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.”
“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. . .”
“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.”


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.
“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. . .”
“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.”
“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?


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


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


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


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


Not wanting to go home, he walked south on 2nd Avenue. A north wind had kicked in, scouring out the remaining summer dampness, bringing with it a scent of the Canadian forests. Despite the sun still high in the evening sky, the buildings cast a premature dusk across everything. Like oil calming a stormy sea his glasses quelled the cosmic flux in the faces around him. In the distance the numbers of “attractive” figures seemed countless. But as they drew near, they separated like chaff from the kernels, those with undisturbed, calm features from those with features consumed by a vortex right under their noses. Lao Tzu said the realization of beauty lead to the recognition of ugly. For a courtesan like his mother the concept of ugly must have been revealed daily. Those seeking her must have desired her healing hands upon their own ugliness. Still he had never detected that kind of tension between his parents.
After turning west on St. Mark’s, he came to 5th Avenue. A middle-aged man carrying a large department store clothing box under his arm, stepped out under the awning of a high-end apartment building. His black flannel trousers were tied at the ankles. He wore white silk socks and brown sandal slippers. When the strange man turned south Francis followed him. In Washington Square Park Francis sat on a bench just west of the Arch not far from where the stranger took a seat. Groups of young people were hanging out. Because of the chilly evening air the young men shuffled about with hands stuffed deep into pockets. From time to time members of one group broke off and visited other groups sitting further off. Streams of familiar music emanated from various corners, held together by the beating of drums. The repetitious beat was reiterated in the foot-to-foot sidestep of young women, arms folded, trying to stay warm. All around him the conversation tripped from lip to lip, like the froth on cresting waves. He felt old. He had missed all this. After graduating from high school he had gone straight to work.
The sharp report of high heels on the pavement broke his reverie. He looked up and saw a tall woman passing whose dress and style seemed cast from another era. She had long hair, nearly to her shoulders, which curled under and was wearing a long beige coat over her shoulders, her arms free beneath the folds. In the fingers of one hand she held an unlit cigarette. She was an incongruous vision in this place where kids were hanging out in blue jeans and sweat shirts. She seemed to have stepped out of an ancient time, one that belonged to his parents. To see her better he removed his glasses. Despite her maturity, she appeared to be no older than he was. For some reason, like his mother this morning, she was distortion-free, her skin lovely and simply adorned. She approached the bench where the man with white socks was sitting and stopped. The man in the white socks was sitting sideways, legs crossed, his back to Francis. He looked up. After a brief conversation the odd man stood up and walked over to a group of kids near the fountain. He looked like a prominent sheik or an elegant Brahmin. His white socks collected the last of the evening’s light. When he returned, she was gone. Francis hadn’t seen her go. Like the balls set in motion on a pool table, an outside force had energized the scene; yet to all appearances nothing had changed.
In the dining room at home, where the family photographs were on display, he had always been fascinated by his parent’s wedding picture. What set it apart from the others, aside from the subject, was the special bamboo frame etched with narrow leaves. It was a relic from a distant past. World War II had ended. His mother and father are standing in a Japanese tea garden. In her silk kimono his mother harkens back to another era, while his father in his white naval uniform, hat in hand, proudly displays the trademarks of a youthful conqueror, an invincible smile. His thin frame gave him a boyish air, much younger in appearance than she with her powdered white pallor. She stood heels together like an exquisite doll made of porcelain, her features of the most delicate workmanship, proof that his father had left the small world of Brooklyn a young man and returned a worldly one. At some point during the Pacific campaigns he crossed a shadow line and became the man who, one day on shore leave, reached out to embrace something alien to his parochial view.
All his life Francis had drifted into other people’s lives, become part of their lives, without ever offering them the possibilities that might change them. He was always what they wanted, and without any effort on his part. No, his own meticulous care over his appearance, parting his hair with conscious effort, always making sure his hair was not too short, shaving every other day, the choice of his casual wear and jewelry set him among those who sought to please others.
He got up and walked over to 6th Avenue and bought a sausage sandwich. The night had finally come. He walked on, swiftly sidestepping the pedestrians. Young lovers held each other tightly, their arms over shoulders and around waists as if conserving heat on this cool evening. The incandescent street lights glowed eerily in the darkness created by his glasses. At Sheridan Square he descended the stairs and caught the northbound train.
Keep moving, keep moving, the chill air provided the necessity but not the meaning. Keep moving, keep fluid. Somehow he had to bring order to the chaos. The train came into the 42nd Street station. Forty-second Street, where the doll man had come in search of the Goddess. The platform was crowded. Musicians were playing at different ends of the platform, strings and horns and the echoing of flutes. Instead of taking the Queens-bound train he emerged on the north side of 42nd Street. and wandered west, the direction the doll man had taken on his own quest. Through his dark glasses the glow from window displays and marquees merged into an incandescent strata above the street. Between the luminous buildings rose interminable muddled clouds forming a single unreal world of twilight, like a steam room lit somewhere by a bare light bulb.
Ahead of him, at the end of the block where the brilliant confusion of Broadway finally weakens, on the corner of 8th Ave, he saw a beacon of glowing orange, towering at least a foot and half above the crowd. It drew him toward it, as if he was a wayward ship lost at sea. Beneath it, an animated group of young women conversed, turbulently throwing out their arms toward the various points of the compass, but above them, with apparent disinterest, stood this beacon of serenity drawing him through the pedestrian traffic. She was a woman, a very tall woman, a giant woman gazing toward some far-off place to which only her thoughts were tethered. As she drew him into her calm of reserve, her features became more distinct. She was clearly visible above the others, in a brilliant orange, plastic raincoat with large white buttons. Even at a distance her face was clear, her lips bright red, an uneven line around her mouth, as if not much interest had been taken in the application of the makeup. Her hair was long, wild and black, in sharp contrast to her white stockings below. She was six feet tall and more, with thin shoulders hunched forward to disguise her height. Her friends were dressed to kill. He couldn’t see their faces, only hers, clearly glowing in the lurid light, a singular eddy of isolated nervousness in a social whirlpool. The same impetuous drive that took him to Anita’s after all these years now carried him directly toward her. He was outside of himself, watching while he strode on. The words of the Tao surged in his ears, like the mysterious sounds that once streamed through his conch shells when he listened to them as a kid. The words crashed against an obdurate remnant deep inside of him that was resisting this new impulse. Turn back. Go back to the way things were. But the waves of rebellion carried him forward, embrace what you fear, embrace what you loathe. . . As he closed in an isotropic thrill shot through him. For the first time in his life he was the predator. Still she didn’t notice him. Her face was radiant with clarity. The simplicity of her features was dazzling, a still pond of clarity where the bottom stood out clearly to its very depths. The group continued gesticulating. There was still time, turn back, the old way pleaded. But she was tall and thin and her makeup failed to hide her acne. He was locked in, there was no turning back.
“Who are you?”
She was visibly startled. He had arrived like a stone crashing through her placid waters. It wasn’t the kind of come-on she had ever envisioned. Her arms were crossed, one hand holding a cigarette close to her mouth. She looked down at him from on high, the clouds of smoke drifting up from her cigarette. Her eyes bulged wide and her mouth paused in open wonder. Several black teeth between her vibrant red lips amazed him. Then the smoke from her cigarette drifted into her eyes and she coughed. But the other women looked at each other, smiled as if to say, “Wow, who is this dude, with the dark shades, and why is he talking to her?”
“Hey,” said a blond, her hair wrapped in a purple bandeau, the rest of her in stretch jeans and a short black leather jacket. “My name’s Jane.”
But Jane was wrapped in the chaotic circles of the storm, her features, like those of her friends, in gross disorder. He didn’t care who she was. But the sight of her simply confirmed his choice: the tall one, upon whose features he found peace.
“Yeah, hi, but I’m asking what your name is?” he said, directing his attention to the tall one.
He was helpless beneath her, unable to take his gaze off her. He wanted to reach up and take hold of her, as if she could calm the seas around him.
“She’s shy, just hanging out with us.” Jane was insistent.
“Well that’s nice, Jane. . . but what is your name,” he repeated to the tall one, almost pleadingly.
Somewhere near Jane’s nose a whirlpool was drawing in the other features on her face. Rivulets of eyeliner were melting into the vortex. He had spent his entire life, assuming by a process of unconscious selection, that those he noticed were beautiful?
In the lurid light, already a block removed from Times Square, the jostling crowd was shifting their course around this annoying pool of stalled humanity. He was mystified by his own confidence. A look of distrust appeared on the tall woman’s face. Another woman, this time a red head in luminous pink tights, chewing gum, with lips the color of plums that ran like ink down into her evolving cleavage, spoke up.
“Hey, leave her alone. She’s not your type.”
Francis persisted.
“So what’s your name? Mine’s Francis.”
This broke the small crowd up. Jane found his name humorous. Everyone was laughing.
“Sarah. I’m Sarah,” she said, unbuttoning her coat, to reveal a starched white dress.
Her voice broke through the laughter of her friends like chimes on the wind, a clearly audible tintinnabulation that silenced even the sounds of passing cars. Around her neck dangled a laminated name tag.
“Sarah. Say that again,” he pleaded.
“Let’s not push it.” She, too, was chewing gum.
By now she had gotten hold of herself. Still mortified by the attention, still distrustful of this suitor, she didn’t want to come off looking idiotic before her friends, who closed in around him.
“So what’s the deal, Francis,” asked plum lips. “Are you really coming on to Sarah?”
She conveyed these words like weapons of war.
“I mean,” she added teasingly, “no one wants to be hurt.” Was she pouting her lips?
“Who’s hurting whom?” he asked; “I’m being straight here.”
“Are you sure, Francis?” came a voice at his side. “I’m Dee. Maybe there’s room for two,” she added taking his arm.
Several other women who had participated in the laughter grew impatient. They hadn’t come to stand all night on 8th Avenue while some dude from nowhere scammed them, no doubt put up to this by his friends hiding out there somewhere.
“You have friends, Francis?” asked Jane, sidling up to him and looking up with wide and innocent admiration belied only by a cocky smile, yawning with a darkness that grew out of the depths of her throat.
“So, where are you from,” asked Dee, reaching up with her fingers to the back of his neck.
As they all closed in, Sarah, as if out of habit, stood quietly by the side.
“So you live alone, got your own place?”
“Nope.” His eyes never left Sarah.
“‘Cause we were just discussing where we should go. Bett wants to go downtown to the village, but she’s a hippie, you know, free love and all.”
“Fuck you,” said a woman in bell bottoms with a small heart tattooed on her cheek. Her cheeks grew larger and larger like elastic soap bubbles. “You don’t want to listen to music at CBILs?”
“But the rest of us, Francis, we’re hard-working, you know. We should save our money.”
“Thanks, but I like Sarah.”
“Oh come on. . ,” they pleaded, their hands on his shoulders.
“Besides, like I said, I don’t have my own place,” he added, hoping to end all this.
“So, maybe you’re roommates wouldn’t mind some fast moving company.”
“My roommates! You mean my parents. They would mind!”
Again laughter issued from the group, this time more raucous than before.
“Old guy like you still living with your parents, how lame.”
And again the noises of the street were silenced by the voice of the luminous beacon on their outskirts.
“Leave him alone.”
They looked up at Sarah within the following silence, a silence that presages the next movement in a symphony. Her friends nodded, stepped aside and let her back into the group.
“Wherever we go,” she said to him, “you can come if you want. But let’s keep it simple.”
“You are some slick guy, Francis,” admitted Jane, the cutting edge of her humor completely rounded now. “You just came into our lives like a UFO, the masked man.”
Sarah held out her hand and he took it. They were following Bett back along 42nd to Broadway. He didn’t know where they were going nor did he care. The novelty of this experience was feeding energy directly to his feet, where he felt a dream-like spring in his gait. Had he willed it, he could have flown. Only her hand inside his, her long fingers curled around his thumb, helped tame his circuitry, siphoned off the excess electricity of which she must have been aware.
“So, why are you wearing shades?”
They were approaching the subway station he had just left. With her partially hidden white uniform, shoes, and stockings, she gambled along on her long legs, completely out of place on the street. Her unbuttoned orange, plastic coat gave her the appearance of a winged spirit out of Hieronymus Bosch. Despite his excitement he could barely keep up.
“My eyes hurt.”
“You’re kidding?”
“No, I was over at the Eye, Ear and Nose clinic on 14th today.”
“What did they say?”
“Nothing, just gave me these shades.”
She stopped short and nearly yanked his arm off.
“That’s all?”
“Come on,” cried the others. “Train’s coming!”
She was looking down at him.
“We better go,” he said.
They went through the turnstile.
“I feel like I’m back in high school,” he added. “Like I’m starting all over.”
“My friends never seem to grow older. . ,” she said, “But I haven’t been so lucky.” Her fingers smelled of nicotine.
The women filled the car with their raucous conversation. As long as he kept his eyes on Sarah it all made sense.
“Do they hurt?”
“Your eyes. The way you’re staring at me freaks me out, like you’re some kind of a crazy. You’re not crazy, are you?”
“God, I’m sorry. No, it’s just that when I’m looking at you, my eyes don’t hurt, I mean I know that sounds stupid, you know like full of shit, but hey, that’s why I am staring at you.”
“You are crazy,” she said, pushing a bubble the color of her coat through her lips. “Nobody,” she added, retrieving the bubble with her tongue, “says stuff like that to me, except maybe some old guy in a hospital bed.”
The train pulled into the Christopher Street station. The young women walked ahead of them, shaking their heads, tresses akimbo, arms pointing, voices shouting, a gang of women heading down Grove. In contrast to the NYU kids they were definitely cut from foreign fabric, glamorous but without the air of scholastic coolness.
The club was a dark cavernous space filled with the noise of recorded music and people talking loudly. Groups formed and disintegrated as people felt their way about looking for friends. Everyone was drinking beer from bottles. No one collided, no one fell. Her friends disappeared into the darkness. He asked her what she wanted and she answered domestic as she unwrapped another bubblegum square.
“You want one,” she asked.
He nodded no.
With bottles in hand, they stood watching the shadows drifting around them. After a few minutes he pointed to a quieter corner near the back where a small light illuminated the access to the rest room hallway. She nodded. So they walked back.
“You come here often?” he asked her.
“Not really. When I do go down here I usually go next door.”
“What’s next door?”
She cocked her head.
“A whole different world.”
A teenage band stepped onto the dimly lit stage. Without an introduction, more like a “yeah!” they leaped body and soul into a strident song. From where they stood they could only see the rocker heads, appearing and disappearing above the movements of the audience. But the music reverberated along the walls and floor. The giant amplifiers guarded the stage like demons at the gates of hell.
“What can you see with those things, anything?”
“You,” he asserted, “nothing else matters.”
She laughed.
“Me?” Her voice opened up some new channel of exploration. “Why me?”
“You’re. . . I like you, Sarah. . . Does it matter why?”
In spite of her self-consciousness, a calming influence continued emanating from her, like the remnants of a supernova scattering the basis of new creations into the night, impressing an order on the chaos around her. In her presence there was nothing to fear. She was who she was, and more, much more not yet revealed, in total contrast to everyone else who shielded their emptiness beneath glossy waxed faces. She was changing before his eyes and her voice was the life-giving stream that carried him into these discoveries. Perhaps she wasn’t even aware of her power, only saw herself as others saw her.
“My friends think you’re beautiful.”
“Do you?” he asked.
“I’m not telling you what I think.”
“I’ve never stalked a woman before.”
“That sounds ominous.”
“I didn’t mean it that way.”
“You mean like I’m worth stalking.”
“Yes. Did I scare you?”
“You are one intense dude, Francis. . . Actually I don’t know why I come here with them. I’ve known them all my life. I guess I’m afraid of being alone.”
“Me too. But I’ve always believed I would come upon a perfect place somewhere. I never thought of it as a person. You’re a nurse?”
“How did you ever guess,” she replied sardonically.
“How do you become a nurse?” he shouted. He realized they were both shouting, the music enclosing them in sound.
“I got my BS in nursing after two years at Lehman. . . In a way I’m better off than my friends. They work as secretaries and receptionists for companies they don’t care about. . .”
Her voice disappeared inside a wave of electronic feedback emanating from the stage. In his frustration he reached for her hand, and pulled himself closer to her lips. She shouted into his ear. Just the simple touch of her fingers at one end and the arcing chain of her words completing the circuit excited him like a school boy on his first date.
“I said, they’re looking for guys,” she laughed with gusto. A moment later, while looking down at his hand which she held in hers, she asked, “You really live with your parents?”
“Yeah, you?”
“Sure. . , so we have something common, ” she added looking at his face. “How old are you?”
“Does it matter?”
“I’m thirty two,” he said. “You?”
“Twenty five.” She let go of his hands putting hers behind her back against the wall. “You don’t look it,” she added.
“I take after my mother, she looks much younger than she is,” he shouted. “She’s Japanese.”
“I’ve always wanted to go to Japan.”
“Sarah, have you ever felt you were drifting, like a leaf on the water, the wind pushing you this way and that way, the waves moving you around, you know what I mean?”
“In the flow.”
“Exactly. Like we’re all in the current . . . I’d like to meet your parents.”
“You’re moving fast, Francis. Maybe too fast. The other chicks would be sleeping with you by now. I’m much slower. To be honest I’m not used to the attention.”
Leaning over he whispered, “I’m not even asking for a kiss.”
“Are you looking for one?” She removed the her cigarette and gum from her mouth.
She closed her eyes as he reached forward and upward with his hand to find her face in the dark room. Someone near them opened the door into the men’s room where the lurid red light escaped as if from a furnace. With it came a draft of disinfectants from the urinals, the sweetness camouflaging the odor of urine. For a moment his senses were confused. A drunken fear came over him again, a part of him wildly objecting. Look at her teeth! Feel her rough skin! The idea of beauty, harvested from a century of advertising models, besieged him. He squeezed his eyes shut with such violence, pain shot through his eyelids, lacerating the inner darkness with bolts of lightning that seemed to shatter the stony core of these reflexive beliefs. Even as he was reaching over to her with one hand, he suddenly and violently punched the wall with the other, startling her. Before he had a chance to redeem himself, she began moving away from him. But he grabbed her, pulling her face down toward his, and kissed her then. For a moment he was swimming against a resisting current, imagined himself struggling against the seaweed drifting in on the waves, wrapping around him, then his tongue was free and he realized her tongue was against his, both moving frantically around each other. He could taste the tobacco on her lips and the sweetness of the bubble gum. He felt the gaps in her teeth. Each revelation on this new level intensified his interest and his fervor. He tightened his grip on her, while she remained passive, indulging him; then, she took her hands and gently pushed him away reminding him of where he was.
“And I haven’t even seen your eyes,” she added, pulling another cigarette from her purse as she ignited her lighter.
He saw her etched against the wall. He wondered at the changes in her since they had met. Slowly, one precious word at a time, she was revealing herself, looming larger in the process. And she seemed unaware of this beauty of hers that was casting more and more light into his universe.
“You know better than to smoke,” he said with a domestic firmness.
“No lectures please, I get plenty of lectures from my father. My mom died of lung cancer.”
“I’m sorry…”
“She died in my senior year of high school. Actually I started smoking when I was living in France.”
“France?” he shouted, incredulous.
She reached down and put her fingers on his lips.
“Jesus, I’ve never been out of the country. I mean I’ve been as far west as the Hudson River. I’m no adventurer. Like I’ve been upstate, if you know what I mean.”
Had he not gone to the county fair with Estelle and her kids he wouldn’t be standing here. A melancholy sound of steel strings cut through the darkness in the club. He leaned back against the wall. The air around him was charged by Sarah’s proximity. He turned toward her the way a leaf turns toward the sun. The air, charged with unseen messages, made words unnecessary and sight secondary. Even though he probably didn’t need the glasses in the dark, he still was afraid of the possibility of a visual meltdown.
“You want another beer?” he asked.
“No. I have an early shift tomorrow.”
He nodded toward her friends.
“I’ll let them know I’m going.”
Hunched over, she carefully threaded her way through the crowd until she found their table, bearing its arsenal of spent beer bottles. When she returned she took his hand and led him through the door. Outside the sudden exposure to the cool night air and comparatively quiet sounds of the street were comforting.
Beneath the street light, she paused to light another cigarette, her shadow twisted like a character in a children’s book illustrated by Ezra Jack Keats. Then she turned to him, her bright plastic raincoat suspended on her shoulders in a continental fashion, the pendant wings of an exotic moth. With both hands she removed his glasses. She looked into his eyes. He saw her clearly, the green eyes, the long earlobes with large loop earrings, the freckles and pitted surface of her skin, her hair a marvel of knots and tangles. Several of her teeth were missing, several were black, a cigarette dangled from her bright lips.
“Your eyes are beautiful,” she said, gently touching his eyelids with her warm fingertips. The kinesic energy from her fingers filled him with excitement and yearning.
“They’re a reflection of what I see,” he stated foolishly.
Then he remembered what she had said inside.
“So what’s next door?”
“We’re not ready to go there, Francis.”
She replaced the glasses, her head cocked back, one eye squinting from the smoke.
On Christopher, before descending the stairs to the PATH, she turned to thank him.
“I’m going with you.”
“No, you’re staying here.”
“No, I’m taking you home.”
“But you live in Queens, you won’t get home until who knows when.”
“Who cares?”
So he followed her, this tall, winged victory, down into the station, his hands in his pockets, whistling unconsciously.
“That’s one of my dad’s favorite old songs,” she said passing through the turnstile.
“What song?” he asked, stuck without a pass.
“ That one,” she said, returning to the turnstile and paying his way. “Stairway To Heaven.”
People stared at them, the giant woman with the wild black hair sitting beside her small companion in the dark shades. A group of kids sat opposite them, loudly fooling around as the train pulled out of the station. Among them sat a quiet couple who leaned heavily on each other, caressing and kissing, ignoring the comments of their voluble peers. He realized he didn’t know where Sarah lived.
“Bayonne,” she stated flatly.
“Oh yeah. . .” Everything around him, the kids across from the them, the dull plastic seats, the fiberglass paneling, even the barely illuminated tunnel walls just beyond the windows possessed a novelty. “I never knew where that was?”
“In Jersey. . ,” she emphasized, chewing her gum defiantly, her arms folded across her chest. “I warned you.”
“Look, I’ve never been west of the Hudson, and you’ve been to France. I’ve got some catching up to do. You grew up in Bayonne?”
“Most of my life. My father works for the MTA.. He’s a mechanic at the Hoboken depot,” she said. “I told you it was a long way for nothing.”
“I love trains,” he said, ignoring her comment. “I used to have a train set that had all the good stuff, you know, the accessories, little houses, stores, tunnels, the works, used to set them up on the holidays around the tree, using white cotton for snow.”
“So you celebrate Christmas.”
“Well, yeah, I was raised a Catholic. When my mom came here she converted. I can’t imagine my old man becoming Shinto. . . You know it’s funny about your father working for public transportation. My old man drove a cab.”
Her energy seemed to rise from her depths, burst free from her lips and pop. Words floated in the air like pearls in a world without gravity. Each word resonated with the value of its birthplace, somewhere, he was sure, near her heart. When she stretched out her crossed legs they reached half way across the aisle to the other side. He discovered a silver diadem partially buried beneath the unruly waves of black hair, revealed in glints of reflected light.
“So,” she said, a bit sardonically, blowing another pink bubble and letting it pop, “we all grew up in the business of getting people someplace.”
“Yeah, and I work for the airlines, at La Guardia. So I’ve inherited the family trust. You trust me, don’t you. . .
“We’ll see where it all goes, Francis,” she said, letting go of his hand. She fiddled with one of the big white buttons on her coat.
“Okay, so tell me about France.”
She cocked her head to the side and stared at him for a moment, her jaw working the gum, before retaking his hand.
“There’s nothing to it,” she said, as another bubble the color of her coat appeared. She collapsed it. “I didn’t want to go to college. I wanted out of Hudson County. . .”
“Where’s that?”
“A fine transport expert,” she laughed. “That’s where I live. Bayonne’s in Hudson County.”
Her strong voice was full of direction. Silk ribbons the color of the rainbow emanated from her lips. It was beyond belief, really, that he could see these things. But then he saw the convulsions caused by the standards of beauty so prevalent around him, so why not ribbons of silk? If he was crazy, so what? He had never been so happy in his life.
“I wanted to do something really different. My daddy worried naturally. But he wanted me to be happy. Why I chose France, I’m not sure, maybe it was romantic, like chasing after the Abelard of Henry Adams.”
“I don’t know either of them.”
“Imagine a culture where towns vied with one another to build the largest cathedrals in the world, churches with colored glass. The one at Beauvais finally collapsed, ending centuries of madness. And I had always identified with those forlorn lovers in Victor Hugo. They were always male, but who isn’t subject to the pain of rejection. . . But I told daddy I wanted to go to France to study nursing.”
“All the way to France to learn that?” piped Francis, not knowing what else to say, having never heard of Beauvais.
“Exactly what my daddy wondered,” she laughed, pushing the wad of gum forward through the gap in her teeth, then retrieving it. “It was true though, I mean the part about wanting to be a nurse. During the last few years of my mom’s illness, I took care of her at home. In the hospital, I helped the nurses – that’s when I decided I wanted to become a nurse. They were my mother’s guardian angels.”
The girl across the way had her legs over her boyfriends legs, her arms around his neck. They hardly moved, hardly heard their boisterous friends who jumped up, stood by the door, sat down again, over and over.
“Whether daddy believed me or not I don’t know. I think he knew I needed time away. So he cashed in my mom’s life insurance and gave me free rein. My mom would have been pleased. She was always saying, you’re only young once, you’re only young once. . . My dad, he really loved her. It’s so hard to see someone else’s passion when we’re seeking it ourselves. But his generosity was proof somehow.”
Her words rose up like a richly embroidered rug out of the Arabian nights carrying him upward, empowering him, though he was barely hanging on by his fingers nails.
“ What airline?” she asked, interrupting his thoughts.
“What?” he replied, startled.
“Where do you work?”
“North Star.”
“That’s cool. So why haven’t you traveled. Isn’t that one of the perks?”
“Everybody asks me that.”
“Yeah, why?” she repeated, looking at him curiously.
“I don’t know. I’ve lacked the motivation,” he said with embarrassment.
She studied the back of his hand, her fingers gently touching the tops of the hairs. They became extension of her lips, silent words unfurling through the sensation of touch. He laughed, a bit giddy. His scalp tingled.
“My parents met in Japan at the end of the war. They were married there.”
She stilled her hand and held on to his with both of hers, as if holding a balloon on a windy day.
“My brothers and sisters and I sent them to Japan for their fiftieth wedding anniversary. There’s a photo in our dining room – that’s where we keep the family pictures – of my parents standing in the garden of the Silver Pavilion in the hills outside Kyoto. The surrounding evergreens are melting into the mountain air. Behind them, a two-story pavilion rises up and in front of it a mound of sand. My mother calls it the Moon Facing Height.”
“You speak like a poet. Are you a poet?”
“No, why?”
“No one would say evergreen melting into mountain air. No one would say half the things you say.”
“I’ve never thought of myself as a poet. Usually I don’t say much. You can ask my friends. In a way I feel as if I have been there, at the Silver Pavilion,” he added. “If you were to look at my father you would never know he had been a gunner on the USS Missouri, saw action in the Pacific, saw Tojo, the emperor when he came aboard to sign the surrender. And MacArthur.”
“That’s wonderful!” she said, her jaw going slack, excited by the idea. “How did he meet your mother?”
He hesitated.
“She was a geisha.”
“A geisha!”
She brought both hands up to her lips, like a child unable to hide her awe.
“Yeah, crazy isn’t it?” he said embarrassed by the notoriety of his mother’s former life.
His parents had lived a storybook life. The closest he ever came to the fantastic was the jetway, where he stopped, as if the yearning of others who desired to see the world, was enough.
“I don’t think her life was easy. She never talks about it. On the other hand,” he added wanting to move away from the aura of his parents, “when I’m listening to you I see your words flowing from your lips on colorful, silk ribbons.”
Her tongue wedged the wad of bubble gum through one of the openings in her teeth producing another perfect pink sphere. With the same precision she deflated it, resumed chewing, nodding her head all along.
“Nope, people don’t talk like that, Francis. It’s hard to believe you and yet. . . in medieval painting a lot of the saints talk with ribbons, it’s kind of like bubble speech in comics.”
“Did you learn that in Paris?”
“In museums. There are examples of this in the illuminated manuscripts at the Morgan Library. . .” she stated, looking at him critically. “I didn’t stay in Paris very long.”
“What about the nursing school?”
“I didn’t go to school. I wandered around, met different people. Went to Bayonne in the south of France…”
“You’re kidding, there’s a Bayonne over there?”
“Yeah, that’s where the bayonet got it’s name, believe that?
“I’m beginning to believe anything.”
“For awhile I lived in a commune outside St. Gaudens. I started accepting myself. I even auditioned for a cirque as a giant lady, but there were plenty of tall women, much taller than me, who could actually do crazy things 20 feet in the air! And they were beautiful. . .”
“And you’re not! I know a thing or two about beauty.”
“I’ve nice legs.”
He had to laugh.
“What about French? You speak French?”
“Oui, mon monsieur mysterieux, je parle francais tres bien…”
The tone and intonation of her voice, her melodic stream of consciousness, carried the breath of her personality into the air, like a heady perfume, casting a scent of far-off places; her voice was more effective than any jetway, for she had found the means to convert the internal flywheel of her desires into a conveyance for her dreams. Who would know looking at her, that through her lips, where lay an irregular crenellation of darkened teeth, came this worldly scent?
“When I came home, my daddy was hurt. He had sent me away out of love for me and I return smoking like mom. He was shocked by my careless appearance,” she said. Extending her arms out hands open, “Voila. Instead of attending school, I’d learned how to be myself, and. . , anyway, he forgave me and here I am.”
“Will I meet your dad?”
The flash of a light bulb went off followed by the rowdy laughter of the kids. The young Romeo looked up at his friends. He shook his head disdainfully while his Juliet smiled with eyes half closed. Another picture was taken of them before their faces disappeared again behind their ardor.
Francis followed Sarah out of the PATH terminal, the corners of her rigid coat maintaining its strict semblance of wings. They entered an open area where cars were moving in every direction. In the wake of her long, but quiet stride, her white shoes cushioned with cloud-like heels, he crossed a wide street that curved off dramatically and found himself at last, at rest at a bus stop.
“Where are we?” he asked, breathing heavily.
“Journal Square. . . Jersey City.”
“So!” he shouted exuberantly, “I finally made it across the river!” His voice was carried into the four corners on the crisp night air.
“Under,” she corrected him, quietly.
“Yeah. So, I have always thought of this side of the river as being one big industrial park, factories, refineries. . . ”
“Sometimes Francis, I can’t tell if you’re fucking with me or not.”
“Actually,” he smiled, taking her hand, “I’m waking from a long sleep. It’s like I’ve been living under a rock, or in a deep well, like a toad in a fairy tale.”
He took a deep breath. The passing cars seemed to be pushing layers of atmosphere before them. He thought of his mother, a Japanese war bride, landing in the Los Angeles port of San Pedro, traveling cross-country alone on a train. What did she think when she first saw the Empire State building rocketing upward on the skyline against the laws of gravity?
A bus appeared from around the bend and stopped in front of them. Once inside, he stared out the window, darkened by his glasses to an almost obsidian blackness. He could see her dim reflection and beyond her in the distance dense concentrations of light, like the stars near the center of a galaxy.
“Was your mother really a geisha?” she asked, pulling him in from the darkness. “I can’t imagine what she looks like? I’ve always imagined geishas, in white robes, trussed up with a back bows, serving tea. I imagine them as healers, perhaps a bit romantic.”
“I think it was a little more than that. . . But there’s a picture of her from those days. The white face, the long silk gown, it’s her wedding picture, she’s standing next to my father in his navy uniform.”
“She must be a very interesting woman.”
“After I was born she attended night classes at The BE READY Business school, taught herself English along the way. How my folks ever communicated in the early days is beyond me.”
But having said this he realized if words had the power of touch and the process was reversed then two disparate bodies lacking a cultural connection could communicate with means others than words. It wouldn’t matter if one was from Brooklyn the other from Japan, or Bayonne even.
“She’s a stenographer in the New York City criminal courts. She’ll retire in a few years.”
“Are you the youngest?” her lips pursed, the last word inflated in a pink bubble which collapsed as she inhaled.
“How did you know?” he marveled.
The bus pulled over to the curb in front of a boarded kiosk, a residential area that reminded him of Astoria. She took off down the boulevard, crossed at the light and entered a darkened street.
She gave up the embarrassment of her height, throwing her arms and legs out, pigeon-toed, knees bent, all to speed her home. The pale brick house had square columns in front but was otherwise unimposing, a small front yard with a birdbath. She mounted the steps two at a time and was already opening the door by the time he reached the top level. He thought, is she running away from me, but then she turned toward him and smiled.
When they entered the house her father was sitting in the small living room reading a book with a dictionary beside him on a side table. He greeted her absently before looking up. When he saw Francis, he sat straight up, stared at them over the rim of his glasses. He had an unkempt short white beard and a crew cut that blended well with his bald head.
“This is Francis, Dad”
“Francis. Nice to met you, Francis.”
He got up and walked awkwardly over to greet the young man, removing his glasses. They shook hands. He was taller than she was. Francis had entered a house of giants! Even the décor was appropriate, enormous chairs with large padded arms and cushions and a sofa into which he could disappear.
“Francis wanted to take me home.”
“A gentleman.” he laughed.
“I don’t know about that, sir,” Francis replied awkwardly. Then too quickly, he added, “Seems we’re all in the same line of business.”
“Oh? And what might that be?”
“Transportation,” replied Francis, lamely.
“I told him you worked for the MTA,” she said, kicking off her shoes and picking them up.
“Call me, Frank.”
“He works for North Star,” continued Sarah, removing her plastic raincoat, “at La Guardia.”
All in white, she now exemplified her trade. She untangled the diadem from her hair.
“I see what you mean,” said Frank, shrugging his shoulders. “You want a beer, Francis?”
“Yeah thanks, Frank,” answered Francis gratefully. “What about you, Sarah?”
“Nope, I’m going up to change. My feet are killing me,” she said, striding off defiantly, taking the stairway, two steps at a time. “He likes Led Zeppelin, daddy,” she called down as her voice disappeared upstairs.
“A Page and Plant fan. They were really different from anything I had heard before. I saw them at the Fillmore in. . . ‘69. . . more than thirty years ago!”
Francis followed her father into the kitchen. The house was immaculately clean, not an article out of place. Opening the refrigerator Frank removed two bottles of beer. At the cupboard he took out a glass.
“Young people like to drink out of the bottles, but I like a glass. You want a glass?”
“Yeah.” A moment later Francis offered, “I was whistling Stairway To Heaven.”
“Oh yeah, one of their popular songs.”
Returning into the living room Frank sat in his chair by the little table. Francis studied the sofa, then chose one of the arm chairs into which he sank, his elbows angled upward on the padded arms. They drank in silence. Bookcases lined the living room walls. He had never seen so many books. There they all stood, standing at attention, the thin with the fat, paperbacks with hardcover, those with jackets, those without, row after row, like the guardians of the place.
“Place is so tidy.”
“I do my best. Sarah’s the cook, otherwise we would all die of starvation.
“Where’s your TV?”
“TV? I don’t know, maybe in the garage. Now Francis, if you don’t mind my asking, what’s with the sun glasses? Prescription?”
“My eyes have been troubling me. The eye doctor gave me these to protect them from the light.”
“Nothing serious, I hope.”
“I’ve turned a corner.”
“Well, I’m glad to hear that,” added Frank. “So where do you work, out on the runway?”
“I’m a boarding officer.”
“Sounds like a good job. Good pension?”
“I suppose.”
After a few moments Frank attempted another round of conversation.
“So where did you folks meet up?”
“Near the Port Authority. . . She was with her friends.”
“Another transportation link,” the older man mused.
“She’s beautiful.”
“I think so,” said Frank, studying Francis intently, then adding, “they say love is blind.”
“I’m not blind.”
“I can’t imagine how you can see anything with those glasses. It must be dark as hell in here.”
Frank looked at him, his eyes pinched together quizzically. Francis felt foolish. To prove his sincerity he removed the glasses for a moment.
“Are you Chinese?”
“I’m American.”
“Yeah, I know that, but what is your heritage?”
“Japanese, my mother’s Japanese. My father’s Italian, like you.”
“I’m Irish, actually. And Christ was a Jew but they call him Christian. It’s all the same isn’t it?”
He slid the dark glasses back in place.
“I can tell you this, Frank, Sarah’s different, she makes me feel real.”
He stumbled along, helplessly as if walking sideways on a stony hill.
“So it’s a question of reality, is it?”
“Until tonight,” continued Francis, regaining his step, “I didn’t feel anything.”
Her father took a deep breath.
“I’m questioning the wisdom of offering you that beer,” said Frank amused. “We used to call it ‘finding yourself.’”
“Oh yeah. Well, I’ve had it easy. I’ve never had to search for anything. Until recently. . .”
They sat looking at each other for a moment.
“She was standing on the sidewalk, I mean I spotted her from way off.”
“We tend to be tall, though her mother wasn’t a tall woman by any means.”
“I mean by finding her I’ve became myself. I woke up!”
“You do have the gift of gab, Francis,” chuckled Frank, absently flipping through the pages of the book he had been reading.
“That’s just it. I’m not known for my gab. I’m just the opposite, that is, until now. Because of her… She brings out the best in me.”
Smiling as he shook his head, her father rose up from his chair and disappeared into the kitchen. He returned with two more beers.
“Sarah’s mother would be looking at me with a questioning eye right now, but seeing that you and I have good taste when it comes to women. . . ”
“I’m sorry about your loss.”
“She did the same for me,” he said after a brief pause.
“Did what?”
“Brought out the best in me. There is no explaining that, is there?”
“But there is a difference.”
“What’s that?” asked Francis.
“The test of time. I knew Sarah’s mother thirty years; and you’ve known Sarah a single evening.”
Sarah came downstairs. She was wearing loose jeans and a baggy t-shirt that looked like it might have been her night shirt. She wore flip flops that must have been a size twelve. Her toe nails were painted orange, the color of her raincoat. Her face was scrubbed clean, no makeup, like a kid’s, a skin pitted like a ripe fig after the yellow jackets have eaten. He had never imagined a woman like this, having never had to imagine any since they were always there for him, made-up and ready to go, just the way he was. Estelle always made him wait until she was out of the bathroom before letting him see her in the morning. Sarah returned from the kitchen with a beer which she drank from the bottle. She dropped into the matching chair Francis sat in, but unlike him her head was well above the back edge. She watched him curiously as he cautiously removed his glasses.
“I asked him how he could see anything inside here?” reiterated Frank.
The doll man had talked about a standard. It clouded one’s eyes. But now the scrim had been removed. He was free to see her through his own eyes, not through the eyes of the advertisers and the movie moguls, who stood before their palaces of deception, marquees ablaze, inveigling everyone to come and see, for the price of a dollar, the most beautiful women of all. It was like eliminating the hands of the clock; without them one could live each day as an eternity.
“Still seeing diamonds and pearls?” she asked seriously.
He nodded yes, smiling like an idiot. She laughed.
“I’m hungry,” she said, sprawling. “Anybody else?”
“He looks hungry,” emphasized her father, jerking his head toward their guest.
She got up and signaled Francis back into the kitchen where she raided the refrigerator, pulling out cheese, a bean dip and a bowl of potato salad. From the bread box she removed a loaf of bread. Before sitting down at the kitchen table, he asked where the bathroom was. In the dark he stood hesitantly at the sink. When he switched on the light and looked into the mirror, his face was normal.
Next morning, he arrived at work early, despite the long trek from New Jersey and after only a few hours of sleep. He was changing into the extra uniform he kept in his locker when Murphy entered the bathroom. The younger man broke into a wide smile.
“You are up shit’s creek, man!”
“What are you talking about?”
“When you see Estelle. . .”
“Oh, yeah.”
Francis adjusted his tie, enjoying the peace he found in the mirror. It wasn’t the same face. It was but it wasn’t. His hair was thinning. He could lose it.
“But don’t worry, we’ve arranged things. . ,” interrupted Murphy.
He studied the young man’s face, behind his own in the mirror. He had never really noticed the glasses. Murphy’s eyes looked huge, like those of a large beetle, but combined with his smile he had a winning face.
“What do you mean?” queried Francis.
Murphy turned to the stall behind them and pointed to the door. Someone had placed a series of strips on which there was an ink engraving. Francis approached the door and read the strips, one underneath the other.
In Honor of
Who gave his life in his quest for balance
When in fact
Estelle Escalera
Was already fully balanced
Francis laughed.
“By the way,” he added as they left the men’s room, “I heard you’re a follower of Confucius.”
In the hallway he saw her approaching with her friend, the woman whose name he could never remember. The heavy woman was strutting with a lively buoyancy, her hair was literally flowing behind her. Estelle, of course, was impeccably dressed, her features, no longer marred by cyclonic vortexing, bore the determined features of the county DA about to clamp down on her prey.
“My infatuation with Confucius is over. I saw the light,” said Murphy. “I discovered that my teacher in Eastern Studies is actually a follower of Descartes. Well, this is where I leave you,” he nodded quickly. “Good luck.” And with that he turned a corner and disappeared.
“I knew it,” she said, stopping before him, defiantly maintaining her distance.
The other woman stopped, then seeing the look in Estelle’s eyes, smiled awkwardly and moved on.
“Don’t get any ideas, Marie, just because he two-times me.”
“How do you know I two-timed you?”
She expelled a burst of air to convey her disgust.
“By the look in your eyes. You have finally fallen in love. Even your mother called me.”
“My mother?”
“The first time she ever called me. She wanted to know where her son was. So you weren’t at home and you weren’t with me!”
Her face was lovely, architecturally perfect, beyond any established standard. Yet it was over. She was proof of his freedom, proof that the standard the doll man revealed had been dismissed.
“I’m sorry, Stell.”
“Is it somebody in the Terminal?”
“No. Nobody around here.”
“Good. I’d have a hard time being polite.”
And with that she kissed him goodbye and walked off without looking back, her hips moving like the armatures of a locomotive.


On Sunday he woke up struggling with an idea he couldn’t clarify. He felt as if he had been staring at a cloud whose boundaries refused to conform to a comprehensible order. The harder he tried to see something comprehensible, the greater his need to comprehend. The harder he tried, the harder his head hurt. His eyes ached. It was the flu, he thought, feeling a chill. So he pulled the window shades, called down to his mother not to disturb him and stayed in bed the entire day.
He woke Monday morning, feeling much better, though his eyes were sensitive to bright and colorful objects. Not until he was inside the terminal did he realize the intensity of his problem. Michele Essense, a stewardess who usually worked the 0700 flight to Chicago, came bustling through the automatic doors toward the escalator hauling her wheeled suitcase. She knew the wrath of Escalera having once slept with Francis shortly after he met Estelle.
“Hey, you don’t look well, Francis,” she said hurrying by, her voice emanating from chaos.
She turned her head to keep her eyes on him, unable to resist a smile. Only her smile sank into a vortex of whirling flesh which yawned wider and wider like a galaxy whose center no longer held, her makeup flowing toward the circumference of what must have been her hair.
One of Estelle’s friends came in, a heavy-set woman. He couldn’t remember her name. She greeted him cheerily as she passed by. Her appearance was normal. During the next thirty minutes manning the boarding gate waiting area, he realized that only the faces of women he never noticed before remained unchanged. He tried to stem the tide of visual horror with extra cups of coffee from the vendor down the hall. He went into the men’s room several times and washed his face. His own features twisted away like a dish towel being wrung. He gripped the sink and stared at his face hoping to force his cheekbones into conformity, but they continued gyrating, so much so that he became nauseous.
At lunch, terrified he would meet Estelle, he left the North Star concourse and walked over to the US Air terminal where he sat at a bar staring into a coffee cup. At a nearby table behind him, an animated conversation rose above the dominating buzz of air-conditioning. The mention of Lao Tzu caught Francis’s attention. He turned and saw Murphy the intern, sitting among the group, discoursing with great authority in his Irish accent. To his great relief, Murphy’s back was to him. The students underlined their eclectic ancestry by drinking imported brews from bottles with colorful international labels, even as they consumed all American hamburgers with fries. Wearing nondescript sweatshirts and khakis they were immune to the devouring convolutions swallowing all the faces of the fashionably dressed people around them. They had gathered to see off one of their friends who was flying out to the University of Oklahoma.
Murphy and his faction felt that Taoist philosophy advocated keeping people stupid. They favored Confucius who, they believed, wanted to educate the people. The other faction disagreed. A young, unadorned woman everyone called Clio, felt they were repeating the lessons of their pundit in Eastern Studies, who didn’t like Lao Tzu. And why should the teacher like Lao Tzu since a philosophy advocating wisdom over cunning knowledge would cripple the great money-making machinery of the university system, which, after all, pays the professor as well as the college CEOs. Her friend, whose sturdy face resembled an Inca, added that Confucius wanted the people taught so they could become effective bureaucrats. The argument was pursued by both sides with all the vigor of opposing athletic teams.
“Therefore,” quoted the Inca, “the sage manages affairs without action and spreads doctrines without words.”
“Unlike Ophelia’s father, the foolish Polonius,” Clio interjected, her long hair unkempt, “always meddling in everything, like the preachers and the teachers who never see the wholeness of things.”
“Yeah, well you’re a student, just like the rest of us,” hotly contested Murphy. “Without school we’re nothing, no jobs, nada.”
“Probably no job with or without school,” the Inca retorted.
“Naturally,” said Clio, “Dr. Ripple wouldn’t like Lao Tzu because here we have someone saying the way is multiple, observe and learn, but beware of people preaching The One Way which is generally the way into your pocket book.”
“Harvard and Columbia,” added the Inca, “aren’t there to simply enlighten us, they’re big business, they supply big companies with the CEOs.”
“If you’d gotten into Harvard, would you’ve gone? Would you have gone?” ardently repeated one of Murphy’s confederates.
The Taoist student hesitated.
“Provided I could afford it, yeah,” came his reply.
“Yeah right, because you want top billing just like the rest of us, go right to the top. Big companies like GE and Enron hire these guys right at the top, top pay and best of all top decision-making.
For a moment no one spoke. Everyone fiddled with their bottles. Then the young woman piped in.
“OK, so we’re not immune. Still you say decision-making, but like what does that mean?”
“Means,” said the guy bound for Oklahoma, the only one dressed neatly, pressed sweat shirt, freshly washed jeans. “Means. . .”
But he never finished his statement because the young woman pursued her goals with diligence.
“Means nothing unless you’re independent, that’s the heart of the matter. Can you see clearly, independently, or do you see it the way your Harvard profs saw it? If the profs and the CEOs at Enron can’t see the red light ahead then who can?”
“What red light?”
“The warning light,” asserted the Inca. “Lao Tzu is preaching independence. The Tao desires wholeness, whereas an education promoting desire creates opposites.”
Opposites, thought Francis, furtively rising from his stool. Opposites, he repeated over and over as he left the bar without acknowledging Murphy. A mumbled litany of ‘Opposites’ strung out like the beads of a rosary he used to hold on the way to school when he whispered his Hail Marys during exam week.
He went straight home after work, went upstairs to his room and changed his clothes. He left the house telling his mother he was going over to his aunt and uncles’. They lived three blocks east. Large trees lined the street anchoring the brick homes to an air of prosperity. Some of the row houses had originally possessed castle-like turrets with cone roofs. The owners of the other houses, desiring a similar feudal look, had attached crudely fashioned towers, some of them unfinished, to their rectilinear facades. His aunt and uncle had done well, operating a hardware store on Ditmars in Astoria. After his uncle suffered a heart attack, the family sold the business. Their house was midway down the block. The front door, located in one of the original towers, was braced on either side by tall gangly yews. A single rose bush rose from a mound of soil embedded in a cement patio that covered the rest of the yard. He rang the door bell. His Uncle Louis answered the door.
“Francis! Well I’ll be. . . Haven’t seen you in. . . Honey, it’s Francis.”
“Really?” came a voice from the other end of the house followed by rapid footsteps leading to the door.
“Francis!” cried his Aunt Rosa.
She reached up with both hands and kissed him on the forehead as if he were the prodigal son. Once inside the small living room, his aunt turned off the TV. They sat down in the stiffly upholstered chairs. They looked at each other with embarrassment. Finally his uncle asked him if he wanted a glass of wine.
“Your mother has kept us informed, though she worries about you and I ask her why, you know.”
“Yeah I know. That’s what mothers do, right, Aunt Rosa?”
“Sure,” she said, smiling at him. “We worry and then we worry…” she added, watching her husband shuffle into the kitchen.
“I think of Anita and I worry. She got a college education and a great job but then I wonder if she will ever settle…”
“She’s got what she wants,” said Uncle Louis, returning with a bottle of wine and three glasses.
“She’s a writer,” he added, handing a glass to Francis.
“Mom told me she was a media specialist.”
“Exactly,” affirmed his uncle, settling down into his recliner with some effort. “She writes up the papers for the big shot scientists at Rockefeller University. But she also writes…”
“He means she wants to be a…”
“No, she’s a writer. She writes every night, after work.”
“Have you seen any of her writing, smart alec?”
“I don’t have to, she tells me, that’s good enough.”
“That’s a father for you,” said Rosa.
“So what do we drink to?” Louis asked his nephew.
“To this reunion,” answered Rosa, triumphantly.
“Let’s get Anita down here. She’ll be real happy to see you.”
Aunt Rosa went to the stairway by the front door, and called up in a loud voice.
“Anita, Anita, we got a guest, a special guest.”
She’s probably climbing out the window to escape him, he thought. He was ashamed for having come without notice. He heard the footsteps descending the stairs. She entered the room with a tremendous smile. Nothing had changed since graduation, except her smile. Everything about her was as large as he last remembered, her nose, her chin, her entire body, and her face still carried the marks of acne though expertly camouflaged with makeup. But her smile was captivating and her face, despite her nose and chin, was an undisturbed isle of peace. She came over to him and quickly hugged him as he was standing.
“What a surprise,” she laughed, squeezing him with affection.
She sat down spreading out the hem of her dark, pleated dress, which was both serviceable and elegant. When the smile dwindled to a bemused inquisitiveness he saw her differently. She had gained in some inner space a strength and direction he still lacked. She was wearing the pearl necklace she had worn to work as well as two or three silver bracelets. He noted her pierced ears, though she had already removed her ear rings.
“You just got home?” he asked.
“She’s always working.”
“Oh, Mama, you know I was just sitting upstairs reading magazines,” she laughed.
“Sure,” said the old woman skeptically.
“I was just telling Francis about your writing,” intercepted her father like a tennis player responding to his wife’s backhand.
“Oh, Daddy. It pays me well.”
“I didn’t mean that writing. I know you’ve got that under your belt. I meant the other writing.”
“Actually,” quipped Anita, “it’s like that analogy of the falling tree in the forest. If no one has seen what I’m writing, can anyone say I write?”
“See, even she admits it. Besides,” Aunt Rosa added, “what would she be wanting to write about anyway?”
“A falling tree, whatever, why don’t you just say you write on the side!” said her exasperated father. “You kids make life too complicated.”
“So how have you been, Francis?” Anita asked.
“OK.” His confidence stalled, paralyzed by loss of words. “I mean it’s been OK. North Star keeps me busy.”
“And I bet you keep the girls busy.”
He blushed. There was more to her life than he could see. The way she carried herself had erased the effects of her body. Living at home with her parents told only half the story.
“Don’t be shy,” prodded his aunt, after inviting him to diner. They sat down to pasta with broccoli rabe, sautéed in oil with onion and garlic. Breaded chicken cutlets were stacked on a flowery oval plate with a serving fork.
“Take two,” his aunt insisted.
His dad once taught his mom to cook this way but somehow the spaghetti always came out Japanese style. Sometimes it was rice noodles in tomato sauce, other times fettuccini with a white ginger sauce. There was nothing like having good old Italian spaghetti. As the meal came to a close, he looked at his watch and asked Anita if she would like to catch a movie, for old time’s sake.
“What’s playing?” she asked.
“ I don’t know,” he admitted. “Actually I rarely go to the movies anymore. We can call and see.”
“So we are being spontaneous!” she laughed. “That’s just like you, Francis.”
She carried herself, he thought, somewhere beyond vanity’s perimeter, as if she had found something to replace the all too usual fascination in one’s own looks. On the other hand this sounded like the apparent wisdom gleaned from years of isolation, a hermitess on an island, a prisoner in solitary confinement. A painfully earned wisdom!
“Actually it’s not like me,” he injected, realizing he had completely forgotten his eye problem.
“I could use a break,” she said.
“Amen,” added her mother.
At the foot of the stairs, Anita asked him if they should take her car.
“You’ve got a car?” he asked.
“You remember how much I hated driving! But it was taking me too long on Amtrak to go down to Princeton. So I finally gave in.” Seeing his expression, she added, “Sometimes I’ve got to discuss a paper with an author or publisher. And it’s more productive face-to-face, than by phone or e-mail.”
The car stood out the way she did, distinctively, a 15-year-old, maroon Volvo.
“Yeah, I love it,” she said, patting it. “I bought it up in Cambridge, when we were attending a genetics seminar.”
“I’m impressed,” he said. “Let’s head down to Queens College to that place on Kissena and see what old flicks are playing.”
“Sounds good.”
“Anita, I ran into this guy at the airport. He collects dolls.”
“How weird.”
“Yeah, it’s a little weird but I told him about your collection.”
“Mine?” she laughed as she turned onto the Grand Central.
“Yeah, he told me you might be sitting on a gold mine.”
“No,” she said, “I gave mine away.”
They parked the car and walked the half block to the Vintage Cinema where they sat in a half-filled theater, legs up, watching a double feature based upon a common theme: Dark Passage with Bogart, Bacall and Moorehead and Face/Off staring Travolta, Cage and Joan Allen. They bought popcorn with its excess of synthetic butter and two giant wax-coated cups of Coca Cola which the salesgirl called small. He put his arm over the back of her chair and sat that way for nearly a quarter of the film, until his arm fell asleep. During the highly charged moment when the Travolta character realizes he has donned the face of the man he hates, Francis turned to Anita and tried to kiss her. His hand was numb. His arm tingled silly, so he couldn’t hold her. When she saw him reaching toward her she blocked his motion with the popcorn box spilling half the contents on his lap.
“Please,” Anita whispered, “don‘t.”
What had come over him? His own cousin. Anita was practically his sister, the two of them inseparable at childhood until puberty intervened. He withdrew his arm awkwardly, unable to feel his fingers. His limp hand fell to his lap like a bird shot out of the sky. He wanted to shake it awake, but he was so embarrassed by his actions he was afraid of drawing more attention to himself.
“I’m sorry, ‘Nita, I don’t know why I did that.”
They drove home in silence.
“I’ll walk you to your door.”
“That’s okay, Francis, let me drop you off in front of your house. It’s not late.”
They turned onto 31st Avenue and as they topped the incline the Empire State building rose up like a rocket, brightly illuminated on the distant city skyline. It was so prominent he felt the guiding power of its light. She turned the corner and pulled up to the curb. His house stood near the corner next to a small lot enclosed by a chain-link fence. His father rented the lot to several Egyptians who parked their coffee and pastry trailers there. He stared out at the parked cars on the street and, without looking at her again, asked for her forgiveness.
“It was fun seeing you, Francis, after all these years. I’m flattered.”
He looked at her, not knowing what to say or do. Then she stuck out her hand and they shook hands lightly. She smiled at him. He opened the door and got out. As he turned to say goodbye once more, she was already pulling away.
At the end of the block the Volvo turned the corner and disappeared. The peace he had found in her presence, free of the gross distortions initiated in The Hall Of Mirrors, ebbed. As he turned toward the gate in front of his house, a car screeched to a stop, then sped west down the avenue. Something small and white wobbled across the road, then fell in the near lane. Several cars swerved around it. He ran over and found a pregnant cat. She lay on the asphalt, her chest heaving deeply. He saw the lights of approaching cars but was afraid to lift her. He ran back to the fence and grabbed a piece of scrap wood lying against it. Carefully he slid the wounded animal onto the board and dragged it to the side, just as another car passed. She was gasping heavily, trying to get up but no longer able. He touched her head, then gently stroked it, fearing he would hurt her. He didn’t know what to do. Take it to a vet? The teats on her gravid body were fully formed. She leaned her head back as if looking at him, her eyes reflecting the street lights, softening with dullness. She tried to move her hind legs, spasmodically, kicking the air, once, twice, then died. He carried it to the front door and carefully set it down on the pathway near the stoop, placing a garbage lid over it.
His father was asleep in his easy chair in front of the TV and his mother was sitting pensively at her usual place in the dining room.
“Estelle called.”
“Yeah,” he said.
The eyes of the white cat were glowing in the recesses of his mind.
“I saw Anita tonight,” he continued. “Aunt Rosa said she was worried. . .”
“That’s silly. Anita can take care of herself.”
“I guess she worries that she’s lonely.”
“Lonely,” his mother scoffed. “She’s had a scientist boyfriend in Princeton for many years now. They just haven’t married. She lives at home because of her father.”
“I didn’t know that,” he answered.
Death, he ruminated, was loss of vision. If there was an afterworld it drew on that something he had seen in Anita. It wasn’t based on visual standards, but on something she emanated. She must think him a complete asshole. Why didn’t she tell him? Then again it was his assumption she was unattached and deserving his pity. He decided he would bury the white cat in the morning.
How was it, he asked himself, staring into the circulating maelstrom where his face should have been, that he too was plagued by the distortions? Angrily, he washed his face without looking into the mirror. What a pleasure it had been looking at Anita, her features clear and distinct, free of the minute-by-minute changes that were shaping his own, pigment by pigment, pixel by pixel, darkening and brightening like some computer graphics program gone mad. Exhausted, he turned out the light. At least in the peaceful darkness the solid features of his face were free of the critical judgment of the eye. He was afraid he was going crazy.
In the twinkling of an eye he was in the flux, a part of a circular flow twisting into a single point of darkness. He thought of struggling but realized he wasn’t suffering any pain; he was enjoying himself, as he had on those rides at the fair, before his fateful visit to the Hall of Mirrors. Intellectually he wondered whether there was room for him in so narrow a point but no sooner had he thought this than he passed through. He found himself waking from no sleep since he hadn’t fallen asleep, amid an open-air lair of furry animals. Some of them were large, others small. Rolled into this mass of languid contentment were humans, their flesh like his, tantalizing. An arm appeared and then a foot. He sucked on someone’s toes like a baby on a nipple. His mother was somewhere near, he could feel her presence. Rather than find her he simply accepted her proximity. He felt the energy of the group. The group acted as one, moved as one. His mother belonged to everyone. She was everywhere, around all of them and around each of them personally. When he had arrived at the moment of climax, he and all the creatures of the world about him, he actually saw her, his own mother, his alone, her eyes, like great wells leading into subterranean chambers. He could see articulated, without hearing them, these words:
“When the people of the world all know beauty as beauty
There arises the recognition of ugliness.”
Upon the last word the spell was broken, he was heaped upon himself, among copies of himself, all entangled in some incestuous motion. And the furry creatures with whom he had been intimately associated were standing apart from him and his kind, with eyes of dumb fear. His own nakedness was hideous so he struggled to hide it. Everyone was embarrassed; everyone struggled to hide themselves. Out of the air he was able to draw gossamer fabric that turned opaque upon touching his skin. When he noticed the mirrored images of himself, his curiosity sharpened with strange pleasure. For the first time he saw some were males, others female. And each coveted what the others were hiding, what he had once taken for granted. What were they hiding? Did she have what he had or something more mysterious? When he shook himself he saw that his mother was no longer a presence larger than life but an ancient sage sitting in the bar at the airport. A linoleum floor had replaced the red earth.
“Francis, Francis.”
His mother was calling through the door.
“I thought you had already left for work. Do you know what time it is?”
“It’s my day off.”
He was confused.
“No,” she said, “it’s Tuesday.”
He got out of bed and found his bathrobe. A cool draft was blowing in through the open window, the first indication of summer’s departure. Even the way the light was striking the curtains was different. He opened the door, where his diminutive mother stood, braced for disaster.
“It’s okay mom. I overslept.”
“You are telling me something I didn’t know? I thought you had already left. Are you going to work?”
“Yes, don’t worry.”
“Estelle called.”
“Did you tell her I was home?”
“No, because I thought you were at work. But she didn’t believe me. What is happening?”
“Nothing, don’t worry.”
“What, you go out to see your cousin, the first time in many years and for the first time in many years you get up so late? Why do you keep blinking so much?”
“Mom, I’m not feeling well. My eyes hurt.”
He realized for the first time that his mother, who was still a beautiful woman, had not been affected by his epiphany in The Hall of Mirrors.
“I was right!” she cried, hands to her mouth.
“Nothing bad, Mom, but I think I’ll go downtown to the eye clinic.”
“My eyes hurt.”
“I knew it!”
“Mom, I think I have something in my eyes. That’s all.”
Before leaving he called work and asked to speak with Murphy, the intern.
“Hey,” answered Murphy, “they’re all asking about you, especially Estelle.”
“Yeah, I’m not feeling well. Listen, do you remember something in the Tao. . .”
“Hey, are you into that, too?”
“Not really, but I heard something about beauty and ugliness, from you maybe?”
“Maybe, sure sounds like the stuff. Hey, thanks for putting my book by my locker. Estelle told me you found it by the gate last week.”
“Yeah. . , well, I’m going to the doctor, so I’ll catch you later.”
It was already three in the afternoon by the time he arrived at the Eye, Ear And Nose Clinic on East 14th St. He showed his insurance card then filled out the questionnaire on the clip board. He was staring at the receptionist who was serving him. Her makeup swirled uniformly like a pinwheel powered by a breeze. It was hypnotic. The other receptionist behind the adjacent computer screen looked perfectly calm, her features restful to look upon. It would be his luck to get the beautiful one – of course he couldn’t be sure she was beautiful. He just assumed that since his epiphany in The Hall of Mirrors three nights ago it was only the beautiful people whose features spiraled like galaxies in space. Just what made them “beautiful” in the first place? She was looking over his history.
“So you’re here for a checkup?” she asked. “Or to check me out. You seem real interested.”
He looked away with embarrassment, while the other receptionist laughed.
“No,” he answered in a hoarse voice.
“Excuse me,” she persisted flirtatiously, trying to draw him in. “You don’t have to be shy.”
Her voice emanated from somewhere near the vortex of her facial disturbance. The disturbance reminded him of the satellite images of a hurricane, the awe-inspiring cyclones viewed from the perimeter of Earth’s atmosphere. He struggled with his fascination. This ever changing, all powerful weather pattern, appearing on her face, had become a serious distraction. He had to remind himself not to stare.
“No,” he repeated.
Unable to look her in the face, he held his hand to his eyebrows and looked down at the counter, doodling on a post-it pad lying there. He had no way of judging the affect of his apparent rudeness.
“Okay,” she added in a straightforward manner, no monkey business in her voice. “So what’s the problem?”
“. . . distortions, everything I see is distorted.”
“You mean blurry?”
“Not exactly. I mean distorted.”
She paused as she looked at something on her screen.
“I’m not sure your insurance covers distortions. For now just take a seat.”
“What? You mean I’m not covered? I’ll have to pay out-of-pocket, the co-payment won’t do it?”
“I’m not sure. I’m going to check on it. Please take a seat.”
As he took a seat he remembered the white cat. He walked into the hall and found a public phone.
“Yes,” his mother answered, “your father put it in the garbage.”
“It was pregnant.”
“It was dead.”
He returned to his seat. He had promised her a burial. He might as well have been driving the car that ran her over.
Most of the people in the clinic were retirees. In thirty years he too could sit here on any day he chose. For an hour he read magazines off the rack. Although the captions and texts were unaffected, the faces of the rich and beautiful were affected by the same strange physics initiated by The Hall of Mirrors. In the smallest pictures the faces appeared more like a printing glitch. In the full-page spreads, they looked like distorted tabloid shots. In one large facial shot advertising sunglasses continental shifts in ink around the thick eyebrows and dark mustache revealed a vortex disappearing into the nostrils of a famous actor. In a foldout for dungarees, the whirlpool of glossy pigment streamed down the face of a well-known model into her abundant cleavage partially hidden by a bikini top. It was as if they had all gone to the same beautician and found that the creams they used had become unstable at body temperature. Censorship was taking place on a cosmic level. Rather than the medieval fig leaf covering genitalia, a colorful vortex covered all fashionable faces. He decided he would browse later through a porno magazine to see if entire bodies were affected. Disgusted by his obvious need to follow the lives of the rich and famous, he was shuffling through the magazines with reckless abandonment when he came upon an art journal that had found its way into this heap of popular pulp. His first impression of a review of Francis Bacon, an English artist, was that he too was painting only the beautiful. However, the author’s wordy description contrasted sharply with this impression. The melting features were taking place in these works of art. The writer, in describing Bacon’s torment, had found the right words to describe Salvezza’s misery.
With relief an aide led him down a hall to a seat where an Asian nurse prepared her instruments. She joked with him. Unfortunately he couldn’t concentrate on the punch lines. Her features sank into a black hole, only to spew forth, no, to rupture from another area of the face, first from the ear, then from the eye, the circulating flesh growing outward again before the gravity of matter drew it round and down yet another vortex somewhere else on her face.
“Does the light bother you?”
“Sort of.”
“You didn’t stare into the sun or into the light of an acetylene torch?”
“Not really. It’s like my eyes burn but not really.”
She asked him to rest his head on a chin rest and look through the lens at a small green tree displayed on a picture inside. Then she asked him to look through an optical gadget with multiple lenses at a point of light somewhere ahead.
“What are you looking for?”
“Measuring your eyes. So what’s the trouble?”
Should he say “luminous matter is circling around a dark hungry hole where your face should be?”
“I. . . I seem to be having a problem focusing.”
“Well, just wait in this room, the doctor’ll be with you in a moment.”
A photograph of his eyeballs showed a slight swelling around the iris. So they wanted to test for glaucoma. On another chin rest he stared into a large box where little lights blinked on and off, like bursts of star light. In response to each burst he pressed a button to indicate he saw it.
Afterward she took him to a small cubicle and asked him to wait a moment. She placed his folder in a plastic file holder on the door then walked away. He was relieved to see her go, his eyes exhausted from the effort of trying to focus on her face. He prayed the ophthalmologist was hideous. Dr. Lenz opened the door with a flourish, one hand already pulling his file, the other disappearing beyond the door jam into a space apparently occupied by the Asian nurse, whose voice he could hear. Dr. Lenz was flirting. With a flourish he came in, rather proud of himself, a large smile on his homely face, a bulbous nose and skin with distinct pores like pin holes. He dressed dapperly, a bright orange tie against a light blue shirt. The white coat defined his professional status.
“OK, let’s see here, Mr. . ,” looking at the file, “Salvezza – that’s an Italian name. . .”
“Yes, but my mother is Japanese.”
“Ah, yes, well, let’s see what we find.”
Once again Francis rested his chin on a padded brace while the doctor swung an optical array of lenses in front of his eyes. He asked him to read the lines on a distant screen, first the larger letters followed by the smaller and finally the smallest. Then with rapidity he flipped one lens after another in and out of the provided slots and asked each time if this lens or that allowed him to see the line of random letters more clearly.
“Is this better or is this?”
“This or this?”
“This or this?”
“This or this?”
And so on.
“You appear to have perfect vision, though I will look further with drops.”
“To dilate the iris. Mild these days, nothing like the old days when you walked out half blind for part of a day. Betty tells me you are suffering from distortions.”
The doctor swung yet another optical machine before him and asked him to stare at the pencil he was holding up.
“Everything seems in good shape. What is distorted?”
“I. . . I. . . it’s hard to describe.”
“You see the letters on the wall clearly enough, right?”
“Look at my finger, is it blurry?”
“No, it’s nothing like that. . . I see, I mean only things that are beautiful are distorted.”
Even Dr. Lenz paused a moment considering this.
“Like flowers?”
“No, like faces, mainly faces.”
“Ok, what does my face look like?”
Oh my god, Francis panicked. What was he to tell him? Dr. Lenz your face is unaffected. You are ugly.
“Your face, well your face is swirling, as if the pigments of color have run, the way paint runs when laid too thickly on a wall.”
Dr. Lenz was pleased. He smiled grandly as he sat back to ponder this.
“This is quite unusual. It could be a problem with the rod and cones. The tips of these are made up of a layer of cells which capture an image and deliver it to the brain for interpretation. In that instant they are destroyed and replaced by the next layer of cells which produces the next image and so on, much the way the old movie reels operated, each frame carried rapidly before the light creating a fluid image of motion. Perhaps these rods and cones are misfiring, for lack of a better word. . . Does the light bother you?”
“Yeah, a little. I mean, when I am in a dark room, I can’t see anything so my eyes aren’t playing tricks on me. I mean I can touch things and they feel fine. It’s only when I look at them.”
“Did you stumble and fall, bang your head, anything like that?”
“Despite this blurriness you are still able to recognize people?”
“Yeah, I recognize the blobs, I mean I know who they are.”
“I am going to give you these sun glasses. Wear them. They aren’t prescription, that’s not your problem, but they will allow your eyes to rest. Let’s see how these help your eyes adjust. If there isn’t any improvement, we’ll see you in a week, how’s that?”
“That’s great, great. . . Thank you, doctor.”
Wearing his glasses, Francis stopped at the desk. The receptionist he had spoken with earlier was talking on the phone.
“Honey, I have to go,” she said, looking up, “yeah, perfect, see you then.”
She hung up the receiver and looked at Francis. Her face had become a dark spot, like the blackened out face in the old Police Gazettes. The glasses were effective.
“Mr. Salvezza, the insurance will pay. Ten dollars.”


A cool, dry air mass had settled into the region. They all felt comfortable in the early hours of Saturday morning, as Francis drove Estelle’s bright red, Honda Accord upstate for a late-summer outing at a county fair. The windows were down. Dappled shadows swept casually over them. Estelle sat beside him and miracle of miracles, her kids reclined in the back seat.
Estelle knew that before she started dating him, he had slept with other women working at the terminal, and always at their behest. She also had the foresight to fathom the inertia which propelled him. As long as she kept him occupied he was hers. Some women had assumed his gentlemanly concerns a sign of their success, and had failed to hold him. Others, especially the stewardesses, had considered his absentmindedness a sign of insolence. Ambivalence, perhaps, but certainly not insolence. That much Estelle knew. She knew he was not immune to beauty nor to the wily ways of her sex. If a woman passed wearing the right skirt he noticed. With her seductive ploys Estelle generated the gravitational field that kept him in orbit around her. A momentary lapse, like paying too much attention to her kids, and he would simply drift off into space until another body of greater power captured him. Perhaps one day Mr. Right would come by. He might not have the beauty of Francis, nor his subtle ways in bed. But Mr. Right would be driven by a need for permanence. Until yesterday, when she met the strange man talking to Francis in The Leap For Light, she never thought Francis had an interest in children.
“Murphy was telling me if we got there early enough we’d be able to park close to the admission gate, otherwise we have to walk.”
“Walking is ok.”
“Not with the kids,” she said.
In the rear view mirror he saw Jose, six years old, looking sleepily out one window and Cecelia, four years older, staring out another.
“Do you think they like me?”
“Do you guys like Francis?”
“Oh Jesus, what are they supposed to say?”
“Yeah,” came a dispassionate chorus.
“That guy with the Barbie sure gave me the once over,” she teased. “What’s he into, S&M?”
“What’s S&M, mama?” asked Cecelia, without appearing interested.
“Oh, Dios mio, tengas las orejas grandes, mi hija. S&M son dulce y lo mismo M&M.”
He looked over at her. She winked at him, her eye brows raised, her lips pursed. At work she could maintain a prosaic appearance of all business. Then by simply unfastening an extra button on her blouse she unleashed the mischievous thoughts of male travelers without, of course revealing anything. The unfastened buttons only came into play when she chose to arch her back or breathe in a certain way. When they were alone she knew how to lead him through the surface of the everyday appearances into the tangled layers of undergarments the likes of which he had never known before Estelle. Each layer lured him closer to the prize, each strap of lace, each string of jewelry vortexed him deeper into a region where even the prize itself, once acquired, left him yearning for still more.
It’s no wonder that for the last two years, Stell’s kids lived only on a theoretical plane in his consciousness. Sitting on her bed, he never wondered why her kids were never at home. The brown teddy bear or the little kitchen set which he played with absently while waiting for Estelle to emerge from the bathroom were evidence of their existence. Sometimes he wondered what they looked like? Did they look like their mother? That they might look like their father soured his interest – their father, after all, had created something out of the relationship. And what did Stell expect of Francis? She would wrap her arms around him and talk about how she liked it, and was he hungry and did he like her new curtains and did he think she should cut her hair and what was he thinking about – she always wanted to know that. Sometimes he didn’t know what he was thinking, other times, more recently, he recalled his own childhood days, his own brothers and sisters, all with families of their own now. He seemed to watch himself, an object making love to Estelle. He could have been watching a movie. Then the following day he always returned home where he lived with his mother and father. It all amounted to nothing.
As soon as they came around a hill the fair grounds loomed ahead like an enchanted parkland, punctuated by pinnacled tents. The kids became excited as soon as they saw the giant Ferris wheel which looked as if it had rolled into the valley from one of the surrounding hills. A teenage car attendant standing in a large field pointed them to a parking place. At a kiosk a heavyset man jovially admitted them as one happy family. Estelle sidled close to Francis, squeezing his arm.
“My young husband,” she whispered in his ear, gently biting it.
“Jesus, Stell,” he cried pulling away. She laughed.
The scent of farm animals intensified. Inside the first 4H Club tent they found pens with enormous pigs consuming hay from opened bales. The strong smell of urine forced Cecelia back out to her mother. Jose’s curiosity drove him on behind Francis. The truculent hogs charged the pen walls with feigned aggression. For Estelle and Cecelia, the chicken house, with its varieties of colorful hens, was the only interesting animal exhibit. She described the chicken coop on her father’s farm in Puerto Rico.
“I didn’t know your father had a farm,” asked Francis surprised.
“Everybody has chickens.”
“But a farm?”
“You don’t have to have a farm to have chickens.”
“But you just said. . .”
“Don’t take me so literally. It’s not like it is up here. Besides to these kids a backyard is like a farm. My god!”
Hunger and thirst led them into a new region where small, jerry-rigged booths displaying handmade crafts formed a narrow lane. In front of the booths sat the proprietors in nylon-webbed, aluminum folding chairs. A patrolling golf cart squeezed through carrying officials of the fair. The proximity of so much unusual merchandise at such apparent give-away prices was more than Estelle could resist. Francis and the kids waited as she bought one irresistible object after another for one or another of her aunts and uncles and of course for her mother. Finally Francis and the kids complained. They were hot and starving. So with bags full of candles and macramé plant holders, she reluctantly followed them.
The lane widened into a pavilion of games. The barkers harangued them to play. By the time they found their way out, no one was smiling. Another area opened up, this one enormous, a panoply of rides punctuated by the Ferris wheel. The kids nearly fainted with anticipation. Only the promise of return helped quiet them. At last, at the far end of the fairground, they came to the eating booths. With the exception of the Italian sausage place, these were nothing more than the usual fast foods Francis and Estelle could find at the airport.
“Hay caramba! They don’t even have Chinese or Spanish cooking!” said Estelle glumly. “Eating is like everything,” she added.
The kids sat down at a grease-stained bench. They demanded hotdogs with mustard and large cokes. Francis found a tray and bought sausage heroes and beers for Estelle and him and hotdogs and cokes for the kids. They looked down with disdain at the cup of sauerkraut he also brought.
“Now, what do you say, guys?” Estelle commanded.
“Thank you” was their lukewarm response.
As he ate Francis watched the vigorous activity at the Port-a-potties along the opposite fence.
The beer had the effect of dropping an iron anvil on his head. All he wanted to do was lay down and sleep. But the kids, only an hour earlier showing signs of total collapse, had found new energy and wanted to be off to the rides. Estelle, downing the last of her beer, decided to return to the craft area for a last look. Directing her kids to stay with Francis until she returned, she entrusted her bags of stuff to his care. The kids, especially Cecelia, did not like this idea but with a florid goodbye her mother disappeared around the corner of the corn dog stand. Fifteen, perhaps twenty minutes passed. At first the kids sat patiently at the table. The sun beat down. The flies buzzed. Then Jose, followed by Cecelia, began circling around the table. Jose found a stick and began hitting the ground dispassionately. Inevitably Cecelia wanted to ‘borrow’ it and try something.
“Try what?” asked Jose.
“Something,” she reiterated.
And so on, until they were arguing over who knew the most about what. It was Cecilia, now turning to Francis, his eyes in deep recession beneath his seashell eyelids, who finally questioned the purpose of coming to a stupid fair if all they were going to do was to sit for a hundred years waiting for their mother.
“Hasn’t been a hundred years, Cecilia. Maybe half an hour at the most.”
“No, it’s been years. Besides how would you know? You don’t even carry a watch.”
“That’s true.”
“Besides you are not my daddy.”
“I know that.”
“So you can’t tell me what to do.”
“I didn’t. Your momma did.”
“That was years and years ago.”
Forty-five minutes later and even Francis had lost his patience. Struggling against the effects of beer and heat he rose to go. Now Cecelia sat down, didn’t want to go.
“What about the bumper cars?” asked Jose continuing to circle the table.
This appealed to Francis.
“No,” said Cecelia. “You promised the Ferris wheel. Besides, then we can see the whole world and probably find Mama.”
Francis didn’t recall the promise.
“How about a compromise,” he offered. “Let’s wait for the rides until your mother returns.”
“No,” came an adamant voice from Jose, who had turned to face Francis with a disappointed but defiant face.
“I don’t mean we just sit here. We do games. That way we go far enough to see if your mother is on her way.”
They agreed. Feeling like a father, he guided Jose with a hand on his shoulder through the beckoning of the barkers. While Jose tried throwing pennies into a plastic dish floating in a plastic wading pool Cecelia stood to the side refusing to participate. Hoping to win Jose the large stuffed koala bear being offered as a prize, Francis tried. To his embarrassment he found the apparently easy-looking task impossible. They left the booth with Jose disappointed, Francis on the verge of fuming and Cecelia composing a look of “I told you so.” She did try the rifles at the shooting gallery, taking careful aim at the passing ducks on the conveyor belt on the far wall. When she succeeded in whacking the first three ducks in a session that took her over eight minutes of concentration, she earned the admiration of her brother as well as three stuffed chipmunks which she shared with him. Francis dared not try since Cecelia had proven herself a crack shot. Still no sign of Estelle.
“What about the Merry-Go-Round,” he suggested.
“For babies,” she retorted.
“Maybe your little brother would like to try.”
“He thinks you are a baby.”
“I am not!”
Francis shrugged. “Okay, forget it.”
“Only if Cissy goes with me,” countered Jose.
“You heard her, she thinks it’s for babies.”
“It’s not.”
“I know that, but she thinks so.”
“Come on,” pleaded José.
“I can’t. Someone has to watch for your mother,” added Francis holding up Estelle’s bags of goods.
Cecelia relented and they both sat in the saddles of galloping, wild stallions. Once the giant organ intoned the beginning of the ride, Cecelia, despite feigned indifference, was just as rapt as Jose with his unadulterated grin.
“Oh my god,” cried Estelle, “they’re having a ball.”
“Where have you been?” was Francis’s exasperated response.
“Shopping. I bought all kinds of little things for them, Christmas gifts and one or two little surprises for you,” she added with her lips suddenly parted in a pout as if he had hurt her feelings after all her hard endeavors for the sake of the family.
“For two hours! Here’s your stuff.”
“I also took the packages to the car and locked them in the trunk,” she added.
When the ride ended the kids ran to their mother, though only Jose hugged her.
“So what’s Uncle Francis…”
“I’m not their uncle?”
“Just this time…”
“He’s not our uncle,” emphasized Cecelia.
Later he and José sat in a swinging two-seater of the Ferris wheel perched high above the fairground as the sun was setting behind the Catskills. Their seat rocked back and forth in giddy little arcs. He realized he had been listening to the rattling staccato notes of the cicadas all afternoon. Now that the sun was setting their rapid outbursts of energetic wooing grew more sporadic. Below them Estelle and Cecelia sat, calling up to them. After the last vacancies had been filled, the ride lurched into motion. They shot up to the top where they could see the surrounding world in a haze of purple. The hills stretched toward eternity. As they crested the peak in a weightless moment, their bodies, borne upward seemed no longer tethered to the Earth. Then they dropped abruptly. The earth, reasserting its rule, brought them down with dizzying effect. Jose kept his mouth and eyes shut during the descent. Above them they could hear the girls scream. On the third round the lights on the wheel went on, effectively shutting out the world beyond in its own brightness. They spun in a world of their own, a world of light.
Back on the ground, they found groups of young people loitering about, most of them separated into gender groups. Boys hung languidly over the safety railings smoking cigarettes with caps perched backwards and pants hanging like deflated balloons from their hips. The girls moved quickly, like shimmering moths evading predators between the lit circles beneath lamp posts. An invisible current of interest radiated between the groups. Amid these charged gestures older couples materialized out of the dark air, the men with pony tails and cowboy hats, women in granny dresses. Young kids gathered around the rides, their parents laughing and joking while they waited in line. Over the PA someone announced the arrival of a well-known local band at the bandstand.
“What bandstand?” asked Cecelia.
Neither Francis and Estelle knew nor cared as they debated whether they should be going since the kids were sure to collapse soon. The evening air had cooled. The kids resisted, despite their exhaustion. They wearily passed the Moonwalk and found themselves in an isolated area of immense quiet in front of an unfamiliar amusement stand bearing the sign: The Hall of Mirrors. Francis couldn’t understand how they had missed this place. This mattered little to Estelle who wanted to show the kids the freaky affects of the funny mirrors. Since no one was in the ticket booth Estelle left their stubs on the wooden panel beneath the sales grill. Inside, the corners were illuminated by bare light bulbs that burst against the reflections of the visitors. Francis was startled to see his lovely Estelle transformed into a woman of gigantic proportions; then she was a woman as narrow as a high school teen plagued by anorexia. His eyes ricocheted from the mirrored reproductions to their source . Estelle laughed. She was hamming it up for the kids, who in turn mimicked her, hanging their arms down in simian fashion. They stretched their lips to absurd widths but never as wide as Estelle’s who stretched hers with her fingers reminding Francis of a stone carving of a gorgon he had seen on a Greek isles travel poster. His own distorted figure troubled him. He was accustomed to his face. So he was shocked by the sudden contortions into which his face erupted. Lumps grew out of his eye brows while his mouth sank into itself with self-consuming fury. Estelle laughed at him, her teeth transformed into ferocious daggers which curled and disappeared into her face leaving her without a nose: the giant eyes of an insect resting on mandibles of flesh.
The silence collapsed. A forest of tree toads erupted into strident love song. The din intensified, grew deafening. Francis wanted to stop his ears, close his eyes. His mouth was dry; he could barely swallow, and his face was wet. Then the violin-like chords emanating from beyond the pale, morphed into the jagged edges of guitar chords. They cut through the stale air inside the mirrored hall. Somewhere a band was tuning up. After a moment the cacophony rolled into the Cream’s interpretation of Robert Johnson’s Crossroads. Estelle began dancing in front of the mirrors. Her normally tight and perfectly rounded ass moved from side to side with ever increasing intensity, became suddenly as huge as a mountain then just as suddenly cooled down like a massive star sinking into oblivion. The kids emulated their mother, all three moving about in the hall of mirrors like a chorus of a thousand monkeys. With every step they morphed into new creatures, from one instar to the next. His head was pounding, his stomach churning like a washing machine. Was it the sausages, he wondered? Estelle had eaten them too. As he staggered out of The Hall of Mirrors, the Escaleras followed, dancing like a drunken party. For Estelle, liberated of her appearance, all was levity. The kids perhaps were more amused by their mother’s reaction than their own alterations. But inside Francis felt truly changed.
From the rear door of The Hall of Mirrors they looked down a long avenue of booths serving drinks and ice cream. People were walking down the avenue toward a wall of bleachers which apparently surrounded a stage from which the music was emanating. Estelle and her kids fell under the music’s spell. They were carried along without any decisive yea or nay toward the center of the fairgrounds, drawn like iron filings to the magnetic core of the well-lit stage. Francis followed, his eyes aching as if he had been staring at the sun. He was afraid he would lose complete control and throw up at any moment. Hundreds of teenagers had gathered by the bleachers. Where had they all come from? Kids just past puberty, the guys with their necklaces and cigarettes, the girls in their tight pants and low-cut tops, everyone flirting. Beneath the bleachers couples were making out.
As they were entering the arena the band finished Crossroads, letting it fall apart into discord. Out of its ruined notes rose up a wailing sound, the lead singer cursing the Whipping Post by the Allman Brothers. This piece carried Francis and Estelle and the kids to a high seat in the bleachers. Estelle was telling Francis she used to dislike the white boys’ music, preferring the horns and cymbals of Latino music, but since she had a white half-breed Asian lover she had to admit she liked the old music too. The Allman song also died in discord. For a moment all was silent. Then came the soft first notes of guitar and flute that formed itself into a rendition of Led Zeppelin’s Stairway To Heaven. He knew this song. He remembered his older sisters playing the scratchy LP on the family record player after school. Their mother always closed the doors to the kitchen, shaking her head in disapproval. Listening to Led Zeppelin had made him a respectable character in grade school. He even knew the words. Estelle didn’t know the piece but she was enjoying herself. The Page and Plant lyrics illustrated the simple mysteries of doing what is right. Rung by rung the melodies carried the audience up. Who could fail to follow? It appeared as if time had come to a halt, some planetary zenith reached. The summer stage seemed poised at any moment to dissolve into the warm night air, made of stuff like dreams. At any moment he would find himself alone in the field among the tree toads, driven by the instinctual need to procreate. The toads, like the cicadas, belonged here. So did all the young people, driven by their own needs, they belonged. But he didn’t. He and Estelle had been together too long. He could see the air of excitement had been ground down by their routine encounters. Stell used ploys to keep him interested. He didn’t deny it, he liked the foreplay, her use of lingerie. He stayed for lack of anything better to do. He liked her kids, liked the feeling of being a family man, but none of it was his.
When the final chord was reached, there was clapping in front of the stage where groupies had gathered to support their band. After a pause, a brisk I Got You Babe, reached deep into his stasis with its sense of irony. Estelle put her arms around him. He could barely see her face.
“Hey, lover boy, what is the problema?”
“Nothing, nothing,” he said shortly.
He carried little Jose while Cecelia quietly followed holding her mother’s hand. The music of the previous hour was consumed by the incessant sound of the tree toads beyond the pale. Unaided by electric amplification, it had been there all along, oblivious to human concerns.


One Friday morning in the North Star terminal at New York’s La Guardia airport a young boarding agent with high cheekbones and broad, slightly inclined eyes with eyelids as smooth as worn seashells, entered the men’s room. Above the urinal in front of him he read the label listing the manufacturer’s name and the urinal’s serial number. Above that he saw a bronze memorial plaque:
The Family of Salvezza, in Loving Memory of Their Son, Francis Salvezza.
No, make that in bold letters:
Who Gave His Life That Others Might Fly!
Looking at the other urinals, he saw a bronze plaque above each of them, each in loving memory of someone who had served at La Guardia. For the stalls he saw more elaborate plaques fixed on the metal doors, like those found on crypts providing the necessary space for longer testimonies. It was a sad day, he thought, as he dried his hands under the automatic hand-drier, when they did away with the employees’ suggestion box. Management could have benefited from this unique fund-raising avenue.
This bathroom inspiration gave him and his co-workers at the boarding gate hours of entertainment. That is, before Murphy, the college intern, drove the ribald discussions onto the rocks with a deep yearning to reveal all he had learned the day before in his Comparative Eastern Religions course. The professor, an ex-hippy leftist according to Murphy, came down hard against Lao Tzu for his denunciations of knowledge. Despite Murphy’s rhetoric, Francis was able to keep alive his delight in his own bawdy fund-raising campaign. It was one of his most original ideas since graduating from high school, fourteen years ago.
On entering The Leap For Light, he took a seat at the empty bar. He stared out the big window at the ground crews working beneath the airplanes, then up at the TV with its picture perfect newscasters and pulsating advertisements. He ordered a burger with fries. He doodled on a napkin, his head resting in his hand. He watched the dark clouds building up over the Bronx, while sketching drolleries along the napkin’s edge. Within cloud-like filaments he enclosed the words of his own bathroom memorial. In sixth grade, he confessed to his teacher, Sister Mary Ursula, his fascination in the turbulent motions of the clouds. Unfortunately, his teachers and his parents had lacked the key to the door separating his dreams from their functional application. The curling smoke, rising from his father’s cigarette as it intersected the bars of light under the lamp by his lounge chair, provided Francis ample opportunity to study air flows; but this misunderstood discipline drove his old man crazy. That is until the old man, who at that time was driving a cab out of the airports, found his son a job with an upstart airline.
When his order arrived he looked up and saw a large man with a smoothly shaved head sitting one stool down from him. Otherwise the bar was empty. The anchor woman on TV, seated in front of an ocular blue, was looking down on Francis. Somewhere on the vast stage where important news was being made, his own insignificance was being demonstrated as a by-product; people of power were making lots of money, buying big homes they didn’t need while he, Francis Salvezza, continued drifting like the smoke from his father’s cigarettes, inconsequentially. She was describing an Amnesty International case in Pakistan: a woman raped by men as punishment for a sexual crime her young male cousin had committed. The anchor woman had that beautiful, but made for business, look. A mauve jacket with wide lapels and a white blouse with a deeply cut V-neck provided qualities both alluring and managerial. He imagined his girlfriend Estelle Escalera wearing that jacket. It would fit her perfectly. When he glanced over, he noticed that the big guy was holding a Barbie Doll, like a baton, tapping the counter as he scanned the menu. Everything else about the clean-shaven man seemed comprehensible, light brown work boots, jeans, a plaid short sleeve work shirt with a gold neck chain. When the stranger looked up, Francis looked down with feigned interest at his uneaten burger. The man, who knew the bartender’s name, ordered the usual, plus a Virgin Mary.
Francis continued staring at the burger. To look out the window seemed to spotlight his deception. When the man’s drink arrived Francis saw him out of the side of his eye set his doll down on the counter. The man sipped his tomato juice. Francis, who hadn’t swallowed for a whole minute, took the opportunity to gulp down the mounting saliva.
“What do you see there, man? God forbid, not a cockroach, not here in The Light?”
“The Light?” asked Francis ruefully, his face bright red with embarrassment.
“Short for The Leap, long name, you know?”
The man’s order of bacon and eggs came and he set to with relish. After a minute or two he looked up at Francis again.
“Well what?”
“You were staring like that bun is alive. I’d like to know if it was alive. . , you know, since I am a regular here.”
“Me too, I’m a regular here.”
“No, I was just thinking about things, just thinking. My girlfriend says I daydream too much, so there you go. No cockroaches.”
Francis looked out toward the runways but he could hear the stranger chomping on the toast. The mounting clouds had taken on the ominous look of an approaching wall. What would a man be doing with a doll?
“Looks like a thunderstorm,” the man said. “It’s too damn humid. I hope we’re in for a cool spell.”
Francis agreed without looking away from the window.
“You work here, I mean with the North Star jacket and all?”
Francis looked back and found the man efficiently wiping the egg yolk with the last morsel of toast.
“Yeah, at the boarding gates.”
“Yeah, North Star’s a good outfit, at least that is what I hear down in loading. Good benefits. Like travel, right?”
“It’s just a job. I live in East Elmhurst, so the commute is short. What about you?”
“Teamster. . . Do you take advantage of the opportunities and travel?”
“I suppose.
For a moment they sat looking up at the anchor woman in the Blue Eye. Then the teamster laid out a couple of bills, grabbed his check and was lifting his Barbie when he saw Francis covertly staring at the doll. He sat back down.
“This is Barbie.”
“I know that. My cousin has a closet full of Barbies.”
He thought of Anita, and wasn’t sure if she still had a closet full. In elementary school, she had possessed a girlish beauty. But with puberty her trusted features struggled against each other in a civil war for dominance. Acne pitted her face like a 19th century scourge, leaving her pockmarked. Her friends abandoned her. His popularity grew. But he offered her no helping hand. Then fate dealt her one final blow: despite her initial efforts at fasting, her weight shifted titanically beyond her control. He hadn’t seen her since graduation, even though, like him, she still lived with her parents just a few blocks from his house.
“Is she a collector?” the man asked.
“Oh, so you’re a collector.”
“No man, this is more like the realization of an idea – a trophy if you will, commemorating that realization.”
The anchor woman was now onto national news. Her blue background had become the gray waters of the Mississippi river overflowing its boundaries…
“Does your cousin belong to a club?”
“I don’t think so. Well, it was nice …”
This time Francis was preparing to leave.
“It’s all about The Mould.”
Francis looked down at the bread roll. He realized he still hadn’t started his hamburger and still didn’t possess a check.
“I called Her The Nameless One. I didn’t know what else to call Her. And then I started looking for a name I could call her…”
“Call who?”
The fries were cold and the burger stiff, the roll soggy from the catsup.
“The perfect woman.”
The idea of the perfect woman struck Francis, the cold burger wedged between his teeth. His mother had often called him perfect looking. “You are so handsome, so fine looking, like Kennedy,” she would say in a tone of admonition. “But without college you will be without success.”
“Perfect woman?” Francis repeated.
“Exactly. The one who is perfectly suited to attract us. She fits the mould. She’s part of the standard. I finally found her on 42nd Street, down by 8th Avenue. Barbie, understand?”
Francis didn’t understand but he nodded, his mouth full, his eyes transfixed by the stranger’s intensity. He remembered the old 42nd Street, the marquees of the porno theaters bearing funny titles, the white-washed windows of the magazine shops, the dingy, grey buildings, and the aimless people collecting on the corners near the overflowing trash baskets.
“I was dreaming about her without even knowing who I was dreaming about. You understand? I’m talking wet dreams.”
Fatally the conversation had taken a downward turn. He still didn’t have his check, and he had taken but two bites of his repulsive burger.
“The first mould was made in 1959. This one!”
With pride the stranger raised the doll up in the air.
“Actually it’s a replica commemorating the original. Originals can go for seven to nine thousand dollars. Your cousin may be sitting on a gold mine. But …”
At the mention of his cousin Francis found himself less afraid.
“In one moment a woman can be carrying the standard, in the next she’s lost it. Is it something she did or something you did?”
The bartender reappeared. He asked Francis if there was something wrong with the burger. Francis, with embarrassment, began eating it again. The stranger ordered another Virgin Mary.
“What’s your name?”
“Interesting. Mine’s Tony. . . you know, St. Francis embraced what he feared.”
The bartender set the tomato juice on a napkin.
“So Francis, are you Chinese?”
“My mother’s Japanese, my father Italian. He met her in Yokohama after the war.”
Tony looked at Francis and smiled.
“She must be a beautiful woman.”
Francis looked down at his burger. Beauty and diplomacy were intricately connected for his mother, who met his father, Frank Salvezza, in a brothel, and discovered in this roughly handsome, burly man a means of escaping defeat. Once stateside his father turned out to be no more than a common man, hardly one of the victors, without a job, soon a cab driver. Still she never failed to display her gratitude. On her marriage day she dropped forever, her birth name, Asagao and became Eileen Salvezza. In the eyes of a former prostitute, beauty was no idle concept.
“. . . had paid more attention to, they would have avoided centuries of misery.”
“I didn’t hear what you said,” blurted Francis, startled from his reverie.
“I said the Chinese bound the feet of their women, made them doll-like, useless. . . Once you have a standard of beauty, you automatically create a standard of the ugly. One way or the other, the Goddess rules, no matter which sex reacts negatively. Check out the Moslems, half the world covering their women with veils out of fear of seeing Her.”
“Maybe the Moslem tradition of hiding the women behind veils and robes at least gives women an equal chance at finding a partner.”
“I hadn’t thought of that,” said Tony.
He took out a small black notebook from his back pocket, from it pulled out a pen and wrote something down.
“I’m going to look into that,” he said putting the notebook away.
“Francis! Where’ve you been?”
A striking woman, in her mid-thirties, with long black hair, bright red lips and exotic gold ear pendants walked briskly up to them. Her heels clicked with the rapid cicada surety of someone in a tight skirt.
“Tony, this is Estelle,” said Francis bashfully. “She’s my boss.”
She swung her arm in around his arm and came to rest against his side. Like Francis she was wearing the company’s navy-blue blazer with the North Star emblem on the breast pocket.
“Estelle, this is Tony. He’s a regular on the delivery runs to the loading docks.”
Tony held out his hand and shook hers.
“Nice to met you, Estelle,” he smiled. He looked for his check again. “You guys are lucky the company provides a uniform.”
Francis laughed as Estelle pulled at him playfully.
“She hates the uniform.”
“He can wear his jacket off-the-rack, and still, look good. These uniforms aren’t made to fit women. More like wearing a box!”
“Well, I think you look pretty good in yours,” said Tony with a smile.
“Ai! This man knows how to say the right thing. You wouldn’t believe what I must spend of my small paycheck to take in the jacket!”
“It pays off,” added Tony, grabbing the doll as he picked up the check.
“A Barbie!”
“I was telling Francis she’s still popular.”
“I love her.”
“She’s a remake of the ’59 classic that initiated the whole Barbie line.”
“Can I hold her?”
She studied the details with intense interest.
“I just love the eyes. Oh, the liner makes her look like she means business. You have a daughter?” she asked, returning the doll.
“You’re surrounded,” laughed Estelle.
“Actually they’re all out of the house now. It’s just my wife and me,” said the stranger as he paid.
“A house full of kids must really be something,” added Francis wistfully. “I was the last kid born and my brothers and sister were much older than me.”
Estelle looked at him with surprise. Tony was turning to leave when he touched Francis on both shoulders with his doll as if conferring a blessing.
“Here’s to cooler weather.”