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?”
“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.
“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?”
“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?”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.
“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?”
“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.”
“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: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.