The Peony Pavilion


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The Wall Street Issue

The Peony Pavilion

Short fiction from the Wall Street Issue.

This is a piece of short fiction from the Wall Street Issue

On our second date, after I spoke to my wife about my feelings, she was quiet, and I could see that she felt that I was strange. Many years later she told me that she had laughed about me with friends, likening me to a peacock who has spread his feathers. For a long time, she and her friends referred to me as the Peacock. They even got an expression from it, to describe the way a certain kind of man, an inferior man, will try to seduce a woman by speaking about his hardships: "to fan out." As in, to open his feathers. Show off his tail.


In a fit of madness, when the senior management informed me that my quarterly reports were overdue, I brought out the iron fist. The old ruler. I get so very tired of the so-called magical power of incentives. I wrote what was, truly, a grandiose memo. Could it even be done? I had never monitored communications in the way I proposed—through a staff of auditors, keeping live eyes and ears on all incoming and outgoing electronic and voice communications, and through precise records of purchase and sale prices and locations—but I had intended to.

It was an unusual time. I was often alone, eating whatever the cook made, and while I should perhaps have used this time for performance reviews, honestly, what is the purpose? I found myself drawn to the old compilation set. When Gordon Gekko speaks the truth: "Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit!" I realized my earlier program was insufficient. I was inspired to write a subsection into the compliance manual implementing mandatory percentage-based financial punitive disincentives. I drafted a new evaluation rubric, replacing self-evaluations with moral profiles on all our managers, also known as the Ethics Audit. And although I would not be conducting performance reviews, I would train my staff. I demanded 12. I bought 12 Newman Medical ABI-400 Hand Held Vascular Doppler Systems—the best polygraphs on the market. The ABI sales rep emailed me shortly after I placed the order. "This is the single largest order I have ever received. You must have a pack of liars over there." He offered to train my staff. I politely declined. "I prefer to do that myself, for reasons of security." "I get it," he wrote back. "Protocol."


Arwana called me from overseas. She was taking a flight, she explained, to Copenhagen. She wasn't coming home. She was taking Maisel to see a doctor—she felt he might have some mental problems.

"He said he was going to cut off my head. I didn't ask him. I didn't want to know."

She handed Maisel the phone. I asked what he had been up to. He said he hadn't been doing anything. He said he'd borrowed a bicycle.

"I bet that's fun."

"Not really."

"How do you like your grandmother?"

"Oh, you mean that woman who's really ugly. She's really ugly. She's seventy years old. At first I thought she was eighty. She's old and ugly and fat. She's fat out to here. I want to take a piece of broken glass and cut her throat."

I heard his mother say something. Maisel said, "I never said that. You did." Then Arwana came back on the phone. She said he needed to be at a facility; she'd found one in Copenhagen. I tried in a roundabout way to suggest that the behavior might be resulting from his medications—he takes Adderall for his ADHD and an SSRI for his mood, as well as some medications to treat the side effects—but she said, "The medications are helping." She said it was an excellent facility, idyllic. She said it reminded her of a Bergman set.

Persona, I thought. I wanted to say, "Why do you think you're still single?!"

I said, "I was thinking, under the circumstances, maybe it would be easier on you if Maisel came home. Maybe he could just use a change of…"


"No. No, I don't think that's a good idea."


They budgeted me eight hires. I should stress that I never wanted to be a compliance officer. A lot of boys who want to lead—bankers, psychiatrists, salesmen—grow up talking to themselves in the mirror, talking in feigned, resonant voices, envisioning alpha positions. I always admired the minor players, the positions that let eccentric particularities flourish—give me the statistician, the programmer. And it isn't because of my voice, a handicap I acknowledge freely—and I work on it. I set aside two hours every evening. After we were divorced Arwana made a stray comment: "It's too bad you couldn't take my name." I said, "Why?" She wouldn't say. I said, "Is that because I speak with a high pitch and my last name is Poteet? You think Charles Darringer is more manly?" Well, thank you. Charles Poteet is fine with me. Charles Poteet suits me. She actually tried to change Maisel's name! "They tease him," she said. "They call him Maisel Bo Peep. He struggles enough."

It is my practice to take 40 milligrams of Valium each morning. This is because I suffer from nerves, and I find it is essential for a compliance officer to be at ease, although all of the great ones suffer from acute nervousness. Bob wore lifts in his shoes and spent half his days drunk. It is also my practice to take two or three steroids. This is to ensure that my energy level is high. You see, I admit I don't care about the market. I hate the market! I used to attack these problems of motivation through cocaine and adultery—most anxiety is simply caused by pent-up sexual feeling—but as I have become more busy, I have found I do not always have the hour to set aside to steady my nerves, and so I use the expediency of pharmacology.


I pinched my cheeks. It is one of my devices, to arrive moments late for a meeting. I arrive a moment late, that way everyone has settled and begun to generate a sense of expectation. I had my driftwood under one arm and my briefcase tied with a nylon rope so I could wear it like a backpack. But I was divided on the direction this new department of mine should take. My emendation had indicated that we would monitor communication directly and through language-specific searches. On one hand, I liked the old-fashioned simplicity. On the other hand, I wanted to nail these fuckers. I had the ambition to use technology, the latest psycho-social profiling techniques, and other methods—espionage—to make a personality assessment that was more comprehensive than anything previously imagined. Do something great! I didn't merely want to know what they had done wrong, or what they even planned to do wrong. I wanted to be able to anticipate the most remote possibilities. I wanted to know illicit intentions that were yet unformed. We could begin with some visualization exercises—I have a poor sense of direction, and even after a decade, I do not know my way around. I showed up at 9:01 and peered into the conference room.

Fifty new hires sat rapt around Victor Vargas. I checked the time, looked around—the hallways were empty—then opened my briefcase and riffled through it, trying to find the paper on which I had written down the conference-room number. We have, you see, a modern, somewhat complicated rotating system that spreads our company out over two buildings, with electronic badges and daily moves—somehow this is supposed to generate a sense of equality. I had come to the room I was certain was mine, but clearly I was mistaken. I looked at my watch again.


I run a tight ship. To do this, I need to come out of the gates strong—and here I was, late. I could have called my secretary, except I did not know the number, and the batteries of my cell phone were, as usual, dead. So I ran back to my office, two buildings away. Of course I dropped my driftwood and tripped over it. It was unharmed, but I ripped the knees of my trousers and scraped myself very badly.

I arrived at my office in a panic. I was bleeding. As I explained the problem, a roll of words began—the result of years of training, breaking down my internal censor, so that I am able to act quickly and clearly—and I found myself saying, "I can't do this any longer." My secretary was alarmed. Unexpected tears rolled down my cheeks. The chief compliance officer is a sensitive being. Let those with thick skins buy and sell, and give interviews on the subject. My secretary checked her time sheet and said, "You had the room right, Charles. But your meeting starts at 10 AM, see? You're an hour early." She took me into my office to relax. She locked the door. She walked me through a breathing exercise. "Hold down one nostril," she demonstrated. "Inhale."

"I'm surprised you know that one," I said, breathing in through my left nostril.

"It's an old one," she smiled. "Now extend your arms over your head and stretch…"

I began to calm down. "Surely they will add this to the legion of stories that circulate about me at steakhouse cocktail parties and… hotel bars."


She smiled. She said, "Let me tell you a secret, Charles. Not even Sam knows this." Then she told me something about herself. She showed me her vulnerability. She said, "I trust you never to tell anyone that."

When she left me, I went to the executive restroom, sat on the commode, and took a second Valium. I took a fourth steroid. A third Valium was necessary. Seven full minutes after the appointed time, at 10:07, I stood and strolled laconically past my secretary's office, down the hallway, into the elevator. I felt like dancing across Fulton, past the fountains at 18, through security, and up to the 17th floor, to my conference room. Twelve men and women whom I recognized from the interviews stood outside the conference room. I presumed the door was locked. I did not have a key. I looked through the conference-room window—Victor stood at the head of the room, still lecturing, his team members mesmerized.

I checked my watch.

I looked to my team. "We do meet at 10 in this room."

A small boy in a formal coat nodded. He had a European affect. He smiled, making magnetizing eyes. A fat woman who was too tall, with hair that was not under control, looked at me as if I were a new and unfamiliar humiliation. I frowned. Her pupils dilated with pity. I looked at the others and murmured, "Well, I'll just knock."

Something strange exists inside me—a peculiar fire burns, and I cannot predict its eruptions. It is part of my talent. Without my knowing it I had opened the door and was marching up, briefcase in hand, to Victor. As he finished his sentence, he craned his neck to watch me, and he smiled. His team members mimicked him—50 rapt smiling faces smiled Victor's smile.


I placed my driftwood on the podium. "I believe you've run over."

"I apologize, Mr.—"

"Dr. Poteet."

"Dr. Poteet."

He looked at his team members with mock seriousness, and they laughed. For a moment I thought he was going to repeat my name.

He said, "So really, you see, it's not about fundamentals at all. It's not instinct or training. It's just luck. You just keep doing it until you get lucky and in the meantime work the technical side. But I could talk with you guys all day. OK, that's it. I'll see you next week."

"Mr. Vargas?" I said. "Mr. Vargas. What time did you book the room for?"

"I think it ends at 10. Call me Victor, please."

"I don't think so, Mr. Vargas. They don't stack us like that. They put a buffer between meetings—if I were you, I'd check. With your secretary. I believe your session ends at 9:45."

My team members were still standing outside the conference room. They were intimidated. That was not the right attitude. We are, after all, the law. But Victor's team members had a sleazy brio. The fat girl had the door held open for one of them, who strutted past and eyed her casually. I made eye contact with her and rolled my eyes. She smiled and lowered hers. When she lifted them, it was to watch Victor and his team members with admiration.

Victor's team members—people whom we will watch, who will live or breathe as we decide—and this you will find difficult to believe, and I would too, had I not witnessed it—actually took their time leaving, some gathering in front of the conference room to discuss having coffee afterward, and whether it would conflict with this and that. I banged my papers and made several pointed looks at my team members, one of whom—an athlete, I believe, judging by his build—shared in my outrage. He joined the revolution, throwing open his backpack in such a way. Well, I didn't wait for the great god almighty Victor Vargas and his minions to grant me my own room. I began!


"Sodium amytal. What we are after people is very simple: absolute transparency by whatever means necessary."

I paused, to let the lingerers feel the weight of that.

"First exercise. You are wearing an emperor's robe, having just committed suicide. You may choose your means. You are on the autopsy table. Your body is being sliced open. See it. See its details. Then we'll go around in a circle, and you'll describe it to me."

After they made their vague, sanitized attempts, or their blurred, harshly spoken attempts, I said, "My naked body is placed on a gold and ivory slab. The court doctor has put the finest silk over my face and over my genitals. He measures me from head to toe, using a wooden ruler. He ceremoniously lifts the cloth from my face and opens my left eye, then my right. In his right hand he holds a pair of bone tweezers. Not exactly tweezers. They are like chopsticks, but in miniature. With his left hand he slowly lifts my head. Then he bends each of my elbows. He lifts my left leg, noting that rigor mortis has set in, and the knee does not bend. His assistant rolls me over onto my stomach—there is lividity in my lower torso. The doctor points to it with his tweezers. Perhaps I was poisoned? Perhaps I poisoned myself? I am rolled onto my back. The doctor and the assistant palpate my stomach, and my entire body, beginning with my shoulders and working down, feeling for any abnormality. They squeeze my breasts. The doctor uses the tweezers to pull back my eyelids, my lips. They open my legs and investigate my penis, using the tweezers. With the tweezers the doctor quickly opens and closes my anus. My legs are closed. They check the joints of each of my fingers, by unfolding one finger at a time. They check each joint in my body in this way. The doctor instructs the assistant, and using a large, sharp, strong knife, they cut me open from chin to groin. When the assistant has made his first, gross incision, the doctor comes back and goes over the cut, getting through the yellow layer of fat to the organs. His chastened assistant helps him tear the flesh and fat, pulling me open."


I stopped there. I said, "To be a compliance officer you must be able to see. To see, you must be merciless. Please prepare, over the course of the week, to describe one of your own bowel movements. I advise you to use the first one you see—don't think back to a striking one, because you won't have the necessary detail. Memory washes the particulars away, like a river tooth."

The fat traitor raised her hand. "What's a river tooth?"

I held up the piece of creek-smoothed timber I always brought with me to important meetings and said, "Look it up."

The athlete laughed.

Emboldened, I said, "And you are fired."


In my post-class soak in the Japanese tub, I thought about Maisel. The thing I do not like about my wife—my ex-wife—is that she is rarely mistaken. She takes enormous pride in being correct about details. I am a big-picture person, but the years with her wore me down, so that if I got a word wrong, or referred to a coyote as a wolf, I felt bitter. When we were fighting, once, when Maisel was just a toddler, I went into her study and urinated on her sofa. I looked up and saw him at the French doors, his little face pressed to the window. He was smiling.

The phone rang and I got out of the tub. It was my secretary, checking to make sure everything was all right.

"It sounds like you're at a nightclub."

"I'm at Tim's," she said. "At the party for Victor?" She was quiet and realized he hadn't invited me. She said, "Why aren't you here?"


I felt unusually spritely, so I accepted her invitation.

It was a poor decision by the company to let Tim host. Tim has always been vulgar. His maisonette was furnished expensively, in a jumble of styles. The paint colors did not reflect the period of the architecture. His entryway reminded me of a restaurant in SoHo. When he saw me eyeing his floor lamp, he said, "Charles, it's nice to see you. I'm honored—or surprised. It's been years since you've been to one of these things. You're the thirty-ninth-floor hermit."

"Oh, I get out quite a lot, Tim," I said. I tried not to smile. "Maybe we don't run in quite the same circles?"

"No, of course, I didn't mean to imply—I only meant I never see you at company functions."

"I'm trying to figure something out," I said. "I see a lamp. I see a cord. But I don't see…"

He looked wounded. He said, "When we bought the maisonette, we didn't realize there are almost no outlets. So it's sort of a piece of sculpture then. Decorative art." He laughed.

"I see." I touched the lamp and it nearly toppled over. He lunged to catch it.

Around Victor Vargas was a circle of admirers. But when he saw me, he brightened, and he crossed the room. To apologize, I assumed.

"So tell me about your punitive measures," he said. "It's such a cool idea."

At first I was startled. But then I saw by his expression that he was thinking of the patterns. As though it would be far too complex for me.


I gave a gloss on my plan. Victor said, "Spycraft? Will you have drones?" I said, "A pure heart can discern impurity wherever it molders. Charlatans abound."

I had expected him to slink away in defeat. But Victor immediately understood my idea. He was enthusiastic. He spoke for a long time about his plans for a similar security system. He spoke about his research and diagrams. He said he had 87 archival boxes.

"I'd love it if you could use them."

I said, "We begin our gun work next week."


"To use a gun properly requires a great deal of study, and a great deal of learning. You can't simply pick up a gun and hold it correctly. You must learn its weight. Learn its weight loaded, learn its weight unloaded. Pick it up a hundred times with three bullets in the chamber. Then four. Fire a gun in anger. Fire a gun in contempt. Fire a gun at a dead pig."

"So you'll take your team to a gun range."

"Victor, you don't teach a young boy to have sex by showing him pornographic movies. We'll do some loading and unloading."

As we spoke, I realized that Victor was not, as I first had supposed, a superficial idiot. Quite the opposite. In fact he was inscrutable. He understood that I was worth knowing. He said it was very exciting, and he wanted to be involved, and to please tell him if there was any way he could be. Top brass watched us.

"Victor," I said, and I put my arm around his shoulder. "I am unpopular. Once, in a rage, I took all of the hors d'oeuvres and stirred them up in one bowl, then returned a serving of slop to each silver container. Of course they said Charles must have done it. No one but Charles would do that. You will hear the story that I threw the furniture into the river—that I stuck my finger up my butt during Zig Ziglar's performance in 2011—not true."



Irritated that I was not there to get her and Maisel from the airport, Arwana asked me to take him for the weekend.

We went to Dean & DeLuca. In the car, Maisel asked me whether I knew that Grandpa was dead.

"Yes," I said. "I do know that. It's very sad."

"I don't think it's sad. I don't think it's sad at all."

"Well, maybe you're just honest."

He smiled and leaned forward to brush my cheek with his hand. He said, "Doo-dah, I missed you."

"I missed you too, honey."

"What does the mouse look like?"


"Mom said you got a mouse in the house."

"I don't know. I haven't seen him. You'll have to ask your mother. I don't know if he's brown or gray."

"Does he have any sickness?"

"I don't think so."

"Does he have rabies?"

"I don't think so. I don't think I've ever heard of a rabid mouse."

Why was Arwana telling Maisel that my home was rat-infested? This was typical Arwana. First she called from the airport to demand that I pick them up, without any advance notice. I had a conflict, so she lied to our son to insult his father.

"Mom said you always hated Grandpa."

"I did. That's true."

"Me too," Maisel said. He rubbed my cheek again. He said, "I missed you."

In the grocery store, Maisel rode the cart. First he stood with his feet on the undercarriage, with his arms wrapped around the front corners of the cart. Then he climbed down into the undercarriage, and then he lay down, with his head hanging over the side, near the back wheels. I was afraid to ask him to stop. I took a Valium. I volunteered to go and find things, and I acquiesced to Maisel's needs, which were often changing. I entered a fog peculiar to Dean & DeLuca. I was confused, and then I was irritable. I had difficulty performing simple tasks, or making decisions. I piled different foods onto my cart, whatever Maisel pointed to. The bill came to $5,500. I may be growing old. I needed three steroids when we got home, to overcome the mood grocery shopping had put me into. After I got Maisel fed and in front of the television, I called Arwana.


"Call me back on FaceTime," she said. "I need to have a real conversation with you."

I called her back. She had lost 20 pounds, and her skin looked ethereal. Her eyes were wide, making her look—for the first time in her life—helpless and calm. She said, "We need to talk about Maisel."

She explained that Maisel had continued to threaten suicide. In the Ingmar Bergman mental facility, he'd sat in a Big Wheel at the top of a stairwell and said, "Mom, which is more likely to kill me? If I ride through the window or down the stairs?"

She had spoken to an American psychiatrist who said Maisel's behavior was "certainly not ordinary, in fact, pathological." The psychiatrist said Maisel needed to be put into a mental hospital in America, that he'd heard of the clinic in Copenhagen, and that it was basically "a resort for children, where they talk about their dreams and look at ink spots. As far as I can tell, they just make things out of yarn."

"Anyway," Arwana said, "this doctor has a bed for Maisel that will open on Monday."


My team members were waiting outside my conference room at 10:04. The door was closed. I didn't hesitate. I threw it open. They were in the last few minutes of Paths of Glory. I flipped on the lights.

"Charles, I've run over time! I apologize. Really, I don't know how this keeps happening."

I wasn't in the mood. Victor shrugged and went to the desk to gather up his things. I walked to the podium gravely, passing between Victor and his team. When I eclipsed the projector, one of the brokers made the sound of something bursting into flame— phoomf! I pretended it hadn't happened, but of course I understood.


My team members described their bowel movements. The small European boy said that his poop was loose and "resembled shredded lettuce." I said, "Do you mean to say fluffly pieces with ragged edges?" He nodded. I fired him on the spot. I don't need an alcoholic on my team. The girl with the sleepy eyes described her movement. "Also vague. Too vague." I took out a Bristol Stool Chart and walked them through the vocabulary. Then their work was improved. Their descriptions were more precise, but each found a particular way to fuck it up, and one—the programmer—asked what this had to do with compliance. I don't know why, or how, trainees become so contrived, so complicated.

I had brought in a lemon, and I asked them to describe it. The first volunteer, the sensitive young man in the peacoat, stood. He took the lemon and looked at it. He said, "It is cool to the touch."

"Stop!" I covered my eyes with my hands. "STOP!"

He tried again. "It is the weight of a sparrow."

"Stop," I said. "Already I can see it's hopeless. Pass the lemon to your right."

The girl beside him took it. She said, "Well, it's a lemon."

"Please pass it to the next person."

Another girl took the lemon. She looked around. She was frightened. She said, in a mousy voice, "It is covered with holes, it is yellow, it is shaped like a football."

"OK, officer," I said, imitating her voice, "we need more than facts." I returned to my own voice. "Now, before we go further down this dark road, what is the most obvious thing about the lemon?"


The programmer snapped my photograph with a red digital camera. He said, "Excuse me, could you please let me try the exercise?"

"What do you mean?"

"I was next." He squished up his cheeks and winced. He sucked air between his teeth and fanned his hands. "Just let me try the exercise."

I said no.

He took the lemon from the girl and began to shout in an English accent. "This piece of ordinary household fruit is what is known as a lemon. The lemon is a very sour fruit. I once had a lemon with an old friend of mine, Christian Bale, before we went into a dark alleyway and did battle with the grand, great, dark… Charles Forthheimer, who reached into my chest cavity and exploded my heart, using a black-hole technology."

I was going to interrupt him, but instead I let him talk himself out. His soliloquy veered away from lemons and heart explosions onto the subject of his immortality, granted to him during a back-alley confrontation with the Devil, who was not really the Devil but just a spirit who had heard two priests talking in New York City in the year 1900, during the era of Boss Tweed and Theodore Roosevelt. When he was finished, I said, "That's all for today." We hadn't even used 30 minutes.


The admitting psychiatrist, a man named Dr. Mayes, had a very clinical manner. He met the three of us in his office. It had green walls, with a faux marble finish, carpeted floors, and two deep leather couches. The doctor's desk was covered over with manila case files. He had a photograph of his family on his desk. His wife and his two daughters looked like catalogue models. He was probably 40 years old. He had dark curly hair. He was not unattractive. He wore gray pleated slacks, a bland buttoned shirt, brown leather lace-up shoes with a gum sole, and a lab coat.


Maisel was playing with his Furby. He was feeding it fish, using Arwana's phone. The doctor introduced himself to me. I said, "And I am Dr. Poteet."

Dr. Mayes asked for Maisel's history. Arwana said that Maisel talked all the time, that he was restless, and that he couldn't sleep. She said he drew strange pictures and had strange ideas.

"That's not true," Maisel said. "I sleep all the time."

Dr. Mayes nodded. He said, "Sleep disorders are often an early sign of bipolar."

I said, "I've never seen Maisel have problems sleeping. He sleeps from 10:30 until 8."

"I do not," Maisel said.

"He can be abusive," Arwana said.

"Maisel isn't abusive," I said. "He once said I had salami feet—"

"I did not!" Maisel said.

"But I think he's just very observant," I continued. I had taken three Valium. I said, "For example, once he saw me folding my underwear, which is perhaps a strange thing to do, and he said, 'Are you folding your underwear?' I said, 'Yes,' and I could see that he wanted to say something, but—"

"So there's not much filter between thought and speech," Dr. Mayes said. He wrote that down.

Arwana said, "He keeps me awake."

"You keep me awake!" Maisel said.

Maisel lay down with his head hanging over the couch, and put his feet on the wall. Dr. Mayes and Arwana began a conversation of their own, with the obvious purpose of creating a portrait of Maisel, my seven-year-old son, as a bipolar schizophrenic.


"His father is a severe schizophrenic," Arwana said, and pointed at me.

"I have diabetes!" I shouted.

"He does not," Maisel said.

"Is he always like this?" Dr. Mayes asked. "Interrupting adults. Contradicting them."

At the end, the doctor suggested Maisel spend a week at the facility and recommended he immediately start on Topamax. "For impulse control. We'll keep his other medications in place until we have a formal diagnosis. And I'd recommend Seroquel to help regulate his sleep pattern. That will also help with the bipolar symptoms."

Arwana nodded eagerly.


At 12:04 PM I came into Victor's office holding a gun, a copy of The Peony Pavilion, and a regulatory handbook. I pointed the gun into the air and cocked it.

"Is something going on?" Victor asked.

The calligraphy behind his head hung at a slight angle.

"It is a funny thing," I said, "to choose a piece of art for one's office. To frame it. To hang it in a certain place and then, for two years, to fail to notice that it is crooked."

The funny thing about a gun—ask anyone who has held one—is the speed with which you can take aim. You level it. You pull the trigger.

I shot five times. He just sat there, and I fired five bullets, each one as fast as the one before.

Glass shattered. He screamed. There was smoke, and I had hurt my finger with the pistol. All five shots had gone into his calligraphy. It had five enormous holes in it, at five precise points, like a star.

I put the gun to my chest—thinking, I admit, of the emperor and his robes—and pulled the trigger. I'd die like Ibsen's daughter had. Slowly, if necessary.

The trigger clicked. I was out of bullets.