II:2 When he shows Cass the article she thinks it’s funny. Then without actually reading it, she begins paging through the magazine.
“That’s me, for Christ sake.”
“That’s stretching it, don’t you think? ”
She glances at an article about Martha Stalwart.
“You know,” she continues, “if I had known you would take my magazine I wouldn’t have given it to you. I hadn’t finished it.”
She starts reading the Stalwart piece.
“I can’t let you have that magazine.”
“You can’t let me have my magazine?”
“It’s my only clue.”
“What are you talking about, clue? What, this story about a guy who shaves his beard? You have to be crazy. Don’t go off the deep end like you did the last time.”
“Deep end, is it? What came out of the deep end was fame and fortune.”
“It always gets down to this!”
“But it’s true,” he reiterates.
“Like fame and fortune are things you relish. About the only things you, or I for that matter, have gotten out of all this fame and fortune is a new kitchen, pleas for help from third world nations and non-profit foundations, a rich financial planner and a bank account that embarrasses us. We still don’t own a car, not even a dish washer!”
“Ok, point well taken.”
“Now tell me, anyone who shaves off his beard is copying you?”
“No, obviously not. But it’s the method of shaving off the beard piecemeal that makes it mine.”
“What? You own a patent on a method of shaving?”
“You know my brother was way ahead of you in this. He cut off his beard piecemeal. That’s right. Harry started off looking like Rasputin and ended up looking like D’Artagnan.”
“That’s right. Maybe you need professional help.”
When he mulls over this coincidence he is struck by a new thought. Is he just one of the common herd? It’s like looking into the funny mirror in the circus fun house and seeing thousands and thousands of fractured selves looking at him, laughing when he laughs. He would rather die an individual than be stalked by a serial killer chasing down every bearded man who follows the Vellum shaving method. Besides, how can he be sure her brother had shaved? Even if he asked him, he might lie. A cabal. Maybe her brother was the writer.
“Is the ending coincidence. . . or prophesy?”
“What ending?” she asks.
“I am. . . I mean the bearded guy is killed.”
“For Christ sake, Thom, it’s fiction! You of all people should understand that. You write fiction, right?”
“Not exactly. My work is true. My stories are prophetic. Jeremiah was never doubted.”
Cassandra stands mouth open. What did she expect? Her husband’s obdurate insistence on the veracity of his work precluded any further movement toward an agreement. So she returns to her article. Martha Stalwart at least is dependable; no one believes her product was the work of a single hand but the result of consultations with experts. But so what? With Martha you got a tangible end. Seeing that he has lost her, TV shoves the postcard under her eyes.
“I saw her in The Nadir.”
“Is that a strip joint?” she asked cuttingly.
“She’s a singer.”
“So what? She must be up and coming,” she says with an irritated voice.
Again she resumes her reading. He shoved the fake money he pocketed the night of the Halloween parade under her eyes.
“You’re certainly building up a nice picture collection, a singer!” she says dryly.
“Yep, same woman,” replies an oblivious Vellum. “This guy was handing these out the night of the parade.”
“Next you’ll be wanting to share your magazine collection with me. It doesn’t interest me.”
“Cass, you know me! This isn’t my collection. This is. . . this is evidence.”
“Evidence of what!”
“It corroborates the story in my magazine.”
“My magazine,” she asserts.
“But these pictures prove that this story happened in the real world. She’s in the story. This money is described in the story. It’s not just a fiction.”
“That, Thom, is called cross-referencing. Fast food, radio and television as well as film, they all do it. It’s about advertising, an advertising blitz to disseminate an image through as many agencies as possible, conscious and unconscious manipulation.”
He is surprised to see how well informed she is in all these matters.
“This happens with children’s books. A book about dragons and wizards becomes a movie about a dragons and wizards, and out comes dragon and wizard themes, ad infinitum, interviews with author and director, toys of dragons and wizards, colognes smelling of reptiles! You, of all people, should know this!”
According to Cassandra, all that he has witnessed during the last few weeks is simply an advertising campaign that is now successively sustaining his own excessive paranoia.
“Open a magazine,” she continues, raising her Metropolis up to him, the scent of musk permeating the air around his face, “it’s all about the pitch!”
“You sound like Raymond.”
“Everybody knows this,” she says quickly, defensively.
“How long has your brother, Harry, been out of work?”
Cass is struggling to finish the first page of the Martha Stalwart story. Now we all agree that Martha created her entire business around her image. Unlike an actress whose primary product is her role in films, Stalwart segued her image into an array of products from information to actual goods. TV sees that Cass’s patience has become thin ice.
“Why do you ask?”
“I was just wondering what an out-of-work historian does?”
“Look for work.”
“Like at the college level, a professor of history, right?”
“Please, let me finish. Can’t I have one leisure moment. . . I take that back. I just need a moment to recoup from school.”
“Right, understood. It’s just that an out-of-work historian might take up writing, right? I mean history is one long story. . .”
“Frankly, I don’t know if Harry is writing history right now.”
She rises and leaves the room, The Metropolis in hand. Thomas watches the magazine disappear into their bedroom.
If Harry had written this story, had he anticipated Vellum’s own protracted shave? Or is TV the plagiarizer, following a script his brother-in-law had written? Of course TV had shaved off his beard before he was even aware of his brother-in-law’s script. Quite possibly Harry had read The Metropolis story, then told his sister that he too had once shaved piecemeal. Nonetheless, the magazine story was still a projection of events in TV’s life. It is imperative he find the writer. For now he will keep Harry as a suspect in the back of his mind. Harry would have had fun writing himself into The Nadir scene, where all the male customers, becoming infected with the Harry virus, begin to look like him – not that Harry of The Nadir looked anything like Harry, the Historian. Harry, the Brother-In-Law is overweight and perspires. But if he is the writer, does he know the killer? Perhaps he is Harry, the Killer. TV finds it difficult imaging Harry as a killer. What would be his motive? Harry, the Unemployed, is jealous of TV’s good fortune. Or, being modest, he is disgusted with his character’s vanity and kills him. Not plausible.
And that would rule out any suspicion of the Chessmen since vanity was a portal to consumer spending. If anything, they would come out of the woodwork to suppress anyone who might damage the engine of material consumption. After all, being unshaven for years and living among the homeless was detrimental to the business of consumption. But kill him? Why not treat him like the prodigal son returning a broken man from his lack-luster life of assumed poverty? In which case they could slap him on the back and blame the whole thing on the eccentricities of the artist. No matter how old, how bad, the artist, like the old rock-and-rollers, is always good for the economy. No matter how adolescent his behavior, the artist, more than ever, is at the forefront of our advertising culture. We only wished, the Chessmen would add as admonishment, you hadn’t experimented with communism, for living in a community of poverty under the St. Clare’s Arch, property paid for by the hard work of taxpayers, is communism. Still, we welcome you back, humbled, into the fold of our Calvinist work ethic. And we see no harm in your quest for a youthful appearance. What could be better for business? And here TV imagines a great pontification, the SS donning the splendid robes of academia to celebrate the discovery of Florida, the result of another explorer’s search for the Fountain Of Youth. Who among us is not a Ponce de Leon? Like birds in migration the elderly fly to Florida to warm the chilled bones and dried skin of northern winters. Tracts on the fabled west coast are still available, but they are going fast, houses going up everyday, they might add. Embracing TV the Chessmen would exclaim, let bygones be bygones. We don’t live in the Inquisition, we don’t expect a recantation, we only ask you write a memoir! Now here the musing stops. Was the story actually a memoir? His memoir? A ghost-written memoir? Following in the footsteps of Galileo, TV describes his fall into the degradation of communism, before seeing the light of resplendent spending, thus saving himself and his country from a fate worse than death, equality over individualism. Impossible! How can one die at the end of one’s own memoir? The Chessmen would kill the bearded TV because he didn’t shave. In the eyes of the killer/writer, vanity was bad. The writer assumed TV was vain, and he was right.
Vellum’s legs suddenly feel tired. He realizes he is pacing back and forth in the living room, his killer still at large.
“If this is all coincidence,” interrupts Thomas, entering the bedroom, lifting up the Barbie, “then where did I get this?”
Cass is sitting on the bed on her side, her head and the magazine she is trying to read both tilted toward the only light in the room, her bedside lamp.
“Is she in the story too?”
“No, actually this doll is not in the story. The main character is not carrying a doll,” he says emphatically as if this is a proof of the story’s unpredictable dimensions. “That means I am one step ahead of the writer! Which means I am one step ahead of the killer. Still I need to check this out in your Metropolis”
“Thom,” she shouts as she stands up, “take it, take the magazine, you win.”
She throws it on the bed and goes into the bathroom. Next thing he hears is the sound of the shower.
When Vellum enters Starks he always hopes for a seat against the back wall. This morning a large beefy man occupies the prize location and is obviously intending to spend the entire day there. What the beefy guy does for a living is beyond TV’s understanding. So Vellum sits in front by the window in the only remaining chair where he feels part of a spectacle. For the last few days TV has carried the magazine, the post card of Judy Crucible, the post card of the oak tree with the poem and the fake money in an old briefcase, believing the leather case legitimized his efforts in rooting out the truth. He left the doll at home fearing the attention it might draw if a Chessman saw him. But the case was awkward to carry and ostentatious. So now he wears an old madras dress jacket which he once sported in high school which is apropos, considering his younger appearance. The jacket has deep pockets where he buries his evidence, excluding his doll. Again he reviews the data. The article is a document, an account of his own experiences. Unfortunately it also makes him doubt his own existence. Is this something he made up, or is he the main character who somebody else made up? The postcard with Judy Crucible tells him to believe the story. But why was the doll left out of the piece? He digs down into his pocket and feels the Crucible money. Perhaps the story was written before he had the doll in his possession. If the writer left the Halloween parade before it was over, how did he pick up TV’s trail later? If TV is the writer, fine, call his state of mind self-doubt; but if someone else has thrown his own life into doubt, that is unacceptable. He wonders if he hasn’t unconsciously read the story, then imagined himself in the role of the protagonist. Was Cass right? We know Cass must protect herself from her husband’s flights. After all, she’s on immunosuppressants and needs to watch her health. But she has always come around to his point of view. They’ve been together too long. Having consumed several cups of strong coffee, he pulls out the Crucible postcard and the money for reassurance. This is evidence that what the story describes happened. And there is the doll. He wants to go home again and look at it to make sure it’s real. That’s silly. Cass suggested the publishers of the story had utilized all the elements in TV’s possession as a sales gimmick. But that’s crazy. After all, this is a weekly publication. He’d never heard of such a thing. Perhaps a book publisher would try something along this line, plant bits and pieces of the story line in public places, subliminal advertising, but a weekly magazine? Not likely. Unless The Metropolis is planning to publish a full-length book in the future. Was this story abridged? Had more happened of which he is not aware? Is he suffering from amnesia? Then he remembers the other card and takes that out again. Tao invariably takes no action. . . here Simplicity, which has not name, is free of desires. He shakes his head. This idea of simplicity seems as remote to him as the idea of a quasar, holding the past within its pulsating breath out on the edges of the universe.
The story depicts a struggle. The Crucible card and currency prove the existence of one side of the struggle: the SS Group. He had yet to find any real evidence of the other group anywhere else but M. The doll, though not mentioned in the story, could be evidence. The ape told him to hold it and squeeze it whenever he thought of Crucible. As for the anagram on the back of the oak tree card? Not conclusive since it could be coincidental. ASS could refer to any number of organizations. How about The Association For Sensitivity Studies? The doll is tangible. The gorilla gave it to him and he is mentioned in the story. But why was Barbie and the Barbie Brigade excluded from local news? Even INQUIRY and INNETNEWS covered the Halloween parade as if nothing unusual had happened. No mention of a struggle. What happened to the CYNow report? The product ads appeared in the background of the photos and video shots but nothing else. One could assume that the SS controls the press, the means of advertising, so they would never publicize anything having to do with ASS. On the other hand, who published The Metropolis? Were they independent enough to publish this story? Or did the editors assume it was fiction? Then it dawns on him. If reality is converted to fiction, the dangers to the ruling powers are muted. It was fiction. If TV had titled his work as a memoir, it would have been believed, then suppressed under the accusation that he had faked it. Turning quickly around, he looks to see if anyone is watching him. No one is, not even the big guy, hunched over his coffee cup stirring his coffee with his spoon again and again.
Aside from Cass and Clio who knew him through all the alterations he had just experienced, this writer is the only other person who seems to know him thoroughly. The writer knows who he is regardless of his disguises. The big guy goes on stirring his coffee. TV turns quickly back to look at the sidewalk and sees someone disappear behind the picture window. He stands abruptly to pursue, knocks his coffee across the table. A busboy, an old gentlemen with white hair, comes quickly to his rescue with a white dish towel.
“Starks saved me, I can save you,” he kindly smiles.
The Metropolis is soaked. Hastily Vellum pulls napkins from the stainless steel dispenser and dries the cover.
“Stick these between the pages,” the old man advises, handing him more napkins.
TV follows his orders. He thanks the man profusely, embarrassed by all this attention and walks to the cashier, stuffing the soggy magazine and the rest of his evidence into his coat pockets. The big man is gone. Well, if the writer/killer had fallen asleep, he must be wide awake with all the racket. Surveying the customers, Vellum nods with a kind of ‘I know you are watching me’ look. He is in a cold sweat. Obviously he can’t speak with anyone he knows with the same sense of impunity he had felt before.
He leaves the coffee shop in a hurry. Near the entrance to the subway station he looks down and discovers wallet-sized, black-and-white cards with pictures of a woman scattered near the steps. He reaches down hurriedly and picks one up, aware that anyone nearby will think he is a pervert squirreling away yet another phone-sex cards. But he forgets his concern in a new wave of sickly worry as he sees that on the pic is a naked, plain woman, her well defined back to the camera, twisting around at the waist to look at him. Her face is shinny, her nose and cheeks uneven, the pores prominent, her chin protruding. She smiles gamely. Under the heels of her flat feet are the words:
WOULD YOU PREFER PLAIN JANE
and here he turns the card over to find his plain Jane staring defiantly out at him. She stands on her toes in black ankle boots with tall steel heels, in glistening black latex leggings, her hands on her waist. The Tree of Good And Evil with its accompanying serpent emanates from the waist band, it’s fruit bearing limbs twisting around her breasts, now the size of cantaloupes. Her nipples are pierced with rings and bound together by a delicate chain of glittering floral beads. Her face still resembles plain Jane, except now her blond hair hangs wildly coiled in Rastafarian dreads, some of which are red. Her ear lobes droop with white porcelain inserts the size of napkin rings. Looped through the outer walls of both nostrils enormous rings of gold shimmer, matched by gold pins with snake heads that emanate from her lips like fangs. She smiles lewdly at him, like a wild bore. Her cheeks are pierced by dozens of hornet shaped studs and gold rings spiral through her eye brows like wire augers in a field of wheat. The inscription
THEN KICK ASS
stretches between her taut legs like the cross beam in the letter A. It is Judy Crucible.
The clouds are rolling in, curling high over the apartment buildings to the south. A wind scatters the remaining yellow elm leaves still hanging on the branches. He rushes home, opening the door, just as the telephone rings.
“Is this Mr. Vellum?”
“Who is this?”
“Mr. Vellum, I have been a fan of your for years. I hold your stories in great esteem. This latest one is incredible. Thank you so much.”
“Excuse me? What story are you referring to?”
“The latest one in The Metropolis.”
“I didn’t. . .”
“Yes, I understand, otherwise you wouldn’t have used the name of Anon.”
“Who is this? Do I know you?”
“Just an admirer, Anon, and adieu.” She hangs up.
Her voice resonates in his ear, touching off a concatenation of memories too vague to settle the question of her identity. Deep and rich, certainly a distillation of all the fabulous voices of women he has seen in film noir. Is it the woman in the long coat in Washington Square Park many alterations ago, the woman seeking a cigarette? He turns in a circle, then takes out the card with the Tao poem. Simplicity. He repeats the word several times. OK, he will wait in the unlit living room for Cass to come home from work. He will seek her advice. The first trepidations of rain strike randomly on the fire escape. He picks up the phone and asks information for the number of The Metropolis Magazine. He waits patiently until the automatic voice recites the number. On the second recital he gets the whole number down on the edge of the first page of the magazine article. The woman answering the phone at The Metropolis refers him to an extension she dials for him. After three rings, another woman answers the line. She won’t reveal the name of the author. He decides to leap.
“Excuse me, but I am the author.”
After a brief pause, the woman on the other end continues.
“Perhaps I don’t understand your question.”
“Please, I am sorry to be so abrupt, but I’m a bit upset. Not more than ten minutes ago a fan called me up on my home phone and congratulated me on my latest story. She was referring to the fiction piece you just published, THE LIE OF THE LAND, you know, an elaborate structure set against a backdrop of radiant leaves falling ever so gently to the ground, a kind of metaphor for the many guises worn by the protagonist before his eventual fall… I naturally denied it. Do you get my drift?”
“Excuse me, but is this Mr. Anon?”
“No, Anon is a pseudonym. You should know that.”
“I’m sorry, but I’ve never talked to you before, all our correspondence has been through e-mail.”
“Yes, of course, but the sudden invasion of my privacy through my home phone set me off. How do you think she got my phone number?”
“We don’t even have it, so I don’t know.”
“And my remuneration?”
“Payment,” he replies irritably, wanting to hasten over this stretch of the conversation.
“One moment. . .”
He is left on the line wondering if she is tracing this call. If he needs to, he will use his real name, a name she would know naturally, and suspend all doubt. After all, Thomas Vellum is already being given credit for this anonymous work.
“Are you still there, Mr. Anon?”
“Yes, yes I am, and you can call me Anon as if it is were – as they say – my Christian name, though I am certainly anything but a Christian.”
“Anon, the check was just mailed out.”
“You misunderstand. I am not asking for my money but whether the information there might have given someone clues as to my real identity.”
“As far as I can see, we have only Anon as your real identity. In fact you never gave us your home address. We only have your P.O. Box address on Varick Street and, of course, your e-mail address. I can’t vouch for your internet provider.”
“I’ll look into that. But as far as you know, no one has called up to praise my work?”
“Thank you for your help.”
He hangs up the receiver and sits back, head against a cushion, his eyes closed, listening to the rain outside, the sound of traffic on wet streets. The gentle rain is enough to shake out the remaining color left in the trees, the only reminder of change in the otherwise static world of approaching winter. An unchanging aspect of gray days stretches out before him. Somewhere in February the sun will climb high enough to remind some people that yes, the days are getting longer again. The door opens and a moderately wet Cass steps over the threshold, leaving her open umbrella in the hallway outside.
“Hey, what are you doing sitting in the dark?”
“Boy, do I hate the short days.”
“A woman just called me and congratulated me on writing this Metropolis story.”
Cass turns on one of the lamp lights and then returns to the closet where she takes off her jacket.
“Well, did you? Although I can’t see when you would’ve written it, seeing you’ve been out so much.”
She walks into the living room.
“I didn’t write this story.”
She sees the folded copy of the magazine next to her husband.
“What happened to my Metropolis?”
“Cass, listen, I didn’t write this…”
“Yeah, Thom, but what happened to my magazine..?”
“I spilled coffee on it. It will be okay. Please listen. . .”
“So this woman calls you and tells you she’s a fan.”
“So your identity is out again. You must be looking your age again!”
“This is not funny. I didn’t sign my name to that story. It’s signed by Anon, that’s the author.”
“I wouldn’t know, Thom. The story certainly has the characteristics of my TV.”
“Yeah, but that was different.”
“What? You don’t take credit for any of your old work and now you won’t take credit for this new work, but somehow you’re getting the credit. Are they going to pay you?”
“They apparently sent the check to a downtown P.O. Box.”
“Good, our suffering is not in vain!”
“Besides,” he plows on, ignoring her levity, “the old work at least originated on my computer. This story has sprung directly from a magazine.”
“So call the magazine.”
“That’s how I found out I’m getting paid, that is, Anon.”
He pulls out the little card and shows her.
“You actually picked this up? It’s even been stepped on.”
“Look at it.”
She looks at both sides. He nods knowingly.
“What are you nodding at? What am I supposed to see? This lady obviously needs a lot of attention.”
“First of all, there is no phone number.”
“Oh, you know that kind of stuff, great!”
“ASS is Abolish Superficial Standards. Besides the Barbie, this is evidence proving ASS exists. I mean, other than M. That is Crucible’s connection with ASS. The Tao poem was printed by an ASS, but. . .”
“I don’t care!”
Cass looks toward the window where the first bars of light are striking out from behind the curling mountains of gray that had hidden them.
“That’s not true, Thom, I do care. I’m your confederate.”
Later that day the first thing TV notices as he approaches Virtual Wear is the state of the window displays. Men and women, real ones, are working inside the bays removing manikins, painting the interiors, draping materials over furniture props or taking off the garments of those dressed figures he had seen on previous visits. Inside the store a similar fury is in action, as if the seasonal changes that are transforming the world outside over the last month are suddenly working transformations inside the store. Inside this landscape of clothing racks and changing rooms transmutations are occurring in the world of fashion.
It seems years since he last entered Virtual Wear. Workmen are busy setting up dividers and tall ladders for touch-up painting, and in a far corner a green wreath with red ribbon is being hung. The tie and belt racks have disappeared. For a moment he is at a loss. But then he gathers in his focus and marches resolutely to the escalator, looking around to see if he can catch a glimpse of his young salesman. In the prie-dieu room he sees the young man discussing a line of Sari Sermon clothes with a young business man, about thirty-five, who is prematurely balding. As he draws closer to catch the young salesman’s eye he notices he is a week or two into a beard. The man looks up but doesn’t take notice of Vellum though he looks him in the eye. Vellum nods knowingly to which the young man cocks his head questioningly. Seeing he is not recognized, Thomas paces about, stopping abruptly now and then at one of the kneeling stands to glance erratically at the catalogues, pressing the ‘enter’ button to flip the digital pages. Sari, modeling her male line, is sporting the now popular beard. And to his shock he sees that for her women’s collection Sari has been digitally made to resemble Judy Crucible with nose and ear rings. He slams the lid to the laptop down bringing the salesman up short.
“Slipped,” concedes TV timorously.
The young salesman approaches him, apologizing for having kept him waiting. He is
dressed neatly in a gray suit with wide lapels. He asks Vellum if he is interested in anything particular. Vellum is elated. He doesn’t recognize the real me, he thinks.
“I’m looking for someone who was last seen leaving this store wearing a Sari Sermon suit of a black leather jacket and matching jeans tucked into black ankle boots. He was a man about my height, had sideburns and a mustache with a goatee trimmed tight. He carried under his arm a flat rectangular box that held the Sari Sermon suit he wore in.”
“I know who you mean, the guy with the ever-changing beard.”
“Yeah, he. . .” TV studies the young man’s beard.
“Are you a reporter?” the young man asks.
“Ever since he became my customer lots of guys have been coming into the store telling me they saw this guy somewhere and wanted to dress the way he did. One of those guys told me he was his agent. He told me who the bearded man was, that famous writer, apparently a real eccentric. . . I’m not much of a reader but I’ve seen some of his films; you’ve seen them, starring. . . what’s his name in the lead. The wife is played by that well-known blond actress and the kid is. . , you know.”
We are again compelled to enter the story to say that while we understand the importance of TV, there are many who don’t even remember his name but who are affected, nonetheless, by his work without knowing it.
“His agent came by?”
“Yeah. He opened a house account and bought lots of stuff from the Sari line too. You know, because ‘his boy’ put Sari Sermon on the map. Now Sari wants to meet him.”
“You have to be kidding, wants to meet the agent?”
“No, the famous writer. He was a cool guy. He was kind of going through changes, constantly changing. And each change made him younger, so I was always stepping down the ladder into younger attire to address his latest. . , I don’t know, shaving experiment. What happened to him?”
“Never mind. . ,” replies TV, inveigled into further investigation by the upbeat statements of this admirer. “You say he came in often?”
“Every time he shaved. The first time, he was wearing these really ragged trousers and an old, sweat shirt with a T-shirt underneath. Smelled as if he had been wearing them for days. It had holes in the back, up by the collar. I remember because he hooked his finger into the largest hole to pull the shirt off! I had no idea he was a famous entertainer.”
“Whatever, I’m just repeating what his agent called him. Anyway, from then on he was like a chameleon, coming in regularly to buy a new set of clothes, taking the old set out with him in the cardboard box you mentioned. I became his personal dresser. He wanted me and no one else. . .”
“Did he confide in you?”
“Sometimes, about his fear of being found out or about some interesting people he had met the day before, or how the women liked him the day before, which surprised him but at the same time gave him the courage to pursue his experiment.”
“You just called it an experiment? He didn’t call it that, did he?”
“No, not actually, but the way he was going about shaving his beard and buying the Sermon line, it seemed he was experimenting. Kind of like adding a little of this to see what will happen, adding a little of that to see if it will change yesterday’s results. He certainly wasn’t worried about money. He paid cash every time, even though that meant we did this song and dance around a cash machine. My supervisor told me rich guys often have strange eccentricities, sometimes illegal, sometimes just outright crazy. . .”
“You think he was crazy?”
“I don’t know. I liked him. He didn’t bother me any. I just mean he could have paid with a credit card or even with a personal check. But he really preferred working it all out just so I wouldn’t know his name. . . So what happened to him?”
“He was killed.”
“Oh my god.” The salesman is seriously startled.
“He was apparently killed in Riverside Park on the evening of. . .” here Vellum takes out his Metropolis folded over to hide its cover and looks at the time, “a month ago, end of October. . .”
This would coincide with Vellum’s final shave. Had he returned to the park? How would anyone have known him without his beard? TV pulls out of his reverie and continues.
“The body of Philip K. . .”
“Was that his name?”
“No, that’s a fictitious name for the sake of record keeping, and to protect any related parties.”
Vellum wonders why his name was changed to Philip? Why not Franz!
“That makes sense.”
“The body of Philip K,” TV continues, “was last seen lying in a tumble of fresh fallen leaves…”
“A tumble?” asks the salesman.
Vellum looks up from the article he is reading and nods.
“Yeah, that’s what it says.”
“Sounds literary, you know what I mean,” comments the young man.
“You’re right,” replies our TV, wondering if ‘in a tumble’ sounded like anything he recognized.
“I mean it’s odd for a report to sound so. . . so, you know, literary. That was my major, literature, before I signed up for business.”
“And you never heard of this writer, this what’s his name?”
“My professor actually turned me off. He had a strict and serious adherence to styles of thrift. I remember my professor telling us that this writer. . . I wish I could remember his name, I’ve never been good with names, anyway I remember him telling us the guy was excessive.”
“Yeah, good for film scripts but not for the modern novel. He liked, you know, The Old Man and the Sea.”
TV nods, then continues reading aloud.
“A tumble of leaves under the arch at St. Clare’s at the north end of Riverside Park. . .”
“He was found in the park?”
Vellum reviews the article again.
“Actually, no. He was last seen there in the park. His body was never recovered.”
“Wasn’t recovered. . . You mean he’s missing?”
“Odd isn’t it?” queries TV before going on. “The brightly colored leaves were raked into black plastic bags and taken to the precinct headquarters on 126th Street as evidence. . .”
“The brightly colored leaves. . .” repeats the salesman.
TV looks at the young man for a moment before reading on.
“Because violence has been on the rise among the homeless, they are prime suspects. One Edward Ammonia, leader of the St. Clare’s gang, otherwise called the Arch gang, was brought in for questioning. He claimed to have seen gardeners in the vicinity of the Arch around the time of Philip K’s dormition in the brightly colored leaf pile.”
TV again patiently pauses.
“‘Dormition in the brightly colored pile…’ really? That was written in the report?”
Vellum looks down at the magazine as if to qualify it. He nods to confirm its veracity.
“But what does that mean?”
“I think that refers to sleep.”
“So how do they know he is dead?” concludes the young man hopefully, stroking his new beard.
“Good question. There are the eye witnesses, of course, who last saw him. . . and of course, the gardeners. The report mentions them again further on, let me see. . ,” he says paging ahead. “Yes, gardeners of foreign descent are being picked up. . .”
“You mean like Mexicans?”
“Aren’t Mexicans landscapers?”
“Is there a difference between gardener and landscaper?”
“I don’t know. I think they are referring to Middle Easterners.”
“I’ve never met a Middle Eastern gardener. I’m sure they are around.”
“Hanging gardens of Babylon, I guess,” our TV says, referring once again to his Metropolis, thinking, Yeah, nobody, just eye-witness reports. And an anonymous author writing down the reports. The perfect crime.
He looks around furtively to see if anyone is watching them. The young man looks around as well, suddenly drawn into the furtive search for an outsider.
“So,” continues TV, “ we need to know if there were any suspicious people you might have noticed during your sessions with the deceased.”
“I wasn’t really paying any attention. What did the eye witnesses say?”
“You mean the group of men living with him communally?”
Vellum again refers to the document.
“The author of the report doesn’t go into details. In fact,” he continues, absorbed by the evidence as much as the young salesman, “some eye witnesses are calling it a holy experience.
“They call it an assumption.”
“Are we talking about the St Clare’s Gang?”
“Yeah. They say he was assumed into heaven. Others claim he was abducted by aliens. Everyone agrees that his belt was the only object that remained at the bottom of a well of light shining down on him from above. When the police asked for the evidence, they told the police they would return the belt if the body of PK was found, but until then they placed the belt in a neoprene reliquary wrapped in plastic bags and were keeping it for the day a shrine was built to commemorate the assumption of PK.”
“No shit, the belt,” exalts the salesman. “He always chose his own belt!”
“According to the INQUIRY,” continues Vellum, “PK’s voice was heard by all the major religions of the world and recorded in the sacred texts of each. All the homeless did agreed that alien abduction was where it’s at in these days of deductive reasoning. However, the CEO of the Arch Gang, Edward Ammonia, claimed, while being interrogated, that K was reincarnated and that he and the reincarnatee spoke at length at a major crossroads, near the town of Emmaus, PA., rated one of the top towns in USA to live in by a leading financial magazine.”
“Sounds like a spiritual happening,” says an awed salesman. “And to think. . .”
“You hit the nail on the head,” affirms TV. “Anyway, this is why I am carrying on this investigation. To see that justice is carried out.”
“You don’t have much to go on.”
“On the contrary, you might say I have too much to go on!” exclaims Vellum in frustration. “This dossier,” he adds, pointing to The Metropolis, “is full.”
“Are you a cop?”
“No, I am not police. . . Let’s say I have a personal interest in this.”
“You know, he seemed drawn to this woman he had met or maybe did not meet but had seen, maybe not even seen, but just heard of, a woman he called. . . I forget. Anyway, she was on his mind the last time I saw him. For whatever it is worth.”
“Thank you. . . thank you. . . If I ever decide to buy something in the way of a new suit or something, I will repay you by looking you up.”
“No prob. We sell that belt, you know.” He is looking straight at TV’s belt. “In fact, that was one of the items he picked out for himself, that belt.”
Vellum feels a cold sweat pouring out of his pores.
“That belt. The one you are wearing.”
Is the salesman playing with him as he is playing with the salesman? The way everyone plays with each other in these ever tightening gyres of deception? But the ingenuous look on the young man’s face doesn’t seem to cover some knowing intent in the comment.
“You mean he bought a belt like this one.”
“Yeah, whatever. We carry that line of belt, and until recently it was on display downstairs on a rack along with ties.”
“You mean I’m wearing one of the Sari line?”
He writes this information down with an emphatic gesture of great penmanship, right along the margin of his Metropolis article.
“Well, thank you.”
As TV descends the escalator into the large foyer where the work of remodeling is in progress, he is troubled by an inconsistency highlighted by the young salesman – the belt. According to the St. Clare’s gang, the belt is being kept in a reliquary for safe keeping. After Philip K’s assumption the belt possessed a sacred value. On the ground floor of the clothing store customers are scrambling around the ladders. The place seems busier than when he arrived.
It is already dark when he starts walking down toward the Varick Street Post Office. With daylight savings, an entire hour has been lopped off the day, changing the quality of the hour. People are busily walking along the sidewalk in the glow of street lights and window lighting. He hopes the PO is still open as he enters under a scaffolding set up for work being done somewhere above. The place is crowded with students and office workers on their way home, everyone waiting in line for one of the windows. He walks over to the special services window where he waits for a few minutes while the woman in front talks with an official. Somewhere in the back of the PO, he hears the voice of a newscaster: “. . . on the commodities market possibly threatening the price of oil. And today, evangelist Billy Bop had this to say about reports of a new religion. ‘I hear this new faith was born beneath an archway in a park where the homeless live, and I hear these squatters are TV’s disciples. As if the fame and fortune heaped upon him by our fair country wasn’t enough, now this so-called humble artist wants to be a god. Shame on you TV. Folks, do you know the homeless? They don’t believe as you and I do in the stability of the family. They don’t have families. They don’t believe in the home. They don’t have homes. They don’t even believe in the sanctity of possessions. They don’t have possessions. The homeless share their food. They share the same spoon, the same washcloth, that is, when they bother to wash. And when they need money for their liquor and drugs, do they go out and get a job? No, they beg and steal. Is this the foundation of a new religion or of a new disease? Ask yourself where disease is born. It is born in the squalor beneath the arch. My friends, this is not a religion but a virus born up there in New York City to attack our beliefs, to undermine our faith.’”
“Sir?” exclaims a large man with suspenders impatiently, standing on the other side of the glass partition.
“Yes, yes, sorry, what crazy talk.”
“What is?” says the man unctuously.
“Never mind, I’d like to review my contract regarding my Post Office Box.”
The man waits with his pen in hand looking down at the piece of paper on which he has written A N O N. Now he looks up.
“Yeah, I like keeping things simple.”
“Seems the rage.”
He turns and disappears behind a wall of filing boxes. TV now recognizes the voice of the president emanating from the hidden radio which he imagines is on one of filing boxes. “Billy Bop is right. The people must be protected. So I have asked Congress to create a new agency, called Homeland Protection, answerable to me through a new cabinet member.” His voice becomes chummy, like a father, seeking the best results from his troubled children. “When I was a boy I remember playing with Chinese boxes. Inside of one box was a smaller box, and inside that still another, and another inside it down to the smallest little box. This toy reminds me our great nation. I ask you to think of the largest box as our Homeland. We look inside and we find a smaller box. This would be your community, the town where you live. Inside this box is your home. And if we look inside your home we’ll find a smaller box containing your largest possessions, your television, your furniture. Inside this box we discover other boxes right down to the smallest box for your smallest items. The job of this agency is to protect these things which you have worked hard to buy. The agency will also safeguard our freedom of consumer choice, which is an unalienable right. To prevent the agency from becoming a burden to all of us taxpayers, I am establishing a new initiative. The agency will support itself on its own earnings. Shares will be sold on the New York Stock Exchange. Its logo, The Home Within The Home, will be displayed on apparel which we will retail in a chain of stores across the country. Members of the government will be asked to shop there. The Secretary of Homeland Protection will also be the agency’s CEO. This pilot program will help us begin the process of converting our government into a model of efficiency and profit making. Naturally, its product service will specialize in rooting out the homeless terror.” Just the word itself made Vellum shudder. Terror. Fear of the unknown. The big Unknown. The ineffable. The unexplainable. An unexplainable ineffable. An unaccountable inexplainable. Apparently the government had placed a face on the ineffable: the homeless. A spokeswoman for the new agency says, “We are here to ensure the peace and tranquility of every freedom-loving homeowner. We urge those who love their homes to report to their local anti-terror group anything suspicious that might indicate the presence of a terror cell in their communities. If you see an untended package which you didn’t buy, report it.” TV looks around. There are boxes everywhere. Does anyone suspect him? Do any of these young people remember the struggle against communism? One might as well be describing scenes from the Iliad or The Bay of Pigs. And how about the war against cancer? The war against cancer is still being waged as well as the wars against AIDS and Inflation. It seems ages since the clerk disappeared. What is he doing? When he returns he is shaking his head. In times like this we know Vellum likes to reach out to another human, and the clerk looks about his own age.
“It seems the homeless are a threat.”
“It’s just the news, has nothing to do with me,” says the agent apathetically. “You sure we have your name down right?”
“Because we don’t have anything under the name you gave me.”
Cocking his head to the side, the clerk scrutinizes TV, no doubt trying to place him.
For the second time that day Vellum is releasing streams of sweaty, nervous energy. Somewhere overhead a helicopter hovers motionless over the city streets, rotors whirling.
“No, but maybe you are.”
The man is obliviously not in the mood for jokes. In a desperate move to improve his credibility Vellum does what he has been struggling for years not to do; in a tone barely audible he gives the man his real name.
“Thomas Vellum,” the man repeats as he writes the words down.
Again he disappears. Now the announcer, echoing from the depths of the post office, is describing the search for the weapons of mass originality that the terrorists are using. The government’s ambassador to the United Nations is going to present their case to the world asking for permission to seek out and destroy all WMOs wherever found. “Anyone,” reiterates the ambassador, “anyone who doesn’t own or lease a home is suspect. If you are traveling because you are homeless, don’t. Buy a home now and settle down. Refugees will not be spared. If you are homeless, you are suspect. Anyone who threatens this nation with weapons such as boycotts will be apprehended.” Emily Hedges of Queens, when asked about the weapons like boycotting chain stores, had this to say: “What’s this world coming to? Imagine not buying anything for a week!” Before the opinion of Hernando Emil of Washington Heights can be aired, the clerk returns with papers.
“OK, that’s better.”
Vellum is shocked, but then seeing the face of the large man looking back up at him with a troubled look that will brook no further tricks at his expense, he quickly adds with a stream of spontaneity that later makes him feel ingenious.
“I mean I can’t believe I used my real name. Very stupid of me. I like to use Anon in circumstances like this, you know, anonymous. Anon, that’s short for anonymous.”
“Sir, I know that. I also want to remind you that you opened this account just under a month ago, so I can well understand your slip in memory.”
The clerk exaggerates concern. Behind him up above in the back corner a camera on wall bracket is pointed right at Vellum.
“So what did you want to review?”
“Review?” asks our TV, preoccupied with how he must look on an anti-terror Homeland Defense monitor. “Yes, well, may I see the contract?”
“I need some identity.”
Vellum takes out his wallet, glad he hadn’t thrown out all the pertinent IDs when he disappeared three years ago. He produces his driver’s license as well as a defunct library card.
“How about a credit card? I mean what’s good about a library card? It’s not even valid.”
Vellum removes a credit card. The man looks at the numbers and compares them to the ones on the contract.
“Ok,” he says, handing them back, “everything is in order”
Does the post office accept credit cards now? Vellum wonders if the credit card numbers lined up with those used to open this account. How can this be? The man shoves the paper over to TV and then elaborately swings the paper around so he can see it. Yeah, the same credit card number. He notes the P.O. Box number 007. To show the man he is serious, he reads the contract. The calligraphy looks like his but he can’t be sure. His own signature evolves from week to week developing loops and curlicues depending on his mood. Once his credit card had been turned down by a clerk who failed to see the similarity between the card signature and the one he had provided on the receipt. That clerk had been right. There had been no similarity. And the attention given to his name created bedlam in the store as shoppers crowded around him.
“Thank you for your patience. Now I need a key.”
“That is too harsh a word. Misplaced would be more appropriate.”
“It will cost you.”
“Are you serious?
“We are not a charitable organization. We have been authorized by the Congress to produce a profit, you know, the days of deficits are over.”
It is TV’s turn to shake his head in disapproval as he once again produced his wallet, this time removing a five.
“You don’t have anything smaller?”
Here TV holds his line, shaking his head in the negative. The man shrugs his shoulders and slowly shuffles off. “Evil,” according to the distant voice on the shelf, “will go through every means to strike fear in our way of life. The Terrorists have an alien view of life. They don’t understand the freedom of choice, the right to choose this facial cream over that facial cream. In fact, they don’t even know what facial cream is. The symbolic gesture of all terrorists is the unruly beard.” Vellum immediately reaches up to touch the beard he no longer sports. As he does he looks up at the camera eye. Then he breathes a sigh of relief. Five minutes later the clerk comes back and places the change and the key on the counter.
“And thank you,” the man says. “Enjoy your mail.”
Vellum is sure he has said this sarcastically. When he finds box number 007 he opens it and finds a stack of the SS bills with Judy Crucible and the expected check from The Metropolis. Can a famous man claim identity theft when he himself isn’t sure of who he is?
Aside from his few and possibly inconclusive evidence proving the existence of ASS, Vellum hasn’t seen another sign of the resistance since shaving off his beard, not the yellow truck, nothing. Yet everywhere the SS and their campaign against ASS are evident. He is even finding the salacious material in his mailbox. Wait! This is not his mail box despite all evidence to the contrary. The confusion is building up the way the clouds had earlier in the day, mounting with surety but with no more solidity than the so-called evidence he is accumulating. He had hoped to find the author of the story. The evidence points to him. Since he suspects the author is the killer, he concludes he is the prime suspect responsible for his own death; if not his own death, then his own disappearance. He longs for the good old days when he lived in the future, on the high peaks of Machu Picchu.
As he crosses the street he kicks a coffee container underfoot on which he notices the now familiar image. He picks it up from the gutter and sees a wholesome picture of a family gathered together for this portrait, mother and father and three kids all with smiles on their faces. The mother is Judy Crucible. Slowly turning the cup around he sees Judy again as he had become accustomed to seeing her ever-changing, her breasts larger than before, her waist cinched down tightly, the corset strings behind hanging between her legs like the tail of a horse. Her hips in a g-sting are plumper, her legs whiter, standing apart on her toes in her strange heeled boots. She is holding a dishtowel and a spatula in her hands. TV’s eyes are magnetized by the enormity of her partially visible nipples, where the nipple hoops bear foot long tassels that sparkle. Sparkling tassels hang from rings high on her ears while in the huge holes of her elongated ear lobes, enormous silver disks are embedded. A wire sculpture rises from inserts through both sides of her nose, forming a spiral horn in front of her face. From the upper lip porcelain fangs protrude like miniature tusks. She smiles sweetly at hubby who kneels before her while the kids stare up at her open mouthed. Vellum bursts out laughing, as he stumbles down the stairs like a drunk to the uptown subway. The train doors open. The car is packed with people in gray suits and overcoats, in straight skirts and jackets, everyone carrying briefcases, everyone traveling uptown from the business district. The long, gray coats add to the damp stuffiness inside the car. Here and there someone ignores the confinement and with neatly folded newspaper, reads the One Way Street Journal. True to the universal form of the insular commuter, no one gives any indication they have noticed him as he slips into a newly vacated seat. TV, leaning forward, is clutching the cup, his eyes darting from it to his surroundings. Then on the lower left hand corner of someone’s folded newspaper, not more than twelve inches from his eyes, he glimpses the headline:
THE SUPERFICIAL STANDARD GROUP CONSIDERS CAMPAIGN SUCCESS
The hand above his head shifts the page and Vellum, no longer laughing, begins seriously pursuing the disappearing text until he is on his knees beneath the page. This does draw the attention of those sitting on either side of him who, until then, had gently rocked with the motions of the train, their eyes shut. He nods his head apologetically as he sits back, wondering if he shouldn’t grab the paper and run out the door at the next stop. But luck is with him. At 34th Street a great disembarkation releases a half dozen seats into one of which the reader of the newspaper sits, the article now in full view again and conveniently set at an angle easy to read. The man’s thumb obscures the opening line but from the knuckle on Vellum reads “. . .during a planning session to prepare for the upcoming centennial commemorating the invention of the television to be held at The New World Hotel in ‘07. Adolf Blotter, president of the American Standard Testing System who gave the opening presentation, credited television for helping to translate the language of the motion picture into a world-wide standard, thus preparing the way for our visually connected society vis-à-vis the computer. He confessed that it was ‘his enthrallment with television’ that led him to create the first non-profit enterprise that produces the now universally accepted exams. Standard testing is used at all levels of society from kindergarten to post-graduate and corporate levels to ensure that the providing institutions receive the very best applicants. The striving for perfection of those hoping to further their educations or careers unites everyone by a common theme of acceptable knowledge. ‘No more solid proponent,’ said Mr. Blotter, ‘could be called upon to defend our standards than Plato, father of philosophy.’ He spoke of the success of the Superficial Standards Group, the non-profit organization he chairs, at combating the subversive war being waged against the eternal standards of judgment that help us define success. Blotter referred to the recent Halloween struggle that took place on the Avenue of Americas in the West Village where a non-violent rally by members of the Group was set upon by a gang of Barbies, heavily armed with signs and hair brushes. Later at a press conference, the police chief Arthur Rascul accused the attacking Barbies for actually being debased men. The mayor suggested that the disguised attackers represented a cell of foreign terrorists out to destroy our cherished image of ‘Miss American Pie.’ ‘The next thing these people will want,’ claimed Rascul, ‘is a broader qualification for the sacred institution of marriage!” Mr. Blotter considered the sacrilegious use of an idol cherished by little girls all over this land as regrettable. He asked, ‘Who would do such a thing?’ But he reassured his audience that the Standards Group had matters well under control’ The commemoration ended with Blotter leading the attendees in a rendition of This Land Is Our Land.”
Vellum can hardly contain himself. Here is proof of the struggle, although it seems every effort is being made to diminish the qualifications of the opposing view by either not mentioning its practitioners or by insinuating their crazy character.
Exiting from the subway Vellum walks to the newspaper stand on the corner and buys copies of all the available dailies. But none of them, including another copy of The One Way Street Journal he was reading on the subway, carries the article. At home he goes online and looks up the issues for the last few days but can find no mention of Blotter and the Group.
II:2 When he shows Cass the article she thinks it’s funny. Then without actually reading it, she begins paging through the magazine.