THE TRUE BUT OFTEN APOCRYPHAL STORY OF THE METAMORPHOSIS OF THOMAS VELLUM’S BEARD, PART II:4

II:4 How will this end? Will our narrative, based on our understanding of TV, merge at some point with the real TV? Are we running alongside of him in a parallel circumstance? Do we have a bird’s eye view of him or are we in his mind’s eye? In either case, who is
TV and who are we? So much in our lives depends on invention. So much of our invention depends on our grasp of the past and our luck and our willingness to take chances.
Like flies drawn to the smell of sugar, we’ve returned to the Fifth Avenue home of Raymond Smith. The front door opens directly onto a large expanse that is both foyer and living room. The foyer walls are a subtle grey. A proscenium-like entrance framed in a classical manner popular in the 20s, has large glass French doors folded back to the walls. Beyond, the living room is immaculate white with thirteen foot ceilings. At the far opposite wall, there is an array of large windows, bordered with heavy full-length curtains. On one side of the room there is a large empty fireplace with an elaborate marble mantle. Hanging above it is a painting by an up-and-coming young painter. On the other side of the room an enormous flat television screen set in the wall captures our attention with its rapid sequence of colorful images. In a corner of the room a grand piano. Elsewhere comfortable sofas and arm chairs draped in white linen as well as coffee tables and armoires in white with gold inlay, supporting antique lamps of Delft Origin. Doors lead off to other rooms.
The television is tuned to the latest developments. We are at war. But Raymond, on seeing his prize client wrapped in a wet madras jacket marching into his living room; followed by shivering Cass, dressed in spring attire and whose illness of years past had precipitated her husband’s sudden fury of creativity; followed by his newest client, Judy Crucible, in purple fur, her shoulders hunched, holding onto a Gorilla flecked with melting snow is, if not exactly ebullient, happy at all the possibilities presented here.
Raymond Well, this is quite an unexpected visit, Thom. I was expecting Judy, though not exactly under these circumstances. Where’s Adolf?
Judy Back at the venue.
Cass She walked out on him, so we gave her a lift.
Raymond Cass, you look wonderful. Exactly what we need on such a night. How’s Clio?
Cass Keeping out of trouble, I hope. And the girls?
Raymond Don’t get me started. But look at Thom! What have you done? You look as young as you did the day we first met. Are you using a special cream, vitamins? Are you having injections? Who’s your dermatologist? He’s a magician!
Cass Dr. V as in Vanity. Nice beard, Raymond.
Raymond Thank you. I needn’t tell you the source of inspiration. We’re calling it the Vellumesque.
Cass There’s no end to Thom’s usefulness.
TV Raymond, you must turn a few of your houses into shelters for the homeless. They’ve no where to go.
Raymond Yes, it’s dreadful.
Cass You can call them Vellumtels.
Raymond If there’s a way I can help the unfortunate. . .
Cass I’m sure there’s a tax advantage.
Raymond But you haven’t introduced me to your hairy friend.
TV Anthony Morales, we go way back..
Judy He’s a real Homo erectus. . .
Raymond Your name rings a bell.
Cass You have picked up a few tidbits along the way, haven’t you?
Judy The dog and I were always digging up old bones in the backyard. . .
Raymond You know, Thomas, you never cease to surprise me.
Judy which helped me understand the anatomy of mammals.
Cass I’m sure that’s come in handy.
Chorus Ladies and gentlemen, once again, your President.
Raymond Well, Anthony, your suit seems to have kept you warm, even if it’s faux.
Chorus Shhh, everyone!
President The liberation of Refugium is going along at unprecedented speed. The Secretary of War will have more to say as we forge ahead in our pursuit of economic freedom for all. There are those who say we have invaded an impoverished nation of homeless people because of the oil said to be found there. This is not so. I expect the ladies and gentlemen of the press to take responsibility for the information they disseminate since it is your duty to assure the public on matters of truth. It is the right of every American to trust and believe what they read and see on our news broadcasts without worrying that the masters of deception have slipped another lie into the main stream. It is the duty of the news corps to stand on the side of Liberty. Fortunately, there is oil and at this moment our economists are studying the feasibility of using this resource to help finance the rebuilding of Refugium as well as pay the costs for this unfortunate war brought upon us by the surge in homelessness. Rest assured, our economists are Ivy League men and women, among the highest in their class. Many graduated with honors.
Chorus Hurrah for the red, white and blue! It’s time we all put aside our differences, our partisan views. It’s time to join hands and fight the good war together.
Raymond Here, let me get you all something warm to wear. Cass you’re shivering.
Chorus I’d like to hold her hand.
Cass Think of it, a curfew!
Chorus Whose hand, Cass’s?
Judy How about a drink?

Cass Love one!
Chorus No, Judy’s. With those nails she doesn’t need utensils.
Raymond Help yourselves, near the kitchen, bar’s to the left. Cass, try this on.
Chorus She looks forbidding to me. Those nails, those daggers in her lower lip.
Cass No thanks.
Chorus She can cut my lip on her talons anytime. It looks as if she and Cass are trying to avoid each other. . . Do you think Judy’s been drinking. . ? No, she’s staggering because of those tiptoe heels. . . But it looks like she untied the laces at the hem of her vinyl dress. That must make it easier for her to walk. . . Yeah, but not much. . ! Cass can’t stop shaking with the cold. . . Her jacket’s too thin.
TV Raymond, what about this poster?
Chorus Everyone, the gorilla is lifting his hairy head off. . . Now we’ll discover the identity of the Barbie man. . . There it goes. . . Please, a round of applause for the big guy. His eyes are dark and his swarthy face wet with perspiration. . . Would you say he’s handsome. . ? Adorable.
Anthony That’s better.
Judy My, my, now I know why Blotter worries about you. You’re wife’s a lucky woman.
Chorus She’s reaching out with those formidable finger nails to stroke his head.
Anthony Take it. Now what about that drink?
Chorus Do you think they’d make a nice couple?
Judy Stolichnaya, neat.
Anthony Cass?
Judy I love your head of hair.
Cass Lemon and soda.
Chorus Yes, but he’s married, isn’t he?
Cass Who, Homo erectus ?
Chorus Yeah. . . but wouldn’t that be a new twist, you know, take the moral rectitude right out of this story. . ? If they were playing strip poker, wouldn’t she have to take her coat off next. . ? You’d like that, wouldn’t you. . ? Hey, I didn’t criticize your amorous glances at the Barbie man. . . Anyway she’d have to have the losing hand and she seems to have everything in hand.
Judy Homo erectus supposedly came before Homo sapiens. But I don’t think sapience caught up yet. Do you?
Cass Well I can agree with you there!
Chorus It would be the talk of the town. . . What’s Cass laughing about. . ? Who cares what people say? When Judy moves her head, her antennas wiggle, how sexy is that. . ! Sexy? It’s funny. But I have to hand it to her, being on her feet all this time in those heels. I can’t believe her stamina.
Judy So Raymond, what happened to my radio blitz?
Chorus She’s a natural comic. Look at the way she’s making eyes at Morales’s ape
head. . . Some might not think it so funny, the way she’s French kissing in its mouth. . . Get a grip, it’s Beauty and the Beast. You have to admit Raymond sure knows how to pick ‘em.
Raymond Judy, haven’t you heard, we’re at war.
Chorus When is she going to take that coat off?
TV About this poster.
Chorus You’re perverted. And I thought Blotter discovered her?
Raymond No greater publicity, Judy, than a war.
Chorus Yeah, he’s the one who actually discovered her. But I think it was the other way around, she saw he was of means and made the play.
TV Raymond, what about this poster!
Chorus Well, it’s a shame. This was to be Judy’s night. . . Yeah, but all TV cares about is his poster!
Anthony Ladies, your drinks.
Chorus Yeah! Sometimes these celebrities can’t see beyond their noses.
Judy Thanks.
Cass Thanks.
Chorus What do you mean, sometimes, more like all the time!
Raymond Cass, please take my coat, it hurts me to see you so cold.
Chorus If Cass would only sit down for a moment. She continues her visual pursuit of all the objects in the room. . . Yeah, she’s making me dizzy watching her.
Cass I recall having seen this jacket before. Another Vellumesque.
Chorus If she doesn’t want the coat, she should just say so. Don’t you agree. . ? Yeah, the way she walks past Raymond, holding her head high in the air. . . Yes, it’s very unbecoming for literature’s first lady. . . Yeah, and see the way she’s looking at everything in the room, appraising every article. . . Yes, do you think she’s jealous. . ? Probably, but wow, look at Judy, she’s so cool, a real Salome. . . Well, that’s what I meant by forbidding, that touch of Beardsley with the heavy metal hanging from her face and the way she swings that ape head by its hair. . . Yeah, she’s walking around with it like it’s a handbag on a spring day.
Judy I want to try it on.
Anthony You don’t want to do that – I sweat a lot inside it.
Judy So? But my jewelry has to come off first.
Chorus Take your coat off first!
Judy What did you say?
Anthony I didn’t say anything.
Judy I thought I heard you asking me to take my coat off. I’ll only do that if we can trade fur coats.
Anthony I didn’t say anything.
Chorus You are a pervert. . . What of it. . ! Yes, well, it’s too bad her radio debut was canceled. . . Yeah, it hasn’t been a good night for her though some of that is her own fault. . . Yes, like walking out on the opera. . . Is Anthony giving her the once over or what? You tell me. . ! You aren’t jealous, are you. . ? Don’t get catty with me, you know me better than that. I think you’re the jealous one here, too bad he’s a pervert. . ? No, you’re the pervert!
Cass Thom, do you realize we could live like this?
Chorus See, what did I tell you. For anyone just tuning in, Cass is having a fit. After all the years of deprivation despite TV’s enormous earnings, she too wants some of the good things in life. . . We don’t blame her. . . Yeah, if anyone is to blame, it’s TV.
Raymond Cass, exactly what I’m always telling him.
Chorus Oh, listen, I’ve just got word, our ratings have just skyrocketed. Folks are tuning in, they want something to sizzle between Judy and Anthony. . . What are you talking about, they want to see Judy, they want to see what she looks like underneath her purple fur. . . No, it’s romance they want. . . OK, folks, call in and tell us if you think.
Cass So Raymond, where are Ramona and the girls, how are they?
TV What about this poster?
Raymond Sorry to say, success isn’t always what it appears to be.
Chorus Yes, how true. . . Yeah, the tragedy of success.
Judy What about my radio début?
TV What about my poster?
Chorus The phones are ringing. Madeline from Arkansas, wants to know if Tony is older than Judy. You want to take a stab at that. . ? I would say Judy’s in her mid forties, but looks nothing like her age. . , Yeah I’d say she looks late
thirties. . . And Anthony must be in his early fifties. Would you
agree. . ? Yeah, mid-fifties. . . So far the majority of our viewers want to see Judy and Anthony in each other’s arms. . . Come on folks, admit it, what you really want to see is what makes Judy, the queen of fetish. . . Well, for now it seems the renown TV and the queen of fetish are having starfits over publicity failures.
Raymond Cass, I’m a miserable bachelor now. The girls are in college. Ramona never fails to inform me of the latest rise in tuition or the latest needs in their wardrobes.
Cass Yeah, Clio too, always wardrobe building, like her mother.
Chorus Such sarcasm! And in the face of this poor man’s sorrow. It’s just too real. . . Yeah, but imagine this. Cass dumps TV, hitches up with Raymond, gets everything she ever wanted. . . Yes, and Anthony goes off with Judy, they were made for each other. . ! I didn’t have that in mind, but it works. . . Yes, and that leaves our incomparable TV, once again struck by adversity, returning to his homeless cadre. . . Yeah, where he begins a new book. . . But that would make Judy, the housebreaker and Anthony, the family man, social outlaws. . . So? We like bad boys and girls, now and then, don’t we. . ? Yes, but. . . Yes, but nothing. Ladies and gentlemen, Judy Crucible, femme fatale, whose meteoric rise has left us breathless, has just taken off her faux fur and thrown it over the white chair near the fireplace. In doing so, she stumbled and almost lost her balance, but with skill regained it without releasing the furry crown of Anthony’s head – I think she called his hard head homo erectus, if I’m not mistaken. . ! Well!
Judy Am I getting too old for this?
Chorus You may be older than today’s starlets but in those additional years you make up for you lost youth in experience! I just love they way the corset strings from your hobble skirt trail over the contours of your buttocks. . . Come on, just say it, why hold your tongue now, over the contours of her ass. . . I’ll go further over the contours of her bare ass. . ! We warn our younger viewers to follow the Motions Picture Association guidelines to assure your innocence. . . Kids, don’t let Samantha’s chilly mood dampen your fun, the queen of fetish has nothing underneath. . ! Please, control yourself, we’re on the air. . ! Yeah, but look at her! I’ve been waiting all night for this. . . I understand, Harry, I’m the first to admit, she has a remarkable hour glass figure. But I can’t imagine wearing such a constricting dress. . . I can. . ! I’m flattered but she looks like she’s trying to work the laces in back loose. I like the way she uses her long nails like knitting needles. . . Who can concentrate with those thingies dangling from her nipples. . . You must behave. Perhaps Cass and I are embarrassed and angry. . . OK, OK, here comes Anthony to her rescue.
Judy Work from the center loops, thanks. Much better, yeah, it’s been a long day.
Cass Well, I see you still have your motherly shape.
Raymond Judy, let me find you something more comfortable to wear. . . Cass?
Cass We need to leave. I’m not even sure why I’m here.
Raymond You can’t leave now, Cass, with the curfew. Let me go look in my daughters’ closets, I’ll find something. . .
Chorus Raymond has just left the room.
Cass Thom, is this your version of La Dolce Vida?
Chorus For those of us too young to know, a quick web search tells us that Cass is referring to the 1960 film by Federico Fellini.
Cass Being a mother doesn’t explain why you missed out on women’s liberation.
Judy It depends on what you mean by liberation.
Chorus Cass moves off from the indifferent Judy, her restless pacing taking her to the piano. Judy falls back on the white arm chair one hand resting on the arm of the chair, the other setting the hairy head down on the floor. . . Yeah, and don’t forget to mention the Tree of Good and Evil, rooted in the garden between her legs. . . Please! Cass has stopped in front of Anthony, who is sitting at the piano.
Cass So you’re Tom’s oldest friend. He often speaks of you. You’re like family.
Anthony Cassandra, I wish we could have met under more normal circumstances.
Cass Don’t make me laugh.
Chorus As she continues her restless pacing, TV stands pensively still by the fireplace, his bag in his hand. . . He won’t part with it. . . He’s perusing a tattered magazine which he took out of his bag. . . Yeah and furtively watching Judy with side glances. . . But look, he’s approaching her now. Will our own TV make a play, in front of Cass. . ? Judy has dug her orange nails into her thick red dread and is lightly stroking the top of her breast as if dusting the engravings on her overturned porcelain bowls. . .
TV I just realized where I’ve seen you before.
Judy You told me you saw me at Nadir.
TV No, earlier than that.
Judy How about the woodpile.
TV Well, that’s close, yes, the woodpile, you were certainly with us there, but even earlier than that – I mean your image.
Judy They were taken a few years ago after I met Blotter. We only started distribution recently. As you can see I’m not the same girl I was then.
TV I don’t mean the pictures.
Judy Then I’m mystified.
TV In India people call you Mariamman, in the Near East, possibly Crete, you were the tamer of snakes, Astarte.
Judy My tongue gave me away.
TV You know I didn’t see your split tongue mentioned during my earlier readings but just now I found it described in my magazine.
Judy You’re losing me.
TV Worshipers of Mariamman cut their tongues to bond with her. You’re much more famous than you think, with credentials thousands of years old.
Judy Well, I knew I was older than the other women at Nadir but I never imagined I was that old.
TV This has nothing to do with how old you are. You’re an embodiment of a spirit that pervades throughout human evolution.
Chorus Raymond’s back with a jersey, a bathrobe and a large sweater.
Raymond I couldn’t help but hear that, Thom. I think Judy’s the embodiment of someone I saw dancing on top of a piano at the Condor in San Francisco. Try these, Judy. Cass, this sweater should fit you.
Anthony You mean Carol Doda.
Judy I never heard of her.
Raymond In 1964 her topless act helped usher in the 60’s. She was wearing a Rudi Guernich bathing suit. Now she runs a lingerie store in San Francisco, but she still sings.
Cass The boys are reminiscing.
Chorus Judy shrugs her shoulders as she drops down on top of her purple fur, crossing her legs. She bends over and releases her feet, strap by strap, shoelace by shoelace from the glossy dog head ankle boots. . . Her nails add to her reach and allow her a means of slipping in under each lace to loosen them.
Judy 1964, I was ten. I’ll take that as a complement. . . But I’d rather be the snake tamer.
Raymond Judy, you might be more comfortable if you changed in Sasha’s old room, instead of here. It’s more private.
Judy If you insist.
Chorus Why did he stop her, she was just beginning to unzipper her dress?
Judy It took me thirty years to catch up to your friend, Doda. . .
TV Time means nothing to you.
Judy That’s what you think. Now if you don’t mind can I have my bag?
TV It was under your chair.
Judy Did you look through my stuff?
TV No, but I wanted to.
Judy At least your honest.
Cass Oh honesty’s a vice with him!
Chorus How disappointing, Judy’s left the room. . . Cass has taken off her jacket and is putting on the lavender sweater. . . I admit she looks cute. . . Wait, hold on, something is coming in, another broadcast from the Black and Blue room in the White House, what a night. . . ‘Ladies and gentlemen, your President.’
Anthony The wind’s picking up. It’s become a blizzard.
TV About my poster.
President Hours ago at the onset of Project Buy A Home I authorized the newly formed Department of Homeland Protection to begin rounding up the homeless. . .
TV “to ensure the safety of all decent homeowners and their children and their pets and their gardens. . .”
President to ensure the safety of all decent homeowners and their children and their pets and their gardens. When law enforcement broke up the New York headquarters of ARCH, we uncovered an extensive worldwide network which led us to act quickly to suppress the scourge of homelessness around the world. We began in Refugium, but we aren’t satisfied. We want, as good homeowners, to reclaim these lives lost to this deadly epidemic. So we have spearheaded a program that is now helping the homeless return to our society as good consumers. We have been taking them to undisclosed bases around the globe where. . .
TV “our experts have been helping them to rethink their life goals. . .” I wrote that, you’ll find the President’s speech in M.
Chorus Shhhh!
President our experts have been helping them to rethink their life goals. There, as you may already know, they are experiencing the good things in life. The project is going well. Despite what you might be hearing from unscrupulous sources, these new students of life have come to appreciate the benefits of good food, good entertainment and, most of all, a roof over their heads. But there is a price for these gifts, and they are taking it willingly. Let me welcome newly converted Joseph Flok, Joseph.
Chorus Hurray for the red, white and blue. . . Ah, Judy’s back, wearing Raymond’s bathrobe. . ! Don’t get so excited. . . Well, at least I can concentrate now.
Joseph Flok I am thirty-four years old. I was a drug addict. I lived from hand to mouth. Although I graduated from college I couldn’t read above the fifth grade level. So my life fell apart. Under the ARCH(sic) I came under the influence of evil people. But thanks to Project Buy A Home I am back on my feet. I am
receiving proper medication and have a job.
President Thank you, Joseph. Let’s hear it for Joseph Flock, now of Homesdale, USA. . .
Chorus Hurray for the red, white and blue.
President Like others, Joseph now has a job in our military services. . ,
Joseph Flok Proud to serve, Sir!
President Yes, thank you, Joseph. . .
Joseph Flok You can call me, Joe, Sir!
President Thank you, Joe, yes, and as I was saying. . .
Chief of Staff . . . now has a job in our military services. . ,
Chorus Judy has removed a mirror from her plastic bag and placed it on the mantle above the fire place. Cass has come up behind her and is watching.
Cass For someone so style conscious, why don’t you carry a purse? For you’re accessories.
Chorus Judy looks at her through her long eye lashes, sighs, then digs into her plastic bag and retrieves a special needle nose pliers from the bag. She uses the pliers to clamp onto the dermal anchor in her skin, so she can unscrew her antennae. . . She’s quite dexterous considering the lengthy orange nails.
Judy When I left home, my ex-husband’s home, I stuffed my few things into a plastic bag. I was in a hurry. I was afraid I would never leave and I had to leave. Now I carry everything in plastic bags. I guess I’m still not sure when I’ll need a quick exit.
Cass Like tonight.
Judy Yeah, like the tonight.
Chorus Judy, do you mind telling your fans how long your nails are?
Judy Three inches. They’ve been six and just as pointed. I really dug them. Remi was working on my Tree tapestry, then. Since I was lying on my back most of the time and couldn’t do much else, I indulged myself and let them grow. He liked them too.
Chorus You seem to use them like precision tools? Do they ever get in the way?
Judy Like anything else you adjust. I did. I treat them no differently than any other body part. With the six inch nails I had difficulty washing my hair, but found teasing my hair easier. Doing simple tasks like this was more difficult with six inches than three. Fastening my bra was really hard. Of course I discovered I didn’t need a bra after augmentation. Where I was willing to learn how to speak again with my split tongue, I thought six inch nails had to go. On the other hand as a fetish queen, I miss them now and then and might let them grow again. I don’t know. I’d grow my toe nails, only my love of ballet heels comes first. And four inch toe nails and ballet heels don’t mix. One advantage of six inch nails was I often cooked without utensils. Turning over pork or lamb chops was easy with those nails. And stir frying was a snap, using all four nails like a spatula. For frittatas or quiches I used my index nail to see if the batter was cooked through, instead of a tooth pick or knife. I can do the same with three inches but now I feel the high heat. Typing on a computer keyboard is more precise with my three inch pointed nails than it was with my fat old finger tips. I learned to be just as precise with six inch nails, but sometimes my hands cramped because my hands were so far from the keyboard. Same when practicing piano. But forget texting!
Chorus They look lethal.
Judy Yeah, that’s what I like about them.
President Ah yes, which offers our indigent the dignity they have always desired. Besides learning new skills, they also will have a chance to invest in 401Ks managed by experts in our financial institutions, which I proudly add, are the backbone of our nation. . .
Chorus For those just tuning in, Judy’s has just released her last giant nose ring. They’re dangling from her ears.
President Down the road, Joe, when you retire at seventy from the military, you’ll have quite a nest egg for you and the little lady to live comfortably ever after. And because of new sophisticated lending instruments, when you and the others return to our great country, you will be able to buy your own home without any money down. . .
Chorus Her fingers seem to move across her face like the independent armatures of a spider, her pinky nail supporting a chain while the other fingers maneuver the pliers. The finger nails from the other hand disengage the chains, one by one, each nail swinging a chain out of the way of the pliers, leaving the threaded dermal anchors in her cheeks in place. Except for the chains holding the nose hoops which she has disconnected from the tragus ring, it looks like she’s leaving the other chains dangling from the ears. . . I have to admit her dexterity and accuracy are marvelous. And she certainly enjoys her work. . . Which proves that women can dress like Judy without loosing the physical freedom to achieve high mechanical skills. . . You’re going too far.
President In the days to come, newly formed units of the Homeless Battalion will be arriving in Refugium. They will begin helping in the reconstruction of the country insuring that freedom and democracy take root. And who is better able to provide the inspiration to turn over a new leaf than our own fully inoculated homeless ambassadors of good will.
TV Who is Flok?
Chorus Shhh.
TV There’s no evidence of his existence in my latest reading of M.
Chorus Really! Shhh! And why are you whispering. . ? I’m not whispering, just wanted you to notice how frantic TV is paging through that ratty magazine. It’s a scream.
President Our nation-wide net is picking up everyone living outside supermarkets and recycling centers, inside public restrooms and railway stations and on park benches.
Chorus Ladies and gentlemen, Judy’s dismantling her ear fins. . . Judy, your nails swing out like miniature cranes working over an erector set.
President As I’ve indicated all of them, like Joe, will receive humanitarian treatment at our Epidemic Control Centers around the world before entering the elite Homeless Battalion. We are moving ahead with grace from Above. Thank you very much.
Chorus Wow, what a speech!
Anthony What bullshit!
Cass I second that!
Chorus There will always be the ‘do-nothings’ who complain. . ! Watch her nimble fingers, each has a mind of its own, each nail feeling its way around Judy’s ear fins, two of them miraculously removing the little black balls, while others pull out the long silver posts, the fin intact and palming the fin like a card shark. . . We think the President’s speech inspires us to do our part, wouldn’t you say. . ? What? Yes, the President fosters confidence at home while offering fair treatment for unfortunates. It reminds me of the old welfare-to-work programs, a brilliant inducement for indigents to reject the revolutionary ARCH. . . But Harry, still no mention of Eddie Ammonia. . ? Who cares about Ammonia. . . You’re watching Judy’s fingers removing ornaments, which I admit reminds me of Odette and her maidens twirling across the ice in Swan Lake. . . No, it’s more a fan dance to me, only instead of fans she swings around those wicked nails across her lips as she removes her upright talons.
Judy I’ve got something less prominent.
Cass Is that what you’re trying to do, become less prominent? Good luck!
Chorus You’re absolutely right, Samantha. The consensus here is that the President has purposely relegated Ammonia to a foot note, a common bandito. Eddie might as well be living in a squirrel hole for all he can do now. . . Thank you, Harry. And now to the Hill where the representatives of both parties in a show of bipartisan effort just gave a statement saying they are proud to be a part of this world-wide effort that will not only provide jobs and investment opportunities for Americans at home, but also for those across the seas. Senator Notion?
Notion Yes, Samantha.
Chorus What did you think of the President’s statement?
Notion Well, as the President put it the other day, using the lifeboat analogy, if you save yourself first, you can better save others later. . .
Chorus Excuse me, Senator. . . Harry, what is it. . ? In this time of war I’d like the Senator to watch this act of disarmament. If only war could be this easy. Just zoom in on Judy. Closer, there! Can you see it? Her snake tongue has wrapped around the last lip talon and holds it, while her thumb and index nails remove the curved labret with red ball. Incredible versatility, wouldn’t you say, Senator!
Notion Yes, well as we say in the south, the young lady has both the beauty and ability to please all. I’d even go so far to say the young lady is disarming!
Chorus Senator, I apologize for the interruption. Please go on.
Notion Nothing to apologize for, Samantha, I find the young lady, well. . .
Chorus About the life raft and saving yourself first before you think of others.
Notion Yes, of course. . .Now that’s a unique concept in helping the Third World poor as well as our own poor in acquiring a piece of the American dream. And we can still cut taxes!
Chorus Thank you, Senator. Now back to our show. . . Senator! Did I. . . What are you doing, Harry?
Notion Yes?
Chorus Senator, we know you like a little fun now and then; if you’d like to meet the young. . .
Notion If the young lady has a need to meet a representative of the people, I’d be up for that.
Chorus I’m sure you would be. Her name is Judy Crucible. Keep an eye on her.
Notion That won’t be hard to do.
Chorus Just now her army of finger nails have removed an ear tunnel and are busy working on the other. If the viewers can come closer they can see the large elongated hole in her ear lobe. For those just tuning in, we are watching body artist, Judy Crucible remove her array of piercings. She carefully places each piece in a plastic carry bag, her preferred method of transporting her accessories.
TV Will you tell me about this poster, goddamn it?
Chorus Really, TV! At a time like this, with a war in progress and Judy de-accessorizing. We’ve always looked up to you, so why are you behaving like this?
Cass Did you really start when you were twelve?
Judy You mean like Laoula. Are you kidding, I was totally withdrawn, an entirely different creature then. I would never have done something that would have drawn attention to myself. I told you I was already at Nadir when I discovered my body.
TV “As once the winged energy of delight carried you over childhood’s dark abysses, now beyond your own life build the great arch of unimagined bridges.”
Judy More like “To work with Things in the indescribable relationship is not too hard for us; the pattern grows more intricate and subtle and being swept along is not enough!”
Chorus They’re reciting Shakespeare.
Raymond I hadn’t seen this poetic side of your relationship. . . Ah you mean that poster!
Chorus As TV unfurls the tattered sheet, the thumb and forefinger on Judy’s hands – the other three nails lie folded over her palm, remove the terminal chains on one of her eyebrow spirals. The fingers and nails of the other hand hold the spiral still. Now, the thumb and forefinger, oddly bowed, slowly roll the eyebrow spiral out, the last three digits suddenly standing upright like soldiers at attention. . . On the tattered sheet in Vellum’s hands is a picture of a wanted man with a long beard. Obviously, the terrorist Edward Ammonia.
Raymond We’ve posted them all over the city. It was the least we could do for Homeland Protection. And they paid well for our graphics.
Chorus It’s really quite funny. TV looks dumbfounded. It must be another unexpected twist for him. Look, even Anthony has come over to look at the poster.
Anthony Is this the guy everyone is talking about? Until tonight I’d never heard of him. What’s he done?
Chorus The authorities offered him the best that life can give. . .
Raymond Providing he settled down, bought a house, married, you know, the whole catastrophe.
Chorus He refused!
Judy Can you blame him?
Chorus She’s nearly naked. . . Please, she’s wearing Raymond’s paisley robe, let’s not get carried away.
Judy I feel naked.
Chorus See. . ! But Judy, you still have your wild array of colored braids and the silver ring studs dot your cheeks.
Judy You can also see my face is pitted because of my derms.
Chorus You told your father you had acne.
Judy No, that was Laoula.
Chorus Who cares! All you great artists begin to show the scars of your creative minds. Your scars are the symbols of your strict dedication to your body art.
Judy Yes, that’s true.
TV What are you talking about? That’s my face on the poster!
Chorus That’s our old TV. . ! Yes, always in the middle of things, even if he isn’t really there.
Raymond Ammonia, TV, why quibble over small details?
TV Details? Since when is stealing someone’s identity a detail?
Chorus What a real hoot. Just what we needed at a time like this, a good laugh. . ! Yeah, with the national emergency and all. Anyway, no one’s paying attention to him, with Judy inserting her silver labret with black ball into her lower lip. . . Yes, the black ball looks good against your purple lipstick, Judy. . . The other slips in just as easily.
Judy Much better.
Raymond Homeland Protection had their reasons for the poster’s deployment.
Cass That’s Thom with a beard.
Raymond Cass, to be honest, as far as I was concerned, distribution was my way of finding Thom.
Cass Why?
Raymond Wherever Ammonia is, I knew TV would be near.
TV I don’t know where Eddie is. Last time I saw him he was standing on the corner of 110th and Broadway panhandling.
Raymond I just had my hunch. And I was right, you’re here! But. . . you might say matters were taken out of my hands when you became a member of ARCH.
TV There’s no membership, unless being hungry or cold. . .
Raymond Sources at the highest level say you were a card-carrying member. Ladies, excuse my French, but that’s deep shit, Thom. With homeless marauders and a war going on. . .
Cass Marauders?
Judy Marauders?
Anthony Cadres, cells and marauders. A great noise is sweeping the land. Even ASS has been lost in the ruckus.
Raymond Thom, I know you were a member of ARCH, but I was surprised, if not shocked, to learn you had joined ASS.
Chorus Exploration and adventure must be part of an artist’s life. But ASS? To be a card-carrying member, an insider? How revolting!
Anthony What do you closet voyeurs know about ASS?
Chorus Look whose talking, the stalker!
Anthony Talk about stalkers, only you call it freedom of the press.
Chorus Are you both anarchists. . ? Yeah, like big Eddie.
Anthony In that ASS doesn’t have structure, yes.
Chorus Chairman Tony, excuse us. . . this is coming in now. . . Hours ago the State Department issued this warning to the government of Sybaris: Desist from aiding terrorists bent on destroying our way of life or risk retribution. The question on everybody’s mind is whether the communal government of Sybaris assisted in the escape of Ammonia. The leader of Sybaris, Barrio Barbudos, speaking for three and half hour, before a large gathering of Sybarites, accused the United States of political irony.
Barbudos The only homeless on the island of Sybaris are the men and women kept in captivity on the land the United States stole from us a century ago during our war of liberation against Spain. These captives, they tell us, are called terrorists.
TV Raymond, that suit you’re wearing. . ?
Raymond It’s your style, Thom! After seeing you that day I went to Virtual Wear and found your salesman.
TV He told me.
Raymond Thom, you’ve never understood your power; you’ve always doubted yourself.
TV I don’t understand myself.
Judy Until Nadir I didn’t either.
Anthony Few of us admit it.
Raymond Exactly! That is why I’m TV’s agent. And yours too, Judy. Why even Sari Sermon contacted me when she learned I was your agent. A wonderful woman, very shy. She’s on a road to success, thanks to you. I just signed her on as one of my clients.
Cass I thought you were a literary agent.
Raymond Cass, everything is connected!
Judy Blotter believes that too.
Raymond Everything. There’s very little difference between a fashion designer and a painter. Creativity connects everyone. He taught me that. TV, the ultimate performance artist cum investigator of cultural sub-text, or should we say hyper-text. And think of all the lucrative spin-offs, the toys and ties? And now, if we can pull it off, the paraphernalia from the war, the camouflage pants and coats, and from the homeless revolution, machine worn dungarees with holes and chemically scented sweat shirts that smell of body odor and other knick-knacks. And wait until you see our new line of dolls.
TV You’re not saying anything new, Raymond. These universal connections go way back.
Cass As far back as the woodpile.
Chorus Tell us about the woodpile.
Raymond Is that a new club downtown?
Judy With my vanity in hyper-drive, I need to be discovered, verified, the face of change.
Raymond And you will be Judy! I’ll have to check out The Woodpile.
Judy Maybe my life would have turned out differently if I’d had my debut there.
Anthony Until tonight the issues were clear. ASS vs. SS. There was no ARCH. Now that’s all changed. I don’t get it.
Cass Thom has the whole story about ARCH in my Metropolis. He knows all the people involved. But there are lots of groups. Our daughter belongs to SATS.
Chorus Shhhh, everyone, the Vice-President is about to issue a reply to Barrio Barbudos.
VP It’s sweet and simple. The victims of Sybaris are not those in Camp Bentham but the population beyond Bentham’s fence. Again and again the oppressed have abandoned their own tyrannical leaders, braving the open seas in small boats to reach our great free country. End of story. Period.
Anthony All of this is in Metropolis?
Cass TV wrote it.
TV Raymond, have you ever questioned yourself?
Raymond I’m a simple man, Thom.
TV Ok, and this new piano? Are you taking piano lessons now?
Chorus Judy has returned to her chair. She takes up Morales’ furry head and raises it above her own, like a queen about to anoint herself with a crown. With an almost sanctimonious expression she lowers it over her own. . . I miss her already.
Raymond Judy, Anthony’s mask doesn’t become you.
Judy I like it under here.
Chorus Judy has found shelter under big Tony’s hairy head. . .
TV Formerly she was Doris from Long Island.
Raymond Doris? Is there someone else I need to know?
TV Where did you find her?
Raymond You found her.
TV That night?
Raymond Precisely.
Chorus This just in: Barrio Barbudos, the bearded president of Sybaris in response to the Vice-President.
Barbudos It is true we lack the funds to accommodate everyone. If a man wants more than his neighbor, he will remain unhappy. If he wants to possess the wealth of Croesus, he will be unhappy. But our unhappy Sybarite should consider this. This dream our rich northern brother advertises cannot be had by all. Many people in the north, including those who left in search of individual riches, remain unfavored by destiny, remain poor, and without homes. Ah yes, they are free! Free to crave the very excesses they can’t afford. And now their freedom is short. They are being rounded up like pigs and brought back to our own land, but not as free men but as prisoners of war.’
Raymond Thom, trust yourself.
Chorus I’ve never heard such a lie, as if those rounded up weren’t renegades of Barbudos out to destroy us. . ! Judy’s demonstrating her comic ability. Only, why can’t she open her bathrobe too. . . Oh. . ! Just a little.
TV I never went to college.
Raymond We can remedy that.
TV So what about this story?
Raymond Don’t you love it?
TV So you wrote it!
Raymond I can’t write!
Chorus Raymond can barely contain his enthusiasm.
Raymond We have a staff of ghost writers, none of them of note, none of them of your stature. They were chosen, not for their creative powers but for their means of subjecting their skills to the will of a single mind, yours.
Chorus At this moment we should all ask ourselves if this is plagiarism or if indeed the spirit of a great artist has entered into the national consciousness and literally has become the mind of the people. . . But TV wasn’t informed of this. . . True, but all TV’s works are, in a sense, the manifestation of our mind. . . Yes, that’s
true. . . The films are on DVDs, each film based on a book, the scripts themselves written by TV. The books come in hardcover and paperback, and recently in digital formats. . . As well as on CDs recited by famous movie stars. . . Each and everyone is a classic. . ! And all of them are available in stores everywhere including supermarkets and drugstores as well as on the internet. . . So ask your local vendors if there are any left or surf the web.
Raymond In a nutshell, your work was fed into a computer. You look surprised? It was you who initially realized the vast potential of the computer. You pioneered the use of a computer to fabricate your great series, the history of the world as seen through TV.
Chorus We should add that he went on to modify his own computer so that he could double its energy, magnify its receptivity in the global network. . . even accomplish, and here we pause for effect. . . time travel. . ! In short, why would such a digital wizard be surprised by the developments in the computer industry which he heralded?
Raymond Thom, when the first AI regales us with Homeric tales, it will be your voice.
Chorus For the few of you who are still working analog, AI stands for Artificial Intelligence.
Anthony Ok, fine, but why is ARCH ascending and ASS descending.
Judy Morales, are you into the zodiac?
TV Your ghost writers, with or without the computer, couldn’t have written this story.
Raymond What have you done to your magazine?
Cass My magazine.
TV You know why? Because every time I read the story, it changes just like the poster.
Chorus Is this mind bending or what. . ? You can say that again. . . No one knows what to say. . . TV is standing in the center of the room, his big plastic bag in one hand, his tattered copy of Metropolis in the other. . . Can the viewers see him? He’s like Perseus bearing his raised sword with one hand, the head of Medusa in the other. . . Are you comparing the plastic bag to the head of Medusa. . ? It’s a symbol and his rolled up poster is his sword. . . Raymond is grinning like the Cheshire cat. . . TV has made another impression. Even poor Cass is struck with awe.
Raymond Brilliant. I never would have thought of that. Only you, Thom! You say the story changes every time the reader reads it. Brilliant. This will require digital smart paper – if there is such a thing – and I have just the man to implement it. He will be here any minute.
TV My inspirations came from an angel, not from some man-made device. The device was just a receiver. Don’t you understand!
Chorus Poor Cass. She shakes her head in despair. . . As if she and her family are reliving the tragedy of her illness, her long recovery and of what that tragedy did to ignite TV’s creative fires. . . Yes, her body mended but The House of Vellum never really recovered from that surge of energy that eventually became the TV stories. . . Poor woman, we feel her pain. . . Yes, and Raymond, who also has suffered loss, why they’re made for each other.
Raymond But Thom, you’ve also claimed your inspiration came from another time, from the future. You said you had little to do with the content. So! Once again you’ve created and once again you’ve had little to do with content. What’s the difference?
TV The difference? My daughter inspired me then! This time you had me followed!
Anthony It seems as if the world outside has stopped. Just a wall of white.
Chorus Everyone, pay attention, we are on the air with another report from the Black and Blue Room in the White House. . . Yes, his whereabouts in the US are unknown, and it could have ramifications among the Homeless Brigades in the war. . .
Cass Who are they talking about now?
Judy Eddie Ammonia, who else?
Chorus If EA puts out an all points bulletin, his believers could desert the Homeless Corps. Think of what that would do, a lawless army, fully armed and fully trained by our military! Our consumer crusade would fizzle like flat pop. Without impressed troops to continue the fighting, Project Buy A Home is dead.
Anthony Who’s talking?
Cass A Pundit.
Judy Another graduate from Boston’s Hampered University.
Chorus In certain circles we hear the cry, ‘Bring Back The Draft.’ Elsewhere it’s ‘Remember Billy Bud. . !’Absolutely, Samantha. Let’s take our scenario a step further. Imagine Ammonia leading his troops, all trained at the taxpayer’s expense, against the homeland. Imagine, the hordes raiding the bastions of our society – Remember, nothing’s sacred here. Imagine, the housing industry, real estate and banking interests, destroyed. Imagine, the suburbs burning like Atlanta after Sherman’s march, the malls sacked and pillaged, lying in ruins. . . Too horrid for words. Now here is General Reason of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Thank god!
Reason A homeless person is not like you or I. . .
Cass “Me,” not “I.”
Judy Once an English teacher always an English teacher.
Reason He doesn’t need a home. He doesn’t need the warmth and coziness of the hearth, the warm food and the glass of wine, he can live like a rat on almost anything.
Judy Are you happily married, Morales?
Anthony You’ll have to come over and meet the family and see for yourself.
Judy I’m sure your wife and I have a lot in common.
Anthony Maybe not a lot. Your efforts have taken you in one direction and Deme’s in another. But that doesn’t mean there’s no common ground.
Chorus Yeah, they seem to be getting on fabulously.
Judy Like wanting the same thing.
Chorus He’s laughing.
Anthony That would be a problem – for all of us.
Judy So there’s hope.
Anthony No. There’s no hope, Judy. . . even though I find you attractive.
Judy I knew you’d say that. That’s why I like you. And being able to chose for myself who I find attractive is a first step in my finding happiness.
Anthony We can’t have total happiness. Finding you attractive and knowing we can only be friends means I miss a piece of this happiness.
Judy You mean by being faithful to your wife, you make her happy.
Anthony Because I love her, not hurting her makes me happy.
Judy I saw the way my husband looked at women. Even though he pretended to himself that he wasn’t interested, I knew his interest was pronounced. The night I went out with my office friends, I realized how jealous he was. It made me wonder if I was as plain as I had imagined. When I found shelter in Nadir, I learned to embody everything that would make men hungry.
Anthony Once you learned that, you came to my notice.
Reason Recent experiments at Camp Bentham have shown that a homeless man can endure incredible pain.
Chorus Thanks General for keeping us safe. Now we go once again to Samantha and Harry on the street. Samantha. . ? Yes, this is Samantha and Harry down on
Fifth. . . As you can see from the swirling snow behind us, we are in the middle of a blizzard, unbelievable for this time of year, Thanksgiving not even a week
away. . . Whether everyone is staying inside obeying the President’s request or whether the storm is the cause for the empty streets, it’s hard to say. . . From time to time one of the Homeland Protection vehicles passes. The agents inside are wearing their now familiar bowler hats, bearing the once secret, now public society emblem, The Home Within The Home. . . This once all-volunteer, now private sector-sourced cadre has become the heart and soul of our security system. But there are the questions on everyone’s mind. . . Where are the homeless? Where is their leader, Edward Ammonia, who escaped recently from the luxury facility on Sybaris? And here with us now to help answer these questions is the new PC or Protection Chief, the former Police Chief, PC Jimmy Rascul. . . Thanks, Chief Rascul, for taking the time to speak with us on this blustery, snowy night.
Rascul My pleasure.
Chorus We see that you’re wearing the bowler hat.
Rascul That’s right, folks, the citizen needs to be able to quickly recognize the good guys from the bad guys in case of emergency. The hat is a giveaway.
Chorus Could it become a target for terrorists?
Rascul They haven’t a chance in the world.
Chorus What if they begin wearing these hats?
Rascul The Homeless? This is one time you can judge a book by its cover. Believe me, you’ll see the difference! Besides we also wear the patch, and these are only issued to the initiated, that is, the good guys.
Chorus Chief Rascul is pointing to the patch on his hat, The Home Within The Home.
Rascul Our All American Homes within our All American Homeland!
Chorus Yes, and on the chief’s lapel we see the familiar American flag pin worn by everyone in politics these days.
Rascul I’d be naked without it. Besides, what would they say in the office if I didn’t wear it?
Chorus Are you confident of apprehending the ARCH Chieftain, Eddie Ammonia?
Rascul His days are numbered.
Chorus Is there anything special you would like to tell the viewers?
Rascul If they’ve got beards like that little guy, Velluminsky wore. . .
Chorus I think you mean Vellum, Thomas Vellum.
Rascul Yeah and they’re out on the street, then they’re enemas of the state, period.
Chorus Thank you, Chief Rascul and now to our. . .
Rascul If you’ve a lead on them, then lead us to them, call the emergency number. Operators will take your information and all will be done confidentially.
Chorus Yes, thank you, Chief.
Rascul And don’t forget to ask for your fifty dollar rebate, our special way of thanking you for your loyalty.
Chorus Folks, you heard that, our patriotic duty is worth something. And congratulations, PC Rascul on your recent promotion.
Rascul Thank you, Samantha. Harry.
Chorus That is all from the streets of New York City, for Media Free USA. . . Thank you, Harry, thank you, Samantha. Now back to our show up above 5th Avenue, where the delectable Judy Crucible, now wearing big Tony’s gorilla head, flirts with big Tony in his gorilla suit sans head.
Anthony Do I have this right, the SS are now in charge of the police, or is it the other way around?
Chorus That seems to be so, Anthony, but we must pause for the moment and turn our attention to the other activities in the room. . . Raymond was commending TV for his quest to save the human race and for his desire of anonymity in a vanity ridden society. He tells him that he too wants nothing better than to go about the streets of the metropolis, without pretension, unrecognized, but alas, his destiny is to provide entertainment for the human race.
TV Entertainment!
Raymond Si! So why not get paid for it? Money, Thom, everyone needs it. You can shun it, because you have been graced with renown. You, Thom, are the modern Homer. Your stories are the stories of all people, your voice and the voice of humanity are one and the same. Outside, who do you hear? You hear people in everyday situations talking just like you! Can a citizen who speaks Vellumese. . .
Cass Vellumese, Raymond? Or volubility?
Judy The English teacher scores another run!
Raymond Excuse me, Cass, but can someone who speaks Vellumese be criticized? Can he be sued? No, he or she is a fan! This universal voice has been analyzed by our computer. We used the same programs that gave you, Thom, the answers you needed to pursue the greatest story ever told.
TV What programs?
Raymond And I might add, that until our TV arrived, the greatest story ever told had
been the Bible. Like the Bible, TV’s world history has a following of true believers!
Chorus Amen.
Anthony I never realized Thom’s impact on people.
Cass Especially his family.
Judy I thought you were old friends.
TV What programs?
Anthony My cell phone doesn’t have a signal. Can I use your phone, Raymond?
Chorus Raymond is pointing toward the foyer.
Anthony I’ll be right back. I need to tell Deme where I am.
TV What programs?
Raymond Exactement! Your works were already stored in your machine to begin with. You wrote them on your computer. . .
TV I used a simple word processor.
Raymond But you admitted, in fact, that the computer was the actual creator.
TV A conduit!
Judy To his angel.
TV That’s right!
Raymond Ok. Still, you tweaked your factory-made computer. Together you and the machine created the Vellum chronicles, you and the machine drew the words from cyberspace. So who cares if my ghost writers, using a specially developed TV program, have gone on to create the first of our new series in The Metropolis and, I might add, a possible pilot for a television series! I take it you picked up your check.
Cass Why didn’t you tell him about the check? You’re driving him crazy again!
Raymond I knew he would find the P.O. box sooner or later or he isn’t our TV.
TV My entire experience was rigged, even the people I met. I was a rat in your maze.
Raymond Absolutely not! See, you doubt your own abilities. Only you, Thom, can show us the way. You know the old saying, we stand on the shoulders of those who preceded us.
TV You had me followed. The Pawns!
Raymond They’re only interested in you as a bearded anomaly. Once you shaved they lost sight of you. And I didn’t have to tell them where you were. There were plenty of bearded suspects for them to follow. But since you led them to the ARCH Gang, I convinced them you were, wherever you are, a free-world agent inside the deadly virus of homelessness. So you’re coming here is cause for celebration.
Chorus Tonight you are a national hero!
TV National nothing. That’s me on the wanted poster. I know what I look like.
Raymond Do you? We could all agree to a similarity in features. The beard for instance. But out on the street, you might run into hundreds of bearded men.
TV That’s me!
Raymond Why quibble? Feel your chin. Do you have a beard? No!
Chorus TV, you served us an artist who couldn’t separate the forces of his creativity from the outside forces shaping that creativity.
Raymond Using the TV program being developed by SoftChip. . ,
Cass SoftChip?
Raymond We’ll be able to work hundreds of mutated story lines, just like yours. Soon anyone can be you once they load their computer with the TV program by SoftChip!
Judy Did you reach your wife?
Anthony Yeah, I told her where we are.
Chorus Boy, are they getting chummy. Does she know he’s nothing but a dirty old man?
Chorus You’re the dirty old man. . ! He’s got hair on his palms.
Anthony Who’s financing Soft Chip?
Judy The same people financing me.
Chorus This would be a good time to open up our phone lines to all of you in TV land. I know we’d all like to find out how our viewers feel. . . We can’t do that. . . You’re right! I forgot we don’t have that option. Instead we go to Samantha in the lobby of the Ratz Hotel where Harry is speaking with Professor Steblen, renown architect and author. . . So Professor, what do you think of the government-sponsored plan to build modular apartment complexes for the homeless on their return from Refugium? Do you feel vindicated?
Steblen Well, Harry, I have always wanted to design something for the community which would be both mobile and transferable. These homes will be constructed as needed. When the veteran returns, he does the paper work and a home is custom-built for him, then placed into the apartment house cluster using special built-in lifts. Not much different than the old cassette racks one used to find in cars. But of course you’re too young to remember that. Although we start with one home, we could end up with hundreds. If the veteran moves, he can either take the house with him, something a vagabond may be interested in, or he can sell it. We have also designed these homes to be upgradeable. Once they’ve served their initial low-income housing purpose, they can then become middle class homes. That’s how we keep housing up with inflation. With the eventual shortage in luxury housing these units can become multimillion dollar abodes.
Chorus And I take it, this is your daughter?
Steblen She’s my star pupil, as well as my poetic muse. In other words, she’s now my wife. We married yesterday.
Chorus Congratulations to the both of you. And how do you feel about all of this, Mrs.Steblen?
Ms. Steblen Stebby’s a genius.
Chorus Ok, well, there it is, and now back to you, Samantha.
Ms. Steblen That’s my name too.
Chorus Really?
Ms. Steblen Samantha.
Raymond Naturally, once the Group understood the SoftChip achievement they saw the possibilities. After all, their job has been the highly lauded task of codifying our lifestyle for easy digestion.
TV You’re with the Group?
Anthony Figures.
Cass At school I’m telling kids about the basic concepts of morality and ethics, and I was seeing it all through the old black-and-white movies.
Anthony Cass, don’t stop believing with your heart.
Chorus Imagine him saying that, sitting there with Ms. Easy.
Raymond Thom, we’re all part of the Group. It’s civilization. Remember Billy?
Chorus Billy Board, for those of you who may have missed that episode, helped TV out during the crisis years when a series of hard-drive crashes luckily destroyed Thom’s earliest work, a plodding historical novel. It was out of those crashes that the new works emanated like a phoenix from the dark ashes of loss.
Raymond Exactement! Thanks to you, Thom, Bill Board, who was unemployed at the time, was able to get back on his feet. He brought the TV program to life, and is now the CEO of SoftChip, ‘The Chip You Can Virtually Eat.’ And recently SoftChip expanded its base by acquiring an upstart robotics company called RoboSurgeon.
Judy ‘SoftChip is the only chip, the only chip you can virtually eat, you can virtually eat. . .’
Chorus Judy’s song vaguely reminds us of an ancient tune from a coffee commercial we once saw on My Tube. . . That was way before my time.
Raymond Hey, maybe we have something here. Can we get the Bottles to sing that for us?
Cass Bad enough we’re a pill-popping culture.
Raymond Cass, this will be different. In fact this will take the virtual world by storm. I think Billy was talking about Nano technology. Digestible chips that will aid in digestion and health and help us see the world like Thom. Imagine!
Cass What could be worse?
Chorus You, of all people Cass. Science saved you. . . For those who don’t know, Cassandra Kale was dying from auto immune hepatitis, a malfunction of the immune system. As you probably remember, TV hypothesized in his work that the introduction of mass amounts of sugar into the world diet not only established the financial underpinnings of the Industrial Revolution, an idea already posited by a certain professor and well documented, but also undermined her immunity system. . . In Cassandra’s case, the family of a young man, who was killed on the Long Island Expressway, donated his organs to help others. His liver gave her new life.
Cass Please, don’t make my life into one of your soap operas! It is difficult enough knowing I benefited from a family tragedy.
Chorus People like to know these things, Cass.
Cass Then they should look to their own hearts. Billy Board betrayed a trust. I thought he was our friend, but he’s betrayed us.
Chorus Please Cass, be careful of what you say. We’re broadcasting live.
Judy We’re on the air?
Chorus Judy, we’re all part of an on-going data stream.
Judy You mean a hot air stream.
TV And all this time I was hiding out in a public park!
Raymond For Billy this was an opportunity of a lifetime. And why not? Cass, you should be proud of the industries Thom’s work has created for friends and strangers alike.
TV So then why did you have me knocked off?
Raymond One of the editors at M is responsible for that! They needed to shorten the piece, so she simply. . . she knocked you off.
TV What’s so funny?
Raymond While having you killed was unfortunate, it turns out to have been fortuitous. Look at the advantages. Homeland Protection is looking for Eddy Ammonia, not you. You’re out of the picture.
TV Ammonia told the authorities about my Assumption.
Raymond To get rid of the body.
TV There was no body! I’m alive.
Raymond So they say.
Cass What do you mean by that?
TV Yeah. Now you don’t need me because you’ve stolen my artistic voice.
Raymond There you go again, doubting yourself. But imagine, for a moment, the possibilities. They’re infinite. Consider TV resurrected on the 3rd day, in the middle of a big sporting event. Right!
Chorus We are excited by these possibilities but it seems our TV is not. . . He’s turned his back on Raymond and is staring out the window into the white night. . . His head hangs in despair. He approaches Cass and puts his arm around her.
TV Cass, I don’t know how this is going to end.
Cass With each other.
Chorus It doesn’t look as if Cass will run off with Raymond after all. . . Let’s ask our viewers, do you think Cass should stay with TV or not?
Raymond Now tell me, Thom, if this isn’t you. In a later installment we could have you reincarnated in various avatars, right? I mean, isn’t this what the story is about initially, the various instars of Phillip K? Of course your idea of using intelligent paper, well, that changes everything, the plot now changes with each new reading. That’s just brilliant. And so unpredictable! We’ll have Billy look into this.
Anthony Won’t work for you guys. No profit in a book that goes through metamorphosis on its own.
Raymond You might be right, Tony. Who would need to buy a new book if the old one was always offering new possibilities.
Judy Reinvention has certainly been my story.
Raymond So perceptive, Judy, so perceptive.
Cass Come on, a great work of literature is always changing, offering the diligent reader something new on each read.
Raymond That’s true, Cass, but nowadays we don’t read carefully, we scan. So we need gimmicks. And Judy is our North Star, all roads now lead to her, her coming out, her evolution from oppressed housewife to body artist.
Judy You’re calling me a gimmick?
Raymond Judy, you should remove the mask. I can’t see your face and you have so much to offer.
Chorus You ain’t kidding and it’s all up front.
TV Raymond, you won’t codify me.
Raymond We’re talking about language, Thom. Isn’t a computer program a language?
TV You’ve stolen my style, my. . .
Raymond You said yourself it was machine-derived.
Chorus We’re getting tired of all this talk. We might as well be listening to lawyers. . . So we’re going to wander over and talk to Judy Crucible, now sitting in front of the empty fireplace next to Big Anthony. . . Pay attention, boys and girls, her bathrobe has slipped open and reveals an oversized jersey. She’s barefoot in her dark stockings and garter. The gorilla head reveals her great sense of humor. . . Judy. . .
Judy Yes?
Chorus You two seem to be getting along fabulously over here in your quiet corner. But aren’t you bored?
Judy It’s peaceful here, watching the stillness..
Chorus Do you mind, Anthony, if we interrupt you two so we can introduce Judy to our viewers?
Anthony Up to her.
Chorus Judy, do you mind if our viewers can see your lovely face?
Judy No, I like it under here. Think of it a the proverbial paper bag.
Chorus Anthony, you shouldn’t encourage her with your laughter.
Chorus OK, well then, tell us something about yourself, was your mother beautiful?
Judy I thought so, so did my dad, I guess. I remember pictures of her, but I can’t really make her come alive in my head. I was fifteen when she took off.
Chorus Took off? Usually it’s the other way around.
Judy Usually. . . She had this nervous energy that surfaced whenever she tried to read to us. We loved Grimm, Clever Elsie, The Goose Girl. She tried to stick to the words but she couldn’t. I remember her hands fidgeting, pushing the hair away from her eyes, checking the time. It was just impossible for her to keep the tension alive in the story with her moods constantly ricocheting from excessive tiredness to bouncy can’t sit stillness. There was always this tension inside of her that was at odds with the story.
Chorus Have you noticed? Anthony’s mask has brought out another side of you. You’ve become pensive, reflective.
Judy I’ve always been reflective. What you’ve seen lately is another mask. Can you see my eyes?
Chorus Yes, you have beautiful eyes. Don’t you think so, Anthony? The bashful boy’s nodding yes. So go on, were you home when she left?
Judy The wisteria was in bloom, so it was the middle of May. My sister and I came home from school and she was gone. We waited through the long evening until it was dark and then Dad came home from work.
Chorus You loved your dad, didn’t you?
Judy Oh, yeah. He was the world. I couldn’t understand why mommy would leave him. He didn’t know either. It was bizarre seeing this guy always in full control, simply lost. He filed a missing person’s report. Ended up, she’d run off with my sister’s high school art teacher, this older guy, one of those people she’d always warned us about being weird because they didn’t believe in god and had longish hair and a goatee. They lived in the next town over. Occasionally I’d see her in the distance. She seemed happy. My sister refused to go to school after that. My mom was probably in her thirties, younger than I was when I left my husband and kids. She couldn’t have known herself any more than I had when I married Frank who was ten years older than me. Everyone assumed I would marry him since he started dating me when I was in ninth grade, coming over in his white impala convertible. Did I know myself then any better than mommy did before she married dad? Dad remarried someone who looked like mom, and that’s who I remember now.
Chorus We pause here to listen in on the other discussion being carried on
peripatetically. . . Wow, that’s a big word, I’d say TV is walking in tight circles, talking to himself. He stops by the window, looks out. He leans his head against the window pane. . . Cass nearly collides with Raymond as she stops abruptly in front of him.
Cass Stop with the sophistries. You’re making theft sound like something constructive.
Raymond Spoken like a teacher, Cass. But think of it. For centuries artists have had workshops full of apprentices. Nowadays even writers have ateliers, like the old painters, full of assistants, only we now call them interns. Imagine, a race of humans thinking like Thom. . . underwriting his work. . .
TV Underwriters!
Cass Underwriters?
Raymond Well yes, who research and articulate the ideas of the master, using an emulated style. It has more to do with management, the intern system now converted to an assembly line system.
Cass Those kind of assembly lines research books, like histories.
Raymond Fiction too. You know, a few years ago a friend and I drove north from my place in London and visited an interesting area in Northumbria, Lindisfarne and Jarrow, have you heard of them?
TV The venerable Bede.
Raymond Yes, I think that’s his name. Ruins set on windswept bluffs, but a thousand years ago the monks sat together and copied the old manuscripts of Rome and Greece, preserving them for all posterity. So when I think of our own young people learning from Thom, while copying him. . .
Cass What are you talking about, you just said a computer program copies his style?
Raymond TV, like it or not, is the collective voice of the nation. There’s no way out of this. It’s too late. He is too big. He’s in the general domain.
Chorus We’d like to remind our viewers that when TV developed the artist-living-the-story theme, he took performance art to new heights! He turned conceptual art back into a literary art and gave the memoir resounding credibility as a creative art form. . ! Long live our TV!
Raymond Well Thom, there you have it! Once your name is chiseled into the architraves above the nation’s schools beside those of Homer and Aristotle, there’s no way you can sue for infringement of rights.
Cass You won’t find Aristophanes there.
Raymond Aristophanes?
Cass Yeah, right.
Chorus Whew, that’s exhausting. . ! Yeah, while they circle around the issues of public domain. . , a sticky subject indeed. . , we return to Anthony and
Judy. . . Judy, your mom’s story is yours. . . Yeah, It’s about change. About misrepresentation. What everybody expects from everybody else.
Anthony No, it’s about a nightmare called history, where we repeat the mistakes of our parents because we don’t have all the facts. Even when we do have them we fail to understand them. We’re all responsible.
Chorus That’s a big leap, Anthony. . . Yeah, are you blaming us for Judy’s failed marriage. . ? Just because we sympathize with her. . . Hey, do you blame us for what is happening out in the streets tonight. . ? That’s right, did we create this snow storm? Did we cause the invasion of Refugium. . ? No, the homeless did.
Anthony Just the way the homeless drove her mother from the family hearth!
Chorus Judy, we don’t understand what you see in this man.
Judy What am I supposed to see? I didn’t know I was seeing anything but a man.
Chorus OK, you celebrities are allowed to indulge yourselves. So tell us how you came to The Nadir. Our viewers always ask us about it.
Judy I guess everyone assumed I’d marry Frank because he’d been coming around courting me since before my mother left. He was still working on his MBA when we got married. No one talked about it but we assumed I would work to help pay the bills. I started working as an assistant to the village clerk in the town hall. When our daughter was born, I took a leave of absence for six months before returning to work. By that time his mother was taking an active interest in her upbringing. I looked forward to going back to work.
Chorus You had a pretty full life.
Judy I did. After he got his masters, he started working for a big insurance company in the city. He took over the responsibilities of paying the bills. He didn’t want me working any longer. By that time I had the two girls. He wanted me to raise them full time. Even though I had liked working in the office with the other women, I thought he was right. I belonged at home. I was shy but some of the girls were bold. On Fridays they often went out on the town and partied. One time before the I had my first baby I went with them and when I came home Frank was so angry he hit me, telling me the apple never falls far from the tree. I didn’t want to be like my mother because of how she hurt my father. So I worked hard, kept the house clean, prepared the meals and got the kids to school and picked them up. But his mother, who’d found Jesus, was always critical of me. She wanted to instruct the girls in the ways of the Lord. Because I wanted to please Frank, I encouraged her. But over time he began to see the world as she did and it seemed I could never do anything right. He got edgier and crankier overtime, while I lost more and more of myself. I had always hated how I looked and those years with him didn’t help. It got that I was afraid to look in the mirror. Now and then I ran into one of the girls I had worked with and they told me what was happening. But gradually I lost touch even though they lived nearby. And though I had neighbors, I hardly talked with them any more; and my mother-in-law was coming in and out as if it was her own house and not mine, so I got more and more lonely. I wanted to die and I often thought I’d run away. But I was afraid. Afraid I would become like my mother, that I would prove Frank and his mother right, that I was just another Jezebel. When I was working, I’d overhearing the girls talking about this club where they had an open mic. Their excitement was palpable. It was a place where anyone could change and be happy. They once asked me if I wanted to join them but I had the girls and I was afraid Frank would hurt me. But the thought of this place sat in the center of my brain and every so often it would glow and I would become aware that I could go there myself, if I had the courage, if I dared. It got so that I wasn’t even paying attention to the girls anymore. Oh, I took care of them, made sure they ate and washed and did their homework; but they had begun to remind me of my failings. They’d remind me I’d forgotten to say a prayer of grace at diner, or tell their grandma I was late picking them up at their prayer group. When I looked at them I saw Frank. He loved them as much as he loved his mother. That’s when I realized if I didn’t go I would kill myself. And something told me at Nadir I would be changed and I would be happy. One day, on a sudden impulse which shutout all my reservations, my fears, I threw a few of my things into a plastic bag. I called Frank’s mother and asked her if she could be here when the girls got home so that I could pick up Frank’s suit from the cleaners. She chided me for not having planned the day, but I hung up. I walked out the door and hiked the two miles to the train station where I caught the 3:20 to the city. I walked into the Nadir looking like a housewife out food shopping. No one cared though. Someone beautiful served this dark liquor and I drank it. Next thing I remember I was talking to this guy named Eddie. He was a poet. I remember telling him my name but then it fell away, like a pebble down a well. The famous guy over there reminded me tonight. My name was once Doris. It’s not that you forget. It just becomes something different, remote, belonging to someone else. After a while you forget it’s there, the name, the memories.
Chorus Did you forget your children?
Judy No, I didn’t forget them, but like my name and my past they became remote. I felt compelled to move on. Eddie called me Salome so that became my name, because everyone had that name. At that time this young blond woman was the queen of Nadir and her name was Salome. Eddie always sat with his legs crossed, smoking his weed, saying what I thought were simply profound things. He recited Rilke, like TV. I found his words gentle like a lullaby, you know, I was the girl from the suburbs. He said he liked me clean and pure, the way he found me, the innocent housewife. Later I learned he was from the suburbs too, used to sell vacuum cleaners. But as long as we stayed inside The Nadir it was okay. How long we were there, I don’t remember. Whenever we left and tried to make a go of it on the outside, I realized I wanted Eddie and he wasn’t Eddie. He probably didn’t want me either, he wanted Salome. When I realized he had taught me everything he could, I left him. I went back to The Nadir and this time it was somebody else. Same thing, Eddie and Salome inside Nadir. Eddie says all the things I want to hear and I must have looked like everything he had ever wanted in a woman. He said he wanted to liberate me from all that I had known, no more games. But when we tried to make it outside, we couldn’t do it either.
Chorus So you left him.
Judy But with each relationship I took away something, the poet’s fetish with corsets, the rocker’s with ballet heels. But this time, I didn’t go back to The Nadir. I tried waiting on tables. I was too old for that. And I couldn’t afford to experiment with the clothing I was coming to need. I got desperate. I lived on the generosity of new friends. I was afraid I would fall apart and then no one would want me. So I went back to Nadir with a new plan.
Chorus New plan?
Judy I’d studied Salome. Her style, her technique. She took a liking to me, like to an older aunt. Compared to all of them I was homely and not a threat. But she liked my experiments, the older lady wearing corsets and torture heels, that’s what she called them. But they turned her on. She was a fox; but when I think back she was a rather traditional beauty, short skirts, slumming in the lower east side. She invited me into her bed one night and for awhile I lived with her, which was something new for me. It gave me a chance to observe a sexy woman in bed. She got money from somewhere so she encouraged my wardrobe fantasies.
Chorus But what was your plan? You have us all on the edge of our seats!
Judy I wanted to be the Queen of Nadir.
Chorus Overthrow Salome.
Judy She was young, she was engaged, and would move back uptown.
Chorus It’s a fairy tale.
TV “What casts a spell over other gods lets this most cunning god escape into his ever-receding power.”
Chorus That, ladies and gentlemen, was our own TV, wandering the room, sometime mumbling to himself but this time reciting poetry to Judy. . . His own verse?
Judy No, that’s from Rilke’s Idol.
TV “You whom one never forgets, who gave birth to herself in loss. . .”
Judy Then I ran into Blotter again. I’d met him the first time at one of the parties the painter and I gave. . .
Chorus Painter? Is that the one you mentioned earlier when we were talking about your long nails?
Judy Remi is part of the story, part of my evolution, like everyone I’ve met. He’s the one who inscribed the Tree of Good and Evil on my body with needle and ink.
Chorus Can you show us? Please. . ! Not now! Really. About Blotter.
Judy No, it’s ok.
Chorus Oh, well, Judy has obliged us, by opening her robe and lifting her jersey. . . I love your nipple shields.
Judy Me too.
Chorus Don’t look down, Anthony or you’ll see the root of good and evil. . . That’s not funny. You’re the one who can’t get your eyes off her. Anyway thank you, Judy, that was extraordinary. Beautiful work. . . Yeah, top to bottom. . ! About Blotter. We’ve heard of him but we don’t know much about him.
Judy Adolf wasn’t like the others at all. He was walking his dog in Washington Square Park. I used to walk through the park on Sundays doing my usual workout. That day I was wearing a latex body suit, tight corseted of course, stretching calves and ankles in ballet boots. It was warm so I could keep the front zipper down so everyone could see my tree tattoo. He noticed the small group that had gathered around me, so he came over to have a look. He must have recognized me because he sat down next to me and asked me how I was. I’d learned a lot by then. I’d finally upstaged Salome. I was Samantha now, the Queen of Nadir. Life thrilled me. I still got chills thinking how far I’d come. I’d proved to myself I could be anything I wanted. Body modification was becoming a major interest. But then what? I lived for the day. But what did that mean? He told me he had just read a brilliant book that connected everything. A unification thing. He said that was the way the world was going and he intended to be on top of the wave. He wanted to broaden his influence which at that time centered around the Standard Testing thing. He said Standards were everything. Actually he wasn’t much different from the husband I’d left behind in the suburbs, only he was richer and more ambitious. He asked me if I could sing. I said yeah, even though I’d never even whispered into the open mic, and that was how Judy Crucible was born.
Anthony If Blotter could market masturbation as manly and wholesome, he’d do it. And we’d be in agreement for the first time.
Chorus What an outrage! We hope our viewers didn’t hear that, especially the youngsters.
Anthony They’re the ones who need to hear it.
Chorus Morales, you have a filthy mind. . . Told you Mr. Hairy Palms was a pervert!
Anthony I’m a dog with a bone, a Pavlovian bone. I can’t excise the Goddess from my thoughts, nor edit the way she looks.
Judy I don’t picture you the masturbating type.
Anthony Everyone’s the masturbating type, whether we use our hand or our head.
Judy You’re right there.
Chorus The intercom is ringing. . . Thank god. . ! Raymond! The buzzer. . ! Who could that possibly be at this hour. . ? In this storm. . ? On a night when no one is supposed to be out?
Anthony But I’ve had time to understand.
Judy You sound like a priest.
Anthony In a way, but more like a slave to the Goddess.
Judy Your wife, isn’t she your goddess?
Chorus Look who’s just arrived? Adolf Blotter. We had no idea, Judy, he was so tall. . . And distinguished. Just goes to show you what kind of a woman these men like. The man behind him is large and burly with wild hair and a beard. . . Folks, this is Bill Board, the technical wizard for TV’s light bending computer. . . Blotter is slapping the snow from his overcoat sleeves but his companion seems unaware of his own snow cover. The white snow in his gray hair is beginning to drip down his face. Unlike the stylish beards so many are sporting these days, this beard is a complete shambles. . . With care Blotter dries his face with his extended fingers. He wears the fashionable week-old growth.
Blotter Wind’s picking up. I even heard thunder.
Board Cass. . . Thom!
Chorus Board looks shaken by the sight of Raymond’s guests.
Anthony Every woman is a goddess at some point, Judy. Deme was mine.
Judy Was?
Anthony Until we got to know each other, then we became flesh and blood and the world once again was round.
Judy And me? Am I a goddess?
Anthony Oh yeah, right now, you’re the goddess. And that’s what you want, isn’t it? Like that poem Thom just recited.
Judy To never be forgotten.
Anthony And you’ll remain the goddess for as long as you remain untouched and without love.
Judy I’ve been touched and loved by many.
Anthony But until someone really knows you and loves you, you’ll remain an image on water, always out of reach.
Judy You’re the poet.
Anthony Nah, I’m a truck driver.
Chorus Blotter walks briskly forward, carrying a large plastic shopping bag. He stops when he sees Anthony Morales in a hairy ape suit, sitting next to what looks like a shapely woman wearing a man’s bathrobe, in dark stockings and a garter, her head inside a hairy mask.
Blotter Raymond, I have to hand it to you for luring Morales here. Judy? Judy, you can take that off now, you’re safe.
Raymond I didn’t lure them here, Adolf.
Blotter Then Judy did, after this bastard. . . Judy. . .
Raymond Nope, this is another page from TV’s chronicle.
Chorus Looking at TV, Blotter’s eyes are struggling to see him inside what we will call, in Vellumese, the hallow glow of an internal idea.
Blotter Thomas Vellum? This is, I was. . .
Chorus Now he’s looking for something inside his bag.
Blotter I was talking to this man a few hours ago at the bar when Morales abducted Judy. I had no idea he was the . . .
Chorus He has just seen Cass, as she comes striding across the wide living room expanse in the fetching sweater Raymond found in his daughter’s bureau. . . It doesn’t look as if she is aware of his presence as she paces in what must be an exhausting night for her.
Blotter Ah, the young teacher, my pleasure. . .
Cass Don’t give me that “young teacher” shit, buster.
Judy Take it easy AB, you look like you’re about to faint.
Blotter Raymond, you say they just walked right in? Morales, I’m surprised you’re not in jail.
Anthony Adolf, I thought you’re only jailing the helpless now.
Chorus You mean the homeless.
Anthony Yeah, that’s what I meant. He’s only picking up the homeless.
Blotter I’m doing nothing of the kind. Politics and business don’t go together.
Anthony I didn’t think so, until recently.
Judy Like church and state.
Raymond Do you think there’s a niche market for fundamentalists? We need to consider that.
Blotter Judy, that mask is a symbol of ASS. Please take it off.
Raymond Maybe there’s a market for that as well, you know, the story of Beauty and the Beast.
Blotter Morales, stealing a doll is one thing, kidnapping. . .
Judy I was walking out on you, AB.
Blotter . . . is a federal. . . You were leaving me?
Judy Yeah, so put your phone away.
Raymond Take your coats off. Let me take that bag, Adolf. Billy, you know where to hang it. Adolf, let’s start the meeting.
Chorus We are following Raymond over to the piano. . . What’s in that bag,
Mr. Blotter. . ? With great ceremony, no, not quite that dramatically. . . We often get carried away at times like this . . ! Samantha, it’s a Judy doll, wearing the wicked dress she arrived in. . . Her boots are different. . . It’s Judy down
to . . . Harry, we all can see them. . . Samantha, I just wanted to draw the attention of our audience to the exquisite artwork between them. . . Can the rest of our viewers see the TV doll? He’s wearing white linen trousers and vest. If it wasn’t for that long scraggly beard, he’d be one handsome dude. . . Even with that long beard, he’s quite the gent. . . More than just a gent, Harry. There’s something special about him. Have you ever noticed how male dolls seem to lack, you know, pizang. . ! Yeah, we noticed.
Blotter Judy, did I mislead you?
Judy No, I misled myself.
Blotter Someday people will be looking at this facsimile the way they look at Venus de Milo. It will be in museums.
Raymond Bill, set up your computer, let’s get this session rolling.
Chorus Board looks nervous to us, what do you think. . ? Yeah, it looks that way to us, too.
Cass Bill, you haven’t changed much.
Board Older, heavier. But you look the same, actually better.
Cass Tell me what this heavy metal kewpie doll has to do with the Vellum doll?
Board Cass, it’s just a marketing thing. I’m just a hardware man.
Blotter Isn’t it obvious? They have chemistry.
Cass Chemistry?
Blotter I’ll be blunt. ASS smeared Barbie. The kids began dressing Barbie’s boyfriend, Ken, in her accessories as if he was a Barbie. We need a red-blooded male, not a transvestite.
Chorus Look, Judy is stroking the little TV’s beard. Opps, it came off.
Board Don’t worry, it was designed for that.
Raymond These dolls are anatomically correct, even TV, down to the smallest details, a modern feature.
Chorus Marvelous. . . What could be more real. . ! More real than humans.
Raymond We’ve given them special wardrobes, designed by Sari. . .
Judy Excuse me, that wing dress – I designed it!
Raymond How could I forget. Which makes me realize you’ll need your own signature line.
Blotter I agree.
Board These dolls interface with a computer. A simple jack or laser connects them. Through commands at the keyboard, they act like real little people. They can be taught to speak, to recite poetry, sing songs. . .
Blotter Kids will love these two.
Chorus Adults too!
Blotter This isn’t just a love doll like Ken.
Board TV is an intellectual, just like its archetype. The breakthrough technology is the way I wired the Vellum doll. It’s a simulacrum.
TV That’s not me. You created it, Billy. It’s more about you.
Board It’s you, your gestures, I copied them off video pieces. It’s you, or it will be as soon as I’ve downloaded all your stories, I mean this is as real as it gets.
TV He looks like a preacher to me.
Anthony And she looks like an anatomically correct dumb broad.
Chorus How rude, Anthony. . . Only a pervert would see her as just another broad and not see the real human being.
Board Judy, you’re a new phenomena, I didn’t have enough material to download. But you’re a performer, you can sing.
Chorus Look, TV has put down his own precious bag of garbage so he can inspect the dolls. Perhaps we have a détente.
Judy He’s right, the Judy Doll is just a dumb broad.
Board I didn’t have enough time to develop her circuit board either.
Judy It’s always a rush job, when it gets down to me.
Board I got your voice right. Listen.
Judy Doll Hey, baby.
Chorus Don’t you just love her, that child-like voice. Judy, it’s your voice.
Judy That’s it?
Chorus Judy, she even has your piercings. How cool.
Board There was enough room for the larger pieces, your nose rings and the ear lobe pieces.
Chorus Look, TV has removed one of the little tunnels.
Board Yeah, the kids can buy their own tunnel kits – they’re interchangeable. We were also able to add the ear wings, eyebrow spirals, even the lip claws but the dermal stuff was hard to get all in.
Chorus How about the nipple. . .
Blotter Yes.
Chorus Raymond, the intercom is ringing again. . . How annoying. At a time like this.
Raymond The doorman is upset. He said the police have arrived.
Judy Doll Hey, baby.
Chorus Look Samantha, she wobbles when she walks in those weird shoes. Her hips move just like yours, Judy.
Judy The pony boots were my second choice.
Board We couldn’t get her to stand in her other shoes. . .
Judy Ballet heels.
Board She kept falling over. We thought about magnets but then it would only work on a metal table or platform and she’d move like Frankenstein. Judy came up with the pony boots which are weighted and give her balance.
Chorus Billy looks like a mad pianist talking quickly, working madly on his keyboard. . . Imagine if he was working a chorus line of Judy dolls. . . That’s funny.
TV Doll Get thee to a nunnery. Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?
Cass Hamlet?
Judy Doll Hey, baby.
Chorus Judy, she’s adorable.
Judy So what? She sounds stupid.
Blotter It won’t work, Morales. Newspapers won’t carry this.
Anthony What won’t work?
Blotter Whatever you are trying to pull downstairs.
Judy Doll Hey, baby.
TV Doll That if you be honest and fair, your honesty should admit no discourse to your beauty.
Judy Doll Hey, baby.
Chorus Samantha, she can even shake her top. . . Take it easy, Harry.
Board Wait, I’ll get it, wait.
Chorus Where can I buy one of these Judy dolls?
Judy My old Barbie did better than this.
Judy Doll It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to, cry if I want to. . .
Board I haven’t worked out all the details.
Chorus But it’s marvelous, she’s singing.
Judy You’ve wired his doll for brains, but for me, you’ve wired mine to grow size 40 tits!
Cass Well, Judy, we do agree on that. Only thing is you do have big tits. You did that to yourself. You made yourself a body. That’s what we see.
Judy Who said a woman with big tits doesn’t have a brain?
Cass I guess a woman with tits can have a brain, even if the men around her don’t.
TV Just as some of us must explore the full potential of corporeality – it’s an imperative. . .
Chorus What’s he talking about. . ? I haven’t the faintest. But it’s the most profound thing I’ve ever heard, Harry.
TV some of us must explore the full realm of the mind, whether in fantasy or science. Some explore both the physical and the ethereal simultaneously, a lesson I’ve been learning over the last year. This is the area where averages meet, the transitional areas where the physical world and the cognitive merge, where a genius in mind needs the freedom discovered by the genius of body to be fully himself. . . or herself.
Board Like Turing.
Chorus Touring what. . ? What’s touring have to do with this?
Board Alan Turing. He invented the electronic computer that broke the enigma code which helped the Allies win the last world war. Some say he committed suicide because he was gay, a social outcast in his country.
TV We lost him, his work in the world of the mind, that we can be sure of. He
couldn’t be himself, though hard he tried, a kind of defiant Caravaggio of the intellect. His life could have been easier had more Crucibles been battling on the field of physicality against the narrow mindedness of what is human. Thanks to social warriors like Judy and Sam. . .
Everyone Sam? Who is Sam? Do you know a Sam?
Raymond Let me get his name into my phone. What’s his last name?
TV the rest of us can be free both in body and spirit.
Chorus Well, no one knows what to say.
Cass Well, Judy, I guess I have to agree with Thom on that strange flip of an idea. But as to what Shakespeare has to do with Thom – you’ve lost me, Billy. You might as well have him reciting Homer.
Raymond We were just talking about that. Billy, can we do Homer?
Chorus The door bell. . ! Will someone please answer it. . ! Look! It’s the police chief at the door.
Rascul Blotter, what’s going on here?
Blotter I should ask you that, Rascul. Why are you here?
Chorus It’s Chief Rascul with members of Media Free USA. We knew something big was happening here. . . It’s getting crowded in here.
TV I can’t breath. I need some air.
Raymond Please Thom, don’t open the window. The snow will blow in.
Chorus Let’s go down to Samantha and Harry on the street. Samantha, special guest star, Chief Rascul has just arrived on our show. We’ll find out what brought him up here but can you tell us how is it down there. . ? We can barely see our hands in front of our faces. Fifth Avenue is swarming with Homeland Protection officers who’ve taken over the block with their Humpervees. Very lurid, headlights glowing, engines running. . . Is there any reason for all the activity down there. . ? There are rumors afloat that Eddie Ammonia is in the building. . . That explains why Chief Rascul is here with us now in his Homeland Protection uniform, which, if you remember, includes the bowler hat with emblem and the American flag pin. Do we know the designer. . ? Not yet. . . We all agree he looks great, sporting a new tightly trimmed beard. . . Yes, we thought so too. We hear the sanitation plows in the distance but can’t see them yet. . . Thank you, Samantha.
Rascul We received an anonymous phone call. Then our infrared satellite surveillance caught Ammonia at your window.
Blotter That’s crazy. In weather like this?
Rascul That’s another secret department with its own financing and its own secret patch.
Blotter We’re having a business meeting.
Rascul Tonight? With a war and a blizzard, a meeting? And with that guy in the ape suit?
TV I need fresh air.
Rascul You! Don’t move.
Chorus Our colleagues from Media Free have cameras and mikes. Listen to what he says or they’ll shoot.
Raymond Thom, close the window, the snow’s ruining my drapes.
Rascul I told you, don’t move.
Judy Doll Hey, baby.
Chorus We love when she lifts her arms that little bit and spreads her arm wings.
Raymond Let’s step back a bit and take a deep breath.
Blotter Rascul, let me introduce. . .
Rascul Morales, as soon as we have dealt with the homeless, we’ll be tackling the subversives and perverts. You’ll be first on my list!
TV Doll We are arrant naves all; believe none of us.
Rascul What are those things?
Board Simulacrum.
Rascul Simu-what?
Board I’ve recreated a miniature TV and Judy. They interface. . .
Rascul In the nude?
Blotter Raymond, this is the new head of Homeland Protection, Chief Rascul.
Raymond Ah yes, my pleasure. You present quite a formidable image on the screen, Chief.
Rascul Thank you. An hour ago Congress passed the Open Surveillance Law, so it makes it even more important to look your best.
Judy Doll Hey. . . What’s it all about, Alfie. . .
Board Isn’t that better?
Judy What a dope.
Blotter You already know Judy. Judy, take that mask off.
Judy It’s easier this way, AB.
Rascul Who are you impersonating?
Cass Les Demoiselle d’Avignon.
Blotter Yes, and this charming woman is Cass.
Cass Cassandra Kale.
TV Doll To die, to sleep – no more – and by sleep to say we end the heartache, and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to!
Chorus Oh look, the TV doll is walking over to little Judy. He is trying to hold her hand.
Judy Doll What’s it all about, Alfie?
Rascul Folks, have a look around.
Raymond I can’t have Media Free poking around like this! This is my home.
Rascul It’s the law now.
TV Doll There’s the respect that makes calamity of so long life: for who would bear the whips and scorns of time, th’ oppressor’s wrong. . ,
Judy Doll It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to, cry if I want to.
Cass Why didn’t you program You Don’t Own Me instead.
Chorus Chief Rascul, he appears to be jumping.
Rascul Hey, I told you to step away from there!
TV Can’t you hear the cry below?
Raymond What law?
TV Doll . . . the proud man’s contumely, the pangs of despised love, the law’s delay, the insolence of office. . ,
Rascul Just passed in an emergency session. Media is now an arm of the law. We no longer need a warrant. If you have nothing to hide, think of it as free publicity.
Anthony Publicity versus privacy.
TV Doll . . . and the spurns that patient merit of the’ unworthy takes when he himself might his quietus make with a bare bodkin?
Raymond Please, Thom, it’s cold. And my draperies.
Judy Doll It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to, cry if I want to. . .
Rascul We’ve taken the televised Town Meetings and the popular Law Enforcement episodes to a new level. People want this sort of thing. Now we have investigations carried on in public by the media. Transparency. And we all know how Joe and Sally Public like to ham it up for the camera!
Chorus Did you hear that. . ? Yeah, we’re taking over.
Rascul It’s all legit. Got to keep this country safe!
Chorus Yes, instead of being just a voice in the crowd, we’ve become the voice of the crowd.
TV Is that the wind howling or the cry of people down on the street?
Chorus The media and the people are one! This is an historic day for democracy. . . Yes, our feeling and your feeling. . . Yeah, we’re just like everyone else after all.
Rascul So who is that guy?
Raymond That’s TV.
Blotter The famous entertainer.
Rascul No, I’d know TV’s face. That looks like the guy in the poster, Eddie Ammonia, only without a beard.
Raymond No, that’s TV.
Rascul Let’s keep this simple. The President advocates simplicity.
TV “Simplicity, which has no name, if free of desires. . .”
Rascul What the hell does that mean?
Board As you can see the doll’s beard is an accessory. See! He comes with or without the beard.
Rascul Proves my point.
Raymond What’s your point?
Rascul Same guy with or without the beard. Keep it simple. That’s what the President says. Same guy, with or without the beard. Did you get that?
Chorus Got it, Chief!
Raymond Obviously. But the man on the poster. . .
Rascul Listen here, what did you say your name was?
Blotter Raymond Smith. Let me explain, Rascul. . .
Rascul Explain nothing, and Blotter, call me Chief when I am visiting in an official capacity. Now, if you will allow me to carry out my duties I will continue my interrogation.
Cass You’re just an official bully.
Rascul Let’s keep things simple. Ok, tell me again, Eddie, why did you shave?
Chorus Chief, he never told you.
Rascul Did you think we couldn’t see the difference? Did you get that?
Chorus Got it, Chief!
Raymond Chief Rascul, you’ve got it all wrong. TV is the fountainhead of our economic system. I already explained that to those in charge.
Rascul I am in charge, and if we don’t get some answers here, I’ll be taking everyone in for concealing an enemy of the state.
Blotter Get serious, Rascul.
Rascul Did you hear what this man just said to a servant of the people?
Chorus Got it, Chief.
Raymond We wanted to take the publicity off TV. Ammonia is the bum you want. He’s the Homeless Head of State.
Rascul Isn’t it true that aka TV funded ARCH through his Homeless Institute Trust Fund?
Cass Funding ARCH is quite a stretch from helping the needy.
Rascul And isn’t it true that aka TV helped pay off the debt incurred by the Refugium government after the World Bank, who justifiably wanted to recoup their loan, instituted strict measures to balance their budget.
Cass So what, we paid off their debt, after those measures destabilized the culture!
Rascul Did you think that an individual could do something? Did any of you ever think this homeless thing would get so big? It’s bigger than global warming. We’re invading nations. You should have considered the ramifications of your action, whoever you are.
Blotter Chief Rascul, you have an important job now.
Rascul And don’t I know it. A poor boy like me, it’s amazing.
Blotter It’s America!
Raymond Did you know, Mr. Rascul. . .
Rascul Chief, Chief Rascul.
Raymond Yes, Chief, did you know that The Council for Economic Development awarded TV its highest honor, the medal for the Creative Recycling of Ancient Principles?
Rascul Didn’t know that.
Chorus Chief, is it true that Eddie Ammonia has become the most powerful man in the world?
Rascul Who told you that?
Chorus It’s the news on the street, Chief, brought to you first by INNETNEWS.
Blotter I see an opportunity. Ammonia might have a price.
Rascul Why don’t you ask him since you brought him here? But I’ll tell you this, he was already offered everything while in detention and he turned it all down.
Blotter Who?
Rascul Him! Eddie, during interrogation. So Eddie, you never answered my question. Why did you shave? Was it to throw us off?
TV In a sense.
Rascul Did you get that?
Chorus Got it, Chief!
TV People have been following me for years. Especially them.
Chorus Us? Of all the nerve.
Cass He shaved because his beard was turning white. He’s a vain man, but no more vain than the rest of us!
Judy Chalk up another for Eve.
Rascul I’ll tell you why he shaved. Right now I have officers lining up for duty in Sybaris. It’s paradise! Balmy evenings, palm trees, pretty girls. But he didn’t want anything to do with it. You’re one of those incorrigible people. You want to be different. You don’t want to be like the rest of us. . .
Judy Neither do I!
Rascul Now that we have beards and want the god-given right to enjoy ourselves, you turn your back on us. And don’t think you can create a thousand year old religion through self-sacrifice. Bill Bop will see that your word is not the word.
Raymond Thom, are you recreating yourself again?
Cass Raymond, you’re as crazy as this SS agent.
Rascul Ms. Kale? Is that right? You seem to know this man?
Cass For some time. We’re husband and wife.
Rascul But you chose to keep your own name?
Cass That’s right.
Rascul So you can vouch for your husband’s whereabouts for the last three years.
Cass Not exactly, since he chose not to live at home.
Rascul Exactly my point. And isn’t it true, Eddie, you prefer a life of desolation over the comforts and luxuries of civilized living? Isn’t it true, Eddie, that you’re not like the rest of us? You prefer life among the homeless to life inside a home?
Board I’m confused. Who’s he talking to?
Chorus To Eddie Ammonia.
Blotter I don’t know who Eddie is, but that’s TV.
Rascul You just met him for the first time tonight, right? So how would you know?
Blotter Because I believe his wife. And that doll was made in TV’s image.
Rascul That’s right, and I’ve already demonstrated the close ties between EA and TV. Where you find one, you find the other.
Cass This is your fault, Raymond, printing all those posters with TV’s image and calling him EA.
Raymond What’s in a beard?
Rascul In times like this, you can’t believe anyone. This man is Eddie Ammonia. Whether he’s TV is irrelevant.
Chorus He’s right, Adolf. If the Chief of Homeland Protection says he’s EA, then he’s EA. Which leaves us wondering, what’s become of TV?
Rascul There is no TV.
Anthony And two plus two equals five.
Chorus Raymond, the phone!
Raymond Yes, hello. . , oh that’s wonderful. . . Yes, do it. . . OK, hold on. It’s Sari Sermon. She’s designing an Eddie T-shirt. She’s got that feeling it’ll be big, but she’s only got TV’s image on the old shirts.
Chorus Look, little Judy is dancing with tiny TV. . ! You mean little Eddie. . ? Oops, old habits die hard.
Anthony This guy’s Thomas Vellum.
Raymond Sari. . , yes, everything’s fine. Look, we’ll market the old T-shirts with the TV images. . Yes, TV is EA with or without the beard. The beard is an insignificant detail. . . Wonderful, bye.
Rascul No point in shaking your head, EA, the game’s up.
Chorus Ah, the phone again. Raymond, answer it. . ! Wow, little EA is trying to put the make on little Judy. . . We’re going down to the street to see what’s going on there. . ? It’s unbelievable out here, sheer bedlam. . . Yeah, wind and snow and suddenly thousands of people appeared out of nowhere despite the curfew. It’s unbelievable. I’ve never seen anything like this. . . Homeland is surrounded by students from SATS chanting against Standardized Testing, members of ASS chanting against all Standards and young and old gathering to see Eddie Ammonia.
Judy So that’s why you called your wife.
Anthony Deme is our coordinator.
Chorus So is it true, what we’ve heard down here. . ? Yes, seems the man we thought was TV is actually EA. Seems that when beards were switched back at ARCH headquarters TV did indeed assumpt. His role was assumed by Eddie. . . Amazing. Now back to you.
Anthony He’s no more Eddie than you are Abe Lincoln. Thom looks exactly the way he did when I last saw him in. . . in 1980.
Rascul And you are about as reliable as a cell phone under a mountain of lead.
Raymond I love the whimsy of the market!
Anthony You’re always looking for the pace setter.
Raymond That’s my job.
Judy I’m a dime a dozen.
Chorus Why the hang dog look, EA? You’re a rising star.
TV I’m not EA. I’ve got all the proof I need in my bag.
Chorus Like your poster. What a scream!
Blotter SATS?
Chorus Yeah, SATS.
Blotter But what is SATS?
Cass Students Against Testing Standards.
Chorus Perhaps this is the moment we can ask our viewers if they think this is the end of an era, a shift in values?
Anthony A paradigm shift, like the 1980s, when the world turned its back on real world.
Chorus Call in and tell us what you think. Our operators are on the line waiting for your calls. . . You don’t need to ask them. . . What do you mean. . ? We are the people. Ask yourself. . . I see what you mean. . . Listen, the crowd is roaring for EA. He remains standing by the window, holding the wanted poster in hand, where his likeness has now become more than obvious. He is like someone sentenced to death. . . The Chief has gone over to the piano and is looking into the plastic shopping bag EA put down when he opened the window.
TV Hey, that’s my bag. It’s full of evidence.
Rascul Evidence of what?
TV Of who I am!
Rascul We know who you are.
Cass He started shaving because of a few grey hairs.
Raymond Eddie, if I had only known, I could have recommended an excellent hair stylist, she does wonders with color.
Chorus Look, little Judy just pushed little Eddie away and almost lost her balance.
EA Doll How I am tortured by spasm and rigid convulsion! Oh! I am racked on the wheel!
Board Wait a minute.
EA Doll Quick, oh! Be quick! Life has no more charms for me since. . .
Judy Doll Hey, baby.
Chorus Board looks frantic. . . Little Eddie is chasing little Judy, who can barely move in her gorgeous dress. . . Oh my. Look at the front of his pants. . . Samantha, Harry, big news up here. Billy Board, inventor of simulacrum, has created a doll that gets an erection.
EA Doll I can’t get rid of it!
Rascul Now would you look in here! Bring the surveillance in for a close-up. A bag full of filth, pictures of naked women, an old tattered magazine. All the kinds of things a perverted, dirty, old homeless man would have. Scan this stuff.
Chorus Right on it, boss!
Rascul Eddie’s even got money in here.
Anthony That money isn’t real, and you know it.
Rascul No, Morales, you’re right, it’s counterfeit. Did you get that down, Media?
Chorus Got it, boss!
TV That’s not Eddie’s stuff.
Rascul Didn’t you say this was your bag of evidence?
TV Mine, not Eddie’s. I’m not Eddie!
Cass He’s not Eddie!
Rascul Evading authority through impersonation. Got that Media?
Chorus Got it, boss!
Rascul OK, one final proof. Ask the people in the street if he is Eddie Ammonia.
Chorus Ask them yourself. . . Can’t you see we’re involved in a new level of reality?
Rascul If you want to keep your license, ask them.
Chorus All right! Harry, we’d like you to take a survey. . . In this snow. . ? Ask the crowd whether the man they see in the window is TV or EA.
Cass Asking them won’t answer anything. They don’t know my husband.
Rascul You may be a teacher but I belong to the majority and this is a democracy. In spite of your sarcasm, the people always know.
Cass That’s right, I forgot they chose Barabbas.
Judy Listen!
Anthony That’s the wind.
Judy Sounded like thunder.
Chorus What a hew and cry. . ! What did the people say. . ? We want Eddie. We want Eddie. . . Let me rephrase this: Do they think TV is Eddie. . ? Long live Eddie.
Rascul He’s Eddie.
Anthony But no one identified him. They didn’t they say he was Eddie. They just said they wanted Eddie.
TV No one wanted me?
Rascul Yeah, you’re wanted.
Chorus This is a moment to be proud of, we see popular democracy in action.
Rascul There was a time when I was young and took to the streets. The people united can never be defeated. Yeah, and now I’m helping to run a democracy. Power to the people.
Blotter This is getting out of hand, Rascul.
Rascul This is the last time I’ll tell you, Blotter. Call me Chief.
EA Doll Ah! What a bad thing it is to let yourself be led away by other women! Why give me such pain and suffering and yourself into the bargain?
Judy Doll Hands off, sir!
EA Doll And Aphrodite, whose mysteries you have not celebrated for so long? Oh! Won’t you please come back home?
Judy Why am I always involved in this story?
Judy Doll No, least not till a sound treaty puts an end to the war.
EA Doll Well, if you wish it so much, why, we’ll make it your treaty.
Chorus What a strange outburst from the little simulacrum. What’s going on Board?
Board I’m not sure.
Cass That’s Aristophanes.
Raymond I guess we did find Aristophanes after all, Cass!
Cass I don’t get your point, Billy.
Board I don’t know, I didn’t download this.
TV See. It always works out this way.
Rascul Why all these pictures, Eddie?
TV They’re of her. She’s everywhere now.
Chorus Like Ammonia.
EA Doll At any rate, lie with me for a little while.
Judy Doll No, no, no! but just the same, I can’t say I don’t love you.
Chorus What a tease.
EA Doll You love me? Then why refuse to lie with me, my little girl, my sweet?
Chorus He’s hysterical, with his little hard-on. Excuse us.
Rascul What is this, a coded message?
TV Give me that! It’s just a stupid postcard from Starks coffee shop.
Judy That’s his quote.
Rascul T A O. Got that.
Chorus Got it, Chief. . ! Chief is reading more of Eddie’s coded message. . . That’s a copy.
Rascul Tao. . . action. . . transform. . .
Judy Something like: ‘As we roil through this state of flux, must always remember simplicity.’ Made total sense when I heard it.
Rascul . . .desire. . . simplicity. . . free of. . . the world will be at peace of its own accord. Yep, seems we want the same things, Eddie, only our tactics differ.
Blotter Nothing makes sense. Why is SATS downstairs?
Rascul Not so fast, Ammonia.
Cass Leave him alone!
Rascul Have it your way, let him jump.
TV I’m not jumping. I need air.
Chorus Listen to the crowd. . . They see you. Let’s go down to Harry and Samantha on the street. . . Yes, we have here members of SATS. Your name?
Atah Atah.
Chorus And yours.
Clio Clio.
Chorus Is Eddie Ammonia, otherwise known to all as EA, involved in your organization?
Atah In that he stands outside the system, the standardized system, yes, in a sense he is.
Chorus Do you know who he is?
Clio No. But his influence seems to be more important than his actual being.
Chorus A very exciting night though.
Clio Yes, very exciting.
Chorus Any word to our viewers?
Clio Yes, come out. Where ever you are, come out!
Atah Become part of this. End standardized testing.
Rascul Why, that’s a call for insurrection! Did you get all that? Find out who they are?
Cass That young woman is our daughter!
Board Cass, I had no idea these dolls would become. . .
Rascul Your daughter? EA has a daughter? EA, a family man?
Raymond Cassandra, do you think we’re beginning another instar? Isn’t that what you called it, Eddie, when you were Thom? Can you hear me, Thom? Eddie, is that you?
TV You don’t even know Eddie. None of you do.
Chorus What a come back!
EA Doll . . . won’t you lie down now?
Judy Doll But, miserable man, where, where?
Chorus Judy, she is your spitting image. Just look at the way you’re twisting Eddie around your little pinky.
Anthony That’s not Judy. That’s just a doll.
Chorus Just a doll, he says. . ! You should know. You still play with them.
Cass This play is working toward a specific end, the end of senseless war. She has a purpose here.
Blotter Your daughter is a member of SATS?
Rascul If she’s out on the street calling people to arms, that doesn’t sound like she wants to end war.
Raymond Billy, have you lost control of them?
Board I don’t know whether to be ecstatic or miserable. But yes, they seem to be acting out something on their own.
Cass Not on their own. This was written over two thousand years ago!
TV Like I’ve always said. . .
Rascul What did you say?
TV A wormhole is feeding this data to the computer. Board knows. After all he’s using my hyped up word processor.
Rascul Media, we want an all points bulletin, do you copy, must apprehend Clio and her friend. They are young and they are dangerous.
Board Do you think that’s it, Thom? Last time I thought you were a crazy but creative guy. But now I’m not so sure you’re even crazy.
Judy Doll Well, I’ll be off then, and find a bed for us.
EA Doll There’s no point in that; surely we can lie on the ground.
Judy Doll No, no! even though you are bad, I don’t like your lying on the bare earth.
EA Doll Ah! How the dear girl loves me!
Judy Doll Come, get to bed quick; I am going to undress. But, oh dear, we must have a mattress.
EA Doll A mattress? Oh! No, never mind that!
Judy Doll No, by Artemisia! Lie on the bare sacking? Never! That would be squalid.
EA Doll Kiss me!
Judy Doll Wait a minute!
EA Doll Good god, hurry up.
Rascul Media, did you hear me?
Chorus Harry, Samantha, the word up here is ‘awesome.’ We are completely mesmerized by Billy Board’s toys.
Board They are not toys!
Chorus They do everything, even the naughty stuff. . .
Rascul Apprehend EA’s daughter, now!
Chorus Samantha, Harry, did you hear the Chief? Come in, Samantha, Harry. . .
Chief, we seem to have lost touch with the ground.

Anthony stands and helps Crucible remove the mask. Her mascara is running black
stripes down her cheeks. The areas around her many skin anchors are blotchy. “What, I’ve lost my goddess appeal?” she says, shaking her dreadlocks, frizzy from perspiration. Cass comes to her rescue with tissue, dabbing her cheeks and cleaning the corners of her eyes. “Standardized Testing? What’s that got to do with anything?” “Money for one,” Judy says. Blotter wipes his forehead with his tie. “We should be going home.” “I’m not going home with you.” “What about our plans. The doll, the…” “Your plans, not mine.” “I’ve got to get downstairs,” says Rascul. “Keep an eye on them, Blotter.” “I’m coming with you.” Bill Board reverentially places his dolls into his plastic bag. “Folks, I’m sure we can work out all the difficulties to everyone’s benefit.” “It never works out to everyone’s benefit, Raymond.” “Well, we can always try. . , draw up papers. . . We can even modify the dolls. What do you think, Bill?” Billy Board is packing up his computer. “Blotter, stay here.” Adolf Blotter grabs the plastic bag. “No, I’m leaving with you, Rascul. You’re security and there are people down there, terrorists, who don’t believe in Standardized Testing. I demand protection.” “Who’s going to watch Ammonia?” “I will,” Raymond volunteers. “Can we trust him, Blotter?” “Absolutely, even though he is freelance, he admits he is a member of the Group.” “The Group stands for culture, Eddie, for civilization.” “Are you coming with us, Billy?” “Yeah, where those go I go,” replies Board, pointing to Blotter’s plastic bag. “SATS are young people, Blotter. You’re not afraid of them are you?” “There’s not one person down there calling out my name. They don’t even know I’m here.” “Yeah, they used to love me and now they want somebody new.” “Let’s go, enough of these idols and their babble. Don’t try anything foolish, EA. I have the building surrounded.” The Chief Of Homeland Protection leaves followed by Adolf Blotter, President of the Standards Group, and Billy Board, CEO of SoftChip, the digestible chip.

Vellum is standing by the window. The wind is blowing. Sirens are wailing. People are shouting. People are chanting. But a white haze obscures everything. Cass and Judy go over to see, followed by Anthony and Raymond. Vaguely, in the air, the susurrus murmur spells out the name, A M M O N I A, which mingles with the winds, distinguished and clear, like a voice descending from the heavens.
Are you sure you’re not Eddie, Thom? I’ve never tried to be something I’m not. You tried to look young. But that was a way to get away from the relic seekers. So then what does he look like? Who? Eddie Ammonia, EA. Probably like Jesus did. So he still has a beard? I don’t know, did Jesus have a beard? I know Buddha didn’t. So maybe he looks like Buddha. Yeah, with a beard. Buddha is never shown with a beard. Does anyone remember what he looked liked? How about Tao Tzu? Who’s that? The guy who wrote the poem on simplicity. I liked that. Yeah, I got it in my pocket. Did Tao have a beard? He’s always depicted with a beard, long and wispy. You can’t say that with surety. Well, it must have been difficult to shave in those days. Yeah, so why does Buddha have a smooth face if he lived under a tree, without toiletries? Good question. Sometimes Buddha is bearded. I think the Eddie I knew before he disappeared had a mustache. I remember. Perhaps he did have a beard, and I copied him. So that means you were the last man to see him. Well, a lot of people saw him, but they just never noticed. He’ll probably be remembered the way he looked dancing with little Judy. That was me. But you’re not him. Who?

According to the doorman who was questioned later, Adolf Blotter and Bill Board were bombarded with a cannonade of snowballs. They disappeared into the white windy air. The bag Blotter was carrying burst. Green money exploded upward in the snowy drafts filling the air with green images of a naked woman. A roiling crowd of students shouting for an end to Standardized Testing chased the three men into the sodium-lit white night. Lightening fulminated above the buildings while the lights of the distant police cars, unable to enter the block, illuminated the swirling flakes in aura of red. Homeland Protection, seeing Rascul disappearing into the haze after Blotter and Board and SATS, followed, a hundred men wearing black leotards, caps and bowler hats and the famous Home Inside a Home patch on their hats. Rascul and the hundred were never seen again. Later, articles of trash bearing the image of a naked housewife were found by the clean-up crews. Much later, according to witnesses, a much trampled Blotter was found wandering through the streets, confused, clutching a wad of green Crucible money. Along with other vagrants he was shipped without trial to Sybaris and hasn’t been seen since to the great wonder of the Group, now rudderless. Board found his way to an east side bar on Park Avenue where his beard drew a great deal of attention and favor. A habitué of the establishment introduced him to her friends who were techie-venture capitalists. When he described a novel method of downloading data through a wormhole, he was met with great skepticism, someone remarking it reminded him of a story or movie he had seen a few years ago where a famous author, whose name he couldn’t recall, was played by you remember who, and so on and so forth. On describing his simulacrum Board was met with even more skepticism, but all agreed that their new-found madman was entertaining.
Back at Raymond’s, the remaining cast waits by the windows until the ensuing bedlam below them grows faint. Raymond, though exhausted, cheerfully offers everyone coffee. Thomas Vellum goes over to the piano and picks up his plastic bag. Anthony, Vellum says, I think we are dealing with something far bigger than beauty. It’s all in here. But instead of pulling out scraps of paper bearing Crucible’s image, he pulls out the dolls. They took my evidence! What are you talking about, Cass exclaims, you’ve got the dolls. That’s the end product of all your evidence. Let me have my stupid doll! Judy demands. And I want my magazine. No, that was my magazine. Well, I want my paper cup too and the post cards, the money. . . It’s my collection. Yeah, but that money wasn’t real. So what? Judy, don’t break the doll, we’ll add it to my collection on my truck grill. What does your wife think of your collection? She knows they’re nothing but dolls. Here at home it will take time to complete our own mission of purifying our society. Who’s that? Must be the Grand Wizard in Washington. Our nation was built by farmers wresting from the indifferent earth a patch of land on which to build their homes. It was farmers who ran our government. Be serious now. I am. Today it’s our commercial leaders who wrestle with an indifferent globe in order to build homes for the world’s downtrodden. Milk and sugar? It’s our commercial leaders who run our nation according to the god-given laws of non-involvement. I promise each and everyone of you, we will succeed in our endeavors to make this world one big happy home. Hey, the phone is ringing. Hello. Yes, I’ll tell them. It’s Clio, she says the coast is clear.

SCRAPS:
Anthony Do you have the time?
Chorus Anthony watches Judy, in her mask, pull a watch on a gold chain out of her cleavage.
Judy I can’t see it clearly through these eyes.
Chorus Watch Anthony. He has to bend over her to look down at the watch. Isn’t she a tease.
Anthony It stopped.
Judy Damn Blotter! Another one of his cheap gifts.
239
This time I ran the show. The aura was gone.
Cass I knew you were my age.
Chorus I don’t know of any woman, of any age, who wouldn’t want that body as her own.
Judy I think you’re older. But I was a mother, too.
Cass I still am.

THE TRUE BUT OFTEN APOCRYPHAL STORY OF THE METAMORPHOSIS OF THOMAS VELLUM’S BEARD, PART II:3

II:3 He rereads The Metropolis story. He discovers aspects of the story he had missed before, as if a bar of light which he had failed to see in a previous reading now illuminates another facet of Philip K’s activities or his train of thought. Hard as it is to believe, he discovers facts he had missed before, essential facts like the apprehension of the murderer whose name is not given. How could he have missed such an essential development in the story? If each reading erases some earlier clues while revealing others previously unseen, then successive readings become absolutely necessary. So he repeatedly culls the piece, garnering details missed in previous readings, writing down the missed details in the margins until the margins contained more words than the source.
Although apprehended, the killer, like the author, remains a mystery. And, even though the police know the killer’s name(how could they not?), the reader doesn’t; that is, any reader other than our TV, who has every reason to suspect that the author, Anon, is himself and possibly the killer. As for the victim, here the light is bright and steady and within its stabilizing glow he sees himself again. No matter how many times he rereads the piece, the victim remains the same. Because Philip K’s adventures bear a close resemblance to his own, it stands to reason that TV the author is also TV the victim. In an early reading a pool of blood was found at the scene of the crime. Since talking to the salesman in the prie-dieu room, he can find no trace of blood in the story – did he imagine reading about a pool of blood? And did he imagine reading the article in The One Way Street Journal bearing witness to facts not mentioned in The Metropolis story, that a struggle between two groups might be at the bottom of TV’s disappearance? And what about the inset in the article describing a new line of dolls called Judy. He remembers one model was a nun called Sister Judy, who follows the present day dress codes of the nuns. But some critics said the skirts were too short and questioned the necessity of showing undergarments. He pulls himself back, returns to the evidence. Without a body, the presence of blood indicates the need for one. The victim was seen lying in a pool of blood. After the body disappears, the pool of blood becomes a tumble of brightly colored leaves. In the last reading a cardboard box was found at the scene of the crime full of Phillip K’s clothing along with scattered clippings of his facial hair. Vellum’s last recollection of the box was of holding it during the Halloween parade just before the fight when he obviously lost it. How did it end up at the arch? If the killer had been apprehended, why does everything remain in doubt? True, the apprehended killer remains innocent until proven guilty, but a suspect is a suspect nonetheless. Unless one assumes that TV the author, having dispatched TV the victim, has in effect committed suicide. In which case, how could the killer be apprehended as in the recent reading?
The article expands with probability. Some now claim that the accused man, held incognito like the man in the iron mask, refuses to admit that the disappearance of Phillip K was murder. Does this substantiate the suicide theory? In which case there shouldn’t really be an accused man! To add to the confusion, the so called murderer, when he was apprehended in one of the later readings, called himself The Savior. In a still later statement he reiterates, “I have murdered no one.” He goes on to say he actually saved the victim from certain death. Our TV reads on: ‘The police held him for a night but without a body or any other evidence to substantiate the murder, except their absolute belief it occurred, they flipped a coin, heads he leaves, tails he stays.’ No one knows the outcome of the toss. In a another reading, the killer escapes, leaving behind a messenger dressed in white who promises a final judgment!
More astonishing is this latest development in the reading. According to police chief Arthur Rascul, the investigation, some of which is printed in this version of the story as an official document, has undermined the actuality of the murder itself. The detective in charge writes in his report, “The body was never been recovered, only the plastic bag full of brightly colored leaves placed in a secure storage room. Because the boilers were turned on by maintenance in preparation for winter, the heat from the nearby radiator, in combination with the dampness sealed inside the black bag, quickened the decomposition of the evidence. With the breakdown of the leaves, any semblance to the color red was destroyed, only a black sodden mass remains.” As for the belt, its where about is still in question. “It is now assumed,” says the chief, “that a hoax has been perpetrated.”
“A hoax!” cries TV, aghast.
Now it’s as if he had never existed! Even we must catch our breath. What could be the outcome of such a train of thought? Yes, the Trojan Horse was indeed a hoax. But does that render the Greeks hiding inside a hoax? Is all of history in doubt? Must we turn ourselves into knots of despair? Can’t we work out something better, something that will lead us happily back to our recreation rooms?
The hoax, according to the police chief, was perpetrated by the Arch gang to cover their own dark plans to undermine the American way of life, the indelible right to own your own home, as stated in the our Declaration of Independence. To a room filled with photographers and a few writers the chief says, “With the help of Homeland Protection who are providing us with the necessary information at only a nominal fee, we are rounding up the homeless all over this land. Anyone who might be involved in this crime against the rights of the American people is to be apprehended. Without Philip K’s body and his belt we have nothing more to say.” Indeed it is looking more and more like a hoax.
But if the homeless are responsible for faking TV’s death, then why did The Metropolis story describe in an early version an interview on the corner of 110th and Broadway, between Edward Ammonia, reputed leader of the Arch gang, and the same reporter, who tracked down the bearded Vellum, aka Philip K, at the beginning of this story. Eddie was sitting at his new card table selling his own epigrams to help pay the cost of staying alive. The sun was bright in his face. He looked comfortable. He continued to aver any claim to leadership of any kind. “The homeless,” he claimed, “are independents, we have nothing to defend or fight for. Because we believe in the rights of the individual, we live in total anarchy.” But this reporter caught the choice word ‘anarchy.’ A photo was snapped to catch a ragged man grimacing in the face of a blinding sun. Once again Eddy Ammonia, out on his own recognizance in regard to the case of the missing Philip K, is picked up. This time, as an anarchist or terrorist, you’re pick. He is whisked off to the island of Sybaris, off the tip of Florida, where ancients wander aimlessly in search of the Fountain of Youth, mentioned earlier, or at least a cup of coffee. He is given an brilliant orange suit and full medical coverage. Others of his kind, caught in Rascul’s dragnet, are also taken there for evaluation. And there again, despite truth serums injected through the nose, Eddy audaciously claims that Philip K was abducted by aliens.
Now rumors abound. If the disappearance of Philip K is a hoax, why is there a suspect in the custody of Homeland Protection. Does a hoax warrant the rendition of Edward Ammonia and members of his following? Can we believe Police Chief Rascul? It is now hinted that the Chessmen are being employed as outside contractors for the new Homeland Protection and can already be seen wearing the logo of The Home Within The Home. There is even talk that Police Chief Rascul might be getting a promotion.
If the suspect is really the savior, as earlier hinted, then whom did he save, since no one was found? It must rest upon an act of faith. Somewhere one has to believe there is a saved person. If the character who seems to have been murdered in the earliest readings of the story appears to be TV, then the person who in later versions is saved must also be our TV. Is TV saved or is he about to take his own life? In which case, is someone going to save him? Does that mean he is going to save himself? How convenient. He decides to follow the story even more closely. Because the murderer (or savior, depending on what one believed) was released (or escaped), was tailed (or pursued) by the fruit heads, grew distrustful of (or concerned for) his friends and relations, he became a hermit, homeless without community. This warping of behavior seems to some who know him an admittance of wrongdoing; to others it is vindication. TV can’t wait to tell Cassandra. In lieu of that he steps into a library. Luckily, the hours on this particular day are between 1:00 and 3:00 and it is 1:30. He pulls from the fiction stacks a copy of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. He has a hunch the protagonist in The Metropolis piece bears a resemblance to Raskolnikov. No, the resemblance is not conclusive. Now it is the Bible he seeks, and he rereads Luke in search of the stranger at Emmaus. But not all ‘the disappeared’ reappear. Mary could rejoice, but thousands of mothers remain in tears. Meanwhile, according to his own sacred text, the police don’t ever give up their belief that the body of the victim will surface someday. The black bag of mulch remains in storage. Like the guards standing watch at the tomb of Arimathaea, the police stand guard at the portal of possibilities. Since his own existence depends on whether the murderer or savior is apprehended, TV once again folds his wife’s Metropolis in half and tucks it back into his coat pocket, already burgeoning with evidence.
He returns to La Rhetorique. He sees Marguerite ensconced between her young software entrepreneurs who are now sporting new, neatly trimmed beards. There is something remote about her, as if he is viewing her through a dirty pane of glass. In fact, it could just as easily be someone who resembles her. A number of the other men are wearing incipient beards in varying degrees of lushness, each cut in a manner reminiscent of TV’s own initial experiment. There are others present in the establishment who could just as easily have been Marguerite and her suitors, all of them sporting the same look of wealthy lack of concern, leather jackets and turtleneck sweaters, sharp-edged suits and silk dress shirts. Even if it is Marguerite, it seems unlikely that she or her friends, all of whom seem too preoccupied with their daily lives, would ever find the time, or more importantly, the interest to kill him. That utterly relaxed vanity with its hedonistic attributes had preserved them in this cozy corner of the city from the Halloween melee a month ago. They might kill a rich husband or wife if for some reason their livelihood was threatened, but more likely they would find ways of compromising their associate through some tightening web of intrigue supported by gossip and lawyers. Better living in lies than in loss. He steps up to the bar and discovers that a new bartender is serving drinks. He leans over and asks him if the other guy, what’s his name, black, Asian guy, is off today? The man wipes the counter with his cloth and looks at him with eyebrows raised.
“What black, Asian guy?” He contemplates TV and wonders whether much effort is needed here or whether this guy is just here for answers.
“I was here, this time maybe a month ago. He was tending bar at the time. Are you new here?”
“I’ve worked this gig for years and I don’t know this guy. What will you have?”
“What’s she having?” asks Vellum, pointing down to Marguerite, who, by her total disregard of his existence, might have been no more than a simulacrum of someone he had once known.
“Tanqueray, neat with a twist.”
Vellum is reassured to hear that she is drinking the Marguerite drink. So Vellum orders a tonic with lime. The man fills his glass with ice and empties a short bottle of Slitzes into it. He drops in a squeezed lime as he passes the glass over to TV on the familiar coaster. He does all this without taking his eyes off TV. The coaster doesn’t bear any message.
“Maybe he works a later shift. A tall guy, clean shaven, hair pulled back into a pony tail that I never noticed until he set the Miles Davis flowing over the speakers.”
“Nope,” and he walks away.
Vellum wonders if the guy has something against Miles Davis, or music in general, since
he isn’t playing any. Above the murmur of voices and the clinking of glasses and tableware, a newscaster on one television describes the last ditch efforts being made by peace groups to avert the government’s all-out war against the homeless: “In cities all over the country young people are gathering in public places to voice their concern, something not seen in thirty years. Their large numbers are attracting the attention of the Chessmen, a private security company under contract to Homeland Protection, the publicly run business recently established by the president.” Behind the newscaster in a smaller screen surrounded by the program’s distinct emblem of sunlit clouds in endless motion, a young woman in blue blazer, with clip board in one hand, a mic in the other, is seen talking to people hurrying home. The station cameras zoom in. The young woman asks, “Why are you afraid?” The anchor, now resuming his place on the screen, turns to Vellum, “And that,” he remarks with all the wisdom of the ages, “is the question we are all asking. . .” But Vellum has now turned his attention to another screen where a fast moving image, hashed by endless jump-cuts, displays a teenage female singing, sometimes in sync with her actual image, sometimes not, her outfits as varied as the sequence of picture frames and camera angles. Her shoulders drop, her hips rise, her long lashed eyes look at Vellum longingly. But with dizzying speed the view rotates around her as she now stares at another woman kissing a man. Is she jealous, and of whom, the man or the woman? With a queasy feeling in his stomach reminding him of The Nadir, Vellum finishes his drink and drops the bills onto the lacquered surface.
“Have a nice Thanksgiving,” offers TV as he rises from his seat.
The bartender watches him in the mirror without response.
A cold breeze envelops him making him wish he has on a warmer coat. Sinking his hands into his trouser pockets he crosses Park Avenue. The costume store display on the other side is more than twenty years behind the current display fashions, one of those incongruities of New York. Behind a large dusty window framed in black peeling paint, special magazine racks display old copies of action comics as well as the original art work by the artists who helped create the characters and their styles. On a cardboard cutout on one side of the window a bare-chested man with long, blond hair, wearing a helmet with horns, and holding a sword in his raised hand, forms the apex of a pyramid composed of men and women in equally bizarre suits. On the other side a fierce woman in red tights and Viking armor wields a sword of doom over strange humanoid creatures, several moons rise up behind her. He is shocked to see how the heroines have changed over time. Unlike his wife who has grown more fierce with time, these women look less fierce, than they did in the seventies.
Walking south on his way to The Nadir he comes out of the deep shadow of buildings onto 17th Street. Clouds in the west stretch dark fingers eastward consuming the sky. Santa Clauses of all sizes bearing gifts have appeared amid synthetic green boughs and twinkling bright lights in many of the shop windows. He checks the date on a headline in a newspaper stand. Has he really been reading the same Metropolis for over a month? The same story? As he approaches the bus stop on the south side of Union Square, he comes face-to-face with a larger than life illustration of himself with his long beard pasted on the inside wall of the bus kiosk. Written across the top of the drawing in large, bold letters is the following:
WANTED
HAVE YOU SEEN THIS MAN?
In these times of heightened alert it is imperative
YOU report this man’s whereabouts. His ties to
abnormality are well-documented.
He glances around to see if anyone is watching him. They could be watching him from anywhere. As his confidence in his youthful pre-beard shield diminishes, he pulls the collar of his jacket up and slinks on. A large poster is pasted across the doors of The Nadir:

CLOSED
until The Res-Erection Day.
However
SEE THE BEAUTIFUL
JUDY CRUCIBLE
in
L’ETOILE
AT CHAIN MAIL
NEXT TO CIBL’S

This is troublesome. He feels the ever-tightening circles of claustrophobia pulling him toward a whirlpool in which Judy Crucible sits enthroned. Slowly he walks back to Astor Place reminiscing about the night he met Sandy at The Nadir. Since discovering the Standard on Halloween, its power has extended into every facet of his life. A thread of the web now reaches across town to Chain Mail where he discovered the antidotal movement against the Standard. He decides to call home. In the coffee shop, he buys coffee and walks to the phone cubicle where he wants to put down the coffee on a flat surface but finds none. He tries holding the coffee while he extracts his wallet from his pants pocket, hoping to remove a quarter from the wallet. It can’t be done, and mustn’t be done. His fury intensifies. As he surveys the shop, he notes with dissatisfaction all the kids sitting casually, cells phones to ears, chatting away. In frustration he places the cup on the floor at his feet and proceeds to find the quarter. Unfortunately, in turning to place the call, he kicks it over. He loses only a quarter of a cup, but his ensuing fury threatens the calm needed to invite Cass to see L’Etoile at Chain Mail. With great effort, our all-to-human TV controls himself. When Cass answers the phone his only criticism comes out as, “What took you so long?” To Cass’s credit she ignores the comment which allows him the opportunity to rebound on better terms. Unfortunately, he is now holding the cup in his hand and staring at a picture of a wholesome family embedded in the traditional green-and-white colors of the cafe, mother with smile, proud father, two boys and a girl, all sitting tightly together in a pyramid of security with father’s head at the apex above which was written:
SUPPORT FAMILY VALUES
Judy Crucible in apron is Mother. Accepting the worst, he slowly rotates the cup in his hand, the receiver now wedged between his ear and his shoulder where he can hear Cass calling to him. As he expected, Judy is bent over, her back to the viewer, nearly naked in a red and black corset, atop her emblematic ballet heels, her posterior like an enormous watermelon split in two by the corset tail, her bejeweled face, her sweet smile, all turned toward him.
“Cass, I’m sorry,” he finally responds.
“I thought I lost you there.”
“Yeah, well you wouldn’t believe…”
“Knowing you, I would believe…” she says.
“Well, I’ll tell you later. Anyway Cass, would you like to see a show tonight? There is this wonderful little theater in the West Village and they’re doing L’Etoile. ”
After a pause which kept Vellum waiting this time, she replies.
“Wow, you have caught me off guard. We haven’t gone out like this in… in….”
“Ok, I get your point.”
“A downtown company is doing the opera, L’Etoile?”
“Well, yeah.”
“And you thought of me because you know it is one of my quirky favorites.”
He had not remembered that, but realizes it now, another of life’s coincidences.
“Yeah,” he lies.
“So what’s your interest in this?” she throws out at him with a tinge of sarcasm.
“Nothing really. . .”
“Get off it, I know you have an interest in this. So what is it?”
“Well… I can’t really say. . . Chain Mail happens to be one of those places I told you about on Halloween.”
Several seconds pass before Cass picks up the lead.
“You were talking movements. I supposed movements are associated with places. You need support.”
“Yes.”
He doesn’t want to tell her that the woman on the green dollar bills is the lead singer in the opera. Why bother, he rationalizes, she’s appearing everywhere now.
“Where is it?”
TV isn’t sure Cass will understand their meeting at a gay bar, so he suggests meeting at Sheridan Square. What Judy has to do with Chain Mail and this opera mystifies him. Perhaps she too is a man. He is laughing at this when he hears Cass.
“Can you hear me? What time?”
They agree on the time.
“And can you bring the Barbie?”
“What Barbie?”
“The doll I brought home the night of the Halloween parade.”
Another silent moment ensues.
“Why?”
“I don’t know. Think of it as an amulet, or something.”
“Is your fantasy girl in this?”
“She’s not my fantasy girl,” he too quickly replies.
“Is she?”
“If you mean the woman on the fake money, yes.”
“Ok, I’ll be there.”
He walks down Christopher all the way to West Street and then south. He wants to approach the place from the west side this time, just to understand the block better. He passes the well-known rocker club CIBL’S next door. The two clubs share a common alley. On a foldout, A-frame billboard L’Etoile is advertised against a bawdy background of color. Judy Crucible’s name is the only one on the billing. On the reverse side was an upcoming attraction starring TV. The sweat is saturating his clothes like the mist off a swamp. Is this another joke on him or has he really lived too many lives?
SING THE STANDARDS
WITH TV
He finds a woman sitting behind the table in the foyer selling tickets. She could have been Emily’s mother, portly, crowned with white hair molded round and neat the way his own grandmother used to wear it. He buys tickets and asks if he can have a program now. She gets up with a “let me see” and pads off into the inner sanctum. When she returns she gives him a simple folded sheet that has been mimeographed. He hasn’t seen a mimeographed sheet since his last year of formal education in high school. He bring the paper to his face and smells.
“Is the bar open?” he asks innocently.
“No, right now they’re setting up.”
“Who is this TV?”
He points to the billboard outside.
“I thought everyone who comes here knew him.”
Vellum realizes his forehead must be glistening with perspiration.
“TV, you know, that’s Trans, that’s his first name, and his last name is Vestite. . , transvestite, you know, it’s a stage name,” she adds, laughing softly, almost blushing.
He nods.
“Excuse me,” he continues with the persistence of a detective, “but has Judy Crucible ever preformed here before?”
“Not that I know of ,” replies the woman innocently, her smile unadorned.
“Yeah,” continues Thom pressing on, “I thought she sang regularly across town at The Nadir.”
“I wouldn’t know,” comes the woman’s response.
He looks under the table to see if she is wearing the same kind of black tie-up shoes his grandmother wore. She’s wearing large white sneakers.
“Thank you,” he offers, nodding his head in agreement.
Walking back to Seventh Avenue, the empty coffee cup still in his hand, he passes a food market on the corner with stands of fresh fruits and vegetables displayed on the sidewalk. Oranges and pears, quinces and even boxes of cherries usually available mid-summer are arranged in green paper in open wooden fruit crates tilted toward the customer. On the crate ends row after row, are pictures of Judy Crucibles bursting from plaid blouses with kerchiefs or stuffed into dirndl dresses with orchards and mountain tops in the background. He grabs a plastic shopping bag from a pile of trash near the curb and empties his bulging pockets of all the evidence, throwing the cup in as well as The Metropolis. The bag is bulging.
Cass exits the subway station anticipating a great night. Rarely does her husband include her in his explorations. She is ready and willing to witness the antics for herself. And she is dressed for it. She had bought a gold-colored short jacket some time back when in one of her exuberant youthful moods and has matched it up with pink pumps from the seventies and an orange-pink blouse and yellow dungarees, somewhat tight, which she hasn’t worn since the late sixties. Ebullient in her excess she has added pink nail polish and lip gloss.
“I was determined to fit into them.”
She swings around right there in front of a cigar store showing off her dungarees.
“Not bad,” she opines.
Now that darkness has settled in, a chill wind is blowing in from the river. Because he feels cold he wonders if she isn’t chilly. His bouts of sweating haven’t helped.
“You didn’t have to get decked out like a rainbow.”
“If you think I’m going to see one of your current beauties wearing the traditional colors of mourning everyone slinks around in, you’ve got another thing coming. Besides I want to stand out!”
“Well, you’ve succeeded there,” he assures her, embarrassed by her enthusiasm.
He wants to slip into Chain Mail without fanfare.
“Here, take this,” she says disdainfully as she hands him a package wrapped in brown paper.
“The doll?” he asks, looking around, his eyes moving faster than his head to appraise any furtive characters.
“What else would it be, a bouquet of flowers?”
“You wrapped it up, smart,” he acknowledges. “Well, it doesn’t matter. If they don’t know where you are, they won’t have trouble finding you. Anyway, let’s get a bite to eat first, we have time.”
He throws the wrapped doll into his bag.
“What do you have in the bag?” she asks. “A surprise for me?”
“Evidence.”
“Most detectives carry briefcases, don’t they?”
“Briefcases?”
“Just kidding.”
They walk a block north and find a small restaurant in the basement of a building. The steps look as if they lead down to the super’s apartment. But candle light in the lower window indicates the eatery.
“So what can we expect?” she asks, sipping Chablis from a water glass.
“What do you mean?”
“You wouldn’t have asked me if you weren’t needing reinforcements. I suspect the Halloween night knocked some sense into you. Isn’t L’Etoile playing where your parade began?”
“Not the parade, but yeah, it’s headquarters for ASS.”
“Clio called. She was glad I was joining you.”
“Did she say anything else?”
“Nope, nothing else.”
He leans way over toward her, his face glowing in the flickering light.
“Have you heard the news? About the war against the homeless?”
“What bullshit. . ! But it goes to show you, Thom, there’s somebody as creative as you are.”
“Who?”
“The president!”
Our TV would need to sit back on this revelation. He imagines the final struggle in the mountains of Peru between two creative forces, his creative mind struggling to the death with the creative mind of Mammon, now personified by the president. It’s too much for him to grasp.
“Yeah, well, according to the authorities, Eddie’s their leader.”
“Eddy?”
“Eddie Ammonia. He’s a friend of mine from the Arch. All those people I knew are said to be his followers.”
“What are you talking about?’
“Yeah,” he continues, “to be honest I never noticed any leadership among these folks. It was more like laissez-faire in the purest sense. You could attribute their freedom to their inability to communicate. . .”
“ ‘Their’ meaning the homeless?” her voice rising with exasperation.
“Now they’re called the Arch Gang. But they were my friends.”
Her look of bafflement leads him on to other measures of explication.
“Everybody the police caught was taken down to the Caribbean island of Sybaris. That’s where Eddie is. It’s all in M.”
In answer to the questioning space between her pursed lips, he grabs the plastic bag lying at his feet and rifles through the contents, removing the flattened coffee cup in the process before pulling out the severely worn copy of Cass’s Metropolis.
“It’s in here, a full description of Eddie and the capture of the Arch gang. . . I know,” he responds on seeing her shocked expression at the sight of the tattered magazine.
The ratty cover is stained with coffee, creased and torn in places, and a scrap of tissue is stuck to something sticky and purple in the corner.
“Please,” he continues. “don’t say anything. . . It’s all in here.”
He opens the magazine to a particular page that is dog-eared and covered with scribbling. He starts reading to himself as he searches for the relevant passage. Soon he is engrossed. Cass dips a slice of Italian bread into a saucer of garlic and oil. She chews. When she is done with this piece, she is about to take another. Instead she loses her self-control.
“What are you looking for, and why is it taking so long?”
He looks up, as if she has just appeared out of nowhere.
“It’s unbelievable what I’ve just discovered. A whole new passage! Listen to this: ‘Every day Ammonia,’ that’s the guy I’m talking about, ‘and his confederates were taken to a cabaña where palms trees give shade. The personnel sat everyone down at tables with white linen tablecloths, peaked cloth napkins and bright sterling silverware. Ammonia was given the table of honor. On the far side of an Olympic size pool a band played rumbas and salsas, while women in bikini bottoms danced and swam. Plates of rich foods were brought in and placed on all the tables, the best reserved for the leader. Women came over to them and dipped prawn and snail into colorful sauces, then hand-fed the inmates morsel by morsel. Frosted fruit drinks spiked with rum were served with bowls of figs.’ ”
“Reads like a sober version of Salambo.”
He nods before going on.
“ ‘One by one the men fell, unable to resist second and third helpings. After a week some had gained considerable weight. During the second week a second team joined the staff. These women began introducing the prisoners to other aspects of consumer life, using games as their tools of persuasion. The inmates were encouraged to build their own model homes using tinker toys and little plastic bricks. Adding colonnades and other extravagant features was lauded. Once the two and sometimes three car garages were built, little model cars were introduced. With these items in place a famous board game was set up and the inmates, using dice and cards, played against each other to see who would end up with the most possessions.’ ”
“Monopoly!”
“ ‘The goal of these games was to help the inmates correlate happiness with owning their own home, having their own job, and with all the goodies that come with materialism. Now and then the jailers pointed through the fences enclosing Camp
Bentham at the land beyond and said, ‘beware of becoming like the Sybarites,’ a word synonymous with deprivation through lavish communal sharing.’ ”
Vellum pauses while the entrées are placed on the table. The table is small. He is patient while the waiter rearranges all the little plates, bread basket and the olive oil saucer, the candle and the salt and pepper shakers as well as the mangled coffee cup to make room for the little bowls of salad.
“ ‘As the days went on more and more gang members fell into the luxuries of freedom. After giving in they were taken off by naked beauties to what seem unimaginable pleasure inside the dens of consumer heaven. Rumors abounded among those that remained that their fallen brothers had signed deeds, become home owners. Somehow through all this Ammonia resisted, encouraging the strongest of his followers to stand firm. He refused to eat the food provided, preferring the scraps to be found in the garbage disposal behind the kitchens. He refused to change his underwear. When they forced him to wear silk, his resolution grew adamant. He became inert, having to be carried around. He wet his clothes, soiled his silk garments. When the women came to caress him, he began to preach to them about the powers of abstention. He told them their bodies were sacred temples which shouldn’t be debased in acts of profit. The women clamored for assignments to his cell. His popularity among the staff as well as the example he set for his remaining comrades enraged management. One night he told a cellmate they would never kill him with their rich food. The following day he escaped. It is said the women helped him negotiate the seven gates that blocked his way to abject poverty.’ ”
TV can go no further. He stares at the candle. Cass asks him if he is all right.
“He’s escaped. Frankly, I don’t understand how Eddie became the center of all this. I could never have imagined such a story myself.”
“Sounds just like you.”
He takes the mangled coffee cup and pushes it into a dimensional shape.
“We’ll be seeing the opera in the same club where Philip K discovered the Barbie brigade. . .”
“Why did you chose that name?” interrupts Cass, starting to laugh.
“Please. I didn’t choose it. This is serious.”
He gives her the cup.
“You can’t believe the extent of it,” he says with resignation. “That night was actually part of an ongoing struggle between two political factions. One side wants to demolish the façade, the other wants to maintain the facade.”
“What façade?”
“The façade of superficial beauty. Something like the social appearance of things, but more. It’s a consumer thing. First sugar and now beauty.”
“Don’t put too many words between you and your Postcard beauty,” she says acidly, putting the coffee cup down with disdain.
“I can see you think this is a funny situation.”
“Well, Thom, I’m not sure whether I think it’s funny or pathetic. You have to admit, you’ve lead Clio and me on one hell of a goose chase before.”
“That so-called goose chase lead me to an amazing discovery, that our society of greed is directly related to the production of sugar! What do people who really love something, like a partner, for instance, call that something?”
Cass looks at her husband with a complete blank.
“Give up? Sugar.”
He sits back with arrogant satisfaction.
“Come on,” she responds, head shaking. “Sugar is a metaphor. I will accept it as a metaphor for greed.”
“Sugar is addictive and so is beauty. This is what the is fighting against, the Standard of the desirable, sugar. Not refined sugar, but the sweet Crucible.’
“Whatever you say, Thom!”
Cass asks the waiter to bring a half bottle.
“What about your transplant? You shouldn’t drink.”
“I never drink and my doctor said I could have a glass of wine from time to time, and I never do so I am making up for lost time. Won’t you join me?”
“You know I gave an oath to give up sugar and booze after I made the connection.”
“So did I. But seeing this marks a new turn in our lives, I’m willing to suspend my resolution. We’re working together! This is like a post-nuptial agreement. A libation is called for!”
“Ok, a glass, but seriously, I need you. Someone followed me; they capitalized on my travels.”
“Do you think they’ve made money at our expense?”
“Some people make money the way cars make smog, it’s a by-product of our culture. So who knows?”
He flips through her Metropolis. The fake money and the check fall out.
“You’re certainly flush!”
“This stuff was in my mail box, but look at. . .”
“How dare you, in our mail box, what if Clio. . !”
“No, no, in my post office box on Varick.”
She looks at him aghast.
“You have you own post office box?”
“Not mine! I told you already. Someone has the box registered under my name, and The Metropolis sent me the check for writing this story. It was also in the box. . .”
“So you did write the story!”
“Please, believe me, I didn’t write this story – as far as I know, I mean we live in a world of uncertainty.”
“You certainly do.”
“And I don’t know who sent me the check, I don’t know anything, I mean, I know The Metropolis did, but why? That’s why I need your help,” he says taking out his handkerchief and wiping his forehead once more wet with perspiration.
She sits back and looks at him with concern. Then, with concentrated effort she finishes off her manicotti, chewing deliberately without looking at him. He watches her intently. A slip of her short dark blond hair has fallen over her forehead. Her brow is furrowed, but her composure is reinforced by her well shaped nose. Her glasses, reflecting the candle flame, glow with a tint of gold. When she looks up, she nods.
“OK.”
She opens her purse and takes out her pill box, and with a glass of water downs her immunosuppressants and the various supplementary pills necessary to ensure her survival.
“Can you take those after drinking all that wine?”
“Thom, I had a glass and half of white wine. You just finished the bottle. Let’s stick to the facts.”
As they approach the doors of Chain Mail TV becomes increasingly nervous. Cass sees this, but she doesn’t comment. She sees the A-frame ad for TV outside the door.
“Do you believe that?” he says raising the collar of his jacket to hide his chin. “Someone else is calling himself, herself TV. A transvestite.”
Standing in front of the ticket table to claim their reservation, he senses the futility of hiding with Cass standing beside him lit like the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center. At any moment he expects Jack to appear in a flash of lightening and hug him like some lost lover. The moment passes as they enter the dimly lit interior. The bar is operating as a refreshment counter, serving coffee, teas and all-natural soft drinks. A stage has been set up along the wall opposite the bar. The tables have been removed. All that remains of the barroom atmosphere are the chairs, now informally set in rows. They take two close to the aisle near the back. Once settled they can hear the pounding music seeping through the walls. He tells her there is a rock club next door. Gradually the theater fills. Not until the producers are satisfied that all the seats are accounted for are the lights doused some twenty minutes after the original curtain time. He becomes aware that the music next door has subsided. As soon as King Ouf appears on stage in his zany, puffy, lavender costume Thom realizes, despite the king’s disguise, that he is being played by Jack. There are others in the cast, who look familiar to him, all of them dissembling to one another in one way or another, all in some way connected with the Halloween festivities. When Laoula appears, the audience claps, cheers and whistles. So this is the fabled Judy Crucible. Until now we’ve seen her only as the manifestation of a media blitz penetrating every corner of TV’s world. We know her effect on him. But who is she and why is her life mysteriously entwined with his? We want to know. She is like a bright star suddenly appearing in the night sky, more brilliant than any around her. We were not in Chain Mail that night – oh to have been would have been as wonderful as witnessing the signing of our Declaration Of Independence. But all the evidence as we’ve indicated earlier leads us to believe that TV was there, with Cass, his wife. We can only imagine what she thought. Luckily we live in a new age. We acquired the live video file that was created that night to cover Judy Crucible theatrical transformation at Chain Mail. After reviewing it hundreds of times we can say, clearly, despite the script, Judy was not the innocent Laoula of the opera, but was indeed light years ahead of her lover, Lazuli. Of course, we knew this. TV’s plastic bag was full of paper cups and postcards demonstrates this fact. But Crucible’s take on the character transformed the fun loving opera into a cameo production for a fetish addict who pushes the edges of our known world, opening up new worlds for those of us who are less adventuresome. We will take our time here to describe in detail Judy’s transfiguration that night.
She first appears as a country girl, accompanying her guardians, visiting the big city for the first time. Because of her father’s strict views on her deportment, she wears a plain black woolen floor length dress and carries her belongings in a large plastic bag, which she guards with both arms. But soon after her arrival in the city, she slips away and meets Lazuili, the poor peddler. To him she confesses she is buried inside a chrysalis and needs his help to release the captive beauty hidden inside. At first he thinks she’s crazy, just another homeless country girl. To prove her sincerity she pleads with him to unbutton her gown which is buttoned up in back to the top of her neck. He is surprised by her foolish request and decides he will take advantage of her. When the dress falls to the ground, Laoula stands before the poor boy in a tight, black, vinyl hobble skirt. In front two vertical orange contoured panels accentuates her shapely curves and add strength to the built in corset. The upper edges of the panels curve upward slightly beneath her breasts adding re-enforcement to the bodice. Her extravagant décolletage begins where her shoulders and arms join and descends in a wide sinuous sweep across her bosoms to the top of her frontal zipper just below her incipient cleavage. The zipper then descends to the hem just above her knees. A cluster of five inch black steel chains ending with half inch red balls is toggled to the slider. Where the tops of her breasts peek out from beneath the stretch material, the stunned Lazuili marvels at a tattoo of the Tree of Good and Evil rising up from unseen but easily imagined areas underneath her dress. Its tangled limbs with foliage and fruit, lie trompe-l’oeil, atop her rigid mounds of flesh, the delicate leafy branches rises up the sides of her breasts before disappearing beneath the fabric. When she giggles the leaves shake and the slider suddenly slips revealing a little more of the Tree of Paradise. And there lying on a limb, looking out at him is a snake. That is not all, she sings her excitement mounting, as she twirls around on her bare feet. In back, a long vertical opening, reinforced by two more vinyl orange contoured panels, is loosely laced together with long corset strings from the collar to the bottom hem. The mass of string falls loosely past her buttocks. At the hem additional chords are loosely knotted at her knees. He is confused because, although she is pleading modesty, he can see, as she twirls around, that she has nothing underneath. Ignoring his embarrassment she lifts her arms to show him the orange and black vinyl fabric attached to her long black sleeves binding her long arms from her wrists to her armpits to the sides of her dress down to her waist. When she raises her arms the web like material reminds Lazuili of bat wings, only here, instead of flight, they restrict the motion of her arms. It is only evident when she tries to reach out or hold her arms up, which is impossible to do. In spite of this restricted motion “her wings” as she calls them delight her. In that voice Vellum heard at the Nadir, she whispers to Lazuili , as she points to the woolen dress on the ground, how she has waited thirty five years inside of that larval sack my father made me wear for this moment. He hid me from the world, saving my purity for an arranged wedding. Without daddy knowing and in collusion with her seamstress, she had this dress made specially for her. And my lovely little tree was stenciled in ink by a master who understood the needs of an emerging woman. But it’s you who has released me, she coos to the poor peddler! Now you will help me evolve. You, she sings, will be the first to see me through my transformation. As she reaches the highest exalted notes possible to her, the zipper in front slips down further revealing more of the large round half moons of her breasts. But she frowns. Her shape is all wrong. Daddy told me I’m fat, she confesses. Lazuili assures her she is not, and reaches out to embrace her. But, no, she sings, I’m not yet complete. There is much to do. Here, she whispers, pull on these. She gives him the thick mass of strings dangling in back of her dress. But don’t look, she whispers. He can’t help but look and see the white line of her body between the vertical edges of her shiny narrow dress. The dark vertical line through the center of her large rump of ass is hardly hidden by the lacing, he sings in darker tones. You must try, she begs. Ignoring his desire to reach through the lace, he pulls the chords with zest. She, in turn, cries out, resisting his energy by grabbing a nearby lamppost to hang on. As they sway back and forth, the sounds of their increasing excitement draws the audience into their pleasure. Is that enough, he sings, wiping the sweat from his forehead, I can barely see your backside now. No, she answers, it must be tighter. With renewed lust he pulls furiously against her now as if to finally draw her toward him, but she tightens her grip on the pole, until her waist shrinks to a slender petiole. Enough, she yells. Reaching for her bag she removes a tailor’s tape measure. Ahh! she claps, throwing the tape back in the bag, fifteen inches! Turning slowly in a circle, for him to marvel, she slides her hands down along the sides of her tapering body which now resembles a cello. In his eyes, she resembles a wasp. Unable to deny himself further he grabs her, but she pushes him away. Look, she pleads, pointing to bare feet. Lazuili eyes follow. Smiling meekly, she withdraws from her plastic bag a pair of ankle boots with calf straps. They are unlike anything the peddler has ever seen before. The green leather is soft, and the long straps delicate. But the shape is feral. Large red buttons on either side of the boot near the aperture where her small foot slides in look like dragon eyes. Along the length of the shoe down to the strange small square sole at the toe, the red laces resembles the upper lip of the dragon, while the long, red, spike heel that runs parallel the full length of the shoe forms the dragon’s lower lip. Holding one boot in her hand, she says, if you ever tell daddy I wore these, I will have my dragons eat you! With that he drops to his kneels, promising he will never tell. Taking a kerchief from her bag, she spreads it open on a nearby stoop, and sits on it, her back straight and rigid, breathing lightly and hurriedly because of her compromised bodice. Opening her bag she retrieves two black sheer stockings which she bunches up and hands to him one by one, instructing him to roll each stocking up each leg. He too is rigid as he rolls the stocking up her leg to her kneecap, there before him. As she hooks the stocking to hooks of an hidden garter underneath, he grabs her leg wanting to bite it. But she is insistent he roll the other first. Before he can rise to his feet, she sings, her voice growing husky, now my boot. Taking her foot he slides it into the narrow cavity, forcing her foot into a straight line with her leg. He can’t help but caress the shoe as he tightens the red laces and buckles the delicate straps to her calf. She sighs amorously and pats his head as he groans placing her foot down on the ground on the tip of the toe. Then he slides the other foot into the other cavity and tightens the red laces and buckles the delicate straps, barely able to contain his excitement, nor she hers. The sounds of their increasing excitement lures the audience once again into vicarious pleasure. The ragged peddler now stands, the evidence of his desire before her. She smiles as she reaches up for his hand so he can help her onto her toes. She staggers slightly, her arms extended, no more than a few feet, as far as they can go, to keep her balance. I’m out of practice, she admits. She describes to him how beneath her exterior, a state of liquid turbulence is taking shape. I am slowly climbing a tall reed, she sings, out of the dark waters of my interment. He grabs her vigorously, but she is more resilient on her toes than it seems and though carefully balancing herself, she backs away from the awed peddler and points impatiently at the hem of her shiny tight dress. What now, he asks, exhausted, his groins aching. Tie them, she sings, pointing to her knees, see how loose they are. Then she pouts and gently pushes him to his knees again and guides his hands around to the back of her knees, where the hem meets her soft skin. You must tighten these laces, she says. As if devouring her he pulls on the hem chords with all the hunger of his heart. She squeals with delight. Is that enough, he asks, panting. No, she cries, her voice high and shaky, now these. She drops both hands and points to the laces on either side at the hem. For the first time the peddler notices her long tapering finger nails painted glossy orange. He pulls until her knees are locked together. Yes, she sighs with pleasure and the audience sighs with her.
Now you are perfect, he says, rising to his feet. But she is still not happy. Adornment, she cries and this hair, it’s black and plain. You must take me to the palace! I need a parlor artist. What’s that, he asks. Somebody who can work on my face and hair. We must hurry before it’s too late. My guardians must be looking for me now. If they find me before my pupation is complete, they will tell my father and I will die old and plain and you, you will die young. We must hurry. But atop her ballet toes, she can only lift her boots an inch off the ground and each step forward is impeded by the hobbled dress. With every step her extravagant hips move side to side and her upper torso wobbles gently. But she seems to love every step of the way as a chorus of men gather around her and ogle her. The peddler fears they will be discovered. To make matters worse, every time she stumbles, the zipper in front slips down further to reveal more and more of her breasts until her nipples begin to appear like glowing crescent moons in a pale sky; and every time this happens, Laoula feigns embarrassment, raising the back of her hand to her mouth in a blush. Becoming worried and jealous, Lazuili, tries to cover her exposed bosoms but she slaps his hand away. No, we must hurry! Coming to the lady’s defense, the crowd begins hitting and kicking Lazuili. When he falls, Laoula lets go of his hand so as not to fall herself. She tells the crowd not to hurt her poor servant, she will have him beaten when they return home. Her words are like oil on a stormy sea. The men step back as she waits impatiently for Lazuili to get on his feet.
When they reach the main avenue before the palace, downstage, the crowd is so large, it draws the interest of the King, who is in disguise and walking among his people to see who deserves to die on his birthday. Lazuili begs Laoula to leave. But she pulls away from him, showing she is quiet skilled at walking alone, in spite of her dress and shoes. When the King sees her, he falls head over heels for her. He approaches her and takes her hand to steady her as she steps to and fro on her toes to catch her balance. Lazuili rushes forward to protect her and pushes the man away. Out of nowhere two nearly naked giants appear and grab the peddler. Laoula pouts as poor Lazuili is clapped in irons and dragged away. But this new stranger in her life, though an old man, retrieves from his ragged pants a golden ring on which a flower is stenciled in thin gold strands. In the center of the flower is a ruby. He places it on her index finger, while admiring her pointed orange fingers nails. I am the King, he assures her, and I will not harm your servant if you don’t wish it. Your wish is my command. Really, she sings, then you can see my face! It’s all too plain and needs a little something! And this hair, oh! The audience laughs and Cass feels they’ve been waiting for this line. King Ouf, laying his other hand on her extenuated hip, assures her, with a figure like yours, you needn’t worry about your face. Nonetheless he claps his hands and the two well defined males in G-strings who have finished hanging the peddlar from the wall of a prison cell, reappear. They lift her torso above their heads and carry her horizontally, face down, upstage into the palace. Moving her arms slightly, her black and orange wings opening and closing she appears to be a wasp, zigzagging above the crowd. What is this place, she asks, as they place her on a soft, reclining couch of purple leather. But seeing the elevated steel tray attached to the couch, on which brightly polished steel tools lie on sterile white towels beside boxes of tissue and gauze and various bottles of alcohol and other lubricating ointments, she nods knowingly, a beauty parlor. They nod their heads in agreement and reveal themselves to be not only the King’s bodyguards but the palace beauticians as well.
They peer over her chest admiring the Tree of Good and Evil. A master created this, they concur. The workmanship is the best we’ve ever seen. Yes, she agrees, and to her surprise noticing her wasp like figure atop the purple couch in a large video screen hanging above the couch. He was daddy’s house painter. He complained that he had created masterpieces no one would ever see. I begged him to paint something for me. Finally he agreed, only he told me he would work in a new medium, with needles and ink and I would be his canvas. I told him I could get into that but wanted to know what he was going to depict and where. He wouldn’t tell me except it would be in the style of Rousseau, because the woman in one of Rousseau’s paintings reminded him of me. It took him a year. Marvelous, clap the naked men. Every leaf is etched beautifully, says one to the other. Yes, agrees the other, and do you see colors in the eyes of the snake, stunning, they agree. So how can we add to your beauty? My hair, it’s blah! she says, it needs strands of new color, here and here and here, the color orange, and some red. I’ve wanted dreadlocks all my life, lots of them. I haven’t combed my hair in over a year, hoping to encourage knotting, but I need help, I’m in a hurry. The orange and red dreads must twist and turn every which way. I want to be free. One of the beauticians begins washing her hair. It’s long enough, he tells her, so your desire will soon be sated. I doubt that, she says. The other directs her eyes upward to a large screen above her head. How lovely, she cries, feigning surprise. With the screen above her lounge chair streaming live the ongoing process, the audience can follow every procedures in detail. The attendant now draws her attention toward a large chest standing nearby. He opens the lid to reveal glittering objects in various shapes. What does the madam require, he asks. She knows what she wants and tells him. Pointing to her tattoo and her breasts, he say, we can see that you are familiar with the art of body modification. Yes, those, she sighs, it’s become difficult hiding them. Speaking in confidence, she tells them she had all her fittings and fistulas secretly install over many years. My daddy thinks my dermal anchors are acne. She laughs. But hurry, I need to complete my metamorphosis. I’m anxious, she sings, to sniff the pollen and taste the nectar of life’s flowers. With ceremonial flourish he dons latex gloves and from the silver tray takes up needle nose pliers and tweezers. While the hair dresser blows dry her hair, the hands of the other craftsman move about on the screen with pliers and tweezers. Everyone can hear the chirping of her erotic pleasure as the King’s beauticians envelope her with their skills, one dyeing the thick strands of hair, the other delicately screwing the silver fittings she has chosen into the dermal anchors embedded in her cheeks. When he is done, she points to three inch silver spirals. The hairdresser hangs her thick segregated masses of black, orange and red over the edge of the lounge and joins his partner. They ask her if she wants them to brush her brows with black. When they are done, they each thread an eyebrow with painstaking elaboration, finding each of fistulas she promises are there, round and round from one end of the brow near her nose to the far ends closer to her ears, an elaborate coil that snakes through her eye brow. At her request they thread silver eyes onto the threaded terminal posts at each end of the coil from which they hang five inch lengths of delicate silver chains where little red balls dangle.
Now for my ears, she smiles. I want something new, something elaborate and I believe my cartilage can bear the weight of the scaffold I want you to build. Insert four two and a half inch black posts into these four piercings along the rim of my ear. Tie each post off at the bottom with a black eye ring where we can latch more dangly chains and red balls. On the scaffold I want you to fit the orange and black Mylar pattern I have in my bag. I designed this when daddy thought I was sleeping and my seamstress, oh I loved her, helped me cut the material to my specifications. You will be the first to see it, she confides. When they see the design, they bow their heads, you’re an artist, they tell her; we’re honored to assist you. Once the four posts are set, and the dangling chains added, they carefully mount the stiff Mylar sheets from post to post, using the delicate eyelets in the fabric. They tie off each post at the top with a back ball. Everyone is breathless. Her ear wings, shaped like the dorsal fins of fish, radiate half way around her ears, two inches above the rims. Sensuously she tilts her head slightly to see one of her ears. In her excitement she opens her arms to reveal both in color and pattern the fin like shape of her arm wings. The audience claps. In her excitement the zipper of her black hobble dress slips further exposing more of her nipples. Watching herself she bashfully covers them.
Now, she sings, something marvelous must be found for my elongated earlobes. I began stretching them secretly when I was twelve. Engrossed in her story, she forgets her bashfulness, as she reaches over, panting quickly as she tries catching her breath in her corset dress. She removes two three inch diameter ebony tunnels. The audience gasps and with bated breath watch as her assistances lubricate the skin, then gently stretch the large holes in her earlobes to insert the shiny wooden tubes. I grew my hair to hide the holes. As she watches her assistants in the video above her head she moans with joy eliciting the simulacrum of pleasure from the audience.
While these delicate procedures are occupying the King’s beauticians, Lazuili hangs like a pendant on a prison wall not far from King’s beauty parlor. The King and his guards enter Lazuili’s cell. While the King eats, his guards beat the poor peddler. Bored with this static view of suffering, the King has the peddler placed on a board and dipped, head first, into a vat of cold water. This too elicits no excitement from the King. Suffering indigestion, he orders the gasping, shivering peddler hung back on the wall, and returns downstage looking for his astrologer, Siroco, to see if he has anything for heartburn. The astrologer warns the King that if Lazuili dies, it is fated the King will die soon after.
This revelation goes unheard as the audience hangs upon the bird-like chirping of Laoula and her assistants. I now want more lovely chains, lots of them, dangling between my tragus here as she points to the fistula in the flap covering her ear channels to here and here and here where you can see I have six extra itty bitty dermal anchors just waiting for you to screw in your lovely little rings, at least two chains to each dermal fitting, more if you can do it. They clap their hands with approval. But I want each of my targus fittings to be a larger silver U with silver barbell post, but the balls on the post should be prominent and black. The U has to be large enough to bear all these chains and another set of chains I will tell you about later. Once done, silver chains, eighteen total, stretch loosely from each ear across her cheeks to the dermal eyes, six all total, located beneath her eyes, both sides of her nose, part way down its length and down near the bottom of her cheeks. The audience claps approval.
Next door, the King quickly enters Lazuili’s cell. He tells the guards to take him down immediately. The ragged peddler drops to the floor in a heap. He is dragged to another chamber in the palace further down stage, with the King following behind them, telling the men, be careful, careful. From here to the end of Act II Lazuili will be treated like a prince with fine food and every possible entertainment.
Upstage one attendant returns to Laoula’s coif. He begins to back comb the segregated strands of black, orange and red. Your hair is thick, he tells her, as she stares upward admiring herself. How thick do you want the dreads, he asks. Give me one, red, at least two inches thick, I want it to lie here over my shoulder and down to here, she says, pointing to the leafy crown of the Tree of Good and Evil. I want the black dreads piled up on top in a basket weave and the orange and red twisting every which way. While the hairdresser begins to rip and twist the long strands, the other asks her if she needs anything more. She raises both hands in disbelief and points to her mouth. My lips now seem naked. I have two labret fistulas here and here she points to the middle of her lower lip. Find something daring. As you can see they’re close together, off center, an inch apart. He shows her a variety of labret rings but no, she prefers something more in your face. He shows her two three inch ebony curved talons, swollen at the base, tapering to needle points. Yes, she giggles. If we use a semi-circle post with a ball terminal it will enhance the effect. She thinks about it, then says, red balls, since they will show just above my black talons. With the tips of his fingers he slides each post through the holes in her lower lip, wrapping the post over the top of the lip and screwing quarter inch red balls at the terminal. I see you have a split tongue, he says. Shhhh is her response, it’s still my secret. He screws the dark talons on until they hook down under her chin. When he steps back she and her audience review her face on screen, she shakes her head. I want them to arch up! With more fanfare he twists the talons upward allowing the arcs of each talon to arc over her lips. Using her fingers she points inward. He twists the talons slightly inward so that the needle tips nearly touch each other, just beneath the tip of her nose. You must be careful, he warns, not to prick yourself. Oh, she sighs, watching herself as she opens and closes her mouth, rubbing her talons with her finger tips. The audience claps quietly, as if watching a perfect putt in a golfing tournament.
And like the spectators at a golfing tournament, they now wait with trepidation for her next move. On my chin, she says returning to the work at hand, you can see three fistulas, the center one is the lowest, the other two off center and high up. I want lots of silver chains with orange ball endings handing from silver U fittings with black barbells and balls. She sees that the hairdresser has completed the dreads. Give me the big one, she tells him. He pulls up the single, long, thick braid and drapes it over her shoulder where she grabs the end, teasing the frayed ending with her spiky orange finger nails. While she pets the giant dread, she instructs him to start working on her forehead. She points to her two dermal post at either end of her forehead and the fistula in the center of her forehead below the hairline. Connect them with more chains, loosely, and hang the five inch dangly things with the orange balls from these two but from the center fistula I want another large silver U with black barbells like he’s inserting in my chin. And we need at least six, eight inch chains with quarter inch purple balls at the ends hanging from this fitting. The audience watches as the chains are set. Now she point to two large dermal inserts on either side of the central piercing of her forehead. I’ve always wanted something long here, something that leaps out and can touch the world before me. There is much discussion and then her attendants tell her they have an idea, since this extension must be light. They screw into the dermal inserts inch long ferules. Into each of these they slip a slender silver two foot long stalk resembling Verbena bonariensis. On the end of each stalk a silver seed cluster with lavender glass vibrates every time she moves. She and the audience clap with glee. We are also the King’s gardeners, they confess. We had these fabricated when the King complained that his dried flower arrangement were too dull.
Downstage a weary Lazuili feigns joy as he is now force fed rich foods. The King has the royal tailors fit him in silk pajamas and presents him with dancing women. While Ouffs enjoys the spectacle of women and encourages Lazuili to live and enjoy life, we are brothers, with strained joy, the peddler nods in agreement. Every now and then he looks toward the open window and sings in soliloquy, I don’t need wide wings to be free, only this open window to flee.
Now we need that little extra oomph, Lazoula tells her attendants. They can’t imagine what she wants now but they aren’t surprised when she reaches over to the chest, gasping for air in her constricting dress, and pulls two inch wide silver nose rings with silver terminal balls from the treasure chest. She wants silver chains dangling from seven fittings on the circumference – she shows them where. But here, I want an extra ring fitting – I’ll soon show you why. When they show her the chains for her nose rings, she asks they must hang down past my chin. So they add extra chain. The fistula on each side of her nose is close to the cheek. When the rings are ready they remove the silver terminal balls and slowly push the thick rings through her holes. Although she watches herself on the screen, her excitement mounts and she apparently forgets where she is and slowly rubs her nipples. Oh, she cries, suddenly covering them. The hoops lie nearly flat on her cheek, but not enough to curtail the movement of the other chains on her cheeks. I want black terminal balls instead of silver, she tells them when they are ready to cap the ends of the rings. Each ring bears a series of delicate ten inch chains terminating in quarter inch purple balls well below her chin. The hoops and talons are nearly touching. Take more chain, she instructs them. I wants to pull the rings back and up by chain to the tragus fittings. Ahh yes, they exclaim, as they watch her tongue tips dart out like a snake’s and wrap around each of her spiky uprights, her hands stroking her thick dread. Nice, they exclaim, as they finish tying off the nose rings to her tragus fittings. When done, she draws breath and bends to the metal tray and fumbles through the tubes of lipstick before losing her breath and lying back gasping. Orange or purple, she pants. Purple, they agree, handing her the stick. While she screws up the stick, she asks them for long, black eyelashes and black eye shadow. While blue fingers are gluing lashes and brushing on black mascara, she carefully coats her lips purple, looking amorously at herself in the screen above. Each member of the audience, male and female alike, except Cass – we can be sure of that, thinks she is looking at him or her with her sensuous eyes.
At last the naked men stand her on her toes. She resembles a new species of insect. Her black dreadlocks are woven high on her head, while the orange and red dreads twist up and over her head and hang like serpents above her shoulders. The single, thick red dread is draped over her shoulder and hangs down between her breasts. Her assistants are ready to escort her down stage, where Ouff and Lazuili eat and drink, but she stands hesitant. Something is missing. Nervously, she strokes the tip of the fat dread, and moves it up and down between her nipples. They look at her wondering. You are perfect, they sing. No, she replies looking down, chains cascading off her cheek! They slap their forehead in unison, of course!
With great flair they pull from the chest a small purple cushion bearing two black circular, slightly concave nipple shields three inches across. With great deliberation they show her the details. The audience can see them on the large screen above as a camera zooms in. Two black stainless steel concentric rings, one inside the other form an outline around a central opening, three quarters of an inch across. The outer ring is studded with small roundels of red glass, the inner with roundels of orange glass. The inner rings bear small oval eyes at the diameter, holding silver barbells with black stainless steel balls screwed at the terminals. Each ball contains a thread hole for other fittings. The rings are separated by four interlacing black steel arcs, like one often sees holding up the dome of a church or public building. The footings of the arches on the large rings interlace while the apogee of the arcs are soldered to the smaller rings at four points, creating four hour glass patterns around the brooch. These remind us of your shape, they agree, admiring her tiny waist. Each hourglass consists of two small panels of red glass cloisonné. The larger panels underneath the arches are filled with orange glass cloisonné. In the middle of the larger, orange panels, roundels of embossed black glass are set. These are my colors, she admits, lifting her arms to show her colors in the webs of her wings. She grows impatient to wear them, her excitement is palpable. One of her assistants removes the black ball from the barbell and slips out the post. As she presses the central opening over her nipple, she closes her eyes, telling them she wants to feel the cold metal against her skin. The attendant hands her the barbell which she then gently pushes through a hole on one side of the wreath into the fistula in her nipple. In a deep voice she moans with pleasure. The audience goes crazy and nearly ends the opera there. The assistant then screws the black terminal ball onto the barbell locking the ornament to her breast. She then takes the second shield from the other assistant and again with excessive ceremony adorns her the nipple to wild acclaim. She sings how lovely are these matching reds and oranges. And these round surfaces won’t tear my vinyl dress, she adds.
I am ready to visit the King, but now it’s the attendants who stop her. From their treasure chest they produce another group of delicate, five inch chains ending in red balls – to match your lovely apples, they say, pointing to the Tree of Good and Evil flourishing in the soft pale skin of her breasts. Each attendant attaches the silver chains to the black barbell balls on a shield. The four sparkling clusters of chain hang from her nipples down over the rim of her open dress. Pointing to the little apples, the attendants in their baritone voices, tell her these are evidence that your rich fruits are for everyone to taste.
In spite of the script and the on going plot downstage there is no doubt in our minds that the first two acts of the opera revolved around Laoula and her couture needs. And no one apparently cared, except Cass.
Laoula’s journey is slow, since she can barely lift her toes, a prisoner in her own apparel. As she passes Lazuli’s room, Ouff and his retinue rush out to look at her. Lazuli doesn’t recognizes her in her rings and chains, her hair in twists of color. Only the dress informs him. Unnoticed he slips out of his luxurious seat, tears off his new silk shirt, and escapes through the window. The King and his retinue follow behind her as her now devoted beauticians support her elbows, her hands holding the thick dread nervously as she looks left and right, smiling, teasing her admirers, her split tongue darting snakelike through her lip spikes. The chorus parts, singing their praises, as she moves to the edge of the stage for all to see. Off stage a gun shot rings out. But no one notices, not even the King, as Laoula wobbles to and fro like a new born wasp, her antennae bobbing before her, her tongue dipping in and out through the strange needle-like ovipositors in her lips. Slowly but repeatedly she raises and drops her arms the limited three foot arc she has allowed herself, her wings drawing applause. When she touches her ear wings with the tips of her fingers, the audience explodes with excitement. A newly discovered member of the phylum, Anthropoda, or, as she would prefer, a butterfly, stands before them drying its wings in the cool night air. The audience leaps to their feet, races forward to touch her. The shot that could mark Lazuili and Ouffs demise fads into the clamor of adulation.
At intermission Cass looks over at Thom and shakes her head despairingly.
“She’s certainly twisted one of my favorite off-beat, hardly-ever-done operas, not to mention her body. Why would a woman do that to herself?”
Thomas could tell her why. If our understanding of TV is correct, we can be sure that during the first two acts, Thomas, while watching Crucible’s transformation, was suffering a complete meltdown.
“Better the opera was never done,” adds Cass.
Standing up she pleads for fresh air. The sight of Judy irritates her because of all her husband has said and because of all the ‘evidence’ he apparently needs to carry depicting her in one form of nakedness or another. With a body like that, why hide it? She acknowledges it. But all that other stuff? She steps into the aisle before TV can stop her and disappears. TV is afraid. Inadvertently he reaches into his bag and squeezes the wrapped Barbie. The wrapping paper crackles, startling him. If he follows Cass, he might be seen. A moment later a tap on the shoulder confirms his worst fears and he freezes. He recognizes a voice and when he turns around he is facing Emily, the seamstress of that inglorious night.
“I didn’t recognize you without your beard,” she says, genuinely pleased. “It was your voice. I have a good aural memory.”
“Hey,” he replies, a bit too energetically but remembering his new beardless look, “are you the one responsible for Jack’s outfit?”
“Yes.”
“And, uh, who did ah. . .”
“That was outsourced. She or somebody designed her outfit. The only thing she
left out was her kitchen sink.”
“Kitchen sink?”
“She went a little overboard, don’t you think?
“Oh, certainly, way overboard.”
“PFG is really pissed.
“PFG?”
“Pierced For God. They’re accusing her of pushing their body art mainstream. If she sets a new standard for modification, everyone will follow her they way everyone have followed TV. Everyone will be wearing those crazy talons turned up and the wild ear fins, which I thought kind of cool. But the bottom line is, the mom and pop parlors will disappear. In their place the big chains, no pun intended, will start marketing Judy Wear and serving this lucrative new trade. PFGs are eccentrics, they can’t fit in, so they create their own small communities where they can shine amongst themselves. Crucible threatens all that with her growing mass appeal and the financial support she is generating. She’s like a super nova in a universe of small stars.”
Our TV sees Cass glowing at the bar with a plastic cup in hand, talking to a fashionably dressed man. He too has the collar of his dress jacket pulled up around his neck. He seems pleased with himself. Thom feels an ancient jealousy enough to heighten his color. Thankfully the lighting is low inside the theater.
“Who is that?” he asks Emily, nodding to the bar.
“I don’t know who she is. I thought she was with you.”
“Not her. She’s my wife.”
“She’s your wife. I love her outfit! I want to meet her.”
“Well sure, but who is he?”
“Your guess is as good as mine. Let’s find out.”
Before he can deny her impulse she has already stepped into the aisle and is waiting for him. Uncomfortably, he lumbers to his feet taking every opportunity to stall, hoping the house lights will blink the warning and he can plead against the introduction. But nothing happens. He follows Emily to the bar, smiling wanly at Cass.
“Cass, this is Emily. She designed the King’s costume as well as many of the outfits on Halloween night.”
Cass turns with evident relief.
“How nice. I love the King’s costume.”
At this point the man turns to Emily with interest. But she is indeed entranced by Cass’s outfit.
“I just love what you’ve done, the nails and the pumps, wow, you are a breath of fresh air!”
Even Cass finds this praise more than her enforced equanimity can handle, and she blushes. The tall man unwittingly comes to her rescue by turning his attentions on Emily.
“The costumes? I take it he means the Barbie brigade.”
“Yes,” replies Emily, turning toward him, looking for some sign of familiarity.
Vellum watches the man hoping he will now introduce himself. When the man doesn’t, TV is forced to ask.
“Adolf Blotter,” commits the man without looking at him.
“Wow. I don’t know many Adolfs.”
Our TV is all wide-eyed with fascination. He remembers the name from somewhere but can’t recall where or the why of its familiarity. Doesn’t everyone he meets further his search? Why not Adolf Blotter? Blotter is only to happy to explain his nominal archetypes.
“It was popular once,” Blotter says with importance, now turning all his attentions on Vellum, who stands with both hands clutching his treasured plastic bag. “For years I was too embarrassed to use it. So I created various pseudonyms. Then I discovered that there were many more good Adolfs besides the bad one, and decided I would live with my birth name after all.”
“So are you a fan of the Brigade?” asks Emily.
“I’m a follower,” replies Blotter warily.
Cass interjects.
“Adolf was telling me that he’s with Judy Crucible.”
Cass’s look bears a message both serious, as seen in her eyes intently cocked in the direction of Blotter, and sardonic, as seen through her half-hearted smile at her husband.
“Judy Crucible,” repeats Thom, “now wasn’t she performing over at The Nadir?”
“Yes, she had an indefinite engagement there until the place was closed down by the Board of Health. It seems a complaint was filed by one of the patrons, something to do with the drinks. Apparently she had ordered a wine spritzer but got some sickly sweet dark drink which apparently everyone else was drinking.”
“Sandy,” adds TV absently, thinking back to her.
“Excuse me?” says Adolf, peering down at Vellum.
“Oh, you know, when in Rome do as Romans do.”
“Yes, exactly my sentiments.”
“Sounds like a cult thing to me,” added Cass cheerfully.
“I wouldn’t know. Do you know the place, Mr. . .”
“Sherman. No, no, but I’ve heard of it.”
“Well, thanks to Judy’s new agent she landed this gig,” he says, putting his hand into his pants pocket and expanding his chest.
“She seems to have brought her fans with her,” Vellum remarks.
Under the natural lighting of The Chain everyone looks their natural selves. He wonders if Samantha or Harry are present.
“Mr. Smith was only too aware of that.”
“Mr. Smith?”
“Her agent, of course.”
Thom looks at Cass, who knows what he is thinking.
“You mean Raymond Smith?”
“Of course, do you know him?”
“No, but I’ve heard of him.”
“He’s in great demand, naturally, being TV’s agent.”
“Do you mean TV the transvestite?” chimes Cass coyly. “We actually came here to see her, but got our times mixed up.”
“No, I don’t know about her,” says Blotter dryly. “I’m referring to that great auteur of life, the writer. . .”
“I know exactly who you mean, don’t you, Sherman?” says Cass with feigned enthusiasm, looking straight at her husband. “We know his work by heart.”
“I know his work, too,” chimes Emily polyphonically.
TV’s forehead beads with sweat like a cold water pipe in a hot basement..
“So what’s your connection to Judy?” questions Vellum, wanting to change the subject.
“I’m Judy’s manager and more. I am also her… ah, but enough about me,” he says, looking over to Cass. “You strike me as someone who might be in the same business.”
“Business?” she asks, sidling up to Thom.
“Entertainment. If not, you should be. You have beautiful features.”
“Thank you. I’m a junior high school English teacher. . .”
“Really, I’m impressed. I love kids and work for an organization that guides them toward the academic fulfillment of their dreams.”
“Actually teaching is a lot like entertainment. You need to keep the interest of the kids alive.”
“Exactly my sentiments,” he says regally. “I have children of my own, well into adulthood now, and grandchildren too. I well appreciate the efforts of you teachers; in fact I have a deep interest in maintaining the high standards in teaching this country was known for, that is, before the influx. . .”
“Influx?” wonders Emily.
“We need,” he continues, ignoring the question, “ the means of judging children’s aptitudes to the life tasks ahead of them.”
“Like separating the grain from the chaff,” comments Cass sardonically.
“Yes.”
“But too often people fail to see,” Cass continues, “how easily and readily kids can be entertained without all the special effects, you know, the fireworks, the razzle dazzle.”
Thom kicks her heel. Something is surfacing in his mind.
“We should talk more about this, Miss. . .”
“Kale. Cassandra Kale.”
“My god, with a name like that, your career in the business would be completely assumed. Here’s my card. I hope we might speak again.”
With that he elaborately takes out a billfold and pays for her drink as well as his own, and in the same fluid motion presents her with his card.
“Now I must be getting backstage to see how things are going,” he says, looking at his watch. “We should have had the signal by now.”
“What are you drinking now?” he asks, perturbed as Blotter walks away.
“Soda and lime of all things, Mr. Goody Two-Shoes! I wanted Johnny Walker Black,” she adds with a wicked laugh, “but they weren’t serving liquor tonight!”
“Where is backstage?” Vellum asks Emily.
“In the alley, believe it or not, between Chain and CIBLs. The rockers between sets and the actors between scenes gather out back, it’s quite a scene.”
The audience is getting restless. Some even begin chanting ‘Judy, Judy, Judy.’ The stage hands appear on stage. They walk about aimlessly, indecisively. The supporting actors join them on stage. Everyone appears to be looking for something. Then a rocker stumbles on stage and holds up his guitar triumphantly. The unresponsive audience bewilders him. The other members of his band have followed him. They are drunk and disoriented. The drummer, expecting to find his drums upstage, staggers toward the purple lounge where Crucible’s transfiguration was completed. He stands wavering in front of it. The lead guitar lifts his guitar again. This time members in the audience begin chanting ‘Judy, Judy, Judy” again. He nods and begins furiously strumming his guitar unaware of its lack of amplification. The rhythm guitarist, stage left, is shaking his head in astonishment. Then the bass guitarist truculently asks someone in the crowd what’s become of their fucking amplifiers. He strides over to the lead, who is thrumming away, lost inside his dark sunglasses unfazed by the paltry steel-wire twang he conjures. When the bass shoves the lead into the rhythm, the fighting begins with the stage hands running for cover. This is when Blotter runs onto the stage.
“She’s been kidnapped!”
Everyone stampedes toward the stage. But Vellum takes Cass’s hand and runs to the front door.
“Where are we going?”
“We’ll head them off on the street.”
“What do you care?”
“It must have something to do with me.”
“You think everything has something to do with you.”
Big irregular flakes of snow are falling, coating the crevices and corners around street lamps and curbs with a white veneer. At the other end of CIBL’s the yellow truck is parked.
“Come on.”
As they run toward the truck, a group of women in spiked heels appears, a phalanx wielding purses. Their exhalations cloud the sidewalk like the steam escaping from mighty steeds ready for war. Then the gorilla appears. Walking delicately behind him as calmly as possible on the tips of her toes on heels the length of her feet, sheathed in her black and orange vinyl hobble dress and a purple faux fur coat, is Judy Crucible, Laolla’s plastic bag in her hand. The gorilla opens the door of the cab. There she puts her hand on her hip, arches back slightly and looks at him in amazement. It’s obvious she can’t climb in herself. The gorilla looks at her and shakes his head. With long full strides several tall Barbies approach and scoop her up in their arms and set her down on the cab seat. Everyone cheers. The gorilla, relieved, walks around the front of the truck and boards on the driver’s side.
Thom leaps onto the riding board with Barbie in hand and looks into the cab through the window. Judy is looking at TV as if at a wall.
“Thom! Thomas Vellum,” cries the ape.
Imagine TV’s surprise! He faints and falls back onto Cass’s shoulder. She pushes him up, wondering to herself as she heaves, what she, a junior high school English teacher, is doing here, and in fact what her husband is doing here with all these weirdoes. Jack helps her elevate our famous TV.
“My god! I love this man,” says Jack enthusiastically, introducing himself.
Cass stares at King Ouf while straining to hold up her husband who has regained consciousness. Wanly smiling, she nods.
“Don’t we all.”
“He doesn’t look anything like his older brother, Sam. My god, if I had only known I’d been so close to royalty.”
“Yes, and I liked your performance,” she tells him. “It was her,” she says nodding toward the truck cab.
“Oh, she just thinks that because she’s like mostly real up here means she can act as well. Actually this was my big chance to do white face, imagine!”
Cass laughs politely, and to think she had been only worried about her husband’s heterosexual encounters.
“Thom! Get in, man,” shouts the ape, “we’re in a hurry.”
As TV swings out, holding onto the side mirror bracket, Judy pushes the door open.
“Let’s get out of here,” she says.
He climbs in with his Barbie and his shopping bag pulling Cass up from behind him onto his lap.
“Ah,” cries Jack from the street, “nothing impedes love. How beautiful!”
With that he raises both hands to his mouth and throws them kisses before closing the door. The Barbie Brigade has turned toward the alley to meet the followers of Crucible who are clamoring for revenge, the giant Blotter in the lead. As the truck pulls away into the white haze of snow a rear guard of stage hands, Emily included, appears behind the antagonists.
“What about Blotter?” asks Vellum.
“What about him?” Judy asks.
Despite the already bizarre events that have led up to this moment, Thom still can’t digest the fact that he is sitting next to the forbidding Judy Crucible, his wife on his lap, talking to a Gorilla who is the only stranger to recognize him. Cass, wondering the same thing, watches the receding scenery through the side view mirror. Somehow she expected this kind of madness in her husband’s books but to think he actually lived out those scenes flabbergasts her and gives credence to Raymond Smith’s assertions of Thom’s genius for investigative fantasy. She is exhausted, as you can imagine.
Judy looks at Thom.
“So, are you the famous Thomas Vellum?”
A look of interest flickers in her eyes. But he doesn’t hear her.
“What you said, up on the stage, that was all true, wasn’t it,” TV asks her, staring at her.
“That depends on what I said. Turn up the heat will you. I’m freezing.”
“You’re fogging up the windshield,” the gorilla tells her.
Thomas is so close to her he can guess her age. Her chin and nose are promontory and the effects of all her piercings have mottled her skin. In the changing light caste by the passing street lamps, her face appears sometimes pitted like small pox, or shimmering with jewelry. His desire is tempered by fear. He is repelled as much as he is drawn toward her, because she has stepped beyond the possible into excess, because her ornamentation makes her as ugly as she is beautiful. She straddles the sharpness where light and darkness meet, where the bright side of the moon slices along its penumbra on the clearest night, where white and black rule the esthetic spectrum in icy unity. The long silver spirals weave through her thin, black eye brows with dangerous precision and the chains hanging from her ears and face sway precariously as the truck lurches through the streets. He wants to put his fingers through the enormous black napkin rings in her ears and pull on them to see if she is real; and touch the spikes arching over her lips to see if they’re sharp enough to draw blood. She has become as much monster as goddess, an untouchable talisman inside his brain.
“So, are you the famous Thomas Vellum,” she repeats, holding her thick dread in both hands like an oboe, jabbing her tapered orange finger nails into the red braid.
Inside his memory the layers of pseudonyms are caught up in a single wad. He can’t think of a single name to which he should answer. To reply ‘yes’ to Thomas Vellum will once again set him apart from the world. On the other hand, isn’t this exactly what’s becoming of her? Isn’t she already mythic even though he only heard of her the first time a few months ago? Near her red heels he sees the large plastic bag she carried on stage.
“Yeah, but…”
“But nothing,” chimes the ape. “This guy’s the goods. We go way back, the two of us.”
“How do you know me?” Vellum asks, realizing his hand hurts because he’s been squeezing the ungiving plastic of the Gorilla’s doll.
“Thom, it’s me, Tony Morales.”
“Tony?” chokes Thom. “You’ve got to be kidding, Tony?”
For a frantic moment they reach over Judy, who turns her head to avoid getting hooked, and grip each other in awkward roughness.
“Watch the road!” cries Cass, shoved toward the door of the passenger side.
“I have your doll.”
“So I gave 3210 to you! I couldn’t remember,” exclaims the ape, taking the doll in his paw. “It’s a collector’s item.”
Cass is speechless.
“Cass, this is Anthony Morales. I’ve told you about him.”
“Oh yeah, you mean he’s the one, you and him, who had that stack of…”
“Tony,” interrupts TV abruptly, “this is Cass, my wife.”
“Nice to meet you, Cass.”
“And I’m Judy Crucible,” says Judy with laconic voice.
Everyone nods.
“Yeah, I know. We were just enjoying your rendition of Laoula,” says Cass acidly.
“I wrote that new libretto for her.”
“It was inventive,” adds Cass without conviction.
“I thought so. Made her a modern girl.”
“You created something new. That’s Laoula’s plastic bag, isn’t it,” asks Thom, inquisitively. “What’s in it?”
“My things. What’s in yours?”
The wind shield wipers sweep across their line of vision and land with a thud before renewing their efforts with squeaky resilience.
“His collection of Crucible mementos,” snaps Kale.
“How do you and Tony know each other,” asks Vellum, quickly.
“We don’t. He’s abducting me,” returns Crucible
This is met with silence.
“How come we can’t have just a regular night out, Thom?” Cass finally says, exhuming every ounce of her darkest moods. “You don’t look abducted to me,” she adds, turning her body around, a motion Thom does not want her to repeat.
With her knees pointed toward the stick shift, she is studying Crucible in detail. Crucible, nonplussed, is looking to a point in infinity where the sidewalks on either side of the street meets in a snowy haze.
“Ok,” says Judy, finally turning to Cass, “it wasn’t always this way. Being abducted I mean.”
The hairy-headed ape laughs.
“When Emily told me she was booked at The Chain,” the hairy-head explains, “we figured the Group wanted Judy inside ASS.”
“Raymond booked her,” injects Cass, as concerned helpmeet looking at provider.
“Who’s Raymond?” asks curious G, the primal teamster.
“My agent,” coos the pincushion, pointedly. “Blotter and I were going to meet him tonight.”
“He’s my agent too,” adds the beardless youth, breathless, looking at his spouse.
“Actually, you must have had a similar idea,” raises the hairy king, looking first at the pincushion, then toward beardless and his helpmeet. “She was on her way out through CIBLs, when I met her.”
“You swept me off my feet,” whispers the cushion, musically. “Adolf talks about you all the time.”
“He swept you off those shoes? I doubt it. How the hell do you even wear those things,” pointing to her shoes, “as if heels aren’t bad enough!” asserted Cass.
“It takes practice, something I do everyday. But you get used to them.”
“Yeah, the way a horse gets used to horseshoes!”
“The horse doesn’t have a choice. But I’ve got free will.”
“And that bit about your childhood seamstress. . .”
“I thought that part about my old seamstress was touching.”
“That and the bit about the tattoo artist.”
“Yeah, well there, you’ll find truth in fiction.”
She describes her Hellenesque escape.
“In the alley backstage I saw the rockers popping nitrates; so when they headed toward CIBL I told them wrong door. They didn’t believe me, but then I went into CIBL. I thought, shit, they’re going to follow me, but the lead guitar shrugged and headed into Chain Mail. The drummer was more interested in fooling with my nose rings until the bass pulled him away and off they went.”
“He probably thought those hoops were his triangles,” adds the English teacher, acerbically.
“Then I ran into this big ape, standing at the bar.”
“When I told her what we were about to do,” says the ape, “she said, great, that will save her cab fare.”
“You’re Doris,” concludes our youthful sleuth. “You left your husband and two kids.”
“Nice name, Doris,” the abducted replies. “Perhaps she found a new life.”
“She ran away with Blotter, leaving her daughter,” interjects Thom.
“No, I ran off with a poet”
“In Nadir.”
“I wasn’t beautiful when I arrived at Nadir, and I was shy. But I was older than most of the people there. I’d already had a life, if that’s what you call it, locked inside someone else’s vision. At first I felt strange, all these young people around me. But something in me was pushing out, wanting a voice of its own. In Nadir I could be different from the quiet housewife who had grown old on Long Island. I could be as young and glamorous as everyone else there, because no one cared who I was. And because I had become like everyone there – we were all the same, in the image of Salambo, I began to look at myself differently. I could fit in, as a Salambo, without standing out. Being older actually helped me. The Nadir became my home and everyone there my family. We encouraged each other. As my confidence grew, I realized that beauty could be something you wore. That I could redesign myself in my own image under the protecting image of our reigning queen. So I began experimenting, following the examples of others, who seemed way out there to me. They encouraged me, their den mother, to become more daring. No one there judged me. Not my husband, for I had no husband there. The one I had would never have thought to look for me in Nadir. The poet, he was a John, was an idealist. He taught me the beauty of words. He read me the poems of Rilke and I remember one that reminded him of me: ‘They rise above the green grass and lightly sway on their long pink stems, side by side, like enormous feathery blossoms seducing. . .”
“‘A shriek of envy shakes the parrot cage; but they stretch out, astonished, and one by one stride into their imaginary world,’” concludes the writer famous, adding, “Flamingos.”
“I love that poem. We’d all sit around drinking the tonic Nadir, comfortable with what we all possessed in common. John’s idealism lead him to that era before the first world war. One day he bought me a corset and a funky Edwardian dress. I thought why not, I would never have considered dressing up in vintage. It was difficult at first, the restriction. It seemed like work. But I was thrilled to be doing something so different, so retro. People stopped to stare at me. My costume was like a fortress where I felt safe. So I kept at it. I got rid of the funky dress but wearing corsets became a part of my daily ritual. As I walked down a street, not only was the corset under my dress shaping my body the way a potter’s hands shapes a vase out of clay, but inside this sacred vase – my body was sacred to me now, not something embarrassing, my new identity was contained, like a germinating seed. I bought others, more restricting. My waist shrank. It made me realize that I could be the mold, not the casting at Nadir. I experimented with latex and vinyl. These experiments brought me suitors, who paid for my interests. I began to stand out. I realized people were now drawn to me, I who had never been noticed before! When they looked in the mirror, they saw me. When they looked at each other, they saw me. I enjoyed what my daring had created. When I met Remi, the painter, I was wearing a new transparent rubber latex hobble dress, that a suitor dared me to wear. I’m always amazed how an admirer enjoys the desire my appearance creates in other men and women. Jealousy is the fuel of romance. Everybody was staring at me. I was thrilled by the attention. Beside a purple thong to match the latex, I wore nothing else beneath. I had never appeared naked before. Only I didn’t feel naked at all. Remi followed me from table to table looking me over, me the queen mother of the Nadir. Even if I had wanted him to leave me alone, I could have hardly run away! I could taste the excitement. My immobility, his incessant presence. Finally, he asked me if I could be his canvas. . .”
“Like your libretto,” says TV, drawing in her story like the sweet scent of incense during a high mass.
“Yeah, like my libretto. He wanted to use ink and needles. But he told me augmentation would make my tits firm. It would improve what he had in mind. I’d never considered that but I thought, this is a another opportunity to try something new, so I made a deal. Give me tits, I told him and I am yours to tattoo.”
“The Tree of Good And Evil,” the wicked voyeur whispers, his interest barely contained.
“Yeah, that Tree,” she agrees, shaking her head like a wind chime. “We agreed I should get my enlargements first, something prominent; then he could overlay his filigree. That was the first time I physically changed my body and I was scared. Then I was stunned by the size of my breasts and how heavy they felt. I went from a 32C to a 38DD. He studied them like a jeweler, describing to me the layout of his intaglio. I didn’t even know what the word meant until I looked it up. Aside from my childhood vaccinations I’d never been pricked by a needle. It hurt like hell and it went on for months, the artist with his ink gun, but I looked forward to every session, seeing the evolution of his idea, from the sketches on paper to the ink in my skin. It was the best thing I’d ever done. I figured if I can go under the knife to enhance my body and lie through hours, day after day, being jabbed with needles like an ornament, I could at least have my ears pierced for the first time. I had discovered the pleasure in pain and soon I was adding new piercings. Later I started stretching my ear lobes, which took time. I studied the work of master decorators, many of them kids, who were studying tribal customs.”
“Pierced for God” TV informs her.
“Yeah, that’s how it feels. My Remi was right about augmentation. When I put on that purple transparent skin again for my debut, my tits stood out like the pyramids of Egypt. I was worried the seams would separate. But. . .” as she then arches and stretches, dropping her hand to her crotch and lifting it like a ballerina to her chin, “my lovely Tree of Enlightenment grew right up my middle from way down here to way up here for all to see! I didn’t wear a thong, it didn’t seem necessary.
Anyway, my waist training had paid off and by this time I was appearing every night tightly corseted, wearing a pair of my growing collection of ballet heels. I’d become the star diva of the Nadir, writing my own lyrics about transformation. Somebody always wanted to write my music. There was no way I was going home again, so I needed to find a more realistic person. That’s when I met Adolf. He came to the gallery on the opening of Remi’s etchings and studies of The Tree Of Good And Evil. I was on display as well, a tableau vivant. Adolf took a shine to me.”
“I saw you,” says doubter, his interest in her bag plastic unabated, “one night at Nadir.”
“He saw the commercial side of my interests,” she says softly, smiling at TV, her finger tip stroking an ebony talon, her smile behind the bars of her arcing fangs. “Now here was a man who wasn’t jealous. His interest in me, though not without sexual implication, was strictly business. To mark the occasion I became Judy. He hired my photographers and my song writers. He put together my public relations team. Instead of suitors I had staff. Instead of wondering who will pay for my next experiment, I had corporate sponsors funding my projects. I didn’t have to do anything but tell people what I wanted. It was dreamy. I told him I wanted some place new to show off all my new work. So we decided, what better showcase to hang all my chains than the Chain Mail!”
With this new intelligence the helpmeet takes a novel interest in the cushion’s pins and needles.
“Ok,” enters the now curious but cautious helpmeet, “you’re a performance artist, not my style but that doesn’t mean anything. But why all this stuff?
“Yeah,” laughs the missing link, “it looks to me you’re raising the ante with this new obsession of your.”
“You mean all my little jingly things,” says the pin cushion, setting off a tintinnabulation against the harsher metronome of windshield wipers with every movement of her head.
“It’s hard enough for the average woman to get ready for work,” our sleuth’s helpmeet adds, “let alone encourage them to dress like you.”
“I’m not encouraging anyone to go to work.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“How they dress is their choice. Besides, I don’t put all this on everyday, only a corset and a pair of heels, which is part of my daily workout. And like I said, I enjoy working within the confines of a restricted space. I’ve come to enjoy a certain amount of bondage, using materials that envelope me and force me to be creative when I move.”
“Like Houdini,” posits the time traveler.
“Yeah, like Houdini, only I don’t want to escape. I already did that. And I hang my chains and use latex instead. And I do like the potential all my piercings give me.”
“But why promote your hobby like a commodity,” the persistent ape asks.
“It’s not a hobby: it’s a way of life. Even Adolf doesn’t understand that because for him it’s about money. But tell me, don’t we keep upping the ante in everything we do, why would my interests be different? Isn’t it our nature to grow lax in our appreciation of what is around us. We sent people to the Moon and lost interest before the exploration was over. To the Moon! The most amazing adventure and we got bored. That’s why I need the prick of a needle. It tells me I’m alive. And if what I do to my body makes me feel aware that I am alive, why should I stop, or limit myself. As long as I don’t hurt anyone. The important thing is to change.”
“But what if you’re encouraging a young girl to hate her body, to hurt herself changing it,” wonders the worried teacher.
“How can I prevent that?”
“You have daughters.”
“I’m not interested in what others do,” snaps the queen of Nadir.
“But you want them to adore you.”
“Yes, the way they adore anything they love. I’m a commodity. I don’t deny it. But I’m the most valuable commodity on my shelf.”
“No. You’re not a commodity, you’re a person! You said you had a choice,” replies the liberated helpmeet.
“Are you kidding! Yeah, I have a choice, a personal choice. But why did I make those choices. Because I was withdrawn and shy? Because I was ugly and hated myself, who knows? Once I made the turn off that road, I felt propelled.”
The wipers sweep the melting snow from the bleary glass, smearing the lights ahead. No one says anything.
“Well, that was honest,” sighs the teacher.
“John used to talk about the arc of civilization. He didn’t mean an arc on a timeline but a kind of parabolic spiral where epochs in history, including our own, resemble one another because humans repeat the same errors, again and again as time unfolds.
“Gambista Vico,” notes Vellum, mentally weighing the known contents in his plastic bag to the unknown contents in Laoula’s.
“He said the high points of our civilizations, like the Golden Age of the Greeks and the Italian Renaissance, were actually the highest points of delusion, where we all felt important, drawing on the image of god as the human model. He said with every descent the illusions disappear and we begin to look at each other realistically, not in the likeness of an ideal but as commodities. Since we see everything that way, the world around us, and all the world’s living things, we treat ourselves that way, as something replaceable. Nothing is sacred. From the cosmic level it’s a fair estimate of what we are, a composition of elements.”
“Do you really feel that the Medici considered the lower classes created in the image of god,” asks the youthful time traveler.
“I don’t know, I only know what makes me feel good and that’s better than feeling like shit.”
“But no one is satisfied with their body, there’s always something wrong. I just had to accept who I am, and hope that my daughter can do the same,” says Cass slowly, warily.
“I was playing a house frau, but didn’t know it, didn’t realize I was putty. My husband molded me in the likeness of his own ideas. That made me feel like shit. Only I thought this loathing was normal. When I arrived in Nadir, I was molded in the likeness of Salambo’s vision, but it was a vision I chose for myself because I was still hiding. No one chose it for me. And that was liberating.”
“Were you Samantha,” asks Vellum dreamily.
“I created her. What you saw that night was me, everywhere, in an earlier version.”
“But on stage, you didn’t look like Samantha. You were glowing. . , you were different.”
“I was Judy by then. But it takes time for others to see something is new. Everyone was Samantha, everyone but me. Those who are seeing it and are able, can evolve with me. But to be like me means to work hard, daily, training the body to conform to my standard.”
“So you want everyone to be like you, to look like you, to dress like you.”
“I’m an exhibitionist, I enjoy people looking at me. I want to share my discoveries with the world. I used to hide under my clothes, the apron of the housewife, now I thrive in the sun light of people’s desire. I’d say that’s my freedom of expression. Believe me, people will someday clutter their bodies with all their life possessions, just the way we clutter our rooms with stuff. We are materialists. We get bored. Insensitive. We need more. Why shouldn’t I inflate my lips like inner tubes or reshape my ears like putty? I’m now considering all of these,” says the butterfly, touching her ear wings with her extravagant, orange fingers nails.
“Would these changes be permanent,” asks Vellum fascinated.
“Why not? Big oversized lips. Pointy ears. At first I thought this stuff looked bizarre. I said I would never do that. But there was a time when I would never have conceived of augmentation,” she smiles, rubbing the fleece coat covering her chest, “or needle and ink, let alone pierced ears. Who defines beauty? Each of us.”
“But can you ever return?”
“Return where? Why? Like you, I’m an artist. Only my body is my medium. And it will take me where it will. Like I said, where there’s pain there’s pleasure. One day in Washington Square Park during my workout I sat with a woman who really got off on these crazy almost full-thigh ballet boots I was breaking in. When she talked I noticed something interesting about her tongue. When I asked her, she told me she had her tongue cut in half. She described the pain, then the difficulty she had leaning how to talk again and use her tongues to eat and kiss. But I liked the way it looked.” To emphasize her story, her tongue quickly darts out, splits in two, wrapping around her lip spikes. “She was right, it was difficult at first. I couldn’t talk or eat for a week and I drooled for days. Really disgusting and I had to carry a box of tissues everywhere. My decorator had warned me I’d have to work hard to get control of both sides of the tongue. He said it was easier for younger people. I told him I could do it and I did have to work hard at it. Luckily he advised me to pierce my tongue first, which would help form scar tissue and prevent the tongue halves from rejoining as it heals. He suggested a four gauge dumbbell which I inserted two inches back – I wanted a long split. I wore the stud for a year, my gleaming secret inside my mouth, then had the split,” she says, twisting her tongue tips around each other. “I’m thrilled by change.”
“The artists of the Medici defined beauty.” the time traveler again muses, “It seems the only epochs we value and forgive for their cruelty to other life forms, are those that produce great art. If your sacrifice to your art is remembered, maybe we’ll all be forgiven.”
“Forgiven what? What difference does it make in the cosmic realm? No one will remember me. In these small cosmetic changes, I am in control. I’m here to please myself.”
“You’re honest, I give you that. But are you pleased when everyone wants to look like you,” questions the teacher earnestly.
“Of course I am!”
“What about your daughters. Do you want them to follow your path?”
“They’ll have to follow their own path.”
“Or your husband’s.”
“That would be unfortunate. I’m useful only to those, uncomfortable with themselves, who are searching for something different, something dramatic. I wanted to look like the woman who was queen of Nadir when I arrived. I knew nothing. I was unconfident. For the unconfident, I’m a way, a path toward change. If someone discovers a new identity where they can thrive, then isn’t that wonderful? What would I have become had I not discovered Nadir? I’ve met people, who’ve guided me through their own minds. They’ve shown me the full potential of my imagination.”
“Like how to dress.”
“Yes, like how to dress. How decorate my body. But also about what they liked and disliked, their views of the world, so many views, views so different from that of a Long Island housewife. I hated myself. Now I’m in love with who I am. Another artist friend recently invited me to a body art festival. I’d never imagined this kind of thing was going on. With an airbrush and stencils he and his assistants tinted me purple, my favorite color, then elaborated from head to toe on the theme of my tree. My jewelry was color coordinated and my tree of enlightenment became absolutely gothic. That night all the models came out on the stage, one by one, where we danced down the aisle to live music, our skins glowing in the dark. I was the oldest women on stage, but my body was perfect and I felt eternally young. We won first prize! And a new door has opened for me. The airbrush tickles and I prefer the prick of needles, but paint, like stenciling with ink and needle, adds a whole new dimension to my wardrobe. Who needs a latex dress,” she laughs wickedly, “when I can wear latex paint! I am the measure of who I am, not anyone else. And who’s to stop me, my abductor?”
“Well, you represent yourself well, Judy,” said the gorilla. You’d fit into the Chain, where everyone works toward individuality. But it’s this need for followers that makes you dangerous, like you want revenge on all those who kept you from your self-revelation. You’re with The Group. You’re the axis on which their Standard’s campaign pivots.”
“I’m not with the Group.”
“They back you.”
“Dirty old men, like Thom here, getting turned on when you tie yourself all up in your latex,” helpmeet lashes out. “And how about Blotter?” she continues, pulling Blotter’s card out of her purse, “He told us he represents you but it says here he’s the president of Standardized Testing.”
“Blotter,” says the hairy biped authoritatively, “is many things to many people but essentially he is The Standard. He’s building her up to be the new Barbie.”
“An extreme Barbie,” Judy says, teasing her long thick dread with her finger nails. “The kids love me.”
“The doll?”
“I kidnapped her,” asserted Morales.
“I can see that!”
“I mean the doll, the original doll. Advertising needs a standard it can use to cajole us into buying the products associated with the standard. It’s like our campaign against the homeless terror. Keep everybody on edge and a majority of people give the government more power, to keep the peace at all cost. Of course shopping fits into that.”
“And getting turned on by me,” she says softly, “keeps everybody busy. As they say idle hands are the devil’s playground.”
“You’re right there,” laughs the hairy king.
TV feels the tightly knit pincushion leaning heavily against him as they come around a corner. He admires Morales’ solid determination to carry this project off. She is looking Cass over.
“I like that jacket,” she says agreeably, “You look like a fruit tree in a Macy’s window.”
“I didn’t know they had fruit trees in Macy’s windows.”
“It’s a compliment. . . Where did you get it?”
“My outfit’s too sedate for you.”
“Anthony,” shouts TV, the sleuth, “make a left. Stop here!”
Thom opens the door.
“Where are you going?” asks Cass, his wife, startled. “It’s freezing.”
“Whatever happened to Thanksgiving?” wonders Judy, nostalgically.
“Lift up a little,” pines Thom, pleadingly.
The writer leaps from the cab, as if from the open door of an airplane, his madras jacket aflutter. He runs into the wind-driven snow to a nearby bus stop kiosk, where he looks for a way to open the ad-wall on the kiosk. Judy bends forward and unbuckles the strap of one of her shoes and begins unraveling the red laces.
“You’re not dressed properly,” the singer announces, as she slips off her ballet heel.
The teacher looks over at the singer and just shakes her head.
“I’m cold but my vanity always keeps me warm with excitement,” smiles the hobbled diva, “don’t you remember feeling that way when you were a teenager?”
“Yeah, after that I grew up. No boy was worth catching pneumonia.”
“Try this,” advises the spiky diva, when Thom returns dejected and empty handed.
She leans over Cass and hands him her strange spike heel through the truck window.
“Like what! He’s supposed to use that like a pick axe?” responds the cautious teacher.
“Why not?” responds the dangerous diva.
He stands there, the engine idling, the wipers sweeping, holding the green boot with yellow eyes and red lips, reminding him of the hound heads along the margins in the Book of Kells, that mystical book he’d once seen on a pedestal at Trinity College in Dublin. For one moment his thoughts drift through the story of Cinderella. . .
“Tom, for Christ’s sake, get done with it,” shouts his helpmeet, winding up the window.
He returns to the present, then turns on his heel. With one deft hammer he punches a hole through the glass.
“He may keep that thing for his grab bag,” laughs Cass, maliciously.
From this he’s able to kick the rest of the glass free enough to liberate his face from the bus stop wall. With a tattered sheet in hand, the breathless youth returns to the waiting truck. The snow is coming down in thick flakes now. The whirlwind around the high incandescent street lights is transforming a metropolis of shops and stock exchanges into a radiant fairytale city.
“More evidence, Thom?” hisses the irritated wife. “Not enough goodies in your plastic bag?”
“It’s my wanted poster,” replies the unsuspecting husband.
“Evidence of what?” asks the innocent singer, a possible interloper, as he reluctantly returns her shoe.
“Of your existence,” responds the wife quickly, lifting her husband’s plastic bag before he can prevent her. “You seem to verify his own.”
The home-breaker laughs as she struggles to slip into her boot.
“Even the famous TV. I’m flattered.”
Thom looks at her.
“Why didn’t you marry Lazuili instead?”
The question, coming without the support of any earlier reference, stops her. She sits up and drops her hands limp in her lap and stares at the famous writer in bewilderment. Seeing her difficulty, Thom bends over between helpmeet and diva and helps her slip the shoe on.
“Oh god,” says helpmeet.
“Get the side zipper, it’s easier.”
“I’m amazed it fits,” he states incredulous.
“I’ll get the straps, so your wife doesn’t kill you.”
“Thom, remember the hill in back of the Riley house, where we sledded in the dark after dinner? Nights just like this.”
“He remembers the wood pile,” adds the vengeful wife, turning her anger on curious G.
“The wood pile! Not the wood pile, Thom?” exclaims the beastly boyhood friend.
“She’s my wife,” admits an embarrassed husband, looking angrily at the now smiling wife.
“Wood pile?” enquires the tintinnabulator deadpan. “Sounds like the place where I wished I’d lost my virginity.”
Everyone looks at her. Then the beastly school friend laughs out loud. He tells her about the sacred stash of porn magazines he and friend Thom found as kids behind a neighbor’s woodpile.
“Figures,” says she, with candor, turning on the radio. “Blotter said they’d be playing my music.”
“Aren’t you afraid of hooking yourself with those things on your ears?” asks the innocent wife.
The winged creature, fiddling with the tuner, races through static and talk shows initiating a nightmare of voices only to find one station playing music: “He took a hundred pounds of clay and he created woman for you and me.”
“That song puts you and me in the same category,” the philosophic singer states, looking at the wifely English teacher. “As for these,” she continues, taking her long orange nails and gently touching the edges of her elaborate ear fins, “I do have to be careful. Don’t you think they give me that out-of-this-world look? On the other hand I’m having my ears surgically shaped. I’ve been sketching some ideas.”
The white walls of snow dissolving beyond the beams of light isolates the box truck from the world; the truck cab isolates the crew from the snow and now the olden goldie isolates each of them in their own thoughts. But moments later, the song is interrupted by a newscaster. “The President has just announced that the invasion of Refugium has begun. ‘It is my intention as Commander in Chief to protect our freedom-loving country of decent, hard-working people from this renegade nation whose sole aim is to destroy our way of life. . .’ According to sources in the White House conclusive evidence recently surfaced when the Standards Group running a global statistic collation program discovered that the average person in Refugium makes roughly ten dollars a year. Only one percent of the population own their own homes. Here, according to a government official, is the crux and danger to our way of life. Homeless societies do not make good consumer-based democracies.”
“That son of a bitch Blotter promised me a radio blitz kickoff tonight for my CD.”
“What invasion?”
“The same music I heard you sing at The Nadir.” said Vellum transfixed by all the voices but seeing the strange shoe in his mind’s eye.
“Yeah.”
“In the beginning,” says oblivious Anthony, “She was sacred. Not my beginning, but the very beginning. But over time she became a commodity.”
“. . .According to all sources this pre-emptive attack is going according to plan. Eye witnesses describe streams of refugees who claim their homes were destroyed by falling bombs, but officials in the White House claim these rumors are unsubstantiated. ‘These are lies,’ said the Secretary of Defense, ‘floated by a sophisticated enemy experienced in the art of propaganda.’ He claimed that ‘the application of surgically applied smart bombs from supersonic automated predators operated at 30,000 feet by specialists at Vandenberg airbase in California were strictly softening enemy targets in the capitol city of Babel.’ When asked about the loss of American lives, the Vice President told the press, ‘War is never pretty.’ The President, who prides himself in being just another everyday guy, felt ‘it was the duty of everyone to give something to keep our nation free.’ He quoted a former presidential icon, ‘Ask not what’s in it for you but what’s in it for your country.’ He then turned the discussion over to his military advisers. General Reason of the Joint Chiefs of Staff assured those present, ‘That because of our sophisticated technology few of our brave men and women were actually involved in this stage’ of what now is being called Project Buy-A-House. ‘Project Buy-A-House is homegrown,’ added the President, ‘made in the US of A.’ ‘Certainly no homeowners have been killed,’ added the Vice-President. ‘He doesn’t beat around the bush,’ kidded the President. Reason said, ‘Unmanned robotics units are spearheading the invasion on the ground.’ ‘If we can put people on the moon,’ added the President in a jocular tone, ‘why can’t we put a democracy in a foreign country.’ On the hill members from both parties took a moment to stand in unison and applaud the President in his judicious application of power during these grave times.”
“And that’s why we stole Barbie,” concludes the Gorrilla, as he weaves his way through the city on this snowy night, oblivious of the radio. “And that’s why we have taken you, Judy.”
“What are they talking about?”
“Who are you talking to?”
“What are we doing.”
“And where are we going?”
“Do you think anyone is following us?”
“Maybe.”
“Hold on!” cried Cass, looking more closely at the gorilla, “That’s a big stretch there isn’t it, from the goddess to a Barbie doll?”
“This just in. It’s now confirmed Eddie Ammonia, the chief operating officer of the Administration for the Revolutionary Council of the Homeless, otherwise known as the notorious ARCH gang, who recently escaped from Camp Bentham, has entered the country. The threat to our national security is greater than previously estimated. It has become widely know among security analysts that ARCH is a front for the Central Committee for the Homeless of the World, a secret organization advocating worldwide anarchy to further the cause of homelessness.”
“How did Eddie become the center of a worldwide movement?”
“. . . whose motto is ‘Home is just another name for nowhere else to go’. . .”
“What happened to me? I was there. And I’m not even credited for locating him.”
“You’re talking like a Judas, Thom. I thought he was your friend.”
“You’re right, Cass. You’re always right. They are my friends. I just never imagined all this was going on beneath my nose. No one under the Arch seemed much interested in anything but the next meal.”
“It’s always about you.”
“It’s always about us! And tonight was to be my debut? This was going to put me on the same map he’s on.”
“So Thom, who is this guy Ammonia? Is he for or against Universal Standards.”
“Raymond had to have been the one to set that up.”
“The Standards?”
“Her radio debut.”
“I want to know where we’re going?”
“You must be freezing in that jacket.”
“About this Ammonia. . ?”
“I am freezing.”
“Me, too, my jewelry’s sending cold chills through my skin.”
“I’m sorry about the heater .”
“You make it sound erotic.”
“I guess we knew a war was coming with all the talk, but a snow storm?”
“In a way, as long as I don’t get frostbite.”
“Raymond lives near here.”
“So let’s go to Raymond’s.”
“All roads lead to Raymond’s.”
“Yeah, yeah.”
“Make a left!”
“And now to our correspondent in Washington, Samantha?”
“Thank you, Harry. . .”
“Harry and Samantha?”
“Friends of yours?”
“. . . speculation turns to fact. It is becoming more obvious to those of us waiting here in the black and blue room of the White House that we are in this for the long haul. The President is about to reappear with his Cabinet and the Vice-President. They will be sitting around the great conference table with portraits of presidents on the walls and coffee served from silver urns. The Chief of Staff, who by the way, used to manage the ‘70s rock band The Bottles before becoming a minister in the Whole World Church of the Crucified Christ, feels that being accustomed to the sit-com, we and our viewers will find this setting comforting. The President is now entering from stage left wearing his special leather flight jacket. He is followed by his Cabinet as well as select members of both houses. They are taking their seats, the President is asking who would like some coffee. The Vice-President likes it black, the new cabinet member for Homeland Protection is asking for half and half. Some pleasantries are spoken, and now the Press Secretary is stepping forward to the edge of the stage. ‘Ladies and gentlemen of the press, our President.’ The President is sitting back on two legs of his chair and has placed his cowboy boots on the table. Those of you old enough might recall this emblematic moment in the movie Giant and now the President: ‘My fellow homeowners across this great land, a nation of homeless refugees endangers our survival and is a direct threat to our national security. I needn’t tell you that Weapons of Mass Deceit in the hands of the wrong people spells the end of society as we know it. Homelessness has no borders. Its movements are secretive. Tonight, to protect ourselves from certain annihilation should these conditions continue to exist, I have authorized our new department of Homeland Protection to detain anyone who appears to be homeless. I am asking all freedom-loving citizens to return home at sunset and stay there. Do not go out. Mark your door with an X using silver sticky tape. This will instruct our enforcement officers in their efforts to maintain the peace to bypass your house. Buying sticky tape also helps the economy. As you know, the Vice-President was once president of this company and he assures me that the product will stand up to time. In Refugium we are already using this tape to help rebuild the infrastructure torn down by the marauding refugees. For your own safety, do not go out. Anyone found outside after dark will be picked up. Stay at home. Authorized delivery services run by corporate leaders like those you see around this table can bring you your entertainment. Stay at home, watch movies, follow the news, listen to music, enjoy yourselves. Nothing in our economic democracy has changed. Order online. Pick up your phone now and dial your favorite restaurant.’ The president has picked up the executive phone. ‘It’s a great night for takeout. . . Yes hello, this is the White House, I’d like to order ten large pizzas, all the toppings, thank you. . . Those without homes, with no place to go, will be arrested.”
“What about renters?”
“Most of us still are.”
“Are rentals considered homes anymore?”
“Samantha, what is the general opinion in Washington? Are these new measures a reaction to Eddie Ammonia’s escape?”
“Will somebody tell me who Eddie Ammonia is?”
“He just escaped.”
“It’s all in here, how he did it.”
“In where?”
“My magazine!”
“ I know I ruined it, but it’s all in here, I must have written the article over a month ago.”
“So now you are claiming to have written it!”
“Well, I got paid for it, didn’t I?”
“It’s hard to say, Harry, the creation and deployment of Homeland Protection shows a great deal of forethought. No doubt the President and his cabinet realized the possibilities of such an occurrence and its repercussions.”
“Come on, this is such bullshit!”
“It can’t be Harry from The Nadir. He was a chemist. Maybe it’s your brother, after all.”
“You are crazy!”
“They were fans of Judy, but they looked like Judy when she was Samantha.”
“Wait until they see my new improved model.”
“I still can’t understand how Eddie did it?”
“Did what? Why can’t someone tell me?”
“Become so big, so important, and right under my nose.”
“And now a word from our sponsor.”
“We here at Sticky Tape are happy to be of service to our country and look forward to providing everyone with enough tape to fulfill all your household needs. We also offer a variety of other products that might be of use during this time of crisis. Please check with your local dealers or go to our online store. And be sure to buy our new camouflage sticky tape!”
“We shouldn’t be wandering the streets, not with Homeland picking up everybody who is out.”
“No one is going to stop us, not in weather like this. It’s a bluff.”
“I thought we were going to see Raymond.”
“Do all roads lead to Raymond?”
“The people will not take this lying down.”
“Unless they’re out shopping.”
“On a night like this?”
“Seriously, right now the young people are mobilizing.”
“Unless they’re shopping too.”
“On a night like this?”

THE TRUE BUT OFTEN APOCRYPHAL STORY OF THE METAMORPHOSIS OF THOMAS VELLUM’S BEARD, PART II:2

II:2 When he shows Cass the article she thinks it’s funny. Then without actually reading it, she begins paging through the magazine.
“That’s me, for Christ sake.”
“That’s stretching it, don’t you think? ”
She glances at an article about Martha Stalwart.
“You know,” she continues, “if I had known you would take my magazine I wouldn’t have given it to you. I hadn’t finished it.”
She starts reading the Stalwart piece.
“I can’t let you have that magazine.”
“You can’t let me have my magazine?”
“It’s my only clue.”
“What are you talking about, clue? What, this story about a guy who shaves his beard? You have to be crazy. Don’t go off the deep end like you did the last time.”
“Deep end, is it? What came out of the deep end was fame and fortune.”
“It always gets down to this!”
“But it’s true,” he reiterates.
“Like fame and fortune are things you relish. About the only things you, or I for that matter, have gotten out of all this fame and fortune is a new kitchen, pleas for help from third world nations and non-profit foundations, a rich financial planner and a bank account that embarrasses us. We still don’t own a car, not even a dish washer!”
“Ok, point well taken.”
“Now tell me, anyone who shaves off his beard is copying you?”
“No, obviously not. But it’s the method of shaving off the beard piecemeal that makes it mine.”
“What? You own a patent on a method of shaving?”
“No.”
“You know my brother was way ahead of you in this. He cut off his beard piecemeal. That’s right. Harry started off looking like Rasputin and ended up looking like D’Artagnan.”
“Your brother?”
“That’s right. Maybe you need professional help.”
When he mulls over this coincidence he is struck by a new thought. Is he just one of the common herd? It’s like looking into the funny mirror in the circus fun house and seeing thousands and thousands of fractured selves looking at him, laughing when he laughs. He would rather die an individual than be stalked by a serial killer chasing down every bearded man who follows the Vellum shaving method. Besides, how can he be sure her brother had shaved? Even if he asked him, he might lie. A cabal. Maybe her brother was the writer.
“Is the ending coincidence. . . or prophesy?”
“What ending?” she asks.
“I am. . . I mean the bearded guy is killed.”
“For Christ sake, Thom, it’s fiction! You of all people should understand that. You write fiction, right?”
“Not exactly. My work is true. My stories are prophetic. Jeremiah was never doubted.”
Cassandra stands mouth open. What did she expect? Her husband’s obdurate insistence on the veracity of his work precluded any further movement toward an agreement. So she returns to her article. Martha Stalwart at least is dependable; no one believes her product was the work of a single hand but the result of consultations with experts. But so what? With Martha you got a tangible end. Seeing that he has lost her, TV shoves the postcard under her eyes.
“I saw her in The Nadir.”
“Is that a strip joint?” she asked cuttingly.
“She’s a singer.”
“So what? She must be up and coming,” she says with an irritated voice.
Again she resumes her reading. He shoved the fake money he pocketed the night of the Halloween parade under her eyes.
“You’re certainly building up a nice picture collection, a singer!” she says dryly.
“Yep, same woman,” replies an oblivious Vellum. “This guy was handing these out the night of the parade.”
“Next you’ll be wanting to share your magazine collection with me. It doesn’t interest me.”
“Cass, you know me! This isn’t my collection. This is. . . this is evidence.”
“Evidence of what!”
Vellum shrugs.
“It corroborates the story in my magazine.”
“My magazine,” she asserts.
“But these pictures prove that this story happened in the real world. She’s in the story. This money is described in the story. It’s not just a fiction.”
“That, Thom, is called cross-referencing. Fast food, radio and television as well as film, they all do it. It’s about advertising, an advertising blitz to disseminate an image through as many agencies as possible, conscious and unconscious manipulation.”
He is surprised to see how well informed she is in all these matters.
“This happens with children’s books. A book about dragons and wizards becomes a movie about a dragons and wizards, and out comes dragon and wizard themes, ad infinitum, interviews with author and director, toys of dragons and wizards, colognes smelling of reptiles! You, of all people, should know this!”
According to Cassandra, all that he has witnessed during the last few weeks is simply an advertising campaign that is now successively sustaining his own excessive paranoia.
“Open a magazine,” she continues, raising her Metropolis up to him, the scent of musk permeating the air around his face, “it’s all about the pitch!”
“You sound like Raymond.”
“Everybody knows this,” she says quickly, defensively.
“How long has your brother, Harry, been out of work?”
Cass is struggling to finish the first page of the Martha Stalwart story. Now we all agree that Martha created her entire business around her image. Unlike an actress whose primary product is her role in films, Stalwart segued her image into an array of products from information to actual goods. TV sees that Cass’s patience has become thin ice.
“Why do you ask?”
“I was just wondering what an out-of-work historian does?”
“Look for work.”
“Like at the college level, a professor of history, right?”
“Please, let me finish. Can’t I have one leisure moment. . . I take that back. I just need a moment to recoup from school.”
“Right, understood. It’s just that an out-of-work historian might take up writing, right? I mean history is one long story. . .”
“Frankly, I don’t know if Harry is writing history right now.”
She rises and leaves the room, The Metropolis in hand. Thomas watches the magazine disappear into their bedroom.
If Harry had written this story, had he anticipated Vellum’s own protracted shave? Or is TV the plagiarizer, following a script his brother-in-law had written? Of course TV had shaved off his beard before he was even aware of his brother-in-law’s script. Quite possibly Harry had read The Metropolis story, then told his sister that he too had once shaved piecemeal. Nonetheless, the magazine story was still a projection of events in TV’s life. It is imperative he find the writer. For now he will keep Harry as a suspect in the back of his mind. Harry would have had fun writing himself into The Nadir scene, where all the male customers, becoming infected with the Harry virus, begin to look like him – not that Harry of The Nadir looked anything like Harry, the Historian. Harry, the Brother-In-Law is overweight and perspires. But if he is the writer, does he know the killer? Perhaps he is Harry, the Killer. TV finds it difficult imaging Harry as a killer. What would be his motive? Harry, the Unemployed, is jealous of TV’s good fortune. Or, being modest, he is disgusted with his character’s vanity and kills him. Not plausible.
And that would rule out any suspicion of the Chessmen since vanity was a portal to consumer spending. If anything, they would come out of the woodwork to suppress anyone who might damage the engine of material consumption. After all, being unshaven for years and living among the homeless was detrimental to the business of consumption. But kill him? Why not treat him like the prodigal son returning a broken man from his lack-luster life of assumed poverty? In which case they could slap him on the back and blame the whole thing on the eccentricities of the artist. No matter how old, how bad, the artist, like the old rock-and-rollers, is always good for the economy. No matter how adolescent his behavior, the artist, more than ever, is at the forefront of our advertising culture. We only wished, the Chessmen would add as admonishment, you hadn’t experimented with communism, for living in a community of poverty under the St. Clare’s Arch, property paid for by the hard work of taxpayers, is communism. Still, we welcome you back, humbled, into the fold of our Calvinist work ethic. And we see no harm in your quest for a youthful appearance. What could be better for business? And here TV imagines a great pontification, the SS donning the splendid robes of academia to celebrate the discovery of Florida, the result of another explorer’s search for the Fountain Of Youth. Who among us is not a Ponce de Leon? Like birds in migration the elderly fly to Florida to warm the chilled bones and dried skin of northern winters. Tracts on the fabled west coast are still available, but they are going fast, houses going up everyday, they might add. Embracing TV the Chessmen would exclaim, let bygones be bygones. We don’t live in the Inquisition, we don’t expect a recantation, we only ask you write a memoir! Now here the musing stops. Was the story actually a memoir? His memoir? A ghost-written memoir? Following in the footsteps of Galileo, TV describes his fall into the degradation of communism, before seeing the light of resplendent spending, thus saving himself and his country from a fate worse than death, equality over individualism. Impossible! How can one die at the end of one’s own memoir? The Chessmen would kill the bearded TV because he didn’t shave. In the eyes of the killer/writer, vanity was bad. The writer assumed TV was vain, and he was right.
Vellum’s legs suddenly feel tired. He realizes he is pacing back and forth in the living room, his killer still at large.
“If this is all coincidence,” interrupts Thomas, entering the bedroom, lifting up the Barbie, “then where did I get this?”
Cass is sitting on the bed on her side, her head and the magazine she is trying to read both tilted toward the only light in the room, her bedside lamp.
“Is she in the story too?”
“No, actually this doll is not in the story. The main character is not carrying a doll,” he says emphatically as if this is a proof of the story’s unpredictable dimensions. “That means I am one step ahead of the writer! Which means I am one step ahead of the killer. Still I need to check this out in your Metropolis”
“Thom,” she shouts as she stands up, “take it, take the magazine, you win.”
She throws it on the bed and goes into the bathroom. Next thing he hears is the sound of the shower.
When Vellum enters Starks he always hopes for a seat against the back wall. This morning a large beefy man occupies the prize location and is obviously intending to spend the entire day there. What the beefy guy does for a living is beyond TV’s understanding. So Vellum sits in front by the window in the only remaining chair where he feels part of a spectacle. For the last few days TV has carried the magazine, the post card of Judy Crucible, the post card of the oak tree with the poem and the fake money in an old briefcase, believing the leather case legitimized his efforts in rooting out the truth. He left the doll at home fearing the attention it might draw if a Chessman saw him. But the case was awkward to carry and ostentatious. So now he wears an old madras dress jacket which he once sported in high school which is apropos, considering his younger appearance. The jacket has deep pockets where he buries his evidence, excluding his doll. Again he reviews the data. The article is a document, an account of his own experiences. Unfortunately it also makes him doubt his own existence. Is this something he made up, or is he the main character who somebody else made up? The postcard with Judy Crucible tells him to believe the story. But why was the doll left out of the piece? He digs down into his pocket and feels the Crucible money. Perhaps the story was written before he had the doll in his possession. If the writer left the Halloween parade before it was over, how did he pick up TV’s trail later? If TV is the writer, fine, call his state of mind self-doubt; but if someone else has thrown his own life into doubt, that is unacceptable. He wonders if he hasn’t unconsciously read the story, then imagined himself in the role of the protagonist. Was Cass right? We know Cass must protect herself from her husband’s flights. After all, she’s on immunosuppressants and needs to watch her health. But she has always come around to his point of view. They’ve been together too long. Having consumed several cups of strong coffee, he pulls out the Crucible postcard and the money for reassurance. This is evidence that what the story describes happened. And there is the doll. He wants to go home again and look at it to make sure it’s real. That’s silly. Cass suggested the publishers of the story had utilized all the elements in TV’s possession as a sales gimmick. But that’s crazy. After all, this is a weekly publication. He’d never heard of such a thing. Perhaps a book publisher would try something along this line, plant bits and pieces of the story line in public places, subliminal advertising, but a weekly magazine? Not likely. Unless The Metropolis is planning to publish a full-length book in the future. Was this story abridged? Had more happened of which he is not aware? Is he suffering from amnesia? Then he remembers the other card and takes that out again. Tao invariably takes no action. . . here Simplicity, which has not name, is free of desires. He shakes his head. This idea of simplicity seems as remote to him as the idea of a quasar, holding the past within its pulsating breath out on the edges of the universe.
The story depicts a struggle. The Crucible card and currency prove the existence of one side of the struggle: the SS Group. He had yet to find any real evidence of the other group anywhere else but M. The doll, though not mentioned in the story, could be evidence. The ape told him to hold it and squeeze it whenever he thought of Crucible. As for the anagram on the back of the oak tree card? Not conclusive since it could be coincidental. ASS could refer to any number of organizations. How about The Association For Sensitivity Studies? The doll is tangible. The gorilla gave it to him and he is mentioned in the story. But why was Barbie and the Barbie Brigade excluded from local news? Even INQUIRY and INNETNEWS covered the Halloween parade as if nothing unusual had happened. No mention of a struggle. What happened to the CYNow report? The product ads appeared in the background of the photos and video shots but nothing else. One could assume that the SS controls the press, the means of advertising, so they would never publicize anything having to do with ASS. On the other hand, who published The Metropolis? Were they independent enough to publish this story? Or did the editors assume it was fiction? Then it dawns on him. If reality is converted to fiction, the dangers to the ruling powers are muted. It was fiction. If TV had titled his work as a memoir, it would have been believed, then suppressed under the accusation that he had faked it. Turning quickly around, he looks to see if anyone is watching him. No one is, not even the big guy, hunched over his coffee cup stirring his coffee with his spoon again and again.
Aside from Cass and Clio who knew him through all the alterations he had just experienced, this writer is the only other person who seems to know him thoroughly. The writer knows who he is regardless of his disguises. The big guy goes on stirring his coffee. TV turns quickly back to look at the sidewalk and sees someone disappear behind the picture window. He stands abruptly to pursue, knocks his coffee across the table. A busboy, an old gentlemen with white hair, comes quickly to his rescue with a white dish towel.
“Starks saved me, I can save you,” he kindly smiles.
The Metropolis is soaked. Hastily Vellum pulls napkins from the stainless steel dispenser and dries the cover.
“Stick these between the pages,” the old man advises, handing him more napkins.
TV follows his orders. He thanks the man profusely, embarrassed by all this attention and walks to the cashier, stuffing the soggy magazine and the rest of his evidence into his coat pockets. The big man is gone. Well, if the writer/killer had fallen asleep, he must be wide awake with all the racket. Surveying the customers, Vellum nods with a kind of ‘I know you are watching me’ look. He is in a cold sweat. Obviously he can’t speak with anyone he knows with the same sense of impunity he had felt before.
He leaves the coffee shop in a hurry. Near the entrance to the subway station he looks down and discovers wallet-sized, black-and-white cards with pictures of a woman scattered near the steps. He reaches down hurriedly and picks one up, aware that anyone nearby will think he is a pervert squirreling away yet another phone-sex cards. But he forgets his concern in a new wave of sickly worry as he sees that on the pic is a naked, plain woman, her well defined back to the camera, twisting around at the waist to look at him. Her face is shinny, her nose and cheeks uneven, the pores prominent, her chin protruding. She smiles gamely. Under the heels of her flat feet are the words:
WOULD YOU PREFER PLAIN JANE
OR
and here he turns the card over to find his plain Jane staring defiantly out at him. She stands on her toes in black ankle boots with tall steel heels, in glistening black latex leggings, her hands on her waist. The Tree of Good And Evil with its accompanying serpent emanates from the waist band, it’s fruit bearing limbs twisting around her breasts, now the size of cantaloupes. Her nipples are pierced with rings and bound together by a delicate chain of glittering floral beads. Her face still resembles plain Jane, except now her blond hair hangs wildly coiled in Rastafarian dreads, some of which are red. Her ear lobes droop with white porcelain inserts the size of napkin rings. Looped through the outer walls of both nostrils enormous rings of gold shimmer, matched by gold pins with snake heads that emanate from her lips like fangs. She smiles lewdly at him, like a wild bore. Her cheeks are pierced by dozens of hornet shaped studs and gold rings spiral through her eye brows like wire augers in a field of wheat. The inscription
THEN KICK ASS
stretches between her taut legs like the cross beam in the letter A. It is Judy Crucible.
The clouds are rolling in, curling high over the apartment buildings to the south. A wind scatters the remaining yellow elm leaves still hanging on the branches. He rushes home, opening the door, just as the telephone rings.
“Is this Mr. Vellum?”
“Who is this?”
“Mr. Vellum, I have been a fan of your for years. I hold your stories in great esteem. This latest one is incredible. Thank you so much.”
“Excuse me? What story are you referring to?”
“The latest one in The Metropolis.”
“I didn’t. . .”
“Yes, I understand, otherwise you wouldn’t have used the name of Anon.”
“Who is this? Do I know you?”
“Just an admirer, Anon, and adieu.” She hangs up.
Her voice resonates in his ear, touching off a concatenation of memories too vague to settle the question of her identity. Deep and rich, certainly a distillation of all the fabulous voices of women he has seen in film noir. Is it the woman in the long coat in Washington Square Park many alterations ago, the woman seeking a cigarette? He turns in a circle, then takes out the card with the Tao poem. Simplicity. He repeats the word several times. OK, he will wait in the unlit living room for Cass to come home from work. He will seek her advice. The first trepidations of rain strike randomly on the fire escape. He picks up the phone and asks information for the number of The Metropolis Magazine. He waits patiently until the automatic voice recites the number. On the second recital he gets the whole number down on the edge of the first page of the magazine article. The woman answering the phone at The Metropolis refers him to an extension she dials for him. After three rings, another woman answers the line. She won’t reveal the name of the author. He decides to leap.
“Excuse me, but I am the author.”
After a brief pause, the woman on the other end continues.
“Perhaps I don’t understand your question.”
“Please, I am sorry to be so abrupt, but I’m a bit upset. Not more than ten minutes ago a fan called me up on my home phone and congratulated me on my latest story. She was referring to the fiction piece you just published, THE LIE OF THE LAND, you know, an elaborate structure set against a backdrop of radiant leaves falling ever so gently to the ground, a kind of metaphor for the many guises worn by the protagonist before his eventual fall… I naturally denied it. Do you get my drift?”
“Excuse me, but is this Mr. Anon?”
“No, Anon is a pseudonym. You should know that.”
“I’m sorry, but I’ve never talked to you before, all our correspondence has been through e-mail.”
“Yes, of course, but the sudden invasion of my privacy through my home phone set me off. How do you think she got my phone number?”
“We don’t even have it, so I don’t know.”
“And my remuneration?”
“Excuse me?”
“Payment,” he replies irritably, wanting to hasten over this stretch of the conversation.
“One moment. . .”
He is left on the line wondering if she is tracing this call. If he needs to, he will use his real name, a name she would know naturally, and suspend all doubt. After all, Thomas Vellum is already being given credit for this anonymous work.
“Are you still there, Mr. Anon?”
“Yes, yes I am, and you can call me Anon as if it is were – as they say – my Christian name, though I am certainly anything but a Christian.”
“Anon, the check was just mailed out.”
“You misunderstand. I am not asking for my money but whether the information there might have given someone clues as to my real identity.”
“As far as I can see, we have only Anon as your real identity. In fact you never gave us your home address. We only have your P.O. Box address on Varick Street and, of course, your e-mail address. I can’t vouch for your internet provider.”
“I’ll look into that. But as far as you know, no one has called up to praise my work?”
“No.”
“Thank you for your help.”
He hangs up the receiver and sits back, head against a cushion, his eyes closed, listening to the rain outside, the sound of traffic on wet streets. The gentle rain is enough to shake out the remaining color left in the trees, the only reminder of change in the otherwise static world of approaching winter. An unchanging aspect of gray days stretches out before him. Somewhere in February the sun will climb high enough to remind some people that yes, the days are getting longer again. The door opens and a moderately wet Cass steps over the threshold, leaving her open umbrella in the hallway outside.
“Hey, what are you doing sitting in the dark?”
“Just resting…”
“Boy, do I hate the short days.”
“A woman just called me and congratulated me on writing this Metropolis story.”
Cass turns on one of the lamp lights and then returns to the closet where she takes off her jacket.
“Well, did you? Although I can’t see when you would’ve written it, seeing you’ve been out so much.”
She walks into the living room.
“I didn’t write this story.”
She sees the folded copy of the magazine next to her husband.
“What happened to my Metropolis?”
“Cass, listen, I didn’t write this…”
“Yeah, Thom, but what happened to my magazine..?”
“I spilled coffee on it. It will be okay. Please listen. . .”
“So this woman calls you and tells you she’s a fan.”
“Yes.”
“So your identity is out again. You must be looking your age again!”
“This is not funny. I didn’t sign my name to that story. It’s signed by Anon, that’s the author.”
“Anonymous.”
“Exactly.”
“I wouldn’t know, Thom. The story certainly has the characteristics of my TV.”
“Yeah, but that was different.”
“What? You don’t take credit for any of your old work and now you won’t take credit for this new work, but somehow you’re getting the credit. Are they going to pay you?”
“They apparently sent the check to a downtown P.O. Box.”
“Good, our suffering is not in vain!”
“Besides,” he plows on, ignoring her levity, “the old work at least originated on my computer. This story has sprung directly from a magazine.”
“So call the magazine.”
“That’s how I found out I’m getting paid, that is, Anon.”
He pulls out the little card and shows her.
“You actually picked this up? It’s even been stepped on.”
“Look at it.”
She looks at both sides. He nods knowingly.
“What are you nodding at? What am I supposed to see? This lady obviously needs a lot of attention.”
“First of all, there is no phone number.”
“Oh, you know that kind of stuff, great!”
“ASS is Abolish Superficial Standards. Besides the Barbie, this is evidence proving ASS exists. I mean, other than M. That is Crucible’s connection with ASS. The Tao poem was printed by an ASS, but. . .”
“I don’t care!”
Cass looks toward the window where the first bars of light are striking out from behind the curling mountains of gray that had hidden them.
“That’s not true, Thom, I do care. I’m your confederate.”
Later that day the first thing TV notices as he approaches Virtual Wear is the state of the window displays. Men and women, real ones, are working inside the bays removing manikins, painting the interiors, draping materials over furniture props or taking off the garments of those dressed figures he had seen on previous visits. Inside the store a similar fury is in action, as if the seasonal changes that are transforming the world outside over the last month are suddenly working transformations inside the store. Inside this landscape of clothing racks and changing rooms transmutations are occurring in the world of fashion.
It seems years since he last entered Virtual Wear. Workmen are busy setting up dividers and tall ladders for touch-up painting, and in a far corner a green wreath with red ribbon is being hung. The tie and belt racks have disappeared. For a moment he is at a loss. But then he gathers in his focus and marches resolutely to the escalator, looking around to see if he can catch a glimpse of his young salesman. In the prie-dieu room he sees the young man discussing a line of Sari Sermon clothes with a young business man, about thirty-five, who is prematurely balding. As he draws closer to catch the young salesman’s eye he notices he is a week or two into a beard. The man looks up but doesn’t take notice of Vellum though he looks him in the eye. Vellum nods knowingly to which the young man cocks his head questioningly. Seeing he is not recognized, Thomas paces about, stopping abruptly now and then at one of the kneeling stands to glance erratically at the catalogues, pressing the ‘enter’ button to flip the digital pages. Sari, modeling her male line, is sporting the now popular beard. And to his shock he sees that for her women’s collection Sari has been digitally made to resemble Judy Crucible with nose and ear rings. He slams the lid to the laptop down bringing the salesman up short.
“Slipped,” concedes TV timorously.
The young salesman approaches him, apologizing for having kept him waiting. He is
dressed neatly in a gray suit with wide lapels. He asks Vellum if he is interested in anything particular. Vellum is elated. He doesn’t recognize the real me, he thinks.
“I’m looking for someone who was last seen leaving this store wearing a Sari Sermon suit of a black leather jacket and matching jeans tucked into black ankle boots. He was a man about my height, had sideburns and a mustache with a goatee trimmed tight. He carried under his arm a flat rectangular box that held the Sari Sermon suit he wore in.”
“I know who you mean, the guy with the ever-changing beard.”
“Yeah, he. . .” TV studies the young man’s beard.
“Are you a reporter?” the young man asks.
“No, why?”
“Ever since he became my customer lots of guys have been coming into the store telling me they saw this guy somewhere and wanted to dress the way he did. One of those guys told me he was his agent. He told me who the bearded man was, that famous writer, apparently a real eccentric. . . I’m not much of a reader but I’ve seen some of his films; you’ve seen them, starring. . . what’s his name in the lead. The wife is played by that well-known blond actress and the kid is. . , you know.”
We are again compelled to enter the story to say that while we understand the importance of TV, there are many who don’t even remember his name but who are affected, nonetheless, by his work without knowing it.
“His agent came by?”
“Yeah. He opened a house account and bought lots of stuff from the Sari line too. You know, because ‘his boy’ put Sari Sermon on the map. Now Sari wants to meet him.”
“You have to be kidding, wants to meet the agent?”
“No, the famous writer. He was a cool guy. He was kind of going through changes, constantly changing. And each change made him younger, so I was always stepping down the ladder into younger attire to address his latest. . , I don’t know, shaving experiment. What happened to him?”
“Never mind. . ,” replies TV, inveigled into further investigation by the upbeat statements of this admirer. “You say he came in often?”
“Every time he shaved. The first time, he was wearing these really ragged trousers and an old, sweat shirt with a T-shirt underneath. Smelled as if he had been wearing them for days. It had holes in the back, up by the collar. I remember because he hooked his finger into the largest hole to pull the shirt off! I had no idea he was a famous entertainer.”
“Writer.”
“Whatever, I’m just repeating what his agent called him. Anyway, from then on he was like a chameleon, coming in regularly to buy a new set of clothes, taking the old set out with him in the cardboard box you mentioned. I became his personal dresser. He wanted me and no one else. . .”
“Did he confide in you?”
“Sometimes, about his fear of being found out or about some interesting people he had met the day before, or how the women liked him the day before, which surprised him but at the same time gave him the courage to pursue his experiment.”
“You just called it an experiment? He didn’t call it that, did he?”
“No, not actually, but the way he was going about shaving his beard and buying the Sermon line, it seemed he was experimenting. Kind of like adding a little of this to see what will happen, adding a little of that to see if it will change yesterday’s results. He certainly wasn’t worried about money. He paid cash every time, even though that meant we did this song and dance around a cash machine. My supervisor told me rich guys often have strange eccentricities, sometimes illegal, sometimes just outright crazy. . .”
“You think he was crazy?”
“I don’t know. I liked him. He didn’t bother me any. I just mean he could have paid with a credit card or even with a personal check. But he really preferred working it all out just so I wouldn’t know his name. . . So what happened to him?”
“He was killed.”
“Oh my god.” The salesman is seriously startled.
“He was apparently killed in Riverside Park on the evening of. . .” here Vellum takes out his Metropolis folded over to hide its cover and looks at the time, “a month ago, end of October. . .”
This would coincide with Vellum’s final shave. Had he returned to the park? How would anyone have known him without his beard? TV pulls out of his reverie and continues.
“The body of Philip K. . .”
“Was that his name?”
“No, that’s a fictitious name for the sake of record keeping, and to protect any related parties.”
Vellum wonders why his name was changed to Philip? Why not Franz!
“That makes sense.”
“The body of Philip K,” TV continues, “was last seen lying in a tumble of fresh fallen leaves…”
“A tumble?” asks the salesman.
Vellum looks up from the article he is reading and nods.
“Yeah, that’s what it says.”
“Sounds literary, you know what I mean,” comments the young man.
“You’re right,” replies our TV, wondering if ‘in a tumble’ sounded like anything he recognized.
“I mean it’s odd for a report to sound so. . . so, you know, literary. That was my major, literature, before I signed up for business.”
“And you never heard of this writer, this what’s his name?”
“My professor actually turned me off. He had a strict and serious adherence to styles of thrift. I remember my professor telling us that this writer. . . I wish I could remember his name, I’ve never been good with names, anyway I remember him telling us the guy was excessive.”
“Excessive?”
“Yeah, good for film scripts but not for the modern novel. He liked, you know, The Old Man and the Sea.”
TV nods, then continues reading aloud.
“A tumble of leaves under the arch at St. Clare’s at the north end of Riverside Park. . .”
“He was found in the park?”
Vellum reviews the article again.
“Actually, no. He was last seen there in the park. His body was never recovered.”
“Wasn’t recovered. . . You mean he’s missing?”
“Odd isn’t it?” queries TV before going on. “The brightly colored leaves were raked into black plastic bags and taken to the precinct headquarters on 126th Street as evidence. . .”
“The brightly colored leaves. . .” repeats the salesman.
TV looks at the young man for a moment before reading on.
“Because violence has been on the rise among the homeless, they are prime suspects. One Edward Ammonia, leader of the St. Clare’s gang, otherwise called the Arch gang, was brought in for questioning. He claimed to have seen gardeners in the vicinity of the Arch around the time of Philip K’s dormition in the brightly colored leaf pile.”
“Wait.”
TV again patiently pauses.
“‘Dormition in the brightly colored pile…’ really? That was written in the report?”
Vellum looks down at the magazine as if to qualify it. He nods to confirm its veracity.
“But what does that mean?”
“I think that refers to sleep.”
“So how do they know he is dead?” concludes the young man hopefully, stroking his new beard.
“Good question. There are the eye witnesses, of course, who last saw him. . . and of course, the gardeners. The report mentions them again further on, let me see. . ,” he says paging ahead. “Yes, gardeners of foreign descent are being picked up. . .”
“You mean like Mexicans?”
“Aren’t Mexicans landscapers?”
“Is there a difference between gardener and landscaper?”
“I don’t know. I think they are referring to Middle Easterners.”
“I’ve never met a Middle Eastern gardener. I’m sure they are around.”
“Hanging gardens of Babylon, I guess,” our TV says, referring once again to his Metropolis, thinking, Yeah, nobody, just eye-witness reports. And an anonymous author writing down the reports. The perfect crime.
He looks around furtively to see if anyone is watching them. The young man looks around as well, suddenly drawn into the furtive search for an outsider.
“So,” continues TV, “ we need to know if there were any suspicious people you might have noticed during your sessions with the deceased.”
“I wasn’t really paying any attention. What did the eye witnesses say?”
“You mean the group of men living with him communally?”
“I guess.”
Vellum again refers to the document.
“The author of the report doesn’t go into details. In fact,” he continues, absorbed by the evidence as much as the young salesman, “some eye witnesses are calling it a holy experience.
“The dormition?”
“They call it an assumption.”
“Are we talking about the St Clare’s Gang?”
“Yeah. They say he was assumed into heaven. Others claim he was abducted by aliens. Everyone agrees that his belt was the only object that remained at the bottom of a well of light shining down on him from above. When the police asked for the evidence, they told the police they would return the belt if the body of PK was found, but until then they placed the belt in a neoprene reliquary wrapped in plastic bags and were keeping it for the day a shrine was built to commemorate the assumption of PK.”
“No shit, the belt,” exalts the salesman. “He always chose his own belt!”
“According to the INQUIRY,” continues Vellum, “PK’s voice was heard by all the major religions of the world and recorded in the sacred texts of each. All the homeless did agreed that alien abduction was where it’s at in these days of deductive reasoning. However, the CEO of the Arch Gang, Edward Ammonia, claimed, while being interrogated, that K was reincarnated and that he and the reincarnatee spoke at length at a major crossroads, near the town of Emmaus, PA., rated one of the top towns in USA to live in by a leading financial magazine.”
“Sounds like a spiritual happening,” says an awed salesman. “And to think. . .”
“You hit the nail on the head,” affirms TV. “Anyway, this is why I am carrying on this investigation. To see that justice is carried out.”
“You don’t have much to go on.”
“On the contrary, you might say I have too much to go on!” exclaims Vellum in frustration. “This dossier,” he adds, pointing to The Metropolis, “is full.”
“Are you a cop?”
“No, I am not police. . . Let’s say I have a personal interest in this.”
“You know, he seemed drawn to this woman he had met or maybe did not meet but had seen, maybe not even seen, but just heard of, a woman he called. . . I forget. Anyway, she was on his mind the last time I saw him. For whatever it is worth.”
“Thank you. . . thank you. . . If I ever decide to buy something in the way of a new suit or something, I will repay you by looking you up.”
“No prob. We sell that belt, you know.” He is looking straight at TV’s belt. “In fact, that was one of the items he picked out for himself, that belt.”
Vellum feels a cold sweat pouring out of his pores.
“What belt?”
“That belt. The one you are wearing.”
Is the salesman playing with him as he is playing with the salesman? The way everyone plays with each other in these ever tightening gyres of deception? But the ingenuous look on the young man’s face doesn’t seem to cover some knowing intent in the comment.
“You mean he bought a belt like this one.”
“Yeah, whatever. We carry that line of belt, and until recently it was on display downstairs on a rack along with ties.”
“You mean I’m wearing one of the Sari line?”
“No.”
“Oh, ok.”
He writes this information down with an emphatic gesture of great penmanship, right along the margin of his Metropolis article.
“Well, thank you.”
As TV descends the escalator into the large foyer where the work of remodeling is in progress, he is troubled by an inconsistency highlighted by the young salesman – the belt. According to the St. Clare’s gang, the belt is being kept in a reliquary for safe keeping. After Philip K’s assumption the belt possessed a sacred value. On the ground floor of the clothing store customers are scrambling around the ladders. The place seems busier than when he arrived.
It is already dark when he starts walking down toward the Varick Street Post Office. With daylight savings, an entire hour has been lopped off the day, changing the quality of the hour. People are busily walking along the sidewalk in the glow of street lights and window lighting. He hopes the PO is still open as he enters under a scaffolding set up for work being done somewhere above. The place is crowded with students and office workers on their way home, everyone waiting in line for one of the windows. He walks over to the special services window where he waits for a few minutes while the woman in front talks with an official. Somewhere in the back of the PO, he hears the voice of a newscaster: “. . . on the commodities market possibly threatening the price of oil. And today, evangelist Billy Bop had this to say about reports of a new religion. ‘I hear this new faith was born beneath an archway in a park where the homeless live, and I hear these squatters are TV’s disciples. As if the fame and fortune heaped upon him by our fair country wasn’t enough, now this so-called humble artist wants to be a god. Shame on you TV. Folks, do you know the homeless? They don’t believe as you and I do in the stability of the family. They don’t have families. They don’t believe in the home. They don’t have homes. They don’t even believe in the sanctity of possessions. They don’t have possessions. The homeless share their food. They share the same spoon, the same washcloth, that is, when they bother to wash. And when they need money for their liquor and drugs, do they go out and get a job? No, they beg and steal. Is this the foundation of a new religion or of a new disease? Ask yourself where disease is born. It is born in the squalor beneath the arch. My friends, this is not a religion but a virus born up there in New York City to attack our beliefs, to undermine our faith.’”
“Sir?” exclaims a large man with suspenders impatiently, standing on the other side of the glass partition.
“Yes, yes, sorry, what crazy talk.”
“What is?” says the man unctuously.
“Never mind, I’d like to review my contract regarding my Post Office Box.”
“Name?”
“Anon.”
The man waits with his pen in hand looking down at the piece of paper on which he has written A N O N. Now he looks up.
“That’s it?”
“Yeah, I like keeping things simple.”
“Seems the rage.”
He turns and disappears behind a wall of filing boxes. TV now recognizes the voice of the president emanating from the hidden radio which he imagines is on one of filing boxes. “Billy Bop is right. The people must be protected. So I have asked Congress to create a new agency, called Homeland Protection, answerable to me through a new cabinet member.” His voice becomes chummy, like a father, seeking the best results from his troubled children. “When I was a boy I remember playing with Chinese boxes. Inside of one box was a smaller box, and inside that still another, and another inside it down to the smallest little box. This toy reminds me our great nation. I ask you to think of the largest box as our Homeland. We look inside and we find a smaller box. This would be your community, the town where you live. Inside this box is your home. And if we look inside your home we’ll find a smaller box containing your largest possessions, your television, your furniture. Inside this box we discover other boxes right down to the smallest box for your smallest items. The job of this agency is to protect these things which you have worked hard to buy. The agency will also safeguard our freedom of consumer choice, which is an unalienable right. To prevent the agency from becoming a burden to all of us taxpayers, I am establishing a new initiative. The agency will support itself on its own earnings. Shares will be sold on the New York Stock Exchange. Its logo, The Home Within The Home, will be displayed on apparel which we will retail in a chain of stores across the country. Members of the government will be asked to shop there. The Secretary of Homeland Protection will also be the agency’s CEO. This pilot program will help us begin the process of converting our government into a model of efficiency and profit making. Naturally, its product service will specialize in rooting out the homeless terror.” Just the word itself made Vellum shudder. Terror. Fear of the unknown. The big Unknown. The ineffable. The unexplainable. An unexplainable ineffable. An unaccountable inexplainable. Apparently the government had placed a face on the ineffable: the homeless. A spokeswoman for the new agency says, “We are here to ensure the peace and tranquility of every freedom-loving homeowner. We urge those who love their homes to report to their local anti-terror group anything suspicious that might indicate the presence of a terror cell in their communities. If you see an untended package which you didn’t buy, report it.” TV looks around. There are boxes everywhere. Does anyone suspect him? Do any of these young people remember the struggle against communism? One might as well be describing scenes from the Iliad or The Bay of Pigs. And how about the war against cancer? The war against cancer is still being waged as well as the wars against AIDS and Inflation. It seems ages since the clerk disappeared. What is he doing? When he returns he is shaking his head. In times like this we know Vellum likes to reach out to another human, and the clerk looks about his own age.
“It seems the homeless are a threat.”
“It’s just the news, has nothing to do with me,” says the agent apathetically. “You sure we have your name down right?”
“Yeah, why?”
“Because we don’t have anything under the name you gave me.”
Cocking his head to the side, the clerk scrutinizes TV, no doubt trying to place him.
“You’re kidding.”
For the second time that day Vellum is releasing streams of sweaty, nervous energy. Somewhere overhead a helicopter hovers motionless over the city streets, rotors whirling.
“No, but maybe you are.”
The man is obliviously not in the mood for jokes. In a desperate move to improve his credibility Vellum does what he has been struggling for years not to do; in a tone barely audible he gives the man his real name.
“Thomas Vellum,” the man repeats as he writes the words down.
Again he disappears. Now the announcer, echoing from the depths of the post office, is describing the search for the weapons of mass originality that the terrorists are using. The government’s ambassador to the United Nations is going to present their case to the world asking for permission to seek out and destroy all WMOs wherever found. “Anyone,” reiterates the ambassador, “anyone who doesn’t own or lease a home is suspect. If you are traveling because you are homeless, don’t. Buy a home now and settle down. Refugees will not be spared. If you are homeless, you are suspect. Anyone who threatens this nation with weapons such as boycotts will be apprehended.” Emily Hedges of Queens, when asked about the weapons like boycotting chain stores, had this to say: “What’s this world coming to? Imagine not buying anything for a week!” Before the opinion of Hernando Emil of Washington Heights can be aired, the clerk returns with papers.
“OK, that’s better.”
“You’re kidding?”
Vellum is shocked, but then seeing the face of the large man looking back up at him with a troubled look that will brook no further tricks at his expense, he quickly adds with a stream of spontaneity that later makes him feel ingenious.
“I mean I can’t believe I used my real name. Very stupid of me. I like to use Anon in circumstances like this, you know, anonymous. Anon, that’s short for anonymous.”
“Sir, I know that. I also want to remind you that you opened this account just under a month ago, so I can well understand your slip in memory.”
The clerk exaggerates concern. Behind him up above in the back corner a camera on wall bracket is pointed right at Vellum.
“So what did you want to review?”
“Review?” asks our TV, preoccupied with how he must look on an anti-terror Homeland Defense monitor. “Yes, well, may I see the contract?”
“I need some identity.”
Vellum takes out his wallet, glad he hadn’t thrown out all the pertinent IDs when he disappeared three years ago. He produces his driver’s license as well as a defunct library card.
“How about a credit card? I mean what’s good about a library card? It’s not even valid.”
Vellum removes a credit card. The man looks at the numbers and compares them to the ones on the contract.
“Ok,” he says, handing them back, “everything is in order”
Does the post office accept credit cards now? Vellum wonders if the credit card numbers lined up with those used to open this account. How can this be? The man shoves the paper over to TV and then elaborately swings the paper around so he can see it. Yeah, the same credit card number. He notes the P.O. Box number 007. To show the man he is serious, he reads the contract. The calligraphy looks like his but he can’t be sure. His own signature evolves from week to week developing loops and curlicues depending on his mood. Once his credit card had been turned down by a clerk who failed to see the similarity between the card signature and the one he had provided on the receipt. That clerk had been right. There had been no similarity. And the attention given to his name created bedlam in the store as shoppers crowded around him.
“Thank you for your patience. Now I need a key.”
“Lost yours?”
“That is too harsh a word. Misplaced would be more appropriate.”
“It will cost you.”
“How much.”
“$2.50.”
“Are you serious?
“We are not a charitable organization. We have been authorized by the Congress to produce a profit, you know, the days of deficits are over.”
It is TV’s turn to shake his head in disapproval as he once again produced his wallet, this time removing a five.
“You don’t have anything smaller?”
Here TV holds his line, shaking his head in the negative. The man shrugs his shoulders and slowly shuffles off. “Evil,” according to the distant voice on the shelf, “will go through every means to strike fear in our way of life. The Terrorists have an alien view of life. They don’t understand the freedom of choice, the right to choose this facial cream over that facial cream. In fact, they don’t even know what facial cream is. The symbolic gesture of all terrorists is the unruly beard.” Vellum immediately reaches up to touch the beard he no longer sports. As he does he looks up at the camera eye. Then he breathes a sigh of relief. Five minutes later the clerk comes back and places the change and the key on the counter.
“Thank you.”
“And thank you,” the man says. “Enjoy your mail.”
Vellum is sure he has said this sarcastically. When he finds box number 007 he opens it and finds a stack of the SS bills with Judy Crucible and the expected check from The Metropolis. Can a famous man claim identity theft when he himself isn’t sure of who he is?
Aside from his few and possibly inconclusive evidence proving the existence of ASS, Vellum hasn’t seen another sign of the resistance since shaving off his beard, not the yellow truck, nothing. Yet everywhere the SS and their campaign against ASS are evident. He is even finding the salacious material in his mailbox. Wait! This is not his mail box despite all evidence to the contrary. The confusion is building up the way the clouds had earlier in the day, mounting with surety but with no more solidity than the so-called evidence he is accumulating. He had hoped to find the author of the story. The evidence points to him. Since he suspects the author is the killer, he concludes he is the prime suspect responsible for his own death; if not his own death, then his own disappearance. He longs for the good old days when he lived in the future, on the high peaks of Machu Picchu.
As he crosses the street he kicks a coffee container underfoot on which he notices the now familiar image. He picks it up from the gutter and sees a wholesome picture of a family gathered together for this portrait, mother and father and three kids all with smiles on their faces. The mother is Judy Crucible. Slowly turning the cup around he sees Judy again as he had become accustomed to seeing her ever-changing, her breasts larger than before, her waist cinched down tightly, the corset strings behind hanging between her legs like the tail of a horse. Her hips in a g-sting are plumper, her legs whiter, standing apart on her toes in her strange heeled boots. She is holding a dishtowel and a spatula in her hands. TV’s eyes are magnetized by the enormity of her partially visible nipples, where the nipple hoops bear foot long tassels that sparkle. Sparkling tassels hang from rings high on her ears while in the huge holes of her elongated ear lobes, enormous silver disks are embedded. A wire sculpture rises from inserts through both sides of her nose, forming a spiral horn in front of her face. From the upper lip porcelain fangs protrude like miniature tusks. She smiles sweetly at hubby who kneels before her while the kids stare up at her open mouthed. Vellum bursts out laughing, as he stumbles down the stairs like a drunk to the uptown subway. The train doors open. The car is packed with people in gray suits and overcoats, in straight skirts and jackets, everyone carrying briefcases, everyone traveling uptown from the business district. The long, gray coats add to the damp stuffiness inside the car. Here and there someone ignores the confinement and with neatly folded newspaper, reads the One Way Street Journal. True to the universal form of the insular commuter, no one gives any indication they have noticed him as he slips into a newly vacated seat. TV, leaning forward, is clutching the cup, his eyes darting from it to his surroundings. Then on the lower left hand corner of someone’s folded newspaper, not more than twelve inches from his eyes, he glimpses the headline:
THE SUPERFICIAL STANDARD GROUP CONSIDERS CAMPAIGN SUCCESS
The hand above his head shifts the page and Vellum, no longer laughing, begins seriously pursuing the disappearing text until he is on his knees beneath the page. This does draw the attention of those sitting on either side of him who, until then, had gently rocked with the motions of the train, their eyes shut. He nods his head apologetically as he sits back, wondering if he shouldn’t grab the paper and run out the door at the next stop. But luck is with him. At 34th Street a great disembarkation releases a half dozen seats into one of which the reader of the newspaper sits, the article now in full view again and conveniently set at an angle easy to read. The man’s thumb obscures the opening line but from the knuckle on Vellum reads “. . .during a planning session to prepare for the upcoming centennial commemorating the invention of the television to be held at The New World Hotel in ‘07. Adolf Blotter, president of the American Standard Testing System who gave the opening presentation, credited television for helping to translate the language of the motion picture into a world-wide standard, thus preparing the way for our visually connected society vis-à-vis the computer. He confessed that it was ‘his enthrallment with television’ that led him to create the first non-profit enterprise that produces the now universally accepted exams. Standard testing is used at all levels of society from kindergarten to post-graduate and corporate levels to ensure that the providing institutions receive the very best applicants. The striving for perfection of those hoping to further their educations or careers unites everyone by a common theme of acceptable knowledge. ‘No more solid proponent,’ said Mr. Blotter, ‘could be called upon to defend our standards than Plato, father of philosophy.’ He spoke of the success of the Superficial Standards Group, the non-profit organization he chairs, at combating the subversive war being waged against the eternal standards of judgment that help us define success. Blotter referred to the recent Halloween struggle that took place on the Avenue of Americas in the West Village where a non-violent rally by members of the Group was set upon by a gang of Barbies, heavily armed with signs and hair brushes. Later at a press conference, the police chief Arthur Rascul accused the attacking Barbies for actually being debased men. The mayor suggested that the disguised attackers represented a cell of foreign terrorists out to destroy our cherished image of ‘Miss American Pie.’ ‘The next thing these people will want,’ claimed Rascul, ‘is a broader qualification for the sacred institution of marriage!” Mr. Blotter considered the sacrilegious use of an idol cherished by little girls all over this land as regrettable. He asked, ‘Who would do such a thing?’ But he reassured his audience that the Standards Group had matters well under control’ The commemoration ended with Blotter leading the attendees in a rendition of This Land Is Our Land.”
Vellum can hardly contain himself. Here is proof of the struggle, although it seems every effort is being made to diminish the qualifications of the opposing view by either not mentioning its practitioners or by insinuating their crazy character.
Exiting from the subway Vellum walks to the newspaper stand on the corner and buys copies of all the available dailies. But none of them, including another copy of The One Way Street Journal he was reading on the subway, carries the article. At home he goes online and looks up the issues for the last few days but can find no mention of Blotter and the Group.

THE TRUE BUT OFTEN APOCRYPHAL STORY OF THE METAMORPHOSIS OF THOMAS VELLUM’S BEARD, PART II, ATTAINMENT

II:1 We are afraid the tenuous trail we’ve been following turns in on itself. A major piece of evidence in our search for TV went unnoticed. All that we have imagined appeared as a story in a popular quasi-literary magazine enjoyed by many, then promptly was forgotten. Even the movie moguls who use this magazine as a mine for potential films passed it over. What is shocking is that we, who pride ourselves for being TV authorities – after all, when you love something as much as we love TV, you learn everything you can about it – were so interested in finding him, we didn’t register his joke. Naturally he has always denied any connection with his work. So what did we expect?
The following week, the trees and shrubs, to use his own words, “are smoldering with exquisite reds and oranges.” He studies them daily as he walks to Starks Coffee Shop, where, if you remember, he met the first Samantha, who mistook him for Professor Steblen. No one comes up to him for an autograph, no one wants to shake his hand. It is as if the old bearded Vellum has obliterated any memory of his earlier fame. By metamorphosis TV has returned to an earlier self and resumed a place in society as an unknown. As he is passing Eddie Ammonia on this particular morning, unrecognized, he is thinking about generational amnesia. People forget, muses Vellum as he picks up the daily Big Apple Times and The One Way Journal at the stationery store, where in the past he always chatted with the young Pakistani behind the cash register, who now pays him little mind. It’s as if the original TV had never existed. Even he finds this hard to believe. Our memories play tricks. Even with historical evidence in front of us the past is always sinking into the gravity of the present. The data snatchers work in front of their computers as if these ultimate garbage compactors have existed for centuries. He shakes his head in amazement. He sits at a table by the wall, his newspapers spread out in front of him. Every morning the dark clouds of rhetoric rise up from the agitated text beneath the daily headlines as if from the breath of a single disturbed mind. The nation groans with fear. Ominous reports of an upcoming conflict appear. The government hints at dangerous elements living like parasites among us who wield weapons that could alter the way we think. The old bearded Vellum, like Rip Van Winkle, has stirred from his long sleep to discover a world around him changed. Yet, when TV looks around, nothing at all has changed. Students are sitting about drinking expensive coffee, a fashion unheard of in his youth. Laptops as expensive as his first car open onto spread sheets and writing exercises. Outside people are passing by, expensively dressed, warmly attired. His recent experiences seem like a dream.
He folds the newspaper and sets it aside. With an air of contentment he picks up last week’s copy of M which he borrowed from Cassandra. M is short for Metropolis Magazine, also called The Metropolis, a magazine dedicated to literature. He sips his coffee, begins reading a story. The words flow evenly and then gather in momentum until the current pulls him over the edge into a labyrinth of foreign excitement along a route that becomes more and more familiar. He is rushing from word to word, anticipating what follows. The rendition of what is otherwise innocuous is cast in an exciting light, shadows and cabals, spies and counter spies. This is not a trivialized tale of everyday life but more like someone’s dream with its own logic. On the surface, the tale mimics real life. People are awaiting an imminent attack, yet it is the government that is doing the attacking. In this topsy-turvy world, where the fear of being attacked leads to a pre-emptive attack, the story narrows down to specifics, a well-known bearded celebrity, now in his fifties, decides to shave because his beard has whitened. He is afraid people see him as an old man. The protagonist decides to whittle away at his beard piecemeal until he is finally rid of it.
Vellum looks up from the magazine at the coffee machine on the other side of the counter. It’s as if he is standing on the moon looking at earth. Had anyone ever seen the coffee machine in this light, from this distant vantage? The turbulence inside him doesn’t reflect the calm world around him. The counterman is wiping the counter carefully with a towel, as if that is his sole purpose in life. The couple at the table near him are still talking about a planned weekend in Boston. Cass’s magazine has become a looking glass. Could this have happened in someone else’s mind? Or has someone been following him? He looks up. He sees in the self-absorbed looks of those sitting around him the possibility of danger. Is the counterman looking at him? What about the couple? Are they talking about him in that tête-à-tête so artfully overlaid with words about travel?
He reviews the last page he has read. No doubt about it, someone has plagiarized his life, implicating him in a dangerous story. Was it one of his friends? Was it Cass? Or Clio? Clio is capable of this kind of magic. It’s as if someone had entered his home and walked about and looked through his drawers, picked up personal items like a photo of his parents or an old letter from his grandmother and then left. A vandal of the spirit. Of course this isn’t his story entirely, only the superficial aspects. He reads on, mesmerized by the coincidences. Even the Halloween parade is mentioned as well as the secret groups that have materialized only recently in his life. Instead of putting all this behind him, it’s here in front of him. If the author knows all this, is the author aware of what TV is doing now? But this is fiction. The character in the story dies; in fact, he is murdered. A chill envelops him, his forehead wicks a damp heat. The author is someone called Anon. The coward. A short bio describes him as an outsider. Looking up he sees the man in the bowler hat standing outside the picture window looking at him.
Unable to bear the implications of all these ideas, he abruptly rises from his seat and buys another coffee. On the cream and sugar counter he looks at the postcards in the postcard rack. Another look out the window proves the man he thought was a Fruit head is actually a young man in a motorcycle jacket and helmet. Looking down again, the anagram on the top of a postcard catches his eye. SSG is printed boldly across the card. Turning one of the cards over he discovers Judy Crucible, with pancake pose, her arms crossed before her in feigned modesty, her breasts flattened and expanded by her extended arms, her legs, encased in white latex boots, bent to one side, her heeled feet in ballet toes kept close together, her only hidden asset covered by her hands, out of which the Tree of Good and Evil rises in the bright colored pigments of a tattoo artist, a cobra coiled around its trunk looks out at him. Beneath her toes, as she precariously balances on the letters N, is inscribed the plea,
DON’T LET THEM BANISH ME AGAIN
Then he wonders how long he has been staring at the picture. Is anyone watching him? Actually he is just another guy standing by the sales rack. Luckily no one can actually invade his mind and see how he is drawn to this woman, real or imagined. Actually she has invaded his mind like a virus. He remembers the night he picked up the Crucible currency. He fell under its influence. There were guys standing around, just like him. But certain people were immune to its effects. Jack, of course, and Emily. The giant nurse, Sarah. But also her boyfriend and the gorilla. What did they have in common? It was as if they had an antidote that made them immune to her powers, the kindred herb the messenger god gave Odysseus to stem the witchcraft of Circe. Of course not everyone minds being under the power of a beautiful woman. We want to be enslaved. In fact, desire and addiction seem to be the two faces of the same coin. But it is not easy to throw away the coin. We enjoy our sweets. Of course it was the production of sugar that financed the Industrial Revolution and helped mechanize greed. He unveiled that discovery in his last book, but no one cared. Many thought his ideas, which were not really his – he harvested them from the scholarly work of others – as nothing more than detailed elements enhancing an exciting story, one that would translate well onto the big screen. It is possible that this addictive nature of beauty, or whatever it is that is drawing him toward Crucible – she’s certainly not the classic beauty of ancient Greece, Crucible’s face is not beautiful, in fact is anything but beautiful, with all the irregularities of a real person, but in his mind more like the putty he manipulates for his own purpose – is leading him to something else. He is confident he will not disappear forever into The Nadir where that woman from Long Island disappeared. He is not about to leave Cass for another woman. Emily was telling him it was standards, standards in general. He remembers the national initiative to convert our system of measurement to metric to be in sync with world-wide standards. Industry resisted. That was so long ago. Looking again at the image he realizes it has buried itself in every cell of his body. Zillions of viral copies of Crucible are dancing in the very building blocks of his being.
“May I,” asks someone beside him.
He drops the picture on the floor, and in his embarrassment nearly knocks the stand over trying to pick it up causing such a commotion that everyone in the shop stops. It’s Samantha, the architecture student, and none other than the ancient Steblen, her teacher. They wait for him to gather up the small pile he created when he knocked things over. He is about to say hello when they nod politely and step around him to fill their coffee cups with cream from the pitcher on the counter. Meanwhile the activities of the coffee shop resume. He is forgotten. He begins to put the various booklets and cards back into the slots. He notices that Steblen and Samantha look quite cozy together as they sit down at a table in the far corner. Steblen is enjoying the adulation of his pupil. He searches for a slot to place the last card, a decorative photograph of an oak tree canopy illuminated by sunlight streaming through the leaves. Something in the quote beneath the tree catches his eye: ‘Simplicity, which has not name, is free of desires.’ He reads the whole quotation:
Tao invariably takes no action, and yet there is nothing left undone
If kings and barons can keep it, all things will transform spontaneously.
If, after transformation, they should desire to be active,
I would restrain them with simplicity, which has no name.
Simplicity, which has not name, is free of desires.
Being free of desires, it is tranquil.
And the world will be at peace of its own accord.
Free of desires he repeats to himself, turning the card over. He sees the inscription, ASS. He thinks about the dissemination of ideas as he buys the cards. Here is a positive example of the commercialization of everything.

THE TRUE BUT OFTEN APOCRYPHAL STORY OF THE METAMORPHOSIS OF THOMAS VELLUM’S BEARD, PART I:7

I:7 He stripped. Cass was right. He was on the verge of a long-awaited creative spell, he was sure of it. He put on his bathrobe. This time the influential agents of his creativity were all around him here in his own time. He walked down the hall to the bathroom. He turned on the hot water, lathered his face with soap, and with his razor took the blade to his skin, soft as a shorn lamb’s underbelly, and pink with the heat of warm water rinse. Cass was already asleep when he returned to the bedroom. He climbed into bed, having decided that sleep was essential in maintaining his new youthful appearance.
“Seems like years ago. . .” said Cass next morning, eyeing him over a cup of tea as she sat at the kitchen table eating a toasted bagel with apricot jam.
“You mean since you last saw me clean-shaven like this? In other words, you meant to flatter me, that is, you are looking back in time at this quasar of youth, if I may
borrow. . .”
“Whatever.”
“No, tell me what you mean by ‘years ago.’
“It seems like ages since I saw you clean-shaven.”
“Ages. . ?” he asked meditatively, leaning back in his chair.
“A figure of speech,” responded Cass growing impatient again. “Anyway, does this mean you will be hanging out in your own neighborhood?”
“Hadn’t thought about it. Clio and her friend. . .”
“Atah.”
“Yeah, they told me about the fruit heads.”
“Fruit heads?”
“Magritte. You know the fruit wearing the bowler hat?”
The expression on Cassandra’s face grew slack, though she was chewing a bagel.
“The fruit heads are like clones, but they call themselves Pawns, all of them being pieces of a chess…”
“Yeah,” intersected Cass, cutting him off.
“So you know about the Pawns?” asked Thomas with budding enthusiasm.
“Is this where you and she meet up in the future?” asked Cass, resuming her methodical chewing of bagel and jam. “Just seems that the last time you were talking like this, in acronyms and metaphors, we were in for a wild ride.”
TV could see the green mountain fast of Machu Picchu rising from his memory – he’d never been there, only seen it in a figurative sense during the connection when his contact had revealed to him the struggle against greed unfolding in the first half of the 21st century. He wondered if that struggle was beginning. Of course the struggle against greed has been enacted over and over again over the centuries. The great prophets have been calling out against greed’s various manifestations since the beginning of human history.
“Clio told me,” added Cass, looking meditatively at her husband, “the incident at St. Clare’s stirred up this reactionary organization which her student group has been fighting, but she doesn’t understand why.”
“I had no idea how deeply involved she is.”
Cass nodded.
“Anyway. . ,” her voice filled with resignation, “don’t you think they will recognize you now that you’ve shaven?”
“They’re looking for the bearded Vellum. Besides, I look younger now, maybe thirty years younger.”
“That’s pushing it, don’t you think?”
“I suppose, but I figure every thirty years a generational amnesia sets in. The dogma dealers rise up with their bottles of snake oil. . .”
“You’ve told me this a thousand times,” she said exasperated. “Thom, did you ever think that this was just a midlife crisis?”
She set her dish in the sink with rattle and clangor.
Were his motives so transparent? He didn’t deny it; shaving had been an act of vanity. But like so many small events it had started the ball rolling toward greater insights. So yes, he admitted this human foible. She was right, he was no different than anyone else? But had he unwittingly uncovered a grand design behind all vanity?
“You know, Thom,” she said, turning toward him and holding him, “most of us just work for a living, plain ordinary work, mundane lives, and we don’t have time, yes, Time with a big T, for these grand thoughts. Time is time for us and all we want is a little bit of it left over at the end of a work day to relax and forget all the difficulties of the day. I’m one of the lucky ones. I teach so I feel I have a purpose even if it is underrated in our culture. But so many don’t possess that purpose, they just do the work because they need the money.”
“But I’m like you.”
“You used to be.”
“But you’re not just anybody. You’re my Cass.”
“Well, I’m lucky there,” she said pausing with a smile. “But I feel closer to the others, all the others, whose names I will never know. Most of us don’t like the limelight. We just want to live and let live. These struggles don’t begin with us. But we always finish them. I believe in you, in what you stand for, but please, have mercy on all of us.” And she kissed him.
“And if I forget them, you will remind me.”
“Yeah, and Clio.”
“And Clio,” he affirmed.

THE TRUE BUT OFTEN APOCRYPHAL STORY OF THE METAMORPHOSIS OF THOMAS VELLUM’S BEARD, PART I:6

I:6 Though he stood right in front of the mirror looking straight at himself he forgot the subject of his thoughts. He stared straight through his image into a new creation. The sweaty clamoring of his adolescent self was reaching up in confusion. Perhaps the painter, the photographer and the film maker were best equipped at capturing the visible signs of identity. What could a writer ever hope to achieve trying to pin down a face in the crowd to a core of thoughts and emotions below the surface, the essence of change in the adolescent chrysalis? The ruling dictum of the modern world was that a picture is worth a thousand words. The literary critic, Wylie Sypher, called it “the tyranny of the eye.” Perhaps it all began that day when Anthony Morales and he discovered the cache of porn magazines out in the woods behind a neighbor’s house when they were kids. What words could possibly have assisted him in describing what he saw in those magazines and what he felt because of them? The correlation between saying “big tits” and jerking off didn’t tell half the emotional confusion he felt. For a moment Vellum forgot himself and remembered the two of them sitting behind the wood pile, the stacks of weather-worn magazines opened before them, the images of tawdry babes on wrinkled paper firing up the testicular furnace. He went into the bedroom and saw Cass lying on the bed under the blankets, torpid, deeply breathing. He gently shook her.
“What, what… Oh, Thom, what now, what..?”
“I have to tell you all that happened tonight.”
“Tomorrow.”
“Such a strange night. Yet I am closing in on something. But then I forgot what I was trying to do.”
“Hide. You are always hiding, Thom.”
“Yeah, hiding. But these disguises.”
“It was something to do with the white hair.”
“Yes, that’s it, my vanity.”
Next morning he sat in front of the keyboard which had been his time traveling console to fame and searched through himself for any of the tremors he had sensed last night, some leftover signature of the vast unfolding of truth. But there was nothing. Only the black screen and the silence of the world around him. Finding his connection dead after so many years of ignoring it he ran down the eight flight of stairs and out the front door of the building. He crashed into the noisy sounds of the street, the jack hammering of the road workers around the corner on Broadway, and the traffic filing past the safety horses. The fruithead was nowhere to be seen.
On the train downtown, a doll-like woman-girl got on. She was perilously thin, had bleached blond hair set in a style reminiscent of the 50s, a white powdered face to give her a porcelain-like mien with red lips and black eye liner. In tight black cloth gloves she held a single burgundy rose wrapped in clear plastic. Her bellbottom jeans were laced with red thread patterns that wound their way under her obviously fake white Persian lamb mid-thigh coat. A belt was cinched tight around her waist. When he stood to get off she turned to let him off. He could see in her little blood-red purse just the top of a red paperback book, The Castle by Franz Kafka.
He didn’t even wait at the belt and tie rack but headed straight for the escalator to the mezzanine where he entered the prie-dieu room and knelt at one of the stalls, a supplicant. It wasn’t long before his salesman appeared and they worked out the essential gear for this new metamorphosis. He was wearing a black leather jacket and black jeans with black ankle high boots when he entered La Rhetorique. Caving in to consensus he also had bought a Sermon special, a black belt with silver studs. The usual crowd was assembled. There in her usual seat was Marguerite, coldly sophisticated, ever daring. But she didn’t notice him. With her now was some new interest who looked surprisingly like he did. She didn’t recognize him. No one did, no one but the bartender. But then, no one noted the music either, an engineered subliminal sound constructed of lutes and high voices like a high mass celebration derived from a more spiritual time before the church.
“How did you know?”
“Your box,” said the bartender, nodding to Vellum’s box of old clothes. “You never shed your skin and leave it behind. They are like the chapters in your book.”
“My book?”
“Figure of speech.”
Alone, he sipped a tonic and lime. Without really contemplating the force that brought him to this bar, he waited until the bartender presented him with another name, written as before on the back of his coaster: The Chain-Mail. He looked up at the bartender who was then shaking a blended drink in his metal tumbler. The man nodded and TV dropped his bills and left.
The yellow truck was parked in front of the comic book store. An enormous poster of average, middle-aged men and women wearing superhero costumes covered the entire side of the cargo box wall. He stood in the golden afternoon light contemplating the truck and its poster. Up the street the shiny black SUV was parked conspicuously. He walked to the front of the truck and saw the Barbie dolls he had noticed earlier. A group of four and five year-olds approached, accompanied by a woman in her 30s whose attention toward one of the little girls indicated their relationship. They were dressed as multicolored, furry little creatures with huge feet and paws. They carried plastic jack-o-lanterns with green handles. The mother was dressed as a witch in a very short denim shirt with black tights. As they disappeared behind the truck a fruithead bolted from the cross street up to the truck. With a spray can of silver paint he blotted out the faces on the poster, then quickly pasted the faces of glamorous actors and actresses in their place. The silver paint created a resplendent halo around the newly pasted faces. When the trick or treaters appeared at the end of the truck walking north, the vandal walked quickly south without looking back.
Vellum was north of Houston and west of Hudson when he stopped in front of the place. On each side of the door was a trompe l’oeil of a naked man in chains while over the door, held up by their muscular arms, lay a man dressed in a flouncy, pink chiffon dress with painted lips bearing a smirk and a five o’clock shadow, one eye winking. A pounding disco track was reverberating inside. Hesitant, he decided to review his options by first walking west to the end of the block. A former factory right next door had been converted into a hard rock club called CIBL’s. Perhaps he thought this was more than he had bargained for when someone behind him shouted.
“Ohh, you’re just what I needed.”
A young black man in a trench coat with a Dick Tracy hat, took hold of his elbow and with several deft moves turned him around and helped him across the threshold into a red lit foyer.
Once again we interrupt the flow of our story, so we can give substance to the wild theories that prevail regarding TV’s whereabouts. We’ve based our present suppositions on what we’ve culled from the magazines and newspapers, television shows, billboards and internet search engines. Our phone lines have been overwhelmed with TV reports from street corners and restaurant bars. The vanguard of our dragnet, to put this in words TV might use, is our newly launched web page, FOUND AND LOST, where enthusiasts like yourselves can meet to discuss our recent findings. Although every TV sighting ignites a fire of excitement, it requires corroboration. Unfortunately hundreds of bearded imposters, hoping to capitalize on the sudden popularity of the beard, are standing on street corners preaching their own TV gospel. Since no two gospels are alike, each needs review. No sooner have we investigated these possible TVs, when the police arrive, taking these wanna-be TVs in for questioning. We worry that police interest in our investigations is compromising the integrity of TV’s following. Just as the constitution calls for the separation of church and state so we can see the need to understand the difference between entertainment and government. Why TV or his proponents should be hounded because of their appearance is deplorable. There is also a rumor that the government is creating a new agency to combat these frauds. One source, however, claims there is legitimate worry in some circles of the administration that Billy Barbudos, long time leader of Sybaris, is flooding our country with these bearded imposters in an effort to destabilize our way of life. Ironically, as we indicated earlier, we believe TV no longer wears a John Brown beard. At this moment in our narrative, all our leads indicate that TV has entered the heart and soul of ASS. It comes as a shock to us.
“No,” said a resistant Vellum, gripping his box, “I think I was looking for another place.”
“No, no, no, no, not another poor boy looking for Chain Mail. Go on-line,” the young black man directed with an extravagant flick of his hand. “They have a web site, you know. But you don’t have to be like all those cyber freaks sitting beside each other in that little café on East 4th writing to each other. You know they could simply turn to the person next to them to say hello, but no, god forbid, vocalism is taboo! You know, they pretend to be romantics from Lord Byron’s time, writing ever exhaustive letters to one another. Avatars like Charles Babbage, Mary Shelley and Ada Lovelace – I like that name myself! Punch REPLY and simply add your two cents! Please. You belong here.”
A large room expanded before him into infinite space. On one side a long bar stretched into the dim light. All the tables had been pushed against the other wall. The sound was deafening. The room was full of motley crews of men and women, working feverishly on various projects.
“Emily!” shouts his attendant, waving his arm as if he were a long-lost soldier standing on a train platform in a World War II movie.
They walked to a round table where a large woman in her forties in a muumuu dress of classic Marimekko design was stitching a button on a blue sequined dress. Around her, sitting at the table, old women, some of them ancient, some of them round, were hemming dresses, polishing pumps and heels and spraying extravagantly shaped wigs perched on the heads of mannequins.
“Emily, this is. . .” and he looked at TV to fill in the blank.
“Sam. Now I must be going. . .”
“Shhh, darling, I’m Jack. . ,” he said, looking him over. “What do you think, Em. . ? Sam wearing a Sari Sermon outfit.”
“Don’t worry, Sam,” Emily piped, in her womanly voice. “Jack isn’t always this pushy, but he got stood up.”
“I’m desperate, just desperate. My escort can’t be found. And think twice, dears, he’s a Sam too! But you, you’re my angel, Sam.”
Men were powdering their faces at the large mirror above the bar. It reassured Vellum to see at one end of the room a youthful group probably Clio’s age working on papier-mache mannequins.
“We’re setting up for the Halloween parade, Sam,” Emily said, answering Vellum’s unspoken questions. “This is the headquarters for the Barbie Brigade. We’re part of ASS.”
“Excuse me?”
Again he started to leave, hugging his box, but Jack hooked his arm.
“Not so fast, angel. . .”
“I support full equality, but I’m not of your. . . your inclination.”
Jack started laughing.
“ASS stands for Abolish Superficial Standards,” said Emily, quite seriously.
“Standards?” asked Vellum, suddenly needing to sit down.
The noise was unbearable, pounding on his ears. Everyone was shouting, except Emily who seemed to command his attention in a normal volume. He noticed a roll of shimmering blue material, lying on the table.
“You might say that most of us live outside the standard,” said Emily, pulling a thread she held with her teeth.
“Outside the standard,” echoed Vellum, pointing dumbly at the roll of blue fabric.
He felt queasy. Sweat was dripping down his spine. She laughed.
“You might say I don’t fit into that standard. This?” she asked, pointing to the roll.
Vellum nodded.
“No one does, sweetheart!” said Jack irritably, fussing with the pile of flashy trinkets on the table.
“Jay picked this up – Jay’s my husband – over on West 4th Street, the Church of the Holy Grail, that’s our main office,” said Emily. “We needed extra fabric.”
“Hurry, Em, we’re going to be late!” said Jack impatiently.
Towering above everyone, a young woman in a white nurse’s uniform reached over Jack and grabbed a pair of scissors.
“Please, Sarah!” shrieked Jack. “my coif.”
“Pardon, Monsieur Barbarella,” she said, her voice musical and calm.
She curtseyed. Her jet black hair emanated from her head like the remnants of an exploded star and was held in a semblance of order near its center with a brilliant silver diadem. Her face was striking but marred by an ancient outburst of acne.
“Is she French?” queried Vellum, watching her go.
“No more than I’m a woman, dearheart!” piped Jack, stuffing a newly donned brassiere with wads of toilet paper. “And her boyfriend is half her size and head over heals in love with her, his name’s Francis of all things! Can’t imagine what he’s thinking!”
Males and females, tall and short, round and thin had already shed their daily personas for various permutations of Barbie. Many of the women who looked in their forties and fifties, upon donning their costumes, looked exactly like the dolls he had seen on the truck grill.
“Real broads and they’re straight,” intoned Jack, “from the Teaneck Barbie club.”
Thomas was at a loss.
“I for one always wanted to look like Marilyn Monroe,” said Jack, “I love all the pretty paraphernalia! But,” he added superciliously, “just tell me what makes their Barbies better than ours?”
In some cases it was difficult telling one Barbie from another.
“So everybody here is in the Brigade?”
“We’ve also got the students for FSA,” said Emily.
“What’s that?”
“Fat and Skinny Alike,” said she rolling her tummy. “We even got a crazy bunch of gardeners from a small garden in Riverdale.”
Then he noticed something very different, kids mostly in their twenties, who carried small daggers in their ear lobes and myriad rings in their noses. Emily nodded.
“Pierced for God. St. Sebastian is their patron saint. Weird huh? We all belong to ASS. Even cops and vets, anyone who believes in a little creative chaos to advance democracy!”
“So it’s like Barbie’s the Queen?”
“He’s got it!” cried Jack, slapping Thomas on the back.
His arm was laden with bracelets.
“By George he’s got it!”
All around TV a muffled refrain from “My Fair Lady” lifted and fell in susurrus tones before losing itself in the frantic industry of preparation. Emily helped Jack squeeze into the sleek, blue dress.
“It’s not like we’re against pretty women as we know them today,” puffed Emily with safety pins in her mouth. “We just want to see other entities in the currency beside the Barbie Standard.”
“My lord, how you sound!” said Jack, deeply inhaling while Emily patiently made adjustments.
“Hold still, Jack!”
A young woman in her twenties, with long curly dark hair, carrying a box full of walkie-talkies walked by on her way toward the door. She was telling everyone to get ready.
“Her father is the founder of ASS,” Emily nodded.
Two nearly naked muscle men in faux tiger pelts lifted several Barbies onto the bar top. They strutted down the length of the room while the music amped up their gestures. People were hooting and hollering and a lot of whistling was taking place. Vellum felt the energy flowing through him.
“And I thought Barbie was over.”
“Are you kidding?” said Emily, shoving Jack’s breasts over. “With plastic surgery there are more Barbies walking the streets than there were on the counters during the sixties!”
The last of the cardboard signs were taped onto cardboard tubes. Near the restrooms the papier-mache mannequins were completed. Some bore the faces of everyday people, others were in the likeness of famous entertainers. All were naked like the figurines from a Last Judgment painting.
Someone cried, “It was Beauty killed the beast!”
Everyone stopped talking, the music was cut. Suddenly the front door swung open. Jack gave Thom a wink. From the foyer a cough, then a roar. A giant ape stood on the threshold, holding a Barbie in its hand. Someone shrieked. Gently the ape tickled the doll under the chin. A shout of enthusiasm nearly ruptured TV’s ear drums. A few moments of bedlam followed as everyone queued up behind the gorilla. Half the brigade was nearly decapitated as the various posters, signs and mannequins swung about toward some orderly arrangement of exit.
“Remember,” shouted the ape through a handheld megaphone, “do not provoke, do not respond. Your cardboard tubes are to hold your posters.”
Thus the Brigade of men and women began marching out through the door. With an extravagant gesture of floodlight pomp, Jack grabbed Vellum’s hand. Vellum’s initial reaction was to withdraw into the shadows, but destiny had brought him here on the energy of his own new identity. Emily laughed as countless hands pushed and squeezed them all out through the narrow red foyer onto the street. TV had difficulty holding his clothing box and keeping up with the ever-theatrical Jack, pulling and tugging on his hand. A crowd had lined up on the other side of the street behind makeshift barricades. The yellow truck he had seen in front of the comic book store was parked in front, its side panel paintings repaired. He thought of the bartender standing sentinel at La Rhetorique. The ape, with Barbie in one hand and the portable megaphone across his shoulders hanging down his back, climbed to the top of the truck with the help of the muscle men. There he slipped his feet into fastened shoes and hooked himself to safety wires.
“That’s Jay driving.”
The truck started slowly down the street, turned left on Hudson, then right toward Christopher Street and 7th Avenue, followed by the Barbie Brigade.
As they proceeded to the parade start, others were joining them, many who had never heard of the Barbie Brigade, let alone ASS. Members of the group handed out leaflets explaining the goals of ASS. On 7th Avenue, not far from the playground, they saw hundreds of men in black lining the street on both sides behind clusters of police. They too seemed to have a women’s faction, who were already shouting at the Brigade. TV was shocked at the language they employed.
“The Chessmen,” whispered Jack, as he wobbled awkwardly on his platform high heel shoes, “and their ladies!”
Metal police barricades separated the spectators on the sidewalk from the participants in the parade but didn’t contain the rowdy Chessmen. They laughed and jeered, and with their lady folk carried machine-made placards with the emblems of their sponsors decaled in the corners: Fast Foods and Beef Forever, Pride and Pork, Grand Autos Forward, Highways To Heaven, InsureAce Coalition, HearseLand, to mention a few. Some carried black canes and wore capes and top hats with the heraldic emblems for Kings and Bishops. Others wore black tights and dark shirts with baseball caps stenciled with emblems of a Castle. The Pawns were wearing the familiar dark coats with bowler hats.
“My daughter told me about these people,” mumbled Vellum nervously passing in front of the crowd. “One of them was following me. . .” but he stopped himself.
“Why you?” asked Jack, smiling in the face of the jeering Chessmen, but almost losing his balance. “These shoes are killing me.”
The crowd of sightseers magnified the number of Chessmen, who were interspersed among them. Colorful mascots for fast food places scurried around, toning down the ominous presence of the dark-clad group. On one corner a parked trailer with hydraulic lift supported news cameras and loudspeakers and earphoned crews pointing cameras down. Even the apartment windows high up looked sinister, although in one or two, well wishers waved or hung festive flags more in keeping with the occasion. On the fire escapes police with digital hand-held cameras and radios were photographing the parade.
“But why would the police be here in such force?” asked Vellum nervously.
“Oh, not to worry, Wee Willie,” placated Jack, wobbling along beside him. “Police are people after all. I dated one! We’ve got cops straight as arrows who belong to ASS.”
“Yeah, but what about these Chess guys?”
“Started years ago as a secret society in one of the ivy league schools. It was just pranks then, until the Kings and Bishops found themselves in positions of power.”
When a roar emanated from one side of the street, the cameras turned in unison to the source of the commotion, a chorus of Chessmen shouting, “Long live the standards.” Then a Castle leaped out and grabbed a Barbie just in front of them who flattened him with an uppercut to his jaw. Infuriated, Castles and Pawns descended on the brigade to avenge their fallen member. Sarah ran over to the Castle, Sarah in her yellow raincoat descending like a giant white breasted bird with yellow wings. She bent over to administer to the fallen man.
“I’m going to sue your ass,” said the Castle weakly.
With his megaphone the gorilla encouraged the Brigade forward. But no one could move. From behind a Pawn tore at Jack with both hands, groping him and trying to get one hand up his tight blue dress. A sudden fury filled Vellum, who saw in this Pawn all the Pawns who had ever followed him. He took the man’s hat and crushed it underfoot. During the melee that ensued, TV lost his precious clothing box. A woman screamed in pain as one of her attackers, assuming she was a man, tried pulling off her breasts only to find them all too real. In her fury she swung her pink plastic purse and sent him spinning in retreat. A Bishop pulled a wad of green bills from his pocket and threw it into the air. Bedlam ensued as the sidewalk viewers joined the melee to retrieve the money. Duels broke out with the placards. I LOVE MY THONG, AND SO DOES MY HUBBY crossed with THE BEAUTY I MARRIED WAS JUST A CARBON COPY. A few of the Brigade, bleeding from cuts on the forehead, realized that the Chessmen were using hardwood supports for their placards instead of the required cardboard tubing.
TV picked up one of the bills and discovered it contained a holographic picture of a naked woman where one of the founding fathers was usually shown. It was Judy Crucible. To her right in block letters, the inscription NEW AND IMPROVED was written. Her body seemed larger than life, her hips rounder, her waist narrower, her breastworks enveloping the surrounding medallion. She was shimmering, her face a cosmetic mask, her hair color aglow, her accessories twinkling. The bill reeked of perfume as heady as wine. Where the White House was usually depicted stood the entrance to a nightclub. Vellum recognized The Nadir. Above the entrance were written the words ONE IN A MILLION. When the bill was wrinkled Crucible’s hips swayed, her breasts wobbled. Phone numbers and web pages with heraldic emblems of various Chessmen were embedded in the images like hidden symbols, as well as Internet addresses where one could acquire magical dietary formulas, botox injections and plastic surgery. Feeling the intoxicating power of the image, Vellum stood paralyzed as he stared into the circular medallion where Judy wiggled whenever he moved the bill. All around him heterosexual men were gazing like cows at the bills in their hands.
“She’s not real!” Emily was pulling on his arm.
“Barbie is finished,” laughed the Bishop, “We’ve a new currency.”
When the ape saw the Brigade’s political ardor dissolving and the police arresting members of the Brigade, he leaped to the ground rather than wait assistance. Momentarily paralyzed, he fought the effects of gravity on his spine before seizing the mesmerizing bill from Vellum’s grip.
“She looks familiar,” he said, dismissing the image at a glance.
“You’ll be seeing a lot more of her,” said a King, who towered over everyone. “Maybe we can lure you back into the fold with our new line of toys.”
While the public was scrambling for the fake bills, TV saw Pawns mounting the hydraulic lift. According to a metal plaque riveted to its side, the lift belonged to MediaFreeUSA, a subdivision of Channel Clearance Corporation. After a brief negotiation the speakers were berating the “so-called” Barbie Brigade and asking them to step aside and let the parade move on. Mothers, tearing the nasty bills out of their children’s hands, thought the Barbies responsible for the mayhem.
“Shame on you,” bellowed the loudspeakers.
The mothers joined the chorus emanating from the sound towers. Voices swelled from further back and rolled forward consuming the conflict in one audible sound of anger. Those in the rear of the parade wanted to move on.
TV picked up another bill. He didn’t really understand all this hoopla over beauty. This wasn’t the epic struggle against greed he had written about. Of course he hadn’t understood the connection between sugar and greed either? Still, why march against beauty? Should women hide beneath veils? And why Barbie? She was from another time, the time of his youth and just a doll. It didn’t make sense to him. But when he thought of the exquisite Judy Crucible, whose features he hardly remembered – had he even seen her at the microphone at The Nadir? – it all made sense; that is, he thought all this commotion senseless. Her features had melted into his consciousness. Her shimmering shape seemed cast in an out-of-this-world foundry. Or more to the point, forged in some other dimension, like cyberspace or in a parallel universe, more probably in a clinic. It trailed his every movement in a neighboring fold of time. He remembered her voice, picked up her scent, imbibed the aura of her being. He had a strong sense of who she was, as if she occupied the same space he did or even inhabited him. And when he thought of her he felt young and alive, just the way he did when he was a teenager, when his knowledge had been all too imperfect and his imagination all too vivid. And that was the purpose of this journey, a journey back into time. He was growing younger and she was yet a bridge to his more virile time. In this reverie TV drifted toward the SSG side, but the gorilla grabbed him and pulled him back.
“But she is beautiful,” Vellum cried in despair.
“Hold on to this,” said the ape, slapping his Barbie into his hand like a baton, “this is real. Squeeze it when you’re feeling weak.”
“But I saw her at The Nadir.”
“Squeeze! This Crucible, she’s just a new pop queen for the SS Group. Believe me, a night with Judy and you’ll want out.”
“I’d like find out for myself – since it’s only a night. My wife wouldn’t even miss me.”
The ape looked at him.
“I know you. . .”
Suddenly horns blared. People waiting in their cars at the intersection had joined the commotion, shouting at the combatants to get out of the way. To TV’s relief, this drew the ape away. As the gorilla bellowed into his megaphone, the Brigade sluggishly reassembled. The gay factions encouraged the dazed straight males to cast off their love-struck shackles. The women held their peace in the face of this blatant reductionist strategy of the SS Group. But now the SS had lined up across the avenue blocking the way. The Kings and Bishops were conferring with the police.
“Barbies,” shouted the gorilla, “move aside. We can do this. Let the rest of the parade pass.”
Emily’s husband pulled the yellow truck as close to a barricade as possible, while the Barbies followed. The police began setting up barricades to contain the Brigade, much to the amusement of the SS who jeered from the opposite side of the avenue. The parade resumed its way up the street. When the ape saw a CYNow van moving through the hot spot, he raised his arm and bellowed into the megaphone, Abolish all standards. As if on cue, the Barbies formed a chorus line and began dancing and cavorting. Even some police laughed. The van veered off and pulled up behind the yellow truck. Reporters jumped out.
Sarah called out, “1, 2, 3, 4 toss all standards out the door: 5, 6,7,8 throw king bigotry out the gate.”
Hastily a King and Bishop ran up trying to intercept the newscasters.
“Is there any reason why you folks are standing here?” asked a Bishop with seemly innocence.
“According to this beast your hooligans in black,” replied a reporter, “are out to destroy the integrity of the parade by profiling Barbies. Any comments?”
“We love Barbie,” said the tall King, unable to restrain his appreciation of the dancers near him. “We were simply waiting for them to move on.”
“Really?” cried the gorilla. “Does the police chief give us his permission to move on?”
The police chief was just then looking at one of the green bills and hadn’t heard the request. The sergeant pulled the chief away from his reverie and seeing that the fickle public could no longer find any reason to blame the Brigade and seeing that the King was nodding in agreement, the chief nodded and the Brigade was again integrated into the parade to great cheering. Many onlookers admitted that this year’s parade reminded them of the old days when the parade was a fringe event rather than a mainstream news item.
“The Group may own the media,” the gorilla told Vellum, “but the media likes the bucks and Barbie always sells! You remind me of someone. . .”
Vellum began squeezing the doll the gorilla had given him. With the Brigade moving again Vellum edged away from the ape, but Jack grabbed him.
“Not so fast, honey.”
Jack was leaning on his shoulder, so he could bend over and straighten his heel. Suddenly a familiar voice shouted, “Hey.” TV leaped nervously, knocking Jack off balance.
“I’ve been looking for you everywhere!”
It was Sam from Battery Park. TV stuttered a denial, gripping his doll with both hands. But Sam caught hold of Jack.
“Well,” cried Jack appreciatively before glaring at him. “And where have you been!”
“I had to take Insidious to the vet after he ate the stuffing from the davenport cushion!”
“Well, you’re too late Sir Arthur, Mr. Lancelot is my escort now. Your dismissed.”
Sam turned to TV and squinted his eyes.
“I never forget a face, let me see, you are. . . begins with an S. . .”
The ape returned with reporters following him like a swarm of yellow jackets, camera lights popping and a boom mic dangling in their midst from its pole. Jack and Sam fell into each other arms for a cameo shot as Vellum slipped away into another contingency just then merging with the Brigade’s rear guard.
A block later, the parade dissolved into streams of people flowing off down different streets. Vellum found himself among the SS whose members were passing out more bills of Judy Crucible. His black jacket seemed enough like the SS jackets and capes to allow him safe passage through their group. They were all joking about getting that ASS hole of an ape.
“Hey,” said one of the Castles, “you got a Barbie.”
They gathered around. Unconsciously he began squeezing the doll, even as he reincarnated a scrappy Sam Sherman, street fighting man. He slowed to a swagger.
“That’s right,” he said. “It’s my parade trophy.”
“What division are you from? Don’t recognize the uniform.
“I’m a Rook.”
“A Rook?”
“Yeah. Between a Pawn and a Castle. Now, if you don’t mind, fellas, I’ve got to get home to my woman.” He strode on without looking back, squeezing his doll until he thought her head would pop off.
He found himself in Gramercy Park where the traffic and pedestrian flow moved along as if nothing unusual had happened. People were eating in restaurants, window shopping, strolling arm in arm. Then he was standing in front of La Rhetorique. Looking in he saw Marguerite sitting between two new companions, unaware that in an adjacent neighborhood factious ideologies were struggling for power. He turned south to Union Square. New stores had replaced old stores. He ran down the stairs into the subway station, and sighed with relief.
The train arrived and he worded a short prayer of appreciation, thanking the forces of the universe for quickly bringing this subway to his rescue. He sat across from two kids accompanied by their father, their candy bags full. The boy, perhaps eleven, was dressed as the Tin Man and his young sister looked like Alice. Despite lapses into moments of exhaustion where they would stare into space or into their candy bags, they were respectful of each other in loving ways. Even when the boy kidded with his adoring sister, he was gentle and patient with her. Unconscious of appearances, they giggled shamelessly. The perfect age, thought TV, where the body, after a spurt of growth, is once again strong enough to counterbalance the intruding world. We don’t topple over in bulky snow clothes. We have dexterity and an interest in small things. We are not yet scooped up by the tree of knowledge with its intriguing apple. Wasn’t Judy Crucible the picture of Eve on the fake bills? She beckoned. Imagine a fruit whose taste and scent reveal the world in all its amazing intricacy. Every object, its color vibrant, its shape singular, becomes a portal promising intimacy. It comes only with puberty. Not just a sexual understanding of the world but an almost prescient means of solving problems. The heat off a new internal engine expands the surface with a hollow confidence. We know everything. With the nimble mind simmering with intense interest, the answers shimmer just beyond reach, encouraging an unwieldy bravado. The stars radiate in the cold blackness of night for you; the leaves and flowers unfold toward summer fullness for you. But oh, the payment for such brightness and such fullness is sexual knowledge as well. Suddenly we see ourselves with the same perspicacity, without the benefits of objectivity. We see ourselves in the visual impressions of those around us, especially the opposite sex or the people we desire to please, what do they think of me now? He was drawn back into the subway car when he realized the two siblings were looking at him, the strange man in expensive rumpled clothes, gripping a Barbie doll in one hand, fake money in the other. A strange image even on Halloween. He smiled at them with a nod of his head, as if to say, this isn’t the real me, then hoped he didn’t give the impression of leering. Eventually the eternal world of Alice and the Tin Man, of their self-absorption in the present, would be lost forever. Some of us are lost forever down the sex drain; we just never re-ignite the embers of those Promethean fires to do anything but chase the opposite gender. We marry. We live plain lives. A moment of lust, consummated or not, precedes every moment of creativity. Imagine a culture that genetically procures the means of keeping the intellectually stimulating side of puberty without the absorbing and sometimes all-consuming sexual side.
At 42nd Street he switched trains, following the tired father and his two kids up and down the stairs to the Broadway line. A local train was already in the station. As they all took their seats, a young man got on. His ornamentation was hard to ignore. He sat down on the same side as Vellum, several passengers down and directly across from the father and kids. After the train pulled out, TV looked politely into the dark panels of the opposite window where he saw the stranger’s face etched clearly. He had never seen anyone like this, except perhaps in the lobby of The Nadir. His head was festooned with tattooed vines and leaves which seemed to grow out from his shirt collar to cover his face. Not believing his eyes, TV leaned forward slightly and glanced right and noticed the leafy lines growing out from under his sleeves and cuffs to cover his hands and sandaled feet. He was like the fabled Green Man of medieval times. But that was not all. He might have been one of the Pierced for God. Emily had said St. Sebastian was their patron saint. TV had never heard of him. A blade of grass made of silver wire on which a copper darning needle rested, attached to a nose ring, curled up over the young man’s nose and on his ear a faience butterfly was perched. The tattooed cheek was covered with studs of honey bees clustered together in the leaves like trompe l’oeil. Lady bugs and centipedes seemed to crawl from rings on his fingers. He was the epitome of Halloween.
Rude as it seemed, TV couldn’t keep his eyes off him. Everyone stared. This young man couldn’t object to everyone’s fascination, seeing how he had forged his body into an art object. One had only to extrapolate a trend once someone, like the ticket man from The Nadir, had initiated a theme. Before long a younger generation became even more startling. What could possibly come after this? Once embarked on this road, how could such a young man change his course? Could he ever become a plain man again, a man without a past, a man without an identity? Was his metamorphosis complete or would he, in this jungle atmosphere of competition, find other means of transforming his body into stranger thickets full of insects? Everyday was Halloween. The choice had to have been his. No second thoughts. He would be under the magnifying glass forever. Could he work in an office or must he work in a circus? Even little Alice and the young Tin Man stared for a while before their timeless self-absorption caught them again. But Vellum was lost to the man. It seemed to him that the further out into the margins of extremity people went, the more alike they became, despite their extravagant behavior and opposing views. He watched him leave, mesmerized. When he regained his attention, he saw that father and kids were gone too. Those left behind were looking at him.
A disheveled TV arrived home. He had lost his Virtual Wear box of clothing, his own clothes were torn. Cass, lying in bed reading, looked up at him.
“What is all this?”
“I have discovered an underground movement that is out to destroy the standard of Beauty, ASS. . .”
“Ass?”
“Abolish Superficial Standards. . .”
“Is this another one of your acronyms? I mean, are we for real here?”
“May I continue. . ? Anyway, Clio knew about it.”
“Why am I not surprised? And pray tell, why you are carrying a doll?”
Vellum looked down at the Barbie.
“It’s not just a doll, it’s a symbol.”
“Whatever happened to the good old days when a doll was just a doll?”
“Anyway, Clio knew about it. . .”
“About you having a doll?”
“No, about this movement.”
“That’s where you picked that thing up?”
“We were in this parade in the Village and were set upon by reactionaries from SSG working for all the big industries, advertising, film, cosmetics, you name it. Their signs were everywhere, capitalizing on the growing popularity of Halloween among adults. It was like a page out of German history, black shirts fighting brown shirts.”
“Where does Barbie come in?”
“We were part of the Barbie Brigade. The other side had Judy Crucible, a kind of digital queen, or something, I mean she’s real but. . , but. . .”
“Is this another prelude to one of your creative streaks? I barely survived the last one.”
“I’m being serious, Cass.”

THE TRUE BUT OFTEN APOCRYPHAL STORY OF THE METAMORPHOSIS OF THOMAS VELLUM’S BEARD, PART I:5

I:5 That night, in a wild moment, he cut another line across the sideburn down by the jaw. Cass didn’t notice even though they worked side by side preparing the evening meal. It wasn’t until they were sitting opposite each other at the table that she burst out laughing.
“You look Maori.”
“I hadn’t thought of that.”
“Yeah, your beard looks more like geometric tattoos than beard. This will require further adjustments in clothes.”
“Would you say you have a precarious life?”
“No, I would say I have a harried life, that is closer to it.” She was emphatic.
“I mean you nearly died.”
She eyed him suspiciously, her fork suspended midair, an olive and a rumpled lettuce leaf impaled.
“In that sense yes, but isn’t death next door for all of us, healthy and unhealthy alike?”
“I assume so, but most of us don’t live with that understanding. Looking at you today no one would realize what you had been through.”
“Thank you, I’ll take that as some kind of abstruse compliment.”
The next day, standing on Broadway at the entrance to the subway, he paused in amazement at the transformation that was occurring right there on the street. As the clouds temporarily obscured the sunlight, an infernal radiance drew his eyes to the hawthorn trees growing in the islands in the middle of Broadway. The red berries of the small trees seemed to burn in an orange-yellow glow of foliage. The afterimage lived in his memory until the downtown train entered the Cathedral station. When he arrived at Le Rhetorique we can well imagine that his appearance was simply too extravagant for the patrons, although by the look on the bartender’s face it was refreshing. He had drawn the line on buying new clothes. Instead he had returned to his first box of new clothes. At that moment we assume Vellum understood the primal influence of the musical undercurrent – at least for some people. Why this music hadn’t affected the others he couldn’t say, neither can we. This radical shift in appearance was a litmus test for these new acquaintances for it colored them in the light of his radical change. Despite their hip garb they were at heart conservative.
“I thought you worked in advertising,” said Marguerite cuttingly.
Then she turned toward Frank and Sal who must have returned early from their European business trip. They didn’t recognize him, nor did she from then on. The rest of the crowd followed suit. For a while he watched the televisions in the wall of mirrors. On one screen someone was explaining what life was like after her abduction on a space ship. On the other, people were chasing a clown as he ran down a dark street. The bartender passed him his glass of water on a coaster on which he found written the name of another club, The Nadir, further downtown where the bartender thought he might be appreciated.
He left the bartender a sign of his appreciation and slipped out the door onto Park Avenue. The late afternoon sun filled the side streets at either side of the block with a golden glow in utter contrast to the deepening shade of the avenue. From the upper stories, windows aglow in the solar fire cast bright reflected searchlights down into the gloom. In another week, he thought, removing daylight savings would change all this, casting the rush hour into a premature night. With so fine an afternoon and the bartender’s coaster in his pocket he decided to walk south to Cooper Union Square.
It was already getting dark by the time he turned left onto St. Mark’s. The sidewalks were filling with students on their way from class to home or looking for a bite to eat. The usual vendors were leaning against the buildings with arrays of CDs and scarves laid out before them. Midway down the block he noticed the yellow truck he had seen a week ago near Le Rhetorique parked on the street. He was still too far up the street to clarify the details of the man who suddenly exited from a shop, his arms raised in anger. He couldn’t hear the argument and by the time he was near the truck, it was pulling away. Several black SUVs pulled out of their parking slots at the same time. The street was suddenly congested, horns blared. Then one by one the black caravan disappeared behind the yellow truck already at the intersection. The shopkeeper was a woman in her forties with bright orange hair laced with a silver mesh cap. Her bodice was bright yellow and showed the crowns of her ample breasts. She couldn’t conceal her anger but did an admirable job of containment. When she saw TV she turned away and returned to her counter.
The Nadir was located in a nondescript apartment building east of Tompkins Square. The front of the ground floor was white-washed and the windows to either side were sheathed in metal though the trim was red. The street was deserted. The double metal doors, thickly painted red, were closed, a heavy chain through the door handles. The rest of the tenement had windows and a fire escape like filigree on the front wall up to the fifth floor. He decided to go back to Cooper Union Square and have a cup of coffee. From there he called home.
“Cass, I won’t be home early, I have an appointment down here.”
“Yeah, with whom?”
“I don’t know yet. I’m going on a tip. I’m not even sure why I’m going, but. . . So I may be late.”
“Go with it. I won’t wait up.”
He returned to his table feeling guilty. Three cups later his stomach was so unsettled that he stopped next at an Italian sandwich shop and bought an onion-and-sausage hero which he ate standing at the shop window, watching the growing crowds outside walking up and down Eighth Street. In this neighborhood he had spent some of the most intense and wonderful years of his early adulthood. He first met Cass down here. Now those far-off years seemed like his best, or more realistically, the best years of a stranger he once knew. Perhaps this was his quest, to agitate still more experiences into memories and extract truths, only in a more contracted time frame. But as in that other life, the life of the young Thomas Vellum, who had thick black hair and a very black mustache, this excursion didn’t have rhyme nor reason either and was susceptible to the lateral exchanges from any realm.
One of the doors of The Nadir was now open. No one was around. He could hear a syncopated synthesized melody rising and falling ever so lightly as it streamed forward logically carrying on its electronic back the high eerie voice of a woman whose song was both romantic and necrobiotic. He stepped through the battered red doorway into a small empty foyer painted olive green. He followed the musical thread across the foyer to another door at the opposite end of the room which lead into a dark chamber. He was about to look in, hearing other voices inside, when a voice behind him startled him.
“Ten dollars gets you in, nothing gets you out.”
He turned around and discovered a tattooed man with eye liner and long thick braids, high heels shoes and black baggy pants, sitting at a cart table on which he was playing solitaire. Green alligators crawled up his bare arms, the scales literally rising off his skin. The jaws of one sank into soft white near his jugular, blood dripping bright red from blackened wounds. The other looked down upon a wild boar, bristling with hair that grimaced from his bare chest. Miraculously the man produced a cash box from the folds of his pants setting it down on top of his game. TV paid the ten and was stamped on his hand with the face of Medusa.
“Am I early?”
The man shrugged his shoulders. Vellum turned and entered the chamber. It was so dark he tripped over someone’s extended legs.
“Fuck off!” someone growled.
“Sorry!” was Vellum’s simultaneous reply.
In the dark neither his disguise behind the altered beard nor his true identity as the famous artist had any meaning. Despite the freedom of a mask or the security of the real self he felt naked, on the verge of disappearing into nothing. His fear snatched at the strange music, the seductive voice as if it were the only tangible evidence of a consistent physical law which everyone inside followed. He couldn’t place the music nor realize its source. It charged the air like an undercurrent.
Gradually his eyes grew accustomed to the dark. A single source of light emanated from the far end of the large room like a distant star. He began to make out tables and chairs and even a darkened stage. To his surprise the room was crowded. The oddly sweet voice of the diva bound everyone to her hypnotic cadence. The distant light radiated from hidden lamps above a bar. He approached it cautiously. A woman perhaps six feet three with a dark mane of hair erupting from all sides of her head stood behind it. The wild hair framed her pale glowing face which was pierced only with eyes set in the darkest eye shadow and lips coated in black. She watched him approach then raised her hand, her nails polished in black lacquer, her fingers bearing silver rings and her wrist, wire bracelets.
“Well?” she asked.
Thomas smiled stupidly even though he wished he had the ability to decipher the hand motion and behave accordingly. Had the bartender at Le Rhetorique been joking?
“Drink?” she asked helpfully.
“Beer, on tap?”
Without moving the upheld hand she put a tall glass of black liquid on the counter with the other equally decorated hand, then splashed it with seltzer from a long hose dispenser. When done, the upheld hand swung down and placed the drink before him.
“Five dollars,” she said.
“Stout?” he asked timidly, placing the five dollars on the counter.
But she was already serving another customer. He watched as the man asked for a tonic. He too received the same dark liquid. Whatever it was, everyone who asked for a drink received it. Vellum held the glass to his nose and sniffed nervously. With the same temerity that had gotten him into trouble before, he sipped. It tasted of licorice and didn’t taste bad, but one glass would be enough. More would get him sick with its excessive sweetness. Was this the sickly sweet bridge his connection from the future had warned his protagonist about in the last novel, a bridge connecting the human appetite for sugar to an addictive appetite for all things in general? Whenever the bartender bent over the hidden sink, the pallid oval of her face suddenly stretched to include her breasts which hung like melons in moonlight. In a vertiginous rush of mixed fear and pleasure he imagined himself suspended in a magnetic field between them. What if he was never seen again? The thought was visceral enough to wet the palms of his hands.
“She is something, huh?” said the customer who had ordered tonic. “A real witch.”
Vellum agreed. The customer wore a black leather vest. Indian cobras, etched in brown and gray, slithered up his arms onto each shoulder, their rattlers seemed buried in the palms of his hands. The mandalic head rose up on either side of his neck with trompe l’oeil teeth set into skin, blood dripping. Like the bartender his lips were coated in black gloss. To his dismay, Vellum watched still another hand appear beneath the man’s arms and work its way up toward the snake head before a head bearing a likeness to the bartender appeared, pale face with eye sockets dark and lips black. She smiled at Vellum as she pulled up beside the man.
“This is Samantha,” said the man. “And I’m Harry. You?”
“Sam Sherman.”
“Any relationship to Sari?” asked Samantha.
“Yeah,” lied Vellum, determined not to lose the advantage here and completely at a loss to articulate the distinction between Sermon and Sherman.
“I like you’re style, it’s so cool,” Samantha added.
She took her hand and stroked the bare spots of his face. The touch of her hand sent chills down his legs. In his ears he felt the breathy voice of the diva. Harry was a trained chemist, but now he dedicated his time to studying the toxicity of certain herbs, especially those studied by the medieval-alchemists. He was sure there were realities hidden beneath the fables that had given the proto-scientists powers that were lost during the 17th century with the evolution of deductive research.
“Truth is amorphous. It can be reached in many ways.”
“Harry likes to raid the botanical gardens. He walks in with plastic bags and scissors and snips here and cuts there, very bad. . .”
“At least I’m not like Fanny with her crude approach; she rips the plants from the ground. She and her mother, her mother is a wacko from Albania, who taught Fanny some of the formulas she likes to use to get people high. One time they got caught in a small public garden in the Bronx, stuffing aconitum, roots and all into bags. The gardeners caught them and banished them from the garden.”
“Who is the singer?” asked Vellum. “Her music is haunting.”
“Isn’t she wonderful?” replied Harry. “We come here every night to hear her.”
Samantha and Harry looked toward the stage. Vellum now saw a single microphone in a vacant well of light up on the stage.
“Who are you looking at?”
“Judy Crucible. Isn’t she wonderful.”
“I don’t see anyone.”
“Drink up and you will.”
They both laughed.
He had already finished the drink when their laughter had run its course and they had moved off to a table. For a moment he thought of following them when the bartender came around from behind him and said hello. No, he was mistaken, it was Samantha, but then again he saw Samantha still seated with Harry. Looking toward the bar he saw that the tall bartender was still beneath the bar lights. As he looked around he realized all the women in the room, that is, those he could see, looked like Samantha, as if cut from the same mould, if not as tall.
“Samantha?”
“Sandy.” She smiled at him and asked if he were new here.
“Yeah. And I just noticed that you look like Samantha.”
“Who is she?”
“You mean you don’t know her?”
“No. This is my first time here.”
“You are kidding me? Then someone told you what to wear?”
“Not really. Are you hung up on appearances?”
“Well, I didn’t think I was, until I came in… well maybe that isn’t true.”
He recalled vaguely the effort of shaving. Then he tried to remember why he was here… He had to remember why he was here… The words must have issued from his lips like a mantra for now Sandy was asking him why it was he was trying to remember why he was here? This was the moment he saw Judy Crucible at the microphone as if her romantic, childlike voice drifting along on its electronic current had emerged from the ether into a visible entity. Glowing in her own light she bore none of the attributes of the other women. She was shimmering, at one moment appearing as if naked, in the next in lame that wrapped her like silver skin to just below her knees, which seemed bound by shiny chords, her waist as narrow as an hour glass, her short blond hair forming a halo around her porcelain features, a mask where pinpoints of silver and gold and loops of light erupted. She wobbled slightly, ethereally, taking tiny steps on the very tips of her toes sealed in upright silver pumps with tiny straps and extremely long heels. The expression on her face was apathetic and yet her body looked like a toy. The voice emanating from her seemed the trick of a ventriloquist, as if the real Judy Crucible was sitting behind a curtain, throwing her voice out so that the doll on stage seemed to be singing. And she was singing for him. He knew that. Her voice was in his ears, whispering her secrets to him. He began making his way toward the stage with Sandy in toe only to realize that the stage never got any closer, though his yearning intensified.
“I need to sit,” he finally admitted.
Sandy agreed.
“How is it you look just like all of them? Is this really your first visit?”
She nodded yes. “I don’t think I look like them. Do you think I do?”
She seemed anxious and excited.
“Your hair… The black lipstick…”
He was afraid of categorizing the similarities for fear that she would itemize his own. What was in that drink? He had no sooner thought that, when the bartender appeared before him and set another before him. He was fumbling for his wallet when she deftly reached into the pocket of his gray, cotton, dress jacket and plucked the wallet out for him. He handed her a dollar.
“What about her?” asked the bartender.
Her upper body, wherever the pale parts showed in the flesh, appeared to be floating in the darkness.
“Be my guest.”
She took the wallet out of his hand and withdrew a ten dollar bill.
“Before you leave,” he added, “please tell me why all of the women look alike, all of them as ravishing as you are?”
He thought that flattery would serve him here. She smiled at him, her manner melting his powers of judgment as quickly as the black tonic. He reached out toward her to see if she was real, but she evaded his hand and was gone. But he was okay with that because Judy Crucible’s voice filled the space with assurance. Looking across the room he saw that Harry was still sitting with Samantha. And here was Sandy.
“Thank you for the drink,” she said. “You didn’t have too.”
“It’s all right.”
Wondering if Sandy was in reach, he stretched his arm across the table, and finally after a long while and across a great distance he felt first her hand and then her arm.
“You are real.”
She laughed. Her dark lips were perfect oval frames for her mouth, and he noticed that she wore ear pendants that looked like bone fragments. He reached higher and touched her hair. She shook her head and laughed uncomfortably but he didn’t notice.
“Sandy, what do I look like?”
“Like Harry.”
“So you know Harry.”
“Yes,” she said, drawing the word out with a questionable air. “We just met, didn’t we?”
“You mean you think I’m Harry. But didn‘t I tell you my name?”
“Yes, you said you were Harry.”
“Sandy, I’m Thomas. . .”
He was that close to the edge, so close he could feel the rush of adrenaline. These were emotions he could barely reign in, as he drifted toward her. He palpably sensed the multitude of people inside the room. Where she sat they all sat, everyone was her and he was willing to jump in without guise and become a part of her too. But there on the precipice he caught himself, his better judgment in control.
“Yes, I’m Thomas.”
“Well, I don’t know what to say.”
“Sandy, why are we here?”
“I don’t know, I think it was a mistake and now I wish I were home. I pretended to know Samantha. I thought you were Harry, but I now see Harry sitting with Samantha, so I don’t know who you are?”
“I’m Thomas.”
“You said that and now I see, no, I don’t see, I understand my mistake, you still look like Harry, but how can that be? And I don’t want to be her, Samantha, I mean she’s beautiful but I’m not like her. I came here because I had heard many things about The Nadir. I overheard a woman at work telling her friend about one of their mutual friends who came here a few years ago and disappeared.”
“Really, so you want to disappear?”
“No, she didn’t disappear from life but went off with a poet she met here. Are you a poet?”
“Well. . .” Oh, life was full of pit holes, deceitful turns in the road leading to discovery. “No, I sell clothes, I’m a salesman at Virtual Wear, Ltd.”
And why not, hadn’t he recently bought many articles there? He knew the business as well as the next person.
“She’d been a housewife. . .”
“Who?”
“The woman who disappeared. She had been a housewife living in Roslyn, Long Island, a plain, quiet woman, with plain, quiet children and a quite plain husband, who ran a small Insurance Agency for Champion Insurance, but somehow she came here and she met this poet at The Nadir and ran off with him.”
“Well, you should know I am a fraud. Perhaps everyone is a fraud…”
“What if she came here and got lost inside here, you know, became someone else, became Samantha…”
“How many Samanthas can there be,” he exclaimed in wonder. “If there were so many, why haven’t I seen them before, outside in the street in daylight? Come to think of it, I met a Samantha the other day in a coffee shop near our apartment. She thought I was…”
He thought twice about describing the incident.
“Maybe Samantha was a popular name for our parents’ generation,” posited Sandy, “like John was for an even earlier generation. . ..”
“Perhaps…” he smiled, realizing she thought they were the same age. For god’s sake he could have been her father! “You look like Samantha, even though you talk like Sandy. If I look like Harry, that bothers me. I shaved my beard in a distinct fashion to give me distinction.” Had Samantha complimented him earlier for looking like Harry? “If I look like Harry,” he continued, “I still feel like Thomas, the car salesman.”
“I thought you said you sold men’s fashions.”
“What could be more male than cars, but yes, I sell the clothes men wear to drive in. A salesman is a salesman no matter what he sells. I suggest we leave and see what happens when we leave here.”
“I’m not going home with you, even though the thought of going home with Harry makes my mouth water.”
“No, no, I’m not coming on to you as Harry, I’m simply trying to find out what happens to our appearances on leaving here. Sooner or later we have to leave.”
“What if Doris never left?”
“Who is Doris?”
“That woman who left her husband and children. What if she met somebody like you, only he was a poet, and they were too afraid to leave fearing that outside they would become strangers again.”
“It could also be that they couldn’t wait to leave and be new people.”
“How awful.”
“Sandy, are you married?”
Sandy’s face seemed suddenly frozen, though her eyes darted about his face looking for a means of evading his eyes. Those eyes were the keys to her real self for they were in utter contrast to the otherwise plastic features she bore, her nose and mouth, cheeks and chin, set in a pale lozenge which he would have willingly swallowed whole. He wondered if his eyes showed her who he really was. In which case no matter how often one shaved or even altered one’s appearances through plastic surgery, a person of perception would be able to see through the changeable to the core, the core being the real identity, the Platonic idea.
“Yes,” she blurted out.
“Yes, what?” he asked, startled from his reverie.
“Yes, I am married.”
“Well, so am I.”
“Is that supposed to make me feel better?”
“No, but just that we both have other lives and are together right now only to solve a certain matter of identity. We need each other, need to trust each other to survive.”
“Did you tell Doris that?”
“No, I am not the poet, I am the salesman, remember? Let’s leave and see what happens. I will take you home and that will be the end of it.”
He stood to go knowing he had to go whether she left or not. But seeing he was leaving she stood up quickly and followed him, and at one moment held his arm to guide herself. The music grew louder as they closed in on the door. Its hypnotic tonal assemblies massaged their nerves and gave them the kind of euphoria that, had they not had fear driven wills, they would have thrown up their hands and thought themselves foolish for wanting to leave. He turned back to have one last look at Judy Crucible. She was looking straight at him, her shimmering lame dress distorting her figure in a way that made Vellum think of a hologram. But she was looking at him and singing for him. She stepped forward two tiny steps on the tips of her toes as if reaching for him, held her arms out to catch her balance, then backed up again, tilting to and fro, reminding him of a exquisite insect, its legs and its antennae mincing motion in the moving air. When he paused indecisively he was shoved from behind by Sandy, who broke the spell and helped get him outside. The dingy foyer was empty. With the final, slamming of the outer metal doors the music evaporated. The silence of the street was shattering.
The chilly air had the beneficial powers of redeeming their senses. They stood looking at each other for a moment, each realizing that the person they had been talking to was an utter stranger. Sandy was a brunette with straight hair which looked difficult to comb. Now she suddenly grew resourceful and told him she didn’t need an escort. She’d take a cab to Penn Station.
“Are you sure?” he said looking at his watch. “It’s only ten o’clock. Not late at all. Do you think they used a black light or something to give the lips and nails the look of black lacquer?”
“I don’t know.”
Her interest in him had totally waned and with a note of relief she said goodbye and left him standing on the street, her steps echoing down toward the more crowded streets west of them.
As he approached the subway station on 8th Street he noticed a sign for a portable phone company depicting a young couple in deep embrace with phones to each ear as if they were making love though their wireless service. Both were beautiful but on this poster her perfect smile with its perfect set of teeth had been sabotaged. Someone had blotted out two teeth, one front incisor and a lower right molar and darkened the area around her eyes. A black patch covered one of his eyes and his lips were slightly twisted.
The uptown train was crowded. He was lazily staring at his reflection, pondering its remoteness, wondering if some people might have the ability to throw out their images the way ventriloquists throw their voices. Perhaps these visualquists could project holographic versions of their alter egos across a street or room where there was someone they wanted to impress. A criminal could even use his holographic self as a decoy who runs down another street drawing off the police. Still in these thoughts he lost sight of his other self. Then a movement of people at one of the stops brought him back. Embarrassed by his own vanity he looked up at the advertising above the opposite seat and noticed an ad he had seen many times. A beautiful woman in a dark blue dress, swimming in a light blue sea toward a bottle of golden rum shimmering in the distance, offering the viewer a means of capturing either the swimmer or imitating her gravity-free swim. Only someone had painted over the dark blue dress creating the carapace of a turtle, out of which her arms, legs and head appeared making her look ridiculous.
TV stood up for a closer look and lost his seat. He decided to walk to the end of the car and look into the next car. Making his way past all the downtown theater-goers returning home was not easy. The train rocked to and fro and knocked him into others who did not take his passage kindly. When he returned from the end of the car having seen no one suspicious, the riders again squeezed to the side to make room for him. Could it be his face still bore the markings of The Nadir, the black lips, the. . . no, his nails were pale. He was just annoying everyone by insisting on reaching the door at the other end. In the next car he could see a young woman in a vintage hat of convoluted shape, a black veil hiding her face. And leaning over her, someone was reaching up with a magic marker in his hand. That was his man. He forced open the door. He was struggling with the other door when the train came into 42nd Street. He was already inside the next car when someone roughly shoved Vellum aside. The graffiti artist turned and looked. The subway doors slide open and the graffiti man stepped out onto the wide platform and ran briskly up the stairs. Regaining his balance TV turned and looked at the poster, this one representing a content middle-class couple leaning against a split-rail fence, faces perfectly content, not a wrinkle from worries, the perfect customers of the Bank of Banks sponsoring the ad. Only the man’s lips had been stretched into a grimace, lips painted black, and the woman’s breasts and lips enhanced, yes, crudely but still effectively.
Not wanting to waken Cass, he quietly opened the front door, turned and tripped over one of Clio’s duffle bags in the dark hall. Except for the a small lamplight glowing in the living room, the rest of the apartment was dark. He wondered if Clio was spending the night or had simply been in earlier clearing out more of her gear, a hope both he and Cass expressed continuously whenever she appeared. Then the back door to Clio’s room opened and she appeared. A young man followed behind her.
“Hello Daddy. You’re home late.”
“Yeah, well…”
“Mom is already asleep. Or at least she was,” she quietly laughed, coming down the hall. “She’s the only working person here,” she directed to her friend.
We can safely say that Clio was dressed simply in an orange T-shirt and black dungarees since she rarely diverges from this except perhaps in the use of color. Whether she was carrying a roll of shimmering blue fabric in her arm is another matter. However, we stick with this assumption considering what later ensues.
“We almost forgot this,” she added, indicating the roll. “Daddy, this is Atah.”
Vellum looked at the young man who followed Clio out of the dark hall into the dimly lit living room. Clio flicked on a light. He was tall and thin like the man he had seen in the subway. He had dark prominent features. His long, black hair hung in a ponytail to his shoulder blades.
“You look like someone I just saw on the subway.”
Atah looked at Clio.
“Are you Egyptian?”
“He’s from Peru, Daddy! And what are you, Maori?”
“Oh well, Thor Heyerdahl tried to prove…”
“Yeah, yeah, daddy.”
“I’m glad to met you, Mr. Vellum. . . My name is short for Atahuallpa,” he volunteered, “the last Inca king.”
“That’s quite a birth name.”
“No, no, I took it for myself. I wanted a connection with my heritage. Miguel is my birth name.”
“You have to be careful, A,” she said jocularly, jabbing the young man gently in the side; “next thing you know, he’ll be connecting you with Machu Picchu.”
“The scene in the final book!”
Atah was obviously thrilled.
“Yeah, yeah, I’ve lived with this all my life!” responded Clio.
Vellum was wondering if there was any connection with this kid and his book. Or was the fact he was from Peru just another of life’s coincidences. Sometimes TV had the distinct feeling his life could be reduced to the highlighted adventures of a comic book character.
“So what’s with the weird beard, Daddy, it’s like a tattoo?”
“Your mother’s idea.”
“Yeah, right!”
“I’ve read all your books, Mr. Vellum.”
His look of admiration was innocent enough to banish any fears TV might have had. Usually he found himself belly up on a specimen slide under the piercing gaze of someone’s magnifying glass.
“Maybe I was thinking of Aton just now,” injected TV. “I think he was the Egyptian lord of the universe. Do you live in Queens, too?”
“Yonkers. Atah is helping me move some more of my stuff. There’s a meeting downtown on West 4th. We’re going to stop in on the way down, drop the fabric off.”
“Really?”
“At the Church of the Holy Grail.” volunteered Atah. “You must be in hiding!” he exclaimed, “since the chessmen don’t know where you are.”
“He’s always in hiding,” said Clio.
“The chessmen?”
“They are the enemy,” advanced Atah.
For the sake of the creative spirit we interrupt the flow with this message even though it is disparaging. Art always rises out of some creative struggle which we, the viewers, might not want to see. TV had witnessed so many versions of his books, both legal and pirated, that he no longer knew which were authentic, which were spurious. The imagery in his stories had been so exaggerated in film he couldn’t remember their origins. Nevertheless, every extension and manifestation of his ideas were always based on the hope he might save the world. We like to think of ourselves as true believers. But TV’s popularity has had the adverse effect of bloating the ranks of the fan club. For many among us, waiting for the next production is everything. Entertainment always keeps us on the edge of our seats. Once upon a time the writer could affect the world positively, encourage change for the better, but Raymond Smith changed all that. Even TV felt he had become part of the cultural currency in an economy overloaded by inflation. He just shook his head stupidly, not exactly sure what Atah meant by the enemy. Was it Raymond Smith?
“Is there really a Church of the Holy Grail? I’ve always thought the grail was the secular or materialist version of the ineffable.”
“Exactly, Mr. Vellum. As you once wrote.”
Vellum smiled with uncertainty.
“When I was a kid the enemy was Communism. Today it has resolved itself into The Ineffable.”
“Like throwing the word ‘god’ into the center of things,” injected Clio with some impatience. “Suddenly the word determines everyone’s belief, even those who don’t believe in god.”
“Exactly,” affirmed Atah.
“Anyway, we’ve got to go.”
“Clio, have you noticed a strange man downstairs, anywhere?” asked Thomas.
“You mean the fruit head?”
“Fruit head?”
“The Magritte with the bowler hat! We call them fruit heads,” replied Clio.
Vellum was flabbergasted.
“They’re Chessmen,” explained Atah. Seeing Vellum’s blank look, he added, “From SSG…” as if that would clarify the enigma.
“Superficial Standards Group, Daddy. They’re like advertising and marketing.”
Atah laughed.
“The group is all too human, Mr. Vellum. We all want to make the world a better place, each in our own way, and as the technology increases we use it. At first it is to improve our instruments and make life easier. Then the data snatchers come and now we use technology not to control machines but each other.”
“I had no idea,” said Vellum.
“It’s all in your work, Mr. Vellum, in your work.”
“It’s not that complicated,” asserted Clio. “The data snatchers are no different than us. We all have to work. We all contribute to the collection, and the actual collectors are just doing their job and the people who use the information are simply selling a product.”
“Or their point of view, Cli!”
“Ok,” she nodded, “so we are back to the Chessmen. They take advertising one step further. They are marketing what they consider the superior system. They are like religious freaks and too blind to see it. After all, they are using an ‘objective system,’ a scientific system and they call it capitalism.”
“Which is like comparing Christian thought today to the words of Christ. No connection. Real capitalism is anarchy.”
“Yeah,” she agreed, “it’s more like what a famous economist calls ‘state-run capitalism.’ The opposite of communism.”
“Where did you learn about this?” TV asked in all innocence. “It’s all new to me.”
“Daddy, it’s not in the actual press we buy in the stands, it’s more a subtext. Like punching on hypertext. We read between the lines.”
“I saw one magazine that said I was receiving messages from space.”
“Mr. Vellum, people would follow you into space,” laughed Atah.
“One day we read something, and it sounds like this; then another day we read the same text and it now sounds ominously different. Why?” asked Clio rhetorically.
Vellum shrugged. He suddenly felt tired. He envied their energy.
“Everything around the words has changed, including the reader!” exclaimed Clio. “Could be as simple as having low blood sugar,” offered TV.
“Don’t watch television on an empty stomach!” laughed Atah. “Besides, all this is in your work.”
“If it is in my own work, how come nothing has changed?”
“Because on one level you are main stream. You are playing by the rules. You have a fan club. No one has focused on your ideas, only on your plotline.”
“I didn‘t even know I had a plot? I just wrote what I was told.”
“Yeah, well we’ve got to go. Love you, Daddy.”
She dropped the fabric roll and grabbed her father around the neck with both arms in that fearless way she had of showing her affections, always as if these embraces might be the last. And then she was gone, but not before he saw the nodding head of Atah looking back at him through the closing door.
He felt the unfolding of so many parts inside of him, all previously folded into a tight organization he once understood to be the essential him: Thomas Vellum, father and husband foremost, once a wannabe writer and demolition man, now a famous writer fleeing his fans and the fruit heads. He had always assumed that the appearance of the outer him represented the inner him, but these features had become too malleable; if they owed allegiance to any part of him it was now to some small element in his psyche set free with an opportunity to lord over the rest of his splintered selves. Like one of the Chinese toys that rise up and stretch forth from their canister once they are lit with a match, first this face and then that face was appearing, all bound to a force of change no longer attendant to any organized rule. In this metamorphosis the inner Vellum was pulp. Nothing stirred. The eyes, the nose, the affects of his superficial manipulations of facial hair, they were the elements of time, not that vast interior of secret motives, the Buddhas of eternal presences.
Clio always had the means of setting his inner stream into motion. He had been her father. Stop. He was her father. This was a verity. In this crisis, the father who loves his daughter, so palpable for us, rushed into the bathroom, turning on the light above the mirror. He took out his razor and shaved away the remaining islands on his broad jaw as well as the pointed stretch of his Van Dyke. He stood facing his new image with its long sideburns, its dark chin whiskers and much-reduced mustache extending the breadth of his mouth. Was this still our Thomas Vellum, the writer? He wasn’t sure. But Thomas Vellum was a father. He had proof of that. Clio. She was not simply a character out of a book. And Cass was proof of his marriage, TV, the married man. But writer? A writer was a craftsman with a pen, or more aptly, a writer was a craftsman with a keyboard. On the portal of a church dedicated to the arts, the writer would be standing looking down with the keyboard held tightly in the crux of an arm, much like a book, while the other hand plucked at imaginary words just out of reach. The painter, of course, held a brush and the musician an instrument. If the artist was conceptual s/he held a video camera to record the act. He imagined the musician wearing the dark suit or long dress of the concert hall, and the artist in the jeans and T-shirt holding a paint brush or an impasto knife, but the writer? Yes, he was aware of the Hollywood writer, black crew neck jersey with either a leather jacket or a silver silk suit, but that was already the garment of success. TV, the writer was a success, but he wasn’t a Hollywood writer. No, he was a Hollywood writer! He had made a lot of money that way. Money was the one currency in our system of values whose possession in copious amounts made us obviously successful. But he wasn’t the archetype of the Hollywood writer or any writer for that matter. Then what was he, a reflection? No, he was an insect in transition, pulp in its puparium ready for an identity imprint, like the masked doll at the Nadir.
Businessmen dressed conservatively, gray suits over white pin-striped dress shirts, loud rebellious ties. How was it that the business people felt at one with who they were and what they wore? Legions of them walked the streets knowing what they were doing and where they were going. Even after hours they frequented places like Le Rhetorique and were comfortable. Making money was both a means and an end. You were either successful or a failure but always you were sure of your goals, to make money. The attire matched your means perfectly. More expensive clothes meant success, more shabby clothes meant failure. He had always wanted to be a writer. The years of struggling had brought him up to an understandable articulation but never close enough to a marketable success. So if no one ever bought what one wrote, could one consider oneself a writer? After all, to communicate, one had to sell the word. To fail as a salesman of words was to remain a mute, like Zachariah. In the New Testament, Zachariah remained a priest in the temple, but his ability to preach had been severely curtailed.
For years the inability of TV to feed himself and his family on his writing required the transferral of his allegiance to another image of purpose. After all he had made his living in demolition, so he told everyone he was a hardhat, keeping his writing a secret. Since the standard of a writer’s success was gauged by the answer to the question, “Have you been published?” to which he would have to reply in the negative. He found it easier to avoid confusion by telling people he got paid for knocking down walls inside office buildings, shoveling dust and debris into construction bags and carting the whole mess out to the dumpster. That was success! And hey, I wear heavy canvas pants and work boots, a plaid cotton shirt and a sweat shirt with a front zipper and the name of my local on the back! And yeah, I wear my hard hat, pasted with all the job site stickers to mark where I’ve done time!
After Cassandra’s illness he saw the writing on the wall, the story of their mortality – she almost died. With Cassandra’s moral support, he retired early on a spartan pension. For a time he struggled with a novel until the connection was made. Then overnight he became a success, a success beyond his wildest dreams. The allegiance shifted, the face tethered to the end of the unfolding Chinese toy was that of a famous writer, all smiles. Until, that is, he forgot what he was smiling about. He began wondering what it really meant to be a writer. After all, his connection had done all the work. Call it what you will, inspiration or St. Matthew’s angel, it all happened as if he was just an observer. Success made him crazy. People pointing at him, following him, the great American writer! Success had made him a writer but it didn’t answer the question of who he was? There was no tangible hold on the identity of a writer. Defining himself as a construction worker had been easy: there was the job site, and there was the pry bar and the sledge hammer, easy. But a writer, at the keyboard, liberating more words than meanings until one day they are heard and understood and fly off into the cultural jet stream and became white noise. Who cared?

THE TRUE BUT OFTEN APOCRYPHAL STORY OF THE METAMORPHOSIS OF THOMAS VELLUM’S BEARD, PART I:4

I:4 On arriving home Vellum decided to cut clear through the jawbone line of hair connecting his sideburns to his chin hair. With the isthmus of white hair breached, a channel of pale white skin flowed from his scalp to his jawbone between the sideburns and the mass of thick black hairs around the mouth which stretched out like an eroded strip of volcanic sand over the solid jaw to a point. To perfect the point he used scissors. Cass knocked on the bathroom door and told him she needed to use the room. A few minutes later he emerged and she stepped back to appraise the change.
“You look bohemian or maybe New Age,” she said before disappearing into the bathroom, closing the door behind her.
In Riverside Park he had spent three years beyond the magnetic allure of the mirror, distrusting anything that had to do with his image. At the peak of his fame, the request of both publishers and publicists, television and radio hosts was a solid appearance. In other words, keep the image static so that the public bonded with its new hero. They wanted his familiar face on the front of Vanity Fair, drawing instantly on the happy recognition of the browser. Unfortunately, every time he went into the bathroom to shave he too saw the familiar face of film and television. The adulation of the popular self by strangers was like being chained to his appearance during his adolescent years. To alter the impression of being a stranger to himself, that is to his famous self, he would toss an absurd gesture into the calm surface of the mirror like a stone into the water. Stick his tongue out or grimace like a gorgon. Sometimes he mimicked an ape until fifteen year old Clio, seeing him one day, told him that his impersonation of a gorilla was entirely foolish since gorillas were actually lovable creatures and not at all the kind of monsters he was creating before the glass. If he really cared to know who they were, then he should pursue the works of Jane Goodall.
“What do you think of this face?” he had asked her.
“Your face?” she asked quizzically. “Like you mean is your face a famous face?”
“Sort of.”
Putting it that way confused him. She, too, was talking of two people, the very dilemma he was trying to understand. Was he two people or was he simply one person with two personas. He was too afraid to tell her that even when sitting on the toilet he had recently begun to imagine himself as two people, the man on the toilet and the other a member of the outer world, the world of his fans, looking down at the famous man from the mirror.
“My new friends think you are a famous man. That’s because they don’t really know you. I tell them you are just my daddy. My old friends don’t really care. Maybe because most of them have never read your books.”
“Knowing has a lot to do with it. I will stop impersonating the gorilla.”
“I mean I don’t care if you do it,” said Clio, shrugging her shoulders, “just be correct in
your impersonation.”
Stunned by Clio’s perceptive insights he went back to his morning ablution. But the truth was that during those years when he was within the maws of Raymond’s publicity machine he had lost his ability to know himself. He had immersed himself in creativity, where knowing was doing. He wasn’t aware of himself, only of the vast strands of information streaming through him from all around him and, of course, most importantly from ‘his connection.’ Somehow seeing his own image pasted all around and seeing how those images were also the mimicries of what he saw while shaving, had torn him away from his needed concentration on the surrounding world and made him acutely self-conscious. Raymond called this crisis inspirational.
“Didn’t you say that Clio was the name for the muse of history,” Raymond had enquired.
“Yeah, but I learned that after I was well into the series.”
“Can’t you go back to Clio?”
“Clio is my daughter, not my muse.”
“I thought Clio was your muse.”
“Oh, for god sakes, you’ve made a fortune off my work and still don’t understand a word of it. It’s not as if I sit like Matthew with an angel at my ear. I’ve lost sight of who I am.”
So he drifted off into the wilderness of Riverside Park, desperately avoiding the sight of himself anywhere, taking personally the Second Commandment, ‘Thou shalt have no graven images before thee.’ Ironically, the recent discovery of where he had been hiding brought him back to the mirror and the eternal question of who he was. Seeing was believing, wasn’t it? Again he had to begin with the litany: “I worked construction, I wrote a novel and then many novels, and then films from the novels and so on and became famous. Who became famous. . ? The writer became famous. Who was the writer. . ? The man in the mirror is the writer. Then who are you? I am the writer. No, you aren’t famous, you are just you. Show me!” Start again. I worked construction, I wrote a novel. . . Who wrote the novel? I wrote the novel. No, you aren’t famous, but he is, the one you are staring at in the mirror.” How had he come to this impasse, this self doubt? He remembered once, when he was in his twenties, telling his father that he was searching for himself. His response to his son’s statement was abrupt. Throwing his hands up in the air with exasperation, he shouted, “Searching! You don’t know who you are? What the hell, you’re worth what you fight for, your job, your pension, your wife and kid!” The man died before he could witness his son’s success.
One by-product of his vanity was an acceptance of this new image in the mirror because that image was a disguise! But he wondered if he should ask Cass to clarify. The next morning he was standing by the sink drinking a cup of coffee when Cass entered the kitchen in a hurry to finish her bowl of cereal and get off to work.
“What do you mean by bohemian or New Age?”
“Not now, Thom.”
“I think of, you know, the beat generation or Silicon Valley techies.”
“Yeah, something like that. . . But not what you are wearing.”
“I just spent a lot of money on what I’m wearing!”
He was wearing yesterday’s acquisitions.
“But now you’ve changed. Go with it.”
“I’m not about to go down and buy new clothes because I’ve reconfigured my beard. Besides, you’ve defined me by an either/or.”
“Then why did you shave?”
“Because everyone was connecting me to Arabs and to some kind of smoking habit
and. . .”
“Not now, Thom, I’ve got to go,” and with that she dropped the spoon and bowl into the sink and left the room.
Later the young salesman found him again in front of the same tie and belt rack.
“So back for more. . . Wow, I can see you truly have a votive connection with Sari Sermon. You look. . . Shall we go to the Prayer Room.”
And with that they went up the stairs to the prie-dieu filled room and knelt down and he filled his eyes with Sermon’s imagery while the heavenly synthesized voices wavering between Palestrina and the Grateful Dead filled his ears.
This time he left wearing a black silk shirt with charcoal gray flannel slacks and jacket and black ankle-high shoes. Once again he wore a new tan leather belt of his choice as a concession to his independence. Under his arm he carried the box with yesterday’s fashions, which he noted were heavier than the worn-out apparel he carried the day before. He stepped lightly, the casual wear shaping his stride. The runway music of the prie-dieu room added an internal melodic strain to his step. He could feel the gentle flapping of the pant cuffs counter-pointing the open flaps of his single button jacket. On the corner of 18th and Broadway he stopped for the light. He could feel the woman behind him looking him over. How could he be sure of this? Was he imagining this, the old Thomas Vellum, that is Thomas Vellum the writer, imagining people staring at him from every side, gnawing away at his face like dogs chewing the ends of a bone? He was afraid to turn around. She would utter his name and then he would be crushed by the others within earshot. The light turned and they all began walking. Then she was next to him. In an instant she turned and looked at him, her eyes flashing just above her dark glasses. She reminded him of an actress in one of his films, past thirty, attractive, wearing a European leather pant suit, very chic. Was that what Raymond meant yesterday when he called him ‘sheik’? It wasn’t the look of someone seeking subsidiary fame through a famous person, it was the look of immediate interest and hunger in a stranger. He could see himself through her eyes, a free agent on the stage of life! He was not the famous writer pinned to his occupation, like a butterfly pinned to an observation board. He was simply a cool dude. No, he was a famous man pretending to be a non-famous man who is pretending to be famous! At the far corner she turned right into him nearly knocking him off his feet.
“Sure, I’d love a drink,” she said, grabbing him by his elbow to protect him from the pedestrians streaming alongside of him.
“Well. . .”
This was a crucial moment where his inner substance might fail the outer garment. He drew strength from her impressions of him. He decided he would not tell her he had stopped drinking back when he had made ‘the connection.’ In his last book he describes ‘the connection’ as a woman living in the near future in the green fastness of Machu Picchu. She turned him away from sugar and alcohol; and turned him from a craven eater of flesh and sweets into a vegetarian. And since Cassandra had given up liquor after her operation, so had he. He stood poised to articulate these thoughts but caught himself. She would recognize him. Go with it, Cass had said. And after all, what could this woman expect from him?
“Name the place.”
“Now we’re talking,” she laughed.
After a brisk walk to Park Avenue, her heeled boots strafing the concrete pavement with the cadence of a machine gun, they entered a small club called Le Rhetorique on the corner. It had large picture windows. The interior was paneled in wood and mirrors. It seemed the habitués were already getting lit despite the early hour. Embedded in the wall mirror behind the bar several televisions ran with disconnected images no stranger than the illuminated reflections of the patrons seen in the mirror. After they had found a place at the posh bar, he began wondering how much this was going to cost him. Again he thought of Cass. “Consider it expenses,” she had said. He had already spent another twenty eight hundred on the gear he was wearing and carrying yesterday’s twenty five hundred in the box. My god, he was carrying over four grand! What did a couple of drinks matter if they helped him slide into the fabric of society, ‘a complete unknown, like a rolling stone. . .’
“What’s so funny?” she asked crossing her legs, a cigarette already in her hands.
Luckily she had her own lighter.
“A Bob Dylan song just passed through my thoughts.”
“He’s a little before my time. Are you one of those guys that likes the old music.”
“Yeah, I like all kinds of music.”
“That’s cool. So do I. I’m Marguerite.”
“French?”
“Are you kidding,” she laughed.
The black Asian bartender knew her by name. He knew her drink as well. When he looked at Vellum, Vellum asked her what she was drinking.
“Tanqueray neat with a twist.”
“The same.”
The bartender nodded and turned toward the mirrors where the bottles of his trade were arrayed.
“So. . .” began Vellum, uncertain of his surroundings.
At a volume barely audible, flowing through the room like an undercurrent, a Pat Metheny and Ornette Coleman piece was generating a ribald counterpoint to the fashionable conversations taking place on a louder plane. Was the bartender, who he assumed had chosen the recording, entertaining himself on this workday afternoon? The televisions blinked sequences of images drawn from daily mayhem, oil rigs burning, bombs exploding, buildings collapsing, hydroelectric dams crumbling. No one paid any attention.
“I’m really a Mary. And you?”
“Sam Sherman.”
“Any relation to Sari?”
“Why does everybody ask me that?”
“Well, you are wearing her signature clothes.”
“I thought her name was Sermon.”
“It is,” she replied as her phone rang.
The drinks arrived. Seeing it on the coaster he realized he wouldn’t touch it, so he ordered a chaser. When the glass of water arrived he sipped from it. She had already tossed back her drink when he simply pushed his gin over to her.
“You’re not drinking?”
“No, I don’t drink.”
“Not even a glass of wine?”
He wove a tale of sorrow out of The Days Of Wine and Roses where he played the Jack Lemmon character. It caught her fancy immediately, a successful man who had seen rock bottom, had developed cirrhosis of the liver, and had come to realize the limits of the body.
“Something I haven’t realized yet,” she said. “For a moment I thought you might be one of those guys who likes to get the girls drunk. So with a history like yours you must be older than you seem.”
“One of life’s many surprises,” he said, urbanely sipping from his water glass.
Unfortunately the conversation languished from time to time because of a lack of content. For the first twenty or thirty minutes she kept referring to people he didn’t know but whom she insisted he must know. Who would someone like Sam Sherman know, he wondered?
“So then, what do you do?”
The question was inevitable and he rued his lack of imagination that had set him up for this question. If he had only spent the last three years reading the newspaper or following the jazz circuit he might have been able to fabricate some association she would have known. But every time he mentioned a favorite jazz musician she nodded absently, feeling no doubt inadequate herself. That left them both on a precarious ledge. So here it came, the reality bullet which he would now counter with an account that he was beginning to see could fit into any of his characters.
“I write copy for advertising.”
“You don’t seem the type.”
“Believe me, anyone can do it.”
“I couldn’t.”
“Sure you could. All you have to do is describe something you like.”
“What if I don’t like it?”
“First, find something you like and practice ways of clarifying your reasons for liking it. When you get good at that, then you find little things that interest you in things you don’t like. That gives you a foothold on a subject otherwise despicable. You understand? You pry away and soon you have a foothold. All kinds of descriptions come to mind. After a while you can just outright lie about everything, you don’t even need a foothold in truth anymore. But in fact you can also tell the target audience what you don’t like about the product and that will often satisfy their need to buy it.”
“Who’d want to do that?”
“It’s the American way, Mary,” he said, paraphrasing Raymond Smith. “And it pays the bills.”
As the afternoon wore on it became apparent that Marguerite didn’t know much about music at all, didn’t read much and spent a great deal of her free time in Bloomingdale’s uptown or on her cell phone, which erupted every few minutes with a theme song from “Cats.”
“That was from a poem by T. S. Eliot,” he said the first time he heard it.
“What was, darling?” she asked, splicing her question into the other conversation on the
phone.
“Your phone’s theme song.”
“Oh, I just loved the costumes,” she exuded, explaining her conversation with him to her
unseen listener.
She was capable of holding several conversations at once, cell phone in one hand, her drink in the other. Whether she spoke to the person at the other end or to anyone around her, the seamlessness of her conversation was awesome, as if everyone talking to her was discussing the same topic. She had been married once to an executive and divorced, with a settlement that left her plenty of free time to free associate. With the workday ending, people were beginning to enter the bar. The place was humming and a more comforting and soothing, less controversial jazz from the early Sixties was playing. When friends of hers arrived, she introduced him as the Ad Man, which piqued the interest of a couple of young gentlemen in their mid-thirties who wore dark suits with expensive tasseled loafers. One maintained constant contact with the outer world with an ear-set attached to the latest cell phone. The other wore silver sun glasses and carried a matching handheld silver PC phone that was also a mini computer and took pictures.
“Ad Man. Is that right, Marguerite?”
She cooed agreement, enjoying the competition.
“And what is your line, if you don’t mind my asking?” asked Vellum, as required.
“I’m a software designer. A few years ago after the tech crash I left Sitwell Corp and developed a new product. It’s a training program that links to a robotic surgery system. Because it’s interactive it keeps a few steps ahead of the user, giving medical students an excellent training tool It’s cutting edge. We’ve just got the patent and the day after tomorrow we’re flying to London to lead a seminar in semiotics.”
His associate was from Los Angeles, and he too had been recently unemployed but was busy. By the looks of things, they appeared successful: expensive drinks, fine clothing, top notch accommodations, if the hotel they were staying at in London meant anything, quite a feat considering the amount of time they had been unemployed. As they cozied up to Mary, Vellum took the chance of extracting himself. She gave him her number and wished him well.
Across the street from Le Rhetorique, a bright yellow box truck was double parked with traffic backing up behind it. The driver who was just rounding the cab onto the far sidewalk reminded Thom of Anthony Morales, the second time this week Vellum had thought of him. The front of the cab was a display rack carrying an assortment of Barbie dolls, some lacking an arm or a leg, wired to the engine grill. He was about to cross the street through the traffic for a closer look when he saw the bowler-hat man. He froze as he considered his next move. But the man wasn’t interested in him, hadn’t even noticed him. He was studying the truck. At that moment another man dressed identically in black passed right in front of Vellum from the opposite direction, his eyes also on the yellow truck. TV turned and walked away toward Union Square.
That he had gone unheeded by his own darkly dressed shadow from four days ago was comforting but offset by seeing more than one, which indicated a consortium of such people. Going unnoticed offered TV an excuse for entrenching in his disguise. For several days he revisited La Rhetorique, sitting by the window. He hoped to see the yellow truck again. He noticed that store in the building across the street sold movie monster and sci-fi costumes but specialized in old, hard-to-get Marvel action hero comic books. The same orchestrated musical cacophony streamed beneath the barside conversation before eventually flat-lining into familiarity with Happy Hour tunes culled from recent pop and old rock. Each time Marguerite saw him she brought him instantly into the conversation with the nodding of heads, nearly touching, that insider gossip requires to convey the incestuous loop of knowing. But now that the two techies, whose names he learned were Frank and Sal, had left for Europe, he didn’t really know anyone. He learned by the second day to nod appropriately whenever she or one of her other friends related stories about them behind their backs. Someone said that Frank had bought a Nevelson sculpture on the advice of an agent, and when the technology stocks plummeted he had sold the piece, making enough money to buy a condo in New York. Vellum realized that in time, if not already, he too must become the object of hearsay. How he wished he was a fly on the wall, listening to what they had to say of him. Did they all know each other intimately or were they like him, acquaintances, like those one met at work, known only in that environment? How would his guise be augmented through their words? Would a mystique grow around him which even he couldn’t imagine; or would his guise be pillaged for content where there was none, in which case interest would be lost and with his next appearance he would be shunned? The permutations were endless. Perhaps he could don some new guise, stand nearby and listen. From time to time the front of his building or a photograph of his bearded self appeared on one of the televisions behind the bar. No one noticed. One day the director of the Federal Bureau for Standards and Trademarks appeared on both televisions at once to announce that the recent breakup of a gang of homeless men in New York has led to the discovery of an extensive network bent on the destruction of our standards and our way of life. No one noticed. What was evident to Vellum, though, was that leeway was given him regarding his attire, but not to the women. Unlike the men, the women dressed with novelty each day. On no two days did they wear the same outfit. The men of long standing changed shirts daily, if not their jackets. That he hadn’t changed his shirt was being noticed.
One afternoon about a week later as he entered the Park Avenue club he was met by a low rumbling sound of horns and drums honking and pounding in a constant cadence like a flock of Canadian geese passing overhead. No one noticed this striking foreign sound that carried no melody whatsoever yet evoked something important, an important statement in an unknown language. Looking at the bartender he saw the man returning his gaze. As he reached for his drink he noticed on the coaster a scribbling of words. He took his glass and coaster to his seat where he was greeted by Marguerite with a side peck to his ear lobe. He looked at the inscription, “Musicians playing ivory trumpets at a festival of the Alur in Uganda.”
“What are you reading?” Marguerite asked, leaning toward him her chin on his shoulder.
He passed her the coaster.
“I imagine,” he said, “the Alur live a precarious life. Do you think they are nomads? ”
She shrugged her shoulders.
“I hadn’t noticed.”
As she said this she shifted her chin from his shoulder to the shoulder of the man sitting on the other side of her, a day trader on the stock exchange who was then talking on his cell phone.

THE TRUE BUT OFTEN APOCRYPHAL STORY OF THE METAMORPHOSIS OF THOMAS VELLUM’S BEARD, PART I:3

I:3 That night Vellum shed his high school jacket and the blue jeans preferring his time worn khakis. While Cass marked papers in the living room he debated his next move. He couldn’t stay within this flexible identity another moment knowing he’d repeatedly be mistaken for those riding in on the next wave of cultural change. He studied his beard and wondered where to cut. He realized the slightest error could cost him his anonymity or cast him into another ballyhoo. Timorously he cut away from his upper cheek, leaving a neat white line of hair nearly an inch wide connecting his sideburns to the mustache and full chin hair. His cheekbone was prominent. Cass’s first reaction, on looking up from her papers, was to raise her eyebrows with interest.
“If you are going to continue with this project, you should wear the appropriate clothes.”
She had the acute ability to dissect his plans and help perfect his purpose.
“Come on, I’m not about to alter my beliefs. I’m still committed to changing the world.”
“Buying some new clothes doesn’t mean you aren’t changing the world. Just means you’re appropriately dressed.”
“You mean like dressing for the part?”
“I’m not sure I understand you. I meant when you had the full beard down the collar and the head of hair, the old khakis and the faded sweatshirt with sneakers fit the image. You were in hiding.”
“I’m still in hiding. But everyone thought I was trying to look like Hemingway because I rounded out the beard and wore a red plaid shirt.”
She paused for a moment, her pencil tapping the edge of her papers.
“Well, your rough-guy clothes don’t fit your new face … Aren’t you going undercover? Seems to me you’re letting go of the old image. It was failing you, and you’re trying to work up a new image. In other words, as long as you wear your sneakers and khakis everyone is going to recognize you! Especially that clown in the dark suit and bowler hat.”
That made sense. She always made sense, but he was shocked at his own dissembling. Today’s experiences had made him feel like an actor and he had enjoyed it. He wondered how Cass would have reacted had she seen him sitting next to Samantha with her long skirt and fashionable boots as she explained her adulation for Steblen, reaching over and touching his arm in fits of enthusiasm over such things as two-story porticos or an entablature that was “going to unite the past and future geometry of the world?”
“What do you suggest?”
Her suggestion was apt.
“Go down to Virtual Wear Ltd. and let a salesman help you determine the direction. I go through magazines to get ideas, but you won’t do that! If you feel his advice is absolutely off base then change salespeople.”
“This is going to cost money. I hate spending money on clothes.”
“We are frugal. We buy very few things with what you call your Blood Money.”
“At least I admit it. Raymond. . .”
“Don’t bring Raymond into this, he’s your agent. He doesn’t have your morals.”
“But I made him successful. It’s like he didn’t even hear what I was saying in my books. He started buying homes and extra homes and then homes away from homes. My parents had one home, which they cherished. They were proud of it. When they sold it, they brought a smaller home, which they cherished.”
“But we don’t, so why are we being punished? Because Raymond buys real estate? For the past three years we’ve bought one second-hand couch and finally you agreed we could buy a new refrigerator but only because the landlord wanted to charge us an arm and a leg to replace a solenoid in the old one.”
“Computers! You forgot to mention computers and all the paraphernalia. I’ve not held back there. . .”
“Well yes. . .”
“I bought hardware even Billy Board knew nothing about!”
“You said you needed those things.”
“Exactly. Needed. I’m utilitarian. I needed those things. I had no trouble spending lots of money on that stuff because I needed to improve the connection – at least Billy didn’t sell out.”
“Don’t be so sure,” she muttered with an exasperated sigh.
“What do you mean?”
“Forget it. But tell me why you seemed to lose interest once you set up all that stuff? What happened to the connection?”
“I told you. I lost it at the other end, I can’t tell you more. . . Do you think Billy sold out too?”
“I don’t know, one of our old friends told me that he and Raymond were working on something.”
“Because I’m an anti-materialist you think I’m cheap.”
“I don’t. I love you, crazy as you are,” she said, reaching up and taking hold of his hand which she brought to her cheek, momentarily closing her eyes. “And I don’t forget how we paid off all my medical bills past and present and how we have put money away for Clio and how we have invested in hundreds of public concerns. You helped pay down the debt in Refugium and you established the Homeless Institute Trust Fund for your friends.”
“It’s being swallowed up by administrators. I’ve got to visit them!”
“Just consider these items you’re buying,” she said with emphasis, touching the sleeve of his shirt, “which you need, as an investment in your cover. Consider them part of your work, just like the hardware.”
It was an interesting proposal. For the last three years he had spent most of his time in Riverside Park, not at home writing. The day Raymond Smith saw TV on the news he began calling him again, asking him when he would be coming down to the office for a chat, chat being the proverbial term to reconnoiter a new deal. No doubt Smith’s real estate deals needed new financial buttressing. Vellum finally agreed to a day which turned out to be tomorrow. Before dropping by Smith’s he would visit Virtual Wear.
Years ago a spurt of energy had elevated TV to replace a worn-out suit prior to a wedding in the family. But that last visit to a department store hadn’t provided him enough confidence to negotiate the myriad stylist opportunities he now confronted. He gravitated toward the immediate security of ties and belts and stood stupidly staring at the number of dots in a green tie before comparing the symmetry with the holes in a cowhide belt. He debated whether there were enough holes to cinch the pants he hoped he would be buying. Luckily a young man appeared who managed the disenfranchised look of an NYU student. He took one look at Vellum and understood that kid gloves were necessary.
“You haven’t been here before, have you?”
“Well, I was in. . . Loehmann’s years ago, and I bought a pin stripe suit.”
“Cool. You looking for another suit?”
“I don’t know. What do you think? I am. . . can I confide in you?”
“Well, yeah, I guess.”
“These clothes I’m wearing reflect a former look. Now I have. . . do you see. . . tightened up the line here. . ,” he pointed to his chin, “and I need something appropriate.. . to wear.”
“Well. . .”
“But! but I need to remain anonymous. I insist that my garments assist me in hiding my identity.”
The salesman held his council for a moment, wondering if he needed to call security. But he concluded this was an honest attempt at remaining below the vigilant eyes of the fashion critics who roamed the city for the BIG APPLE TIMES styles section seeking signs of a current movement of couture.
“How do you wish to pay for your acquisitions, by check or credit?”
“Cash.”
Because of his notoriety Vellum had learned never to sign his name to any paper, since the first few times had brought on a slew of fans to check him out. Once a female cashier had cried with joy that she had just seen the film release of his fifth novel. Security had to save him from the arms of well-wishers before he had completed the transaction.
“You have a cash machine I assume.”
“Yes. Well then. . . Let me show you the Sari Sermon collection. She’s new in fashion, a little-known artist who has just created her own startup line of clothes. . .”
“I know who she is,” piped Vellum, somewhat piqued now that he had learned that Sam had mistaken him for her.
After a moments pause, the salesman continued.
“It will give you an idea of where we can start, since she is a firm believer in costume dressing…”
“I don’t want anything absurd.”
“Right.”
They went up an escalator and into a small room that seemed overlaid with gold leaf bearing great circles the color of light caramel. A series of prie-dieus stood in a semi-circle, each bearing on a sloping maple wood panel a digital catalogue in which plate after plate depicted Sari Sermon dressed in various male garb from her latest fall male collection. The young man encouraged him to kneel down and page through. Seeing that Vellum was hesitating, he himself led the way and demonstrated the ease with which it could be accomplished using the electronic mouse. The salesman insisted the pictures were nothing more than ideas which could assist him in acquiring the desired look. While he spoke, a sonorous polyphonic melody filled the room sounding at first like Palestrina and then in moments of modern lucidity, anything from the Grateful Dead to Innocent Mission.
“Mix and match, that’s what we are going to do,” the young man said smiling angelically.
When they were done, Vellum had executed a purchase of $2500. He had to call his bank and demand a release greater than the $500 allotted by the cash machine. The bank attendant pleaded with him.
“Mr. Vellum, why can’t you use your absolutely cost-free check book?”
But he was adamant and she relinquished the bank’s hold on his money.
Placing his khakis and sneakers into the store box, he walked out in black linen trousers that tightened at the ankles, white socks and brown sandal slippers, a white turtleneck and a gray cotton dress jacket worn casually. The one exception to the rule was the leather belt which Vellum insisted upon because it had been the single item he had chosen instinctively, with the right number of holes to hold his pants up.
Raymond was impressed. With outstretched arms he welcomed the prodigal son, though correctly speaking they were the same age. He hoped that all was well with him. Because of TV, he had become one of the most successful agents in the city, shunning offers from the most esteemed houses to join them.
“Yeah, like they want me,” he exclaimed for Vellum benefit.
He was only too aware of the desirability of his famous client. Since TV’s career skyrocketed, Raymond had made the greatest shift in lifestyle. After buying the expensive apartment north of Washington Square Park on 5th Avenue, where they now chatted, Raymond had bought a house with a pool surrounded by an enormous hedge in the Hamptons, a condo in Miami overlooking the Atlantic, a small castle in Normandy which cost a fortune to heat and a country manor near Florence which had been modernized the year before he bought it. He had bought a black Mercedes and a yellow Jaguar. He had received an honorary liberal arts degree from Hampard University in Boston which he proudly displayed on the wall of his foyer and now sat on the board of governors for the same institution.
“Nobody recognized me down in the lobby,” noted Vellum quite pleased.
“I don’t recognize you. You look like one of those international sheiks.”
“Yeah?”
“Only your voice gives you away.”
“A sheik?”
“Is that an image you want to portray at a time like this with our country about to go to war in the Middle East?”
“I really hadn’t thought of that.”
“On the other hand, you’re an international success. Now at least you look like one. I don’t have to tell you, Thom, that you’ve been hiding from it. Enjoy it and let your fans enjoy it.”
Thomas studied Raymond’s new degree.
“Thom, have you ever thought of getting a degree?”
“What for?”
“It would legitimize your career.”
“I didn’t go to college.”
“Neither did Spellberg. He got an honorary degree from UCLA.”
“But I hate school.”
“Who cares. Besides you don’t even have to attend classes. They accept anyone as long as you create and endow a chair – it looks good on your resume.”
“A chair?”
“You know, like a teaching position. They call them chairs. I could arrange it.”
“What I can’t understand about you, Raymond, is your belief that money can make you different.”
“It does make a difference, Thom. By the way, Spellberg wants to buy the rights of your last novel for the film version. He wants to use his latest special effects technology for the great battle scenes.”
“I didn’t live the way I did before my success because I lacked money.”
“Yes, you did. You were strapped for cash. Cass was recovering from her transplant. You were worn out working construction.”
“I was strictly demolition.”
“Yes, I know. But you had no time for writing. . . Did you hear what I just said?”
“No, I wrote. . . Yeah I heard you. . . You’re living off what I wrote. Yeah, I needed a new refrigerator, our oven was shot and the computer was ancient. And yeah, success allowed us to buy those things.”
“Ok, Thom, whatever. . .”
“In fact I live not, I repeat, not within my means but within a just scale that is in direct proportion to my place on earth. I am not a human who can live above everybody else. I’m not competing with Croesus or Caesar… or you, Raymond. It’s all up here,” pointing to his head. “I just don’t understand how people, once they have money, add colonnades to their houses, buy airplanes, then a bigger house. . .”
“It’s a physical condition of life, Thom. They even have a name for it, called Parkinson’s Law.”
“Hasn’t anyone heard of the fisherman’s wife?”
“She must have been an American. It’s certainly the American way, Thom.”
“No, it is not the American way, it is an American way. It’s a human way, but it is not the way, law or no law. We have choices, we can live within our bounds. You know, you talk about a war. I hear people on the news talking about shadowy figures trying to destroy our way of life. Terrorists. . .”
“Wearing your beard!”
“Not my beard! Anyway, twenty years ago we had the same crisis, the high prices of things, a questionable oil economy. It’s not ‘them’ we should fear but ourselves. I wrote about it, remember?”
“Thom, of course I remember. But I’m not in the business to change the world. I’m in the business of getting your world out to the public.”
“Up here, Raymond,” said Vellum, pointing to his head, “up here, I can expand beyond
my means. Up here there are no boundaries, it’s justified. Up here I need fine things,
things money can’t buy. That’s why we have poetry.”
“Ok, so what’s with this getup?”
“Well, I’m revitalizing my cover, considering that everyone knows me as the guy with the beard, thanks to those reporters from INNETNEWS.”
“They’re more than reporters, they’re your fans. There’s really not much difference.”
“Whose side are you on?”
“The side of good publicity, naturally.”
“Even my friends in the park. . .”
“You mean those homeless losers down. . .”
“Hey, my friends! But thanks to the publicity even they didn’t want me anymore. Eddie Ammonia even thought I was using them to gather information about them.”
“Eddie Ammonia? Sounds like a brand name.”
“He’s one of the St. Clair’s group. Remember I’ve spent three years hanging with them, learning their ways. . .”
“Yeah, three years, and what do you have to show for it?”
“What’s the hurry? Anyway I’m involved in a new project.”
“Great! Can you reveal it?”
“Reveal what? I am shedding one cover – slowly – and donning another. That’s why I look this way.”
“That’s great Thom, but your fans are worried. The chatter on the net is unbelievable. They’ve even set-up a web site called FOUND AND LOST, where people log on to report on TV sightings. And because you were wearing a long beard when you were found. . .”
“I wasn’t found, because I wasn’t lost!”
“OK, but literally overnight everyone is growing one.”
“Growing what?”
“A beard! Meanwhile the authorities have been profiling anyone with a beard because they associate terrorists with beards. And not just religious fundamentalists, remember Billy Barbudos of Sybaris? Thom, you’re a cultural symbol. You owe them a book.”
“I owe the government a book? My taxes aren’t enough?”
“The people who follow you, they need you. Look, I took you in when you were unknown.”
“You had a crush on Cass. And our kids went to the same school. And yes, you did me a favor, but let’s get real. I’ve made you a rich man.”
“OK, have it your way. I’m only trying to further your interests. Is this. . . this sheik deal part of anything that will eventually, you know, become part of the makings of a. . , you know, a story or movie or play or radio bit. . . you know?”
We are spending time on this conversation because Raymond Smith later was kind enough to transcribe it from memory. We have always been at home here. By shining a light on this conversation we are able to infuse some authenticity into the suppositions which precede and follow these passages. Remember, TV taught us everything we know. The guy frets his hour way out there on the edge of time where experience and creativity are in perennial agitation.
“As soon as people see you dressed this way you’ll make everyone connected with these trademarks wealthy.”
“Hey, the point is no one is to know who I am. That’s why I am wearing these things. But strange that you should say that, yesterday in Battery Park some guy thought I was this guy Sari. Turns out he is a she…”
“The guy in the park?”
“No, the designer.”
“Who is the designer?”
“Sari Sermon. Sari is a designer and I am wearing her clothes.”
Raymond paused for a moment, with his mouth pursed, his chin raised.
“Ok, but when are you going to get back into the creative spirit?”
“As soon as I re-establish the connection. As soon as I learned the identity of my contact, she cut off the connection. . . for security reasons. Perhaps the base camp came under attack. Frankly, I don’t know. I was worried to death about her.”
“Who?”
Vellum paused.
“My contact. But Cass, as usual, suggested I do some field reconnaissance in the local area by which she meant going underground in Riverside Park.”
“It was her idea to go into the park?”
“I was moping around for days, worried sick about my contact. Everyone was bugging me, including you, Raymond. Cass always comes to my aid with solid ideas. You know it was her idea to see you the first time.”
“It was?”
“Of course she didn’t know I would stay in the park three years!”
When relating to TV, Raymond Smith had to adjust the tactics he used with his normal clients. The usual clowning around, slap on the back and hard-nose cajoling were out of the question. As he and their mutual friend, Billy Board agreed, TV lived out his plots and characterizations in a manner that would make actors’ mouths water with jealousy. You couldn’t interrupt. Vellum was searching. Raymond was ecstatic that his client had donned something new, something that looked currently fashionable. As they sat there talking, actually Raymond sat, Vellum paced, TV looked more and more like a member of the European literati than a sheik. Considering the last sequence in the great series had taken place in the mountains of Peru amid the jagged peaks of Machu Picchu, perhaps the story line was going to pick up now in some other part of the world, Zaire or Russia. His new suit did look modern.
“Well, does that mean we will be seeing some copy soon?”
“Copy. That’s funny you used the word. Yesterday I told a woman who thought I was Professor Steblen, the famous architect. . .”
“Never heard of him. A famous architect, you say.”
“But what do we know about architecture? I told her that I was a copy writer, and ever since I can’t get that song out of my mind.”
“What song?”
“Copyback writer.”
“You mean Paperback Writer, don’t you?”
“Exactly what I told her!”
Vellum laughed so hard that Smith was hard put to decipher the cause.
“Just call me Steblen, ok?”
Again laughter as Vellum opened the front door and told Raymond he would certainly get him some copy soon.
He emerged on Fifth Avenue, his clothing box under his arm, and decided to saunter down to Washington Square Park. He was feeling great. The evening was chilly. The bright air was clear, even the cars passing on Fifth shone with late afternoon resplendency. No one had recognized him though he realized people noticed him, essentially because of his get-up, as Smith had called it. A sheik! People saw the suit, not the man. The suit was his shield, that and his tightly cut beard, which according to the salesman and the cashier, was perfectly matched to his new outfit. Do people shop like this, he wondered? What if a large pimple appeared on the tip of my nose? Would that require a light grey dress shirt to absorb the pink?
In the park he took a seat on one of the paths, crossed his legs and studied the newly-tinged yellow leaves on the elms. Behind him kids on swing sets created the squeaky cadence of an unoiled metronome. In the intersections where all the paths crossed, groups of blacks stood like overdressed guards in casual sweat clothes, motioning to pedestrians with non-committal gestures. The one nearest looked at him, so Vellum focused on the square tower of Judson Memorial Church on the south side of the park. The dog run near the park’s brick buildings was busy. The slow clacking of her heels came before she herself appeared from around the corner of the bench, wearing her beige overcoat over her shoulders like someone stepping out of an old movie.
“You don’t happen to have a light do you?”
Her heavy voice carried years of insight.
“Well, no, I don’t smoke, no, I’m sorry.”
He felt absolutely lame beneath the gaze of this sophisticated woman, even if she was at least twenty years younger than him. Years of watching the film noir of the 40s and 50s had acculturated him to her perfection. In her shadow he seemed absolutely paltry. Even his own work was nothing compared to the physical presence of such a woman.
“You look so familiar,” he said.
“That’s what they all say, that is, all of you.”
“Please, I wasn’t suggesting…”
“I’m flattered, I assure you. It’s not often a young man appears to me as an equal.”
“Well, actually I’m not as young as I look, so it’s I who am flattered. Who are you?”
“What if I told you that is where I draw the line?”
“I’d have to respect that, wouldn’t I?”
“Of course I still haven’t got a light, have I?”
“Please sit down, I will get you one.”
“I’ll wait but I’ll stand.”
He got up and ran off to a group of kids sitting on the backs of a bench inside the circle.
One of them was playing a guitar.
“You guys have a match?”
“Shit, we don’t smoke,” said the youngest member who was puffing on a joint the size of a cigar.
“How did you light up that joint?”
“Went around asking just like you. What are you, a sheik?”
“Yeah,” reiterated a small guy, “you don’t want to be Arab these days.”
By the time he came back she was gone, naturally. She had vanished into thin air. He resumed his seat holding one matchstick. He was chewing on the wood stick when he noticed an elderly man in tweed exiting from one of the brick townhouses on the northeast side of the park. The man made his way down toward him and then drew up just in front of him and noted the match.
“You don’t happen to have some spare tobacco on you.”
He pulled a large pipe out of his jacket pocket.
“I just remembered now having left my pouch of tobacco on the table by the door. I grabbed the keys and forgot the pouch.”
“Actually, I’m sorry to say, I don’t smoke.”
“I noticed the match, perfect for lighting a pipe, and thought to myself, here is one of the gracious few that still smokes a pipe.”
“Next time I’ll have some tobacco.”
TV chuckled as he pointed to his match.
“I don’t believe I know you. You must be new on campus? English department or Middle Eastern studies?”
“No, no,” exclaimed Vellum, “actually I was just down here visiting my…”
He caught himself at the verge of self-incrimination.
“…a friend, and you?”
“Well, I am part of the faculty, Architecture Department, Professor Steblen.”
“Steblen? The architect?”
“Why yes. You are familiar with my work?”
The old man’s smile widened with confidence. He had obviously mistaken Vellum’s stunned expression. Samantha claimed Steblen was young!
“I was under the impression you were teaching up at Columbia.”
“How strange. No, I’m an NYU man all the way.”
“A woman I recently meet is a great fan of yours. She too was under that impression.”
“Not the woman I saw you talking to earlier? Was she your friend?”
“No, but I wish she were.”
“I didn’t catch your name.”
“Sam Sherman,” announced Vellum, completing a new amalgamation.
“Ah, like the artist and fashion designer Sari Sermon. Any relation to you?”
At this point the young man who was smoking the fat joint came by and asked Vellum if he was simply going to chew the match or use it. If he was going to chew it, well then, let him strike the flint and light his joint which had gone out, then he could have the fucking stick back. If not, fuck it, then give him the whole stick. In exchange he offered him a toke on his joint.
“You too old man,” he said, looking at Steblen.
With this interruption the old man excused himself and continued his way south, without his tobacco, though he continued to suck on his pipe, drawing air. Vellum stood and handed the young man the matchstick and told him to keep the change.

THE TRUE BUT OFTEN APOCRYPHAL STORY OF THE METAMORPHOSIS OF THOMAS VELLUM’S BEARD, PART I:2

I:2 With a razor he skimmed the surface of the beard until it was tightly shorn around his chin and jaw. In the closet he found an old gray tweed jacket which he hadn’t worn since his senior year in high school, the last year of his formal education. He slipped it on over his t-shirt, remembering the autumn evenings in ninth grade when he and his best friend, Anthony Morales, met Anthony’s girlfriend, Sylvia, and her best friend, whose name he couldn’t remember, up on the Miracle Mile off Northern Boulevard. The girls loved Anthony. He relied upon an elegance drawn from his Cuban heritage that was unusual at that time in the suburbs. Applying a thick dollop of white hair tonic called SCHOOL to his scalp, Anthony could elevate his jet black straight hair into a wave which reminded everyone of Dion of the Belmonts. The old jacket still possessed some of that ancient odor of nervous expectation. He certainly hadn’t been wearing blue jeans that evening, he reflected, looking down at his pants. Blue jeans would appear a few years later in his senior year. Morales would have worn tight black jeans, he concluded. And whatever Anthony wore, Vellum wore.
At the front door he hesitated, wondering if he should remain at home and begin a new project? The INQUIRY said his latest book was a digital receiver for cosmic messages. What new book? As he descended the stairs to avoid meeting anyone in the elevator, he pictured ears, antennas and an angel speaking to the apostle Matthew. He stepped into the sunlight and saw the mysterious man in the bowler hat watching him. But to his delight the man didn’t take the usual steps in pursuit. At the corner he passed Eddie who asked for a handout without the usual bravado of a friend. Vellum walked on, feeling as if he had betrayed the principles of the homeless by which they had all seemed compelled to live. He had shorn away not only the attributes of his recent identity but the attributes of a radical believer in the homeless doctrine of the non-proliferation of goods.
He was sitting in Stark’s Coffee Shop just north of 110th Street, enjoying his anonymity when a young woman at the table behind his, introduced herself as Samantha. She asked him if he was Mr. Steblen. When he turned to look at her, he noticed that she was hoping with all her might he would be this Steblen. He was shocked that he had actually been mistaken for someone else. He told her he was not. Steblen, it turned out, was going to be her professor in a class on architecture. She had seen Steblen’s picture in COUNTRY AND CITY HOME, where he had been interviewed because of his work in a Gramercy Park renovation.
“He’s one of the great new architects who’s made a name for himself and you look just like him.”
Well the word ‘new’ didn’t mean young but perhaps it indicated he was time traveling in the right direction. She looked to be in her early 20s. She had transferred to Columbia from Carnegie Tech.
“I moved here to be near Professor Steblen. Because of his work. I can’t believe how much you look like him. It’s amazing.”
“Sorry to disappoint you.”
“I’m not disappointed. You should be honored. He is like Frank Lloyd Wright.”
“I’ve never heard of him.”
“You will. So then what do you do? I mean, do you teach or something at Columbia?”
“I’m a writer.”
“Really!”
He felt his hands grow cold, his palms clammy.
“Like what have you written? Have I ever read anything you wrote?”
“I doubt it,” he said quickly, mentally creating a new by-line with potential plot structure to support his need for cover, “I write copy for advertisers. I’m a copywriter.”
“You mean like the Beatle song.”
‘Yeah, but I think you mean Paperback Writer.”
“Actually I never knew what a copywriter was.”
“You know, jingles, stanzas, short statements about products…”
“Oh,” she said, disappointment in her voice. “The song always made the copywriter romantic.”
Hours later, with the sun settling into the western sky, not a cloud above and the harbor water like glass, he was sitting in Battery Park when he became aware of a man who had walked his poodle past him several times. On the last pass the man actually brushed Thom’s extended foot. When Thom looked up, the middle-aged man, perhaps a year or two older than Thomas, immediately sat down beside him.
“I thought you would never ask. This is Insidious, on account of the way she works her way into your affection. I’m Sam. And you, you are a designer, I know it, I’ve seen your face somewhere. Where? Where have I seen it?”
Thomas, thinking that he was once again being mistaken for Steblen decided to play along.
“COUNTRY AND CITY HOME?”
“Excuse me?”
“Was it in COUNTRY AND CITY HOME?”
“Not really. Were you in there too?”
“Well, I have to be going,” said Thom, moving to the edge of his seat.
Insidious growled.
“Well, don’t get that way about it. I would have thought somebody like you would have had an entourage or something, young girls hanging on your arms, like Oleg Cassini, each of them wearing one of your unique and fabulous signature designs. Never in a hundred years would I imagine that you would be down here alone.., and dressed so plainly. Excuse my enthusiasm.”
“There must be some mistake?”
“Yeah right! Like next you’ll tell me you were in WOODS AND BROOKS!”
It turned out that he had this time been mistaken for an upcoming fashion designer named Sari Sermon whose atelier was in Brooklyn and who had received coverage in the fashion section of the BAT, the BIG APPLE TIMES.
“What nationality is Sari?” TV’s curiosity was piqued.
“Japanese, maybe”
“Well, I’m not Japanese!”
“Is there a problem?” queried an offended Sam.
He still insisted Vellum had something to do with fashion design. Vellum explained he worked in advertising. Unfortunately, Sam found that wonderful, too.
Taking the subway home he realized he had succeeded in reversing time but with it had come some unforeseen problems. He was flattered by the attention, although something frightened him. For one, it irked him that he was being mistaken for other celebrities, celebrities only now on the brink of success! But wearing a mask and behaving according to the expectation it drew out of others was seductive. What if he had become Professor Steblen or Sari Sermon? Naturally he wouldn’t actually have become them, but if he had played along would he have changed? Would he have gone off with Samantha, who had shown interest, or with Sam, who was quite brazen with his desire? And what would have happened when they eventually discovered he was neither of their heroes?