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?