notes, four pages from chapter five

1. T Shirts. After starting and stopping this a year ago, I am ready to start again on this project. For every 50 dollar contribution to LI, I'll send you a t shirt that reads Dopamine Cowboy Movement on the back, Limited Inc on the front. I'm gonna put some kind of announcement up in the column on the right later this week.

2. The following is four pages from chapter five. Comments are always welcome.

Joan Malcolm’s first New Yorker article was published in 1979, when she was 20, and a junior at Vassar. When she was twenty one, she took a leave of absence to travel to Europe; in another year she was writing for far too many publications to write an essay comparing and contrasting Hobbes and Locke on Government, or a paper on the influence of Japanese prints on Whistler (use examples), or to memorize the dates of the Jurassic and Mesozoic periods and what plant or animal life flourished within each (name three). Then her book came out, My Circus Animals; then there was a gold ring on her finger from leftist journalist Alex Stitching (a B&W of the couple in NME, an announcement in the Vows section of the NYT, and an announcement in the Houston Chronicle – to say the least, a unique constellation of media); then there wasn’t a gold ring in her nostril (Joan, an early adopter of punk fashion, found that it got in the way when she interviewed people); then the coming back to the States to the mingled culture shocks of Reagan and MTV. She did return to Vassar, in 1990, but it was to teach a course on American non-fiction. This was an appellation, incidentally, that she disliked. On her first day she told the class that she was teaching American fact, which was capacious enough to fit fiction in its back pocket, and tough enough to make the angels weep bloody tears. Non-fiction, she added, dourly, was a term used only by narcissists and those unbearable memoirists of upper class heroin addiction that were all the rage in certain circles.

The germ of Malcolm’s ‘79 article had been planted when she flew down to Houston in ’78 to attend a party for the cast of “Urban Cowboy” at her parents’ River Oaks digs. Dr. Bobbie Malcolm, through one of his multiple connections, had secured the official title of Physical Therapist to the production.

It was one of those Houston spring nights, when the atmosphere gets fat and sweats and pants and drinks. You think, you wish, that any minute it will rain. It merely sprinkles at 2 a.m. The raindrops feel dirty. There was a noisy crowd in the back yard, wolfing canapés, drinking up the wine, smoking joints. A lot of sniffing, too, a sound that had become common at all the parties Joan attended that year. And, for that matter, the year after, and the one after that. The great Age of Snow. Traffic of partygoers coming from the yard back into the house was greeted with formidably polar temperatures insinuated into all corners by the very effective central air, which was guided by a new and very expensive sensor system that monitored for different gradients of temperature across the house. A light suet of sweat would quickly form on skins; damp patches appeared under armpits of 100 % cotton shirts and silk blouses; salty beads would dribble down from foreheads into eyes; contact wearers would blink and squint, images becoming briefly aqueous before them. Those who remained in the back yard listened to a band performing on a stage that had been hastily erected back there by workmen earlier in the day, over the spot where the swimming pool had been filled in two years before when a neighbor’s kid drowned in it. The singer was a short man with a pale face and ink black, curly hair that came to a pointy crest in the front. Whenever he hit a high note, he opened his mouth so wide it threatened to split his face. He threw back his head. He pitched the note out. Then he would return to the song with a little bobbing motion, not missing a beat, flashing a white grin that showed an astonishing number of teeth. This was a game. There was too much money to keep fighting about the songlist, plus there were names here, his girlfriend had particularly underlined the names, she'd particularly hinted about lack of bread, squandered opportunity, self-involved musicians, the law student her mother had dug up just dying to go out with her. Some danced in front of the stage, cheek to cheek. Some waited for the high notes and applauded. Some wanted songs from the movie. The singer had been given a list by the party manager. None of the songs were country. There was Hit the Road, Jack, there was My Funny Valentine. The party manager had emphasized, stick with the song list. Lights spilled out of the big house onto the yard; wild, reeling shadows mixed with swaying clusters of partygoers.

Bobbie and Lettie Malcolm were at the summit of their power couple-dom in the spring of 1978. They had rather shocked Houston’s vieux garcons, the Farish and Hobby crowd, by tearing out a room in their 10,000 square foot Staub mansion and having it redesigned as a “Futurist Fitness space” (blue velour sofas and wall matting; a new thing called a personal computer –Bobbie was always an early adopter! – on a C curve, Vermont maple desk unit; five pieces of excruciating-looking exercise equipment, a study in chrome, silver, rubber, plastic which made the human body itself look like a thing that was both miserably designed and constructed of substandard material). Lettie could be seen, draped in a Versace sarong dress, her exquisite shoulders bare, among murders of de la Renta at the fundraiser for the Museum (or the Republican congressman, or Cambodian refugees in Thailand, or the expansion of the Zoo, or the symphony, the opera, green urban spaces, the summer Olympics in 1984 association, etc. etc.), but Lettie wasn’t dense: she knew that was still the poor girl at St. Katherine’s Episcopal School for Girls to River Oaks gentry. She’d heard the rumor that she was a charity girl. Charity my Texas ass, she would say. Bobbie would just look bemused, his large, assertive face above the chicken Cesar salad. Wilson Scholes paid in full so that his daughter could learn art appreciation, the history of Texas, and Shakespeare’s dramatic art at St. Kath’s. Leticia Scholes never starred in one of the drama club productions, she ran for editor of St. Kath’s Gazetteer and lost by a humiliating hundred votes (out of one hundred twenty cast), and as a lady in waiting to the Queen in her last year she was a good ten girls and who knows how many yards of gauze from the central royal personage; but by that time she’d discovered cigarettes, boys, and fast cars, and had staged her own Queen for a day with two boys the weekend before the prom. That led to a discreet visit to a Matmoras doctor two months later, about which the less said, the better.

Unlike Lettie, Doctor Bobbie did not trail family credits and discredits into this or any other Houston party, since Bobbie Malcolm was not from Houston, or New Orleans, or any part of Texas. This fact would be brought up in conversations three weeks from the night of the party, when the newspaper was full of Doctor Bobbie disappearing, a story that receded to the B section three weeks after that when it was reported that he’d fled to Venezuela on a fake passport. Meanwhile, his empire was falling in a ruin of fraudulent accounting and Las Vegas gambling debts around Lettie’s still delectable ears, the whorls of which had first borne the delicate explorations of Bobbie’s tongue so many years ago, and around the 2000 ears of his employees, and, finally, the fifty somewhat hairy and reddish ears of his partners. Once Bobbie reached Latin America he didn’t look back. Joan received five mysterious postcards (Love you, scribbled on the back of a picture of a mountain and a lake, an Indian and his pottery) over the next two years. Lettie claimed to have received a long and involved midnight call, once. Unofficially, the FBI agent on the case in Houston thought this was bullshit. The FBI claimed, two years later, to have tracked the absconding doctor to a small town on the Venezuelan-Colombian border, and to have been shown a badly decaying corpse that had been Gustave William , which was the name on Bobbie’s fake passport. The FBI failed to confirm this ID with extracts of bone, or tooth, or hair, since the body disappeared the next day. Agent L. Howard filed one last report; perhaps the fumbled business with the so called corpus delecti was not unconnected with the Cayman Island bank account Agent Howard opened two months later.

Doctor Bobbie came from the great Midwest, where broad faces and a certain Protestant wryness are dominant traits. The wryness is a bleached, distant remnant of Luther’s doctrine of free will – that torturous negotiation between the all too human heart and God’s insistent omniscience – and it offset, in Bobbie, a surprisingly amoral opportunism, as well as a general happiness in human company. Unlike Lettie, Bobbie was energized by high school – as, in life, he was energized by most things. He was the class president of Herbert Hoover High in Ames, Iowa, and in the speech he gave his fellow graduating seniors he reminded them that the future was before them. It was 1952, and heartland optimism struggled with the general perception that the world would blow up in the next decade. Two of the boys he addressed would go to Korea. One would die there. World events did not interfere with Bobbie, however, who rose, almost effortlessly, upward. As a young man, he inclined to bulkiness. Bulkiness, as every Lutheran knows, leads to fatness, but Bobbie was ahead of the curve on the whole weight issue. He lifted weights, he swam, he ran, he joined the college wrestling team and had his share of victories. No trophies, though. He was a good, reliable brother in his frat, the one who kept the keys at the party and drove the car home at the end of it. His first girlfriend was a banker’s daughter, and with her he experienced the golden delights of sex for the first time. In his junior year, they broke up, and Bobbie spend his golden delight on a series of other fine looking girls. To his credit, he never held the fact that he’d fucked a girl against her. That put him in a distinct psychological minority in his frat house. Bobbie’s idea was simply spread the pleasure. The key to Bobbie’s later exercise empire was that he never regarded exercise as a discipline. He never saw it as a form of punishment. He always saw it as a form of pleasure. He wanted the body to “get off” on it. That was his mantra. Get off on your jogging. Get off on your weights. Get off on the bicycle machine. Bobby never said what “getting off” actually meant, though.

In later years, Bobbie forgot exactly why he chose to pursue medicine at Rice; Rice is located in Houston, and Houston is hot, coastal, touched by Mexico and New Orleans, homicidal, sprawling, greedy. It was not a Herbert Hoover High kind of place, which for urban excitement went to Chicago, and never really ventured below St. Louis on the assumption that the South meant the Negro, and where the Negro agglomerated in too great a number, civilization was impossible. At Rice, Bobbie met an art history student. She wasn’t just Iowa pretty – with that stolid acceptance of the flesh in every working pore, ‘well put together’ as though pretty was just another product of the Protestant work ethic – but sexy. Her dyed blond hair was sexy; the way her miniskirt rode her rump was enough to give a doctor’s stethoscope a hard on; her eyes could suddenly go distant and Hollywood over a steak dinner in the Rice Club; she used her mouth, in their long sessions of lovemaking in Doctor Bobbie’s apartment in the University district, like she immensely enjoyed whatever she put in it; and in short, Lettie Scholes was the best thing since white on rice. Bobbie got a sense that her family was Houston gentry. As he was to learn, however, the doctrine and practice of Houston gentry is a collection of inscrutable clauses almost impossible for the outsider to understand. Bobbie quietly decided it was bullshit. Some nights, he almost convinced Lettie that he was right. It was money that counted, in the end, he told her.

In 1978, Bobbie Malcolm was forty five. His face, arms and legs were well known to that segment of Houston which rose early , due to an exercise show he hosted that came on at 6 a.m on Sundays. He had induced many a fifty year old woman to engage in physical contortions that would, in other circumstances, have given her husband grounds for divorce under Texas State Law, or even a sudden, justifiable blast of buckshot; the Melrose Bid a Wee Home for the aged swore by him, falling into collective frail windmills under his telegenic suggestion. He had a big face, a big neck, a burly chest, admirably solid thighs. His eyebrows were bushy and expressive, his grey eyes bulged slightly, his nose was a thick fleshy foothold, his cheeks were extensive. In season and out, his skin was the rich color of the ripe acorn. His hair was silvering nicely. His company, RYB, Inc., had added two franchises just in the past two months. Since founding the physical therapy service in 1971, Bobbie’s company had jumped from one unit in Houston to twenty, twelve in Houston and the rest across the state. RYB was planning on jumping the border into Louisiana. It was also planning on a unit in Las Vegas and a unit in Los Angeles, for which reason Doctor Bobbie was spending time out there. Lettie and the papers and the police discovered, too late, the gambling debts in Vegas, the phony expenses, the chippy in LA, all set up and (‘classic,” as Lettie liked to say, later) even taking acting classes. Doctor Bobbie was tapping his company, and had been for years. It was almost impossible to understand the accounting. It was almost impossible to track down all the places where the money was hidden. An S & L in Phoenix, a mutual fund out of Montreal, a shell company with headquarters in Panama City, Panama.


Patrick J. Mullins said…
Very interesting. Some Didion anomie in some of Bobbie's reinvented life of sojourn and tainted money, maybe? And Joan Malcolm and 'Letters from...?' Nice 'Oscar de la Renta murders.'

I remember seeing 'Urban Cowboy' and how that rich girl says 'Houston is my favourite city in the world. It just has so much in it.' And that was the only interesting thing in that movie, I then thought, the beginning of Travolta's first-part-of-career descent. Liked use of 'fat' for the Houston damp. It's interesting how beautiful Houston looked when photographed by Wem Wenders in 'Paris, Texas,' that sublime film. There was a Chelsea show of his photographs about a year and a half ago, and I was surprised how much the photos of Jerusalem looked like those of Houston. I didn't know that kind of photography could have a personality.

'Suet of sweat' is very graphic indeed. One can feel the 'dirt beads' forming even indoors, when I only thought you could get them by rolling around in the grass as a child, but now we have new densities of pollution which ought to introduce them to cocktail parties.