Priscilla spread her arms straight out and slowly spun around so her friend could see the results of her complete makeover on the “Oprah Winfrey Show.”
“I love that suit, and the rest of the outfit,” Libby squealed.
Priscilla beamed. She, too, loved the chalk pin-striped business suit by Ralph Lauren, the power-red, silk tie by Romeo Gigli, and the black leather boots by Jean-Paul Barriol. The perfect outfit for a rising middle-manager, although Priscilla had never worked a day in an office.
“And, the hair-do. Who did that for you?”
“Kevin. He does Oprah’s hair.” Priscilla proudly patted her hair. “Kevin added a little color to cover the gray; then, he gave me a full layered cut.”
Libby admired what Kevin called “full-volume and face-framing flattery.”
“You looked fabulous on TV. Tell me, what is Oprah really like. I’m dying to know.”
“Just wonderful, and she didn’t tell a soul . . .” Priscilla glanced through the opened kitchen door of the double-wide trailer and whispered, “that I am forty-five.”
“You know, you’re the first person from Woodbury Center to be on national TV.”
Priscilla’s husband, Norton, shouted from the living room, “That’s not true. I was interviewed on CSPAN, when Jimmy Carter ran against Reagan.”
“Slim, that doesn’t count,” Libby shouted back. “If it did, then everyone in New Hampshire has been on national TV.” During Presidential Primary Season, CSPAN had a satellite uplink from every small, folksy restaurant in New Hampshire, including Linda’s at Woodbury Center.
“Don’t pay no mind to Slim,” Priscilla whispered. “He’s been in a bad mood ever since I got back from Chicago. He thinks my head has been turned by Oprah.”
Libby wrinkled up her face and nodded her head from side to side silently to tell Priscilla what do you expect from men. “The girls and I want to welcome you back, in proper fashion. I came over to make sure you attend the ham and bean dinner at the Congregational Church this Friday. You’re the guest of honor.”
Priscilla threw her arms around her best friend since the fifth grade. She said, “That means I’m going to have to move fast.”
“What do you mean?” asked Libby.
“I’ve got all kinds of plans. The Big City opened my eyes. The first thing I’m going to do is makeover Slim.”
“You’ve gotta be kidding,” Libby protested. “That’s impossible.”
Priscilla ignored what her friend said. She pointed to a camcorder on the kitchen counter and said, “Grab that and follow me.” Before Libby could pick up the camcorder, Priscilla changed her mind. “On second thought, hand it to me. I first want to document . . .” she leaned forward and whispered to Libby, “this dump I live in.”
Priscilla and Norton were Swamp Yankees. Twenty-five years ago, they received three acres of land on a flood plain as a wedding present from Norton’s uncle Calvin. Norton readily accepted the land no one else wanted because it was free. He planned to build with his own hands a two-bedroom ranch house. The first house trailer he moved on the property was only temporary, but then ten years later it was replaced by a double-wide, the one that he and Priscilla now lived in.
An authentic Swamp Yankee husband is over six feet tall, all skin and bones, and at least thirty pounds lighter than his wife. The male Swamp Yankee often speaks with a whine, and when excited emits the high-pitched yelp, “Oooh, don’t you know.” He wears a navy blue cardigan sweater, even while weeding the garden on hot, humid August days. The male Swamp Yankee seldom has feet smaller than size thirteen. He can stand for hours leaning on a rake or an axe handle, contemplating the passing of the seasons, while it is has been rumored, mentally composing Robert-Frost-like verses.
His mate, however, is not given to poetic reveries. The female Swamp Yankee is a practical realist, an avid organizer of garage sales and church socials. She offers her opinion, judgment, and advice, whether asked or not. Her imagination is often weak, her intellect seldom developed fully, but the strength of her will could defeat Attila the Hun. If a female Swamp Yankee leaves her native habitat, she often becomes an Army nurse. Once the female Swamp Yankee sets her heart on something, watch out!
Priscilla videotaped the chipped and stained Formica countertops, the 1950s chrome kitchen table chairs whose torn vinyl seat covers were held together with duct tape, and the cow-shaped wall clock that stopped keeping time five years ago. Priscilla had her friend take a place setting of the Melmac dinnerware out of the cupboard. She videotaped her “new” dishes that Norton found at the town dump. Norton invariably said after such an important find, “You never see a Yankee goin’ to the dump, only comin’.”
Priscilla, next, went into the living room to continue her videotaping. Norton was sitting in his Naugahyde recliner, watching the U.S. Tennis Open. He was not a great tennis fan; indeed, he had never played the game, and still found the scoring somewhat baffling. But the U.S. Tennis Open was more interesting than “Adam Smith,” “Say Brother,” “Bass Fishing in America,” or the other hundred and five channels fed into his living room from the direct satellite dish mounted on top of the trailer.
“Hi, Libby. Do you care for a drink?” Norton asked. “Do you want a beer . . . “ He lifted the can of Bud Light he held in his hand. “. . . or some Clamato? There’s both in the refrigerator.”
Priscilla answered for her friend. “Slim, we’re going to quit drinking that Clamato.” She fibbed, “I already gave Libby a glass of Perrier, with a twist of lime.”
“My goodness. Aren’t we becoming fancy.”
“No, just civilized.”
Priscilla raised the view finder of the camcorder to her eye and began to videotape Norton. She panned from Norton to the television set and back to Norton. Then, she said, “Slim, will you stand up, please?”
Norton liked the “please,” but thought the request silly. “Why’s that?”
“I want to take a picture of you before.”
“Never you mind. Just before.”
“But this is after.” Norton thought the before and after referred to Priscilla’s appearance on the “Oprah Winfrey Show,” the new central event in their lives from which everything was now measured. Norton did like the new Priscilla. Before he had never realized how beautiful his wife of twenty-five years was. But she had come back from Chicago with some damned foolish ideas that made no sense.
Norton stood up from his recliner, and trying to imitate the young persons he had seen moments before in a Bud Light commercial, raised his can of beer joyously upward.
Priscilla caught it all on videotape. “Slim, your hair needs cutting. It’s sticking out over your ears. You look like a scarecrow.”
Norton knew that Priscilla was right. He was in bad need of a haircut. “I’ll see Henry tomorrow. Besides, he wants to talk to me about some wallpapering he needs done.”
“Henry Hunter! Never you mind!”
“Why’s that? He’s been cutting my hair for thirty years.”
“And he still hasn’t gotten it right! You should have Betty Whalen cut your hair.”
“Why Priscilla, that would be unnatural. I can’t have a woman cut my hair.”
“What do you mean unnatural. Doesn’t a woman clean your teeth? And, didn’t a woman wipe your bum when you were a baby?”
Norton blushed, and said, “That’s different.”
“What’s so different about that.”
“It just is.”
“Well, never you mind. I’ll make an appointment with Betty for you. Believe me, you’ll love your new hairdo.”
After a few minutes more of bickering, Norton gave in to Priscilla’s desires. The idea of going to a beauty shop appalled him, but every morning when he compared the image he saw in the shaving mirror with Peter Jennings, Tom Brokaw, and John Tesh, he felt deficient. Underneath he was glad that Priscilla insisted he have his hair cut by Betty Whalen.
That night while lying in bed, Norton watched Priscilla undress for what must have been the ten thousandth time in their life together. Neither Priscilla nor Norton felt comfortable with nudity. Priscilla always followed the same procedure when she undressed at night. With the overhead light off and the twenty-five watt dresser lamp on, she turned her back to Norton and began to remove her clothes. When she reached her undergarments, she unhooked and removed the bra and quickly put on a flannel night gown. That night, for the first time, Norton was shocked when he saw the little rolls of fat on his wife’s sides, above the waist.
Priscilla got into bed, turned to face her husband, and said, “Slim, I love you, and I’m going to love you even more.” She rolled over and quickly fell sound asleep.
The next morning, immediately after breakfast, Priscilla called Betty Whalen to make an appointment to have Norton’s hair cut. She then chose her outfit of the day, a striped viscose top in pink, black, and white by Michael Seroy and a floral skirt in green by Gianni Versace. Norton put on a white dress shirt and a pair of pants from a suit he had purchased from the Vestry, a thrift shop that had taken over the Methodist Church now that Sunday services were no longer conducted there.
Priscilla and Norton got into the light gray, 1979 Plymouth Reliant, one of the K-cars that Chrysler Motors built to counter the gas shortage and one of the numerous cars that Norton acquired in return for his services as an all-around handy man. Norton lacked ambition—indeed, he was devoid of any intense desire—and, he was content to garden, cut firewood for the winter, maple sugar in the spring, and trout fish and watch the clouds lazily drift across a blue summer sky. He never had held any permanent job. To support Priscilla and himself, he painted houses, did wallpapering, and repaired roofs. His federal income tax return stated that he was an independent contractor, but he had no business plan and worked pretty much when he felt like it.
Before they pulled out of the driveway, Priscilla said, “We have to clean this place up.”
Norton knew that “we” meant him, and with a Swamp Yankee whine said, “By geez, I don’t have the time, now.”
“I’m not kidding, Slim. This place looks like—is a dump.”
“But this is all good stuff. I may need it some day.”
The good stuff included a 1964 VW microbus, a 1958 Dodge pickup truck, a Kenmore combination washer and dryer, a rusting Craftsman table saw, various broken hand tools, and a faded American flag tacked to the side of the trailer.
Norton pulled the Reliant out of the driveway and headed it toward the Beauty Boutique.
He parked the car in front of a white clapboard building, gave Priscilla a perfunctory kiss goodbye, and got out of the car. He headed for what he was sure was to be the embarrassment of his life. If Priscilla hadn’t driven away in the Reliant, he would have turned and fled from the Beauty Boutique.
Two weeks before, on The Learning Channel, he had seen a program on transsexuals. Norton imagined the future that awaited him if he opened the door in front of him: a haircut by a woman, followed by cross-dressing, and, then, the culmination of the folly of violating well-established rules of gender, a re-configuration of his genitals.
Norton bit his lip and opened the door. Inside, he saw two elderly women, Marge Waples and Helen Johnson, having their blue hair done. He said hello to the ladies and obediently sat in the barber chair when Betty told him to. Norton felt he had intruded upon forbidden territory, much as if he had wandered into a women’s locker room.
“Slim, how would you like me to cut your hair?” Betty asked.
“I don’t know,” Norton said. Henry Hunter had never asked him such a question. He just cut his hair.
Betty laughed, and said, “How about a cut like that?” She pointed to pictures from GQ that were pinned on the wall behind the waiting chairs.
Norton glanced at the three images of well-groomed men, but all he saw were blurs. He said, “Okay.”
“Slim, do you want a shampoo, or just a dry cut?” Betty asked.
“I don’t know.”
Betty laughed again, and said, “Let’s give you the full treatment.”
The barber chair that Norton sat in spun around. He heard water filling a sink, and next he tipped back and his neck came to a rest on the edge of a sink. Betty began to wash his hair. Norton’s back stiffened. No woman had ever washed his hair before. His mother must have, but that was so long ago it didn’t count. The warm water began to relax his body.
Betty uprighted him, toweled his hair off, and began to cut his hair. Norton closed his eyes and tried to ignore the easy rock playing on the FM radio. He strained to hear what the two blue-haired women were saying. Marge Waples was telling Helen Johnson about the trip she planned to take with her husband to Aruba in January. Norton thought, “Jeez! What is the world coming to? New Englanders going off to swim and sunbathe in mid-winter, when they were supposed to cut wood, drink hot-buttered rum, and think thoughts like those in ‘Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening.’ No wonder the country was going to the dogs.”
Betty asked him, “What do you think?” He opened his eyes and was shocked to discover that the image he saw in the mirror was that of a handsome man. He looked at the GQ pictures on the wall and back at the mirror. “Not bad. I like it.” He saw that the hair didn’t match the rest of his appearance and concluded that something had to be done about that.
Norton walked out of the Beauty Boutique with a buoyant step. Shortly, Priscilla arrived in the Plymouth Reliant. She couldn’t believe her eyes. Her husband’s usually dour look had been replaced by a broad grin.
Once he was in the car, she said, “Norton, I love your hair. You look wonderful. Now, we have to do something about your clothes.”
The next morning Priscilla and Norton were on the road before eight. Although Boston was less than a three hour drive from Woodbury Center, few of its residents regularly ventured into the Hub. In the past, many old-timers never had been out of the state.
Norton piloted the car, while Priscilla navigated. Close to Boston the traffic on I-93 became heavy, and Priscilla assumed an additional position, that of spotter, looking for vehicles about to change lanes or enter the expressway.
The traffic came to a stop, and Norton inched the Reliant along toward the Haymarket Street exit. After ten minutes of stop and go driving, during which Norton was sure the clutch of the Reliant was going to go out, he exited the expressway and pulled into the first parking structure Priscilla spotted. He parked the car on the sixth floor. Priscilla entered “sixth floor, D-16” in the note pad she always carried in her purse.
When they felt the reassuring concrete beneath their feet, each, unaware that the other did the same thing, took several deep breaths to ebb away the stress that had built up from driving in the city traffic. Norton made sure all the doors of the Reliant were locked. He knew Boston was the grand auto theft capital of the world. He didn’t want some creep stealing his car.
Relaxed, but uncertain what lay in front of them, Priscilla and Norton headed for Filene’s. Inside the department store, they went directly to the men’s section. Norton had never seen so many suits, shirts, ties, underwear, socks, and sweaters. Every male resident of Woodbury Center could be outfitted for life with what he saw. He envied the elegant dress of the clothing salesman and took the dark-skinned, broad-faced man for a mid-Easterner and wondered if he had once been a carpet salesman.
Priscilla and Norton exchanged a few awkward words with the salesman, who then took them to a rack of suits. The salesman selected a suit for Norton, and the Swamp Yankee unbuttoned his blue cardigan sweater and took it off. The salesman helped Norton put on the suit coat. Norton walked to the end of the aisle to look into a full-length, three-cornered fitting mirror. He liked—no, he loved—what he saw. He wanted the suit, but was afraid to ask the former carpet salesman how much it cost. He couldn’t read the price on the small paper label sewn on the coat sleeve he saw in the mirror, so he tried to casually glance at the cuff, pretending to examine the buttons. Finally, he managed to see the price.
“Sir,” Norton told the salesman, “may I speak with my wife alone.”
“Of course, sir,” the salesman politely replied, and walked to the front desk.
“Priscilla, my gawd, what are we doing here? This suit is four hundred and fifty dollars.” Norton always bought his suits at the Vestry Thrift Shop, and never paid more than fifteen dollars for a suit, and he usually could talk Peg into throwing in a shirt or two.
“Norton, don’t you pay no mind to the money. I’ve got a new credit card.”
“But Priscilla, we still have to pay for it.”
Priscilla laughed. “Norton, this is America. Everyone lives on credit—and, besides, I’ve got plans.”
Norton thought that if America had credit cards in 1776, then the country could have leapfrogged over Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison, and John Jay, and arrived directly at Oscar de la Renta, Bill Blass, Henri Bendel, and Donna Karan.
Norton went against his frugal Yankee instincts. He allowed Priscilla to sign the credit card slip for two suits, a sports jacket, a pair of dress slacks, socks, two pairs of shoes, a bath robe, six shirts, four ties, a stack of underwear, and a pair of fleece-lined slippers. They walked out of store with eight Filene’s heavy paper bags with twine handles and three hangers covered with plastic sleeves to protect the suit coats and sports jacket. The salesman guaranteed that the trousers that needed tailoring would arrive at their home the next day by overnight mail.
On their way back to Woodbury Center, Priscilla and Norton stopped at the New Hampshire State Liquor Store on I-93, just south of Concord. Norton picked up a 1.5 liter bottle of Jim Beam. Priscilla on an impulse grabbed a bottle of Korbel Extra Dry packaged with two champagne glasses.
That night, after a dinner of left-over pot roast and mashed potatoes, Priscilla and Norton retired with the Korbel in a blue plastic bucket to their bedroom at the far end of the trailer. Norton took charge of the champagne, while Priscilla carried the two glasses and an empty wine bottle fitted with a candle. She placed the candle on the bureau top, lighted it, and turned off the electric lights.
Norton tore the foil from the top of the bottle and undid the wire basket that secured the cork in the bottle. He took a clean T-shirt out of the bureau and surrounded the cork with it. He gently twisted the cork, and when it came loose, he pushed up with his thumbs, until he heard a small pop.
Norton filled Priscilla’s glass and then his. They held their glasses up, and Norton said, “Cheers.” Their glasses touched. Priscilla said, “Norton, here’s to our new life.” Their glasses touched again.
“Norton, did you have a good time, today?” Priscilla asked.
“I had a wonderful time. One of the best days of my life.”
“One thing I learned from Oprah is that it’s a big world, and it’s all there just for the taking.”
“But it takes money, Priscilla, and we’ve got precious little of that. Maybe I should have worked more in my life.”
“Don’t worry, Norton. I’ve got plans.”
After three-quarters of the Korbel was gone, Priscilla and Norton were sitting cross-legged on the bed in their underwear, facing each other. Norton wished he had on his new Calvin Kleins, and told himself that he would the next time they did this. “Priscilla, I’ve got something to tell you.”
“You know . . . I like . . . I like the way you’ve taken to calling me Norton, instead of Slim.”
Priscilla said, “You silly thing,” and leaned forward and kissed him on the lips. Norton awkwardly tried to embrace her. Priscilla stopped him and said, “Wait a minute. Let’s finish the champagne.”
Norton split up the remaining Korbel. Each glass held two large sips. Priscilla finished hers, and said, “Norton, Norton, Norton. I love to say your name—Norton.”
For the first time in their lives, Priscilla did not blow the candle out. Priscilla and Norton climbed under the bed covers, tore at each other’s underwear, and rolled around in the sack like they hadn’t since they were very young and very in love. At one point, Priscilla moaned, “I . . . I . . . I love the new Norton.”
The next morning at breakfast Norton felt like a new person. He wore the white terry cloth bathrobe and the shearling, moosehide slippers that he had brought the day before at Filene’s. He stood at the stove frying bacon, while Priscilla bustled around the kitchen preparing the rest of their breakfast.
“Priscilla, you know what I’ve been thinking?”
“I think we should start eating better around here.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“We should be eating fancy, gourmet food. I mean some time for dinner why can’t we have truffled duck paté, a basic curried apple soup, turbot in white wine with green butter, tournedos à la Béarnaise, and for dessert a simple bombe au chocolat with raspberry sauce.”
“My aren’t we getting fancy notions. Who put this in your head?”
“Every time I watch ‘Great Chiefs of the World’ and the ‘Frugal Gourmet’ I wonder why can’t we eat like that.”
“We can, and we will. But we’ll have to wait until after tonight.”
The ham and bean dinner was that evening at six o’clock sharp. After breakfast, Priscilla left to make unspecified arrangements. Norton sat at the kitchen table with a Big Chief tablet of ruled paper in front of him. He knew that Elmer Haskell, the Moderator of the Town Meeting for the past twenty years, would be the master of ceremonies—he always was, for he loved to perform in front of any crowd. Norton, on the other hand, hated to speak in public and only did so at the Town Meeting when his economic self-interest forced him to stand up and address his fellow citizens. He knew that Elmer Haskell would call upon him to deliver a speech in appreciation of Priscilla.
He worked all morning on the speech, writing, revising, and crossing out sentences. By noon, when Alan Parker, the mailman, arrived with his trousers, just as the Filene’s salesman promised, Norton had covered one page of the Big Chief tablet with large block letters. He figured this speech would run less than thirty seconds, and that was okay with him.
Norton prepared himself lunch. He spread mayonnaise on one side of a piece of white bread, covered the mayo with two slices of baloney and one slice of yellow American cheese, added a piece of wilted iceberg lettuce, and slapped another slice of white bread on, all the time thinking of “Great Chefs of the World” and how lunch is served in Provence.
Norton always took a twenty-minute nap after lunch when he worked hard in the morning, or ran errands, or did nothing at all. Only recently had he learned that the Italians called their customary nap after lunch the “holy hour.” Norton knew he had not one drop of Italian blood in his old Yankee body, but after seeing “Ciao Italia,” he wished he had. As far as he could see the Protestant Work Ethic was a myth. He had never spent one entire day working hard, but unlike the Italians, he felt guilt. That was definitely going to change!
When his nap was over, Norton went outside and stood at the railing that surrounded the deck he had added to the trailer. With his feet firmly planted on the green indoor/outdoor carpeting, he gazed into the woods, cleared his throat, and began to recite his speech:
Thank you, Elmer, for calling upon me to say a few words in appreciation of my wonderful wife, Priscilla. When she told me that a producer from the “Oprah Winfrey Show” had chosen her for a complete makeover, I was totally opposed to her going to Chicago and appearing on network television. I was certain she would return a different person, and that our marriage would never be the same. But I was wrong! Priscilla did return from Chicago a new person—with a new outlook on life—with a new sense of possibilities. Priscilla has changed—and she has changed me. I am the luckiest person in America. I am the happiest person in America. Priscilla, darling, thank you—I love you.
When Norton finished his speech in praise of Priscilla, the three crows that had been perched in the trees watching him flew off. Norton hoped that wasn’t an omen.
That evening marked an historic occasion. For the very first time, a Giorgio Armani suit entered Stark Hall, the Congregational Meeting Place named after General John Stark, the Revolutionary War hero of the Battle of Bennington, who told his men, “Live free or die.”
Norton liked the feel of the Calvin Klein underwear against his bare skin; he loved the image he projected with the Giorgio Armani suit; and, for once in his life, he was actually looking forward to standing in front of a crowd.
Norton opened the door to Stark Hall, so Priscilla could enter. He was startled by the bright light that suddenly illuminated the doorway. Norton followed the Isaac Mizrahi, Vera Wang, and Prada high fashion wear through the bright light. Inside Stark Hall, he faced a television camera and a young woman reporter holding a microphone. Norton accompanied Priscilla to the head table. Along the way, he said, in reply to the reporter’s questions that he didn’t quite grasp, “Yes . . . I don’t know . . . Wonderful, absolutely wonderful.”
The guest of honor and her husband sat down at the head table. Norton leaned over and whispered, “What’s going on?”
“The arrangements I made this morning worked out.”
“Didn’t I tell you? The ham and bean dinner tonight is going to be on the ‘Oprah Winfrey Show’ next week. The continuing story of Priscilla’s complete makeover, as the producer put it.”
Norton suddenly didn’t feel so well. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I guess I forgot to.” Priscilla patted Norton’s hand; she knew he dreaded to appear in front of a crowd. “Don’t worry. All you have to do is stand up and say a few words into the camera.”
“I don’t know if I can.”
“The money we’re going to get for five minutes on camera will more than pay for your new clothes. What’s left over will begin to finance our new dreams.”
Priscilla didn’t give Norton a chance to reply. She stood up, greeted her many old friends, waved to people coming through the door, and smiled at the TV camera.
Norton started to panic. His fingers drummed nervously on the table. He wished that before leaving home he had taken several belts of the Jim Beam.
By six o’clock sharp, every seat in Stark Hall was occupied. Elmer Haskell took the podium at one end of the hall, and said, “Ladies and gentlemen. Your attention, please. Tonight, we are welcoming Priscilla back to Woodbury Center, after her triumphant appearance on the ‘Oprah Winfrey Show.’ You may be surprised to see a television crew here and no Presidential Primary Candidate.” The audience laughed. “Priscilla has made Woodbury Center famous, and all of us are going to be on Oprah’s show. That’s why WCVB, the Boston ABC affiliate, is here.”
Several women in the audience immediately took compacts and lipsticks out of their handbags. A few men ran their fingers through their hair. Everyone wished they had worn Sunday clothes to the monthly ham and bean dinner.
Elmer Haskell continued: “Tonight, we are going to follow a different routine because of the videotaping. We will first have the presentations, then dinner afterwards. We have a special surprise to begin with. I give you Priscilla, our own TV celebrity.”
Two men wheeled a large projection TV into Stark Hall.
Elmer Haskell said, “Let the show begin.”
The lights in the hall went off. The television set displayed a uniform blue, then the timing signals 30, 20, and 10, and, finally, a black, smiling face. America’s confidant, fashion expert, and psychotherapist said, “Priscilla, my heart is there with you tonight at your Welcome Home to Woodbury Center Party. I enjoyed every moment we spent together and hope to have you back on the show soon. And, for all the good people of Woodbury Center, we have put together a special program.”
The screen went completely blank for a fraction of a second, and then Priscilla appeared on the tube. She was standing in a lobby of O’Hare International Airport. To show off her Vestry Clothes and Beauty Boutique hairdo, Priscilla did a slow turnaround for the camera. Next, a series of images rapidly followed each other: Priscilla with the hair stylist, the cosmetologist, the pedicurist, the fashion consultant, and, then, lyrical shots of the new Priscilla strolling in Lincoln Park Zoological Gardens, enjoying Cats at the Auditorium Theater, and sipping champagne at Charlie Trotter’s. The citizens of Woodbury Center gasped and then applauded. Several women could be heard to say, “I didn’t know she was so beautiful.”
For a moment, Elmer Haskell was at a loss for words. Slightly confused, he skipped two presentations and went directly to Norton. “Slim, would you care to say a few words about your wonderful woman.”
Norton felt his knees lock and his heart beat wildly. He attempted to stand up, but nothing seemed to move, except for the room that was spinning. His fellow citizens patiently waited. Norton managed to stand, but his ears buzzed and his memory went blank. The amnesiac could not recall the block letters on the Big Chief writing tablet. He heard a voice come from somewhere inside him, but he had no idea what it was saying. He thought he heard it say, “A wonderful woman . . . lucky . . . a new life.” The voice inside him stopped, and he sat down. He heard applause in the distance. Priscilla touched his hand, and he smiled.
Priscilla stood up and said, “Thank you, Norton. It is wonderful to know that you are loved.” She went on to thank the citizens of Woodbury Center for their encouragement, and especially her dear friend Libby, upon whose insistence she had entered the contest that had taken her to celebrityhood. Priscilla concluded her speech with the message that “a person does not need to be on the ‘Oprah Winfrey Show’ to recreate herself or himself. Any one can do it, at any time and at any place.”
That night Priscilla and Norton sat at their kitchen table with jelly glasses half-filled with ice and Jim Beam. Priscilla needed the bourbon to come down from the emotional high of the evening. Norton used the bourbon to ease the pain of humiliation he still felt and to chase away the blackness that chased him. “Priscilla, I’m sorry about tonight. I looked like a damned fool.”
“It’s okay, Norton. Forget about it.”
“The speech I wrote this morning was really good. But I couldn’t deliver it.”
“I’m sure it was.”
“It was the damnedest thing. Elmer Haskell introduced me, and suddenly I saw myself on ten million television sets. Then, I thought as each one of them is turned off, I’ll begin to disappear, and when they’re all turned off, I won’t be anymore.”
“Norton, that is the dumbest thing I’ve heard.”
“I don’t know.” Norton paused, and Priscilla waited. He rubbed his large hands over his eyes, and said, “Death is real.”
“Don’t worry about dying. You’re going to be here a long time.”
Priscilla and Norton each had another half-glass of Jim Beam. The two of them collapsed into bed. Priscilla fell sound asleep. Contented, she dreamed of her new plans to remake herself, Norton, Woodbury Center, and the entire state of New Hampshire. Norton felt afraid and tried to stay awake. But soon, he fell into a deep sleep and darkness covered him.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is a detail from “Allegory of Vanity” by Giulio Campi (1502-1572), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.