THE TRUE BUT OFTEN APOCRYPHAL STORY OF THE METAMORPHOSIS OF THOMAS VELLUM’S BEARD, PART I:3

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

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