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Our narrator begins by telling us a brief anecdote from a night twenty years ago, when his baby sister Franny was sleeping in her crib in the room of the narrator and his brother Seymour. Some of their siblings had the mumps, and this was the only germ-free room in the house.
During the night, Franny starts crying, and Seymour, instead of giving her a bottle, takes a book from his shelf and reads a story to her to her.
The story is a koan, or Zen riddle. In the koan, a man in China is famous for being able to select the very best horses from a large group of animals. Upon request of the Duke, the man selects what he believes to be the best horse for the Duke to buy. When asked, however, he cannot correctly recall the horse's sex or even color. The Duke is angry, but the wise Po Lo explains that the man was looking not at useless facts like sex or color, but rather "the spiritual mechanism" and "inward qualities" of the horses ("Roof Beam" 1.5). He is truly advanced in that he no longer sees the trivial, external facts.
The narrator pauses to explain why he's told us all this. He is about to tell us a story of a wedding day in 1942.
First, though, the narrator explains that now, in 1955, the bridegroom (Seymour) is no longer alive, because he committed suicide while vacationing with his wife in 1948. And since then, the narrator hasn't "been able to think of anybody whom [he'd] care to send out to look for horses in his stead" ("Roof Beam" 2.1).
Seymour's wedding day is in late May of 1942. The seven children of the Glass family are "flung all over the United States" and most of them can't make it to the ceremony ("Roof Beam" 2.2).
A brief roll call reveals that Seymour is the oldest, followed by your narrator Buddy Glass, then Boo Boo, their sister, who is out to sea as an ensign on a navel ship, then the twins Walt and Waker (we learn that Walt will die in 1945 from "an unspeakably absurd G.I. accident"), then Zooey, who is thirteen, and Franny, who is eight ("Roof Beam" 2.2).
These two youngest are in Los Angeles with the parents and appear weekly on a children's radio quiz program called "It's a Wise Child." We learn that all the Glass siblings have at some point been on this same radio program as children, though they used pseudonyms.
Back to Seymour. At the time of this story, in 1942, Seymour is a corporal in the Air Corps stationed in California.
All the Glass children communicate by writing each other letters, but Seymour is "by far the least prolific letter writer in the family," and so Buddy doesn't hear from him often ("Roof Beam" 2.3).
In late May, Buddy is stationed in Georgia recovering from pleurisy (a painful lung infection that affects membranes of the lungs) and receives a letter from his sister Boo Boo. She tells him that Seymour is getting married in New York to a woman who is "a zero but terrific-looking" on June 4, and that, since no one else from the family can make it, Buddy had better go.
Buddy gets a three-day leave from his company commander and heads to New York.
Because of his pleurisy, Buddy is coughing all over the place and has long strips of adhesive tape wrapped around his torso under his shirt. It's not the most comfortable arrangement, especially since it's June in New York and is unbearably hot.
Buddy gets to the wedding and takes a seat. A very uncomfortable hour and a half later, everyone has realized that the groom is a no-show.
The bride, distraught, is led away, and the guests are instructed to use the waiting cars outside to go to the bride's parents' house.
Buddy ends up having to escort people into their cars, probably because he's a strapping young 23-year-old man in uniform. "I was not only twenty-three," says Buddy, "but a conspicuously retarded twenty-three. I remember loading people into cars without any degree of competence whatever" ("Roof Beam" 2.14).
At some point, after loading a car, Buddy just jumps in himself at the last minute as he car is pulling away.
The car's occupants are the Matron of Honor, a hefty girl of 25, her husband, a First Lieutenant in the Air Corps and therefore Buddy's superior, a tiny elderly man in a silk top hat holding an unlit Havana cigar, and Mrs. Silsburn, a woman who introduced herself earlier while sitting next to Buddy.
It's clear that no one has any idea that Buddy is Seymour's brother. The Matron of Honor starts ranting about how horrible Seymour is to have done this to Muriel. Her husband jokingly tells her to calm down.
We find out that 1) none of Seymour's family was at the wedding, at least as far as the bride's family knows, and 2) most of the Bride's party hasn't met Seymour yet.
We also learn that apparently Seymour's plane got in to New York the night before at 1am, and that he called Muriel up and made her meet him in a hotel lobby so they could talk for a few hours.
Buddy notes the morality of such action on Seymour's part. The two of them still own an apartment in New York and Seymour could very well have asked Muriel to meet him there.
Finally, the Matron of Honor wants to know who Buddy is. He admits that he and Seymour "were boys together," but clearly doesn't want to admit that they are brothers ("Roof Beam" 2.37).
Buddy-the-narrator pauses his tale to consider the question of why he remained in the car to get attacked by the Matron of Honor and make his way to the bride's parents' house, where he most certainly should not want to be.
All he offers for an explanation is the following: "There seem to me at least a dozen answers to these questions, and all of them, however dimly, valid enough. I think, though, that I can dispense with them, and just reiterate that the year was 1942, that I was twenty-three, newly drafted, newly advised in the efficacy of keeping close to the herd - and, above all, I felt lonely. One simply jumped into loaded cars, as I see it, and stayed seated in them" ("Roof Beam" 2.46).
In the car, Buddy is preoccupied staring at the tiny elderly man, whose feet don't even touch the floor of the car. He feels immense kinship with the man.
As the Matron of Honor continues to rant, Buddy realizes that she knows certain facts about Seymour that are quite misleading as to Seymour's real nature. For example , the fact that he was on "It's a Wise Child" for six years under the pseudonym "Billy Black," or that he enrolled in Columbia when he was fifteen, or that he was a professor of English before he went into the army.
He suspects the Matron of Honor knows all this, but when she asks him what Seymour did, Buddy tells her that Seymour was a chiropodist.
The car gets stuck when a parade is crossing the street in front of them. It becomes clear that they're not going to get moving any time soon, and everyone in the hot, cramped, crowded car increasingly despairs. Everyone, that is, except for the elderly man, who simply sits perfectly composed, still holding the unlit Havana in his hand.
Again, Buddy finds this incredibly comforting.
The guests make more small talk in the car while they wait for the parade to move. Mrs. Silsburn turns out to be Muriel's aunt by marriage on Muriel's mother's side.
The Matron of Honor goes on about how wonderful Muriel's mother is, and how awful it is that such an awful thing happened to such great people.
Then she repeats what Muriel's mother said about Seymour after he stood Muriel up this morning: that he was a latent homosexual and afraid of marriage. (Apparently Muriel's mother is a big fan of psychoanalysis.) She also said he was a schizoid personality.
Buddy can't listen to any more of this. He has the urge to leap out of the car and go sprinting away, but he remains and instead challenges the claims that Muriel's mother made about Seymour.
But the Matron of Honor is undeterred. She explains that Seymour is abnormal. After all, he called up Muriel last night and told her that he was too happy to get married and they would have to postpone it until he felt steadier.
Then she asks the group if they've ever seen a particular actress in the movies. (Note: we aren't given the name of the actress. Buddy bleeps out her name with two long dashes, but explains that she is a very well known singer and actress of the day.)
The Matron explains that Seymour was friends with this famous girl when they were children, and that he hit her one day and she had to have nine stitches and that's why she smiles sort of crooked.
Buddy is trying to stifle his anger and doing a poor job. Finally the Matron of Honor confronts him. She accuses him of being Seymour's brother.
He admits as much, and then looks over to see the tiny elderly man who is still utterly composed. "No one's indifference has ever been such a comfort to me," Buddy narrates ("Roof Beam" 2.114).
The Matron of Honor goes on to say that she knows all about Seymour, that he used to be Billy Black on the radio, and that he was not a chiropodist, as Buddy claimed.
Mrs. Silsburn is quite interested. She used to listen to that radio program and she remembers all the Black children. The Matron of Honor says she hates precocious children.
At that moment a bugle corps – part of the parade – goes by.
The noise is terrible, and the group decides they can't take any more of this. They decide to get out of the car and go get a cool drink at Schrafft's. Again, Buddy admits it is odd that he agrees to go with them and fumbles around with an explanation.
The Matron of Honor, who is leading the charge here, asks the elderly man to come with them.
To Buddy's undying gratification, he simply looks at her and then grins with "obviously, beautifully, transcendently false" teeth ("Roof Beam" 2.133).
Finally he taps his mouth and his ear, and Mrs. Silsburn realizes and explains that he is Muriel's father's uncle – a deaf-mute.
Buddy has a paper and pencil on him and so writes a message down, asking the old man to join them for a drink at Schrafft's. The old man nods several times, grinning. Then he takes the pencil and writes, very laboriously, "Delighted."
Buddy tries to show that he knows and appreciates a poem when he sees one.
When they get to Schrafft's, they see that it is closed, and Buddy suddenly feels "a sense of isolation and loneliness more overwhelming than [he'd] felt all day" ("Roof Beam" 2.143).
As everyone despairs about how to get out of the heat, Buddy speaks up. He has an apartment nearby that he used to share with Seymour and that his sister uses sometimes when she's home from sea.
After some debate everyone agrees and follows Buddy to his nearby apartment. When they arrive, he sets to tinkering with the old air conditioner. The Matron of Honor stretches herself out on the couch and wants a drink. Her husband asks Buddy about the series of old photographs that have been pinned up on the wall.
The photographs are old pictures of the cast members of "It's a Wise Child" during the years that the Glass children dominated the show.
This launches the group into a discussion of the quiz show, and precocious children in general. The Matron of Honor says that it's impossible for a child to be a celebrity and have any sort of normal life afterwards.
That's probably what the problem with Seymour is, she says. That's why he can't interact with people normally, which is exactly what Mrs. Fedder (Muriel's mother) says.
Buddy has had just about enough. He doesn't care what Mrs. Fedder or any other amateur person thinks, he says.
Buddy tells them that "from the time Seymour was ten years old, every summa-cum-laude Thinker and intellectual men's room attendant in the country had been having a go at him," and that "it might be different if Seymour had just been some nasty little high-I.Q. showoff," but that in fact he "hadn't ever been an exhibitionist" and "went down to the broadcast every Wednesday night as though he were going to his own funeral. He didn't even talk to you, for God's sake, the whole way down on the bus or subway" ("Roof Beam" 3.15).
Buddy adds that "not one God-damn person, of all the patronizing, fourth-rate critics and column writers, had ever seen him for what he really was. A poet, for God's sake. And I mean a poet. If he never wrote a line of poetry" ("Roof Beam" 3.15).
Buddy stops, and just then the toilet flushes. They realize that the little old msn has disappeared to the bathroom.
The Matron of Honor asks to use the phone to call up the bride's family and tell them why they haven't arrived at the reception. Buddy leads her down to the hall to the bedroom. On the way they pass the elderly uncle returning from the bathroom. He waves at them vigorously.
Buddy leads her into the bedroom and spots on the bed an unzipped bag that he realizes to be Seymour's. On the top is Seymour's diary, which he discreetly removes from the bag without letting the Matron of Honor see.
She settles down to use the phone and asks that he close the door when he leaves.
Buddy takes the diary into the bathroom where he intends to read part of it and then hide it in the laundry hamper.
On the bathroom mirror he sees a message written in wet soap, left by his sister Boo Boo and intended for Seymour. Buddy explains that, all their lives, the Glass siblings have been leaving each other little messages on the bathroom mirror with wet soap fragments.
The message is as follows: "Raise high the roof beam, carpenters. Like Ares comes the bridegroom, taller far than a tall man. Love, Irving Sappho, formerly under contract to Elysium Studios Ltd. Please be happy happy happy with your beautiful Muriel. This is an order. I outrank everybody on this block" ("Roof Beam" 3.28).
Buddy explains that the poet Sappho has been a great favorite at some time or another of every one of the Glass siblings, due to the influence of Seymour's taste in poetry.
Buddy sits down and opens Seymour's diary. He reads several entries made between 1941 and 1942 while Seymour was stationed at Fort Monmouth (in New Jersey).
In the first entry Seymour discusses life in the army. He talks about going to see a movie with Muriel while he was on leave. Seymour kept looking at her in the dark, amazed at how enthralled she was with the picture and feeling distant from her. Yet he needs and loves her, he says.
Seymour writes about having dinner with Muriel's family, the Fedders. After dinner, the Fedders put on "It's a Wise Child" on the radio. Franny and Zooey are both on the program and they're talking about housing developments in which all the houses in a row are identical. Seymour watches Muriel and her mother converse and notes how close they are and how well they know each other.
The next entry details a dinner Seymour has with Muriel. She is upset because her mother thinks Seymour is a schizoid personality. They've been talking to Mrs. Fedder's psychoanalyst about him. Seymour writes that Muriel probably told her mother how he got the scars on his wrists. "Poor baby," he says in regards to his fiancée ("Roof Beam" 4.7).
It seems Mrs. Fedder is concerned that he doesn't relate to people, and because one night during dinner, when she asked what he'd like to do after the army, he said he wanted to be a dead cat.
Seymour was actually referring to a Zen story about a master who said a dead cat was the most valuable thing in the world because no one could put a price on it. Of course, the Fedders didn't get the allusion.
Through the entries, Seymour reiterates how happy he is with Muriel, and how he wishes he could make her happy too. He knows that her feelings for him are rooted in her love of marriage as an institution.
He talks about Mrs. Fedder as someone whom Buddy would hate. But Seymour doesn't hate her himself. He sees her as someone "deprived, for life, of any understanding or taste for the main current of poetry that flows through things, all things. She might as well be dead, and yet she goes on living, stopping off at delicatessens, seeing her analyst, consuming a novel every night, putting on her girdle, plotting for Muriel's health and prosperity" ("Roof Beam" 4.8). "I love her," Seymour writes. "I find her unimaginably brave" ("Roof Beam" 4.8).
In another entry, Seymour details a dinner he had with the Fedders. That night Mrs. Fedder's analyst was there and wanted to talk about Seymour's career on "It's a Wise Child." In particular, the analyst wanted to talk about one show where Seymour said the Gettysburg Address was bad for children.
Seymour corrected him. He hadn't said that it was bad. Rather, he had said that there were 51,112 casualties at Gettysburg "and that if someone had to speak at the anniversary of the event, he should simply have come forward and shaken his fist at his audience and then walked off" ("Roof Beam" 4.10). The psychoanalyst concluded that Seymour was a perfectionist.
Seymour also notes that Muriel told her mother about Charlotte's nine stitches, and she in turn told the therapist.
But Seymour "has no intention" of discussing the matter ("Roof Beam" 4.11). He ends up having to promise Muriel that he'll go see the therapist professionally at some point.
Seymour adds that, if he does go to the therapist, he wants to see a dermatologist, too. "I have scars on my hands from touching certain people," he explains. "Once, in the park, when Franny was still in the carriage, I put my hand on the downy pate of her head and left it there too long" ("Roof Beam" 4.13).
Seymour cites a few other examples and concludes, "Oh, God, if I'm anything by a clinical name, I'm a kind of paranoiac in reverse. I suspect people of plotting to make me happy" ("Roof Beam" 4.13).
Buddy closes the diary, thinks for a bit, throws the diary into the hamper, and heads to the kitchen while avoiding his guests in the living room.
He begins to mix a pitcher of Tom Collinses for his guests, but in the process decides he'd better have a hearty drink.
He pours himself a tumbler full of scotch and drinks it in one gulp.
Buddy then explains that he is not a drinking man, and that he generally gets violently sick or passes out from even a little alcohol.
Buddy brings the drinks into the living room. The bride's father's uncle is sitting down and, at last, his cigar is lit.
Mrs. Silsburn has been looking at the old photos from "It's a Wise Child" framed on the wall, and she wants to know who the beautiful little girl is in one of the photos.
That is Charlotte Mayhew (the actress the men had been discussing before), explains Buddy. It turns out that she, too, was on "It's a Wise Child" at the same time as Seymour.
Buddy explains that she and Seymour were very close as children. Whenever Seymour said something she liked during the radio show, she would step on his foot. "On certain nights when he was in especially good form," says Buddy, "Seymour used to come home with a slight limp. That's really true. Charlotte didn't just step on his foot, she tramped on it. He didn't care. He loved people who stepped on his feet. He loved noisy girls" ("Roof Beam" 4.28).
Mrs. Silsburn re-examines the photo and asks the Lieutenant – the Matron of Honor's husband – who the young Charlotte reminds him of. They conclude that she looks exactly like Muriel did at that age.
Buddy admits to his readers that he's feeling the whisky too much at this point to consider the "many possible ramifications" of such information ("Roof Beam" 4.40).
Buddy returns to serving the drinks, and Mrs. Silsburn asks just how Seymour managed to give Charlotte nine stitches.
Buddy is avoiding the question when the Matron of Honor finally returns from the bedroom where she was making her phone call. She explains that she talked to everybody at the bride's parents' house, and it turns out it's all just fine. Seymour was waiting at the Fedders', and when Muriel returned, he whisked her off and the two of them eloped.
The guests decide to make their way over to the bride's parents' house, where everyone is having a reception anyway, without the bride and groom.
Before Buddy can respond, the Matron of Honor has hustled everyone away. Buddy sees them out the door and returns to find that the bride's father's uncle is still sitting in the living room, smoking his cigar, and grinning broadly at Buddy.
Buddy sits down across from him and asks if he has a home and someone who takes care of him.
Since the elderly man can't understand Buddy, he raises his glass as a toast.
Buddy, now properly toasted, pours himself a Tom Collins (spilling much of it on the floor), and asks the old man if he'd like to know how Seymour gave Charlotte those nine stitches. He explains that they were up at the Lake together. One day, Charlotte was sitting down in the driveway trying to pet Boo Boo's cat, and Seymour threw a stone at her. "That's all there was to it," Buddy explains. "He threw it at her because she looked so beautiful sitting there in the middle of the driveway with Boo Boo's cat. Everybody knew that, for God's sake" ("Roof Beam" 5.2).
Buddy tells his readers that he was lying a bit. The Glass children knew the reason why Seymour threw the stone, but Charlotte never did.
Buddy leaves his guest in the living room and returns to the bathroom where he recovers Seymour's diary from the hamper and reads the last entry, which Seymour wrote while waiting for his flight to New York for the wedding.
He's been begging Muriel to elope with him instead of going through the ceremony. "I'm too keyed up to be with people," he writes. "I feel as though I'm about to be born. Sacred, sacred day" ("Roof Beam" 5.4). He's been reading passages from the Hindu scriptures about marriage, which sounds to him "beautifully difficult" ("Roof Beam" 5.4).
Buddy closes the diary, heads into the bedroom, and passes out cold. He wakes up an hour and a half later with a headache. He heads into the living room to find that his elderly guest has departed, leaving behind his empty glass and cigar end.
"I still rather think his cigar end should have been forwarded on to Seymour," Buddy narrates, "the usual run of wedding gifts being what it is. Just the cigar, in a small, nice box. Possibly with a blank sheet of paper enclosed, by way of explanation" ("Roof Beam" 5.7).