THE REFLECTIONS OF THE FROG PRINCE IN THE HALL OF MIRRORS, PART I

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:
FRANCIS SALVEZZA
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?”
“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.”
“So?”
“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?”
“Francis.”
“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.
“Three!”
“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.”

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