The Fiery Pantheon by Nancy Lemann

BOMB 62 Winter 1998
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Chapter 6

A ne’er-do-well is exciting, at least if he is still young enough, because you wonder what his potential will ultimately deliver. It seems imaginative of him to want to hang around all day in Bermuda shorts. He has balked against regular American life. Perhaps he will suddenly do something great, get an idea while hanging around in Bermuda shorts all day. But perhaps he will remain in Bermuda shorts for the rest of his life, like Cousin Malcolm. It could go either way. You are incessantly waiting to see which way it will go. The suspense is killing you. Or even if the suspense is not killing you, you wonder what it is about regular life that has disturbed him so much that he must always evade it, and hang around in Bermuda shorts all day. You probably wish you could hang around in Bermuda shorts all day. You envy him.

The connotations of spending most of your time in Bermuda shorts are surely generally accepted as “I am on a permanent vacation.” Combined with the goatee, the message would generally be interpreted as “I am on a permanent vacation but I am also searching for meaning, trying to find myself, I may be an artist, and I spend half the day in my pajamas staring vacantly.”

But to dispel the romance of Walter’s exciting ne’er-do-well reputation, actually Walter did not usually lounge around in Bermuda shorts. He had gone to Wall Street straight from college several years previously. He had not had the chance to find himself. You could not ask the exciting question of him, will he or won’t he find himself? He often worked 80 or 100 hours a week in a grueling program to learn equity, debt, capital markets, and mergers and acquisitions.

Being a financial analyst as a young kid, Walter was milked by his superiors for all he was worth, which was actually a lot. Often he had to work until two in the morning. He lived in the neighborhood of New York known as Murray Hill, across the street from the old Bellevue Hospital, which looked like something out of Charles Dickens—an ancient red-brick structure with vines growing all over it and huge cast-off Corinthian capitals lying ruined in the garden behind rusted and imposing iron gates.

Living across the street from a hospital, the incessant sirens of the ambulances, contributed to the general air of catastrophe that pervaded Walter’s life.

By contrast, the Merrill Lynch offices in the World Financial Center were of a sleek and new modernity, with a gigantic and untoward palm tree garden in the lobby.

And what had induced a young man from New Orleans to live in New York? One swift word: anonymity.

 

Walter’s position was that of securities analyst. He was philosophically indifferent to his work, and yet, for three years he had performed it with great diligence. In fact he performed it with such diligence that his employers were willing to let him take a two-month paid sabbatical to agonize over his customary six-month self-crisis evaluation period, in hopes that it would pacify him.

They had in fact put an offer on the table to him in New York in yet another attempt to pacify him. They had offered him a job on the Italian desk in London working on European deals to bring over to New York. This proposition Walter was also contemplating during his paid two-month sabbatical.

Walter’s philosophical indifference to his work seemed to be the cause of the frequent crises of his soul, causing the consequent reevaluation crisis period. But when he was on the job, he devoted himself to it with an energy and perseverence that would have caused him to excel in any line of work.

Monroe Collier may not have been aware of the existence in the world of Walter Sullivan, but Walter knew of the existence of Monroe. The Colliers were a prominent family in New Orleans and they were hard to miss. The older generation of the Collier family were distinguished by their works, and the younger generation contained some black sheep, as the younger generation always does, though Monroe was not one of them. He displayed the same attachment to his work that Walter did. It was this that Grace admired in him. She was not jealous of his work, she was proud of it. She did not repine if it should take him away from her, as it had many times. Her love followed worth, and was given to excellence.

Or so she believed from the vast doom-laden pinnacle of her 28 years.

Nevertheless it was Walter, not Monroe Collier, who was vacationing with the Stewarts at the Virginia Hotel, celebrating Grace’s engagement, and generally sticking to them like glue.

 


 


Chapter 7

The women at the reception desk of the hotel all wore the same dress, not a uniform, but the same dress, like bridesmaids. Walter had made conquests of them. When he arrived at the hotel he was a day late, and had not guaranteed his room. “You were supposed to be here yesterday,” said the girls at the reception.

“Yes but I had to psychologically prepare myself to deal with three such beautiful women,” said Walter, smolderingly, his eyes like hot coals burning into theirs.

“How long can you stay?” they asked.

Taxi drivers, hotel proprietors, guards in pith helmets, it was all the same. Everyone knew he was a character. You got that picture right away. Some people from the hotel took the bus to town with him one afternoon. When they came back Grace asked them where he was. They said the last time they saw him he was standing on the street reading the Wall Street Journaland then they chuckled and shook their heads in bemusement, because even to think of him standing in the street reading the Wall Street Journal was bemusing, once you knew he was a character.

But the remarkable thing about Walter was this. He had seen that Grace attempted to efface her beauty. He had seen that she attempted to be drab. He had studied her closely. Why would she try to efface her own beauty? Why would she try to conceal it? What was wrong with this girl? He had watched her closely. And all of this had shown him that she was a tortured soul, and it had filled him with concern. Surely in any man, much less in one so young, such a strange and compassionate reaction is rare. Beneath his crazed exterior was a solicitude and thus a decorum—though he would do his best to hide it—that contained all the pity and elegance of the world.

The truth is that he was attuned to suffering. He did not like her for her beauty, anyway. He liked her for her suffering. For the same reason, he liked her mother. Mrs. Stewart’s need to psychoanalyze everyone within a ten-foot radius only showed him that she too was attuned to suffering, after her own manner. Mrs. Stewart knew the score.

Chapter 8

“Tell me about this Flaming Pantheon of yours,” said Walter.

“It’s not a Flaming Pantheon. It’s a Fiery Pantheon,” said Grace.

“Okay, okay. Tell me about it.”

“It’s a sort of sacred shrine my heroes occupy …” She gestured with her hand. “There they rage in the Fiery Pantheon and I adore them. My father, my brothers, the judge …”

“Tell me about Monroe.”

“You’re like he used to be. The youngest one at the firm. You probably are. The boss was his mentor. You’re probably the protégé of a big cheese. Monroe’s passed beyond that stage. Do you see?”

“Yes, I see. It’s not that obscure.”

“But you’re just staring at me with a blank expression.”

“Maybe it’s the Column of Flame. Is that any relation to the Fiery Pantheon? Maybe the Column of Flame should be put into the Fiery Pantheon.”

“I’m talking about the ideals that I cherish.”

Walter contemplated the battlefield.

“I’m not sure this Flaming Pantheon of yours is such a hot idea,” said Walter, while Grace looked at him with an odd expression.

“It’s not a Flaming Pantheon. It’s a Fiery Pantheon,” said Grace.

“Is there a Fiery Annex or something? Maybe I could go there.”

She cast him a glance meant to be murderous.

“I guess I’m parking cars at the Fiery Pantheon. I’ve got the parking concession at the Fiery Pantheon,” said Walter.

A stony silence ensued.

“Don’t these paragons ever behave like human beings?” suggested Walter.

“Like noble human beings.”

“And what about you?”

“I’m just a sober character. The wallflower type.”

“I’m not so sure about that.”

“I fear to be too meek,” she said.

“Meek. Well when you inherit the earth please save me an island,” said Walter.

In this way he gruffly said goodnight, and went back to reading the biography of Winston Churchill, a possible member of the Fiery Pantheon, for all Walter knew. According to the biography Churchill started drinking Scotch at 8:00 AM and smoked ten cigars a day. Grandson of a duke, brought up at splendrous Blenheim Palace, defender of the British Empire, Churchill liked to encourage the rumor that he was the illegitimate son of a wacko British millionaire who visited him a lot at Chartwell.

The next morning, as usual, the waiter brought Walter two breakfasts. Walter protested that it was only him. “We thought the lady was spending the night,” suggested the waiter, with delicately raised eyebrows as usual. Whether it was the girls at the reception desk or other members of the staff who took a shine to Walter, they seemed determined to get him a date—or more accurately, to get a girl to spend the night with him.

Nancy Lemann is the author of two novels, The Lives of the Saints and Sportsman’s Paradise, and a nonfiction book, The Ritz of the Bayou. She has contributed to many publications, including Esquire, the New Republic, Vogue, Elle, and the Paris Review. A native of New Orleans, she now lives in San Diego. The Fiery Pantheon will be published by Scribner in March.

Originally published in

BOMB 62, Winter 1998

Featuring interviews with Elizabeth Murray, Kerry James Marshall, Anthony Hecht, Michael Winterbottom, Liza Bear, Wong Kar-Wai, Olu Dara, Martin Sherman, and Philip Kan Gotanda. 

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