"The Bald and the Beautiful"
by Charles H. King
Vol. 4, No. 2, 1959
Harry Buttonwhistler couldn't
make out in a supermarket with green stamps pasted all over him. In other
respects he was a cultured and intelligent young man: tall, personable,
a devotee of Gerry Mulligan, eight dollar Scotch and wash 'n' wear suits.
Having lived clean in hi youth, he had excellent carriage and the shapely
hands of a masseur. An aspiring intellectual, he read The New Yorker
and the Saturday Review on alternate weeks and had seen All
Quiet on the Western Front three times. A keen financial analyst,
he wrapped his lunch in The Wall Street Journal and owned
two shares of IBM. But put Harry in a cab with a high-breasted brat of
voting age and he was reduced to a heaving mass of ganglia, shaking like
a plate of lime jello, barely able to over-tip the driver. Sooner than
make an indecent proposal he would have introduced his arm into a corn-binder
and as a result he got more brush-offs than a camel's-hair coat.
Not that he wasn't interested. On the contrary,
he had read Lady Chatterley before it hit the book clubs,
and could recite long passages from Fanny Hill by memory.
He had read Ten Nights in a Girl's Boarding School until
it had come apart in his hands and he was often seen at the Public Library
giggling over One Hundred Merrie and Delightsom Stories.
In his over-imaginative brain he staged wild orgies, in Cinemascope and
Stereophonic sound, some of them so hectic that television reception was
disturbed over a seven mile radius. Faced with the solid reality of a female
two feet away, all gloves and purse and pouting lips, however, Harry exhibited
the symptoms of an incurable nervous disorder, gouging himself with swizzle-sticks
and plunging the lighted ends of cigarettes into his mouth, where they
sputtered to embers on his tongue.
There were times when he considered seeing
a psychiatrist, but his friends, eyes still glazed from conquests of the
night before, pooh-poohed his worries.
"All you need is a little experience," they
chorused, and proceeded to fix him up with every cast-off in town.
One night, a tight-lipped spinster who has
shaken hands with William McKinley--when he was a little boy--told harry
to keep his dirty paws to himself when he attempted to shake her hand at
a bus stop. Another, sobbing drunk on Manhattans at $1.25 a throw, confided
that her true love, a clean-up man in an animal hospital too impecunious
to wine and dine her, would visit her later that night. A third, six feet
tall, her equine body sheathed in gold lame, yawned in his face all evening
and finally asked him if he got enough vitamins.
Twice a week Harry would chain himself to a
blind date. From the first appraising glance to the conclusive frigidity
of the good-night kiss, his social evenings took an agonizing sameness,
a deadly procedural formality like a ritual slave dance or Hindu
After the date he would ride home in a cab
singing to himself, giddy with relief, to know that, at least, others didn't
share his problem. The tousled, young couple he rode up with would sprint
from the elevator at their floor. The airshaft was alive with giggles,
squeals and full-throated yelps. Mixed with these were half-audible entreaties
and little whispered conceits. The effort was of a rich, multiple prose,
something like Finnegan's Wake, but more so.
But love, as it must to all men, finally came
to Harry Buttonwhistler.
It was a suburban tea dane that he met Jill
Harlow. She was young and clean and fiercely alive, and Harry fell under
her spell immediately. At a cost only slightly exceeding that of a first-class
world tour, he squired her to a number of entertainments and feted her
in every supper club her could find in the Yellow Pages. He was, of course,
in competition with four other bucks, three of them wielders of inherited
wealth, but he managed to hold the pace by living on chili con carne and
doing his wet wash in the bathtub.
Jill had learned all about sex in the novels
of J.P. Marquand, and her cynical Radcliffe classmates had filled in what
gaps remained. She often passed remarks so corrupt and blasé that
they brought the roses to Harry's cheeks; there was one night at "The Purple
Garter" when she was forced to explain no fewer than seven of the female
impersonator's jokes to her innocent escort. She was an athletic and accomplished
necker and petter, but she drew an imaginary line at the equator. She was,
of course, as virginal as the dark side of the moon, and even more inaccessible.
Harry was not one to press the issue. Pitifully
grateful for the mere taste of lipstick, he chased hi dream girl through
the seasons, sewing buttons to his own clothes and growing scrawny on canned
goods. Gradually, he became "Good Old Harry" and Jill would discuss her
other beaux with him with a candor that stood his hair on end.
In this way Harry obtained the beginnings of a sentimental
education and a great hollow feeling in his hip pocket. He hung on doggedly,
hoping the other men would fade in the stretch...they did, to be replaced
by even more affluent types: all six-feet-two, criminally handsome Princeton
graduates in four hundred dollar suits, overwhelmingly sophisticated and
knowing and driven by an inexplicable passion to squander fortunes on frigid
women. Jill would repeat their remarks to Harry: brittle, worldly-wise
epigrams worthy of Oscar Wilde, often turning on a bit of French of Italian
slang for their deliciously humorous effect. Harry found himself involved
in a life nearly as vicarious as the one he had previously lived in books,
and considerably more expensive.
One rainy evening, Harry decided to have a
few drinks before picking up Jill for a late coffee date after her swain
of the evening had left. It was a comfortable practice they had fallen
into recently, and he welcomed its frugality.
Harry dropped in at an odd little bar he liked.
The walls were papered with old movie posters, the juke-box was stocked
with show-tunes, and the lights were so low you struck a match to read
"Buttonwhistler, old man, join me in a drink."
Harry squinted through the murk at the capped
figure who was motioning him to his table. The man was ideally bald, sported
a tightly curled mustache and wore buff-colored moleskin gloves and hands
clasped over a wolf's-head cane. Cat-like, puissant, he resembled the high-priest
of some bestial religion.
"Surely you remember me. I deal in books."
"Hmmm, oh yes." Harry feigned insouciance
while his stomach fell three flights. He did indeed remember the man's
sardonic smile as he wrapped Harry's purchase, a rather curious volume
bound in fur...but that was two years ago. And how the devil did the guy
know his name?
"What will you drink? The pernod here is excellent.
If one closes his eyes he may believe he is drinking...something else."
His gaze was hooded, fixed, unwinking. Harry settled for Scotch.
For the next hour they conversed idly, as
men will in a bar, on necromancy, herpetology, and the migration of souls.
Once Rolfe (for that was the name he gave) produced an ornate mother-of-pearl
snuffbox and offered Harry a pinch, which he politely declined.
"Reba my dear, you must join us!" Rolfe was
waving to a girl who had just entered. Lynx-eyed, gaunt, wrapped in a trenchcoat
of black leather, she turned sharply at his call as if expecting a blow.
"Reba, this is Dr. Buttonwhistler, a client
of mine, He is...ah...unattached for the evening." His laugh was a cocktail
of malice and broken glass.
"Another elaborate joke," she said tonelessly.
She drank off a tequila martini and smiled mechanically at Harry. He was
on his third Scotch and completely nonplused by the interplay of opaque
Abruptly, Rolfe was gone and they were alone.
Reba tapped a black cigarette on the back
of her hand.
"Shall we," she said, "go?" Was there a trace
of irony in that cool voice?
Outside in the rain, Harry got his first good
look at her. Her face was pure Picasso; one eye above the other, nose out
of plumb. When he took her arm, she seemed a skeleton beneath the leather.
Harry suggested "The Ivy League," a nightclub
with crystal chandeliers, impeccable Dixieland music and an eight dollar
minimum, but she demurred. Half an hour later she was fast-talking their
way into "Vito's," a cellar jammed with odd characters drinking gasoline
out of paper cups and cavorting flagrantly to railroad sounds in hi-fi.
Within the hour they were juiced to the gills,
slugging toe to toe in some frantic strut. Crazed musicians screamed through
saxophones and hammered cowhide with tiny clubs while the desperate crowd
twisted under the lash of song, grappling, bellowing and praying for rain.
Toward morning, Harry found himself in Reba's
apartment, a forest of bamboo screens and bullfight posters. With a coarse
laugh she flung herself on a brocaded couch, her velvet skirt falling back
revealingly. Urgently, as a snake sheds its skin, Harry tugged at his dinner
jacket. Desirable beyond imagination, the girl drew him to her. Deranged
by alcohol, shaking as if afflicted by ague, cursing brokenly through chattering
teeth, he plunged into her embrace hungrily. Her lips stirred angrily under
Harry woke about noon. The air in the room
was stale. His head hurt. His clothes lay in a grotesque pile on top of
his shoes, as if he had simply jumped out of them. The girl beside him
was tangled in sheets, breathing noisily through her mouth. He noticed
that her teeth were irregular.
Suddenly, with a stab of insupportable poignancy,
he thought of Jill, sitting at his side in an open car, her blonde hair
blowing back in a fragrant tide, or, poised to serve at tennis, her slim
body limned against a chaste evening gown, her head on his shoulder as
they danced the Portland Fancy under the stars. Jill, at the seashore,
nibbling white chocolate while he rubbed her tender back with oil, or,
running into the surf in her candy-striped bathing suit, framed by sand,
water and sky like an exquisite cameo or an etching on glass.
Reba's eyes snapped open like the lid on a
"Good-morning, you fool," she said hoarsely.
They embraced perfunctorily. She twisted free.
"Put a little bazaz into it! I'm not porcelain
Just before the water clouded over his
head, Harry felt the last of his remorse over ditching Jill fade into memory.
After all, he had better things to do.
On the other side of the city, Jill Harlow
opened her eyes and sat bolt-upright in bed. For a wild moment she could
not recall the events of the night before. Then they came back to her all
at once, in a glad rush. Her eyes misty with the tears of a sweet awakening,
she turned to the man beside her and kissed, with infinite tenderness,
the crown of his freshly shaven head.