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?

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

I:1 Once again TV has disappeared. Has anyone seen him? The first time he disappeared, we were crushed. Several years passed. We thought he was dead. Cass and Clio went about their lives as if nothing had happened. Now we know why. One night with Cass’s blessing – some say she was relieved –TV went to live with a band of homeless men under the Saint Clair’s Arch in the far reaches of Riverside Park. It wasn’t Machu Picchu, that high mountain redoubt in Peru where, in his last novel, he describes how the forces of good finally defeat the forces of evil. We know now that communal life had its drawbacks. On weekends he returned home to his wife. He ate cooked food, showered in warm water and shared the connubial bed with Cass. But he never shaved. What veiled his identity for so long was his long beard.
But we collected our leads and after sifting through the data on a computer spread sheet using logarithms to level the possibilities of error, we centered on the one anomaly coming and going at the apartment building, the shabby, bearded man, who until then we thought was there to pick up the return bottles for the supermarket. After our front page story, TV FOUND, appeared on the online free paper, INNETNEWS, the news agencies arrived on the block in full force. The following day all networks took credit for finding TV, “the renowned eccentric and writer, once believed lost.”
“I was never lost,” TV shouted from his 8th floor window, his long whiskers reaching down like Spanish moss.
During the last warm days of September, everyone who makes news gathered outside TV’s apartment building, annoying his neighbors who found it hard enough parking in the already crowded neighborhood near Columbia University. The network trucks were double parked on both sides of 110th Street. Locals mumbled, tempers flared. Some called us pilgrims, others groupies. Hardly the truth since most of us are professionals. We like to think of ourselves as mainstream. But to our embarrassment anyone sporting a beard was accosted. It couldn’t be helped. Overnight TV’s beard had become a familiar icon. Sales for a famous vintage cough drop zoomed. One bearded man who had the misfortune of visiting a friend in TV’s building, had his clothes torn off by a few zealots in search of saleable relics. These things happen, despite our best intentions.
We will probably never know how St. Claire’s Arch entered the mainstream vernacular. TV remained in his apartment, afraid to come out. For Cassandra, life was worse than ever. People accosted her daily on her way to work and back. Then someone on the internet wrote somebody else that TV had been living up at St Claire’s Arch. Overnight it became the locus of our activities, a holy site. For TV’s homeless friends, the presence of so many people disturbed their way of life. Pandemonium broke out when someone upset the social equilibrium by giving a homeless resident a sizable tip for information. Back on 110th Vellum must have looked out his window and seen the street was clear. So he threw all caution to the wind in his effort to escape his incarceration. He returned to the Arch by following the great cyclopean wall in Riverside Park. He saw an unruly crowd already behind police barriers. Hawkers were selling buttons showing Vellum with a long beard. Others were offering T-shirts with TV’s face and beard on the front. We still have a number of newly minted T-shirts in stock should you be interested. We wear them proudly, despite what some of the believers have come to call a “sell out.” But the experts believe it‘s a healthy sign of economic vitality.
When Vellum saw many of his old associates being arrested “for their own protection,” he ran away. We saw him and gave chase. We wanted to touch him, not hurt him. He took the stairs up to Riverside Drive three at a time and entered Grant’s Tomb where the remaining refugees from St. Claire’s had sought sanctuary. Apparently they asked him to leave. But it was too late, the place was surrounded. The Police and Fire Departments conferred on the best tactic to insure the preservation of the monument. Before a decision had been reached, someone tossed in a canister of tear gas. Later the police denied it was them. Everyone ran out coughing. In the confusion, TV disappeared again. We resumed our place outside his building, leaving behind us a trampled park littered with fast-food containers and yellow caution tape. The following morning the news from the pipeline, about a new book and its far reaching effects, scattered us in all directions, some of us to the bookstores, some of us to the planetarium, most of us to the internet. We now feel this departure was a mistake on our part. Yet is it inconceivable that TV devised this strategy so he could work out under cover the details of the next phase in his journey.
TV never expected success. In the beginning, undiscovered, overworked, he had lived comfortably in his dissatisfaction, a would-be-writer, working as a common laborer in demolition to provide for his family, a faithful husband who emotionally supported his wife, Cassandra, during a long illness, and a loving father who read fairy tales to his daughter, Clio during those dark years. Despite sleep deprivation and a precarious financial situation, he accepted his fameless existence at a time when famous actors began running the government. Then, almost overnight, he became a celebrity. We were drawn toward him like the oceans to the moon. His novels, which he insists are based on fact, covered as many years of history in as many pages and became the source of many plays and movies. Industries feed off his creativity. The Council for Economic Development awarded him its highest honor, the medal for the Creative Recycling of Ancient Principles. Without a doubt he is the voice of our generation.
Denying any creative involvement, he continues to claim a collaboration with a mysterious hacker living in the future whose identity he has refused to reveal to anyone but Cass. She rebuffs our inquiries, blaming herself and her illness for pushing her husband over the edge. Billy Board, TV’s computer trouble-shooter during those early years, can’t figure out for the life of him how Vellum manipulated what seemed few, if any, artistic attributes to leverage such fabulous success. In Board’s opinion, TV pulled a rabbit out of the hat.
Wherever he went we followed, carrying copies of his books for him to sign. With the advent of the digital camera it became easy to catch him talking to a neighbor or buying a newspaper. Magazines like INQUIRY always carried stories of his alleged escapades. Reporters chased after Cass as she ran to catch her morning bus, or followed Clio on a date. We were all tethered to their activities. Ironically the younger generations don’t even know his real name, Thomas Vellum. Raymond Smith, his agent, shortened his name to the familiar acronym for the sake of irony, wanting to give his number-one client the aura of a rock group or the mystery of a secret agency. Despite all this, Cass and Clio still don’t take our lavish interest seriously. Why can’t they enjoy the fruits of our adoration? Clio goes so far as to praise her parents’ lifestyle, which in opposition to the norm, became more austere as they became more wealthy.
With his disappearance again we are forced onto a theoretical track. What follows now is a supposition based on TV sightings, real or imagined, fed into a government computer used to forecast the weather. If anyone feels they are being described, it is purely coincidental. We assume no responsibility. We now believe that Vellum, fleeing from the St Clare’s Riot, returned to his apartment. The next morning he looked into the mirror and saw his long dark beard turning white in places, understandable considering all that he had been through. Some claim that vanity had taken him by the proverbial balls. But we ask you, is it awful if a middle-aged superstar doesn’t want the public to think of him as a venerable old man, Father Time, if you will – he was only fifty, for lord’s sake? We are all the product of our youth-loving society. TV wanted to recapture his youth. Don’t we all?
While he was considering a new course his followers had stopped shaving. People everywhere began sporting beards. Those too young to grow long beards or who hadn’t had the time to grow them were wearing long beards attached by thin stretch bands around their heads. Nightclub bouncers were having difficulty distinguishing the young from the old. Even certain women were donning hair extensions as beards. The bearded women in the circus were discovering a renewed interest in their looks. We assume Vellum was puzzled by this new adulation of the beard, once he became aware of it. He had always enjoyed the association that long beards had with holy men and rebels. These men had earned their face hairs. And there were the favorable associations with the more traditional heroes, like Ernest Rutherford and Ulysses S. Grant, associations not unlike those he had made as a teenager regarding the long hair of some of history’s most famous figures, such as Albert Einstein and Jesus Christ, not to mention Crazy Horse. But he was the first to admit that his own long beard was not based so much on ideals as on laziness.
We thought he looked rabbinical, but others thought he was emulating the ancient Christian anchorites. Some compared him unfavorably to the leader of Sybaris, Billy Barbudos. In these circles, to TV’s complete dismay, his beard was being credited with providing the archetype for religious extremists even though long beards had no doubt preceded religion. These people questioned his patriotism. Adding to his anguish was the added presence on his block of a clean-shaven man, in contrast to all the bearded people. The stranger wore a dark suit with a bowler. The bowler was ostentatious. Believe us, he wasn’t one of us. However, in the end TV must have decided he was less frightened of the black-clad man in the bowler hat, staring up at his window night and day than of appearing old.
The irony of a man claiming to have traveled Time fearing the ravages of time was not lost on him. The steady decline of the physical, especially the physical human, had always fascinated him, especially during Cass’s illness, during which time he had watched helplessly as she wasted away until a miraculous liver transplant at Mt. Pisgah Hospital saved her. The body’s decline was reversed and she seemed to regain her youth. Of course, while Time seemed to progress in one direction he also had witnessed its plasticity in his collaboration, the downloading of data from a moment in the future – though try convincing anyone of that! All anyone cared about was the product of those collaborations, the stories, not the means. We assume he felt this. But we must add that nothing could be further from the truth, since everything to do with his life interests us, even those parts we can’t understand. So Vellum decided he would tamper with Time again, turning the clock back, this time in a simpler way. Instead of depending on a wormhole through the fabric of the space/time continuum he would simply shave. He studied his face regarding the wrinkles and decided there were only a few of them. His chances of looking at least ten years younger were good. To those who only knew him with the beard, he would probably look twenty years younger. He has always believed that outlook can change one’s karma. If you like how you look, then you feel better and correspondingly you find more energy to do more things, things you once considered the domain of younger people. Besides, who even remembered what the clean-shaven TV of three years ago looked like?
What worried him was the drastic affect a clean-shaven face would create. When he was twelve years old, he remembered seeing an aunt he hadn’t seen in over a year who had lost seventy-five pounds through a starvation diet. Instead of looking younger as her girl friends had promised, she looked older, her features tired and flaccid. He also had observed how friends, on removing their beards, often looked starkly naked, their chins recessive, their lips larger, their noses overhanging, a score of deformities that would mar anyone’s attempts at rejuvenation. Shaving his own beard completely off would deny him the spring of eternal youth by emphasizing the cause of his rejuvenation. The deformity of sudden change would draw attention to himself; eventually everyone would recognize him. So he conceived a plan. He would shave away bits and pieces of the beard over time. Through a gradual metamorphosis he would bring about his rejuvenation. But first he talked it over with Cass. Women are more flexible in these matters. She liked the idea. With her husband again among the missing, perhaps people – she means us – would leave her alone.
First he cut away the lengthy hairs, laying the strands reverently in a paper bag. With a scissors he trimmed the beard to a full roundness. Wearing a red plaid woolen shirt and cream colored khakis and blue sneakers he took the elevator to the ground floor where he was instantly recognized by a neighbor who liked his beard.
“You remind me of Hemingway – the spitting image,” his neighbor added as he disappeared into the elevator.
On the street the air crackled with autumn clarity. The big linden tree on the corner stood poised for a change, its leaves still green but with a hint of yellow at the edges. A few leaves had already fallen prematurely. Against this bright background, the black-clad man with the bowler hat seemed to rise out of the white pavement like a specter. The rest of us had deserted our posts, following the new rumors in every direction. The man with the bowler followed Vellum to the grocery store around the corner. When TV picked up lettuce, the man in the bowler hat picked up carrots. When TV picked up potatoes, the stranger picked up turnips. In the bread section, TV looked at English muffins while his shadow looked at bagels. Everyone recognized TV, but he also reminded everyone of Papa Hemingway. Somebody in the checkout line asked him reverentially if he was melding with the deceased writer. Another kook, thought TV. His coincidental evocation of Hemingway did not rely on the recycling of souls through the cosmic digestive tract. On the cover of the gossip magazine, INQUIRY, he saw what looked like himself with his long white-specked beard, only he was wearing a swami’s conical hat and seemed to be holding a holy book in his hand. The headline read:
ADHERENTS HEAR THE VOICE OF GOD THROUGH AN INTERSTELLAR TRANSMITTER BURIED IN TV’S NEW BOOK.
Did this news surprise him or was he wondering if dying his beard black would achieve the same results as a dire depilation?
As he was rounding the corner of his block, he nearly bumped into Eddie Ammonia, called that because of his intense body odor. During the recent St. Clair’s riot, Eddie, having already spent the money the reporter had given him on a used woman’s faux fur coat, had evaded arrest and made his way out of the park to this corner to pan handle. Since the majority of the homeless preferred to garner their supplies from undisclosed sources, this made him somewhat of an entrepreneur. Eddie considered begging a public demonstration. Holding out his hand was as close as he got to holding up a placard. With an out held hand, the fur-clad man stopped TV in his tracks.
“T !” (to most of the fellows under the Arch, TV was just plain T) “What’s with the trim? You in denial?”
“What do you think, Eddie?” replied T, looking around nervously to see if the man in the bowler hat was near.
“The social fabric isn’t going to improve just because you decided to wash and shave.”
“I know that.”
“Well then, do you have a dollar?”
Thom checked his wallet, found a dollar in quarters and passed him the change. Then he hurriedly excused himself, pleading blindness in the bright sunlight.