Chapter 33: Monday, Dec. 18

In which Korky and Norman attend a ball, but don't dance (with each other), and Mr. Dearth tears into lawyers.

By Alfred Alcorn

Published September 26, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

Diantha has not returned home since Friday, and frankly, I have become concerned for her welfare. She did call yesterday, mostly to tell me she wouldn't be going with me to the Curatorial Ball, which was held last night. She hinted that she come and bring Freddie Bain and Celeste Tangent. I hesitated a moment, but said no. I could imagine Herr Bain with a few drinks waxing theological with the Reverend Lopes.

My evening at that grotesque fortress cum mansion still resounds within me. I want, of course, to dismiss everything that madman said, but all of it lingers, like an intellectual infection. I keep running it around in my head. If we are made in the image and likeness of God, what percentage of our DNA, ontologically speaking, overlaps? Is God a joker? I'm sure the question is hardly a novel one, but I have wrestled with it repeatedly since that weird evening. Did God simply set in motion the awesome machinery of natural selection, then sit back and watch? Does He laugh?

It would have been worse, I'm sure, had I spent the night. But I sometimes wonder. Miss Tangent, her eyes, her hair, her touch, also hovers, so that I suffer a kind of low-grade erotomania in which she and Diantha and Elsbeth tease and tempt and leave me. They invest my sleeping dreams, night visions bizarre and poignant, from which I awake in torments of lust and heartache. I would have thought grief something pure, a kind of suffering that makes one innocent.

It's all mangled and mingled with my work-a-day life, the heavy routine of being a museum director. Not to mention my role as a part-time murder investigator. Who is Freddie Bain? Had I stayed there Friday night, might I have found out? Is he Moshe ben Rovich? It hardly seems likely, given his proclivities. How does Celeste Tangent fit into all this? It's obvious she works for him as a seductress. Ossmann. Penrood. And myself, had I not suffered the rectitude of indignation that night. What does he want with a powerful aphrodisiac if that is what he wants? To sell it as an illegal drug, obviously. What might Diantha be able to tell me when she comes back? If she comes back.

Korky and I went to the ball together, not as dates, of course. I certainly didn't dance with him. Still, we raised a few eyebrows when we came in. I could hear their thoughts. Is Norman coming out or just swinging on the closet door? But as times goes by, I find myself caring less and less what other people think. It has occurred to me, finally, that the standards of yesteryear, for better or worse, no longer apply.

Korky appears to be doing better, considering what he's been through. We had a drink at my house before setting out. Elsbeth's absence shouted at us from every cornice and corner. We clung together for a small tearful moment. But said nothing. One word and neither of us would have shut up for the evening. Which may have been cathartic in its own way.

As we drove over together, he confessed he suffers bouts of acute depression. He said he is still very interested in what he calls "the marvelous world of fine food," but that he can no longer tolerate the thought of anyone going hungry in the world. "I'm torn, Norman, about what to do with the rest of my life. I feel like volunteering for an international relief agency, you know, where you fly into one of those wretched African villages to hand out food to the starving. But it wouldn't be me."

"A man doesn't live by bread alone," I murmured inanely.

Which made him laugh. "No, he needs, baguettes, bagels, boules, franchese, focaccio. It's the difference between feeding and eating. But I still can't write about it. I don't know what I'm going to do now."

The Curatorial Ball wouldn't have been the same anyway. Rather than dismantle the Diorama of Paleolithic Life in Neanderthal Hall, as we've done for the past couple of years, we decided to hold the party in one of the function halls of the Miranda Hotel. We decorated it ourselves with streamers and those collapsible ornaments. We had a papier-mbchi menorah, some Kwanza symbols, and a pagan display provided by a local coven. We moved Herman the Neanderthal into the foyer and decked him out in a Santa suit. And the Warblers, getting just a bit creaky, sang all the old favorites. But it wasn't the same.

Indeed, few people seemed to care for the festivities at all, except as a setting to talk about Ariel Dearth and the news conference he held Saturday at the Law School.

"I think he just cracked," Lotte Landes told me, as we danced to "White Christmas." I refrained from telling her or anyone else how I had castigated him over the Jones-Spronger affair. Not that I think I had anything directly to do with Mr. Dearth's transformation. But it's not every day that a lawyer of substantial reputation publicly resigns from the state bar and denounces his profession at a press conference. I would have missed it myself, had Izzy not called me at home to tell me it was about to happen.

I'm not sure why I bothered to go, but I found it fascinating once I got there. Standing on the stage in Holmes Hall, Mr. Dearth started out saying that he was resigning his position as the Leona Von Beaut Professor of Litigation Development and Situational Ethics. He tore up his law degrees and littered the podium with the pieces.

"The law," he said, in that crabbed hauteur of his, "to paraphrase Karl Kraus on another matter, is the disease of which it purports to be the cure. Look around you. Read the papers. Look in the Yellow Pages. Why so many lawyers? Why this ubiquity in every aspect of our lives? Because the more lawyers you have, ladies and gentlemen, the more you need. It's the natural progression of self-catalyzing growth battening on a host organism.

"Trust me, I know. Lawyers are the parasitical class par excellence. They contribute nothing to society, to the economy, to culture, except as the source of bad jokes about themselves. They are the real mafia. They operate a system of extortion imbedded so deeply in our culture that we now fail to realize what it is. We no longer have justice, only lawyers.

"After much thought, I have concluded that if our medical services were run like our legal system, you would get shunted from one useless procedure to another. Seeing a doctor would mean both a lingering death and bankruptcy. Doctors would keep their patients sick and wretched as long as they could, extorting money from them at every step of the way, taking them for everything they could before letting them die a miserable death.

"I'm serious about this. If car mechanics acted like lawyers, we would all be driving around on three wheels with no brakes spewing oil all over the road.

"If restaurateurs acted like lawyers, you would get nothing for days but putrid slops; you would leave the table starving; and you would have to pay an enormous bill. Or get in trouble with the law.

"It's no joke that when a lawyer takes Viagra, his whole body gets larger."

Judges, he said, are no better. They are merely lawyers in long robes who insist on being called "your honor" because honor is precisely the quality most of them lack.

He went on in that vein for some time. He suggested that there be a "million-lawyer" march on Washington culminating in a public apology to the nation. He stopped short of advocating that lawyers be rounded up and shot. But he did say a significant percentage of the nation's lawyers should be encouraged to commit suicide either singly or in groups. To that end, he urged that hot lines be set up to assist in counseling and giving practical advice.

He said a law degree should disqualify anyone from holding any public office above that of volunteer firefighter. He urged that all but a handful of law schools be converted into homeless shelters, and that the faculty be retrained to work as urban gardeners or something as equally useful to society.

Lawyers, finally, as individuals and as a group should be socially shunned by all decent people. Any young people indicating an interest in the law as a profession should be sent immediately to one of those remedial boot camps.

What surprised me in talking to my friends at the dance was the extent to which decent, thoughtful people agreed with him. About time someone spoke up, was the most common observation. But the Reverend Lopes, resplendent in tux with Geneva tabs, did opine that decriminalizing the killing of lawyers was going too far.

Korky, I was glad to see, met a young friend and left the party early. I lingered and drank too much, turning wine into water at a miraculous rate. Rather than drive, I left the car in the parking lot, declined several offers of a ride, and walked home under a cold clear night, looking up at the heavens, a speck on a speck, thinking about Elsbeth.

Alfred Alcorn

Alfred Alcorn, formerly a journalist at the Boston Herald and CBS, is also the former director of the travel program at Harvard's Museum of Natural History. In addition to "The Love Potion Murders (in the Museum of Man)," he is the author of two previous novels, "The Pull of the Earth" (Houghton Mifflin, 1985) and "Murder in the Museum of Man" (Zoland Books, 1997). He lives in Belmont, Mass.

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