Quixotic : Pragmatic :: Dispassionate : ______.
Traducer : Fealty :: Heretic : ______.
Original : Simulacrum :: Zenith : ______.
The Verbal Metrics Department filled a single corridor of Building M, a squat Bauhaus knockoff with one glass face that presided over the northwest corner of 275 acres of former farmland that everyone at the Scholastic Achievement Service referred to as a “campus.” We were on the non-glass side—the statisticians sat in light—but Rosenberg’s office was blessed with one large window overlooking the company duck pond. I had been at SAS for about a month when I tapped weakly on his door and handed him my first reading passage. “Lepidoptery?” he said. “Maybe.” He read while I sank into the couch.
“No,” Rosenberg said. “B plus. This is a dream. There’s no argument here.” He pushed up the sleeves of his sweater, forest green and a roll-up collar. Rosenberg had a lush sideswept bush of white hair his wife probably liked to fluff and comb. She probably looked at her friends’ husbands’ haloed scalps and thought that whatever Rosenberg’s flaws, at least he had hair. That’s how I thought of Rosenberg: he had flaws, but at least he had hair. It seemed like we were done so I stood up to leave, and I was already in the hall when I heard him finish. “Can’t have interrogation without argument.”
Back in my chair I studied the picture—Véra and Vladimir playing chess—clean and creased, that I had carried in my wallet all summer long. I had pinned it up on my first day of work. Only months ago it was graduation, and every day had ended with a party on the lawn, saying good-bye every evening to everything over and over. Now it was September and I would never see those people again.
I removed the pushpin and flipped the paper over to the other side. I wrote the word A R G U M E N T! in all caps, red Sharpie, and felt one glorious instant of triumph and, yes, purpose, then regret. David had printed it out for me one night in the library while I waited on a stone bench in the dark spring damp. “You know what I liked about David?” my mother said at dinner last night. “He’s just a regular person. He’s very bright, obviously. But just a regular guy, you know? A regular guy, not like all those pseudo-intellectuals you used to hang out with.”
My mother, Jill, VP of sales at the Scholastic Achievement Service, knifing a meatball with one hand, expertly blackberrying with the other. She could cut apart anything while blackberrying. She was the one who had arranged for me to interview at SAS and had even bought a new AeroBed for my old room, which for the past four years had housed a home gym. “This is just until you get on your feet,” she liked to remind me. I hung my towel on the stationary bike. I stacked books on top of Tae Bo DVDs. Each night I refilled the air that had leaked out of the mattress during the day. The noise of the motor usually brought her around, and we’d talk—her pedaling, me sitting on the engorged raft. My mother will be dead one day. People don’t think about this enough.
When mothers are dead we will carry the fine deep lines of their disappointment on our own faces. She thought that I would be moving in with friends in the city, in any city, that I had been saving all along. I had, but sometime in January I loaned David two thousand dollars. By the time he left in June the loan had acquired the status of a gift. I couldn’t explain that my money had flown away to Los Angeles. “I didn’t teach you anything” was her last word on my financial situation. It was the kind of thing I couldn’t not know.
Angelo stuck his head over the cube and asked if I had lunch plans. I lied and said with my mother, but after he left and I texted her to ask, before I even put the phone down she had buzzed back that she was busy. A frowny face conveyed her regrets. Now I would have to eat in the car.
I trained my eyeballs down onto columns of lepidoptery; mute, useless. It was a selection from the diary in which the author recounts a butterfly dream, accompanied by that old dappled photograph of Vladimir and Véra stalking through the woods. Their nets are bright white, ghostly, hers folded like a flag; his socks pulled, sportsmanlike, over calves. I had been plotting a question about the phrase “very tenacious of life,” a description attached to one particularly courageous butterfly. But I would never write that question now. Of course I could write it—I could come up with five multiple choices right now, no power on earth and certainly no Rosenberg could stop me from that. But it wouldn’t be a question. It would be a waste of time. “Think about the rationales,” Rosenberg had called after my retreating behind. “What kind of rationale can you assign to a dream?”
Each question we turned in was accompanied by a rationale—a one-sentence explanation of why the right answer was right and the wrong answers wrong. In a perfect question, every wrong answer is wrong in a different way. X becomes Y. X is an example of Y. X is an intensification of Y. Some people, namely Angelo, wrote the rationales first, but that took all the fun out of it. I would start by covering my eyes with one hand while using the other to open the thesaurus to a random page and stab with a pencil or my finger. Then I would type word lists: lists of the stabbed words, lists of words that came into my head, lists of words in whatever article I had been reading the day before. Flipping through a prep book or skimming a vocabulary list could loosen your brain, but it was best not to read anything too closely—that could clog you up. The afternoons were the worst—blanks of time that lasted for weeks. Once I photocopied my hands just to have something to do, then shredded the evidence.
Lou, that show-off, had an enviable system. He wrote speedily for three hours every morning and spent the rest of the day reading old magazines in the Verbal library. He had read every issue of The New Yorker from 1982 to the present and was now making his way through the Scientific Americans of the same period. I could have done this, too, but I didn’t like the way Lou looked at me when I came in the room—like he had caught me. Once in a while I’d grab a few magazines and head to my desk; in the late afternoon he would come by and ask for them back. He liked everything to be tidy and filed for the next day.
Everyone knew that Lou was working at SAS only until he wrote a question that entirely replicated an existing question in the database. Then he would quit. “You pay me for my writing,” he liked to say. “But I’m running a numbers game.”
“If Angelo and I came up with the same question in the same month,” he explained when we met, “I’d quit, too. That would be a slightly different achievement, but with the same effect.”
“You mean the same rationale,” I joked.
Lou tilted his goatee down and pointed the tip of his beret at me accusingly. A stud flashed in his left lobe. “That’s not what rationale means. Do you not know what a rationale is?”
“I was joking,” I said.
“Don’t do that,” Lou said. “People don’t like it.”
The next week I took another passage down to Rosenberg’s office. The Chief Verbal Metrician was filing his nails and humming. “You should knock,” he said when he saw me standing in the doorway. He rapped his wedding ring on the desk. “You know, knock? Make a sound to alert another human of your presence, impending or actual?” He rose and looked out the window. He made a clicking noise with his tongue. “See that? Those ducks just attacked that little boy’s ankles. He was feeding them, and now he’s bawling. This is why people shouldn’t take kids to work.” X causes Y. X victimizes Y. The smaller species of X brutally attacks the larger and yet oddly defenseless species of Y without cause. When I was myself a small member of the species my mother had taken me to work, here, at SAS. It was a big company. Chances were that Rosenberg didn’t know. He rapped his ring on the window. “They’re suicideproof,” he said. “Don’t open.”
He takes pleasure in bearing bad news, I thought. “We’re on the sixth floor,” I said. “They only do that in tall buildings.”
“Amazing,” Rosenberg called to the light fixtures. “She believes hearsay over her own senses.”
He hummed as he skimmed the photocopy. It was a column from a food magazine about decorating Christmas cookies. I pointed out that this passage was pure argument, nothing but argument. It was the Platonic form of argument itself. In its light all other argument would be mere imitation, at second or third degree. He tilted his chin back toward the light fixtures and exhaled. “This isn’t an argument. This is just information,” he told them. “Besides”—and here he dropped his gaze to mine—“it’s too sectarian.” He flapped his fingers wristlessly at me. “Try again.”
By the end of October I had written a hundred and eighty analogies and eighty sentence completions. Rosenberg told me that I was “preternatural and a natural,” but I still hadn’t come up with a satisfying reading-comprehension passage. It became a joke around the office. “Dream girl,” Angelo called me. Lou offered to help. We sat at a folding table in the library with a stack of last year’s Scientific Americans between us, but every time Lou came across a passage he liked, he used it himself. I brought Rosenberg something on the big bang and he didn’t read past the headline. “Trying to get me fired?” he asked the throw rug.
A week later, at lunch in the cafeteria, I told my mother I was worried that Rosenberg might be trying to get me fired. “I don’t know why he doesn’t like any of my reading passages,” I said. “I don’t know why I’m not good at this.”
“Princess,” she said, “Rosenberg won’t fire you. I wouldn’t let him.”
She was eating probiotic yogurt with a fork, carving rivulets along the plastic insides of the container.
“I don’t want to not get fired if I deserve it,” I said. “I want what I deserve.”
“You’re so sensitive,” she said.
She scraped yogurt dregs and I picked apart a California roll, taking each bit separately into my mouth: crab stick, avocado. The conversation wasn’t going well in itself, but I was enjoying my food. “Have you thought about calling David?” my mother asked.
“No,” I said. “Did you know all the windows at SAS are suicideproof?”
She waved a turquoise-shackled wrist at me. “Is that what Rosenberg said? That guy’s a piece of work. The windows don’t open ’cause they don’t want people running up the energy bill. It’s numbers, princess. You’re so imaginative.”