she was so quiet in class, it was like she was invisible. Slipping into her seat early each week and she’d lean forward over her book rereading the assignment so if you glanced in her direction you’d get the clear signal Don’t talk to me please, don’t even look at me. So it was easy not to notice her. She was serious and downlooking and prim without makeup and her skin pale and slightly shiny and her ash-blond hair rolled back and pinned up in the style women were wearing during the war, if they worked in factories. It was a look of the forties and of another time. And sometimes she’d tie a scarf around her hair. She wore nondescript skirts and blouses and loose-fitting cardigans and flat-heeled shoes, and stockings. No jewelry, no rings on either hands. And her fingernails plain. You’d figure her about twenty-one but younger than that in experience.

Living at home with her parents in a little stucco bungalow. Or maybe her widow-mother. The two of them singing hymns, Sunday mornings in some drab little church. A virgin for sure.

If you said hello to her or made a friendly remark in her direction the way some of us did, breezing into class and eager to talk and laugh and exchange news before Prof Dietrich arrived, she’d lift her eyes quick and startled-blue and shrinking back in the same reflex. It was then you’d see, like a kick in the groin, that this little girl was good-looking, or might’ve been good-looking, if she’d known it. But she didn’t know. She’d lower her eyes or turn away and rummage in her shoulder bag for a tissue. Mumble something polite and that was that. Don’t even look at me, please!

So, who would? There were other girls in the class, and women, and they weren’t shy.

Even her name was a nothing-name. You’d hear it and forget it in the same moment. “Gladys Pirig” – Prof Dietrich read it off, first class meeting. Reading the roll in his deep-sonorous voice and making marks beside our names and he’d peer up at us over his glasses and make a twitchy gesture with his mouth meant to be a smile, some of us knew Prof Dietrich from previous classes in the night school and liked him which was why we were enrolled for another so we knew he was a good-natured generous and optimistic man but a tough grader even in the night school where we were all adults.

“Prof Dietrich” we called him, or just “Prof.” We knew from the UCLA catalogue he wasn’t an actual professor only just an adjunct instructor but we called him “Prof” and he’d blush a little, but not correct us. Like it was a game we played that we night school students were important enough to merit a “Prof” and he wasn’t going to disillusion us.

You had to love poetry, and you had to believe that poetry was worthy of your love, to spend two hours in a classroom at the end of a workday.

This class was Renaissance Poetry. UCLA Night School, fall 1951, Thursday evenings seven to nine p.m. Thirty-two of us were enrolled and it was surprising, and a testament to Prof Dietrich, that almost everybody showed up for most classes, even after the winter rainy season began. We were veterans on the G.I. bill and retired men and middle-aged housewives with no kids left at home and office workers and two young students from Westwood Theological Seminary and a few of us were would-be poets. The dominant group in the class, apart from two or three outspoken vets, were a half-dozen public schoolteachers, female, in their thirties and forties, taking extra courses to beef up their credentials. Most of us worked days. And long days they were. You had to love poetry, and you had to believe that poetry was worthy of your love, to spend two hours in a classroom at the end of a workday. Prof Dietrich was an excitable energetic teacher so you’d get caught up in his enthusiasm even if you didn’t always understand what he was declaiming about. In the presence of such teachers, it’s enough to know that they know.

Like the first class period after reading through our names Prof Dietrich stood before us clasping his chunky, chafed-looking hands together and said, “Poetry. Poetry is the transcendental language of mankind.” He paused, and we shivered figuring whatever the hell that meant it was worth the tuition at least.

How ‘“Gladys Pirig” took this, nobody would notice. Probably she wrote it down in her notebook, schoolgirl-style, as she had a habit of doing.

We began the semester reading Robert Herrick, Richard Lovelace, Andrew Marvell. Richard Crashaw, Henry Vaughan. We were gearing up, Prof Dietrich said, for Donne and Milton. In his booming dramatic voice like Lionel Barrymore, reciting Richard Crashaw’s “Upon the Infant Martyrs” –

To see both blended in one flood;
The mother’s milk, the children’s blood,
Makes me doubt if Heaven will gather
Roses hence, or lilies rather.

And Henry Vaughan’s “They Are All Gone into the World of Light” –

They are all gone into the world of light!
           And I alone sit lingering here;
Their very memory is fair and bright
           And my sad thoughts doth clear.

We’d analyze and discuss these knotty little poems. Always there was more than you’d expect. One line opened up another, and one word another, it was like a fairy tale riddle leading you in, and in farther, and still farther. For some of us in the class it was a revelation. “Poetry! Poetry is compression,” Prof Dietrich told us, seeing the bewilderment on some faces. His eyes shone inside his smudged wire-rimmed glasses that he’d take off, and put back on, and take off again a dozen times during the class period. “Poetry is the soul’s shorthand. Morse code.” His jokes were clumsy and corny but we all laughed, even “Gladys Pirig,” who had a squeaky little laugh that sounded more surprised than mirthful. Prof Dietrich had a determinedly light tone. He meant to be funny, witty. Like he was carrying a burden of something else, something darker and snarled, and his jokes were a way of deflecting our attention from it, or maybe his own. He was about forty years old and going soft in the middle, a big-boned guy like a bear on its hind legs, about six feet three and weighing maybe two hundred twenty pounds. A linebacker but with this chiseled, chipped-at sensitive face, quick to blush and acne-pitted yet the women in the class considered him handsome in the battered Bogart style, his myopic eyes “sensitive.” He wore mismatched coats and trousers and vests, and plaid neckties that bunched beneath his chin. From some remarks he’d made absentmindedly about London during the war you had the idea he’d been there, probably stationed there for some time, you had a quick glimpse of the man in a uniform but that was it, just a glimpse; he’d never talk about himself, not even after class. “Poetry is the way out of the self,” Prof told us, “and poetry is the way back into the self. But poetry is not the self.”

Nobody wrote better poetry, Prof Dietrich said, than the Renaissance poets not even counting Shakespeare (Shakespeare was another course). He lectured us on the poetic forms, especially on the sonnets – English and Petrarchan, or Italian. He lectured us on “mutability” – “the vanity of human wishes” – “the fear of growing old and dying.” This was a Renaissance theme so prevalent you could say it was “a cultural obsession, a pandemic neurosis.” One of the theological students asked, “But why? When they believed in God?” and Prof Dietrich laughed and hitched up his trousers and said, “Well, maybe they did, and maybe they didn’t. There’s a profound difference between what people say they believe and what, in their guts, they truly believe. Poetry is the lancet that digs through dead tissue into the truth.” Someone commented that, after all, people didn’t live very long centuries ago, and they were lucky to live to be forty, and women died young in childbirth frequently so it made sense, didn’t it – “They worried about dying all the time. It could happen any time.” One of the female teachers, a practiced talker, said argumentatively, “Oh, bosh! Probably ‘mutability’ was just a topic these male poets wrote about, like ‘love.’ They wanted to be poets and they had to write about something.” We laughed. We disagreed. We began talking excitedly as we always did, starved for serious, intellectual conversation in our lives, or what passed for intellectual conversation. We interrupted one another –

“Love poems, love lyrics, like in our own popular songs of today, and movies – they’re the subjects, see? Like nothing else in life is important? But at the same time, maybe they’re just, y’know – ‘subjects.’ Maybe none of it is real.”

“Yes, but it was real once, wasn’t it?”

“Who knows? What the hell is ‘real’?”

“You’re saying love isn’t real? Dying isn’t real? What?”

“Well, everything was real at one time! Otherwise – how’d we even get the words for these things?”

During these free-for-alls over which Prof Dietrich presided like a gym teacher pleased at so much activity but maybe a little worried things might get out of control, the blond “Gladys Pirig” would sit silent staring at us. During Prof’s lectures she took notes but at these times she’d lay down her pen. You could see she was listening hard. Tense and quivering and her backbone ramrod straight so you could see she was a girl who made too much of things like every instant was a streetcar rattling past she needed to catch and was in terror she might miss. A little Westwood office worker, but she’d been encouraged by some teacher in high school to reach out for something better and maybe she’d written poetry and this teacher had praised her so she was writing poetry still, in secret and out of a dread it wasn’t any good. Her pale lips moved silently. Even her feet were restless. Sometimes we’d notice her half-consciously rubbing her legs, her calves, as if her muscles ached, or flexing her feet as if they were cramping on her. (But nobody could’ve figured she was taking dance lessons, probably. You just wouldn’t have figured “Gladys Pirig” was anything physical.) Prof Dietrich wasn’t the kind of bullying teacher to call on quiet or shy students but obviously he was aware of this neat wellgroomed excruciatingly shy blond girl seated right in front of him, as he was alert and aware of all of us; and one evening he inquired who’d like to read aloud George Herbert’s “The Altar” and he must’ve seen something quick and yearning in the girl’s face because instead of calling on one of us with our hands in the air, he said in a kindly voice, “Gladys?” There was a moment’s silence, a pause when you could almost hear the girl suck in her breath. Then she whispered, in the way of a child taking a dare, reckless, even smiling, “I’ll t-try.”

This poem. It was a religious poem you could figure, but printed in a peculiar way. A thick horizontal column of print at the top, a thinner vertical column and a matching thick horizontal column at the bottom. It was a “metaphysical” poem (we’d been told) which meant it was a tough nut to crack but beautiful language you could let flow past like you’d listen to music. Gladys was nervous you could see but she turned a little in her desk to face us, and propped up her book, took a deep breath and began to read, and – well, it was wholly unexpected, not just Gladys’s husky dramatic voice that managed to be breathless and powerful simultaneously, spiritual and “sexy” as hell, but the mere fact that she was reading to us at all, that she hadn’t refused, or run out of the room when Prof made his request. On the page “The Altar” was a puzzle but when that little blond girl read it, it suddenly made sense.

    A   broken   a L T A R,   Lord,   thy   servant    rears,
    Made   of   a   heart, and   cemented   with    tears;
          Whose parts are as thy hand did frame;
          No workman’s tool hath touched the same.
                          A       heart       alone
                          Is     such    a    stone
                          As     nothing      but
                          Thy power doth cut.
                          Wherefore each part
                          Of   my   hard   heart
                          Meets  in  this  frame,
                          To  praise  thy  Name;
          That, if I chance to hold my peace,
          These stones to praise thee may not cease.
    O    let    thy    blessed    s a c r i f i c e    be    mine
    And     saintly     this     a l t a r     to     be    thine.

When Gladys finished, we burst into applause. All of us. Even the schoolteachers you might’ve figured would be jealous of this performance. For there was Prof Dietrich gaping at this girl we figured for an office worker, like he couldn’t believe his ears. He was half-sitting against the teacher’s desk in his usual casual position, shoulders slouched and head bent over the text, and when Gladys finished he joined in the applause and said, “Young lady, you must be a poet! Are you?”

Now fiercely blushing, Gladys hunched her shoulders and mumbled something we couldn’t hear.

Prof Dietrich persisted, half teasing in his teacherly-kindly way like this episode, too, was something almost a little out of his control, and he needed to control it with just the right words. “Miss Pirig? You are a poet – of some rare sort!”

He asked Gladys why the poem was printed in such strange typography and Gladys again spoke inaudibly and Prof said, “Louder, please, Miss Pirig,” and Gladys cleared her throat and said, only just audibly, “It’s m-meant to be an altar, the way it looks?” – but now her voice was hurried and lacking in timbre and it did seem she might be about to bolt from the room like a spooked animal. So Prof quickly said, “Thank you, Gladys. You are correct. Class, d’you see? ‘The Altar’ is an altar.’

The damnedest thing! Once you saw it, you couldn’t not see it. Like one of those Rorschach inkblot tests.

A Heart alone. The girl’s voice intoning those words. A Heart alone is such a stone. Through our lives we’d hear it, every one of us in that room that evening.

November 1951. A long time ago. Jesus! You don’t want to think how few of us are still living, this hour.

Sure, we watched her after that. We talked to her more, or tried to. She wasn’t anonymous anymore. “Gladys Pirig” – she was mysterious, and sexy. Mysterious is sexy. That ash-blond hair, that husky breathy voice. Maybe a few of us tried to look her up in the L.A. phone directory, but no “Gladys Pirig” was listed. Prof called on her once or twice more and she stiffened without answering him but it was too late. And she was looking familiar to us. Not to everybody in the class but to a few. No matter she dressed herself more than ever in secretary-clothes and her hair rolled and pinned like Irene Dunne and if you tried to strike up a conversation with her she’d back off like a scared rabbit. What she seemed like, if you had to put a name to it, was a girl who’d been rough-handled by men. And there was the Thursday night one of us came to class with a copy of Hollywood Reporter and passed it around and we stared in astonishment yet maybe not by this time entirely in surprise. “‘Marilyn Monroe.’ Jesus.” “That’s her? That little girl?” “She isn’t a girl, and she isn’t little. Look.”

We looked.

Some of us wanted to keep our discovery a secret, but we had to show Prof, we had to see the look on Prof’s face, and he stared and stared at the photo feature in Hollywood Reporter, both with his glasses on and his glasses off. For here was a luscious four-column photo of this dazzling blond Hollywood actress, not yet a star but you could see she’d be one soon, just about spilling out of a low-cut sequined dress and with her face so made-up, it looked like a painting – “Marilyn Monroe, Miss Model Blonde 1951.” Plus stills from The Asphalt Jungle and the new release All About Eve. Prof said hoarsely, “This ‘starlet’ – ‘Marilyn Monroe’? This is Gladys?” We told him yes, we were sure. Once you made the connection it was obvious, like a Rorschach. Prof said, “But I saw Asphalt Jungle. I remember that girl, and our Gladys isn’t anything like her.” One of the seminarians who’d been looking on said, “I just saw All About Eve, and she was in it! It’s just a small role but I do remember her. I mean, I remember the blond who must’ve been her.” He laughed. We were all laughing, excited and thrilled. Some of us, we’d lived through moments of what you’d call surprise, in the war, when what you’d been thinking was one way was revealed suddenly and forever as not that way at all, and your very existence of no more substance or significance than a strand of cobweb, and this moment was a little like that, the surprise of it, the irreversible revelation of it, except of course this was a happy moment, a giddy moment, like we’d all won a lottery and were celebrating. The seminarian was enjoying the attention we gave him, adding, “‘Marilyn Monroe’ isn’t anybody you’d be likely to forget.”

Next class period, a dozen of us arrived early. We had copies of Screen World, Modern Screen, PhotoLife – “Most Promising Starlet 1951.” Another copy of Hollywood Reporter with a photo of “Marilyn Monroe” at a movie premiere, escorted by the handsome young actor Johnny Sands. We even had back issues of Swank, Sir! and Peek. There was a feature in Look from last fall: “Miss Blonde Sensation – marilyn monroe.” We were passing these around excited as kids when in walked “Gladys Pirig” in a khaki-colored raincoat and hat, a mousy little girl nobody’d have given a second glance to. And she saw us, and the magazines, and must’ve caught on at once. Our eyes! We’d meant to keep our secret but it was like a lit match held to dried sedge. One of the pushy guys came right up to “Gladys” and said, “Hey. Your name isn’t ‘Gladys Pirig,’ is it? It’s ‘Marilyn Monroe.’” He was crude enough to hold up Swank with her on the cover in a flimsy red nightie, in red high heels and her hair touseled and her shiny red lips pursed in a kiss. “Gladys” looked at him as if he’d slapped her. Quickly she said, “N-No. That isn’t me. I mean – I’m not her.” There was panic and horror in her face. This was no Hollywood actress, just a frightened girl. She would’ve run out but some of us were blocking her way, not deliberately, it was just how we happened to be standing. And others coming into the room. The sharp-eyed schoolteacher contingent, who’d been hearing the rumor. And Prof Dietrich was early by at least five minutes. And this pushy guy was saying to her, “‘Marilyn,’ I think you’re great. Can I have your autograph?” He wasn’t kidding. He was holding out his Renaissance text for her to sign. Another guy, one of the veterans, was saying, “I think you’re great. Don’t let these crude assholes make you nervous.” And another guy was saying, in mimicry of Angela from The Asphalt Jungle, “‘Uncle Leon, I ordered salt herring for your breakfast, I know how you like it,’” and even “Gladys Pirig” laughed at this, a small squeaky laugh, “Well. You’ve got me there, I guess.” And there came Prof Dietrich looking self-conscious but excited, too, his face flushed, and tonight he was wearing a decent-looking navy blue coat not missing a single button and pressed trousers and a bright plaid tie, and he said, awkwardly, “Um, Gladys – Miss Pirig – I’ve heard, I believe – we have a ‘starlet’ in our midst. Congratulations, Miss Monroe!” The girl was smiling, or trying to smile, and managed to say, “Th-thank you, Professor Dietrich.” He told her he’d seen The Asphalt Jungle and thought the movie was “unusually thoughtful for Hollywood” and her performance was “excellent.” You could see it made her uncomfortable to hear this from Prof. The big man’s gleaming eyes, broad eager smile. “Gladys Pirig” had no intention of taking her seat as usual but wanted only to escape us. Like the earth was shaking beneath her. Like she’d been deluded enough to think it would not, though this was southern California and what else could you expect? She was backing toward the door, and we were crowding and jostling around her, talking in loud voices to get her attention, competing with one another for her attention, even the female schoolteachers, and her Renaissance textbook which was a heavy, hefty book slipped from her fingers and fell to the floor and one of us snatched it up and handed it to her but held onto it only just a little so she couldn’t rush away and she said, practically begging, “L-Leave me alone, please. I’m not the one you w-want.” That look in her face! That look of hurt, pleading, terror, and female resignation in her beautiful face some of us would be deeply moved to see two years later in the climactic scene of Niagara when the adultress Rose is about to be strangled by her maddened husband played by Joseph Cotten, that look in Marilyn Monroe’s face we would believe ourselves the first to have seen, one rainy Thursday evening in November 1951 as the girl known to us as “Gladys Pirig” managed to slip away, abandoning her book to us, and we gaped after her, and Prof Dietrich called out half sternly, half in dismay – “Miss Monroe! Please. We won’t make any more fuss, we promise.”

But no. She’d left. A few of us ran after her to the stairs. She bolted, and ran. She ran down those stairs fast as a boy might’ve done, and no looking back. “Marilyn!” we shouted after her. “Marilyn, come back!”

She never returned to our class.

Through the remainder of the semester, her desk at the front of the room remained empty. It was a strange emptiness that drew your eye to it irresistibly. Prof Dietrich tried not to glance at the desk as he paced about the room giving his excited, nervous, rambling lectures. You could see the poor guy make the conscious effort not to look, and fail. He’d toss out a question to us – “What is the dominant symbol in ‘A Valediction’?” – “What exactly are ‘thronèd powers’?” – and while somebody was answering, his gaze would swerve onto the desk where once “Gladys Pirig” had sat. Of course, we’d all glance up alert and hopeful when someone came in late. But it was never her.

Almost, you’d think we’d drove her away on purpose.

We resented her staying away, to spite us. We resented one another for what we’d done that couldn’t be undone.

The overhead lights of our classroom were not flattering. Our faces were exposed as sallow, plain, and tired. Our eyes were pinched. In December, the rainy winter season began. Winter in southern California is pitiless, relentless. Morning mist, all-day fog. Monsoon-rains. We were extras in a film but the star had departed. In fact, there would be no film. We continued with our reading-aloud of poetry in matter-of-fact, flat voices. We did our best. Some of us tried to exude “personality.” We didn’t shrink, as a class, from the task of making the best of what we had which was only ourselves, night-school students at UCLA taking a course in the abstruse, mostly religious poetry of a bygone era, some of us would-be poets ourselves, and none of us published. Thursday evenings, seven to nine p.m. One rainy night Prof Dietrich was reading a sonnet by John Donne to us – “‘Death be not proud, though some have called thee mighty and dreadful’ –” and he broke off, lifting his hands in defeat. His voice was more bewildered than hurt, ironic, or grim. “It doesn’t really mean much, does it? Words.”

Joyce Carol Oates is a writer whose books include Black Water, Blonde, them, and Night. Sleep. Death. The Stars. She is a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley.
Originally published:
April 1, 2000

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