Where Comedy Goes to Die: The Biggest Sleep of All
(In ‘honor’ of the upcoming and sure-to-be-hilarious big-screen adaptation of Atlas Shrugged, I present some ballast from the past in the form of this Rand-Chandler mash-up. Enjoy.)
Mrs. Roark’s house was outsized and showy, like you’d figure an architect’s house would be. It wasn’t even a house, really; it was a big showplace where she happened to sleep. It even had a plaque next to the front door that said ‘New York’s Greatest Building’. There were sharp angles everywhere, flags and little jutting edges: it looked like a building that was about to go to war. The sky was dark and mean and it was about to rain all over New York’s greatest building.
I went inside and was immediately accosted by a monkey-suited functionary who took my overcoat in exchange for a glass of whiskey. It was almost as good as it was expensive. The monkey suit told me to wait in the chancellery. I told him I hadn’t any idea what a chancellery was, so he showed me. When I thanked him, he gave me a brief and rehearsed speech on the dignity of paid labor freely accepted and fairly compensated. Already I wanted another drink.
“I’ll try to keep that in mind,” I said when he waited for a response to his speech like a shoeshine boy waits for a tip. I wasn’t lying. Usually when I heard a speech about fair work for fair pay it was a preface to getting rooked out of my expenses. Not that Roarks needed to watch their pennies; she was born into the big money, and his overcooked modernist monstrosities were all over the city.
I sat on the edge of a plush white chair, my eyes wandering around for something worth looking at, when Mrs. Roark entered. She was worth looking at. Slender, hammer-hard, and sharp enough to cut yourself on, she was in her home, in a temple built just for her; but she looked uncomfortable in her own room, her own clothes, her own skin.
“Mr. Marlowe,” she said in a voice that didn’t drink. But I did.
“Mrs. Roark. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
She nodded, having received the expected answer, and sat across from me dramatically. Not too many women have mastered the art of dramatic sitting, but she sure had. “I have long been curious about the men of your profession,” she said, apropos of nothing. “There is, I think, among private detectives — or private eyes, as I understand you are called — an individualism, a commitment to the hidden truth of the self, that I find stimulating. You stand against the main. You expose the secret lies weaker men tell themselves, the lies that pile up and become a trash heap of self-deception that threatens to bury everyone around them.”
There was nowhere I could possibly go with that speech, so I let it float off. I put down the glass that Monkey Suit had given me of his own free will; it was as empty as most of the rooms in the house. “I understand your husband’s gone missing,” I said, wishing I’d asked him to leave the bottle.
“Yes, Mr. Marlowe,” she said, tossing her head to one side with theatrical broadness. I wanted to tell her that since the only other person in the room was sitting six feet away from her, there was no need to play to the balconies, but I got the feeling she wouldn’t have enjoyed the joke. “Three weeks since my Howard disappeared from the world, leaving it darkened and purposeless. The motor of my life has ground to a halt; its shaft has been pulled out. I curse the day I was born a woman, that with so simple a vanishment I can be cast into shadows.”
I raised my glass a little in hopes that somewhere, someone with a generous spirit might hear the ice tinkling. “What about the police?” I asked. “Missing Persons has a lot more in the way of resources than I do.”
“I distrust the police, Mr. Marlowe. They are small men, malformed and devoid of spirit,” she intoned. Her eyes narrowed like she smelled something. “They are public servants, and as such, they are condemned to ever cater to the base and grasping whims of a population of leeches, looking for someone else to blame for their own incompetence. The police are second-raters, a commonality of received knowledge.”
My head was starting to hurt, and the liquor cabinet must have been a hundred miles up the main hallway. “Can you think of any reason why Mr. Roark might have…wanted to disappear?” I asked, even though I was beginning to figure that out for myself.
“Of course not, Mr. Marlowe. My husband isn’t the sort to desert his duties in the light of some petty squabble. He has always stood firm and unyielding, like the sky-tempting towers he designs, in the face of the muddle-headed carping of those who would tear him down to their level.” She paused for a long time, or maybe it just seemed like a long time because she wasn’t talking. “Mr. Marlowe, it is of paramount importance that my husband be returned to me. He completes me. He takes the base stuff of which I am made, like the rough stone of the gray and clouded quarry where I first laid eyes on his hard angular frame, and shapes it into something truly great. He is the end of ends, the reason unto himself. He is what he should be. He is courage incarnate against a cowardly world, a golden pinnacle in a society more concerned with means and averages. He is builds to his own heights while others tear down to their own. He…”
I interrupted her. If she kept on like this, I was going to need a nap, and she was going to need to be alone. “Mrs. Roark,” I said in the nicest voice I could locate, “I’ll find your husband. But honestly, you’re putting me to sleep with all this bafflegab.”
She stood up to her full height, which wasn’t too far different than when she was sitting down. “Mr. Marlowe,” she said for the eighteenth time, but now with an extra sprinkle of contempt on the ‘Mr.’, “If you’re to be paid, you’d do well to keep a more civil tongue in your head. Part of your standard contract, I would assume, specifies a certain level of respect be paid towards your clients. And on a personal note, you may not wish to hear it, but you would be a better man if you patterned your behavior on that of Mr. Roark. I know I am.”
I told her I’d think about it, and I took my leave. In the car, I thought about it. I thought about that oration he gave at his trial a couple of years back. I thought about how he talked just like she did, only longer.
I thought I’d take my time on this one.