THE TRUE BUT OFTEN APOCRYPHAL STORY OF THE METAMORPHOSIS OF THOMAS VELLUM’S BEARD, PART I:4

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.”
“French?”
“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
phone.
“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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *