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

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

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