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THE STYLIST

by

Tom Bradley



"We don't do what we want, and yet we are responsible for what we are."
--Sartre

Sam Edwine got drunk one day last month and placed an incautious phonecall to a "communications corporation" in Los Angeles. Though he could not remember how, his loosened tongue had hustled an appointment to drop by and pitch a novel. Only problem was, he hadn't exactly written the novel yet. Or maybe it was a screenplay.

He felt that getting on a plane and keeping this appointment would be the responsible thing to do, because these were very busy, if youngish, capitalists, and they had consented to give him some of their valuable time. Now he was going to have to fake it for real.

Forty-five thousand feet in the air, Sam decided that he felt cocksure about cooling this meeting. He had many years' experience sitting bald facedly before examination committees and graduate seminars, pontificating on texts he'd never even laid eyes on, whose vicinity he had never knowingly been in, whose contents the old professors had methodically, over decades, fused onto the walls of their arteries like cholesterol plaque. Known all over campus as the Botticelli of Bullshit, he used to brag about never setting foot in the varsity bookstore.

"A whore is good on her back," Sam was fond of saying, "and a used carsalesman is good on his feet. I, on the other hand, am good on my ass."

After fooling whole faculties into spreading the word that he had "the best darn critical mind in the department," Sam assumed it would be easy to cow these mere Californicators, these subliterate money-worshipers with MBA's in qualitative marketing techniques. He gave little thought to what would happen when he actually arrived at the big powwow. This was evidenced by his lack of preparations in the wardrobe department.

The only creased slacks he owned were a pair of white and brown polyesters. They'd been handed down to him from his God-scoffing father, Professor Edwine, Sr., himself a genuine seven feet tall. Merely six-foot nine Sam had over the years heel-trodden shiny black crescents into the backs of the cuffs. The otherwise indestructible, rot-proof material tended to ladder like women's nylons whenever he shuffled over a broken bottle or a newly minted manhole cover. The degeneration could sometimes be arrested with the traditional daubs of nail polish. Clear lacquer was often unlocatable in the hideous town where Sam lived, so he had been forced lately to make do with a very pale shell-pink gloss. But, since the pants were of a slightly heftier weave than most ladies' underthings, a cauterizing match would retard the unravelling even better, if one didn't mind the Kuwait-flambe reek that wafted up from one's calves for a couple of weeks afterward.

And if these Sansabelt hound's-tooths were dapper enough for the old Prof to have worn throughout the climactic years of the Nixon administration before bequeathing them to his then-teenaged son, they were dapper enough to be paraded in front of a "communications corporation" full of coiffed pucker-yuppies.

But, when he finally took a seat in their cool, cologned midst, Sam started to choke. For the first time in his lying life, the Bullshit Botticelli was feeling the need for a few pieces of actual information. He felt a sudden attack of nervous perspiration paste his pants around his thighs, releasing hot dioxins that promised to seep permanently into the rich grain of the genuine ebony wainscotting.

His discomfiture also stemmed from a presence, a downright entity, in the board room. The only one to whom he'd not been introduced, this person's sole function in life seemed to be to stare at him, long and hard, lovingly x-raying through not only the threadbare weave of his trousers, but through the many layers of meat and gristle they barely concealed. And it was impossible to tell whether this eyeball with salivary glands was male or female. Sam wasn't sure whether to become aroused or to retract his gonads like a Sumo wrestler before a bout.

Sam was, deep down, a regular Utahn, and scared of big city-bred practitioners of alternate lifestyles, and people like that. Dressed far better than he, acknowledged virtuosi of social banter, they could effortlessly bring him out, put him on, and expose him for the oaf he was, right in front of everybody. And they wouldn't hesitate to do so, for the sheer spite of it, because he was a wholesome family man, something they resented with all their barren hearts and souls. That's why he shrank from folks like these, and not necessarily for fear of any potential compromise to his lower-digestive virtue, as might be expected.

Suddenly this person, who was giving Sam such a turn, brought all the important procedures to a halt by flinging him/herself into an overstuffed green leather armchair and gasping, "I still don't believe it. Never in my entire professional life. But I must get a second opinion. And a third."

A pair of duplicate beings was somehow conjured up. They rescued Sam from further display of his ignorance by hustling him out into the warmish early evening air, into the back seat of an immaculate vintage Thunderbird, and down some anxious boulevard whose glamorous name he was unable to master at the moment.

* * * *

In the car one of the summoned consultants took Sam by the forearm and whispered damply, delicately, into his ear, "Do you know whose hands you've been placed in, Love? Your stylist is the reigning virtuoso of the industry."

"Which industry might that be?" asked Sam, his butt-cheeks involuntarily tightening over the springs of the seat.

"Which industry? You tell me, Bertha."

Unable to think of a reply, Sam allowed himself to be led into a moody post-fern bar, whose genderless patrons seemed intent, not on boozing, but on appraising each other's costumes and prospective fornication partners in the dimmish light. The three other members of Sam's party kept acting as though he should recognize several faces among the softly glittering tables, but he failed.

"Sorry," he said, chagrined. (After all, they'd taken care of the vast cover charge, and it looked as though he wasn't going to have to pay for any highballs, either.) "I've been exiled a whole bunch of years. And before that I never had much access to a TV. At least not after I moved out of my mom and dad's. Of course, back in those days there was a whole different bunch of famous types you had to be aware of, and--"

He went on for a while. They seemed to want him to. The stylist and associates just sat, gazed, listened, and glanced across the table at each other, registering strangely intense reactions to something he said, or some half-conscious gesture he made with the stem of his brandy Alexander glass.

Then they very gently hushed him up by simultaneously reaching out and placing six thin hands on his forearms. They sat back and considered the whole of him afresh, and began to giggle, even weep, in seeming rapture.

"Can it be?"

"No commission this time? Not even just a teeny-weeny one, Dear?"

Sam's stylist warbled up and down three octaves and gasped again."I'm cutting my own throat, but the inner screechings of my aesthetic integrity will not be hushed. This beast" (accompanied by a reassuringly deft tweak of Sam's cheek and tug of his whiskers) "is nothing short of unassailable."

At that last word, the stylist shifted on jazzercised buttocks and made a gesture that wouldn't have dislodged a horsefly further inland, but seemed somehow broad and emphatic under these elegant conditions.

"I've been sitting here looking at you," continued Sam's stylist, "and, for the first time in my career --"

A corundum-encrusted hand clapped over a bony thorax and pinched out another gasp of disbelief. It seemed that further speech was temporarily impossible.

One of the consultants jumped in to clarify a bit. "You see, Dr. Edwine, every potential public figure has his/her own context from which to work. Think not just of David Niven, but of Andy Devine. Both masterpieces unchallenged in the industry."

"I keep hearing about an industry," said Sam. "Which --"

"Which bunch of folks gussied up the tin man before his audience with the Emerald Wizard? Who do you suppose is responsible for Karen Carpenter and Rock Hudson? I mean toward the end there. Who made them over, so that, straight up to the final curtain, they shone brighter and more movingly than ever before in their entire distinguished careers?"

"This, um, sheath of yours," said the stylist, gathering up a pinch of dingy doubleknit, peeling it away from the bristles on Sam's inner thigh, and snapping it back with a small rubbery sound, "not to mention your grunting voice, your self-conscious, self-loathing mannerisms, your facial bone structure, right down to the ineptly repaired harelip --"

"Thank God for provincial plastic surgeons," interposed one of them. "They bring such homespun freshness periodically into our lives."

"-- all of this is what we in the industry call an ensemble. And, just by the sheerest, most fortuitous chain of accidents, yours is that rarest of rarities. It's something I've only heard speculated about, during all-night shoptalk sessions after everybody was getting sleepy and dreamy."

"The sheer untutored vigor of certain presentation-selves," intoned a consultant, who seemed to be reciting a passage from some unimaginable textbook, "transcends even the minimum requirements of grooming and personal hygiene."

"Yours, Dr. Edwine, is a naturally perfect ensemble," said the stylist. "Unassailable from any angle, possessing amplitudes of unity and variety and radiance. And I can find absolutely nothing to change. Not so much as an orange nostril hair. Let me tell you something here and now --"

The reigning virtuoso of the industry paused and seemed to choke up again. Everyone, with a single, spontaneous move, joined hands, or outlast touched fingertips, around the table. There was a brief, shared moment of silence.

"You were born for no other reason, Dr. Edwine," said the stylist, "than to be photographed and videotaped and filmed and digitally recorded."

Then they tried out the sound of various permutations of his name, rolling them off their tongues like advertising jingles.

"Dr. Sam?"

"Dr. Sammy?"

"S. Edwine? Es-s-s-s Edwin-n-ne?"

"Our Dr. Samuel Edwine?"

One of them made a skinny rectangle with forefingers and thumbs,squinted through it, up and down, at the totality of the product, and moaned, "Yes, yes. The gruff exterior bit. Kind of bored with everything in the world. But underneath it all there's something else --"

With sculpted ormolu-enameled fingernails, the consultant groped for the right word in the smoky air, looking to his/her colleagues, who seemed similarly to strain.

During the pause that followed, Sam pondered himself as it were from below, inverted within the golden illumination of his own brandy Alexander puddle. He was not sure whether to try, or try not, to become too aware -- or unaware -- of the muscular sensations that brought about the slight asymmetry of his upper lip when he smiled. He had no idea whether he should, or should not, remake himself, as the existentialists prompt us to do, or rather allow these experts to do the job for him.

"Niceness?" suggested one of the lesser weird sisters.

"Charity?" the other gasped, clearly stunned at his/her own word choice.

"Oh, come on. Charity? With a six-figure advance?"

"No, no!" chided the stylist, liqueur-green eyes flashing with candle-lit inspiration. "That's it! A solid core of unprecedented Christian charity!"

That brought on a tiny, tinkling toast, the first of many.







ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tom Bradley's fiction is in Val Stevenson's magnificent Nthposition, CrossXConnect, Big Bridge, Killing the Buddha, Exquisite Corpse, Newtopia, Eyeshot, Oyster Boy, milk, 3AM Magazine, Web Del Sol's In Posse Ethnic Anthology, and other publications far too numerous to even think of mentioning.

These stories feature such gentry as a harelip with a six-figure book advance, a Palestinian abortionist, a seven-foot-tall banjoist losing his mind in the London tube, a peyote-eating teen killer, a rent-a-Frankenstein on Purple Haze, a Chinese compulsive masturbator, cannibal orgiasts in the basement of the Mormon Tabernacle, and Japanese schoolgirls conscripted to stir the vats in a poison gas factory.

His no-less uplifting essays appear in Gadfly, McSweeney's, LitKit Journal, Salon.com, David Horowitz's FrontPage, Exquisite Corpse, Ralph, Newtopia, Poets & Writers Magazine, and Heresiarch, the mighty journal of anti-theology out of Belfast.

Excerpts and reviews of Tom's books, links to his online publications, plus recorded readings,are posted at his website.




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