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The Horwitz Conundrum (Solved)

By Jeff Chon.

The fact was, Blake was dull. Perhaps not mentally dull, but spiritually dull with none of the psychological complexities and intellectual curiosity needed to truly go anywhere. Blake was so dull, he’d cultivated in others a delusion of adequacy. Children like Blake Mesman existed so other children could feel better about themselves, Could be worse — at least I’m not Blake, so other parents could feel they were doing their jobs, Hey, at least I didn’t raise that. That Scott had agreed with this assessment only caused slight discomfort. Scott himself had been an outcast in high school, but Blake was different. He’d actually seen teachers cringe when Blake walked past, with his strange gait — heel, tiptoe, heel, tiptoe, heel tiptoe — due to his general unpleasantness. And that was Blake’s issue — there was nothing specifically horrible about him. Why he’d bothered those around him, why he was more bothersome than any other student, was very hard to pin down. He was a fog of unpleasantness. The end of every interaction felt like waking up in a bad mood from a dream you couldn’t remember.

That all changed Christmas Break, December 2014, after Scott had assigned Catcher in the Rye. And it would turn out that Blake, a boy no teacher had ever mentioned as having any potential, took to the book in very interesting ways. In Blake, Scott felt he’d found the reader he’d been searching for. Scott thought he’d finally found one after all these years — the first since Millie Dufresne. And Scott became determined to find out whether Blake could be another Millie Dufresne.

In September of 2003, during Scott’s first year of grad school, two years after he’d set that dumpster on fire, a young undergrad named Millie Dufresne set off a series of pipe bombs on campus, shutting down the school for eight days. Scott had seen Millie almost every morning, as she worked at the coffee shop right off campus. She was a friendly girl who’d always smiled when she asked how his day was going, which had always seemed like a stupid question, as it was 7:30am and the day hadn’t even been given a chance to fully develop. But she’d always smiled and said Awesome! every time he told her his day was going okay.

After the school was evacuated, they found Millie’s body floating face down in the duck pond behind the baseball field. The day before, she’d left a final entry on her LiveJournal which read, Tell Old Horwitz I know where the ducks go, a reference to a scene in Catcher in the Rye, when young Holden Caulfield asks a cab driver named Horwitz where the ducks in Central Park go in the wintertime. Millie had cracked the code. Where do the ducks go in the wintertime? Of course, any lazy English teacher will tell you the ducks represent children, whom Caulfield believes no one really gives much thought to — even Scott held the line with this reading, to not raise suspicion. No one thinks to ask where the ducks go in the same manner no one thinks to truly understand the pain of children. But Millie understood what really happened to the ducks in Central Park. In her copy of The Catcher in the Rye, she’d scrawled in the margins on the first page of Chapter 12, they stay put+huddle together 2 keep warm+try 2 keep from freezing 2 death you stupid motherfucker!

After doing the research, he’d learned Millie was the daughter of Chuck Dufresne, a financier set to testify before Congress about a price-fixing scheme involving two U.S. banks, a German bank, and three from the Arab Peninsula. That was four days before she set off those bombs. Two days after she set off those bombs, her father was found dead in the garage with the car running, a garden hose affixed to his exhaust pipe wedged in the driver’s side window. At the time, Scott found the timing of the father’s death very curious, made more curious by the fact that the lifeless body of another man who was set to testify with Dufresne, Jacob Epstein, was found in a hotel room four hours after Dufresne’s death, the high-end prostitute he’d spent the night with never found.

Two days after Epstein’s death, Pencey Holdings, one of the banks embroiled in the price fixing scheme, very quietly liquidated all its holdings in the Carlyle Group — everybody knows the man who was President at the time of Millie’s death had a father who held a seat with the Carlyle Group, and everybody knows the President’s father, an ex-President himself, also happened to be the former head of the CIA. Pencey also happens to be the name of the fancy prep school in The Catcher in the Rye. The chief financial officer of Pencey Holdings at the time was named Horwitz — Tell Old Horwitz I know where the ducks go — and before Horwitz, the position was held by a man named Jerome Ackley, and before Jerome Ackley it was a man named David Stradlater. The Catcher in the Rye was written by Jerome David Salinger. Stradlater was Holden Caulfield’s roommate at Pencey, Ackley was his neighbor. The man who holds the position now? A man named Holden Salinger. CFO Salinger always said his parents had a very literary sense of humor.

Yes, of course they did — Scott was sure they were laughing at all of us.

How many young Millie’s were there? How many sleeper agents were awakened by Catcher in the Rye? Lee Harvey Oswald had a copy in his apartment. Mark David Chapman, who’d murdered John Lennon, would stare at a photo of Lennon and utter the Holden Caulfield-esque, You phony, I’m going to get you, and then pray for demons to give him the strength to pull the trigger. The police would find a copy on the coffee table of Ronald Reagan’s would-be assassin John Hinckley. Robert John Bardo, who murdered a young actress in 1989, had a copy on him while he committed his crime. The young Korean boy who massacred his classmates at Virginia Tech had contemplated his crime at the school duck pond — even purchased thirty-seven rubber ducks on eBay.

Tell Old Horwitz I know where the ducks go.

they stay put+huddle together 2 keep warm+try 2 keep from freezing 2 death you stupid motherfucker!

The book’s power was undeniable. Nine months after Millie’s death, one of Scott’s classmates had a birthday party at a quiet little bar outside of town. The discussion drifted to which books they’d considered aphrodisiacs. Sam Kittredge, Scott’s thesis advisor, said he’d used Catcher in the Rye to seduce undergrads back in the early 70’s. No one else seemed outraged by Sam’s admission — a man, who’d been in his thirties during the 70’s, abusing his power to bed eighteen and nineteen-year-olds. Instead, everyone seemed to agree on the book’s power to smooth away inhibitions — the men all admitted they’d read the book to seem interesting to girls, and the women intimated they’d liked boys who read the book. Scott sat and nursed his beer — he’d never been much of a drinker — remembering Millie Dufresne, her father, the Carlisle Group, and Pencey Holdings.

“Did you know that book contains elements of Freemasonry?” Scott said.

The entire table fell into a hush. They’d never fallen silent when Scott spoke. Usually, the moment after Scott opened his mouth, the conversation steered into that troublesome skid with a, Well anyway, and then everyone was back on track. But it was different this time, like one of those awkward silences in Dr. Ong’s office. He may as well have asked them if they’d heard the good news, that Christ himself was on his way to save us all, the way his mother had when they’d gone door to door in Lanai. Sam gripped Scott’s shoulder and shook it — Scott feared the pithy, rejoinder coming his way, as Sam had a penchant for cruel sarcasm.

“Scott,” Sam said, “I’ve had a lot to drink. Keep talking.”

“Oh. Okay. He says in the book, Holden Caulfied that is, that his favorite character in the Bible was the lunatic who kept cutting himself with stones, which is a story told in both Mark and Luke, both of which were composed in Greek. In Greek the word for one who cuts himself with stones is Tekton, which is another word for Freemason. It’s actually kind of stunning how much Freemason lore Salinger worked into the book.”

Directly across from Scott, Susan Vo the Milton scholar, sipped her beer. Joan Ehrenriech the Americanist quietly excused herself to smoke a cigarette, and Georgie O’Keefe — yes, Georgie O’Keefe — who specialized in 19th century queer lit, said she’d join her. Chuck Truman, the birthday boy, finally gripped the steering wheel and turned it into direction the fishtail with a brisk nod.

“Oh yeah,” he said. “Stonecutters, like that Simpsons episode.”

“Yeah,” Scott said, “the Stonecutters—Tektons. They were making fun of Freemasons. Sure, absolutely.”

And of course, the conversation drifted toward the goddamn Simpsons — the compositional nihilism of its art, the connotative symbology of Bart’s haircut — and here Scott thought he was having an adult conversation. Scott turned to Sam, who sipped his beer as Scott tried to elaborate.

“Anyway, Holden even says that Jane Gallagher, the object of his affection, dated a guy named Al Pike, which also happens to be the name of one of the most famous Freemasons in American—”

“Scott,” Sam said, “can I ask you about your father? I know it’s personal, but I’ve always been curious.”

“Sure, I guess. What do you want to know?”

“Well, to put it bluntly, how do you get rid of all that crazy? I mean, no offense, and I’m only asking because I know you reject what he says.”

“Honestly, I don’t think I ever really believed any of it. It was easy to overcome because it was never there.”

“There he is, the Nature Boy.”

Scott had hated that nickname. Sam had called him Nature Boy after Scott proposed using Sir Francis Galton, the Victorian scholar who’d popularized the phrase “Nature vs. Nurture,” in his thesis: “Atavism in an Age of ‘Upward Mobility.’” Sam had rejected the use of Galton in the thesis, as Galton was a racist. Of course, Scott had no idea as he’d never read Galton — only knowing about the popularization of Nature vs. Nurture — so he’d insisted everyone was a racist back then, feeling this was somehow a mitigating factor.

“Scott, the man’s the father of eugenics.”

“Oh,” Scott had said. “Really?”

In all honesty, Sam had only laughed in that moment because he’d found Scott endearing — he always had. But he could see Scott’s feelings here hurt. And something in the stammering way Scott had insisted he’d only wanted to talk about “Nature vs. Nurture,” also amused Sam, who’d laughed at the mealy-mouthed way Scott had tried to implore him. Nature Boy had only become a nickname because he’d found Scott to be cute in many ways — he’d wanted to break the tension. Of course, Scott would refuse to see any of it this way. And as Sam patted him on the back, rubbed his palm up and down his spine, Scott wondered if this was how he’d touched those co-eds after feeding them crap about the purity of innocence, the heroic rejection of society’s phony rules.

“Scott,” he said. “I’m really glad you overcame what you did. Nature, nurture, whatever got you through it, I’m glad you’re here, man.”


This is an extract from Hashtag Good Guy with a Gun (Sagging Meniscus Press, 2021).


Jeff Chon was most recently published in Okay Donkey, Excuse Me, and Juked. He is a Best Small Fictions 2021 nominee. Hashtag Good Guy with a Gun is his first novel and is available for pre-order here.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, March 3rd, 2021.