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"The Bald and the Beautiful"

by Charles H. King


The Gent

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 Suttee.

     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 the check.

     "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 minds.
     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 his own...

     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 Jack-in-the-box.
     "Good-morning, you fool," she said hoarsely.
     They embraced perfunctorily. She twisted free.
     "Put a little bazaz into it! I'm not porcelain you know!"
      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.

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